The week (July 14th): Nobody asked me, but…

As New York’s great newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon used to say, nobody asked me, but…

BOSTON’S TRAGIC BIG DIG TUNNEL ACCIDENT serves to highlight the incestuous relationship of Big Government and Big Business during America’s most-expensive public works project ($14.6 billion and counting). A concrete panel fell from above and killed a woman traveling through the I-90 connector tunnel Monday night.

In a tough column, Margery Egan of the Boston Herald quoted local politicians (Republicans and Democrats alike) who found themselves given the cold shoulder when they criticized the management of the project. Big Dig critic Joe Malone was told: “This is about keeping the money flowing.” And, as Egan notes: “And flow it did. To law firms. Public relations firms. Ad firms. To neighborhoods and small businesses upset about Big Dig dust and traffic. Remember “mitigation measures”?”

Sadly, many Bostonians were not surprised by the accident, nor by the news that scores of additional flaws have been discovered.

The Boston Globe provided a small window into the “No Show” culture of entitlement that has festered for years in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts public safety commissioner yesterday suspended 20 state building and engineering inspectors for refusing to accept cellphones equipped with global positioning systems.

Why did they refuse? The lame excuse, seemingly backed by the inspectors’ union, was “invasion of privacy.” One of the inspectors told the Globe that they “had a litany of questions that were never answered. This GPS says how fast you’re going, how long you took to stop and eat your lunch. The GPS is an invasion of privacy.”

A government spokeswoman argued that the cellphone policy “is about accountability.” ‘She added: “If you’re doing your job well, there shouldn’t be any concern with it. This allows the Department of Public Safety to ensure that taxpayers’ money is being spent in an appropriate way.”

According to the Globe, these are the inspectors responsible for “overseeing construction, as well as the maintenance of boilers, air tanks, and amusement rides.”

A WELCOME FREE SPEECH VICTORY as Apple Computer has decided not to appeal its rejection of attempts to “to unmask whoever leaked details about a still-unreleased music accessory.” (As CNET reported, in May, the California state appeals court “rejected Apple’s arguments that the independent reporters were not true journalists. ‘We decline the implicit invitation to embroil ourselves in questions of what constitutes ‘legitimate journalism,” the court said, ruling that California’s journalist shield law would protect the Web reporters.) These developments are heartening news for independent journalists, bloggers and all those exercising their First Amendment rights on the Web.

BRILLIANT FEATURE BY WIL HAYGOOD ON FRANK SINATRA, JR. in the Washington Post, “Frank Jr., the Unsung Sinatra: He’s Got a Big Heart and His Pop’s Voice, but Just A Shadow of His Success.” Nancy Sinatra got most of the press attention, and other than a 1963 kidnapping episode, (his father paid the ransom, although the kidnappers were later caught and convicted) Frank, Jr. has been out of the limelight.

Haygood brings us along as Sinatra croons in front of his father’s faithful fans, and, he tells us, stirs a few ghosts.

WILL THE INTERNET SAVE EDITORIAL CARTOONING? With cost-conscious newspaper publishers eliminating staff positions for editorial cartoonists, it seems the only growth prospects for the art form center on the web. Daryl Cagle’s website is top-notch, and the Washington Post offers an interesting Toles v. Toles feature of Tom Toles’ published and rough-sketch cartoons. Now, Inside Higher has added a regular cartoonist, Matthew Henry Hall, in a feature they call “Teachable Moments.”

DON’T IGNORE BRUCE ARENA’S RECORD OF SUCCESS as he parts ways with U.S. Soccer and steps down as national team coach. Arena won at Virginia, he won with D.C. United and he won with the U.S. team (a 71-30-29 record, two World Cup appearances, including taking the U.S. to the quarterfinals in 2002.) Look for him to lead the last-place New York Red Bulls to the Cosmos-like Promised Land.

If Juergen Klinsmann isn’t interested, why not Steve Nicol, former Liverpool star, of the New England Revolution, and his assistant Paul Mariner, another English great? The Revs play an attractive, up-tempo soccer with a bit of an edge.

THE “DATABASE OF INTENTIONS” is technology writer John Battelle’s clever term to refer to the “collective history of Internet searches.” But as David Leonhardt of the New York Times noted in his article “The Internet knows what you will do next,” sometimes those intentions aren’t so lofty, as search engines have surfaced them.

