Sunday, May 31, 2015

What Mad Men Can Tell Us About Contemporary Culture

Mad Men recently ended its seven-year run as one of the most rewarded and respected shows in cable television history, even as it has its many detractors (see here, here and here). There is no question that the show captured something deep in the American psyche and was a second coup for creator, director and writer Matthew Weiner (of Sopranos, for those not paying attention). The final episode certainly elicited a wave of reactions, with many disappointed by the too tight wrap-up of the many interconnected stories, while others were disappointed by the ambiguity of Don’s denouement. Rather than add yet another analysis of that episode, I thought I would consider some of the broader implications of the show’s critical and popular success:

1. Misogyny is still alive and kicking across the dial: for all the claims that more female voices are being heard and seen on television and in film, the industry is still dominated by male writers, producers and directors (to the tune of over 80 percent). And Mad Men is a show that seems particularly disturbing on the question of female empowerment. Sure it shows the struggles of working women in the 60s and 70s trying to garner success and respect, but are any of the female characters truly redeemed in the end? Trudy takes back Peter after years of betrayal and a relatively long abandonment, Joan is still a single mother who literally sold her body for success (and chose a career over a man, and probably happiness), Megan has a million dollars but at the expense of the loss of her youthful exuberance and Sally Draper is dying. Peggy does finally find love in the end, to be fair, but it felt somewhat anti-climactic and overridden by the endless procession of women used as objects by the male characters throughout the show’s run. Maybe more troubling than the way they used and abused women throughout the show is the way the women seemed to adapt to this abuse and to pile more abuse on themselves. We see this with the last love interest of Don Draper, who can’t accept his love because she continues to punish herself for abandoning her own family – with sexual shaming her preferred form of self-flagellation. And really, one could make a compelling argument that all of Don’s crimes relate back to his childhood in a whorehouse and a mother who just didn’t love him enough (or at all, to be fair). Women are the enemy and their destruction the collateral damage of men trying to find themselves and an elusive contentment with the American Dream.

2. That transitions smoothly to my second point. Like The Sopranos, it does provide an image of a troubled man who seems to have it all – money, power, sex on the offing and a loving family off in the background – but who is rarely happy and constantly questioning all that he has accomplished. That was the central premise of The Sopranos from the start and thus offered, as did The Godfather, a metaphor for the problem of American capitalism itself. Francis Ford Coppola was overt in his attempt to draw parallels between the destruction of the Corleone family and America, based on their shared lust for power and money against the backdrop of loyalty and tradition, along with the violence that accompanies that search. With Sopranos, it is unclear if this was Weiner’s intention, but it is still clear to see, and it is even more apparent in Mad Men, where characters both living and essentially creatively selling the American dream have trouble finding real pleasure in the former (nor real satisfaction in the latter). By capturing the advertising industry in the 60s, the first few seasons of the show accentuate the battle for the soul of America and the ways the spectacle of consumer culture overtook the fading idealism of the post-War period. The problem with this critique is that it was arguably encased within a narrative that too many men, and maybe women, found so compelling the underlying critique was lost in the desire to live these shallow and unfulfilling lives themselves. One could argue, instead, that it is actually schadenfreude (pleasure in the pain of others) that really drove its loyal viewers, but a combination of the two seems more accurate.

3. While substantially more complex and lyrical than Entourage, hip hop videos or Iron Man, I thus think Mad Men ultimately fits smugly within the genre I like to call “male lifestyle porn.” It is a genre that tends to focus on overgrown boys with money, power and sex drives that would put Hugh Hefner to shame; generally combined with the ultimate importance of male friendship bonds over healthy relationships with the opposite sex. The overgrown boys tend to sleep around, use women for sex, hurt them in their search for self-actualization and never seem to truly overcome their desire to exist in a state of perpetual adolescence. Sure Don Draper has suffered in his quest to break the half century mark of conquests on the road to being loved, but isn’t the sex really his only escape from a life of misery and loneliness, only amplified when he actually grabs that love he so desires? We can also see this with Roger’s endless sexcapades, Peter’s discontent with whomever he happens to be with and the general disregard the majority of the male characters on the show have for women in general.

4. Quality, contemplative television is possible: among the spectacle-addled world of reality television, endless series, remakes, reboots and sequels, sports extravaganza and news as entertainment, Mad Men stood out as a more artistic, tempered experience, unafraid to let the camera linger, to eschew conversation and to draw out storylines across seasons. While it did sometimes play with the tricks of the post-MTV generation, which cut the average movie shot from 10 to 6 seconds, it tends to have longer takes, quiet cameras and more or less follows the Classic Hollywood rules of continuity editing. Some have criticized this aspect of the show, calling it little more than a pretty costume drama, and the mis-en-scene has been stunning throughout, with great color, sets, costumes and the like, but it appears an essential part of the world Weiner is recreating before our eyes. Sure it sometimes used history as a largely pointless backdrop to the narrative, but there was a sense that the show followed Christopher Nolan’s desire to again marry narrative and form into one cohesive whole, rather than two related parts. To a large extent, I believe it succeeded in this daunting task, creating a reality within its fictitious world that felt genuine and authentic.

5. Finally, it is worth noting all of the lines of print and online pixels spent deconstructing the show as I am doing here. Fred Jameson argued a little over 20 years ago that contemporary popular culture WAS culture in America and that history was little more than stylized visions of an idealized past unrelated to the political, economic or social tumult they entailed. Both observations seem particularly relevant to the show, which has become not only a part of our popular culture canon but part of American culture itself, an embodiment of a country that seems more enticed by the fictitious world of others than their own lives. Our obsession with celebrity, with popular culture marginalia with the psychology of characters within fictional worlds all seem to indicate a general malaise outside the world of the spectacle we have so fully embraced. Television changed America from its birth, abetting the Civil Rights Movement, feminist advances, the mobilization against the Vietnam War and, in a broader sense, helped define the normative in American life itself. It changed the nature of neighborhoods, the nature of leisure and, of course, the nature of politics. But the first few decades of television still saw a public that was both politically and socially active. Today, I sense it has gone further, coming to define our political and social lives in ways wholly new and arguably equally troubling. Mad Men was a great television show that challenged audiences to contemplate what the show meant and why we cared. In the process, did it challenge us to ask why we watched it at all? That would be the most worthy legacy of a show that did demonstrate how advertising and TV were overshadowing our past and redefining our future.

Mad Men fascinated me from the beginning as a show that captured a lost America, ultimately the result of the very characters the narrative follows as that slow death occurs. I thought it faltered in the middle before a strong final two seasons where it began to reconcile with its own problematic politics, even if in an unsatisfactory manner. In the end, it was a springboard for other slow moving dramatic television series, like True Detectives, and a show that will probably be written about for years. The real question we should ask ourselves, however, is if the America it showed us is really the one we want to live in and whether, if the answer is no, we can do something to change our collective future.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

FA Cup Final: Arsenal 4 Aston Villa 0

The 144th version of the oldest club sports competition in the world saw Arsenal, the visitors by virtue of a lost coin toss, lineup for a chance at a second FA Cup title in a row against a hungry Aston Villa, who haven’t won a trophy since the league cup in 1996 (and an FA Cup since 1957, their 7th). There were a few surprises in the starting lineups with Walcott started through the middle for Arsenal ahead of the slumping Olivier Giroud and Szczesny kept his place as the starting goalkeeper (even as Ospina has supplanted him in the league) and Shay Given also retained his place in the starting 11 ahead of American Brad Guzan, to start another FA Cup Final 17 years after a losing effort with Newcastle against these same Gunners. The Villains set up defensively from the start, not surprisingly given their being outscored 8-0 in the two league matchups against the Gunners this season, and Arsenal took advantage, dominating possession, earning early free kicks and corners and creating a number of half chances, though nothing definitive in the first 10 minutes. Aston Villa did get forward on the counter on a few occasions, eliciting a shaky catch by Szczesny of a weak Delph shot before he settled in.

