Thursday, August 25, 2005

Not the Sharpest Tool in the Shed

Two days ago I had just about all I could stand from David Brooks, the Grey Lady's token "smart" conservative. Today got me from "just about all" to "You tool!"

The apologetics Brooks practises in his editorial on the Iraqi constitution is so patently dishonest, and in such bad faith, that I had to write him a letter expressing my feelings. I was a little peeved when I wrote it. Please pardon my French. I'm sure you, dear reader, can make the same points in kinder, gentler language, and I encourage you to try.

Remember, tilting at idiots is a noble, if hopeless, calling. Good luck!


Just read your latest, "Divided They Stand" and was impressed by your effort to take the lemon that is the Iraqi constitution and turn it into lemonade. What can I say? You are a complete and utter tool. I thought of going with idiot, or asshole, both of which aptly describe you, as does fatuous, arrogant, Pollyannaish and blind, but in the end I decided that tool captured you best:

1) Tool (n.) American slang; Originally a reference to the male member and now synonymous with suckup, sycophant, gasbag, git, and dickhead.

2) Tool (n.) implement, something made use of. In the sense popularized by the 101st Fighting Keyboardists: useful idiot.

You, Brooks, are a tool. But what I want to know is why?

Did they beat you up one too many times in high school? How else does one come to suffer such a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome? How did you go so wrong, Brooks? How did you become the buttboy for the fratboy who would have most eagerly and brutally mocked you as a child? Watching you sell your soul to justify this bumbling brat, whose fuckups are measured in human lives, makes me want to puke.

By a stunning coincidence, your editorial is running on the same day as news of the latest Sadr-sponsored uprising. His militia killed Casey Sheehan. Do you feel it yet, Brooks? Do you feel what a tool you are? No, I didn't think so. That's the other unmistakable quality of a tool: he doesn't realize he's a tool.

You quoted Ruel Gerecht. Do you also share his feelings about the loss of women's rights in the new Iraqi constitution? He recently said, "I'm not too worried about that." Has it occurred to you that Mr. Gerecht would have uttered the very same words prior to the war if asked about the prospect of American casualties? No doubt there are a good many things Mr. Gerecht never worries about. That doesn't mean the people whose lives are actually affected don't worry (See Safia Taleb al-Souhail) nor does it mean the people whose lives are actually affected don't die (see Casey Sheehan).

David, you're almost funny when writing about the rich and self-satisfied. Like they say, Write what you know. But you don't know shit about Iraq. No piece of paper is going to paper over this Mesopotamian clusterfuck. Why don't you wake up, smell the burqa, and write something honest for a change?

-Todd Smith

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

God is in the Semantics

Here is a recent bit of bullshittery from an AP reporter describing Cindy Sheehan:

Sheehan lost a son in Iraq and has emerged as a harsh critic of the war.

Sheehan began a vigil outside Bush’s ranch, a demonstration that has been joined by more and more other anti-war protesters.

Why does the reporter call her a harsh critic? The harshest thing I ever witnessed at a vigil was some mild irritation caused by dripping candlewax.

Cindy Sheehan is a critic of the war, period. You might reasonably describe her as eloquent, or better yet effective, but harsh? Cindy is harshing Bush's mellow, no doubt, but that's hardly the same thing.

Look at her! Calling this woman harsh is like calling Cheney lovable. The reporter intends to discredit Sheehan by painting her criticism as strident, irrational, and mean. That's not news, it's an editorial.

Concern over a single adjective may seem excessive, a matter of semantics, a minor detail, but God, we are told, is in the details, and none of us should tolerate the kind of lazy reporting that conflates partisan talking points with the facts.

Please take a moment to contact the Associated Press and urge them to urge their reporters to cut the crap and stick to the facts.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

War, Meet Fog

I finally saw Errol Morris' documentary The Fog of War last night, and I was blown away. I resisted seeing this film for two years, not because I wasn't in the mood for a good anti-war film, but because I feared another attempt to combat Bush's Folly by tying it to Vietnam. That was then, this is now, I thought. Wrong. Spend some time with former Secretary of Defense McNamara, and you'll see why.

Whatever you think you know about Robert McNamara, you have never seen or heard him like this. He doesn't draw parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. He talks about Vietnam and the parallels come flying at you like a sortie of B-52 bombers over Hanoi. The parallels are not to the causes of the Iraq war, which one can plausibly, if incorrectly, argue bear no relation to Vietnam. No, the truly shocking parallels are between our current President and LBJ, between Rumsfeld and McNamara, between the misguided strategic thinking going on at the highest levels then and now, and, most tragically, between the errors of judgment and failures of moral imagination that led to unnecessary loss of life. It is a sobering film.

