Saturday, July 21, 2007

Welcome back, Potter

It's been unusually quiet today, except for the ghostly swoosh of turning pages, as millions of Potterites dig into the books they got hold of early this morning. It's easy for a hardened old cynic like me to make fun of people who stand in line for mass-produced consumer items, whether toys, telephones or books. Not as if this is the absolutely final farewell performance of Barbra Streisand or the Rolling Stones (hah!). If they run out, they'll make more. Extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds, right? Calvin Trillin used to make fun of the British and their willingness to join a queue, any queue. There's a joke in Moscow On the Hudson, too -- Robin Williams gets into a long, long line on a snowy Moscow street and only then asks what it's for (toilet paper, as it happens). But Americans? Accustomed to having every need instantly gratified out of the bounty of our fruited plain (for cash, of course)? Ask and we shall receive. Not so fast, says J.K.Rowling or Steve Jobs, so we line up meekly, like a Muscovite in an ill-fitting overcoat. We hate waiting for gas or stamps or the next teller at the bank, but we'll sit all night for an X-Box or a phone that stores every song ever recorded.

As I said, easy to make fun. But I think I understand the phenomenon of Americans seeking to form a community with strangers who seem to understand us and share our obsessions. Even if all you have in common is the willingness to wear a wizard hat in public, you're a family standing together against an indifferent world. It's especially poignant because the objects they covet are intended to be consumed in solitude. (Another joke: if you're in line to buy an iPhone, chances are you don't have anyone to call.) Shopping and consuming and shopping again no longer makes us happy. We're queuing for company.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Ocean flight

Last May the eightieth anniversary of Charles A. Lindbergh's solo flight from New York to Paris came and went without much notice. Last week, Turner Classic Movies got around to showing The Spirit of St. Louis, the film released back on the thirtieth anniversary. I had forgotten it was in color -- and splendid WarnerColor, indeed, in the video transfer. Usually I have the same problem as Orson Welles in sitting through movies more than two hours long -- my back starts to hurt -- but I've decided the extra length conveys the tedium and exhaustion of the non-stop flight which lasted more than thirty hours. Imagine how much Lindy's back must have hurt.

I never understood why Billy Wilder, who lost most of his family in the Holocaust, agreed to direct a movie about this arch-isolationist, anti-Semite and cheerleader for the Luftwaffe. True, Lindbergh served with distinction in the Army Air Corps once the United States got into the war (I believe as a test pilot). And the Cold War demanded that his image be burnished, just as it required the denigration of those deemed "prematurely anti-fascist," meaning they had signed the wrong petition or attended the wrong meeting before December 8, 1941. But surely that was a job for Raoul Walsh or John Ford, not the director of inky melodramas like Sunset Boulevard and Ace In the Hole. Of course, the answer was right there in the title: it's not called The Lone Eagle, after all. The Spirit of St. Louis tells the story of the profound relationship between a plane and a man.

We see the Spirit being designed, being built, and finally being modified for its flight. We hold our breath waiting to see if it will clear the trees and power lines at the end of the foggy runway. We descend with it through the clouds to skim the roofs of St. John, Newfoundland, before heading out to open water. We see it nearly ditch as ice coats the wings and propellers, only to live through the night and amaze the hands on an Irish fishing boat. With only the crudest navigation aids, Lindbergh is not always sure where he is, but the Spirit seems to know the way, even when its dozing pilot lets it circle aimlessly. The movie ends (tacked-on newsreel footage aside) not with the delirious reception at Le Bourget, but with man and slightly tattered craft alone in a hangar. Wilder ignores the turbulent life that followed that pure achievement.

Lindbergh's background as a World War I flier, barnstormer and mail pilot is folded into flashbacks and dream sequences. Yes, Jimmy Stewart was too old by 1957, but for the life of me I can't imagine James Dean in the role (the first choice according to the Internet Movie Database). The very young Gary Cooper would have been ideal, but you go into production with the actors you have. Perhaps the weirdest episode has Lindy giving flying lessons to a priest (the playwright and Algonquin Round Table regular Marc Connelly, of all people) who doesn't care if he never learns to land because God is watching over him. I defy you to watch this post-9/11 without a tiny chill. Of course, his St. Christopher medal will make a miraculous appearance in the closing moments of the Paris flight and help the disoriented pilot to land. Yeah, right. As a New Yorker, I don't care for faith-based aviation.

