The atmosphere of the ritual is serious, of course, but the flood of nostalgia it unleashes often washes away the sins of the past. Sepia-toned television imagery allows the subjects to attribute any shortcomings of the deceased to bad counsel or accidents of history. The death of any of these god-like figures becomes an opportunity for mere mortals to reflect upon the meaning of life, while allowing the machinery of the state to show power devolving to the mourning heirs in the most natural and reverent manner possible.

The recent death of Princess Kikuko of Japan at the age of 92 provides these same opportunities to the royal court of Japan. However, her death also presents an opportunity for a more forthcoming discussion of the Japanese Imperial family’s involvement in the prosecution of Japan’s colonial wars and the post war period.

From an occidental point of view, the death of the Princess was a mere footnote; nothing like the media deluge that would have accompanied the death of the Queen Mum of England, for example. Although the Japanese royal family doesn’t generate the same interest in this country as the House of Windsor, it can certainly be argued that the Chrysanthemum Throne of Japan is of equal, if not greater importance, to political events of the twentieth century.

So why should westerners pay attention to the death of this somewhat obscure Asian royal?

From her entry into the Japanese Imperial family as the bride of Emperor Hirohito’s youngest brother, Prince Takamatsu, Princess Kikuko was different. From her fondness for the latest western “flapper” fashions as a newlywed to her reputation for angry outbursts, Princess Kikuko was not a model of feminine subservience. Her recent decision to publish diaries written during the height of Japanese expansionism by her late husband Prince Takamatsu was perhaps one of her boldest decisions.

Publication of these diaries collectively called "Takamatsunomiya Nikki" (Prince Takamatsu Diary) has added significantly to the historical understanding of the period, which is important to international relations in the region. Even now, the traumatic events of the Japanese colonial wars are a source of great division in Asia. Anger over the Japanese occupation and the practice of forcing women to become “comfort women” (a euphemism for sex slaves) is still stoked to great effect in N. Korea, for example. As China rises as an international power, many Chinese feel that Japan has yet to express sufficient remorse for horrific events such as the Rape of Nanking.

“The Yamato Dynasty, The Secret History of Japan's Imperial Family” by Sterling and Peggy Seagrave gives us an overview of the Japanese Imperial family in the twentieth century that sheds new light on the role of the royal family. If it had not been for Princess Kikuko’s decision to publish her diaries, a piece of the puzzle would have been missing.

Since Prince Takamatsu wasn’t next in line to the throne, he viewed himself as marginal. Describing his chief responsibility as, “…to exist and do nothing bad,” Takamatsu’s perspective gives us a rare look inside the machinery of the royal court. Even while Japanese soldiers were worshipping the Emperor as a virtual deity, Takamatsu took part in the real politic of the mid-thirties, which assured a symbiotic relationship between the Imperial family and the proverbial “evil counselors.” This allowed the courtiers and the military to carry out their xenophobic project of looting and pillaging their Asian neighbors for the greater glory of the Emperor.

In “The Yamamoto Dynasty,” the Seagraves describe Takmatsu’s diaries as the revelations of, “…a man deeply pained by the absurdities of Japanese society and the birdcage role of the Imperial family.”

The book goes on to expose the fact that although much of the war booty accumulated by the Japanese army during World War II, was officially unaccounted for at the end of the war, it did, nevertheless, find its way back into the Japanese economy. Perhaps the most controversial, but logical thesis in the book is that the symbiosis between the Imperial family and their inner circle widened after the war to include the Zaibatsu industrial families and also American interests represented by General Douglas MacArthur, the House of Morgan and the nascent Central Intelligence Agency.

The evidence presented suggests that this new group conspired to disperse war booty and shield assets of the Imperial family in order create a new Japanese-American hegemony in the East, to guarantee a speedy war reconstruction effort and also to erect a bulwark against the rising tide of communism.

The diaries of Prince Takamatsu which Princess Kikuko revealed to the world show us a view from within the gilded cage of how the human symbol of the Yamamoto dynasty was manipulated to create unquestioning, patriotic and religious support for a campaign of total war.

In addition to her philanthropic work on behalf of cancer research, the Princess will also be remembered for including herself in a recent political debate over the future of the throne, According to her Associated Press obituary, “In 2002, after Crown Prince Naruhito and Princess Masako had a daughter, Kikuko was the first royal to publicly call for changes to a postwar law that allows only male heirs to assume the Chrysanthemum Throne.”

Indeed, the mourning period being observed for the Princess in advance of her Dec. 26 funeral seems to be filled with the family drama over whether Aiko, the three-year-old daughter of the Crown Prince will become the next Emperor.

How the Japanese choose to mourn the Princess could be an indication of what the future holds for the land of the Rising Sun. Will there be a greater sense of openness about the events of the past and the way they are remembered in Japan, or will a new generation of royals inhabit the same gilded cage of its’ forebears? This question is not as academic as it might seem at first blush.

The Japanese-American political economist Francis Fukuyama famously predicted at the end of the euphoric nineties that we may find ourselves at the end of history. Before we rush to embrace the notion of universal liberal democracy, however, some reflection of how we came to this point might be in order.
While the cold war may be over, and communism may be in the dustbin of history, what about the problems of extreme nationalism and neo-fascism? Something to think about as the U.S. flexes its muscles around the world and Japan ponders a return to militarism. Not all of the ghosts of the past have been exorcised. The occasion of Princess Kikuko’s passing may represent a time to ponder this.
Most companies outsource their advertising, printing & training needs. AdHub.com makes it easy for them to research these services by comparing detailed company profiles and work portfolios. The site also features columns, press releases, jobs and a regional event calendar.

What began as a printed directory in 1993 by publisher, Walter Ketcham of Rochester, has evolved into an online resource that promotes Upstate New York as a single market with a growing reputation for world class services.

Ketcham says, "There may be bigger markets, but our creative and technical skills in Upstate New York are second to none."

"The internet has changed the way so many industries work. Today, companies are more willing to work with vendors who may be in neighboring cities. A marketing director can approve a digital photo, shot minutes earlier, from across the country. So the working distance between Buffalo, Albany & White Plains is just our own big back yard," says Ketcham.

The AdHub will continue to accept digital cards from companies in the advertising and training industry. Call 585-442-2585.

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Walter Ketcham
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since 1993 - Your Link to Advertising & Training Resources in Upstate New York
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It wasn’t because of a racy video a la Paris Hilton that Mr. Getz found himself in the celebrity spotlight, however. Some taxpayers found the preservation of Getz’ salary to be just as obscene. The media whipped this into a firestorm and, voila, a star was born.

Getz became the living embodiment of the proverbial political cockroach, capable of surviving a budget holocaust, intact. Of course, there’s never just one cockroach.

As Plunkett of Tammany Hall famously stated, there’s a distinction to be made between graft and honest graft. In this same spirit, Giambra vociferously defended his patronage system as being comprised of the “best and brightest” and, therefore, thoroughly legitimate, “honest patronage.”

The legal costs that the county has picked up in connection with the defense of some of Joel’s patronage “stars,” however, suggests that Joel’s patronage system has been less than honest. Perhaps the fault lies not in these stars, but in ourselves.

Aurora Garage Scandal Legal Costs

Last year, Giambra patronage appointee Douglas Naylon faced a grand jury investigation for his role in the Aurora Garage scandal. The scandal didn’t seem to bother voters as Giambra won re-election to office handily. As an Erie County Highway Department district engineer, Naylon faced accusations of harassment, missing money and equipment, serial mismanagement, and a lack of accountability.

“We hire only the best and brightest people,” Giambra said after being questioned about his patronage hires by his opponent, Dan Ward.

As one of Giambra’s best and brightest, Naylon was extended the best private legal help that taxpayer funds could purchase. In a letter to County Legislator Al Debenedetti, County Attorney Fredrick Wolf pointed out that the county was bound to defend its employees in actions that fell within the scope of their duties and defended the action “…because it was clear to us that there is a potential of a conflict of interest which precluded our office from representing Mr. Naylon, we had no choice, as has been the case in a number of other matters, but to allow Mr. Naylon the opportunity to retain counsel of his choice at the expense of the county. Mr. Naylon opted to choose Lipsitz, Green et al.”

In a debate with Giambra last year, Ward challenged the county executive to waive immunity for himself and his cronies in the Aurora scandal. Giambra scoffed, predicting full exoneration. Of course, one year has passed, and Naylon pled guilty to charges. Guess who’s stuck with his legal bills? As Giambra said about the scandal recently, this is old news.

More Aurora Garage Scandal Legal Costs?!

While the Aurora garage scandal may be old news, perhaps voters were unaware that some of the lawsuits are just now coming to trial. One of the garage workers, Gerald Williams, has charged two other employees, Albert Coia and Christian Gerling, with harassment and assault. Since these employees were “acting within the scope of their employment,” we’re going to make the wild prediction that taxpayers will wind up paying the legal costs and damages once again. Joel’s friends and family plan might not be cheap but, then again, the crusade for true governmental reform never is, right? This, too, may be old news, but hey, it’s been a slow news week!

Furniture-gate: Fred Wolf’s Legal Eagles Fly Again

At the risk of being redundant, we remind you that handing off county cases to politically connected law firms is old news in Buffalo.

Turning government accounts over to political cronies so that they can rachet up profits for themselves and the political machine is also a very old and well-respected way of doing the people’s business in Buffalo.

So when Buffalo Office Interiors, owned by Giambra fundraising buddy, James Spano, started to come under scrutiny for overcharging the county for office furniture, the solution to this little problem was painfully obvious. It amounted to another chance to give a government handout. This time Phillips, Lytle et al. was hired as a special outside counsel. Simply admitting that his right hand man had overcharged the county and refunding the money was unthinkable. It would have amounted to political suicide. It also would have wasted a perfectly legitimate opportunity to give another government handout.

Again, DeBenedetti requested details of the deal from Fred Wolf. In his response letter, Wolf reported that the firm was paid at a reduced rate of $185 per hour for work on the case. The cost to taxpayers was a mere $ 11,375. Michael Powers, who successfully argued in favor of a Seneca casino in downtown Buffalo, took the lion’s share of the money.

In the recent budget debate, Giambra was adamant that we can and will afford this kind of patronage, come hell or high water. If he is true to his word, Giambra has now passed the halfway point in his reign as county executive. If the recent defection of his lieutenant, Carl Calabrese, is any indication, his ability to command unquestioning support of his followers may now be waning as well.

Much has been made of Joel’s imperious leadership style, but our “Joel as Caesar” photo is strictly tongue in cheek. After all, Julius Caesar was fully aware of the moment that he “crossed the Rubicon.” Unfortunately for Erie County, voters were oblivious as well.

I spent a lot of time exploring what was inside of me. I wondered what caused me to feel the need to cross again. In this inner journey, what came to me were not words, but images and feelings. When I closed my eyes, I could see Sister Dianna Ortiz as she was in 1987: young and full of life and enthusiasm for her big adventure as a missionary teacher. I could hear her laugh about the little students whom she had taught in the United States. And then I heard screams of pain, of fear, of anger. I could feel the joy being forcibly ripped away from Sister Dianna by terrible men who have never been held accountable for their crimes. One of the men was an American, who was with the CIA. Others had been trained at the School of the Americas.

Sister Dianna is only one of many who have been either tortured or killed or both by graduates of the School of the Americas.

I studied the issues, too, and this helped me make my decision to cross the fence again. This is what I found:

The United States government refuses to take responsibility for the training that has led to these terrible crimes being committed. The United States government has never asked for the curriculum of the School of the Americas and for the behavior of its graduates to be investigated by a truth and reconciliation commission. The United States government responds, not with apologies and offers of reparation, but with denials, lies, and name changes.

The United States government calls the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation a “new school for the new century.” If that were really so, the United States government would have already set up the truth and reconciliation commission to investigate that old, discredited school. Why has that not happened?

If I were to suddenly get tired of being “Alice” and were to change my name to, say, Eleanor or Morwenna or Bridget, would I become a new person? Would my name change make me into someone whom I am not?

Can the United States, by changing the name of the School of the Americas to the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation, make the school into something that it is not?

I don’t believe that the country that denies the prisoners of Guantanamo prisoner of war status so that it can hold them for extended periods of time without pending charges is capable of teaching human rights to Latin American troops.

I don’t believe that the country that prosecutes an illegal war in Iraq is capable of teaching human rights to Latin American troops.

I don’t believe that the country that blames the prisoner abuse/torture at Abu Ghraib on its lower ranking soldiers is capable of teaching human rights to Latin American troops.

I don’t believe that the country that certified Colombia as having a clean human rights record is capable of teaching human rights to Latin American troops. Nearly all of the murders of labor union leaders in the world occur in Colombia.

Of course, Colombia has oil. Iraq has oil. I don’t believe that the country that lusts after the oil belonging to foreign countries is capable of teaching human rights to Latin American troops.

I chose to make the strongest statement that I could, to try to draw attention to a training academy that is teaching known human rights violators methods for refining their skills.

I am grateful for your support. Whatever you can do to support me as I go to trial next month will be very much appreciated.

For several years, Buffalo and the surrounding area has been the site of an internecine warfare between grocery stores chains. This is the third Jubilee to close this year; the stores in Orchard Park and Clarence both closed last spring. But closing at Christmas time makes the pain of losing your job even worse.

Today, the store is a shell of its former self; the corridors are mostly empty as stock is liquidated at rock bottom prices. Signs are scattered around the store reminding shoppers that, along with the 30 percent discount, the store now has a “no returns policy.” There are a couple of cashiers still working but the ambience makes you feel as if you were walking into a skeleton of a store.

