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Willie's Off-Brand Web Journal: May 26-June 7, 2004

Wednesday, June 2, 2004:

As an addendum to my post below, here's the text of a discussion that Ben and I had about The Fog of War this afternoon. I think he presents a nice contrast to my point of view, which- as you may have noticed- you don't often get in Willie's Space-Age Off-Brand Web Journal of Love.

Disclaimer Will: Hola. (Spanish for "aloha.")
COSMICBEN: I did it. [Ben just completed his first year of teaching. Congratulate him.]
COSMICBEN: And not in the annoying Dave Matthews way.
COSMICBEN: How are ya?
COSMICBEN: And funny :)
Disclaimer Will: Ha ha! Congratulations! How's it feel?

I'm doing fine, thanks.
COSMICBEN: Great. Two days of paperwork left, but what the fuck.
Disclaimer Will: That'll be a breeze.
COSMICBEN: How was work?
Disclaimer Will: It was fine. ...[M]uch discussion about The Fog of War, which I rented last night, and holy cripe- what a movie!
COSMICBEN: Yeah? Tell!
Disclaimer Will: Basically just telling Jon and Sharon that they need to see it. I'm writing a review of it in my journal for later. I loved it. I'd expected to hate McNamara, just from some of the (relatively uninformative) things that I'd read about him, but I feel completely the opposite. He seems really thoughtful, intelligent, and humane. What'd you think of him?
COSMICBEN: Same thing! It's so hard to reconcile that with the fact that he sent so many thousands of kids off to die, and prolonged a war that killed millions. I think the movie glossed over that, because all I took out of it was the clearly inaccurate thought, "McNamara didn't want to escalate in Vietnam!"
Disclaimer Will: Well... yeah, I see your point there. What I came away with, though, was the feeling that he was trying his best, as Secretary to Defense, to reconcile his personal feelings with his loyalty to Johnson. And that struggle, combined with his inability to see eye-to-eye with Johnson, just led to him totally blowing it. Not to mention, like he admitted, his failure to see things from the enemy's point of view.
Disclaimer Will: Like I said, I knew next to nothing about him- at least as far as the Vietnam war goes- going into the film, so my image of McNamara is more based on the movie itself than yours probably is.
COSMICBEN: Well, I don't know much about him either. I just know that he is seen as a horrible villain, but the movie portrays him as a loveable, humane old man, no matter how much stock footage of Vietnam the director splices in. I agree that it was a great movie; I just don't think he's selling an accurate image of himself.
Disclaimer Will: Hmmm. You mean you see it more as him trying to revise history than as him owning up to his mistakes and trying to take lessons from them?
Disclaimer Will: I'm not saying you're wrong, of course.
COSMICBEN: Exactly. Somebody was the influential secretary of defense during the years we did our worst damage in Vietnam. I think he almost wants us to believe it wasn't him.
COSMICBEN: At the very least -- and you hinted at this -- for all of his ideals, he really fucked up and was responsible for a lot of bad things.
Disclaimer Will: I can understand your point of view. Especially when he points out that, by the time he left his position, the number of casualties was less than half of what it would be by the war's end. That did smack a little of covering his ass.

Oh, I totally agree with you there. But... it's harder for me to hold a grudge against someone who fucked up with good intentions as opposed to someone like Bush, who I believe is fucking things up out of sheer ignorance, arrogance, and selfishness.
Disclaimer Will: I might think differently if I knew someone whose life was touched by the Vietnam war, but I'd like to think I wouldn't.
Disclaimer Will: Especially when the good-intentioned person can look back and admit his mistakes. I won't say he was a good Secretary of Defense by any means, but I think it's worth listening to what he has to say today, especially in light of the war in Iraq.
COSMICBEN: Oh, certainly. And I think he has retroactive good intentions, and he might have quietly had good intentions back then. But I think he had no right to those quiet good intentions; he had the ability to act on them, and he chose not to.
COSMICBEN: "I was just the president of a car company!" [McNamara was recruited for the position of Secretary of Defense from his position as President of the Ford Motor Company.] reminds me of Willie Nelson's great Behind the Music line: "Now, I'm just a guitar player from Texas. How can I owe the IRS 30 million dollars?"
Disclaimer Will: That makes sense to me. And I guess, in the end, I would assign him more blame than he seems interested in accepting. I was just really impressed with the person he is today.

