Archive for the ‘TOUCH OF SATIRE’ Tag

JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: AS ROME BURNS, HOPES FOR A WEDDING IN WHITE   Leave a comment

AS ROME BURNS, HOPES FOR A WEDDING IN WHITE

John Chuckman

It is reliably reported (The Times, London) that the McCain camp is expecting a miracle, its expectations rather resembling those of a millenarianist group camping on a hillside awaiting The Second Coming.

The anticipated miracle is the shotgun marriage of Sarah Palin’s pregnant seventeen-year old and her eighteen-year old redneck (his description, not mine) boyfriend (aka, in polite Republican circles, as her “fiancé”) coming just in time to save a faltering political campaign.

For those who don’t know America well, big white weddings with all the trimmings remain – despite the social and sexual upheavals of the last half century, despite wars and threats of wars – an important part of popular culture.

A couple may have been living together for years, may even have had kids, but when “the guy” finally gets around to “popping the question,” the world suddenly reverts to 1953, Ike and Mamie are in the White House, and Spot the dog is every child’s favorite literary character.

The couple may not have a dime to spare after trips to Disneyland and a second air-conditioned SUV, but the parents are paying (an obligation often requiring a second mortgage), so who cares? Planning begins immediately on throwing away $20,000 or more in one afternoon. After all, marriage is once-in-a-lifetime, even though at least half of all American marriages end in divorce.

Well, it is by appealing to such boiled-frosting, satin-ribbon fantasies that Republicans hope to push John McCain over the campaign finish line and into the White House.

The last week or two of the campaign would be ideal timing, surrounding John McCain and Sarah Palin in a fluffy, sugar-sprinkled haze. Imagine voting against the distinguished-looking old man in a tuxedo on the front pew with the beneficent countenance of a proud grandfather? Or the mother, gowned rather than in mukluks and hunting gear, eyes moist, watching “her baby” march to the alter?

Clearly, this is not matter on which an election anywhere should rest, much less in the world’s most powerful country, one staggering through war and financial crisis. Indeed, the Republican campaign, as it well deserves, has faltered on the merits. McCain is a tired old man with a sour temperament and a narcissistic personality who picked as his sidekick a person who would have reached the limits of her talent as captain of a cheerleading squad. Although certainly not the limits of her ambitions, but isn’t that what America is about, your reach exceeding your talent?

The hope may not be without some basis. The event, if it happens and happens in time, will of course be exploited to the limits of broadcasting and publishing and advertising. Money will flow from the same immensely rich sources that accomplished such past miracles as a nose-job for a witness against Bill Clinton. Theirs will undoubtedly be the most publicized and costly wedding in Alaska’s history.

Imagine the glamor with heads of state attending, all those with whom Sarah Palin has recently had five-minute appointments? Perhaps we’ll see Henry Kissinger himself, hobbling to his seat, resembling nothing so much as Doctor Strangelove taking faltering steps from his wheelchair, declaring to his Fuehrer that he can walk.

Perhaps there’ll be the president of that wealthy narco-state, Columbia, surrounded by bodyguards and arriving in an armored limousine.

Perhaps, too, the Mayor of Kabul, better known in America as the President of Afghanistan, will be there, exotic in his flowing robes.

And I’m sure there will be a large delegation from across the Bering Sea, Russian officials familiar with Sarah Palin, her just-over-the-backyard-fence neighbors as it were.

The sight of the nervous young woman marching up the aisle will remind many of the young Princess Diana. The swollen tummy might detract from the fantasy, but that can be artfully disguised by a good dressmaker. In the haze of dewy-eyed sentimentality, few will ask about the judgment of a mother who pushes a seventeen-year old girl into marriage and motherhood, or of just how the sweet young Diana turned out.

And the same with the spiffed-up boyfriend who only wanted to play hockey and “hang-out” and find more girls like Sarah’s daughter at parties. He will look handsome and almost iconic, shaved and showered in his tuxedo. Few will reflect on the inappropriate pressure brought to bear on this young man by the governor of his state, or, indeed, what kind of a husband someone with his attitudes might be.

But if Sarah and her daughter cannot set this event before the election date, its importance will decline considerably, the free nose-job donors fading away, the publicity evaporating, the international guests sending regrets, and the Palins in need of a second mortgage.

JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: FLAT DADDY   Leave a comment

FLAT DADDY

John Chuckman

I thought I knew every twist of American popular culture, but apparently not. It is an inventive society, and war is a creative force that brings new impulses. There’s a program in the state of Maine, supported by the fun-loving, public-relations folks of the local National Guard, called Flat Daddy, unlike anything I’ve heard of before.

On first hearing the name, I thought the program must involve a roving jazz band, perhaps one from New Orleans, but a moment’s reflection reminded me that George Bush had assisted in removing New Orleans from atlases of the United States, Jehovah taking care of the buildings and Bush taking care of the people.

Readers, I am sure, have seen street hawkers in large American cities who have life-size cardboard cut-outs of celebrities and offer to take your picture standing as though you were with someone famous. I suspect this provided the creative spark for Flat Daddy.

Flat Daddy involves taking a picture of one of “the boyz” over in Iraq, enlarging it to life-size, and mounting it on cardboard. When a family back home goes to a pizzeria or bowling alley, perhaps even to a revival meeting, they simply drag along Flat Daddy and position him (the pronoun it is not used) in a prominent place among the smiling faces. More photos are taken and sent back to Iraq and perhaps to Aunt Helen in the old folks’ home. The miracle is that everyone feels part of the family despite the awkward inconvenience of war.

There were a few points left unclear by the undoubtedly fresh-faced officer enthusing over the program on the radio. Does Flat Daddy have to pay admission at the movies? Is he included in the minimum per-head table charge at restaurants?

Probably not, but when America goes to war, the nation’s two strongest impulses tend to become a little confused, preening patriotic feathers and making a quick buck.

