Thursday, June 29, 2006


"Syriana" was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan. It stars George Clooney and Matt Damon. Clooney was also one of the producers.

If you're planning to watch "Syriana," my advice is, "Don't blink." As one reviewer commented, this movie is like a two-hour version of a six-hour television miniseries.

The film narrates a complex web of interrelated events involving the CIA, Texas oil gazillionaires, the familial conflicts within Arab oil sheikhdoms, dissipated Iranian weapons brokers, turncoat Levantine terrorists, corrupted corporate and government attorneys, layed-off migrant oilfield roughnecks seduced by Wahabbism, the counterfeit justice of the U.S. Justice Department, and an energy/financial consultant driven by personal tragedy. Almost needless to say, it's a Byzantine and convoluted mix which demands a viewer's full attention.

Now that "Syriana" has finally been released on DVD (on June 20), cinephiles will be armed with an advantage not afforded by theatre viewing: you can rewind and re-watch scenes as many times as needed to keep the story straight. Even then, this movie assumes intelligent and dedicated viewers, and will elude the ill-informed and unsophisticated. For that, it deserves five stars.

However, the film's strength is also its weakness. Except for Clooney's character, the CIA agent and old middle east hand Bob Barnes, there is almost no character development. "Syriana" is so intricately plotted and so concentrated on unspooling the narrative that the players are reduced to their politico-economic roles in the story line. Only Clooney/Barnes has enough on-screen time to develop anything resembling ambiguity, or internal conflict.

As the story opens, Barnes is desperate to find a rocket launcher after it is stolen during one of his covert weapons-selling stings in Tehran.

"Syriana's" second intertwined element involves the merger of two corrupt Texas oil companies, one of them headed by a braying jackass skilfully rendered by Chris Cooper, and the payoffs, browbeating and looking the other way that allows the deal to subvert antitrust regulations. That process is facilitated by young, ambitious attorney Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), who smooths the path for Justice Department approval of the deal.

Meanwhile, a smooth-talking energy analyst/oil broker, Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), after suffering a family tragedy manages to harness his grief-generated energy into a blockbuster deal with a Persian Gulf prince (Alexander Siddig), who vows to end his country's long history of American petroleum exploitation and bring its economy out of a chronic depression. What these two don't know is that the U.S. oil companies, operating on the advice of their own Rasputin, a high-powered lawyer masterfully brought to life by Christopher Plummer, plan to undermine the prince's claim to the throne and force his father, the Emir, to name the prince's shallow, frivolous, vain, and pliable younger brother as his successor.

While all this is going on, layed-off Pakistani oil field workers in the Emir's kingdom on temporary visas are recruited by Muslim extremists operating a Madrassa and turned into suicide bombers who end the movie with a bang, connecting the story's conclusion with its opening and tying up the plot's loose ends.

Got enough on your plate yet?

As an exposition of the complexity of political, economic, social, and ethical reality I would rate "Syriana" very highly. The problem is, that kind of reality is too complex to reproduce in a two-hour film. So as a drama I have to say it's only partially successful, but it still gets four stars. This movie is highly recommended.

P.S. There's no end to this movie's subtleties. The name "Syriana" is an obscure geographic term referring to the trans-Mediterranean region occupied by the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. It's the same area sometimes called the Levant.

I Feel Guilty Eaves Dropping

From a conversation heard on another site...

Davidstein says: One of the most inspiring images of World War Two has been 4 soldiers raising a giant American flag at Iwo Jima. Statues or sculptures of the flag raising are major monuments around the country. One of the soldiers raising the Iwo Jima flag is a Native American Indian named Hayes. Indians accord him great honor. They're very proud of him.

The loss of a battle or surrender of a nation is when the flag is removed. The national anthem mentions that.

You're committing a crime when you place another flag higher than the United States' flag. It's like watching the Japanese flag raised where the American flag had once been.

you can say you support America's enemies, but doing anything to support them, during war time is treason. Generally, there are few people who burn flags or commit public treason because American citizens still defend the flag even if their government doesn't defend it. You see Americans privately stop flag burnings, by physically attacking the person doing the burning.

As one person put it, you have the right to burn a flag, and I have the right to punch you in the nose for burning it. You don't see anyone in America republishing Danish cartoons, because Moslems took the an even stronger attitude. Call it private censorship.

catboxer asks: Question: What is the only legal, officially prescribed method for disposing of a damaged or used American flag?

The proposed constitutional amendment would be an anti-thoughtcrime measure.

Round up the usual suspects.

combatkoala says: Guess its time to lock up the boy scouts, and the VFW, not to mention those Military members who have the nerve to burn the flag in special ceremonies on post.

catboxer says: Yeah, Koala, but they're not suspects, and even though they burn the flag, they don't think subversive thoughts while they're doing it. So they're o.k.