Ha! I never heard that. (Bear in mind that it's also hard for me to fault Willie Nelson for anything, simply because he's Willie Nelson! I kind of play favorites.)
COSMICBEN: I see what you're saying -- I got the exact same impression from the guy. He reminds me of my grandfather. But it just left me thinking, "Okay, something went wrong.....so whose fault was it? And, excluding the President, why not the Secretary of Defense at the time?"
COSMICBEN: haha
Disclaimer Will: Definitely. Especially with all the news clippings that Errol Morris cuts to, placing the blame squarely on McNamara's shoulders, it's hard to believe that all the pundits at the time could've been wrong about that.
COSMICBEN: I think America had good intentions in Vietnam. It wasn't a war of conquest or extermination. But those intentions went horribly wrong -- you really have to watch out for the little guy when you're the well-intentioned superpower with gigantic weapons. So I think that for all their good intentions, the execution of that war was criminal.
Disclaimer Will: I totally agree with you there. I'm not trying to sound like I can excuse what happened in Vietnam, because you're right- it was criminal. It was horrible and sickening pretty much all around.
COSMICBEN: Somebody should have said, "We're accidentally killing too many people for this war to be justified." McNamara could have said it. He says he said it. But if he'd tried so hard, why wouldn't Johnson or Kennedy have listened to their Secretary of Defense?
COSMICBEN: I have to go with the pundits, until I learn more about the subject. Do pundits get paid for their punditry?
Disclaimer Will: Well, I got the impression that Kennedy did feel that way, but Johnson was a stubborn SOB. That's just my feeling.

I think it's more of a prestige thing. Like music critic. :)
COSMICBEN: haha
COSMICBEN: Then McNamara failed. He was worthless in his position. Maybe that's the job of a cabinet member. I don't know.
COSMICBEN: If he couldn't offer his opinion to a stubborn President -- if he couldn't convince the President of the United States to take his own Secretary of Defense seriously.
Disclaimer Will: I think he did fail. But I think the whole administration failed. I don't know. Even though what happened in Vietnam is, in many ways, inexcusable, after seeing the movie, I feel like I'd be able to forgive McNamara for his role in it. Maybe I'm being manipulated.
COSMICBEN: I think he has changed. But most people do when they each old age (maybe I'm too cynical?). Another example of that which is hard for me to deal with is, many of the crusty, loveable grandfathers who saved the world in the 1940's were the Nixon-voting, wife-abusing, emotionally distant fathers of the 1950's and 1960's. You don't see that in them today, just like you don't see the ambition and coldness that I'm pretty sure characterized McNamara.
Disclaimer Will: Good point. I just like to believe in redemption, I guess. Also, it might be that I'm so pissed off and frustrated with Bush right now, that hearing words of wisdom from a figure who was involved in a similar war about why these actions are damn hell ass wrong comforts me to the point that I'm just gonna like the guy. The enemy of my enemy being my friend and whatnot.
COSMICBEN: That's completely fair. I'm glad you're comforted by that, because I think most of what he said in the movie was sincere.
Disclaimer Will: I thought so too. I like people with common sense!
COSMICBEN: I just think there are sincerely regretful people still in jail for killing, say, 1/2,000,000th of the people McNamara was responsible for killing.
Disclaimer Will: That's an excellent point as well. Do you think it's an injustice that he's not in jail with them?
COSMICBEN: As a society, we assume that they are still a threat, no matter how much they say they have changed. Is that a fair assumption? But whether it is or not, why should McNamara be held to a different standard?
COSMICBEN: I don't know if he should be in jail. But there are millions of people who can't sit and be loveable in front of the camera now, partially thanks to him. I don't know how many he is personally responsible for, but it seems like one would be enough.
Disclaimer Will: True. I totally respect that point of view. Especially, being as anti-war as I am, there's a part of me that doesn't see the distinction that the law draws between "war" and "murder." It's a really thorny issue to get my head around.
COSMICBEN: He is alive today (as are we) because he wasn't at the wrong end of his policies. Or maybe we, as the citizens of a democracy, are all responsible. Maybe the second one Iraqi civilian is killed by a US bomb, none of us have the right to live safe, comfortable existences.
COSMICBEN: Without being evil hypocrites, anyway.
Disclaimer Will: Nah; I think that's taking it a little far. Even if someone voted for Bush, I don't think we can call those people accomplices to his crimes. You're allowed to elect someone and disagree with what his policies turn out to be.
COSMICBEN: When I read about war, I try to figure out who is responsible for what. I've slowly come to the (temporary?) conclusion that soldiers, most of the time, are just human actors carrying out the policies of a country. So why not blame the policymakers? Who else is there? Except maybe the people who put them in office.
COSMICBEN: True.
COSMICBEN: So I keep my point about the policymakers.
Disclaimer Will: It's inevitable, it seems to me. (Of course, I think that anyone who votes for Bush in this coming election will have some 'splainin' to do...)

