Friday, November 25, 2005

It Takes the Village

Yesterday, in accordance with American tradition, the president pardoned a turkey. It was probably a useful warmup for the pardons he will ultimately grant to the criminals in his administration. Look at the pictures. At first glance, the turkey even looks something like Scooter Libby, but by no stretch of the imagination does Bush look like a president. He does seem to be having a good time, though, in one of his few encounters with an intellectual equal. So let's leave Bush with Marshmallow the Turkey, for the time being, and focus today on Senator Rick Santorum and his inability to defend his views without maligning America's greatest neighborhood.

Attytood points us toward an interview Santorum gave in March to the magazine Christianity Today.

"The book by Thomas Frank, What's the Matter with Kansas?, says that many people vote against their own economic interests when they vote for Republicans on the basis of social issues.

"That's just the kind derogatory, elitist pablum that you get when people don't realize that there's a lot of people who don't put their treasure in this world and look for something more than just 'how much more money I can make.' They understand that life is more than a bank account. That's the postmodern view of the world, which is it's all about me; it's all about how much I can get now for me. There are a lot of people who worry about, not just their economic well being, but they worry about their kids, they worry about the culture their children are going to be raised in, they worry about the pervasive incivility that we see in this country. They worry about national security issues. They worry about a lot more things than just me and how much money I'm making. It's certainly important, and I would say that's one of the factors people should consider. But there are a lot of folks who have not bought into the Greenwich Village view of the world. Thank God for Kansas."

Nobody in the world can take Santorum seriously when he suggests that his views run counter to the selfish accumulation of wealth; as Attytood puts it, "all the hype about the Republican's social views on gays and abortion masks what essentially is a corporatist agenda." If Santorum meant what he said about this subject, he would support the estate tax, oppose Bush's narrow tax cuts, and question the wisdom of spending $200 billion to ensure a terrorist theocracy in Iraq.

I don't question Santorum's sincerity when it comes to religion. I think he honestly believes, deep in his heart, that religion is important. It is, to him, a vital means of controlling people, crushing their will, deadening their minds, stifling their curiosity, and collecting their votes.

But what's this about Greenwich Village?

Santorum, of course, doesn't know a goddamn thing about Greenwich Village; he's dropping the name of what he perceives as a bastion of liberalism. He wants his constituents to hear "Greenwich Village" and think of godless hedonism. So he's equating America's first great bohemian outpost with the culture of economic elitism -- a culture made possible by the economic policies of people who believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for Donald Trump and Paris Hilton.

Greenwich Village, Senator, was settled in the closing moments of the eighteenth century. Until that time, the city on the island of Manhattan was confined to what we now consider the Financial District, at the southern extreme. But a series of deadly epidemics (mostly smallpox and yellow fever) led small groups of survivors north to the lush, green valley where the Minetta Brook flowed. The Minetta Brook flows to this day, underground, on the approximate line indicated on the surface by Minetta Lane.

Almost immediately, Greenwich Village distinguished itself as the literary capital of the new world. The arrival of Thomas Paine on Grove Street was the beginning. Ultimately, more great American literature would emerge from the Village than from any other neighborhood in the country. A complete list is nearly impossible, but among the writers who lived and worked there were Washington Irving, Mark Twain, O. Henry, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eugene O'Neill, John Reed, D.H. Lawrence, e.e. cummings, Dorothy Parker, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Keruouac, William S. Burroughs, and Theodore Dreiser.

During the era of slavery, Greenwich Village was a hub on the abolitionist express while Wall Street was still flourishing based on the sale of African flesh. In a similarly enlightened manner, the Village has long been a place of tolerance toward gay men and women, and a keystone in their own civil rights efforts.

To this day, neighborhoods all over America remain homogeneous -- inhabited by people of one color, one class, and one religion -- and therefore distinctly contrary to America's most important ideal, pluralism. Greenwich Village, like the rest of Manhattan, has become an expensive place to live. But walk through it sometime, and you'll see the vision of the Constitution's framers in its most glorious form. In the Village, there are human beings from every culture of the world, representing every extreme our race can muster, coexisting in relative harmony.

It's a place where ideas walk the streets. Whatever your ideas are, you can express them comfortably in Greenwich Village, and in the company of others who feel the same way. However, the Village will also see that your ideas are challenged, because of the proximity to other ideas, expressed just as forcefully. The Village invites you to dismiss the ideas that the mind and the heart are two different realms, that the role of humans is to submit to other humans, and that each head has enough space in it for only one idea.

No wonder Santorum feels threatened by it.

"Thank God for Kansas," Santorum says. Thank God, he's saying, there are still places where a majority of people are willing to vote against their own economic interests -- because they don't realize they're also voting against all their other interests, too. Of course, to him, voting for one's economic interests is apparently a sin. He actually expects us to believe that those who oppose Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest few are obsessed with "how much more money I can's all about me; it's all about how much I can get now for me!" When in reality, it's the fiscal policy of Santorum's crowd which seeks to reward the already-wealthy and punish the struggling poor.

And remember, Santorum is a guy who thinks a family with two working parents is betraying its duty to God; he also thinks birth control is a sin. What Santorum wants, according to his own endlessly repeated statements, is for us to have a child every time we have sex, and to limit the number of wage-earners in each household to one. He wants us to have the largest and poorest families possible.

Of course he does. Those are precisely the ingredients necessary for a recipe of theocratic control. People who are poor, tired, and hungry tend to accept what you say and not ask questions. It is on this basis that organized religion has been used to stifle human freedom for thousands of years.

At its inception, the United States of America was to be an antidote to that problem. Thomas Paine was the author of Common Sense (which catalyzed America's birth as an independent nation), but he was also the author of The Age of Reason, which set down for all time the clear truth of religious establishment, and how its power had no place in a true democracy. Paine understood America, and tellingly made Greenwich Village his home.

I'd like to see Rick Santorum show his face on Grove Street.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Everything is RENT

Today, I take one of my rare breaks from politics to share this essay with you. As you may know, today the film adaptation of Rent opens in theatres. Because my ten-year love affair with this show has had such an impact on me -- I'm pretty sure Burning Bush wouldn't have happened without it -- I thought I'd tell the story of why. On Friday, back to satirically skewering the corrupt Bush regime with the dazzling wit and insight you've come to expect.

When I was a teenager, I belonged to a peculiar brotherhood of hardcore musical theatre fanatics. We lived in and around Coral Springs, Florida. The core of my group consisted of four guys, all vigorously heterosexual, who knew by heart every lyric Stephen Sondheim had ever written. Sondheim, to us, was God. We had utter disdain for the more populist musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber -- except for Evita, and maybe Jesus Christ Superstar. The Boublil and Schoenberg musicals (Les Miserables and Miss Saigon) were a guilty pleasure at best. At worst, they were the death of an art form. Each of us had areas of musical theatre which were our special domains. Given my love of old-school jazz, I had a sweet tooth for Cole Porter and his contemporaries. Corey was the keeper of "pulp musicals" like The Rocky Horror Show. West was fond of obscure musicals with absurd premises, like Das Barbecu, a country-and-western adaptation of Wagner's Ring Cycle. And Brian, whose knowledge and depth of interest eclipsed everybody's, was a living encyclopedia of musical theatre.

In other words, we were pretty much like any other bunch of teenagers, in terms of our relationship with the music we loved. It was just funny that our adolescent rebellion had this particular soundtrack. It's not that we didn't listen to the music everyone else was listening to -- R.E.M., U2, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, Alanis Morissette, and everything else that was big at the time. It's just that almost none of it meant as much to us as our favorite musicals. Like every other suburban teenage posse, we cruised around town, evaluating girls, terrorizing staid grown-ups, and blasting music. Unlike everyone else, though, we were blasting the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Into the Woods.

We regarded New York City as a fantasyland, from whence these wonders came. We knew what was playing on Broadway, what was playing off-Broadway, what was playing off-off-Broadway, and what was coming up. So it was inevitable that we would know about Rent before everyone else did. I'm sure that Brian, at least, knew all about the show well before its off-Broadway debut. It's probably from Brian that I first learned the general details. Pretty soon, as the hype around the show began to saturate the media, we all knew more about the circumstances surrounding Rent than we did about Rent itself. We were starting to hear these names a lot, the original and eternal CAST OF RENT -- Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and so on.

But more than theirs, we heard the name of Jonathan Larson, Rent's composer and lyricist, who labored in obscurity for years, hoping to bring musical theatre up to date. This rock opera based on La Boheme was his big break, and it gave him permission to finally quit his job as a waiter at the Moondance Diner in Soho. Immediately following the final dress rehearsal, he went home to his tiny Greenwich Street apartment, had an aortic aneurysm, and died. He was 35.

