Ken Layne to Wed Hot Babe in Baja: I was going to make something long and fancy here, but time is a cruel dictator. My dear friend and comrade-for-a-decade Ken Layne is marrying my other dear friend Laura Crane in Mexico this weekend, and there will be a nice long fiesta to honor the union. You might know Ken from his own site, from his media columns, or from his legendary and thankfully dead international-news daily Tabloid.net (which, two years since folding, has higher traffic than I do now). I was poking around the archives of that sucker today … man, is there a bunch of terrific, sharply written stuff (popular stories this month include at least a half-dozen gruesome accounts of Taliban outrages from 1997-99). But there are many things you probably don’t know about Ken, unless you are one of the rabble headed down to Lobster Village this weekend. For instance, he had a roots-rock band in the ‘80s called The Outriders that put out indie-label records, toured extensively with the Beat Farmers and got glowing reviews from the – hee-hee – L.A. Times. He’s one of the best singers you’ll ever hear (imagine Mick Jagger with a baritone throat and a thick country drawl), and he put out two wrecked home-demo releases in the early ‘90s – The Monkey Cup and Half-Finished Crap – that rank among my top 20 records of the decade. He launched the first country-radio station in Macedonian history, opened up the Bratislava bureau of my English-language newspaper in Prague, published a hilarious New Media satire/thriller called Dot.Con, drew inappropriate cartoons for every publication he’s ever worked for, and made Hollywood club history by impersonating singer/songwriter John Oszajca for an entire “industry showcase” gig. I was going to link to a bunch of my favorite Ken columns, especially the romantic & uplifting ones that came out right at the time he was winning Laura’s favors, but that will have to wait until I get back. Here’s the point: he’s bailed me out of more jams than I can count, amused his friends and exasperated his enemies (just as Ed Abbey instructed). And along the way he has demonstrated for all of us the exhilaration, responsibility and necessity of writing with true freedom – often at a direct material cost to his bank account. Which is why, today, I’d like to ask all of you who enjoy his work to give him a wedding present. He will be cross that I said so, but he will also be drunk and on a cruise. For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, please go take a look. I will see you in three days.
10/19/2001 01:46:11 AM
Some Other Warblogs, While I Eat Lobster in Mexico For Three Days: These are all more than worthy of your attention, and I daresay they represent a very interesting phenomenon: First, there’s the eponymous mainstays of Ken Layne, Tony Pierce, Amy Langfield and my own beloved Emmanuelle Richard. Then, there’s Nick Denton’s Blogorama, Glenn Reynolds’ InstaPundit, Jeff Jarvis’ WarLog, Fred Lapides’ Bushwacker, Bjørn Stærk’s The World After WTC, Thomas Nephew’s Newsrack (he also speaks German!), Charles Johnson’s Little Green Footballs, Steven Den Beste's USS Clueless, Reid Stott’s PhotoDude, Andrew Hofer’s More Than Zero, Gabrielle Taylor’s Moonfarmer, and Shiloh Bucher’s dropscan. There’s also Fredrik Norman and Oliver Willis, some 29-year-old literary Aussie dude who does A Bright Cold Day in April, and a brand new guy (I think!) who does Rallying Point. You might already know about Andrew Sullivan and Virginia Postrel, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read them every day. You might not yet know Mark Woods’ wood s lot or Brian Lamb’s Blowback, so give them a shot, too. Perhaps most intriguingly of all, there is this new blog concerning rabbits … I think I smell some long-overdue Silverlake cooking! I hope I haven't screwed up the names and addresses, but my eyes are getting bleary. One random thing I’ve noticed – a lot of these people (including the rabbit?) play the guitar.
10/19/2001 01:14:20 AM
Thank you: 9,246 hits on Tuesday, well over 26,000 already for the week. This compares to, say, 13,400 for the month of August. Also, 15 of you nice people have left a total of $72 in my tip-jar, which is awesome and humbling. My e-mail was half-broke up until yesterday, which is at least partially why I’ve been so bad at responding to your thoughtful notes. This will change soon (as will my slovenly work habits), but first I’m off to Baja to see my dear friend Ken Layne marry the bewitching Laura Crane (yes, she lived on a plain in Spain). If I can stay awake for a bit tonight I will leave you with some great warblogs to chew on, and a little tribute to my pal Ken. Thanks for hanging around this past month, and I hope to be of service in the times ahead.
10/19/2001 12:42:05 AM
interesting New Media activities.
10/18/2001 12:55:14 PM
The Lie of the Lefty-Baiters: The New York Observer’s Rick Perlstein makes a well-documented and persuasive suggestion that Left-thwackers like me hold roughly the same views, in fact, as the vast majority of the Left, and wildly exaggerate the existence of “anti-Americanism” on that side of the political spectrum. Very good article; full of quotes and examples (brought to my attention by alert reader Frank Millheim).
