Wednesday, May 31, 2006

What happened at the Iraqi My Lai?

Editorial in today's Los Angeles Times:

IT IS ESTABLISHED THAT U.S. Marines wantonly killed as many as two dozen Iraqi civilians last November and then tried to cover up the massacre, expect commentators of the left, right and center to discern "larger lessons" from the affair. Actually, some pundits already have. They cite the alleged atrocity as one more reason to bring the troops home, or proof that the war in Iraq has dragged on too long, or that too few service members have been forced to shoulder its burdens, or that atrocities are inevitable in a conflict in which combatants are hard to distinguish from civilians.

First things first. If Marines "avenged" the killing of a comrade by terrorizing and killing innocent Iraqis, they disgraced their uniform and must be punished. The same is true of anyone higher in the chain of command who helped conceal what happened on Nov. 19, 2005, in Haditha in western Iraq. Villagers have told journalists that Marines incensed by the killing of a lance corporal went house to house and shot men, women and children at close range.

They ranged from little babies to adult males and females," Lance Cpl. Roel Ryan Briones of Hanford, Calif., told a reporter for The Times. "I'll never be able to get that out of my head. I can still smell the blood. This left something in my head and heart." Briones said he took digital photographs of the victims that he later erased, assuming that they had been downloaded.

Initially, a Marine spokesman described the dead Iraqis as victims of a roadside bomb or an exchange of gunfire. That story began to come unstuck in January, however, when Time magazine supplied military officials in Baghdad with contrary accounts of the incident from Iraqis. The carnage in Haditha is being investigated by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell and will be the subject of hearings by the House Armed Services Committee and possibly other congressional panels.

If the allegations of a massacre are corroborated — and a full disclosure is overdue — the debate about the wisdom of the U.S. mission in Iraq inevitably will become even more inflamed. But in Iraq, as in Vietnam, larger "explanations" for atrocities cannot be regarded as excuses. Even Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), the leading advocate in Congress for disengagement from Iraq, is adamant that service members must be held accountable.

"I understand the fog of war and the confusion of battle," Murtha, a decorated combat veteran, said the other day. But no amount of fog, and no level of confusion, can obscure the fact that this is a nation of laws, and when the U.S. condones the deliberate murder of civilians it becomes, as Murtha said, no better than its enemy.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Free speech beyond the grave

A law that would ban disruptive protests at military funerals awaits President Bush's signature today. It is a reaction to recent protests at dead soldiers' services by religious wackos who say America's military deaths in Iraq result from the USA's permissive attitudes about gay people.

The demonstrators are led by the Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kansas, a homophobic zealot who has organized protests against AIDS victims and murder victim Matthew Shepard, a gay student whose tortured body was left hanging on a buckrail fence in Wyoming. How bad is he? See his Web site, www.GodHatesFags.com.

I once chatted with Phelps briefly when I was a Denver Post writer, and he agreed to allow me to visit his church for a few days and profile him as he planned another painful, high-profile protest on the anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death. He had become an unexpectedly provocative player in the national drama that enveloped the hate crime.

Unfortunately, Denver Post Editor Greg Moore disagreed, saying only that the man had no followers. He killed the story outright. We never got the chance to pull back the curtain on Phelps and peek into his world, as diseased or righteous as it might be. Moore's decision remains one of those rare moments in my journalism career when I must agree with people who say the mainstream media occasionally services its own prejudices and falls short of giving readers the information they need to make their own decisions.

But here's Phelps -- with enough followers to disrupt military funerals all over America -- causing a federal law to be written. The Denver Post missed its chance to educate and forewarn readers about this movement back in 2002, but Congress has now acted.

The curbs on free speech are odious to me; we didn't establish free speech to protect what we all can all accept and agree upon. We established free speech to allow repugnant expression.