The place is dark, too; only half of the store’s lights are on. Outside, the parking lot still has a few cars in it, mainly belonging to people, who are attracted by the big “Close Out Sale” sign on Kenmore Avenue. “The regular customers are gone,” said a cashier who didn’t want to be identified. “People are just picking stuff over now.” As if to emphasize the point, a mid-thirties couple is taking turns giving each other rides on shopping carts in the back of the store. They whiz down the lonely aisles like out-of-control five year olds. Somehow, I can’t see them doing this a month and a half ago when the store was crowded, noisy, and lit up.

“Some of us are applying at other stores,” says the cashier, ringing out my close-out carpet cleaner, “but it is kind of sad.” More than 70 people used to work together here. The United Food and Commercial Worker’s union representative Mike Manna summed it up, “There are a lot of ways that this is sad, but the biggest thing is that these were good jobs with guaranteed raises and health care benefits, and those jobs are harder to find these days.” Beyond that, the place was known as a good place to work, with an owner, Mike Fabiniak, whom many people agreed was a “stand -up guy.” Workers and management had pulled together to try to save the store some time ago, but they were ultimately unsuccessful.

Calls to the City of Buffalo and the Town of Tonawanda made it clear that both cities were aware of the closing, but only in an absent minded way. People either didn’t know what I was talking about or knew it only vaguely. For the people who worked there and for well-liked local owner Mike Fabiniak, their store is ending with a sigh. I will miss it, and I will now be driving a little farther to get my groceries. So will my whole neighborhood.

The UFCW is working with workers to help them find work at some of the other unionized grocery chains, such as Tops. “The thing is, when you shop at a non-union place such as Wegman’s or Aldi’s, you support forcing down your neighbors’ standard of living,” adds Mike Manna. So think about that as you shop for eggnog and candy canes during this holiday season.

This northern post-industrial wasteland known as Buffalo is finally getting with the program and spending untold tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money on one of the biggest bait and tackle shops in the world. Like Senator “Death Penalty” Dale Volker said, years from now you’ll be telling your grandkids how Tony Masiello, Joel Giambra, and George Pataki saved us by driving us from bankruptcy and into the open arms of southern culture on the skids. You bet, bud. We sure can get there from here!

The research department at The Buffalo News was quick to issue a big ten-four to that by telling its readers that the new bass pro complex is likely to draw as many as five million visitors a year. That’s right! Five million good ol’ boys a year.

So it’s about as clear as your Grandpappy’s white lightning: five million bubbas can’t be wrong! No, sir. This here Bass Pro’s gonna save Buffalo.

Some of us are a little sick of all the negativity around here. All this pissin’ and moanin’ about libraries and such. It’s like my Daddy told me: Just remember, the sun shines on a dawg’s ass ever' now and then!

And these people putting down Joel Giambra for his red budget. Well how’re we gonna turn this into a red state without a red budget? Answer me that. Joel has been busier than a one-legged cat tryin’ to bury shit on a frozen pond. So leave him and his cousin, Jethro, I mean, Victor alone!

Speakin’ of animals and asses, we put some research of our own together to show all of them horses’asses out there who say we can’t afford a Bass Pro just how big this will be. Let’s take a gander (and I don’t mean mountain) at how Five million bubbas comin’ to Buffalo every year compares to other so-called tourist destinations.

One treehugger website says that, “Herschel Island Territorial Park and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska receive the largest number of visitors. Ivvavik National Park receives just over a hundred visitors per year. Vuntut National Park has received few visitors so far and numbers of one or two per year hardly show up on the graph.”

Huh? One hundred visitors a year? Now, we know that this here ANWR has more than a little Texas tea to be had but from all of the bitchin’ about ANWR that those donkey’s asses do, you’d think it was the capital of Yankeeville, or something. One hundred visitors a year, one or two visitors a year? No o-fence intended, but that’s pathetic. Put up them oil derricks and who knows, maybe those Eskimos could afford to come to Buffalo and see the biggest Bass Pro on God’s green earth.

And all these liberals’re gettin’ their knickers in a bunch over the Constitution. Did you realize that the National Constitution Center had only 321,391 visitors last year? In other words, fifteen times as many people are more interested in buying their fishin’ gear at Bass Pro in Buffalo than the Constitution of the United States. Maybe that’s because Bass Pro honors the first amendment better than any boring Constitutional Center can. After all, Bass Pro sells guns. Don’t know about you, but that makes me happier'n a carp in a septic tank!

Some of you Bills fans might have seen the new Seattle Seahawks football stadium with the skyline of the City in the background. Big deal. “In 1998 Washington ranked 14th out of the US states with 541,000 overseas visitors (excluding those from Canada and Mexico).” By my reckonin’ that’s ten times less folks than we’re gonna get here with the Bass Pro. Take that Bill Gates!

Looking at it another way, the United States gets nearly 50 million international visitors each year, so theoretically ten percent of those people could come to the Bass Pro. That’s the equivalent of five million bubbas. Hot damn!

And then there’s old Europe. No doubt they’re against us. But with things getting better every day in Iraq, they’re all probably feeling pretty foolish for second guessin’ the good ol’ USA. You might not know, for example, that Paris is the capital of France and what’s their main attraction? It’s this piss-ant little glorified outhouse that they call the Eiffel tower. How many visitors a year go to it? Only five and a half million! I can guarantee that the Bass Pro in Buffalo does better than that in its second year. Frenchies can’t fish, either I s’pose.

And to all our Canadian friends who feel so smug about the fact that twelve million people a year visit Niagara Falls, if you’re reading this article you must be shakin' like a lil' dog shittin' peach seeds. Cause you know that once the Bass Pro brings in a casino all of your attractions are gonna start to look worse than a bear’s ass sowed up with barbed wire.

Now that we’ve proven beyond a gnat’s ass of a doubt that the Bass Pro deal’s gonna save Buffalo, we need to tell off those treehuggers, some more. The Bass Pro is gonna be the jewel in our crown, shinin' like a diamond in a goats ass, so we need to clear up some disinformation about whether or not the fish in Lake Erie are safe to eat. Safe to eat? Why that thought is makin me so hungry I could eat the south end of a north bound skunk. So without any further to do here’s what the New York State Department of Health has to say about the matter:

“Due to PCB contamination, women of childbearing age, infants and children under the age of 15 are advised to eat no more than one meal per week of chinook salmon less than 19 inches, burbot, freshwater drum, lake whitefish, rock bass and yellow perch and to EAT NO MORE THAN ONE MEAL PER MONTH of all other fish from Lake Erie. Other people should eat no more than one meal per week of any Lake Erie fish species.”

Like that great lawyer Ben Matlock, did on many occasions, I rest my case. Bass Pro ain’t no good ol’ boy handout, it’s a good ‘ol boy magnet. Just like all them ribbon magnets on you see on vehicles these days, this Bass Pro’s gonna support our troops. It’s like Charley Daniels said, “Get loud and get proud, cause the south’s gonna do it agin!”

Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a filmmaker who loves magic-realism, as he put to brilliant use in Amelie. In A Very Long Engagement he’s teamed up again with his Amelie star, Audrey Tautou, in a gorgeous looking movie based on Sebastian Japrisot’s World War I-era novel about a woman who refuses to believe that her soldier love has been killed. He was one of five French military prisoners convicted by their superiors of self-mutilation to avoid duty. Tautou is truly moving as Mathilde and Gaspard Ulliel is excellent as her beloved Manech. You should go to this film reading little about it, so I’m not going to spoil the vision you’ll encounter with any more information. This is an epic love story that proves to be an emotional juggernaut.

Screenwriter-director James L. Brooks enjoys making movies about human nature. Even when his films border on drama, he goes for the joke. Sometimes the dramedy wears thin. Before you see Brooks’ latest, Spanglish (the odd mix of Spanish and English spoken in multi-cultural cities like Los Angeles), you have to get used to three things. One is Adam Sandler in a calm role. Two is Adam Sandler as a leading man. Three is Adam Sandler married to Tea Leoni. Hit and miss here, folks, hit and miss. The movie is about colliding cultures. It goes from amiable comedy to nasty comedy faster than a rattlesnake strikes. A Mexican woman with a daughter arrives in L.A. hoping to capture the American dream. She ends up as a maid in a comfortably well off Beverly Hills household. Dad is Sandler, a nice guy who has a popular, well-rated restaurant to run. Mom is Leoni and she’s a neurotic mess. High maintenance doesn’t begin to describe her. These are the Claskys, parents to a son and daughter. Along for the ride is their wisecracking grandma, Cloris Leachman, who’s good in the role, but the cliches start falling out of Leachman’s mouth right from the get-go. Are their any seniors in Hollywood who aren’t feisty? The gist of Brooks strained effort is that dad is running out of excuses for mom’s behavior. The kids are not okay. Granny is a boozehound. Eventually, the Clasky clan takes the maid and her kid to their Malibu place for the summer. It’s here that the movie’s cultural commentary crumbles. The dialogue really gets mean-spirited. There are no insights into dysfunctional behavior and the Upstairs-Downstairs connections are pointless. The usually wonderful Leoni is so over-the-top that she has nowhere to go with her character. Sandler’s low-key performance is fine, but soon becomes dull. The movie fades into the Pacific Ocean as it tries to tie-up Brooks’ views of the relationship between a maid and her bosses, mother-daughter bonding, and having a career versus hanging around.

Closer is based on the hit play of the same name. We’re in contemporary London, and the movie expertly captures the look of the new architecture that has befallen that town. Some of it is striking, but most of it is deadly. The film feels modern, but its roots are in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. This is a terrifically tough, lacerating adult drama about four lonely souls searching for passion. Sexual passion, relationship passion, human contact passion. Closer seethes with bitter emotions. Would-be novelist Dan (Jude Law) meets an American who’s a part-time stripper. She’s Alice (Natalie Portman) and it’s lust from the start. You know there are going to be complications. The movie, directed by Mike Nichols, uses flash-forwards and flashbacks as unsettling expository elements. The technique works. Seems that Dan has met photographer Anna (Julia Roberts) at a photo shoot and betrays Alice by seducing Anna, who meets a hyper-masculine dermatologist named Larry (Clive Owen). Since nothing stops on a dime in this movie, she and Larry are soon in bedded bliss. But the bliss doesn’t last for anyone as backstabbing and betrayal are the order of the day. The quartet keeps the sparks flying. Closer has scathing insights into the negative things that humans do to each other in relationships. The acting is brilliant from all. This is one hard-edged movie.

Twelve is the new eleven. That’s what the posters read. Like the movie, it’s a saying that’s meaningless. Ocean’s Twelve is a trifle wherein the good-looking gang from the Ocean’s Eleven remake returns to carry out a series of scores so they can pay back Las Vegas casino owner Andy Garcia who’s out for vengeance. He’s already collected on the insurance, but the boring Garcia, looking like Peter Lorre, wants to double his money. Enter Danny Ocean and company (the twelfth member of the gang will end up being Ocean’s wife, Julia Roberts (sans make-up and with stringy hair – her interpretation of homemaker, I guess). Also along for the ride – and a ludicrous ride it is – is a lifeless Catherine Zeta-Jones as an Interpol agent trying to outguess what Ocean plans to do in Amsterdam, Paris, or Rome. It turns out she once had a love affair with Brad Pitt’s character, but we didn’t see that in Ocean’s Eleven, so it comes out of left field. Zeta-Jones seems to have been modeled after actress Anna Karina from some of Jean-Luc Godard’s faux gangster films. She can’t pull it off. In fact, she pulls nothing off. Another subplot involves a Frenchman known as The Night Fox wants to keep his title of world’s greatest thief. Add Bruce Willis as Bruce Willis, Eddie Izzard and Albert Finney in cameos that look truncated from longer bits, and you’ve got a caper movie that isn’t about anything except George Clooney playing ennui until it hurts. Hurts you, not him. I like Clooney a lot, but come on. This is a film that is virtually without solid elements. It’s more like the Frank Sinatra Rat Pack 1960s Ocean’s Eleven than a next step in the Ocean caper progression. Director Steven Soderbergh has made a movie that’s lighter-than-air and just as gassy. A bit of it is fun, but most of it isn’t.

Theses incidents were described in affidavits collected to bolster an election challenge lawsuit that was filed on the same day at the Ohio Supreme Court. The official recount, instigated by the state’s Green and Libertarian parties, was also scheduled to begin yesterday as Ohio’s Republican Electoral college members also met at noon. President Bush’s campaign officials have complained, pointing out that the effort won’t reverse the Presidents reelection. Bush beat Kerry by about 119,000 votes in Ohio on election- day.

On Sunday, Dec. 12, Senator John Kerry spoke to Jesses Jackson urging him to ‘take a more active role in investigating irregularities and ensuring a fair and impartial recount.” Evidently the Kerry campaign has contributed some of the $50 million left over from the general election to help. Expertise like Jesse Jackson doesn’t come cheap. Kerry pointed out the three areas that should be considered: 92,000 ballots that recorded no vote for president; counting and qualifying provisional ballots; and analyzing the software and set-up of the optical scan voting machines.

Affidavit Excerpts for the Election Challenge:

In Warren County election official declared a homeland security emergency and barred reporters and others from watching the recount on election- day. It turns out that county employees were told the previous Thursday to expect the lockdown. That being the case, why were ballots left unguarded? This suggests the lockdown was politically motivated and not a security threat.

In Knox County, students at a liberal arts college stood in line for up to 11 hours because only one voting machine was available. However, at nearby My Vernon Nazarene University, there were plenty of machines and no lines.

Shorting of voting machines turns out to be a major event.

In Franklin County, the election director seems to have perjured himself by testifying that the county had no additional machines. It now appears that as many as 81 voting machines out of 2,866 were kept away from voters. These shortages in democratic areas led to long lines and many people abandoning polling places before casting their ballots in complete frustration.

