Saturday, January 31, 2004


I have seen or heard nothing else about the BBC's story about North Korean gas chambers in the American media so far. The story speaks for itself and, as I read it, the only suitable descriptive term that came to my mind was "evil." The current President's frequent use of the word since 9/11 (often in a specific North Korean context) has seemed to annoy certain people--annoying them much more than, for example, the idea of putting entire families in gas chambers as a science experiment. A brief traipse down memory lane is worthwhile, as we catalogue reactions to Bush's use of the word:

"A bad mistake" (Madeleine Albright)

"Moral leprosy" (the government of North Korea)

"Overheated rhetoric" (former Clinton Korea negotiator Charles Kartman)

"Radically dumbing down the language of international relations" (the L.A. Weekly)

"Ludicrously contrived" (Counterpunch)

"Simplistic and absurd" (Hubert Vedrine, French Foreign Minister)

"Incoherence" (Robert Scheer)

"Too heavy and radioactive a word" (Joseph Montville)

"Deeply unhelpful" (Chris Patten)

"Incendiary" (Robert Wright)

"Counterproductive" (Jimmy Carter)

"Moral[ly] immatur[e]...callow" (The Boston Globe). The linked article reminds us solemnly that "There is no ridding the world of evil for the simple fact that, shy of history's end, there is no ridding the self of it." I don't doubt it, but the thing is, to say something so distant, so soberly intellectual in the face of

"I witnessed a whole family being tested on suffocating gas and dying in the gas chamber. The parents, son and a daughter. The parents were vomiting and dying, but till the very last moment they tried to save kids by doing mouth-to-mouth breathing," he said.

is, well, simplistic and absurd.

Friday, January 30, 2004


The Miewes trial verdict is in, and this blog's favorite cannibal has had the book thrown at him. Well, not exactly a book, but a pamphlet maybe: Eight and a half years. But....

"He's a model prisoner and if he stays that way he could be out by mid-2008," Meiwes's lawyer Harald Ermel told reporters. "He will voluntarily undergo psychiatric therapy to get away from his fetish for men's flesh. I'm sure he won't do anything like this again."

"Without the Internet, this would not have been possible." [It's all the fault of the Internet.]

The Agence France-Presse report had more details, including this wonderful bit of double-talk:

Presiding judge Volker Muetze told the packed courtroom that Meiwes, 42, had not committed a murder in the legal sense "but a behavior that is condemned in our society -- namely the killing and butchering of a human being". [Huh?]

At least five other people also saying they were willing to be killed and eaten went to his house in Rotenburg, near Kassel, but either backed down or were rejected as unappealing. [Can you imagine what it did to the self-esteem of these people who weren't good enough to be cannibalized? Do they try again, like Charlie Tuna, until they, too, are good enough for Starkist?]

And then there was the AP version, which had even more interesting detail:

Armin Meiwes, a 42-year-old computer expert, had no "base motives" in the crime, a state court ruled, sparing him a murder conviction. [???]

His primary motive was "the wish to make another man part of himself," Judge Volker Muetze said. [Thanks for clearing that up.]

Before the verdict, Meiwes looked calm, chatting with his attorney and occasionally grinning for cameras allowed inside the courtroom. [The regret is palpable, isn't it?]

"I had my big kick and I don't need to do it again," he said. "I regret it all very much, but I can't undo it." [Don't these two statements contradict each other?]

"If I hadn't been so stupid as to keep looking on the Internet, I would have taken my secret to the grave," Meiwes said in his closing statement. [Finally, we have our regret.]

In short, a trial, and a justice system, and a country that only Oswald Spengler could appreciate.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004


The story hasn't gotten much play here in the USA, and it's too complicated to explain, but Tony Blair was just completely exonerated from all responsibility in the David Kelly matter.

This matters because Blair has always been a nagging incongruity in the standard antiwar script, which goes something like this: The Iraq war is obviously a war for oil and profits, conducted by Bush and Cheney for the benefit of the corporations who own them. The problem for the antiwar script is: Where does Tony Blair fit in? Why would he essentially destroy his career just to help the gang at Halliburton line their pockets? What possible personal gain could accrue to Blair from prosecuting a grossly unpopular war?

