Blahhg Post

In the late stages of starvation the body turns to its own muscle tissue as a source of protein, literally devouring itself in a last ditch effort at survival. The functioning of the brain becomes impaired as cellular processes fail. The subject becomes listless, apathetic, and withdrawn as he consumes himself.
The solitary man, having by chance or choice found himself removed from society, must also turn inward, as his psychological needs for love, companionship, and human contact must be sated. He too consumes himself.

Take it from me, I know. All this other stuff I talk about; well, I’m a fraud. What do I know about the affairs of the world, of human nature, of man’s relationship to society? My knowledge is all second hand, acquired by reading or worse, watching television, run through my shoddy filter of a mind, fouled by my vanity and prejudices, worthless in the end because only the lived experience achieves anything near certainty. And while my education is merely paltry, my lack of experience is a scandal. Snatch anyone out of a crowd at random, you’ll almost certainly have found someone who’s done more than me. I can’t help it. My natural state is dull torpor. Want to know about sloth? Listlessness? Apathy? These are the materiel with which I wage my campaign of inertia.

I was sullen from the moment I was forced, literally kicking and screaming, into the harsh light of day. I believe my mother once told me that I was a relatively well behaved baby. This was no pleasant disposition; I’m sure I’d already made up my mind about the futility of effort. Why waste your breath?

As long as I can remember I’ve been looking back; even as a child I remember thinking that if only I could go back to some earlier point and start again, then I’d shake this thing, this curse, this personality that I’m sure belongs to someone else, that I carry about with increasing fatigue and resentment. Sometimes when I catch sight of myself in a mirror I think I see the stranger who’s hijacked my body, there behind the eyes, faintly mocking, the bastard.

My whole life I’ve gazed longingly into the past with bitter nostalgia. But it was never so very good until it was gone, this life. That part of it spent and squandered is mourned; that which lies ahead is feared; its end is resented.
But life does grow sweeter, in spite of me. In spite of this undeserving ingrate, this incomplete creature bestowed with an awareness he misunderstands and manhandles, like an ape tearing the pages from a book. Life has never been better, truly, than now–yet still!
Mankind is glorious; man is wretched.

Don’t mistake this for modesty or low “self-esteem”, whatever the hell that means. Talk to me about self-esteem and I’ll punch you on the chin. You will likely then beat me senseless, because I can’t fight either and I’m an awful coward, but that’s beside the point.
No, quite the opposite. I think only too highly of myself. As do you. We cannot help but turn inward, even when we look at the heavens. This is the source of our dispossession.

Sexual Perversity

Youth, beauty, strength: the criteria for physical love are exactly the same as those of Nazism. In short, I was in the shit.
—Michel Houellebecq, The Possibility of an Island

Sexual innocence has gone to market.
In our liberated era, sexuality is increasingly valued, and modesty increasingly devalued (once was a person was a deviant if overly sexual; now if insufficiently so).
Sexual competition is now a laissez faire system, and sexuality is a commodity in a newly deregulated market. Sexual vigor and success combine to make the universal product, inherent in all products.
Sex is the value added, to be attained by purchasing the right car, clothes, beer, etc. Sex sells the products that promise to produce more sex. Sex is the Alpha and Omega of our new consumerist order.

Despite the tendency of the sixties generation to congratulate itself (or any generation, for that matter), sexual liberation owes far more to technology than to political action. Women first had to be liberated from toil. Only then could sexual equality become an issue. Political agitation always follows opportunity, just as patriotic rhetoric follows power. Activists need their heroic mythology as surely as militarists.

It is to the modern free market, and its ruthless efficiency in wringing productivity out of labor, that women owe their newfound liberty. Material progress and the advent of free time made women’s liberation possible. I’m sure I’m not the first to suggest women owe their equality to masculine technological ingenuity, but not so long ago this would have been considered the raving of a crackpot, and perhaps still is in some quarters.
(I recall an essay by legendary L.A. Times columnist Jack Anderson, years ago, where he perused newspaper advertisements from the early half of the twentieth century, expressing disdain at the prevalence of ads for various innovative, time saving products for homemakers: washing machines, sewing machines, vacuum cleaners, etc.–my how far we’ve come, seemed to be the gist of his import; here it was right before him, but it was too soon to recognize and acknowledge the true vanguards of women’s liberation–household appliances)

Our new freedom is at once more liberal and less egalitarian, freer and more fascistic; unhindered sexual competition will make gilded age capitalism look like a support group. Sexual competition is nature’s dismissive, mocking retort to humanity’s endless prayers to equality and fraternity. We conquer man-made morality only to submit to nature’s tyranny. The wheel of history turns: repression begets revolution begets repression.

Sexual competition now follows the amoral logic of the market, because sex is the market, always has been; we now see that all human economic activity is a complex superstructure built upon this substrate of sex. From here on the unfettered market of sex will proceed with the same inexorable and indifferent logic of any open market, to points unknown.

Unmodified sexual competition is a return to nature, transplanting the primitive world into the midst of modernity; a return which will likely disabuse us of yet another cherished myth, that of the primitive idyll. It is every man (and woman) for himself. The regulation of sexual behavior through monogamy and chastity were civilizational advances we haven’t bothered to replace, but are merely leaving behind.
Sexual shame has been routed, electronic entertainment reaches ever higher degrees of technological sophistication, and the ensuing profusion of sexual imagery and titillation is already desensitizing us. Ever more stimulation is required; already we show signs of exhaustion. It may all end in a sexually spent society; ironically, sexual liberation may eventually destroy sex.

Procreation has already been cut adrift; is passion next? How will love be possible in the coming world? Will love itself become an artifact, a short lived thing in the span of history? Is it now revealed as no more than a dream? Romantic love, we hardly knew ye.

Now the very notion of a common sexual morality is illiberal. By unspoken assent it has become sufficient to ridicule one who speaks of such things as a prude; which under the new order is synonymous with enemy of freedom.
But this is all the bigotry of the present for the past, for morality as a personal matter is a modern invention. Subjective, individual morality is as meaningless as the conceit of a close personal relationship with God. It is no morality at all.

I don’t know if it spells disaster; I don’t pretend to know where it leads. I only know it represents something altogether new, a profound–and unprecedented–devolution of moral authority from communities and institutions to individuals, manipulated by a ubiquitous and sophisticated electronic marketplace. This we’ve come to accept without consideration, by default really, as the unavoidable result of a morally unassailable expansion of personal liberty (an increasing personal liberty accompanied by a decreasing political representation, as matters of war, immigration, and the terms of our governance are increasingly surrendered to corporations and political parties inured against the popular will–but that’s for another time).

It does seem that something has to give, eventually. Perhaps when the professional classes and the wealthy have reached levels of illegitimacy and serial relationships previously confined to the poor. They have already acquired a taste for low culture that seems to presage a taste for low living. People are now expected to demonstrate their egalitarian piety by disdaining discernment, particularly in matters of a sexual nature. To be modest is to not be in on the joke, outdated, alien, not one of us. So, we are all vulgarians now. Or outcasts.

We have decreed the ideal of modesty nothing more than bourgeois prejudice; worse, it’s a sucker’s investment in the failing concern that is sexual morality, akin to putting one’s money in savings while everyone else is getting rich on junk bonds. Morality, and community, always depended on the vast majority buying into it, at least in principle, but now the compact has been broken. We already have a hard time remembering its terms.

