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"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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Wednesday, 5 April 2006
Topic: Couldn't be so...


There was this guy in graduate school, Phil, who had a thing for a minor subset of stage literature, the farce -
The word farce derives from Old French, meaning 'stuff' or 'stuffing' and may have originated in the comic interludes of medieval French religious plays serving as light-hearted stuffing in between more serious drama. Historically, the term meant a literary or artistic production of little merit.

Farce is a type of comedy that uses absurd and highly improbable events in the plot. Situations are humorous because of their ludicrous and often ridiculous nature. The choice of setting is a key factor in farce, as the protagonist is sometimes at odds with the environment. Often the central character in a farce does not (or should not) belong in the place of the action...
Think of the Astaire-Rodgers musicals of the thirties, or if you're literary minded (and into Beatles trivia), Joe Orton's "What the Butler Saw" - or the French classics from Feydeau like "A Flea in Her Ear." It's an acquired taste.

Well, Phil was working on his second PhD - having done early eighteenth century British literature (Pope) he was about to dive into the Victorians. But he loved farce. He'd go on and on about Feydeau and such. Maybe this was because he liked the unlikely. He was a prematurely gray courtly fellow from eastern Tennessee with one of those Shelby Foote accents, and both a fine French horn player in the local orchestras and a semi-pro baseball player (he was a catcher who could hit a curve). He knew the absurd. He could chat about the best French horn player of all time, Dennis Brain, and his favorite obscure baseball players from the thirties with odd names, like Jesus McFarland, all in one seemingly coherent conversation. The world amused him.

And he drew you into the absurdity. There was his second wedding, to the daughter of the head of personnel at the UN, a catered affair at a country estate near West Point. The bride's father was Chinese, and, oddly, a big fan of Mark Twain - but late that evening, when he wanted to make a point about a passage in Huck Finn he realized he had left his copy in Addis Ababa the week before. The FBI had guys out on the road all day taking pictures with telephoto lenses. Phil's world was like that. The day after the wedding we all drove down to the Village for the day, and at a Chinese restaurant the bride's father and Phil got into a long discussion of five different Chinese dialects, and his father-in-law kidded with the waiters in each. What?

Where is Phil now? No idea. He visited out here once in the eighties, then disappeared.

His perspective, that wry bemusement mixed with intense curiosity, kept us all sane. That would be useful, when, these days, it does seem hard to be amused in any way by improbable events in the world, and the protagonist in the White House sometimes, or most of the time, at odds with the environment at hand.

The environment at hand?

Wednesday, April 5th that would be this from Baghdad - "The Ministry of Displacement and Migration is preparing an emergency plan to assist Palestinians living in Iraq, many of whom have been the victims of violence or have received recent death threats, according to ministry official Farhan Obaid."

What? There are Palestinians living in Iraq? That complicates things. These of course are Sunnis, and there's been a bit of rape and murder. The situation there is not exactly stable. There's no government in Iraq yet, but plenty of militias with grudges. And these folks want out. But they have no way to get visas for Jordan or whatever. There's no government to issue those. So we now have refugee camps on the borders with starving Palestinians.

What's our position on the Palestinians. Oh yeah, they had a free and democratic election in the Palestinian territories and they elected Hamas, the wrong guys, so we cut off all aid so the new government would sink. What do well tell squabbling would-be leaders in Iraq now to do about this new situation with the local Palestinians, aside from sending so food to the camps on the borders? They don't listen to us anyway, so it hardly matters.

This democracy stuff is not only hard work, it's full of odd ironies. We'd better side with the Palestinians here, even if they vote the wrong way.

The Middle East seems to be splitting into the rising Shiite bloc, Iraq and Iran, and the Sunni bloc of most all other nations in the region, including Turkey. And the Kurds are, for the most part, Sunni. We cannot play favorites as the regional religious war shapes up. We can tell all parties to lighten up - after all, in America the Lutherans don't take up arms against the Methodists, and no one is killing Catholics (the KKK gave that up in the late nineteenth century). What's the problem.

