Tag Archives: obituary

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Please Speak Ill of the Dead

Image result for reagan grave

“Too soon!” That was a standard response to my criticisms of John McCain following his death.

My cartoon and social media posts reminded readers that McCain had volunteered to bomb innocent civilians in an illegal war of aggression to prop up a corrupt and reviled regime at the time of his capture. The real heroes of the Vietnam War were the tens of thousands of draft dodgers forced to give up their lives to flee to Canada and the many conscripted veterans who came home appalled by what they saw and did and spent the rest of their lives fighting for peace.

McCain, on the other hand, learned nothing from his experience. He never met a war — or a possible war — he didn’t like. McCain voted for war against Afghanistan and Iraq. He criticized Bill Clinton for limiting his war against Kosovo to airstrikes; he wanted ground troops too. He supported arming the Islamist jihadis in Syria and Libya, expanding the civil wars there. He threatened war against Iran. He sabre-rattled against Russia. North Korea and even China were in this deranged right winger’s sights.

These were not minor failings in an otherwise distinguished life. They were defining acts that erased the myths on which McCain built his career — his military service and his “maverick” persona. The war he fought in was disgusting and now widely considered a mistake. McCain was a run-of-the-mill right-wing Republican warmonger. His straight-talk shtick was fake as hell.

Media accounts sanitized the myriad of very bad things McCain did throughout his life. So I did my part to help counter the tsunami of BS.

“Do not speak ill of the dead.” This dictum, attributed to the 6th century BCE philosopher Chilon of Sparta, may be appropriate at your uncle’s funeral; who wants to hear that the dead man’s widow discovered foot-fetish websites in his browser history?

Public figures are different.

In cartoons and the written word I have attempted to counter the fulsome praise that followed the deaths of people like Ronald Reagan. I wasn’t trying to be mean to Nancy Reagan. Though I doubt she read my work.

Reagan hurt and killed a lot of people. As much as Reagan’s admirers didn’t enjoy my reminders that he (we believed at the time) murdered Moammar Gaddafi’s daughter or that he didn’t care about victims of HIV-AIDS, Americans who lost friends and relatives to the “gay plague” deserved to be acknowledged in assessments of Reagan’s life and legacy. The media pretended Reagan’s crimes never happened. I corrected the record.

The “too soon” and “can’t you wait until the body is cold?” arguments fall flat. What better time to point out and discuss a dead leader’s flaws than the time immediately following their death? That’s when obituaries appear, the eulogies are said and the nation is focused on the issues and policies they affected and effected. A few weeks later, no one cares.

Presumably referring to himself, former president Theodore Roosevelt argued in a 1910 speech that men of action — those “in the arena” — matter and their critics do not.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better,” Roosevelt said. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Soaring oratory! But self-serving and obsolete.

If effort and taking chances is all that matters when assessing a person’s life, the firefighter who enters a burning house to save a baby has no more worth than the serial killer who sneaks inside to kill it. Hitler and Stalin and Osama bin Laden all had grand visions they strove valiantly to turn into reality. They were daring. They achieved. They counted, but so what?

These days it’s the “timid souls” who stand aside, keeping mum while the mass media wallows in sordid orgies of mawkish praise for problematic figures like Reagan and McCain. Adding perspective and nuance to assessments of mass adulation requires courage. In this age of relentless propaganda and unmitigated BS, the critic is in the arena just as much as a dead senator.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

John McCain Knew the Difference Between Right and Wrong. He Chose Wrong.

During the 2008 Republican presidential primaries, I wrote a syndicated opinion column about John McCain, who then seemed likely to emerge as the GOP nominee. As Americans assess McCain’s life and legacy, this ten-year-old assessment still holds up. Bear in mind, this was written before some of McCain’s more egregious warmongering, such as his attempts to stir up U.S. military attacks against Iran, Syria and Russia, not to mention his decision to pick Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Puffing Up John McCain, POW
by Ted Rall
February 5, 2008

“A proven leader, and a man of integrity,” the New York Post called John McCain in its editorial endorsement. “A naval aviator shot down over North Vietnam and held as a POW, McCain knew that freedom was his for the taking. All he had to do was denounce his country. He refused–and, as a consequence, suffered years of unrelenting torture.”

