Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Immoral confusion

Secretary of Defense & Hawk in Chief Donald Rumsfeld defended the war effort in Salt Lake City yesterday at the annual American Legion convention, Rummy the early wave of the administration's assault on the national attention span in this, the runup to the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In his address Rumsfeld invoked what's become the new hot-button word in the West Wing. Fascism, and its noun and adjectival variants, are all the rage. The secretary ran down a series of the most high-profile recent terrorist attacks, knitting a weave of connection between 9/11 and attacks in Bali, London and Madrid.

“I recount this history because once again we face similar challenges in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism,” he said.

The American news media have tended to emphasize the negative rather than the positive, the secretary said. The AP reported that Rumsfeld said more media attention was given to U.S. soldiers’ abuse of Iraqi prisoners than to the fact that Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith received the Medal of Honor.

Rumsfeld was forthright enough to admit that, thanks to the abuse at Abu Ghraib and recent accusations of atrocities by Marines against unarmed civilians, the U.S. military has "bad actors — the ones who dominate the headlines today — who don't live up to the standards of the oath and of our country."

But mostly it was a rather punitive history lesson, hard on the press and its responsibility to ferret out the truth, intolerant of criticism, insistent on a dubious historical linkage. This was Rumsfeld's America.

It may well have been, as the Rev. Al Sharpton observed on “Hardball” on Aug. 29, “an insult to the intelligence of the American people.” But bad as that is, it's only part of the problem. Before the American Legion membership, Rumsfeld made the comparison of opponents of the Iraq war with those who appeased the Nazis before World War II, in virtually the same breath proposing to put the nation on alert against “the rising tide of a new type of fascism.”

The illogic isn’t hard to follow: the secretary of defense proposes to prepare America for fighting a new kind of war – waged against an enemy with no uniform, no borders, no formal military or governmental or geographic foundation – by invoking the symbolism and associations with a war that ended three generations ago.

Who best, then, to lead the nation’s military might but a resolute cold warrior insistent on fixing shapeless conflicts of the present and the future within the very frames of reference he says are obsolete? The very nature of fascism requires a fundamental government structure, something at odds with today's amorphous asymmetricality of war with a loose network of zealots, those practicing radical perversions of a venerable, honorable faith. Rumsfeld’s tortured reasoning is at war with itself. It's apples and oranges on a global scale.

Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others within the administration have to get their collective mind around the idea of abandoning the shopworn conceptual terminology of Winning and Losing. Just as the theater and context of warfare have changed, so, too, must change the traditional zero-sum game, winner-take-all notions of victory and defeat. In an information age rife with spin and nuance and 24/7 exposure, with audio-video and Internet technology the new universal enabler, "victory" and "defeat" are terms subject to manipulation, how well they’re shaped, how well they’re put across by any actor in a war at any given time.

In classic terms, the Hezbollah guerrillas were largely routed from strongholds in southern Lebanon: weapons confiscated, leadership impacted, if not severely damaged. But the Hezbollah have demonstrated an ability to rebound and to assist, in practical cash-on-the-barrelhead terms, the Lebanese people in the recovery from 34 days of bombardment and attacks by the Israeli Defense Forces. For better and possibly worse, Hezbollah has taken a page from the Israeli manual for survival – inventiveness, drive, solidarity, financial wherewithal – and taken unto itself the role of winner in the conflict, altering, at least in the short term, the traditional roles of Winning and Losing a war in the twenty-first century.

The primary theater for the war in Iraq is not territorial, it’s religious and philosophical, but that’s not to say that territory doesn’t have a role in the prosecution of this conflict. With control of the oil fields constantly shifting, with Shiite and Sunni sectarian violence increasing, and with the leader of Kurdistan, Iraq’s restive northern enclave, announcing a plan to stop flying the Iraqi national flag within his autonomous region, it’s clear that territory is the other prime mover of actors in this war. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, for all of his ostensible national authority, is in practical terms not much more right now than the Mayor of Baghdad. "Winning" and "losing" are for him words whose meanings shift, however slightly, every day.

