Friday, September 28, 2007

Page Sicks

LEGGO MY EGO?
We hear that Andrew Sullivan's and Eric Alterman's egos are a regular item. Sez a close friend of Alterman's, "Eric's always admired Andrew's pomposity, and Andrew finds Eric's haughtiness stimulating. It transcends their political differences, which actually was a lot of online flirting and foreplay." The two egos will soon vacation together in the Virgin Islands.

HE BELIEVES IN YESTERDAY
Liberal wonk Josh Marshall apparently gets his political insights from the numerous stacks of yellowing newspapers and magazines in his office. "Josh will physically dive into a random stack," sez an assistant, "then, whatever article falls open, he rewrites and updates." Sometimes, however, Marshall loses focus. "He once stated that Wilbur Mills was in favor of the Military Commissions Act, even though Mills died in 1992. There was no more stack diving that day!"

TWO ANTENNAES UP
Charles Johnson, proprietor of Little Green Footballs, will now encourage and allow insects to comment on his site. "It's a natural alliance," sez Chaz. "Insects are cold, calculating creatures who do not hesitate to kill. Let's crawl!"

NOW THEY TELL US!
Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald is apparently an automaton, according to a source at the liberal site. "He's programmed to write incredibly long posts that repeat themselves every few sentences," sez the source. "He was an experiment that caught on with liberals before we could fine tune him."

CORNER HI JINKS
National Review Corner reg Jonah Goldberg passes time between posts shooting interns with a pellet gun. "It's really distracting," sez one NRO staffer. "You'll suddenly feel this sharp sting in your back, followed by Jonah yelling 'Another martyr for Allah!' Then he laughs to himself for like twenty minutes." Goldberg isn't the only Corner joker. Kathryn Jean Lopez will don a burka and run through the offices, asking male staffers to behead her for eating pork. "It was kinda funny the first time," adds the staffer, "but now it's just irritating."

SIGHTINGS
Conservative law professor-blogger Ann Althouse traipsing down lower Broadway in a long purple feather boa, asking tourists to snap her picture . . . Retired liberal blogger Billmon at an internet cafe, staring off into space . . . West coast liberal blogger Digby berating a Best Buy worker for showing Fox News on the plasma screens . . . Slate's Christopher Hitchens, wearing a soiled lobster bib, arguing about the Iraq war with a homeless woman. . .

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Falling Skies




A reader wants to know why I'm not making the same anguished noises about a possible, now all-too-probable, U.S. attack on Iran as are Arthur Silber, Chris Floyd, and Jon Schwarz. Who cares about my comedy past? We need every intelligent, passionate voice available to wake people up to the approaching carnage.

Of course, I oppose any attack on Iran, as I think I've made clear numerous times, for plainly stated reasons. There's no secret to what I think on that front. And while I'm alternately depressed and angry about what might happen, I really don't see the point of me adding my screams to the chorus. If you're reading me, then chances are very good that you're also reading Arthur, Chris, and Jon, and since they're all over the Iran issue, my tortured thoughts won't bring much more to the table. Indeed, I'm learning a lot from their posts; so in a sense, I'm just another reader like you. Besides, I doubt I could sustain the relentless, bleak rhythms established by that trio (though Jon does season his posts with humor). I claw enough walls as it is; and if/when the bombing of Iran begins, I predict that my intense pain will be heard by everyone in or near my orbit.

What Arthur, Chris, and Jon are doing is important and commendable. We should make our opposition to an expansion of murder and madness repeatedly known to those in power. But as Maureen Stapleton's Emma Goldman directly put it in "Reds," the rulers of this country can drag us into war any damn time they feel like it, and there's little if nothing we can do to stop them. That's not an endorsement of apathy and despair. That's simply the raw, inescapable fact. And remember -- Maureen Stapleton won an Oscar for her performance. It's not as if they give those statues to just anyone.

Caring Till It Hurts



"Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma." George W. Bush

"Hey Tom."

"Hi Sarah. How's the kids?"

"Outraged, of course."

"Yeah. Who wouldn't be?"

"I hate to see their faith in representative democracy soured at such an early age."

"Yes, it's sad all right. Who knew that the Burmese junta would hang on to its corrupt power as ruthlessly as it has?"

"The situation's made Jenny cry for three nights now. Her Buddha's gathering dust. I don't know what to tell her."

"I know. Susan and I just stare at each other over dinner. We're simply lost for words."

"Tyler re-named Jasper, 'Aung San Suu Kyi.'"

"That's a cute name for a lizard."

"Yeah. If it wasn't for the kids, I'd probably set myself on fire."

"Now, Sarah. Don't despair. Yes, the situation in Myanmar is grim, but you cannot let your outrage cloud your responsibilities here."

"You're right, Tom. Sorry if I seemed too dramatic."

"Well, it comes from a good place, just like the president said."

"Thanks. So, fancy a fuck?"

"Kyle's out of town?"

"Till Saturday."

"Sounds great. And who knows -- maybe when we're done, Gen. Than Shwe will be running for the hills."

"We can only pray."

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Complete With Tasty Tidbits

The deadline for my next book, "Savage Mules: The Democrats and Endless War," is a tight one, so I don't know how much this will affect posting. I'm planning on keeping a regular blog schedule, but as the deadline approaches, that may change. To be seen. In the meantime, I have a general request: anyone who has links or clips dealing with the Dems and the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the coming one on Iran -- or material about the Dems and any American war -- and thinks this might help my narrative, please send to me ASAP. If I decide to use what you've submitted, I'll put you in the book's acknowledgments.

Such a deal, eh?

This would include various liblogger takes, of course. Mustn't overlook their contributions.

Laughter Explodes

This looks interesting. Some of the bits seem over-the-top, but then, it's only a trailer, and the film doesn't come out until '08. There's still room for a war-related TV comedy, most appropriately at HBO, now that the surf god from Ohio show sank. A project to consider . . .

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Booga! Booga!



Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to New York has shown just how fucking batshit insane U.S. political culture currently is. The hysteria preceding his arrival was amplified to a fever pitch by the time Ahmadinejad appeared at Columbia University. Lee Bollinger, Columbia's president, foamed at the mouth when engaging Ahmadinejad, anxious to prove to all watching that he just hates -- no, really hates -- everything that Iran's president stands for:

"Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator. If it were up to me, I'd chain your arms to the back of my car and drag you through the worst streets of Morningside Heights, then I'd beat you senseless with an aluminum bat, then I'd strip off your pants and fuck you in the ass in the middle of the street, come on your face, beat you some more with the aluminum bat, cram a dreidel down your throat, then dump your wretched body in the Hudson River.

"But, unlike you, I'm a civilized man who lives in a civilized country. So bite me."

Or words to that effect.

Judging from the wailing lunacy, you'd think that the U.S. is currently at war with Iran, which a large number of American politicos and talking heads seem to sincerely believe, or at least wish were so. And who knows, we may very well cluster bomb Iran sooner than we think. Anything's possible in this degraded age. Still, whatever one thinks of Ahmadinejad, whether or not he wants Israel wiped from the map, or believes that the Holocaust is either fiction or wildly exaggerated, or that he either hates queers or thinks they don't exist, or believes in the existence of leprechauns and wood sprites, the man is severely limited in geopolitical terms, and in Iran itself. Not that it seriously matters: Ahmadinejad serves a sick need in American political circles; and if he didn't exist, another Iranian figure would be tarted up for bipartisan hatred.