On 15 minutes, a cross from Sanchez found the head of Koscielny, who looked poised to open the scoring until a fine hand save from veteran goalkeeper Given going the other way denied him. 90 seconds later, Mertesacker just missed the far post with a quick shot after a fine move from the surprise Arsenal player of the year, Hector Bellerin. Ramsey shot over after a nice touch right on the strike of 20 minutes and on 24 minutes, Ozil sent a perfect cross from the left to Walcott a few yards out, though a block by Kieran Richardson denied what should have been the opening goal. Walcott did look lively from kickoff, continuing the strong performance that saw him net three last weekend against West Brom and leaving fans wondering if he would score in what could be his final appearance for the Gunners (his contract runs out next year). He was almost in on goal again in the 26th minute, though marginally offsides after a clever Ozil through ball. Arsenal were dominating, but the opening goal was not coming as the first half reached its halfway mark with an ultimately weak deflected shot from Ramsey almost in on goal after Walcott switched from received to provider.

Szczesny found himself in no man’s land on 32 minutes and could have cost the Gunners an early deficit but for a miscued header by the Villains, reminding of his and Koscielny’s Laurel and Hardy bit from the Carling Cup four years ago (when they lost on a late botch to Birmingham City 2-1 before the latter were relegated). Delph earned the third booking of the first half for Aston Villa on 37 minutes, after the latest in a series of hard tackles – joining Alan Hutton (33’) and Cleverly (14’), with two of the three for fouls on a lively Sanchez. On 40 minutes, Arsene Wenger saw his selection pay off as Walcott charged down the left to meet an excellent long across field pass from Coquelin pushed it forward to Monreal, who crossed it high to Sanchez. Sanchez headed it back across the goal to a charging Walcott who finished powerfully to the near post past Given with his weaker left foot. Arsenal were deservedly up 1-0 and must have wondered how it wasn’t a bigger lead. Walcott almost scored a second three minutes later on a nice one-two with Ramsey, before a late intervention forced a corner. Ozil was rampant as the first 45 minutes elapsed, earning a 6th corner for the Gunners (against none for the Villains) in extra time.

As the halftime whistle blew, two records stood 45 minutes away from being realized – a sixth FA Cup for Wenger tying George Ramsey (who did it from 1887 to 1920 with, ironically, Aston Villa) for the most by a manager, and a 12th Cup for Arsenal, breaking their tie with Manchester United for most by a club. Arsenal led with 62 percent of the first half possession, eight shots to one (with 4 to 0 on target), and five fouls to Aston Villa’s 11. They were also playing excellent defensively, denying any space or chances to the home team. Yet as any fan knows, the Gunners can suffer both losses of concentration and defensive lapses and a second goal seemed necessary to calm any wavering nerves.

The second half began as the first half ended, with the Gunners in the ascendancy. On 50 minutes, Alexis Sanchez continued his hot streak at Wembley cutting back across two defenders before hitting a thumping shot from 30 yards out, blasting it with late swerve past Givens and into the roof of the net for that second goal. N’Zogbia came off for Agbonlahor three minutes later right before Arsenal earned a seventh corner. The Villains got forward, but a blooping shot was easily caught by Szczesny after he missed out on a ball in the box a moment earlier. Arsenal put it back in the net on 56 minutes, but Walcott was offsides before the rebound from an excellent save by Given was headed in. Another excellent save from Given at the near post stopped a sure Cazorla goal a minute later as Arsenal ramped up the pressure on the Villa goal. Walcott was again denied on 61 minutes, after an Arsenal counter saw him almost free on goal and earned their eighth corner a minute later. And that corner would see Aston Villa’s chances of a comeback all but collapse, as Mertesacker met the Cazorla corner with a free header that went off his shoulder and into the far corner to make it 3-0.

Aston Villa did earn a free kick in a dangerous position on 64 minutes, but Szczesny collected the header right in front of Benteke, guilty on the third goal as he left Mertesacker free behind him. The Villa fans, including Prince William, seemed shattered as the camera panned across them, even as the players still pushed forward for a first goal against the Gunners in three games this season. Ozil could have earned a penalty on 67 minutes, as he was pushed inside the box, but it would have been a soft call. On 71 minutes, Columbian Carlos Sanchez came on for Ashley Westwood and four minutes later Ramsey sent a spectacular lofted through pass to Walcott, who should have scored one-on-one with Given, but hit it high and wide. That was his last contribution as Giroud came on for him and Wilshere for Ozil (77’). Villa’s race seemed run and they had trouble disrupting the metronomic passing of the Gunners or doing anything on the few occasions they did get ahold of the ball.

On 80 minutes, Gabe Agbonlahor did get past the Gunner’s defense and was clearly fouled from behind by Coquelin right on the edge of the box with only Szczesny between him and a goal. The referee, John Moss, didn’t call a penalty, or even a foul, though it appeared even a successful conversion of the former would have done little to change the outcome. Agbonlahor was in the book within two minutes, clearly aggrieved to be denied his penalty claim. Arsenal were comfortable with their three goal lead, passing around and taking free kicks short instead of pushing for a fourth, but continuing to play with real vigor and purpose. A second penalty claim came on 85 minutes, as Grealish appeared to be pulled down by Bellerin trying to recover to the ball in the box. The first claim was questionable, but the second really should have been a penalty. On 89 minutes, Sanchez came off for Oxlade-Chamberlain, making his first appearance after another lengthy injury layoff. And in a final display of their dominance, it would be the “Ox” whose low cross toward the near corner would be flicked in by Giroud just as the three minutes of extra time elapsed.

Arsenal thus won the game 4-0 and, forgoing the two penalty appeals, it could have been much worse. They dominated both ends of the pitch with slick passing, fine pressing and quality finishing. Aston Villa should be proud of even being here and having stayed up after looking marginal favorites to be relegated when Tim Sherwood took over for Paul Lambert, but were thoroughly beaten today, against an opponent that has now outscored then 12-0 in the last three matches. One assumes Gerrard and Liverpool could have given the holders a stiffer test, but that might itself be a stretch given their end of season collapse. With the win, the nine-year trophy drought becomes an even more distant memory and dreams of finally adding a fourth league title to Wenger’s CV a more realistic aspiration.

It was Wenger’s ninth major piece of silverware (three league titles and the six FA Cups), along with five Community Shields. Surprisingly, he has never won a League Cup (losing two finals 2-1) and, of course, has failed to win a European title, losing the only final his team has contested to Barcelona 2-1 in 2006. Winning can be addictive though and the Gunners showed a poise they have lacked the past decade in seeing off Aston Villa today, earning their third piece of silverware in the last 12 months. With the right signings, could this be the culmination of a third act for Le Professuer? We will have to wait and see …

Thursday, May 28, 2015

FIFA Today

Debate: Is LeBron the Best Playoff Player Ever?

When Kevin Love went down injured in Game 7 of the first round series against Boston, many thought the Cavaliers season was DOA, with several slotting the Chicago Bulls in to finally reach a final again post-Jordan. But something funny happened on the way to more disappointment for the city of Cleveland, LeBron’s took his game to another level, the supporting cast played their part, Chicago found a way to blow it yet again and then Atlanta’s starless team continued the trend of starless teams ultimately failing in the playoffs. In the process, LeBron continued to build on a legacy that is growing every year.

