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

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."

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

“Excuuuuuse me!!"

Remember the old Steve Martin routine, “How to be a millionaire and never pay taxes”?

His solution began, “First, get a million dollars.”

The Bush version might be called, “How to commit any crime you want and get away with it.”

And the opening line: “First, get to be president of the United States.”

With two months remaining until the inauguration of Barack Obama, Bush’s punchline may be a blanket pardon for anyone who engaged in torture, with the pardonees to be unnamed and possibly to include Bush himself!

But with the incoming Obama administration apparently disinclined to prosecute, Bush can avoid issuing pardons to his administration (and himself) and thereby admitting they did anything illegal.

The next step in Martin’s plan was to pay no taxes on your million and then tell the tax man you forgot, which sounds like what would happen if charges were ever brought against Bush and company—a page from the decades old Republican playbook. It was, after all, Reagan who turned "I don't remember" from a sentence into a chant, though former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales raised this refrain to high political art. Of course, there's always that Reagan chestnut, "plausible deniability."

And in case you’ve forgotten, here’s Martin’s complete routine.

It’s a lot funnier than W’s.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


“Fame is the sum of the misunderstanding that gathers about a new name.”

– Rainer Maria Rilke

The minute hand hovers at fifteen past the hour; the seconds run out fast. But faster still is Joe-the-Plumber, now Joe-the-Writer, whose book about being Joe-the-Plumber will arrive before Christmas, with delivery time to spare, even at the media rate. In time, he hopes, to beat that expiring fifteen minutes.

How did that soap opera epigraph go? "Like sands through the hourglass of time..." Whatever. No point in piling up the cliches. We're probably in for a few more before the year expires, or Joe's fifteen minutes.

Joe must have been home scribbling away the day John McCain stood at the podium, calling vacantly into the throngs at his rally, “Joe, where are you? Where’s Joe? Is Joe here with us today? Joe, I thought you were here today.”

But he wasn’t. Perhaps the muses had called.

Yes, indeed, Joe the Plumber: Fighting for the American Dream will be released on December 1.

As a fellow laborer in the vast and fickle fields of writing, I can only stand in awe.

And if a new book weren’t accomplishment enough for this 21st-century renaissance man, there’s also a new blog and maybe—hope against hope!—a new country CD.

If President-Elect Obama doesn’t restore the American Dream, Joe the Plumber is standing by to show us the way, if the clock doesn't run out.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Words, words, words

Dick Cavett can cut you to ribbons and still make you feel like you’ve just been told you’re the new prom queen of all Alaska. The stock market may be gyrating and plummeting, but the election results suggest that share prices in speaking and writing well are on the rise, at last.

Not to be missed, here’s Cavett's blog on “The Wild Wordsmith of Wasilla.”

Today in history

"I am not a crook"

President Richard Nixon uttered those infamous words 35 years ago today in Orlando, Florida.

Too bad he didn’t have Ronald Reagan’s first Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, to interpret his statement for the press.

“That's not a lie," Haig would have said. "It's a terminological inexactitude. Also, a tactical misrepresentation.”

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Veterans protest at the National Archives

Photo by Tony Teolis

W seems to be regarded as more of a pet or mascot these days than the deadly hurricane that blew our nation into a senseless war, dismantled every regulation that stood between us and financial chaos, and set us back years in the effort to thwart global climate change.

But a group of activist veterans was not about to let Bush and Cheney slip away into the good night of ranching and quail hunting. They occupied the National Archives on Saturday, demanding accountability of the Bush administration.

Read the full story at afterdowningstreet.org.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

And now for something lighter?

When did Bushisms stop being funny? Seems like we haven’t had a good one in a while.

Fortunately, Jacob Weisberg at Slate keeps track of them. Here’s the latest entry:

"Yesterday, you made note of my—the lack of my talent when it came to dancing. But nevertheless, I want you to know I danced with joy. And no question Liberia has gone through very difficult times." (Speaking with the president of Liberia, Washington, D.C., Oct. 22, 2008)

Pretty lame, isn’t it? Just doesn’t seem as funny as some of the great classics, like

"The true strength of America happens when a neighbor loves a neighbor just like they'd like to be loved themselves." (Elizabeth, N.J., June 16, 2003)


"All I can tell you is when the governor calls, I answer his phone." (San Diego, Calif., Oct. 25, 2007)


“I know something about being a government. And you've got a good one." (Stumping for Gov. Mike Huckabee, Bentonville, Ark., Nov. 4, 2002)

But setting aside the fact that Bush has been in deep cover while the global economy melted and John McCain tried once more for the White House (who even heard about that meeting with the Liberian president?), the lameness in Bush’s Bushisms comes from just that—lameness.

In recent months, we’ve sampled—indeed, we’ve gorged on—the English language once more. We’ve chosen a leader who speaks it, thinks it, celebrates it with every word, every phrase, and every sentence. And lest we forget, Bush’s closest relative on the evolutionary chart of language development, Sarah Palin, was there in a big way to remind us of the horrors of mangled language that we'd already experienced, and what might lay ahead.