The inspiring and devastating events of Jonathan Larson's life and death crept into our consciousness. He was a product of suburban Long Island, and a theatre kid who was obsessed with musicals, just like us. He was always putting on shows. After college, he wound up in that mythic Greenwich Street garret, with the bathtub in the kitchen and the friends on the floor. He had to open the window and throw down the key so his guests could let themselves in. He willingly slung burgers and omelettes, even though he hated it, and then he'd go home and write until he had to go do it again. In an effortless flight of beginner's brilliance, he wrote a rock musical version of 1984 in 1982 and sent it to Hal Prince and the estate of George Orwell. The rights, as it turned out, were unavailable; so was Hal Prince. In a rush of seasoned craftsmanship, he reworked his 1984 into an original dystopia called Superbia, but nobody would produce it. So he produced it himself, and for a single night at the Village Gate it was an enormous hit. But the next day he was completely broke, and nobody would produce it.

At every opportunity, he described himself as an artist. He never called himself a genius, but he seems to have known he was one. At parties, when people would ask him what he did, he'd say, "I am the future of the American musical." Some of his friends agreed, but theatrical producers were staunchly unconvinced. When he tried to publicize his one-man show tick, tick...BOOM! by faxing the title to every agency in town, he received phone calls from terrified professionals wanting to know why they were being threatened. There were small triumphs -- a grant here, a workshop there -- and he actually knew Stephen Sondheim! -- but there was little satisfaction, and less money. His friends got married and bought houses and had children. He continued to bathe in his decrepit kitchen. He'd make a big pot of spaghetti on Monday and live off it all week. He could have made money writing advertising jingles, but he was determined to reserve his creative energy for his own work.

In 1989, when a playwright named Billy Aronson suggested that they collaborate on a contemporary version of La Boheme, Larson produced a few prescient demos. One song went: "If I threw my body out the window / Brain all splattered, guts all steaming in the snow / I wouldn't have to finish shooting films that no one wants to show / RENT!"

He and Aronson weren't seeing things the same way, though, and they abandoned the project until 1991, when Aronson gave Jonathan permission to continue alone. He gave Aronson a signed statement assuring him that he would be compensated "if any such miracle as a production happens." There was a workshop production at New York Theatre Workshop in 1994, and responses ranged from "You are the future of the American musical!" to "This is a mess!" But it was a turning point. NYTW had a rich legacy of nurturing groundbreaking projects, and therefore it had no money. Its artistic director, Jim Nicola, offered to pay Jonathan nothing at all to perform drastic rewrites under the auspices of the workshop. He also offered him the services of a dramaturge named Lynn Thomson. This went on for what was probably the best, worst, most euphoric, most frustrated, hungriest year of Jonathan's life. (Jonathan had many interesting thoughts about how a year might be measured.) By the fall of 1995, Rent was financed and in rehearsals. Jonathan was in ecstasy. He said the cast was "the sexiest, most talented, most exciting group of people" he had ever seen assembled. Anthony Tomassini, who happened to be writing a piece for the Times about the enduring appeal of La Boheme, attended a run-through and predicted a big hit.

There were chest pains, though, culminating in the unspeakable tragedy of the evening before Rent opened. That the man who was the future of the American musical should leave Earth twenty-four hours too soon to hear the applause is too much to bear. For years I could not even really think about it. At least he saw the final dress rehearsal. He spent the last night of his life sitting in a theatre, watching Rent. It was performed that night for him alone. The show's fate, at that point, was still uncertain, but we can assume that Jonathan Larson loved it. By the time his masterpiece moved uptown to Broadway and glory -- April 29, 1996 -- he had been dead for three months, and a Pulitzer Prize winner for two.

As moved as I was by all of this, I initially decided to be skeptical about the work itself. It was obviously poised to become an earth-shattering hit, which in my snob's-eye view counted against it. I also knew that rock music, for all its power, almost never worked in musical theatre. The almighty Sondheim had very clearly set down the many rules by which good musicals were written. I never failed to preserve, protect, and defend those decrees. But the only musicals which really seemed to meet those standards were the ones written by Stephen Sondheim.

So I was very hard on most shows. I professed deep love of the medium, but I suffered endlessly over the drek that dominated. By Sondheimian mandate, rock shows were often the worst -- not because the music was rock, but because content didn't dictate form and so forth. For me, Evita and Superstar barely worked. Tommy had great music, but it wasn't a good musical. Hair was important, but it was a concept musical whose songs bore no storytelling burden. It seemed to me that theatre rock only worked in its lightest form, as in Little Shop of Horrors. Compared to most musicals, parts of Little Shop's score sounded something like rock 'n' roll, but not nearly enough to entice "MTV ears" (Jonathan's phrase) into a Broadway theatre.

Most of my friends knew they were going to love Rent. I wanted to like it, but didn't think I would. The first time we actually heard any of it was on June 2, 1996, the night of the Tony Awards. As budding theatre people, my friends and I had always watched the Tonys as though they were the Olympics. For the first time, we had a place to watch them which wasn't someone's parents' house. West, cold and bored in Chicago, had decided to drop out of college and move back to Coral Springs to write and produce theatre. I, warm but heartbroken in Orlando, had made the same decisions, and by the summer we had installed ourselves in a two-bedroom bachelor pad just off the western extreme of Sample Road. Most of our friends were a year younger, still in high school, and living with their parents. So everyone was always at our place. Watching the Tonys.

Rent did well. It won Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, and Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Wilson Jermaine Heredia). Julie Larson McCollum tearfully accepted her brother's Tonys, and dedicated them, basically, to us. The cast performed "Seasons of Love," which didn't grab me on first listen, and an abbreviated "La Vie Boheme," which was more exciting. Later on, when as a devoted fan I studied that performance on videotape, I wound up memorizing lines that weren't even in the show. (An emaciated Anthony Rapp turns smugly to the posh Tonys crowd and announces, "We're in the Life Cafe on the corner of Tenth Street and Avenue B!")

On August 27, 1996, the two-disc cast album was released in stores. Hearing Rent for the first time was an experience friends described as a second loss of virginity. Appropriately, then, I was in bed when it happened to me. Kim, who'd purchased it on CD the moment it was available, told me I had to give it a chance. She'd made me a cassette. I climbed into my waterbed, put the tape in my boom box and the headphones on my ears, and gave Rent a chance.

The first thing I heard was the sound of a guitar being tuned. And then, over that, the plaintive Rapp sneer. "December 24th, nine p.m., Eastern Standard Time," he sang. What an inspired opening, I thought! "From here on in," the lyric continued, "I shoot without a script / See if anything comes of it / Instead of my old shit." By the time the opening number -- "Rent" -- track four -- had started, so had a new chapter of my life.

As we listened to the two discs again and again, my friends and I came to understand the intricacies of Rent's complicated, crowded plot. Its characters, and the people who played them, immediately became icons to us. They carried Jonathan's torch, and they perfectly straddled the two worlds to which we most aspired -- starving artist and red-carpet celebrity. They sang about the Village Voice, and their picture was in Vanity Fair. There were television appearances, each carefully preserved and memorized in my living room. They appeared on Leno, and Adam Pascal's voice cracked badly on the word "everything" in the important line "EVERYTHING IS RENT." My friend Amy said it only increased her desire to have sex with him.

Rent was a permanent atmosphere throughout the autumn of 1996. In my circle, it was playing everywhere, like it was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the year was 1967. On a typical Saturday, I'd be at home, listening to Rent, and Amy would come pick me up. In her car, we'd listen to Rent. We'd go to meet other friends at a diner and talk about Rent. Maybe we'd swing by someone else's house, where Rent would be playing on the stereo. Kim might drive me home, and we'd listen to Rent in her car. As soon as I got back to my apartment, I'd listen to Rent. Jen had a tape deck in her car which had broken with Rent inside; you could listen to Rent, but you couldn't take it out or put anything else in. It didn't matter at all. Act One of Rent was the only music playing in Jen's car for more than a year. But the only thing that made it different from any of my other friends' cars was that you never heard Act Two.

On what we blissfully called "work days," West and I would wake up, meet in the living room, listen to Rent, and talk about the show we were rehearsing. It happened to be my first musical, a very non-rock show called The Men in Mabel's Life. In the car on the way to the theatre, we'd listen to Rent. We would all spend the day singing songs from The Men in Mabel's Life, and then we'd go home and sing songs from Rent.

Usually we couldn't listen to it without singing it. There's nothing special about singing along with music, of course, but if the music is a piece of theatre, and the listeners are theatre kids, it's a performance. Picture ten of us in that apartment, dancing on tables and singing "La Vie Boheme" at the top of our lungs -- with harmonies, and assigned roles. I always had to be Mark. Tanya spent the better part of an evening memorizing the complicated passage which begins "So that's five miso soup, four seaweed salad..." Julie, a gifted operatic singer, seemed able to sing every harmony in "Seasons of Love" simultaneously. Our next door neighbor, a saint, not only didn't mind all this noise, but actually claimed to enjoy hearing us. One evening, she appeared at the door holding the cast recording of Grease, and asked if we would mind singing it. She could not have asked a more willing roomful of people.

