Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why Derek Jeter matters



THE NEW YORK Yankees pulled Derek Jeter from Saturday’s game against the Boston Red Sox. A bad hamstring got him sidelined, but only briefly. He’s expected to play today, which will be a good thing. After today, there is no tomorrow for Jeter in Fenway Park. After the 2014 regular season ends today, there’s no tomorrow for Jeter in Yankee Stadium. Not as a player, anyway.

After 20 seasons as a New York Yankee, Derek Sanderson Jeter is retiring from major league baseball. As if you didn’t know: this year has been crowded with tributes to “the Captain,” from opposing teams (players and management), the media, advertisers, celebrities and every fan of the game too young to remember other players with better stats, longer careers, more coverage in the press.

In our nonstop, stats-driven world — where metrics seem to dominate everything and data appears to decide everything important — Jeter’s pending retirement has led to the inevitable comparisons between his lifetime numbers and other great players who hung 'em up. The contrarian personalities among us have already started the Jeter image deflation machine. In their sad rush to the hard, flat comfort of numbers, they’ve missed much of the point — of baseball, and Derek Jeter, and us, and why the Captain matters to us.

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It’s true that it can be hard to step away from metrics when you’re talking about baseball, a game that lives and dies by numbers: innings pitched, on-base percentage, hits, walks, RBIs, ERAs, WARs, BBs ... and on and on. And some people are more driven by those numbers than others.

Leave it to that walking calculator Keith Olbermann, host of ESPN’s “Olbermann,” to get that point across. All season long, in what we’ve known for months would be Jeter’s final season, Olbermann has conducted his own farewell tour for Jeter, letting his viewers know at every opportunity just how good Jeter was not.

It’s been happening all year, on and off, Olbermann taking opportunities to push back on what he see as a valedictory mythology taking shape in Jeter’s twilight, and to rip the praises from fans and other teams — running down Jeter as if all the tributes coming his way were somehow Jeter’s idea. Olbermann really let the mud fly on Tuesday night: “"Contrary to what you have heard, Derek Jeter is not the greatest person in human history. He did not invent baseball, he did not discover electricity, he is not the greatest shortstop who ever lived. And among all the terrific players in the history of the New York Yankees he is not, by any measure, number one.”

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WHAT FOLLOWED was a crash course in how to gauge the cost of everything and the value of nothing. With his customary snark and bite, Olbermann recited the Baseball-Reference Guide chapter-and-verse comparisons that proved Jeter was middlebrow at best. He wasn’t fit to tie Ozzie Smith’s Nikes, he never won an MVP accolade, he never led the league in homers or RBIs; he was the team captain when the Yankees suffered two American League Championship Series defeats and five American League division losses; he was the team leader when the Yankees suffered the defeat that still stings in Yankee fans’ hearts: the loss of the American League Championship Series to the Red Sox in 2004, when the Yankees blew a 3-0 ALCS series lead.



Olbermann had company. Ted Berg at USA Today started back in February. “Jeter’s offensive game is driven by singles and marked by perennially high batting averages. He hits some homers, but his relative lack of power means he has only cracked the Top 10 in AL OPS (on-base plus slugging) once in his career.”



Jason Kiedel at CBS2 New York said: “While Jeter is a first-ballot icon whose plaque in Cooperstown and acreage in Monument Park are assured, he was never the best player in the sport, is far from the best player in Yankees history and wasn’t always the best player on his own team.”

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But Kiedel also got at some of what Olbermann overlooked about Jeter: “He was not great at anything, but really good at everything. We so lust for the sexy stat — the home run, touchdown and three-pointer — that we just don’t get turned on by the sprawling career of consistent production.”

Right, Jason. Let’s pay that proper respect to endurance and longevity — like we did when Baltimore Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr. was rightly celebrated for playing in 2,632 consecutive straight games. In a time when players move from team to team with jarring irregularity, never around long enough to be a fan favorite, Jeter stayed put with the Yankees, a team known for being demanding in a city that’s never anything but demanding.

Since he debuted in May 1995 with the Yankees — the only team he’d ever play for — Jeter has 3,463 hits (not counting what happens today), five World Series championships, and five Gold Gloves. He was named an All-Star 14 times, and he’s No. 6 all-time in hits (he tied Honus Wagner back in August). That kind of stability with any one team is admirable; to do that with the Yankees, in the white-hot glare of the most irascible fans and media market in the country, is not much short of a miracle.

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KIEDEL GOES on to mention something else. Something important: “The most important point that Olbermann missed — and it must be an intentional omission, because he’s too savvy to miss something so obvious — is that Jeter, unlike 80 percent of his peers, did not take steroids.

“So it’s not fair to just belch the bromides about power numbers without acknowledging that he is one of the few who did it fairly. Look at Jeter’s physique. He never became Brady Anderson, never gained or lost 30 pounds of muscle in one offseason. His body never morphed into the cartoonish contours of Bonds, McGwire, Sosa or A-Rod.

“And that’s an essential distinction. Jeter played old-school baseball by the original rules. ... He is the embodiment of the cliché — doing it the right way.”

And that begins to address what Olbermann and other critics choose to miss: Jeter knows good and well he’s not the greatest shortstop who ever lived. He knows he’s not the greatest New York Yankee who ever lived.

And he never said he was. He never even pretended he was. Day to day over 20 seasons, Derek Jeter was nothing more or less than the very best Derek Jeter he could be. Many days that was stellar. Many other days, well, it was not. Color Jeets human.

Years ago, in the Ken Burns “Baseball” series, the legendary sportswriter Roger Angell observed that “there’s more Met than Yankee in all of us.” Sooner or later, that has to be as true for an actual New York Yankee as it is for anyone else.

