Tuesday, January 31, 2006

And the Award Goes to...

I'm inspired this morning, Bush, by the announcement of the Academy Award nominations to make a couple of my own, in the spirit of that old cliche that a picture is worth a thousand words. I guess that would mean by extension that a moving picture would be worth a good few million of them.

Anyway, in view of recent releases in the Middle East, these would be the Extremely Tacky Videotape Awards. The first, for sheer, gratuitous, self-defeating brutality would go to the anonymous producers of the Jill Carroll tape that Al-Jazeera aired yesterday, and was replayed with endless relish by American networks all day and night. Carroll--as you know, Bush, a young free-lance reporter working for the Christian Science Monitor who was kidnapped more than a week ago--was shown in Middle Eastern headdress, weeping and begging that authorities comply with her kidnappers' demands for all Iraqi women prisoners to be released. It was a heart-rending performance, especially given the youth and beauty of the victim, and her innocence of political involvement; and an inexcusable, inhuman act of abuse on the part of those seeking to exploit this young woman for political gain. So far as I can tell, Bush, it does nothing to advance their cause except to alienate all those with an ounce of humanity in their hearts.

The second award, of course, this one for pointlessly poisonous rhetoric, goes to the good Doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, reputed second-in-command of the Al Qaeda network and the "brain" behind the World Trade Center attacks. Imagine, he had the gall to call you, Bush, the "Butcher of Washington!" Those, like myself, who refuse to absolve you of responsbility for your Iraqi war, might have found some unpalatable grain of truth in Zawahiri's words--were it not for the worldwide butchery for which this man himself must take responsibility. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! He also teased you unmercifully before the world for failing to find him--or his boss--in spite of four years of trying, with all the vast resources of the American military and American intelligence at your disposal. Truth to tell, Bush, you did lay yourself open to this taunt in your latest Keystone-Kop attempt to nail the man, in which a super hi-tech, drone-fired missile succeeded in killing several innocent Pakistani villagers, including women and children. I guess that Zawahiri earns a gruding best costume award, too, with his white turban, his neat beard, and his owlish glasses. A wolf in sheep's clothing?

What makes these propaganda tapes all the more incomprehensible is that their perpetrators seem unable to understand that they have, in American eyes, the opposite of their desired effect. Far from undermining your authority with his rhetoric, Bush, Zawahiri more likely convinces a greater number of Americans of the justice of your cause, not his. And the Carroll kidnappers simply make themselves more despicable, and their grievances less worthy of our sympathy. On the other hand, we need to understand that the target audience is more likely those whose hatred of America--and your good self--is already well established, those in this unhappy region of the world who have experienced life only as victims of powerful oppression. They may well be cheering as they watch the tapes. The sad thing is that we continue to provide them with grounds for their beliefs. The attack on the Pakistani village is but one of the most recent examples of our own missteps.

So that's it for my awards for the day, Bush. But beware: I'll be watching your speech tonight with a critical eye. I assume your spin meisters are hard at it, trying to cook up a good stew out of the clunkers you've served us up with this past year. They have their work cut out for them.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Muzzled

I wonder if you yourself, in your exalted office, Bush--your bubble?--are fully aware to what extent dissenters in the ranks of your administration are muzzled? I mean, do these repressive actions we read about come directly from your command? Do they come with your assent, whether tacit or implicit? Or do they rather come from underlings who understand without needing direction that you are unable to brook dissent, and simply anticipate your wishes?

It has gotten to be a depressingly familiar pattern, no? Two more examples in the news in the past couple of days remind us--if we needed the reminder--of the inherently tyrannical nature of your government. First, in yesterday's New York Times, the story of James E. Hansen, the "top climate scientist at NASA", who claims plausibly that your people have attempted to prevent him from awakening the public to the truth of global warming and the need for immediate action to forestall a permanent, perhaps disastrous climate change. Of course there are the familiar disclaimers from your political image shapers in the space agency's branch of "public affairs." "That's not how we operate here at NASA," protests one of them. "We promote openness and we speak with the facts." But it was Hansen himself, in the Times, and again later, on the CBS national news, who proved calmly, soberly credible.

And now, today, in Newsweek, we read the story of a small band of Justice Department lawyers who had the guts to risk "demanding that the White House stop using what they saw as farfetched rationales for riding rough-shod over the law and the Constitution, [and] fought to bring government spying and interrogation methods within the law." "They did so at their peril," notes Newsweek, adding that they were "ostracized" within the department, and that some of them were penalized by being "denied promotions."

It has been clear for some time now that, despite your protestations to the contrary, you are constitutionally unable to tolerate dissenting opinion, Bush. Let alone absorb or act on it. From the earliest days, when you first ran for the office you now occupy, it was clear that you were primed to speak only to carefully hand-picked audiences, and that practice has famously continued through your years in office. We learned how you rashly dismissed all dissenting views prior to your invasion of Iraq, and that our national intelligence services received the unambiguous message that they should limit their research to the kind of information that would support your intentions and provide your people with the ammunition they needed to persuade the American public of the urgent need to intervene. Your appointments, to high offices and low, have been awarded exclusively to those whom you judge "loyal" to you and to your cause. All these things we know. And more. Much more.

If this were a Greek tragedy--though I tend to think of it more as pathos, Bush, than tragedy--we might be looking for the "tragic flaw" that could explain your hubris, the overweening pride that blinds you to the reality that the rest of us plainly see. For me, Bush, that flaw is precisely your inability to understand that dissent itself is an act of loyalty. It is the mark of the tyrant, not of the strong leader you so often claim to be, to muzzle those who seek to tell the truth. Greater leaders than you, Bush, have learned this to their cost.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

You Go, Garrison

I wonder if you ever read the New York Times Book Review, Bush? I guess probably not. Too busy. Anyway, listen, if you'd like a good chuckle--no, really, a great belly-laugh--you owe it to yourself to check this out. It's a review by Garrison Keillor of Bernard-Henri Levy's American Vertgo, a book that purports to reveal the innermost soul of the country that you love. The review is one the best jabs at French intellectual pomposity that I've ever read. Mind you, as a Brit, I may be biased about such matters, but this one had me rolling in the aisles. Metaphorically, of course. I was actually out on the balcony, enjoying a cigar. (By the way, as I write this, only a short time later, I am reminded that the pleasure of cigar-smoking is NOT for the aftertaste!) I guess I'd been prepared for a good laugh at the expense of the French by having sat through two and a half hours of the movie "Cache" last night, an infuriating piece of moving-making which ends in what must be one of the biggest fuck-yous in film history. Call me old-fashioned, but I look for the satisfaction of at least a small payoff when I've devoted that much time to someone's artistic efforts. In this case, forget it. None. Just a slap in the face of anyone old-fashioned enough to expect anything as bourgeois as a payoff. Ah well. Anyway, do yourself a favor, Bush. Check it out. You'll laugh as hard as I did, and you could likely use a good laugh, given the rest of the news in the front page of the Times.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

A Complaint... and a Compliment

Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day, Bush. I'm ashamed to say I did not register that fact until I watched the BBC news last night. But I would not wish it to pass without a mention in these pages, especially with the current situation in the Middle East. The US and the rest of the world are demanding--rightly, as I see it--that Hamas reverse its pledge to wipe Israel from the face of the map or risk the loss of the foreign financial support that has been the Palestinians' lifeline. Should that happen, I have heard, there's a strong possibility that they'll turn to Iran for the cash instead. Perfect. Your policies will have helped create a powerful trifecta of Islamic radicals--the Iraqi Shiites, a newly radicalized and nuclear-ambitious Iran, and now Hamas. So much for the democracy you're selling, Bush.

The trouble with simple-minded, black or white concepts is that they don't readily fit with the realities of the world and all too often leave you with your integrity compromised. I know you wish to be seen as a man of firm principles, but when you're heard constantly shouting those principles from the rooftops and then seen to be breaking them yourself, you end up looking like either an opportunistic con man or a bloody hypocrite. You've been loudly preaching the gospel of democracy, but practicing your support of it quite selectively. Understandably, I guess. How about Pakistan, for instance? You can imagine, can't you, what the result might be if they had democratic elections there? Instead, you find youself in very public support of a military dictator whose help you desperately need in your war on terror. So what are people to think about your principles?

I don't know about you, Bush, but it all leaves me feeling quite nostalgic for the days of Kissinger's somewhat cynical realpolitik, and I never thought to hear myself say such a thing!

