Wednesday, December 27, 2006

No Sanity Clause

Why do we put up with it? At this time of the year, when the days are short and the ground is cold, Nature is telling us that we're not so different from bears. We should eat a lot and find a warm place to sleep until April. Instead, we have invented holidays -- Solstice, Saturnalia, Festivus, Isaac Newton's Birthday -- that require us to dress up, decorate our homes with potentially deadly items (many involving fire), add crippling debt to our credit cards, and expose our seasonally depressed immune systems to crowds, alcohol, and oppressively bad music. The funeral industry could hardly have come up with a better promotional idea.

Christmas -- as we might as well call it -- has been a source of stomach-tightening discontent for centuries. The first Druid to harvest mistletoe from an oak tree in the bleak mid-winter was probably told to take that fungus right outside again and stop tracking snow into the mead-hall. Enjoined on pain of death to sing a hymn to Baby Jesus, some Romans went on muttering "Saturnus" under their breath until the Christians had to cut out their tongues to make a point about the new god in town. It is recorded that Frau Luther spent the entire Weihnacht cleaning up wax drippings and rolling her eyes after Martin decorated the very first Tannenbaum with candles and those little pretzels with the vanilla icing. I could go for some of them right now, in fact. Overeating is another of the season's dirty secrets, for which we have the permission of Irving, Dickens, and other nineteenth-century writers who didn't stuff themselves all year and were given to long walks, too. I think the fruitcake is a nineteenth-century invention; didn't Mark Twain learn to plumb the Mississippi by tying one to a line and throwing it in the water? And the music, if you can call it that. No terrestrial song contains the words "chestnut," "jingle" or "pa rum pa pum pum," so what planet does this stuff come from?

As if we didn't have enough trouble, Christmas has become No Man's Land in the increasingly ludicrous culture wars. Nobody can have missed the fact that it now begins with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, a wholly secular and mercantile event; but the right-wing rabble saw a chance to invent some secular-Darwinian-lesbian-Islamofascist "War on Christmas" that sensible people feel obliged to deny, using up valuable time they could spend napping. I'm always sorry to see the ACLU, usually among the most sensible, playing into their hands by filing lawsuits about "religious symbols" on public property and defending the right of weary cashiers to say "Happy holiday" instead of trying to guess what exactly you're shopping for. The Christmas the Fox News pulpit-pounders have in mind ceased to exist long ago, of course, but like the Bush regime, they don't let reality get in the way of a good, paranoid rant. So if the creche goes up, the menorah must also go up, and if not, then the trees have to come down, and Santa is all right because he's the distant relative of a Turkish bishop, but Frosty the Snowman is strictly treyf unless he's accompanied by a simpering Virgin and a shepherd with his painted hair peeling. And I say, enough.

If we were honest, really honest, we would adopt the menorah as our national symbol, and not just in December. Because it usually features candles, or those weird little orange bulbs, we forget that the menorah symbolizes the one thing American life cannot do without: oil. How miraculous would it be if the oil we have right now were to last, oh, eighty years? Think of the wars we wouldn't have to start, the Saudi asses our politicians would not have to kiss! Think of oil executives driving around Houston in their ten-year-old Chevys, their wives trundling shopping carts with industrial-size cases of frozen waffles through HugeMart, dreaming of the shoe sales at J.C. Penney, while tumbleweed blows through the parking lot at Niemann-Marcus. Best of all, we could give Messiah a moratorium and listen to Judas Maccabeus, a perfectly swell Handel oratorio and a lot shorter. I swear by Beelzebub, if I have to hear that chorus one more time I will run amok like King Kong. "HA-lelujah! HaleLUjah! HaLAYlujah!" Make up your mind which syllable to emphasize, will you! Yes, oil. We'd go right on burning it and not even making token efforts to find other energy sources, but we're going to do that anyway. Planet's broken. We can't fix it. We can only move to higher ground and keep a good eye out for angry, displaced bears. Bears who want only to sleep until April, which is what I should be doing.

A Ford, not a Lincoln

You know those movie stars who die, and you say, "I thought he died years ago"?

