James WolcottJames Wolcott
James Wolcott is a VANITY FAIR contributing editor
Tracer Fire
"Worse than a Fool"
Posted by James Wolcott

Among the many peculiarities of this president is his utter refusal to listen to those within his own orbit in the oil realm. It's understandable, if unacceptable, that Bush would ignore the warnings of environmentalists regarding Peak Oil and global warming, but why would he tune out the words of his gummy ally Tony Blair, Matthew Simmons, the expert oil analyst and author of Twilight in the Desert who has briefed Bush personally, and Richard Rainwater?

"Richard Rainwater doesn't want to sound like a kook," began a profile of the super investor in Fortune magazine (the italics below are mine). "But he's about as worried as a happily married guy with more than $2 billion and a home in Pebble Beach can get. Americans are 'in the kind of trouble people shouldn't find themselves in,' he says. He's just wary about being the one to sound the alarm.

"Rainwater is something of a behind-the-scenes type--at least as far as alpha-male billionaires go. He counts President Bush as a personal friend but dislikes politics, and frankly, when he gets worked up, he says some pretty far-out things that could easily be taken out of context. Such as: An economic tsunami is about to hit the global economy as the world runs out of oil. Or a coalition of communist and Islamic states may decide to stop selling their precious crude to Americans any day now. Or food shortages may soon hit the U.S. Or he read on a blog last night that there's this one gargantuan chunk of ice sitting on a precipice in Antarctica that, if it falls off, will raise sea levels worldwide by two feet--and it's getting closer to the edge.... And then he'll interrupt himself: 'Look, I'm not predicting anything,' he'll say. 'That's when you get a little kooky-sounding.'

"Rainwater is no crackpot. But you don't get to be a multibillionaire investor--one who's more than doubled his net worth in a decade--through incremental gains on little stock trades. You have to push way past conventional thinking, test the boundaries of chaos, see events in a bigger context. You have to look at all the scenarios, from 'A to friggin' Z, as he says, and not be afraid to focus on Z. Only when you've vacuumed up as much information as possible and you know the world is at a major inflection point do you put a hell of a lot of money behind your conviction.

"Such insights have allowed Rainwater to turn moments of cataclysm into gigantic paydays before. In the mid-1990s he saw panic selling in Houston real estate and bought some 15 million square feet; now the properties are selling for three times his purchase price. In the late '90s, when oil seemed plentiful and its price had fallen to the low teens, he bet hundreds of millions--by investing in oil stocks and futures--that it would rise. A billion dollars later, that move is still paying off. 'Most people invest and then sit around worrying what the next blowup will be," he says. "I do the opposite. I wait for the blowup, then invest.'

"The next blowup, however, looms so large that it scares and confuses him. For the past few months he's been holed up in hard-core research mode--reading books, academic studies, and, yes, blogs. Every morning he rises before dawn at one of his houses in Texas or South Carolina or California (he actually owns a piece of Pebble Beach Resorts) and spends four or five hours reading sites like LifeAftertheOilCrash.net or DieOff.org, obsessively following links and sifting through data. How worried is he? He has some $500 million of his $2.5 billion fortune in cash, more than ever before. 'I'm long oil and I'm liquid,' he says. 'I've put myself in a position that if the end of the world came tomorrow I'd kind of be prepared.' He's also ready to move fast if he spots an opening.

"His instincts tell him that another enormous moneymaking opportunity is about to present itself, what he calls a 'slow pitch down the middle.' But, at 61, wealthier and happier than ever before, Rainwater finds himself reacting differently this time. He's focused more on staying rich than on getting richer. But there's something else too: a sort of billionaire-style civic duty he feels to get a conversation started. Why couldn't energy prices skyrocket, with grave repercussions, not just economic but political? As industry analysts debate whether the world's oil production is destined to decline, the prospect makes him itchy.

"'This is a nonrecurring event," he says. 'The 100-year flood in Houston real estate was one, the ability to buy oil and gas really cheap was another, and now there's the opportunity to do something based on a shortage of natural resources. Can you make money? Well, yeah. One way is to just stay long domestic oil. But there may be something more important than making money. This is the first scenario I've seen where I question the survivability of mankind. I don't want the world to wake up one day and say, 'How come some doofus billionaire in Texas made all this money by being aware of this, and why didn't someone tell us?'"

The only explanation, apart from Bush's cognitive disability in facing reality, is that he sociopathically doesn't care about the coming calamity endangering the planet because he and his cronies will be financially prepared even as most Americans lose their standard of living.

