Tuesday, April 5, 2011


March 31, 2011

On the cover of The New Yorker magazine for March 14, a drawing by Barry Blitt depicts Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator, as a scarecrow, dressed in military finery, stuffed with straw, and mounted on a stick, with a desert landscape below. Flying around the scarecrow is a flock of white doves, several of them pulling tufts of straw protruding from its arms and head, another unraveling the braids on the uniform, gathering nesting material for spring.
The drawing is entitled, "Hope is the thing with feathers."
How quickly hawks snatch doves in flight, scattering their feathers in the wind.
Barely a month ago, as Blitt was pitching his idea to The New Yorker's editors, it seemed to much of the watching world that the near-miracle of peaceful revolution wrought in Tunisia and Egypt would replicate itself in Libya. Mass protests calling for Qaddafi's resignation were met with a waffling similar to that of those aged dictators to his east and west: a show of force followed by the promise of concessions. Qaddafi's brutal crackdown against the demonstrators in mid-February shocked even his own government, with two of his air force pilots flying their French-built Mirage jets to asylum in Malta and several of his ambassadors and diplomatic staff resigning their posts.
A few more days of demonstration might have toppled the regime. But for reasons as yet unclear, the center of nonviolent opposition did not hold. Disaffected military personnel seized arms and munitions in outlying regions and persuaded some of the citizens to join them in battle. Quick as that, protesters had become rebels; civil resistance had become civil war.
Thus allowed to play the game the way he liked it, Qaddafi set about smashing the revolt with attacks from air and ground — and almost immediately drew much of Europe into the vortex of violence. This crazy-as-a-fox colonel had been pushing the buttons of the West for 40 years, now threatening, now cozying up, back and forth — first a Communist and then an anti- Communist, first a terrorist and then an anti-terrorist. Having blown up the Pan Am plane over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 and then having initiated a chemical and nuclear weapons program, he turned right around and apologized, proffering reparations to the Lockerbie survivors and dismantling his WMD's, hoodwinking none other than George W. Bush in 2004 to rescind Libya's terrorist status, thus clearing the path for multi-billion-dollar arms deals with France, Italy, Germany, and Russia, among others. It is those very weapons, so readily supplied to a country lacking a single external threat, that he's now using against the rebels, and that the U.S. and NATO are now firing their missiles at to take out.
So here we go again.
Another megalomaniac Little Caesar twirling the great powers around his finger. Another internal conflict inflated into an international one. Another military intervention in the name of protecting civilians with so-called "pinpoint bombing" that inevitably results in the death of civilians they are bombing to protect. Another commitment to topple — or not to topple, can't get quite clear on that one yet — the dictator with only the vaguest knowledge of who will take his place. Another rejection of Colin Powell's doctrine that every entrance strategy must have an exit strategy.
And thus far, despite it all, the latest Little Caesar remains, laughing at the world while his country goes up in smoke.
How can this be, and so soon, too, with Iraq so fresh in the mind?
President Obama's defense of military action in Libya, outlined in his address to the nation on Monday, is based on would-have's and could-have's: "We knew if we waited one more day, Benghazi — a city nearly the size of Charlotte — could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world. ... A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya's borders .... The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship .... A failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America."
Preemptive war is a war of would-have's.
But since we're speculating, there is another set of would- have's to consider: What would have happened had the Libyan resistance remained nonviolent? What would have happened had the militants been left without external assistance? Would those democratic impulses dawning across the region have been strengthened or diminished had the "international community" opted against force?
Oh yes, and one could-it-be: Could it yet be that in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and even Palestine, those things with feathers will continue to pick at their respective scarecrows?


