John Dolan

Meet Robert Ford, the US Diplomat Who Helped Send Syria to Hell in the Name of Democracy

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Neighbors From Hell: Now Parents Have a Bedtime Story About How Predatory America Has Become

It came in a vision a few years back: a book for children that approximated some of the horrors of society that everyday people face, and the monstrous qualities that many people take on as they try to earn a living. Especially since the financial crisis. Mortgage loan officers, slumlords, private prison lobbyists are the new growth industry jobs.

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Who Was Worst Famous Poet Of The 20th Century?

Auden is the worst famous poet of the 20th century. He simply cannot write a decent line, let alone a decent poem. Some of his very worst poems are among those “classics” found in every anthology of Modern poetry. They’ll continue to clog those penitential first-year university texts until we find the courage to laugh out loud at stanzas like this:

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5 Pieces of Advice for the New Paupers

Little did I know that when I lost everything in 2008, I was doing research.

At the time I thought it was just stupidity or bad luck or both. But now that we're living through a violent economic upheaval, it turns out I had been gathering valuable tips for millions of new paupers. And let me clarify, I'm talking real poverty. My wife and I fell through many layers of poverty in a few months. First we revisited the genteel poverty known to grad students, the sort of poverty where you have scary dreams about the rent and eat a simple, wholesome diet toward the end of the month. But we fell right through that into the sort of Dickensian privation that spoiled first-worlders like me never expected to experience. That's the kind of poverty that people are going through for the first time in their lives -- not just other people: you. I'm here to tell you, it can happen here and it can happen to you. And it's remarkably unpleasant. You may be saying "Duh!" here, but you're probably not imagining the proper sort of unpleasantness. So I'll try to lay out what to watch for, how to hunker down when it's not just a matter of cutting back or selling your second car but having no car at all, having no money for heat or food.

All the things we learned are going to seem pretty obvious, but remember that it's very hard to think clearly when your life has collapsed. These are what they call the old verities, the truths of life before the middle class was (briefly) in session:

Warmth

Above all, you need to have a dry, warm place to sleep. We had only an unheated boat, and that was not enough. We woke up to the thump of sea ice banging against the hull and realized that the old world was still very much in session. When we finally fled to stay with family, we stayed in our blankets up against their gas fireplace for weeks. You won't even want food much after a while. You'll want heat itself, not the chemical middleman. You are going to realize that cold is the most frightening thing in the world. In older English dialects, "to starve" meant "to freeze." You will see why.

Car

Got one? Maybe you should sell it. Cars drain the last dollars out of you. And there's something worse: Cops can smell desperation, and they hate the poor. I didn't hate cops as much before, except drug cops, but God, I hate them now. The real purpose of cops is to keep poor people off the roads. That's their only real goal. On my way to an interview for a job that could have gotten us out of the gutter, a cop stopped me because my insurance was two weeks overdue -- for the simple reason that we didn't have money to pay it. She gave me a $600 ticket for that, plus $120 for not having an updated address on my driver's license. Then she called for a tow truck and told me, "So, a lesson learned here today!" as I watched my car get towed away and trudged off with our terrified dog down a typical Western suburban road: four lanes of fast traffic with no sidewalks. Are you poor? The cops are your enemy now. Accept it. The car is how they'll try to get you. Sell it if you can -- which is to say, if there's any decent public transportation -- hah! -- where you live.

Shame

As in, forget about it. Shame is an affectation. I don't even need to say this, really. Once you've experienced actual cold and hunger, your good old Olduvai Gorge mammal body and brain will take over, and believe me, shame won't be a problem.

You'll also find that most of the social stuff is easier than you'd expect. These people are in show biz in a way; they have to be, just to survive. It makes them lively. And though I suppose it all depends on where you are when you lose out, in my experience they're not especially violent. They talk about it a lot, but so do all the white jocks I ever met, and in neither case does anything actually happen. They're flinchy people, mainly, who spend a lot of time waiting for things. When you're waiting, you get very frustrated but you don't want to shake things up. So they're tense, bitter, sociable, gossipy and treacherous -- a fine cross-section of the population. After waiting around with them in line at the local food bank, sharing "how I ended up here" stories and hanging out with them around a propane heater trying to stay warm, I relaxed a lot. They're not going to mug you. They are going to try to get any cash you have, and God did they get a huge chunk of our last resources, but it was friendly, schmooze-based extortion, just like in the middle-class world. All that was missing was the deodorant.

Food Banks

These places, usually in the basement of a church (because churches are the only public institutions in the new suburbs of western North America) hand out baskets of groceries every week or, more often, every two weeks. You have to wait a long time, so learn your refugee skills. Come early, get a number first, and be nice but pushy. It's a delicate operation, being nice but pushy, but you'll learn it. The "nice" part is because you need to ask people for help and advice; you're not rich enough to be solitary anymore. The pushy part is simple: It's to prevent you from being ignored. So always talk to people, but never show money or mention it, if you have any.

Antidepressants

Get on them right away, if you're not already. If you are, up your dose. Because it's going to hurt. It doesn't matter how much Marxist theory you've absorbed; it doesn't matter that you can put your fall into global context; it's happening to you now, and it's going to hurt like you wouldn't believe. You're an American, and you share that culture's values whether you like it or not. So you define yourself by your job, car and house. When they go, you're going to hate yourself. Don't even bother arguing about it. It's going to happen. Just take the damn Prozac. Would you refuse a coat in Siberia? Refusing Prozac after falling into poverty makes about as much sense. Tom Cruise can go fuck himself. Prozac saved our lives. I won't go into the sordid details, but really, I don't think we'd be here now if Saint Prozac hadn't extended a sacred hand to us.