There are so many reasons that Bush's name should be dragged through the dust of his post-presidency for the harm and disgrace his administration has inflicted, and so impeachable offenses for which he would prosecuted today if we had a Congress worthy of the Founders. His malign indifference to Peak Oil and global warming may be the greatest of his crimes, because it will lead to the misery and deaths of untold millions of people, animals, and natural resources.

Richard Heinberg, author of The Party's Over and Powerdown, methodically lays out the prosecution argument for the impeachment of George W. Bush.

"While it would be difficult to create an airtight legal case for impeaching George W. Bush based on his ignoring the very real threat posed by Peak Oil, nevertheless I believe that his actions—and inaction—in this regard constitute dereliction of duty on an unprecedented scale.

It is part of the job of leaders to foresee problems and either steer around them or prepare for them. A head of state is analogous to the captain of a ship, who is responsible not only for keeping his vessel on course but also for avoiding hazards such as storms and icebergs. Some problems are not foreseeable; others are. A ship’s captain who loses his vessel to a freak 'perfect storm' may be blameless, but one who steers his passenger liner directly into a foggy ice field, having no sonar or radar, is worse than a fool: he is criminally negligent.

"The argument I will make, in brief, is this:

"Peak Oil is foreseeable.

"The consequences are also foreseeable and are likely to be ruinous.

"The Bush administration has been repeatedly warned.

"Actions could be taken to reduce the impact, but the longer those actions are delayed, the worse the impact will be.

"The administration, rather than taking steps to mitigate these looming catastrophic impacts, has instead done things that can only worsen them.

"Let us go through these points one by one."

Which he proceeds to do, convincingly, devastatingly.

03.23.06 12:52PM · LINK

The Land of Nod
Posted by James Wolcott

So there I am on the bus (the M104, if you must know), and I run into this hypothetical acquaintance, who says: "Nifty shades, man. But I gotta ask. How can you watch L & O: Criminal Intent instead of The Sopranos? The Sopranos is superior in every way, shape, and form."

Really, my hypothetical interlocuter? Last night's L & O: CI was first-rate, Torn from Today's Headlines and performed with a smooth dark veneer, and in one aspect was irrefutably superior to The Sopranos. To wit:

No dream sequences.

Dream sequences are a curse on series TV, equal in their artsy-kitschy intrusiveness to ghostly visitations from deleted characters, and perhaps even worse than dream sequences are dream-sequence interpretations, which compels talented critics to smack at every symbol that pops up from the watery unconscious with wooden paddles.

03.20.06 6:43PM · LINK

Hell on the Installment Plan
Posted by James Wolcott

"It is no longer possible to say that there is no civil war in Iraq, writes Robert Dreyfuss. "It’s here. It has begun.

"The civil war that war opponents warned about, the one that Middle East experts said might be coming, the one that Bush administration officials say isn’t likely to happen has already started. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the neoconservative strategist who served the United States in two failed occupations—Afghanistan and Iraq—still doesn’t get it. In an interview with Al Hayat, a London-based Arabic newspaper, Khalilzad warned that Iraq 'is bleeding and headed for civil war.' But he’s wrong. Iraq is no longer headed for civil war. It’s there.

"Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, looking grim at a Pentagon news conference on Monday, remains in denial. 'Do I think we’re in a civil war at the present time? No,' he said. The Department of Defense is war-gaming a civil war, he told reporters. What would a civil war in Iraq look like? Well, said Rumsfeld, 'I will say, I don’t think it’ll look like the United States Civil War.'

"Rumsfeld is right about that. It won’t. But it will look a lot like the civil war that is being waged in Iraq today..."

And what does that look like? The Independent's Patrick Cockburn fills in the shadowy picture.

"Unseen by the outside world, silent populations are on the move, frightened people fleeing neighborhoods where their community is in a minority for safer districts.

"There is also a growing reliance on militias because of fears that police patrols or checkpoints are in reality death squads hunting for victims.

"Districts where Sunni and Shia lived together for decades if not centuries are being torn apart in a few days. In the al-Amel neighbourhood in west Baghdad, for instance, the two communities lived side by side until a few days ago, though Shias were in the majority. Then the Sunni started receiving envelopes pushed under their doors with a Kalashnikov bullet inside and a letter telling them to leave immediately or be killed. It added that they must take all of their goods which they could carry immediately and only return later to sell their houses.

"The reaction was immediate. The Sunni in al-Amel started barricading their streets. Several Shia families, believed to belong to the Shia party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), were murdered later the same day the threatening letters were delivered...

"One effect of the escalating sectarian warfare is to strengthen the Sunni insurgency as their own community desperately looks to its defenses.

