Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Mayor: gays don't get to go to heaven

Gay Americans, having been deprived of the spiritual consolation of standing around eternally singing Hosannas and Halleluhias to the bedouin sky god, are welcome to join me and mine in Tir na Nog, The Land of The Eternally Young. You basically get to spend eternity in feasting and merriment; good cheer, good company, stories, laughs, raucous debates and cheerful songs. Besides the finest of meats and cheeses, you get your choice of ale, mead, hard cider, or wine. No hangovers, guaranteed. And the Celts weren't particularly obsessed with a person's sexual persuasion, so there's no "purity test" to get in the door.

I'm hoping to get a payin' job there when I die. I'm thinking "court jester" would be a great fit.

VALLEJO — Hundreds of people crowded the steps of Vallejo City Hall on Tuesday to protest a published comments by Mayor Osby Davis that gay people would not go to heaven.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Fox yells at employees for on-screen "mistakes"

It's just so darn cute the way that Fox is trying to make believe that all those on-screen screwups are accidents and not a clever way of shaping opinion in favor of their conservative POV. The latest faux pas (not mentioned in this article) was showing SC gov Mark ("the girl from Ipanema is my Soul Mate") Sanford as "D-SC", when of course he is an "R". They did the same thing with Mark Foley during the height of the Foley "trolling for teenage boys" scandal.

Fox isn't riddled with idiots who screw up all the time. On the contrary, Fox is the ultimate expression of the ability, given modern technology, to reinvent reality. They show massive crowds at a rally, and people think to themselves, "gee, there are a whole lot of people who think the same way I do!" They show Mark Foley as a "D" instead of an "R", and people think "golly, them liberal Dems just can't keep their hands off young boys, can they!" It's sleazy, it's despicable, but you really do need to take a moment, step back, and admire how good they are at manipulating reality, and how effective the results are.

After a rash of mistakes and apologies over the past weeks, Fox News has sent a memo to employees announcing a new "zero tolerance" policy for on-screen errors.

FishBowlDC obtained the memo, sent last Friday, which warns mistakes could lead to written warnings, suspensions and termination.

"Please know that jobs are on the line here. I can not stress that enough," the memo reads.

Fox has had three much-noticed errors in the past few weeks. First, Sean Hannity used misleading footage to beef up attendance numbers at a Capitol Hill tea party rally -- an incident that caught the attention of the Daily Show's Jon Stewart, forcing Hannity to apologize on air.

Then, last week, one of the midday news shows aired footage of an old Sarah Palin campaign rally to show the "crowds" at her current book tour. An anchor apologized a day later, and Fox blamed a "production error."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

They're doing a remake of "The Prisoner"

What a horrible, horrible, horrible idea. Horrible. Some things are amenable to remakes. Some are not. "Citizen Kane" should never be remade. And neither should "The Prisoner". My dear old mom, who first turned me on to "The Prisoner" (and who sadistically refused to tell me who Number 1 really was, when I ran to the bathroom for a minute during the final episode and missed Number 1's climactic unmasking) must be spinning in her grave right now.

Did I mention that this is a horrible idea?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

I love me some North Carolina loonie politicians

This is what I enjoy about living in NC: when the politicians are loonies, they are REAL loonies. The genuine article, madder than General Jack D. Ripper, madder than "Mad Jack" McMad, winner of last year's Mister Madman competition.
First offering for your delectation: George Hutchins, who's running against David Price for his congressional seat (which covers Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, etc). Note well the flamboyant and unrestrained use of color and, well, just "stuff" that gives his web site that certain je ne sais quoi that just screams "he's mad as a balloon!" Looks like the web page designer got his mitts on the Big Boy box of Crayolas when mommy's back was turned. The guy's politics don't matter; all sane people are morally obligated to vote against him on purely esthetic grounds.
And in this corner, we have long-time Uber-loonie Rep Virginia Foxx (R-NC), who states -- with nary a hint of irony (or goldy or bronzey, for that matter) -- "I believe we have more to fear from the potential of that bill passing than we do from any terrorist right now in any country." If she doesn't get mad loonie props for that, then she should definitely get some for using the word "tarbaby" in an earlier public speech on the floor of Congress.

This is the kind of stuff that makes it worth dragging my butt out of bed in the morning.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


"Samhainophobia". Apparently it's a real phobia, an irrational fear of Halloween. Me, I've got filthylittlebeggarphobia, an irrational fear of costumed rugrats showing up at my door and demanding "treats" consisting of simple carbohyrates and trans fats in that eerie, high-pitched little voice that they have. In years gone by, I would issue the command "Release The Hounds", who would then run the little monsters off. With the dogs all dead, I'm now reduced to commanding "Release The Kittehs", which doesn't seem to have the same salutory effect.

Samhainophobia is an intense and persistent fear of Halloween that can
cause panic attacks in sufferers. Other relevant phobias for this time
of year: wiccaphobia (fear of witches), phasmophobia (fear of ghosts),
and coimetrophobia (fear of cemeteries).

Read more at:

Monday, October 26, 2009

Heidegger on the danger of certain encounters

"Do we imagine that we could encounter the essence of truth, the essence of beauty, the essence of grace -without danger?" Heidegger

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Weird and occasionally cute animals

The smiley-face salamander is cute as a button. But as far as slide #3
goes, all I can say is: star-faced mole, my ass! That's Cthulhu! Run, people! Run!!!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Yes, but is it art?

"Abstract Art: A product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered. " -- the ever-quotable Albert Camus

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Happy International Blasphemy Day!

I plan to celebrate Blasphemy Day in my usual fashion, by blaspheming some major
religion. I can't make fun of Judaism; they'd just scream "anti-Semitism!" and make me
feel bad. Can't make fun of Islam; one of the faithful would mosey up alongside me and
blow himself up and make me feel dead. At first glance, Hinduism looks ripe for satire, but any religion that has a god with an elephant head is already beyond satire. Ah well, I guess it'll have to be the Christians again.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Reading of my Rwanda play in NYC

Probably the high point of my literary career; from here on, it's all down hill. :-)

Monday, August 31, 7PM
Back to Rwanda
by Stephen J. Gallagher
Fifteen years after the genocide, almost no one remembers Rwanda – and those who still remember no longer care. Except for one man, a tormented hunter who lives to track down the butchers and confront them. His latest quarry: a frail, elderly nun who stands accused of unspeakable crimes against hundreds of children.

Quote of the Week 09/09/2009

"A test to know if your mission on earth is finished. Are you alive? Then it isn't finished." - anonymous

Monday, August 24, 2009

Quote of the Week 08/24/2009

"Computers are useless. They can only give you answers." -- Pablo Picasso

Monday, August 17, 2009

Random Quote 08/17/2009

"Egotist - a person who finds himself more interesting than he finds me." Ambrose Bierce

Many a Cunning Plan?

Far too many of the remaining Obama Faithful continue to believe (some confidently, some desperately) that what appears on the surface to be waffling, backsliding, lack of message discipline, lack of Party solidarity, and gutless course-changing at the first sign of pushback actually represents the playing-out of many a cunning plan, fiendishly clever machinations, "Art of War" political jujitsu of breathtaking subtlety, and "all part of his brilliant master plan." Maybe -- just maybe -- what we're seeing is exactly what it appears to be on the surface. Maybe -- just maybe -- he's out of his depth and out of ideas. Mind you, I say that as someone who politicked for the guy and voted for him -- and would do both again, knowing what I know now. But with every new retreat and every new compromise, I get more and more of the slightly queasy feeling that maybe -- just maybe -- the man is not equal to the times. And if that's true, then as Jello Biafra once put it, "we have a bigger problem."

Friday, July 17, 2009

Why "church" works

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what (from my rabid-atheist perspective) appears to be a firm grip by the churches of America on those who attend church. I’m beginning to understand something: it isn’t that the church has a grip on the parishioners, it’s that the parishioners have a grip on the church. See, down here in the US South, “church” isn’t just a building you go to one hour a week, it’s the centerpiece of the local people’s entire culture. It’s where you see your friends and neighbors, it’s where your kids go when they’re Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts (you’d be amazed how many Scout troops are hosted in church basements), it’s where at least two people I know met and wooed their spouses (and where at least one person I know met the person he cheated on his wife with), and at the end of it all, it’s where the living go to bury their dead, knowing with certainty that they too will someday be buried there next to generations of their own people. Vacation trips, charity drives, study groups, knitting circles, art classes, the church is at the center of all of it for the majority of Americans, and not just down here in the South.

What do we secularists have to offer in place of this richness? The sad, barren truth, without even the dubious comfort of an uppercase “T” on the word? The truth that there is no God and when you’re dead, you’re dead and you’ll never see your loved ones again? And we wonder why we have, shall we say, a bit of a “PR problem”.