This standard summary of McCain’s five and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton, repeated in thousands of media accounts during his 2000 campaign and again this election year, is the founding myth of his political career. The tale of John McCain, War Hero prompts a lot of people turned off by his politics–liberals and traditional conservatives alike–to support him. Who cares that he “doesn’t really understand economics”? He’s got a great story to tell.

Scratch the surface of McCain’s captivity narrative, however, and a funny thing happens: his heroism blows away like the rust from a vintage POW bracelet.

In the fall of 1967 McCain was flying bombing runs over North Vietnam from the U.S.S. Oriskany, an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea. On October 26, the 31-year-old pilot was part of a 20-plane squadron assigned to destroy infrastructure in the North Vietnamese capital. He flew his A-4 Skyhawk over downtown Hanoi toward his target, a power plant. As he pulled up after releasing his bombs, his fighter jet was hit by a surface-to-air missile. A wing came off. McCain’s plane plunged into Truc Bach Lake.

Mai Van On, a 50-year-old resident of Hanoi, watch the crash and left the safety of his air-raid shelter to rescue him. Other Vietnamese tried to stop him. “Why do you want to go out and rescue our enemy?” they yelled. Ignoring his countrymen, On grabbed a pole and swam to the spot where McCain’s plane had gone down in 16 feet of water. McCain had managed to free himself from the wrecked plane but was stuck underwater, ensnared by his parachute. On used his pole to untangle the ropes and pull the semi-conscious pilot to the surface. McCain was in bad shape, having broken his arm and a leg in several places.

McCain is lucky the locals didn’t finish him off. U.S. bombs had killed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians, many in Hanoi. Ultimately between one and two million innocents would be shredded, impaled, blown to bits and dissolved by American bombs. Now that one of their tormentors had fallen into their hands, they had a rare chance to get even. “About 40 people were standing there,” On later recalled. “They were about to rush him with their fists and stones. I asked them not to kill him. He was beaten for a while before I could stop them.” He was turned over to local policemen, who transferred him to the military.

What if one of the hijackers who destroyed the World Trade Center had somehow crash-landed in the Hudson River? How long would he have lasted? Would anyone have risked his life to rescue him?

An impolite question: If a war is immoral, can those who fight in it–even those who demonstrate courage–be heroes? If the answer is yes, was Reagan wrong to honor the SS buried at Bitburg? No less than Iraq, Vietnam was an undeclared, illegal war of aggression that did nothing to keep America safe. Tens of millions of Americans felt that way. Millions marched against the war; tens of thousands of young men fled the country to avoid the draft. McCain, on the other hand, volunteered.

McCain knew that what he was doing was wrong. Three months before he fell into that Hanoi lake, he barely survived when his fellow sailors accidentally fired a missile at his plane while it was getting ready to take off from his ship. The blast set off bombs and ordnance across the deck of the aircraft carrier. The conflagration, which took 24 hours to bring under control, killed 132 sailors. A few days later, a shaken McCain told a New York Times reporter in Saigon: “Now that I’ve seen what the bombs and the napalm did to the people on our ship, I’m not so sure that I want to drop any more of that stuff on North Vietnam.”

Yet he did.

“I am a war criminal,” McCain said on “60 Minutes” in 1997. “I bombed innocent women and children.” Although it came too late to save the Vietnamese he’d killed 30 years earlier, it was a brave statement. Nevertheless, he smiles agreeably as he hears himself described as a “war hero” as he arrives at rallies in a bus marked “No Surrender.”

McCain’s tragic flaw: He knows the right thing. He often sets out to do the right thing. But he doesn’t follow through. We saw McCain’s weak character in 2000, when the Bush campaign defeated him in the crucial South Carolina primary by smearing his family. Placing his presidential ambitions first, he swallowed his pride, set aside his honor, and campaigned for Bush against Al Gore. It came up again in 2005, when McCain used his POW experience as a POW to convince Congress to pass, and Bush to sign, a law outlawing torture of detainees at Guantánamo and other camps. But when Bush issued one of his infamous “signing statements” giving himself the right to continue torturing–in effect, negating McCain’s law–he remained silent, sucking up to Bush again.

