Saturday, November 05, 2005

What Europeans See, What Americans Don't

A friend, just back from a six-week trek through France, writes:

I just want to tell you, if you don't already know, that in Europe, on the French, German, Italian, Spanish and even BBC nightly TV news, the war is shown in full color, bloodied horror. Sometimes American, but always Western TV reporters are showing the results of each days chaos: mothers and dads physically pulling up an arm or a leg from a pile of bloody dead bodies that still have their eyes open and look like they still might be alive .. looking for their sons and daughters, and sometimes finding them, and oftentimes it's a child, not even a warrior. This is every night, so it is easy to understand why the attitude of the French or any other people about this war is different from our espoused attitude. Our TV is completely censored, which I had suspected before this trip, but the saddest part is, it is probably censored by the news purveyors  themselves, since our news has become a commodity to be sold and to entertain, in order to get the highest ratings and best advertising rates.  Thank whatever gods may be for the internet, which is taking over the delivery of news for at least the younger set. They are the future anyway. […]

My 45 year old [son] would open up the conversation in every tea shop, restaurant, town square, or just when walking in gardens, when they would ask, are you British? with, No, we are Americans, but we are not from Texas. This was every time completely understood, and would start a long conversation, not hostile to us, more in sympathy, by the French people, no matter their station in life. It was general, from shopkeeper to wealthy shoppers on the Champs. And in the tiniest little towns, like Saintes, in the middle of nowhere. We were just amazed at how they felt about us. One nice man ended our conversation with something like: “Tout le Monde a des fous - vous n'etais pas toutes seules.” My French is not good, but you get it. But they were certainly worried about us,
about the US, because of the fact, they said, that we were such a powerful world figure, having such broad influence. I began to wonder, how can these people know every tiny thing about our government, about the goings on in Washington, when we don't hear or know a thing about their gov... or its people. Then I saw teenagers on the trains and buses coming home from school, notebooks open, filled with perfect writing, doing their homework. One day I saw what looked to be 15 year old gal taking notes from a book on Epistemology. I don't even know a teenager here who could tell me what that is. I didn't study it until 2nd year college, and then only because I was in a Jesuit school (Georgetown). And I met some former friends who told us that it is now standard for kids to start school at 3 and get their International Baccalaureates at 20... so they have 5 more years of serious school than we do in our lackadaisical school system. No wonder they can analyze and think better than we do.

[With thanks to JL]

Dirty Words

Back in September a woman in a town near here called DeBary was incensed that her 11th grade daughter was reading a book called Cracking India, a novel by the Pakistani writer and Houston transplant Bapsi Sidhwa. The novel is an adolescent girl’s view of the dismemberment of Pakistan from India in 1947 and the ensuing bloodletting. Those parts didn’t bother the mother’s sensibilities. (Foreign-born violence tends to leave Americans bored. Domestic violence entertains them.) But the part where a boy suggests oral sex to the heroine did bother her very much, as did parts where the heroine fantasizes about sex. (Diane Ravich in The Language Police lists some of the topics that, according to “bias guidelines,” test writers must avoid “unless they are directly relevant to the curriculum.” Oral sex doesn’t make the list, but these topics do: abortion, “creatures that are thought to be scary or dirty, like scorpions, rats, and roaches,” death and disease, evolution, “expensive consumer goods,” unemployment, weapons and violence—in other words just about any subject fit to print in a newspaper.) No problem there. Finding something offensive is anybody's liberty. You can always close the book. Our schools go as far as giving parents the right to demand that their own children's books be closed on demand, if they find a particular title objectionable. The demand just shouldn't turn into an edict affecting everyone else. Our DeBary mother disagreed. Cracking India was assigned in an International Baccalaureate English class her daughter is taking at a local high school. Her mother wanted the book off the shelves of the local school district. When the story broke in September I lucked into a phone conversation with Sidhwa the day before she was due to leave for India to launch an anthology of her work. Cracking India, she said, has never drawn even a hint of controversy, here or abroad. What about Pakistan’s mullahs, I asked her. Not even from them, she said, though the book was published only in English in Pakistan, which may have limited its exposure to mullahs and madrassas. Until The Mother From DeBarry.