In the run-up to the Iraq war, the best and brightest inside the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department all became enamored of a film called Battle of Algiers, its subject the French war in Algeria. They hoped to learn something about the nature of the Arab enemy and the methods (including torture) employed by the French in their doomed effort to wipe out a relatively small group of "terrorists." The film offers many lessons. Sadly, it was the most important of these lessons that our leaders ignored: the French lost. It is too late to draw further lessons from Pontecorvo's masterpiece. Not so with The Fog of War. I doubt Bush has seen it, and while far from stupid, I suspect he would fail to grasp its implications.

Still, I am prepared to send him my copy, if even one person can promise me it won't get lost in the fog.

Johnny Rotten Cash

I have a theory I'd like to share and get a little feedback on. It's something that smacked me upside the head during a coast to coast road trip I took a while back. I happened to pass through Nashville, where I visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the Grand Ole Opry and numerous other points of interest for the nascent fan of hillbilly music. And while I was there it struck me that country is the new punk.

The controversy over and ensuing popularity of Toby Keith's pro-war song "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" was still being trumpeted as an important skirmish in the culture wars v.9/11 (though it was his heaping helping of cornpone "Beer for my Horses," that was burning up the country charts that summer). The ony conclusion a liberal could draw was that Toby Keith was an ignernt redneck whose love for his country and hatred of its enemies was blind. And he was damn proud of it. You don't like it? Fuck you and the horse you rode in on! The man had clearly flunked his cultural sensitivity training course at the community college.

Yet as much I disagreed with his lyrics, I couldn't help thinking, I LOVE THIS GUY! Don't get me wrong. Toby Keith is an execrable musician, but his attitude is pure punk. It's an attitude I saw throughout the country pantheon, from gods like Johnny Cash and George Jones right on down to unpolishable turds like Toby Keith.

This was odd because, growing up in Texas, I actively rejected country and everything it stood for. I did so because I was a Texan, and in Texas you were either a shit-kicker or you were not. If you think I'm being insulting, then you don't know that the most popular country music station in Houston was KIKK (pronounced "kick") FM. The only thing standing between KIKK and KKK, as far as I could see, was I. Country music meant the Future Farmers of America, Ropers, Randy Travis, Travis Tritt, jingoism, racism and Charlie Daniels, that bearded, big-bellied, fiddle playing devil from the back of beyond. So I threw out Hank Williams and Patsy Cline with the bathwater.

It wasn't until I moved to New York and could listen to the music without the cultural saddle bags attached that I began to hear what I'd been missing. I quickly became a fan of those country musicians that all hipsters are encouraged to love: Hank and Patsy of course (who I always liked anyway, a hell of a lot more than Thomas Dolby or Bananarama) but also Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Johnny Cash. After my trip to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, I discovered Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and dozens of others. And thanks to long days spent behind the wheel listening to the radio, even my resistance to artists like George Strait, someone I remembered well from my anti-shit-kickin' days, began to fade. I fell in love with his hit "Tell Me Something Bad About Tulsa," despite the fact that it includes the line, 'Tell me how those old oil wells smell in the wind.' Now that's just bad, but he sang the line with such conviction, such authentic, forthright, unironic, unabashed sincerity, I fell in love with it anyway, warts and all.

Maybe that's the secret. Country music ain't always pretty, musically or politically, but the musicians and the fans don't give a fuck (or as Michael Stipe put it in a non-country song: "They're real; they mean it."). Not giving a fuck, having the spine to sing what you believe whether or not it's popular (or even right) is pure punk. Toby Keith is a punk rocker. Steve Earle is a punk rocker. The Sex Pistols were punk rock, and Johnny Cash was punk. Hell, the fact that he's dead is punk. By contrast, today's self-styled punks - Green Day and Avril Lavigne, to name two - are like the meeting of a black eye-liner pencil and a marketing campaign on an operating table. Punk is dead, long live Country.

Now for some of y'all, the new punk is scary (shouldn't it be?) 'cos some of its I-don't-give-a-fuckness seems like ignorance, pure Red State guff. But most isn't. It's what we in Texas politely call "a little differnce of opinion," and as flaming liberals, aren't we supposed to tolerate those little differences of opinion better than anyone?

