Sunday, August 20, 2006

Fifth Avenue Freeze-out

I know what people say: that I don't know how to have fun on weekends. Well, while you were on Canal Street picking up a bootleg of "Snakes On a Plane," I was right here planning my mayoral campaign. That's right! Ol' Buttermilk Sky is going after the Second Hardest Job in America, as the leadership of New York used to be called. Maybe the hardest, because Bush makes presidenting look so darn easy. I have one issue and one issue only: I promise to ban ethnic parades. Well, whaddaya lookin' at?

You know what I mean. You absolutely have to get across town in twenty minutes or all hell will break loose. But what's that up ahead, beyond the police barricades and the children waving tiny flags? It's the weekly ethnic parade, a bunch of oddly-dressed people trudging and riding and dancing down the middle of Fifth Avenue while a band plays what is either their national anthem or "Goin' Out of My Head." The same band that was playing a different anthem, or possibly the theme from "MASH," a week ago. The Lutonians (to borrow a name from SCTV) are filled with understandable pride, this being the day their ancestors won their independence from South Batavia back in 1422. The twirlers are scowling with concentration, the politicians are waving and ignoring the boos, and the police are mentally calculating their overtime while keeping a good eye out for South Batavian troublemakers.

And you forgot it was Lutonia Day. It's too late to go around or under. You are stuck. Stuck is what you are. But not if you vote for me.

Maybe ethnic parades made sense in the nineteenth century, when Lutonian-Americans were still struggling to establish themselves and overseas travel was slow. Today, everybody in New York came from someplace else, usually during the past two years. You don't believe me, find an English-only ATM. And they're all determined to have a parade, and so are other special interest groups, and there are hardly enough weekends in the year. If you're homesick for Lutonia, get on a plane. Join the national-day festivities in the capital city, Ksczwzyk. Then come back and be an American.

I'm not especially patriotic, but I don't see the point in more fragmentation and exclusivity. I will continue to allow parades that celebrate something we can all share, like Christmas shopping or sports championships. Also, if you want to find some unused land out by the airport and march up and down, go nuts. But we really need the streets, even on Sunday, more than we need excuses for binge drinking, fist-fighting, and bagpipes. Especially bagpipes. Don't even get me started.

Grass Alas

A few thoughts on a "story" that has been exhaustively covered elsewhere:

1. In April 1945 German civilians were being hanged for insufficient zeal in resisting Allied forces. What would have been the penalty for a 17-year-old draftee who refused induction into the Waffen-SS? Most likely it would have involved not getting to be 18.

2. Let's say a clerk had transposed two names, drafting Gunter Grass into the Wehrmacht and Joseph Ratzinger into the SS. How would we perceive them today? On the basis of their brief military service or their subsequent careers?

3. Self-righteousness is all very well, but we're not going to start vetting Nobel Prize winners for political correctness, are we? Because Yeats and Shaw made some startlingly pro-fascist statements, Eliot and Solzhenitsyn have been accused of anti-Semitism, and Knut Hamsun was practically a collaborator while the Germans occupied Norway. At the other end of the spectrum, Harold Pinter may have given up writing plays, but he can still be counted upon for incendiary opinions. And how about this view of the Danish newspaper that published those notorious cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad:

I recommend that everyone have a look at the drawings: they remind one of those published in a famous German newspaper during the time of the Nazis, Der Sturmer. It published anti-Semitic caricatures of the same style.

That was Gunter Grass failing to defend free speech several months ago. Never mind that Jyllens-Posten is hardly Der Sturmer, never mind that the Danish government is decidedly not rounding up Muslims and sending them to death camps. It's not surprising a lot of people were delighted to proclaim him a victim of Waldheimer's Disease (the inability to remember what you were doing in the 1940s).

