Finally New Zealand

I have a soft spot in my heart for New Zealand; it’s like the kid brother of the English-speaking world.  Also, Lord of the Rings was filmed there.  No matter who they played in football, I always cheered for the All Whites/Football Ferns (especially when the opponent was Italy.)  But football is one thing, and New Zealand is not a particularly successful footballing nation.  In New Zealand, Rugby (Union) is king, and the nation’s heart lies with the All Blacks, who despite being the best in the world year after year, have not won the Rugby World Cup since 1987, where they beat France in the final.

Coincidentally, 1987 was the last time the Rugby World Cup was held in New Zealand.  After that New Zealand made all-too-early exits from the tournament, including the loss in the 1995 final memorialized by the rather mediocre movie Invictus.  Twice those early exits came at the hands of France.

This year the stars seemed to align for the All Blacks.  Again, the World Cup was in New Zealand.  Again, New Zealand was the best team in the world by a mile and included the great Dan Carter.  But again it looked something was going terribly wrong.  First, the All Blacks lost the Tri Nation Series to mortal enemies Australia.  The tournament began well enough, but then a host of injuries beset the All Blacks, most worryingly to Dan Carter, who was gone from the tournament after the group stage.  And then, despite an imperious march to the final, the final round opponent was France.  The All Blacks had already beaten France in the group stage, and France probably should not have made it to the final to begin with (certainly the Welsh are justified to think not.)  But they did, and history is not destiny.

France outplayed New Zealand for large portions of the match, but, as in 1987, New Zealand overcame their Gallic opponents, this time 8-7.  New Zealand finally ended over two decades of hurt, disappointment, and charges of choking to become the team with the best record at the Rugby World Cup (tying Australia and South Africa for two World Cup victories apiece, but a better overall record.)  For a small island nation, that is quite an accomplishment.

But can we please stop the talk about ending 24 years of disappointment?  It’s a lazy cliché from lazy sportswriters.  24 years ago, New Zealand won the World Cup, which means that for the next four years New Zealand reigned as World Champions.  Ergo, it has been 20 years of disappointment.  The team that really had 24 years of hurt is France, who lost in 1987 and then continued losing to this day.  Three finals but no tournament victories in 24 years.  Cheer for New Zealand all you want, but spare a thought for the crushed French rugby fan; he may need it today.

This is not to say that New Zealand’s disappointment has not been real.  As any Kiwi can tell you, it has been a long, difficult, and embarrassing two decades, despite the All Blacks dazzling success outside of the World Cup.  The past year and a half has seen a lot of redemption in international sports.  To my mind, this is the third consecutive World Cup  in which a powerful nation with a long history of underachievement finally broke through and won when it counted: Spain at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, India at the Cricket World Cup earlier this year, and now New Zealand.

So onward to 2015 and England and Wales.  And bravo New Zealand.  Here’s hoping you’ll be the first three-time champions.

On Coming Out

A few weeks ago, the actor Zachary Quinto came out. This may not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but in the short-term, his coming out is a fairly big deal. Quinto is not a big star exactly but he is a rising name. Or perhaps was.  Now that he is out, it will be fascinating to see what happens to him.  For example, will the critics savage his performance as Spock in the next Star Trek?

This news should not come as a shock.  He has played the gay character many times over, including in Angels in America, that landmark of gay and American theater.  There have been rumors about his sexuality for some time.  In his personal life, he has lived as an out gay man for quite some time, and it is therefore odd to call his statements a coming out.  Quinto was out before; he lived an open and honest personal life.

But we are talking about his professional life, and especially in the Internet Age, the personal and the professional are difficult to separate.  Quinto came out to the (nameless, faceless) public at large.  It is a process that most of us who are gay will never have to do, so let us stop for a moment and marvel at Quinto’s courage.  For a public figure, coming out is a different process than for the rest of us.  Everyone who is gay or lesbian (or bisexual, transgender, queer, bent, and so on and so forth) has to worry about the reactions of family, friends, and coworkers, but a public figure has the added pressure of public opinion.  An actor, especially one with star potential, must also deal with the fact that audiences may reject him because of his sexuality.

