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Posts Tagged ‘George W. Bush’

When cultural critic, pundit, polemicist and essayist Christopher Hitchens announced he was dying last year, it’s likely a number of people wished they could stuff their own viaticum down his throat for any number of his sins. Christians likely hoped for a deathbed conversion from this, one of the most famous contemporary atheists, or as he would have called himself, “anti-theist.” Liberal pacifists who for so long considered Hitchens one of their own likely wanted him to recant his support for the Iraq War, a conflict he considered a humanitarian rescue of a failing nation rather than a corporatist, imperialist incursion by a rogue United States president. Still others might have hoped he’d say he was sorry for the perfectly manicured anathema he cast at Mother Teresa, Garrison Keillor, Gunter Grass, Michael Bloomberg, Valerie Plame, Juan Cole, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Fallwell, David Mamet, Henry Kissinger, the state of Israel, Bill Clinton, George Galloway, Sidney Bluementhal   …  I’m sorry. Such a list of his targets would be so Pynchonesque in length that it would have to postponed indefinitely. Hitchens was willing to pick fights with anybody.

In fact, the fawning obits already pouring in from all over the world would likely be richly ironic to a man who never respected the dead. When Reagan died, the Hitchens eulogized him as being dumb as a stump. When Fallwell died, Hitchens said if you gave him an enema you could bury him in a matchbox. Today we remember Hitchens the Orwell fan, the former Trotskyist (not Trotskyite, which is diminutive), the unregenerate drunk and flirt, the party animal with an unparalleled wit who could drink 8 vodkas and then write a perfect 1,000 essay in a half hour. The guy who loved to lord it over the hot co-eds, who brandished the words “moral” and “irony” as if they were his own guns taken out of packing oil nobody else was allowed to touch.

Try sometime to imagine you’re Christopher Hitchens, roaming around in rooms of people who talk slower than you do, who are not as quick, that you have an intellectual hammer to swing in rooms where everything looks like a nail. It helps not just that you’re smart but that you value ideas in the first place, of course. Many people, despite Susan Sontag’s Eeyore-like wail to the contrary, love big ideas. Few of us are given such a mind as Hitchens’ to articulate them. And yet to go into Hitchens’ universe is to not simply think differently but also to indulge several obsessions and even predictable modes, some of them as Homeric as science (we live in a world stamped by primitive monkey DNA), some of them crashingly idiotic (women aren’t funny). He made pet obsessions out of anti-Zionism, the misuse of language (he’d quibble about your word usage even if you largely respected the dicationary) the creeping dangers of radical Islam, the dangers of ethnic nationalism, petty demagogues like Al Sharpton and tinhorn dictators like Slobodan Milosevic. His idea fixes about fascism caused him to see it everywhere in sometimes annoying, reductionist fashion (everywhere from North Korea to heaven to Harry Potter’s Ministry of Magic.) He abhorred terrorism, but said it was morally defensible against oppressive states. Nobody was allowed to use the word “irony” but him.

He was skeptical of those who were quick to shout charges of racism or anti-Semitism. But he was quick to defend his friends in disingenuous ways. He attacked those who said Noam Chomsky supported repressive or murderous Marxist regimes, but wouldn’t admit Chomsky was skeptical of independent reports of Sandinista oppression and Khmer Rouge genocide because he couldn’t stand any idea that would make the U.S. look morally acceptable by comparison. And of course Hitchens’ defense of and friendship with Holocaust-denier David Irving embarrassed him repeatedly and made easy fodder for Hitchens’ critics no matter what the subject. Even Henry Kissinger, when confronted by Hitchens’ charge that he was a war criminal for various activities in Southeast Asia and South America, simply pulled the “Hitchens is a Holocaust denier” defense, which, stupid as it was, tended to get repeated–later on, by liberals during the Iraq War.

Hitchens called himself disputative, not contrarian, but it’s not hard to locate him in the school of dialectic that Hegel devised and Marx made crude–every thing, whether it’s an idea or a people, will eventually come in conflict with its opposite. But Hitchens was an innovator of the process. It’s not enough to say God doesn’t exist (a banal idea by now, even for people who have come to realize it through ontological reasoning or, even simpler, through total lack of proof). Hitchens took it further and imagined how horrific a God as Christians imagined him would be–just like a North Korean dictator who saw all, knew all, forced you to worship him under threat of eternal sulfurous burning, and never let you roam free of his purview. As Hitchens famously put it remarking on heaven, “At least you could leave North Korea.”

But it also takes a certain arrogance to hold every supposition up for scrutiny, and then believe your own antithesis with such utter conviction. It’s a lonely world for those who ask, What if our sitting president is a criminal? What if giving a dying soldier his last rites violated the Hippocratic oath of “First do no harm” because you were lying to that soldier? What if evil American imperialism could be used to stop a more evil genocide? What if pacifism is just not moral but a moral abdication when you see someone suffering? Why doesn’t someone simply call the police on some of these Catholic priests accused of child sexual abuse rather than leave it to the church? What if Jerry Fallwell made everything up? What if smoking is a good thing?