I do need to compliment you, though, on a good showing in your interview last night with CBS's Bob Schieffer. The network made much of it on their national news, a teaser for more on their Sunday morning program. I can't say I actually agreed with too many of the points you made, but you did put in a strong performance. I'm a bit sad to find myself so reluctant to give you credit after finding so much fault with everything you do or say. But last night I have to say you seemed remarkably at ease. You seemed to be actually listening with every appearance of interest to your interviewer and responding to his questions. You even expressed yourself with more than passing familiarity with the English language. I was, frankly, surprised.

There, that was like pulling teeth, to put in a good word for you, Bush. But I did it, didn't I?

Friday, January 27, 2006

Home Truths

I'll be brief today. It's one of those days on the home front, Bush. The painter. The contractor. The people to sand and refinish the floors. We have to be out of here early in the day. Anyway, listen, I heard you speak some truths yesterday about the Palestinian elections. Good for you. It couldn't have been easy for you, given the uncomfortable fact that you were given what you've been asking for: free elections in the Middle East, on the path to democracy. But the people's overwhelming choice, in this case, was another bunch of radical, gun-wielding warrior types, who could introduce another fundamentalist Muslim state implacably inimical to Israel. Not exactly what you would have chosen. Nor I.

Still, I heard you say it: "There was a peaceful process as the people went to the polls, and that's a positive. But what's also positive is that it's a wake-up call to the leadership. Obviously people were not happy with the status quo. The people are demanding honest government. The people want services."

Ah, yes. Honest government. Services. Quaint notions, these days, in America. I trust, Bush, that you note the irony implicit in your words. I trust you've noted that your own government is being shown less than honest by the day, in its dealings with those lobbyists and corporate chiefs; and far less than open, Bush, with the people it purports to serve. Imagine, if the Democrats controlled the Senate and the House, what thorough investigations might be taking place, what corruption and incompetence might be revealed. But no. The Republican fox, luckily for you, continues to guard the Republican henhouse.

And speaking of services, of course, your adminstration continues to cut them for those who need them most, while it cheerfully hands out the proceeds to the wealthy.

Here's hoping that the American electorate will have the wisdom of the Palestinians, at least in this respect, come the current year's elections. I mean, I'm not asking for armed militants, Bush. It hasn't come to that quite yet. I'm hoping, though, that the voters in this country will start "demanding honest government". That they'll "want services". And see that they're not getting either one from you.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Conspiracy?

As you surely know by now, Bush, conspiracy theories don't cut much ice with me. I have particularly resisted conspiracy theories about 9/11, in part because the implications are, well, too awful to entertain. The mind leaps to the bait of the official version because it might otherwise fall into an abyss so deep, so dark, so veiled in malodorous and unfathomable layers of secrecy as to be beyond reasonable contemplation.

And yet, and yet… the doubts persist. A reader sent me the link to this website, physics911, which presents a multitude of evidence challenging the stories we have been asked to believe. At the very least, Bush, strolling through this site, you'd have to concede that there are some serious unanswered questions. I have read, and worried about, the inconsistencies at the site of the Pentagon attack: the size of the entry hole, the absence of physical evidence that could positively identify the plane as the airliner it was supposed to have been; the manner in which the World Trade Center Towers fell, more consistent with the physics of demolition than with the impact of an aircraft and those little puffs of seemingly sequenced explosions, "squibs", up the side of the North Tower; the astounding fall of Building 7; the narratives of witnesses, and so on.

After spending some time meandering around this site, I'm left with the distinctly queasy feeling that the story of 9/11 might need to be included in the lies you and your people have promulgated, Bush. It's especially discomforting to know that your lesser-known brother, Marvin, was part owner of the company "that not only provided security for both United and American Airlines, but also for the World Trade Center complex itself"; and that "Larry Silverstein, who had bought the leasing rights for the WTC complex from the NY/NJ Port Authority in May of 2001 for $200 million, […] received a $3.55 billion insurance settlement right after 9-11 [and] was suing for an additional $3.55 billion by claiming the two hits on the towers constituted two separate terrorist attacks! He stood to make $7 billion dollars on a four month investment."

I was going to talk to you about the misuse of Iraq funds, as reported in yesterday's New York Times, Bush. Or about your White House's refusal to hand over vital documents relating to the Hurricane Katrina fiasco. Guess I got side-tracked. Ah, well. Another time… Oh, and yes, breaking news: that press conference. The highlight was the dangling technology at the start. Loved it, Bush. What a laugh! As for the content, well, nice evasion, Bush. No big goofs. Keywords: "protect the American people", and "a responsibility to lead". Next up in The Bush Diaries, some thoughts about the Palestinian vote. Later, Bush.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Victory?

I heard the word "victory" used several times on television news last night, with reference to the partisan vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee in favor of your Sam Alito. I hope you don't think of it as a victory, Bush. I don't, when a solid eight Democrats opposed it. In my view, the imposition of your will is not a victory. It's an act of tyranny on the part of a political majority.

Your Republicans played along, of course, attributing their own smug partisanship to the Democrats on the committee--and even threatening them with retribution for the expression of their considered opinion. Pronounced Senator Jon Ryl of Arizona: "So I say to my Democratic friends, think carefully about what is being done today. Its impact will be felt well beyond this particular nominee."

What gall! Ryl piously passes over the fact that the impact of "this particular nomineee" will be felt well beyond what was done yesterday by those of us who do not share his views. To castigate the loyal opposition with unveiled threats at this moment of "victory" for those who support your conservative agenda seems to me the height of poor winner-ship. I do believe that this whole thing was mishandled by the Democrats on the committee, but that doesn't change the fact that the country will now be saddled for years to come with another Supreme Court voice who, to judge from his record, adjudicates on the basis of views that are far to the right of where most Americans want to be and how they want to live their lives. On the threat to Roe v. Wade and the wacky theory of the unitary executive alone, the Democrats had grounds for measured opposition to the nomination.

Last time I looked, Bush, it was considered honorable, in a democracy, to dissent. And now, instead, dissent is met with threats of retaliation? You'll continue to have a hard time selling your version of freedom and democracy throughout the world when people see how we practice it ourselves.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

O (No) Canada!

You'll not be surprised to hear that I'm disappointed in Canada's swing to the right, Bush. I imagine that you've been on the horn already to congratulate your fellow conservative, Stephen Harper, on his election victory. But I'd be careful about gloating over it too much. From what I understand, it has to do with Canadian voters' disenchantment with the scandals that have recently been tainting the Liberal Party (shades of Washington, Bush!) rather than with the liberal policies that have defined the direction of the country over the past dozen years.

For myself, though I don't much follow the domestic--nor for that matter the international--affairs of our neighbor to the north, I confess to having taken comfort in the knowledge that liberalism was not yet completely dead on the North American continent. And having lived in Canada myself for two years in the early 1960s, and having a son who was born there and still takes pride in his Canadian nationality (though he lives in England now), I do feel some small tug of kinship with those liberal Canucks.

I'm assuming, then, that it will be hard for the new guy to start dismantling the established social programs there--especially what is referred to here, with such distaste, as "socialized medicine". My impression is that, for all its deficiencies--and there are surely many of them, as with the British National Health system--people really do value the availability of universal health care, even for the disadvantaged. I gather that our lack of any kind of single source insurance plan is beginning to bear disastrous fruit even for the corporations you so heartily embrace. Did you hear Bill Ford, of the Ford Motor Company, announcing the decision to make devastating cuts in plants and personnel just yesterday, Bush? He attributed the comany's financial woes in part to the crippling costs of health care insurance for its workers. Something, he said--and here I paraphrase--will have to be done to address this problem.

I found that interesting, Bush. It may turn out to be the country's business excutives, ironically, who lead the demand for change on this front. But back, as the French say, to our sheep. The new guy in charge up there in Canada is said to favor forging better relations with the United States as a part of his program. Good luck, I say. Take a look at what has happened to Tony Blair in Britain for his good intentions in this regard! What I myself would hope for is that Harper manages to find a willing listener in you, Bush, on this side of the border. It seems that it has been hard for you to understand that productive relationships work two ways. In the case of Canada, perhaps--who knows?--you'll find a man who can persuade you that he deserves your listening ear.

You could maybe talk about the price of drugs. Who knows?

Monday, January 23, 2006

And More About Boys

One of the more interesting comments in Newsweek's current piece about the male of our species, The Trouble With Boys, comes from Michael Thompson, the author of "Raising Cain". "Boys measure everything they do and say by a single yardstick," he said: "does this make me look weak? And if it does, he isn't going to do it."

Isn't this exactly what I was saying yesterday, Bush? Except that I was saying it about men. The trouble with boys, as I see it, is not that they will be boys--which is fine with me--but rather that too many of them fail to grow up. With the result that we have a surfeit--not of girlie men, as Arnold would have it--but of boy-men. Too many men who are still boys. And it's not just that they're boys at heart. I have no objection to that, Bush, either. It's good, I think, to be in touch with that boyish heart. No, I mean men who remain boys in their emotional development. The world abounds in men who measure everything they say and do by that same yardstick: does this make me look weak?