Secular humanism will overcome “church” the day that secular humanism offers something better. And to be perfectly blunt, “the truth about how the world is” just isn’t perceived by most people as “better”. We need more than just “the truth”, much more. I’m not sure that secularism as currently constituted even has the potential to replace “church”, if for no other reason than the fact that it simply isn’t set up structurally to answer the same set of human needs that “church” answers.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

This is NOT a "crisis"

I think a lot of the wrongheaded thinking on both sides of the discussion about the "economic crisis" is that people keep calling it a "crisis". This is a word that's abused almost as much as the word "tragedy". A crisis is a short, sharp event or series of events. And when it's done, things get back to normal. If -- as I strongly suspect -- the capitalist system is collapsing into a much smaller economic ball (a collapsing star, if you will), then the unemployment numbers and the nosediving housing situation and the freezing of formerly free-flowing credit are nothing more (or less) than the new normal. Perhaps, going forward, 10% + unemployment is going to be normal (it already is in the EU). Perhaps, going forward, those houses that popped in "value" from $500K to 1.5 mil in a few years will stay at their real value (say, $200K)and never regain their former puffed-up "value". Perhaps, going forward, credit of all kinds will not be freely available to one and all, and the engine of American consumerism -- which has always, at its base, been built on the mad flow of credit -- will slow down permanently to the more sedate levels we saw when people put things on layaway instead of whipping out their Platinum Card.

Perhaps this is the new normal. Perhaps this is how we live from now on. Perhaps.

Monday, July 6, 2009

'Charlie Don't Surf!' McNamara, Kurtz, and the Only Real Freedom

I wrote this in 2007 for a conference in Nice, France. Reposting it to commemorate the death of Robert McNamara. At times like this, I find myself wishing that the afterlife existed. Hell, specifically ...


What was Indochina? What did it mean? And what visual images suggest themselves? For me, I have never been able to shake the image in Coppola’s film “Apocalypse Now” of the American Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) who tells his staff that a seaside village with wonderful surfing conditions is to be bombed flat so that he and his staff can get a bit of surfing in before dinner. When one of his offers warns him that Charlie controls that village, Kilgore screams: “Charlie don’t surf!” It is self-evident and rational that he has a RIGHT to that beach because he can make better use of it. Kilgore’s proclamation is the paradigmatic image of one type of rationality, the type of rationality that manufactures sensible alibis for horrific acts. The rationale he manufactures to justify his right to a particular stretch of beach is really no more or less dubious than the alibis that our first protagonist, Robert McNamara, offered during the American misadventure in Indochina. Our other protagonist, Coppola’s fictional Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, faces the same conditions as does McNamara, but Kurtz’s refusal to tolerate what he calls “the stench of lies” drives him insane and then kills him.

We are offered the visual images of two men who represent the best and the brightest that America had to offer. McNamara: the cold fish, the emotionless cipher, the utterly practical go-to guy. Kurtz, one of the best officers the Army ever produced; also, “a good man, a moral man, a man of gentle wit and humor,” a man of compelling decency who embodies the best of American values.

In Indochina, each man faces a confrontation with absolute freedom in the face of moral Horror, and each man faces the decision to make or not to make an absolute choice. Each man is revealed to us visually: McNamara in the documentary “The Fog of War,” and Kurtz, of course, in “Apocalypse Now.”

In McNamara, we have a man who, without knowing it, is a leading actor in the death throes of American Reason, a death played out during the long, inevitable catastrophe in Indochina. We understand McNamara as a typical believer in Reason’s ability to explain everything, a believer in the deployment of a muscular sense of racial and class superiority in a world that is fundamentally rational. Kurtz begins as the same type of man, and begins his first tour of duty in Indochina viewing the world through the same lens. However, Kurtz’s encounter with the reality of moral Horror pushes him beyond the timid, lying morality that he brought with him from America, and pushes him into the sunlit clearing of absolute freedom that waits on the other side of Reason.

McNamara and Kurtz both start out by fighting to defend the reality and efficacy – and hence the MORALITY – of America’s unique form of Reason and America’s unique faith in modernity as such. Both men – at least in the beginning – embrace the article of faith that Reason and American “know-how” (savoir-faire) can solve ANY problem. Starting at the same place, McNamara and Kurtz arrive, finally, at very different ends.

We have these two men who, like Virgil in Hades, take us on two very different tours of the death of American Reason. How do the moviemakers present them to us?

McNamara is given to us as “an IBM machine with legs.” He combines a self-assured egotism with a cold, internally consistent logic. Serving under General Curtis Lemay in WWII, McNamara absorbed Lemay’s credo of Total War. He enthusiastically committed himself to mastering the “statistical control of war.”

Now, McNamara was no fool. He understood the statistics and he could crunch the numbers better than anyone (often in his head). He knew where the American project in Indochina was going. As early as 1963, he was telling Kennedy “we need a way to get out of Vietnam.” Yet he continued to serve, and he continued to follow orders with maximum efficiency. In order to justify this to himself, he constructed an elaborate superstructure of moral imperatives and rational analysis. The struggle to reconcile these alibis transforms the aged McNamara into a man obsessed with the issue of JUDGEMENT. He asks the rhetorical question: “What is morally appropriate in time of war?” He keeps coming back to this question, picking at it like a scab. He finds himself pinned by his own musings. For example, when discussing Agent Orange with his on-screen interlocutor, McNamara suggests that the best method for deriving a moral judgment about this poison is to “look at the law.” He explains – emphatically, as if trying to convince HIMSELF – that there were no clear-cut legal restrictions on the use of Agent Orange in a war zone. Had there been a legal restriction, then he would not have done it, because THEN it would have been immoral. His understanding of morality is limited to the idea of LEGALITY. Legal=moral. In effect, the same defense used by the top Nazis at Nuremberg. McNamara does not recognize that he did anything immoral in Indochina. McNamara deploys the alibi that we’ve heard so many times, TOO many times, in recent years in America: it was simply an “error of judgment.” As if the entire catastrophe in Indochina could be explained away simply as a MISTAKE. He says, “I truly believe that we made an error not of values and intentions but of judgment.” In other words, our intentions were good but we screwed up. The eventual outcome – the defeat of America by what McNamara described as “a nation of peasants with bicycles” -- was simply incomprehensible to McNamara. His rational universe had no framework to understand exactly what had gone wrong.

In Kurtz’s Indochina, by contrast, Reason is already dead. Rationality has no place. Modernity has not been invented yet. Even the war doesn’t really exist here. None of the projects conceived by the generals in Saigon and the politicians in Washington exists in Kurtz’s Indochina. In the words of the narrator, Captain Willard, Kurtz “broke from them ... and then he broke from himself.”

Unlike McNamara, Kurtz understands himself as what Heidegger would have called a “thrown” man, thrown into the middle of the Horror, where he realizes that Reason cannot help him. Thrown back on himself, in the midst of unreason, Kurtz does the only thing left to do. He pushes through. He pushes BEYOND, into madness, and into authenticity. Kurtz’s madness cannot be understood as a mere “backlash” against Reason. To the contrary. In a war that could never be WON but from which it was impossible to WALK AWAY, perhaps Kurtz’s decision was quite rational. Perhaps he is as much an Enlightenment man as McNamara. Perhaps his response, his DECISION, was, in those circumstances, COMPLETELY rational.

Kurtz, in his situation, offers no alibis. As the insane combat photographer tells us, “He’s a great man. He’s fighting the war.” That simple: he is fighting the war. He is killing and killing and killing, “pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army,” without alibis or aspirations and most importantly, WITHOUT JUDGMENT. Because, as Kurtz emphasizes, “it’s judgment that defeats us.”

“The Fog of War” is structured around what are called “Lessons from the life of Robert McNamara.” These are lessons that McNamara claims to have learned from his long and eventful life, especially lessons regarding the conduct of war in general and the war in Indochina in particular. Some of them are mindless, simple pieties, the sort of things one might see on a greeting card or on a pillow crocheted by your maiden aunt. But several of them are enlightening. I want to take a few minutes to explore a few of these “lessons,” look at how they contradict McNamara’s actual behavior, and highlight what our other protagonist, Colonel Kurtz, has to say on the subject.

Lesson: empathize with your enemy. McNamara had no real understanding of his enemy, and was constantly baffled by their irrational refusal to throw down their weapons and surrender. He tells us, significantly, “we empathized with the Soviet Union. But we were never able to empathize with the Vietnamese. We just didn’t know enough about THOSE PEOPLE to understand what kind of war THEY were fighting compared to the kind of war WE were fighting.” Kurtz, on the other hand, gives us a story that reveals his deep, perhaps TOO deep, understanding of his enemy. He describes going into a village and inoculating the children against cholera. After they leave, his team is called back by a weeping old man. When they arrive back at the village, they discover that the Viet Cong had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were, stacked in the village square, a pile of little white arms. He immediately understands the soul of his enemy, and immediately understands why America is doomed to fail in Indochina: “These were not monsters, these were men with families, these men whose hearts were filled with love. And yet they had the strength – THE STRENGTH – to do that.”

Lesson: rationality will not save us. An important lesson, to be sure, but if he knew this then why did McNamara continue to apply instrumental reason to the problem of Indochina long after most sane observers realized that the adventure in Indochina was OVER? The lack of comprehension in McNamara’s voice on-camera is telling. Kurtz understands the actual truth of this lesson, as he describes the men who cut off all those arms as men who were able to unleash their primordial instinct to kill and keep on killing, but WITHOUT JUDGMENT. In a world were Reason has no place, judgment can NEVER have a place.

