Saddam Dies. We Lose.
Documentary filmmaker and scholar of terrorism Kevin Toole had an interesting piece in the Times of London in November. in which, anticipating the execution of Saddam Hussein, he did the math and pronounced the American occupation both the loser
and the greater evil of the two.
Now that Saddam is hanged and Bush 2 is touting this (conveniently timed) "milestone" at a time when that country's implosion into civil war is killing dozens of Iraqis and Americans daily, it is fair to ask the question: Who was worse for Iraq: Saddam or W?
Toole's computation -- and I think it is a sound one -- is that George W. Bush wins the nightmarish distinction of having done more to decimate Iraq than the blood-soaked dictator from whom Bush claimed to liberate the country.
The physical and moral arithmetic in comparing the destruction wrought by Saddam and W, respectively, is cruelly straightforward. As Toole posits it, it comes down to two essential measurements:
1.) How many Iraqis died under each? It is safe to say that Saddam and Bush 2 are each responsible for the deaths of anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, depending on which estimates you believe. Whatever the exact numbers, it appears likely that the two men have generated comparable carnage.
2.) How has the nation of Iraq survived under each? In the case of Saddam, his brutal regime of ruthlessly paranoid operatives, paid-off officials and well-oiled networks of imprisonment and torture managed, through a precisely-calibrated mixture of fear and patronage, to keep the country running. The power grid worked. People went to work and came home. The wheels of secular government -- fascist and dictatorial as they were -- turned. (And let us not forget the key role played by the United States -- wasn't that Reagan envoy Donald Rumsfeld we saw shaking Saddam's hand in that goodwill photo in 1983? -- in propping up Hussein's efficient dictatorship.) Contrast this with Bush's Iraq, in which virtually nothing works, national government is functionally nonexistent, unemployment is stratospheric, and order has almost entirely dissolved.
So on the one hand, you have a dictator who killed tens or hundreds of thousands and kept the country running. And on the other, you have an invader who has, to date, killed tens or hundreds of thousands and also destroyed the country.
As I said, the math isn't complicated.
The way that Toole sums it up is that the only act crueler than gripping a nation in an iron dictatorship is plunging it into utter chaos: unmitigated slaughter, a total absence of security, and a breakdown of any semblance of order.
So those formerly ruled by Saddam have now met the enemy. And he is us.
I suspect that this tortuous question -- of our intervention having made Iraq worse than it was before we ostensibly tried to "save" it -- is as often quietly pondered by Americans of conscience as it is avoided by our leaders and our journalists.
Meanwhile, amid the flaming wreckage, our own presidential megalomaniac flaunts the corpse of Saddam and raises a champagne glass to propose a toast to triumph.
Happy New Year.
(Posted 12/31/06 by Bruce A. Jacobs)
Scrub Yourself Clean with a Good Poem.
holidays. Not even an inveterate liar like our president (Maureen Dowd recently quipped that the Bush 2 cabal is so brainwashed
that Bush 1 has had to send in Baker and Gates to deprogram them), or a
fetid presence like fired O.J. If I Did It editor Judith Regan (her first job was as
cub reporter for the National Enquirer; classic tomes during her
tenure at HarperCollins included porn queen Jenna Jameson's How to Make Love Like a Porn Star and finger-wagging troglo-moralist Robert Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah) can rob a winter breeze of its cleansing bite, or alter the
small and sweet world beneath a hanging sprig of mistletoe.
So in celebration of the indestructible, and in shameless imitation of the folks at The Agonist, who had the great idea to post a poem thread in honor of the Winter Solstice, here is a poem that may help you to forget about charlatans of all kinds. Happy holidays!
-Alfred Corn, Beloit Poetry Journal, Fall 1999
A tiny speck on the horizon.
Which doesn’t move or doesn’t seem to yet
Must be on the move; has enlarged, is now
The size of a thumb, and now still larger, look,
A newly gilded vehicle rocking and racketing
Down the pike. Besides the band—uniformed,
Gold-braided, their brasses aglitter—
A few grand figureheads clutch a post,
They wave and fire off grins at onlookers, who,
The boldest, respond by grabbing and climbing
A ladder dangling from the wagon, dragged
Onto the flatbed by earlier troops and welcomed
As opportune endorsements of their clan,
Another, another and another! And some
Impressive knot of adherents they are,
Arms on shoulders, the victor’s strut,
A promo for dazzled joiners farther on,
Who scuttle and jump to swell their ranks.
Each wheel turns faster, revving up
For the straightaway, hickory spokes
A blur like an electric fan at top speed,
Scribbles of gleam smeared across it.
Faster, closer, numbers snowballing
According to an exponent that also mounts.
Yet, nothing daunted, they swing aboard, dying
To be part of it, the A-list, the blue-chips.
Hup! It’s party-time, tap this keg and chug
Your suds, we won-won-won, and we’re one
High roller of a club, hotshots all, bigger, louder,
United stumpers we stand, sterling but humble.
Of course we commiserate with you hangdogs
Out there who fumbled the ball, who didn’t latch on
Quick enough. But rest easy, we’ll help you out
When we get a chance, why, sure. Meantime, ha ha,
Eat our dust! And then—then, like a flashbulb, it’s gone.
Sudden stillness. Still here. In open space, morning sun.
Which toplights the trees and their strange, shining leaves.
(Posted 12/20/06 by Bruce A. Jacobs)
Barack's Shade of Black.Marveling
at Barack Obama's current gusher of national celebrity, and at his
apparent ability to sidestep venerable mainstream hesitancies about
charismatic black politicos, has become a cottage industry of pundits
Everybody, it seems, wants to know how "Obamamania" came to be, and whether it will last. And everybody's got a theory as to why the new junior senator from Illinois seems to be going where no black political figure has gone before -- perhaps, some breathlessly suggest, to the presidency.