Thanks to Google Trends, the mayor of Elmhurst, a Chicago suburb, has had to explain why his city devotes more of its Web searches to ‘‘sex’’ than any other in the US (because it doesn’t have strip clubs or pornography shops, he gamely told The Chicago Sun-Times).

I am not making this up, I assure you…

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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The Santa Barbara Seven and the ‘audience of one’

Six editors and a veteran columnist—call them the Santa Barbara Seven*—have left the Santa Barbara News-Press in a dispute with the owner, Wendy McCaw, over ethical concerns involving journalistic standards.

“These are primary ethical issues of the blurring of the line between opinion and fact, editorial page and news page,” former editor Jerry Roberts told the New York Times in explaining the reasons for the departures.

A holding company owned by McCaw, the ex-wife of Craig McCaw, the “cellphone magnate” (as the Times termed him), purchased the News-Press from the New York Times Company in 2000.

A spokesman for Wendy McCaw claimed that the resignations had been triggered by her plans to increase local news coverage. Roberts, however, maintained that the Santa Barbara Seven left because of the meddling of McCaw, new acting publisher Travis Armstrong (who is also the editorial page editor) and co-publisher, Arthur von Wiesenberger (McCaw’s fiancé).

Roberts also told Editor & Publisher magazine that “the incident should be a warning to others who see a new wave of private buyers as the saviors for the troubled industry.”

“There is definitely a downside,” Roberts, 57, told E&P late Sunday, just days after he quit the paper he had edited for four years. “When you have one owner who is very wealthy and used to getting their way, you have this conflict between the audience of the paper and the audience of one — the owner.”

Some of the initial coverage cited reports that editors had been criticized for publishing stories that offended prominent advertisers; Roberts provided some additional insights into the situation.

Several well-reported incidents began the fractured relationship between owner and newsroom, Roberts said, noting the discipline of editors for revealing an address where actor Rob Lowe had planned to build a home and a short item on a drunk driving arrest of editorial page editor Travis Armstrong.

The resignations at the News-Press do raise a number of questions. For those of us who believe in objective-means journalism, it’s deeply troubling to see any newspaper publisher strong-arming journalists in an attempt to alter coverage, whether on behalf of celebrities or colleagues or friends or advertisers. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics suggests that “…Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know,” and recommends they “…Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.”

So you have to hand it to the Santa Barbara Seven.

They did something rarely seen these days in American business: they acted on principle. To walk away from fairly well-compensated jobs in their chosen profession, late in their careers, takes some courage.

They might argue that they weren’t really given much of a choice by McCaw. A professional journalist who takes his or her role seriously and is pressured to withhold or distort the facts, or slant coverage for the owner’s friends or cronies, either succumbs to the pressure (and sacrifices his or her principles) or quits.

If you take the King’s coin, you must do the King’s bidding—or leave the King’s service. (Perhaps that should be the Queen’s coin, in this case; one friend in Santa Barbara close to the situation likened McCaw to that other controversial Queen, Leona Helmsley.) To their credit, the Santa Barbara Seven refused the Queen’s coin.

That isn’t to question McCaw’s legal right to run the News-Press any way she likes (which may very well include destroying its credibility and running it straight into ground). She owns the newspaper. Some seem confused about this: The Ventura County Star, a newspaper located just down Highway 101 to the south, editorialized (“Journalism 101 in S. Barbara”) that while McCaw may have spent $100 million to purchase the News-Press she shouldn’t “be able to do with it what she wants.”

But newspapers are not mere commodities. When Ms. McCaw bought the 150-year-old newspaper from the New York Times Co. six years ago, she invested in a public trust.

It is a trust she has violated.

Not quite. Unlike radio and television stations, which license the public airwaves, there is nothing public about the ownership of newspapers. They are private enterprises. All citizens enjoy the same First Amendment rights as McCaw. If you don’t like the way she runs the News-Press, you are free to start your own daily newspaper, weekly newspaper, blog, podcast or whatever vehicle you choose to publish or broadcast your views. While I think you can make a strong argument that there is a bond between newspaper and community—a trust, if you like—it is a trust that has to be earned (not purchased or “invested in.”)

And as loopy as McCaw’s world view may be (she had the newspaper adopt a pro-vegetarian stance and editorialize against Thanksgiving turkey dinners; she insists that the word “blond” be spelled with an “e” when used to describe females), I think she and other independent private owners pose less of a threat to the future of newspaper journalism than Jerry Roberts suggests.

