Friday, September 23, 2005

Icarus on Crack

When the history of these viral years is written, preferably not by the Reader’s Digest’s benefactors, a few chapters will have to be devoted to the frequency with which the obvious so easily managed to stupefy the most savvy editors in charge of our national press, the frequency (and urgency) with which they headlined revelations that appear to have the granite boldness of a Delphic oracle but turn out to be old news any half-wit observer kvetching in a Yukon shop-and-go figured out years ago. The papers are carrying a story today about a Saudi of the Faisal clan, or Klan, as the Wahhabite case may be, warning that Iraq is heading for disintegration. The little declaration was made by the Saudi foreign minister in Washington, presumably between two gulps of eighteen year old Glenlivet and two licks of the nearest tits of the same age (a trip to the West for any Saudi klansman who can afford the excursion being a chance to salute Caligula’s tumescent memory indeed, and of course in deed). Played up as it was by the New York Times and the Washington Post, the klansman’s “news” is designed to have that ring of a wake-up call. But like so much in these newspapers that, when it comes to anything attached to the word war, so ably report the news as if they were writing the first draft of two-year-old by-the-ways, the bugle was blaring at the wrong ears. Put aside the fact that these oily Wahhabite have more in common with the Taliban than the twins I know next door. Put aside the fact that these Wahhabites are half the reason we’ve been at war in the Iraq and Afghanistan, the American military presence (no matter how much President Bush’s moronic but convenient GOPhallic-centered world view wants to pretend that the terrorist attacks were exclusively about evil men wanting to destroy western civilization) in the sands of Saud was not having been exactly a mirage in these blithering fanatics’ shades. Put aside the fact that we’re still treating them like the royalty they pretend to be, and that we would drop Rita’s and Katrina’s salvaging operation in a second to save these Wahhabites from a coup, should one occur. Put aside all these ironies. Shouldn’t whatever wake-up call may finally be happening at least have been home-grown and thought out, say, a year ago? Shouldn’t the Times’ editors have learned by now that their uncritical deference to establishment news releases—the White House’s ad campaign about WMDs, the CIA’s slam-dunk case for same, the Pentagon’s promise to Vegas bookies of a Baghdad cakewalk, the State Department’s vial-and-pony show, courtesy of Colin-the-Absurd, at the United Nations—is part of the reason why we’ve reached this bog of I-told-you-sos? Must we still depend, as we do for so much else, on oily Saudis to feed us the obvious? Some of us not-so oily Arabs, but Arabs nonetheless (and to be fair not a few non-Arabs either, including here in the lands of seas to shining seas), had pegged the American-inspired Balkan disintegration of Iraq way back when the first American soldiers slated for cannon fodder were still wanking their anxieties away in last-desert training on the outskirts of Joshua National Park and emailing home that what the fuck it’ll be as easy as the last one and hasn’t our very own oily one, the one who just greased his way to the World Bank, been telling us that it’d be a cakewalk all the way? Look ma, they even sent us cake as a joke. Funny how the delivery man made sure it landed on our faces. Some of us laughed so hard we busted a gut.

So in the spirit of golden oldies tragically proven right as they should never have been (golden oldies that should never have had a reason to be written in the first place) here’s the column I wrote on March 26, 2003, five days after Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, a 22-year-old immigrant from Guatemala City, where he’d been orphaned before making his way to foster homes in California, became Operation-Screw-Another-Generation-of-Young-Americans’  first casualty in the sands of southern Iraq.

