Repent Sinners; Sean Penn Is A Saint

Sean Penn is a saint.

Did that get your attention? Good.

Since we know that there are no such things as saints, and we also know that the people we call saints are canonized by old men who wear fancy costumes, it is, therefore, reasonable to suggest that those who call themselves authorities in these matters warrant considerable skepticism from believers and non-believers alike.

So where does that leave us?

Nowhere, really, but it affords me the opportunity to celebrate the celebrity most people love to hate: Sean Penn.

Smug, talented, truculent, egomaniacal, indifferent, et cetera.

Leave aside the facts that he has turned in some of the more remarkable film performances and has shown himself to be an incredibly capable director, and definitely leave aside the silly and ceaseless contretemps with the press corps. Leave aside everything except for the thing that makes the most people uncomfortable: his activism. He is on the short list, along with Oliver Stone and Susan Sarandon, of people whose mere names can make certain types of people throw up in their mouths. It’s understandable, somewhat: if there is one thing we hate as Americans, it’s having people tell us how selfish and stupid, how…American we often can be. Add to that a rich person doing the hectoring and it is like an allergic reaction.

(The fact that we traditionally, even instinctively bestow credibility to politicians and priests, especially when we are reminded, over and over, how little difference they make –unless it involves their wallets and their peckers– is adequate commentary on our cultural cluelessness.)

Here’s the thing: I leave my cynicism on the side of the road and fully embrace anyone, no matter what their politics or profession, if they spend even a tiny bit of time doing actual good for the world. (Even the lip-service liberals who give their names to causes but don’t get any dirt –real or metaphorical– under their carefully-manicured nails.) But there are the handful of iconoclasts who put their millions where their mouths are.

Let’s name names and be impertinent about it: Penn, along with Brad Pitt and George Clooney –names that make Republicans shudder– have collectively done more good for the world in the last decade than any trinity (be they pols, preachers or holy ghosts) combined.

(Sidenote: speaking of preachers, The New York Times, still reeling from the departure of the irreplaceable Frank Rich, just received its last column from the incorruptible Bob Herbert. Herbert wrote repeatedly about topics that affect the largest numbers of people and receive the smallest amount of attention: those slipping steadily outside of middle class status and those falling farther into the despairing sinkhole of poverty, all while the well-fed politicians fiddle, dither and give less than a fuck. His track record on these matters is identical to Paul Krugman’s on the financial debacle of the last few years: both of them sounded off early, often and with increasing urgency; both were ignored or ridiculed, and both were approximately 100% correct about everything they predicted and reported.

My quick take:

Bob Herbert was exactly like a fundy preacher in this regard: he pounded the same things, week after week, with a fervor that could seem like it was set on auto-pilot.

Bob Herbert was exactly unlike a fundy preacher in this regard: what he was talking about was not self-evident (if sanctioned) hocus-pocus.

I happily, even ecstatically cede the floor to John Cole who celebrated Herbert over at Balloon Juice better than I could ever do, while bitch-slapping the inside-the-beltway country club intellects who damned Herbert with faint praise or dismissed him altogether:

The reason many pundits sit in the back of class yelling “BORING” while making armpit farty sounds when it comes to Bob Herbert is simply because what he writes about does not affect them. Most of the pundit class is privileged, white, insured, employed, and talking about the widespread despair for millions of Americans is akin to talking to Eskimos about what suntan lotion is the best for a trip to the French Riviera. When you read about the issues Herbert discusses and say to your self that this “his motives were obviously honorable, his compassion deep, and his solutions sincere, if invariably trite,” and that he was such a “boring, familiar voice,” you probably aren’t focusing on what he is saying at all and instead are mentally composing your next piece on Trig Palin or beards, or in Joe Klein’s case, how the DFH’s are ruining America.

Here is what E.J. Dionne (one of the last truly liberal voices) had to say, quoting generously from Herbert’s epic last column:

More than any other columnist, Bob has stayed on the story of the left-out: the poor, and working people whose incomes have stagnated or fallen through the floor. He heard them out and told their stories. He paid close attention when Washington had a chance to act on their behalf, and when, too often, it missed those opportunities or made things worse. He never pulled punches about the scandal of growing economic inequality in the United States — and in his final column on Saturday, he made sure to remind his readers of how big a scandal it is:

Through much of the post-World War II era, income distribution was far more equitable, with the top 10 percent of families accounting for just a third of average income growth, and the bottom 90 percent receiving two-thirds. That seems like ancient history now.

The current maldistribution of wealth is also scandalous. In 2009, the richest 5 percent claimed 63.5 percent of the nation’s wealth. The overwhelming majority, the bottom 80 percent, collectively held just 12.8 percent. . . .

Overwhelming imbalances in wealth and income inevitably result in enormous imbalances of political power. So the corporations and the very wealthy continue to do well. The employment crisis never gets addressed. The wars never end. And nation-building never gets a foothold here at home.)

(Sidenote two: read this article by Mark Bittman, entitled “Why We’re Fasting” to see another all-too-rare instance of people in positions of influence trying to make a discernible difference.)

Back to Sean Penn.

You may have heard he has spent some time in Haiti.

This piece, entitled “The Accidental Activist”  (by Zoe Heller) appeared on NYTimes.com and is, in many ways, a revelation. He went to Haiti after last year’s earthquake devastated the country, and has spent much of the last year there, sleeping in tents and burnt-out buildings. Check it out:

Over a year later, Penn is still in Haiti and his initial ragtag group of medics and fixers has grown into a team of 15 international workers, 235 Haitians and hundreds of rotating medical volunteers. In addition to coordinating sanitation, lighting, water and security for the Pétionville camp, J/P HRO runs two primary care facilities, a women’s health center, a cholera isolation unit and a 24-hour emergency room. It has pioneered a rubble removal program that has become a model for other N.G.O.’s, and it has developed one of the most effective emergency response systems in the country, using state-of-the-art bio-surveillance techniques and helicopters to reach cholera-stricken communities in remote areas.

