Alternative America Phrasebook

“Your guide to the idiom of mass delusion”

Bush Derangement Syndrome, neoconservative neologism,
1. The inability to sublimate the disdain felt for a criminally incompetent president.
2. Outrage at the crimes and incompetence of same.
3. Undue veneration for the Constitution, the rule of law, truth, common decency, or good sense during the period between January 20, 2001 and January 20, 2009.

Unreal, indeed

Read my article on the government’s tax rebate scheme,”Unreality Check”, in real ink on real paper (unavailable online) in the May 19 issue of the American Conservative. Featuring also these more authentic writers:

The Next Fidel
By Peter Hitchens
Hugo Chavez’s socialist program drives Venezuela to the brink of dictatorship.

When the Left Was Right
by Bill Kauffman
Before the Weathermen detonated SDS, Carl Oglesby was trying to build a Middle-American movement.

Less Perfect Unions
by Margaret Liu McConnell
Extending marriage to same-sex couples negates the ideal that no parent should abandon his child.

Turning on to J Street
By Michael Brendan Dougherty
A new lobby redefines what it means to be a friend of Israel.

The Wright Answer
By Steve Sailer
Putting Wright to rest

The Road to Kuwait
By Lawrence Korb
The Iraq exit is clearly marked.

Full Metal Jacket
By Steve Sailer
Robert Downey Jr. in “Iron Man”

Faith of Our Father
By James P. Pinkerton
Under God: George Washington and the Question of Church and State by Tara Ross and Joseph C. Smith Jr.

Necessary Evil
By John Lukacs
Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World by Patrick J. Buchanan.

Ode to Joy
By Peter W. Wood
Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy by Eric G. Wilson

Liberalism’s World Wide Web
By Austin Bramwell
Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats by Matthew Yglesias

McCain Missing in Action
By Patrick J. Buchanan

Establishing Obama
By Daniel Larison

Don’t Sweat the TSA
By Fred Reed

We’re Number One!

When the raised middle finger became a salute may have been the moment the momentum of aggregated self-indulgence crested, and we began our final decline. When rappers and others started flipping off the camera, making “screw you” the desultory greeting of a generation, the Apocalypse had to be near. It had better be, preferable as it is to the hell of mediocrity that the culture of the raised finger represents.

You may have seen the wishful-thinking joke below. What I’d like to draw your attention to is the contrast in Bush’s body language. He’s giving the thumbs up, but his expression and posture are giving us the finger (click on to enlarge):

He might as well have a gun in his hand. Of course, there’s this gem:

I’m so proud.

Quiet. Too, Too Quiet

Even as it seems some sort of strike on Iran is not just inevitable but imminent, proof of widespread Iranian arming of Shi’ite militias is still the dog that hasn’t barked. Via Laura Rosen, here the LAT’s Tina Susman reports on a conspicuous absence:

There was something interesting missing from Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner’s introductory remarks to journalists at his regular news briefing in Baghdad on Wednesday: the word “Iran,” or any form of it. It was especially striking as Bergner, the U.S. military spokesman here, announced the extraordinary list of weapons and munitions that have been uncovered in recent weeks since fighting erupted between Iraqi and U.S. security forces and Shiite militiamen.

The omission is creepily un-reassuring. Further:

A plan to show some alleged Iranian-supplied explosives to journalists last week in Karbala and then destroy them was canceled after the United States realized none of them was from Iran. A U.S. military spokesman attributed the confusion to a misunderstanding that emerged after an Iraqi Army general in Karbala erroneously reported the items were of Iranian origin.

Last week the US military reported finding “very, very significant” amounts of Iranian arms during the offensives in Basra and Baghdad. We’re waiting. Of course, even the excuse used above raises the unsettling suspicion that Iraqis are being encouraged to “find” Iranian weapons.
Evidence given to last week’s United Iraqi Alliance delegation to Iran remains secret, and while US media reports characterized the visit, with much encouragement from the administration and the US command, as a confrontation, the Iraqi account of the the delegation’s purpose substantively differs. The US finds itself in the dubious position of fostering hostility between Iraq and Iran, to preserve the occupation. In fact, with all the hedging Iran is doing, supporting various Shi’ite factions and engaging in the sort of development that was to be a centerpiece of US efforts, it’s not certain the net effect of its involvement is negative–for Iraq’s stability.