McCain’s North Vietnamese captors demanded that he confess to war crimes. “Every two hours,” according to a 2007 profile in the Arizona Republic, “one guard would hold McCain while two others beat him. They kept it up for four days…His right leg, injured when he was shot down, was horribly swollen. A guard yanked him to his feet and threw him down. His left arm smashed against a bucket and broke again.”

McCain later recalled that he was at the point of suicide. But he was no Jean Moulin, the French Resistance leader who refused to talk under torture, and killed himself. According to “The Nightingale’s Song,” a book by Robert Timberg, “[McCain] looked at the louvered cell window high above his head, then at the small stool in the room.” He took off his dark blue prison shirt, rolled it like a rope, draped one end over his shoulder near his neck, began feeding the other end through the louvers.” He was too slow. A guard entered and pulled him away from the window.

I’ve never been tortured. I have no idea what I’d do. Of course, I’d like to think that I could resist or at least commit suicide before giving up information. Odds are, however, that I’d crack. Most people do. And so did McCain. “I am a black criminal and I have performed the deeds of an air pirate,” McCain wrote in his confession. “I almost died and the Vietnamese people saved my life, thanks to the doctors.”

It wasn’t the first time McCain broke under pressure. After his capture, wrote the Republic, “He was placed in a cell and told he would not receive any medical treatment until he gave military information. McCain refused and was beaten unconscious. On the fourth day, two guards entered McCain’s cell. One pulled back the blanket to reveal McCain’s injured knee. ‘It was about the size, shape and color of a football,’ McCain recalled. Fearful of blood poisoning that would lead to death, McCain told his captors he would talk if they took him to a hospital.”

McCain has always been truthful about his behavior as a POW, but he has been more than willing to allow others to lie on his behalf. “A proven leader, and a man of integrity,” The New York Post says, and he’s happy to take it. “All he had to do was denounce his country. He refused…” Not really. He did denounce his country. But he didn’t demand a retraction.

It’s the old tragic flaw: McCain knows what he ought to do. He starts to do the right thing. But John McCain is a weak man who puts his career goals first.

Later that year, I reminded readers that there was nothing honorable about the Vietnam War:

Every presidential candidacy relies on a myth. Reagan was a great communicator; Clinton felt your pain. Both storylines were ridiculous. But rarely are the constructs used to market a party nominee as transparent or as fictional as those we’re being asked to swallow in 2008.

On the left–OK, not–we have Barack Obama. “The best orator of his generation!” says Ed Rendell, the Democratic power broker who has a day job as governor of Pennsylvania. “The best orator since Cicero!” Republican strategist Mary Matalin swoons. No doubt, Obama reads a mean speech. Take his Teleprompter away, though, and the dude is as lost as George Bush at a semiotics class. Forced to answer reporters’ questions off the cuff, Obama is so afraid of messing up that he…carefully…spaces…each…word…apart…so…he…can…see…them…coming…wayyy…in…advance.

Still more laughable than the notion of Obama as the second coming of JFK is the founding myth of the McCain campaign: (a) he is a war hero, and (b) said heroism increases his credibility on national security issues. “A Vietnam hero and national security pro,” The New York Times calls him in a typical media blandishment.

John McCain fought in Vietnam. There was nothing noble, much less heroic, about fighting in that war.

Some Americans may be suffering another of the periodic attacks of national amnesia that prevent us from honestly assessing our place in the world and its history, but others recall the truth about Vietnam: it was a disastrous, unjustifiable mess that anyone with an ounce of sense was against at the time.

Between one and two million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans were sent to their deaths by a succession of presidents and Congresses–fed to the flames of greed, hubris, and stupidity. The event used to justify starting the war–the Tonkin Gulf “incident”–never happened. The Vietnam War’s ideological foundation, the mantra cited to keep it going, was disproved after we lost. No Southeast Asian “dominos” fell to communism. To the contrary, the effect of the U.S. withdrawal was increased stability. When genocide broke out in neighboring Cambodia in the late 1970s, it was not the U.S., but a unified Vietnamese army–the evil communists–who stopped it.

Not even General Wesley Clark, shot four times in Vietnam, is allowed to question the McCain-as-war-hero narrative. “Well, I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president,” he argued. The Obama campaign, which sells its surrogates down the river with alarming regularity, promptly hung the former NATO commander out to dry: “Senator Obama honors and respects Senator McCain’s service, and of course he rejects yesterday’s statement by General Clark.”

