'/> Uncommon Hours: 2008
Blogging on culture, politics, and the environment since 2008.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Education of David Frost

Publicity photo for the Frost/Nixon interviews. [Source: London Times]

The Education of David Frost

by

Bob Sommer

The recent opening of Frost/Nixon coincided not only with the holidays but also with the legacy-building tour of President George W. Bush, who’s been scrambling like an undergraduate with a term paper due to paste together something resembling an honorable narrative about his disastrous presidency. He failed all the tests. Now the term paper is his last shot.

Among the many parallels between Bush and Nixon—from promoting and escalating unpopular wars to a near sociopathic fear of political opposition and dissent—is their exhaustive effort to create their own legacies, to scoop the historians and fill the space before they get to it (as if this were really possible for any president). Bush has the luxury of engineering his effort from the White House. Nixon, no such luck. The public didn’t want to hear from him once he wagged his last V signs from the helicopter door and took off. He was no longer newsworthy, and as a disgraced ex-president, he couldn’t get the kind of interviews he wanted, the Sarah Palin kind, in which he could ramble on without the “filter of the media”—that is, without the tough questions.

The gentlemanly, piano-playing Merv Griffin might have given Nixon the chance to redeem himself before the public—and Griffin would have paid for the privilege. But then, in 1977, three years after Nixon resigned his office, along came David Frost, the effervescent British dandy of television, offering over $600,000 for a series of now-famous interviews. So far afield was Frost from his mainstay of celebrity interviews and variety entertainment that legitimate news organizations would have nothing to do with him, so he invested personally in the project while scrambling to assemble both a production team and underwriters for the program.

Nixon is much with us in the era of Bush. It’s not too much to say—and I’m not the first to say it—that Bush is a direct descendent of Nixon. His political tactics are all-too familiar, and his hubris, like Nixon’s, sometimes resonates with the somber tones of Shakespearean tragedy. Most of the key elements of tragedy are present for both Nixon and Bush. They occupy positions of importance; they’re tragically flawed by pride and arrogance. The hero’s death as a result of his flaw is usually a requirement of tragedy, but the deaths of millions of innocents in wars they waged might easily stand in. Yet neither rises to the standard of Shakespearean tragedy for the simple reason that, unlike Macbeth or Othello or Lear, both Bush and Nixon are individually too small, and too sordid, for heroic stature. They may have been (and one still is) leaders of the free world—but their natures are finally petty, self-absorbed in ways that prevent them from falling from high places because they never really arrived there.

The great heroes of Shakespeare have a level of self-awareness, and self-examination, that is simply beyond the scope of either Nixon or Bush. Such traits lead to the final key element of the tragedy, which is recognition of their own flawed natures. Frost/Nixon opens with fragments of the infamous tapes revealing the level of Nixon’s involvement in the so-called “dirty tricks” of his administration. His nature is revealed as less vengeful than simply vindictive. His concern isn’t for matters of state but for underhanded tactics to destroy his political enemies. The closest Nixon comes to an apology in the interviews with David Frost is a classic political non-apology apology: “I let the American people down”—a phrase that comes not so much from the heart as from prompting by Frost.

Nixon agreed to be interviewed not only for money and to redeem his legacy, but because he also nurtured the faint hope that he might re-enter politics. Self-deluded might better describe him than self-aware. King Lear’s words to his daughter Cordelia—“When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down / And ask thee forgiveness.” (V, iii, 10-11)—are nowhere in the galaxy of Nixon’s imagination. Nor Bush’s, for that matter.

Frost’s interviews with Nixon ought to have filled a near-universal American need for catharsis. Indeed, the movie's climax is the one moment in which Nixon comes closest to uttering some admission of guilt, but his view of right and wrong—and of the Constitution!—is so distorted that we might almost be willing to grant him an insanity plea: “I'm saying that when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” The potential catharsis of this moment in Frost/Nixon is also flawed by the dramatic liberties of the movie itself, which is based on a successful stage play by Peter Morgan, now brought to the screen by director Ron Howard.

A telling sign that fiction has mixed freely with history was the audience laughter at the viewing I attended, often in response to some too finely crafted jokes. Despite an early sequence of newsreel footage of the carnage in Vietnam, the movie lacked a sense of the magnitude of Nixon’s crimes and their consequences—and thus why catharsis mattered. “Docudrama” is by its nature a confusing genre—neither fish nor fowl, and thus lacking a definable taste or substance. The high production values that Ron Howard brings to any project seemed almost distracting. Set moments that featured profiles of actor Frank Langella in startling likenesses of Nixon were undercut by dialogue that sometimes descended to mere sit-com punchlines: Nixon asking Frost if he’d been “fornicating,” for instance. Langella did a lot with what he was given, but the essential confusion about the movie's focus resulted in taking away one thing as soon as it gave another. The back story of these interviews told in a pure documentary fashion surely would have merited the kinds of accolades won by Al Gore for An Inconvenient Truth and Michael Moore for Fahrenheit 9/11.

The central story of this movie is the education of David Frost, an extraordinarily successful television entertainer, but no journalist—though the task, by his own standard, is not journalism but to reach as large an audience as possible and thus vault his career forward. The dramatic movement is toward Frost’s realization that there’s more at stake than ratings—and that he’s been played for a fool by Nixon. Frost has plenty of hubris of his own, dismissing research that his staff assembled at great effort—and more importantly, dismissing their passionate wish—especially James Reston Jr.’s—to see Nixon given “the trial he never had,” as Reston says, through a public interrogation. The wounds of Gerald Ford’s unconditional pardon were fresh in 1977, as were the lies, the crimes, and the human cost of Vietnam.

But Frost is not large enough for tragedy either. His moment of recognition leads to a more determined effort to succeed in his final interview with Nixon—but the script now borrows from the stories of every cliched Hollywood underdog sports team, debate team, dancer, singer, and on and on that rallies to victory in the climactic scene. Yet it fails to lead Frost toward a fresh determination to raise his career beyond the purely self-serving path it has traveled. And while the movie portrays his finest moment with heroic overtones, it also somewhat speciously offers this as redemption for allowing most of the opportunity—which he created but also failed to recognize for its full value—to slip away.

The movie’s inaccuracies can’t be passed over. They were more than distracting; they drained the story of the satisfaction one might have taken away with a fuller understanding of this fascinating historical moment. Here are a few keys for viewers:
  • No, Nixon didn’t drunk-dial Frost in the middle of the night to commiserate over sharing Frost’s fate of always being on the outside: “That’s our tragedy, isn’t it, Mr. Frost, that they still look down on us.”—they being the insiders, the cliques, the sons of privilege whose recognition, Nixon presumes, neither of them ever won. It should be said, however, that this scene is Frank Langella’s finest in the movie.
  • No, James Reston didn’t spend Easter weekend, just days before the Watergate interview, researching the last minute smoking gun of Nixon’s conversation with Charles Colson about the Watergate break-in. He did that work months earlier.
  • No, the taping was not done in four sessions, and it was not done in the sequence described in the movie. The Watergate sequence alone took four sessions.
  • No, Jack Brennan did not interrupt the taping when things went south for Nixon. He did attempt to communicate with Frost by holding up a sign, which Frost mistook for a request for a break.
  • And emphatically no, Nixon did not utter his famous “When the president does it…” line in response to a question about Watergate. That came in another interview and referred to surveillance of political dissenters.