Which is exactly why this amendment is nothing more than a baby pacifier for drooling idiots. What's being proposed is that we actually prohibit not an act, but a thought.


See George Orwell's 1984.

Stitch813 asks: But what happens if the boy scouts burn the flag at the same time they are chanting Down with Bush? Maybe that is what the congressmen were worried about?

catboxer replies: Excellent question. And what happens to girl scouts who, while reciting the pledge of allegience, are thinking about mounting a terrorist campaign of planting explosives in the cookies and selling them in government buildings such as CIA headquarters...

Not doing those things, mind you, just thinking about them.

The rule is that if you commit thoughtcrime, sooner or later you'll be found out. Your guilty facial expression will reveal you. Then the thought police will come and get you.

And then it's room 101.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Thirty-Five Whirlpools Below Sound

Financial service senses worries of 35 whirlpools below sound 1846, 45, 44, A.D. Augusta City treasury, Richmond County treasury, United States Treasury of Mississippi River flood area. Gentlemen will you come to . . . and idenafy none minastrative body that receives the life generated by fourth patented generative below sound. Further arrange financial credit for same. Would like two bedrooms at up town Hotel and convenient to roof garden. Until you gentlemen decide further what my occupation is you may as well announce me as comforting 35 whirlpools below sound. May you gentlemen have gray eyes and thick bones as the flat sense minastrated are very valuable in idenafying me...

...was a writing sample from a schizophrenic patient in a locked ward. It was collected by Dr. Hervey Cleckley, author of "The Mask of Sanity" (first ed. 1941), a study of psychopathic (a.k.a. "sociopathic") personality disorder.

The book is an out-of-print classic. Amazon has a few used copies going for $70 and up, but I found a place to download it as a free PDF file.

Cleckley, now deceased, was an unusual shrink in a number of ways. His views were not always flattering to the standard practices or practitioners of psychiatry and psychotherapy. He didn't shy away from making moral judgments. Unlike your typical scientist who tends to be afflicted with logorrhoea, he was a highly skilled and marvellously entertaining writer, with a gift for understatement.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. highly recommends "The Mask of Sanity" and so do I. Besides being a great read, it will familiarize you with the seriousness and extent of a problem that continues to plague the psychiatric profession, society at large, and (Vonnegut claims) the upper reaches of the U.S. government and our largest corporations.

If I wasn't so old I'd go back to school and pursue the systematic study of psychology. I find it endlessly fascinating.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Emerging Republican Theocracy?

That's the name of a Kevin Phillips article currently posted on the front page of Beliefnet.

He makes a pretty good case for the ruling clique's attempt to cobble together what looks like a theocracy, but they're not going to be able to construct a real one. It'll be a counterfeit, hence ineffective theocracy for a couple of reasons.

First of all, I can't prove it, but I suspect many of many of these church-going Republican big shots are secretly closet atheists, whose kingdom is "of this world."

Take Tom DeLay, for instance. He's a scrupulous Christian, right? If I ever saw a guy who'd be willing to do absolutely anything for a dollar and a good piece of ass, it's the Honorable Mr. DeLay.

Also, as was pointed out to me in discussing this yesterday, most of the neocons are disciples of Leo Strauss, late of the University of Chicago where he taught the dark Macheavellian arts under cover of political philosophy. The mentor of little Pauly Wolfelafelwitz and others, Strauss's schtick was founded on the premise that there is no God, but that religion should be used by those in power to manipulate the ignorant masses. Like all congenital fascists, he believed in the natural right of the powerful to oppress the weak, which has ever been the foundation of right wing politics.

So I think at some point the neo Baptists and the neo Cons are going to part ways, and become semi-enemies.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Betty Bowers Blatantly Bites Badass Bitch

Ouch! Betty Bowers reviews Ann Coulter and her book. It ain't pretty.

Bowers is a very good writer, and she taps out an entertaining review, but it's really a little too easy to make fun of the village idiot.

And she did slip one misplaced modifying prepositional phrase, the one about the black leather miniskirt who's never been married.

And I must admit, picking on the handicapped -- mea culpa -- I've done it myself, many times on the Beliefnet U.S. politics board, while assuming my alter ego, Catboxer. So now I'm going to go write 50 times on my chalk slate that I'll henceforth refrain from such nefarious activity.

