Thursday, May 31, 2007
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
How Bush's war bolstered Syria
Syrians holding national flags and photos of President Bashar Assad celebrate his reelection win in Damascus on May 29, 2007.
The chaos in Iraq has emboldened Bashar Assad's authoritarian regime and given Syria new power to meddle in the Middle East.
By Mohamad Bazzi
May 31, 2007 | DAMASCUS, Syria -- Thousands of torches rise and fall in unison as a chorus of voices roars, "We are with you, Bashar." The throng of young people heaves toward Umayyad Square in downtown Damascus, in a strictly choreographed ritual meant to show the world how much they love Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Behind them, a water fountain flashes with the green, red and white of the Syrian flag, while a sultry female voice sings from a loud speaker: "We love you. We want you." The scene is intended to look like Ukraine's Orange Revolution, or neighboring Lebanon's Cedar Revolution. But with the eerily synchronized torches, martial music and coordinated rows of young people -- all sporting identical white T-shirts bearing a smiling portrait of Assad -- it seems more like North Korea.
This should not be a good time for Assad, who has just overwhelmingly "won" reelection. The soft-spoken, 42-year-old ophthalmologist -- who has ruled Syria since his father's death in 2000 -- has been rebuked by a U.N. investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, which implicated top members of the Syrian regime. And Syria remains under sanctions and largely isolated by the West, its economy in trouble.
But Assad's power has been growing for an ever more apparent reason: Iraq. A few years ago, his regime was reluctantly talking about economic and political reforms. Today, its dominant message is about security and stability, which resonates powerfully with a population that has witnessed bloody chaos to the east and watched more than a million Iraqi refugees flee across Syria's borders. Syrians who might once have wanted regime change themselves now fear ending up like Iraq; the promise of democracy isn't worth the cost. The Baathist dictatorship offers security -- even as it cracks down on democracy activists and stifles the few small freedoms Syrians gained since Assad rose to power. By getting rid of one dictator, Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration has strengthened another one right next door.
"What happened in Iraq makes the entire region afraid," says Haitham Maleh, 75, a prominent dissident lawyer, former judge and former president of the Committee for Human Rights in Syria. "People don't want to risk foreign occupation, chaos and sectarian bloodshed. And the Syrian regime is playing on those fears. It was natural for the regime to be strengthened by the catastrophe in Iraq."
And what better way for a dictator to prove his strength than by organizing two weeks of mass rallies that culminate in an uncontested election? The May 27 referendum to grant Assad another seven years as president, in Baathist style, featured only his name on the ballot, with the choices yes or no. He garnered 97 percent of the vote. In the weeks prior to the referendum, the regime sentenced six dissident lawyers, writers and human rights activists to multiyear prison terms for speaking out against the government.
One young human rights activist, whom I've met frequently during my visits to Syria over the past three years, was the most dejected and depressed I've ever seen him. His civil society group has been suspended, he has been interrogated a half dozen times, he's barred from leaving Syria, and, like many others, he spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of more persecution. "You can no longer engage average people about democracy and human rights. They see what's happening in Iraq and they panic," he says, sipping an espresso at a Damascus cafe where he spends a lot of his time these days. "They don't want to hear about democracy."
Since Saddam Hussein's ouster, the Bush administration has accused Syria of sheltering Iraqi Baathist leaders and allowing Islamic militants to slip into Iraq to fight U.S. forces. But despite its harsh rhetoric, by now the administration understands that it needs Assad's help to stabilize Iraq. On May 3, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem during a regional conference on Iraq in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, the highest-level meeting between the U.S. and Syria in two years. Even though nothing substantive was accomplished, Assad's regime is using the half-hour meeting as proof that it can force Washington to negotiate. "The Americans are calling now, begging Syria to help in Iraq. This is how the regime sees it," says Marwan Kabalan, a political science professor at Damascus University. The meeting "has been used in Syria as a sign of huge success," says another political writer, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It points to a change in Bush administration policy toward Syria."
But after being ostracized by Washington and shunned by some European nations, Assad's regime renewed its partnership with Iran, which helped prop up the Syrian economy with cheap oil. Syria also strengthened its ties with militants like Hezbollah, Hamas and the renegade Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Syrian regime has allowed Hamas political leaders to operate out of Damascus for years, and the group's election victory last year in the Palestinian territories bolstered Assad in his confrontation with the United States. The Syrians were also emboldened after last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah: The Shiite militia's strong military performance against Israel reflected some of the glory back in Assad's direction, as Syria has long been a conduit for weapons from Iran to Hezbollah.
Assad is increasingly confident he can influence events in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon -- and Iraq. "Assad plans to sit tight and wait until the Bush administration is out of office," says one Syrian political analyst with ties to the regime. "He knows that the U.S. can't achieve stability in Iraq without his help. But just to be safe, he is holding other cards."
Because of the Iraq war, Assad today has another powerful card he can play: Iraqi refugees. Syria is now home to the largest population of them, with an estimated 1.2 to 1.5 million. Assad can claim to the wider Arab world that he hasn't shut the doors on Iraqis (as Jordan and Egypt mostly have) and thereby keep up the pretense that Syria is the "beating heart of Arab nationalism" that doesn't turn its back on fellow Arabs.
If Assad were to change course, expelling refugees en masse, or denying more of them entry, it could create further problems for the U.S. and the Iraqi governments. "Everyone is begging Syria not to close its border to the Iraqis," says a European diplomat in Damascus. "If Syria closes the border, we will have people setting up tents and living in refugee camps near the border. We would have an enormous humanitarian and security crisis."
Syria's role as a regional spoiler goes back to the 1970s, when Hafez Assad took power in a military coup. The elder Assad perfected the art of shifting alliances, stirring up trouble and keeping his enemies mired in costly battles, as he did with Israel during its occupation of south Lebanon from 1982 to 2000. When the younger Assad first rose to power, many dismissed him as incapable of playing the regional game as well as his father. But over the past seven years Bashar Assad has honed his skills -- and withstood international pressure and isolation.
"He showed that he could outlast all the leaders who were trying to bring him down: Blair, Chirac, Bush," says a Syrian analyst and writer who spent more than 10 years in prison during the elder Assad's rule. "They did their best to bring him down, but they failed. So he grew more confident and authoritarian."
When Assad became president in 2000, he promised change. There was a short period of openness, known as the "Damascus Spring." The freedoms gained were small: modest gatherings in people's homes to discuss democracy and reform; writings and speeches critical of corruption and government failures (although never directly critical of Assad or his family); gatherings of small civil society groups, not licensed by the government, that focused on human rights and women's issues. But most of these meager freedoms have been rolled back since 2001.
The crackdown continues, and has included activists, lawyers and writers who once thought that they were safe on account of their high profiles or connections to the West. But the United States and Europe couldn't -- or wouldn't -- protect them. A week after the Rice-Moallem meeting, a Syrian court sentenced Kamal Labwani, a physician and leader of a pro-democracy group, to 12 years in prison for "contacting a foreign country" and "encouraging attacks against Syria." In November 2005, Labwani was arrested at Damascus Airport after returning from Washington, where he had met with Bush officials. His sentence, handed down on May 10, is the harshest imposed on a dissident since Assad came to power. Labwani's case was meant to send a message to opposition members: Don't deal with the United States or Europe.
In recent weeks, five other activists have been convicted and sentenced. On April 24, Anwar al-Bunni, a human rights lawyer who had criticized torture in Syrian prisons, was slapped with a five-year prison sentence on charges of contacting a foreign country and "spreading false news" that could "weaken national morale." Al-Bunni was among 500 Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals who signed the "Beirut-Damascus Declaration," which urged Syria to improve its relations with Lebanon. On May 14, Michel Kilo, another signatory and one of Syria's most prominent writers and democracy campaigners, was sentenced to three years in prison for "spreading false news" and "inciting sectarian sentiments." Three other activists who had also signed the declaration were sentenced to prison.
