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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Thursday, 19 October 2006
Beyond Kafka
Topic: Couldn't be so...
Beyond Kafka
Well, on Thursday, October 19, it became clear the Baghdad thing didn't work out -
The U.S. military acknowledged Thursday that its two-month drive to crush insurgent and militia violence in the Iraqi capital had fallen short, calling the raging bloodshed disheartening and saying it was rethinking its strategy to rein in gunmen, torturers and bombers.

The admission by military spokesman Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell came as car bombs, mortar fire and shootings around the country killed at least 66 people and wounded 175. The dead included the Anbar province police commander, slain by gunmen who burst into his home in Ramadi.

The U.S. military also announced the deaths of three U.S. troops in fighting, raising the toll for American troops in October to 74. The month is on course to be the deadliest for U.S. forces in nearly two years.
But while there may be some "rethinking the strategy," the word from the very top, and that's not the president, was tinker all you want, but keep throwing those warm bodies into the meat grinder -
Vice President Dick Cheney said the United States was not looking for a way out of Iraq. "I know what the president thinks. I know what I think. And we're not looking for an exit strategy. We're looking for victory," Cheney said in an interview posted on Time magazine's Web site Thursday.
Cheney was doing damage control, dealing with some unfortunate remarks from what he might as well have called a lily-livered fool. He seems to think these military guys just don't understand warfare. They have the wrong experience and come to the wrong conclusions. It was a bit of that "we sent a boy to do a man's job" thing - it just wasn't professional. Perhaps he avoided military service back in the Vietnam War days because he knew the services were filled with people who knew nothing about war, and serving under them would drive him crazy.

Anyway, Caldwell told reporters the joint effort with the Iraqis to just crush all the violence in the capital (no little irony there) - the operation that started back on 7 August - had not delivered "the desired results," as attacks in Baghdad rose twenty-two percent in the first three weeks of the holy month of Ramadan. He apparently decided it wouldn't be wise to say everything was fine, no matter what Cheney wanted. He decided reality had to be acknowledged - "In Baghdad, Operation Together Forward has made a difference in the focus areas but has not met our overall expectations in sustaining a reduction in the level of violence." And he added - "The violence is indeed disheartening."

He just about said that this isn't working. The New York Times headline was General Urges New Strategy for Baghdad, but this implied much more. The efforts in the city imply the efforts in the country. It wasn't very subtle. This isn't working.

So, General Caldwell said that the new security plan for Baghdad hasn't reduced violence there at all. And this was a model for how to get things done. Of course"the American military was working closely with the government of Iraq to determine how to best refocus our efforts." It seems "as they stand up, we stand down" - the central administration answer to when we wrap up this thing and boogie on home - needs a whole lot of work. Caldwell also pointed out that American troops had to return last week to Dora, a nasty southern Baghdad neighborhood that had been our "showcase" - it was one of the first areas to be cleared of the bad guys. We fixed that, moved on and left things to the Iraqi forces, and the bad guys were back. The plan seems to be crap.

So did William B. Caldwell just ruin his career by offending Cheney? Well, he tried to do his own damage control there. There was a new special reason things had gotten to bad - "We also realize that there is a midterm election that's taking place in the United States and that the extremist elements understand the power of the media; that if they can in fact produce additional casualties, that in fact is recognized and discussed in the press because everybody would like not to see anybody get killed in these operations, but that does occur."

Sentence structure aside - West Point doesn't exactly have the best English Department in the northeast - he just said what's going on is an effort by the bad guys to get Democrats elected in November. One can imagine Cheney grinning at those words. It's Dick and Karl and the Republicans up against the Islamic terrorists and Iraqi insurgents and the allies in the Democratic Party. This general can be useful.

There is of course the report from the Iraq Study Group - James Baker, Lee Hamilton and those guys - that will come out after the election. The "wise old men" - Baker was secretary of state for the president's father and the lawyer who managed the recount suit in 2000 that convinced the Supreme Court to give the son the presidency, stopping all vote recounts and in spite of the son losing the popular vote (the swing vote being Justice Scalia, appointed by the father) - were going to fix this problem too. But there had to be a problem, and Cheney doesn't think there is one. How could there be?

These guys were apparently going to say victory was not possible and there were two basic alternatives here - give up on a unified Iraq, divide it into three parts and let what happens just happen - and slowly drawn down and hang around the neighbor to go back in now and then to solve problems as the arise. Or maybe both could be done. The leaks had been carefully staged, to prepare the nation for the inevitable.

These "wise old men," like the general, are just stupid. Why does no one but Rove, Cheney and Rumsfeld know anything at all about war? The sound of the vice president grinding his teeth could be heard throughout the land, or more precisely this -
Awaiting the recommendations of a commission exploring U.S. options in Iraq, the White House on Wednesday emphatically ruled out some proposals to end the long and unpopular war.

Presidential spokesman Tony Snow said a suggestion to divide Iraq into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish regions, each with high degrees of autonomy, was a "nonstarter." Similarly, he said a phased withdrawal of American troops - perhaps by 5 percent every two months - also was a "nonstarter."

"You withdraw when you win," Snow said. "Phased withdrawal is a way of saying, 'Regardless of what the conditions are on the ground, we're going to get out of Dodge.'"
So that's that. The "plan" isn't working because the bad guys are just trying to mess up our election and get their friends, the Democrats, elected, and anyone who is suggesting alternative will be shut down - they're fools and cowards, and they know nothing.

So nothing will change. If he Democrats regain control of congress, if the "wise old men" do recommend these things, they all can just go pound sand. It's called resolve - being steadfast. Or you can call it other things. Many words come to mind.

But, bottom line, as they say, is that no one tells Dick Cheney what to do, unless someone does -
A federal judge has ordered the Bush administration to release information about who visited Vice President Dick Cheney's office and personal residence, an order that could spark a late election-season debate over lobbyists' White House access.

While researching the access lobbyists and others had on the White House, The Washington Post asked in June for two years of White House visitor logs. The Secret Service refused to process the request, which government attorneys called "a fishing expedition into the most sensitive details of the vice presidency."

U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina said Wednesday that, by the end of next week, the Secret Service must produce the records or at least identity them and justify why they are being withheld.
Cheney will also tell the court to go pound sand. The "unified executive" argument will save him - the courts and congress cannot tell the executive branch what to do. That's been the operating principle for the last six years. The courts may have told Nixon to turn over those Watergate tapes, but this administration has established that he was foolish to comply - there was no need. This should be interesting.

So nothing will change, and we will keep sending troops into the meat grinder, all but a few -
Thousands of U.S. troops are being barred from overseas duty because they are so deep in debt they are considered security risks, according to an Associated Press review of military records.

The number of troops held back has climbed dramatically in the past few years. And while they appear to represent a very small percentage of all U.S. military personnel, the increase is occurring at a time when the armed forces are stretched thin by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We cut their benefits and combat pay to teach them responsibility, and some couldn't handle it, it seems. As Cheney is no doubt thinking - "What's wrong with these people?"

Odd - it's all like some sort of bad novel about a banana republic run by characters lifted from a Woody Allen or Marx Brothers movie. It cannot be Kafka - it's too comically absurd for something that middle-European Czech sourpuss to crank out in his Prague garret.

But then the day, Thursday, October 19, wasn't all bad news, as there was this -
Gina Lollobrigida, once dubbed "the most beautiful woman in the world" after the title of one of her movies, is getting married to a man 34 years her junior.

"We wanted for this to happen sooner, but it just wasn't possible," Lollobrigida, 79, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Thursday, without elaborating.

Lollobrigida said she met her husband to be, Javier Rigau y Rafols of Barcelona, Spain, at a party in Monte Carlo and the two have been dating for 22 years.
Even Kafka couldn't come up with something that strange. That's well beyond the tale of the poor fellow who woke up to discover he was a cockroach. Javier Rigau y Rafols will wake up in a far stranger world.

Where we all are these days is in a world far beyond Kafka. Or maybe not.

There's Kafka's short novel The Trial - Josef K. wakes up one morning and, for reasons never revealed at all, is arrested and subjected to all the rigors of a very unsettling judicial process for an unspecified crime. He never finds out what his crime is. This thing has been filmed by Orson Welles, and there's a more recent remake, with the screenplay from Harold Pinter, no less. But as we say out here in Hollywood, who need movies when you have the real thing? (No one out here ever says that, of course)

But it does come down to this -
Once President Bush signed the new law on military tribunals, administration officials and Republican leaders in Congress wasted no time giving Americans a taste of the new order created by this unconstitutional act.

Within hours, Justice Department lawyers notified the federal courts that they no longer had the authority to hear pending lawsuits filed by attorneys on behalf of inmates of the penal camp at Guantánamo Bay. They cited passages in the bill that suspend the fundamental principle of habeas corpus, making Mr. Bush the first president since the Civil War to take that undemocratic step.

Not satisfied with having won the vote, Dennis Hastert, the speaker of the House, quickly issued a statement accusing Democrats who opposed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 of putting "their liberal agenda ahead of the security of America." He said the Democrats "would gingerly pamper the terrorists who plan to destroy innocent Americans' lives" and create "new rights for terrorists."

