“Tree of Man” Never Quiet, Poet Says

April has been  National Poetry Month; in fact it will be NPM until midnight tonight. Early in the month I promised numerous poetic posts to commemorate; looking back, I see I was sidetracked by the black comedy of Imus’s fall  and the bloody deeds at Virginia Tech.

 Still, I want to close out April with a poem by AE. Housman. It’s come to mind several times in this tumultuous month. I wouldn’t call it a conventionally happy poem, but it contains a certain kind of comfort: Bad times are part of life, always have been,  and must be taken along with the good.

On Wenlock Edge

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.


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Twittering Twits and Why They Do It

If websites still seem a bit new to you, and blogging seems like a cutting-edge activity, get a glimpse of the onrushing future at social networking sites like this one . Essentially, Twitter allows people to post, by cellphone or other device,  almost constant real-time updates about what they’re doing.

And now your question: “But…but…why would a friend, much less a  total stranger in Toledo, care about my trip to pick up my dry cleaning?”

Any ideas? I’ve got a couple.  Right now, however, I’ve got to go pick up a quart of oil for the lawn mower–but you don’t have to go with me. And I promise not to update you when I get to the checkout line.

The War: What We Were Thinking

A friend who’s baffled by the Iraq War (and who is not?) read my recent posts about the conflict and asked me to describe my views during the early days of the war. I think there was a spectrum of opinion at the outset that looked something like this, or would if it were laid out in linear fashion across a long page:

1. Some people were adamantly against the war because they oppose all violence and war.

2. Some people were against the war because they loathed the Bush Administration and everything it did.

3. Some people were against the war because  it was a war of choice, not necessity. We were not under attack by Iraq and would not be attacked by Iraq. So why fight?

4. Some people were not against all war, did not hate Bush, and had no problem with a war of choice, but did not think this war was wise because they had questions about our readiness to successfully engage that enemy in that place at that time.

5. Some people favored the war because they believed it was a chance to establish a beachhead of democracy in a part of the world that has groaned under the weight of sheiks and royal families and dictators for centuries. They thought that if the venture succeeded, a democratic Iraq would spread its ideas to its neighbors throughout the Middle East, with beneficial results for the whole world.

6. Some people favored the war because they believed Saddam was somehow involved with the Sept. 11 attacks and had ties to Al Queda. They wanted vengeance.

7. Some people favored the war because they believed that Sadaam had weapons of mass destruction that could be unleashed against American interests, Israel, etc.

8. Some people favored the war because they loved the Bush Administration and favored everything it did.

I think that pretty much runs the gamut. If I’ve left out a possibility, let me know.

I’d put myself  at #5 with some worries from #4. I never thought there was any existing  proof of a 9-11 or Al Queda connection to Sadaam, though it would not have surprised me too much had such a connection materialized.

Of course, what really did surprise me–astonish me, boggle me–was the apparent planlessness of the Administration going to war. At a time when we did have large numbers of Iraqis on our side, and many more at least willing to be convinced, our lack of serious preparation burned up immeasurable good will and eventually justified even the premature condemnation by the Bush-haters.

Hostel and Private Ryan: Violence in Context

If you have a look at Kids in Mind, that movie review site I mentioned in yesterday’s post, you’ll be reminded of the importance of putting movie violence in context. Check it out here.

The site evaluates movies in three categories: Sex and Nudity, Violence and Gore, and Profanity, using a 1-10 scale for each category.  A G-rated cartoon story would probably get 1’s in everything, unless there was a fight with a bully, in which case it might get a 2 or 3 in Violence.  The site doesn’t recommend this or that movie as appropriate for this or that age group. It just says, “Here are the ingredients of the movie. Read and make your decision.”

A horrifically violent movie like Hostel, which is Exhibit A in a new, sick movie genre called “torture porn,” gets a 10 in violence. Read the review’s nightmarish list of violent incidents  if you can stand it, but be warned: even reading the list, as I had to for this post, does violence to the mind and soul, even more so when you realize this is being offered as entertainment.