So the second you slip beneath genteel poverty toward the street, find the nearest free clinic, and don't be deterred by the smell of the crowd in the waiting room. Smell is going to be a problem for you at first, but after a few weeks you won't mind, because you smell too, and so does everyone around you. If you want a break from the relentless olfactory fact of being around unwashed large mammals, sidle up to somebody who smokes. That's the one good thing about cigarettes, and it may be why losers all smoke. Don't smoke just for that, though. Cigarettes are insanely expensive and turn lots of poor people into cringing beggars.

How do you tell your story? That's going to matter, because you'll be brooding about what went wrong 24/7, whether you want to or not. And you'll find that explaining one's great fall is a vital skill among the fallen, as well as a deeply satisfying pastime. This raises the issue of denial, a vital and deeply misunderstood mechanism. Denial, like Kurtz said about Terror, is your friend or an enemy to be feared. You need some denial to keep your ego from being crushed completely. Your ego is going to get very sick, now that you're nobody. It's easy to be polite and self-deprecating when you're winning. I used to be like that. You can't afford that when you're being crushed. You have to demand respect if you expect to get it. The alternative is to dwindle away and disappear. Those antidepressants will help you deny the facts, but don't be shy about doing ego-exercises, boasting practice, to reawaken that playground ego that so many of us polite middle-class types allowed to atrophy. You're going to need it.

On a practical level, the question is what to jettison -- and I'm not just talking about things. If you have kids well, God help you; I can't give advice here, because luckily we didn't. But we did, unfortunately, have a dog, a big clumsy puppy we got just before everything fell apart. We probably should have given her up. Growing up in an atmosphere of terror and cold and self-hatred, she turned out to be a very weird, unhappy dog. I've had lots of dogs before this, back when I was comfy, and they were all nice suburban dogs, Frisbee-catching pals. This one's a feral freak. Now that we have a warm place to live, it's almost fun watching her reactions, the way she flinches and sniffs at every noise, smell or flash of color, but I know she would have been happier getting adopted by some family that complains about what a pain it is having just four bedrooms.

Besides, if you have a dog, you're cutting down on your chances of getting a job. This one howls when she's left alone, another legacy of her traumatic puppyhood, so one of us had to stay with her most of the time. It was like being handcuffed to the wretched unheated ex-fishing boat we were living on.

The boat was another contributor to our debacle; it was something else we should have sold off right away, even at a 90 percent loss. The idea behind that damn boat was that instead of paying the insanely high West Coast rents, we'd live on the boat for free. This is a very bad idea. Any idea you have of retreating to some simple, free habitation should be regarded with deep doubt. The thing is, you can't get back to the comfortable, heated world from a place like that boat. No Internet. You need the 'net if you're ever going to claw your way back. You need a working shower, which that boat lacked. Otherwise you develop that look, that smell you first encountered in the free clinic waiting room. It's not a good look, jobwise. Maybe if we'd gotten rid of the dog I'd have had a chance.

But you lose more than that. You change completely, more than you realize, to the point that even if you get a break you can't grab it. After months of applying for teaching jobs without even getting answers, the perfect job opened up for me at a local college. It was half creative writing, half teaching literature and composition -- all my specialties. But when the interview started I realized I was no longer someone who could talk the quiet, polite, oblique version of self-promotion demanded by academic hiring committees. I was too deeply, permanently spooked by our condition. I was just plain wrong, unhireably wrong in every way. No hot water on the boat, and I needed to shave the graying wisps of hair on my big bald head, so I'd shaved in the McDonald's men's room on the way to the interview, with a cheap Bic shaver. You can guess the results: I looked like a bobcat had tried to roost on my scalp and been evicted after a violent struggle. The used sport coat we'd spent our last $20 of Visa credit on at Value Village didn't seem to fit nearly so well once I was inside that humming, immaculate classroom where the interview was held. And I had become a louder, more desperate, excessive person. When I tried to sound positive, it came out furious. When they asked me, as I'd known they would, why someone who'd taught at bigger universities wanted to come to this small rural campus, I said truthfully, "I'd rather teach here in the forest than at Stanford." It didn't come out enthusiastic; it came out strident. After months of being a bum, I was the wrong volume, the wrong temperature. I could feel the job slipping away, and in fact they hired a local guy who was friends with the director, even though my resume kicked his resume's ass.

You'll find that if you want to get back into that quiet, odor-free, polite world, you're going to have to decompress for a few months. What happened to us is that we fled, found a basement apartment on borrowed money, and stayed there, keeping the heat on high for months. Then we were ready to try again for a job.

It took that long to calm down, quiet down, lose a little of the bitterness. Yes, you're going to be very bitter. You can't hate yourself all the time; you have to switch off now and then and blame somebody else. In fact, somebody else may damn well be to blame. Just make sure the bitterness doesn't keep you awake. To enable yourself to sleep, take long walks. Shout curses at the world if you need to; just keep walking. And no matter what, don't sell your sleeping bag. I had a North Face down bag, and I learned to love it way, way more than I loved myself.