10/18/2001 10:41:10 AM
Straw Man of the Day (if not Sontag Award Nominee): It’s Salon founder David Talbot! For his interview of Susan Sontag, commemorating the savaging she received after a particularly offensive post-Sept. 11 essay in the New Yorker! Before I launch into this, I should point out that Talbot and I have had nothing but pleasant relations in the past, and I have both written about Salon (three times, even!), and for Salon. Oh well! (Also, for whatever reason, the Salon version of this interview has a much different intro than the Alternet version that I’m straw-manning.
Writer Susan Sontag has produced many texts during her four-decade career, including historical novels and reflections on cancer, photography and the war in Bosnia. What’s the difference between a “text” and a “book,” or “New York Review of Books essay”? Does Stephen King or John Le Carre write “texts,” and if not, why not? Also, Sontag’s NYRoB essay about how she directed “Waiting for Godot” in besieged Sarajevo was, in my view, one of the most egregious examples of a writer writing about herself instead of the real story in front of her that I have ever read.
In the [New Yorker] piece, which she wrote shortly after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, Sontag dissected the political and media blather that poured out of the television in the hours after the explosions of violence. Here’s how Sontag “dissected the political and media blather that poured out of the television.” Italics mine:
The disconnect between last Tuesday's monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a "cowardly" attack on "civilization" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free world" but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word "cowardly" is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards. This, then, is “dissection” – accuse someone of “self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions” for not sharing your rather omniscient political views that this attack came “as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions,” that it was connected to the “ongoing American bombing in Iraq,” and that (strangest of all?) courage is a “morally neutral virtue.” I have always understood “dissection” to imply the surgical taking apart of an organism to better understand it, as a coroner slices open a cadaver to determine cause of death. Describing TV commentators as “voices licensed to follow the event” who are “joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public,” is to vivisection what bludgeoning is to needlepoint.
After subjecting herself to what she calls "an overdose of CNN," Sontag reacted with a coldly furious burst of analysis, savaging political leaders and media mandarins for trying to convince the country that everything was OK, that our attackers were simply cowards, and that our childlike view of the world need not be disturbed. It wasn’t “cold,” it was “hot,” with fury – and not furious “analysis,” either. For instance, this sentence: “We have a robotic President who assures us that America still stands tall.” I can understand Sontag grossly mischaracterizing politicians (who “have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one”) – after all, she was in Berlin Sept. 11. But Talbot (as far as I know) was in the United States, and so would have seen Rudolph Giuliani, and so presumably should be ashamed of writing that “political leaders” were “trying to convince the country that everything was OK … and that our childlike view of the world need not be disturbed.” What childlike view is that, anyway? Isn’t it interesting that Americans are gorging on Middle East history books, and asking their Arab neighbors about the Koran? I live in an apartment complex with people who come from at least 15 different countries; the local school district reports nearly 200 native tongues. What “childlike view of the world” might the local schoolkids entertain? One that understands that there’s a huge world out there, where people come from all over the place for a variety of reasons, one of which is that this country is friendly and full of promise?
As if to prove her point, a furious chorus of sharp-tongued pundits immediately descended on Sontag, outraged that she had broken from the ranks of the soothingly platitudinous. Actually, they were “outraged” that she had written that courage was a “morally neutral virtue,” that she had written, falsely, that “The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy”; that she had used the word “cowardly” to describe “those [Americans] who kill beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky.” I was one of those “outraged,” and the next time I’m outraged by someone “breaking ranks” will be the first. I do not vote or think or live or write the same way as Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Reynolds, Christopher Hitchens, Matt Drudge or Todd Gitlin. This a big weird country with big weird people figuring it out 280 million different ways, regardless of what’s being broadcast on MSNBC at the moment. I am guessing that we and/or anyone else who criticized Susan Sontag’s essay, did so because she was demonstrably full of shit.
She was called an "America-hater," a "moral idiot," a "traitor" who deserved to be driven into "the wilderness," never more to be heard. The poor dear! I’ve been called a “commy” and a “right-winger” in the past two months, and one guy even suggested I should move to Cuba if I didn’t like it here. Boo hoo!
The bellicose right predictably tried to lump her in with the usual left-wing peace crusaders, whose programmed pacifism has sidelined them during the current political debates. Nice differentiation, Dave! We know you’re a sensible dissenter now! Actually, most Sontag-bashing I read just took her to task for the foolish things she said. Also, at least half of the criticism was not from the “bellicose right" -- it was from the justifiably angered populace. For crying out loud, Dave: not everything can be boiled down to some epic struggle against the frothing Right. Normal people have malleable political views, and are more loyal to their own intellect than to any squatting rights on the political spectrum. Being criticized does not make you brave, or right.
