Saturday, 29 September 2007

Offbeat Moments with the Republican B Team

Tempted by the Huffington platform, I sat through the televised debate at Morgan State University, which was to address issues of concern to black and brown Americans and promptly was dissed by all four top Republican contenders who said they were busy. It was less painful than I expected although there were molar-grinding moments and plenty of unintended hilarity. I got to compose a snide round-up afterward, including this:

"Ron Paul, speaking for the many libertarian anarchists in black Republican ranks, plumped for eliminating government and giving the state of nature another try. Tancredo caromed issue after issue off the Mexican border wall, and Hunter repeatedly intoned his former life in the ‘barrio’ although he stopped short of trilling his double-Rs. "

But the most striking aspect of the debate, for me, was the nature of the questions posed by a panel of one Hispanic and two black journalists. The issues raised and the assumptions behind them were entirely different from what we've come to expect, illustrating what I'll call a 'white slant' that filters into our everyday discourse. So it was no great loss that the Giulianis and the Romneys and the McCains didn't come to speak, but it's too bad they didn't come to listen.

Read the whole piece here.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Onto 'Off the Bus'

My, my, this brave and narcissistic new blogger world is full of surprises. I have been recruited to expand my musings from this comfy, half-lit and paradoxically private little niche to the glaring headlights of the Huffington Post. A new feature on that site, named Off the Bus, is pulling in pieces on the presidential campaign from people like me who think they can document their opinions or at least back up their wisecracks. In my condition as a recovering journalist, I have been solicited to submit contributions on an array of topics, from issues that I may even know something about to more general concerns relevant to the gathering Twilight of the Bipeds.

The invitation is irresistible, despite the threat of being drawn into polemics, which was not the point of inventing BT at all. Verbal fisticuffs of the sort clogging the Internet’s arteries do not interest me in the slightest, and I hereby swear not to answer the typing bipeds who will undoubtedly try to assault my sanctuary. I express my observations and reflections in a spirit of self-indulgent glee, much as someone who talks incessantly to himself simply because he likes hearing his ideas expressed aloud.

Of course, rules are made to be broken, and many thoughtful people, including you, dear Reader, do manage to provide well-pondered feedback. I wish there were some way to install a internet filter for distinguishing between ideas and thought-spam, but alas, this technology awaits future generations. As if a dozen penis-enhancement offers weren’t enough, one has to scroll past obsessive opinion-monitors determined to increase the importance of their intellectual genitalia as well.

But I digress. My first contribution to the Off the Bus addresses the debate on healthcare reform based on a Kaiser-sponsored interview this week with John Edwards. I found that although the candidates rush to agree that our healthcare system is a sick duckie,

". . . from the tone of the discussion so far, they must think that to perform major surgery on this moribund patient, first we have to anaesthetize the voters."

Read the whole piece here, but please, esteemed Visitor, when you’re done, hurry back over to my sitting room. We’ll have tea and chat.

Twilight Highlights: What better illustration could we ask for of our complete moral bankrupcy as a nation than the current constellation of simultaneous events: Bush asks for another 50 billion dollars to throw down the Iraq sinkhole the same day he announces a veto of healthcare for children from low-income families as ‘too expensive’, then utilizes African-American children as props in his No Child Left Behind renewal announcement. We should be ashamed that he could even dare to show his face in public.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

No End in Sight

Now here’s a term that should make any adult instinctively reach down and cover his billfold: ‘moderate’. You see that label taped onto guys like senators Lugar and Warner because they are beginning to conclude that the earth might be round.

Real moderation, decency and good sense don’t normally win that ‘moderate’ moniker. Look at Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel author: he acknowledges the genocide against Armenians and immediately becomes a ‘controversial’ figure. ‘Moderation’ in this case would be keeping quiet and pretending nothing had happened. Of course, that wouldn’t work in Germany, but then moderate is as moderate does. Being in the middle of the road doesn’t say nearly as much about an individual as about the highway they happen to be on.