The U.S. and several European governments have called on Assad to stop persecuting dissidents and to release political prisoners. But to many in the Syrian opposition, the West's protestations ring hollow. "Assad's regime knows the Bush administration doesn't really care about democracy and civil society in Syria. They are using it as a pressure tactic to further U.S. policy interests," says the dissident writer imprisoned for more than a decade. "We know this, and the regime knows it."
Despite the danger, a few Syrians are still willing to speak out openly against the regime. Haitham Maleh, the septuagenarian dissident lawyer, works out of an office in a rundown Ottoman building in downtown Damascus. Despite being lined with flower-print couches, the greeting room is depressing, with fluorescent lights and a ceiling fan that makes a whirring sound like an engine. On one wall hangs a certificate presented to Maleh last year by the Dutch foreign minister: the Geuzen Medal, named after the 16th-century Dutch dissidents who fought against Spanish domination. Maleh couldn't attend the ceremony -- the regime has banned him from traveling -- but he hands out reproductions of the certificate on a postcard bearing his motto, "Together for Freedom and Legitimacy."
When I visited, he was hosting two Egyptian human rights activists who had come to Damascus to monitor the trials of Syrian dissidents. At the end of the meeting, they asked to have a picture taken with Maleh, who obliged happily.
"In our meetings with Syrian colleagues, everyone introduces themselves with their name, where they're from, and how many years they spent in prison," joked one of the Egyptian visitors. "We're beginning to wonder if any of you have not been to prison." Maleh smiled behind his thick glasses and shook his head: He spent seven years in prison during Hafez Assad's reign.
"It is not possible for a dictatorship to reform itself. This is a dream," Maleh told me after the Egyptians left, his hands fluttering as he talked. He knew that his words could be crossing one of the constantly shifting "red lines" of the regime, so he added mischievously, "The worst thing about me is my mouth. I can't shut up!"
Maleh doesn't have much hope for the future. "I don't think we are ready for a change. The opposition is weak, the regime is strong and the regional situation is working in its favor. Most of the potential opposition leaders have been killed or forced into exile," he said. And along with them, so has hope for democratic reform or progress.
America is not Bush
George W. Bush at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga., May 29, 2007.
The damage the president has done to our country's reputation can be rebuilt -- by those who uphold our Founding Fathers' ideals.
By Sidney Blumenthal
May 31, 2007 | When President Kennedy in his inaugural address spoke of "a long twilight struggle," he signaled that the Cold War was the challenge and framework defining U.S. foreign policy, as it already had been through previous Republican and Democratic presidencies. But President Bush's conception of a global war on terror is not the Cold War. There is no consensus around its assumptions. On the contrary, its premises have been refuted by their own applications. The collision of Bush's fantasies with reality has stripped them bare.
The current challenge is not a struggle against a totalitarian foe.
It is not, as Bush has said, "the ideological struggle of our time."
It is not an ideological war.
It is not a battle against an enemy called "Islamofascism" -- a confected category that conflates Bush's idea of war not only with the Cold War but also with World War II.
Most important, it is not a struggle for national survival against an existential threat. Jihadism and its use of terror are, of course, a dangerous threat, but they do not, and cannot, destroy the United States as the Soviet Union could do.
From these false assumptions flow false choices, including the false choice between law enforcement and the administration's so-called war paradigm. Instead, law enforcement and military force both must be essential instruments, along with diplomacy, including public diplomacy.
Among the many consequences of the idea that we are in a war for survival have been the distortion, corruption and subversion of American law and the U.S. legal system, from the abrogation of the Geneva Convention against torture to the suspension of habeas corpus. The corruption is an aspect of a general hostility to and undermining of not only the law but also our senior military, our intelligence community, the Foreign Service, and international institutions including the United Nations and the World Bank.
The romanticization of total conflict has obscured the real one and the ability to deal with it. Projecting the illusion of omnipotence has fueled the illusion of jihadism. The more boastful the claim of our virtue, the more vaunted the jihadists' claim of holy war; the greater the claim of our limitless power, the greater the credence of jihadists' universalism.
"Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," Bush declared after 9/11, a statement that underlines the one made by Osama bin Laden in 1995, long before Bush spoke on the subject. "This is an open war up to the end, until victory," said bin Laden. Mimicking the terrorist leader's rhetoric does nothing but lend credence to bin Laden and the jihadists.
Public diplomacy is not about meeting and greeting, working the rope line, shaking hands or kissing babies. It is not a political campaign. And it is not about convincing Muslim peoples that we too are monotheistic. Public diplomacy rests on policy, and to begin with, the policy must be sound. It's the policy, stupid.
The greatest domestic threat to U.S. national security interests in inciting jihadism may well be the religious right in the United States. Its zealotry gives credence to the motivations of the jihadists that their struggle is a religious crusade. The political exploitation of fundamentalism at home justifies fundamentalism abroad.
The Bush policy has been refuted, but we still must cope with its consequences, and will have to cope with them after 18 more months of inevitable damage. The administration's assumptions have evaporated, but their precipitation remains. But just because Bush has broken things doesn't mean that the next president must rebuild those very things. They cannot be rebuilt because the cracks and fissures were already in the making. As the next administration picks up the pieces, it cannot put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
One characteristic of the Bush administration's false premises, and perhaps the one that has most damaged the nation's reputation, is that its idea of America and its notion of American exceptionalism -- Messianic and Manichaean -- is the only idea of America. But there is another idea of the country, which began even before the country was a nation, before America became the United States, a nation under law. John Winthrop said (and has been cited by Republican and Democratic presidents since) that we must be "as a city upon a hill." The next sentence is: "The eyes of all people are upon us."
We must be unblinkered and unillusioned, conscious of "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind," as our Declaration of Independence put it, with the sense that America never is alone or isolated - and not because we are scrutinized by others but because we understand ourselves and our history. America can begin to recover its reputation in the world only through self-recovery.
Editor's note: This article is adapted from remarks delivered to a conference, "From Terror to Security," held by the New York University Center on Law and Security in Florence, Italy, on May 26.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Yes, Prime Minister
Monday, May 28, 2007
Saturday, May 26, 2007
The History Boys
Get screwed for $82
Six months ago, the new Congress missed its chance to shift the debate on Iraq -- and to avoid this week's defeat on a timetable for withdrawal.
By Joe Conason
May 25, 2007 | In a political showdown, stupidity can be even more crippling than timidity. Unfortunately, congressional Democrats have displayed both as they backed down from their confrontation with the Bush White House over the war in Iraq.
It was completely predictable that Democrats would divide over supplemental appropriations for the war, which are so easily defined as "funding for the troops," and it is also understandable, if not excusable, that some Democrats would balk at voting no on such a measure. Such divisions may have been unavoidable, especially when the new congressional leaders had done so little to present serious alternatives to the president's policies.
The defeat represented by this week's supplemental vote can be traced directly to the Democratic leadership's failure to shift the debate six months ago. Looking back, the critical moment came when the Bush administration rejected the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group report.
At that point, handed the perfect bipartisan opportunity to demand negotiation and withdrawal, the Democrats stumbled, saying nothing of consequence. And Bush seized the initiative again with his announcement of a "surge," sending 20,000 additional troops into the Baghdad area and asking the public to give his latest "new strategy" a chance to succeed.
If there is anything the American people have learned since the beginning of the war in Iraq, it is to distrust the president and his advisors. Last winter, the cycle of new strategy followed by disappointment followed by still another supposedly new strategy had been going on for years, without noticeable improvement.
The first "new" plan proposed by the Bush administration dates back to September 2003 (several months after the president declared that the mission had been accomplished). For everyone who has forgotten that long-discarded plan, it contemplated a much larger international presence in Iraq, a commitment of support from the United Nations and a huge increase in spending by the United States. Only that last part, now expected to reach a trillion dollars or more someday, ever panned out.