You might expect an idea like Flat Daddy to have come from Texas or the Midwest, places where beehive hair-dos and prayer in the locker room before football games are still in vogue. But, no, it came from Maine, which despite its reputation for sensible, traditional values, is where, several years ago, I observed a donut shop’s gigantic, ugly over-head sign, normally given over to two-for-one breakfast specials, challenging passing cars to “HONK FOR THE TROOPS!”

At the same donut shop, there was a huge display of flags in the parking lot you might have assumed were part of the patriotic outburst, but then you noticed an attendant approaching car windows with one fist full of flags and the other grasping a huge wad of dollar bills. It reminded me of the man selling balloons on a stick at the circus decades ago. Here was a celebration of invasion as only America can do it.

What about others at the casino or sports bar who have their views blocked by Flat Daddy? The program is new, and this potential kink may not have been worked out yet, but I can’t see it becoming a problem. Quibbling about something like a life-size cardboard cut-out of a smiling soldier in uniform slapped down in front of you anywhere in America could well be hazardous for your health.

You might wonder why there isn’t also a Flat Mommy or Flat Sissy program, and I wondered about this myself, but many parts of America have not got past the idea that it’s “the boyz” who go abroad. Never mind that White House crap about women in Iraq. In much of the U.S., the standard for female etiquette was set when Eisenhower was president.

I discovered on the Internet that people in Iraq know this program, perhaps learning about it from the drawling chit-chat between laughter and machine-gun bursts at American check points. Iraqis apparently have started their own version, necessarily rather low-tech in view of the lack of electricity and running water in so many places. After allowing the sun to bake them for a reasonable time, the bodies of Iraqi men crushed by American tanks or flattened by 500-pound bombs are gently peeled from the pavement. They are lovingly brought to what remains of the family home and propped against a wall in the basement bomb shelter, an important family-gathering place in George Bush’s Iraq.

JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: DALTON THE MAGNIFICENT   1 comment

DALTON THE MAGNIFICENT

John Chuckman

We have the oddest form of government these days in Ontario. Almost every week there is something new, often new in the sense of bizarre or absurd. You might regard it as a form of circus. Dalton the Magnificent, in the blue-white glare of batteries of spotlights, sometimes appears in tights and gleaming sequined little pants bowing to the crowd from the high wire. Other times he appears as ringmaster in white jodhpurs and boots, cracking his whip and making announcements about coming acts.

I think Dalton must have a fellow high-wire man posted on the roof of Queen’s Park whose full-time job is launching trial balloons. The variety of these has been remarkable, almost all of them falling limply to earth as the gas seeps out. My favorite so far was for replacing the trillium as Ontario’s symbol. Yes, that’s right, replacing the trillium, a symbol as well established as the maple leaf is for the nation, an affectionate symbol of spring’s coming to the province each year. Where, other than as part of a circus, would this idea be thought worth suggesting? It was quietly dropped, but you have to ask yourself how it ever saw the light of day, particularly from a government supposedly working, sleeves rolled up, late into every night to solve a massive set of problems with which Ontario is saddled.

Sometimes, Dalton feels the need to step forward boldly in his full ringmaster’s costume with silk hat and red cutaway coat, draw his pistol, and shoot down one of these trial balloons threatening to create a serious hazard. He did this for the one about the possible need to restrict public-sector wages. Bang! and Dalton’s smoking gun was re-holstered.

During his first months most of the new announcements were about election promises he would not be keeping. These included everything from his written pledge not to increase taxes and a promise to halt a huge development on the Oak Ridges Moraine to controlling private tolls on Highway 407 and preventing increases in electricity rates. The odd thing about these promises was that almost none of them was necessary for Dalton’s election. Polls had shown the people of Ontario so tired of the right-wing excesses of Mike Harris that, even though Harris had retired, they were ready to hand power to the Liberals.

But for some reason, Dalton just went right on making promises. His behavior suggests an obsessive compulsion to promise, perhaps not altogether different to the obsessive compulsion of some people who bankrupt their families while madly playing at Ontario’s shiny new gambling palaces.

Recently we had an announcement about higher results on the Ontario literacy test given to all grade-ten students. Naturally, the praises of the Magnificent One Himself were fulsomely included as having brought forth this fruit. You could almost see him in tights and sequins bowing and throwing kisses to the crowd. But even a brief analysis shows the claim as ridiculous, revealing the threadbare elbows and seat bottom of Dalton’s shimmering costume.

I have heard Dalton’s Minister of Education answer questions. Nothing fresh or interesting seems likely ever to have clouded this politician’s mind. Warm slogans and pat harmless phrases seemed to be the extent of his intellectual resources. These were all delivered in a tone you might expect from an announcement about a new desk calendar at a convention for business-form designers. The people asking questions might just as well have typed them into a computer equipped with a random-access collection of the minister’s clichés.

But there are more fundamental reasons for regarding Dalton’s words on literacy with the same hopeless cynicism that readers of Pravda in the old Soviet Union must have experienced countless times with each new announcement that some production target in the latest five-year plan had been met early or exceeded.

The tests in question were administered in October, 2004, and here was Dalton, elected near the end of October, 2003, taking credit for an improved result. I hope readers have some appreciation of the time lags that are necessarily involved even when governments have good ideas. What amazing programs did Dalton create, legislate, and put through the slow and cumbersome educational administrative apparatus, all in time to influence daily classroom practices of thousands of teachers almost instantly after his election? The claim was embarrassing nonsense to anyone who understands the workings of government and a huge bureaucracy like Ontario’s public schools.

Actual knowledge of the test itself deepens the cynicism. Anyone without a personal stake in Ontario’s professional public education establishment who has seen these tests knows they are ridiculous, a holdover from Mike Harris’s pathetic efforts at reforming education.