Speaking of taking the ‘moderate’ position, it’s easy to see why the latest film on Iraq, No End in Sight, is having such a vigorous run here. It shows in crushing detail the arrogance and stupidity that have characterized that criminal conspiracy from the beginning. Its targets are venal Republican operatives, and it’s popular in this Democratic town. The reviews laud it as even-handed, ‘no left-wing screed’, as one put it, and it builds a convincing case.

However, walking out one is left with the impression that if the war had just been done right, things would be kind of okay, if not downright hunky-dory. Filmmaker Charles Ferguson explicitly endorses that reaction and agrees that he set aside any questioning of the moral and policy implications of staging an unprovoked attack on false premises. This is not a Michael Moore film, he said in an interview, reminding the reporter that he has a Ph.D. in political science.

Instead, we get a run-down of the operational disasters, by now somewhat familiar although the combined effect is devastating. The wise men in the picture are establishment figures like Richard Armitrage, the guy who outed Valerie Plame and threatened to bomb Pakistan ‘back to the Stone Age’ if they didn’t cooperate with the war on Bin Laden. Now there’s a moderate guy.

It’s conceivable although perhaps optimistic to suppose that the Iraq disaster will get wound down somehow in the next administration. But to the underlying principles of unprovoked invasion and territorial conquest in the pursuit of oil there is truly no end in sight. Such a suggestion in the rarefied circles this film inhabits would be highly immoderate.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

MSMs (reprise)

It’s double standard time again and a great opportunity to witness how the pack mentality leads to suspension of all the supposedly sacrosanct rules. How many sordid autocrats and sleazebags of one sort or another parade through Columbia University’s overrated international affairs school every September during UN week without stirring much of a ripple? Can we imagine anyone being rude to, say, an important Saudi prince for his country’s harboring the appalling Idi Amin for two decades?

Pretty much anyone holding down the presidential sash can and does get a hearing up there, with nothing more than an occasional heckler slipping through to be immediately shushed by the august dons. You’d need something like the entire Burmese junta in full-dress uniform wearing shades and human ears as necklaces to interrupt the devotion to polite power-worship and realpolitik.

But all that goes out the window when the country and our tabloid MSM have decided on an enemy’s list as occurred when Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad got a platform to speak at Columbia. The big guns were out and threatening retaliation against the school, and voila the university’s president himself was there to insult him personally beforehand.

Ahmadinejad is a major creep and deserves what he gets, but officially introducing him as ‘ridiculous’ and ‘ignorant’ is just grandstanding. The fact that Ahmadinejad subjected himself to such treatment suggests to me that the mullahs he fronts for are seriously cut off from reality and have had retainers fawning on them for far too long.

The whole scene took me back to a speech I heard at the National Press Club in Washington years ago when a certain Ariel Sharon came to town after the most recent conquest of Lebanon. Sharon hadn’t yet been found complicit in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camp massacres—that would come later—but they had just occurred and were certainly fair grist for some journalistic queries.

But the crowd was so enchanted with the wisecracking Israeli general that the 100-strong audience merely chuckled at his jokes and enjoyed a bountiful lunch. His dubious war record didn’t even come up. No official censorship or boardroom conspiracies were necessary to keep Washington's entire MainStream Media quiet. Somehow, they just knew.


Twilight Highlights: Speaking of MSM, Mahmoud should look up Larry (‘I’m not gay’) Craig while he’s here. Ahmadinejad replied to the question about executions of teenaged boys for homosexual acts by saying ‘gays’ didn’t exist in Iran. I suspect he’s right as far as that goes—public hanging would put a damper on the coming-out process. Craig did his best to suppress the public expression of homosexuality too even while allegedly making whoopy in toilets. They both have too much faith in appearances, including their own. I’d bet money that the underground gay scene in Teheran is torrid, despite or because of the dangers. And if experience is any guide, Ahmadinejad will have a couple of closet-case homophobes among his own enforcers. Like the old saw about left and right bending backwards and touching each other, these twisted theocrats don’t realize how much they have in common. God help us if they ever become allies.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Greed Is. . . Oops!