Then came the next new plan, which sought to shift responsibility to the Iraqis themselves, by promoting local sovereignty and improving the capacity of the new national army and police force. Accompanied by wildly optimistic estimates of the size, competence, cohesion and loyalty of those forces, that strategy sank as violence across the countryside intensified. It included strange and contradictory diversions, such as the sudden decision to reemploy some of Saddam Hussein's old generals from the disbanded Iraqi armed forces. That didn't work either.
All that pseudo strategizing was sufficient to see President Bush and Vice President Cheney through to reelection against an inept Democratic opposition, but the situation continued to deteriorate after their second inauguration -- and so did their poll numbers. By December 2005, the administration's approval ratings had sunk low enough to require the announcement of a fresh "strategy for victory," in reality a mere repackaging of old, stale strategies. Even then, experts regarded the 35-page summary as "too little, too late." As for the Democrats, their leaders and strategists had nothing interesting to say about the war, largely because they were afraid that dissent would permit the Republicans to brand them as weak and unpatriotic. So they continued to say nothing.
Disrupting this political and intellectual stagnation, at long last, was the arrival of the Iraq Study Group -- with a bipartisan membership that ranged from former Attorney General Edwin Meese on the right to former Bill Clinton advisor Vernon Jordan on the center-left, and included former CIA director Robert Gates, soon to be appointed secretary of defense. Although the obvious purpose of any group chaired by James Baker III had to be the rescue of George W. Bush, the president spurned their sound advice before it even reached his desk.
Proud, stubborn and messianic, Bush acted as anticipated. But his foolish decision provided an opening for the newly empowered Democrats that they should not have missed.
The Democratic leaders' first mistake was their failure to educate the public about the real contents of the Iraq Study Group's report -- a short document that was nevertheless too lengthy and demanding to be thoroughly examined by the news media. Its most important finding was that there is no military solution to the American dilemma in Iraq and that the only way out of the quagmire is negotiation. Although most of the report's references to this reality appear under the euphemistic category known as "national reconciliation," the conclusions are clear. Any changes in military policy were deemed ancillary to negotiations among the warring Iraqi religious and political factions (and their foreign sponsors).
The report explicitly recommended that the governments in Baghdad and Washington sit down with their armed opponents to talk about every relevant issue -- including a date for the withdrawal of American troops. Only by negotiating a departure date would the U.S. and the Iraqi authorities succeed in drawing insurgents and militia leaders into a "national reconciliation dialogue."
Had the Democrats endorsed the Iraq Study Group report immediately, and linked future funding of the war to the president's full acceptance of its recommendations, they would find themselves in a different position today. Rather than being perceived as weak and divided, they would at least have identified themselves with a plausible alternative to administration policy -- and isolated the White House even further.
Now the Bush administration can turn around -- as Washington Post defense expert William Arkin predicts -- and accept the Iraq Study Group recommendation to begin withdrawing troops. After all the carnage and waste, the Republicans may yet escape responsibility for the most significant strategic failure in decades, because the Democrats hesitated and dithered.
Kelp-A-Malt: Skinny Girls (1934)
Fake subway map of LA based on London Tube
Friday, May 25, 2007
Closing Credits to Ernie Kovacs show
Ernie Kovacs was a pioneer. He was an innovator, not just in the field of humour but also TV special effects.
When Democrats collapse
After Jimmy Carter caved to the Republican noise machine and took back his blast at President Bush, it's no surprise the party wimped out on the war.
By Bill Maher
May 25, 2007 | New Rule: Jimmy Carter must be shipped off to Guantánamo, stripped to his tighty-whiteys and "waterboarded" as an enemy combatant. Last weekend, former U.S. President and current al-Qaida operative Jimmy Carter launched an unprovoked attack upon democracy, America and our troops in the field by telling the Arkansas Pennysaver that the Bush administration has been "the worst in history." And then he threatened President Bush by saying, "I'm going to get on a plane and fly out there and straighten your ass out."
As usual, we've been sucked into a phony controversy about who said what and how it hurt George W. Bush's feelings. Because when you hurt George W. Bush you hurt America's feelings, and when you hurt America's feelings, you hurt the troops. And when that happens, Tinkerbell's light goes out and she dies.
The Republican outrage machine is always invoking secret rules that liberals didn't know they broke. And apparently when you get to be president, they give you an employee's handbook titled "So You're Leader of the Free World -- Now What?" It tells you about the nuclear codes, where your parking space is, and to not talk smack about other presidents. But I was up all night on Wikipedia doing an exhaustive study of former presidents, and while other presidents have sucked in their own individual ways, Bush is like a smorgasbord of suck. He combines the corruption of Warren G. Harding, the abuse of power of Richard Nixon and the warmongering of James K. Polk.
I mean, who would you rank lower than George W. Bush? Nixon got in trouble for illegally wiretapping Democratic headquarters; Bush is illegally wiretapping the entire country. Nixon opened up relations with the Chinese; Bush let them poison your dog. Herbert Hoover sat on his ass through four years of calamity, but he was an actual engineer. If someone told him about global warming, he would have understood it before the penguins caught on fire. Ulysses Grant was a miserable drunk, but at least he didn't trade booze for Jesus and embolden the snake handlers -- he did the honorable thing and stayed a miserable drunk. Grant let his cronies loot the republic, but he won his civil war.
For some inexplicable reason Republicans have taken to comparing Bush to Harry Truman -- a comparison that would make sense only if Harry Truman had A) started World War II and B) lost World War II. Harding sucked, but he once said, "I am not fit for this office and never should have been here." So at least he knew he sucked. He never walked offstage like Bush does after one of his embarrassing press conferences with a look on his face like, "Nailed it." Bush still acts like every failure is just a friend he hasn't met yet.
Now, is it possible for a future president to perform as badly as Bush has? I suppose, theoretically, if we elect someone totally off the wall, like R. Kelly, or the reanimated corpse of Ted Williams, or Rudy Giuliani ... But let's be honest, we would have been better off over the past six years if the Oval Office had been occupied by an orangutan with a Magic 8-Ball. And that's why it's so depressing that when the right-wing noise machine pretended to get upset at what Jimmy Carter said, he did what Democrats always do and backed down. He said his remarks were careless and misrepresented and the sun was in his eyes and his hearing aid went out and he was molested by a clergyman.
They confronted him, and he took it all back. Which is what Democrats do. Why couldn't he have just said, "No, I meant what I said. And speaking as the first citizen of Habitat for Humanity, let me take out my toolbox and build you a house where we can meet and you can blow me."
If a Democrat who's out of office and 100 years old can't speak out, what chance do we have for the ones who are in office? Like the ones who are in Congress now who, emboldened by widespread public approval of their plan to bring the troops home ... this week abandoned that plan. You see, you don't get to become the worst president ever without a little help from the other side.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Anti-Drug Book about Latawnya the Horse
The Narcissism of Differences Big and Small
Freud coined the phrase "narcissism of small differences" in a paper titled "The Taboo of Virginity" that he published in 1917.
Referring to earlier work by British anthropologist Ernest Crawley, he said that we reserve our most virulent emotions - aggression, hatred, envy - towards those who resemble us the most. We feel threatened not by the Other with whom we have little in common - but by the "nearly-we", who mirror and reflect us.
The "nearly-he" imperils the narcissist's selfhood and challenges his uniqueness, perfection, and superiority - the fundaments of the narcissist's sense of self-worth. It provokes in him primitive narcissistic defenses and leads him to adopt desperate measures to protect, preserve, and restore his balance. I call it the Gulliver Array of Defense Mechanisms.
The very existence of the "nearly-he" constitutes a narcissistic injury. The narcissist feels humiliated, shamed, and embarrassed not to be special after all - and he reacts with envy and aggression towards this source of frustration.
In doing so, he resorts to splitting, projection, and projective identification. He attributes to other people personal traits that he dislikes in himself and he forces them to behave in conformity with his expectations. In other words, the narcissist sees in others those parts of himself that he cannot countenance and deny. He forces people around him to become him and to reflect his shameful behaviours, hidden fears, and forbidden wishes.
