Thursday, August 31, 2006

This is A Democracy. Still. Sometimes Just Barely.

Most nights, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann's pithy commentary is brilliant. Then there are the nights (like yesterday) when it's simply full-on genius. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's recent incendiary comments that people who disagree with the White House (and its agressive warmongering) are disloyal or morally confused bring out the eloquent patriot in Olbermann. Crooks and Liars has the video, which I can't recommend highly enough. An excerpted transcript (italics mine):

Mr. Rumsfeld’s remarkable comments to the Veterans of Foreign Wars yesterday demand the deep analysis--and the sober contemplation--of every American. For they do not merely serve to impugn the morality or intelligence--indeed, the loyalty--of the majority of Americans who oppose the transient occupants of the highest offices in the land; Worse, still, they credit those same transient occupants--our employees--with a total omniscience; a total omniscience which neither common sense, nor this administration’s track record at home or abroad, suggests they deserve.

Dissent and disagreement with government is the life’s blood of human freedom; And not merely because it is the first roadblock against the kind of tyranny the men Mr. Rumsfeld likes to think "his" troops still fight, this very evening, in Iraq. It is also essential. Because just every once in awhile, it is right, and the power to which it speaks is wrong.


That about which Mr. Rumsfeld is confused is simply this: This is a Democracy. Still. Sometimes just barely. And as such, all voices count--not just his. Had he or his President perhaps proven any of their prior claims of omniscience--about Osama Bin Laden’s plans five years ago--about Saddam Hussein’s weapons four years ago--about Hurricane Katrina’s impact one year ago--we all might be able to swallow hard, and accept their omniscience as a bearable, even useful recipe, of fact-plus-ego. But to date, this government has proved little besides its own arrogance and its own hubris.


And about Mr. Rumsfeld’s other main assertion, that this country faces a "new type of fascism." As he was correct to remind us how a government that knew everything could get everything wrong, so too was he right when he said that--though probably not in the way he thought he meant it. This country faces a new type of fascism--indeed.


Monday, August 28, 2006

A Storm's Revelation

To much of the country, the flourescent pinwheel that's slowly looping its way up the weatherman's map represents a disturbance of the tropical variety, a threat that limits its victims to those who are foolish enough to live in an endless summer and think there won't be a price to pay.

As for those of us cowering in Ernesto's so-called Cone of Uncertainty, every glowing, glowering monster makes our stomachs knot up. Have we bought enough batteries? Where will we take the cats this time? Will school be closed, and if so, how will we get any work done whatsoever?

But these are just my own everyday ramblings and worries. I can't imagine--or even let myself imagine--some of the quandaries faced by people in New Orleans last year, as Hurricane Katrina bore down on the region and gave rise (and rise and rise) to the lethal floodwaters, marking the fall (and fall and fall) of the Emperor Bush. Escape a flooded building and go looking for help, knowing there might not be anything or anyone left when you return, or stay and try to carry the older and weaker residents out yourself, knowing that in so doing, you might all drown?

Accept the only seat left on the last bus out, knowing that in so doing, you will have abandoned your dog and will likely never see him again? Or defy orders and stay home with your beloved pet, facing floods, disease, starvation, and, quite likely, violence?

Everything about Hurricane Katrina was in a league of its own.

People are fond of saying America lost her innocence on September 11, 2001. But I believe she was truly awakened to reality on August 28, 2005, and during the days that followed.

And it is my deepest hope that she never forgets that day. Because this time last year, a government that many had hoped to shrink to such diminuitiveness as to facilitate "drowning it in a bathtub" was itself party to a drowning--a real one. That was, and is, the reality of our current administration: no government = no governing.

We were not governed.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

A Quandary of Decency

I cannot do this brilliant Harpers piece justice by blockquoting any part of it: you must simply read it for yourself. After which you will be impressed beyond measure, as well as further reassured that powerful, passionate voices are indeed speaking out.

(Hat tip to Lisa in Baltimore)

More Propaganda From the Reign of Error

Not that I wasn't fully expecting the White House to make political hay in America while the terrorism sun shone in Britain, but Vice President Cheney's latest barrage of falsehoods and manipulation of the facts were so devious, so craven, I found myself struggling to translate my outrage into words.