LeBron is now 102-43 (.703) in the Eastern Conference playoffs and into his fifth NBA Final in a row. He is only the ninth player ever to accomplish this feat, and all the others were part of the dominant Celtics teams of the 60s. On the other hand, LeBron is only 2 and 3 in the Finals and could make it 2 for 6 if they lose to the clearly more talented Warriors. His playoff stats are pretty impressive nonetheless, with 27.9 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 6.6 apg and 1.7 steals. He is shooting .477 from the field, .319 from behind the arc and .755 from the free throw line. After being considered a choker earlier in his career he has become quite the opposite, a player that can change the outcome of a game, a series and the championship itself. If he does lead Cleveland over Golden State, will he have moved above Jordan, having pulled off an epic upset? It is one of those unanswerably subjective sports debates that will never be settled, but why not continue the debate?
Other contenders obviously include the greatest player in the history of the sport (Michael Jordan, who went 6 for 6 in Finals), one of our most versatile (Magic Johnson, who went 5 for 9), Kobe Bryant (5 of 7) and Tim Duncan (5 of 6). One could go further back and consider some of the greats of the earlier epoch, but most will agree the increase in talent and parity since then undermines their claim to the title. It is hard to argue against Michael Jordan’s record and his individual contribution to each of those six finals. The argument for Bryant and Duncan is made more difficult by the talent that surrounded them. And Johnson, who won one as a center, lost four of nine and was also surrounded by an impressive array of talent. Moving beyond the finals is the impressive way LeBron almost single-handedly got two Cleveland teams to the Finals, while leading an aging Miami Heat to their second crown two years ago. On the other hand, he was lucky to win that year, only the beneficiary of some terrible time management by the Spurs at the end of Game 6, and was absolutely crushed, along with the rest of the Heat, last year. 

In considering the crown of best playoff player ever, how much weight should the Finals have on the title? Should we gauge the talent that surrounded each of the contenders? Should stats or wins have more weight and what about advanced stats? For now, I think Michael Jordan holds the crown and it will be difficult to dethrone him. But LeBron is clearly the player with the most potential to accomplish that daunting and unlikely task. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

EPL Season Comes to a Close with Chelsea on Top; QPR bottom

A few weeks ago, it looked like the final day of the EPL season would have a lot on the line. Instead there were only two games with any real significance – Hull City vs. Manchester United and Newcastle vs. West Ham. Hull City could stave off elimination if and only if they beat Manchester United at home AND Newcastle lost to West Ham. There was the miniscule chance that United could vault above Arsenal, if the Gunners lost at home to West Brom and United won by eight goals (or more), while the Gunners had already blown their chance to snatch second with the late season fade. And it was also, of course, the last game for Steven Gerrard with Liverpool and, on the off chance that Aston Villa upset Arsenal in the FA Cup next weekend, a chance for Southampton to move above Tottenham and potentially replace the North Londoners with the last Europa League place (though some might argue they should thus lose on purpose, to avoid the Thursday night schedule that often leads teams to fall down the table).

Early on, Hull City looked likely to do their part, putting major pressure on the United goal (marshaled by Victor Valdez), but failing to open the scoring after having not one but two goals disallowed in the first 30 minutes, though in both cases correctly. Unfortunately, recent history did not support the Cinderella story Hull were dreaming of, as only Wigan (twice) and West Brom (14 years ago) have moved out of the bottom three on the final weekend in recent years. Across England, Arsenal, after three straight home games without a goal, exploded for four within the first 37 minutes against West Brom, with Walcott scoring a first half hat trick and Wilshere scoring a blistering volley from 20 yards out and adding an assist. It was an impressive conclusion to their league season, though West Brom appeared to already have their heads on the beaches of some exotic island, thanking Tony Pulis for another successful effort in keeping a side up.

Stoke City were also rampant in the first half of Steven Gerrard’s last game with Liverpool, putting the Reds in a stunning 5-0 deficit – potentially fueling the fire of Sterling’s push for a transfer. Sunderland jumped ahead of Chelsea four days after staving off elimination, but the Blues equalized in what will be Didier Drogba’s last game for Chelsea in his one-year second spell. In a nod to his pivotal role in the rise of Chelsea and their cabinet-full of silverware over the past decade, the players carried him off the field after an early substitution. Tottenham were one up on the road against Everton at the half, as were Burnley against Aston Villa. In a game most thought would have huge relegation implications, now safe Leicester City were 2-0 against already relegated QPR. And Man City’s strong late finish to the season continued with a 1-0 lead over Southampton at the Etihad.

It had to be a disappointing afternoon for Gerrard and Brendan Rodgers, watching their beloved Liverpool season fizzle out in rather fantastical fashion, while Mark Hughes sat smugly on the other bench knowing he had reestablished his dented credentials as a quality EPL manager. Some will be raising the volume on their critique of Rodgers, whose own credentials have taken a serious hit this year, though one could make the salient and compelling argument that it is Liverpool’s financial position that most contributed to them dropping three positions (and 50 goals scored) from last season’s heartbreaking title challenge falter. Gerrard looked dejected and can add the sour taste of a loss in his final game to “the slip,” the “38-second red” and the FA Cup semifinal loss to Aston Villa – all in the last 13 months of his stellar Liverpool career. Phil Neville wondered this week in The Daily Mail if the Reds were headed toward “small” club status, and on the rather uninspiring evidence of this contest, the answer might be a resounding yes.

Hull almost scored within four minutes of the second half restart, when Daley sent it over from eight yards out. Then, on 52 minutes, Newcastle’s Sissoko scored the most important goal of a goal-happy Sunday, giving Newcastle a 1-0 lead over West Ham – who might themselves already be thinking of the beach, particularly as some of them spent part of the past week there, after Big Sam gave them 5 days off. Leicester exploded for two more goals themselves, leading hapless QPR 4-0 before 60 minutes had passed, while West Brom pulled one back against the Gunners, as McCauley scored a header from a corner that should have been beaten out by Ospina (who will probably be following the transfer news for the Gunners this summer, with Cech rumours rampant at the moment). Meanwhile, Crystal Palace took a 1-0 lead over Swansea in the 57th minute, from a goal by Arsenal reject Marouane Chamakh, continuing their impressive second half record under ex-star Pardew. On 72 minutes, Hull almost scored again, though Valdez dove to his right to save well from Jelavic close in, after a fine cross.

At the same time, Steven Gerrard scored a goal in his final English game, though only to make it 5-1, a few minutes before Fellaini earned a straight red card on 77 minutes for a brutal tackle on Paul McShane. Chelsea pulled ahead in their final game of the season, as Lois Remy continued his impressive record of scoring in the limited time he has been on the pitch this year. Wilshere just missed out on a brace in the final ten minutes, hitting the post on a deflected shot inside the box, before Ramsey lost out on a goal himself the same way (though from a more acute angle) before missing a good chance to finish a lovely pass from Sanchez. West Ham started challenging the Newcastle goal with increased pressure as a mere 10 minutes remained in their season, before Jonas Guttierez ended any hope for Hull City by scoring a second on 85 minutes, his first goal in two years. In Northern England, Stoke added insult to injury, scoring a sixth in what was an abject performance from a Liverpool team that were the hottest in the league heading into their showdown with United back in March. Another player completing his Premier League career went out with a goal, as Frank Lampard scored the opener of what became a 2-0 City win over Southampton (with Aguero adding his league-leading 26th goal of the season in the 88th minute). Hull City were unable to claw out a goal in a valiant performance, though a win would have ultimately left them with the same fate after Newcastle completed their 2-0 victory.
At the end of the day, Arsenal beat West Brom 4-1, Chelsea finished off Sunderland 3-1 (with Petr Cech concluding his Chelsea career with a win and another league title celebration), Burnley completing their stay in the EPL with a consolation 1-0 victory over Aston Villa, Crystal Palace beat Swansea 1-0, Tottenham won 1-0 at a disappointed Everton, Leicester completed an impressive end to their season with a 5-1 victory over the QPR flops, Man City won 2-0 over the Saints, Stoke finished off Liverpool 6-1 and Hull City and United, of course, finished in the only draw of the day. Soon after Newcastle’s victory, Sam Allardyce’s fate was made official, as he will not be back at West Ham.