You'll forgive me, Bush, but this is the stunted growth I see too much reflected in the policies of your administration, starting from the top. The "war on terror", the invasion of Iraq--these seem like the actions of men who have a dread of looking weak, and need to assert their strength in order simply to prove it. But the same yardstick affects almost every other action and policy. Education, for example: be tough on those kids, be tough on those teachers. Test them. Standardize them. In politics, the loud, unrelenting attack on the "bleeding hearts" of liberals. On those who would be so weak-knee'd as to choose sissy negotiation over bellicose patriotism. In the field of crime, compassion is out, the death penalty is in. Three strikes and you're out is in. Long prison sentences are in. Regarding social programs and welfare for the poor, it's the old bootstraps theory. Tough it out. And so on, ad infinitum.

You evidently pride yourself, Bush, on looking tough and acting tough. Trouble is, the posturing becomes transparent, and strength begins to look more like weakness. Real strength, as I see it, involves acknowledging vulnerability. It involves, sometimes, a tender heart. It involves an ability to recognize mistakes when we make them, and a readiness to change. There's that wise old fable, Bush, of the oak and the willow: when the high winds come, the willow bends, gracefully, while the oak, incapable of flexibility, stands tall--and gets knocked down.

I know from personal experience--I was once a boy myself, as I suspect that you were, too--how boys learn that it is dangerous, amongst other boys, to give vent to your feelings. If they see it, they will take advantage of your fear, your anger, your pain, and taunt you with it. So you learn to cover these things up, to steel yourself, to put on the full armor of strength. And you learn it so well that it becomes a part of the way you present yourself to the world. It becomes your posture. And all too often the ceaseless effort that it takes to maintain that posture against all the dreadful things that life can fling in your direction gets to be too much, and you find yourself resorting to other means to protect the soft, vulnerable core: you turn, unconsciously, to alcohol, or drugs, work, or women...

What we need to teach our boys is that "manly" strength involves an acknowledgment of the fact that all human beings are fallible, including men and boys, and that it's no disgrace to admit there are things beyond our ability to handle by strength alone. They need to know that "winning" does not necessarily involve another man's humiliation or defeat, and that negotiated settlement does not necessarily imply one's own defeat. Had certain folks in your administration learned that lesson, Bush, I think this country would be doing less in the way of strutting around the world stage with a big stick as though we owned the place--and looking, frankly, rather ridiculous as we do so--and more in the way of listening to the views and needs of our fellow world-citizens.

Strength, Bush, is an illusion. It saddens me that you have bought into it, and brought so many along with you for the ride.

More About Men

I read the review of Norah Vincent's "Male Like Me" in yesterday's New York Times Book Review yesterday, Bush, and I want to read the book. In case you didn't catch the review, the story's simple: the author, a Lesbian woman (but that's not the point, Bush, I promise you!) transforms herself into a man for a period of several months, with the intention of coming to understand something of what it means to be a man in today's socio-cultural environment. A thorough job, right down to the five o'clock shadow and the prosthetic penis! Fascinating!

Now, not having read the book I'm obviously in no position to write about its content. It was the last paragraph in the otherwise generally favorable review that attracted my attention. It seems that having discovered first hand some of the unexpected challenges men face out there in the world today, Vincent attended a weekend men's retreat, attracting the scorn of her reviewer: "She is," he writes, "I dare say, too respectful of the 'men's movement' instigated by the publication of Robert Bly's Iron John in 1990." While he praises her for being "detached enough to ridicule the tribal drums and plastic swords wielded at the retreat's climactic 'spirit dance," she herself is taken to task because "she still buys into the movement's victimography and faux-purgatory nonsense."

Well as I've mentioned on several occasions in the past, Bush, I myself have been involved in men's work for more than a decade now, and my judgment is that this reviewer reveals more about his own fears and prejudices than he does about what he so readily categorizes and dismisses as the "men's movement." His attitude is rather typical of those many of us males who have been brought up to live primarily, if not exclusively in our heads. Many of us, indeed, are so busy in our heads that we neglect our bodies--and suffer the consequences in everything from addictions to obesity and heart attacks. As for those other dimensions of the experience of being human--the emotions and the spirit--well, forget it. They're unworthy of serious attention.

Of course I didn't attend the weekend Norah Vincent attended, and have no idea what was involved. I'm sure there are men's weekends that are worthy of her, and the reviewer's ridicule. My experience, though, has been quite different. It's not about "victimography", nor about "faux purgatory nonsense"--whatever these scornful and dismissive terms may be intended to convey. It is about self-discovery, about getting in touch with healthy aspects of masculinity that many men never knew existed. It is about learning that male "strength" can be destructive, that the fears men hide about themselves can lead to tragically destructive behavior patterns. And it is about change, and growth, and healing. To bundle all men's work into a single, easily ridiculed package is, it seems to me, to indulge in a sadly familiar cliche, and sadly complacent ignorance.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Is Anyone Out There Watching Us?

Well, Bush, I got finished yesterday with the chore of reading through the first year of The Bush Diaries, November 2004 (shortly after your re-election, remember?) to November 2005. Though I say so myself, I think it makes for an interesting book. It's a very personal take on your shenanigans in office and it approaches serious things with a light touch. It's also interesting to have a day-to-day record that is more a continuum of sometimes tangential observation than an attempt to reflect historical events chronologically, and in terms of their relative importance. I enjoy the changes of rhythm, the snatches of poetry here and there, the cultural asides. It remains to be seen, of course, if others like it, too. Let's hope we end up with a bestseller on our hands, Bush. That would be something, no?

I do have a nagging concern about the whole enterprise, however, and I thought I'd share it with you. Someone asked me the other day--and this is by no means the first time--if I wasn't worried about putting out this not always respectful conversation with your good self on the Internet. The suggestion, of course, was that I might be attracting unwelcome attention to myself, especially in view of continuing news about domestic spying. First it was intercepting the telephone calls of numerous private citizens--a practice that you authorized, Bush, despite concerns from your own advisers about its legality. Now we hear that Google is fighting off an alarming government demand for records on the electronic activities of its customers, supposedly in pursuit of online pornographers. And to compound the Google alarm comes news that other search engines have apparently happily complied with similar government requests already.

So is anyone watching us, Bush? I mean, our collaboration on The Bush Diaries? I guess you ought to know. It's a frightening and a saddening thought that our good-humored daily banter might be the object of surveillance by some government agent who might be less appreciative of the humor of the thing than you or I. Shades of the totalitarian state, Bush. Shades of the Gestapo and the KGB. And there's your spooky Cheney, yesterday, attacking those who might presume to question your authority--and, of course, by extension, his--to spy on anyone you choose to, all in the name of protecting us from the evil terrorists. And there was Bin Laden, just the day before, cocking a cheeky snook in your direction as he offered you a truce!

Well, I guess that the reappearance of your nemesis says more about the efficacy of your intelligence program than I could do in a ream of entries in The Bush Diaries. But I trust you won't take it personally when the book comes out. I'm trusting you, Bush, not to set the snooping dogs on me.

Friday, January 20, 2006

A Voice of Sanity...

... at last, Bush, amongst your evangelicals! I was reading through the first year of The Bush Diaries yesterday, to check for errors and typos prior to submitting the text for publication, and came upon a piece I wrote on this very topic. At the time I wrote it, I had been hearing many good people asking where the moderate Muslim voices were, to condemn the extremism of those fanatics who were preaching terror and violence. I had been wondering much the same myself. Neither the calls to violence nor the acts of violence were surely the true expression of the Muslim faith. So why were we not hearing strong voices of protest from the compassionate and peaceful community of Islam?

My purpose, if you remember, Bush, was to ask the same question of our Christian evangelicals. With so many loudly preaching their bellicose, extremist--and often profoundly unchristian--views and touting their literalist interpretations of the Bible, where were the voices of reason, compassion, moderation? Where was the evangelical who would stand up and be counted amongst the real followers of Jesus? Who would join him in turning over the tables of the money changers in the temple, rather than chasing after the televangelist buck and the influence in Congress? Where were the Christian voices questioning your fiscal policies, Bush, preaching the practice of compassion for the poor and the sick, rather than demanding that they pull themselves up by their bootstraps? Where were the Christian voices that were not content to simply act as cheerleaders for your rash military action against Iraq, but rather demanded all possible patience and restraint? Where were the voices for peace--surely, the ultimate Christian value?

