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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, 3 January 2007
All the News - Minor and Major
Topic: Couldn't be so...

All the News - Minor and Major

Sometimes it is hard to keep up with all the news. Take Wednesday, January 3, when it seems lots of people were pointing to a fascinating article from Germaine Greer, with its Hollywood and Paris implications - Lauren Bacall was not at all like Catherine Deneuve. No kidding. What of it? Ah, there are the lessons to be learned -
The movie phenomenon known as Lauren Bacall took time to put together. The woman who began life as Betty Joan Perske studied dancing for 13 years, then acting, and became a stage actress and model called Betty Bacall. Her picture on the cover of Harper's Bazaar caught the eye of the wife of movie producer Howard Hawks, who cast her in To Have and Have Not (1944) and created the movie star Lauren Bacall. She was not a regular beauty; her face was too broad, her mouth too wide, her eyes too far apart, and her ears too big. She was also neither blonde nor dark, but sallow and mousy.

Catherine Deneuve is the opposite. Everything about her is perfect: eyes beautifully set in perfect oval face, mouth neat, skin transparently fair, a body that could serve as the template for the first blow-up doll. Only her name and her hair colour were fake. She was born Catherine Dorléac, daughter of stage and screen actor Maurice Dorléac and his actress wife, whose maiden name she eventually took. Deneuve got her first screen role when she was only 13, and she has been in movies non-stop for 50 years. She never thought of doing anything else, and at 63 she still doesn't. She says she never works more than half of any year, but what she does with the other half is unknown.

… Try as I might, I can't remember anything said by any character that Deneuve ever played, but the difference is as much one of era as of talent or personality. When Bacall came into the limelight the war was still on, and women were still self-sufficient, bouncing around in short skirts and chunky heels, talking loud and drawing a crowd. Before the Hays Code sanitized the movies in 1934, a series of remarkable actresses, including Bebe Daniels, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, Norma Shearer and Jean Harlow, had created female characters who managed to be tough, funny and sexy all at once.

Catherine Deneuve … Her big breakthrough was Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), a masterpiece of romantic French whimsy devised, written and directed by Jacques Demy, in which 20-year-old Deneuve played Geneviève, the 16-year-old daughter of the proprietress of a shop called Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. She and her mechanic boyfriend are in love and want to get married but he is called up for military service in Algeria. They go to bed together, he leaves, she bids him farewell at Cherbourg railway station - et voilà, she is pregnant. In fact, Deneuve had just given birth to her son by Roger Vadim when she started work on the movie.

Geneviève was a role for a French Olivia Newton John, and Deneuve was probably the nearest thing they had, but without a voice. What she did have was hair, as much hair comparative to the rest of her as any Barbie doll, and bleached beyond an inch of its life. The mass of hair did all the acting and most of the dancing for her. Under the hair was the perfect face, virtually expressionless, endlessly caressed by the camera. Though the plot requires Geneviève to jump the gun and have premarital sex with her boyfriend, Deneuve conveys not one scintilla of sexual desire. She might as well be going to the dentist as going to lose her virginity. Bacall could signify sexual interest with a glance; Deneuve cannot project it at all. This is not so much a matter of personality as of changed priorities.

The Hawksian woman was an idea that flourished at a time of crisis, in the depression and during the war, when the full energies of women were needed if they were to survive. After the war she was supplanted by the female eunuch, weighed down with huge hair and false eyelashes, unequal to any challenge - all things to all men and nothing to herself.
That's the core of it, although there's a lot of movie history elided here. But this explains why the Frenchwoman who was on the last Air France flight out of Saigon when it fell to the North Vietnamese Army despises Catherine Deneuve. Ah well, Michel Legrand still wrote a wonderful score for that umbrellas movie.

Okay - minor stuff, perhaps. But closer to home, and of importance to more people, might be one more ominous Wal-Mart story, from the Wall Street Journal, of all places.

This is about shifting risk - Wal-Mart is moving forward with widespread implementation of new employee scheduling software. So what, you say? The software tracks customer habits over seven week periods, and reschedules workers for each of those periods. And there's a whole range of daily possibilities, allowing Wal-Mart to schedule workers to be on-call during surges, or send them home during lulls, or implement a variety of other strategies to create a more flexible, adaptive, workforce. No big deal.

Ezra Klein differs -
[P]ity the workforce. The new software will make advance scheduling and reliable paychecks a thing of the past. According to The Journal, "experts say [the program] can saddle workers with unpredictable schedules. In some cases, they may be asked to be "on call" to meet customer surges, or sent home because of a lull, resulting in less pay. The new systems also alert managers when a worker is approaching full-time status or overtime, which would require higher wages and benefits, so they can scale back that person's schedule... That means workers may not know when or if they will need a babysitter or whether they will work enough hours to pay that month's bills. Rather than work three eight-hour days, someone might now be plugged into six four-hour days, mornings one week and evenings the next."

Brave new world. And one that can be used to push out older, more experienced, better-paid workers. "Some longtime workers," the Journal reports, "also say they believe managers use the system to pressure them to quit. After working 16 years at a Wal-Mart in Hastings, Minn., Karen Nelson says managers told her she had to be open to working nights and weekends. After she refused, her hours were trimmed, though they have been restored in recent months. 'The store manager said he could get two people for what he pays me,' says Ms. Nelson, who earns about $14.50 an hour." Take a highly-paid veteran and begin shaking up their shifts, demanding nights and weekends, and scheduling erratically, and soon you'll have a former highly-paid veteran.

This isn't, it should be said, an initiative unique to Wal-Mart. Other retailers, from Radioshack to Payless, have given the system a shot, though with varying degrees of ferocity. But Wal-Mart's adoption will make it standard. The whole enterprise underscores the dangers of the service economy, with its relentless focus on efficiency and terrifying absence of concern towards its workers.
Yeah, well, not to get too Marxist or anything, what did Ezra Klein expect? The corporation exists to make money for the shareholders, the owners - those who provide the capital, thus "the capitalists." The "workers" hardly matter, and if they are unhappy they can quit - there are plenty of people who need jobs of any sort at all. We live in boom times of lower and lower labor costs - or higher productivity, if you will. There's a reason the stock markets always spike upward on news of high unemployment numbers or the latest story of wages not keeping up with inflation - that increases the pool of eager workers who will accept low wages and no benefits, and with the subsequent decline in actual labor cost and rise in profit margins. As long as there's no great depression with no one is buying much of anything, that's good news. The trick in any capitalist economy is to come as close to a major recession as you can, but still have a reasonable number of folks here and there with some disposable income left to spend. That there's clever software to squeeze those currently working and get the troublemakers and "the expensive" to quit just makes it all high-tech. There's no news here, but for the ingenious software.

The same day the Wall Street Journal published something really unusual - an opinion column from President Bush - but most doubt he wrote it all by himself. It has the feel of committee work filtered through a staff of speechwriters, then massaged by Karen Hughes and approved by Karl Rove. It's all about bipartisan cooperation - the new Democratic House and Senate, we are told, had better be careful. If they pass things just to make some political point, "the public" will see through that and hate them, and Bush will veto it all. So the unusual situation, after six years of single party control there will be two years of "divided government," as the president warns here, had better be one where the Congress does nothing partisan and gives him legislation to sign that he wants to sign. Otherwise, the business of the nation will stop, and it will be the Democrats' fault, entirely. He threw down the gauntlet the day before the new congress convenes.

It was all pretty clear.

Tax increases? Forget it. "The elections have not reversed the laws of economics It is a fact that economies do best when you reward hard work by allowing people to keep more of what they have earned."

The war in Iraq? We're staying the course. "We now have the opportunity to build a bipartisan consensus to fight and win the war."

Some Democrats may have hoped it would be the president who is contrite after the election. Fat chance.