"Victory" and "defeat" are terms that fail to embrace the complexity of what’s taking shape in Iraq. They reflect an almost-colonialist mentality, an attempt to impose an absolute Western-style solution on a region rife with tribal and social ambiguities we cannot now understand. New ways of thinking about this conflict are what’s needed – maybe, even probably requiring new people to do that new thinking.

It’s that necessary flexibility of planning and foresight, the capability to get beyond the institutional comfort zone that is its own Washington monument to stasis and inertia, the ability to think outside the box – to think outside the room the box is in -- that’s lacking in Foggy Bottom these days.

President Bush set the tone a few weeks earlier, with the use of the phrase "Islamic fascists," a frightening juxtaposition that few scholars and not near enough journalists have noted. The prevailing administration notion of conflating a government with a religion is monstrously problematic; it short-circuits the ability to discern, brief enough already in the Internet era; it makes it easy to see the enemy anywhere and everywhere, on the weakest pretext, with only the slightest provocation. We’re seeing that now. An Arab student living in the United States is briefly barred from boarding his JetBlue flight at Kenendy airport because he’s wearing a T-shirt with a pacifist slogan written in English … and in Arabic script.

This is Rumsfeld’s America. The loyal opposition are traitors and defeatists. Staying an incrementally disastrous course is the only option. But in Rumsfeld’s America are embodied bedrock principles that are, finally, un-American. The very idea that dissent against the war is immoral, criminal behavior strikes at the heart and bone of what makes us a democracy -- makes U.S., surely, The Democracy.

It’s the right to stand alone in the crowd and call the emperor on his imaginary wardrobe.

It’s the right to have a dissenting opinion, even if dissent is the only reason for having it.

It’s the right to exercise the contrary impulse, and the willingness to acknowledge that right in others the way you’d take it for yourself.

Keith Olbermann got it right. The host of MSNBC's "Countdown," making an unusually pointed and personal comment on the program, was pitch perfect in his assessment of Rumsfeld's comments, and what they mean to America in the wider sense of who and what we are as a nation:

Olbermann said Rumsfeld’s statement “did 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, it credits 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 of as “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. ...

"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. ...

"In what country was Mr. Rumsfeld raised? As a child, of whose heroism did he read? On what side of the battle for freedom did he dream one day to fight? With what country has he confused the United States of America?

"The confusion we -- as its citizens -- must now address, is stark and forbidding. But variations of it have faced our forefathers, when men like Nixon and McCarthy and Curtis LeMay have darkened our skies and obscured our flag. Note -- with hope in your heart — that those earlier Americans always found their way to the light, and we can, too."

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Lookin' for God in the unlikely places

Could it be another sign of the End Days? In Fountain Valley, Calif., chocolate has assumed the status of divinity, and not pecan divinity, either. The Virgin Mary has been detected in a hunk of chocolate. Turns out that a gourmet chocolate shop has discovered a two-inch column of chocolate droppings that some store workers swear has a resemblance to the Virgin Mary.

The Associated Press reported that workers at Martucci Angiano's gourmet chocolate company, Bodega Chocolates, discovered the mini-ziggurat of chocolate. Since the discovery, AP reports, "Angiano's employees have spent much of their time hovering over the tiny figure, praying and placing rose petals and candles around it."

Cruz Jacinto, the kitchen worker who found the lump of melted chocolate when she began her shift, said she froze when she noticed the shape: Jacinot told AP it was a ringer for the Virgin Mary on the prayer card she carries in her right pocket.

"When I come in, the first thing I do is look at the clock, but this time I didn't look at the clock. My eyes went directly to the chocolate," said Jacinto. "I thought, 'Am I the only one who can see this? I picked it up and I felt emotion just come over me. For me, it was a sign."