So Wall Street is back on a roll after the Fed gave up the half-point interest rate cut it was angling for last week. How nice for all the gang who work downtown—we read last December that the average salary in one of the big investment banks was 600 thousand a year, and that’s including the receptionists.

Meanwhile, the people who got bamboozled into taking the scam mortgages will continue to lose everything. Let’s see if our Democratic party guys, eyes lifted toward Hyde Park and the grave of FDR, will step up and find a way to give them a similar break.

I have to admit to mixed feelings about the whole thing for selfish reasons: my retirement accounts run by these geniuses both announced to me in their monthly statements that they managed to lose 11% of my total assets in the month of August. Good going, guys. The blurbs in these depressing statements I’m getting in the mail are quite similar: it was a ‘perfect storm,’ they insist, entirely unprecedented, a freak combination of events no one could have predicted.

Yeah, right. They say they’ll make it back, and no doubt they will. But even I, a mere curious lay mortal, noticed signs of trouble in the financial pages for months, not to mention the anecdotal evidence: a friend of mine told me her roommate, who works for minimum wage in a fast-food shop, got a mortgage for a condo in June with no down payment required. You didn’t need an MBA to know that something was screwy and couldn’t last, but none of the financial sharpies in charge of my old age thought to take a more conservative approach and scramble for the exits.

The Market, praised be its name, has its own logic and order, to which its high priests bow down with predictable slavish awe. Many commentators have remarked on the inexorable force of any bubble and how smart speculators will and in fact should pile on even while knowing that it will burst as long as they can bail out in time.

That suggests that our Goddess of the Invisible Hand is just as temperamental and dangerous as Hera and Athena and requires the balancing intervention of other deities. Greenspan, despite his long-standing godlike status, never bothered using the Fed’s regulatory faculties to protect us. (Perhaps he feared getting nailed to a rock and having his liver eaten by an eagle.) Let’s see if the new crop of anointed fiscal emperors can use this gigantic opening to do better.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

The Jena Principle

It’s great to see thousands of people marching against the racist railroading of teenagers in the Jena 6 case. Let’s hope the grotesque injustices taking place there and no doubt in a dozen other places that aren’t as notorious as the Louisiana town are overturned. Too bad it takes a resuscitated civil rights movement to restore basic equality before the law.

But I have another question since my job takes me to Louisiana and other southern states all the time: why weren’t the national Latino leadership all over this issue, lending support to the marches and calls for racial justice? Here was a golden opportunity to defend a principle and forge a link with Latinos’ natural allies for when the time comes to debate repressive immigration laws and racial violence directed against Mexicans and Guatemalans. Why don’t La Raza and LULAC and all the rest of the official Hispanics have any strategic sense?

It’s depressingly consistent among our biped brethren that we are stirred to outrage only when bad things happen to us, our relatives or the people we identify as our peers. When it’s the next guy, we don’t exactly ignore injustice—it simply doesn’t register on our mental radar.

I saw it in stark relief when living in South America and hearing people say how glad they were that the military regime had ‘restored order’ or ‘reduced crime’, then witnessing the same individual switch gears and squawk about an abuse committed against their Uncle Pedro.

In Jena you heard it in the comments of the white townspeople: the incidents were ‘blown out of proportion,’ they said consistently, meaning the case didn’t bother them since it was just the kids from across town whose lives were being wrecked. For the 16-year-old facing a murder charge for a schoolyard fight, the proportions were already pretty substantial.

If these inconsistencies are part of biped make-up, it’s up to our cultural and political traditions to combat them actively and explicitly. We need to teach children and adolescents that human selfishness is our default reaction and that to maintain a decent, safe polity we need to swim against that current through an act of will. What a contrast to the messages we’re getting from the repugnant Bush crowd that nothing matters except our safety and that a thousand innocent people tortured matters not at all if a single terrorist act against ME is prevented. To which the great majority will readily, if silently, agree.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Our Loss

I accidentally caught a few minutes of a great guy on C-SPAN this morning, someone people under 30 may never have heard of: George McGovern.