Gerald Ford was no Pinochet. No one will crowd the streets and plazas to celebrate his death. He ordered no torture, he made no one disappear; he also won no Nobel Peace Prize. As a member of the Warren Commission he may have helped cover up the crime of the century; if so, he had plenty of help. As a Navy officer and a member of Congress, he did his job competently; look how badly he could have done it. All Presidents pardon criminals; in Ford's case, the crook he pardoned just hadn't been tried yet. He was the husband of a brave, intelligent woman, and she loved him; I respect that. Maybe he was a little smarter than he seemed, always falling over and getting beaned by golf balls and shot at by deranged women. After a Great Communicator with nothing much to communicate, and a Decider who invariably makes the wrong decision, we could do a lot worse than a well-meaning doofus. We probably will. Fortunately, it's not my job to eulogize him in platitudes that clang with irony.

We may be bad at most things, from car-making to nation-building, but we can still do ceremonial better than almost anybody but the British. Just look at that bathetic display they put on for old Rumsfeld, everything but the bagpipes and the eternal flame, and he was just a failed cabinet member resigning in disgrace. For Jerry they'll roll out the Lincoln catafalque, the white horses, the Marines in their minstrel-show gloves, the CEOs of the religion corporations. Clinton will squeeze out a tear, Carter will look old, and Daddy Bush will try not to wince as Junior proclaims Ford's greatness with big words he practiced half the night. Dubya, who attends no funerals for the men and women he sends back again and again to Iraq, who meets no caskets at Dover Air Force Base, will snuggle up to this death while mentally planning his own glorious send-off. It comes with the job, no matter how appallingly you do it.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Eagle, sore

Eric Rudolph
Federal Supermax Prison
Florence, Colorado

Dear Eric,

I was so sorry to read that you are not enjoying your stay in the "Alcatraz of the Rockies." Something about a lack of "social and environmental stimuli" being bad for your mental and physical health. You know what's also bad for the health? Potassium cyanide. I assume that's why you cut a deal with the Justice Department to avoid being injected with it. At the time, I thought you got off lightly because Bush and Ashcroft are also born-again Christians with a flair for violence. I may have been wrong about this.

But you have a point. As a terrorist, you should have been assigned to Guantanamo. Nobody there has even been charged with a crime, so a convicted murderer like you would be an instant celebrity. Taking a cue from Ann Coulter, you could then set about converting your fellow inmates to Christianity -- your brand of Christianity (and Coulter's, I'd guess), where you get to kill anyone who disagrees with you. From what I've heard, it isn't so far from their brand of Islam. You might end up collaborating on a new, hybrid religion, nominally Christian but polygamous, deeply intolerant and reactionary, and -- no, wait, that's Mormonism. Never mind.

For centuries, prisoners have made use of their copious free time to create work of lasting value, from The Consolation of Philosophy to Letters From a Birmingham Jail (not so sure about the creepy clown paintings of John Wayne Gacy). The days will pass more quickly if you try doing the same. You have what every writer dreams of: a room of your own, three meals delivered every day, and plenty of privacy and quiet. Instead of whiny letters to the Army of God complaining about the food, here are some suggestions:

Give us your spiritual autobiography. Suggested title: They Blowed Up Real Good: Why God Told Me To Kill People. By the time you have a couple of chapters to show her, I'm sure Judith Regan will have found another job in book publishing.

Read the Bible backwards, in case it contains hidden Satanic messages. I'm not saying it does; I'm not saying it doesn't.

Learn a dead language and write the screenplay for Mel Gibson's next blockbuster. Manx, maybe, or Akkadian. Interesting guy, Mel, I'm sure you'll have a lot to talk about.


Close your eyes and imagine you are in a regular American prison. Now imagine your are somebody's bitch. OK? Now, go fuck yourself.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Shame the devil

Near the end of the movie Quiz Show, Charles Van Doren, prodded by a combination of his own conscience and a Congressional subpoena, appears before a committee investigating rigged television game shows. Employing sincerity and charm, as well as rhetorical tropes from the English literature he teaches to dazzled Columbia undergraduates ("I have flown too high on borrowed wings"), he both confesses and finesses his defrauding of the public. Since Van Doren is a beloved media celebrity, the Congressmen rush to thank him for his courage and probity. Then one committee member -- a minority member, no doubt -- remarks with exasperation, "I don't think an adult of your intelligence should be congratulated for finally, simply telling the truth." There is a moment of silence, and then, far up in the gallery, somebody starts to clap. Others join in until the applause fills the room, while the embarrassed chairman gavels for order.