For Cruz Jacinto, it was as real as real gets -- and who's to say she's out of line?

Now, we've been here before, folks. In the not so distant past, eBay has posted offers from people bearing a variety of ordinary artifacts with some purportedly divine connection ... or at least a visual resemblance to something symbolizing a divine connection between deity and man. Weeping madonnas, tears of what looks like blood on the face of Christ on the cross, the image of Jesus beatifically encrypted in the bread of a grilled cheese sandwich ...

It would be truly comical if it didn't say so much about who and what, and where, we are. Talk about contradictions: Right now the rise of spirituality in American life is perfectly logical. It just makes sense. Given the impact of fighting wars abroad and cultural wars at home, and a rapidly shifting sense of American identity, people are hungry for connection to something that stays in place, something reliable, or at least something representing something reliable. When the contours of the known world grow too sharp and confining, there's a retreat to the solidity of faith, a belief in the evidence of things not seen.

And faith is not a flimsy, threadbare phenomenon in America. Just ask Cruz Jacinto.

Oh you could say that she and thousands and thousands of other Americans are overdoing it, letting their faith color their judgments and movement in the secular world. Or you could just write it off as the steadfast belief of a devout animist, one of those who see the spiritual presence in just about everything.

But there's no getting around it, for the chocolatiers in Fountain Valley or anywhere else in the nation. LIke Bono, we still haven't found what we're looking for, and we're looking everywhere. Let's face it: When you're looking for God in a grilled cheese sandwich, you're hungry for something more than a grilled cheese sandwich.

Thursday, August 3, 2006

Ad nauseam

Kicking the lizard to the curb, maybe

How can this be? Is the GEICO Gekko – that witty, foreign-born reptilian symbol of the insurance arm of the Berkshire Hathaway empire – on his way down the drain?

We’ve seen him for a few years, at least, spreading the good word about how “15 minutes can save you 15 percent on car insurance.” He’s gone from being a nonentity in the GEICO operation to being hailed as employee of the month … all the way to making guest appearances on “talk shows,” preaching the company evangel to anyone who’ll listen. Only now, it appears he’s in the process of being replaced by a whole new cast of characters – some of them more animated that the lizard himself.

GEICO has rolled out its new ad campaign, one that plays on a straight man/wild man formula: Real GEICO customers are paired with exuberant public figures; their experience at getting claims settled quickly is contrasted with the celebrity’s “interpretation” of the customers’ experience with claims and customer service.

And so placid real-life GEICO customer Denise Bazik is paired with Little Richard, rock’s eternal freakazoid shouter. The customer’s real-life story is simple enough: On a Thanksgiving holiday she hit a deer. Little Richard: “Look out … somebody help me!” Bt thanks to GEICO’s quick claims service, the problem is resolved happily. On to Grandman’s house. Little Richard: “Mashed potatoes and gravy, and cranberry sauce! Wooooooo!

Or there’s genial Stanley Smith, the gentleman who’s twinned with the forever bubbly and fully upholstered flamenco guitarist Charo, star of, well… star of Charo. The gentleman’s straightforward explanation of how GEICO services worked for him after wrecking a car he loved is translated in Charo’s effervescent Spanglish, virtually of it spoken too fast for transcribing here.

Then there’s Brenda Coates, who sits at a piano beside a somewhat ghoulish Burt Bacharach, the enduring songwriting legend, at the woman’s side like some lounge vulture from Vegas, audibilizing her automotive misfortune in supper-club style.

Her car, it seemed, was struck from behind by another GEICO customer. Bacharach croons: “I got hit in the rear …

Like with all the others, GEICO comes to Ms. Coates' rescue: Matter resolved. Bacharach again: “And I hope I never get hit … in the reeeear again.”