The more you think about Blair and how irreplaceable he was in making the Iraq war happen, the more the standard antiwar script collapses.

And without the script, the antiwar person is forced to conclude that--however wrong the war may have been--Bush and Blair entered into it in good faith. The worst thing that can then be said about the war is that it was a mistake. And that's not good enough for the people who want to believe in malign Republican conspiracies.

So that is why the Blair vindication is so huge, and so glorious. Blair had to be ruined to give the antiwar script life. And he wasn't.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

My favorite commentary on tonight's New Hampshire primary is 33 years old. There's a message in there, somewhere.

Today's Washington Post has a valuable story about the 9/11 hijackers that fills in a lot of blanks. The story is receiving virtually no press because it comes on New Hampshire primary day, but for people with a historical interest in 9/11, it's hugely important.

The longstanding question of the identity of hijacker # 20 has been answered. Both Zacharias Moussaoui and Ramzi Binalshibh have been nominated by the media for this role, but they clearly don't fit it: The twentieth hijacker would only have been a soldier, not a pilot, and Moussaoui was being groomed for pilot duty, clearly for a later operation. Binalshibh, refused entry to the USA entirely, was originally supposed to have been pilot #4, so he wouldn't have gone as a soldier either.

It turns out hijacker #20 was to have been one Mohamed al Qahtani, who entered the USA on a one-way ticket.

Jose E. Melendez-Perez, now an inspector with the Department of Homeland Security, recounted an interview he conducted with a Saudi national, Mohamed al Qahtani, who investigators now believe was planning to meet Atta at the Orlando airport on Aug. 4, 2001. Al Qahtani had no return ticket and no hotel reservations, and he refused to identify a friend who, he said, would provide him with money and other assistance on his trip.

"The bottom line was, he gave me the creeps," Melendez-Perez said in his prepared statement, adding that his first impression was that al Qahtani was a "hit man" because of his hostile and arrogant attitude and his refusal to disclose his plans. "A 'hit man' doesn't know where he is going because if he is caught, that way he doesn't have any information to bargain with," he said. "My wife said I was watching too much movies."

Before departing, al Qahtani turned to Melendez-Perez and said, in English: "I'll be back."

The story goes on to note that American troops captured al Qahtani in Afghanistan, which means--I cheerfully note--that his boast is very nearly true, because Guantanamo Bay (where this guy almost certainly is today) is not that far away.

The story also nominates Melendez-Perez as a hero because the absence of a fifth hijacker on Flight 93 may have made a difference in the outcome of the passenger revolt that ruined the mission, and I think they may be right. And there's one more item I want to mention among the other interesting things in this story:

Under questioning from commissioners, Melendez-Perez also said that when [Mohamed] Atta attempted to reenter the United States in January 2001, his case raised enough red flags that he should have been blocked from getting in.

Let us note that Atta's entry took place right at the moment of the change of presidential administrations. I point this out not for any political purpose except for my hope that this business gets depoliticized. 9/11 was the result of a catastrophic systemic weakness in our immigration and intelligence agencies, and the fact that a key event in the plot--Atta's readmission to America--took place during a change of presidential administrations, was and is symbolic. The failures that led to 9/11 were organizational, even cultural, but not political.

Finally, a reasonably righteous Oscar nomination list. It's even better than the Golden Globes lists because, unlike the Globes, they recognized Naomi Watts, which is always a good thing. There were two criminal omissions in Hope Davis and Scarlet Johansson, but it wouldn't be the Oscars without some criminal omissions. They improved infinitely on the Globes by actually nominating a song from A Mighty Wind. How could an awards show not nominate at least one?

Where Hollywood most expresses itself politically is in the Feature Documentary and the Foreign Film categories. The Fog of War (a movie about Robert McNamara's endless Vietnam America culpas, and The Weather Underground fill the bill here. The Academy's description is interesting:

As frustration mounted during the 1960s among groups opposing the Vietnam War, disenchanted members of the Students for a Democratic Society formed a radical offshoot called the Weathermen. Dedicated to the overthrow of the American political and economic systems, the group embarked on a campaign of violence that would eventually force many of its members into hiding.

