Archives for May, 2004

Awful

This, from yesterday’s Metro section, just may be the saddest thing I’ve ever read.

Posted on May 30, 2004 in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Sopranos Guide to Life

I have decided that my new way of bringing annoying conversations to a close will be to ape Johnny Sack, and summarily declare, “we’re done here.”

Posted on May 27, 2004 in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Iraq and Vietnam

Here’s a paper (pdf) on Iraq and Vietnam: Differences, Similarities, and Insights from the Army War College. Jeffrey Record, who made headlines a while back with his paper “Bounding the Global War on Terrorism,” is a coauthor. Record has a paper coming out for Cato on preventive war and nonproliferation. It’s very good. He discusses past occasions in American foreign policy history when preventive wars were seriously considered, and rejected: against the Soviet Union during the Truman administration, against Red China later, and against Cuba during the missile crisis. Better judgment prevailed in those circumstances, in contrast with Iraq.

Posted on May 27, 2004 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Truth and Fiction

To elaborate on the post below, imagine if, a few years ago, I’d predicted that the President was going to set the Pentagon to work on a plan that would allow the government to sift through your credit history, academic records, medical records, travel history and veterinary records [I don't know either, but that's what the original TIA page said]–and put an Iran-Contra felon in charge of it. Imagine if I’d said that one of the key players on the Pentagon’s intelligence team would be a Promise-Keeping loon who thinks God appointed George W. Bush to do battle with Satan. Or if I’d said that we’d go to war based in large part on intelligence information provided by a crook who spies for Iran.

I’m sure I’m forgetting a few choice examples, but the point is, nobody would have believed this if it didn’t actually happen. It would make for bad fiction–it’s about as subtle as an Ayn Rand novel.

Posted on May 26, 2004 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Politics, Politics, Politics

You know, you go through your whole adult life convinced that government’s a fraud, a bad joke, and a crime. That we’re governed by crooks and clowns and fools. That the worst get on top, haven’t the slightest clue what they’re doing, and can be counted on mainly to botch things disastrously and at enormous cost. And even so, every few years, the political process can surprise you. It turns out to be worse than you thought. You look around, and you realize you haven’t been cynical enough.

Just thought I’d share.

Posted on May 21, 2004 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Cautious Captioning

Is it fear of liability or an idiosyncratic take on “innocent until proven guilty” that causes the Post’s caption writer to be so mealy-mouthed and equivocal this morning? The Post story on the new Abu Ghraib tapes shows a video still of unidentified soldiers putting naked and hooded prisoners in a pyramid, and labels it “unidentified soldiers appear to place naked and hooded detainees in a pyramid.” Similarly with “a soldier seems to pull a hooded, naked detainee over to a pyramid of prisoners.”

Posted on May 21, 2004 in Uncategorized | Comments Off

You’re a Tortured Soul, Charlie Brown

Brian Doherty on the dark vision of Charles Schulz:

As comedy and comics historian Ben Schwartz noted in a recent article in Comic Art, Schulz’s work fit in snugly with a American literary mentality exemplified by the likes of Salinger and popular sociology like The Lonely Crowd: “postwar failure and frustration.”

Indeed, far from merely charming and diverting, Peanuts presented every day for 50 years a curious and fantastic litany of failure (Charlie Brown), malice (Lucy), self-deception (Snoopy, Linus, Peppermint Patty), and genius that goes nowhere (Schroeder and his toy piano). Yet it still somehow became widely beloved on the crudest level of festooning bedsheets and lunch pails and pitching life insurance and cruddy snack cakes.

Yes, everyone loved Peanuts, but it’s sometimes hard, from the perspective of the fan of comics-art-for-arts sake, to figure out exactly why. The strip’s essence, one would think, would make hawkers of cheap products and cheaper sentiment run away from its characters screaming. Yet it remained compelling on so many levels that we managed to achieve an amazing level of pure cultural denial over what Peanuts was really selling us. It’s true, I suppose, that all of us have elements of Charlie Brown, of Snoopy the supercilious fantasist, of Lucy the self-assured terror, somewhere in us, or at least in our experience. What Peanuts never gave us — even though myth would say lowest-common-denominator culture demands it — is uplift or a happy ending. It gave us one curious, alienated postwar American’s skill and vision and determination (he kept drawing himself in a final decade when he could barely draw an unshaky line) and that turned out to be more than enough.

