Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Political Man-Crush

Glenn Greenwald has a great piece today about the G.O.P.'s and white-male punditry's fatuous predisposition for politicians who are willing to play the role of "tough guy":

Newsweek's Howard Fineman -- last seen expressing admiration for the "reassuring" "male" qualities exuded by the GOP presidential field -- was on Hardball last night heaping praise on Fred Thompson. According to Fineman, Thompson not only is "tough on defense," but he himself is "a tough guy." Fineman also swooned: "He's got a strong record on cultural issues as a cultural conservative from the South."

What, in Fineman's mind, makes Thompson "tough on defense" and gives him credibility as "a tough guy"? Fineman obviously means that as a high compliment, but what -- in actuality -- has Thompson ever done that warrants such praise for his alleged "tough-guy-ness"?

Here is Thompson's biography -- his own official, endorsed version. He's been a government lawyer, an actor and a Senator. Though Thompson does not mention it, he also has been -- for two decades -- what a 1996 profile in The Washington Monthly described as "a high-paid Washington lobbyist for both foreign and domestic interests." This folksy, down-home, regular guy has spent his entire adult life as a lawyer and lobbyist in Washington, except when he was an actor in Hollywood.

And -- like the vast, vast majority of Republican "tough guys" who play-act the role so arousingly for our media stars, from Rudy Giuliani to Newt Gingrich -- Thompson has no military service despite having been of prime fighting age during the Vietnam War (Thompson turned 20 in 1962, Gingrich in 1963, Giuliani in 1964). He was active in Republican politics as early as the mid-1960s, which means he almost certainly supported the war in which he did not fight.

It's a great little essay from Greenwald. I recommend reading it all.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The War Prayer

"None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth." --Mark Twain

Markos Kounalakis has put together a beautifully drawn, animated adaptation of Mark Twain's satirical short story, "The War Prayer," featuring the voices of Peter Coyote and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Don't miss it:

Part One:

Part Two:

Monday, May 28, 2007

New One from Tom Tomorrow

This week's "This Modern World" is excellent: IT'S CAMPAIGN SEASON ON THE NORTHERN LAND MASS OF PLANET GLOX....

New Night Train

There's a new issue of Night Train online, as of this weekend.

The Foul Odor of Condescension

Get a load of the New York Times' Anthony DePalma's skepticism that a bunch of barefoot, brown-skinned, poverty-stricken third-worlders could have health care that's comparable to their wealthy, mostly white neighbors. Here he writes about Michael Moore's new film, Sicko:

Mr. Moore transports a handful of sick Americans to Cuba for treatment in the course of the film, which is scheduled to open in the United States next month, and he is apparently dumbfounded that they could get there what they couldn’t get here.

“There’s a reason Cubans live on average longer than we do,” he told Time magazine. “I’m not trumpeting Castro or his regime. I just want to say to fellow Americans, ‘C’mon, we’re the United States. If they can do this, we can do it.’ ”

But hold on. Do they do it? Live longer than, or even as long as, we do? How could a poor developing country — where annual health care spending averages just $230 a person compared with $6,096 in the United States — come anywhere near matching the richest country in the world?

[Emphasis mine.]

For that matter, Michael Moore's apparent dumbfoundedness betrays the same attitude: How could those poor, hispanic people have something comporable to what we have? This is typical of media coverage of Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia and the Pacific.

For instance, that brand of supercilious skepticism raises reporters' eyebrows in coverage of any and all mainstream American media coverage of the revolution in Venezuela. Here's CNN's headline on the long-scheduled end to a television station that played a significant role in the failed 2002 military coup: "Chavez closes opposition TV station; thousands protest." Does that headline (or anything else in the article, for that matter) reflect the fact that Chavez's approval rating in Venezuela regularly clocks in at between sixty and seventy percent? Based on American media coverage, you'd think Venezuela was ruled under the iron fist of a ruthless dictator. In fact, what Venezuela has is a highly popular President who represents the interests of the nonwealthy majority yet permits a level of dissent that wouldn't be tolerated in the U.S.

That racist condescension drips from the opening paragraphs of a recent article in the Times:

The squatters arrive before dawn with machetes and rifles, surround the well-ordered rows of sugar cane and threaten to kill anyone who interferes. Then they light a match to the crops and declare the land their own.

For centuries, much of Venezuela's rich farmland has been in the hands of a small elite. After coming to power in 1998, and especially after his re-election in December, President Hugo Chávez vowed to end that inequality, and has been keeping his promise in a process that is both brutal and legal.

Mr. Chávez is carrying out what may become the largest forced land redistribution in Venezuela's history, building utopian farming villages for squatters, lavishing money on new cooperatives and sending army commando units to supervise seized estates in six states.

Ah yes, this stands in stark contrast to all those unforced land redistributions in Venezuela's history--just ask that country's wealthy, thriving indigenous population.

(Click here for a "Blast the Right" podcast on the topic.)

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Pacifism: Does it work?

I've been thinking a lot about pacifism this weekend, and indirectly for several days prior. I'm a vegetarian and have been for years, so on that level pacifism is one of the ethical foundations of my life. Yet, since I became a father, I've routinely killed wasps and other insects. This week, for the first time, I put out poisonous traps to lure, capture, and kill the mice that moved into our garage after my daughter spilled some bird seed behind a box. When I came in from the garage, my wife and I joked about my role as the family's designated murderer.

Then, yesterday, I had a conversation with a friend I hadn't seen in several years. His political leanings have coincided with mine since we met; but while I've paid less attention to politics over the years, he seems to have grown increasingly engaged. To make a long story short, he expressed his comfort with violence in the name of resistance to oppression.

Then, last night, with that conversation still fresh in mind, I watched Pan's Labyrinth. No doubt that context colored my interpretation of the film--or, at any rate, highlighted the film's portrayal of a violent struggle against oppression.

At the moment, I'm re-examining my belief in pacifism and finding, to my surprise, that I'm willing to consider violence in a different light. Which is not to say that I'm headed out to buy a gun or to sign up with the nearest insurgency.

Just thinking out loud...

UPDATE: Three years later, I have zero recollection of writing this post. The ideas in it faded away quickly. I've gone from vegetarian to vegan. I've stopped trapping and killing (though moving may have a lot to do with that shift). And I cannot imagine hurting anyone for anything short of threatening my family.

Gerhard Scholten

If you're looking for an experienced, brilliant, accessible architect in the Colorado Springs area, look no further than Gerhard Scholten. He's a damn nice guy, too, with good taste in music and films. I'd be more than happy to provide a reference.

Detecting a pattern?

Think Progress has this on Bush's supposedly "furious" reaction to the New York Times report that the White House is debating ways to reduce the American troop presence in Iraq by as much as half next year:

The NYT report is just the latest example in a recurring pattern of media reports that have given false hope of an imminent drawdown. As Glenn Greenwald notes, “For four straight years, the same set of war supporters have constantly and repetitiously given the same exact false assurances about Iraq — virtually verbatim — in order to protect themselves politically.” And the press bites at the story every time.

Hard to believe it's 2007 and some reporters--English-speaking human beings who somehow, mysteriously earn a living covering the administration--still haven't caught on.

Then again, maybe I'm the one who hasn't yet caught on.

The Flowers of Evil

Maureen Dowd takes a break from walking the snark beat and weighs in on the quagmire:

[The Bush administration] knows the surge is not working. Iraq is in a civil war, with a gruesome bonus of terrorists mixed in. April was the worst month this year for the American military, with 104 soldiers killed, and there have been about 90 killed thus far in May. The democracy’s not jelling, as Iraqi lawmakers get ready to slouch off for a two-month vacation, leaving our kids to be blown up.

The top-flight counterinsurgency team that President Bush sent in after long years of pretending that we’d “turned the corner” doesn’t believe there’s a military solution. General Petraeus is reduced to writing an open letter to the Iraqi public, pleading with them to reject sectarianism and violence, even as the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr slinks back from four months in Iran, rallying his fans by crying: “No, no, no to Satan! No, no, no to America! No, no, no to occupation! No, no, no to Israel!”

W. thinks he can save face if he keeps taunting Democrats as the party of surrender — just as Nixon did — and dumps the Frankenstate he’s created on his successor.