Bowers's one-woman jihad against the media star is noteworthy, though, because it rises to the level of world-class vituperation, as when she says of Coulter:

(S)he is less like June Cleaver baking pot-roast than she is like Samantha Jones baked on pot. Indeed, this is no piously serene Christian wife, but a braying loud mouth who wears super-slutty clothes, powders her bony nose more often than Lindsay Lohan (if you know what I mean), knocks back scotch with an alacrity that eludes Ted Kennedy since the advent of rheumatoid arthritis, lives only in cities filled with homos and screws anything willing to bang an anorexic skeleton.

Really? I had no idea Ann Coulter was allegedly an alcoholic, cocaine-addled nymphomaniac. I'm only familiar with her more serious character defects.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

I Dream of Gini

The most reliable indicator of economic inequality is the Gini Coefficient, named for an Italian economist and statistician.

It works like this: if a society consisted of two families, one of which had everything and the other of which had nothing, the Gini coefficient of that society would be 1.0.

If a society consisted of 10 families, one of which owned half that society's wealth, the coefficient would be .5.

According to my source, "most developed European nations tend to have Gini coefficients between 0.24 and 0.36, the United States Gini coefficient is above 0.4, indicating that the United States has greater inequality."

During the time Krugman talked about in his speech, the Eisenhower days, the U.S. Gini coefficient was about .375. By 1970 it reached its low point: .353. In 2000, just before Geo. W. Bush took office, the last year for which the figure is available, it had climbed to .43.

With Bush's tax cuts and other corporate welfare programs, it is rapidly moving toward .5, if it hasn't got there already.

This is an intolerable level of economic inequality. It spells widespread poverty. The cause of it is greed, or to put it another way, the "free" market.

Free for whom, I'd like to know.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Accept No Substitutes

People are buzzing about Gore. "Who could we find who's just as good," they ask, "if he refuses to run?"

Sorry, but there's no one that can take Gore's place right now.

One reason for this is that Gore is totally relaxed and loose as a goose, thanks to his reflection on the experience of getting mugged and rolled in the Y2K election. He's developed a certain quality of ironic detachment, and he really doesn't give a damn how people react to what he says. Not surprisingly, he's totally unrestrained and says exactly what's on his mind, unlike active career politicians who feel they have to carefully triangulate every word that comes out of their mouths. Even the good ones like Kucinich do this.

Last night on Olbermann's countdown, Gore said "The people who still say that global warming isn't real are actually in the same boat with the flat earth society. They get together and party on Saturday nights with the folks that believe the moon landing was in a movie lot in Arizona."

I love it. Tape of the whole interview here.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Navel of the Vortex

With the Iraq War now in its fourth year and showing no signs of ending anytime soon, it's time to take a new look at that conflict from both sides of the debate.

Robert Dreyfuss has done that with an important article entitled "Permanent War?" It's long and complex, but very much worth a thoughtful reader's attention.

The reason the Iraq War is so important -- much more important than Vietnam was, really -- is that it's where all the threads of current American policy, foreign and domestic, come together. Control of Iraq, of the Persian Gulf, and of the oil resources of that region are essential to the American way of life continuing as we know it for any length of time.

We're talking of course about the pursuit of empire, oil dependency, a nation of suburbs and automobiles and strip malls, global warming and lax environmental policy, and the international corporate business model supported and backed up by a heavily-armed military establishment.

This is the way of life that Dick Cheney has declared "non-negotiable." And the viability of all these things depends on victory in Iraq.

The commonplace liberal verdict is that victory in Iraq can't be had -- "We can't win militarily," as John Murtha says. And while the war is going badly in a number of ways, and Dreyfuss lists them, he challenges the notion that victory is impossible, and writes:

The Bush administration's strategy in Iraq today, as in the invasion of 2003, is: Use military force to destroy the political infrastructure of the Iraqi state; shatter the old Iraqi armed forces; eliminate Iraq as a determined foe of U.S. hegemony in the oil-rich Persian Gulf; build on the wreckage of the old Iraq a new state beholden to the U.S.; create a new political class willing to be subservient to our interests in the region; and use that new Iraq as a base for further expansion.

To achieve all that, the President is determined to keep as much military power as he can in Iraq for as long as it takes, while recruiting, training, funding, and supervising a ruthless Iraqi police and security force that will gradually allow the American military to reduce their "footprint" in the country without entirely leaving. The endgame, as he and his advisors imagine it, would result in a permanent U.S. military presence in the country, including permanent bases and basing rights, and a predominant position for U.S. business and oil interests.