One night in the parking lot of T.G.I. Fridays, Amy and I were sitting in her car, chain-smoking Marlboro Lights 100s and trying to sing "What You Own" without cracking. (If not for the cigarettes, we could have done it.) Exasperated, not with the challenges of the score but with the unrelenting power of the play, Amy shrieked, "I want to possess this show!" It was a key moment in our infatuation with Rent. We repeated it over and over. It's pretty much how we all felt: we wanted to claim Rent as our own. It was a lifestyle, a set of values. We quoted from it without even meaning to. Nobody could get through one conversation without saying "The power blows!" or "Great! Fuck!" If you found yourself saying "I know," it always came out in Taye Diggs' voice, and had to be followed with the line, "Still her production manager?" We even relished the occasional moments in the show which we didn't like. Benny's cautionary "think twice before you poo-poo it," perhaps the worst line in history, became a knowing refrain in our everyday chatter.

Emerging as it did in the mid-nineties, our Rent mania happened to coincide with our discovery of the Internet. I'd first heard of the Internet in 1994, when I was a senior in high school. By the time most of us had web access at home, Rent was the order of the day. I learned about the Internet by using it to learn everything I could about Rent. The early fansites were, a prototypical blog and Rent resource managed by Rebekah Jude Allen; and Jimbo's, a goldmine of details. All the tools of online intercourse were completely new to us in 1996 -- chat rooms, instant messages, message boards, e-mails. We read about the experiences of people who had seen the show and run home to write about it on the Internet. This seemed like a miracle at the time. Someone managed to discover Anthony Rapp's e-mail address, and some of us wrote to him. We received gracious individual responses.

One night, we decided to cause trouble in a Rent chat room by announcing that Adam Pascal was leaving the show, to be replaced by Brian. We had them going for a while, and Brian's name was put through many a search engine. Another time, my friends and I wrote a satirical document called "The Life Cafe Menu," full of insider references and bad puns. Among the items on the menu were "Sirloined My Coat," "Adam Pascalloped Potatoes," "Filet 4 U Tamale 4 Me," "How Could We Lose Angel Food Cake," and "Think Twice Before You Pu Pu Platter."

Eventually, it was inevitable that someone among us would get to go to New York and actually see the show. Any trip to New York was a holy pilgrimage, but this was something even holier. Going to New York to wait outside the Nederlander on the Rent line was the nineties theatre kid's equivalent of following a rock band on tour. It's now a normal practice for Broadway and off-Broadway shows to offer inexpensive "rush" tickets to students and other vagabonds willing to wait on line for the box office to open. Rent was the first show to do this, and the famous Rent line became a crucial element of the show's legend. It helped guarantee Rent a loyal and youthful following, and helped the members of that following get to know each other. People would camp out all day and all night. When the box office opened at 10:00, forty first-row and second-row tickets were sold for $20 each. You could only buy two. The cast was thereby guaranteed a bevy of enthusiastic fans up front, and the people on the line knew they were getting tickets. People initiated enduring friendships on that line, and fell in love and broke up, and took turns going in pairs to Smilers or the Port Authority to pee.

Eventually, when the city's criminal element realized that there was a line of kids with cash in their pockets sitting on West 41st Street every night, the line was abolished and replaced with an evening lottery, in which names were drawn from a bucket and rush tickets sold to the winners. The lottery was managed by the same guy who'd supervised the line. He became a celebrity in his own right, among Rent fans. Some got closer to the show by getting closer to him. The democracy of the line was no more. It was much easier to win the lottery if you were a beautiful girl.

My first friend to make the odyssey was Ilissa, with whom Amy and I were appearing in a local production called Broadway Fables. Not only did Ilissa do the line and see Rent, but she lingered outside afterward and met the cast, and had pictures to prove it. She had even been so fortunate as to share a cab with Anthony Rapp and his boyfriend. She showed them a copy of our Life Cafe Menu, and Anthony Rapp's boyfriend loved it so much that he shared it with some other fans; pretty soon it wound up on Jimbo's website. We were thrilled to have contributed something to the phenomenon. I have since heard other early Rentheads refer to the menu as a badge of insider status. Rent fansites carry it, uncredited, to this day.

When Amy got to New York to see Rent, she, too, met the cast and spoke at length with Anthony Rapp's boyfriend. She also became immersed in the society of the line, and through associations kindred there she obtained a cassette recording of the 1994 workshop. Soon I was listening to it more often than the Broadway cast recording. My friends got sick of it. I remember one of them, Franco, yelling at me in an exasperated tone, "If we're going to listen to Rent, can we please listen to Rent?"

My constant retort to these comments was "It's interesting because of the artistic process!" I loved the workshop because it told me so much about Jonathan Larson. Its strengths -- most of which survived -- were inspiring, because they were the direct result of an ambitious waiter staying up all night in his apartment. Its weaknesses were even more fascinating, because they underlined the quality of the finished product. From October of 1994 to January of 1996, Jonathan had significantly reworked about half of his material. He had ruthlessly discarded good songs, and written better ones. He had transformed promising chaos into an epic step forward for an art form. He had married Sondheim's principles with those of Lennon and McCartney.

The workshop tapes taught us that "One Song Glory," a song about a young man's desire to write one great song before he dies, was originally called "Right Brain." The music, and most of the lyrics, matched the version we knew, only instead of the riveting chorus "One blaze of glory / Gloooooryyyyyy!" a Roger we didn't know sang, "Can't find the right brain / Right braaaaaaaaaiiin!" The workshop tapes disturbed some people when they first heard them, partly because the original version of the song "Rent" had those gory, suicide-fantasy lyrics. I learned a lot about writing (and rewriting) from my extended cross-analysis of the two versions of Rent. Those early couplets, in which Mark and Roger fantasized about ending the starving artist's plight by killing themselves, became a series of questions instead of answers. The new first line was: "How do you document real life / When real life's getting more like fiction each day?"

By the time I got to see Rent for myself -- April 18, 1997 -- Daphne Rubin-Vega had become the first original cast member to leave the show, replaced by the capable Marcy Harriel. The fab fifteen was otherwise intact. Needless to say, seeing it was a profound and joyous experience. I sat in the mezzanine with my father and stepmother. After the tune-ups, right before the opening number, I heard something I'd never heard before in a musical -- a count-in! Until the song "Rent" began, as I knew, the only accompaniment would be the sound of Roger tuning his guitar. The house lights stayed up during these informal opening moments, until Adam Pascal played the "Musetta's Waltz" theme from La Boheme on his guitar. Then, silence. Everything suddenly went dark. It was at this point that Anthony Rapp exclaimed, with his unmistakable gift for emphasis, "THE POWER BLOWS!" And then, just before the stage was bathed in multicolored lighting and the full rock band onslaught of the song, you could plainly hear arranger/bandleader Tim Weil shouting to the onstage band, "One! Two! Three! Four!" Two musical worlds collided in harmony.

I've seen Rent many times since then, and it's usually great. Although no cast could ever equal the original, many successive performers have done quite well by the piece. I saw one of the national tours in 1998, and came away with the impression that Rent's luster paled somewhat on the road. The show's international success demonstrates that its appeal is universal, but perhaps its abundance of New York color plays better across an ocean than across a state line. Part of what made the Broadway production so convincing was that they'd remade the Nederlander to evoke the East Village. It was weird to sit in the plush Bushnell Theatre in Hartford, ensconced in opulent Victorian majesty, with an Alphabet City playset on the stage. The grimy upstage wall of the Nederlander, in all its naked glory, was perfect; it made the show look real. The meticulously rendered flat which impersonated it on the road had the opposite effect. However, I've spoken with people who were lucky enough to see Rent at NYTW, and some of them could never accept it as authentic after it moved to Broadway. They thought Rent's only true home was an experimental space in the East Village, and that it lost its soul at the Nederlander.

It has been suggested that the dazzling success of the show is a violation of Jonathan Larson's integrity. There is something strange about it. The costume designer, Angela Wendt, had found much of her inspiration in the closets of the original cast. That red and blue sweater was Anthony Rapp's -- but it was faithfully reproduced for dozens of future Marks, whether it worked for them or not. Years from now, when the show closes on Broadway, I'm sure it will be produced in new and innovative ways in regional theatres; however, no production will carry the stamp of its creator more visibly than the original. But mass-production is what happens when a piece of theatre achieves mainstream acclaim, and it's ridiculous to suggest that Jonathan wanted his work to remain obscure. He desperately wanted the success that Rent has had. He stuck to his principles -- and one of his strongest was the desire for his work to touch as many people as possible. He fiercely protected his creations from commercial interests which threatened their spirit, but I think the Rent phenomenon has mostly honored that spirit in a manner he'd approve of. I sympathize with the purists who bemoan the casting of semi-celebrities in the Broadway production, and who shudder at the thought of the upcoming film version. But I believe that if Jonathan were here to enjoy all of this, he would be enjoying it like crazy. He'd be gleefully sizing up his Oscar chances. More to the point, he would have what he spent his wonderful, short life wanting -- millions of people singing along.

As for me, Rent really did change my life. By the time I finally took my seat at the Nederlander in the spring of 1997, I wasn't just in New York to see the show. I was looking for an apartment to rent.

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Monday, November 21, 2005

Don't Listen to the Devil. Listen to Me.