10/18/2001 01:43:47 AM
Off-Topic -- Blogger Retreats From Internet Journal: For the past two months up until one hour ago, I haven’t been able to see about 10% of the World Wide Web, including some of the people who have been kind enough to link to me. One of those was a guy named Michael Duff. When I clicked on Michael Duff’s site, I found what appears to be a bitter and wounded web-journal retirement note, entitled “Why Are You Reading This?” I won’t quote from it, because I would be living down to his characterization of journalists, but it’s strangely compelling.
10/17/2001 07:52:21 PM
Testing … Testing … Thanks, Ben!: If this works, I will be able to post items on this site without having to disconnect from the home DSL network & trying to dial up 20-30 times. It will also mean I can read Drudge, NJ.com, Townhall.com, Robneyer.com, oliverwillis.com, and Dow Jones Interactive. In short, I will be able to work again, for the first time in a l-o-o-o-ng time. Cross your fingers….
10/17/2001 06:39:01 PM
Go Read Glenn Reynolds’ Six Questions for Bin Laden: I haven’t laughed this hard since seeing the downtown L.A. vendor on the local news selling an “Osama Yo Mama!” T-shirt.
10/17/2001 02:03:46 PM
Why Not Have Special Forces Take Over Humanitarian Aid? Here's a grim story from today’s L.A. Times about how the war is greatly disrupting all humanitarian effort in Afghanistan. Seems there aren’t enough experienced drivers, communications are shot (more on that below), and aid workers are either being killed inadvertently by U.S. bombs or deliberately by the Taliban. Since this is A) a tragedy, and B) prime fodder for anti-American propaganda, why not announce that, starting very soon, the U.S. military will supply the drivers, rebuild whatever roads and bridges, and guarantee delivery of food and medical supplies? The aid groups will squawk, on grounds of mixing war with peace, but demonstrating results will render that moot. I’m probably naïve, and I haven’t exactly been following this issue closely, but it seems to me that by waging a regime-changing war in someone else’s country, you have the moral duty and pragmatic necessity to rebuild the place and make nice with the people you aren’t targeting. So, why not announce now that the U.S. and Britain will personally rebuild all airports, power plants and most buildings destroyed in the bombing campaign, assuming that Al Qaeda is captured, the Taliban is removed and a stable (if fragile) multi-ethnic Rehabilitation Government is in place? Why not say to the bereaved families of innocent civilians killed by American bombs – we are sorry, and when this is over, if we have proof, we will give you some attempt at compensation? Again, this is all probably naïve, but it would help counter the main resonant argument against the war (the most powerful country in history is bombing the most wretched country on earth), help continue to drive a wedge between the Afghan population and the Taliban/Qaeda, and I’m betting that in the long run it will save money, by helping circumvent the need for a permanent U.S. military presence there.
There were two interesting side-notes in the story:
For most aid organizations, communications with local staff members still inside Afghanistan all but ended with the Taliban's edict a few days after the U.S. airstrikes began that anyone caught using a satellite telephone would be executed on the spot. […]
If there is a glimmer of hope in the humanitarian crisis, it is that the U.S. airstrikes haven't triggered the anticipated stampede of refugees into neighboring Pakistan. U.N. refugee officials, who initially warned that the latest turmoil could bring 1.5 million Afghans to the country, speak of a maximum of 300,000, but even that number now seems large. […] The knowledge that Pakistan's border with Afghanistan remains officially closed and the tightly targeted nature of the U.S. airstrikes are cited as two reasons for the smaller than expected influx.
10/17/2001 11:10:50 AM
Todd Gitlin Goes Yard: Every time I see Todd Gitlin’s byline in the L.A. Times Opinion section, I steel my stomach for anger and nausea. He is a New York sociologist media/culture critic obsessed with the ‘60s and Dubya’s goofy speech patterns, and as such is largely the antithesis of what I enjoy in a writer or thinker. Boy, was I an ass. Read this column by Gitlin, on that weird openDemocracy site he seems to be involved with. For my two bucks, it’s one of the best and most tunefully emotional columns yet addressing and condemning the “anti-American” reaction to the Sept. 11 massacre. It’s tough to not to quote the whole thing:
Bush repented of his Texas-Christian excess, probably having been told it sounded as though his remark had been telepathically scripted by Osama bin Laden. His speechwriters, and some reality principle, took over (no doubt with his gratitude). Flagrant errors receded. Rumsfeld backed down, at least rhetorically, and Powell spoke sense. The branding brigade reverted to the blander, less euphonious Operation Enduring Freedom. Everyone in authority rejected indiscriminate retaliation.