There’s an old saying in the newspaper business: there are two kinds of publishers, those who make money so they can publish a newspaper, and those who publish a newspaper so they can make money. McCaw seems to fit in the first category (as do most “ego” publishers who purchase publications after they have made their fortune elsewhere).

If published reports are accurate, and there are 57 journalists in the News-Press newsroom, then McCaw can’t be accused of skimping on news coverage to make money. Many newspapers chains operate on a rough rule of thumb of one newsroom employee for every thousand copies of circulation, which would mean McCaw’s News-Press has some 16 “excess” news staffers.

It is hard to generalize about private ownership and journalistic quality. The Manchester Union-Leader suffered for years from William Loeb’s far-right eccentricities; the McClatchy family, which founded the Sacramento Bee in 1857, published solid newspapers for more than a century. It can be argued that newspaper chains and publicly-owned media companies (those who publish a newspaper so they can make money) are more likely to encourage bland, “rock-no-boat” journalism for fear of offending readers or advertisers and jeopardizing quarterly profits.

It has been the great dynastic American newspaper families (the Grahams, the Sulzbergers) who have backed their newsrooms in publishing controversial stories (Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, the recent exposes of NSA wiretaps, international financial tracking and other government anti-terrorism programs). While both the Washington Post Company and the New York Times Company are public entities, family control has meant that these companies are run with more than profits in mind.

Wendy McCaw is not the first local owner of the News-Press to have strongly held views. One of her 20th century predecessors, Thomas More Storke, balanced civic leadership (pushing for Santa Barbara Municipal Airport, Cachuma Reservoir and the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California) with publishing the newspaper, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1962 for his editorials condemning the John Birch Society. (T. M. Storke sold the paper in 1964).

While he dabbled in Democratic politics, Storke nevertheless understood that his newspaper served the community (a constituency broader than an “audience of one”) and that readers expected the News-Press to report “without fear or favor of friend or foe.” He adhered to that philosophy during his long tenure as publisher; it is a philosophy Wendy McCaw would be well served to adopt if she wants her newspaper to make a positive contribution to Santa Barbara.

Full Disclosure: I worked in management at the Santa Barbara News-Press some twenty years ago, briefly, when it was owned by the New York Times Company.

*Editor Jerry Roberts, managing editor George Foulsham, deputy managing editor Donald Murphy, metro editor Jane Hulse, business editor Michael Todd, sports editor Gerry Spratt and “man-about-town” columnist Barney Brantingham.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Summer reading: Doris Lessing and “A Woman on a Roof”

Doris Lessing’s short story “A Woman on a Roof” transports us to a less complex time, to the early 1960s, when the roles of men and women were clearer, before the Sexual Revolution and feminism, to a time when “bourgeois” morality and patriarchy ruled.

Yet this deceptively simple story doesn’t seem dated, even nearly some 45 years later, in an age of “Sex and the City” reruns and “Girls Gone Wild” videos, because in it Lessing surfaces some elemental questions about male aggression and female sexuality, and about class and power.

Continue reading “Doris Lessing and ‘A Woman on a Roof'”…

Fixing the beautiful game

Yes, soccer (football to most of the world) needs fixing.

Not the kind of fixing that Italian club owners, coaches and players are accused of, but a reform of the game so that the cynical soccer we have seen in this 2006 World Cup is not rewarded and the open, flowing beauty of the game is highlighted. One irony of this World Cup tournament: FIFA’s clumsy tightening of the officiating, much criticized, is an attempt to encourage more adventurous football by raising the cost of (currently) cheap fouls.

For all the talk of this being a great World Cup, remember that Italy made the finals after a scoreless game (scoring on two goals against Germany at the end of overtime) and France advanced on a penalty kick over Portugal, 1-0.

It is very likely that the final between France and Italy will end up with a penalty kick shootout, which means more than a billion watching around the world will not see the game at its best.

I’ve watched soccer at every level now for more than 35 years, and I remain convinced that many Americans are correct in one of their criticisms of the world’s game–although for the wrong reasons.

The charge, of course, is that there is not enough scoring in soccer.

That, however, represents a symptom, not a cause.

The underlying problem is how the game is being coached and played; low-scoring games can be artistic. What we have seen at the World Cup, however, is often soccer for results only and damn the aesthetic consequences.

