Saturday, September 30, 2006

The biggest scandal of them all...

I’m going to say something painfully obvious, something that any honest and informed citizen will agree with: the Iraq War is an appalling failure. More than that, the Iraq War will likely be remembered as one of the most profound, dangerous and cruel errors my country has ever blundered into. A lot of people say that Iraq is another Vietnam, and maybe they’re right. Much more depressing, however, is the possibility that Iraq might also be our Algeria. The chance for “victory”, however hollow or fake or temporary, has passed. The moment where optimism could be anything besides a stupid delusion has passed. Now we’ve reached the time where the only choice left open to us is how long we’re going to go on bleeding into the desert.

The few shrill supporters of Bush’s war that steadfastly refuse to give up their delusions like to argue that their opponents are in favor of caving in, that by rejecting their President’s course we will only show our weakness to those who hate us. It would be an unacceptable capitulation to terror and creeping fanaticism if the U.S. ever again shrinks before the enemy. We abandoned Somalia after taking casualties, after all, and hasn’t Bin Laden used that as proof that the most powerful nation in the world is, under its bluster, actually timid and decadent? We can’t retreat again, their logic goes, because the only way we can hope to prevail in this conflict is by discrediting them, by showing these murderous jihadis that American power will crush them no matter how long it takes, no matter how many casualties they inflict, no matter how painful the process may be. We cannot blink or waver or “cut and run”, otherwise our enemies will win and, if they win, our lives will forever be menaced by their medieval code and their lack of mercy.

This point of view is almost correct. If we left Iraq tomorrow, the jihadis would consider it a justification of their methods and—it is likely—their entire worldview. What we have created in Iraq is a situation similar to the one that gave birth to Al-Qaeda in the first place: for all our sophistication and technological superiority, it may be that we’re doomed to act out a remake of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. There, as in Iraq, extremists from across the Muslim world came to test their mettle against the infidel superpower. There, as in Iraq, the superpower was put in the position of propping up a fragile government against a baffling array of insurgents. There, as in Iraq, the superpower eventually had to make the hard decision as to whether to withdraw or to stay and continue to suffer an increasingly untenable situation. The Soviet Union was never going to turn Afghanistan into a friendly socialist state, yet some among us continue to believe that the U.S. can work an even trickier miracle in Iraq. We can only hope that it doesn’t take us as long to come to our senses.

So, yes, if we leave Iraq the terrorists will clap their hands and mock us as a pathetic paper tiger. It will be a very bad situation. We will enter into an uncertain, intimidating new world. But—and here’s the crucial point—we are already plunging blindly into that world. And we’re plunging into it with one hand tied behind our backs. As the situation now stands, there can be no “victory” in Iraq. Because what kind of victory depends on a permanent occupation? What kind of victory is contingent all our various enemies deciding not to attack us anymore? What kind of victory can we muster when there’s no state left to surrender to us, no ground for us to conquer, no declarations for us to sign and yet our soldiers and their civilians still die by the dozens every day? The question shouldn’t be decided as a matter of national pride—of “sticking it out” and proving America’s greatness—the question should be decided on the basis of what’s best for our country, their country, the region and the world. We are an economic giant, a military giant, and a free society. They are crazy theocrats. We disgrace ourselves by even suggesting that we need to save face in front of such people.

So leaving Iraq isn’t a solution that will usher in a new era of peace and global stability. It seems stupid to quibble about that when, in every reality but the Bush cult’s, the invasion of Iraq was one of the events that put peace and global stability into jeopardy in the first place. We don’t get to live in a world free of terror and religious fundamentalism, not yet we don’t. It’s awful, but it’s the way it is. I hear a lot about how important it is to “get serious” about terrorism. It usually comes up when some candidate, usually Republican, wants to pose as a tough guy in front of our scared and ignorant electorate. It is a doomed country that equates jingoism with “seriousness”. If we were serious about terrorism, we wouldn’t be watching the Taleban reform in Afghanistan. If we were serious about terrorism, we wouldn’t be talking about attacking Iran as a way of bringing it to heel. If we were serious about terrorism, we’d wouldn’t stand by and watch Israelis and Palestinians and Lebanese kill each other in the service of a ghastly status quo.

What’s needed isn’t more of the same political “seriousness”, which is basically just another buzz word intended to lend gravitas to the people who have been nothing but wrong since this century began. Instead, what we need is intelligence. America does not call the shots for the rest of the world. This is not an unpatriotic, hippie-dippie thing to say at all. It’s just the way it is. We’re a great power, we’re not omnipotent. If there’s one thing we ought to learn from our awful Babylon adventure, it’s that our authority and abilities have limits. We cannot decide that the Middle East should become an avalon of democracy and pro-business governments and then just send our military in to make it so. We cannot decide that people shouldn’t blow things up in the service of a scary medieval mindset and then simply bomb those people until they stop. We’ve seen that this only deepens the impasse. No, if we want democracy in the Middle East and an end to violent fundamentalism, we have to be subtler, we have to crafty, we have to be intelligent.

But we don’t want to be. We want to sleep safe at night underneath the blanket of unending American power. The American middle-class wants to fill up at the gas station for cheap, to cast their vote for the most comforting daddy, to have their wars fought for them by the kids of strangers. They want to live in a dying dream world, this bubble where we can have it all and not worry about where it came from or how it got to us, where God smiles on our cul-de-sac, where the spoils are ours but the sacrifices are always someone else’s.

So when I hear someone howling that only cowards want us to “cut and run”, I agree with them. Only a coward would want America to cut and run from its responsibilities and take up the futile pursuit of a cheap chimera. Only a coward would ask us to cut and run from the world’s gaping wounds so that we can all go back to hiding under the threadbare skirts of our mortgaged prosperity. Only a coward would ask us to cut and run away from the hard decisions affecting humankind so that the mistakes of the past can fester into true atrocities. Only the worst kind of coward wants to cut and run from our best traditions and the rule of law in favor adopting the savagery of our enemies.

Those enemies, of course, are real. For the most part, they are weak and beneath us. Terrorists cannot destroy America. Only we can destroy America.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

A warning for the faint-hearted...

I have it on good authority that the legendary Sweet Daddy Lovedrops, the world’s premiere sex therapist, amateur herpetologist, and all-around crazy bastard will be dropping by much later tonight. Rumor has it that he will even be offering a question and answer session. So, if you’ve got embarrassing intimacy problems you would like solved by a man some have called “Dr. Phil’s greatest nemesis” and others have called “a bat-shit insane bastard armed with a thesaurus and a woefully undersized penis”, please queue up and be sure to address him respectfully. However, if you have a sense of decency or are under the age of sixteen, you might want to stay away. You’ve been warned...

I'm too sleepy to write...

So instead of reading any drivel that might leak out of my weary mind, please enjoy this cool story about a 110 year-old ex-Negro Leauges ballplayer. Can any of you people imagine being 110 years old? If I make it that long, I’m going to be the terror of the nursing home. No one can tell you what to do when you’re 110 years old. You should get all the pudding you want and every good-looking young thing who comes by should be required to fuss over you for at least fifteen minutes. Because you’re 110 years old, dammit, and there should be perks that come with that.

And, this is off the subject, but do any of you out there get unreasonably angry whenever people choose to walk abreast and don’t let anyone get around them? Because, for some reason, that pisses me off to no end. I got stuck behind these two ladies today, and for the whole time I was forced to walk sooooooo goddamn sloooooow behind them they were having this animated discussion about how somebody caught “ammonia” and how the company they worked for only gave them a week off, even though they had “ammonia” and when you have “ammonia” you need to take it easy because “ammonia” isn’t like the common cold, it’s a lot worse and it can mess up your lungs. This drove me to bizarre, wholly unjustified heights of rage and I started my day in a funk. Is this wrong of me? I just got off the phone with Mel and she seemed to imply that I was being a bit of a fuckchop for getting so angry with such little cause. I don’t know, though. Maybe if she had been there, she would think differently.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The extended forecast suggests a blizzard of fat cats, party hacks, pompous liars, Jesus freaks in pancake makeup, and assorted thinktank zombies...

My town has just been selected to host the 2008 Republican National Convention. Weep for us, people. Weep for the hotel maids who will have to make Bill Frist’s bed and wash out Dick Cheney’s denture cup. Weep for the waiters who will have to giggle their fake giggles at Rudy Guiliani’s jokes. Weep for those of us who will be trapped on the street by FOX News reporters and asked to give our opinions on stem cell research. Weep for the poor balloon vendors who must balance the joy of filling the biggest orders of their lives with the knowledge that all their hard work will soon be raining down upon the shabbiest collection of rogues and scoundrels my city has ever seen...

Wednesday Scandalrama: Hey! That’s the mayor! And he’s SMOKING CRACK!

I was pretty young when Marion Barry was caught hittin’ the rock in a hotel room. I remember it well, though----every one of the five television channels we got back then must have showed that surveillance tape at least eleven billion times every day for six months straight. The middle-schooler me wasn’t sure what the big deal was: so some mayor somewhere smoked crack, whoop-dee-fucking-doo-dah. In my sullen teen universe, everyone was smoking crack—President Bush the First, Mikhail Gorbachev, my algebra teacher, those girls who wouldn’t laugh at my jokes, my parents when they wouldn’t let me watch “Nightmare on Elm Street”, everyone. I wasn’t really interested in the news back then, anyway. The television was there to show me Metallica videos. The newspaper was only good when there were lots of bra ads in it. The adolescent Kevin-M didn’t care if Marion Barry fired more pipe than Bethlehem Steel. As far as I was concerned, it was just some more boring, fake-assed shit my civics teacher would expect us to share our feelings about.