(PS: It would be revealing to have a free-speech absolutist run through that catalog of butchery and justify it, and to ask if he’d let his/her teenagers watch the movie.)

Hostel also draws a 9 for Sex and Nudity and another 10 for Profanity, probably because sadistic murderers and people being tortured for someone’s amusement tend to use a lot of bad language.

So the Hostel breakdown is: 9-10-10.   

Then  notice the review for Saving Private Ryan, the great WW II movie. Not surprisingly, Ryan draws a 9 for violence. If you remember that unbelievable D-Day scene, you know why. And men facing the terrors and constant stress of combat use a lot of bad language, so the film gets a 7 there.  Needless to say, there’s no sex or nudity on the battlefield.

Ryan score: 1-9-7 for extreme violence and a fusillade of profanity.

I can’t imagine subjecting myself to the torture porn of Hostel, and I shudder to think that our 12-year old daughter might ever seen even five minutes of such a perverse spectacle. I worry about all the still-developing young people who will have their minds scarred by this stuff.  The fact that this movie made a lot of money at the box office, as will its upcoming sequel, says something deeply disturbing about our culture.

But you know what? I’d let my  daughter watch Ryan if she wanted to. I’d tell her about it in advance, maybe have her read the Kids in Mind review, but I’d have few misgivings about her watching this great film. The violence is awful because war is awful. The language is crude because frightened people pressed to their limits talk that way.

And we can’t ignore the context in which the violence is presented. Ryan is a chapter of our world’s actual history, with a moral dimension to the violence. Evil people began the war; brave people who did not want to fight left their homes and families to serve a cause greater than themselves. Millions gave their lives so that a maniacal dictator with a twisted ideology would not rule large parts of the world.

 Hostel is a desecration of humanity and can be recognized as such by the religious and by the secular. It invites us to watch people dismembered, disemboweled and otherwise tortured–for our entertainment. Even if the movie tacks on some kind of ending in which the bad guys–I mean, the guys who are even worse than the people being entertained–get theirs, that will be just another excuse to kill in “cool” new ways.

Beside the characters and the creators of Hostel, the average Nazi soldier was a paragon of nobility.

Movie Ratings: “C” for Censorship?

Lots of luminaries shuffling off this mortal coil over the past few weeks–Ray Nasher, Kurt Vonnegut, David Halberstam, and now Jack Valenti, the ex-Lyndon Johnson  aide who  went on to become head of the Motion Picture Association of America, where he basically created the G/PG/R/X  movie rating system we live with today. Many critics view the MPAA rating system as Valenti’s major legacy.

Last year, I wrote an article (link to come) on the watering down of the ratings system, citing research that shows pretty clearly that an “R” movie from 1990, for example, gets a “PG” today. Reasons: gradual coarsening of society, out-of-touch raters, etc.

That led me to remember Dallas’ own movie rating board, which was the last such city-run board in the nation when it finally folded in the early 90s.   Sometime in the late 80s, I  attended a couple of their screenings and wrote a short piece for D Magazine, opining that the board seemed harmless enough: There was no censorship, just some extra information the board added to the MPAA ratings–i.e., “boy tears heads off of squirrels,” “girl curses her mother and breaks her arm,” etc. Nobody chanted prayers or mentioned Sodom and Gomorrah.

That article  led to a months-long argument with a guy who worked for New Line Cinema in Dallas. He wrote letters, called several times, and finally demanded an audience with me, the editor, the publisher, and others. I still remember him, red-faced, neck veins bulging, likening me to a Nazi book-burner.

I didn’t get it then and don’t get it now. Information, I tried to explain, is not censorship. No movie was ever pulled or picketed because of the board’s actions. It was just a way to tell interested parents a little more about the content of a movie. I tried what I thought was a useful parallel: Food labeling. Tell me what’s in the stuff, and I’ll decide if I want to eat it. Didn’t work.

