Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Let us momentarily turn from satire...

Because I just felt like publishing something pretty. This is a monarch butterfly drinking from some sorta flower (aced entomology, not so hot on the botany) in my front yard about a week ago. Its proboscis is extended into the flower, and I'm assuming its front legs are folded up under its thorax, 'cause it's only showing two pair here. It's the dazzling and serendipitous moments of beauty like this that remind me, after all the crap and cynicism and lying, what life is really about -- getting as much nectar as you can because tomorrow you could wind up flattened in the grille of a Subaru.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Today in All-Too-Recent History

August 29, 2006
Today marks the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast, flooded New Orleans for two months, and made plain the deep class rift that is the great unspoken cancer on America today – unless of course you’re rich. The victims and survivors of this disaster will be honored in memorial services and solemn ceremonies. President Bush will attend many of these events on the following Friday.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Survivor -- Burbank Boardroom

Did someone forget to tell Survivor executive producer Mark Burnett that The Office is not in fact a documentary, and that Michael Scott is not a model of how to address diversity issues? Because this week Burnett announced that, in order to address complaints that his game show’s previous contestants haven’t been racially diverse enough, the next season of Survivor would be dividing its contestants into four teams based on race.


I never see these things coming, but in a country that allows the sale of an asthma drug that increases your chances of dying of asthma, where cigarette taxes pay for anti-smoking campaigns and state lottery funds go to education, I should’ve expected this. That a year after Katrina left whites and blacks with vastly differing opinions of this administration’s compassion for all of its citizens; a few weeks after some bomb scares turn every Middle-Eastern or Indian (most Americans can’t tell the difference – sorry, but true) person with a cell phone into a potential bomber; a few weeks after senatorial candidate George Allen calls a native Virginian an obscure racial epithet and welcomes him to America; and Andrew Young resigns for channelling Archie Bunker, Burnett (who, by the sheerest coincidence turns out to be a rich white guy) decides to apply his great wisdom to the racial divide by following the example set by South Africa.

I can just imagine how this went down at the producers meeting. Burnett’s stocky frame faces his team of producers. Arrayed around the table facing him are a gaggle of identical white men wearing pinstriped jackets and black muscle shirts. A few of them are jacked up from the pre-meeting lines of coke and primal scream therapy they like to call “The Fight Club.” Burnett announces his plan in a macho, burly presentation accompanied by a dazzling video set to the Survivor theme song, the national anthem of bland multiculturalism. As the lights come on, Burnett’s toadies rise as one, applauding his cultural genius. Later that evening as they drive their Ferraris back to their gated communities in the Hollywood Hills, they feel a renewed touch with the common people. Maybe tonight they’ll have the maid order Thai.

So there’s no way this could possibly go wrong – unless they give the blacks the crappiest island. Or everyone else gangs up on whitey. Or the races stick together. Or they don’t. Actually, in a few short minutes of examining the possibilities, the only way it can turn out well is if the show is so bland that viewers forget the apartheid aspect of the program straightaway.

And that might be the way to bet, because for such a diverse cast, the Survivor crew has managed to select a remarkably un-diverse group of people. More than half have show business credits, including one Emmy award and one Oscar nomination. The gritty working-class representatives include a heavy-metal guitarist who professionally wrestles under the name “Spanish Fly” and a police officer who’s done consulting work for movies and made several television appearances.

Not that this denigrates the contestants’ achievements – but it calls in to question the insularity of a group of people who, when called upon to scour the nation for people who look like America, come up with a bunch of actors, musicians, make-up artists and lawyers. If you’re losing ratings because you’re not appealing to the masses, maybe it’s not the racial component that’s the issue. Maybe a show that requires you to have the know-how to produce a video and the freedom to spend more than a month on a desert island isn’t going to come up with a contestant base that most of us can identify with.