"Violence" is a euphemism here. People were murdered in terrorist attacks by these people. My interest in these people is the same as the audience's interest in Charlize Theron's character in the film Monster.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

It's snowing a lot, which means I can sleep in.

Finally saw 21 Grams, a film that made director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's last movie, Amores Perros, seem like a laff riot. It's one of the most depressing movies I've ever seen, but it still could have been very good if it didn't meander a bit towards the end (much like Amores Perros, come to think of it). Great performances by Penn, Del Toro, and Watts, though.

Friday, January 23, 2004


Here's the beginning of an email I received today:

>Date: Thu, 22 Jan 2004 10:31:08 +0100
>X-Mailer: Microsoft Outlook Express 5.00.2919.6900 DM
>I Beg You In .
>With all sincerity and humility i am Jewel Taylor,the
>wife of the deposed President of Liberia, Fomer African colony of the United states Of America.

It's not a good con when there are obvious lies in the very first sentence of your scam. Liberia was never anyone's colony. But I guess they figure that anyone dumb enough to fall for this scam is not going to know what constitutes a "colony."

Thursday, January 22, 2004

I was tempted to summarize tonight's Democratic candidate debate very quickly: blah blah Bush blah blah Cheney blah blah Halliburton blah blah Ashcroft blah blah Patriot Act. But that wouldn't be fair. There is so much more to it than that.

John Edwards seems to begin every answer by attacking Jesse Helms. But my analysis ends there, cause I forget everything else he said. Edwards is one of those people who makes my eyes glaze over when trying to discuss any subject more complicated than food texture (which, I concede, is a good quality in a trial lawyer).

Joe Lieberman's courage dominated the forum. The boos he got after passionately defending the Iraq war are a badge of honor as far as I'm concerned.

John Kerry angrily blames the dangerous fuel additive MTBE on the Republicans, which is kind of fun because this was originally an anti-pollution additive demanded by environmentalists. Kerry somehow manages to be both stiff and angry at the same time. He makes Al Gore look relaxed and fun.

"I intend to have a very interesting journey to the planet earth." Yes, Dennis Kucinich really said that. I swear.

Brit Hume, who has a supremely dry sense of humor, asked Al Sharpton a question about Iran, and the very concept still makes me smile uncontrollably. And then there was Al's answer to Peter Jennings's question about the Federal Reserve Board, which reminded me of that moment in every Three Stooges short where the snooty dowager asks Moe to explain the workings of some gadget he is pretending to be an expert on. "Well, you know, it's all in the action of the central frammistat! Get over here, knucklehead! Why you..." *pokes Curly in eye*

Hume had the best line of the night, saying to Wesley Clark, "I think it is not unreasonable to ask when you first noticed you were a Democrat."
Clark was so flustered by it that he could only mutter some weak non-sequitur about "family values" and then started talking about "the war against the Taliban in Iraq"--a line that, if George Bush said it, would go straight to the next Leno monologue. My favorite Clark quote of the night: "To be honest with you, I have not looked at the facts."

My favorite of the evening's many non-sequiturs was Howard Dean's "This isn't about gay marriage, this is about jobs." Dean did well, seeming confident and forceful even as his campaign gutters in the wind. No candidate can survive late night jokes like "I'm sorry, but I can't vote for someone I believe may have rabies."

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

At the store today, we received a free standup display from White Wolf Publishing for their Gehenna sourcebook which they grossly underprinted, meaning we never got any. So we have a very nice store display for a book we can't get.

