Thursday, December 01, 2005

Strategy for Victory: "Surrender with Honor"

The substance of the President's speech and his “strategy for victory” reveals a staggering disconnect from reality and reliance on Lyndon Johnson- and Nixon-like projections of costless optimism that have the feel of a game of Risk, but played by cruel Roman legionnaires: Their game pieces are flesh and blood GIs and Iraqis. For now, Bush’s “strategy for victory” is designed to delay the inevitable and give the United States a form of “withdrawal with honor.” That’s all the strategy is about. The war itself is lost. So is Iraq . On Wednesday, President Bush surrendered, and submitted a thirty-five page plan of retreat. It was ghost-written by John P. Murtha. Read the full article...

Bush, T.E. Lawrence, and the Bible

The thirty-eight page “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq” is a pamphlet of hallucinations crammed with in-your-face Biblical allusions and colonially Freudian slips. The appendix is called—and this is, unfortunately, no joke, and no laughing matter—“The Eight Pillars.” Whoever wrote this wanted to one-up both the Book of Proverbs and T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. Read the full article...

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Woody Allen's December

A Peter Biskind profile of Woody Allen in the December issue of Vanity Fair ("Reconstructing Woody," with pictures by Annie Leibovitz) is dubbed by the magazine as "his first exhaustive interview in years." It has the feel instead of so many of Allen’s movies of the last ten years — never dull but thin and shruggable. We find out that “Aging is a terrible thing,” in Allen’s words (he turns 70 on Thursday), but that and what follows has nothing of the revealing about it: “The diminution of options and opportunities. It’s all just bad news. You deteriorate physically and die! I was an extremely good athlete as a child. I can’t maintain that. I mean, my eyesight is not anywhere near as good. I’ve lost some of my hearing.” This is the sort of thing you expect to hear on a middling talk show on the WB channel at 3 p.m., not from the man Vincent Canby (the late New York Times film critic) once called “our premier filmmaker” and ranked alongside Luis Buñuel and Buster Keaton. But like some of those Allen films that seem to drag a bit, the Allen quote gets better: “All the crap that they tell you about—you know, dandling your grandchildren on your knee, and getting joy, and having a kind of wisdom in your golden years — it’s all tripe. I’ve gained no wisdom, no insight, no mellowing. I would make all the same mistakes again, today.” Christopher Lasch once noted that “to think of wisdom purely as a consolation divests it of any larger meaning or value. The real value of accumulated wisdom of a lifetime is that it can be handed to future generations.” Allen doesn’t seem to find either necessity or joy in passing on that sort of wisdom, though his movies once did, until the scandal with Mia Farrow. He left nude pictures of Soon-Yi Previn, Farrow's daughter (with Andre Previn) on the living room mantle, where, lucky for him, Mia Farrow found them. He calls it “one of the fortuitous events, one of the greatest pieces of luck in my life.” Lurid scandal, divorce, lost custody of children, all of it culminating, besides his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, in the June 5, 2002 article in the New York Times (“Curse of the Jaded Audience: Woody Allen, in Art and Life”) essentially burying his career.

Despite the divorce we find out that Allen’s first choice for one of the leads in Mighty Aphrodite in 1994 was Mia Farrow, because he doesn’t care who gets the parts as long as it’s the right person for the job: “I wouldn’t put, you know, Herman Göring in a part, but short of Nuremberg crimes…” Celebrity profiles are by nature more gruel than substance, so the article’s quality inevitably dovetails Allen’s thinness with pat observations from the Celebrity Profile slush pile (“Even those who have worked with him closely don’t pretend to understand him,” “He is still claustrophobic and agoraphobic,” “he can’t help but pierce the darkness of advancing age with a frail ray of light”), leaving to the end a couple of curious bits of information: the biggest box-office grosser in Allen’s career was Hannah and Her Sisters, at $40 million in domestic ticket sales, while his more recent movies’ tackes have been around $5 million. Woody Allen himself has supposedly never made it very big, money-wise, though big enough to buy a $17.9 million Manhattan townhouse in 1999 and sell it five years later for $24 million: “I’ve made more money in real estate than I’ve ever made from movies.” Peter Biskind, article’s author, is cheerleading for Allen’s next movie, Match Point, despite the movie’s pessimism. It reflects, Allen says, “the enormous unfairness of the world, the enormous injustice of the world, the sense that every day people get away with the worst kind of crimes.” As for himself, Allen expects, or hopes, that family heredity will keep him “able to make films for another 17 years.” Given the dearth of interesting film-makers out there, the prospect isn’t a terribly bad one. But keep the private life where it belongs: out of our way, and back into that obscurity Woody Allen intuitively seeks out, for good reason.