It would take considerable political courage to eliminate this pointless test. After all, if you poll the public (as The Globe and Mail did a while back) on some simple question about students needing to be literate, you will naturally get an overwhelmingly positive response. But the nature of this test and the way it is administered makes it a poor measure of literacy.

I became familiar with the test and the practices around it through the experience of our student from China. Although an extremely bright young man – he since has been accepted and given a scholarship for a difficult program at University of Toronto – he failed the written literacy test.

So how does Ontario’s educational system manage to pass a student like ours? The failed student attends an extra one-term special course, upon completion of which he or she receives a pass in literacy. It’s the kind of thing we used to call a bird course at university, although a still better adjective might be Mickey Mouse.

Our student managed to pass the course. Actually, considering the nature of the material involved, it is hard to see who would not. It did, however, mark something of an educational watershed for him. The class was so mind-numbing, containing mainly academically-weak students and a teacher who typically drifted off leaving students to do worksheets, that he dreaded attending it.

We saw his assignments. The truth is our boy’s grasp of English grammar was probably as good as the teacher’s. He just had a vocabulary problem, and nothing in the course helped him with that.

The test isn’t even objective in nature, leaving a great deal of room for discretion or questionable judgment in the marking. The marking is itself a bonanza for teams of teachers who get put up in hotels in Toronto and receive a handsome daily rate of pay to mark the test. But even were the test an objective machine-readable one, what would be the point of it? Teachers would only teach to the test to get students passed regardless of their understanding.

My wife tells me that forty years ago, a time of demanding grade-thirteen tests in Ontario, it was common for teachers to answer a student’s question with something along the lines of, “Don’t worry, that’s not on the test.” Some readers may have heard of the scandal in Chicago’s public schools not very long ago, desperate to improve their dismal academic results with tests, when it was discovered some teachers and principals were actually drilling students to memorize the correct answers.

If a student can pass a demanding course like Ontario high schools’ English 4U, then any sensible person would regard him or her as literate without an additional test. If courses like English 4U have been dumbed down too much in some places, they need to be toughened up. A test like the current one for literacy has no effect towards this goal.

Energy is the field in which Dalton has made his most daring jumps and flips on the high wire. He has copied the abusive American practice of pushing ethanol into gasoline. Why do I call it abusive? Because ethyl alcohol has an energy content about half that of gasoline and it is expensive to make. You don’t make any environmental advance by doing this, you only raise everyone’s costs while assuring people they’ll travel slightly less far on each fill-up and somewhat diminishing the public’s financial ability to take other meaningful environmental measures.

Then why has the U.S. government encouraged ethanol for many years? Because it provides a hidden subsidy to corn farmers as well benefiting firms like Archer Daniels Midland who process the stuff. The taxes that apply to other motor fuels are forgiven, at general taxpayers’ expense, in order to boost the incomes of corn farmers. And this is all Dalton’s initiative will do, yet we hear it tiresomely discussed as an environmental program.

Dalton’s promise of greatest potential consequence was the one to close all of Ontario’s coal-fired electricity-generating stations (about a quarter of the province’s capacity) over just a few years. This promise, if kept (and there are fleeting signs of Dalton’s recognizing the costly immensity of what he has promised), literally puts Ontario’s economic future at risk. Plentiful, dependable electricity has always been one of the attractions of Ontario for manufacturers. Now a quarter of existing capacity is to be shut down at the same time that economic growth dictates new capacity. Southern Ontario’s residential home-building industry alone has been booming, and all those homes require electricity.

Dalton is closing the coal-fired plants because of people’s concern about gases and particulate matter in the air. These are legitimate concerns and need to be addressed, but arbitrarily closing Ontario’s coal-fired plants by a certain date is not the way to go about it. First, Southern Ontario is downwind of more than a hundred coal-fired plants in the American Midwest. Closing Ontario’s plants will not clean the air. American states like Maine have precisely the same complaint about the Midwestern plants.

New types of gas-fired plants have some attractive environmental aspects. But Canada’s time of an over-abundance of gas in Alberta is coming to an end, especially with huge amounts of it committed to new extraction and upgrading facilities in the tar sands to produce synthetic crude oil. Gas prices are high.

Briefly, many months ago, Dalton talked about forty-billion dollars worth of new nuclear plants. That likely did not go down well. Nuclear plants in Ontario do not have a happy history. Some of the nuclear capacity built not all that many years ago is undergoing expensive refit. The nuclear talk receded, and we’ve been getting instead a lot of happy-child-with-a-daisy stuff about green energy. The ugly truth is that all the green projects Dalton’s government is undertaking amount to little more than demonstration projects. They cannot begin to replace the capacity of large coal-fired plants or provide for future growth.

Many so-called green projects are not all that green, although they all are expensive. Take wind-generation of electricity for example. There is nothing green about a gigantic wind farm on the shores of a lake, regularly killing flocks of birds. These are gigantic, ugly industrial projects that create miles of sterilized shoreline. The single wind turbine Torontonians see at the Exhibition grounds is not even full size, and you literally need forests of such machines to produce substantial amounts of power. Just imagine thousands of much larger ones spreading like a metal-and-concrete desert along the shores of our irreplaceable Great Lakes.

Some advocates cite places like parts of Europe, Germany for example, using this form of energy far beyond what we are doing. One fact these critics always neglect to mention is that Germany finds these machines economic because gasoline there costs twice or more what we pay. Substitution is an important principle in energy economics, and the high cost of petroleum products in Europe is reflected in other energy prices. So the high cost of things like wind power are not nearly so apparent as they would be here. Moreover, the Green Party in Europe, a powerful group there, does not like nuclear power, and that leaves not a lot of options.

If you really want to clean up the air in a place like Toronto, you must do something about all the cars that choke it with chemical fumes each day. There are ways to do this, but they all have implications for the urban sprawl that is fueling the economy of Southern Ontario. They may even have implications for the auto industry. We have yet to hear the bowing and dancing Dalton say anything much on this important subject.