(For more detail on these inaccuracies, interested readers should see Robert Zelnick’s review of the stage play and the timeline of these events at historycommons.org.)
I would not suggest viewers avoid this movie. It has merit and interest, but caveat spectator. Everything was not as it’s made to appear.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Here's a shocker: the lax standards of the Bush administration contributed to the Tennessee coal disaster.

"EPA and [the federal Office of Surface Mining] are fiddling while ash from burning coal poisons our water and sickens our communities. Inadequate state laws offer scant protection. Federal environmental statutes dictate that EPA and OSM must do what they promised to do and what they have been directed to do -- promulgate enforceable minimum federal standards to protect health and the environment nationwide from the risks posed by mismanagement of coal combustion waste."

What's wrong with this picture?


The horrific Santa Claus murders have gotten more play in the past week by far than an environmental disaster that destroyed a dozen homes--and a train!--and now threatens the water supply of millions.

The equivalent of forty-eight Exxon Valdezes broke up in Tennessee last Monday, when a dike holding back 400 acres of coal ash slurry failed, threatening water supplies with massive quantities of mecury, arsenic, lead, and a raft of other nasty poisons.

Somehow, it seemed that much more incongruous to learn in the New York Times just a few days later that coal is making a comeback for home heating.



Sunday, December 21, 2008

Would you have volunteered if you knew Rick Warren’s was the first voice you’d hear?


By Bob Sommer

During the weeks leading up to the election, I crossed the state line from Kansas to Missouri to hit the bricks and the phones for Barack Obama. My home state of Kansas is so red that it still bleeds. It was a lost cause. But the race was tight in Missouri. There was hope. I partnered up with others to walk the neighborhoods of Blue Springs. It was hot and tiring, but we were determined. In the evening, I made phone calls at campaign headquarters in Kansas City. Spirits were high. Even Republicans were listening.

Now I wonder how many of those who volunteered, like me, would have been out there if they’d known in advance that Rev. Rick Warren would take center stage at what will be the most watched and largest attended inauguration in U.S. history. And extrapolating that question nationwide, is it difficult to imagine a different outcome to this election?

Make no mistake about Warren. He is a younger, up-tempo version of Jerry Falwell. Like most successful megachurch leaders, he’s a great salesman. But the kind of tolerance he understands is that you should tolerate him and his evangelical, fundamentalist followers, not vice versa. Nonbelievers have no place at his table.

And here’s how he described his opposition to California’s Proposition 8 in a recent interview on CNN:

RICK WARREN: “But the issue to me is, I’m not opposed to that as much as I’m opposed to the redefinition of a 5,000-year definition of marriage. I’m opposed to having a brother and sister be together and call that marriage. I’m opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that a marriage. I’m opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage.”

STEVEN WALDMAN: “Do you think, though, that they are equivalent to having gays getting married?”

RW: “Oh I do.…”

In a separate interview on NBC, he spelled out his attitude toward gays:

RW: “We all have biological predispositions….You say because I have natural impulses to the same sex, I shouldn’t have to reign them in. Well I disagree. I think that’s part of maturity, I think that’s part of delayed gratification, I think that’s part of character.”

So gays just need to grow up! That should straighten them out.

President-Elect Obama’s choice of Warren to give the invocation may be good—if transparent—politics, but is this really the best he could do if he wanted to reach out to conservatives? Was it necessary to set the table for the incoming administration with the new voice of religious intolerance?

Of all the churches and all the pastors in America, how did Rick Warren end up at the top of the list? In fact, why did the role have to be filled by a Christian at all, or even a believer?

Was it equally good politics—and nothing more than that—to gather gays and nonbelievers into the tent to win the election?

It is difficult to imagine that all of the people I worked with to canvass for the Obama-Biden ticket would have shown up if we’d known that the first voice we’d hear from in the new administration was Rick Warren’s. I’m not sure I would have been there.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

"Torture Without Regrets: Cheney's Unrepentent Confession," by Marjorie Cohn


"Why is Cheney so sanguine about admitting he is a war criminal? Because he’s confident that either President Bush will preemptively pardon him or President-elect Obama won’t prosecute him.

"Both of those courses of action would be illegal."

-Marjorie Cohn (in Counterpunch today)

Friday, December 19, 2008

It's really this simple...

...this is not who we're supposed to be.

Fernando Botero: "Abu Ghraib"

Click here for David Rose's article in Vanity Fair, "Tortured Reasoning."



Thursday, December 18, 2008

Senate Armed Services Committee investigates abuses by the Bush administration


Sen. Carl Levin (D - Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on The Rachel Maddow Show last evening that his committee is investigating potentially criminal activity by the Bush administration:

Rachel Maddow: "Essentially, did [Vice President Dick Cheney] just admit to condoning torture?"

Sen. Carl Levin: "As far as I'm concerned, that's exactly what he admitted."

See the entire interview here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

When is torture not a crime?

(Fernando Botero: from the "Abu Ghraib" series)

"What occurred in the last eight years was an assault on who we are," Constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley said on MSNBC's Countdown last evening. "I think that President-elect Obama's going to have to decide whether he wants power without principle or whether he wants to start with a true change, to say that no matter where an investigation will take us, if there are crimes to be found they will be prosecuted."

Read more and see the full interview here.

How History Will View Bush

By Bob Fertik and David Swanson

As George Bush prepares to leave office, he and his aides are trying desperately to rewrite history, especially on Iraq. Nearly six years after invading Iraq on the basis of lies that were manufactured inside the White House, the Bush Administration adamantly insists the lies were all innocent mistakes. Were they?

Originally, the invasion of Iraq was justified primarily on grounds that Iraq had substantial quantities of chemical and biological weapons and had "reconstituted" its nuclear weapons development program, and that it could give terrorists "weapons of mass destruction."

But there was no actual evidence Iraq had such weapons, and the White House knew it.

In 1995, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law Hussein Kamel informed U.S. and British intelligence officers that all Iraqi biological, chemical, missile, and nuclear weapons had been destroyed under his direct supervision. After U.N. inspectors left Iraq in 1998, Scott Ritter wrote, "The chemical, biological, nuclear, and long-ranged missile programs that were a real threat in 1991, had by 1998 been destroyed or rendered harmless." Ritter's conclusion was confirmed by the DIA in September 2002: "A substantial amount of Iraq's chemical warfare agents, precursors, munitions and production equipment were destroyed between 1991 and 1998 … [T]here is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons."

In September 2002, CIA Director George Tenet personally told President Bush that Iraq's Foreign Minister Naji Sabri - whom the CIA had recruited and persuaded to remain in place - said Iraq had no WMD. That fall, the CIA sent Iraqi-Americans to visit Iraqi weapons scientists, and they reported all weapons programs had ended. In January 2003, Iraq's intelligence chief Tahir Jalil Habbush told British intelligence the same thing.

Thus the evidence against Iraq's possession of WMD's was overwhelming. What was the evidence for WMD's?

The source for biological weapons was the German informant "Curveball," whose interrogators informed the Bush Administration that Curveball was not "psychologically stable," was a heavy drinker, had had a mental breakdown, was "crazy," and was "probably a fabricator."