Senator Schumer of New York - "I think what the op-ed showed was the fundamental division within the White House and probably within the president's head whether to stick to the old issues and just talk bipartisanship versus really doing it." Yeah, maybe so.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto - "It's an appropriate time to say where we are on these things and to again reiterate the president's view that we can work together to find common ground. It also doesn't mean that a Democrat-controlled Congress passes whatever they want and we sign it - that's not bipartisanship. We'll have to see as we go forward over the next six months, in particular, if everyone has the same understanding of what bipartisanship means."

It means agreeing with the president or things stop cold. It's going to be interesting. And elsewhere we're told that the January 23rd State of the Union will "Knock Our Socks Off" - a major call for total energy independence. Didn't he do that already, last year - something about ending our addiction to oil? Maybe he's really, really serious this time.

The major address, really, will come before that, reportedly on Tuesday the 9th - the "no big surprise" speech that we're escalating the Iraq war, adding seventeen to twenty-thousand more troops. Robert Parry calls it Operation: Save Bush's Legacy -
Even top advocates for the "surge," such as retired Army Gen. Jack Keane and neoconservative activist Frederick W. Kagan, have argued that U.S. troop levels must be increased by at least 30,000 for 18 months or more to bring security to Baghdad, what they call a "precondition" for any successful outcome.

"Any other option is likely to fail," Keane and Kagan wrote in an Op-Ed article in the Washington Post on Dec. 27, 2006.

So, the more modest escalation of up to 20,000 soldiers would appear to represent what might be called "Operation: Save Bush's Legacy," with the goal of postponing the inevitable until 2009 when American defeat can be palmed off on a new President.
That's a plan. The word is he will dump General Casey and any general who disagrees with him. As reported in the Times - "What I want to hear from you is how we're going to win, not how we're going to leave." Casey, who speculated our massive presence there was ham-handed and making things worse, is so gone.

But the word is the president will call for "sacrifice" on our part. The Democrats will no doubt be too timid to suggest restoring the previous tax rates for the wealthiest one percent of Americans would be a reasonable sacrifice by those folks to help pay for this all, but no matter.

This is not going down well. Fewer than twenty percent of the public likes the idea, and no politician does, save John McCain and Joe Lieberman. The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group said do the opposite. But the president is determined. And that lead to what was called the most blistering indictment of a sitting President in the history of broadcast television - Keith Olbermann on MSNBC (video here or here).

Some of that -
This senseless, endless war.

But it has not been senseless in two ways.

It has succeeded, Mr. Bush, in enabling you to deaden the collective mind of this country to the pointlessness of endless war, against the wrong people, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

It has gotten many of us, used to the idea - the virtual "white noise" - of conflict far away, of the deaths of young Americans, of vague "sacrifice" for some fluid cause, too complicated to be interpreted except in terms of the very important sounding, but ultimately meaningless phrase, "the war on terror."

And the war's second accomplishment - your second accomplishment, sir - is to have taken money out of the pockets of every American, even out of the pockets of the dead soldiers on the battlefield, and their families, and to have given that money to the war profiteers.

Because if you sell the Army a thousand Humvees, you can't sell them any more, until the first thousand have been destroyed.

The service men and women are ancillary to the equation.

This is about the planned obsolescence of ordnance, isn't, Mr. Bush? And the building of detention centers? And the design of a 125-million dollar courtroom complex at Gitmo complete with restaurants.

At least the war profiteers have made their money, sir.

And we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.
And do it goes. Is it time to take away the car keys? Things don't work that way. There is the argument that we now have Sociopath as President, but in spite of that man's book and some previous discussion of that, that's a bit over the top.

After all - as one administration office said, this surge thing is "more of a political decision than a military one." Call it fighting irrelevancy, or something. And anyway, Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon have and new article in Foreign Policy arguing that a variety of human cognitive biases all tilt the scales in arguments unduly in favor of hawkish, aggressive solutions and away from dovish, compromise oriented ones. So what did you expect?

And Fred Kaplan carefully explains that the president is an Iron Man and simply won't change his strategy -
In short, nothing has changed. The midterm elections - which amounted to a clear referendum on Bush's policies - never happened. The Baker-Hamilton report's critique is as dismissible as its prescriptions.

What's going on here? Does President Bush simply want to avoid admitting that he's been wrong? Or does he really think he's been - and still is - right?

Probably both. His unwillingness to acknowledge mistakes, however profound or trivial, is legendary. Yet it's also the case, as a few former high-ranking officials have recently told me, that he genuinely believes he's on "the right side of history" when it comes to Iraq, the war on terror, the freedom agenda - all of which he sees bundled into a single grand vision (as distinguished, and self-consciously so, from his father, who was famously and explicitly the opposite of a visionary).

… Bush is unpopular because, it becomes clearer by the day, he doesn't seem to have a strategy.

One thing Bush does have, however, is an ironclad commitment to his visions. This can be an admirable trait, or it can be the hallmark of a delusional; it depends on the vision. Another thing about Bush—something frequently forgotten until we're reminded of it - is that he tends to mean what he says (also a quality that's neither here nor there when it comes to gauging wisdom).

Bush has said countless times that Iraq is the central battleground in the war on terror and that winning the war on terror is vital for the future of civilization. He seems to believe this; several of his high-ranking officials confirm that he does believe this. Yes, it's odd that he hasn't done much in support of this belief - for instance, he hasn't done anything remotely like putting the country on a war footing - but much about this administration's war policies have been odd. (For instance, an argument might have been made, back in the spring of 2003, for mobilizing a small number of American troops or for disbanding the Iraqi army, but not for doing both, and yet this administration did just that.)

Everything that Bush has said, and everything that he has revealed about his character, adds up to this: He almost certainly is not going to budge from Iraq; he is likely to pour more American troops in - as many as the Army and Marines can manage (which isn't all that many more) - before he pulls any out. He's playing for History (most definitely with a capital H), which, he seems convinced, is on his side.
You may think that's noble, or dangerously delusional, or perhaps both. It doesn't matter. That's what we have. No one wants to go where he's going, but he sees things differently. A hundred years from now we'll all know better, or not.

Olbermann -
Mr. Bush, your judgment about Iraq - and now about 'sacrifice' - is at variance with your people's, to the point of delusion.

Your most respected generals see no value in a "surge" - they could not possibly see it in this madness of "sacrifice."

The Iraq Study Group told you it would be a mistake.

Perhaps dozens more have told you it would be a mistake.

And you threw their wisdom back, until you finally heard what you wanted to hear, like some child drawing straws and then saying "best two out of three . . . best three out of five . . . hundredth one counts."

Your citizens, the people for whom you work, have told you they do not want this, and moreover, they do not want you to do this.

Yet once again, sir, you have ignored all of us. …

First we sent Americans to their deaths for your lie, Mr. Bush.

Now we are sending them to their deaths for your ego.
Or for his "vision." What's the difference?

But no matter what, there are no good choices, really. Former war supporter Andrew Sullivan agonizes over that -
I cannot have been the only one to have spent the Christmas break wrestling with the central question we have to answer in 2007: what to do in Iraq. The more you ponder it, the harder a call it is. It seems to me we have to leave behind recriminations against the Bush administration. History will damn this president sufficiently. There is no need for us to pile on now. The question is simply: what is in the best interests, first, of the United States and second, of Iraq? And yes: the American priority is clear. A serious foreign policy places national interest first and foremost in its judgment.
So Choice One -
One option is to plow forward with this president, a new defense secretary and a "surge". By a surge, I mean a serious commitment of 50,000 combat troops to try and pacify a raging civil war - in Baghdad for starters. The point of such an operation is to do what should have been done almost four years ago: maintain the order necessary for any halfway peaceful transition to normalcy in Iraq. The drawback here is twofold. The first is that it really is too late. The civil war has gone well past the point of no return. Pacification of the entire country may well not render any of the parties more eager to sacrifice for a national democracy. American casualties could surge along with troop numbers, with domestic opinion already sharply hostile to continuing the war. The American political system could itself buckle under the strain - along with the military.