Probably this is why Quinto refused to answer questions about his sexuality.  When asked outright if he is gay, he neither confirmed nor denied anything.  That answer has historically been code for “I am gay and I live as a happy, well-adjusted gay person, but I am also afraid of ruining my career.”  One can understand why Quinto would not want to do anything to jeopardize his career (and at the moment it appears that the reaction has been universally positive).  But his glass closet was equally galling.

Quinto was one of the first celebrities to make an “It Gets Better” video–over a year ago, and well before his self-outing.  His video was a way to advertise the Trevor Project, and it clearly meant a lot to him.  Throughout the video, his voice cracked repeatedly, and I was surprised he didn’t break into tears.  There was more to what he wanted to say, yet he did not say it.  I watched his video just after it appeared on YouTube, but for all Quinto’s very real emotional reaction, his video felt somewhat hollow.  I hate to say it was hypocritical, but there was a very strong disconnect.

I understand an actor’s need for privacy; I sympathize with anyone’s need for privacy–especially for those who have so little of it.  And I acknowledge that Quinto’s sexuality had nothing to do with his acting, whether he plays straight characters (Spock) or gay ones (Louis Ironson).  But Quinto is not just an actor, he was also very involved in LGBT causes, and had been for some time as his career took off.  Therefore, questions about his sexuality were not out-of-bounds.  By dodging those questions he undercut all his own good work.  Outwardly, Quinto told gays teens that they were okay, but his own reticence and coyness sent the opposite message.

Clearly Quinto understood this, which speaks very highly of both his intelligence and his self-awareness.  It was very appropriately done–a quick reference to his own reactions as a gay man in New York Magazine to the suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer.  This was neither a slip of the tongue nor a massive publicity campaign.  There were no agents or publicists involved.  Quinto came out on his terms and in the right way.  This is what he himself wrote on his website:

but in light of jamey’s death – it became clear to me in an instant that living a gay life without publicly acknowledging it – is simply not enough to make any significant contribution to the immense work that lies ahead on the road to complete equality.

Zachary Quinto is a good one.

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Coming out has been in the news lately, more so than usual.  October is National Coming Out Month, but this year had an added meaning because of the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.  I think most (sane, rational) people probably expected that business would go on as normal, and to an extent it has.  But the end of DADT has also produced a nascent gay celebrity, Randy Phillips, an airman who had been posting anonymous videos to YouTube prior to the end of DADT about what it is like to be a gay service member.

The night that DADT ended, Phillips (showing his face for the first time) videotaped two calls that he made, first to his father and then to his mother.  He came out to both of them and in the process, he came out to the world.  The videos are heart-wrenching and very private.  One cannot help but feel like a voyeur watching them.  In both videos Phillips was nervous but composed.  The military could no longer kick him out for his sexuality, but he risked his parents’ ire while being thousands of miles away.

Phillips gave a (young and handsome) face to the heretofore anonymous gay serviceman.  Millions have watched his coming out videos and have seen a thoughtful, intelligent, and self-aware man.  It also gave a very real image of the coming out process, which, for those people who have not experienced it, is something that they know only from the movies or television.  But this was real.

I hope Randy Phillips doesn’t go away.  He became a mini-sensation because of the Internet, and in the Internet Age, he has so much to offer.  Whatever his future is, I sense that if he wants to, he could be an integral part of the gay community for some years to come.

I have been watching other videos from newly out service members, and they are all stirring.  Here is one from the Navy and one from the Marines.  One can only root for these young men and wish them happiness.

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One other coming out that I have come across in the past month is a young man named Sam, a student athlete who has been blogging about his life.  He documented his coming out in a series of very moving posts.  It must be the new generation.  When I was in high school, the gay kids were the outcasts, the misfits, and the theater geeks.  As far as I can tell there was about one openly gay kid per class, and I was not him.  (I did not know who was openly gay in my class.  Years later I still don’t know anyone from my class who is openly gay.)  It seems like Sam is doing well, even going to his first GSA meeting.