Looking back on it now, though, I can understand why it was such a big story. I mean, for Christ’s sake, the mayor of the capital of the United States of America was smoking crack on television. That’s real news right there. Especially since all this happened in the midst of the War on Drugs. It seems like ancient history now, but that was a time when drugs were what terrorism is now: the evillest evil ever to spring from the bowels of evil. Every television show seemed to have a “very special episode” where some straight-A student smoked a joint and found their life going to shit even before the buzz wore off. Every comic book had an issue where the guy in tights gamely steered some naive girl from the clutches of ravenous, drooling junkies. Every kid in the nation was forced to endure a hundred awful school assemblies where we were warned over and over and over again that if we ever did drugs we were in for a short life of shame and misery.

At my school, I helped put together a happy little play called “The Addict”. It was a series of short skits, all of which involved dumb-ass teenagers taking dope and then dying in horrible ways. The jock with his steroids drops a barbell on his neck. The hippies who like to swallow Quaaludes at the airport wander into someone’s propeller. The metalheads who smoke pot somehow manage to set each other on fire. It was great. The greatest part was that all the actors in it went out and got high after every rehearsal.

Still, this was the culture that Mayor Barry fired up his crack pipe in. Naturally, it was going to be a big deal. The only thing that could probably set off as big a shitstorm these days would be if they caught some politician kickin’ it with Hezbollah*. Barry’s indiscretion was tailor-made for white middle-class anxieties. The war on drugs was, all official protestations aside, largely a war on inner-city blacks, and here was the black mayor of one of America’s great black cities showing himself as the enemy on prime-time television. It gave a kind of grounding to ignorant people’s superstitions, it helped them continue to live in the fantasyland that the war on drugs demanded—this delusion that drugs are a black problem, an urban problem, a problem that can be solved by locking up as many poor people as possible. The times were such that our country’s longstanding racial hysteria had merged with its periodic drug hysteria, and Marion Barry foolishly blundered into the middle of the whole mess. No longer was he a skilled politician, an able administrator, and a fierce advocate for his city—he was Mayor Crackhead, the butt of a zillion jokes, some of which were actually pretty funny.

He deserved this, of course, but he deserves more too. You see, I don’t see drug use as a signal of someone’s essential depravity. I don’t excuse his behavior, but I don’t condemn him for it either. He is clearly a man with problems, and we can argue whether or not those problems render him unfit for public life, but I don’t hold any special animus towards him. To me, drug use is more a health issue than a moral failing. Of course, Barry was suspected of using cocaine before his arrest and he’s tested positive for using it since, so he obviously hasn’t been able and/or willing to live his life without it. Does this matter? Certainly. When someone holds a responsible position, they ought to be expected to behave responsibly. But does it mean that Marion Barry really is the indefensible wretch he was made out to be? Not at all. Perhaps his comeback campaign slogan said it best: “Marion Barry: He’s Not Perfect, But He’s Perfect For D.C.”

* Interesting tidbit: early in his political career, Barry was shot in the chest during an altercation with radical Muslim terrorists who were attempting to take over Washington D.C.’s municipal builidng. Strange world we live in.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Tuesday Scandalrama: Grover Cleveland, Contemptible Libertine and Confessed Bastard-Maker

Cynical campaigns laden with personal attacks, unfair smears and base accusations are nothing new. When there’s a lot at stake, you’ll always find people eager to set common decency aside and lead right into the filthy muck of democracy. Take, for instance, the presidential race of 1884. This was smack-dab in the middle of the longest period of Republican dominance in our nation’s history, and they weren’t going to let Democrat Grover Cleveland break their lucky run. Especially not when they knew that, as a young man, Ol’ Rovin’ Grover had shacked up with a woman named Maria Halpin, who gave birth to his illegitimate child, a child he continued to support after his political career took off.

Republicans, apparently just as scolding and dishonest in that century as this one, tried their best to use this fact to impeach Cleveland’s character. The race was close and their candidate, Maine’s James Blaine, needed all the help he could get. Of course, Blaine himself had some 19th century sordidness in his past, as the Indianapolis Sentinel reported: “There is hardly an intelligent man in the country who has not heard that James G. Blaine betrayed the girl who he married, and then only married her at the muzzle of a shotgun...if, after despoiling her, he was too craven to refuse her legal redress, giving legitimacy to her child, until a loaded shotgun stimulated his conscience—then there is a blot on his character more foul, if possible, than any of the countless stains on his political record.”

Regardless of defenses like these, Cleveland himself hoped to stay above the fray. However, he had his work cut out from him. At rallies and speeches, Republicans would taunt him with cries of “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” By way of pooh-poohing his ambitions, the New York Sun wrote “We do not believe that the American people will knowingly elect to the Presidency a coarse debauchee who would bring his harlots with him to Washington.” Even more frenzied were the clergy, one of whom said “Investigations disclose still more proof of debaucheries too horrible to relate and too vile to be readily believed...For many years, days devoted to business have been followed by nights of sin. He has lived as a bachelor...lodged in rooms on the third floor in a business block, and made those rooms a harem, foraged outside, also, in the city and surrounding villages; champion libertine, an artful seducer, a foe to virtue, an enemy of the family, a snare to youth and hostile to true womanhood...”

Such rhetoric makes Grover Cleveland sound a whole lot cooler than he really was, but back then it probably worked like a charm. When it got down to the wire in the campaign, it looked like his alliance of Democrats and “Mugwumps”—reformist Republicans opposed to the corrupt Blaine—were headed for defeat. However, in the last week of the race, a New York preacher delivered a speech intended to castigate the apostate Mugwumps. In the course of it, he said “We are Republicans, and don't propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion...” The Cleveland campaign publicized the Blaine camp’s slur throughout heavily Catholic New York and, in the end, it was enough to sway that state---and with it the presidency---to the Democrats.

(Again, my main source for this article is Michael Farquhar’s wonderful A Treasury of Great American Scandals. Buy it. Buy it. Buy it.)

The airwaves are crawling with annoying blowhards, comb-over windbags, and other assorted noisy trolls

I have a grand theory that explains everything. Well, maybe it’s not my theory so much as it’s a bunch of previously-voiced theories that I’ve been bunched up and then glued together with chewing gum and boogers. And maybe it doesn’t explain everything, but it explains one thing pretty well: the phenomenon of the angry asshole pundit, or what I like to call the “talking dickhead”. This is a species apart from your conventional televised/radio-broadcasted opinion-maker. This breed came be distinguished by their stacked-deck confrontational style, their fondness for fury, their unearned sense of omniscience, and their insistence that “common sense” is actually a series of dumb prejudices best expressed through empty bluster. Their usual domain is the drive-time talk radio show, where they alternate dim commentary on current events with the sort of humor that people ought to outgrow somewhere around their eleventh birthday. Some of them, however, have graduated into the big leagues and been granted their won syndicated programs or, for the luckiest of the lucky, their own cable television show. Bill O’Reilly is the biggest and worst of these, but there’s a pretty deep bench to back him up: Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, Tom Leykis, and the latest man to get a show on CNN even though he’s never said anything remotely interesting, original or amusing, Glenn Beck.

Most of these people are men, but not all of them. Similarly, most are conservatives, although there are many whose only ideological allegiance is to the juvenile and obnoxious. Their political philosophy isn’t what’s important. If liberalism encouraged the same sort of cheap shots and knee-jerk thunder, they would be liberals. In fact, one could argue that several Air America deejays fit the bill nicely. No, the people I’m talking about are conservative because, for a variety of reasons, a certain strand of right-wingness meshes well with their schtick and the situation their audience finds themselves in. Here’s where my theory comes in: the talking dickhead movement has arisen as a small part of the general societal reaction to two separate things: (1) feminism and (2) the United State’s peculiar understanding of class dynamics.

I’ll take the second of these first. For my entire life, the U.S. has endured a particular set of assumptions about economic life. For one, we assume that prosperity is permanent. For another, we assume that we as individuals are the sole arbiters of our economic fates. So a great many of us, the lucky ones, enter into a world of prosperity and prosper in it, simultaneously convinced that this is both the way the world works and somehow a reflection of our individual character. This makes us arrogant, true, but it also makes us anxious. While we may be doing well, globally speaking, we can also see people doing even better than us. They’ve got a bigger boat, a fancier deck, a newer Hummer, nicer khakis, and so on and so forth. We take this personally because we take the economy personally. Instead of ascribing a difference in income to the usual array of class factors, we ascribe it to nebulous things like “initiative”, “pluck”, “ambition” or “will”. The lack of these things is a personal problem, not an economic problem. There are no economic problems in the United States.

