Thursday, January 25, 2007

Fun's over

When the nation was new, presidents met their Constitutional obligation by preparing a written report on the state of the Union, which was read to Congress by a clerk. These were busy men: Washington had rebellions to quell, Adams was looking for ways to circumvent the Bill of Rights, and Jefferson, we now know, was studying the Koran. Besides, having the Executive climb the hill and address the Legislature, with the Judiciary looking on, was too much like a royal ritual they had fought a long war to shake off, the State Opening of Parliament.

As the Republic slouches toward empire, all our political rituals have become Vegased-up parodies of British originals: the bloated quadrennial coronations, the protracted state funerals, the showering of medals and decorations on the deserving and meretricious alike. All we lack, and it's in our favor, is a centuries-old tradition of deference. Nobody expects the British monarch to be charismatic, or even interesting -- the trappings of office take care of that. (As they teach in the military, you salute the rank, not the person.) We still expect our heads of state to deliver.

It seems beside the point to complain that Bush's song-and-dance lacked surprise or entertainment value. We have had six interminable years to learn exactly what he believes -- I nearly wrote "thinks" -- about everything from taxes to warrantless wiretaps to the warm, fuzzy soul of "Put-Put" Putin. There are no depths, hidden or otherwise. Even the jokey commentators lost interest: The Colbert Report and David Letterman had identical schtick about the number of times Cheney and Pelosi blinked, and neither one was funny. Condoleezza Rice provided some welcome comedy, and will probably be a popular Halloween mask this year, but so help me, I think the woman was just stifling a yawn. Next year, why not slap a coat of paint on the podium and we can all watch it dry?

The ceremony is over. Congress can now return to debating the precise language of its non-binding resolution in opposition to the deployment of more troops to Iraq. If George W. Bush is a more bumptious version of Elizabeth II outlining the legislative agenda of "My Government" (he wouldn't be so perky if he had to perform with a six-pound crown on his head), Congress has placed itself in the great tradition of Pontius Pilate. The blood of these Americans is not on our hands. See, we passed a resolution. Not our responsibility.

But it is. We didn't put the Democrats in charge for non-binding resolutions, nor for proclamations of John Greenleaf Whittier Day, nor for shout-outs to the Licking County Consolidated Middle School Championship Soccer Team. We put them there to get our troops out of this insane war, which we cannot win and where we can only make things worse. Maybe they can still accomplish something in Afghanistan, but setting them up as targets for Sadr's militias is lunacy. If the Democrats don't figure this out, and soon, they won't be in charge for long. By any means necessary.

It's nearly February, and all we've heard so far is that impeachment is "off the table." Fine. What's on the table? Chairman Rangel, when will we have hearings on your bill to reinstate the draft? It doesn't have a hope in hell, everyone knows that. That was never the point, was it? Chairman Waxman, if ever a government needed close oversight, it's this one. You used to be known as the Fastest Subpoena in the West. Has twelve years' inactivity slowed you on the draw? Chairman Conyers, how does this chancre Gonzalez get away with firing the US attorney who prosecuted Duke Cunningham, and half a dozen other US attorneys who were closing in on the Axis of Abramoff? I know you're old enough to remember the night Nixon fired Archibald Cox. What are they afraid of?

More important, what are you afraid of? You control both houses of Congress (hang in there, Senator Johnson). That means you don't have to worry about Murdoch's mendacious meat-sacks. You aren't going to make them like you. Screw them. You work for us, and we want the war over. Look at Bush's approval rating -- it they were taking polls in 1868, Andrew Johnson would have had better numbers. We aren't going to question your patriotism when you stop throwing our money away in Iraq and start spending it to rebuild New Orleans (for just one example). We no longer believe these weasels. We want to see them running to the Capitol with their lawyers as fast as their fat little legs can carry them. We want to watch them squirm on C-SPAN and sweat on C-SPAN2. We want them looking crappy because they were up all night shredding evidence. We want them ken-starred until they can't see straight, much less think of new ways to spy on us and wreck the world.

All right, don't impeach them. Tar and feather them, for all I care, but get to work.


Saturday, January 20, 2007

If it bends, it's funny

Maybe it's a generational thing, nil nisi bonum and all that, but I never found Art Buchwald funny. Back in the high school days, when I was reading my way through the humor section of the library, I plowed through a collection of his columns because everyone said it was the last word in satire; I found platitudes, predictability and journalese, without the whimsy of Benchley, the cattishness of Parker, the dated but still sharp observations of Ade, or the mad verbal skills of Perelman. Maybe the problem is Washington itself, and the paralyzing fear of being banned from the best parties. Maybe the long-paved-over but still potent swamp vapors jumble the wits. Maybe Buchwald was funny once, but too many people told him so -- including Russell Baker, a much better writer -- and the pilot light went out. As for today, well, Maureen Dowd would rather be liked than funny, and Mark Russell is just drunk-uncle embarrassing.

And not surprisingly, the White House correspondents have selected funnyman Rich Little to be host of their annual frolic. (Mr. Little was not their first choice, but Sam Levinson was unavailable and Topo Gigio's name is on a watch list.) Last year's event was something of a debacle: the entertainment committee apparently thought Stephen Colbert really was the clueless hyperpatriotic blowhard he portrays on The Colbert Report, and he apparently thought the task of a satirist is to speak Truth to well-fed, gently belching Power. None of the imperial courtiers dared show their teeth, but America was still laughing on election day.