This weekend, Noah and I finally rented Hell House. You've all probably heard of it - it's a documentary detailing the organization, planning, construction, writing, rehearsal and performance of the annual "haunted house" presented by Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas. The attraction features scenes of botched abortions, gay men denouncing Christ on their deathbeds, a rave that ends up in the administration of a "date rape drug" (none of the people involved have any idea what the name or other important properties of this date rape drug may be). We curled up in bed with a pint of ice cream ready to laugh and laugh at the born again freaks and their little abortion plays. And I suppose we did laugh a little. But mostly, I just felt sad and uncomfortable.

Christianity has always been a big part of my life. My mother, father and sister are all very spiritual. People in my family talk to god. But for the most part, the religion of my family is open, tolerant and loving. My mother and father are Episcopalians - "Catholic Lite" we call it. All of the wine, none of the guilt. It's a pretty logical and liberal denomination. We have female priests, gay priests and the election of a gay bishop caused quite a stir lately.

And then there were the more bible-banging elements of my religious upbringing. I went to summer camp at a fundamentalist Christian camp in Arkansas. I rode horses, learned about boats, and raised my hands to the Holy Spirit. On Sadie Hawkins' night, the girls got to chase the boys around and marry the ones they caught. After the "ceremony," everyone went up the hill to watch a reenactment of the crucifixion. I did plays about thwarting Satan and delighting in heavenly bounty after being saved. And I had a great time. There was nothing un-fun about it.

When I was 12 or 13, I started going to Bellevue Baptist Church with a friend. Bellvue is huge - the base congregation consists of almost 30,000 people - with an enormous baptismal tank front and center for the television cameras that broadcast from there every Sunday morning. During my visits there and long before and after, the head of Bellvue Baptist was Dr. Adrian Rogers*, the three-time president of the Southern Baptist Convention. According to his obituary in the Boston Globe, he was elected in 1979 as part of the conservative takeover of the convention. The obituary continues:

His election turned out to be a watershed moment for the denomination, and the 16-million-member group shifted dramatically to the right politically and theologically. In the years that followed, conservative leaders pushed hard against abortion rights, homosexuality and women pastors. "There's no one in this country I respect more than Adrian Rogers," Focus on the Family's Dr. James Dobson said on Rogers' last day as pastor. "You draw me to Christ. When I'm with you, I feel closer to the Lord."

At Bellvue, I read the bible a lot, talked about boys a lot and once signed a petition to keep the movie The Last Temptation of Christ from Memphis theatres without having seen or read it.

I have cried over the fate of America's ungodly youth. I have felt moved by the Holy Spirit. I have wept at a replay of the crucifixion on a hilltop in Arkansas.

You might say I identify with the people in this documentary. I guess I was one. And, you know, it was fun and satisfying in a way. Any doubt that popped up, any concerns I might have had could easily be dismissed. It was the devil. Seriously. That's what I was taught, and that's what I thought. Oh, Amanda, that's the devil talking. And I'd pray the doubt away as best I could and keep signing petitions.

When I was 15, I joined the local children's theatre where I made some of the best friends in my life and acted in/directed/produced and watched some of the worst theatre of my life. I also learned how to smoke, drink and a host of other things that I'll spare my family from reading about here. During my years there, I watched my friends come out and sat with a friend during her abortion. In the theatre community I met gay couples, atheists, feminists, and the first person I ever knew who was living with AIDS - basically Jerry Falwell's nightmare Christmas list. Gradually, I stopped attending Bellvue. I missed my expected first year as a camp counselor because I was doing a play. I was slipping into Satan's trap. I was in Jesus Christ Superstar, an event which caused my church buddies to stop speaking to or associating with me. I had sunk too low into the pit of hell and they couldn't reach me.

If you go to Trinity Church's website, you can access their daily devotionals with titles like "Ye Are Not Your Own," and "The Bond-Slave of Jesus," that say things like:

There is no such thing as a private life - "a world within the world" - for a man or woman who is brought into fellowship with Jesus Christ's sufferings. God breaks up the private life of His saints, and makes it a thoroughfare for the world on the one hand and for Himself on the other...Let Him have His way, if you do not, instead of being of the slightest use to God in His Redemptive work in the world, you will be a hindrance and a clog.


The passion of Christianity is that I deliberately sign away my own rights and become a bond-slave of Jesus Christ. Until I do that, I do not begin to be a saint.


The first thing God does with us is to get us based on rugged Reality until we do not care what becomes of us individually as long as He gets His way for the purpose of His Redemption. Why shouldn't we go through heartbreaks? Through those doorways God is opening up ways of fellowship with His Son...If through a broken heart God can bring His purposes to pass in the world, then thank Him for breaking your heart.


...breaking the husk of my individual independence of God, and the emancipating of my personality into oneness with Himself, not for my own ideas, but for absolute loyalty to Jesus.


If through a broken heart God can bring His purposes to pass in the world, then thank Him for breaking your heart.


This is what they tell the 13 year old girl who realizes she's gay and is told that she must face a life of denial and celibacy because her feelings are a sin. This is what they tell the kid who doesn't want to condemn his friend for being Jewish.

It's not about your individuality, your feelings or your ideas, but about "absolute loyalty to Jesus."

And absolute loyalty is easy when you're at Christian camp or when you're listening to Adrian Rogers tell you about hell, or when you attend Trinity School and Trinity Church and the only time you ever meet anyone who doesn't is when you're playing "abortion girl" in the annual haunted house. Don't question, don't explain, don't change and if you do, blame it on the devil. And if you submerge your feelings deeply enough and suppress your individuality enough, you might get a mansion in heaven.

I didn't have a huge, dramatic break from the church or from Christianity. But slowly, I stopped accepting the conservative elements around me because I began realizing they weren't right. Accepting their fire and brimstone had always felt wrong, and I started thinking that maybe it wasn't the devil's voice telling me that - it was my own.

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*Adrian Rogers apparently died last Tuesday. I did not know that until I started writing this post. Weird, huh?

It Didn't Work

It Didn't Work! A short film from Nero Fiddled

Windows Media (large, good quality)
Quicktime (small, good quality not so much)

Yesterday at a news conference in Beijing, a reporter said to George W. Bush, "Respectfully, sir -- you know we're always respectful -- in your statement this morning with President Hu, you seemed a little off your game, you seemed to hurry through your statement. There was a lack of enthusiasm. Was something bothering you?"

Bush, with the charm that ranks him among the world's least charming men, replied, "Have you ever heard of jet lag? Well, good. That answers your question." Huh huh. Have you ever heard of jet lag? Huh huh huh. The reporter asked if he could have a follow-up, and Bush snapped, "No you may not." (It was probably something along the lines of, "Please, Mighty God of the West, teach us about this strange thing you call 'jet lag!'")

With that, an especially pissy George W. Bush marched away from the podium, to the door. But it wouldn't open. Bush struggled with the door for a moment before an aide pointed toward the correct exit. Bush seemed to be laughing at himself a little. "I was trying to escape," he told the room. "It didn't work."

This was a thirty-second non-event. It's not as though Bush pounded the door with his fists, hysterically screaming, "MOMMY! IT'S CHINAMEN!" That would have been big news. It's just a funny little incident, because Bush is under so much stress lately, what with his disastrous presidency crumbling all around him, and he got a little snippy with a reporter on foreign soil, and tried to leave in a huff but couldn't.

But it's the visual. Think of it in context:

The Cry of Murtha has been heard around the world, and Congress is asserting itself as never before in Bush's reign. However, frustrated with the wait, American commanders in Iraq have submitted to Rumsfeld their own plan to withdraw 60,000 troops over the next year, starting next month. The Army and Marine Corps have recalled 18,000 body armor vests which failed ballistic testing in 2001 but were distributed to Iraq-bound soldiers nevertheless. Human rights investigators from the United Nations have condemned the United States for denying UN fact-finding access to the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Coalition troops have killed Iraqi prisoners with drills. The German intelligence service BND, to which Colin Powell attributed the claim that Iraq had at least seven mobile factories for biological weapons, now says that the Bush administration exaggerated unverifiable information which was "not substantial." Donald Rumsfeld took it upon himself to go on television and tell George Stephanopoulos that he "didn't advocate" the invasion of Iraq and "wasn't asked," although he "agreed completely with the decision to go to war and said that a hundred times." Meanwhile, here at home, the city of New Orleans is still in ruins, with mountains of decaying garbage, neighborhoods without power or heat, and a continuing flow of undiscovered corpses. Given the tragic state of our national affairs, it's particularly disturbing to learn that according to the U.S. Treasury Department's records, the Bush administration has borrowed more money from foreign nations than all forty-two previous administrations combined. What's remarkable about Bush's 34% job approval rating is that it's so high.

And there he is, folks, George W. Bush, trying to get out, but he can't open the door. He's stuck. He has no exit strategy.