Harper's Chief Justice Quits

Supreme Court seats are changing hands (or cheeks), which is worrisome enough. But Harper’s Magazine is, too. After thirty-odd years editing the last liberal monthly of any stature (minus a brief interruption) Lewis Lapham stepping down is like William Brennan retiring from the Supreme Court in 1990 (after thirty-three years that had him rubbing robes with Justice Harlan in the 1950s all the way to Antonin Scalia beginning in 1986), or like William Buckley doing the same from National Review’s pillories last year. Liberalism is not losing Lapham’s voice quite yet. He’ll continue to write his monthly column. But one wonders whether his Texan replacement will preserve Harper’s unapologetically liberal philosophy or fall prey instead to the soft porn of moderate miasmas that please the establishment and its conservative silencers, because it would mean that one more organ of enlightened skepticism will have been neutered. That miasmic middle is where most of the bien pensants readers and their advertisers are, it’s where ideas croak so the business can survive, where intellect’s creative insurrections give way to shareholders’ law and order and their many cloned spin-offs. It happened to Esquire in the 1970s, to the New Republic in the 1980s, to the New Yorker in the 1990s (it never needed to happen to the Atlantic, which only posed as a liberal magazine for a few years before submitting immoderately to middle-of-the-roadism in the 1980s). It hasn’t yet happened to The Nation, and maybe the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which owns Harper’s, won’t let it be so commonly fouled: The foundation saved Harper’s from the grave in 1980. It’s not likely to dig one for it now, although one of the MacArthurs is sending a grating signal: “I think it is very important to ramp up the journalism in the magazine and develop a more serious presence in Washington,” he tells the New York Times. The last thing American journalism needs, it seems to me, is more journalists in the Washington feedlot. Harper’s has done well to send its journalists away from the Beltway. It’s what’s kept its eyes seeing more clearly, its writing more compelling, its datelines more relevant. Let’s hope that’s not about to change. But you can hear the voices of pseudo-liberalism snapping at the old magazine every chance they get.

Five years ago when Lapham was celebrating Harper’s 150th anniversary, the New York Times featured the occasion, but not without the obligatory slap from 43rd Street: “While Harper's remains a significant voice, it is not the kind of red-hot, must-read magazine that, say, Smart Set was in the late 1920's and 30's, when that publication served as a platform for the literary antics of Mencken and George Jean Nathan. Nor is it in the same league as The New Yorker of the early 60's, which set the nation's intellectual agenda with seminal articles like Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" and James Baldwin's "Fire Next Time."” (The Times later corrected itself, Mencken and Nathan having left Smart Set in 1923 to start their American Mercury, making the Times’ judgment both moot and silly, but the slap smarts no matter how much you apologize for it). The Times is at it again in tomorrow’s editions, in the article announcing the elevation of Roger Hodge to executive editor, beginning with that tendentious phrase of the ideologically correct, left-leaning. It’s as if the Times fears the word liberal, or fears being associated with such a left-leaning publication as Harper’s by identifying it, as the Times is so often (and so wrongly) identified, as liberal: “The left-leaning Harper’s… is selling better on the newsstand than it has in 20 years, in part because it tends to dish up the kind of stories that attract people who are unhappy with the Bush administration. It may be a viable journalistic niche, but the magazine is not a threat to become a business, or at least one that makes money, anytime soon.” Note as well the dish up (a derogatory association with gossip and muckraking rather than serious journalism), the condescension of that  may be a viable journalistic niche, to say nothing of the word niche itself (this for a magazine circulation of 227,000, as the third-from-last paragraph finally reveals, making it hardly a niche, considering that the Times, a daily, draws just four times that many, and falling), and finally that crescendo of punches, not a threat to become a business, or at least one that makes money, anytime soon.  One, two, three. With friends like these, it’s a wonder Harper’s has survived this long. But maybe it has done so because it has something so rare in modern publishing, at least in such rich quantities—that something Rebecca West pointed out in the centennial issue of the magazine: “The consistent character which Harper’s has maintained through the century—it is as like itself as a man is at different stages of a highly accidented life—suggests that integrity is something which one can count on to be shown by some people in vastly different circumstances; and an agreeable flavor about that character suggests that maybe these people cultivate integrity because they find it fun.”