I think you're right that ultimate responsibility lies with the policymakers. "The buck stops here" and all. But... maybe I'm making a distinction between moral accountability and intellectual accountability that I shouldn't be making.
COSMICBEN: I think I see the distinction, but I think that in somebody who has the ability to make positive changes, but doesn't, in that situation intentions don't matter. I am big on positive intentions, but I think there are some excpetions where they are worthless. [Now that I re-read Ben's words, I'm reminded of a great quotation from Edmund Burke: "All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing."]
COSMICBEN: Maybe if he'd immolated himself outside of the oval office in protest, because Johnson was being a stubborn meanie.
COSMICBEN: "Ah, I just don't want to make the big guy mad today. I might lose my job" is a worthless excuse, if a very human and understandable one.
Disclaimer Will: I'd agree with that. Even if, for instance, Bush thinks he's doing the right thing on certain policies- not the war, but maybe... I dunno, something- that's counteracted by the utter stupidity and insanity of said policies. So that's a good point. However, the impression I got- not just from McNamara himself, but from the audio snippets and even those photos [in the film]- was that McNamara wasn't necessarily trying to avoid making the big guy mad, but that he was trying to play Johnson's game in the hopes of...
Disclaimer Will: ultimately persuading Johnson to see things his way. Which I think was probably a grandiose way to play things, but I don't think it was necessarily self-serving.
Disclaimer Will: Entirely self-serving, I should say.
COSMICBEN: Well, if that's what he was doing, then that seems a little better. I just feel like we heard the tapes where he said, "Are you sure this is a good idea?" but didn't hear the ones where he said, "We'll need 300,000 more troops by next Tuesday." ...
COSMICBEN: Of all the people who were anti-Vietnam-War, I have a hard time believing Robert McNamara was one of them. From everything else I've read -- admittedly, not as much as I've read about WW2 -- he was one of the prime architects!
COSMICBEN: Yet, the movie makes it seem like he was out on the street, putting flowers in soldiers' guns.
COSMICBEN: "I was taking toys to the local orphanage..."
Disclaimer Will: That may very well be the case. But even still, the fact that those more unsure tapes exist says to me that he truly believed that he was doing the right thing, even if it seems, in retrospect, to be insanely misguided. And that might not be entirely forgivable, but I think it's a hell of a lot better than what we've got now.

Hee! Yeah, I think Morris is as skilled at crafting slanted propaganda as Michael Moore, really (ever see The Thin Blue Line?), but in a way that's much more difficult to spot.
COSMICBEN: True. It is better.
Disclaimer Will: Not that it probably makes a difference in the eyes of the casualties' families, but I think in the eyes of history, it's easier to forgive. Not excuse, but forgive.
COSMICBEN: I think Morris was coming from a good place, but I don't think he included enough anti-McNamara stuff to balance it out. You have 10 minutes of McNamara explaining how he was at Woodstock singing along with Country Joe and the Fish, and some ambiguous images of missiles and soldiers. I don't think he said enough to counter McNamara's well-intentioned but revisionist messages.
COSMICBEN: If you're interested in forgiving people, that seems like a good reason :)
Disclaimer Will: That Country Joe and the Fish line totally cracked me up. Awesome.

