Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Corinthians ’74

March 18, 2014

Reading Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers last night, and a character in it made me flash on a kid I met in the Ozarks one day. I spent the summer of ’74 with my cousin and his wife—they had 80 acres on a mountain in north Arkansas and they were trying to start a commune there. It was way the hell away from everything, no electricity, only a tiny spring for water, 20 miles of gravel roads to the nearest burg, etc., but occasionally people they knew would drift through and stay a day or two. One group was a family of four, and the older son was about nine, a handsome freckled kid with long yellow hair. We were all sitting round the redwood picnic table when he casually pulled out a bag of weed and papers and started rolling a huge, and perfect, joint like it’s nothing. Lights it, takes a huge hit, and hands it to me. While we were passing it around somebody mentioned to his parents how odd it felt and his parents—classic longhairs—just laughed. At some point everyone wandered off but the two of us and he rolled another fat joint. He was like a small adult. He wasn’t interested in kid stuff at all, and all his mannerisms and his way of expressing himself, even the things he talked about, were what you’d expect from someone three times his age. He had the hardcore stoner’s impatience with frivolous talk, and when I said something goofy at one point he grew cool enough that I was a little intimidated by him–which is messed up.

Anyway, there’s no big point to the story—they left after only a few hours. It was just something which, in that particular time and place, barely even registered as unusual, and it certainly laid waste to the notion that people can have their childhood “stolen” from them. This kid was clearly ecstatic to have shaken off the bonds of childhood; the big thing I remember about him is his adult-like poise sitting at that table. He was an equal, and totally happy with who he was.

Reach for the Sky

August 20, 2010

It was four or five obsessions ago—before film noir, before the Iraq War, before Enron and the Italian neorealists and vegetarian cooking the Army-McCarthy hearings—that I really plunged into the gunmen of the Old West. It lasted a while, a year or two in any case, and in that time I bored certain people silly (Gary, Kathy, Cay—are you still out there?) with the exploits of such forgotten men as John Selman, King Fisher, and Outlaw Bass. For instance, there was the handsome train robber Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum,

who caused some excitement when his head popped off during his hanging,

and “Deacon” Jim Miller, the religious nut and hired killer who asked permission to keep his hat on before getting strung up in an Oklahoma barn,

and Henry Brown, the popular but poorly paid marshal of Caldwell, Kansas, who decided to improve his lot in life by robbing the bank one town over from his own. It was a bad move: a couple of citizens were killed in the robbery, then Brown and his friends managed to trap themselves in a box canyon that was filling up with rainwater. They surrendered and spent the day in the Medicine Lodge lockup, waiting for the mob to reach its boiling point; while not posing for photographs at gunpoint, Brown used the time to write a letter to his wife which ended: “It was all for you. I did not think this would happen.” When the mob finally came that night, Brown made a break for it and was shot down in the street. That’s Henry, second from the left there, in shackles:

Some of the most famous gunmen were so thickly embroiled in the currents of history they seem like frontier Forrest Gumps, yet one can’t say much about them as people. These were far from self-actualized men, to put it mildly, and they had no say in how others represented them. Some of them come across as sociopaths pure and simple, others as workingmen carrying capitalism to its logical end, but in the main their personalities don’t communicate across the ages in any illuminating way, leaving us only with their violent, often nugatory experiences. Those experiences, draped as they were in law-breaking and immorality, were a tangled web to begin with, and any remaining hope of clarity was dimmed when generations of dime novelists, journalists, and slipshod historians took to heart the words of the too-slick newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Every field is open to information abuse, but the Old West was left to the amateurs for so long that peer reviews and other reality-checks couldn’t obtain a toehold for decades, allowing writer after writer, for generation after generation, to repeat “the legend”—the myths, tiresome the second time you read them, that Billy the Kid shot a man for every one of his 21 years, that Hardin once shot a man for snoring. Indeed, “the legend” was regurgitated so many times that the writer-bibliographer Ramon Adams felt moved to compile Burs Under the Saddle, a virtual encyclopedia of errata which painstakingly corrects, one by one, the outright myths and half-truths peppering Western histories. Beyond the weekend warriors, the field has also seen its share of warlords and empire builders, most notably the belligerent and quite possibly insane Glenn G. Boyer, whose inexplicable mindgames have hindered serious researchers for years. Nor do publishers, especially in the academic world, offer much help when they saddle their offerings with presentations trivializing their own subject matter. When the University of Oklahoma Press reissued John Wesley Hardin’s autobiography for the first time in decades, this is what it looked like:

Likewise, Joseph G. Rosa’s indispensable pictorial biography The West of Wild Bill Hickok is available only in a cheaply produced edition even though Hickok led a life richer than Picasso’s, and the man himself, an incorrigible camera hound, possessed one of the great modern gazes in 19th Century photographs.

wild-bill-hickok

Despite all this, certain potent snapshots still jump out from the literature that is reliable: a disconsolate Hickok sitting on his bed, surrounded by firearms, as a half-dressed prostitute putters about his room; or Henry Brown’s vest catching fire from a pistol flash and going up in flames as he ran down the street during that escape attempt. These luminous, ephemeral glimpses have no more substance than heat lightning, and they’re no help at all to, say, the grad student writing a thesis on the economics of mining towns. Anecdotal history like this doesn’t leave much more than a feeling, but it’s a feeling that’s tangled up with the texture of some rugged lives once lived, a constant shifting between the gridpoints on a wilderness, an easy familiarity with violence, and the unmistakably American flavor of all these things; if nothing else it injects some small dose of grit and authenticity into an age of designer-ripped jeans and Lady Gaga.

John Wesley Hardin, for instance, came out of the East Texas hills, the son of a Methodist circuit rider (hence the name), and his early reputation as a mankiller was based on run-ins he had with freed slaves, Union soldiers, and the hated (by Democrats and ex-Confederates) State Police. Getting himself into scrape after scrape, he was a fugitive long before he was 20; in the Taylor-Sutton feud he shotgunned a man on the deck of a riverboat even though the fellow was known to be fleeing the territory; when he subsequently murdered a deputy and lit out again, a furious mob strung up his brother.

The Texas Rangers caught up with him on a train outside Pensacola, knocked him out, and renditioned his ass back to Texas, where he was given a 25-to-life prison term. In Huntsville he taught Sunday school—par for the course for celebrity felons today, but Hardin seemed to believe his own sermons, and he went one step further and began studying law. He served 20 years before he was pardoned in 1894, and the Texas of his youth was fading away fast. He passed the Bar but few people wanted to pay John Wesley Hardin for his legal advice. He married a 15 year old girl who fled on their wedding night and refused to discuss him ever again. The children from his first marriage, grown now, were strangers to him. He moved to El Paso and hung out a shingle.

There he began work on his autobiography, a book short on insight but long on detail, with names and dates supplied for almost every killing, some 30 or 40 in all. He distributed autographed playing cards drilled by bullet holes—keepsakes which are traded to this day. But things continued to slide downhill for him: not enough clients, a messy affair with the wife of one of the few clients he did possess, a card game that so pissed him off he scooped up the pot and walked out the door, silently daring anyone to object. The local newspaper, hearing of this, began a drumbeat: the day of the gunman was over. It was just a matter of when. There was one final dispute, one final exchange of charges and countercharges, this time with a degenerate constable, and on August 19, 1895—115 years ago yesterday—Hardin was playing dice in the Acme Saloon when John Selman stepped up and shot him in the back of the head.

Now, not even with a gun to my head could I tell you why I find these details irresistible. The fact is, I just do…

Boo-Yah!

October 4, 2009

Manny Farber’s not just my favorite film critic, he’s one of my favorite writers period. His style tickles the shit out of me, and I do mean just his style: the man could’ve written all those sentences about dynamic interest rate models and I’d still be hypnotized by their measured clankiness, vertical drops and sudden switchbacks. (I don’t even mind those dodgy double-edged sentences—anathema to some—which, depending on the angle you’re holding the book at, can look like either a compliment or a mortal insult.) But of course it was film that he wrote about, The strength of his descriptive powers guided me to a slew of movies I might never have picked up otherwise, like The Lineup and The Lusty Men and The Roaring Twenties, and if the price of experiencing gems like these is giving up the occasional 90 minutes for a Rawhide or a Little Big Horn, well, I can handle that. He also made me look at movies harder than I ever had by effortlessly picking out visual patterns such as the horizontal fanning-out of men and horses repeated throughout The Wild Bunch. If one of Kael’s strengths was dragging ideas that lie dormant in most people’s minds into the light of day, Farber specialized in perceptions that wouldn’t occur to anyone else in the world, using a personalized lexicon that shaved and curled the normal meaning of words, and regrouped them under the rules of his peculiar syntax, making them come out as hard and compressed as a Modernist poem. Like Kael he was a master at describing how actors appeared on the screen, but he went further, detecting in them modes of expression that the actors themselves could scarcely have intended:

