Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Irony of George W. Bush

Back in July of this year, 2006, a lot of people made a fuss when a live microphone captured a private exchange between George W. Bush and Tony Blair. The fuss came about largely because the President, though already established as something of a pottymouth, added a new entry to the catalog of his documented obscenities. Here's the key line:

"The irony is, what they really need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over."

As you may remember, the release of this audio prompted a range of commentaries. News outlets had to decide how their obscenity policies worked when the President dropped an s-bomb while talking politics. A number of commentators noted that Bush uttered the line with his mouth full, chomping through his words as though the chefs of the G8 summit had served him gristly cud. More serious commentary addressed the content of the remark, weighing the accuracy of Bush's characterization of the Syrian role in the conflict between Israel and Hizbullah. I propose that all of these angles missed the most important point to be made about Bush's comment:

George W. Bush does not understand the meaning of the word "irony."

Let's assume that Bush was correct that "what they [the U.N.?] really need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over." There's nothing ironic about that sentiment. On the contrary, it displays Bush's characteristically blunt cause-and-effect logic of diplomacy; in this case, one body pushes another, which pushes a third, and the desired reaction comes about. No irony, right?

Now consider this statement, made a couple of weeks ago as part of Bush's pre-election offensive against Democrats:

"You do not create terrorism by fighting terrorism."

Of course not! That would be ironic! When you have no understanding of irony, the word or the concept, it makes no sense that fighting terrorism (badly) can create terrorism, that a show of strength can create weakness, that the rhetoric of certainty can mask anxiety, that the public faces of moral self-congratulation can be overwhelmed by corruption.

Bush and his party have thrived on convincing voters that the biggest hammer is the best tool for any nail on any wall. The upcoming elections may be a referendum on Bush, but they will also be a referendum on irony, as many politicians of both parties now run on positions that assume the ironic consequences of Bush's policies and look for ways to escape them.

It may be that the failure of Bush's policies, by creating such wrenching tragedies that voters can no longer ignore the ironies beneath the President's unflagging certitude, will teach a generation of young people the notoriously tricky concept of irony. If so, the students will understand by example what the teacher himself does not grasp. How ironic.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

How to get serious about steroids in sports

I have a proposal for dealing with steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in sports.

I have the case of Major League Baseball in mind because of what I see as the scapegoating of Barry Bonds to cover up the more important underlying scandal that if Bonds did use steroids when it’s alleged he did, he did not break the rules as they stood at the time. Since a huge range of substances could qualify as "performance-enhancing drugs" in sports—can any among us explain why caffeine doesn't count?—the rule-makers must take responsibility for creating specific and effective deterrents.

I bring this up not to defend Bonds or to get into assigning blame for the outdated rules of a few years ago. Instead, I mean to illustrate the extent to which the lessons of the Bonds case do not seem to have sunk in. The rule-makers (in baseball’s case, the players’ union and the owners, perhaps in that order) still don't seem interested in writing the toughest possible rules.

Here's my proposal: define banned substances, test aggressively when reliable tests are available, and save samples in the care of a neutral, confidential agent. Then test retroactively as new procedures become available so that players can't get away with using HGH, for instance, by taking advantage of the fact that the tests haven't caught up to the drug. Then enact this rule: if reliable tests from two separate samples EVER show you were juicing, your very existence is stripped from the official records of baseball. No asterisks, no nothing. If we catch your HGH use in 2018, you never played.

Don't you think that would get in players' heads a little?