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A "small, fast-moving" disaster

[ 0 ] January 4, 2009 |

The Dark Lord speaketh:

SCHIEFFER: Wouldn’t it have been better, on reflection, to have a better and larger force [going into Iraq]?

DICK: Well, um, we could debate that forever and we may well. I think that the original campaign was masterfully done in terms of the small, fast moving force as you say, that achieved our initial objectives in taking down the regime and capturing Baghdad, that was a masterful performance.

I think the thing that we underestimated, at least I underestimated, was the damage that had been done to the Iraqi population by all those years of Saddam’s rule, so that there weren’t any Iraqis early on who were willing to stand up and take responsibilty for their own affairs. Anybody who had that kind of get up and go in earlier years had had their head chopped off.

There’s of course no use in arguing with Dick Cheney, but one of the most irritating memes in defense of the Iraq War is the insistence that there were, in fact, two wars — one victorious for the US, the other victorious for Democrats — that could be distinguished from one another. This claim was especially popular before everyone decided that we won the second war, too, but Cheney revives it here with his customary mendacity. The “small, fast-moving” force that Cheney heralds may have been successful at zipping its way to Baghdad, but it was wholly insufficient for controlling the scores of alleged WMD sites that were perched along the route — you know, the weapons for which the US was presumably going to war in the first place. Failing to secure non-existent WMD also meant failing to secure untold quantities of ordinary weapons that were soon enough fueling the “second” war that, so far as Cheney is concerned, wouldn’t have happened if the Iraqis hadn’t been such incompetent cowards.

Once again, the dude from Gulfport speaks for all of us.

Art and History

[ 0 ] January 4, 2009 |

Becks asks:

Can a movie present itself as historical, grossly distort the facts, and still be considered good art?

Yes. Actually, I would take a position diametrically opposed to Becks’s; basically, if historical accuracy would make for worse art, then the artist pretty much has a responsibility to ignore it. Of course, given that I haven’t seen the play and have an extreme Ron Howard aversion Becks may well be right about the effects of historical inaccuracy in the specific case of Frost/Nixon; I certainly can’t say. But, for example, I remember being extremely annoyed that so much discussion about Jim Sheridan’s largely forgotten but superb In The Name of the Father focused on alleged historical inaccuracies rather than on the (very high) quality of the film. If strict literal accuracy would have made for worse drama, a good artist’s choice is obvious, and I would say that fiction’s value as a work of art is almost entirely independent from its historical accuracy whether we’re talking about Shakespeare or contemporaneous filmmakers.

Deep Thought

[ 0 ] January 4, 2009 |

I’m guessing that the percentage of Republican Senators who 1)will refuse to seat Al Franken and encourage Norm Coleman to pursue months of futile lawsuits and 2)who complained that Al Gore was a “sore loser” for not conceding after Fox News called Florida for Bush is roughly 100%.

Upon further review

[ 0 ] January 3, 2009 |

Since my beloved Michigan Wolverines just suffered their first really bad season since the Johnson administration, I’ve discovered that what fans do in this situation is review highlights from glorious seasons gone by.

Watching this replay of Desmond Howard’s fourth-down catch against Notre Dame, I’m struck by how much replay review has taken away from sports in terms of spontaneous ecstasy — not a small cost. If this play were to happen today, it would be reviewed for three minutes, while everyone watching held their breath and argued about what “indisputable” means, like a bunch of lawyers arguing in front of an appellate court.

I’m of two minds about whether in the end it’s worth it. I tend to think not — especially since the standard for overturning calls is so high that most arguably wrong calls aren’t reversed. But the biggest cost is the loss of pure moments like this one.

Ground War…

[ 0 ] January 3, 2009 |

And we have ourselves a ground invasion of Gaza. A week ago, I did not expect this. If the Israelis want to push this, Hamas cannot win in any conventional sense of the term, even to the extent that Hezbollah was able to resist in Lebanon. I’m guessing now that this ends with Israel installing a Fatah administration that the Gazans are going to hate. From Israel’s point of view, I suppose it’s better to have Palestinians blow each other up than blow up Israelis. In the long term, I still don’t see an endgame.