I spent the evening eating appalling amounts of animal flesh. With two friends I went to Samba, a Brazilian restaurant at 7th and Girard in North Philly that has only one item on its menu: The rodizio, where the waiters bring a dozen different varieties of meat from five different animals to your table and slice it for you onto your plate. It was awfully good, but--he said as he recalled the stories of Napoleon's men eating beef tallow on the road back from Moscow to keep themselves awake--now I can't sleep. 3 AM and wide awake, with a long day in front of me tomorrow. Why do I do this to myself? At least if I were eating carbs I could get a good night's sleep.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Some contrarian thoughts on Howard Dean: I'm actually a bit sad for him. Yeah, he was goofy and hot-tempered and totally unsuited for the Presidency. (The past tense is unavoidable now). But I thought he was almost always an honest person, which is a really, really hard thing to be in politics. This is particularly so among the Democrats because of the abject obesiances each candidate is required to make toward the special interest groups that openly oversee the party. By contrast, Bill Clinton took to the process like a duck to water because it rewards dishonesty. But I digress.

But not really. Because Dean's downfall began--if we are to believe Dick Morris--when he crossed the Clintons and got them mad at him. Morris says in so many words that all the recent revelations about Dean (presumably including information from his medical history) came from Clinton-inspired investigations run by Terry McAuliffe.

The moral of the sad Dean story is one we knew all along.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Here's the best link on the subject of Osama the presumed science fiction fan. That subject always makes me smile because it reminds me of a story from my severely misspent, highly geeky youth.

It was the last time I went to a one of the meetings of the local science fiction society. I only went because Michael Whelan was there and I wanted to get some books signed. The subject at hand that night was a draft of a resolution in support of Salman Rushdie, who was under sentence of death from the Ayatollah's regime in Iran. I remember the resolution being voted down because, as someone said, "The Satanic Verses isn't science fiction." The feeling was that it was best for these gentle genre fans to remain below the radar of Islamic fundamentalism, and not to involve themselves in such "mundane" controversies. Why alert the bad guys to their presence, y'know?

Being the jerk I am, I tried to ask what would happen when the Ayatollah found out about Alfred Bester's story "The Man Who Murdered Mohammed," Was that not science fiction either? But they weren't buying.

Anyway, after that bit of official cowardice it was pretty damn ironic, and bitterly funny, that it turned out that in all likelihood Osama bin Laden was a science fiction fan and patterned his life after a science fiction character. You can run, but not hide; or hide, but not run, or something.

All right, I have calmed down after yesterday's NFL rant, and I am working on my next column already. Something about medieval Korea, giant turtles, and military technology.

I am reading G.K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, which my sister gave me a couple of years ago and has a fascinating section on caveman art.

It is useless to begin by saying that everything was slow and smooth and a mere matter of development and degree. For in the plain matter like the pictures there is in fact not a trace of any such development or degree. Monkeys did not begin pictures and men finish them; Pithecanthropus did not draw a reindeer badly and Homo Sapiens draw it well. The higher animals did not draw better and better portraits; the dog did not paint better in his best period than in his early bad manner as a jackal; the wild horse was not an Impressionist and the race horse a Post-Impressionist. All we can say of this notion of reproducing things in shadow or representative shape is that it exists nowhere in nature except in man; and that we cannot even talk about it without treating man as something separate from nature. In other words, every sane sort of history must begin with man as man, a thing standing absolute and alone.

That is such a clear, striking passage, perfectly innocuous and reasonable in its time, but one which now would be very close to controversial.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

Took me long enough. The following column will appear in Against the Odds # 7:


The last time I wrote about an upcoming film, back in the editorial in ATO # 2, I managed to jinx Michael Mann’s Thermopylae movie, which has seemingly been in a development coma ever since. Not so Oliver Stone’s Alexander--based on Alexander the Great--which, as I write, is ineluctably lurching its way to a 2004 release. A competing version from director Baz Luhrmann with Leonard DiCaprio as Alexander has been delayed for “at least six months” according to the latest news, and may not appear at all. This news should be a cause for gratitude among everyone not looking forward to Gaugamela: The Musical! featuring, for all we know, dancing elephants and a winking DiCaprio telling the audience, sotto voce, that he really is “the king of the world.”

Granted, the bar, cinematically speaking, is not that high. I found the 1956 Richard Burton version a dreary mess, featuring a sloppy, phalanx-free Macedonian army that couldn’t have conquered the Amish, let alone the Persians. It would be hard for a new Alexander film to be worse, in my opinion.