One source for nuclear weapons was a letter about an attempted Iraqi purchase of uranium from Niger that was given to the CIA in Rome in 2001, but the CIA quickly rejected it as a forgery. Ambassador Joe Wilson visited Niger in early 2002 and further discredited the claim of an Iraqi uranium purchase. The other source was the capture of aluminum tubes in Jordan in 2001, which Bush administration hardliners claimed were intended for uranium-enriching centrifuges. But experts in the Energy and State Departments insisted the tubes were for conventional battlefield rocket launchers.

Thus the weight of evidence was solidly against Iraq WMD's; the evidence for WMD's lacked credibility. So who is responsible for the lies - the intelligence agencies or the White House?

In June 2008, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence blamed the White House and said the statements about WMD's made by Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld were not substantiated by evidence. According to Chairman Jay Rockefeller, "In making the case for war, the Administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent."

Moreover, the White House directly pressured intelligence agencies to twist the evidence. Cheney made several visits to the CIA to pressure analysts. Numerous intelligence officials have testified about White House pressure, including Robin Raphel and David Dunford of the State Department, Richard Kerr and Paul Pillar of the CIA, and former national security official Kenneth Pollack.

The elaborate White House scheme to manufacture WMD lies was best summarized by Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of Britain's MI6, upon his return from meeting with CIA director George Tenet in Washington in July 2002. According to minutes of Prime Minister Blair's cabinet meeting on July 23, Dearlove reported "Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

The invasion of Iraq was a catastrophe of historic proportions. George Bush and senior White House officials may never admit they deliberately lied about Iraq's weapons, but history has already concluded otherwise.
--
Bob Fertik is president of Democrats.com. David Swanson is Washington Director of Democrats.com.

Dec. 17, 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Senate report links Bush to detainee homicides; media yawns


"The policies which the Senate Armed Services Committee unanimously concludes were authorized by Bush, Rumsfeld and several other top Bush officials did not merely lead to 'abuse' and humiliating treatment, but are directly -- and unquestionably -- responsible for numerous detainee murders."
- Glenn Greenwald, Salon, Dec. 15, 2008

Monday, December 15, 2008

Torture okayed by Cheney


Cheney: "It's been a remarkably successful effort, and I think the results speak for themselves."

"The Aimless War: Why Are We in Afghanistan?"

"The war in Afghanistan — the war that President-elect Barack Obama pledged to fight and win — has become an aimless absurdity."
-Joe Klein, in the current issue of Time

(See also my interview in Prick of the Spindle, which raised the same question last June. Link to the right.))

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Movie review: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)



Reviewed by Bob Sommer

The 1951 classic movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still, with Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal (and Gort – one of the iconic figures of Cold War culture), ranks among my favorite old movies. It’s not without flaws. The theme of mankind’s destructive ways in a nuclear age is heavy-handed. But it has what any good movie or book always has – a good story. And you easily find yourself caring even more for the fate of the characters than that of mankind.

Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) is a strong-willed single mother in a time when Harriet Nelsons filled both the large and small screens. And the alien, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), is a sympathetic character. An emissary of foreign worlds that have taken stock of mankind’s behavior and don’t like what they see, he brings both a dire warning and an opportunity for redemption, and he offers a glimpse of mankind’s future if we don’t straighten out, which, needless to say, we didn’t. The story’s strength resides in its Dickensian use of dramatic irony and theme of redemption. The uniqueness and impact of the movie’s special effects are heightened by their understatement.

Not so much the remake that opened this weekend with Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly (and Gort – now G.O.R.T., rendered an acronym by his naïve and impotent would-be handlers, the entire Department of Defense, in a thin and transparent attempt at humor). The half-hour of trailers – and commercials – that preceded the movie offered an unwitting clue as to what was ahead: a lot of special effects. And it was clear from the opening scene that the movie-making efforts of director Scott Derrickson and writer David Scarpa in this remake went into spectacle and not into developing the story and characters, which is all the more a shame because they had so much handed to them; they didn’t even have to invent it.

Aristotle’s 4th-century B.C. critique of the drama in his Poetics describes and ranks six key principles of drama, with spectacle bringing up the rear, dead last:

“The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry. For the power of Tragedy, we may be sure, is felt even apart from representation and actors. Besides, the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.” (my italics)

It’s amazing how well this ancient commentary holds up.

Ranked first and second of the six principles? The story and the characters, respectively.

Movie-makers have way too many toys these days. Anyone who’s gone to a movie recently knows that animated effects have replaced not only the magic of wondering How’d they do that? but the most essential elements, the story and its characters – and whether we care about them.

Even Gort had a profile beyond his monolithic presence in the original. And he didn’t need to be twenty stories tall to be ominous. The old-fashioned (I mean really old, ancient Greek old) technique of revealing a character’s nature by what other characters say about him or her had a stunning impact when Michael Rennie warned Patricia Neal of Gort’s destructive power. Greater by far than driving a couple of drone fighter-bombers into the ground in Central Park with a pair of lasar beams, without which any video game on the market won’t sell. In the current version, Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) states flatly (as he states most of his dialogue) that G.O.R.T. is activated by the threat of violence. We get no hint from Klaatu of what that means, but we do get plenty of illustrations (literally).

The movie’s theme – even more heavy-handed this time around – turns on mankind’s destructive treatment of the planet. Surely a worthy theme, but treated without subtlety. As Ernest Hemingway said, “If you want to send a message, go to Western Union.”

Mankind threatens the environment, so mankind must go. Our fate has already been decided, and for some reason, Klaatu is here to tell us. His visit seems at best superfluous. Awkwardly woven into this theme is the “shoot first, talk later” post-Iraq aggressiveness of the Bush administration. Kathy Bates is perhaps the most interesting character of the lead cast as the U.S. Secretary of State, who recognizes before others the power of the aliens, their strategy for saving the planet from mankind, and the ineffectiveness of the administration’s response, even as she’s charged with carrying it out.

It’s difficult to forget that you’re in a theater watching a movie in this version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Keanu Reeves plays Keanu Reeves playing Klaatu. (“Whoa!” as my daughter always blurts out instinctively at the very mention of his name.) In fairness, he’s handicapped by a weak script and a flat character. Ditto Jennifer Connelly. But if Klaatu does want to rub someone out who’s at least a threat to the movie, if not the world, he should go after the kid, Jennifer Connelly’s step-son. In this update of the single-mother theme, Connelly plays the white widow of an African-American man who died in one of America’s current wars, and who brought a child into this, his second marriage, after his first wife passed away. How’s that for a subtle update? And this is one irritating brat, whose only moment of sympathy is so overdone that it redefines melodrama.

One convincing moment in the movie, however, takes place at Professor Barnhardt’s home (yes, he’s back too, played sensitively by John Cleese and still using a blackboard and chalk to puzzle over math problems), when hearing Bach’s Goldberg Variations has such an impact on Klaatu that he begins to think humans might be worth saving, after all. But somehow, even though the aliens had the capability to upload the codes for our entire defense systems, they missed hearing even a snippet of Bach somewhere on late-night FM radio. Who knows, maybe they caught Britney Spears instead, and that put them over the top.

BTW: Internet surfers – forget about using Gort or Klaatu for a screen handle anywhere on the Net. They’ve long ago been taken by aficionados of the original movie.

As to the movie, rent the original and skip this version.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Eight years ago today Al Gore conceded the presidency


By Bob Sommer


“The most important election of our time!”

How often did we hear that phrase this year?

Hyperbole is part of the rhetoric of politics, but history has a way of validating – or deflating – it.