True, there is no sign right now that the U.S. is winning this conflict. But there is no sign that the insurgency is winning either. And in view of what's at stake, we have consider at the possibility that this thing may not end with Bush's departure from the scene; we could be in for the long haul. Dreyfuss continues:

Indeed, this war would have to be sustained not only by this administration, but by the next one and probably the one after that as well. For over three years, the United States has supported a massive military presence on the ground in Iraq, while taking steady casualties. It may be no less capable of doing so for the next two-and-a-half years, until the end of Bush's second term - and during the next administration's reign, too, whether the president is named John McCain or Hillary Clinton. At least theoretically, a force of more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers could wage a brutal war of attrition against the resistance in Iraq for years to come. Last week, in a leak to the New York Times, the White House announced its intention to leave at least 50,000 troops in Iraq for many years to come. Last week, too, the son of the president of Iraq (a Kurd) revealed that representatives of the Kurdish region are in negotiations with the United States to create a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq's north.

We need to start looking both at the Iraq War and the shape and direction of American society with a new pair of glasses. This might be the first time since the Civil War that we are forced to ask ourselves the most fundamental question of all: Exactly what kind of society and government are we going to have? What is to be our constitution, i.e., "plan of government?"

What is the role of militarism to be in our society and government? of international monopoly capitalism as represented by companies like Exxon? of oil and gas and coal and electricity? of our attitude toward the planet we live on? What is the basis of our moral outlook?

Someday, as Dreyfuss argues, the Iraq War may be brought to a "successful" conclusion. But that might be the worst failure of all. For there is one thing above all about this war we need to remember (Dreyfuss again): The war in Iraq was not a "mistake." It was a deliberately calculated exercise of U.S. power with a specific end in mind - namely, control of Iraq and the Persian Gulf region. It was illegal and remains so. It was a war crime and remains so. Its perpetrators were war criminals and remain so. Its goals were unworthy and remain so.

In other words, the continuation of the American way of life is dependent on the successful prosecution of a moral outrage.

Dreyfuss does not end there. I find his conclusions to this thought-provoking article genuinely frightening.

I urge everyone who thinks seriously about these matters to read it.

Dave B

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Don't Feed the Troll

"I agree that Coulter was rude," says a poster at another site, "but she makes a good point."

She'd make a good vanishing point if she disappeared, and in my world she already has. Who pays attention to media whores and clowns anyway?

The only thing that distresses me about the recent Coulter flap is that far too many people on both sides of the left/right divide appear to take this publicity hound seriously. I feel sorry for them, as I do for people who take those stupid Simpson sisters seriously.

I like Dennis Perrin's (Red State Son Blog) take on Annie:

"The Coulter obsession, by both media and liberals, has gotten pretty fucking ridiculous, but what can you expect in a celebrity culture? As (you) know, I don't spend extensive time on rightwing media creatures, simply because they are howling caricatures of a deeper American psychosis, long on sensation but lacking serious texture. They are a tawdry part of the Spectacle, as any Situationist will tell you, or any seasoned carny will confirm. Freak shows and cheap rides still draw crowds, and it's only natural that what passes for American political discourse plays shamelessly to this. Coulter knows how to get rubes in the tent, even if they hate her -- hell, especially if they hate her. It's a demented symbiotic relationship that shows no sign of ending."

(Full text of Perrin's remarks.)

Forget this bitch. She's just another commodity, like Madonna and boy bands.

By the way, if you're not in the habit of reading Dennis Perrin's blog, "Red State Son," do yourself a favor. If you're anywhere to the left of Heinrich Himmler you might enjoy him. And if you're a prowar vampire, consider him a prescription.

Anyone can recover.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Knots in the Pipeline

The big oil companies and big refiners would have you believe that the current high price of gasoline American drivers are dealing with is simply the result of market conditions. "Tight supplies and increasing global demand," they will tell you.

But the truth is that big oil is restraining production, both in the fields where the raw material is extracted, and at the refineries where the final product is readied for the gas pumps.

A chapter in Greg Palast's new book, "Armed Madhouse," describes how the oil corporations, led by Shell Oil USA's former CEO Philip Carroll, blocked the Pentagon's initial plan to sell off the Iraqi oil fields to private developers on the open market -- the administration's original plan for financing the Iraq War. Neocon policy planners also hoped that implementing the sell-off scheme would destroy OPEC "through massive increases in production above OPEC quotas," according to a 2005 article by Palast.

But Carroll, who took control of Iraqi oil production for the U.S. government a month after the invasion, stalled the sell-off plan and managed to have it replaced by another secret scheme favored by the oil industry. The new plan, deatails of which were obtained from the State Department by and published by Harper's Magazine under the US Freedom of Information Act, called for creation of a state-owned oil company favored by the US oil industry. It was cemented in place by Carroll's successor, a Conoco executive.