My guess is that this whole set-up leads to massive middle-class insecurity and, for many, a strange form of hostility. This is an anger which cannot be vented at systems or theories, but must instead fall upon less abstract villains. Luckily, your radio and television are teeming with guys willing to beat up on others on your behalf. It’s the bad form of populism. Some of the time, they’ll direct their audience’s latent wrath towards the usual collection of boogeymen: Arabs, Muslims, ghetto dwellers, the French, sexual minorities, etc., etc. This is a bonding thing, the kind of rhetoric that allows an atomized culture to unite against something nebulous and different. But, to borrow jihadi terminology, with these sorts there is the far enemy and then there is the near enemy. In the end, ragging on Syria nonstop isn’t going to garner the Arbitron ratings. That’s what they majority of the talking dickhead’s airtime is spent enumerating, excoriating and belittling the supposed faults of those middle-class Americans who ought to be righteous and holy, but fall short because they’re so goddamn stupid. So if the focus is conservatism, you’ll hear all about the effete, traitorous liberals who don’t have the balls to win the War on Terror. If the focus is more on pranks and low comedy, the butts of it will usually be the stuck-up, the strange, the foreign or the feminine. The important thing isn’t the nature of the accusation or the childishness of the humor, it’s the nullification of anxiety based on tenuous class and social positioning into something a lot less fraught. Being in the in-group—the American middle-class, if you will—then has little to do with how much you earn and a lot to do with the prejudices you hold and what jokes you’re willing to laugh at. In other words, classless punditry is part of manufacturing the illusion of a classless society.

But there’s also a sexual aspect to all of this. Because, while a couple notable talking dickheads are women, the intended audience for their ravings is very much male. This is where feminism comes in. Or, more accurately, this is where contemporary masculinity comes in. Even though by now there have been several generations that have grown up amid feminism’s influence, such a vast shift in human relations never happens easily or quickly. Our culture is still adjusting to feminism, even as feminism continues to refine itself. You see, for a very long time, white men had a pretty easy time of it when it came to proving their masculinity. There was most often a war for them to fight in if they felt they needed to demonstrate their courage and, since there were few women or minorities in the workforce, professional life became their exclusive peacock macho stomping grounds. When this scheme ended thanks to the efforts of civil rights and women’s advocates, the beneficiaries of that restricted playing field had to find new ways of being masculine. Some became new age reactionaries, bellowing about men’s rights and their duty to keep their wild souls free from the domesticating, womanly modern world. Some simply got confused, but many eventually figured out that it was all for the best and that masculinity could exist without dominance, violence or unearned privilege.

Still, for a lot of men, this understanding coexists uneasily with more atavistic impulses. There are no worthy battles in the cubicle farms where they toil; their professional and their personal lives are just the two edges of life’s neutering knife for them. They feel trapped and oppressed, shuffling through an existence shorn of vitality and power. They may be right, but their escape is all wrong. It’s far too easy. They turn on their radio or their television set and get their manly rebellion as passively as possible. There isn’t a lot in the way of conflict or drama in their lives, but they can cheer on Bill O’Reilly’s latest crusade against something or other. They long to be dominant, but they settle for watching Sean Hannity slap around Alan Colmes one more time. They dream of being take-no-crap men of action, but the closest they can come to this is joining the pack of some alpha male with a radio show. It’s kind of sad, I think.

But maybe I’m overintellectualizing my personal dislikes. Maybe it’s just a “different strokes” sort of thing. I mean, shit, I like French pop and god knows that isn’t for everyone. What do you people think? Any O’Reilly fans out there want to explain his appeal in a way that doesn’t involve calling me a leftist jackass? I mean, I don’t give a shit if you call me a leftist jackass, but that doesn’t explain why someone would want to spend a perfectly good hour listening to some angry jag-off bellow on and on, does it? I’m curious. I want to know.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Monday Scandalrama: That's PRESIDENT Aunt Fancy to you, Mister...

James Buchanan may have been our nation’s very first gay president. Now of course the concept of “gay” wasn’t around back when he was bringing his dour brand of fabulousness to the White House, and historians are divided on whether there was any actual substance to the rumors that dogged him much of his life. Most of the whispering stemmed from Buchanan’s relationship with one William Rufus King, a Senator from Alabama who was both a diplomat in France and, for a month or so, vice-president to Franklin Pierce. King and Buchanan lived together in Washington D.C. for more than a decade. During this time, political opponents and shameless gossips like Andrew Jackson wrote letters referring to the pair as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy”.

Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy were both bachelors their entire lives, which certainly fueled such speculation. Buchanan was engaged to be wed at one point, but his fiancee broke off the engagement and died shortly later after taking laudanum. This kind of thing soured Buchanan on the whole marriage thing, although wags were always eager to refer to King as Buchanan’s “wife” or “better half” in their nasty letters. Buchanan’s own letters, however, only seem to confirm the suspicions of dozens of wagging tongues. After King left for his diplomatic post in Paris, Buchanan wrote the following to a friend: “I am now solitary and alone, having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any of them. I feel that it is not good for a man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”

King, for his part, was aware of pain he might have caused his former roommate, as well as catty enough to write him a letter that said, in part, “I am selfish enough to hope you will not be able to procure an associate who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation.” Indeed, the Senator seems to have played with Buchanan’s heart more than once. A congressman from Tennessee, during one of the power couple’s periodic break-ups, wrote that King “may now be seen every day, triged out in her best clothes & smirking about in hopes of securing better terms than with her former companion”. That “former companion”, of course, having been Buchanan. Owch.

Anyway, later on, King died and Buchanan ascended to the presidency. He didn’t do a very good job of it, though, allowing the nation to slide headlong towards civil war. On the last day of his single term, he told his successor Abraham Lincoln (according to some, America’s second gay president), “If you are as happy entering the presidency as I am in leaving it, then you are truly a happy man”.

To contemporary politics-watchers, this story is interesting mainly because it’s hard to imagine a similar scenario happening today. Given our present prejudices, it seems unlikely that a man who had lived with another man for a decade and a half would be allowed to rise to such a level. A Republican media firm would cook up a slick ad showing a montage of drag queens, leathermen and fashion designers while a stern voice intones something about “mainstream values” and “Hollywood liberals” and whatever else. There would be the typical furor that the candidate’s living situation jeopardizes every traditional marriage that’s ever happened since the beginning of time and churches would pass out bulletins warning that if the candidate gets too many votes, Jesus will be banned and people will have to start marrying chickens. So, while it’s true that we’ve progressed some since the middle of the 19th century, we still have quite a way to go...

(Most of the facts and all the historical letters used in this post were taken from Michael Farquhar’s book, A Treasury of Great American Scandals. This is a great book for anyone interested in the subject, and you all should rush out to buy it...)

Saturday, September 23, 2006

You call that a scandal?

You wanna know what happened in Minnesota politics last week? Some young fellow with one of these here “blog” thingies got it in his head to visit the website of a certain ad agency. This agency does commercials for political candidates, and one of their clients happens to be Mark Kennedy, the Republican running for one of Minnesota’s Senate seats. Somehow, this blogger—who I don’t know, by the way, but from his sidebar it’s clear he has excellent taste in webpages—found his way to a password prompt. Here he seems to have typed in various things until he finally, for some reason, hit upon the idea of typing “Allen”. At this point, he was able to go to another area and view unreleased Mark Kennedy commercials. He then offered a link to these TV spots to staff working for Amy Klobuchar, Kennedy’s Democratic opponent. Next thing you know, people are resigning, the FBI is investigating, politicians are issuing pompous statements, the blogosphere is babbling with unusual vigor, and all of a sudden a whole bunch of people are acting like something legitimately interesting is happening.

Allow me to be frank: this is not a scandal. This is just more of the boring crap political nerds entertain themselves with. Unreleased campaign commercials being leaked? Questionable internet ethics? Possible delays in reporting the security breech? Republican grandstanding? Bloggers declaring themselves the future of everything? Yawn. Wake me up when someone hires a rent-boy or blows a 0.4 on the breathalyzer.

Some of my fellow Minnesotans might remember the saga of Jon Grunseth, the Republican gubernatorial contender who had to take an abrupt leave from public life following allegations that he had thrown a naked pool party with a bunch of teenagers. Now that was a scandal. Less gonad-oriented, but just as newsworthy, was the tale of my former city councilman, Dean Zimmerman. On the surface, he came off as just another ineffectual, self-righteous Green Party politician with a whole bunch of pie-in-the-sky plans to get Minneapolitans to watch less television and ride to work in retro-futuristic “Jetsons” cars. His idealistic image and his charming ineptitude, however, didn’t help him much after the FBI coughed up a videotape of him shoveling a whole lot of cash into his pockets. He claims it was a legitimate campaign donation. The jury of his peers disagreed. No matter where the truth is (and tend to think that Zimmerman is as dirty as they come), I still chalk it up as a genuine scandal, while all this “hacking” business is just standard-issue election year bad behavior.

Scandals appeal to our love of gossip, our need to be titillated, our fetish for seeing the powerful revealed as sleazy losers. Everybody loves scandals except for the people caught up in them. Sure, professional spinners will always try to shake a few votes out of them, but the true voyeuristic thrill of a good scandal is bipartisan. I’m a Democrat through-and-through, but I still got a kick out reading about Bill Clinton’s hot cigar sexytime with his favorite intern. I don’t think he should have been impeached for it, of course, but that wasn’t going to stop me from savoring the image of the leader of the free world negotiating for handjobs like some sort of middle schooler. By the same token, I would hate to think that some Republicans—out of partisan pride—might have shielded their eyes from the sordid details surrounding Illinois Senate candidate Jack Ryan’s alleged trips to Parisian sex clubs with a Star Trek: Voyager actress. Guilty pleasure in good dirt ought to be universal. Maybe it’s not our culture’s proudest and most noble quirk, but it’s there.

