Opus 109:

Opus 109 (March 6, 2003): NOUS R US—Splendor Wins. With the Browns, the Indians and the Cavs failing to bring home the glory of a national title this year, writes Joanna Connors of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, it fell to Harvey Pekar, the VA hospital file clerk turned underground comic-book writer, to step into the breach. "American Splendor," a film based on his comic book series of that title and shot entirely in Cleveland, won the grand jury prize, the top dramatic award, at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

            "I'm real happy," said the usually glum and misanthropic Pekar, whose comic book has, for 25 years, offered a steady "all elbow" diet of autobiographical slices of life, cut so thin at times as to be mundane to the point of pointless. But he continued in a more typical mood:

            "I don't know about awards—I mean, if a film like 'Forrest Gump' can win the Academy Award, how much can they mean? But I'm happy for the people who made it. They're very, very nice; they're bright; they're talented. If I had contact with people like that every day, I wouldn't be depressed and everything." And he probably wouldn't write award-winning stories if he weren't depressed. The movie was produced by Ted Hope and written and directed by Bob Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman.

Spiegelman Splits From The New Yorker. In the New York Observer, Sridhar Pappu reports that Art Spiegelman, "who's broken up with The New Yorker about as many times as Elizabeth Taylor did with Richard Burton," says he and the magazine are again separating. Spiegelman's contract as artist and writer is about to expire and he has chosen not to renew. This departure, however, Spiegelman described as "incredibly gentle and civilized on all sides" compared to previous divorces when Tina Brown was editor of the venerable weekly.

           "There are things I need and want to do that don't fit the current mood of the magazine," Spiegelman said. The magazine is, at present, "much more about taking things in stride whereas I just think the sky's always falling with more reason than ever." Spiegelman said current New Yorker editor David Remnick told him that he was welcome back at any time, and could continue to design covers for the magazine. Likewise, Spiegelman said he hoped to produce freelance pieces for the magazine. But, he said, alluding to the aftermath of September 11th, "the place I'm coming from is just much more agitated than The New Yorker's tone" at the moment.

            Spiegelman was profoundly affected by the atrocity of September 11th, and he clearly feels that The New Yorker is not willing to take an appropriately provocative stance with respect to the nation's post-9/11 crisis in general, and the Bush League in particular.

            Today, he explained, he's devoting his energy towards his new comic strip, "In the Shadow of No Towers," now being published once a month by the German newspaper Die Zeit, and reproduced in the United States by The Forward. He described the strip as "recollections of September 11, 2001, and the feeling of imminent death that it brought with it seen from further and further spiraling distances as we move towards a present where we're equally threatened by Al Qaeda and my President."

            In an online interview with Corriere della Sera, Spiegelman allowed that the so-called "Bush revolution has triumphed." Everywhere he sees the conservative way of thinking prevailing.

            "After reading in the polls that George W. Bush is the most admired man in America," Spiegelman said, he concluded that the world he sees is "very different from what they see. Those who think like me are condemned to the margins because the critical alternative press of the Vietnam War era no longer exists."

            Instead, he claims, the media have become "tremendously timid." All march "to the same beat as the New York Times and ... don't criticize the government for fear that the administration will take revenge by blocking their access to sources and information. Mass media today is in the hands of a limited group of extremely wealthy owners whose interests don't coincide at all with those of the average soul living in a country where the gap between rich and poor is now unbridgeable. In this context, all criticism of the administration is automatically branded unpatriotic and un-American. Our media choose to ignore news that in the rest of the world receives wide prominence; if it were not for the Internet," he concluded, "even my view of the world would be extremely limited."

            He reproaches The New Yorker for joining in the lock-step reluctance to view the world, and the U.S., at all critically.

            "Tina did a great service to the magazine by kind of rejuvenating R, lȲd[.8׫wpQXBYGta UHB>vVJ}a0OPm8z@SS* ]+scvGz$T_j5cŁ u3b@zǪ& 3R ^[Hlant ڏ`F0ofX~EEHv)%Feƃ *Gbn @\|(5e]`b 9ŘKJHYE'#Lzh "Q|RSYLo}ҩܡShi /[{lJ/"ߝ ĕIT XhgNew Yorker as I do with American media in general," Spiegelman finished. "It's insanely timid. But that's a criticism I'm not leveling at David. It's part of the zeitgeist right now. And it's why I feel I'm in internal exile." Remnick was traveling and unavailable for comment and a spokesperson for the magazine declined to comment.

            I can understand Spiegelman's position, which is even more clarified by knowledge of his history of being "censored" by the magazine's editors. They obviously are not willing to be as confrontational with readers and the public as he is.