Icarus on Crack:
Bush Blueprint in Arab Heartland Is Colossal Hubris

In gothic novels the bombshell princess is typically shackled to the whims of nasty men and foul-mouthed step-mothers and suffers indignities by the bushel until she's liberated by Prince Charming. The novels always cue The End before Princess discovers that her Fabio look-alike is actually twice the bastard her tormentors had been, and a serial womanizer: He's the guy hopping between Harlequin covers while she ends up dog-eared and spineless at the secondhand bookshop.
The gothic novel has its real-life equivalent in geopolitics. Instead of a helpless, persecuted bombshell, you have a beleaguered, persecuted country that dreams of deliverance. Deliverance may come, but The End doesn't conveniently follow. The story must go on. The next chapter often reads like a morgue manifest.
I speak of experience here. When I was a boy in the early years of Lebanon's civil war, all we dreamed about was some kind of savior to liberate us from mayhem. In 1976 we got the first in a series. The Syrian army marched in to keep us Christians from being slaughtered by a coalition of Palestinians and Muslims. We welcomed the Syrians with the ritual rice-throwing, although it was probably minute rice, not something fancy like Basmati: We didn't trust the Syrians.
Sure enough, a minute later, relatively speaking, they turned their guns on us and became the occupying army they have remained ever since. So we started dreaming of new liberators, and for a time we were convinced Israel would oblige. Looking back, that was like wishing for Huns to liberate you from Visigoths, us poor beleaguered Christians being no less Vandals for wear. Between one bombardment and another I was ferreted out of the country and have kissed and licked every day's peace ever since, but obviously kept an eye on Lebanon's torments. In 1982 the Israelis did finally invade. They got the rice treatment, too, because the Palestinians had turned south Lebanon into their private little Idaho, militia-style.
Sure enough, the Israeli occupation, one of Ariel Sharon's Guernicas, proved no less grotesque than the Palestinians'. The Christian-inspired, Israeli-managed massacres of a few thousand Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Chatila camps precipitated yet more foreign interventions. This time it was the multinational force of Italians, French and Americans. For that one the Lebanese sprung for Uncle Benz.
They thought America would finally save them as no one could. Then America got in the nation-building business. And as it did, it took sides -- siding with the Israeli-backed Christian government of Amin Gemayel, a playboy with brie for brains. And then, in quick succession, those quiet Americans met the unquiet wrath of Arab savagery. The American embassy in Beirut was suicide-bombed, killing 63. On Oct. 23, 1983, the Marines' barracks south of Beirut was suicide-bombed, killing 241. A simultaneous bombing of the French barracks (remember those "surrender monkeys"?) killed 58. At the time the bombers were from a little known faction of renegade Shiite Muslims called Hezbollah. Little known no more: Hezbollah is today's al-Qaida's spiritual mistress.
Themselves defeated, the Americans left shortly after the barracks bombing. I was glad. Not because I wanted them out of there as a Lebanese chauvinist, but because by then I was reacting as an adopted American. My allegiance was wholeheartedly with those Marines, who never should have been put in such a wasteful situation in the first place. I happened to know the Lebanese -- the Arab -- mentality of the moment. It isn't worth the fight, and it is certainly not worth a drop of American blood, no matter the idealistic quest then or now.
Freedom? Liberation? Democracy? Arab nations wouldn't know what to do with any of it. As Charles Glass, once a reporter with ABC news, wrote a dozen years ago, they're not nations. They're "tribes with flags."
And it is into that mayhem, that Lebanon writ large, that President Bush is sending his army. American soldiers will probably get the rice treatment. They'll get the hugs and the roses. The pictures will be grist for a month of Bush-pumping propaganda back in the "homeland." But the gratefulness of liberation doesn't outlast the afternoon nap. Those trigger-happy Shiites the Marines last knew in Lebanon, incidentally, form Iraq's majority, and the country is crawling with Balkan-tempered minorities.
Planning the California-scale creation of a pro-American nation out of Washington Beltway blueprint in the Arab heartland is science fiction with a death wish. It is colossal hubris. It is Icarus on crack. With Afghanistan still smoldering with chaos, the Anglo-American country-hoppers don't know what gothic nightmare they're getting into in Iraq, what they're getting us all into. And it won't end well no matter the bushels of rice riddling Americans' welcome along Mesopotamia's shimmering, shifty sands.