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Olbermann and others are so overly focused on the data that defines the game that they miss the magic that inspires the game, the magic that makes baseball more than punching up an equation on a calculator or conjuring an Excel spreadsheet, or anything else you do with numbers.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Shock and stealth: ISIS, the coalition
and ‘perpetual war’


This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

— President Obama, Sept. 10



FOR THE third time in as many decades, the United States is at war in the Middle East. On Monday evening in America, F-15, F-16, F-22, F/A-18 and B-1 bombers bombed in Syria, attacking an assortment of targets — command centers, fuel and weapons depots, troop installations — of the ISIS terrorist organization.

President Obama, who’d been telegraphing his intention to throw this punch, did it the way he wanted to all along: attacking ISIS targets with the full participation of true partners in the campaign, the militaries of some of the major players in the Middle East, building a regional coalition of interested parties with a direct stake in the outcome.

Obama spoke before the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, and then made history by chairing a session of the UN Security Council, to personally hammer home his support of a binding anti-terrorist resolution. That would have raised eyebrows enough. But to do it days after a dramatic and so far successful first strike against ISIS in Syria (one that never had UN approval), raised the stakes for the president, who, despite the risks involved, apparently decided to take Grace Hopper’s wry wisdom, geopolitically applied: For this president, it was better to ask for forgiveness than to beg for permission.

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The president’s swift action on both the military and diplomatic fronts has also kept the political peace at home; Obama has received full-throated support from prominent Republicans in Congress and elsewhere, even as many on the political left have deep misgivings over the Obama strategy. The effect of all this on Democratic fortunes in November, is anyone’s guess.

For now, though, in preparations for a confrontation with what the president called “the cancer of violent extremism,” President Obama went looking for one coalition. He managed to come up with two. A lot’s riding on how solid and reliable those coalitions are.



Obama set the stage in powerful fashion. In a United Nations speech that pulled no punches there and underscored the punch he’d already thrown, Obama galvanized the General Assembly, making clear that this was a conflict in which there would be no convenience of sidelines.

But though the thrust of the speech was focused on the ISIS threat, Obama widened his rhetorical field of vision. With the impact of climate change, the presence of rampant expansionism (a clear shot at Putin’s adventures in Ukraine) and the mute, insidious terrorism of the Ebola virus rampaging across Africa ... well, the president said, there’s no sitting on the sidelines for any of that, either.

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“We come together at a crossroads between war and peace, between disorder and integration, between fear and hope,” the president said.

“We can reaffirm our collective responsibility to confront global problems, or be swamped by more and more outbreaks of instability," he said. "For America, the choice is clear. We choose hope over fear.”

Transcript of President Obama’s speech before the UN General Assembly

But the speech’s first-among-equals was the Monday attack, in which the United States and “partner nation forces” Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar hit targets in and around Raqqa, Aleppo, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.

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FOR OBAMA, ISIS was the target of opportunity and necessity. “With access to technology that allows small groups to do great harm, they have embraced a nightmarish vision that would divide the world into adherents and infidels — killing as many innocent civilians as possible; and employing the most brutal methods to intimidate people within their communities.”

“This group has terrorized all who they come across in Iraq and Syria, Mothers, sisters and daughters have been subjected to rape as a weapon of war. Innocent children have been gunned down. Bodies have been dumped in mass graves. Religious minorities have been starved to death. In the most horrific crimes imaginable, innocent human beings have been beheaded, with videos of the atrocity distributed to shock the conscience of the world.

“No God condones this terror,” Obama said during the 40-minute speech. “No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning — no negotiation — with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.”

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Then the president addressed that big concern both foreign and domestic: Who would talk the talk and walk the walk, which countries would put their militaries where their monarchies are?

“In this effort, we do not act alone,” he said. “Nor do we intend to send U.S. troops to occupy foreign lands. Instead, we will support Iraqis and Syrians fighting to reclaim their communities. We will use our military might in a campaign of air strikes to roll back ISIL. We will train and equip forces fighting against these terrorists on the ground. We will work to cut off their financing, and to stop the flow of fighters into and out of the region. Already, over 40 nations have offered to join this coalition. Today, I ask the world to join in this effort.”

This was apparently a formality. The five “partner nation forces” Obama named had already had military assistance from Belgium and the Netherlands. France, already bombing ISIS targets in Iraq, is reportedly weighing military strikes in Syria after an Algerian Islamist group beheaded a French citizen. “The question is on the table,” French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told RTF radio on Thursday.

Turkey is reportedly deciding how, not whether, to get involved. And British Prime Minister David Cameron echoed Obama’s all-in appeal. “This is a fight you cannot opt out of,” he told NBC’s Brian Williams on Tuesday. “These people want to kill us. They have got us in their sights.”

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THE COALITION back in Washington, almost as unimaginable as the one called for at the UN, was strong in the early going, with Republicans refreshingly obeying the old rule that domestic politics stops at the water’s edge.

“When in times of war and of peace it is important that we come together as a nation,” Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement. “To defeat ISIS, we must cut off the head of the snake, which exists in Syria. I support the administration’s move to conduct airstrikes against ISIS wherever it exists. ISIS is not just a threat to the United States - it is a threat to all nations that value human life and decency.”

Rep. Peter King of New York, never one to mince words, tweeted: “All Americans must stand with President Obama in our war against ISIS — particularly tonight’s air strikes in Syria.” House Speaker John Boehner said “I support the airstrikes launched by the president.” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a reliable White House saddlethorn, lent his support.

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Support for bombing inside Syria came from everyone you’d expect. It also had the support of ... Syria. On. Sept. 11, Syrian foreign minister Faisal Mekdad told NBC News’ Bill Neely that his country had “no reservations whatsoever” about then-considered U.S. air strikes on ISIS targets.

Neely reports: “Mekdad called Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad ‘a natural ally’ for the U.S. in its battle against ISIS, saying in an exclusive interview that both countries are ‘fighting the same enemy’ and should be working together — not antagonizing each other.”

