Saturday, December 30, 2006

Sic Semper Tyrannus, Baby

Our public intellectuals are struggling to explain Saddam’s demise to us folks in the bleachers. This is important to them, because they think that we believe everything they tell us.

Historical parallels with Nuremberg have been suggested. But Saddam’s situation was nothing like that of the Nuremberg defendants. They were tried by a multinational court (not an international court as it is often miscalled) which employed unique and unprecedented legal procedures. The Soviet members of that court were unabashedly prejudiced against the defendants, and voted to convict and execute nearly all of them – they even insisted on charging them with a crime the Soviets themselves had committed: the Katyn Forest Massacre. (Much to the annoyance of our gallant Soviet allies, the Nuremberg defendants were exonerated on that particular charge.)

Saddam, on the other hand, was convicted of pure and simple murder by a national court of his own countrymen. Although it is characterized as a “war crime” or a “crime against humanity”, those terms are mostly rhetorical. These abstract definitions were introduced by Nuremberg in order to establish an unusual culpability, but they were unnecessary in Saddam’s case. Saddam was convicted of the murder of specific people, for which he was directly responsible. No one can claim he was subjected to any kind of “Victor’s Justice”.

What makes Saddam’s case unusual is that a dictator was deposed, tried in a court of law by his own people, and humanely executed. This is far from being typical. Most fallen dictators escape into exile; if they are captured, they are dealt with in a summary and often brutal fashion. Mussolini and Ceausescu were shot after being sentenced by tribunals that convened just long enough to pronounce the death sentence.

Slobodan Milosevic was not a dictator of Saddam’s stature, but his fate was exactly what some liberals would have awarded to Saddam. He was trundled through an international trial at the Hague, which was magnificently bungled, and finally died in custody. Until the day they die, his partisans will believe that he was murdered in prison, just as Napoleon’s followers did. Just as radical leftists believed that the Baader-Meinhof terrorists were murdered in prison. There’s a lesson in that, boys and girls. You don’t get a single iota of credit from the enemy for coddling their heroes. Unless we had figured out a way to make Saddam Hussein live forever, we’d get blamed for killing him anyway.

Unfortunately, the most typical career trajectory of all for a dictator is this: kill your enemies, loot your country, bask in the absurd flattery of your foreign apologists, and die in your bed at a ripe old age. The number of dictators who manage to do this is obscene.

When historians look back on us, they won’t be shocked at the one dictator that got hanged, but at the scores of them that weren’t. How, they will ask, could we believe that the life of one brutal man is worth more than the life of an entire nation - decimated, enslaved, and robbed of decades of normal human existence? Could there be a greater crime than inflicting the living death of totalitarianism on millions of people?

Tyranny, lay thy foundations sure, for goodness dare not check thee – but maybe the times are changing.

Monday, December 25, 2006


So, how was your Christmas? Tired of hearing that? Tired of explaining how the cat climbed the Christmas tree and knocked it over on top of your aunt, and how the kids poured the punch bowl down the laundry chute? If people insist on sticking their noses into your Christmas business, pick one of the following lies and see if they ever ask you about your holiday again.


An old friend you haven’t heard from in years invites you to spend Christmas with him, on his 200-foot yacht anchored off the Florida Keys. He’s a major investment broker and all of his best clients are on board for the holiday, including Nicole Kidman, Richard Petty, and the Beach Boys. The Braes of Glenlivet send a boatload of French Oak Reserve as a Christmas present.

The party is so great that people from the Keys try to swim out to the ship, but a nasty rip current keeps the crashers at bay. You see Katie Couric clinging to a lounge chair, just before a freakish three foot swell hurls her back onto the beach.

On Christmas morning you are awakened by the Coast Guard, who are responding to noise complaints from the US Naval Station at Guantanamo. Fortunately, the anchor cable parted during the festivities and the yacht has drifted out past the three-mile limit. Unable to arrest you, the Coast Guard joins the party.

