Catch-Up: Random Thoughts about Events and People in the News
So thanks to the end of the semester, I haven’t written anything here in nearly two weeks. In that time, lots of things have happened—some incredibly important, some less so. I cannot possibly comment on everything, so to get back into the swing of things, I decided to write about whatever struck my fancy at the moment. Here, for better or worse, are the results. Hopefully I’ll be back to more coherent and cohesive posts soon. I should also note that for the most part, I don’t spend a lot of my blog time on political commentary, but sometimes I feel the need. Feel free to skip over whatever section below doesn’t catch your fancy.
Much has been made of the dreaded “27 Club,” populated by such notables as Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain. Amy Winehouse joined that august group recently, not long after a terribly disjointed and ultimately abortive return to the stage in Europe. The tributes piled up immediately, as well they should; whenever anyone dies, he or she leaves a hole in the world, and when a talented artist leaves us, the hole is all the bigger for their having touched so many lives.
I was never a huge Winehouse fan. Her look frightened me; her music was not the kind I tend to seek out. But having heard her tracks and seen some of her televised performances, I was well aware of her talent. The music she released demonstrated her songwriting ability, the bravery she drew upon in laying her life bare in lyrics, and the smoky voice that distinguished her from so many other pop starlets. One can only wonder what kind of art she might have produced in the future.
Her death was hardly surprising, and yet I was stunned when I heard about it. I offer my heartfelt condolences to her family, her friends, and her fans. And I beg the young and the talented to stay out of that goddam club.
The National Football League Lockout
Since my last post, the NFL lockout ended, with concessions given on both sides. If only our politicians could take note on how real compromise works, they might learn that neither side is ever likely to get everything they want. To achieve compromise, each side has to gain something, and each side has to give something up. While I have not studied the complexities of the new collective bargaining agreement, I have heard enough to know that some progress was made along these lines.
Generally, in any strife between labor and management, I side with labor. History is crammed full of examples of corporate excesses enjoyed at the expense of workers; unions help avoid that and, by doing so, help stave off the kind of proletariat revolution that Marx predicted. You would think, then, that political conservatives and bourgeois managers would thank God for unions. But that doesn’t happen in America, at least not often.
Sure, sometimes unions indulge in excesses of their own, and sometimes labor leaders seem more intent on keeping their constituents happy than in enacting lasting, positive change. The film Waiting for “Superman” details problems in teachers’ unions, for instance; watch that movie and you may find yourself ready to hire union-busting thugs to work over your local math instructor. But the film glosses over why those unions are needed in the first place, the unstable and inequitable and unfair and underpaid conditions under which people labor when management goes unchecked. It would be nice if we could do away with unions and government regulations, but until corporations and administrations act responsibly, putting people’s lives and happiness above their own greed, we simply cannot do without unions. Read your history, or listen to your common sense instead of your lobby-funded representative, and you’ll see that.
When I heard that owners wanted a bigger slice of the revenue streams, more games in the season without any subsequent and equitable rise in health care and job security, and no new resources for retired, injured, and debilitated players, I sided with the players’ union, knowing as I did so that professional athletes tend to be spoiled, overprivileged, selfish prima donnas. Even when all of that is true about an individual player, you can’t paint everyone with the same brush, and you can’t abandon the broken players who gave their best years (and body parts) for you.
So I hope that the players really got enough concessions from the lockout. I hope they (and their barely-able-to-walk forbears) can live with the new CBA. I hope that the practice squad player and the guys who sign for the league minimum can live happy, productive lives. And I hope that our nation’s leaders—especially you, Republicans—learn that none of us win when somebody refuses to engage in reasonable negotiation.
Frankly, I don’t want to think about such weighty matters when somebody brings up football. I just want to see Peyton Manning throw a beautiful, crisp pass, or DeMarcus Ware pulverize a quarterback (preferably Michael Vick, Eli Manning, or whoever starts for the Redskins this year), or Andre Johnson pull down another touchdown pass that appeared just out of reach.