Sleep is an antidepressant almost as good as Prozac. And it's free. The time to worry is when you wake up after a couple of hours screaming. That happened to me after five months, and that's when I broke down and asked my brother for a loan. That's where this story diverges from a real street story: I had an out. And believe me, I took it. I should have taken it sooner, in fact.

If you have an out -- a relative or friend who can lend you money to find a place to live -- take it now. And as soon as you get an offer -- some old friend has a ski cabin nobody's using, or a small unit behind their house -- take it, as long as it's heated.

The old world is very much alive, and has it in for you. Do anything to keep it from killing you. The only reason I haven't endorsed crime here is that from what I saw, paupers are not in a good position to try it. Like so much else, crime is for the big people.

This article was originally published in October, 2008.

The Three Dumbest Neocon Predictions Since the Disaster in Iraq

Now that the Beijing games have wound up, we can get on to a sporting event with real significance: a Neocon Olympics to decide the most grossly wrong, stupid prediction by a Neocon pundit post-Iraq. Of course, it's a very rich field. Being totally wrong about absolutely everything is the Neocons' job, and they've been working overtime on it. Their proudest moment had to be in the lead-up to the Iraq war when Kenneth Adelman assured America that democratizing Iraq would be "a cakewalk." Indeed, early Neocons like Adelman and Richard Perle (who predicted that Iraq would settle down "at the first whiff of gunpowder") set the bar for disastrously wrong predictions so high that some have suggested that the trophy be retired in their honor. But doing that would mean shutting out all the more recent Neocon predictions. Their little mistakes may not have cost as many trillions of dollars and thousands of lives as Adelman and Perle's, but give them time. They're doing their best to push us into more disastrous wars, and with team spirit like theirs, they may yet succeed. Here are the top contenders:

1. "The Arab Spring Is Happening Now" by Abe Greenwald, Pajamas Media.

There are many unintentionally funny aspects of this April 13, 2008, article, such as the fact that two of the countries Greenwald cites approvingly, Turkey and Pakistan, aren't Arab at all. But as with all good comedy, it's the timing that makes this article such a winner. To see the joke, you have to remember that Neocons have been predicting an "Arab Spring" for years, in which democracy, once we'd introduced it to Iraq, would spread like a weed all over the Middle East.

Greenwald acknowledges that he and his friends were wrong to claim that "spring" would happen in 2005, but, he assures his gullible readers, they were just a little premature. It's coming right now, he gushes, that blessed spring -- it's just a little late. Democracy is busting out all over, especially in Lebanon! The article's subhead cited Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution" as a sure sign of spring -- the first Arab robin of the Arab spring, as it were -- and the story featured a photo of a Lebanese woman wearing face paint in the shape of the Lebanese national flag. Now the punch line: Less than four weeks after the article appeared, the pro-Syrian Shia militia Hezbollah took over West Beirut, the wealthy seaside district that harbored most of the overpublicized "Cedar Revolution" demonstrators who were the basis of Greenwald's prediction. What made the takeover particularly demoralizing for the Neocons, who regard Iran-backed Hezbollah as Hitler-by-proxy, is that none of the local militias offered more than token resistance. Hezbollah literally walked through Beirut to the sea without meeting resistance, destroyed a TV station that had broadcast hostile stories, and, after its demands were met, walked back out again. The Arab Spring was indefinitely postponed; the Arab groundhog had seen his shadow.

Of course, this wasn't about "democracy," nor was it the disaster the Neocons claimed it was. Hezbollah represents the Lebanese Shia, the poorest and most despised ethnic group in the country. Their victory isn't necessarily bad news unless you're dishonest enough to pretend that the wealthy West Beirut elite that shows up to those "Cedar Revolution" rallies that get so much Western press really represent "democracy." They didn't care much about democracy when it was the Shia who were being excluded for generations from the Lebanese polity, and they don't care about it now. Their goal is to maintain their privileged position; no more, no less. What Hezbollah's victory meant was that a new power, hostile (for very good reason) to Israel and the United States, had triumphed -- and that Neocon prognostications had been wrong again. And not just wrong, but comically wrong -- so ludicrously wrong that in any other country in the world, someone guilty of such a disastrous misreading would be banned for life from the press. Not here, though; Greenwald continues to make stunningly foolish pronouncements every week. Punishment is reserved for those, like weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who dare to be right when all the Neocon pundits are wrong. For being right about the fact that Iraq had no WMDs, Ritter was subjected by Pajamas Media to a classic right-wing character assassination, "Scott Ritter: Anti-War Problem Child." That hit piece appeared on May 3, three weeks after Greenwald predicted the coming of the Arab Spring and three days before Hezbollah took over West Beirut.

2. "Hail Mauritania!" by James Kirchick, Weekly Standard.

Kirchick may not be the most famous Neocon, but in one obscure column he encapsulated their key trait: arrogant predictions, based on total ignorance, which prove to be disastrously wrong. Iraq, of course, is the classic example. On May 7, 2007, Kirchick wrote a cheery, optimistic column called (believe it or not) "Hail Mauritania," in which he gushed that democracy had "bloomed" in this "remote corner of the Arab world" because they'd held "democratic elections." Then history supplied the punch line: 15 months later, on Aug. 6, 2008 the Mauritanian army overthrew the winner of that glorious election, and democracy had suddenly un-bloomed. To date, Kirchick has not commented on that unexpected and irksome twist. Kirchick wasn't just unlucky in his prediction; it was absurd from the start. Nobody who knew anything about Mauritania could have imagined that simply because the local elite had cynically embraced the facade of American-style elections, the country would suddenly transform into a peaceful democracy. Only willful ignorance could sustain that notion. Obama is right; these people really are "proud to be ignorant." In fact, they're desperate to remain ignorant, especially about the fact that elections, in themselves, mean very little.