Even in an article criticizing the media for repeatedly framing McCain as a war hero, the liberal website Media Matters concedes: “McCain is, after all, a war hero; everybody agrees about that.”

Not everyone.

I was 12 when the last U.S. occupation troops fled Saigon. I remember how I–and most Americans–felt at the time.

We were relieved.

By the end of Nixon’s first term most people had turned against the war. Gallup polls taken in 1971 found that about 70 percent of Americans thought sending troops to Vietnam had been a mistake. Some believed it was immoral; others considered it unwinnable.

Since then, the political center has shifted right. We’ve seen the Reagan Revolution, Clinton’s Democratic centrism, and Bush’s post-9/11 flirtation with neo-McCarthyite fascism. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of Americans–including Republicans–still think we should never have fought the Vietnam War.

“After the war’s 1975 conclusion,” Michael Tomasky wrote in The American Prospect in 2004, “Gallup has asked the question (“Did the U.S. make a mistake in sending troops to fight in Vietnam?”) five times, in 1985, 1990, 1993, 1995, and 2000. All five times…respondents were consistent in calling the war a mistake by a margin of more than 2 to 1: by 74 percent to 22 percent in 1990, for example, and by 69 percent to 24 percent in 2000.”

Moreover, Tomasky continued, “vast majorities continue to call the war ‘unjust.'” Even in 2004, after 9/11, 62 percent considered the war unjust. Only 33 percent still thought it was morally justified.

Vietnam was an illegal, undeclared war of aggression. Can those who fought in that immoral war really be heroes? This question appeared settled after Reagan visited a cemetery for Nazi soldiers, including members of the SS, at Bitburg, West Germany in 1985. “Those young men,” claimed Reagan, “are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in the German uniform, drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis. They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.”

Americans didn’t buy it. Reagan’s poll numbers, typically between 60 and 65 percent at the time, plunged to 41 percent after the visit. Those who fight for an evil cause receive no praise.

So why is the McCain-as-war-hero myth so hard to unravel? By most accounts, John McCain demonstrated courage as a P.O.W., most notably by refusing his captors’ offer of early release. But that doesn’t make him a hero.

Hell, McCain isn’t even a victim.

At a time when more than a fourth of all combat troops in Vietnam were forcibly drafted (the actual victims), McCain volunteered to drop napalm on “gooks” (his term, not mine). He could have waited to see if his number came up in the draft lottery. Like Bush, he could have used family connections to weasel out of it. Finally, he could have joined the 100,000 draft-eligible males–true heroes, to a man–who went to Canada rather than kill people in a war that was plainly wrong.

When McCain was shot down during his 23rd bombing sortie, he was happily shooting up a civilian neighborhood in the middle of a major city. Vietnamese locals beat him when they pulled him out of a local lake; yeah, that must have sucked. But I can’t help think of what would have happened to Mohammed Atta had he somehow wound up alive on a lower Manhattan street on 9/11. How long would he have lasted?

Maybe he would have made it. I don’t know. But I do know this: no one would ever have considered him a war hero.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Hugh Hefner Said His Critics Were Prudes and Puritans. The Negative Obits Prove Him Right.

 

No one has ever accused Ross Douthat of excessive astuteness. “Donald Trump isn’t going to be the Republican nominee,” he wrote in January 2016. Dude is paid to prognosticate politics. Even so, Douthat probably pulls down six figures at The New York Times, which doesn’t grant me the courtesy of a rejection letter. So people pay attention to him.

Hugh Hefner’s death didn’t move me. Penthouse was my print media stimulus of choice. I only read Playboy after the magazine’s late delightful cartoons director Michelle Urry commissioned some samples during her campaign to update the magazine’s hoary cartoon section with edgier, more political work. (Alas, those weird Marxist sex cartoons are lost to history.)

The worst cartoon editors are former aspiring cartoonists. Hef was one of those; he killed my stuff for being too edgy and political.

But Hefner sure managed to rile up Douthat.

“Hef was the grinning pimp of the sexual revolution, with Quaaludes for the ladies and Viagra for himself — a father of smut addictions and eating disorders, abortions and divorce and syphilis, a pretentious huckster who published Updike stories no one read while doing flesh procurement for celebrities, a revolutionary whose revolution chiefly benefited men much like himself,” Douthat wrote upon the Playboy founder’s passing.