The Thousand-Year Reich only lasted twelve years as a political entity, but its shadow may well be as long as its name promised. No obituary of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf failed to mention her membership in the Nazi party, although she died a British citizen and Dame Commander of the Empire. Tony Palmer's new documentary about the Salzburg Festival has been criticized for devoting too much space to Hitler's single visit. An exhibit of Holocaust cartoons described as being from 60 countries including the United States, has just opened in Tehran, where the official position is that it never happened, but if it did, it still doesn't entitle the Jews to a state in the Middle East. (I think that's what President Ahmadinejad was trying to express. Between the translator and Mike Wallace's hostile interruptions, he wasn't easy to follow.) During last year's struggle over Terri Schiavo, anyone who supported her husband's decision to have her feeding tube removed was sure to find himself compared with the Nazis and their killing of the mentally and physically disabled. A recent play and a flurry of newspaper articles alerted us that three of Hitler's great-half-nephews actually live on Long Island. Hollywood isn't letting go of the subject any time soon, and for those who need more information between feature films there's the History Channel, which might as well be called the Hitlery Channel. As the participants in that time age and die, the subject remains captivating and unavoidable. For now, it has reached out and seized another victim, the writer who tried harder than anyone to analyze and dissect it, Gunter Grass.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Honeymoon's over

It is becoming clear that the Republican Party has run out of patience with black people. Every poll suggests that they are losing ground, that most black Americans would sooner vote for Pol Pot than any living Republican. "What do they want from us?" I can hear them cry. "We let Armstrong Williams earn a nice piece of change that could have gone to John Tierney or Robert Novak. We sent Bush to the Gulf Coast, what, half a dozen times, and he stood right there and pledged that Trent Lott's beach house would rise again. We even sent him to the NAACP, and he was plenty steamed about his lukewarm reception. Time and again we tried to abolish the estate tax, so that whoever inherits Oprah's money won't face that crushing burden. No other administration has had even one token black Secretary of State, much less two. This is our thanks? Time to move Alan Keyes and his homeys to the back of the Big Tent and concentrate on our base."

Isn't that what they're doing?

It took some effort, but thanks to George Allen (R-VA), holder of the hotly-contested title Stupidest Person in the Senate, America has gained a new racial slur. Two weeks ago, most people thought Macaca was a Brazilian dance. By next month, we'll be calling it "the M word." Well done, Senator -- you're the source that will be cited in the Dictionary of American Slang some day. When you're forgotten even in the Old Dominion, a tiny, nasty part of you will live on.

I admit to being baffled by the cover of the latest Weekly Standard, the magazine for those who find the National Review to be too conciliatory. Here we have Ned Lamont getting out of a limousine (because he's rich, and in this case that's a bad thing) while Al Sharpton stands by in a chauffeur's uniform. Well, at least he isn't shining Ned's shoes. What year is this? Should I read the cover story, or just run head first into the nearest wall?

It's August, but there's a cold wind blowing. The party of fear will be serving up a side order of hate this fall. It's what they do when they're backed into a corner. Get ready to duck.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Nothing but blue skies

Looking back, we can date the end of civilization in the skies to the first ban on smoking in airplanes. I don't smoke, never have, don't like being around people who do; but I have read the reports that say it's easier to give up crack than the nicotine-enhanced 21st-century cigarette. On the whole, tobacco addicts have been remarkably good-natured about this prohibition, slapping on skin patches and chomping through whole packs of nicotine gum until they can get off the plane and out of the airport (where smoking also tends to be forbidden). I hope they know how grateful I am.

Then the airlines, citing cost, stopped serving food to most people on most flights. They would sell you beverages, of course, especially alcohol, which goes down so well on an empty stomach. They continued to distribute free peanuts, for the same reason your neighborhood bar puts out pretzels and spicy chicken wings -- to create thirst. Four generations of mediocre comedians had built careers on jokes about airline food, but when it was gone, we missed it. We ate their peanuts and ordered drink after drink. Surprisingly, only one person was ever arrested for defecating on a serving cart. Things got so dangerous up there that flying meshugas was made a federal crime in the United States.

