Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bibi On the Brink

This afternoon, the Likud party chairman, Binyamin 'Bibi' Netanyahu finally received President Shimon Peres' official letter of appointment as prime minister. After the failure of his own desperate last-ditch efforts to gather Kadima leader Tzipi Livni's support for a unity government on Friday, Peres formally entrusted Netanyahu with the task of building a coalition.

Netanyahu insisted he had been willing to "go to great lengths" in order to get Kadima to join his government, but, after their meeting yesterday, Livni was in no mood for compromise. Having rejected the president's plea that she reconsider joining a coalition comprised of the three largest parties - Kadima, Likud and Beiteinu - Livni insisted that a "broad coalition is worthless if it is not governed by values."

Netanyahu is caught on the jagged horns of a distinct dilemma. Having insisted repeatedly during the campaign that not forming a national-unity government when he was prime minister from 1996-99 was his worst-ever political mistake, Bibi is desperate to bring Likud on board. How desperate? A source at the Jerusalem Post insists he has offered her five portfolios in his cabinet.

Livni, however, has made her vows to the party faithful. She rejects any notion that she could be a "fig leaf" for a right-wing government. A text message was sent out to 80,000 Kadima loyalists’ cell phones yesterday. "Today, the foundations of a right-wing extremist government under Netanyahu were set. The path of such a government is not our own and we have nothing to look for there. You didn't vote for us in order to provide a kosher certificate for a right-wing government, and we need to provide an alternative of hope from the opposition. We were not elected to legitimize an extreme right government and we must be an alternative of hope and go to opposition"

Livni is not playing coy here. She refuses to sacrifice her ideology, which is far removed from that of the Likud. Netanyahu's Likud came a close second in the elections but was given the opportunity to form a cabinet because of the strong performance in general of right-wing parties in general. He has six weeks to put together a majority coalition. Having failed to seduce Livni, the Likud leader promptly called on his other major rival, Ehud Barak, of Labour to join him in a broad national unity government. Yet, despite his anemic showing in the polls, Barak says he is tired of serving in unity coalitions and insists that he, too, wants to be part of the opposition. Without Livni and Barak, Bibi can put together a coalition of extremists, but it will only have a slim majority and will run into a tidal wave of international criticism.

Netanyahu's platform has nothing to say concerning the world economic crisis. Obsessed with Iran's nuclear ambitions, and "Iranian terrorism surrounding us from the south and the north" – a reference to Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. His high-pitched rhetoric ratchets up the stakes in middle eastern politics just as Hillary Clinton starts taking baby steps as the U.S. Secretary of State. Cynics say that Bibi's hysteria is for the benefit of Avigdor Lieberman, whose far-right party, having won 15 seats, has turned him into the king maker of these elections.

Goodman and Netanyahu are very different people, but their most extreme positions are mutually shared. Goodman is a religious zealot. He wants to take away all rights for Israeli Arabs and expel them all to some heretofore unnamed place. As the Palestinians of Gaza refuse to reject Hamas, Goodman wants to empty Gaza of all Palestinians. This insane political position is mutually agreed upon by Bibi. The reality of a genocidal war costing tens of thousands of lives seems to touch no ethical nerve in either politician. On the other hand, after participating in a Ma'Ariv poll concerning levels of 'preventitive measures' as well as various other doomsday scenarios, it is a deep cause of concern to me that at least one-third of the Israeli public are so concerned with the intransigence of Iran and its terrorist acolytes that genocide is actually considered a viable alternative.

At the same time, playing into the hands of Goodman and Netanyahu while embarrassing the former foreign minister, Livni, Hamas flatly rejects Israel's demand that it free a captive soldier in return for lifting the blockade of the Gaza Strip. Mousa Abu Marzook, the deputy leader of Hamas, accuses Israel of backtracking over a truce agreement, insisting that Corporal Gilad Shalit will only be released in return for hundreds of Hamas prisoners locked up in Israeli jails. "We will not change our position," he told The Guardian in Damascus yesterday. "This is a moral judgment against Israel. Israel has had moral support and legitimacy since the second world war and its propaganda has described Hamas as a terrorist group. There's been a real change on those two points - but this mass support has not managed to break the blockade of Gaza."

Is Bibi Netanyahu the one who can end conflict in the Middle East? I say, categorically, no!!! Once a handsome, suave, fit, sophisticated man of the world with an M.I.T. education, Netanyahu maneuvered his way into the Israeli corridors of power through his appointment as Israeli ambassador to the U.S, during the years when Menachem Begin was the Likud prime minister. Legendary for his huge penis, sexual staying power and the ability to wine, dine and screw hundreds of Washington women, especially those in the press corps, Bibi was charming on television, and, although slightly hawkish in his politics, he was always amenable to discussing hopes of a Palestinian homeland with the likes of Ted Koppel and Dan Rather on the U.S. networks.

