Archive for March, 2011

You’ve got to give Newt Gingrich credit. He manages to carry the torch of leading intellectual light of the Republican party, even as he says nonsensical things to boobs. It’s admirable because despite the fallibility of the man on paper, his celebrity is unshakable reality, the same way Kim Kardashian’s is. Just as she is now “a singer,” a fact true enough to resist critique since she indeed sings, Gingrich is now the Republican party’s thinker, because he indeed appears to be breathing and thus his thinking must be taken for granted.

His latest caveat to the faithful is that America within his grandchildren’s time will become socialist and secular but also Islamist. Work that out. He said it to a bunch of evangelicals. Not as a theologian, he reminded them, but as a historian, one who had nothing historical to point out except that everything the Christians believed was true. We might ask, if indeed the evangelicals are right, what need is there for history? What must a historian say to evangelicals? Why even wave those credentials? All we can find in history are strange peculiarities like the fact that our “Christian founding fathers” had several closet atheists among them, including chief framer Thomas Jefferson, who is mainly a Christian by default, since he held no beliefs recognizable to modern Christian ears. Gingrich is shocked that the courts of our country have grown “steadily more secular.” Yes, we should finds it indeed blood-chilling that secular courts should be the progeny of a manifestly secular document, the U.S. Constitution.

It’s chilling that a historian might not challenge a few people who might need a history lesson. Instead, he has done what historians ought not be in the business of doing: predicting the future. FYI: It’s Muslims everywhere. In our halls, streams and sink traps.

I once met a German filmmaker who was visiting our country during the thick of the Iraq War. He was shocked and disgusted by what he found. The generations of Germans who followed the Nazis had been, in the long process of de-Nazification, warned repeatedly about the misuses of propaganda, taught how to resist it when it was used by malefactors and mountebanks. And what had my German friend found when he got here: It appeared to him that the United States had not yet purged its own attraction to brazenly chauvinist, nationalist appeals by narrow minded politicians seeking short-term gain. Our country had seemingly vanquished his, but in the end we actually lost on the ideals. Sorry krauts, guess we owe you for that one.

Gingrich might still have a chance at becoming the presidential candidate in 2012, one whose past infidelities and marriage butchering (the kind of antics that make still-married Bill Clinton look positively saintly) will be a turn off to the one group he’s trying most desperately to court: the Bible thumpers.

The man is a tragic political figure in many ways. Even skeptics admit he’s always loved big ideas–he was a friend of the Internet early and seemed less a reactionary than a cold-blooded futurist, one whose clarity in a post-New Deal world might be necessary or even helpful (maybe even disinfected, we hoped, of racism). But in his other lung, he has always loved him the filthy smelly swill of partisan politics and been willing to roll in it like a pig in shit, loved it enough to compromise all his ideals for small political gains, been willing to lead a plurality of shitheads to minority political death. You might accuse Clinton of the same impulsive emotionalism, except that Clinton continued to pursue his big ideas and still manage to win elections (and remain married to his wife–as of 2011, anyway).

Gingrich, unlike Clinton, has always showed the unerring stupidity to win battles and lose wars. Now he would solve the problem of our political divisiveness by imposing a rigid Christianity throughout the land, something that independents, Obama skeptics that they are, will not tolerate.

The desperation and hind-titty playing is obvious almost daily as Gingrich tries to position himself as anointed 2012 white hope following Sarah Palin’s post-Tucson meltdown. Within a two-week period, Gingrich chastised Barack Obama both for going to Libya and for not going to Libya fast enough. He blasted an anti-authoritarian revolution in Egypt as being somehow corrupted by its occurrence in an Islamic country. He told Obama to act more like Reagan and less like Jimmy Carter. For those of you who trust “historian” Gingrich on this,  a bit of digging into a fifth grade history book will remind you that Jimmy Carter made peace between Egypt and Israel and Ronald Reagan led an air strike on Libya that failed to remove its president. There is a good reason to criticize Barack Obama’s approach to a troubled Libya. If Gingrich had gone for the analytical tack rather than the soundbytes, he might have ended up looking less like an idiot every time events changed within the day. Instead, he looks like he’s willing to say anything. He looks small.

