Tuesday, October 31, 2006

"The Queen"

Well, I had to see it, didn't I, Bush? "The Queen." What with being an ex-pat Brit and all. And I have to say it was a terrific movie. Maybe you saw it? If not, you'll no doubt have heard about Helen Mirren's incredible portrayal of Her Majesty. I was expecting something a bit harsher, a bit more satirical, but this performance really captured with a great deal of sympathy the essence of a woman trapped inside an outdated concept of her own institution.

The film had all the elements of tragedy, really--and I don't mean Diana's. Her death, dreadful and saddening though it was, had more to do with pathos than true tragedy: it tugged at the strings of the heart. The Queen, though, came across as a truly tragic figure: a person who had her great stature thrust upon her, caught in a deep inner conflict between her "duty" to her people, as she saw it--wrongly, as it turned out--and the turmoil of personal thoughts and feelings which she felt unentitled to allow to surface. Her blind spot was her inability to see, until it was almost too late, that her people needed something from her other than the protocols, trappings and traditions of the monarchy. In a moment of grief, they just wanted a "mum."

The queen portrayed by Mirren was also, to her cost, disastrously disconnected from those inner feelings. She had been brought up to believe that to supress them was a part of the role she had been given to play. So she failed to see the connection between her deep personal dislike and distrust of Diana and the course of her public actions following the accident. She saw herself as being "correct" in her stoical insistence on keeping the family's reaction "private", and failed to understand that her behavior was governed as much by her instinctive animus for the young woman her son had married, and whom she surely blamed for much of the public disenchantment with the monarchy.

At the same time, there was "greatness" in this character. Her "Majesty" was also captured with conviction. On the petty, negative side it came across as a nasty form of social snobbery, a presumption that goes along with unimaginable privilege. On the plus side, though, it was also, well, just "majesty"--a kind of natural dignity and sense of the gravitas of her position and responsibility and, yes, a real sacrifice of self-interest to the often painful necessity of being queen to a whole nation of people. Instilled in her from her youngest days was the imperative of putting others first--an imperative I know well from having been brought up with it myself.

The greatest, most tragic flaw of Mirren's--and perhaps the actual--queen was her failure to grasp the historical moment, the great social changes that the twentieth century had brought about. She was still living, in effect, in the world of a monarchy past, before the days of "People Power"--the movement most powerfully expressed, in England, precisely in the event of Diana's death. Your good pal Tony, Bush--just recently elected as the youngest Prime Minister of England in God knows how many years, was quick to recognize it: he comes off as something of a hero in the movie, succeeding, finally, in persuading the Queen to emerge from her stubborn isolation.

An intriguing subplot succeeds admirably in revealing this aspect of Mirren's character: it's the story of a great fourteen-point stag, spotted by the game wardens on the Queen's estate at Balmoral and seized upon by Prince Phillip as a way to distract the young princes' attention from their mother's death (at a time when they should rightly have been processing the grief.) This magnificent beast eludes the stalking of the royal males but shares his grandeur, proud and independent, with the Queen at a moment when she finds herself all alone amidst the natural splendor of the Scottish Highlands. She's clearly moved, rejoicing that her men have failed to find and shoot the creature; but later hears that he has strayed from her property and been shot elsewhere--by a commoner, no less, a London financial manager! Having notably refrained from paying the same respect to Diana, she insists on making the trip to see the animal's hanging, decapitated body and ponders the separated head with its imperial antlers. A powerful metaphor, I thought, for the Queen's dimly nascent understanding that the great days of the monarchy were past...

Anyway, listen, Bush, your Blair did come off well. A young, feisty PM, he had his finger on the pulse of the British people at that time, and was able to confront Her proud and stubborn Majesty with the reality of a deteriorating situation--a moment at which revolt was in the polite British air and the monarchy itself could have been in jeopardy. This movie "Blair", I thought, also learned something of the value of that institution, despite his wife's more cynical mockery of it. (A great, comical scene, by the way, when the couple are first introduced to the Queen's presence, and have to deal with the stiff protocols that govern such occasions!)

At the end, though, it was the Queen herself who waxed prophetic: having experienced, as she saw it, the humiliation of experiencing her people's anger and distrust, she warns Tony that his time will come. As indeed it has, Bush, thanks to Blair's unwise and inexplicable choices, first to join you in your ill-fated venture in the Middle East, and then to be deaf to the reaction of his people. He seemed to gain in wisdom from the experience of Diana's death and his deft diplomacy with the recalcitrant royals. But not enough, apparently.

As for the royals, well... I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it's an expensive luxury, a protraction of the world of aristocratic privilege that most other countries have abandoned. Why on earth should anyone hold power over others--no matter how circumscribed in the modern world--simply because of the accident of his or her birth? It seems absurd. But surely not much more absurd than the "democratic" antics we go through to elect our leaders, and with not much better results, it seems, these days: no offense, Bush, but the current power structure in this country was indisputably the product of wealth and privilege. And there's something venerable about so old and lasting a tradition, something comforting about a figurehead like the Queen. If only she could learn to be a "mum."

Monday, October 30, 2006

California's Proposition 86

I smoked cigarettes for more than thirty years, Bush. How stupid is that? I smoked my first cigarette--a French Gauloise, if you can believe--at the age of thirteen, and continued to smoke stealthily, behind the bushes, in my boarding school years. I was caned for it once, by my "housemaster", a man nicknamed Tiger. Bend over. Six of the best. Didn't help. It eventually took me ten years to give up. I tried everything from arm patches to faux cigarettes to will-power. Nothing worked. I ended up regularly lying to my wife and trying to cover up the evidence with breath mints, sprays, deodorants... I'd buy a whole pack just to smoke a couple in the car, windows open, on the way to work. I finally managed to give up (age around 50, I'd guess) by giving myself permission to smoke. That took the negative part out of it, the "mustn't," "shouldn't,", "don't." It worked. For me. I know that others still fight that daily battle.

Anyway, I tell you all this, Bush, because I voted against the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, and countless other well-intentioned organizations on California's Proposition 86--the initiative that plans to raise the state tax on a pack of cigarettes from 87 cents to $3.47. (Oh, yes, Bush, I voted early, by mail--having changed my voter registration from the safe democratic district where we have voted for years in Los Angeles to the Republican stronghold that surrounds our beach cottage: I figured that Henry Waxman was safe without my support. Steve Young, our vigorous, articulate, and well-informed Democratic candidate in this area of Orange County, can use it.)

Oh, sure, I think it's wonderful to help people stop smoking, and I support efforts to keep second-hand smoke from polluting the public air. I just think tax legistlation is not a fair way to go about discouraging the habit.

Since large numbers of the holdout smokers are among our less wealthy and less well-educated citizens, this proposition amounts to nothing less than a tax on the poor. It's punitive. It's regressive. One argument has it that smokers place a disproportionate burden on society with their health care needs and the damage they cause by second-hand smoke. Which may be true--though to a far lesser extent, I've read, than the myth-makers would have us all believe. "Over the last 15 years," reads an opinion piece in last Saturday's Los Angeles Times, "evidence has accumulated showing smokers hardly cost society more than anyone else. Dozens of peer-reviwed studies through the 1990s... demonstrate conclusively that nearly all the costs of smoking--healthcare, higher insurance premiums, lower productivity at work--are borne by smokers themselves."

I'd love to see the end to this pernicious addiction, Bush. I hate to find myself on the side of "big tobacco." But this is no way to do it. It's simply unfair. The money will end up in the hands of casino owners and others who sell cigarettes legally without tax. And of smugglers and bootleggers, who will certainly find illegal ways to cater to the needs of those unfortunate addicts. I'd like to think that good sense will prevail in this case, bt I don't hold out much hope. It's so much easier to pass the tax burden on to someone else.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Get Out the Vote

posted by PeterAtLarge

Not sure that I'd fully agree with my young colleague's use of the word "inspiring", Bush, in his entry yesterday (below). For myself, I'm hardly inspired by the model of loyalty above everything, including good judgment. The "heckuva job" syndrome has not served you or the nation well. (Prime example: your Rumsfeld, still in office!) No, I judge rather that the example of the past few years has served to show the limits and the potential downside of the quality of loyalty to party and pals. But I catch the tenor of what he says...

I myself spent the afternoon yesterday, you'll be delighted toi hear, making calls as a volunteer for the dreaded MoveOn.org. A great turnout--more than thirty people, I'd guess, armed with their cellphones and a lot of passion, in arch-conservative Orange County. Our mission impossible was to make cold calls to numbers in Virginia, where voters are faced with the choice between the incumbent, "Macaca" George Allen, and his Democratic challenger, Jim Webb. As you might imagine, Bush, our calls were intended to benefit the latter.