Ahmadinejad himself isn't the issue -- it's the region in which he lives that truly counts, a region rich in energy reserves, a region that is seen as geopolitically vital to Western imperial interests, especially now that China is steadily building influence there. Ahmadinejad certainly helps his critics rhetorically, but again, what he says isn't important. He's merely an archetype that American politicians and their media megaphones can pelt with self-serving garbage. From Romney, to Hillary, to Rudy, to Pious Joe Lieberman, no one can overstate their case. The wilder, the better. In fact, I'd wager that Ahmadinejad is playing these and like-minded Americans for howling chumps. His ever-present grin is a giveaway.

If you at all doubt that imperialism warps the brain, just listen to the charges that Ahmadinejad, who has no power over the Iranian military, is gleefully killing U.S. troops in Iraq. The nerve of that bloodthirsty tyrant! Sending munitions into a bordering country that's under foreign occupation and is being bombed by Western planes. Who the fuck does he think he is? Iraq belongs to the U.S.! Only we have the right to be there, given our long-standing cultural ties with the Shi'a majority and our national adherence to Muslim law. If anybody's out of place in Iraq, it's the imperialist Iranians!

I'd mention how amusing it is to hear leading Americans air their humane concern for U.S. deaths in Iraq, if it wasn't so sickening and hypocritical. But then again, watching the U.S. political establishment lose what's left of their minds over the past two days, sickening and hypocritical are soft descriptions. We are truly run by powerful maniacs. God bless us all.

The Ahmadinejad circus at Columbia reminded me of when Daniel Ortega spoke there in the 1980s. This was back when the mighty Nicaraguan state was threatening not only all of Central America, but the peace-loving United States, so his visit to New York was rightly compared to Hitler or Tojo trying the same con job. I was on the Columbia campus the night of Ortega's appearance, but couldn't get into the hall, as it was standing room only. But there was an entertaining show outside the hall, where pro-Sandinista students and activists were exchanging insults with rightwing students, at times actually trying to engage the rightists in political discourse. A complete waste of oxygen. The highlight came when several members of Columbia's football team chanted the Pledge of Allegiance several times. Once they were finished, a few young women yelled at them, "Win a game! Then we'll talk!" This was when Columbia had the longest losing streak in all of college football, and the taunt clearly stung the jocks as they suddenly dropped the patriotic posturing and explained how their coaching staff was killing them with bad play-calling. The young women laughed and laughed, and the football boys stomped off into the night, muttering about how unfair it all was.

I don't know if a similar scene took place where Ahmadinejad spoke, but I'm sure that a strange, theatrical mood prevailed, as it usually does in crazed environments like that. For me, the true highlight of this spectacle was seen today on the My Yahoo page, where under the AP headlines read: "Ahmadinejad questions 9/11, Holocaust." I'm happy to see that an intrepid AP headline writer placed those human tragedies in the correct order. American pain is the only pain that matters, and 3,000 killed always trumps six million starved and slaughtered, so long as Old Glory flaps above it. Screw that one on for size, Ahmadinejad!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Cheese Head




Many people assume that I love harsh, hard comedy. Throat-slitting stuff. Gags that choke you into submission. And I do, when appropriate. But I also have a Laurel and Hardy side, a gentle spot of human feeling and folly, where slapstick isn't used to punish but simply reminds us of our frailty, our clumsiness, our confusion. You don't see that kind of comedy very often today (Judd Apatow's recent work is a minor exception), for a number of reasons, but in the end, reason doesn't matter. Jump in, stab and mock your prey, then leap out of frame and collect your check. Heartless laughter sells, and frailty's for schmucks.

Still, every once in a while, a certain effort will surface to remind you that you're not alone, that tenderness and absurdity aren't dead, that the ceaseless 24/7 media onslaught is largely full of rancid shit. Jeff Garlin's new film, "I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With," is such an effort. It is funny without being cruel, a genuinely humane treatment that avoids corniness and cliché. I had no idea this small film existed until my friend Louis Proyect wrote about it. Lou thought I would share his enthusiasm for the film, and kindly mailed me his screener DVD, which I viewed a few nights ago. Lou was right: I loved it.

Garlin, as most of you know, plays Larry David's manager on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." And while there are a few Davidish touches in "Cheese," this is solely Garlin's baby, which he wrote and directed. Garlin's character, James Aaron, is a self-loathing actor in Chicago, who works nights at Second City, and spends his days rejecting the commercial crap his agent recommends. He lives with his mother, struggles with his weight, desires love but will settle for sex, and seems personally adrift at the middle of his life. This character could easily slide into a maudlin portrayal, but Garlin plays him believably, his quick wit and self-deprecating jibes helping to keep James' head just above water.

The centerpiece to "Cheese," if there really is one, given the film's ephemeral feel, is James' brief relationship with an ice cream store worker named Beth, played by Sarah Silverman. I won't give away how this relationship ends, but it shouldn't surprise you that Silverman's character is narcissistic, snarky and cruel, and that Silverman pulls this off with ease. The good thing is that her behavior is not celebrated or made to seem hip, but it did make me wonder if Silverman is as randomly and selfishly mean as her comedy suggests she is. Silverman has made me laugh in various projects and stand-up bits, yet her humor is oftentimes so pointlessly vicious, and she appears to take great delight in this, that it's hard to believe that her attitude is merely an act. Whatever the reality, Silverman does malicious well, too well for my taste, and this gives Garlin's character the wake-up call he desperately needs.

This film also made me feel wistful (which isn't hard to do these days) about a path not taken, or to be more exact, not aggressively tried. Garlin, being a Second City vet, not only has his character in the main stage company of that improv institution, but his film is populated by other Second City alums, from various eras. Mina Kolb, Tim Kazurinsky, Dan Castellaneta, Bonnie Hunt, Richard Kind, Amy Sedaris, and David Pasquesi all make appearances, and Garlin himself is shown working that famous stage.

I, too, have performed on that same stage -- twice.

The first time I was 18 and had no fucking clue what I was doing. I lived in Indianapolis, knew about Second City from watching the early version of "SCTV," and thought I'd be perfect for that company. Problem was, I had zero improv experience, and had just begun performing stand-up at a local hippie tea house, to the supreme indifference of most of the customers. Still, I phoned Second City and asked if they were holding auditions. They were, and the woman I spoke to added my name to the list and told me to be in Chicago the next day. I drove up to the city in my battered Buick, parked near Old Town, and walked into 1616 North Wells, nervous but confident.

Ah, the ignorance of youth.

Once inside, I saw all the photos of previous casts and revues. It was a little intimidating, but in my head, I thought the whole thing would be a cakewalk. When my name was called, I went up on the main stage, and the reality of the moment slammed me hard. What the hell was I doing up there? I was standing where so many comedy and acting legends cut their teeth, and the enormity of this sucked the saliva out of my mouth. I was paired with a twentysomething woman who played a security guard that my different characters had to get past. But I didn't have any characters, and clearly, I was in way over my head. The director clapped from the darkness and told us to get on with it. I think I pulled maybe three stereotypes out of my ass, from sheer panic if nothing else, one of which was a stoned hippie that Dan Aykroyd played on "SNL." It was a dreadful audition, and as I slunk off the stage, a man called for me to sit with him. It was Del Close, the improv mastermind who taught generations of Second City players their craft.

"Gotta tell ya, kid, that was pretty bad."

"I know. I'm sorry."

"How old are you?"

"Eighteen."

"Yeah. And I bet you've never done this before, right?'

"No, I haven't."

Close then went on a very supportive, very jazzy riff about learning the basics of improvisation. He told me that if I could get up on that famous stage with nothing and still make a go of it, then I had the courage necessary to perform, which was most of the battle. All I needed was experience, both comedically and in life.

"Study even the smallest social actions," he told me. Everything I needed to evolve was around me.

Thinking this meant that I would be accepted to study at Second City, I spoke enthusiastically about working there. But Close shook his head. "You're not ready. Not for a few years, anyway."

