Marvelous tales from our new imperial age
Marvelous tales from our new imperial age
John Larner in his elegant micro-study, Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World, tells us that the "marvelousâ€¦ was an essential element in medieval geography." On medieval maps and in travel books that preceded Polo's "adventures," that "marvelous" included accounts of "Cynocephali or dog-headed men; the Blemmyae with faces on their breasts; Sciopods, with only one leg, yet running with amazing swiftness, and who, at rest, used their vast foot as a sunshade; 'The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads/ Do grow beneath their shoulders', and so on. Together with the monstrous races were found strange beasts: camels and elephantsâ€¦ unicorns, griffins, the rhinoceros, mantikhoras with the body of a lion and the face of a man, crocodiles, dragons, [and] serpents with two feet." (pp. 9-10)
Thus spake Dick Cheney (while -- you choose -- either scotching an administration negotiating position with China over North Korea's nuclear weapons program or trying out for a major role in the Lord of the Rings, part IV): "[A} senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, quoted the vice president as saying in one pivotal [intra-administration] meeting on North Korea: 'I have been charged by the president with making sure that none of the tyrannies in the world are negotiated with. We don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it.'" (Warren Strobel, "Cheney hard line blocks
The geography of the present also includes the following degraded marvels: "Peter Krobath, chief editor for the Austrian movie magazine Skip, was held overnight in a cold room with 45 others who arrived without the visa. The room had two open toilets, a metal bench, and a concrete bench. He was here to interview movie star Ben Affleck and see the movie Paycheck. Thomas Sjoerup, a photographer for the Danish paper Ekstra Bladet, was deported after a few hours during which a mugshot, fingerprints, and DNA sample were taken. A French journalist said he and five others from his country were marched across the airport in handcuffs, without belts or laces." ("A Repressive Embarrassment,"
Marvelous and illuminating tales from our new imperial age
The two incidents described above are among the small marvels wrenched from the dark side (where our modern Darth Vadars thrive), as reported in an angry editorial in the Toledo Blade: "Anyone who thinks the administration and its law enforcement chief, Attorney General John Ashcroft, aren't out to impede a free press need only hear how the federal government is treating foreign journalists coming to this country on assignment," write the Blade editorialists. Journalists arriving from elsewhere without special visas that many of them don't know they need are regularly undergoing such treatment, even though tourists arriving without the visas are not.
According to Steven Mikulan of the LA Weekly ("Coffee, Tea or Handcuffs?" 12/18-25), Australian journalist Sue Smethurst, who writes for New Idea, a woman's magazine, was passing through Los Angeles on her way to New York when she ran into our new version of "homeland security." It was her ninth visit to the States and she was on her way to interview that well-known terrorist suspect Olivia Newton-John -- who was, after all, a bombshell in the movie Grease -- for a piece on breast cancer when she fell afoul of our agents. Her "adventure" included a number of full body searches and a perp walk through the airport in handcuffs.
Her questioning began this way:
"What sort of stories did she write? What kind of magazine was New Idea? Where was it published? What was its circulation? Does it print politically sensitive articles? When would her interview appear? Who would be reading it?
"'I laughed,' Smethurst recalls, 'because we're a cross between Good Housekeeping and People magazine. The most political thing we'd likely print was Laura Bush's horoscope.'
"The polite interrogation continued. Who was her father? His occupation? Her mother's maiden name and occupation?... The agents gravely nodded at Smethurst's replies and left once more, promising to return. When they came back half an hour later, one of the officers offered Smethurst a cup of airport coffee.
"'I thought at that stage something was quite wrong,' Smethurst says, 'so I asked the man with the coffee if there was some problem.'
"'I will tell you when there's a problem,' he abruptly snapped, according to Smethurst. Then he pointed to a nearby sign: Your Silence Is Appreciated."
And so on, though if, like more knowledgeable foreign journalists, she had declared herself a tourist, she would have walked right through customs.
Typically, Smethurst's experience, treated in Australia as an example of American bureaucracy run amok in our new post-9/11 world, rated a single squib paragraph in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and otherwise no notice anywhere in the U.S., according to Mikulan.
This is a scandal abroad, here a non-event. The Toledo Blade editorialists write: "It should not take a world media outcry to address this problem. It's a policy that puts these
And these days I wouldn't hold my breath for Congress either.