Besides, I am prepared for the worst, and blithely so, because arguably no film could do more violence to Alexander than recent scholarly historiography has. Now, of course we are talking about the most written-about secular figure in human history, and some abuse is inevitable; anyone familiar with the literature can tell you how often and how grotesquely Alexander has been mutated to serve contemporary prejudices. The medieval Alexander romances, written before the formal boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, featured a nearly unrecognizable Alexander adventuring in a pure Edgar Rice Burroughs world: Building walls to keep away Gog and Magog. Finding the ten lost tribes of Israel only to hide them again. Fighting monsters, dragons, and giant ants (!), and eventually being carried directly into heaven in a chariot drawn by gryphons. Not to be outdone by Christendom, pre-Islamic Arab lore cast him as a two-horned god and, without missing a beat, subsequent Muslim traditions praised Alexander the idol-smasher. Earlier, the Old Testament Book of Daniel had depicted him as a leopard with four wings and four heads.

And yet, as fanciful and, well, odd, as the medieval chroniclers may have gotten, recent Alexander historians still have them beat. The problem is the same one that has colored nearly all scholarship in the last 30 years or so: Politicization. Regardless of the grinding, howling anachronisms generated in the effort, the contemporary university historian seems to be required to place his subject into a certain political template.

Exhibit A for recent Alexander scholarship is Brian Bosworth’s Alexander and the East: The Tragedy of Triumph (1996), which takes its readers to task for not realizing that Alexander was Just Another Western Imperialist. It’s not enough for the author to simply condemn Alexander for ravaging India; he must equate him with Hernan Cortes conquering Mexico two millennia later, just in case we didn’t get the message: “Imperialism is a strangely uniform phenomenon.” If you have an agenda, that is. Bosworth’s book is filled with one anachronistic term after another (“repression,” “terrorism.”) that would have had little or no meaning to anyone living in 330 B.C.

So does Bosworth have anything good to say about Alexander? Well…“Alexander was able to intimidate a vastly greater force by sheer technical mastery and the mystique of his reputation.” [emphasis added] When I read that line, I could just imagine Bosworth playing a wargame: “Wait a minute, I haven’t made my ‘mystique’ roll.”

Other Alexanderphobic scholars are even worse: Ian Worthington has been accused of inventing stories that never took place simply to make Alexander look bad. And the German historian Ernst Badian, needless to say lacking even the tiniest bit of evidence to support the insinuation, gives us this tendentious little gem:

We cannot be certain as to the circumstances surrounding the death of this sinister man [Coenus]. But those who remember the fate of Rommel are entitled to be cynical…

So Alexander is not just Cortes, he’s Hitler too! I could go on with more of these silly quotes, but you get the idea of what a shambles Alexander scholarship is these days. Plowing through this stuff, the reader longs for a brief, exciting moment of common sense that never, ever comes. A half-century ago, even a lowbrow popular historian like Harold Lamb could get what today’s Oxford dons fail to: “Ideology that came after Alexander has no place in this book.” Exactly. Or, more elaborately, we have the leading Alexander scholar of his day, W.W. Tarn:
To discuss the morality of the invasion [of India], and to call Alexander a glorious robber, is a mere anachronism. Of course, to the best modern thought, the invasion is quite unjustifiable; but it is equally unjustifiable to transfer our own thought to the fourth century. [emphasis added]…

Now Tarn was himself prejudiced both by his pro-Alexander bias (“a dreamy Boy Scout.” Is how one critic describes Tarn’s Alexander) and the zeitgeist of his time. Tarn was writing in the heady early days of international organizations, and his Alexander conquers the world simply to unite it in brotherhood; an inevitable contemporary permutation (from the Nazi-era German historian Helmut Berve) has Alexander wanting only to unify the “racially related” Greeks and Persians into a natural Herrenvolk.

So, in sum, there is hardly any political, religious, or social straitjacket that Alexander hasn’t already been squeezed into. Which should prepare us for anything that Oliver Stone could possibly do to him. Or should it? To say that Stone’s reputation precedes him is merely to introduce the inevitable jokes. To quote a comment I saw on an Internet message board, “Will there be a second archer on the grassy knoll?” My own recurring fear is of a Macedonian Tony Montana: “Say hello to my leetle phalanx!”