Under the oil companies' plan, Iraq will remain a member of OPEC, and its production of crude oil will be limited to whatever quota the cartel sets for it. The oil giants fear that unrestrained Iraqi production would both drive down the currently record-high price of oil, and undercut Saudi Arabia's primacy as the world's leading producer, straining Saudi-American relations.

Iraq is the final big question mark in determining the total amount of global oil reserves. It has proven reserves of 112 billion barrels, second only to Saudi Arabia. But unlike Saudi Arabia, its oil wealth has remained largely unexploited and has not even been completely evaluated. It may be the last place on earth where there are very large, completely unexploited reserves.

As Palast's book makes clear, industry suppression of Iraqi oil production capacity in the interests of keeping prices elevated has a long history, dating back to the 1920's. And today, of Iraq's 74 known large oil fields, only 15 are in production. Thus we can expect OPEC to keep Iraqi production restrained to the two-million-barrel per day limit imposed by the U.N. under the oil-for-food regime.

Possibly even more pertinent to the current price crisis at the gas pump is the deliberate damping down of the supply of refined gasoline, in support of high profits and restraint of trade, by big American refiners, detailed by James Surowiecki in an article in the June 12, 2006 New Yorker.

The last American oil refinery to be built came on line in 1976, and existing capacity has not kept pace with demand. Recently the Department of Energy has been urging oil companies to build new refineries, and Congress is offering to ease environmental regulations that would add to the expense of doing so.

"Unfortunately," Surowiecki points out, "the lack of capacity that Washington sees as a crisis looks like an ideal business model to oil refiners," for only in recent years has refining become a wildly lucrative business. "Last year, refiners' profits jumped thirty-nine percent," and this increase, which represents billions of dollars, "has gone straight into refiners' pockets."

In addition, over the past fifteen years the larger refiners have been buying out the smaller ones, and this cannibalization has led to the formation of a tightly consolidated industry, whose main players are easily able to combine in restraint of trade.

"In 1993," Surowiecki reports, "the five biggest refiners...controlled thirty-five per cent of the market. By 2004 they controlled fifty-six per cent...(and) in California, ninety-five per cent of the refining market (is) in the hands of just seven companies.

The bottom line is that America desperately needs more oil refining capacity, but the refiners have no need for it at all. When the disastrous hurricanes of 2005 shut down two Marathon Oil refineries, the price spike that resulted meant that Marathon made more money than it would have if all its facilities had been running.

The refiners are very much aware that less production capacity they have, the higher prices will go, which means by limiting production they will enjoy both higher gross income and lower overhead expenses, and hence greater net profits. They are also hesitant to build expensive refineries to process what is ultimately sure to be a declining resource, for while oil production and refining might be suppressed today, by the mid- to late twenty-first century, it won't have to be. Global supply will be in serious decline.

There is no conspiracy among oil producers and refiners. They don't have to conspire to know what conditions are required for them to increase their profits and power. Their moving in concert reflects economic realities rather than secret conspiracies. However, the drive for greater profits also necessitates the concentration of decision-making powers into fewer and fewer hands.

As Surowiecki's article concludes, "High gas prices usually provoke one of two explanations: either they're evidence of a conspiracy or they're just the result of the free market at work. The good news is that there's no conspiracy. The bad news is that there's also no free market."

Friday, June 16, 2006

Cynicism. It's a Good Thing.

A friend of mine keeps getting swindled in various ways. Once it was by a crook who "borrowed" money. Another time he put his own rep on the line to secure a job for someone who's your basic standard-issue screw-up.

Since my friend used to be (many years ago) intimately connected with a certain criminal organization of Sicilian origin which shall remain nameless here, I'm always surprised and baffled when he gets shafted. How could these things happen to someone as knowledgeable in the ways of the world as he?

I think maybe he's actually an idealist.

And I know I'm not.

Is there such a thing as "human nature?" Christians think there is, and they believe it's nasty -- that human nature is essentially evil. That's the point of Chapter One, Adam and Eve in the Garden. Given a choice, they chose badly.

If our fundamental nature wasn't evil, there'd have been no need for Jesus -- no need for redemption. I'm always amazed how many happy, sunny, "think positive" Christians don't understand this underlying, unavoidable premise of their religion.

However, this knowledge, for knowledge I believe it to be and not merely opinion, isn't limited to the Christians. Buddhists are convinced of it as well, although they put the matter a little differently. Their founder declared that the natural state of the human being is not evil, but "delusion," which amounts to the same thing. A delusional person's behavior is destructive, and ultimately self-destructive.

As in the case of Christians, Buddhist cynicism is tempered by hope. Enlightenment (i.e., Christian "redemption") is possible, but requires an unconditional surrender of the the ego.

The same realization is reflected in the literature of Alcoholics Anonymous, for whom the natural state of the alcoholic is drunkenness. But there is a solution. See above.