Not a lizard in sight anywhere – and that’s curious given one of his own pronouncements. “People trust advertising icons,” the Gekko says in one of the TV spots – which begs the question of why it seems at least possible he’s on his way out, why GEICO would throw over one of the best brand-associative symbols in the car insurance business.

Maybe the little bastard’s just planning a long vacation: kickin’ it with Winnie the Pooh and the Taco Bell Chihuahua on Ibiza for a month or so. Maybe they’ll bring him back in the fall with his own talk show. Who knows? But whether this is just a brief hiatus in the beast’s march toward world domination of car insurance or he’s gone for good, the Gekko lays claim, at least, to having made car insurance advertising more fun than it has any right to be.

Compensating for everything

It’s getting ugly in America, on the road and off. Competition is fierce and in a hot and angry nation, there’s not much room for second place. Bring it.

That’s the hyper-aggressive subtext for Hummer’s new ad campaign, a blatant nod to our more atavistic tendencies, and that American appeal for instant gratification.

The ads are an indication that the Hummer division of General Motors has finally, fully embraced its outsider status, a status maybe never more contrarian than in today’s $3-a-gallon-plus period, when we wince at the pump at least twice a month. Even with improved fuel economy, the Hummer’s as much a symbol as a vehicle. The two newest TV spots for its 2006 H3 model own up to it in bold, red-meat style.

In the first ad, two guys in a checkout line are contrasts in the moden male. The first guy’s groceries are health food gone overboard: tofu, leafy vegetables, superfood of every description. Btu he glances back at the guy behind him, clearly stocking up for a barbecue: charcoal, ribs, chips –guy food, food for a manly man.

After glancing at a Hummer ad in the magazine rack, Guy #1 leaves the grocery store in disgust. In ten seconds he’s parked his old car, driven to his neighborhood Hummer dealer, picked out the 2006 of his choice, transferred the groceries, grabbed the keys and driven away. To a carnivore-rock soundtrack, over the image of a satisfied customer biting into a carrot are superimposed the words “RESTORE THE BALANCE.”

(An interesting choice for a tag line – especially when you consider that, when the new campaign was first launched, the original words were “RESTORE YOUR MANHOOD.” Yeah, it made buying a Hummer too gender-specific, and left out half the possible population of buyers.

But you’re also inclined to think that somebody at GM thought that was going a shade too far; quiet as kept, men are sensitive to any idea of a relationship between the size of their vehicles and the size of, shall we say, their most personal machinery. Cooler heads at the rewrite desk prevailed.)

The second ad is equally direct. On a playground, kids are taking turns climbing a slide, under the watchful eyes of two mothers. One of the kids cuts in front of the other in a line that isn’t really a line in the first place.

“Oh, I’m sorry Jake was next,” slender Wimp-Mom says to hefty Bitch-Mom, standing beside her.

“Yeah? Well, we’re next now,” Bitch-Mom says to Wimp-Mom, who stands there for a few seconds, looking bereft, vacant, waifish, whipped.

A bus bearing a huge Hummer ad rolls by … and in the ten seconds of her transformation, Wimp-Mom gathers her son, drives away, heads to her neighborhood Hummer dealer, picks out the 2006 H3 of her choice, signs the contract with an emphatic flourish, straps the boy in the back, snatches the keys from the salesman’s hands and drives away. To Ruth Brown's "This Little Girl's Gone Rockin," and over the image of a woman determined to cut that heifer at the playground off in traffic if she sees her again, we see the superimposed words “GET YOUR GIRL ON.”

Hey, the ladies like a hit of testosterone too, now and again.

It’s all a little unnerving somehow, this appeal to our baser aspects despite the price of gas and the likelihood for more increases in that price because of continuing, and newly evolving, instability in the Middle East. The phrase “fiddling while Rome burns” doesn’t quite bring home the gravity of the situation. But on we roll, with bigger cars with more horsepower and more tailgating and angrier drivers – our own little Moebius strip of madness in passive-aggressive America, where everybody compensates for everything.
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