The nuclear option, probably the only realistic one for replacing coal-fired capacity, is now the cause for new releases of trial balloons. Do the people of Ontario truly want a large addition to the province’s nuclear capacity? And do they understand that these plants will almost certainly be built and run largely by American firms?

No one understands the full-cycle costs of nuclear power. We have inklings that it is very expensive when the costs of permanent disposal of nuclear waste is taken into account. I wonder whether the people in Toronto – who couldn’t wait to close an ordinary garbage dump, instead sending fleets of trucks loaded with their garbage over two hundred miles to Michigan every day (talk about air pollution!) – welcome the idea of high-level nuclear waste being shipped regularly and buried somewhere in Ontario for thousands of years. You really cannot separate this problem from the idea of new nuclear capacity, although I’ve yet to hear Dalton on the subject.

Nuclear has other disadvantages, too, which must be considered. Remember the recent great blackout caused by an American firm which had not properly maintained its lines? (Perhaps one of those same firms which Dalton’s plan might bring here to operate). In some parts of the province, especially parts of the GTA, it took days to restore power. That is because nuclear plants, like those just east of the city, take a relatively long time to bring back online.

Dalton’s crackerjack marketing team is now making noises about a new form of public-private partnership to provide future improvements in Ontario’s infrastructure. Just exactly what they mean is not clear. What is clear is that the ringmaster took his pistol to a relatively minor public-private arrangement, carried over from the Conservatives, involving hospital equipment. When it came to the tolls on privately-controlled Highway 407, Dalton blasted away for weeks, loading and emptying his pistol so many times the barrel glowed. When all the noise stopped and the acrid smoke cleared, the tolls stood just where they were.

Now, after that performance, just who is going to be interested in signing up with his government on infrastructure improvements? What costly incentives is Dalton’s government prepared to give companies to get them interested? We know his minister, coyly teasing us with suggestions around this latest brainstorm, cannot intend anything like the deal for Highway 407, and he doesn’t appear to mean the traditional method of financing large public projects, bonds or debentures, instruments often purchased by the kinds of institutions, large pension funds, to which he referred. Maybe Dalton will come out shooting yet on this one.

I very much regret that the Prime Minister even partially rewarded Dalton’s shabbiest performance to date, his toe-scrunching weeks of whining about a $23 billion gap in Ontario’s financial arrangements with the federal government. Dalton only discovered this monstrous gap after the Prime Minister made concessions to Newfoundland over revenue sharing. Apparently inspired by Danny William’s success at playing petulant, destructive child taking down the national flag all over his province, Dalton thought he had found a winning formula by calling into question the country’s traditional financial arrangements.

This is what passes for provincial statesmanship now in Ontario? Where is the memory of people like John Robarts or Bill Davis, who, Conservatives though they were, several times on important matters displayed the genuine trait?

When John McCallum told the public that a good portion of what the Prime Minister had agreed with Dalton was not new funding, Dalton got upset enough to describe his words as “idiosyncratic.” My bets are on McCallum who has a doctorate in economics and who generally knows what he is talking about. He holds a portfolio one can’t see Dalton managing for a month. Idiosyncratic? That is an odd word for a politician to use, especially one standing there in tights and sequined little pants.

JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US   Leave a comment

THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US
“I beheld the wretch – the miserable monster whom I had created.”

Mary Shelley

John Chuckman

Doctor Frankenstein’s frightful creature was assembled from the limbs of corpses collected in the dead of night.

The Pentagon, with a steady supply of perfectly good severed limbs and heads from all its bombing runs, has decided the good Doctor’s approach to the ideal soldier has certain public-relations liabilities. Jerky, stitched-together bodies in uniform with putrid blue-green skin would not make good photo-ops. So the Pentagon has taken the high-tech approach, informing us recently that they are not many years away from putting the finishing touches to a robot soldier.

The picture of the creature released with the chirpy announcement – since the Pentagon has moved heavily into public relations and spying, its tone has become more chirpy, sounding often like a 1950’s announcement for new car models – shows a stubby thing, resembling one of Dr. Who’s dreaded Daleks more than anything else. Only this delightful creature has all kinds of antennae, lens, and gizmos, making it also somewhat resemble a space probe sent to trek the arid sands of Mars, blasting, digging, and probing as it hums along on nuclear batteries.

Thinking people, naturally, regard the prospect of imperial robot forces with dread, robots shooting and herding civilians after being parachuted into the mountains of Central Asia or onto the sands of the Middle East. It is remarkable that such a nightmarish concept should spring from the same people who fear so much as cameras on their crime-ridden streets out of paranoid concern for individual rights.

Many outside the United States comfort themselves with the belief that it really isn’t the same people making nightmarish decisions, for America, just as George Orwell’s Oceania, has several distinct citizenship levels, each with differing rights and privileges. It is the group that George Bush comes from – arrogant, unthinking, virtually-get-away-with-murder snots – that dreams up these horrors and sees that they are generously funded by ordinary, hardworking Americans who must pay their taxes.

When I heard about American soldiers killing an Italian secret service agent who had worked to secure the release of hostage journalist, Giuliana Sgrena, the thought occurred that maybe the robots couldn’t do much worse. American sources first tried to make it look as though the car carrying the two innocent victims had been speeding towards a check-point. With all the bombings in Baghdad, people would understand the killing as regrettable but unavoidable.

It turns out this effort to influence public understanding was a total fabrication. Just as in the case, some while back, of the American press’s mythical Battle of Samara which proved nothing more than a slaughter of Iraqi civilians by another group of trigger-happy Americans shooting up a whole neighborhood without being so much as shot at.

The car carrying the released hostage to freedom was not speeding. The car was a very short distance from the airport when a patrol of American soldiers blinded it with a searchlight and an instant hail of bullets. The occupants had no idea what was happening until it was over, and the truly brave Italian agent lay bleeding and dying in the arms of the wounded journalist.