But writers who identified America as the unswerving world bully took little note. Like certain American jingos who thought the effort to understand terrorists immoral – on the ground that to understand is to endorse – they disdained understanding. Because thought can be burdensome (as if the absence of thought were not), they preferred, rhetorically, to shoot first and ask questions afterward. […]
What are we to make of the fact that some who beg us to understand terrorism, or bin Laden, or Islamic fundamentalism, do not trouble themselves to understand America? You must not only know your enemy. You must also know your well-meaning, tolerant, short-sighted, liberal, selfish, generous, trigger-happy, dumb, glorious, fat-headed, on-again-off-again friend. […]
The attack stirs, in other words, patriotism – love of one’s people and desire to keep them from being hurt anymore. And then, too, the wound is inverted, transformed into a badge of honor. It is translated into protestation (“we didn’t deserve this”), and pride (“they can’t do this to us”). Pride can go toward the quest for justice, the rage for punishment, the pleasures of smugness. The dangers are obvious. But it should not be hard to understand that the American flag sprouted first, for many of us, as a badge of belonging, not a call to shed innocent blood.
This sequence is not an artefact of American arrogance, ignorance and insularity. It is simply and ordinarily human. […]
Those who are quick to read the mind of the executioner – crediting him with the longest possible list of legitimate grievances – forfeit understanding of the victim. […]
The terrorist logic of Osama bin Laden is transpolitical – that is to say, nihilistic. Issues are fodder for his apocalyptic imagination. He wants power and calls it God. Were Palestinians to win all their demands, he would move on, in his next video, to his next issue. […]
The soft anti-American, by contrast, sincerely wants US policies to change, but lays even the mass murderer (if not the mass murder) at the door of the US itself. The soft anti-American not only notes but gloats that, after all, the US built up Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan as a counterfoil to the Russians. The US’ part in arming these legions is undeniable and important. But what follows? American policy has often been vile (in the name of Islam in this case, but never mind), but must we then be righteously condemned to blowback forever? Since there were American companies and rightists who welcomed Hitler, should America not have (belatedly) declared war on Nazi Germany? Since the US tilted toward Saddam Hussein against Iran, was his invasion of Kuwait to be cavalierly accepted? Is America some frozen essence perennially condemned to be worthy of condemnation?
So we move quickly past a condemnation of mass murder to a cascade of whataboutism. Americans died on 11 September, that’s terrible, but what about the victims of American foreign policy? In the present, Palestinians and Iraqis. Half a century back, Iran. For decades, Soviet apologists were quick with their riposte to Americans: “What about the Red Indians?” Whataboutism is the stuff of feuds, not politics. It is not an engagement with reality, but a retreat from it into stampeding certainty. […]
Any enlightened American shares [Edward] Said’s disgust with American ignorance. But even as a characterisation of American action in relation to “the Islamic domains”, this is breathtakingly skewed. And in two directions – for in flattening a US role in which the complex stories of Suez, Kuwait, the Oslo agreement, Bosnia and Kosovo also figure, it also reduces “the Islamic domains” to homogenised, supine victimhood. Elsewhere, Said has deplored the intellectual slovenliness of reducing all Islam to a single solid substance. Here, he indulges in precisely that: an intellectual legerdemain that dissolves historical truth into exoticising fantasy. […]
Does Arundhati Roy really need reminding that the enemy does not need to be manufactured? And when she describes bin Laden as “the American president’s dark doppelganger….the twins are blurring into one another and gradually becoming interchangeable”, is she aware how the lazy, patronizing coupling demeans its author?
What links Roy and Said is what demarcates anti-Americanism, that peculiar empire of the one-eyed, from reasoned political opposition to US policies. Real, not gestural politics must worry about the breadth of the brush; but anti-Americanism is one of those prejudices that musters evidence to suit a conclusion already in place. For it, ordinary Americans can never be just that. They can certainly never just be victims, a status already monopolized elsewhere. Americans, or ‘the West’, are blithely dehumanized into the molecules of a structure, what bin Laden calls America’s “vital organs”. As for their government, its policies amount to a condition, an essence. The actions of various mass murderers (the Khmer Rouge, Bin Laden) must, rightly, be “contextualized.” But to the anti-American, American policy never has “context.” It is.
10/16/2001 09:09:31 PM
A Note About My Biases: A loyal reader e-mails (in part):
You and Ken are really showing your right-wing stripes these days. […] I like you guys, and it's good you're trying to puncture idiocy from "the left," but the fact is the grossest idiocies right now are being perpetrated by the conservative hordes who control our media and make decisions in washington. Some friends have written similar messages. In case it matters to anyone, I have voted for a Republican exactly once – Tom Campbell against Dianne Feinstein – if memory serves (L.A. has many nonpartisan elections, and my brain leaks). I will probably vote for any Republican against Gray Davis, who I find abhorrent (if you’re bored and want to know why, read this, this or this). I voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988, Jerry Brown in 1992, and Ralph Nader in 2000. I’d like to repeal the Death Penalty, end the Drug War, and create universal health insurance. I’m a civil libertarian and registered independent whose friends tend to be Hollywood rock musicians, wino journalists and foreigners. I lived abroad for eight years, and once wondered if I’d ever move back. If I had to, I’d describe my politics as “liberal” in the European, Economist sense of the word.
A part of my living since 1986 has been made out of dissecting the missteps of the Left, since that’s where my friends came from, and I often shared their goals (and thought it would actually help to point out when they were full of crap). When the terrorists blew up our buildings Sept. 11, I saw no other choice than to find out where they live, and wage war to prevent them from doing it again. The bastards have long since declared war against the U.S. in word, and now they have sealed it with an atrocity. They are actually evil, and need to be stopped and discredited. I hope against fear that the world will take collective steps to drastically reduce the possibility of terrorism, both physically and morally. So when my old lefty friends began to write things I didn't agree with, and especially when their arguments and facts didn't pass the Truth test, it was natural for me to rebut them. That’s all (and certainly more than you wanted to know).
As I told the nice reader, please send me any examples of how “the grossest idiocies right now are being perpetrated by the conservative hordes who control our media and make decisions in Washington.” I’m always open to the idea, and I’m aware that my radar is attuned toward a portion of the electorate which, frankly, does not today have much influence on power. I’d like a right-wing Straw Man not named Ann Coulter. Bring it on.
10/16/2001 06:37:18 PM
Layne Beat Me To It: Alert reader Hunter Weatherly suggested that I give Straw Man treatment to this foolish little Salon column about defeating terrorism by abolishing first class air travel. Thanks, Hunter, but Ken got there first:
Well, someone's finally written the Stupidest Post-Attack Column, and (brace yourselves) it's in Salon. Want to "save the environment" and stop hijackers? This guy's got the answer: Eliminate First Class!
I usually fly coach, because I'm poor. But when the nice people give me an upgrade, I am happy, like any sane person. And when an airline makes an effort to provide more personal space in Coach, I fly that airline (thanks, American!).
Thanks to this idiot Salon.com article, now I know the error of my ways. Flying first class is racist! And it hurts the environment! And it encourages terrorists! Way to go, Dennis Riches.
10/16/2001 02:09:22 PM
Kinsley's Dumb Joke: In the previous post, I talk a bit about how writers who’ve written a certain way for a long time might prove to be ill-equipped to deal with the Sept. 11 massacre and its aftermath. For a long time, clever Slate editor Michael Kinsley has been writing with tongue planted firmly in cheek, always bursting the bubbles of those with the bad form to be passionate, and dissembling weirdly about his relationship with Microsoft (I wrote an uncharitable column about the latter phenomenon this January). But, I figured, since Slate was suddenly rising to the occasion, as well as The New Republic, Andrew Sullivan and a lot of other people I used to not pay attention to, maybe it was time to give Kinsley a Dubya-like “clean slate.” Well, maybe not:
A truly adequate plan for military, economic, and spiritual victory requires us to go much further. For example, bailouts for the business sectors directly affected by the events of Sept. 11 do nothing for sectors that may have been hit just as hard, albeit indirectly. There are many such sectors, but one in particular is especially vital to America's future — and the world's: the Internet. Even before Sept. 11, Internet companies were going under by the dozens every week. Now, hundreds more bankruptcies are threatened as advertising plans are scaled back and investors get even more skeptical than before. C’mon, Mike, step up to the plate.
This must not be allowed to continue. It would be a cruel irony indeed if the forces of medievalism were permitted to strangle the infant economy of the future in its bed. What is needed is a carefully targeted tax credit of 50 percent for new or additional investments in Internet startup firms—or for money spent on advertising in online publications. We also need a 100 percent capital-gains-tax exclusion for Internet-related stocks. Nothing would do more to revive what was wrongly dismissed so often as a "speculative bubble" that this misnomer became a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Would that we had such a "speculative bubble" today!) As someone who works in the Internet sector, I can testify that I and all my Internet colleagues are totally dedicated to showing Osama Bin Laden that he cannot drive the American spirit off-line—but we need a little encouragement.
Another essential step in the war against terrorism is for President Bush to order the Justice Department to drop its antitrust suit against Microsoft.
10/16/2001 12:16:31 PM
Writing of Tragedy: On one level, I have nothing but admiration for anyone who wrote and published anything in the days following the Sept. 11 massacre. I was basically catatonic until Sept. 16 or so, when I began this warblog, and I still haven’t published all that much about it. Say what you will about Barbara Kingsolver -- at least the woman’s getting it out there, fighting for what she believes in and trying to mix it up.
So one shouldn’t beat Toni Morrison up too much for her Sept. 13 four-paragraph essay that was just published in Vanity Fair’s special “One Week in September” edition. On deadline, dealing with her own grief, and clearly feeling the responsibility of being Our Novelist Who Sums It All Up, Morrison could have been forgiven if she had typed “blah blah blah” 50 times.