We got rid of the bad guy, the oppressive murderous tyrant Saddam Hussein, and gave them democracy, and they voted. That was supposed to fix things. But it's now a farce without the humor.

But were we serious about democracy, really? The same day the Washington Post reports we say we are, but it seems we're not that serious, as in this -
While President Bush vows to transform Iraq into a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, his administration has been scaling back funding for the main organizations trying to carry out his vision by building democratic institutions such as political parties and civil society groups.

The administration has included limited new money for traditional democracy promotion in budget requests to Congress. Some organizations face funding cutoffs this month, while others struggle to stretch resources through the summer. The shortfall threatens projects that teach Iraqis how to create and sustain political parties, think tanks, human rights groups, independent media outlets, trade unions and other elements of democratic society....

Among the projects facing closure is the Iraq Civil Society and Media Program, funded by USAID and run by America's Development Foundation and the International Research & Exchanges Board. The program has established four civil society resource centers around the country, conducted hundreds of workshops and forums, and trained thousands of government officials in transparency and accountability. It also helped Iraqis set up the National Iraqi News Agency, the first independent news agency in the Arab world.

The program was supposed to run at least through June 2007 but without $15 million more, it will have to close this summer.

Officials at the White House, the State Department, the Office of Management and Budget and USAID were contacted for comment in recent days, but none would speak on the record. In response to a request for comment, USAID sent promotional documents hailing past accomplishments in Iraq, such as sponsoring town hall meetings, training election monitors, and distributing pamphlets, posters and publications explaining voting and the new constitution.
We did what we did. The tense is past perfect, as you see. They voted. They have a "democracy." Case closed. Why do more?

Of course it's short sighted, and there was comment all over on the news that we just stopped funding for "the frills." One comment out there is this -
BushCo's shifting rationale for the Iraq invasion would be amusing if it weren't so deadly serious. When the twin demons of WMD and Saddam's ties to al-Qaeda were proven to be fabrications, the administration eventually found its way to "bringing democracy" to the people of Iraq as the primary reason for the invasion.

... Yes, the Myth of the Purple Finger strikes again. Produce enough pamphlets and posters on the wonders of voting and democracy will surely follow.

Obviously the security concerns on the ground in Iraq require the bulk of U.S. expenditures, and one could argue that without security democracy cannot flourish. Arguing in that vein leads to the inevitable conclusion that democracy in Iraq is a casualty of the poor planning and poor execution of BushCo in conducting this war. I can imagine many Iraqis thinking that if this is democracy, they'd just as soon have none of it.
Yep, this would be amusing if it weren't so deadly serious. Farce without the humor.

But there is the overwhelming evidence that the whole "democracy" thing was a sham anyway. The best review of the actual evidence is from Kevin Drum in the Washington Monthly here.

To simplify matters what he lays out matters, here, for the fun of it, cast as a court sort of thing.

EXHIBIT 1: In his campaign for the presidency that ended with that odd business in Florida in January 2000, George Bush repeatedly said the United States should never do nation building, and promoting democracy in other places in the world wasn't a high priority. The documentation is here, but many remember the words with needing their recollections refreshed.

EXHIBIT 2: After the attacks of September 2001 this didn't change. We got the talk of WMD in Iraq and the al Qaeda connection, but next to nothing on "promoting democracy." As late at the 2003 State of the Union speech (here) there were over a thousand word on Iraq and democracy was not mention at all, even once (as Drum did the word search). And at about the same time Paul Wolfowitz gave the famous interview on the "real" goals of the war. He didn't mention anything about establishing democracy as a regional model at all.