The second and graver problem is that any such surge would, at any moment, require the U.S. to side with one of the factions in Iraq and so embroil us in the Shia-Sunni civil war that is spreading throughout the region. That strikes me as a terrible risk. We are already targeted by terrorists simply for our freedom. To be targeted for being pro-Shi'a or pro-Sunni would add another layer of risk to the American public.
And behind the other door -
The alternative is withdrawal. Many will call this a defeat. In many ways, it is. The attempt to remake the Middle East on our terms and on our own schedule has been revealed in retrospect as pure folly. The core goals of the Iraq war - to disarm Saddam and remove him from power - have been accomplished. Iraq is no longer a potential source of WMDs - just of suicide bombers and terrorists. Saddam is dead. It seems clear to me that the deep trauma of the Saddam years - an unimaginable hell to those of us who have experienced nothing like it - needs time to resolve itself. It may even need a civil war to resolve itself.

The risks of withdrawal are also obvious: it would doubtless lead to genocide and ethnic cleansing on a hideously cruel scale. It may unleash a regional sectarian war with unknowable consequences. It is very difficult for any president to unleash such disorder on a global scale. Except, of course, this president has already unleashed such disorder as deliberate policy, and stood by as chaos spread.
So what are you going to do? Sullivan offers this -
… we should withdraw most combat troops by the middle of this year; and leave a remaining force in the Kurdish region and along the Iraq-Turkey border. Protecting the fledgling democracy in Kurdistan and reassuring Turkey should be our top priorities. This will force Iraqi indigenous forces to come up with their own leader, a man who has real power and a capacity to restore order, however brutally. We may get another dictator. In fact, we may have witnessed his unofficial swearing-in at Saddam's execution: "Moktada! Moktada! Moktada!" So be it. The current chaos ties the U.S. down in a hideously tightening vise. We have to change the dynamic and actually do something we can accomplish. We cannot win this civil war for any side, and we shouldn't. We can, however, withdraw.

My own view is that withdrawal might even have some beneficial consequences. It will force Iran and the Sunni powers to intervene either to foment war or to stymie it. It could well unleash turmoil in Iran, and give Tehran a huge headache that will give it an incentive to deal with the world at large. I do not believe that Ahmadinejad will regard al-Sadr as a stable partner. Crucially, withdrawal could change the narrative of this war. So far, the narrative has been the one scripted by bin Laden: Islam versus the West. Thanks to Zarqawi, the narrative could soon become: Islam against itself. That is the real struggle here, masked by Western enmeshment. By getting out of Iraq now - decisively, swiftly, and candidly - we could actually gain in the long war. At some point, the chaos could force Iran to the negotiating table for fear of the massive instability on its doorstep. So Iraq could become the key to Iran after all.

The moral cost of withdrawal is huge. We should do all we can to provide amnesty for any Iraqis who have been loyal to us. (It does not surprise me that we shamefully haven't. This is the Bush administration.) But the moral cost of plowing on is also exponential. It may merely delay the day of reckoning. It risks sending young Americans to die in order for a president to save face, not in order to win.
So we have lost this battle, if not the war. And if we do not get out by June, things will be much worse. Many agree. It doesn't matter. Oh, and by the way, here and here you can see that "senior officers and defense executives" in so-called "Defense World" are said to have "confided" that "the time may come when we will have to kill millions of Muslims." That would be the cadre of evangelical officers at the Pentagon. Great.

But a US military spokesman does say "we" would have hanged Saddam Hussein differently. But of course - the guys in the black leather jackets and black full-face ski-masks, taunting Saddam Hussein with chants about Sadr, was a bit over the top. We would have been more subtle, or more dignified, or something.

One of Josh Marshall's readers, looking on this "sorry spectacle of the Hussein execution" sees more in any triumphal crap from the right -
They don't really believe in democracy, they don't really believe in the rule of law, or in impartial justice. Every Bush effort, and every Republican effort, since the Iraq war got started has the same touches on it as this sorry spectacle, rush things to fit political time tables, ride over the rule of law, chaos, incompetence, and the country looking worse at the end of it. Some of your readers don't understand the problem, but it's the same problem as what's going on in Gitmo and god knows where else, it's all of a piece. Rule of law isn't some neat extra cool thing that democratic countries came up with because its nice and convenient, it's like oxygen, entirely necessary. It's what gives the entire process of justice something more than simple bloodletting. We see the consequences of a lack of respect for the rule of law in the savagery of Saddam's execution, do we imagine that these thugs are any less savage to anybody else they deem "guilty" but is actually simple an innocent from the wrong tribe? The longer this thing goes on, the more clear it becomes that the current Iraqi government is the child of its Republican fathers in every meaningful way. Are we supposed to imagine that a (Republican) government which is so clearly incompetent, dangerous, savage when it can get away with it, elevates political theatre above actual results, and plays hard to its base somehow created a government that does the same exact things in Iraq (where those tendencies have even worse results) by accident or coincidence? No. The Iraqi government is as much an import from the US as the US solders sustaining it are.
And this was supposed to be a good thing, and bring closure and all that. Oops.

Ah, this is all the American view. Here's an Iraqi view, as in "Saddam jailed me but his hanging was a crime - Iraq's misery is now far worse than under his rule," from the novelist Haifa Zangana -
At 3.30am last Saturday, I was abruptly woken by the phone ringing. My heart sank. By the time I reached the phone, I was already imagining bodies of relatives and friends, killed and mutilated.

It was 6.30am in Baghdad and I thought of the last time I spoke to my sister. She was on the roof of her house trying to get a better signal on her mobile phone, but had to end the call as an American helicopter started hovering above. Iraqis know it is within the US "rules of engagement" to shoot at them when using mobiles, and that US troops enjoy impunity whatever they do. But the call was from a Turkish TV station asking for comments on Saddam's execution. I drew a deep sigh of relief, not for the execution, but because I did not know personally anyone killed that day.
So you count your blessing when you can. And the core of this -
I am speaking as one who has been, from the start, a politically active opponent of the Ba'ath regime's ideology and Saddam Hussain's dictatorship. At times that was at the high personal cost of prison and torture. In 1984, during the Iran-Iraq war, my family had to pay for the bullets used to execute my cousin Fouad Al Azzawi before being allowed to collect his body. But I find myself agreeing with many Iraqis, that life now is not just the continuity of misery and death under new guises. It is much, much worse - even without the extra dimensions of pillage, corruption and the total ruin of the infrastructure.

Every day brings with it, due to the presence of occupation troops to protect US citizens' safety and security, less safety and security for Iraqis.

The timing and method of the execution of Saddam Hussein proves that the US administration is still criminally high on the cocktail of power, arrogance, and ignorance. But above all racism: what is good for us is not good for you. We are patriots but you are terrorists.

The US and their Iraqi puppets in the green zone chose to execute Saddam on the first day of Eid al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice. This is the most joyous day in the Muslim calendar when more than 2 million pilgrims in Mecca start their ancient rituals, with hundreds of millions of others around the world focused on the events. They then further humiliated Muslims by releasing the official video of the execution, with the 69-year-old having a noose placed around his neck and being led to the drop. The unofficial recording shows Saddam looking calm and composed, and even managing a sarcastic smile, asking the thugs who taunted him "hiya hiy al marjala?" ("is this your manliness?"), a powerful phrase in Arabic popular culture connecting manliness to acts of courage, pride and chivalry. He also managed to repeatedly say the Muslim creed as he was dying, thus attaching himself in the last few seconds of his life to one billion Muslims. Saddam had literally the final say. From now on, no Eid will pass without people remembering his execution.
His conclusion? It's quite simple -
This was the climax of a colonial farce with the court proceedings' blatant sectarian overtones welcomed by Bush and the British government as a "fair trial". The occupation also welcomed the grotesque public execution as "justice being done". Contrast this with the end of our hopes, as Iraqis in opposition, of persuading our people of the humanity of democracy and how it would, unlike Saddam's brutality, put an end to all abuses of human rights, to execution in public, and to the death penalty.