In the meantime, with George himself, like some security decorator, raising the terrorism alert-level to orange, and TV time, for the last week monopolized by Saddam's capture, now morphing into all-terror-preparations-all-the-time, and polls reflecting a presidential "bounce," who has a moment to notice a recent Los Angeles Times report that calls into question a proud Justice Department boast (Richard B. Schmitt, "A Flawed Terrorist Yardstick," 12/21).
In prosecuting 280 cases on terrorism, so the claim goes, the administration is winning its "war" on the same (something that an orange alert might seem to contradict). Given the secrecy that has blanketed our government, the paper had trouble getting information on many of these cases ("The Times' request for government records on the cases turned up a highly redacted accounting covering only about half the number that Ashcroft trumpets."). Nonetheless, a number of the ones it received were marvels from the far reaches of the galaxy of spin and make gripping reading.
For example, the list "obtained by The Timesâ€¦ includes two New Jersey men, operators of small grocery stores, who were convicted of accepting hundreds of boxes of stolen breakfast cereal, in a crime that occurred 16 months before the terrorist hijackings."
Or take another example:
"In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Ali Alubeidy was in the cross hairs of the Justice Department, singled out as a potential terrorist by no less than U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft. In fact, he was guilty - of paying off a corrupt bureaucrat to get a commercial driver's license, including a permit to transport hazardous materials. His sentence: three years' probation.
"But the terrorism case against him never got off the ground. Prosecutors soon realized he was not a terrorist or involved in any terrorist organization, and even said so publicly. To the Justice Department, however, Alubeidy, and a group of 19 other Middle Eastern men caught up in the driver's license scam, still count."
You might think that if representatives of this administration buzzed you up around dinnertime, plugging their positions and asking you to sign up for their war, you would simply tell them you don't take such solicitations and hang up. But for many Americans that seems not to be the case. For the last week, you might say, the media phone has been ringing away, and a lot of people have been hanging on the line.
This administration, I believe, represents some kind of vast Ponzi scheme and they love bait-and-switch operations. So think of this as, if not a bait-and-switch, then at least a mix-and-match dispatch. Imagine it as the equivalent of one of those medieval maps whose blank spaces cartographers once so thrillingly filled with "marvels." Of course, the impact of such marvels and "monstrous races" has to be different in our era when creatures with their heads between their shoulders or with the bodies of wolves and faces of men seem increasingly commonplace.
Wondrous weapons of destruction and other lies of our times
There are, it seems, so many marvels of our age that we're quick to forget the ones already past and choosey about which we care to highlight at any given moment. Here, for instance, is a reminder of a marvel we prefer not to highlight; that, in fact, we hardly cared to "remember" when it was happening. John McCarthy of Florida Today recently reported ("Senators were told Iraqi weapons could hit
"U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said Monday the Bush administration last year told him and other senators that Iraq not only had weapons of mass destruction, but they had the means to deliver them to East Coast cities. Nelson, D-Tallahassee, said about 75 senators got that news during a classified briefing before last October's congressional vote authorizing the use of force to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Nelson voted in favor of using military force.
"Nelson said he couldn't reveal who in the administration gave the briefing.
"The White House directed questions about the matter to the Department of Defense. Defense officials had no comment on Nelson's claim. Nelson said the senators were told
"'They have not found anything that resembles an UAV that has that capability,' Nelson said."
Now, I might call that news of a past marvel, but for our media -- for whom an orange alert is worth up to 15 minutes of prime-time coverage on the major channels and screaming headlines across the country -- it was evidently just another local story, a Florida tale for a Florida reporter, the sort of thing that might on a slow day be run up the flagpole in the same category with "Fountain of Youth Claimed Found in Tallahassee" or "Water Runs Uphill in Kuala Lumpur."
Of course, back then none of us knew that Senators were seriously briefed by the administration on the perilous threat to mainland America from Iraqi Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), which (had they had them) would have had a range of a few hundred miles. Released from a vessel in Iraq's mighty naval armada cruising off our East coast, they might then have flown inland to anthrax the country -- an idea certainly scary enough to explain why the Senate voted to turn over to the President the power to make war at his leisure and pleasure.