And with that I shook Close's hand, and headed back to Indy.

My second time on that stage came when I was 26. By then, I had plenty of comedy experience, both in New York and LA, the latter city I had just fled. I stayed in Indy with friends until I could work out a roommate situation in New York, and while there I again phoned Second City to see if they were auditioning. Remarkably enough, they were. This time I took a train to Chicago, brimming with fresh confidence. Unlike the last time, I had worked in various improv groups and jams, and knew several Second City trained actors. I was older, had a wider set of references, and was comfortable on stage. When I was called up to audition, I thought, this is it. Del Close wasn't present, but I recalled his pep talk, and this lent me added energy as I went into the scene where I was to play several would-be patients seeing an emergency room doctor. I popped out a few characters with little strain, generic types rather than one-joke grotesques that some of the other actors thought appropriate. One of my characters was a clumsy man who kept trying to commit suicide, but could never get it right, injuring himself in the process. I dragged my right leg as I approached the doctor, telling him that I had shot myself in the foot. The guy playing the doctor looked at my foot and said, "So, you say you stubbed your toe?"

I had no idea where he was going with this, since I clearly established my character's reality. And in improv, at least the good kind, you never negate another actor's reality. Kills the scene every time. The whole point is to accept that reality and build on it with your own. But this dick was negating me -- on Second City's main stage, no less!

I smiled and replied, "Well, I could've sworn that I shot my foot, but, you're the doctor!"

This got a nice laugh from those watching, and the director told me to step down.

He noticed on my resume my improv experience in New York, as well as my age. He could tell that I had plenty of training, and that this was a problem. He doubted that I could be re-trained in the Chicago school of improv, which was a very unique style of stage acting. I told him that I had worked with many Chicago-trained improvisers, and that the Second City style was what I was most familiar with. He shook his head, informing me that New York improv was crap, and that any Chicago actor who moved and worked there polluted their training with the more informal NY style. He thanked me for my time, and wished me the best of luck.

So, to review: for my first audition, I was too young and green; for my second, I was experienced and funny, but it was the wrong kind of experience and funny. Obviously, Second City was not intended for me.

I accepted the director's decision without serious protest. Those were the days before the Upright Citizens Brigade established Chicago-style improv in New York (there was Chicago City Limits, which I mentioned to the guy, but he brushed that aside), so there existed no connection that might sway the director's mind, assuming he could be swayed. Still, I imagine what might have happened had I remained in Chicago and kept beating on that door until it opened. I entertained the thought for a few days, but finally decided that I missed New York too much, and besides, I wanted to get out of comedy and into the happy world of political writing. And here I am, still cranking it out. There are worse fates.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Warmonger Within -- Finis




"How many of you think war will be fun?"

Three quarters of the room raised their hands, punctuated by a few grunts and whoops.

"How many of you think war will be exciting?"

Same number of hands; same sounds.

"Outstanding. Problem is, those who raised your hands are full of shit!"

The burly drill sergeant laughed, as did the four other drill sergeants beside him. All but one --my drill sergeant -- had seen action in Vietnam, and each took a turn describing the horror they had experienced, horror that they felt was militarily justified, but savage all the same. What it's like to blast off part of a man's head at close range, the smell of it, the sound of his throat gurgling blood. What it's like to lie in tall grass with dead and dying men around you. What's it's like to eat cold rat meat and rice, a delicacy in the field, amid all the killing. The knuckleheads who cheered, most of whom were rural whites, were suddenly subdued and chastened. I was glad that I didn't raise my hand. I was all for the Army, and would fight if necessary, but war as "fun"? Even my 19-year-old mind knew that was a stupid question.

Sadly, my 42-year-old mind wasn't as nimble or as perceptive. The thought of Afghan jihadists having their bodies ripped to shreds made me smile. Fuck them, fuck their friends, cousins, brothers, fathers, and especially fuck their Imams. When friends protested that this mindset would only insure that more young men would join jihad and keep the war going for who knew how long, I replied, echoing Hitchens, Bring It On! If those primates wanted to die under the American boot, then let's make their holy dreams come true. Hell, given their love of death and faith in a virgin-crowded afterlife, we'd be doing them a favor.

To say that I was out of my mind back then would be understatement. The bile, the hatred, the lust for violence and death drowned me. My wife was appalled and a little afraid of what I was becoming. My kids were younger and more or less oblivious to this, especially since I rarely said such brutal things in their presence. So I still possessed a scrap of decorum as far as they were concerned; but for everyone else, the new me was locked and loaded on martial fervor.

Then came Iraq. Hitchens kept telling me that an invasion was inevitable, that his Beltway sources assured him the wheels were in motion. The Taliban were hiding in the mountains, al-Qaeda was scattered and off-balance, so now it was Saddam's turn. While he hoped for a large Ba'athist body count, he insisted that the invasion would go smoothly, that there would be token resistance, that the now anti-imperial U.S. military would occupy Baghdad and usher in a progressive, secular re-birth in the heart of that long-suffering region. It all sounded good -- too good, in fact, but I seriously entertained the idea of backing this as well. What if Hitch was right? What genuine progressive could dismiss a possible democratization of Iraq? Maybe things had really changed. Maybe this was a crucial historical turning point. Wouldn't I want to be on the right side of such an important moment in time?

While on the cusp of bellowing for another U.S. invasion, a small but steady voice inside my head pleaded with me to stop. Like the proverbial splinter in the brain, this voice irritated me, nagged at me, insisted that I seriously re-think everything I had been advocating, and was about to endorse. I thought back to the lead-up to the first Gulf War, went through all my old files, pieces of talks that I gave, articles I had clipped for reference, transcripts of various debates. I felt as though I was examining a dead man's earlier life, piecing together his political outlook via notes and papers he considered useful and inspirational. Then I found an old Harper's cover piece from January 1991, written by the same man who was nudging me to share his pro-invasion position. I sat and read it for the first time in ages, and when I got to the end:

"The call [to war] was an exercise in peace through strength. But the cause was yet another move in the policy of keeping a region divided and embittered, and therefore accessible to the franchisers of weaponry and the owners of black gold. An earlier regional player, Benjamin Disraeli, once sarcastically remarked that you could tell a weak government by its eagerness to resort to strong measures. The Bush administration uses strong measures to ensure weak government abroad, and has enfeebled democratic government at home. The reasoned objection must be that this is a dangerous and dishonorable pursuit, in which the wealthy gamblers have become much too accustomed to paying their bad debts with the blood of others."

That small, irritating voice in my head suddenly became crystal clear. Back the Iraq invasion? What the fuck was I thinking? This was merely the next phase of the same regional war, conducted for the same, geopolitical reasons. Democracy? Pluralism? Christ, we barely have that here, so why in hell would we give the Iraqis something that we're curtailing at home? And anyway, how do you "give" someone democracy? This was lunatic rhetoric used to cover a time-honored, blood-coated shell game. The old Hitchens was absolutely right. The new Hitchens was a willing, well-paid, imperial stooge. I knew which side I was on, all right, and I decided to tell Hitch the bad news and hopefully try to change his mind.

Well, clearly that never happened. There's no need to rehearse my break-up and disillusionment with Hitchens, but I will say briefly that he was at first surprised, then testy, then angry, then haughty and dismissive before finally severing all ties. I had collaborated with the enemy, which meant I was lost, and therefore technically dead. Hitchens had another war to promote, and doubtless a few more after that, and since I was on the Other Side . . .