“When it comes to terrorism, we should forget our differences … and forget all about the past,” Mekdad said. “It takes two to tango ... We are ready to talk.

Mekdad did emphasize the need to coordinate the logistics of any strikes with the United States — so “there should be no mistakes,” he said. He even characterized it as “a must” for Obama to call Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. That seeming demand felt more consultative than conditional, but no matter: Damascus was notified before the attack began.

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WHATEVER THE long-term prospects for the coalition of nations might be, the short-term prognosis has been good so far. William McCants, a former State Department adviser now with the Brookings Institute, told MSNBC that “before this, there was a lot of infighting, and the United States was not able to corral [Arab states] in a single direction. This strike is not just a physical manifestation that’s come together, but also quite symbolic, because they haven’t been able to achieve it in the prior two years.”

Some in the media have been more downbeat, or certainly more skeptical. They’ve made the automatic assumption that the disaster of attempting to train Iraqi recruits to protect Iraq from ISIS will be repeated in Syria — proposing to make a template of Iraq’s failure elsewhere in the Middle East. That’s not proven yet, and the Syrian people aren’t the Iraqis.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Alessandra Stanley and how to get away
with stereotyping


NEW YORK TIMES chief television critic Alessandra Stanley just published an essay that doubles as a rhetorical crash course in how to get away with stereotyping. Its assertions illustrate, surely by accident,  the obstacles that African American actresses and actors face in pursuit of their profession. It’s also an object lesson in the dangers of making assumptions about people, culture and experiences outside one’s own.

Stanley wrote an op-ed piece on ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder,” and the series’ lead actress, Oscar nominee Viola Davis. The essay, first published in The Times on Thursday and again in the Sunday print edition, starts off on a very wrong foot.

She writes: “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called 'How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.’” It’s what’s known in journalism as a “grabber” lead, deliberately embracing an offending or provocative phrase in a shock-value way, establishing a thesis that the writer then sets out to categorically defend.

The trouble is, when you do that, when you stray into culturally-misunderstood realms of description, you need to know your way around the territory. You need to know something of the subtleties and complexities of what the trope “Angry Black Woman” entails — preferably as lived experience, or at least as the object of serious sociological study, not just as a phrase you think you kinda sorta know the meaning and nuances of.

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In Stanley’s blinkered, tone-deaf world, race is expected to be in others’ lives as much, as prominent a fixation of life as it apparently is in her own. How else to interpret this passage explaining the Shonda Rhimes cosmology, according to Alessandra Stanley:

“In that multicultural world, there are many African-Americans at the top of every profession. But even when her heroine is the only nonwhite person in the room, it is the last thing she or anyone around her notices or cares about.”

It escapes Stanley that African Americans do not spend every waking minute of their lives with race in the forefront of their minds, despite a society that does all it can to reinforce that as what black people think about 24/7 — an immediate, default self-perception.

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SHE PULLS this again later in the piece: For Stanley, Rhimes’ characters “struggle with everything except their own identities, so unconcerned about race that it is barely ever mentioned.”

There’s the implicit assumption that black identity is fundamentally a daily, epic existential struggle waged from within. Note to Alessandra Stanley: Black people don’t think of themselves as a challenge or a problem to be solved.

It would be nice, too, if Stanley bothered to make a meaningful distinction in her assessment of Rhimes’ contribution to the “Murder” series. The critic assumes that the show was created by Rhimes, when it was in fact created by Pete Nowalk, a veteran of other Rhimes shows. This unforced error alone, ascribing to Rhimes the nuances of characters she didn’t create, thoroughly undercuts the scaffold of Stanley’s essay.

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Undaunted, though, she goes on, betraying a perspective that’s anything but enlightened. Consider some of the words she uses to describe the black woman characters of Rhimes shows: “angry,” “volcanic,” “intimidating,” “slightly menacing.” Paging D.W. Griffith.

Stanley hits a rhetorical low when she carves out physical distinctions between “Scandal” star Kerry Washington and Davis, described as “less classically beautiful.” Stanley betrays everything of her perspective with the words “classically beautiful,” a phrase that, despite its futile reach for the diplomatic, only reinforces the Eurocentric stereotypes that African American actresses contend with on a regular basis.

Then she goes on to take a swipe at another TV show. Writing about the addition of Michael Che to the “Weekend Update” segment of “Saturday Night Live,” Stanley writes that “SNL” “suddenly seems to be on a diversity jag” — looking at it as some kind of social experiment, rather than (first) a smart poach of a young comic talent in his ascendancy and (second) an overdue reflection of more of the national demographic.

It’s all so predictable.

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WILLA PASKIN, writing at Slate, had a more measured, panoramic take: “Angry, like bossy or shrill, is a particularly loaded word to use about women, and even more so about black women. It comes with the implication of unreliability and unreasonableness, the connotation that the unhinged woman in question is easily dismissed, qualities that Rhimes’ characters—and Rhimes herself—barely ever display. Describing these women and Rhimes as “angry black women” is a contortion, shoving them into a stereotype that doesn’t fit.”


At Vulture, Margaret Lyons does a righteous takedown of Stanley’s “classical beauty” canard: “I wonder if any of this ‘classical beauty’ aesthetic could have ever been influenced by racism, maybe, like, generations and generations of it, just like a tooooon of racism and colonialism, like so, so much. Hmm. Who can know.”

Other reactions are calling for action. Color of Change, the grassroots advocacy organization, is circulating a petition demanding an apology from Stanley and a retraction of the piece.


“Characterizing their supreme confidence and competence as ‘anger’ — and describing actress Viola Davis as sexy ‘in a slightly menacing way,’ and ‘darker-skinned and less classically beautiful’ — only plays into destructive stereotypes that impact the lives of Black women every day,” Color of Change wrote in emails sent to supporters. “With so few Black women both onscreen or behind the scenes in Hollywood, high profile, dehumanizing misinterpretations of their work cannot be tolerated.”

