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The Daily Journal: January 15, 2007

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America's long-loved spectator sport

The New Rome
Savagery as Spectacle

Brutality is written in the history of American sport. “In all seasons,” James MacGregor Burns writes in The Vineyard of Liberty, describing the scene in 18th century America, “promoters offered fistfights and eye-gouging as attractions. Thousands attended the baiting of bulls, dogs, bears, even panthers. Gangs of young toughs, flaunting names like "Smith's Fly" and "Broad Way," fought one another with stones and slingshots.” In 1995, Dan Barry in the New York Times reported on "ultimate fighting," which "pits two bare-knuckled fighters who punch, kick and brawl their way toward an often bloody denouement. A particular charm of the discipline, its promoters say, is the unfettered and natural expression of human tendencies that takes place on the sweat-and-blood-stained mats. Indeed, participants are required to check their adrenaline surges only long enough to obey the cardinal rule against eye-gouging.” The sport was popular enough that Sen. John McCain "persuaded several states to ban the sport." And what's the last few years' spate of "Fear Factor"-like spectacle if not indicative of Americans' voyeuristic desires for seeing others tortured, humiliated, defeated, shattered? So it's no surprise that the McCain mutiny against brutality went nowhere. Savagery for sport is growing. The Los Angeles Times on Sunday began a two-part series on the trend:

When the arena plunges into darkness, they rise as one: an 8-year-old in a skull cap that says "Punishment," a tourist in a T-shirt that says "Legalized Brutality," a young woman who is being paid $2,000 to wear a bikini and blow kisses to the catcalls. The bass line of a heavy metal song, its lyrics indecipherable at this volume but clearly delineating some manner of rage, compresses 10,863 chests. It is time. Once confined to the underground and assailed as "human cockfighting," the savage sport of mixed martial arts _ a spectacle melding ancient fighting tactics with those of a bar brawl _ is poised to go mainstream. Cage-side seats now sell for as much as $1,000. Fights periodically draw more men ages 18 to 34 than anything else on TV. Peddling raw, real violence to a zealous, cutthroat crowd, the sport has become an economic and cultural force through events like this one, held at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on a Saturday night. Two men, barefoot and slathered with Vaseline, their hands covered in little more than leather wraps, enter a cage at the center of the arena. For five minutes, they kick and punch and lock limbs, trying to land a headlock known in their trade as a guillotine and designed to cut off the blood flow in the opponent's carotid artery. [...] Less than a minute later, Florian crushes his elbow into the right temple of his opponent, Sean "The Muscle Shark" Sherk, a father of two from Minnesota with no discernible neck. Blood begins to spurt from Sherk's head, pooling on the mat, hanging in coagulating strands from the cage fence. Dana White, the central figure in the sport and the president of its dominant organization, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, is sitting within spitting distance. Glancing repeatedly at a small monitor to ensure that his TV crew is getting the shot, he begins to chew his gum feverishly. "Jesus!" he says. "It looks like he cut his arm off!" [...] Do not bother asking whether all of this is OK — for parents to bring toddlers to the fights, for crowds to scream obscenities at fighters who are unable to knock out their opponents, for thousands of teenagers to mimic the fights in their backyards, then post their videos on the Internet. It's too late for that. Blood, as the sport's aficionados like to say, is the new black. The full story...

And we wonder why we're a naturally brutal nation. Why students bully and massacre each other on school campuses, why schools are run like prison camps, why prison camps are run like Soviet colonies, why the whole culture has the feel of a Texan boot camp. And why war is the national passtime.

From commenter Flashheart: “You might like to note that this sport is very popular in much less brutal nations - kickboxing in Thailand is probably bloodier, though it involves less wrestling, and the current big home of this sport is Japan. People come from all over the world to fight in the sport in Japan, and Japan is a pretty non-violent, non-brutal place. I have taught kickboxing in Australia, and I have to say that this sport is not at all what it seems. In the early years it was a bloodsport, as you say, but it is now little different to boxing or rugby in terms of the professionalism of the participants, their commitment to the sport, and their similarity to ordinary people (actually, maybe boxing isn`t the best sport to compare it with ...) I have trained alongside a MMA fighter, and he is really just a decent bloke. If anything, this sport probably came a little late to America - I think it originated in the Netherlands, and moved to the US later. I think it is much less disturbing and macabre than "professional" wrestling, where once I saw a man eat worms and spit them on his opponent.”

