So this was President Bush’s message for the New Year. An endorsement of 2006 as if it was one hell of a happy, successful, prosperous year—say, 1956 dressed up as 2006: “Over the past year, we have reached important goals and confronted new challenges,” he started. “At the start of this New Year, we move forward with trust in the power of the American spirit, confidence in our purpose, and faith in a loving God who created us to be free.” Let that jarring, mildly blasphemous reference to a loving God by this pimp of scamming deities (God, Mamon, Ares, take your pick). The goals met: more jobs (welcome to McFatty; can I take your order?), higher wages (compared to the previous five and a half years, yes; compared to the 1990s, absolutely not), “and we achieved our goal of cutting the deficit in half three years ahead of schedule” (for that little gem of presidential rhinoplasty outdoing Pinocchio’s at his horniest I can only refer you to “W.’s Voodoo Economics” and, if you insist, his “Deficit Fog”). Three paragraphs into his six-paragraph whitewash from Crawford, he remembers—not that the three thousandth death of an American soldier in his Iraqi Waterloo was recorded even as one of his junior varsity speechwriters was cobbling together his message’s little fop of horrors; no, the Lord and Savior who deigns not attend soldiers’ funerals deigns not recognize that they’re dying either, unless he absolutely, positively has to if the stage directions of the moment command what his conscience won’t. He remembers that there is a war on, as there must be to nourish the revered industries in on the joke (their dividends, at the America public’s expense) and to fan the fears without which we’d have—well, nothing to fear, and wouldn’t that be a disastrous slump back to America’s Rooseveltian days. It’s not quite a war but a campaign commercial, as it’s designed to “promote liberty as an alternative to tyranny and despair.” Funny that he would conflate defeating terrorism and extremism in the same line: Dangerously self-referential territory there that could be used against him, once he’s been Mirandized. Here’s as far as he got, putting hints of flesh but not quite blood behind the numbers his war have been racking up: “Our Nation depends on the fine men and women in uniform who serve our country with valor and distinction, and we remain mindful of their dedication and sacrifice.” Fine men. Fine words. Beautiful sacrifice. Especially in light of “the year ahead and the opportunities it will bring.” Because it’s always about opportunism, isn’t it. The only difference between this New Year message and the Prayer of Jabez—the believer’s translation of Ayn Randism—is the flaccid English.
Has there ever been any doubt? The Reagan administration and a good deal of the first part of the older Bush administration romanced Saddam Hussein during the 1980s for a reason. It's standard-issue American policy to fear Shiitism, battle it and defeat it in whatever form it takes short of a faithless hybrid of something starry and stripy--ironic, considering the current Bush's affinity for things fanatical. But the next war in Iraq, the one the United States is buiolding up its forces in Baghdad for, the one that will bring megatonnage grief to a land already riven by grief, is the one between the American military and its non-existent allies in the Iraqi government, and the Shiite, and admittedly shitty, milicias of Moqtada al-Sadr, a Mullah-come-lately who's giviing even Osama bin Laden (if he's still alive down in his suburban basement) and Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah, back in Lebanon, a run for their claim to be Islamdom's true revolutionary leaders. (Ahmanidejad, you say? He's everytone's laghing stock, even among his own.) And who will be America's new allies in Iraq? Why, the Sunnis, as always. The Washington Post, more restrained in its imperial reporting from Iraq, sees only an identity crisis for the Shiites. It leaves other causes to the imagination:
Iraq's Shiites are at a crossroads in their rise from oppression to power and in their relationship with the United States. In a nation riven by violence and competing visions, they feel as if they have been handed the keys to their house but never allowed to settle down. Bitter personality rifts have undermined their ability to govern. And they have yet to bridge the growing divide separating them from the Sunnis and further deepened by Hussein's execution on Saturday. As President Bush seeks a new strategy for Iraq, many Shiites express deep mistrust of the United States and its intentions. In U.S. efforts to engage Iraq's disaffected Sunnis, they perceive betrayal. And in U.S. pressure to dismantle Shiite militias, they see an attempt to weaken their bulwark against Sunni insurgents. Against this backdrop, Shiite leaders have begun to push harder for more independence from their American backers. Most recently, the government ignored U.S. objections to hanging Hussein too hastily. He was executed, amid jeers from Shiite witnesses, four days after an appeals court upheld his death sentence. Casting a shadow over discussions with Shiites [...] is a despairing sense, inspired by centuries of oppression and suspicion of outsiders, that their community is handcuffed, effectively prevented from shaping its future. [...] Shiite politicians and analysts say [U.S. Ambassador Zalmay] Khalilzad is backing the Sunnis to
limit the power of Shiites in the government. They say the United
States and its allies, concerned about the growing influence of
neighboring Iran's Shiite theocracy, will never allow an independent Shiite government, much less a religious one, to fully blossom in Iraq. The full story...
Tickets for the next phase of the war, and Moqtada's American-sponsored assassination, on sale at all Ticketron offices.