Also in Franklin County, staff at a Holiday Inn noticed a group of 25 peoples who called themselves the “Texas Strike Force’ using payphones to make intimidating calls to likely voters. The “Texas Strike Force” members paid their own way to Ohio; but the Ohio Republican Party paid for their hotel rooms. People who were not inside polling places by 7:30 PM were told to leave, even if they had been waiting for hours. This is a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

In Warren County, Democrats were being targeted and forced to use provisional ballots even though they had proper identification. Sworn Affidavits conformed reports that old voter registration rolls being used, therefore new voters were not on the list and had to be given provisional ballots. Some were not allowed to vote at all.

Tampering with the Numbers

Jonathan David Simon, an expert witness, claims that at 12:53 AM the exit polls suddenly altered the projected winner without changing the number of votes cast. “Although each update reports the same number of respondents (872), the reported results differ significantly, with the latter exit poll results apparently having been brought into congruence with the tabulated vote results.” It would seem that the exit polls were fixed to declare President Bush the winner.

Another affidavit by Richard Hayes Phillips, geomorphology Ph.D from the University of Oregon, claims to have discovered that votes were taken away from Kerry by what can only be described as computer manipulation. “It is my professional opinion that John Kerry’s margins of victory were wrongly reduced by 22,000 votes in Cleveland, by 17,000 votes in Columbus, and by as many as 7,000 votes in Toledo.” Dr. Phillips points to a suspect statistic in Miami County. Early in the evening, when 31,620 votes had been counted and then again when 50, 325 were in…”Kerry had exactly the same percentage, 33.92, and George Bush was almost exactly the same…the second set of returns gave Bush a margin of exactly 16,000 votes, giving cause to question the integrity of the central counting device for the optical scan machine.”

Jesse Jackson is not John Kerry’s only ally in Ohio. Donald McTigue is the lawyer responsible for the recount for the Senator. Kerry wants election officials to allow McTigue to visually inspect the suspect 92,000 ballots on which no vote for president was recorded. Lawyer McTigue said that the visual inspection is allowed under state law. His goal is to look for votes that were cast but not recorded by the tabulating machines. Senator Kerry also has requested that independent experts be retained to check both the calibration and programming of the election equipment.

“We’re trying to increase the transparency of the election process,” said McTigue. This concept seems to be invisible in the republican camp.

Good luck. You’ll need it.

The Aviator is everything the Academy supposedly likes: energetic, well-acted, colorful, rife with dazzling production values, and filled with terrific references to moviemaking itself. Nothing like a little pat on the back to make film folks happy. Whereas the tedious two hour and fifty minute running time of Alexander felt like we were fighting the entire Alexandrian campaign, the two hour and fifty minute running time of The Aviator seems like speed dialing. The movie is fast, often funny, and never dull. Scorsese’s biggest challenge was to make industrialist Howard Hughes interesting. It isn’t enough that a person has a fascinating life. The movie itself has to be fascinating. Hughes was a Texas kid who inherited an oil drill-bit business, invented all sorts of gizmos and styles of planes for the airline industry, produced and directed movies, and bedded some of the most interesting women in Hollywood. Seems like pretty amazing fodder for cinematic bliss. Well, the road to riches is strewn with interesting ideas that failed as screen entertainment. Larger-than-life often seems puny when that life gets the biopic treatment. Not this time.

Hughes has popped up in movies before, including Melvin And Howard, in which a goofy sort of ordinary guy supposedly inherited much of Hughes wealth. But he was a part-time character in that film. This time around, Scorsese has provided a broad canvas upon which to depict much of Hughes successful and quirky existence. We don’t get the full extent of his life, none of the crazy older billionaire holed up in a Las Vegas hotel suite watching Ice Station Zebra over and over and padding around naked wearing empty Kleenix boxes for slippers.

To Scorsese’s credit, we definitely get a look at Hughes mental disorder, and I think the look we get is look enough. Hughes had obsessive compulsive disorder before OCD was the disease of the season.

The Aviator takes us from Hughes arrival in Hollywood to make his airplane-filled war epic Hell’s Angels to his rip-roaring battle with a corrupt United States Senator who practiced governmental chicanery to the nth degree and was in the hip pocket of the chairman of Pan American Airways. Hughes’ air company was TWA. Competition can get pretty ugly when U.S. Senators are on-the-take.

Scorsese has gathered together a number of his loyal collaborators and that comfort level adds to the movie’s success. And think about, the guy’s previous film was Gangs Of New York. You really have to admire the ability of a director who’s able to follow one movie (Gangs…) with another like The Aviator. They are both broad and sweeping; the kind of motion picture people call epic. And Scorsese has the talent to deliver a feature that is a font of cinematic richness. He knows how to move a camera, cut to the heart of a scene, and keep the audience alert. More power to him. These days, hard-edged, driven billionaires seem to be all around. Reality television is filled with obnoxious tycoons like Donald Trump or inventive tycoons like Richard Branson. Neither of them can hold a candle to Howard Hughes. He wrote the book on billionaire businessmen with out-sized egos and the desire for more. Call it greed or something else. What compels these men? When is enough enough? Scorsese gets under the skin of Hughes, gives us a sense of what makes the man tick, sorts through the compulsive behavior, and delivers a picture that does what a movie is supposed to do – entertain.

The Aviator stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes. Too young you say? Not at all. Remember that Hughes was young when he went to Hollywood. Orson Welles young. He was a fresh-faced kid with a tinny voice and a smile that belied the determined cunning he would display in his knockabout battles with governments and corporations. DiCaprio gets Hughes down perfectly. His energy is focused. Acting is all in the eyes, and DiCaprio’s eyes brilliantly depict Hughes’ ardent willpower. They suggest force of personality and force of vision.

The movie opens with a brief prologue that touches on a character-defining moment in Hughes’ childhood. Remember it, because something from that scene recurs throughout the film. Again, Scorsese has the knack for choosing the telling moment, the key to a personality. Good art is about showing complexity with simplicity. After this opening, the movie literally dives into action. Airplanes buzz about, propellers spin, dust swirls, the camera sweeps. The screenplay by John Logan (he wrote Gladiator) takes us to the 1920s and the filming of Hell’s Angels, the expensive aerial epic that Hughes was financing with profits from his family’s tool company. The movie, which went through re-shoot after re-shoot and cost $4-million to make, would turn the twenty-something Hughes into a celebrity. He’s able to concentrate on his filmmaking because he’s hired a right-hand man for his business, the smart and affable Noah Dietrich (nicely played by John C. Reilly), who would stay loyal to Hughes for decades. Hughes even staged a premiere for Hell’s Angels on Hollywood Boulevard that would shame today’s publicity hucksters. The opening is a wildly dazzling event, supposedly the mob scene that inspired novelist Nathaniel West to write The Day Of The Locust. And we see it in all its overblown glory. Soon Hughes was dating glamour girls and spending time at famed Tinseltown nightclubs. Scorsese expertly captures the high energy and dazzling excitement of Hollywood in its heyday. In one scene, Jude Law pops in as dashing actor Errol Flynn, a cameo that works superbly.

But through Hughes’ rise to fame, we see the battle between his surface success and his inner demons. The guy won’t eat food that touches other food. He only drinks milk from a sealed glass bottle. He washes his hands again and again. He can’t touch bathroom doorknobs. He’s a bit of a loon, but a very lucky loon. He’s got the support staff and money to hid any number of tics. And when the OCD switch is turned off, he has sex with some very hot and very interesting women. Cate Blanchett is pitch perfect as Katharine Hepburn, actress, raconteur, and a bit of a nutcase herself. Kate Beckinsale does a nifty turn as Ava Gardner and has a beautiful scene late in the movie when she shows Hughes how much she understands the obsessive compulsive acts that cause him to hide out in his home for an extended period, terrified of germs and people and confrontation. There’s even a hint of what’s to come for the elderly Hughes, when we see him locked in his office, middle-aged and fearful, stark naked and starkly worried about that U.S. Senator who wants his scalp. Alan Alda acts the guy with villainous delight. Playing his partner in crime is Alec Baldwin as Pan Am’s honcho. Nobody does quiet malevolence better than Baldwin.

Through it all: the women, the fears, the glory, nothing can compete with Hughes truest love – aviation. The guy would battle the movie ratings board for the right to show Jane Russell’s breasts in their best light (he even designed a push-up bra for her to wear), but airplanes and air power never, ever took a back seat. Would his giant wooden transport plane, an invention of extremes, fly? Well, when push comes to shove, nothing takes a back seat to Hughes desire to prove his point. Not even a Senate hearing.

Overall, The Aviator is a mix of two elements. Firstly, it’s about the rise of aviation as a vital means of transportation and mode of travel. Secondly, it’s about the determination, vision, and emotional malaise of one individual. Blending newsreel footage, digital effects, and a point-of-view that never wavers, Scorsese delivers a series of truly spectacular aerial sequences. Directing his entire cast with a sure-hand, from DiCaprio to the smallest part, he makes everyone believable. Scorsese and Logan keep the storytelling clear-eyed. Dante Ferretti’s lavish production design, Sandy Powell’s wonderful costumes, and Howard Shore’s flawless musical score all contribute mightily to the movie’s success. And special praise has to go to Robert Richardson’s stunning, often beautiful cinematography.

One other key element in filmmaking is the editing. Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s longtime collaborator, edits The Aviator. She is as important to the success of the movie as any one person can be. Scorsese and Schoonmaker are a team. And this team has made a solidly entertaining movie.

Before we go any further we’d like to extend our apologies to Ms. Linstedt for using her fine report as a spring board for our satire. There’s “fair use” and then there’s “fair abuse.”

If you believe that corporate welfare amounts to legalized prostitution, especially in the area of government subsidies to retailers (a practice that was, a few short years ago, illegal for Industrial Development Agencies) you’ll probably think that this is a case of fair use. If you believe that the denigration of politicians has turned people off from politics, you might find this “new and improved” article is completely unfair. Fair or foul, keep in mind that it’s like we said, we’re only trying to have a little fun.

City officials go “fishing” for additional retailers

Fresh off landing in the brothel of new pimp, “Daddy” Bass Pro, a contingent of “Buffalo Gals” traveled to various New York City red light districts on Tuesday in search of additional “retail” tricks.

(“Retail” is sex industry slang for using business or government accounts to pay for sex. A john who “pays retail” is highly desirable because customers who are using embezzled funds can afford to be more generous. Whores that can assist clients in creating such slush funds help themselves and also their clients. )

Long time two dollar whore, Mayor Anthony M. Masiello joined “freshmeat” Timothy Wanamaker, head of the city's Office of Strategic Planning, and four development staff bitches in stalking “retail” prey at the International Council of Shopping Centers fall meeting in Manhattan.

"I'm here to tell our story of arousal and excitement, and we're getting a very warm reception," Masiello said with a wink. “Freshmeat” Wanamaker, who has represented Buffalo at past meetings of the group, said last week's “Daddy” Bass Pro announcement has increased interest in the area.

"There are key ‘retailer’ johns we've had difficulties getting a meeting with in the past, and now they want to see us," he said. "When you tell people “Daddy” Bass Pro is coming to town, it’s like Christmas: Ho, ho, ho! It opens doors.”

Masiello concurred, “It’s like Snoop said, we gonna pop it like it’s hard.”

Masiello said that as soon as these potential “clients” noticed his name tag, he was greeted with congratulations on his decision to hook up with his new pimp, “Daddy” Bass Pro.

"I probably had 15 people talk to me about it just walking through the lobby," he said. “It’s like getting a new set of boobs and showing your cleavage. This group lives and breathes ‘retail’, and they couldn't say enough good things about the impact of ‘Daddy’ Bass."

Masiello and Wanamaker had several set meetings with an undisclosed list of retailers, ranging from "big vagina" clients to upscale, specialty fetishists, as well as national “retail” brokers. Both whores expressed a mix of optimism and caution when they talked about attracting any of their targets to Buffalo.

"The good news is we're getting the propositions, but these deals take time and patience," Wanamaker said. "It could take two or three years to get a firm commitment, tap into the taxpayer’s wallet and set up these ‘retail’ accounts. These ‘retail’ johns force taxes to go way up, and taxes are sky high already. But on the bright side, we’ve always had the D.A. in our pocket, we just made a deal with the Attorney General, and we got plenty of ho’s ready to hit the street.”

Masiello’s input on this: “Word.”

“Retailers” looking to ride the coattails of “Daddy” Bass into Buffalo, he noted, will time their decisions to the Sportin’ Life “Daddy” Bass’s 2007 Sha-dizzlin’Throw Down. Pimpin!

Patrice Duker, spokestrumpet for the shopping center council, said public sector participation in the organization's retail meetings has been growing. The group's convention last spring in Vegas featured a keynote session on how to whore out the community interest through “public-private partnerships” (industry slang for intercourse and fellatio) that drew “two-dollar whore mayors,” like Masiello from 50 U.S. cities.

The event's "leasing mall," which features peep shows for retailers, developers and brokers, has grown to include a "municipal court," where cities and regions tout their charms and “show a little leg” to the ‘retail’ world.

"The private sector johns want to get laid, and the public sector ho’s wants growth that fits with their master plans and long-term growth strategies," Duker said. "It makes a lot of sense to get them talking to each other about price at the outset."

She also noted that, with “Daddy” Bass Pro in its future, Buffalo brings more to those conversations.

"It's instant brand recognition for Buffalo. Buffalo is famous for its political whores, already. It's a destination ‘retailer’, if there ever was one, that attracts a strong, dedicated core customer," Duker said. "When you can put a ‘Daddy’ Bass Pimpdom on the table, it lends credence to your pitch, absolutely."

In addition to telling ‘retailers’ about possibilities in Buffalo's Erie Canal Harbor entertainment neighborhood (euphemistically known as “Maiden Lane” in the early years of Buffalo’s rich history of prostitution) and the Main Street corridor (once home to numerous burlesques and bawdy houses), city representatives also are plugging the potential of Elmwood, Hertel and Jefferson avenues as ‘retail’ destinations.

Masiello noted that he was willing to, “Ho the whole damn thing out.”

For now, though, Masiello said, that Buffalo group's growing list of introductions should be considered a victory; more serious meetings would follow in the months ahead.

“This is much more than just another booty call,” Masiello said with evident satisfaction.

Well, you could have knocked me over with a bulldozer after I got through reading two days worth of articles in The Snooze about how public monies got poured down the drain faster than the stale beer at the Breckenridge Brew Pub that was last seen floating down the Colorado River sporting a big banner saying, “I got mine and I’m taking it with me.”

Not to be outdone by a fellow scribbler, Donn Esmonde, of the same Snooze, waded in and slammed Too Tall Tony for being a lousy basketball player and a failure to become a Rhodes Scholar and an intelligent mayor. At least, Heaney spread the failure to include the administration of former mayor Jimmy Griffin and didn’t mention how mediocre 3T was as a basketball player. In fact, Heaney didn’t mention any names connected to the disappearing funds, but he did manage to quote the beady-eyed, mustachioed troll who is the resident expert on all things governmental and heads an outfit called the Buffalo/Niagara Partnership/Enterprise.

Should it really surprise any of us that public monies disappear down rat holes dug by corporate elites and the politically connected? Our world’s history is a richly woven tapestry of corruption and scandals and the bold buccaneers who stole more with a slap on the back and a firm handshake than all of the armies since the time of Alexander. Our very own Empire State was an important player and training ground for generations of thieves since before the time of Aaron Burr. The legacy of Boss Tweed and Tammany politics lives on in Albany and in all of the little burgs that comprise our great state.

Reformers have risen from the pits of the political cesspool, promising to restore democracy and fair play and to restore trust in governmental functions, and the media, that great champion of the people, have shouted their huzzahs and have spread the mantle of honesty to the shoulders of those visionaries who will soon fall back into the slime from which they arose. Ah, yes, even the readers of history succumb to the sins of the past, and editors and writers seem to be at the greatest peril, excepting myself.

Dorothy and Toto are no longer in Kansas, and Alice has returned from Wonderland, but we are still imprisoned in a world of our own design. Why don’t we or why can’t we just admit that change is one thing that we refuse to accept. We are comfortable with the devils we know rather than with the idea of venturing into the unknown world of ethics and personal responsibility.

Fear not, brothers and sisters, the revelations embedded in Jim Heaney’s series appearing in The Buffalo News only serves to remind us of the immortal words of Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The great lamentations over the recent elections for various public offices should remind us forcefully that we are neither all on the same page nor do we read from the same book. George W. Bush is in and trees are out, and the war will continue, and the money will still flow into the subterranean coffers of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. How I wish that I could be tight with either one and proudly say, I got mine you’ll have to get your own. But, alas, I am too lazy to petition HUD or to smooch backsides in search of loot from Kellogg Brown and Root.

The calculus of individuals and human psychology does not allow for quantum leaps into perfection, so do not be amazed that one can be anything more than what he or she is. In other words, when choosing leaders, be assured that what you see is what you’ll get and, as the old cliché repeats, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” Just relax, lean back, and remember that there will always be another election, and you can vote for the clown of your choice, maybe.

NYSNA, the union that represents the 900 registered nurses employed by the county and the medical center, said that the budget being considered this week by county officials would dismantle the healthcare system and create havoc for what remains:

* Fewer RN would mean longer waits at the emergency room.

* There would be no on staff at schools to check on children’s health or administer medications.

* Citizens would lose their safety net for protecting the public’s health in an emergency.

Starting this weekend and running through Tuesday – when the legislature votes on the budget – NYSNA will sponsor a radio advertising campaign to inform the public and persuade county officials to preserve public health funding.

About 60 nurses are assigned to school health and another 50 are in community clinics – working in areas such as primary care, maternal-child health, and sexually transmitted diseases.

NYSNA maintains that it is not appropriate to eliminate preventive and primary care services that have a proven track record for being more effective and less costly than hospitalization for preventable conditions. Clinics operated by the County Health Department have been a cost-effective alternative to emergency-room care. If the clinics are closed, it is uncertain that these same patients will find their way to access county services through the ER at ECMC.

County nurses also provide much needed health services in the schools that are so important, all schools are required to have similar services. Children need school nurses and the county has an experienced and qualified staff. NYSNA believes it is not appropriate to use these children in a political debate.

With more than 34,000 members, NYSNA is the oldest and largest state nurses’ association in the nation. It is an influential union for RNs, representing nurses in New York and New Jersey. Offering a wide range of services to its members, NYSNA fosters high standards of nursing education and practice and works to advance the profession through legislative activity. It is a constituent of the American Nurses Association and of the United American Nurses, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

—30—

Contact:
Mark Genovese (518) 782-9400, Ext. 353
Nancy Webber (518) 782-9400, Ext. 223


Ever since I was a four-year-old beginning reader, I have experienced the delights of the library. The treasures that I discovered in the library have given me an opportunity to travel through time and space. Via the wonders of books and my own imagination, I’ve gone to prehistoric times with Jean Auel, to outer space with Isaac Asimov, into the mind of a dictator with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, on amazing and heroic quests with Alexandre Dumas, and to so many other places and times and realities.

The treasures that I have discovered in the public libraries may be lost to Erie County residents. County Executive Joel Giambra’s “red budget” cuts funding for the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system from a requested $29,154,123 to $6,082,879. The result would be that the entire system of 52 libraries would be forced to close on January 1, 2005. Borrowing from libraries will discontinue on December 7, 2004.

Busy Year for the Library

Buffalo and Erie County’s library system recorded a successful year for 2003 with 52 locations, mobile outlets, and remote access via the internet. According to the library systems website (www.buffalolib.org), nearly 350,000 people are regular customers of the library. The trend continues into 2004, with a six percent increase in circulation over 2003, a 24 percent increase in computer use, and a 12 percent increase in materials shipped among all of the library system’s locations.

The red budget, however, would decimate these services, said Michael Mahaney, director of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system. It would provide “barely enough money to lay off the staff and lock the doors of all 52 libraries, including the central library.” Any remaining money would be used for climate control, to ensure that the pipes do not freeze in the vacated buildings.

Ironically, according to the Erie County Legislature, in a prepared handout to attendees at its four public hearings, $14 million has been budgeted for library supplies, including books, media, and capital projects.

“This is the first time in American history that an entire library system has been threatened with shut down. Sometimes individual libraries are shut. (Closing the libraries are) unthinkable things that our community should not have to contemplate. It is shocking and unacceptable,” Mahaney said.

What the Community Stands to Lose

The proposed closure of the library system is “taking the heart out of the community. It’s leaving the community an empty shell in a way that it never was before. We’re in so many different communities, and we serve so many people, who have limited options. I can’t imagine what they could find to fill the void. The library system is 168 years old. It has survived everything from a great depression through world wars. It is inconceivable to think that it could come to an end,” Mahaney said.

The things that would be lost include story hours, computer training, and free lunchtime concerts, as well as public access to the libraries’ vast storehouses of books, CDs, videos, and other materials. Rare books would be pulled from exhibition and would be placed in a vault for safekeeping.

Far More than a Job

Mahaney, 52, has found a career and a home amidst the books, videos, and CDs. Thirty-one years ago, he was hired to shelve books in the Central Library. In 1977, just after graduating from SUNY at Buffalo with a master’s degree in library science, Mahaney became a reference librarian. He has worked in administration since 1990 and has been the system’s director for two years.

The library system is where Mahaney said that he found his closest friends and where he first met his wife. Mahaney said, “I have affection and respect” for the libraries and for their staffs and patrons.

The library systems has been through difficult times in the past, Mahaney said. In 1976-1977, the system went through a fiscal crisis, which resulted in the layoff of 40 percent of its staff. “Back then, a lot of really bright, talented, capable people were laid off, and they left. They became the leaders of libraries around the country. I would hate to lose more talent and commitment to something like this. These are people who are not just library assets; they are community assets. Erie County will be poorer if they have to leave,” Mahaney said.

Mahaney said that he intended to finish his career in the library system in Erie County, a community that has been his lifelong home. If the library system closes, however, he would have to look for options out of town. “I can’t bear the thought of this collapsing around us. It’s one of the finest library systems in the country. This is the best staff that I’ve ever encountered anywhere. It would be shameful to allow this to die.”

Citizen Responses to Proposed Elimination of the Library System

On November 28, at Erie Community College’s South Campus in Orchard Park, more than ninety individuals addressed the many budget cuts that have been proposed by the red budget. Many of them discussed the public library system. Mercedes Russow, a retired teacher, wanted to know, “What kind of tumor in the brain caused this?” She said that the county executive has proposed “taking away everything that makes life worthwhile.”

Ed Arnold said that his two children go to the library twice a week and that his wife meets friends regularly in the library. He said that Erie County’s excellent library system is a factor that keeps his family in the area. His wife is a native of Poland and libraries are a high priority in that country. “In Poland, every town, no matter how poor, has a library.”

Joseph, who held his small daughter as he tearfully addressed the members of the Erie County Legislature, said that he had just been at the Angola branch of the library. He said that he “loves taking the baby to the library, the botanical gardens, and the zoo. “She goes to the botanical gardens every Sunday, and she runs up and down the steps.”

Marsha of Orchard Park said, “Libraries are not expendable. They are where community happens. At the library, you find the greatest diversity of people.” She said that she recently took a Microsoft Word class with a group of older people at the library.

Abraham (Abe) Kenmore, a nine-year-old home schooler from Clarence Center, said straightforwardly, “I really like libraries. I like to browse. I have lots of interests.” As an example of the value of libraries to him, Abe said that he recently became interested in the history of music and was able to borrow fifteen books on the subject. “It’s hard to buy books and have money left over.”

“Libraries are fun places,” Abe concluded.

In our estimation, this attempt to put the mayor out to pasture began in earnest with this month’s publication of James Heaney’s three-part series, which documented the Masiello administration’s squandering of federal aid money. We can wonder what took The News so long to identify the severity of the situation, but on the positive side, perhaps we should be saying better late than never.

Donn Esmonde has led The News in criticizing Masiello, but prior to the Heaney series, his columns always seemed to leave Tony with some wiggle room. Esmonde’s follow up column to the Heaney series, however, was blistering. Later that week, the editorial staff of The News published an editorial that was more genteel but essentially confirmed the obvious: The News will no longer continue to make excuses for Masiello. The Heaney series would never have been published as written if the editors at The News had any intention of allowing Tony to stick around for another four years.

We know from previous articles by Bob McCarthy, top political reporter for The News, that the business community has been desperately seeking an alternative candidate to support in next fall’s mayoral race. If Masiello does run, Byron Brown and Sam Hoyt will present him with determined competition for his job. Perhaps Joel Giambra’s prophecy that Tony will be the last mayor of Buffalo may be fulfilled with the elimination of the office altogether. Eliminating that office will take some doing, however.

Tony’s Discreet Charms Finally Wear Off

When we look back, there is something particularly odious about the fulsome lies and nauseous flattery that filled The Buffalo News’ copious editorials in praise of Tony in election years past. But then, certain power brokers wanted a Governor George Pataki-dominated control board in charge of the city’s finances. To arrive at that point, a good measure of malfeasance was necessary, and it’s obvious now that Masiello was equal to that task.

Several points need to be made about the Heaney series and Alt’s coverage of this story.

First off, when we attempted to obtain some of the information that Heaney presented, people in the local HUD office told us that no loans were in default. Then, our appeal to Washington for information on all current outstanding loans in full was returned as a partial list showing only good loans.

Grant + Loan = Groan

A source who wishes to remain anonymous and is very familiar with local development issues told Alt that this was merely a language issue. The Masiello terminology morphed the word “default” into “aging.” This is why there were no loans in default to be found.

This person related the following inside riddle about the Masiello crew’s chicanery: What do you call a cross between a grant and a loan? A groan. This little rib tickler implies that Masiello and company knew that, when they were gifting some of their developer friends with section 108 loans, there was an implicit understanding that they were really going to turn out to be grants in the long run. Hilarious, isn’t it?

The partial information that this person was able to provide us with about some of the defaulted Section 108 loans was largely confirmed by the Heaney series. Many questions remain, however. First and foremost on our minds is that if there were a pattern of deliberate abuse for political payoffs, why isn’t this a law-enforcement issue? Why isn’t anyone even thinking about bringing the mayor and his cronies up on charges? We published a story about a very similar situation in Hoboken, N. J., which resulted in several convictions. Are we in Buffalo more corrupt than the folks in New Jersey?

Heaney presents an array of information that the Masiello administration had kept quiet, particularly the abysmal record of the HUD Section 108 loan program.

Favored Developers and Political Influence There are points of interest that Heaney does not elaborate to our satisfaction, however. While the series avoids certain critical questions in our minds, we agree that it represents a good start in making people aware of what a terrible job the Masiello administration has done in managing federal aid intended to alleviate inner-city poverty, not to sock an already impoverished city government with even more debt.

A major problem with the series is that Heaney fails to mention developers by name, again and again. Who were these mysterious developers? Were they plugged into the mayor’s political campaign? Was there a pay to play understanding? Heaney sidesteps these questions.

Heaney failed to mention that the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation pumped more than a quarter million into the Pillar’s hotel AFTER it was clear that the hotel was in default. The medical corridor was not Tony’s brainchild. When it came time to secure capital for a pet project on the campus of Roswell Park, however, it’s doubtful as to whether Masiello could have refused or not. There was enormous political pressure to keep Roswell pumping money into political coffers, along with forecasts of irrational exuberance about the market for high-priced cancer treatment. No one questioned a government-sponsored hotel on the Roswell campus.

While naming several of these businesses and some developers, Heaney leaves some notable absences. He omits information on James Cosentino and Harry Williams, for example. Have they repaid their loans? There are ethical concerns with some of the recipients of Section 108 loans and their political and personal relationships with Masiello. Were these deals legal? Are there ethical violations that can be pursued against Masiello? Heaney fails to explore the nexus of political-business relationships that led to this sorry state of affairs and, therefore, in our opinion, misses the point of this story.