To me, the most interesting theory for Obama's meteoric blast through the presumed "black" ceiling -- one I've run across in The Nation, on NPR, and in other places -- is that he is not "black" in the ways that have traditionally scared the pants off the white mainstream. Although he is African American, he is not a descendant of slaves; his father was a "black as pitch" Kenyan, in Obama's words, and his mother a "white as milk" native of Kansas. This alone -- or so the theory goes -- frees Obama from the millstone hung round the neck of most black candidates who court the white mainstream, namely the baggage of being viewed as a presumed angry seeker of retribution for slavery and an apologist for the misdeeds of the impoverished progeny of ex-slaves. Nothing, after all, sends white voters fleeing faster than the prospect of being stalked -- for their votes or for their wallets -- by a pissed-off black man with payback on his mind.
Obama, born in Hawaii to an East African and an American Midwesterner who he says is a distant relative of Jefferson Davis, assuredly had no part in the bitter business of being an ex-slave. Further, having spent early years in Indonesia, having attended both Muslim and Catholic Schools, and having a half-Indonesian half-sister married to a Chinese-Canadian (Obama's wife, Michelle, has reportedly called their family a "mini-United Nations"), he is as global a figure as any campaign manager could ask for. From this standpoint, Obama is a blessedly non-threatening prospect to many whites who are tired and frightened of our own nation's ongoing baggage from slavery. Like a black American with a thick British accent, he is, to many whites, not really one of "those blacks" -- you know, the troublesome natives.
Or, as I said, so the theory goes. Personally, I do think this goes a long way toward explaining Obama's open-armed welcome among white audiences who might shun Jesse Jackson or Cornel West and run screaming from Al Sharpton. His largely populist politics aside, Obama is more the Colin Powell type in his public persona. He speaks rigorously proper English with no "black" accent. He is conservative in dress, bearing and tone. He is light-skinned (please, let us not pretend this does not matter when it comes to many whites' (and blacks') high regard for certain black males). He is studiously mainstream in his rhetoric, with none of that preachy blackified singsong stuff that gives some white voters the jitters. He is, actually, the perfect African-American political candidate for mass white appeal: a populist who, while black, is not "one of them."
But Obama is also more than that.
If his safe-black-man persona has given him an easier path into the heart of the mainstream, his character has also given him the singular and admirable nerve to do what few Democrats of any ethnicity have dared: to stand up and act like a progressive. American voters have hungered for years now for candidates who are willing to wade in and take it on the chin for what they truly believe. The Obama who won an Illinois senate seat with 70 percent of the vote was one such bold contender. Not to say I told you so, but I told you so: I, and many long before me, have been saying in print for quite some time that Americans want to vote for candidates who are not afraid to lose. Voters want leaders who actually believe in something. One of the reasons George W. Bush nearly won the popular vote in 2000 and did win it in 2004 was that he projected the (deceptive but effective) image of a straight-shooting believer. His victory was a tribute to the utter desperation of voters for something that looks and feels like principle in their leaders.
Obama had that for real. And it's a winning quality in a politician of any color.
Whether he still has that quality, however, after a short time in the moneychangers' club known as the U.S. Senate, seems to be an open question. While he still sounds populist themes with power and flourish before cheering crowds, I'm now hearing some suspiciously mealy-mouthed Obama positions on campaign contributions, immigration policy, and other issues. In a recent NPR interview, he sounded as glib and obfuscatory as any corporate-underwritten Senator Silverhair. Fact is (and please excuse the comparison), as was the case with a newcomer named Bush who exploded onto the national scene six years ago in a flash of media fascination, we still don't know a lot about this guy.
So let's stay tuned and see what subsequent episodes reveal about the man named Obama: who voters think he is, who he actually turns out to be, and what role, if any, the theater of race plays in the outcome.
(Posted by Bruce A. Jacobs 12/14/06)
The Best Headline of the Year.
Out of the blue, at year's end, here it is: hands down, the best headline of 2006, right in today's New York Times:
YES, YOU CAN SURF IN CLEVELAND, BEFORE THE BROWN WATER FREEZES
Now that's a headline.
The accompanying story is about people who surf on Lake Erie in the winter. That's the lake known, among other things, for having spontaneously caught fire (I think in the 1970s) at the height of its industrial toxicity. It's cleaner now, so I guess it's able to freeze.
Have you ever been to Cleveland?
It's cold. Very cold. I have dear relatives there. My cousin was married there earlier this year. We all went. It was a beautiful wedding. In January. When she announced the date, we all had one question: "Why?"
But Cleveland gets a bad rap. Sure, maybe it's not top-of-mind as a destination for fine weather or eye-popping discovery. Maybe the word "Wow!" isn't often uttered by visitors to Cleveland (except in winter). But the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is there, and it's well worth the trip (in the warm season). The Browns play football there. The Indians (I'm going to start naming sports teams and SUVs after white people and see how they like it in Kansas) play baseball there. Cedar Point, the big amusement park that was our thrill of thrills when we were kids, is nearby. And of course there's the infamous chemically-altered lake itself, where once while fishing at Port Clinton I saw my Uncle John catch a bionic catfish that was so huge it made my father, the consummate fisherman, jealous to the point of ugliness. (We'll just leave that story right there.)
I still can't say that I know Cleveland well. But it reminds me of towns like Buffalo and Baltimore (where I live): sprawling ex-industrial burgs sporting hard histories and surreal casts of characters and sovereign-state neighborhoods and doggedly sunny civic optimism and (in the case of Baltimore anyway) quietly high cancer rates.
And I mean no disrespect. I've had fun in Cleveland, and I love my relatives there, who in addition to being wonderful people also wrote the book on being gracious and caring hosts.
But I have to say that the all-time best line on Cleveland, as far as I know, comes from the novelist and journalist D. Keith Mano, who once wrote in his review of a novel (and I think my memory comes close to his exact words):
But, hey. You can surf there. In December. At least until the brown water freezes.
(Posted 12/10/06 by Bruce A. Jacobs)
The "Colored Only" Books Section.Many of
my older relatives, who remember growing up in all-black communities
where all of the grocers, doctors, carpenters and tailors they
patronized were black, talk with a sense of irony about the demise of
legal racial segregation, which for decades had closed off most of the
mainstream retail and service sectors to African American customers.