A couple of observations: aside from the majority of calls (maybe sixty percent) that were either unanswered or picked up by a voice mail service, my own were answered mostly with surprising courtesy. True, a couple of male answerers were briskly dismissive: none of your business who I vote for. But only one respondant actually hung up on me--and I dialed more than sixty numbers. Since the calls were made mid-afternoon in California, and therefore closer to dinner time back east, I was somewhat shamed by my own habit of cold-shouldering Democratic cold-callers when they reach me--all too often--at dinner time. As Ellie observed on the way home from our phone party, I'll try to be be more friendly in the future. Imagine myself on the calling end, maybe...

But what I brought away from the experience was a renewed sense of surprise and (well, nearly) despair at the lack of care and curiosity on the part of most of my callees about the state of their nation and the representation of their state in the Senate. Most--and I use that word advisedly--had no idea who the candidates were, let alone their position on the issues, or indeed what the major issues are. One respondant Ellie spoke to said she got her information from the television, thank you: I just hope that doesn't mean the commercials, but I suspect it does. One of mine said her husband would vote--for both of them, I presumed. Another of Ellie's was the same, except that he left the responsibility to his wife.

Of the callers I actually spoke to, perhaps twenty in all, only two or three had given any thought to the senate race in their state. One had voted already. For Jim Webb, I was happy to hear. But declined to say what he thought the important issues were, Another, you'll be pleased to hear, would not vote for the Democrat--and also declined to identify the crucial issues. I hope that others had better luck than I, but if my experience was typical, it does not speak well for the electorate of this country. And my fear is that ignorance works for your party, Bush, much more than it does for mine.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Lakoff's Beef with the New Direction

Posted by Cardozo

If there’s one thing you can teach us, Bush (and there may in fact be just the one thing), it’s the importance of teamwork. Your six years in office have been a rather inspiring testament to the importance of loyalty and candor. There were times when one or several of your team members goofed up and, say, brought trumped up evidence of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program before the United Nations. Or released the name of a covert CIA agent. Or accidentally shot someone.

But through all of these trials, no one can reasonably say of you, Bush, that you turned your back on your party. You may have turned seven shades of red during backroom discussions, but out there in public not a whisper of a shadow of a grimace ever touches your lips, that would cause anyone to doubt your faith in God and Party.

Clearly, as evidenced by recent news, we Dems lack the same expressed devotion to our cause. Yes, the importance of self-criticism and of questioning authority constitute founding doctrines of modern progressivism, but these can be taken too far, or rather, they can be redeemed during the wrong time and in the wrong place. Check out George Lakoff’s New York Times op-ed on Friday. Lakoff (who you would actually love, Bush, because he understands you, but who you might not know because you don’t have the, um…time…to read books) has been on the very forefront of the push to make progressives smarter at communicating, or “framing,” our beliefs to the persuadable public. Lakoff, however, used the New York Times bully pulpit not to contribute to such a re-framing himself, but rather to mock the recent attempts at same by the Democratic establishment. This at a time when Democrats are probably just one or two mini-scandals away from reclaiming a majority in Congress. We could put out a California wildfire with Henry Waxman’s drool.

But in the last few days of the political tug-of-war that ends November 7th, Lakoff dropped the rope to tell us we all suck at tugging. It’s a trick you Republicans very rarely seem to pull, Bush.

It is true enough that the Democrats' “New Direction” lacks the linguistic fortitude of the “Contract with America,” but at least we are trying. Furthermore, we are beginning to learn from past mistakes and inject new life into our Get-out-the-vote efforts. So I am going to recommend to Professor Lakoff – and other defeatist progressives out there who are already primed to describe precisely how we blew our big chance – that they follow your lead, Bush, and keep the criticism in check until after election day. Surely our doctrine of self-criticism will still be intact on the 8th.

Somalia: the New Afghanistan?

I find it interesting, always, to keep an eye on the BBC World News--especially when they lead with stories that are mentioned nowhere in the American media. Last night, Bush, it happened to be Somalia, where they depict an international crisis looming with the strict Islamists gaining power, primarily by catering to the needs of the poor and needy. Smart move. I wonder why we're not contemplating the same preventative kind of action in areas where violence and deprivation increase the appeal of strong protectors, no matter their fanatical agenda. In Somalia, according to the BBC report, aside from their attention to pressing social needs, the Islamists are also bringing a return to strict sharia law--and sanctuary for the Al Qaeda-style training of militias and potential terrorists. I suppose it's not unrelated to what's happening in Sudan.

The question I have this morning, Bush, is this: what are we doing in places like Somalia and Sudan to stunt the growth of fanatical extremist movements, and to provide those most susceptible to their propaganda with reasonable alternatives to better their lives? I hope that it's something more positive than the average citizen like myself can see, because frankly I see little of any substance. On the contrary, I see mainly acts of violent repression, attempting to extinguish fires that are already blazing--acts which serve only to stimulate distrust and anger.

Let's try addressing the causes of these crises in strategic areas, before they flare up into full-scale conflagrations. It might be more effective, certainly more humane, and a whole lot cheaper in the long run than going to war.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Afghanistan: In Turmoil

Time to revist Afghanistan, Bush. Not literally, of course. Not in person. Too dangerous. There might be someone on hand with a bazooka. No, I mean it's time to turn our thoughts that way again. There's a good deal of unfinished business there. I know, I know. You fobbed that whole thing off onto NATO. Natty move. But NATO is clearly getting itself into deeper and deeper shit as the Taliban return in force from their refuges in Pakistan, and yesterday's news that large numbers of innocent civilians were killed in an aerial attack by NATO forces certainly does't help.

The Taliban, of course, were the folk we were pleased to help, when we thought it good to watch the Soviets sink into that mire. I suppose they're still putting the arms we supplied them with to good use. We helped them when it was convenient to us--though presumably someone must have known just how fanatical they were. Then when they came to power and showed their colors--in the repression of their own people as well as in offering sancturary to their Al Qaeda soulmates--it became apparent that they were not the friends we had apparently hoped they'd be. After 9/11, I confess that it seemed appropriate to rout them. These were the people, after all, who in their religious zeal had destroyed the Banyan Buddhas--those great, twin monumental carvings in the mountainside, which had stood there peacefully watching over the countryside for centuries. (I don't believe that the Buddha himself would have approved your action, but I myself am not yet that far along in my path to enlighenment.)

So where, Bush, was that spirit of "staying the course"--or these days, of course, "getting the job done"--at the time of Tora Bora? It wasn't only Bin Laden's escape into the hinterland, it was the mass of his loathsome associates. It was the Mullah Omar and his gang of thugs. You let them get away. I guess you were already focused on your Iraq plans at the time, but your inititiative in Afghanistan has proved worse than useless as a result of your defection at the last, critical moment, when you had the opportunity to finish the job you had started.

So now they're coming back, it seems, in droves--well-armed, well-motivated to take back their power, and as brutally ruthless as ever. It seems pretty clear that they're using those innocent villagers as human shields. My guess is that this latest disastrous action on the part of NATO was a set-up; that the Taliban used that village as a decoy, not only drawing NATO's firepower away from themselves, but creating a situation calculated to inflame the wrath of their fellow citizens and generate further support for their (triumphant?) return. As one bereaved and outraged family member cried out in his grief: "They think it's enough to say they're sorry."

It isn't, of course. Along with the Taliban, the resurgence of the opium trade as the sole means of support for many rural communities has assured a state of tension, if not outright emnity between the Afghanis and their Western protectors. With "protection" like this, who can blame them for turning back to the Taliban? It would seem like a choice between two evils, one of them being us.

All in all, another shambles, Bush. I just hope this poor old world will manage to survive another two years of this kind of insesensitivity and ineptitude. There are times I have to wonder if it will.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Of Big Fish...and Taking the Bait

Posted by Cardozo

Fiction served as my childhood drug of choice. Because I didn’t know what to do with my frustrations and desires, I inhaled books one after the next. The books contained vicarious adventures, a commanding narrative voice, and an internal order that I could rely on.

Sometime in high school I began to put my books away, gleefully realizing that my life could have adventure, order and a strong narrative voice, if I became the author of my own destiny and if I dared to confront, rather than run from, life’s shades of grey.

Thanks to you, Bush, I’m in need of escape again. Escape from a world of American unilateralism and preventive war; a world in which outcomes are pounded into submission and the enemy is always wrong; a world I feel powerless to change. True, this world over which you preside is as simple as black and white…but what have you done with all the grey, Bush? I miss the grey, which exists, and has for a long time, only in fictional worlds.

Have you read Moby Dick? (I admit I am only reading it now for the first time). The whaleman, Ishmael, finds himself forced to share a bed with Queequeg, an ominous looking, cannibalistic island native who he nevertheless befriends and for whom he develops profound respect. In Melville’s world, what we do not understand is subject for fierce curiosity, not for knee-jerk condemnation and “preventive” slaughter. What kind of world could Melville portray if Ishmael had decided simply to kill Queequeg for being a cannibal? In fact, Melville did not need to portray that world because it already existed. When he lifted his pen to stare out of his window in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the America he saw was in the process of ritually slaughtering its Native American population. Just like in our time, Bush, our leaders lacked the imagination to see beyond culture to our common humanity, and to our common flaws.