Bi-Partisan Complaints Are Ignored

Heaney shows that even a community activist such as Kim Harman and a Business big shot such as Andrew Rudnick can agree that Masiello has done a horrible job with the Section 108 program. This kind of agreement across the political spectrum is unusual these days. You would think that this would not bode well for any effort to re-elect Tony next year, but Tony doesn’t seem to be too concerned. "I wish we had more private-sector investment. It's coming in dribs and drabs, but it's coming," Masiello told The News.

Tony is satisfied.

Tony wishes that there were business investment. It’s coming at some point in the future. Didn’t Heaney ask for comment on specific deals? In how many instances did section 108 loans result in significant investment in nearby properties? We don’t know because Masiello was not challenged on his assertion that many projects had significant spin-off.

Banko: Fox/Hen Housing Arrangement Not to Blame

Heaney stated, “The loans must be approved by the Common Council, development agencies controlled by the mayor, and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Cities are responsible for paying them off, using block grant funds, in the event a developer defaults.”

This is pretty accurate. The system of checks and balances, however, was not as rigorous as it might first appear. The mayor had allies in the Common Council and, since block grant funding was important to the pet projects of councilmembers, there was little resistance to the mayor’s section 108 initiatives. In addition, after Masiello Chief of Staff Steve Banko was put in charge of HUD, there was no longer an arm’s length negotiating distance. In effect, the mayor’s 108 loans were generally rubber stamped.

Banko’s statements are enlightening: "The problem in Buffalo is developers have it backwards… Everywhere else, they put the deal together, get what they can from private sources, and come to the government if they have a gap. In Buffalo, they all come to the city first – ‘what can you give me?’ - then they go get their financing." Is this because developers here are a breed apart, or is this because they know that this is the way the game is played?

Banko’s explanation shifts the blame from the Masiello administration, of which he was an integral part, and onto the community as a whole. It’s the culture of Buffalo that’s the problem, not the specific funding decisions that were made. We share communal guilt and change is unlikely. The “they” to whom Banko refers aren’t really identified by name. “They” are the same developers whom Heaney, for the most part, does not mention by name. From our experience, “they” are often the same people who supported Masiello and are an integral part of the political process. “They” are frequently hostile to outside investors out of fear of losing control of local development money that the mayor has spent so generously.

Tony’s Theme: A Legacy of Learned Helplessness

"Many of these (section 108 loans) were gap financing; no one else wanted to help," Masiello told The News.

The other way to look at this lavish lending is as politically driven. Masiello’s so-called “gap financing” statement was made to avoid the embarrassment of default. Loans made to the right people were allowed to “age” gracefully. In accounting terms, this is called knowingly presenting a false picture of financial information to investors. What do we call this in Buffalo? Heaney calls it “a half billion dollar bust,” which is a surprisingly polite euphemism for fraud, if you think about it.

The last article in Heaney’s series concerned the Masiello administration’s bad debts in the Theatre District. We here at Alt lovingly refer to the 600 Block of Main Street as Mayor Masiello’s “Potemkin Village.” The term came from a Russian politico, Grigori Potemkin, who created fake villages at huge expense to show Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, how happy and prosperous the peasants were. The peasants in Russia, like their modern Buffalonian counterparts, were neither prosperous nor happy with the hand that was dealt them by their imperial overseers. As Masiello himself said a few years ago, “We need a revolution.”

Casino Buffalo – Chairman Masiello’s Long March Continues

Masiello’s idea of revolution appears to be more of the same, however. There are more section 108 loans being queued up. Heaney reported that, “One, of about $3 million, would be used to redevelop Central Park Plaza. Plans to convert Memorial Auditorium into a Bass Pro store call for a $7.3 million loan through the Section 108 program, plus an additional $2 million through another program.”

Heaney didn’t mention that Bass Pro has ties to casino gambling, in Las Vegas or that certain power brokers, such as Carl Paladino, would like to see a casino in downtown Buffalo. If this is going to be Tony’s last term, he might as well go out with one last big “Ka-ching” for himself and all of those friends of his whom no one else seems to want to help.

This could bring abuse of the Section 108 program up to a whole new level. Heaney reminds us in his first installment of this series that the HUD program was supposedly intended to alleviate poverty. How a massive fishing superstore (and possibly an inner city casino) would accomplish this goal is a mystery. Maybe it’s all part of Tony’s revolution. Pull quotes: “Loans made to the right people were allowed to ‘age’ gracefully.”

“ ‘They’ are often the same people who supported Masiello and are an integral part of the political process. ‘They’ are frequently hostile to outside investors out of fear of losing control of local development money…”

Lockheed Martin, based in Bethesda, Maryland, was awarded military contracts for fiscal 2003 totaling more than 69 billion dollars. Its campaign contributions in 2002 were more than nine million dollars, so the return on the initial investment is more than reasonable. That year, Lockheed Martin CEO Vance Coffman collected a hefty 25 million dollar salary. Lockheed Martin manufactures F-16 and F/A-22 jet fighters, the world-famous C-130 Hercules transport plane, and the lethal Hellfire and Javelin missiles. Hellfire missiles have been used to whack terrorists from the Gaza Strip to the Khyber Pass and beyond.

Next in line and always a contender, we have Boeing. Now headquartered in Chicago, this giant aircraft maker generated 60 billion in government business in 2003. But Boeing was a bit savvier than Lockheed Martin; it only had to shell out four million dollars in campaign contributions. Phillip Condit, the CEO, collected a measly four million in salary. The stockholders must be pleased, as the number for both companies seem to wash each other out. Boeing manufacturers the F-15, C-17 transport plane, the Apache Helicopter, and numerous brands of “smart” bombs, that somehow managed to wipe out mostly the wrong targets.

But to be fair, these two blue-chip name companies, in the market for decades, are the 800-pound gorillas of arms manufacturing global corporations. They have produced some of the most famous combat aircraft of all time, and they sell to clients all over the globe. They proudly put their cost-over runs out in the open for everyone to see, and war profiteering to them has been propagandized into nothing more than the cost of R & D and doing business the American Way. Milo Minderbinder would be proud.

These companies didn’t necessarily have to ride the hysterics, uncertainty, and fear of post 9/11 to make millions. But there is one company that did.

Custer Battles

I am not making this up. The name of the company IS Custer Battles. Two Army veterans, Scott Custer and Michael Battles, established this business in October 2001. These two thirty-something entrepreneurs had little experience in private security. But Mike Battles had political experience, having been a former Republican Congressional candidate in Rhode Island. He and Custer set up shop in McClean, Virginia, and then headed to Washington and the Pentagon to make their fortune. They were lucky or good or connected, because in June 2003, they won a 16.5 million dollar deal to guard Baghdad International Airport. Having no troops of their own, they ended up by hiring Nepalese mercenaries, the guys with the knives, who had served in the British Army’s Gurkha Regiments. Using folks from Nepal has become popular. At $1,000 U.S. a month, they are paid less, even poorly, than the average merc. But take look at the map. Nepal is in the middle of the Himalayas, where jobs are few and not even Wal-Mart has a foothold. For some soldier-of-fortune wannabees, this could be the ticket to sea-level. It was the first major contract for the security neophytes. Since then, Custer Battles has generated more than $100 million in deals. One contract calls for that company to train the newly formed and since unraveling Iraqi Army, but then EVERYONE has a contract to train the Iraqi Army. Another contract has the company protecting the new currency in Iraq.

Custer Battles’ Last Stand??

The company is now charged with over charging the Federales by tens of millions of dollars. Made public on October 8, a lawsuit was filed under the False Claims Act. The U.S. Air Force alleges that Custer Battles marked up invoices by as much as 162 percent. The Pentagon has banned the company from any further government contracts under the matter is resolved.

Custer Battles Calls the Charges “Baseless”

The above-mentioned currency protection amounts to little more than well-armed payroll guards, but it can get tricky. Last December, British-based Global Risk Strategies, a well-known private military contractor, was contracted to oversee a portion of the changeover of Iraq’s currency from that of the former regime. On December 1, Fiji mercenaries (that’s right, I said Fiji mercenaries) hired by Global Risk randomly opened fire after a currency changeover convoy in their charge came under attack. Ten Iraqi civilians were killed, and dozens were wounded. Fijian mercenaries are also popular to hire, as they contract out at the aforementioned $1,000 U.S. a month. I was unaware that Fiji had any military tradition whatsoever.

While the Fijians’ military skills may or may not be in question, their skill as negotiators certainly is. As mercenaries go, they are definitely bottom feeders. A thousand dollars a month is less that chicken feed. At the top of the mercenary heap are the British and the South Africans. No self-respecting ex-Special Air Service (SAS) operative would strap on a weapon for less than a $1,000 U.S. A DAY. Not to be outdone, American firms are working hard to close the gap. Black Water Corp., based in North Carolina, is staffed by ex-U.S. Special Forces, SEALs, and Army Rangers. These fellows also know how the Pentagon works when it comes to payroll and potential risk. Convoy escort duty in a nasty place such as Fallujah can get downright dangerous. Black Water is paying its troops as much a $1,500 U.S. a day. Of course, Black Water bills Uncle Sam and the American taxpayer. Black Water also has hired 60 Chilean ex-commandos. But salaries for them remain unclear.

The amount of money up for bid is staggering. The details are hard to come by, but the latest estimate is that, of the last $18.6 billion dollars that the Bush administration has shelled out for Iraq reconstruction, 25 percent will be used for to pay security companies. No wonder the Iraqi mercenary gold rush was on. David Claridge, managing director of the Risk Advisory Group, has said that annual revenue has increased for just the Brits to more than $1.7 billion U.S. Risk Advisory Group, a company that advises governments and leading businesses on security matters, is one of many British private military contractors cashing in on the Iraq reconstruction bonanza.

The contracts have gotten so lucrative that many soldiers on both sides of the Atlantic are taking stock. Many have left the service (before the stop loss orders went into effect) and have returned to Iraq as private employees. The risks are indeed the same, but the pay is much better. Of course, you can’t get paid if you are dead.

Many private soldiers take the money and run; there is no contractual obligation for them to put themselves in harm’s way. The U.S. taxpayer is left to pay the bill.

A Thousand Clowns tells the story of Murray Burns, a recently unemployed writer for a children’s television show, who has been taking care of his delightfully precocious 12-year-old nephew Nick. When Arnold and Sandra from Child Welfare Services get involved in their lives, the antics of Murray and his nephew turn into a roller coaster of side-splitting humor as Murray faces the possibility of having to give up his freedom and return to a job that he loathes.

Michael Milligan, who plays Murray Burns, was last seen this past summer playing Orlando in As You Like It. Micheal Milligan’s Murray is the perfect blend between whimsical jester and tragic clown, reminiscent of Red Skelton. He is truly a joy to watch as he meanders around the stage showcasing his skill in the realm of physical comedy. The chemistry between Milligan and the rest of the cast is phenomenal as the other characters feed his delightful larking about. Also impressive is Brad Bellamy in the role of Leo Herman. Herman acts both as children’s performer “Chuckles the Chipmunk” and as Murray’s ex-employer. Returning for his tenth production at Studio Arena, he flamboyantly portrays the pathetic egotist and offers yet another layer of raucous laughter to pie. Stan Klemenko, a Niagara Falls native and Studio Arena alum, adds another delightful element as child welfare worker Albert Amundson. He rounds out the cast, providing an element of dichotomy to the free spirited Murray Burns. His depiction of the socially repressed bureaucrat is right on the mark and highlights the play’s theme of the desperation that lies in social conformity. Michael Dentico and Christopher Piedmonte, students of the Academy of Theater Arts in Williamsville, share the role of Nick. A Thousand Clowns also stars Christine Marie Brown and Kevin Carolan.

Performances of A Thousand Clowns continue through December 23 and will prove to be a delightful holiday treat for the whole family. Ticket prices range from $31to $52 and can be purchased by phone at (716) 856-5650 or 1 (800) 77STAGE and online at www.studioarena.org.

As is true of most successful 21st century businesses, much of The Abbey Grange traffic comes via the internet (www.abbeygrange.com). A large basket of outgoing packages were bundled near the door when I arrived, waiting for shipment the next day. Packages will go all over the world, to such places as the United Kingdom, South Africa, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, and, of course, throughout Europe and the United States. Spain has been his most recent bulk consumer, ordering mysteries of all persuasions. Rich, a former educator, is excited about his new business, and his wife, Tracy Van Patten-Sawicki, who works for the American Red Cross, shares this excitement. His daughter Martha, a high school senior, is the Abbey Grange’s interior decorator. She’s creating a warm, comfortable environment that sets the stage for Rich’s. It is a hospitable shop where customers sit around, coffee cups in hand, to browse through books and newspapers from all over the world. Eventually, you will even be able to bring in your laptops. Finally, there is Eli, a sixth grader who makes his contribution in enthusiasm and ideas.

When you visit the little shop on Lexington and chat with Rich, you know that it is a place where you will shop, meet friends, and “hang out” for years to come. Why not start this holiday season? What better way to think globally and shop locally than in a new neighborhood bookstore?

PAST WORK EXPERIENCE:
I ran for U.S. Congress and lost. I began my career in the oil business in Midland, Texas in 1975. I bought an oil company, but couldn't find any oil in Texas. The company went bankrupt shortly after I sold all my stock.
I bought the Texas Rangers baseball team in a sweetheart deal that took land using taxpayer money. With the help of my father and our friends in the oil industry (including Enron CEO Ken Lay), I was elected governor of Texas.

ACCOMPLISHMENTS AS GOVERNOR OF TEXAS
I changed Texas pollution laws to favor power and oil companies, making Texas the most polluted state in the Union. During my tenure, Houston replaced Los Angeles as the most smog-ridden city in America. I cut taxes and bankrupted the Texas treasury to the tune of billions in borrowed money. I set the record for the most executions by any governor in American history.
With the help of my brother, the governor of Florida, and my father's appointments to the Supreme Court, I became President after losing by over 500,000 votes.