On the one hand, the end of the official "white only"/"colored only" Jim Crow dichotomy legally freed black citizens -- in theory, anyway -- to spend their money wherever they wanted. But on the other hand, it spelled the beginning of the end of an entire economy serving exclusively black customers: black vacation resorts, black sports leagues, and an abundance of black service providers. Racial integration, although it brought certain freedoms to black Americans as citizens and consumers, also brought the beginning of the "minority" business mentality, whereby formerly dominant black economic figures were either obliterated or absorbed into the white-owned mainstream as bit players. It's a dynamic that remains true today, as black coaches, would-be team owners, college administrators, business owners and others find themselves at the mercy of industries and enterprises controlled almost entirely by whites.
Sure, it was progress. But at a cost.
What brings this to mind is an article in the December 6, 2006 Wall Street Journal about the controversy over segregating books by black authors, particularly fiction, into special "African American" sections in bookstores. Browse through most chain bookstores (except Barnes & Noble, which as a rule does not segregate) and many indie book shops as well, and you'll find contemporary novels by black writers about black protagonists shelved in their own "black" section, while novels by whites about whites are treated as simply "fiction." This is often true of nonfiction as well. (I usually find my book, Race Manners, a guide for blacks and whites, stashed on the "African American" shelf.) It's a distinction that limits my exposure and my sales as an author, and I don't like it. Neither does bestselling novelist Terry McMillan, whose Waiting to Exhale helped black pop fiction writers to break down the doors of the publishing industry. She told the Journal she considers the book-segregation practice to be "racist" and a "disservice."
But hold on. The Journal story also quotes other black fiction authors, such as suspense writer Tananarive Due. She says that being set apart for recognition by black readers and black bookstores is a mainstay of her career. The story also quotes black writer Brandon Massey as saying he has mixed feelings about his horror novels being sold as "black fiction" because it has nourished a loyal audience for his work but it also limits his sales. And it quotes the publisher of the romance novel industry's leading trade journal (which ignores its usual 10-genre breakdown in order to treat black-written books of all genres as simply "African American") as saying, "We know we're walking a fine line, but the reader wants to know if a book has African-American characters."
All of this starts to sound an awful lot like what black team owners and shopkeepers might have said 60 years ago about the way in which Jim Crow fed their businesses, and about the necessity for someone to serve black customers when the mainstream ignored or mistreated them.
And that gets to the heart of the matter. What is driving the economic logic of today's segregation in publishing is the same fact that drove it in society as a whole decades ago: the American mainstream treats blacks differently than it treats whites. White fiction readers as a whole are, out of habit, more interested in novels about white characters than novels about black characters. White-run publishers, as a whole, have only recently accepted black-written pop fiction as being viable at all, and still ghettoize it as a product they see as saleable only to blacks. White-owned bookstores, as a whole, view black-written fiction as an "ethnic" literary satellite to be shelved away from the central and presumably non-ethnic (read: white) category of plain old "fiction."
Yes, the political sea changes of the 1960s and 1970s created an intellectual demand, and a powerful function, for African American sections in bookstores and African American Studies departments at universities. And a book like W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk or Haki Madhubuti's Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? arguably belongs in a section dedicated to the analysis of black culture and history. But a "black fiction" section exists for one reason and one reason only: for the most part, white audiences and white publishers think stories about black characters are not universally interesting.
And so black writers of such stories have a hard time garnering wide attention. And under this duress, these black writers come to depend upon segregation as a way of gaining what attention they can muster -- that is, the attention of grateful black audiences starved for stories about themselves in a society that considers the white narrative to be the central one.
In the Journal piece, I thought Terry McMillan offered a decent stop-gap solution: put black-written novels about black characters in both the general "fiction" and "African American" sections, enabling fans to easily find them and non-fans to discover them. Fair enough. For now, at least.
But wouldn't it be far more fair if the mainstream's idea of popularly-sought fiction were not a "white only" zone?
(Posted 12/9/06 by Bruce A. Jacobs)
Re: "Racially Motivated."
So we have yet another New York City Police atrocity to contemplate: the firing of more than 50 shots into the car of an unarmed
black man in Queens, killing him hours before he was to be married.
Twenty-three-year-old Sean Bell is dead. His fianceé and family are devastated. Black leaders in New York are infuriated and demanding a rapid investigation and indictments. The Queens district attorney is calling for patience while he seeks facts to build a case. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, apparently both smarter and more compassionate than his predecessor, Rudolph "Tough Enough for '08" Giuliani, has met with black leaders and with Bell's family and has already called the shooting "inexplicable" and "unacceptable," according to the New York Times.
Some of you will know that spectacularly excessive police behavior toward black targets has become kind of a New York City tradition: unarmed Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo was killed by 41 police bullets in 1999; unarmed black security guard Patrick Dorismond was fatally shot by an undercover police officer in 2000; handcuffed Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was brutally sodomized with a broken broomstick by police officers in a station house in 1997.
Beyond the unspeakable tragedy of the Bell case, I find something else striking: the claim of city officials, including Mayor Bloomberg, that the shooting was not racially motivated because, according to the Times, of the five officers who fired into Bell's car, two were black, one was black and Hispanic, and two were white.
We need to talk about this.
Conventional knowledge would have us believe that in order for an act to be "racially motivated," it must be committed by a member of one race against a member of another. On the face of it, this makes sense.
There's only one problem: it's not true.
There are any number of middle-class suburban black Americans, for example, who embrace the same stereotypes as the white mainstream about low-income urban black males: that they are criminal, amoral and dangerous. I know some black people who feel this way. They will lock the doors of their SUVs or cross the street against a black male in a heartbeat.
In the same way, in the rarified and militarized culture of urban policing -- within which many cops commute from the suburbs to don guns and bulletproof vests in waging daily battle in poor black communities -- there are plenty of black police officers who buy into, and enforce, the prevailing assumptions of racial profiling: that young black men on the street are threats for whom the best policy is to shoot (or arrest) first and ask questions later.
