August 02, 2006

The Internalized Democracy

In the summer of 1973 I was living in Palo Alto, near the Stanford campus, and working farther north on the Peninsula. It was a place-holding kind of job, clerical, a way to pay the rent and finance my tennis habit, something to do after returning from a lengthy stay in Europe. I had a fairly new RCA color television, the first I'd ever owned, probably 17" on the diagonal, but the size hardly mattered, since it sat on a coffee table a few feet in front of the sofa, and during the summer I only used one channel. There weren't many channels to choose from anyway, in those days, but I only needed Channel 9, public broadcasting's local outlet, because they were providing, in those days before C-SPAN, wall-to-wall (or gavel-to-gavel) coverage of the Watergate hearings.

To say I was engrossed in those hearings would greatly understate matters. Obsessed would be more like it. I couldn't imagine greater drama, to watch as the mighty forces of constitutional democracy clashed and struggled. At issue, I came to realize, was the attempt of one individual and his henchmen in the Oval Office to knock out of kilter the delicate, ingenious, unique balance of powers devised two centuries before by some of the Enlightenment's greatest political thinkers. And Americans all. I listened to the live feed on the radio on the way to work, sitting in the car as I wolfed down a sandwich, then hurried home through the coastal mountains of the western Peninsula to see the taped version of John Dean, H.R. Haldeman, John Erlichmann, the spooks, the rats, the true-believers play out on that small color screen. Every night I drank a couple of beers and ate a TV dinner, all through June and July, resenting the weekend recesses, thrilling at the occasional bombshell breaktrhroughs (all the Oval Office conversations were on tape!). On the concrete balcony outside the sliding glass door, a couple of lovestruck pigeons started a family in the unused hibachi, covering the floor with droppings, until the chicks hatched. I watched their clumsy progress out of the corner of one eye as Sam Dash drilled away at Erlichmann's obfuscations and contemptuous scorn for the truth, as Senator Sam, his volcanic wrath and self-righteousness swelling magnificently up within him, told the weaselly cabal just what he thought about "inoperative truths" and "modified limited hang-outs."

The Senate Select Committee, functioning on a fully bipartisan basis (Ervin, Howard Baker, Lowell Weiker), worked their way through to a just result. In truth, I had little doubt the right thing would happen. The Supreme Court, on an 8-0 vote, had squashed Nixon's last hope of escaping the noose. The Senators bore in relentlessly, uncovering layer upon layer of corruption and misprision, and all of them, Republicans and Democrats alike, put partisan politics to one side, judged harshly Tricky Dick's efforts to subvert the Constitutional processes, to play off the CIA against the FBI, to lie, to bribe, to cheat, to break the law. And when the hearings were just about over, the pigeon chicks were nudged off the high balcony and flew away to their own independent freedom.

I think I decided to become a lawyer after watching the Watergate hearings. It seemed like a magnificent calling, to be an officer of the court, to be one of those guardians of due process and a fair trial, to assure a level playing field for litigants, to learn all those complicated rules of evidence, to expose the cheats and frauds, to make sure the system worked.

What I didn't realize at the time, perhaps, was how much those lofty ideals depended on a particular mindset, on an inculcated sense of morality, on what you might call the Internalized Democracy. The tools of democracy, the Constitution, the three branches of government, the electorate, the free press -- all those still exist 33 years later. But the people who gave those things a living, breathing spirit are gone. Now the Senate and House, and of course the White House, and increasingly the Supreme Court, are infested with power-mongering careerists who simply do not care about the ideals the Senate Select Committee fought for. They care only about their petty, lifetime sinecures, with its chance to sell the influence of their office to lobbyists, and have become experts primarily at the manipulation of public opinion in the most cynical, venal and ultimately destructive ways imaginable. The Republicans refuse to rein in President Bush, despite the clear, illegal and corrupt practices of his Administration, because maintaining the power of their party is more important to them than the viability of the American democracy. The Democrats triangulate and focus-group their way to positions they think will sell, so that they can once again enjoy that majority status which is worth so much on the open market.

