Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Songs for the end of summer


Where did John go, who once loved thee so,
Where did he go, gentle Jane?

Down to the sea and the Jolly Old Jack,
Then away like the wind and the rain.

What did John leave thee, ‘ere he did grieve thee?
What did he leave thee, poor Jane?

One sickly daughter with hair black as he,
Gone away like the wind and the rain.


John Bach was dead; the pastor's wife brought roses.
She wrapped the stems in a faded gray washrag.
The Masons tied on their white aprons
And the Legionnaires wore their garrison caps.
An Honor Guard fired cartridge blanks
While gophers ducked fearfully in the yellow grass
And rattlesnakes sank into holes under concrete.

John Bach knew pine buttes and wet tar roads.
He knew rotten gray trim around window panes.
John Bach knew swollen plywood sheets
When spring rain fell on unfinished houses,
And he knew blue snow in the early twilight.
He smelled casseroles in township halls,
And cigarette smoke under porch lights.

John Bach was photographed at birthday parties.
His red eyes look up from glass-covered coffee tables
And out of the black pages of water-stained albums.
Slide projectors flash his face on bare sheet rock.
John Bach had a rust-colored polyester shirt.
John Bach had a blue ceramic table lamp.
Bits of broken asphalt stuck to his boots.

John Bach felt the sharp pelting of grasshoppers.
He rested against pine headboards in hotel rooms
And balding velvet seats in distant picture-houses.
He tasted cold beer beside dark gravel roads.
John Bach had an orange and black vinyl couch
And a television set with three wooden legs.
Tiny white hailstones fell into his coat pockets.

John Bach had a shoebox full of greeting cards.
He liked vodka and apple cider at Thanksgiving
And telephone calls on Christmas morning.
John Bach knew spiderwebs in cinderblock crawlspaces
And tall kochia weeds at church picnics.
John Bach had a hollow plastic Santa Claus.
Birds drank from his empty ice cream buckets.


We took a stone that morning
in the cold green haze.
Lichen lives two thousand years.
I've lived two thousand days.

And yet I've had a year of days
in every tender touch.
Lichen may outlive me yet -
if so, then not by much.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Liberals for Iraq, No. 1: William Shawcross

Indeed those of us who opposed the American war in Indo-China should be extremely humble in the face of the appalling aftermath: a form of genocide in Cambodia and horrific tyranny in both Vietnam and Laos. Looking back on my own coverage for the Sunday Times of the South Vietnamese war effort of 1970-75, I think I concentrated too easily on the corruption and incompetence of the South Vietnamese and their American allies, was too ignorant of the inhuman Hanoi regime, and far too willing to believe that a victory by the communists would provide a better future. But after the communist victory came the refugees to Thailand and the floods of boat people desperately seeking to escape the Cambodian killing fields and the Vietnamese gulags. Their eloquent testimony should have put paid to all illusions.

WILLIAM SHAWCROSS (London Times, Dec. 16, 1994)

The lives that so many gave to create a new nation are now no more than ashes cast aside.

TRUONG NHU TANG, A Viet Cong Memoir

Pilate took water, and washed his hands before the multitude.


The bogus "lessons" of Vietnam die hard. They were still in full bloom in 1984, when I saw The Killing Fields, a gruesome depiction of one of the 20th century's greatest political massacres (Number 4, to be exact; top honors go to Stalin, Mao, and Hitler, respectively). The film did a good job of showing acres and acres of corpses, but a rotten job of explaining how they got there. It summed it up in one line delivered by Sam Waterston (as Sydney Schanberg) which blamed everything that happened in Cambodia on the "insanity" caused by the US bombing of Vietcong bases. That bit of analysis was borrowed from the book by William Shawcross, Sideshow. Thus did the film makers appease the leftists who were unhappy with a depiction of Communist atrocities. After all, this cheap rationalization is no different from the naked apologism that the likes of Noam Chomsky and John Pilger have been serving up for decades.