Fetishizing elections as good in themselves is a common Neocon fallacy. They're a long way from understanding what Iraq expert Nir Rosen meant when he warned after the 2006 elections in Iraq (another false dawn that had the Neocons crowing until their cheers were drowned out by IEDs going off) that "democracy is more than just a formal process, it is a culture." Pundits like Kirchick actually believe that by stepping into a polling booth, residents of an impoverished tribal country like Mauritania will be magically transformed into responsible citizens on the Western model. To maintain this illusion, one must be willfully ignorant -- though I suspect that took little effort on Kirchick's part. For example, in "Hail Mauritania," he identifies one candidate, Ahmed Ould Daddah, as "a prominent economist," but doesn't mention that Ahmed also happens to be the half-brother of Moktar Ould Daddah, the dictator who ruled Mauritania in pure authoritarian style from 1961 until he was ousted in a 1978 coup. Coups are in fact the standard method of changing administrations in Mauritania, and it is not at all clear that this bloodless coup was any less "democratic" than the grotesque, graft-fueled circus that is a U.S. presidential election. It was soon clear that to the Mauritanians, nothing untoward had occurred.

The BBC noted that two-thirds of the country's legislature quickly backed the coup, and another BBC report noted that the population took the coup "in its stride." With wonderful hubris, Kirchick insisted that "publicizing the good news out of Mauritania should be an urgent task of the State Department." I wonder if he feels the same way about me publicizing the fact that democracy, as he calls these farcical elections, lasted exactly three months. Of course, the real question with any Neocon writing about Mauritania is, why does he even pretend to care? To state the obvious: Nobody at the Weekly Standard cares about Mauritania, any more than they care about the Iraqis they've "helped" by killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and by destroying Iraq's infrastructure. Neocons don't give a damn about any of these people. They simply want all Muslims neutralized; it's all one to them whether it's done by democratizing them or destroying their countries. And Mauritania is so obscure it doesn't even need to be neutralized. It matters only because it offers another "hopeful sign" to be applied to Iraq, the real topic. Kirchick makes this very clear:

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Right-Wing Pathologies Revealed After Adkisson Shooting at Unitarian Church

A classic drama full of hatred, ignorance and irony played out this week in the forum section of right-wing Web site Free Republic, as "Freepers" tried to make sense of a church shooting in Tennessee that killed two parishioners and wounded many others. The grotesque irony of the FR discussions is that, after early posters had indulged all their bigoted guesses about the identity of the killer, they found out the gunman was actually straight out of their own demographic: a 59-year-old white man named Jim Adkisson, who left a four-page letter ranting against liberals, was known by his acquaintances to hate "blacks, gays and anyone who was different from him," left a pile of books by O'Reilly, Savage and Hannity behind in his car, and even wore a red-white-and-blue shirt to his church killing spree.

It's morbidly fascinating to watch the FR threads as the posters wriggle and bluster to try to accommodate this most inconvenient truth. And if you have the stomach to read them, you can learn a lot (perhaps more than you'd like) about the pathology of the contemporary American Right. For myself -- and I realize this will be the most profound heresy to progressives committed to the populist line -- reading these posts is a timely slap in the face, a painful reminder that maybe, just maybe, heartland Americans aren't such wonderful people at all. What you see in these posts is the oldest, deepest and meanest strain in American culture: the Ulster America founded by violent sectarians who moved westward again and again, from Scotland to Northern Ireland and then to the southern United States, then again westward into the American continent, to find a place where they could hone their hair-trigger intolerance without fear of interference from warmer, more humorous people. But that's me, and I'm often accused of "cynicism," whatever that means. At any rate, I'll present a little background on the site and then discuss a few of the posts. Make of them what you will.

For those who want to do their own analyses before reading on, here are the Web addresses of the three FR threads discussing the Tennessee shootings, in the order they appeared:

http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/search?;s=tennessee%20church

http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/2052204/posts

http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/2052590/posts

For those unfamiliar with online right-wing culture, Free Republic is a far-right Web site established in 1996. It soon found a huge, loyal audience among the right wing's most rabid, ignorant and openly fascistic voices -- or as FR calls them, "grassroots conservatives." Even other right-wing Web sites shun FR, and you'll often observe posters to these sites worrying, when online discussions become openly racist or fascistic, that they're becoming too much like "the Freepers," as FR's ranting posters proudly call themselves.

The same hatred of "liberals" that drove the Tennessee killer is on display, with unconscious irony, in the house advertisement appearing at the top of one of the forums on the church shooting. A bald eagle stands before an American flag, with the caption, "Driving liberals crazy and having fun doing it!"

The first posts reacting to the church shooting are smug gloats. Many posters were absolutely certain that the gunman would turn out to be a Muslim:

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Why Is Coke Glamorous and Heroin Scary? Because of Halfwits Like Nikki Sixx

Reviewed: "The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star by Nikki Sixx (Pocket Books).