If not for the administration’s previous and unrelenting hostility toward Iran, it might be arguing, if privately, that widening the war is dubious strategy, regardless of Iranian involvement. Despite aerial strikes on Quds force traininig camps that will be the loudly stated reasons for the coming escalation, it’s hard not to conclude that our purpose will be to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, a purpose predating the war, and it will be done to the detriment of the war effort, and those charged with it.

The Post-Global Evangel

You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it, is that clear? You think you have merely stopped a business deal — that is not the case! The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back. It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity, it is ecological balance! You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations! There are no peoples! There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immense, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars;
You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen, and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT and T and Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state — Karl Marx?
The world is a business, Mr. Beale! It has been since man crawled out of the slime, and our children, Mr. Beale, will live to see that perfect world in which there is no war and famine, oppression and brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused. And I have chosen you to preach this evangel, Mr. Beale.

Why me?

Because you’re on television, dummy.

Network (1976)

Demagogy, of the Very Best Sort

When I take up a person, Mr. Lyndon, he, or she, is safe. There is no question about them anymore. My friends are the best people. I don’t mean they’re the most virtuous, or, indeed, the least virtuous, or the cleverest, or the stupidest, richest or best born. But, the best. In a word, people about whom there is no question.
–Lord Hallam, Barry Lyndon

Prison has changed me. I understand the common man in a way I never did before. I’ve got to get out of here, so I can bring joy to the men back in here. But I don’t want to live with them.
–Dewey Cox

She only goes out with the upper set. She leaves the lower set in a glass on the nightstand.
–Benny Hill

Too bad we the public cannot conspire, away from the calculating gaze of the political/media class, to pay no heed at all to “gaffes.” To starve them once and for all of the raw material of manufactured controversy, a random bludgeon of opportunity that only serves to introduce an element of caprice into politics and further chill our already tepid national discourse. No, occasional disciplinary lapses into honesty should be encouraged and welcome for what they often are: the brief lifting of the veil of rhetorical obscurity between the people and the governing elite.

Politicians must flatter always, and being an exceptional politician our latest to mistake his mouth for a shoe flatters with exceptional skill. Flattery is the tonic of the fugue that is the Obama fantasia (it goes something like this: “America produced the wonder that is Barack Obama’s candidacy; thus America is great; for America to be greater the wonder that is Barack Obama’s candidacy must succeed; America produced the wonder that is Barack Obama’s presidency…”). That’s why venue is important here: a politician flattering his own is the closest thing we get to a public assertion of that faction’s prejudices and psychoses. You don’t discourage this talk. You buy the sap a drink, nod approvingly and speak just enough to keep him going.

Senator Obama said nothing he hasn’t said a thousand coded times before, assuring one group its resentment of another is proof of its righteousness. There are two distinct groups he must appease with demagogy, blacks and self-styled liberals; the same bogeyman template works well for both: gun-toting, God-fearing, white. The Wonder Brother could give the Clinton in this race a lesson in triangulation.

Yes, Obama’s “gaffe” is evidence of elitist disdain, but it distinguishes him in no way from his peers. Exacting a political price for it is a sort of censorship, nothing more, and only serves to sink us further into obscurity. Barack Obama said nothing he and the political class doesn’t take so much for granted that occasionally they will let it slip: the conservative white middle class is another nation with conflicting interests. They are to be humored and isolated politically, wherever possible, but, rest assured, they will not upset the order and progress of things. Their concerns are the delusional product of their ignorance and mean state, born of inferiority. But we can still congratulate ourselves for the enlightened pity we feel for them.