And that’s the sad and wonderful thing about seeing only racism in a society that has been balkanized in so many other ways too. When George Bush wants to show people he’s not insensitive, he points to John Yoo, Condi Rice and Alberto Gonzalez. Bush and Burnett have managed to get the skin color thing down without having to travel too far afield of their own set of beliefs. I guess we should congratulate ourselves on how diverse we’ve beome when racial minorities can be found among every insular cultural demographic. Or maybe we’ve just outwitted our better selves by finding new ways to stay apart.

And what’s sad is that while one doltish rich white guy thinks he’s heroically addressing a problem (while cynically exploiting it as well, but that’s what executive producers do), everyone who’s ever been discriminated against is thinking, “here we go again.” Here we go again with the “where is that name from,” the “what do your people think of that,” and the “what are you going to do with that chicken” questions that, for all our cultural diversity, never seem to go away.

Maybe in the future we’ll live in a world where each of us enjoys the same opportunities, rights and privileges whether we’re standing in front of a judge, an ice cream vendor or a real estate agent. Maybe someday we won’t look at a crowd of multicultural show-biz types from New York and California and mistake it for diversity. And maybe someday rich white boys from the suburbs won’t describe themselves as ghetto. That day may or may not arrive, but if it does, there’s one thing I know about it for sure – the Mark Burnetts of this world will not be in charge.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Brother, Can You Spare a Pluton?

It was a plucky little planet – I’ll miss it.

I’ll probably choke up on my next visit to the planetarium as the astronomer, tracing the paths of the planets with his laser pointer, comes to Neptune and, after the briefest pause, describes it as “the outermost planet.”

Sure, there will be explanations. We’ll be told that the International Astronomical Union voted to kick Pluto out of the group of objects formally known as planets, even though it’s still there and still orbiting the sun. It’s just that if we let in one icy, far-off body, we have to let all the others in too. And rethinking the universe sounds neat and all, but we’d rather just watch someone else do it on TV.

But then I had an epiphany. I thought, “this is America, dammit. Am I gonna let a union of international astronomers tell me what to think? Hell no. If I don’t like the facts, I’ll make up my own.”

So screw you, Commiestronomers. You can imprison my dwarf planet, but you cannot imprison my mind!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Update -- Comments enabled

It's all so complicated, this managing a blog thing. Sure, it would be easier if I actually read the directions, but that would violate a longstanding tradition of floundering around until I found my way. Anyway, I realized that my settings didn't let anyone comment unless they had a blogger account. That's changed now, and anyone can post comments. Of course I assume you'll all be perfect gentlepeople and maintain the level of civilized and respectful discourse that made this country great. Carry on....

Caption Contest: Why Are These Men Smiling?

I was out of town all weekend -- and while I tried to write something funny and coherent Sunday, and then dragged it on into Monday, by tonight I decided I should just post a funny photograph taken on my perambulations and solicit reader input (there's a first time for everything).

So I came across this little tableau hiding in plain sight, and couldn't resist snapping it. The following day I watched the first two episodes of Spike Lee's "When the Levees Broke" and it was a Jell-O shooter of the entire two-weeks-or-so when, without anyone's having predicted it, a fragile urban environment in one of the poorest states in the union suddenly became a third-world disaster area. And so I ask you -- where was Sri Lanka when it was their turn to step up?

Anyway, these men hit the trifecta. They've earned their pensions, their secret service protection and a few fat speaking engagements a year. The only thing missing is your witty summation and maybe a few Photoshopped Tweety feathers coming out of their mouths.

To get the ball rolling, here's my entry:
"Not pictured -- Pestilence."

Have at it.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Viva -- cough, cough -- Fidel!

Fidel Castro, the world’s longest-serving dictator, celebrated his 80th birthday today by announcing that he was improving after his surgery, but warning his people to expect bad news. For the Cubans in Florida, the news that Fidel was still around was bad enough. For many Cold Warriors, Fidel remains at the helm of an embarrassing outpost of a dead system that he took over from the playground of the jet-set during the last Long War.