Whatever plans Stone might have for poor Alexander, I thought it was interesting to note what Colin Farrell, the noted classical scholar who has the title role, thought was most interesting about this person he was portraying. Conquered the known world by thirty? Most influential secular figure in human history? No, what fascinated Farrell was that Alexander was

Obviously bisexual — which wasn't even an issue back then…There was no term for bisexuality — it was just the way society was. People made love to men and women. It was only later on you had to pick one side of the fence. It's amazing.

He’s probably right about Alexander, though his bisexuality is completely inferential (“The truth is not attainable” as one scholar puts it). However, it should be noted that a couple of generations ago we did not have the consensus we do now about Alexander’s homosexual relations. Will Durant in 1939 and Agnes Saville in 1959, to name two, strongly disputed it. Both of them quoted the story from Arrian about the time Alexander was offered two beautiful boys, but answered: “What evil has he seen in me that he should purchase for me such shameful creatures? Tell the dealer to take his wares to hell.”

My point here is not to offer my opinions on Alexander’s sexuality, which could not possibly be of less interest to me. What always interests me is not the subject of the controversy as much as what such a controversy says about the environment in which it takes place. We live in an age when, seemingly, everything is political. And not least of all, the personal has become cloyingly political. The way we worship, for example, or the phenotypes we prefer to have sex with, are no longer just personal choices: They are de facto political statements.

And, with this in mind, The modern equivalent, the latest variation, of the medieval Alexander Romance is before us: It’s Alexander the hip bisexual. It’s Queer Eye for the Macedonian Guy! Alexandrian historiography has always been agenda-driven, and now for the first time we are seeing a popular historiography centered not on his accomplishment, but his personal life. (“I wonder how a gay-basher like Stone is going to handle Alexander's homosexuality” went one hostile Internet message board comment).

As I write, I have the miniatures rule set Warhammer Alexander the Great next to me as a sort of antidote. This is one of the best things about wargaming: One is forced to deal with historical figures exactly as they were, not as they echo our political beliefs, or as they make us feel better about ourselves. If nothing else, wargaming is an alternative to agenda-driven historiography.

And such a compelling, dominating figure is always going to have agendas attached to him. For Alexander is for us today what he has always been, and will be long after this or any other movie: Our contemporary.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

It's chic! It's hip! Can a reality show be far behind? Who Wants To Eat My Dad? Queer Eye For The Human Liver? American Long Pig?

Cannibalism, the new civil right.

Incredibly busy, but I remembered that I didn't list any resolutions for the year 2004 here. I don't have a list, I never have a list, but I will say that I want to be free of carbs and melodrama in 2004.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Still finishing up my column-that-never-ends for ATO #7. I should publish it here tomorrow, as I am taking a snow day off in advance. Yes, it was worth the wait. Tonight I wrote while watching 24, a show I have developed a lot of affection for. It's hokey and it takes itself way too seriously, but it's wonderfully stylized and has the soul of a Republic serial from the thirties, which is why I always forgive its occasional silliness.

Monday, January 12, 2004

I've been reading Arthur Lennig's The Immortal Count, his revised biography of Bela Lugosi (University Press of Kentucky, 2003). Besides the book's many virtues, it also gives me that rare pleasure you get when you know the author and you find yourself hearing the prose in his voice as you read. Arthur is a good friend of my brother's, and my brother still has daily email arguments with him which he duly forwards to me.

One of the minor things you come away from this book with is a sense of how common the motif of the "mad doctor" or "mad scientist" is in American popular culture of the mid-twentieth century; nearly all of Lugosi's non-Dracula roles were one of these. Though born in the literature of the nineteenth century (Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau, Dr. Jekyll), the mad scientist never became a commonplace figure until twentieth-century popular cinema.

Cinema has always regarded science and scientists with deep suspcion. Today, when the mad scientist is no longer taken seriously as a dramatic figure, we have instead the incompetent scientist. In any movie made today featuring a scientific breakthrough as a plot point, it can be predicted with absolute certainty that something will go Horribly Wrong, as in Jurassic Park et al.