… While the Republicans pretend that this bill will make America safer, let's be clear about its real dangers. It sets up a separate system of justice for any foreigner whom Mr. Bush chooses to designate as an "illegal enemy combatant." It raises insurmountable obstacles for prisoners to challenge their detentions. It does not require the government to release prisoners who are not being charged, or a prisoner who is exonerated by the tribunals.

The law does not apply to American citizens, but it does apply to other legal United States residents. And it chips away at the foundations of the judicial system in ways that all Americans should find threatening. It further damages the nation's reputation and, by repudiating key protections of the Geneva Conventions, it needlessly increases the danger to any American soldier captured in battle.

In the short run, voters should see through the fog created by the Republican campaign machine. It will be up to the courts to repair the harm this law has done to the Constitution.
That's from the New York Times lead editorial for Thursday, October 19 - but they have it wrong in one detail. Most constitutional law experts read it more carefully - the president now has been given the option to declare any American citizen he decided is an "unlawful enemy combatant" and deny them any opportunity to prove they are not. That may not be a minor detail. Anyone so designated has no right to challenge this status, no right to one of these tribunals to figure out what's up - convening such is only an option if the president so chooses - and can be tried and convicted on evidence they may not be allowed to know, evidence obtained by "coercive techniques" that the rest of the world says is torture but we say isn't quite torture (the president has been given the option to decide on a case by case basis what is and what is not torture). This is Kafka territory.

But it's a little too abstract for most folks. The president is supposed to keep us safe so let him do his job - so the thinking goes. What does it matter?

There are a few voices in the wilderness screaming that this is madness. In the low-ratings wilderness of MSNBC cable news - those hapless souls far behind CNN and way, way behind Fox News - there is the astonishing Keith Olbermann, on fire about such things. But General Electric (GE), the corporation that owns NBC-Universal (and Universal Studios and Telemundo out here), which in turn owns MSNBC, is about to perform a mercy killing and disassemble MSNBC - they aren't making enough money.

But before GE - "We Bring Good Things to Life" - pulls the plug on this particular appliance, Olbermann is make the most of the last days. His midweek commentary (transcript here and video here or here) turned so heads.

Some of what he said -
We have lived as if in a trance.

We have lived as people in fear.

And now - our rights and our freedoms in peril - we slowly awaken to learn that we have been afraid of the wrong thing.

Therefore, tonight have we truly become the inheritors of our American legacy.

For, on this first full day that the Military Commissions Act is in force, we now face what our ancestors faced, at other times of exaggerated crisis and melodramatic fear-mongering:

A government more dangerous to our liberty, than is the enemy it claims to protect us from.

We have been here before - and we have been here before, led here by men better and wiser and nobler than George W. Bush.

We have been here when President John Adams insisted that the Alien and Sedition Acts were necessary to save American lives, only to watch him use those acts to jail newspaper editors.

American newspaper editors, in American jails, for things they wrote about America.

We have been here when President Woodrow Wilson insisted that the Espionage Act was necessary to save American lives, only to watch him use that Act to prosecute 2,000 Americans, especially those he disparaged as "Hyphenated Americans," most of whom were guilty only of advocating peace in a time of war.

American public speakers, in American jails, for things they said about America.

And we have been here when President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted that Executive Order 9066 was necessary to save American lives, only to watch him use that order to imprison and pauperize 110,000 Americans while his man in charge, General DeWitt, told Congress: "It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen - he is still a Japanese."

American citizens, in American camps, for something they neither wrote nor said nor did, but for the choices they or their ancestors had made about coming to America.

Each of these actions was undertaken for the most vital, the most urgent, the most inescapable of reasons.

… In times of fright, we have been only human.

We have let Roosevelt's "fear of fear itself" overtake us.

We have listened to the little voice inside that has said, "The wolf is at the door; this will be temporary; this will be precise; this too shall pass."

We have accepted that the only way to stop the terrorists is to let the government become just a little bit like the terrorists.

… We have a long and painful history of ignoring the prophecy attributed to Benjamin Franklin that "those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

But even within this history we have not before codified the poisoning of habeas corpus, that wellspring of protection from which all essential liberties flow.

You, sir, have now befouled that spring.

You, sir, have now given us chaos and called it order.

You, sir, have now imposed subjugation and called it freedom.

For the most vital, the most urgent, the most inescapable of reasons.

And - again, Mr. Bush - all of them, wrong.

We have handed a blank check drawn against our freedom to a man who has said it is unacceptable to compare anything this country has ever done to anything the terrorists have ever done.

We have handed a blank check drawn against our freedom to a man who has insisted again that "the United States does not torture. It's against our laws and it's against our values" and who has said it with a straight face while the pictures from Abu Ghraib Prison and the stories of Waterboarding figuratively fade in and out, around him.

We have handed a blank check drawn against our freedom to a man who may now, if he so decides, declare not merely any non-American citizens "unlawful enemy combatants" and ship them somewhere -anywhere - but may now, if he so decides, declare you an "unlawful enemy combatant" and ship you somewhere - anywhere.

And if you think this hyperbole or hysteria, ask the newspaper editors when John Adams was president or the pacifists when Woodrow Wilson was president or the Japanese at Manzanar when Franklin Roosevelt was president.

And if you somehow think habeas corpus has not been suspended for American citizens but only for everybody else, ask yourself this: If you are pulled off the street tomorrow, and they call you an alien or an undocumented immigrant or an "unlawful enemy combatant" - exactly how are you going to convince them to give you a court hearing to prove you are not? Do you think this attorney general is going to help you?

This President now has his blank check.

He lied to get it.

He lied as he received it.

Is there any reason to even hope he has not lied about how he intends to use it nor who he intends to use it against?

"These military commissions will provide a fair trial," you told us yesterday, Mr. Bush, "in which the accused are presumed innocent, have access to an attorney and can hear all the evidence against them."

"Presumed innocent," Mr. Bush?

The very piece of paper you signed as you said that, allows for the detainees to be abused up to the point just before they sustain "serious mental and physical trauma" in the hope of getting them to incriminate themselves, and may no longer even invoke The Geneva Conventions in their own defense.

"Access to an attorney," Mr. Bush?

Lieutenant Commander Charles Swift said on this program, Sir, and to the Supreme Court, that he was only granted access to his detainee defendant on the promise that the detainee would plead guilty.

"Hearing all the evidence," Mr. Bush?

The Military Commissions Act specifically permits the introduction of classified evidence not made available to the defense.

Your words are lies, Sir.

… Habeas corpus? Gone.

The Geneva Conventions? Optional.

The moral force we shined outwards to the world as an eternal beacon, and inwards at ourselves as an eternal protection? Snuffed out.

These things you have done, Mr. Bush, they would be "the beginning of the end of America."

And did it even occur to you once, sir - somewhere in amidst those eight separate, gruesome, intentional, terroristic invocations of the horrors of 9/11 - that with only a little further shift in this world we now know -just a touch more repudiation of all of that for which our patriots died - did it ever occur to you once that in just 27 months and two days from now when you leave office, some irresponsible future president and a "competent tribunal" of lackeys would be entitled, by the actions of your own hand, to declare the status of "unlawful enemy combatant" for - and convene a Military Commission to try - not John Walker Lindh, but George Walker Bush?

For the most vital, the most urgent, the most inescapable of reasons.

And doubtless, Sir, all of them - as always -wrong.
You can click on the links and read it all, the elided detail, but you get the idea. The style may be over the top, but what he's getting at isn't.

Readers react - the high-powered Wall Street Attorney whose photos sometimes appear in these pages, and who studied constitutional law under Peter Rodino of Watergate fame -
This doesn't seem over the top to me, nor would it seem over the top to Peter Rodino.

Because there are so few in the media speaking out against Bush, those who do so must do so loudly.
Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta -
Actually, I don't think Olbermann is really over the top, not in general and not in this piece. I not only totally agree with what he says but also share his anger and apparent frustration that not enough attention is being paid to what this man is doing to the country. (Still, I do wish he'd stop punctuating his sentences with the word "Sir" - it reminds me too much of a state trooper asking to see my license and registration.)

In regards to the frustration mentioned above, it knocked me backwards the other day when I heard on NPR a soundbite from a woman in Missouri who, explaining why she plans on voting Republican this year, said she didn't want to see any terrorist having the same freedoms she has, on account of he wants to kill her just because she's a Christian! It's been paraphrased before but needs to be paraphrased again, that our problem is not just in our leaders, it is mostly in ourselves.

Yeah, I know the problems with this, but every now and then I toy with the idea that some sort of standardized historical literacy test - covering the kind of material found in a course on the founding of the United States and the adoption of its constitution - needs to be passed before a person is allowed to register to vote - and of course, also to run for public office.
Nope, literacy tests and such are illegal. They can be abused, however useful they might be. But it is a thought. And we really did bring this on ourselves.

From Wall Street - "Regarding the use of the word 'Sir' - I hear it differently. I think implied are the two words missing prior to 'Sir' which would be F- You."

From Atlanta - "No, no, that's the way I hear it, too! Although in my mind's eye, it's coming through the window of my car.

From our musician-mason-photographer Phillip Raines -
"Sir" could have been code for simply-idiotic-Republican, but I think it was recognizing the respect of the office. As far as theater goes it was a punctuation device, but Olbermann still rates as a B+ speaker in my humble opinion even though I agree with what he says. The vapors of testosterone hang heavy with this rant, but Bush and his "knuck when you buck" posturing toward the press is more pervasive and low brow. I'll be interested in how Keith is silenced. Maybe by a dirty bomb at a football game.
Nope, it'll be the budget cuts and reorganization that does him in.