If the fifties rich-and-famous folks could be said to have their own diaspora, it was when their Moses, Fulgencio Batista, was overthrown by about eleven amateur politicians and an Argentine dental student. Their leader, Fidel, transformed overnight from a charming ex-pitching prospect for the Yankess to a ruthless authoritarian. He executed generals, he closed the casinos, and he kicked out Frank Sinatra. Sure, making friends with the Russkies was bad, but after he sent the gangsters and the lawyers and the politicians packing, the damage had already been done.

As the Cold War fizzled on, you could sense the developing sense of injustice among the bald and calculating geniuses in the Pentagon as Cuba’s little bunch of hirsute guerillas persisted at their own version of Marxism-Leninism, despite the US’s best efforts at bullying, threatening and outright assassination attempts. Again and again our presidents cursed the Soviet Union, certain in their belief that when the Russian Bear fell, its little commie satellites would topple like so many shoddily-built Soviet apartment blocks.

Now all the old commies have died off – except for China of course, but hey – the cheap labor wing of the Republican party needs some love too – and yet Castro still sits there in his tropical paradise, devoid of any exports except molasses, cigars and doctors, hanging in space without comprehensible means of support, like the boy in the Indian rope trick. How the hell did we put him there? And better yet, how the hell do we get him down?

It’s possible that Castro’s grown old and ornery on the nurturing spite of the capitalist classes. If so then it’s been a mutually beneficial relationship. Old Cold Warriors like Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond and Ronald Reagan have also made it to ripe old ages. It’s possible that ideological struggle can increase longevity – and this could raise some disturbing questions. For instance – does this mean Dick Cheney will live forever? And another one – if certain struggles prolong the lives of the combatants, then doesn’t that extend the duration of the combat itself?

We already know that certain kinds of conflicts are more expensive than others. And when we’ve got a country that’s so good at so many things, why do some ideologues only opt for the most expensive option in special cases? Why, in a war against a notably inferior economic and political system, do we insist on using not our economic or political advantages, but our weaknesses in those areas? Had we fought the Cuban theatre of the Cold War not with blockades and threats (oh yeah – and an invasion) but with Levis and Marlboros, is there any doubt that Paris Hilton would be exposing her panties in a Havana nightclub at this very moment?

Let Pat Robertson decry moral decay all he wants, there’s one thing that our enemies in Long War I and Long War II have in common – they’re ridiculously uptight. Commies and Islamic fundamentalists, like totalitarians everywhere, enforce ignorance and prudery. And yet, when we feel that our values are threatened, do we turn to the parts of our society that make us unique? Do we call up our rock bands, our film directors, the guys who spritz water on models’ asses, our designers, our civic planners and our enterpreneurs? Actually, yes we do – but then we put them in National Guard uniforms and tell them to train Iraqi policemen.

What we should be doing is letting the American Revolution export itself. In the old Soviet Union, American goods were luxury items and primo bribes – American clothes, American whiskey, American technology and just plain American dollars are in demand everywhere in the world. If we built up our reserves of American know-how, compassion and optimism, we could conquer the whole planet – and we could do so with weapons that would be welcomed as liberators even where American soldiers and bullets aren’t.

So happy 80th birthday, Fidel, whether that bad news is that you’ve been dead for two years or that you’re going to live to be a hundred. The survival of your little sugar plantation and its rundown beaches stands as mute testament to all the wars we’ve fought with the wrong weapons and for the wrong reasons. And as we stumble blindly into the 21st century, fighting enemies we’ve already isolated economically and politically (thus removing our best weapons before the battle has even begun), we would do well to remember the longevity we’ve imparted to you and your homegrown totalitarianism. It seems ridiculous that an octagenarian in baggy fatigues could hold out for decades against the nation that gave us Miami Vice – but we chose the weapons, so we probably deserve it. A wise president could’ve airlifted some hot pants and XBoxes into Havana and had you in his back pocket decades ago – but that would’ve meant fighting dirty.