Bad books can still be important. This one, which is so bad it's unintentionally funny, still represents an epochal cultural moment: the final trickle-down of a formerly elitist narrative invented by Lord Byron, the wildly talented English 18th century poet, into a sleazy plotline used and abused by a man representing the very bottom of the demographic pyramid -- Nikki Sixx, bass guitarist of '80s rock band Mötley Crüe.

George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), was, among other things, the greatest English poet of the past two centuries, recognized as such everywhere except England and America. He was also the first and finest incarnation of the self-destructive superstar. In fact, stardom didn't just happen; it was invented by Byron. He showed the rest of the world how to be a star -- the whole storyline of early fame, wild decadence, bitter exile and a lonely, heroic death. Byron's death came in Greece, where he ended up after a lifetime of fleeing southward and eastward from his home in what he scornfully called "the moral North." Greece was in rebellion against the Ottoman Turks, and Byron died of fever while funding, training and trying to negotiate consensus among the rebel factions.

It didn't take long for that genuinely heroic death to be reduced to its lowest common denominator: "live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse." By our time, it's pretty much all you have to do -- as long as you are famous when you die. That goes without saying; there's no love lost when an anonymous loser dies, but if a celebrity dies young and pretty, the whole culture explodes in masturbatory frenzy officially presented as "grief."

Nikki Sixx, of course, may never have heard of Byron. The Byronic story came to him through more recent versions. There's a whole subgenre of Bohemian-druggie tales to borrow from, and Nikki (or his ghostwriter) borrows freely, starting with his title, a clear echo of The Basketball Diaries, Jim Carroll's 1987 record of his descent from star jock to hopeless junky. Carroll's book itself represented a clear point on the graph by which this elitist tale makes its way down toward the Wal-Mart crowd: Carroll was a protege/mascot of the NYC Beat scene whose greatest practicioner, William Burroughs, wrote the best American versions of druggie-in-purgatory, including Junkie (1953), which our own Nikki Sixx cites approvingly. Nikki sees it as his job to take this often-abused plotline further down the pop parade to where it has never gone before, and probably never should have gone at all: hair metal. And he manages to come back alive, in case you were worried.

Mötley Crüe is a band most people old enough to remember have tried hard to forget. Mötley was huge in the mid-1980s. I didn't realize how big until I read the diary entry in which Nikki whines that his manager sent his latest paycheck to his home while he was on tour. The check is for $650,000. I'd bet that that's more than really talented American bands of the 1980s like Husker Du made in their entire career.

The Mötley Crüe era was of course a low point in pop history. Nikki actually calls himself "a dreg." I've never heard that word used in the singular before, but it fits. This guy is the ultimate dreg. He does decadence strictly by the numbers. He even considers killing his girlfriend, because after all, the Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious killed his girlfriend. And there's no pleasure in it. Part of that is the big lie in American culture that celebrity decadence always arises from and falls back into some private "pain." But Nikki really doesn't seem to like sex that much. The only part that he really seems to enjoy is the drugs, and since he's incapable of effective description, you have to infer his pleasure from the sheer doggedness with which he gets high.

And his drug stories are full of lies and bathos. The most interesting lie is the deflection of blame to heroin, when it's clear that Nikki was never a junky. He's a cokehead, a classic L.A. white-trash cokehead. So why is this called The Heroin Diaries? Because Nikki's publisher realized cocaine is too sleazy and too 1970s to interest anybody. Heroin, which only entered the middle-class California druggie's repertoire in the 1980s, still retains some of its exotic, forbidden appeal.

Occasionally he slips up, admitting that he does much more coke than smack, admitting at one point, "I'm not having [my dealer] bring smack very often but my coke intake is up 1,000%." And since Nikki's typical binge ends in paranoia, with our hero locked in the walk-in closet of his mansion hearing voices outside, it's clear that it's the coke, not the smack, messing with him.

Yet heroin that gets the blame when Nikki's retarded band mates discuss his descent to what Tommy Lee calls "a dark fucking place." If you've spent any time in L.A. you've probably met guys like this. For them, cocaine is simply part of a normal healthy diet, whereas heroin is just plain evil. Odd, because among intelligent druggies opiates get a lot of respect, while coke is simply despised. For serious drug people there are two ways to go: up with some variety of speed, or down with some kind of opiate. Coke is scorned as a short-acting verbal emetic, a silly drug for moneyed trash. The only intellectuals who took it seriously were Freud and Sherlock Holmes -- one a half-baked intellectual who masqueraded his literary criticism as therapy, postponing effective treatment for schizophrenia and depression by generations, the other an apotheosized peeping tom, who of course never really existed. Indeed, both were nasty voyeurs; perhaps that's a feature of coke addiction too.

Opiates, by contrast, have been the drug of choice for an astonishing number of the really talented people of the last few centuries: Coleridge, de Quincy, Poe, Donald Goines, Jean Cocteau, William Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix. And prescription opiates are still the choice of L.A.'s upper class, which is why when one of the stars is arrested, their glove compartments are always full of perfectly legal percodan or Demerol. (If you're a star, you see, you can get special prescriptions which are issued after your arrest but dated weeks before.)