“The enemy in Vietnam had neither the intent nor the capability to strike our homeland,” he told Coast Guard Academy graduates. “The enemy in Iraq does. Nine-eleven taught us that to protect the American people we must fight the terrorists where they live so that we don’t have to fight them where we live.”

The president said an intelligence report (which turned out to be two years old) showed that Osama had been trying to send Qaeda terrorists in Iraq to attack America. So clearly, Osama is capable of multitasking: Order the killers in Iraq to go after American soldiers there and American civilians here. There AND here. Get it, W.?

The president is on a continuous loop of sophistry: We have to push on in Iraq because Al Qaeda is there, even though Al Qaeda is there because we pushed into Iraq. Our troops have to keep dying there because our troops have been dying there. We have to stay so the enemy doesn’t know we’re leaving. Osama hasn’t been found because he’s hiding.

The terrorists moved into George Bush’s Iraq, not Saddam Hussein’s. W.’s ranting about Al Qaeda there is like planting fleurs du mal and then complaining your garden is toxic.

How We Learned to Start Worrying and Hate the Bomb

As American as apple pie: baseball, racist double standards, and the bomb.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Labyrinth of the Faun

Rachel and I finally watched Pan's Labyrinth on DVD this evening. I found it gripping and disturbing, though occasionally juvenile. I haven't read a thing about the movie, so I'm utterly unfamiliar with how others have interpreted it. I'm struck by its unapologetic embrace of violence as a legitimate response to oppression and aggression.

At the risk of spoiling certain elements of the plot for those who haven't yet seen the film (tune out now, or skip to the next paragraph if you haven't yet seen the movie), I'll give an example. Writer/director Guillermo del Toro establishes his story within the context of Spanish insurgents battling Franco's fascist forces in 1944. Del Toro contrasts the relatively ineffective pacifist approach of Dr. Feirraro (who treats those on both sides, and whose bravest act of resistance is turn his back when he's about to be shot by the fascist Capitán Vidal) with the quite sane and ultimately effective (at least within the scope of the film) acts of violence perpretrated by the insurgents. This is emphasized in the transformation of Mercedes, the head of el Capitán's housekeeping and kitchen staff. Early on in the story, she restricts her resistance to the insignificant act of delivering mail and tobacco to the insurgents under the cover of night. At one point, standing in the woods alongside the partisans, she realizes she's a coward for continuing to work for her boss. Only when she is finally caught in an act of subversion does Mercedes pull a knife from the folds of her dress and assault Vidal. She lets him live, at first, but kills him in the end--in what may be one of the darkest happy endings I've ever seen.

At the risk of oversimplification, and with only a few minutes of reflection since the end credits rolled, I can't shake the feeling that this film is on some level a call for violent resistance to oppression and aggression. The historical setting and fantasy-genre trappings serve to make such a message palatable and subtle enough to be swallowed virtually unnoticed by a mainstream audience. But there it is: a ringing endorsement not just of skepticism but of radical, violent action.

I wonder what Ward Churchill makes of this movie.

I don't mean to conflate the fascism of Franco with the fascism of Hitler--or anyone else's particular brand of fascism--but when I think about fascism this famous quotation comes to mind:

"Of course the people don't want war. But after all, it's the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it's a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger."

That's Herman Goering, Nazi Reichsmarshall and Luftwaffe-Chief, speaking privately with Gustave Gilbert, an American intelligence officer and psychologist, while awaiting trial at Nuremberg. What he says is well worth remembering.

Bloodthirsty Savages?

This survey is two months old, but I just came across it: Americans, especially Catholics, approve of torture.

Fact is, a majority of Americans actually approve of the use of torture under some circumstances. What’s more, according to one survey, Catholics approve of its use by a wider margin than the general public.

“This may be a reaction to 9/11, the horrible loss of life and the atrocities of those acting in the name of Islam,” says Bishop John H. Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., member of the bishops’ Committee on International Policy. “Some people feel the situation is out of control. They feel a vulnerability and a temptation to respond in kind. We have to resist that.”

A survey by the Pew Research Center in October showed that 15 percent of Americans believe torture is “often” justified, and another 31 percent believe it is “sometimes” justified. Add to that another 17 percent who said it is “rarely” justified, and you have two out of three Americans justifying torture under certain circumstances. Only 32 percent said it is “never” justified, while another 5 percent didn’t know or refused to answer.

But the portion of Catholics who justify torture is even higher, according to the survey. Twenty-one percent of Catholics surveyed said it is “often” justified and 35 percent said it is “sometimes” justified. Another 16 percent said it is “rarely” justified, meaning that nearly three of four Catholics justify it under some circumstances. Four percent of Catholics “didn’t know” or refused to answer and only 26 percent said it is “never” justified, which is the official teaching of the church.

Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew center, said these results mirror those of similar surveys.

That could be why Bush administration officials have been emboldened to use terms like “torture lite,” referring to abuse that does not result in organ failure or death, and why international and humanitarian organizations have been outspoken about American and American-sponsored torture.

The article doesn't highlight one interesting contrast among the groups surveyed. 31% of the general public feels torture is never justified; 26% of Catholics feel that way; 31% of White Protestants and 31% of White evangelicals agree; and 41% of those who fit into the category called "Secular" feels torture is never justified.


Friday, May 25, 2007

Immaculate Termination

A few weeks ago, in one of this blog's earliest posts, I made the comment that perhaps the Colbert Report was so much better than the Daily Show that the latter hardly deserved mention with the former in the same breath anymore. Well, in the last month, the Daily Show has roared back to life. Jon Stewart seems energized by the chance to ask tough questions in his interviews, and his opening commentaries/wisecracks about the news have gotten pretty damn funny. In the same time, Colbert's flame seems to have diminished ever so slightly. Perhaps the joke is growing a little stale, or perhaps he's not quite as vicious in his satire as he once was.

In any case, I still love watching both shows, and I try not to miss an episode (though I occasionally do). Last night's Daily Show was great from start to finish. Stewart had Al Gore on, and it made for a great interview. I'm more convinced than ever that Gore would win if he ran.

Here's Stewart's run through Monica Goodling's testimony in the Attorney General political firings scandal:

Thursday, May 24, 2007

"Strategic Empussification"

"When the disembodied voice on C-Span calls you pussies, you're probably pussies."


I should have mentioned this yesterday: in addition to my satirical short film about materialism and the self-serving righteousness of many Christian charities ("Shattered Hearts: Runaway Teen Window Shoppers"), I've posted Robert Vaughn's superb short film "Cofee" on Youtube.

That's my dear, departed friend Paul, with the beard and the hilarious facial expressions. He's Robert's brother. Such a talent!

I'd write about how much I miss him, but that would amount to cracking open my rib cage and spilling my heart all over this blog. I don't think I'll ever be ready to do such a thing.

Gore/Obama 2008

Over at TPM Cafe, former Newsday and New York Daily News columnist Jim Sleeper waxes optimistic (or, if you prefer, fantastic) about a potential Gore/Obama ticket in 2008:

Whatever Al Gore’s shortcomings (and I wrote plenty about them in the 1990s), he has risen with impressive decency and effectiveness above setbacks I doubt I could have endured without succumbing to the mild derangement one finds in many a political “survivor.” Gore has only grown stronger. He’s been prescient about big changes in communications, in climates, even in the fog of war. And the best argument for his running for President is that a Gore-Obama ticket stands the best chance of bringing 16 years of seasoned sanity to the White House.

I have the campaign slogan ready: “Make it Right, America.” It means, “You know that you elected Gore in 2000, but see what you got instead. Make it Right.” The slogan blurs the moral and partisan meanings of “right” -- just in time for a political realignment beyond “liberal” and “conservative,” even “Democrat” and “Republican.”

There's only one small problem: Just what kind of political realignment would it be?

Sleeper then goes out of his way to establish his centrist credentials with the obligatory liberal-bashing (equating mountains of hatred on the right with a few molehills of intolerance on the left), and spends an inordinate amount of time summing up the comments in another TPM Cafe thread on Obama's optimism. Eventually, though, Sleeper picks up the Gore/Obama thread again. He suggests that Al Gore may just have the answer to America's divisive political climate, in which demonization of one's opponents is more or less standard operating procedure (I'll admit, guilty as charged):

Fear almost always trumps reason, Gore explains, and television does it hundreds of times a day to Americans who watch TV for the national average of four and a half hours. Print, at least, makes you think by engaging a different lobe of the brain to interpret its otherwise meaningless symbols. He praises the Internet for restoring reading and writing to millions, if sometimes too instantly and anarchically to make them think as well as they would while sitting down with a good, serious book like his.