That's fair enough. And again, I'm sure I'm viewing the film through my own biased- not to mention uninformed- perspective, so I'm more inclined to view it charitably.
COSMICBEN: I was hoping it would ;)
COSMICBEN: I think I'm just coming at it from a different bias. Its good that it made us think and talk like this.
Disclaimer Will: Agreed! Any movie that (intentionally) generates thoughtful discussion is a good one, methinks.
Disclaimer Will: Well, actually, that's not true... The Passion of the Christ being a counterexample.
COSMICBEN: haha
COSMICBEN: I'm gonna go now. Let our phone line breathe. Have a good afternoon, Will. I'm glad we could talk!
Disclaimer Will: Okay! Yeah, this was fun! I'll talk to you soon! Congrats again! Bye!
COSMICBEN: Bye! Thanks!

CURRENT MUSIC: Burnt Weeny Sandwich by Frank Zappa.
CURRENT MOOD:
Talky.
A SENTENCE-LONG PARAGRAPH FROM AN E-MAIL BEV SENT ME THAT EXEMPLIFIES WHY I LOVE HER SO: "I found two blue holographic star cutouts on the ground while I was walking in to work this morning."
TIME:
6:57 PM.

Doot? | |

Wednesday, June 2, 2004:

I hadn't done a pizza-and-a-movie night for myself in a long time, because every time I do that, I wind up expecting something at the end of the evening, and when I'm not in the mood, I accuse myself of leading me on and it just gets ugly. However, since I'd just watched the episode of South Park that was airing last night ("Cow Days"), I went to Hollywood Video. They were having a sale on previously-viewed DVDs, so I picked up cheap copies of About Schmidt, American Splendor, Shattered Glass, and Spellbound (the awesome spelling bee documentary, not the mediocre Hitchcock film). On top of that, I happened to rent one of the best movies I've seen in a long time and one of the worst movies I've seen in a long time. Let's discuss them, shall we?

While I ate my small Papa John's pizza and Bucky the quaker parrot kept demanding a peanut even though she'd already had one earlier, I watched The Fog of War, Errol Morris's Oscar-winning documentary that's subtitled 11 Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara. I'm not sure how this film would play to people who lived through the Vietnam years, when McNamara's seemingly constant visibility and famously dispassionate persona would surely have led to a lot of lifelong hatred from families and individuals hurt by that war. However, the period through much of the '60s and '70s comprises an embarrassing hole in my knowledge of U.S. history, so going into The Fog of War, I had no preconceptions about the type of person McNamara is. I'd seen his name mentioned disparagingly in any number of articles about Vietnam and Life in Hell strips, and I'd seen him dramatized sympathetically by Dylan Baker in Thirteen Days, but that's about it. I came away from The Fog of War, however, with the impression that I'd just seen a film about perhaps the smartest American political figure of the twentieth century, at least in terms of intellect.

Here's a mini-tangent: back in high school, Jen had to interview a World War II veteran for a class, and the path of least resistance was for her to interview my grandpa, as he was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne. I sat in on the interview, and at one point, she innocently asked him if he'd ever killed anybody. Grandpa took a really deep breath, and said something like this: "Early on in the war, my [squad? troop? help me out, Ben] made a decision that we weren't going to take any prisoners. We saw what the Germans were doing to our guys, and... it just sickened us so much that we felt taking them as prisoners of war would be too good for them. So one night, I was on night watch as we were fairly far into German territory, and my commanding officer said, 'Wes, there's a German soldier asleep over there. Go get 'im.' I crept up, and sure enough, right in front of me, there was a German asleep in the grass, with his helmet and rifle and everything. I didn't make a sound, and I pulled out my knife, and jammed it right into his chest." Grandpa punctuated this by slamming his fist into his palm. "The German opened his eyes, I'll never forget, and he said, 'American swine!' And that was it and he died."