It’s remarkable that someone so unfairly hammered by the political mafias could retain such a kindly, bemused air. He was talking about the 30th anniversary of the Food Stamp Act, which he co-authored and promoted tirelessly, demonstrating more basic human decency than you could squeeze out of the entire crop of today’s presidential candidates if they were bound and griddled with prairie butter.

McGovern, for whom I worked as a freshman college student in Washington (there was no payment, but I did get to meet film star Veronica Lake one day at his office), was always too focused on people’s well-being to be very effective as a slash-and-burn pol, which is why he’s remembered the way Nixon’s goons painted him, as a wild-man left-winger. In fact, he was always a solid social democrat in the European mold and only looked radical because the political center here is so skewered.

But George also had something few of these bobbleheads can lay claim to today: he believed in things. He said the Vietnam war was an immoral waste, and he was proven right. Nixon slaughtered him at the polls in 1972 but two years later was himself bounced ignominiously out of the White House. I never forgot that. Sometimes it makes more political and practical sense to take a principled stand and not budge from it than to focus-group and sound-bite your party into purveyors of meaningless pap.

After he lost his Senate seat, McGovern faced personal tragedy. One of his daughters struggled with alcoholism her entire adult life before finally dying of exposure in a Minnesota snowstorm. He wrote a book about it and encouraged people to learn about the disease and treat their alcoholic family members compassionately.

George is 85 and was looking a little feeble at the podium. He’s still capable of sharp polemics, but his instinct is all uncle, all the time. He ended his remarks with an offhand suggestion to Republicans and Democrats to get working on ‘these important issues’ for our country. You don’t see much of that quiet, statemanslike spirit emerging from Washington these days.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

We Like Failure

We bipeds can sure pick ‘em. The fact that Hillary Clinton could announce her healthcare plan and not be laughed out of politics for life is a sure tribute either to her extraordinary skills or to something in the national water supply.

When I say skills, I do not mean to commend her as a politician because that much-abused term suggests someone who can not only obtain power but also shape the course of events. The Clinton dyad excels only at the former, which makes Madame H, like her smiley mate, just a superb self-promoter.

As far as I can tell, Clintonism as practiced so far is comprised of two parts: (1) an uncanny reading of what will sell on the way up and (2) complete triangulated surrender at the first sign of resistance once securely in office. So I am resigned to seeing HC trounce the competition and inaugurate yet another dreary period of official pandering to the powerful accompanied by unctuous and depressingly convincing smiles for the people being screwed.

But it is certainly perversely appropriate that during the same week in which Bush trotted out the bemedalled Julius, er I mean, David Petraeus to bullshit us about Iraq we should also hear from Hillarious about all the neat things we can look forward to at the hospital and the doctor’s office. Both are equally qualified to speak on those subjects given that they have both presided over ignominious, crushing failure in their respective spheres. Because faith, that is, blind faith, springs eternal in the biped breast, they can both look forward to long and illustrious careers at the top.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Enjoy your day. . . Begin NOW!

OK, I admit to curmudgeonliness. But where did chain stores get the mammoth balls to start asking us to make donations to THEIR favorite charities while captive in the check-out lines? I couldn’t effing believe the Staples clerk ringing up my purchase and then politely inquiring if I was a decent Christian or a heartless prick. Well, she didn’t exactly put it that way, but by refusing to donate my change to the allegedly worthy cause she was forced to promote, those were pretty much the implied categories.

Dear Staples: If you want to support a nonprofit entity, GIVE THEM YOUR OWN GODDAM MOTHERFUCKING MONEY! There, I said it.

Now that was unruly, I apologize. But what stirs me to these intemperate rages is the sense that there is no escape anywhere from corporate programming, starting with the faux ‘Welcome to Best Buy’ (where you’d best buy something, deadbeat) right through to the ‘Enjoy your day’ b.s. from the merchandise clerk after you’ve selected the product you’re forced to take since her employers have driven away all the competition. It’s all so revoltingly cock-cheerful and false. You know the company has mercilessly drilled the minimum-wage staff on exactly what words to use and what posture to adopt to get the money out of your pocket and into theirs. And to make you aware that the store’s eyes are always on you, too.