Fortunately, a superb opinion piece in The Philadelphia Daily News Friday picked up where my stunned anger left off:

Yesterday, Cheney bashed those who voted for Democrat Ned Lamont in the Connecticut Senate primary, claiming that these votes would encourage "al Qaeda types" to think that "they can break the will of the American people."

The idea is that since 18-year incumbent Joe Lieberman lost based on his support for Iraq, Americans opposing the war are waving a white flag of surrender to terrorists.

This is stunningly ignorant logic, as well as annoyingly consistent with the Bush administration's fundamentalist myth that Iraq had ties to al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden - a claim by now well-discounted, most notably by a presidential commission.

And yet the presidential fog machine has continued to belch out its Iraq-al Qaeda-link fumes to the extent that a recent poll suggests that 64 percent of Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein had strong links to al Qaeda. More people than ever now believe, according to a new poll, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.


Cheney's comments came out a day before British intelligence officials announced they had thwarted a major terrorist attack. Surely Cheney was aware of the plot and the work to thwart it, and was no doubt aware of the timing of yesterday's announcement.

To exploit a very real terror threat that could have led to major casualties, and to even indirectly implicate Americans who were exercising their democratic right by going to the polls and making a choice borders on the criminal, to say nothing of the insane.

Has Cheney completely lost it?

The latest terror scare is upsetting enough: It is bound to lead to havoc and chaos both domestically and internationally. It could damage the economy if fears on flying are sustained. It reopens the profound wounds of 9/11, a scab we should figure by now will never completely heal.

But the real terror is this: While our Vacationer- in-Chief and his vice president shut down dissent, and discourage questions about the way our government has directed our intelligence and military resources toward a single target in Iraq, we are no closer to understanding or dismantling the threat of al Qaeda.

Nail's head, meet hammer. Do read the whole thing--if nothing else, it's comforting to know that others out there are seeing through the obfuscation and make-believe finery and saying out loud that the Emperor has no clothes.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Alaska Oil Pipeline: Corrosion, Corruption, and Pigs

It's simple economics: reduce supply, especially in times of increased demand, and you'll push prices--and profits--higher and higher. So when I heard yesterday's news about British Petroleum shutting down part of the Alaskan Pipeline, causing a significant drop in U.S. light sweet crude oil production, my first comment to the husband was: Oh boy...there go gas prices again. I suppose those record first-quarter profits weren't enough to keep them happy.

I wasn't alone in my cynicism. In fact, these oil business players are even dirtier than I ever imagined. Reporting for The Guardian, Greg Palast writes:
Is the Alaska Pipeline corroded? You bet it is. Has been for more than a decade. Did British Petroleum shut the pipe yesterday to turn a quick buck on its negligence, to profit off the disaster it created? Just ask the “smart pig.”

Years ago, I had the unhappy job of leading an investigation of British Petroleum’s management of the Alaska pipeline system. I was working for the Chugach villages, the Alaskan Natives who own the shoreline slimed by the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker grounding.

Even then, courageous government inspectors and pipeline workers were screaming about corrosion all through the pipeline. I say “courageous” because BP, which owns 46% of the pipe and is supposed to manage the system, had a habit of hunting down and destroying the careers of those who warn of pipeline problems.


Why shut the pipe now? The timing of a sudden inspection and fix of a decade-long problem has a suspicious smell. A precipitous shutdown in mid-summer, in the middle of Middle East war(s), is guaranteed to raise prices and reap monster profits for BP. The price of crude jumped $2.22 a barrel on the shutdown news to over $76. How lucky for BP which sells four million barrels of oil a day. Had BP completed its inspection and repairs a couple years back — say, after Dan Lawn’s tenth warning — the oil market would have hardly noticed.

But $2 a barrel is just the beginning of BP’s shut-down bonus. The Alaskan oil was destined for the California market which now faces a supply crisis at the very height of the summer travel season. The big winner is ARCO petroleum, the largest retailer in the Golden State. ARCO is a 100%-owned subsidiary of … British Petroleum.

BP could have fixed the pipeline problem this past winter, after their latest corrosion-caused oil spill. But then ARCO would have lost the summertime supply-squeeze windfall.