It’s one more fight I haven’t taken up, despite being sympathetic to defenders of tradition, who seem entirely more honest, brave even, in their willingness to stand their ground before the groundswell that lifts their opposite number. I too suffer from the cowardice of that craven sellout, the “liberal on social issues conservative”, which is not a conservative at all, and a very dismal liberal at that. It is a cop-out, like calling yourself an agnostic.
I must confess, this is nothing more than a surrender to the way things are. Of the few things I’m certain, one is that sexual mores are not the means of patriarchal tyranny that some feminists would have, or mere accident, as the general apathy that is overtaking us implies. The prevalence of sexual morality in advanced societies is enough for me to prove its necessity to civilization.

Two modern historical anomalies uncomfortably exist side by side: the sexualization of children, and the idealization of childhood.
Many have pointed out that our time’s extended, idealized childhood is a fairly recent invention. This too may prove short-lived. One consequence of the commodification of sexuality is that children are disabused of sexual innocence sooner and, like the rest of us, more thoroughly.
For a time we behaved as if there could be two separate societal spheres, one of adults and one of children. This was always a contrivance to get us past the transition from a communal morality to one determined by the individual and manipulated by the marketplace; now few even feel the need to offer the cliched and callous retort to those complaining about sexual content on television: just change the channel.
Now we know that children, and childhood, will not be insulated from the consequences of sexual revolution; the very notion that they should be is diminishing, surrendered to a “progress” we are incapable, and mostly unwilling, to arrest. The most profound result of sexual liberation may be the destruction of sexual innocence.

Is childhood to be surrendered to this new ideal of productivity, progress, and personal liberation? Are we now giving childhood back, not to the privations of a harder time, but to the libertine, dissolute excess of ours? Who will be left to mourn childhood when none have lived it?

An unspoken anxiety grips the populace. We are alarmed at the sight of tarted up thirteen year-olds (particularly if they are our relatives), yet we lack the will, acting alone now without the structure of community morality to support us, to offer a resistance. No one wants to be a prude; it has gone beyond a source of embarrassment to become a source of suspicion. The imputation is that one who complains about sexual morality would surrender other freedoms, or is secretly attempting to chase women out of public life, even as the debate, like that surrounding abortion, is inordinately waged by women on each side. Women remain more vested in chastity and sexual modesty than men ever will be, contrary to some feminist dogma.

Sublimation is still necessary, now more than ever, so we turn our fearful angst on the few remaining among us who are unquestionably out of bounds, the rapist and the child molester.

The New York Times reported earlier this week on a series of highly rated shows produced by Dateline NBC, filming police stings of alleged sexual predators seeking out minors online.
The stings are the creation of a website named Perverted Justice, that had been acting on its own for years before being picked up by Dateline. The sting operators pose as children in online chat rooms, waiting to be propositioned by adults.
For nearly three years, and even a couple of episodes into Dateline’s involvement with them, the group did all of this without notifying the authorities (now they work in conjunction with the police). Originally they merely sought to identify online predators and then cause them as much harm as possible by publishing their names and informing on them to employers, family, friends, and neighbors.
Among the many problems inherent in this, the website had no means of confirming the identities of their targets.

A contra-site,, was created to counter Perverted Justice, and claims among the concessions it’s managed to extract (from their website):

1) We demanded that they cease performing their “busts” without the prearranged involvement of legitimate law enforcement, and;
2) We demanded that they dismantle the “Follow Up Forum” – The primary tool used by their members to harass and terrorize those who had been accused only by anonymous vigilantes and had never been dealt with by legitimate law enforcement.

The “Follow Up Forum” seems to be a large part of the appeal of the site, publishing the lurid details of online chats; previously used to destroy alleged pedophiles who stood accused of no crime, now the site limits these to persons already convicted. Among the charges leveled by Corrupted Justice are that PJ has used minors in its sting operations, that it has in the past lured predators into residential neighborhoods and to public places without notifying police (and I can’t help thinking that these close calls only made more careful predators), and of course that their methods constitute entrapment.

In the past I’ve seen a few of the Dateline programs, and I must confess that I was nearly as appalled by the actions of Dateline as I was by the alleged child predators. I have to ask myself, am I letting my natural revulsion toward sanctimony color my judgment of a worthy and necessary mission? I think not.

What appalls me isn’t the sense that the innocent are being persecuted, though I’ll never feel comfortable with the curious folk at Perverted Justice or the producers of Dateline NBC running about determining who is a criminal and who isn’t (one PJ participant dismisses charges of entrapment by pointing out that civilians cannot be guilty of entrapment–accurate, but hardly reassuring to know that there are situations where civilians are more empowered than police); it is more the sense that they are in fact engaged in punishment, and that their motivations, imbued with an immature zeal, lead them to extremes. Extra-legal punishment, existing outside of the law, is an erosion of the law, and the law, not the posturing antics of the self appointed, is what truly protects us.

The aggressive pursuit of sexual deviants is designed to make us feel less powerless before the gut-wrenching pace of society’s progress toward an uncertain moral abyss. Family and community once protected children from these people, who have always existed; but what is different now is the independence, and sexual precociousness, of our children, and the way we live. We are understandably on edge.

In the past activists have tried to create special category crimes with diminished rights for the accused. Feminists have done this with rape, lobbying to restrict the rights of the accused and expand its definition; law and order conservatives have long expressed impatience with constitutional restraints in general. The willingness of so many to surrender so much to the “war on terror” comes to mind. We get into trouble when we refuse to live with the limitations the law places on us
Often accompanying demands that the constitution be suspended is the insistence that we are in the throes of an epidemic; sometimes, as in the case of nationwide pedophilia panic of the early nineties, outright hysteria is allowed to take hold (in no small part because so few are willing to be seen as defending heinous criminals–leaving little resistance to an already powerful, emotion driven movement) resulting in fantastical claims and the persecution of innocents. Often there is a hostility toward patriarchy, and an underlying misandry. Perveted Justice’s founder, a 27 year-old man who–shockingly–lives with his mother, has this to say, “I have a low opinion of men in general. The most heinous crimes in our society are committed by males.”
Always suspect those so ready to denounce their kind.

What is striking about the Perverted Justice website is its strutting, self-congratulatory nature. Enthusiastic amateurs engaged in what should be police activity should always give us pause. And to think I began here bemoaning the collapse of sexual morality.
Something else I couldn’t help but notice: the vigilantes of PJ resemble the child molesters they hunt (they post photos of both). There is an awful lot of venom, braggadocio, and chest-beating going on; but above all, as always, vanity.

The same issue of the Times reported on a public shaming of Chinese prostitutes and pimps (what does a Chinese pimp look like?) that drew a significant backlash from citizens who were concerned about the abuse of state power, and its troubling reminder of the Cultural Revolution.
One land’s low ebb is another’s high tide.

Horrorshow: delete

Flush out your headgear, new guy. You think we waste gooks for freedom? This is a slaughter. If I’m going to get my balls blown off for a word, my word is poon-tang.
–Animal Mother, Full Metal Jacket

News from Iraq the mainstream press isn’t reporting, via Dahr Jamail in Tomdispatch:

Then there are the emails I get from American soldiers or their family members. In late October, I received one from a mother whose son is a Marine stationed in Ramadi where the fighting between U.S. forces and Sunni insurgents has been fierce and ongoing these last months.

“Many, many atrocities on both sides,” she writes,”because of course the town has deteriorated into nothing more than a horror flick. His emails are few because his outpost was mortared and he lost computer connection with me. He has to go to the Army side of the city and try to send email from there. I’ve gotten one email. The marines are not supplying the boys with working satellite phones. Instead they give those, along with money for bribes, to the Iraqis in hopes of obtaining information. So our marines sit there (only 400 patrolling half of Ramadi, a town of 400,000… talk about war crimes). This is such a nightmare. If my son survives, he’ll be embittered forever…This is a portion of his angry email….I found it very disturbing….please excuse the spelling, he’s in a hurry and exhausted when he writes….his point is to kill the Iraqis before they kill him. Now it’s just a race for life. Insane.”