To be a thinker doesn’t mean espousing each contrary idea, but at least confronting it. It’s that due diligence of thinking that makes it hardest, even for those who value it as a rich experience of life, not to mention those who don’t have time for it. For Hitchens, belligerence was not just an end, but the only way to work through consciousness and illuminate the things we value to find out if they are deserving. As a literary critic, he could not just respond to your ideas but locate them in the work of people who came before, find out what tradition you were thinking in even if you yourself didn’t know. He probably knew you were paraphrasing Flaubert or Locke or Spinoza or Plato before you did. (Bet you didn’t know “Dumb and Dumber” has roots in Flaubert, didja?)

His own drift from socialism allowed him to break from the left over the course of the ’90s. He disavowed Bill Clinton for his behavior during the Monica Lewinsky wars (and even snitched on a Clinton underling to investigators) and questioned the left’s feeble moral response to the evils and growing puissance of radical Islam. For a few months after 9/11, he seemed like the most reasonable leftist on Earth–saying that the past sins of the United States did not bear tolerance of a religious leader willing to kill thousands and revive a medieval caliphate, from safe within the bosom of countries where raped women are stoned to death  for adultery.

Unfortunately, that magical lucidity escaped Hitchens, quickly and tragically, as he embraced the America-led Iraq invasion, one of stances he was probably best known for at the time of his death (if not his vitriolic screeds against all religions, Jew, Christian and Muslim) and for which he showed no remorse  to the end. It’s likely that Iraq will be written on his Hitchens’ heart as surely as Calais was written on Bloody Mary’s or the swastika on Heidegger’s. Hitchens, a man who had always been best at thinking through an issue to the end, reducing it and then reducing it some more from its inconsistencies, we were shocked to find agreed with George Bush’s policy of pre-emptive war. His reasoning at the beginning seemed sound. As U.S. power had saved Bosnians from violent revanchism in the 1990s, so too could it save Iraqis in a state liquefying between the clumsy palms of a tyrant. More to the point, he said it was America’s responsibility to clean up its mistake in empowering Saddam Hussein in the past.

But in hindsight, it seemed that Hitchens, like other formerly wishy-washy liberals, had found a war he could like, an enemy he could hate enough to remove with violence. A lot of the little problems with his reasoning that seemed so small in 2003 would become big later: Saddam Hussein’s fascism, repugnant as it was, was a bulwark against the kind of Islamism Hitchens hated, not an example of it, and the invasion was more an opportunity to settle scores with enemies than confront the big idea. That made a foggy war foggier. Lumping Islam and fascism together into a sloganeering portmanteau word “Islamofascism” was the kind of activity Orwell might tell us to watch out for, since it robs each concept of their nuances and allows its audience (victims?) to become tools of the word’s creator. As for our adventure in Iraq, it didn’t seem to matter to Hitchens and the hawks that the people we were invading might understand our revenge motivation better than we did and therefore find us worth blowing up with roadside bombs. It didn’t seem to matter that we were fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq only because Al Qaeda knew we were coming there, not because Iraq posed a threat in the first place. It didn’t matter to Hitchens that the invasion would likely spark a civil war, even though the war’s architects had predicted it themselves. It didn’t matter that George Bush was in such a hurry to seize the political moment after 9/11 to garner support the war that there was no post-war planning for the conquered, obstreperous mess Iraq would become.

And the biggest fallacy of all, one that as far as I know Hitchens never had addressed to him, was that you can’t solve a humanitarian crisis by replacing it with a much bigger one.

We all know how it ended. On the same day Hitchens died, America snapped closed its military bases in Iraq, and The New York Times began running brand new information about American atrocities committed there, including the Haditha massacre. The bloodletting against civilians in Anbar Province shows again that all wars, no matter what they start for, usually turn into something else, and their meanings become subducted under larger ones. The good intentions of soldiers, if we take them for granted, eventually turn into a desire for self-preservation and revenge, amorality and moral perversion. After this became apparent and the war started to fall apart in 2004, Hitchens the humanitarian turned into Hitchens the propagandist, moving from critic, a role which he was born to play, to advocate, on the other side of the dialectical divide most often inhabited by liars and obfuscators. In his new role, he became a right-wing Sphinx, dangling tantalizing paradoxes and half truths about the war and insulting people who came back with disturbing facts. He continued to offer teasing admonitions that weapons of mass destruction were indeed found in Iraq when most investigators had debunked that myth. He suggested that an Al Qaeda terrorist leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi had been in Iraq as a guest of Saddam Hussein, even though he was mainly operating under an assumed name in a part of the country not under Saddam’s direct control. There is some question about whether Iraq intelligence agencies knew he was there and did nothing. But then again, George Bush had a chance to kill Zarqawi in Iraq early, but chose to do nothing because he needed extra reasons to invade. Zarqawi was being used by both sides. The Granada-invasion-era Hitchens saw through such casuistry; the Iraq-era Hitchens practiced it.

When documents emerged from Italy showing Iraq had tried to purchase enriched uranium from Niger and turned out later to be forged, Hitchens saw a conspiracy and suggested that the forgers were trying to embarrass the U.S. and obscure real proof. In other words: Fake proof is proof in lieu of real proof. Try running that by Karl Popper.

Hitchens would always remind you that he was in Iraqi and he saw Iraqis throw roses at the feet of invading Americans. True enough as it may be, a rose, as Yeats knew, is a symbol invested with millions of meanings, and in this case could well have meant “Don’t kill us, Yankee.”