My dad later told me that Grandpa had never shared that information with him or his sisters when they were growing up. Any time they'd asked him if he killed anyone in the war, he'd refused to talk about it. Grandpa certainly didn't seem proud of what he did when Jen interviewed him, but he didn't exactly seem regretful either. Looking into his eyes, you could tell that he'd done what he thought he had to do at the time, and he'd been over it and over it in his head, and he'd come to terms with the notion that he'd done an unpleasant deed that seemed necessary for the accomplishment of a greater good. I hadn't really given that much thought in the intervening years until I saw the same look in McNamara's face throughout The Fog of War. At one point, he ruefully says that he and Curis LeMay basically behaved as war criminals during World War II, and Morris freezes on his teary-eyed face. (Morris is a master of mining dramatic tension from seemingly unremarkable, everyday shots. For example, he employs extreme close-ups of rolling tape recorders with the same success he did in his similarly captivating The Thin Blue Line.) McNamara stops short of apologizing for his role in the Vietnam war, but he does admit to any number of mistakes attributable to the failure of himself and certain other government officials to learn the titular lessons soon enough: "Empathize with the enemy." "Belief and seeing are both often wrong." "Rationality will not save us."

Morris essentially said at the Academy Awards that he'd made this film because he feared the United States was "going down a rabbit hole" in Iraq right now in a similar fashion to the rabbit hole we disappeared down in Vietnam, and he'd hoped to share McNamara's accrued wisdom as a means of helping us not to forget the past and therefore be damned to repeat it. Watching The Fog of War at this point, it's impossible not to see the disasters of the current Iraq conflict reflected in footage from that unwinnable war in Vietnam. Present-day McNamara comes out strong against unilateral military action, stating that if a nation has trouble convincing its trusted allies- those with similar values- that an armed conflict is necessary, that nation needs to be willing to reexamine its reasoning. Later in the film, there's some stock footage of the then-Secretary of Defense insisting that the United States must "win the hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese; a phrase that sent chills up my spine after having heard Dubya parrot that goal many times about the Iraqi people whom his policies are steadily alienating. Moreover, the film opens with McNamara emphasizing that any military commander worth his salt will admit that he's made mistakes. Mistakes that have cost untold numbers of lives. Contrast that with Bush's recent refusal to cop to any mistake he's made, even when asked point-blank at a press conference, won't you?

The Fog of War concludes with an epilogue in which McNamara politely refuses Morris's requests to elaborate on his personal feelings about his actions during the Vietnam war, because he feels as though saying anything about that would open old wounds. He recognizes that he is, in many ways, a figure so thoroughly loathed by large pockets of the American public that nothing he can say will change their mind or make up for the war. However, anyone willing to watch this film with an open mind should come away feeling as though, even if McNamara's past is full of perhaps unforgivably poor judgement, the lessons which he's taking to his grave would serve all nations well from this point forward. Bush.

After that, I watched Secretary, during which time I finally came to the conclusion that the presence of James Spader in a film is a sign that it thinks itself much more daring and original than it actually is. (Looking at his IMDB entry, I've only otherwise seen him in Crash and Sex, Lies & Videotape, but both of those sucked hard as well.) To borrow a phrase from Adrienne's review of The Good Girl, I had to force myself all the way through it simply on principle, because this movie is rubbish. Two hours of Maggie Gyllenhaal's character slowly discovering that she likes to be spanked and dominated, and then convincing her boss, Spader's character, that they should build a long-term relationship around their shared fondness for S&M. That's it. It's not funny, it's not sexy, it's not dramatic or particularly original; it's just a big, smug waste of time. Secretary, like The Good Girl, Igby Goes Down, or any number of other self-indulgent indies, is shot through with such an arrogant overconfidence in its own stylized in-your-faceness that it results only in defanging the film entirely. Like Toni Collette in Muriel's Wedding, the adorable Gyllenhaal is way too good for the material, and Jeremy Davies gets to be truly hilarious in a brief sex scene, but they're not nearly enough to save this mess. The Fog of War gets an A, Secretary gets a D-.