On the way back, the Coast Guard offers to race you with their cutter. Your friend has had so much to drink that he’s sneezing Egg Nog, and when he declines the Coast Guard makes chicken-clucking noises at you. So you take the helm, and totally make that cutter eat your wake.


You were just about to sit down to turkey and cranberry sauce with the whole family, when you get an urgent call from your best buddy. He’s been trying to repossess Burt Reynolds’ car for six weeks with no luck, and the finance company has been slam-dancing on his butt. He’s finally located the car, parked in front of Burt’s lawyer’s house in Oakland. He wants you to drive him out there so he can nab it. He knows it’s Christmas Eve and he wouldn’t ask if you weren’t such a great friend, but damn it, he needs you.

So you and your friend head out to Oakland in your Dodge Viper. Sure enough, there’s the lawyer’s house and there’s the car: a twelve-cylinder Pagani Zonda. Even before the car comes into view you can smell the analine leather interior, and see the bottle-fly green paint job reflected in the night sky like the Aurora Borealis.

Unfortunately, there’s lots of other cars parked there, too, and an under-strength platoon of bodyguards are walking around with MAC-10 submachine guns in full view. “Don’t worry,” your friend assures you. “We’ll do this fast. Just follow me. No matter what happens or where I go, just stay on my tail lights.”

Your friend rolls out in the alleyway and jacks that Pagani right out from under their noses. As he speeds away and you pull out to follow, you can see the security guys piling into their Cadillacs, which you figure are probably armored and relatively slow. As long as you stick to the upscale residential areas they won’t be able to shoot at you very much.

So you head south out of Oakland faster than a raped ape, and you start getting the idea that the Pagani is a little too much for your friend to handle, because he's bobbing and weaving all over the road. (Later you will learn that he had to break off the wheel to jack the car, and he's trying to steer it with a pair of Vise-Grips.) Finally he misses a curve completely and goes tear-assing right through somebody's huge Christmas display. You ramp the curb and follow him, figuring that he did it on purpose to throw off your pursuers. So now you're crashing through a fake Winter Wonderland, dragging strings of lights and the lower torso of Frosty the Snowman behind you, when a life-size Santa sleigh with all twelve reindeer looms in front of you. Guiding the sleigh is a kangaroo with a blinking red Rudolph nose. You figure it's just plastic, and it's too late to swerve anyway, so you punch it.

Big mistake. The damn thing is mounted on a steel and concrete framework. You ramp five feet into the air as your undercarriage is shredded like cheese in a grater right under your butt. When you come down again all four of your tires are flat, so you sled along in the grass until enough turf piles up to bring you to a stop, leaving a forty-foot smoldering trail of oil and transmission fluid behind you.

You friend doubles back and scoops you up. Shaking the last of your pursuers, you finally roll into the repo yard, where an angry confrontation ensues between your friend, the finance company, the Alameda County Sheriff's Department, and - for some reason - Mel Gibson's groundskeeper.

Just as there seems to be no hope for Peace on Earth, in walks Burt Reynolds. Burt takes full responsibility for the entire incident, apologizes to the finance company for falling behind on the payments, and he writes them out a fat check right then and there. He also promises to buy you a new Dodge Viper.

"Merry Christmas, everybody," Burt Reynolds says.

"God bless us, every one," you add, and the guys from the finance company start crying.

You all pile into the Pagani and head to Union City for pancakes. You get pulled over three times on the way, and Burt Reynolds talks the Chips out of giving you a ticket every single time.


It's Christmas Eve and your relatives are due to arrive any minute, so your wife dispatches you on an emergency run for last-minute relative supplies: deodorant, Kaopectate, beer, and cheap Frothy Sputum champagne. But on the way home, while you're waiting at a stop light, two guys run out into traffic and jump into the back of your Buick. One of them sticks a gun in your ear and says, "Drive!"

You quickly calculate that you can't unbuckle your seat belt and kick their butts before they shoot you, so you drive. As you head down the road, they explain the situation to you. They are contract agents for the CIA. Top Secret intercepts have just revealed that former President Jimmy Carter is a commie-terrorist spy. They apologize and promise that they will not expose you to any more danger than is absolutely necessary, but national security demands that they commandeer you and your vehicle to drive them to Atlanta, Georgia. They have to watergate the Jimmy Carter Library and secure vital evidence.