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Stanley, of course, defended herself in a statement: “The whole point of the piece — once you read past the first 140 characters — is to praise Shonda Rhimes for pushing back so successfully on a tiresome but insidious stereotype," she said. But her cheap dig at the Twitterati misses the point. Most of them almost certainly read the piece.

And ironically enough, it’s almost unnecessary. The 113 characters of her lead paragraph reveal more about her essay, and the thinking behind it, than she realized. They tell all of the story. If only there was more Stanley could have thoughtfully, incisively, intelligently volunteered.

Patience. We can be sure there’s more to come from the Passive-Aggressive White TV Critic any time now.

Image credits: Stanley: WireImage. Shonda Rhimes: via electronicvillage.blogspot.com; probable actual origin: ABC/ShondaLand Productions. Davis: ABC.ShondaLand Productions. Tweets by their respective creators.

Roger, and out



CHANCES ARE pretty good your NFL fantasy football team is a mess right now. The chances are even better that if you’re a fantasy football commissioner, you’ve got a better handle on your players than the real NFL commissioner has on his.

At this point — in the wake of a near disaster of a press conference on Friday, the potential disaster of a new ESPN news story published hours after he spoke, and the conflicting actions of the last few months — you could probably stand in for the real commissioner, Roger Goodell, the man who currently presides over an institutional clusterfuck of monumental proportions.

No fewer than five players are the latest poster players for a culture of spontaneous violence, self-serving front office statements and institutional self-protecrtion that defines the National Football League: Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens running back under fire since February for assaulting his wife in a hotel elevator; Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, indicted last week for felony child abuse after whipping his four-year-old son with a tree branch; Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, convicted in June of assault; San Francisco 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald, facing assault charges for attacking his pregnant fiancée in August; and now, the latest, Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer, arrested on Wednesday for, among other things, head-butting his wife and breaking her nose during a heated argument at home.

The five teams of those players — almost 15 percent of all the teams in the NFL — are also under fire, their managements in a defensive public-relations crouch; some of the league’s flagship corporate sponsors have raised objections, some even bailing out on long contractual agreements with the NFL, with others threatening to do the same; and the nation’s most lucrative professional sports institution faces nothing less than the gravest existential challenge in its 95-year history.

Bill Montel, commenting at The Huffington Post, nails it: “At this rate they'll have to cancel the Super Bowl due to lack of players.”

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So the timing couldn’t have been better for Goodell, the league’s $44 million-a-year commissioner, to set things right, if he could. Goodell emerged on Friday from the secret undisclosed location he’s been at since Sept. 10, the date of his last public appearance, to speak at a press conference in New York. There he announced a broad range of corrective measures intended to address the rash of domestic violence incidents that have rocked the league.

Repeating the mea culpas he’s made since the Ray Rice episode exploded on Sept. 8 — when a second, more damning video of Rice’s violent assault on his fiancée came to light — Goodell said “I am not satisfied with the way we handled it,” he said. “I made a mistake. I am not satisfied with the process we went through. I am not satisfied with the conclusion.”

“I got it wrong on a number of levels,” he said, “from the process that I led to the decision that I reached. But now I will get it right.”

Goodell followed with a series of forthcoming changes: a new personal-conduct policy for NFL players; an investigation to be headed by former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III; a partnership with the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a tie-up that will include financial and promotional support; a pledge to institute programs of education, training and domestic-violence victim support at all NFL teams; and a recognition “that domestic violence and sexual assault exists everywhere, in every community, economic class, racial and ethnic group. It affects all of us. These are problems we are committed to addressing.”

“Everything is on the table,” he said. “We can't continue to operate like this.”

Then, in an extensive Q&A session, Goodell was asked by Peter King of Sports Illustrated: “Do you still believe that, to the best of your knowledge, no one in the NFL office had seen the [second] Ray Rice video before it surfaced on TMZ?

“Yes,” Goodell said.

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LATER, WHEN pressed on his actions following the release of the two videos implicating Rice in the assault of his fiancée, Goodell said: “We suspended Ray Rice originally after seeing the first video. When the second video came out last week, that is when we increased our discipline because that was inconsistent with the information we had. It was new information.”

Hours later, in an exhaustive and deeply-detailed 7,000-word story, the Outside the Lines Investigative unit at ESPN provided the closest thing yet to a definitive chronology of the events swirling around the NFL since the Ray Rice domestic-violence incident on Feb. 15. Its variance from Goodellian lore, its departure from the league’s butt-covering script is and will be a problem for Goodell, the Baltimore Ravens, and the NFL.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Scotland the Brave (and the Angry and the Young)



EARLY REPORTS indicate a robust turnout for the Scottish independence referendum. The results aren’t expected until Friday, but the turnout, perhaps as high 90 percent of the 4.3 million people registered to vote, according to The Wall Street Journal — ought to be a bit of an embarrassment to the participatory democracy on this side of the Atlantic.

Some election analysts and other seers of Scottish voting trends have tentatively predicted a narrow win for the No side, which proposes to keep Scotland as part of the United Kingdom. But two parts of the Yes cohort (those backing independence) bear special consideration, for different reasons. They jointly represent the extremes of the Scottish electorate; combined, they could create an accidental coalition that would make Scotland a new nation on the world stage.

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The Yes side is composed of older Scots, those who’ve cultivated reasons (largely economic) for ending the 307-year linkage to Great Britain. In modern times, the itch for Scots to have a government that responded to their needs without the interference of London — this in the face of an economy that declined for a time after World War II — gained steam in March 1979, when a referendum seeking more Scottish independence from Westminster passed but was repealed in June 1979, due to low overall turnout.

The passion for the Yes of independence achieved its greatest populist traction in 1989, when then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher imposed the Community Charge, a taxation scheme that imposed one single, flat-rate, per-capita tax on every working adult in parts of the United Kingdom.