Watch the reactions of the top defenders when a creative world-class striker, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, say, nears the box with the ball at his feet–it is to mug him in what the announcers call a “professional foul.” The cynical calculation has become: better a free kick than a run at the goal by Thierry Henry, Gabriel Batistuta, Ronaldo, or Andriv Shevchenko.

That is understandable–economists would applaud it as a rational tradeoff–but it makes for some ugly play and makes it very difficult to score.

Some have praised the Italian team for yielding only one goal in the tournament, and that on an “own-goal” against the U.S., but that should not be seen as a positive. Italy has played much of the tournament with only one striker and has consciously set out to win through clogging the field on the defensive end.

There were some great signs at this World Cup of coaches willing to advance the cause of attacking soccer, of “total football.” Brazil showed flashes (until the French clamped down with smothering defensive tactics); Jürgen Klinsmann had the Germans playing an aggressive and attractive brand of soccer; and Brazilian coaches Luis Felipe Scolari (Portugal) and Arthur Coimbra (Japan) imbued their adopted national sides with an offensive mindset.

The Americans (one goal in three games), British (an excess of one-striker caution) and Dutch (an ugly, foul-filled loss against Portugal with a bizarre benching of Holland’s tempermental striker, Ruud van Nistelrooy) all disappointed with their less than aggressive play; in contrast, Australia’s Dutch coach Guus Hiddink worked wonders with the Socceroos by teaching and applying an appealing, wide-open approach.

What reforms would help?

Dramatic ones: a wider goal, a larger box (making more cynical fouls punishable by penalty kicks), an abolition of the off-side rule once the ball has entered the box, and a rethinking of the approach to overtime (perhaps beginning each overtime period with one less player per team?). These would all open up the game, allowing the artisans to dazzle and providing higher-scoring contests.

By all means accentuate what makes the beautiful game beautiful; for all the enthusiasm generated by football fanatics for 0-0 games, isn’t the idea to score? Shouldn’t the premier soccer tournament in the world feature offense and not defense? It isn’t hard tackles and flying elbows that we come to see…is it?

Those dreaded penalty kick shootouts

In American terms, it is “wide right,” the shanking of an easy field goal attempt in a crucial game (the stuff of nightmares for Florida State and Buffalo Bills fans).

Missing penalty kicks in a World Cup shootout haunts the faithful and often causes national introspection, and lingering recrimination. Italians still lament Roberto Baggio’s famous miss in the 1994 World Cup.

Like gallows humor? How about this from icWales:

HAVE you heard the one about the condemned man who was told he could chose his own method of execution?

Quick as a flash, the guy replies, “I’ll have a firing squad, with Lampard, Gerrard and Carragher shooting from 12 yards!”

You’ve got to laugh really, well, not if you’re a fan of the English football team, as once more they went crashing out of a major tournament via the dreaded penalty shoot out.

What about penalty kicks? Art or science? Should teams practice taking penalties? Or go with the flow?

Those national teams with poor penalty kick performances, such as the British, do have apologists who argue that you can’t prepare for a shoot out.

Injured striker Michael Owen has questioned whether England’s dismal penalty kick performance could be improved.

In training, you can bend them into the top corner but when you don’t know where your legs are – when you’ve got to look down to see your legs because you simply can’t feel them – it’s totally different. No amount of training prepares you for that. If you do practise, you’re not going to do yourself any harm. So if it does give you extra confidence, I suppose it’s worth doing, but I’m not sure it makes much difference. You can never remember what you did in training when you’re on the pitch.

Owen’s comments made me think of the controversy in Holland in the 1970s during the glory days of Clockwork Orange football over the question of practicing penalty kicks. The dispute is highlighted in David Winner’s Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer, (one of the better books on soccer I’ve encountered). Holland’s premier player, Johan Cruyff, prized the artistic quality of play on the field over winning and was skeptical that penalty kicks measured anything; his disdain towards penalties translated into a fatalistic attitude towards shoot-outs.

There are strong advocates of a more scientific approach. Take former England coach Sir Clive Woodward; his views are worth quoting at length (if only to capture the level of emotion!):

The extraordinary message I keep getting from coaches is you cannot replicate match conditions on the training pitch, that you won’t create an ice-cool finisher from the spot just by practice. Rubbish!

Try telling Tiger Woods he won’t improve his putting by working on the putting green. Or Roger Federer that training is a waste of time.