ACCOMPLISHMENTS AS PRESIDENT:
I am the first President in U.S. history to enter office with a criminal record.
I invaded and occupied two countries at a continuing cost of *over one billion dollars per week*.
I spent the U.S. surplus and effectively bankrupted the U.S. Treasury. I shattered the record for the largest annual deficit in U.S. history. I set an economic record for most private bankruptcies filed in any 12-month period.
I set the all-time record for most foreclosures in a 12-month period.
I set the all-time record for the biggest drop in the history of the U.S. stock market.
In my first year in office, over 2 million Americans lost their jobs and that trend continues every month. I'm proud that the members of my cabinet are the richest of any administration in U.S. history. My "poorest millionaire," Condoleeza Rice, has a Chevron oil tanker named after her.
I set the record for most campaign fund-raising trips by a U.S. President. I am the all-time U.S. and world record-holder for receiving the most corporate campaign donations.
One of my best friends, Kenneth Lay, presided over the largest corporate bankruptcy fraud in U.S. History, Enron.
My political party used Enron private jets and corporate attorneys to assure my success with the U.S. Supreme Court during my election decision.
I have protected my friends at Enron and Halliburton against investigation or prosecution. More time and money was spent investigating the Monica Lewinsky affair than has been spent investigating one of the biggest corporate rip-offs in history.
I presided over the biggest energy crisis in U.S. history and refused to intervene when corruption involving the oil industry was revealed. I presided over the highest gasoline prices in U.S. history. I changed the U.S. policy to allow convicted criminals to be awarded government contracts. I appointed more convicted criminals to administration than any President in U.S. history. I created the Ministry of Homeland Security, the largest bureaucracy in the history of the United States government. I've broken more international treaties than any President in U.S. history. I am the first President in U.S. history to have the United Nations remove the U.S. from the Human Rights Commission. I withdrew the U.S. from the World Court of Law. I refused to allow inspector's access to U.S. "prisoners of war" detainees and thereby have refused to abide by the Geneva Convention. I am the first President in history to refuse United Nations election inspectors (during the 2002 U.S. election). I set the record for fewest numbers of press conferences of any President since the advent of television. I set the all-time record for most days on vacation in any one-year period.
After taking off the entire month of August, I presided over the worst security failure in U.S. history.
I garnered the most sympathy for the U.S. after the World Trade Center attacks and less than a year later made the U.S. the most hated country in the world, the largest failure of diplomacy in world history. I have set the all-time record for most people worldwide to simultaneously protest me in public venues (15 million people), shattering the record for protests against any person in the history of mankind.
I am the first President in U.S. history to order an unprovoked, pre-emptive attack and the military occupation of a sovereign nation. I did so against the will of the United Nations, the majority of U.S. citizens, and the world community.
I have cut health care benefits for war veterans and support a cut in duty benefits for active duty troops and their families -- in wartime. In my State of the Union Address, I lied about our reasons for attacking Iraq and then blamed the lies on our British friends. I am the first President in history to have a majority of Europeans (71%) view my presidency as the biggest threat to world peace and security. I am supporting development of a nuclear "Tactical Bunker Buster," a WMD I have so far failed to fulfill my pledge to bring Osama Bin Laden to justice.
During the Iraq War and Occupation thousands of American troops were injured and killed. I did not have the time to attend any of the funerals for our fallen soldiers but I did have the time to attend more than 43 fund-raising events of the Republican party

RECORDS AN REFERENCES:
All records of my tenure as governor of Texas are now in my father's library, sealed and unavailable for public view. All records of SEC investigations into my insider trading and my bankrupt companies are sealed in secrecy and unavailable for public view.
All records or minutes from meetings that I, or my Vice-President, attended regarding public energy policy are sealed in secrecy and unavailable for public review. provided by alexander graham
Alas, I scampered up to the wrong side of the building. The exit. I had never noticed it before, but Toys R Us has only one entrance. And a slim one at that. It is underneath a giant, and I mean giant star with Geoffrey Giraffe waving. That star could kill someone if bonked appropriately. So I cautiously scampered over to the middle of the building, shivering, took one look at that neon monstrosity, and rushed inside.

Whoa! And I almost fell on my ass from the sopping wet floor. How many more near-accident experiences would I meet before pressing on? Ah, finally the warm heat of the air vents the slide of the automatic door, and blast! Shimmer! Glow! The store hosted a ridiculously bright light, dizzying me with overwhelming colors and larger-than- life toys. I squinted to find my desired path in the blazing neon light. Are kids’ eyes this susceptible to artificial illumination? God, I hope not.

This Toys R Us had been remodeled, and aside from the blinding light, the store appeared less grand and awe inspiring than from years before. I remember back in the day, a warehouse type toys r us, with towering metal shelves holding dolls and board games up to the rafters. Now everything was at eye level. Probably easier for kids to grab.

I turned to the right and perused the holiday aisle. I had never seen so much plastic in my life. Enough to certainly keep the oil companies in business. Maybe George W. has some stock in Toys R Us… hmm… anyway, I saw quite possibly every cartoon and movie character possible with their own Christmas line. Stockings, cards, poseable figures. And the stuffed animals! Large enough to smother your kitten or maybe even child? Dangerous puff stuff. And this aisle needed some serious damage control. The way the Hokey Pokey Elmos were thrown around, you’d think that a mob of rhinos had struck. I cautiously peered around me for any stragglers.

The electronics areas seemed simpler… but not. Buzzing electricity, or the capacity for it, filled the aisle. It’s surprising that children do not come with batteries nowadays. Whatever happened to simple toys such as building blocks or board games? With actual boards and not a computer screen!

And speaking of board games, I found 800 varieties of Monopoly with no sign of the original. And Mouse Trap didn’t even look like the Mouse Trap of old. The cover featured swirly designs of crazy mice pandemonium. Ah, popomatic Trouble. Wait a minute, maybe we should all just forget the board games. Popomatic Trouble can’t compare to the trouble seen when a child loses.

I decided to try to find the old staple, the teddy bear. Instead, I was led to an aisle of robotic, talking toys. Toys that wiggled and cried and sang and jumped. I must admit, I did enjoy the resurrection of Care Bears that the store boasted, but one look at the 40 Scooby Doos dancing and barking and eye rolling was like a bit of a bad trip. The toys’ beady eyes stared at me as if they were on attack, repeating the same phrases over and over, just dying to get out! And the 80 varieties of that screechy-voiced Elmo did nothing for me. Limbo Elmo, Sunny Day Elmo, Chicken Dance Elmo… If I saw one more red poof, I was going to scream. I was alone in the aisle, so I quickly sped over to the next. Creep out? Yes, I think so.

I turned, panting to find the Barbie aisle and what seemed to be sectioned as the girls section with the three staples: dress up, Barbies, and Easy Bake Ovens. Ah, the Barbie aisle. What could be more comforting than a sea of pepto bismal pink? At least less threatening than the Elmo red. And Barbie was familiar, an old favorite. Something could definitely be found here.

Ok, so Mattel has made strides to be politically correct, but the only Barbies I could find did not include Astronauts or Teachers like the cover-ups of old, but princesses. Mostly princesses. Mattel did its best to be pc with the princesses of the world collection. I saw a Princess of the Danish Court, Portuguese Empire, Ireland, and South Africa. Hmm. I’m surprised in this day and age, Mattel is still pushing the princess card. Hey, why slave at a cubicle all day when you can marry Prince William? And a giant princess of My Size Barbie? What three-foot tall four-year-old child wouldn’t be scared of that? I know that I was a bit miffed when My Size Barbie had bigger breasts than me.

And here we are. The newest fashions for Ken as well. The Fab 5 would be proud.

Dress up clothes followed the same theme as Barbie. Little girls can be whatever they want: a fairy, a princess, a ballerina, and even a mermaid. But what about little power suits for the Condi Rices and future Oprahs? Those fashions seem to be highly underplayed.

The play car section frightened me as a Barbie VW bug had a larger value than my own car. As my junker is valued at just $300,maybe it's time for me to trade it in for a Kawasaki mini-cycle or a brand new Jeep.

And the next turn unveiled the boys section. Mini cars and trucks, swords, and action figures the staple here. I must admit I did fall in love with an $80 electric Mini Cooper, twice the size of my dog and probably capable of going 30 mph on linoleum. Look out, family pet.

But what about those little boys that are somewhat… hmm, sensitive polo wearing fellows. What do they play with instead of fire trucks? Audis? Hey, parents should never deny honesty with their children.

Loud shots of gunfire rang out from the aisle next to me, and well, just adhering to this day and age, I jumped and ducked for cover. Slowly, I surfaced to find a toy machine gun. Hey, sadly, you can never be too sure.

As I neared the end of my trip, I started feeling sick from all the bright colors. It would be a relief to go back into the gray blizzard and go home to slip into my gray sweat suit. Now I know what old feels like.

On my way out, half walking half running, I noticed that the aisles were extra long and were not only filled with candy, but little trinkets of all kinds. Surely, that has antagonized some screamers.

The lack of children in the store was a disappointment, but understandable during the Christmas season. But possibly the store could be more adult-friendly since they’re the ones usually shelling out the dough. Maybe a coffee bar or massage parlor perhaps? God, you’d need one after stepping into that circus.

So did I find gifts for the little ones? Sadly, no. Call me old fashioned, but I decided on giving books for Christmas. Classics, such as Beverly Cleary and Curious George can’t hold a candle to Disney’s flavor-of-the-month action figure. I know that some people groan and say, it’s Christmas, give the kids something fun, but after an encounter with the mega Toyland Toys R Us, I prefer the old person bookstore any day. But I could have walked away with one gem. The best toy in the store worth battling for? The ZZ Top Dancing Hamster.

Safety, Foley said, is his number one priority. "It's my job to make sure that the firefighters are taken care of, that they go home safely every day, and that they're properly compensated for the work that they do."

Foley expressed concern that Mayor Anthony Masiello and the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority are cutting the fire department’s budget hastily and without regard to safety. One example of an imprudent cut had to do with the elimination of two companies that specialized in taking care of hazardous materials. "So we no longer have a very good unified haz mat team. They put the cart before the horse. They closed the company, and now, they're starting to train."

Training is a imperative, Foley said. "Small mistakes mean somebody's life."

Another company to be closed specializes in heavy rescue. "The company gets suited up and will go right into the hot zone (in haz mat incidents)," Foley explained. This is the company that has the most up-to-date “jaws of life,” used when people are trapped in disabled automobiles.

Without the haz mat and rescue units, city residents are in jeopardy, Foley said. "Our capacity to address any possible haz mat incident that occurs within the city has been diminished. With the mayor's plan, we won't be able to respond to any of those incidents."

In addition to the obvious hazards that are addressed by the haz mat unit, such as the derailment of a train carrying toxic waste, danger also lurks in the form of conflagrations. Buffalo, a city with older wooden houses, built close to one another, experiences more fires per capita than in any other city in New York State. Buffalo’s approach of fighting fires with quick attack and quick search and rescue has been successful, Foley said. But, with fire companies closing regularly, the manpower will no longer be available for that labor-intensive approach. "We will have to get the fires according to regulations and state law. We'll have to wait outside for a couple of minutes until another company arrives and allows us to do our job. It's what the mayor wants, and it's what the mayor is going to get."

The result could be more loss of life and property. It takes just 45 seconds for a room to be completely engulfed in flames, Foley said. In a minute and a half, two rooms could be fully on fire, and the fire could be "compounded down the hallway." And fire could spread to neighboring houses.

All of this is unnecessary, Foley said, explaining that the firefighters association had been working with the city on cost-cutting measures since February 2003. The firefighters had also been working closely with the Mark Morse Agency of Boston, the consultant hired by the city to do a study to determine how best to re-engineer the fire department. "We're about eight percent of the budget. We're willing to reduce the size of the fire department, the structure, and how we do things," Foley said. But, when the BFSA was put into place in June 2003, the city stopped talking to the firefighters. If the city had followed through with the abandoned negotiations, it could have saved one million dollars from a $53 million fire department budget, and the cuts would have been safe and prudent, Foley said. Nevertheless, he pointed out, until just a few weeks ago, the firefighters continued to participate in a task force that worked on re-engineering the Buffalo Fire Department.

"As soon as they closed the firehouses without consulting with us as to how we could best protect the firefighters through these closings, they drew a line in the sand and said right to my face, we don't care about you, the men that you represent, or the lives of their families," Foley said. When that happened, the firefighters association chose to walk away from the task force.

Foley criticized Masiello for failing to support the firefighters. "I don't understand why the mayor won't stand up and protect at least the people who work for this city. He is afraid of the control board. They berate him anyhow. He has nothing to lose."

City residents will have to take basic precautions to ensure their own safety, Foley said. He offered several suggestions. "Keep a garden hose handy, install some more smoke detectors, check the batteries more often. I would go with the children and teach them how to get out of a second- or third-story window with no safety net."

The situation is bleak, Foley said. He is concerned about the firefighters who are to be laid off in March. "What really bothers me a lot is that there are people who are going to be laid off in March who are, today, risking their lives for the people in the city, knowing that, in a few months, they will not have a job."

Foley added, "We still make house calls, 24 hours a day. On Christmas Eve, we'll be there if they need our help." They will be there for people who make such fire-prone mistakes as placing lit candles too close to the curtains.

Yet, the firefighters are out there, daily, risking their lives because that job is more than just a job to them. Being a firefighter is a calling, a vocation," Foley said. “It’s a career.”