Thatcher imposed the Community Charge first on Scotland, making it a testing ground for its implementation in England and Wales the following year. The tax plan, seen by many Scots as an attempt by Thatcher to use them as guinea pigs for British economic theory, aroused bitter resentment and laid the groundwork for a call for more direct control over Scotland’s own affairs.

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THE COMMUNITY Charge led to massive protests, including the so-called Battle of Trafalgar Square, a massive protest in London in which 200,000 people participated. Four hundred people were arrested, with another 113 injured, according to The Independent.

The tax was eventually overturned in 1993, after broad outrage from Scots who refused to pay it. But the bad feelings lingered, in no small part because, due to tax laws as a consequence of the Thatcherite venture, non-payers could be pursued for years. One Scottish financial expert wrote, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the tax’s imposition, that local governments were still chasing hundreds of millions in delinquent Community Charge payments, despite the formal end of the practice years earlier.

In more recent times, Scotland experienced other problems arising from being a “devolved” government working from within the UK’s constitutional monarchy.

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Scotland's deficit in fiscal year 2012–13 was £12 billion ($19.6 billion at the current rate of exchange), a £3.5 billion ($5.7 billion) increase over the previous fiscal year. The UK's deficit declined by £2.6 billion ($4.25 billion) over the same period. As of July of this year, the Scottish economy grew by 1 percent, according to BBC News.

While welcomed by UK government officials, the news wasn’t seen as universally positive. Grahame Smith, general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, told BBC it was “good that Scottish GDP is now above pre-recession levels. However, it is complacent and somewhat misleading to crow about record levels of output.

“The truth of the matter is that the economy may never recover output lost due to the recession and the prolonged period of stagnation that followed,” Smith said. Earlier economic forecasts say any Scottish recovery could be hampered by effects of Eurozone deflation, declining real wages and, ironically, the steady rise in home prices in London, BBC reported.

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AMONG OLDER Scots, then, it’s the feeling nurtured in the Thatcherite era that “Scotland makes, the UK takes,” coupled with an economy seen as growing more slowly than it should, that’s powering much of the passion for independence playing out in Scotland today.

For younger Scottish voters, the frictions of the Thatcher days may not matter as much, for perfectly understandable reasons. It’s harder to object to something you weren’t alive to experience firsthand.

Figures from the 2011 census, the most recent available (Scotland conducts a census once every 10 years), show 6.25 percent of Scots between 15 and 19 years old, and another 6.8 percent between the ages of 20 and 24 years old. Moving each age cohort forward three years, to 2014, it means that at least 700,000 Scots were either too young to remember, or weren’t alive at all, when the Thatcherite government imposed Community Charge on Scotland a quarter century ago.

For them, there’s no personal memory of the impact of the Community Charge that’s thought to be a prime mover, and a major emotionally galvanizing factor, driving the expected record turnout in today’s vote. Add to that the fact that Scottish citizens 16 and older can vote in today’s referendum. In a close election, that could make the difference between independence or union. Between Yes or No.

As previously published at BuzzFeed. Image credits: Scotland flag: universitytimes.ie (Trinity College).  Thatcher: BBC News. Scottish vote real-time visualization: Trendsmap.

UPDATE: 11 PM PT: The blue in the Union Jack stays where it is. So does David Cameron: The No voters prevailed over Yes independence supporters by a wide margin (better than 10 percentage points at this writing). The United Kingdom stays intact, though with changes expected as a result of the election. 

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond conceded defeat in a moving speech: A turnout of 86% is one of the highest in the democratic world, in any election or any referendum in history. This has been a triumph for the democratic process and politics. … The initiative by which 16- and 17-year-olds were able to vote has proved to be a resounding success. I suspect no one will ever question their right to participate in democratic elections. 

Scotland will expect pledges to devolve powers to be honoured in rapid course. We’re being promised a second reading of a Scotland Bill by March 27 next year. Not just the 1.6 million Scots who voted for independence, but all Scots will demand that timetable is followed. 


The most moving thing I saw was the queue of people in Dundee patiently waiting to vote. I met a ... 61-year-old lady who’d never voted in her life… These people were inspired to enter democratic politics… Whatever else we can say about this referendum campaign we’ve touched sections of the community who have never before been touched by the democratic process. ... We shall go forward as one nation.(Graphic: BuzzFeed)

Mission creep: A history via current events



CALIFORNIA Sen. Hiram Johnson, in a 1917 statement before the United States Senate related to the country’s entrance into World War I, is thought to have said the first casualty of war is truth. As the United States prepares for its third conflict in the Middle East in 22 years, the first casualty of the current timed-release war is apparently language. The second casualty may be memory.

Explaining the actions already taken against the ISIS terrorist organization, Secretary of State John Kerry described it for CNN as “a major counter-terrorism operation that will have many different moving parts.” Interviewed recently by MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said “we have initiated hostilities against ISIS, that’s for sure.”

Last Wednesday, in his address to the nation, President Obama called it a “counterterrorism campaign.” There’s deep reluctance to use the perfectly serviceable, thoroughly idiomatic word those actions deserve. “War.”

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Despite disagreement over what the hell to call this embryonic conflict, there’s been bipartisan support for doing something. Democrat Pelosi and Republican House Speaker John Boehner actually agreed on Obama’s plan to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels in effort to defeat ISIS.

And The House of Representatives followed suit, voting Wednesday, 273-156, to approve President Obama’s plan. The Senate takes up the bill on Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he expects passage.

To that point, Congress had engaged in much gnashing of teeth about not knowing what “the endgame” is. Which made sense. Until very recently, we didn’t have a clear picture of what the begin-game looked like. That started to change on Sunday and Monday.

That’s when the United States began bombing ISIS strongholds outside Baghdad, the first such action that close to the Iraqi capital, as well as another strike near Mount Sinjar, in northern Iraq.