Here’s my solution: After every Premiership match, teams should hold a penalty shootout and prioritise the use of England-qualified players.

Make it realistic. Bring in a sponsor, get TV involved, ensure it is competitive and rewarded. Seek and find the elite penalty-takers.

You’ll soon find out who can take penalties under pressure and who can’t. Even if those fans who stay to watch are very quiet — and it’s better if they are not — the players will not want to miss. They have pride and they won’t enjoy failing in public.

The British newspapers have been filled with arguments by proponents of a “scientific” approach to penalty kicks, including several academics who have spent years analyzing penalties. The New York Times ran a story on some of this research and offered this nugget of wisdom early in the tournament.

If Coach Raymond Domenech of France is looking for a penalty taker, he might want to pass on his captain, Zinédine Zidane. He ranked 21st out of the 22 kickers who took at least 30 penalties, with a 75 percent success rate.

Domenech must be an artist at heart because he ignored the statistics and chose Zidane to take the penalty against Portugal, which his captain buried to advance Les Bleus (now touted as the hope of French multiculturalists!) to the finals.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (July 7th): Nobody asked me, but…

With another tip of the cap to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

AS WE LOSE AMERICA’S GREATEST GENERATION, we also see the passing of the last of the Righteous Gentiles, those who helped save some of the Jews of Europe from Hitler. The Associated Press reports the death, at the age of 88, of Jaap Penraat, “an architect and industrial designer who helped 406 Jews sneak out of Nazi-occupied Netherlands and withstood torture to protect fellow members of the resistance.”

Penraat had a simple explanation for his actions: “You do these things because in your mind there is no other way of doing it.” Sadly, Penraat’s courage stands in sharp contrast to the record in the Netherlands of collaboration with the Nazis, where only some 30,000 Jews (of a population of 140,000) survived. Had there been more Jaap Penraats, had the Dutch (and the French and Poles) acted more like the Danes, many more would have been saved.

The Dutch should remember Jaap Penraat as they consider the shabby treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the rise of Islamo-facism and anti-Semitism in Holland today.

SPEAKING OF COURAGE, the Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) has announced that its 2006 Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning would be shared by Algerian cartoonist Ali Dilem and eleven Danish cartoonists. The announcement from CRNI is worth quoting at length:

Dilem, a cartoonist in Algeria for over 15 years, has faced jail time and threats to his life more than once. Although under death threats from paramilitary forces and legal pressure from the government, Dilem continues to draw and publish in Algeria. He was recognized for his refusal to choose exile or self-censorship in the face of intimidation.

The 11 Danish cartoonists produced 12 cartoons commissioned by the newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Last September, the Danish daily published the cartoons because, editors said, there was growing self-censorship in matters related to Islam. The feature triggered a diplomatic standoff between Denmark and several Islamic states by mid-October. In February 2006, riots and demonstrations condemned the cartoons. Dozens of protestors from Afghanistan and Libya to Nigeria and Indonesia died in the resulting demonstrations.

The cartoons sparked a crisis in freedom-of-speech circles that reverberates today. Their lives threatened, the 11 Danish cartoonists live under tight security.

ENGLISH HISTORIAN ANDREW DALBY is arguing that Homer, author of the Illiad and Odyssey, could have been a female, citing “a long tradition worldwide” of women “as makers of oral literature,” according to the Times of London. Dalby makes the claim in an soon-to-be published book “Rediscovering Homer” adding: “As a working hypothesis, this helps to explain certain features in which these epics are better — more subtle, more complex, more universal — than most others.”

Cambridge University’s Anthony Snodgrass, an archaeology professor, concedes that the Odyssey could have been written by a woman, because “a world at peace in general terms, with domesticity, fidelity . . . endurance and determination rather than aggression,” but calls the idea far-fetched for the Iliad with its “endless fighting and killings.”

Peter Stothard of the Times notes that the 19th century author Samuel Butler also believed that a woman had written (or sung) the Odyssey (although his reasoning were somewhat more negative in tone).

I could easily believe that Homer was a woman, primarily because writing talent isn’t gender-dependent. A poet or writer, male or female, can depict the interior or exterior life with sensitivity. As with those who argue that Shakespeare was someone else (Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford), how about some evidence, one way or the other?

THE WEBSITE METACAFE.COM offers this rather clever commercial: I never thought the German Coast Guard would make me laugh.