And perhaps Olbermann knew his rant would be seen as a bit much. He is a former sportscaster and a bit of an oddball. On the same show he tried to counter that with someone who isn't either - Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University, and that interview added the substance behind the angry words - 
OLBERMANN: I want to start by asking you about a specific part of this act that lists one of the definitions of an unlawful enemy combatant as, quote, "a person who, before, on, or after the date of the enactment of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, has been determined to be an unlawful enemy combatant by a combatant status review tribunal or another competent tribunal established under the authority of the president or the secretary of defense." Does that not basically mean that if Mr. Bush or Mr. Rumsfeld say so, anybody in this country, citizen or not, innocent or not, can end up being an unlawful enemy combatant?

TURLEY: It certainly does. In fact, later on, it says that if you even give material support to an organization that the president deems connected to one of these groups, you too can be an enemy combatant. And the fact that he appoints this tribunal is meaningless. You know, standing behind him at the signing ceremony was his attorney general, who signed a memo that said that you could torture people, that you could do harm to them to the point of organ failure or death. So if he appoints someone like that to be attorney general, you can imagine who he's going be putting on this board.

OLBERMANN: Does this mean that under this law, ultimately the only thing keeping you, I, or the viewer out of Gitmo is the sanity and honesty of the president of the United States?

TURLEY: It does. And it's a huge sea change for our democracy. The framers created a system where we did not have to rely on the good graces or good mood of the president. In fact, Madison said that he created a system essentially to be run by devils, where they could not do harm, because we didn't rely on their good motivations. Now we must. And people have no idea how significant this is. What, really, a time of shame this is for the American system. What the Congress did and what the president signed today essentially revokes over 200 years of American principles and values. It couldn't be more significant. And the strange thing is, we've become sort of constitutional couch potatoes. I mean, the Congress just gave the president despotic powers, and you could hear the yawn across the country as people turned to, you know, "Dancing with the Stars." I mean, it's otherworldly.

OLBERMANN: Is there one defense against this, the legal challenges against particularly the suspension or elimination of habeas corpus from the equation? And where do they stand, and how likely are they to overturn this action today?

TURLEY: Well, you know what? I think people are fooling themselves if they believe that the courts will once again stop this president from taking over - taking almost absolute power. It basically comes down to a single vote on the Supreme Court, Justice Kennedy. And he indicated that if Congress gave the president these types of powers, that he might go along. And so we may have, in this country, some type of über-president, some absolute ruler, and it'll be up to him who gets put away as an enemy combatant, held without trial. It's something that no one thought - certainly I didn't think - was possible in the United States. And I am not too sure how we got to this point. But people clearly don't realize what a fundamental change it is about who we are as a country. What happened today changed us. And I'm not too sure we're going to change back anytime soon.

OLBERMANN: The president reiterated today the United States does not torture. Does this law actually guarantee anything like that?

TURLEY: That's actually when I turned off my TV set, because I couldn't believe it. You know, the United States has engaged in torture. And the whole world community has denounced the views of this administration, its early views that the president could order torture, could cause injury up to organ failure or death. The administration has already established that it has engaged in things like waterboarding, which is not just torture. We prosecuted people after World War II for waterboarding prisoners. We treated it as a war crime. And my God, what a change of fate, where we are now embracing the very thing that we once prosecuted people for. Who are we now? I know who we were then. But when the president said that we don't torture, that was, frankly, when I had to turn off my TV set.



TURLEY: Well, this is going to go down in history as one of our greatest self-inflicted wounds. And I think you can feel the judgment of history. It won't be kind to President Bush. But frankly, I don't think that it will be kind to the rest of us. I think that history will ask, where were you? What did you do when this thing was signed into law? There were people that protested the Japanese concentration camps, there were people that protested these other acts. But we are strangely silent in this national yawn as our rights evaporate.
Turley and Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, seem to agree. We did it to ourselves.

Now what?

Kafka never finished The Trial - it was never meant to be published (the manuscript was rescued after his death by his friend Max Brod and published in 1925). But we have to finish this one. What will it be? What sort of ending will we choose?

This does not appear to be a movie. It's quite real.


Posted by Alan at 23:06 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 19 October 2006 23:25 PDT home

Wednesday, 18 October 2006
When Movies Get Too Real
Topic: Couldn't be so...
When Movies Get Too Real
In Metaphors Regarding Power you had two different people explaining current events by referring to movies. There was that Kuo fellow who wrote his book about how the quest for political influence had corrupted the evangelical movement, and how the key people in the administration were laughing at them all behind their backs for being such rubes. He said it was like getting the Ring of Power - you may want to do good with it, but the power corrupts you. Then Senator Santorum decided the best way to explain why we had to keep on keeping on in Iraq was that it was like in the movie - we had to keep the Eye of Mordor focused on that place so it wouldn't see us here, or something like that. It wasn't terribly clear. But both were referring, of course, to The Lord of the Rings - probably the three movies and not the Tolkien books. As we know out here in Hollywood, people do turn to popular culture, something most everyone knows in some way, to explain things. It may be rather stupid, but people often use popular commercial films to explain real life. It's no big deal. What else do we all have in common?

But sometimes it gets creepy. Consider the following.

Movies Explain Life, Part One

If you're a late baby boomer, or addicted to junk movies on the less visited cable television channels late at night, you might know The Time Machine (1960), George Pal's version of the 1895 H. G. Wells tale, starring Rod Taylor and the fetching Yvette Mimieux, as Weena. The deal here is a Victorian scientist and tinkerer builds a time machine and uses it to explore the distant future where there are two races, a mild gentle race, and a cannibalistic one living underground. His machine is stolen by the underground race and he must risk capture himself (and being eaten) to return to his own time. That's the hook. But there's something else going on.

You see, the year he ends up in is 802,701 - and he finds this apparently peaceful, pastoral, sort of Taoist future, and it's filled with happy, simple humans who call themselves the Eloi. But they're all dumb as a post and not curious about anything. As Wells would have it, this lack of intelligence and vitality is the logical result of mankind's struggle to transform and subdue nature through technology, politics, art and creativity in general. They got there, to that utopia, and found nothing. They devolved. With no work to do, they became physically weak and slight, in all senses of the word. And with no work to do and no hardships to overcome, their society eventually became non-hierarchical and non-cooperative, with no defined leaders or social classes. But then, on the bright side, there was no war and crime, but also no art or much of anything interesting (save for the lovely Yvette Mimieux). It was a crappy trade-off, depending on your point of view.

And there were the other folks - because the human race had by then diverged into two branches. The wealthy, leisure classes evolved into the ineffectual, not very bright Eloi, but the downtrodden working classes had evolved into the brutish Morlocks. These are cannibals who sort of look like albino apes and who labor underground maintaining the machinery that keep the Eloi - who are really their flocks - docile and plentiful. They eat them. It's a scary synergy - two distinctly flawed mutually dependent races with sub-human intelligence.

That's the future. Wells was not exactly an optimist.

Well neither is Oliver Curry, the evolutionary theorist at the London School of Economics. The BBC notes here, on 17 October (2006 of course), that Curry has worked out that after the year 3000 mankind will have "peaked" and at that point will be divided into two subspecies - brilliant, attractive people and weak-chinned, degenerate goblins. There's even an illustration at the BBC site.

You see it's our technology and more discriminating mating patterns that will inevitably lead to this division -
The descendants of the genetic upper class would be tall, slim, healthy, attractive, intelligent, and creative and a far cry from the "underclass" humans who would have evolved into dim-witted, ugly, squat goblin-like creatures.

But in the nearer future, humans will evolve in 1,000 years into giants between 6ft and 7ft tall, he predicts, while life-spans will have extended to 120 years, Dr Curry claims.

Physical appearance, driven by indicators of health, youth and fertility, will improve, he says, while men will exhibit symmetrical facial features, look athletic, and have squarer jaws, deeper voices and bigger penises. Women, on the other hand, will develop lighter, smooth, hairless skin, large clear eyes, pert breasts, glossy hair, and even features, he adds.
Ah, Yvette Mimieux and those pert breasts. But he also says racial differences will be ironed out by interbreeding. We'll all be coffee-colored. Actually, that would be cool.

And it seems Wells was right about the technology stuff ruining things - "Social skills, such as communicating and interacting with others, could be lost, along with emotions such as love, sympathy, trust and respect. People would become less able to care for others, or perform in teams." It's those I-Pod things, of course, and everyone commuting to work alone, and all the rest.

And the new humans would have been ruined by McDonalds and KFC - "Physically, they would start to appear more juvenile. Chins would recede, as a result of having to chew less on processed food."

Bummer. And there's that Eloi-Morlock thing, as sexual selection - being choosy about one's partner - will create more and more genetic inequality -
The logical outcome would be two sub-species, "gracile" and "robust" humans similar to the Eloi and Morlocks foretold by HG Wells in his 1895 novel The Time Machine.