When Menachem Begin stepped down as prime minister after the death of his wife, Netanyahu became the anointed one. Unfortunately, as prime minister, Bibi's penchant for sex and corruption multiplied out of all proportion. Bribery is not frowned upon in Israeli society. All transactions seem to be accompanied by a nod, a wink and a fistful of dollars instead of shekels. Yet, the level of overt greed during Netanyahu's administration rose to unmanageable proportions. No female was safe in the vicinity of Bibi or his hand-picked cabinet. The scandal finally broke in 1997 when Bibi's wife, tired of ever being the cuckold, broke down and contacted her journalist friends. As a result, various kiss-and-tell stories appeared in newspapers around the world, a scandal too specific and too sleazy for even an open-minded cosmopolitan Israeli public to deal with.

Disgraced, Netanyahu stayed out of the public eye and kept a low profile. The Israeli public, however, are very forgiving, particularly in Bibi's case as he was doing what my friend Eli says is "what any Israeli male would do if he was in his position." Nowadays Bibi is fat and sassy. His once conservative rhetoric now skirts the borderline of racism concerning Iran and the Palestinians. There is no doubt that he will be able to form a cabinet. It is, of course, impossible to know if he will be reckless enough to attack Iran's nuclear facilities without the tacit agreement of the new Obama administration. Should he be crazy enough to do this, all bets are off as to what happens next in the Middle East.

As for Tzipi Livni, the possibility of decades in power awaits her if she waits patiently for Netanyahu to hang himself. The vegetarian daughter of two Polish-born Irgun freedom fighters, she is a bootstrap Sabra. Educated at Bir-Zeit University, after doing her military service, Livni spent more than a decade as a Mossad officer, working underground for two years in Lebanon during the civil war. The Mossad is the ultimate boys' club in a macho country. Yet she succeeded. Consequently, to succeed in both the Mossad and the ruthless cauldron that is the Knesset before being picked out for her brilliance by the former prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and made foreign minister, means Tzipporah Malka Livni is made of the right stuff. Benyamin Netanyahu is intellectually overmatched by her.

At this moment, the Israeli public still refuses to accept the intransigence of Hamas and feels the last Olmert government should not have made its two short wars and subsequent truces so easily. The detritus of any new conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah will see Israel face a lose/lose scenario, no matter what. A right-wing coalition, according to some conservative fantasies, especially the likes of Elliot Abrams and Richard Perle in the U.S., might be just the ticket to intimidate Hamas to sit down at the table. Having eaten our collective humble pie after 9/11 and two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans ought to show due diligence and tread lightly in the Negev. Provided Netanyahu is not insane enough to attack Iran and turn Israel into the world's Typhoid Mary. If anyone can sit down at a table with Mousa Abu Marzook, Khaled Mashael, Ismael Haniyah and Mahmoud Zahar, the leadership of Hamas, and then, ultimately, their mullah masters in Tehran, it's her. For now Tzipi just has to out wait Bibi's fat ass.

The Cleaner's Dirty Hands

Michael Clayton

Ivorismo Rating: ****

George Clooney has finally found a script worthy of his unique talent. Lurking behind the ubër cool of the Oceans 11/12 franchise, the T.V. doctor, and, literally, scores of mere bagatelles of situation comedies and, hundreds of sportive cameos, we all knew that there was a less slick, more ruthless incubus growing inside Clooney, burning to be let loose. This performance, however, is no mere dalliance. George Clooney is Michael Clayton! They are one and the same.

To say George Clooney brings a veneered, relentless force to the title role of Michael Clayton is an estimable understatement. Clayton is a fixer for a powerful law firm. He labors incognito. “Everybody knows who you are. Everybody that needs to know,” says his ruthless boss, Marty, before sending him off on another covert mission. A powerful secret prince of New York City, Michael works in the shadows, cleaning up the messes made by other rich, powerful people. If a gentile had fixed the World Series, that gentile would have been Michael Clayton. Always the realist, he tells other lawyer’s clients what they don't want to hear. He kills rich folks’ fantasies, lets them know exactly where the limits of their power end. In one particularly resonant scene, a client guilty of a hit-and-run complains bitterly that he was told Clayton was a miracle worker. "I'm not a miracle worker," Clayton sighs, like he’s got dog shit smeared on the soles of his Brooks Brothers wing-tips. “I’m a janitor."