The Debt Ceiling Debate
Sigh. Ever since September 11th, 2001—when so many people in our country seem to have dropped the very pretense of moderation from their political beliefs—I have found innumerable political events, figures, and concepts that have stomped all over my very last nerve. The latest seems to be the debt ceiling debate, a fake issue brought about and writ large by an increasingly radical, out of touch Republican Party.
Time was that most Republicans seemed like basically good, reasonable people with whom I simply disagreed ideologically. Though I was, for instance, pro-choice and they were (and here’s a term I loathe, as if pro-choicers embrace death) pro-life, all but the most radical factions on both sides could discuss the issue with reason and respect. The same could be said of gun control, capital punishment, foreign policy, and just about anything else you could name. Sure, the right had its racist, xenophobic, homophobic, classist, religiously intolerant warhawks, and the left had its cuckoo birds who employed right-wing militia tactics in order to tout their allegedly left-wing ideologies. But most of us seemed to live somewhere between those extremes. Now, especially on the right, moderation seems to be as endangered as the animal species Republicans’ corporate masters seem intent on obliterating in the service of the great god Profit.
You can’t just blame the so-called Tea Party, another term I hate because it co-opts historic American dissent in favor of those who would perpetuate a dangerous stratification along racial, sexual, class, and religious barriers. The Tea-Baggers (now there’s a term I love) mostly seem like a gaggle of loonies who live in their own world, a place I wouldn’t even like to visit, but you also have to fault mainstream Republicans for giving in to their insanity, as well as Democrats who won’t stand up to them for fear of offending a voter. This voter is likely imaginary anyway; anybody who would vote Democrat is highly unlikely to vote for the Tea-Baggers under any circumstances, and nobody in the Tea Party’s going to cast a vote for a Democrat no matter how milquetoast the candidate appears. Frankly, the two-party system is strangling this country, and until we throw them all out and move past the either-or dilemma we’ve gotten ourselves into, nothing is likely to change.
What we need is a peaceful revolution in which we vote in people who are interested in service and in making this country better for every single person in it—white or black, rich or poor, legal or otherwise, gay or straight, Christian or otherwise.
Why? Because our politics have degenerated into a schoolyard tussle between rival gangs of spoiled brats. As numerous columnists have pointed out, the debt ceiling “crisis” was manufactured by Republicans who want to look economically tough in the eyes of what they see as an increasingly radicalized base. They don’t tell you that George W. Bush (who I still have trouble labeling as a “President” of anything, much less the nation) raised the debt ceiling several times. They gloss over the fact that the conservative demi-god Reagan raised it something like 18 times over eight years. Republicans don’t have a problem raising the debt ceiling; they only have a problem doing it when it might make some Democrat look competent.
They also blame Barack Obama and Democrats for the system that calls for raising the debt ceiling in order to pay for critical social and infrastructural programs, as if Obama invented that system. But the system has been in place for decades, and used by Republicans as much as Democrats, possibly more so. If you don’t like the system, then by all means, advocate for change, as long as you’ve got a solution in mind beyond eliminating all taxes, an unreasonable demand that ignores the facts of America’s economic structure. But don’t use the system when it benefits you and then hypocritically hold the country hostage so that you can metaphorically fellate a radical minority on your side of the aisle.
The most blatantly hypocritical part of this debate is that Republican policies and administrations (including the trickle-down lovers in the Bush and Reagan years) caused the crisis more than anyone else. Then they refused to work with Obama and the Democrats to fix the economy—unless, of course, the Democrats agreed to bypass the very nature of democracy and give the right every single thing it wanted. Then they blamed Obama for the problems and the lack of a solution. I’d admire the sheer chutzpah of the right if they weren’t taking us all into such dangerous waters.