The fact that the shooters (or arrestors) are black does not prevent them from carrying out actions that are racially biased in nature. There is nothing to prevent, say, a black officer who lives in the 'burbs from acting out, on patrol in Harlem, the same preconceptions and prejudices as his or her white counterparts about blacks who live above 125th Street, or about black suspects in general. In fact, there is tremendous pressure within police culture on cops of all races to yield to such biases, both for the sake of being accepted by their peers and protecting their own perceived safety on the street. It's a kind of racialized class struggle, whereby "underclass" blacks (especially young black males) in the nation's ghettos are viewed with equal suspicion and contempt by black, white and brown working stiffs alike who live outside the 'hood. Some of these working stiffs are cops. And the results are as clear as they are bloody and unjust.
The dirty little secret about "racially motivated" police abuse is that it involves cops of all colors, not just bigoted whites. Reporters, politicians and pundits need to stop pretending that racial abuse only happens when whites mistreat people of color (or vice versa). It's worse than that. We need to admit it and start doing something about it. One place to start is to require that police officers live in, or near, the communities they serve.
Another is to acknowledge that blackness, particularly within the occupying-army mentality of many of today's urban police departments, provides no immunity against racial bigotry.
(Posted 11/29/06 by Bruce A. Jacobs)
Here's the story, repeating itself again and again:
Child is horribly damaged by a grownup. Child grows up to be an adult psychopath. Adult psychopath commits heinous and gruesome murder. Anguished loved ones of murder victim call for murderer to pay with his life. Murderer is sentenced to death and is executed. Hours after the execution, a reporter asks loved ones of victim if they feel relief or closure. Loved ones declare, Yes, the killer deserved a worse death than he got, but his death was justice and they can now start to feel some closure and vindication and move on with their lives. Reporter runs the quotes in a dramatic story, immediately after the execution, about the clash between the pro-execution vigil by loved ones of the victim and the anti-execution vigil by death penalty opponents. Reporter never again contacts or speaks with the loved ones of the victim, who disappear from public view.
Months or years pass. The loved ones find that their suffering has not eased as much as they hoped. They discover that in fact the killing of the murderer has brought them little lasting peace. They learn, often in therapy, that the closure they seek has more to do with their own relation to the world than with any revenge they gain against others. They eventually come to feel that the killing of the murderer never lived up to its billing as the powerful healing act they had hoped for, and that their long-term healing was in fact enabled by other things entirely. If a reporter were to call them now and ask, they would tell the reporter all of this.
But the reporters do not call. They are now busy interviewing loved ones of more recent murder victims who proclaim, with fresh and dramatically quotable grief, how they can feel the beginnings of closure, they really can, after yesterday's or last week's execution of the murderer.
The latest version of this doubly tragic repeating episode appeared in this week's newspapers as the story of Wednesday's Florida execution of Danny H. Rolling, who carried out a series of grisly rapes and murders of Gainesville college students, including one in which he severed the victim's head and placed it on a shelf. In his confession, Rolling spoke of being sexually abused by his father and spending much of his life adrift. Reporters quoted loved ones of the victims as saying they have long awaited the justice of Rolling's death and now look forward to closure and peace following his execution.
How long will this cruel charade go on?
How long will lazy reporters continue to report spectacular murders and executions chiefly in the present tense, as breaking news events and quotations of the moment, instead of as the true unfolding events they are, in which damage begets damage and in which the false healing of revenge yields to deeper healing over time? How long will journalists keep feeding us the same banal "sicko commits atrocity, grieving family applauds grim justice" story, a narrative bereft of the wisdom that countless clinicians and long-term grief survivors can offer: that the temporary gratification of lethal payback does little to address the true wounds inflicted by a murder? How long will most headline-motivated newspaper and TV accounts ignore the real stories of psychopathic murders -- stories of psyches laid to waste by childhood trauma or by physiology -- and the real stories of grieving families -- people whose grief often evolves as they learn what revenge can and cannot bring?
How long will this thought-free reporting, and the public ignorance it nurtures about the true nature of psychopathic murder and of healing, continue to incubate the self-defeating rage of successive new crops of revenge-hungry families whose venomous grief can be harvested for a few days' or weeks' worth of news drama? Not that reporters are the only guilty parties here. How about the politicians who milk the "death penalty is a deterrent to murder" myth, in the face of long-standing clinical evidence to the contrary, for the sake of political capital? How about the pastors who preach the wickedly destructive gospel of retributive murder from the pulpit?
And how about those grieving families themselves who channel their immense grief into a desire to repeat the fundamental abomination that caused their pain: murder? After all, not all agonized families of murder victims choose to follow this bitter and vengeful course. Many make much deeper, and universal, expressions of grief. To be sure, it is hard to blame some grief-crazed loved ones for morally sagging under the pressure. And yet, are they not responsible, too, for the manner in which they hold their hearts at such times? Is it not in our deepest crises -- the times when we are most vulnerable to acting out wickedly -- that who we choose to be matters most? And if we, as more or less intact adults who have the good fortune to have not been horribly damaged early in life, choose reciprocal murder as our moral answer to such crimes, what does that say about us?
I remember a newspaper photograph of a relative of a murder victim who held a vigil outside the prison during the murderer's execution. At the moment of the murderer's death, the relative pumped his fist in the air in satisfaction. For me, that photo said it all: One monster -- a self-made one -- celebrating the death of another.
(Posted 10/27/06 by Bruce A. Jacobs)
He Should Know.
more confirmation of why the country needs independent local media: a
jaw-dropping interview with retired Army Major General John Batiste in
the September 27, 2006 issue of Rochester, New York's weekly City
Batiste, who commanded the First Infantry Division in Iraq, has made
international news by repeatedly calling for Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld to resign, most recently when Batiste testified before
Congress on September 25.
How did a small Rochester weekly score a full-length interview with a figure of Batiste's stature? Easy. He happens to live in Rochester. Moreover, the local corporate daily, the Gannett-owned Democrat and Chronicle, will barely give Batiste the time of day.