That’s why this week I’m going to focus on real scandals. Because in a time where people get excited over tedious internet antics and skullduggery of the dullest sort, perhaps we ought not lose sight of what a filthy, crass, corrupt, brutal, repulsive and entertaining sport politics can sometimes be.

NOTE: Edited to reflect that the swing clubs were JACK Ryan's indiscretion, not JIM Ryan's. The latter is a fine, scandal-free gentleman, beloved by all who know him. Sorry about that.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Come to Minnesota, because we're special...

Here in the great white North, we like to brag. We brag about the glories of our scenery, we brag about our world-class museums, we brag about our unflappable politeness, we even brag about how we don’t like to brag. Yep, we’re pretty pleased with ourselves up here, but we’re insecure too. We worry that people from other places—dirty, crowded, rude and boastful places—might think we’re just a bunch of boring, crypto-Scandinavian hicks with ridiculous accents. So while we’re convinced that our lives are far more pleasant and civilized than what goes on in, say, New Orleans, we also bounce around like a stateful of dim Shih Tzus whenever the New York Times compliments us on one of our theaters or restaurants. We’re not content just to consider ourselves superior, we want everyone else to acknowledge it too. And that’s sort of weird, when you get right down to it.

So, on behalf of all the non-Minnesotans out there, I would like to present you with a handy guide to what we’re really good at. This will help you understand when our pride is justified and when we’re just blowing sunshine up your asses.

ONE: Passive-aggression

Without a doubt, this is the trait that most characterizes life in this part of the country. It is something that afflicts ninety percent of us, although were you to ask a random person from Brainerd or Cloquet or Anoka whether it’s a real phenomenon, they’d most likely change the subject to the weather or hockey or the new deck they’re putting on their “cabin”. And then they’d silently loathe you for the rest of your life for even bringing up the question.

So, if you find yourself in Minnesota, do your best not to mention it. If you have a burning desire to see our quiet kind of hostility in action, just get behind the wheel of a car and drive to any well-traveled crossroads. When your light turns green, signal your intention to make a left turn, but do not pull out into the intersection. Stay safely behind the crosswalk as the opposing traffic goes past. As your maintain this position, use your rearview mirror to take a look at the drivers behind you. Chances are that they’ll be in the kind of rage you just don’t see back in New Jersey. They’ll be banging on their dashboards, screaming the most vulgar things imaginable, spraying spittle all over their windshield, and squirting smoke out of their ears. Yet at no point will they so much as tap on their horn, no matter how long you dawdle there. Why is this? Because that would make their fury known to the person who provoked it and, in Minnesota, such a thing simply isn’t done.

Basically, the main rule we live by is this: it is terrible to give offense, but it’s even worse to voice your displeasure at that offense. The crime must be punished, of course, but not in a way that makes any sense to the criminal. So you treat the guy who always walks away after jamming the copy machine to icy glares for three years, you tip the barista who doesn’t smile at you two cents, you make a less-delicious cake for the birthdays of people who have spoken badly about you behind your back. It’s just the way we roll around here.

TWO: Faking outrage

Minnesotans, despite their sober reputation, really enjoy being pissed off. Or, more accurately, they really enjoy pretending to be pissed off. It’s another aspect of our whole passive-aggression problem, and you can see it most clearly in a lot of our political discourse. Take, for instance, this Republican apparatchik. By the time you read this, he will probably have written his eight thousandth paragraph-long article on the current Democratic depravity du jour, the quasi-scandal of some guy somewhere looking at unreleased campaign commercials on some other guy’s website. In the course of this, we get posts with catchy titles like “The Tactics of Liberal Bloggers Have No Boundaries” and, my favorite, “I’m Disappointed In The Liberal Blogosphere In Minnesota”. This sort of contrived thunder is as Minnesotan as a fat man on a snowmobile, and even if no one really buys the head-shaking and the disappointment in our lack of boundaries, a lot of people still go in for the whole routine.

This is by no means an exclusively right-wing hobby, either. Because we’ve polarized ourselves into our left-right camps, we’ve come to reduce every policy disagreement into yet another example of the worst people in the entire world advocating dishonestly for unspeakable evil. Everything is an atrocity, everyone on the other side is an asshole, everyone on the planet will be fucked if we don’t get our way. This is our perverted way of making our boring discussions about school funding, campaign finance reform and public transportation bonding into a super-sexy battle between Good and Evil. So what if we too often look like screeching ninnies? The winters are long around here and it’s not like we can work on our tans or play beach volleyball or something productive like that.

THREE: Booking deluxe, all-expense paid guilt-trips

To me, this trait is mainly found among Minnesotan progressives and leftists. And, if I may criticize my own kind, it is unquestionably our worst habit. Here’s how it works. Someone, perhaps not even a soulless right-winger, expresses skepticism about a library funding initiative. Minnesota liberal then immediately steps in, clucks his/her tongue, and proceeds to wax expansive about how sad it is that the skeptic doesn’t care about reading, doesn’t care if children get educated, doesn’t care about a healthy community, doesn’t care about anyone but their own library-loathing self. Or maybe someone offers the opinion that some juvenile felon is a vicious sociopathic bastard who ought to be locked up for a very long time. This, to a great many Minnesotans, isn’t so much a statement of position to be taken on its merits as it is an opportunity for a long, half-assed lecture about how terrible it is that people don’t have compassion anymore and how people from privileged backgrounds shouldn’t be so quick to judge those who haven’t had the same advantages and wouldn’t it be better if we had restorative justice to offer these children rather than just the institutionalized opprobrium of the state?

I hate that sort of shit. Our positions gain their value from their basis in evidence, their wisdom, and the benefits of their application. They’re not just ways to prove that the person who holds them is the most virtuous, nicest, bestest person on Earth. That’s the sort of smug garbage I can’t stand from real conservative Christians, who often believe that holding a philosophy is the same thing as being holy. If our beliefs are challenged, we have to defend those beliefs. We shouldn’t just try and make a case based on what gentle, decent, caring souls we are. Liberalism is a way of understanding the world, it is not a shortcut to righteousness.

FOUR: Hating the local sports teams until they start to win

I’ll admit to doing this. Whenever any sort of season starts up—be it football, baseball, basketball, curling or whatever—I could give a shit. They’re undefeated? Big deal. They’re just a bunch of overpaid spoiled crybaby jocks anyway. Shit, for the money they’re making, they better be undefeated. Why don’t we just wipe their asses for them and give them a new stadium for every single day? The steroid-addled bastards. Why don’t people care about the arts anymore? You’ll never see an entire section of the paper devoted to a poet or a novelist or a ballerina and you wanna know why? Because our society has sick, sick priorities. Forilla.

And then the Vikings or the Twins or the Timberwolves or the Skating Russian Dudes make it to the playoffs and I get all excited. I follow the scores. I learn the players’ names. I bandy around statistics. I sometimes even watch the games. I get into it, in other words. At least until they’re inevitably knocked out. Twenty minutes after that I revert back to my normal, sports-hating self.

FIVE: Behaving awkwardly around minorities

Understand: Minnesota is one of the whitest states in America. If you aren’t in Minneapolis, St. Paul, or one of a few inner-ring suburbs, it is possible to go a looooooong time without seeing a single non-caucasian. Most of us aren’t used to different cultures and their different ways. When a typical Minnesotan is faced with one of these people, so many things are going through their mind that their conversational skills suffer. Sure, there are a few xenophobes who might worry that anyone slightly darker than them intends to do them harm, but many others are just scared that they’ll say the wrong thing. They want to be welcoming, but they don’t want to be so welcoming that the minority in question will mistake friendliness for wanting to be their friend. Because then the hapless Minnesotan might get invited to dinner and be forced to eat strange foods spiced with something stronger than pepper.

Minnesotans are also the only people on Earth who feel it’s rude to ask a foreign person where they’re from. Everywhere else I’ve been it’s a pretty standard ice-breaker, but here we apparently live under the delusion that not being a native Minnesotan some sort of unspeakable shame that should never, never, ever be brought up.

SIX: Squandering vacation time

The mark of a true Minnesotan is that they never leave Minnesota. Why would you? I mean, what other place in the world has so many trees and fields and lakes and rivers and antique shops and all that shit? So take your bizarre trip to go see the Pyramids, you weirdo you. Sven Johnson and Helga Norquist are going “up north” to “the cabin” this summer, just like every summer, and you better be prepared to look at some charming family photographs whenever you get back from whatever oddball other country you insist on visiting. Because there is no greater breech of middle-class Minnesota etiquette than not listening rapturously to someone’s three-hour long description of their “lake cabin” and all the magical wholesome crap they do up there. You can walk up Mount Everest without a sherpa, and in Minnesota you’ll still be less interesting than the guy in Accounting who went “up north” and caught a really big walleye. This is a place where people fantasize about going somewhere bucolic, sitting on a deck, and just staring until it gets too dark to see anything. I’m not kidding you. It sounds boring as hell to normal people, but here in Minnesota a vast percentage of us feel that the suburbs of Minneapolis (population 385,000) are just too hectic and cut-throat, so they need to “get away” and “recharge their batteries” somewhere even less stimulating. The joke, however, is on them two times. First, since everyone around here feels the same way, their woodsy hideaways become as crowded as their cubicle ranches every weekend. Second, nobody has a real cabin anymore. They all have “cabins”, which have running water, air conditioning, big-screen televisions, internet hookups, whirlpool bathtubs and so on and so forth. So they basically just recreate their suburban existence in a marginally more rural setting. Sound like a fun way to spend your summer? It does? Well then this is the state for you...

