December 2009 Archives

Great Balls on Fire!*

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There's always additional pressure on us self-appointed opinionators when the end of the year marks the end of a decade as well.  That means we've got to come up with something half-way credible to say about a ten-year span that may actually offer damn little in the way of any unifying thread.  That's not the case this time, however. Thanks  to  one  Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the lad from Lagos who decided to give "blow it out your shorts!" a whole new meaning  by trying to trigger an explosion  in his underdrawers  (hmm...) on a flight to Detroit on Christmas day, we have a decade that's almost bookended by terrorism, or at least the threat thereof.

  I and the Missus's  son and heir remarked that  people who were still so shocked by such deeds as Umar's didn't seem to realize that we were actually  up against an "ideology," instead of a nation or, to some extent, even a formal "organization,"  amenable to playing by any sort of rules as we might construe them.  This observation struck me as not only insightful but ironic as well, given that until the Nixon administration's shift to d├ętente with the Soviets and more open relations with China in the early 1970s, our Cold War foreign policy had been premised in large part on the idea that we were up against an ideology powerful enough to unify disparate nations under the common cause of destroying our way of life. Under Tricky Dick and Hank the K over at the State Department, we began reorienting our diplomatic pitch to tap into the needs, wants, and worries of the Russians and Chinese as national entities rather than agents/slaves of a global belief system. Beyond that, we actually began to acknowledge the differences and tensions between them and play footsy with first one and then the other in order to keep them off balance. For my money, the Nixonistas are due much of the credit for the string of events leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demolition of the Berlin Wall because opening the U.S.S.R. up to western ways and glittery gee-gaws made standing in a line all day just to buy beets seem like an even bigger bummer for a lot of regular old Russkies. Having grown up in the age of the fallout shelter and sweated out the Cuban Missile Crisis, I'm not harboring a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings about the Cold War, but there was at least something to be said for believing, even incorrectly, as it turned out, that  you at least knew who and what your enemies were. For the better part of the last generation, we have been forced to contend with enemies who, though more diverse than most imagine, are, in fact, driven by a strikingly consistent ideological fervor, but that pays no attention to national boundaries and acknowledges no national obligations. Not only is it therefore largely beyond the reach of national and international law and sanction, but it doesn't particularly give a damn about our massive missile stockpiles or our amazing stealth bombers. Its face (or mouth) might be an ayatollah or mullah, but its most fearsome feature is the legion of foot soldiers who are willing to do anything to themselves and others that they believe is essential to furthering their cause up to and including making Jihad in their Jockeys.



3198961.jpgAlthough,incredibly enough, ABC news has sniffed out Ol' Umar's  undies, so to speak , I must note that, even more incredibly under the circumstances, they  seem remarkably devoid of skid marks.

Our aforementioned offspring and I also shared a hearty guffaw when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano (Should we really have somebody in this job whose name reminds everybody of a pizza joint?) declared that Umar's botched self-detonation was evidence that the "system worked."  Yeah, right, provided the would-be suicide bomber is a putz and he has some fellow passengers bold and burly enough to put a chokehold on him when he can't manage to ignite the payload in his pants.   After this incident, aspiring airline terrorists should at least be on notice that the days of seizing a jumbo jet with a nail file are probably over.  We understand now that you lunatics are not just trying to take over the plane for a long weekend in Havana.  Don't be thinking that ol' Umar scorched his privates for naught, however.   The apprehension we felt and sensed among our fellow fliers and airline and security personnel on the way home on Monday reminded me of an op-ed piece that I wrote for the Hotlanta paper on September 12, 2001, pointing out that for all our military might, there'd been precious little time since FDR's vaunted "four freedoms" speech in 1941 when we could really claim that we were enjoying freedom from fear.  Now, more than eight years and a  pair of badly singed drawers later, I'm even more skeptical that we are likely ever to know that feeling again.


*The Ol' Bloviator knows full well that he will be accused of stealing this title from the N.Y. Post, but take it from me and Jerry Lee, there is a world of difference between "balls of fire" and "balls on fire."



Although his ode to "Trees" was the first piece of verse committed to memory by several generations of American schoolchildren, Alfred Joyce Kilmer had a lot to overcome, including the fact that his parents chose to identify him by his middle name.  After surviving what, one presumes, were dozens of playground brawls about his moniker, Kilmer had the further  misfortune to become a poet whose work not only made sense but actually rhymed.  This, of course, amounted to the kiss of death among literary critics, so much so, that the effete highbrows at his alma mater,Columbia, now pay homage to him with an annual "Bad Poetry Contest." 

As I first did some four years ago, I beg to offer Joyce Kilmer's "Kings'" which might not be great poetry, but still strikes me as damn good and ironic insight, worthy both of the immediate season and the times in which we live:


The Kings of the earth are men of might,
And cities are burned for their delight,
And the skies rain death in the silent night,
And the hills belch death all day!
But the King of Heaven, Who made them all,
Is fair and gentle, and very small;
He lies in the straw, by the oxen's stall


I posted this verse in 2005 as part of a critique of a warrior president who seemed to believe he had been elected king.  Now, here it is again,even as the winner of the  Nobel Peace Prize who is our new commander-in-chief orders the escalation of American involvement in Afghanistan on the premise that this is the best way to achieve peace in that region. To invoke an old analogy,  fighting for peace strikes me as about as efficacious as  fornicating for chastity, and  any  "peace" achieved by wielding the proverbial big stick is likely to last only until the other guy finds a bigger stick.