That color-blind worldview leads us continually down the path of violence, with no exit strategy. Once you’ve proclaimed an evil, Bush, you cannot “alter your strategy” until that evil is fully extinguished.

So, because you cannot see the shades of grey that color our world, it is past time for you to step down. We are in need of a new President: someone capable of seeing beyond good and evil and who knows (from personal experience) the pain of having his humanity overlooked. So much the better if he be a shade of grey himself – perhaps not quite black and not quite white (as is true, when you think about it, of all of us.)

I can only hold out hope that this man will invent a new kind of politics that presumes and teases out the goodness in humanity, and therefore that does not rely on annihilation as a first response. I can only hope that he is that man, and that he takes the bait that a world starving for real leadership is holding out to him.

Until then, Bush, let’s both of us get lost in a few great books.

and... Vanity of Vanities
Posted by PeterAtLarge

I woke up this morning with Ecclesiastes on my mind: Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher. All is vanity. Amazing words. An amazing text. I hear it in my father's voice, resounding from the lectern... I'm not sure why it should have come to mind, but it seems curiously in tune with Cardozo's thoughts, above.

My own thoughts, in addition to the preacher's: Strong words from the lips of a weak man inevitably ring hollow. Threats from the mouth of one who is demonstrably unable to back them up with deeds are empty of meaning. Promises from one who has repeatedly broken those he has given in the past are not to be trusted. Assertions from one who has repeatedly deceived are not to be taken as the truth. As the preacher said: That which is crooked cannot be made straight.

Mostly Mozart

posted by PeterAtLarge

(I am so tired of your rhetoric, Bush. Your press conference is in progress as I sit down to write, and I am so weary of your rhetoric of "war" and "enemies" and "victory"--repeated ad nauseam as though they made some sense. You keep dressing up your tired old thoughts in new language, as though that helped. "Stay the course" has now become "get the job done," but it's the same old stuff, isn't it? Really? Be honest. You hold another press conference to say the same old thing, and it's all political, isn't it? I'm tired of it. Here's a poem about Mozart. Mostly. It's called...)

Mostly Mozart

So go with me, Bush, take
just a few minutes from your "busy
schedule", give me perhaps
the hardest thing of all
gifts: a moment of attention. Go with me
as I went last night with my wife, Ellie,
to the spectaclar Disney Hall,
downtown Los Angeles, that new,
grandiose, glittery,
yet genuinely intimate space
where music soars. Okay. A Mozart concert.
The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Emmanuel
Ax, piano. Okay? Well,
I sat there enchanted, Bush,
bringing my attention to the music
as I could, and watched
my mind wandering, as it does, inevitably,
back... this time
recalling how it was, years ago,
before I was old enough to know
I was not so smart
as I thought I was; how
this hip-smart critic, poet, thinker,
essayist--whatever--came to share
his wisdom with my students
in a program that I taught; it
had to do with art, and poetry,
and music, film, architecture... with culture,
really, at large, everything, all the arts
brought together in a single
jumbo course. Well,
here he was--bear with me--this smart-ass
critic fellow who took
obvious delight in sharing
with us his view that everything
was "irrelevant"--that was
the catch-word, Bush, back then,
remember? The late sixties, early
seventies, everything was
from the past, especially such outmoded
frivolities as classical music,
ballet, opera... Well,
he succeeded wonderfully in maddening
my colleague Robert who was our music man
in this class, a composer
of some note (pun
unintended, sorry, Bush) who
no matter how hot and argumentative
he got could not
begin to match our glib-tongued
guest, nor the delight
of our students watching
their professor's impotent
rage... He sputtered. Our guest smiled
his superior smile, he knew
he had the students in his pocket.
They'd teethed on rock, for God's
sake! Dig it! And Bush,
I have to tell you--I was recalling
these events last night as I sat listening
to Mozart--I myself
was as convinced as they were. I judged
a lot in those days by its
"relevance" to our contemporary
life, to what
WE had on OUR minds... and I found--
truth time, now--I found
Mozart wanting. Wanting in
relevance. To re-enact
his work with a whole goddamned symphony
orchestra seemed like
an empty exercise to my young(ish!)
self, who knew so much
in my superior way about the world,
about the arts, about... well, life! Right?
And when you think about it, Bush,
in this light, there IS
a certain irrelevance to Mozart's
perky wit and elegance; I mean
when genocide is a very real reality
in Darfur, right? When bombers
detonate their IEDs in the crowded
streets and markets
of Baghdad? When you and your people
fiddle on in some insane world of fantasy
and spin in Washington
DC while the rest of the world
burns, you could say, I guess,
with some semblance of the truth, that
Mozart is "irrelevant." If you discount
the deep inner veracity
of elegance, that is;
if you choose to ignore the lessons
of measure, say, and cadence; if you
make light of playfulness and light-
heartedness; if you
deny beauty, if you know
what I mean? Well, all of which
has a purpose, of course, Bush,
you know me well enough by now. (It's all
"relevant!") Because
what I was really thinking
as I sat there listening to Mozart's
piano concertos and recalling the profound
wisdom of my youth, what I
was really thinking was
about your own seemingly casual disregard
for the lessons of the past, Bush,
in your political
action, in your
diplomacy--can we call it that?--
how you would seem to regard
history itself as "irrelevant"
to your purposes,
how you would seem
to believe with that same
brash dismissal that what
the world needs now is (not "love
sweet love"--remember that sweet,
dopey ditty?!) but a dose
of your new American elixir
for the twenty-first
century. It comes in a bottle
marked "Freedom" or "Democracy"
and in your great sagacity,
Bush, you have flushed all the old
tried and trusted remedies
down the toilet and now,
Doctor Bush, you come along waving
your own big spoon and you want
the world to swallow it. Or worse,
you deliver it in the form of a
rectal suppository, Doctor
Bush, shoving it
up the collective ass
of the nations without ceremony
or apology. Ah, well. Forgive
the crudity of my language,
Bush. We were talking
about Mozart...

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


...of a powerful and moving piece of writing by Kevin Tillman, the brother of Pat Tillman--the former football player who sacrificed a professional career and whose death in action in Iraq was mischaracterized for months by the military for propaganda purposes. You'll find it posted by a fellow reader in today's (Oct. 24) "Comments."

October Surprise? and America the Desolate

posted by PeterAtLarge

Don't try telling me this is not political, Bush. "Breaking News" this morning, two weeks before the election: a new plan for Iraq. "Iraqi leaders," we read, "have agreed to develop a timeline by the end of the year for progress in stabilizing Iraq, and Iraqi forces should be able to take full control of security in the country in the next 12 to 18 months." After 89 American troops have been killed thus far this month, along with countless Iraqi citizens, do you really expect us to believe that the Iraqi security forces are finally "standing up" so that we can "stand down"? After two years of hearing you publicly castigate those who adocate a timeline as traitrous "cut-and-runners", do you want us to believe in your good faith change of heart at election time? What kind of shamelessly cynical switch is this? And, more to the point, are the voters going to swallow this transparent bid to get them to vote for your Republicans?

On another front, it's...

...America the Desolate

I went to the press preview and gala opening for the new Center for Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum yesterday, Bush. It's an impressive new commitment to this art form, with newly designed, expanded gallery space "reconfigured to ensure an optimal environment for the display of photographs." The opening exhibit is "Where We Live: Photographs of America from the Berman Collection".

It's a beautiful show. It features some 170 images of America by twenty-four noted contemporary artists. I'm a bit new, myself, to the aesthetics of photography, but it's not hard to appreciate this splendid celebration of the artist's eye and the complex decisions in such matters as light and shadow, structural relationships of perspective, shape and volume, color and texture that give these works their visual appeal and fascination. In most of them, the eye could wander restlessly for hours, discovering always something new, something to excite and delight it.

What struck me most, however, in all this pictorial beauty, was the desolation of the overall image of America. Had I arrived directly in those galleries from another planet, with no other sources of information about America, what would I have concluded about the country these images depict? It's a picture of isolation, desolation, and decay. The raw, abandoned buildings photographed by William Christenberry, John Divola, David Husom among others stand isolated in their forests, prairies, deserts, as though unvisited by the human presence in decades. Others, like Doug Dubois, Robert Dawson, Jack D. Teemer Jr., show urban scenes of equal desolation: back streets where trash accumulates, where paint peels from the wooden walls of tenements or shacks, and where abandoned vehicles rust. Where people appear--with surprising rarity in these pictures--their humanity is often filtered through through the poverty or the cultural deprivation of their lives.