I am sickened by what Rev. Phelps believes and represents. I am also sickened by the failure of my own profession to shine a light on him early on, perhaps when free speech by opponents might have drowned him out. But I am not sure that a law against protest is the right solution.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Cold cash ... it's what's for dinner

The brewing scandal over the FBI search of U.S. Rep. William Jefferson's Capitol Hill office is stultifying on a few levels. In case you haven't been watching: Jefferson is suspected of taking bribes.

First, the FBI found some $90,000 in the Louisiana congressman's freezer. This is incriminating. But there are two explanations: He was hiding the money or it was his. (OK, maybe he was holding it as evidence in his own investigation into congressional corruption and planned to turn over to the FBI.) But if Jefferson is innocent ... do we really want a congressman who thinks wise money-management is shrink-wrapped cash in the Frigidaire? No wonder we're in such a national economic mess.

Second, Congress' leadership is now whining that congressional offices should be (and have historically been) free from legal searches. It's how we keep the Executive and Legislative branches separate, they say.

Well, I disagree. Why should they be free from legal searches? If a congress-person is breaking the law, he shouldn't have any safe harbor, especially not a taxpayer-supported hideout on Capitol Hill. And if we can expose a president who gets, um, oral pleasure in the Oval Office, I certainly think we can look in a congressman's freezer (and why did he have a freezer in his office anyway?)

Congress had no difficulty creating or endorsing invasive new incursions on our civil liberties, from airport searches that seize our fingernail clippers to monitoring whom we call on our private telephones. For them to express their discomfort with being subject to the laws (and lawmen) of this country is disingenuous.

We might be heading into a new era of government mistrust if our leaders see themselves as having privileges that ordinary Americans don't have.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Rest in peace, Clarabell the Clown

If you're of "a certain age," you'll likely mourn the passing of Clarabell the Clown, sidekick for Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody ... the TV show that kids in the 1950s watched the way kids today watch "Spongebob Squarepants" ... or "South Park."

Clarabell was Lew Anderson, a jazzman and bandleader who died Sunday of complications of prostate cancer at a hospice in Hawthorne, N.Y. He was 84.

Maybe you saw it live, or maybe you have just seen the endless replays of great TV moments. Like Harpo Marx before her/him (I was 3 and confused), Clarabell never spoke a word and communicated by honking a horn. But on the last episode of Howdy Doody in 1960, it was Clarabell who got the last word: "Goodbye, kids" is all he said.

Fade to black.


Doody Trivia: Captain Kangaroo Bob Keeshan was actually the first Clarabell in 1947

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Columbine Massacre ... the videogame

Bored? Looking for fun? Need to sharpen your head-shots?

Look no further! "Super Columbine Massacre RPG" is a Web-based "game" that re-creates the Colorado high school bloodbath in which 15 people died, including the two young mass murderers. The creator, an anonymous cretin who goes only by the name of "columbin," told the Rocky Mountain News in Denver that he wanted to make something that would "promote a real dialogue on the subject of school shootings."
"I was a bullied kid. I didn't fit in, and I was surrounded by a culture of elitism as espoused by our school's athletes." He added that he considered the killers, at times, "very thoughtful, sensitive and intelligent young men."

Yeah, so was Ted Bundy.

The game -- which goes beyond simply offensive into the realm of monstrously wicked -- has been available online for about a year, but is just now getting popular. In it, the "player" is told it is "ultimately up to you" how many kids Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris kill that day, and every time, a kill is made, a pop-up box says: "Another victory for the Trench Coat Mafia."

And we think our greatest threat is from hungry Mexicans and terribly deranged Muslims?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

For want of a penny, power is lost

When Jacqueline Williams shorted her power company's bill by one penny, she lived to regret it. Consumers Energy in Flint, Mich., shut off her power until she paid her penny and got a receipt. In the meantime, her power was shut off for more than seven hours.