This is when alternative media shine. The City Newspaper interview provides a rare glimpse of how a trained warrior views the dishonest and incompetent public figures from whom he is expected to take orders. In the interview, Batiste discusses, in blunt detail:
- How Batiste, who was once assistant to Paul Wolfowitz and had a Pentagon office adjacent to those of Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, observed first-hand how the two cherry-picked intelligence to justify their predetermined intention to invade Iraq.
- How Batiste, as Commander of the First Infantry in Iraq, refused to follow Rumsfeld's relaxed guidelines on abuse of prisoners, and considers the nation's current disregard for the Geneva Conventions to be a moral failure and a military mistake that endangers American troops.
- Batiste's long-standing assessment that America needs three times the current number of U.S. troops in Iraq to have a fighting chance of securing stability, and that this is far beyond the troop strength that U.S. armed forces can now muster.
- His bleak observation that Americans still have no idea what a long-term commitment this war will require. In Batiste's words. "We are fat, dumb, and happy. Our country really doesn't understand what it has gotten itself into."
And there's more. I suggest you read the entire interview. You simply won't get this kind of reporting in your local McPaper. Long live the truly local press.
(Posted 10/5/06 by Bruce A. Jacobs)
"Survivor" Wimps Out.
So the new season of "Survivor" will base its four "tribes" on race: black, Hispanic, white and Asian.
The fallout is pinning the Geiger counters, and the CBS show's slinky producers are cringing all the way to the bank.
Political leaders have called for the show to be canceled. A protest rally was held in Manhattan. Bloggers are losing their minds with outrage or delight. Rush Limbaugh is race-baiting his butt off with quips about how this will be a tough one to handicap because of the athleticism of the blacks versus the oppressor skills of the whites versus the brainy Asians... you get the idea. "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett, in his best imitation of a guy taken aback by all the furor, is making Multiculturalism 101 statements to the press about how the race angle is no big deal, how the show has previously done gender and age, how this season's version will reveal that race matters less than we think.
It's an absolute marketing stroke for a show with sagging ratings, that's for sure. Burnett and his network cohorts are not as dumb as they act. The brilliance of the "Survivor" idea has always been the way it seizes the predator-prey paranoia of contemporary America -- you know, the whole fashionably selfish pre-fascistic thing -- and makes it personal. In the jungle. On an island of no escape. Unless you're voted off, that is.
No question, Burnett and his team of me-sellers at "Survivor" headquarters are smart folks with a keen eye for how to play the public mood for the sake of attention and ad revenues.
But I have to say, they made one whopper of a strategic mistake with this battle-of-the-races thing.
They left out the racists.
I know, it's hard to believe. I mean, how can you base an entire season of a fear-and-abuse-themed show on race and not include the most fearful and abusive of the would-be candidates: the racists? But, appallingly, that is what Burnett and company did. They have admitted it publicly. The show's producers have said, right out loud, without a trace of shame, that they deliberately filtered the racists and the bigots and the name-callers out of this season's "Survivor" selection process. So what we have left, as the season begins, is four racially-motivated gangs stripped unceremoniously of the one thing that racially-motivated gangs do: stoke their sore egos with racial heat and then turn the blowtorch on other people.
Can you believe what a bunch of wimps Burnett and his producers are? What a gaggle of panty-waists. What a craven crew of lily-livered little wusses.
Here we could have had a greasy-haired white guy in combat boots and an Iron Maiden T-shirt yell to his juiced-up tribemates on prime-time international television, "Let's show those fucking niggers what we ought to be doing to the sand niggers over in I-Rock!"
We could have had an Angry African-American and a Seething Latino spitting venom within mere inches of each other's faces, with the Hispanic screaming, "Why don't you black people want to work? Huh? Why won't you work?!" and the black person yelling, "Why don't you wetbacks learn the damn language and play by the rules? How come my goddamn taxes are supposed to pay for you?!"
We could have had an Asian contestant sneering at a Caucasian, "What, you want me to do the math for you? Huh? Be your handy little computer? Work it out for yourself, white girl."
We could have had straight-up racial profiling along the nightly-traveled island trails. We could have had drive-by (so to speak) epithets by torchlight. White women pulling nervously downward on the tattered hems of their jungle skirts in the presence of black men. White males yelling out, "Whoo, Conchita! Arriba, arriba!" at female Hispanic contestants on the beach. Black women bitching out blond white women for thinking they're so irresistible. Hispanic men bitching out black women for being so strong. Asian contestants bitching out everybody for feeling so sorry for themselves.
We could have had, in other words, real-life racism on TV. We could have seen the kinds of racial behavior that people usually fling at one another through car windows or across rows of seats at a football game -- but this time on an island where no one can drive away or hide. We could have heard the kinds of racial remarks that angry whites and Hispanics and blacks and Asians often mutter confidentially to one another within the safety of their own groups -- but this time on network television where the entire world can eavesdrop.
But instead we get -- well, what DO we get? A televised diversity class where participants don't say what they wish they could? A four-sided summit whose members all try to make a good impression in front of a prime-time TV audience as the perceived representatives of "their" people? Or, as the show's producers seem to be assuring us, do we get something much more like the typical "Survivor" ordeal, in which behavior devolves quickly into a primordial ooze somewhere far beneath race or gender or any other realm worth thinking about?
What a waste. Here is a chance to train the cameras on one of the things our nation does best -- an extended, intimately personal riot over race -- and on an island, no less, with no gated communities allowed. But it's preempted before it can happen because the show's producers are a bunch of trembling weenies who are afraid of the things that prejudiced people might actually say. (And speaking of CBS' fraidy-cat quotient, have you noticed that Arab Americans are not one of the represented groups?)
But before you get too glum about the lost opportunity, consider the good news: Burnett and his crack staff are not as smart as they think. They may believe they have successfully filtered out any prejudiced contestants. But you and I know that's impossible. If you're an American, you've got bigotry in you. Somewhere.
Okay, people: Places, everyone! And... ACTION!
(Posted 8/28/06 by Bruce A. Jacobs)
A funny thing seems to be happening with corporate journalists as they come up against something closer to a free press: some
of them are getting downright pissy.