Thursday, September 21, 2006

I wish I could quit you, country music...

Listen. I was content to be done with my country song contest. If it were up to me, I would be back to writing my usual scholarly and sober posts on foreign affairs and economic policy. But I’m afraid these will have to wait, because Mel has officially lodged a protest against her choice not winning. Were it anyone else, I would probably ignore it, but with Mel I simply cannot. You see, Mel and I go way back. All the way from Iowa to New York City to Seattle to Cleveland, she's been there, spreading joy, speaking in fake German accents and alerting me when my pants make my ass too baggy. In fact, there was a time when I believed it should be a felony for someone to do something counter to Mel’s wishes. As I matured, however, I realized that such a law would be ridiculous. After all, only a crazy fool with no dignity or decency would even consider doing something counter to Mel’s wishes. It would be like making eating turds illegal. Yes, it’s disgusting and distasteful, but when people do it they only get shit on themselves. This is my way of saying whatever Mel wants, Mel gets.

And today Mel wants “I Ain’t Gay, I’m Just Thinkin’ Bout His Ass”. So here goes:

Well, I’ve been drivin’ truck
For near about fifteen years
Yeah, I’ve been down on my luck
Just grinding my own gears
But out on that there highway
You get plenty of time to think
And them thoughts I got today
Gonna drive me to the brink
I’m wonderin’ about this life I have
And I’m wondering what to do
Do I walk down just one path
Or do I follow what feels true?
You see, I live down in Arkansas
Plain as anyone can see
And just because I might visit Memphis
That don’t mean that I’m moving
To Tennessee, oh no, oh no...

And I ain’t gay,
I’m just thinkin’ about his ass
So firm, so high, so buff
Warm as a fire, smooth as glass
And I ain’t gay,
I just got that man on my mind
So strong, so hard, so rough
I’m gonna get back
I gotta get back
Gotta get back and make him mine

Yeah, it was near two months ago
I rolled into that there place
Feelin’ mighty bad ‘bout bein’ alone
With a big ol’ frown on my face
Well, he come up to me
When I was down in Dixie’s bar
Said this ain’t no place for us to be
Got my own joint, ain’t too far
I got up and followed that guy
Yeah, followed him right out the door
Listen, people, I ain’t gonna lie
We had a drink, a smoke, and then a whole lot more
You ask me why I done it
Then all ya’ll better just listen
I done it because I done it
And I sure as hell am gonna
Do it again, oh yeah, oh yeah...

But I ain’t gay,
I’m just thinkin’ bout his ass
So firm, so high, so buff
Warm as a fire, smooth as glass
But I ain’t gay,
I just got that man on my mind
So strong, so hard, so rough
I’m gonna get back
I gotta get back
Gotta get back and make him mine

I’ve heard people say there’s rules
And I’ve heard ‘bout God’s law
Well, those people are sho’ nuff fools
If they think we’ve got God bothered
With what goes on over in Memphis
Havin’ brunch, dressin’ up in leather
Huggin’, rubbin’, caressin’, kissin’
Goin’ to the Erasure concert together
Yeah, we gonna find a place to stay
Maybe just a quaint ‘lil loft
And then I’m goin’ back today
Gonna stick around ‘til I take off
‘Cause you know I like to see him
Hell, I’d see him every day
But there just ain’t nothin’ better ‘en
Seeing that man,
Whoooah, seeing that man
Seeing that man just walk away

Cause I ain’t gay,
I’m just thinkin’ bout his ass
So firm, so high, so buff
Warm as a fire, smooth as glass
But I ain’t gay,
I just got that man on my mind
So strong, so hard, so rough
I’m gonna get back
I gotta get back
Gotta get back and make him mine

Let's talk about my splitting headache...

Did you ever have one of those nights where it feels like someone has wrapped your head in aluminum foil and then beat on it with a pair of symphony-grade cymbals while you were riding in a truck filled with alarm clocks and firecrackers and crying babies as it rolled down the side of a mountain with the radio playing Slayer’s “Reign In Blood” album at full volume? You know what I’m talking about, right? Sort of when you take three extra-strength Tylenol and your headache laughs, laughs, laughs and swats them away like they so many Pez candies. Come back when you’ve got some goddamn Percocet, the headache taunts, maybe then we can negotiate. It’s the kind of headache where you just want to curl up in bed and moan gently and maybe have a Brazilian supermodel rub your neck with hot oils but you can’t do that because you don’t know any Brazilian supermodels and you’d too shy to ask if you did and it’s probably a good thing because then they’d see what a flaming crybaby you are and how long it’s been since you’ve cleaned your bathroom, and besides the pain is so bad all you can do is stare numbly at the evening news, hating the anchors with a violent passion and for no discernable reason. The sort of headache that jumps on you from out of nowhere and takes big nasty bites out of your brain, leaving you a useless and whiny wreck with glassy eyes and hurricane hair. If headaches were Soviet dictators, this one would be Stalin. If headaches were insects, this would be one of those two-foot long centipedes that you sometimes see on Nova. If headaches were rap songs, this one would be about what a really fucking bad headache I have...

That’s all I have to say tonight. I’ll be back tomorrow, if my skull doesn’t combust, Scanners-style, before then.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

My dinner with Mahmoud

Today, I got an interesting call on my secure line. Ordinarily, all I hear on that phone are pre-recorded debt-relief pitches and Democrats pleading for money, but this time Condoleeza Rice was on the other end. I could tell she had something important on her mind, since she skipped all the awkward pleasantries expected of people who were once ardent lovers, but have since grown into a comfortable-if-distant friendship (with benefits). I must admit, I was a little put off by her official manner. Sure, she can take that tone with her lackeys and with intransigent world leaders, but this was her Kevie-foo-foo she was talking to.

“Kevin, I’ve got something I need you to do...” she began.

“Whatever you desire, my pookie-foot,” I told her, but my honeyed tone didn’t faze her a bit.

“Listen. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is coming to the U.S. today and I want you to keep an eye on him, okay?”

Well, I bet my gasp could have been heard all the way to Foggy Bottom. I’m afraid that, for a moment at least, I lost my cool: “Not that, butter bear!” I wailed, “You know I would do anything for you, but—please!—not that! Let me follow around Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev instead! Or let me spy on Surinamese President Ronald Venetiaan! Anyone but Mahmoud, Condi! Please!”

Condi just clucked her tongue at my histrionics. “Your country needs you, Kevin,” she said.

“I’m real busy, though! I’ve got lots to do here! I mean, I have to write this gay cowboy song for my friend Mel and I have to re-alphabetize my Latin jazz CDs and I...” I babbled, but the Secretary of State—foul temptress that she is—just cut me off.

“Listen. If you don’t do it, I might have to leak those pictures of the time you and Katherine Harris—”

“I’ll do it!” I cried out then, both immensely distressed and slightly excited. You see, part of me gets kind of turned on whenever Condi plays hardball. “Just get me a plane ticket and I’ll be right out there,” I said.

She let out one of her sweet little chuckles and said, “That’s the beauty of it. He’s going to Minneapolis after his U.N. appearance. You don’t have to go anywhere.”

“But why is the President of Iran coming to Minneapolis?”

“The C.I.A. says he’s crazy about snowglobes. Apparently, that big mall you have out there has a bunch of them that he can’t even find on eBay.”

“Huh,” I said, “Well, I guess I’ll report back to you tomorrow, my darling sugar-tushy...”

“Great,” the most powerful woman in the Bush administration said, “And while you’re at it, try and find out about that whole nuclear weapons thing.” She hung up on me then, and I was left cooing my smooth lines into a dead receiver.

I tried not to be too hurt. After all, if I did her this favor, she would be in my debt for something big. Because, as she and few others know, me and Ahmadinejad go way back. It was the mid-80s, when he was a respected professor of traffic engineering at the Iran University of Science and Technology and I was wandering the earth pretending to be the reincarnation of Omar Sharif. We met by chance in a Tehran cafe and—if I remember correctly—soon got in a full-scale screaming match over the merits of noted Persian poet Hafiz. He took the tack (woefully common, I might add) that the great mystic was simply a Sufi heretic, while I argued that his humanism and aesthetic brilliance transcended such petty sectarian strictures. We almost came to blows about this, and we parted as bitter enemies.

Now, two decades later, I saw him again, only this time he was carrying an armful of snowglobes through Camp Snoopy. I shadowed him for awhile, trying to figure out what approach would be the best. You don’t just walk up to one of the big players in the Axis of Evil and start chatting him up about Israel, after all. You have to be sort of slick about it.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to use any of my fancy fake-out techniques. It was around the kiddie boat ride that he spun around, strode straight up to me and asked, in his passable English, “Excuse me, mister, but could you point me in the direction of the Sbarro?”

I had to roll with it. That’s what high-stakes diplomacy is all about. Without missing a beat, I said “I’m looking for that myself. Let’s try upstairs.”