[The Daytona Beach News-Journal, March 26, 2003]

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


What happens when Ralph Kramden is in charge at NASA? A $104 billion plan to send Alice to the moon, by default of a snappier wonderland, by 2018. Kramden was in charge of NASA in 1984, too (his eponymous stage name was James Beggs at the time) when he promised Ronald Reagan that he could get an international space station "up to initial operating capability" for $8 billion ($15 billion in today’s dollars). [1] Why not? Reagan was coming off the high from his Star Wars initiative, that missile defense fantasy that turned Industrial Light & Magic’s special effects into national defense policy. What he said in his famous March 23, 1983 address about Star Wars— "I know this is a formidable, technical task, one that may not be accomplished before the end of the century"—was essentially recycled for the station, briefly called Freedom (from 1988 to 1993), and now downgraded, in name and function, to something like a rest stop slightly above I-95. Of course even James Beggs knew the station’s aspirations would be the only thing ever to soar. Its purpose wasn’t science. ("I don't know a single scientist in Europe who supports the space station," France’s minister of science Claude Allègre said in 1999. "Not a single physicist, astronomer, geophysicist, chemist, or mathematician." [2]) It was, and still is, to keep NASA and its contractors in business. "The feeling," Beggs told The Times in 1990, "was that unless we could get a station, the manned activities would truncate and we’d run out of mission." [3] Twenty years after their verbal launch, Star Wars and missile defense are the twin Babels to nowhere, each a $120 billion slush fund for the thousands of contractors addicted to them. [4] Like ATK, the reusable solid rocket booster maker ("We're just one member of an entire team dedicated to excellence"), which took out a full-page ad in today's Wall Street Journal (p. A7) to boost one of its brown-tipped rockets up NASA's ass ("NASA sets standards so high that only the best are chosen to participate"). The Space Station isn’t running out of missions, having never had any, but it’s running out of shuttles. With that co-dependent relationship ending, NASA’s latest Beggs figured, with timing unique to the sort of aerospace geniuses who can’t get a rocket to launch from the Marshall Islands, that this season of Ritas and Katrinas was just the right time to announce a $104 billion plan to go back to the moon. He promises to stay within NASA’s budget. But that’s $104 billion in dog dollars. In NASA-adjusted dollars (figuring in the Space Station multiplier of overruns at eight times the original cost) we get… let’s be kind: $800 billion, operating costs included. And that’s just the moon, itself a pit stop on the way to Mars. Speaking of gibbous delusions: Where’s our Edward Gibbon when we need him?


[1]Ronald D. Brunner and Radford Byerly Jr, "The space station programme", Space Policy, May 1990.
[2] "Pie in The American Sky," by Robert Bell, Le Monde Diplomatique, Feb. 1999.
[3] "How the $8 Billion Space Station Became a $120 Billion Showpiece," by William Broad, NYTimes, June 10, 1990.
[4] The New York Times’ lead story on Dec. 16, 2004, on the latest test failure of the program—"an interceptor rocket failed to launch on cue from the Marshall Islands" after a rocket carrying a mock warhead was launched from Kodiak in Alaska—put total spending on Star Wars going back to 1985 at "more than $80 billion," with $50 billion slated for the next five years. The European Space Agency has the cost at $100 billion euros, or about $122 billion (

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Skipping Sharansky

"There are," Hawthorne writes in House of the Seven Gables, "chaotic, blind, or drunken moments, in the lives of persons who lack real force of character—moments of test, in which courage would most assert itself—but where these individuals, if left to themselves, stagger aimlessly along, or follow implicitly whatever guidance may befall them, even if it be a child’s. No matter how preposterous or insane, a purpose is a god-send to them."