It's a ridiculous situation, of course, but don't start your heart bleeding just yet. In fact, Ms. Williams, a 41-year-old woman on Social Security, ONLY paid a penny on her $1,662.08 bill. The Michigan Department of Human Services paid all but $500, and the Salvation Army and the power company itself paid the rest -- except for one penny.

So on the surface it sounds like the power company was just being especially greedy, but in fact it had already paid more toward Ms. Williams' bill than she did. Her one-cent shortfall suddenly makes HER seem the bigger idiot.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Mother's day is for kids

Not all of us have mothers we fondly remember, but doggone it, we still celebrate Mother's Day.

That's the case with columnist Mark Millhone over at Men's Health magazine, whose essay about his crazy mother -- no, she's really crazy -- appears in this month's issue. He writes, in part:
"Why are there no Mother's Day cards for those of us with dysfunctional families? Cards that say something like 'Roses are red, violets are blue. You always hurt the ones you love, but don't worry, I won't sue! Happy Mother's Day!' Or 'World's best mom! (When she's not drinking!)'

"My mother didn't drink, but she made up for it in other ways. Whiplash-inducing mood swings. Screaming fits so loud that the neighbors would call the police. She had a particular gift for making scenes in restaurants -- my two older brothers and I always knew we could count on being treated to dinner and a show."

Not all moms are worth sung praises, I suppose. And something deep down in the heart of the heart of a storyteller's heart -- perhaps a twisted or underdeveloped nodule handicapped by some imperfect mother -- makes him want to speak it. This nodule, if healthy and robust, renders a mother's flaws invisible, but if it's sickly ... well, Millhone knows.

And Millhone knows his memory isn't all bad, too. He has concluded that his mother -- probably insane but not criminal -- was still a great presence in his life:
"Almost 2 years later, I still find her death imponderable, disorienting. It's as if someone rearranged the furniture while I slept. How ironic that after spending most of my adult life avoiding my mother, trying to reduce her to a punch line, she looms so large now that she's gone. She's like a song I can't get out of my head, a phantom limb, something in the air. I deeply regret all the years wasted in anger, hating her for not being the mom all those Hallmark cards were written for: the milk-and-cookies-waiting-for-you-after-school mom, the kiss-it-and-make-it-all-better, world's greatest mom. Only now does it even occur to me to wonder if I was the son she wanted me to be."

Ah. maybe that's the reason we celebrate Mother's Day: It's an annual chance at redemption, to prove we are the children that our mother's hoped we'd be.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

If you're being spied on, press 1 ...

So, the National Security Agency is logging all my calls. Just in case.

The White House says "the intelligence activities undertaken by the United States government are lawful, necessary and required to protect Americans from terrorist attacks." Don't get me wrong: I want to be protected from terrorist attacks and I think the government should do that. But I'm also old enough to remember the Vietnam logic that "we must destroy this village to save it," so I don't necessarily trust these guys to be great thinkers.

What happens when our "leaky" White House is looking at Hillary's phone records and, oops, accidentally "leaks" that every Wednesday night she's been calling an escort service in North Tonawonda? These guys don't seem to be above using such information for the "greater good" of re-electing Republicans to protect Americans from terrorists.

If the NSA studies my phone records for the past year, they'll find what I found in an exhaustive analysis: 1,845 calls to my son and daughter, in which I generally ask "how's the weather?"; 1,045 phone calls to Allstate Insurance Co. to complain about the service after Hurricane Rita; 516 calls to my cell phone company to ask how to operate my cell phone; 511 to old friends in Colorado, in which I generally ask "how's the weather?"; 435 to tech support at America Online; 20 to the pizza parlor up the street, always on an NFL game day; and six to my parents, in which I generally ask "how's the weather?"

No bookies, no hookers, no sex lines, no fun. Really, my main concern is that somebody will check my phone calls and find that my life is terribly boring and I'm not really worth protecting from terrorists.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Steal this book, Kaavya

Kaavya Viswanathan, the 19-year-old "novelist" who's apparently cribbed from other real writers' work, has landed the third sucker punch in the literary world's gut in the past six months.