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Worse han Vietnam
Trapped by Hubris, Again

Robert G. Kaiser, an associate editor of The Post who covered the Vietnam War in 1969 and 1970, writes: “After nearly four years of ineffectual war-fighting, after the collapse of domestic support for President Bush and his policies, after the expenditure of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, it no longer seems possible to avoid the grim conclusion: For the United States, Iraq has become another Vietnam. Fortunately, the overall death toll in Iraq so far, while high, is still smaller than it was in Vietnam. But tragically, the most important difference between the two conflicts may be that defeat in Iraq is likely to produce catastrophic consequences for that nation, its neighbors and the United States, too. For a gray-haired journalist whose career included 18 months covering the Vietnam War for The Washington Post, it is a source of amazement to realize that my country has done this again. We twice took a huge risk in the hope that we could predict and dominate events in a nation whose history we did not know, whose language few of us spoke, whose rivalries we didn't understand, whose expectations for life, politics and economics were all foreign to many Americans. Both times, we put our fate in the hands of local politicians who would not follow U.S. orders, who did not see their country's fate the way we did, and who could not muster the support of enough of their countrymen to produce the outcome Washington wanted. In Vietnam as in Iraq, U.S. military power alone proved unable to achieve the desired political objectives. How did this happen again? After all, we're Americans -- practical, common-sense people who know how to get things done. Or so we'd like to think. In truth, we are ethnocentric to a fault, certain of our own superiority, convinced that others see us as we do, blithely indifferent to cultural, religious, political and historical realities far different from our own. These failings -- more than any tactical or strategic errors -- help explain the U.S. catastrophes in Vietnam and Iraq.” See the full column...

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Brazilian Wax
El Norte’s Anorexia Migrates South

Thinning expectations

From the Times: "As king of carnival, the corpulent Rei Momo is supposed to embody all the jollity, carnality and excess associated with that most Brazilian of bacchanals. So when the event’s reigning monarch has gastric bypass surgery, sheds 150 pounds and starts an exercise program, you begin to wonder what’s going on. And when six young women die of anorexia in quick succession — two in the last two weeks — the wonder turns to bewilderment. Brazil may well be the most body-conscious society in the world, but that body has always been Brazil’s confident own — not a North American or European one. For women here that has meant having a little more flesh, distributed differently to emphasize the bottom over the top, the contours of a guitar rather than an hourglass, and most certainly not a twig. Anorexia, though long associated with wealthier industrialized countries, was an affliction all but unheard-of here. But that was before the incursions of the Barbie aesthetic, celebrity models, satellite television and medical makeovers made it clear just how far some imported notions of beauty, desirability and health have encroached on Brazilian ideals once considered inviolate. By “ ‘upgrading’ to international standards of beauty,” said Mary del Priore, a historian and co-author of “The History of Private Life in Brazil,” the country is abandoning its traditional belief that “plumpness is a sign of beauty and thinness is to be dreaded.” The contradictory result, she added, is that “today it’s the rich in Brazil who are thin and the poor who are fat.” [...] Today, in sharp contrast, the epitome of beauty is Gisele Bündchen, the top model whose enormous international success has inspired the thousands of Brazilian girls who dream of emulating her to enroll in modeling schools and competitions. But very little about Ms. Bündchen’s body — tall and blond, rangy yet busty — connects her to her homeland and its traditional self-image. [...] Dr. Novaes and others have noted that during the 1960s and 70s, Brazilian girls played with a locally made doll named Susi, who, reflecting the national aesthetic, was darker and fleshier than her counterparts abroad. But in the 1970s, Barbie arrived, and by the mid-1980s, production of Susi dolls had ceased, though it has resumed in recent years in a sort of backlash.[...] A result is a culture of vanity that seems to know no boundaries. This summer, the newest rage, according to local news reports, is liposuction on the toes, and there have also been accounts of a boom in plastic surgery among women 80 and older. [...] Though such globalized standards of beauty originated in rich, mostly white neighborhoods, they are gradually being spread to the rest of Brazil and across racial lines by the actresses and models who live here and perform in popular telenovelas. Exercise academies can be found in slum areas, and newspapers noted that the most recent anorexia victim was a dark-skinned teenager from a working-class suburb of Rio who dreamed of becoming a model. The full story...