It is no good the deputy prime minister John Prescott now condemning the manner of Saddam's execution as "deplorable" when, as a representative of one of the two main occupying powers, his government is both legally and morally responsible for what took place.

It is hell in Iraq by all standards, and there is no end in sight to the plight of Iraqi people. The resistance to occupation is a basic human right as well as a moral responsibility. That was the case during the Algerian war of independence, the Vietnamese war of independence, and it is the case in Iraq now.
Oh crap. If he's right, and we're escalating, let's all take crap jobs at Wal-Mart and watch Lauren Bacall movies in our down time.

Posted by Alan at 22:15 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 4 January 2007 06:51 PST home

Tuesday, 2 January 2007
Stopping the Madness
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Stopping the Madness

An idea whose time had come - "The world will come to understand that it stop this mad course towards the future and we demand the governments of the world and the United Nations declare a moratorium to stop, this December 31, the future."

Stop the future? You can read all about it here -
Taking the French love to say "non" to a new extreme, some 600 people gathered in the western city of Nantes not to ring in the New Year, but to protest its arrival on Monday.

Lashed by rain, the organizers joked even the weather was against 2007, as they milled about under banners reading "No to 2007!" and "Now is better!"
We are told too that "the tension mounted as the minutes ticked away." But midnight, and 2007, came anyway. Of course these folks had an answer - they immediately began to chant "No to 2008!" And they plan to hold the event for a third time on December 31, 2007 - on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

Good for them - we all need an active and lively absurdist movement to laugh at this sorry world. Not all of us read the Absurdist Monthly Review, the magazine of the New Absurdist Movement.

And what happened in Nantes was so very French - it was Camus, after all, who introduced the idea of acceptance without resignation and asked if man can "live without appeal" - defining a "conscious revolt" against the absurdity of the world. Thus we have the "conscious revolt" of folks in Nantes. Absurd, yes, but why not? After all, in an absurd world devoid of higher meaning or judicial afterlife, man becomes absolutely free, right? Camus held that it is through this freedom that man can act either as a mystic - through appeal to some supernatural force - or an absurd hero - through a revolt against such hope. It's all about the heroic refusal to hope, and about living in the present with passion, and humor of course. You cannot do a thing about the damned new year, so see you all next New Years Eve on the Champs-Elysees, nor not.

Frequent contributor to these pages Phillip Raines could be there - "I know I'm French somewhere, somehow, because I so get this."

But there still are the mystics - appealing to some supernatural force or other. They're also in France, in Lourdes -
Piousness and partying came together for New Year's celebrations overnight as Christian pilgrims visiting France's famous miracle town of Lourdes got down and boogied in "God's disco."

Around 1,000 faithful kicked up their heels in the unusual nightclub as Exo, a Christian pop group created in 1991 by a couple of US missionaries, blasted out their tunes from an outdoors stage.
That's not absurd? God's Disco? So much for The Song of Bernadette (1943) - we get second-rate mid-seventies disco covers, with the lyrics no doubt sanitized, performed some evangelicals from Iowa. That may not be worth a pilgrimage to the town of miracles. Many of us would have made the pilgrimage to Nantes, not Lourdes.

It should be noted that there were, simultaneously, some serious things happing in France -
Homeless families and their supporters have taken over an upscale office building in Paris and set up a mock housing ministry in a bid to keep housing rights on politicians' agendas before spring presidential elections.

The plight of France's homeless and others living in poor conditions becomes a hot-button issue each winter. But with presidential elections on the horizon this year, it has taken on real political meaning and encouraged groups to take action.

A group calling itself the Children of Don Quixote recently set up tents for the homeless in the French capital - and invited Parisians to spend the night in them. Associations made a push to register the homeless for the April and May two-round vote before last week's deadline.

The enthusiasm on behalf of the homeless, and those housed in cheap hotels, appears to be spreading.
Chirac spoke out on the matter in his annual New Year's Eve address (video here) - he pledged to work to "make the right to housing a reality." On Tuesday, the government studied a first draft of a bill that would allow the homeless appeal to the courts. Two leading presidential candidates, "Bush-lite" Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and the winsome Socialist Segolene Royal (think Hillary Clinton, but with actual charm), each did what anyone would expect - Sarkozy designated a famous lawyer to follow the issue, and Royal spoke by telephone with the Children of Don Quixote. The Lyonnaise de Banque group, which owns the building in question, a vacant place across the street from the old Bourse, was not impressed.

There are sixty-three million people in France, and some 86,500 homeless people - about as many as we have here in Los Angeles. But we get this Children of Don Quixote thing - Don Quixote, the symbol of noble and somewhat absurd lost causes, and this mock housing ministry. The French know absurd when they see it. It's all about the symbols - the little camp tents that appeared during the holiday along the Canal Saint Martin and the Parisians who joined the homeless there in solidarity. Such things don't happen in Santa Monica.

And there seems to be a war of symbols, as Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, notes. He forwards a communication from the mayor's office (he seems to be on distribution). The mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, is a bit unhappy with the action of some right-wing group to distribute free soup to the needy. Specifically the mayor objects to "pig soup" on the grounds that it of course will be unacceptable to Muslims and Jews. He says he is going to ask the Prefect of Police to take appropriate measures.

That goes like this -
02/01/2007 - Communiqué du maire relatif à la distribution de soupe au cochon

Par M. Bertrand DELANOË

Je prends acte, en la regrettant, de l'ordonnance du juge des référés au tribunal administratif de Paris, qui a autorisé le 22 décembre l'association d'extrême droite « Solidarité des Français » à reprendre sa distribution de « soupe au cochon ».

Cette décision est d'autant plus étonnante qu'elle reconnaît que cette action - je cite - « poursuit un but clairement discriminatoire ».

Je souhaite donc vivement que le Préfet de Police fasse appel de cette ordonnance, espérant que le Conseil d'Etat aura, comme d'autres tribunaux administratifs dans un passé récent, une interprétation différente des principes républicains.

Je rappelle que dès juin 2004, le Conseil de Paris avait voté un vœu demandant l'interdiction de cette distribution qui exclut sciemment les personnes de confession juive et musulmane.

Face à cette initiative aux relents xénophobes, je veux exprimer à nouveau la volonté de la municipalité de dénoncer et de combattre toute forme de discrimination, de racisme et d'antisémitisme.

En cette période hivernale où les besoins de solidarité sont toujours plus criants, je veux également rendre hommage aux milliers de Parisiens qui, sans « faire le tri » entre nos concitoyens dans le besoin, consacrent leur temps et leur énergie à les aider.

Ce faisant, ce sont aussi les valeurs et l'identité de notre ville qu'ils honorent.

Avant même que le Conseil d'Etat se soit prononcé, je demande bien entendu à Monsieur le Préfet de Police de tout mettre en œuvre afin que ces agissements indignes ne puissent provoquer de troubles à l'ordre public.
You hardly need much French to see what he's saying.

The parallel here is the Texas pig races -
A Texas man protested the proposed building of a mosque next to his property by holding pig races and selling sausages. About 100 people showed up to catch the races.

Muslims are forbidden to eat pork. Craig Baker, 46, said he was defending his rights and his property.

Baker has been at odds with the Katy Islamic Association who plans to build a mosque, community center and school near his property.
Is this absurd? You can see what the people in Nantes were up to. This madness has to stop.