Random factoid: I burned a CD last night with just my song "Fixing a Hole" (for entry in The O.C.'s "Enter the Mix" contest), and I opened MusicMatch Jukebox while my disc was still in the drive. The CDDB lookup feature clicked in, and it offered the following possible matches for my CD: Biger Than Hip Hop by Dead Pres, She's Got Issues by The Offspring, Eventyret Blir' Ved by Peter Roed, The Andrew Hill Quartet's unissued, self-titled album, Brainwashed by George Harrison, Paid the Cost to Be Da Bo$$ (disc two) by Snoop Dogg, Do It With Madonna by Androids, and Fuego by Gemelli Diversi.

CURRENT MUSIC: Roomic Cube by Takako Minekawa.
CURRENT MOOD:
I could totally write for Cahiers du Cinema.
NUMBER OF BEETLES I'VE HAD TO KILL IN MY HOUSE TODAY:
Two.
TIME:
6:49 PM.

Doot? | |

Sunday, May 30, 2004:

At midnight last night, just as my sleeping aid was taking effect, I got a phone call from a friend of Mike Pap Rocki's in California. He said he'd found my phone number on one of the Disclaimer albums Mike had lying around (I think I included my phone number in my xeroxed liner notes to Bombs by Night, Balloons by Morning), and he said, "I just wanted to tell you that I think your albums are really great. I've listened to the first one and the new one, and- are you working on a third?"

"I am!" I said.

"Well, that's good, because I really enjoy them. I really think you should keep making more, because you're really good. I've gotta go now, but I just wanted to tell you that I really like your music."

Unfortunately, I didn't catch his name, and I fear that I came across as standoffish because I was both so surprised at his call and dazed from the Tylenol PM, but it really meant a lot to me that he bothered to phone a total stranger like that, just to compliment me. Especially since I was moping around yesterday morning, bemoaning my lack of album sales and wallowing in a big ol' pond of why-bother? anxiety; it was a very encouraging and kind gesture. What a cool guy!

I once read that, on an early Richard Hell album, the liner notes read, "Call Hell!" and had Richard's phone number listed so people could just ring him up and talk to him. Maybe I should've done that on The Airbag's Lipstick Kiss, because I'm feeling pretty good now. That totally made my day, once I woke up and remembered our exchange, so thanks, Mike's friend!

CURRENT MUSIC: Bone Machine by Tom Waits.
CURRENT MOOD:
Happy. Which is not like me at all!
NUMBER OF BEACH BOYS ALBUMS NOW IN MY POSSESSION, THANKS TO OLEG: Forty-four! Expect reviews soon.
TIME:
9:42 AM.

Doot? | |

Wednesday, May 26, 2004:

You know, it's really dreadfully inconvenient to have to drive home behind a truck that's going 35 MPH on the highway. So that angered me to begin with. The fact that the truck was decorated with huge, graphic pictures of aborted fetuses only angered me further. As did the fact that it appeared to have a police escort who was failing to enforce the 45 MPH minimum speed on M-59.

For you see, I had the privilege this afternoon of sharing the road with a participant in "The 'Choice' Campaign" (note quotation marks) which is sponsored by the batshit crazies at The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform. Here's a bit of what their website has to say about this little hobby: "We will bring to targeted 'key states' a large fleet of enormous 'box trucks' displaying aborted baby photos on their sides and backs. This mobile billboard fleet will be accompanied by aircraft towing even larger aerial billboards depicting equally disturbing photos of aborted babies. ... The press routinely describes pro-abortion candidates as 'moderates' and 'centrists' while disparaging pro-life candidates in terms which suggest 'extreme' or 'radical' positions on social issues like abortion. Voters who have seen our aborted baby photo signs are thereafter much better able to decide whose position really is 'moderate' and whose is actually 'radical.' ... Because we are also concerned about educating future voters, we will be displaying our truck and aerial aborted baby billboards in front of and above middle schools [italics mine] and high schools. Students who are old enough to have abortions are old enough to see abortions. ... If we show aborted baby photos, born children may be traumatized. If we don’t, unborn children will be killed. We care about both but we have no doubt that the latter constitutes the greater evil. We will not be held to a First Amendment double standard."