I liken him to the conservative mirror image of Charles Foster Kane. The great man who might be lurking in there is too much a slave to his compulsions, even it seems to his libido. He cannot seem to get beyond the concept of “us” and “them,” and yet doesn’t seem to realize that his “us” is getting smaller and his “them” is increasingly including the rest of us.

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Looks like another Egyptian has been liberated, but it’s not good news this time.

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As we watch the crisis unfold in Libya, here’s a reminder to you liberals about what happens in liberal wars. Because liberals spend so much time building consensus, they never clearly define objectives the way a strongman would. Inadvertently, they cause more bloodshed. By contrast, more successful wars (by conservatives, we assume) tend to limit violence by creating strict guidelines, rules of engagement and precise military goals.

So what Ross Douthat is saying, I guess, is that conservative wars like those waged in Iraq go off without a hitch. Meanwhile, the U.S. intervention by liberals in places like Yugoslavia are nightmares. After all, the Yugoslavian War continues to drag on to this day while Iraq finished nicely. Rwanda is another good example. Thanks to our restraint there, Rwanda took care of itself. Just as certainly as Libya will.

I often read Douthat’s column only because it’s a fascinating character study of Ross Douthat himself. The guy is often reasonable, but he suffers from a personality crisis. People ought to define themselves politically by dealing with facts on their face. When they start to interpret, that’s when they figure out whether they are on the liberal or conservative side, generally. But Douthat is one of those sad creatures who does it backwards–like too many conservatives I know. Their identity as conservatives becomes more important to them over time than any particular beliefs. They seem to value mostly their membership in a team. If they are reasonable and consider their philosophies against the realities of the world (and that’s a big if), then like Douthat they must constantly draw and redraw the stencil lines of their political identity and then see  how the world fits into it.

Doesn’t work, kid.

Should I go the ultimate course, help Ross out and remind him what the “liberal” and “conservative” labels are–meaningless fictions? Changing styles that ought not to be defined so much as alluded to in generalities, as green phosphenes that disappear on the back of your eyes? Is being liberal or conservative really going to help you put the Libyan upheaval into a perspective? No. I think Ross would be a better writer if he realized this. Yes, I know, his being a young, idealistic conservative is the only thing that got him his job at the New York Times. But there are hordes of better (more experienced?) conservative columnists around. And his presence there sometimes seems to serve the same purpose that Alan Colmes’ did on Fox News–to look weak-chinned and not-so-bright next to the real stars.  Is it because he’s dumb or a bad writer? No. But he is a chalk artist of sorts–a man trying to constantly clarify for us skeptics what conservatism is in a changing world and who ends up trying to draw a figure in a rain storm. Yes, we know you all think Ronald Reagan saved the world. Doesn’t help us or you at this point.

At best, Douthat ends up looking like the kid in the choir trying to show how well he reads the book of hymns to the faithful. At worst, he ends up writing nonsensical articles like this one that needlessly insult the foreign policy victories of the Clinton era and especially insult those who took on wars for humanitarian issues alone, as if without a revenge factor, a war is a waste of time. Insulting humanitarian issues for one war (like Kosovo or Libya) and then hiding behind them for a war of aggression (like the one in Iraq) makes you simply an asshole.

The fact is, no war is good, even those that are sadly necessary. All of them begin to end political chaos and yet all of them ironically increase political complexity once they are started (even morally defensible ones like World War II). You often get to a point you never intended to be, and end up fighting for things you never started fighting for. You can’t control a war’s outcome, not if you’re a high-minded humanitarian trying to stop a massacre or if you’re a bullying empire trying to get more land. All you can do is try to control the variables. A good political leader might have tried, for example, to control American revenge lust in 2003 rather than exploiting it.