How mad has it been here in the United States? Dave Barry has an answer in his annual Year in Review. He knows absurd when he sees it - "It was a momentous year, a year of events that will echo in the annals of history the way a dropped plate of calamari echoes in an Italian restaurant with a tile floor."

He suggests that 2006 will be a year that we will not want to remember -
This was the year in which the members of the United States Congress, who do not bother to read the actual bills they pass, spent weeks poring over instant messages sent by a pervert. This was the year in which the vice president of the United States shot a lawyer, which turned out to be totally legal in Texas. This was the year in which there came to be essentially no difference between the treatment of maximum-security-prison inmates and the treatment of commercial-airline passengers.

This was the year in which - as clearly foretold in the Bible as a sign of the Apocalypse - Howie Mandel got a hit TV show.

Also there were many pesky problems left over from 2005 that refused to go away in 2006, including Iraq, immigration, high gas prices, terrorism, global warming, and avian flu, Iran, North Korea and Paris Hilton. Future generations are going to look back at this era and ask us how we could have allowed Paris Hilton to happen, and we are not going to have a good answer.
Then follows his month by month assessment.

… a month that dawns with petty partisan bickering in Washington, D.C., a place where many people view petty partisan bickering as honest, productive work, like making furniture. The immediate cause of the bickering is the Republican ethics scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, both of whom you can tell, just by looking at them, are guilty of something. The Democrats charge that the Republicans have created a Culture of Corruption and should be thrown out of office so the Democrats can return to power and run the scandal-free style of government for which they are so famous. The Republicans respond that the Democrats are soft on terrorism soft on terrorism soft on terrorism softonterrorism. Both sides issue press releases far into the night.

The other big focus of the bickering is the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. As always, the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings provide high-quality TV entertainment as the nation tunes in to see if Sen. Edward M. Kennedy will be able to successfully remember the nominee's name. The bulk of the hearings are spent in the traditional manner, with Democrats trying to trick the nominee into revealing his views on abortion, and Republicans reminding the nominee that he does not have to reveal his views on abortion. The subsequent exchange of press releases is so intense that several government photocopiers burst into flames.

In the War on Terror, Osama bin Laden, who may or may not be dead, nevertheless releases another audio tape, for the first time making it downloadable from iTunes. Bin Laden also starts a blog, in which he calls upon his followers to destroy the corrupt infidels and also try to find out how a person, hypothetically, can get Chinese food delivered to a cave.

In the Middle East, Palestinian voters elect the militant Hamas party, which assumes control of government functions such as street repair, which Hamas decides to handle by firing rockets at potholes. Canada also holds elections, which are won by some Canadian, we assume.

In economic news, the big story is the retirement of Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, who, after 19 years as the person most responsible for guiding the American economy, steps down, taking with him the thanks of a grateful nation and a suitcase containing $11 billion.
In goes on in this manner. February brought the president's address on energy policy'' - the nation has an ''addiction'' to ''foreign oil'' and we should do something, one day or another. And there was the administration's decision to allow a company owned by the United Arab Emirates to operate six US seaports - absurdly defended, then abandoned. And that was the month Vice President Dick Cheney shot attorney Harry Whittington in the face. Oops. That had its own absurdity, followed immediately by the business with the cartoons published the previous year in a Danish newspaper, depicting the Prophet Mohammed. How do you explain all that? You didn't - you watched the Steelers win the Super Bowl or the Winter Olympics. They made more sense, or didn't.

March - gas hits two-fifty a gallon, and the Israeli government changes. Sharon is out with a massive stroke and Israeli voters give a parliamentary majority to acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but it's a quiet month. But then there's April -
Tom DeLay decides not to seek re-election to Congress, making the announcement via audio tape from a cave somewhere in Pakistan. Republican leaders express relief over DeLay's decision and issue a statement pledging that there will be "no more Republican scandals, unless somebody finds out about Mark Foley.''

Meanwhile in the Middle East, tension mounts still higher when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announces that Iran has successfully produced enriched uranium, although he claims that his nation plans to use it only for peaceful purposes ''such as cooking.'' In Iraq, there is good news and bad news for the Bush administration: The good news is that rival Iraqi leaders have finally agreed on a new prime minister. The bad news is that it is Nancy Pelosi.

Domestically, the national debate over illegal immigration heats up as thousands of demonstrators take to the streets of major U.S. cities, thus causing a total shutdown of Paris. Meanwhile the Mexican government, in what is widely viewed as a deliberate provocation, convenes in Milwaukee. But the big story is the price of gasoline, which continues its relentless climb toward an unprecedented $3 a gallon. Responding quickly, Congress, in a rare display of decisive bipartisan action, takes a recess, with both sides promising to resume bickering the instant they get back.
Yeah, a little glib, but so what? That's approximately what happened.

May? The Bush administration comes under heavy criticism following press reports that the National Security Agency has been collecting telephone records of millions of Americans. Responding to the outcry, President Bush assures the nation that ''the government is not collecting personal information on any individual citizen.'' And the president announces that he will use National Guard troops to stop illegal immigration. And there was Enron - "In Houston, former Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling are convicted of fraud by a federal jury, which apparently is not persuaded by the defense's claim that Skilling and Lay could not have been responsible for the collapse of the $100 billion corporation because they were, quote, 'both getting haircuts.''" That wasn't what they said, but it was close - after the verdict, Lay actually said, "We believe that God in fact is in control.'' Some worry about that - it could be true. And less than two months later, Lay dies of heart failure. Spooky.

June? That's easy -
In politics, the debate over Iraq continues to heat up, with President Bush insisting that ''we must stay the course, whatever it may or may not be,'' while the Democrats claim that they would bring the troops home ''immediately,'' or ''in about six months,'' or ''maybe not for a long time,'' depending on which particular Democrat is speaking and what time of day it is. On a more positive note, US troops kill Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who is identified by intelligence experts as ''a person with a really terrorist-sounding name.'' In another hopeful development in Iraq, the Sunnis and the Shiites agree to try to come up with a simple way for Americans to remember which one is which.

On the legal front, the Supreme Court rules that the Bush administration cannot try suspected terrorists in ad hoc military tribunals, after the court learns that the administration is interpreting ''ad hoc'' to mean "under water.''

Dan Rather, who stopped anchoring the evening news in 2005, announces his retirement from CBS after a career spanning 44 years and several galaxies. Explaining his decision, Rather cites a desire to ''explore other options'' and "not keep getting maced by the CBS security guard.''

On a happier note, the United States marks the 50th anniversary of the Interstate Highway System - an engineering marvel consisting of 47,000 miles of high-speed roads connecting 157,000 Waffle Houses. A formal ceremony is planned, but has to be canceled when Dad refuses to stop.
July, along with the Floyd Landis and the Tour de France win that wasn't, and the famous head-butt at the World Cup final, the Israel-Hezbollah war starts and North Korea tests a bunch of ballistic missiles on the four of July - "including two believed to be potentially capable of reaching US soil. World tension goes back down when the missiles, upon reaching an altitude of 200 feet, explode and spell HAPPY BIRTHDAY." No, they didn't

August brings the big terror scare, and more -
… commercial air travel turns into a total nightmare. No, wait, it was already a total nightmare. But it turns into an even worse total nightmare after Britain uncovers a terrorist plot targeting international flights, which results in a whole new set of security rules, including a total ban on all gels and liquids, including spit, urine, heavy perspirers and lactating women. After days of chaos at the airports, the TSA issues a new directive stating that ''passengers may carry small quantities of liquids on board, but only if they are inside clear, one-quart, sealable plastic bags.'' This leads to still more chaos, as many TSA employees interpret this to mean that the passengers must be inside the bags. Eventually the TSA issues a clarification stating that "if necessary, the bags can have air holes.''