But how does the narcissist avoid the realization that what he loudly decries and derides is actually part of him? By exaggerating, or even dreaming up and creatively inventing, differences between his qualities and conduct and other people's. The more hostile he becomes towards the "nearly-he", the easier it is to distinguish himself from "the Other".
To maintain this self-differentiating aggression, the narcissist stokes the fires of hostility by obsessively and vengefully nurturing grudges and hurts (some of them imagined). He dwells on injustice and pain inflicted on him by these stereotypically "bad or unworthy" people. He devalues and dehumanizes them and plots revenge to achieve closure. In the process, he indulges in grandiose fantasies, aimed to boost his feelings of omnipotence and magical immunity.
In the process of acquiring an adversary, the narcissist blocks out information that threatens to undermine his emerging self-perception as righteous and offended. He begins to base his whole identity on the brewing conflict which is by now a major preoccupation and a defining or even all-pervasive dimension of his existence.
Very much the same dynamic applies to coping with major differences between the narcissist and others. He emphasizes the large disparities while transforming even the most minor ones into decisive and unbridgeable.
Deep inside, the narcissist is continuously subject to a gnawing suspicion that his self-perception as omnipotent, omniscient, and irresistible is flawed, confabulated, and unrealistic. When criticized, the narcissist actually agrees with the critic. In other words, there are only minor differences between the narcissist and his detractors. But this threatens the narcissist's internal cohesion. Hence the wild rage at any hint of disagreement, resistance, or debate.
Similarly, intimacy brings people closer together - it makes them more similar. There are only minor differences between intimate partners. The narcissist perceives this as a threat to his sense of uniqueness. He reacts by devaluing the source of his fears: the mate, spouse, lover, or partner. He re-establishes the boundaries and the distinctions that were removed by intimacy. Thus restored, he is emotionally ready to embark on another round of idealization (the approach-avoidance repetition complex).
Album of the Year (yep, and it's only May)
I've just spent the past 48 hours listening to the new album by The Bravery, "The Sun and the Moon" and believe you me, it is dope...the shit...etc. etc. I know the new Interpol album ("Our Love, To Admire") hasn't come out yet, but I haven't heard a better sound since "Antics" (and possibly Snow Patrol's "Final Straw"). And while it it's slightly more straight-forward and less retro than their first album (Also called "The Bravery" and yielded classics like "An Honest Mistake", "No Brakes" and "Fearless"), the songs are energetic and brazen. "Bad Sun", "Believe", "Split Me Wide Open" and "Fistful of Sound" will stay with you for a long, long time. If I had to describe them, they sound like The Cure, parts of New Order, the Kaiser Chiefs...and both the Byrds and the Monkees!!!
I don't know what's gotten into those New York bands. All of a sudden there are three or four that are creating some of the most exciting music around, including anything done in the UK. It'd be a real shame if I moved to London and New York becomes the place to be. A shame, but also bloody typical.
Also, I was beginning to worry that the 00s would be a write-off, musically. I mean, the first five years of the 00s were utterly uninspiring (Limp Bizkit? Linkin Park? Learn to spell, boys) but since 2004, I can name more than a dozen albums that have made me jump up and down: Hopes and Fears (Keane), Hot Fuss (Killers), Final Straw (Snow Patrol), Silent Alarm (Bloc Party), Fade to Black (Amy Winehouse), Whatever People Say I Am (Arctic Monkeys), Demon Days (Gorrilaz), Employment (Kaiser Chiefs), Antics (Interpol), Give Up (The Postal Service), The College Dropout and Late Registration (Kanye West), Scissor Sisters (Scissor Sisters), American Idiot (Green Day), The Bravery and now The Sun And The Moon (The Bravery).
Bad Sun (BEST SONG OF 2007)
We are liars
Like the summertime
Like the spring
Me are such fools
Like fall we are false prophets
And like winter, we are cruel
I don't know what's wrong with us
They just made us this way
There's a hole in you and me
That pulls us together
And I don't know where we belong
I think we grew under a bad sun
I know we're not like everyone
You and me grew under a bad sun
Every day you bring me pain
And we savor it like rain
We hold it on our tongues
Just like wine
Someday back when we were young
I guess something just went wrong
The two of us are hung
From the same twisted rope
And I don't know where we belong
I think I grew up under a bad sun
I know we're not like everyone
You and me grew up under a bad sun
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Bacteria for data storage
Japanese researchers are developing methods to store data as genetic code in a bacteria's DNA. As a proof-of-concept, Keio University professor Masaru Tomita and his colleagues translated "E equals MC squared" and "1905," the year Einstein published his theory of relativity, into the T, C, A, G genetic code and inserted it into a living bacterium.
From the Australian Associated Press:
Genetic coding is so massive that information - say, a Shakespeare play - can be stashed away somewhere in the gene without affecting an organism's overall appearance and other traits.
But mutation could distort stored data. Tomita says data are stored in four places in the bacteria so the data stay intact...
"Many people never even thought about storing data for thousands of years," Tomita said.
"This may sound like a dream. But we're thinking hundreds of millions of years."
L'Ultime Jeu De Combat
Teaching English as a Foreign Language, the Bud Light way. This made me laugh and reminded me of Carmen's TEFL days.
Monday, May 21, 2007
The man who made Gordon Ramsay cry
Marco Pierre White, the original bad-boy chef, talks about taking over "Hell's Kitchen" from his rival, his scorn for molecular gastronomy and kitchen rage.
By Alex Koppelman
May 22, 2007 | Marco Pierre White, Britain's original celebrity chef, is a big guy and knows how to be intimidating when he needs to be. When you meet him -- even if he seems to have mellowed into a genuinely friendly, charming man and happens to be nursing a hangover after a night out in New York with pals Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali -- it's impossible to forget that his fame is due, at least in part, to his temper. White is the same chef, after all, who once published a picture of his former mentee, but now bitter rival, Gordon Ramsay, crying in a corner after a particularly bad night in the kitchen, and routinely let problem diners know that they were no longer welcome by having his waiters simply clear their table, down to the tablecloth.
But while his irascible antics may have tabloid appeal, White's food deserves to be famous, too. In 1995, he became the first British chef, and the youngest, to win the highest rating -- three stars -- from the prestigious Michelin guide. In his new memoir, "The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness and the Making of a Great Chef," White traces both his rise from apprentice to rock star chef and his surprising decision to walk away from it all, leaving the kitchen and his Michelin stars. Now, instead, White runs his restaurant empire from outside the kitchen, and he is slated to be the next host of the British version of the restaurant reality show "Hell's Kitchen," which Ramsay used to helm.
Over breakfast at his hotel (and if you've ever wondered what a former three-star chef with a hangover eats for breakfast, it's granola with plenty of milk and some yogurt on the side), White spoke with Salon about why he gave up the award he devoted a good part of his life to winning, his opinion of the American food scene and why sometimes in a kitchen you just have to shout.
Why'd you write this book?
I think if you've been given a talent, you should show it off, if you've been given opportunity, create opportunity, and if you've been given a story, share your story. I think you have a moral duty to do that. And you know, I've had many chefs come up to me, young boys, and say, "Marco, I love your book," and that's good. But don't do what I did, chase something for 17 years I never wanted. It's a long journey, chasing something until you achieve it and actually you never wanted it. It's a very long journey.
What do you mean, never wanted it?
When I won my three stars, I realized that I'd worked for something all my life that I'd never wanted. I never questioned why, why was I chasing three stars. I never asked myself that question, because I thought it would give me happiness.
Why'd you leave the kitchen?
I'd done my bit; there was no point. I had three options, that's what I thought. My first option was to continue working six days a week, long hours -- I leave home in the morning, my children are sleeping, I kiss them goodbye. I go home at night, my children are sleeping, I kiss them goodnight. And I just thought, "This is not a life. I don't want to do this anymore, I'm not happy doing it."