This is the Hitchens many of us came to know in the 2000s–dishonest with a horrible case of bluster. He tried to put an elegant classy spin on what was actually name calling–“moral idiots,” in the case of Iraq War opponents or “bitch,” in the case of Richard Armitage. He used violent imagery including strangulation to describe what he’d like to do to “fake” pacifists on the “left.” A lot of us who hadn’t read him seriously yet (me included) likely took this personally. Meanwhile, he was buddying up with the architects of the war like Paul Wolfowitz and demanding journalists apologize to them for what was, to most of us, honest reporting that Iraq was going down in a frisson of anarchy. If you called it anarchy, he’d tell you you’re not allowed to use the word without reading Mikhail Bakunin. This wasn’t a contrarian but a person who seemed to have stood too close to power and caught its cold.

But what he was more known for as the war waned was his resumed religion line, attacking Israel, Islam, Hasidic jewish practices, Roman Catholic encyclicals with a wit remarkable for its endless serrations. But his bluster was intact. He once actually implied that things would have been different for famous murder victim Kitty Genovese if he had been there, ready with knife in hand to save the day. After Hitchens found out he was Jewish in the late 80s (his mother had committed suicide in the early 1970s but concealed her religion), he proudly waved the flag of Jewish anti-Zionist, but eventually conceded that Israel was a status quo power and therefore worthy of defending against a saber-rattling Iran. It’s another way to follow Hitchens’ thought process–take one hatred and then let it be subsumed by a bigger hatred.

If he wasn’t easy to pin down, it’s probably because his thought process looked inconsistent. But then, whenever you picked up his articles after a while, you sort of found the rhythm. The ethnic nationalism of Israel or Serbia were repugnant to him, the self-governing instinct of Iraqis and Palestinians were worth fighting for. Socialism still requires the strong to help the weak and Marxism requires that these self-governing impulses will flourish in any case. If the U.S. is helping a democratic impulse along, isn’t that sort of Marxist?

Of late, Hitchens seemed to have become acceptable to leftists again. He endorsed Obama and called the McCain-Palin ticket “appalling.” He explained his position to conservative super-witch Laura Ingraham with a little bit of reason and a lot of flirting during her talk show, a gambit that embarrassed the silly woman no end (something most good lefties would be too politically correct to try). Lately, he reviewed David Mamet’s book about his conservative conversion and very easily cut through most of the dumb reasoning. In a word, Mamet’s book was “irritating” and Hitchens believes the playwright didn’t really understand Friedrich Hayek, that dubious Austrian butt of wine that present day conservatives purple their lips on.

People talk of his charm and his loyalty to friends. But Hitchens turned on many of them after 9/11. Katha Pollitt of “The Nation,” Hitchens’ former stomping grounds until 9/11, damned him with faint praise in her obit while moving through a list of objections to his sexism, his bullying and his ability to finesse imbecilic ideas and black and white reasoning with airtight sentences that sounded a lot like logic. (Say, his take on humor, which in Hitchens view serves only the biological imperative to get laid, and is thus only the vouchsafe of males–a pretty interesting idea until you remember that guys tell jokes to each other, too, as do women.)

But Pollitt, now in the rare position of having the last word with her old frere, can for her closeness to him do much more harm with a smaller blade. Which do you think is worse: Some online Christian zealot insisting that Hitchens is hellbound for his beliefs, or this Pollitt disavowal of her colleague and friend: “I don’t know how long Christopher will be read. Posterity isn’t kind to columnists and essayists and book reviewers, even the best ones.”

In a word: Ouch! She’s right. Everybody remembers George Orwell. Nobody remembers Leslie Fiedler. But the line is more delicious because Pollitt is a scorned friend. Her comment limns underlying hurt, pettiness and jealousy. She seems smart enough to know that, but didn’t care.

I remember Hitchens’ obit for his own pal, Susan Sontag, and in his introduction how he said the private mind has its own life, its own joys, but that the best intellectuals must sally out of the library and bring their ideas to bear on public discourse, lest they (or their work) become timorous curios in a library; perhaps this was a subtle dig at his compeer, who was probably more famous but nowhere near as prolific as Hitchens. As such things go, this memory of Sontag sounded an awful lot like it was about Hitchens himself. This was a guy drawn to Bosnia, Iraq, Lebanon, civil war-torn Cyprus and other hot spots, a guy who didn’t seem to like being alone, who needed the opinions of others, perhaps even dolts, to whet his observations, sharpen the life of his mind. He wrote about his death a lot, saying he’d entered the land of malady, but that the topic of death bores even him and offers no irony. He reported on it dutifully, explaining the awful food and the chemo, but his last real ideological conflict was the prosaic insistence that he would not get religion at the 11th hour. His comfort was fighting against those who would offer him comfort. But think of how that offers no solace. If he–if none of us rationalists–had Christians to fight with, what would be the truth to explore here? Is it that death is a stupid, not remotely illuminating? Should death even be part of a person’s narrative when it offers no clue to how they lived? Maybe it’s simply the end of the fight, which is why Hitchens seemed to keep writing prodigiously in the face of it and not giving in. Is it only to rage against the dying of the light?

