Diary

August Kleinzahler

Something eerie is going on with the right-wing talk-radio shock jocks. All of a sudden they’ve stopped pounding the war drums and gone back to custody battles being unfair to fathers and why we ought to send the Mexicans back to where they came from. It’s as if word came from upstairs, at both channels, KLBJ and the CBS affiliate. A minute ago the story they were all hammering home was that the Israelis were doing the work of God, pounding hell out of Hizbullah, which is just the same as Hamas and al-Qaida, an enemy of our way of life, and don’t you pay no attention to anyone who says any different. Right-wing is the only kind of talk-radio you get here in Texas, even in Austin, which fancies itself an enlightened oasis. Maybe it is, but someone listens to these jackasses around the clock.

Austin votes Democratic, unlike most of the rest of the state. It’s a university, government and high-tech town. It doesn’t seem to take things like international politics or war too seriously. Nobody takes anything too seriously around here, except football. Kinky Friedman (of the country band Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys) is in the running for the November gubernatorial election. His slogan is: ‘Why the hell not!’ The really big news here in Texas is the acquittal on appeal by a Houston jury of Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children in the bathtub, on grounds of insanity. But Lebanon’s on the front page of the Austin, Dallas and Houston papers too, though relegated to the bottom right-hand corner. You might get a little bit about reported Lebanese civilian casualties and maybe even a mention of the alleged targeting of UN observers. Wire service stories. Keep it brief.

I’ve been working in Austin for a few months but I live in San Francisco, another lifestyle-oriented town which couldn’t possibly be more pleased with itself. It has two rotten dailies, the Chronicle and the Examiner. The late Herb Caen, who wrote a column for the Chronicle, used to say that the only difference between the Chronicle and the New York Times was that if the world came to a sudden violent end, it would appear on page 12 of the Chronicle. In San Francisco, on the main public radio station, you can listen to BBC News on the hour from midnight to 8 a.m., and at intervals throughout the day. In between there are documentaries about lesbian birthing clinics, interviews with English intellectuals, call-in shows, whathaveyou. Here they have NPR, which delivers the same news as Fox or CBS, but in a sanctimonious schoolmasterly tone of voice. In between there’s music. Good music usually.

There’s no news in Texas. Football is news. Murder and larceny is news. Vince Young, the former UT quarterback, signed a $50 million contract. People in New York are tearing their hair out over this war, Jews especially. There’s almost nobody in Austin, a few kids and strays. It’s hot. Everybody who can afford to be is out of town. School doesn’t begin for another three weeks. The young lounge about in cafés, wearing as little as possible, staring into their laptops. They’re not reading Chomsky on the war, trust me.

I got a phone call from a former student of mine. He wants to go to Lebanon. He reported from Sarajevo for the Christian Science Monitor but then thought better of all that, found a piece of land and a wife in Helena, Montana, sells hot dogs out of one of those corrugated steam wagons during the warm months, and writes during the winter. He’s half Lebanese and speaks Arabic. I tell him he’ll get his ass shot off by one of my co-religionists. I tell him the Israelis aren’t going to succeed in digging Hizbullah out of there. He thinks that’s very funny, as if I’m under the impression I’ve just shared some major revelation. He used to laugh at me like that in class when I was teaching.

There’s a poll in a recent New York Times, buried in the middle of section A, where nearly all of the important news is to be found in the Times, usually below the fold. It says, among other things, that 58 per cent of Americans want the US to mind its own business in the Lebanon conflict. I’ll give you an unofficial poll that you can take to the bank and cash: if you walk into most any ginmill in the US outside New York, LA, San Francisco, Austin etc, and not a few ginmills inside them, and the subject of the Lebanon war comes up, some sage in the corner with a baseball cap and a Bud will volunteer: ‘I hope the cocksuckers all kill each other.’

On the front page of another issue of the Times was the stock tragic Arab refugee shot of a distraught Lebanese woman in an abaya holding a terrified child. I tell you what the Times is not going to run. They’re not going to run a big colour photo above the fold on the front page of a pretty, light-skinned young Lebanese woman in Prada shoes, Diesel jeans and a Dolce & Gabbana blouse with an arm blown off or half her face missing.

The media have been selling this war like a sporting event: ‘Hizbullah fire 105 rockets into Haifa and northern Israel, killing four and wounding 18, while the Israelis struck Sidon and Tyre, launching 48 bombing sorties against suspected Hizbullah positions with “some reports of civilian casualties”.’ The audience becomes addicted to narratives, digestible narratives. No news organisation is going to meet its quarterly market projections by shoving political and moral quandaries down the throats of its audience.

The narrative that everyone seemed to have got behind was that the Israelis were going to get it done hard and fast and get out. Winning – as a famous old football coach called John Madden likes to say on his radio segment in San Francisco – is a great deodorant. But now they’re calling in the script doctors, fast. But wait. Here comes Osama’s right-hand no-good, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appearing on al-Jazeera with a picture of the World Trade Center in flames behind him, calling on all Muslims to join the fight against Israel, and ‘rise up’ against the Crusaders and Zionists. He looks like the bad guy who chants ‘Kali, Kali, Kali’ in Gunga Din. Who hired this guy, anyway?

