April 14, 2007

Imus in his mourning

When you're at a wedding reception, or cocktail party, or bar mitzvah, you experienced the phenomenon. You find yourself gradually raising your voice to be heard, until you begin to strain your vocal cords with the effort. If you are, like your humble essayist, someone who relies primarily on irony and subtle nuance for his conversational contributions, you find yourself out of your element, and the latter stages of the soiree are given over to silent gestures: nods of the head, a smile frozen on your face like the rictus of death, shrugs. Trying to be heard over the din is aggravating, even pointless.

Those who study such things, social psychologists, audiologists, whoever, conclude that what's going on is a positive feedback loop of volume escalation. As each person raises his or her voice to be heard, others do likewise, until everyone in the room is shouting like a lunatic on the wrong medication. If we were more interested in intelligible conversation, we would probably occasionally shout out "reset!" and everyone would lower their voices to half-volume, from which position on the dial it would again begin to rise. But then, that would spoil the party; the idea is not to have conversations in the first place.

In the Big Conversational Pit of America, the world of talk radio, simulcast TV-radio (such as Imus's erstwhile show), talking head cable "news" shows, et cetera, the conversation has gotten very loud indeed. The proliferation of venues brought on by FM and satellite radio, cable TV channels, in addition to the preexisting world of AM talk radio, means that anyone interested in talk formats about current events, including the shenanigans of "celebrity" culture, has many choices. Reasonable, measured voices tend not to attract attention or to hold an audience; witness the decline and disappearance of Aaron Brown from CNN. To attract a following, those inclined to be the loudest, "edgiest," and most outrageous gradually increase their volume and their offensiveness until they become prominent and can command a following of American listeners who like this sort of thing, and, by and large, they are most of the listening public. Thus, we have the mutant evolution of the "shock jocks" like Howard Stern, Michael Savage, Bill O'Reilly and, of course, Don Imus, as well as the cadres of cutthroat "commentators" like Ann Coulter. Their shtick is that they will say anything, particularly something very offensive and deeply personal about anyone who gets lined up in their crosshairs. Their audiences expect this; it's why they tune in. The best known radio psychologist was Dr. Laura, who perfected a kind of non-therapeutic attack psychology.

Inevitably, the pressure to maintain this kind of outrageous imbalance leads these weird individuals, who by a process of self-selection were never very stable to begin with (despite the money, who would want to live like that?), over a line of "acceptability." It isn't what Imus said, after all, that did him in. The problem was his choice of target. He was cheered on when he was merely being anti-Semitic or generally unfair; that's why, to repeat, people were interested in listening in the first place. But he picked on a group of dedicated women athletes, African-Americans, who had done nothing to earn his scorn or ridicule. Psychologically, I think what happens at a moment like that is that the American audience feels deeply ashamed that they made such an asshole famous and rich in the first place. They're appalled at their own vulgarity, at their role in elevating such a jerk to a position of power and influence. So, as Freud would instruct us, they "displace" their anger on to the shock jock in an orgy of sanctimonious bullshit. How dare he? Doesn't he know what's fair?

Of course he doesn't. Or does, but that's not the point. Imus was deeply confused by the reaction to words he considered part of his modus operandi. His bread and butter. How could people turn on him like that?

Ultimately, these stories have little to do with the "content" of what these people say, and everything to do with a steady coarsening and debasement of American public discourse. There is a declining market for civil, respectful and thoughtful conversation. The barbarians have crashed the party, and the only ones we can hear are those shouting the loudest.

April 12, 2007

So long, Kurt

I came to Kurt Vonnegut's writing later in life. It's a self-defeating habit at times, my resistance to reading a popular writer because of a contempt for popularity. At other times, it's served me well; for example, I delayed reading John Irving for a long time, and then about 50 pages of "The World According to Garp" convinced me I'd been "right" all along.