We need the right to abandon its lunatic fringe and reach back across that aisle. In the absence of such a step, we need Democrats (notice I don’t call them “the left”) to find the guts to stand up for themselves and the rest of America, even if that means telling unpleasant truths about the opposition. We need the American people to stop taking what their politicians say at face value, to investigate things on their own using a variety of reputable and objective sources, to vote for everyone’s good instead of selfish reasons.
If we don’t, then one of these days we really will see the fall of the American empire, and it won’t be Barack Obama’s fault, or John McCain’s (how radically right do you have to be when McCain is too liberal for you??), or even Osama bin Laden’s. We’ll each have to look in the mirror and blame the person we see there.
I saw the movie. It wasn’t the greatest film I’ve ever seen, but it was far from the worst, especially for a super-hero flick. I’d give it a solid B on the sliding summer blockbuster scale.
In my summer II course, one of my students asked me what I thought about the film. I responded as I did above, while admitting that I haven’t read a comic since the mid-1990s, when the stories’ quality took a nosedive, and death became a cynical commercial vehicle, and no tale had stakes anymore because everybody came back from the dead. When the major companies copped out by replacing many of their heroes with new, poorer versions and little things like plot and characterization took a back seat to how cool the penciling looked.
My student then said, “Well, it’s not like they based the story on what’s happened in the last fifteen years.”
No, but in large part, they based it on the needs and desires of the last fifteen years’ audience. And I am not part of that audience. I don’t pretend to know the tone and flavor of today’s Captain America, but I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a film that catered to them and their sensibilities, not to mine.
For me, Captain America was always something of a conundrum. You couldn’t find a squarer character; the guy made Superman look grim and edgy. Steve Rogers was sincere, patriotic, faithful, honorable, ethical—all the things you wish your politicians were. He never seemed to represent a particular political viewpoint (well, except in those execrable 50s “Captain America—Commie Smasher” comics, and we’ve long known that the guy in those comics wasn’t Steve Rogers). He never threw his weight behind any particular administration. Instead, he truly seemed to represent the America where most of us lived—sometimes a bit conservative, sometimes a bit liberal, but mostly just human. He encouraged dissent, yet he believed in institutions.
I thought the film did a pretty good job of representing that Cap. As written in the film and played by Chris Evans, Steve Rogers is the guy who joins the army because it’s the right thing to do—because in those days, everyone believed that they knew who the enemy was and why we were fighting and what was at stake. We didn’t fight in the best possible ways; the poor were still overly represented, and women and non-whites weren’t treated well, but it was about as united as the nation has ever been, including, I think, during the Revolution. Rogers doesn’t go in as a mouthpiece for Roosevelt or the minority leader. He doesn’t champion a corporation or an ideology beyond a firm belief in America itself.
Truly, if Captain America were real, I’d probably write him in on the Presidential ballot. I came away from the film feeling like I had seen at least a version of the guy I knew from the comics. Perhaps that’s about as much as we can ask of our film adaptations. I won’t advise you to run to your nearest theater and catch it if you haven’t already, but give it a shot on DVD at least. You may find yourself wishing that Cap could swoop in and save us from the machine we’ve built to govern our lives, the same one that seems to be chewing us all up in the gears.
Fedor Emelianenko, Dana White, Chael Sonnen, and Rashad Evans
In the world of Mixed Martial Arts, everything seems to be in flux. Aging warhorses like Wanderlei Silva, Mirko Cro Cop, Matt Hughes, the Nogueira brothers, and Tito Ortiz, though only in their mid-30s, seem to be showing the effects of all their battles. Unable to take punches or dominate as they once did, they now face the roles of gate-keepers to the championships, rather than serious contenders. All these men are young enough to reach the top again, but like an NFL player of the same age, they can no longer be penciled in to dominate. It’s always a shame when age and the limitations of one’s body catch up with a great athlete, but it happens to everyone eventually. It happened suddenly to Chuck Liddell. It finally caught up to Randy Couture. Even the current exception to the rule, Dan Henderson, can’t go on forever.