March 17, 2011

Easy Reader publisher Kevin Cody's puzzled prognostication on the death of newspapers (EasyReaderNews.com, February 24) set me a-shivering. It was what the passage of Prohibition did to drinkers and what the smoking bans did to tobacco lovers: When the papers are no more, how can I live?
There's something about a newspaper, and it isn't just the news. It's the paper.
You can spread it or fold it. You can linger over it or glance at it. Turning its pages yields constant surprises. Reading a paper is a non-linear activity; looking across its broad pages, you see many things at once — headlines, photos, ads — some you follow, others you don't.
The comment of Will Rogers, the homespun pundit of the 1930's, that "All I know is just what I read in the papers," certainly applies to me. Much of what I've learned or been prompted to learn has come not from courses, journals, books, or on-line sources but from the newspapers, just as it did for generations before me.
Newspapers were their window to the world.
Uncle Frank, my mother's brother, a book-binder with a knack for picking stocks, retired at age 55 and for the next 30 years spent every afternoon reading the Los Angeles Times. He read it the way people commonly did it on buses and trains in pre- iPod/iPad days, folding it in half lengthwise, reading the left side of the front page, turning it over to the right side, then folding that side back to reveal page 2, and so on to the end. When I was a boy, I was fascinated by this method and begged him to teach me how to do it, but after several attempts when I turned his Times into a pile of random pages, he gave up. I eventually mastered the technique, but now seldom use it, preferring the compact New Yorker on the subway instead. (As proof that you can find absolutely everything on the internet, go to RealSimple.com and search for "How to Fold a Broadsheet Newspaper" for illustrated instructions. Real simple, they say.)
Uncle Frank's method was an early version of multi-tasking, in which he held several unfinished articles in his head at once, resuming them wherever they were continued inside. My father, a machinist with a post-Depression suspicion of stocks, had a different approach with the evening Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the people's paper, which he bought daily after work. Dad was an interactive reader, spreading the paper on the kitchen table and noisily turning the pages to find the continuation of a font-page story. He processed the essential facts, offering running commentary on international politics, labor relations, government boondoggles, or movieland scandals to anyone nearby, and failing that, to himself.
Neither of these men had a formal education, but both of them displayed an astounding command of ideas and issues, due almost exclusively to their lifelong love of the newspaper.
It's no wonder I got hooked on newspapers at an early age. First I cut out cartoons, then later amassed huge files of clippings ranging from hard news to human and natural oddities. In high school I helped to found and went on to edit a mimeographed alternative weekly to counter the glossy and vapid establishment organ produced by the journalism class. I wrote a column for the Bellflower Herald Enterprise, as local as local news got. When I went off to college on the East Coast, I had the Sunday L.A. Times mailed to me, my medication for homesickness. There hasn't been a day in the decades since when I've begun my morning without the paper, any paper, wherever I was, even in Poland or Italy, where all I could do was look at the photos and guess at the words.
Reading the newspaper is part of my life's ritual. On days when the New York Times doesn't come — delivery to the Bronx is spotty, and when it snows they don't even bother — I feel the ache of absence, the symptoms of withdrawal.
My approach to internet news is different. I use the Web in much the same way as I did the public library's reference room in bygone days — another identity problem, by the way — to search for information on specific topics. When I enter a news site, I rarely browse the home page; sitting at a computer screen is work, not leisure, and there's something about the screen itself that makes me vaguely anxious. I cannot linger; when I find what I want I print it out and read the hard copy.
This purpose-driven activity leaves me usually oblivious to the ads flashing and framing the screen, most of which I treat as so much annoying spam, as worthless as e-mails from the Nigerian lottery.
Cody's mystification about why the Easy Reader, like all papers, is losing advertising to the electronic media mystifies me too. I'm much more likely to be attracted to and act on an ad when I come upon it as I turn a page rather than having it in my face on a computer screen. Plus, you see so many more of them in hard copy.
But as surveys continue to show more and more people getting their news from the internet, the more I dread the death of my old friend, the newspaper. Only a retrieval of appreciation for its unique contribution to daily life will save it.
Last month I got three handwritten letters from people under 30. Maybe some revival is at hand.