Of course, all that happened in the Old World where there was actually a shortage of information.  Today, anyone with a PC can find dozens of reviews and highly detailed descriptions of new and old movies. One of the most thorough sites,  here,   goes so far as to dispassionately count “F” words and blood gushers. No moralizing, no politicking, just facts about the movies.

By the way, Valenti was in Dallas the day JFK was killed.  Click here and scroll down for the famous photo of LBJ, a shell-shocked Jackie Kennedy, and others as LBJ is sworn in. Valenti barely makes the photo at middle left, beside the bow-tie guy.

Beyond Evil

In recent posts I’ve been pretty tough on the mistakes made by the Bush Administration in running the war in Iraq, mistakes which I fear have cost us any chance of helping them establish some kind of functioning democracy. Journalists and historians will post-mortem this the rest of our lives.

But nobody following this tragedy can fail to see another, hugely important reason for our perilous position in Iraq: some of the most hideously evil fanatics in world history. If you read the papers or watch some of the TV news, even once in a while, you’ve got to be struck by the ferocity and fiendish lust for violence that’s endemic in that country.  If you look at what Iraqis are doing to their own people, the abuses of Abu Ghraib and the occasional mistakes of our soldiers simply vanish by comparison.

The big, spectacular stories of car bombings and scores of people blown up in markets grab the headlines.  But a few lines from an Op-Ed piece in today’s  Dallas Morning  News  capture the savagery in one tragic incident:

The liquor store owner is a Christian Iraqi. In July, he found a threatening note slipped under the door of his store in Baghdad. (Selling alcohol violates Islamic law.) The police could not help. With no other means of supporting his wife and seven children, he kept the shop open.

The next week, five men entered the store, beat him, emptied the cash register, took his cellphone and demanded $10,000. Four days later, kidnappers snatched his 1-year-old son and demanded a ransom of $30,000.

With the help of an adult son in Australia, he raised $10,000 and delivered it as instructed. The next morning, he found a package on the porch: one plastic bag with the head of his son and another with his little beheaded body. The liquor store owner buried his son, and the whole family fled Iraq as soon as they got their travel documents.


We should have done a thousand things differently in Iraq. But I’m not sure any amount of training or war-gaming or CIA spying could have prepared us for thousands of such monsters.

“A Shadow of Hope” in Iraq?

I had some fairly somber thoughts yesterday and earlier on John McCain and his likely fate as point man (at least among active candidates) for the Iraq war effort.

I truly hope that McCain and a few others are right and I’m wrong in my sense that the war is lost, by which I mean Iraq is lost, destined to fall into the chaos and civil war that many have believed inevitable for months. 

I mean that for many reasons, chief among them the loss of more than 3,000 American military personnel. We already owe them more than we can ever repay. Nothing can ever bring them back, and it only deepens that tragedy if the effort that cost their lives turns out to be in vain.

  Some of the only hopeful words I’ve seen about Iraq lately come in a long review of a new book about the Iraq intervention. The book is called The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace by Ali A. Allawi, an Iraqi born into the Shia aristocracy whose family fled to American when he was ten, in 1958. He was educated here and returned to Iraq after the fall of Saddam.

 The review, and apparently the book, are scathingly hard on America’s naivete about Iraqi history and tribal politics. Bush, Bremer, the NeoCons and the whole bunch come in for bruising criticism. But, perhaps grasping at straws, I noticed these lines near the conclusion:

Lynndie England and Charles Graner (of prison-torture fame)  were brutes and sadists, but tens of thousands of American soldiers had for Iraqis nothing but tender mercies. The terrible
errors of this war can never smother its honor, and Ali Allawi
is schooled enough in the history and the sorrow of his land to
know that. A new history is offering itself to the Iraqis, and
in the tale of disappointment that Allawi brilliantly narrates,
there is still the furtive shadow of hope, an echo of deliverance,
an undisguised sense of fulfillment at the spectacle of men and
women released from a terrible captivity.

That, to me, expresses the best of why we went into Iraq, “blood- for- oil” simpletons notwithstanding.

If you’d like the whole long read, it’s here.