Commerce is such an important part of our existence that reducing it to rote repetitions of a few standard interactions undermines quality of life in a significant way. You don’t have to be nostalgic for the 12-hour day to miss the time when retail jobs retained a certain gruff dignity because employees were allowed to be spontaneous and human. Now your typical Wal-Mart ‘associate’ has to know exactly when to smile, how to curtsy and what jokes are to be made and by whom. No doubt it makes sense that this regimentation should occur in an economy where most everyday goods are made by communist slaves.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Force Feeding (bis)

One direct result of the surfeit of bulk sentimentality and the concomitant paucity of thought that surrounded the immediate aftermath of the Twin Towers attack was the failure to consider the environmental dangers to the rescue and clean-up workers. Such was the panic and urgency to get New York’s economy and especially its financial markets back up and running that the unpardonable Christine Todd Whitman at the EPA notoriously declared the area safe, based on a reading of the residue in her morning teacup. Saint Rudy never uttered a doubting word about it, either. So the ground workers were left to slog through the asbestos dust and mystery chemical particulates on their own.

Mount Sinai hospital, which has strong historical ties to labor unions, was the place the workers went if they fell ill, which of course they began to do in large numbers in the following months. But apparently no one at those acres of federal health institutes in the Maryland suburbs full of handsomely paid expert epidemiologists thought to study the phenomenon.

The failure to launch that study immediately was a huge error—let’s be generous and assume it was due to stupidity rather than venality. Anyone who’s been around formal medical research knows how damnably complicated it is and how much goes into preparing and monitoring a research protocol to keep the data clean and accurate. According to a Times article last week about the Mount Sinai doctors’ efforts, when they finally got federal money, they were told to use it strictly for clinical treatment, not research.

Mount Sinai tried to keep records on the patients anyway, and the Times article describes the shortcomings of their data-collection methods and therefore the solidity of their conclusions. No doubt long technical articles in the research journals will follow, and we will have a decade’s debate about it.

I predict that the inferior quality of the data will also be used against the victims to block their access to compensation. Like the rush to war in Iraq without vehicle armor to protect the troops, it’s one more indication of how much the patriotic screed that filled the thought-waves in those first weeks and months was focused on anything except the well-being of the people who actually comprise the nation.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Your MSM—and Mine

The shorthand term ‘MSM’ for ‘Mainstream Media’ always cracks me up. In the AIDS field it also stands for ‘Men who have Sex with Men’. Think about that fully and completely, and tell me you’re keeping a straight face, no pun intended.

The acronym arose as AIDS educators realized that there was a lot of male-to-male whatnot going on here and there that couldn’t fairly be called ‘gay’ because that term implied a specific, collective identity that wasn’t always present. So if you wanted to talk about prevention among men in Wisconsin gay bars where the guys celebrate Pride Week and debate upholstery, that was one thing.

But if you were dealing with homoerotic forays on truck routes in India or in cruising sites along the interstates among men who otherwise see themselves as just horny guys, it’s not very meaningful to call it ‘gay’. So when Larry Craig insists he’s not, there’s some truth to it—I can’t imagine him having anything interesting to say about Britney Spears’s extensions despite his well-honed skills in the tearoom stalls.

That made ‘MSM’ a useful technical category for describing a specific set of circumstances. But as so often happens, it began to ooze into common usage as a blanket description of ALL homosexual activity of whatever stripe. Amazing as it may seem, you rarely hear references to ‘gay men’ any more in the AIDS environment because it feels slightly off-center and generates those haven’t-you-heard stares, like saying ‘black people.’

The screamer is that now you do hear frequent references to the ‘MSM community,’ when the whole point of inventing the term was to include guys who have no sense of community at all with regard to their sexual predilictions. Of course, saying ‘MSM community’ leaves out those who do and erases their four decades of political agitation as ‘gay’ people.

I think this occurred because the word ‘gay’ makes people uncomfortable. So to avoid ruffling the feathers of homophobic health ministers from the Middle East or southern Africa at the big conferences, it’s much easier to shift to a doctor’s office descriptive term like ‘MSM’ instead of one referring to a social movement and a way of life. The gay-heavy AIDS industry itself has become comfortable with the shift too as the federal and state dollars roll down like a mighty stream and the organizations inevitably cede ground on sexual emancipation.

