Thursday, October 08, 2009

Ken Burns, Afghanistan, Public Transit

Some like to claim that while we have to subsidize public transit, highways pay for themselves via the federal gas tax (currently 18.4 cents per gallon). I don't think that is accurate.

This episode of Fresh Air lays out a pretty good case in favor of sending more troops to Afghanistan. It's a little (lot) disconcerting to hear one of the best journalists covering the region say that Kabul would fall within six months of a US withdrawal. But will 40K more troops win it? Bill Maher posed an interesting question: when has a general ever said he couldn't win a war with more troops? Thinking back to these 1, 2 Fresh Air pieces from earlier in the summer, I'm reminded of the scene in Apocalypse Now where Kurtz describes the impossibility of winning against a ruthless enemy--how do you compete with an enemy who, after you give people vaccinations, goes around and chops off any arm that has a needle hole in it? Is it possible to convince residents we'll be there longer than the Taliban and to cooperate with us instead?

I just finished watching Ken Burns' National Parks documentary. If you haven't watched it, you have until tomorrow to watch it free online. I wasn't a huge fan, but I have a bunch of grading to do, so I had an easy 12 hours with it in the background. Watching it online meant the resolution was not awesome, which is bad news for nature photography. Even though this was one of the main themes of the series, I think it did a poor job of covering the dichotomous task the Park Service (or any other manager of public lands) faces--"to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." The latter half of the episodes were better in this regard, however. This NYT review points out that there were no people in the footage, which might be part of the problem.

There was a little too much over-the-top patriotism and a lot too much of people speaking in annoying breathy whispered overly sentimental tones (and I so wanted to like Terry Tempest Williams). I just wish there'd been more facts and less sentimentality. I thought the coverage of the controversies in Alaska and Wyoming after use of the Antiquities Act presidential power to create National Monuments was good, but coverage of Hetch Hetchy, Echo Park, and John Muir vs. Gifford Pinchot was a little weak. I also would have liked more accounts of adventures people had inside the parks--only a handful were mentioned and only two were built up in enough detail to build suspense. Maybe that's my main beef--to me the parks' dichotomy is between overweight people in cars and people having real wilderness adventure, and it seems like to Burns the dichotomy is between overweight people in cars and aerial photography shots with no people in them. A documentary on the Wilderness Act would've been more up my alley.

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