Reading about Sam, Zachary Quinto, and Randy Phillips has made me think about my own coming out story, which was far less positive than theirs.  It caused a rift with my parents that has not completely healed to this day, over 13 years after I came out.  Of course that is in large part caused by their constant refusal to accept me for who I am.  I have given up hoping.

On the other hand, I do not despair, and it is because of people like Sam, Quinto, and Phillips.

The Other Side Of The Nobel Prize

Earlier this month the Nobel Prizes were announced.  Every year they cause controversy of some kind.  Occasionally the science awards cause a minor stir, but usually it is the Literature and especially the Peace Prizes that make the biggest waves.  (The Economics Prize is not a real Nobel–i.e. established by Alfred Nobel’s will–which is why the winner is announced after the other prizes are awarded.)

I have no expertise in medicine, physics, or chemistry, so I cannot speak to how deserving this year’s recipients are, or really any year’s recipients.  Occasionally a deserving person is ignored (Robert Gallo), but usually the public just accepts the results with a smile and a shrug.  This year’s Medicine Prize caused a tiny bit of a controversy.  One of the winners, Ralph Steinman, had died three days before the prize was awarded, and posthumous winners are forbidden.  The fact that the Nobel Committee chose not to rescind the award however, met with universal approval, so that hardly counts as a controversy.  Neither of this year’s Physics or Chemistry Prizes (for the discoveries of dark energy and quasicrystals respectively) have been questioned.

But the science awards are different because the winners’ contributions to the world are . . . not exactly tangible, but measurable.  Although there is a certain degree of subjectivity in deciding recipients, it is hard to argue that those recipients have not benefited humanity in some way.  One can point to actual results and progress.  Objectively.

The Literature and Peace Prizes on the other hand are entirely subjective.  Both awards are infamous for who did not win even more than who did.  Giants of 20th century literature (Joyce, Kafka, Borges, Proust, Nabokov) and arguably the greatest novelist of all time (Tolstoy) were snubbed by Nobel.  And then there is the case of Gandhi.  Even Nobel admits that it grievously erred by never awarding Gandhi a Peace Prize.  (The year Gandhi died, the Peace Prize was not awarded; a tacit admission that Nobel screwed up majorly.  Nobel’s website is apologetic and somewhat defensive about its greatest oversight.)

Both the Peace Prize and the Literature Prize are inherently political.  Obviously the Peace Prize is overtly so, but what makes the Literature Prize both aggravating and disingenuous is the pretension that the prize is solely a reward for quality.  Glance at the list of winners and ask yourself if you’ve even heard of most of them.  For every literary giant–a William Faulker, for example–there are at least two Dario Fo’s.  This year’s winner is Tomas Tranströmer.  I have not read his work, nor am I, by any stretch of the imagination, a poetry expert, so I cannot judge his literary merit.  It excited his native Sweden.

No American has won since 1992 (Toni Morrison), and that has caused a tempest in a teapot. Giving out literary prizes is ridiculous (time rather than a committee determines greatness), but I do understand the anger a few years ago that ensued following the comments of one Horace Engdahl, a member of the Nobel Committee, who said that American writers are too insular and ignorant to win.  Engdahl went on to say that Europe is the center of the literary world.  These sentiments were echoed again this month by Alexander Nazaryan in Salon, although his observations are deeply flawed and easy to pick apart–i.e. par for the Salon course.  Arguments about the death of American literature never die.  Perhaps the problem is that American literature has become so removed from the general public that only a select few care enough to take part in the debate.  On one hand this would prove Engdahl’s point.  On the other, it underscores the fundamental flaw in his argument–the Committee does not look deep enough.  No one ever bothers to look past “serious” fiction to the unfairly derided “genre” fiction, yet in such works one can find far superior outlets for exploring the overarching universal themes which Nobel claims to love.