There is even a place for them in the Democratic Party, in whatever residual economic populism is left there, provided they accept a legally and morally subordinate position assigned by race and sex, and forfeit any claim to community by, among other things, assenting to the flooding of their communities and job markets with illegally in-sourced foreign labor that is overwhelmingly minority and therefore, immediately upon taking the citizenship that the party asserts is the only just thing at this point, takes its place ahead of them in the party’s hierarchy of grievance. That this process is seen as strengthening the party’s hand is openly acknowledged as the reason it should be national policy (as it does for a more delusional Republican Party), despite, or perhaps in the end because of, its aggravation of everything the party affects to oppose: low wages, increasing health care costs, educational disparities, wealth stratification, environmental degradation.

This group’s recourse is to be humored by the Republican Party, still peddling the myth that there has been a conservative ascent in the years since Reagan, a period of exponential growth in government and illegal immigration, liberal intervention as a tenet of foreign policy (and as a ready pretext for military aggression), of collapsing sexual mores and ballooning debt, a period in which the sense of national interest was replaced by globalist dogma; a period wherein any significant challenge to the constitutional obscenity of affirmative action has had to come from the grassroots, of the rise of a system of “civil rights” litigation that imposes legal racial inequality and drains millions from the productive economy in a continual shake-down and, finally, a disastrous and criminal war supported by a culture of militarism. But, alas, our sacred cows always die of old age. As the cinematic sociopath asks his victim just before killing him: “If the path you have chosen led you here, of what use was the path?” Good question, getter better the more it appears the fat days of low oil prices and high growth are nearly spent, rendering our self-congratulatory triumphalism hollow, shrill and dangerous. That politicians flatter us speaks worse of us than it does of them.

But the contempt of the elite isn’t the thing (and isn’t anything new). It’s the source of that contempt–substantive political differences confounding goals. Rather than indulging in affected indignation and demanding contrition (it only leads to further embarrassment for us all; I think I saw Barack giving foot chase to a pickup truck with a rifle rack today, shouting a populist theme) we should recognize, despite, for instance, Obama’s genius for exploiting divisions while pretending to negate them, that we remain a nation of factions competing for power.

So I say: emote on in splendid vacuity, Senator Obama, rouse that rabble, low and high (be they gilded garishly a-tooth or with tasteful reserve); regale us with war stories, Senator Clinton, we’ll give them the same wide berth we give Grandpa’s tall tales; Senator McCain, not as if any prompting is needed, but go ahead and lift your phlegmatic voice in blood-lusting song parody. Buzz the tower of our sensibilities, Maverick. Let fly the one-liners. May they proceed truer and find a gentler end than the ill-fated mounts of your youth.
Let us don our pastel sweater vests and declare that we are all in the Trust Zone; there is no disapproval here. Alas, what fun it would be.

And let’s be gentle then with il principe precoce, Senator Obama, in whom we may soon be entrusting a nation in crisis (and who may very well be the best choice in a dismal field). Seeing as logic is of no use to us in understanding the inexplicable phenomenon that is Obama, a phenomenon of which the man is only a part, it is unreasonable to expect him, giving up perspective to his immersion and vanity, to understand it any better. He can’t see the forest for the trees. But we should try to see those trees as he sees them.

We must try to imagine the unconditional adulation that greets him, everywhere he goes, often within the walls of intoxicating wealth and privilege. The intimacy with which people accept you, the sensual pleasure they take in subordinating themselves to you. Every woman surrendering, every man deferring. No ritual abasement enforced by kings, coming as it does under ultimate threat of violence, can rouse the vanity like the willing surrender of the American cult of celebrity.
Somehow he has to sublimate the revulsion that, if he’s lucky, he’s still able to muster, at the pathetic nature of the reverent, at their willful obliviousness, at the ease with which he seduces them. There must be a by-product of this perverse interaction, of the innumerable adoring the one. Something must be done with the disdain produced. It probably helps to transfer it to your political enemies. To feed that insatiable fire. This strikes me as consistent with human nature.

But it is the object of Senator Obama’s disdain that stands out. Those white Midwesterners represent the hereditary line that is his true “race and inheritance”, encompassing as it does his cultural as well as genetic history. This is not only lost on us, it appears to be lost on Obama. One hopes that it is. If he’s going to be president I’d rather he be ignorant of such self-loathing and not struggling with it.