Calm down. Mr. Little has been ordered not to mention Iraq, Iran, FEMA, Jack Abramoff, the economy, Gitmo, Rumsfeld, Shiites, Sunnis, hangings, Barack Obama, Jack Murtha, Nancy Pelosi, Cindy Sheehan, the Chinese missile defense system, the Dixie Chicks, Kanye West, Valerie Plame, Kim Jong-il, Mark Foley, stem cells, evolution or Stephen Colbert. It should be much more tasteful this year. Ju-just wait a second, now, till ya he-hear his hilarious Jimmy Stewart. I'm peeing already.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Arsenal of kleptocracy

Last night Brian Williams had a dying-fall, end-of-an-era item about the Ford Motor Company, where the automotive industry was born a century ago, being eclipsed right here in the Homeland by Toyota. This was followed by a filmed report on a third-generation family Ford dealership struggling to survive. No mention of the thousands of additional layoffs which will almost certainly occur in the next few months -- worrying about Joe Lunchbox is so twentieth century.

No consumer is surprised Americans can't make a car or truck that Americans want to buy. We also can't make an aspirin bottle which can be opened by an adult with mild arthritis, because everything has to be kiddie-proofed. We can't make toilet paper that doesn't shred and dissolve before it gets the job done. And lest you think our incompetence is confined to the bathroom, we now learn that we can't make (or at any rate, have yet to make) a system for intercepting and destroying rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) before they kill American troops. This is a significant failure, because the RPG is the weapon of choice for guerrillas fighting against invaders with jeeps, tanks and helicopters.

The Israelis have a very good system, but the Pentagon refuses to consider buying it because this would jeopardize billions of dollars in future contracts for companies like Raytheon, which expects to have a prototype ready to test within two years (and where procurement officers look forward to opulent employment when their government service ends). At last, the Bush "surge" makes sense: he's been told to keep the war going until they're ready. "We have to fight! I've already paid six months' rent on the battlefield!" (I find it helps to think of George W. Bush as Rufus T. Firefly without the claw-hammer coat and lancing wit.)

Two Americans were killed last week in Iraq by RPGs. At least two will be killed this week. Let's see, fifty-two weeks in a year...carry the four...oh, well, there are three hundred million of us. Failure is not an option.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Seeing is not doing

The most astonishing thing about Wesley Autrey's act of heroism -- jumping onto the tracks to save a stranger from an oncoming subway train -- is that it happened at all. How often is the right man in the right place at the right time? The second most astonishing thing is that we have not seen it. With all the spycams and cellphones, you'd think someone would have video. Evidently nobody goes to a comedy club or a hanging without a camera phone these days; where are the lookie-loos when something good happens, something that doesn't make you feel suicidal about belonging to the human species?

In the past -- a couple of years ago -- tourists lugged clumsy videocameras around New York. You could see them getting ready to film their families in front of Tiffany or the Rockefeller Center tree and discreetly walk around. Now the cameras are smaller and more ubiquitous, and urban people have learned to conduct themselves at all times as if they were being filmed, because they probably are. (Even the language has not caught up; we say "filmed" or "taped" although we are most likely being stored in a chip.) Most of us have happily surrendered all pretense to privacy in a delusional quest for safety which, we are told, is the sole purpose of all this surveillance. Americans boarding buses or entering museums calmly submit to the kinds of searches which used to be required only of visitors to maximum security prisons, or the White House, which amounts to the same thing. Judges have supinely signed off on these activities, as if the Fourth Amendment were to be more honored i' the breach than in the observance.

It is said that there are cameras which can look through our clothes, and presumably our flesh; one day you may get a letter from Homeland Security advising you to have that osteoarthritis in your knees treated. Had they been operating at, say, Logan Airport on the morning of September 11, 2001, they would have caught several neatly-dressed young men boarding flights to California, and detected objects in their pockets which might have been boxcutters, or toothbrushes. Could the cameras have looked into their minds and read their intentions? Government agencies are paying huge sums for technology said to be able to count the number of times we blink, or measure the dilations of our pupils, but then what? Another innocent person hauled out of line and renditioned off to Syria for a few months of torture in a rat-filled dungeon, another merry mix-up without so much as an apology from the Bush regime?

I like technology, I have a TV and a clock radio and everything, but there is no substitute for judgment and hard work. It's important that the FBI eventually get a computer network that works, but it's more important that the CIA share vital information with them, and that people in White House offices put down the shoe catalogue and pick up the memo, especially if Bin Laden's name is in the title. If people want to harm us, ultimately only people can save us -- thousands of people as brave, selfless, quick-thinking and resourceful as Wesley Autrey. Good luck finding them.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Low-tech lynching

The harsh light, the hooded executioners, the taunting do you watch the death of Saddam Hussein and not think of the good ol' days, and the good ol' boys who enforced American apartheid for nearly a century? Is this what the freedom-loving people of Iraq have learned from us? Prescott Bush's German business partners were treated with more dignity at Nuremberg.

Time for a new lesson: How to commit state killing. The appearance of dispassion is crucial. You're just doing a job, just enforcing the laws of the land, the decision of the court, the will of the people. Silently tell the condemned, This will hurt me more than it hurts you. Of course it's bullshit, but say it anyway. It will keep you from displaying your bloodlust, which is considered in poor taste. Don't worry, you'll get it. It just takes practice. We've been at it for 230 years, adoring ourselves as the light of the world while gassing, hanging, poisoning, and occasionally setting fire to our criminals. Most of them were actually guilty, like Saddam Hussein. Dignity, always dignity. And you might want to check for camera phones. If movie theatres can keep people from bringing them in, the Iraqi police, though incompetent to the point of slapstick, should be able to prevent it, too.

Next: When to pass the buck to The Hague. (Hint: are you currently engaged in a civil war?)