I’m not arguing for Christianity here. But Hitchens’ last demand, that death should be illuminated only in its awfulness, seems to be a continuation of his black and white thinking, his lack of empathy at the expense of reason. He said that it would be humane to tell people on their deathbeds there was no God, because it would be the truth. It’s admirable to deny your own pain. It’s a little arrogant to deny others’ pain for them.

Pollitt was right in one sense: If Hitchens had had a 1984 in him, he’d stand a better chance of being remembered. People who create are always remembered more than people who disassemble. You can wave that off as jealousy or curtness. But if you take a broader view, you could also disavow Hitchens as little more than a professional opinion-haver. He said that his business was irony, and he used the word as if he had patented it, allowing none of the looser forms available. I’ll try to approximate what he meant by it through his repeated denials of what it wasn’t: Irony to him meant living in two realities, one belonging to people who think they know what’s going on and one belonging to people who actually do.

But his real career was simple polemics. And people who make this their business are always selling half a reality–the thesis without antithesis. Even those of us who call ourselves liberal and define ourselves by nothing else live in half-knowledge–live for an argument that like Caliban runs about looking for its reflection and never finds it. It’s artists who actually have bragging rights when it comes to synthesizing reality, which is why Hitchens prized literature so much. It might also be why he was so deliciously waspish: He wasn’t an artist and perhaps he was simply bitter about it (as many critics are). Susan Sontag called intepretation the intellect’s revenge on art, and though Hitchens likely agreed with her, his job was to murder the sensual and erotic every day with Enlightenment cutlery. You could, if you see things with the black and white chauvinism he did, see him simply as a jealous non-artist who used his great mind to live a well-lubricated life winning petty arguments, mostly by quibbling with tiny semantic points. He left us no great reporting, like “All the President’s Men.” He left us no great novel, like “Moby Dick.” He is not better than Jim Carrey for having discovered Flaubert seeds in “Dumb and Dumber.” You could say he taught us how to think, but Steve Jobs also died recently, and the fruit of his different thinking is so ubiquitous that I can’t process these words without it.

If he left me anything–a writer who never met the man or saw him in public–it’s the idea that thinking is a process that must be constantly honed, that assumptions must be constantly questioned. This is a way of life as joyous as discovering a new kind of butterfly and as tedious as continuously taking out garbage. If we get too comfortable with the way we think–something that’s easier to do as we get older and our minds are less dynamic–then we’re doing it wrong.

That I’ve learned by confronting the man’s ideas. And for that, I’ve got to thank him.

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The 9/11 Tribute In Light

I guess I spoke too soon. People did eventually fill the streets in Lower Manhattan to cheer and wave flags Sunday night, wearing face paint and shouting “America No. 1!” But I was not wrong about the long, long process of closure. In fact, it seems like there’s a battle for the soul of American justice and how we pursue it.

As people cheered, there was a competing sentiment about Osama bin Laden’s death (perhaps even mine in my previous post) suggesting that this closure should be po-faced, grim and puritanical, that it should be a new opportunity to mourn, not a photo op moment to celebrate more bloodshed.

It’s pretty silly, after all, to say America is great because some Navy SEALs shot a supposedly unarmed guy in the head (I say, “supposedly” because the story corrections and equivocations continue to flow from the White House like an eruption of chocolate party fondue that never quite hardens. This ought be a clue to conspiracy theorists if many of them weren’t so beastly dumb: Even attempted transparency can be contradictory. Now that the White House has decided not to show the photos, you can prepare for years of headache-inducing “Osama’s Alive” stories.)

Almost immediately after Bin Laden went to heaven to claim his virgins, letters and comments and tweets and posts appeared condemning Americans’ jubilation, quoting and misquoting Martin Luther King’s admonitions about hating enemies. Many people on this New York Times’ mood meter summed up the general feeling of the minority: “I refuse to celebrate the death of any human being.” “I take no joy in yet another killing.” “The death of one person should not be celebrated, even to save thousands.” One of my favorite comments: “Anyone who thinks death or physical pain is a valid form of retribution for any crime is an absolutist.” A rhetoric lesson for the author: Anyone who starts a sentence with, “Anyone who …” is also an absolutist. Some Bertrand Russell might be in order for this gal.

You might think that last sentence was meant to be cute. It’s not. I, too, feel something less than glory in bin Laden’s death. But many of these critics are displaying an absolutism all their own.

The perception that people are in the streets cheering only at the blood is A SUBJECTIVE ONE that says a lot more about those who point it out than the people it aims to criticize. The statement willfully ignores other things Bin Laden’s death might mean to people, emotions of relief and hope. Certainly there were people at the WTC site shouting, “Let the dogs eat him.” Weren’t there? Well, yes, there is some of that as there would naturally be, and no, it’s not healthy. But I also heard a lot of other defensible sentiments more along the lines of “We got him. Or, “We did it,” and simply, “I’m proud of my country.” Maybe, “America No. 1.” It’s always likely that jingoism is going to be the order of a day like Sunday’s. To be fair, though, it’s kind of hard to put euphoria into words (just as it was hard to put into words the complicated reasons we were attacked in the first place–by a former ally, no less, with grudges that cut both ways).