As if syphilis hadn’t existed pre-Hef.

Or abortion.

Or porn, for that matter.

Banging out an all-out assault so shrill it would come off as over-the-top if it concerned Charles Manson, Douthat even blames Hefner for the sins of the political class: “Liberals should ask why their crusade for freedom and equality found itself with such a captain, and what his legacy says about their cause. Conservatives should ask how their crusade for faith and family and community ended up so Hefnerian itself — with a conservative news network that seems to have been run on Playboy Mansion principles and a conservative party that just elected a playboy as our president.”

Get real: I never met a liberal who considered Hefner a leader, much less the captain, of liberalism. And where exactly are these devout family-values crusading conservatives? Sending other people’s kids off to kill Middle Easterners for fun and profit, or pimping trickle-down economic BS to benefit their rich patrons?

I align myself neither with liberals nor conservatives nor Hefner. Honestly, though: the vituperative nature of so many Hefner postmortems have done more to validate Hefner’s claim that his critics were prudes and anti-sex identity feminists than everything he ever said or did.

There is more than a little ageism in these “The Loin in Winter” depictions of a porn entrepreneur who lived too long, couldn’t figure out the Internet and counted out his final years like a male Norma Desmond in the fading grandeur of a decaying Playboy Mansion, in denial that the culture had moved past him. Douthat opined: “Early Hef had a pipe and suit and a highbrow reference for every occasion; he even claimed to have a philosophy, that final refuge of the scoundrel. But late Hef was a lecherous, low-brow Peter Pan, playing at perpetual boyhood — ice cream for breakfast, pajamas all day — while bodyguards shooed male celebrities away from his paid harem and the skull grinned beneath his papery skin.”

A disgusting depiction — one that reflects upon its author more than its target.

Hef’s passing prompted a few genuinely positive assessments of the man and his product, like this from the refreshing Camille Paglia: “Pornography is not a distortion. It is not a sexist twisting of the facts of life but a kind of peephole into the roiling, primitive animal energies that are at the heart of sexual attraction and desire…It must be remembered that Hefner was a gifted editor who knew how to produce a magazine that had great visual style and that was a riveting combination of pictorial with print design. Everything about Playboy as a visual object, whether you liked the magazine or not, was lively and often ravishing.”

But most post-Hefs were like Peggy Drexler in CNN: “The terms of [Hefner’s] rebellion undeniably depended on putting women in a second-class role. It was the women, after all, whose sexuality was on display on the covers and in the centerfolds of his magazine, not to mention hanging on his shoulder, practically until the day he died.”

True enough. But not really fair.

Porn is weird.

Porn commodifies women, reducing them to flat 2-D imagery crafted to titillate. If you feel dirty after you use to it to masturbate, it’s because you feel at least a little guilty about the high probability that the women in those photos and videos almost certainly wouldn’t expose themselves if they didn’t really need the money. Yet Drexler misses that visuals are key to sexual attraction, and that includes the way hetero women assess men based on their physical appearance. We are all commodified by this culture of consumption and relationships based at least in part on mutual opportunism and exploitation.

Really-existing feminists rarely frame their critiques of pornography where it belongs, within the construct of a slave-labor capitalism in which construction workers and yoga teachers and professional athletes and UPS workers and cartoonists wear down their bodies for cash — or starve.

Largely divided between anti-Hefner obits and anti-Hefner obits that give the marketing genius his editorial due, what shines through is a deep discomfort with sex in mainstream American media. What is wrong with a 91-year-old man, even if he looks 91 and resorts to Viagra, viewing himself as a sexual being? Or a 101-year-old woman?

May we all be so alive until we are just dead.

Why does Douthat assume we should share his revulsion when he describes Hef as “a pack rat in a decaying manse where porn blared during his pathetic orgies”? The aesthetics may not be yours, but the choices were his — which is as it should be. (On the other hand, criticism of Hefner seems legitimate when it attacks the man as manipulative of women in his orbit.)

As Paglia says, “Second-wave feminism went off the rails when it was totally unable to deal with erotic imagery, which has been a central feature of the entire history of Western art ever since Greek nudes.”

Relax. It’s just sex.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall) is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)