My waking up before the Iraq debacle led me to reconsider my support for the Afghanistan campaign. After the initial euphoria, at least here in the West, about how wonderful things were in that battered country, and how it could only get better, the reality of that war began to emerge. A massive famine may have been averted in the early days, but people were still starving, living under conditions that we wouldn't allow our house pets to endure, while their children were dying of dehydration and disease at an astonishing rate. For all the hype about schools being opened and kite flying allowed, nothing had really changed. Yes, the Taliban were bombed out of power, but not out of the country, nor out of the lives of those Afghans who still support them, or are terrorized into giving them shelter. While the Taliban was backed and solely recognized by Pakistan, they remain part of Afghanistan, and didn't materialize out of thin air. We can bomb, and bomb, and bomb, but they'll never go away, which of course gives us further pretext to bomb and bomb for years on end. And our bombing gives the Taliban, and others like them, an immediate pretext to set-off car bombs and IEDs for as long as they have access to explosives and weapons, which in Afghanistan, with all of its arms smuggling, will be a very long time. So cluster bomb casualties lead to car bomb fatalities back to more cluster bomb casualties, and on and on it will go, maybe a decade, maybe more, while the Afghan poor continue to die, and Kabul is run by kleptocrats, hustlers and mercenaries. Democracy was never on the agenda, and after six years of pounding, the very word is an obscenity uttered over a fully-functioning, open mass grave. Here are more thoughts on the matter from last year, and as you can see, my sick romance with that war ended a while ago.

So, the warmonger within me is, if not dead, then back under wraps, and I hope he rots there. He's a twisted man, filled with fear, anger, vengeance, and a bizarre but seemingly all-American hunger for violence, pain and murder. I feel ashamed to have ever given him the room to breathe and operate, and writing about this whole episode in my life has been cathartic, but embarrassing as well. I don't know if I'll ever live it down. Still, what can you do but go on?

As for the global capital/religious war that may expand into Iran and elsewhere, it appears that we're locked into this mad reality for perhaps the rest of our lives. I sincerely hope that's not the case, but the signs aren't terribly hopeful, are they?

As for alternatives, there's much talk about withdrawal and redeployment; yet, perhaps the best advice I've recently heard came from, of all people, my old employer, Bill Maher. Bill conceded that this war will never be won militarily (an opinion I heard from an Afghan combat vet through a close friend of mine who wishes to remain nameless), that our only hope is to convince those inspired to blow up themselves, and as many others as possible, to not strap on explosives in the first place. This will take imagination, courage, and yes, a change in foreign policy. That also means changing minds both here and overseas. It's a big job, perhaps an impossible task, but the alternative is more death and more destruction.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Warmonger Within -- Part 2




"So happy to hear this, dear boy. Welcome aboard."

Hitchens was surprised, but enthused. Finally, after countless e-mailed exhortations, I'd fully come around. I was on the right side of history. I was down with the Good Fight.

I had never supported a U.S. military action before, so the feeling was a little odd, but nothing I couldn't overcome. There was a weird, sick rush to the whole thing, as though I had waited my entire life to cut loose and cheer on the cruise missiles. And now I could, and did.

As I've said, the attack on New York woke up the younger, gung-ho soldier within me, and eventually he took full control of my senses. But there was also Ahmed Rashid's book "Taliban," perhaps the most damning portrayal of those theocratic thugs and their al-Qaeda "guests" that I had read. The Taliban were not the Vietnamese, nor the Sandinistas, nor the African National Congress. They were backward, brutal, and intolerant; they enslaved Afghan women and executed them for the tiniest infraction; they wanted to drag an already poor and devastated country further into the past, to the 7th century, if possible. I began to appreciate what the Soviet Red Army had tried to accomplish back in the day, and now I believed that the U.S. military would finish the job and put these gangsters permanently out of business.

Hitchens' pro-war pieces and private arguments helped to complete my transition, and when I decided that not only would I push for this war, but would do so in hostile company, I phoned Hitch to once again receive his guidance and approval. He was more than pleased to give it.

The emotion in his voice as we celebrated blasting Taliban and al-Qaeda filth into pink mist was revealing. Few of his friends and colleagues were joining Hitch's military crusade -- or if they did, they lacked his aggressive demeanor. And though he was attracting newer, younger admirers, the fact that someone from the old days enthusiastically supported him meant a lot. There were moments when he sounded choked up (which could have been a heavy smoker's gag as well, but for all of his bluster, Hitch did have a soft center, which he showed on occasion), and he encouraged me in an all-embracing tone. After this call, we kept in constant touch via e-mail, coming up with snappy pro-war bumperstickers and slogans, taking delight in the latest Taliban casualty reports, making fun of lefties like Noam Chomsky, who just didn't get it, and probably never would.

My friends at LBO-Talk were among the deluded, or so I then thought, and I decided to make the pro-war case directly to them. Needless to say, it didn't go over very well.

I tried to couch my appeals in anti-imperial rhetoric -- tough to do when a superpower is bombing a much smaller, much poorer, undefended country. I pointed to the fact that thanks to the U.S. invasion, relief workers could bring food and medicine to those who needed it, and that a predicted famine was averted, which it was. I also celebrated new political openings in Afghanistan, which even the radical feminist Afghan group RAWA, who had opposed both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, and wasn't crazy about U.S. bombs falling around them, acknowledged. Was it a perfect intervention? Of course not. Were innocents killed? Yes, tragically and unavoidably so. Was it better than letting Afghans languish and die under Taliban rule? Please. No comparison.

For once the U.S. got it right, I repeatedly stated. I even compared our action to Vietnam's invasion and occupation of Cambodia in 1978, when the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot were removed from their murderous perch and chased into the jungle. Who on the list was against that intervention? Moreover, what about those who supported the Soviet invasion and pummeling of Afghanistan throughout the 1980s? The Soviets were much more brutal than we were, wiping out entire villages, killing up to a million people. Plus, they were fighting the same type of enemy we were. Why the sudden concern for Afghan sovereignty? I asked them, knowing the answer in advance: because the U.S. is a capitalist imperial power devoted to corporate theft and rule, while the Soviets were trying to spread and defend socialism. But even given that, how could any Western progressive prefer the medieval Taliban to an imperfect but clearly superior modern presence?

Most of my list pals were not swayed in the slightest, and they made this immediately known, in many cases through condescension, incredulity, and above all, sheer hostility. I expected no less, and gave back in return, when not simply engaging in crass, personal attacks and dismissals. Reading my missives now is a bewildering, depressing experience, as if my earlier self had been possessed by some caustic social democrat or self-righteous liberal hawk. The young soldier who favored war began giving way to an older personality who, while still applauding cluster bomb strikes, employed years of lefty learning and exposure to justify the violence. Yes, I was critical of Bush, whom I never trusted, but at least he was killing the right people, so W. was good for something regardless of his personal/political reasoning.

It's a fool's game to project your political fantasies on someone with massive state power at his or her hands, and I was as big a fool as any. But back then, you couldn't tell me this. If you tried, I would've smeared you as soft on fascism, a phony progressive, an enabler of Osama. I was right, and you were wrong. Support for the Afghan campaign was crucial to help defend secular Western society and traditions. And even though I contrasted my endorsement of the Afghanistan war with extreme skepticism about the coming invasion of Iraq, I personally wrestled with the latter issue for months, and seriously considered endorsing that as well.

Once you've openly, enthusiastically supported a U.S.-led war, the next one comes easily, at least in theory. Hitchens made that transition from Serbia to Afghanistan to Iraq; and while I opposed Clinton's bombing of Serbia, Hitchens was softening me up to join him in promoting the Iraq war. Whatever hesitation he may have initially had, once Hitchens signed on with that invasion, he was in for the duration. Did I have the same fortitude? he asked me repeatedly. How could I support regime change in Afghanistan and not in Iraq? Wasn't Saddam equally as fascistic as the Taliban, perhaps worse? The larger war was about to commence, Hitch maintained, and this was no time for second guessing and cold feet. The war effort needed defenders like us. So -- was I in, or out?