One of the good termite performances (John Wayne’s bemused cowboy in an unreal stage town inhabited by pallid repetitious actors whose chief treat is a powdered make-up) occurs in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance….Wayne’s acting is infected by a kind of hoboish spirit, sitting back on its haunches doing a bitter-amused counterpoint to the pale, neutral film life around him. In an Arizona town that is too placid, where the cactus was planted last night and nostalgically cast actors do a generalized drunkenness, cowardice, voraciousness, Wayne is the termite actor focusing only on a tiny present area, nibbling at it with engaging professionalism and a hipster sense of how to sit in a chair leaned against the wall, eye a flogging over-actor (Lee Marvin). As he moves along at the pace of a tapeworm, Wayne leaves a path that is only bits of shrewd intramural acting—a craggy face filled with bitterness, jealousy, a big body that idles luxuriantly, having long grown tired with roughhouse games played by old wrangler types like John Ford.

This new collection is more than the addition of a mere handful of pieces à la the recent-ish Warshow and Agee reissues—it’s a legitimate Big Deal, approximately twice the 460 some-odd pages of the Da Capo edition of Negative Space, allowing it to double as a bludgeon capable of beating Harry Knowles half to death. Nor is it just a piling on of juvenilia, junk, and rehashes: there are new, or rather unfamiliar, thoughts on Welles, Hitchcock, Hawks, & Co., major essays on the war film, noir, et cetera, plus hundreds of regular reviews containing no end of surprises. (He was lukewarm towards Rio Bravo, and Hail the Conquering Hero caused him to turn on much of what he’d previously liked in Sturges.) I’ll still be clutching my copy of Negative Space on my deathbed, though (and thanks to that durable binding I expect to be able to), simply because I spent so many happy and productive hours with it. My one regret about it has nothing to do with Farber per se: that haunting shot of Karen Morley never appears in the actual Scarface. What the hell was Hawks thinking?

When accountability still meant something

May 10, 2007

I spent this afternoon watching the last half of something I forgot I even had, the 250-minute documentary about Nixon’s second term simply called Watergate that BBC and The Discovery Channel put together about 15 years ago. I have about five documentaries and specials about the mess but this one is the mother of them all. That’s partly because it isn’t fixated on The Washington Post’s role the way the others areWoodward and Bernstein make an appearance alright, but they’re onscreen just a tad longer than Tony Ulasewicz, and they get a helluva lot less face-time than Dean or McCord or that bow-tied dandy known as Archibald Cox. Another thing that makes it great is that the filmmakers somehow put all the subjects at their ease, with Haldeman and Ehrlichman in particular showing hitherto hidden human faces. Nixon himself is present only in the form of generous excerpts from the David Frost interview in ’77, and when describing the meeting in which he fired Haldeman, Nixon describes his old chief of staff, spitting the words out as they come to him, not as some Germanic…Nazi…stormtrooper, which does pretty much nail the public’s perception of the guy, but as a decent public servant. That last phrase might be stretching a point but Haldeman comes off well. With his hair grown out a tad and wearing a plaid shirt, khaki pants, and a pair of half-glasses, he comes across like an uncle at his favorite fishing lodge. And he’s not alone. Ehrlichman, Liddy, Dean, Magruder, Colson, Mardian, Porterdamn near all of themspeak out with a surprising openness and lack of rancor, and the way their interviews are woven together makes us feel for once that everyone’s telling the truth.

There are exceptions. John Mitchell, who died years ago, isn’t on-hand, of course, but you get the feeling that even if he was he wouldn’t have been interested in opening up to a film-crew for a documentary narrated by Dan Schorr. He’s the one who bluntly told the Ervin Committee that he considered Nixon’s re-election so important because of what the other side was putting up that he would’ve done anything to accomplish it, and he’s also the only one who failed to see the humor in his exchange with Sam Dash. When Dash asked Mitchell why he hadn’t thrown Liddy out of his office while Liddy was describing one of his hare-brained (and highly illegal) schemes, Mitchell, pipe in hand, evenly replied, In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t just thrown him out of my office, but that I’d thrown him out of the window. With a professional’s timing Dash let the answer hang in the air before prefacing his next question with, “Seeing as how you did neither… As the caucus room rang out with spontaneous guffaws, the camera zoomed in on Mitchell who, judging by his expression, looked as if he were trying to decide whether it would be more fun to kill Dash by roasting him on a spit or throttling him with his bare hands.

