Happy New Year from room34.com (and U2)

It’s pretty obvious, of course, but every New Year’s Day I think of the classic U2 song “New Year’s Day,” from their seminal 1983 album War. Or, more specifically, I think of the music video. It’s a great video for a great song by a great band. And it’s worth remembering every year on New Year’s Day. So, here you go:

What Happened to the War-Related Rants?

I have written several rants here over the past few weeks, generally being critical of the build-up to war (as I am not a big fan of death and destruction). Those select few of you who are regular readers of my rants may notice a few of them have gone missing, including one I wrote just earlier today. That is because I feel now is the time for me to state, simply and — as best I can — succinctly, a few basic principles I believe in that have led me to my current position:

  • Killing other humans is fundamentally immoral. Killing the killers does not ennoble the deed.

  • War is a gut-wrenchingly hellish, morally-repugnant morass that bears little resemblance to the polished soundbites that make their way back home to the 6 o’clock news.
  • Striking first when the opponent presents no clear and present threat is bound to set a dangerous precedent that, for our own enduring liberty, we should hope others do not follow. Unilateral violation of the sovereignty of nations, no matter how despotic their leadership, is asking for trouble.
  • To show balance in my opinions expressed here: Saddam Hussein is despicable. Although I try to avoid using the word “evil,” he probably fits it better than anyone known in my lifetime. The Iraqi people deserve liberation. And I support our troops, performing their sworn duty, even if I question the full and true motivation to send them into combat.
  • “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” — Matthew 7:12

The Poster

A Short Story

A few weeks ago I quit, threw in the towel, took this job and shoved it. I gave up my long-term day job and embarked on an adventurous new career in… art appraisal.

OK, sure, I know little about art, and absolutely nothing about its value, but these days ignorance is a virtue. So it was with the swagger of clueless self-assuredness that I hung out my shingle, so to speak:

LIONEL SMITH ART APPRAISALS

Business was slow for a week or two. OK, it was beyond slow. But at least I was my own boss, and now I had no one but myself to blame for my boredom and frustration.

And then, the package arrived.

Yes, the package. It was a cardboard poster tube, with a 21216 postmark. My ZIP code. Someone saw fit to pay the US Postal Service $3.85 to take two days to deliver a package to me that they themselves could have walked over here with in 20 minutes. I knew I was dealing with a shrewd character.

Not to mention the fact that they’d apparently rolled up a piece of artwork to ship in a poster tube.

I opened the end of the tube with the mild, lazy curiosity of a person who’s been counting the ceiling tiles for so long that nothing short of the aurora borealis localized entirely within the room would arouse true interest. (At least I could always rely on an oblique Simpsons reference to brighten the day.)

With my expectations already sufficiently lowered, I took little care in shaking the contents out of the tube, which slid quickly onto the floor, denting in one rolled-up edge, flopping down on the linoleum, and rolling a few feet before unraveling like a clock spring.

I gazed blankly at the object on the floor. It was, not surprisingly, a poster. It met all of the criteria that, in my mind, coalesce into the concept, “poster.” About two feet by three feet, glossy white paper, blank on one side, printed on the other. Yup, a poster.

Static cling momentarily bonded a letter to its surface. I picked it up and began reading:

Dear Sir:

Enclosed please find an artwork which I would like to have appraised. You may reach me at:

Mary Landers
1328 Marsh St.
Baltimore, MD 21216

Thank you.

Sincerely,
Mary Landers

The name was perfect. Assuming she was a local, her parents either had a cruel sense of humor or were as clueless as she was. I wondered if she had a southern belle cousin named Mrs. Ippi. Those were the kinds of thoughts that ran threw my head these days. Why did I ever quit that day job?

Here it was, my first serious (if you could really call it that) appraisal. Piece of cake! I thought to myself.

Worthless.

Having given the poster my 2-second evaluation, I decided to take a closer look merely to pass the time.

It was a poster, and a truly wretched one at that. It appeared to be a collage of photographs of military tombstones from America’s various wars: the French-and-Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War. Now I was about as much of an expert on military history as I was on art. Fortunately for me, there is a longstanding tradition of noting the war in which soldiers have died upon their tombstones.

Then there was a tombstone with a death date of 2026, which appeared to have been colored over with a green highlighter. Pure rubbish! I thought to myself. In addition to the highlighter, I noticed someone had scrawled the name “Ralph” with a Sharpie in the lower left corner of the poster, and in the lower right corner, there was a large white sticker with a UPC bar code, and the words “PRINTS PLUS — $6.99.”

