Sunday, March 27, 2005

And I went up there, I said, "Shrink, I want to kill. I mean, I wanna, I
wanna kill. Kill. I wanna, I wanna see, I wanna see blood and gore and
guts and veins in my teeth. Eat dead burnt bodies. I mean kill, Kill,
KILL, KILL." And I started jumpin up and down yelling, "KILL, KILL," and
he started jumpin up and down with me and we was both jumping up and down
yelling, "KILL, KILL."

--Arlo Guthrie, "Alice's Restaurant"

That's what the recent media coverage of the Terri Schiavo case feels like. Kill kill kill, all kill all the time. The worst of it is how eagerly they report the polling that supports her killing. The need to kill what the Nazis used to call "useless eaters" has always been elite-driven, a point made brilliantly by Orson Scott Card. The elites eat it up when the general public agrees with their policy positions and rejects those ignorant Christians (there is a special delight in certain quarters when Christians take it on the chin; as one guy on the DU site taunted the other day, "Why can't their God save Terri?"). And, in an elite-friendly opinion environment like this one, you can count on hearing the cheerful, breathless announcement of new polling every day. This is reminiscent of the impeachment of Bill Clinton, when the media never let us forget how much support our beloved president had among the public.

And that's what makes me hopeful, in spite of everything. ("In spite of everything" is a relevant phrase here, because it recalls the last line in the diary of Anne Frank.) It's not just that most people want to "pull the plug" on Terri, in spite of the absence of any plug. It's not a matter of the public being wise or ignorant, or informed or misinformed.

It's just that there are some issues whose complexity can't be quantified in a yes-or-no poll question. And I think it's pretty clear today that the two-thirds majorities that opposed Clinton's removal from office were not indicative of a national mandate in favor of Oval Office quickies with interns, as much as the elites tried to spin it that way at the time. In retrospect, I think that that impeachment brought the very complex issue of integrity before the public in a very dramatic way, in a way that the public wasn't ready to endorse. And, I believe, impeachment affected the public in ways not readily visible until a year and a half later, when there was no good reason that the two-thirds majorities that protected Clinton shouldn't have given his Vice-President more than an electoral draw.

That's what I think will happen in the wake of the Schiavo story: That the public, in the long run, won't be as accepting of ending life on a whim as the elites seem to believe they are now.

But for now, it's kill, kill, kill.

Thursday, March 17, 2005


There are good things about long drives to small town auctions in central Pennsylvania. For one thing, I got to fill up at my new favorite gas station/convenience store, the not-found-in-Southeastern-PA Sheetz (which immediately made me think of my old friend Lance, who I'm sure would have unfailingly connected the name "Sheetz" to Central Pennsylvania's general political persuasion. But I digress). It was so pleasant an experience that I didn't mind the high gasoline prices (which, relatively, aren't all that high once you're outside the metropolitan area and it doesn't have that MTBE crap in it). I felt thrilled to pay $1.95 a gallon, and in any case more than paid for the fill-up with the night's first auction purchase (six stupid Hallmark ornaments that will ebay for $40, won for $3.)

I am always charmed by the interior parts of the state with all its pretty little towns with lovely clock-tower steeples set among the hills. This particular trip had a little more significance than the usual one, as it was conducted over the winding course of Route 61 towards Schuylkill County, the anthracite coal region where my mother's family lived at the turn of the last century, straight through, for example, the tiny little town of Schuylkill Haven, forever linked in my mind with my mother's favorite phrase for describing someone acting bizarrely: "Recess at Schuylkill Haven." (A hundred years ago there was a mental hospital there).

It was a decent auction but will depend on the grading of some of the paper items I bought to determine if it was really successful, but I am optimistic. (Yesterday I sold a Bram Stoker first edition, which I estimated at $50, for more than $520.) The auction took place in the saddest mall I've ever seen, with about 60% occupancy and a forlorn Easter Bunny who wandered the near-empty halls looking for someone, anyone to notice him. There were two men with toupees at the auction, including the auctioneer, who had this almost Hitlerian jet-black forelock that hovered rigidly halfway down his forehead. But the other one was even better: Someone actually had a jet black mullet toupee, and I'm not kidding.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Haven't seen that many movies lately. I enjoyed Constantine because I had such low expectations, and found myself quibbling with Hotel Rwanda because I had such high expectations for it. I loved the performances in HR, especially that of Don Cheadle, who I rooted for desperately to win the Oscar for the secondary reason that it would shut Chris Rock's big race-baiting mouth up. I had nothing against Jamie Foxx, but Rock's shameless Mau-Mauing on Foxx's behalf (essentially threatening to call the Academy racist on live TV if they made the wrong choice) made me root against him.