At first, I was a little surprised that he didn’t recognize me, but then I remembered that, during my Omar Sharif days, I always had a small monkey perched on my shoulder. Without it, I look like a totally different guy. As we strolled among the teenage girls and the Peanuts gang, I fell easily into one of my most trusty disguises: that of a traveling plumbing-parts salesman from suburban Memphis. “You sure have a lot of snowglobes there, fella,” I said, my accent a perfect simulacrum of the west Tennessee way of speaking.

“Yes. They are beautiful, are they not?” the Iranian President said, beaming with pride at his purchases.

I nodded and guided him stealthily to the escalators. Of course, as a longtime Minnesota resident, I knew that the Sbarro was on the third floor, but I couldn’t tip one of our nation’s most outspoken enemies off to that fact. It’s a cat-and-mouse game, this espionage, and that’s why they don’t let just any dipshit do it. I had to go to school for, like, two years. All the while, I kept him occupied with small talk and good-natured banter. Over the course of this, I discovered several small bits of intelligence. Most of these are classified, but a few I can share in a public forum such as this one. They are (1) that the President of Iran agreed that it was cold in Minnesota today and (2) that Tehran is beautiful this time of year.

Eventually, we found our way to Sbarro and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad carefully set his snowglobes on an empty table and went to take his place in line. There was a little tiff when one of the employees there accidentally tried to give him pepperonis on his pizza slice, but this didn’t rise to the level of an international incident. With our trays and our large Pepsis, we sat down together and started in on a genial conversation.

When you’re in the business of figuring shit out on behalf of the government, you have to set aside some of your moral compass. It sounds disgusting, but it’s true. I couldn’t do my job effectively if I looked across the plastic food court table and saw a dangerous demagogue, a notorious anti-Semite, and a potential world-destabilizer. That would make keeping up the charade very difficult, so I had to swallow my knowledge of world affairs and my distaste for his policies and see him just as goofy Mahmoud, an avid snowglobe collector.

The only trouble was that he seemed to have no intention of letting in his amiable dinner companion in on any nuclear secrets. Perhaps he thought a plumbing-parts salesman wouldn’t be interested, perhaps his advisors had warned him against it. No matter the reason, all I got was a long lecture on traffic engineering. I wish I could say it was illuminating, but it wasn’t. It was boring. You can only hear so much about what Central Asian heat does to asphalt and the number of traffic lights needed on arterial roads. It isn’t a very “sexy” subject, I’m afraid.

But Mahmoud wouldn’t let up. He got really into it, and before I knew it, four hours had gone by and I hadn’t learned a single fucking thing about uranium enrichment. It was unbearable. I lost my mind a little bit. When he stopped to catch his breath, I said, “Well, that reminds me of something I read one time. Would you like to hear it?”

Mahmoud looked skeptical, but he nodded and bade me go on. He was clearly a man not used to being interrupted. But the expression on his face was priceless when I rose to my feet and began to recite---in my flawless Farsi---the immortal words of the 31st Ghazal:

“ Preachers who display their piety in prayer and pulpit
behave differently when they're alone.

It puzzles me. Ask the learned ones of the assembly:
"Why do those who demand repentance do so little of it?"

It's as if they don't believe in the Day of Judgment
with all this fraud and counterfeit they do in His name.”

With the lyrics of Hafiz of Shiraz ringing in his ears, the President of Iran finally recognized me as his foe of so many years ago. The noise he made then was frightful, half a hiss of rage and half a squeal of horror. And the last thing I remember is him winging a Winnie the Pooh snowglobe at my head.

When I woke up, I was on Air Force One with a bandage around my head. I’m writing this from a safe house basement somewhere in Northern Virginia, in between debriefing sessions. With any luck, I’ll be back in the Midwest tomorrow morning. It’s a hassle, true, but sometimes you just have to answer when your country calls...

Monday, September 18, 2006

I tried to get absolution from the Pope for this one, but he’s apparently busy with some other stuff...

Okay. Before we get down to presenting the second victor in my stupid country song contest, I would just like to point out that I did not want to write these lyrics. No, no: if things had gone my way, I would be writing about “Kentucky style” lovin’. Instead, due to the evil desires of no less than three voters, I have been forced to drag the messiah of millions—a man of peace and humility---into my tawdry realm of innuendo, invective and smut. I hope you people are happy. You know who you are.

Anyway, without further ado, allow me to present a little ditty I like to call “Jesus Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It”:

Back in the days of the Nazarene
Them Ba’athists was getting mighty mean
Hoardin’ their oil, pushin’ around Kuwait
Man from Galilee said “Jes’ you wait,
Might not come today, might not tomorra’
But you done stepped in a bucket of sorrow
‘Cause one day there’s gonna be a place
Strong and free ‘nuff to smash your face
And then you’ll be hollerin’ to the U.N.
Sayin’ ol’ Preznit Bush done it again
Toppled your throne, freed your country
Made the region safe for democracy
So Saddam Hussein, just you quit
Because this boy from the manger says you ain’t shit...”

Jesus said it, I believe it, that settles it
So go back to France, you moonbat
Jesus said it, I believe it, that settles it
It’s only devils that vote Democrat

It was way back in ol’ Judea
When a fella named Adam had an idea
"Let’s get Steve and some other fellas
Because I’ve got a hankerin’ for them wedding bells"
But, don’t you worry and don’t you wail
‘Cause Jesus done caught them at the Macy’s sale
There in his sandals, so sure and proud
Let them know that wasn’t allowed
“Now, you sinners know I’m the messiah
And what I’m tellin’ you ain’t no lyin’
My pop thinks what you’re doin’ ain’t kosher
And he says you’re hurtin’ him the most here
Worse that liars, drunkards, killers with knives
Are the men who want men to be their wives...”

Jesus said it, I believe it, that settles it
So go back to San Francisco, you moonbat
Jesus said it, I believe it, that settles it
It’s only homer-sex-shulls who vote Democrat

Take it away, Jesus!

[Celestial harp solo]

Christ was rolling down along the ol’ Jordan
When he met a bald-headed economist man
Who said, “Let’s tax the rich, they’ve got enough
All they’re doin’ with it is buyin’ useless stuff!”
Well, Jesus heard this talk and stopped mighty quick
Because taxin’ folks makes the son of God mighty sick
He raised his voice, all honeyed and true
And called that man ten times a fool
“Now, you may be smart but you sure ain’t holy
Because we got to keep this here market free
Creatin’ jobs, fillin’ needs, havin’ a trickle-down effect
That’s the sort of thing we ought to respect
Now, listen up, before I send you down below
It’s a right sacred duty to keep them taxes low.”

Jesus said it, I believe it, that settles it
Go back to Russia, you moonbat
Jesus said it, I believe it, that settles it
Because only commy-nists vote Democrat

Are you ready for the country?

First off, thank you to everyone who took time out of your busy schedules to indulge my absurd contest. Thank you also to Mr. Sponge, who provided a timely assist just when low voter turnout threatened to turn my weekend into a ever-darkening spiral of despair and alcohol abuse. Now that the whole thing is over and the winner(s) have been decided, I am left to look back on the whole experience and think, Oh fuck, now I actually have to write one of those stupid country songs. Two of those stupid country songs, actually. Because there was a tie and I was too honest and too stupid just to write a fake comment tipping the balance to one or the other. So that’s more work I have to do. And it’s not like I’m not busy already, what with my six jobs and my trying to find a new job and my novel and my short stories and all that. Dammit.

But enough whining. According to my tabulations, the victors are as follows: “Take Off Them Waders” and “Jesus Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It”. Two fine titles, perhaps, but I was really hoping you people would choose “(I’m Fixin’ to Love You) Full-On Kentucky Style” or “I Ain’t Gay, I’m Just Thinkin’ Bout His Ass”. Because I actually had ideas for those ones. Good ideas. And now those ideas must die. Oh well. If people always voted the way I wanted them to, John Kerry would be our president, Mark Green would be mayor of NYC, and magic gumdrops would rain down from hot pink candy volcanos as unicorns dance merrily up joy-flavored rainbows towards hundred-gallon pots of gold and hot tubs teeming with saucy Brazilian ingenues. But I guess it doesn’t work that way.

Anyway, I think I’m going to do one song today and one song tomorrow, so as not to strain my creativity muscle. Tonight’s installment is gonna be a tear-jerker, so if you’re the emotional type, be sure to steel yourself now.

Take Off Them Waders

Well, you and me been farmin’
Since ‘bout 1972
And if there’s one thing I know about farmin’
It ain’t so easy to do
But, baby, you took to it
Like a fat man to barbeque
And now this fat man’s so happy
That he’s farmin’ here with you
And I got to tell it plain
And I hope you understand
That tonight this old fool’s
Gonna be your lovin’ man

So take off them waders, honey
Step into the candlelight
Get out of them overalls, darlin’
Because we gonna do this thing up right...

Every got-damned day
You get up at four in the mornin’
Rainin’, snowin’, hailin’
And the farm-hand’s quit with no warnin’
Well, you’ve birthed more calves
Than a million high-class ladies
And, sweetheart, you’ve pulled enough udders
To make John Henry look lazy
Now, I ain’t never seen heaven
Or the Eiffel Tower in Gay Paree
But I don’t any of them things look as good
As you, covered in manure and comin’ back to me

So take off them waders, honey
Step into the candlelight
Get out of them overalls, darlin’
Because we gonna do this thing up right

Sunday, September 17, 2006

A gentle reminder...