It became obvious what happened as the trigger-happy soldiers stood around the car containing wounded and dying occupants and wouldn’t permit any access or help for several minutes. From such events come the not-to-be-sneered-at stories of Americans targeting journalists they don’t like (Ms Sgrena being quite critical of Americans in Iraq). The scene must have resembled the chilling one in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” where a group of American soldiers stands, with a wounded and dying Vietnamese woman at their feet, chatting and unblinkingly watching her die.

The only thing special about this horrible event in Baghdad was that the victims were prominent Westerners. Events just like it happen all the time to poor Iraqis, whole families being shot up sometimes by American soldiers, to say nothing of the countless cases of brutality and torture inflicted on men unfortunate enough to imprisoned at the mercy of Appalachian Throwbacks in uniform.

The New York Times, in its subtle propaganda campaign supporting Bush, insists on referring to the troops in Iraq as “GIs,” a term filled with sentimental suggestions from World War Two. GIs were recruited, civilian soldiers, fighting the horrors of fascism. America’s legionaries in Iraq are professional soldiers, and certainly the world’s most pampered, best paid and equipped. They are not fighting fascism either, or anything remotely like it. They are there, just as they were in a decade-long massacre in Vietnam, to enforce the will of a distant imperial power.

There are Americans, and the President chief among them, who will say, “Aw shucks, these things happen in war!” True enough, but then Iraq isn’t a war, it’s the aftermath of a calculated invasion. The troops shooting up civilians day after day are there for no high purpose. Likely Bush would offer the same dismissive reaction concerning recent evidence of America’s brave boys having used napalm and poison gas in the Fallujah. In for a penny, in for pound: hell, after an illegal invasion, what’s so bad about using banned weapons?

If you want just the tiniest insight into the minds of the bleak figures in lab coats running the horror-filled laboratories of Washington, you have only to look at Bush’s reaction to Canada’s decision not to participate in a costly missile-defense system which has failed every test. Before Canada’s decision was made, during Bush’s trip to Canada and against all accepted diplomatic protocol, he publicly brought up the topic of missile defense, a controversial subject in Canada, where it is seen not so much as an effort at legitimate defense as one to weaponize space. In private, on the same brief trip, he belligerently insisted on his way. We know this because someone with access leaked to the press a transcript of Bush’s embarrassing, rather threatening words.

Then, only days ago, Bush literally wouldn’t answer Prime Minister Paul Martin’s phone call concerning Canada’s decision against participation. His refusal to return the call went on for days, resembling the behavior of a brooding bully who hadn’t got his way. Bush’s most unpleasant factotum, Ms Rice, cancelled a scheduled trip to Canada. These kinds of behaviors undoubtedly aren’t well-publicized in America, but how revealing they are of the integrity and quality of people claiming to lead the world towards greater democracy and human rights.

Having made his spiteful point, Bush finally returned the Prime Minister’s call, and Ms Rice re-scheduled her trip. Canada does, after all, have a four-thousand mile border with the United States, a fact which even Washington’s most lunatic, safely-behind-the oak-desk warrior fanatics recognize as of some long-term consequence.

I read recently of another Frankensteinian project in which a mouse is to be given a brain composed of a clump of human brain cells. Perhaps the President personally inspired this one, his behavior resembling nothing so much as a human with the brain of a mouse.

JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: A MODEST PROPOSAL   1 comment

A MODEST PROPOSAL

John Chuckman

It would be nice to have a moratorium on discussing the American election, at least until something happens that is worth discussing. Just about everyone, except the candidates, understands that Vietnam – ugly scar on America’s conscience that it is – should not be the central subject of the current campaign. Actually, the twisted, degrading treatment Vietnam is receiving should not be the central subject of any discussion taking place outside the walls of a psychiatric hospital.

A moratorium, however, is not the proposal of my title, but it’s a reasonable starting point. America appears firmly committed to reelecting President Crackhead, so I don’t see a lot of point in flogging a dead horse like Kerry. He does strikingly resemble a dead horse, or at least a near-dead one, an old dobbin with no sparkle left in his eye, no prance in his step, and no swish in his tail.

It is beyond rational explanation why the Democrats have wasted tens of millions running dobbin against an opponent whose sole merit was his determination to finish a story about goats after planes struck the World Trade Center. Except for that single shining moment of holding a steady course, Bush is an opponent who possesses every shortcoming and vulnerability it is possible to imagine – an inarticulate dope who has spent four years running the United States into the ground and reviving anti-Americanism throughout the world. Can anyone now have the slightest doubt about the overwhelming prevalence of insanity in the country?

There is really only one way I can see of injecting some excitement and interest, not to mention purpose, into the election, short of Bush’s miraculously, peacefully passing to his reward, succumbing finally to the cumulative effects of all those years abusing drugs and every human being who crossed his path with less family money than he had. My proposal is for Kerry to step down as the Democrats’ candidate. Here is a chance for Kerry to display some genuine heroism.

It would be a desperate step, but considering the fact that Kerry has no chance of being elected, it would at least provide a statement of principle, something Kerry, to date, has not managed to utter. The Democrats would be left in the lurch, but maybe, just maybe, they could quickly name someone with some purpose and principles to carry on, although it is easy to forget there seem to be remarkably few of those left in America. The worst that could happen is what is now virtually set to happen, Bush, the boy psychopath who relished watching frogs being ripped apart, being returned to office for four more years of watching people being ripped apart.

JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: HOPE IS ON THE WAY   1 comment

HOPE IS ON THE WAY
The Disturbing Words of John Edwards

John Chuckman

I heard several lines from John Edwards’ convention speech on the radio before I clicked it off. Any more and I would have vomited.