But I wish I'd read Kurt Vonnegut when he first made a splash back in the late 60's. "Slaughterhouse Five" was a mesmerizing book. It's amazing what a talented writer who endured World War II can come up with. Think of them, James Jones, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut. All brilliant writers. Their youths had been seared by the most cataclysmic drama of modern times, and it colored everything they wrote.

Kurt had a style that was instantly recognizable and sui generis. A sort of fantasy realism. Stories and characters that were both familiar and essentially alien. They were a vehicle for his desire to express his disappointment with the unsatisfactory character of the human race, its penchant for cruelty and selfishness, its essential short-sightedness. It would have been difficult for him to have a different view. A depressive who, as a young POW, was on corpse patrol after the firebombing of Dresden. That would do it.

Kurt, in his later years, became as bitter as the aging and raging Mark Twain, to whom he often referred. He called the human race a disease of Mother Earth, and archly suggested that global warming was her "fever," by which she meant to burn us out of existence. I think that's the depression talking. Humans are what they are, and if we say we're flawed, a "disease," it's because we're mammals with the capacity to imagine ourselves otherwise. Kurt also knew, like the Dalai Lama, that the only true palliative for all that war, destruction, disappointment, sadness and death was human kindness, which he promoted as his only true religious impulse. Another thing I like about him.

April 11, 2007

Prescient artists, part 2

In his comic anti-war classic, Catch-22, Joseph Heller painted a soul-lacerating picture of a group of American flyboys trapped on a Mediterranean Island in the middle of World War II by the career ambitions of a dimwitted commanding officer. Colonel Cathcart, who kept an actual ledger of "feathers in his cap" and "black eyes" in his office, routinely raised the number of missions required before transfer to non-combat status, so the crews in his squadron watched hopelessly as the horizon of safety retreated forever before them, from 25 to 35 to 45 to 55, etc., ad infinitum. John Yossarian, the anti-hero of the anti-war novel, rationally concluded that Colonel Cathcart was as much an enemy to him as the German batteries trying to blast him out of the sky. Anyone trying to kill him, he said, was his enemy.

Cathcart was from a privileged background and had sawdust for brains. He overrated himself massively, but his stupidity was mitigated by the crafty behind-the-scenes manipulations of Colonel Korn, the bald, efficient, ruthless aide who used Cathcart to promote his own ambitions. Yossarian, up against this pair, resorts to increasingly dangerous and insubordinate strategems to break free of certain death in the sky. One can't be sure at the end whether he succeeds, but no one who reads this book can fail to appreciate the ways that lower echelon soldiers are used by higher-ups for self-aggrandizement, even when it means that men will die for the sake of vanity.

In today's news we see that the "lack of funding" (and a lack of replacement troops) for the Iraq war may "lead" to extension of the tours of duty for all 145,000 troops in theatre. Nothing much has changed since those harrowing days on the Isle of Pianosa in 1943. Soldiers are still being used by higher-ups for political ends, even when it means they will die. By this point, even Cathcart-Bush would have to conclude, after talking it through with Cheney-Korn, that the question of "winning" in Iraq has been answered. By analogy, Yossarian knew the Allies had defeated the Germans even as Cathcart kept asking him to risk his life by flying missions. In Iraq, the American soldiers know that no matter how long they stay, Iraq is not going to stabilize into a secure democracy with its three principal factions living in joyous harmony, able to "defend itself," holding regular "elections," sharing power and revenue and all the rest. They're in Iraq not because success is near but because they're not allowed to come home, and Bush will ratchet up the pressure on them, sacrifice their lives, so he does not have to back down before a hostile Congress. The soldiers in Iraq know they face two enemies, the murky cadres of insurgents who detonate bombs and fire RPG rounds at them while they patrol the streets, and George W. Bush, who will wear them out and get them killed so that his colossal failure can remain a "work in progress" instead of a fait accompli. I doubt that literary analogies will be much comfort to American grunts in Iraq. With or without funding, they will remain in Iraq so that Bush does not have to make yet another, final entry in the black-eye column of the ledger.