I have no positive expectations of human behavior. I always anticipate people will behave selfishly and hypocritically, without realizing they're "digging up their own roots," as the Buddha is said to have expressed it.

This way, I'm always pleasantly surprised on those rare occasions when I see someone acting as he or she should, i.e., with the self-interest of others, and hence one's own self-interest, as the primary concern. And make no mistake, I don't act that way nearly as often as I ought to.

I think my friend is getting "hoist on his own petar," that his expectations grow out of an idealism which is a product of ego.

There are people who want help and people who need help. If I try to help people who simply need help, but don't want it, what good am I doing? For them or myself?

The first requirement for effective action is to see things as they are.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Armed Madhouse

Greg Palast is a political writer. Other than that, he's a pure writer -- a real one. I'm in awe of this guy's style.

Working For Change (dot com) is serializing his new book, "Armed Madhouse." Part one is here. It's hilarious, and very much worth the few minutes it'll take you to read it.

Palast seems to be able to write about several topics at once without confusing the reader, or maybe it's just his extremely fast pace that makes it seem that way. He documents every assertion, links seemingly unconnected malfeasances together in greasy chains, and is very funny on top of it all.

Though he's British, Palast specializes in analyzing the sewage of the American political system. It was he, you might remember, who wrote the book on the stolen election of Y2K, "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy."

My friend and bandmate, Steve (lead vocalist for ShangPupShoo), who's also a journalist, interviewed Palast once. He told me that if it hadn't been for his pocket digital recorder the interview would have been a bust; there's no way anyone taking notes could keep up with Palast.

"You just turn him on and he goes nonstop," Steve said. "He's a mile a minute, and everything is connected to everything else. It's an endless stream, and really funny at the same time."

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Terror Balloon

On 9/11/2001 the Saudi Wahabbists of al-Qaida and the current administration (hereafter referred to as BushCo) both got lucky. Al-Qaida's attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon succeeded beyond their expectations. And BushCo got the cataclysmic event they had been hoping for which would justify their launching of the Perpetual War.

Never has the fakery of the so-called war on terror been more obvious than in the case of the late Abu Zarqawi. Zarqawi was an American product, a phantom conjured up in the steamy heat of the neocon mythology kitchen, and his successor, whomever it might be, will be the same kind of "made in U.S.A." inflatable doll for conservatives to fantasize with.

In her story on Zarqawi which appears in the Atlantic (accessible only to subscribers) this month, Mary Ann Weaver says, ""During my time in Jordan I asked a number of officials what they considered to be the most curious aspect of the relationship between the U.S. and al-Zarqawi, other than the fact that the Bush administration had inflated him. One of them said, 'The six times you could have killed Zarqawi, and you didn’t.'"

I guess for a time we needed him alive, just like we still need Osama. You need something scary to conjure up and keep the children (in this country called "the voters" or "public opinion") in line.

Patrick Cockburn at Counterpunch says, "The ease with which Iraqi police and US special forces were able to reach the house after the bombing without encountering hostile fire showed that Zarqawi was never the powerful guerrilla chieftain and leader of the Iraqi resistance that Washington has claimed for over three years."

Cockburn also observes that with Zarqawi snuffed, BushCo will have to find some other bearded, scowling Islamist boogeyman to put on the scary wanted posters they put up in the post office and run on Fox News.

Monday, June 12, 2006


Jim Kunstler over at the "Clusterfuck Nation" blog posted a great piece this morning about the beautiful Bellingham to Seattle Amtrak run, which the old grouch found so refreshing it seems to have actually made him happy.

It's not very long, and very much worth a read.

I love Kunstler, ever the Jeremiah of modern times, whose self-appointed mission is to lament, with very good reason, the disasters that are confronting us as a people even now, and the imbecilic responses of both the powers that be and the public at large. However, perpetually contemplating this bleak and depressing landscape seems to have given him a permanent case of dyspepsia. So I was glad to see that there are still a few things that can relieve his choleric melancholia, and actually make him smile in print.


Living with less money ("Less than what?" you ask; "Less than I used to have," I answer.) isn't easy. It requires some fine tuning.

So this morning after my run into town, I did something I'm still getting inured to, and washed my car. It was tough, but not that tough. The sun was beating down by ten a.m., but I still took my time, did a good job, saved fifteen bucks, and did my part to slow illegal immigration.

I also mowed and raked my own yard yesterday, although to be honest the strip of grass we installed strictly for dog comfort only takes fifteen minutes or so.

Ever seen a gringo sweat? It's probably good for him, if he doesn't overdo it.