It is a curious thing how utterly some abandon the central liberal tenet of culture over race in the case of Barack Obama. By no liberal standard is he significantly a black American, growing up in a comfortable white environment miles from the presumed racism of the mainland. He lays claim to a genetic birthright. Things get stranger as you realize that Barack betrays a sensibility that is the product of a distinctly unappealing privileged white conceit–affected self-loathing brandished as piety and status. You’d think that all that time spent hanging around black men would have at least taught him, as Steve Sailer pointed out, that brothers don’t dis their mamas. They don’t dis their origins either. In other words, mighty white of you, Barry.

We must remember that no man or woman can be expected to maintain perspective in a situation such as Obama’s. For nearly every single one of us, this circumstance would confirm for us the long-standing suspicion that we are singularly unique. That’s not to say there aren’t still those among us who would have the decency to recognize, despite the lure of an unimaginable opportunity, they have no business being president. It’s just that they, and the value of modesty they represent, are irrelevant. Whatever pretense our permanent government previously made of the necessity for an experienced and capable chief executive was finally discarded in whole with the Republican Party’s nomination of George W. Bush. We the people endorsed that, and we endorsed its awful consequences. Some disdain is earned. There are no heroes in this piece.

The tragedy of George W. Bush is, ultimately, the tragedy of an individual man’s vanity. Not even his most fervent supporters made any pretense of expertise, experience or intellect, offering instead his impatience with these as a virtue. The greater the power the lesser the president, seems to be the trend. Ours is the tragedy of a man offered unearned power and unwilling to do the only decent thing–refuse. If he is truly unable to recognize his lack of fitness, then his vanity is all the greater and more tragic. But it’s a new sort of value in modern America, the notion that ambition justifies itself. If Barack Obama becomes president and exacerbates the crisis created by his unfortunate predecessor, it will be because he too had no business being president and hadn’t the decency to know it.
What’s our excuse?

Hazard? What Moral Hazard?

Let’s twist again, like we did last summer
Let’s twist again, like we did last year

–Chubby Checker, Let’s Twist Again

In understanding the madness of our entanglement in Iraq I find it helps to reject out of hand everything the administration says and ignore the distorted center of polite opinion maintained by the corporate press, while continually reminding yourself that the point of the occupation is the occupation. For all of the shifting goals and serial failure, what we have, still, is less a war seeking resoultion than a committed government enterprise experiencing cost overruns.

The administration has shown admirable resourcefulness in utilizing its very failures to obscure and further, even now, its intentions. But no matter how much our might has degraded our sense of national responsibility, I suspect that to operate on the premise that regardless of everything we must remain in Iraq to prevent the consequences of our invading Iraq, while refusing to impeach those responsible for this deadly chain of causality, indeed, while so much as an apology to the people of Iraq is absolutely out of the question, a notion for marginal cranks, must come with its own unanticipated consequences.

The prospect of losing Iraq’s oil to nationalization under a hostile government allied with a strengthened Iran was no more anticipated than the need for 150,000 besieged troops five years on–-to maintain what at this point was supposed to be a fraction of that number, welcome and paid for out of Iraq’s properly developed oil reserves. Still we behave as if the failure of the administration’s designs are evidence they never existed. Where then is all this oil, some have asked straight-faced.
But its failures only reveal the administration’s Iraq project as a hopeless gambit mistaken for a sure thing. This crime, of incompetence, too goes unpunished. A nation that produces and accepts this can be described as neither just in its relations with others nor sensibly self-regarding. But the faithful denial of these things is a requirement of public office or stature in the media. We have made a religion of the evasion of responsibility.

The pretences of the war have fallen away one by one, like the insubstantial bunting they were, but our purpose in Iraq is revealed by precisely where it is we will not allow tribes to defy the government, in contrast to our arming and encouragement of Sunni insurgents elsewhere: in Basra, the prize within the prize that is Iraq’s oil. But in this our first postmodern war, the pretences just keep presenting themselves anew, failure is construed as success and the public lives at one ironic remove from reality. A war of plunder is just so obvious.

