Sunday, December 9, 2007

Just a thought ...

It just occurred to me that a President of the United States who connives at torture and lies to start a war is, potentially, the most dangerous human being who ever lived, even more so than Hitler or Stalin or the bush-league Osama bin Laden.

If America goes Nazi, there isn't any United States to take us out. That shouldn't be a comfort to anyone, least of all Americans.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Book Nook: Iraq and Vietnam

A cursory Google search—which is the only kind of research you're going to get from me—will show you that pretty much from the minute the current war in Iraq started to look like a gooey quagmirey mess, people have been tip-toeing around the dreaded Vietnam Comparison.

Jingoes still sometimes like to pretend that the Vietnam War was a glorious crusade of idealism that we damn well ought to have won, if it wasn't for the Dolchstoss of those dirty hippies back Stateside, but I would venture that most Americans will concede that Vietnam was A Mistake. And for the most part, even the jingoes have been bullied into paying lip service to the invalidity of the Vietnam War and the validity of the anti-war movement—at least in the anti-war movement's early stages, when the protestors were clean and polite, and didn't have laughably hubristic notions of overturning American capitalism.

So, the up-to-date jingo of today must strenuously deny the validity of the Vietnam Comparison. Iraq can't possibly be comparable to Vietnam, because we all know that Vietnam was A Mistake and Iraq, clearly, is Not. If you want an example, you can read a 2005 Christopher Hitchens piece on Slate.

If it seems like I'm being slow and behind the times to pick on a two-year-old Hitchens piece, you'll hate me for dragging in a 40-year-old magazine article.

I was reminded of all this today because I have been reading Practicing History, a book of essays by the historian Barbara Tuchman. Toward the back of the book, there is an article titled "Vietnam: When, Why, and How to Get Out," which was originally printed in Newsday on March 8, 1968—a month and three days before I was born.

My attention was arrested by the first two paragraphs, which are worth reprinting in full:

I should like to offer a number of propositions. One, we are fighting a war in Asia for an objective no one can define. If it is to make the world safe from aggression, that is a slogan, not a possibility. If it is to contain communism, that is not to be accomplished by destroying the society where the containment is being tried out. If it is to keep Asia open to our access and enterprise, that is an aim, which, as formulated by John Hay in the "Open Door" principle, is one of the basic doctrines of American foreign policy; but it always had a twin, "Do not get involved in a land war in Asia." We are trying to maintain the one by violating the other.

Further propositions: The situation in South Vietnam, as regards "freedom from aggression" and democratic institutions, not to mention the general welfare of the people, is worse off than it was before the U.S. moved in. The affairs and reputation of the U.S. itself have steadily deteriorated since our military involvement began. Control of the war and of the policy perpetuating it is in the hands of a President who has locked himself on course and, whether from personal pride or failure to comprehend what is happening, is unwilling to deviate, adjust, or alter direction. One keeps waiting for signs that this is not so—that Mr. Johnson may after all have an ear open to the sounds of history—but no signs appear. By now it seems an absolute that the President is unable to alter course; ergo that the war will not be terminated nor will we get out of it without a change of administration.
The comparison fairly leaps off the page, doesn't it? If you changed a few words—Bush for Johnson, terrorism for aggression, "Islamo-fascism," or whatever they're calling it this week for communism—you could reprint this article today and people wouldn't notice. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I heard all kinds of claptrap about how America had learned the lesson of Vietnam (does anyone remember George Bush senior gushing "We've licked that Vietnam syndrome" during Gulf War I?), but I'm damned if I can see that anything has changed.

Certainly, nothing had changed by 1972, when Tuchman published "Coalition in Vietnam—Not Worth One More Life" (New York Times, May 26, 1972). Again, I quote at length:

If the goal of coalition government still lies behind the conditions on which the Nixon administration is prepared to make its exit from Vietnam, there can be no foreseeable exit. We have been pursuing this goal (whether from conviction or
for public consumption one cannot say) for four years. As recently as Mr. Kissinger's last visit to Paris he carried with him, as he told the press, "a plan for coalition." On what basis of reasonable expectation? Between erstwhile enemies in a civil conflict, the only form of coalition that can occur is that which results when a snake swallows a rabbit. One side or another must be eventually engorged.

How can there be compromise over a division so fundamental that it requires recourse to war? Could the South and North have agreed to stop fighting after Gettysburg and form a joint government? Or Robespierre share power with Louis XVI? Or Generalissimo Franco settle into coalition with Loyalists after the Spanish Civil War?
To complete the parallel, I note that today, we are asked to believe that the key to Peace in Iraq is for the Sunnis and the Shiites to learn to Play Nice, which will be best achieved by ... a coalition government! I wouldn't say that Tuchman is always right that coalition governments don't work—I don't have the historical knowledge to judge. (It would be interesting for a person more industrious than I to see how well the Protestant-Catholic power-sharing arrangement has settled things in Northern Ireland.) But I do think Tuchman has a telling point, if you look at it from a common-sense view of human nature—that when people start killing each other a paper agreement is not likely to make them stop.