Posted on May 21, 2004 in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

The Politics of the Sopranos

Welcome New York Times readers (if any of you were bored or underemployed enough to find your way here from that article). If you came here searching for Sopranos commentary, you may be interested in some of the following links. Here’s a piece I wrote two years ago on the moral perspective of the Sopranos, using Slate’s team of shrink-commenters as a jumping-off point. Excerpt:

One of the show’s main themes is the vacuity of our therapeutic culture. From Tony’s encounter with jargon-spouting school administrators who tell him his restless teenage son A.J. has Attention Deficit Disorder (“so it’s a sickness to fidget?” Tony growls) to Dr. Jennifer Melfi coddling the Don of North Jersey and pumping him full of Prozac, the psychiatric perspective is portrayed as one of the things that’s wrong with the world in the world of the Sopranos….

Despite Tony’s increasing depravity, the Slate crew clings to the fond hope that therapy will be chicken soup for his malicious soul. You find them saying things like (at the end of the third season) “the therapy has never been better, and we end the season with the sense that Tony is settling down to work on himself.” Tell it to Soprano capo Ralphie Cifaretto, who ends up with his head in a bowling ball bag courtesy of Tony’s murderous rage.

It’s great fun reading Slate’s Shrinks, because they just don’t get the show at all. In their fashionable leftism and their reflexive hostility to moral judgment, they’re constitutionally incapable of recognizing the show’s critique of the moral relativism that too often infects psychotherapy. In fact, at least one of the Slate crew, Glen Gabbard, M.D., draws the opposite lesson from the HBO drama. In his bestselling book, The Psychology of the Sopranos (2002), Gabbard quotes Alfred North Whitehead approvingly: “What is morality in any given time or place? It is what the majority then and there happen to like, and immorality is what they dislike.” Warming to his subject, Gabbard continues: “Is it moral to convince people that they should buy something they really don’t need? Or to increase profits by employing children at low wages abroad?” Yes: when you think about it, what bright line can we draw between our actions and those of a multiple-murdering crime boss? We’re all guilty, and so none of us are guilty–anyway, it’s all relative, isn’t it?

Well, no, it’s not. And Dr. Gabbard’s vacuous amoralizing underscores the fact that therapy never had a chance with the Don of North Jersey. The show’s screenwriters hint at this in the first season, when Dr. Melfi’s ex-husband warns her about taking Tony on as a patient. Once you get past “psychiatry and its cheesy moral relativism,” Melfi’s ex tells her, you’ll reach the rock-bottom truth about Soprano: “he’s evil.”

And Tony is evil. That he’s also charming and in many ways a sympathetic character doesn’t change that, unless you’re the sort of moral simpleton who can only recognize malevolence when it comes in the reptilian visage of an Ayn Rand villain.

Here’s the point of the Sopranos, to the extent a show as rich and multifaceted as it is can have “a point.” The show is about an evil man with some vestigial traces of a conscience lurching through a world that has decided that feeling warm and fuzzy about yourself is more important than being a decent person. And everywhere Tony Soprano goes–Dr. Melfi’s office included–he finds people willing to indulge that view. His despair, which is palpable, is largely a result of that conscience. He knows he’s a reprehensible person, and he’s half crying out to hear it from someone.

… Many cultural critics on the right have missed the point of the show as well. Distracted by Tony’s charm, as well as the sex and the violence–almost none of it gratuitous–it’s escaped their notice that the Sopranos is one of the most morally conservative dramas ever to grace a TV screen. It rejects popular cant about self-esteem and self-discovery and speaks in the language of good and evil, sin and suffering (though, in its stark worldview, redemption doesn’t seem to be much of a possibility).

More here and here. Here’s a piece by Radley Balko arguing (in a not-dissimilar vein) that the Sopranos is one of the most libertarian shows to appear on TV in some time. And, of course, it’s hard to miss the show’s offhand swipes at the Iraq war, achieved mostly by having guys like Paulie and Chrissy praise the Bush administration.

Posted on May 18, 2004 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

WMD Found… not to Be WMD

WMD found: Sarin gas causes mass destruction in Baghdad! Well, no, actually. A roadside bomb rigged with a sarin gas shell went off, and two U.S. soldiers were treated for “minor exposure.” No casualties.

Warhawk triumphalism aside, this development hurts, rather than helps, the case for war. It underscores the point that, in the main, “WMD” is a misnomer as applied to chem/bio. Moreover, it shows that, if you are worried about so-called WMD, it would have been much smarter to leave them in the hands of the dictator who had repeatedly, exhaustively, despite every opportunity, demonstrated that he had no intention of using them on Americans. Like I’ve been saying.