Around 1930, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill wrote a cantata about this episode called "Ocean Flight." When Lindbergh went over to the dark side, they simply removed his name, just as Beethoven had deleted Napoleon from the Third Symphony. Heroes have a genius for breaking our hearts, if we let them. It seems we need them more than they need us. But the Spirit -- you can see it in the Smithsonian -- never let anybody down.

Politics as usual, as usual

By now you must be aware that Al Gore III was arrested in California for drug possession and speeding in a Prius. (A Prius -- heh heh.) You must be aware, because it was on the national news, the local news, the entertainment news, the business news, and I think I heard it mentioned on "Baseball Tonight." (Well, young Gore does look a little like Boog Powell, the Orioles slugger of the Sixties and Seventies.) With all that coverage, there was only passing mention of the other driving-related story of the week: Rudolph Giuliani's car ran out of gas in New Hampshire -- in the middle of a Fourth of July parade.

If we actually had a "liberal media" in this country, that would have been their lead for three days: "Rudy's energy policy: get out and push." "He wants to lead the most powerful nation on earth, and he can't read a fuel gauge." "Doesn't he know cars need gas? No wonder it took him six years to realize he'd married his cousin." Then a segue into the previous week's story, about the South Carolina chairman of Rebs for Rudy, or whatever it's called, being charged with dealing cocaine, tied together with the old Kinks song "Gallon of Gas." ("I can score you some coke and some grade-A hash, But I can't buy a gallon of gas.") "Badger News: Don't Mourn -- Organize! Stay tuned for the Howard Zinn Show." Ah, well...

So where were the Boys on the Bus? With so many candidates, they may be spread as thin as American forces in Iraq. A lot of them cover Fred Thompson in the hope that his wife will have a Janet Jackson moment. Others are waiting for Tommy Thompson, the other white meat, to issue his position paper on "African-Americans and Rhythm." (Tommy, you may recall, kicked off his campaign with a speech praising the Jewish people for their extraordinary ability to make money.) A few are waiting to catch Mitt abusing another mutt. (You strap one dog to the roof of your car and some people never let you forget it.) So much triviality, so little airtime.

I admit it: I have a serious jones for Republican political news, especially now with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report in reruns. The Democrats are so cautious. They're all about crafting the message and explicating the position and trying not to make a single gaffe during this endless trek to the election. One or two have already selected the Bible verse they will place their hands on while being sworn in, they're that confident. (Bill's Bible tends to fall open to the Song of Solomon, and Hillary isn't taking any chances.) It's a good thing they come in different colors and genders, because there's not that much to choose among them. The Republicans, by contrast, take one look at Albatross George and his even more hated puppet-master Draft Dodger Dick, and sigh inwardly. Even before the Libby liberation, they had the proverbial snowball's chance, so they don their hand-tailored suits, put a shine on their Italian loafers, and say whatever comes into their tiny minds.

I can't wait for the next big "debate." I want the moderator to ask for a show of hands from those who believe in gravity. "Newton's Law? More like Newton's theory. Eve picked the apple, it didn't fall down by itself." I'd like to know if El Gitmo Grande will require the annexation of an entire Cuban province. Or perhaps President Sarkozy would like to sell us Devil's Island. Who would introduce the guillotine for abortion providers, as in the Third Reich? Mr. Hunter? And you'd also construct a permanent evangelical "Hell House" on the Mall, opposite the Joe McCarthy Monument? (Fifty years after his death, it's shameful that Tail Gunner Joe is hardly remembered in the city that once trembled before him, like Rome before Scarpia.) Is it enough to build a fence along the Mexican border? Shouldn't we also deploy guards with searchlights and machine guns, like those who manned the Berlin Wall? Maybe the same ones. Tax cuts? School vouchers? Shoes for the dead?

Murray Kempton wrote, "Presidential campaigns do us no special mischief except by breeding and spreading the germs of the delusion that vast and salutary changes are once more ours to arrange." Got my beer and my nachos -- on with the show.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Conservative compassion

It seems that I'm the only smith down here in Blogenheim who wasn't shocked -- shocked -- when Bush commuted the grueling 30-month prison term that I. Lewis Libby earned when he decided to obstruct justice and commit perjury. Writers who claimed they saw it coming even before the verdict were still trembling with outrage at such utter contempt for the rule of law, etc., even though the rule of law in this country wears the idiot grin of Alberto Gonzales and practically clamors for contempt. Surely even Bush couldn't comply with all the Libby fans who alternately pleaded with Judge Walton and threatened to fuck him and his family up. OK, maybe an out-the-door pardon, but he'd have to do at least as much time as Martha Stewart. As Paris Hilton?