How you like them apples?

Regarding what he’s done and what motivates him, he says something that should end up as his epitaph (and is something any of us should aspire to have as ours):

You’re either willing to be part of all time, or you’re going to limit yourself to being part of the current time.

That might be the most powerful (and admirably succinct!) call to arms I’ve ever seen in regards to activism and eschewing the trappings of fame and/or the soul-sucking infotainment detritus that surrounds and distracts all of us.

It’s funny to me, in a sad way of course. We venerate vapid tricksters like Donald Trump (who is currently being included in “the conversation” about potential presidential candidates; talk about the audacity of hope), or Oprah who, for all the bathos and boasting, has been interested in exactly one person for the last three decades. But I’m not content to pick off the usual –and easy– list of stagnant suspects; including the self-aggrandizing (and enriching) political bootlickers…I’d like to include the self-absorbed celebs who generally get a free pass. Let’s take the lovable lightweight, Conan O’Brien, who seemed to be everyone’s favorite underdog in 2010. For starters, there is little need to revisit or linger on the empty soul of Jay Leno: he can’t even defend his own vacuousness, so no point in anyone else doing so. But certainly I wasn’t the only person who felt dirty listening to this incalculably fortunate carnival barker whining about losing a multi-million dollar gig (getting multiple millions for a few months of work) before landing another multi-million dollar gig? Wouldn’t it have been refreshing to see O’Brien work some of that narcissistic angst for a cause (say Habitat For Humanity) that benefitted someone other than himself?

Today, with reality TV and the unreal proposition that anyone, anywhere can do something, anything, and get famous for a few seconds, we have effectively replaced actions with images and community with the cult of self. We have made each individual the center of their own universe, which can’t help but have a deadening effect on our collective sensibilities. With this bizarre mixture of apathy and egomania, it is easier to understand how we can sit back and listen to Wall Street executives lament the small percentage of taxes they are obliged to pay. It’s easier to see why we can avoid mind-shattering cognitive dissonance watching the CEO from the company that paid no taxes at all in 2010  work as Obama’s “key advisor” on jobs and economic growth. It’s easier to reconcile the pitiful fact that too many people who pray to Jesus worship the money-makers (and money-lenders) He repeatedly castigates throughout The Scriptures.

And here is Sean Penn: easy to lampoon but difficult to deny or diminish. He is in many regards the anti-celebrity of our time because he is utterly uninterested in helping us feel good about ourselves. Indeed, he makes us feel worse. More, he relishes doing so. In my estimation he serves the role, in an increasingly secular world, of the cranky old clergyman who browbeats his flock each week. We need that admonishment right now; we certainly need the example and this inspiration. We need to recognize that if anyone on our planet is emulating the actual, literal teachings of Christ, it’s this sullen, unsanctified savior.

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Beethoven, Barenboim, Bliss

Beethoven again.

It seems impossible to believe that Daniel Barenboim is only 68 years old. It feels like he has been around forever. Possibly it’s because the music he plays–the music he’s spent most of his life playing to the extent that it seems inextricable from the man himself-seems to exist outside of time. Revered for completing a recorded cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas while still in his 20?s, he then tackled Beethoven’s piano concertos, and then the piano sonatas and concertos of Mozart. For good measure he also handled the piano concertos of Brahms and Bartok. Barenboim cemented his legacy as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from the early ’90s through 2006. Want more? He was married to the famous, and beautiful, cellist Jacqueline du Pre (pictured above) until her premature death.

All of which is to say: he’s the only thing cooler than a rock star; he’s a classical music star. You want to hang with Mick and Keith? I’ll hang with Wolfgang Amadeus and Ludwig Van. I’d rather spend a half hour listening to Barenboim discuss his experiences than a free week pass on tour with any rock band on the planet. But I’m weird like that. Then again, check this out:

“Rubinstein read Cervantes in Spanish, Dostoyevsky in Russian, Voltaire in French,” Mr. Barenboim said. “Music has become specialized today. There used to be a different notion of musical culture. I believe that Furtwängler genuinely felt — maybe he was naïve, but he felt that he personally could save German culture from the Nazis. He wrote about the introduction to Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony in relation to the Greek idea of chaos and catharsis. How many musicians think that way today?”

Any questions?

Barenboim shows no signs of slowing down, and this the profile of him in The New York Times here (from which the above quote is taken) reveals a man who is always looking for a new challenge. You think Ozzy Osbourne is controversial? Barenboim broke the half-century taboo of performing Wagner in Israel (in 2001) and has used his influence, and the profoundly positive influence of the music he conducts, to promote dialogue and understanding amongst nations. To put it simply, his work with Palestinian intellectual Edward Said arguably did more to advance relations between Israel and Palestine than 90% of our world’s politicians.

But all of this is just backstory (amazing and life-affirming though it is). Before I knew anything about Barenboim’s politics or his iconoclastic journey, I knew him through Beethoven. Or vice versa. My first exposure to Beethoven’s piano sonatas was courtesy of Barenboim’s initial take on the works (from ’67; he revisited the cycle many years later). It was that time in my life (age 17), it was that era in general (1987, one of the very first compact discs I owned) but mostly it was the music. Indelible and unforgettable. Then, and now. Bottom line: this is my favorite music in the world, and if there was one set of works I had to take with me to that cliched desert island, it would be Barenboim’s set of Beethoven sonatas. If the person sending me to this imaginary island was particularly sadistic and insisted it could only be one disc, it would be this one:

I’ve heard –and tend to believe– that a person falls forever in love with the version of a particular classical piece he or she hears first. I know that to be true of virtually all the classical music I’ve become infatuated with over the last few decades. Still, there are the more famous pieces (think Beethoven, Mozart and Bach) of which even non-fanatic followers may inevitably own more than one version. Having heard (intentionally, insatiably) and owned multiple copies of Mozart’s last two symphonies (4o & 41) I only have ears for John Eliot Gardiner’s work with the English Baroque Soloists (from ’92). Regarding the Beethoven sonatas, no one comes close to Barenboim, for me. (And I do enjoy most of the versions I’ve heard, and I have about eight different versions of certain Beethoven sonatas, but I’m weird like that.)