From National Journal by way of the Center for Media and Democracy (and Linda): "With congressional Democrats readying probes into oil companies' profits and eyeing legislation aimed at curbing global warming, the American Petroleum Institute and its K Street allies are looking to assemble a $100 million war chest to rally policy makers and public opinion to their side," reports Peter Stone. "The image and education effort, much of which will be coordinated by the PR firm Edelman, will include expensive television, radio, and print ads, tours of oil patch facilities for lawmakers and opinion elites, and financial contributions to sympathetic think tanks and industry-friendly organizations." API has also been using the services of Wirthlin Worldwide, headed by former Ronald Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin, as it scrambles "to salvage a reputation suffering amid high gasoline prices and concern about fossil-fuel dependence."
New Year's Eve stint ot genuine solidarity? Either way, it seems to have had an effect. From The Times: "Hundreds of people emerged from tents beside this city’s Canal St.-Martin to greet the chilly New Year with a hot lunch from a nearby soup kitchen. But not all of them were homeless. Dozens of otherwise well-housed, middle-class French have been spending nights in tents along the canal, in the 10th Arrondissement, in solidarity with the country’s growing number of “sans domicile fixe,” or “without fixed address,” the French euphemism for people living on the street. The bleak yet determinedly cheerful sleep-in is meant to embarrass the French government into doing something about the problem. [...] Given France’s well-financed social services, the country’s homeless problem is relatively mild — the national statistics bureau estimated the number of people living without a fixed address on any one night at 86,000 for all of France in 2004, about equal to the number of homeless in Los Angeles alone. But even that number is disturbing for the socially active segment of France’s population. In December 2005, the French affiliate of the international charity Doctors of the World began distributing nylon pup tents to people who sleep on Paris’s sidewalks and beneath its bridges. The movement took hold, and since then the tents have become a fixture in odd corners of the city. In an effort to increase pressure on politicians, another group, Don Quixote’s Children, marshaled some of the tent dwellers last year to set up their tents along the Canal St.-Martin, in the heart of “bobo” (short for bourgeois bohemian) Paris. The canal was dug by Napoleon to supply Paris with clean drinking water. Since mid-December, the encampment has become a happening in one of Paris’s most happening neighborhoods. “There are 250 tents now,” said Jean-Baptiste Legrand, the organization’s president. “The people keep coming, and the tents are full.” The protest has started to spread to other cities, including Orléans, Toulouse and Lyon, and has been picked up by politicians as the presidential campaign gets under way. [...] [The government] last week announced a tenfold increase in spending to help the homeless, to $92 million from $9 million. She said the money would allow homeless shelters to stay open around the clock on weekends and extend their weekday opening by three hours a day. But a legally enforceable right to housing is the biggest prize sought by housing activists. [...] Not all of the homeless are down-and-out French. A group of immigrants continues to live farther up the canal beneath what people in the area have dubbed “the bridge of the Afghans.” The government says that a third of the country’s homeless hold jobs." Th full story...
A Vidal Bit: Howard's End “So this is the big fucking deal everyone goes on about?”
For more than half a century, Gore Vidal lived with his companion Howard Auster, mostly in Ravello, Italy, at times in Los Angeles. Auster was not the love of his life. Readers of "Palimpsest," Vidal’s first memoir (1995), might remember that Jimmy Trimble was—a 20-year-old killed in the wasteful, pointless battle for Iwo Jima. In that book Vidal let on that he slept with thousands of men, but lived sexlessly, but no less fondly, with Howard. Howard died in November 2003, from cancer and other illnesses. As Tennessee Williams once wrote, “Vidal is not likable, at least not in any familiar way, but he and [Paul] Bowles are the two most honest savages I have met.” It’s the savagery I’ve always admired in Vidal, savagely witty as no other American writer of the last few decades. Savagery and, for the last few years (as in Inventing a Nation, his book on the Founders) surprising tenderness. Here, from "Point to Point Navigation," his latest memoir (Doubleday), is his account of the death of Howard Auster, as savage and poignant an account of a companion’s death as you’re likely to read. Leto is the nurse.
“Don’t you want to talk?” I asked. There was a long silence, then he shook his head.
“Because,” he said, “there’s too much to say.” […]
Vidal and Auster in Arizona during the filming of "Billy the Kid," with Val Kilmer, a movie Vidal wrote.