Eight years ago today Vice President Al Gore conceded the presidency to Gov. George W. Bush. If any contemporary election deserves the moniker, it’s that one.

The loser became a Nobel laureate.

The winner? Well, 26 percent still approves. The Bushes are a big family.

How could we have so misunderestimated its importance?

I won’t catalogue the disasters and tragedies, the arrogance and ineptitude, the lies, the bullying, or even the Bushisms here. I couldn’t possibly. Anyone who’s read this far knows the list.

But Bush is more than the classic turtle on the fence post. While he deserves plenty of credit for the epic wreckage in his wake, the failures of the past eight years are larger than the flaws of one incompetent martinet. Why was he there in the first place? What did he represent?

The ideologues of neo-conservatism have two core beliefs: that government is bad and that unfettered, unlimited growth is good. They fundamentally distrust the government—and yet, they want to run it; or perhaps more accurately, they want to dismantle it from within. Like working for the competition so you can destroy his business.

Everything else is strategy, from gathering the religious right into the fold, so to speak, with a menu of enormously distracting peripheral issues to mobilizing the country around a well-marketed but poorly executed “war on terror” to invading an oil-rich foreign country.

The result would strengthen the presidency, marginalize political competition, and develop unregulated new markets. America would become the Borg. The new assimilation: “coercive democracy.” Resistance was futile.

Such a pernicious philosophy has marketing challenges. After all, people rely on government for stuff—like Social Security income, food safety, roads, or maybe to save them from the occasional deluge.

“Elect us so we can wreck it!” has limits as a campaign slogan.

So instead, you wreck those who want to do something good with it. You invent things, like “He said he invented the internet!” You nitpick personal traits, like speech mannerisms, sighing and weight loss (or gain).

You turn your opponent into a clown or a demon, or both.

One of the worst kinds of demon is an elitist.

Evoking the inherent American disdain for royal bloodlines and snobbery (and without even a hint of irony), the neocons found in George W. Bush an emblem for their faux populism—a “real American,” a Connecticut cowboy who got C’s at the elite school into which his family name admitted him and said nukyular. A reformed drunk with whom everyone wanted to have a beer.

What an incredible thing! The elusive and malleable “American Dream” always includes a bullet point about education, but now maligning the educated and intellectually curious—those, in short, to whom one might turn to solve big, complicated problems—became a campaign tactic. (Imagine what Jefferson or Adams would have thought of Bush or Palin?)

And it worked!

Elites, we’re also told, are godless, as if that should matter. But that, too, is false. Gore’s concession speech and Nobel prize lecture resonate with the centrality of faith in his life.

As an undergraduate, Gore came to understand the threat to our planet from carbon emissions. He was decades ahead of mainstream political thinking in recognizing that we can’t keep drilling and digging and burning, and that resources and markets are finite.

Arguably, this should have been the centerpiece of his campaign—but arguably, too, voters who think beer-drinking buddies make good presidents would, predictably, scoff at this issue.

Gore’s election might not have altered 9/11. But it’s stating the obvious to say that he wouldn’t have invaded Iraq, nor would financial regulations have been so easily dismantled, nor would Brownie have done “a heckuva job” in New Orleans.

And we wouldn’t have known how much better off we were.

Defeat, Gore said in his Nobel prize lecture, “brought a precious if painful gift: an opportunity to search for fresh new ways to serve my purpose.”

How tragically high the price of that gift was—and the price of appreciating competency, education, and genuine leadership once more.

(Note: a version of this essay first appeared in Midwest Voices.)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Call it what it is: union busting!




Union buster wanna-be's: McConnell, Corker, & Shelby.

The Senate Republicans decided that mutually assured destruction is better than auto workers in Detroit earning the same wages as their counterparts at Nissan and Toyota.

“This is going to be a very, very bad Christmas for a lot of people as a result of what takes place here tonight,” said Sen. Harry Reid.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Buy Someone A Book For the Holidays!

By Ron Jacobs (originally posted at Dissident Voice, December 4th, 2008)

As a book reviewer, I come across a lot of books. Add to that the fact that I work in a library and one can see how many books of all kinds I am exposed to. While this exposure certainly has its advantages and benefits, it also makes it necessary to not read books I want to read, only because of time. In addition, it makes it difficult to choose a limited number to recommend to others. Nonetheless, here is a list of books I have read over the past couple years that I can honestly say I would give to friends and family as gifts.

Insect Dreams by Marc Estrin — A clever and funny tale about Kafka’s beetle Gregor Samsa and the world of the 20th century. This latter subject ultimately turns the humor in this story into tragedy, which transforms it from just a good work of fiction into a classic one.

Subterranean Fire by Sharon Smith — This history of labor’s struggle for economic justice in the United States is a necessary and hopeful read for those who earn a wage in these times of economic uncertainty.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak — Nominally a work written for the young adult market, this work unveils the emotional horrors of war and oppression while simultaneously celebrating the everyday beauty found in human existence. It is about the casualties that the masters of war ignore.

The Scar of David by Susan Abulhawa — The beauty in this story is not in its few moments of joy and happiness or its even rarer moments of hope. No, the beauty lies in the stories of a people determined not to die. In a young girl’s belief in family and friends. This story is a story of Palestine. The writing here echoes the finest couplets of Gibran and Rumi.

People’s History of Sports in the United States — Dave Zirin has composed a wonderfully written, well-researched, and very readable story of US sport and its meaning to the oppressed and those who fight with them against the rulers. Like any sports book, there are stories of glory and prowess. This book is about the playing field and its role in the struggle for freedom and equal rights. It is about the rulers attempts to keep sport safely in the realm of nationalism and the status quo and the struggle of some athletes to make their efforts much more than that. Zirin makes it clear that it is a also a history that continues to be written.

Where the Wind Blew by Bob Sommer — Sommer's novel is an emotionally taut tale. Like the strings on his old girlfriend’s cello, the story is tuned perfectly. One twist of the pegs to the left or right would make the story less than what it is–either too flat or mere melodrama. Where the Wind Blew is an intelligent and sensitive treatment of a time when the apocalypse was always just around the corner.

Born Under a Bad Sky by Jeffrey St. Clair — Most of the book is made up of hard-hitting articles regrading the destruction of the environment and exposes of those determined to continue that destruction. The jewel of the book lies in the last 116 pages of narrative. Titled “The Beautiful and the Damned,” this section is St. Clair’s beautifully rendered tale of a trip down some of the US West’s best known rivers. Seemingly inspired by Hunter S. Thompson, Aldo Leopold and the sheer beauty of the natural surroundings it describes, “The Beautiful and the Damned” does more than end Born Under a Bad Sky with a flourish, it conveys it into the genuinely sublime.

War Without End by Michael Schwartz — This is the best book on the US war in Iraq published in English to this date. It is comprehensive in its breath, revealing in its detail, and relentlessly radical in its critique. Michael Schwartz explains not only what the US has done to that country and its people, but why it is still there. Furthermore, it explains why there is a good chance that US troops will be there forever unless massive public protests are mounted against that presence.

The Duel — by Tariq Ali This is an important book. There has been very little published in English about Pakistan that doesn’t merely parrot the positions of the Pakistan government, the US desires for that government, or some combination of the two. It is written in an engaging and accessible style. As the US widens its war against those who would defy its designs into Pakistan, it becomes essential reading for anyone who refuses to accept the Orientalist narrative spewed by the policy makers in Washington, DC. Ali has written a history that explains and interprets the reality of Pakistan that is free of western prejudices and self-serving assumptions conceived in the foreign policy bureaucracies of DC and London.