Mere liberals were more easily appeased, I suppose, by including John Lennon's goofball-utopian anthem "Imagine" as the film's trailer. Like getting a Hallmark Card after drinking a bucket of blood, one disgusted reviewer wrote. But somebody has got to market the soundtrack, after all.

Something happened to Shawcross over the next ten years, obviously. It couldn't have been the misery of Vietnam and the flood of refugees that hemorrhaged forth from it. That was conspicuous many years before The Killing Fields. Maybe it was a long overdue triumph of conscience over leftist reactionary politics. Shawcross was too smart to believe that the Khmer Rouge leaders learned their murderous ideology from a B-52 bomber, and not from studying Marxism at the Sorbonne. Eventually he was too honest to go on pretending to believe it. And the tragedy of Vietnam, as well, finally became too much to ignore.

It's safe to say that Chomsky and Pilger will never walk this Road to Damascus. Chomsky is too dishonest, and Pilger is just too pig ignorant.

It's too late for Vietnam, shamefully abandoned long ago. Or for Cambodia, which drank the last full measure of progressive wisdom and choked to death. They'll never get the last 30 years back. But it's not too late for Iraq, as Shawcross forthrightly argues in a new article in The American Spectator, Saddam Removal: Why the US had no alternative (excerpted from the new edition of his book Allies).

In this postscript to Allies, Shawcross confronts and stares down three hobgoblins of the Iraq war: 1) Abu Ghraib, 2) the origins of the so-called insurgency, and 3) the missing WMDs. His answers to all three are unflinching. They point to the present and to the future, not to the mangled past of Southeast Asia.

The Abu Ghraib incident - an inexcusable abuse by those who perpetrated it - does not show the depravity of the United States, but the unique democratic example of the United States. Shawcross agrees with Andre Glucksman, who wrote that Abu Ghraib shows the United States to be the world's "most exemplary" democracy. No other nation would have acknowledged and pursued these abuses to the extraordinary extent that we did, beginning with the Army CID, which brought charges against six perpetrators before anyone ever heard of Abu Ghraib. No other nation - certainly not the posturing French, who never indicted a single person for the horrific torture and state terrorism carried out in Algeria.

The selective indignation that followed Abu Ghraib does not excuse Abu Ghraib, but Shawcross points out that it speaks volumes about who Iraq's friends are:
... the new Iraqi minister for Human Rights criticized the abuses at Abu Ghraib, but asked where the Arab protest had been during the long Saddam years when Iraqis were being tortured to death.

The difference was also shown in the response to the abuses. Saddam murdered and tortured hundreds of thousands of people - millions, indeed, over decades with impunity. And with no consequences.
The anti-war position on the horror of Saddam's regime is: Nothing. Nothing but the chirping crickets that were heard when the Republic of Vietnam was thrown to the wolves, when Cambodia suffocated, when Cuba was handed over to a firing squad. The tree won't fall in the forest if you just close your eyes.

Shawcross is equally direct when dealing the sources of Islamic terror. Neither an isolationist US policy nor a Palestinian "solution" will appease the jihadists in the slightest, as their war is existential, not reactionary. For each step back we take, they will take two steps forward:
They live to kill. The most determined live to die. Or, perhaps more often, they brainwash others to do so ... That incitement, reiterated constantly in Arabic press and television, is at the root of such terrorism and to pretend otherwise is a hypocrisy and a delusion.
The anti-war position is the insistence that resisting terrorism breeds more terrorism. The old cynical European view was more honest: Resisting terrorism attracts the terrorist's attention. Leaving terrorism alone makes it more likely that the terrorist will kill someone else. Most likely a Jew or another Arab, but not one of our people.

