Thursday, February 25, 2010

Musing over the morning paper

In lieu of a single topic compelling enough for a post, a couple of random thoughts:

Health Care: I’ve been intending to write more about the health care debate, but haven’t been able to find a concise enough way to get at what’s wrong with the Obama approach. Now Steven Chapman has gotten at one important aspect of it, in his column in today’s Chicago Tribune. Democrats would always rather regulate than get the incentives right, which would be cheaper and administratively simpler.

It’s easy to demonize the Republicans for stubbornly opposing the Obama bill, and it’s legitimate to ask why they didn’t come up with meaningful reform when they were in power for most of the last decade. But as annoying as the Republicans may be, the awkward fact remains that on this score they’re right: the two-thousand page monster health care bill the Democrats want to pass is bad legislation. Congress should start over, scaling back Democratic aspirations for radical restructuring, and go for achievable, significant reform based on a few key ideas, like de-linking health insurance from employment and allowing interstate insurance shopping. There is a whole range of achievable proposals for health care reform out there at places like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, putting the lie to the accusation that conservatives have no ideas and merely want to obstruct progress.

But don’t hold your breath. We’ll likely get some version of the monster, costs will continue to spiral, and we’ll have to have the debate all over again in a few years.

Terrorism: In light of my post of last November 21 and some comments on it, I’ve continued to think about the best way to treat terrorism suspects. The question is whether captured terrorists should be treated as criminal suspects, with the whole range of procedural protections afforded them, or as enemy combatants, with more leeway for interrogation and the possibility of detention without trial.

I have tended to side with the position they should be treated as criminals, since that is what I believe people planning mass murder are; my thinking has been that to call them enemy combatants is to confer on them a legitimacy they do not deserve.

But there’s a paradox here: we grant far greater protection to the rights of criminal suspects than we do to enemy combatants engaged in legitimate warfare. If we’re at war and I can get the jump on you, you’re toast, and rights don’t even enter into the debate. Warfare involves a total suspension of rights, starting with the right to life. This is a good reason for thinking twice about going to war, but once you’re in, it’s the only way to fight one.

So critics of the Obama administration may be right to insist that criminal law procedures are simply too cumbersome and inflexible to effectively confront the ruthlessness shown by our jihadist enemies. They certainly consider this a war, even if some of us would prefer not to. However distasteful we may find Guantánamo, we may need it, the way we needed prison camps for Germans and Japanese captured in World War Two.

But it’s still an apparent refutation of our stated commitment to the rule of law and a debating point for our enemies to hold captives without trial for years on end. The Germans and Japanese were repatriated at the end of hostilities. How will we know when the hostilities have ended in the War on Terror?

I don’t know. I don’t think there’s an easy answer. And it should be pointed out that this is one of the evillest aspects of terrorism—it undermines confidence in legitimacy and provokes ruthlessness in response. But we still have to take on the tough questions. We may need Guantánamo, but we also need to decide what the limits are, where the line of demarcation is between warfare and criminality, and we need to make the case plainly both to our allies and our enemies.

International law recognizes the concept of criminality within warfare, and it may be on this basis that we can justify our handling of terror suspects. We can call them war criminals. But our commitment to international law has been questioned on the basis of our reluctance to support the International Criminal Court at the Hague. Can we insist on our right to pursue terrorists as we see fit while at the same time insisting that we are exempt from international standards governing the use of force?

Sam Reaves

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Football curmudgeon

It’s Super Bowl Sunday, and in an hour or so I’ll be sitting down with a few friends to watch the big game. If I can find any trace of it, that is, among all the hype and hoopla and commercial frenzy and overproduced halftime extravaganzas and general cultural trash that has almost smothered the actual playing of the game itself. It’s going to be an ordeal, as usual.

I love football. I was imprinted on the game early in life; I grew up just across the railroad tracks from the football practice field at the college where my father taught, and some of my earliest memories are of going with my big brother to watch the players bang into each other. That was a spectacle to capture a four-year old boy’s heart forever. My desire to grow up and be a football player vanished only after I failed to grow up enough, topping out at about 135 pounds as an undersized bench-warming high school halfback.