Clooney looks like he’s modeling for the cover of Esquire. It's the right look: Boxy conservative suit, power tie, clean shaven, pomaded hair in place: All the better because Clayton spends equal time being dirty and disheveled because a lot of things have gone walkabout in his life. Amicably divorced, a man of routine, he drives his son to school every morning, hangs with him on Saturdays. His life looks prosperous, but the purring Mercedes Benz is leased by the firm and the restaurant he bought for his crackhead brother has just closed. He needs $75,000 pronto or the Irish Outfit will whack his brother, Timmy. Girlfriend? None. A lot of wisecracks about a gambling addiction he may, or may not have, overcome. Hanging around high-stakes poker games in Chinatown seems to be a masochistic way for Clayton to test himself. Yet, throughout it all, Clayton is zen calm. Waiting for his next clean-up gig.

Clayton works with Marty Bach, the head partner in the law firm. As Bach, Sydney Pollack’s performance oozes authority, cynicism and a dark, sarcastic intelligence. Clayton’s big mission is to handle one of Bach's top partners. Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson). Edens has gone ape shit berserk, stripping naked in Milwaukee during a deposition hearing and then running through a parking lot in the snow. We see the video of this deposition and it is not a pretty sight. One wincing witness is Karen Crowder, the chief legal executive for one of Marty Bach's most important clients, a corporation being sued for its malicious pollution of the well water supply somewhere in Wisconsin. The bottom line of this plot is that the corporation is guilty and is being sued for billions. The law firm knows it is guilty( it is being paid millions to run the defense), when, suddenly, Arthur Edens has his freak-out epiphany and realizes he holds the smoking gun of his own clients and partners guilt in his hands. That the corporation decides to bump Arthur off is no surprise. The way in which Clayton, ostensibly only brought in to fumigate and fix the mess, inadvertently gets sucked into this quagmire of deceit and then also becomes a target for the corporation’s death squad is masterfully plotted by the film’s writer/director Tony Gilroy.

Enough of the plot. In naming the film after Michael Clayton, Gilroy insinuates that the story centers on his life and loyalties. The son of a cop, once a cop himself, Clayton has been brilliant in law school and as a prosecutor in the state Attorney General’s Organized Crime Task Force. So brilliant was Clayton that he became not the prosecutor or public defender of lore; instead, he’s the Fixer/Lawyer Supreme. In one of his supreme fixer-deluxe moments, Michael is rescued by his detective brothers-in-law. This unnamed Irish cop with huge saddlebags under his jaded eyes, gets the best soliloquy in a movie scripted with a curt muscularity. “Everybody’s fooled,” he hisses at Michael. “You’ve got all these cops thinkin’ you’re a lawyer and all the lawyers thinkin’ you’re a cop. You’ve got everybody fooled. Everybody but you.” How odd then that this incredibly successful man from a Working Class background leads an existence that feels deeply hollow. His life is his work punctuated by glistening moments of family togetherness. There's a lovely bit where, celebrating his father’s birthday, Clayton gets one of his cleaner calls. You expect him to leave, do that familiar job-over-family trope; yet, instead, a withering bit of sarcasm from his sister carries the real muscle in the family and he stays. Why he stays--guilt, love, both--is less important than the notion that there’s still a lot of good in Michael Clayton despite his dirty hands.

The mumbled shards of familiarity exchanged with his painfully obsequious crackhead brother, Timmy, as Michael leaves the party, show the inexorable grinding of the gears of responsibility. Bereft of all self-respect, a creature of contempt: Is this pitiful man with a price on his head worthwhile saving when he threatens to destroy both Clayton’s family and job? Well (Sigh!), Michael Clayton is his brother’s keeper! Clooney’s Clayton is in many ways a modern mirror of John Wayne’s lonesome noble warrior of the West, his steed a Mercedes with a GPS device. He doesn’t gamble any more, we learn, although in a kinky masochistic sort of way Clayton likes to dawdle around games. Still, he’s certainly not the archetypal self-pitying Irish boozer we might expect him to be, either. There’s no wife or girlfriend or half-full bottle of Jameson’s, just the scores of folks he looks after.

The legal thriller has been rendered formulaic by John Grisham and an army of imitators over the last 20 years. High stakes corporate and political hijinx melds with recent American history in Grisham’s work. The reader, far more easily seduced than the writer’s characters, by the corporate empires, elegant women, fast cars, and conveniently filed paperwork, cash money and craftily hidden clues, knows the formula. Gilroy, having long paid his dues writing adaptations of other people’s novels and ideas, shaping successful scripts like Armageddon, Proof of Life, The Devil’s Advocate, and the three Jason Bourne movies out of other peoples work, knows how to take something bland and render it unique. Directing from his own script for the first time, Gilroy takes every legal thriller cliché and throws it into the washing machine. Beginning neither at the beginning, nor the end, Gilroy revs the clutch and throws us into the plot about 2/3rds of the way through, spinning a yarn of red herring about a gambling problem and a debt of honor before reversing to the beginning and speeding through an ocean of wicked shenanigans. There’s deadly well-water pollution going on in Wisconsin and the evil corporation knows no limits when the stakes are high. Sound familiar? Well yes and no. Gilroy is clever enough not to get bogged down in any kind of message mode concerning corporate pollution. His movie is not about the plot so much as how the two lawyers, the fixer-versus-the corporate-assassin, and, ultimately, unavoidably, good-versus-evil, travel to their showdown.