Her son’s email reads in part:

“I was gonna call you but the phone is broken. I hate this place more than anywhere else i’ve been. I guess is a compilation of all the time I’ve done overseas fighting. Bullshit fights, its really bringing me down. I can’t wait till all this is over…I’ll be the biggest anti-war person this country will have… at least against this war in Iraq….Let’s go fight a different one somewhere else cause this one is lost. I swear i wish you could spend a week over here…you would know it’s lost. You can’t stop ‘holy warriors,’ especially in their territory. Tonight we are about to go drop off generators to the enemy (Iraqi civilians) hoping they will give us info about the enemy (bullshit storys). The shit your tax dollars go to would make you puke. You really would puke. I almost do when i think about it….. thomas jefferson would have a heart attack if he saw all the shit goin on today. Oh well. I really hope it changes soon when Bush is out…but i doubt it. I thinks its all Gods plan…he runs the show no matter what. Fate and all that…its good to trust him. “…I’ll keep the machine gun lubed in hopes of killin em all at the first opportunity for you. I love you ma and i know that no matter what you support me. I hope you don’t find this email burdensome. Just hit delete if that’s the case.”


I propose:

“Civil war” is not an accurate description of the current situation in Iraq. It is in fact a euphemism for what is happening in Iraq. A traditional civil war would be an improvement, presenting the U.S. with a more predictable environment, and organized factions with which to negotiate, or support, or oppose.
As it is we’re now talking to the once dismissed leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), Abdul Aziz al-Hakeem, whose militia, the Badr Brigades, is more closely linked with Iran (having fought on its behalf in the Iran/Iraq war) than any other faction; all while insisting that Iran’s meddling is destabilizing Iraq.
We are left hedging an uncertain bet (on precisely what exactly is becoming less clear all the time) on a shaky regime by dealing with, or assenting via inaction to the activities of (in the case of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army), those who are killing, kidnapping, and terrorizing each other, or the civilian population as a whole. This while the last of the neocon diehards are still pressing for war against Iran for supporting these same groups (a likely [and why wouldn’t Iran want to influence the outcome?] but unproven assertion, by the way).
Just don’t call it a civil war. Well, okay.

As for the issue of accuracy in reporting: “chaos”, “civil collapse”, “societal breakdown”, or maybe “rampant warlordism”, each would be more apt. Does anyone recall the terminolgy used to describe the situation in Mogadishu before our ill fated intervention in 1992? It seems Iraq is closer to that than to any sort of civil war we would recognize.

Closer to home:

“Unarmed” is a technically accurate description of a man who struck a police officer with his car before ramming an undercover police vehicle twice, all while not posessing a firearm. But the term is misleading if used outside of this context. There is a reason we have codified into law something called vehicular homicide.

Lawyers, Guns, & Money

I was gambling in Havana,
I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns and money
Dad, get me out of this

—Warren Zevon, Lawyers, Guns, and Money

We’ve all seen films and television programs utilizing the standard Twilight Zone-like climactic device wherein the protagonist must convince people of some imminent but fantastical-sounding peril (“the aliens are coming”; “we’re being replaced by pod-people”; “the president is as foolish as he appears”; etc.). You know the hero, his desperate urgency making him look like a lunatic, is in trouble when the authorities start in with the soothing, condescending voices; you’ve probably thought to yourself, as I have: just keep your mouth shut, fool, can’t you see they’re going to lock you up?
Therefore, by benefit of the unique education in wildly improbable eventualities that TV and cinema have afforded us, we all know that if, say, you see a gremlin on the wing of your passenger jet, it’s better to try to calm yourself, close the shade and order a double scotch. Sometimes all you can do is hold on tight or discreetly get out of the way.
So it is with this in mind that I quietly pack some essential belongings into the truck, put in a Spanish language-immersion tape (hola, senior Martinez; hoy es lunes, manana es martes; si muy bien; two days of this and I expect to have an accent like Ricardo Montalban), and merge onto the five freeway southbound one last time. I should have done this sooner.

Never again will I try to convince you that the war in Iraq not only had nothing to do with terrorism or WMD, but that our “leadership,” such as they are, knew this from the start. I will no longer make the assertion that the forcible “liberation” of the Middle East is a means to an end; not of defending America, but of keeping America uniquely dominant in the world. There is a difference, even if the neoconservative “intellectuals” insist no.

It is a very odd world indeed when, among a range of possibilities, that which makes the most sense is treated as conspiracy fantasy.
In an inversion of this Twilight Zone cliché ours is a helter-skelter reality where the absurd is obvious and the obvious absurd:
“what’s that you say? We invaded the nation with the third largest oil reserves in the world, secured its Oil Ministry while all about it was looted and burned, began construction of massive, permanent military bases, locked in long-term, highly favorable oil contracts, attempted to install a criminal expatriate of our own with no domestic support as president before allowing one man-one vote elections only after being pressured by massive street demonstrations not to satisfy the natural yearning for freedom that exists in every Muslim breast and upon which our own existence depends? Now, now—of course we believe you—the doctor is just going to give you a little something to calm you down
Offered for your consideration, in my best Rod Serling voice.

I think the confusion really began when we did away with the Department of War; creating a “Department of Defense” can only lead to Orwellian double-think, if that wasn’t the intention from the start.
But this isn’t what I came to say.

Many years from now, when the lasting consequences of the Iraq war reveal themselves and the fanciful, obscuring rhetoric has calmed like the dust of a volcanic explosion settling to reveal the new contours of the landscape; when we ask, yet again, how could this have happened, we may be appalled to conclude that it was largely the climax of an epic family drama.
We’ll have to gradually introduce this idea; we can’t all at once disillusion ourselves about just how corrupt our political process is and how the vanity of men, some of them remarkably small and petty, can influence the course of our great nation.

At the moment it is necessary that we assume the might of the United States can’t be leveraged by the egomania of a resentful son; this isn’t Shakespeare, and Freud lost relevance long ago. But never has a family drama of vanity, pride, and filial resentment played itself out on so grand and tragic a scale, as is happening right now before our eyes. It’s a fascinating spectacle, if we cannot yet allow ourselves to look at it full on.

The American republic’s is a powerful chief executive, growing alarmingly more powerful still, even as the current officeholder flounders and smashes all about him with his current measure of privilege. One has to wonder how much value Dick Cheney expects to draw from his hard-won imperial presidency (that he could only enjoy by proxy through the second-rate son of a old rival—how it must grate) before handing it off to who knows (perhaps to the transparently egomaniacal John McCain—things could get more interesting still).

Before his surreal elevation to the highest office in the world, George W. Bush had played two very different, one dimensional roles for various interests both political and commercial, that of the affable front man and that of the back-room bully.
In the past George W. Bush lent the name his father cultivated to commercial concerns eager to access influence. He enjoyed his role as front man and disdained details and operation; this is a fair description of his presidency. We all know he once headed a failed oil company; we all know it wasn’t his fault it failed because he wasn’t much involved in its operation. When the end came he dutifully invoked his privileged background, drew what favorable terms that entitled, and was bailed out by his father. The music stopped, and most of the investors were without chairs, but the name, the brand, Bush was mostly shielded from dishonor.
I have to wonder how it felt when it was made clear to him that he wouldn’t surpass his father in business.