So what do the mainstream media MSMs have to do with the schnitzel-smuggler MSMs? Nothing at all except as a curious example of semantic mission-creep. Half the disgust with our dominant class these days involves dredging up the MSM boogeyman, a barn-sized target if ever there was one. Fine, but as Lord Sebastian Flyte would say, ‘How tedious’. It’s simplistic and reductionist to cast them as somehow responsible for all our current ills or even a large portion of them. A ruling elite will have a propaganda machine; ours plays the MSM like a set of bagpipes. And?


[With this post I inaugurate a special feature, ‘Twilight Highlights,’ comprised of those frequent and indisputable signs of the accelerating demise of our species. Although the examples are myriad and selection a huge chore, please send along any you find particularly illustrative to be shared here.]

Twilight Highlights: Some biped is paying $750,000 for a special baseball that Barry Bonds and his chemical additives hit over a fence. That’s nothing new and not worth a Highlight. But this is: NBC IS INTERVIEWING THE GUY! The conversation will be conducted by a select team of humanoids with pencils who, in a futile attempt to improve the gene pool, will then hurl themselves into the Three Rivers Gorge.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Force Feeding

Now that a week’s gone by since the Sept 11 anniversary, we may be permitted to think our own thoughts about it rather than absorb the canned emotions and packaged sentiments prepared for our consumption, required, in fact, like Mom’s Brussels sprouts. That was my reaction at the time, observing the events from the quasi-distance of Los Angeles—that we were being told exactly what to think and how to feel at every moment and punished if we strayed. Poor Susan Sontag took it on the chin when she dared to exercise independent thought and say what should have been obvious: that the hijackers could be called a thousand nasty things, but not cowards. The idea that perverse acts could also be courageous, like many other reflexions, was haram—forbidden. We were not allowed to examine the attacks with the use of our rational faculties.

When Bush used the occasion to declare war, a series of wars really, including one against Congress or anyone squeamish about letting him do whatever he wanted, it reinforced the idea that we were not to actually think about the nature of the attack or its perpetrators or what best to do about them. We were to leave all that to our rulers and obey them.

In previous war epochs, including one I recall quite vividly, our leaders, savory and unsavory alike, felt some need to concentrate their fire on the external enemy, at least at first. They sought to build a domestic alliance in support of the war effort and its accompanying shared sacrifices. But this time was different: there were no shared sacrifices and thus no need for a domestic alliance. When a Democratic centrist like Tom Daschle tried to find a way to offer loyal support while retaining his doubts, he was crushed like a corncob in a North Dakota silo. That created bitter adversaries within, which may have been exactly the point, to say to them, and us, You are defeated. We don’t need you. Squirm all you want. We were banished to a psychological Guantánamo without library privileges. The grunt soldiers facing the consequences in Iraq were among the first to dissent, but they were expendable.

Gentle and forgiving Clyde Haberman in the New York Times remarked in Friday’s paper on the consistent unoriginality of all the speakers at the official Ground Zero memorial ceremony, including Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Spitzer, Giuliani and Clinton, H. They all cited standard phrases from Western Civ 101 or American lit but seemed not have a new idea about what had happened there or much less the human condition. Haberman attributes it in part to the limits of sound-bite politics but notes that Lincoln didn’t need long to soar oratorically at Gettysburg. I am more inclined to cite my old English teachers who said when they marked our compositions, Good writing comes from good thinking. If you don’t have any ideas, no rhetorical tricks will save your essay from cliché.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Ave Caesar

Congressman Duncan Hunter on C-SPAN was in his best furious-defender-of-virtue mode during the Armed Services Committee set-piece with General Petraeus. He blasted any attempt to sully the sublime purity of the general’s testimony. How dare anyone in this chamber suggest, he demanded (before anyone had had the chance to suggest anything), that what will issue from your soldierly lips might be anything but expert, professional, nonpartisan, unblemished and objective Truth, scarcely filtered through your own brain. Thou art a mere conduit of Reality, intoned Hunter, blessed be the fruit of thy maneuvers.