Here is Barenboim in concert, tackling the rapturous 18th Sonata. If it gets any better than this, I’m unaware of it.

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

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“Better call on evolution” or, Our Cultural Koyaanisqatsi

ON THIS DAY:

On May 25, 1925, John T. Scopes was indicted in Tennessee for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution.

I always enjoy the chance to invoke the incomparable Bill Hicks.

And of course, I relish any opportunity to break out my favorite image ever:

But it’s not all that funny, really. I mean, we laugh because there is much to laugh at. You have to laugh at these simpletons who want to “bring our country back”, meaning the good old days when blacks and women knew their place, homosexuals dared not show their faces in public and the bible held firmer sway over a greater portion of the populace. Presumably these same tea baggers and bigots don’t want to also bring back cars without air conditioning and houses without running water, smallpox without vaccine and surgery without anesthetics and a few dozen other of our least favorite things from a time when the world was a whiter shade of pale.

And it’s not at all difficult to connect the dots between the type of magical thinking employed by the bible thumpers and the Ayn Rand-obsessed Libertarian lunatics (how perfect –and appalling– a commentary on the cultural Koyaanisqatsi we are currently struggling through that the son of the Libertarian’s savior is named after the most humorless and phlegmatic popular novelist of the 20th Century. Painfully popular. And imperceptive. (And influential. Right Alan? Atlas shrugged; Jesus wept.) Indeed, the only redeeming thing I can think about Ayn Rand is that she partially inspired one of Rush’s great early albums.

It’s times like this that I wish we actually had a Democrat in The White House.

Just kidding. Sort of.

I mean, if there wasn’t a better teaching moment than right now, when has there ever been? Between the ongoing Wall Street debacle (and the toothless “reform”) and the state our the-only-thing-better-than-less-regulation-is-no-regulation former administration left our country in, we are presented with the ultimate, ugly fruit of that mentality, the BP debacle. Or should I say, the still far-from-resolved BP debacle? Actual regulation on the disgustingly rapacious financial, housing and oil industries would have easily obviated all of the recent catastrophes. Catastrophes that we will spend generations paying for. Put another way: the only people who have gotten rich in any of these three arenas are the people who depend upon other peoples’ misfortune to make a profit. And, of course, there are large segments of our country fired up and ready to march defending these sociopath’s unfettered right to exploit and destroy.

See, the thing about teaching moments is that people need to be teachable; they need to be capable of being taught. And a distressing number of Americans right now have already determined that everything they need to know is contained within the (literal) words of the bible, or is best expressed by the (backwards and demonstrably untrue) proposition that there’s nothing the government can do that the free market can’t do better.

Yet, as depressing as it might be to consider how far we have to go, it’s helpful to think about the distance we’ve travelled. Take a look at the recent CNN poll, indicating that 8 of 10 Americans have no problems with gay people openly serving in the military. Could you have even fathomed this possibility back in November, 2004? (That, you may recall, was just after the G.O.P. successfully cock-rocked the vote, whipping up the Red and Blue state hysteria concerning all-things-homosexual. It seems safe to suggest that this disgusting –and disgustingly effective– strategy has finally reached its expiration date, and in our lifetimes we’ll look back in disbelief at how gullible, intolerant and imbecilic we were around the turn of the century. The way most of us today regard our legacy toward civil rights. Right Rand?

So there has been progress. And the good thing about evolution is that no matter how slow it might be, it is inevitable. Although, I wonder if the recent paradigm shift regarding gay rights has less to do with enlightened acculturation and more to do with the fact that in the last six years we’ve gradually discovered every priest and Republican politician is queer as Charles Haley. Just kidding. Sort of.

Therefore on a day that we remember the struggle to teach evolution even as we struggle to teach ourselves how to evolve, I’ll abjure originality and invoke a tune entitled…Evolution. Assessing this great song from the great Cat Power’s great album You Are Free (which I opined was the 4th best album of the past decade), I offered the following thoughts:

But in the end, “Evolution” is the ideal song to close out the set. More, it’s one of the best closing songs on any album, ever. More, it may just be the song of the decade: thematically it is elegiac but in its yearning, deeply human resolve, it is inevitably inspiring. Another duet with Eddie Vedder, I am unable to express the heights this tone poem attains. Just piano and two voices, one sounding like the other’s shadow, Vedder echoes, encourages and reinforces Marshall’s fragile invocation of witness and perseverance. The pair go through the lyrics one time, pause and recite them a second time, ending with a subdued but urgent call to arms, repeating the words “Better make your mind up quick”. They are talking to themselves and, one slowly realizes, addressing anyone else who might be listening.

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Freedom Riders

ON THIS DAY

On May 20, 1961, a white mob attacked a busload of “Freedom Riders” in Montgomery, Ala., prompting the federal government to send in United States marshals to restore order.

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Oh, and reducing the debt, too.

An ostensibly rhetorical question I read (and get asked) quite often these days is “Why bother?”

Why bother getting invested in politics?

Why bother reading all those papers and blogs and magazines?

Why bother wasting time since they are all the same?

Why bother voting?

Well, there are lots of good reasons, some of which are immediately evident to anyone who takes the time to be moderately informed and is aware of not-so-complicated concepts like cause and effect. That the policies of our former administration (and, more importantly, the power-to-the-powerful ideology that informs those policies) bankrupted our nation and –this is the toughest one to grasp– made us less safe is not a matter of opinion; it’s not debatable and there is no room for any possible nuance.