… In crime news, a man in Thailand claims that he had something to do with the 1996 murder of JonBenet Ramsey. It quickly becomes clear that the man is an unstable creep whose story is totally unbelievable, so the cable-TV shows drop it.

Ha ha! Just kidding! The cable-TV shows go into days of round-the-clock All-JonBenet-All-The-Time Wallow Mode. Battalions of legal experts are brought in, some of them so excited at the opportunity to revisit the JonBenet tragedy that additional janitors have to be brought into the studios to mop up puddles of expert weewee.
At this point you see what he's up to. Click on the link for comments on September - Steve ''Crocodile Hunter'' Irwin and Congressman Mark Foley of Florida and Pope Benedict XVI giving a speech suggesting that the Muslim religion has historically been linked to violence, and then apologizing. It's like shooting fish in a barrel - an absurd image in itself. October - North Korea conducts an underground nuclear test, Congress authorizes the construction of a seven hundred mile fence on the Mexican border, sort of, Cheney on the radio defends the interrogation technique known as ''water-boarding'' and John Kerry screws up a joke and the political world explodes.

November brings the elections -
As the campaign lumbers to the finish line, the Republicans desperately hope that the voters will not notice that they - once the party of small government - have turned into the party of war-bungling, corruption-tolerating, pork-spewing power-lusting toads, while the Democrats desperately hope that the voters will not notice that they are still, basically, the Democrats. The actual voters, of course, are paying no attention, having given up on politics months ago because every time they turn on the TV all they see are political ads accusing pretty much every candidate on either side of being, at minimum, a child molester.

Thus nobody really knows what will happen as the voters go to the polls. In Florida, nobody knows anything even after the voting is over, because - prepare to be shocked - many electronic balloting machines malfunction. Voters in one district report that their machines, instead of displaying the candidates for Congress, showed Star Wars Episode IV. (By an overwhelming margin, this district elects Jabba the Hutt.)

Nationwide, however, it eventually becomes clear that the Democrats have gained control of both houses of Congress. President Bush handles the defeat with surprisingly good humor, possibly because his staff has not told him about it. For their part, future House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and future Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid issue a joint statement promising to ''make every effort to find common ground with the president,'' adding, ''we are clearly lying.'' Pelosi sets about the difficult task of trying to fill leadership posts with Democrats who have not been videotaped discussing bribes with federal undercover agents.

The first major casualty of the GOP defeat is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who, the day after the election, is invited to go quail-hunting with the vice president. He is never seen again.
It's almost too easy. As is December's Iraq Study Group report -
In accordance with longstanding Washington tradition, the panel first formally leaks its report to The New York Times, then delivers it to the president, who turns it over to White House personnel specially trained in reading things.

In essence, the study group recommends a three-pronged approach, consisting of: (1) a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops, but not on a fixed timetable; (2) intensified training of Iraqi troops; and (3) the physical relocation of Iraq, including buildings, to Greenland. Republican and Democratic leaders, after considering the report for the better part of a nanosecond, commence what is expected to be a minimum of two more years of bickering.

… But despite the well-founded fear of terrorism, the seemingly unbreakable and escalating cycle of violence in the Middle East, the uncertain world economic future, the menace of global warming, the near-certainty that rogue states run by lunatics will soon have nuclear weapons, and the fact that America is confronting these dangers with a federal government sharply divided into two hostile parties unable to agree on anything except that the other side is scum, Americans face the new year with a remarkable lack of worry, and for a very good reason: They are busy drinking beer and watching football.
Heck, at least the folks in Nantes were doing something.

So we do need to stop the future, if it's anything like the past.

As for the new year we have, it's not starting well. Tuesday, January 2, 2007 - the New York Times details how 'Chaos Overran Iraq Plan in '06,' (here and here), while President Bush is said to be getting ready to escalate, and to expand the mission, in 2007 (see this, this and this). All they need to do is figure out what the mission of the new troops will be. They're working on that.

The hanging of Saddam Hussein is still an issue. After reporting that US officials were "privately incensed at the dead-of-night rush to the gallows," John Burns said that he "could hardly imagine an event more emblematic, of what America has accomplished or failed to accomplish here than the final chapter of Saddam Hussein." With Iraq's prime minister now reportedly ordering a probe into how the execution of a 'model prisoner' (see this) became "a televised spectacle," some people recalled that 'Saddam Was Right and Bush Was Wrong' about WMD (see here). Yeah, but who's dead?

The final word may be Christopher Hitchens on what he calls The Shameful Hanging -
The disgusting video of Saddam Hussein's last moments on the planet is more than a reminder of the inescapable barbarity of capital punishment and of the intelligible and conventional reasons why it should always be opposed. The zoolike scenes in that dank, filthy shed (it seems that those attending were not even asked to turn off their cell phones or forbidden to use them to record souvenir film) were more like a lynching than an execution. At one point, one of the attending magistrates can be heard appealing for decency and calm, but otherwise the fact must be faced: In spite of his mad invective against "the Persians" and other traitors, the only character with a rag of dignity in the whole scene is the father of all hangmen, Saddam Hussein himself.

How could it have come to this? Did U.S. officials know that the designated "executioners" would be the unwashed goons of Muqtada Sadr's "Mahdi Army" - the same sort of thugs who killed Abdul Majid al-Khoei in Najaf just after the liberation and who indulge in extra-judicial murder of Iraqis every night and day? Did our envoys and representatives ask for any sort of assurances before turning over a prisoner who was being held under the Geneva Conventions? According to the New York Times, there do seem to have been a few insipid misgivings about the timing and the haste, but these appear to have been dissolved soon enough and replaced by a fatalistic passivity that amounts, in theory and practice, to acquiescence in a crude Shiite coup d'état. Thus, far from bringing anything like "closure," the hanging ensures that the poison of Saddamism will stay in the Iraqi bloodstream, mingling with other related infections such as confessional fanaticism and the sort of video sadism that has until now been the prerogative of al-Qaida's dehumanized ghouls. We have helped to officiate at a human sacrifice. For shame.

… Reporting from defeated Germany in 1945, and noticing some brutal treatment of captured SS men, George Orwell wrote a brilliant essay called "Revenge Is Sour." I hadn't thought of it for a while but pulled it down from the shelf when I returned from Iraq. Here is the key passage:

"Properly speaking, there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also.

"Who would not have jumped for joy, in 1940, at the thought of seeing S.S. officers kicked and humiliated? But when the thing becomes possible, it is merely pathetic and disgusting. It is said that when Mussolini's corpse was exhibited in public, an old woman drew a revolver and fired five shots into it, exclaiming, 'Those are for my five sons!' It is the kind of story that the newspapers make up, but it might be true. I wonder how much satisfaction she got out of those five shots, which, doubtless, she had dreamed years earlier of firing. The condition of her being able to get near enough to Mussolini to shoot at him was that he should be a corpse."

The shabby, tawdry scene of Muqtada Sadr's riffraff taunting their defenseless former tyrant evokes exactly this quality of hysterical falsity and bravado. While Saddam Hussein was alive, they cringed. Now, they find their lost courage, and meanwhile take the drill and the razor blade and the blowtorch to their fellow Iraqis. To watch this abysmal spectacle as a neutral would be bad enough. To know that the US government had even a silent, shamefaced part in it is to feel something well beyond embarrassment.
Well, we gave Gerald Ford a great funeral.

On the other hand there's this -
In what has become an annual tradition of prognostications, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson said Tuesday God has told him that a terrorist attack on the United States would result in "mass killing" late in 2007.

"I'm not necessarily saying it's going to be nuclear," he said during his news-and-talk television show "The 700 Club" on the Christian Broadcasting Network. "The Lord didn't say nuclear. But I do believe it will be something like that."

Robertson said God told him during a recent prayer retreat that major cities and possibly millions of people will be affected by the attack, which should take place sometime after September.