In dealing with the WMD question, which has so completely deflated Liberalism's opposition to Saddam, Shawcross studies that great Rorschach blot, the Duelfer Report. He sees plain sense instead of endless opportunity for equivocation, however.
The combination of international terror and WMD poses an existential threat to the survival of free societies. We are fighting a third world war. In the case of Iraq, the possibility of a nonconventional attack might by 2003 have been low, but the price to be paid had one occurred would have been enormous.
I would add, we may still pay that price. But one potential vendor of doom is out of business for good.
Despite their critics' assertions, Bush and Blair did not lie when they said they believed that Saddam still had WMD.
On the contrary, it is those who continue to maintain this after the Duelfer Report that are lying. Not only lying about the intentions of Bush and Blair, but lying by maintaining the pretense that Saddam had no intention of developing WMDs. And lying by their appeal to European opinion, which, as Duelfer made clear, was being bought off in the most outrageous fashion by Saddam's plundering of the Oil for Food program.

Though Shawcross doesn't say so, that alone ought to have been causa belli. Threatening civilization is one thing. Buying civilization off like a crooked beat cop is something even worse. Ignoring such corruption is equally corrupt.

Shawcross speaks for a liberalism that hasn't yet sold its soul to cheap politicism. That liberalism is a small patch, but it may grow rather than shrink. It took thirty years to shake off bogus rationalizations about Vietnam, but this time the rotten indifference might not take root so easily. Where has all the Chomskyism gone? Long time passing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Pig Coitus Argument

I know we'll never get away with calling the guy a pig f--ker.
But let's make the son of a bitch deny it.


The situation is deceptively simple:

Mr. Ersatz, a resident of the state of Pseudonia, launches into a bitter public attack against the State Department of Transportation, the Pseudonian Highway Patrol, and - above all - Governor Crock, whom Mr. Ersatz accuses of nothing less than murder.

Putting it in the blandest possible terms (which The Bogus Tribune immediately proceeds to do): Ersatz is claiming that the state and the governor have neglected highway safety. Some agree with this generalization, others don't. As for the actual statements that Mr. Ersatz has made, some are debatable, others are demonstrably false. But all are accompanied by emotive and highly exaggerated rhetoric. Besides accusing Governor Crock of murder, Ersatz claims that state officials and highway patrolmen have engaged in criminal conspiracy, and implies that they want people to die on the highways.

These wild charges, in fact, are the only thing that distinguishes Mr. Ersatz from previous critics of highway safety in Pseudonia. Apart from that, Ersatz has nothing original to contribute to the debate. Ersatz, in fact, would be completed ignored by Crock supporters and critics alike, if it were not for the fact that Mr. Ersatz lost his four year-old daughter, who was killed in an accident caused by a drunken driver.

At a press conference, The Bogus Tribune pounds Governor Crock with questions about Mr. Ersatz. Forced to repeat the only possible response several times, Governor Crock expresses condolences to Mr. Ersatz for the loss of his daughter, and states as gently as possible that he "disagrees" with Mr. Ersatz on the issue of highway safety.

By this time all that can possibly be said about the case of Mr. Ersatz has been said, said, and said again. But Governor Crock's political enemies - even those who generally agree with him on highway policy - have taken a keen interest in Ersatz. They note with glee the embarrassment that the governor experiences when forced to respond to these savage accusations. They note that the governor is impaired in answering even the most absurd charges by the need to avoid appearing insensitive about the death of a four year-old child.

The Bogus Tribune editorializes: "The courage and integrity of one man has turned a floodlight on the incompetence, hypocrisy, and callousness of an entire administration. To be sure, Governor Crock has many aides to whom he can turn to for advice in his time of need. Mr. Ersatz has only his grief, and the humble wisdom that comes to a parent who has lost a beloved child. Can Crock's spin guru, Arlo Spoof, concoct something to counter that? We think not. We pray not."

And the website Crock Watch happily reports: "Governor Crock has the mental reflexes of a milk cow."

Ersatz is now in Crockville, camped out in front of the governor's mansion with a host of supporters. Many of them are people who have lost loved ones in highway accidents. White crosses representing the victims line the road, along with signs saying things like WHY DID U LET THESE POEPLE DIE CROCK? Media trucks, big as double-wide trailors, pull up one after another and disgorge their cargo. The besieged Mrs. Crock watches all of this from her bedroom window, ice clinking steadily as she puts away one gin martini after another. All the way down the hall, the cook can hear her swallow every gulp.