No, no! we said. No more!

No more convoluted syntax! No more whacky word substitutions! No more haywire logic! No more of the sound of talking but only drivel and foam coming out. We like this…this…new thing, this old thing—our language. We almost forgot about it. It’s great. It’s beautiful once more. Yes, this is what we want. Barack Obama speaks English—in sentences, in complete thoughts! Subjects, verbs—the whole nine yards. Whoa!

Bush just isn’t funny any more. And laugh was all we could do as his misassembled brain drooled noises that resembled words and sentences because flowing in the drooly foam were disasters, tragedies.

And now, in the clarion tones of our language we hear hope, and change—we hear the truth!

But we should have known better. After all, Bush warned us.

“I'm the master of low expectations," he said. (Aboard Air Force One, June 4, 2003)

Still, for old time’s sake, as we enter the holiday season like Bob Crachet, with many worries upon us, let’s have one more zinger, a chaser for the road:

“And so during these holiday seasons, we thank our blessings. ... " (Fort Belvoir, Va., Dec. 10, 2004)

Friday, November 14, 2008

"The Maddest Noise"

We wish the ear had not a heart
So dangerously near.

Emily Dickinson

Imagine an eruption of noise so loud and piercing that it makes your ears bleed, so disorienting that you might throw yourself off a cliff. Imagine such eruptions coming unpredictably, violently. The noise drives you to isolation; it disrupts your ability to communicate. The pain is unthinkable. The result is death.

The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that it was okay for the Navy to continue shelling whales off the coast of southern California with just such noises from its mid-range frequency sonar.

According to a press release from the Natural Resouces Defense Council, “Many scientists believe that animals seen stranded on the beach represent only a small part of the technology’s toll, given that severely injured animals would rarely come to shore.”

The Court decided that the “public interest” came before the harm to marine life in the region.

Alas, we’re still a long way from regarding the species and creatures on this planet who are not us as fellow travelers.

The words of Aldo Leopold might as easily apply to the oceans as the land: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

Thursday, November 13, 2008

“I became a prop, a cartoon character created to be pummeled.” Bill Ayers speaks out.

Without doubt, Bill Ayers took a horrific beating during the presidential campaign. Curiously, one of the people most surprised that he was this year’s stand-in for Osama bin Laden was John McCain himself, who didn’t get a copy of Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin’s talking points before they re-engineered Ayers as a political piñada. Palin was more than happy to turn her rallies into mob gatherings, and McCain quickly got on board, even as he protested: Au contraire, Obama’s a “decent” man. You half expected to see pitchforks and torches with McCain-Palin stickers bobbing in the crowds.

But it wasn’t only Barack Obama who upended their strategy, but Ayers himself, who remained silent, took everything they had to dish out, including death threats, and recognized that engaging them was exactly the wrong thing to do. And sure enough, they undid themselves—the propaganda, the lies, the distortions just made them and the fringe lunatics hooting and shouting that Obama was, well, fill in the blank, look ever more desperate.

Ayers has finally broken his silence with a piece in In These Times, and his message, like Obama’s, is one of hope:

“Yet hope—my hope, our hope—resides in a simple self-evident truth: the future is unknown, and it is also entirely unknowable.

“History is always in the making. It’s up to us. It is up to me and to you. Nothing is predetermined. That makes our moment on this earth both hopeful and all the more urgent—we must find ways to become real actors, to become authentic subjects in our own history.”

The high ground this year belongs to hope—and sanity.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Awesome photos from Election Day!

Hurricane W hasn't blown through yet!

George W. Bush seems determined to leave behind as much wreckage as possible, and he’s got more in mind than just removing the O’s from the West Wing computer keyboards. He appeared gracious when the Obamas arrived at the White House, and most of the media lapped up that story, but meanwhile he’s been quietly dismantling as much of our ever-shrinking wilderness heritage as possible before Inauguration Day. In Utah, the Interior Department is planning to lease over 3 million acres for drilling. Some of this land is near Canyonlands National Park, where I’ve rafted the Colorado River. It is a fragile, pristine, and beautiful place. I slept alongside the river and stared up into the infinity of stars in the night sky, which soon may be crowded out by the glow of gas and oil rig lights and incessant noise just over the horizon. But Bush and company have even bigger—one might say grander—plans downstream that include uranium mining near Grand Canyon, the very symbol of our nation’s outdoor heritage. And if that’s not enough, they’d be just as happy to see visitors to the national parks packing heat instead of backpacks, perhaps while they zoom through Yellowstone on noisy and smelly snowmobiles. If America were Easter Island and but one tree remained, W would be sharpening his hatchet.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans Day

One of my sons is a veteran of the conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq, so to honor him and all of those who serve, and their families, I’d like to share this personal essay, entitled “No, We’re Not from Texas,” which appeared earlier this year in Prick of the Spindle.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Where human nature is weakest - the bookstore!