But for those of you who only see a celebration of death Roman gladiator style, let me give it a try: This ain’t a sporting event, and we aren’t crazed football fans looking for a high. This was, arguably, our deliverance from ten years of a questionable moral universe in which a religious cult leader willing to murder thousands of people–secretaries, waiters, delivery drivers, security guards, airplane passengers, Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc.–was going to go unpunished mainly for political reasons: First, because our scurrilous U.S. president at the time decided to settle an unrelated score elsewhere, and second because the murderer was safe in the bosom of a chaotic nuclear power. As I said in my first post on this subject, many people celebrating in the streets on Sunday night were children when 9/11 happened, and many of them likely grew up disillusioned that the defining moment of their young lives was going to have an ambiguous, nihilistic conclusion. “Life isn’t fair,” is a hard thing to tell children, as is telling them that they could die instantly and violently for political reasons and the killers would go free. It’s an outlook that could easily lead to despair and erode many people’s sense of morality or accountability. Do you agree, moralists? Do you believe it’s OK to be happy that we’re freed from that reality, at least for the time being? Being happy, are we allowed to cheer? Being allowed to cheer, are we cheering in a way that’s chaste enough to clear the hurdle of your sanctimony?

But that’s the complicated argument. The real hypocrisy of the “humanists” this week is an obvious point they miss: Some of us are cheering because a couple of wars might come to an end, not because a guy got shot in the face. This is something fairly easy to see, unless you’re really, really inclined not to (or if your critical sword only cuts one way). This war, lest you forget, was in a lot of people’s minds about bringing Bin Laden to justice. His death doesn’t mean we’re leaving Afghanistan next week, of course, but the main symbol of our struggle, bin Laden, who ought to embody our entire casus belli, has been removed from the scene. That fact augurs peace, not to mention justice. It suggests deliverance from the nightmare that was the 2000s and the wars that defined the decade. Why is it not allowed for a moral person to celebrate that?

Yet self-proclaimed humanists choose not to look at it that way. Why? What’s the bias? Must they assume those of us who feel a sense of relief and satisfaction right now are just dancing in blood because we have violent ape natures and a nationalistic chauvinism and no reflection and no morality and life for us is like a particularly gruesome version of Battlefield 3?

My thought is that it’s a bit of a tip off, an advertisement of the critics’ conflicted and unhappy relationship with their country. How many of them, I dare ask, used 9/11 as a moment mainly to rip into U.S. foreign policy, as if suggesting that a cult religious figure kicked out of Saudi Arabia had right to avenge El Salvadorans, and in the confusion temporarily left their “humanism” at the door that day? Evidently, there were enough of them that they managed to turn Marxist Brit Christopher Hitchens into a U.S. right winger. I guess people really do have the power.

I, too, disliked a lot of American foreign policy both before and after 9/11 and believe America has committed crimes for which we ought to spend a few years in an international court. But that doesn’t blind me to the clear immorality of Bin Laden’s mass murder or to what his removal means: the possible deliverance from a violent person and a violent past, the need to live in the past with the twin specters of the World Trade Center and the need for more bloodshed.

Merry Christmas, humanists. War is over. Geddit?

Next: Why is it not OK to be happy that a mass murderer is not out mass murdering anymore? That’s kind of a perverse thing to ask for, isn’t it? Why should deliverance from that reality not be worth celebrating? Why is it not right to say, “Rot in hell, Osama!” to give comfort to yourself or others? Was it not OK for Jews to celebrate Hitler’s passing? Would you deny them that, or only deny it for yourself and your own countrymen? You might say all death diminishes us, even Hitler’s, that hatred demeans you, even if the mass murderer wouldn’t show you–or thousands of others–the same sympathy. To want to be better than your murderer is a fine goal. But warning: there is also perhaps a lack of self-regard in it. You wouldn’t force that morality on a rape victim, say, if she said she was glad her attacker had been killed. To say that one person must be allowed to live, to hate and sow new violence based on his medieval religious outlook is a form of extremism, too. Beware your own extremism if you’re going to denounce it in others.

Did bin Laden deserve a trial? Another good question. Remember that a trial of Osama bin Laden would have become a trial of his ideas. And that ought to lead you to this question: Do all ideas deserve trial? Do Hitler’s ideas deserve trial? (Ohhh! That comparison again. More on that later.) Does the madness of a murdering extremist refusing to participate in society (ours and his own) demand society’s channels of due process? Maybe. Would it be more important than emotional closure? Maybe. Is it realistic? No. The reasons for why that is will be debated forever and never answered to anybody’s satisfaction. The violence of one sometimes can’t be made square with the peace of the many. I’m not generally for the death penalty, but as Groucho Marx said, “for him I’ll make an exception.” Does that make me a sell-out to my own values or a person with a bit of depth perception?