JOHN EDWARDS, former Senator from North Carolina and the Democratic VP nominee in 2004, seems to have Hillary Clinton worried, “running scared,”or at least that’s what Deborah Orin of the New York Post would have you believe. She thinks the recent Washington Post op-ed by Clintonistas James Carville and Mark J. Penn entitled “The Power of Hillary” that touts Clinton’s electability represents a defensive move to counter Edwards’ surprising recent first place finish in the Iowa poll. Orin also argues Senator Clinton is tacking leftward ( “She hired a lefty blogger and cozied up to anti-war activists by pledging to desert pal Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) if he loses a primary over Iraq and runs as an independent.”) to try to appease Democratic left-of-center voters.

It is true that Edwards’ stock has been rising (and Edwards has been visiting Iowa); the National Journal‘s White House 2008 ranking of Democratic contenders now has Edwards in second place, behind Senator Clinton, displacing Mark Warner. (“Non-candidate” Al Gore wasn’t considered for the rankings.) Yet, it is a long, long way to Iowa in 2008…

DEXTER FILKINS’ REPORTAGE from Iraq (“In Ramadi, Fetid Quarters and Unrelenting Battles”), datelined July 4 in the New York Times, offers a disturbing, gritty portrait of embattled American marines in hostile territory. His description of the situation on the ground: “The Government Center in the middle of this devastated town resembles a fortress on the wild edge of some frontier: it is sandbagged, barricaded, full of men ready to shoot, surrounded by rubble and enemies eager to get inside.”

You have to admire Filkins for going into harm’s way to bring back the story; he follows in a long, distinguished line of war correspondents (Ernie Pyle, Homer Bigart, Marguerite Higgins, David Halberstam, Gloria Emerson, and many more) whose battlefield reporting reflected the realities American soldiers faced in combat.

IN PARIS, THE HAUTE COTURE fall/winter 2006 season has kicked off and Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune critiqued collections by Christian Lacroix, Valentino, Giorgio Armani, Karl Lagerfeld (Chanel), and John Galliano (Dior). Menkes loved the Lacroix, I think she liked the Dior and didn’t like the Armani and Chanel, but with the way she writes about fashion, I’m not quite sure.

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

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Summer reading: F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Babylon Revisited
The Lost Decade

Two F. Scott Fitzgerald stories—“Babylon Revisited” and “The Lost Decade”—have always been favorites of mine, and I think it is, partially, because they make me think about the grandfather I never knew, and some of the “what-ifs” in my family history.

These stories focus on damaged men, hard drinkers with Social Register credentials, men struggling with the consequences of their fractured pasts. My grandfather, Carl Stanley Flanders, could have been one of Fitzgerald’s damaged men. A larger-than-life figure who played football for Walter Camp at Yale, Carl Flanders coached at the Carlisle Indian School just prior to Jim Thorpe’s arrival, and made a fortune as a lawyer and investor—but Carl was a binge alcoholic who squandered his gifts with his drinking. His immune system ravaged, the “Big Swede,” as he was nicknamed, died of pneumonia in March, 1936.

Over the years I have wondered about the “boom-and-bust” arc of my grandfather’s life; unlike the upper-class protagonists in Fitzgerald’s stories, Louis Trimble and Charlie Wales, my grandfather missed his chance at setting things right.

In “The Lost Decade,” Fitzgerald introduces us to Louis Trimble, a man who wanders around New York City, entranced by its simple wonders. “I simply want to see how people walk and what their clothes and shoes and hats are made of,” he explains. Trimble is no stranger to the city; a native, he hasn’t left its environs in ten years—in fact, he has designed one of its premier buildings. But Trimble has been oblivious to its sights and sounds because he’s been “every-which-way drunk” for a “Lost Decade,” and has now only just emerged from his alcoholic stupor to begin to appreciate New York anew, aware of what he has lost and eager to reexperience life.

In “Babylon Revisited,” the setting is foreign, Paris (a Babylon of sorts during the Roaring Twenties), but the themes are similar. Charlie Wales visits the City of Light in hopes of gaining custody of his nine-year-old daughter, Honoria, and bringing her back with him to Prague. It has been three years since his wife Helen’s death (from “heart trouble”), and his own institutionalization for alcoholism, following a wild period of Jazz Age partying and dissipation with the American expats in Paris, and Wales is filled with remorse: “…he suddenly realized the meaning of the word “dissipate”–to dissipate into thin air; to make nothing out of something.” Like Trimble, he understands what has been lost can never be fully regained:

“I spoiled this city for myself. I didn’t realize it, but the days came along one after another, and then two years were gone, and everything was gone, and I was gone.”