It is true that academia and the Masters of Fine Arts have gentrified the oh-so-serious American novel to a certain degree, but it is nothing short of galling to hear cries of insularity coming from the Nobel Committee.  Claiming Europe is the center of the literary world is merely a justification for the fact that Nobel largely ignores everywhere that is not Europe.  More accurately, Nobel ignores literature published in non-Western European languages.  Take a look at the list of winners.  Most wrote or write in English, French, German, Spanish, or the Scandinavian languages, and even those that don’t often have very strong ties to Western Europe.  Yet world literature is more than just Germanic and Romantic, and that is why the criticism is especially grating.  Nazaryan can claim that Nobel has “given it to Caribbean poets and Chinese absurdists,” but this is a disingenuous statement.  Rather Nobel has awarded the prize to a Caribbean poet (Derek Walcott in 1992) and a Chinese absurdist (Gao Xingjian in 2000, who has lived in France since 1987 and been a French citizen since 1997), but these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Were it were not for the large purse attached, and the association with the Peace Prize, no one would take the Literature Prize seriously.  Even the judges themselves cannot agree what constitutes worth (see here and here).  Moreover, the Literature Committee is not above emulating their counterparts in Oslo by trying to send a political message.  When V.S. Naipaul won in 2001, it was just after the September 11 attacks.  It was no coincidence that the prize went to a prominent critic of Islam and fundamentalism.  When Harold Pinter won, it was less for his plays and more for his strident criticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the American government.  It was the same with Doris Lessing a couple of years later.  These examples are just the tip of the iceberg.  Even if the political undertones do not detract from the winner’s worth, they nevertheless undermine the Literature Prize’s selection.   Furthermore, those undertones are monolithic in their outlook; they always mirror the ideals and beliefs of the European political left.  Who exactly is insular again?

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Far more than the Literature Prize though, the Peace Prize is the Nobel Committee at its most didactic and political.  For all the money, fame, and prestige attached, the Peace Prize is really a giant farce.  One must remember that a handful of Norwegians choose the Peace Prize recipient (and those Norwegians are chosen by the government of Norway.)  Hence Yasser Arafat, Henry Kissinger, and Kofi Annan won the award while Gandhi did not.  If the Literature Prize subtly mirrors the European left, than the Peace Prize boldly announces that to the world.  Never was this more apparent than in the 2000’s where the majority of the awards were ultimately criticisms of the administration of George W. Bush.  Six times between 2000 and 2010 the Peace Prize was awarded to critics of the Bush administration, either because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or because of his horrific anti-environment policies.  Barack Obama’s win can only be seen as the final rebuke to the Bush administration.

This year, clearly sensitive to the charge that Nobel does not consider enough women, the Committee split the Peace Prize between three women, Tawakel Karman of Yemen and Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.  (The lack of female recipients is a very real concern.  Only 15 women have won the Peace Prize, and that is more than any other Nobel Prize.)  Karman was chosen because Nobel wanted to publicly approve the Arab Spring, and Karman is the only prominent woman in the movement.  Whether or not she is worthy (or whether her efforts are successful) is a different story.

Honestly, any award for the Arab Spring is very premature at this date.  The Arab Spring is a rousing story–the people toppling powerful dictators–but it remains to be seen  whether those revolutions will be successful, including in Karman’s Yemen.  Even in Egypt and Libya, where the dictator was toppled, it is yet unclear that whatever comes next will be better.  After Louis XVI came Robespierre and Napoleon; after the Tsar came Lenin and Stalin; after the Shah came the Ayatollahs.  Waiting to judge whether the Arab Spring actually succeeded would have been more prudent, but then the Peace Prize Committee couldn’t have given its imprimatur so quickly.  Should these revolutions go the way that most revolutions do, it will be very hard to justify that the Peace Prize was given to those who (as Alfred Nobel required in his will) “have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

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I can neither defend nor attack the Committee’s decision to award the Peace Prize to Leymah Gbowee.  I had never heard of before, and I am unfamiliar with her work.  I suspect though that her selection has less to do with her own accomplishments and more to do with her co-winnner, countrywoman, and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

I have written about Johnson Sirleaf before.  Like many in the Western world, I am fascinated by her.  Nevertheless, I have the luxury of not being Liberian, and her government does affect my life.  Undoubtedly, she has done much for Liberia; most notably she managed to get billions of dollars of her nation’s debt forgiven.  Furthermore, in a country with such a troubled history as Liberia, under her rule, free, fair, and peaceful elections were just held, and her position is at stake.  (At the time of this writing, the opposition claims election fraud by Johnson Sirleaf’s party, although official African Union observers have reported the elections to be fair.  What happens next remains to be seen, and I fear it will be ugly.)  Nevertheless, life for the average Liberian is incredibly difficult and charges of corruption have plagued Johnson Sirleaf’s government but not her personally.  What has plagued her is her former association with her predecessor, the genocidal dictator Charles Taylor.  A commission in her own country recommended that for that association she should be barred from holding public office for 30 years (she is 72.)  Obviously this recommendation was ignored.

The Peace Prize was given out just a few days before Liberians went to the polls to determine whether Johnson Sirleaf should have a second term.  For this reason, the timing of the award was awful from all angles.  Just as there is no other way to justify Obama’s award than as a rebuke to Bush, one cannot see Johnson Sirleaf’s award as anything other than a way for the Nobel Committee (i.e. white, rich Europeans) to suggest to Liberians (i.e. poor, black Africans) how they should vote in their own elections.  Yet, this belies a fundamental lack of understanding.  Johnson Sirleaf’s approval in Liberia is far more complex (and far less universal) than in the West.  As with Karman, it would seem far more appropriate for the Nobel Committee to have waited to assess what Johnson Sirleaf has actually done.  Did she leave Liberia a better place than she found it?  If the answer is yes, then she would deserve a Nobel Peace Prize, but that is a question only time could tell.

But patience and careful consideration?  These are not Nobel virtues.

Assessing Serena Williams

In honor of her 30th birthday, SI.com asked its formidable stable of tennis writers to assess the career and the legacy of Serena William, which is extremely difficult to judge, far more so than her predecessors.  On one hand Serena has been near or at the top of the women’s game since 1999.  She has won 13 major titles, which puts her the 4th most successful women’s champion in the Open Era and 6th all time.  Even when Serena’s ranking plummeted, everyone knew she was the best, and those pretenders (Sharapova, Henin, Clijsters) benefited more from Serena’s poor form than from their own superiority.  The last time that Serena actually was not the best player in the world–never mind the rankings–was a decade ago when her sister Venus was.

Nevertheless, for all her accomplishments, Serena is something of an underachiever.  The truth is that Serena could have done so much more.  (One once could have made the same charge against Venus, but having found out that she was plagued by an undiagnosed chronic illness for the past half decade or so, her decline makes more sense now.  If anything, she overachieved.)  In the era of the so-called Big Babes, Serena was the strongest, fastest, and most athletic Big Babe of all.  Her serve is one of the game’s best ever if not the best, and her mental tenacity is rivaled only by Graf and Navratilova.

Serena is unquestionably the best of her era.  Also unquestionable is that each era is better than all preceding ones it if only because success builds upon itself and athletic training only gets more advanced.  Following that logic, yes Serena is the greatest to ever play the game.  However, most of the SI writers do not use that logic.  Nor do the fans who argue about such things.  In truth, that’s how it should be because players from previous eras should not be penalized for being older.  The true standard is the way an athlete dominates her or his own era, and this is why Serena has underachieved.  Compare her to Graf and Navratilova who absolutely dominated their respective eras, and we see what Serena could have done.  (Having said that, it boggles my mind that anyone believes that this is a lesser era in terms of tennis talent.  As though the days of tennis when only two women dominated the entire field is shows greater player depth.  I’m looking at you, Bruce Jenkins.  You should know better.)  Because Serena could have accomplished so much more on the court than she did, the majority of SI’s writers hesitate to put her above either Graf or Navratilova.

I think that is a fair assessment.  Serena at her best is second to no one, but Serena is not often at her best, distracted by outside interests, most infamously an acting career.  The same cannot be said for the other greats of the women’s game, which is why they accomplished so much more.  What is remarkable is that even as a potential underachiever Serena is still among the most accomplished women of all time, just behind Court, Graf, Wills, Navratilova, and Evert.  On the flip side, I cannot imagine any other woman in history being as distracted as Serena and still accomplishing as much.  It is a testament to her talent, skill, and athleticism.  It’s why in tennis history she is sui generis.