"While science and technology have the potential to create an ideal habitat for humanity over the next millennium, there is a possibility of a monumental genetic hangover over the subsequent millennia due to an over-reliance on technology reducing our natural capacity to resist disease, or our evolved ability to get along with each other."
We get along with each other now? Well, maybe we do, relatively speaking.

This is startling stuff. Science fiction becomes reality, once again, although some of us are still waiting for our flying cars and robot housecleaners.

Reaction to all this was immediate. Shakespeare's Sister here - "I feel so torn. As an intelligent person, I'm rooting for the upper class. As a squat, goblin-like creature, I'm rooting for the underclass. What's a girl to do?"

The logical Lindsay Beyerstein, saying there not much real evidence here, and a whole lot of gloom and doom, offers this -
The stories leave a number of questions unresolved. For example haven't seen dramatic genetic changes in the human species over the last thousand years. People have gotten taller and sturdier over the years, thanks to better nutrition. Still, there's no evidence that humans today are dramatically genetically and morphologically different from people 1000 years ago. Furthermore, even if Curry could show that there have been substantial genetic changes, he would still have to establish that these differences were the result of differential reproductive success. So, why does Curry think that the next thousand years will produce a willowy super-race and a permanent goblin underclass?
Because he saw the movie, Lindsay!

The even more logical William Weston offers this -
Many observers of the rich have noticed that they use their money to select attractive mates. I have noticed that the smart tend to use their smarts to select smart mates. (Yes, there are ugly rich people and pretty smart ones; we are talking big trends here.) So, if Curry is even a little right, perhaps the Eloi of the future will be themselves divided into the smart and the handsome. And that might be a fair fight.
So you get the smart but homely Eloi, the pretty but dumb Eloi, and the damned Morlocks, who are neither. The future looks dim.

Movies Explain Life, Part Two

All war criminals, and in particular the Nazi dudes who didn't make it to the Nuremburg trials, end up in the middle of South America - Uruguay, Paraguay, interior Brazil and such places. We learned that in The Boys from Brazil (1978) - a young inexperienced Nazi hunter stumbles onto a secret SS meeting in 1970's South America. Led by the infamous Doctor Josef Mengele, the plot of the Nazis is first dismissed as unimportant by veteran Nazi hunter Lieberman. When the young Nazi hunter turns up murdered, however, Lieberman investigates the mysterious meeting and discovers an insane plot to resurrect the Führer, Adolf Hitler, and establish the Fourth Reich. Gregory Peck is Josef Mengele, Laurence Olivier is Ezra Lieberman (Simon Wiesenthal, of course), and there's James Mason, Lilli Palmer and Uta Hagen on hand. It's an amusing film.

But then there's this.

At the site "Bring It On" they've put together quite a story. It won't get much press, but it's really fascinating.

It has four parts -
  • There's this - The Cuban News Service reports that George W. Bush has purchased 98,840 acres in Paraguay, near the Bolivian/Brazilian border.
  • There's this - the heavy drinking wastrel Jenna Bush paid a secret diplomatic visit to Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte and U.S. Ambassador James Cason. There were no press conferences, no public sightings and no official confirmation of her 10-day trip which apparently ended this week.
  • The Paraguayan Senate voted last summer to "grant U.S. troops immunity from national and International Criminal Court (ICC) jurisdiction."
  • Immediately afterwards, 500 heavily armed U.S. troops arrived with various planes, choppers and land vehicles at Mariscal Estigarribia air base, which happens to be at the northern tip of Paraguay near the Bolivian/Brazilian border. More have reportedly arrived since then.
Something is up. Maybe George has been watching old movies, and actually thinking about what might happen when next month, as seems more and more likely, the Democrats gain control of both houses of congress and the investigations begin. Or maybe he's worried about what might start up in the International Criminal Court when he leaves office. Paraguay has agreed to be a safe haven.

No, it couldn't be. The Cuban News Service, Prensa Latina, is a Cuban-government operation and they could be just messing with our minds. This is not happening, except the land purchase has also been reported in the Brazilian press here (in Portuguese of course), in the Argentinean press here, and in the Paraguayan press here. Those last two are in Spanish, but the gist of it is that all the paperwork and deeds are secret, but someone leaked the information - a new "land trust" created for President Bush has purchased almost a hundred thousand acres of land near the town of Chaco.

And there's more regarding Jenna Bush dropping in for secret meetings with the local president and America's ambassador to Paraguay, James Cason. President Bush had posted Cason in Havana in 2002, as our diplomatic envoy (they don't get an ambassador or anything) but last year moved him to Paraguay. Cason is the former political adviser to the U.S. Atlantic Command and Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic, and he'd previously been stationed in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Panama over the last thirty years. So this may be military, and not based on the silly movie.

But why is the land in his name? And why is it protected by a semi-secret U.S. military base manned by American troops who have been exempted from war-crimes prosecution by the Paraguayan government?

This is very curious.

And there's more information on the base, which Rumsfeld secretly visited late last year, here -
U.S. Special Forces began arriving this past summer at Paraguay's Mariscal Estigarribia air base, a sprawling complex built in 1982 during the reign of dictator Alfredo Stroessner. Argentinean journalists who got a peek at the place say the airfield can handle B-52 bombers and Galaxy C-5 cargo planes. It also has a huge radar system, vast hangers, and can house up to 16,000 troops. The air base is larger than the international airport at the capital city, Asuncion.

Some 500 special forces arrived July 1 for a three-month counterterrorism training exercise, code named Operation Commando Force 6.

Paraguayan denials that Mariscal Estigarribia is now a U.S. base have met with considerable skepticism by Brazil and Argentina. There is a disturbing resemblance between U.S. denials about Mariscal Estigarribia, and similar disclaimers made by the Pentagon about Eloy Alfaro airbase in Manta, Ecuador. The United States claimed the Manta base was a "dirt strip" used for weather surveillance. When local journalists revealed its size, however, the United States admitted the base harbored thousands of mercenaries and hundreds of U.S. troops, and Washington had signed a 10-year basing agreement with Ecuador.
"When the young Nazi hunter turns up murdered, however, Lieberman investigates the mysterious meeting and discovers an insane plot to resurrect the Führer, Adolf Hitler, and establish the Fourth Reich." No, couldn't be.

But wait! There're more! One sees here that the odd and messianic Reverend Moon, the owner of the pro-Bush Washington Times, and who has said he's the savior come to redeem us all, bought 1,482,600 acres in the same place - Chaco, Paraguay.

It only gets odder and more mysterious, doesn't it?

And it also involves the president's father. That item above from Paraguay mentions the first President Bush already owns about a hundred acres there. It must be the new Moon-Bush compound.

And here's some background -
"In the early stages of the Reagan Revolution that embraced the Washington Times and Moon's anti-Communist movement, it was embarrassing to be caught at a Moon event," wrote The Gadflyer last year. "Until George H.W. Bush appeared with Moon in 1996, thanking him for a newspaper that 'brings sanity to Washington.'" That was while on an extended trip to South America in Moon's company. A Reuters' story of Nov 25 of that year describes the former president as "full of praise" for Moon at a banquet in Buenos Aires, toasting him as "the man with the vision." (And Moon helped Bush out with his own vision thing, paying him $100,000 for the pleasure of his company.) Bush and Moon then traveled together to Uruguay, "to help him inaugurate a seminary in the capital, Montevideo, to train 4,200 young Japanese women to spread the word of his Church of Unification across Latin America."
Uruguay, Paraguay, interior Brazil and such places are not much in the news of course. But something is up. You have your old Nazis, young Japanese women training to spread the word of the Church of Unification across Latin America (Moon is Korean), and the Moon and Bush family land is located at what Paraguay's drug czar says is an "enormously strategic point in both the narcotics and arms trades." And it sits atop one of the world's largest fresh-water aquifers. You've got just everything there.

It's amazing what you find reading the gossip rag Wonkette.

It's probably nothing. But there was that movie.

And it all makes some sort of weird sense from out here in Hollywood.

__

Footnote:

Black Sunday (1977), directed by John Frankenheimer - "A demented war veteran (Bruce Dern) plots to kill thousands of Americans at the Superbowl in Miami by using a specially designed dart-gun from the Goodyear blimp which flies above the stadium. However, a tough Middle Eastern anti-terrorist agent (Robert Shaw) has uncovered some of the plot and is out to stop him."

Wednesday, October 18, 2006, this -
By now, Americans have gotten pretty used to over-hyped terror threats out of Washington. But now we have another layer of hype to contend with. There's been a frenzy this afternoon over a report that a threat was posted on the Internet regarding several coordinated "dirty bomb" attacks on NFL stadiums, supposedly set to happen this weekend.

What very few seem to be noting, however, is that the "threat" was posted not to one of many Islamist militant Web sites - but to an American humor site, "The Friend Society." That fact seems rather pertinent - but the AP has buried it at the end of the long version of its report. Moreover, as of this post, a search of Google News revealed only 36 media outlets carrying the long version. Other sites, like the virulently anti-Islamist blog Little Green Footballs, where proprietor Charles Johnson admitted the threat was "probably bogus," were actually reporting that the threat came from an Islamist Web site.

