The Blogger at War

James Lileks used to be content with writing about his toddler's toilet training. Then Iraq gave him the chance to become the state's most famous conservative.

Having exposed the inferiority of Sri Lankan-made screensavers and named his 15 All-Time Campiest Christmas Ornaments, James Lileks needed a breather from his popular blog, The Bleat (www.lileks.com/bleats). He'd refrained from commentary for most of December, and those desiring fresh Bleats were forced to settle for retro-visuals and wry captions while the blogmaster dealt with the endless deadlines that haunt his existence. Then Saddam was yanked from a hole in Tikrit, causing the American media to go nuts. The dinner bell rang, and there was no way Lileks was going to miss this call--especially since he'd been valiantly cheering on the war from the front lines of Minneapolis.

They got him! Or so they suggested, back in March. No one said it explicitly, but for a day we hoped. The troops were massed and poised; intel came in, off went the rockets. I remember watching video of flames licking the sky that night--best of all possible worlds, it seemed. The war hadn't even begun, and maybe the butcher was a pink smear on a shattered hunk of concrete. Not the case, as it turned out. Then came another decapitation attempt before the troops took Baghdad, and I thought the same thing:if only."Coalition forces have discovered a liver on a rebar, and are making DNA tests as we speak!" But he lived.

Yes, but since this "decapitation attempt" took place in a heavily populated civilian area, there were doubtless civilian casualties. Their pink smears, however, were of no evident concern to Lileks--hey, that's what happens when you live in Saddam's 'hood. Comes with the blasted turf, the "best of all possible worlds."

Having warmed up with this, Lileks went off, wildly assuming what The Arab Street thought of the event, giving Saddam a psychological profile from thousands of miles away (his imperial Joyce Brothers bit), and projecting his "ironic" Oh, isn't the U.S. just awful! routine on those who opposed the invasion. Because, you see, only a rabid America Hater could find something wrong with Bush's war.

Lileks expanded on this theme: "I've read all the nutball far-left sites worrying about the worrisome worries--does this help Dub? Was it all faked? Surely America will see that the man paraded before the cameras was a soy-based simulacrum cooked up in the Halliburton labs? It's amusing to troll the fevered swamps, but nothing they say matters in the end."

Here, Lileks was aping many of his warblogger brethren: He reduces all lefties into an easily digestible stereotype, as if a starry-eyed teen PETA activist is the same as University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole (who writes an informative, increasingly popular blog of his own (www.juancole.com); and as if Rick the People's Poet from the old BBC sitcom The Young Ones represented the web-savvy anarchists at Infoshop.org. Being a long-term denizen of the American left myself (with time off during a few pissed-off periods), I can state with some authority that there are lefts of many creeds and moods, and not all of them get along--which is a problem in itself, but not what Lileks was going for above. He was borrowing from the P.J. O'Rourke playbook, whacking all those weirdos that any sensible American knows exist, but has never really met--cardboard outlines suitable for smashing.

Lileks wasn't as bad as some of the keyboard warriors I'd read, but there was that gloat and strut, as if Lileks had personally captured Saddam. (Lileks has written of dreams and fantasies where he kicks terrorist ass, and I was somewhat let down that he didn't sketch out a scenario where he grabbed Saddam by the beard and gave the Beast an Adam West Batman thrashing: "All right, you Mesopotamian ruffian, where are the WMD!?" SOCK! POW! "C'mon! Out with it, desert evildoer!")

Historical context is seldom welcome at The Bleat; it's totally irrelevant now that our "debt" to the Iraqis has been paid. For Lileks, the crucial historical moment has yet to happen: "The history texts will note that Baghdad fell on this date, Saddam was captured on that date, and the events between the two events will fill up a paragraph at best. Cruel but true. This was a big event, but there are bigger events to come."

Like Syria? Iran? Or maybe Pakistan, now that it appears our ally was selling nuclear material to North Korea? The Bleat will reveal all in good time.

 

Unlike most warbloggers, James Lileks has more mundane, even pacific, interests apart from oohing and aahing after every missile strike. He has published a book of America's strangest recipes, The Gallery of Regrettable Food, along with several out-of-print anthologies taken from his syndicated lifestyle column. (He wrote a column for this paper in the late 1980s.) And he is well regarded in the right-wing blogsphere, from the National Review to the satellite talk shows on the Patriot (WWTC, 1280-AM). His prime soapbox at the moment is the Star Tribune's The Backfence, a column devoted to the Everyday Things that define modern life: shopping, mall movies, talking on cells while driving, the wacky behavior of pets (in his case a dog, Jasper), and the glories and absurdities of raising children.

This last item consumes Lileks quite a bit, for he and his wife have a beautiful young daughter he calls "Gnat." Lileks can't say enough about her. Her utterances and observations captivate him, and he spreads heart on sleeve when illustrating this. Here Lileks is genuine, caring, and warm, and as a father of two kids myself, I know the area quite well. I also recognize that columnists using children as space filler is a time-honored journalistic practice. Who, save for the cold and cynical, would sneer at such sincerity and innocence? And what editor would quash 700 earnest words about applesauce, naps, and tinkling? Put your kids in print and you not only show your human side, you meet your deadline with plenty of material to spare.