A little less Sharansky and a little more Hawthorne on some people's night-tables might do some good.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Radio Daze, I

We mourn extinctions among the world’s 6,000 languages, half of which may be gone by century’s end. Like loggers wiping out wildlife in the rainforest, radio and television signals scythe through New Guinea’s thousand languages in their most remote recesses, through the five hundred Bantu dialects of sub-Saharan Africa or what remains of the cliquey tongues of American Indians from the Arctic’s Inuits to the Kaweqsar of Tierra del Fuego. For every proverbial elder keeping up the old speech there’s leveling sounds as cheap and uniform as processed cheese tumbling from a satellite or a broadcast antenna. For every one of the elder’s dying words there’s a grid of programming. Silencing indigenous sounds takes one click of a remote, one touch of a pre-set button. The wonder is that so many languages still abound, which suggests that languages are not as vulnerable as they seem, at least not to broadcasters’ influence. It seems to me the leveling forces of technology take a heavier toll on their own linguistic inventions. Radio culture produced a rich, indigenous argot that disappeared before it had a chance to make it on the preservationists’ lists. Few of the words are pure inventions, although there are some of those, too: A crawk was an animal imitator, a gaffoon was a sound-effects specialist, quonking was that background noise or chatter you heard during a performance or an interview, zampa was an overplayed musical passage. All good, well-toned words that deserved a longer life but perhaps with the exception of quonk, which the BBC still recognizes on its Web site as "an unwanted noise which turns up on a sound track," all died in infancy, their existence not even recorded by latter-day Webster’s or the Oxford English Dictionary. Crawk may be an onomatopoeia in a poem or a short story, gaffoon turns up in Germany here and there, and Alfred Zampa, an ironworker on many of the nation’s bridges, gave his name to the Al Zampa Memorial Bridge in San Francisco Bay. But in radio, the words are dead, forgotten wreaths on the kind of programming that made them necessary and died long ago. Same goes for a string of words and phrases that existed before, but without radio’s recombinant meanings. Before it was grasped almost exclusively by the greenish language of salary raises and collective bargaining agreements, the expression across the board, for instance, was said of those programs that were scheduled at the same time every day. A boring program was called arsenic, a mistake in a live performance was called a beard, a clinker, fluff or kick, as opposed to a burp, which was a quonk’s cousin. A performer who happened to be hoarse that day was a belcher. Blast, a word as if tailor-made for Arturo Toscanini, the blitzkrieg conductor, was originally said of particularly loud transmissions, and a town crier was said of a particularly loud singer. An ear-ache (it was the era of hyphens) was an actor who over-performed, gelatine was a tenor with a thin voice, plug-ugly was said of advertising plunked into a news broadcast or an entertainment program before the ugliness got to be the norm, and zilch, before our reigning commander-in-zilch adopted it as his own, was the name applied to anyone whose name was unknown. The expressions for the most part are still in use, but not in the language of radio, where their use became superfluous decades ago. The sort of programming that made the words necessary—live plays, live concerts, live comedy—has vanished, and not because television has been a better medium through which to pipe it (pipe, incidentally, was originally a radio term that defined the transmission of programming by telephone). Given the choice, the audience’s imagination has opted for the medium of least invention.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Simone de Beauvoir on New Orleans, 1947

Longtemps encore nous roulons dans la nuit. De loin en loin, des lumières s’allument, mais ce n’est qu’un poste d’essence perdu au milieu du delta. Des miles et des miles de nuit humide, des ponts, des eaux sombres, d’autres ponts, d’autres eaux, la meme nuit, et voici qu’enfin les lumières s’agglomèrent. Maintenant ce sont des avenues, des carrefours, et d’autres avenues et d’autres carrefours, des faubourgs et d’autres faubourgs. Et enfin voici Broadway, voici Market Street: la grande rue illumine, grouillante qui porte ici le nom de Canal Street. Cette ville, demain matin, ce sera la Nouvelle Orléans. [L’Amérique au jour le jour, 28 Mars 1947 (Gallimard, 1954, pp. 215-16)].

[We travel long into the night. Lights appear here and there, but they’re only from a gas station lost in the middle of the delta. Miles and miles of humid night, bridges, dark waters, more bridges, more waters, the same night. At last the lights cluster together. Now there are avenues, intersections, more avenues and more intersections, suburbs and more suburbs. And finally, here is Broadway, here is Market Street—the brightly lit main road, swarming with people, named Canal Street. Tomorrow morning, this city will be New Orleans. [America Day by Day, tr. Carol Cosman, (California, 1999, p. 218)].