The Trip Into Milky Way by Gary Corcoran — Trip Into the Milky Way (Coldtree Press 2007) is a novel of flight and it’s a story of love. A beautifully told tale of one man’s journey from the military draft and toward himself during the US war on Vietnam, this occasionally humorous, often heart-wrenching novel is a tale of a generation that serves as a metaphor for a nation that lost its way. The story is a story of wandering. Sometimes the wanderer is lost and sometimes he is just wandering.

GB84 by David Peace — GB84 is nothing short of stunning. It is a novel about the savagery of capitalism. Jackboots and legalized police beatings of unarmed strikers. Secret hit squads and government/corporate-sponsored organizations of police pretending to be miners whose job is to convince the strikers to scab. Democratic forms and fascist realities. The war of the super rich against the workers. This is David Peace at his best.

The Lightning Thief Series by Rick Riordan — This is a delightful series set in modern times that features modern children of the gods and humans battling it out for the future of the Earth. It is also published for the youth market, but its appeal transcend the industry’s intentions. An introduction to Greek mythology that makes it all seem very alive.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by MT Anderson — One more set of books supposedly for the Young Adult market that transcends its intended market. The story of an American slave sold into a house of Enlightenment scientists in Boston who are attempting to discern the differences between Europeans and Africans, this two-volume set is a look at the role the slavers played in the American colonists’ war for independence and how the aspirations of the African-Americans of their times were manipulated by both sides in the conflict. It is also a unique telling of a young man’s intellectual and emotional growth into adulthood and a paean to the joys of classicism — musical and literary.

I also believe a mention of my 2007 novel Short Order Frame Up should appear here. Here are some comments from readers and reviewers regarding that novel.

“Ron Jacobs has created a working-class brew of language and music, a quasi-bitter, semi-sweet world of weed and sport, of love and violence, of not-so-innocent innocence up against the walls of racism and power. A compelling story, alas, and an underlying reality of life in America.”
-Marc Estrin, author of Insect Dreams

“With Short Order, Ron Jacobs delivers something I haven’t come across since the works of James Baldwin: a great anti-racist novel. Powerful and political without being preachy. Poignant without being treacly. It’s stunning.” - Dave Zirin

and one more…..

"Finally a novel about social and racial justice wrapped in the digestible genre of a murder mystery and set in Baltimore, a town that divides the north from the south and embodies the hopes and prejudices of post-60s America. Short-Order Frame Up is charged by its keen eye for historical detail and social conscience. But the devotion to context never interferes with the relentless pull of the story. A finely written but disturbing novel that probes the lingering bruises on the American psyche." –Jeffrey St. Clair

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. His most recent novel Short Order Frame Up is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Packing heat in the national parks!

Road rage in the national parks will have a new dimension
next summer thanks to Bush!

6 Afghan police officers killed by Americans

Today in history: “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights”

By Bob Sommer, Uncommon Hours



“To write in ignorance of the philosophical horizon – or refusing to acknowledge the punctuation, the groupings and separations determined by the words that mark this horizon – is necessarily to write with facile complacency.”
– Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster (quoted in Geoffrey H. Hartman, The Fateful Question of Culture)

We celebrate words today: the 60th anniversary of the adoption of "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights" by the United Nations.

The atrocities of the Nazi regime, Winston Churchill declared, were “a crime without a name.” More important to Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the UN Commission on Human Rights, than naming the crime, however, was naming the rights that had been unspeakably violated by the Nazis in their effort to purge the planet of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, political opponents, and anyone generally not to their liking.

To Geoffrey H. Hartman and many others who write of it, the Holocaust (the “Shoah”) was epochal. There will forever be a before and after. The "Declaration" offered, therefore, not only a code to live by in the “after,” but a statement of what had been wrong in the "before," if only because it had never been declared without regard to geography, political division, or any other marker that separates one human from another. The task was to write – that supremely definitive human ability – what it meant to be human.

Committees are notoriously unwieldy when it comes to writing. And this committee had its task additionally challenged by differences of ethnicity, heritage, geography, and language. Indeed, the document would require terms that translated well, definitively, without idiom or vocabulary that might be misconstrued. Perhaps only the committees writing the Oxford English Dictionary and the King James Bible were equally challenged.

The task took three years, but finally, on December 10, 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt stood before the UN and firmly insisted that that body adopt "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights" at that very session, which it did, with unanimous consent, and only the notable abstentions of Saudi Arabia, the Soviet Union and its satellites, and South Africa.

The "Declaration" has since become a foundation document referenced by constitutions and relied upon by human rights groups all over the world.

Its value only seems that much greater in the tumult of history since it was written.

Monday, December 8, 2008

John Lennon: Oct. 9, 1940 - Dec. 8, 1980


WAR IS OVER!



My modest fictional tribute to John Lennon appeared in Cantaraville Three last April. I've included it here, on the anniversary of his death, along with the New York Times photo that inspired the story.





Plaza Light

(a short story)
by

Bob Sommer

Bev sniffed like the burst of air when you check the tire pressure. Her lips barely moved as she hissed, “You still always have to be the first one there.”

Ron decided the best thing he could say was nothing. He drew a short easy breath and waited for the light as a couple in scarves and woolen hats hurriedly crossed in front of the car. The man clutched a sign under his arm, which Ron couldn’t read because it faced inward. Curious, Ron watched him, hesitating after the light changed, waiting for the man to turn his sign to the street as he joined the raucous protesters who lined the sidewalk and snaked around the corner. Finally the man raised his sign and pumped it under the street light.

War Is Over!
If you want it

Bev sighed. Not sarcasm now, but irritation. A few feet from her window, a squat woman in a bright floral Nepalese hat with dangling ear flaps shouted, “No more war! No more war!” looking straight at Bev, who looked stiffly ahead at the colorful, festive lights of the plaza, across the intersection. A horse-drawn carriage turned the corner on its plodding and frigid tour, while here, at the edge of darkened Nichols Park, the rowdy clutch of protesters chanted and shouted.

“No more war! No more war!”

Ron lingered, holding up traffic, allowing the chant to thump away at Bev’s window. Behind them horns blew for him to go, and now Ron honked too as he rounded the corner, waving to the protesters, chuckling as the chorus of angry horns became unintended honks of support for the small group gathered beside the fountain.

Ron smiled. “Remember?”

“What?” Her irritation had metastasized.

“That sign. I know you do.”

Bev shrugged, shifting in her seat, glancing over at him as the chanting receded and he pulled into the parking garage across from the park. A smirk escaped through the mist of her anger.

Ron thought about the couple who crossed the street with the sign, probably close in age to him and Bev—also old enough to remember John Lennon buying billboard space in dozens of cities all over the world in 1969 for his faux headline, War Is Over!—the chorus to his “Happy Christmas” song. Ron still had a grainy three-by-three photo of himself in front of the Times Square billboard with those words towering above him.

Bev had snapped it.

She was right. They were early. The table wasn’t ready, and now they stood in the hot restaurant lobby, Ron stuffing his hands into his pockets and Bev making a fig leaf with hers.

"Bevy!”

Only her sister Peggy ever called her that. She waved from the bar, “Hey, Bevy!”