Perfect, I thought to myself. But I wouldn’t give you a nickel for it.

I decided to have a little fun at Ms. Landers’ expense, since I could always head down to Prints Plus and pick her up another copy of this godawful thing; I couldn’t imagine a high demand on this particular poster.

It occurred to me that my perspective on the poster was incorrect, what with it lying on the floor as it was. So I must mount it on the wall for proper viewing. But with what? I surveyed the few scattered items I had bothered to unpack from the moving boxes in the four weeks I had been renting the office. Duct tape, thumbtacks, a box of Chiclets.

Why not try them all? I thought.

First, the duct tape. Not overly concerned that I would need it to secure plastic sheeting to seal off the door to my office anytime soon, I made no miserly effort to conserve the gray sticky stuff, and applied it liberally to the poster. I rolled up pieces and stuck them on the back. I tore off long strips and pressed them lengthwise against the edges of the glossy paper. I even cut out small pieces and selectively covered bits of the text on the tombstones in the photos, for added amusement.

Then the thumb tacks. One in each corner would probably suffice to keep the poster hanging securely, but why stop there? I turned the poster into a veritable thumbtack dartboard. And to top it all off, I sloppily chewed a mouthful of Chiclets and tested their adhesive properties.

Thoroughly convinced I had created a masterpiece to strike fear into one Ms. Mary Landers of 1328 Marsh St., I ripped the poster from the wall (leaving a few forlorned corners gripping the sheetrock in confusion), rolled it carelessly, snapped a wide rubber band around its center, jammed it back into the tube, and set out into the brisk morning air for a walk down to Marsh St. to hand deliver both the poster and my crude appraisal.

Knock knock.

“Who’s there?”

“It’s Lionel Smith with your art appraisal.”

The door slowly opened, and a short, kindly woman appeared. “Hello, Mr. Smith. I’m Mary Landers. Thank you for looking at the piece.”

The “piece?” I thought. That’s one word for it. But I’d add a couple more at the end.

Ms. Landers escorted me into the living room and offered me a cup of tea. How quaint.

“No, thank you.”

“Well, then, may I ask you for your assessment of the work?”

The “work!” It just keeps getting better.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Landers,” I said with mock remorse as I pried the sticky contents out of the tube, “but the news is not good.”

At the sight of the mangled poster, Mary Landers’ heart visibly sank in her chest. A paleness came over her face, and she looked about to faint.

“Oh… my…” she grasped for words. “What have you done? You do realize this is a one-of-a-kind work by my brother, the famous lithograph artist Ralph Landers!”

I gazed blankly at the woman standing in front of me.

“The Ralph Landers!” she exclaimed, throwing a copy of the New Yorker in my direction. I picked up the magazine and flipped to a bookmarked page. There I saw a lengthy, glowing review of the MOMA exhibit of the famed lithograph works of Ralph Landers.

Abruptly a tall man entered the room. He gasped when he saw the decimated artwork. “You know nothing of my work!” he exclaimed. The image of Marshall McLuhan passed briefly through my head. “Get out!”

And with that I was on my ass on the sidewalk.

A few more thumb-twiddling, ceiling-tile-counting weeks passed. I decided that perhaps I would be more successful as an art appraiser if I actually learned something about art, so I headed to D.C. and the National Gallery. I was greeted at the entrance by giant, 40-foot-tall banners bearing a single, larger-than-life word:

LANDERS

Great.

I entered the museum, and noticed a long queue assembling to enter the Landers exhibit. My natural curiosity got the best of me, and I joined the line. Sure enough, when I entered the exhibit hall, I discovered none other than the works of famed lithographer Ralph Landers.

One work, in particular, seemed to garner an inordinate amount of attention. I approached the huddled mass and squirmed my way to the front. There, behind a velvet rope, hung the very poster I myself had profaned with my duct tape, thumbtacks, Chiclets, and saliva.

“Brilliant.”

“Genius.”

“A profound statement on the price of war, the commodification of art, and modern society’s abandonment of things of value.”

The man standing next to me asked, “What do you think?”

I gazed blankly at the object hanging on the wall. I hoped desperately to exude an air of deep contemplation.

“Priceless.”

After the crowd dispersed, I pulled a Sharpie out of my pocket. (Yes, I carry a Sharpie at all times. Don’t you?) I leaned gingerly over the velvet rope, pulled the cap from the pen, and scrawled “Lionel” across a strip of duct tape.