            But I find his charge that The New Yorker has become a timorous part of the fellow-traveling conservative throng not quite accurate. Seems to me that the magazine's "Talk of the Town" section has rather consistently pointed out that the Emperor in the White House is not only naked but duplicitous. The magazine may not be willing to publish Spiegelman's more outspoken covers (which, after all, is his chief involvement with the magazine's management), but they have plenty of guts on the inside.

GRAFIK NOVEL. New from NBM (www.nbmpublishing.com) is The Yellow Jar by Patrick Atangan. Subtitled "Two Tales from Japanese Tradition," the book's first story is the title tale about a fisherman who finds a beautiful young woman inside a giant yellow jar adrift in the sea. She tells him that she's looking for the perfect husband. He marries her, but she leaves him later when she discovers he's lied to her. He searches for her, and, when he discovers her the captive of a demon warrior, he attempts again and again to rescue her and finally succeeds. In the second story, "Two Chrysanthemum Maidens," two weeds in a garden are given the guise of young women. The gardener tries to get rid of the weeds but gives up when he realizes how beautiful they are. One seems more beautiful than the other so the gardener separates the two and gives the better one a place of honor. She, however, pines for the company of her sister. Meanwhile, her sister is discovered by a nobleman who takes her away for a place of honor in his crest.

            Folk tales are usually pretty straight-forward in their moralistic function. Here, too, the lessons are apparent: the bride from the yellow jar learns, finally, that love between husband and wife is more important than absolute, unwavering honesty; and the gardener learns that beauty seems to be in the eye of the beholder. Despite these obvious meanings, loose ends remain.

            Why is the first tale called "The Yellow Jar"? This vessel disappears fairly early on and doesn't seem to figure at all in the tale's denouement. The story is sometimes called "The Fisherman and the Sea Princess," which seems at least descriptive if not at all potent with meaning. The husband buries the yellow jar after bringing the young woman to his home, and then he lies about the jar's whereabouts. She later unearths the jar and goes off in it. The last picture in the story shows the fisherman and his bride at sea in a boat, accompanied by a yellow jar floating alongside. Whatever the yellow jar is, its presence is now openly acknowledged. Symbolizing what? The importance of honesty between husband and wife? Taking plot and symbol together, then, we may assume the meaning of this cautionary tale is that marriage requires both honesty and love, neither one to the exclusion of the other.

            In the second tale, although the relativity of beauty seems demonstrated, the two flower women remain separated at the end despite the fact that they yearn to be re-united. That is the impulse of the plot, but it is not achieved. Perhaps each of us achieves a metaphysical beauty only by ourselves, an achievement not possible if compared to another.

            Folk tales from different cultures are clearly not as accessible as the folk tales from one's own culture. Apart from such meaning as we might derive from the plotlines, we have Atangan's exquisite artwork. He is imitating the formal characteristics of the classic Japanese print style called 'ukiyo-e'—precise outlines, flat colors, ornate detailing. The tidy package, 8.5x6.5-inch pages (48 of them in hardcover, $12.95), adds to the appeal of the book, it seems to me. And even though I'm not a big fan of folk tale wisdom, the drawings are luscious, worth savoring for their own sake. Atangan plans more volumes in this mode—tales from China and the Philippines, each series employing the classic art styles from those lands. Look for them.

CIVILIZATION'S LAST OUTPOST. The Big Lie is alive and well. The theory is: if you say it often enough, people will believe it. Take Fox TV News, for instance. Their slogans are sprinkled throughout the broadcast day: "real journalism," "accurate and fair," "we report, you decide." I doubt it. I'm always highly suspicious of self-proclamation. If you have to proclaim your virtues yourself, you're probably exaggerating the truth. Anyone who says he's God's gift to humanity probably isn't.

            But the Big Lie is fully operational in other realms of American life. Lately it's been hand-in-glove with Self-proclamation. In politics, for example. Presidential politics in particular. Boy George Dubya calls himself "the Education President." Self-proclaimed. And after signing a "bold" education bill last winter, he produced a budget that doesn't fund the program. Some Education President.

            We get another helping of Bushwah every time he calls himself a "leader." "I'm a leader, not a nuancer." Well, he didn't say that, quite; but almost. Nuance is certainly beyond him. But leadership, as anyone who has witnessed it knows, is not announced; it's demonstrated and then established by reputation, not by personal self-serving proclamation.

            Every time I start to thinking that my fellow citizens can't be that stupid, I take out my tube of Crest and read the inscription on the side: "For best results, squeeze tube from the bottom and flatten as you go up." If a multi-million dollar company like Proctor and Gamble thinks Americans need to be told how to use a tube of toothpaste, who am I to question them? They're making big bucks on the assumption that the American people are stupid. And so (can it be doubted?) is the Bush League. We're clearly so stupid that we need a leader who tells us that he's a leader. Otherwise—if he didn't—how would we know?