Lesson: maximize efficiency. McNamara was able to apply this lesson indiscriminately in any context, from burning Tokyo to the ground to turning around the Ford Motor Company to attempting to hammer the Vietnamese into submission. With no hint of shame, and even a bit of pride in his voice, McNamara describes how “in one night, we burned to death 100,000 Japanese in a bombing run on Tokyo. I analyzed bombing runs to make them more efficient.” To a bomber pilot lamenting the loss of one of his friends, McNamara offers this assessment, “You lost your wingman but we were able to destroy Tokyo.” McNamara puts many of his alibis in the mouth of General Lemay, but he argues with a passion that tells us he EMBRACES these alibis, and that he acknowledges them AS alibis. “Lemay said if we lost the war, we’d be prosecuted as war criminals.” McNamara asks, rhetorically: “what makes it immoral if you lose, but not if you win?” But we need to realize that McNamara is incapable of experiencing this as a GENUINE question, as a PHILOSOPHICAL question. As, perhaps, THE ONLY remaining Philosophical question. “What makes it immoral if you lose, but not if you win?” As far as McNamara is concerned, he is simply ‘playing with concepts’ He is simply ‘brainstorming the question,’ confident that Reason will provide the only sensible answer.

Kurtz’s efficiency is of a simpler and more intimate kind. His efficient killing is something that takes place on the ground, surrounded by blood, but he will do it anyway. He tells us that “we must kill them, we must exterminate them, pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army.” His efficiency is more intimate because it is something one must do while LOOKING AT the people that one kills, informed by the realization that “in a war there are many moments for ruthless action - what is often called ruthless - what may in many circumstances be only clarity, seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it. Directly, quickly, awake, looking at it.”

One final lesson, possibly the most ironic of the many “lessons from the life of Robert McNamara”: in order to do good, you may have to engage in evil. McNamara sanctimoniously qualifies this lesson, saying, “you may have to engage in evil, but you MUST minimize it.” He repeats several times, like a desperate prayer, the claim that “we were trying to save our nation.” He lets us know that this was “a difficult position for sensitive human beings to be in.” Please note that he most definitely includes himself in the ranks of those “sensitive human beings.” Kurtz doesn’t bother to slip a discreet tissue of lies over the evil that he is and that he does, he invites it in and claims it as a comrade. “It is impossible to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what ‘horror’ is. Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If not then that are enemies to be feared, truly enemies.” For this pure, unequivocal truth-telling, the generals declared Kurtz insane and then sent men to kill him as Kurtz waited, squatting in the jungle and broadcasting his truth over short-wave radio out of Cambodia. In his last broadcast, his last duty, his last attempt at honorable amends for the consequences of his own madness, seconds before he freely embraces his death, Kurtz gives us this: “We train our young men to drop FIRE on people, but we won’t allow them to write the word FUCK on their airplanes, because it’s OBSCENE!” McNamara would see no contradiction here. For Kurtz, the contradiction is enough to drive him mad.

In the elegiac last minutes of “The Fog of War,” the interlocutor asks McNamara, “After you left, why didn’t you speak out against the war?” McNamara evades the question, but finally responds, “These are the kinds of questions that get me in trouble. You have no idea how inflammatory my words can appear.” Asked if he feels any responsibility, any guilt, he states, “I don’t want to go any farther with this. It just adds more controversy. Anything I can possibly say will require too many qualifications.” The interlocutor offers McNamara an easy way out, asking: “Do you think it was a matter of damned if you do, damned if you don’t?” McNamara thinks about this and finally agrees: “Yeah. And I’d rather be damned if I don’t.” McNamara, at the end of his life, embraces this ultimate act of mauvais fois. The technocrat is invalidated by his refusal to accept that he acted FREELY. And his own cowardly conscience rots his soul from the inside out as his time grows short. Kurtz is worth quoting again, very much apropos of McNamara: “It is judgment that betrays us.”

Kurtz, on the other hand, pushing out far beyond McNamara’s timid, lying morality into the very heart of The Horror, finally reaches a place where he can embrace his absolute freedom, “the only real freedom, freedom from the opinions of others, free even from our own opinions of ourselves.” And it is this freedom that drives him insane.

The seemingly opposite fates of Kurtz and McNamara reveal the ultimate moral failure of American Reason, of the idea that one can go somewhere and kill someone, and justify it with the alibi that one is doing one’s pure moral duty as revealed by the application of clean, unsoiled rationality.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Hurrah for Sarko!

For the most part I consider Nicolas Sarkozy to be an annoying little weed of a man. But for this, I salute him:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has spoken out strongly against the wearing of the burka by Muslim women in France.

"The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic," the French president said.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Texas: It's A Whole Other Country

Sadly, it's not. It's part of this here US of A. The TX board of education apparently knows more about the age of the universe than the collected wisdom of the scientific community. And they took a vote, all nice and legal and democratic-like, to make sure that students in the many fine educational institutions in the great and god-fearing Lone Star State are taught accordingly.


The Texas State Board of Education has voted 11 to 3 that scientists are wrong about the age of the universe, and students should be taught accordingly. “During the Texas State Board of Education hearings on science standards for Texas schoolchildren, BoE member and staunch creationist Barbara Cargill decided that the age of the Universe was up for vote.“ Cargill is a notorious biblical creationist, who has stated outright she won’t rest until all textbooks in the state align with the bible.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Quotable Mister Churchill

A noxious individual in so many respects, but he possessed that thing the Brits do so well: wit.

from "I'll Be Sober in the Morning" by Chris Lamb

The conservative Winston Churchill was often at odds with Clement Attlee, leader of the Labor Party,
which advocated a greater role for government in economic policy. Churchill once entered a men's room
to find Attlee standing at the urinal. Churchill took a position at the other end of the trough.

"Feeling standoffish today, are we, Winston?" Attlee asked.

"That's right," Churchill responded. "Every time you see something big, you want to nationalize it."


Playwright George Bernard Shaw invited Winston Churchill to the first night of his newest play, enclosing two tickets:
"One for yourself and one for a friend – if you have one."

Churchill wrote back, saying he couldn't make it, but could he have tickets for the second night – "if there is one."


Lady Astor once shouted at Churchill, "If you were my husband, I'd put poison in your coffee."

His response: "If I were your husband, I'd drink it."

Friday, April 17, 2009

Another Nobel prize winning economist says: we're screwed

Joseph Stiglitz joins fellow Nobel-winner Paul Krugman in calling out the Obama administration. Both agree that the Obama plan will not work; Stiglitz is to be admired for stating in plain and unadorned language exactly why it won't work.

April 17 (Bloomberg) -- The Obama administration’s bank- rescue efforts will probably fail because the programs have been designed to help Wall Street rather than create a viable financial system, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz said.

“All the ingredients they have so far are weak, and there are several missing ingredients,” Stiglitz said in an interview yesterday. The people who designed the plans are “either in the pocket of the banks or they’re incompetent.”

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"First Do No Harm"

Looks like the Gitmo doctors were back in the dorm sleeping off a kegger the day that the Hippocratic Oath was covered in class. Amoral bastards.

Medical officers who oversaw interrogations of terrorism suspects in CIA secret prisons committed gross violations of medical ethics and in some cases essentially participated in torture, the International Committee of the Red Cross concluded in a confidential report that labeled the CIA program "inhuman."

Health personnel offered supervision and even assistance as suspected al-Qaeda operatives were beaten, deprived of food, exposed to temperature extremes and subjected to waterboarding, the relief agency said in the 2007 report, a copy of which was posted on a magazine Web site yesterday. The report quoted one medical official as telling a detainee: "I look after your body only because we need you for information."

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

French workers seize company HQ, take execs hostage

Every time the French get a little irked, they shout "To The Barricades!" and do stuff like this, while we get whipped and snivel "Oh please sir, might I have just a bit more gruel?" And that, my friends, is why the frenchies have a 38-hour work week and get to spend the whole month of August lying on the Med beaches, while we have whatever the heck it is we have ....

Hundreds of French workers, angry about proposed layoffs at a Caterpillar office, were holding executives of the company hostage Tuesday, a spokesman for the workers said.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

3 million hit the streets to protest the economy

Sorry to say, those 3 million people are in France, not the US. Why is it that the French hit the streets while we Americans don't? Like the writer of the piece says, "France is France." I wish Americans hit the streets more often. It might not fix anything in the long run (though it just might), but it sure beats huddling in front of our teevees and just "taking it," which is what we’re all doing now. If the AIG bonus nonsense was happening over in France, I guarantee there would be about 1.5 bazillion pissed off frenchies outside the corporate HQ setting up Madame Guillotine. As to why we Americans don't get out there like the French do, I suspect it's a side effect (a planned side effect?) of the whole "rugged individualism" myth, that toxic, retrograde aspect of the American character that says: I got mine, screw everybody else, and anyway "solidarity" starts with a "s" and so does that there "socialism", so it's gotta be bad fer ya.

Why is it only in France that such demonstrations are taking place?

After all, it is people the world over who are bearing the brunt of the recession. But they are not on the street.