As I sit here, the country deep in my bones, I know those differences are indeed little. I know that they pale beside the majesty of the music itself, and that there's a reason even Toby Keith remembered to put a little Blue in his furious punk anthem.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Casey's Ghost

The blogosphere is now All Cindy All the Time, and my initial reaction to the overkill is: ABOUT FUCKING TIME! It is fitting we discuss this war through the prism of a single grieving mom. I was wondering when we'd get around to weighing Bush's Folly against the individual lives it has destroyed. I was wondering when we would focus on the retail cost, when fine words like "hero" and "noble sacrifice" would burn off like morning mist to reveal the human faces underneath. I am grateful that this conversation has begun. Cindy deserves our thanks for forcing it on a reluctant press and an even more reluctant President. Her proximity is clearly cramping the President's style. This woman is shamelessly tainting the joy he takes at playing ranch: the brush clearing, the pickup truck driving, the fund raising, the brush clearing. Yet try as I might, I find it hard to grieve for his lost vacation.

Ah, the vacation... It may appear to be a separate issue, but I believe it is intimately related to the tragedy of Cindy Sheehan's loss and the broader tragedy of our impending failure in Iraq. To paraphrase James Carville: It's the vacation, stupid. Bush's refusal to meet with Cindy Sheehan is unseemly, but no more so than his refusal to attend the funerals of our servicemen and women killed in Iraq, lest in attending one he find himself compelled to attend them all. Attending death, in the sense of acknowledging its true meaning and full weight, is what Bush fears most. To do so would force him to consider the dead in the same way the families do, not as symbols useful for propping up his deranged vision, but as a long and painful series of facts. Human facts. We all know how the President feels about facts. He's been on vacation from them since the beginning. This trip to Crawford is only the most recent physical enactment of an ongoing mental event. Facts don't fit this President's worldview. They must be ignored, kept at a safe distance. And they have been. George Bush is a shallow man, and like most shallow men, he knows better than to set foot in the deep end. So he avoids a confrontation with Cindy Sheehan at all costs, because behind her he sees the ghost of her dead son. George Bush isn't avoiding Cindy. He's avoiding Casey. He is avoiding them all. George Bush sees dead people.

Whether or not anyone else sees Casey's ghost, we all sense a failure of moral imagination in the President's refusal to meet with her, and this sense is magnified because, in theory, he has nothing better to do right now, nothing but time on his hands. Why can't he walk, jog or mountain bike down the driveway and talk to this poor woman? So what if he talked to her before? She's changed her mind about the war and about him. That makes her what? Like a lot of other Americans? She gave her son. She gave the President a piece of her heart. She's earned the right to give him a piece of her mind.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Lost in Place

I peeled open my copy of The Onion today and like its organic cousin it made me cry and cry. The top story: Bush Vows to Eliminate U.S. Dependence on Oil by 4920. Now why is that funny? Because it's true.

I sometimes think George Bush is a closet Taoist, so patient is he. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, that is if Dickie and Turdblossom say it's OK for me to take that step. If not, nevermind. I don't want to get on the wrong side of Karl Rove, know what I'm saying? Whatever bold new initiative W may propose, you can be sure the deadline will coincide with the college graduation of your great great grandniece.

I've been stewing about it since he came out in favor of the hydrogen fuel cell engine, which is a little like coming out in favor of penicillin during a polio epidemic. NO SHIT, SHERLOCK! The question isn't if we should replace the internal combustion engine, but when. If you went back in time and told Karl Benz, who developed the first practical automobile powered by the internal combustion engine - in 1885 - that we'd still be using the same technology over a century later, he'd scheisse his lederhosen. What apocalypse, he would ask, interrupted the march of progress and science? What epic disaster stopped the industrial revolution in its tracks? What gang of idiots left future generations dependent on a technology that was intended only as a single step on the journey toward better, cleaner modes of transport? The oil companies? Ach, I should have known.

With the leadership we currently enjoy, Herr Benz will be rolling in his grave for another generation at least. Let us harken to George Bush's clarion call to action:

With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free.

A child born today? Is he giving the best minds in America EIGHTEEN YEARS to build a new car engine? Jaysus Christ, George. It ain't rocket science! This is rocket science:

Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it - we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world's leading space-faring nation.

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say that we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain. Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others,too.

Read the whole thing. You'll weep recalling we once had Presidents of this caliber. Kennedy gave that speech at Rice University, in my hometown of Houston (yup, Texas, folks) at a time when NASA was planting glorified oil drums atop ICBMs and sending America's craziest and bravest into low earth orbit. Walking on the moon must have seemed as improbable at that time as the prospect of a family picnic on Mars seems today. As improbable as the Rice Owls beating the Texas Longhorns, in case you didn't get the joke. (My guess is Lyndon wrote that line.) But did Kennedy say, "Look y'all, it's hard work. We'll get around to it when your children's children are collecting their privatized Social Security checks." No. He declared the time is now. And Americans rose to the challenge, as we always do. Where do we find a similar vision today? Certainly not in the White House. John F. Kennedy made a promise to the future, one kept not in the the eight years allotted, but in seven. George Bush demands over twice that time to come up with a modified lawnmower. See the differnce?