As it was, I experienced a horrible flashback to being a twelve-year old at the Midwest Baptists’ Camp Sycamore, sitting in the sweltering cinderblock meeting hall, shirt stuck to the back of a card-table chair, while a strutting little preacher sprayed beads of sweat and globs of spit into the twilight yelling about hell.

John Edwards is pure Elmer Gantry.

Well, what would you expect from a guy who spent twenty years chasing ambulances, looking for deep pockets to sue, always waving his arms and smiling like a chipmunk? America’s litigation lawyers and its evangelists-for-profit have a lot in common, and when they come from places like Dog Bite, North Carolina, it’s almost impossible to tell them apart. There’s always a syrupy sweet exterior, the beneficent smile – just think of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson – in the ruthless pursuit of things that human society would be better off without.

Here’s a few lines from John’s official site on how he sees his career:

For…20 years, John dedicated his career to representing families and children hurt by the negligence of others. Standing up against the powerful insurance industry and their armies of lawyers, John helped these families through the darkest moments of their lives to overcome tremendous challenges. His passionate advocacy for people like the folks who worked in the mill with his father earned him respect and recognition across the country.

That sounds like a promo for the next episode of “Rescuing Little Nell from the Clutches of Snidely Whiplash.” Of course, it’s what the words don’t say that is often important. Why did John only stand up for “families and children”? Is there something wrong with representing people without families or children? Of course not, but his language is reclaimed manure from the Republican family-values compost heap.

John stood against armies of lawyers? No, actually John swelled the ranks of lawyers who now swarm America like the aftereffect of a lab-accident release of killer bees, spreading conflict and fear everywhere they appear. The blurb doesn’t say that in twenty years John had made himself a very rich man through litigation, that is by helping to raise insurance premiums for everyone, but that’s the truth. “Standing up against the powerful insurance industry…” could just as well read, “Mining the huge revenues of the insurance industry for all he could haul away….”

Like any of America’s current crop of crocodile-tear evangelists hoping to witness a repeat of the miracle of the loaves and fishes from a collection plate, John helped families through their “darkest moments,” just managing to accumulate a fortune by the time he was in his forties. Well, I’m not against success, just against misrepresenting what it is you did.

Since most litigation is socially disruptive and economically unproductive, there is something particularly disturbing about one of its predatory practitioners seeking high office. After all, it is the abject failure of American legislators to provide sufficient enlightened laws and decent regulations that makes the threatening jungle where litigation flourishes.

Reading the balance of John’s speech on the Internet had the advantage of not having to hear his backwoods, folksy tone and watch his flamboyant, well-practiced gestures, but I still quickly grasped why John was so successful at litigation. People would settle just to escape having to hear him for months in court. My favorite passage of his speech is this:

When you wake up and sit with your kids at the kitchen table, talking to them about the great possibilities in America, you make sure that they know that John and I believe at our core that tomorrow can be better than today. Like all of us, I have learned a lot of lessons in my life. Two of the most important are that first, there will always be heartache and struggle—you can’t make it go away. But the other is that people of good and strong will can make a difference. One lesson is a sad lesson and the other’s inspiring. We are Americans and we choose to be inspired

Apart from the fact that half of all America’s marriages end in divorce, you could never convince me that there are many of the remaining families who sit around a breakfast table talking up “the great possibilities of America.” Can’t you just see squirming kids, screaming about how someone ate all the Lucky Charms or what a jerk the math teacher is, falling silent as a father decides to lift his Lincolnesque brows, perhaps having offered the blessing for the morning’s Pop Tarts, to invoke the great possibilities of America? Doesn’t that sound just a little bizarre? If this is what happens at John’s house, you should be afraid of his holding office. If this isn’t what happens at John’s house, why is he saying it?

The truth is, and I’m sure John knows this, few families even sit together at the breakfast table in America, and, if they do, there’s a better-than-even chance that a television is mindlessly blaring the whole time. As for millions of poor families, there is no breakfast on the table. Isn’t that why Head Start supplies the kids with food at school? Even in suburban middle-class families, it’s all they can do to each make it out of the door on time with rush-hour commutes and drop-offs for the privileged kids’ heavy schedule of activities.

And how do like that injunction about adding to the breakfast-table sermon, “you make sure that they know that John and I believe at our core that tomorrow can be better than today.” John and I believe at our core? Why can’t they just believe? Why must it be at their core, whatever that means? The word suggests a nuclear reactor rather than a human being. Anyway, more than a few disturbed personalities in history lay claim to some kind of mystical core something-or-other. Frankly, this statement is so patronizing and ridiculous, it makes me wonder about John’s rationality.

And what does John mean about tomorrow being better than today? It resembles the words of a certain old American religious huckster who used to open his pitch for money by saying “Something GOOD is going to happen to YOU!” But it is worse than that, because it is so utterly implausible and silly. He is giving you an injunction to talk seriously to your kids about the fatuous advertising claims of two bought-and-paid-for politicians.

John has one or more mini-sermons in almost every brief passage. You’d think he was running for church deacon instead of high political office. I like his great first lesson, “there will always be heartache and struggle—you can’t make it go away.” Is that what the leaders of a great nation are supposed to talk about? Do we need national elections to hear lines borrowed from Oprah Winfrey?

Then there’s, “But the other is that people of good and strong will can make a difference. One lesson is a sad lesson and the other’s inspiring. We are Americans and we choose to be inspired.”

John probably has in mind the kind of “inspired” a preacher talks about, as the inspired Word of God. That kind of inspired allows of no mistakes, because God can’t make any. It also allows of no questions or critics. Nice stuff for a politician to embrace – feel self-righteous while effectively telling people to shut-up.

