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Back to Austin

Saturday, September 02, 2006 by Michael Reynolds

In 1979 I was living on the streets of Austin, Texas.

I had my black n' whites -- the black slacks and white shirt I needed to get a restaurant job -- stored in a locker in the Trailways station on Congress Street. I could keep my uniform clean that way, change and brush my teeth at the bus station. I was living on day old donuts. Most nights I'd sleep under a freeway overpass or just walk all night. Every few days I'd use some of my dwindling pile of cash to check into the Motel 6, take a shower, watch some TV, sleep. During the days I'd pass myself off as a student, go upstairs to the music collection room at the University of Texas undergrad library, have them put on some Beethoven, some Bach, maybe a Russian, and sleep in the carrel with the headphones on.

I had a job bussing tables at a restaurant called the Quorum which was a hangout for Texas pols and lobbysists. I would walk all night, sleep a couple of hours to Mozart, work like a dog bussing tables, repeat, repeat.

I'd burned my bridges with my crazy family. (Not cute, Fannie Flagg crazy, Jonathon Franzen crazy.) I had done a number of self-destructive things, including but by no means limited to, dropping out of high school. I knew I had driven the rusty Dodge Dart of my life into a blind alley. I'm stupid, but I'm not un-intelligent: I knew things had gone wrong for me.

After a while I moved up from busboy to waiter. I had to borrow the money for a seedy tux and a frilly shirt from the owner of the restaurant. I managed to rent an apartment on Pearl Street, just two blocks from the fabled Les Amis, just off-campus.

It was a hideously awful apartment with more cockroaches than it is possible for a sane mind to contemplate. Heat and cockroaches are Austin for me.

One evening, coming back from seeing a woman (whose name I forget, sorry miss,) I spotted the girl in the apartment next to mine through the window. I immediately concocted an excuse to go over and knock on her door. This is very unlike me. In those days my usual approach to women was, shall we say, retarded. A few minutes later K. and I were having beer at Les Amis. Twenty-four hours later we were living together. And twenty-seven years later we're still together.

Yesterday was the first time we've been back to Austin since those days. The roach-infested apartments on Pearl Street have been torn down. Les Amis is gone. The Quorum is gone. The Drag is just as squalid as it ever was, although now there's a huge Scientology "church" where once there were head shops. So much for progress.

I don't remember which overpass I used to sleep under, but as we zipped along the freeway in our rented Town Car I happened to see two cop cars under an overpass. They were running a check on a dirty, bedraggled looking young bum with bushy blond hair who'd probably been found sleeping there. Could have been me, although no matter how desperate I was I was always clean and presentable. Still, give him a shower and a work ethic and it could have been me twenty-seven years ago.

I found myself wishing I could send a message back across time to that earlier me. Something along the lines of "Don't worry, man, in a quarter century you'll be back here with wife, kids and platinum cards." That's idiotic, of course: reassurance might have killed me. If I hadn't been scared and lonely I wouldn't have knocked on that girl's door. And then I might have been scared and lonely forever.

I arrived in Austin as desperate as I've ever been. There were a couple of other desperate times still to come, but K. was always there, and that made all the difference.

I don't spend a lot of time regretting things I've done, or wishing I'd done things differently. I think life is far too complex for that. Life is a house of cards, you can't say "If only I'd moved this card . . . or that . . . " And in any case it turned out I not only got what I wanted, I got what I was too stupid to know I needed.

I don't sweat the moves along the way of my odd little life, with one single exception: what if I hadn't knocked on that girl's door? I thought coming back to Austin would be a sort of "Ah hah!" victory lap: from sleeping under the overpass to five star hotels, from busboy to author, from utterly alone to daddyhood.

Instead all I see is that moment, played over again in my head: I see her, I get up my nerve, I invent an excuse, I knock . . .

I always say that you live your life within an overlapping set of circles formed by genetics, environment, free will and random chance. I get that, intellectually. But still, you don't want to think too much about the random chance part. It'll give you the shakes.

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Friday, September 01, 2006 by Michael Reynolds

I'm out of town at the moment and blogging from the downtown Austin Hilton (pretty nice, call it three stars) but I wanted to respond to the outpouring of very thoughtful and intelligent responses to this post here at Sideways, and the identical post at Donklephant.