OK, the Hitler argument. Isn’t it facile and self-serving to compare Bin Laden and Hitler? Let’s get quickly to the argument that festers underneath this like a hard-to-kill staph infection: Did America deserve 9/11 in the first place? Many people who smartly wheel in horror at mindless patriotism somehow turn dumb really quickly when it comes to mindless knee-jerk anti-patriotism, which they ought to realize is just as bad, especially if they are not willing to support their country doing something inherently good, such as protecting its citizens against a religious maniac. If you insist that every American citizen is guilty, regardless of party or philosophy or details on the ground, for what has happened in Nicaragua, East Timor, Angola, Iraq, etc.,  so guilty he or she, every one, is worthy of dying in a hijacking at the hands of an Islamic religious fundamentalist with an agenda specific to his own idea of God, your outlook can’t survive what we’d call humanism or rationality. It’s such a hopeless argument, I feel dumb even bringing it up. And yet every once in a while … I see that post or hear that argument: “You might not know this about 9/11, but America’s done some awful things…” So goes the critical insight of the new Mother Jones subscriber.

Yes, it’s better to take the moral high ground and not hate or take satisfaction in violence, because it doesn’t do your enemies any harm really, and it doesn’t do you any good either, to say nothing of your humanity. And yet, as much as I hate to say it, I think a fair burden of proof falls back on some of the “humanists” this week. Are you seeing hate in the streets because it’s there or sometimes because maybe you hate a little too? Why should I not feel relief and joy at being delivered from the past? Why do I have to explain myself to you?

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Evidently, the Iraq War was simply a passive-aggressive misunderstanding. So suggests Donald Rumsfeld in his sure-to-be-awful memoir.  Mr. ex-Defense Secretary writes, “While the president and I had many discussions about the war preparations, I do not recall his ever asking me if I thought going to war with Iraq was the right decision.”

I want you to imagine the contretemps in such a Jane Austen comedy of manners–one man orders an invasion of Iraq thinking it might impress the other man, and the other man goes along so as not to appear fussy. What you get is an Iraq War and an unwanted scone. But that’s a bit disingenuous. Rummy is not polite to anybody, not the Bush family nor his colleagues nor John McCain. It seems like he’s willing to trash everybody and anybody for the failures of the war he prosecuted. That’s the mark of a true independent spirit or a psychopath.

I get kind of tired like everybody else chewing over the consequences of this disastrous war and American immorality in pursuing it. As it becomes clearer over time how much our leaders deceived us by assuming that the humanitarian goals in Iraq might have made it worthwhile, nobody ever seems to bring up a couple of points:

Did it occur to anybody that the insurgency would start in Iraq because Iraqis understood the invasion better than we did? Was it not anticipated they might fight back because no matter how much they hated their leader, they knew the American reasons for invasion were based on revenge and perhaps worthy of resisting?

The reasons for invasion were convoluted. There is part of me that secretly believes it allowed us a way to save face as we completely capitulated to Osama Bin Laden’s demands that we leave Saudi Arabia. Conservatives like to point out that there were no more 9/11s after Iraq. They won’t point out that it’s because we gave the horrible Saudi jackal what he wanted.

Someday we’ll all have to leave Iraq–physically and emotionally. But it will be hard as long as self-serving careerist bureaucrat resume jockeys with blood on their hands like Rumsfeld roam loose and drag our nation through the pain one more time, not for the good of a country but for his own soulless vanity.

Go to Elba, asshole.

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What can I say? It’s been no fun at all. And yet all horrible things must come to an end.

It was a messy relationship; maybe we shouldn’t have gotten involved at all. You were violent and volatile, ruled by a tyrannical father. We were idealistic and naive and had been hurt before. But still, we were impulsive; we took the plunge quickly. We were addicted to drama. And you had no choice. You just fell for us.

But oh how quickly things change. You became much too hot to handle. You spurned us almost as soon as you welcomed us. First you threw roses at us, and we thought it meant you loved us. But maybe you just meant, “Please don’t kill me.” As soon as our honeymoon ended, you turned schizophrenic. You acted like you didn’t know from one minute to the next what you wanted or who you were or which mosque you should attend. Sometimes you wanted your mean father back; sometimes you just wanted to blow us up. You turned to outsiders who poured poison in your ear and said lots of nasty untrue things about us and offered to help you get rid of us in horrible ways. You craved our stability and guiding hand and mentoring one moment but hated us for it at the same time. A typical Pygmalion relationship. We should have known, you can’t carve the perfect lovers out of stone. You have to let them just be who they are. Even if that means letting them hate you. Or letting them go.

The Flag of Iraq


We acted like the boss, but we weren’t. We couldn’t even get you to take out the garbage. You were so passive aggressive you put roadside IEDs in it.

You were insecure. And by that I mean your internal security forces were politicized and mercenary and graft-ridden. You were unstable. And by that I mean you had a nasty case of pyromania. It’s never as sexy as Def Leppard makes it out to be. You were proud and had to fight for every inch of property. You wouldn’t get organized. When somebody tried to help you get organized, boom! They were dead to you.

You crumbled into many mental and physical states. We binged (on oil) and you purged (each other of heretics). We were very curious to see your dad’s guns. Turned out he didn’t have any. Later, you did away with your dad entirely, and it wasn’t the victory either one of us thought it was going to be. In fact, it just made our relationship that much more sour.

Sometime in the second year, we knew, both of us that, that our relationship was a mistake. Yet we were too proud and embarrassed to end it. We insisted foolishly that we could make it work. Sometimes we went at each other without having enough protection. Isn’t that America all over–giddy and never properly sheathed.