I saw this coming, I blush to admit, back when Patrick Fitzgerald was still gathering evidence. Remember Hurricane Katrina? Of course you do. Worst natural disaster in a century, thousands dead, tens of thousands displaced, whole districts of New Orleans still MIA, and the end of Michael Brown's illustrious career of public service. When Bush finally noticed, apart from glancing out the window of Air Force One as he sped off to another vacation, it was to coin the immortal phrase "Heck of a job" for "Brownie," and to pose for some pictures with confused-looking children. Then it was off to Mississippi, where he finally managed to make a real, human connection with somebody. On and on he rattled about Trent Lott's lost beach house, the good times they had had on the porch and would have again, for the house, like the South, would rise again, a symbol of hope for America and the world. Even Lott looked embarrassed, and he's fairly shameless. At the time, it was dismissed as yet another manifestation of Bush's tin ear, his ability to say the wrong thing in any given situation.

Actually, Bush is 100% pure tin. He is incapable of empathizing with anyone who is not exactly like him -- white, rich and privileged. Certainly not the desperate of New Orleans, "so poor and so black," as Wolf Blitzer gracelessly put it. Not the death row inmates executed with mechanical regularity while he sat in the governor's office in Austin, most of them black and brown, all of them poor and obscure. (It is said that Gonzales, already a practiced toady, would amuse his master by reading the clemency petitions aloud in a comical manner -- he do the condemned in different voices -- so Bush could have a laugh before refusing them. It's all right to imagine Rigoletto and the dissolute Duke.) Did they have young children who would "suffer" like the Libby kids? Who cared? Time for the next fundraiser, the next prayer breakfast.

When you hear Bush's horrible mother chortling about how lucky the "underprivileged" were to find beds in the Astrodome, you begin to understand him. It takes an extraordinary individual to escape the gravitational pull of a powerful family, a powerful father, and create his own trajectory. The most Bush can manage is a bottled-up resentment of the man who did everything a little better, who even grew taller, and upon whom he has always depended to clean up his messes. Maybe if H.W. had let W. spend a few nights in the drunk tank or try to get into college on his own -- all right, vocational school -- he would have developed some character, and the, I can't bear to go into that. It may be George and Barbara's fault that he is what he is, but it's our fault that he is where he is. And what are we going to do about it?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Dear Gordon

I've been following your Doctors' Plot, and frankly, I'm disappointed. Our Timothy McVeigh, with only a high school education, built a very impressive truck bomb in Oklahoma City some years back. Your guys are doctors, and they couldn't even blow up a car in Picadilly. It doesn't take any skills to smash a van into an airport terminal, especially when you know you're about to be arrested because your left your phone behind. Using Mercedes was a nice touch, though -- apparently your physicians do all right in spite of the National Health.

We look to you for frothing demagogues and disaffected youth, and you're giving us the kind of sad losers we can grow right here. Remember the old men who were going to blow up Kennedy Airport, if they could just get hold of some explosives? Or the slacker terrorists who taped themselves plotting in a suburban rec room: "So we get some pizzas, right, and we go over to Fort Dix? Like, they gotta let us in with pizzas." "Dude, should we get different toppings or all the same?" "How much money do we have?" Plots that are foiled not by the FBI, but by the kid who does the video transfers at Fotomat.

Please understand: We depend on you. We have a huge government bureaucracy called the Department of Homeland Security, whose sole purpose is to keep Americans frightened so they won't object to the loss of their freedoms, or ask if it's really a good idea to give assault rifles to the shoot-first-think-later cops who killed Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell with ordinary handguns. Without the periodic panics triggered by bombshells like last summer's Hair Gel Plot (well done!), how can we justify its enormous budget, accumulated by steadily de-funding frills like education, meat inspectors and air traffic control?

As you re-organize your government and cobble together your constitution, please to keep us in mind, Gordon. What about a Ministry of Excitable Anxiety? MI-9, devoted entirely to sheep bombs? The occasional firecracker set off at Royal Ascot or Wimbledon would be much appreciated. Anything to keep the Terror Alert Level nice and high until our next elections. And yours, of course, my dear prime minister.

So long, and thanks for all the fear.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Big Push

What were you doing, fellow New Yorkers, around seven o'clock on this perfect summer morning? Walking the dog, buying the paper, getting ready to attend the church of your choice? Were you taking advantage of the respite from heat and humidity to run in the park, bike through the lightly populated streets, or just sleep in? What you weren't doing was strapping on more than sixty pounds of equipment, uttering a brief prayer, and preparing to die.