What keeps this perfect Swiss-watch of a script a step from perfection is the vapid one-note performance of the albino-like English actress, Tilda Swinton. She is dreadful. Her American accent the sum opposite of Dick Van Dyke’s cockney in Mary Poppins. There are no accidents in good scripts and, when we first meet Swinton’s corporate killer of a lawyer, Karen Crowder, she is girding her loins for the approaching showdown, sniffing at her armpits. This brilliant bit of business, had it been interpreted by a performer of intelligence, could have supplied an edifice of emotion to her character. Instead of showing us clues concerning Crowder's utter lack of scruple--How could something so rotten and uninhibited exist in her?--Swinton conjures up a millionairess tot who's had her lollipop pilfered. Swinton sniffs, mopes, trembles and snarls like some pantomime parody of Medea. By the time the showdown arrives, Swinton is bereft of ideas; Karen Crowder has melted down into a series of blinks, trembles, whispers and hissing noises. Having been vanquished by Clayton, bathed in fluorescent sterility, her answer to his boast that he is “Shiva the God of death’ is to sink to the thick corporate carpet on all fours. I’ve seen this brilliant movie four times now and, as is my wont, have taken to closing my eyes, disappearing Ms. Swinton and replacing her with Kathy Baker, Jody Foster or Joaquin Phoenix. I can dream, right?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dubya Wanna Beism

This week in San Francisco you’ll be hard pressed to discern the Obama administration from its predecessor. This case involves five men suing a Boeing subsidiary, Jeppesen Data Plan, claiming that it was instrumental for their extraordinary rendition and repeated torture during the Bush administration. Directly after the suit was filed, the Bush Justice Department invoked the state secrets privilege, arguing that the case needed to be dismissed because of its risk to national security. A lower court judge agreed. Naturally, the plaintiffs appealed.

Arguments were heard before a panel of the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Surprisingly, lawyers from the Obama Justice Department said they were adhering to the state-secrets defense. Shrill howls of condemnation from civil liberties advocates are already being heard loud and clear. In the course of the campaign, President Obama had pledged to undo the Bush administration's secretive policies; yet, given his first opportunity to reverse policy, the President has embraced his predecessor's approach. The Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. and the Justice Department decided that no part of the case could be litigated without risking a national security leak. They could actually be right, but who can say because all of the case’s relevant issues are based on classified information. Consequently, if the executive branch institutionally errs on the side of nondisclosure then the judicial review in such cases becomes so circumscribed that it is impossible for justice to be done.

Thank God for Teddy Kennedy, my friends. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) has reintroduced legislation that will theoretically protect the president's authority to defend national security interests while giving plaintiffs a fighting chance in court. This bill will allow judges to privately review information which the government asserts is too sensitive for publication or public dissemination. A judge would also own the ability to appoint a specialist with the security clearance and intelligence expertise to perform the review. This would allow a plaintiff's lawyer (once again with appropriate security clearances) to review information the court deemed not having fallen under the state-secrets claim. Material considered too sensitive for direct review could, Senator Kennedy believes, be made available in an unclassified summary. At the same time, judges could still choose to exclude evidence or dismiss the case. Both sides would then have the right to immediately appeal.

The issues surrounding rendition and torture are too numerous to discuss here. Too many errors of omission and arrogance were committed by the previous administration in the name of Homeland Security. I am not one of those whose mouths froth at the idea of torture utilized as an instrument of statecraft. Complex issues ought not to be discussed in the foggy gray haze of battle between black and white absolutes. I will not, however, stand by while any administration attempts to abrogate citizen rights without due process.

It will serve the public for us all to keep up our vigilance. Mr. Holder animatedly insisted that he would carefully review the executive branch's use of the state-secrets doctrine to ensure that it was being invoked in accordance with law during his confirmation hearings. The democratic process needs to be kept in action. The Obama administration has to walk its talk and not attempt any sleight of hand to mask or hide any unsavory episodes from the public. We trust that Mr. Holder will not be as knee-jerk or blithe about invoking the shield as previous administrations. Trust in matters as important as this one will not be easily forthcoming from any concerned side.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Adio Giuseppe!!!

