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Say It Again, George.

If you take a look at a transcript of a recent presidential news conference, you will notice Bush uses the word "protect" quite freely:

"...the tools they need to protect the American people...."

"...protects our borders..."

"...we must protect America‘s secrets...."

"...What is needed in order to protect the American people is..."

"...and at the same time protect the United States of America...."

"...it is a necessary part of my job to protect you..."

"... This is a part of our effort to protect the American people...."

"American people expect us to protect them and protect their civil liberties."

And if you review the oath Bush took -- both at his first and second inaugurations-- you will notice he utters the word "protect" there as well:

"I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Now, you can certainly make the argument that all of the other "protects" above (from the news conference) are efforts to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. But the thing is... he never actually says that. He never says "my job is to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution". But that's the oath he took, after all. He didn't take an oath to protect the American People, or our secrets, or our borders, even though that's what he's constantly reminding us he's doing.

What, the Constitution  is suddenly some darkly menacing uncle that nobody dares mention in polite company anymore?

Why doesn't he just say it? "I'm here to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution".

My own view is that he never actually repeats his oath, never actually refers directly to the oath he took to protect the Constitution, because that would complicate things for him way too much.

For example, thank gawd he is still more or less obligated to come up with some sort of response when somebody asks him, "Why are you conducting these warrantless searches on American citizens?" Given that he is still forced to respond, which of the following responses is better, do you think, from his point of view? "I am obligated to protect the American people." Or: "I am obligated to protect the Constitution."

The first response makes your average American go, "Oh, hmm, okay."

The second response makes you go, "Um, okay, but how does conducting warrantless searches protect the Constitution? Doesn't it more likely weaken it?"

In other words, the first response is an attempt to end debate. The second response invites both more questions and more debate.

He keeps reminding us of what he is "obligated to do", but he never reminds us of what he swore to us he would do.

Okay, so maybe it's a small point. But maybe it isn't.

The brutal truth is that protecting you -- yes, you, dear reader -- doesn't particularly matter to the preservation of American constitutional government. It isn't the ability to protect you that distinguishes American constitutional government from every thugocracy on the planet. Mugabe has cops on the street watching for pick-pockets. Putin's police departments enforce speed limits. Russian special forces, on occasion, storm opera houses full of terrorized hostages (with mixed results). And, of course, Castro protects his people from HIV by putting those who've been infected with it in concentration camps.

Protecting you -- protecting the American people -- is nothing grander than a reptilian-brain function of government. It's no different than the contract between the weaker animals in a herd and the most powerful animal in that herd. If all you want is to be protected from danger, you could do worse than tracking down the King of the Jungle and signing on with him.

No, it's the Constitution that distinguishes American constitutional government from thugocracies. (Yes, yes, there will be some who say America has become a thugocracy, but I don't believe it. There are problems, yes, but we are not Mugabe. Saying we are gets us nowhere beyond melodrama.)

The American People don't exist, as an entity, to be protected by their government; they exist to protect their Constitution, the document that defines how they will govern themselves. We are its custodians, not its wards.

When Bush tells us he is obligated to protect the American People, but never explicitly reminds us of the oath he actually took -- to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution -- he's reducing us to a herd of frightened animals -- a herd he and his cronies get to rule. Frightened animals aren't going to further pester the King of the Jungle when he answers all our questions with "I am protecting you" (so long as the claim still seems credible).

If, however, he responds by saying, "I'm using warrantless searches to protect the Constitution"... well, that invites questions from us. It invites us to debate whether his actions really do protect the Constitution. It invites us to rise above the level of his trembling underlings.

He ought to say it. He ought to say explicitly that he's doing these things to protect the Constitution. He ought to say it in response to all of our questions about warrantless searches, detentions without trials, extraordinary renditions, and all the rest of it. That would be the responsible thing to do. That would be the thing to do if he was actually interested in reminding himself of his oath, and in living up to it.

If he won't say it, we ought to insist that he say it. If he still won't say it, we need to get rid of him.

And if you think I'm just being picky, you need to think about it some more.

Apocalypse Now, Reception To Follow

On Wednesday, 21 December 2005, at 11:00 a.m. in Islington Registry Office, North London, my long-time dear friends Dr. Stephen W. Burton and Mr. Stephen Burn were finally united in Wholly Legal Civil Partnership.

Above: Beaming Sodomites.