Robertson said God also told him that the U.S. only feigns friendship with Israel and that U.S. policies are pushing Israel toward "national suicide."
Where to start? Ah, it's off to Nantes. Maybe we can stop this New Year yet.

Posted by Alan at 21:42 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 3 January 2007 07:11 PST home

Sunday, 31 December 2006
Happy New Year and All That
Topic: Announcements

Happy New Year and All That

Light posting, if at all - New Years Eve - got to get out of Hollywood. On the other hand, the new issue of Just Above Sunset is now online, with new material, and ten pages of photographs, from the Catskills to Santa Monica. Take a look.

New Years Eve won't be like this -

Manikin, Neiman-Marcus window, Beverly Hills, Christmas week, 2006

Posted by Alan at 10:57 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Saturday, 30 December 2006
For the New Year
Topic: Perspective

For the New Year

"An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves." - Bill Vaughan

"New Year's Day is every man's birthday. - Charles Lamb"

"New Year's is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls and humbug resolutions." - Mark Twain

"New Year's Day: Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual." - Mark Twain

"The new year begins in a snow-storm of white vows." - George William Curtis

"Now there are more overweight people in America than average-weight people. So overweight people are now average… which means, you have met your New Year's resolution." - Jay Leno

"Happiness is too many things these days for anyone to wish it on anyone lightly. So let's just wish each other a bileless New Year and leave it at that" - Judith Crist

"New Year's Resolution: To tolerate fools more gladly, provided this does not encourage them to take up more of my time." - James Agate

"It wouldn't be New Year's if I didn't have regrets." - William Thomas

"The only way to spend New Year's Eve is either quietly with friends or in a brothel. Otherwise when the evening ends and people pair off, someone is bound to be left in tears." - W.H. Auden

The proper behavior all through the holiday season is to be drunk. This drunkenness culminates on New Year's Eve, when you get so drunk you kiss the person you're married to. - P.J. O'Rourke

"We did not change as we grew older; we just became more clearly ourselves." - Lynn Hall, Where Have All the Tigers Gone?, 1989

EXPERIENCE, n. The wisdom that enables us to recognize as an undesirable old acquaintance the folly that we have already embraced. - Ambrose Bierce

"Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so." - Douglas Adams

"Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes." - Oscar Wilde

"Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want." - Dan Stanford

"Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn." - C. S. Lewis

"The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance." - Alan Watts

"Arrange whatever pieces come your way." - Virginia Woolf

"All human wisdom is summed up in two words - wait and hope." - Alexandre Dumas

"Be infinitely flexible and constantly amazed." - Jason Kravitz

Posted by Alan at 17:45 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Friday, 29 December 2006
Notes on the Farce - The Man Who Hardly Matters Now is Gone
Topic: Breaking News

Notes on the Farce - The Man Who Hardly Matters Now is Gone

Friday, December 29, at seven in the evening here in Los Angeles, but six the morning Saturday the 30th in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein was executed, for one of his lesser crimes - the killing of one hundred twenty-eight men and boys he said had plotted to overthrow his government. All the trails on even more gruesome matters are now beside the point - the one hundred thousand Kurds gassed with what might have been our tacit approval, as at the time Saddam Hussein was also fighting the theocratic madmen in Iran who had held our citizens hostage at the embassy in Tehran and we thought needed taken out. What was Rumsfeld doing over there at the time, shaking his hand and smiling? We'll never know, and perhaps that's best. We dodged a bullet there.

The execution may make the next several months in Iraq dicey - but perhaps not much different. Saddam Hussein had been in our custody for the last several years, and no one was any longer fighting for him or his party. As he was a Sunni, the majority Shi'a had always considered him an apostate, as did the extreme Shiite al Qaeda. But that wasn't because he was a devout Sunni - it was because he wasn't much more than a brutal thug from Tikrit who ran a secular government, ruling by intimidation and torture and murder and all the rest, and making his family and friends rich in the process. He got religion in the last few years - it was useful to claim he was a martyr of Islam. He had never claimed that before, but times change. It was just another lever of power - something you grab when you're falling. The Sunnis now, it seems, consider him irrelevant, and do remember his apostasy - letting women go to school and have "western" rights, and his not shutting down all cultural stuff from the west, the music and the movies and all.

No one is fighting for him now, or against him. They've moved on to other matters. The Shi'a are clearing the south of Baghdad of all Sunnis to have an open line to the heavily Shi'a south. The neighborhoods everywhere are being cleansed. The Sunnis, now out of power, are doing everything they can not to be overwhelmed and rendered totally powerless - and the "everything they can" is pretty nasty, with a lot of car bombs. And they've got the west, Anbar Province, where any number of our troops are killed each week, trying to keep things there under control. The Kurds in the north - Sunni but not Arab - are watching it all warily, dreaming of a separate nation, or at least a separate peace. And anyone with a degree or set of useful skills is leaving - they are now in Amman or Cairo, or soon will be.

So the execution will please the Shi'a, in an offhand kind of way. The dead man is so last decade after all. Those who lost all to his vicious rule are no doubt glad to see him gone, of course. The Sunnis are rid of an embarrassment. The whole world is rid this really nasty piece of work. Fine, but the whole business looks like a show of some sort - a bit of proving something or other, and not the least what our administration would like to prove to us here, and to the rest of the world, that we finally got something right. It's too late for that, but could be worth a try. The approval ratings here, and certainly around the globe, could use a bump.

But this isn't it -
Rosemary Hollis, director of research at Chatham House, London -

It's tawdry. It's not going to achieve anything because of the way the trial was conducted and the way the occupation was conducted. Life in Iraq has become so precarious that many people are saying it was safer under Saddam Hussein - it makes the whole thing look like a poke in the eye as opposed to closure or some kind of contribution to the future of Iraq. The purpose should have been to see justice done in a transparent manner ... the trial was gruesome, occasionally farcical, and failed to fulfill its promise of giving satisfaction.

Kamil Mahdi, Iraqi expatriate, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, Exeter University -

Quite honestly, I don't think much of it any more, given what's happening in Iraq. It will be taken as an American decision. The worst thing is that it's an issue which, in an ideal situation, should have unified Iraq but the Americans have succeeded in dividing the Iraqis.

Toby Dodge, expert on Iraq at Queen Mary College, London University -

The new elite were bound to go ahead with the execution because they suffered at his hands. In the long term, though, this means very little in terms of drawing a line under the last four years of occupation or creating a new Iraq. In choosing to kill him, the current government of Iraq have simply reproduced Iraqi history instead of stepping away from the past ... it completes the Islamicisation of the insurgency.

Chris Doyle, director, Council for Arab-British Understanding -

For Bush, Blair and their diminishing brotherhood of diehard supporters, Saddam's demise is their sole concrete victory in Iraq in almost four years. This should have been the crowning glory of their efforts, but instead it may pose yet another risk to their demoralized troops. For Iraqis, some will see it as a symbol of the death of the ancien regime. For some Sunnis, Saddam's death represents the final nail in the coffin of their fall from power. But Iraqis may also see this as the humiliation of Iraq as a whole, that their president, however odious, was toppled by outside powers, and is executed effectively at others' instigation.
Yeah we kind of stage-managed the thing - from advising the new Iraqi government on how to set up a court system to American legal experts training the judges and all. And we nixed the idea of this going to that international tribunal in The Hague. This was a demonstration to show everyone that the locals could handle this just fine - no need for an international war crimes extravaganza in Western Europe. It was a "look at the wonderful new government acting all grown up" showpiece. Everyone was to be quite impressed. No one was.