Still, the man who comes off the ugliest isn’t named Mitchell or Haig or even Richard Milhouse Nixon. It’s E. Howard Hunt, the reputed “spymaster who did us all a favor by dying and going to Hell just a few short weeks ago. Hunt, it will be recalled, led the planning for the break-in along with his co-mastermind Gordon Liddy, and it was he who began squeezing his former bosses for hush money after his arrest. Hunt, too, appears in contemporary interviews, but where even the likes of Colson, Magruder, and Ehrlichman mellowed with age, and managed to recognize the tawdriness in their own souls somewhere along the way, Hunt gazes into the camera as one might regard a bottle of cyanide as he talks about the “considerations” he felt were due him. It’s a disgusting, even disquieting, performance.

A Few Words from Our Sponsor

March 4, 2007

Thanks to my friend Chris Lanier, I wound up appearing on Steve Lambert’s show on UC Davis’ radio station a couple weeks back. (Chris can also be heard on the program, recounting with Homeric splendor the mighty Battle of the Pine Needles.) Steve’s ostensible theme was “Fist Fights and Violence” but that didn’t stop me from saddling up some of my pet hobbyhorses—Peckinpah, The Sopranos, the corruption of feminism—and riding them into the ground, thus boring an audience much wider than my close circle of friends for a change. You can hear the show on Steve’s website by scrolling down to Episode 10 and clicking on the sound bar. There aren’t any earth-shaking insights, but I did I get to tell a couple of my circus stories (though I unconscionably neglected to give shout-outs to the two horses I handled, Pancho and Frosty), and Steve did a really nice job with the editing. That post about Dority’s fistfight also got cannibalized for a contribution to The High Hat a couple of issues ago. That issue was intended (in part) as a tribute to Robert Altman (who died unexpectedly about 24 hours after it came online, making me think that a special issue about Dick Cheney might be in order), and also includes my take on California Split—still a piece of relevant (and hilarious) filmmaking 30+ years after the fact.

Dem Bones, Dem Bones

October 18, 2005

A couple days ago a local big-time criminal defense attorney found his wifes body in their home she had the ol multiple blunt trauma to the head thing going and the TV media here, smelling another O.J./Laci epic in the offing, have gone absolutely nuts. They lead off every newscast with the story (what Iraqi referendum? what fascistic special election?), refer to the victim exclusively as Pam, keep reminding us of the money factor by endlessly re-running chopper footage of the Xanaduesque hilltop mansion that the couple was building, bring on FBI profilers whom they then machine-gun with leading, lurid questions (Does the fact that Pam was in her T-shirt and panties indicate that she knew her attacker well?), and otherwise openly flirt with the line between showing proper sympathy for a grieving husband and accusing the bastard of outright murder. Ill probably never mention this case again, but just know that for the next year or so Ill be banging my head against the wall whenever I stumble across the 10:00 news.

I don’t mean to jinx the man…

October 3, 2005

…but tonight I felt a real rush of sadness that Robert Altman just can’t be with us that much longer.

Scales of Justice

September 24, 2005

There’s a little advertisement for a bail bond company that shows up on late night broadcasts of Jerry Springer and Cheaters which is so cheesy, both morally and aesthetically, that I feel rather happy whenever it comes on. It follows a doltish looking white guy who lip-synchs a cheap rap ditty as he’s being busted, booked, and then bailed out of jail, and ends with him arriving back at home where his mother is waiting for him, only “Mom” is a mustachioed black man done up in drag. (Whether this is meant as some jokey allusion to the actual penitentiary experience, I don’t know.) I’ve never managed to notice the company’s name because the whole thing throws my mental gyroscope too far off its axis, but the ads for another company, Aladdin Bail Bonds, emphasize just how serene the whole Gettin’ Busted experience can be. Their most memorable effort begins with an attractive, wholesome looking blonde—why, it could be you, missy—being rousted from her slumber by a ringing telephone and then crying out, “Ar-REST-ed!?” (Ma’am, may I ask just who it was you thought you were married to this whole time?) Cut to the Aladdin offices, where some bail-bondsman cum New Age guru brings the distraught woman a glass of water (aww…) and touches her comfortingly about the shoulder before shooing her off to bail Clyde Barrow out of the pokey. All of these ads treat the criminal act with the same non-accusatory indifference with which insurance companies view cyclones and hurricanes; in fact, they’re so impartial and highminded that their creative director probably deserves Rehnquist’s chair. Aladdin’s slogan—“We get you out. We get you through it.”—is the perfect enabler’s motto, glossing over as it does the traumas that grease its wheels. In their view it’s a given that your husband or son will be arrested someday, whether it’s for jaywalking or attempted murder who’s to say, and there’s no point in wondering how things came to such a pass. Bailing the hubby out of jail in the dead of night is just one of life’s grubby little chores, like cleaning up after the dog, that’s handled quite easily if you just bend your mind the right way.