It isn’t possible these days to just tell a parent to close a book she doesn’t like and let others be. Committees must be created, pages parsed, the issue given its proper weight, no matter how weightless or vacuous. The school district set up a committee of no less than twenty-four people (teachers, parents, school administrators and "community representatives" who usually make up such thought-policing panels) to review the book and recommend the next step to the school superintendent. This week it did so, declaring the book, by a 22-2 vote, “not harmful to minors.” Not a bad tally. Pending the superintendent ratifying the vote, the book stays. The dissenter included a minister who worries that “there’s a bunch of evils my kids have to face out there” in the world, and those evils “shouldn’t be in the classroom.” As far as the classroom is concerned of course there are few greater evils than narrow-minded reading lists, mediocre teachers and fear of controversy, all three of which dominate the curriculum and infest classrooms when standardized testing doesn’t. And for all the porn in the world, I’ll never figure out why our Wahhabite reverends and their moralizing legions, whose mentalities control our polity even if they don’t yet control our reading committees, can find offense in one kind of pornography while finding another sort perfectly acceptable, even desirable. I’ll take the bare beavers over egesting B-52s any day. A little honesty, please. Where’s George Carlin when you need him? Apparently finishing up the 150 live performances that’ll lead up to his thirteenth HBO special tomorrow, live from Manhattan’s Upper West Side’s Beacon Theater: on tap for his laugh track, says the Times: “beheadings in Iraq, natural disasters (he doesn’t mention Katrina but doesn’t have to), genocide, human sacrifice (‘I miss that,’ he said from the stage), suicide, autoerotic asphyxiation and necrophilia.” Finally a little fresh air in our overregulated (and worse, self-regulated) discourse.

Friday, November 04, 2005

The Guest List

A White House dinner guest list is an entertainment in itself, especially to those of us who couldn’t make the dinner for lack of a babysitter and/or FBI clearance. Last night’s black sites affair in honor of the Prince and Princess of Wails and Laments is pretty much a roadmap to the mix of cultural fluorescence with the essence of crass and parvenu guile that has always been this administration’s signature. The list is extremely long, this being the fifth year of a presidency with a Reagan-worthy deficit of favors to pay back and face-saving to buy. Let’s just point out the highlights:

Michael Beschloss, the Anderson Cooper of presidential historians who is equally and naturally at ease writing about Dwight Eisenhower’ s wardrobe as he is about the first Bush’s character; Tom Brokaw, whose absence reminds us every day why the demise of the quite alleged greatest generation of television anchors was only a decade and a half too late; the first George Bush, whose presence reminds us every day why the Bush progeny has overstayed its welcome by a decade and a half; Barbara Lucky-Are-the-Poor Bush; Jenna Bush (no comment necessary); Neil Bush, because the Bush White House just doesn’t have enough scandals on its plate; Rev. Kirbyjon H. Caldwell, the Wharton grad and ex-six-figuring broker who’s now trying to give Bruce Barton a run for his Jesus with his—and pardon my Aramaic—I shit you not, Gospel of Good Success: A Road Map to Spiritual, Emotional, and Financial Wholeness; Joseph Canizaro, one of the most lavish soft-money donors to the GOP who makes Bill Clinton’s leasing of the Lincoln Bedroom to the highest donor look like a slumber-party prank; Darth Vader and wife; Harlan Crow, who is Clarence Thomas' Medici, who plunked down the dollars for the first Bush's presidential library and (again from the merde-you-not department) likes to collect statues of tyrants like Hitler and Castro; Oscar de la Renta (see wardrobe connection above); Llwyd Ecclestone, the Florida megabuilder of Gatsby mansions, shadow of Jeb and enthusiast of license plate photography (although to be fair the Gatsbuilder in Palm Beach is Ecclestone III, and the White House Ecclestone is Jr.); Bradford M. Freeman, one of Bush's Pioneer fund-raisers who had the good graces to take the Bush cat when the Bushes moved into the White House, so the thing didn't scratch the furniture, and whose brother had the good grace to accept an embassadorship to Belize; Bill Frist (even a Senate majority leader needs to eat between stock deals); Kelsey Grammer, who must be the president's new drinking buddy; Joe Lieberman, who is to political identity what Rupaul is to pink; Yo-Yo Ma, apparently sans cello, because the Department of Homeland Security wouldn't permit it; Azar Nafisi, who'd better not be caught reading Lolita in the White House, though it'd have the same effect as it did in Teheran; General Peter Pace, because even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff needs a princely crowd to toast 2,000 (or is it 2037?); Nancy Reagan, who should be caught reading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting; Chief Justice John Roberts, who must still be working on his separation of powers certificate; Witold Rybczynski, who'd better not start talking about "the fundamental poverty of modern architectural ideas" to the likes of Ecclestone; Linda Scott, whose husband Lee couldn't be there because he's been too busy finding ways to further screw Wal-Mart employees(and American workers, if he gets his way) out of decent benefits; Tom Watson, for those nine holes the president, not unlike his predecessors, just can't do without before bed; and Herman Wouk, for those breezy winds of war the president seem to need to validate his identity.

As Prince Charles so eloquently put it in his toast before the State Dining Room set, "On the day Rosa Parks is laid to rest, there is a powerful message, I think, here about tolerance and inclusion that has relevance for the whole international community." Inclusive relevance indeed.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Our Splendid Little Gulag

“All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate. Let’s put it this way—they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies. (Applause.)” Those cryptic words, uncritically applauded at the time, were spoken by President Bush, our mobster-in-chief, in the 2003 State of the Union address. What that “different fate” entailed hasn’t been very much of a secret. Prisoners have been dying in American custody in Afghanistan since 2001 (or in “rendered” custody, as with the execution-by-asphyxiation of those of Taliban suspects in shipping containers provided to the Northern Alliance by the CIA’s travel agents). They’ve been dying in Iraq since 2003. But since 2001 the extent of the CIA’s prison archipelago around the world has only been hinted at, never quite nailed. Finally this morning the Washington Post’s Dana Priest hammers away, albeit with a foam hammer, with a string of semi-fresh revelations about the CIA’s secret prison network abroad, including “a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe”:

“The secret facility is part of a covert prison system set up by the CIA nearly four years ago that at various times has included sites in eight countries, including Thailand, Afghanistan and several democracies in Eastern Europe […]. The hidden global internment network is a central element in the CIA's unconventional war on terrorism. It depends on the cooperation of foreign intelligence services, and on keeping even basic information about the system secret from the public, foreign officials and nearly all members of Congress charged with overseeing the CIA's covert actions. The existence and locations of the facilities -- referred to as "black sites" in classified White House, CIA, Justice Department and congressional documents -- are known to only a handful of officials in the United States and, usually, only to the president and a few top intelligence officers in each host country. The CIA and the White House, citing national security concerns and the value of the program, have dissuaded Congress from demanding that the agency answer questions in open testimony about the conditions under which captives are held. Virtually nothing is known about who is kept in the facilities, what interrogation methods are employed with them, or how decisions are made about whether they should be detained or for how long.”

That’s spreading democracy for you. Don’t be too sure of the Post’s shining service in journalism. The paper is playing it both ways, teasingly letting us in the semi-secret with a few new bits of information while still playing adjunct to the US government’s illegal ploys. Here’s the ninth paragraph of the story: “The Washington Post is not publishing the names of the Eastern European countries involved in the covert program, at the request of senior U.S. officials. They argued that the disclosure might disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and could make them targets of possible terrorist retaliation.” The claim of protecting the nations’ identities is inexcusable no matter what the “agents” say. This isn’t some crime story about a poor girl who got raped and needs her identity protected. This is the United States conspiring with other democracies to undermine the very essence of democracy in the name of protecting democracy, and the Post finds it in its ethical playbook to cover up for the government? Has Judith Miller already gotten herself a ghost-writing desk at the Post?