So you drive all night to Atlanta, singing Handel's Messiah, with the CIA guys backing you up on the chorus parts. You know you sound really great, too, because everybody you pass is honking and blinking their lights at you. The beer runs out on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon line, but miraculously you find a liquor store in Georgia that's open. This reminds you of the very first Christmas, when Joseph managed to find an open manger in Bethlehem. It's like history repeating itself.

A few hours before dawn you reach the Jimmy Carter Library, which looks like a UFO that crash-landed on a Greek ruin. Security is totally pathetic and you easily breach the north perimeter of the compound. Your target is the Arafat Microfiche Vault on the lower level, so one of the CIA agents kicks in a basement window with his cowboy boots and you're in like Flynn. Everything is going according to plan until you turn a corner and run face-first into a totally naked woman, who starts screaming her enormous lungs out.

As luck would have it, the General Reference staff is having an unauthorized Christmas party on the premises, complete with strippers and a brass band in Santa suits. Fortunately the CIA has professional expertise in these matters, and the agents quickly figure out a way to turn this unexpected setback to your advantage. They explain to the naked woman that the three of you are also festive librarians, who just ran out to get more Frothy Sputum. You infiltrate the party for the next several hours, while the CIA guys stuff microfiche into empty champagne cases.

As you're trying to find your car the next day, who should you run into but Jimmy Carter! Carter tells you that he is on his way out of the country for good, and he just stopped by the library to get some Chapstick he left in the restroom. The former president sadly explains that he is tired of being an outrage to decent folk everywhere, and he has decided to spend the rest of his life in Tibet, bugging the Chinese. Before he goes to Tibet, however, he plans to address a special session of the Knesset, in which he will apologize to the entire human race for being such a jerk.

You give Carter a ride to the airport, and he pays for the gas. Plus, you get a fat reimbursement from the CIA for the use of your vehicle, including a triple per diem for both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. You wind up making over $1500 out of the whole deal.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Infantile Liberalism Vs. Mary Cheney’s Baby

This is what I get for being on the New Republic’s e-mail list. An idiot-gram entitled “Mary Cheney’s Baby”:
Dick Cheney's daughter is an open lesbian-and now she is pregnant. Her presence would seem to pose a problem for conservatives. How can they decry gay unions and then fail to decry Mary Cheney's lifestyle? In this week's cover story Andrew Sullivan explores the conundrum represented by Mary Cheney and then dissects the conservative reaction to her pregnancy.
Here is my open letter of retaliation:
Dear TNR:

I did not know that Mary Cheney was going to have a baby. Still less did I know that this baby presented a personal problem for me – a conundrum, no less. In a time of war and momentous ideological struggle, thank you for taking a moment to warn me of this fresh unforeseen threat. Forgive me if my reaction seems ungrateful.

Mary Cheney’s baby is none of your damn business. Who the hell do you people think you are, the Gay Standards & Practices Committee? Why don’t you keep your sheet-sniffing ferret noses out of other peoples’ laundry?

However many things I have failed to decry in this life, and however profound my baby-induced existential crisis is, I must decline your offer to have Andrew Sullivan dissect me for nine bucks and some change. In fact, if Andrew is looking for something to do, why don’t you tell him to get his own head and ass wired back together into some kind of functional apparatus? If he did he might start making occasional sense again.

Feel free to contact me if you have anything to say that isn’t utterly moronic.
It’s not the fact that the New Republic has decided to pester a baby that makes me mad, per se. It’s the fact that so many responsible liberals, for whom TNR once served as a flag ship, still insist on retreating into frivolities like this one. It is for this reason that our Popular Front against terrorism, which held so much promise a few years ago, has so far failed to keep that promise.

Not everybody turned out to be a gutless wonder, of course. Democrats, liberals, and even the left have contributed some real paladins to this fight. Their efficacy is demonstrated by the hysterical hatred that the anti-American mosh pit shrieks at them. Their moral courage is second to nobody’s.