I've decided that voting in my country song contest will remain open until 9pm tonight. Please, if you haven't already, go and pick your favorite. A kitten's innocent life (as well as Discordian Stooge's marriage) may depend on it...

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Can this kitten teach you people the importance of participatory governance?

As you can plainly see, above this text is a photograph of an adorable kitten. His name is Lionel. Isn’t he cute? What a frolicky, insouciant, cuddly being he is! Please, gaze at him to your heart’s content: I’m sure you’ll find that his image will soothe your soul and calm your nerves. I must admit that his soft fur and his frisky antics sure have filled my day with joy.

This joy is especially necessary, since I’ve been pretty depressed over the low voter turnout for my country song title contest. Of course, in a democracy such as this blog, no one can force anyone else to partake in the civic process. That’s just not how it’s done. The only option available to responsible leaders is to point out to the people that, often, apathy and inactivity come with consequences of their own. There is, for instance, the fact that by shirking your electoral duties, you give up your franchise to those who actually bother to make an effort, thus causing your personal voice to be excluded from the public discourse. There is also, I feel, an incremental effect that “snowballs”, if you will, whenever one avoids their democratic responsibilities: little by little the standards and values and responsibilities that hold our community together are frayed until they become unable to support our dreams and aspirations.

Finally, and it pains me to say it, there is some concern over what might happen to sweet Lionel if people don’t start voting for which country song they like the best.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not threatening this innocent, gentle kitten. Far from it. Such behavior would be savage, and I am not a savage man. No, no: I am merely a man who cannot sit idly by and watch as the beautiful system of governance bequeathed to us by the Greeks is corrupted into uselessness by my audience’s unwillingness to vote on which bad country song they think I ought to compose. These are desperate times for us simple humanists, I’m afraid, and it would weigh greatly on my soul if poor Lionel was to become a victim of our societal malaise. He deserves better than that, don’t you think?

It’s funny, isn’t it, how such a simple thing as voting in a silly contest could spare such a winsome creature a disgraceful fate? Because—and this is something I shudder just to think of, I assure you all—my biggest fear is that Lionel may find himself the victim of an experimental weapon that fires gamma rays at such a high intensity that his appealing form would become mutated beyond recognition. And what a hard road he would have if that came to pass. What an injustice that would be. There is a silent tear in the corner of my left eye, and it is quivering gently as I ponder what fate has in store for dear, dear Lionel.

But hush! For our delightful kitten is scampering across the floor as we speak, batting about a piece of string! It is a glory to behold, the wonders of youth and the magnificence of the animal kingdom all wrapped up in such a carefree package. Lionel is certainly a gift from the heavens, and gazing upon his hearty play, I imagine that his tiny mind considers life to be an endless adventure, an endless and blissful battle with bits of string, an eternity of simple happiness and profound peace.

May it ever be so, darling Lionel, may it ever be so...

Before you do anything else this Saturday...

Go over and check out Mr. Sponge's article on race, Republicans, Oklahoma and Minnesota's Fifth District Congressional race. Mr. Sponge has been on fire lately, and these days he's kicking out in-depth, thought-provoking, entertaining posts so often that he's probably eligible for some sort of blogging Oscar. So be sure to make Mr. Sponge a regular stop on your internet tours. You won't be sorry.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Because deep down you’ve always wanted to make your mark on country music...

While everyone knows that I’m the Minnesota’s most fearsome and respected political kingmaker, not as many are aware that I’m also the Ira Gershwin of contemporary country music. I’ve penned the lyrics to venerable (if as of yet unrecorded) country tear-jerkers like“Panhandle Sunrise” and “(It's Tough Bein') The Only Jew In Chattanooga”, while also dabbling in rowdy honky-tonk numbers such as “(My Baby’s Got A) Big Ol’ Cameltoe”. These songs are typified by their wry observations of the rural way of life, combined with thoughtful reflections of life and love, wise humor, and gentle nuances so subtle that you’ll just shit yourself. They are, in other words, my proudest accomplishments as a human being and will be my sole lasting contribution to Western Civilization.

And, tonight, because I didn’t get my post about Paris done in time, I’m giving you—my dear, dear audience—the chance to midwife yet another of these beautiful, heartbreaking pearls of pure lyrical magic. That’s right, I’m putting you people in charge of my next Nashville hit. All you have to do is scan the list of titles that follows, choose the one that makes your soul soar the highest, and place your vote in my comments section. On Sunday morning, I will then tabulate the data according using only the most stringent accounting protocols, and will set to work composing lyrics for the winning title. It sounds like the chance of a lifetime, doesn’t it? Well, let’s get down to business:

1) “(I’ve Got The) Burnin’ Pee Blues”

2) “Woman, Where’s My Pabst At?”

3) “Al-Qaeda Tried-ta Hide-a (But the U.S.A. Saved the Day)”

4) “Upholstered In Denim”

5) “Jesus Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It”

6) “I Suspect She Farted”

7) “Take Off Them Waders”

8) “Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong With Wisconsin”

9) “I Ain’t Gay, I’m Just Thinkin’ Bout His Ass”

10) “(I’m Gonna Love You) Full-On Kentucky Style”

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The single most godawful song of all time REVEALED...

But first, a brief story:

The other day, the CD player in my car wasn’t working, so I was forced to listen to the radio. I hate the radio. All you get on the radio are right-wing blowhards, commercials for mortgage brokers, and crappy songs by the assload. This was proven to me as I drove home from work last night. It was midnight, I was exhausted, and all I wanted to do was hear a pretty tune to help wash away the endless hours of shouting and complaining I had just endured on my shift. As I went round and round in the parking ramp, I beat my “seek” button senseless, my disappointment growing as I suffered snippets of some half-baked political diatribe, some American Idol runner-up howling about heartbreak, some public service commercial about how it’s a bad idea to do meth, some smoothed-out country singer and their studio-tweaked twang, and on and on. It was dispiriting. I probably would have driven myself into a wall in frustration and despair had I not already expected all this garbage and more from the festering sewer of unabashed badness that is Twin Cities radio.

However, as I was steering out onto the lonely city streets, I picked up the signal of something truly special. There was a dippy guitar, there was a feeble rhythm, there was a smug millionare burnout whimpering cliches. I knew immediately that this must be Crosby, Stills and Nash. That it was awful goes without saying, but I left it on. To my way of thinking, the awful is preferable to the banal. As I drove on, listening to the appalling crap warbling out of my speakers, something quickly became clear to me. This wasn’t just another atrocious Crosby, Stills and Nash song—this was in fact the Holy Grail, the Golden Fleece, the Taj Mahal, the Alhambra, the Absolute Pinnacle of all that is noxious and not-good in the realm of deliberately-arranged sound. It was, in other words, the Single Most Godawful Song of All Time.

I can hear you asking, “Kevin, which Crosby, Stills and Nash song—most of which are already incredibly wretched---could possibly qualify as the Single Most Godawful Song of All Time?” Well, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer: “Marrakesh Express” is the song I speak of, the song that is so mind-bendingly lame that it diminishes the life force and reduces the sex appeal of anyone who hears even a moment of it. It is worse than “My Pal Foot-Foot”, by the Shaggs. It is worse than “Can I Touch You...There?”, by Michael Bolton. It is even worse than “I Would Do Anything For Love, (But I Won’t Do That)” by Meatloaf, which I suspect is a song about felching*. The sound of Ted Nugent skinning a fresh kill with his teeth is more appealing than this song. The sound of a thousand ADHD children smashing your good china is more soothing than this song. The sound of maggots worming their way through a steaming heap of cow dung holds more beauty than this song. It is a bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad song.

If you disagree with me here, you either haven’t heard it yet or you’re certifiably insane. Let me break it down for you. Since the song is about Morocco---a place I imagine Crosby, Stills and Nash visited because they heard about it’s many impressive varieties of hash—there is an “exotic” guitar played whenever they’re not singing. That “exotic” guitar sounds like something I would play if I had only two fingers and a burning desire to make the world suffer. There are also other instruments, but they’re not worth listening to or commenting on. They’re just there, the same way there’s lots of boogers on the underside of a first-grader’s desk. The less said about such things, the better. Besides, it’s really the lyrics and the singing that make “Marrakesh Express” so impressive. A few seconds of the chorus is all you need to hear to understand why Graham Nash got stuck with third-billing even in the company of losers like Stephen Stills and David Crosby. Because, Holy-Christ-in-His-Underoos, is he ever a singer of less-than-awesome ability. And it doesn’t help that he’s bleating things like: “Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind/Had to get away to see what we could find/Hope the days that lie ahead/Bring us back to where they've led/Listen not to what's been said to you...” Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Al Green all working together couldn’t salvage crap like that.

What say you all? Do you agree with me? Or do you have a different candidate for Most Godawful Song of All Time?

*Personal footnote to mom: please don't look "felching" up on the internet. Also, don't ask me what it means next time I see you. Thanks.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

What's the single most godawful song of all time?

The answer will be revealed later today, if I get around to it...

Keith Ellison makes history as the first Insomnia Report endorsed candidate ever to win anything...

Some of you may recall that about fifteen hours ago I threw the unquestionable gravitas of this website behind the primary campaign of one Keith Ellison, who is running for a seat in the House of Representatives. Well, he just won. A coincidence? I think not!