So I was pleased to finally read this piece by Charles Marsh, a thinking man's evangelical, on the op-ed page of today's New York Times. An author and a University of Virginia Professor of religion, Marsh had taken the time to reread some of the sermons of evangelical leaders from the time immediately prior to your military action. He was evidently dismayed by what he found: such widely-heard and respected voices as Franklin Graham, Billy's son; Marvin Olasky, one of your own former advisors, Bush, on faith-based policy; Tim LaHaye (of the wildly popular "Left Behind" series); and the (not so very) reverend Jerry Falwell were united in their enthusiasm for your war. Preached Charles Stanley, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta and former President of the Southern Baptist Convention: "We should offer to serve the war effort in any way possible. God battles with people who oppose him, who fight against him and his followers."

The common theme, writes Marsh, was that "our president is a real brother in Christ, and because he has discerned that God's will is for our nation to be at war against Iraq, we shall gloriously comply." Marsh concludes: "An astonishing 87 percent of all white evangelical Christians in the United States supported the president's decision in April 2003. Recent polls indicate that 68 percent of white evangelicals continue to support the war."

But Marsh is surprised how little attention was paid, in the sermons he studied, to "actual Christian moral doctrine." He does note that some--including notably John Stott, "the revered Anglican evangelical priest and writer"--had serious reservations about the rush to war. But where were their voices when we needed them? Did they remain silent in the face of popular opinion? Or did they speak so quietly that it was easy to ignore them? Or did they speak loud and their protests were simply not promulgated by the inattentive media?

Hard to tell, Bush. But it's certainly good to hear this one Christian evangelical crying in the wilderness. Sixty-eight percent of white evangelicals--good Christians all--are apparently content to overlook the prevarications and deceptions that took us to Iraq? Sixty-eight percent are prepared to accept the killing and maiming, the blood shed by the innocent along with those we hire to do our killing for us? That shocks me, Bush. How do these fundamentalist, Ten Commandment-toting people square it all in their conscience with the simplest of the Ten: Thou shalt not kill?

Ah, well. If Tim LaHaye is to be believed, Iraq is "'a focal point of end-time events,' whose special role in the earth's final days," according to Marsh's paraphrase, "will become clear after invasion, conquest and reconstruction." Of course. And as Marsh notes from the title of an essay Jerry Falwell wrote in 2004, that reverend apparently believes that "God is pro-war."

Those Christians, Bush! Doesn't it worry you sometimes to so piously claim your place among them?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Okay, Friends...

... can I ask you a favor? You may (or may not) have read that I have a book version of "The Bush Diaries" coming out in the not-too-distant future. It will be called, of course "The Bush Diaries: Second Term, First Year, November 2004-November 2005". It's customary to include some good blurb on the back cover of these things, and rather than turning to my vast resource of celebrity friends and powerful politicians, what better than to have blurb written by actual readers? In a word, you! This is an open invitation--no, a request, really--for 2-3 lines of quotable (and preferably polite) comment to be used for that very purpose. The kind of thing that might encourage you to turn a few pages and glance at the text within. If you feel so generously inclined, please email comments to PeterAtLarge@cox.net. No kickbacks, I'm afraid. But I'd be truly grateful.

Iran

I imagine you'll have been waiting for my words of wisdom on this issue, Bush. Unfortunately, I have none. Nor, apparently does your Rice, who threw up her hands yesterday and said "there's nothing to negotiate." Now, as you well know, I'm no foreign policy wonk, but it seems clear to me that your past actions are what have left you with no options there. Having gone off half-cocked in Iraq, you've left yourself pretty much at the mercy of the ever intemperate President Ahmadinejad and the America- (and Israel-) hating mullahs.

Ahmadinejad is clearly enjoying the freedom to thumb his nose at you--and at the West in general. He's got the oil. And he evidently has the support of his people, who are awash in national pride about their nuclear program, without regard as to whether it's for military or peaceful purposes. For them, it just feels good to have the power.

And what have you got, Bush? A military that is widely known to be seriously depleted by the Iraq adventure. You've sent your reserves over there to fight three or four times over. You also seem to have shot a good part of you wad: your arsenal is also depleted, along with the budget to replace it. Meantime, you've given the Iranis, what, three years, is it, to prepare for this moment, since you goaded them so smugly with your "axis of evil" speech? They have taken at face value your rash promise to take "pre-emptive" action against your enemies, and have used the intervening time cannily, both on the diplomatic front and in marshalling their resources.

At the same time, your threats have been becoming more and more transparently empty. After so many public lies, and broken promises, and deceptions, your word rings hollow throughout the world. So the current impasse comes as no surprise: like an incompetent poker player, you have showed your hand too often to be able to bluff with any credibility, and have openly outspent your chips. If polls are to be believed, you have lost the support of the majority of your own people. You have empowered those who oppose you by insulting them.

No wonder, Bush, that you find yourself without options on Iran's dangerous nuclear ambitions. And meantime, hovering in the background, there's also Kim Jong Il. And the terrorists are still out there, plotting away. A new bin Laden tape today? If your intention was to protect the world against the spreading nuclear threat, I'm afraid you achieved the opposite effect.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

And Speaking of Death...

...we now have the possibility of death with dignity. At least in Oregon. What good news, Bush, to hear that the United States Supreme Court voted 6-3 to defeat your Ashcroft. His threats against Oregon doctors choosing to exercise the right given them by Oregon voters to write prescriptions to spare terminal patients the indignity of dying in excruciating pain were gratuitous at best. I know, I know, this was not a constitutional victory in the matter of the right to die. As I read it, Ashcroft's technical legal attempt to substitute his will (and federal authority) for the will of Oregon voters was nixed by the Supreme Court's equally technical respons. But at least their decision opened the door for other states to make their own Death With Dignity acts.

And why not? We have the medical means now to prolong life artificially, as well as to end it painlessly. Remember Terri Schiavo, Bush? So why should I not be allowed to choose to die in a way that spares me, and my family, the agony of prolonged living when there is no prospect for anything but further suffering? Why should I not be able to request available medical assistance to fulfill my choice? It may offend your religious beliefs, Bush, but it doesn't offend mine. So tell me, why should yours take precedence, and force me to suffer unnecessary pain? Besides, I thought you Republican guys were all for keeping government out of the lives of those it governs? And now you insist on trying to deprive us of the most personal choice of all?

There's one fly in this ointment: your recently appointed Roberts chose to join the minority in this decision. This does not bode well for the future, Bush, especially in view of the likely nomination, now, of another justice in the mold of Thomas and Scalia. It was my understanding that these people used to tout the rights of states over the authority of the federal government, but it seems that's not the case any more. When it comes to imposing its moral code over the majority of Americans, it seems that this administration is always in the right. With the changes that you're managing to effect in the Supreme Court, Bush, I'm honestly not happy about the prospects for future cases of this kind.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

... And Another Death

Listen, I hold no brief for the person of Clarence Jay Allen, Bush, who was executed by the State of California last night. From all reports, he was a ugly example of the human species. His picture alone was enough to make the average citizen shudder. But the death penalty is not about Clarence Jay Allen. It's about us. It's about the damage we do to our own soul, as a society, when we put a man to death--particularly, Bush, a terminally sick and blind old man. It's about the bad karma we incur upon ourselves through such an action, it's about the wound that action leaves on the soft inner core of the collective psyche. It's about how that wound becomes a permanent scar, and hardens us just a little more each time we do it. And how that hardness creates, in turn, more unacceptables in our midst, more rejects and, eventually, more violence, pain, and death. I know this is a subject on which we do not agree, but I persist in seeing it as one more manifestation of the prevailing malignancy that ails our society and our nation as a whole today. We are better than this as a people, Bush. We deserve to do better by ourselves. We deserve to be more human, more humane.

Forgive the brevity of today's entry. I have a writing gig that I need to be working on this morning. See you tomorrow, all being well.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Another Fine Mess

Nice going, Bush. Your Rumsfeld strikes again. This time it’s the village of Damadola in Pakistan, where we send in a Predator armed with missiles to devastate the community, kill at least 18 civilians, including six children, and miss (it seems) the intended target, Al Qaeda number 2 man, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

What a way to win hearts and minds, Bush! Even had we nailed him—and I carry no torch for the man, believe me—had we succeeded in blowing him to kingdom come, would the effort have been worth it? What would we have achieved? We’d have created another high-profile martyr, alienated a whole bunch more citizens in the Muslim world, recruited another few hundred fighters for the cause of the terrorists, and exposed ourselves as high-tech bullies to the rest of the world. All for what? Revenge? To show the Al Qaeda gang what a dreadful fate awaits them—a fate they make no bones about welcoming in their way to Paradise?