Bowl Mania Standings

[ 0 ] January 3, 2009 |

If my calculations are correct, we’re down to two:

Rank Name Record Max Current
1 Dr. Squid Knows Pickers, C. Carrell 17-13 420 371
2 Cookie Monsters, J. Lobasz 17-13 399 352

One other team has a max above 371, but is eliminated because of pick duplication. Cookie Monsters need victories by Ohio State and Ball State in order to win the title.

Worst American Birthdays, vol. 44

[ 0 ] January 3, 2009 |

(Spurred by popular demand — that is, a single query via Facebook — I’m resuming this series after nearly a year of neglect…)

James Orson Bakker, one of the greatest religious frauds in US history, turns 68 today. Bakker and his first wife, the inimitable Tammy Faye, spent a quarter-century building and then destroying an enormously profitable televised ministry known as the Praise the Lord network and a hilariously weird Christian theme park called Heritage USA. PTL immolated in early 1987 when a confluence of sex and fund raising scandals ruined Bakker’s gimmick and eventually earned him a 45-year prison sentence for mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy. (The sentence was later voided; after re-sentencing, Bakker served less than five years before receiving parole in 1994.)

Before his magnificent collapse, Bakker and his wife helped define the cultural grotesquery of the 1980s. The keystone of the PTL empire was the Bakkers’ variety show, a gibbering circus of musical bathos, inane religious chatter and unselfconscious, hyperbolic weeping from Tammy Faye, whose near-daily fits of ecstasy provided some of the most inspired television of the decade. Tammy Faye wept because Jesus loved her; she wept because Jesus died for her sins; she wept because her beloved dog Chi Chi died from an overdose of lima beans. When God neglected her pleas to raise Chi Chi from the dead, Bakker wept again before announcing to her viewers that Chi Chi was a “naughty little dog” who more or less deserved to die.

Meantime, Tammy Faye’s husband Jim preached the gospel of prosperity, a Ponzi theology rooted in the belief that God will reward the faithful with material wealth and financial success — provided that they first contribute to the material and financial success of their ministers. By 1986, the Bakkers had seemingly harvested the fruits of their own teachings; that year, the PTL empire earned just shy of $130 million from its numerous businesses, with the Bakkers themselves pocketing over $1.6 million in salary and compensation. Heritage USA — Bakker’s $150 million theme park south of Charlotte, North Carolina — drew millions of visitors each year, including many who had paid $1000 each for “Lifetime Partnerships” that earned them several days of free lodging in the park’s 500-room luxury hotel. By 1987, PTL had sold 165,000 of these memberships, claiming that they would be used to fund the construction of new time-share units. Most of those earnings, however — along with seemingly everything the organization siphoned from its middling faithful — simply disappeared into a hole. By the end, PTL was earning $4.2 million each month and spending nearly twice that amount. At several points, PTL’s operating expenses were paid from employee retirement accounts. Lacking any meaningful accounting processes, PTL became a crematory for the donations offered up by the Bakkers’ unwitting constituents.

On March 18, 1987, Bakker resigned from PTL amid rumors that he had paid more than $100,000 in hush money to Jessica Hahn, a former church secretary Bakker had slept with — or raped, on Hahn’s account — in 1980. In his resignation statement, Bakker declared that he had been “wickedly manipulated by treacherous former friends” who “conspired to betray me into a sexual encounter” with Hahn. Jerry Falwell subsequently assumed control of PTL. Internal audits and criminal investigations soon revealed layers of fraud that seem, in retrospect, oddly unimpressive by the standards set by government and business in the new millennium.

During Bakker’s several years in prison, he had time to read the Bible from cover to cover for the first time. To Bakker’s surprise, he discovered that it didn’t have too many congratulatory things to say about wealth.