A week ago Senator Lindsey Graham screeched on one of the blab shows that we can’t have ‘politicans in Washington’ telling our military men what to do. Excuse me? What is George Bush? His debating opponent, Senator Tweedledum, couldn’t think of a reply and stammered helplessly.

What’s next? Larry Craig denouncing cocksuckers?

This insistence on listening enraptured to our wise warrior class is particularly hilarious given that the entire Bush revolution was engineered by a passle of commisars who had worked their way up the Republican food chain over the last three decades until they could hijack the process and ram their lame-brained ideas down the throats of the entire Joint Chiefs. Have we forgotten how General Shinseki was bounced within minutes of dissenting from the revealed wisdom of incompetent politicians like Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Cheney? The hypocrisy of this week’s current exercise is mind-boggling. Petraeus couldn’t have strayed from the official White House liturgy on ‘progress’ in Iraq if he were channeling Judas Iscariot.

But despite the neocons’ crimes, let us not forget that control of the military by ‘politicians,’ a.k.a. civilians, is not exactly a bad idea. Too bad Clinton didn’t believe in it when he immediately caved on the issue of gays in the service, rather than announcing that HE was the decider and bouncing a couple of resisting generals down the Pentagon steps.

Instead, the Democrats have let their criticism of the Iraq debacle be cast as an attack on the troops and their sainted leaders. Why not listen politely to Petraeus, thank him and show him the door, then bring in Gates and Crocker separately and rip THEM a new backside? Debating policy with Petraeus leaves a nasty impression: that everyone’s so clueless that only the uniformed brass can tell us what to do next. I’m with Cicero on this one.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007


I rode my bicycle 100 miles on Sunday as part of Transportation Alternatives’ New York Century ride. It was a lot of fun if you take delight in sweating your entrails out for 12 hours. These long rides tend to start out as a mob scene, then the bikers clump into smaller affinity groups and bull their way through traffic, which is tons better than having to negotiate with hurtling hunks of motorized steel on your own. TA started us off at 110th Street in Harlem, and we flew down the west side of Manhattan at the crack of dawn stirring one late-night partyer to shout drunkenly from his car, ‘It’s six fucking a.m.!’ We were charmed. The first wave was hitting the Brooklyn Bridge by 6.45, which must be some sort of record. The sights were breathtaking, many in parks and along riverwalks I never knew existed. Cyclists get to see tons of cool stuff.

Mayor Bloomberg, with whom we enjoy an ongoing love/hate relationship, recently appointed a biking militant to the post of Transportation Commissioner. He’s also pushing congestion pricing, that is, charging drivers to enter Manhattan from outlying boroughs during business hours. In addition, New York is preparing several hundred more miles of bike paths and dedicated lanes both on and off city streets, and the City Council, we were just told Sunday, is looking at a law to force all buildings to accommodate bicycles indoors, a big bike commuter demand. Thank TA for that, a smooth, sophisticated, astute and fun-loving advocacy group.

In short, the city is getting serious about bike commuting and transport. I can now shoot down the Hudson River on my two-wheeler to work in exactly one hour door-to-door, including only five minutes on either end navigating street traffic. I even get to see geese and ducks.

This is all part of preparations for adding another million inhabitants to New York over the next couple of decades, pushing the five-borough population to 9 million. At least some city planners see there’s not much to recommend this if we end up with three-hour trips to the supermarket a la Bangkok or Manila.

I’ll get to the hate part of love/hate later. But this is one area of life in New York that I find unmatchable: public transport as a way of life along with gradual encroachment on automobile use. Having spent the last year getting acquainted with American cities throughout the Deep South, I can only say, Give it a chance out there. You’ll be amazed what a difference it makes to walk out your front door and see people going about their business rather than the blank facades of buildings and disembodied heads floating by in car windows.