If anyone knows that Internet gabfests aren’t everything, it’s Gore, who has made an important movie and published his third book in hard covers, not to mention serving 16 years in Congress and eight in the White House. Could his seasoned strength and Obama’s deep idealism hasten a realignment that unites grounded liberals and honorable conservatives (there are many), all disgusted enough with GWOT/national-security demagoguery to want to fight for a reasonable, republican politics against those on the right (but soon perhaps again on the left) who feel driven to subvert it?

Is there a better way to “Make it Right”?

Interesting questions. Sleeper has a point. And he's hardly the first to make it:

In case you're interested, here's Sleeper's review of Gore's new book, The Assault on Reason.

Beautiful Music, Later

I've been looking forward to Voxtrot's debut album for a year and a half, since I first heard the brilliant twee pop on the band's initial EP, Raised By Wolves. Pitchfork has been a huge supporter of Voxtrot, which capitalized on the Internet buzz over their early MP3's to make a record deal.

Sounding at times like the Smiths, New Order and the Jam, those early songs showed a band with huge potential, searching for its own identity. I was smitten.

That's why it's so disappointing to read Eric Harvey's review of the full-length album Voxtrot:

Like the Sarah Records bands they owe so much of their musical aesthetic to, Austin indie rockers Voxtrot have, up to this point, relied upon EPs and seven-inches as their preferred modes of distribution. But unlike their twee-pop predecessors, the band also enjoyed the promotional boost of the mp3, and nurturing from online music communities which allowed them to leverage their few brief releases into a contract with the Beggars Group. Now backed by an honest-to-god record deal, and with fans eagerly awaiting their next step, the band has attempted to transfer their mastery of the EP format to a full album. Unfortunately, it turns out to be something of an awkward translation....

Voxtrot songs tend to rely more on successive alterations to near-melodies than full-on excursions into big, transcendent melodic moments. Yet while the band continually strives for hugeness on their debut long-player, they opt to force the issue through instrumental layering and sheer volume rather than re-tooling the songs at the base level. "Easy", for example, desperately wants to gleam but is flattened and disallowed the dynamic spikes it deserves. It's far from empty ambition-- more like unrealized potential-- but the band's M.O. here makes for a frustrating listen.

I've heard a handful of the album's songs already, and I've enjoyed them. I must admit, however, that as Voxtrot outgrows its initial influences and forges a sound of its own, the band seems to be taking itself a bit too seriously.

I'll write more about the album in a week or two, when I've had a chance to pick up (and fully absorb) the CD on its own terms

Which reminds me: I've meant to learn how to post MP3's on the blog. It's time.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

So We Do Not Have to Face Them at Home

I'm disoriented.

Today is Wednesday 23 May 2007, right?

President Bush used declassified intelligence about Osama bin Laden Wednesday to defend his Iraq war policy.

During a commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy, the president mentioned declassified intelligence that said bin Laden discussed sending a top lieutenant in 2005 to Iraq to set up a base from which to launch attacks in the United States.

"There's a reason bin Laden sent one of his most experienced paramilitary leaders to Iraq," Bush said. "He believes that if al Qaeda can drive us out, they can establish Iraq as a new terrorist sanctuary."

The president acknowledged that critics "question whether the fight in Iraq is part of the war on terror."

He said "the best way to protect our people is to take the fight to the enemy ... so we do not have to face them at home."

The president also made a comparison between Iraq and the Vietnam War, saying, "There are many differences between the two conflicts, but one stands out above all. The enemy in Vietnam had neither the intent nor the capability to strike our homeland. ... The enemy in Iraq does."

Beyond whatever is beyond satire, this.

Wake me in two years, please.

My Summer Blockbuster


In 2001 and 2002 I made a short, mockumentary film called "Shattered Hearts: Runaway Teen Window Shoppers." This was not, however, a straightforward mockumentary (if there is such a thing). This was metamockumentary, an offshoot of my longer movie, MOCK, a mockumentary about a filmmaker who makes mockumentary films. I'll upload MOCK to Youtube in days to come, as soon as I can compress the files in a way that doesn't render the various visual effects as a pixelated jumble (though, really, that's what it is intended to be--I just want it to look like my vision of a pixelated jumble, and not Youtube's).

In any case, the subject of MOCK is Stephan Gold, a pretentious, trust-fund asshole who mocks serious documentaries by making mockumentaries that drip with condescension toward his subjects. This is the only fully-edited mockumentary I created for him, as him:

Look for MOCK (in four or five installments) in days to come.

Something Amiss with This Boy's Upbringing

A freshman at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University (where some are not big fans of the First Amendment, it seems) was arrested this morning for possession of six I.E.D.'s--though he's white, Christian and American, so the media won't call them improvised explosive devices, a term reserved for the homemade bombs of brown-skinned Muslims across the globe. Mark David Uhl apparently intended to target protesters at Jerry Falwell's funeral.

We shouldn't be too hard on Uhl, though. It's an emotional time, when your hero dies and any sane person would consider the deceased an asshole of the highest order. Furthermore, the nineteen-year-old boy grew up in a town called Amissville, Virginia. Who can blame him?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Holding Firm to Mistaken Beliefs

In the gap between spring semester and summer school, I’m reading Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do. The second chapter asks what successful professors know about how human beings learn—and, more to the point, “Do the students in any class change the way they think?”

Bain cites an experiment of sorts devised and conducted in 1985 by Ibrahim Abou Halloun and David Hestenes, two physics professors. The experiment set out to determine whether the introductory physics class (taught by four different professors) effectively moved students away from their old conceptions of physics (“a cross between Aristotelian and 14th-century impetus ideas”) toward views that reflected the content of the course—in essence, Isaac Newton’s theories about physics. An exam was given to the students at the start of the semester, then again at the semester’s end.

Did the students’ views change?

Not really. After the term was over, the two physicists gave their examination once more and discovered that the course had made comparatively small changes in the way students thought. Even many “A” students continued to think like Aristotle rather than like Newton. They had memorized formulae and learned to plug the right numbers into them, but they did not change their basic conceptions. Instead, they had interpreted everything they heard about motion in terms of the intuitive framework they had brought with them to the course.

[Emphasis mine.]

Halloun and Hestenes conducted follow-up interviews, in which they challenged students’ wrong assumptions by raising fundamental questions and conducting an experiment that demonstrated Newton’s laws.

At that point, the physicists asked the students to explain the discrepancy between their ideas and the experiment.

What they heard astonished them: many of the students still refused to give up their mistaken ideas about motion. Instead, they argued that the experiment they had just witnessed did not exactly apply to the law of motion in question; it was a special case, or it didn’t quite fit the mistaken theory or law that they held as true. ‘As a rule,’ Halloun and Hestenes wrote, ‘students held firm to mistaken beliefs even when confronted with phenomena that contradicted those beliefs.’ If the researchers pointed out a contradiction or the students recognized one, ‘they tended at first not to question their own beliefs, but to argue that the observed instance was governed by some other law or principle and the principle they were using applied to a slightly different case.’ The students performed all kinds of mental gymnastics to avoid confronting and revising the fundamental underlying principles that guided their understanding of the physical universe. Perhaps most disturbing, some of these students had received high grades in the class.

[Again, emphasis mine.]

Bain goes on to summarize “a growing body of literature that questions whether students always learn as much as we have traditionally thought they did.” Many of our students (and, I dare say, ourselves) have learned to succeed in school and in life by “memorizing formulae, sticking numbers in the right equation or the right vocabulary into a paper, but understanding little.”

How else to explain the thirty-one percent who still approve of President Bush, despite all the evidence in the world that the man and his administration are either sinister or incompetent at almost every level—or both?

Yearning for Reagan

I'm a day late on this one, but Tom Tomorrow's new comic strip makes up for the clunkers he's put out in the past couple weeks. This time around, he takes aim at the G.O.P.'s weak crop of candidates and the party's pervasive nostalgia for the halcyon days of the Reagan era. Very funny and cutting. Well worth a click (or two, since you have to sit through one of Salon's ads first if you want to see the strip).