And even if we agree that assassination is a worthy strategy against those who plot against us—I myself, in my own na├»ve way, happen to think not--do we seriously think that disposing of one leader in this manner won’t make way for another? I ask myself, even if this had been the beady-eyed arch-demon Osama bin Laden, even had we succeeded in rubbing out this architect of 9/11 in this way, what would have gained, aside from the satisfaction of retribution for his hateful attack? Would it have been worth the lives of innocent civilians and a mountain of ill-will?

Dead or alive, you once said shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center towers. It may make a nice poster for a Western flick. And maybe, had you been able to pull it off back in Afghanistan, while the memory was still hot and the man was holed up with his scruffy warriors, not a bunch of villagers—maybe then you could have gotten away with it. I believe now, though, from a strictly PR point of view, the only reasonable option you have left is either to off him in the company of armed fighters in a more demonstrably fair fight, or to capture him alive. I’m all for that. But just don’t go killing more civilians from unmanned Predators, Bush. No matter how you justify the rights and wrongs of it, no matter how scurrilous the intended target, that will be viewed throughout the world as an act of cowardice.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Frogs

Buried on page 14 of yesterday's Los Angeles Times was a story about a Nature magazine report on a recently discovered link between global warming and the extinction of many species of frogs. I know this has been a source of concern for scientists for years now: it seems that now "two-thirds of Central and South America's 110 brightly colored harlequin frog species have vanished," killed off by a fungal virus that has been "stoked primarily by global warming."

This may not seem like much of a worry to you, Bush, but frogs are family to me. Well, toads, actually, but I never really made much of a serious distinction. The toad is the symbol on my family crest on my mother's side. A toad rampant, actually, if you can imagine such a thing. The motto on the scroll beneath reads "Experientia docet," or, somewhat inelegantly translated, "Experience teaches." A freer, but slightly more elegant translation, might be "We learn from experience," or "Experience is our teacher." The origin of all this is lost, as they say, in the mists of time, but it pleases me nonetheless to have the frog in my family. I have a small collection of them on my desk, all smiling, ready to leap at a moment's notice--gifts, mostly, from Ellie.

And quite aside from the family associations, I have a lot of respect for the frog as a totem, or power animal. You may have learned something of Native American wisdom, Bush, or the wisdom of tribal societies throughout the world. They had a real understanding of the interdependence of human and animal species, and a respect for Mother Earth that our "civilized" society notably lacks today. Here's one of many shamanistic views of the role of the frog in the spiritual world:

Healing. As water cleanses the arid earth and returns life to it, so Frog's medicine can wash away the physical and mental energies which deprive us of harmony and peace, and helps to replenish our own ability to heal ourselves on all levels.


Nice, huh, Bush? And absolutely appropriate to this moment in our history. Don't we all need "harmony and peace" more than anything in this war-shattered old world? Don't we all need to "heal ourselves on all levels"? And don't we desperately need to return life to the earth--especially to that "arid earth" that is the cause of widespread starvation in one whole area of our planet, the African continent? We need Frog more than anything now, and yet we devote our time, our energy, our resources to destroying him, eliminating him from the face of the earth in our greed for MORE.

So bear in mind the frog as your administration does everything in its power to expose the natural environment to corporate interests and industrial pollution. Bear in mind the frog as you relinquish the last remaining restraints on human greed. Bear in mind the frog as you withdraw from international efforts to repair the damage we have done to this precious and increasingly fragile planet that we populate. Bear in mind the frog, and try to remember that we share this space with other human families, other species, and that they, too, have their interests and rights.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Authenticity

We were talking about this just the other day, Bush, if you remember. The subject came up in the context of Howard Stern's new satellite venture, and the Larry King interview in which he insisted that all he wanted was to expose the deepest, darkest truth about himself. Now comes the case of James Frey and "A Million Little Pieces", which supposedly chronicles his recovery from a life of depravation and addiction, including an inspirational spell in jail. Submitted to publishers originally as fiction, the book is apparently just that: made up. For the most part, anyway. His eventual publisher, though, thought it might market better as non-fiction, and lo! it has climbed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and brought tears to Oprah Winfrey's eyes for its redemptive truth.

It would be too easy, Bush, to simply dismiss this as the work of a scam artist. There's something deeper and more troubling here. I mean, I think in the same breath of the lies you have told and the deceptions you have perpetrated with apparent sincerity--all of which has been swallowed whole by a large segment of the American populace. Distasteful as his book might be--and I confess here that I haven't read it--in order to persuade so many people to suspend their disbelief, this Frey character must have hit upon some deep inner truth about himself and the path to redemption, even if his report is on the face of things far from factual. Well, a pack of lies. To be "authentic", in other words, does not necessarly entail sticking to the mundane facts. Same with you, Bush. While I may judge the complete opposite--as indeed I do--I know that a huge number of people see you to be sincere, authentic, as transparent and honest as the day is long. Including many who must surely be intelligent, thoughtful, and sincere themselves. I suspect you yourself might believe it with equal fervor. Interesting, huh?

Still and all, the book IS a pack of lies. There was that "road to good health" book, too, quote recently, that shot to the top of the bestseller list. I've mercifully forgotten both the title and the author, but you'll remember what I'm talking about. The guy was unmasked as a total fake, a proven con artist with zero knowledge of medical science, and hundreds of thousands of people still flocked to buy his book. And then there's all those stories about journalists, in the last couple of years, who invented stories, or wrote them to order, and presented them as independently researched "news"...

All of which--along with your own story, Bush--goes to show, perhaps, that we Americans are a gullible bunch, quick to believe what we're told, quick to dig into our pockets for the snake oil that promises some kind of improvement in our lives. Having achieved the kind of material comfort that was undreamed of in past generations of human history, we have discovered that possessions alone do not buy the happiness we consider to be our birthright. So we chase after spiritual redemption and the perfection of our bodies, grasping on to any straw that presents itself as salvation. We have learned, sadly, to believe without question in both what we're sold, and what we're told.

How can lies be authentic, then? Is it all in the belief system? There are those who speak with scorn about the "moral relativism" they claim to infect our society, and who long for a return to the days when they believe that absolute truth held sway. You yourself, Bush, speak of good and evil as though there were some absolute distinction between the two: you see the world in black and white. I wish it were that easy. For myself, I find I have to muddle through the confusion as best I can on any given day. What's "fiction"? What's "nonfiction"? Is James Frey to be seen as a reprehensible hack, in it for the money? Or a man with his finger on the true pulse of contemporary American culture? You seem to have the answers, Bush. You tell me. (But I won't guarentee I'll believe you when you do!)

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Good News

Good news today! I think you'll be delighted, Bush. We have a book version of "The Bush Diaries: The First Year" on track for publication. I'll keep you posted.

The Dragon

I wonder if, like myself, you have some kind of special relationship with the saint whose name you bear? I got my own name--have I mentioned this before?--because I was born on the Feast of St. Peter's Chains. I understand, of course, that George is a family name, and I'm not sure about you evangelicals in regard to the saints. You don't make as much of them as the Catholics, I know, but maybe there's some kind of honor there?

Anyway, the reason I ask is because I do see the dragon-slayer in you, Bush. You went out there, sword in hand--well, that's a metaphor, I guess, for shock and awe--and took after that dragon. No doubt about it. Only problem: you didn't do too good a job in the slaying, let alone the clean-up. The result: this George has a huge mess on his hands. And I guess you could say, if you weren't too fussy about mixing metaphors, with egg on his face. Dragon's egg, that is.

Besides, as I think you'll acknowledge, it turned out that this particular dragon had no teeth, no claws, and no fire-breath. It was all hot air. And--to mix our myths a little now, too, as well as our metaphors--this dragon turned out to be something more like a Hydra, with a hundred new dragons erupting from the flesh of every one slain.

I mention all this in part because of yesterday's unsealing of the nuclear test facilities in Iran, in defiance of international opinion and the threat of sanctions. So, given the increasing dominance of religious Shiites in the government over there, it may turn out before too long that Iraq will get its hands on those nukes it never had by proxy, through the international brotherhod of Shiite fundamentalists. Wouldn't that be the ultimate irony, though?

I heard you speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars yesterday, Bush. The Shiites and Kurds, you said, "need to understand that successful free societies protect the rights of minorities against the tyranny of the majority." You added: "Because Sunni Arabs participated in a large number in the December elections, they will now have a bigger role in the new parliament and more influence in Iraq's new government..." Oh yes? "The promise of democracy," you went on, "begins with free elections and majority rule. But it is fulfilled by minority rights and equal justice and an inclusive society in which every person belongs."