This pisses me off for a lot of reasons, but I should first state that personally, I wasn't all that grossed out by the pictures. They're vaguely anthropomorphic blobs that look like giblets drenched in barbecue sauce. (Not that the notion of barbecued giblets isn't a gross one, but seriously, if you removed the self-righteous captions from the signs and added a pickle or two, you'd think they were Bob Evans trucks and wouldn't give them a second glance.) So I don't want you to think that this is an over-emotional reaction on my part to seeing the trucks. My reaction was more "Drive faster, dammit!" than "Oh, how horrible!"

However, I recognize that not everyone is as desensitized as I am, and many people would probably react to these photos with disgust and horror. Conceivably, people with weaker consistencies could throw up at the sight of them. That is, after all, CBER's explicit intention. And what makes me angry is that a campaign of ambushing people in public places with intentionally repulsive images is completely fucking inappropriate regardless of one's political stance.

Elsewhere in the essay I excerpted above, the organization admits to the fact that small children might be traumatized by these billboards, but implies that the campaign is no more potentially damaging than kids seeing pictures of the World Trade Center exploding on a magazine cover. That comparison is thoroughly inapt, because for one thing, there's a difference between seeing a building explode and seeing the mutilated remains of a quasi-human creature. Long-distance images of the WTC exploding are more horrific for what they represent than for the actual contents of the photos; we've all seen footage of old buildings being imploded by city planners on the news, and it's frequently accompanied by delighted cheers from an admiring crowd. There's nothing inherently disturbing about a building blowing up; it's the context of 9/11 that makes those WTC photos unsettling. 

Furthermore, even if there were a photo of a maimed corpse on the cover of Time, its purpose would ostensibly be to inform rather than to sicken. (I know that's debatable, since the unspoken purpose of such a photo would, of course, be to sell a bunch of copies of Time. However, I tend to believe that major news magazines do try to temper the graphic sensationalism of their covers, if only to avoid charges of tactlessness. For instance, Time's May 17 cover story on the Abu Ghraib scandal features a dark- but non-explicit- painting of a shirtless, hooded prisoner rather than one of the infamous, explicit photos from the jail.) The "'Choice'" campaign is designed, first and foremost, to shock and disturb. In this sense, it would be more appropriate to compare the campaign to a flasher who exposes himself to kids at bus stops. Even if the flasher gave some long-winded justification about how he was actually trying to make a point about how early children become sexualized in our culture, he would still be locked up because you just don't try to intentionally traumatize people. Ever.

I'm not suggesting the people at the CBER be locked up. However, I do think their invocation of the First Amendment as justification for their visual assaults is bullshit, because although I would never argue against their right to disseminate information or voice their opinions, one has the obligation to be responsible with that right. Everyone always uses the example that it's illegal to falsely yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater, which is a case in which one's right to freedom of speech is restricted because it intrudes upon the rights of everyone else in the theater (i.e., the right not to be thrown into a potentially dangerous situation where everyone is panicked for no real reason). That example might be a little too severe for this situation, since the people behind the billboards would likely say that they have a right to publicly voice their opinion (they'd call it "the truth," but whatever) to "educate" the public. So let's imagine some other scenarios:

Let's say an anti-circumcision public interest group wanted to publicly voice their belief that circumcision is wrong. (These groups do exist.) They decide that it's not enough to write books and print newsletters and distribute pamphlets and set up a bunch of websites and so on; the public at large just isn't getting the message. The problem isn't that the information isn't available to the public, they reason; the problem is that the public isn't actively seeking out the information. Therefore, they rent a bunch of trucks, plaster them with giant, bloody photos of real circumcisions, and embark on a campaign to drive these mobile billboards all around the country, with lots of stops in front of schools, so kids who are old enough to reproduce can get the message: if you have a baby, this is what will happen if you have him circumcised.