Also, there is only one type of Socialism being practiced in America today and it has been in effect for longer than one year. It’s Corporate Socialism. For evidence to support this claim, I submit every action taken by every Republican politician since 1980. Case closed, your honor.

To the haters, I certainly feel your pain, to a point. Yes, watching the Democrats try to govern is an often painful and occasionally pitiful spectacle (it’s amusing: Harry Reid is at once a man who should never, under any circumstances, have gotten involved in politics, yet he is, in the final analysis, the prototypical politician). Of course, in their defense, a reasonable person understands that actually attempting to govern is messy, difficult and frustrating. Particularly, as people like Andrew Sullivan regularly point out, our nation has become increasingly ignorant, self-absorbed and childish: we don’t want any government interference, we don’t want to pay taxes and we demand to see all of these pesky problems go away and take care of themselves (or even better, the stance of the Ayn Rand worshipping Libertarian-leaning bozos: just leave us alone and the world will govern itself, but if my house catches fire or a burglar breaks in or the roads need to be plowed or the country is attacked some non-tax funded enterprise better be at the ready to protect me!)

We have become a country of children who want to skip the main course and go directly to dessert, every meal, and then complain that we’ve gotten fat. And that in itself is a problem: that allows the Republicans to continue to frame the idea of shared accountability and responsibility as an inherently negative or intrusive notion. Let me be clear: that is, upon cursory inspection, a decidedly anti-American sentiment. The idea that paying taxes and supporting regulation of the food we eat and air we breathe is some type of burden implemented by a leering Big Brother is beyond moronic and borders on offensive. The idea that we can have no taxes, no regulation, no government involvement, unfunded wars and private interests in charge of everything  is exactly the intelligence-insulting ideology that landed us where we are now. And, for the last time, and as Thomas “What’s The Matter With Kansas” Frank elucidated, vigorously endorsing the notion that the wealthiest .01% of the population should not pay any taxes is going to put exactly zero cents in your pocket and create precisely zero jobs.

So, in sum, yes it is discomfiting to watch the Dems go about their business. But then you look across the aisle and see the obstreperous opposition digging in with monomaniacal zeal to do nothing (other than obstruct, oppose and stymie any effort made to get us out of this mess). You have to hand it to them, though, stoking the “Tea Party” frustration, which is largely a result of the situation their actions put this country in (and, based on the virtual absence of a single minority at a single one of these gatherings, a rather unhealthy dose of old-school bigtory). That, of course, is a topic I (and many, many others more insightful than myself) have adequately addressed. For now, the prevailing issue that has cleaved the country in half is the topic of health care. If any further evidence was required (!!) about what is at stake and what the consequences of doing something (Dems) versus doing nothing (GOP) are, take a look at the invaluable Paul Krugman in today’s New York Times.

But for anyone still on the fence, or who can claim, at this point, to be genuinely ambivalent and/or persuaded that both sides are mirror images of one another, I point you to yesterday’s spectacle at CPAC:

Easy to appreciate the racist overtones there, huh? The comical association of “The Left” with Woodstock hippies, blah blah blah. That, of course, is run of the mill, Lee Atwater hogwash. Been there done that. Nothing to see here. Et cetera.

But to really get a sense of the farcical alternate universe these clowns inhabit, consider the featured speakers:

First, the rock star reception given to proud torture advocate, war criminal and suddenly outspoken former VP Dick Cheney. That alone speaks volumes.

Second, the dark lord’s daughter, Liz, who is racing at warp speed to find a new low in the apparently bottomless pit of political mendacity, gleefully ignoring reality and, following her father’s lead, doing her darndest to distort and malign, had this jaw dropper: “There is no polite way to put this: Obama’s incompetence is getting people killed.” Indeed, if he’s not careful, he may have an attack like 9/11 happen on his watch. But what more do you expect, and how deliciously appropriate (but not ironic, because the oblivious press and hapless Democrats will be predictably unable to connect the dots here) is it that the same week the party who likes to claim sole propriety on keeping Americans safe (the worst domestic attack in our country’s history notwithstanding) is upping the irresponsible rhetoric, we see the walking punch line that is Bernie Kerik sent to the slammer. Keep in mind, this is the same imbecile that self-proclaimed tough guy Rudy G. (Mr. noun, verb, 9/11 himself) ardently endorsed as our next chief of Homeland Security. Folks, the mind boggles.

Finally, we have the current ringleader of the so-called insurgent Right: Marco Rubio, the man Dana Milbank –one of the rare reliable voices from that ever shrinking pool of talent at The Washington Post,— geniusly calls the “Anti-Crist” in a must read, throwing raw red meat at the pack of insatiable hyenas. In admirable brevity, Milbank itemizes Rubio’s (and the current GOP’s) vision for how to get out of the mess they created: double down.

Rubio’s agenda: across-the-board tax cuts, lower corporate tax rates, and abolishing taxes on capital gains, dividends, interest and inheritance. Oh, and reducing the debt, too.

Denial of accountability? Check.

Denial of reality? Check.

Denial of actual measures required to help, and not hurt, Americans? Check.

This is why you have to choose sides. This is why you can ill afford (literally and figuratively) to let these cackling, wealthy and well-insured weasels lull you into a state of impotent rage or, worse, apathy. Because aside from the ceaseless corporate welfare they will fight for, their ultimate ambition is to render the actually literate and sentient amongst us fed up and indifferent. Without awareness, and with no resistance, they can more easily continue their unchecked assault on our collective well-being.

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Death Letter Blues

lethal-injection

Pretty remarkable story in yesterday’s NYT about AP reporter Michael Graczyk, whose not necessarily enviable beat has been covering executions. Some excerpts, below. There is something so 20th Century about lethal injections (although, the electric chair could only have been invented in the same brutal century). All things being equal, it’s arguably the most humane option available. But of course all things are never equal.