It is interesting, as one commetor pointed out, that many commentors sought to sidestep the limitations I tried to impose. People feel a lot more comfortable talking strategy rather than morality. Me too, which is why I posed it as a moral question. Playing the chess game is fun, while justifying the knowing destruction of very large numbers of innocents is, to understate the case quite a bit, troubling.

Those who condemn the bombing of Japan and who would, by extension, condemn similar actions in future wars seem much more comfortable with their responses than those who take more nuanced positions.

Even those who believe we were right in the case of Japan cannot quite bring themselves to imagine that we might be justified in doing it tomorrow or next year to Islamabad or Tehran. The reasons advanced for why it would be okay in Japan and not in some other context were not, in my opinion, very convincing.

One commentor drew a distinction on the grounds that we were at war with the entire Japanese people, while that's not the case in our current fight against international Islamist terrorists. I don't buy that, and I'll cite Lot at Sodom as my text. Lot repeatedly asked the Lord to spare Sodom and the Lord kept offering to do so if Lot could come up with 100 righteous men . . . ten righteous men . . one righteous man. Tokyo and Hiroshima and Nagasaki were full of children. We're never at war with children. If the Lord would have spared foul Sodom for a handful of righteous men, surely we should have spared Hiroshima with tens of thousands of innocent children.

"The enemy" is never just "the enemy." It doesn't matter who the enemy is, he has women and children. And the enemy has internal dissent. The enemy has people who are counted on his side purely by accident of geography. The enemy includes people who have risked their lives to resist the evil being done and yet will be exterminated by our bombs.

I posed this question because I wanted to know whether in the future we still had within us that capacity for wholsesale savagery. If I had discovered that the answer was "yes," then I would have been 100% sure of the outcome of the conflict between the West and radical Islam. Asymmetric warfare works only so long as the superior power allows it to work. It works only so long as a superpower refuses to take the gloves off. If the gloves come off, the game is over, because the asymmetry is real: we have the greater power.

More than one commentor suggested that we had not yet been pushed to the point of contemplating such extreme action and held open the possibility that circumstances might arise that we would interpret as permission to take off the gloves. I think that's true: people who say they could never do murder lack imagination.

In any event, after reading all the answers I conclude that we are highly unlikely to use the full range of our power under any but the most extreme circumstances. Another Pearl Harbor would not lead to a Nagasaki. (It didn't on 9/11.) It would take an American Nagasaki to cause us too unleash hell on our enemies.

This speaks well of us morally, no doubt. But it means that we're going to fight this current conflict, war, whatever we decide to call it, with one hand tied behind our back and both legs hobbled. I'm not happy about that because it means I can't be sure we're going to prevail.

I don't mean that we'll somehow be conquered, that's ridiculous. But is it inconceivable that Sharia law will be in force throughout the entire Muslim world in 20 years, and the last vestiges of liberty there extinguished? Is it inconceivable that we'll see a nuclear "exchange" between Israel and Iran? Is it inconceivable that terrorism will so intimidate European governments that they will defect from the West and seek a separate peace even at the cost of their own liberty? Is it inconceivable that in 20 years we could be just one player in a dangerous multi-polar world where we, without allies, face Islamist as well as Chinese and perhaps Indian power? Is it inconceivable that the America of 20 years from now will be one where freedoms we now take for granted have been surrendered in an effort to keep ourselves "safe?"

I don't like the idea of taking options off the table. It means we're predictable. It means our enemies sleep better than they otherwise would. I think that although it's high-minded it is also self-righteous, stupid and arrogant: it assumes that we will prevail without having to sully ourselves and boy, I hate arrogant assumptions of superiority. History is too full of comeuppance for the cocky.

What is so fascinating about this to me as that the answers from Left and Right are essentially the same: whatever we've done in the past, we don't do awful things anymore, not even to win. We're in a war we are forever being told is 'must win,' and a 'war of survival,' and we're to win it without splashing any dirt on our boots? That makes me nervous.

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Deep Google

Wednesday, August 30, 2006 by Michael Reynolds

Dopey, yes. Extreme, no.

Hmmm . . .