And so another Premier League season came to a close, with Chelsea as champions, and League Cup winners, Man City in second, Arsenal in third and United completing the top four. Liverpool are back in the Europa league, most likely alongside both Tottenham and Southampton (arguably the surprise of the season). QPR, Burley and Hull City are all going down to the Championship, while Sunderland, Newcastle, Leicester City and Aston Villa have at least one more year of the financial windfall that playing in the EPL offers. The only thing left to decide is the FA Cup next weekend, with Aston Villa and ex-Tottenham manager Tim Sherwood dreaming of a Gunner scalp, while Arsenal attempt to finish a second season running with silverware. Until next season, adieu, adieu, adieu, to Mou, and Hull and you …

Friday, May 22, 2015

Europe Militarize Against Immigration (More Sanguine on Gay Marriage)

In an escalation over the continued influx of immigrants into European countries, the European Union decided Monday to militarize their efforts in the Mediterranean Sea (WP). This year, over 1,800 immigrants have already been killed in the burgeoning crisis surrounding smuggler vessels crossing the sea with immigrants from Africa and the Middle East (along with those coming in from Eastern Europe, the Balkans and other poorer countries across the three continents). It is the latest parry in the attempt to stem the tide of foreigners entering the countries; clearly the result of both globalization and the failure of neoliberal policies over the past 25 years to “lift all boats” (metaphor intended).

The dramatic acceleration in global commerce and exchange has had many positive impacts across the globe, in the arts, in science, in medicine and, in a more limited way, in democracy. One of the biggest promises of neoliberal ideology, however, that global trade and free markets would improve the economic situation of more and more people across the globe has failed to materialize. After years of promises, going back as far as the 70s (or even 50s, if we look at Modernisation Theory and its promise that investment in education would create a thriving middle class across the globe), many countries have started to reject these calls to open their markets completely to foreign trade and commerce. Argentina is just one example, but we can also find similar trends in four countries that have grown rapidly over the past 30 years – South Korea, India, Brazil and China. In fact we can add Russia to the list (rounding out the BRIC countries), showing how maintaining some barriers to imports, strategic investment by the government and the cultivation of local comparative advantages can help a country to go more rapidly and move from underdeveloped to developing or even developed (as in the case of South Korea).

There are still people leaving those countries for opportunities abroad, but not on the scale of the countries who have suffered the most from the policies of market liberation and government retrenchment. We have experienced the result in the United States since the 1800s, with immigrants coming to America for a chance at a better life, but it is a more recent trend across much of Europe (England has dealt with huge immigrant populations from its Pax Brittania days). More and more of the people in the Global South have simply decided to pack their bags and move to the richer countries, knowing they can have a better life there.

This has put a huge strain on Europe for at least four related reasons: 1. In countries like Germany, immigrants are eligible for social services from the moment they arrive, 2. Economic strains in increased competition for jobs, 3. The cultural challenges it provides to the more homogenous populations of European countries, and 4. The challenges to education that emerge as a result of that increased cultural diversity. The responses have varied from country to country, but it is clear that the problem is only growing more dire as time goes on. We have seen conservative and ultra-nationalist political parties gain seats in parliaments across Europe, a push toward a more conservative leadership (neoliberal or even neoconservative), efforts to curb the expression of culture in schools and in public, violence against ethnic and religious minorities and now the push to militarize the efforts to stop immigrants from arriving at their borders. It is the uglier face of globalization and a problem that will only amplify until inequality within and across countries is truly addressed.

On the more positive side, Ireland looks set to become the first country in Europe to democratically ratify gay marriage. Citizens of the once religiously conservative country, where homosexuality was illegal until 1993 and divorce until 1997, could provide further proof that one form of diversity is becoming more widely accepted across the Western world. Ireland would not be the only country in Europe with marriage equality, of course. It came to the Netherlands, in 2001, Belgium, in 2003, Spain and Portugal, in 2005; Norway, Sweden, and Iceland, in 2010; Denmark, in 2012; France, in 2013; and it goes into effect in Finland in 2017. Since 2013, it has been legal in most of the United Kingdom, though not in Northern Ireland. And so one of the greatest challenges across the globe today continues – how people with different cultural values and beliefs can find ways to exist in the same place without resorting to violence and hatred.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Thin Redline: Truth in Retreat

The line between truth and fiction has been blurring into a murkier and murkier swamp for many years now. It is one of the central tenets of a postmodern world – once the foundations of truth claims are laid bare and we recognize the inherent flaws in language, reality becomes but an illusion, a construct that is in constant flux. Floating signifiers fill our lives, changing form and meaning from one news cycle to the next as the world begins looking more and more like the one represented in The Matrix. And caught in the middle is the majority of the population, unsure what to believe. Rather than living in a state of constant confusion, however, many than turn to “faith” that their position is right. While the words of Ludwig Feuerbach were aimed at religion, they seem particularly pertinent here:

“But for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, appearance to essence . . . truth is considered profane, and only illusion is sacred. Sacredness is in fact held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.” (Preface to the second edition of The Essence of Christianity (1841))

As I have mentioned on this blog before, recent research has shown that conservatives only strengthen their resolve (and political positions) when provided with evidence that undermines those positions and arguments. And I would be apt to believe that many liberals think exactly the same these days. To conservatives, nothing Obama says or does can possibly have any virtue, and the same can be said of the last several years of the Bush Administration (though I think the liberals have a point in this regard). In a broader sense, the advent of new technologies that were supposed to open the world up to people are often used as a filter, to ensure that no opinions, arguments or scientific facts that disagree with you reach your eyes or ears. Many, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, actually think this is a good thing, allowing us to sift through the news and find only that which interests us. But that same convenience also undermines the central tenets of democracy, which demand a public that critically engages with issues, that remains informed and that is willing to debate their own opinions with those that disagree with them (Bill Maher). Is it really surprising that political insularity is at its highest point in decades…or maybe ever…given our inability to listen and talk to one another today?

To get back to Feuerbach, how is his argument about religion and a society “which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, appearance to essence,” relevant to contemporary American society, 174 years after the book was published? I think it actually perfectly captures the collective conscious of our nation in the contemporary, confused epoch we inhabit. Going through the arguments one by one: 1. The Sign to the Thing Signified: we live in a world of signs, constructed and reproduced for maximum effect (usually to sell something, whether it be a product or a lifestyle), creating the spectacle society that Debord so aptly described (You Tube Video). It no longer matters if the deeper significance matters, all that matters is that we have said that it matters. 2. The Copy to the Original: we don’t actually experience the news as raw sensory data, but always through some mediation (e.g., a news outlet, a tell all book, made for TV movie, news documentary or fictional adaptation). Just looking at the Super Bowl as an example – we first have two weeks of hype where the game is broken down from every possible angle, every player given a profile in multiple sources, short documentaries compiled and the place of this game in the larger history of the sport debated. The day of the game there is the pre-pre show, the pre-show, the halftime show and the endless postscripts on the game, all surrounded by the color commentary throughout the game. All of this tells us what to think before we ever have the chance to decide for ourselves, before the entire event is repackaged and presented to us as a more accurate copy than even the original itself. Beyond this, we have the endless recycling of our favorite stories, in sequels, prequels, reboots and adaptations (notice how many of the top films this year fit one of those four categories: Box Office Mojo, and then go back over the past several years). 