The Friend Society Web site - which sometimes also uses "Thefucksociety.com" as a URL - appears to be down. The post about the terror threat, which was reportedly made on Oct. 12 by a Friend Society user named "javness," seems to have vanished from the Internet altogether -- though Google caches of the site remain available. The thread itself has been cached; called "New Attack on America, Be Afraid," it stretches to three pages…

Other threads under discussion on The Friend Society at the time included "stretchy vagina debate," "PEYOTE" and "MLB Playoffs." javness, the user who allegedly put up the post in question after recently joining the site, was also participating in another thread concerned with matters of warfare - it was called "Optimus Prime's First Line Could Be Your Own!"

The Department of Homeland Security seems to have a handle on this one. In response to a request for comment, DHS spokesman Jarrod Agen emailed Salon a press release (which included the full "New Attack on America" post) from the Open Source Center, a group in the Directorate of National Intelligence. The press release notes that The Friend Society "contains none of the hallmarks of jihadist websites." It also points to comments that accompanied the original post: Responding to other users who had challenged "javness" to provide some sort of proof of the terror plot, "javness" quipped back, "you already know too much."
Sigh.

Posted by Alan at 22:28 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 19 October 2006 07:37 PDT home

Tuesday, 17 October 2006
Metaphors Regarding Power
Topic: Perspective
Metaphors Regarding Power
As mentioned last week in Explaining Things, one of the things that needs explaining is what is in the just published Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, a book by David Kuo. Kuo was an up and comer among those known as social conservatives - the religious right, opposed to women having any option at all to abort an unwanted pregnancy, to gay marriage, to that separation of church and state business that forbids mandatory prayer in school and forbids the government funding or even endorsing crosses on hills and the Ten Commandments on slabs of stone in courthouses. That was the fight. He wrote speeches for Ralph Reed, one of the founders of the Christian Right organization - although Reed is now disgraced, caught up in the Abramoff scandal, where Reed jerked around various Indian tribes for fun and profit. Kuo had also served as a policy adviser to John Ashcroft, the former attorney general who draped heavy cloth over the statues in Justice Department lobby (the stone bare breasts were offensive) and who led his subordinates in daily prayer meetings imploring Jesus for guidance. Kuo has said Bill Bennett was his mentor - and that would be the Bill Bennett who wrote the Book of Values and the Book of Values for Children, and admitted he had dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars gambling in Vegas casinos, but it was no big deal. Kuo joined the George Bush campaign early - 1998, two years before the first presidential election - and rose to become second in command at the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Now he's slapping his forehead and saying evangelicals should take a two-year "fast" from politics. The new book documents that the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was kind of a farce - a tool to trick the Christian Right and its associated organizations into getting out the Republican vote, and behind their backs Rove and the rest were mocking Falwell and Dobson and the rest as "nuts" and "kooks." They were useful idiots, with the emphasis on the word idiots. It was pure manipulation of the Christian groups, and there was the failure to fund the policies the president said were his "personal priority" - giving grants to religious organizations to do government work. Nothing much was ever funded - in fact such funding actually decreased - but the political benefits were enormous. If you were a certain kind of Christian - the evangelical kind - you had to be a Republican. The government was finally on your side, and on Jesus' side - unless you looked at the spreadsheets. Kuo looked at the spreadsheets, and he heard what was said behind the backs of the major evangelical leaders. He was not amused. He took notes. He wrote a book about it all. And he even appeared on CBS's "60 Minutes" to discuss it all (video here).

The White House is most unhappy with him, and the evangelicals are pretty much refusing to believe all this is so. It's quite a mess, but the White House is good at saying things that are so are just not so - they've raised that to a fine art - and evangelicals are conditioned to believe in authority, be it the inherency of the Bible or the inherent authority of a devout and godly president, one who's always saying that he is doing Jesus' work. The damage may be minimal.

Those outside that frame of reference - who don't have a predilection to stop thinking, shut down and simply trust what others claim is inherently authoritative, or trust anyone who makes the claim, without evidence, to be an authority figure - find all of this puzzling.

In an exclusive interview with Richard Wolffe of NBC, Kuo tries to provide a frame of reference for the few skeptics left in America. That odd bit of explaining what's going on is here -
I have no anger towards my former colleagues or towards anyone else. Part of what made this so difficult to write is the amount of respect I have for my former colleagues. I like and respect them.

It was also a real challenge to try and tell the entire story, my own intimate story about what happens when you struggle with God and politics - and politics wins. I think one of the things that drove me was feeling the urgent need to tell people, particularly Christians, I suppose, that politicians look at any constituency with very cold eyes. They form constituencies to form a governing coalition. That isn't a bad thing; that's just what they do. And I think Christians have come to this notion that this White House is somehow their fellow parishioners with them, and that is simply not the case. I am shocked, frankly, by the White House response that it [the faith-based agenda] hasn't been political. That is the other side of absurd, and fundamentally misleading.

… In some ways White House power is like [J.R.R.] Tolkien's ring of power. When you put it on, it feels good and it's dazzling. But after a while it begins to consume you in ways you don't realize. That's the nature of White House power. I have no doubt that Christian political leaders have gotten involved for all the right reasons. I just think over time it becomes harder and harder to stand up against that ring of power and the White House, to say no and walk away.
So, as you saw scrawled on the walls of midtown subways near NYU in the early 1960s - Frodo Lives! Tolkien's rolling over in his grave. But if you know the books, or the film trilogy (and how could you not?) then this begins to make sense.

As you recall, the One Ring was created by the "Dark Lord" Sauron during the Second Age in order to gain dominion over the remaining elves of Middle-earth. Don't ask. Anyway, he tricked the elves into helping him make such rings and then forged the One Ring himself in the fires of Mount Doom. It controlled all the rings of power ever made. Sauron was obliged to place most of his native power, life force and will into the ring, and then, by doing that, as long as the One Ring existed, it was impossible to remove him from the mortal plane - he was both immortal and invincible. With it he could control others and rule the world, but then he lost the damned thing. And whoever found it would have all the power. Drat! And everyone really wanted it, but part of the nature of the One Ring was that it slowly but inevitably corrupted its wearer, even if the wearer wanted to use its unimaginable power to do good. For this reason the Wise - Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel - when Frodo came up with the thing, refused to wield it in their own defense, saying it must be destroyed. They knew it would corrupt even them, and turn them into monsters. Political power at its highest level - the office of the leader of the most powerful nation on earth - is kind of like that. Or it isn't.

But is it an explanation of what is happening here for those outside the evangelical world of ceding critical thought to authority. Just think of what the ring did - it drove people who wanted it to make the world better quite mad, and for those who possessed it, twisted them in to monsters. The hero of the tale, Frodo the Hobbit, at great personal cost, got to Mount Doom and destroyed the thing - and saved the world.

And that leads to this -
David Kuo's comparison of White House power to Sauron's Ring of Power is something that has been on my mind recently too. Neither he nor I are alone in making that comparison - a couple of weeks ago I saw a bumper sticker on the streets of Portland, Oregon which said "Frodo Has Failed, Bush Has the Ring."
No! Really? But you can actually buy the bumper sticker (and matching mugs, t-shirts and a backpack). Amazing.

But wait! There's more! The guys on the other side of the political fence can use Tolkien too!

Note that here we see in an interview with the editorial board of the Bucks County Courier Times, Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, knowing that he's losing the battle to keep his senate seat - he's the third ranking Republican in the senate and as socially conservative as they come, and a staunch supporter of the president's "we stay until we win it all" approach to Iraq - says the Iraq War is just like what's going on in Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." Really it is. But its not the ring business - you see, the United States has avoided terrorist attacks at home over the past five years because the "Eye of Mordor" has been focused on Iraq instead.

What?

That goes like this -
As the hobbits are going up Mount Doom, the Eye of Mordor is being drawn somewhere else. It's being drawn to Iraq and it's not being drawn to the U.S. You know what? I want to keep it on Iraq. I don't want the Eye to come back here to the United States.
So both sides can play this Tolkien game, or we're all Hobbits, or something. For those not into Tolkien, or who missed the films, even with the eleven Oscars, the Courier Times explains - the "Eye of Mordor" was "the tool the evil Lord Sauron used in search of the magical ring that would consolidate his power over Middle-earth." Of course it is. Everyone knows that.

The problem is, of course, the one side is making a joke and Santorum is quite serious. Or he's mad. The idea that there is one vastly evil and somewhat supernatural power scanning the globe and out to get us all seems a bit pathological, but then he doesn't say aliens from the planet Clorox II are sending messages to him through the fillings in his teeth, and that's why he's wearing the tin-foil hat. It's just he imagines one super-powerful bad guy behind everything, and it doesn't appear to be Michael Moore. He never says who it is, actually. It may be Professor Moriarty - but that's Sherlock Holmes' stuff, not the Hobbit stuff. But we are supposed to admire his unified paranoia, which is supposed to be some sort of geopolitical wisdom.

But Santorum does come down to earth, sort of. Elsewhere in the interview he says he disagrees with the notion that the United States is "bogged down" in Iraq. And there's all this talk of troop withdrawal. People are asking quests, and they shouldn't - "I don't think you ask that question. I know that's the question everybody wants to ask. But I don't think anyone would ask that question in 1944, 'Gee, how long are we going to be in Europe?' We're going to be in Europe until we win."

People should shut up. And they should really worry about THE EYE.

Okay. Why not? Santorum is always amusing.