Dr. Burton reports:

It was the same time as Sir Elton John and his partner David Furnish (an Interior Designer's name if ever I heard one) got hitched in Windsor. We were photographed and interviewed on the steps to the Registry Office by a cub reporter from the Islington Gazette.  Another couple who tied the knot in Islington that day were Sir Anthony Sher (Actor) and long term partner Greg Doran (Theatre Director).

Congratulations to Stephen and Stephen.

It's the end of the world as we know it. I feel fine.

The Right Reverend Bishop Carlton D. Pearson

A stunning episode of "This American Life" this weekend. If you don't get a chance to hear it on your local public radio station today or tomorrow, wait for the archived version to show up here.

It's about Bishop Carlton D'Metrius Pearson, an Oral Roberts U. graduated Pentecostal preacher who one day made the mistake of no longer believing in Hell. His peers and pewers, who until then had adored him and showered him with money, threw him out, labeled him a Heretic, and perpetrated all the other sadly predictable so forths and so ons.

Bishop Pearson now runs the Higher Dimensions Family Church of Tulsa, Oklahoma. ("God is not a Christian!")

It's a remarkable story. I'm an atheist and even I have to say... I wouldn't mind being a member of his flock.

Of course, in a funny way, I think I already am.

Two Twenty Something Boys, On the L, Possibly In Love.

You're riding home on the L train, minutes before a possible transit strike, after some wine at a friend's party, and two twenty something boys get on. One of them is irresistibly cute in that way that doesn't have anything to do with television advertisements. You just look at him from a certain angle and you just know that he is beautiful in a way that hasn't been defined for you before.

They stand near each other, chatting amiably, holding the ceiling mounted bar to keep from falling into each other. Somehow, you can tell that they are interested in each other in a way that means that if all goes well for the rest of the evening, they will end up in each other's arms, in bed, naked, disbelieving their luck.

And then you think of the terrible, terrible people who would condemn them for feeling what they are feeling. People who would condemn them for feeling the inexplicable things they cannot seem to feel in themselves.

Neither one of the twenty something boys is particularly beautiful. They would never make it past the preliminary auditions for your run-of-the-mill Calvin Klein ad. And yet, glimpsed from the right angle, you see the beauty in the shave they neglected to grab earlier in the day. You see it in the blue eyes that are not the classically striking blue of mythology. They are a kind of gray-blue. A bit pedestrian, in a way. And yet a kind of blue that clearly appeals to the other. For no reason, really. It's just a blue in the eyes that suits the fellow standing opposite him on the train. It makes you want to be in love with him.

It's astonishing how much we can feel for each other, with no justification whatsoever.

Yes, things can eventually go wrong. Yes, we can eventually bitterly disappoint each other. But there is that moment when the fulfillment of every hope and dream you ever had seems possible. And, unbelievably, there are people who will stand around and tell you you don't have the right to feel the things you feel. There are people who somehow feel that it matters in some moral sense whether later on this evening the dick of one of these inexplicably beautiful twenty something boys will, to his delighted astonishment, end up in the ass of the other boy. There are people who would shrink from this thing.

Even though they have no right to be there to witness such a thing, they feel they have the right to behave as if they do, and to pass judgment on it.

It is a constant amazement to me that there are people who think they have the right to project their own disappointment with their fellow human beings on others. Jealousy is a thing I have often felt but never understood. The older I get, and the more of my loved ones who die, the more I begin to feel that I have no right ever, absolutely never, to question the joy other people might take in each other.

I always thought I would get smarter about people the older I got. I realize now, the older you get, the more you have the obligation to let people have whatever joy they can find in each other. In other words, the stupider you have to admit to yourself you are about other people and what they see in each other.

I have no right to an opinion about what should make other people happy. I can't believe I was ever so stupid as to think I did.

I hope these two unclassically beautiful  boys go home to Williamsburg tonight and fuck each other's brains out.

I don't hope that for their sakes. I hope for it for the sake of the world.

Happy Holiday, Luser

For all us personal bloggers who think we are more interesting than we apparently are, a little holiday cheer from P.C. Vey in this week's (December 19, 2005) issue of the New Yorker:

My Prairie Home Companions

My father died. I have some things to say about that, but I am not ready to write much about it yet. Instead...