As to why that is, I am not sure. Horror movies have been called "conservative" by a number of critics, but that's not strong enough: I would go all the way to "reactionary." Horror movies tell us: Have sex, and Jason will gut you like a fish. And, like the medieval Church with Galileo, horror movies view scientists with a suspicious, prejudiced eye.

Sunday, January 11, 2004


6. Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s an incredibly rare thing to see a politician dismantling useless and predatory social programs. If only Arnold had gotten into politics earlier, it would have had the added bonus of depriving us of End of Days.

5. The universal revulsion against Michael Jackson doesn’t reaffirm my faith in humanity (which was never that much to begin with) but it does help.

4. The enormous popularity of the Lord of the Rings films, with all of their implicit and explicit (“Men of the West!”) messages, which drive haters of Western culture to hilarious fits of irrational rage .

3. Mel Gibson’s upcoming film The Passion, which will have the same effect in a religious context.

2. You don’t see bald guys with ponytails much anymore.

1. Those Don Cheadle NFL playoffs commercials. Don Cheadle is the best.


6. Scientology “Celebrity Centers.”

5. The required belief that all cultures are equally advanced in their own way, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

4. One of the more recent barriers of forbidden media language to fall, the term “goddamn.” You can hear it on radio all the time, though it usually gets bleeped on TV still. Maybe this is more of a personal thing, as it was always my father’s favorite word when drunk, and it always hits a nerve with me.

3. Generally speaking, when the term “slavery” appears anywhere in popular culture, it is to be understood that this term refers to practices that occurred in the USA prior to 1865. Nowhere else in history has slavery ever occurred.

2. Max Bialystock is alive and well.

1. Want to know exactly what’s wrong with the culture, encapsulated in one simple, four-word sentence? Madonna endorses Wesley Clark. For me, the Dennis Kucinich endorsement from the creatures of the forest was more compelling.

It says a lot more about the media than it does about the current administration that the current Paul O'Neill "revelations" are considered a story at all.

As Glenn Reynolds points out, under the terms of the Iraqi Liberation Act of 1998 (signed by President Clinton) the government was required to work towards the removal of Saddam. If GWB talked about it in 2001, he was only obeying the law.

Friday, January 09, 2004

It is really, really cold.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Noting that the Dow is now higher than when President Bush first took office. I'm sure CNN and the networks will be mentioning this any day now....

My brother sent me a link to an interview with author and philosopher John Kekes on the subject of what has come to be called "social justice," which got me thinking about that term specifically. I've never thought about it much, since it's simply used as a meaningless slogan designed to rev people up. (I have always been revved up in the opposite direction by it, having to fight an immediate, instinctive hold-onto-your-wallet reaction on hearing it spoken aloud).

To me the biggest problem is with the concept itself. The context of the term "justice" is above all that of the individual:

Justice:The rendering to every one his due or right; just treatment; requital of desert; merited reward or punishment; that which is due to one's conduct or motives. (Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1995)

There are no relatives in the term, no generalities. "Justice" in its purest sense is essentially a mathematical equation, where punishment fits crime precisely.

To add a "social" component muddles everything up. Everyone knows there is no such thing as pure, perfect justice on this side of the grave. But socializing justice makes the term absolutely meaningless: individual accountability disappears, and with it any meaningful definition of ancillary terms like "innocence" and "guilt." "Social justice" is nothing but an oxymoron.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

I was going to go on a long rant about language after an essay by Fred Reed inspired me, but I don't have the time. I will just rant about one current English language topic, namely my unremitting hatred of the passive voice.

There's nothing substandard about the passive voice. Using it does not constitute bad grammar. I just don't like it.

I have my reasons, mostly aesthetic: The passive voice deadens narrative and generally lowers the IQ in any piece of writing. It just looks awkward. Worse, its modern usage is often deliberately deceptive, and I will give two examples:

Evading reponsibility, as in the now-infamous locution "Mistakes were made." The active voice forces you to say who actually committed the act, and sometimes people would rather not. Who made the damn mistakes?