She didn’t do that at all, but she did write something that I believe neatly demonstrates the limits of a certain kind of “personal” writing. Here’s roughly two-thirds of the essay:
If I can pluck courage here, I would like to speak directly to the dead – the September dead. […] But I would not say a word until I could set aside all I know or believe about nations, war, leaders, the governed and ungovernable; all I suspect about armor and entrails. First I would freshen my tongue, abandon sentences crafted to know evil – wanton or studied; explosive or quietly sinister; whether born of a sated appetite or hunger; of vengeance or the simple compulsion to stand up before falling down. I would purge my language of hyperbole; of its eagerness to analyze the levels of wickedness; ranking them; calculating their higher or lower status among others of its kind. Do you see the problem here? This is an essay about the “holy act” of Toni Morrison writing an essay. She decries the “false intimacy” of TV personalities (though, personally, I found the intimacy of Aaron Brown and Ashleigh Banfield to be pretty durned real) … and yet is it not false modesty for Morrison to claim she has “nothing to say” and “nothing to give,” except for this little “gesture”? (If it was such an insignificant gesture, why dedicate the bulk of the essay to the preparation of said gesture?) And I don’t know about you, but I find the phrase “the dead of September” no less reductive and inappropriate than the “America’s New War” TV logos that you can bet Morrison frowns on. At some point, finally, this story cannot be about the writer, which certainly must cramp the style of those conditioned to write everything through the prism of their own Selves. Not that that’s what Toni Morrison does – I haven’t read any of her books, after all.
Speaking to the broken and the dead is too difficult for a mouth full of blood. Too holy an act for impure thoughts. […]
To speak to you, the dead of September, I must not claim false intimacy or summon an overheated heart glazed just in time for a camera. I must be steady and I must be clear, knowing all the time that I have nothing to say – no words stronger than the steel that pressed you into itself; no scripture older or more elegant than the ancient atoms you have become.
And I have nothing to give either – except this gesture, this thread thrown between your humanity and mine.”
I had a similar feeling after reading the first post-Sept. 11 New Yorker. Somehow, the erudition felt like puffery, or narcissism, and it didn’t at all feel suitable for the occasion. Later, I read a fine little essay by New Republic Literary Critic Leon Wieseltier, who was able to actually put into words my grunting reaction. Here’s a snippet:
In the search for strength, beware fine writing. It, too, is cheap balm. In The New Yorker last week, writer after writer elected to meet atrocity with sensibility. "On the morning of the day they did it," Adam Gopnik began, "the city was as beautiful as it had ever been. Central Park had never seemed so gleaming and luxuriant..." and so on: the old bathos to protect against the new knowledge. Gopnik has a skill for shrinking everything in the universe to the scale of a bourgeois amenity, but he surpassed himself with the observation that the odor of the destruction was "almost like the smell of smoked mozzarella." On September 11, knowingness! I was not in Manhattan when it was attacked, but I am certain that Gopnik's observation is a lie. It is also the remark of a hick, the expression of a desperate provincialism. In the provinces, at least, they struggle against their confinements.
But it was John Updike who made me feel brutish. "Suddenly summoned to witness something great and horrendous, we keep fighting not to reduce it to our own smallness": his contribution opened with this scruple and then proceeded to discard it, providing a cautionary illustration of the limitations of literariness. The writer witnessed the fall of the towers from an apartment in Brooklyn, but he produced a description of what he saw that would not differ from a description of a painting of what he saw. "Smoke speckled with bits of paper curled into the cloudless sky, and strange inky rivulets ran down the giant structure's vertically corrugated surface": such writing defeats its representational purpose, because it steals attention away from reality and toward language. It is provoked by nothing so much as its own delicacy. Its precision is a trick: it appears to bring the reader near, but it keeps the reader far. It is in fact a kind of armor: an armor of adjectives and adverbs. The loveliness is invincible. Again: "[I]t fell straight down like an elevator, with a tinkling shiver and a groan of concussion distinct across the mile of air." But elevators do not fall the way the World Trade Center fell. Mass murders do not, in any important way, tinkle. Sentences tinkle, though; and the tinkling of Updike's sentence is a small salvation from the horror. And again: "Amid the glittering impassivity of the many buildings across the East River, an empty spot had appeared, as if by electronic command, beneath the sky that, but for the sulfurous cloud streaming south toward the ocean, was pure blue, rendered uncannily pristine by the absence of jet trails." Here the epicene evasion is the work of the syntax, which imposes a soft, pleasing pattern upon the charnel-pit that is supposed to be its subject. […]
All this is the testimony of a man who has words for everything and nothing but words. A walk on Montague Street, Updike recalls, "renewed the impression that, for all its failings, this is a country worth fighting for." Amen, amen, amen; but a principle is not an impression.