UFC president Dana White has stuck behind most of the men on that list. He dropped Ortiz from the roster once, but that was due more to their personal conflicts and Ortiz’s desire for more money than eroding skills. As every MMA fan knows, he was about to cut Ortiz before a recent out-of-nowhere submission victory over young gun Ryan Bader. At that point, you could hardly blame White; he had given Ortiz every chance, and while Ortiz had not been dominated since his last loss to Liddell years ago, he had not won a fight since 2006. The victory over Bader saved Ortiz’s job, and his stepping up to face 205-pound title contender Rashad Evans on short notice only endeared him to White. But since Tito lost that fight, one wonders how many more chances he’ll get.
Matt Hughes has admitted that he only has so many fights left in him, but White keeps matching him with top competition. Cro Cop might not get another shot in the UFC if he loses his next fight, but he won’t be battling a no-name; he has to fight former IFL champ Roy Nelson, himself a veteran with a two-fight losing streak. White has stated his desire to “Liddell” Wanderlei Silva into retirement, referencing how White had to browbeat Liddell into stepping away from the sport for his own health’s sake; he has shown no desire to cut Silva or demote him to prelims. No one has stated that the Nogueiras’ jobs are in jeopardy—especially Big Nog, whose losses might have been attributable to the nagging injuries that have kept him out of action for over a year.
The point here is that Dana White has, to the best of his ability, stood beside each of these men whenever they’ve lost and/or contemplated retirement and/or asked for more shots to get back on the winning track. Of course, they all fight in the UFC, meaning that White has a vested interest in their careers and a sense of loyalty to them. He doesn’t stick by them strictly because he’s such a nice guy.
All of which brings me to the case of Fedor Emelianenko. Long considered the greatest heavyweight fighter ever to step into an MMA ring or cage, Fedor has struggled of late. He lost by submission to one of the world’s best jiu-jitsu artists, Fabricio Werdum. He lost by TKO (doctor’s stoppage) to a much larger opponent, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, when one of his eyes swelled shut between rounds. And then he lost by knockout to Henderson, one of the greatest fighters in history. No shame in any of those losses, but in the “what have you done for me lately?” world of MMA, three losses in a row bring out the haters. “Fedor should retire,” they said, even after his second loss. “He was never that good in the first place,” they said, ignoring how he went undefeated for ten years and won titles in several organizations, including PRIDE.
No one has been more vocally critical of Fedor’s losses than White, who seems to take personal satisfaction in another human being’s misfortune. Oh, he makes sure to say that he doesn’t hate Fedor, but it’s hard not to read malice into White’s venomous tirades. In one internet video, White runs through a list of Fedor’s past opponents, trying to punch holes in the myth of the man’s greatness. And the opponents he names in that list are certainly unimpressive. But he leaves out a lot of names, too: Semmy Schilt, Heath Herring, Big Nog (three times), Mark Coleman (twice), Cro Cop, Kevin Randleman, and even less decorated but respected veterans like Gary Goodridge and Kazuyuki Fujita.
You can’t say that Fedor fought only tomato cans when the list of people he beat includes three former UFC champions, one of the most feared strikers of all time, some strong wrestlers, and a bunch of plain old tough guys. And that’s ignoring his wins over both Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovsky, who have certainly fallen on hard times themselves but who are also former UFC champs.
White’s vendetta against Fedor seems to stem from the latter’s refusal to sign with the UFC, to put more money in White’s bank accounts. White is correct in saying that the UFC is the only place where the best fighters always fight the best competition and that Fedor (or his management team) has tarnished his legacy by avoiding the UFC. But White is dead wrong and just plain vindictive to ignore Fedor’s accomplishments, especially since most of them happened in what was, at the time, the best heavyweight division on the planet.
Whatever Fedor’s reasons for not signing with the UFC, the fact is that he didn’t. He seems at peace with himself and his career, even his recent setbacks. White should make peace with it too, because all his gloating only makes him seem like an ungracious bully.