I'm talking about the snide, snippy and sarcastic language used by many major-media reporters when they do stories about the blogosphere and its opinionated cousins, multimedia parody websites.
I probably wouldn't notice this as much if it didn't stand in such stark contrast to the straight-faced, credulous treatment such reporters grant to even the most gratuitously wackazoid media excesses of the far right. I mean, we have certifiable brain-trauma cases like Ann Coulter being gently called "provocative," and scorched-earth Administration bulldozers such as Bill O'Reilly being tenderly (and wrongly) referred to as "conservative," but we then get the entire universe of Internet commentary shrilly dismissed, schoolmarm-style, as "unruly," "fact-challenged" and "half-cocked." The only wackos and liars who deserve to be called out as such, apparently, are those who do their deeds online.
Consider this language, typical of the syndrome, in an August 2, 2006 Washington Post story by reporter Sara Kehaulani Goo:
goes on to cite other crude online caricatures of Gibson, and then
delves into the story she really set out to write, which is an analysis
of the practice of "mashing," whereby clever online multimedia
satirists mash together photos, movie clips, and any other material
they can find to get a laugh, often at the expense of a person or a
cause they dislike. Goo writes an interesting and amusing little story,
as far as it goes. The problem is that she, like many of her corporate
journalistic peers, starts and stops at the proposition that Internet
commentary is basically entertainment. And she can't resist leading her
story, like so many of her peers, with a condescending cheap shot
mocking the quality and substance of online commentary.
We need to talk about this. When a press corps that nodded obediently at a President's pre-war lies, and that gave more play to Bill Clinton's blow job than to George W. Bush's unconstitutional acts, gets up on its high horse about "the kind of thoughtful commentary users have come to expect" from the Internet, you know there is something very strange going on.
The Post is the same newspaper, after all, that has apologized in print for its supine behavior during the run-up to the Iraq War, when it, like most corporate media, failed utterly to pursue what is arguably the most important story since Watergate: the Bush Administration's dishonest march to war in the face of facts that were being cited even then by knowledgeable and legitimate dissenters.
So let's re-frame Goo's sassy lede to her story this way: "When President George W. Bush went on an anti-Iraq tirade to justify a pre-planned invasion, the mainstream media weighed in with the kind of thoughtful commentary users have come to expect: breathless repetitions of the Administration's claims, with nary a mention of the many credible sources who offered contrary evidence."
Or how about saying it like this: "When presidential candidate Howard Dean ignited a fast-spreading brush fire in the Democratic base by aggressively espousing progressive values, mainstream reporters weighed in with the kind of thoughtful commentary users have come to expect: constant harping on his lack of 'professional' political cachet and on his personal style, culminating in the blanket coverage of 'The Scream' that killed his candidacy."
You get the idea. A mainstream reporter sarcastically dissing the "thoughtful commentary" of the Internet is like a giant sloth making fun of a tortoise's lack of verve.
Except for this: More of today's important and substantial commentary is to be found -- alongside the vanity blogs and the psycho-liar websites -- on the Internet than in the traditional corporate press. Yes, folks, it's true. When it chooses to, the traditional press still has the edge with breaking news (e.g., important revelations in recent investigative stories in the Post, The New Yorker, the New York Times, the L.A. Times and others), although Web magazines such as Salon and a number of influential blogs wield increasing power as breaking news sources. But, without question, today's best-informed commentary and most courageous muckraking is happening online. Success-hungry reporters for corporate news organs may not have the patience or the, er, cerebral fortitude to make their way through the likes of sites such as Pandagon, Majikthise, The Daily Howler and The Memory Hole. But the fact is that some of the smartest and nerviest writers in America right now are plying their commentary online for an audience that craves variety and potent political criticism instead of the corporate-approved clichéism and gnashing of teeth we get on the nation's most prestigious op-ed pages.
True, to get to the quality stuff on the Web one must wade, relentlessly and thoughtfully, through a sea of bombast, self-promotion, and outright lies. There is a name for this: a free press. To the extent that a free press still exists in Fortress America, it is to be found much more in the still largely untamed realm of the Internet than in well-appointed newsrooms where reporters are rewarded for re-typing press releases.
Mind you, the private sector is working on quashing this little problem of unrestricted Internet access to information. Corporations have sponsored, for instance, the recently-stalled federal legislation that would allow companies to buy higher rankings on search engines, pushing public-spirited information far down on the lists of search results. They will undoubtedly be back, campaign donations in hand, to revisit the issue with your elected representatives.
But for now, if you're looking for Tom Paine instead of Tom Friedman, the Internet is the place to be. And I have a sneaking suspicion that many mainstream journalists, reporting for duty daily in their gilded cages, know this.
Can you blame them for having an attitude?
(Posted 8/18/06 by Bruce A. Jacobs)
Facts on the Ground.
lopsidedness of the body count in Israel's war of opportunity in
Lebanon becomes a more grotesque irony daily -- with the August 6
killing of 12 Israeli soldiers by a ball-bearing-packed Hezbollah
rocket being related in horrifying detail in much of the Western press
while the deaths of scores of Lebanese civilians from equally gruesome
Israeli shrapnel-spewing antipersonnel bombs are reported with far less
fervor and few damning particulars -- it's hard to know what Israel
hopes to accomplish with such an wildly wanton violation of
international standards for human rights and common sense in warfare.
If the Israeli intent is, as some have guessed, to overrun as much Hezbollah-defended territory as possible before an internationally mediated settlement stops the clock on the war, its success in the short run will only assure future Israeli vulnerability -- and solidify the cynical immorality of the contemporary Israeli approach to settling international disputes. Witness the "success" of the Sharon and Olmert regimes' "facts on the ground" approach to the Palestinian conflict -- a strategy otherwise known as "grab all the land we can and then negotiate to give back the parcels we want least." The net gain in Israeli-controlled territory has been more than offset by a deepened Palestinian rage for revenge, the election of Hamas, and the fueling of an unceasing and escalating war for land. Similarly, any current Israeli "gains" in Lebanon legitimized by a clock-freezing mediated deal will only serve, in the long run, to underpin the very grievances that strengthen Hezbollah's popular appeal in the first place. It's a tactic that only a bully can be blind enough to believe in: kick ass today and don't worry about having to coexist tomorrow.