My second option was to live a lie: Pretend I'm behind the stove when I'm not behind the stove. Question everything I've ever worked for in my life, question my integrity.
My third option was to pluck up the courage to give back the stars, and accept that I'm going to be unemployed. And that's what I did.
I thought it was interesting, reading the book, that you just gave back your Michelin stars. How exactly does one give back Michelin stars?
I made a phone call at the end of September, before the guide went to print, and I said, "I'd like to be withdrawn from your guide, because on the 23rd of December, 1999, I will retire from the kitchen."
So they pulled your restaurant from the guide?
No, what they did was, the restaurant, the Oak Room, which continued to be a restaurant without me, just went in as an address. The listing just says "The Oak Room, blah, blah, blah" -- that's it. And Marco's gone.
What do you think of all the other famous chefs out there who have left the stove but still "headline" their restaurants?
To charge high prices and not be behind your stove, it's against all my beliefs. Remember, my average dinner bill was $600. Eight years ago. That's a big bill. And a lot of people who came to my restaurant weren't necessarily rich people. It was a special occasion. Can you imagine: You take your wife out to my restaurant for dinner, and I'm not behind the stove. You find out I'm in America -- how would you feel when you've just done $1,200 for dinner? It's a sour taste, isn't it?
Does the quality suffer?
It can't be the same, can it?
You were out with Mario Batali the other night -- he's not really behind his stove. Is that something you've discussed with him?
Mario's not a three-star chef. Mario's told the world what he's doing; he doesn't hide it. Mario's out front, isn't he? What I'm saying is a lot of them hide it; they pretend they're in their kitchen when they're not. I'm talking from a European point of view -- I can't speak for New York chefs, really. I just think when you've got three stars, it's an issue of principle. Your name is above the door, you've got to be there. But that's me. We're all different.
What do you think of the American food scene right now?
I think America is very exciting. I've never seen anyone who obsesses about produce more than the Americans. Their love for produce is extraordinary. And that's where it all begins. Mother Nature is the true artist. Even when I was in Seattle, walking the markets there, just the pride with which people present their food, just the way they stack it and present it and show it off, it's fantastic. I think America, the future of America, is fantastic.
It's interesting, what you're saying about the produce. Because it seems like when I go to France, even in the lowliest shop or restaurant, everything is good, but here you have to seek it out.
Well, [the French] take it for granted because it's all around them. It doesn't ignite their imagination. In America, the produce ignites the imagination. I'm sure when you go to France, it fucking blows your brains. They're not sitting on their laurels, the French. They're just so fucking good at what they do -- it's like a three-star restaurant, it doesn't have to change. Working in a restaurant which wins three stars is exciting, [but so is moving] from one, two and three. And it's like America in the world of gastronomy is somewhere that's just won its second Michelin star or its first Michelin star. They're fighting, they want to improve.
The hunger of your chefs, your young boys, is extraordinary. I was at a book signing the other night, and I see these young chefs with pale faces, looking anemic. When I shake their hands I can feel their calluses. You can see they're tired. You don't really see that in England anymore. It's a different world. They give themselves, those young boys. I didn't have to ask them if they were chefs, I could just see it. Just look at the eyes, just look at the lines in their faces. It's a cook's life. And the Americans are living that gastronomic dream at this point in time. Americans, I've always said, they sit in your restaurant, and they want to talk. They're inquisitive. They're not just there for dinner, they're buying into the whole dream. Over the years I've cooked for many, many Americans, and their thirst for knowledge, their thirst to understand, to meet you, is enormous.
Is there anyone working in the States who's doing something that you particularly like or dislike?
I went to Chicago, and I went to Alinea. The boy there [chef Grant Achatz] has got extraordinary technical ability. This boy, I believe, can win three stars in the Michelin guide. But do I want to sit in that environment, where I'm dictated to? No. I'm told these are my two choices, 12 courses or 24 courses. It's not my thing. It's just too much; I get bored by it. You just lose your place. It's like having six bottles of Cheval Blanc. In the end, you forget, and think, "What have I drank?' It's a bit too much of an indulgence.
I'm very happy with two great courses, with my freebies and my little amuse gueule, the little things like that. It's enough for me. And then give me a pudding, and then I can go home. But [Achatz] has extraordinary talent, and he'd be a really interesting person to watch develop over the years, as he loosens up within himself and grows as a person. It's like watching a great artist, how his style changes and how he develops. Once this boy loosens up, I think he'll be amazing. I think his obsessiveness and his work are just extraordinary. I can relate to him.
But when I was in Chicago, I also went to Hot Doug's, and it's amazing. There's a queue like you've never seen. Doug [Sohn, the owner] has got one eye on the kitchen, one eye on the room, and he's taking their money. I loved him -- he's an old-fashioned restaurateur. Even that one, it isn't just hot dogs. They are hot dogs with a difference. [Sohn] has a sausage maker, they work out the recipes -- so you might have a sausage with rabbit, with mustard, and with the onions and cheese on top. What a lunch! But you know, and here's the thing: That boy serves a hot dog -- and a great hot dog, let's not forget that -- but at 4 o'clock he closes the door and he goes home to his family. He doesn't leave anyone else to look over it. Interesting, isn't it? He has the same philosophy as a great chef.
You mentioned Alinea, and that brings up something else I wanted to ask you. What do you think of "molecular gastronomy"?
Not much. Chefs have always been scientists. We've been doing it for years, we just never branded it. Look at pastry -- it's chemistry. My friend Heston Blumenthal [chef and owner of England's the Fat Duck, a molecular gastronomist], I mean, Heston knows my views. He makes a veal stock in a pressure cooker, for whatever reason. He'll give me some scientific explanation. The difference between the two stocks? Zero. The stock is what you put in it, right or wrong.
Molecular gastronomy, I don't see the point of it. It's a stamp, it's a label -- let's get a few column inches, let's make it interesting. My wife's mother, without a doubt, is one of the great chefs. When I eat her food, it's the most delicious food. She has no training. She just had a childhood in '30s Spain; she was brought up by the nuns. But when I sit and eat her food -- delicious. Fabulously seasoned. Great textures. It's peasant food. What I love is it gives me an insight into the world that she came from. She's eating today still what she did as a little girl being brought up by the nuns. This molecular gastronomy, it's soulless.
I don't know if you've heard about this, but there's been a little controversy recently involving chef Wylie Dufresne, of WD-50 here in New York, and Marcel Vigneron, who was one of the chefs on "Top Chef," an American reality show. Basically, Wired magazine asked Vigneron to demonstrate a recipe for a feature, and he closely re-created one of Dufresne's signature dishes -- a "cyber egg" made from carrot-cardamom puree and coconut milk -- without any attribution or credit. Do you think a chef's recipes should be protected as intellectual property?
You can't reinvent the wheel. Everyone takes from everybody. How many people are serving foie gras on their menu? How many? How many people do a soupe de poisson? Go to France -- a pigeon en croute de sel, a loup de mer en croute de sel. We live in a world of refinement, not invention. It's the greatest compliment he can be given, this guy. If someone takes one of your dishes and does it, it's flattery. For you to get pissed off because he didn't acknowledge you is ego. It's all too political really, isn't it? I mean, we're fucking chefs.
Would you encourage other people to become chefs?
I'd recommend any young man, or girl, to go into the industry if that's what they wanted, if they're prepared to make that sacrifice. I think it's the best industry in the world. We're in the business of selling fun, a night out. Food and wine are just a byproduct. You could go to a great restaurant tonight, and if you don't like the environment, you're feeling a bit intimidated, it doesn't matter how good the food is, your chances of going back are quite slim. When you go out, you want to sit down, you want to feel comfortable. If you feel comfortable, you can be yourself. Once you can be yourself, you can really start to enjoy the food.