That didn’t happen. The “great bridge debate” did little to improve the local economy, but it has resumed and, this time, it is revolving around privatization.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, God rest his soul, encouraged us all to dream of a better bridge, and now those dreams of grandeur may be turning into a bit of a nightmare. The better bridge, if it’s ever built, may wind up not belonging to the public, because, as the saying goes, business does it better.

In the case of the Peace Bridge, the name of that business is the Detroit International Bridge Company, a private company that owns the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ont., and is getting aggressive in its bid to take over Buffalo’s gateway to Canada. Representing the company locally is former Moynihan staffer James B. Kane. Mere coincidence? We think not.

Alt reported four years ago (when the Peace Bridge “conversation” was at its loudest), that Warren Buffett, chairman of The Buffalo News, had held as much as quarter of that company at one point, raising ethical questions about why that newspaper was advocating delay of the Peace Bridge Authority’s plans at seemingly every opportunity.

The defeat of the Peace Bridge Authority’s environmental impact study that effectively forced the process to start all over again, may not be the victory that Signature Span proponents were envisioning, however. Failure to expand capacity at the Buffalo border crossing has not generated enthusiasm for a dream bridge. It has merely served to increase traffic at other border crossings, such as the Ambassador Bridge.

Now, in the current domestic security state of George W. Bush, the delays created by idealists and editors may result in the privatization of the Peace Bridge by backroom politics. Panic In Detroit?

One of the most influential Signature Span advocates, Bruce Jackson, formerly of Artvoice, acknowledged the seriousness of the Detroit company’s efforts in early 2001. “If they’re poised to pour a huge amount of money into a war with the Public Bridge Authority,” Jackson wrote, “it’s because they expect to be able to take a much huger amount of money out of here.”

The events of September 11th and their political aftermath have greatly altered the equation at the Peace Bridge. It may be politically unrealistic to expect government support for a dramatic signature span, and, if enough political leverage is applied, it may also become politically unrealistic to expect federal support for the Peace Bridge.

In addition, the Detroit International Bridge Company is seeking to expand border operations here in anticipation of something entirely new to the company, competition. Two investor groups are seeking to tap into the Detroit-Windsor corridor, one with an express truck tunnel and the other with a bridge crossing just three miles down river from the Ambassador Bridge.

Building a truck bridge over the Niagara River and taking over the operations of the Peace Bridge Authority would recreate the virtual monopoly environment that the Company currently enjoys.

Buffett and The Toll Bridge

At the time that Warren Buffett was embroiled in the controversy surrounding his newly acquired Buffalo News and its successful attempt to bury the Courier Express, his partner Charles Munger and their budding business empire (which became Berkshire Hathaway) had acquired a quarter of the Detroit International Bridge Company with the intent to gain controlling interest in the bridge.

Former Wall Street Journal reporter Roger Lowenstein’s best seller Warren Buffett, The Making of an American Capitalist documented Buffett’s monopolist vision at the time: “‘Warren likens owning a monopoly or market-dominant newspaper to owning an unregulated toll bridge. You have the relative freedom to increase rates when and as much as you want.’”

“The quote was from Sandy Gottesman, Buffett’s friend at First Manhattan. Buffett tried to dance around it, but the toll-bridge metaphor was just too good. Everyone knew where it came from.”

Lowenstein then goes on to cite Buffett’s testimony on the stand in a lawsuit brought against The News by The Courier: Frederick Furth was the attorney representing the plaintiffs.

“Furth: What you are saying is that owning a monopoly or market-dominant paper in a small community is like owning an unregulated toll bridge; is that right? Buffett: I won’t quarrel with that characterization. It is a very, very good business.

Furth: Because you can raise rates as much as you want, isn’t that true?

Buffett: I wouldn’t put it quite that strongly, but you have the power to raise rates.

Furth: That is the kind of business you like to own; isn’t that true?

Buffett: I don’t own any, but I would like to own one.

Furth: Now, sir, you have used that word, unregulated toll bridge, with others, haven’t you? Isn’t that one of your phrases?

Buffett: I have said that in an inflationary world that a toll bridge would be a great thing to own if it was unregulated.

Furth: Why?

Buffett: Because you have laid out the capital costs. You build the bridge in old dollars, and you don’t have to keep replacing it.

Furth: And you used the term unregulated so that you can raise prices; is that right?

Buffett: That is true.”

? That Was Then, This Is Now…

Judging from his testimony, in The Buffalo News trial and his actions since then, Buffett finds monopolies – even ones that hold communities hostage – to be “very, very good business.”

Buffett has been in the spotlight recently, primarily, because of his role in the Arnold Schwarzenneger coup in California. While that may have surprised Democrats, many right-wingers instantly hatched a Kennedy conspiracy theory. As reported here, Buffett’s involvement is more likely explained by his expanding business interests in California, notably in real estate and power generation.

Interestingly, Buffett’s name was also mentioned recently in an article in The New Yorker by Ken Auletta in connection with the possible purchase of The Wall Street Journal – the bible of American business.

In addition, Berkshire flagship, GEICO insurance, announced that it will open a 3,000 seat call center in Amherst. This marks the most significant investment made in Western New York by Buffett interests since the acquisition of its stake in M&T Bank. This comes one year after the Rigas scandal blew up in the face of The Buffalo News, which staunchly supported the Rigas family.

Is Buffett the living legend of humble Middle American success, or is there a darker side to his drive to become the second wealthiest human on the planet? With the creation of the same amount of jobs promised by the Rigases, many here are likely to believe only the kindly, Yogi Berra-like legend that Buffett has cultivated so brilliantly..

The Moroun Family Business: From Jimmy Hoffa to Berkshire Hathaway

A recent article by John Lippert for Bloomberg News shed light on the Moroun family, which currently controls the Detroit International Bridge Company. Lippert outlined the story of the family patriarch, a Lebanese immigrant named Tufick Moroun who built his family’s empire by helping Jimmy Hoffa build up the Teamsters. His trucking company, Central Cartage, evolved into present day trucking giant, Centra, which, along with the Ambassador Bridge, is part of an impressive, diverse portfolio of holdings.

According to Lippert, Tufick’s son and current patriarch, Manuel Moroun wound up outbidding Buffett & Co. for the bridge company. The article also quoted Charlie Munger who expressed admiration for Moroun and mentioned that he had seen him at a Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting. So it remains unclear exactly what sort of relationship, if any, that Moroun maintains with Berkshire and Buffett. The point is that The Buffalo News has never mentioned Buffett’s previous holdings in Moroun’s company despite the publication of literally hundreds of articles on the subject of Peace Bridge expansion.

Matthew Moroun, grandson and heir to the family fortune, recently gave a speech calling for a total overhaul of U.S. Customs, citing, not surprisingly, September 11th and the war on terrorism as a justification. “My organization operates the busiest border crossing in terms of trade in the United States,” Moroun boasted, “It was built in the 1920s as the longest suspension bridge ever at the time. At that time, and until the advent of terrorism in our country, a bridge’s success could be assured by successfully engineering and construction of the physical infrastructure alone. Now satisfying those requirements alone doesn’t even get a passing grade.”

Clearly, the country would be lost without a product of inherited wealth, such as Moroun, to “manage” international trade and direct U.S. Customs on how to do its job.

Moroun went on to state that Customs needs to do more than simply collect revenue. Interestingly, Moroun’s organization itself has done much to avoid providing revenue to the American government itself. The Detroit International Bridge Company which also owns Ammex, the duty free shop at the Ambassador, waged an intense battle for its “right” to sell tax-free gasoline at the duty-free shop.

The tax-free gas at Ammex story provides yet another example of free trade in action. Moroun and his father went to the International Trade Court for the okay on tax avoidance, and they sold the gas until the federal government finally shut them down. Naturally, this exercise in globalism did not sit well with other gas station owners. An article from the Minnesota Service Station Association website underlined the frustration with the Moroun family business model:

“The National Association of Truck Stop Operators estimates that Ammex’s tax-free sales have so far cost the U.S. road-building fund from $2.7 to $3.7 million dollars, and has forced at least one nearby truck stop out of business. An estimated 15 million vehicles cross the bridge each year, says NATSO CEO Dewey Clower.

"‘It is outrageous that this one business can deprive the highway trust fund of such significant revenues,’ said Clower. ‘Since this (duty-free) loophole was created…(Ammex) has been selling fuel at its location cheaper than our members can obtain it at the terminal rack. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that our members cannot stay in business for long under such a scenario.’”

Peace Through Privatization

It also doesn’t take a genius to realize that monopoly businesses are not about operating in the host community’s best interest; they are about raising rates arbitrarily as Mr. Buffett pointed out some twenty odd years ago. Whether or not the Detroit International Bridge Company is able to take control of our international border crossing or not, their presence has already been felt. As our government pushes privatization in the newly liberated Iraq, it should come as no surprise that an equally radical and ambitious plan should be presented to us here in Western New York.

Alt: So they haven't really discussed it with you?

Lamb: Not really. I've had discussions with them, and they've talked about wanting to be a party to the operations – of anything they would invest in, and I guess that makes a lot of sense. I don't like looking at a question out of context without looking at the entire plan. I don't know what that is. My criticism, if you want to call it that, is that we don't have any details as to what the Ambassador Bridge has in mind.

Alt: The subtext of the LaKamp article seemed to be that you (the Peace Bridge Authority) might not be able to get the federal funding for bridge expansion, which would leave the Detroit International Bridge Company in the driver's seat, wouldn't it? Do you think that they're lobbying to cut off your funding?

Lamb: I don't have any evidence that that's occurring. I doubt that lobbying to cut off our funding would be effective. I don't know any responsible people who are in a position to make decisions about funding who would decide not to fund our project just because of...

Alt: ... lobbying to benefit the company?

Lamb: Right.

Alt: Well, the bridge company does have a history of making donations to political campaigns. Another thing we'd like to touch upon is the involvement of Warren Buffett who did about a quarter of the Detroit International Bridge Company at one point. Do you know if he's involved with any sort of business relationship with the Moroun family or the bridge?

Lamb: I have no idea. I don't think so.

Alt: Don't you think that The Buffalo News has a responsibility to report that and make that clear?

Lamb: You mean that Warren Buffett held shares in the bridge?

Alt: Right.

Lamb: I don't know that I could comment on what The Buffalo News' responsibilities are but I have no knowledge that would indicate that there' s even a probability that Warren Buffett has an interest in the Ambassador Bridge. Alt: According to an article in the Bloomberg News, they indicated that Buffett sold his shares but it seems likely that Moroun holds shares in Berkshire Hathaway, since it mentioned his attendance at a shareholders meeting. So perhaps there still is a relationship.

Lamb: Could be. But in terms of financing, my own personal view is that there will be a financing plan that will be feasible and that will enable the Peace Bridge to go ahead with this project.

Alt: So you're still confident that you will be able to go ahead with your project.

Lamb: Sure. The key to this whole thing is that our plan makes sense. It's a reasonable plan, one that the city and the public will support, and I think that's the key to what's going to enable to finance this project. Our plan is reasonable. It meets the needs that we have here and it has the city support, the Town of Fort Erie's support, and the Canadian government's support. If we have that, then we'll have a project that we can build.

Alt: Right, when we last spoke with Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop, he was not supportive of the Detroit International Bridge Company's plans, at all. Having a private family run business basically own an international trade corridor is a bit uncalled for to him. What do you think?

Lamb: Well, people will raise the question of monopoly. I think that it's a legitimate question that needs to be answered. They have the bridge in Detroit, and then if they were to have the bridge here, I think that it would raise a question that the public would need to hear the answer to.

Alt: Opponents of the Peace Bridge Authority waged a public relations campaign that seems to have lingering effects. How is the public hearing process coming along now?

Lamb: I think it's good. I think we're approaching the concerns of the public. You'll never get a one hundred percent rating, but I think that the majority of the people see this as a legitimate, responsive process. We've got an open, defined, and very transparent process. The Ambassador Bridge has talked about doing this but we haven't seen the details and it seems to be in contrast to what we're doing. We're showing details as we're putting them together and formulating them and there's always a risk in doing that. People see these things as being in their final form and they're not. We're giving people a chance to participate in the final form.

Alt: Arguments on the aesthetics of a public space generally seem to be arguments about power. Aesthetically, do you think a plan that will be acceptable to those who were arguing for a signature span?

Lamb: First of all, we're not looking at building a twin or replica of the existing bridge. We're looking at building something that, when people look at it, they'll get excited about it and say “Wow.” People will be able to attach this place with the bridge. We want to build a landmark bridge, one that people will remember seeing when they pass by, and people who live here will be proud of it.

Alt: Does that mean that it will be a cable-stayed bridge? It seemed like a lot of Signature Span people were sort of locked into that sort of look.

Lamb: We're not looking to force any one type of bridge. I think it will come out in the process, the one that's most aesthetically pleasing to people.

Alt: But doesn't the geology dictate something like what we have now with the Parker truss?

Lamb: No. Many different types of bridges are possible.

Also coming, but as of this writing unseen by me, are a live-action version of Peter Pan; Ben Affleck’s latest caper Paycheck, Steve Martin’s new comedy Cheaper By The Dozen, from the United Kingdom and Luxembourg Girl With A Pearl Earring based on Tracy Chevalier’s novel, and House Of Sand And Fog, from the novel by Andres Dubus III and starring Ben Kingsley, Jennifer Connelly, Frances Fisher, and Ron Eldard.

I wrote extensively about Elephant in my Toronto Film Festival article. It’s in town and a definite must-see. Director Gus Van Sant’s movie is a visual ode to teenage obsession and tragedy. It may be a fictional work, but those are real high school students you’re looking at, most of whom helped write the dialogue and hold the digital cameras that glide and hover. Watch this non-linear film as if it were a ghost story. The spirits of past and future dead are your guides. The movie jumps back and forth in time. You’re eavesdropping on private lives and personal thoughts. The film is both an interpretation of the shootings at Columbine High School and a stunning commentary on the twisted thoughts and easy solutions of some youth. There are nuggets of truth that sear and moments that make you feel as if you’ve been slammed against a wall.