April 10, 2007

Prescient artists

Colonel Turgidson (reading):
"...My boys will give you the best kind of start, fourteen hundred megatons worth, and you sure as hell won't stop them now. So let's get going. There's no other choice. God willing, we will prevail in peace and freedom from fear and in true health through the purity and essence of our natural fluids. God bless you all." Then he hung up. We're still trying to figure out the meaning of that last phrase, sir.

There's nothing to figure out, General Turgidson. This man is obviously a psychotic.

Well, I'd like to hold off judgment on a thing like that, sir, until all the facts are in.

The above is one of many brilliant snatches of dialogue from Stanley Kubrick's black humor masterpiece, "Dr. Strangelove." Till the very end, Kubrick indulges our hope the world can be saved from nuclear annihilation. The foolproof safety features of mutually assured destruction, however, are undone by one crazy commanding officer in the state of Washington, who is motivated to start World War III by a single incident of sexual impotence, which he attributes to a Commie plot to poison the water supply with flouride. He games the system, initiating "Plan R," which permits a lower echelon officer to give the go-code on nuclear retaliation. It looks hopeless until Captain Mandrake, the British adjutant to the mad General Jack Ripper, deciphers the recall code and the B-52s are turned back. Except for one, piloted by the dedicated and extremely competent Major Kong, who gets through and delivers his fatal payload. The world ends to the strains of "We'll Meet Again."

"Dr. Strangelove" was set in the most frigid period of the Cold War. The plot devices are simple, in a way; General Ripper's scheme is based upon a thorough understanding of Air Force procedures. He figures out a loophole, Plan R, that will allow him to seize the initiative from the civilians who have neither "the time, nor the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought."

The peculiar dynamics of the USA-USSR standoff do not exist in their original form today. The nuclear threat, however, is more dangerous than ever because the variables have been multiplied, and unlike the clash of secular ideologies involved in the old Cold War, the conflicts today are fueled by the inherent irrationality of religious zealotry. When I heard George Bush liken the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to a new "crusade," I thought we had entered a new phase of world history that would make the mad logic of Dr. Strangelove look simple by comparison. Like General Ripper's explanation for ending the world, George Bush's rationale for invading Iraq, at bottom, is that it was "the right thing to do." When he has been pressed in the few lengthy interviews he has ever given on the subject, that is where he returns. He isn't going to explain it because he doesn't think he needs to. He becomes agitated and impatient with anyone who could think otherwise. He shares General Ripper's complacent self-satisfaction. With just the right arrangement of power, we're always at the mercy of such people.

Thus, we have stirred up regional instability and antagonism in the most unstable and antagonistic region in the world today. Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and is willing to share, and has shared, nuclear technology with countries such as Iran and North Korea. Iran is embarked on a program to enrich uranium to 97% U-235 with "thousands of centrifuges" (or so its demented, Holocaust-denying leader claims). Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Egypt want the bomb. Israel is armed to the teeth with hundreds of atom bombs and probably thermonuclear bombs. Israel has the missiles, land- and submarine-based, to deliver them to Damascus, Cairo, Riyadh and Tehran. Also to Natanz, where Iran is enriching uranium. Iran wants to enrich uranium to a weapons-grade isotope because U-235, unlike plutonium, can be used to build "gun-type" A-bombs, the Little Man model used on Hiroshima. It's the simplest design, far less complicated than the Fat Man implosion device dropped on Nagasaki. Little Boy was so reliable it was never tested before deployment.

By invading Iraq, Bush both empowered and atagonized Iran. He encouraged Iran to become bellicose and to accelerate its "self-defensive" nuclear program, just as Bush did with North Korea. One of the great ironies is that to the extent the invasion of Iraq was designed to protect Israel, to "pacify" the region by democratizing it, the invasion has had more the effect of swatting a hornets' nest with a Louisville Slugger.