If, on the other hand, the intent of the Olmert regime is to simply blow Hezbollah off the map, Israel's hopes are even more self-delusory. One cannot wipe out a guerrilla movement with conventional overpowering force any more than one can stop a swarm of hornets with a shotgun. The true power behind the forces waging war against Israel, including Hezbollah and Hamas, is not sheer fighting muscle (as Israeli hawks and their backers would like to believe) but the popular legitimacy of the grievances these resistance groups represent. It's the occupation, stupid. When the viciously unfair "facts on the ground" carved out by the Israeli occupation finally dissipate in the face of good sense, so will the popularity of the murderous agendas of those who lead the opposing charge.
The practical problem in Lebanon -- as in Palestine, as in Iraq, as in Vietnam -- is that Israel, like its heavy-footed sponsor the United States, still has no idea whatsoever how to win a guerrilla war. The self-immolating hubris of the Bush ethic has already made itself useless in the Middle East. What now remains to be seen is whether Israel has learned from the blunders of its benefactor. Will it cut its losses in Lebanon and Palestine, or extend them?
(Posted 8/8/06 by Bruce A. Jacobs)
There You Go Again.
Here's the scenario:
A well-armed western power, citing past and likely future attacks by far weaker but diabolically clever opponents, launches a massive offensive within another sovereign nation for the stated purpose of rooting out these enemies. The western nation's leaders, fiery with righteous rage and flush with their overwhelming military superiority, promise their citizens back home a quick and inspiring victory in which awesome air power will crush the enemy and make cleanup on the ground easy. But things prove far less easy than planned. Civilian deaths mount dramatically and erode what little international support existed for the attack. The enemy proves to be elusive, organized and popular with the citizenry, who view the western attackers with growing rage. The promised quick victory fails to materialize. Back at home, as the western nation's leaders offer excuses and calls for perseverance, its citizens begin to get a sinking feeling about the bill of goods they have been sold.
Sound familiar? It should. I'm talking about Israel, and its present folly in Lebanon.
To be sure, the parallel to the Bush Iraq fiasco is far from exact. Israel's position as a state with hostile neighbors differs greatly from that of the United States and its neocon-led wild goose chase in Iraq. Israel's issues of security are several levels of magnitude higher than the Bush Administration's devious hyping of America's "War On Terror." The Israelis understand that war is war, as opposed to the giddy political warmongering of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the other draft-evaders who now use the American military as their own private board game.
But the parallel that remains is damning enough: An armed-to-the-teeth state hyping its own vulnerability as rationale for a brutal and bullying militarism that savages civilian populations and helps to assure a condition of perpetual war.
The similarities, in both attitude and approach, between the Bush and Sharon (now Olmert) regimes are both abhorrent and self-defeating. Both have staked their political capital on a sort of defensiveness-on-steroids wherein wielding anything short of absurdly disproportionate military advantage equals weakness. Both are milking blind patriotism in their constituencies for everything it's worth. Both allow the real losses and suffering on their side -- including, in the case of Israel, the Jews' historic displacement and the horrific cataclysm of the Holocaust and its aftermath -- to propel them into a frenzy of perceived self-defense that rationalizes their own acts of massive atrocity and ignores their own position of vast military superiority. And both will, ultimately, fail in a world in which sheer forceful dominance of other masses of human beings can never permanently prevail.
It is high time that more of we progressives -- folks who call ourselves committed to principles rather than to governments -- stood up in public and proclaimed the crucial distinction between Israel's current ruling regime on the one hand and the actual long-term identity and interests of the nation of Israel on the other. The two are not the same, and lefties need to take a chain saw to the tottering premise that condemnation of Israel's contemporary ruling regime equals anti-Semitism. If I hear one more fervent defender of the Israeli occupation slandering Noam Chomsky or the late Edward Said as anti-Semitic for objecting to Israeli expansionism and appropriation, I'm going to start handing out Joe McCarthy For President buttons. This scarlet-lettering of honest and upright dissent, in an attempt to silence legitimate critics of Israel's recent behavior, is a shameful perversion of the meaning of prejudice, and we on the left ought not put up with it. There is too large a political opposition within the Israeli body politic, and there are too many Israeli citizens morally outraged by their government's wholesale killing, abuse and displacement of Palestinian civilians (remember that Palestinian civilian casualties dwarf those of Israelis) for we on the western side of the Atlantic to let ourselves be cowed into tolerant silence.
Every argument that I have yet heard in support of Israel's disproportionately ruthless and preemptive stance toward its neighbors -- and I have heard several, some in heated conversations with well-informed friends and colleagues -- falls into tatters when measured against basic standards of logic and decency.
The argument that Israel's very existence is threatened by its hostile neighbors, for instance, is a flat-out falsehood. The fact that Hamas says it wants to see the end of Israel does not make this an even remotely feasible outcome. My cat wants a footbridge from the living room window to the bird feeder, but he won't get it. In truth, no hostile power in the region, not even Iran or Syria, has anywhere near the military or munitions might possessed by Israel, and none of the other players has nuclear weapons. With Israel's buildup of its spectacular arsenal, and with the backing of the United States as added insurance -- a strategic symbiosis that will not change anytime soon -- Israel is in danger of being eliminated by any of its rivals in the same way that a Hummer is in danger of being totaled in a collision with a bicycle. To misuse "Never Again" as a rationale for Palestinian bantustans and lopsided casualties is the worst, and most tragic, of historical hypocrisies.
Moreover, the notion that Israel's survival depends on its having such exponential superiority over all other military rivals -- an argument I often hear -- ignores the basic facts of nationhood. Arms alone will never suffice to maintain borders, to weaken enemies, or to assure a country's future. At some point in a nation's life, if it is to survive, it learns -- as do you and I in our everyday doings -- to sustain equilibrium through relationships of proximity. In the Middle East, some of this regional equilibrium, no doubt, will emanate from the threatening barrels of strategically-aimed guns. But any assured future for Israel will have to involve negotiations (instead of appropriations) regarding land, and agreements for workable political and economic interchange that all of the affected states can live with. Israel's brute force advantage cannot alter the fact that at least one, and perhaps more, of its neighbors will eventually develop nuclear weapons; it is as unstoppable as the wind. If anything, Israel's stockpiling of armaments is an incentive for proliferation. An Israel that lives only by the superiority of force is an Israel that will ultimately die by it.