So there’s no need to pollute our arguments with ridiculous paradigms like conservative and liberal. When I explain to a person that the estate tax repeal was an abomination that was engineered by a few and served even fewer, I should not have to deal with the counterpoint, “You’re a liberal.” Ross Douthat is not as dumb as that, and yet he and the dummy who says it are thinkers of the same kidney. If you had just stuck with the facts, kid, “Maybe only a ground war could take Qaddafi out,” then I would have taken your article seriously and said you had a point. Instead, you want to make every article about Ronald Reagan and hometown values and a lot of other insipid garbage. It gets obnoxious and irritating to watch you grow up in public.

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Sum’thin’ Nice

Here’s a bit that I’ve been workin’ on for a while: “Five Wounds,” a guitar piece I wrote in the style of my hero John Fahey. It’s somewhere between folk-blues and muzak, but maybe you’ll like it. As always, I recommend you go listen to John Fahey for the real thing, but maybe this is good music for reflecting, digesting or doing your taxes.

The guitar is in standard tuning. If you can tell me what key I’m playing in, then you’re smarter than I am.

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I’m not a huge fan of sad anniversaries. I understand that it’s important to mark occasions like Sept. 11 so that people can perhaps exorcise demons and pains all at the same time. But I also know that grief has no clock. At some point, pain becomes ritual. And then, ritual becomes pain. Maybe even extends pain needlessly.

A year ago today I lost my mother in a car wreck. I have told my nephew, who was also in the wreck, that in no way should he hate St. Patrick’s Day, hate the Texas beach where he was going, hate the state of Texas (where it happened) or create any other long-lasting horrible psychological association where there need not be one. If you want to hate St. Patrick’s Day, then you ought to only because of the New York parade (just kidding, New York).

I get a lot of kind mail from readers and friends about the accident and I appreciate all of it. Suffice it to say that I’m looking back fondly at my mom, looking ahead with nervousness at my impending fatherhood, and making a lot of art in the meantime to stitch it all together before I myself drop dead. Love takes courage because we all face loss all the time. I keep that in mind not to be morbid, but because it makes joy, any joy, that much sweeter and the love we have that much better.

So here’s looking back at you, ma. Love you.

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Notes On Japan

One hesitates to harp on platitudes at such an awful moment for the people of northern Japan, when so many thousands of people have been killed in the deadly earthquake/tsunami, when we all watch in horror as trucks, fishing smacks and even houses float away and the people in the area are  threatened by nuclear reactor meltdown and radiation sickness. However, the human being is a narrative-seeking creature and we seek to reframe and reframe events even before they’ve finished eventing. So I will comment a bit on the comments, even as my heart thinks of Japan and its pain.

There are many issues here to wring hands over, one of the most high profile of which is the future of nuclear power. The disaster will likely set back the acceptance of this kind of energy creation all over the world, even though that would mean a continued reliance on fossil fuels that are not only contributing to global warming but also have their own safety issues and numerous catastrophes. Oil rig explosions and coal mine collapses don’t threaten thousands of people with thyroid cancer all at once, but cumulatively you could say that their effect is more insidious and more deadly. Last weekend, Slate offered a smart assessment of what might happen if we turn our backs on nuclear power. Unfortunately, the author wasn’t prudent enough to wait a few days to see whether some reactors in Japan might actually prang before assessing the situation. By the next day, his comments were already covered in cobwebs as the Fukushima Daiichi plant started leaking radiation. One reactor saw three backup cooling systems fail and its rods become dangerously exposed. By Wednesday, the U.S. government was telling Americans to stay 50 miles away from the plant.