Peggy’s husband Mark grinned beside her, his large teeth glowing through his beard, one hand wrapped around a bottle of Heineken, the clean, unused glass in front of him. Ron always thought that Mark’s beard and shaggy hair looked wrong on him—too professor-like for his grinning, toady manner. Bev and Peggy’s father, Harlan, thought he was smart, but to Harlan anyone who had money was by default smart. Not that Mark had much. He supposedly owned some land up in Idaho, always vaguely referred to—by him, by Harlan, now by everyone—as “some land up in Idaho.” Peggy said she’d been there and seen it, but Ron sometimes wondered if Mark hadn’t just strutted around a corner of some public land and told Peg it was his. With a grin like that, anything was possible. Even Bev had her doubts when Mark first came along some years ago, but Ron hadn’t heard any more about those doubts lately, and Mark was a fixture now.

“Guess we weren’t first,” Ron said, as they angled around the bar stools.

“Just us, so far,” Peg said, missing the jibe, hugging Bev. “Good to see you again, Ron.” She offered her hand, looking away as he took it.

“What’re you havin’?” Mark asked, now the host, making six-shooters with his hands. The beard and shaggy hair were just all wrong.

Bev ordered a martini and Ron asked for a beer.

Frank Sinatra crooned through the overhead speakers, infecting them with Rat Pack joviality.

“How’s it feel to marry off a daughter, Ron?” Mark asked.

Marry off a daughter?! Did people still say things like that? Ron wondered. He suddenly felt as if they were guests on a sixties variety show. “She’s not married yet,” he said.

“No stopping her now,” Mark chuckled.

Ron imagined the lights dimming as the piano softly cued a ballad and Dean Martin moaned, You're the end of the rainbow, my pot of gold. You're daa-ddy's little girl to have and hold...

“Have you talked to Dad?” Bev asked Peggy.

“They’re on the way, with Kristy and Dan. He sent me a text!”

“Harlan did?” Ron asked.

“Can you believe it?!” Peggy exclaimed, watching herself exclaim into the mirror behind the bar.

Mark said, “We got him a new cell phone for Christmas and once Kristy showed him how to text, all of our phones started beeping and buzzing with messages.”

Ron stifled the temptation to say that the texts would stop as soon as Harlan saw his phone bill.

The hostess approached Peg, who turned and announced, “We’re all set. Let’s take our drinks in.”

They followed the hostess along a wood-planked aisle, past the dessert chef, lining up a row of tarts behind a shield of glass, and then past clouds of smoke erupting from sizzling grills as the line cooks slid platters onto warming shelves. Now they stood aside as servers rushed by, and they caught up with the hostess in the back of the restaurant, where the dining room overlooked Nichols Park, and Ron thought of the protesters again. He stepped over to a window as the rest of the group went to a long table with a white cloth. They were still there. A small circle held vigil in the shadows of the park, visible only by a quivering rim of candlelight, while a handful remained on the sidewalk, pumping signs and shouting to the traffic. They looked small and distant, even desolate from up here in the bright warmth of the restaurant, with Tony Bennett now singing and the dining room clattering with talk and dishes. Ron caught up to the group.

“What’s goin’ on out there?” Mark asked.

“A protest,” Ron said, “about the war in Iraq.”

“Oh, them,” Peggy wagged a hand. “They’re out there every weekend.”

“Buncha kooks!” Mark added, grinning. Ron would understand.

Ron glanced at Bev and saw the hint of a smile, knowing that she now avoided looking back at him.

She had taken the grainy three-by-three photo with Ron’s Instamatic camera, standing on the corner opposite the sign, at 43rd Street and Seventh Avenue in Times Square, as people bustled around her with Christmas packages and shopping bags, nameless, untraceable strangers, now forever preserved in Ron’s snapshot.

He and Bev had gone to New York City on an insane whim that seemed like a great, a fabulous, an unbelievably brilliant inspiration while they smoked some Colombian in Ron’s dorm room in Lawrence just three days earlier—a flash trip to New York! They’d never been there, never been farther east than Saint Louis, either of them. They both grew up in tiny rural towns that were now part of the vast suburban patchwork quilt that surrounded Kansas City—Bev in Overland Park and Ron in Olathe—far, indeed, from the madding, protesting crowds they saw in TV footage from Washington and Chicago and New York. “We’ll do it!” they declared in the crystal inspiration of the dope’s glow. “We’ll drive to New York and be home in time for Christmas.” Five, maybe six days! Over and back! They could do it!

And they did, after telling their families they were each, separately, with friends of the same sex, going to Colorado to ski for a few days before they came home for winter break. The idea seemed thin, even dubious, by the time they reached Illinois on I-70, but they pushed on, sharing the driving, eating sparely, sleeping in the car as they traveled and in a dirty yellow hotel room on the lower East Side for two nights when they arrived.

They went all the way to New York City.

Insanely.

Not knowing where they’d stay, what they’d do when they got there, or where to find anything.

In Ron’s Chevy Belair, they cruised warily along 125th Street between Lexington and Lenox. They missed exits on the Cross Bronx Expressway and found themselves on Long Island. Bev asked a pedestrian standing at the corner of Bleecker and Sullivan Streets for directions to Greenwich Village. On the subways, they had the happy fortune to find their way to Rockefeller Center and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and the Empire State Building, and then to see John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Christmas greeting on a billboard in Times Square.

“I don’t get it,” Ron said, leaning back, squinting at the sign. “The war’s not over.”

But Bev shook her head with a laugh and panned Ron’s camera around to find a good angle. “It’s like a headline, like…you know that phony radio broadcast they did back in the thirties about Martians landing?” He nodded. “Like that. What if that was the headline? ‘War Is Over’? Forever! All war! Forever.” Her smile was rich, warm, devoid of irony.

He looked forward to another night in the dirty yellow hotel room.

Ron said, “Yeah, cool!” Recognition swarmed over him, and he smiled at the sign.

“Go on over and I’ll take your picture from here.”

He turned and nearly bumped into a tall black man who strode past in a straw fedora hat with a narrow brim. Ron stepped aside for the man, grinned at Bev, and then danced through the traffic to the opposite corner, where he waved to her between passing buses and trucks, as she captured him, a faceless human shape in a Navy pea coat and jeans, beneath a Coca-Cola sign, with the strident, bold words on the Lennon billboard up above him, and a neon sign for Chop Suey with missing letters at the edge of the photo.

They made it home for Christmas, barely, exhausted, filled with warmth and brimming with their great secret, and to this day Harlan did not know that Bev spent part of her winter break in 1969 in New York City, with Ron.

“Here they are!” Peggy exclaimed.

Kristy glowed, shiny blonde curls, rhinestones and spangles shimmering on her sweater, a glittery something in the make-up on her cheeks. Her fiance Dan hadn’t shaven—in days. Ron wondered if your engagement dinner wouldn’t be an occasion for a shave, but that seemed to be a style thing now, not shaving but not actually growing in a beard. A dense tattoo of indistinguishable design crawled out of Dan’s collar, along his neck, threatening his ear.

Harlan followed, still muffled in his scarf, his hounds tooth hat, his gloves, kissing his daughters, offering a gloved hand to Ron, asking “How are you?” but not using his name.

“Fine, Harlan,” Ron said. “Good to see you again.”