The answer is simple. France is France. It has its own political and social codes, forged in the Revolution and over the course of two turbulent centuries.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Meditation on Succetus

I propose we rename March 17th "Saint Baldrick's Day". Instead of getting
hammered on “Saint Patrick’s Day” (and waking up disheveled, disoriented, and obscurely ashamed for reasons you pray you will never remember), do something nice instead and contribute a few pence at . Then go get hammered.

That is the only warm-fuzzy sentiment you will find in this piece, so enjoy it. On to the meditation ...

“Patrick” (real name, Magonus Succetus) was the worst thing that ever happened to Ireland and the Irish. Succetus was a cultural imperialist and bitter revanchist, an angry man who took a perfectly fine, vibrant culture and befouled the place with a weird, groveling, guilt-obsessed, master/slave middle-eastern death cult.

First let’s be clear. Succetus wasn’t Irish, he was a Romanize Briton. He came from privilege, but his life changed forever when, as a teen, he was captured by Irish raiders and dragged off to Ireland as a human slave. We can’t imagine the kind of life he would have led as a shepherd out in the hills. Often cold, usually wet, months at a time seeing not a single human being, no decent clothing to wear, very little food, and subject to random beatings and the hundred and one daily abuses and degradations to which human slaves have been subject throughout history. What did Succetus think about during those endless cold nights alone out on the pastures? The stories claim he thought about how, if he could just escape, he could bring these poor pagan Irish to The One True Faith. This is nonsense: it presumes a model of human behavior that has never been in evidence, especially among those known as “saints.” What Succetus thought about for those years in slavery was the same thing we would all think about in identical circumstances: revenge. Eventually making his way to the coast and from there back to home, he found the perfect weapon for his revenge: Christianity. This middle-eastern religion made it easy for Succetus, and when he returned to Ireland to “convert the heathens,” his quiver was full. The Celtic Triskellion? Why, that’s a representation of The Trinity! The god Lugh, born of a divine father and a human mother? Well, that’s none other than a pointer to Our Lord And Savior! Tir Na Nog, the blessed isles where the dead go to rest and refresh themselves? What else could that be but Heaven! My ancestors – very brave but perhaps not as intellectually gifted as one might like – fell for Succetus’ bullshit hook, line and sinker. And so the culture and the soul of Ireland were changed utterly.

Let me tell you about a place out in the west of Ireland, a place that shows exactly what Succetus did to the Irish.

Croach Aigle (now called “Mount Patrick”) is a small mountain or a big hill, depending on who you ask. In pre-Christian times, the people would dance and amble up the slopes singing their old songs. Once they reached the top, the pilgrims would have revels and celebrations in honor of Lugh (and before him, in honor of Crom Cruach). As one of his main orders of business, Succetus climbed the mountain and “exorcized” the “demons,” turning it into a Christian pilgrimage site. However, the Christians do not dance their way joyously to the top: they trudge up, flagellating themselves (verbally and physically), riddled with sin and guilt and terror of eternity in a lake of fire. Even today, many Christian pilgrims walk to the top barefoot; every now and then, one of them will crawl all the way to the top on hands and knees. All in the interests of degrading themselves before their god, who apparently is pleased by such behavior. If any single thing brings into sharp relief the difference between the old, indigenous faith and the new middle-eastern faith that Patrick brought to Ireland, the difference in attitude as the faithful climbed the holy mountain to meet their respective gods is it.

I plan to visit Ireland and walk up that hill before I die. There will be no flagellation or wails of guilt and cries for salvation to some alien middle-eastern sky god, I assure you.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Elf-spotting in Iceland

Don't mess with The Folk, or they'll delay your construction project.
Happens all the time in Iceland, apparently. Place seems
to be crawling with The Other Crowd. I wondered where they'd
relocated to after they got sick of dealing with the Irish.
An article on Iceland's de facto bankruptcy in the April issue of
Vanity Fair notes that a "large number of Icelanders"
believe in elves or "hidden people." This widespread folklore
occasionally disrupts business in the sparsely populated
North Atlantic country. Before the aluminum company Alcoa could erect
a smelting factory, "it had to defer to a government
expert to scour the enclosed plant site and certify that no elves were
on or under it." How do you find an elf?

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Inflection Is Near

Every time I see Tom Friedman's weasely, supercilious face on the TeeVee I have to quickly change the chanel before I succumb to the urge to start screaming "SHUT UP! SHUUUT UUUPPPP!" at the top of my voice. (it scares the cats ...) Imagine my shock to see this NYT op-ed that is right on the money. The only point on which I disagree is with the bone he throws us at the end, where he claims that we'll all do the right thing, gird our loins, and fix this problem. The West's track record in loins-girding hasn't been real good the past half century. We''ve forgotten how.

What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Friedrich Nietzsche Saved My Soul

At the age of 14, I sat in the cavernous balcony of the Stanley Theatre in Jersey City, waiting for the science fiction movie with the odd title to begin. The house lights went down and I settled deeper into my seat, ready to begin the familiar, beloved ritual.

The screen was completely dark. Slowly I became aware of a strange, deep bass rumble coming from the enormous Dolby speakers on the walls. The floor itself, the seats, were vibrating. On the screen, the camera was panning up over the dark side of the moon. Three brass notes sounded, rising; the music suggested infinite distance and enormous possibility. On the screen, Earth broke above the curve of the moon, and an enormous orchestral outburst slammed me back into my seat. As the fanfare continued, I experienced something I’ve never experienced since: the hair on the back of my neck and my arms stood up. I had to know what this music was, what it meant. The subject was not open for discussion. It was an obsession, you understand.

My investigations took me to the King Kullen record store in one of the sleazier neighborhoods of midtown Manhattan, where I bought the sound track for 2001: A Space Odyssey. I played that LP until it became unplayable, its uneven grooves reamed smooth by the needle. The liner notes told me that the piece that possessed me had an odd title, in a language I didn’t recognize: Also Sprach Zarathustra. The liner notes explained that it was composed by Richard Strauss as homage to a book with the same strange, incomprehensible title, written by some man with an equally comprehensible name. How exactly should I pronounce that name? Nye-chy? Nitch-key? Nysh?

Another (warning: bad pun ahead) odyssey to Manhattan secured me a copy of The Portable Nietzsche, which contained Zarathustra and several other works. And so I started reading.

Let me be clear: had it not been for Nietzsche, I would have wound up just another dead junkie in the low, dangerous, feral neighborhood where I grew up. I damn near wound up that way anyway, which is a whole other story. I have a t-shirt that reads, “Friedrich Nietzsche Saved My Soul.” People tell me how witty and totally post-modern it is. I tell them I'm dead serious.

Miraculously, I escaped to a small Jesuit college, where I majored in Philosophy and went head-to-head with the priests, full of the sort of tedious, humorless sincerity that only Humanities undergrads can muster. Nietzsche led me and my college peers to Camus and Sartre, and we all styled ourselves as engaged, indignant Existentialists, determined to change the world or at least change a few lives. You were either a Camusien or a Sartrean, and your life wasn’t worth a plugged franc if you got caught after dark on the Sartre gang’s turf with a copy of L’Etranger in your back pocket. We all wrote boatloads of philosophy, but in the spirit of our heroes we also wrote novels and plays and short stories. All of what we wrote was completely awful, of course, full of trite, portentous bathos and strident poseur bravado. What the hell; we put our hearts and souls into it, and we lived and wrote like we meant it.

You know the next chapter: life got in the way, as it always does, and I got waylaid, sidetracked, stopped ... for 30 years. And then one day five years ago, I found myself working on a software development project far from home, driving hours to and from work in the dark. With nothing in front of me but the cone of headlight, and no radio stations that far out, my quotidian mind slowed down and finally became quiet for the first time in decades. And that’s when I heard the little voice. Lethargically at first, as if struggling to wake from a long, drugged sleep, and then with increasing urgency, the small still voice said: Become who you are! At that moment, I felt something slip. It was a sensation, an actual physical sensation of a deep slippage inside my head. Something broke free, some great inner dam gave way and ideas poured through the breach and into my mind. An enormous flood of ideas, each demanding not only that I pay attention to it, but that I help it on its way out into the world.

And so, this blog. A place in the world for those ideas that are unlikely to grow into full-fledged essays, or books. I write constantly now, and am having some modest success in placing my work. But this place here, this is the place for the runts of my litter, my beloved runts.

So I found my way back, at the end, to Philosophy, to all of it, and when I’m grinding out the miles on the treadmill at my gym I wear my t-shirt proudly. And in March 2007, I made an important pilgrimage, and stood at the head of the “Nietzsche Trail” in the mountaintop Hobbit village of Eze, the trail he walked up and down every day when he was writing Zarathustra. Standing there, I finally understood Nietzsche’s poetry of the great heights, his poetry of over-coming and under-going.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

How Your Brain Creates God

Apparently our brains have "a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during hard times." This does not bode well for advancing the interests of reason and science in the continuing economic crisis -- especially if you believe, as I do, that what we're seeing now is just the beginning.

Born Believers: How Your Brain Creates God
WHILE many institutions collapsed during the Great Depression that began in 1929, one kind did rather well. During this leanest of times, the strictest, most authoritarian churches saw a surge in attendance.

This anomaly was documented in the early 1970s, but only now is science beginning to tell us why. It turns out that human beings have a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during hard times. Our brains effortlessly conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters, and the more insecure we feel, the harder it is to resist the pull of this supernatural world. It seems that our minds are finely tuned to believe in gods.