3. Representation to Reality: in the contemporary epoch, representation has replaced reality as the key conceptual framework from which our subjectivity sprouts and flourishes (or flounders, depending on your perspective). Everything is a representation of something else, a signifier to attach meaning to and then debate endlessly, before moving on to the next topic a day later. Mad Men is not a TV show, it is the very embodiment of what a TV show can and cannot do, a statement on our collective discontent, a historical recapturing of the moment advertising became the lingua franca of America and an “event” in the Badiou sense of the world. Elections are not attempts by the people to enact democracy, they are horse races between candidates whose images often trump their platforms and whose victory or loss symbolizes a dramatic shift in the political landscape (until the next election when that dramatic shift happens all over again in a different direction). And reality itself is merely the representation of some ideological position, untied to that which it represented to begin with (reinforcing Manet’s three paradoxes of art – the mutual exclusivity of reality and representation, design and representation and abstraction and reality). 4. Appearance to Essence: has anything more apt ever been written about American culture in the 21st century? It is true that Feuerbach knew nothing of our world, but this phrase seems to capture everything that is arguably wrong with our consumer driven world today. It doesn’t matter if Kim Kardasian is a greedy fool with little to offer the world, her appearance apparently captured some deep longing in the American public and we should thus follow every idiotic thing she says or does, along with all the other venal and untalented celebrities who bought or slept their way (on video) into our hearts. It doesn’t matter if Hollywood, Disney, McDonald’s or a host of other huge corporations are destroying the lives of our children, they make really cool looking stuff. The Super Bowl may be the biggest game in the world, but it is really just an excuse for us to watch “good commercials” with a few annoying athletes in tights occasionally interrupting the fun. The Oscars might be a chance to celebrate the film industry and its “best,” but somewhere along the line just became the most watched fashion show in the world each year. Every holiday moved from a time for loved ones to spend together and reaffirm their connection to an excuse to buy, buy, buy and hope you don’t get killed in the stampede to get that 10 percent off Chia Pet at the local Wal*Mart.

The end of the quote arguably offers the most important point: “truth is considered profane, and only illusion is sacred.” Isn’t this the essence of the world we live in today? Truth is simply a lie told by someone else to confuse us and challenge our own long held, monolithic beliefs. A few examples from just the past few days should demonstrate the point. The first is yet another Republican Presidential candidate ignoring science to feed their constituents hunger for illusion, in this case Jeb Bush. The third Bush to run did admit that global warming is happening, but then claimed that scientific research does not clearly show how much of the change is due to humans and how much is from natural causes. The second comes from the world of entertainment, where it was recently divulged that actress Rebel Wilson, of Pitch Perfect fame, is actually 35 not 29. This apparently caused an uproar across cyberspace, where critics pretended that most of our celebrity culture is not based on constructed personalities and narratives. God forbid a woman lie about her age! Third is the continued rankling that goes on around sexual assault on college campuses, most recently the result of some lazy reporting by a Rolling Stone writer but an ongoing issue among our male-dominated mainstream media for as long as it has existed. The statistical evidence is relatively clear, reinforced by a study by Brown, that more than one in five women face sexual assault while attending college (almost 1 in 5 if we use their rather limited definition). Debate continues as if the issue is overblown, when we probably don’t even know its scale, given the reluctance of many to report incidents lest they suffer the wrath or indifference of their administration. Rather than look for solutions, we thus continue to debate the validity of a mountain of data – which, or course, is also true of climate change. Finally, Rand Paul ended a marathon filibuster purportedly trying to block the Patriot Act reauthorization of spying that actually appeared to be little more than political grandstanding. After 10-hours at the pulpit, he conveniently left the floor just in time to ensure that the vote and Senate business would go on undeterred by his delay the following day. This is just the latest political act in an election season that should see an endless array of them, reminding us that politics is more about image and illusion than substantive attempts to represent the will of the people, or their interests.

The old line “ignorance is bliss” might seem appropriate in explaining this phenomenon, but I think it runs deeper than that. It is not ignorance per se, just ignorance to ideas that inconveniently contest your own. It is willful ignorance to the advances in truth seeking that have been made over the past three centuries or so; a return to the preliterate age, where faith and mythology reigned supreme as the only way to make sense of a wondrous universe. Now we have the tools to make more sense of that universe, but are largely unwilling to use them unless they confirm what we already believe. Truth lies quivering in the corner waiting for the next confederacy of dunces to come along and beat it to a pulp. And even if it doesn’t exist in absolute, universal terms, the struggle to let it out of that corner appears like a worthy endeavor.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal Fail to Score at Home for Third Game Running

Arsenal lined up for their midweek game against Sunderland tonight knowing a point was probably good enough to guarantee third place for the season, though three would put some pressure on Man City for second place going into the final game. For Sunderland, a loss today meant there was still a chance they could be relegated in Week 38, while a draw would see them stave off that fate by a whisker for a second straight year. In the early going, Arsenal were on the front foot, but not creating many real chances and Sunderland came close to getting a man free on goal on two occasions. Two nice Bellerin crosses came to naught, a couple of corners were cleared and Wilshere lost out one on one with Sunderland keeper Pantillimon, before a weak shot from Cazorla on 23 minutes ended another threat. On the stroke of 30 minutes, Wilshere sent a lofted pass to Ozil, who should have done better, but shot over. Arsenal were dominating with 64 percent possession, but the play around the box was below par and minus a shot that just missed the far corner from Giroud and a couple of wild shots by Ozil, little was done with the possession for the third game running, leading to a 0-0 halftime score.

Sunderland manager Dick Advocaat brought on Steven Fletcher and forgotten prospect Jack Rodwell to start the second half and the shifts seemed to have an impact as Sunderland fashioned two good chances in quick succession, though both were kept out by fine Ospina saves. Arsenal continued to look languid and uninterested, with the possible exception of the always passionate Alexis Sanchez, though Giroud almost put a cross in from a crazy angle, hitting the top corner of the bar, before an excellent save from Pantillimon of the Frenchman’s volley kept him out a second time on 56 minutes. Arsenal were increasing the pressure on the Sunderland goal, but Steven Fletcher was free and in on goal yet again on a 59th minute counter, only denied by an Ospina finger as he tried to clip it over.

With 30 minutes to go, neither team seemed as satisfied with the draw as earlier in the game. Arsenal earned a corner on 63 minutes, but Ozil failed to clear the first defender, and groans were heard across the Emirates. Three minutes later, Ozil sent in a cross from the opposite end, but Giroud appeared to be held back by a shirt pull as he was unable to connect effectively with the ball. On 67 minutes, Wenger made his move to change the dynamics of the game, bringing on Walcott for Wilshere, but Fletcher almost opened the scoring with a toe-poked volley that went just over. Arsenal started a flurry of passes around the box that went on for well over a minute without a cross or shot (70’). And even as they were dominating possession, it is fair to say that Sunderland had the better chances to score, particularly in the second half.
Ramsey sent a beautiful through ball to Walcott, just as he had against United, but Walcott was unable to finish the chance (for not the first time since his return from injury). On 74 minutes, Arsenal just missed out on an own goal, as Jones almost headed it in from a cross. Johnson came on right after, replaced by Will Buckley and in the 81st minute, Rosicky came on for a relatively ineffective Ozil. Within a minute, a nice exchange between Rosicky and Walcott almost led to a goal, though what should have been a corner was incorrectly called a goal kick. Ramsey tried his luck with five minutes left, but too close to the Sunderland keeper and the Gunners soon had another corner, though it again led to nothing and Sunderland had a dangerous counter on before an offsides call on Fletcher. Walcott fired a fine shot from inside the box on 87 minutes that should have been in but for a fine save, and the rebound failed to find a Gunner (as they reached their 28th shot of the game).