Some months ago, I and some of my fellow University of Iowa Hawkeyes realized we were coming up on our 20th anniversary as residents of the Big Apple. We decided to have a nice dinner in celebration. It was so much fun. We go way, way back together, and even though we had occasionally drifted apart over the years, we always seemed to find each other again. You know that thing you have with old friends? The way you can reconnect immediately even when you haven't seen each other for a while? That's what the 7 of us have.

So we've kind of made these get-togethers into a monthly thing.

Somewhere along the way, I noticed that Garrison Keillor would be bringing "A Prairie Home Companion" to New York City for a series of live broadcasts in the month of December, and so I proposed to my fellow Hawkeyes that we organize a field trip. It seemed appropriate, since all of us had met for the first time somewhere in the middle of America's Great Plains.

Some were fans of the show, some were not familiar with it, but the promise of a big dinner after the show persuaded everyone to buy into my idea.

I love radio -- for all the usual "I love radio" reasons: theater of the mind, and all that. And, of course, "A Prairie Home Companion" has been a favorite for a long time... partly because it speaks to my latent Midwestern sensibilities, partly because of Keillor's wit, partly because of the music, but mostly just because it's... radio.

So last night we find ourselves settled in our seats in New York City's Town Hall, on 43rd just off Time Square. Keillor is at the microphone center stage. "We've got about 15 seconds", he says. The lights dim and the familiar network intro comes on...

"From American Public Media..."

I lean over to my friends sitting next to me and whisper: "We are on the air!"

The Guy's All-Star Shoe Band strikes up the familiar opening song...

Oh, hear that old piano,
From down the avenue...

...and we're off for two full hours of live broadcast radio.

I loved every minute of it. It wasn't the best Guy Noir episode. The news from Lake Woebegone was for the most part charming as usual but trailed off a bit into aimlessness. The lady sitting in front of us, so excited to be there that, as my friend said, "She was ready to pee her pants", whispered desperately to her companion, "He didn't say '...and that's the news from Lake Woebegone, where all the women are..."

It's true, he didn't say it. But, oh well. For some of us (even latently) Midwestern types, unfamiliarity breeds contempt, but we quickly recover.

Watching the production unfold onstage was a blast. All sorts of stage conventions were violated... the host carelessly facing upstage on occasion as he spoke to the band or carried on a monologue. Stage-hands and technicians moving about the crowded space, setting props and rearranging microphones in full view of the audience while downstage an audio skit proceeded on its way.

But all the commotion and misdirection worked, of course, because it was a constant reminder that this was radio. ("We are on the air!"). Near the end, while Keillor and one of the other entertainers were singing a silly song, he was waving a piece of paper in the air behind his back. A technician came out from stage-right, took the paper, scanned it briefly, then showed it around to the other performers on stage. While the song continued, chairs were moved, performers that had been settled on stage got up and left, others came in with their instruments and settled in.

Clearly the end of the show was being sculpted on-the-fly. Time constraints? A burst of inspiration on Keillor's part? A decision that the next scheduled bit sucked and he suddenly wanted it cut? Who the hell knows? The answer has been lost somewhere in the Annals of Radio.

Afterwards, we struggled a bit to find a restaurant with a free table big enough to accommodate all of us. The Broadway shows had already raised their 8:00 o'clock curtains so we figured it would be a cinch, but we'd neglected to take into account that it was Christmas-time in Times Square. Every joint was packed with holiday shoppers and sightseers. By the third restaurant we'd been seated, though, so a crisis was averted.

After our drinks had come, my friend Sandy held out an envelope toward me. I blinked at it, then looked up at her.

"What's that?"

"We figured you could use it."

I took the envelope, opened it -- inside was an impressively expensive gift certificate to an "urban spa". Facials. Green Tea Acid Peels. Massage. Body Treatments.

I actually said (yes, I actually said it): "Thanks, you guys. I'm really... I'm really touched."

On account of I was, you see. Is why I said it.

We are such poor, fragile creatures. We so desperately need our prairie home companions, even when for some inexplicable reason we can't say so even to ourselves. It's taken me a great many years to see that simple truth about people. I'm grateful I've lived long enough to get a little less stupid.

And so that, for now, is the news from my particular Lake Woebegone, where all my griefs are probably about average, I guess, considering the normal course of human events. My losses are maybe a little more immediate at the moment, but it's not as if everybody else doesn't have their own out there in the wings, waiting impatiently to make their unwelcome appearance.

So my advice, if I may, is to keep your prairie home companions nearby. You are going to need them someday, possibly a lot more than you think you need them now.

In Memory

May 2006

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