There has been a shift in his presentation. Just ten days ago, on Veterans Day, he was using the occasion to lie about Iraq some more, and to characterize dissenters as opportunist turncoats who hate America. He said it was "deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history" of the war, and then he rewrote the history of the war. He said with a straight face, once again, that Congress saw "the same intelligence" he did prior to the invasion -- and it's just not true, any more than it was true when he used it against Kerry last year. But in the twisted Bush view, Democrats in Congress were the ones making "false charges" and "baseless attacks" which "send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will."

A few days later, after the Cry of Murtha, Scott McClellan recited a White House statement declaring it "baffling" that "a respected veteran and politician who has a record of supporting America" was "endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic party." What Murtha wanted, McClellan said, was "to surrender to the terrorists."

But yesterday in China, Bush was careful to emphasize that critics of the war "have every right to voice their dissent," and that Murtha is "a fine man, a good man who served our country with honor and distinction," and whose call for troop withdrawal "was done in a careful and thoughtful way." Why, yes, George, it sure was. "People should feel comfortable about expressing their opinions about Iraq," he continued, easing into his new role as First Amendment champion, friend of the protester. Then he confided: "I heard somebody say, 'Well so-and-so is not patriotic because they disagree with my position.' I totally reject that thought."

Wait a minute! Is this a true story? George W. Bush heard somebody say "Well, so-and-so is not patriotic because they disagree with my position," and he totally rejects that thought? I think he's making that up. Actually, I think someone else made it up. At any rate, he remains steadfast in his insistence that no withdrawal plan commence, because that "will have terrible consequences." He went so far as to say that this was "not going to happen so long as I'm the president."

So there's the call, my friends; you can't get much clearer than that. It really isn't going to happen so long as he's the president. We shall have to remove him.

Murtha's plan calls for a complete pullout, carried out in phases over six months. Rumsfeld meekly insisted that current troop levels absolutely must be maintained at least until the next Iraqi election -- which is next month.

The George W. Bush fashioned by advisers and speechwriters often uses the word "resolute." He prides himself on being resolute; his great heroes have all been resolute presidents; one of the best things about Americans is that they're just so resolute! In Bush's case, it's a euphemism for unyielding. There seems to be a red alert for final straws, but he refuses to admit the ship is sinking, let alone plug up the holes. The limpness of his political concession -- basically, all he did was acknowledge freedom of speech -- suggests a gathering darkness he can't acknowledge.

As we have recently learned, his inner circle now consists of four people -- his wife, his mother, Karen Hughes, and Condoleezza Rice. And Rice's future in the administration -- like the future of the administration itself -- is uncertain. It's always seemed possible that the Valerie Plame investigation would beat a path to her door, and in the new subplot involving Bob Woodward, it seems that it has. All we knew when last week ended was that Woodward's surprise source from two years ago was not Rice or Rumsfeld. But now London's Sunday Times is reporting that "lawyers close to the investigation" say it's Stephen Hadley. He was Rice's deputy at the time of the leak, and when she became Secretary of State, he succeeded her as national security adviser.

Think Progress reminds us that at a White House press briefing on Friday, when Hadley was asked point blank if he was Woodward's source, he answered: "I have seen press reports that -- and only press reports -- that Bob Woodward has talked about, I guess, three sources from the administration that he had. I've also seen press reports from White House officials saying that I am not one of his sources." David Sirota writes, "If...Hadley was Woodward's direct source, that raises a very important question: Was Hadley ordered to leak Plame's name to the press by his boss at the time, Condi Rice? In other words, Rice may not have been Woodward's direct source as she claims -- but that doesn't mean she didn't give the order." Sirota also points out that "Wilson's New York Times op-ed was a direct indictment of Rice, meaning she had a personal motive. And it would be extremely hard to imagine Hadley acting alone with such a coordinated hit job on a CIA officer."

And as the White House itself has been, um, resolute in mentioning, the Fitzgerald investigation is ongoing. He's taking it before a new grand jury, the previous one having expired. More indictments are imminent; more resignations are inevitable.

Tragically, the war in Iraq is also ongoing, as is the suffering in New Orleans, the fear in New York, and the colossal nosedive our country has taken since these malevolent buffoons seized its reins. As for George W. Bush, he's always seemed happiest during the showbizzy, photo-op moments of his occupation, when he's been carefully surrounded with pliant and adoring acolytes. The Rove image machine has cranked out some splendid visuals, some notoriously ironic ("Mission Accomplished"). But in Bush's unscripted battle with a door in Beijing yesterday, we have a picture which tells the truth.

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Friday, November 18, 2005

Who Do You Mean -- Those Manayich?

I know, it's tempting. You want to feel sorry for him.

Look, there's nothing wrong with that. It's what makes you human. It's what makes you liberal. It's always been this way. You knew, for example, that the Rancor was a vicious beast beyond reason; you saw him try to eat Luke Skywalker, and he could have done it, too, if he were a little bit smarter. Even so, when that metal gate closed on the Rancor's head, you felt a little bit sorry for him. And when his keeper began sobbing, it was almost too much. You're a liberal. You have the burden, and the blessing, of empathy.

The Rancor

As it was then with the Rancor, so it is now with Mr. George Walker Bush. You know perfectly well that he's a wanton psychopath, without compassion, without decency. You know, perhaps because I keep saying it, that Bush has killed far more innocent civilians in Iraq than al Qaeda did in New York, Washington, Madrid, Bali, Istanbul, Riyadh, and London combined.

Plus our guys. It was a big event on October 25 when the two thousandth American soldier was killed. That was twenty-three days ago; eighty-three more have been killed since; that's almost four soldiers a day. Think about that -- today you and I will eat, go to work, write the Great American Novel, or whatever, while in Iraq, three or four young people who live here will be killed. Or nine. Or twenty-one. Or thirty-six. And yet, when George W. Bush dismisses as unpatriotic the "critics" who have a problem with this, he still cannot wipe that goddamn shit-eating grin off his face for one goddamn second.

George W. Bush

But still -- these days, he's just so pathetic, you do almost kind of feel sorry for him sometimes.

I was thinking about this because yesterday Saddam Hussein was beaten up in court. Here's what happened: Saddam was on trial, and he admitted that his helicopters fired upon civilians in Karbala during the 1991 Shia uprising, just as the American heroes were leaving. Saddam was then asked whether Karbala's two holiest Shia shrines, those of Imam al-Hussein and Imam al-Abbas, had been attacked. And apparently, his response was, "Who do you mean? Those manayich?"

We may never know what "manayich" means. The only Google result for it is the article linked to above. Other articles have the "Who do you mean?" quote, but then they just say that he uttered "an obscenity" or "an expletive." And that one article, from the U.K. Telegraph, translates "manayich" as "buggers."

Anyway, these are two of the holiest figures in Shia Islam, and when Saddam is asked whether he attacked their shrines, his response is, "Who do you mean -- those buggers?"

Suddenly, two court clerks -- who until this moment had been quietly taking notes -- lunged at Saddam Hussein and began punching him in the face. According to the BBC, they were shouting an ancient Shia incantation which means, "Blimey, you barmy wanker, what are you on about? Deprecate Imam al-Hussein and Imam al-Abbas, and we'll bung your bleeding arse in the rubbish bin and Bob's your uncle!"

Saddam Hussein

Saddam, apparently, fought back. Soon enough, according to the Telegraph, "the judge succeeded in restoring order, but not before the ex-dictator's head was bruised." And get this: "U.S. guards posted outside the makeshift courthouse in Baghdad found the incident amusing and did not intervene, the lawyer claimed."

This is Saddam Hussein. He is thought to have murdered six hundred thousand people.

But again -- once in a while, you catch yourself almost feeling sorry for these guys. That's who I mean -- those manayich.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005


Yesterday, the Democrats in the Senate presented a measure demanding a timetable for Iraq, a restriction of torture techniques during detainee interrogations, and quarterly reports on the status of military operations. Of course, the Republicans struck it down -- but then they replaced it with their own measure, almost word-for-word identical to the Democratic one. The only real difference is that the Republican rewrite doesn't demand a specific timetable, instead asking that Bush "explain to Congress and the American people its strategy for the successful completion of the mission in Iraq."

The measure was then adopted, by a Senate vote of 98 to 0.

Bush has already threatened to veto any bill which restricts the use of torture, but what a picture we now have. At this moment, for Bush to devote his first presidential veto to striking down an anti-torture bill would be a political disaster for him. He would also be defying the entire Senate, and further alienating Republican senators facing re-election next year.

Bush is falling apart, and even longtime supporters seem to be conceding that that's the story. The Washington Times, notoriously right-wing, says in its magazine:

"President Bush feels betrayed by several of his most senior aides and advisors and has severely restricted access to the Oval Office, administration sources say. The president's reclusiveness in the face of relentless public scrutiny of the U.S.-led war in Iraq and White House leaks regarding CIA operative Valerie Plame has become so extreme that Mr. Bush has also reduced contact with his father, former President George H.W. Bush, administration sources said on the condition of anonymity.

"'The atmosphere in the Oval Office has become unbearable,' a source said. 'Even the family is split.'"