Posted on May 17, 2004 in Uncategorized | 20 Comments

Dream Weaver

People either loved or hated the Sopranos dream sequence last night. I loved it. Principally because, like most of my dreams, it was unsettling and made very little sense. Why was the vice-prone vice cop who killed himself in season one Finn’s father? Why did Tony find himself in bed with Carmine? Why the Annette Bening dream cameo? (Her finest role ever, for my money.) No reason. No deep significance. Random neurons firing.

When I was a little kid I used to have a dream sometimes that I’d found a huge box of fabulous old comic books. In the morning, I’d lie half-awake planning to spend my day reading them until I realized–shit! that was a dream. I sometimes have the teeth-dream, except it’s usually that I’ve broken them rather then my teeth falling out. I still have a recurring dream that’s similar to Tony’s dream about his high-school football coach. It’s late in my last semester of college or high school or law school. I’ve forgotten that I’m enrolled in a class the credits for which I need to graduate. It’s usually calculus or a foreign language or something I’m not good at. I’ve got two days before the exam to learn everything in the semester and I’m frantically filling in reams and reams of workbook exercises. Unlike the comic book dream, I wake up and I’m immensely relieved.

My Dad had a similar nightmare not too long ago. He dreamed he had a regular office job, and was wracked with terror and despair, until he woke up.

Posted on May 17, 2004 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Take the Red Pill, Neo

The NYT runs a John Tierney piece on right-wing doubts about the war, including George Will’s admonition that the administration needs a dose of conservatism without the prefix. In that spirit, here’s Russell Kirk’s take on Bush the father and Gulf War One:

What are we to say of Mr. Bush’s present endeavor to bring to pass a gentler, kinder New World Order?

Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson were enthusiasts for American domination of the world. Now George Bush appears to be emulating those eminent Democrats. When the Republicans, once upon a time, nominated for the presidency a “One World” candidate, Wendell Willkie, they were sadly trounced. In general, Republicans throughout the twentieth century have been advocates of prudence and restraint in the conduct of foreign affairs.

But Mr. Bush, out of mixed motives, has embarked upon a radical course of intervention in the region of the Persian Gulf. After carpet-bombing the Cradle of Civilization as no country ever had been bombed before, Mr. Bush sent in hundreds of thousands of soldiers to overrun the Iraqi bunkers — that were garrisoned by dead men, asphyxiated.

…. it would be ruinous for the Republicans to convert themselves into a party of high deeds in distant lands and higher taxes on the home front. Such a New World Order, like the Pax Romana, might create a wilderness and call it peace; at best, it would reduce the chocolate ration from thirty grams to twenty. And in the fullness of time, the angry peoples of the world would pull down the American Empire, despite its military ingenuity and its protestations of kindness and gentleness.

I’ve never cared for Kirk, in substance or in style. But those of you who do, and who call yourselves conservatives, ought to consider whether he was onto something here. What’s so conservative about war, anyway?

Posted on May 16, 2004 in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Huh?

This from Bush on the campaign trail:

He said Wood County educators and officials should be left alone to keep up the good work.

“It’s not the federal government’s responsibility to fund schools,” Bush said. “It’s the state and local levels’ responsibility.

“The people here in Parkersburg can run the schools here a lot better than anyone in Washington D.C.,” the president said, generating roaring applause from the crowd.

Link courtesy Atrios.

Posted on May 15, 2004 in Uncategorized | Comments Off

“Exterminate All the Brutes”

Apropos of the war-and-human-nature discussion below, here’s the Toledo Blade’s four-part series on war crimes by “Tiger Force,” an elite U.S. Army unit in the Vietnam War. (The series earned the Blade a Pulitzer this year). Links to the whole thing can be found here. There’s so much in it that’s horrific, it’s hard to figure out what to excerpt. But here’s the broad outline of the story, followed by some details:

The platoon – a small, highly trained unit of 45 paratroopers created to spy on enemy forces – violently lost control between May and November, 1967.

For seven months, Tiger Force soldiers moved across the Central Highlands, killing scores of unarmed civilians – in some cases torturing and mutilating them – in a spate of violence never revealed to the American public.

They dropped grenades into underground bunkers where women and children were hiding – creating mass graves – and shot unarmed civilians, in some cases as they begged for their lives.

They frequently tortured and shot prisoners, severing ears and scalps for souvenirs.

William Doyle, a former Tiger Force sergeant now living in Missouri, said he killed so many civilians he lost count.