But for too many, the petty little world of Democrats and Republicans - locked in eternal metaphysical struggle over some stupid-ass remark somebody made on Face the Nation last week – remains the ruling paradigm. Everything else is unserious.

We’ll get to Appomattox some day. Right now we’re still in a bar in Washington after First Bull Run, bitching at each other like cranky children.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Robert Altman's Latest Death Trip

There aren't too many directors I would immediately recognize if I walked into the middle of one of their films, but there are a few. If two characters use the word "n-gger" thirty-seven times in one conversation, it's Quentin Tarantino. If David Mamet's wife is in it, it's David Mamet. If I've already seen it, it's Joel and Ethan Coen. And if it has a HUGE ensemble cast of utterly unsympathetic characters, zero plot, and is totally devoid of anything resembling either comedy or drama, it's Robert Altman. And even though I've walked into the middle of it, it's probably going to last another three hours.

I'd like to salvage something from all the hours of Robert Altman I've seen, but it's not going to be easy. Start with his most popular film, M*A*S*H. M*A*S*H is, in fact, a perfectly vile piece of work. It's cynical, mean-spirited, misogynistic, and doesn't have three jokes in it that are actually funny. The idea of a comedy set in a blood-soaked surgery in Korea is supposed to be a fine artistic juxtaposition, I suppose. But the endless television series that followed proved that a military surgery is no different from a Boston bar, or Seinfeld's living room. And it's disturbing how easily the corrupt and cynical characters of the film were so easily transformed into conventional Hollywood liberals on television. Just as the dismal, barren scrub hills of Korea were perfectly mimicked by the dismal, barren scrub hills of central California. Overall the effect is ultimately depressing, but being depressing is not the same thing as being profound.

Moving right along to Altman's critical masterpiece, Nashville. Here we are invited to think that we are experiencing a parody - of Nashville, of course, but Nashville as an effigy of Amerika. The clues start right at the beginning with the first of the hundred characters we'll meet: Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a nudie-suit nightmare with Elvis hair who is in his studio recording a bicentennial song called "We Must Be Doing Something Right (To Have Lasted 200 Years)". This is a canned-laughter cue for liberals to jerk their knees - patriotic country music? Bleeeech! Afterwards Haven warns his piano player to get a haircut. "You don't belong in Nashville (Amerika)." Once again Altman picks a big, fat, slow-moving bogeyman and aims low.

Maybe I'm reading too much into Nashville. Or too little. At the end of the film, singer Barbara Jean (a Loretta Lynn stand-in, played by Ronee Blakely) is senselessly gunned down during a performance by a guy who looks like Clark Kent. "Thank yuh, thet song was fer Mommy an' Daddy ---" BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! A hippy and a soldier wrestle Clark Kent to the ground. As Loretta Lynn's body is carted off the stage, Barbara Harris takes the microphone and sings a pretty, meaningless tune: "You may say that I ain't free, but it don't worry me." Everybody happily claps and sings along. Roll the credits.

That has to mean something, right? After all, Nashville was nominated for four Oscars in 1975, and is a perfect fossilized specimen of the Seventies: brainless music, brainless clothes, brainless art, high gas prices, Arabs running amok, crazed gunmen running amok, Jimmy Carter running amok, cynical films with no plot - okay, maybe that's what's happening right now. Maybe that makes it prophetic, or timeless. I find it hard to care. I just want my six hours back - at least, it seemed like six hours. Maybe I want that whole decade of my childhood back, without the sordid details. Without this goddamn picture in the middle of it.

But I gave Altman another chance, with Short Cuts. When dealing with a Robert Altman film, it's best to focus on one of the thirty different storylines and spend the rest of the time taking cigarette breaks and replenishing the Milk Duds supply. The part of the film I chose to watch dealt with a small boy who is accidently hit by a car (driven by Lily Tomlin). The boy seems to be unhurt, but he collapses a short time later and eventually dies. This unpleasantness is reinforced by the appearance of the boy's grandfather (Jack Lemmon), a painful failure of a man who threw his life away with a marital infidelity, and by a twisted pastry chef (Lyle Lovett, minus the Large Band) who harasses the dying boy's mother with nasty phone calls. All of this is every bit as much fun as it sounds, and I don't know if I can take any more cinematic experiences like that one.