Honoria lives with her guardian, Wales’ sister-in-law, Marion, and her husband, Lincoln Peters. Marion holds Wales responsible for Helen’s death; she questions whether he has conquered his need to drink. Wales tries to soften her hostility and bitterness by acknowledging the hurt he has caused.

“Family quarrels are bitter things. They don’t go according to any rules. They’re not like aches or wounds; they’re more like splits in the skin that won’t heal because there’s not enough material…”

In the end, when some of Charlie’s friends from the past surface, drunk and careless, it is too much for Marion; she cannot bring herself to forgive Wales and allow Honoria to go with him to Prague. Yet, we are left with the hope that Charlie and his daughter may be reunited at some point in the future (“He will come back some day; they couldn’t make him pay forever.”) We root for Wales to stay sober—he refuses a second drink at the Ritz bar—and we worry that Wales will backslide, even as he recognizes the stakes involved (“He wasn’t young any more, with a lot of nice thoughts and dreams to have by himself.”). There is a telling moment when the barman, Alix, questions him about the past.

“I heard that you lost a lot in the crash.”
“I did,” and he added grimly, “but I lost everything I wanted in the boom.”
“Selling short.”
“Something like that.”

There is an appealing authenticity to this conversation—it is the way people talk—but Fitzgerald gives us more. Alix thinks Charlie Wales has lost financially in the boom, but it is the loss of his family that is “everything,” and we appreciate the difference. Fitzgerald writes from personal experience: he understands the nastiness in a failing marriage (“…they had senselessly begun to abuse each other’s love, tear it into shreds”); he knows what it is to squander large amounts of money during the “lavish times”; and he has fought the demons of the bottle. Further, Fitzgerald understands, and regrets, the cost of “something like that,” even as he struggles (unsuccessfully in the end) to change his ways.

Whether my grandfather regretted his behavior remains unknowable. His drinking was intermittent: stretches of sobriety (and brilliance and prosperity) interrupted by binges. Those binges led to the end of his first marriage (a cause for scandal in the 1920s) and “splits in the skin” in the fabric of the family. I’m not sure my grandmother ever recovered. Carl Flanders entered into a brief second marriage and had another daughter, a half-sister who my father and his sister never met. He left very little money for his survivors, a rude awakening in the middle of the Great Depression; my father’s college plans were shelved (he landed a spot at the New York Herald-Tribune as a copy-boy through Ogden Reid, a friend of his father’s from college) and his sister, my aunt, quickly married a rich socialite.

What if, like Charlie Wales or Louis Trimble, my grandfather had been able to seek sobriety? What if he had sought to repair the damage from his past? To change? Such questions can not be answered, of course; alcohol addiction remains a difficult disease to manage, let alone master, and it appears that my grandfather was firmly in the grip of the disease. So the “what ifs” remain “what ifs.”

Fitzgerald lost his own battle with alcohol; dying at the age of 44 from a heart attack, the result of years of abuse. At some level, Fitzgerald must have fantasized about becoming a Charlie Wales or a Louis Trimble; it is a case of wishful thinking. Fitzgerald was attracted to the idea of redemption, of making amends, of somehow setting the past right. As a writer, he knew how appealing a story of redemption could be, and he relished telling good stories, even if he couldn’t make reality conform to his imagination.

Never a favorite of literary critics (who are often suspicious of storytellers with a popular touch), Fitzgerald has slowly been winning more respect as a writer: The Great Gatsby has found its way onto several best novels of the 20th century lists. Readers have continued to respond—Fitzgerald’s novels and stories have stayed in print. And other novelists, often the toughest critics, admired Fitzgerald’s smooth economical prose; John O’Hara once wrote to John Steinbeck: “Fitzgerald was a better just plain writer than all of us put together. Just words writing.”

This is the first in a series of Summer Reading: Short Fictions essays for Summer 2006. I’ve chosen to write about a number of my favorite short stories and their authors.

(You can find some of my own short fiction here).

The link for the reviewed stories: F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald”

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

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Haditha, Mahmoudiya and the Weinberger Doctrine

The dismaying news that five American soliders may be charged with the rape and murder of an Iraqi woman, and the subsequent murder of her family in Mahmoudiya, a town south of Baghdad, follows other recent accusations that U.S. troops are abusing and killing Iraqi civilians.