Sandwiched uncomfortably between the aesthetic beauty of the images and the bleak view of our culture that they seemed to represent, I asked one of the artists why this might be. He offered a multi-tiered answer. The first part had to do with the history of twentieth century photography, and the powerful heritage of pioneer artists in the medium like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange from Depression days, along with their successors in the nineteen-fifties who spied on American suburbia with a wry and skeptical eye. The second, the fact that artists commonly share a sensitivity and a social conscience that seem to attract them to the bleaker, less privileged side of life.

The third part of his answer suggested that photography by its nature offers a reflection of the culture in which it thrives, and that our American culture, in the years covered by the exhibition--roughly, the last half of the twentieth century--was on a downward curve. The rusting cars, the decaying billboards, the peeling walls of boarded-up tenements and urban churches--as well as those of rural shacks and farm buildings--all suggested the entropy of a culture whose heyday was at an earlier period in time.

I know, I know, there is another side to America, Bush. There are the glorious mountain vistas of Yellowstone and Yosemite, the magnificent deserts of the West, the midwestern prairies... Lovely landscapes all. There are, to be sure, contented people everywhere, in cities, suburbs, rural areas, who flock to their cultural centers and their churches, who do good deeds and view the world with optimistic generosity. Still, it does seem to me that there was a kind of hidden message in this remarkable exhibition. If artists have their fingers on the pulse that throbs out from the nation's heartbeat, there is surely some inner dis-ease progressing in its body--a disease that we should pay attention to if we're concerned with our collective health.

It grieves me to find myself always on the negative side of the agenda, Bush. I keep wishing for wonderful positive things to say. But my promise at the outset was to always be honest with you, and I'd be less than honest if I failed to tell you what I saw. One thing, though: look at this exhibition, as I suggested earlier, as the true celebration of the creative mind and eye. That way, you'll come out with the same kind of uplift that you get after seeing a great tragedy--a Hamlet, or a Lear: despite the dire results of the human frailties you have seen, you come away somehow cleansed of all the dross, and with a renewed sense of the innate nobility of the human spirit and its endless potential to learn and grow.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Politics of War

posted by PeterAtLarge
click here for Podcast!

So now you and your people are suggesting, Bush, that those responsible for the mounting violence in Iraq are motivated by the intention to ensure a Republican defeat at the elections next month. Another arrogant piece of sophistry! These people hate Americans, Bush, not Republicans. I have to believe that the vast majority of Iraqis could care less who's in control of Congress on the far side of the Atlantic. As I hear it, they just want safety on their streets. They want us gone from their country, where our presence simply attracts the worst of the bomb-happy fanatics.

And sure, as you yourself pointed out in a video clip I happened to catch this morning, those dedicated to violence and mayhem are media-savvy. They take their video cameras with them and post the results of their destructive forays on web sites in order, presumably, to communicate their message of terror and intimidation to the rest of the world. But it's a wild stretch to connect this to some kind of nefarious plan to affect the outcome of the American elections, as you did.

It's not surprising, though, that you'd be trying to turn even this dreadful recent upsurge in deadly violence to your political advantage. It follows the pattern of your spin-masters, who find a way to twist the worst of news and the direst of facts to suit your agenda or prove you right.

We have another two weeks and a day before the November elections, with widespread predictions of a harsh rebuff to your policies and the lawmakers who promote them. And yet you and your Rove, spotted recently in another video clip, seem remarkably self-confident--even smug. I recall those images from the night of the November '04 elections, when you had that same look on your face despite the news from the exit polls forecasting a victory for John Kerry. It was almost as though you KNEW... and perhaps you did. Perhaps you knew that the Kerry's fate had been sealed before a single vote was cast.

And perhaps you know today, for the same reasons, that your Republicans will win. It may be that, no matter how the political momentum shifts to the Democrats, the crucial work has already been done, the results assured. It may be that "democracy" really has been killed off in this country--by the influence of corporate money, by the gerrymandering of political districts, by disguised poll taxes or onerous ID requirements, by corrupt election officials and corrupted election technology. It may be that you still have that "October surprise" to spring on us. It may be that the Democrats seize another spectacular defeat from the jaws of victory, and it may be that they will be blamed, once again, for falling fecklessly into the Republican trap.

I'm amazed to find myself expressing thoughts I would have contemptuously dismissed as the fantasies of paranoid conspiracy nuts not long ago. But there you go, Bush. It's one result of nearly six years of growing outrage since your "election" to the presidency.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Buck up, Bush

Entry by Cardozo
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(Note: Today marks the first day, Bush, of an entry in The Bush Diaires by someone other than yours truly, PeterAtLarge. "Cardozo" describes himself (below) as "the junior diarist" and that description fits well with my intention in inviting him to join me in these pages; I trust that you'll enjoy hearing from a different-and considerably younger--voice for a change. If all goes well, you can expect to hear more from him in the future. Have a good weekend, Bush. We'll be talking again on Monday. PaL)

I know, Bush. It feels like the dam is about to burst. You’ve got all of your fingers and toes engaged in plugging up the cracks, while the pressure of bad news and bad polling numbers builds daily. And for the first time, that trademark optimism of yours seems to be cracking as well. And its funny. I thought it would be a good day for us all when you finally realized that this job was beyond you.

But in actuality the effect is a little bit unsettling.

Comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam are everywhere, and yesterday you did an awful job of squelching them. In an interview with George Stephanopolous, you even acknowledged the similarities yourself (I guess the question caught you unawares, without a sound byte at your disposal, so that a bit of your often-ignored common sense slipped out). Meanwhile, the U.S. Army acknowledged that the plan to secure Baghdad has gone down in flames. McCain wants you to send in more troops, while Rummy is clamoring for Iraqis to take over more security in short order. Our intelligence community believes that the Iraq war has been detrimental to the war on terror, and your GOP brethren in Congress are of no help at the moment, embroiled in finger-pointing over the Foley scandal.

So I’m not entirely surprised if, as it is beginning to seem, your heart isn’t in the job anymore. After leading the country into a bottomless war under shady pretenses, one can see why you’d want to mentally “check out” for a while. Everyone needs a vacation, even from their own incompetence.

Unfortunately, Bush, you don’t have that luxury. Presidents don’t get vacations. So muster up your courage and put your lame ducks back in a line, because if there’s anything more frightening than an evangelical, war-profiteering President, it’s an evangelical, war-profiteering President who has lost his will to govern.

P.S. This is my first post as a member of the BD team, Bush. (You can think of me as the junior diarist.) Offline, you can find me in Los Angeles working on sweatshop issues in the progressive Jewish community. I'm really looking forward to engaging in a mutually-constructive dialogue for the next two years (or until they Henry Hyde your hide out of office.)


click here for Podcast!

I was teaching all day yesterday, Bush. I'll be teaching all day today. I put the word in parentheses in the title because inevitably, these days, when I'm invited to "teach", I end up learning more myself that I can possibly teach others. When people ask me what I teach when I'm invited, I have a glib answer: "myself". Too cute, perhaps, but that's essentially what it is. It's what I think all teachers teach. Themselves. Anyway, the class is called "Character & Conflict," and in good part it's about discovering those dark places inside and learning to be free from their insidious domain. After yesterday, I woke in the middle of the night with this poem in my head. I'll call it


Sometimes, Bush,
when I see the pain
and the suffering, when I see
the anguish, the anger, and the fear
that steer the course of our lives
too often without our knowing it;
sometimes I think
that all any one of us needs
is to melt into the arms
of someone much bigger
than ourselves; call him
Jesus, call him
Allah, call him
Jehovah, call him
Buddha; call him
call her
just melt
into his/her arms
and give it all up, surrender
the pain and the fear,
the suffering, the anger,
into the strength and security
of his/her arms; and hear
the words we long to hear,
all of us,
that we are okay
after all
exactly as we are; that we are
and lovable;
that we are not
the freaks we imagine ourselves
to be, sometimes;
that we can melt
softly into those arms
and do whatever it is
we need to do to heal:
we can weep, or laugh, or sigh;
we can give up everything
we struggle for,
we can surrender
simply, our small selves,

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Pedophilia: The Mind of Mercieca

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"I have to confess, I was going through a nervous breakdown," the Rev. Anthony Mercieca, 72, is reported to have said when questioned about Rep, Mark Foley's accusations of molestation. "I was taking pills - tranquilizers. I used to take them all the time. They affected my mind a little bit." According to this report I found on MSNBC this morning, the Catholic priest confessed to "massaging Foley while the boy was naked, skinny-dipping together at a secluded lake in Lake Worth and being nude in the same room on overnight trips." Nice. There was also "one night when he was in a drug-induced stupor and there was an incident but he couldn't clearly remember."

According to this report Mercieca acknowledged teaching Foley "some wrong things" about sex, though he refused to clarify exactly what "wrong things" might mean. He apparently considered the relationship to be innocent at the time, but now sees how his actions could be called inappropriate. The still active priest insisted that his flutter with Foley was nothing more than an "aberration." "I have been in many parishes," he is quoted as saying, "and I have never been accused" of other such "encounters."