10/15/2001 09:41:49 PM
Gunnar the Dog, R.I.P. Gunnar, the loveable tank of a golden lab who amused and exasperated my mom and stepdad for eons, died today after a sudden illness. This was a dog so continuously hungry he once tried to eat an entire Honda. You didn’t leave spare things on the floor, such as socks, or books, because Gunnar would wolf ‘em down. I spent a formative week with Gunnar in January of 1994, listening to Rush Limbaugh (who I’d never heard before) go on and on about the Gingrich Revolution, while I chopped wood in the frost and Gunnar stood guard. Rest in peace, buddy.
10/15/2001 05:09:57 PM
Account of a Taliban Fundraiser in Kuwait, 1997: Before Sept. 11, I was finalizing a very long and complicated story involving a fascinating small-town Tennessee reporter named Tony Hays. Some day soon I will get back at it. In the meantime, here’s an interesting column Hays wrote for Insight Magazine about going to a Taliban fundraiser in Kuwait in 1997.
I found Jamal a charming conversationalist with an inquisitive mind, but he had an obvious bias in favor of the Taliban and the Iranians. He seemed a peaceful enough man and took pains to make clear that he was committed to negotiation and regarded war as folly. Later, a CIA officer told me that while Jamal “wouldn’t go out and plant a bomb himself, he wouldn’t blink an eye at a thousand dead Americans blown all over the desert.”
That same officer also admitted that the U.S. government refused even to acknowledge the existence of Kuwait Hezbollah, though it had detailed information on its leaders. “It’s a public-relations thing,” he said. “You can’t keep U.S. support for Kuwait high if Kuwaitis are tied to terrorist organizations.” So well has the terrorist-linked Kuwait Hezbollah been hidden that, other than a passing reference in a 1999 article in the Middle East Review of International Affairs, it has escaped notice in print media. Just so, in their early days, the Taliban operated in Kuwait in quiet anonymity.
And Kuwait’s ties to Afghani fundamentalism and the Taliban-style ferocity in defending Islam long predated the Persian Gulf War.
10/15/2001 04:44:48 PM
Straw Man of the Day: It’s Barbara Kingsolver … again! (I’ve dissed her twice below, on 9/25 and 9/23, though the links don’t seem to work.) Her column in today’s L.A. Times is a doozy. Let’s just go in chronological order:
When I picked up the newspaper and saw "America Strikes Back!" blazed boastfully across it in letters I swear were 10 inches tall -- shouldn't they reserve at least one type size for something like, say, nuclear war? -- my heart sank. Here’s a neat example of something I’ve long noted – “progressives” just hate large headlines. Drives them crazy. When a “progressive” becomes a “media critic,” fully 22% of her time is spent complaining about point sizes. It’s bizarre.
We've answered one terrorist act with another, raining death on the most war-scarred, terrified populace that ever crept to a doorway and looked out. Brilliant! She uses two classic weak-Left tactics – indefensible moral equivalence, and outrageously unprovable historical hyperbole – in one neat sentence! Rebuttal: 1) Inadvertently bombing a few dozen civilians (while trying mightily to avoid doing so) during a war, is not remotely similar to the deliberate attempt to murder tens of thousands of civilians during peacetime. 2) How the living hell does a feminist novelist in Arizona know that Afghans are the “most war-scarred populace that ever crept to a doorway and looked out”? Oh yeah – she has no idea what she’s talking about.
The small plastic boxes of food we also dropped are a travesty. It is reported that these are untouched, of course. Donating food is a travesty? Yes, the air drops are puny compared to the need (a need which existed long before Sept. 11), but it is also true that the allies plan on setting up a more comprehensive $320 million aid program delivered by road. You have to control the air before you can control the roads; wh the meals are in sealed package-bags, not “boxes.” Also, there might be “reports that these are untouched,” but I have seen with my own eyes a TV report showing the intended recipients gathering up every last bag from a field. This would certainly suggest the inappropriateness of Kingsolver’s phrase “of course.”
Afghanis have spent their lives learning terror of anything hurled at them from the sky. Have they? I honestly don’t know, but I don’t remember hearing much about air-based missiles terrorizing Afghan civilians since 1989. The Taliban doesn’t really have an air force, nor does anyone they’ve been fighting with these last 12 years … until now. Also, the word you were looking for was “Afghans.”
We've killed whoever was too poor or crippled to flee. Shee-it, really? We’ve killed 10 million people? That sure is a lot! Especially considering that the Taliban – who are not exactly renowned for their accuracy – put the death count in the “hundreds.” I really can’t believe this tripe is on the front page of decent newspaper’s opinion section….