Of course injected street heroin has a terrible potential for fatal overdoses, because you don't know the purity of the dose until it's already in your bloodstream. What no one seems to realize is that this too is a side effect of Prohibition. When you make a drug illegal, you are encouraging smugglers to import it in the most concentrated, potent form available, then charge insanely high prices for infinitesmal amounts. In the case of heroin, these quantities are so tiny that the drug must be injected to be effective. Without Prohibition, quantity and content would be clear, and people would be free to smoke opium in legal dens. In such conditions, accidental overdoses are rare. Conversely, in countries like Iran which prohibit that allegedly safe, mainstream drug, alcohol, many users die or go blind from ingesting street booze laced with the usual variety of poisons. Prohibition kills far more people than "drugs."

Alas, even educated Americans are too intimidated to point this out. In a provincial, Puritan society like ours, nothing is worse than your neighbors' disapproval, and speaking up against the drug laws can get you whispered about. And if Nikki's betters won't speak out honestly on the topic, we can hardly expect him and his idiot hessian friends to get it. So naturally, they're all eager to blame heroin, "the worst drug in the world." They're also in love with its notoriety -- hence the book's title.

A roadie explains that at first, nobody worried because everyone thought Nikki, like his hair twin Tommy Lee, "was just snorting coke and drinking." And after all, mixing cocaine with a fifth of Jack Daniels never hurt anybody. It's amazing how self-righteous these scum can get, as when a friend of Nikki's protests, "I used to do loads of pot and coke with Nikki, but I'd never do heroin." That's purity, huh? Perhaps the worst thing about coke is that it makes idiots think they're eloquent. They spew clichés, convinced they're the soul of wit. And they know, by now, exactly how to play the doomed celebrity. Every one of us, every single consumer/victim of American culture, shifts easily to celebrity-speak. You see this in interviews with momentarily famous nonentities who refer to themselves in the third person and clearly imagine themselves as the protagonists of a tragic, heroic narrative.

The trouble is that Mötley Crüe is not the stuff of tragedy. It's the stuff of Spinal Tap, and in fact this book reads like Hunter Thompson rewritten by Nigel Tufnel. Every rock cliché you ever heard can be found in its pages, even "Welcome to my nightmare." But Nikki and the friends interviewed for their recollections of his crisis are hopeless at depicting the nightmare, taking refuge in stale adjectives like "dark" and "pain." Tommy Lee explains that drugs "led us to this really dark fucking place," then, realizing he's onto a good adjectival thing, amplifies his remarks, stating that said place was, in fact, "dark as fuck."

This darkness amounts to shameless plagiarism of the works of Hunter Thompson, right down to the imitation-Ralph Steadman graphics splattered across this book's 400 glossy magazine-style pages. Except that Thompson was one of the funniest and least boastful druggies who ever wrote, while The Heroin Diaries are simply Spinal Tap without the jokes.

There isn't even any suspense or risk involved in all the drugging, because Mötley Crüe are stars, and stars are not subject to the drug laws. This is shown conclusively when a couple of Chicago cops come into Mötley Crüe's dressing room and see the band snorting lines off a mirror. Not only do the cops not arrest them but they give the boys their cards and tell them to call if any other cops give them trouble. Try that if you're not famous, and you'll have a very different experience.

So nothing much happens, until the overdose, and that's a long time coming. For the most part, Nikki sits in his mansion sulking in the dark. Burroughs made a good story out of sitting in the dark doing drugs, but Burroughs had two things Nikki lacks: a brain and a sense of humor. Thompson, a speedfreak rather than a junky, went out and did things while hideously twisted. Either way can work, but Nikki's catalogues of coke consumed in a closet are very dull.

I'm not using "dull" in the disingenuous way a lot of prudish reviewers do, using that word when they mean "offensive." Nikki's decadence isn't offensive, it's just secondhand. His prose style, yes -- that's offensive. To paraphrase Tommy Lee, it's bad as fuck. This book was supposedly co-written by a British rock journalist, but this fool, one Ian Gittins, can't write either. Let's play count-the-clichés in this passage from Ian's "Introduction," in which he explains his work on the book:

"[W]e were able to fill in the black holes and piece together the story of a man who, at the beating heart of an over-the-top rock band, was profoundly falling apart at the seams." Well, everybody knows that black holes are tough on seams, even if you're wearing leather pants. Ian is so clueless he can't tell the difference between the idiom of 1990's Britain and1980's L.A. Here's a quick tip, Ian: 1980s L.A. cokeheads didn't use "gear" to mean drugs.

Ah, drugs; these stories of "pain" and redemption do keep circling around the "black hole" of drugs, And hardly anyone will say the simple truth that people do drugs because drugs are fun. Whenever I hear about another celebrity's "battle with drugs," I have to laugh. What's the battle -- getting enough of them? Price dispute?

If somebody like Nikki could come out and say, "I did a lot of drugs and had a wonderful time!" he could redeem himself. That wouldn't take much talent or brains, just a little honesty. But there's no honesty here. Byron was blunt about why he left "the moral North" to die fighting in Greece; he was driven out by the moral disapproval of his own people:

When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home,
Let him combat for that of his neighbors;
Let him think of the glory of Greece and of Rome,
And get knock'd on the head for his labors.


Byron died without finding God or AA's "higher power" or groveling to the sanctimonious majority back home. In our time, perhaps only Hunter Thompson showed that sort of lifelong heretical courage. It certainly can't be found in Nikki's tale, which doggedly follows the Protestant tale of the Saved Sinner.