Go Cats!

[ 0 ] January 3, 2009 |

Hostility to the SEC aside, I am obligated to cheer for the Wildcats. Go Cats! Beat the Pirates! Or at least escort them to a suitable third country for prosecution!

Eyeless in Gaza

[ 0 ] January 2, 2009 |

I’ve been writing an opinion column for ten years, and something I’ve noticed about what that role does to you (meaning me) is that it more or less impels you to talk about stuff you don’t really know much about as if you do.

People who are really good at it — like say Tom Friedman — can pull this off quite convincingly, usually through the use of some soothing rhetorical advice (in his case, a brow-furrowing, hand-wringing style, festooned with allusions to the scenery of the exotic locales he’s writing from as he investigates the inner souls of Chinese capitalists etc).

The same thing happens in academia all the time — people who are very knowledgeable about A find themselves under structural and social pressure to pretend they’re as knowledgeable about B, which they don’t know nearly as much about, and eventually X, which they really don’t know anything about at all. But if you use enough big words and elaborate footnotes you can get away with this kind of thing surprisingly easily (a phony Oxbridge accent helps a lot too).

Anyway my contribution to the debate about Israel-Palestine is that I don’t know anything about it, really. But at a more general level, the present conflict illustrates some depressing things about the orthodoxy of the American political elites, the assumptions of bad faith on the part of one’s opponents by everyone who argues about this, and the increasingly meaningless status of the word “terrorism.”

Worst Americans of 2008

[ 0 ] January 2, 2009 |

Michael Tomasky ranks ‘em. These sorts of lists don’t work, of course, unless your readers are able to respond with pronouncements along the lines of, “I can’t believe he put Michele Bachmann ahead of Holy Joe!”

So in keeping with the spirit of things, I’m really not sure that Bachmann’s sins outrank Lieberman’s this year. The fact that the latter could campaign so heartily and dishonestly on behalf of McCain-Palin and then expect to be spared — and not only that, but to assume he was in a position to negotiate to keep his chairmanship — should have allowed him to break into the top five. Bachmann, by contrast, has always struck me as the sort of person who couldn’t spell whatever she ate for breakfast. So far as I’m concerned, a diminished-capacity wingnut like Bachmann is simply playing true to type, whereas Lieberman never exhausts his talent for being an even greater douchebag from one day to the next.

Pac-10 Rocks, Pac-10 Rolls…

[ 0 ] January 2, 2009 |

5-0. Frankly, I’d take USC -10 against either Oklahoma or Florida.

Image by Memphis Jay.

CBS Spooked

[ 0 ] January 2, 2009 |

Alex has an interesting story:

I had an interesting experience with CBS after [the Dan Rather imbroglio], which may bear repeating. Quite suddenly, some time in the early summer of 2005, I was contacted by a CBS Correspondent, regarding the Viktor Bout-to-Iraq issue. We discussed it by e-mail; they read huge quantities of the blog from a wide range of locations that presumably mapped onto the organisation chart of the CBS journo-octopus.

Could they see primary documents? Surely they could. I shot over a gaggle of DESC fuel contracts. CBS e-mail didn’t eat more than 500KB at a go; we did it again. We conspired in pubs. They were delighted to learn I was….an actual journalist, not some anarchist drug-chimp off the interwebs. Better, a trade journalist, so not someone on the nationals… Credit and cash were offered. Lunch was called at Villandry, conveniently not far from my office.

A top CBS was summoned; I hauled in a box of docs on the train and the tube and my desk, as well as all the digital. Unlike MI6, I didn’t lose them. He came supposedly direct from Iraq, with photos of various aircraft at Baghdad Airport. I identified them, wondering what the point was – there were plenty of VB jets photographed there?

There was a brief period of expectancy, before the correspondent eventually called back to say that after the Rather/Kerning Krisis they couldn’t do anything like it, for political reasons.