One wonders, of course, whether Tuchman's historic analogies really apply to Iraq. I don't know for a fact that the Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis can't form a working coalition—and considering the question just makes me uncomfortably aware that I don't know anything about Iraq. I would bet that I'm no more ill-informed than the average American, but the truth is, I don't know jack shit about Iraq, and I don't think very many people in America know more.

But despite our ignorance, we, the citizens of the United States, allow our government to pursue a policy whose wisdom and efficacy we can't possibly competently evaluate. And because we don't know enough about the countries our military fights in, we're equally prone to comforting illusions like the Iraqis will welcome with flowers and paranoid fears that if we don't defeat "Islamo-fascism" in Iraq, Something Bad will happen. (Hey, who remembers the Domino Theory?)

And by and large, we like it that way. We prefer to hand over the responsibilities of government to the men of power. We continue to elect Big Daddies who will make the monsters under the bed go away

The American public has no appetite for factual truth about Iraq. Journalists of the Victor Davis Hanson and Thomas Friedman school, who promise they will explain the Meaning of the War, don't get down and dirty with the history of Iraq or current conditions "on the ground," to use the current euphemism for "war-torn Third World shithole." (If the rest of the world is "on the ground," where do we live? Cloud Cuckoo Land?)

Instead, Hitchens, Hanson, Friedman, et. al. give us grand theories based on pure supposition. That Islam is irredeemably opposed to Free Society and the Free Market. That the current conflict is an epic battle between the forces of Ignorant Religious Fundamentalism and Secularist Democracy. That Arabs refuse to Grow Up and accept Moral Responsibility. (Which, I believe, is how 1950s psychiatrists explained homosexuality, too.)

I'm going to throw out three wild suppositions, based on even less knowledge than Hanson, Friedman, and the rest of the gang: First, that what's happening in Iraq has little to do with the Clash of Civilizations and a lot to do with internal Iraqi politics. Second, that there's nothing the U.S. can do to influence Iraqi politics. Third, that unless we finally do understand that the United States does not and cannot Rule the World, we'll have the exact same discussion again circa 2045.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Future, as seen in 1975, 1992 and today

I don't write poetry anymore, but I used to, back in the early 1990s when reading poetry out loud in coffeehouses seemed like just a newly revived fad — a bizarre neo-beatnik thing to do. Because it is my nature to poke malicious fun at nearly any solemn enterprise, I immediately expanded my stand-up repertoire to include writing and reciting bad poetry in a mock-Maynard G. Krebs style.

Today a friend reminded me of one of my first pseudo-Beat poems, written circa 1992, which I reproduce here in its entirety:
Gerald Ford haunts my memories
Casting a spiteful trout out of my past
On to the graham cracker crust before me.
My eyes took shape in an earlier age,
Long ago, when telephones walked the earth.
In those days, all things came to a man
Willing to see the world in flames.
Living in a happier time has not suited my disposition.
I yearn for the enlivening dooms of my youth.
It's terrible, but it's actually one of the better poems I've ever written. Ironically, while the poem is about an obsolete picture of the future, it's the viewpoint of the poem that is now entirely obsolete. I wrote the poem in reaction to the view of the future that everybody, including me, believed in the early 1990s — that with the fall of communism and the End of History, life was going to be universally peaceful, pleasant, prosperous and boring.

I compared that to the picture of the future we had in the 1970s — that things were just going to get worse and worse, and we'd face a Soylent Green future of ecological devastation, totalitarian government, natural disasters and wars.

In 1992, that future seemed ridiculously overdramatic, but it had a wistful charm ... imagine, that people used to think the future would be exciting, not boring! In 1992, the near future seemed like it was going to be a melange of Neuromancer and AT&T's "You Will" ads ... an endless suburban shopping mall where stupid yuppies bought stupid corporate products.

Gadgets got better, but there was nothing about the 1990s that seemed whizz-bang enough for a kid raised on Space 1999. I remember being disappointed by the 1990s and the turn of the century because it just wasn't futuristic enough ... the "Where's my flying car?" meme.

But look at the world today ... we have a totalitarian government, we have an endless war, we have a huge ecological disaster ... the 1970s had the future down cold, and the 1990s was living in a dream world.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Monday, July 30, 2007

Comedy Thursday Aug. 2

Somehow, I always get suckered into doing stand-up comedy. And this week is my week to go in front of an angry, hostile crowd and make them even more angry and hostile. It's a thankless job, but, God, I love it.

I'll be performing this Thursday night, August 2, at 8:30 p.m. at the Smokehouse, 1231 Van Ness Ave -- that's in downtown Fresno, on Van Ness just north of Fresno St.

I'll be talking my usual drivel, about sex (good, especially when I can get some), death (really good when it happens to other people), religion (very bad, except when it helps me get sex), women (they don't sleep with me; I wonder why?), and God (the job that's my lifelong ambition.)

Plus more comedy from Ken Lewis, Will Wright and more! And you get to eat those delicious Smokehouse ribs! What more could you want?!

Cover is $15. Proceeds to go to my favorite charity -- guess which one!