Ingmar Bergman supposedly said, "I could always live in my art, but never in my life." I guess Altman finally achieved in his life what he did in his art: Death by sheer indifference. I can't think it will be much of a change for him. Resquiat in Pacem, friend.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

What is Truthiness?

SOCRATES: Glen, Crito and I beg you to join our discussion, and enlighten us on a subject that has puzzled us both. What is “truthiness”?

GLEN: Well, first of all, it’s a fad word with more style than substance. But so far as I can tell, something has “truthiness” if it seems to be true in some way that is intuitive or emotional, but not proven by evidence or reason.

SOCRATES: Hmmm. Then I beg you to excuse me, for I must be dreadfully ignorant …

CRITO: Very true, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Shut your pie hole, you idiot. You’re supposed to say “very true” when I say something that actually is true, not when I’m engaging in self-deprecation for rhetorical effect.

CRITO: When you say something that is true, or something that has “truthiness”?

GLEN: Could we skip the rhetorical effects for once? Just get to the point.

SOCRATES: Very well. This quality of “truthiness” that you describe – it differs from truth in that it is neither a self-evident fact, nor is it deduced by logic?

GLEN: That’s right.

SOCRATES: And yet, if a person perceives “truthiness”, he perceives something that appeals to him in some manner that reason cannot explain?

GLEN: Yes.

SOCRATES: And he judges this to be good, though he cannot prove why?

GLEN: I suppose so.

SOCRATES: Then once again I have confirmed by belief that Americans have no appreciation for beauty. For is it not obvious that this “truthiness” is none other than the quality of being beautiful? All civilized people understand what beauty is, but Americans are so ignorant of beauty that they must invent ugly words to describe its effects, on those rare occasions when beauty penetrates their petrified senses.

CRITO: So truthiness is beauty, and beauty, truthiness? Am I supposed to say “very true” now, or are you still pretending to be stupid?

GLEN: Pretending or not, he’s dead wrong.

SOCRATES: How am I wrong?

GLEN: Because “truthiness” doesn’t appeal just to sensuality. It also appeals to ignorance, bigotry, and malice. People see truthiness in things they want to believe, and lots of people want to believe the worst. People love to believe in conspiracies and immanent disasters, and all kinds of sordid things that are not at all beautiful.

CRITO: Unless they perceive some kind of bizarre beauty in such things. A sort of “beautiness”.

GLEN: Beautiness?

SOCRATES: I think Crito has had one of his occasional rear-end collisions with truth. For if truthiness exists, the analogous quality of beautiness must exist also. In fact, isn’t the entire American aesthetic founded on beautiness? Americans are repelled by any refined expression of beauty, finding all such poetry and music to be nothing but noise and nonsense. They want extravagant spectacles of color and sound, orgies of violence and pornography, and they reject as pretentious anything that rises above the lowest common sentiment. They want counterfeit beauty, to go along with their counterfeit truth.

GLEN: You’re one to talk. If we had any artists in this country, you’d be all for shipping them to Guantanamo.

SOCRATES: All I’ve ever asked of artists is that they serve the civic and ethical purpose of society, which of course they won’t do. But your Republic has done an admirable job of exterminating them. And your bogus artists serve the purpose of your culture very well, since that purpose seems to be sado-masochistic nihilism. They couldn’t be greater patriots.

GLEN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I still don’t know what you mean by “beautiness”.

CRITO: It’s like the time that Sappho went to Fort Lauderdale. She hit on this chick in a bar, only it turned out that the chick was a guy wearing a dress.

GLEN: So beautiness is like a guy wearing a dress.

SOCRATES: Not a very elegant analogy, but it has a kind of truthiness to it.