TOMORROW: The conclusion.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

One Moment, Please

Going through one of my down, dry periods, which is why I'm slacking on posting. Apologies all around. I won't go into details, but please be patient as I tend to several items, and get my batteries recharged. I'll be back in a day or two, and yes, I will conclude my Warmonger Within post, which, apparently, many of you are aching to read. Trust me, I'm just as anxious to read it as are you.

Meantime, here are two of my favorite Bugs Bunny shorts, from his prime in the 1940s, courtesy of the great Chuck Jones.



Sunday, September 16, 2007

Lion Tamer Torpor

Slowly, steadily, pieces from the forgotten series "Fridays" continue to emerge online. The likelihood that an official, restored DVD box set will ever be assembled and released is very slim, according to my contacts in LA who know about these things, so for now, whatever bobs up on YouTube is all we're gonna get. There's a chance that I might help with a project about the show, but again, that's a long shot. We'll see.

The first bit features Larry David's recurring character Solly Mullins, an obnoxious temp who shows up for jobs that he's clearly unsuited to perform. Here, he fills in for John Lennon at a Beatles reunion concert. This sketch ran a few months before Lennon was killed in 1980, and I don't know if it ever re-aired after that. I seriously doubt it.

David's abusive, delusional id is on early display here, and his comedy style is evident in this raw form. Friend, collaborator and fellow "Fridays" vet Larry Charles has said that David trusts his comic instincts completely, and once he's settled on a bit, there's no second guessing it. That's certainly true in the sketch below. I can't recall a character on any comedy show that was this extreme and unlikable, and David's commitment to it is complete. David was way ahead of the comedy curve with Solly Mullins, so much so that his performance back then seemed like it was from another world altogether.



And here again are the drugged-out Three Stooges, this time working as janitors in a new wave rock studio. While not the best "Fridays" had to offer, David, Bruce Mahler, and John Roarke clearly had fun with it, and the audience loved them. Sometimes, that's enough.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Warmonger Within -- Part 1




The first thing I noticed about boot camp was the sterility. No garbage anywhere on the grounds; grass neatly cut, sidewalks trimmed; barracks painted bright white with no visible blemishes. Stepford clean, as were the drill sergeants in their pressed fatigues and mirror-shined boots, displaying erect postures and crisp gaits. The moment we trainees got off the bus, we were sucked directly into this sterile world, not making a single move without permission.

At first, I was startled and a little afraid. I was 19, and had never experienced such stark, aggressive conditions. And the drill sergeants were very aggressive from the start, in our faces, practically daring us to change our blank expressions. Eventually, they would let up, each establishing his own barking rhythm and pace. But for that first week, they were a solid wall of sound, breaking down our civilian minds and attitudes in preparation for years of receiving and executing orders.

Once I got past the initial shock of wondering why in hell I enlisted, I began to really enjoy Army life. Even the 4:30 AM two-mile run before chow didn't faze me. I loved feeling my body gaining strength and stamina; and I repeated with gusto the various cadences our drill sergeants yelled out to keep us all in sync, whether we were running or marching:

I wanna be an Airborne Ranger
I wanna live a life of danger
I wanna go to Vietnam
I wanna kill some commie scum


Those last two lines perplexed me ("commie scum" was sometimes "Charlie scum"), since the Vietnam war had ended a few years before. But 'Nam was still very much in the air, since many of our drill sergeants were combat vets of that imperial assault. Still, I shouted that I, too, wanted to go to Vietnam and kill commie scum. The whole thing electrified me. I was definitely into being a soldier.

As basic training went on, I sank deeper into my new persona. I became proficient with the M-16 and M-60 machine guns. I loved firing LAWs and throwing live grenades. Even when we were exposed to tear gas without masks, I enjoyed the burning in my eyes, nostrils, and mouth, and there was a contest between a handful of us to see who could hold out longest before throwing up, which many of us did. All the while, our drill sergeants pushed us, encouraged us, made us feel like warriors. It was a real high.

I can see why taking this and more specialized training into an actual war zone would bond you with your fellow soldiers. I wouldn't call it brainwashing, but it's awfully close. For us, however, there was no war waiting on the other end of basic. Yet, we trained for one anyway, complete with bivouac and night maneuvers. During one night patrol, which came around 2 AM, our unit crept outside of a mock Vietnamese village leftover from the war period, looking for enemy movement. We were in a dense wood, slowly advancing, when I hit a trip wire.

"Private Perrin," my drill sergeant said, "you are now a casualty of war."

"What happened, drill sergeant?"

"That trip wire is connected to a claymore mine, which has just blown your chest open. You are dead."

My afterlife was a waiting area near our camp, standing around with other dead soldiers from different patrols. I was pissed off and embarrassed to have died. I didn't even get a chance to fire my weapon! It was all very frustrating.

The remainder of boot camp was a downhill run. (It was funny to see new recruits come into camp, their nervous postures and expressions a reminder of our first days.) As we neared graduation and our individual paths to active duty, we were Total Army all the way. I got to know one of my drill sergeants a bit more personally, a guy who trained with 101st Rangers and could climb a rope faster than any human I've ever seen. He was a recovering alcoholic and bar room brawler who found solace and direction in the Army, his one regret being that he enlisted too late to fight in Vietnam, and he clearly desired a war of his own. He predicted (hoped) that Cuba would be the next front, and mentioned a few countries in Central America that I had never heard of, one of which, Nicaragua, had just experienced a leftist revolution. He was direct, to the point, honest. He suggested that I become an officer, that I would do much better there than as a mere enlisted non-com. I was flattered, but didn't see myself wearing bars. Still, I liked him, and it was he who taught me how to shoot. I'm still a pretty good shot, which I say not to brag, but to show how those lessons remain over a quarter century later. He was perhaps my first real mentor. I never saw him again after graduation.

The fist-pumping, chest-thumping pride I felt as an active duty soldier dissipated over time. Thanks to the direct exposure I had to officers from various U.S. client states at a training school where I worked, my young mind was slowly opened to what was really going on in Central America. There were Honduran officers who casually joked about killing insurgents and the peasants who housed them. The same was true of Salvadoran officers. Since we were all on the "same side," they felt no reason to candy-coat the mass killing and repression that was then underway in that region, and their desire to murder anyone they deemed communist had a delayed but very serious effect on me. That's when I began reading about Central America. And the more I read (from sources across the political divide), the more I lost that militarist feeling. When my enlistment ended, I left the Army, moved to New York, and dove deeper into leftwing politics.

Somewhere, that young, gung-ho soldier remained in me. I would see him from time to time, in my dreams, in random thoughts, standing at attention on a busy Manhattan street corner, looking directly at me before vanishing into the crowd. He's in me today. But his most dramatic appearance came a few months after 9/11, when my beloved New York was attacked. I was living in Michigan by then, yet geographical distance didn't matter. I knew too much about the city for that terror attack to be an abstraction, plus, I had a few friends who were directly affected by the Towers' collapse. So it was extremely personal, and before long, that young soldier fully re-emerged. He not only wanted war, he wanted it to be punishing, cruel, merciless. He wanted it for his adopted home town, where he became an adult. He wanted it for his old drill sergeant, who missed out on Vietnam. His outer-body was too old to personally fight, but inside, he was picking off jihadists and laughing at their demise. It all came back, like it was yesterday. The insanity began.

NEXT: Afghanistan, my lefty friends, Hitchens, and near-support for the Iraq invasion.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Jeers & Fears




Amid the shock, dismay and outrage I've read and heard about Rutgers' football fans heckling the Naval Academy's players last Friday, I've yet to discover exactly what those kids yelled out. Was it simple fuck-yous and you-sucks? Was the masculinity of the future Navy officers derided if not questioned? Or did the Rutgers students shout anti-war and anti-military chants?

