Thursday, December 20, 2007

War is a force...

For some holiday uplift, I am reading War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges. It is truly frightening because the book was published in 2002, just as BushCo was beginning to beat the lie drums for the Iraq war. Referring mostly to the first gulf war and the Balkan Wars, Hedges predicts exactly how things have gone since the book was published. All wars, even "good" ones, tend to evoke the same powerful ambivalences in those who fight them. There's less ambivalence for the armchair cheerleaders, who avidly consume the myth of war, but never see the reality. The title of the book sort of says it all, but:

In mythic war we imbue events with meanings they do not have. We see defeats as signposts on the road to ultimate victory. We demonize the enemy so that our opponent is no longer human. We view ourselves, our people, as the embodiment of absolute goodness. Our enemies invert our view of the world to justify their own cruelty. In most mythic wars this is the case. Each side reduces the other to objects--eventually in the form of corpses. [....]

The potency of the myth is that it allows us to make sense of mayhem and violent death. It gives a justification to what is often nothing more than gross human cruelty and stupidity. It allows us to believe we have achieved our place in human society because of a long chain of heroic endeavors, rather than accept the sad reality that we stumble along a dimly lit corridor of disasters. It disguises our powerlessness. It hides from view our own impotence and the ordinariness of our own leaders. By turning history into myth we transform random events into a chain of events directed by a will greater than our own, one that is determined and preordained. We are elevated above the multitude. We march toward nobility. And no society is immune (23-24).

Isn't it interesting that the religious right, who claim to have so much meaning in their lives in the form of God and Jesus and the unwavering certainty of their own goodness--that these are the people who scream loudest for war, whenever the possibility even faintly appears? I thought we atheists were the ones who pathetically had no meaning in our lives, who were dangerous because of it. (We don't think God is watching us, so we naturally are immoral; even as adults, Christians apparently do the right thing only because they fear punishment.) Yet it would seem the fanatics are the meaning-starved ones. Their religion proves inadequate; they must have blood and sacrifice (of others), and still they aren't satisfied. Will someone please, please give these peoples' lives some real meaning? And is that what W, that empty shell of a human, is really craving?

Oh, and in case you were wondering, war correspondents and the press generally don't see their role as uncovering the realities of war. Hedges, who was a war correspondent for years, points out that the press is "eager to be of service" to the myth. The fact that we're now seeing more negative reports about Iraq is a reflection of American public opinion turning against the war. The press follows the trajectory of the myth, bolstering it till they can no longer credibly do so.

I'm grateful to the many bloggers out there who have kept the press more honest in this war than perhaps in any other. Though a lot of crap has slid through the cracks, war-myth making might be harder in years to come.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Giuliani and Bozo

Al Sharpton has said of Rudolph Giuliani (paraphrasing from this week's New Yorker): "He didn't bring us together after 9-11. Our pain brought us together. We would have come together if Bozo had been the mayor." I think that's true, but I have another take. Bozo was in fact the President on 9-11, and his failure is what made Giuliani look so good. On 9-11 Trev and I were at the Alisal resort, on our honeymoon. We watched TV most of that day and waited in vain for Bush to appear and say something. Cheney did (and I remember him saying Saddam had nothing to do with it because he was "bottled up"--does anyone else remember this?). Bush, as we all know, was darting around the country on Air Force One, landing here and there like a fly on a meatloaf. Very late that night, I think around 11, he came on and gave a short deer-in-the-headlights speech that even he didn't seem impressed with (how often has that happened?). The next day he gave a lurching press conference, looking like someone had physically shoved him in front of the camera. The highly touted Bullhorn Moment at Ground Zero came quite late, and, like Giuliani, only looked good in comparison to what had come before. Meanwhile Giuliani was on camera, speaking relatively clearly and eloquently (again: relative to nothing). He literally filled a void that should not have been there. For that the country canonized him, as it soon did with Bush, just for finally showing up.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

When you feel global doubt

Richard Bausch, from Off the Page: Writers Talk about Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between (ed. Carole Burns):

I don't teach writing. I teach patience. Toughness. Stubbornness. The willingness to fail. I teach the life. The odd thing is most of the things that stop an inexperienced writer are so far from the truth as to be nearly beside the point. When you feel global doubt about your talent, that is your talent. People who have no talent don't have any doubt. And it's figuring that out and learning how to put all that stuff behind you and just do the work. Just go in and shake the black cue ball and see what surfaces.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

One Punk Under God

One Punk Under God was a miniseries on the Sundance Channel about Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye. He's a preacher himself and founder of the Revolution church, which is in many ways the anti-PTL. Where PTL (his parents' infamous ministry) was enormous, cheesy, Disneyfied, televised, and ghastly, Revolution is low-tech and--I guess you could say--punk. In Atlanta the church met in a bar. Judging from the show, Jay Bakker's preaching seems mainly to consist of him working out his "dad" issues in front of a supportive crowd. Maybe that's what preaching is these days, or it's always that way and I just never realized it. Anyway he goes around putting stickers on lampposts that say "as Christians, we apologize for being self-righteous bastards." He decides during the course of the show to make Revolution a gay-affirming church. He's a dead ringer for David Cross, and his wife is extremely colorful--an odd inverse of Tammy Faye. He'll never bag me as a convert, but things could be worse. They mostly are.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Rosebud story

The issue of Rosebud with my story, "The Temp," is out.

Monday, December 03, 2007


I finally saw this film, which sent A.O. Scott of the Times, among others, into paroxysms of praise. Never before has an animated film, etc. It's the story of a rat who dreams of being a great chef, and succeeds with the help of the goofy young garbage boy (who does the actual cooking since the rat can't, or shouldn't, use kitchen tools). Apparently the tale was sincerely uplifting to many sophisticated critics. The animation is state of the art, though marveling at how realistic something looks seems less and less like a meaningful aesthetic experience. And overall I found the movie incredibly dismaying. Pardon my Berkeleyism, but:

--There is one female in the entire film, not counting possibly a few shadowy diners who never speak. The female is an ambitious underling who expresses rage about the male-dominated world of restaurants by slinging her knives around. (Male viewers laugh nervously and knowingly.) She is supposed to be great at her work, but her role in the film is to step aside while the rat-and-boy team climb to the top in a matter of weeks. There are no female rats in the entire large "clan." Maybe the filmmakers thought this was a compliment of sorts, but note this: both the garbage-boy, Linguini, and the rat-chef Remy are motherless. Linguini's mother is dead; I don't remember what happened to Remy's mother, if it's even explained. Yes, that's the usual Disney Bambi terror/fantasy, but the overall impression is that the filmmakers like this boy's world just as it is.

--The villain in the film is a dark-skinned North African type. There is one other dark-skinned cook in the kitchen who plays a minor role, and all the other humans are white. Yes, I hope we've moved beyond the tentative Deep-Space-Nine Star-Trek-Enterprise universes, where the writers are so afraid of offending that the black characters are not only moral paragons, they have no personality whatsoever. But in an animated film, skin color is a very specific technical choice. They are not working with a specific actor's appearance, but assigning the exact appearance they want to the character. Villain = dark person with heavy accent.

--It goes without saying that the "good" people have American accents, and the "bad" people have either English or French accents. The film is set in Paris and all the characters are supposed to be French. (The female love interest does sound vaguely French, but we've already dealt with the fact that she's female and therefore second-class. She can afford to have an accent.)

--Finally (as Trev pointed out) several characters insist over and over again on the most important moral principle in the world: Do Not Steal. Not even if you're starving can you steal a chunk of bread. It is OK to kidnap and tie up the dark-skinned man and the health inspector and throw them in a closet. But Do Not Steal, especially from companies; it is Wrong. So don't even think of illegally downloading or copying any Disney products, kids.

If this movie is our current inspirational message to the young, I'd say we have gotten exactly nowhere since the 50s. The progress in animation technique may even serve to disguise the retrograde message--and it is a message, believe me.