Monday, 10 September 2007


The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

I’ve been reading ‘The Middle Sea’ by John Julius Norwich, touted as a lay introduction to 3,000 years of Mediterranean history. It finally sidelined me with its endless chronicle of attacks, sieges, glorious triumphs/tragic defeats, lootings & pillagings, massacres, streets-ran-red-with-blood, etc. For sure there were fascinating titbits—did you know the Trojan War and the Exodus from Egypt were roughly contemporary events? But the overall impact was too depressing to keep me going past the 1500s.

Watching George (‘we’re kicking ass!’) Bush cut his own swath through the facts and set us on course for more years of war reminded me of this unintentional 600-page condemnation of human civilization. Among us humanoids, the war party will always have an advantage over the skeptics, even when disaster looms. Once the gears of conquest and slaughter are set in motion, only catastrophic defeat will bring the machine to a halt as the Athenians realized to their dismay 2,400 years ago in the Peloponnesian Wars. Seems as though each generation since has had to relearn the lesson with depressing regularity.

The current reiteration is no exception. Every so often we are assured that something (anything!) will stop the Bush crowd, that we will step away from the ongoing carnage. Bush is weakened, we hear, the ‘wise men’ will get him under control any day now. You mean the ones who put him in power?

It is fascinating to see the long-disdained Vietnam parallels popping up again, now with a new twist. Iraq’s not a ‘quagmire’ because Vietnam wasn’t one either! The problem wasn’t defeat, but weakness, cutting and running, giving in too soon! Marvellous! This should signal us to what is coming in the Middle East: more of the same only moreso. We’ve now been warned.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Biped Follies

Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn is a gripping film with a troubling moral vacuum at its core. At the beginning rowdy, jughead airmen sit around training camp goofing and chortling at films about surviving in the jungle. They belittle the dangers they may face, and death and destruction, including their own, don’t cross their cramped mental landscapes.

At the end of Herzog’s film 90 minutes later, they’re doing pretty much the same thing. In between, we have seen aerial bombardment, starvation, imprisonment, daring escape, survival in a gruesomely hostile environment, murder, dementia and despair. But all’s well that ends well, and Our Hero, Dieter Dengler, a German-born American soldier, is rescued and feted appropriately by one and all. Dengler is a modern Errol Flynn: indomitable, defiant, sly, fearless and good with weapons—a survivor.

What we do not learn of and only grasp through apparently accidental asides is that the other prisoners we are supposed to sympathize with (and do) are secret CIA contract pilots (they worked for ‘Air America’) and later that continuing bombing by their fellow pilots have made rice growing impossible and thrown the province into mass starvation. But Herzog has no interest at all in what might be motivating his subject’s Vietnamese captors or the lack of sympathy of the villagers whose lives are being destroyed by these pilots. For the most part, they form an amorphous background of grinning, shouting savages, exactly as I recall the Africans in the Tarzan movies I watched as a 10-year-old, terrifying and yet dumb enough to be outsmarted by one white guy.

Yes, I know, I know, Rescue Dawn is not a documentary but an adventure story, and it’s a terrific one. The 911 hijackers’ story would make one too, so would we just sit back and enjoy that gripping tale without thinking about ‘politics’? In making his soldier-boy thriller, Herzog has chosen to airbrush away a war that killed a couple of million Vietnamese, mostly civilians, and permits his protagonist not even to notice.

Dostoyevsky wrote about his time in a prison camp and sketched unforgettable portraits of inmates he considered immune to punishment, such as Orlov, who faced beatings with icy equanimity and proceeded to break anew whatever rules had merited him the punishment—the Dieter Dengler of Siberia. But Dostoevsky also suggests that Orlov was not entirely human. He writes about another incorrigible prisoner, Gazin the child molester, who took pleasure in watching the last, mortal flutterings of the toddlers he murdered. Dostoevsky draws a parallel between the two: both are able to ignore the consequences of their actions because there is something alarmingly deficient in their souls.

In Herzog’s previous film about the disturbed bear-watcher Timothy Treadwell, there is an attempt to get inside this peculiar man and make some sense of him. Rescue Dawn couldn’t be bothered, and the end result is a film to inspire horny adolescent guys and set them up for army recruiters.