Whatever the case, many people are upset, from the numerous reactionaries who host and call into sports radio shows, to Rutgers University President Richard McCormick, who sent a letter to U.S. Naval Academy Vice Admiral Jeffrey Fowler, apologizing for the "disrespectful and disgraceful behavior exhibited by some of [Rutgers'] fans" during the game. "No student-athlete should ever be subject to profane language directed at them from the crowd, and certainly not the young men of the Naval Academy who have made a commitment to serve our nation in a time of war." The war angle was also used by Mark DiIonno, a columnist for the Star-Ledger of Newark, and a Rutgers grad and Navy veteran. DiIonno chastised the Rutgers students for their "loutish" behavior, reminding them that some of The Midshipmen "may soon be among the young American men and women fighting and bleeding and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Fair enough. Yet, I don't seem to recall similar condemnations in early 2003, when Toni Smith, a player for the Manhattanville College women's basketball team, refused to face the American flag during the National Anthem. Smith was quietly protesting the upcoming Iraq war, along with other social ills, and was hammered by students, parents, and media alike for her "unpatriotic" actions. While her right to protest was acknowledged by some, Smith was still a target for all kinds of verbal abuse and the occasional death threat. Perhaps the most telling incident came when Manthattanville played at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. Some 300 midshipmen waved American flags and chanted the highly original "USA! USA!" toward Smith, as well as "Leave our country!"

Think about that last line: "Leave our country!" First of all, this country -- what's left of it, anyway -- is not the sole property of the Merchant Marines, or any branch of the military. But more importantly, those midshipmen, by telling Toni Smith to leave "their" country, violated their pledge to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, of which the First Amendment is a vital part. Smith protested peacefully and silently. Her actions were completely legal. For future members of the military to advocate deportation as punishment for legal behavior they don't like should concern those who value free, political expression. But then, there are many authoritarians and fascist-minded knobs in the military. I certainly knew more than my share.

I don't know if the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy ever offered an apology to Toni Smith for its open contempt for the Constitution. Whatever those Rutgers students said to Navy's players, I'm guessing it wasn't nearly as bad as what Smith endured as an individual, more than once, without complaint or appeals for mercy. You don't have to wear a football helmet to be tough.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Semi-Post

Pressed for time today, but I wanted to say a few, quick things, for clarification sake, if nothing else.

Some of you out there feel that my recent tone is a bit of a downer, a hands-in-the-air "fuck it," an admission of defeat. This isn't my intention, though it's true that I'm viewing events through darkened lenses. Despite my craziness, I try to convey my honest thoughts and feelings in this space, and there are times when I simply can't pretend that all will eventually be well. I'm no good at whistling past mass graves. If you have more hope in your heart, that's great. Truly. Somebody has to keep a positive light burning -- the more lights, the better. Maybe I'll relight mine at some point and join in. For now, all I have is this dented lantern.

I've already stated why the 9/11 anniversary makes me nuts, but there's something else as well. Many of you probably discovered this space in the past year, if not sooner. My numbers continually go up, so I'm guessing there are a lot of new readers, so all you know of me is what I've written during this period. But even those of you who've been regulars for the past couple of years, who've seen me bounce all over the place, are probably unaware of my post-9/11 warmongering, since it evaporated well before I began Red State Son in late November 2004.

Perrin a warmonger? In favor of Bush's violence? Seriously?

Seriously.

More on this fascinating topic tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Relapse Nation



There's an old TV movie I barely remember, title and plot long ago erased from memory. But one scene still flickers: the protagonist somehow has time traveling ability, and he goes back to the early days of the Johnson administration to show LBJ film of how the yet-to-be expanded Vietnam war would turn out, primarily for the US (I don't recall much concern for the Vietnamese). How the guy got in to to see the president I cannot say, but he does, and after showing LBJ future events, the big Texan drawls about how he'll have to double the escalation he has planned, since it's clear what he originally had in mind won't do the job.

The time traveler is floored. He wants to stop the war before it really starts. But LBJ will not go down as the first US president to lose a war, and considers using nukes to insure that America wins in Southeast Asia.

In other words, antiwar future guy made things much, much worse.

I thought about that scene the other day, and wondered if such a time traveling tactic would work on Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. After ten seconds of serious consideration, I realized that, no, it wouldn't make a dent. If anything, it would probably turn Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and maybe Syria, into glowing piles of rubble.

Then I thought about showing some 9/11 footage to Rudolph Giuliani a week before it happened, but then nixed that idea even sooner, since Rudy's career was reborn the day the Towers fell. The man would probably salivate awaiting those planes, quietly marking his calendar, prepping for his biggest stage.

Cruel portrayal? Just look at Giuliani's shameless exploitation of that dreadful day in actual time, then tell me about cynicism.

Today marks six years into the New Madness, with, I suppose, 94 more to go. At least. Warmongers from all sides worship this day, as well they should, for it gave the green light to mass murder, torture, theft, ceaseless misery, as well as the political/religious cover needed to keep the sick flames alive.

Friends say the cracks are showing, that the people are seeing more and more through the lies and chaos and are turning against the larger narrative. How I wish this was so. Apart from weariness with the Iraq debacle, faith in America's unique and unprecedented decency and goodness remains among the many, for without that faith, what do the powerless have left to imagine? And we are powerless -- powerless to stop the major players from launching fresh wars, from pushing more and more of us into debt, from turning what's left of this country into a banana republic strip mall with just enough distractions to make us feel, if not free, then somewhat amused until the next round of bills arrive, when the cycle renews itself, and round and round we go, again and again and again.

Of course, if we the people really wanted to, we could collectively pressure those who rule us into some kind of political concession, or at least irritate them enough to get their attention. But this isn't going to happen. Not anytime soon, anyway. So we stand slack-jawed, watching in slow motion the continuing carnage, listening passively to the lies spouted to justify it all, hands over hearts, misting up as Old Glory flutters above, pretending that we're not connected to the larger insanity.

There are those who worry that the über-nationalism expressed right after the 9/11 attacks is ebbing with each successive anniversary. If you have any remaining doubt about the utter apolitical nature of this country, read this shit and be rid of the delusion. Of all the things to come away with after six years -- will 9/11 be remembered in 2525. We have been well and truly played, and played big. No wonder the imperial mouthpieces in both parties have no fear of spewing their bullshit in public. Who's going to seriously retort? Jesus, some well-aimed rotting fruit would be a breath of fresh air.

So long as a majority of Americans believe in and keep alive the national myths that hold us in check, we're fucked, and we'll be continually fucked as war expands, debt piles up, elections are bought in advance when not simply stolen, and those who can cash in on the madness will have the most breathing room while the rest are left to scramble, eat fast food, drink cheap beer, and watch "reality" on TV.

Again, this can be changed if we want it to be changed. But Peace Is Patriotic bumperstickers won't cut it, friends. Time to Move On past that useless, tired crap.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Blue Monday

A foul, dark mood is brewing in my head, for various reasons, some of which I may explain, some of which should be left to rot. Suffice it to say that I'm not really in a writing state of mind, though that's rarely stopped me before. Still, if you could feel what I currently feel, you might want to smash every keyboard in sight in order to avoid appearing insane.

As my Cub Scout leader used to tell me, if you can't say something nice about someone, blow up their house and set fire to their lawn.