I thought of that scene when Robert Gates appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to compete on "Who Wants To Be Secretary of Defense?" As someone noted, after Rumsfeld the Senate would have confirmed a house plant, but everyone pretended there was a lot at hazard here. "Dr. Gates," intoned one Senator -- by the way, when someone in public life uses the title "Dr." and is neither a physician nor a clergyman (Dr. Kissinger, Dr. Rice, and as long as she's in the news, Dr. Kirkpatrick), be sure you will sooner or later be sold a big old barrel of horse feathers. Keep your hand on your wallet and don't make eye contact. Where was I? "Dr. Gates," he asked, "are we winning the war in Iraq?" Gates paused, as if an adult of his intelligence had to think about it. "No, sir," he said. Nobody in the gallery applauded, but I knew it was all over bar the voting.

Having a Secretary of Defense with some grasp of reality is not much to cling to, but it's all we have. Bush doesn't get it, and he never will. When the Republicans lost control of Congress, he posed for a few tight-faced pictures with the new leadership and immediately left for Jordan, Latvia, anyplace that would have him, clearly hoping that Daddy would once again clean up the mess and make the bad Democrats go away. When the bare-facts report of his own Iraq Study Group was ready, he summoned the British prime minister ("Yo Blair!") to share the blame, responding with sarcasm and rage when British reporters dared to ask non-nerfball questions. This is a sad little neurotic who has been spared every character-building opportunity from childhood to the 2000 elections, and Daddy made him that way, though many millions share responsibility for putting him where he is. The next time somebody tries to pull a fast one in Florida or Ohio, I hope we will display some of the resolve and outrage demonstrated by the voters of Mexico who perceived that their election had been hijacked. We cannot afford any more Bushes. We must restore this country's once-friendly relations with reality. We must remember how to tell the truth.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Red alert

Don't look now, but the United States is missing out on a chance to do what it does best: feel good about itself by crushing a helpless little country in its own back yard.

Last month, while Americans were distracted by their own election results, the people of Nicaragua quietly re-elected Daniel Ortega president. Back in the 1980s when his Sandinistas first came to power (also by being democratically elected), they posed such a dire threat to our freedom that the Reagan Administration flouted Congress and proceeded with what became known by the shorthand term Iran-contra. That is, they sold weapons to Iran - yes, that Iran -- to raise money for a group of Nicaraguan terrorists (or were they freedom fighters?) known as contras. Had they not done so, they assured us, these dangerous revolutionaries would have landed in Texas -- I believe Harlingen was the designated invasion site -- and proceeded to...well, it was never very clear. Far from praising the administration for its initiative, Congress was outraged. Hearings were held. Reagan himself was forced to testify under oath, which required him to pretend he knew nothing about the operation (or was he pretending?). Plucky Oliver North, commander of the Lying Leathernecks, was actually convicted of perjury, and only a Reagan-appointed appellate judge delivered him from prison and onto the payroll of Rupert Murdoch. Dark days, my friends. The Sandinistas were indeed overthrown, when the Nicaraguans voted them out of office, but it was a narrow escape.

Taking no chances, the first Bush Administration identified Manuel Noriega as yet another dark cloud on our horizon. Noriega was no leftist; some whispered that he was a CIA "asset" set up in the drug busi-- I mean, recruited -- by Director Bush himself. Something about a falling out among crooks? Anyway, since the Panamanians wouldn't turn him out, we had to. The war on Panama was a textbook example of post-Vietnam American militarism: state-of-the-art weaponry unleashed on urban slum-dwellers, send in the Marines, bad-guy president kidnapped, mission accomplished, victory parade. Then it was on to another murky but short war for the freedom-loving people of Kuwait, who needed to be rescued from Saddam Hussein ("worse than Hitler," Poppy assured us). More victory parades, delirious approval ratings. No second term, though; apparently, it was the economy, stupid.

So the Sandinistas are back in Managua, with no ties to the extinct Evil Empire and minimal support from the impoverished and moribund Castro regime. This time, however, they are only one of many left-leaning governments in Latin America, including Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay and (according to many outraged Mexicans) Mexico. In normal times, the US would be alternating between military threats and barely covert support for death squads and right-wing exiles. But with our military stretched to the breaking point and Iraq way past civil war and headed for anarchy, Bush the Slightly Lesser is missing his chance to stiffen Republican groin gristle with a short, nasty war. A war he could actually win. A war drenched with nostalgia for San Juan Hill, Santo Domingo, Death to Pancho Villa, and all our other lovely adventures south of the border. The kind of war Gen. Smedley Butler was talking about when he called himself and his beloved Marine Corps "gangsters" for American commercial interests.

And that's my recommended daily allowance of irony, thank you.