"It is not as if life was not already hard enough before the latest escalation in communal violence. Three years ago, most Iraqis were glad to see the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, even if they did not like the US occupation, because they wanted normal lives. They had been living in a state of war since 1980 when the Iraqi leader invaded Iran. They then had eight years of bloody conflict followed by the invasion of Kuwait, defeat by the US-led coalition, the Shia and Kurdish uprisings of 1991 and then 12 years of UN sanctions.

"Instead of improving, life in Baghdad has become far more dangerous than it was under Saddam Hussein. Every facet of daily living is affected. [my italics]

"In the last few days, temperatures have started to soar in Iraq and people would normally be buying summer clothes. But in the shopping district of al-Mansur last week few people were on the streets. Many shops were closed because their owners are too frightened to leave their homes.

"But even staying in your own house carries problems. In the torrid heat of the Iraqi summer people are dependent on air conditioning to make life tolerable. But Baghdad gets only three or four hours of electricity a day. Almost everybody has a generator, large or small, depending on what they can afford. But the price of petrol, still heavily subsidised by the government, tripled before Christmas. One friend called Mohammed complained: 'Either I wait seven or eight hours in a queue to buy the fuel or I get it on the black market. But black market fuel means that I would have to spend $7-8 a day to run my generator and I simply can't afford that.' Mohammed added that he had just spent 10 hours, 5 am until 3pm, queuing to buy a bottle of gas which he, like most Iraqis, use for cooking.

"Iraqis have been compelled to find ways of going on living even in the most testing conditions but even their resolution is beginning to weaken."

Meanwhile, those merry souls at Fox News Your World w/ Neil Cavuto opened the show today with a segment asking if the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq should be celebrated as a national holiday there.

Of course, it's difficult to know how the people of Baghdad would be able to get out and celebrate their liberation when shopping for summer clothes presents mortal peril.

And yet I don't think this is a bad idea. Perhaps next year on the anniversary of this glorious mission, the US could fly a transport plane crammed with the creme de la creme of warbloggers, hawkish pundits, neoconservative thinkers, and cable news and talk radio hosts, and deposit them on the site of Saddam Hussein's fallen statue--the newly christened Krauthammer Square--and let them behold the joy and splendor they have bestowed upon a grateful Iraqi people. Who, in turn, will brave the heat, dust, and danger and leave their homes to demonstrate their gratitude to their noble guests by attempting to shoot their lying asses to pieces.

No, that probably won't make for an appropriate holiday. Scratch that idea.

To earn its rightful date on the calendar, the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq should be a day of remembrance on which conscientious Americans wear mourning colors and beg the world's forgiveness, and Iraqis' forgiveness most of all.

03.20.06 4:52PM · LINK

V for Vinegar
Posted by James Wolcott

One of the amusing aspects regarding the huffy press response to V for Vendetta is receiving lessons in maturity from movie critics, hitherto unknown for being the custodians of what constitutes intellectual adulthood. In The New Yorker, David Denby speculated that the movie would appeal partially to "aging kids," and Magnolia Darkness of the NY Times expressed faux astonishment that anyone over the age of 14 would find the movie "subversive." If it's radical you want, She decreed, wait for the next Claire Denis movie. I'm not sure what the next Claire Denis movie is slated to be, but it must be pretty rad. Until then, I'm going to monitor myself at future movie screenings to ensure that my responses are age-appropriate and befitting of my status, income level, and cultural sophistication.

That way I won't succumb to the sort of wild abandon for the film on whirling display here.

One brief note. I do think Alan Moore's noisy, widely publicized repudiation of the movie may have hurt the opening weekend's box office. There have been a couple of times in the past when a novelist has trashed an adaptation of his/her work the week before the film's release, and helped poison the atmosphere and muddy the critical reception. New York magazine used to be a favored landing strip for this sort of bitter kiss-of-death kiss-off article. I understand the bitterness but as a viewer I have to go by what's up on screen.

03.19.06 6:58PM · LINK

"That infestation of rats was the best thing that ever happened to us"
Posted by James Wolcott

From "depressed roomies"--hilarious, mordant sitcom absurdism, Charlie Kaufman-style, cheerfully relayed by Buffy-Angel-Firefly-Gilmore Girls writerJane Espenson, whose blog is a must-bookmark for all you budding screen and TV spec writers out there staring despondently at your laptops as everyone around you at Starbucks ignores your plight, having plights of their own to occupy them.

03.19.06 2:27PM · LINK

The Siegel Catalog
Posted by James Wolcott

"What is a Don Siegel movie?" asked Manny Farber. His answer: "Mainly it's a raunchy, dirty-minded film with a definite feeling of middle-aged, middle-age sordidness."