See also:
The Credit Crunch Could Be A Boon For Irrational Belief

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The System Is Resetting Itself

This system -- this mad, funhouse-mirror system -- that we've had since the end of WWII, this system built on the presumption that all Americans need to be willing to put themselves into insane amounts of debt in order to puff up the machine, that system is dying -- now, as we speak. The economy is going to contract -- permanently -- and people's attitudes are going to contract along with it. Maybe our culture will finally find its way back to the honored tradition of cash-and-carry, "if you can't afford it, then you can't have it," that sort of thing. Does that mean a lot of Americans won't get their piece of that very problematic thing called "The American Dream"? Does that mean that a lot of Americans won't get that second or third car that they really can't afford? does that mean that they won't get that big house they really can't afford? I think that's what it means, yes. And the "collateral damage" from this systemic change is going to hurt each and every one of us, in ways we probably can't even imagine yet. Being unemployed isn't even the start of it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Yes, Even The Hindus Are Religious Lunatics

I've always considered the Hindus to be the endearing exception to my "all religions are dangerous to others" rule. I mean, how dangerous can a religion be when they have a god who has an elephant head? Apparently I was mistaken about our Hindu brethren and sistren: they're as nuts as the rest. I look at the lunatics of every major religion, and somehow the fact that my pagan Celtic ancestors went in for the odd bit of headhunting and human sacrifice seems almost benign.

Militants belonging to a group called Sri Ram Sena, who claim to be custodians of Indian culture, said Valentine's Day is un-Indian.

The threat comes days after the group's activists stormed a bar in the south western city of Mangalore, dragging out and beating women they accused of acting obscenely and "going astray".

The attack led to fears an extremist "Hindu Taliban" was on the rise in India.

Gangadhar Kulkarni, an activist in the group, which is a radical wing of the Hindu nationalist movement, said: "If people celebrate the day despite our warning, then we will definitely attack them."

"Valentine's Day is definitely not Indian culture. We will not allow celebration of that day in any form," added Pramod Mutalik, the group's founder.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Happy Groundhog Day

For my regular friends (do I even have any of those?), Happy Groundhog
Day! For my Pagan friends, Happy Imbolc! If you're just a crusty old
Celtic traditionalist type like me, then happy Lá Fhéile Bríghde!
(Brighid's Feast Day). Since Brighid is the patroness of writers,
naturally I'll be celebrating her day with much feasting and
libations and getting some writing done.

Mandatory Archeological tid-bit: The ancestors took Imbolc pretty
seriously: at the Loughcrew burial mounds and the Mound of the
Hostages in Tara, the inner chamber of the passage tombs are perfectly
aligned with the rising sun of both Imbolc and Samhain. The rising
Imbolc sun shines down the long passageway and illuminates the inner
chamber of the tomb. You know my gal Brighid was a lady to be reckoned
with when they designed burial chambers to light up especially on her

On this day, Brighid's serpent would come out of hibernation and have
a look around, and his behavior told the druids if there will be six
more weeks of winter or not. The druids had Brighid's snake, we have
Punxatawney Phil. Nothing ever changes. Speaking of druids, Brighid
is also the patroness of druids, so if any of you out there have any
Druid tendencies (which would surprise me, since none of you look
Druish....), then lift a beer to Brighid. She's the patroness of beer
and beer-brewers, so she always appreciates a cold frosty one.
Back in the day she was known as a brewer of her own beer, which was
said to be of unsurpassed deliciousness. A goddess who brews her own
beer – how can you not like her?

Brighid is a goddess, not a "Saint", though it's no surprise to find
that Saint Patrick subverted yet another local deity and turned her
into "Saint Bridget." Apparently those damned Irish heathens just
wouldn't stop worshipping her like they did most of the other gods
(at least, publicly), so it was one of those wink-and-a-nod deals.
Patrick was nothing if not practical.

It is said that when Brighid was born at sunrise, a tower of flame
roared from the top of her head to the heavens. For this reason she is
know by the honorific "Breo Saighead", "The Fiery Arrow of Power."
Obviously not someone to fsck with.

Brighid watches over a lot of stuff: poets and writers; personal
excellence; livestock (so also 4-legged family members); sacred
flames; hearth and home; metalworkers and smiths; beer-brewing; and
wells. Her feast days is the first day of Spring as the Celts measured
it, the time when the ewes start lactating, and in the epic Tain Bo
Cuailnge ("The Cattle Raid of Cooley") Emer explains to the endearing
homicidal-maniac hero Cú Chulain that "Oimell, the beginning of the time when the sheep come out and are milked", and the
name Oimelc is used, because "ói-melg, 'ewe-milk', that is the time
the sheep's milk comes".

Brighid is VERY old, definitely pre-Celtic, very widespread. She turns
up everywhere you look: Brighid, Brighde, Brigit, Brigantia,
Brigindoni, Bride, Britannia, Bridey, Bridget. She even appears as the
Caribbean voudoun goddess "Maman Brighite," and some scholars see a
reference to her in the ancient Indian Sanskrit word 'Brihatî,'
meaning 'the exalted'. A world traveller is our gal Bridge.

When Brighid became "Saint Bridget," the former virgin priestesses
became "nuns" and just kept on doing what they always did. They kept
Brighid's eternal flame burning without interruption for many hundreds
of years, until the order was finally (seemingly) suppressed by that
wife-murdering British imperialist swine Henry VIII. The worship of
Brighid/Bridget (seemingly) disappeared, for hundreds of years. And
then, not too many years ago, several amazing things happened. First,
she was "de-canonized" by the Vatican; they basically fessed up and
said "she's not one of ours, you can have her back." And a sweet
collection of Catholic nuns from the mysterious Order of Bridget and
some pagan ladies started working together to renew the sacred flame. The final
triumph: the Kildaire town council recently made the nice ladies' job
easier by building an eternal flame monument in the Kildaire town
square mounted atop an acorns-and-oak-leaves motif, officially
recognizing Brighid for what she was and welcoming her home with
honor. I imagine it was a "two-hankie" moment for all the faithful in
attendance. For that matter, I wouldn't doubt that some of the city
functionaries probably got a bit "dewy" at seeing the old girl come

What's to do for fun on this stay-indoors Imbolc day, you ask? Why not
drive yourself insane with the evil, evil game of Fidchell
(which it's easy to believe was invented by a god, since no human can
figure out the fscking thing):
or online at

How to celebrate Imbolc Olde Schoole Style?
• On the day before the festival (i.e. January 31) clean and tidy
your house, ready for Brighid's visit.
• Decorate the place with flowers that are appropriate for the time
of year - such as tulips, primroses, snowdrops, daisies or dandelions (but
remember, folks, don't pick wild flowers). Light candles in the
evening, or have a fire if you have a fireplace.
• Celebrate the feast of Brighid on the eve of the festival with a
meal of your choice. Dairy-based food are especially appropriate, in
particular mashed potato and onions served with a well of melted
butter in the middle. Lamb, bacon, apple cake, colcannon and dumplings
are also appropriate. Beer can be drunk since Brighid was renowned
for brewing it herself.
Since Brighid was said to attend the meal as well, it was customary to
invite her in before everyone sits down to eat.
Hang up Brighid "crosses" (actually ancient sun symbols) at all
thresholds to bring good health to the family for the rest of the
winter season.
• Offerings such as cake or bread and butter should be left out (on
the window sill) to indicate that Bride is welcome to visit.
- If you have a fire, keep the ashes from the fireplace and scatter
them in your garden; you will have bumper crops all the year long.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Seventy Years Ago Today ...

.. the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats went down into the hollow hills to rest with his ancestors.

Can anyone read those last two ineffable lines from his most famous poem without getting a cold chill? I've never been able to. Hell, I'm reading them right this second and they're totally freaking me out.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Monday, January 26, 2009

I thought maybe it was just me and Jon Stewart

Jon and I were in agreement that the "inaugural poem" was a pedestrian, mundane bit of instantly-forgettable fluff, suitable for lulling small children (and not a few adults) to sleep, but not good for much else. I can't begin to tell you how happy I am that Jon and I aren't alone.

... it was no surprise to hear Alexander begin her poem today with a cliché ("Each day we go about our business"), before going on to tell the nation "I know there's something better down the road"; and pose the knotty question, "What if the mightiest word is ‘love'?"; and conclude with a classic instance of elegant variation: "on the brink, on the brim, on the cusp." The poem's argument was as hard to remember as its language; it dissolved at once into the circumambient solemnity. Alexander has reminded us of what Angelou's, Williams's, and even Robert Frost's inauguration poems already proved: that the poet's place is not on the platform but in the crowd ...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Duty Now For The Future

Decades ago – long before I became gray and respectable – I was a big fan of the punk rock band Devo. I found myself remembering their second album just now; specifically, the title of the album: “Duty Now For The Future.” Today, that phrase seems to carry an unexpected weight; it seems pregnant with meaning and promise.

As I write these words, President Obama has just finished his inaugural address. It was an address for the ages, and yet one that was desperately needed at this particular time in our history. It pointed the way forward with resonant themes from a simpler and more honest time. The themes of duty, sacrifice, responsibility, obligation, and service.