Monday, August 07, 2006


So the secret’s out now – remember those invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq? Well it wasn’t by coincidence that they’re in pretty much the same part of the world. Ever since Israel invaded Lebanon again, our fearless leaders have suddenly dropped the terror ruse and started talking about the transformation of the Middle East. Condi Rice spoke of the Lebanon war as the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” Nevermind that Lebanon was already supposed to be part of a new Middle East – apparently you have to transform the Middle East with the democracies you have, not the democracies you’d like to have. If one of your blossoms of freedom votes for the terrorists, then blow it up and start all over again – once you’ve cowed the free people into submission, they’ll vote for whatever democracy you tell them to vote for.

Or at least that’s the theory, I think. But really, how do we know? George Bush certainly didn’t run for president on the platform that he was going to use the military to bomb the Arabs into the twenty-first century, even though it’s certain this was on the agenda at the first National Security Council meeting in late January of 2001. There’s a whole trail of position papers put out by neocon thinkers (I know, it’s sorta like Iranian moderates, but bear with me) on how we could turn the whole Muslim world into a wellspring of democracy if only they would stand still and let us administer the beat-down they so richly deserved.

But who knows if this is the whole plan or just the part of it they feel like telling us right now? If Bush really had campaigned in 1999 on invading the Middle East until they bent to our wishes, do you think he would’ve won? He would’ve been relegated to the wing of the Republican party reserved for mutants and evolutionary dead-ends – the short bus of the small tent party – and fifty years from now his likeness would adorn Madame Tussaud’s between Ross Perot and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Instead he hooked up with some ex-Nixonites, who apparently came away from their impeachment experience with the lesson that Nixon was too forthcoming and open with the press. The Nixonites dragged in a raft of neocons who liked to describe themselves as starry-eyed idealists – in much the same way that John Lennon would’ve been an idealist if, instead of making music about peace and love, he had instead written songs about conquering the Holy Land and converting the heathens at the point of a spear.

And taking their oil. Because you know they’re not just doing this in order to make the world a better place – or, in the case of the End-Timers, a worse place, then a perfectly horrid place, and then a much, much nicer place. No, the starry-eyed Johnny Appleseeds of freedom know you can’t just export democracy at the point of a gun – at least not without drafting all of Mexico. If it’s not possible to threaten the entire world with violence, then you can at least threaten them with economic misery. It’s called the stick-and-stick approach, and while it doesn’t win over any hearts or minds, they’re not worried about that – they can blame the media for that failure later.

For all I can tell, this is only to maintain an approach to the world that sees every other country as innately hostile and in need of subjugation. This, I suppose, stems from the idealistic notion that the world is always just one massive military beat-down – one Operation [Your Nation Here] Freedom – one preemptive war – away from complete perfection. For instance – in the Palestinian Authority, Bush first wanted to get rid of Yasser Arafat, saying he wasn’t a legitimate representative of the people. After Arafat’s death, his political party was exposed for being massively corrupt. In the following elections, Hamas won control of the Palestinian parliament and was promptly ostracized by the US and Israel – notwithstanding their status as the only legitimate contender to Fatah’s political supremacy. Now our governments make the lives of everyday Palestinians even more miserable than usual in the hopes that this will somehow cause a legitimate and highly popular appeasement candidate to spring from the populace. It’s like the dad who yells “Come here” to his son, and when the kid complies, smacks him upside the head. The dad’s taught his son a lesson, but he may be surprised to know it’s not the lesson he intended.

About two years ago, in the last throes of the election cycle, John Kerry and the Democrats were widely ridiculed for allegedly building a foreign policy around being liked by other countries. This, we heard, was not the way to fight the war on terror. Only lily-livered Neville Chamberlains sought out middle positions ever since Everything Changed. And now that it has, we don’t need to make any excuses about telling the world to obey – when you have the moral clarity to insist that you’re always right, facts just get in the way. But in a number of places – Gaza and Lebanon and maybe Iraq and Iran as well – when you’ve scraped the layers of opposition down one by one, at some point it should occur to you that it’s opposition all the way to the core. There’s no secret moderate majority among your enemies waiting to embrace your arrival. The only surprise in the neocons’ strategy is that they’ve arrived at this point so quickly.