My buddy Warren Adler, the author of "War of the Roses" and "Random Hearts," isn't happy about the little thief, but he reserved his most caustic commentary for the book media, such as the New York Times, which hailed Viswanathan as a fresh new voice (funny, since it was somebody else's voice.) Adler says the Viswanathan scandal shows exactly how today's successful authors aren't necessarily our best writers ... they merely have been molded into "great" writers by marketing hacks, who care more about market demographics than plot.


"It makes my blood boil when I think of the legions of literary wannabes working their hearts out in isolation or taking creative writing courses in the nearly 200 universities, some costing as much as $100,000 for the full program, to suddenly be confronted with the real skinny on how so-called literary reputations are made out of thin air and bullshit."

Personally, I don't blame the New York Times as much as I blame the book-publishing industry, where brilliance is in short supply. First-readers, the gatekeepers who look at all submissions before real editors see them, are largely young college grads chosen for:

A) their youth,
B) their speed-reading, or
C) a back-channel relationship to the publishing house.

Their job is not to truly assess the literary merits of stories, but to ferret out stories that might appeal to a hip 18-to-34 demographic. This is an educated guess, as someone who has had manuscripts in hundreds of first readers' hands: Half of them have probably never read a Pulitzer Prize-winner published before 1980. Then the manuscript goes to a committee of editors, who often employ the same shallow values, looking for something that kids will like -- kids who don't (as a group) read voraciously, mind you. Book-publishing has utterly surrendered its storytelling values to Hollywood.

How sad it is to think that the next Hemingway or Joyce or Twain is out there in the middle of America someplace, creating great work that you'll never have a chance to see. But, by golly, you'll see 19-year-old plagiarists (Viswanathan), outrageously dishonest drug addicts (James Frey), and imaginary teen truck-stop hookers (J.T. LeRoy) -- because that's what New York publishers think kids want to read. Through their marketing dollars -- which go to only a handful of authors, leaving the rest to shill books on their own -- publishers too often elevate the wrong writers and show their disrespect for serious readers.

Face it, folks, if you like a truly good piece of literature and you're older than 34, you simply don't interest New York publishers.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Book review: 'Riding With Strangers'

Nobody has yet taken up Elijah Wald on his Phileas Fogg-shrouded wager: He bets the cost of a cross-country bus ticket that he can hitchhike across America faster than a bus can drive it.

That means Wald, a wandering minstrel who's thumbed rides all over the world, is confident he can start in his former hometown of Boston and arrive in San Francisco in less than three days, one hour and 55 minutes — the time it takes Greyhound. Think he's bluffing?

Don't bet on it. Judging from "Riding With Strangers," he knows every trick in the road-dog book. And if you thought hitchhiking was just for drifters, rodeo cowboys and the occasional serial killer, you might be surprised to learn that hitchhiking's Hall of Fame — if it had one — would include Charles Dickens, Janis Joplin and Ronald Reagan.

But more than knowing the tricks — like making eye contact with every driver who approaches — Wald embraces the history and the rhythms of this random, often serendipitous, form of travel. Wald began thumbing rides when he was 16, and never stopped. At a moment when most Americans are shriveling toward isolation from and suspicion of their fellow man, Wald still believes in the kindness of passing strangers. It's his religion.

"Hitchhiking is an exercise of faith, and the more you trust it, the more it rewards you," Wald writes. "Faith is a beautiful thing, if it gives you strength to do what you know you should be doing anyway. The more certain I am that if I take the less secure and more adventurous course the rides will arrive, the better my experiences on the road."

OK, but didn't Ted Bundy kill hitchhikers? Wasn't The Doors' "Riders on the Storm" about a hitchhiking killer? Yes, but Wald argues the dangers are exaggerated by urban mythology and the road is a relatively safe place. He believes neither drivers nor hitchhikers face exceptional risks, and America's new "culture of fear" has turned every potential adventure — not just hitchhiking — into a risk not worth taking. Danger is, after all, what defines adventure, isn't it?