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar,

said T.S. Eliot, speaking of another morally depleted time. So we've come full circle.

I don't know what became of that television. It was actually made in America, by the way. I guess it went the way of my tennis game. And the American Democracy. The Senate now works with the President to hide facts from the American public. They have become co-conspirators with a cabal Senator Sam would have called "a bunch o' burglars." Do not think, for a moment, that the Internalized Democracy, once lost, once squandered, is easily reinstated. Those brave souls who preserved the Union 33 years ago were the products of another moral era, one which has sunk beneath deep sedimentary layers of dishonesty and ethical rot.

July 31, 2006

Mel Gibson Decoded

The first big mistake Mel made was diverging from the clear and triumphant trail blazed by Hugh Grant years ago when he was found parked in West L.A. with a prostitute parked face-down in his lap. In essence, Hugh said, "I fucked up big time." The blow job blew over and Hugh went on to do some of his best work. In my book, Hugh set the standard against which all mea culpas must be measured. When you're caught carrying on in public like men frequently carry on in private, don't try to reinvent yourself as a misunderstood choir boy who simply lapsed, this one time, from otherwise exemplary behavior. It's, I don't know--wussy. No one buys it, and most especially the intended audience, the ticket-buying public. Elizabeth Hurley, of course, wasn't going to buy any of it anyway.

Of course - Hugh wasn't drunk, didn't resist arrest, didn't ask the arresting officer about his foreskin, and didn't blame Jews for all the wars in the world. Thus, Mel from the beginning, had a much tougher job of rehabilitation on his hands. Impossible task, in fact. He's through, and he probably knows it, despite his abject, obsequious, groveling, sickening press release, which would have made Uriah Heep blush, if he could have worked his way to the end. It included goodies such as:

''I acted like a person completely out of control when I was arrested and said things that I do not believe to be true and which are despicable,'' the actor-director said without elaborating.

Well, right away we see the problem of spending your life in make-believe. You didn't "act" out of control, Mel; you WERE out of control. Not, however (and this is quite odd), because of alcohol. Your BAC (blood alcohol concentration) was .12%, somewhat over the California standard of .08, not much over the old standard of .10, but if you really have the "disease" of alcoholism, which you cop to elsewhere in your nauseating apologia, this is really small beer.

I will confess that on festive occasions, I have, in the distant past, entered the .12 range myself. I know you shouldn't be driving, especially at 2:30 am on the Pacific Coast Highway on a weekend night when you're under that much sail. It's irresponsible, as Mel laudably admits. But it's not fall down drunk. If it were, half the tail-gaters at a Raiders game would never make it to their stadium seats by kickoff. A 170 pound man (I figure this is approximately Mel's tonnage, because I was surprised to read he's about 5'7" - that sly camera work!) needs about 5 beers in a one hour period to hit the .12% mark, but the concentration falls away at the rate of .015% per hour since the time of the first drink. It looks suspiciously like calculus to figure out how drunk you are at any snapshot in time, something you don't want to try with a full heater on.

But driving a car and knowing not to reveal your anti-Semitism are two very different things. The first involves motor skills, judgment and reflexes; the second requires having your head screwed on straight. Here is where I take issue with what Mel says in his PR note: with a buzz on, you don't "say things you don't believe to be true;" you say things you wish you hadn't said. At a cocktail party that goes on for two or three hours, with strong martinis going down the hatches, with maybe half the revelers nudging up against that .12% Rubicon, you don't ordinarily expect the guests to start screaming out anti-Jewish invective, revealing fears their children's blood may have found its way into the matzoh down at the synagogue. Not unless, of course, you happen to be throwing your cocktail party in Nuremburg in 1938.