“The air strike southwest of Baghdad was the first strike taken as part of our expanded efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions to hit ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense.” the U.S. Central Command said in a statement, alluding to a widening of the bombing campaign under way since August in northern Iraq.

Centcom announced seven more Iraq airstrikes on Tuesday and Wednesday. So far, 174 airstrikes in Iraq have taken place since the United States  intervened on Aug. 7.

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THE INABILITY to describe the U.S. military action points to a wider message at cross-purposes. On Wednesday at MacDill Air Force base in Florida, President Obama reasserted his intention that the United States would not be pulled into a conventional combat role, in Iraq, Syria or anywhere else.

“I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” the president said.

But Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. Army chief of staff, told The New York Times and other news organizations that ground forces would be needed to effectively drive ISIS back.

Admitting that air strikes would have a definite short-term utility, Odierno said that eventually, “you’ve got to have ground forces that are capable of going in and rooting them out.” An all-air campaign “will not be the end all and be all solution in Iraq,” he said of ISIS, which he called “a long-term threat” to Europe and the United States.

Odierno’s comments followed by a day the counsel of his boss, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said Tuesday that, if the current airstrike strategy failed, “I would go back to the president and make the recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.”

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There’s pretty much uniform agreement that “boots on the ground,” the overworked euphemism for ground forces who’ll do the actual fighting, will be needed to repel ISIS. The rub comes over whose boots will be there.

While reflexive hawks like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Arizona Sen. John McCain insist that only American forces can get the job done, the White House is actively pursuing a more global coalition including the Arab states with the most to gain, and to lose, in a fight with ISIS.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Black and Brown List


THE LANDSCAPE of late-night television may be tainted with what W. Kamau Bell calls “The Unbearable Whiteness of Late-Night,” but prime-time network TV is in the process of being another matter entirely.

With a flurry of new network series set to debut starting this week and continuing well into next year, prime-time TV, that mirror on both the national imagination and the national self-image, is about to reflect more of America than usual.

On the basis of numbers alone, ABC seems to have the season’s hot hand. The network takes point with no fewer than six series with either black and minority themes or lead stars. ”Black-ish,” a new ABC comedy series, promises to push the envelope on depiction of black life in America. Anthony Anderson (Guys With Kids) stars as Andre Johnson, a rising ad executive just promoted to senior vice president at the ad agency he works at. Tracee Ellis Ross co-stars as his wife, a successful doctor. They enjoy the trappings of success — kids, a sumptuous home, upscale neighborhood — even as they navigate the conflicting challenges of cultural identity and assimilation as African Americans in the 21st century. The show, executive produced by Anderson and Laurence Fishburne, debuts Sept. 24.

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ABC will also present ”How to Get Away With Murder,” the latest from the hit machine of Shonda Rhimes, creator of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.” In the series created by Peter Nowalk and exec-produced by Rhimes, Oscar nominee Viola Davis (“The Help”) stars as a college professor who becomes embroiled in murder cases, with her students, in unexpected ways. The show bows on Thursday, Sept. 25, in scheduling that will effectively make Thursday Shonda Rhimes Night on ABC (“Murder” will follow “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” broadcast earlier the same night).

ABC’s ”American Crime,” an ensemble drama to be written, produced and directed by Oscar winner John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”), will dig deep into the lives of people caught up in in a high-profile trial with racial overtones after an incident in Modesto, Calif., upends their lives. It’s about as topical a TV show as you could ask for in a nation still grappling with the racial trauma of Ferguson, Mo.


BuzzFeed: Shonda Rhimes’ Leading Ladies Say Others Need To Measure Up In Terms Of Diversity


Comedian Kevin Hart is working on scripts for a semi-autobiographical comedy series for ABC. Romany Malco (“Weeds”) is slated to portray Hart’s counterpart in the half-hour comedy based loosely on Hart’s own life. And stand-up comedian and producer Cristela Alonzo stars in “Cristela,” a comedy series on a Mexican-American woman interning at a powerful law firm, despite the misgivings of her family.

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OTHER NETWORKS are part of the panorama. Alfre Woodard is the president of the United States in NBC’s “State of Affairs,” the Alexi Hawley drama that also stars Katherine Heigl, as a CIA analyst tasked with keeping the president abreast of what’s hot and not around the world. The series debuts on the Peacock Network on Nov. 17.

Craig Robinson, a mainstay of The Office, will star in ”Mr. Robinson,” an NBC comedy, portraying a music teacher who rides herd over students at a middle school.

Michael Che (formerly with “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” was just tapped to join “Weekend Update” on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, the first black co-anchor for the popular SNL segment since the show’s 1975 debut.

And TV comedy veteran Bill Cosby is plotting a return to TV with a new prime-time NBC comedy, which the network described for The Hollywood Reporter as “a classic, big, extended family sitcom.” Cosby is to star as the family patriarch and the father of three grown daughters with children — the template for what sounds like a more mature version of “The Cosby Show,” the hit NBC program that helped revitalize the sitcom genre in the 1980’s. Pending the right scripts, the show could be up and running by the summer or fall of 2015, THR reported.

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Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) stars as a hardcase nurse presiding over a ward of precocious teenage patients in a Los Angeles hospital. Fox’s “Red Band Society,” the dark dramedy adaptation of a Spanish TV series, starts its run on Wednesday, Sept. 17.

Taraji P. Henson (“Person of Interest”), Terrence Howard (“Hustle and Flow”) and Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”) will headline “Empire,” a family drama on the rise of a hip-hop mogul. The pedigree is solid: Created by Lee Daniels (director of “The Butler”), the Fox series debuts in the spring of 2015, with Daniels, Danny Strong (“Game Change,” “The Butler”) and Brian Grazer (“Get On Up”) at the helm.