Yet another cross went long from Ramsey and led to renewed boos from a crowd that looked likely to see a third home game in a row without a goal for the home side (the first time in six and a half years that has happened). The clock hit 90 minutes with only three additional to come, even with the fair bit of time wasting Sunderland had been engaging in throughout the second half. The visitors were able to hold on for the draw and life in the Premier League for at least one more year.

1. Giroud Dip: Giroud was in fine fiddle after returning from injury, scoring 14 goals and adding 3 assists in 25 games in the EPL (and adding 4 more goals and an assist in all competitions). But he has failed to find the net in the last 7, including the scoreless draw today (since scoring on April 4 in a 4-1 win over Liverpool). Rather than powering toward the net as he had been during his run (11 goals in 12 games during a long winning streak for the Gunners), he seemed to be too intent on the one-twos that Arsenal loves, but that rarely work when their opponent is playing 9 in two flanks at the back, and a little off the pace. While he has improved dramatically as a striker, it seems clear that Arsenal still need another quality finisher if they are truly to compete for a title next year, particularly if we look at the dearth of goals during Giroud’s decline (7 goals in 7 games, with 3 of those coming away at Hull City). Some might look to Welbeck, but I think the knock on him of not being a great finisher has continued through most of his first season with Arsenal and Walcott has reverted to form by failing to finish most of his chances (even the goal last week was a diverted cross).

2. Coquelin Importance: Francis Coquelin was given a rest for the first time in 2015 and one could see what the team was missing without him standing in front of the back four. Sunderland weren’t providing much of a threat in the first half, but they did send a few long balls over the top that were mere inches from providing a potential reward, and had at least four quality chances to score in the second, getting through the Gunner defense on the counter with relative ease. These chances showed the importance of Coquelin’s phoenix like renaissance and also, I believe, the need to add a second enforcer DM this summer, to give the Frenchman the occasional break, back him up if he gets injured or to stand beside him when facing the elite offensive teams of the league or Europe.

3. Arsenal Fizzle: the past few years, the Gunners have had to go on late runs to save their perennial participation in the Champions League, including last year when they went from first to fifth in a torpid spell before finishing the season on the up. This year, a fine winning streak after the loss to Tottenham meant they climbed all the way up to second for a time. But over the past few weeks, the results have started going against them, as their offense flounders. They had the 0-0 draw with Chelsea that ended their slim chances of a late charge to the title, a disappointing 1-0 loss at home to Swansea when second place was still in their control, the 1-1 draw with Unite and the listless draw at home today. Has the positive momentum of the winning streak been lost in this run of offensive malaise? It is hard to say, particularly as they could still win the FA Cup for the second year running, but it is pretty disappointing after second place was fully within their grasp. Wenger will get another year, but I really think it should be his last if he can’t mount a true title challenge that persists throughout an entire season. Sure the difference between second and third is of little real consequence, but it would have been a step forward for the Gunners. And the “wait until next year” incantation is really growing tired a decade in.

Sunderland, on the other hand, can celebrate having saved themselves from the drop for the second year running, though this year more comfortably then the incredible run-in required in 2013-14. They can be proud of their defensive shape, but also of the threat they provided on the counter. When Dick Advocaat took over, many maligned the choice, but the veteran manager has done his job, keeping Sunderland in the League for another year after most thought they were among the most likely to finish in the bottom three. Sunderland now has a meaningless final game, while Arsenal will hope to get back to their winning ways against West Brom before the FA Cup Final on the 30th.

A Solution to the Social Security "Crisis"

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The True Costs of our Continued Oil Addiction

When we speak of our addiction to oil, the costs are usually measured in terms of our engagement in the Middle East and climate change. The continuing problems in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Israel are the most acute examples of the ongoing costs of our fealty to OPEC while, just today, another study emerged showing that the tropical atmosphere is warming 80 percent faster than the Earth’s surface (The Guardian), providing further fodder for the oil company sponsored climate change deniers to try to manipulate into a liberal conspiracy. But a more startling cost has just emerged, thanks to the one of the key engines of neoliberal ideology, the International Monetary Fund.

What the IMF found is that fossil fuel companies are benefitting from global subsidies to the tune of $5.3 trillion a year (or almost $10 million a day). In composite, the total is greater than the total health spending of all governments in the world. The vast sum is largely predicated on polluters not paying the costs imposed on governments by the burning of coal, oil and gas, including health related problem cause by air pollution and the floods, droughts and storms being driven by climate change. It is a startling number that puts a more acute focus on the real costs of environmental degradation and our unwillingness to curb carbon emissions.

It also points to the real costs of not pursuing renewable energy sources. If governments took a fraction of that cost and used it to invest in green companies, we could start to address global warming, weaken the political impact of the Middle East and actually live in a world that is less polluted and prone to ecological disaster. On top of that, those diverted government funds could then be used to address pressing issues like health, hunger, poverty and the diminishing quality of life for far too many global citizens. Of course that would mean the diminishing of profits for big oil and gas companies, who are not surprisingly at the UN Climate Change talks this week, arguing their case to continue destroying the planet one drilling site, factory and car at a time (RTCC).

Monday, May 18, 2015

The 10 Biggest Disappointments in European Football This Season

In a few weeks, we can look at the players and teams that had the most success this season, including Chelsea winning back the EPL title with the leadership of Mourinho and inspiration of Costa and Fabergas, Barcelona with a shot at the treble (and fine seasons for the deadly front line of Neymar, Sanchez and, of course, Messi), Ronaldo continuing to break records on the individual level and Juventus adding a Champions League final to another league victory. But before doing that, why not take a look at some of the biggest disappointments of the 2014-15 season …

Angel di Maria

One expected big things from the most expensive player in Premier League history, particularly after a bright start to a season that came on the back of leading Europe in assists last season in helping Real to their 10th European title and a fine World Cup cut short by injury. But after a few highlight reel goals and assists, something appeared to happen to the Argentine, who maybe never wanted the move to United to begin with. His passing started going askew, he got a red against hated Arsenal in an FA Cup loss and gave the ball away time and time again while exposing the defenders behind him. The ignominy has hit new heights as he sits on the bench with only two games left in the season, having played 19 games and scored 3 goals for his 60 million pound fee. Like Ozil the year before, leading Real in assists doesn’t appear to guarantee a seamless transition to the EPL the following year. Ozil has improved dramatically since returning from injury though, and one assumes di Maria will be back to his best next season, though probably not with United.

Gareth Bale

Another Real player who is suffering a year after his heroics played a key role in Copa del Rey and UCL finals, Bale could find himself replacing di Maria at United next year. He started the season in fine form and has scored 19 goals and added 11 assists in all competitions this season, following 22 goals and 16 last term. But he has only scored only 3 goals in his last 19 games (with 5 assists), only 1 in his last 9, and was abject in the two leg loss to Juve, faltering on three chances to send them back to the final in the second half of the second leg alone. The negativity from an unforgiving Madrid crowd appeared to take a minor drop in form and transformed it into a crisis of confidence that appears to mean the most expensive transfer in football history might be back on the market two years after arriving in Spain. I don’t think he can be considered another U.K. failure “down under” after a blistering first season, but might be yet another warning to British players thinking about moving on to Spain in the future.

Radamel Falcoa

Staying with United, we have one of the biggest striker flops in recent memory; a player United pays 265,000 pound a week (along with a loan fee of 6 million pounds) for four goals and more misses than a 10-minute lowlight reel could assemble. Falcoa will be moving on after this forgettable season, seemingly a shell of the player that built a world-class resume with Porto, Atletico and then Monaco before a knee injury appears to have diminished his talent and confidence possibly beyond repair. At 29, the right coach might be able to rejuvenate his flailing career, but one assumes that will not be Van Gaal and the clock is ticking.