Last week the airwaves resounded with chatter about the terrible plot to blow up trans-Atlantic flights with explosives disguised as carry-on items. It turned out, of course, that there was both more and less here than first appeared. (Is it true that most of the "bombers" didn't even have passports, much less airline tickets? Did the British police really have a good bead on them for nearly a year? Did they want to wait another week to draw in more plotters, but were overruled by Karl Rove and his panicking party? Hey, isn't this a reworking of an idea somebody had about flights over the Pacific, oh, ten years ago? What, is al Qaeda on summer reruns like "CSI"?) No matter. The alert level went to shit-your-pants, the airports slammed shut, and passengers on both sides of the Atlantic were treated as if they were trying to sneak onto planes without paying. Although only one would-be terrorist, the hapless Richard Reid, has ever tried the exploding shoe trick, everyone must now approach the gates in sock feet as if entering a mosque (nice touch). Everything metallic goes in the basket, and if you contain a surgical pin or a piece of shrapnel, talk fast and try to look innocent. No cell phones. (Thank you!) No electronic toys or devices. No...toothpaste?

When I heard about the cosmetic crackdown, my first thought was "So?" How much of that junk in your purse or backpack really has to be with you? Lipstick and rouge? Everybody looks like death after a long flight, you won't stand out. Sunscreen? Probably don't need it, even if you have a window seat. Mousse and gel? Deal with your dry hair before going to the airport. Nail polish and remover? Stinks up the cabin. Perfume and cologne? Other people's always makes me cough.

But there was more: an absolute ban on medicines and beverages, too. The Authorities later relented and allowed infant formula and small quantities of prescription drugs, but the door had been opened to the de-humanization of travelers, with their evident cooperation. Not even books could be carried on. Books! Paper and ink and imagination. Words, words, words. Are they the real culprits, words and the ideas they unleash? Some Islamists want to burn books, believing they need only the Koran, but I have never heard of making them into bombs. And in the more immediate case, what about the little boy who has just had to give up his book? He was going to spend five hours absorbed in "Harry Potter and the Thing With Lumps On." Now, he will spend them kicking the back of your seat, as you sit there with no laptop, no iPod, not even a book to distract you from your thirst.

As much as anything, we define ourselves by the way we travel. Why else would otherwise sane people continue to buy inefficient SUVs as gas tops three dollars a gallon? Travelers have always paid premium prices for luxury, if only to prove that they can; while entering a cattlecar or a packing container carries the implication that one is less than human. There are classes on airplanes, but everyone breathes the same air and runs the same risks. More first-class men survived the Titanic than steerage women, but when TWA 800 exploded, everyone was equal. Flight was the last great egalitarian experiment, and now it seems we are to be degraded equally, marched under guard through huge fluorescent shopping malls into the grim future. ("Well, if it makes us safer....") And as Baroness Thatcher might say, There Is No Alternative. What are you going to do, row to Europe?

The great Bob Newhart used to perform a monologue about a cut-price carrier called the Mrs. Grace L. Ferguson Airline and Storm Door Company. The pilot had a slight drinking problem, the crew wasn't entirely sure how to find Hawaii, but the real money-saver was an absence of seats. Passengers held onto straps as if riding the subway. ("You folks flying tourist, you don't have any don't bother looking for them.") In the 1960s, this was funny. Not so much a couple of months ago, when the New York Times ran a front-page story about a proposal to cram still more passengers onto planes by having them stand, strapped to backboards. This story proved to be inoperative, as Ron Ziegler used to say, but I'm still not convinced it will never happen.

Postscript: From our "Who Needs Terrorists?" file: It seems that Dell laptops like the one I'm typing on are bursting into flames from poorly designed batteries. Time to log off.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Fright or flight?