What makes his record all the more extraordinary is that often, Mr. Graczyk’s has been the only account of the execution given to the world at large. Covering executions was once considered an obligatory — if often ghoulish — part of what a newspaper did, like writing up school board meetings and printing box scores, but one by one, such dutiful traditions have fallen away.

Seeing inmates in the death chamber, strapped to a gurney and moments away from lethal injections, he has heard them greet him by name, confess to their crimes for the first time, sing, pray and, once, spit out a concealed handcuff key. He has stood shoulder to shoulder with other witnesses who stared, wept, fainted, turned their backs or, in one case, exchanged high-fives.

No reporter, warden, chaplain or guard has seen nearly as many executions as Mr. Graczyk, 59, Texas prison officials say. In fact, he has probably witnessed more than any other American.

“The act is very clinical, almost anticlimactic,” Mr. Graczyk said. “When we get into the chamber here in Texas, the inmate has already been strapped to the gurney and the needle is already in his arm.”

They stand on the other side of a barrier of plexiglass and bars, able to hear the prisoner through speakers. And the only sound regularly heard during the execution itself, is of all things, snoring. A three-drug cocktail puts the inmate to sleep within seconds, while death takes a few minutes. Victims’ family members often remark that the killer’s death seems too peaceful.

But before the drugs flow, the inmate is allowed to make a last statement, giving Mr. Graczyk what even he acknowledges are some lasting, eerie memories.

One inmate “sang ‘Silent Night,’ even though it wasn’t anywhere near Christmas,” Mr. Graczyk said. “I can’t hear that song without thinking about it. That one really stuck with me.”

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The Terror Card, Torture and You or, The Evil of Banality

“A perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm.”

That quote, attributed to a former CIA official who courageously remains anonymous, seems about as perfectly succinct a crystallization I’ve yet read regarding the mindset (the official one shared by the insiders as well as the unofficial one prevailing amongst the blissfully ignorant who don’t care to ponder what happened, how it happened, and why it happened) of the circumstances that precipitated the blatant, persistent torture of detainees. Oh, I mean “enhanced interrogation”, as the mainstream media dutifully scribbles at the behest of the bad guys.

Even the usually reliable Michael Kinsley has recently gotten in on the act, proving that there are some story lines so aggressively promulgated that no one working for the MSM is entirely insulated from their influence:

Indignation comes cheap in our political culture. Polls give the impression that the proper role of voters is to sit like a king passing judgment on the issues as they pass by like dishes prepared for a feast. “No, I’m not in the mood for waterboarding today, thanks. But I think I’ll have another dab of those delicious-looking executive-pay caps.” Prosecuting a few former government officials for their role in putting our country into the torture business would not serve justice or historical memory. It would just let the real culprits off the hook.

The reason this is so specious is that even today the New York Times still can’t quite bring itself to call these acts torture, (Repeat: The New York Times. This is the paper heralded and derided in equal measure as the voice of liberalism, no matter how laughable that claim.) Let’s not dance around the topic: editorial sanitizing of this magnitude is analogous to describing rape as an “enhanced fornication technique”. Does that seem over the top? Imagine if some pundit (not to mention average citizen) dismissed the horror of rape or even made fun of it? This is what tough guys ranging from Rush Limbaugh to “Mancow” Muller have done with the torture “debate”, turning one of our darkest hours into a farce, milking it for laughs as well as a measuring stick for how pro-America one is. Their heads would explode from the irony if there was anything inside their skulls to detonate. To Muller’s credit, at least he was willing to take the Pepsi challenge; although his ordeal was over before he could cough out the words “I’m a contemptible shit stain”. While it would be delightful, on purely karmic levels, to see some of these bellicose scarecrows, such as Cheney, Rumsfeld, O’Reilly and Beck attempt to last more than ten seconds on that table, it is beside the point, and further cretinizes what needs to be a sober discussion.

 

Certainly, anyone who has the temerity to insist that this practice (let’s call it drowning) is emphatically not torture, without ever having enjoyed it at the hands of a friendly, much less unfriendly, interrogator, richly deserves to be accordingly humiliated. But we all know that great white chickenhawks like those listed above (not to mention their craven yet rabid cheerleaders) would fold like a rusted lawn chair in a matter of moments. Anyone paying attention (and anyone obtuse enough to not already take the word of the people who understand these issues: the people from the United States armed forces) could have learned almost a year ago that Christopher Hitchens issued a definitive take on the matter. “Believe me, it’s torture,” he wrote. (And he should be given appropriate kudos for having the integrity to test the waters, so to speak, before feeling fit to pronounce what was, and was not, torture. Then again, he is not only embarrassingly more intelligent than these buffoons, he is also interested in the truth, something no one mentioned above could ever be accused of.)

 

Kinsley continues:

Between April and November of that year, there were dozens of articles about torture in general and waterboarding in particular in major print media outlets, on the Web and on TV, many describing it in detail and some straightforwardly labeling it as torture. Millions of people saw these reports, knew that torture was going on and voted for Bush anyway. There is no way of knowing how many of those who voted against him were affected by the torture question. A good guess would be “not many.” (Not me, for one, I’m sorry to say.) Bush’s opponent, John Kerry, never mentioned waterboarding.

And? To be certain, Kinsley is correct in the sense that while, on an ascending scale of wrongheadedness, it’s not appropriate to single out some lower-ranking scapegoats, and it’s not enough to “merely” bring the higher-ranking officials (e.g., the despicable lawyers and the leaders of the previous administration who gave them their very clear and unambiguous marching orders). There needs to be a wider net cast, and one that does not exonerate the Democrats who also whistled past this political graveyard. Indeed, the American populace, to a certain extent, is implicated here. But, as with the Iraq war, it was our supposedly free press that failed us the most: we know enough now about Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al to understand we could and should have expected the worst; while this does not mitigate their criminal misdeeds, we should not pretend to be shocked (or even particularly appalled) at the non-revelations of how they combined their extreme political pettiness (Machiavellian ruthlessness) and their general ignorance of the mess they were creating (“Bring ’em on”, “last throes”, “stuff happens”, et cetera). But at the end of the day, it was the press who didn’t ask any tough questions, who didn’t expose or promote the obvious truths rotting right out in the open, like a fetid carcass.