  1. "Islamic extremist" 377,000 hits
  2. "Jewish extremist" 42,500
  3. "Hindu extremist" 28,500
  4. "Catholic extremist" 2,560
  5. "Buddhist extremist" 1,100
  6. Episcopalian extremist" 0

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Morality And The Western Way Of War.

by Michael Reynolds

Right or wrong? Choose one.

I need someone to explain something to me. It's a moral question, so naturally I need help.

Sixty five years ago we fought a war with Japan following their attack on Pearl Harbor. Within a matter of a few months we were burning down Japanese cities. The Japanese of that era favored wood construction and we dropped incendiary bombs. Later, when the technology became available, we dropped atomic bombs.

You can argue one way or the other whether there were significant, legitimate military targets in each and every case, but let's take it as granted that there were. Nevertheless, incendiaries in packed cities full of wood houses, I think we knew what would result. I think we knew the firestorms might suck the oxygen from the lungs of children as well as adults, women as well as men, opponents and supporters of the regime alike.

Fair enough so far?

Question: were we right or wrong to do it?

Don't try to fall back on "war of necessity." That's a bullshit distinction. After we had pushed the Japanese back past Midway they ceased being an active threat to the US. We could quite easily, and at far less cost in lives and cash, instituted a regime of containment. We could have said, "You guys stay on that side of the Pacific, we'll stay over here and build a huge Navy, and what goes on between you and the Chinese, or you and various French colonies, is your business."

We didn't do that. We chased the Japanese all the way back to Japan, burned their country down around their ears, occupied them, put an American general in charge as a demi-god, wrote them a constitution and put a gun to their heads and said, "sign here."

Were we right or wrong to do it?

Well, it worked out pretty well, didn't it? Not so well for the people who died, not so well for the people who were burned, but in the grand geopolitical scheme of things, pretty well.

I'm not much of a moralist, I tend to be a pragmatist. And I'm enough of a chauvinist to conclude that in a straight-up choice I'll value an American life more highly than someone else's. But I'm not pushing the ends-justify-the-means argument as true in every situation. I'm asking if it was right or wrong to burn Japan in view of their attack, in view of the continuing pillage they'd have inflicted on Asia, and yes, as an element of the equation, the fact that it seems to have worked.

And I'm asking for a reason. Because any time I suggest that we might have to consider a similar form of warfare in dealing with Islamic extremism, Islamofascism, jihadism, call it what you like, I get shocked looks and cries of anguish.

We have two ideas at cross-purposes: First, that we are all in terrible danger, it's a war for survival, we're losing, help, help us please God. Second: we're doing all we can, we can do no more.

Well, we're clearly not doing all we can, which is what I'd think we'd be doing if we really believed we were in a war for survival. Cry havoc and let slip the puppies of war? I wonder whether we have taken real war off the table. I want to know whether real war is even an option any more. Not saying let's do it tomorrow, not arguing it's usefulness in this situation, I'm asking what arrows we have in our quiver.

So, going back to burning down Japan. Setting aside the strategic advisability of it for the moment, setting aside whether it would work, we can debate that another time, could we burn down Islamabad or Tehran or Mecca? Could we in theory? Could we do it and feel okay about it 65 years later? Or are we now evolved past the point where we have the stomach for terrible deeds in defense of our nation?

Is the western way of war, war of annihilation, still on the table? Or not? If not, why do we sttill own thousands of nuclear warheads?

If your answer is no, we don't do that anymore: were we right or wrong to do it 65 years ago?
If wrong, what changed in 65 years? Explain, because as a moral question, setting aside strategy, I don't get it.

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Katrina Memories

Tuesday, August 29, 2006 by Michael Reynolds

Pat at StubbornFacts has a nice post on Katrina. He was there. Took some good pictures, one of which is above.
Shortly after the storm, I found myself touring several shelters in the Baton Rouge area. I visited first hand with people who had fled their homes with little or nothing. The people rescued from rooftops by helicopter usually lacked even a shirt on their back when they arrived at the shelter. The picture just above shows the entire worldly possessions left to one small family.

One woman's legs were swollen to huge size by the ordeal of trekking through chest-deep mucky water trying to get to the Superdome. Her husband would be dead now had it not been for samaritans who took the description of the pills he needed and broke into a shuttered pharmacy to get more for him.