I think ultimately Israel will "pacify" the region along lines General Ripper would have approved. But let us not forget that General Ripper's scheme was finally undone because of an X-factor he knew nothing about: the Soviet Doomsday Machine, which kicked into retaliation automatically, and inexorably, upon the American attack. And Bush's strategy was undone by the simpler fact that he had no idea what the hell he was doing.

April 09, 2007

Monday, Monday, can't trust that day

I live in a nice neighborhood, which in the typical American sense means a zone of well-maintained private residences, upscale shops and places to eat, suburban office parks and malls, and abundant greenery. Public schools, for the most part, look like medium-security prisons, inside and out, and all public amenities are indifferently maintained, again in the quintessential American style. I buy coffee out at the local boutique grocery store every morning, and as I drive home I use my outstretched arm holding the cup as a shock absorber to keep from spilling the rich, oily brew (again, it's how we do it in America now). The beverage holders won't work because the streets are seamed, rutted and potholed. If you pay attention as you drive, it can get to you, the rhythmic lurches and bone-jarring bumps of your car's suspension as you crash along the road.

I was watching Jeff Sessions, Republican Senator from Alabama, on C-SPAN the other day extolling the sense of "private enterprise" in the U.S.A. versus the socialist approaches of the Western European nations. He pointed out that we take care of the "truly needy" in America, but do not provide the "coddling" welfare state of the Nordic nations, or even France and Germany. The spirit of individual initiative is alive and well in America, Jeff proudly asserted to an empty Senate chamber, and it's why our economy is the envy of the world. Sessions sees himself as a kind of bipartisan fence-mender, I think, and laments the lack of cooperation in Congress, by which I think he means the unwillingness of liberals to see things in his practical, common sense way.

What Sessions leaves out, I think, is that the United States does operate a welfare state as surely as the Netherlands or Sweden. It just has different beneficiaries. It's true the effective taxation rates are higher in Western Europe, but we have to remember that taxation provides such essentials as comprehensive medical coverage, which in the United States has to be purchased individually, at higher and higher costs. The Europeans ride around on serviceable public transportation, such as commuter and long-haul passenger trains, and on highly useful metro and subway systems, and when they drive, it's on roads that are smooth and well-built. Entering a train station or airport in Europe is not an exercise in soul-killing depression, as it often is in the USA, because value is placed on public spaces, and such places are often bright and cheery.

So the Europeans receive a bang for the tax buck. Americans pay taxes too, but it's for the sake of the military establishment. That's the forest which Jeff Sessions cannot see because of his American boosterism. As Chalmers Johnson describes in his "blowback" trilogy (particularly Nemesis), if you add it all up, the U.S.A. spends three-fourths of a trillion dollars every year on defense, including the military and intelligence, and taking into account the budgets of the Department of Energy and State, for example, for nuclear weapons and diplomatic spying, respectively. This is one-half of the discretionary budget of the federal government. $1.5 trillion is the cash-in, cash-out system of Social Security and Medicare. Social Security runs a slight "surplus" which the federal government "borrows" and spends on "general" expenses, such as defense. The social entitlements, in effect, have their own tax system which the federal government administers and undermines by stealing its necessary reserves.

European nations have tiny budgets for defense compared to the American colossus. That's why they can afford nice trains, smooth roads and well-maintained parks, and can make sure their citizens don't have to die prematurely because they have to choose between going to the doctor or becoming homeless. Servicing the military-industrial complex with American tax dollars has become so ingrained in the minds of solons like Jeff Sessions that they no longer see it for what it obviously is. Spending money on war and materiel is the American emphasis, and has been ever since the early 1940's. As a publicly-supported enterprise, the military is socialist to its core, but it is socialism of the kind the late, not-so-great U.S.S.R. practiced. The Congress is so locked into the inexorable logic of military spending, with its positive feedback loops of defense contractors and bought-and-paid-for legislators, that no internal force can now dislodge its stranglehold on American priorities. As Johnson describes, external forces will, in time, break the system apart, but it will be a disintegration no smoother than that ride home from the boutique coffee bar.