Enron Corporation was infamous for deliberately timing repairs to maximize profit. Would BP also manipulate the market in such a crude manner? Some US prosecutors think they did so in the US propane market.


BP claims the profitable timing of its Alaska pipe shutdown can be explained because they’ve only now run a “smart pig” through the pipes to locate the corrosion. The “pig” is an electronic drone that BP should have been using continuously, though they had not done so for 14 years. The fact that, in the middle of an oil crisis, they’ve run it through now, forcing the shutdown, reminds me, when I consider Lord Browne’s closeness to George Bush, that the company’s pig is indeed, very, very smart.

Most Americans, and most American businesses, continue to suffer as a result of skyrocketing oil prices. But not all. As Orwell wrote, Some pigs are more equal than others...

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Book Meme

Oh dear. David at Quakeragitator has tagged me with the book meme. He must think I like to read or something.

1: One book that changed your life:
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. When I first read it in 1990, this book truly shook me up and forced me to consider the possibility that a world in which a theocracy controls everything, women are merely vessels for producing babies, and dissenters are imprisoned or worse, was a logical extension of certain attitudes and trends that were starting to take hold at the time. And since then, well...hmmmm.

2: One book you have read more than once:
London Fields by Martin Amis. Eerie, disturbing, funny, and brilliant. This was my first exposure to Amis and his acrobatic syntax; I quickly became a fan.

3: One book you would want on a desert island:
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I know, I know, that's cheating, and I suck.

4: One book that made you laugh:
Money by Martin Amis. A delicious, spot-on slice of American culture as observed by a razor-tongued Brit.

5: One book you wish had been written:
The one that's on pause right now, waiting for the boys to go back to school so its frustrated author can get back to work.

6: One book you wish had never had been written:
Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination by Helen Fielding. All those poor trees!

7: One book that made you cry:
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. I love Amy's writing; this, her first published novel, is both uplifting and heartbreaking. Amy truly captures the essence of the mother-daughter bond, a universally contentious love; she explores its attendant disappointments as well as its profound joys.

8: One book you are currently reading:
There's a whole stack; currently I'm reading Gary Hart's upcoming The Courage of Our Convictions in order to review it here at The Last Duchess.

9: One book you have been meaning to read:
Atonement by Ian McEwan. He was born in my hometown--Aldershot, England--although that's not the reason I want to read this book; rather, it's been recommended to me by a conservative estimate of a hundred people (well, almost). An aside: it's my greatest and most dearly-cherished pie-in-the-sky dream to one day be referred to as The other well-known writer from Aldershot. (That crashing sound you hear is me coming back to Earth.)

10. One book you wish everyone would read, and why:
(Shameless plug alert) Virtual Vintage: The Insider's Guide to Buying and Selling Fashion Online. Why? Because Linda and I can each think of at least a dozen good uses for the royalties.

11: Now tag five people:
Let's see...I tag Thesaurus Rex, The Minstrel Boy, Paul the Spud, Tart, and Blogenfreude.

Books are wonderful. That is all.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Broken Spirits and Brave Hearts

When reports of actor/director Mel Gibson’s DUI arrest and subsequent anti-Semitic tirade first surfaced, media folk across the world were quick to rightly condemn the hideous, hateful language he is alleged to have used when confronted by police officers. And as is so often the case when a wealthy and well-known person engages in such spectacularly disgraceful behavior, the media coverage is fast and furious. Within a short time, the world was apprised of the incident’s every gory detail, from Gibson’s blood alcohol level (.12%, well over California’s legal limit of .08%) to the speed at which he was driving before being pulled over (87 mph, or nearly twice the posted speed limit of 45 mph). And we were told, over and over, about the expletive-laced epithets he used.

Ugly, hateful, and telling words, those.

I do not, in any way, want to minimize the gravity of hate speech: it is a damaging rot that, sadly, continues to spread across society; it gives rise to violence, resentment, and retaliation; it undermines progress at every turn. And it is that much worse, that much more offensive, when someone like Mel Gibson--a powerful, if contentious, Hollywood icon and a cinematic hero in the eyes of some--expresses anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic, or sexist beliefs. Even if, at the time, he was hardly in control of himself by any definition of the term.