Duct Tape and Plastic Sheets?

Disclaimer: Since writing this rant, it has come to my attention that both Home Depot and MacGyver were mentioned in a Jay Leno monologue on this topic last week. I’m not sure what’s worse: having people think I ripped off Jay Leno, or having people know I didn’t rip off Jay Leno — I just came up with the same jokes.


Recently, for approximately the 574th time since September 11, 2001, the federal government announced that, in response to vague and highly-guarded “intelligence” of undisclosed (and hence almost inherently dubious) origin, our “national terror alert” status would again be raised from the level 3 “code yellow” to level 2 “code orange.” Judging by the public’s general apathy or utter unawareness of this change, I would be inclined to say that the terror alert status codes have lost all meaning, but that would imply that they had meaning in the first place.

This time things seem a bit more serious than usual, however. Security is being beefed up in public places, both prominent and ridiculously inconsequential. Police are carrying gas masks. And the government has sternly advised citizens to safeguard their homes and their families by stocking up on plastic sheeting and duct tape, to seal their windows and doors in the event of a biological or chemical attack.

Mmmmm… that’s goooood homeland security! Let me guess: In the Bush Administration’s modus operandi of stacking agency leadership posts with business executives, Tom Ridge’s assistant directors include former CEOs of plastics and adhesives manufacturers. This monolithic, Orwellian agency was created to protect the public from terrorist dangers, but when we’re actually faced with those dangers, the best they can come up with is a MacGyver-esque suggestion for us to do the job ourselves? Oh, and it’s an economic stimulus package, too… at least for our new “defensive sticky substances” industry!

I don’t mean to make light of what terrorists have done in the past, or of the potential for future action as bad as, or far worse than, what we’ve seen to date. But the thought of Americans by the millions responding to ill-defined dangers by racing to Home Depot to fight over rapidly dwindling supplies of these staples of modern ingenuity is, well, laughable.

Today we are confronted with a threat of unspeakable proportions, and yet the chance that any given one of us will actually succumb to such acts of terror is minuscule. Facing the remote-in-the-extreme odds of a horrible-in-the-extreme catastrophe, the government of the most powerful nation in the history of the planet tells its populace of hundreds of millions to defend itself with… duct tape and plastic sheets.

I am reminded of public service films produced at the height of the Cold War, showing school children responding in an orderly and disciplined fashion to the announcement that a nuclear attack is underway by kneeling under their desks and folding their hands over their heads.

I experienced those civil defense drills myself in elementary school during the dying days of the Cold War, the early 1980s. By then, we were no longer being led to believe that a Formica desktop and the feeble flesh and bones of our hands would protect us from the extreme heat and force of a nuclear blast, or from the subsequent radioactive fallout. Nuclear war was never even mentioned. I, at least, always believed that these drills were simply preparing us to deal with the inevitable eventuality of the school being flattened by a tornado — a far more present threat in the great wind-swept expanse of the American Midwest.

With the end of the Cold War, the monthly tests of air-raid sirens and the Emergency Broadcast System on TV and radio became a fading memory, and the omnipresent fear (and feeble means of personal self-defense) became almost-trite memories of a bygone day. Many of us spent most of the ’90s in a hazy delusion that a more “enlightened” time without war and mass violence was upon us, at least in America and much of Europe.

But now we’re back to constant fear — a slowly simmering, nagging feeling that at any moment, disaster, a disaster like none we’ve ever considered, could strike. We know the chance of that actually happening is fairly remote, and that gamble is what keeps us going.

Then something like this happens. When we’re inescapably presented with the futility of our efforts at safeguarding ourselves, the real danger we face becomes apparent.

The truth is, no matter how many billions of dollars the government spends on Homeland Security, no matter how much our civil liberties are eroded in the name of public safety, and no matter how many layers of plastic we duct tape to our windows, there is no way to guarantee safety.

Life is inherently risky, but in that risk comes the vitality, the urgency, that makes life worth living.

If we spend all of our time obsessing over how to protect ourselves from every nebulous threat that exists in the world, we lose no matter what. Even if we do fend off those daily threats, no one defeats old age in the end.

So stop fretting. Get out there and live.

And leave the plastic sheets and duct tape for me.