Many thanks to Heidi Raak and The Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas, where I spent a cool, November afternoon last Saturday, meeting customers and signing copies of Where the Wind Blew. The well-written, two-sentence book blurb is no easy task, and The Raven’s bookshelves are filled with yellow slips of paper with carefully crafted recommendations by Heidi and her staff. What a delight to know that such havens for books and booklovers still exist!

Who speaks for Bill Ayers?

(first posted at Midwest Voices, Oct. 15, 2008)

Here’s a pop quiz:

Who wrote these lines?

“All that we witnessed September 11—the awful carnage and pain, the heroism of ordinary people—may drive us mad with grief and anger, or it may open us to hope in new ways. Perhaps precisely because we have suffered we can embrace the suffering of others and gather the necessary wisdom to resist the impulse to lash out randomly.”

The answer, perhaps hinted at in the title, is Bill Ayers, in a letter to the New York Times, published on Sept. 15, 2001.

I had known of Ayers and his wife, Bernadine Dohrn, long before then, but coincidentally, I had just begun work on a novel, Where the Wind Blew, about a year earlier. My draft wasn’t completed until late 2005, and I did not finally see the book published until just a few months ago. It is the story of a man who participated in a bombing during the 1960s—but unlike Ayers, my character was responsible for the deaths of innocents, and now, decades later, he must face his past.

In 2001, I still had much research to do. I was drafting the early chapters and developing the outline when Ayers’ memoir, Fugitive Days, was published. His memoir was one of a number of books about the radical 1960s that I read. Some of the better memoirs include Jonah Raskin’s Out of the Whale, Jane Alpert’s Growing Up Underground, and Robert Pardun’s Prairie Radical. Of these, Alpert’s is the only figure whose group also resorted to the violent measures Ayers and the Weather Underground believed were the only way to stop the war.

That was then, forty years ago.

When Ayers was interviewed by a Times reporter in 2001, she painted him as a man without regrets and couldn’t refrain from writing such a sensationalist piece that Ayers had to repudiate it.

“No regrets for a love of explosives!” ran the headline—regardless of the fact that Ayers had said exactly the opposite. She had twisted words that Ayers used to describe the kind of long-distance warfare conducted anonymously by dropping bombs from high altitudes.

Ayers responded in the Times, “My memoir is from start to finish a condemnation of terrorism, of the indiscriminate murder of human beings, whether driven by fanaticism or official policy.”

What I found, studying the writings by and about the key figures of the 1960s, was more than a sense of regret, which they all have in their own unique ways, but a profoundly complex view of a terrible chapter in our nation’s history. Over 58,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam. I’ve touched some of their names on the Vietnam Wall in Washington with my fingertips while thinking of my own son deployed in Iraq and later in Afghanistan. As many as 3 million Vietnamese died, many killed by American bombs. But the nation’s leadership—then, as now, over these past seven years—seemed hell-bent on finding military solutions for its diplomatic failures. And now, similarly, we are learning more and more about Afghan civilians dying namelessly as American bombs fall from the sky.

I discovered, as the story of my novel unfolded and the characters found their voices, that the question of what would stop the war, what would make people listen, drove some opponents of the war to further and further extremes. As a novelist, I found great drama and fascinating people in this story. But representing them meant trying to see all the viewpoints of the times, then and now. One character, the wife of the former radical, has a moment of epiphany, late in the book, when she wonders what would have changed if some few people hadn’t been driven to extremes. I take the liberty of sharing a portion of that moment here:

“And she wondered, too, if he—if all those people like him back then—hadn’t done some of the things they did—maybe not…no, not all of them, but some of them—would anything have changed? It was true, she reasoned, that changing things meant rupturing what existed. That’s what was happening to her—right now. They had all been living on this thin, shiny veneer, living comfortable lives, fretting over trifles, burying themselves in the vicarious lives of celebrities, entertaining themselves with the false realities of reality television, but the veneer had cracked, and when they crashed through, nothing was underneath it, and they were still falling. And now she looked back up as she plunged downward and saw that all around her, that’s how others were living, though they didn’t know it yet, and anything could change their lives, just as hers changed. That was how she lived when she was young, too—while a war exploded, while the country nearly came apart. But she knew so little of what was beyond her small world. She’d been oblivious to everything else. Boyfriends, dances, dresses, music—that’s what that time meant to her, while all of this turmoil bubbled beneath it, and she wondered now, if everyone had just gone along like that, oblivious, indifferent, would the war have ever ended, would blacks still drink from separate water fountains, would the FBI spy on you?”

Ayers is now a respected professor of education professor at the University of Illinois – Chicago. During the 1990s, he sat on the board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, along with a number of others, including some Republicans and Barack Obama. The Challenge is dedicated to improving Chicago’s schools. It was funded by Walter Annenberg, who served as an ambassador in Richard Nixon’s administration.

The efforts of the McCain campaign to paint this relationship into something other than what it is smacks of desperation. Frankly, an Obama administration could do a lot worse than consult with Bill Ayers on education policy.