Like a Hurricane

September 13, 2005

So in the space of two weeks Mother Nature has accomplished what the war in Iraq couldn’t do in two and a half years: first, forced George W. Bush to admit that he’s less than perfect, and then forced one of his staffers to pay the price for his mistakes. FEMA chief and personification of cronyism Mike Brown walked the plank yesterday, and whether or not he was forced to do it at sword-point, he delivered one last maudlin gust of the misdirected reasoning that’s made his name an international byword for incompetence. Insisting one last time that he’s been scapegoated by the media (but not by the president), he said, “The press was too focused on what did we do, what didn’t we do, the whole blame game. I wanted to take that factor out of the equation, so that the people at FEMA, who are some of the most hard-working, dedicated civil servants I have ever met, could just go do their job.” (See, he’s not just some historical footnote—he’s a martyr.) But it doesn’t take a Plato to suss this one out—the press was only doing its job when it “focused” on Brown’s appalling shortcomings, and it was clearly Bush who cut Brown’s legs off and then left him swinging in the winds of history. (Brown was unharnessed from his hurricane duties four days ago to decrease his visibility, after which that jerk Scott McClellan refused to give him a vote of confidence even when the reporters howled for one).

 

If not for the damage he’s caused Brown would be remembered as a two-bit resumé padder, and even with it I suspect it’ll take some googling a year from now to recall who the hell he was. But Hurricane Katrina has accomplished things even more remarkable than making Bush flinch. For one thing, a poll last week showed that 44% of the country was “ashamed” of the government’s response to the disaster. That’s right—ashamed. This, in a country where the biggest insult one person can lay on another is, “You don’t have any self-esteem,” where France and Germany are regularly hooted at for their effete and timid morality, and where the mantle of self-entitlement weighs so heavy on us that we continue gobbling up fossil fuels and our grandchildren’s capital without a second thought. Bush’s ratings have taken a further beating, with only 39% of the voters giving him a thumb’s up, as the man himself has looked hard-pressed to explain his own response to the storm. The largest issues of our day—the federal government’s responsibility for its citizens, the roles that race and class play in American society—are getting a more serious hearing in the media than they’ve had in years, and twice now on major network news shows I’ve heard the word “property” pronounced with a nearly Marxist disdain. We suddenly have our heads cocked quizzically to the side and one ear raised like dogs watching their masters do something funny. We’re almost cute in that position, for sure a lot cuter than the supine position we usually adopt in the face of the White House’s antics, and all it took was the trashing of one of America’s great romantic jewels. It’s happened here, in our backyard, and the people we see struggling in the muck look unmistakably like ourselves. The Department of Homeland Security has been exposed as a hive of grifters and incompetents, Bush’s take-charge reputation is in shreds, and for once Karl Rove can’t control the camera angles or redirect the anger. Whatever Katrina did to New Orleans, it’s done even more to America, something that Richard Clarke, Cindy Sheehan, and 1,800 ghosts working full-time couldn’t do. Even if the furor dies down before the World Series begins, it’s a breath of fresh air in the meantime.

The eye of Katrina, before landfall:

September 8, 2005

This Poor Cracker’s Land

September 7, 2005

 

…and…nothing, I guess. I stopped writing on that last post, feeling too dispirited to go on, and it turns out it was just as well. Virtually everyone I know who’s blogged about Katrina, and a lot of people who don’t blog at all, saw New Orleans the same way I did, as a giant brackish Petri dish where Social Darwinism, supply-side economics, and Compassionate Conservatism are finally free to breed with each other. Talk about your toxic soups. At least we know now why Republicans think that Big Government just messes things up—it’s because it does when it isn’t accompanied by a little thoughtfulness and compassion, which are not these people’s long suits. No one’s captured the nightmare of Bush’s America better than my friend Dana Knowles when she said, “Living under BushCo is like being trapped inside a Ponzi scheme run by the Manson Family.”