Questions Iraq Must Answer Now, or Face Military Action and Sanctions on the Import of Hair Products

On January 16, President Bush warned, “Time is running out. At some point in time, the United States’ patience will run out. In the name of peace, if he does not disarm, I will lead a coalition of the willing to disarm Saddam Hussein.”

(As an aside, when performing a Google search to get that quote right, I found that, according to CNN, Bush also said time was running out for Afghanistan to hand over Osama Bin Laden on October 6, 2001. Al Gore said time was running out for ballot recounts in Florida on November 30, 2000. And we all know how far those idle threats got both of them. OK, sure, we bombed the hell out of Afghanistan and deposed the Taliban. But we’re still playing “Where’s Waldo?” with Osama, and the promise of the “liberation” and “democratization” of Afghanistan is little more than a cruel joke. Meanwhile, Al Gore went on a Ben and Jerry’s binge and wimped out on even trying to get elected again.)

“In the name of peace” we’ll start a war. I am reminded of President Merkin Muffley‘s desperate cry, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!”

Anyway, I’m not here to criticize the President. (Really! I mean it!) I agree, time is running out. Saddam Hussein has some serious questions to answer. Does Iraq have chemical or biological weapons? Has Iraq illegally imported weapons technology and raw materials? Is Iraq developing nuclear weapons?

Does Saddam dye his hair, or is that a toupée?

Of course, some of these questions carry more weight, a greater sense of ominous foreboding, than others. But all have merit, in their own way.

I mean, look at the guy! Look at those jowls! He’s 68, for cryin’ out loud! The only 68-year-olds I’ve seen with hair that black were Ronald Reagan and Bob Barker! And even Bob Barker eventually realized the Just for Men wasn’t fooling anyone!

(Another aside: Is it just me, or does Saddam somewhat resemble George Orwell’s description of Big Brother in 1984: “The enormous face [because of constantly seeing it on posters he always thought of it as being a metre wide], with its heavy black moustache and the eyes that followed you to and fro….”)

You know, I’m very reluctant to get into the kind of grandiose moralizing President Bush seems to slip into with ease. The word “evil” crosses his lips far more vigorously, enthusiastically, and frequently than it does my own. And so I must ask, is Saddam really evil? OK, he lets Iraqi children in desperate need of medical attention die in crowded hallways of dingy, dilapidated hospitals. Sure, he summarily executes underlings who merely whisper the slightest hint of dissent. Yes, he beats down all opposition, stages fake “spontaneous” demonstrations by the people in his honor, and builds glorious palaces with grand entrance halls with poetry expounding upon his greatness written on their walls in foot-high gilded letters. If you’re inclined to use a word like “evil,” I guess maybe Saddam fits the bill.

But I think, by and large, the world (at least, places where right-wing talk radio and extreme right-wing talk radio do not constitute the range of public discourse) has moved beyond the simplistic moral dualism that can accommodate an absolutist concept like “evil.” Pinky-finger-to-lower-lip, six-years-in-evil-medical-school, hold-the-world-hostage-for-one-million-dollars, sharks-with-frickin’-laser-beams-attached-to-their-heads EVIL!!! Come on… today the very notion of “evil” is a bumbling caricature of the already exaggerated action movie villain!

Sure Saddam is a sadistic bastard. But maybe he just doesn’t have the proper outlets for his frustrations. Seems to me, he’s merely feeling the creeping malaise of old age, the icy breath of the Grim Reaper on the nape of his neck.

So what’s an aging dictator facing his mortality to do? Those ho-hum, down-in-the-dumps, life-gotcha-down, rainy-day blues are easy enough to fix. A little nip here, a little tuck there, a visit to Sy Sperling, a red convertible Porsche and a trophy wife 40 years his junior, and Saddam’ll be feeling like he’s a young, invincible dictator again!

Maybe deep down, he really is just jealous of America after all! Let’s give him exile over here, and he can take over as CEO of a major corporation. I hear there are a few job openings….

OK, all of that said, I really do think Saddam’s a dangerous sort — a menace to the international community who needs to be dealt with unflinchingly and unanimously by the United Nations. If “evil” really does exist, then he’s just this side of “evil” from the likes of Stalin and Hitler. But I also think that it would be prudent, now and in the future, for us as Americans to question our leaders a bit more about their full motivations for going to war against Iraq, and about some of the nagging issues of the timing involved and its relevance to other matters, both foreign and domestic. America’s still a country where we have the freedom to raise a stink if we don’t like how things are being done. And that’s something worth fighting for!