I especially liked the bit in your speech that said that compromise, consensus and power-sharing "are the only path to national unity and lasting democracy." It made me wonder to what extent you yourself practice those democratic virtues. Over here in the U.S., you said, "There is a vigorous debate about the war in Iraq today, and we should not fear the debate. One of the great strengths of our democracy is that we can discuss our differences openly and honestly even in times of war." Again, oh yes? And how about all those strident accusations of disloyalty and lack of patriotism that have greeted your critics since the onset of the war?

Ah, yes, excuse me. Of course, you have the answer ready: "We must remember there is a difference between responsible and irresponsible debate," you chided. "And it's even more important to conduct this debate responsibly when American troops are risking their lives overseas. The American people know the difference between responsible and irresponsible debate when they see it. They know the difference between honest critics who question the way the war is being prosecuted and partisan critics who claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil or because of Israel or because we misled the American people," you said. "And they know the difference between a loyal opposition that points out what is wrong and defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right... When soldiers overseas hear politicians questioning the mission," you concluded, "it hurts their morale."

Ah, yes. End of argument. I see.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Sam I Am

(With apologies to Dr. Seuss)

Not having too much in the way of legal smarts--and, incidentally, having chosen not to spend time watching the hearings--I'm not equipped to do more than express my personal bias in the matter of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. I have to say I don't much like the guy you've nominated as our next Supreme Court judge, Bush. I don't like what I've read about his judicial history, and I don't much like what I've heard about his philosophy. And I'm frankly less than enchanted with the political strategy that seems to govern every move you make, including this nomination. I would prefer to have a man in the Oval Office whose primary concern is what's best for the American people, not what's best for the Republican party or the conservative agenda. I'd prefer to have a man who is capable of listening to the majority of his constituents--the mainstream, if you like, of American opinion--rather than the few who have managed to manipulate the rest of us to gain power. I'd prefer the nomination of a man or woman who did not bring along the baggage that Alito brings, but rather a history of tolerance and fairness. I don't consider such men as Scalia and Thomas to be the models of judicial wisdom you have publicly embraced. These thoughts, then, for what they're worth, from one who never claimed to be anything but a layman in politics and political opinion.

And from the same source, the agony of watching, on the BBC last night, the spread of famine and disease in Kenya and neighboring countries, and the threat of imminent disaster in that area of Africa. Put the relatively modest cost of helping these people at a time of need alongside the currrent, obscene total of money squandered in Iraq, (in excess, now, of $230 billion,) and the current US military budget of $400 billion (conservative, I think: it's hard to get a true figure from so many contradictory sources,) and then tell me, Bush, that we "can't afford" to help. Or read Nicholas D. Kristof writing from Sri Lanka in today's New York Times and tell me he's not right about rescuing your legacy.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The Betrayal

A good history lesson last night, Bush, with the rerun of a biography of the British maverick T.E.Lawrence--he of "Lawrence of Arabia" fame. This wasn't the Peter O'Toole film, though, but rather a straight TV documentary, and it was a useful reminder of the history of that part of the world that has your good self all tied in knots nearly one century later.

I presume the story is well known to you, Bush. But these things tend to fade in the memory, so I myself found it a useful refresher course: how that region populated in the main by Arab tribes had been for many years under the frequently brutal control of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, and how the Arabs saw their chance, as World War II began, to win the support of Britain in fighting for their freedom from the Turks. How the British, teetering on the verge of disaster in the Middle East, were happy to use the Arabs' warrior energy in their effort to beat back the Turks, and used the peculiar skills of Lawrence to corral and direct that energy. How they promised an independent nation in return for the support of the Arab Revolt. And how they at the very same time plotted treacherously with the French to divide the spoils of the Arab territory between them once the war was won. My political geography is a bit shaky, Bush, but as I recall the French nabbed what is now largely Lebanon, and the British took over the big swath of Arabia that included Palestine, Syria--and, of course, a good part Iraq, with its wealth of oil. It was at this time, too, that the state of Israel was first conceived.

What a mess they made of things, in their arrogant assumption of imperial rights! I realize that historical events are far too complex to be attributed to a single cause, and that subsequent interventions of various kinds have each contributed in their own way to the intractible problems that prevail throughout the Middle East today. But the legacy of this betrayal, and the lasting distrust that it left in the hearts and minds of Arabs, must surely be accounted a significant role. Without regard to the rights and wrongs, Iraq and Israel provide ample evidence--though in vastly different ways--of the truth that you can't just divide up territory in this arbitrary way and expect to wipe out centuries of tribal memory and ancient rights. They just run too deep.

So dozens more people died in Iraq today, in consequence of your own imperial action, Bush--your own assumption that you knew what was best for a country of which you had such meager historical knowledge and cultural understanding. I sensed a small, momentary ray of hope last week, when I heard you had convened a gaggle of former Secretaries of Defense and State, to learn, as I thought, from their collective wisdom. Until I discovered, later, that you yourself had given these august sages only ten minutes of your time! Did I hear that right? Ten minutes? Surely that can't be right? But it was certainly short shrift. And that otherwise the meeting had been devoted to a briefing by your staffers--a version, I heard, of the same pablum you've been feeding the American people.

Your rosy predictions for the region notwithstanding, Bush, the mighty weight of history is against you. It's a history of bad faith, betrayal, tribal and religious animosity, of bloodshed, hatred, and revenge. Your war has thus far failed notably to heal any of the historical wounds. In fact, it seems to be only rubbing salt into them. Time to rethink this utterly vain and foolish venture, and find a way out.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Bye, Bye, Tom

It looks like political curtains for your Tom Delay, Bush. Maybe he'll run for re-election. Maybe he'll be re-elected. Who knows... in Texas? Still, he'll surely never again wield the power he has grown used to. "The Hammer", indeed. He's beginning to look more like the anvil. And I don't really believe that he's an evil man, as some might do. I think he's a man who was blinded by power, and by the blind belief in his own rightness. His own righteousness. That's no excuse, of course, for his having used power as he did, but it's the rationale with which I choose to explain it. Anyway, it's always good to see hubris receive its just reward. Good to see that the mighty can still fall.

Watching "Face the Nation" in bed this morning, with two articulate senators arguing positions, Ellie and I agreed that it was unimaginable to see you in a comparable dialogue. While I disagreed with almost everything your Republican had to say, I could at least respect his argument, if only because he seemed like a thoughtful and articulate man. I can't see you in a sustained, intelligent, spontaenous debate, Bush, in part because you lack the language skills. But--as I think I've said before--subtle, complex thought is inconceivable without the language in which to express it. Simple language skills restrict you to the realm of simple thought. Argument involves more than the few learned, repeated phrases and the withering tone you try to adopt in answering questions. It involves the ability to move in and out of thoughts with ease, to thrust and parry, to come up with new responses as you engage the thoughts of others.

Ah, well. It's Sunday. I trust the Good Lord is better disposed to you this week than I am, Bush. Have a good day.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

A Dreadful Speech

That was, in my humble opinion, a perfectly dreadful speech you gave on the economy yesterday in Chicago, Bush. I’m no economic genius myself, but even I could see that your arguments—aside from my fundamental disagreement with them--were full of holes, non-sequiturs, and contradictions. I’m sure there will be plenty of commentary on that part of the content. (I hope Paul Krugman will be back from vacation in time to tear the speech apart in his Monday New York Times column,) But the language, Bush! I mean, I understand that you yourself don’t lay claim to a basic command of English; it even seems to be a source of pride to you, given that you’re always making unfunny jokes about it at your own expense. But surely you could hire speechwriters who might do better than this?

I mean, it’s so simple-minded, isn’t it? Take a look at this, for example:

This country has a moral and an economic obligation -- a moral and an economic interest in seeing that our people have the skills they need to succeed in a competitive world. You see, if we don't make sure our people have the skills they need in a competitive world, the jobs are going to go somewhere else. And that's what we've got to understand.


You talk to your audience—and, courtesy of the media, to the rest of us--as though the American people were a bunch of morons. Come to think of it… Well, let’s leave that one lie, Bush. You continue:

Making sure that people have got a good basis of education and capacity to fill the jobs which will actually exist really -- it's important, particularly given the fact that our economy is one that is so dynamic and so vibrant that people are changing jobs all the time. Do you realize that if the recent pattern continues, the typical American worker will have held at least 10 jobs between the ages of 18 and 38? This job market of ours is churning. It's creating opportunity. We've got to have the skills to be able to fill these new jobs. And that's the challenge ahead of us.