Mel drank enough to reveal that he's a rabid anti-Semite. I suspected as much. His artful dodging on the question of the Holocaust, where he couldn't quite bring himself to dissociate himself from his father's denial, was a clue. The grotesque portrayal of Jews in "The Passion of the Christ" was another; and the slight loss of inhibition on the side of the PCH a few nights ago sealed the case. We now know what informed his "artistic" decisions in his Christian snuff film. Mel has been decoded, and we can thank his bad habits for that. He's diseased, all right, and it's safer to stay away from diseased people.

July 30, 2006

An Innumerate Look at Iraq

John Paulos, a math professor at Temple University, wrote a series of books years ago about American "innumeracy," the quantitative corollary to illiteracy, by which he referred to basic misunderstandings about statistics and probabilities. Innumeracy was the first of the oeuvre, and laid out such commonplace mistakes as fearing a trip to Europe because of the chance of a terrorist attack (about 1 in 238,000) while remaining sanguine about driving to the airport for a trip somewhere "safer," oblivious to the 1 in 5,000 chance of a fatal car wreck on the way to the plane. We misunderstand statistics and probabilities for a variety of reasons, such as a "focus"or "selection" error where dramatized events acquire an importance out of scale with their actual frequency, or where we fail to appreciate proportionality in assessing a risk.

I was thinking about this phenomenon recently while reading about the 100 or so deaths per day in Iraq because of car bombings, kidnappings, drive-by shootings and other mayhem inflicted on the citizenry, and I realized that a kind of reverse innumeracy was at work in my own thinking. The reports on daily carnage, total killed in Iraq, etc., never (in my reading) attempt to place these numbers in a population context, so we might acquire a sense of scale in assessing the impact on daily life in Iraq. The absolute numbers, in other words, don't tell the whole story.

Iraq has about 25 million people. The official census of the United States places the population here at about 300 million, or 12 times larger. Thus, here is what the Iraqi numbers would look like if scaled up to American proportions:

1. If 100 people per day are getting blown up, tortured to death or shot in Iraq, this would translate to 1,200 American citizens getting blown up, tortured to death or shot (over and above baseline violent crime rates) each and every day. For comparison, the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, which was at the time the deadliest single act of terrorism in American history, killed 138 people, slightly more than the actual number of Iraqis killed every day as the result of insurgent violence and the ongoing civil war. Thus, at Iraqi levels, the USA would now sustain 8.7 Oklahoma City bombings each and every day under such conditions. 9-11 caused about 2,700 deaths; thus, at Iraqi levels, every two days or so the U.S. would witness slaughter equal to the worst attack in American history.

2. The total number of Iraqis violently killed, over and above the preexisting death rate, since the American invasion of March, 2003, is the subject of debate. President Bush has conceded 30,000; the Baghdad morgue report in late June estimated 50,000; the famous Johns Hopkins report estimated about 100,000 (at the time, almost 2 years ago). Some estimates have been higher than these.

Scaled up to American proportions, these death tallies are 360,000; 600,000; and 1.2 million. The lowest estimate (based on Bush's concession) means that proportionally more Iraqis have died since the U.S. invasion than all battle deaths of U.S. service personnel during World War II (about 291,000). The middle estimate produces a death toll exceeding the total number of battle and nontheater deaths of both armies during the American Civil War (about 500,000); and the highest number (Johns Hopkins study) exceeds the total number of battle deaths (651,000) plus nontheater deaths (525,000) of all wars fought during America's entire history, beginning with the American Revolution.

3. Using a similar analysis, how is the American occupation perceived by the Iraqi people? The Pentagon has deployed approximately 130,000 service personnel in Iraq, equal to about 1/2 of 1% of the total population there. A proportionate occupying force in the U.S.A. would equal 1,560,000 troops spread out over the American landscape, driving our roads in fearsome Humvees bristling with machine guns, building permanent bases, importing contractors and dictating the operation of our governance. We would notice, in other words.

And given how many of us were dying every single day, we would probably begin to resent the occupation, too.