The elements of the story are simple: the hero has to dive deep into sin. This part of the story is always bragging disguised as confession: "My sins are bigger and gaudier than your sins." The gaudier and noisier the sin, the better. Nikki has done his best to check this item off the list, God knows. The sinner must then crash and burn, hitting bottom. Nikki fulfills this requirement on page 384. Anybody else could have managed it much sooner, but then that's the point: Byron's Progress has touched down on the very bottom of the demographic sea. So, naturally, God comes in when the lights go out, right there on page 384. Before he can even turn blue properly, Nikki is visited by Grace -- Grace the religious epiphany, not the groupie of the same name. His unintentionally hilarious reaction to the fact that he's been literally, physically saved is, "Maybe there is a God."

Many an observer would have come to the opposite conclusion: Cobain kills himself and Nikki lives? There is no god.

Nikki survives simply because he's famous; he's surrounded by adoring, masochistic women, one of whom revives him. Without the fame and fortune, not only would he have died but his "pain" would interest no one at all. Suffering served up without these condiments is available all around you; just look into the cars stopped beside you at the next red light. But how many bestsellers do you see about the suffering of, say, a single mom working at Wal-Mart in Houston with chronic back pain and a broken air conditioner? That's true suffering. That's Hell on earth. But nobody wants to know about it. Nikki's suffering, by contrast, has spent a long time on Amazon's top thousand sellers.

The appeal of rock-star suffering is simple: it's not suffering at all. Here's an example of what Nikki calls suffering. Keep in mind that the ostensible point of this anecdote is to show how lonely our star is, deep inside:
"I've been thinking about last Christmas Eve when I picked up that girl in a strip club, brought her back here [to his mansion] on my bike, took her home the next day, then had Christmas dinner all by myself at McDonald's. I haven't made much progress I see."
If that's suffering, then there are millions of horny selfish guys who would love to suffer like that.

The only really radical, interesting thing a rock star could say would be what people dread hearing: "Ha ha, I'm famous and you're nobody! I drink your adulation like blood! You send me all your love and money and I give you nothing! And I'm the happiest man in the world!"

If Mark David Chapman's lawyer had made that argument the thesis of his defense: "My client killed Dracula! You should be giving him a medal!" we might have the beginning of an interesting discussion about celebrity as a new form of extortion, of oppression. Instead we get Spinal Tap's cover of "Amazing Grace."

Why Did We Let Bush Try to Bring Wal-Mart to Iraq?

One of the insults you're sure to hear if you dare to suggest that we might not have the right to turn Iraq into Little America is "cultural relativist." It's a strange insult, because the people flinging it at you have absolutely no idea what it means. That's the point: "Cultural relativism" is a charge meant to dazzle the victim with its obscurity, like every 9-year-old's favorite word, "antidisestablishmentarianism." At my elementary school, that word was considered to have magical power because it was, supposedly, longer than any other word in the language.

But at least we 9-year-olds weren't lame enough to use it as an insult, or assume that it actually meant anything.

The right-wing regurgitators who spew out "cultural relativism" truly believe they're engaging in some pretty hardcore intellectual critique when they drop that multisyllabic bunker-buster on you. And how do they know this? Because a horde of 10th-rate intellectuals like New York Times columnist David Brooks and Newt Gingrich have said that that cultural relativism is the root of all left-wing evil. Gingrich has a soundbyte on the topic, often cited by rightwing bloggers: "Cultural relativism is like saying that going to McDonald's or boiling up your neighbor have equal merit as culturally driven ways of having lunch."

If Gingrich were a real intellectual, he might know that the true birth of cultural relativism was marked by Montaigne's essay "on Cannibals" in 1580. Montaigne, like all the smarter, braver Europeans of the time, tried to learn from the other cultures Europe was encountering around the world, rather than simply condemning them for all the ways in which they differed from Europe. He compared the cruelties of cannibal tribes with those of European "justice." His point was not that one culture was superior to the other, but that every human ever born finds it dangerously easy to revile the savagery of other tribes, but very difficult to see the brutalities of their homeland: "...while we quite rightly judge [the cannibals'] faults, we are blind to our own."

Of course Gingrich wouldn't know Michel de Montaigne from Joe Montana, so his comparison of cannibalism to eating at Mickey D's was pure dumb luck -- lucky for us, that is. Because in comparing cannibalism with eating at McDonald's -- clearcutter of rainforests, fattener-up of the poor and gullible -- Gingrich offers a perfect example of the bias Montaigne was trying to overcome: smugly certain of his own tribe's superiority, blind to its cruelties. Gingrich would never reflect on the fact that the New World cannibal tribes Montaigne discussed were among the first victims of the encounter with "the West." The Carib, most famous of these tribes, committed mass suicide rather than be enslaved by the European conquerors. It seems obvious that their brutality was more than matched by that of the Europeans. That, of course, is cultural relativism. It's also common sense.

Cultural relativism starts with a very simple, sensible premise: Every time and place is unique, and its standards can't be transposed to any other time and place without fudging the comparison. Cultural relativism is thus a form of intellectual rigor -- a very uncomfortable one, compared to the cozy simplicity of cheering for your tribe and sneering at all others. Whenever serious intellectuals apply cultural relativism to their studies, they face the wrath of tame pundits. Nietzsche, the greatest modern relativist, is still regularly slandered by tenured cowards for daring to treat philosophers' most cherished concepts as historical artifacts rather than timeless truths.