Well, we all like to have an explanation for our actions. For Foley, of course, it was the alcohol. For his purported seducer, pills. Not, they both hasten to add, that this excuses their behavior. It just explains it. Which leads me to wonder what that teacher was on, all those years ago, when he "invited" me into his bed as a twelve year-old boy, in the days before a ready menu of excuses was available. Some might argue, Bush, that my mistrust of authority results from this "encounter"! (That's my excuse. What's yours?)

The point, as I see it, is that this particular plague has been with us for centuries and will be with us for centuries more. It's only today, when it has become de rigueur to talk about such things, that we begin to recognize just how commonplace it is. I find it terribly sad that there are people around who seem unable to keep their hands off children, and I wish I could see some way for society to deal with it--short of cutting off their hands. But let's stop blaming it on anything other than what it is: pedophilia. THAT, if anything, is the mind of Mercieca.

The priest seems cheerful enough about the whole thing, though, despite his rude and preremptory unmasking by the Congressman. "I wish him well," Mercieca is reported to have said, breezily. "Let bygones be bygones."

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Dear Leader: Pomp & Circumstance

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You have to hand it to the man for sheer bloody-minded gall, Bush. In the face of world condemnation for his nuclear ambitions, Kim Jong Il stages a torchlight event that rivals the stagiest of Adolph Hitler's hideous spectacles of goose-stepping batallions on parade. Legions of dancers in bright costumes, fireworks... Check out these pictures.All in celebration of North Korea's eightieth year of communist rule. No matter that a reported one third of this Dear Leader's people are starving, it's celebration time in Pyongyang.

At the same time, his regime proudly announces the imminent continuation of the country's "series" of nuclear tests. Sounds like that UN resolution on sanctions really did the trick, Bush, no? Put the fear of God in him. I think that, as with all dictators, his prime motivation is his own survival, and the survival of the regime he has instituted to protect him. He knows, surely, that the likelihood of anyone attacking him is at this point virtually non-existent: not only does he have at least a good head start on nuclear technology, he has his artillery trained dead-eye on South Korea and its capital, Seoul, where he could kill millions at the nod of his head.

Your Rice, meantime, on her grand Asian tour, is reduced to uttering brave words which the whole world knows to be meaningless. (Did anyone else notice the peculiar similarity of the neat gray suit she wore yesterday to Kim Jong Il's?) But to what a pathetic cirumstance are we now reduced, Bush, essentially powerless to deal with a paranoid maniac who may or may not be convinced that you are out to get him. Had you played to his clearly inflated egomania rather than against it, things might have been different now. Maybe not, but it would have been worth the try. We could have swallowed a big piece of our own--also inflated?--ego and allowed him to indulge his own. We might have come off, initially, looking "weak" in the face of a nasty, pipsqueak dictator. But look at us now: for all your show of superior strength and your moralistic refusal to talk to this admittedly ruthless tyrant, you end up snookered by his defiance. Your studied contempt and your bellicose words left a dangerous man in a place where he has literally nothing left to lose except his opportunity for self-glorification.

Ah well, it's another cock-up, Bush, as those Brits like to say. That public celebration was a message, you might say, from one Dear Leader to another. This grandiose act of defiance was reported on the BBC World News last night, but got little play on the networks. We're so busy at election time in this country gazing at our own navel. This time, though, rightly so. There's so much at stake, including the future of the planet.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Vote Democratic

Paul Krugman had it right in his NY Times column yesterday, Bush. It's a one-letter election. "D" or "R". All that hogwash about "voting for the man (or woman) not the party" no longer applies. As Krugman writes, "It’s hard to think of an election in which the personal qualities of the people running in a given district or state have mattered less." If we could rely on politicians to be honest, to be open for real discussion of the issues, and to vote their conscience, it might be different. It's not that way any more. It's all about party. Look at the much-admired Senator John McCain, who seemed, for a moment, a couple of weeks ago, to be standing on principle for our constitution and for our humanity as a country; but who capitulated disgracefully days later to your pursuit of limitless executive power.

It's all about party politics and you, Bush, and your Republicans have made it so. There's only one response to the knee-jerk party loyalty you have demanded, and that's knee-jerk party loyalty on the other side.

And Krugman's not the only one to be speaking this truth. Check out, for example, this rant on Daily Kos. The message is simple. It's time for Democrats to stop squabbling amongst themselves about pet issues, and to refuse to support a fellow Democrat because he or she happens to disagree with ME on some opinion I happen to hold dear. What matters now is to elect people who, together, can change the course of this country and restore it to its rightful place of respected leadership (and, when necessary, followership) in the world.

True, with possibly only a small majority in either house, the Democrats will find it hard to enact any radically new agenda--the kind of agenda, Bush, that I myself would like to see enacted: the kind of agenda where government restores its contract with the poor and the underprivileged, and accepts real responsibility for direly negelected issues like health care, social services, education, retirement... not to mention the decaying infrastructure of schools and hospitals, power grids and highways. There's no end of work to be done, and I don't expect the Democrats, if elected to a majority in either, or even both houses, to be able to address the bulk of it while you're sitting there in the White House.

But--again as Krugman points out, correctly in my view--"the really important reason may be summed up in two words: subpoena power. The current Congress," he writes

has shown no inclination to investigate the Bush administration. Last year The Boston Globe offered an illuminating comparison: when Bill Clinton was president, the House took 140 hours of sworn testimony into whether Mr. Clinton had used the White House Christmas list to identify possible Democratic donors. But in 2004 and 2005, a House committee took only 12 hours of testimony on the abuses at Abu Ghraib.

If the Democrats take control, that will change — and voters should think very hard about whether they want that change. Those who think it’s a good idea to investigate, say, allegations of cronyism and corruption in Iraq contracting should be aware that any vote cast for a Republican makes Congressional investigations less likely. Those who believe that the administration should be left alone to do its job should be aware that any vote for a Democrat makes investigations more likely.

I happen to be among those who believe that you should not be left alone, Bush. The American people need to be made aware, if they are not already, of the extent to which you and your people have misled and deceived, screwed up the nation's response to the attacks on 9/11 and alienated a once sympathetic world, enriched the wealthy and cheated the poor, and made of our political system a cycnical partisan sport. The answer, as a growing chorus of voices now suggests, is partisan politics. As I tell everyone who'll listen to me: vote. And vote Democtratic.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Faith-Based Kerfuffle

It took me a little while to warm to your (former!) friend David Kuo on 60 Minutes last night, Bush. Maybe there's some less noble stuff at work here: I invariably recoil inside when the author of a new book (in this case, Kuo's Tempting Faith) gets such generous air time to advertize his product, whilst little-old-me labors on in obscurity! I judged this guy to be not only goofy but inexcusably naive, and his ratting on former White House colleagues--even though it suits my own agenda on these issues--seemed self-serving. But I did warm to him in the course of the interview, and came to believe in the sincerity of his Christian convictions and his concern for the poor. At least the Christianity he was talking about was consistent with the Christianity with which I myself grew up.

Unlike Kuo, I never trusted you "faith-based initiative", Bush. I was dismayed by the intrusion of religion in our national policy, and I was frankly repulsed by the Bible-waving hypocrisy and the sanctimony of the louder variety of evangelical preachers. Kuo, clearly a devout evangelical himself, embraced your faith-based promise as a dream come true. In an article I dug up on a site called Beliefnet (a new one on me), he claims that he was "seduced" by your $6.8 billion promise to support faith-based organizations: "when [Bush] became the president," he writes,

there was every reason to believe he'd be not only pro-life and pro-family, as conservatives tended to be, but also pro-poor, which was daringly radical. After all, there were specific promises he intended to keep.

Sadly, four years later these promises remain unfulfilled in spirit and in fact. In June 2001, the promised tax incentives for charitable giving were stripped at the last minute from the $1.6 trillion tax cut legislation to make room for the estate-tax repeal that overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy. The Compassion Capital Fund has received a cumulative total of $100 million during the past four years. And new programs including those for children of prisoners, at-risk youth, and prisoners reentering society have received a little more than $500 million over four years--or approximately $6.3 billion less than the promised $6.8 billion."

Well, my initial impulse, frankly, is more fool him, for having believed you in the first place. His disillusionment was compounded, I gather from everything I have read and heard about the book (see also Keith Olberman's comments on Countdown) by the callous, contemptuous disregard for evangelical beliefs and evangelical leaders that he claims to be rife in your White House. While defending your good self ("I have deep respect, appreciation, and affection for the president," he writes. "No one who knows him even a tiny bit doubts the sincerity and compassion of his heart") he is harsh on those who failed your high ideals.