If we truly sought “political reconciliation” and mere “stability” we would, obviously, be attempting to reconcile Muktada al-Sadr, as a leader with popular legitimacy who has demonstrated political competence and even a good deal of helpful restraint, with his Shia adversaries within the government. Despite the habitual characterization of al-Sadr as a violent agent of Iran’s mullahs what actually distinguishes him from those we ally with is his categorical rejection of an American presence. If we were seeking simply reconciliation our work would be much easier, and Iran’s role would be welcome and encouraged. Our lies carry as much truth as they can bear; we seek a political accommodation alright, but it must serve our ends. We are submitting Iraq to a peculiarly American absurdity, the “conversation”; as in, we’re going to have a “conversation” until you come around to my point of view, even if it kills us (think of our recurring “national conversation about race”).

This year, like the last time General Petraeus testified before Congress, the deliberately provocative charge of American blood on Iranian hands was leveled, when Senator Lieberman’s helpful reach-around prompted General Petraeus to enthuse that, yes, Iran may be indirectly responsible for “hundreds” of US casualties. Moments later he would celebrate our erstwhile mortal enemies among the Sunni, their responsibility for thousands of American deaths, unlike the circumstances of Iran’s “proxy war”, direct and well-documented.

The assumption that, despite the grave moral error of invading and destroying Iraq, America retains objective moral legitimacy there while Iran, despite sharing a border and recent war with Iraq, categorically has none, reveals a disturbing inability to think morally or coherently about the United States abroad. That the public has gone beyond unwilling to become quite unable to recognize this grand moral contradiction and its immense consequences betray us as a people degenerating into catastrophic self-delusion.

Shooting the Blue State Bar Bull

“No, I didn’t see the speech. What did he say?”

“It was exhilarating. I’m still tingling.”

“What did he say?”

“He was in rare form. Dignity. Poise. Handsome.”

“Nonsense. He looks like Stan Laurel’s mulatto love child. What did he say?”

“His inflection, his tempo. Just perfect.”

“What did he say?”

“His is a rare eloquence. He struck just the right note of conciliation while still expressing the anger of black America without all the, without all the anger.”

“There’s a neat trick. But I thought he was addressing some controversy or other.”

“Yeah, the Clintons played the race card. Just reprehensible. I’m sickened.”

“What’s this? The same Hillary the Great as you’ve characterized her BO?”


“Before Obama. Everything changes AO. It’s a whole new paradigm. An exciting time.”

“Yes, it’s amazing how much of an impact he’s had already. To think that some would deny him the presidency! I swear, if we fail to elect this man for the first time in my life I will be truly ashamed of my country.”

“I was being facetious.”

“I know. He’s already bringing us together.”

“What I meant was–hey, Alex, you work here too? Set me up.”

“You’re right; the pastor’s remarks were taken entirely out of context…”

Did I say–yes, one must place ‘God damn America’ in its proper context. Wide margin of nuance.”

“Besides, it’s not like he has to answer–“

“For the religious/political philosophy of his stated ‘spiritual mentor’ and key player in his rise?”


“For twenty years of resentful racial separatist demagogy, every Sunday? What Barack condescendingly attributes to those ‘raucous’ negro church services?

“Exactly! It’s all guilt by association.”

“Yes, mentoring is such a tenuous association. Especially for a politician.”

“You said it! Alex, get this guy another.”

“Thanks, but I was being–“

Barack addresses these questions from a whole new perspective.”

“What’s the persepctive?”

“I mean, this guy understands race as and you and I simply cannot.”

“Why is that exactly? I mean he’s had neither the typical white nor typical black American experience. That’s fine, but why is it this alone constitutes insight? If his history is so unique isn’t also true that he doesn’t quite share the experience of most Americans, black or white? I mean, why is it necessarily a positive? Because he says so in a hundred equally meaningless ways? Is this insight a genetic birthright? Because after the perfunctory bragging about his mixed parentage, all I hear are platitudes.”