Donald Rumsfeld’s long overdue ouster and (pending) replacement by perennial insider, possible Iran-Contra conspirator, avowed realist, and alleged intelligence fixer Robert Gates, and the staged intervention of Bush Sr’s friend and associate James Baker, is billed as the end of neocon misrule, the surrendering of an incompetently led command.
It is largely theatre (unless you really think that those who we should now turn to for guidance include Vernon Jordan and Leon Panetta); the Iraq Study Group is a Greek chorus to segue our hapless leadership through the costume change from military fatigues to statesmen’s robes. Calling it a “study group” is mildly amusing; once again W. pays someone else to do his homework, and tardily.

The I.S.G. is in reality tasked with fashioning a pretext and political cover for the hasty retreat now made necessary by our absolute failure in Iraq, a failure that was long ago determined; they are crafting the narrative for an exit that was shamelessly put off until now for political considerations. Baker, close friend of the father, is here to bail out the son.

(Baker, you may recall, served as discreet mouthpiece for the former President Bush, voicing concern over W’s impending crusade errant in Iraq. Bush the Younger once infamously made a point of publicly dismissing the rare advantage afforded him by being the son of the only other president to make war with Iraq by brandishing his sanctimonious and imaginary close relationship with a “higher father.” We embarrass our children from adolescence to adulthood in return for the embarrassment they caused us as children; but some children never stop embarrassing their parents. Some come to do it out of spite.)

The question remains if the son, abetted by the now isolated Cheney, resentful and desperate as his own megalomaniacal hour nears midnight, will attempt one last act of petulant defiance by publicly spurning the discrete offer of a lessened humiliation.

Some are already attempting to redefine success. “We got Saddam” is destined to become an ironic chestnut along the lines of “it only hurts when I laugh.” There isn’t a serious minded person left who doesn’t secretly wish we could put him right back, not in his spider hole but in the presidential palace. If only we could take a mulligan.
But there is no success to be rescued. There are no shining paths of glory before us; just darkened, uncertain escape routes.

Now that there are no more political advantages to seek or defeats to guard against, and G.W. Bush, the draft horse of grander designs he only dimly understands, has ferried his last load, this administration begins the belated process of determining the least costly means of extrication. It is a salvage operation described as a “change of course.”
In Korea, when outnumbered Marines had to fight their way out of the Chosin Reservoir, Major General O.P. Smith, commander of the 1st Marine Division, refused to describe it as a retreat, insisting that we were merely “attacking in a different direction.” But the ground was yielded. Bush will have to yield Iraq, finally, and that means the large sprawling military bases and favorable oil contracts that, predictably, were the first goals secured and are now the last to be relinquished.
Democracy in Iraq, on the other hand, was initially to be the installation of the exiled Ahmad Chalabi. Failing that it became provisional rule, stalling and trying to channel the elections before bowing to pressure from the (somehow) unaccounted for ambitions of the Shia clergy. Now it has collapsed into talk of partition, coup, and withdrawal. Still, some insist that any suggestion that the goal of installing democracy in Iraq was a ruse is wild-eyed conspiracy theory.

Rhetoric follows power; it provides a veneer of morality and necessity for the more base needs of the state.The neocon theory of worldwide democratic revolution was always cover for naked ambition taking advantage of public fear. A means to an end and a pretext for garrisoning the Middle East against the real threat to American power, Chinese and Russian designs for the world’s energy market.
The most fervent media supporters of the Iraq War believed the lyrics they improvised from the sheet music provided by their cappelmeisters in power; they fell in love with the sound of their own voices and the fantasia they presented. But they were made into propagandists and fabricators, unwitting or not.The last to know defeat is at hand will be the hapless volunteers of the blogging brigades, now left behind to fight a rear-guard action for an army in full retreat. As the forces of reality and accountability descend and cut them to pieces, they will turn to find the king’s elite guards have left the field.

Cheney remains at V.P. in all likelihood because he knows where the bodies are buried; he buried them. For all of Rumsfeld’s crimes and connivance, his image in the public eye is more of an arrogant incompetent than a conspirator. His sacrificing attempts to strengthen the myth of “right war, wrong strategy.” History will dispose of that nonsense, but for the moment, for the political establishment that includes the newly victorious and emboldened (but inconveniently complicit) Democrats, a fiction will do. A sort of historical placeholder; a non-defeat defeat.

As for Rumsfeld’s departure and Cheney’s unimaginable survival, in America we’ve not only come to expect dishonesty, we admire it; losers we cannot abide. Another defect acquired by a history of triumphalist, moralist posturing; posturing in service of power that has accompanied every war, justified or not, we’ve engaged in.
The age-old rousing to battle of which neoconservatism is only a recent manifestation. Our experience with this rhetoric is older than the nation itself, emboldening wars of conquest over the Indian tribes while we were still colonies. Then it was land; now it is oil. Then it was our duty to bring Christian enlightenment to the benighted savages; now our duty is to free the “natural desire of every human being” for liberty. Those in need of our help are almost always in possession, or in the way, of something we need. That most of the neocons misunderstand their role in history only makes them more detestable.

The war is lost; it was lost from the start.Those who say we “won the war but lost the peace” have a very curious notion of peace. Has Iraq had a moment’s peace since we invaded?

Yesterday’s questioning of General Abazaid by the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, a vehicle for McCain and Clinton to strut and preen as defenders of the same public will they took for granted until now, was just more theatre; providing second act character transformations for these competing leads designed to make us forget their duplicity. A plot point for the still unwritten third act that will attempt to make our hasty retreat from Iraq resemble victory.
The one question that needed to be asked I didn’t hear (but I may have missed; I can only endure these things piecemeal): General, is there a plan in place for withdrawal?

Still concealed from the public is that the withdrawal of over a hundred thousand troops and untold tonnage of equipment from a chaotically hostile environment is a problem of its own epic proportions. We are about to initiate a very uncertain and dangerous exit.

So two prominent senators bearing no small measure of responsibility are now allowed to pose as our skeptical saviors demanding competence from the administration; it is them we need to be saved from. That’s quite enough senators, thank you for your service.

In David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia there’s a scene where Lawrence, the idealistic Englishman who organizes an Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I, has led a band of Bedouin fighters on a daring raid that requires first crossing the treacherous Nefud Desert. In the night one of Lawrence’s servants goes missing, but his camel remains; the boy apparently succumbed to sleep and fell from his mount. Separated from the group on foot, he is written off as dead. Lawrence insists on taking it upon himself to go back for the boy; Sherif Ali, the Bedouin leader already leery of Lawrence’s ambitious plan, is furious. Lawrence will certainly die and jeapordize the entire force, he says, in a hopeless effort to save someone his own reckless ambition has already doomed.
The boy, the Sherif tells Lawrence:
“You have killed already.”
President Bush, Senators McCain and Clinton:
Iraq you have killed already.

If only we could send them into the desert.

Elitist Benevolence Threatened by Representative Democracy

Left behind in the muck by the receding waters of Tuesday’s Democratic tsunami are countless predictable articles characterizing it as a refutation of Republican immigration “hardliners.” At least one comprehensive reform supporter is a little more honest, noticing that the newcomers are well to the “right” of the Democratic leadership; most outflanked their Rebublican opponents to the restrictionist side. Jacob Weisberg’s Slate column, Lou Dobbs Democrats,” is commendable for not relying on the boilerplate, but still he seeks to dissuade the freshman class of representatives from harboring too much regard for the popular will, fashioning an argument out of a precarious distinction between what he terms “economic populism” vs. “economic nationalism”:

Many of the Democrats who recaptured seats held by Republicans have been described as moderates or social conservatives, who will be out of synch with Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi. The better term, with props to Fareed Zakaria, is probably illiberal Democrats. Most of those who reclaimed Republican seats ran hard against free trade, globalization, and any sort of moderate immigration policy. That these Democrats won makes it likely that others will take up their reactionary call. Some of the newcomers may even be foolish enough to try to govern on the basis of their misguided theory.