And anyway, the war is going fine, in fact "remarkably well." Vice President Cheney came out of hiding to tell Rush Limbaugh that with this -
Well, I think there's some natural level of concern out there because in fact, you know, it wasn't over instantaneously. It's been a little over three years now since we went into Iraq, so I don't think it's surprising that people are concerned.

On the other hand, this government has only been in office about five months, five or six months now. They're off to a good start. It is difficult, no question about it, but we've now got over 300,000 Iraqis trained and equipped as part of their security forces. They've had three national elections with higher turnout than we have here in the United States. If you look at the general overall situation, they're doing remarkably well.

It's still very, very difficult, very tough. Nobody should underestimate the extent to which we're engaged there with this sort of, at present, the "major front" of the war on terror. That's what Osama bin Laden says, and he's right."

As Andrew Sullivan says - "If you were at all concerned that this administration has no grip on reality, then you need to become more concerned."

But maybe Dick Cheney is Lord Sauron, or one of his tools. You never know.

But the recent flurry of Tolkien talk is an anomaly. The standard authoritative reference work about how the world works is still the Bible. See the video clip here (at the 4:58 mark) or check out the Sacramento Bee here.

It's John Doolittle, the Deputy Majority Whip and Secretary of the House Republican Conference, with this -

As for Armageddon, I just note with interest that's what the Bible says. That it's on the Plains of Megiddo. Right there in Israel. And it makes you wonder where this conflict's all going to ultimately lead. And I happen to believe it will ultimately lead to what the Bible says.

There are books more dangerous than Tolkien's. And Doolittle isn't dealing in metaphor. Such folks don't do that.

Whether Kuo is right or not - the political operatives at the White House think the religious folks who drop by are "kooks" to be used and mocked - there's a chance he had it wrong. And we're going to all die, because the Bible says we should.


Posted by Alan at 23:05 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 18 October 2006 07:05 PDT home

Monday, 16 October 2006
In Defense of the Incomprehensible and Puerile
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist
In Defense of the Incomprehensible and Puerile
America must look strange to those elsewhere, although in the last six years it has become our default position that we really don't care what anyone else in the world thinks of us. We do what's right, as we see it, and we do it for the good of everyone in the world, and someday they'll understand that and thank us. Or maybe they won't. It hardly matters. We really don't care what they think. We think we're noble. That sustains us though all the distain. After all, we single-handedly saved the world in two world wars, and now they think we're foolish, or worse. Or they remember history differently, as if they had something to do with winning those wars. That's our problem with the French, of course. As for all the others, they just don't see the good we unselfishly do for them. It's so petty of them. And it's kind of sad, actually.

This is hardly worth documenting with references. Listen to what the president, vice president, and secretary of defense have said in the first six years of the administration, and remember what Donald Rumsfeld said about "old Europe" - those fusty and now calcified nations that just don't "get it." The message is that these fools understand nothing. Recently the world offshore didn't even understand that prolonging the massive civilian bombing in the Israel-Hezbollah thirty-day war was a very good thing - the birth pangs of a new Middle East, as Condoleezza Rice famously put it. The hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who lost everything just didn't "get it" either. They foolishly cling to the idea that stability is good, when our president carefully and repeated explained that it is not - the old status quo produced grumpy people who turned into terrorists, and we needed a new and better world to be born, and of course that birth is bound be a bit messy, but everyone should want this new and better world. Still they bitched about all the dead people.

So, from the outside, it seems America is hard to understand - or it's easy to understand and the rest of the world is just amazingly dense and unjustifiably resentful. Or so the thinking goes.

The rest of the world finds us puzzling? Maybe so.

The view from offshore of the House page scandal, the Mark Foley business, might provide an example. Monday, October 16, Gary Younge wrote about it here in The Guardian (UK), and we have a contemporary Brit invoking a long-dead French fellow -
"All the domestic controversies of the Americans at first appear to a stranger to be incomprehensible or puerile," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic 19th-century treatise, Democracy in America. "And he is at a loss whether to pity a people who take such arrant trifles in good earnest or to envy that happiness which enables a community to discuss them."

And so it is that, as the extent of the carnage in Iraq becomes evident and North Korea goes nuclear, America's political class obsesses over a single Congressman's predilection for teenage boys.
But that is what we do, as odd as it seems. And Younge seems to think this is unbalanced, as it is what had galvanized the Democrats -
They know how to make electoral capital out of a gay man propositioning American teenagers (as of yet there is no suggestion that he actually molested any of them). But when it came to American soldiers forcing Iraqi prisoners to masturbate for the camera, their ability to focus minds on inappropriate sexual behavior and abuse of power somehow eluded them.

Now, with three weeks to go before the mid-term elections, the Democrats are flipping the traditional script. "Anybody who had a personal vulnerability before this is totally [at risk] with the spotlight on scandal," a Democratic aide told the Washington Post. "Frankly, it is a tough environment out there if you have a problem with the bottle or the zipper."
Whatever works - and the bottle and zipper do.

And as puerile as it seems, he does note that last week in New Jersey, the Democrat candidate Linda Stender accused her Republican opponent, Mike Ferguson, of preying on young women in a DC nightclub. And in Pennsylvania, Chris Carney has accused his Republican opponent of "repeatedly choking" and "attempting to strangle" his young mistress. Younge doesn't mention that the Republican in the latter case is running ads where he says, yes, he was unfaithful to his frumpy wife for years, and he is so very ashamed of that, but he never, ever beat his nubile young mistress senseless, nor did he ever try to choke her to death - so you really should vote for him, as he's telling it like it is, revealing himself, warts and all, this making himself one of the few truly honest men in politics. You speak to your constituents' concerns, you see. And he may win reelection.

The rest of the stuff is just too dry, like this -
Federal agents raided the home of the daughter of U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon (R., Pa.) and his longtime friend Charlie Sexton this morning. The agents departed Karen Weldon's three-story brick home on Queen Street in Philadelphia with arms loaded with boxes. A government car pulled into the alley to the back door of the house and loaded boxes into it. Three agents standing in an alley declined to identify themselves.

"I can confirm that we conducted a number of searches regarding an ongoing investigation," said FBI agent Jerri Williams, a spokeswoman in Philadelphia. "Details regarding those investigation cannot be provided because the accompanying affidavit is sealed."
But the story is becoming clear. His daughter had no experience in anything, and she set up a lobbying firm, and her father got her two or three million dollars in contracts. Some shady Russians, and Slobodan Milosevic, signed up for her to wield her influence, and daddy did what he could for them in the House. It was sweet, and illegal - but it's dry stuff.

All such corruption stories are dry, like this -
Lester Crawford, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner who resigned suddenly in September 2005, was indicted in U.S. court for making false statements related to his investments and conflict of interest. U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor announced the indictment in a court filing today in Washington.
First of all, no one follows who the FDA commissioners are, and although he just up and quit after two months on the job, that was hardly headline news. No one noticed. He will plead guilty for issuing rulings highly favorable to two companies where he held very large blocks of stock options - PepsiCo and Sysco. We're talking, in the one case, a purveyor of junk food and high-fructose soft drinks, and in the other. of the biggest supplier of food and cocktail napkins to American restaurants. Where's the sex? No one will ask the president about that appointment. Appointing Michael Brown to FEMA meant many thousands died and a major American city was ruined forever. Appointing Lester Crawford meant more kids got fat, and he got rich. It's a minor thing.

Still, Younge points out, there's trouble in the air -
"This is without question the worst political situation for the GOP since the Watergate disaster in 1974," wrote the veteran analyst Charles Cook in his political report on Friday. "I think a 30-seat gain today for Democrats is more likely to occur than a 15-seat gain, the minimum that would tip the majority. The chances of that number going higher are also strong, unless something occurs that fundamentally changes the dynamic of this election. This is what Republican strategists' nightmares look like."
The question is how the opposition Democrats will play their hand.

Younge suggests they will stupidly play to what really doesn't matter, and about which folks really don't care much -
For if America's political class are pushing de Tocqueville's "puerile trifles", the electorate is clearly far more interested in substance. With wages stagnant, health costs rising and the military death toll in Iraq this month hovering close to a two-year high, voters want serious answers to serious questions. The Pew survey showed that the six issues of most concern to the electorate were Iraq, terrorism, the economy, healthcare, immigration and energy policy.

Last week, the Democrat minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, addressed some of these concerns. She pledged that in the first 100 hours of a Democrat majority she will increase the minimum wage, reduce interest rates on student loans, expand federal funding for stem-cell research, and require the government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies to lower the price of prescription drugs for Medicare.

This is great as far as it goes. It provides an answer to those who claim there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans. But it also confirms the accusation that, given the challenges facing American society, this difference is inadequate. For one of the reasons the Democrats are so eager to talk about the Foley scandal is because they have little substantive to say on the matters on the American public's mind.

Pelosi might have added to her to-do list closing down Guantánamo Bay, setting a date for troop withdrawal from Iraq, raising taxes on the top earners to help curb the deficit, and putting a stop to warrantless wiretapping. But the truth is that Democrats have no consistent or coherent position on Iraq, terrorism or anything else much. The last few months have told the tale of Republican demise, not a Democrat revival. So while November 7 promises the possibility of electoral change, the prospect of real political change seems remote. The Democrats are standing for office, but little else.
Yeah, but the big stuff is hard. Maybe it's too hard.