90 nights after trouncing 30-1 favourite, the self-described Mr. Phenomenon, Roy Jones, Jr., to remain undefeated over a glorious 46 professional fight career, Joe Calzaghe has announced his retirement. Without doubt the finest British boxer of his generation, Calzaghe can righteously claim to be the greatest British boxing champion of them all. Having plied his ruthless trade since 1993, the champ felt the time was right.

"It's been a difficult decision but I achieved everything I wanted to achieve in boxing," said the 36-year-old Calzaghe. "I've been a world champion for 11 years."

Looking at that magnificent Italian mug, the scar tissue around his eye sockets like two curled-up pink snakes, I can't help but think that his timing is immaculate. "I've seen too many great fighters have that one fight too many. I had a long think with my family. My children wanted me to give up, plus my mum, and that's why I called it a day and will go on to do something else.

All of the London reporters crew, including those tuned in on closed circuit from Cardiff, Vegas and New York, are all, I'm sure, feeling very relieved. Joe Calzaghe is a lovely man in a corrupt, ruthless business. He knits the fingers of both hands together and stares at his shoes.

"I've been boxing for 25 years. You can never say never in this game but I can't see myself boxing again." He winks at me. I nod back. Then he answers one of my questions, so I won't have to ask it. "There's loads of things I want to do. I'm proud to be one of the only few fighters in history to retire undefeated. There's always a temptation to fight on, especially if you are the champ and no one has ever beaten you. But I've come to the point where the satisfaction of retiring undefeated has to outweigh the thrill of another fight."

Trained by his father, Enzo, a quiet man who drove him in the gym with the kind of ruthless determination that only a close family might have dared to dish out, Joe always approached each upcoming fight with a genuine sense of monastic dedication. After Calzaghe became the WBO world super-middleweight champion in 1997, when he out pointed Chris Eubank. After that fight, Giuseppe and Enzo, father and son, sat for over an hour sipping Enzo's home-made cherry wine, discussing moves as if they'd just been in a chess match. This quirky little ceremony of theirs went on as Joe made 21 straight defenses. Reporters knew that, after a Calzaghe fight, there'd be a lull. Time enough have a beer and write some intro copy.

His victory over the hitherto undefeated American Jeff Lacy in March 2006 was hailed as career-defining. Lacy had been a 25-1 favourite, even with the London bookies, when Calzaghe took him to school. Still, Calzaghe insisted it was his points win over the Danish WBC and WBA champion Mikkel Kessler, in a brutal unification contest in front of 50,000 partisan Welsh fans at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium which was easily his greatest night. "Oh man, I was fighting a younger fighter than me, I was the underdog. A lot of people thought I was going to lose that fight," Calzaghe said.

A 'lot of people,' hunh? The whole boxing world, including yours truly, thought Joe was about to meet his Waterloo. Kessler had all the tools, but Enzo and Joe's game plan smothered him into neutrality. Staying inside Kessler, slipping punches and absorbing blows thrown without the kind of leverage that Kessler needed to get off, Calzaghe ultimately destroyed the Dane's will and overwhelmed with relentless accurate punching. It was a boxing masterpiece and Calzaghe was seen as a true artiste!

A year ago came payoff time. After being dodged for years by the durable Bernard Hopkins, Joe won big-money light heavyweight fights in the US against both Hopkins and Roy Jones, Jr. No, said the pundits, once again, feeling that fighting in Vegas was a bridge too far for a boxer so in tune with his fanatical bloc of fans in Cardiff and London. Both fighters, equally as long in tooth as Calzaghe, gambled on Giuseppe having lost his edge after taking on every young fighter they had each dodged at the behest of their promoter, Don King.

On April 19, 2008, accompanied by an army of singing Welshmen, Joe Calzaghe turned Las Vegas' Thomas & Mack stadium into Merthyr Tydfil for a night. After being stunned by a Hopkins combination in round one, with a choir of Welsh fanatics singing Sospen Fach at a deafening level of intensity, Calzaghe completely dominated his opponent and won a unanimous points victory.

Seventh months later, on November 8, Calzaghe fought Roy Jones, Jr. at the legendary Madison Square Garden in New York City. In the campaign leading up to the fight, Jones unloosed a barrage of braggadocio and racism. "I can't never go home to the projects if I lose to this white man," he said. "I'm gonna kill his ass." Promises! Promises! Jones knocked Calzaghe down in the first round, but that was his one and only moment of promise. Calzaghe took every round thereafter on each judge's card, winning a unanimous victory on points. This time I had known better than to speak ill of the Master and it came as no surprise at all that he dominated both of them.

"You've really got to know when enough is enough," he said as he left his last press conference as a champion.

Now Calzaghe has decided to walk away rather than risk his legacy against any more younger, undefeated fighters. Going the distance against the American light-heavyweight Chad Dawson, and the man who succeeded him as WBC super-middleweight champion, Nottingham's Carl Froch, would have been bloody and brutal, win or lose.