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Alito, Take One

Our take on Alito in the News-Journal this morning:

"By nominating Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court to replace Sandra Day O'Connor, a moderate, President Bush is asking for a fight. He should get it. Alito is an activist whose judicial philosophy scorns modern jurisprudence in deference to pre-New Deal interpretations of the Constitution. He's no conservative, if by conservative one implies, as John Roberts implied in his recent confirmation hearings, judicial restraint and respect for precedent. Alito is a judicial fundamentalist who sees virtually no role for the federal government in regulating civil rights, privacy, the workplace or the environment -- regulations foreign to the framers of the Constitution. His opinions advocate for a regression to such a 19th century interpretation of the Constitution. That makes him a radical, not a conservative. His philosophy places him to the right of Antonin Scalia, where the only thing left is the apostolic legalism of Clarence Thomas. Nothing in the last five years, and even less in the last five months, has earned Bush a mandate to so extremely shove the court rightward." [Read more...]

Supreme Oligarchs

If Warren Harding could make four stupendously political appointments to the Supreme Court in barely three years, we should consider ourselves lucky that Bush has managed just two in five years, though with three to go and decrepitude creeping up on two or three of them up there, he may yet do to the court what the 1920s did to America. The Alito nomination will be bruising, but if a Senate with a majority of 57 Democrats could manage to appoint Clarence Thomas to the court in 1991 (the vote was 52-48, the closest for any confirmed justice), A Senate with a majority of 55 Republicans isn’t about to turn down Samuel Alito, who can always depend on Thomas to make him look more moderate the way Arkansas can depend on Mississippi to make it look less poor.

It’s not, of course, about qualifications or experience, though the rigid right and duds à-la-Miers (think Thomas again) can make it seem that way. You expect that the nominees will be stellar. You expect that they’ll be brilliant. You expect that they’ll have the deepest judicial experience possible at mid-career. It’s only when the most skillful administration in history to wield the smokescreen of low expectations blows smoke again, as it did with Miers, that a brilliant and intelligent nominee somehow seems like an extraordinary gift the Senate and the electorate should feel privileged to accept, endorse, adore. It all helps keep the lid on the more explosive issues, the only issues that really  matters with a nomination to the court: the individual’s judicial philosophy and temperament. In those regards Alito’s seem perfectly legitimate in and of themselves. But it’s not the “in and of themselves” qualities that should decide an appointment to the court (though those qualities and the politics of the moment always do), or at least inform the criticism of those appointments. It’s how the appointment would affect the nation’s laws, what direction the nation is bound to take as a consequence of the appointment. Put aside Roberts and Alito. The direction the nation has taken, in large part thanks to the court since the mid-1980s (when, with O’Connor’s blessing, the drug-war-induced shades of a police state first emerged, go-go federalism burst its first buds and power won out over individualism) has been reactionary-bound. It never made it, quite. It is certain to do so now. For that’s the secret of neo-federalism: Its intentions aren’t to give back to the states the power the federal government has allegedly usurped. That assumes that the regulatory state of the New Deal was an imposition on individuals rather than a leveler, a check on corporate and state power. Federalism’s intentions is to do away with those checks and, in the name of states’ rights (of local and state indifference allied with federal “restraint”) to let power be. Scalia, Roberts, Thomas, Alito: These are the new oligarchs, our not-always secular mullahs on a crusade to remake American law in the 1920s’ image of Taft-like corporate corpulence and federal indifference to anything that stands in the way of power and lucre. And we’re about to grow old with them.

Sunday, October 30, 2005