Rousing themselves, supporters of the governor start to speak out. Many of Ersatz's claims are ridiculous, they say. Like his claim that Pseudonia's highway policy was inspired by the film Road Warrior, for example. And they point out that many of the groups who have rallied to the cause are partisan and utterly irresponsible. Like the Crockville chapter of the Francis Bacon Society, for example.

The other side responds by attributing this criticism to a smear campaign against Mr. Ersatz, orchestrated by Arlo Spoof. "This is a smear campaign against Mr. Ersatz, orchestrated by Arlo Spoof," The Bogus Tribune says.

Ersatz is now the center of non-stop attention. To the media, he gives tearful and moving accounts of his daughter's death. To his supporters who rally daily, he supplies an ever-escalating dose of invective. Governor Crock is not only a murderer, but the worst murderer on earth. The Pseudonia Highway Patrol, who deliberately failed to save his daughter, are criminals and bandits. State Transportation officials are all Social Darwinists who laugh when little girls die. The state wants poor people to die so that rich people can have cheaper gasoline. And so on.

Ersatz is also demanding to meet personally with Governor Crock. The nature and intended result of this meeting is unclear, but the demand is incessant. "I just want the governor to sit down with me and look me in the eye," he says.

The Bogus Tribune agrees. "The governor should sit down with Mr. Ersatz and look him in the eye," they opine.

Crock's famed advisors are at wit's end. Even Spoof is stumped. "I don't know what we can do, chief. It's like an invisible monster is beating us to death with a bag of marshmallows. We need some more brains working on this."

In desperation, Spoof is dispatched to Pseudonia University for scholarly advice. Being in utter desperation, he is directed to the Department of Philosophy, headed by Doctor Ergo Plotz.

"Interesting situation," Plotz muses. "An impressive array of logical fallacies have been deployed here, including argumentum ad verecundiam and argumentum ad misercordiam. Probably also the inductive fallacy of the Unrepresentative Sample, and the fallacy of the Insignificant Cause. But these are all mere spitwads. The real problem is that you are the victim of what I call the Pig Coitus Argument."

"Okay, then," Spoof said. "What is the Pig Coitus Argument, professor, and how do we answer it?"

"Well, that's the problem. The whole point of the Pig Coitus Argument is that you can't answer it without looking like a jerk. The argument itself can take many forms, and its actual content is irrelevant. It can be openly absurd. But the very act of responding to it makes you look even more absurd - or ignorant, or cruel, or perverted, as the case may be."

Spoof slammed his fist on the table. "Damn it! This is so unfair! They hit us and we can't hit back!"

"You guys should have thought of that before you killed that little girl," Doctor Plotz replied.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

I Deconstruct Maureen Dowd Thusly

Maureen Dowd sucks. I don't mean she's a bad person. I mean she must literally suck, because it had to have taken an unimaginable amount of oral copulation to convince The New York Times that she was a good writer. There is no other explanation, because the theory that the NYT is secretly masterminded by Robert Reno, the half-wit brother of a former Attorney General, is inadequate to account for this degree of bad judgment.

Another theory is that you can get a job as a New York Times columnist if you collect enough coupons from their advertisers' products. So if you buy 3000 boxes of Mrs. Paul's Fish Stix (or some other combination of products) they'll move you into an office right next to Paul Krugman. And you can win an associate editor position as a prize in a bag of Frito Lay potato chips. Statistically, you would have to buy 20,000 bags of potato chips per week in order to have a 10% chance of winning, so it's not like it's easy to get a job as an associate editor at The New York Times. But I digress.

Getting back to Maureen Dowd: if she's ever written any influential columns I'm not aware of it, but she writes lots of notorious ones. The latest being Why No Tea and Sympathy? (titles are not a big plus for Dowd) with the now infamous sentence: "... the moral authority of parents who bury children killed in Iraq is absolute."