Of course, none of us heard of those secret briefings, but we got our own briefings directly from George. At some moment in the prewar months I watched the President on TV with my own eyes (the sort of redundant phrase it's obligatory to use when marvels are spotted close at hand) announcing that the Iraqis had just such a capacity. Perhaps the UAVs were to be released from the deck of their greatest aircraft carrier, that behemoth the SS Osama. Think about it. This claim was so wild and wacky that just about no one but Tomdispatch was even willing to write about it at the time. After all, it might have made our President look foolish. In retrospect, though, would you have signed on to wage a war based on such "briefings" -- which were certainly among the marvels of our age?
By comparison, a tiny marvel - really a marvelette -- has been the way, according to Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, the White House has continued to vacuum governmental websites for stray hairs. For example ("White House Web Scrubbing," 12/17):
"White House officials were steamed when Andrew S. Natsios, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said earlier this year that
Another recent marvel or perhaps simply a bait-and-switch: The Libyan disarmament program has now replaced the missing WMDs in
It turns out that the reason we invaded
In the meantime, in response to a question on the missing WMD from Diane Sawyer in an ABC interview, the President, suddenly raising his voice, said:
"So what's the difference?.. If he [Saddam] were to acquire weapons, he would be the danger. A gathering threat, after 9-11, is a threat that needed to be dealt with, and it was done after 12 long years of the world saying the man's a danger."
I assure you, it was a spectacle to watch, but Sawyer just moved on to pleasanter subjects and our media thought the President's answer not much worth wasting time over. Maybe in a quieter news period it would have gotten a tad more attention. Check out Jim Lobe on this particular bait-and-switch routine (Who Needs WMD When You've Got Saddam):
"Indeed, the timing of the still-unconfirmed report by the Washington Post about Kay's decision - while the US media are still celebrating Saddam's capture - suggests the administration wants to wind down the effort while US lawmakers, who have been pressing for evidence of a WMD threat, are out of session and thus less able to ask embarrassing questions about what the president knew and when.
"'In my many years on (Capitol Hill),' one veteran congressional staffer told IPS, 'I don't know that I've seen anything quite as cynical as this. They're clearly hoping that Congress and the American public will just forget that they waged war because of a threat that never existed but that they hyped to kingdom come.'"
In a new piece of his, Gregg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher magazine on-line, asks what may seem a reasonable question:
"When will the press stop circulating dubious or fabricated claims -- whether from Bush administration officials or intelligence abroad? The latest chapter unfolded this week with wide publicity -- capped by a favorable mention in a William Safire column in The New York Times on Monday and the usual hosannas on Fox News -- concerning a supposed document that linked 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta to Saddam Husseinâ€¦ There's only one problem: Just like every other bit of paper linking Saddam to 9/11 (some of them also touted by Safire), the latest document appears to be bogus. Yet many in the press keep taking them seriously."
I don't want to criticize Mitchell. Obviously, he's a well-meaning sort, but he does miss the point which is: Who needs Grinches like him at Christmas time?
In an op-ed for the Toronto Star, Noam Chomsky, another Grinch who won't let a Presidential comment pass in the night, suggests how this process actually works. He posits a "doctrine of change of course" deeply rooted in our culture and our media that helps explain how we blank out the marvels we've seen with our own eyes and substitute ones more convenient for the administration with such seeming ease.