 

And then there are the sociopaths, the ones who you actually fear believe not only in the apocalyptic fantasies they peddle, but feel they are the appropriate (even the chosen) ones to answer the challenges. Here you have the Kissingers, Weinbergers, Fleischers, Gingriches. These are seldom the ones behind the wheel (although some of them would jump at the chance), these are the ones riding shotgun, whispering not-so-sweet nothings into the impressionable ear of the idiot in charge (think Reagan, think Bush), the ones content to practice their dirty work long distance.

I have a special hatred in my heart for these smirking Iagos, the well-paid political hacks who reside inside the fortified cocoon of spin and subterfuge. The ones who are neither powerful enough to make the decisions or brave enough to do the damage; these are the ones who put on business suits before hitting the battlefield, talking points echoing around their half-empty heads. Their masters, the flies, crawl into the shit to lay their eggs, they are merely the spawn that emerges from this waste, camera-ready smiles frozen on their faces. They are born into this, never capable of playing on the field or willing to cheer from the sidelines, they are the equipment managers, the ones who want to be near the action but not close enough to get caught in the crossfire. These are the spokespersons and professional apologists; the career insiders.

       

Some are born into it; some are paid to do it. Some, like the irredeemably despicable Liz Cheney, are born into it and get paid (quite handsomely) to do it. But to single these scumbags out is like blaming rock musicians for the dumbing down of American culture. The fact of the matter is that if people weren’t willing or able to be duped by clowns like Karl Rove, then clowns like Karl Rove would have to find another line of work.

And it’s finally taken the one issue everyone used to agree on to illustrate, without the slightest possibility of misunderstanding, how far Republicans have slinked off the Reservation. Lampooning this new low is, of course, easy and would be amusing if it was not so pathetic and sickening (still, there has been no shortage of potshots, all of them quite worthwhile, some of them absolutely indispensable). Even the most battle-scarred political junkie has to marvel at how hurriedly the hardcore Right is dumpster diving into moral depravity, all for the sake of propping up their tattered and increasingly absurd ideology. While Andrew Sullivan and Frank Rich (embedded above) are always on the money, John Cole has a definitive take, here.

Considering what they have done with virtually every other aspect of the Bush years, I honestly expected them to do what they did with the trillions of dollars of spending and debt that happened with a Republican congress and a Republican President Bush- first, pretend it didn’t happen, then after being forced to acknowledge it did happen, claim that everyone was doing it and blame the Democrats and scream about Murtha and Barney Frank, and when that didn’t work, just pretend that it was “other” Republicans who aren’t “real conservatives” (Move along, these aren’t the wasteful spenders you are looking for) while ranting about earmarks. That is what they did with spending; I figured they would do it again with torture.

But they didn’t and they aren’t. Instead, they are mobilizing and going balls to the wall in defense of sadism. It is really quite amazing, and a testament to just how sick and detestable and rotten to the core the Republican Party has become.

It’s fortunate that in spite of the institutional apathy we still have indefatigable watchdogs like Glenn Greenwald tallying up the lies, spin and systemic deceit. He offers consistently refreshing proof that real progressives are not in the tank for Obama or any politician, but remain invested in holding elected officials accountable. There are dozens of other semi-high profile scribes out there, mostly representing the dreaded blogosphere. The old guard recognizes it is in their best interest to actively marginalize these voices, though that stale strategy is inexorably losing steam. The only people who disdain the bloggers more than politicians, of course, are the high profile (though increasingly endangered) Op Ed scribblers. These indolent bovines, along with their brethren–the so-called mainstream journalists–seem happiest when covered in the mud and slop their masters make for them. There are notable exceptions; for every Charles Krauthammer there is a Dan Froomkin; for every George Will there is a Frank Rich. For every twenty jejune Maureen Dowd columns, there is the all-too-rare exception.

The rest of the media, forever in the backwards shadow of the insular, elitist (yes, elitist) inside-the-Beltway circus, can’t (or worse, does not want to) figure out that the sources they quote (all too often anonymously) are waging war on the six-to-twelve hour spin cycle, so the details are massaged accordingly. And so we have Cheney getting equal, or more, air time than Obama, with the network nitwits breathlessly asking “Who is right?” That Cheney is getting so much play is not in itself a big deal; it’s undeniably newsworthy, and if he wants to dig himself deeper into his depraved ditch, I’m sure we all have a few shovels we’d be willing to lend him. In fact, he is unintentionally doing the country a large favor by backing himself further into a corner (not that he has any choice with the prospects of war crime trials, however unlikely, looming): he is drawing an unmistakable line in the rhetorical sand in terms of the rule of law and the ways it was trampled on his watch.

The problem is not that he is making his case convincingly; it’s that the Democrats (“led” by the half-witted and choleric Harry Reid) are scared enough of their own shadows that when a high-ranking (no matter how unpopular) Republican plays the terror card, they tremble with Pavlovian precision. The spectacle of Reid being played like an accordion, while spewing largely unintelligible tough talk (“Can’t put them in prison unless you release them”) was a new low, even by the minute standard he has set during his mostly feckless tenure.