If that sounds like your kind of stubbly bacterica, prepare to submerge into Film Forum's Don Siegel fiesta, unreeling until April 13th.

If you've never seen Hell Is for Heroes on big screen or small, don't miss it--WWII films don't come more stripped-down and existential, and it showcases one of Steve McQueen's steeliest performances. (Siegel did everything he could to make McQueen cry for the film's emotional breakdown scene, and couldn't wrest a single tear from McQueen. McQueen's stubbon willpower or facial armature had the right idea: the scene is stronger for being tearless.)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers needs no further exposition, but see it again if only for the fleeting glimpse of Sam Peckinpah in a bit role.

I'm keen on seeing Baby Face Nelson, the one Siegel I've never lucked across, and even keener to re-see the seldom-shown, collision-y procedural The Lineup, which features a hit man and his dapper assistant, who writes down the victim's last words into a keepsake notebook. Wrote Farber about The Lineup, "What is so lyrical about the ending, in San Francisco's Sutro Museum, is the Japanese-print compositions, the late afternoon lighting, the advantage taken of the long hallways, multilevel stairways in a baroque, elegant, glass-palace building with an exposed skating rink, nautical museum, and windows facing the sea with eye-catching boulders." Siegel made less lyrical, more gut-punching use of SF locales in Dirty Harry, whose peak moment remains the reverse zoom out of the stadium at night as Andy Robinson's psychotic screams reaching keening pitch.

I'm rather less enamored of the middle-aged, huffing-puffing malaise of Madigan and the cultural clash between Clint and the big city in Coogan's Bluff (a forerunner to TV's McCloud), but at least we were spared the most mechanical Siegel films: the crass, unfunny Jinxed! (a trauma for star Bette Midler), the colorless, tired Telefon and The Black Windmill, though I'm sure those films have their adherents too.

03.19.06 12:27PM · LINK

Swarmless in Samarra
Posted by James Wolcott

Brian Bennett in Time:

"Four Black Hawk helicopters landed in a wheat field and dropped off a television crew, three photographers, three print reporters and three Iraqi government officials right into the middle of Operation Swarmer. Iraqi soldiers in newly painted humvees, green and red Iraqi flags stenciled on the tailgates, had just finished searching the farm populated by a half-dozen skinny cows and a woman kneading freshly risen dough and slapping it to the walls of a mud oven...

"The press, flown in from Baghdad to this agricultural gridiron northeast of Samarra, huddled around the Iraqi officials and U.S. Army commanders who explained that the 'largest air assault since 2003' in Iraq using over 50 helicopters to put 1500 Iraqi and U.S. troops on the ground had netted 48 suspected insurgents, 17 of which had already been cleared and released. The area, explained the officials, has long been suspected of being used as a base for insurgents operating in and around Samarra, the city north of Baghdad where the bombing of a sacred shrine recently sparked a wave of sectarian violence.

"But contrary to what many many television networks erroneously reported, the operation was by no means the largest use of airpower since the start of the war. ("Air Assault" is a military term that refers specifically to transporting troops into an area.) In fact, there were no airstrikes and no leading insurgents were nabbed in an operation that some skeptical military analysts described as little more than a photo op. What’s more, there were no shots fired at all and the units had met no resistance, said the U.S. and Iraqi commanders.

"Before loading up into the helicopters for a return trip to Baghdad, Iraqi and American soldiers and some reporters helped themselves to the woman’s freshly baked bread, tearing bits off and chewing it as they wandered among the cows. For most of them, it was the only thing worthwhile they’d found all day."

Maybe some of our stay-at-home commandos in the blogosphere ought to read H. John Poole's Phantom Soldier before they feel the next bout of excitement coming on.

03.17.06 7:34PM · LINK

Duct Tape Across a Dead Woman's Mouth
Posted by James Wolcott

I had to walk through a gantlet of Catholic picketers protesting that Godard film about the Virgin Mary years back. Not a very good movie, either, though the actress's bushy pubic hair got a number of male critics so excited you'd think they had never seen bushy p. h. before, and perhaps they hadn't.

Then I had to wade through a similar batch of Catholic protesters to get to Terrence McNally's play Corpus Christi, which also wasn't up to much apart from a lot of solemn ritual and toned, bared torsos. Tedium reigned. Worse, they closed the theater during intermission so that protesters couldn't sneak in (while audience members snuck out for a smoke or fresh air) and disrupt act two. Otherwise, I would have fled and taken a candy bar with me.

The suffering I do for what some consider art.

But if those events could take place without major incident, there's no reason why My Name Is Rachel Corrie couldn't be staged in New York without eruption. It played in London without gang warfare breaking out in the lobby, and presumably New Yorker audiences and media possess a similar maturity. But it's never safe to assume, as Philip Weiss reminds us in this week's Nation cover story about putting Rachel Corrie's story into cold storage.