And that seems like a virtue of the economy to you? I mean, you yourself might have had that many jobs, Bush, but you’ve never known what financial insecurity means, or the damage it can do to a person’s psyche. Most of the rest of us would be quite content with one or two jobs at that time in our life, with decent pay and benefits. To have had “at least 10 jobs between the ages of 18 and 38” hardly speaks of job security and economic well-being. To me, it sounds more like desperation. I know so many young people, well-educated, smart, and willing, who are forced to take jobs that they know will lead them nowhere and bring in ten or fifteen dollars an hour. No medical benefits. No retirement. And often part-time, with no prospect of full-time employment. Is this what you call a “job”? No wonder they have to move on to the next one—and it’s usually not much different.

And then you dwelled at length on education:

We came together in Congress -- with the Congress and passed what's called the No Child Left Behind Act. I'd like to remind you about the spirit and the philosophy behind that act. It basically says, let's raise the standards and let's measure. And the reason the federal government has got a right to call for measurements is because we spend a fair amount of money from Washington, D.C. at the local level. And so we simply said, if you're taking our money -- it's actually your money -- (laughter) -- do you mind showing us whether or not the children can read or write? I don't think that's too much to ask, is it? Unless you believe that certain kids can't learn to read and write.

I remember when I was the governor of Texas, I found some school systems that simply, I guess, didn't believe that certain kids could read and write, so they just shuffled them through. They said, it's much easier than taking on the tough task of analyzing and correcting, so let's just quit. Let's just say, okay, we'll just kind of socially promote you. It makes us look good on paper. But it's not treating American families well. And it's not setting that foundation to make sure our children can get the job skills necessary to fill the jobs of -- or the skills necessary to fill the jobs of the 21st century.


We just talked about “the jobs of the 21st century”, Bush. Then there’s more semi-literate waffle before you close:

There is an achievement gap in America that is inexcusable and it's beginning to close. And I think one of the main reasons it's closing is because we are now measuring. We're posting scores on the Internet for people to see, and we're saying to school districts, if you've got a problem, correct it early before it is too late. And if you can't figure out how to correct it, give parents a different option than keeping their child in a school which will not change and will not teach. (Applause.)


So for you, it’s all about “standards” and “measuring” and “testing”. Meaningless gestures, as I see it, Bush, while poverty, hopelessness and de facto racism persist in vast sections of our urban communities, and so long as we lack the will to address these intractable social conditions. And of course, unless the money is also there to improve classroom conditions, teacher qualification and remuneration.

Sometimes what you say is barely understandable. Take this, gem, for example:

One of the real assets in our country is the community college system. I spent a lot of time going to the community college system...


“going to”? Bush. What does that mean?)

because, as I tell people, they're available, they're affordable, and unlike some institutions of higher education…


(I guess that’s a dig at our “liberal” institutes of higher learning and their pointy-headed intellectual faculty!)

…they know how to change their curriculum to meet the needs of society.
In other words, what's interesting about the community college experience is that if you're living in an area where there's a need for health care workers, and you got a chancellor of the community college system that is any good, that person will devise a program with the local health care providers that will help train nurses, or whatever is needed. I mean the health care -- the community college system is a fabulous job training opportunity for the American people. It's a place to find -- to match people's desire to work with the jobs that actually exist.


I suppose you mean that the less privileged should get themselves to trade school rather than to college. While there’s an obvious—but unspoken--class discomfort about the relationship between these two models of education, let’s not obfuscate the issue with specious rhetoric. Let’s address it honestly.

It’s this kind of speech that drives me to despair. I want a President who has a firm and honest grasp of the issues, and who’s willing to address them forthrightly, without nods and winks to his ideological political support base, and an eye to his party’s continuance in power. I regret to have to tell you, Bush, that I added my signature (and an eloquent letter!) supporting a national move to have you and your Cheney impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” I think the petition was referring to your lies that led us into war, and your taking the law once too often into your own hands in the matter of spying on American citizens. But maybe your cavalier and merciless torture of the English language, too, should be considered amongst those crimes and misdemeanors.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Learning a Lot from Howard Stern

I don't often watch Larry King, Bush, but yesterday I happened to be channel-surfing after dinner and stopped on CNN when I saw that he was interviewing Howard Stern. My first instinct, actually, was to move on. Did I need to know any more about Howard Stern than I already knew? Truth to tell, I admit have never once listened to his radio show, but I was surprised by his movie, "Private Parts," because it revealed something other than the shock jock I'd been led to expect. There has been so much huffing and puffing about his scatalogical performances, his bathroom humor, his offensive language, his appeal to the lowest, adolescent male mentality--all of which, I knew, had earned him a vast audience along with those millions of dollars in fines.

Now the media are all abuzz with news of his new satellite radio platform and the multimillion contract that has made it possible for him to escape the last remaining restraints imposed by federal regulations--to the horror of the army of the self-righteous who thought he couldn't get much worse. Interesting, then, to watch the Larry King interview and find that I share so much in common with this man who looks and sounds outrageously far from my own proper British upbringing. Because Howard Stern, as he sees himself, is all about exploring the depths of his own humanity--not excluding the darker side--and putting it out there for all to share. He's about exposing those secrets that we use to prop up our feeble egos and present an acceptable face to the world.

Curiously, that has always been my primary preoccupation as a writer, from my first book of poems to the memoir I published a few years ago, "While I Am Not Afraid"--a book that was subtitled "Secrets of a Man's Heart." The book's title was taken from an art piece combining photography and text by Duane Michaels, which read, in part: "I must say this now, before I become foolish again and know better, and while I am not afraid to say things out loud." The quotation represented the spirit of the book. Now, I happen not to have chosen the approach that Stern has taken, which combines elements of satire, farce, slapstick and, yes, scatalogical humor. I chose what I like to think is a more confessional, lyrical approach. But it's all about delving into the depths of what it means to be a human being in this strange world that we're all given to live in together. For this reason, we need to learn about each other, and our selves.

Even "The Bush Diaries", Bush, belongs in this whole sense of what writing is about. Because I understand, as I write it, that I'm talking as much to myself as I am to you, exploring what's going on in my mind in response to what's happening in the world at large. As for you, I'd like to think you personally stand to learn something about this kind of honesty, about getting past the secrets, public and private, with which you fortify your insecurities. There's something deeply personal in all this, Bush,and it pains me, honestly, to see how the entire planet and its history could be seen to have been endangered by the dark, unacknowledged secrets and the hidden fears of a single man.

So you see, we all have something to learn from Howard Stern. Even your good self. Maybe you'll be subscribing to his new radio station? But I doubt it.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

A Bubble Burst--Or More Window-Dressing?

Okay, Bush, first things first: the Rose Bowl. I have to admit to a little petty-mindedness this morning. I was mortified by the Texas win last night not only because I happen to have been a USC professor in the days before my having quit academia cold turkey (some twenty years ago) and my subsequent two decades in recovery. Enough time, you'd think, for old loyalties to ebb. No, I was mortified mostly because it galled me horribly for you to have a reason to gloat over the defeat of my adopted state of California by your home state of Texas--although I understand you went to sleep soon after the game started. Eight-thirty, your time, by my calculation. Way past bedtime. Anyway, I guess I would have gloated if it had gone the other way.

But that's water under the bridge, right, Bush? We shrug it off and turn to more pressing matters. What catches my attention is the news of your meeting, at the White House, with current and former Secretaries of State and Defense, both Republican and Democratic, to talk about the situation in Iraq. In view of today's bleak news of 134 more people killed in your war, amongst them 5 American soldiers, it's none too soon. You have been accused of living in a bubble, oblivious to views other than those of your immediate advisers--the same, for the most part, as the ones who encouraged you in getting us into this fiasco. Their names are drearily familiar. Now you bring in other familiar names: Robert McNamara, Madeline Albright... You concede, in your televised statement (broadcast to the nation!) that your guests may not have agreed with your action in entering into the conflict, or your conduct of it. You invite thoughts, suggestions, disagreements...!

Good news, Bush! I'm personally delighted that you've decided to bring others in to the debate. Two questions: one, why did it take so long? And two: can we trust that you really mean it? Or is this just another piece of window-dressing, with a cynical eye to opinion polls, in the attempt to boost your image? Did it happen on the insistence of your political advisers and your PR people, bent on conveying to the public the notion that Bush is now Mr. Open-Minded President, anxious to listen to advice from every source? I'm honestly not encouraged by your cocky assertion that we're on "a dual track for victory" in Iraq, though it wasn't clear whether this was before or after the meeting.