The other, larger problem is that the media is obsessed with the us-and-them, false equivalence sham. It’s irresponsible enough to allow equal air time for obviously self-interested charlatans like Cheney and Gingrich; it’s incompetence bordering on dereliction that they ignore available evidence for the sake of sensationalism. To take just one of the more insidious examples, the notion that torture (although we won’t call it torture) was effective and saved thousands, perhaps millions, of lives is risible on every level. The simple fact that we got the info we needed from certain suspects before we tortured them should be a slam dunk for overdue accountability. The fact that the aforementioned torture was inflicted not to save lives but in the desperate attempt to coerce an acknowledgment of the fabricated tie between Sadaam and Osama is sickening as it is irrefutable. Even worse, and this is perhaps the most contemptible aspect of the disgrace that is Guantanamo, all of these so-called arguments rely on the erroneous assertion that all of these detained individuals represent the “worst of the worst”. In other words, it’s explicitly understood, in the Cheney version of this story, that every single person we’ve captured is guilty. Of course, even a cursory examination of the case files reveals that more than a handful of these people, aside from never being charged with a crime, had no ties or connections to Al-Qaeda. There are many examples, here’s one.

Where is the media in all of this? Busy handicapping the spin as a legitimately alternate perspective. Impartiality, in today’s media, means allowing liars to lie with impunity and letting Americans decide for themselves which “side” is more convincing. No wonder more than fifty percent of Americans have indicated that torture is acceptable in certain circumstances. John McLaughlin himself actually uttered the words “not all waterboarding is the same” on a recent show. Thanks for clearing that up for us, big guy. Virtually the remainder of the chattering class has been perfectly content to keep their readership on a need-to-know basis. Not taking a principled stand is one thing (only people who find actual inspiration in movies like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington expect more than this from our supine press), but to actively disengage with reality is unconscionable. If only these posers had sufficient shame, or awareness, to understand how poorly they’ve performed in the service of our nation.

Obama, as Matt Taibbi points out here, has gone from not exactly distinguishing himself in this matter (as well as waffling on the mostly lucid and unassailable take he offered on the campaign trail) to clumsily ensnaring himself in this mess to, against all probability, upping the ante. Count me amongst the people who are willing to give him some more time, and some additional benefit of the doubt (certainly, he inherited this disaster and only the most naively optimistic folks on the left actually expected he could waltz into office and change this fiasco overnight). Count me also amongst those who are puzzled (at best) and disillusioned (at worst) by his behavior. By hanging back and letting the Cheney pushback gain traction, he immediately made his task a lot harder than it had to be. Rookie mistake? Let’s hope. By ostensibly trying to avoid politicizing the matter (as if that is possible in contemporary America) he all but guaranteed it would be entirely about politics. And thus far, the bad guys are winning. It’s early still and Obama has shown himself to be a master of the long game, but it’s difficult to get a good read on how (or why) he’s allowed this opportunity to slip from his hands, and into the oily, scaled claws of Darth Cheney. Inconceivably, the attacks that happened on the last administration’s watch turned out to be the gift that keeps giving. Only in America.

Lastly, there are the rest of us. Part of the equation, one hoped, in electing Obama was to begin moving past the Bush debacle as quickly as possible; in this regard, any warm body (well, any warm Democrat’s body) would do the trick. But Obama, his eloquence and affirmations aside, spoke forcefully about reclaiming the rule of law and undertaking the imperative task of restoring America’s standing in the eyes of the world. Part of that promise entailed renouncing, without equivocation, the types of travesties that in a pre-9/11 world would never happen on U.S. soil. That was part of the evolution of a democratic nation, we learned from our past mistakes and, as unforgivable as they were, we moved on. The Bill of Rights and that little thing called Habeas Corpus guaranteed (at least in principle) that if atrocities occurred, they would be recognized, denounced, and those responsible held to account. Mostly, it reassured the world that anyone on our soil would be treated in accordance with our laws. As quaint as it may sound to 21st Century ears, Americans once overwhelmingly endorsed this quite simple proposition; it was, in effect, the bulwark our freedom was built upon.

As we now know, 9/11 changed everything. 9/11 gave us the terror card, still the only dark ace up the sleeve of the detestable GOP; as we’ve seen in recent weeks, it still trumps the house (of Representatives). 9/11 gave us Guantanamo and the bottomless pit of moral putrefacation. 9/11 gave us Jack Bauer who, along with Walker, Texas Ranger, will keep us safe and ensure that America remains unfriendly turf for evildoers and liberals. How else, really, to explain the hysteria that attended the announcement of some detainees possibly being moved to maximum security prisons within the U.S.A.? Only a craven populace spoon-fed the aesthetic sensibilities of Prison Break could possibly conceive a scenario where these hardened (yet untried) criminal masterminds band together to bust out of their chains and wreak havoc on the pastoral American heartland. The same simpletons obsessed with owning guns, it seems, are afraid to actually use them if the situation ever arose. But that’s a joke anyway; only people who steer their mental ships to the ill-winds blown by Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News could really get weak in the knees imagining escaped al-Qaeda agents roaming their gated communities.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead, more people were horrified by the possibility (not to mention the certainty) that innocent civilians were plucked out of their offices or homes and spirited away overseas, held without charge and tortured without compunction? How about, instead of imagining our children being savaged by terrorist outlaws on the loose, we contemplated the possibility of our children being held, in a foreign country, with no legal recourse, and indicted without a trial? Without even being told what they supposedly did? These are the dark fantasies Kafka imagined and Orwell anticipated, but the point of such dystopian fiction was to depict the worst case scenario so as to shake slumbering citizens awake.

A perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm.

Here we are, in a scared new world, with atrocities having been committed in our names. Those most culpable keep on rattling the sabres of insanity, strutting like peacocks on a TV screen near you. The journalists watch their own backs while their bosses are too busy watching their profits dwindle to process more bad news. The politicians fear nothing more than losing their status, and will be accountable enough to go on record once the dust has finally settled. Almost everyone else reclines in silence, well-fed and secure behind the wall of sleep.

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Sriracha With Love

The question, really is not what I use Sriracha with; it’s what I don’t use it with.

For instance, I have not begun putting Sriracha (a.k.a. The Rooster) in my coffee. Yet.