            But can we believe it?

            The Bush League plan for Iraq depends upon credibility. We are asked to trust that the administration has the evidence that damns Saddam even if that evidence can't be shown to us. Moreover, since we have our troops in position, we must invade or the world won't believe us anymore. We must invade or no one will trust us ever again.

            But credibility, as Paul Krugman said recently in the New York Times, "is also about promises and telling the truth." And how often has the Bush League given us the unvarnished truth? How often has it kept its promises?

            Boy George promised Vicente Fox, president of Mexico, reforms that would legalize the status of undocumented immigrants. Nothing's happened. And so? So Fox isn't backing the U.S. in the U.N. Security Council vote on Iraq.

            In the War against Terrrorism, Boy George promised $3.5 billion for "first responders," and firefighters and policemen applauded. So far, no money in sight.

            Boy George promised generous aid for re-building New York after 9/11. So far, it's mostly forthcoming rather than actually in hand.

            Boy George as a candidate promised Nevadans that nuclear waste wouldn't be buried in Yucca Mountain; last I heard, we're about to start burying nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain.

            In his State of the Union speech last month, Boy George announced a big new initiative against AIDS in Africa. But all the money for it comes from other programs, which are now underfunded.

            And, speaking of the Bush League plans for a post-Saddam Iraq, take a look at the post-Taliban Afghanistan. Boy George's new budget includes none of the promised funding for re-building that miserable country.

            The Big Lie is, as I said, alive and well in American politics. And we are all eager to believe it because we use Crest toothpaste by the vat.

            And, meanwhile, we have that August body, the U.S. Congress, to represent us in government. Not any more. Before we had a Constitution, the word "congress" meant "sexual intercourse." I've got news: it still does. We're being screwed by that outfit every day they convene.

            Moreover, it's pretty clear that Congress is abdicated. It no longer participates in government or represents the people. It enacts legislation that will make the big money contributors to members' political campaigns richer. Pork barrel not the public weal is the (pardon the expression) "governing" principle.

            In a rather spectacular demonstration of its venality, Congress abdicated its power to declare war last fall; but long before then, it had given up participation in any real governing. And now, as we are poised to go to war, both chambers in Congress are silent on the subject of war. They don't even TALK about it anymore.

            Only Robert Byrd, apparently, took notice.

            "This coming battle, if it materializes, represents a turning point in U.S. foreign policy and possibly a turning point in the recent history of the world," Byrd said on Februrary 12 (probably to an empty Senate chamber). If we do this, he said, we'll be invoking a "radical new twist on the traditional idea of self-defense"—namely, the doctrine of pre-emption, the right of a nation to attack its enemies before the enemies have taken any overtly hostile action. If that doctrine won't change international relations, nothing will. It'll take us back to the ages when we lived by fang and claw.

            And yet, Congress isn't talking about it.

            "We are sleepwalking through history," Byrd said.

            Quite apart from the possible repercussions in the Mideast and elsewhere (almost everywhere else) of an invasion of Iraq (not the least of which is the spur the assault will give to terrorists to attack us again), there's the fate of the civilian population of Iraq during the war.

            To persuade us to go to war, the Bush League has taken great pains to tell us how nasty a fellow Saddam is. As a result, he looms large on the national consciousness. In the shadow of this monster, it is not surprising that we see no other Iraqis. How many Iraqis will the War kill? How many of the women and children that have been starved by sanctions will be killed by bombs once the War starts? This question becomes all the more horrible when we consider that over 50% of the Iraqi population is under 15 years of age.

            And this is a war to which we are exhorted in order to "liberate" the Iraqis and bring democracy to them—a highly moral motive.

            Said Byrd: "I truly must question the judgment of any President who can say that a massive unprovoked military attack on a nation which is over 50% children is 'in the highest moral traditions of our country.'"

            We are poised to live through a national disgrace. And it is ours as well as Congress's: we put this pack of money-grubbing, influence-peddling $500-suits in office. And now we are witness to the dissolution of the American experiment. It no longer works. We've failed. Sad, but true.

            Or is it?

            Can we extract ourselves from this mess?

            Of course. The 250,000 soldiers we have at the borders of Iraq? By all means, don't back off. Invade. But with bread not bullets. Ship millions of tons of food, seed, medical supplies, and the accouterments of a functioning society to the shores of the Arabian Gulf. Load it all onto trucks. Then drive into Iraq, dispensing food and aid as we go.

            Don't fire a bullet.

            To whom will the Iraqis be loyal after that?

            What could Saddam offer?

            Meanwhile, stay 'tooned. And for a peek at what else you can find at this site, click here to be transported to the Main Page.

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