But it's not The Backfence Lileks I'm concerned with here. That's his paying gig. (My exploration of The Backfence will appear in the Spring 2004 edition of Minutiae Quarterly, "The journal that focuses on things you don't even know exist.") It's in The Bleat where one discovers what is truly on his mind.

First, the positive. The Bleat, born in 1997, is a handsome blog, its graphic design updated every week. Lileks has a sharp eye for pop-culture obscurities and, though long-winded, he can delight those like myself who know by heart the theme songs of Wally Gator and Ruff & Reddy. He and I are roughly the same age, and as children we absorbed all those stray items--comic books, cartoons, classic advertising--that turn bright children into adult geeks. Lileks may disagree with this assessment, but I'd be willing to bet my Green Hornet lunchbox that he won't.

Lileks, as mentioned earlier, also devotes a good portion of his Bleats to daughter Gnat, whose every move is recorded for web posterity, and through whom Lileks filters much of this increasingly cruel world. This type of writing has its place, and as a father I would never question Lileks's love for his child. Conversely, I would never go on and on about my kids when writing about imperial war and political corruption. But that's me. Lileks has a different take and agenda, which brings us to the negative part of The Bleat: Lileks's crazed views about the current warscape.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 further darkened the already unattractive side of the American character, namely its jingoism. Like most everyone else, I was sickened by what happened that morning. I lived most of my adult life in New York City and know the terrain intimately. Like many others, I know people who were directly affected by the attacks, either through displacement or loss of loved ones and friends. I supported the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and continue to support, in concert with other countries, the dismantling of the al Qaeda network.

I say all this because, since 9/11, those of us who question the Bush gang's motives and who try to place unfolding events in some kind of political/historical context have been jeered and hounded by those who've claimed 9/11 as their own, who've elected themselves as the True Spokesmen of American Purpose--the enlightened few who pelt dissenters with the debris of the Twin Towers. They are the warbloggers, the creation of whom is yet another al Qaeda-sponsored crime.

So prevalent are the warbloggers that they now have awards, just like the weak-kneed Hollywood liberals most of them despise. This year, the award for Best Warblog went to Glenn Reynolds's Instapundit (www.instapundit.com), but just below, tied with the insufferable Andrew Sullivan for fourth place, was The Bleat. This did and did not surprise me. Lileks certainly can rant with the worst of them, as he himself will half-jokingly admit. But for all his saber rattling and murderous fantasies, Lileks at least recognizes this less savory side of himself and at times seems conflicted about it. This isn't the case with many of the warbloggers I've read, especially Sullivan, who possesses an unearthly bellow that can cause physical illness in those exposed to it for extended periods.

 

Still, warblogging has its hazards, and Lileks succumbs to tapping out long, bilious passages filled with "You want a piece of me?" mock toughness. There are times when his anger gets the better of him, and I'm somewhat amazed and slightly impressed that he has no shame in exposing it.

On an inner-Bleat page titled "The Screed," ("a sporadic attempt to disassemble the indefensible,") Lileks opines on how the courtroom antics of "Kathleen Sara Jane Soliah Olsen," the '70s faux-revolutionary on trial for past crimes, might have affected her teen daughter. "She began in tears and ended in sobs," he writes, "and as I listened to her heartrending testimony I felt my own opinion change. Previously I wanted Soliah in jail. Having seen what she put her own child through, I wanted her to be burned at the stake."

This is mild compared to a March 18, 2002 Bleat where Lileks takes aim at a worthy target, Geraldo Rivera, but fires wide right. Geraldo was in Israel interviewing a father who'd just lost a daughter to a suicide/homicide bomber, and according to Lileks

Geraldo stumbled around, unable to find the words, and finally launched gracelessly into his new script: "I am a Zionist," he said, "but I want to be a Palestinianist. I have seen so much suffering on the other side. Just the other day I witnessed a man with his newborn baby, swaddled, going home from the hospital, and they had to wait behind a checkpoint--" I watched the father's face carefully; not a flicker of emotion. No doubt he found the comparison obscene--his daughter had beenkilled, blown apart, and the fellow in Geraldo's example had moral equivalence because his arrival home with his child was delayed by a few hours. I fully expected the father to ram the heel of his hand into Geraldo's trachea and drive his hyoid bone clean through the back of the kapok-stuffed gourd Geraldo calls a head. But the father didn't move a muscle.

Geraldo's was indeed a poor analogy. A better one would have seen Geraldo compare the father's anguish to a Palestinian father's anguish after an Israeli helicopter gunship fired missiles into an apartment building and slaughtered his kids. But then that would make the human suffering equal, the sign of a horrible, seemingly timeless tribal conflict. Yet somehow I think that Lileks would take exception to that as well. Of all the Bleats I've read, I've yet to come across a hard critique of Israeli violence (though I suppose one might exist in the boundless back acres of the web).