And the biggest issue, the war after the Iraq War, has no easy answer. The Democrats have no plan of their own for victory. How could they? It's not even possible - "A commission formed to assess the Iraq war and recommend a new course has ruled out the prospect of victory for America, according to draft policy options shared with The New York Sun by commission officials."

So the honest Republicans are running on a curiously unbeatable platform - yeah, we screwed up, and maybe it is the biggest screw up in American history, so bad there's no good fix of any kind, so unless the Democrats come up with one, and there is no way they can, people should vote for us again, because the Democrats can't do anything about what's happened after all, as they've always been useless.

And the issues with Iraq are really complex, unlike who was covering up the gay congressman preying in sixteen-year-old male pages and why, and whether that congressman really beat his mistress or not. Tom Engelhardt explains here.

The president describes the enemy this way - "The violence is being caused by a combination of terrorists, elements of former regime criminals, and sectarian militias." But the emphasis keeps changing. Early on it with the middle group, the "bitter-enders" - they missed Saddam Hussein. Then it was the terrorists. Now it's the religious sects. One can get confused, and now he says it's all three. You need a scorecard.

Add to that there may be a coup in the works - that's mentioned here (Washington Post columnist David Ignatius) and a week earlier here (Robert Dreyfuss). Insiders are talking about the possibility of a new five-man "ruling commission," a "government of national salvation" that would "suspend parliament, declare martial law and call back some officers of the old Iraqi army." So reboot the system, as it were.

And Engelhardt reviews recent talk of a political accommodation with the insurgents. We stop fighting them?

And there's this -
Of course, all of this has brought to the surface a lot of hopeful "withdrawal" talk in the media (and the online world), in part because the Baker group seems to have been floating "phased withdrawal" rumors. Before you think about genuine withdrawal possibilities though, note the announcement by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker last week that he was now planning for the possibility of maintaining present force levels in Iraq (140,000+ troops) through 2010; that Casey at that press briefing left the door wide open to ask the President for even more troops after the election; and that the build-up on the ground of permanent bases (not called that) and our vast, nearly billion-dollar embassy in the heart of Baghdad is ongoing.
So who knows what we're doing? Sex is easier.

And there are the inherent paradoxes in the kind of war we walked into. Engelhardt points to Michael Schwartz analyzing this, an article by four military experts published in the quasi-official Military Review, entitled "The Paradoxes of Counterinsurgency."

What would they be?

Paradox 1: The More You Protect Your Force, the Less Secure You Are
Paradox 2: The More Force You Use, the Less Effective You Are
Paradox 3: The More Successful Counterinsurgency Is, the Less Force That Can Be Used and the More Risk That Must Be Accepted
Paradox 4: Sometimes Doing Nothing Is the Best Reaction
Paradox 5: The Best Weapons for Counterinsurgency Do Not Shoot
Paradox 6: The Host Nation Doing Something Tolerably Is Sometimes Better Than Our Doing It Well
Paradox 7: If a Tactic Works This Week, It Will Not Work Next Week; If It Works in This Province, It Will Not Work in the Next
Paradox 8: Tactical Success Guarantees Nothing
Paradox 9: Most of the Important Decisions Are Not Made by Generals

Michael Schwartz is Professor of Sociology and Faculty Director of the Undergraduate College of Global Studies at Stony Brook University, and his books include Radical Protest and Social Structure, and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo) - so his discussion of each paradox is detailed, and quotes extensively from the source document (PDF format). Read it carefully and you'll see it makes sense.

The only problem is, of course, for all the common sense here, the analysis of these paradoxes of fighting an insurgency doesn't meet the Alexis de Tocqueville "incomprehensible and puerile" test. Not only are the concepts not exactly simple, they're certainly not sexy and titillating. They're only self-evident, and you realize that when you carefully think them through. It may be too much work.

No "Neanderthal" voter will think them through, having long ago bought into the president's "we will accept nothing less than total victory" line, as that's easy enough to work with. As they say on the infomercial about the countertop thing that will roast a chicken for you - "Set it… and forget it!" The enemy may be ambiguous, but we can kill them all and let God sort them out, as General Sherman once said. This is too tricky. The nasty congressman who likes young boys, and who knew he did and when, is easier to get all upset about. This is not lost on the Democrats. To get elected you use they tools provided you.

A secondary problem about all this - what is circulating as the new thinking in the military - is that the president, and more importantly the vastly more influential vice president and the secretary of defense, don't see these paradoxes at all. On the policy and strategy levels they are committed to the exact opposite of what the military knows it has to do, on the tactical level. And that goes a long way to explaining "the revolt of the retired generals." It's a matter of who "gets it."

And it's way too hard for a population busy with other matters to deal with the idea that even the military is saying the top guys have the basic concept all wrong. And too, the media will give the population busy with other matters… other matters. They do need to sell advertising time, and keep the ratings up. Sexy and puerile will do nicely, thank you.

Alexis de Tocqueville said he was "at a loss whether to pity a people who take such arrant trifles in good earnest or to envy that happiness which enables a community to discuss them." He was onto something there.

No one from the outside really understands America.

Posted by Alan at 22:32 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 17 October 2006 06:57 PDT home

Sunday, 15 October 2006
Attending to Seemingly Useless Information
Topic: Reality-Based Woes
Attending to Seemingly Useless Information
There were two Friday the 13ths this year - January and October. But this isn't that bad - Friday, September 13th, 2019, is the next year to contain a full moon on a Friday the 13th. That'll be a bad day for sure.

Any Friday the 13th is an unlucky day, except in Greece and Spain, where Tuesday the 13th is the bad day. It's more the thirteen thing - Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus, was the thirteenth guest to the Last Supper and all that. The day of the week matters less, though you will find fundamentalist Christians who carefully worked out that it was on a Friday the 13th that Cain killed his brother Abel, and on a Friday the 13th Eve chatted with that sneaky snake and completely ruined things for all of us forever. So it wasn't any Tuesday, you see. It was a Friday, and the 13th. And women always ruin things. Cosi fan tutti and all.

Of course thirteen is just a bad number, one that screws things up. There are twelve months in a year, twelve signs of the zodiac, and twelve gods of Olympus, twelve labors of Hercules, twelve tribes of Israel, and twelve apostles of Jesus. So thirteen just seems… strange. And people still avoid the number these days - more than eighty percent of high-rises just don't have a 13th floor. Most airports don't have a Gate Thirteen. Hospitals and hotels pretty much don't have a "Room 13" anywhere. If you visit Florence, Italy, the house between number 12 and 14 is always 12 and a half. In France you once could find yourself one of those quatorziens (fourteeners) - available as a fourteenth guest to keep your dinner party from some unlucky fate, like deadly dull conversation or fistfights. That still may be a custom there. Who knows? But if you find yourself worried about Friday the 13th you can always try the standard folk remedies to make sure bad luck doesn't get you - climb to the top of a mountain or skyscraper and burn all the socks you own that have holes in them, or stand on your head and eat a piece of gristle.

As they say, you could it look up. All of it falls under the heading of "useless information."

But what information is useless? On this month's Friday the 13th the Washington Post published this column by Jeffery Smith - headline "Bush Confounded by the 'Unacceptable'" and subhead "President Wields Word More Freely as His Frustration Rises and His Influence Ebbs."

This is just a curious word count thing - or, as Smith contends, it means President Bush finds the world around him increasingly "unacceptable." Given that's the same world the rest of us live in, this could be a problem. The man is very unhappy. Who knows what he's going to do about it?

The gist of it is this -
[A] survey of transcripts from Bush's public remarks over the past seven years shows the president's worsening political predicament has actually stoked, rather than diminished, his desire to proclaim what he cannot abide. Some presidential scholars and psychologists describe the trend as a signpost of Bush's rising frustration with his declining influence.

In the first nine months of this year, Bush declared more than twice as many events or outcomes "unacceptable" or "not acceptable" as he did in all of 2005, and nearly four times as many as he did in 2004. He is, in fact, at a presidential career high in denouncing events he considers intolerable. They number 37 so far this year, as opposed to five in 2003, 18 in 2002 and 14 in 2001.
And there are the usual suspects - the unacceptable includes rising health costs, immigrants who live outside the law, North Korea's claimed nuclear test, genocide in Sudan and Iran's nuclear ambitions and all the rest, and now with things going in the weeds with North Korea and Iraq, and congress not getting much of anything done on any domestic initiatives, and all those polls with his approval ratings in the thirties all the time, he saying things are unacceptable more than ever. But it's his thing. Back in January he was telling a bunch of elementary school kids in Maryland that their recent scores on math and reading proficiency tests were "unacceptable." Now we're all the little kids - the whole world is the little kids who are just not doing the right thing.

Smith quotes Stanley A. Renshon, a political scientist a CYNU, saying all this is in keeping with the president's apparent self-image as a Jeremiah, "railing against the tides" and saying what "people ought to be doing something about." Of course that's not the same as doing anything about anything, but it sounds serious and important. The president is supposed to be the world's Jeremiah? That's not in the job description, but it's what we got.

And Smith charts the widening targets here -
As a presidential candidate and in his early presidency, Bush was more apt to denounce domestic events. His assertions that school performance and achievement gaps between white and black students were unacceptable account for almost a third of his usages of that term since 2000.