I don’t have much to say about Chael Sonnen, who seems unable to grasp the fact that Anderson Silva beat him. Certainly Sonnen dominated the fight for well over twenty minutes, but Silva caught him in a triangle choke, and he tapped out. I saw the fight. I saw him give up. He can call himself the uncrowned Middleweight champion all he wants, but no one in their right mind believes that. He fought a good fight, but he lost. End of story.
Except that it’s not. Sonnen has always had such a big mouth that it’s impossible to take him seriously. You get the feeling that even he doesn’t believe most of what he says, but that doesn’t stop him from saying it. He blathers and brags, but he has yet to achieve the kinds of results that would to some extent justify his brashness. Where is Sonnen’s years-long win streak? Where is his UFC championship?
Lots of fans try to excuse his poor sportsmanship and the sad example he sets of how to be a decent human being, but you can promote a fight without being a completely unlikable jerk. Since returning from suspension for performance-enhancing drugs (a suspension compounded by his role in money-laundering), he’s been more vocal than ever, but his hijinks seem even more desperate than usual. He’s now insulted the entire country of Brazil and just about every other fighter in the UFC. Nice guy.
If you take him seriously, you’d have to point out that he’s never accomplished anything near what the objects of his bile have achieved. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira has won championships in both PRIDE and the UFC, and is always a top contender. Wanderlei Silva destroyed all his competition for years and held the PRIDE middleweight title all that time. (And for all his talk about Wanderlei, one has to remember that Sonnen is talking from a distance. If you’re an MMA fan, you’ve probably seen the video of Wanderlei and Sonnen on a promotional trip together, sitting in the same vehicle as Wanderlei takes him to task for disrespecting the Nogueiras. “When you show respect, you keep your teeth,” Silva says, and literally all Sonnen does is nod and say thank you. Yet when Silva is nowhere nearby, Sonnen becomes a tough guy?). Jose Aldo is a UFC champ. Anderson Silva is a UFC champ. Lyoto Machida is a former UFC champ. Even non-Brazilians have felt the sting of Sonnen’s sharp tongue, but Quinton Jackson is also a former UFC champ, and Jon Fitch is every bit as accomplished as Sonnen. Perhaps moreso, since his unsuccessful title shot did not end in his submission.
But Sonnen keeps talking, even though his speeches are now largely considered a joke. Perhaps Brian Stann will knock some sense into him. If not, he’s probably going to meet Anderson Silva again, and then we’ll see if he can keep all his teeth. Perhaps Sonnen should join the WWE, where his utter lack of sportsmanship and decency would be welcome.
As for Rashad Evans, he wonders why people keep booing him when he’s really a nice guy. Allow me to take a page out of Dana White’s recent interviews, in which I look into the camera and speak directly to Rashad, WWE-style.
Rashad, I’ll tell you why people boo you. It’s not because some of your fights are dull. Most fighters have dull fights every now and then. It’s not because you brag on yourself. All fighters are confident. It’s because you showboat. You did it back on The Ultimate Fighter, and though your style has matured since then, your in-ring personality hasn’t. When Forrest Griffin was beating you for two and a half rounds, you weathered one flurry and then grabbed your cup and blew him a kiss. Really, Rashad? Are you that insecure? Are you that immature? You’re 31 years old now, man. Grow up.
Once you get over yourself, perhaps more people will back you. Maybe then they’ll recognize you for the nice guy you really are. Until then, keep on expecting those boos.
QUICK UPDATE: Matt “the Hammer” Hamill has retired from MMA. The sport has just lost one of its finest ambassadors and best human beings. Hamill, for those who don’t know, is deaf. Yet he was a D-III national wrestling champion and went 9-4 in the UFC, including victories over Tito Ortiz and Mark Munoz. He also beat Michael Bisping in the eyes of everyone but the ringside judges. Always humble and sweet of disposition, a classy person and a tough fighter, Matt Hamill will be missed.
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