And, appropos of nothing, though in observation of this blog's sixty-ninth post, a bit of bad news: oral sex can give you throat cancer.

Who let the dogs out?

Sometimes I wonder why I pay any attention to professional sports. Today is one of those days.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Godfather IV: Fredo's Revenge

Il mio dio...

The execution maybe isn't top-top-notch, but I enjoy this:

My favorite moment: "Mr. Card was very upset. He reported they were just there to wish him well. 'AhhhHHHHHH! AHHHHHHHHHHH!'"

The Book Butchers

An article in the New York Times Book Review this weekend asks various bookish highbrows and lowbrows how they might trim some fat from the literary classics of their choice. Stephen King hacks Joyce's Ulysses and the Bible to bits, Ann Patchett carves into Orwell, and Joyce Carol Oates quits (cold turkey) all that smoking, drinking, fishing and hunting in Hemingway.

What fun. What fun. What fun.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Mistake that Grows and Grows and Grows and...

Get this.

The American occupation of Iraq has turned into a fundraising windfall for Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

Huh. Perhaps we should have sent the check directly to bin Laden, saved a lot of money and lives, and cut out the middlemen.

Feces on Canvas

Here’s a window into my twisted mind.

When I’m working on a short story and I come up with a particularly apt or clever title (not always a good thing, this clever streak), I’ll often Google the title so see if or when or how often the phrase has appeared online. This habit often leads to some good reading, which occasionally sparks unexpected connections and new ideas that, in turn, shape my thoughts about the phrase (and sometimes even the story) in question.

The other day, for instance, I learned that ringtone sales have surpassed CD sales in Britain when I Googled the phrase “cacophony of ringtones.” Later in the day, I adopted the concept of the ringtone as a way to refer to recurrent themes in the stream of my thoughts. In other words, a clever title led me to a topic of interest since I was a teen (record sales statistics--as in, who's in the Top Forty this week, and why do loathe most of those artists?), which resulted in a new label I could apply to thoughts that repeat themselves like slow-motion broken records. Never know when one of those ringtones will ring out.

Today, when I Googled the phrase “feces on canvas” (a possible title for a story I'm working on) I came upon this interesting interview with British painter Mandy McCartin, whose painting "Charity shop" (definitely not feces on canvas!) appears above. Her answer to the question “how long have you bin showing your work in the U.K.” helped to clarify (or, at any rate, to nudge along) my thoughts about poetry:

Some of my earliest memories are of my uncle bringing from his workplace these books of blank pages (god knows what they were and sadly he is long dead so I can't ask him) which I would draw in. I always drew as a little kid. My first "serious paintings, which I did in my bedroom in Sheffield at about 14 years old were about urban life, clubbing (I was, and still am, a big soul fan) and race. Most of my friends were black at that time (mid-70's) and the National Front was active and I remember making a painting about a racist march through a black area, and one about the megalomaniac power of the DJ! I have no idea what happened to them. I think I gave them away. When I went on to do a foundation course (Chesterfield College) the work carried on in the same vein - it was figurative, all to do with my immediate culture ( working class) and always had some message - I've never had the slightest desire to make art about art. Mine has to be about life, and also has to be accessible to a big range of people. On foundation I made large canvases about blues parties (reggae), installations about racism and lithography prints of Dillinger in concert!

My first real exhibition was New Contemporaries 1981 at the ICA. It was very gratifying because by the final year of my degree (North-East London Polytechnic) I had become alienated from the tutors - I was passionately resisting their attempts to make me intellectualize my work, I could see no point in making things more obscure than they needed to be - and the painting that was accepted was done completely freely without any tutorial input, proving me correct in my own judgment. I remember the tutors being quite surly and miffed about it! So I've been exhibiting since 1981.

As an artist carving a living from the wall of academia’s ivory tower (like so much graffiti—my initials, perhaps: “E.B. WAS HERE!”), I sometimes feel (though not deeply or powerfully, nor from any internal impulse) the push to intellectualize my own creative work. As the school year comes to a close and I return to my own creative work, in the form of short stories now, I find myself moving comfortably along the grooves of academic analysis that come from a year (my first) of full-time composition instruction. It’s all too easy and familiar to think of a subject in terms of research questions, arguable positions, compartmentalized assertions drawn from and supported by evidence and joined by effective transitions that show the relationships between this and that.

In any case, what McCartin says about seeing “no point in making things more obscure than they need to be” rings true for me, even rises above the cacophony of ringtones cluttering my brain these days. I’m not ready to commit to paper (or, for that matter, to blog) my evolving thoughts about what I perceive as a schism between intellectual, avant garde poetry and poetry that non-poetry-academics can appreciate without spraining their brains; but I will say this much: when I read a poem, I want to see and hear and smell and feel it. When I read a story, I want to engage with it not just intellectually but in the half-imagined, half felt, entirely and intuitively known world of tangible reality.

Poet Reginald Shepherd (whose poem “X,” at Poetry Daily, I linked to earlier) touches on this aspect of the nature of language at his blog

Language exists in and as a liminal state between the material and the immaterial, thing and idea: it is neither sheer marks on the page, sounds in the air, nor sheer ideality, but rather it is their contingent and temporary union. (This would be Saussure’s union of signifier and signified that together produce the sign, which Saussure brackets off from the unattainable, and unsayable, real.) It cannot veer too far in either direction without losing its character as language. (The poetic avant-garde seeks to discover how closely language can approach either pole without losing its language character.) Language is neither object nor concept but their articulation. Words hover and hesitate over the abyss between being and non-being, presence and absence. They embody a non-Aristotelian logic of both/and, in which A need not equal A and simultaneously equals B, as well as some third term that’s both their combination (A/B) and some other item altogether (a not A/not B not quite reducible to C).

The notion of direct, unmediated presentation of the “as is,” Pound’s demand for “direct presentation of the thing itself,” is itself a metaphor, a speaking of one thing—the things of the phenomenal, event-full world—in terms of another—words, which are at once tangible and intangible, which are both things and non-things. The world is, for us, always a tropological world.

In other words--and, though it oversimplifies, I don't believe this summary of Shepherd's remarks is too far off the mark--language is magic.

So is Google, for that matter.

And with any luck even "feces on canvas," gimmicky as that concept may be, could have magic in the right hands.

(A tip of my dreamed-up hat to Matthew Cheney for his link to Shepherd’s blog.)

Alone in Some New World

A good poem:

"Eve's Awakening" by Reginald Shepherd.

Shepherd's collection, Fata Morgana is here.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

In Fox We Trust

Given the fact that Fox News demonstrably phrases questions in ways that skew the results of its public opinion polls with results that reflect a hard-right, conservative, Republican political agenda, whom do you trust more: Fox News or your own lying eyes?

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Daily Show Gets It

If Jon Stewart's nightly comedy program were a newspaper, it would vie for the title Paper of Record. Here's the Daily Show on Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty's resignation:

Thursday, May 17, 2007

"They Want to Destroy Our Way of Life"

How to Put an End to Rampant Speculation

There's been some hullabaloo in the blogosphere, this week, about whether Bush used then Attorney General John Ashcroft's surgery as a chance to take advantage of the anesthesia to get the groggy A.G. to sign on the dotted line for a wiretapping program so heinous it had Ashcroft and a number of other high-ranking Bush appointees in the Justice Department threatening to resign over it.

Wow. The mind boggles.

In any case, as Tim Grieve of Salon reports, the President is here to put the kibosh on all those Internet flibbertigibbets:

At a White House press conference, George W. Bush was just asked if he sent Andy Card and Alberto Gonzales to John Ashcroft's hospital room to get him to reauthorize the administration's warrantless wiretapping program. The president's response: "There's a lot of speculation about what happened and what didn't happen, and I'm not going to talk about it."

We'll take that as a yes.

There you have it, folks, right from the horse's mouth. What more needs to be said? I, for one, feel profoundly reassured.