Gone are the days when we had a gardener, a housecleaner, various maintenance men, the regular carwash stop, and did nothing but work and pay other people to take care of us. And it's really better this way.

When you have a small income, you think in more modest terms. Eat less meat and cheese, eat more beans and greens. Save your dimes in a piggy bank and turn them into grocery money when the pig gets full. Think twice about driving. Throw your credit card out the window (but be sure to shred it first).

I don't think money has much to do with happiness, unless a person has so little money that it becomes difficult to keep a roof over one's head, or keep body and soul together.

Saturday, June 10, 2006


An important new movie: "Who Killed the Electric Car" by Chris Paine. It was profiled on PBS's "Now" last night.

We all should be driving electric cars right now. They began showing up on California roads in 1996, but somebody somewhere made the decision to get rid of them.

Look to the usual suspects: big oil companies (for obvious reasons) and auto makers (because electric cars are virtually maintenance free).

This is more than a high-price-of-gas issue. It's a national security issue. The Iraq War proves it; our policy toward Saudi Arabia proves it; the fact that we are exposing ourselves to danger and humiliation throughout the Mideast in pursuit of oil proves it.

As voters and participants in a supposed democracy, we're allowing ourselves to be grossly endangered by the greed and duplicity of giant corporations at the same time they're picking our pockets and cleaning out our bank accounts.

Isn't it time we stopped hollering quasi-religious, superstitious slogans about "free" enterprise and "evil" government, and began to develop rational and practical economic, transportation, and foreign policies?

We can sure as hell do better than this.

The electric car is one sure-fire solution to several of our worst problems, but I don't expect it too soon. That would make too much sense. However, we should absolutely demand from the auto makers a hybrid that can be plugged in overnight and at the job site, and refuse to buy anything less. I think that's coming within the next couple years.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Melquiades Estrada

"The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones, is the best movie of the decade.

Jones and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga walked away from last year's Cannes Festival with the best actor and best screenplay Palmes D'Or for "Melquiades," but the grand prize went to Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers" which I haven't seen. I think Jones probably missed the trifecta by inches.

A story of the harsh life, an accidental death, and one man's redemption along the U.S.'s southern border, "Melquiades" is like a skilfully-rendered minimalist drawing in which characters are fleshed out completely and revealingly with just a few bold strokes of dialogue. Jones has said that one of his influences in making this film was Kabuki, and he certainly was inspired by Kurosawa's 1950 masterpiece "Rashomon," in which a single crime is viewed through the eyes of several different participants.

Pete Perkins (Jones) hires then befriends Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo), an illegal drifter who describes himself accurately as "just a cowboy." Guileless, simple and decent, Melquiades only speaks Spanish, but Pete is fluently bilingual, and as the two grow closer the Mexican asks the gringo to promise to take him home for burial if he should die north of border. He doesn't want to be laid to rest among the billboards, and gives the old foreman detailed instructions on how to find his home, Jimenez, smaller than even a fly-speck on the map of Coahuilla state.

Of course, Estrada does die not long after, shot in an accidental misunderstanding by Mike Norton, a cocky, immature, emotionally repressed Border Patrolman played by Barry Pepper. Pepper has been working Hollywood and playing mostly smaller parts for about eight years, but he's maximized his main chance here by uncorking what must be the performance of a lifetime. His intensity is incredible throughout, and at times he becomes so physically involved in his part he's hard to watch.

When Pete realizes that the cynical and corrupted local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) is not going to follow up on Estrada's death, even though he knows who the killer is ("He was a wetback," says Sheriff Baxter), he realizes he has to make good his promise to Estrada and at the same time appoint himself as a one-man vigiliance commission. He decides to take Norton into custody.

Norton's wife, a sad little bottle blond (January Jones) bails out of their loveless marriage, departing with an over-the-shoulder postscript that he's "beyond redemption," one of the movie's main themes expressed, as always, with spectacular economy. Neither is there any preaching or moralizing about the other philosophical threads Jones and Arriaga weave here -- racism, cultural chauvinism, corruption, the loss of simplicity as a virtue, alienation, and the universal need to find a moral purpose, something beyond the self.

Filmed mostly on Jones's Texas ranch and in the Mexican Mojave Desert, this was the long-time star's directorial debut. If his next effort is half this good, it'll be a masterpiece.

Zarqawi: Rest in Pieces

Beloved Leader expects that everyone will joyously celebrate this significant victory in the Global War on Terror. Our brave fighters in East...I mean Eurasia will certainly be safer now that the evildoer Zarqawi has been eliminated, and we can expect a quick and glorious outcome to this conflict.

Only thought criminals and enemy infiltrators can fail to be impressed by such a welcome event.