Disguising culpability. Here I'm thinking of the recent Daily Mirror article which tried to say, essentially, that George Bush personally ruined the gardens at Buckingham Palace during his visit. The article manages to avoid the question of who actually committed all of the damage with the careful use of the passive voice:

[H]er perfectly-mantained lawns had been churned up...The historic fabric of the Palace was also damaged as high-tech links were fitted for the US leader....some of those areas have been damaged.

Yes, I hate the passive voice.

Monday, January 05, 2004

I have recently gotten hooked on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, which really is as good as the best Seinfeld episodes. It's cynical and subversive in exactly the way that comedy should be, showing us a plane of existence ruled by petty, casual cruelty so intricately and lovingly illustrated that we can't help but recognize it as our own. To call it the best comedy on television is only the faintest of praise.

Unfortunately, HBO puts it in a bloc with Sex and the City, which is a show I can't imagine most men watching for more than a few difficult minutes at a time, and not just because of the equine presence of Sarah Jessica Seabiscuit. SATC at its core is just like those Where-The-Boys-Are teen-girl movies of the early sixties, except that those didn't feature Troy Donahue taking Connie Francis from behind, for which I'm grateful (as was, I believe, Troy).


On the way home I had to swerve to avoid a very slow, very stupid group of wild turkeys. I had never seen one before, so it was kind of cool except for the nearly wiping them out part.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Adding a link here for Aliens Cause Global Warming, another brilliant lecture by Michael Crichton.

Almost without notice, a story by Stewart Baker appeared in Slate last week with never-before-seen details of the government's atempts to find several of the 9/11 hijackers prior to that atrocity. Baker appears to be privy to several internal FBI emails that have not been made public until now. The core of the information is in two extraordinary paragraphs:

In August 2001, the New York FBI intelligence agent looking for al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi didn't have the computer access needed to do the job alone. He requested help from the bureau's criminal investigators and was turned down. Acting on legal advice, FBI headquarters had refused to involve its criminal agents. In an e-mail to the New York agent, headquarters staff said: "If al-Midhar is located, the interview must be conducted by an intel[ligence] agent. A criminal agent CAN NOT be present at the interview. This case, in its entirety, is based on intel[ligence]. If at such time as information is developed indicating the existence of a substantial federal crime, that information will be passed over the wall according to the proper procedures and turned over for follow-up criminal investigation."

In a reply message, the New York agent protested the ban on using law enforcement resources for intelligence investigations in eerily prescient terms: "[S]ome day someone will die—and wall or not—the public will not understand why we were not more effective and throwing every resource we had at certain 'problems.' Let's hope the [lawyers who gave the advice] will stand behind their decisions then, especially since the biggest threat to us now, UBL [Usama Bin Laden], is getting the most 'protection.' "

Baker properly calls this exchange of emails heartbreaking. Can you imagine what this guy must have felt like a couple of weeks after he wrote this, when Al-Mihdhar's ugly face was on every television screen in the world?

But it makes sense that neither the Bush-lovers nor the Bush-haters want to publicize this very real intelligence failure.

Bush-lovers are embarrassed by the fact that the adminstration tolerated the suicidal culture displayed by the FBI HQ above, because this culture enabled the 9/11 holocaust.

Bush-haters want to ignore it because it doesn't prove that 9/11 was the evil Republican plot that they insist it is.

In fact, it points to the exact reasons why the 9/11 plot succeeded: The Bureau's silly semantic distinctions between "intel" and "criminal" investigations; the zealously-patrolled fiefdoms that prevent sharing of intelligence; the distance with which the intelligence agencies hold themselves apart from the real world.

Saturday, January 03, 2004


Here in temperate America, the immediate post-holiday period is the first time all season that you really notice how cruel, how desiccated, how monochromatically brown the landscape has become. Prior to this point we've hung everything with bright, glowing, sparkly things; when they're abruptly removed, the reality hits us.

The natural tendency, I think, is to depress over the bleakness of it fall. If the change of seasons happened, say, every few thousand years or so instead of every year it would--like the sunset in Isaac Asimov's story "Nightfall"--drive people mad. People would think the world was ending.

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