Breaking News: Candidates Try to Hide Their Pasts

Mark Leibovich of the Times reveals this shocking (shocking!) observation about the current crop of presidential candidates in both parties:

It is no revelation that campaigns conspicuously omit things. There are always unpleasant facts, episodes or viewpoints that run counter to the public self a candidate is marketing. But one of the striking features of the 2008 campaigns is the pungency of the various elephants in the various rooms. Candidates are strenuously de-emphasizing or ignoring completely experiences that are defining and, in many cases, extremely well known.

“There’s always a tension between what can be said, what should be said and what must be said,” said Edward Widmer, a historian at Brown University who was speechwriter for Mr. Clinton. “The first candidate to calibrate this tension may move to the head of the pack.”

So, the elephants in this circus are strikingly pungent? That's remarkable? What does that mean?

This is a classic example of a reporter using scant evidence to build a mountain out of a mole hill--a cheap (in more than one sense) way to fill a few column inches of space in the paper, nothing more.

What does Leibovich have on Edwards? He once ran for Vice President and lost. On Clinton? Her husband had an affair? On Obama? His inexperience!

Turning to the other party (the elephant one), what is the unacknowledged pachyderm in McCain's room? Campaign finance reform, of course--which has proven fairly unpopular in Republican circles (for obvious reasons). What does Mitt Romney prefer to hide? Why (gasp!), he's a former governor from a liberal state. Rudy Giuliani? This just in: Rudy's had some family troubles over the years.

I'm not sure what news Leibovich has been reading and watching, but these are the key issues raised in virtually every analysis of each of these candidates. It's as if Leibovich and his editors have decided to make a story out of the exact opposite of the truth. Hmm, has that ever happened before?

These are relatively unimportant bits of fluff out which to weave a false narrative, but it's the principle that matters. Does Leibovich genuinely find fault in the candidates for not digging up their own dirt? Does he really feel that these issues have gone uncovered? Is his ideal candidate a blank slate, with no skeletons in closets (much less elephants in rooms) to taint their campaigns? Or, perhaps, it's more taint that Leibovich is after.

He closes the piece with this vague innuendo about McCain:

Mr. McCain has been attacked over the McCain-Feingold law by a host of Republicans, including Mr. Romney in both candidates’ debates.

In an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News last month, Mr. McCain characterized campaign finance as a Beltway issue.

“Outside of Washington, I never have anybody stand up and talk about McCain-Feingold,” he said. “There’s nobody who ever does.” Himself included.

I'm reminded of one of my favorite satirical films (never read the book), Hal Ashby's Being There, starring Peter Sellers as the perfect presidential candidate--the man without a past:

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Was Jerry Falwell a Hypocrite?

Yes. He claimed to be a Christian.

As someone posting at Salon said: "His minions can take comfort in the erroneous belief that he’s in a better place and the rest of us can take comfort in knowing he’s not."

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Falwell's Passing


I mean, hilarious in a quiet, respectful-of-the-death-of-a-revered-asshole-of-the-cloth-whom-I-strongly-disliked kind of way.

According to Josh Marshall, MSNBC just referred to White House praise of Jerry Falwell, only they mistakenly cited, satirical site set up to voice opposition to the Bush administration.

The question is, which article did they use as a source? Take your pick.

Speaking of Falwell, I'm struck by the claim made by one of Falwell's aides (not AIDS!) that the good reverend had "a history of heart challenges."

As in, it's hard to get along without one?

UPDATE: Have you taken the Falwell/Robertson/Bin Laden Quiz?

And, for good measure:

Ten Things About Missoula, Montana

About a year ago, we sold our little house and left Montana for a job in Kansas. I'm feeling a bit nostalgic for those days in Missoula, where I became a father, saw my first (and second) bear in the wild, discovered my love of baking bread, and 'earned' my MFA (single quotation marks in honor of Mumpsimus). It seems too soon for nostalgia, but not too soon for reflection. With that in mind, I've compiled a couple of lists.

Seven Things I Miss About Missoula, Montana

Two-hour bike rides across town and into the hills around the Rattlesnake Valley.

My friends Walker Hunter, Greg Peters and Desiree Gerner (in no particular order—though, hmm, it strikes me now that one of those guys has two last names and the other two firsts).

My classmates and professors in the MFA program for Creative Writing.

Beautiful mountain views in all directions.

Coffee and pastries at Bernice’s, espresso and bread at La Petite Outre.

Walking with my two-year-old daughter to the steam train and depot exhibit at the Fort Missoula Museum, very near where my great grandparents are buried. (By the way, my great grandfather, General Frank “Shrimp” Milburn, played a “decisive role in collapsing the Colmar Pocket” in February 1945. He was also the head football coach at the University of Montana from 1926-1930. Now that I know he has his own Wikipedia page, I should get in there and add my two cents, correct a couple mistakes, etc.)

Three Things I Do Not Miss About Missoula, Montana

1. The absurd cost of housing.

2. The demented clique formed by several of my MFA classmates, all of whom I love as individuals—though, to be sure, my perception of this was probably symptomatic of the fact that I had a family and therefore could not partake in the wholesale debauchery/good clean fun.

3. The fact that you couldn’t toss a rock at a party (any party) without the rock ricocheting off a writer and striking seven more before hitting the ground. Luckily, rock throwing seemed to be discouraged at Missoula parties—save parties thrown by my MFA classmates.

Comfortably Numb

I'm a reasonably sane and mature guy, I think. I have a fairly sophisticated set of intellectual tools with which to view and evaluate the news. I'd like to believe I'm less susceptible to manipulation than the average sentimental schmuck. So, why do I find this far more disturbing than this?

The former:

Severe thunderstorms sent normally placid streams over their banks across the Denver area, sweeping away a toddler in a stroller and a teenager who was trying to help with a rescue. Both were still missing Tuesday morning, police said.

The toddler's mother had been out for a stroll Monday along a bike path that follows a creek near downtown. It had been a sunny morning, and the thunderstorm developed quickly. In less than an hour, it dumped more than an inch of rain, flooding streets and sending a torrent of water down the tiny creek.

"Once you enter (the bike path), you're in a chute," Denver Fire Department spokesman Phil Champagne said. "She knew she was in trouble and was trying to get out. She was on the phone with her grandfather, trying to figure out a way out.

"The water knocked her down, she was dragged for a little bit and was unable to hold onto the stroller," Champagne said. "What a tragic event. That poor mother to see her child swept away like that."

Firefighters struggled against the current to rescue the woman, but the baby and stroller were swept downstream. The stroller was later found empty more than a mile away in the South Platte River, Champagne said.

The latter:

Fifty people have been killed and 70 injured after a suicide truck bombing in the northern Iraqi town of Makhmur.

The bomber crashed his truck into the offices of a leading Kurdish party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, where a meeting was being held at the time.

Kurdish political parties were targeted, police said.

The attack was the second against Kurdish areas in Iraq in four days.

A truck bomb on Wednesday in the city of Arbil, capital of Kurdistan, killed 15 people and wounded more than 100 in an attack claimed by al Qaeda.

Meanwhile, thousands of American troops are continuing their search for three US soldiers who went missing after their patrol was attacked south of Baghdad on Saturday.

The Nazi-Spin Zone

Has the right-wing adopted Nazi propaganda to further their cause? You be the judge.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Girls Gone Euro

Here's the Teenagers' new video for the song "Homecoming":

For no good reason, I'm reminded of Claire Hoffman's creepy account of a day (or so) in the life of Joe Francis, sovereign of the Girls Gone Wild empire: "Joe Francis: 'Baby, give me a kiss.' That story came out in August of last year, and it still makes me shudder.

"The Woman Thing"

What's up at the New York Times?

Bill Carter (or, at any rate, his headline writer) asks if "the woman thing" has brought down Katie Couric's evening news show, and Peter Kiefer profiles Alexandra Hai, the first woman with the right to operate a gondola in Venice--though his story closes with this lovely sentiment from Hai: “It is sad to waste my entire life like this. I would have preferred to do something more useful in life, like helping save the rain forests.”

Carter points out that things are looking up for CBS's news show. A knight in shining armor has ridden in on a white horse to save the damsel in distress (emphasis mine):

CBS’s evening news broadcast has now been entrusted to the network news veteran Rick Kaplan, who was brought in seven weeks ago to improve the newscast and impose some hard-news discipline. He has increased the number of stories covered by the newscast, quickened the pace and instituted more focus on the lead story, adding sidebar reports to try to add context.