“Yes, yes. That’s what I’m saying. He understands.”

“I see. ‘I have understood you, America.’ What exactly is his understanding?”

” Exactly. Barack understands. It’s a rare thing among politicians.”

Are you fu–? What the hell does he understand? Why can’t I hear it like everybody else? Where is this understanding everyone keeps talking about? What’s wrong with me?

“You see, as a black man he’s experienced first-hand the oppression of his white ancestors. It’s a very unique perspective.”

Yes. Imagine an indulgently guilty white liberal getting to actually be black. It must be exquisite. Continual bliss. To be able to resolve this angst in its glorious reversal, to indulge in the romance of oppression not as an outsider but as its subject–as both, in supreme sanctimony, over and over! But it is kind of weird when his white half condescends toward his black half. I think if it was me I’d call it a wash and get on with business. But I’m not the ambitious sort.
“None of that for Barack; no grace, no generosity. No leaving anything on the table. Just a meticulous, thorough wringing out of any and all possible political advantage from this circumstance–and then some. He lays claim to all he surveys. He claims a unique perspective on all human suffering with those artlessly exhaustive rhetorical sweeps of his, those godawful geography name-checks. It’s a kind of greed. ‘From the family crossing the Rio Grande to the Hillbillies in Appalachia’, he’s feeling you. Something to go with his response to the Wright controversy which, if I’m reading him correctly, is ‘if it offends, I condemn’; call it ‘if you’re sore, I’m you’re recourse.’ If you’ve got a claim on the collective guilt of white America, Barack Obama is your man. Barack wants his cut. Isn’t it a little presumptuous of this guy that he thinks he can coopt the very idea of collective guilt and lord it over the nation?”

“Yes. He’s already overcome so much.”

“He shall overcome.”

“Exactly! I mean, here is a guy who’s taken the pain of being a black man in America, all that pain and suffering, he’s made that sacrifice.”


“Can I use that?”

“Oh. By all means. But what pain? What suffering?”

“Duh. He’s bla-ack.”

“Hey, now you’re talking. And white–don’t forget! He’s half-white!”

“Now you see! And white. He’s had to endure the oppression and daily humiliation of the black American, while carrying on his shoulders the tremendous guilt of white America. These are the yin and yang of the American racial dynamic. And he contains them entirely within himself.”

But it seems he gets all the credit for the suffering and none of the guilt for it. They’re not equal at all.”

“Of course not. You’re backsliding now. The suffering is the thing. Dude, it’s in Hamlet. You see, because the guilt is complicity in the suffering, for someone on the receiving end of the suffering, because for him it must be borne, the white guilt is just more suffering!”

“My head hurts. But the guilt is conceptual. It’s not really suffering.”

“No; it’s the most purifying suffering there is, because it’s conceptual. Because it takes place entirely within, uncompromised by physical reality, it has no bounds. This is not the suffering of the body! This is the suffering of the soul. You and I simply aren’t capable of this level of it. You say he’s ‘ambitious.’ This is precisely why it is he and why it is now. He has made that journey, from white to black. He’s mounting that cross gladly. His is the suffering of the nation.”

“I get it. He is us.”

“Exactly. You’re almost there.”

“Where, damn it, where?”

“To the mountaintop, finally. Barack Obama is the ultimate gesture, the act of penitence, the laying down of arms, the ritual abasement, the apology, all embodied in one man. Imagine that guilt-free future. Can you see it? The mountaintop. This man alone is uniquely positioned to simultaneously absolve white shame and restore the dignity of black America. And it has to be embodied in one man, one, yes, Christ-like figure who contains multitudes within and is endowed with the transcendence of celebrity. He is us, yes! And we owe it to ourselves. But he can’t do it if for us if we don’t raise him up to the heights from which he will need to operate. No one will now doubt the word of America. But we must act; we must make that gesture. One cannot stand by when he’s called upon to atone for the greatest sin, the original sin, of his nation.”