The article goes on to say that Resident Bush "maintains daily contact with only four people: first lady Laura Bush, his mother, Barbara Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes." John Aravosis of Americablog writes, "That leaves out the entire Dept of Defense -- kind of important during war time -- the CIA, every other agency, and the entire White House staff." Aravosis concludes, "So basically Bush is melting down."

That may well be the case, but he's not the only one melting.

It's been confirmed that American troops used white phosphorus as a weapon during the 2004 attack on Fallujah. "It was used as an incendiary weapon against enemy combatants," said one Lieutenant Colonel Barry Venable to the BBC. He stressed that it was an "incendiary weapon," and not a chemical weapon, because it wasn't used against civilians. Apparently that's what makes a weapon chemical.

Professor Paul Rodgers, of the University of Bradford, told BBC Radio that white phosphorus "is not counted under the chemical weapons convention in its normal use but, although it is a matter of legal niceties, it probably does fall into the category of chemical weapons if it is used for this kind of purpose directly against people."

The reason the "normal use" of the substance is considered fair is that its normal use is not as a weapon at all, but as an illuminant. White phosphorus is commonly used to light up the sky during nighttime combat conditions. The U.S. State Department has maintained that this was its only application in the Iraq war -- a claim which Colonel Venable now says was made on the basis of "poor information." The BBC further notes that the U.S. "is not a signatory to an international treaty restricting the use of the substance against civilians." Since the assault on Fallujah displaced nearly 300,000 civilians and virtually destroyed the city itself, it's hard to imagine that there were no civilian victims.

"White phosphorus is highly flammable and ignites on contact with oxygen. If the substance hits someone's body, it will burn until deprived of oxygen.

", a defense website, says: 'Phosphorus burns on the skin are deep and painful... These weapons are particularly nasty because white phosphorus continues to burn until it disappears... it could burn right down to the bone.'"

Dahr Jamail, who worked as an unembedded journalist during the attack on Fallujah, quotes a refugee named Abu Sabah: "They used these weird bombs that put up smoke like a mushroom cloud." Sabah said he had seen "pieces of these bombs explode into large fires that continued to burn on the skin even after people dumped water on the burns." One doctor on the outskirts of Fallujah told Jamail he'd been treating victims "who had their skin melted."

Nobody's happy to hear about this. Not even the Republican Senate.

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Monday, November 14, 2005

Good Morning, America

"Now is the autumn of Bush's discontent," says Newsweek, "according to the Newsweek poll." In a survey of 1,002 registered voters, 68% said that they thought it was, indeed, the autumn of Bush's discontent; while 36% thought it was only the late summer. 46% of Americans feel that it is the midwinter of Bush's anxiety, and 25% believe that it is the spring of his back pain.

No, no, that's not really from the Newsweek poll, but take a look at this thing:

"Only 36 percent of Americans approve of the job he is doing as president, and an astounding 68 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the country -- the highest in Bush's presidency. But that's not the worst of it...Half of all Americans now believe he's not 'honest and ethical.'

"...The president can take some solace in the fact that 42 percent of Americans believe he is honest and ethical. Only 29 percent believe that Vice President Dick Cheney is. And more than a quarter of Republicans, 26 percent, believe the vice president is not honest and ethical. The growing credibility gap could have ramifications across the president's agenda: 56 percent of Americans say Bush 'won't be able to get much done;' only 36 percent say he 'can be effective.'

"...Democrats aren't the only ones questioning the administration's Iraq policies -- almost 2 in 3 Americans (65 percent) disapprove of the president's handling of Iraq...Fifty-two percent of Americans believe Cheney 'deliberately misused or manipulated pre-war intelligence about Iraq's nuclear capabilities in order to build support for war,' including 22 percent of Republicans and 54 percent of independents.

"Most worrisome for the White House: the base seems to be cracking. When asked whether anyone in the administration 'acted unethically' in the case involving the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's name, a 54-percent majority of Americans said they did -- and 30 percent of Republicans said they did. And 45 percent of Americans believe someone in the 'Bush administration broke the law and acted criminally' -- including 22 percent of Republicans.

"...When Newsweek asked registered voters whether they planned to vote for a Democrat or a Republican in [next year's] elections, 53 percent said a Democrat and 36 percent said a Republican."

Why, it's almost like being in love! Apparently, one's support for the Bush regime is inversely proportionate to the accuracy of the information one has. In his pitiful Veterans Day address on Friday, Bush reiterated -- again! -- the lie that the Democratic senators who voted to give him the authority to use military force "saw the same intelligence" that he had. Only this time, the Washington Post stood up and called it a lie, on the front page.

Last night, lost in an insomniac continuum of doodling, I imagined that this may be remembered as the turning point:

And then I saw this:

Poor guy. Poor guy.

As Eleanor Clift sees it, the sinking White House is divided by "a battle between the Bushes of Kennebunkport and the Bushes of Crawford." On the Kennebunkport side, she writes, are Bush's father, Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, and Andy Card. This camp, according to Clift, is "in despair over the state of the White House." She quotes "one former diplomat after three glasses of wine at an embassy dinner" who moaned about the current administration's intolerance of dissent. Speaking of Scowcroft, whose criticism of the Iraq war has been quite pointed, this diplomat told Clift, "He might as well be dead. If you say anything publicly, you're frozen out. You have to show comity toward them, or they won’t listen to you." And Clift claims that "friends of the senior Bush are blaming Cheney for usurping too much power, but that’s why they wanted him there, as a minder for the man-child who should never have been made president."

Heading up the Crawford contingent is Karl Rove, of whom the slightly inebriated former diplomat said, "If he goes, there's nothing left." We can only hope this guy is right.


"If Bush sticks with Rove and goes to the right, there's a ceiling on his popularity at best of 45 percent. If he moves to the center, like the Bush 41 crowd would like, the base collapses and he doesn't necessarily pick up votes in the center. The administration is too far gone, the problems intractable...In this diplomat’s assessment, having known the Bush family, respect is the key word. Bush for years was the ne'er do well son of a respected, duty-bound father, and he's still playing catch-up in the family Oedipal drama."

And it would be such a good thing for him to work through those issues in a nice, quiet cell where he can't hurt anybody.

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Friday, November 11, 2005

The Eleventh Hour

Today is Veterans Day. It seems like a good time to make two confessions. My first confession is that I support our troops, and my second confession is that this is rather new.

I don't like war; I don't like violence. I really think it's just about the worst way of solving a problem, and I think it speaks badly of humanity that it's still being used all over the world. Whenever the pacifist stance is assumed, there's always somebody who says, "Wait a minute, what about Hitler? Do you think it was wrong to go to war against him?" Well, yeah. I think war was the only solution to that problem -- in 1942. If we had dealt with Hitler earlier on, and not given him a decade's head start, there were other options. All through the thirties, we had a live-and-let-kill approach to European fascism, and by the time we got involved, perhaps it was too late for a nonviolent solution.

How about the 1991 Gulf War? Even if our true national objectives were money, power, and oil, it's not difficult to argue that protecting Kuwait from Saddam Hussein was a noble goal, consistent with humanitarian foreign policy. But the idea that it would take a war to do this was fallacious. Even at the time, dissenters within the first Bush administration felt that Saddam could be deterred through sanctions and other diplomatic means. Bush Senior wanted to be a war president, though, not a wimp president, and there you have it. The Gulf War looks pretty virtuous now that we have the current Iraq debacle to compare it to. You don't have to be a pacifist to see the Iraq war as an unnecessary tragedy; you can believe in war and still oppose this tower of war crimes built on deception.

Most of the time, my opposition to war has carried over into a milder opposition, to those who would choose to fight. In the earliest days of the Iraq war, I couldn't bring myself to express support for the fighting men and women. My attitude was: They signed up for the armed services, knowing that if there should be a war, they'd be called upon to kill. And no motivating objective -- money for college, the opportunity to travel -- could justify that. If they really were fighting to protect people's freedom, that would be one thing, but obviously nobody's freedom is being defended in Iraq. Precisely the opposite.

If General Motors is a horrible company, I thought, the people who work in the mail room do share some of the responsibility. Not as much as the upper echelons of management, but still -- there is a moral imperative not to be a cog in an evil machine. "We'll give you $400 a week" or "We'll put you through college" -- these enticements, however attractive they may be, should not induce good men and women to do the bidding of villains.

I continue to feel this way in theory, but I realize now that there was some hypocrisy in my old refusal to express support for the troops. The whole attitude was supposedly built on compassion, but I really had no compassion for the soldiers themselves, and this was because they'd signed up to fight. College is no excuse, I'd exclaim -- because I didn't particularly care for college, either. "Joining the army so you can go to college," I once wrote, in one of my most regrettable expressions, "is like shitting yourself so you can stink."

Yeah, I actually said that. A long time ago. I was allowing my opposition to violence to supersede everything else -- like the abject poverty and hopelessness which leads many young Americans to regard the armed services as the best available option, the only clear path to a better future. It must have seemed like a reasonably safe gamble, before we had a terrorist dictator instead of a real president. I still can't respect the decision to join up out of an active desire for combat. But I know now that there are other, better reasons to join, and that the 2,057 American troops who have now lost their lives in Iraq are victims of this mess, too.