“Illiberal” has a very nasty ring in and of itself. Il- is a loaded prefix, suggesting dysfunction or mental illness. But that’s the least of it. Weisberg’s use of the phrase combined with his “props to” (Jacob [J-Wee?] is pretty fly for a white guy) Fareed Zakaria constitutes an underhanded allusion to fascism. Zakaria’s “illiberal” democrats were the concern of his essay-turned-book The Rise of Illiberal Democracy, warning of democracy’s potential for empowering extremists (ya don’t say?). From Zakaria’s book:

THE AMERICAN diplomat Richard Holbrooke pondered a problem on the eve of the September 1996 elections in Bosnia, which were meant to restore civic life to that ravaged country. “Suppose the election was declared free and fair,” he said, and those elected are “racists, fascists, separatists, who are publicly opposed to [peace and reintegration]. That is the dilemma.”

Weisberg seems to be lamenting that America is electing the wrong people. We’re, apparently, no more trustworthy with the keys to democracy than the Third World primitives that Weisberg wants to throw the border gates open for. (This phrase, electing the wrong people, was used by a member of the Coalition Provisional Authority when explaining the delay of Iraq’s promised elections.)
Weisberg’s not sure we can be trusted with democracy. We might use it to interfere with market forces. He continues:

Nationalism begins from the populist premise that working people aren’t doing so well. But instead of blaming the rich at home, it focuses its energy on the poor abroad.

I suppose this is technically accurate, in that an illegal alien is very much “abroad.”
Weisberg’s “economic populism” is good because, unlike its evil twin above, it knows its place, limiting itself to minimum wage laws, confiscatory taxes and stumping for social programs, while accepting whatever may come of unbridled immigration and outsourcing. And it “blames the rich at home.” Because you can never have enough class envy.
This illustrates the fundamental problem with our open borders faction. It is currently an alliance of two opposing political movements: on one wing, we have the Clinton Democrats (Hillary, not Bill) and their designs to institute national health care, maintain race and sex quotas, and broaden social programs; on the other we have the economic libertarians, who oppose most government interference in the market and are otherwise diametrically opposed to the other wing’s plans.

It’s as if they are engaged in a game of chicken, to see who will abandon their principles first.
Both sides gloss over the glaring contradiction; one bets on a return to the policies of the Johnson Administration; the other on a miraculous deliverance from the persistence of economic inequality that provoked the welfare state in the first place, somehow to be achieved by the mass importation of poor people. My money’s on the first group.

“Moderate” in Weisberg’s approximation is of course Hagel/Martinez, tripling current immigration levels and invoking twenty year-old deja vu regarding enforcement. Come on Charlie Brown, kick that football. And why wouldn’t we trust proponents of “comprehensive reform”, who alternate between deriding enforcement as futile and insisting they will eventually deliver it?

“Moderate” of course means not having the coarse manners to take enforcement seriously. Is this fair, when “enforcement first” is nothing more than an attempt to enforce existing law? At what point did we make the deliberate decision that our immigration laws were no longer needed and our border a mere inconvenience?
The federal government has silently and without the assent of a distracted public gotten away with abnegating its responsibilites over the last twenty years (since ’86’s amnesty law and its ignored enforcement provisions). This is a curious interpretation of the consent of the governed in a republic. It suggests a decay and corruption that anyone should be opposed to, regardless of how they feel about its consequences.
One might chalk it up to a lazy and apathetic electorate getting the government it deserves, but now the public is forcefully expressing its will that the law be applied. A congressman or senator who seeks the same is now considered opposed to “any moderate policy”? I must be missing something. But the slightest resistance is enough to set off Weisberg’s sanctimony:

One heard similar themes in the other pivotal Senate races. In Virginia, apparent winner James Webb denounced outsourcing and blasted George Allen for voting to allow more “foreign guest workers” into the state. In Missouri, victor Claire McCaskill refused to let incumbent James Talent out-hawk her on immigration. “Unfair trade agreements have sent good American jobs packing, hurting Missouri workers and communities,” she said in one of her ads.We should be encouraging businesses to stay at home, not rewarding them for moving overseas [emph. added]

Oh the heresy!

Clinton espoused a strong free-trade position and embraced globalization through his presidency. This set the direction for his party, despite significant resistance in Congress. Clinton’s argument was always that government should address the negative consequences of open trade through worker retraining programs and by providing benefits not tied to employers, like health care and portable pensions. But that human-capital part of Clinton’s globalization agenda never went anywhere, which partially explains the current backlash.

This plan, to couple a more libertarian immigration policy with liberal social programs, constitutes continually transferring wealth from an ever-expanding unskilled population to a much smaller skilled population, taxing it back from them to fund government programs, then delivering some of the wealth back to the unskilled to alleviate the very poverty magnified by the process in the first place. It is inherently dehumanizing and dysfunctional.
This rube goldberg-like construct might work, but the question is why would you want it? Because after all, whether you’re a liberal or conservative on the question of social programs, unrestricted unskilled labor makes your agenda more difficult to realize by importing poverty along with the uneducated.

A growing uneducated population and a shrinking manufacturing base are on a collision course; a collision bound to result in the further division of the nation into an extremely wealthy elite, a diminishing middle class, and a growing underclass that uses the political process to shake down the resented, and increasingly removed, wealthy elite.
That these economic divisions will also be largely racial spells disaster. The vehemence with which immigration libertarians denounce any mention of this while doing nothing to refute it points out the fatal flaw in their philosophy. Market forces have not yielded racial economic equality; they in fact produce a troublesome inequality. This inequality can only be alleviated by forms of confiscation: through affirmative action; by corrupt political machinery, a la New Orleans; by taxation. But the worst consequence of open borders will be a polity increasingly divided into hostile factions, led by demagogues.
The real danger is that a liberal immigration policy yields a much harsher version of Weisberg’s “illiberal democrats.”
But we can’t consider the political and cultural ramifications of immigration because it smacks of “nationalism”, or worse, to some.

An Inconvenient Man, The Sequel

(This originally ran on Dec. 7, 2005, when I thought that Saddam Hussein was sure to embarrass us with his antics and revelations during his trial; I offer it up here as a premature eulogy for a man scheduled to become the most conspicuous sacrifice to the Bush Administration’s political designs, a sacrifice that threatens to convulse the teetering Iraqi nation in one last, perhaps fatal, spasm of violence)

Read Part I here.

It’s funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.
Alex, A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess

Saddam is ready for his close-up.
Of the many ill-considered aspects of the war in Iraq none has more comic potential than the trial of Saddam Hussein. According to the script he would meet his demise in the rubble of the opening sequences of “shock and awe.” Saddam was only supposed to appear in a series of flashbacks—not even a speaking role. He was to be no more vocal than Frankenstein’s monster, glowering and grunting in hazy, skewed camera angles.
He, however, never signed on for the role of heavy. He always viewed himself as the leading man type, hankering to play Saladin, hero of the Arab world. That’s the role he’s been studying. Maybe the agents weren’t talking to one another, but the amateur screenwriters who sold a president historically ignorant of history on their script treatment didn’t anticipate Saddam would be around to force a rewrite. In fact, by this point the blockbuster production was to have concluded its theatre run, having assured the president’s re-election, and was to be readying for the big video release coinciding with the 2006 mid-term elections.