“Hallelujah! I see! How could I have been so blind? Thanks Alex, but I won’t be having that drink after all. I’ve found religion.”

Monday Sermonette

petit frère

Cats can’t smile. This is their fundamental incapacity in relating to humanity.
Home just before dawn and our youngest cat greets me in the driveway. He’s about six months old, a handsome Russian blue mix. It’s dry and not too cold outside; on such nights I typically leave the sliding door out back open just enough for our cats to come and go at will. They seem to do their part to earn the privilege by keeping other small animals out (or by keeping the life-expectancy of intruding vermin very low), though I once found what I’m sure were raccoon tracks on the carpet. A precocious youngster small enough to squeeze in, perhaps. Or sent in by shameless grifter parents. Raccoons are the Gypsies of our local mammalian realm. We have one who sometimes comes to the backdoor panhandling. I recognize him by the cut on one ear. It happens rarely enough that I just have to watch while he eats whatever scraps I give him with those eerie, pre-human claw-hands. The cats come around to watch too; we all stand there for a bit wearing the same expression of dull fascination. We’re not much for excitement around here, but hey, we can’t all be lion-tamers, as the man said.

The raccoons and cats run the night in search of prey and maintain an admirable detente at the same time. Raccoons will often gang up on small dogs, possessed of that tragic canine inability to recognize needless peril, who charge in furiously engaging the raccoons in pointless combat or just don’t know enough to steer clear. I suspect the raccoons make a point of trapping and killing these unfortunate pets. But with the cats it appears they have an agreement. A cat would never start a fight with such an obviously worthy foe for anything other than necessity. Yes, in this regard cats are realists, dogs are neocons. Forgive me, I’m merely being glib; I like dogs, and would never hold them in such low regard.
Breeding them as watch-dogs has created a certain unreasoning aggression in dogs, and is just another aspect of that fundamental difference between dogs and cats, dependence. Of course, nothing is more noble than the dog’s loyalty and service toward us, at least from our point of view, which is, in the end, the only one that matters. Still, cats have been allowed, or haven’t yet been stripped of, a degree of independence that gives them a certain dignity. Take barking, for instance; I get the impression that even if they could, cats would disdain barking, on decorum. Of course, no one has ever been dragged from a burning building by a cat.

But you’ve got to hand it to cats; unlike their near but foreign counterparts, dogs, they seem to have an advanced self-awareness, of of how they appear to the world. Cats, if I didn’t know better, keep up appearances. Attendant upon this is, I think, that feline ability to project annoyance. Dogs may do this too, but with them it always involves pointless jumping up and down, barking, and copious salivation, and is indistinguishable from their distinctly canine quick impatience. I have one picture of this feline self-awareness in my mind, the memory of a cat stepping unexpectedly into a puddle, stopping with furrowed brow to shake the water off of his paw, moving on looking back at the puddle with clear indignation; all of this with a delicacy that would have become any human.

But as I was saying, the little cat came out to greet me and accepted my lifting him up, purring happily in anticipation of some wet food. I hold him up for inspection and he dutifully folds his slightly oversized ears back, his eyes narrow and go into an, excuse me, positively Asian slant. Inspection arms. When he sits with his limbs tucked underneath in that bread-box fashion of cats, he resembles something out of a Japanese cartoon, all gentle, soft round sections topped by the head of a miniature panda.

He’s a sturdy little guy, with odd forelimbs for a cat, abnormally long from paw to elbow, short from there to shoulder. He has a small jaw but teeth as sharp as needles. With the other cats no matter how carried away they get they will only scratch your skin in play; this one, with his sharp teeth and unrestrained, dog-like enthusiasm, will pierce any ill-advisedly exposed flesh. It’s all fair game to him. Part of his charm is his puppyish lack of restraint. But as enthusiastic as he is to be picked up and given a friendly squeeze, he soon wants to be put back down, and will struggle so mightily for it that if you don’t relent he will, as he often has, squirt dangerously up and out of your grasp. Once on the ground he flits about with all the sprightly grace of a small bird flying patterns around your feet.