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Two By Bill White

Bill White is a writer and teacher of creative writing. He lives in Edgewater, Florida.

Short History of America
Under Divine Guidance

All roads lead to Rome
ancient and crumbling
somewhat moldy perhaps
rather fatigued and depleted
from liberating so many nations

An endless list still remains
anxious to die for freedom
And not one road
even the smallest byway
can ever return

Pithy Comparisons for Thoughtful People

President Bush scratched his head and twiddled his thumbs while New Orleans citizens were drowning in Katrina.
Nero Fiddled while Rome burned.
Approximately one hundred and twenty Iraqis die each day in the uinsurgency our invasion has caused. Dolls are being booby-trapped to kill small children.
It is important that the Black Gold keep flowing.
Dow Jones just hit an all-time high. CEOs enjoyed their largest bonuses in history. It is business as usual.
God is in heaven and all is right with the world.

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World Gallery
Jaki Good
Photographer, breast cancer survivor, pastor's wife, mother, fourth grade inclusion teacher, 43-year-old American: Jacki Good's work is at flickr
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End of the War of the End of the World
Vargas Llosa and Garcia-Marquez Kiss and Make-Up

From the UK Times, and without entirely agreeing with Ben MacIntyre's mournful resignation: “With great sadness we learn that the Colombian Nobel prize winner Gabriel García Márquez and the Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, after a thrillingly long and bitter feud, are patching up their differences. The two writers last exchanged words, and blows, in 1976, but now they will publish together: a prologue by Vargas Llosa will appear in a special 40th anniversary edition of García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Their story has been given a happy ending; the hatchet has been buried; and the world is a shade more drab as a result. Writers have always conducted colourful feuds, and the García Máarquez-Vargas Llosa vendetta was one of the best. Once they were the closest friends. García Márquez was godfather to Vargas Llosa’s son. Then relations cooled, their political paths diverged, and three decades ago, for reasons that have never been fully explained by either side, the friendship came to an end with a fierce fist-fight in a Mexican cinema. The art of the feud seems to be dying out. Writers once exhibited their sworn enemies with as much pride as any literary award. Politicians delighted in grudge and vengeance, and waded happily though rivers of bad blood. Artists openly slopped paint and vitriol over one another. [...] Norman Mailer, the veteran fighter-writer, is another who upholds the long-established tradition that if you can’t beat ’em, thump ’em. Mailer sat on Truman Capote, headbutted and punched Gore Vidal, and stabbed his first wife with a penknife when she called him a “faggot”. He wrote to William Styron, after a disobliging review: “I will invite you to a fight in which I expect to stomp out of you a fat amount of your yellow and treacherous shit.” Now walking on two sticks, aged 83, and partially blind, Mailer is still lashing out with admirable venom, most recently at The New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani (“a one-woman kamikaze”).” The full bit...

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Jazz Cut
A Billy Strayhorn Moment

[mp3]

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Crumbs & Quickies

In the Blogosphere

Sophia at Les Politiques: “In an interview with Le Monde's Daniel Vernet, Francis Fukuyama, the Author of 'The End of History', contends that forces of moderation and realists inside the Republican and the Democratic parties are already operating center stage in Washington and that the only obstacle to a real change in policy concerning Iraq is in the American constitution that gives full power to the president when it comes to foreign policy. The only way opponents to Bush's foreign policy can act is through a vote on the budget but here again, Fukuyama explains, politicians are reluctant to vote against sending support to the army out of fear of being labeled as anti-patriotic. And he concludes that we must wait until 2008 in order to see a real foreign policy change in Washington.” See excerpts of the interview, translated from the French...

A President's Tears?
Not quite. Read why at BAG News Notes
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