Bush's targets expanded from 2003 to 2005 to include nine condemnations of "unacceptable" actions by Iraq and Iran, as well as the Social Security system and the administration's own response to the Katrina hurricane. This year, he has hurled the term "unacceptable" at actions by Iraqi insurgents and police, at supporters of a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, and at a U.S. law making the degrading treatment of detainees a war crime.
You see the frustration metastasizing. Steven Kull, a political psychologist who directs the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes explains - some folks deal with failures "by intensifying an authoritarian posture and insisting that their preferences are equivalent to a moral imperative." Then they explode, of course, in some sort of tantrum. They can be a bit dangerous.

And there's this -
Moisés Naím, the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine, said there is a relationship between "how strident and extreme" the language of many leaders is and how limited their options are. For Bush, Naím said, "this comes at a time when the world is convinced he is weaker than ever."

Many foreigners think the United States is losing Iraq and are no longer in awe of U.S. military might, Naím said, and at home, Bush is so weak that Republican candidates are wary of appearing with him. "The world has noticed," Naím said. "What is happening is that a lot that was deemed unacceptable [by Bush] now has become normal and tolerable."
And what has become normal and tolerable is now unacceptable. And he's ticked off. Watch out.

And there's that other thing -
Bush's proclamations are not the only rhetorical evidence of his mounting frustrations. One of his favorite verbal tics has long been to instruct audiences bluntly to "listen" to what he is about to say, as in "Listen, America is respected" (Aug. 30) or "Listen, this economy is good" (May 24). This year, he made that request more often than he did in a comparable portion of 2005, a sign that he hasn't given up hope it might work.
But grabbing people by the lapels and shouting at them to listen to you isn't the most effective rhetorical strategy. It's hardly a way to make friends and influence people. And the more you do it, hoping it finally works, the less it works. It's kind of obvious.

Kevin Drum puts it nicely here -
This is a symptom of what I find so mysterious about Bush's popularity: his speaking style always strikes me as irritated and angry, as if he's nearly ready to jump out of his skin in frustration that his audience just doesn't get it. Even though he keeps explaining it! And explaining it again! And again! What's wrong with you people?!?

This feeling is almost palpable, and it's the reason I don't understand why his supporters continue to find him attractive. Especially over the past couple of years, he seems increasingly angry, defensive, frustrated, and completely unable to understand why he can't control events around him. Conservatives recognize how feeble and embarrassing this looks when Bush pulls this schtick over something that even they understand is dumb (Kathryn Jean Lopez on the Harriet Miers nomination: "I hate this groaning-when-the-president speaks reflex I've had all week on this issue") but they don't seem to understand that to growing numbers of people he sounds this way all the time.

Listen, George: Being hectored just isn't a good way to people's hearts, and repeating the same words over and over isn't a good way to influence actual events in the world. Is it any wonder your approval ratings are stuck in the 30s?
Yep, and Jeremiah was a bore, and really tiresome. So was Hector.

But the president is a "hard-liner" and that's supposed to a good thing in this world full of wimps and defeatists, and with North Korea tests a nuclear weapon. But is he, really?

See this from DK over at Talking Points Memo -
Just yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, no less a Bush critic than Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as Colin Powell's chief of staff at the State Department, asserted that Bush's hardline on North Korea has failed.

I have no doubt that there are genuine hardliners within the administration who urged covert and overt military action against North Korea early in the President's first term, and certainly in response to the breakdown of the Agreed Framework. Every Republican administration is going to have its share of Curtis LeMays.

But those true hardliners have not prevailed in the internal administration struggle over whether the U.S. should lead with the carrot or with the stick. What has emerged as U.S. "policy" is inertia. No carrot. No stick. No nothing, unless cheap rhetoric about what is "unacceptable" counts for something.

There are quite reputable people in foreign policy circles, like former Defense Secretary William Perry, who have advocated much tougher measures against North Korea than Bush has adopted. Perry, for instance, proposed publicly earlier this year that the U.S. hit the DPRK's new ICBM with a U.S. cruise missile while it was still on the launch pad, before a test flight could be conducted.

The sad truth is that we have virtually no good options for putting the North Korean nuclear genie back in the bottle, and I am quite convinced that our military options at the moment range from bad to worse (and that the current Administration would be unable to competently execute any military option).

But in the same way that it is a mistake to conclude that the Clinton Administration offer of a carrot was a failure, it is a mistake to conclude that the stick has failed, too. Both may be needed in the future.

All that we can say with any certainty is that paralysis has failed to achieve our objective of a non-nuclear Korean peninsula. And paralysis, if I may say, is unacceptable.
But the president talks a good game. He just imagines he's on the sidelines, when he isn't. Refusing to play and just screaming at those on the field isn't an option here.

And maybe the word count thing wasn't useless information after all. The man is stuck on the stunningly ineffective "Listen, that's unacceptable." It probably didn't even work with the elementary school kids. They almost certainly looked as appropriately shamefaced as they could manage (kids all know how to do that), then went home and played videogames, or did whatever they decided they wanted to do. The same thing happens with adults, minus the feigned shame. They just shrug. Whatever, George.

But the man can do some damage. And he doesn't like how things are - they are not at all the way he knows they are supposed to be. Reality is a problem. It needs to be fixed, of course.

Or it doesn't need to be fixed, as in this from US News and World Report, also, curiously, from Friday the 13th -
Some Republican strategists are increasingly upset with what they consider the overconfidence of President Bush and his senior advisers about the midterm elections November 7 – a concern aggravated by the president's news conference this week.

"They aren't even planning for if they lose," says a GOP insider who informally counsels the West Wing. If Democrats win control of the House, as many analysts expect, Republicans predict that Bush's final two years in office will be marked by multiple congressional investigations and gridlock.

"The Bush White House has had no relationship with Congress," said a Bush ally. "Beyond the Democrats, wait till they see how the Republicans – the ones that survive – treat them if they lose next month." GOP insiders are upset by Bush's seeming inability to come up with new ideas or fresh approaches. There is even a heightened sensitivity to the way Bush talks about advisers who served his father.
This is very curious. There's no Plan B - no contingency planning. You just assume the best-case scenario, and ridicule as defeatist anyone who thinks there ought to be something in place if you're not greeted as liberators and showered with candy and flowers, so to speak. It's much like Iraq. It's that "reality is what we say it is" thing again. Or maybe all the new voting machines have indeed been rigged the right way, and Karl Rove knows it, and so does the president. Which it is - delusional denial of reality or some evil conspiracy to steal the election - doesn't matter much, really. Neither is very comforting.

And what's this "heightened sensitivity to the way Bush talks about advisers who served his father?"

Something is up with that, as Thomas DeFrank explains here, regarding the events at the recent christening of the aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush, where the father (41) was with his son (43), and the rivalry was on full display -
For five years, the 41s have bit their collective tongues as, they complain, the 43s ignored their counsel. But as the war in Iraq has worsened and public support for the current administration has tanked, loyalists of the elder Bush have found it impossible to suppress their disillusionment - particularly their belief that many of 43's policies are a stick in the eye of his father.

… "Forty-three has now repudiated everything 41 stands for, and still he won't say a word," a key member of the elder Bush alumni said. "Personally, I think he's dying inside."

… "Everyone knew how Rumsfeld acts," another key 41 assistant said. "Everyone knew 43 didn't have an attention span. Everyone knew Condi [Rice] wouldn't be able to stand up to Cheney and Rumsfeld. We told them all of this, and we were told we don't know what we're doing."
So we seem to be caught in the middle of a battle between a father and a son, regarding which has a better grasp of reality. Lucky us. The president says, again and again, that we will accept nothing less than total victory in Iraq, and the Iraq Study Group, headed by his father's secretary of state, James A. Baker III, says that's not an option and best we can hope for is something else entirely, and the president refers to him as "Jimmy" Baker in the October 11 press conference, as if he's one of those ill-disciplined Maryland elementary school kids who hasn't been doing his homework. We're caught in the middle, and lots of people die. This is not good. It's almost… unacceptable.

Well, what's acceptable and unacceptable can get tricky.

There was an odd thing on the Sunday, October 15 talk shows. Two days after Friday the 13th, the pseudo-moderate conservative columnist David Brooks had this to say on MSNBC, on "The Chris Matthews Show," and he has great access to the White House -
Matthews: David, do you believe the President is looking for an out from his doctrinaire policy of staying the course?

Brooks: Not really, no I don't. I think they're looking at policy options. One of those options is trying to replace the current government which seems to be doing nothing. The second option is some sort of federation which – Joe Biden has suggested as separating Iraq. A third option and by far the least likely is going in with more troops. So there are all different three options… We have much less control over Iraq than we did two or three years ago…
Okay, we have less and less control there every day, but we will stay the course to total victory, and establish a legitimate elected democracy there, even if we have to toss out the guys they elected and replace them with the right guys, guys we know will slap folks around and get everyone to settle down. What? In establishing democracy, democracy is unacceptable?

It seems reality really is what you say it is. You have to pay careful attention to what this man says. It's not "useless information." And it may be time to climb to the top of a mountain or skyscraper and burn all the socks you own that have holes in them, or stand on your head and eat a piece of gristle.

Posted by Alan at 22:07 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 16 October 2006 07:13 PDT home

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