In the real world, and it is the job of politicians to deal with the real world, inspired is not always a sound state of mind. Inspired about what? Inspired to do what? People are just as likely to be inspired to do terrible things as good things. The word is often used by the flunkies of great tyrants. Germans regularly used the word to describe Der Fûhrer. The ghastly blood-letting of Vietnam was inspired by a loopy, religious-like belief in the need to stop communism. Would you say that that smiling humbug, Pat Robertson, was inspired when he recently advocated America’s invading Iran to overthrow the heathens?

The passage is full of question-begging phrases. Make a difference to what? I can’t help thinking of the cliche about the path to hell being paved with good intentions. Sorry, John, but there’s no shortage of leaders with strong wills in the world, and each of them believes in his own goodness. That fact is almost certainly one of the human race’s true curses.

The rest of John’s speech is sprinkled with soul-deadening cliches and even contradictions. At one point, he said, “I stand here tonight ready to work with you and John [Kerry] to make America strong again.” Well, I think the last thing any thinking person on the planet wants are people working to make America stronger. America has destabilized two countries, killed tens of thousands of innocent people, tortured, and improperly imprisoned simply because it had the power to do so. Power is like that, as Lord Acton so wisely said, it corrupts. Chase after enough of it, and you get absolute corruption.

John’s speech takes on the theme of two Americas, and were he to deal with the genuine problem of two distinct and separate societies in America (actually, I think it is three, including the wealthy class represented by all the Presidential candidates)), he might have said something worthwhile. John tells us: “Because the truth is, we still live in two different Americas: one for people who have lived the American Dream and don’t have to worry, and another for most Americans who work hard and still struggle to make ends meet. It doesn’t have to be that way.” But it was John himself who already told us how struggle and difficulties won’t go away, so what’s he saying?

On education, John says: “We shouldn’t have two public school systems in this country: one for the most affluent communities, and one for everybody else. None of us believe that the quality of a child’s education should be controlled by where they live or the affluence of their community.”

John must know perfectly well that education is not primarily a responsibility of the federal government under America’s 18th-century Constitution, so what’s he talking about? What does he propose to do to change a situation where some suburban high schools have PhDs teaching and classes enjoy trips to Europe, while urban schools have labs with rusted taps and Bunsen burners that don’t work?

The truth is that all good things in America, including medical care and political influence, are rationed according to ability to pay. So why would education be any different?

John adds: “We shouldn’t have two different economies in America: one for people who are set for life, their kids and grandkids will be just fine, and then one for most Americans who live paycheck to paycheck.” What does that mean, beyond populist hot air? I have no idea, and I suspect John doesn’t either.

Here’s Preacher John on adversity and hardship: “…and you know what happens if something goes wrong—a child gets sick, somebody gets laid off, or there’s a financial problem, you go right off the cliff. And what’s the first thing to go? Your dreams.” Your dreams? I really think dreams are the last thing people experiencing hardship worry about. They are worried about getting through with a shred of dignity, perhaps about surviving. Is John offering them genuine help or an airy hand-out of dreams and inspiration?

Here’s a few selected gems from Preacher John on 9/11:

We will do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to make sure that never happens again, not to our America…. We will strengthen our homeland security and protect our ports, safeguard our chemical plants, and support our firefighters, police officers and EMT’s. We will always use our military might to keep the American people safe….And we will have one clear unmistakable message for al Qaida and the rest of these terrorists. You cannot run. You cannot hide. And we will destroy you.

Does John think there are people in America – other than its substantial population of militia types, survivalists, millenarianists, and those looking forward to Armageddan – who want that to happen again? Does he think there’s people, other than the two million or so in America’s prisons, who don’t support police?

John’s promise to hunt down terrorists is pure comic-book superhero, and isn’t it exactly what the delusional Bush believes he’s been doing all along? What does John propose that is different? He says absolutely nothing about using proper diplomatic and legal channels to hunt down violent criminals or about strengthening international institutions. No, it’s all America this and America that, the same totally narcissistic stuff that’s making the world sick of hearing from America. Nobody wants a friend who only talks about himself and refuses to help anyone except on his own terms, but Americans like John think those same qualities somehow become attractive traits in world relations. Like his partner-candidate, Kerry, he promises only more threats about not hesitating to use the military to kill more people.

Keep in mind that John, sitting as he does on a Senate intelligence committee, has an extremely high intelligence clearance and ask yourself what he was able to forecast or advocate either before or after 9/11. Not much is the answer. John’s pet project now is to start a new domestic spy agency – still another multi-billion-dollar agency on top the vast existing network of intrusive agencies and one dedicated specifically to spying on the homeland’s residents. Does that sound like someone genuinely concerned about rights and freedoms? Someone should ask John if he is committed to rescinding the execrable Patriot Act, but I doubt he’d receive an honest answer.

Having Preacher John teamed up with Kerry – that drearily ambitious man whose concept of bravery ran to shooting civilians safely from a riverboat in Vietnam – leaves me with a bleak outlook for America and thereby the world. That this dishonest pair and the insipid Bush are the best America offers as leaders says something terrible about that frighteningly-powerful nation: it suffers a devastating poverty of imagination and spirit.

JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: A DEAFENING SILENCE OF MEANING   1 comment

A DEAFENING SILENCE OF MEANING

John Chuckman

Recently, John Kerry and his wife held a barbecue at the Pennsylvania White House. Never heard of the Pennsylvania White House? It’s actually the homestead of Kerry’s wife, a white-columned mansion on a tailored estate outside Pittsburgh built from the proceeds of a billion cans of spaghetti and bottles of ketchup. Kerry wants everyone to know he’s an ordinary guy so he’s holding barbecues these days instead of crystal-and-candlelight dinners. People who normally never would get past the front gate have now been allowed on the rolled greens to chomp hot dogs.

Those attending a down-home get-together recently were greeted with hay bales designed by a team of Neiman-Marcus window dressers; a custom-made silk flag, gigantic enough to use for hang-gliding, flapped over the mansion in breezes generated by rented Hollywood wind machines; a band subtly suggested the Marines Corps Band playing “Hail to the Chief”; and, as if in homage to Ronald Reagan, a rented soldier home from occupation-duty in Iraq led the crowd through a heart-rending Pledge of Allegiance. They may well have served jelly beans along with the tapioca pudding, but reports don’t tell us.