 

Now, if you’ve never seen this cocksucker Scott McClellan, today he bullshitted his way through another White House press briefing, parroting the operative Talking Point over and over again: “Now’s the time to help people, not play the Blame Game.” The Blame Game! See, it’s all just tiresome partisan politics, people trying to nitpick this president so he can’t get it on with his compassion! In different conditions I might agree, but not here, not with this crowd, because George W. Bush and his friends live in a Never-Neverland of eternally deferred accountability. They know if they stonewall long enough people will either stop caring, lose track of the details and chronology, or both. (The White House has already floated the idea that the feds couldn’t move without a state of emergency being declared. The amazingly few non-amnesiac members of the press quickly noted that Blanco—and Bush himself—had done exactly that the night before Katrina made landfall.) I’d love to hear what the reporters say to McClellan when they get a couple drinks in them, even if I suspect McClellan knows better than to drink too much around them. McClellan is a Frankenstein stitched together from pathetic qualities, but the most pathetic of them all might be his “affable” way of occasionally acknowledging his adversarial relationship with the press with statements like, “I like and respect you all, and I don’t take it personally.” Well, not even Scott McClellan is so goddam stupid that he can’t see that the tone and implications of the press corps’ questions, at least on the days it does its job, are a spit in the face to whatever shred of personal integrity he thinks is still clinging to him. You can practically see Karl Rove winding up the crank in McClellan’s side just before each briefing, and his status as a tool is so apparent that his greatest qualification for the job is that he doesn’t seem to mind that fact. If he had an ounce of self-respect he’d be challenging Bush and Rove to a duel with pistols at dawn.

 

As usual the administration is talking out of both sides of its mouth at the same time. Just as McClellan is busy decrying the Blame Game, nearly everyone else is busy pointing fingers: at the locals who didn’t evacuate, at the (Democratic) governor and the (Democratic) mayor, at the (probably Democratic) looters, at all that gosh-darned water that came in with the hurricane (who’d a thunk it?), and at those reliable old stand-bys “red-tape” and “bureaucracy.” An interesting sidebar to the whole mess is the Name Game: what to call the victims. Last week most news reports were calling them “refugees,” and around Saturday, having scoured every other website, I happened to look at Limbaugh’s to see what Fathead had to say about the mess. It was surprisingly little, but his home page did contain a headline reading “These People Aren’t Refugees” and a link that took you to a Merriam-Webster page defining “refugee” as “a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution.” Okay, fine, I thought, if for whatever arcane reason Rush doesn’t want to call these people who’ve suddenly been made homeless and transported to aid shelters in other states “refugees,” then I’ll just avoid that word in his tender presence. It turns out, though, that many of the victims themselves are balking at the word, preferring instead “American citizen,” “survivor,” or even the white-paperish term “evacuee.” Any of these do lack a couple subtle insidious connotations that give them the edge, I guess, as they carry neither the depth of powerlessness nor the seeming permanence of “refugee.” On the one hand it’s just another indication of how much importance people place on language, even in times when you’d think such fine distinctions would be the farthest thing from their minds; on the other hand, we should probably be elated if this is Limbaugh’s greatest insight into the whole fiasco.

 

The mainstream media is getting back to normal after the stress and trauma of doing its job last week. When some reporters asked George Senior a couple days ago about the criticism of Numbnuts, he said, “Well, if you repeat it to Barb you better wear a flak-jacket,” and the press corps hooted with laughter right on cue, as if she really is just Irene Ryan in pearls instead of some backwater Lady Macbeth. (Senior then went on to compare the criticism to the Monday morning fallout after a losing football game. The apple didn’t fall six inches off this tree.) From here it looks like the media loves Hurricane Katrina. With Bush’s negative poll numbers and the “great visuals” of human suffering in hand, they’re feeling a little reckless and can be seen striking skeptical, angry postures they never dreamed of taking post-9/11—you know, when it might’ve done some real good. They take time out from that yummy footage of ballooning corpses bobbing in the floodwater to recount the latest zingers flying back and forth between the state and feds, but it feels less like an exercise in democratic illumination than someone swinging a stick in a big circle and whacking two hornets’ nests at the same time. At least BBC is relishing the administration’s discomfort for truly political, not Nielsen-driven, reasons. Their raw footage and blunt narration is strikingly devoid of American news’ “balanced” dithering, or what Al Swearengen would call “this several hands fucking shit.” As the camera zooms in on a pile of debris, topped by one of the pathetic HELP signs, still littering the Convention Center, the British reporter flatly declares: “It’s a monument of shame.”