Oh and hey, just to spoil a little fun myself, how about our claim that we're getting ready, toot de sweet, to hand power over to genuine Iraqis? (We know they're Iraqis because we've taken their mug shots, fingerprinted them, and sampled their DNA.) Well, here's what Warren P. Strobel, Joseph L. Galloway and Jonathan S. Landay of Knight Ridder report on the subject ("Concerns surface about Iraq timetable," Mercury News [Knight Ridder], 12/17):
"President Bush's top envoy in Iraq has told Washington that he wants as many as 1,000 additional personnel to beef up the U.S. occupation authority amid growing concern that the effort to return Iraqi sovereignty by next summer is falling far behind schedule. The recent request by L. Paul Bremer, which is being fiercely debated by the president's aides, underscores growing alarm in some sectors of the government that Bush's exit strategy for
"Bremer has asked for experts in running elections and finance, as well as people with expertise in telecommunications, this official saidâ€¦ Senior officials said Bremer fears he doesn't have enough
So to smooth the transfer, to downsize the American presence, what we need to do is double our official presence because only American experts really know how to do it -- just the way they've really done the occupation so far. Given the ongoing phone problems in
Here are two marvels of our imperial system - international and domestic:
For the first, thanks to the wonderfully named Daphne Eviatar of American Lawyer magazine, we get to travel to Baku in Azerbaijan, a place where European travelers of yore found such marvels as a black, flammable liquid oozing from the earth, but none so wondrous, methinks, as the deal James Baker's law firm, Baker Botts, managed to shepherd through to signing (to the tune of 40,000 billed hours) with the governments of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. It was meant to prepare the way for a new, thousand mile, $3.5 billion oil pipeline that would carry Caspian oil from countries where we've recently establish wonderful new military bases to Western markets, avoiding both evil
Baker himself, Bush family fixer, is now traveling the world for our President performing another set of miracles by trying to get alienated allies on board for Iraqi debt reduction (and god knows what else). He is often called a "multinationalist" -- as opposed to the unilateralism of Bush, the son. But real "multinationalism" is the ability of his law firm to nail down an pipeline agreement for an oil consortium which trumps the laws of three countries. Talk about well-paid imperial marvels! As Eviatar writes ("Wildcat lawyering,"
"The agreements don't trump only current domestic laws, but also all future laws [of all three countries] -- for up to 60 years. Any subsequent environmental regulation in
And how about a more home-grown American miracle -- the way Alaskan Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, and its president pro tempore (the man who inherits the Presidency if something happens to George, Dick's ticker doesn't hold, and the speaker of the House goes down), managed to make himself a millionaire? Chuck Neubauer and Richard T. Cooper of the Los Angeles Times laid the process out in venal detail the other day. Their piece begins ("Senator's Way to Wealth Was Paved With Favors," 12/17):
"He wielded extraordinary power in
"Then, in 1997, he got serious about making money. And in almost no time, he too was a millionaire - thanks to investments with businessmen who received government contracts or other benefits with his helpâ€¦ But Stevens' dealings have carried him a step further [than other senators]. His official actions have helped individuals and companies from which he himself draws financial benefits, a six-month Times examination found."
The examples -- and there are a plethora of them -- all read something like this: "Armed with the power his committee posts give him over the Pentagon, Stevens helped save a $450-million military housing contract for an Anchorage businessman. The same businessman made Stevens a partner in a series of real estate investments that turned the senator's $50,000 stake into at least $750,000 in six years."
Baker and Stevens -- each represents the ratcheting up of levels of corruption and behind-the-scenes deal-making. With a thoroughly gerrymandered House of Representatives in which, it seems, no one can lose his or her seat, and the Democratic Party more and more a figment of our imagination, our system threatens to approach a corrupt one-party "democracy." Isn't it a marvel then how relatively little outrage there is in much of our land?
Whipped dogs and other creatures of American politics
The Nation Institute launched, sponsors and supports this weblog. The other night I went to their annual dinner and heard the Last Roman Senator, aka Robert Byrd, give a talk on Saddam's capture (Challenging 'preemption):
"But that success does not diminish the challenges that remain in
Though the Washington Post and others had just skewered Howard Dean for saying a similarly sane thing, Byrd is not a man to mince words. He is the most genuine of marvels. Though I'd read most of his speeches of the last year, I had never seen him give one. And it was not only inspiring but also somewhat like being put on a time machine to the past. He has the hand gestures of orators of another era. The wagging finger that goes with "for shame," the full-arm downward slash of angry emphasis, the heart-head-heavens gesture of emotion -- not to speak of the full-voiced extemporaneous rendition he offered of Longfellow's poem, "Sail on, oh ship of state" (which can't be found in the printed speech). It was dramatic indeed, but no more so than listening to the Senator describe his beloved institution in the following passage:
"Finally, and most disheartening to me, Congress allowed the Constitution to become a casualty of the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strikes. Congress allowed its constitutional authority to declare war to fall victim to this irresponsible strategy. Just a little more than a year ago, in October 2002, the Senate obsequiously handed to the President the constitutional authority to declare war. It failed to debate; it failed to question; it failed to live up to the standards established by the Framers. Like a whipped dog, the Senate put its tail between its legs and slunk away into the shadows, slunk away from its responsibility. Congress--and I mean both houses--Congress delegated its constitutional authority to the President and effectively washed its hands of the fate of
Whipped dogs. There's a marvel to set into the geography of our present world. You don't get to hear such language often. And indeed it did seem to me that, after Saddam's capture, the leading Democratic candidates other than Howard Dean acted exactly like "whipped dogs" as, of course, did our major newspapers. What impresses me about Dean is that he doesn't back down, even when an editorial in the Washington Post excoriates him in this fashion (Beyond the Mainstream):
"It is Mr. Dean's position on
As ludicrous, I assume, as those missing weapons of mass destruction. I find it interesting that while Dean's positions are taken apart detail by detail in major papers like the Post, the President's recent absurd comments to Diane Sawyer go almost completely unremarked upon.