It's like Mario [Batali] -- Mario creates natural environments to eat food in, in my opinion. That's the first thing you feel when you go to Mario's restaurants: I want to be here. You can smell the man, can't you? Metaphorically speaking, he's there, even though he might not be in that one tonight but in another one. He's the best. He's the uncrowned king of America, isn't he? In my opinion, he's the king of gastronomy in America.
Are the rumors true, about you coming to the States?
That you'll be opening a restaurant here.
I had a meeting in Vegas, and I agreed to do the deal. I said I'll work on it when I get back. It's linked to gambling.
When will it be opening?
They want it for January. Like I said, it's a restaurant with gambling -- you can gamble while you dine.
Where's it going to be?
I can't say.
I figured, but I had to ask.
You had to ask -- I knew that question was coming.
Another question I have to ask: Are you going to be eating at the London [Gordon Ramsay's restaurant in New York] while you're here?
What's the point? I've heard very bad things, from people with great palates. And you know, it doesn't interest me. If I wanted to eat that man's food, I'd do it in London. It's where I live.
Why'd you agree to do the new "Hell's Kitchen"?
I think watching Mr. Ramsay on TV does a lot of damage to the industry, and I think it would keep a lot of people not wanting to go into the industry. It would make a lot of parents form the opinion that this was not a good world for their child to go into, and, you know, kitchens are wonderful places. They're special places, and I think if the viewers are going to see a kitchen, then they should have a true insight of what a kitchen is like. OK, it's going to be 10 celebrities; their cooking abilities are limited, but that's fine. I'm there to inspire people, not belittle people. It's got to be educational, inspirational, interesting, because if it's not, what's it all mean?
But when you were in the kitchen, you had something of a reputation for being ...
I was hard. Very hard. But remember, I could set foot into a kitchen without having to raise my voice. That's the difference. Most people are scared when I walk into a kitchen. I'm quite a big guy. I taught myself how to cast my presence, and when you shout or raise your voice, it's all to keep them concentrated, doing the job, don't stray. What do most chefs start doing? They start yelling at 8:30, 9 o'clock, don't they? Why? Because they've lost control. Illogical. As soon as you've lost control, they know you've lost control, right or wrong. Shout from the beginning, keep pushing them. It's got to penetrate them.
What about on the other side of the house, when you kicked people out of the dining room?
I never kicked people out. I asked them to leave. We didn't want their money, we didn't want them.
You're a waiter, a customer tells you to fuck off, pushes you out of the way, and your boss does nothing -- what do you think? He's saying the check's more important than you. [As the chef] you don't have that right; you have to look after your staff.
How many times have you been in a restaurant when there's a bigger table, and they're swearing, they're being loud, they're being rowdy, and you're sitting there with your girlfriend, having a nice dinner or other occasion. What does a restaurateur do? Number one, you have to warn them, ask them to quiet down. If they don't, they've got to go. I think of the whole room, not of one table. Too many restaurateurs compromise their position for the check.
Movie Spoiler T-Shirt
I laughed out loud at this. The simplest ideas are the most brilliant. You can buy this KILLER t-shirt here.
SAO PAULO, Brazil - He is arguably the best football player in the world, his brother plays in the Serie B and is as religious as he is, his father is still friends with his son's old teammates and his mother makes exceedingly good cakes.
Those are just some of the things that help explain the phenomenon that is Kaká. I watched Kaka come through the ranks at Sao Paulo. I watched him establish himself with Milan and Brazil. And I've watched him grow, both physically and mentally, to become one of the best in the world today.
During that time I've spoken to his friends, his family, his teammates and his coaches and no one has a bad word to say about the Milan midfielder.
Sometimes people don't want to criticise other players because they are afraid to stick their necks out or because they don't want to sound nasty. But the people who speak about Kaka do so with a real earnestness. Everyone seems to think the world of him.
That includes the youngsters who were with him when they came through the ranks at Sao Paulo. Kaka was different from most of the youngsters trying to make it into Sao Paulo's professional ranks. Many, if not most, were poor, dark skinned, came from broken families and lived far from the club's training ground in the impoverished suburbs of South America's biggest city.
Kaka was white, well off, had a stable family life and lived in the same Morumbi district where the club has its home. And as such he and his family were adopted as surrogates for many of Kaka's less fortunate teammates.
'Their family helped people who didn't have the money or time to go home,' Juan Maldonado Jaimes, one of Kaka's former colleagues, told me a while back. 'They took them to their house, to help them pass time. We'd play video games, play football, eat. Some players went there even when Kaka wasn't there. It was quite a close relationship between the players and the family. They are lovely people. His mother would make sweets or bake cakes.'
That stable family life is evident in the comportment of Kaka's father and brother Digao, who plays for Rimini in Italy's Serie B. They both look like Kaka, especially Digao, who is tall, pale and has the same toothy smile. (Digao is currently training at Sao Paulo while recovering from a ligament injury.)
Most noticeably, however, they are both impeccably mannered. As the saying in Brazil goes, the son of a fish is a fish. It means like father like son and Kaka is indeed like his father.
Engineer Bosco Izecson brought up his son to be a good Christian who values honesty and hard work. Although much attention is paid to the fact that Kaka is one of Brazil's few middle class footballers - and Kaka freely admits he does not fit the established stereotype - his father played down the wealth disparities and said he has tried to instill universal values in his son.
'What is important is their honesty and their character,' he said in discussing his outlook on life. 'Everyone wants to get on and better themselves. We lived our lives that way and Kaka has too. People helped us and we try and help people.'
That is not to say that Kaka has not had his problems to overcome. He suffered from a bone deficiency as a child that made him small for his age. He was two years behind his peers in terms of development and it was only his skill on the ball and his quick thinking that enabled him to play competitively with boys his own age.
'I saw him play as a kid and he was so small and thin but I could tell he had talent so I picked him out to play,' his former coach Milton Cruz told me. 'But he wasn't strong enough at first, the ball was bigger than his legs! One time he wanted to take a penalty and I wondered if he would have the strength to kick it all the way to the goal! He caught my attention, though, and he has shot up since then.'
Once he did cement his place in the Sao Paulo junior side he suffered another potentially crippling setback that helped shape who he is today. At age 18, Kaka jumped into a swimming pool while on holiday and fractured his spine. He didn't know how bad the damage was at the time. A local doctor told him he would be OK and he was back playing football three days later.
Kaka told his coaches about the incident but assured them he was fine and it was only after a couple of days training they realised all was not well. They could see he was holding back and sent him for more detailed tests. They showed he had fractured his spine. Every move he took during those days since the accident - including heading the ball - could have rendered him tetraplegic. And yet he survived.
Kaka puts that down to his religious beliefs - he is an Evangelical Protestant in a country that is overwhelmingly Catholic - and friends and family say his quick recovery from the accident helped him affirm his faith in God. It is not for nothing he celebrates every goal by pointing to the sky and thanking the Lord.
However, Kaka and his family are well-balanced enough to know that life is a lottery. Players need talent but the ones that do well in life, not just on the field, usually know they are very lucky to be doing what they do - and to be paid huge sums for doing so.
Scottish football writer Hugh McIlvanney once wrote that Jock Stein was a living negation of all those arrogant young men who persuaded themselves 'their largely fortuitous ability to kick a football or volley a tennis ball or belt out a pop song or tell a few jokes more acceptably than the next man is actually evidence of his own splendid mastery of his fate.'
I thought of McIlvanney's quote last week when talking to people who know Kaka. It seemed particularly apt bearing in mind the words of Milton Cruz, his former trainer.
'He's centred,' Cruz said of his best-known pupil. 'He doesn't think he's better than other people, he doesn't think he's special. He's humble and polite.He simply has a broader vision of the world. Kaka is the young man any father would love to have as a son.'
By Andrew Downie, for Soccernet
Sunday, May 20, 2007
The Heinrich Maneuver (INTERPOL)
All the subtlety of a sledgehammer, this show, and not as interesting either. The writing is almost comical..except not in the way they think it is. None of the characters have any dramatic depth and even Ari is coming off as a caricature. There's no pathos...no anger...no genuine highs and lows. It's like being at the mall...as a single guy, with your friends.