This group's efforts would be halted almost immediately because no one would stand for that. Hell, if a truck was festooned with even a bloodless picture of an uncircumcised penis, there'd be a public outcry. (Janet Jackson blah blah.) And you know what? As opposed to censorship as I am- and I am, vehemently so- I'd be on the side of those who said, "No, you can't do that." Why? Because there is a point where your right to make yourself heard is superceded by everyone else's right to not have to listen to you if they choose not to. You can't force your beliefs down other people's throats.

(The stuff in red below is a totally unrelated tangent. Skip it if you're pressed for time.)

As you may have gathered, abortion isn't an issue I feel particularly strongly about. I'm personally pro-choice, but I think that both sides of the debate have some understandable points, and I also think that both sides of the debate have more than their share of yammering nutslabs who refuse to even make an effort to consider other people's viewpoints. (For more on this latter bit, I suggest you rent Alexander Payne's hilarious abortion satire Citizen Ruth, in which both sides come across as nearsighted, hypocritical kooks.) I understand that it matters to lots of people for lots of reasons, but personally, I rarely even consider whether a candidate is pro-choice or anti-choice when I'm voting because there are lots of other issues that are more important to me.

I think the big mistake people make when getting worked up over abortion laws is in assuming that legalized abortion is equivalent to state-mandated approval of abortion. Abortion in the United States was legalized not because the government wanted to give a big thumbs-up to the process, but because it became clear that abortions needed to be regulated to ensure the safety of the women receiving them. I once read a great Life expose from the '70s that detailed all the terrible, shady, unsafe lengths women had to go to in order to get abortions before they were legalized, and if abortion were again outlawed, the practice of back-alley coat-hanger hackjobs would once again flourish. Abortions aren't going to stop any more than people stopped drinking liquor during the times of Prohibition; it'll just go back underground. Abortion laws, like the repealing of Prohibition laws, are a rare case where the US government managed to recognize that a common practice that's seen as immoral by some is not going to disappear just because it's illegal, so the next best thing would be to regulate it. (Someday, they may come to their senses about the "War on Drugs" in a similar fashion.)

So I am pro-choice because I would rather let women get abortions in safe, clean, professional environments than force them to go to some dubiously qualified, unlicensed wacko or, worse, to attempt it herself. That's the only statement a voter (and, by extension, a legislator) is making by being pro-choice. Women are still free to have kids if they want to. There's always adoption. No one is forcing anyone to get any abortions. No one is anti-life. Well, maybe the shareholders in the major abortion clinic chains (you've seen the commericals, right?), but- man, I'm way off where I wanted to be at this point in the essay!

Okay, time to sum up because I want to go read The Onion's interview with Stephin Merritt: everyone has a right to his or her opinion. (Sidebar: when I told Jess about this experience earlier, she guessed that the truck driver was male. I hadn't thought to look.) Even if you think abortion is always immoral, you think it should be outlawed, you erroneously equate "pro-choice" with "anti-life," and you want to tell the world about it, that's your right. I disagree with you, but I respect your right to say whatever you want to say and believe whatever you want to believe. However. With that right comes the responsibility to respect other people in the ways you promote your ideas, and it's just flat-out disrespectful to use those guerrilla tactics to disturb people- including kids- when and where they least expect to see gigantic, gory tableaux. No matter what your justification is, there are so many other avenues available to you to express your opinions that this sort of intrusive mindfuckery is just completely inexcusable.

Have some fucking common sense.

CURRENT MOOD: Rabble-rousing.
CURRENT QUALITY SURE TO ALIENATE MORE PEOPLE: My inability to stop whistling that tune that Darryl Hannah was whistling in Kill Bill. Gah!
TIME: 8:06 PM.

Doot? | |

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