There are lots of enthusiasts saying that with prudent policy (and the foresight not to build nuclear reactors on fault lines) then nuclear power still offers us the best way out of this hot house orchid environment we’re creating. But you’d also have to argue that it requires the right kind of oversight and regulation and the full confidence of people in a strong government. So for that reason, I’m still skeptical. Sure, levees work against floods, but as the people of New Orleans would tell you, they’re only as good as the bureaucracies that keep them up to date. Tight-fistedness over the expense for a decent levee system and jurisdiction arguments over emergency response led to the New Orleans catastrophe. Meanwhile, we could hardly trust a free market to take care of safety. In 2010, corporate cost cutting, arrogance and a past contempt for safety regulations at BP offered the backdrop for the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Twenty-one concrete stabilizers are great. Six are cheaper. That ought to be a sobering thought to free-market fundamentalists. Yet nothing sobers people drunk on ideology. Not even a plate of crow.

Japan’s government has also become the news. Supposedly, the island is run by a techocrats, not politicians. Who knew? Of course, you should have known, America, because you have 47,000 troops there and have helped run the place, at least militarily, since 1945. Though we didn’t exactly colonize Japan, the American influence on political life there is hard to ignore. America’s legacy, the article says, is a defanged political class in Japan, which has been led instead by integrated business and bureaucracy. As those sectors wane, no powerful political leadership apparatus has been built in their stead. The New York Times article is fascinating for bringing this up, but it also raises troubling political science questions about what leadership means. What the article seems to tacitly ask for is a grandstanding politician in Japan to mug in front of the cameras to tell people they are going to be all right. But I wonder to what extent that kind of leadership is the invention of the media, especially a cult-of-personality media like the kind we have here in the West. If I were in northern Japan right now, I’d want knowledgeable local leaders telling me the truth, dispensing facts and potassium iodide tablets and not lying to me about the real nuclear threat. The article also posits that Japan might benefit from a strong opposition party making political hay out of the catastrophe to offer accountability. But the Japanese, because of their cultural bias against (and, oddly, their subjugation by) a two-party country, don’t really have or want two strong parties of their own.

It reminds me again of Katrina. There are people who are still angry that that horrible turn of events in the weather was politicized. (Would Democrats have blamed Noah for the flood?) But if you have ever worked for the government, you know that the tragedy in the gulf was indeed a government failure–a small government failure, that is. You might see a power vacuum in Japan. But was it worse than the one we saw in New Orleans, where citizens in the richest country on earth were left dying in a parking lot for the whole world to see on CNN?

I wanted to send money to Japan, of course, but my favored organization, Doctors Without Borders, was not earmarking for the catastrophe. I wondered why and Slate again offered me some idea: Japan is too rich. The money earmarked for the tsunami might not be used. But it would be restricted and not redeployed, which means it sits in Japan and does nothing. And then if Turkey was ravaged by an earthquake next week, well … tough titty for Turkey.

I might anyway, just because I feel helpless and hurt for this country, which I visited last year and loved. Helplessness is probably part of the reason we tell stories and overanalyze. Just one of the ways we cope.

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What bourgeois distractions on television are keeping us from developing a class consciousness?

60 Animal Planet
Cats with Wigs

60 Animal Planet
Meerkats With Wigs

Jersey Shore with Wigs and Pasties

Skins … with Just Skin

10 CNN
The State of Wisconsin

Katherine Heigl’s got a new hairdo to frame her big mouth

8 Fox
“Cops”: Suppressing Your Class Consciousness With Blackjacks

This David E. Kelly comedy-drama perpetuates the meaningless fiction of due process as prisoners continue to rot in Guantanamo

18 PBS
The “filmmaker” who invented the Acorn scandal convinces Newt Gingrich that there’s a whorehouse on Sesame Street and that all the Muppets have the syph.