And even that relatively monochromatic late-night world is about to get a makeover. Starting in January, Larry Wilmore, once the “Senior Black Correspondent” for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” helms his own Comedy Central show. “The Minority Report With Larry Wilmore” will go head-to-head with “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” and CBS’ “Late Show” as soon to be reconfigured under Stephen Colbert.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Get ready for Romney


THIS WEEK, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gave Fox News a seemingly comprehensive statement of his non-interest in pursuing another run for the presidency in 2016. “I'm not running and not planning on running,” Romney said, in what may be the most sweeping denial non-denial of presidential ambition we’ve heard in some time.

Don’t you believe it. Not a word of it.

For reasons that have as much to do with the paucity of the current GOP field of contenders as with Romney’s own undying ambitions — and the relentless march of his own life calendar — a 2016 bid by the former governor is all but certain. That’s not a venturesome forecast, and it’s certainly been made before. But every Romney avowal of non-interest is accompanied by another Romney position paper on this or that. There’s a pattern quickly developing, and it’s one that will continue until the moment he declares. Watch and see.

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Romney’s sitdown with “Fox News Sunday” is one of several leading indicators of where things are going for the former CEO of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Salt Lake City Olympics. In a wide-ranging interview, Romney spoke about the persistent U.S. unemployment situation and foreign policy problems, blaming Obama all the way. “He’s too busy on the golf course. I don’t know if you can see the reality from the fairway, but he doesn’t see reality," Romney said Sunday.

Then there was the other interview he had, on Wednesday, with Greta Van Susteren on his familiar Fox News turf, just before President Obama spoke on the U.S. strategy for dealing with ISIS.

Romney came out swinging, lambasting Obama for not following through on his foreign policy initiatives. “People have come to see in the president someone who speaks eloquently and often times definitively, but doesn't follow through,” Romney said. “So there will be a great deal of discounting behind his words but then people are going to look for action.”

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THE FAILED 2012 presidential candidate said Obama's policies “have put us in a place of danger unlike anything we knew.”

“It's almost hard to imagine how the president's foreign policy could have been worse as it relates to keeping America safe from jihadists having territories and funds from which they can attack America,” Romney said. And Romney had already lit into Obama days earlier, in a hawkish Sept. 4 op-ed in The Washington Post.

All of it points to someone who, principled and thoughtful denials aside, is rhetorically and optically poising himself to throw his mink-lined fedora into the 2016 presidential race.

Never one to miss the main chance, Romney has been picking his spots and laying in the cut, just watching for his opportunity, and with good reason. Fact is, 2016 may be the best chance he’s ever had, and the best he’s ever going to get. That’s true for several reasons.



Consider: the purportedly smart money (or at least the early money) is on the GOP recapturing the Senate this November. If that happens, and nothing untoward occurs to upend the math in the House, the stage would be set for (the horror!) Republican domination of Congress. It wouldn’t do a thing for most of the country; it’d be a flat-out disaster for everyday people. But with Pantone-red Republicans running the legislative table for the last two years of the Obama presidency, Romney could count on a big assist from senators and congresspeople predisposed to do all they could on Capitol Hill to help ensure a Romney win.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Poker player in chief:
The Obama ISIS strategy speech


ON THE EVE of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that ushered this nation into two wars, President Obama spoke for fifteen minutes from the White House and appeared to set the pretext for the United States getting into another one.

In his Wednesday address, the president hit all the expected high notes; the speech was tough yet charitable, reasoned and passionate, and properly characterized the ISIS terrorist organization for the threat it truly is, for Iraq, Syria and other states in the Middle East. The broad strokes he laid out for his strategy for ISIS’ obliteration were generally persuasive; the outline seemed solid enough. Now, of course, it’s a matter of filling in the details. And that’s where questions arise.

The president made clear his stated preference for getting countries in the region to do their fair share of the dirty work of fighting ISIS from the ground. “American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves,” he said. “Nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region.”


Read the president’s ISIS strategy speech in full


“So tonight, with a new Iraqi government in place, and following consultations with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat,” Obama said. “Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.”

“We will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists. Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions, so that we’re hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense,” Obama said.

“Moreover, I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

But later in the speech, Obama — forgive the metaphor — dropped the bomb that will resonate for Americans as much or more than anything else said Wednesday night.

“In June, I deployed several hundred American service members to Iraq to assess how we can best support Iraqi Security Forces,” he said. “Now that those teams have completed their work — and Iraq has formed a government — we will send an additional 475 service members to Iraq. As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission. We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq. But they are needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.”

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THE PRESIDENT also said the United States would seek to assist the Syrian opposition in its fight against ISIS with training and financial assistance. “In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people; a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.”

The U.S. will also continue humanitarian aid “to innocent civilians who have been displaced by this terrorist organization. This includes Sunni and Shia Muslims who are at grave risk, as well as tens of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities,” the president said.

For all its muscular language, Obama’s address aroused as many concerns as it sought to provide answers. At one point, the president said that “[t]his strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” This suggests that the Obama White House believes the U.S. anti-terrorist strategy in Yemen and Somalia — targeted air strikes in support of established governments working in concert with the U.S. military — could be seamlessly superimposed on the far different situations in Iraq and Syria. A surmise at best.

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And then there were the words of the address itself. Obama used the word “partners” seven times in the 15-minute speech. He spoke of enlisting “a broad coalition” without naming what countries — in the region and elsewhere — would be in that coalition. So, who’s signing on for this gig? Which states in the 22-member Arab League have already committed? What about partners in Europe? Was Obama speaking generally of confirmed coalition associates, or just players to be named later? That lack of specificity invites the suspicion that this coalition is still very much in the aborning stage. Details to follow.

The road to war is sometimes, even often, paved with unintended consequences. The prospect of U.S. action in Syria opens at least the possibility of a zero-sum-game dilemma, one Obama hasn’t addressed (at least not yet): How is it possible, in real-world terms, to “degrade” ISIS in Syria without enhancing the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus?