Of course, he’s not nearly as sensible as he is charming at this point, and he’s still likely to find himself punted several feet by his often distracted benefactor. Normally he satisfies himself by simultaneously prancing out ahead of me and turning back to invite play, often literally falling all over himself in ridiculous accidental contortions. A physical comedy no human could ever match. That’s the charm of the kitten; a contradiction of feline grace and enthusiastic clumsiness.

I gave him a little food and a pat on the head and went to sleep. It shows how degenerate I am from watching film and television for all these years, but I remember this now as a cinematic fading out to the view of the bedroom door, fading in to the same view in slightly different light, awakened by an urgent knocking there.

I opened the door and my daughter was crying, holding the young Russian blue in her arms like a baby. He gaped up at me with expressionless eyes, his mouth open. At first I thought he was dead. He had been hit by a car. I grabbed the car keys and slipped into a pair of sandals and we rushed him off to a veterinary center nearby that I hoped was open. In the car the little guy struggled to breath, flailing away in mindless desperation at my daughter with each attempt to comfort him, causing her to sob more miserably than ever, as he suffocated on his own blood, which I could see staining the back of his mouth. Thankfully my daughter did not notice this. We made great time, maybe five minutes to what turned out to be a 24-hour animal hospital. More luck, the place was empty and a vet ran out to greet us with admirable concern, the little cat holding on and fighting, hacking away trying to breathe. Ten minutes later they sent us home with a box.

I let our little friend down, in the end, giving him too much freedom too soon. Not so independent after all. Still, I can’t regret it. Watching these animals roam the spacious greenbelt next door, as thoughtlessly content as any God could possibly intend, I simply can’t imagine denying it to them. To know that we don’t so much own the cats as invite them into our homes as long as they’ll have it, in exchange for the charm with which they grace us. Such an exquisite pleasure really, to be as mundane as it is. Cats are always free to spurn our offer of companionship. Some do, and this is admirable too, the manifestation of the cat’s resistance to final and utter domestication, winning over a proud level of autonomy. Keeping us humans on notice. We don’t merely have a relationship with the cats, we have an arrangement. There is an ennobling lack of the practical, for us, in our relationship with cats. They’re just friends.

But being soft in my advancing age, I find profoundly touching the idea that we are blessing them with a distinctly unnatural good fortune; with a plenty and safety from the natural world’s predations they have no genetic-historical means of comprehending. Sometimes when I notice one of them languorously indulging in this comfort as if it is a birthright, almost arrogantly, taking it all for granted, I think to myself, lucky cat. But in their inscrutable way, a way which I suspect we would find of a higher consciousness than we imagine them capable, if such a thing could be known, they marvel and cherish these blessings with awe-struck reverence. It is a transcendent experience for them. Maybe a little bit for us as well. For all the absurdity of our relations, cats and dogs are made more by their reliance upon us. We are bringing them a sort of enlightenment. We provide the chance to develop finer, more delicate sensibilities; to know higher, conceptual pleasures. We bring civilization to them, when we bring them to it.

I do wish I had thought, as I sometimes do, to close the slider once I got the little guy inside, so that he might give it a rest for a while and improve his chances of surviving into a safer, experienced maturity. If you think I’m attaching too much significance to his death by writing about it here, if you think I place a little too much importance on our pets, you don’t know the half of it. We buried little Alex next to a leopard gecko’s headstone. My daughter and I allowed ourselves a laugh at that, even as we buried our little friend with an absurd, decadent level of grief to be given over to an animal.

We already miss the presence of our little brother who died on the verge of his first spring. The day after we lost him, I opened the door with the same caution I had only recently acquired, habitually expecting to see him attempting a flash-breakout before I could detain him, as he often would if he’d been stewing impatiently indoors for awhile. I was somehow still surprised not to see him there, even while glumly noting his absence. I had looked forward to the warm weather on his behalf and shuddered to think of the havoc he was going to wreak on the annual springtime profusion of garden snakes. An animal thriving in its element is neither a means nor an end. Nothing so tawdry as that. It is sublimely without purpose, like all good things.