Nor do I wish to debate the veracity of the oft-repeated In vino, veritas adage--sufficient voices have weighed in on the subject and consensus seems to be that one’s true beliefs do tend to surface, often in raw and shocking ways, when one is inebriated.

Rather, I’d like to set forth a suggestion that we put the finger-pointing and schadenfreude on pause for a moment and turn our attention to the all-too-real, equal-opportunity killer that seems, in this instance, to have largely eluded the concern of the media, and, therefore the public: alcoholism. Or, if you prefer, substance abuse.

Gibson is certainly not the first or the fastest celebrity speeder to run afoul of the law on the Pacific Coast Highway. Posted limits on that road tend to rise and fall according to the population density of its surroundings. And as Southern Californians will tell you, traffic can often move at an unbearably frustrating slow-crawl, spurring some impatient drivers to make up time by speeding whenever an open stretch of road avails itself. And, of course, there are plenty of people who simply regard laws as restrictions that apply to others, not them. Gibson, however, took it to another level altogether: he was speeding while significantly impaired. In order to sustain a blood alcohol level of .12, and estimating his weight at 180 lbs., he’d have had to consume five or six cocktails per hour.

By driving his Lexus sedan while drunk, Gibson posed a very real, physical threat--not only to himself, but to anyone else driving, bicycling, or walking along the PCH in Malibu that night. And this was not the first time his drinking was excessive to the point of being dangerous.

Drinking excessively to the point of danger. That, sadly, is the other story here, the one to which each of us can relate in some tragic way. Substance abuse, despite well-written public service announcements, well-publicized horror stories, and well-received anti-drug-and-alcohol education programs presented in schools and universities around the nation, continues its ruinous rampage. It destroys families, wrecks bodies, devastates fortunes, and cuts short the lives of innocent non-abusers who happened to be on the wrong road at the wrong time: according to the CDC, an American is killed by a drunk driver every 31 minutes. It is an illness that famously cuts across age and socioeconomic strata; the poor and uninsured cannot afford the professional help they need, and the wealthy carry the double-edged sword of being better able to hide their problem while simultaneously being unmotivated by the fear of income loss that would push some (but not all) of their middle-class counterparts to seek help sooner rather than later.

And in reiterating that substance abuse is an illness, I’m not suggesting that Mel Gibson should not be held accountable for his many moral and legal failings. Indeed, it’s hard to work up as much as a picogram of pity for someone whose wealth and considerable influence might have been put to genuine good use, but who, instead, wielded his fame and fortune like warriors’ instruments, earning him labels like egomaniacal, difficult, and abusive. Gibson, who has already reportedly checked into a treatment center, will receive the best care and counseling money can buy. And even if his foul slurs have offended the film community so much that no-one will ever work with him again, his fortunes are great enough that it’s unlikely he’ll ever find himself sleeping on a park bench, pulling a now-empty brown bag over his face to shield those crazed blue eyes from the morning sun. Gibson and his career may or may not recover from the effects of his substance abuse and outrageous bigotry, but it’s a fair bet that his relationships with the women and children in his life have already sustained irreparable damage.

This isn’t a moral judgment--far from it. Substance abuse--alcoholism in particular, as in Gibson’s case--is an illness. An illness that does tremendous, tangible harm to society at large, this being merely a fact, a conclusion that too many of us have reached after watching people we know and love implode, after hearing the stories of friends who’ve left spouses, or of now-grown children who’ve survived the emotional, verbal, and, yes, physical abuse that an addicted parent often visits on his hapless offspring. And the illness isn’t curable, only manageable--and then, only with great effort, commitment, and support.

At this point in our history, all levels of our government--local, state, and federal--treat substance abuse as a crime, when in fact it is, more accurately, a public health problem. The deleterious effect on the nation’s productivity is incalculable; the damage to the bodies and souls of its people, immeasurable.

Until such time as substance abuse is decriminalized and recognized for what it is--an illness of vast and wide-reaching proportions--treatment for less-affluent addicts will never be fully and properly funded; further, even the fortunate and well-insured, those who can afford detox clinics and ongoing counseling, still face the stigma of admitting their addiction in a culture wherein so many consider it to be a moral failing, if not an outright crime.


