Sunday, October 01, 2006

Summer of discontent

Frustration, unease, the lack of conclusiveness -- the summer of 2006 was one long wait for the elusive lost chord. Or Godot. Or something. We are a television stuck between channels, if that's even possible anymore.

"Only four days until the start of hurricane season!" cried the weatherfolks last May, until I thought I was supposed to send out cards. It was going to be a doozy, a whopper, a real follow-up to the horrendous 2005. Remember? Well, it's October, and some extra rainfall from Hurricane Ernesto is all we've seen. With two months to go, the Heavy Weather Channel scans the Atlantic for every tropical depression and self-important waterspout, but nature just won't cooperate. Which is good for regular coastal people, but not so good for news media. Remembering what Hurricane Katrina did for the ratings and reputations of Anderson Cooper and Brian Williams, Katie Couric must be hoping a major storm will brush the eastern tip of Long Island so she doesn't have to travel far (single mom, you know). Thinking of the fifteen million dollars he's paying her, Les Moonves may be feeling the same way.

The entertainment dud of the summer was Snakes On a Plane, a movie about some snakes on a plane. Millions downloaded the trailer and discussion boards sprang up everywhere, but like the Howard Dean campaign, it turned out to be an internet phenomenon that couldn't make the jump to reality. The sequel, Salamanders On Amtrak, has been indefinitely postponed.

Summer means sports, but sports meant disappointment. It was the summer of La Copa Mundial, the World Cup, the event that obsesses at least five billion people, or so we are continually told, and why can't America get with the program? Because every one of these international kickball-fests seems to end with a whimper. This year it was a penalty kick after a head-butt -- and a head-butt so fake-looking, it would have been laughed out of professional wrestling. Apparently the Italian player made a remark about the French player's sister. Good thing FIFA strictly enforces its "no mothers" rule; imagine the carnage. Americans love the mayhem of real football, blood on the ice of hockey rinks, basketball players who throttle their coaches and pursue fans into the seats. We want to know why the world can't get with that program.

We also expect plucky Americans to overcome their physical disabilities and beat those snooty Frenchmen at their own Tour de France. And it looked like we had another hero in Floyd Landis, with his damaged hip and quaint Mennonite background, until he tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance. Landis toured the talk shows for a while, offering his "knowingly"-based defense (as in, I never knowingly took steroids), but he hasn't been seen in a while. His team has lost its sponsor. Failure is an orphan.

Speaking of steroids, wasn't this supposed to be the year Barry Bonds got his comeuppance? Sportswriters who had named him Disagreeable SOB of the Year for over two decades were beside themselves, former girlfriends were lined up to testify against him, there was talk of drastic charges like perjury and tax evasion. Then -- what? The grand jury expired? The US attorney lost interest? Bonds passed Babe Ruth to take over second place on the home run list, and then settled down to the same mediocre season as the rest of the Giants. He's a middle-aged man with a dicey knee and a bad back, aggravated by the extra muscular bulk he chose to add. Will he catch Hank Aaron before (as those corny old NFL films used to put it) the calendar says no more? I guess we wait and see.

For a while, law-enforcement fans were looking forward to their first Trial of the Century. A down-and-out American named John Karr, possibly after watching Sullivan's Travels on Thai TV, realized he could get a free trip home from Bangkok by confessing to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. There must have been hundreds of such confessions in the past ten years, but the Boulder prosecutor chose to take this one seriously. A dozen or so officers were sent to bring Karr home, while the networks dragged out videos of the grotesquely-painted child strutting like Mamie Van Doren (do I date myself? very well, then, I date myself). Every stage of his progress was covered as minutely as a papal visit, but alas, a DNA swab soon relegated Karr to the category of Delusional Creepy Guy, and only some child-porn charges in California kept it from being a complete waste of time and money. A few cable outlets tried to extend the story by covering their own coverage (excessive? nous?), but it was no use.

The biggest flop of the summer from every point of view was Israel's klutzkrieg in Lebanon. After years of harrassing Israel with rockets, Hizbollah raided a border post, killing one soldier and capturing two. Something had to be done, it was decided, and an inexperienced prime minister allowed an air force general to persuade him that the goal of uprooting and destroying Hizbollah could be achieved by bombing alone. If anything, the rocket attacks increased during the bombing campaign, so reservist ground troops were hastily called up and sent across the border. Instead of a few suicide bombers, they encountered a well-armed, well-trained, entrenched fighting force. At the height of the "war," the New York Times ran a front-page photo of two young Israeli soldiers who looked like they had fought their way across Okinawa; in a way, they had. Unprepared for a long campaign, Israel soon accepted a UN-brokered cease-fire; they had achieved none of their goals, and quite a few of Hizbollah's: killing and wounding a lot of people, some of them actually connected to Hizbollah; shredding the infrastructure of the only other democratic, multi-cultural, quasi-secular state in the region; enraging the Islamic world (and no doubt creating many more jihadis, as our intelligence agencies will inform us in about eighteen months); revealing the impotence of the Lebanese government, and leaving Hizbollah firmly in control of the country. When they formally assume power -- democratically or by military coup, it hardly matters which -- they will transform Lebanon into a copy of Iran. Sunnis and Christians will have few rights, women will have none, and the decisions of the mullahs will be final. The giant rally last week in Beirut should give comfort to no one; if I owned a house in Haifa, I wouldn't try for a second mortgage any time soon. And the two Israeli soldiers? Nobody has seen them since July.

Can it get any worse? Iran, with its regime of fundamentalist fruit-bars, has been handed the one thing it lacked: an excuse to pursue its program of developing nuclear weapons (at an underground site, for sure, untouchable by aerial bombardment). "Look what the Israelis did to Lebanon!" they will say. "Look what the Americans are doing to Iraq! Notice how they never attack nuclear powers like Pakistan or Egypt. We need our nukes for self-defense. We're surrounded by crazy people!" Are they wrong? When tough, smart Israelis behave like reality-challenged Americans, it's hard to argue.