They settled at the table, ordered drinks, ordered wine, ordered appetizers, ordered dinner. Ron sat across from Bev and beside his daughter, keeping her close, suddenly fearful of the young man with a tattoo on his neck. Ron had liked Dan when he first met him and liked that he was an art student. The tattoo—what he’d seen of it then—seemed benign. He feared more from business majors and pre-law students; he feared monotony, sound-bite opinions, a life without passion, without impetuousness. But that was before they were engaged. New fears now arose. Had they gone on some vast adventure about which he’d never know—to Alaska? to Quebec? maybe to New York? They would fly if they did. It would appear on charge cards. There’d be cell phone records. Ron would find out. He wouldn’t stay in the dark past the next billing cycle.

“How long are you here for, Ron?” Mark asked.

Ron now feared that an arctic round of golf might be in his future if he gave the wrong answer. Mark didn’t care what the temperature was as long as there wasn’t snow.

“Just a couple a days,” Ron said.

Bev smirked, loud enough to draw Mark’s glance, but he looked back at Ron. “Too bad,” Mark said. “I have a tee time on Saturday.”

“A little chilly for me,” Ron said.

“How’s work?” Harlan asked.

“Busy,” Ron said. “We’re installing a new I.V. system for the hospital. All computerized. Tracks everything—drugs, billing, medical records. All integrated.”

“It’s already too integrated for my taste,” Harlan muttered. “It’s like everything. People used to do this stuff. You could talk to a person. You ever try to call an airline? Even when you get to talk to an agent, they’re in Bangladesh or New Delhi, or god-knows-where.”

Ron nodded, agreed. Yes, his work, buying everything from bedpans to computers for a hospital in New Jersey, made him part of it. Over the past two decades, he’d worked for half a dozen hospitals in the East and knew all the suppliers, all the sales reps, all the specs for everything from latex gloves to plastic flatware; he’d attended seminars on video equipment for operating rooms and on gurney beds for emergency services. So now he was part of the problem, thickening the mesh of bureaucracy and computerization, enabling the insurance companies to screw patients, rationalizing why hospitals couldn’t take care of the uninsured.

Peggy now told a story of her own—of a trip to the emergency room after she slammed her finger in the car door. She was mistreated, milled about, dehumanized, turned into a number, worse yet, a bar code to be scanned. Ron knew the story was for his benefit, a back-handed slight. But he let it glance off him. That seemed to irritate her more—that she couldn’t get a rise out of him.

It’s not like he’d just recently separated from Bev. They’d been divorced for nearly fifteen years. They had lives. Ron had a family in New Jersey, and Bev had recently divorced for the second time, and now she was trying to start over again—in her fifties—as a financial advisor for a brokerage firm. She even wanted Ron to make some investments with her. Her anger in the car was because he’d just told her he couldn’t see clear to send her any money for a stock or a mutual fund. He’d put Kristy through college, bought a house in Bergen County, was raising two children with his second wife. There’d be college for them, too, he hoped, he feared. Five or ten thousand wouldn’t help Bev’s business. She needed to gather millions to build a book. This venture didn’t look promising if she was already that desperate.

She held her glass out as Mark refilled it with Chianti—maybe her third since they sat down, plus the martini—no, she’d also had another at the table. Ron studied the familiar waves in her hair, still familiar, still the same cascades that fell away from her part, a rich chestnut in 1969 that tumbled below her shoulders, now short and permed, salted and stiff. Her makeup seemed harsh, and sorrowful, maybe because she thought she needed so much now, as if she was hiding beneath it. It seemed as desperate as asking him to make an investment. He was sorry that she didn’t know how lovely she still was without it. He wanted to tell her—but that would come out wrong—he couldn’t. Yet, in the glow of the wine and the chaotic emotions that surrounded him now, he still saw her, smiling in her wool cap, her hair spilling out from it, explaining the billboard, full of wonder at the strange place to which they’d traveled. He hadn’t understood the way John and Yoko framed the words on the billboard, but the meaning was instantly clear to her, obvious—an imaginary headline, imaginary news, the ultimate news. War Is Over! Maybe he would ask her about setting up a college fund for his kids. She would take good care of the money. She would see, would recognize what that meant too.

Ron tinkled a spoon against his glass, and as everyone quieted, even some at nearby tables, he held up the glass, looking over the small gathering, and tried to decide what he would say as the impulse to toast his daughter’s marriage suddenly took hold of him.

© 2008 Bob Sommer. First published in Cantaraville Three, April 2008.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Bill Ayers speaks out


"I was unwillingly thrust upon the stage and asked to play a role in a profoundly dishonest drama."

- Bill Ayers, from today's New York Times

Where is that?

I've been asked about the photo at the top of this web page.

I snapped it while hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. The specific location is the Onahu Creek Trail on the western side of the park. I was on a solo back country hike, and this was a meadow (and one of the few level sections) along the trail at about 9,000’.

I camped at about 9,650'. During the night a bear thrashed around down by the creek just through the stand of trees behind the tent in the photo on the right. (I knew it was a bear because I’d seen his tracks at the creekside earlier, and again in the morning--and because nothing else acts like that.) Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much that night.

Trips like this one provided some great background material for various scenes in Where the Wind Blew.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Efficiency Is Our Best Untapped Energy Source


By Carole Bass, Yale Environment 360

"The world's biggest untapped energy source, according to energy expert Amory Lovins, is efficiency. But don't call it 'conservation.'"

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

An island unto itself

Earth felt the wound; and Nature from her seat,
Sighing through all her Works, gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.
- John Milton, Paradise Lost, IX, 782-4


The narrow ice bridge connecting The Wilkins Ice Shelf to Antarctica may soon collapse, leaving the ice shelf to float in the Southern Ocean and ultimately disintegrate. The massive island is about the size of Scotland.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

How many died because his mouth was open?

How many lives did "analysts" like Barry McCaffrey cost as they added fuel to the fire of Iraq War hawks by talking up the war's "success" and the need for more and more armament, while all the while they were shilling for companies they represented?

Just last week McCaffrey appeared on the NBC Nightly News as a "military analyst" to advocate beefing up security forces in Afghanistan without bothering to disclose his financial interest in just such a measure.

But there's oh so much more! Also, check out my post for Nov. 30, which has the links for David Barstow's investigative report in last Sunday's, New York Times.

"I'm Still Tortured by What I Saw in Iraq"


"I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq."

New fiction from The Wessex Collective!


Amalie in Orbit, by Gloria DeVidas Kirchheimer

A brief excerpt from the novel:

Amalie was seething over her visit to the employment agency. Hardly older than her son, the smug interviewer had shaken his head as he looked at her résumé. "You've been out of the market so long, Amalie. There's new technology. I see you didn't complete our application. How am I supposed to file you?"

"This reminds me of Kafka," Amalie said.

"Yes, I know the agency. They're real sticklers." He offered her a melting Tootsie Roll from a basket. "But you know, even a person like yourself has a lot to offer and might liaise well with the public." Then he had the gall to offer her some advice: "Add a touch of color when you go out for an interview. All black is too depressing."

"So is death, you punk," she said and walked out.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

How good is war for business?


Just ask General Barry R. McCaffrey.

For years he’s been shilling for companies in which he has a financial interest, including his own consulting company, while promoting the Iraq War.

One of a number of retired military officers who appeared on NBC and elsewhere to talk up support for the war, McCaffrey’s ties to companies that would profit from the military buildup were not disclosed. He had access to the top military and civilian leadership in Washington and Iraq while offering strategic advice from which he would directly benefit.