The reported crimes at Mahmoudiya, and the alleged murders by American marines of 24 civilians at Haditha, along with other incidents, are partially the reflection of an undermanned and beleaguered U.S. military struggling with a difficult insurgency. Coalition forces do not share language, culture, or (for the most part) religion with Iraqis and Kurds. They face road-side bombs, ambushes and sniper attacks: it is hard to tell friend from foe.

There are no excuses for what can only be viewed as war crimes (if these initial allegations prove true), but they must be viewed in the context of a military stretched to the breaking point. The Boston Globe reports that:

The string of military probes into civilian deaths has raised concerns that high levels of combat stress among US troops — many on their second and third tours of Iraq and facing an often brutal enemy — have caused more of them to break down under the strain.

Here is a difficult truth. Those soldiers and marines are on their second and third tours because the Bush Administration ignored the Weinberger Doctrine and commenced a war “without decisive force and clear objectives.”

The Weinberger Doctrine (enunciated in a speech given by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in 1984 and later advanced by Colin Powell), outlined six tests civilian policy makers should consider before U.S. troops were committed abroad. Since the start of the Iraq war, we have failed to satisfy at least two of those tests–committing sufficient military resources to win, and sustaining that commitment.

“Nation-building” and “peacekeeping” by an occupying force in a country riven by sectarian strife is near impossible without adequate numbers of “boots on the ground.” Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki had estimated before the war that it would take hundreds of thousands of American troops to occupy Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and assistant secretary Paul Wolfowitz derided Shinseki’s estimate and encouraged his retirement.

Sadly, Shinseki has been proven right, as Coalition forces have never established law and order in Baghdad or the “Triangle of Death,” as the region south of the capital (where the alleged Mahmoudiya incident occured). The New York Times notes that the Triangle of Death “has become a melting pot of insurgents, criminal gangs and lawless tribes. The American military considers the region a crucial strategic approach to Baghdad, with important highways running south to the holy city of Najaf and the oil center of Basra, but has never been able to establish control in the region.”

Above and beyond the horrific nature of the Mahmoudiya incident, there are other worries: are some American troops beginning to mirror the brutality, violence and lawlessness around them? It now appears, according to Associated Press reporter Ryan Lenz (who was embedded at one point in the involved unit, the 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division) that the Mahmoudiya rape and murders may have been premeditated.

Investigators believe American soldiers spent nearly a week plotting an attack in which they raped an Iraqi woman, then killed her and her family in an insurgent-ridden area south of Baghdad, a U.S. military official said Saturday.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said the attack appeared “totally premeditated” and that the soldiers apparently “studied” the family for about a week before carrying out the attack.

Bryan Bender of the Boston Globe interviewed Army Captain Bret A. Moore, a clinical psychologist with a combat-stress control unit, who saw the Mahmoudiya incident as particularly disturbing:

Most of the other recent cases of suspected use of excessive force by US troops against noncombatants occurred during or immediately after combat operations — including allegations that Marines killed two dozen civilians in November in the town of Haditha after a comrade was killed by a roadside bomb.

Bender quoted from an article Moore had contributed to Scientific American Mind about how the conflict in Iraq differs from previous wars:

“First, at no other time in American military history have service members been required to take such a defensive and reactive posture in combat operations. The anxiety and fear of not knowing if or when an attack might occur can be difficult to manage. Second, everyone is in harm’s way,” including support troops, “who would have been spared the emotional strains of combat in previous wars.”

The Iraq-conflict veterans I have spoken with have all described this same pervasive sense of anxiety; several now suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. A doctor who has served in the Gulf told me recently that the emotional scars from the war would dwarf the already considerable physical toll.

The cost of the Iraq conflict has already been immense. Add to the significant human and financial cost the damage to America’s reputation and that of its military as a result of Abu Ghraib, Haditha, and Mahmoudiya (to say nothing of the impact in the Middle East). In that context, it’s fair to second guess a President, Vice President and Secretary of Defense who deliberately slighted the Weinburger Doctrine and cut corners in the deployment of American forces. Who can argue that the U.S. brought “decisive force” to bear in Iraq? The Weinburger Doctrine drew on the painful lessons of Vietnam and Lebanon–it is a tragedy that those lessons have been ignored.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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