(The following are excerpts, first from the 2010 posting, after the birth in May of our precious grandson, Barrett, and then from 2011, anticipating the impending arrival of our equally precious granddaughter, Virginia.) 

When I read every day about our courageous young men who are being killed or horribly maimed every day in Afghanistan, I can't help but question the reasons behind such sacrificial slaughter and remember that many of these young heroes are not even two decades removed from the warm, cuddly, infinitely curious and wide-eyed little boy. I can't wait to hold as close as I can for as long as I can.... 

[A year later,] Barrett remains all those things, although he is now fully ambulatory and picking up new words ( Careful, Grandpa OB!) at the rate of about one per minute.  He has no idea, of course, that , God willing, at the tender age of twenty months, he will soon be assuming the awesome responsibility of being big brother to a newly arrived little sister.  Thus, bless his heart,  this stands to be his last year as the only star in the Christmas firmament for his doting and utterly devoted parents and grandparents. 


As you can see here, Joyce Kilmer knew about these things, for he served in the vaunted "War to End all wars," and died in 1918, about a year after he wrote "Kings," reportedly killed by a sniper at the Second Battle of the Marne.
Obviously, the Ol' Bloviator is in a bit of a somber mood right now, but he hasn't forgotten that this is supposed to be a season of hope and good cheer, and it is in that spirit that he presents the second annual Redneck Festival of Lights (Mash below) as may be witnessed any evening these days in front of the humble abode that he shares with the longsuffering Ms. OB, who, needless to say, both enjoys and deserves the deepest sympathies of the neighbors.  If you can't come by to admire the Ol' Bloviator's artistry firsthand, let me wish you the happiest and safest of holidays.  In other words, as they used to say in the country,"Have a good'un," or as they still say over at Ga. Tech, "Felice Bobby Dodd!"


 Xmas Truck.AVI

What good is a Rhodes Scholar when it's fourth and long?

Longsuffering patrons of this site should breathe a beery sigh of relief at the news that the oft whined-about manuscript that has so  tormented the Ol' Bloviator over the last year or more  has finally been duly dispatched to the Yankee publishing outfit where it was supposed to have arrived several months back. In recognition of  passing this milestone, (which actually felt like passing a kidney stone at the very end) the OB is saluting the waning days  of yet another college football season by sharing this adaptation from his book text.  If anyone really  needs further confirmation of the South's enduring capacity to entangle continuity with change, then, by golly, here it is:  

The American Council on Education's Allan Cartter made no friends in Chapel Hill or Charlottesville when he  observed in 1965 that the South could not "as yet boast a single outstanding institution on the national scene," but  this judgment  of  the state of southern universities in general was hard to dispute Yet, even though a number of these schools  were still relatively new to the business of granting Ph.D.s at that point, as historian Clarence Mohr noted, they would soon be  "fully engaged in a serious effort to equal or surpass their peer institutions in other areas"

The obvious importance of research facilities to a successful courtship of  higher end  of  "high tech" industries had intensified the postwar trend toward greater public investment in higher education. With the success of the  fabled North Carolina  Research Triangle Park's corporate-academic partnership spurring them on, more progressive lawmakers and governors championed bigger  university budgets and better facilities, geared toward claiming more public and private research dollars and recruiting top-flight faculty. Meanwhile, publicly and privately funded scholarship programs began to keep more of the best high school  students in-state and attract others from elsewhere. By 2009, not only were Duke, Rice, Vanderbilt, and Emory comfortably ensconced among the country's elite private institutions but with nine of the top twenty-five public universities according to U.S. News and World Report's eagerly-awaited national ranking, the South was better represented in this category than any other region.

                Strikingly enough, in addition to their enviable academic status, save for everybody's favorite homecoming opponent,  good ol' Bill and Mary, the remaining highly-ranked southern public  institutions, Georgia Tech, Texas A&M, Clemson, and the Universities of Florida, Georgia, Virginia, and North Carolina, also shared a common commitment to powerful, nationally competitive athletic programs. The fierce pride of many southerners in their local sports teams, whether scholastic or collegiate or professional, reflected a history of strong, localized attachments typical of a rural region. Yet big-time collegiate sports had emerged in the South in tandem with the urban and business boosterism of the 1920s when  officials at universities such as Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia began to see football as a means of promoting their academically undistinguished schools to a wider population within their states and beyond.