If he was naive about politicians, political promises, and political realities, he was still more naive, I think, about the leaders of the evangelical movement itself. A comment on Beliefnet by a writer who identifies him- or herself only as "jbhtx713" has it right:

Kuo doesn't connect the dots in his book on the reasons why Evangelicals are so easily duped. First, megachurches are big businesses led by tax-exempt millionaires. These businesses need culture wars with a clearly defined enemy to keep the pews and checking accounts full. Fallwell, Robertson, Hagee, Jim Baker, James Kennedy, Ralph Reed, etc. have all amassed personal fortunes in divisive and un-Jesus like behavior. Secondly, most "born-agains" are people of shallow faith who would rather be entertained than think. They flatter themselves into thinking they found Jesus instead of the truth- Jesus was always there and doesn't need their validation. It's the ultimate form of idolatry. Thirdly, anyone who thinks the Bible fell from heaven in English will believe any nonsense. It's a sign of our society's weakness that so many people need a church that reflects their prejudices, insecurities and limitations- and consider such small-mindedness compatible with the life and teachings of Jesus.

To which I can only say "Amen"--if you'll forgive the allusion, Bush. Kuo declares himself distressed to find that the Holy Trinity has added another personage: it's no longer only God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, he says. Now's its also God the Policitian. To which I'd add, I fear, a fifth: it's God the CEO.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Rep. Bob Ney; and the Hudood Laws

Alcoholism Claims Another Victim

So there you have it, Bush. After multiple denials of wrong-doing, your Republican Congressman Bob Ney pleads guilty in court yesterday. "In return for official acts," reports today's New York Times, "he had accepted tens of thousands of dollars' worth of gifts from Mr. (Jack) Abramoff, that included lavish trips, meals and tickets to concerts and sporting events." He's in line for a prison term, it seems, of more than two years.

"I accept responsibility for my actions," neighed Ney, in the now familiar recitation, "and am prepared to face the consequences of what I have done." But first, of course, it's off to the treatment center to take care of the demon alcohol. Ney has already been in treatment for the past month, since making a plea bargain agreement with prosecutors, and now his attorneys are requesting that he be sent to a jail with an alcoholism treatment program. 12 steps behind bars.

At least it's not Twinkies, Bush. But pretty soon we'll have half the US Congress filling those funny farms for wealthy miscreants. There will be no room left for the rest of us, driven to drink by the fear your people have instilled in us or the despair induced by the craven ineptitude of those same representatives!

Pakistan: The Hudood Laws

On another front, I can't let this Saturday pass without at least a mention of the continuing permissiveness of your good ally, Pervez Musharraf, when it comes to the frankly primitive, vengeful tribal practices against women in his country. The Hudood laws require four witnesses in complaints of rape, and allow for adultery charges against the victim should she fail to "prove" her case in the requisite manner. This obviously impossible standard empowers men with medieval seigneurial attitudes toward their women to exact revenge on each other by victimizing each others' wives and daughters.

The case of the unbelievably courageous Mukhtar Mai in 2002--turned into a cause celebre back then with the help of Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times--raised American consciousness about this outrage against human decency. Today, four years later, the story of the similar case of Ghazala Shaheen, 24 years old, reminds us of the horror to which a woman may be subjected with legal impunity in Pakistan.

I do realize, Bush, that you need the alliance with Pakistan and Musharraf in your war on terrorism--though I'm not sure how much good that's doing you anyway. But don't you think some minimal public expression of outrage on your part might be appropriate, when your "friends" behave in this way? And, by the way, those perpetrators don't even have the excuse of alcoholism... They're not allowed to drink.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Iraq: Cut & Run?

Well, harrrumph, Bush. Egads and pshaw. No less a personage than General Sir Richard Dannatt, the muckiest of all mucky-mucks in command of the British army in Iraq, has come out and stated the obvious: Britain, he said should “get ... out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems.” In an interview with the Daily Mail, the good General added: “I don’t say that the difficulties we are experiencing round the world are caused by our presence in Iraq but undoubtedly our presence in Iraq exacerbates them.”

Not sure, Bush, whether the General was making a planned assault on the policies of Britain and the United States, or whether it just slipped out from the depths of his military widsom and experience. “It was never my intention," he told the BBC later, "to have this hoo-ha, which people have thoroughly enjoyed overnight, trying to suggest there is a chasm between myself and the prime minister.” Okay, no chasm. This might have even have been Tony Blair's sneaky way of letting you know that he's had enough. No doubt the British people would be relieved to hear it.

To add insult to injury, this fine British General was by implication somewhat politely critical--in that nice British way--of the planning and conduct of the war. “I think history will show," he continued in his Daily Mail interview, "that the planning for what happened after the initial successful war fighting phase was poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning.”

Ouch! You'll be relieved to hear, however, Bush, that he stopped short of adding his voice to what you have been pleased to describe as the "cut-and-run" policy of those Democratic straw men. Well, nearly stopped short. Britain should “get ... out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems,” he suggested in his clarification with the BBC--but hastened to add that the last thing he was suggesting was an immediate withdrawal. Oh, no. "I’m a soldier," he protested. "We don’t do surrender. We don’t pull down white flags. We’re going to see this through. But we’ve got to get on with it. We can’t be there for years and years."

Hmmm. I wonder, Bush, if Sir Richard, God bless him, had a slip of the tongue in that last comment? "We don't pull down white flags"? I suspect that what he meant was rather, "We don't hoist white flags." But be that as it may, his heart was in the right place: Let's get out of here. We're only succeeding in making a bad situation worse.

I've been hearing a lot of mumbling recently from people in high places, people who are normally your allies--people like your James Baker, Bush, your personal kingmaker--about the now obviously bankruptcy of your "stay the course" policy in Iraq. I heard Baker making sounds like his advisory committee might recommend something other than blindly pursuing a policy which to everyone but yourself has patently failed in the most miserable and calamitous ways. I heard even you, Bush, speculating out loud, albeit in a clumsy kind of a way, about the meaning of "stay the course." If the course is wrong, you told the media just the other day in that belittling manner of yours, you change it. As though that were obvious. And added immediately that it wasn't--not to you--since you reiterated your absurd "cut-and-run" argument against your critics.

Well, good for Sir Richard at least, who blurted out some truths that needed to be said in a public forum, and to come from the mouth of such an impeccable source. With all his later clarifications and attempted take-backs, his message was indisputably clear. The chorus gets louder, Bush. It's not just Jack Murtha any more.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Tough Stuff

Okay, Bush, today
Tough stuff, sort of, a poem,
To wit, this: an old friend
Sends me, via email,
This damn long
Rope of a poem, knotty,
Twisting down the page, (pages,)
So here I am
Climbing down it,
Hand over hand, that
It’s like, Bush,
“hard work” as you like to say.
No, really, at times
The ride is easy, gliding
Comfy, a few lines, then
Glottalstop. A clump
Of undigested language, a real,
Hard, headlock, impenetrable image,
(What does THIS MEAN? Jesus...)
And you’re stuck there
Clinging to the knot.

Anyways, it IS something to
Grab onto, shit,
Pardon my French, Bush,
Something to chew on
Play with, pull
Apart. Some of them, though,
Come just that easy, malleable, finger-
Soft to the touch. Sexy.
The ones that resist,
The ones that say no,
It’s okay, no sweat, leave
Them be, leave them
Hard and knotty, as they are. Come
Back to them. Maybe.

Here’s what I get: it’s all
Male and female,
Sweaty, tough, “penetrating,”
Like that, it’s
What the eye feels, what the heart
Sees, what the hand
Can fondle or stub
Up against; what my friend
Calls “the braid”, I think, of all things,
All together, the “everything” of it
So tight, you can never
Separate the strands, not really,
Not really, not all of them, not
“Understand” it, see? Which makes it
real, as I see it. Real,
Bush, see? Look
At your hands. You been
Jerking off again, son? You been
Working that chain saw?

Real. Love a man
For that tough stuff, though.
Sort of.
That’s the core.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Body Count

I read about the latest report on the death toll of Iraqi civilians, Bush--the one to be published in current edition of The Lancet. It claims 655,000 dead since the beginning of your invasion. Even the Iraqi government, last I heard, was conceding 100,000 deaths. Your latest estimate: 30,000. My conclusion is that someone is likely grossly overestimating or someone grossly underestimating. I ask myself who might have the stronger motivation to exaggerate, one way or the other. Hmmm...

Listen, Bush, I'm certainly willing to concede that the estimate in the newest Johns Hopkins study--that is, the highest of the three--might err on the heavy side. But I do see a strong motivation on the part of the Iraqi government and your good self to keep those numbers low. So let's be wildly charitable, and agree for the sake of argument that the Johns Hopkins folks have vastly overestimated--say twofold. That still leaves 327,500 dead, by my calculation, nearly 300,000 more than you allow.

I heard a good part of your press conference today. (Nice job, by the way, belittling those pesky reporters once again: I especially liked the job you did on the black guy with the nice pin-striped suit. And I won't even mention the "r" word.) I heard you dismiss the Johns Hokins figures out of hand: "I don't consider it a credible report," you said, in your usual argumentative tones. "Neither does General Casey,"--referring to Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. general in Iraq--"neither do Iraqi officials."