Josh Marshall nails it -
Convention dictates that we precede any discussion of this execution with the obligatory nod to Saddam's treachery, bloodthirsty rule and tyranny. But enough of the cowardly chatter. This thing is a sham, of a piece with the whole corrupt, disastrous sham that the war and occupation have been. Bush administration officials are the ones who leak the news about the time of the execution. One key reason we know Saddam's about to be executed is that he's about to be transferred from US to Iraqi custody, which tells you a lot. And, of course, the verdict in his trial gets timed to coincide with the US elections.

This whole endeavor, from the very start, has been about taking tawdry, cheap acts and dressing them up in a papier-mache grandeur - phony victory celebrations, ersatz democratization, reconstruction headed up by toadies, con artists and grifters. And this is no different. Hanging Saddam is easy. It's a job, for once, that these folks can actually see through to completion. So this execution, ironically and pathetically, becomes a stand-in for the failures, incompetence and general betrayal of country on every other front that President Bush has brought us.

Try to dress this up as an Iraqi trial and it doesn't come close to cutting it - the Iraqis only take possession of him for the final act, sort of like the Church always left execution itself to the "secular arm." Try pretending it's a war crimes trial but it's just more of the pretend mumbo-jumbo that makes this out to be World War IX or whatever number it is they're up to now.

The Iraq War has been many things, but for its prime promoters and cheerleaders and now-dwindling body of defenders, the war and all its ideological and literary trappings have always been an exercise in moral-historical dress-up for a crew of folks whose times aren't grand enough to live up to their own self-regard and whose imaginations are great enough to make up the difference. This is just more play-acting.

These jokers are being dragged kicking and screaming to the realization that the whole thing's a mess and that they're going to be remembered for it - defined by it - for decades and centuries. But before we go, we can hang Saddam. Quite a bit of this was about the president's issues with his dad and the hang-ups he had about finishing Saddam off - so before we go, we can hang the guy as some big cosmic "So There!"

Marx might say that this was not tragedy but farce. But I think we need to get way beyond options one and two even to get close to this one - claptrap justice meted out to the former dictator in some puffed-up act of self-justification as the country itself collapses in the hands of the occupying army.

Marty Peretz, with some sort of projection, calls any attempt to rain on this parade "prissy and finicky." [See Peretz in the National Review here.] Myself, I just find it embarrassing. This is what we're reduced to, what the president has reduced us to. This is the best we can do. Hang Saddam Hussein because there's nothing else this president can get right.
Well, something is better than nothing.

And we did try to do it right -
The physical transfer of Saddam from U.S. to Iraqi authorities was believed to be one of the last steps before he was to be hanged.

"We have agreed with the Americans that the handover will take place only a few minutes before he is executed," a senior Iraqi government official said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

…"The Americans want him to be hanged respectfully," [Najeeb al-Nueimi, a member of Saddam's legal team] said. If Saddam is humiliated publicly or his corpse ill-treated "that could cause an uprising and the Americans would be blamed," he said.
And to that Ezra Klein adds -
And the last thing we'd want is to be blamed for causing trouble in the Middle East.

The Odd Quote Award goes to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: "Our respect for human rights requires us to execute him, and there will be no review or delay in carrying out the sentence."

Technically, one might argue that a respect for human rights requires only preventing him from perpetrating further human rights abuses, and that executing him is only the most drastic way of doing so. I get what he's saying, obviously, but it's still, well, odd, in a making-fun-of-a-mullet-while-wearing-a-Members-Only-jacket kind of way.

Meanwhile, American television networks are planning "tasteful coverage" of the execution, which has made me realize that the only thing more worrying than everything George Orwell said coming true is when everything George Carlin said starts coming true.
Yep, George Carlin could spin "the Americans want him to be hanged respectfully" into a fine four minutes of whatever it is he does.

But it was a good day for a hanging. We like those - this one made Jesus smile.

And anyway, Fred Hiatt, who writes the editorials for the Washington Post, said the trial that ended in the "hang him high" verdict, while not very impressive, was fair enough -
… his trial was in no sense the model of civilized justice that would have showcased a new, democratic Iraq - in large measure because that new Iraq has yet to materialize. Several defense lawyers were murdered; judges had to be replaced. Political interference was evident. Even this week, the appeals tribunal sent back one life sentence as insufficiently tough, in effect demanding death for one of the co-defendants. Still, there is something unreal about the cries of foul from human rights groups demanding perfect procedural justice from a country struggling with civil war, daily bombings and death-squad killings. The reality is that by the trial's end, there was no significant factual dispute between prosecution and defense: Saddam Hussein acknowledged on national television that he had signed the death warrants after only the most cursory look at the evidence against his victims. That, he testified proudly, "is the right of the head of state." Exactly what would a perfect trial be capable of discovering?
Due process thus is a sham, or a luxury and quite unnecessary. Of course we have due process rules in part because there are things that we might not know without those rules. But this is Saddam Hussein, so they don't matter.

Matthew Yglesias responds -
The Washington Post editorial page is mad at human rights groups for complaining about procedural flaws in Saddam Hussein's trial since, after all, we all know Saddam is guilty. Martin Peretz is upset that death penalty opponents oppose executing Saddam Hussein since, after all, we all know Saddam's a really bad guy.

Do these guys not understand the concept of principles? The point of the belief that all people are entitled to fair trials before receiving criminal sentences is that all people are entitled to fair trials. The point of the belief that capital punishment is immoral (not a belief I share, incidentally) is that it's always immoral. It's not as if Amnesty International is confused and doesn't understand that Saddam isn't a very sympathetic case. Rather, the point is that organizations committed to principles of human rights - fair trials, no executions - need to uphold those principles even when violating them sounds appealing. If they didn't, the groups wouldn't be standing for anything.
Do these guys not understand the concept of principles? That's easy. No.

Even the new German pope gets it - a "top Vatican official condemned the death sentence against Saddam Hussein in a newspaper interview published Thursday, saying capital punishment goes against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church." Cardinal Renato Martino reportedly said in reference to Saddam's pending execution that "no one can give death, not even the State." It's just the principle of the thing.

That's all just western reaction anyway. What about on the ground in Iraq? Try the famous Iraqi blogger Riverbend -
A day in the life of the average Iraqi has been reduced to identifying corpses, avoiding car bombs and attempting to keep track of which family members have been detained, which ones have been exiled and which ones have been abducted.

… Why make things worse by insisting on Saddam's execution now? Who gains if they hang Saddam? Iran, naturally, but who else? There is a real fear that this execution will be the final blow that will shatter Iraq. Some Sunni and Shi'a tribes have threatened to arm their members against the Americans if Saddam is executed. Iraqis in general are watching closely to see what happens next, and quietly preparing for the worst.

This is because now, Saddam no longer represents himself or his regime. Through the constant insistence of American war propaganda, Saddam is now representative of all Sunni Arabs (never mind most of his government were Shi'a). The Americans, through their speeches and news articles and Iraqi Puppets, have made it very clear that they consider him to personify Sunni Arab resistance to the occupation. Basically, with this execution, what the Americans are saying is "Look - Sunni Arabs - this is your man, we all know this. We're hanging him - he symbolizes you." And make no mistake about it, this trial and verdict and execution are 100% American. Some of the actors were Iraqi enough, but the production, direction and montage was pure Hollywood (though low-budget, if you ask me).

That is, of course, why Talbani doesn't want to sign his death penalty - not because the mob man suddenly grew a conscience, but because he doesn't want to be the one who does the hanging - he won't be able to travel far away enough if he does that.
Does that mean trouble is on the way? Heck, it was on the way no matter what. This just makes things a bit worse. Dick Cheney, speaking in 1992, put it well, asking a simple question in defense of not rolling on into Baghdad at the time and toppling Saddam Hussein - "And the question in my mind is how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth?"

Darn! The question has come up again. But it's too late now. Here we go. We can only hope all sides in conflict note the guy is dead and shrug.

Posted by Alan at 21:56 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 30 December 2006 05:21 PST home

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