Katrina, Katrina

September 3, 2005

·  Survivors living among corpses

·  FEMA head: Working in “conditions of urban warfare”

·  Armed gangs attempting rapes, police warn

·  Bodies dragged into corners at convention center

·  Sniper fire halts hospital evacuation

That’s the slate of subheadlines that could be found at CNN.com two nights ago. I include them here not because it still seems unreal that the location in question is New Orleans, Louisiana, but because seeing them grouped together like that—from before the first convoy of relief trucks rolled in, causing the resulting gasps of relief to be mistaken for “cheers”—does a good job of showing just how ugly this thing got. That’s important because in an about-face the Bush administration had chosen to answer the accusations of incompetence and insensitivity with a limited modified hangout, rather than the straight-ahead stonewalling it normally prefers. Bush has offered a couple of mea culpas in the last 24 hours, but they’ve been watered-down generalities (e.g., the relief effort was “not acceptable”) that identified neither specific shortcomings nor (most importantly) who was responsible for them. But that’s Bush’s way. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert had to issue a clarification for floating the idea of bulldozing instead of rebuilding the city. Not so FEMA head Michael Brown, though, who suggested that those haggard people clinging to life on chunks of shattered Interstate highway wouldn’t have anything to complain about if they’d just gotten their asses out of town when they were told to. Despite being fired from his previous job as the head of the International Arabian Horse Association (what’s the emoticon for throwing one’s hands up in the air?), and despite his supremely fucked-up job on Katrina, Bush gave “Brownie” a very public atta-boy yesterday.

America is a country famously uninterested in history. Oh, we like to watch grainy footage of German artillery corps blasting their way across the Russian steppes, and we like to make grand, meaningless comparisons when they serve our purpose (indeed, one of the duties distracting Bush from Katrina the day after she made landfall was a speech likening the Iraq war to World War II), but when it comes it to actually observing the results of some past occurrence, deriving a lesson from it, and then retaining that thought long enough to base some future decision upon it—well, forget it. More and more we live in a nebulous haze where things just happen. The President makes some bold statements. We invade a foreign country. The President’s statements turn out to be lies. We reelect him. Now a hurricane blows in. People suffer. The President mumbles some shit. Life goes on. The subtly anesthetizing quality of American life can make it hard to remember what it was that pissed us off a year ago (while writing something about the war a couple of days ago, I had to Google “nicholas + beheading” because I couldn’t remember Nicholas Berg’s name), and even within a week’s worth of 24-hour news-cycles, developments that were amazing on Tuesday can seem ho-hum by Friday.

But what’s going on in New Orleans is a genuinely big deal—or should be. That qualification is necessary, of course, since all the wrong things become big deals in America. The Rodney King riots, which should’ve touched off a moratorium on all human activity in the United States until we figured out some way for the people who just happened to be born black and white to coexist without freaking the fuck out over everything, were instead dropped like a hot potato; after all, it was an election year, and after Bush and Clinton each did a quickie goggle-eyed tour of South Central, they got the hell out of there and didn’t mention race again for the rest of the campaign. The Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, instead of fostering much sincere or thoughtful analysis about gender issues, turned into political football, with both sides’ cheerleaders overlooking the weaknesses of their own arguments and witnesses in their eagerness to pummel the others’. (Far more objectionable than the pubic-hair joke—I mean, come on already—was Thomas’ ludicrously transparent lie that he’d never discussed Roe v. Wade in law school.)

New Orleans is also being talked about in terms of race and property, as well it fucking should be, but it offered something more: It offered a vision of the way of life we’ll have if we don’t stop thinking of Big Government as an obscenity. Ever since Reagan first claimed the Republican nomination in ’80, we’ve been backsliding in a way that’s eventually going to kill us, city by city, if we don’t put the brakes on. I must’ve heard a hundred commentators compare the scenes in New Orleans to a Third World country—the city’s French colonial architecture summons up mental pictures of Haiti, in particular—and


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