Many of the changes return the program to a more traditional format, but another longtime CBS news producer said that might not be the best use of Ms. Couric’s skills. “That show doesn’t fit her personality,” said the producer, who asked not to be identified because he works on another program.

And while the newscast’s structure has been pummeled, Ms. Couric has also endured exceptional personal scrutiny. She was criticized for wearing too much makeup or too little. Ms. Couric was caught up in an odd plagiarism incident, when an essay she had presented as her own — even though written by a producer — turned out to have been lifted from The Wall Street Journal.

She was criticized for being too soft in her initial newscasts, and too hard in an interview with the presidential candidate John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, after they revealed that Mrs. Edwards’s cancer had returned. The issue was complicated by the public knowledge that Ms. Couric’s husband, Jay Monahan, died from colon cancer in 1998.

“Some people asked me if I was going to bring up Jay. I would never,” Ms. Couric said. “I want to educate people about colon cancer. But I never, ever want to exploit my husband’s death.”

Ms. Couric’s defenders ask whether a man taking the CBS job would have had his looks, hair, and clothes commented on in the same way as Ms. Couric’s. Or if a single male anchor’s social life would be almost daily fodder for the tabloids.

“Maybe we underestimate the huge shift this represented,” Mr. McManus said. “It was almost a watershed event to have a woman in that chair.” He added, “There is a percentage of people out there that probably prefers not to get their news from a woman.”

Even some doubters inside the network say the newscast has improved under Mr. Kaplan. Ms. Couric has tried to break through on stories the network thinks play to her strengths.

I can't begin to unpack that. Under a man's guidance, the show has improved by playing to Couric's strengths (in a way that doesn't suit her personality)?

At least someone at the Times has her priorities straight. Here's Maureen Dowd, from late last month, with some serious girl-on-girl action over John Edwards' $400 haircut:

When you spend more on a couple of haircuts than Burundi’s per capita G.D.P. , it looks so vain it makes Paul Wolfowitz’s ablutions spitting on his comb look like rugged individualism.

Following his star turn primping his hair for two minutes on a YouTube video to the tune of “I Feel Pretty,” Mr. Edwards this week had to pay back the $800 charged to his campaign for two shearings at Torrenueva Hair Designs in Beverly Hills. He seems intent on proving that he is a Breck Girl — and a Material Boy.

He did not pony up for the pricey bills from Designworks Salon in Dubuque, Iowa, or the Pink Sapphire spa in Manchester, which offers services for men that include the “Touch of Youth” facial, as well as trips “into the intriguing world of makeup.” The Edwards campaign calls makeup a legitimate expense.

The woman thing, indeed.

A Sense of the Grotesque

“The chief distinction between irony and satire is that satire is militant irony: its moral norms are relatively clear, and it assumes standards against which the grotesque and absurd are measured.”—Northrop Frye

My academic exploration of satire begins here, with Frye's chapter on satire. Satire is many things to many people, but according to Frye, “Two things…are essential to satire; one is wit or humor founded on fantasy or a sense of the grotesque or absurd, the other is an object of attack.”

This week's reading opens with two items on my agenda: first up, Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis--a.k.a. Juvenal--the Roman satirical poet about whom very little is known; also, throughout the week, I'll continue my jaunt through a contemporary, soon-to-be published satirical novel-in-stories, God is Dead by Ron Currie, Jr. This one generated a lot of buzz when publishers bidded on it last year, and I can tell already that it's going to get a great dal of attention when it comes out this summer.

More on both, later this week. For now, I'll start Monday off right, with the latest from Tom Tomorrow, in which he takes on the Grave Seriousness of Our Very Serious Pundits:

This Modern World.

We Lose

Two weeks on, those right-wing luminaries behind the complex Iraq strategy with the deceptively simple title "We Win, They Lose" (read all about it at have thus far garnered, oh, fewer than 10,000 signatures. Sometimes brilliant ideas are a little slow to catch on.

Meanwhile, the insurgents quake in their boots.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

"Because I Said So"

Caption: "An abused child awaits her single allotted hour of television per day."

This study came out a month ago but got less attention than its findings (that a majority of parents abuse their children) warranted:

A chilling national poll of U.S. children ages 3 through 12 estimated that nearly 75 million youngsters suffer both physical and psychological abuse at the hands of their parents on a daily basis.

The poll, whose findings are part of a 700-page report released Tuesday by a coalition of child abuse monitoring and prevention organizations, indicts nearly 95 percent of American parents. It documents abuses ranging from less severe offenses, such as children being denied snacks just before dinner, to more egregious, long-term cases of neglect, such as never ever getting what they want, ever.

"My parents always tell me that I have to finish all my math homework or I won't be allowed to watch TV," said study participant and abuse victim "Derek," 10, who told researchers that some of his earliest memories were of this kind of mistreatment. "They're so mean. I hate them."

"I hate them, I hate them, I hate them," he added.

Encouraged to speak freely and confidentially about their home lives, subjects shocked even seasoned child welfare advocates with tales of systematic deprival and gratuitous cruelty. One Illinois boy told of being forced to linger with his mother in fabric stores and later leaving a Toys "R" Us empty-handed, even though the store sold a water gun he really wanted. An Arkansas 9-year-old said he spent all of third grade carrying a boring brown backpack instead of a super-cool Spider-Man one like a friend, whose parents love him, had. And a 6-year-old girl from Wisconsin was forced to sit at a dining room table for nearly two hours until she finished her canned green beans, a food widely considered by poll respondents to be disgusting and suitable only for adults.

"To hear the sadness in these kids' voices when they talk about how they are scared—literally scared—to bring home poor report cards, is heartbreaking," said Dr. Deirdre Fulton, child psychologist and director of the Nationwide Coalition to End Child Abuse, who co-authored the study. "Some of the children we interviewed even wished they were dead so their parents would feel guilty at their funerals."

"No child should ever wish to die," Fulton added.

Happy Mothers' Day!

Outsourcing Stenography

As expensive as local stenography can be, is this really such a leap?
The job posting was a head-scratcher: "We seek a newspaper journalist based in India to report on the city government and political scene of Pasadena, California, USA."

A reporter half a world away covering local street-light contracts and sewer repairs? A reporter who has never gotten closer to Pasadena than the telecast of the Rose Bowl parade?

Outsourcing first claimed manufacturing jobs, then hit services such as technical support, airline reservations and tax preparation. Now comes the next frontier: local journalism.

James Macpherson, editor and publisher of the two-year-old Web site, acknowledged it sounds strange to have journalists in India cover news in this wealthy city just outside Los Angeles.

But he said it can be done from afar now that weekly Pasadena City Council meetings can be watched over the Internet. And he said the idea makes business sense because of India's lower labor costs.

"I think it could be a significant way to increase the quality of journalism on the local level without the expense that is a major problem for local publications," said the 51-year-old Pasadena native. "Whether you're at a desk in Pasadena or a desk in Mumbai, you're still just a phone call or e-mail away from the interview."

What's the problem with that version of journalism? After all, it's good for business.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Truth According to Greg Palast

Arnie Cooper has a very good interview with Greg Palast in this month's issue of The Sun. But then, the guy always gives good interview.

Palast, arguably among the top investigative reporters in the English language, holds forth on the journalist's predicament:
The thing is, you can have one or the other: freedom or prestige. We’d all like to say whatever we want and get all the prizes and awards and money from the powers that be, but that ain’t going to happen.

When Cooper asks Palast to put recent voter disenfranchisement into historical perspective, Plast doesn't mince words:
The idea that America’s a democracy is a fucking lie. We’ve had one fixed election after another. By my calculations, Hubert Humphrey beat Richard Nixon in 1968. Of course, Humphrey was a jackal as well. But what is not widely understood is that we’ve always had a system in America of not counting certain votes. My good friends on the Left are afraid that the Republicans are going to steal the next election by computer — that the software is going to allow Karl Rove to change the vote. Well, most people who worry about that are white. Black people know they’ve stolen the vote the old-fashioned way for centuries. First they said blacks couldn’t vote. Now they just don’t register them to vote, and if you’re black and you do manage to register and find your polling place, they don’t count your vote. Yesterday I spent twelve hours using my forensic-economics background in statistics to figure out that 1.6 million black voters have been denied registration and flushed off the voting rolls illegally. The percentage of black people attempting to register is about 77 percent — the same as the percentage of white people. But whereas 75 percent of whites end up on the registries, only about 60 percent of blacks do. What happens to those missing registration forms?