To which I can only respond: it’s about time. Long past time, in fact. Long past time for Americans across the entire political spectrum (as well as those who consider themselves apolitical) to embody these ideas -- ideas that have recently been misappropriated by the hard-right fringe of the body politic and used as blunt instruments of political demagoguery.

It’s a funny thing about America: almost no one talked about duties anymore. All we hear from Americans is the endless din about “rights.” The idea that our rights can exist in a social vacuum, without a corresponding set of duties, is a toxic idea that is poisoning America. We have come to believe that we are nothing more than individuals, and that as such all we need concern ourselves with is rights, and never with obligations.

Let’s talk about obligations for a change, and about duties. A philosophy that proclaims the idea that rights do not have their basis in duty and obligation must inevitably result in a sick, narcissistic citizenry, a citizenry from whom the endless, birds-nest cheeps of “Me! Me! Me! Me!” has reached deafening volume. It is time for less talk about our rights as citizens, and more talk about our duties as citizens.

Obama is not calling America to service because such service is "needed” in any practical sense. He is calling for service, and sacrifice, and a sense of obligation because these are the rhetorical clarion calls by which one inculcates a sense of shared duties and national solidarity, without which no healthy, committed society can be built or surv

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Adieu, George

Goodbye, George. It’s time for you to go. Long past time, to be blunt. The low, shameful years during which you strutted and fretted upon the world stage, full of sound and fury but signifying less than nothing, are finally over. And what an eight years they have been! They were certainly the most eventful period in my lifetime -- and I’m old enough to remember the Nixon era. It feels strange now, at the end, to be so completely indifferent to you and anything you might have left to say or do. All I can manage now is a sense of weary resignation at the prospect of cleaning up the mess you’ve left behind. You’ve left us so much to be angry about, if we only had the energy to be angry.

Terrorism? You’re 0-1 on the terrorism front, George. Much as you’d like us to believe that you magically appeared on the scene on 9/12/01 and took charge, the simple fact is that the attacks of 9/11 took place eight months into your watch. You “own” them, George – and you own the consequences.

Your self-described role as “war president,” a role you embraced with such juvenile abandon? You’re 0-2 there. Iraq, that monument to ego and hubris, remains a question mark; my personal sense is that, within a couple of years after we complete our withdrawal, the locals will go back to slaughtering each other with the same gusto with which they’ve slaughtered each other for 1500 years. As for Afghanistan, the good war, the war that a majority of Americans – including me – believe we needed to fight, things there are going very badly indeed. Your hand-picked puppet, Ahmid Kharzai, has been reduced to nothing more than the de facto mayor of Kabul, and an independent analysis recently concluded that the Taliban have managed to put “a stranglehold around Kabul.” Afghanistan cannot end well, and history will blame your pointless sideshow in Iraq for the loss.

Let’s turn to the economy, George. The consequences of particular brand of laissez-faire, buccaneer Capitalism has forced the pundits and economists to keep reaching farther and farther back in American history to find comparisons. In some cases, they’ve had to reach all the way back to those halcyon days of Herbert Hoover to find equivalent levels of damage to our economic structure inflicted by the man in the White House. Think of it, George: for centuries to come, historians will mention your name in the same breath as Herbert Hoover.

And looming over all of it, possibly the greatest obscenity of your entire time with us, is the disaster known as “Katrina.” What made it a disaster was your sad, laughable (non) response to the crisis; if there was ever a moment when the phrase “crime of omission” had meaning, it was in August 2005.

It’s an odd thing, George: if one were of a paranoid mindset, one might wonder: do you actually hate America? It’s a question that really does need to be asked, so complete and all-encompassing has been the damage you have inflicted on America in your relatively brief time at the helm.

As you strut off into the sunset in your trademark plenty-tough kippy-ki-yay cowboy fashion, grinning that inane, pointless grin of yours, many millions of us who were foolish enough to open the door and let you in back in 2000 struggle to find a way to forgive ourselves for playing a part, however small, in all the damage that you have inflicted on our country and on our world.

Your hour upon the stage is over, George. Finally, and forever – go!

R.I.P. Number Six

Veteran actor Patrick McGoohan died today at the age of 80. I will
always remember him for that one brilliant season of his life,
that "Citizen Kane" moment when he created, from sheer talent, drive,
and force of will, the most disturbing and thoughtful TV series
ever: "The Prisoner." The first time the series was broadcast here in
the US, I sat riveted for every episode. In the closing minutes
of the last episode, I had to tear myself away and run to the
bathroom, and so did not get to see the final, shattering revelation
in which we discover the answer to the question that haunts the opening credits
of every episode: "Who is Number 1?" (my mother saw it, but
she refused to tell me -- she just smirked and winked). Many years
later, when the series re-ran, I caught it and this time made sure
not to miss the end of the last episode. Once I realized what I had just
seen, I thought to myself: "Of course. Who else could Number 1 have

In honor of McGoohan?s masterwork, I resurrected an essay I wrote back
in early 2003; it's the first sustained piece I wrote after coming
back to writing after a (30-year) "hiatus" from writing.



Every episode opens with the same fragmented sequence, a sequence saturated

with the disjointed and implicit terror of a familiar nightmare:

‘Where am I?’

‘In The Village.’

‘What do you want?’


‘Who are you?’

‘I am Number Two.’

‘Who is Number One?’

‘You are Number Six.’

‘I am not a number! I am a free man!!’

In the classic television series The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan plays a

nameless man who resigns suddenly from a top-level secret job. Before he can

leave the country, he is abducted, waking up in a fantastic village. He is unable

to find out where he is, or who has kidnapped him. All he knows is that they claim

to want ‘information’.

The Village is a complete community -- everything is accounted for. It is the

ultimate welfare state -- the perfect home for those prepared to cede their

individuality and liberty. It is Panopticism taken to its technological extreme.

Everyone is surveilled, videotaped, bugged, betrayed.

In The Village, everyone is known by a number -- the Prisoner, as we have seen,

is designated as Number Six. The Village is run by a large, infallible

infrastructure, under the supervision – but not the control -- of Number Two,

whose task it is to find the answer to one question -- why Number Six resigned.

Or so we are led to believe. The Prisoner's goal is to keep the answer from his

mysterious minders, to find the identity of the menacing and unseen Number

One, and above all to escape.

Or so we are led to believe.

In each episode, Number Six and the Village battle for power. Sometimes one

side wins, and sometimes the other side wins. But no one ever wins for long.

The battle, seemingly endless and epic to those of us who are old enough to

have watched the series every week when it was first on TV, actually only went

on for 17 episodes. There is a continuing controversy about what ‘order’ the

episodes ‘should’ be viewed in (the production sequence is known not to match

the original UK broadcast sequence, for instance), and most viewers were

disoriented by the non-linear and frankly surreal aspects of the series. The

Prisoner was full of bizarre and memorable features – the fairytale Village,

canopied penny-farthing bicycle, piped blazers and striped capes, golf umbrellas

and numbered badges, Mini-Moke taxis and the huge white 'Rover' balloons.

The series makes the viewer work – which, for many of us, is a large part of its

enduring worth. In the ensuing 35 years, there has been nothing on the tube to

compare with it.

Patrick McGoohan created The Prisoner from soup to nuts, as a follow-on to his

immensely popular spy show ‘Danger Man’ (release in the US as ‘Secret Agent’).

To get a sense of what McGoohan gave up in order to devote himself to The

Prisoner, one must imagine if Sean Connery, on top of his game as James Bond

and free to write his own ticket, chose to suddenly start adapting Franz Kafka to

the small screen.

The series asks more questions than it answers. Why is Number Six being held?

Why did he resign? Who is Number Six? Who are his jailers? Who is Number

One? The village is seemingly administered by Number Two, whose identity

changes from episode to episode (often the same Number two reappears in

subsequent episodes without explanation).

Fans have been slammed over the years for paying the same amount of navel-

gazing attention to a TV program as traditional academics would to a

postmodernist tome. Fans have their get-togethers and newsletters and

‘Prisoner-based fiction’ offerings and bitter listserv wars over minutiae of meaning

(think Trekkies, except not as geeky and without the Spock ears). Still, to the

complaint, ‘Catch a grip, it’s only a TV program’, many contemporary thinkers

(Baudrillard comes to mind, for one) would say that this is precisely why it must

be taken seriously.

Television As Text

It is a genuine mystery: how did this television series, which was aptly described

at the time as a ‘puzzling failure’, mutate into something so complex? How did it

take on such a life of its own?

In order to answer this mystery, we must consider the possibility of treating The

Prisoner as a ‘text’.

As arguably the most ‘literary’ of television endeavors, The Prisoner can be –

indeed, must be – confronted and interrogated as a text. Can one over-read a

given text? If so, what does it mean to over-read it? Will we unpack layers of

mean that contain, as Goethe said of one of his own writings, more meaning than

the author himself knew? The Prisoner, taken as a literary artifact, contains

strata of significance that the series’ creator and star, Patrick McGoohan, never

imagined – and never intended. The text literally contains more content than was

written into it.