Another woman was in tears, of joy, because her 14-year-old son had just been located in Houston. She hadn't seen or heard from him since the storm, and didn't know if he was alive or dead. My friend held the woman's 2-month-old in her arms as she frantically put everything she now owned into 4 little boxes and some plastic grocery bags before they took her to the airport to be flown to Houston to join the boy.
Readers of my old blog may recall with amused and I hope tolerant condescension my own mission to Katrina. I thought I'd drive on down, kidnap a family, move them to Chapel Hill and take care of them for however many months. That was a doomed if fascinating jaunt. The people I met in shelters were (understandably) dubious. I'm not sure what I'd have thought seeing me zip on up and offer to bust people out.

In one church shelter they warned me that the refugees needed to be vetted before they could be placed. (They gave me a defunct 800 number to call.) I explained that I was willing to take the risk, that I was looking for family people and I didn't think some mommy with three kids was going to be much of a threat.

They told me I needed to be vetted, too. Apparently on the theory that I had driven down to Alabama to make off with a poor black family, what with us having none of our own in North Carolina. And again a defunct 800 number.

This particular church had a media facility. Half a dozen of the people asked me to get the projection TV turned on, but the technical stuff baffled me. So I asked the church folk for instruction and was told not to let the people in the shelter become too demanding.

The people running the shelters I visited were overwhelmed, undertrained, or, in some cases, scared to death of the people for whom they were caring.

Finally I found one guy in an Alabama shelter who had his act together. I walked in and said "Dude, I have an SUV outside and an Amex card in my grubby fist, what do you need?" I think it was the third shelter I'd made the same offer, but this guy had his shit together. He had a list. It was like he'd been expecting me to show up. So off I toddled to Wal-Mart which, although surrounded by ruin, was busy marking down prices. (No, I'm not kidding.) In one of the more surreal episodes of a life replete with oddness I spent an hour dragging two shopping carts through Wal-Mart loading up plus-size clothing (the shelter had nothing over XL), foodstuffs, personal hygiene items, ice, kid's toys, make-up in African-American shades, and whatever other crap came to my mind. (Strangely inexpensive, but then, that's Wal-Mart.)

As I left, the people running the shelter confiscated the TV-DVD and the movies I'd bought to keep the kids occupied. It troubled me then, still does today. I'm a father, so I know something about keeping kids occupied and had tremendous sympathy for the exhausted parents in the shelter. I asked them why they were confiscating the TV and was told that "these people" would just steal it. Steal it from the open middle of a huge shelter? Steal it while kids were watching SpongeBob and Nemo? The toys I bought were kept away from the children because, "they each have a toy."

A toy? My kids have roughly eight billion toys, and they hadn't just lost their homes.

But it wasn't my place to argue: they were running the place and I was a dilettante commuting back and forth for a couple of days from the Birmingham Hilton. (And the Birmingham Hilton bar.)

I came away thinking this country needed something more than the Red Cross to cope with disasters. Volunteers are good people, but they aren't professionals. And as well-meaning as the church people I met were, and as devoted as the Red Cross people were, the result was still a confused mess. A mountain of diapers, a lot of volunteers sitting around drinking sweet tea, scared white people and resigned black people. And no one taking care of the kids.

CORRECTION: Just occurred to the shelter was in Mississippi, not Alabama. Like there's a difference.

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On Saddam's TiVo

Monday, August 28, 2006 by Michael Reynolds

I really hope this is true:

Saddam Hussein has been forced to watch South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, according to the film's co-creator Matt Stone.

The former Iraqi leader is portrayed in the movie as a homosexual who is in a relationship with the devil, and Stone claims the prisoner is being forced to watch it "repeatedly" as he is held by US Marines.
(Thanks to Raw Story for the link.)

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Kiddie Pornographers.

by Michael Reynolds


Everyone who failed to see this coming please transfer to the "special" class.

People complain about the media. Too liberal? Too conservative? Not the problem.

How about brain dead and ethics-free? How about indifferent to their core business, supposedly the delivery of actual news? And how about this: leering, lip-smacking pornographers? How about vampires feeding on the body of a dead child? How about pimps for psychos?

And now that we find what we guessed almost from the start -- that they were obsessing over someone who had nothing to do with the crime -- CNN, Fox, MSNBC suddenly change the subject, as though nothing had happened.

These people really are contemptible.

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