Yaya Toure

Toure was one of the main reasons Man City won the title last season, and played a key role in their first title two years earlier. Yesterday, he scored a brace to push City into more firm control over second place in a 4-2 win over Swansea City. But it is clear that his form has declined this season, along with the rest of the team (except maybe Aguero and Silva), and that charges of lack of effort seem most aimed at the Ivory Coast international who finally saw his stacked team win an elusive African Cup of Nations title in January. His absence might have played a part in City’s inability to defend their title as well, though that problem seems to relate more to the failure of Brazilian duo Fernando and Fernandinho to shore up the space in front of a more porous back four.

Vincent Kompany

That porous back four includes a very disappointing Mangala, who cost City 31.8 million pounds last summer, but also a Belgian who has experienced a surprising decline in form. Kompany was arguably one of the best defenders in the world over the past few seasons, impressive on both sides of the pitch by chipping in with key goals on occasion (ala John Terry). But this season the mistakes that showed up a little last term have become more common and there are real questions emerging of whether his best days are behind him. His positioning seems off, he is beaten one on one a little too frequently and seems to have lost the dominance that once made him so great. Toure and he are just two examples of an aging squad that clearly needs youth injections next season.

Borussia Dortmund

The Klopp project at Dortmund had been in decline over the past couple of years, after winning two Bundesliga titles in a row (2010-12), the DFB-Pokal (2012) and Supercup (2013, 14), as well as just missing out to rival Bayern Munich in the finals of the 2013 Champions League final. Two many of their best players have left, mainly for rival Bayern, and injuries decimated the squad early. They have since moved up from the relegation zone, but will miss out at Champions League football next year, probably lose more stars and be without the coach that led their rise to the cream of Europe. Money is arguably the biggest reason for the decline, though one could also argue that teams adapted to their press and counter strategy, making it less effective over time. One assumes Klopp will be fielding offers across the continent, though it is unclear where he will end up at the moment.


But for a Gerrard slip. That iconic image of one of the most iconic figures in English football history cost Liverpool their 20th league title last year, but there was great hope they would again challenge for the title. After the “bite felt round the world” at the World Cup this summer, the time had finally come to move on Suarez and Brendan Rodgers was then charged with turning that big fee from Barcelona into the sort of replacements that could push the Reds forward. Instead players including the three-Ls (Lallana, Lambert and Lovren), Markovich and, most auspiciously, Balotelli, failed to live up to the hype and the team took several steps backwards this term. The declining form of their star, the ongoing injury saga of Sturridge and defensive lapses at key moments all contributed to the fall after a good middle-season run saw them on the cusp of claiming fourth place. Two years without a trophy means Rodgers now finds himself on the hot seat and needing to locate reinforcements that can push them above one of the four teams in front of them.
Pep Guardiola

Can one call a season winning the league a failure? Well, when you are the coach of a Bayern team that won the treble two years ago, the answer appears to be a resounding yes. For the second year running, Guardiola’s team was smashed by Spanish opponents in the semifinals of the UCL, this time by the team he called home from his playing days until his departure three years ago. The fact the medical team for the past 30 years stormed off in protest only adds to the sense that Guardiola has one more season at most before he departs for Greener pastures, quite possibly the Powder Blue variety of Manchester. Injuries have clearly played a role in the underperformance, but their inability to match up against Real and Barcelona in successive years has to at least partially come down to the coach.

Carlo Ancelotti

As the New Year started, Real Madrid had just ended a long winning streak, were ahead in the league, undefeated in the Group Stage of the Champions League and looked set for more glory in May. A slipup in January and early February pushed a resurgent Barca above them in the table before a tight 2-1 loss in the latest El Classico meant they would need help to win the league. A Barcelona draw gave them hope but a draw of their own last week meant they needed to make up four points and a goal difference deficit in two games. Bad went to worse as an equalizer from Juve in the second half pushed them out of the UCL Final and a chance at repeating. And then the likely became the reality, as Barcelona sewed up the title at a team Real just can’t beat this year – Atletico – cancelling out a 4-1 win for Los Blancos over Espanyol. The team did win the UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup in the first half of the season, but will add no more silverware this year and one assumes the Italian will be back on the market come the summer, not least for his inability to beat the team Barcelona just took down.

League Title Race Drama

Chelsea and Man City were tied at the top of the EPL as the New Year began only for City to fade as Chelsea solidified their lead. Arsenal snuck into the race in April heading into a key matchup with their crosstown rivals at the Emirates, but their hopes were slim from the onset and ended with a drab 0-0 draw. In La Liga, the El Classico between Real and Barcelona on March 22 appeared to be the match of the season, with the winner likely to take the crown. And that is exactly what happened with Barcelona winning 2-1 on the way to securing the title with a game left in hand. Real will look back on a few head scratching results costing them the title for the second year running (in the very unforgiving La Liga race, where one draw can make all the difference). Bayern Munich and Juventus ran away with their league titles for the third year running (in Germany and Italy, of course) and PSG did the same, after a tight race with Lyon for most of the season. Teams are still fighting for positions in the Champions League, the Europa League or to stave off elimination, but it is a rather anticlimactic end to a scintillating season.

Dishonorable Mentions

Adebayor (Tottenham)
Roberto Martinez and the Everton Defense
Newcastle Post-Pardew
Roy Keane (as Aston Villa Assistant)
The Entire QPR Team (including Rio’s sayonara and ‘Arry’s knees)
Hull City Newbies (Hernandez, Ramirez, Ben Arfa)
Robin Van Persie (though injuries played a role)
Munich Injury List

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Three Things: Manchester United 1 Arsenal 1

Whenever Manchester United and Arsenal meet, you expect a quality game with plenty of excitement and open play. That doesn’t always happen, of course, but players on both sides seem to up their games for this one, though United’s stars more often in the last decade. Arsenal started brightly in this game at Old Trafford, but United quickly stole the momentum and created several half chances within the first minutes before the opener by Herrera from a cross by resurgent Ashley Young on 30 minutes. From here, United largely dominated the game, pressing high and attacking with verve. Arsenal went into the locker room down 1-0 and without a single shot on goal. The second half started much as the first with United in the ascendancy and the Gunners having trouble scrapping together more than three passes at a time.

Around the hour mark, Arsenal appeared to wake up and had several corners in quick succession, but their finishing was suspect for the second game running. In the 73rd minute, De Gea went off, for possibly the last time at Old Trafford, replaced by Victor Valdez – just as Wilshere and Walcott came on for Bellerin and Walcott (with Coquelin moving to right back). Arsenal were pushing hard for the equalizer, with Walcott marginally offsides with his first touch followed by a poor pass by Wilshere that led to a United corner. Walcott then gave up the ball two more times in quick succession and the Arsenal momentum seemed to temper considerably. Just when I was thinking Wenger had made the wrong move in a key game yet again, Walcott snatched a beautiful long pass, curled around Blackwell and scored on a deflection off the United defender who had come in less than ten minutes earlier (adjudged to be an own goal on 82’). Arsenal were suddenly rampant and had a couple of chance to pull ahead, with Giroud just missing the far post and then Smalling intervening on another chance for the Frenchman a minute later. Van Persie almost scored in the 88th minute off a nice header pass from Fellaini, but his shot was just high (it would have been his 4th for United in six games against his old club, but might very well be the last time we see him in red). Sanchez had a shot right at Valdez before being taken off in the 90th minute for Flamini, with five minutes of extra time still in the balance. Both teams had chances in that final flurry, but the game ended in a draw that was a better result for Arsenal in the race for third place.