Joe's best mate, Richie Woodhall, the British former world super-middleweight champion put it to me this way: "There's not many fighters who realise it's over but Joe knows he's done his bit. In my opinion Joe is the greatest fighter to come out of Britain... Ever!"

Friday, February 6, 2009

My Three All-Era United Dream Teams

* Captain

The Best of the Best
Goalkeeper: Edwin Van Der Sar
Right Back: Gary Neville
Centre Back: Jaap Stam
Centre Back: Nemanja Vidic
Left Back: Patrice Evra
Right Wing: George Best
Central Midfield: Brian Robson
Central Midfield: Roy Keane*
Left Midfield: Bobby Charlton
Striker: Eric Cantona
Striker: Denis Law

Team #2
Goalkeeper: Peter Schmeichel
Right Back: Johnny Fitzpatrick
Centre Back: Pauly McGrath
Centre Back: Rio Ferdinand
Left Back: Roger Byrne
Right Wing: Cristiano Ronaldo
Central Midfield: Paul Ince
Central Midfield: Duncan Edwards*
Left Wing: Ryan Giggs
Striker: Ruud Van Nistelrooy
Striker: Norman Whiteside

Team #3
Goalkeeper: Alec Stepney
Right Back: Bobby Noble
Centre Back: Mark Jones
Centre Back: Gary Pallister
Left Back: Arthur Albiston
Right Wing: David Beckham
Central Midfield: Edddie Colman*
CentralMidfield: Jackie Blanchflower
Left Wing: David Pegg
Striker: Wayne Rooney
Striker: Carlos Tevez

Notables I left out are: Willie Morgan, Wes Brown, David Sadler, Harry Gregg, Martin Buchan, Dennis Violett, Steve Bruce, Lou Macari, Andrei Kanchelskis & SammyMcIlroy


Barack Obama made a firm campaign promise. He pledged to keep up President Bush’s faith-based office in the White House, but with a caveat. Any group receiving federal money would no longer be allowed the option of discriminating in hiring on the basis of religion. Yesterday, however, as he disclosed the details of his 'brand-new' initiative, it became clear that has left the whole Bush policy in place.

I am very angry. I really don’t want to think of myself as a card-carrying Civil Libertarian. I am what I like to call a gray-area democrat. I’m always open to an exchange of ideas, but I strongly felt that Dubya’s executive order of 2002 took the public goodwill he owned at the time because of 9/11 a step too far. Let’s not pussyfoot around this, Barack. Tell me how it is ever okay to discriminate? Are you offended by the very idea of discrimination or are you not? Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. When everybody piled on you about the Reverend Jeremiah A.Wright and his notion of racial and religious apartheid, I stood by you. You were not him, I insisted. Unless you chose to jump in the fire holding his hand. Well, metaphorically at least, you just went and did it!

Thursday’s speech pleased many of the religious conservatives who owned George Bush. “I am very excited about this,” said the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Frank Page. Page is one of 24 cherry-picked religious leaders chosen as an advice council for the White House. He put it this way: “I know he was struggling with this particular issue. But this will allow religious groups to be true to themselves.”

At the same time, executing some very fancy footwork, Obama insisted that he would seek counsel from the Justice Department if questions arose about the legal standing of individual grant recipients. Essentially, Obama’s executive order, which never once mentions discrimination in specific terms, allows the White House the chance to hum and ha over every specific grant, wet its collective finger, hold up that finger and see which way the breeze is blowing. In other words, Obama’s administration is keeping Bush’s policy 100% in place.

Of course, the White House spokeswoman, Jennifer Psaki, charmingly rejected any notion that the President was reversing himself on a campaign promise. The new executive order, according to Ms. Psaki, “strengthens the constitutional and legal footing of the faith-based office and helps provide a mechanism to address difficult legal issues. On contentious issues like hiring, the president found that one of the problems of the previous initiative was that tough questions were decided without appropriate consultation.”

Religious groups such as Catholic Charities and Salvation Army have long received government money, but Bush’s credo was that the faith-based office was meant to direct federal dollars to smaller religious organizations, charities and churches. Any fool knows that the Bush initiative was a tool to flirt with and court influential pastors in important states. The hiring issue was a bitterly fought point of conflict between Bush and the Democrats. Thus, in 2002, Bush’s executive order allowed the award of multiple federal grants to organizations which hired only people of like-minded religions. Supporters, of course, defended Bush’s policy by vehemently arguing that supporters of any religious group could not operate according to its tenets if it were forced to hire non-believers.