“We do not think that our efforts in Syria will provide an opening to Assad because frankly, the areas where ISIL has a stronghold in Syria would simply not accept Assad's rule," a senior administration official told Sam Stein of The Huffington Post. “These are Sunni majority areas in the eastern part of the country. We frankly believe that if ISIL degraded in these areas, the forces that are most likely to benefit are other opposition elements, particularly the legitimate Syrian opposition whom we work with.”

Perhaps. A lot depends on the integrity of those opposition forces, and their fighting capability as fortified, or not, by U.S. financial aid, which depends on Congress’ willingness to open the national wallet. Details to follow.

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ONE OF the more pressing matters — the introduction of more U.S. military personnel being sent to Iraq — was addressed by someone in a position to know. Speaking Wednesday night on MSNBC, in what amounted to a powerful State of the Veterans Address, Paul Rieckhoff, president of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, lamented what he called “a lack of clarity” in the president’s address.

Rieckhoff, an Iraq war vet, took issue with Obama’s assurance that the 475 more forces to be introduced in Iraq would be strictly non-combatants. “It’s combat,” he said. “if you’re on the ground right now, if it’s your husband or wife or son or daughter that’s headed over there with those 475 people, it’s combat. If they’re killed in action, it will be just like combat for them, and for our nation.”

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Obama and ISIS:
Preview to a walk on the high wire


THE FEATS of the Flying Wallendas are a walk in the park compared with what President Obama has to do tonight. The legendary aerialists’ accomplishments on the high wire were impressive, but in a televised prime-time address to the nation tonight, the president will be called on to perform a balancing act that’s more profoundly difficult.

Tonight at 9 pm ET, Obama will make the case for a more aggressive military posture against the ISIS terrorist fighters rampaging through Iraq and Syria. He’ll seek to adopt a plan that commits the U.S. armed forces to a battle in Iraq and Syria that doesn’t include troops actually being on Syrian or Iraqi soil (consistent with his own flat-out rejection of boots on the ground). He’ll presumably clarify his call for a coalition of regional entities doing the heaviest lifting in combat, despite persistent doubts that those forces will be enough to get the job done.

And the president who said, about a week ago, that he didn’t have a strategy for fighting ISIS will have to convince the American public that he has one now, as well as the ability to follow through on whatever plan he devises. And this in the face of cratering approval numbers for his handling of foreign policy — approval numbers that could have a follow-on impact on Democrats in November.

Obama will have to summon an equipoise, and communicate an urgency he’s never had to call on before, at what may be the most critical juncture of his presidency.

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The president can take some comfort in some of the results of a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that finds 74 percent of Americans support a harder military stance against ISIS, with either air strikes alone or air strikes in combination with combat forces. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll found 71 percent support for air strikes against the wildly metastasizing ISIS force. Both numbers reflect broad outrage over ISIS’ murders of two American journalists.

But more generally, he’s up against other numbers in the NBC/WSJ survey: 67 percent of Americans think the country is on the “wrong track,” and only 32 percent approve of his stewardship of U.S. foreign policy — an all-time low for the president.

Even worse, and more surprising, that poll determined that 47 percent of Americans think the United States is “less safe” now than it was before 9/11 — this on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the day that transformed America.


The picture for the Obama White House through a political lens isn’t much better. The NBC/WSJ poll found that 45 percent of the country prefer Republicans being in control of Congress, up from 39 percent last October. When you factor in the standing assumption that Democrats will be disinclined to show up at the polls in November, the president faces a political equivalent of DEFCON 1.

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THE PRESIDENT must be prepared to address three questions tonight:

First: What’s the direct national interest in escalating armed action against ISIS? With domestic measures against possible terrorism at a high level — anyone who’s been to an American airport in the last ten years knows this already — it may be hard to dramatically communicate the direct threat ISIS poses to the United States. Despite the new poll numbers indicating support for more military action, Obama still needs to spell out just what’s at stake for a war-exhausted nation, and to do so in clear, unambiguous terms that keep the country focused on the challenge.

Second: What’s the goal? Support for American action in the region, strong right now, could wither without a firm timetable for our involvement. The president needs to set a feasible time frame, even a provisional one, that establishes a beginning and an end for what the United States does. There’s little patience for another open-ended misadventure, and there’s something wrong if the world’s pre-eminent military force can’t be the timekeeper for an action of its own design.

Third: Will this be a truly coalitional effort? After years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this country has had a belly-full of war over the last dozen years. With countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan; Lebanon, Turkey and others mostly sitting on the sidelines in the past, the American public’s justifiably wary of a situation where Lucy moves the football just as Charlie Brown gets ready to kick it — a bait-and-switch that leaves the United States once again doing the grunt work with little or no participation from the countries in the region with the most to lose. Just because other countries with skin in the game can’t do everything, militarily speaking, is no justification for their being expected to do nothing.

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There’s indication Obama is moving on this last matter. Reuters reported Tuesday that the United States has circulated a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council resolution that, Reuters says, “generally targets foreign extremist fighters traveling to conflicts anywhere in the world,” with an unstated but obvious emphasis on the ISIS organization in Iraq and Syria. Obama will chair a meeting at the U.N. on Sept. 24 to address this.

It’s rare, or at least infrequent, when events foreign and domestic come to a head at almost the same time in a way that has the potential to define an American presidency. President Obama faces just such a time right now. How he responds to this conjunction of crisis and opportunity may well determine the arc of the last two years of his time in the White House. What he says tonight should make clear, like nothing else can, just what that response is.

The Flying Wallendas had it easy by comparison.

Image credits: Obama in the East Room, September 2013: Pool. NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll breakouts: © 2014 The Wall Street Journal. ISIS fighters: From ISIS video.
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