I sometimes imagine a race of murderously judgmental aliens roaming the galaxy trying whole worlds. They finally reach earth and must decide whether our planet deserves to be spared. Our court-appointed defense attorney, young, idealistic, has reams of evidence in our favor: Homer, Dante, the poetry of Rilke, the music of Bach and the Beatles, Van Gogh, Matisse, Brancusi, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, the cinema of Bresson, Kurosawa... "They invented Music, Art, Love, God! Please, just listen to this Bill Monroe album! Could we have invented Bluegrass? No! Not in a million years. They must be spared!" the young idealist pleads.
Then the prosecutor steps to the bar, clears his throat. "They still use the internal combustion engine."
"Say what? When did they invent it?" the judge would like to know.
"1876, by their calendar."
"What year is it now?"
"Case closed," says the judge, as he reaches for the big RED BUTTON...

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

How To Stay Young

A friend recently blogged about a lovely album she's been listening to. I lent it my ears. I liked.

Can anyone doubt music is the greatest of the arts? If I could sing I would never have gone to film school. Hearing a new sound, a great line, makes me feel eighteen again, and after a certain age (hint: 30) that is a very nice feeling. So:

1. Keep discovering new music. It continually awakens feelings you didn't know, or may have forgotten, you had.

2. Keep reading poetry. It reminds you that few valuable insights have anything to do with money.

3. Keep making love. It's great for your skin, and your soul.

4. Keep changing your mind. It means you learned something new and acted on it. If you're beyond learning and taking action, you might as well be dead. Or a pundit.

5. Keep trying to change the world. If you think it's too late, see 4.

6. Keep moving. Literally. A little kinetic activity now and again goes a long way - dancing, riding in the Tour de France, getting up to change the channel. It all helps.

7. Stop celebrating your birthday. If you can't remember how old you are, you never have to worry about acting your age. Acting your age past 30 is a death sentence.

8. Travel. Even if it's just down the road, new sights keep the mind and heart alive.

9. Be kind. It shocks people, which is funny when you think about it. It also feels good.

10. Laugh.

11. Keep adding to this list.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Bringing It All Back Home

Shrub is growing up. He's given up the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) for the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism (GSAVE). For someone who is no fan of evolution, our President is evolving. (Soon Molly Ivins may have to call him Lil' Bush.) Yes, the President finally acknowledged that success in our struggle against the evildoers will be defined primarily by how many hearts and minds we win, not the body count. This is no small advance, like the moment when early hominids first began to walk upright. From perpendicularity, our promotion to Homo Sapiens was assured. Far more assured than the outcome of the GSAVE, but we should not underestimate the importance of this change in official language. Now we can win, because we have replaced an old slogan with a newer one! And the new slogan makes for a peppier acronym! You get the feeling the White House secretly convened the SuperFriends and issued them new Team GSAVE uniforms:

These ones really work, guys.

Form idiot. Shape of...abject failure.

Up until now, we are being told, the hearts and minds message was lacking. Unfocused. Or simply, like Phase IV of the Iraq War, marked "TBD." Messaging was the real problem! But now we're on it. We're gonna say the right things.

I'm no different from George Peppard's cigar-chomping "Hannibal" Smith of A-Team fame: I love it when a plan comes together. So I was excited to hear the President put his most trusted counselor in charge of the State Department's Office of Public Diplomacy - no, not Karl Rove, you can already smell the burnt on him, he's toast- Karen Hughes, mother of John! If she's smart, she'll hire Weiden + Kennedy, the ad agency that turned Nike into such a successful worldwide brand with just a swoosh and a slogan. I'm sure they can do the same for Brand America, once George agrees to shut his pie-hole and outsource all his speeches to Tony Blair.

Deep down, though, I don't reckon Karen Hughes, for all her Texas charm (well, I see it - she reminds me of my elementary school teachers), will make a damn bit of difference, because George isn't going to outsource his speeches. More importantly, he isn't going to outsource his thinking. If you want to know what chance this man has of bringing the world together, just look at how well he's done at home. Look at all the uniting going on right here. No divider, he. (Must resist irony, must say it straight.) Here it is straight: a President whose theory of leadership is to divide and conquer doesn't stand a snowball's chance in Texas of winning this thing we're in, no matter what he chooses to call it. (GOTME?)