Yet, in July, Obama himself singled out the policy in a speech. "If you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them -- or against the people you hire -- on the basis of their religion." Unfortunately, having won the election, Obama and his transition team were instantaneously lobbied by an army of religious conservatives. Well, there was that, of course, but there's also the reality that Barack's campaign was driven by hundreds of thousands of individual donations like never before. The logical extension of this, naturally, is the potential millions that can be raised for the 2012 war chest from individual churchgoers as a byproduct of shmoozing tens of millions of believers.

The Reverend Joshua DuBois, who led religious outreach efforts for Obama's campaign, has refused to discuss whether the new administration will retain Bush's executive order. Along with the well organized Southern Baptist Convention, the marine corps of the Right, one of the other major power brokers is Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, a Christian service organization based in Washington state. They’ve been quiet in public so far, but another powerful council member, the Rev. Jim Wallis, head of the liberal evangelical group Sojourners, and a strong supporter of the Bush policy, said the faith leaders were told on Thursday by Obama that "there would not be significant changes in the near term."

I believe that the President Obama has erred in not revoking the Bush policy. Doesn’t it seem deeply ironic that the first black president is cynically keeping in place a policy that embraces discrimination? We would all be wise to recall Aldous Huxley's ringing admonition: History reveals the Church and the State as a pair of indispenable Molochs. They protect their worshipping subjects, only to enslave and destroy them.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Grandpa Robben Finally Gets it Together!

“Grandpa got it up!” is how my crazy Madrideño friend, Dagoberto put it in an email. The mean-spirited pundits at Marca, La Vanguardía and Ultíma Hora, who have been tearing the reputation of Arjen Robben to pieces for the better part of two seasons, have had to change their tactics, too. Injured more often than fit, Robben would have to bear the insulting chant of “¡Malcreado!” whenever he did play. Whether he was wincing after being substituted, sitting on the bench with a sour disposition on his elderly gentleman’s face, or sitting in the rich fan’s seats in an expensive Saville Row suit wearing the Grinchean mien of an infant with no toys, Arjen Robben has been belittled too often, for too long. Of course, 36 million euros is a lot of dosh. Actually, it’s the fifth highest transfer fee paid in Real Madrid's history, behind only the four, world-famous Galacticos Figo, Zinedine Zidane, the Brazilian Ronaldo and David Beckham. There has never been any doubt about the lad’s talent, but, finally, having been injury-free for half a season. Robben is finally showing that he is the best left winger in the world.

Arjen Robben just isn’t worth it. Nobody seems to have taken the lad seriously since he signed with F.C. Groningen in 2001. Already balding at the age of fifteen and carefully watched over by his baritone-voiced, humourless father, Hans Robben, besieged by agents, the two Robbens decided to keep his business in the family. Depending upon whom you’re discussing his career with, Arjen Robben has been either ill-served by his dad or the man is the best agent in the world. Hans Robben was certainly a figure of disdain for PSV Eindhoven’s owner Harry Van Riijn, but he still signed the boy anyway.

Van Riijn desperately wanted Robben at PSV. Anything to keep him out of the clutches of Feyenoord or Ajax Amsterdam. Hans presented Van Riijn with a list of demands for performance-based bonuses that rivalled anything requested by his senior players. Although Van Riijn did a lot of complaining to the Dutch media about Arjen’s old man, he coughed up the cash anyway. He isn't worth it , was the consensus amongst the old-school Dutch journos at the time after seeing his skinny legs and narrow chest, but Robben soon changed their minds with his breathtaking runs down the left wing and an awesome ability to ride the most ruthless of Eredvisie tacklers. A finicky eater, absolutely unwilling to submit to the healthy dietary demands of the club’s coaches and dieticians, Robben did it his way.

"Robben just isn’t worth it!" Sir Alex Ferguson was the next football overlord to announce it. Manchester United were scouring Europe, looking for another brilliant young winger, to take the pressure off Cristiano Ronaldo. United's initial €7m offer was about to be accepted by Van Riijn when Hans, depending upon whose story you believe, decided to make a call to Peter Kenyon or vice versa. Kenyon, originally the bag man for Manchester United, had already established a relationship with Hans, so that when he moved to Chelsea, he took his ready-made connections with him. Chelsea happily wrote a check worth €18m for the brilliant PSV prospect . It was the first salvo in the ongoing conflict between Manny U and Chelsea. Ferguson may have not believed the 'Flying Dutchman' was worth it, but he took the Premier League by storm in his first season. Their manager, Jose Mourinho, looked like a genius for buying Robben and Damian Duffy from Blackburn Rovers at prices that left the other teams in the EPL gobsmacked but which gave the team instantaneous success in his first season. Chelsea won the Premiership in Mourinho’s first two seasons and Robben rode the tide along with him, becoming a superstar. Unfortunately, it was in only in his second season that Robben’s impact was curtailed due to a string of injuries.