Well, surprise. I happen to remember those numbers coming out of Vietnam. Perhaps you were too busy doing other things. But along with many others I do happen to remember the lies we were told repeatedly at that time--figures that estimated just the numbers of our own dead. I also happen to remember the lies your adminsitration told us in the lead-up to this war, and the lies it has told us ever since about the prosecution of the war. Can you be surprised, Bush, that I'm more likely to believe the Johns Hopkins report than what you, or your generals, or the Iraqi government have to say?

Sorry, Bush. No cigar this morning.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A Nuke for Kim Jong Il

"I'm very much proud," chortled the North Korean ambassador to the UN, cornered by the media on the streets of New York City. He was very much proud, it seemed, of the great achievement of his country's scientists, proud of his Dear Leader's demonstration that he could spit in the eye of the rest of the world with impunity.

As if further proof were needed of the disastrous failure of your global strategy of intimidation by American hegemony, Bush, it comes in the form of Kim Jong Il's underground explosion of a nuclear device in defiance of the world community. I recall you strutting to the podium--was it four years ago, or five?--and blustering on about your war against what you memorably termed the "axis of evil." I suppose now you'll use this latest outrage as evidence of how right you were. North Korea, Iran, Iraq, all tinderboxes, ready to explode.

I see it in a different light. It's not that this is a recent problem with North Korea. Your predecessor was obliged to address it in his own way and chose the path of negotiation and restraint, Who knows whether that path would have led to good results, had you chosen to follow it when you bullied your way into the White House. It's possible that, too, would have led to similiar frustration. But you never gave it a try. You had to be the anti-Clinton. Having hounded him throughout his administration, your people--like some new imperial dynasty--found it necessary to set about destroying everything the previous president had created, including the groundwork he had laid, with Madeleine Albright, for a detente with North Korea.

What a blunder! What an egregious misunderstanding of the simplest principles of human psychology! To threaten a man as insecure, as paranoid, as aggressive as Kim Jong Il is surely to invite the kind of reaction that you got. To isolate him, to refuse to speak to him directly--this bespeaks the behavior of the schoolyard rather than any grand strategy of international diplomacy. It may well be that, watching your shock and awe treatment of Saddam, Bush, he concluded that he could well be in for the same. It may well be that he concluded that the nuclear option was his best, perhaps his only form of protection. In this light, his choice of the nuclear path might even seem a rational one.

But even if we're dealing with a madman, Bush, whose choices fail the test of rationality, your way of dealing with him was flawed from the start. You provoked him, playing to his vanity and enabling his madness. You conspired to grant him greater power than he could ever have achieved by his own efforts. Because in humbling the great United States of America, in proving us to be weak and empty threateners who can do nothing to stand in his way, he has acquired a firm grip on your balls, Bush, and on America's, and is taking evident delight in the ability to squeeze them before the watching world.

I hold no brief for this insane dictator, who has abused his power only to bring misery to those unfortunate enough to live under his sway. His is a brute, a thug, a megalomaniac... whatever you want to call him, Bush, I'll readily agree. How sad, then, that we are now so limited in our options to address the very real threat he poses to the world at large. And what a terrible irony, that our country should bear so large a part of the responsibility.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Nightmare

I wake from this nightmare, Bush. It's a dark and stormy night... no, seriously, it's a dark and stormy night and there's this massive supertanker, its hold filled with a zillion billion barrels of crude. Oil, that is. Texas tea. Black gold... No, sorry, wrong story. Anyway, imagine this: black clouds, shrieking winds, towering waves, a rocky coastline up ahead. The captain's drunk. Okay, not drunk. He gave that up. He's blind. He's worse than blind because he thinks he is blessed with twenty-twenty vision. He has this big, stupid smile on his face as he stands at the helm of his ship, so proud to be its captain.

Well, the passengers... so, right, this isn't a supertanker after all, it turns out it's a kind of super cruise ship, with three hundred million people on board, and a bunch of the passengers look ahead and see the rocks and they all start yelling, "Change course! Change course! We're headed for the rocks!" But the captain, they discover, is not only blind, he's also deaf, and he doesn't hear their cries. "Trust me," he says. He has this vision of a rosy future. "Change course! Change course!" the people yell, more and more terrified as they approach the rocks. But the officers and crew all say, "No, no! We love our trusted leader, he can do no wrong! He's the great protector. He's the decider. He speaks to God. And better yet, God speaks to him!"

Meanwhile, the hundred foot rogue waves come speeding in from the open ocean at three hundred miles per hour and that dreadful grinding sound you hear comes from the metal of the hull as it begins to scrape the ragged rocks beneath... The whole ship shudders horribly...

And I wake up from this nightmare, Bush, and I hear the news about North Korea's nuclear test, and I realize that it wasn't a nightmare after all. It's just what's happening.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Dreaded 'llergy

We had a name for this kind of cold, kind of flu thing when I was growing up in England, Bush. We called it the "dreaded 'llergy." Hard "g". I'm pretty sure the expression came from The Goon Show, which will probably mean nothing to you or to any of our readers. Too young. Besides, I'm not sure that The Goon Show ever crossed the Atlantic. It was a weekly radio event--religiously followed by the faithful--in the madcap British comedy mode that was later introduced over here in the guise of The Monty Python Flying Circus. Featuring Harry Seacombe, Spike Milligan, and the later much better known Peter Sellers, it was a half hour of sheer outrageous laughter--most of which would be unacceptable today because it mercilessly satirized racial types even as it skewered the Brits themselves. One memorable recurring character, as I recall, was General Cash-My-Check; another, a voluble Indian whose name escapes me but whose lilting voice was unforgettably mimicked by Peter Sellers.

All of which is a lead in to the confession that I'm afflicted horribly with the dreaded 'llergy still today, and am deprived not only of energy but also of anything resembling an intelligent thought. And that's a good moment to shut up, I've always thought. It doesn't seem to bother you so very much, Bush. But for me... well, let's call it quits for this Saturday morning.

Friday, October 06, 2006

"More Important Things"

I spent the entire day yesterday in bed, Bush. I haven't done that for years. If I didn't feel so guilty about it, I'd spend today in bed, too. But here I am. I dragged myself out from under the covers, took a shower and shave, and staggered to the computer so that you should not go another whole day without hearing from me.

A day in bed allows all kinds of things that wouldn't otherwise be possible. For instance, I watched the entirety of your Hastert's dismissively perfunctory "new conference", widely touted among your Republican allies as a courageous act of accountability. I have to say, Bush, I didn't see it that way. "I'm deeply sorry" doesn't cut it with me without some restorative action to recover his integrity. Instead of which, this leader of the House majority made a hasty, self-serving statement, hurried through a couple of questions, and waddled off away from the cameras. It sounded much more like a cop-out than an acceptance of responsibility.

What I'm hearing more and more--I heard it several times yesterday, including from your personal spokesman, Tony Snow--is that it's time to move on to "more important things." As if anything, Bush, were more important than our ability, in what you boast to be our "democracy," to trust our representatives. That's basic. That's the sine qua non. The without which, not.

Which brings me to Keith Olberman's magnificant diatribe on last night's Countdown. I doubt very much you heard it, Bush. I imagine they keep you cocooned from critical analyses of this kind. But this one was, precisely, about trust. It was about your habitual, long-standing, unrepentent abuse of our trust. It was about the lies you tell--about your war, about Democratic critics of your policies (inventing words they never said to tar their reputation,) about the state of the nation and the state of the world. Olberman confronted you mercilessly with a long list the demonstrable lies not only you, but also leading members of your administration have habitually told--you Rice, your Rumsfeld and, perhaps worst of all, your Cheney.

Since you and your people have been trying to shift responsibility lately, pointing accusing fingers at Bill Clinton, I'm sure you'll be ready with the quick response that Clinton lied. Granted. But Clinton's lie--by no means noble--was a vain and clumsy effort to protect himself and his family from embarrassment. It did not lead to countless deaths in the Middle East. It was not a planned and conscious effort for partisan superiority. It was not an effort to impugn the good will, good sense, and patriotism of those who questioned his policies.

Bottom line: I do not trust you, Bush, after so many lies. I believe that a vast number of Americans do not trust you. I believe that even many of those who once trusted you are at last questioning their judgment. I hope that there are enough of us at this point to want to see your lies exposed, and change the disastrous course you have set this country on.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

A Sick Day

Sorry, Bush, I've come down with a nasty cold. I'm giving myself a day off--without pay. Manana...

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Nickel Mines

The Religious Response

From the television news this morning, Bush, two glimpses of different religious responses to the murder of those children in the Amish community. They are revealing.