An investigative report in today’s New York Times discloses the complicated web of McCaffrey’s connections and interests in supporting the Iraq War.

Friday, November 28, 2008

What about the next president who breaks the law?

"Indeed, given the destruction of the past eight years to the fabric of American democracy, to shy away from torture prosecutions would seem profoundly -- and dangerously -- shortsighted."

While Barack Obama has turned to the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration for a model of economic recovery, looking beyond the Great Depression to the Nuremburg Trials, he might find a useful example of why prosecutions for war crimes matter.

The Bush administration’s complete disregard for the law sets a profoundly dangerous precedent—that the law can be broken with impunity, that the law itself doesn’t apply to those in power.

Consider the possibilities for a president who’s even worse than Bush, as staggeringly impossible as that may be to imagine.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Yet another good reason to impeach Bush


As if we needed one...

Rochelle Riley of The Detriot Free Press writes:

"If Congress moves quickly and forces the president to focus on impeachment, then he won’t have so much time to push through last-minute regulatory changes that will continue to hurt our country and our ideals."

And there's also the matter of all those pardons he's getting ready to sign.

We’re still there, and soldiers are still dying…

Two U.S. troops were killed in Iraq on Tuesday, bringing the total of American casualties to 4,207.

Monday, November 24, 2008

David Brooks worries me

By Bob Sommer, Uncommon Hours

It’s like getting a pebble in your shoe during the victory lap. What do you do? Stop? Keep going? Try to smile through the irritation? It’s spoiling the fun.

Conservative columnist David Brooks is the pebble, and my discomfort is finding that I’ve agreed with him lately. For years I’ve been accustomed to clicking open his column at The New York Times website and knowing I’d disagree with whatever I read. It would sound smug, dismissive. It would miss the point. He was a kind of negative comfort food for the head. I counted on him.

And now this!

Here’s what he wrote about President Elect Barack Obama’s newest appointments:

“…the team he has announced so far is more impressive than any other in recent memory.”

Worrisome enough.

But then he enumerates their qualities—open-mindedness, professionalism, “not excessively partisan,” and notably, “not ideological.”

This is too much! What am I missing? Is Obama really a neocon mole?

This is the same David Brooks who edited The Weekly Standard—that bastion of ideological neoconservatism that stood in lockstep with W from “we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud" to cheerleading the march to Baghdad to “the surge” and beyond (way beyond!).

The same David Brooks who told Chris Matthews, “Whoever the Democratic candidate, that is the weakness of the Democratic party, they’ve got the blogs and the netroots who are semi-nuts and they insist on a Stalinist line of discipline”—the Republicans under Bush being, of course, more flexible and open-minded, by far.

The same David Brooks who portrayed liberalism as a cartoon show of stereotypes in Bobos in Paradise and often columnizes about America’s fatal flaws—baby-boomers, the 1960s, latte coffee, and Volvos (or Priuses).

But maybe being an ideologue proved too much. Sarah Palin was the final straw. He called her “a fatal cancer to the Republican party.”

The Republicans’ toxic strategy of demonizing their opponents and rabble-rousing angry mobs has officially failed. Their faux populism and flag-draped hyper patriotism look like ragged, stained costumes that they’ve worn through an eight-year orgy, but now daylight and fatigue, hangovers and recriminations overwhelm the partiers as they linger wearily over coffee and cigarettes in a diner somewhere on Route 17 in New Jersey.

Rabid evangelicals, Joes- and Josephines-the-whatevers, a-noun-and-a-verb plus 9/11, wild-haired old ladies calling a lifelong Christian a Muslim (as if there was something wrong with being a Muslim), the myth that Democrats are still working on LBJ’s Great Society, that liberals are “tax-and-spend liberals”; or that they’re communists, socialists, weak, unpatriotic, anti-family—none of this added up to one positive, constructive idea to rebuild this country, make it a better global citizen, or keep the planet from melting before it became uninhabitable for humans.

And none of it added up to accountability for the failures of the last eight years.

To Brooks’s credit, he’s taken the measure of these failures.

But he still seems to be looking for an idea that’s not there—like the kid in Ronald Reagan’s favorite story who keeps looking for a pony in a pile of manure. He’s a work in progress. There’s a lot of manure left, but the pony's long gone.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Mid Hudson Bridge: a scene from WHERE THE WIND BLEW

From Chapter 15 of WHERE THE WIND BLEW:

"It was a cool autumn night, and the wind swept down the river from the north, stiff and cold. They locked elbows, fearful and excited, leaning into the blustery wind as it rushed and swirled around them. They were the only pedestrians, and they were isolated from the few cars that passed on the other side of the massive struts criss-crossing the length of the bridge. They passed through an ominous stone tunnel and when they emerged, the expanse of the bridge and walkway lay before them, with only the railing between them and the dark, empty void on the other side.

"At the center of the bridge, they leaned on the railing, tentatively at first, testing its strength, and then they looked down into the blackness. They couldn’t tell if they were seeing the river or just the vast emptiness between them and the water. There was no moon, no light on the water from anywhere. Leaning into the void thrilled them."

Scroll down to read another excerpt.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Jimmy Carter denied a visa to enter Zimbabwe


A personality "deemed hostile to Zimbabwe."

45 years ago today


Photo taken by an unknown photographer minutes before the shooting in Dealey Plaza.

The true cost of invading Iraq...

Tiny clay figures are reminders of growing Iraq death toll

By xofferson Docudharma

Nearly 100,000 hand-fired clay figures, representing lives lost in the Iraq war, will be the backdrop on Friday for an Iraq Moratorium action in the California community of Aptos, near Santa Cruz.

The display is the work of artist Kathleen Crocetti, a high school art teacher, who told the San Jose Mercury News: "I'm doing this to help people visualize the number of people killed in the Iraq war. We need a physical connection to that number. I thought we went into the war under false pretenses, and I can't sanction pre-emptive war. I feel such shame and sadness in my name as an American," she said. "I feel responsible for the pain and grief because of this war."

The 4,000-plus small white clay figures, each holding a U.S. flag, represent dead American service members. The 92,000 dark clay figures, behind the Americans like a shadow, represent Iraqis.

She uses the number from Iraq Body Count, which includes documented civilian deaths. It is a very conservative number; others estimate the count could be as high as a million.

Friday, November 21, 2008

"...so long as it brings interest."

“The great thing is never to feel bored with one’s own writing. That is the signal for a change—never mind what, so long as it brings interest.”

So said Virginia Woolf in her diary entry for Feb. 9, 1924. She was at work on a novel she called The Hours, published the following year as Mrs. Dalloway. The lines are more celebration than admonition, for she was pleased with the writing she’d done lately.

As with so much of her writing, there’s extraordinary depth in the sentiment. The challenge is to reach beyond the sense of vanity we enjoy in the sound of our own words. Have we said something new? If our own words had been written by another, would they have interest?

The book’s form was daring; it took risks; she declared herself ready to throw the manuscript in the fire in an instant.

Thank goodness she didn’t.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Meet the "new" Republican leadership




It would be hard to improve on the caption Dave Letterman offered following one of the Republican primary debates:

"A bunch of white guys ready to tee off at a restricted country club."

“Clearly," said John Kyl, one of the new Republican Senate leaders, "with the numbers diminished, we will have to modify, to some extent, the way that we operate."

No doubt, they should consider modifying the way they operate, "to some extent."