One of the more fruitful ‘reads’ of The Prisoner is as an exemplar of radical

Panopticism. Our nameless protagonist is drugged and transported to The

Village, where he is confined, disciplined, occasionally interrogated. Yet there is

something strangely tentative about the discipline and control which The Village

attempts to impose on Number Six. It is almost as though the interrogators feel

that Number Six must be somehow complicit – that Number Six is, in some

obscure sense, in control of his own nature as an object of discipline and


Prisons are merely the visible embodiment of a broader, all-encompassing

‘power’, the principles of which are defined in Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ and

evolved by Foucault. In The Village, surveillance is both visible and unverifiable.

Number Six never knows at any given moment if he is being watched, but he

may always be under surveillance. This is the principle of Panopticism deployed

in a Village-wide scale.

Other than the unacceptable option of submission to the discipline of The Village,

there is only one course of action available to Number Six: escape. In the very

first episode (‘Arrival’), he stumbles across the Village old people’s home, a clear

signal that he and every other prisoner in The Village is here ‘for the duration’.

The Village is sort of like Guantanamo, only with more sumptuous living spaces.

Number Six attempts his first escape in this very first episode – without success.

He is issued conformist Village wardrobe and forced to wear his ID badge with

just ‘6’ on it. He goes to the Green Dome (the center of The Village as well as

the hub of the Panopticon apparatus) to force a confrontation with his captors,

only to discover that Number Two – who he met upon his arrival -- has been

replaced ( something which recurs in almost every episode, always without

explanation or any indication of surprise on anyone’s part).

Number Six is (understandably) obsessed with the project of escape. At a craft

show in ‘Chimes of Big Ben’, Number Six presents his work called ‘Escape’. It

wins first prize. He seems to escape in ‘Many Happy Returns’, making his way

back to HQ, where he organizes an expedition to find the elusive Village. He

spots it from the air, but the pilot is revealed to be a minion of The Village.

Number Six is ejected, and drifts on his parachute, slowly back down to The

Village. Our protagonist isn’t going anywhere, it would seem.


A second major subtext of The Prisoner (which synchronizes on several levels

with the subtext of escape) is the idea of Number Six as Other. Number Six is

excluded from the discourse of the Village. Why? Is he mad? Criminal? A sexual

deviant? Perhaps all of the above, and more. Number Six clearly and

persistently poses a threat, and that threat is ‘not so much the crime committed

(at least in isolation) but the potentiality of danger that lies hidden in an individual

and which is manifested in his observed everyday conduct. The prison functions

in this as an apparatus of knowledge.’ Like the rebellious chess Rook in

‘Checkmate’, Number Six exhibits the ‘cult of the individual’, which simply cannot

be allowed to stand in The Village. Yet, the warders will not – or can not – let him

leave. From the point of view of The Village, Number Six is considered as a

‘rebel’, ‘reactionary’, and ‘Unmutual’ (the most heinous crime of all). ‘The

suspect, as such, always deserved a certain punishment; one could not be the

object of suspicion and be completely innocent.’

The most striking characteristic of Number Six’s ordeal is that it seems primarily

intended to simply regulate his body. They don’t particularly want him to believe

anything; they simply want to contain his body. Their claims that ‘we want

information’ ring hollow; they really don’t make any credible efforts to obtain any

information. There are the occasional odd interludes of torture, but one senses

that the interrogator’s heart really isn’t in it. Number Six breaks up the regime of

normalcy. Repeatedly, and with bitter gusto. Why don’t they kill him? Or at least,

put his body under some more draconian form of control?

His position in the Village is perhaps not quite what it seems. We are given a

premonition of this in ‘Checkmate’ when the eccentric Village inhabitant applies

his empathic ‘sixth sense’ on Number Six, claiming that he can tell prisoners from

warders because warders display a secret arrogance. The eccentric denounces

Number Six as one of the warders. Is the eccentric simply mad, or is his insight

based, on some level, in fact?

Foucault would argue that there are no bare facts, simply power relations. The

dominant power structure gets to define the facts. In effect, ‘to the victor go the

spoils.’ Knowledge is controlled in The Village through mechanisms of power.

Everywhere you find knowledge, there you will also find power. Though

imprisoned, Number Six is powerful and in control because he has the

knowledge – ostensibly the knowledge of why he resigned.

The village is a prison, but it is also something from which Number Six is

voluntarily excluded: a discourse, which enables behaviors that Number Six is

unable or unwilling to perform. One realizes that he suspects, correctly, that to

do so would invalidate his power.

Number Six realizes what none of the other inhabitants of The Village realize:

that surveillance is a two way street. This is explored throughout the series by

means of the constant salutation ‘Be Seeing You’, which courtesy prescribes as

the thing to say when taking one’s leave of another prisoner. Form the thumb

and forefinger into a circle; look through the tube thus created (the lens of a

camera, perhaps?), and toss off one’s hand in a salute while chirping ‘Be Seeing

You’ with manufactured congeniality.

Number Six throws it back at them, bitterly, angrily, from between pinched lips.

When he performs the gesture and spits out the words, he turns ‘Be Seeing You’

into a threat. You may be watching me, he seems to say --- but I’m watching

you, as well. And biding my time.

I Am Number Two

Number Two gives every appearance of being the administrator of the Panoptic

apparatus, as well as the on-site delegate for the elusive Number One. Yet

Number Two’s primary function is that of an observer, and the constant,

obsessive object of his observation is Number Six. Number Two is really a

function rather than a person, changing in every episode (and once during an


The power structure of The Village, personified by Number Two, seems geared

towards forcing Number Six to ‘make his honorable amends’. Yet there is

something almost tentative in the ongoing interrogation. One senses that Number

Two is, on one level, not particularly interested in results. Number Two is, in

computer terms, ‘interrupt-driven’; he awaits detailed work direction from Number

One, who is unseen but instantly aware of every twist and turn in the

interrogative project. Number Two is a classic example of ‘supervisors,

perpetually supervised’. Underneath his veneer as interrogator and master,

Number Two is fundamentally a researcher. ‘The investigation, the exercise of

common reason, lays aside the old inquisitorial model and adopts the much more

subtle model (doubly validated by science and common sense) of empirical


It is important to keep in mind that The Village, like the Panopticon, ‘was also a

laboratory; it could be used as a machine to carry out experiments, to alter

behavior, to train or correct individuals. To experiment with medicines and

monitor their effects. To try out different punishments on prisoners, according to

their crimes and characters, and to seek the most effective ones.’

Regardless of the actual content and practice of the various ‘science

experiments’ inflicted by the various Number Twos on Number Six, we begin to

notice that, as the series ‘evolves’, Number Six seems almost in cahoots with

Number Two. Number Six seems to be somehow complicit in his own


Fall Out

This possible complicity becomes more and more obvious, once one knows to be

on the look-out for it. The episode ‘Living in Harmony’ deploys a key element,

one carefully hidden in most of the other episodes but present as a subtext. The

episode opens with a Western parody of the normal pre-titles resignation scene.

Riding out of town, the ex-sheriff is dragged by a mob into a town called

‘Harmony’. He tries several escape attempts, but he cannot get away. The town

judge wants him to be the new Sheriff – but the man refuses. This theme

resonates through the series – the powers that be in the Village want Number Six

to do something, something involving stepping up to some responsibility. Number

Six refuses, avoids. His efforts to do so become more heroic, more frantic.

Things continue to slip into … what? Dementia? Dadaism? Some sort of neo-

Freudian thing? In ‘Once Upon a Time’ we see Foucault’s proposition that the

prison structure can be deployed in all aspects of modernity when we see

Number Two morph into Number Six’s father, then his teacher, coach, employer,

judge, officer, and prison guard. Number Six plays the parts of the son, student,

athlete, employee, accused, soldier, and prisoner. After this mythic rewind/replay

of power relationships, Number Two drops dead at Number Six’s feet. ‘The rule

was that if the accused ‘held out’ and did not confess, the magistrate was forced

to drop the charges. The tortured man had then won.’

A door slides open and a Supervisor enters the room.

‘What do you desire?’

‘Number One.’

‘I’ll take you.’

As ‘Fall Out’, the final episode of the series, begins, Number Six has won.

You Are Number Six

The final episode of The Prisoner is difficult to describe, even more difficult to

unpack. But we need to do it, because the final episode, more than all that has

come before, validates our Foucauldian read of this text.

As ‘Fall Out’ begins, we are in a sort of surreal courtroom. There is a judge, who

gives a long speech to the effect that all the inhabitants of The Village are

‘gathered together in a state of democratic crisis’ and that ‘Number Six has

survived the ultimate test and will therefore no longer be called by a number.’

This speech is followed by an interlude of strange Absurdist theatre that puts one

in mind of Number Two’s advice in ‘Dance of the Dead’: ‘if you insist on living in

a dream, you may be taken for mad.’ Indeed.

Number Six is given traveler’s checks, his passport, and the keys to his London

flat. He attempts to address the throng in the courtroom, but he is drowned out by

their inane chanting of ‘I, I, I’ (or could it perhaps be ‘Eye, Eye, Eye’?).

Things happen quickly now.

Number Six climbs a circular metal staircase and at the top finds himself in a

room full of globes, presided over by a masked and hooded figure wearing the

‘Number One’.