One, a ten-second shot of a church meeting of evangelical Christians, an overflow congregation, a public display of ostentatious mourning, congregants leaping from their pews with cries of "This too shall pass!" and "Praise Jesus!" None of them, at a guess, even vaguely related to the victims, but joining in the collective grief with barely disguished enthusiasm. (Okay, there's judgment in those words, and more to come.)

The other, the brief excerpt from an interview with a member of the killer's family. He reports with astonishment that representatives of the Amish community sought out the family of their childrens' murderer in order to offer their forgiveness and sympathy.

Okay, my judgment: the former was a loud, sanctimonious, self-serving exploitation of the tragedy of others, a pretentious expression of moral--no, moralistic--piety in the service of their own "family values" agenda. (I don't suppose those same people will be out there lobbying for stricter guns laws for the "protection" of our families.) The latter, in my view, offered a rare manifestation of the true spirit of Christianity. I don't suppose the Amish would be out on their streets, had the killer survived, loudly demanding his execution.

I recognize these to be my very own judgments, Bush, and that I risk being accused of that same moral rectitude I attribute to others. But I'd be interested to hear what your judgments might be.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

(Please Note...

... this petition for information on the 9/11 attacks

I believe the questions on this "Scholars' Call For Information on 9/11" are legitimate and pressing. They need to be asked and deserve answers from our government. I have signed it, and I invite readers to check it out and consider appending their own signatures. My thanks to the thoughtful reader who brought it to my attention.)

School Shootings

Impossible to comprehend the enormity of acts like the one yesterday in that little schoolroom in the peaceful Amish countryside of Pennsylvania, Bush. Five little girls killed! The human mind reaches for explanations and solutions where there are none. Some will want to explain it as an act of pure evil. I don't see it that way. I see it as the unpredictable--and therefore unavoidable--result of some awful kink in a human mind, a piece of wiring gone horribly wrong. Even the search for psychological or emotional explanations will prove eventually futile. A twenty-year old grudge? A childhood wound? We all have them, don't we? But not all of us wake up one day with the notion to go out and kill children. We may not want to think so, but acts such as these, I believe, are essentially inexplicable--at least given our present state of understanding of our complex, unpredictable selves.

There will be no shortage of solutions proffered by those who think they can protect us. We will agonize over whether our children are safe in their schools. Some will blame the availablity of guns and urge stricter laws. As you'll probably guess, Bush, I myself favor a more rational approach to gun laws than those which permit the wide availability of lethal weapons to those who use them for criminal or hate-filled purposes. I believe we have far too many of them in the hands of those who lack the responsibility to use them wisely. But I suspect that stricter gun laws would not have prevented this tragedy from happening.

Some will blame the lack of protection for our children and call for metal detectors at every door to every school, for the ubiquitous presence of armed guards and security personnel... Their goal is total immunity from risk and danger, the cocooning of our children--indeed, of our society--until we are all so protected from others and ourselves that we will have sacrificed every freedom that we have. They, too, are wrong. Obsessed as we are by the dangers that threaten us at every turn, we will never achieve the guaranteed safety that we seem, as a society, to demand. Something, inevitably, will go wrong. A fuse will blow, either on the circuit that controls the electrical security fence or in some fragile human mind, and tragedy will ensue.

We are right to be astounded and appalled by such incomprehensible events, whether man-made or natural. Where we err, I think, is in the arrogant belief that we have the power to completely control them or prevent them. In the memorable words of one who should have done much more, and was empowered to do much more to prevent tragedy, "Stuff happens." He was right in his assertion. He was wrong to use it as an excuse for a lack of foresight and an abdication of responsibility. Somewhere there is a middle path between irresponsibility and acceptance.

In cirumstances of this kind, however, we can do little other than mourn the cruel and senseless loss of life. It is, in a word, a tragedy. And tragedy, by definition, transcends the comfortable world of rational explanations.

Monday, October 02, 2006

State of Denial

There was something disturbing about the "60 Minutes" interview with Bob Woodward last night, Bush. Something that left me less than satisfied about Woodward himself, I think. Something, perhaps, about his own state of denial. Because the big unanswered question that I would have asked was this: what happened between the last book, "Bush at War," and this one? I frankly did not read the previous opus--the one where you, Bush, were presented as the resolute leader, clear about your objectives, in charge of your White House and your team of warriors. That, at least, was the impression I got from reading and hearing about the book.

So why the turnaround? Is it that you, Bush, have changed in the intervening months? Or rather that Woodward's perception of you has changed? More likely the latter, in my judgment. What was it about this intrepid investigative reporter that failed to see through the facade to the denial the last time around? When did the scales begin to drop from his eyes? How come it wasn't as obvious to Woodward as it was to the rest of the world? How did it happen that he was so easily duped and frankly used by your administration as a tool in the propaganda efforts to promote your war? (Along with others, to be sure. I think of Judith Miller of the New York Times.) I did hear that Woodward spent hours of "face time" with you for the last book, and none this time. Is your august presence so seductive that otherwise critical minds turn to adulating mush?

Or are there other, perhaps more obscure, even secret things at work here? Payoffs? Palace intrigues? Personal vendettas? Bizarre psychological quirks? I dare not even contemplate. As I say, Bush, I was left disturbed, and to be truthful less than fully convinced by his performance. Nonetheless, I have to add that I'm grateful that he wrote this latest book. "Denial" does seem an apt word for my own perception of the state of things in your White House.

One further word: it seems that a subplot of the Woodward narrative concerns the Saudi prince Bandar--your tutor on foreign policy matters before your intitial run for the presidency. Most disturbing to me, in reading the review by Tim Rutten in today's Los Angeles Times, was the revelation, in Rutten's recapitulation, that you had "personally thanked Bandar because the Saudis had flooded the world oil market and kept oil prices down in the run-up to the 2004 general election."

It has been my sneaky feeling that the recent drop in gasoline prices at the pump has been craftily arranged by your good self and your friends in the corporate world in order to quell public anger on this subject before this November's election. I had begun to doubt my own judgment on hearing "experts" stoutly proclaim that there is no way that world oil markets can be manipulated for political ends. Now I will need to rethink my position, Bush. I smell a rat.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Impeachment: a Change of Heart

Good Sunday, Bush. I thought I should forward you a copy of the letter I have just written to one of my senators, Barbara Boxer, on the subject of the impeachment of the President. I have for some time resisted the calls of many people that I know and respect, but your recent actions and statements have convinced me to change my mind. Your transgressions of the US Constitution should finally be aired in the public forum, and you should be held accountable for them. Here is what I wrote this morning:

October 1, 2006

Senator Barbara Boxer
United States Senate
Washington, DC

Dear Senator Boxer,

I am writing as a California constituent and voter to let you know of an important change of mind on my part, in the hope that I may be able to do something to change yours. (This is NOT one of those millions of chain letters you must receive every day, but a genuine, unique, from-the-heart expression of my own thoughtfully-reached conclusion.)

At a conference where you spoke in Las Vegas a few months ago (eloquently, by the way!) I heard you respond to a question about impeachment, and I was persuaded by your argument. You said that you did not support efforts to impeach President George W. Bush because the process would take longer than his remaining time in office and would disrupt the passage of more pressing items on the national agenda.

At the time, I agreed with you, but as I say I have now changed my mind. There have simply been too many betrayals of the US Constitution and the trust of the American people for this President to be allowed to get away with it: his now widely acknowledged lies that led us into a war with Iraq that has resulted in too many American and Iraqi deaths, his institution of illegal detention and torture programs, his warrantless and unconstitutional wire-tapping of American citizens, his arrogant seizure of power in flagrant defiance of constitutional law and precedent, his abuse of the privilege of signing statements to avoid the necessity of himself obeying the laws that Congress sends to him as a reflection of their will, the secrecy of his administration and its flouting of the principles of democracy--all these suggest a President who assumes that laws do not apply to him and that he is empowered to break them at his whim.

I am no lawyer, and no expert in my knowledge of constitutional law. From what I have read, however--and I do read widely on these matters--I have no doubt that this President has committed far more seriously impeachable offenses than the peccadillo for which his predecessor was impugned, at vast cost to the country and its political agenda. It should not be out of petty political revenge, however, that the President should be impeached. Rather, it is because the American people must be made conscious of the extent of the betrayal of their trust and because we must, finally, be accountable for the principles for which we claim to stand in front of a watchig world.

When I heard you speak a short while ago in Las Vegas, I was still open to your persuasive arguments against impeachment. No longer. I believe that we have passed the tipping point. We have allowed too many outrages. We have been willing to be patient and trust the electorate to eventually rectify the wrongs. I now believe that this man, who refuses to hold himself accountable for any of his actions, must be held accountable by others--notably by us, the American people. Failing all else, impeachment is the only path to achieve this end.

I have long supported you with my vote and have admired your good work in the US Senate. And now I trust that you, Senator Boxer, unlike the current incumbent of the White House, are open to a change of heart and mind as well as a change of course. It is high time.


That's all for this Sunday, Bush.