Cool northerly breezes have brought on my first allergy attack of the season, so I may have been hallucinating this morning. Did anybody else see Michael Chertoff on every Sunday morning show except MTV's "Pimp My Ride"? Either the semen-stain expert wanted to show off his spiffy new yellow tie, or every other member of the executive branch is on vacation. The secretary who keeps the homeland secure was busy taking bows for the work of MI5 and Scotland Yard, and dispensing his patented blend of obfuscation (your president has it all under control/be very afraid/take off your shoes/don't cancel your trip). It was inspiring, at least to this histamine-poisoned observer.

Meanwhile, Dick Cheney rose from his coffin full of Colorado earth to proclaim that Ned Lamont's victory in the Connecticut Democratic primary might "encourage Al Qaeda types," if not actual Al Qaeda members, a distinction reporters did not ask him to elaborate upon as they clutched their phones in fear. Yes, now that the World Cup and the Tour de France are over, Osama bin Laden spends most of his time following primary election returns, cackling evilly over the end of Bob "Freedom Fries" Ney's Congressional career. When word reached the Holy One's inner circle that Ralph Reed had lost his bid to become lieutenant governor of Georgia, rifles were fired into the air as at an Afghani wedding party. If Rick Santorum loses his Senate seat, which seems to be a distinct possibility right now, our enemies will interpret it as America losing its will to live. Elect a Democratic House or Senate, and the blood-dimmed tide will be loosed. You have been warned. Close the box. Don't slam the lid.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Curb your enthusiasm

BERLIN (Reuters) - A German scientist has been testing an "anti-stupidity"
pill with encouraging results on mice and fruit flies, Bild newspaper reported

It said Hans-Hilger Ropers, director at Max-Planck-Institute for Molecular
Genetics in Berlin, has tested a pill thwarting hyperactivity in certain brain
nerve cells, helping stabilize short-term memory and improve attentiveness.

"With mice and fruit flies we were able to eliminate the loss of short-term
memory," Ropers, 62, is quoted saying in the German newspaper, which has
dubbed it the "world's first anti-stupidity pill."

I was all set to celebrate, and then I thought, How do they measure short-term memory in fruit flies? With a lifespan measured in hours, how much do they really have to remember?

My father used to say, "Never give a drunk black coffee. All you get is a wide-awake drunk." I foresee the same problem with improving the attention spans of the stupid. We're probably better off if they keep taking nice long vacations.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Sister cities

I can't remember whether it was Damon Runyon or O. Henry who called New York "Baghdad On the Hudson," but for thousands of New Yorkers, that's what it felt like last week: unspeakable heat, no electricity, sporadic running water and phone service, long lines for stopgap meals from the Red Cross. No car bombs, of course, but plenty of explosions and flames shooting out of manholes, and the stench came from rotting food, not corpses. The elected leadership was not much in evidence; neither Mayor Bloomberg nor Governor Pataki is seeking re-election, and they showed little interest in the situation. Pataki cherishes a fantasy of running for President, and probably assumed that a prolonged blackout in part of his state's largest city would be forgotten before the Iowa caucuses, more than a year from now. Mickey B is only an amateur politician, so it took four days for his hired hands to persuade him to visit Astoria ("It's the place you drive through to get to the airport, sir"). When he did make the trek, police kept the peasants at a safe distance while the mayor sang the praises of Kevin Burke, the head con man at Con Edison. True, it wouldn't have helped for Mickey to put on a hard hat and climb down into the ground, but it's the appearance of the thing.

New Yorkers were outraged to find themselves transformed into a third-world city. Anyone would be. We thought we were making Iraqis live like this so Americans wouldn't have to. You know, the oil? Actually, there was plenty of power, just no way to deliver it through cables dating back to the Lindsay administration. Decades ago, when "The Tonight Show" came from New York, Johnny Carson could always get a laugh by mentioning "Con Edison, our Mickey Mouse power company." These days, it's more like Whack-a-Mole: Lights go on in Queens, lights go off in Staten Island. The system has needed an overhaul since Carson left for Los Angeles, and clearly hasn't had one. Some people might think that keeping the electricity on in America's largest city is the sort of thing some federal agency should look into. It's almost a question of...homeland security.