Filmmaker Haskell Wexler made a name for himself by using the streets outside the1968 Democratic Convention as the real world set for his film Medium Cool. The unanticipated violence surrounding the protests there provided him with a dramatic windfall of sorts, his actors moving about and improvising amidst the disarray; creating a surreal imposition of the real world into cinematic fiction. The would-be reality filmmakers of the Bush White House thought Iraq would be an ideal set for the epic sequel Persian Gulf II: Clear and Gathering Danger. The script treatment looked good on paper:

American president, relatively young with a regular guy persona, think Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, in a somber briefing learns of an imminent threat from the Middle East. Here we’ll have a great plot point illuminating scene: in a dimly lit conference room the president is briefed as his loyal Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (big, broad shouldered African American, think John Amos in West Wing) lays out the disturbing news: Saddam has nukes and the terrorist connections to deploy them within the U.S.:

How soon can he deploy this weapon?

He may already have.

Concerned, resolute, he raises his chin from where it had been resting between thumb and forefinger in a contemplative pose.


Of course in the ideal movie version the president himself suits up and goes to battle. The politically ambitious architects of current White House policy figured they could approximate that scene well enough with the now infamous “Mission Accomplished” farce, wherein our president, having campaigned on the promise to bring dignity back to the office, played dress-up in a flight suit complete with a crotch that looked suspiciously enhanced.

When President Bush used the term clear and gathering danger he wasn’t only seeking to alarm the public with the description of a threat he assumed would be made plausible once Hussein’s army was quickly dispatched and enough evidence was dug up; he was purposely invoking the emotional, mystifying, naturally propagandistic language of cinema. President Bush’s use of the phrase sounded suspiciously reminiscent of Clear and Present Danger, the title of a film from our other reality (a title itself lifted from Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous definition of constitutionally unprotected speech which included the example of shouting fire in a crowded theatre, and I can’t help but think mine’s a perverse mind to find that ironic).
It takes real nerve to steal so openly, but a White House bold enough to embark on a massive war the purpose of which was political gain justified by the risible pie-in-the-sky fantasies of the neocons wasn’t about to blush over a little Hollywood-style creative incest.
But this wasn’t really theft; this was the homage paid when one work of art references another. You were supposed to think of the film. It would be a convenient shorthand, an abbreviated, simplified language that would appeal to a populace still trying to understand a terrifying new reality; instantly activating the complex of false memories and associations we’ve all acquired watching endless reels of film and countless hours of television; the message contained therein that we’re always right and we always win.
They intended no irony, but when amateurs put on a show, unintentional humor has a way of embarrassing them: both the film and the real life production would feature clueless presidents led about by their subordinates.

What the White House hadn’t planned on was the physical world’s tendency to behave unpredictably. Their production and theatrical release were one and the same, transpiring in real time, so they couldn’t afford to get it wrong. Now the production is out of control, way over budget, long past its scheduled deadline, having gone through so many directors and with so many producers involved nobody’s sure who’s in charge.

They still haven’t written a third act, and along comes Saddam Hussein, sending everyone to their scripts, didn’t we kill this guy off in scene one?, and he’s improvising up a storm. The cameras are rolling and can’t be stopped, yet another oversight; the screenwriters are working furiously attempting to inject another incongruous flashback scene or perhaps to find some plausibility in the mind numbing unreality of it all, but they can’t get it into the script, now taking on a life of its own; cut to our youthful president, now looking tired and forgetting his lines.
The cameras have taken over like some sinister intelligence all their own and the heavy not only hasn’t got the script revisions he never got the script in the first place; now he’s shown up having written for himself some sort of unlikely character transformation; no longer the sinister potentate but now an eccentric old man, cranky, possibly crazy. This is not good. This guy threatens to become sympathetic in the eyes of the key Muslim/Arab demographic. This could sink the whole franchise and the third installment (working title, Clear and Gathering Danger III: Shi’ite Showdown) was this close to a greenlight.


Our Cross-Promotion to Bear

Cross-promotion is a great, unacknowledged evil in our time.
I’m referring to the practice of using of one product to promote another unrelated product, usually because both share a corporate parent.

Some of you will remember an incident from a few years ago when this gargantuan beast, normally unnoticed by virtue of its very size and ubiquity, forgot itself and clumsily reared its ugly head (quite literally, read on) for all to see. I speak of course of when a television network, using the technology that enables the insertion of computer generated advertisements into the body of television broadcasts (allowing them to, for instance, change the ads on the home run wall each inning for the television audience) projected onto the backstop behind home plate—in a World Series game, mind you—none other than Ally McBeal. McBeal’s startling, oversized visage loomed just over the shoulder of the batter, as if she were about to devour him right before our eyes and spit him back out as a made-over, queer-eyed, Oprah-approved New Man who adjusts his cup only in private and would sooner promote cannibalism than be seen with a pinch of tobacco in his lip.

There was small, but not insignificant, consolation in the thought of both George Will and Ron Shelton recoiling in horror at the sudden sight of the giant, disembodied head of McBeal, like some cinematic monstrosity, emerging from the commercial ooze that had up to that point been contained and inobtrusive. But mostly it seemed that a definite line had been crossed, or, more like, we were only now made aware that the line had been crossed long ago. Years later when members of the newly crowned world champion Boston Red Sox appeared on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, it didn’t even raise an eyebrow (queer or straight, plucked or uni-).
I personally took some consolation in the fact that I haven’t cared about baseball for a long time. You, my baseball loving friends, will someday reach this point. Perhaps it will happen when you are watching a game and realize that not a single player from the home team is from the team’s home. Or, you’ll be listening to some writer or celebrity drone on about baseball as a metaphor, or baseball as a sacrament, or baseball as a–you get my point.

But then, what is the pabulum of those who rhapsodize ad nauseum about the transcendence of baseball but the opportunistic crossing of a decent boundary, an attempt to sanctify the banal (just as commerce would make banal that which should be sacred)? And aren’t these really the same sin? It seems that everyone is trying to hitch a ride on someone else’s train; cross-promotion, in other words. Religion is religion. Baseball is a game. You pretentious, windy bores.
So if baseball’s corruption brings at least the benefit (in my imagination, at least) of exposing the stench of a few literary and cultural equivalents of the dung beetle, it must be that there are places where the forces of continual cultural leveling would not gain admission, where even the most short sighted and greedy marketing school hotshot wouldn’t dare tread. Some barriers will stand, surely.
But no. Even the mighty and masculine NFL would have to yield to Mammon (yes, I know it’s professional football, big business, all that; work with me here), as we all witnessed with horror the intrusion into Monday Night Football of the most effete and trite work this side of the execrably chipper and comsumerist Sex and the City: the abominable Desperate Housewives. A program about—brace yourselves—the seamy underside of the suburbs! How very audacious! Why didn’t I think of that?
Damn them. Damn them to whatever circle of Hell is reserved for the unoriginal, just below that marked out for those of you who enable these miscreants by watching their blather. You know who you are; you’ll repent now if you know what’s good for you.

But back to the NFL’s disgrace. If you have the stomach for it, allow me to refresh your memory. MNF had devised a clever way to introduce the program. The first one I recall went like this: It’s six o’clock and the commercial bank is interrupted not by the familiar strains of MNF, as the viewer is conditioned to expect, but by Matlock. We are dropped into mid-episode and Andy Griffith is addressing a jury; just as you’re wondering out loud what is going on, he turns to the screen and says enthusiastically, “are you ready for some football?”
If they could be that clever every time I probably wouldn’t be boring you with this lament. But of course, that’s the problem with cross-promotion. It cannot be contained; it will never say enough. It is as much uncontrollable momentum as it is an idea. It floods every void and finds nothing inviolable; it is as mindless and inexorable as water’s tendency to find its own level.