EXHIBIT 3: The plan all along was to get rid of Saddam Hussein, fly in Ahmed Chalabi and his long-exiled-in-America group and make them the government there, and immediately drop troop levels to no more than thirty thousand on the ground. (See this.) Of course Wolfowitz and Chalabi had been at the University of Chicago long ago, and we were paying the Chalabi shadow government-in-exile big bucks for "intelligence" that we decided was better than what the CIA and State came up with. We thought, or Vice President Cheney thought, that this would work out. It seems it didn't occur to anyone that Chalabi might have his own powewr agenda and be jerking us around. In any event, the plan actually had not one thing to do with democracy.

EXHIBIT 4: When that didn't work out we stumbled along, putting off any elections (they weren't ready was the line at the time), and then Ayatollah Ali Sistani made a fuss and said there'd be big trouble if we didn't allow elections. We resisted (see this from November 2003), but we had to give in. Drum doesn't put it this way, but we were shamed into allowing elections. We clearly didn't want them, as all kinds of things might happen, with the "wrong sorts" winning. Yes, we grudgingly told the UN to handle the voting (see this), and wouldn't you know, Ahmed Chalabi returned-from-decades-in-America-to-run-the-joint crowd didn't get enough votes for even one seat in the new parliament.

Drum adds this -
What's more, in the surrounding regions, Bush has shown himself to be exactly the type of realist he supposedly derides. Hamas won elections in Palestine and he immediately tried to undermine them. Egypt held sham elections and got nothing more than a bit of mild tut-tutting. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia remain our closest allies.

And now this. A man who is supposedly passionate about democracy can't rouse himself to bother funding it. Instead the money is going into security.

These decisions may or may not be defensible, but they are plainly not the decisions of a man dedicated to spreading democracy - and the fact that he repeatedly says otherwise doesn't change this. So once and for all, can we please stop hearing about democracy promotion as a central goal of the Bush administration? It's just a slogan and nothing more.
Case closed. It's farce, without the humor, as the protagonist in the White House is sometimes, or most of the time, at odds with the environment at hand, stumbling through another door on stage, as the audience laughs uproariously, or not, as he says things ironically at odds with the real events.

Well, we as a nation elected him to a second term, so this really is what we wanted, right?

We love situational irony.

So we must love this.

2003 - "Everyone who invests in the stock market and receives dividend income - especially seniors - will benefit from elimination of the double taxation on dividends. About half of all dividend income goes to America's seniors, who often rely on those checks for a steady source of retirement income."

Tom DeLay twisted arms. That was passed.

Wednesday, April 5, 2006 -
Americans with annual incomes of $1 million or more, about one-tenth of 1 percent all taxpayers, reaped 43 percent of all the savings on investment taxes in 2003.... The analyses show that more than 70 percent of the tax savings on investment income went to the top 2 percent, about 2.6 million taxpayers.

By contrast, few taxpayers with modest incomes benefited because most of them who own stocks held them in retirement accounts, which are not eligible for the investment income tax cuts. Money in these accounts is not taxed until withdrawal, when the higher rates on wages apply.
Ha, ha. The joke's on us. (That excludes readers who earn more than a million dollars a year, as those readers received additional tax refunds of a half-million each year, on average, under the new system.)

Don't bitch about this. More than half the nation voted for just this. And it is funny, kind of a droit du seigneur (or Droit de Cuissage), without the sex.

The rich are very different from us, as Fitzgerald said to Hemingway. You remember Hemingway's reply.

And some things are funny, maybe, with the sex, as in the big scandal of Wednesday, April 5th - "The deputy press secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was put on leave and his security clearance suspended on Wednesday after being arrested on charges of using the Internet to try to seduce a 14-year-old girl, an official said."

If you'll pardon the innuendo, they caught him red-handed. He's a jerk. And he's not fighting extradition to the controlling jurisdiction, Florida.

An anomaly? Perhaps.

But there's this, the former head of Operation Predator, the national program to target child sex predators, Frank Figueroa, was special agent in charge of the Tampa office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the law enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security at the time of his arrest. His arrest? He dropped his pants and shorts in a food court at a Florida mall and put on a show for a sixteen-year-old girl, who wished he really hadn't, getting himself all excited with stroking himself and all. Wednesday, April 5, 2006, he had his day in court. He pleaded no contest.

