For years, my only morning paper was a chestnut oak leaf that had been skeletonized by leaf miners. I taped it to the window next to my writing table so I could see the sky through a map of veins. Even now, I have an aversion to beginning my day with the news. I prefer to save it for late afternoon, listening to the radio while I make supper. By that time of day, whatever creative impulses I may have woken up with have long dissipated, and I’m ready for the streams of clichés, half-truths and nationalist myopia that make up a typical All Things Considered broadcast — actually one of the least offensive sources of mainstream news and opinion in the U.S.
On Saturdays, though, I have breakfast with my parents, and this morning, the conversation strayed to the news. My dad reported that a landslide in the western Pittsburgh suburbs had completely buried the main railroad line between Pittsburgh and Chicago, as well as a major highway, Rt. 65, used by commuters into the city. The landslide began on Tuesday, as a result of construction for a new Wal-Mart Supercenter. The construction had been opposed by a local group calling itself Communities First!, who had gone to court to try and block it on the grounds that the slopes above the Ohio River were too steep and unstable for that kind of development. But they’d lost the case and construction had gone forward. Dad said that 300,000 cubic yards of debris had buried the rail line and the highway. “That’s about 100 times the volume of our barn,” Dad said.
Local officials, who had waived slope standards to permit the construction, denied that the disaster could have been predicted. Norfolk Southern managed to get one of the three rail lines cleared, and trains were moving at less than one-third normal capacity, which accounts for the relative scarcity of trains whistling our crossing over the past four days. Removal of debris from the highway is expected to last until October 7, though they might be able to open a single lane for traffic in each direction before then. “Who needs terrorists when you have developers?” Mom said.
The War on Terror did score one major, albeit under-reported, success back on September 11, netting obnoxious muckraking journalist Greg Palast for allegedly filming an otherwise top-secret oil refinery near New Orleans. Palast got Homeland Security to divulge that his accuser was none other than the owner of the refinery, Exxon-Mobil Corporation, which is understandably nervous about the effects of muckraking journalists on the fragile ecosystems of the lower Mississippi Valley and Gulf of Mexico, where a serious erosion of muck greatly amplified the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Save the muck!
In yesterday’s big story, unelected Pakistani President and supporter of democracy Pervez Musharraf accused the unelected Bush administration of making terroristic threats on September 12, 2001. Former Powell henchman Richard “Plame game” Armitage denied saying that he told Musharraf’s representative that the U.S. would bomb Pakistan back into the Stone Age if it didn’t support us in the War on Terror, however. He merely told the Pakistanis that they were “either with us or against us,” before describing in vivid detail U.S. intentions to bomb Afghanistan back into the Stone Age.
Despite the allegations, Bush and Musharraf were at pains yesterday to emphasize the closeness of their relationship. I was reminded of a story from an old girlfriend, describing how her parents had gotten together. Their relationship got off to a rocky start, but one day, her father-to-be pulled out a gun and told her mother-to-be that if she didn’t agree to marry him, he’d kill them both. She swooned, he took her into his arms, and they got engaged shortly thereafter. “Isn’t that one of the most romantic things you’ve ever heard?” my girlfriend asked. We weren’t together for very long after that.
Also yesterday, I was agog at the news of a hundred thousand fans cheering Sheik Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut. Yes, I realize that Hezbollah provides many valuable social services in southern Lebanon, and has morphed into a quasi-state entity not unlike the Medhi Army in Iraq or the Tennessee Valley Authority in the Southern Appalachians. Hell, every government, at its root, is nothing but a glorified protection racket. But the fact that Israel withdrew before eradicating every multi-cellular life form in Lebanon does not amount to a glorious victory for Hezbollah.
Nasrallah reminds me of this retarded kid who used to follow me home from school when I was in 11th or 12th grade, shouting insults and throwing rocks. He was kind of deformed — think “post-nuclear holocaust mutant” — and thus unable to throw stones with any accuracy, but now and then I got annoyed and gave half-hearted chase. Once, to my shame, I went so far as to catch the kid and push him to the ground, where he gobbled and writhed grotesquely. As soon as I walked away, he lurched to his feet and resumed throwing rocks, yelling and jeering — “Ha ha! You’re afraid of me!” or words to that effect.
In a similar vein, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made headlines at the United Nations this week by calling Bush “the devil” and referring to the stench of sulfur. This was a serious escalation in metaphor for the long-winded strongman, who had previously likened the U.S. leader to a donkey. Though Bush regime flacks declined to respond publicly, one can’t help supposing that the PR machine is working overtime, trying to figure out how to tie Venezuela into the Axis of Evil without endangering the flow of sulfur-scented oil. Chavez began his speech by waving a copy of Noam Chomsky’s latest polemic and urging everyone to read it, especially Americans. “It’s an excellent book to help us understand what has been happening in the world throughout the 20th century, and what’s happening now, and the greatest threat looming over our planet,” Chavez said. He did not, however, announce any concrete plans to help the United States overcome its planet-threatening addiction to fossil fuels. The devil is, as always, in the details.
Then there’s the pope flap. I think it’s possible that Pope Benedict XVI actually intended to inflame the Muslim world, as a kind of show of force. After all, the pontiff’s power in modern times is basically restricted to speech acts — excommunication, the issuing of papal bull, and general pontificating — which must surely chafe for a man whose previous job was heading up the Inquisition (now known euphemistically as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). But while he can no longer burn heretics and Muslims at the stake, he can incite them to burn effigies of himself, which in his mind probably condemns them to the fires of hell just as definitively. And as Christ’s representative on earth, he may even derive some vicarious masochistic pleasure from seeing his name and image subjected to such passionate desecration.
The pope’s defenders say that his words about the “evil and inhuman” aspects of Islam were taken out of context. The context was an arid theological exercise designed to show that the Christian concept of deity is superior to the Muslim concept. Though couched as a defense of “reason” against those who allege that God is above and beyond all human categories, the pope never defines reason and decries its “limitation … to the empirically verifiable.” While Muslims contend that God can violate his own word if he wants to, the pope denies this, citing the opening of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word.” Well, again, it makes sense that the pope would believe in the power and primacy of words — his words, at any rate. He traces the roots of Christian theology to the Greek Bible’s mistranslation of Exodus 3:14, “I am that which is” — a tautology verging on pantheism, but never mind that. While acknowledging the novelty of the translation, the pope doesn’t mention that a more accurate translation would tend to support the Muslim position: “I will be what I will be.” Nope, sorry, God! You’ll be what the pope says. And everyone’s invited to a “genuine dialogue of cultures and religions,” Catholics and heathen alike.
As I was washing up the breakfast dishes this morning, my mother mentioned that all the recent pictures of the pope in the news had given her an eerie feeling: “He looks just like Pop-pop,” she said, referring to my deceased grandfather, her dad. “The long nose, the great big ears — must be the Bavarian look. That’s where Nanna’s [i.e. Pop-pop’s mother’s] people all came from, Bavaria.”
Hmm, Pop-pop and the pope. They might even have been distant cousins, who knows? Pop-pop did like to indulge in sweeping generalizations about “those people over there” from time to time, although I am sure he would have been very distressed if he’d thought his words might have offended somebody. Thankfully, I don’t seem to have inherited his penchant for shooting his mouth off. At least, not as long as I can manage to ignore the ceaseless stream of blather they call the news.