And as for resolving the quarrels of ownership of the disputed territories -- who lived there first, who has put down the deepest roots, who deserves compensation for what -- the Bush and Sharon doctrines offer exactly nothing. If there is one truth that well-armed heads of state seem to perpetually forget through the ages, it is this: overwhelming military superiority on the part of an invading or controlling power will never, ever, stamp out a grass-roots resistance whose members are willing to die for goals they perceive as just. Call them what you like: terrorists, guerrillas, militias. Crush them, and they will reappear. You cannot wipe out such resistance movements solely with guns; it is imbalanced relations of power and land and resources that create such movements, and only new and more balanced relations will cause them to disappear. Ask Winston Churchill (if you can reach him) about India. Ask Robert McNamara about Vietnam. Ask the career military planners who, behind the scenes, are now resisting the Bush Administration's push to invade Iran.
In practical and moral terms, the Bush/Sharon approach to international conflict is a disaster and a disgrace. Many of us who genuinely wish for a secure Israel to take its place alongside a strong Palestinian state in a stable Middle East are, and should be, frightened and revolted by what now passes for Israeli foreign policy. And we need to say so, loudly and insistently. This isn't about the Israeli nation being bad. This is about a bad Israeli government. To condemn the Sharon-era Israeli regime for its brutality and its hypocritical, self-justifying rationalizations for occupation is no more anti-Israeli than condemning the Bush regime is anti-American.
For my money, the true patriots are those who try to stop their leaders from hurting their country.
So maybe we need to start asking the pro-Sharon folks why they hate Israel.
(Posted 7/30/06 by Bruce A. Jacobs)
Read It and Veep. Here's
another mainstream journalist to whom we owe thanks for going where
most of her peers fear to report: Jane Mayer, whose "The Hidden Power"
story in the July 3, 2006 issue of The New Yorker takes the lid off the
secrecy surrounding the power of David Addington.
If you're asking, "David who?", so much more the reason to read this story.
David Addington is Dick Cheney's in-house lawyer. So what? you might ask. After all, in a normal administration teeming with attorneys familiar with checks and balances, the Vice President's lawyer has about as much power as the White House groundskeeper. But in the George W. Bush Administration, where Cheney largely handles the deeper policy issues and where there is nary an attorney (and no one conversant in constitutional law) at the very top, Addington's credentials and his dictatorial style have given his radical legal agenda virtually unlimited sway in the White House.
This is the man to whom Colin Powell attributed the Bush Administration's extreme positions on presidential power, according to reporter Mayer, thusly: "It's Addington. He doesn't care about the Constitution."
Addington is the man, Mayer tells us, who a former Pentagon deputy general counsel for intelligence called "an unopposable force."
This is the man whose overriding influence prompted a former top Administration lawyer to tell Mayer that the Bush White House's legal positions were "all Addington."
Want to know who is the legal brain behind the seemingly surreal imperial stance of this Administration on the President's right to authorize domestic and international spying, to sanction torture, to ignore the Geneva Conventions, and to wage war? Forget the figurehead Attorney General and Bush pal Alberto Gonzales, who Mayer tells us has little constitutional knowledge and even less authority over policy. As a mind-boggling procession of named and unnamed high-ranking sources reveals in her article, in the top-level strategy meetings where legal rationales are decided, it's all Addington, all the time.
Mayer unearths the history of how this came to be. Addington, as she reports, is a crusading reactionary who, ever since Watergate and the subsequent legal constraints on the presidency, has made it his personal quest to try to reinvest the Oval Office with what he sees as its lost power and glory. He reportedly carries a copy of the Constitution in his pocket, and he believes that it grants the President virtually unchecked powers to do as he wishes. During the mid-1980s Addington joined forces with Dick Cheney, who was of like mind (Cheney ultimately brought Addington into the Bush I Administration in 1989). The two have been a dynamic despotic duo ever since. In their current partnership, Vice President Cheney outlines the objectives, and attorney/enforcer Addington suitably bulldozes the legal and procedural terrain. He is ideologically fanatical and bureaucratically ruthless. He undercuts or drives out those who oppose him. Peers and underlings speak of him, in Mayer's article, with a mixture of awe and fear.
Through it all, Addington has maintained an aura of invisibility. He gives no interviews (he refused to speak to Mayer) and he forbids the press to photograph him. He avoids public appearances, and the Administration never outwardly mentions his name. Most Americans have no idea who he is.
The implications of this are frightening. In effect, we have an unseen, unelected behind-the-scenes Washington operative who is laying the groundwork for something very much like a fascist regime.
If all of this sounds hard to believe, read Mayer's story in The New Yorker and decide for yourself. Then tell others to do the same.
While we're on the subject of must-reads, three other articles come to mind.
Historian Edwin G. Burrows' op-ed piece in the July 3, 2006 New York Times tells the astonishingly forgotten story of the horrific treatment and tortuous deaths, during the Revolutionary War, of thousands of American Colonists held as prisoners in subhuman conditions for months or years without trial at the hands of King George III (note the irony).
Seymour Hersh's investigative story, "Last Stand" (http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/060710fa_fact), in the July 7, 2006 issue of The New Yorker, chronicles what he calls the "war" now being waged in Washington between career military officers and the hawkish Bush White House over the prospect of war with Iran. (Guess which side the military is on?)
And "Project Corpus Callosum," the winning essay in The Nation's 2006 Student Writing Contest, written by Yale senior Sarah Stillman, will shore up your faith in the commitment of young activists. It appears in the magazine's July 17, 2006 issue. Read it and cheer.
(Posted 7/7/06 by Bruce A. Jacobs)