Number Six rushes over to him and rips off his mask.

Under the mask, Number One wears another mask, a monkey mask. (‘I’ve made

a monkey out of you’, perhaps?)

Furious, Number Six rips off the monkey mask, and is confronted with his own

face. His own laughing face.

So it is not until the last seconds of the last episode that we encounter the true

nature of the regimen imposed on Number Six. It is only then that we discover, to

our shock (but not really to our surprise) precisely how ‘all-seeing’ The Village’s

Panopticon really is.

We are now in a position to deploy an alternative – and more productive – read

of the dialog in that dreamlike opening sequence. To the question ‘Who is

Number One?’ the response

‘You are Number Six’

is really

‘You are, Number Six.’

The prisoner and the jailer are one and the same. This bitter vision of our entire

internal landscape as ‘The Village’ is what we arrive at after all of our

protagonist’s struggles and heroics. As the Village saying goes, ‘Questions are a

burden to others. Answers, a prison for oneself.’ Finding the answer to his

screamed question, ‘Who is Number One???’ reveals a prison inescapable.

In a construct where every person is constantly and completely surveilled,

Number Six’s parting words – ‘Be seeing you!’ – can be fully understood as both

a promise of revenge and a cry of despair.

The Prisoner is ‘an account of individuality, the passage from the epic to the

novel, from the noble deed to the secret singularity, from long exiles to the

internal search, from childhood, from combats, to phantasies.’

The last episode ends in a phantasy, a dream sequence. The Prisoner’s little life

is rounded by a sleep.

So, at the end of it, does Number Six imprison himself? Do we all?

Appendix: Episode Guide With Original Air Dates

1. Arrival (10/1/1967)
2. The Chimes Of Big Ben (10/8/1967)
3. A B And C (10/15/1967)
4. Free For All (10/22/1967)
5. The Schizoid Man (10/29/1967)
6. The General (11/5/1967)
7. Many Happy Returns (11/12/1967)
8. Dance Of The Dead (11/26/1967)
9. Checkmate (12/3/1967)
10. Hammer Into Anvil (12/10/1967)
11. It's Your Funeral (12/17/1967)
12. A Change Of Mind (12/31/1967)
13. Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling (1/7/1968)
14. Living In Harmony (1/14/1968)
15. The Girl Who Was Death (1/21/1968)
16. Once Upon A Time (1/28/1968)
17. Fall Out (2/4/1968)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Irish "pattern days"

Everybody thinks that my ancestors the Irish are, along with the Italians and the Spanish, the most Catholic people in Europe. I'm starting to wonder. I've been researching a lot lately (the whole "getting in touch with one's ancient roots" thing), and last night I had a moment of Zen reading this article about the oddly-named "pattern days." First time I heard of them, I thought "oh you whacky, Jesus-smitten Micks, any excuse to worship some 3rd-rate Saint." Then I read this and discovered that "pattern" was a slur of "patrun," which was a slur of "patron," as in patron "saint" of a particular place. Those places turned out to be the same wells, lakes, and high places (especially giant burial mounds, the "hollow hills" of folklore) that the people visited and celebrated in the pre-Christian days. And it hit me like a revelation: oh, you clever Irish bastards! You subverted Mother Church and held onto your old traditions, while simultaneously avoiding nasty things like The Inquisition! A wink and a nod to the local cleric (who probably joined in the celebrations, since he was usually a local boy) and the archbishop back in Dublin is none the wiser. Brilliant!

The description of a "pattern day" festival from the early 1800s really brings home the joyous, community feel, and gives some vague sense of what wonderful things the original festivals must have been back in the day.

cf also the intriguing and suspicious "Order of Bridget" in Kildaire who kept "Saint" Brigit's sacred fire burning for centuries. What kind of freaking Christian Saint has sacred fires in her honor?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Vicar removes "horrifying" crucifix from outside of church

Apparently the fairly graphic representation of the agonies of The Cross
were "upsetting the children" and was, in their words, a "put-off." Now, I'll admit I've been away from Mother Church for awhile, but as a good Irish Catholic boy, I seem to recall being told over and over again that the unimaginable agonies of Jesus on The Cross were the point of Christianity; his agonies and suffering were what redeemed humanity. Silly little bake-sale Christians; when they say things like "we need a more uplifting and inspiring symbol than execution on a cross," we realize that they've lost any reverence for -- hell, any understanding of -- the broken, tortured body that for 2000 years was the central truth of their faith.

A statue of the crucifixion has been taken down from its perch on a church in Sussex because it was scaring local children and deterring worshippers, a vicar admitted today.
Souter, formerly a cell biologist, said: "The crucifix expressed suffering, torment, pain and anguish. It was a scary image, particularly for children. Parents didn't want to walk past it with their kids, because they found it so horrifying.

"It wasn't a suitable image for the outside of a church wanting to welcome worshippers. In fact, it was a real put-off.

"We're all about hope, encouragement and the joy of the Christian faith. We want to communicate good news, not bad news, so we need a more uplifting and inspiring symbol than execution on a cross."

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The New Leviathan

On 9/11, America was shocked to discover that there was an outside world with many, many people in it who quite simply hated America’s guts – and this discovery scared the hell out of America. If the last several years are an indication of what America’s future holds – and I believe they are – then 9/11 will haunt and infest American cultural life for many years to come. Everything that Americans think, write, do and believe will be refracted through this enormous funhouse lens. This event, which contained so much potential to inspire serious-minded reflection and subtle analysis, instead inspired America to do what it does best: unleash its power.

Michel Foucault wrote of:

A power that presented rules and obligations as personal bonds, a breach of which constituted an offense and called for vengeance; of a power for which disobedience was an act of hostility, the first sign of rebellion .. of a power that had to demonstrate not only why it enforced its laws, but who were its enemies ... of a power that was recharged in the ritual display of its reality as ‘superpower.’

America’s favorite ritual display is war, something that seems to have an almost addictive power over Americans. America spends as much on war as the rest of the world combined. This is beyond any sane concept of “security”; this is the behavior of a junkie.

I do not describe this behavior as “addiction” lightly. As writer Chris Hedges pointed out (at a college commencement address at which he was shouted down by an auditorium full of fresh-faced, patriotic young Americans), “the seduction of war is so insidious because so much of what we are told about it is true – it does create a feeling of comradeship which obliterates our alienation and makes us, for perhaps the only time in our life, feel we belong.” This is why America – a country full of people who are so un-alike in so many ways – embraces this addictive new chapter in its love affair with war, the “Global War on Terror.” Because as soon as that warm, patriotic glow of togetherness starts to dim (as it appears it is now doing with the “Iraq front in the war on terror”), a new battle in this war without end is served up: pure, uncut, expensive as hell but cheap at twice the price, ready to be mainlined by an eager nation.

America does not view its decades-long string of foreign-policy disasters (most recently the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) as failures of diplomacy and policy. War replaces diplomacy and defines policy. War is the point: so easy, so unambiguous, so damned glamorous compared to the mundane tedium of building consensus and displaying moral leadership.

But what is this frantic, almost compulsive resort to the military option as the default response really in aid of?

I recently found myself re-reading Hobbes’ Leviathan, and I was struck by how easily one can map Hobbes’ mythical authoritarian/submissive society to America in the 21st century. Hobbes believed that a society’s function was to accrue more and more power, to strive constantly to seize the upper hand, all in aid of defending a passive and cowering populace from a world full of evil enemies. Hobbes argued that humans are always willing to accept submission to a strong and domineering leadership in exchange for protection from evildoers. Protection from fear itself, in effect. The citizens of Leviathan were so riddled with fear and doubt that they surrendered their freedom with breathtaking eagerness. America’s default attitude since 9/11 can best be summed up by Derrida’s wonderful phrase: “manic triumphalism.” However, this is mere posturing, intended to cover a deep core of dread. Underneath all the testosterone-laden, Hoo-Rah bravado, America in the 21st century is the new Leviathan, in which the citizens cower like whipped dogs.

Still, the unabashed willingness with which Americans surrendered their freedoms must give us pause. Because at the end of the day, that is the fundamental question: why did so many Americans toss off the burden of freedom with such eagerness? I would like to propose at least a partial answer. America is a country where 90% of the people describe themselves as “religious” and 46% describe themselves as “evangelical.” Eighty-six percent of Americans believe in miracles; 83% believe in a real, literal Virgin Birth. Over 40% of Americans believe the world will end in an actual battle of Armageddon, and a stunning 45% believe in a real, anthropomorphic Devil. To the majority of Americans, those who live and die within such a belief system, America’s vaunted “freedom” – and, more importantly, the consequences of that freedom – is, quite simply, horrifying. Profanity and nudity on TV, gay marriage and adoption, “Feces Madonna” and “Piss Jesus” and Mapplethorpe’s photos of men with bullwhips jammed up their asses, on and on and on. They look at America’s free society, they look at the things that this free society permits to happen and they hate what they see. They absolutely hate modern America, and they believe that surrendering their freedom is a very small price to pay in order to make it stop. These Americans have more in common with Muslim fundamentalists than they can ever admit to themselves. This is the secret heart of darkness in 21st century America. America will have another Bush some day, because it is what so many Americans want and need.