I am going to have to keep pleading against this madness. I'll get scolded for it, I know. I've already been called every name in the Rush Limbaugh handbook: traitor, sinner, naive, liberal, peacenik, whiner. I'm told I am dangerous because I might get in the way of this holy project we've undertaken to keep dropping heavy objects from the sky until we've wiped out every last person who could potentially hate us. Some people are praying for my immortal soul, and some have offered to buy me a one-way ticket out of the country, to anywhere. I accept these gifts with a gratitude equal in measure to the spirit of generosity in which they were offered. People threaten vaguely, "She wouldn't feel this way if her child had died in the war!" (I feel this way precisely because I can imagine that horror.) More subtle adversaries simply say I am ridiculous, a dreamer who takes a child's view of the world, imagining it can be made better than it is. The more sophisticated approach, they suggest, is to accept that we are all on a jolly road trip down the maw of catastrophe, so shut up and drive. Wow. So much self-delusion, so many persecution fantasies, in such a small paragraph. Note the names she doesn’t admit to being called – liar, bad writer, ideological fool. And it ain’t the Limbaugh Right, either – it’s the New Republic Left, even the Hitchens Left. I would love to see one shred of evidence that anyone has called this bleating nutbag of an anti-war columnist “dangerous” – except for Kingsolver herself, of course. “Holy project,” my ass: this is largely a war between secularists and fundamentalists, and (sorry to repeat the obvious, but …) we are the secularists! And to claim that the government’s policy is to bomb “until we've wiped out every last person who could potentially hate us” … good Lord, woman, have you no fucking shame? You call yourself an “intellectual”? And I’m not – nor are any other of your critics I’ve read – asking you to “shut up and drive,” nor do many serious people find war to be a “jolly road.” I’m using my cherished right to free speech to call you a moron, and shout down your bad ideas.
There are millions of us, surely, who know how to look life in the eye, however awful things get, and still try to love it back. Sorry to play the Hitler card, but would you have loved Hitler back?
I look at the bigger picture and see that many nations with fewer resources than ours have found solutions to problems that seem to baffle us. I'd like an end to corporate welfare so we could put that money into ending homelessness, as many other nations have done before us. Uh, name one single nation that has ended corporate welfare. Please, really, name one. France? With its outrageously high subsidies to its farmers (some of whom – gasp! – work for corporations)? Also, I would be curious to hear about the nation that has also ended homelessness. Surely, that is an achievement worth honoring with a mention! (I used to love listening to Ralph Nader wax on and on about how Western Europe had “ended poverty.”)
I'd like the efficient public-transit system of Paris in my city, thank you. Don’t you live in Tuscon?
Make no mistake, oil gluttony is what got us into this holy war, and it's a deep tar pit. Really? It was the SUVs? Funny, I thought it was those terrorists who blew up the World Trade Center and killed 6,000 people Sept. 11. I’m so misled! Also, as mentioned before, the only people waging a “holy war” are the ones currently getting pounded by the secular country they hate.
What they're serving is not justice, it's simply vengeance. Adults bring about justice using the laws of common agreement. Uncivilized criminals are still held accountable through civilized institutions; we abolished stoning long ago. That’s right, Barbara, we abolished stoning, but they still enjoy pelting criminals (such as French journalists) with rocks. Civilized institutions cannot go into a country and arrest a guy who long ago declared war on the United States, and has murdered thousands.
If we were to put a few billion dollars into food, health care and education instead of bombs, you can bet we'd win over enough friends to find out where he's hiding.. We already do. The U.S. gives out more than $10 billion a year through USAID alone.
I feel like I'm standing on a playground where the little boys are all screaming at each other, "He started it!" and throwing rocks that keep taking out another eye, another tooth. I keep looking around for somebody's mother to come on the scene saying, "Boys! Boys! Who started it cannot possibly be the issue here. People are getting hurt." Well, we’ll let that one stand on its own.
10/14/2001 11:04:10 PM
Why I Haven’t Been Posting Today: My car caught on fire in the wee hours this morning on Sunset Boulevard. The very friendly and helpful firefighters from my local station came within two minutes and spent the next 20 dousing the flames. Said the fuel line probably broke. Thankfully, the car stalled at a red light – I was trying to hump it all the way home, thinking it was a minor engine fire. The really tall fireman said the dashboard would have burst in flames on me within 100 more yards or so. It was very sad, standing in front of El Pollo Loco, to watch the K-Car burn. Bought the thing for $800 at a government auction three years ago, and it has served me (and my friends) real well. It played a key role in a story I wrote about the Digitial Entertainment Network, and a minor role in this strange little column about Jeff Van Gundy, sports radio and consumerism. I also talked about it when Tom Mangan interviewed me. Ken Layne, who was nice enough to eulogize the K-Car today, mentions the jalopy in a couple of his better Tabloid columns -- The Real Hollywood, The Dark God of Sunshine Noir, and Springsteen’s ‘Artistic’ Shame. Oh, well. Guess I don’t feel nearly as guilty about having a little pay button in the navbar.
10/14/2001 09:39:21 PM
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