Intellect, integrity, fun: Now there’s an original formula for a magazine. Going strong at 155. Keep it going, Hodge.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Iraq's Twin Generals

I was researching next Tuesday's column when I came across a few interesting bits about Hussein Kamal, the name and darkish legend, or living dead. This is the Iraqi defector who, in 1995, told the United Nations that all of Iraq's WMD stockpiles were destroyed. This is the guy who was Saddam's cousin, who married one of Saddam's daughters, who founded the Republican Guard, who was one of Iraq's intelligence dons, who headed the country's fearsome "Amn el Khass" secret police, who was reportedly seen shooting people at random during the 1991 Shiite insurrection in southern Iraq, and who ran the country's weapons procurement program. He defected to Jordan with his brother in '95. Six months later they returned to Baghdad, lured there by one of Hussein's sons with promises of love and friendship, only to be killed in a Wild-Bunch like gun battle, minus the Sam Peckinpah footage. He was known as Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal, or Kamel (the spellings are notoriously interchanged in western press reports). The name, if not quite the person, reemerged two weeks ago: Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal, deputy interior minister, chief of intelligence (like every other minister and sub-minister in present-day Iraq, because nothing really changes), and so on. He was the one quoted about how outraged the Iraqi government was to have found torture chambers run under its nose.

I'm not into conspiracy theories, but the similarities between the two Kamals were too tantalizing. And if "Hussein" and "Kamal" are as common in Iraq as Tom and Dick in Iowa, their combination is not as common, and the prevalence of Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamals in an Iraq where both major generals and the military are endangered species seemed just a bit odd to pass over unnoticed. It would help if the Iraqi government web site provided biographies of its ex-mobsters. We know, for example, that the actual interior minister, Bayan Jabr, has a closetfull of skeletons to which he keeps adding with glee and rhetorical lime: A couple of days after the discovery of the den of torture run by a militia with his fingerprints all over it, he was calling the allegations of widespread torture "untrue and inaccurate." To be sure, Iraqi ministers' definition of torture is cribbed from that of Dick Cheney and our Department of Justice. And Jabr's words were cribbed from President Bush's: "I reject torture," he said, proving how well he'd been watching Bush's televised speech on the subject a few days earlier, "and anyone found guilty of that will be punished." So any reassurance that the Iraqi government isn’t involved in torture is wildly exaggerated. But Jabr’s past history is one of the few that can be parsed easily, Knight Ridder having done its homework on the guy. The same can’t be said for other ministers and subministers, like Kamal and his former lives: There is a ministers' page on the Iraqi government's web site. But the entire site's English version was last updated in September ("The Iraqi PM announces a three day moaning on the victims of the Khadmia Bridge"). And the ministers' page is, has been, and apparently will remain, "under construction." Perhaps that’s a telling enough biography of Iraq and its ministers, construction sites being mobsters’ natural work environment.

Candide's Notebooks: The Full Monty

The blog's parent web site is finally up. Have a look.

White House Suicide Mission

" 'You're either with us or you're against us.' One question has never been heard as openly: Is it possible to be neither with "us" nor with the terrorists? Even if the question hasn't been asked, a world of realities have answered it loudly and embarrassingly for the United States: It is possible to be on neither side of Bush's black-and-white divide. For most nations, and for a growing segment of the American public, it has become the Third Way of choice: Neither with the terrorists nor for Bush's vague and endless wars. Yet the Bush White House is hunkering down, admitting no mistakes, insulting dissenters and personalizing a mantra that has served the country, and the world, so poorly: 'You're either with us or against us.' This is not a world view. It's not leadership. It's a suicide mission, with a nation strapped to the White House." Read the Daytona Beach News-Journal's full editorial from today's editions...

Semper Dick

[From our own Bruce Beattie at the News-Journal]