I will say this: If it wasn't for Britney Spears' sleepwalking routine at last night's Video Music Awards, what in the world would Americans have to talk about today? Oh yeah -- Kid Rock and Tommy Lee trading off-stage slaps. Now that's rock and roll . . . or whatever it is Rock and Lee spew out. In a Justin Timberlake world, somebody's gotta be a badass. Michael Vick's too busy to comply, while Gen. David Petraeus is doing his pantomime war dance on Capitol Hill. Which reminds me, tomorrow's another 9/11 anniversary. Gee, I can't wait to write about that.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Recommended Viewing



Pixie Paddle School (1971) Trent Keller filmed this crime drama during a period of extensive oral surgery, so his character, Pipe Fanlin, a jaded ex-priest-turned-karate-fop, is hard to understand. But this is a minor quibble -- rarely has the serial-killer-goes-surfing genre seen this kind of driven narrative and emotional intensity. I especially like Gayle Hunnicutt's bikini-clad mathematician who steals the banjo picking contest. Solid, toe-tappin' work.

The Dork (1982) Dreadful, pointless remake of Steve Martin's "The Jerk", though it does have some interesting moments. Dexter Coovis' mechanical slapstick is so awful that it goes beyond funny and into another world of artless appreciation. His insistence that his head is welded to a ridiculously large manhole cover while trying to renew his driver's license goes on for a whole eight minutes, and is perhaps the most honest attempt to insist that something's funny when it isn't that I've ever seen. With Ernest Borgnine as Sorcerer Sam.

Those Lilies Mean Business (1987) Candy Filmore makes nary a wrong move in this techno-driven spy-thriller, and her seduction scene in the tadpole room belongs in any serious film retrospective. The problem with this effort is the tedious subplot about scorpion farming, which makes some sense in the climactic final scene atop the floating Big Boy mascot in Fresno, but it simply takes too long for us to get there. Still, this is a very gripping film, and you may never wear sandals in the shower again.

Cumin Chin Music (1968) What do you get when a discredited maraca dealer hooks up with a supermarket mascot, Mr. Onion Dip? Perhaps one of most rollicking, sentimental road comedies since the Bucket & Bees shorts of the 1930s. Alf Krest and Doyle Reems display perfect chemistry as they roll through a pretend desert, the biggest gas station in the world, a men-in-gorilla-costumes convention, Trampoline City, pine-scented sewage, a hula dancing school for felons, as they search for the Wurlitzer sheet music that will make the incessant buzzing in their heads go away. Watch for Martha Raye's cameo as a war-weary tent squatter.

Length Is A Matter Of Opinion (1976) A human brain is placed inside a disco ball, giving the glittering sphere intelligent life, which is wasted on an obsession with dog racing. But it is at the dog track where Spin Brite (voice of Tim Matheson) meets his true love, a cocky, self-made pretzel tycoon, Sheba Morse (Kari Henze), who thinks the world owes her plenty of salt and nothing else -- that is, until Spin melts her cold, cynical heart, which nearly kills her, but she is brought back from the brink as Spin enlists the help of a retired taxidermist (Slappy White) who turns Sheba into a plush, leather sofa. United at last, Spin and Sheba prepare a Bicentennial celebration the likes of which St. Louis has never experienced. The surprise ending will make you question human existence, but in an upbeat way.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Die, Mr. Smith, Die

Gore Vidal loved to bash Frank Capra's political films, calling them corny and unrealistic, which they pretty much were. Of course, Vidal had a personal reason to criticize Capra, as the famed director was slated to helm Vidal's much grittier treatment, "The Best Man", but was fired from the project after Vidal blanched at his lunatic suggestions (one had Henry Fonda donning Abe Lincoln garb and reaching out to a convention's delegates). Vidal insisted that "The Best Man" was the only true-to-life film about American electoral politics, though he did give a favorable nod to "The Candidate" starring Robert Redford, and later appeared as a liberal senator in Tim Robbins' "Bob Roberts". I don't know what Vidal thought of Warren Beatty's "Bulworth", but it's a sentimental favorite of mine, and I would add it to the rather slim pantheon of decent political films.

Most Hollywood takes on American politics, however, owe more to Capra's fantasies than to Vidal's grim realism. Aaron Sorkin's dreadful "An American President" is a glaring example (along with Sorkin's "The West Wing"), as is "Dave", in which Kevin Kline plays Mr. Smith in disguise. Indeed, the Capra-esque concept of the Everyman Outsider shaking up the status quo has been milked into a coma; and Barry Levinson's "Man of the Year" is the most recent specimen of this brain-dead state.

I caught Levinson's film the other night on HBO, and I can see why it received lousy reviews. It's an unfocused, scattershot effort, and coming at a time when imperial war and corporate corruption and cronyism are rampant, "Man of the Year" is unforgivably toothless as well.

In brief, the film follows TV comic Tom Dobbs, played by Robin Williams, as he runs for and eventually wins the presidency over an incumbent Dem president and a bland Repub challenger. And in case you find that extremely unlikely (imagine how angrily the liberal netroots would respond to an independent run against a Dem incumbent), Levinson throws in a subplot about fixed Diebold voting machines which goes nowhere and says little about the privatization of politics.

Williams' political rants and routines make Jon Stewart look like Che Guevara. When his President-Elect Dobbs discovers that he really didn't win the election, Capra's ghost guides him to do the right thing and concede. Being first and foremost a political satirist, Dobbs must find the proper outlet to tell the world the truth. And where does he confess? Why, on that hard-hitting satirical juggernaut, Weekend Update with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, of course!



Poehler's admission that "SNL's" fake news segment steers clear of political reality is perhaps the most honest line in the film, and it could easily apply to "Man of the Year" overall. In these savage times, the funniest lines are the straightest takes, for it's nearly impossible to twist reality any more than it already is. George Carlin shows how it's done, and makes more salient points in four-and-a-half minutes than Barry Levinson does in an entire film. No wonder Lorne Michaels never invited Carlin back to "SNL" -- this bit would melt the show's cameras and render Fey and Poehler mute. Another reason to like it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Life As We Know It

Scrap Credulity



John Mellencamp, populist Hoosier rocker, confessed to Bill Maher that he prefers Americans to be naive. After all, who wants to live among millions of cynics? Bill looked at Mellencamp with binocular eyes. What the fuck are you talking about? he essentially replied. We could use some grassroots cynicism, like, uh, yesterday. Mellencamp wearily shook his head and frowned. Clearly, Bill was missing the down-home point.

Mellencamp was trying explain why it was that working class/blue collar people continually vote for those who rob them blind, and march their children into imperial meatgrinders. The common folk are simply too trusting. They believe what people tell them at face value, for they would never think to lie to or cheat for personal gain. Thus, they are easy marks for political hustlers who wave the flag, pet the fetus, and pray to America's God.

While I appreciate Mellencamp's populism, some of which I share and believe is vital, he's dangerously naive himself if he seriously believes most of what he said. Like Mellencamp, I too was raised in Indiana, and although I knew some decent, honest people growing up, I also ran across numerous racists, queer-haters, misogynists, bullies, assholes, and semi-literate dipshits who were proud of their ignorance. Times change, of course, but in Indiana, they don't change that much, and there remain countless rightwing rednecks who display Bush/Cheney stickers on their pick-ups. Have they all been fooled? To a degree, perhaps, especially on economic grounds; but overall I'd say they knew exactly what they voted for, assuming they bothered to vote. The GOP has long appealed to base cultural instincts, appeals that are obvious and unmistakable. To contend that commoners have to be tricked into loathing fags or boosting war excuses those who seek no excuse. I've talked to, worked and drank beer with more than my share of this kind, and they are quite open about what they despise.

Step back, red boy! How do you propose to reach these types when you find them so distasteful?