The new class of visitors to the estate was not allowed to enjoy the hot dogs without receiving a dose of inspiration from the campaign trail, almost the way poor men at a Salvation Army shelter get scripture between bites of doughnut. Kerry enjoined guests to leave the hallowed grounds “with the spirit in an uplifting sense that we’re going to change this country.” Yes, those were his very words, much as we might have received from that other source of constant inspiration, the President himself, down in Crawford, Texas, over some smoldering cows and cold root beer.

Guests apparently left with puzzled faces over what they were being asked, but they merely joined the swelling ranks of puzzled Americans who have attended Kerry’s rallies and speeches.

Kerry likes to say, “This is the most important election of our lifetime,” and his guests heard it again over dollops of tapioca in Dixie Cups. It’s his best line when he doesn’t muff it, although he never explains why the claim should be true. Its threadbare, re-tread quality begins to suggest Richard Nixon’s “It’s time for a change!” a line that got him elected in 1968 so he could vastly expand the pointless killing and destruction in Vietnam.

Everyone understands, though, that Kerry’s slogan is about “anyone but Bush,” exactly the kind of substitute for thinking that gave the world Bush in the first place. Anybody-but-Bush is about the only positive adjective you can apply to the candidacy of John Kerry.

If you want to read some indigestible stuff, finish whatever it is you’re eating and then go to John Kerry’s Town Hall Meeting Internet site. Other than a few slabs of party boilerplate, there is nothing there, absolutely nothing, to inspire Americans and others in the world about the future. On many of the site’s “on the issues” topics, when you go to subtopics, you find nothing of substance. The headlines themselves are the most encouraging words, and they do not even fairly describe what is contained under them. In several cases, there are statements that are positively depressing.

Here is Kerry’s summary statement on Iraq:

Winning the Peace in Iraq…A Strategy for Success

To establish security and move forward with the transition to Iraqi sovereignty, the President must show true leadership in going to the major powers to secure their support of Lakhdar Brahimi’s mission, the establishment of a high commissioner for governance and reconstruction, and the creation of a NATO mission for Iraq. These steps are critical to creating a stable Iraq with a representative government and secure in its borders. Meeting this objective is in the interests of NATO member states, Iraq’s neighbors and all members of the international community. True leadership means sharing authority and responsibility for Iraq with others who have an interest in Iraq’s success. Sharing responsibility is the only way to gain new military and financial commitments, allowing America to truly share the burden and the risk.

This is Kerry-speak for saying that NATO allies should pay part of the human and material cost for America’s mess in Iraq. Why? In case, Kerry hadn’t noticed, Bush has been trying to accomplish this very thing for some time, applying a good deal of nasty pressure to allies, but Iraq, as Bush was pointedly told recently by Europeans, has nothing whatever to do with NATO’s mandate.

I suspect the phrase “true leadership,” apart from being a totally unwarranted advertising claim about the Senator’s dreary career, means Kerry sees himself playing good cop in the old good cop-bad cop routine used by police to break down suspects, but friends and allies aren’t usually regarded as suspects.

Consider the words, “winning the peace.” At first glance, they suggest heroic purpose like that of World War Two, providing a gloss of worthiness to the utter human and material waste of Iraq. The words were undoubtedly selected also to suggest for some Americans, the Planet-of-the-Apes crowd, slogans like “winning in Vietnam.” The word “peace” was selected with entirely another group of Americans in mind, mostly wishful thinkers and harmless dreamers.

If putting together the words “winning” and “peace” suggests to you George Orwell’s “war is peace,” you are not alone, particularly when you consider that Iraq already had peace and was a genuine threat to no one before the United States smashed it.

Tucked under the topic on Iraq at Kerry’s site is an item “Protecting Our Military Families in Times of War: A Military Family Bill of Rights.” Here’s an advertising pitch for tossing a tiny packet of sugar at each military voter, recalling, at one and the same time, scenes in World War Two films where GIs toss sticks of gum to hungry refugees and microphone reminders to shoppers for today’s special at Wal-Mart – all with a suitably sentimental nod to all the Jimmy Stewarts serving at spots like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo’s human dog cages. Well, a packet of sugar is better than nothing, because God knows Kerry’s view of foreign policy promises a future with plenty of the same duty.

We could analyze the rest of the stuff on Kerry’s site – all of it trying to make it appear he has something new to say and all of it about as helpful and clear as the fine print on a prescription-drug brochure – but it just isn’t worth the effort. I’ll only note further that Kerry had a featured item there about China, accusing Bush of letting Americans down about China. Please, Senator, say that we are not being promised another years-long chorus of American hectoring and carping about a proud but poor people working hard to earn their place in sun. Good God, what hypocrisy that was under Clinton.

It is important to remember that George Bush, while a top contender for title of Biggest Flop in American History, is largely a spent force. It is difficult to see what else he could possibly do to damage the planet. Once, not very long ago, his presidential Brain Trust, the neo-con Nazis, advocated mopping up Syria, Iran, and other places whose names they couldn’t even pronounce as soon as they finished up in Iraq. Well, things are not going to finish up any time soon in Iraq. America has spent herself silly trying to stabilize Iraq after de-stabilizing it.

There is a distasteful quality about Bush that people all over the world instinctively feel, and Bush’s efforts, we may all be thankful, will continue being hindered by that perception. Kerry has the advantage of being utterly boring instead of distasteful, but his ideas about the world are remarkably similar to Bush’s. If Americans elect Kerry, they will get a fresh, new Bush who may actually be able to leverage some of the world’s recent weariness and desperate desire for change to carry right on with more destructive stupidity.