The brutality of corporate competition ensures that cross-promotion will not be restrained. No one can afford to back down, because if Arid Extra Dry doesn’t collar you in the department store queue, well, Speed Stick will have you all to itself in the pay phone booth. So each is trying to head you off at the pass before the other; meanwhile you can find no peace. Cross-promotion is the desperation of a million Willy Lomans armed with the latest technology, all jockeying and elbowing each other for our attention.

I have digressed. The Incident. The network had by now abandoned their earlier model, which was to fake their eager football audience into thinking that some other program was airing and end with the punchline are you ready for some football? On this eveining they thought to try their hand at sketch comedy, with predictably grim results. Thus they gave us the great T.O./Desperate Housewives incident of whatever godforsaken year it was.
It opens with Terrell Owens at his locker before the game; one of the Housewives shows up wearing only a towel, flirts for a moment, and convinces T.O. to forgo the game long enough to, well, use your imagination. The piece ends with her leaping into his arms. Cut to the rest of the Housewives, saying (over a phone if I remember correctly—who knows why): Are you ready for some football? Well, I was a moment ago. Now I’m ready for a stiff drink.

No doubt the frustrated comedy writers behind this anticipated some controversy over the sexual nature of the spot, and that this controversy would be complicated and magnified by the predictable-as-clockwork reflex action of others who could be counted on to charge racism on the part of the offended because T.O. is black (and widely disliked) and the actress is white. A good week or more (eons by promotional standards) of Housewives saturating the airwaves. The writers’ guile at manipulating the public is as expert as their comedic talents are rudimentary.
But I was dismayed to find no one making the point that the yentas from Desperate Housewives intruding on Monday Night Football is, if not a crime, at least a considerable misdemeanor. It begs the question: where does it all end? In the name of decency, where? Is there no space that will not be intruded upon?
Every unguarded moment must be utilized to compel consumption of one sort or another; computer generated monstrosities projected onto the bare stretch of green wall behind the batter in the box, video screens in the supermarket check-out line and at the self-service gasoline pump, product placements in film, celebrities making clumsy mention of products in interviews. Soon all public speech will sound like an interview with a victorious stock car driver, making sure to mention every sponsor.

Because what is cross-promotion after all but the same homogenizing, corporate disdain-all-boundaries and take-every-advantage mentality that has infected all aspects of American life, bringing us politicians who must prove their everyman cred by answering the boxers or briefs question, the smirk of Keith Olbermann, Tucker Carlson’s phony irreverence, an inexhaustible font of second-rate slasher films, political media managers, Anderson Cooper airing insurgent videos of snipers killing American boys, fan sites, pop-up ads, celebrity news coverage, junk mail and spam, telemarketing; all the effluvium that is filling the space between us and reality with hallucinatory haze and shrill noise?
What are the consequences then, when these things spilling over onto one another are products not only of commerce but of culture? Isn’t one thing lessened when it is pressed into the service of another?
It is inevitable. I know. I won’t stop it. Nothing will stop it; giving it free reign is preferable to attempting its regulation. But I do wonder if the boosters of ever more homogenization and the trashing of any and all remaining boundaries (because we all know that boundaries of any sort are bad, very, very bad) think through the process and where it will leave us.

Recently I read that some are working on ways to take advantage of the public urinal. This once inviolable space will be exploited soon, with electronic ads activated when one bellies up, so to speak. It’s probably too much to hope they’ll do us the favor of projecting the screen where we might express our disapproval non-verbally. I just dare Ms. McBeal to intrude there.

In the Bunker with Barney, Laura, and Me

I will not withdraw even if Laura and Barney are the only ones supporting me.
George W. Bush

The following diary fragments were found by rebel forces of the breakaway American states near the ruins of President George W. Bush’s secret bunker at the close of the Second Civil War in May of 2008. The author is unknown, signing only his initials, “D.D.”

Various explanations abound for D.D.’s identity; all speculative, some wildly fanciful, such as the legend that he was an obscure “blogger” (a phrase for professional and dilletante writers, political activists, exhibitionists, and others who used the Internet for self-publishing before the UNITUS Act of 2020 solidified the Second Republic’s absolute control over the media, ushering in the Long Repression of the mid-21st Century).
By this account, after abandoning his early opposition to the Administration D.D. became a fervent supporter in its last days and somehow, with the zeal and determination of a convert, managed to insinuate himself into the upper echelons of the Administration just as it descended into confusion and madness.

All indications are that his role was that of a domestic servant. The diary makes obvious the other residents considered him an insignificant dullard. This likely explains why they were unguarded in his presence, allowing this invaluable document of the bizarre death throes of the Bush Regime.

April 5
I think the stress is starting to take its toll on the president. Earlier today I went to clean his quarters; I was surprised to find him standing before a full length mirror, practicing his oratorical hand gestures and muttering under his breath.

I gaped in shock. Hearing the sound of a muffled cough, I looked to see the first lady sitting across the room watching, sullenly taking long drags from a cigarette. She smashed it out violently in an over-full ashtray and, turning to withdraw another, caught sight of me. I pretended I’d just walked in, saying:
“Mr. President? I found that copy of Rebel in Chief we’ve been looking for.”
He didn’t seem to hear, but when he caught sight of me in the mirror he said:
“How long you been in the service, son?”

Before I could reply he returned to his muttering, delivering a one-liner and mustering a sickly version of his familiar chuckle. It was frightening, seeing him like that. I hurried out, feeling the first lady’s eyes on the back of my neck. I’m beginning to suspect that things aren’t going as well as the President says.

April 9
Today Rove caught me, again, as I tried sneaking past his quarters.
“D____. Would you come here for a moment please?” He said in that unctuous voice he uses when he wants something. I braced myself and went in; I was appalled to find that awful green silk bath robe—all he’s worn for days now—was left open, revealing what had to be a thong. He was covered in oil and reddened from lying in his tanning bed.
“I wonder if you might help me; I need to apply this lotion and I can’t quite reach…”
“I have to feed Barney.” I stammered. “Mrs. Bush—I mean the first lady—will kill me if I don’t—”
“Women.” He said, shaking his head, advancing on me. “Why do we bother? Well, the dog can wait. Barney I mean, not Laura.” He gave that creepy little laugh he uses when he thinks he’s said something clever. “You won’t tell that I said that, will you? Our little secret?” He said the last part in a low, conspiratorial tone. As he came near I backed away, bumping into the wall; I slid sideways until I fell out the open door.

“Gotta feed the dog.” I said nervously over my shoulder as I hustled away. “Gotta feed Barney.”
“Okay then, maybe later.” He said casually, pretending not to notice my discomfort. Damn that guy’s persistent.

April 12
As I was passing the conference room this morning the president called me in.
“D____. C’mere. Check this out.” He said cheerfully. I allowed myself the hope that he was going to say we’d be leaving the bunker soon. “Have I shown you this?”
He had been leaning over a scale model of a city. He stepped back and smiled proudly, spreading his arms in presentation.

“What is it sir?” I said, disguising my disappointment. The room was a shambles; everything had been hastily cast to the walls to make room for the model’s well-lit preeminence in the center of the squalor.

“It’s Baghdad.”
“Oh, of course.” I said, still feigning.
“See, here’s the airport; here’s the road to the airport; see the cars? Everything’s safe and secure. See the people? They’re voting.”
“What’s that sir?” I was sorry the moment I asked, but the futuristic structure on the outskirts of the city was out of place, cobbled together with what appeared to be the modified parts of a child’s toy.
“That’s the Bush Freedom and Liberty Mosque.” He said, his enthusiasm quickening. “It’s going to be open to Muslims and Shiites alike. Let me show you—“

“George!” The First Lady called sharply from behind me. The look of a chastened boy came over the President’s face. I instinctively came to attention. I shifted to the side and, careful not to make eye contact, excused myself with a mumble.