                When Georgia hosted Yale in an intersectional matchup to christen its new stadium in 1929, the game drew tremendous national attention, and it would not be long before southern teams taking on northern "powerhouses" like Michigan, Notre Dame, or UCLA were seen as Confederate soldiers reincarnate, doing battle for the honor and pride of the entire region. No team filled this role more frequently by the strife-torn 1960s than the University of Alabama's Crimson Tide, coached by the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant, which won national championships in 1961, 1964, and 1965. Alabama was but one of nine southern teams that managed to claim at least a share of the mythical national crown between 1946 and 1965. This achievement seems all the more remarkable, although not necessarily admirable, in light of the fact that none of these schools had yet signed a single black player to a football scholarship. Until the late 1960s, promising black athletes pursuing possible professional careers had little option but to leave the region to play for schools in the Midwest, Northeast, or California.  Alabama fielded the first black player on its varsity in 1971, and Tide fans' acceptance of this move was likely enhanced by the 42-21 whipping put on their team by a thoroughly integrated and highly talented University of Southern California team the year before. Employing the "wishbone" offense to perfection, an integrated Alabama team would prove dominant throughout the 1970s and other southern schools would benefit enormously from the ability and desire of black players to perform before the "home folks" as well.

                It would not be long before the majority of the players on the South's major college football rosters were black, and white fans who had once been dead set against integration were now equally intent on canonizing black superstars like Georgia's Herschel Walker, Auburn's Bo Jackson, or Florida's Emmitt Smith. In the meantime, the declining gridiron fortunes of certain programs in other regions, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, would reflect the new reality that southern black athletes no longer needed a northern refuge from Jim Crow.

                Much to the delight of their large and rabid fan bases, southern schools would claim sixteen more national football titles between 1988 and 2008. For all that such success in football may have done for local morale and pride, however, critics within the region and beyond charged that too much of southerners' interest in their universities focused on athletics, football in particular, and too little on their academic needs or accomplishments. When he returned to his home state to assume the presidency of the University of Alabama in 1981, Dr. Joab Thomas found it no easy matter to deliver on his vow to give "the football team a university it can be proud of." Seven years later, Thomas's continuing conflicts with football boosters who had no time for such foolish talk  led him to leave Alabama for the presidency at Penn State University. That was 1988, of course, but the recent announcement that AllerBammer would suspend three days' worth of classes at the beginning of next semester while its sturdy lads are in Pasadena competing in the national title game gives us some indication of how much priorities on that campus have changed over the last twenty years.

                In reality, Alabama was but one of a number of southern universities that have launched major campaigns to upgrade their academic reputations in recent years. Such efforts have enjoyed a certain amount of success, but certainly not enough to dispel the impression that for all the talk about rising SAT scores and attracting more National Merit Scholars, athletics still reign supreme on most southern campuses. In 2009, with public higher education suffering mightily from funding cuts triggered by the severe economic downturn, nine of the nation's fifteen highest-paid college football coaches were employed at southern schools. Alabama's Nick Saban headed the list at $3.9 million annually despite a $75-million short fall in the University of Alabama System's funding for 2008. When the University of Tennessee fired head football coach Philip Fulmer in 2008, it not only promised him a $6-million payout over four years but wound up paying a new staff of coaches a whopping $5.3 million annually, all of this at a time when the university itself had already suffered such severe funding reductions that three academic programs were phased out altogether. Overall, a 2009 survey of the Southeastern Conference schools showed four-year percentage increases in spending on athletics outstripping increases in academic spending by a wide margin at ten of the twelve schools, most notably at Auburn, where the ratio was more than seven to one, and Georgia, where it was more than five to one. Not surprisingly, the faculty colleagues of the nine highest paid southern coaches did not fare quite so well. In a recent ranking  of colleges and universities based on salaries for senior professors, only Texas, at forty-seventh, made it into the top one hundred.

                Some argued that football madness was just as overpowering elsewhere.  There was, after all , the time that former Kansas and star NFL fullback John Riggins was to be recognized by his alma mater at halftime of a basketball game.  Miffed at having to share the spotlight with the university's newest Rhodes Scholar, Riggins reportedly received a riotous ovation after he grabbed the microphone and demanded to know "Where was the Rhodes Scholar when it was 'fourth and long'?" Some fools even manage to suggest with straight faces that levels of fan obsessiveness are comparable to the SEC in the Big Ten (Z-Z-Z-Z-z-z....), but this is not an easy case to make even in Columbus or Ann Arbor and an impossible one to make anywhere else. Beyond that, anyone doubting the importance of football to southern cultural identity need only ask themselves if fans of the University of Michigan would be likely to support a despised conference rival like Ohio State in the national championship game. On the other hand, regional loyalties were still strong enough among backers of Southeastern Conference teams like Ole Miss, Georgia, or Tennessee to override their traditional antagonisms long enough for them to rally behind the hated LSU Tigers or Florida Gators in their recent battles for the BCS title. Of course, fans and well-heeled boosters reserve their deepest affection and highest expectations for their own teams. Presidents of the South's major public universities might boast simultaneously of their school's academic and athletic prowess, but, in their heart of hearts, doubtless damn few, if any, can yet envision a day when they would actually feel comfortable asking alumni and boosters to sacrifice the latter in the interest of the former.


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