Lileks has also blasted Ann Coulter and Ted Rall, both of whom deserve that and more, so he and I aren't completely at odds.

By far my favorite outburst appeared this past November 21. That day Lileks decided to explain reality to a Baghdad-based Iraqi blogger named Salam Pax, whose opposition to Saddam and Paul Bremer has angered and confused many a warblogger, Lileks included. After Salam expressed some dissatisfaction with the U.S. occupation, Lileks gave him a thorough Bleating:

Hey, Salam? Fuck you. I know you're the famous giggly blogger who gave us all a riveting view of the inner circle before the war, and thus know more about the situation than I do. Granted. But there's a picture on the front page of my local paper today:third Minnesotan killed in Iraq. He died doing what you never had the stones to do: pick up a rifle and face the Ba'athists. Youowe him.

Of course, Lileks fails to mention the many Western pals and visitors who aided Saddam's regime and made an Iraqi uprising impossible: special envoy Rumsfeld in '83, Reagan/Bush in '87-'88, Baghdad boys Bob Dole and Alan Simpson in early '90, and Halliburton in the late '90s. Nor does he recall that once Saddam was ejected from Kuwait in '91, the Bush administration, after calling for an Iraqi uprising, stepped back and allowed him to massacre those who did have "the stones" to "pick up a rifle and face the Ba'athists." Nor does Lileks cite the decade-long sanctions that strengthened Saddam's kleptocracy and preserved him in power while impoverishing those under his rule.

Even more incredible than all this, though, is Lileks's admission that he knows less about immediate Iraqi realities than Salam, and that in Salam's place, he would have behaved in the same manner that he has just denounced! "I'm not brave enough to start a revolution," Lileks writes. "I wouldn't have grabbed a gun and charged a palace. I would have lived like you. Head down, eyes wary. When the man's too strong, the man's too strong."

Apparently, this reply raised readers' hackles. On November 24, Lileks offered an apology, mostly for using the word "fuck," but also to say that "I wasn't criticizing Pax for being critical. It was his fatuous, smirky tone and insubstantial jibes. He had the tone of a Berlin cabaret MC who'd made Gestapo jokes in private and now was famous for making Eisenhower jokes in public. He sounded like someone amusing himself by dressing down a servant."

It's nice to see that Lileks is put off by "fatuous, smirky" tones and "insubstantial jibes"--at least in other people, especially those who live in an actual war zone. For himself there's a different standard. Perhaps the most charming example of this came last March when Lileks blanched at a New York Times op-ed by Régis Debray, onetime French radical who later worked for François Mitterrand. Debray's piece sent Lileks into an anti-French fit worthy of that other deep thinker, Dennis Miller. Par exemple: "Oh, shove it down your brie pipe, Pierre."

"If we chose France as our scapegoat," Lileks elaborates, "it's because it has behaved like Arnold de Horshac for the last few months, thrusting its hand in the air and shouting Oo! Oo! Pick Me!

"Oh, cram it down the croissant hatch, Chanticleer."

Now, Lileks would never dress down a servant like that, would he? It's impossible in this small space to explore all of Lileks's ruminations, but there is a constant refrain: America must invade and occupy the Arab world to stave off our own destruction. To say this is paranoid is not quite accurate. After all, there are people in the Middle East who would love to see us destroyed. But then, that sentiment is not restricted to the Arab world, nor even to this period in history. People the world over have always chafed against great powers and imperial states, for good reasons and bad.

But Lileks's conceit, which is widespread in the warblog domain, is that this particular moment is in fact unique. That because al Qaeda desires to impose a 7th-century theocracy on others means they have the power to do it to us (Lileks likes playing the It's Their Terms or Ours card, as if we're down to house-to-house fighting). That Saddam Hussein was a real and tangible threat to our very existence, or might've been down the road, or whenever. In any case, we are presumably "safer" now that we're bogged down in Iraq. And so on. To Lileks, it seems that 9/11 exists outside of history (except for World War II, images of which have adorned many a Lileks rant). Therefore those who try to view subsequent events differently are guilty of either liberal naïveté or abject anti-Americanism.

The invasion of Iraq has set a course that could well prove dangerous to us and the rest of the world, but happily it has provided fresh meat for the warbloggers to chew in the public square. That's a plus, I suppose. And even though, in moments of doubt, Lileks confesses that he'd rather "shut up and write about Bounty towels" than have to deal with the sordid complexities of war and occupation, there's little chance that Lileks will stay penned in behind the Backfence. Like his fellow swivel-chair commandos, Lileks is too self-absorbed and gung ho to ever stop waving his water pistol. Remember, in 2003 the Bleat tied for Fourth Best Warblog on the web.

This year, Number Three!

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