“We were living day to day. We didn’t expect to live. Nobody out there with any brains expected to live,” he said in a recent interview. “So you did any goddamn thing you felt like doing – especially to stay alive. The way to live is to kill because you don’t have to worry about anybody who’s dead.”

Time and again, Tiger Force soldiers talked about the executions of captured soldiers – so many, investigators were hard pressed to place a number on the toll.

In June, Pvt. Sam Ybarra slit the throat of a prisoner with a hunting knife before scalping him – placing the scalp on the end of a rifle, soldiers said in sworn statements. Ybarra refused to talk to Army investigators about the case.

Former platoon medic Larry Cottingham told investigators: “There was a period when just about everyone had a necklace of ears.”

Records show soldiers began another gruesome practice: Kicking out the teeth of dead civilians for their gold fillings.

As the Blade establishes, much of this was known–and known at the highest levels. The Army undertook a 4 1/2 year investigation–an investigation that the White House, including John Dean, received briefings on. But the Army purposely squelched any attempt at disciplinary action.

I keep hearing about what a disloyal jackass John Kerry is for telling lurid tales of wartime atrocities when he returned from Vietnam. But for all the tall tales and amplified rumors he traded in, it’s worth remembering that things like this went on. If what we’ve seen so far at Abu Ghraib is the worst prisoner-abuse to emerge from this war, we can count ourselves and the Iraqis lucky.

I don’t mean to wax Chomskyite. There’s no military force on the planet I’d feel safer surrendering to in wartime. We are and have nearly always been better than our wartime enemies. But at bottom, we’re made of the same raw material.

Posted on May 14, 2004 in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Springer Nation Goes to War

You know, at first I thought people were overdoing the shock about what happened at Abu Ghraib. Not because I think it’s no big deal–what went on at there is, of course, hideous. But it’s also not terribly surprising. Even somebody whose historical knowledge is limited to the occasional 5 minutes on the History Channel between commercials should know that when you go to war, you open a Pandora’s Box. What emerges are some of the worst aspects of human nature. Reason enough, I should think, to avoid unnecessary wars. So I got a little sick of hearing the war-as-a-force-for-good crowd rend their garments and gnash their teeth for the last week or so. Did you really think all there was to war was GIs handing out chocolate bars to little kids?

But ye Gods, I have to admit, the stuff that’s coming out now is pretty cringe-inducing. Not because the brutality is particularly unique (this falls well short of ear-necklaces or My Lai). But because it’s just so weird.

Videos showed the disgraced soldier – made notorious in a photo showing her holding a leash looped around an Iraqi prisoner’s neck – engaged in graphic sex acts with other soldiers in front of Iraqi prisoners, Pentagon officials told NBC Nightly News.

“Almost everybody was naked all the time,” another lawmaker said.

Call me old fashioned, but even thumbscrews and jumper cables have a certain grim dignity to them in comparison to screwing in front of prisoners and ordering them to masturbate. If I’d found out Americans were routinely beating the hell out of their prisoners, I’d be angry. But I wouldn’t be quite so embarassed.

Posted on May 13, 2004 in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

The Siege

I saw the 1998 movie “The Siege” on USA network last night. Pre-9/11, it’s just another “Peacemaker” or “Sum of All Fears”–distinguished principally by the filmmakers’ politically incorrect decision to cast terrorists that aren’t some variety of Slav. Post-9/11, it’s as close to prescient as Hollywood gets.

* Terrorism that’s mostly low-tech, yet nonetheless terrifying; bus bombings, buildings levelled (including FBI counterterrorism headquarters) and no supervillain WMD;

* Terrorism that’s decentralized and cellular, and that feeds off of military attempts to neutralize it: “Is this the last cell?” “There is no last cell!!”

* Terrorists that make no demands for concessions and no attempt to negotiate, but simply seek to kill as many Americans as possible, as visibly as possible;

* Calls to repeal the Posse Comitatus Act–opposed, but nonetheless acquiesced to, by the military establishment;

* Annette Bening protesting to bad guy Samir that “Islam is a religion of peace!” and getting punched in the face for her trouble;

By the time they show the Army interrogating a jihadist and having the Dershowitz debate with considerably less moral agonizing, I’d have been floored if I wasn’t already couched. The guy’s tied to a chair, naked.

Sure, the notion of the FBI as the guarantor of our liberties and the American way of life was tough to credit. But otherwise, I can’t think of another major motion picture that got so many predictions so right.

One wrong note: In contrast with the events of 9/11, many of the terrorists are Iraqis, enraged by U.S. foreign policy. But here again, it may be prescient.

Posted on May 12, 2004 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments