November 03, 2017
November 03, 2017
Winter was coming and Herbert was afraid that he had not adequately prepared. It was an abstract and, in many ways, absurd fear, given that his radiator functioned perfectly and his checking account was plentiful, given that for long stretches of winter one could simply forget about the weather roiling outside. One could stay inside. Herbert was a man for whom the Internet meme “first world problems” had been coined. Recently, at a literary event in East Atlanta Village, a local author had juxtaposed the image of hipsters wallowing in self-induced poverty with that of AIDS-ravaged sub-Saharan Africans, as if to say to Herbert, and people like Herbert, boy, do you have it good. And he had not taken it personally. Indeed, he had laughed as loud as anyone. He did have it good.
Since Lindsay Lohan’s life seems to be playing out like a campy made-for-cable movie these days (She ran over a pedestrian! She’s going to jail! Her family is insane!), it should have made sense that she was tapped to play Elizabeth Taylor on Lifetime. Who else would they get? Kate Winslet? Instead, when the news broke the Internet lit up with snarky speculation and gleeful derision. Then, months later, the reviews started popping up. Everyone from the Hollywood Reporter to Huffington Post urged us to watch this train wreck of a biopic and cackle until our abs ached. The reviews promised a Mommie Dearest “so bad it’s good” kind of flick. They told us to play drinking games. They said we’d have a great time. They set us up.
It was around 9:30 P.M., and I was waiting for the bus in Hollywood after being momentarily paroled from my job as a so-called telefundraiser. When I applied for the job, I didn’t think I stood a chance of being hired at that company or any other, having been out of the mainstream work force for the majority of my adult life, which I’ve spent eking out a living as an actor and screenwriter. The entertainment business used to be said to be recession-proof, but if that was ever true in the past, it’s true no longer; the minute the economy went to hell four years ago, I received fewer and fewer offers of acting and screenwriting jobs, until finally I received none at all. Even production-assistant jobs were, in my case anyway, scarce, though I did manage to PA for a couple of days on a teenage space musical financed by NASA, as well as on a Disney Channel spot in which Miley Cyrus was interviewed alongside her achy-breaky father to mark the end of Hannah Montana.
It was Rocky Anderson—former Mormon, former mayor of Salt Lake City, and gay-rights-advocating presidential candidate. Yep, in this election! Rocky stunned me by describing the kind of porn addiction, prescription drug addiction, and “behind the trees of the city park” illegal sexual activity that taints his city. He thinks it is because Mormonism demands too much, gives too little. People look for a release wherever they can get it.
How would you describe the Mormons you met?
Hospitable, well-spoken, eager, intelligent, naïve about the world, naïve about their faith’s controversial history, anxious that I should like them, a bit suspicious, preparing to lead, wary of the scrutiny Brother Mitt Romney is bringing their way.
August 14, 2012
In fact, worldwide, there are only about fourteen million Mormons. That’s fourteen million among a global population just reaching seven billion. Fourteen million is the population of Cairo or Mali or Guatemala. It’s approximately the number of people who tune in for the latest hit show on network television every week. Fourteen million Americans ate Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant in 2011. That’s how few fourteen million is.
December 19, 2011
When Secretary Sebelius says that Plan B could pose health risks for teens, is she really thinking straight? After all, Dr. Megan Evans, in RH Reality Check, writes, “Tylenol is over-the-counter and far more dangerous with far more potential for adverse outcomes. Oh, and pregnancy in a ten- to 11-year-olds also has far more adverse outcomes than a small, but effective dose of Plan B.” Wise words. In fact, according to the Guardian, for every 100,000 American women who give birth to live babies, 16.7 of them die. And that’s not to mention the damage that post-natal depression can cause.
Evans’s grounded, intelligent point will doubtless be ignored by many. Witness that since news of the Plan B decision broke, parents have been stating how brokenhearted they’d be if their own daughter didn’t ask their advice before taking Plan B. This, they argue, supports Sebelius’s decision. But the ruling isn’t just about parents who adore their kids. It is also about young people who come from abusive families and are afraid to turn to their guardians for support. It’s about those who live in the middle of nowhere and can’t drive themselves to the doctor. It’s about those who have been date-raped and can barely think straight.
And it’s also about all of us, regardless of sex, gender and age, because when you control human sexuality, you control intimacy, life and the body itself.
I’d be surprised if that wasn’t a power trip.
Given these recent events, my political fantasy world has gone wild. I mean, what if young people felt so afraid of pregnancy that they decided to stop screwing the opposite sex, but decided, instead, to all start having same-sex relationships. “Don’t risk pregnancy,” they’d shout, “be gay! There are fewer risks!” I bet parents and politicians would be hitting the roof, showing their true homophobia, and Plan B would be in the bubblegum aisle sooner than you could say FDA.
Or what about if all the heterosexual under-seventeens who live in states where sex toys are illegal each ordered a vibrating rubber duck from Good Vibes, figuring this was safer than partnered sex without Plan B? This could prompt the Vibrating Duck Revolution of 2012. Fifteen year-olds throughout America would be sinking into their bubble baths, pledging their virginity to their rubber ducks. And what would the police do? Storm into these bathrooms and arrest these young rebels? I’m not being entirely ironic when I say they might. I’m sure families, religious leaders and politicians would go nuts. There’d be complaints about police pocketing ducks that weren’t theirs to pocket and there’d be anti-masturbation posters everywhere. “We do not have evidence to prove that vibrating ducks are safe for under-seventeen’s,” the politicians would announce. “Further testing is needed.”
See the mad place this is sending me to?
If Plan B is safer for an eleven year-old than Tylenol and they can also buy condoms in the bubblegum aisle, then the decision on Plan B is definitely a political one.
So. What’s Plan C?
A Final Note: This is the final installment of Hot Topic. I have so enjoyed writing at TNB and receiving all your wonderful comments. Thank you all so much for reading! I will still see you all on the TNB site, as part of the community. In the meantime, please do keep up with me. I blog, most days, at www.lanafox.com.
Be safe, be proud, be you.
Can you let Fabian do more columns? He was awesome.
Let me tell you a little story. Perhaps it won’t be very compelling or important, and perhaps the opinion of one slightly unhinged free lance writer means nothing, but the truth is I never voted in my life until 2008.
Everyone at the polling place knew who I was voting for, due to my age and demeanor. There were a shit ton of us, all there to put a vote in for Barack Obama, which really rubbed the old folks raw. These were the people who voted every election cycle without fail, and now had to contend with a wave of urban hipsters and other artsy types. A man walked in behind us and barked ‘Bliss, Republican!’ at the little old ladies working the polls, all of whom puffed up their chests and yelled back that he needn’t be such an ass about it.
Come on, we were all excited. It’s not that I thought racial harmony would dawn or that Obama was anything other than a politician. I just thought that his election was a sign of things to come, i.e. people finally abandoning all the nonsense ideas about the completely bullshit concept of race. Also, Sarah Palin scared the fuck out of me.
So I did it, and I only felt good about it for a little while. Because things went bad soon after. Obama was about as predictable as any other politician, meaning he sold out everyone who put him in office almost instantly, which is depressing enough without taking into account the way most people reacted to him.
He’s a Muslim socialist. He’s a Muslim and a socialist, say the people who have no fucking idea what either word means. He’s in a sleeper cell! I saw him snort a whole baby off a hooker’s ass! He’s making Lil’ Wayne Secretary of State!
Anytime you support anything it becomes your problem. Now, just because I voted for Obama (also, please consider that a working class atheist with psychotic tendencies has no business voting republican), suddenly it’s like we’re talking about sports; ‘your boy’s really tanking in the play offs, your team sucks.’ Everything he does is my fault.
They’re not my team, OK, I don’t have a team. I’m trying to affect that whole lone wolf, out on my own image, and it doesn’t help when I have democratic fundraisers calling my house asking me to help them out again. Seriously, it was just that one time, I was drunk, he told me all kinds of nice things and I foolishly believed him. My voter registration card says ‘no affiliation’ which I am irrationally proud of. It doesn’t say democrat or republican or independent (which actually means ‘democrat or republican who has pissed off their respective party’).
But as the presidential election swings around again, I’ve begun asking myself what I should do this time. I stayed away for the midterm elections, because I wouldn’t elect most of those people to municipal dog catcher. But this time I feel obligated, if only to prove everyone wrong who claimed that those who voted for Obama last time will stay home the next. So I’m voting for the dead guy.
Not Aleister Crowley, thought it’s tempting. I’m writing in Hunter S. Thompson. He has prior political experience, he’s progressive, he’s a doctor of divinity. Did I mention that he’s dead? Oh who gives a fuck, republicans would posthumously nominate Ronald Reagan if they could, and he was dead for most of his two terms.
We need a man like Hunter to sort us out. Someone who can espouse the level headedness of progressive principles while also not taking any shit from anyone. Because, let’s face it, while democrats most often are on the right side of the argument, they tend to lose ground to the mewling hordes of conservatives and their well practiced indignation. We need a man with an elephant gun and a machete on his hip, a man who takes a cattle prod to a casual setting and isn’t afraid to use it. We need a man who says things like, “Play your own game, be your own man, don’t ask anybody for a stamp of approval,” (from Fear and Loathing in America: The Gonzo Letters, Volume II, 1968-1976) which are words to both live and die by. We need an artist who also appreciates high power weaponry and fortified compounds, a patriot in the true sense of the word.
Thompson didn’t espouse that stupid ‘my country, right or wrong’ brand of patriotism that is so popular in this one note world. He despised the government and figures like Richard Nixon, whom he considered repellant. But he recognized that those of us who are lucky enough to be birthed on American soil have a responsibility to uphold the principles of the democracy. Which are sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Well, they should be.
This opens up a whole new world of voting. My spouse and I have considered voting for each other. I could write in Bill Hicks or Socrates or Rowdy Roddy Piper. I could write you in. What about it, would you like to be president? If enough of us get together we could vote in a table lamp or a hunk of cheese. Surely this would be preferable to whomever the tea party picks.
It’s Election Season across the USA, which means there’s a lot of terrific television programs on to distract you from voting. Complicating matters, the howling ads interrupting those terrific television programs often distract from the real issues at stake: how exactly is the government wasting your hard-earned money this time around?
This handy guide attempts to clarify the tangible benefits of government programs to you, the humble internet-faring, presumably young/hipsterish taxpayer, via three basic categories: government programs that help, government programs that are probably screwing you over, and government programs that nobody understands.
GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS THAT HELP
I’ve always romanticized being a cop, so when a life of office work snared me I turned to 911 to vicariously live my dream job. In the past three years, I’ve used 911 to call in a Mexican teen receiving a blowjob in the children’s park across the street from my house (in broad daylight on the Fourth of July), a Mexican covered in blood leaning against a elementary school wall, and another Mexican writhing on the sidewalk with cuts on his arm and a hospital band on his wrist. Not to make unfair generalizations, but the nation of Mexico owes me a few tacos on the house.
Department of Defense
You can’t ignore the DoD’s perfect record of preventing foreign invasion of American territory, Pearl Harbor notwithstanding. Also, we could be drafted at any time—Iran lobs one nuke at Tel Aviv, and the laws will change overnight—so I’ll use the remainder of this space to underscore my nearsightedness, flat feet, lengthy track record of conscientious objection, extreme allergy to gunpowder, and heartfelt affection for United States military personnel.
Seven years ago, Blue Shield rejected me because I’d had a wart on my thumb two years prior. I had to go without formal health care for a year, instead procuring medical advice from night-shift pharmacists, hippie free clinics, and the internet. It was a thrilling experience, in the same way climbing up a sheer rock face in a thunderstorm while juggling chainsaws is thrilling. Pretty much anything would be an improvement.
Until you get that jetpack up and running, you’ll likely take roads to get around. Personally, I find that while my local Northern California roads are ranked among the worst in the nation in terms of quality, they should be ranked first in the nation in terms of breathtaking scenery. Moreover, my regional snow-removal teams are second-to-none, making premium powder skiing accessible even in a blizzard. Here’s to roads for making it happen.
Did you see that picture Arnold posted making fun of Sarah Palin looking for Russia from Alaska? I totally retweeted it.
GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS THAT ARE PROBABLY SCREWING YOU OVER
It’s an open national secret that Social Security won’t exist in forty years, right about the time we’ll need it. However, my generation is getting accustomed to living shittier, and we aren’t putting up much of a fight on this one. Thus, I toss Social Security in the same pile as pensions, reasonably priced health insurance, three-martini lunches, regular churchgoing, four-week vacations, affordable concert tickets, and marriage for life—myths invented by our ancestors and passed down over the generations to pacify the masses.
On the one hand, Doritos and gas are cheap, fostering a nation dominated by lazy flab-asses. On the other hand, organic vegetables and solar panels are expensive, fostering a snooty elitist minority that isn’t much fun at a Super Bowl party. I won’t rest until everyone in American can enjoy a lively Super Bowl party dip of organic guacamole at a fair price.
Let’s say you’re at a casino. One distinguished gentleman—let’s call him Charles Barkley—steps to the high-roller table and proceeds to lose a fortune on Pai Gow Poker. As a result, the casino asks all the other patrons to float Charles a loan to cover his bartab, hotel suite, steak dinners, and escort services. Just another reason why I consider the NBA unwatchable.
All that fighting, the lives lost, the nations in turmoil, the enormous expense—and we didn’t even get the oil. Plus, Avatar totally should’ve beat The Hurt Locker at the Oscars.
Investment in Innovation
Think of all the terrific advances of recent times, everything from the iPod Nano to the iPhone and even the iPad or—could it be true?—the Verizon iPhone. Not a single one was invented by the government.
GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS NOBODY UNDERSTANDS
An unimaginably boring topic, especially for a nation lagging in math and science as badly as this one. Thus, we primitively revert to the Law of the Limbo Stick: lower is always better, unless you’re really rich and about to die.
Medicare and Medicaid
Always remind me of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
Davis Schneiderman took the quiz.
Davis Schneiderman played the game.
Davis Schneiderman took the ‘what psychedelic-era pop song crossed with a washed-up sci-fi character are you?” quiz. Answer: Tomorrow Never Knows Mr Spock…
I’m a writer, and I’m scared to write. I’m gun shy. I’m weak in the ankles. I’m on the diving board, and I can certainly dive, but the water down there — well, there might be something down there. Something I’m afraid to discover.
See, I write for a living, but it’s never really my words. It’s re-words. Every day, I try to find another way to re-work my employer’s mission statement, fine tuning the language in order to grab the person who wasn’t listening the last time. Before this, a journalist, my own words popping up just long enough to momentarily glance around at the big wide world before burrowing underneath my subject’s quote.
And in the in-between times, I write for myself. Snippets, poems, a sentence that could spark a book, if not a revolution. So I think. So I think, be a writer, really own it. I’ve come this far.
But when I received Brad Listi’s email about becoming a TNB contributor, I freaked out. I couldn’t even open the email for a day, and when I did, his instructions were in bold and everything was official and important. Like I was just drafted, or sent a visa acceptance from a foreign embassy. We ask that you post, bare minimum, once per month, he said. I gulped. Which is hard to do since I don’t have any salivary glands. Wow, that’s not even true. I’m just making stuff up because I need to write one post this month and I don’t know what to write about and I’m…
scared to write.
On the website, everyone just seems so witty and creative and more plugged into the indie literary scene than the indie literary scene itself. I can’t even remember what it was I wanted to write about when I first approached TNB with my spiffy bio. Now, faced with the opportunity to let my words run wild, I’d like another mission statement, please. I can make it look all sparkly and new and sell your story to the next person who wasn’t even planning to buy anything today. Just browsin’, thanks.
If only I hadn’t already published that piece about my colonic experience back in 2008. I could re-purpose it, but there I am, re-wording again. Re-wording my own words. But that could be seen as meta, and meta’s very “in,” I think. Potentially genius.
Maybe I need to go to a cabin faraway from home and write for 24 hours straight. Yeah, a cabin, with no running water, and I’ll sit in a wooden chair with a back so straight it’ll change the natural curvature of my spine overnight. And I’ll look at nature and “reflect back.” And the humping animals in the woods will remind me of lost love and I’ll write something forlorn and tinged with despair, but with a hopefulness at the end, like a new dawn. The dawn I’ll see every morning when I wake up with it. Oh, and I’ll have to drink something strong that makes my muscles ache, and my forhead slip from my palm to nearly hit the keyboard of my computer. Scratch that. Typewriter. Ice cubes that clink in a glass. Where will I get the ice cubes? Don’t think about that.
Also, how can I drink if I don’t have any salivary glands?
Oh, I’ve got something. I’ve got something; I’ve got something. And I didn’t write this at the fake cabin. I thought of it just now. Inappropriate Facebook statuses! Like, here’s one: “Megan Tady learned that role playing ‘getting a pap smear’ with a partner isn’t actually hot. Turns out the word ‘swab’ is a real mood killer.” But then I Googled “inappropriate Facebook statuses” and it turns out everybody’s doing them. There are even entire websites devoted to this. Probably frat brothers. So I’ll write about something else…
Like how about words that have probably never been uttered together in the same sentence? The other night while my boyfriend and I were cuddling, I said, “I see Chelsea Clinton dragging a port-a-potty into the woods.” And he said, “Oh my God, those words have probably never been said on this planet before.” We had been talking about Chelsea Clinton’s outlandish wedding and the port-a-potties that cost $15 grand. And then we do the cutest thing ever that any couple has probably ever done, oh you would love it, this little bedtime ritual, where we stare off into the distance and say that we see something random dragging something else random into the woods. Like a tumbleweed dragging a pencil. It’s sort of an inside joke and you sorta have to be there. Also, my boyfriend probably wouldn’t want me to share this because it’s sacred.
How did the Obama administration go from bravely shunning Fox News to presenting them with the front-row seat in the White House press room? Oooh, throwing in some politics.
But I’m beating around the bush. I’m turning on a dime. I’m using every cliche in the book to get me out of writing. Because, sigh, writing your own stuff really is scary. I have high expectations for myself. I want to write a post so grand that the comments in the comment section overflow and the webmaster has to call me and beg me to stop writing because the server simply can’t take the traffic. I want to write a post so heavy in analysis of modern day affairs that pundits instantly quit their jobs. I want to write a post that heaves up buried traumas so eloquently that even people who never owned dogs – in fact, hate pets in general – cry along with me. Oh, I want to write a post.
But I’ll start with this one. I’ll start by saying this is scary, yet I’m still going to try. It’s time I used my own voice, coaxed it out from hiding, let it dance a little.
I guess what I’m saying is, I’m new here, so go easy.
I click on random news items from my Comcast homepage regularly. It’s a bad habit and wastes a colossal amount of time, but I’m pretty much addicted to any link where someone “slams” someone else. Jen lashes out at Angelina! Rosie rips Oprah! Axl hammers Slash! Mayer porks Bieber! Boehner shanks Barney Frank! In almost every instance the actual confrontation turns out to be some mild disagreement or manufactured insult and it reassures me how enticing the prospect of public confrontation is, and how rarely it delivers. Monetary scandal, sexual transgression, and celebrity shit-talking are the three muses of modern entertainment, but even the actual goods like Bernie Madoff or Tiger quickly devolve into a wearisome parade of carefully-worded statements.
Which is why the commentary following each link is so fascinating. Unlike a boozy Federline massaged by his handlers after slagging someone outside the Viper Room, anonymous posters sink their claws into one another openly and viciously. There are few ramifications in airing these opinions and therefore zero self-censorship, which is not only liberating but possibly the single most honest reflection of what the internet purports to be. Until you’ve read about twenty posts. And then skimmed through twenty more. A vast majority tend to be both grammatically cubist and intellectually constipated, a fact which doesn’t seem to lessen their number or frequency. It baffles me that anyone has the endurance to continue shouting into a collective wind with so little prospect of being heard. Why, for instance, did Ponygirl54 feel the need to share her thoughts on the Kyoto Accords beneath yesterday’s review of The Blind Side? What inner turmoil drove Shahbagger9 to respond by calling the Octomom a douche? Even Budonkadonk66’s wife can’t possibly care about his musings on North Korean intransigence, can she?
I didn’t. Until a few weeks ago, when I was reading an article on the passage of health care (Fox gutshots Pelosi!) that included a transcript from one of Glenn Beck’s radio shows. Beck polished all his usual trinkets: Ronald Reagan (awesome), global warming (feh), socialism (deviltry), William Ayers (still whispering in a certain ear), ACORN (ha-ha, cornholes), and the evils of progressive thought (even more evil than suspected, run!) before sharing an uncanny knowledge of the Founding Fathers’ takes on a variety of contemporary issues. It turns out John Jay would not be feeling the stem cell research. Ben Franklin would almost certainly have eaten his wig (Whig?) over the usage of reconciliation. And Alexander Hamilton was practically born to open-carry a Tec-9 into the Weehawken Starbucks. Which makes nothing particularly clear, except that if the Founding Fathers’ original intent was to be regularly fellated by a gin-soaked Elmer Gantry who two centuries later would make a fortune grafting his wholly divergent thoughts onto their defenseless backs, it has certainly come to pass. At any rate, beneath this particular article was a truly endless scroll of posts, a group of responses so lengthy and virulent they glowed like a lump of iridium. I spent hours re-reading every last one. Opinions decamped along the entire political spectrum, from Incest Militia Right to Kennedy Martini Left, but each was crammed with its own particular brand of fury and invective. The voices were so unrelenting that after a while I began to suspect I’d stumbled upon something greater than its individual parts. Like the Virgin Mary’s face scorched into a tortilla, these posts may not have been just a random wishful representation. Maybe they were a message. To me. A perfectly chosen, mathematically precise cross-section of voices representing the utter and incurable dysfunction that is 2010 America.
Later that day I was jogging down by the waterfront, wondering what my discovery meant. Sure, advances in technology allow us to do things even Prince couldn’t have conceived of in 1999. Chat Roulette. Live-Cam Chubby Dorm. The ability to, without government interference or restriction, refer to one another as “dogz” on the Tool Academy website. But have these things, in the end, actually improved our ability to communicate? Further, was it possible for someone (me) to pull on a few yards of sackcloth (itchy) and write the rare lucid yet conciliatory post that didn’t scream, accuse, or alienate? That tried to incorporate the valid points of both Right, Left, and nougat-filled Middle? That could, like Martin Luther nailing 95 pixelated theses to a message board door, kick off a revolution of non-partisan thought?
Probably not. But I decided to try. So I sat down without reflection or guile, attempting to be as open and honest as I possibly could, a human Camp David. I avoided saying obvious things like “if you drive a Hummer in 2010, there’s a lonely nub where your penis should be.” I avoided mentioning the cash-besotted freedom-ride that is Sarah Palin in any way. I ignored the fact that the last time I attempted to join one of these conversations, the only direct response I got was “Yer a fag.” And although I responded by saying “Well, no, but it’s tempting to join, if only because of how apoplectic being gay makes those who decry government intrusion in their lives while trying to legislate my orgasm.” To which I got no response at all. Nevertheless, as I warmed up the keyboard, I felt weirdly confident and newly attuned to my fellow countrymen.
Here’s what I wrote back on the Beck stream:
We are all Americans, are we not? Why do we persist in acting like all liberals are evil and all conservatives stupid? There was a time in this country when most people recognized, despite their party’s current electoral success, that the duty of government was to find common ground upon which to pass legislation. Congressional leaders are now so locked into a continual cycle of re-election campaigns, media baiting, and ideological tactics that they are unable to take stands according to their conscience or constituents. Polemical commentary from both FOX and MSNBC hand-feeds the inertia. Far Right television propaganda is brilliant at manufacturing false divisions and corrosive to reasoned thought. The far Left propaganda arm is scandal obsessed and too whiny to be corrosive to anything. Both sides can flash all the pie charts they want, but no one truly knows if the health care bill will lower our deficit in the long term. In a decade we’ll look back on its passage as a decision of either brave genius or unbelievable folly. Meanwhile, entitlement Ponzi schemes continue to gobble both liberal and conservative dollars. George Bush failed to address them for eight years, mostly because he’d already spent his lunch money on Colin Powell’s WMD/Yellowcake tour. So if not this bill now, what and when? The only people who’ve won during Our Year of Procedural Ploys are the insurance companies. And the Chinese, who nurse our debt. Why can’t we pull together and stop using liberal and conservative as epithets and craft legislation that may not be perfect or ideologically pure, but at least represents movement? (yes, I realize it’s because lobbyists now pretty much write the bills themselves, but let’s stay on point.) Barack Obama won the presidency with a clear majority. Allow him to enact his agenda. In three years, if his decisions seem unwise, vote Romney. Or Non-Lesbian Cheney Daughter. It’s clear the congressional minority is willing to stall away all of our lives as a cynical campaign tactic. Why doesn’t this infuriate across party lines? The wearisome McConnell/Kyl/Boehner refrain that they are “not being heard” neglects the fact that their voices are justifiably marginalized because their side lost. Democrats loathed George Bush and frequently acted in their own self-interest during his administration, but they still managed to find compromises on many of the bills he proposed while hugging the pommel horse like Ving Rhames over the ones they couldn’t live with. That’s how politics works. Being in power sometimes means having the freedom to fail spectacularly. If John McCain (sadly broken by Karl Rove in South Carolina in 2000 and now without a single genuine conviction except remaining in office) had been elected president I’d be making the same argument: he won, let him do his thing, and in a couple of years we’ll check back and see, since no matter what demented legislation he proposed while trying to metabolize a Cialis bubble it couldn’t possibly be worse than our current gridlock. So the time has come to be honest about the sources of our anger. Disagreeing with the president, our president, is not the same as constantly questioning his legitimacy. Americans who claim to be patriotic but cavalierly wave placards of Obama with a Hitler mustache are exercising a speech which is not only not free, but void of both historical context and moral root. Americans who hold signs bearing conveniently truncated quotations about “the blood of tyrants” or “taking our country back” are really saying that our president should not be allowed to act on promises made during a winning campaign that sixty-five million people voted for. Which is, in effect, saying that they do not believe in representational Democracy. They do not believe in voting. Their patriotism is malleable and dependent upon being governed by someone who simply touts their narrow interests. Can it be true that every single thing Obama stands for is utterly wrong and false? It’s a seductive idea, because jettisoning nuance is an underrated pleasure. Particularly with language. Like when Tea Partiers say “Obama’s a socialist” what they really mean is “I have zero clue what socialist economics actually entails, but it makes it easier to hide the fact that I wish my head of state were more alabaster.” When they say “Obama’s a Muslim” what they really mean is “If I can attribute to him interest in a religion that’s safe to publicly ridicule, I can more easily call him things that should otherwise have me arrested for sedition.” When they say “Obama was not born in this country”, what they really mean is “Sure it’s a state, but Hawaii is on the very far left of most maps, and, frankly, that makes me uncomfortable.” The unpleasant truth is that Republicans and Democrats both have valid ideas. They’re also both represented by those who do nothing but parrot taking points and flash capped teeth. Scandal is not aberration, it’s inevitability. This very second John Ensign’s parents are writing a fatter check, Eric Massa is snorkeling his own private reef, and Larry Craig 2.0 is pulling The Wide Stance in some Capitol Hill bar stall. We are all weak, vain, duplicitous, and unable to consistently curb our uglier impulses. But we are not all running for public office. When our three major qualifications for election are raising money, going to a church where in the history of videotape the preacher has never said anything remotely controversial, and being the candidate who most effectively sublimates their personal brand of kink, we will continue to get exactly the representation we deserve. Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann are the same person: marionettes hired by network-owning billionaires whose political ranting is calculated not only to reinforce what we already believe, but to convince us to buy burgers, cars, and other burgers. We are constantly made to hate things that have no value while being blinded to the advantages enjoyed by the ruling class (by which I mean not Democrats or Republicans, but generational affluence). There were no Tea Partiers railing about a “redistribution of wealth” while George Bush’s deficit-financed tax cuts passed, mostly because more than fifty percent of the benefit went to the top five percent of the economy. Cash is its own lobby. And that money will trickle down eventually. Of course, when it does it’ll be in the form of frozen piss dumped by a commuter jet bound for Cleveland, but at least it’ll create thousands of new jobs in the umbrella industry. Fomenting anger over meaningless social issues is a diversionary tactic that goes all the way back to Millard Fillmore insisting Christmas be re-named Millardmas. Or at the very least Christmard. From flag burning (Iran Contra) to swift boating (Enron) to the notion that somewhere lurks a generic family by which to gauge what constitutes family values (Goldman Sachs), a succession of wealthy people have repeatedly and cynically increased that wealth by dangling the Carrot of Irrelevance high above all our heads.
It is time, friends, that we begin hating things that actually matter.
Of course, it should come as no surprise that my comments were absolutely pilloried. By the time I’d posted, the thread had gone cold. But once my words went up, the coals were stoked, and within hours a frenzy of responses stretched the server limit. I was called every possible name, from Marxist to Dickhead to Dave Matthews fan (ouch!), but the only one that really bothered me was unpatriotic, which I take to mean there are those who will always remain blind to the ridiculousness of their certainty, even while identifying the ridiculousness of mine. The bottom line is that I don’t need to be agreed with. But I do want to be listened to. At least long enough to argue that discourse is only a slightly dirty word.
As we loaf near midnight in our first bed in Mexico City, Louisa’s kiss cooling on my lips, the red scrolled metal of the bed frame screeching like so many rodents each time we move to scratch, drink, caress, I hear through the skinny walls the laughter of the nighttime desk crew. It’s not a laughter I’m used to, not one I’d typically hear from the many nighttime desk crews I’ve encountered on my many car-bound U.S. crossings. It’s not a laughter that gels with the Motel 6s and sub-Motel 6s that have borne witness to much of my sleep.
This room has no TV, but has beautiful wooden nightstands. Over mine, the sole wall decoration hangs—a calendar boasting Diciembre, the Virgen de Guadalupe looking down upon the meager squares, doing their best (and failing) to represent our days here, her eyes deflating as gold rays shoot from behind her like the kitschiest sun in the galaxy. She must know what it takes to laugh like this. She must have the ability to describe it in a way that doesn’t point from a distance and exoticize. But I don’t. I am an otherer. And this laughter is other, and exotic as hell. It’s as simple as a pink balloon. This laughter is the toddler joy of dragging one’s fingers over balloon skin, eliciting from the thin rubber, that dribbling, speed-bump frictive joy. Simple as a light-stick. A set of iridescent jacks.
I try to commune with it, stick my tongue between my lips and blow. I haven’t done this in years, and the vibration is exhilarating. Louisa looks up from her book, Obama’s “Dreams from My Father,” and smacks me on the shoulder. This is the first time my South African wife is traveling as a U.S. citizen, a status we jointly pursued throughout seven years of marriage and thousands of dollars and now, here, in this cheap, ornate, cavernous Hotel Rioja just off the main Zócalo square in the Centro Histórico, each laugh-echo from the courtyard serves as our payoff.
Beneath the orange and green wool blanket, she brings her knees to her chest and asks, “Are you spitting at me?”
How do I begin to answer this? I’m exhausted from traveling all day, too exhausted to sleep. How to I go about telling Louisa of my stupid attempt to commune with this new laughter? That spitting like a toddler at a teacher is my only touchstone. The only way I know how…
“I’m must be tired,” I say, and I’m happy I do because she leans in and kisses me warm again. Behind us, on the wall, the Virgen doubtlessly gives us her garish blessing. Louisa goes back to Barack, I go back to jotting a few innocuous lines into my notebook, cracking, with a low hiss the can of Leon Cervesa Negra I picked up for about thirty cents at the convenience store on Avenida Cinco de Mayo. The beer is lukewarm, tinny and just what the doctor ordered. To be sure, it’s my only hope for sleep. Soon, the laughter dissipates, but the construction of Hotel Rioja amplifies the most meager of actions. I can hear the old hunched desk clerk click his pen open three floors beneath us. Our room is on the indoor courtyard; if we dared step from our cracked wooden door, we could peer over the railing down to the nucleus of the place, meditate on the smooth bald head of the desk clerk whose small coughs sound in this place like the roars of Armageddon. The traffic outside could be under our bed.
Louisa and I need this—our first time overseas after spending a year in Chicago nursing my mother back from cancer, a year confronting the demons of my childhood bedroom, a room I hadn’t regularly slept in for fourteen years; a room bearing the obsessions of my youth, a past I only thought I had moved beyond; a room far more forbidding than any Motel 6; a room that signified, in it’s Alyssa Milano-circa-Who’s the Boss pin-ups and autographed pictures of Walter Payton, the loss of our marital sanctuary.
We need this. A room with walls that lets Mexico in, that allow our remembered lives, remembered selves to seep through its pores, where we can collect them into this bed, this can of beer, these quiet swallows between kisses. Above us, another couple, having found sleep, snore a telenovela through our ceiling.
“And as commander in chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.”
—President Barack Obama, December 2, 2009
History, as the old saw has it, is written by the victors.
Had the South prevailed in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln—who suspended habeus corpus, jailed dissenting journalists, and pursued a military strategy based on attrition, maximizing casualties on both sides, all to bring to heel those states who had legally declared their independence—might well be viewed as a dictator on par with Hitler or Stalin, and Ulysses S. Grant a war criminal. Instead, their visages adorn our currency, and the widely held, albeit bogus, view of that internacine conflict is that it was fought to free the slaves. Thus Lincoln is honored, disingenuously, as a champion of blacks.
In truth, war is never the clear-cut Good versus Evil described by St. John the Evangelist and George W. Bush. Consider the Second World War. The prevailing mythology is that the U.S. entered the fray to save the Jews and prevent a Nazi takeover of the world. So fanatical is this belief that to suggest otherwise amounts to heresy.
In Human Smoke, his brilliant pacifist’s history of the events leading to Pearl Harbor, Nicholson Baker suggests otherwise. I bought and read Baker’s book last spring, because the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, a liberal whose columns I agree with most of the time, slammed it with such vitriol.
In a March 31, 2008, column entitled “Yes, It Was a Good War,” Cohen (who, incidentally, supported enthusiastically our ill-advised foray into Iraq) begins by lauding Baker as “a supremely talented novelist”—in other words, a guy who has no truck with actual non-made-up events—before pronouncing Human Smoke “dead wrong and very odd,” and concluding thus: “World War II was fought for several reasons but above all—and proudly—because the only way to stop the killing was to stop the killers.”
Cohen dismisses Baker’s thesis with derision: “Is any war, outside of direct self-defense, worth fighting? Baker suggests that even World War II was not—that the Jews perished anyway and that the war consumed more lives than anyone could have imagined and that, somehow, pacifism would have worked its magic.”
At times, his arguments have all the complexity of a four-year-old’s. Were the pacifists right? Cohen replies, “No, they were not.”
Well, OK then.
Based on Cohen’s column, I expected Human Smoke to be a long treatise in defense of pacifism—the make-love-not-war ruminations of a bleeding-heart novelist on his high horse. Not so. Baker tells his story in short blurbs, most no longer than a page, that encapsulate primary sources. These are presented as dispassionately as possible. For example:
Winston Churchill wrote Joseph Stalin a letter. It was July 28, 1941…Churchill assured Stalin that England would do all it could do to help Russia. “A terrible winter of bombing lies before Germany,” he wrote. “No one has yet had what they are going to get.”
Human Smoke is 474 pages long. 472 of those pages consist of these short blurbs. Only on the last two pages does Baker editorialize, but by then his point—which has eluded Cohen, who almost certainly did not read the entire book—has been made:
War is hell. All war, without exception.
It was a similar visceral reaction in an otherwise staid newspaper that drew me to The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell’s Nazi opus that is, in many ways, a fiction companion piece to Human Smoke. In this case, it was Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times—with whom, like Cohen, I generally agree—throwing the proverbial tomatoes.
(Originally published in French as Les Bienveielles, The Kindly Ones won the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française and the Prix Goncourt in France three years ago. HarperCollins reportedly paid seven figures for the English-language rights, raising eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic. The English translation, by Charlotte Mandell, came out earlier this year, to decidely mixed reviews.)
“The novel’s gushing fans,” Kakutani writes, “seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness.” The Kindly Ones, she avers, is “[w]illfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent” and “reads like a pointless compilation of atrocities and anti-Semitic remarks, pointlessly combined with a gross collection of sexual fantasies.”
And the kicker: “Indeed, the nearly 1,000-page-long novel reads as if the memoirs of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss had been rewritten by a bad imitator of Genet and de Sade, or by the warped narrator of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, after repeated viewings of The Night Porter and The Damned.”
In other words, Kakutani hated the book. Which, perversely, only piqued my interest. If not Höss by way of Patrick Bateman, I was expecting a bloated epic in the vein of Elfriede Jelinek’s Lust, a brutal work of questionable quality that was nevertheless lauded in the land which apotheosized Jerry Lewis. What I found instead was something altogether different: challenging, depressing, overwhelming, but riveting—and not at all pointless.
In one respect, Kakutani is bang-on: this is not pleasant stuff. You don’t want to bring The Kindly Ones to the beach. You don’t want to suggest it for your book club. You probably don’t want to read it at all. There is so much grisly material here that even if you excise the hundreds of pages concerning the Jews, you’d still walk away shaking your head. The experience of a German officer in Stalingrad alone is a horror show. As the novelist Michael Korda, a Littell admirer, wrote on The Daily Beast: “This is the real thing, a journey into the belly of the beast, a chance to live through the doings of mankind at its worst, a book that is relentlessly fascinating, ambitious beyond scope in that it tries to show us in every unforgiving detail what we least want to see, and which never once lets the reader, or the Germans, off the hook. You want to read about Hell, here it is.”
Which begs the question: why would I—why would anyone—want to read about Hell?
To make sure it never happens again.
“I am a man like other men, I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you!” Maximilien Aue, the narrator of The Kindly Ones, insists at the end of the prologue. And while most of us are not matricidal former Nazi Obersturmbannfuhrers with a taste for sisterly sodomy, the guy has a point. Littell’s book couldn’t be more timely. In the two weeks it took me this summer to complete this leviathon of a novel—983 pages, tiny margins, small type, no paragraph breaks for quotes, and enough verifiable horrors to make the Saw franchise seem like an episode of Barney—President Obama declassified documents confirming what most of us already knew: despite assertions to the contrary by former president George W. Bush, the United States was engaging in torture.
Never mind who was right and who was wrong. The supposed Land of the Free was capturing people, holding them without trial, and torturing them, on the pretext of national security—just as the Nazis did to the Jews in Germany in the 1930s. It’s hard not to read The Kindly Ones as a cautionary tale.
And now, ominously, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize has announced a plan to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. I trust Obama’s judgment, and I believe that he understands the consequences of sending soldiers in harm’s way more completely than his predecessor could ever hope to. If he believes that the defense of the United States mandates that many troops fighting half a world away, I might arrive at the same conclusion myself, knowing what Obama knows.
But after reading Baker and Littell, I’m not so sure.