On another front, also in the Middle East, there's good reason for concern about Ariel Sharon's stroke. From what I hear this morning, it's highly unlikely that he'll ever be able to return to the political scene, and the removal of such a key player could cause unpredictable, seismic shifts in the bigger picture (I first typed "bugger", Bush! A sadly apt slip of the fingers) over there. The loss of this conservative ally could prove hugely complicating to your intentions in that part of the world. Arafat's death left a real opening for the pursuit of peace. I'm not so sure that Sharon's debilitation bodes for a better future. The outcome looks, as ever, uncertain at best.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy

So, Bush, are we outraged yet? Or is the Abramaoff story just another big yawn for the American electorate? I mean, this is just the tip of a huge, nasty iceberg, isn't it? They say that an awful lot of congressmen and others are quaking in their boots, now that their erstwhile chum is about to rat on them. What I hope we'll get is the full story, at last, of how the Republican gang got a stranglehold on the US government by bribery, graft, and influence-peddling.

Talk about vast right-wing conspiracy! Remember how our Hillary was mocked when she came up with that notion, Bush? The fact of the matter is that she was dead right, wasn't she? The conspiracy was afoot, and the plan was to subvert that wonderful democracy you talk about so much, Bush, and with such pride. The plan was to hijack all three branches of government and hold them hostage to conservative Republican interests in perpetuity. And the sad thing is that the plan has quite largely succeeded: thanks to the efforts of Tom Delay and his ilk, few congressional seats are seriously contestable these days; the Supreme Court is in danger of being packed with Thomas and Scalia clones, who'll warm their seats on the bench for decades to come; and there you sit, Bush, in the White House, thanks to the power of lobbyists, political hacks, right-wing religious zealots, electronic ballot rigging... and that same Supreme Court.

Let me say it clearly, Bush: to my way of thinking, you have no right to be there. The fact that you were never qualified to occupy that lofty office is amply proven by the unqualified incompetence with which you manage it. You were elevated to it by greedy, ruthless people who had their own interests at heart, and whose interests were guided exclusively by their hunger for money and power.

Tell me that this country is still a democracy, Bush, and I'll point to Jack Abramoff. Praise the Lord, as they say, and hallelujah! The conspiracy may finally be about to unravel. With Abramoff capitulating, who knows how many congressional staffers may soon follow suit, to save their scabby skins. I want the WHOLE TRUTH, nothing less, and I'm not the only one out here who'll be demanding it. It's past time.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Outage

Yes, Bush, you read that right. Outage. Not outrage, as you might have expected from me. That's par for the course, as my late mother-in-law would say---on every possible occasion. No, it's outage. Electrical outage. We had this big storm yesterday, and it knocked out our electricity at around 9:30 in the morning. We expected maybe a couple of hours--this is, after all, a major metropolitan area in the most developed country in the world. Well, developed in some respects, anyway. But the lights were still out twelve hours later when we went to bed, in darkness, at arond 9:3O PM. Then, finally, some time after 2 in the morning--lights on everywhere, TVs blaring... We had rejoined the so-called civilized world.

In the meantime, though, no lights of course. But also no egress from the garage (electric door opener!) except by manual operation. I managed to crush two fingers in between the folds of the garage door, and still can't use them to type this morning. Also no refrigerator. No telephones: the landlines depend on an electrical source. Spoiled as we are in almost every way, we had a cell phone charged. No online access--the cable modem wasn't providing me a signal. Fortunately, I had posted our diary entry early in the day, so no problem there. No heat: our gas furnace is triggered by electricity. Thank God we live in a part of the world where the climate makes it livable--if not exactly comfortable, at this time of year--with no heat. Pity those poor souls in the Northeast, say, if they're hit with an electrical outage. It makes you think. It makes you pause for long enough to count your blessings.

So, after Christmas, after the New Year, it's back to chaos. The painter is here, finally, a couple of months later than promised. The fish pond is leaking so badly that it empties overnight, leaving only a couple of inches for those little creatures to survive. A lot of electrical work remains uncompleted: wires still hanging out of walls, lights going on and off on automatic timers when they're not supposed to... Much carpentry remaining to be done. Our contractor originally promised a mid-October completion date. I doubt we'll be done by the end of January.

All of which, Bush, makes me think about Iraq. The electricity, of course. Either the total lack of it or the unreliablity of the supply--even, I read, in urban areas. How many months now since the end of "major combat operations"? Like our contractor, you have made many promises, Bush. And how about water supply? Sewers? Transportation? If our (relatively) minor irritations are driving us to distraction here, surrounded by all the services we take for granted, what kind of anger much be generated over there? Our chaos is livable, after all. Theirs, it seems, is daily, on a grand--well, let's say catastrophic--scale. And it's not just a matter of absent or faulty services. It's bullets, and the threat of bullets everywhere. It's bombs exploding in the midst of civilian life--and some of them are ours.

I hear you speak so easily, Bush, of the return to civic order, to security, to the establishment of a democratic government. If I have difficulty believing you over here, on the basis of second- and third- and fourth-hand information, how much more must those (mostly) good people have over there, whose lives are not only ordinary chaos, like ours, but dangerous, life-threatening chaos. Just this little, harmless taste is enough to drive me crazy. No wonder patience is wearing thin in that bedeviled part of the world.

All in all a healthy lesson, Bush. A healthy reminder. We have power again this morning. The storm has passed. The sun is shining, with the promise of a high of sixty-five degrees. Not too shabby. We can live with that. I think of those Pakistanis, in their tents...

Monday, January 02, 2006

Munich

There was an op-ed piece in yesterday's Los Angeles Times by Judea Pearl in response to the new Steven Spielberg movie, "Munich." Pearl is the father of the New York Times journalist, Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped last year and pitilessly murdered by Muslim extremists in Pakistan, and he condemned what he saw to be the "moral relativism" of the movie's take on the Munich hostage-taking and murder of those eleven Israeli Olympians, and the Israelis' subsequent pursuit and assassination of the Palestinian perpetrators of that dreadful deed. The piece was called "Justice must be done."

Well, Bush, I saw the film last week and saw things differently from Pearl. Admittedly, I don't have the same unenviable personal stake as he in the matter of kidnapping and murder, and I have nothing but respect for the unimaginable pain he assuredly continues to suffer in his life as a result of his son's death. He has a perspective on these things that few of us can share. I did, however, feel moved to respond to his essay in the form of a letter to the Times. Who knows if they'll publish it, so I'll include it here:

With the greatest respect for Judea Pearl's views on Steven Spielberg's film, "Munich," and the value he assigns to the need for justice, I disagree with his understanding that the movie's hero suffered merely from "a crisis of conscience." What I saw was a man whose soul was gradually and inevitably destroyed by the actions he was required to take in the name of justice. By the same token, I believe that our society risks detroying its collective soul a little more every time it puts a man or woman to death. "Justice", it seems to me, too often stands in for its Old Testament cousin: "Vengeance." I always feel deep sympathy for those whose families have been victimized by senseless brutality, and ask myself whether in their place I would be demanding the death of the perpetrator. I do come back, however, to the belief that justice does not necessarily demand more violence. Spielberg's movie was an eloquent plea for an end to the cycles of violence that destroy our souls.


You likely won't agree with me on this topic, Bush. We have talked about the death penalty a couple of times before in these pages--mostly recently in reference to the execution of Tookie Williams. But it goes much further than the death penalty, of course, and much wider than the assassination of the Munich terrorists. It goes also to the cycle of violence that we--and those we have "liberated"--are perpetuating in Iraq, with no end in sight. I know there will be those who think me simple-minded, but it's a simple, proven truth that violence serves only to beget violence; which, in turn, begets more violence. There are ways to pursue justice that do not involve more killing as their primary goal.

Whether you agree with me on this or not, "Munich" remains a terrific, powerful film, truly tragic in its portrayal of a young man losing his soul in service to his country, and to what he at first believes is a noble cause. Spielberg's strength, as Ellie pointed out as we left the theater, has always been as a story-teller, and he has told another spell-binding story here. His earliest movies stand as evidence of that gift: even when they were frothy and sentimental, they always grabbed the audience and held the attention as only a good story can. No more sentimentality or froth in this picture, though. This is tough, gritty stuff, with issues deep and complex enough to warrant both Pearl's and my own points of view. And, I'm sure, many others. Have you see it yet, Bush? Something for the White House screening room, I hope...

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Imagine

So, Bush, it's January 1st again. Hard to believe how quickly the years turn. Anyway, I imagine you'll be hoping fervently for a better year than the last one. Good luck with that. If you want a single word of advice, I can offer one: LISTEN. Otherwise, my personal prize for the best thought for the New Year goes to Yoko Ono's full-page ad in today's New York Times "Week in Review." It said, simply, in the middle of an otherwise blank page, "Imagine all the people living life in peace." I know you probably think such sentiments are simplistic, Bush, but it's my judgment that you have never understood the function of imagination, let alone its power. One of the great sources of our current problems as a country, to my way of thinking, is our dreary literal-mindedness. So here's a second word of advice for you for the New Year: IMAGINE. More to follow. Meantime, have a Happy One!