But I kept watching-- my father, who had gone to the University of Oklahoma in the Bud Wilkinson era, was a fan, and watching football on TV with him was a bonding experience for my brothers and me. I vividly remember watching the Chicago Bears beat the New York Giants for the NFL championship in 1963, with my father’s friend Bill Wade at the helm for the Bears. I was hooked early, and I’ve been watching football for fifty years.

And in those fifty years it has gotten harder and harder to watch the game on television. A recent study by the Wall Street Journal confirmed what I’ve suspected for years—there isn’t a whole lot of football in a football telecast. Of the three-plus hours it takes to show an NFL game on TV, about eleven minutes consist of actual football. Yup, that’s right. Sit down to watch an NFL game, and two hours and fifty minutes of your time will be spent watching something other than football.

Part of it is the nature of the game itself, of course; you run a play, huddle, run another play, and so on. The action isn’t continuous. And that’s fine—there’s time between plays to savor, scheme, anticipate. That’s part of the game. But that aspect of the game unfortunately lends itself to the insertion of commercial announcements, as the marketing geniuses realized early on. And brother, is that a slippery slope.

The NFL sold its soul to the networks decades ago, and the networks have been piling on the commercial time ever since. They have made the NFL game unwatchable. They lost me for good when they started going back to a commercial after every kickoff. Touchdown, extra point, endless commercials, ten seconds for the kickoff and what’s this? Right back for more endless commercials. Go to a televised football game in person these days, and you will be struck with how often the game is halted for no apparent reason while everyone stands around doing nothing for three minutes. Those are the TV timeouts, and they ruin the flow and continuity of the game, absolutely ruin it.

The misery was compounded when they brought in video review of officials’ decisions. Now the game often grinds to a halt for five or more minutes, often at the most crucial juncture, while the ref sticks his head under a hood and watches the play from a dozen angles so he can come back out and make the wrong call anyway. Meanwhile, we are treated to more commercials.

I can’t watch commercials any more. I just refuse. I started muting the TV for the commercials about twenty years ago, and then after a while it was too much trouble to turn the sound back up, and I just kept the thing muted. Now I usually keep one eye on the game while catching up on my reading. If you’re thinking that means I’m paying less attention to the game than I used to, less than a real hard-core X’s and O’s geek would, you’re right. My passion for the game has waned a bit.

Because, you see, there are other aspects of the game that distress me. I’m old enough to remember when there was such a thing as sportsmanship. You respected your opponent, you didn’t brag or taunt, and you let the ref call the game. Now, football players act like prima donnas at La Scala on opening night, prancing and dancing and putting on airs not just after touchdowns but after every first down, every tackle, every routine completion of an assignment.

They need to watch some footage of the old-time players. When Jim Brown scored a touchdown, he handed the ball to the official and trotted back to the bench like a workman completing a competent job. When Dick Butkus made a routine tackle he didn’t act as if he’d defeated fascism or ended world hunger. In the old days players acted like grown-up men doing their jobs. But that’s gone, and we’re poorer for it.

So I’ll watch the Super Bowl; my friends will probably want to watch it with the sound up because the commercials, in an ironic triumph of money over meaning, have become as big as the game, and I’ll do my best to follow the drama of the game despite the excruciating, drama-killing nature of the TV coverage. I’ll root for the underdog Saints and I will probably get at least a little excitement out of the experience in addition to the indigestion.

But I’m going to leave the room at halftime to avoid all the schlock and go for a quiet walk, doing my best to remember when a football game was what you got when you sat down to watch a football game.

Last fall I went to a high school football game for the first time in about forty years. I went because my daughter was in the marching band, but I found myself unexpectedly captivated by the game. I stood in a cold rain and saw players who weren’t getting paid a cent, most of whom will never play beyond the high school level, playing their hearts out on a miserable October night, playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played, with no dancing, no taunting or chest-beating. The game was fluid, intense and dramatic. It was the best time I’d had watching football in years. Best of all, there were no commercials.

If you love football, try this: next fall, go see a high school game or an NCAA Division III game, a game the TV networks don’t care about. If you love the game, you’ll like what you see.

Sam Reaves