Considering this, I recalled a comment I heard Dean make last spring to a small gathering in
Recently, the following passage from Everett Ehrlich appeared in the Washington Post, though I found it at the always interesting History News Network website. It seemed like a curious but apt description to me:
"For all Dean's talk about wanting to represent the truly 'Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,' the paradox is that he is essentially a third-party candidate using modern technology to achieve a takeover of the Democratic Party. Other candidates -- John Kerry, John Edwards, Wesley Clark -- are competing to take control of the party's fundraising, organizational and media operations. But Dean is not interested in taking control of those depreciating assets. He is creating his own party, his own lists, his own money, his own organization. What he wants are the Democratic brand name and legacy, the party's last remaining assets of value, as part of his marketing strategy. Perhaps that's why former vice president Al Gore's endorsement of Dean last week felt so strange -- less like the traditional benediction of a fellow member of the party 'club' than a senior executive welcoming the successful leveraged buyout specialist. And if Dean can do it this time around, so can others in future campaigns."
Just to throw another long quote into this brew, a piece at the Black Commentator website, Dean Makes Racial-Political History, offered an unexpected picture of the candidate:
"Howard Dean's December 7 speech is the most important statement on race in American politics by a mainstream white politician in nearly 40 years. Nothing remotely comparable has been said by anyone who might become or who has been President of the
"For four decades, the primary political project of the Republican Party has been to transform itself into the White Man's Party. Not only in the
"Last Sunday, Howard Dean broke that covenant. [He said]:
"In 1968, Richard Nixon won the White House. He did it in a shameful way - by dividing Americans against one another, stirring up racial prejudices and bringing out the worst in people. They called it the 'Southern Strategy,' and the Republicans have been using it ever since. Nixon pioneered it, and Ronald Reagan perfected it, using phrases like 'racial quotas' and 'welfare queens' to convince white Americans that minorities were to blame for all of
"The Republican Party would never win elections if they came out and said their core agenda was about selling America piece by piece to their campaign contributors and making sure that wealth and power is concentrated in the hands of a few. To distract people from their real agenda, they run elections based on race, dividing us, instead of uniting us."
A final note on my home town paper's way of arranging the news:
The following Associated Press report appeared without a byline at the bottom of page 31 of the December 17th New York Times under the title, "Hot Spot in 2003? The Earth, U.N. Says":
"The year 2003, marked by a sweltering summer and drought across large swaths of the planet, was the third hottest in nearly 150 years, the United Nations weather agency said Tuesday. The World Meteorological Organization estimated the average surface temperature for the year to be 0.81 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the normal 25.2 degrees - a number skewed toward the low side because it includes polar regions.
"The agency said warmer weather could not be attributed to any single cause but was part of a trend that global warming was likely to prolong. The agency, which collects data worldwide, said the three hottest years since accurate records began to be kept in 1861 had all been in the last six years. The hottest was 1998, when the average temperature was up 0.99 degrees.
"'The rhythm of temperature increases is accelerating,' said the agency's deputy secretary general, Michel Jarraud."
These 147 words turn out to be less than a third of the AP piece, which was written by Jonathan Fowler and at its full 483 words, detailed the extreme weather events of the year from Australia (record September temperature of 109) to Mongolia (third consecutive exceptionally hard winter that "devastated" livestock). I think I'll headline the Times version: "Water runs uphill in overheating world." Marvelous.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]