I hurried down the hallway before stopping in my tracks. Rove’s door was open; a muted, down-tempo R&B beat and the scent of marijuana emanated from his room. I turned about on my heel. Too late.
“D____!” It was the Vice President. “Get in here.” He motioned at me from the other end of the hallway.
I had to pass Rove’s open door to reach the V.P.’s quarters. I looked deliberately ahead; out of the corner of my eye Rove’s leer taunted me through the dim resolution of the black-light. Worse; I thought I saw Bolton’s white moustache glowing in the darkened recess behind him, over a constellation of glinting studs that would have to be one of his leather get-ups. They would be at it for a while. Great. Another shitty night’s sleep hiding in the pantry.

“C’mon. Double-time!” The V.P. barked impatiently, going back inside.
When I came in I saw General Pace and General Casey standing at attention before a folding table covered in maps.
“See this idiot?” The Vice President said, pulling me into the room with what felt like a claw. The two stared straight ahead. “Look at him!” He thundered. The two sheepishly complied. There was an awkward, embarrassing moment as we stared dumbly at one another. The room was colder than ever. The steam from our breath pawed at the air between us like ghostly forelimbs.

“This moron can do a better job than you two!” He gave me a rough shake. “In fact, he’s about to replace you incompetent bozos! What do you think of that?” Pace began to speak, then thought better.
“Go ahead, Miss, let’s hear what you have to say.” The V.P. growled.
“I—we’ll try harder sir; we just need another six months to turn this thing around.” Pace’s voice quavered on the verge of one of his legendary crying jags.
“Get the hell out of here.” The Vice President said without looking at me, shoving me back out the door.
I’m starting to wonder what I’ve gotten myself into.

April 15
When I went to clean the conference room today I found Ledeen bent over the Baghdad model; using one of Goldberg’s Star Trek toys he was pretending to strafe and bomb the city, spraying the streets with spittle as he mimicked the sound of bombs and gunfire, punctuating here and there with the anguished cries of the wounded. I managed to slip back out before he saw me.

April 19
I sneaked out into the garden today, against the V.P.’s orders, just to escape the relentless drone of the ventilation system. It was shrouded in silence and a cool mist; an incredibly peaceful contrast to what was going on inside. It was so still for a moment I swore the war wasn’t real.
The impulse to flight welled up, terrifyingly. Then I heard something: barely perceptible, but clearly the sound of a hushed, urgent voice. I followed it, my accelerated heartbeat sending a hot pulse through my temples. I thought the enemy had found us; I half-expected to find a commando whispering into a headset, setting up a raid.

Then I heard a phrase I recognized. Following the voice I came upon the president, bundled against the chill and reclining in a lounge chair. He was facing away, revealing his profile. He was speaking just above his breath, reciting the programmed phrases that had been the boilerplate of his speeches to the nation, in a maniacal, urgent tone. He spat the words out as if to purge himself of them. Occasionally he would punctuate a sentence with an exaggeration of one of his stock facial expressions; now gross caricatures. It was only then I realized how lost we are. Too overcome to turn away, I looked down in shame.

“Not exactly what you signed on for, is it?” He said.
It was a voice that I didn’t recognize; it was relaxed, unguarded, natural. He was looking at me over his shoulder; the mask that was the man I thought I knew was revealed in its absence. This man was more familiar somehow; he could have been anyone. He had the look of a wearied penitent resigned to fate with gratitude. I came closer so I wouldn’t have to speak up.
“No, I don’t think any of us signed on for this, sir.”
I worried he’d take my my fellow-feeling for a complaint; his look conveyed an instant, grateful understanding.

“Well, sorry anyway.” He turned away. Just as I was about to leave he said, “You know, I was almost baseball commissioner once.”
“I know.” I hesitated a moment. “You would’ve made a good commissioner, Mr. President.”
He faced me, grinning a wan thanks, before looking down into his lap, lost in thought. He caught himself and looked up, in the same old jesting bravado:
“No, I would’ve made one hell of a commissioner, D____.”
I straightened up and nodded, forcing a grin
“Yes sir. I would have liked to be there.”
Turning around I nearly walked into the First Lady; I came to attention. She stilled me with a light hand on my shoulder and brought her face before my lowered gaze. Her look had softened. She had been listening to our exchange.
“Thank you, D____. For everything.”
It was the first time she addressed me by name.

“Yes ma’am.” I said, embarrassed. “I better get back inside.”
“Be careful. Dick is chewing out the guys from The Weekly Standard. You might want to steer clear of the conference room.” She paused, indulged: “Of course, I think you’ve earned the right to see Kristol throwing himself at the VP’s feet.”
“I’ll pass. I saw that last time he was here.”
Our eyes met for the first and last time; we smiled conspiratorially and parted.

My hand was heavy on the stairwell hatch. Gathering my strength, I looked back at Laura, pulling George’s blanket closer about his neck, stroking his hair at the temple lightly with the back of her fingers, as if to a child. From here they might as well have been at home, on an identical afternoon, he content and she beloved, some other time, some other place. Any two people. I came back down the hole.

April 20
Everyone is gathered in the conference room. It’s the V.P.’s birthday. I can hear them singing a forced and shrill Happy Birthday right now. I know exactly what he looks like: his thin, mirthless grin drawing the fearful air like a gill; I can see his beady eyes as they furtively scan back and forth with reptilian satisfaction, obscured behind the reflection in his glasses of the terrified, contorted faces of the false revelers.

Well, this is it. Now’s my chance; I’m leaving the bunker.
Barney has come in; he looks miserable, wagging his tail plaintively. He seems to understand. No, I’m sure he does.
“I gotta go, pal. Take care of yourself.” I tell him, surprised to hear my voice cracking with emotion as I pat him on the head. “Don’t worry.”

The grim, insincere singing; the dog’s helpless, imploring eyes. I have no choice.
Oh alright.
Come on boy, let’s go home.

Sitting in a Bar in Granite Falls

“Hey, if it isn’t the diehard partisan. How’s tricks?”
“Screw you.”

“Buy you a beer?”
“I’ll buy my own. Hey Mike, Jack straight up.”

“Whoa. Worse than I thought. Buck up, amigo; I’m sure Saddam’s death sentence will enliven, so to speak, the base, no?”
“He gassed his own people!”

“How about that Foley character?”
“Ain’t it just like a fag!”

“I wouldn’t know. Bad timing though, wouldn’t you say?”
“October surprise! Where’s the outrage?”

“Pages Gone Wild. That’s what it is!”

“I was more interested in the details of the recent NIE.”
“Another leak scandal! Mike, gimme another.”

“Slow down there, friend. I hate to say I told you so, but–”
“How about that lower than expected deficit!”

“Afghanistan is even a mess now. Couldn’t you just see that one coming?”
“The Dow hit 12,000!”

“Got any stock?”
“That’s personal.”

“Looks like the Senate’s in play, hmm?
“The tax cuts are working!”

“Can you imagine what the hearings are going to be like?”
“Cut and run! Cut and run!”

“Iraq is a disaster. What the hell are we going to do?”
“Stand up! Stand down!”

“Or perhaps kneel in prayer.”
“Religion of peace!”

“Wow. North Korea. Scary, eh?”
“Clinton strikes again!”

“Have you been following events in Baghdad? Looks like it’s coming apart.”
“How about those Cardinals!”

“Have another drink?”
“Stay the course and make it a double!”