One of the minor bugs in HR was that nearly all the Africans in it look like generic Africans--which is understandable, given that the movie was filmed not in Rwanda but in South Africa. That's a problem because what facilitated the genocide in Rwanda was that Hutus and Tutsis tend to look noticeably different from each other, and it hurt the accuracy of the movie that you couldn't tell the two ethnicities apart. Don Cheadle's family looked Tutsi, but everyone else looks largely the same.

I had a similar problem with the otherwise terrific Black Hawk Down, which was filmed in Morocco and therefore is full of Somalis who look nothing like Somalis. An analogy would be a movie about the Sicilian Mafia with an all-Norwegian cast.

Now, part of the point of the film was that, because of centuries of intermarriage, it was frequently difficult to tell Hutu from Tutsi, and the ethnic divide between the two groups was all a creation of the evil European colonialists etc etc etc. The film shoved this belief down our throats, but I was skeptical.

I was skeptical because--and I don't have the figures in front of me--several hundred thousand people were killed in a few weeks, nearly all by machetes. My point is that it beggars credulity that the killers went around asking 400,000 people for their ID cards to determine if they should be killed or not. There had to be a quick, immediate way for the killers to tell the two groups apart, and I submit that it can't be that difficult for a native Rwandan to tell who is Hutu and who is Tutsi on sight.

I also got the feeling that HR wanted to be anti-American but it really couldn't pull it off without becoming dishonest. The genocide in Rwanda was the failure of a lot of people, but blame has to start with Africa, and with Europe, specifically the Belgians, who were much more familiar with the territory.

The other problem for the filmmakers is that the President at the time was the sainted Bill Clinton, so any anti-Americanism must be generalized. (Another example of this would be the alteration of the captioning at the beginning of Black Hawk Down to remove the word "Clinton.") It requires a particularly horrendous bit of rhetorical torture to blame America without blaming Clinton, so the film wisely keeps more or less quiet on the subject. The bizarre belief that one hears occasionally in the fever-swamps of the Left--that the Hutu President's plane was shot down by "missiles confiscated from Saddam Hussein by the Americans"--requires us to believe that this all took place behind Bill Clinton’s back.

One of the film’s few direct references to the United States never mentions the USA at all; it’s when the characters in the hotel listen incredulously to a dimwitted American woman babbling about the meaning of the term “genocide” to a group of questioners. I haven't seen any confirmation of who the person speaking is; I am pretty sure that it was Dee Dee Myers’s actual voice from an actual White House press conference, but it's never identified as such, or as anyone in particular.

For all that, I still liked the film, with the usual political reservations.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

So I haven't really been away.

I've just changed my life a little bit. I no longer go to the store except for Mondays and some Fridays. I've finally gotten high-speed internet access at home, and now I can be a full-time home ebayer. This accomplishes several things for me.

First, it ends my horrible, soul-killing commute except for 1.5 times a week. Besides costing me $10 in gas per round trip plus tolls, besides killing my car with all the mileage, besides wasting 10-12 hours a week of my time spent doing nothing but sitting in a car, the single worst thing was the never-ending hassle of fighting with people every day, which is what daily car commutes are when there is limited road space in a highly populated area like the Philadelphia suburbs. I'd come home drained and weary every day, good for absolutely nothing. Well, even more than usual.

Additionally, it takes me (almost) completely away from retailing. I was never going to be a good retailer anyway.

I had planned to be set up for this by the beginning of the year, but of course I didn't reckon with how disorganized my house was. I basically hadn't done anything with it since I came back from Italy, and that was six and a half years ago. To make this thing work, I have to have certain areas of the spare bedroom and cellar devoted to certain things, so I can find them when I sell them. And of course, I'm not completely finished--far from it--but at least everything is finally set up in the basic way I want it.

And it's so much more interesting than sitting in a store waiting for someone to come in. The other night I bought five shelves of books at an estate auction for $5, as I often do--about half of what I sell on ebay are books. About half of them got immediately thrown away (book club editions and mass-market paperbacks), about a quarter were savable but not great (I'll probably donate them to libraries), and the other quarter were auctionable from $5-20. And then there was one relatively modern book that no one, including me, had looked at closely. It was a copy of Joan Crawford's autobiography A Portrait of Joan, which I knew was a decent auctionable book in the $10-20 range. But of course, when I looked in it, not only was it autographed by Joan Crawford to the woman whose estate it was, but there was a group of nine letters from Crawford to the woman from the mid-1960s.

How could I not love a job like this?

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