Three thoughts on the game, as the season stands one week from its conclusion:

1. Young Renaissance Continues; Herrera Impresses: After 13 straight games without giving up a goal in the first half, Arsenal finally conceded, as Monreal left Herrera free behind him, where he was able to finish a nice lofted cross from Ashley Young. It was Herrera’s sixth of the season, on exactly six shots on goal! Bellerin, the surprise of the season according to Wenger (though Coquelin has to be strong competition for that title, given that most didn’t think he would ever play for Arsenal again), was beaten by a rejuvenated Young, reminding the youngster that he still has things to learn in his nascent career at the top level. And one could say that it again showed two players that have been key to United reentering the Top 4 – Ashley Young was rampant down the left and Herrera scored the goal and was impressive with his passing and defensive pressing throughout. One expects many changes at United in the offseason, with Van Persie, Falcoa, De Gea and the most expensive player in EPL history (Di Maria) all likely to go, but these two would be expected to return after real questions about both earlier in the season.

2. Sanchez Shrinking: there’s no getting around how important Alexis Sanchez has been to Arsenal in his first season with the club, scoring the only goal in a two leg battle with Besiktas that got them into the main draw of the Champions League, keeping them near the top during the injury crisis of the first half and having many game winners in their winning streak. But one thing he does need to work on is giving the ball away, particularly on the defensive end. In the first 13 minutes of the game, Sanchez gave the ball to United on five occasions, twice just outside the box leading to United chances and twice killing decent counters. As the game wore on, he continued to give the ball away through poor passes and over dribbling. No one can fault his effort, drive to win or finishing, but he does need to make slightly better decisions in some cases – mainly getting rid of the ball more quickly rather than constantly taking on two or three defenders (one of the biggest problems with Wilshere’s game, by the way) and improving his passing on the counter.

The same could be said of Giroud in this game, seemingly past his purple patch and looking a little off his best for the third or fourth game running, his first touch failing him, his movement out of sync, his pace failing him and his passing somewhere between poor and abject (in line with the rest of the team). Even given that form, he was a fine De Gea save away from equalizing in the 62nd minute, after tracking back to snag an Ozil cut back that was behind him and almost put Arsenal ahead on 84 minutes with a shot that was just wide of the far post. He may need a rest before the FA Cup final in a fortnight.

3. Wenger United Woes Waning: Arsenal have won only one of the last 12 in the league against United, at the heart of the critique of Wenger over the past decade. And it is not just losing, but the inability to play their best in the biggest games. Even when United is struggling, they still seem to find a way to get the best of Arsenal, as they did in both games last year. This year, Arsenal have shown some new resolve, beating United at Old Trafford in the FA Cup and City 2-0 in an impressive display; as well as beating Liverpool soundly. But even in the positive 2015, they lost to Southampton on New Years Day, to hated Tottenham 2-1 at White Hart Lane, could only draw 0-0 with Chelsea at the Emirates and blew a very winnable tie against Monaco by losing the first leg 3-1. When Arsenal are playing poorly, they give up the ball too often, try to beat defenders dribbling and send imprecise passes past charging players. It is often the case that pressing them can break up their momentum and cause them to then look shaky on the defensive end. United was playing that strategy to perfection, but hadn’t kept a clean sheet for 7 games, and that continued in this game – as Arsenal played much better over the final 30 minutes, getting the equalizer and unlucky not to claim the victory. The draw all but sewed up third place for Arsenal (who only really need a point from their final two games, barring a United scoring explosion in their finale) and means that the Gunners can avoid the perilous and early season interrupting two-leg qualifying round next August.

Overall, Arsenal will be disappointed to lose out at a strong chance at second place by drawing with Chelsea, losing to Swansea and drawing with United after a long winning streak, but can take some gratification in besting their great rivals twice on the road in four months and moving up to third place for the first time since 2012, while still having the FA Cup final to contest in two short weeks. Manchester United will also feel bittersweet content in meeting the minimum goal for next year – ensuring a Top Four finish and return to the Champions League – though this will be the second year running without any silverware to a team that had become rather accustomed to it over the past two decades. They will be worried, I assume, about the goalkeeping situation, with De Gea looking likely to leave and the recognition that he is probably the single most important reason they will finish above Liverpool this season. And more changes appear in the offing for a team still in post-Fergie transition. But as Seneca once said, every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. New beginnings are on offer for both teams next season, along with the other 18 Premier League Teams.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Nation Attacks Clinton: Should We Listen?

These are not easy days for the left, and the once venerated The Nation is suffering right along with the rest of the marginalized gang. One of the many successful strategies conservatives have pursued to undermine their ideological enemies in recent years is either decreasing funding (ala PBS and NPR) or increasing the costs of postage for magazines, often forcing lower circulation publications to seek funding beyond their traditional base. PBS and NPR have responded by looking to corporate sponsors to make up the shortfall, pushing their content more to the center in the process and undermining the idea of “public” media in the process. The Nation hasn’t yet undermined their political resolve, but they appear to have raised the stakes in their own funding battle by sending out an email to all their subscribers shilling the latest Clinton attack book, Clinton Cash.

The book, written by conservative Peter Schweizer, has been heavily criticized by the Clinton team and other media outlets as littered with errors and outright lies, leading Schweizer to make some corrections. But why would The Nation being pushing the book in the first place? Some, appear to be arguing The Nation has turned away from its liberal/progressive roots, even as they played an instrumental role in the rise and ultimate victory of Bill de Blasio in the Mayoral race less than 18 months ago. The reality is probably completely different, however, as The Nation has been consistently pushing for a more progressive alternative to the Clinton candidacy before she even announced.

To me, the email really sums up the conundrum for the left ever since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981. Should they support a truly “liberal,” or I guess one should say “progressive,” candidate and most likely lose the election or moderate their ideological position to win the battle of the “lesser of two evils.” It was obviously the first Clinton that best demonstrated the dilemma. He finally broke the 12-year stranglehold of the Presidency by Republicans (a trend that actually stretched back to 1968, and controlling the highest office in the land for 20 of 24 years). But what did Clinton do during his eight years in charge? As he and his DLCers promised, they followed more conservative economic policies while being more progressive on the social issues (arguably pushing the social conservatives to numerous victories ever since). Given his ideological leanings, one would not be surprised to discover that beyond overseeing a decade of economic growth (though partially based on the Internet bubble), he also became the most effective purveyor of conservative (neoliberal) policy ever, including the following “achievements”: 1. Tough on crime legislation that dramatically increased the number of minorities in prison for minor drug offenses (the total incarcerated population stands at 2.2 million today), 2. Deregulation of media that now allows five companies to control more than 90 percent of what we see, hear and read, 3. Deregulation of the banking industry (arguably directly increasing personal debt and contributing to the 2007 financial crisis), 4. Increasing income inequality, and 5. Expanding free trade (through NAFTA, most famously) spreading the neoliberal ideology across the globe as never before.

The prospect of another Clinton, who may be even more conservative than her husband, in the Oval Office is a proposition largely overshadowed by the sense that she could march to a relatively easy victory and finally smash the political glass ceiling; at least at the top. But what will this mean for the progressive agenda? Will it mean at least another four years of fealty before Wall Street and the corporate agenda for America? Will it imply continued disinterest in addressing the growing climate change perils? Will it lead to purely rhetorical answers to the continued accumulation of wealth and income in the hands of the few? And will it ultimately be continuation of the neoliberal policies that have essentially made the quality of life of the average citizen on the globe worse?

These are important questions that go beyond one advertisement and whether The Nation is a turncoat to the liberal cause. They are questions about the very future of the country and its citizens. And many of us might then stand beside The Nation and demand better for our nation than another Clinton or, god forbid, Bush in the highest office in the land.