Not everyone opposes violence, after all. There are plenty of good people in the world who believe that sometimes violence is necessary, and under precisely the right circumstances, they might be able to convince me of that, too. And if we set aside, for a moment, the pacifism debate, the willingness to risk one's life for the sake of others' lives is about as noble and selfless as you can get. Regardless of whether I think war can serve the cause of freedom, if they think it can, and they think that's what they're doing, all I can really say is thanks for your service.

Of course, you can support the troops without supporting the commander-in-chief; you can support the warriors without supporting the war.

If someone told me, "I joined up because I love airplanes, and I wanted to be an airplane mechanic, and the military offered me a stable career with which to support my family," I would be all compassion. If someone told me, "I joined up because I love guns, and I wanted to shoot people," I wouldn't. But just because someone is wearing a uniform doesn't mean I'm going to suspend the benefit of doubt. Many good people have to work for terrible companies in order to meet their own goals.

The only way to really get to the bottom of this is to ask the soldiers themselves. And the only way to do that is to bring all of them home.


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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A Conservative Democrat in Liberal Republican Clothing

In a major upset last night, Michael Bloomberg was re-elected Mayor of New York City. It was the minority, you see, who were major upset. It was a very small minority. Most of the people I know voted for Ferrer, but nobody I know dearly wanted him to win, and nobody I know is disgusted at the thought of another Bloomberg term.

I voted for Ferrer. I like him; he's okay. I also think Bloomberg has done a decent job, and I might have considered voting for him this time if he were not quite so friendly with the Bush regime. Imagine if the Republican mayor of 9/11 City condemned the Bush administration for its secrets and lies. It's impossible to believe that Bloomberg's true feelings about the current White House are as rosy as his choirboy songs of support.

"Republican mayor" is, in at least one respect, a very accurate way of describing Bloomberg. He is a lifelong Democrat who became a Republican, and moments later, became mayor. It's well-known that his skip across the aisle was a strategic move, and it's the reason he was elected. A billionaire media mogul with a Boston accent was not going to survive the raucous and crowded Democratic primary of 2001. In the end, Public Advocate Mark Green got the nomination only after a runoff.

The Republican primary election for Mayor of the City of New York was to take place on September 11, 2001. As it turned out, it was postponed. Bloomberg easily defeated Herman Badillo, and went on to easily defeat Mark Green, and all it cost him was $74 million. As a fake Republican, Bloomberg was also entitled to the all-important endorsement of Rudolph Giuliani. As a real Republican, Giuliani waited until the last possible second to speak up in support of Bloomberg, and by the time he finally did it, the city was buzzing with scandal over the possibility that he might not.

Giuliani was once a Democrat, too, and to this day he remains liberal on a few key social issues. But unlike Bloomberg -- a conservative Democrat in liberal Republican clothing -- he ran the city like a tyrant. The social issues Giuliani is respected for, on the left, are his tolerance of (and occasional co-habitation with) gays, and his apparent belief in abortion rights. But with far more vigor, he's despised for his livid and puritanical crusades against art museums, magazine editors, street vendors, the homeless, and the right of African-Americans not to be beaten by police officers.

Before 9/11, his approval rating was hovering around 30%. And then, he was magnificent. On 9/11 and the days which followed, he was basically the President of the United States. Or at least, a great leader -- a great representative -- whose sudden greatness was a chilly reminder that there was no President of the United States. He deserves the credit he gets for his finest hour, but the sinister career leading up to it should be remembered with equal clarity. In the last four years, Giuliani has become a sort of folk hero. Sometimes it seems that he may almost be at the point of approaching the verge of considering the possibility of national political ambition. He's been rubbing shoulders with senators and world leaders, but he's had almost nothing to do with Michael Bloomberg.

Bloomberg's history as a campaign contributor is interesting. Until 2001, he mostly gave money to Democrats. The occasional exceptions were made for moderate Republicans -- Jacob Javitz for Senate in 1980, Mitt Romney for Senate in 1995 (before Romney's homophobic hysteria), and John McCain over and over.

In 1979, he donated to Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign. In 1987, he gave money to George H.W. Bush, but also to his primary challengers Pete Du Pont and Bob Dole. Late in 1991, he gave to the Bush/Quayle re-election effort, but by February of 1992 he was writing checks to the Clinton campaign. During Clinton's first term, Bloomberg overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party -- not only individual candidates, but also groups like the DNC and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. In 1996, he donated to Clinton's re-election campaign, and also to the Republican primary races of Andrew Lamar Alexander and Steve Forbes.

Now we get to the chapter of American history which we'll remember as the Reign of Terror. Getting out his checkbook for the 2000 election, Bloomberg was generous with Al Gore, Bill Bradley, and the DNC. He also repeatedly donated to John McCain, to help in his effort to snatch the Republican nomination from the pincers of George W. Bush. A few days after Election Day 2000, Bloomberg gave $5,000 to NARAL Pro-Choice America's political action committee. And then he decided to become Mayor of New York City, and a Republican.

Or whatever you are, if you're not a Democrat for reasons of strategy, and you're the mayor of liberalism's capital. Giuliani, it is said, has limited chances of being elected to national office as a Republican, because he's too liberal for the far right. He's no longer considered a presidential possibility, in fact, largely because he's appeared on HBO in drag and had extramarital affairs and lived with a gay couple. But when Giuliani declares George W. Bush a great leader, you get the uneasy feeling that he believes it. Giuliani's glory days are inextricably woven with Bush's, and to believe in his own greatness, he must subscribe to the whole official package.

Bloomberg, on the other hand, doesn't really seem to buy it. He seems to be affecting a posture of support for the regime, for the same reason he joined its party -- strategy and convenience. But now that he's won his second term, Bloomberg should take a tougher stance toward the administration which continues to fail New York City. I admit he does the job pretty well, but it's time for an act of conscience -- like my act of conscience, yesterday morning, when I voted for Fernando Ferrer.

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Monday, November 07, 2005

Carolyn Maloney and Getty Lee - Rock Stars

Last Thursday, House Representatives and rock stars Carolyn Maloney (D - NY), Joseph Crowley (D - NY), Jay Imslee (D - WA) and Christopher Shays (R - CT) introduced a bill called the "Plan B for Plan B Act of 2005." Like many of us, Maloney, Crowley, Imslee and Shays are tired of the FDA dicking around with politics and women's health care.

The Food and Drug Administration has postponed making a decision on whether or not to allow Plan B emergency contraception over-the-counter status for too long. According to the text of the bill, it's purpose is:

"To require the Commissioner of Food and Drugs to determine whether to allow the marketing of Plan B as a prescription drug for women ages 15 and younger and a non-prescription drug for women ages 16 years of age and older." In a nutshell, the Commissioner of the FDA has 30 days from the passage of the bill to either approve or disapprove Barr's application. If the FDA has not acted in 30 days, the application will automatically be approved.For those of you who missed The Right to Choose, the text of the bill also provides an excellent timeline of events surrounding the ridiculous way in which the FDA has handled Barr Laboratories' application for approval of the marketing of their drug.

Here are the facts as outlined in the bill:

1. The FDA has declared Plan B safe and effective in preventing unintended pregnancy.

2. In April 2003, Barr submitted their application requesting approval for marketing Plan B as a non-prescription medication.

3. In December 2003, the review committee voted unanimously that Plan B was safe for use in a non-prescription setting.

4. In December 2003, the committee also voted 23-4 urging the FDA to approve Barr's application.

5. In May 2004, the FDA declared the application "not approvable," claiming concerns that young girls could purchase the drug.

6. Barr Laboratories submits a formal response to the FDA supporting marketing of Plan B as a non-prescription drug for women aged 17 and older and as a prescription only drug for women aged 16 and younger.

7. In January 2005, the FDA delayed making its decision on Barr's application.

8. In July 2005, Michael O. Leavitt (Secretary of Health and Human Services) sends a letter to Mike Enzi (Senate Chair of Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) stating that the FDA would act by September 2005.

Now, I have to break in here. Though the bill doesn't mention it, the reason Michael Leavitt had to send that letter promising a decision was because two other rock stars, Senators Patty Murphy and Hillary Clinton vowed to block the nomination of Lester Crawford as Commissioner of the FDA if the agency did not make a decision on the Plan B application. Because of Leavitt's memo, the two Senators allowed the confirmation to go through. Murphy and Clinton acted in good faith. They upheld their end of the bargain. But the FDA...well, let's go back to the bill.

9. The FDA begins discussing increasing regulations for active ingredients that are marketed as both prescription and non-prescription medicines even while admitting that "the available scientific data are sufficient to support the safe use of Plan B as an OTC product... for women who are 17 years of age or older."

10. In August 2005, The FDA's Assistant Commissioner for Women's Health and the Director of the Office of Women's Health, Susan F. Wood resigns. Wood says she can no longer hold her position at the FDA because "scientific and clinical evidence, fully evaluated and recommended for approval by the professional staff [at the administration] has been overruled."