I'm too old for this shit. You're de-tivod.
The marriage industrial complex
Rebecca Mead, author of a new book on the out-of-control American wedding, discusses Disney brides, formalwear for pets, and whether hiring a wedding planner is ever a feminist act.
By Hannah Wallace
May 21, 2007 | If you've been to a wedding in the past few years (or have staged one yourself), you won't be surprised to learn that weddings are a booming business. Last year, the average American ceremony cost $27,852; the average dress, $1,025. If such figures don't shock you (and keep in mind, the numbers are far higher in pricey cities such as New York and San Francisco), maybe a few comparisons will: The median household income in the United States is $46,326 and a 5 percent down payment on a $500,000 condominium is $25,000.
Even more disturbing, perhaps, is how quickly and effortlessly the $161 billion wedding industry seems to have insinuated itself into every corner of the culture -- and how impossible it has become to escape its trappings, from diamond rings (which, before the 1930s, were not a de facto wedding accouterment) to wedding planners, bridal registries and glossy magazines that perpetuate weddings as fairy-tale fantasies. In fact, the extravagant, over-the-top gala has become such a fixture of American life that most people don't question it anymore. And why should they? If marriage is supposed to be a sacred undertaking that happens once in a lifetime, why shouldn't you do it wearing Vera Wang?
That's the thorny dilemma reporter Rebecca Mead confronts in her new wedding industry exposé, "One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding." Mead's obsession with the marketing of weddings began three years ago, when she wrote a story for the New Yorker about discount bridal dress chain David's Bridal. While researching "One Perfect Day," Mead made her way from Walt Disney World's Wedding Pavilion (where brides regularly spend $2,500 extra to rent the Cinderella Coach) to the ersatz wedding town of Hebron, Mich., and a crowded bridal dress factory in Xiamen, China. She also attended trade shows, hung out with newly minted bridal consultants and trailed a celebrity wedding planner, a "multifaith" minister and a wedding dress magnate -- all to illustrate the ways in which the industry preys upon both a bride's hopes and her insecurities by aggressively marketing products that promise to make her day "perfect."
The result is a concise but searing skewering of the marriage marketplace and the "Bridezilla" culture that has sprung up around it, written in the spirit of the great muck-raking journalists. And in the midst of reporting her book, Mead showed her personal rejection of elaborate nuptial extravaganzas by quietly having her own wedding at a New York City courthouse. She and her betrothed dressed in everyday office attire and, a few days later, celebrated with friends and family at their Brooklyn home.
Salon sat down with Mead recently to discuss Cinderella brides, the changing meaning of the honeymoon and whether a feminist wedding planner is an oxymoron.
At the beginning of "One Perfect Day" you point out that marriage used to signal that you were becoming an adult or herald the start of your sex life as well as your departure from the family home. Now that we do all of these things before marriage, do you think it's the extravagant ceremony itself that has become the rite of passage?
Precisely. It's amazing the number of people who say, "If we can get through this, we can get through anything," or "This is the first challenge of our married life together." And you think, "Jeez, you have no idea what you've got coming!" It's not like it's a death in the family or anything like that.
This is sort of a psychoanalytic argument, but I think that people need for a wedding to feel traumatic. Because it used to be a traumatic transition. You left your parental home. If you look at documents -- diaries or letters from women in 19th century rural America getting married -- leaving their mother was a very, very big deal. Wrenching away from your birth family was a very big deal. Now, most of us have done that years earlier. And to some degree, even those people who are living at home are still leading more independent lives.
But I think that people still need to feel that this transition is a viscerally affecting experience. Because being married is very different from not being married. I don't mean that if you get married tomorrow, suddenly your life is going to be different the next day. But it is a different commitment, as anybody who is going through a divorce will tell you. It's much harder to break up a marriage than it is to break up a nonmarital partnership. So I think people need the sense of "Wow! Something really big has just happened."
The purpose of honeymoons has evolved in a similar way, hasn't it? You point out that they used to be a chance to visit the bride's relatives and friends, and then they were all about sexual intimacy ...
Yeah, and now, if you talk to any couples or look on the Knot.com, you see that people perceive the honeymoon as a time when they can recover from the stress of planning the wedding!
It's brilliant from a business perspective -- it's as if the wedding industry and the honeymoon industry are in sync -- the wedding industry is like, "OK, we're going to wear them out and then send them to you."
Right, and you'll make a fortune off giving them spa treatments!
How did you become interested in writing about the wedding industry?
It wasn't my own wedding -- I got married long after I started the book. It just seemed like a subject that had not been done. I began the book with an article for the New Yorker about David's Bridal. I loved the story because it was about the way in which small mom and pop stores were being taken over, threatened, by a Goliath; only in this case, Goliath won. And those are always great stories.
Early in the book, you talk about an epiphany you had while attending a Business of Brides conference: that the emergence of extravagant weddings is not a repudiation of feminist principles but, in fact, a direct consequence of them. Can you explain what you mean by that?
It's interesting. It looks like a contradiction -- women in their 30s and younger getting dressed up like princesses to get married. But in a way, it's not, because it all has to do with the professionalization of weddings. Forty years ago your mother would've been planning your wedding, or your aunt would've been making you a cake, and your uncle would've been taking the photographs. There were big weddings then, but nowhere close to what it is now.
Weddings were traditionally part of the work of women within the household. I don't know if you're familiar with the work of Arlie Hochschild, who wrote "The Second Shift." But you know, women used to make their own dresses, cook, take care of the kids, and now we outsource all of this: childcare, cooking, even getting your eyebrows done or getting your legs waxed. Nobody does their own if they can afford not to -- or even if they can't!
So are you saying that hiring a wedding planner could be construed as a feminist act?
It could certainly be construed as a post-feminist act, though people so shy away from the term now. But certainly, we live in a world that is permeated by and saturated with the achievements of feminism, so we're all feminists whether we admit it or not.
It's astounding to see how many wedding "traditions" -- everything from the diamond ring to the honeymoon -- were invented or co-opted by the wedding industry and neatly repackaged as established conventions.
Oh, definitely. In the book, I mention that in 1939, one survey showed that 16 percent of brides were married in clothes they already owned, a third married without an engagement ring, and roughly a third didn't go on a honeymoon. Yet, those are all things that we think of as absolutely essential, right? And this was in 1939 -- not that long ago. Now the Association of Bridal Consultants says that 43 professionals are needed for the servicing of the average American wedding, and I think that's not including the bridal consultants themselves. So the idea that the weddings that we have today are traditional is a falsehood. You only have to ask any bride's grandmother, at a wedding, whether this is in keeping with tradition.
The invention of the engagement ring is a well-known and much-researched story -- I didn't go into great depth because people have written whole books about it. The idea of a diamond wedding ring being a token of enduring love was something that was entirely invented in the 1940s by this woman, Frances Gerety -- a very clever copywriter. She came up with "A Diamond Is Forever," which was called the best advertising slogan of the 20th century.
But some of the inventions that are supposedly traditional are so outrageous. Another very nice so-called tradition is the throwing of the garter. The first company to make bridal garters was in the 1940s, but [brides] weren't throwing them, and the groom wasn't removing them with his teeth in those days. But now you've got the double garter pack, because you have to have one to throw and one that's a souvenir. People do that with the flowers, too -- you have one bouquet to throw and one to keep.
What do you think will be the next "tradition"?
I was at the Great Bridal Expo the other day -- because I just can't give it up! -- which is one of those bridal fairs that go around the country and set up in Marriott ballrooms so brides can go and look at dresses, florists and so on. And there was at least one and maybe more than one tooth-whitening stand. When I was going to these fairs three years ago, I don't remember tooth whitening. I do remember laser hair removal -- but tooth whitening, that's new.
So you think professional tooth whitening is something that the industry is hoping will become part of the wedding preparations?