As the world's temperature rises and its reasoning powers dwindle, I'm afraid we will all find out how fragile civilization really is. A hot spell here, a hurricane there, large states ruled by incompetents and small ones run by the clinically insane, angry people with nothing to lose, helpless people with nowhere to go, and we're looking at interesting times.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Is that you, Lord? It's me, Dubya

I'm doin' everything I can for the Israelis, Lord, your chosen people, or they used to be until they refused to accept Your Son. They're fightin' the evil-doers who don't love freedom. Trouble is, I got a call from Condi and she says they're killin' Christians. I didn't even know there was Christians in Lebya...Libby...Liddydole...Lebanonon. That one. They got these Macaroni-ite Christians that are starting to support Hezballahola...I hate these names. Anyway, you know everything, Lord. So help me. Be my decider. How many weeks until the Rapture? If you could just give me a rough idea, so I can plan my vacation. Laura says she wants to be Raptured outta the Rose Garden, and I'd kinda like to be with her for once. Oh, I saved all the little stem cell babies. Or is it sleeper cell babies? Anyway, you can explain it to me pretty soon. Thanks for everything.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

An inconvenient truth

If you own a radio, and you turn it on, you're sure to have heard this incisive argument some time in the past two weeks, usually expressed via phone:

"If, you know, like Canada was lobbing rockets into the United States, wouldn't, you know, wouldn't we be within our rights to attack them and, you know, get rid of them?"

The host usually agrees that, yes, everybody has the right to self-defense. So far, I haven't heard anyone point out that this is a really, really bad analogy. I don't have a radio show, and all I can do is grind my teeth in frustration, and the old teeth won't take much more of that. So here's a better analogy, global strategists:

If a militia inside Canada, but not under the control of the Canadian government, were firing rockets into the United States, would we be justified in destroying the infrastructure of Montreal, killing hundreds of non-militia members and driving thousands from their homes? Or would the world say "What kind of bat-shit crazy behavior is this?"

If it's impossible to imagine such a response, don't strain yourself. We would never attack Canada because Canadians look just like us. They mostly speak English, they mostly came from Europe, and their baseball is compatible with ours (unlike their football, which is another matter). If there's one thing America hates, it's going to war with people who look like us, to wit, the Germans. We sat out World War I for nearly three years, even as U-boats killed hundreds of American citizens. In 1941, faced with a far more vicious regime in Berlin, we actually waited for Germany to declare war on the United States. But we never hesitated to mobilize full-bore against Filipinos, Mexicans, Dominicans, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Panamanians, Grenadians and Iraqis (not to mention Native Americans). Can you guess why?

Before the second rocket had landed in Montana or Minnesota, the US and Canadian governments would have organized a joint strike force to find and destroy the militia. That's the way friends do things. Temporarily at least, the Canadians would be our equals, our brothers, our -- partners in freedom.

Now for the inconvenient part: Most Israelis came from Europe, too, and many have always had a deep contempt for their Arab neighbors. One of their prime ministers -- I remember it being Golda Meir, but if I'm wrong, I apologize -- referred to Palestinians as "drugged roaches." The rationale for refusing to deal fairly with Palestinians is that they weren't making effective use of the land when they had it, certainly not building modern cities and making the desert bloom with agriculture, and besides, they don't really exist as a people. The refusal to deal justly with the Palestinians is the crime from which all the present trouble grows. It is the equivalent of America's failure to accept the legacy of slavery and genocide on which it is founded. It is why Israel never said to Lebanon, "We have a problem on our border. Let us solve it together."

Smile, goddammit!

My life is pretty much a Woody Guthrie Dustbowl ballad, but that doesn't mean the whole world has to wear a frown. Does it? Maybe it's the heat, or the approaching end of life on earth, but everybody seems to be in a really cranky mood. Especially those who appear fairly well blessed to the naked eye.