11. On September 1, the deadline for the FDA's decision according to Leavitt's memo, the FDA declares its intentions to add years of regulation for active ingredients marketed as both prescription and non-prescription, a decision which could tie up the approval process of Plan B for several more years.

Today, Susan F. Wood, spoke at the University of Wisconsin at Madison about her decision to leave the administration and the role politics has played in the delay:

“The FDA is a science-based industry. No one knows who made this decision, but it clearly does not promote the health of women and families,” Wood said. “I refuse to believe that contraception is controversial. I will grant you that abortion is, but contraception is not. This product acts as the same mechanism as other birth control pills. The only connection Plan B has with abortion is that it can prevent the need for one.”

Among the more than 70 groups who support making Plan B available over the counter are the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Emergency contraception has prevented more than 50,000 abortions in the United States, the Alan Guttmacher Institute has estimated. Emergency contraception is safe and effective.

And these four Representatives - Maloney, Crowley, Inslee and Shays - know that.

"We're not telling the FDA how to decide on emergency contraceptive pills, but we do want the FDA to make a decision before stalling any longer," said Maloney. "It's time for Plan B on Plan B. It's no secret anymore that politics, not health concerns, is driving the FDA's process. The FDA exists to improve our health, not to play politics. The longer we have to wait for a decision on this clear-cut issue, the worse it is for women's health."

"The FDA has failed to take action on approving Plan B for over-the-counter status, despite scientific data that shows it would be safe," Shays said. "The FDA should make decisions based on science, not politics and ideology. The bottom line is, expanded access to emergency contraception will safely decrease the risk of unintended pregnancy and decrease the number of abortions."

"It's time to put an end to the FDA's heel dragging and excuse making on the Plan B application," said Inslee.

"The unnecessary delay in FDA passage of Plan B over the counter sales is yet another example of the assault on women's rights by the Bush Administration," Crowley said. "The Administration has dragged its feet throughout this entire process, putting politics ahead of public health policy. The facts are that Plan B is safe, Plan B is effective and Plan B is an essential tool in limiting the number of abortions and giving women the choices they deserve."

The FDA would like to tie Plan B up in rules and regulations forever so they never have to face the politics or criticism that their decision will surely bring about. If they do not approve the application, they will be doing so in the face of staggering medical evidence contrary to their position. If they do approve the application, the rabid right who do not feel that contraception is moral will go nuts. This bill will force the FDA to decide. And if they choose not to decide, as the inimitable Getty Lee once said, they will still have made a choice.

And for Maloney, Crowley, Inslee and Shays - fruit baskets all around. Or maybe just a thank you note.

Contact Rep. Carolyn Maloney(D) - 14th District, New York

Contact Rep. Christopher Shays(R) - 4th District, Connecticut

Contact Rep. Jay Inslee(D) - 1st District, Washington

Contact Rep. Joseph Crowley(D) - 7th District, New York

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From Bad to Verse

Time reports officials in the Bush administration
predict within a year we'll see a permanent vacation
for Donald Rumsfeld, Rove, and Snow, and even Scott McClellan --
just throw a stone in Washington; you're bound to hit a felon.
Today the Post informs us of this holy war of Cheney's
to stop McCain from stopping the mistreatment of detainees.

Cheney's "shrinking island," says a State Department source,
is lonelier than ever, but he wants to stay the course.
And even Condoleezza Rice is looking at him funny,
and when he leaves the house the Secret Service counts the money.
While one could say that Cheney's not exactly sweet as Splenda,
they're also saying now he may be hurting the agenda.

Comptroller General Walker says financial ruin is near --
the Bush regime is spending 2.5 trillion a year --
and further cutting taxes for the richest of the day.
If they're fiscal conservatives, then I am Tom DeLay --
who by the way accepted close to fourteen thousand smackers
from slimy folks at Fox to help him flee from his attackers.

United Nations auditors have said they're fairly certain
Iraq is owed some money which was swiped by Halliburton.
The Democrats are showing all the spine that they can muster,
but still pronounce unlikely an Alito filibuster.
Republicans, of course, support the troops, which sure is nifty.
They love those kids so much they've only killed two thousand fifty.

And some might say it's evil; some might say they've overreached,
but fifty-three percent believe that Bush should be impeached.

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Friday, November 04, 2005

The World Can't Stand It

Bush's approval rating has sunk even lower, to 35%. Everyone hates him! Yesterday, when he arrived in Argentina for the Summit of Americas, he was greeted by tens of thousands of angry protesters. Also yesterday, when Sisk and I met at Union Square for the exuberant World Can't Wait march, we eventually noticed a tiny cadre of ten or fifteen people standing on the other side of Broadway. They comprised the most pitiful counter-protest I've ever seen. They had awkwardly haughty grins on their faces, and signs which said "Hippies Go Home" and "Bush/Cheney '04 - New Jersey." Now, obviously, we "hippies" were home, whereas they lived in New Jersey.

Across from this miserable handful of blowhards, there were hundreds of people, filling Union Square. (Half of them were New York City high school students who'd walked out of class to participate in the protest.) It really was an accurate picture of America at the moment. A vast majority demanding the overthrow of the corrupt and murderous Bush regime -- and a few others, on the sidelines, insisting that the corrupt and murderous Bush regime is just swell.

That opinion is a dying one, as evidence of the administration's corruption and murderousness grows heftier by the day. On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the CIA has been secretly holding and interrogating terror suspects, in the complete absence of oversight, at former Soviet camps in Poland and Romania.

From The Guardian:

"Poland and Romania were identified as the main sites after Human Rights Watch studied the logs of a Boeing 757 jet -- with a tailplane registration N313P -- which is widely alleged to fly terror suspects outside the US. The group found that in September 2003 the plane flew from Kabul to Szymany airport near the Polish town of Szczytno, north of Warsaw, where a training camp for the Polish intelligence service is based. From there it flew to the Mihail Kogalniceanu military air base near the Romanian city of Constanta on the Black Sea -- which the Pentagon has been upgrading -- before heading to Morocco and then on to Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, the notorious prison for al-Qaida suspects. Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch said: 'It is highly probable that the flight was transporting prisoners because Guantánamo was the final destination ... We do not believe the stops were for refueling -- if you're flying from Kabul to Guantánamo Bay you do not stop off at a small rural airfield in Poland, head south to Romania before flying to Cuba via Morocco.'"

The Bush administration thinks it can do whatever it wants to, but this strategy has been failing wildly. Like no administration before it, the Bush organization has replaced the common sense of good governing with the facile sloganeering of political campaigning. These people are capable of manufacturing a few endlessly-repeated, lofty-sounding phrases for the cable news networks. They're capable of branding all dissent as anti-American. They're capable, basically, of running an extremely nasty and underhanded perpetual political campaign. When it comes to governing, though, they're worth less than shit. A quick survey of American history since 2000 suggests that we'd all be a lot better off if the Bush administration simply never showed up for work.

But of course, it's not just the Bush administration. It's also the majority of the Republican Party, which has transformed a system of checks and balances into an approval machine. Yesterday, by a vote of 51 to 48, the Senate approved drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And you know what that gets for us? One million barrels of oil a day, in 2025. Currently, this country uses twenty million barrels a day, and 60% of our oil is imported. Opening ANWR for drilling means that by 2025, we may be using 64% imported oil, as opposed to 68% if we opted not to destroy North America's Serengeti.

Now, wouldn't it make more sense to put some of this money -- perhaps some of the $2 billion we're spending every week to kill Iraqis and Americans for the sake of a new Islamic fundamentalist theocracy -- into reducing our dependence on petroleum? Of course it would, but alas, these decisions are being made by people who a) don't care, and b) are in the oil business.

It's easy to say that the Bush administration is the worst in modern American history, but that does it no justice. Even the Vatican, for crying out loud, has just made statements which basically accuse the American radical right of being stuck in religious ignorance! Cardinal Paul Poupard said at a press conference that the faithful knew the danger of science untempered by ethics, "but we also know the dangers of a religion that severs its links with reason and becomes prey to fundamentalism."

That's right, Santorum, he means you. And you too, bin Laden.

"The faithful," said Cardinal Poupard, "have the obligation to listen to that which secular modern science has to offer, just as we ask that knowledge of the faith be taken in consideration as an expert voice in humanity." Getting more specific, Monsignor Gianfranco Basti reminded the room that in 1996, John Paul II had referred to evolution as "more than just a hypothesis. A hypothesis asks whether something is true or false. [Evolution] is more than a hypothesis because there is proof."

But there are a lot of people in the United States, Monsignor, who take that book of yours so literally that proof makes no impression. And there is a political movement in the United States which has figured out that these people can be taught to vote, as long as you explain to them that the other party is a bunch of Satanic homosexuals. Oh, there's not enough of them to win a presidential election, of course. But if you figure out what the key swing states are going to be, and you make sure the highest-ranking members of the state legislature are on your campaign staff, and you prevent black people from voting in those places...then you can be the President of the United States.

But not for long.

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