Of course, because Mr. Ellison is black and a Muslim, you can expect a whole lot of canned outrage from the usual gang of “I’m not a bigot! How dare you call me a bigot!” bigots and other assorted semi-professional right-wing pearl-clutchers. But who cares? All that kind knows how do is complain and smear, so let them complain and smear to their hearts content in their noisy internet ghetto. They don’t matter. If they had any taste or real wisdom, they’d look back on their hatchet-jobs and hack screeds and be as embarrassed as a high school kid who’s just puked down his date’s dress. But they don’t seem to have been born with the shame bone. They look the sticky mess they’ve just vomited and think that the rest of us ought to lick it up and then thank them for the opportunity. No thank you, weird internet conservatives, no thank you.

But I don’t want to get negative on Mr. Ellison’s big day. I’ve heard from several people that he’s a thoughtful, approachable guy who genuinely cares about the causes he takes up. If that’s true, and I see no reason to doubt it, I’m glad he’s going to be my next congressperson. He’ll have his work cut out for him, but I’m sure he’s up for it.

To that end, I’ll be so bold as to offer him a little unsolicited advice. First, try not to get a seat next to James Sensenbrenner. I hear he smells. Next, get an apartment in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. They’ve got a lot of good restaurants around there, and it’s a lot less snooty than Georgetown. Thirdly, when you make your inevitable appearance on “Meet The Press”, please do your best to refer to host Tim Russert as “Lil’ Timmy Foo-Foo” at least once. Because that would be pretty funny.

Finally, and most importantly, never forget that you owe everything to Kevin-M and the Insomnia Report. I mean, without my timely endorsement, who knows how this might have ended up? I don’t mention this to be egotistical, of course. Why do I mention it, then? Simply because while Kevin-M may be a kingmaker of Boss Tweed-like authority, he also needs a job. A good job. Like, with government benefits and stuff.

I’ll leave it at that, real subtle-like.

But seriously, congratulations to Mr. Ellison. I’m glad you won. Do us proud in Washington...

Monday, September 11, 2006

Keith Ellison captures the coveted Insomnia Report endorsement...

Everyone knows that there’s no greater “kingmaker” in Minnesota politics than this here blog. With my six hundred or so readers—most of whom live nowhere near here—I have become almost like the famed Daley machine in Chicago. Whichever candidate I pick to win is thereafter showered with not only millions and millions of votes, but also the undying love and gratitude of this nation. John Kerry, Al Gore, and Roger Moe can attest to my influence. History shows, that my support is pretty much a one-way ticket to neverending victory.
And now I’ve decided that people ought to go out and vote for Keith Ellison in the Fifth Congressional District primary tomorrow.

I met him today and, from our nine seconds of “face time”, he seems like a fine fellow. He’s also shorter than me, which I like in a Congressperson. What’s more, he agrees with me on most major issues. He’s for ending this terrible war we’ve got going on (although I’d like to hear more about how he plans to bring a lasting peace to the Middle East), he’s for comprehensive health care, and he’s against all manner of unbearable Republican badness. He strikes me as a guy worth your vote.

Of course, one cannot mention his name without bringing up the sliming he’s been subjected to. As for me, I don’t care that he said or wrote some silly things back when he was a student. Shit, I’ve written some silly things just last week. I don’t care if he hobnobbed with the Nation of Islam a couple decades ago. He’s apologized for that and he’s come out strongly against anti-Semitism. What do people expect him to do? Stay inside for the rest of his life because he’s made a mistake or two? I also don’t care if he’s got a bunch of unpaid parking tickets. I’m electing a congressperson, not a saint.

But I don’t want to dwell on Republican-generated mudslinging. Really, who gives two squeaky farts what those professional liars and cul-de-sac pundits think? Their influence is waning; their day is thankfully coming to a close. Keith Ellison will probably be around when all of them are in the old-folks home, toothlessly accusing the nurses of giving the liberals longer sponge baths.

So, if you live in Minneapolis and you haven’t made up your mind on who to vote for yet, why not give Keith Ellison a shot? Because, most of my other endorsees, he actually looks like he has a good chance of winning. Let’s hope he does. Otherwise, my support will be proven once and forever to be the kiss of death for a candidate.

The Awful Holiday

I’m going to try my hardest to avoid the mass media today. I’ve got no stomach for mawkish rehashings of great traumas. I don’t think atrocities should be reduced to melodrama. All the sooty flapping flags, all the sob-worthy montages, all the recycled stirring soundbites ought to be retired. They do us no good. We don’t need to pick at our gaping wounds with lollipops; we shouldn’t be turning tortured history into yet another soft-focus Oprah episode.

But our commemorations aren’t just ghastly, they’re also premature. The fact is that September 11th isn’t over yet. We’re still living in its repercussions and we probably will be for a few more decades. What happened that morning was a particularly horrible moment in a long crisis, with the convoluted and contentious events leading up to and following from it largely hidden by political cant, deliberate deception and our culture’s potentially-fatal ignorance of history and the world outside its borders. I don’t pretend to understand most of it, but I’d also rather not fight fanaticism and oppression armed only with a million bombs, a few stereotypes and a threadbare national myth.

But, before we get to that, here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to insist that we no longer use the people who died on those planes and in those buildings—the brave and the average, the exceptional and the everyday—as rhetorical grist and talking-points fodder. They deserve to be cherished by the people who love them, not by politicians and pundits with a point to make, however valid that point may be. In the end, it’s their lives that should be remembered and honored, not the violence and horror of their deaths. We do them a disservice when we turn these innocent victims into brickbats to hammer at the people who disagree with us, just as we do a disservice to the importance of the issues we face when we try to make ourselves and our opinions holy by swiping the valor of the dead.

We have entered a period where the choices our nation has to make are far too critical to be decided by gut feeling, partisan favor or prejudice. It’s alright if we bicker, of course, we just need to start bickering at a higher level. This controversy over a cheesy miniseries is a good example of how asinine our national dialogue was become. In these polarized times, people want to prove that they’re hanging around on the side of the angels by showing that the events of 9/11 weren’t the fault of their side. This is ridiculous. 9/11 was Osama Bin Laden’s fault, it was Ayman al-Zawahiri’s fault, it was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s fault, it was Mohammed Atta’s fault. If that crew is too spectral and foreign for you to blame, go right ahead and pin it on Bill Clinton for treating terrorism like a pipsqueak problem, but at least have enough honesty to acknowledge that there weren’t a whole lot of Republicans raising the alarm back then either. Or, if you’re the sort of liberal who’d like to lay the whole thing at George W. Bush’s feet, you’ll find lots of people willing to agree with you and even a bunch willing to share their stupid conspiracy theories with you, but you’d be better off blaming every past administration up to and including Carter’s for mishandling the Middle East in the name of cheap oil and anti-communism. While we’re at it, why don’t we just blame the Soviets for invading Afghanistan and kicking that whole jihad thing into high gear? And why stop there? Maybe it’s the fault of the House of Saud for giving 13th-Century throwback Wahabbis so much control of their country’s religious life and so many of our petrodollars. Or maybe it’s the fault of Sadat and Nasser for letting their governments torture Egypt’s fundamentalist insurgents until they turned into terrorist hard-cases and then setting those same people loose to wreak havoc everywhere.

The point is that there’s enough blame to go around. What we lack are ideas and leadership. We’ve reached the point where the party in power lies and says they’ve made the world safer while the other party—my party, I might add—lies and says they have a plan to do better once we elect them. They’re able to do this because the people who vote for them have been conditioned to expect simple solutions and soundbite policies. We’ve allowed our democracy to be debased into a sort of civic shopping mall, where candidates package themselves according to marketing dictates and the only ones who can possibly rise onto the national stage are those who give the least offense or make the best sales pitch. Americans like optimism, they like being lulled, they never get tired of hearing that they’re the kindest, smartest, luckiest, most noble and special people God has ever created. No one will win an election by saying that this is a fairy story we tell ourselves to keep the bad news at bay. No one will win an election by saying that we have to grow up and leave that kind of fatuous nonsense behind if we ever hope to lead the world, not just plunder it and be menaced by it. No one will ever win an election by saying that someday soon those 150,000 soldiers stationed in the Middle East won’t be the only Americans sacrificing big pieces of their lives for the sake of bad foreign policy.

Today there’s going to be a lot of drivel about “the lessons of September 11th”. These will mostly be cliches and slogans of widely varying probity. There are those who will tell you, in all seriousness, that we have to understand how all Arabs or all Muslims are the enemy now and we have to steel ourselves for slaughter. There are others who will tell you, for the millionth time, that Bush is a crap president who was farting around with schoolchildren when the shit went down. You’ll hear about missed opportunities, bureaucratic ineptitude and political correctness run amok. Someone will make a remark about our deadly reliance on foreign oil. Someone else will prattle on about good and evil. Maybe someone will even dust off that old fundamentalist saw that God was punishing us for our wickedness.

People aren’t shy about formulating these things. But, in the third year of our Iraq debacle and in the fifth year of our acute national confusion, maybe we should start studying another lesson from that wretched day—that things are bad and they’re only going to get worse. I know it goes against the grain of our country’s can-do spirit and our depraved optimism, but eventually we’re going to have to stop being so infatuated with things that don’t matter and pick our way out of this mess we’re in.

This will not be a pleasant process. It’s going to take a hard look in the mirror and a whole horde of hard decisions. Still, I’d rather it happen before it’s too late and we’re all left sifting through the ashes of a fallen nation.