You'll note that so far I've cited a Frenchman and a German as examples of the intellectual courage it takes to face the scary fact of cultural relativism. Unfortunately, America got its tutors from Britain, whose intellectuals have always been much more timid and inclined to collaboration than those of continental Europe. After the French Revolution, Britain actively discouraged intellectual inquiry of all sorts that might have interfered with the mass production of the practical, unimaginative, cruel men needed to run the empire. Great minds in 19th century Britain went into the sciences, where a certain degree of intellectual freedom was tolerated. That's one of the major reasons that what passes for the American intelligensia has been so craven and tongue-tied in defending cultural relativism.

Of course, you don't need to be an intellectual to see the total stupidity of the right-wing phobia on this topic. Just look at the record -- the blood-soaked, benighted, horrible record of the human species during all those centuries when there was no such thing as cultural relativism. And did that make for a peaceful existence? Choose any historical period, any region of the world, and you'll find that long before cultural relativism appeared, tribes were killing each other in the cheerful, absolute certainty that their god or gods wanted them to massacre their neighbors. That's the reality of those "moral absolutes" right-wingers proclaim as the grounding of decent behavior: the absolute right to hack to death anyone who doesn't share your tribe's religion, table manners or musical taste. When writers like Montaigne forced their readers to consider the possibility that we should be wary of judging other tribes, it was possible to argue, for the first time, that participating in tribal wars of annihilation might not be a religious obligation -- might, in fact, be mere arrogant savagery. You can see how it might have been handy to remind our fellow Americans of this, right around the time that Bush & Co. were telling us that we had a moral obligation to liberate Iraq.

It would have been nice if a few people who knew better had been willing to say outright that even if the war really was about liberation, it was an arrogant invasion born of the ancient belief that our tribe is the only one that knows how life should be lived.

But no one talked about the insanity of bringing Dairy Queen to Iraq because there are no cultural relativists around these days -- no one willing to admit it anyway. What we have seen in the debate between pro- and anti-war Americans is a squabble between two kinds of Protestant busybodies: squeamish Unitarians and fierce Baptists. Both sects are convinced that the world is no more than a war between good and evil, differing only about which evil should be zapped and by what voltage.

A century ago Nietzsche predicted that as Christian faith declined, Christian ethics would grow even more powerful. This has happened to a big chunk of the university-trained American public; they have become the embodiment of American novelist Flannery O'Connor's "Church of Christ without Christ," their embrace of cultural relativism going only only as far as a taste for "ethnic" food and a year of bumming around the Guesthouse Archipelago in Asia, never a willingness to consider that such colorful ethnic customs as smoking opium and making war might be honored and essential in certain cultures.

Consider Afghanistan, a truly alien land. George Bush has nothing but contempt for its violent, anarchic culture. In what way would a typical American "progressive" disagree? Maybe as far as a few craven sarcastic remarks about how conservatives want to make Afghanistan part of "McWorld." But as soon as Bush points out that Afghans are growing opium, many Bush critics lapse into cowed silence -- because they are, at heart, as steeped in pleasure-hating Protestant moralism as Bush himself.

Indeed, the only way to explain the left's stunning cowardice in the face of the War on Drugs is by realizing that these people are simply missionaries of the Church of Christ without Christ.

Just as they know that drugs are bad, they know that it is their right, their mission, to outlaw other unruly customs, like war. If Somalis consider raiding and clan war essential to a man's life, then -- well, they'll just have to change.

I spent 15 years at UC Berkeley, which according to the right-wing pundits is the Mordor, the Ground Zero of cultural relativism, and I never saw it. Not once. I saw instead a queasy, baseless moralism, without even the excuse of Scripture to justify its arrogance.

Indeed, the evangelical mullahs' position is actually more intellectually rigorous, if you grant its starting point of divine sanction. The godless Protestant progressives of places like Berkeley lack any such foundation; theirs is an ideology rooted in a few seedy cafes near the Fine Arts building. It's no wonder that Kansas prefers the evangelicals' simple, consistent bigotry to this sub-Unitarian muddle. If we actually apply a cultural-relativist perspective to the conflict between "liberal" academics and "conservative" Christian militarists in America, it's easy to see that we're simply watching a replay of the old quarrel between the two most aggressive groups in Anglophone America: the Scots-Irish Presbyterians who settled the South, and the New Englanders whose Protestantism was always veering off into semisecular intellectual quibbles. Both are missionary groups extremely popular with themselves and willing to bring the rest of the world to heel by military force. Neither has even a taint of cultural relativism. It's just that their blood rage is stimulated by slightly different triggers, the Scots-Irish by the very existence of heathens and the New Englanders by offenses against what they imagine to be a universal moral code.

Think back to your university and imagine your liberal arts professors in 19th century America. You'll see that they would almost all have been Protestant clergy, spreading the Word while conniving for a parish, a tenured job lecturing on virtue. That's what most of them do now: lecture on virtue. The New England/Unitarian ethos predominates among them, which is why they were all in favor of invading Afghanistan, a true moral wilderness, and more squeamish about Iraq, a more settled country. But whatever their tastes, these progressives are steeped in Protestant arrogance as George W. Bush.

So that while Rush Limbaugh brags about how we're going to bring the culture of Missouri to Baghdad, his opponents in the Ivy Leagues and Berkeley were by no means in a position to say that this was a grotesquely provincial, wrong-headed enterprise.

They simply wanted it done in a kinder, gentler manner.

Whose Fault Is Frey?

Who gets the blame when a con man robs the congregation blind? That's the real question in the case of James Frey.

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