The interview doesn't gloss over the typical Palast peccadillos--the name-dropping, the self-aggrandizemet, the penchant for sweeping (if defensible) generalizations--but it doesn't fall short on classic Palast one-liners, either. To wit:
Cooper: What about the Voting Rights Act of 1965? Did it accomplish nothing?

Palast: No, it accomplished plenty. I can’t say that it’s all grim. That kind of exaggeration makes people throw up their hands and say, “Forget it.” The history of America has been this back and forth between successful popular movements — the women’s movement, the environmental movement, the abolitionist movement — and the counterrevolution, which operates using sneaky means. You get the big trumpeting law, and then they quietly fuck you. The problem is, they’re getting better at fucking you.

You can read a substantial chunk of the interview here, and the new-and-improved paperback edition of his latest book here: Armed Madhouse: From Baghdad to New Orleans--Sordid Secrets and Strange Tales of a White House Gone Wild.

(From March of 2003, here's my review of Palast's previous book, and here's my interview with him, from around the same time.)

The Human Satire

For years now I've considered Christopher Hitchens something of an unintentional self-sacrifice to the gods of satire. Is it possible that he has finally discovered an earnest bone in his body?

From Michael Kinsley's review of Hitchens' new book:
First in London 30 or more years ago, then in New York and for the last couple of decades in Washington, Hitchens has established himself as a character. This character draws on such familiar sources as the novels of P. G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene; the leftist politics of the 1960s (British variant); and — of course — the person of George Orwell. (Others might throw in the flower-clutching Bunthorne from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Patience,” but that is probably not an intentional influence.) Hitchens is the bohemian and the swell, the dashing foreign correspondent, the painstaking literary critic and the intellectual engagé. He charms Washington hostesses but will set off a stink bomb in the salon if the opportunity arises.

His conversation sparkles, not quite effortlessly, and if he is a bit too quick to resort to French in search of le mot juste, his jewels of erudition, though flashy, are real. Or at least they fool me. Hitchens was right to choose Washington over New York and London.

His enemies would like to believe he is a fraud. But he isn’t, as the very existence of his many enemies tends to prove. He is self-styled, to be sure, but no more so than many others in Washington — or even in New York or London — who are not nearly as good at it. He is a principled dissolute, with the courage of his dissolution: he enjoys smoking and drinking, and not just the reputation for smoking and drinking — although he enjoys that too....

[A]mong writers about politics, the surprise technique usually means starting left and turning right. Trouble is, you do this once and what’s your next party trick?

Christopher Hitchens had seemed to be solving this problem by turning his conversion into an ideological “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Long ago he came out against abortion. Interesting! Then he discovered and made quite a kosher meal of the fact that his mother, deceased, was Jewish, which under Jewish law meant he himself was Jewish. Interesting!! (He was notorious at the time for his anti-Zionist sympathies.) In the 1990s, Hitchens was virulently, and somewhat inexplicably, hostile to President Bill Clinton. Interesting!!! You would have thought that Clinton’s decadence — the thing that bothered other liberals and leftists the most — would have positively appealed to Hitchens. Finally and recently, he became the most (possibly the only) intellectually serious non-neocon supporter of George W. Bush’s Iraq war. Interesting!!!!

Where was this train heading? Possibly toward an open conversion to mainline conservatism and quick descent into cliché and demagoguery (the path chosen by Paul Johnson, a somewhat similar British character of the previous generation). But surely there was time for a few more intellectual adventures before retiring to an office at the Hoover Institution or some other nursing home of the mind. One obvious possibility stood out: Hitchens, known to be a fervid atheist, would find God and take up religion. The only question was which flavor he would choose....

Well, ladies and gentlemen, Hitchens is either playing the contrarian at a very high level or possibly he is even sincere. But just as he had us expecting minus X, he confounds us by reverting to X. He has written, with tremendous brio and great wit, but also with an underlying genuine anger, an all-out attack on all aspects of religion.

I'm not holding my breath, nor am I rushing out to buy the book. I did, however, enjoy his interview with Jon Stewart this week on the Daily Show.

(God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything)

UPDATE: Giles Harvey lays into Hitchens' book at Salon:
What is required, if we are to be brought around to Hitchens' view of things, is a direct engagement with the nature of personal faith. It is precisely here, however, that his campaign falters. In an especially unsatisfying chapter, "The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False," Hitchens recalls reading about "some ecumenical conference of Christians who desire to show their broad-mindedness and invite some physicists along," and then goes on to scoff, "But I am compelled to remember what I know -- which is that there would be no such churches in the first place if humanity had not been afraid of the weather, the dark, the plague, the eclipse, and all manner of other things now easily explicable." The champion of disinterested secular inquiry impatiently reduces the origin of religious feeling to a primitive dread at nature's apparently brutal indifference to our small lives.

What's next? God is Dead: The Novel?

Well, actually...

(I got my hands on an advance copy, and the first fifty pages or so are brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. I'll report back, at length, when I've read the rest.)

"We'll Meet Again"

Saunders on the State of Satire

"I don't know if it's in better shape than before or worse, but I do think we need it more now than ever before. Or maybe we need it to be fiercer, since the stupid aggressive people have stepped up the level of their stupidity and aggression. I think of satire as this obnoxious persistent voice saying: It could be otherwise, you know. Or, as Thomas Moore once put it: 'For the love of God man, think it possible you may be mistaken.' So many people in the world seem so sure of themselves. So there is much to be done by those of us who are sure of nothing, and wish to export this feeling. I think. But I'm not sure. I'm not even sure that I'm not sure."
George Saunders interview, September 2003

("Four Institutional Monologues")

Friday, May 11, 2007

"King of Glory"

Forty-five seconds of bliss from the patriotic heart of your wildest Americone Dreams:

(I have Mary Akers to thank for this one.)

"What you saw was evasive action."

This is a couple weeks old, I know, but not to be missed:

Stewart does a fantastic job with his cross-talk when McCain decides to put his head down and plow forward no matter what Stewart says.

The Moral High Ground

Support the troops:
America's top military commander in Iraq has sent a letter to troops challenging them to "occupy the moral high ground" after a Pentagon survey showed some service members were reluctant to report the "illegal actions" of fellow personnel.

In the letter, dated Thursday, Gen. David Petraeus wrote he was "concerned" with the poll's findings.

"This fight depends on securing the population, which must understand that we -- not our enemies -- occupy the moral high ground," he said.

The survey of ethics, released last week, assessed the mental health and ethical attitudes of more than 1,300 soldiers and nearly 450 Marines last year. (Read the report)

Results showed that fewer than half of soldiers and Marines would report a team member for unethical behavior.

The general, who since February has overseen the Bush administration's troop "surge" in Iraq, said while bonds formed on the battlefield are understandable, "we must not let our bonds prevent us from speaking up."

Survey results also showed that about 10 percent admitted mistreating noncombatants or damaging their property when it was not necessary.

Only about 47 percent of Army soldiers and 38 percent of Marines agreed that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect.

In the letter, Petraeus also underscored that torture to obtain information from the enemy was "wrong."

More than a third of soldiers and Marines reported that torture should be allowed to save the life of a comrade.

"Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful or necessary," Petraeus said.

'S all I'm saying. Oh, and this.

Biting Satire

A.O. Scott gives a favorable review to the sequel to 28 Days Later (which I loved), called 28 Weeks Later. This one comes complete with American soldiers patrolling a "Green Zone" where the not-yet-zombified are supposedly safe from "the infected," at the heart of "a shattered country needs to be put back together, its remaining population protected and reassured." That country is, of course, England. And, lest we conclude that the allegorical elements are too heavy-handedly political, Scott assures us that "as in any good science fiction fable, the analogies it offers to contemporary reality are speculative rather than obvious."

Here's the review's lead:
Nothing satisfies the appetite for allegory quite like a movie about flesh-eating zombies. Somehow the genre, at least as practiced by its masters, has the capacity to illuminate some brute facts about the human condition and its contemporary dysfunctions. There are not many recent movies that match, for example, the social criticism undertaken by George Romero in his “Living Dead” cycle.

Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” and its new sequel, “28 Weeks Later,” directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, may not quite be in Mr. Romero’s league, but at their best they come close to his signature blend of grisly horror, emotional impact and biting satire. There is, of course, plenty of literal biting as well, since the virus-crazed creatures known as infecteds crave the flesh and blood of their erstwhile fellow citizens.

And also their metaphorical flesh and blood. The first movie, set in the early days of a pandemic that nearly wiped out the population of Britain, followed a small band of strangers who came together to form a makeshift tribe. This time, after the first wave of the virus seems to have run its course, the focus is on families and comrades split apart and set against one another by paranoia, moral confusion and the endless conflict between the survival instinct and the call of duty. If “28 Days Later” was, in part, about the emergence of solidarity in the midst of crisis, “28 Weeks Later” is about the breakdown that occurs in what seems to be the aftermath.

Conservative critics aren't responding so favorably. Here's Jan Stuart of Newsday:
A despairing tale of a virus that stopped London dead and turned England's populace into man-eating monsters, "28 Days Later" was a modest but stylish endeavor with a surprising degree of heart, humor and, in the final clinch, hope.

"28 Weeks Later" gets the despair. Period. As directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo as if he and the entire cast had guns trained at their heads (which many of them do, as it happens), this sort-of sequel is a screeching and wearyingly hyperbolic exercise in film-school nihilism that finds buried meaning in the term overkill.

Can't please 'em all.

It's pretty tough to justify getting out to a movie when you've got a two-year-old at home and another kid on the way, but if there's any movie this summer that I'm craving to devour, it's this one.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

"National Anthem of Nowhere"

The Apostle of Hustle's "National Anthem of Nowhere":

David J's "National Anthem of Nowhere" doesn't have a video, I guess. Too bad. I like it a little better.

"Habeas Schmabeas"

No American should miss this Peabody Award-winning episode of This American Life. Here's a brief excerpt:
HITT: As best as we can tell, Badr Zaman Badr and his brother were imprisoned in Guantanamo for three
years for telling a joke. Actually, for telling two jokes. They ran a satire magazine in Pakistan that poked fun
at corrupt clerics. Sort of the Pashtu edition of “The Onion.” The first joke that got them into trouble was
when they published a poem about a politician called “I Am Glad to be a Leader.” Here’s Badr:

BADR: Let me translate a few lines for you.

HITT: Sure.

BADR: “Before, I was so thin and weak. Now, I have big stomach.” Uh, stuff like that. (Laughs)

HITT: So, the guy with the big stomach called up Badr and his brother. He threatened them, and, as best as
they can tell, told authorities that they were linked to Al Qaeda, which landed them in Guantanamo, and
which leads us to the second joke. This one was in an issue of Badr’s magazine that came out in the ‘90’s,
after our government set a $5 million reward for Osama bin Laden. Badr’s magazine issued its own bounty
for the capture of an American leader.

BADR: President Bill Clinton, giving the details of how to identify that he has blue eyes, and he’s clean-
shaven, and the most important thing is the recent scandal going on between Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
(Laughs) Yeah. If someone finds that man, he will be rewarded 5 million Afghani, that’s Afghanistan
currency, which was equal to $113 at that time. That’s impossible (unintelligible, laughing.)

HITT: In Guantanamo, were you interrogated about your Clinton satire?

BADR: Exactly. They were serious, if we really wanted to kill President Clinton, and we said “No” that it
was only satire, and only a way of expression. It’s allowed, it’s protected, in your country, in American law.”

HITT: How many times were you interrogated...about the Clinton article?

BADR: Many times, many times. Me and my brother, each one of us, have been interrogated more than
150 times.

HITT: So after hearing the punch line explained 150 times, we finally got the joke, and sent Badr and his
brother home. It had been three years since the Pakistani army surrounded their house in Peshawar, came
into their living room which is lined with wall-to-wall bookcases, and arrested them. That’s Badr’s version of
why we jailed him; here’s President Bush’s:

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: These are people that got scooped off a battlefield, attempting to kill U.S.
troops. And, uh, I want to make sure before they’re released that they don’t come back to kill again.

HITT: The administration has never wavered on this point.

The episode is powerful. It might move anyone to tears, and it will surely move any American to shame. Plus, it's funny. Give it a go: "Habeas Schmabeas."

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Ramrodding Freedom

Yesterday the Pentagon announced that "35,000 soldiers in 10 Army combat brigades will begin deploying to Iraq in August as replacements, making it possible to sustain the increase of U.S. troops there until at least the end of this year." In other words, U.S. commanders have determined that the thus far unsuccessful "surge" of troops must be extended well into next year.

At the same time, however, the Pentagon denies that this particular troop deployment has anything at all to do with that other particular troop deployment. No connection. Pure coincidence. Nothing to see here, folks. Keep moving right along.

From the Washington Post article:
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said yesterday's announcement of the upcoming deployments "is not a reflection on any decision with respect to the duration of the surge."

As the initial U.S. troop buildup in Baghdad nears its June completion, Odierno and other commanders offered details of how they will execute the military's new Iraq strategy, how they expect insurgents and militias to react, and political factors that will bear upon their success.

Commanders said that even with the ongoing increase in Iraq of tens of thousands of American troops, violence could increase in coming months, and some indicators in Baghdad suggest that is already happening.

Partial data on attacks gathered from five U.S. brigades operating in Baghdad showed that total attacks since the new strategy began in February were either steady or increasing. In some cases, certain kinds of attacks dipped as the U.S. troop increase began, only to begin rising again in recent weeks. Overall, "the number of attacks has stayed relatively constant" in Baghdad, said one U.S. officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be quoted by name.

One of Mark Twain's satirical essays has been rattling around in my head for, oh, four or five years now, since the invasion of Iraq--and it comes to mind again today. "To the Person Sitting in Darkness" is a direct expression of the views that led him to become one of the founders of the New England Anti-Imperialist League, as well as its vice president from 1901 until his death in 1910. Around the turn of that century, the U.S. had liberated the Philipines from Spanish rule only to press the Filipinos firmly under our own benevolent military thumb. If that scenario sounds vaguely familiar (replace the Spanish with Saddam Hussein, add oil, shake briskly), it should.

I'm frequently struck by the similarities between the events that disturbed Twain more than a century ago and those that disturb many thoughtful and attentive Americans (or, if you prefer, "genuine bourgeois liberal[s]") on a more or less daily basis of late:
“There have been lies; yes, but they were told in good cause. We have been treacherous; but that was only in order that real good might come out of apparent evil.

“True, we have crushed a deceived and confiding people who have trusted us... We have stabbed an ally in the back and slapped the face of a guest; we have bought a shadow from an enemy that hadn’t it to sell; we have robbed a trusting friend of his land and liberty; we have invited our clean young men to shoulder a discredited musket and do bandit’s work under a flag which bandits have been accustomed to fear, not to follow; we have debauched America’s honour and blackened her face before the world, but each detail was for the best. We know this.”

Today, on the same day that Vice President Dick Cheney paid a surprise visit to Iraq, a suicide truck bomb killed fourteen people and wounded dozens more in the "relatively peaceful Kurdish city of Irbil." And, coincidentally, today we find former commanding general of the First Infantry Division in Iraq, Retired Major General John Batiste, speaking out about the "discredited musket" our military has become under Bush:

With all of this in mind, now, as then, Twain's satirical suggestion for a refurbished version of the American flag ought to send a chill up our nation's spine: "...we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones."


And, while we're on the subject, here's a disturbing video adaptation of "To the Person Sitting in Darkness," well worth a few minutes if you're not in a hurry:

Bush Quote du Jour

"For every fatal shooting, there were roughtly three non-fatal shootings. And, folks, this is unacceptable in America.... And we're going to do something about it."
- President George W. Bush
May 14, 2001
(speaking about Project Safe Neighborhoods)

Which reminds me of the time the Senate declared Bush no longer goofy:
The resolution, which passed 92-5, officially proclaimed that President Bush is not the same person he was before the terrorist attacks, and that any future mispronunciations, fabricated verbiage, or ill-advised extemporaneous remarks uttered by the President should be interpreted as intentional, and possibly a sign of cleverly disguised genius.