There was a curious and unsettling picture of Condoleezza Rice in the papers, playing a Brahms sonata at a meeting of regional leaders in Kuala Lumpur. She looks stricken and strangely adolescent, with the terrified smile of an 18-year-old with stage fright. As this war escalates, the photographs of Rice will probably become more and more unflattering. I’d feel for her if I wasn’t sure she’s a monster. Meanwhile, Cheney and Rumsfeld are doing all they can to humiliate and undermine her, and they have plenty of friends in the press to help them along. The Doomsday boys have plenty of friends in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, as well. A Lebanese-American friend in New York has some very rough things to say about Rice. He wasn’t too keen on her remark about Lebanon experiencing ‘the birth pangs of a new Middle East’, but almost anything could have got him going.

On commercial radio the other day, a reporter in Beirut interviewed ‘a clearly well-educated, very angry Lebanese woman’ who said in a well-educated, very angry tone of voice that ‘Mr Bush could stop this bombing immediately with a single phone call.’ I don’t think he wants to make that call any time soon, but he may have to. I’m not sure the Israelis will quit this time, even if that call gets made. They love Bush in Israel; but they also know he’s a schmuck, even if he’s their schmuck, and over a barrel. There’s also a mid-term election coming up and Bush doesn’t want to lose the Evangelical Christians, who always back Israel. Nor does Bush want to alienate his famous ‘conservative base’, who want this war not only to go on but to spread, bless them, and who constitute the 35 per cent or so of the American public who aren’t completely disgusted with this administration.

Bush’s father had a very tough, very smart and very nasty secretary of state in James Baker, who, it seemed, judging by the tone of some of his comments, didn’t like the Israelis, or Jews in general. But he was very clear about who was running the show and there were some bracing exchanges between Baker and the Israeli government. And later, when Junior was in jeopardy of losing the first election, Baker was called in to ride herd on the Supreme Court and fix things. He did. He may have to again.

I remember the last Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. I remember Jacobo Timerman’s pieces in the New Yorker about that war and the savage backlash they generated among Jews. I remember the rage and disgust of my father towards Timerman. Of course, Timerman was right about almost everything. Today, even Israelis regard that invasion as a debacle, but they’ve never forgiven Timerman for saying so. They never forgive another Jew for saying so.

I read the dispatches on Juan Cole’s ‘Informed Comment’ website every day. Since they’ve stopped being about Iraq, and Lebanon has taken over, I confess to liking them less, finding them excessive. I suppose it’s because I’m Jewish. It’s upsetting enough to read what the Israelis are doing to Lebanon and the Lebanese, but what’s more disturbing is the way the Israeli spokespeople portray the event. The civilians were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our intelligence is accurate. It is always accurate. This is the cult of moral certainty, victimisation, infallibility. Everything is thought out and executed correctly because we are the best and the smartest and the world detests us because of it. It’s an odd, poisonous notion for a people to carry around.

Tony Blair came over to the US, where some people still like him. He’s getting to look more and more like Steve Bell’s caricature. I liked it better when he was feeling more himself – the evil head boy, half-sadist, half-sycophant. Bush is clearly the better man these days, even if he looks as clueless as the Channel 5 weather lady. The Blair/Bush press conference was revealing. The press, in this instance two members of the British press, laid into Bush, not like our boys here do. You could see the sneer starting to take shape in the corner of his mouth, but he’d left the smirk at home. This was for international consumption. Bush isn’t as stupid as the press, especially the British press, makes him out to be. He looks stupid, certainly, and sounds stupid, but he’s a clever man in his way, and much underestimated. Blair looks and sounds almost hysterical. If one were gently to strike his forehead with a sugar spoon his face would break into ten thousand tiny pieces. But the body language of both men is revealing: they’re taking the bull by the horns, men of action rising to the occasion.

When I was walking back from the library yesterday with the Mrs, we saw squirrels sprawled panting on rocks and shady patches of sidewalk, bellies pressed to the ground. I hope Blair was enjoying the cool sea breezes we get in the San Francisco Bay Area this time of year. I envy him. He was there to strut his stuff at Rupert Murdoch’s best-in-show event at Pebble Beach, just a couple of hours down the road from San Francisco.

Sounds like he was a very well-behaved little doggie, talking up the open market, the death of the welfare state, the demise of the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’, and the replacement of those terms by ‘open’ and ‘closed’. Murdoch, who seems to like this war (and why not, it’s good for business) would have been well pleased by Blair’s little speech, not to mention his blocking of a ceasefire resolution. Maybe Rupert will give the prime minister a job. Maybe Rupert will pay him even more than Schroeder gets paid by Gazprom. The boy deserves it.

My friend the war correspondent has decided he is going to head over to Lebanon. He wants to visit his grandmother’s old place in the south where you can admire Mount Hermon from the front porch. I told him not to go. A number of my friends, who find me politically naive, tell me this Israeli invasion was planned in great detail a long time ago and will not finish until Israel and the US have consolidated their position in the region by eliminating groups like Hizbullah, perhaps even their sponsors, Iran and Syria; that the US has got what it wants in Iraq already: the country in chaos, on the verge of partition, our giant military bases up and running, the vast embassy compound coming along nicely, and the oil starting to generate serious revenue. Maybe so, but I can’t help but think this administration is flying by the seat of its pants and the ground is coming up very fast.