But it’s silly to ask now what might have happened if we hadn’t gotten involved. That was a long time ago, and the choices can’t be unmade. We’re different people now, and can’t live in the past. Our mistakes are ours, and they make us who we are. Hopefully they help us become better. And hopefully we can end this bad blood on good terms, with no mutual recrimination, without debts and without too much rotting infrastructure. You seem to have gotten your shit together a bit. We went into debt trying to make you happy, of course, but we’ll be OK, because we work hard and have good government jobs to tide us over.

But we’re finally pulling the plug. This is it, Iraq. We’re leaving you. We’ve fallen in love with somebody else and her name is Snooki. She’s a mess, too, but we think we can help her. In the meantime, don’t cry. We hold no grudges toward you. After all, we have to thank you for not lasting anywhere near as long as our horrible engagement with Vietnam. That was probably the worst relationship ever. So wipe the tears from your eyes, Iraq. In the words of Luther Vandross:

We’re so in love but wrong for each other
Each hurt that heals brings on another
Both of us abusing
Both of us using
Darling
It’s time to stop pretending
There’s just no way to rewrite our ending
We’re caught in this game
And we both know we’re losing, but

How many times can we say good-bye?

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Snooki is overtaxed. MTV

One of my favorite shows on television (let’s be fair, 50% of what I watch on TV) is “The Soup,” with Joel McHale, the kind of show that the brilliant (if right now sadly ill) cultural critic Christopher Hitchens might call “low humor,” but one that actually gives its viewers a way to deconstruct the shows that currently pass for cultural communication–mainly the malady of reality TV for which there seem to be no antibodies. For some reason, these shows fulfill a need in our psychology to watch a lot of emotionally limited and brutish people fight, fuck, fall in love, and get drunk without ever having to balance a check book or pay the cable bill. Why do we watch? Maybe it’s because we know that the sloe-eyed, pneumatic, contumacious and inebriated Snooki is slowly (very slowly) gaining the path to wisdom. This makes her picaresque journey useful to us in invisible ways. We now know how not to behave and hopefully not to hit a lady in the face, even if we think she has it coming.

There is another conversation going on in America that’s not on cable TV, but you are likely familiar with it if you have a living grandparent with access to e-mail, a back channel of communication where Americans buy their penis creme as well as similarly specious topical anodynes from anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist. Often these e-mails are spiced with the names of legitimate news organizations so that they look like properly vetted journalism. But they aren’t. In reality, they are usually written directly by special interest groups and are meant to fool the rank and file into making Chicken Little decisions about their money. My late mother, a tax preparer and bankruptcy attorney, told me that people were coming to her asking to irresponsibly liquidate their holdings because of what they read in these e-mails (and saw on Fox News)–decisions that could have destroyed them financially.

Thursday an e-mail came across my desk talking about the expiration of the Bush tax cuts in 2011. The e-mail informs the reader that marginal tax rates are set to rise and that folks at all income levels will see increases next year, that their family farms will all of a sudden be subject to a 55% estate tax, that normal folks will see penalties for being married, having children and owning businesses. In other words, we’d be going back to the tax schedules of the Clinton era. Advertised as one of the largest tax hikes facing average Americans in U.S. history, these increases promise a new recession because they will overburden U.S. businesses, murder stock prices, kill investment and strangle innovation.

In other words, all the stuff that happened during the Internet boom. And who should you blame for the new recession? That’s a no-brainer. Democrats! They tax and spend, after all.

Or do they? The Democrats actually have a bill to continue the Bush era cuts–at least for 98% of us. It would keep marginal tax rates at the same level for all but the top two brackets, the highest of which will go back up to 39.6%. In fact, the rich will still see a small tax benefit because of the way income margins are staggered (they see the cuts at the lower rates, too, until they reach $200,000).

The Republican version of this bill extends the cuts for everybody, of course, which increases the deficit by more than $36 billion and relinquishes almost that entire amount to millionaires, according to a report by the Joint Committee on Taxation. If you are a millionaire, I respectfully say to you that you are sitting on this money these days anyway more than you are investing it, and you don’t need it.

You don’t hear much about the Democrats’ extension from your grandparents because Americans tend to hew to the prevailing political narrative the same way they do to Snooki’s progress through the vomit-skinned hot tubs of Jersey and Miami. It is much easier to repeat the meme that Democrats tax and spend. It is a story line that writes itself in our heads and thus we fail to break down the numbers, even when they show the story is patently false. The Democrats are your mother. They want to save the world but can’t. They are idealists who will spend your money for failed ideas of the public good. They are the reason for the recession. (Hopefully you don’t remember back that far.)

Storytelling is one of the quickest ways people learn. But it also allows people to program us. What if I told you that I knew for a fact Snooki, in her darkest moments, turns to quiet contemplation and reads Baudelaire; if that were true, you would likely not accept that news, and MTV would fire her. We all need her instead to be drunk, vulgar and provincial because then it feels better when somebody hits her in the face. Two thousand plus years ago, we were the same way, only we wanted to hit that smack-talking bitch Antigone. These days, we want to smack Barack Obama in the face. We want to punish him for his eternal ideal of commonwealth. The desire is so strong we aren’t even smart enough to notice that the freakin’ taxes haven’t even risen yet. We argue smugly that the stimulus package failed because that fits the welfare mother storyline but we don’t acknowledge that obscenely low tax rates haven’t helped either.