Yes, it's becoming just one of the things that you do, like starting to have facials the minute you're engaged. The stand was offering a discount if you did it for a party of three. The bride, the groom and the mother of the bride could all get their teeth done -- in the same shade, no doubt!
But in terms of actual traditions, I think the garlanded pets seem to be taking off in a very big way. I don't mean I've seen them at lots of weddings, but I can see that they're being pushed. Garlands or wings -- you see a lot of wings for the dogs, too.
You must have become a frequent reader of bridal magazines while working on the book. Which became your favorite?
None of them! They speak not at all to me.
But the most fun to read -- if you're not getting married! -- is In Style Weddings. The fascination with celebrity weddings is so huge. And there is something novel and very brilliant, in terms of magazine publishing, about the idea that you could get consensual coverage of weddings and product placement. I have sacks of magazines -- anyone who wants to know what sort of dress they should've been wearing four years ago should come to my house and take them away!
The magazine I most enjoyed reading was Vows, which is the trade magazine of the wedding dress industry. It's the other side of the looking glass. There are articles about how to sell wedding dresses -- and tiaras, and veils, and all the rest of it. One of my favorite pieces described how to market to the "nontraditional bride" and warned readers that this kind of woman is dangerously apt to "forget the wedding and prepare for marriage." These articles were often unintentionally hilarious, but also very chilling. People who work in the wedding business often appear to be very warm and sentimental, but they're salespeople, and the successful ones are completely coldblooded about it.
What do you make of the phenomenon of "Disney brides," i.e., women who plan Cinderella-themed weddings at Walt Disney World and rent horse-drawn carriages for $2,500?
It's the infantilization that one sees at Disney that's interesting to me -- the way in which grown women are sold the same princess fantasy that Disney so profitably peddles to little girls, as if one never grows out of wanting to dress up in tulle and wave a magic wand. The whole place treats adults as overgrown children. When you're in the Magic Kingdom, there are 100 places to buy ice cream, but you can't get a drink anywhere. And when I was there, that was really what I wanted! There's this very childish fantasy about what life is like, what married life is like and what the world is like.
The thing about Disney -- you can't believe while you're there that the people are doing this with straight faces. I don't mean the consumers, I mean the vendors. They won't let Mickey Mouse host the weddings because it's not "traditional," because it would compromise the dignity of the ceremony. But the company's idea of tradition, curiously enough, permits couples to hire someone dressed up as Major Domo [Prince Charming's footman in the Disney version of "Cinderella"] to serve as their ring bearer. Of course the difference has less to do with tradition than it does with marketing: Disney has decided to invest a great deal in marketing Cinderella-themed weddings: They'll sell you everything from a cake topper in the shape of her castle to a ride in her coach. They've even started selling wedding gowns inspired by Cinderella.
The cast of characters that you found for this book -- from entrepreneur Beverly Clark and celebrity wedding planner Colin Cowie to multifaith minister Joyce Gioia -- are at once both sympathetic and scheming. Did that surprise you?
These people think of themselves as providing a service that is needed -- and to some extent, they are. But they're also creating that need and generating the desire, and they're certainly aware of it; the best ones are very clever marketers. That doesn't mean they can't be pleasant enough to talk to.
This wasn't a book about finding scoundrels, although there is one or two lurking in there! It's not a surprise to anybody that weddings can be ridiculous and that people spend too much money and get too carried away. And I wasn't trying to expose some kind of deep, dark conspiracy. What I was interested in was how the wedding industry feeds into the hopes and wishes and dreams of the women, especially -- and what that says about how our culture works in a larger way.
You make the argument that spending lots of money on her wedding offers the bride some sort of insurance against divorce. That seems so irrational -- do you really think it's true?
It is irrational. But I do think it is a phenomenon -- not that it provides the insurance, of course, just that there is a belief among couples, and it's probably not even conscious and perhaps not fully stated, that if we're going to do this and we really mean it, we're going to show how much we mean it by going all-out, and having our garlanded pet come down the aisle and all the rest of it. This is the generation who has seen so much divorce in their own families, or friends' families, and there's really a desire to not do it like their parents have.
But on the other hand, one always hears these stories of people who, once the wedding is over, the marriage is over too. I mean there are people who need to get married in order to get divorced.
Let's talk about class. You tell one story -- about a Brooklyn wedding planner who re-created Melissa Rivers' wedding for a friend on a budget of $200 -- that I found really quite touching. Isn't there something positive about places like David's Bridal making luxury affordable to the masses?
Sure. But it's also just so ... pathetic, and I mean that not in a pejorative way but in the true sense of the word. Two hundred dollars doesn't sound like a lot of money, but it was all that that particular bride had. At the end of the evening, she had to tear open these gift envelopes of cash so she could pay the DJ. But of course people who don't have a lot of money want to celebrate. And if having a spectacular, warm, huge celebration means a lot to the likes of Melissa Rivers, it means just as much to that young Brooklyn woman. There's no reason why she shouldn't want it.
It's easy to say, "Why the hell not spend this money" and "Let's go all-out." But what's bad is if the whole culture of extravagant weddings encourages women to think that they have to do it -- even though they're not going to be able to pay the rent the next month, or even pay the DJ.
But that suggests that the bride is completely unwitting. Don't you think she has some agency -- can't she choose to reject the notion that she needs to buy a $1,025 gown or hire a videographer?
Well, she can say no. But two things happen if she says no. One thing is that she has to figure out what she wants instead. Which can be, as I found for myself, extremely difficult.
And then the other thing she can do is say, "Well, you know, we're just going to elope." But then there's the whole elopement industry. You can't escape! The so-called destination wedding business has grown out of people's desire to escape the big hometown wedding.
Or you can buy the elopement package from the vineyard in Sonoma County, Calif., that also includes the balloon ride. Then, there's the recent development of green weddings and carbon-neutral weddings. It's very small, but you'll get people talking about how they want to have a carbon-neutral wedding, so they'll be making donations to this or that company that will offset their emissions. I heard of one wedding where the favor they gave the guests was a packet of wildflowers to be planted. You know, you could just not have a wedding! That would be the most environmentally conscious thing of all. But the new "green wedding" industry is not going to suggest you do that.
Has a "Bridezilla" wedding culture sprung up in other countries, too?
I'm from England and I haven't lived there for a long time, but I hear that some of the things that we're talking about here are beginning to happen in Britain. It used to be that you could get married only in a church or in a registry office, but now the wedding marketplace has been deregulated. So people are having these extravagant country house weddings, as if they're the landed gentry. And weddings in Britain, like everything in Britain, are more expensive.
In China the wealthier, more sophisticated Chinese brides -- instead of, or in addition to, having a traditional Chinese wedding -- will have a Western-style ceremony, even though they're not churchgoers. Because they've seen it in the movies! Weddings are part of popular culture and America is the generator of that. The spread is inevitable. That's one of the things the book is about. American consumerism is a dominant force.
What was the most outlandish product -- which brides actually buy -- that you encountered while doing your research?
Probably this medallion called the "heirloom ornament." It's a pewter disk that's got a picture of a flower and you give it to the flower girl. The one you give to the ring bearer has got a picture of a cushion on it. The suggestion is that they will keep it forever and they will pass it on to their ring bearer or their flower girl. They'll use it first as a Christmas ornament and then they'll pass it on.
But the idea that you can buy an heirloom -- that is just priceless. You know, "I'll go into the bridal store and buy myself half a dozen heirlooms."
Do you have any tips for brides who would like to have less commercial weddings?
I'm trying not to be prescriptive. I don't have any answers. If I did, it would be a different book, and I'd be a different person. But you know, if there's anything I would hope that people who are getting married would take away, it is that they should think twice before feeling that they are culturally obliged to participate in practices and rituals that have no meaning for themselves -- and really only mean a paycheck for the people who are selling them stuff. I think a lot of people would be a lot less stressed and happier if they felt they were off the hook.