At its heart, "Riding With Strangers" is an easy-to-read travel story about one cross-country journey on which Wald meets a motley assortment of people who take him a little farther down the road. They are missionaries and merchants, musicians and conspiracy theorists, salesmen and truck drivers, and more truck drivers. None is painted in great detail, but more in the abbreviated, impressionistic brush strokes that relatively short rides require.

The journey he describes couldn't easily be replicated by a pedal-pushing, impatient motorist hurtling down the highway, dependent only on conveniently spaced gas stations, AAA and a compliant bladder. Whether it's listening to popular Russian mafia rock with a Moldavian trucker, or sleeping in the garden of Mark Twain's house in Hannibal, Mo., or enjoying the special comforts of modern truck stops (a perk generally reserved for big-rig drivers) — Wald gives an extraordinary spin to ordinary moments.

And like hitchhiking itself, it's the contemplation between rides that is part of this book's beauty. Wald's westbound narrative is richly layered with the veteran hitchhiker's reflections on religion, music, law, boredom, paranoia and race relations. Best of all, it's told in a songwriter's uncomplicated style.

In a chapter entitled "The Art and Science of Hitchhiking," Wald offers a useful primer for the newbie thumber, from where to stand (where you can be seen and where a driver has plenty of room to stop) to the hitchhiker's responsibilities in conversation (speak when spoken to).

"The whole purpose in doing the book is to get people to realize this needn't be something in the past, that it's as much of an option as it ever was," Wald recently told ShelfAwareness.com, a book-related Web site. "I don't expect everyone to fall in love with hitchhiking, but they should have the experience and be open to it."

Today, Wald makes his living as a musician and writer, often blending his two passions as a freelance music writer for various magazines and newspapers, and in books such as "Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas," and "Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues." He's also won a Grammy for his liner notes in the Arhoolie Records' 40th Anniversary Collection.

By the way, he also occasionally drives his own car, but for Wald's 11-city book tour — beginning May 16 in Seattle and ending a month later in New York City — he's hitchhiking.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Dead man walking

Terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui -- who openly admitted he would kill Americans wherever and whenever he could -- is likely to spend the rest of his life in the so-called Supermax federal prison in Florence, Colo., where he will be confined to his cell alone for 23 hours a day and allowed one hour outside his cell for exercise -- but without any other human contact.

After his sentencing today, his mother criticized France for not standing up to the U.S. in meting out justice to the avowed terrorist. The Associated Press reported:
"Moussaoui's mother Aicha El Wafi, pressed for her country to intervene. 'My son will be buried alive because France didn't dare contradict the Americans,' she said."

The operative word, ma'am, is "alive."

The Billion Word March

The English language officially has hit one billion words so you'd think I could muster a few of them to post to this blog in the past week. But no.

Nonetheless, the notion of one billion words is daunting. For somebody who loves words, my mind is appropriately boggled. William Shakespeare had less than 100,000 words from which to choose in his day, and they sufficed to summarize mankind quite nicely, thank you. Now, with one BILLION words, we seem to say less. I'm astonished ... awed ... stupefied ... astounded ... flabbergasted ... dumb-founded ... taken aback ... bewildered ... and 69 other synonyms for intensely surprised.

Here are a few other word facts from the Global Language Monitor:

o The average American's vocabulary is only about 14,000 words.
o There are fewer than 100,000 words in the French language;
o Fewer than 20,000 different words in the Bible, (actually, 12,143 in the English, 783,137 total in the King James Version, 8,674 in the Hebrew Old Testament, and 5,624 in the Greek New Testament);
o And 24,000 differing words to be found in the complete works of Shakespeare, about 1,700 of which he invented.

Have you used your 14,000 words today?