I only wish Weiss would have delved into Edward Rothstein's injurious thumbsucker for the NY Times, in which he muddled up the play with Piss Christ and engaged in storm-cloud speculation (scroll down):

"Think of what might have happened had the theater actually presented the play later this month, fresh from its sold-out success at the Royal Court Theater in London. Then the controversy might have been over other forms of political blindness. There might have been assertions that the company was glorifying the mock-heroics of a naif who tried to block efforts to cut off terrorist weapon smuggling. Donors might have pulled away. And the New York Theater Workshop might have been accused of feeding the propagandistic maw of Hamas, just as it came into power in the Palestinian territories. Is it any wonder the company got jittery?"

I think NY theatergoers are sophisticated enough to differentiate between Rachel Corrie's death and Hamas' electoral victory, but I don't doubt those accusations would have been hurled. As Tony Kushner says in Weiss's article, any dissent aimed at Israeli policies kicks up a hornet's nest. "These aren't hayseeds from Kansas screaming about gays burning in hell; they're newspaper columnists who are taken seriously." He didn't name Charles Krauthammer, but he didn't have to.

03.17.06 6:02PM · LINK

For Your Dialing Pleasure
Posted by James Wolcott

My pal Michele Mitchell--novelist, documentary filmmaker, and international siren--will be appearing on Bill Maher's HBO show tonight. Also on the panel, Richard Belzer. Now you kids primarily think of the Belz as the laconic, close-cropped cop formerly of Homicide and currently on Law & Order: SVU. But to those veterans of Manhattan from a much hairier decade, Belzer was a legendary insult comic who put away hecklers and nightclub chatterboxes with a lightning-quick, slicing comeback--the Bruce Lee of lethal standup. Guys in the audience would bait him just to see the Belz in action, only to rue their folly as they were humiliated in front of their half-drunk dates and buds. Ah, such warm, cuddling memories.

Speaking of L & O, the Criminal Intent franchise will feature a Jack Abramoff-inspired ep this Sunday, which most of you will miss because you'll be engrossed in the auburn depths of The Sopranos or the trampoline action on Desperate Housewives. Not me: I'm adhesively loyal to the supercerebral Crim Intent, despite my disappointment in last week's Rupert Murdoch fantasia, which employed nastily crude ethnic putdowns and heavy overemphasis to reveal the wormy heart and soulless soul of the monster patriarch played by Malcolm McDowell--we didn't need to hear him spouting racist insults as he was carted off to know what an irredeemable louse he was. McDowell's rage-eaten face was able to get that across all on its own.

More must-see teevee: ReddHedd from Firedoglake will be on C-SPAN's Washington Journal this Sunday morning. I'm going to have to get one of the ocicats to wake me up in time.

03.17.06 4:54PM · LINK

Why Am I Not Surprised?
Posted by James Wolcott

Operation Victor Davis Lowry, which is being hyped on cable news as the greatest airborne assault since the invention of rotary wings, may be little more than a dust-twirler.

"[Operation Victor Davis Lowry] is really a media show," relays Chris Allbritton at Back to Iraq. "It was designed to show off the new Iraqi Army — although there was no enemy for them to fight. Every American official I’ve heard has emphasized the role of the Iraqi forces just days before the third anniversary of the start of the war. That said, one Iraqi role the military will start highlighting in the next few days, I imagine, is that of Iraqi intelligence. It was intel from the Iraqi military intelligence and interior ministry that the U.S. says prompted this Potemkin operation. And it will be the Iraqi intel that provides the cover for American military commanders to throw up their hands and say, 'well, we thought bad guys were there.'"

Pat Lang at Sic Temper Tyrannis thinks that even giving this operation a name smacks of pretension. "Hey, folks, this is a small operation. It sounds like a battalion of infantry (maybe two battalions) from the 101st Airborne Division and some Iraqi police troops. In Vietnam this operation would have been too small to have been given a name. It would have just been, 'what you were doing tomorrow.'"

However, it has given new battery life to all those retired colonels and majors who had been biding their time darning socks and waxing their foreheads to a kitchen shine over the last year or so. They immediately sprung into action, getting on their game face in the makeup room, and barking on camera--on the basis of no initial information whatsoever--that this op would prove the Iraqi army is a credible force, which in turn would reassure the Iraqi people and Americans at home that we're "taking it to the enemy." What if the enemy's not there? Well, we're taking it to them anyway, tracking down ghosts.

03.17.06 3:49PM · LINK

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