Take Ann Coulter, or as I think of her, Annsie, She-Wolf of the GOP. You can tell she isn't worried about cortisol, that pesky hormone that turns post-menopausal gals into sumos. She lives under the most right-wing regime since Hitler's. She makes a truckload of money spewing invective -- plagiarized invective, according to the New York Post, but still. Is she happy? I have never seen her when she wasn't mad enough to bite the claws off living lobsters.

Then there's Dave Chappelle. Some people gave him millions of dollars to be funny on basic cable, but they neglected to tell him that white people would be allowed to watch. And laugh. He took off for South Africa, apparently hoping to perform before black-only audiences. But apartheid had ended years earlier, so he was forced to return to the United States. He's still far from contented, but he is resting comfortably after surgery to remove James Lipton's tongue from his rectum.

By any standard, A.O. Scott has one of the world's great jobs: film critic for The New York Times. That means he not only gets paid to write about movies, he also gets in free. He goes to Cannes, and Sundance, and even Toronto, and he's glad to be alive, right? Oh, come on. Mr. Scott is practically Cassandra, cursed by the gods. He told us how bad "The DaVinci Code" was -- he even took a swipe at the book in his review -- and people lined up as if the 'plexes were giving away gravy boats. He warned us that "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" was even worse than the first one, and was nearly trampled by stampeding ticket-buyers. He's always right, and no one will listen. He was so depressed, the Times had to give him space to tell us how much we have disappointed him.

I'm sure Mr. Scott speaks for many critics. People who review books must die a little every time they look at the best-seller lists. Architecture critics know that whatever they write, that damn building will be there for decades. Good plays struggle to stay open, while "Mamma Mia!" rolls on and on. Television -- but what's the use? It's the profession that gets no respect.

Should it? Mr. Scott did some research in the newspaper archives and discovered that his predecessors were right more than they were wrong. Had he gone back more than twenty years, however, he might have found that they missed the boat on "Bonnie and Clyde," "2001:
A Space Odyssey," "Vertigo," "Singin' In the Rain," and other now-iconic films. They were busy sending moviegoers to wan black-and-white exercises where three people sit in an empty house, chain-smoking and murmuring about The Bomb -- in French, of course. Today they're frantically directing us to equally engrossing pictures about a village boy and his blind goat -- in Farsi, or Welsh, or Klingon. Anything but the brain-deadening product of Hollywood.

Like most moviegoers, I'd rather be entertained than enlightened. I'd prefer both at the same time, but I only get angry when neither takes place. A.O. Scott is a fine writer who expresses his opinions in concise paragraphs rather than by the twitching of his thumbs. No one would ever confuse him with that ass at Rolling Stone who loves everything. His bad reviews are even more fun than the good ones, but he should be satisfied with that. Even the mighty Times is no match for the Hollywood publicity machine, and whining about it is unattractive. Of course, any time the job gets to be too much for him, I can be found right here. I'll buy my own popcorn.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Full disclosure

I have a personal stake in the health of Fidel Castro. I live around the corner from the Cuban Mission to the United Nations in beautiful Murray Hill, and for as long as I can remember every pedestrian has been forced to walk in the street around this building. The sidewalk is closed (and the NYPD is on constant duty in a sentry post) because of threats from gusano terrorists -- I mean freedom-fighters -- oh, hell, you know, the kind of people who while away their time by making bomb threats. The people who spontaneously partied in the streets of Miami when they heard Castro was seriously ill. Clearly, they can't wait to get home and restore Havana to its "Godfather Part 2" glory, and I second that emotion. Does anybody need to borrow a suitcase?

It's a small thing, but I look forward to being able to stroll the sidewalks of New York again like a person. I'm not the criminal here.

In vino veritas

It means, of course, there is truth in wine, an observation that surely predates Rome. It means that alcohol can remove psychological and social inhibitions and allow people to say what's really on their minds, which has probably ended millions of friendships. Alcohol can make people sentimental, or violent, or sloppy, or amorous; but it can't make them bigots unless they started out that way. Too much alcohol changes behavior. It doesn't change beliefs.