It seems Michael Brown wasn't the only one frustrated at the Department of Homeland Security.

There's not much to say here. This may be beyond farce. Both the one arrest and the other "no contest" plea on the same day. Heads are exploding on the righteous Christian Bush-is-our-Jesus right. The man who listens to God and does His will has some odd people working for him. Once again the protagonist in the White House is sometimes, or most of the time, at odds with the environment at hand, stumbling though another door on stage, as the audience laughs uproariously, or not, as he says things ironically at odds with the real events.

And this not long after Claude Allen, President Bush's longtime domestic-policy adviser, is caught shoplifting, which causes his resignation (see Slate here and Just Above Sunset here).

Yep, beyond farce. The farce will be how the religious right defends the two perverts and the shoplifter, to maintain the godliness of the Bush administration. That'll be a good show.

But then, the bad guys have their problems too, as the Los Angeles Times reports the same day here -
To hear Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed tell it, Osama bin Laden was a meddling boss whose indiscretion and poor judgment threatened to derail the terrorist attacks.

He also saddled Mohammed with at least four would-be hijackers who the ringleader thought were ill-equipped for the job. And he carelessly dropped hints about the imminent attacks, violating Mohammed's cardinal rule against discussing the suicide hijacking plot.

... Mohammed describes a terrorist outfit fraught with the same conflicts and petty animosities that plague many American corporations. Mohammed describes himself in particular as having to fend off a chairman of the board who insists on micromanaging despite not knowing what he was doing.
This was a good read with the morning coffee out here in Hollywood, smoking a pipe or two while the cat sat in the window and watched the rain. Another farce, and for those of us with decades of such experience in the world of systems management (or any sort of management, of course), all too familiar. The Times ran it in the A section. They run Dilbert (sort of management Feydeau) in the D section, the business pages. They could have run them together.

The Times also runs a ton on the immigration debate. That's big here, but the best of the day was from Jacob Weisberg in Slate with this, arguing that whole business is a farce and we don't really need an immigration reform bill at all. The whole this is a farce? It seems so.

Key points -
... why not pass no immigration bill at all? The status quo of American immigration is certainly flawed. We are turning a blind eye to widespread lawbreaking and probably driving down low-end wages, at least to some degree. On the other hand, the system works in its way. The most motivated, tenacious, and enterprising immigrants, who are therefore the most economically desirable, find a way around the barriers we erect. Once here, they help our economy sustain a high rate of growth and subsidize our Social Security system. In return, those who choose to stay have a chance to create better lives for their children. Do we really want to put an end to this deal?

America always has tolerated, and probably always must tolerate, such flawed-but-functional arrangements when it comes to immigration. Our country was built by people who did not wait for engraved invitations. New arrivals draw hostility from native-born workers with whom they compete for jobs, even though the native-born can usually recount immigrant family sagas themselves. As a result, the national attitude toward immigration is marked by ambivalence. We need their muscle. We admire their pluck and sacrifice. At the same time, we object to having to compete with them, we resent their differences, and we doubt their commitment to our values. Our immigration policies will never be fully rational because our feelings about a process so central to the American experience remain contradictory.
He recommends some tinkering, but what's the problem? Accept the ambiguities. Relax.

The whole thing is a good read. There's a whole lot of posturing going on, just as in Orton or Feydeau, although he's not doing the literary thing.

But we insist on farce, as in the other big story of the day, this - "'Today' show host Katie Couric announced her departure from NBC on Wednesday to join rival CBS News and become the first sole woman anchor of a major US network evening newscast."

So long Edward R, Murrow, and so long Walter Cronkite. We now get perky and light. Journalistic farce for our times.

And so it goes. No, that was another newsman.


I wish Phil were still around.

Posted by Alan at 23:08 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 6 April 2006 06:08 PDT home

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