Football is a ruthless business. Certain players who were very slight in their teenage years, like Michael Owen, Louis Saha, Lionel Messi and Arjen Robben, seem, years later, to be suffering from an endless cycle of injury and recovery. In the case of these four, there can be no doubt that they’ve spent more time recovering from injury than actually playing. A really good clue as to the causes of these injuries first came from Lionel Messi ‘s family in an interview with the Buenos Aíres newspaper, Diario Perfil. in 2007. Lionel, who had been born premature, was so tiny when Barcelona signed him as a ten-year-old youth prospect, that the club’s doctors recommended he be given doses of Human Growth Hormones and steroids. Consequently, the endless cycle of injury and recovery that has dogged Messi ever since has made him the poster boy for the side- effects involved in making athletes play guinea pig for rich football clubs and their doctors. I have absolutely no evidence of this, but it takes no major leap of the imagination to believe that Michael Owen and Arjen Robben may have also been ill-used by both their advisors and their clubs and let themselves to be experimented upon.

Atany rate, Mourinho put up very few objections when Real Madrid came calling and offered to double Chelsea’s money. Robben was brilliant, but he had made just 67 appearances in three seasons. The club had already bought Florent Malouda and, so, when Robben’s father dared to discuss a renegotiation of Robben’s contract, Kenyon and Mourinho finally lost any vestige of patience with him. At the same time, to Ramon Calderon, the Real Madrid President, Arjen Robben was the only player available from his infamous superstar shortlist containing the likes of Ronaldinho, the Portuguese Ronaldo, Kaka and Cesc Fabregas that he had used as part of his campaign to get into office the previous summer.

Robben played a minimal role in his first season with los Blancos, although he did well in the final six games of the Liga-winning season , scoring three spectacular goals. Real Madrid, ordinarily the most impatient club on the planet, with a mythic intolerance for even the slightest failure, were very mature, for a change. Back in his hometown of Bedum, Robben was introduced to a Chinese acupuncturist, who helped cure his various leg and back ailments and managed to persuade him to alter his diet and training regime. Finally, Robben’s infamous morning,noon and night ‘diet’ of french fries smothered in lemon mayonnaise, chocolate milk shakes and buttered bread and kebobs was abandoned for fruit and grains.

This season Robben has been brilliant. His legs are now muscular tree trunks. His chest noticeably expanded. He is 25 now and each recent performance seems to supersede its predecessor. Unfortunately, the Madrid press, which used to refer to him as El Malcreado (“The moaning malingerer”) now refers to him as Señor Codicioso (Mr.Greedy) because he keeps possession of the ball and rarely passes. They savage him mercilessly. Yet, for the first time since his academy years, Robben is scoring a lot of goals. Unfortunately, those moments of crowd-pleasing trickery are ruined by alternate moments of shocking naïvete and kindergarden-level decision-making.
The journalistic wolfpack call him selfish, but I genuinely think that the lad is not the brightest spoon in the cutlery drawer and is simply bereft of some of the fundamentals of decision-making that come easily to his brilliant contemporaries, Lionel Messi and Kaka. Simply put, Robben owns little footballing top level football experience at the highest level. So far in his career, he has never played a full season. He looks mature, in fact Robben really looks a worried forty, but seems to not have the foggiest when it comes to choosing the right moment to pass to Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Higuain, Raul, or the new kid in town, Huntelaar. Thus, it’s not hubris that makes him hold on to the ball, but cluelesness. One shouldn’t overgild the lily, however. The best wingers like Garrincha, Georgie Best, Ryan Giggs, Jimmy Johnstone, Jairzinho, Liam Brady and Real’s own Francisco Gento, all held on to the ball for too long and gave their coaches ulcers.

If you’ve been watching Real Madrid’s La Liga matches this season you’ve seen a vast improvement in his overall play. His team-mates, especially the likes of Gutí, Sneijder and Heinze, are equally to blame for Robben’s onfield indiscretions because they are repeatedly trying to find him with their every attacking move. His decision-making and distribution may indeed be questionable, but he has, nevertheless, been responsible, whether through assists or actually scoring, for 13 of Real’s last 21 goals.

The club’s previous coach, Bernd Schuster, was obsessed with having the left-footed player cause mayhem on the right hand side. The new coach, Juandé Ramos, seems to have recognized the telegraphed predictability of this sort of orthodox methodology and uses Robben on the left side more often. Lionel Messi’s season has so far made him the most dominant footballer in the world, but Robben is running a close second to the tiny Argentine. The €36m spent on Arjen Robben, especially considering the ridiculous bid of €200m offered by Manchester City for Kaka, looks like a bargain.