Please remember to practice safe sex, and make your next vehicle purchase a hybrid. Don't forget to use your zip code at all times.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Scary Day Blues

Now it came to pass in the sixth year, in the sixth month, on the sixth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the desert springs...

OK, it's nothing as dramatic* as all that. A number of people have made a big deal about the day's numbers, but I haven't thought about this occult combination very much. However, it was an exceedingly unusual day here, with the air menacingly still, a thick, low cloud cover hiding the sun, and uncharacteristicly intense humidity altering the landscape and atmosphere ominously. The birds were mute, the animals invisible, the people nervous.

I went looking for work today. Why has everyone grown younger than me? I felt like a chaperone. The settings were familiar, the people in them as they had always been, but I've been, as if all of a sudden, transformed into a grandfatherly figure, or perhaps a ghost.

However, no one seemed afraid of me, and they were respectful enough. So maybe there's spot for me, off in an obscure corner of some large firm, computing arcane tables of alchemical formulae which it is my assigned task to hand down to the next generation.

*See the opening lines of Chapter One of the King James O.T. Book of Ezekiel

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Through the Looking Glass

Yesterday while idly clicking through the cable channels on a hot afternoon, I stumbled across the BBC's 1998 made-for-television version of "Alice Through the Looking Glass." I was fortunate enough to see most of this 86-minute masterpiece (accompanied by at least 86 minutes of commercials) which I had not previously known about.

This "Alice" uses lots of computer-driven special effects, some animation, a platoon of wonderfully crisp, classically-trained British actors, and a script which religiously follows the original (someone named Nick Vivian shares screenwriting credit with Lewis Carroll, but what we get is the undiluted original). "Looking Glass" is, I believe, superior to "Underground," and no previous adaptation of either of the Alice books that I've seen is anywhere near this good.

Of course, some will take issue with the casting of Kate Beckinsale as Alice (this was back before her big breakthrough in "Pearl Harbor," when she was still an artist). At age twenty-five, Beckinsale was so ridiculously beautiful she could probably induce heart attacks in more than a few of us mouth breathers lucky enough to catch sight of her. This is decidedly not a child-Alice, but she still manages to impart a childlike aura to the role, albeit in precise, graceful, elegant and educated British diction. Heartbreak city.

Clean, beautifully enunciated, carefully articulated language is one of the distinguishing characteristics of this production, honored even by the Cockney twins Tweedledum (Gary Olsen) and Tweedledee (Marc Warren). Besides Beckinsale who appears in every scene and carries most of the film, other notable performances are rendered by Ian Holm as the White Knight, who delivers an inspired rendition of the poem "A-Sitting on a Gate," Desmond Barritt as Humpty-Dumpty, and the incredibly charismatic Sian Phillips (she played Augustus's wife Livia in PBS's "I, Claudius" series) as the Red Queen.

Many reputable people don't like the Alice books. Flannery O'Connor, someone I really admire, called them "regrettable" or "unfortunate" or something like that. Some, I suppose are offended by the puns and the sometimes childish word play and non-sequiturs. But there's more to this nonsense than juvenile whimsy, and if a reader delves deeply enough to break through the patina of silliness, he or she will find that Carroll, outwardly careful and conventional, secretly harbored tremendous rage and resentment against the mores -- moral, philosophical, and theological -- of polite, proper, and repressed Victorian society. Innocuous-seeming humor was the only means he had of expressing it.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Take Two

Exactly two years ago tomorrow I retired from teaching and moved to a new home, all within just a few hours.

It's a sad day when you leave the old school in tears, drive to the house you've lived in for a decade and a half, pack up the cat, and drive 150 miles to a world unknown. Sad is hardly a word to describe it. The sense of loss was acute and exquisite.

What one expects and what one gets are seldom, if ever the same. I expected, leisure, learning, and a comfortable if somewhat penurious life lived in harmony with those around me. What I got was ennui, boredom, melancholia, discord, grinding poverty, and rapidly declining health due to my own weakness and character defects.

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
--Hamlet, Act I, scene 2

So tomorrow, the second anniversary of the arrival of that holy grail everyone looks forward to, when you don't have to get up at five, I'll get up at five, go get the Sunday paper, and start actively looking for work, which has now become a necessity for a number of reasons.

And at 5:01, I'll take my medicine "like a man" as people used to say, and begin restoring both body and soul. I'll either do it or literally die trying.

Things never turn out the way we expect them to.

If it weren't for the unexpected and the unwanted challenge, our lives would be unbearably predictable. It's really better this way. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put it in a not-so-famous Unitarian hymn, as long as we have the strength to carry on, we get The Life that Maketh All Things New.