Eighty-nine years ago, July 1, 1916, at 7:30 in the morning, British and French forces attacked the entrenched German army along the Somme River in a battle that would drag on until mid-November and kill -- nobody knows exactly how many. Estimates range from 200,000 to 600,000 dead on both sides. There was no strategic advantage when the snow finally fell and ended the fighting, but the Allies called it a victory because Britain and its vast empire could afford to lose more men than Germany. Like the medieval sieges that once took place within walking distance of the Western Front, it was a war of attrition on a gigantic scale. It changed everything, and nothing.

The Somme featured both a cavalry charge (horses, sabers, bugles even) and the first use of tanks. The cavalry came up late to hold a patch of ground laboriously taken by infantry, and then melted away. The tanks were ineptly used by commanders who adapted slowly, if at all, to new technology and scattered them along the line, where they frightened some Germans shitless but soon bogged down in mud or were blown to pieces by artillery as they lumbered at half a mile an hour in and out of craters and trenches. The battle also changed the clothing style of the British Expeditionary Force. Initially, officers wore distinctive uniforms and were also much taller than the working-class men they commanded, owing to superior nutrition. After the Somme, they dressed in khaki like the Other Ranks and, I should think, slouched a bit. It was also at the Somme that the Germans began using phosgene, or mustard gas, instead of the teargas they had used before.

Generals aside, we hardly know the names of French and German participants, apart from an Austrian-born corporal who served as a runner for the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment, one Adolf Hitler. The British, by contrast, fielded an anthology of writers: H.H. Munro (Saki), Edmund Blunden, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, David Jones, Wilfred Owen, the historian Basil Liddell Hart, and from the publishing family, Harold Macmillan. Their accounts of the battle, in fiction, memoir and poetry, continue to shape our perceptions of a war that began as glorious patriotism and quickly became pointless slaughter, a quagmire with no way out but exhaustion, starvation, and world-wide epidemic.

I'm not a historian, though I've read as much as I could about this war, which seems to me unbearably poignant, the real end of the nineteenth century with its limitless belief in progress and technology. I rattle these facts off because last night, completely by chance (or was it?), I happened to pick up an article I had removed from a long-gone copy of Horizon magazine, probably written in the 1970s, by Robert Cowley. He walked the battlefield, examined the Thiepval memorial arch with its 73,077 names, talked to survivors. (According to the invaluable blogger This Old Brit, only one veteran survives today, with the wonderfully English name Harry Patch.) All credit, then, to Mr. Cowley.

There aren't a lot of parallels with the current Mesopotamian quagmire, apart from the obvious ones (commanders in constant communication with the Divine, dead and displaced civilians by the millions, phony outrage over WMDs versus phony outrage over a dead archduke nobody liked). So it goes. The vast conscript armies of World War I dwarf the "volunteers" of the US military and the shadowy "insurgents" they oppose. The fighting stretched from, well, Baghdad to Siberia to the English Channel. Of course, Operation Iraqi Freedom has lasted longer, will soon have lasted longer than the Seven Years War, unless Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi suddenly sprout backbones.

If we have learned anything, it's that the peace is even more important than the war, and the peace that followed 1918 was what Harry Patch and his mates would have called a complete bollocks. The Treaty of Versailles might as well have been subtitled "A Blueprint for World War II." Well-meaning outsiders, mostly for their own convenience, created new states called Yugoslavia and Iraq, which maintained their structural integrity as long as ruthless dictators were in place to solder the cracks of internal strife. When Tito died in his bed and Saddam Hussein fell afoul of the Bush Crime Family, ancient hatreds broke free. Tired old empires disappeared from the world stage (the Ottoman, the Austrian), thrusting new ones took their place (the American, the Soviet). Civil liberties suffered a kick to the groin from the Wilson Administration, and in some ways never recovered. Black Americans won the Croix de Guerre in France and came home to The Birth of a Nation. All Americans came home to Prohibition. A majority thought we could return to our old isolated ways, protected by oceans. A generation was lost.

The Somme "breakthrough" was called the Big Push, which is a lot more fun to say than Surge, and even more sexually suggestive. (No, I'm not going into the weirdly erotic language of war, not at this time.) When the pushing stopped, the war had another two years to run, and countless more lives to destroy. A grateful nation made Haig an earl and gave him a whopping cash reward. I have no idea why. He died insisting that mounted cavalry, sabers flashing, would always have a place in war.