But over the past decade and change I’ve discovered that, with few exceptions, The Rooster augments the enjoyment of virtually anything you can put into your mouth. Pho, obviously, is the alpha and omega: this dish is simply unimaginable without Sriracha. With rice? Naturally. In pasta? Certainly. Potato quesadillas from Whole Foods? You bet your ass. What else? Name it. Hash browns on a hungover weekend morning? Fahgedaboudit. On hot dogs (avec mustard)? You know this. On sushi? Please. I don’t shake the Sriacha into my morning fruit smoothies, but that’s only because I’m not man enough.

People who get it are part of a (growing) secret society; it’s just understood. A simple raised eyebrow if you open up a friend’s refrigerator and see that cock strutting his stuff somewhere on the side-shelf. If it ever comes up in conversation, people don’t casually say “Oh, yeah, I use that sometimes”; it’s more like “The Rooster? Dude; that stuff is the shit!”

Suffice it to say, it has spawned a legion of fans, some of whom take it quite seriously indeed (For more food-inspired ink, check out the intriguing site overseen by the owner of the leg, below).

This is not my leg

This is not my leg

The sauce has its own Facebook page with 131,294 fans.

Today’s New York Times has an article celebrating this sauce and its origins here.

Some interesting details, including some less savory aspects, at least to American eyes. Here’s a taste:

From 1975 onward, Mr. Tran made sauces from peppers grown by his older brother on a farm just beyond Long Binh, a village north of what was then Saigon. The most popular was an oil-based sauce, perfumed by galangal, a pungent relative of ginger. (Mr. Tran intended it as a dip for beef plucked from bowls of pho, it was more popular as a sauce for roasted dog.)

Though he never devised a formal name for his products, Mr. Tran decorated each cap with a rooster, his astrological sign. Production was family focused. Mr. Tran ground the peppers. His father-in-law washed the sauce containers, reusing Gerber baby food jars obtained from American servicemen. His brother-in-law filled the jars with sauce. Itinerant jobbers bought the sauces from Mr. Tran, and sold them to shops and other informal restaurants.

Howlin’ Wolf:

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Ignorance Is A Warm Gun

Bob Herbert is often angry, and he’s almost always correct. While most columnists (even at the liberal NYT) pussyfooted around the issue of the Bush Administration’s ineptitude and brazen lawlessness, he came after them early and often. And with complete accuracy.

If Paul Krugman is the (self-described) “conscience” of the liberals, Herbert is the town crier for common sense. His only “agenda” is pointing out the myriad hypocrisies and injustices that provide the stimuli for which violence and crime are usually the responses. As such, he tends to tackle numbingly familiar yet consistently overlooked topics like poverty, education, and senseless murder. The type of unsavory topics that are easy to dismiss as depressing. (And like Krugman was, and to an extent remains, easy to dismiss as a nagging pessimist, it is too simple, and tempting, to marginalize Herbert’s concerns as the obsessions of a crank.) Of course, for both of these columnists, it is precisely because the issues they confront are depressing that they warrant honest examination. It is, obviously, a lonely and very uphill struggle, but we are fortunate they are willing to trudge along, alone.

Today’s reflection (accurately entitled The American Way) on our country’s insane addiction to guns is top tier Herbert:

This is the American way. Since Sept. 11, 2001, when the country’s attention understandably turned to terrorism, nearly 120,000 Americans have been killed in nonterror homicides, most of them committed with guns. Think about it — 120,000 dead. That’s nearly 25 times the number of Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For the most part, we pay no attention to this relentless carnage. The idea of doing something meaningful about the insane number of guns in circulation is a nonstarter. So what if eight kids are shot to death every day in America. So what if someone is killed by a gun every 17 minutes.

Murderous gunfire claims many more victims than those who are actually felled by the bullets. But all the expressions of horror at the violence and pity for the dead and those who loved them ring hollow in a society that is neither mature nor civilized enough to do anything about it.

(The above song, “Throw Away Your Gun” is by the great reggae toaster Michael James Williams, aka Prince Far I. He was shot in his home during a robbery, and died in 1983.)

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Get Your Goat or, Dancing With Mr. G.

Is 2009 going to be the year of the Goat?

Let’s hope so.

And no, I’m not talking about the metaphorical goat, like the bonus babies at AIG or any of the other recently disgraced masters of the now incredibly shrunken universe.

I’m talking about the real deal; goat. The type you eat. Everyone knows Goat Cheese (our beloved chevre) is legit; but only recently has Goat Meat started to gain some traction in our beef-centric country. In today’s New York Times, Henry Alford gets all Zamfir about this up-and-coming comestible: How I Learned to Love Goat Meat:

Indeed, goats have long held a lowly reputation. Scavengers, they are falsely accused of eating tin cans. Their unappetizing visage is simultaneously dopey and satanic, like a Disney character with a terrible secret. Their chin hair is sometimes prodigious enough to carpet Montana. Chaucer said they “stinken.”

My conversion moment came this February when I went to the West Village restaurant Cabrito and had the goat tacos. This hip taquería-style restaurant — which is named after the baby goat that is pit-barbecued in Texas and Mexico — marinates its meat for 24 hours before wet-roasting it over pineapple, chilies, onion and garlic. The resultant delicious pulled meat is tender throughout and slightly crisp and caramelized around the edges. Think lamb, but with a tang of earthy darkness. Think lamb, but with a rustle in the bushes. Think … jungle lamb. Suddenly I was go go goat. I wanted to order goat in as many restaurants as possible. Shortly into this process, a friend asked me, “Is it gay meat?” Confused, I said, “There’s nothing gay about it at all.” She explained, “No, I said is it gamey?”

This goat = good: 

This goat, not so much:

I myself am new to the goat game, but I’m already a fan, and hope the trend takes hold. The goats have had their way with us, I reckon it’s time we returned the favor. And after that, we can eat some goat meat.

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