This is the last sentence in the column, and to get there you have to go through the choppy little paragraphs that Dowd spits out. This is as much fun as running over a series of road-killed armadillos. Except that the paragraphs have little relation to one another, so it's more like hitting an armadillo, a bag of soiled diapers, a swarm of honey bees, and finally an overturned lumber truck.

The fifth dead armadillo reads like this:
And the Rolling Stones have taken a rare break from sex odes to record an antiwar song called "Sweet Neo Con," chiding Condi Rice and Mr. Bush. "You call yourself a Christian; I call you a hypocrite," Mick Jagger sings.
Okay, so this isn't the worst writing in the world. Perfectly good enough for a college newspaper rant. "A rare break from sex odes" probably sounds like elegant prose to Dowd, but it tastes like turkey loaf. At least she didn't write "Mick Jagger croons". It would have been totally unbearable with crooning. She also refrained from describing Jagger as "thoughtful", or "poignant" - although I get the idea that she probably did exactly that, and her editor chopped it.

Of course, a smart columnist (whether left or right) would probably not have quoted this lyric without noting that Jagger is obviously unaware of the fact that most of the legendary neoconservatives are Jewish. Hell, Mike Royko - or any political writer worth their spit - would have known that. If Dowd had taken the opportunity to point this out, her column would have contained something that resembled an original thought. Editorialists are supposed to comment on things, wryly or pithily, not just repeat them. For example, Mike Royko would not have written:
It's amazing that the White House does not have the elementary shrewdness to have Mr. Bush simply walk down the driveway and hear the woman out, or invite her in for a cup of tea.
That sort of "elementary shrewdness" might work okay in a Jane Austen novel, but in the State of Texas, inviting someone into your house for "a cup of tea" is a good way to get shot. The correct etiquette would be for Bush to go out to see Cindy Sheehan with a six pack of beer. Maureen Dowd would probably be appalled - actually, she seems to be permanently appalled, so whatever the next higher stage of indignation is - if Bush offered Sheehan a cold one, and yet she thinks it's perfectly normal to have tea and danish with somebody who's accusing you of murder. Go figure.

Finally, the overturned lumber truck:
But his humanitarianism will remain inhumane as long as he fails to understand that the moral authority of parents who bury children killed in Iraq is absolute.
Now, this is not the sort of thing that a good columnist would say. This is the sort of thing that an incredibly stupid politician would say, and that a good columnist would rip him to pieces for. Great newspaper writers like H.L. Mencken did not go down in history for saying things like this. They went down in history for making people who say things like this wish that they'd never been born.

For example, here is Mencken in a 1921 column for the Baltimore Sun, doing to Woodrow Wilson what Dowd wants to do to Bush:
Woodrow knew how to conjure up words. He knew how to make them glow, and weep. He wasted no time on the heads of his dupes, but aimed directly at their ears, diaphragms and hearts.

But reading his speeches in cold blood offers a curious experience. It is difficult to believe that even idiots ever succumbed to such transparent contradictions, to such gaudy processions of mere counter-words, to so vast and obvious a nonsensicality.

When Wilson got upon his legs in those days he seems to have gone into a sort of a trance, with all the peculiar illusions and delusions that belong to a pedagogue gone mashugga ... The important thing is not that a popular orator should have uttered such vaporous and preposterous phrases, but that they should have been received, for weary years, by a whole race of men, some of them intelligent.
Now that's how they used to rip the Big Boys a new one, back in the days of halcyon yore. In our sad times, alas, the columnists rely on vaporous and preposterous phrases of their own. Observing Dowd vs. the "Unsweet Neo Cons", it's as if the Woodrow Wilsons and the H.L. Menckens have switched places. In a modern version of Citizen Kane, the whip-smart Charles Foster Kane would have Karl Rove's job, and his ignorant and loutish enemies would launch lame attacks on him in the newspapers.

Except that Dowd, no matter how vaporous, is no Woodrow Wilson. As Mencken wrote, Wilson could at least make words "glow and weep". Dowd just makes them squeak, like dog toys.