That's always the key question put to proggies: What's your plan of engagement? Honestly speaking, I don't have one -- certainly not some grand, social vision. Talking to people one-on-one, or in small groups, has usually worked for me, to the degree that my arguments are understood or even accepted. It's not a matter of intellect so much as it is cultural conditioning. When I talk to a young, blue collar relative who contemplates going to Iraq, or who tells me that the Republicans reflect his or her worldview, such as it is, I have to take a deep breath and proceed slowly. Do you really believe that GOP elites give one shit for you and yours? Have you ever taken the time to study how wealth is distributed among the higher-ups? Believe it or not, the class angle works, if only momentarily. Someone who can barely pay their bills has no sane reason to identify with, much less empower, those who wipe their asses with Benjamins. But the concepts of working class solidarity and political agitation do little to stir their souls, at least in my experience over the years. American consumer culture has many working people believing that maybe, someday, they too will be rich, and besides, there are more important things to worry about, like keeping queers from recruiting their kids, or making sure that the Mexicans stay on their side of town, and don't you know that you can save money by shopping at Wal-Mart?

You have to hand it to the overclass and their relentless propaganda -- they have atomized whole sections of America, turning average people into walking, talking commercials for their view of the world. Not that the people are innocent, but really, what alternate social or political choice do they have? The Democrats? Sure. I would love to see all those fresh-scrubbed white liberals who attended YearlyKos get down in the grease pits to make their case, whatever it is. Then again, much of the netroots are pretty naive (or willfully dumb) themselves when it comes to their mule party, scratching their heads, wondering why the Dems show no political spine, do nothing on Iraq, and wave sabers in the direction of Iran. What the fuck are they gonna tell the guy who fixes their car's transmission? They can't figure out which end is up in their own party, much less critically engage those who've never heard of Josh Marshall or Atrios.

So, friends, where does this leave us? Yes, there are many exceptions to the reality outlined above, but how significant are these exceptions? How forceful? How persuasive? I won't pretend to know the answers to these and the dozens of other, pressing questions, but I will say this to John Mellencamp: naiveté in the face of powerful, murderous cynics is not only ignoble, it is slow, self-strangulation. The real world is not a pop song. If it were, I'd be Judy in Disguise (with glasses).

Monday, September 3, 2007

What Truly Sucks




Leave Lauren Caitlin Upton alone. Miss South Carolina Teen USA's rambling, incoherent response to the problem of American geographical ignorance may make one feel superior and smug, but she's hardly out of the mainstream. Plus, Upton's only a kid; and given what's not being taught in U.S. schools these days, you really can't expect much more than what she gave, especially at a fucking beauty pageant. Hell, pluck any random adult wandering around a Midwestern mall and place them on the same stage, give them the same question under the same conditions and see what you get. You may land someone who has a passing idea of what's going on, and where, but based on my travels over the past few years, I seriously doubt it.

Having two kids in school has given me a front-row seat to how our children is learning, and sisters and brothers, 'tis not a pretty sight. You'd think that a campus town would provide better-than-average education and educators, but in my experience, this simply isn't the case. The boy's had a few fine teachers, one in particular was first-rate (he had her twice in three years, which we requested), but overall, it's been dismal, especially for the teen. This is why parents must supplement their children's education at home, extending lessons when not merely filling various learning gaps. How many parents do this on a regular basis, I've no idea. In our home, there is constant quizzing, deeper reading lists, exposure to authors and artists that most local schools would never dare assign, lest the parents protest, which they often do. This is not a boast, but the reality. Slam the schools all you like, but if you honestly want to get to the core of our national fear and ignorance, begin with the parents and go from there.

My pal Jon Schwarz has taken a break from his dog-eared copy of "Watership Down" to lament this general American suckiness, which is even more pronounced as a U.S. military strike on Iran appears likely. If committed activists like Jon and like-minded others can't rouse the masses to oppose the next savage phase, then what good are they? What's the fucking point?

Looks as if Jon's hit the same wall I hit at the close of the first Gulf War.

From the moment Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990, to the flag-waving nationalistic rallies in early-'91, I wrote, spoke, and debated the build-up to and during the bombing of Iraq. I still have my datebook from that time, page after page filled with radio shows, writing deadlines, college gigs, TV debates. I took anything offered to me, via FAIR, which I represented. Audience size didn't matter (though I did appear on some large stages, including CNN in primetime, during the first week of bombing). All that mattered was trying to educate the public about the history of Western imperialism in the Middle East, and how the attack on Iraq was part of a larger geopolitical policy which had nothing to do with "punishing aggression," or even more laughable, "self-defense."

I even worked part-time as an unpaid promoter, in one instance convincing a producer friend at C-SPAN to book Christopher Hitchens live at the onset of hostilities. This was back when Hitchens made anti-imperial arguments, and had published a long piece in Harper's about the history of Gulf geopolitics. He was not the ubiquitous media presence he is now -- far from it. It was a rarity to hear his arguments on national TV, and when C-SPAN pit him against Morton Kondracke, who made the pro-war case that Hitchens does today (though with far less bile), Christopher wiped the floor with him while patiently deflecting hostile phone calls. I was in the green room next to the studio during this broadcast, and I beamed while watching the live feed on the room's monitor. Surely, this would help stem the war mania that was prevalent throughout the American mass media.

Umm, no.

I suppose that Kondracke's dizzy belief afterward that he had schooled Hitchens should have warned me, but I was young and still green in places. People believe what they want to believe, and if they insist on fantasy, or worse, indifference, no amount of factual argument will sway them. When I attended the "victory" rally in lower Manhattan after the war "ended" (i.e. moved into Phase Two -- sanctions and continual bombing, after allowing Saddam to slaughter the Shi'a), I was crushed. All those countless hours of direct engagement felt meaningless to me. What good did I do? If I didn't exist, the same series of events would have played out as they did, so what was the point? I'd felt despair well before the bombs fell on Baghdad, and by December '90, I had developed a love affair with gin, which I used to deaden the pain after a day's agitation in the face of corporate media assault. By the time of the "Turkey Shoot," where U.S. pilots bravely massacred retreating Iraqi conscripts (many of whom were Shi'a), I was 17 pounds heavier due mostly to drink. I had never felt so worthless. I wrote a letter to Noam Chomsky, who was one of my mentors through this whole process, and apologized for my failure (which Noam brushed aside and advised me to forge a wider perspective). I then left FAIR, went to a cabin near Woodstock, quit drinking, and swam naked in a large lake with a younger woman who still had radical stars in her eyes.

Such are the privileges of living in an imperialist country. I got to retreat, lose weight, get laid, while the death machine in the Gulf and Middle East kept rolling along.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying to Jon, I understand your despair. But know that your efforts do make a difference, however small and incremental. The brutal bottom line is that the owners of this country can wage war whenever they want to, and there's very little, if anything, we can do to stop them. We can make noise, educate those open to our arguments, perhaps make it harder for mass murder and torture to be so easily accepted. But we're up against massive power and layers of apologetics and lies that protect that power. This is a long-term struggle. Don't bail on us already.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Quick Thanks



To Appalachian State, who stunned Michigan and the entire college football world by beating the heavily-favored Wolverines, 34-32, on opening day, in Ann Arbor, right down the street from my house.

Oh, to see the dejected maize-and-blue frames slink by to their cars parked in my neighborhood. It was a beautiful sight.

You see, Michigan football locally is, if not fascistic, pretty close to it. When the season arrives, you are drowned in insufferable attitudes and behavior, a climate in which children are openly, knowingly indoctrinated. Yes, there are other campus towns that may very well be worse (hello, Columbus, Ohio), but my family and I live here, pay taxes here, endure the madness here. And today, the big Wolverine machine was knocked on its ass. Huzzah. I don't know how much breathing room Appalachian State bought us, but it's a start. De-nazification is a slow process.

Next week -- go Oregon!