Anchor perpetuates the meaningless fiction of shareholder value by promoting stocks that likely pay no dividends

11 VH-1
Flavor of Luv perpetuates exploitation of Flavor Flav

12 Democracy Now
If it tastes good, it’s exploitation

15 TNN
It’s a rat, on a cat, on a dog! Brilliant!

13 Home Shopping Network
The brilliance of this gold necklace, which comes to you via the mercury poisoned blood of an artisan miner in Kenya

14 Fox News
Fox News, Now In Its 15th Year of Suppressing Your Class Consciousness

81 E! Entertainment Television
Dr. Drew’s Charlie Sheen Intervention-Palooza Featuring Kathy Griffin, Tony Danza, Snooki, Charo and RuPaul

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Now why, you ask, may I be thanking God for a lot of hate mongers? For people inflicting harm to the parents of dead soldiers? For people who have spurned every belief system but their own, even the dogmas of other Christians, and other Baptists to boot? Why would I thank people who use other people’s suffering as a way to draw attention to themselves and their megalomaniac founder, a fame whore about one step removed from Mark David Chapman in his utter depravity? Why would I draw your attention to people who have distilled only the pure hatred of a distant Hebrew deity without any of the mitigating love that was supposed to emanate from his son? (I’m an atheist, but I’m just asking here.)

I’m not just pointing it out because it’s timely (the Supreme Court recently decided that these God-fearing Christians could harass the families of dead soldiers any damn time they please to show God’s condemnation of America for its tolerance of gays). I point this out because we hate a lot, America. We’re good at it. It’s in our blood. If we all weren’t such consummate haters, Sean Hannity would never have brought these lunatics on the air in the first place. We like watching the Westboro crazies on Fox News because we enjoy the spleen it allows us to vent. In fact, I would say, taking a leaf from George Orwell’s 1984, that our hatred has taken on a nightly, regimented format, replete with car commercials and steak with shallots. Hatred was built into the spiritually parsimonious Puritans that first landed on these fertile shores. It’s built into our discourse and our increasingly heated political rhetoric. When it is put into action, as it was in Arizona earlier this year, we are surprised and quick to blame anybody but ourselves. It wells up very easily in those who are inexpressive, who have no creative outlets, who have no way to show what they are feeling, except, say, with a lifestyle or a rigid political affiliation–a flag if you will–to say what they can’t work through logically.

It’s not that we don’t love. Humans love a lot. They love their children. They love Elmo. They love the Beatles. They love the hit show Glee. They love Mother Teresa (except for Christopher Hitchens). But what to do with the still abundant rage and violence that is stamped into our lowly monkey DNA?

I thank God for the Westboro Baptist Church because they remind us that there is perversity everywhere, not just in Kansas. These sociopaths show us all what we’re capable of if we live in insulated cults drowning out other people’s logic and reason (sound familiar, Fox News viewers?), and that’s why the First Amendment and Milton’s Aeropagitica before it encouraged a markeplace of ideas, true and false, side by side. We need to know exactly where the haters are and what they think. Because the fact is, there are a lot of people who mindlessly hate homosexuality, and these people won’t be swayed not even until they become consumed by their hatred and drop dead of myocardial infarction. We need to know who they are, because they aren’t merely people hiding in the shadows. They hold elected office and do violence on paper.

The Westboro sideshow wasn’t much of a concern to conservatives until the group started picketing military funerals. Do you see now, gay haters, what it means to be hated and hounded for no good reason? Do you realize that one of the darkest creatures of your id, Rick Santorum, is still running loose and considering a presidential bid, drawing political strength from that hatred. Do you not see how he and the Westboro crazies are not far removed from each other? Santorum may not get it all mixed up with the army somehow, but that’s a distinction with little difference.

Maybe you’ve seen the movie “The Aristocrats”? It’s a film about a tasteless joke that seems to have no reason for being other than to gross people out as its teller runs through a litany of a sick family’s sexual perversions. Why would somebody tell such a disgusting joke with no punchline that serves no purpose than making us sick? Because the sickness itself becomes funny after a while. And that’s what has happened with the media frenzy known as Westboro and Rev. Fred Phelps. I submit the joke that the Westboro Baptist Church has been playing on us: a perverted family act that has completely lost its sense of offensiveness and brought incest to a whole new level.

“… the Aristocrats!” yelled Rev. Fred Phelps, as America writhed in tears of laughter Friday realizing that the Westboro Baptist Church was only telling a joke the whole time.

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