Alcohol and drug abuse have touched the lives of virtually everyone I know. A drunk driver killed my cousin once-removed (my father’s cousin) when I was a wee bairn. Richard was riding in the passenger seat alongside a driver who’d had a few too many; he lost control of the car and smashed into a telephone pole, and although this driver survived, my cousin was thrown into the dashboard (this was in the days before seatbelts or airbags), fatally rupturing his aorta. When I was seventeen, a famously upbeat party-girl friend at UF took her own life one Christmas vacation; we never knew the precise reason for her suicide, and even after all these years, I haven't figured out if the alcohol and pills were the cause or effect of what was clearly a severe, profound depression; however, I wish, as hard as I wish anything in this life, that I had been mature and savvy enough to understand what I was looking at and pushed her to get help.

Then there is a dear friend I’ll simply call J. J was a brilliantly creative, quirkily pretty, and pathologically sociable young woman, about four years my senior, whom I met in grad school. She and I shared a love of art, specifically painting, and we frequently went to movies and clubs together, since J loved to go out, but her husband was a hermit and workaholic who shunned all non-office-related activities (suffice it to say I never did understand that marriage, which ended within a few years). J had both a drinking problem and a cocaine addiction, both of which she somehow kept simmering at seemingly manageable levels; she functioned fairly normally--at least it seemed that way to her friends, like me, who only saw her on the weekends. She was also the heir to a sizeable fortune and did not need to work. When her marriage ended, she moved to a northern city, and I only heard from her when she was in town to visit her widowed mother.

Each time J did visit, though, she appeared worse. When she came to town for my wedding, at which she was a bridesmaid, she had all but disappeared, she was so underweight. Her hair was thinning and had lost all its shine; her words were scattershot, a series of illogical ramblings and non-sequitors. The following week, I called a mutual friend in Atlanta, whom she’d visited recently; we spoke for a long time, sharing worries, and agreed that we had no choice but to bring her mother into the picture--this, we knew, would ensure that J got help.

We were also well aware that our action--forcing a confrontation with her remaining family--would mark the end of our respective friendships with J, and we were right. She never spoke to either of us again: phone messages were ignored, and letters and Christmas cards came back marked Return To Sender in angry red pencil. We don’t know if she is still alive, but we are hopeful. We do know that we tried--if we’d done nothing and the worst had happened, we would each have to carry that guilt forever.

And this is what I told my husband when he faced a similar situation a few years ago: “If you do nothing, if you say nothing, he will definitely self-destruct.”

“I know,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time.” We were discussing his friend and colleague, G, a designer and contractor we’d known socially and professionally for many years. He had always been a heavy drinker--so much so, his eyes were perennially bloodshot and his nose was starting to get that characteristic ruddy look.

We found out that that G was now drinking an entire 750 ml bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin every day, finishing the last of it before leaving work in the early afternoon, at which point he would head to a local bar. He often worked with power tools and other dangerous equipment, and he always insisted on driving. It was not a question of, Does G have a problem? Rather, it was one of, What on Earth are we going to do to help him?

So my husband wrote to G’s wife, and then had a long talk with her. It was not a pleasant experience, and the conversation concluded with us being painted as the evil party, the trouble-makers, the tattle-tale people who couldn’t leave well enough alone: He doesn’t have a problem; how dare you attack our family?

And it was over a year before he spoke to us again. In the interim, we learned he’d suffered a terrible fall from a ladder and broken several bones. It is symbolically tidy, but I believe he really did hit bottom when he hit that floor, because he was now recovering, in every sense of the word, and when my husband ran into him at the grocery store, they embraced like the old friends they always were.


We readers and watchers and learners of the world would do well to try to walk away from the wreckage (actual as well as metaphorical) that is the Addicted Celebrity Meltdown holding onto something a bit nobler than a souvenir scrap of schadenfreude. Consider that Mel Gibson, to cite just one obvious and recent example, must surely have been surrounded by people who knew he needed help, but valued his attentions, or, at least, his employment, more than his health, his life, and the lives of others he might have hurt last Friday. Perhaps there is someone in our own lives--someone we love, or at least, someone we care about--whose substance abuse goes beyond social drinking or occasional experimentation. Do we need that person’s friendship--or his patronage or approval--so much that we daren’t risk losing it by forcing him to confront what is, after all, a life-threatening problem?

And if so, can we live with the consequences?