The truth of Grover Norquist’s statement, cramped as it is, is that the Bush tax cuts, if left to expire, would indeed bring us back to Clinton-era tax levels. What he won’t tell you, obsessed as he is with chimeras, is that Bush’s tax cuts mostly helped the wealthy in the first place. What he won’t tell you is that Clinton-era taxation helped us balance the budget. What he also won’t tell you is that most of what we have to pay for is two wars that Americans overwhelmingly approved in 2001 and 2003. The U.S. government is not taking YOUR money. The U.S. government is asking you to pay for something you already bought. OK, to be fair, maybe it has put one other item on layaway–better health care. Why? You said for years you wanted that too.

But nobody can deny that your taxes will definitely rise if a gridlocked Congress cannot come to agreement. And it’s not because of oppression but because of game theory. Republicans themselves have a vested interest in killing the Democratic version of the tax cut extension. Because then they can claim it was an example of Democrats taxing and spending, which you know, is as true as the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree or Jesus walking on water. They only want you to go along with the Republican version, which will require the government to keep borrowing from the Chinese to pay our teachers, repave our roads and keep former employees of our nation’s manufacturing base from living in Hoovervilles. Why do Republicans want to keep borrowing? Because they like unsustainable short term solutions and because Americans don’t really understand what their economy is made of right now: credit based on past economic strength. Sooner or later, Peter Luger is not going to take our white credit card.

If you don’t believe,  you have only to realize that some roads in this country are going back to dirt, teachers are being laid off, and unemployment benefits are being threatened.

If you do understand this, you must be able to fight this storyline wherever you encounter it (from Republicans or “centrist” Democrats alike): “Your tax bill is not going up under Obama, Grandpa. But frankly, it should.”

If you don’t understand this, there’s a crab lice infested hot tub I’d love to sell you in Little Silver.

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–*Deflecting the situation with jokes.

–*Promising we’ll never do it again.

–*Deflecting the situation with lead paint remediation

–*Promising to make amends.

–*Deflecting the anger with gifts.

–*Deflecting the situation with both jokes and lead paint remediation.

–*Yelling fire, running away.

–*Dropping to our knees and begging forgiveness.

–*Dropping to our knees, begging forgiveness, offering up tickets to Maroon 5.

–*Grabbing an innocent bystander as a human shield.

–*Kissing the baby.

–*Grabbing a baby as a human shield, kissing innocent bystander, promising lead paint remediation.

–*Telling a dead baby joke, using Maroon 5 as a human shield, yelling fire and running away.

–*Kissing mother in law.

–*Giving mother-in-law Maroon 5 tickets, running away.

–*Yelling fire and running away.

–*Telling jokes, enjoying playful banter with Woody Harrelson.

–*Promising Woody Harrelson Maroon 5 tickets and lead paint remediation.

–*Stopping sandblasting work on the Williamsburg Bridge and offering lead paint remediation to local residents suffering adverse health effects

–*Offering $300 tax rebate checks in the mail as an apologia for invading Iraq.

–*Saying Chicago doesn’t need the god damned Olympics anyhow.

–*Enjoying playful badinage with Woody Harrelson and Maroon 5 until running away and yelling fire while holding up a baby to deflect criticism, scorn, lawsuits and/or gunfire.

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(Originally posted Wednesday, January 21, 2009)

Washington, D.C. (API) George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, began his third term of office Wednesday after President-elect Barack Obama flubbed the oath of office he was to repeat after Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

“My fellow Americans,” said Bush. “I believe things happen for a reason. And while I am not sure what the reasons were for this gaffe during inauguration day, I want to assure you that order and the rule of law will win the day.”

“I swear to execute … no to faithfully execute,” said Roberts as he administered the oath. A slightly confused Obama tried to reinsert the incorrect version, and Roberts followed with another hypercorrection that legal scholars now say has made the president’s swearing in almost completely invalid.

“If he didn’t say it, he ain’t it,” said Constitutional scholar Jeffrey Rhoades. “I can’t put it more simply than that.”

Roberts visited the Oval Office late Wednesday night hoping to re-administer the oath, but by that time, Bush had already settled in for his third term.

“Through this trying time I hope to lead the American people with steadfastness and resolve and strength of character. You spoke out strongly for voice of change. And even though, sadly, that change did not come, I hope you’ll join me as we continue four more years together seeking peace, prosperity and the conquest of our enemies as they stand over seas of sweet crude oil.”

Millions of attendees at the inauguration burst into tears.

“It’s just 35 words for crying out loud,” said Bill Clinton. “How did two grown men, both of them Constitutional lawyers manage to get us all into this colossal screw up?”

“It truly is sad,” said Bush. “I’ve been needled for some bad grammatical choices in the past. But none of my gaffes endangered the country or upended the poltical order.

“I don’t mean to get all parliamentarial here.”

“It truly is a cock up of huge proportions,” said noted wit and political critic Christopher Hitchens. “And by the way, nobody around here knows what the the true meaning of irony is but me.”

Bush plans to use his next four years in office, to attack Iran, embolden Israel to attack Syria, destroy the Antarctic ice shelf with bunker buster bombs, and continue the No Child Left Behind law.

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