Leto arrived with his supper which he put on a table in front of the armchair. I went downstairs to get a sandwich. A few minutes later Leto shouted, “Mr. Auster has stopped breathing!” I ran upstairs. He was still in the armchair, facing the window. He had eaten most of his dinner. In front of him was a tin of some vitamin concoction that he liked. Leto said, “He just drank that drink and took a deep breath and then he—stopped.” I sat in the chair opposite and did all the things that we have learned from movies to determine death. I passed a hand in front of his mouth and nose. Nothing stirred. Montaigne requires that I describe more how he looked—rather than how I felt. The eyes were open and very clear. I’d forgotten what a beautiful gray they were—illness and medicine had regularly glazed them over; now they were bright and attentive and he was watching me, consciously, through long lashes. Lungs, heart may have stopped but the optic nerves were still sending messages to a brain which, those who should know tell us, does not immediately shut down. So we stared at each other at the end. He had been sitting straight up when I came in the room but now, very slightly he slumped to the left in his chair. Leto had gone to ring 911. “Can you hear me?” I asked him. “I know you can see me.” Although there was no breath for speech, he now had a sort of wry wiseguy from the Bronx expression on his face which said clearly to me who knew all his expressions, “So this is the big fucking deal everyone goes on about.” In my general state of confusion I was oddly comforted that in death he was in perfect easy character much as he would have been that evening if he had lived to sing “ New York,” the song the people in Ravello often begged him to sing fortissimo.
Jim Carney who works for us at times kept me company while the newly arrived team from 911 hurled him onto the wood floor time and again. If he’d had a spark of life, all that pummeling would have extinguished it. When they finally finished, I thought they were going to take him to whatever hospital they had come from, so I said, “Could you take him instead to Cedars-Sinai, that’s his regular hospital.” One of the medics said, “He’s not going to a hospital, he’s going to the mortuary.”
Then Jim and I were left with Howard on the floor between us covered by a sheet, black socks on his feet. Leto wept. I envied him—the WASP glacier had closed over my head. It took over an hour for the ambulance to come take him away. During the wait, I pulled back the sheet for one last look at those clear gray eyes—could they still see?—but the substance of the eyeballs had collapsed and two gelatinous streaks of the sort snails make had coursed down his cheeks. I would not see him in any corporal form again until the ashes at Rock Creek Cemetery.
But, curiously, last night I finally saw him clearly in a dream-a frustration dream. We were in a side street in Rome where the entrance to our old flat should have been but was nowhere to be found. Yet every- thing else was as it should have been, including a greengrocer whom we knew. Howard had grabbed a handful of fava beans and started to shell them. For what it is worth the fava bean itself resembles a miniature fetus and the Pythagorean cult believed that each bean contains the soul of someone dead, ready to be reborn. In the dream Howard was eating these forbidden fetuses—preparing for rebirth?
From Into MyOwn: "No one seems to talk much about the death penalty anymore. It's an issue that the Democrats seem to have conceded to the Republicans. It's difficult to find a Democratic presidential candidate in the last few years who doesn't support it, even though Republicans are much more likely to support the death penalty than Democrats. With a solid majority of Americans supporting the death penalty in spite of several highly publicized cases of false convictions, it may take a popular writer to John Grisham to help change public opinion.
The story of The Innocent Man, Grisham's non-fiction entry into the death penalty debate, tells a compelling if familiar story of police incompetence and prosecutorial zeal. The main character is Ron Williamson, a schizophrenic who is convicted out of convenience five years after the brutal murder of Debbie Carter, a young single woman in Ada, Oklahoma, who is stalked a killed following a night out at a local bar. Although Ron had a seemingly convincing alibi, he and a friend, Dennis Fritz, are pegged for the murder and wind up on death row in Oklahoma's McAlester prison." Read the full review...
From the inimitable Denis Overbye in The Times: "I was a free man until they brought the dessert menu around. There
was one of those molten chocolate cakes, and I was suddenly being
dragged into a vortex, swirling helplessly toward caloric doom, sucked
toward the edge of a black (chocolate) hole. Visions of my father’s heart attack danced before my glazed eyes. My wife, Nancy, had a resigned look on her face. The outcome, endlessly replayed whenever we go out, is never in doubt, though I often cover my tracks by offering to split my dessert with the table. O.K., I can imagine what you’re thinking. There but for the grace of God. Having just lived through another New Year’s Eve, many of you have just resolved to be better, wiser, stronger and richer in the coming months and years. After all, we’re free humans, not slaves, robots or animals doomed to repeat the same boring mistakes over and over again. As William James wrote in 1890, the whole “sting and excitement” of life comes from “our sense that in it things are really being decided from one moment to another, and that it is not the dull rattling off of a chain that was forged innumerable ages ago.” Get over it, Dr. James. Go get yourself fitted for a new chain-mail vest. A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control. As a result, physicists, neuroscientists and computer scientists have joined the heirs of Plato and Aristotle in arguing about what free will is, whether we have it, and if not, why we ever thought we did in the first place. “Is it an illusion? That’s the question,” said Michael Silberstein, a science philosopher at Elizabethtown College in Maryland. Another question, he added, is whether talking about this in public will fan the culture wars. “If people freak at evolution, etc.,” he wrote in an e-mail message, “how much more will they freak if scientists and philosophers tell them they are nothing more than sophisticated meat machines, and is that conclusion now clearly warranted or is it premature?”" The full story...
Let the freaking begin. It's about time we had an open debate about free will.