Another masterful non-linear film is 21 Grams. It’s an American feature from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros), and it tells the story of very different people. Sean Penn’s an ailing mathematician trapped in a loveless marriage to an Englishwoman (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Naomi Watts, whose performance anoints her as the best actress of 2003, plays a comfortable suburban housewife, happily married and the mother of two little girls. Benicio Del Toro is an ex-convict who has turned to preaching Christianity to find inner strength. These three strangers will come together with difficult consequences due to a tragic accident. All will learn exceedingly uncomfortable truths about courage, guilt, passion, and emotional pain. The gritty movie is about coincidence and the sheer luck of the draw. It is rigidly adult and utterly watchable.

If you need to laugh over the holidays, you’ve got four choices: Stuck On You, Mona Lisa Smile, Something’s Gotta Give, and Calendar Girls. I recommend Calendar Girls and Something’s Gotta Give, but let’s take the rejects first. In Stuck On You, Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear are good and personable actors trapped in a one-joke, one-note comedy about conjoined brothers who head to Hollywood because one of them (Kinnear) wants to be a movie star. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis did the go-to-Hollywood gig too, but at least with them, the gags were fresh. As for Mona Lisa Smile, think Dead Poets Society with teeth. Julia Roberts provides the dental glow as a free-spirited teacher at Wellesley College in the 1950s. She breaks all the rules, becomes chummy with her girl charges, and practices feminist principles, but there are loose plot threads all over the place and enough sentimentality to choke a Pollyanna. As for revisiting the 50s’ cultural wars, well, nobody ever gave Hollywood credit for depth.

Better, much better, are Something’s Gotta Give and Calendar Girls. The former features Jack Nicholson as a robust, albeit aging, record company executive who likes younger women until he discovers the power and passion of the brilliant Diane Keaton, who can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. She’s fantastic and delivers lines like a champion. The pairing is solid, and, even if some of the scenes run on too long, the movie’s a sharp-witted pleasure. Calendar Girls is this season’s Waking Ned Devine, an English trifle with sparks and flair and an understanding that sweetness doesn’t have to be sickening. Helen Mirren and Julie Walters lead a cast of colorful characters; many of them women of a certain age who find out that being naked in a calendar has its advantages.

Cold Mountain is based on Charles Frazier’s novel about a Confederate Army deserter who only wants to rejoin the proper, but spunky, woman he loves. He’s Jude Law and she’s Nicole Kidman. Law is outstanding even if his adventures start to feel like Dorothy’s visit to Oz. As for Kidman, she’s too modern to be a Southern belle. Near the end she’s wearing a fashionable black coat and tailored slacks as she hunts down the bad guys. She’s Annie Hall in the foothills, and it takes you out of the movie. Renee Zellweger is terrific as the farmhand who helps Kidman survive her separation from her would-be lover. The movie has stunning early scenes of Civil War battle hell, but as it meanders down the road home, it gets silly. Fortunately, Law and Zellweger keep you alert.

Big Fish and In America are quirky entries in the holiday showcase. Big Fish is enjoyable in that garish circus way that director Tim Burton does so well. There’s also a deep well of emotionalism in the movie that is never forced. The story is about a young man (Billy Crudup) who is hoping to learn some truths about his dying father (Albert Finney) by retracing stories and myths his father told him about himself. Ewan McGregor is the father as a young man. The three actors are top-notch and also enjoy Helena Bonham Carter, Jessica Lange, Alison Lohman, Steve Buscemi, and Robert Guillaume in supporting parts. The movie has Crudup exploring a past that takes him on delightful encounters with odd folks of every stripe.

Speaking of mythology, what’s with the myth of America as the pot of gold? In America follows an Irish family that has come to New York City. Once again, the poor are shunted aside and the newcomer is in for a zany ride to success. The family’s two daughters are the focus of the film, and you’re going to love them or loathe them. I found them annoying, cloying, and best in bed without supper. There’s a dreadful subplot about a black artist with AIDS, serving as the film’s quasi-ogre, which seems to belong in another movie. The manipulative film is frantic, antic, and, finally, sappy beyond belief.

As for the one Christmas blockbuster, that behemoth is The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, and you can read all about it in Short Takes elsewhere in this issue.

So, what about shredding the constitution? If we don’t, those pesky weapons of mass destruction might get us. If we don’t invade (fill in country name here), those WMDs will be unleashed. If you vote for my opponent, surely WMDs will fall on your fat head faster than lightning can strike. Weapons of Mass Destruction are everywhere.

The government constantly bombards the public with references, implied stories, and imagined threats. Vice President Dick Cheney’s staff went so far as to start an Office of Special Projects inside the Pentagon, just to find its very own weapons of mass destruction. They wanted those WMDs so much that, when they couldn’t find any, they pretended that they had them anyway. Proudly, they told everyone!

The Bush administration has pledged to go anywhere and everywhere to discover weapons of mass destruction and the terrorists who wield them.

Indeed, the Bush administration has pledged billions of dollars and as many man hours as it will take to find these WMDs. All members of Bush’s staff have looked everywhere that they could imagine, even the bottom of a Baltimore bog. Despite finding nothing but a rusted bicycle and an illegal handgun, they kept looking. The Bush administration looked in Africa, Egypt, Syria, North Korea (ok, they found some in North Korea, but there was no oil so that didn’t count), Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. (Again, they found some in India and Pakistan, but those countries might fight back.) They didn’t look in Saudi Arabia because the royal family was away at a Cairo disco.

They didn’t look in Israel because… Well, because. That’s why.

They tried hard to look for them in Iraq, but they found nothing. This is ironic because all they had to do was ask any of George W. Bush’s corporate friends, and they could have turned over the receipts.

Then, something terrible happened! There was an accident. Weapons of Mass Destruction were discovered. But they were not sitting where they were supposed to be! And there were terrorists as well. But they were not the terrorists that the Bush administration wanted the folks in the homeland to fear. These terrorists were home grown and were living right here in the good’ ole USA. Hailing from New Hampshire to New Jersey to the tiny town of Noonday, Texas, just south of the now-household name of Tyler, Texas, the terrorists weren’t the preferred brand of radical, bloodthirsty Islamic Jihad-waging, AK 47-brandishing, Koran-thumping mujahadeen terrorists that all red-blooded Americans are obligated to hate.

They were overweight, middle-aged Americans. But, nonetheless, they were armed to the teeth.

And we did mention that it was an accident. It seems that a fellow named William Krar, a 62-year old right wing extremist, sent a package of false identification cards for the United Nations and the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. These fakes were destined for Edward Feltus of New Jersey. The package was instead sent to the home of a Staten Island man, who called the police. Six months after the mail from Texas was opened, the FBI confronted Feltus. He revealed himself to be a member of the New Jersey militia and a 29-year employee of the Division of Social Services (recently as a supervisor in the income maintenance department). The feds were soon on the trail that led to Vermont and then back to Texas.

A raid on a storage facility that Krar rented revealed a militant’s stockpile. There was the required antigovernment and neo-nazi literature, of course. And there were illegal weapons galore. These included more than 100 explosives, some converted into suitcase-type bombs. Krar also owned more than 500,000 rounds of ammunition and a fully functional sodium cyanide bomb with the capacity to kill hundreds.

But no one outside of the local jurisdiction involved has bothered to report it. The local Texas papers, as well as some New Jersey dailies, picked up the story. The New York Times carried a piece last week when Krar and company were sentenced in U.S. District Court in Tyler.

It would seem that the Department of Justice is not taking this threat seriously. Or it doesn’t afford this incident the propaganda value of say, the locally grown Lackawanna six. These guys weren’t armed to the teeth, but that didn’t stop the media hordes from invading Buffalo and setting up shop in Niagara Square. Both Attorney General John Ashcroft and Bush were proud to note the bust of the notorious Lackawanna soccer player-coaches.

Bu there was no press conference in Tyler, Texas.

The federal government spends well more than $40 billion a year to root out the bad guys. But some of the better-armed villains get the least attention.

(Editor’s note: sources for this article include The New York Times, the Asbury Park Press and the CBS news affiliate at Tyler, Texas, among others.)

Having recently sat through the 3 hour and 25 minute epic, I can honestly write that the first three hours moved relatively quickly, but those last 25 minutes back in the Shire seemed like an eternity. That noted, I’m not a fan. Distilled to its essence, LOTR: The Return Of The King is a war movie, and like all contemporary war movies in which computer effects are used, it looks flat and cheesy. Tolkien’s books, which I have not read, may have a philosophy and a majesty that has attracted legions of adherents, but the movies, all three of them, seem pared to the bone and end up being nothing more than swordplay adventures. This new one is a chase movie over a golden ring.

Importantly, you absolutely must have seen Parts 1 and 2 to understand, and perhaps appreciate, Part 3, but even then, the current edition’s characters come and go without much embellishment. There are still folks for whom I can’t pin a name. And, who exactly is the King that’s returning? Liv Tyler’s Arwen disappears for a vast chunk of the movie, but the heroic Aragon dashes off, I think, to rescue her. As for Frodo and Sam and Pippin and whoever that fourth Hobbit is, they all have their major scenes, with Sam turning out to be the bedrock of the quartet. Who knew the pudgy plodder would outshine the elfin Frodo?

There’s good acting from the cast, mainly because it’s fun to emote in costume in a fantasy setting. But overall, this movie’s for diehards.

Speaking of awards, critics are called upon to list their ten best films at the end of every year, and I honor that tradition. There were 487 movies released in 2003, many of which never played beyond New York or L.A. A number of features can only be seen at festivals, and nothing guarantees that they will get the DVD treatment.

As for my top ten, some films released this year, Winged Migration, for example, made my list in 2002 because that’s when I saw them, either on studio-supplied screeners or at film festivals.

In very strict alphabetical order, then, here are my Top Ten Movies for 2003: Elephant, Lost In Translation, Mystic River, Shattered Glass, Swimming Pool, The Cooler, The Station Agent, 28 Days Later, 21 Grams, and Whale Rider.

In my heart of hearts, the best movie I saw was The Station Agent, and I do want its star Peter Dinklage to win the Academy Award for best actor. The film is about the human condition and people trusting other people, and it’s extraordinary. The Oscar for best actress has to go to Naomi Watts for 21 Grams. Peter Sarsgaard is the best supporting actor for Shattered Glass. Best supporting actress is Patricia Clarkson for The Station Agent. Best director and best original screenplay go to Thomas McCarthy for his The Station Agent. And best adapted screenplay belongs to Billy Ray for Shattered Glass. He made plagiarism interesting; therefore, he’s a genius. As for the Oscar for best picture, well you can expect Cold Mountain and LOTR 3 to be in the running, although neither, because of their flaws, deserves to win. My list would be comprised of Lost In Translation, The Station Agent, Mystic River, Elephant, and Shattered Glass. I’d be happy if any of them won, and ecstatic if the winner were The Station Agent.

Of course, I saw a lot of movies in 2003 and here is a list, in no particular order, of other features I found entertaining, interesting, just a plain old guilty pleasure, or because there were performances or moments that stood out. The list includes movies released this year, but which I may have seen earlier: All The Real Girls, The Guru, The Recruit, Gerry, City Of Ghosts, The Man Without A Past, A Mighty Wind, Owning Mahowny, The Man On The Train, L’Auberge Espagnole, Finding Nemo, Pirates Of The Caribbean, Northfork, Seabiscuit, Le Divorce, Spider, Open Range, Laurel Canyon, Bend It Like Beckham, Phone Booth, The Good Thief, and Winged Migration.

Also, The Trip, The Shape Of Things, Anything Else, Jet Lag, Raising Victor Vargas, The Italian Job, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Open Range, Wonderland, In The Cut, Something’s Gotta Give, Calendar Girls, Twentynine Palms, The Human Stain, Casa De Los Babys, The Core, The Dancer Upstaris, Respiro, Capturing The Friedmans, Big Fish, Bad Santa, Cold Mountain, The School Of Rock, American Splendor, Timeline, Secondhand Lions, and Confidence.

Bellini’s 445 Delaware Avenue Buffalo, New York 14202 (716) 842-1210

food – 28 décor – 27 service – 27 cost - $ 27

This Urban-Sleek Restaurant is reminiscent of a hip, retro San Francisco eatery. Candles galore, seductive “clandestine” music, and a happening bar make it very cutting edge. “I was very impressed…Easily top five…Trying to think (unsuccessfully) why it isn’t in my top three.” “Best calamari in the city.” “An ‘elite meet to eat’ place.” “Every aspect is very strong.” “Next time, you have to try either the duck, the lamb or veal ragu, or the penne risotto.”

Chris’ NY Sandwich Co. 395 Delaware Avenue (between Tupper & Edward) Buffalo, New York 14202

food – 25 décor – 19 service – 26 cost - $ 7.00

“A generous sandwich made with the freshest bread and finest ingredients” is the motto of this wonderful downtown lunchtime-only eatery. Their second expansion has almost doubled the seating capacity, which should help move more throngs of hungry patrons. The mostly black and white motif has a special dineresque quality that’s as clean and crisp as the white shirts of the staff. “Fabulous.” “Superior quality and quantity.” ”Wonderful presentation.” “I can get in and out quickly.” “It’s crazy between noon and two.”

Coles’ Restaurant 1104 Elmwood Avenue Buffalo, New York (716) 886-1449

food – 22 décor – 23 service – 26 cost - $15

Established in 1934, Coles’ is a casual classic on Buffalo’s Elmwood Strip. As city traditions go, I typically find myself in the cozy, clandestine original section with dark wood, white linen, and the bar. For the review, however, we ate in the relatively newer, bigger, and bolder annex. Its multitude of front windows, plants, and cathedral ceiling was very nice and seemed perfect for a great lunch or Sunday Brunch. The area around the fireplace was more conducive for a fine winter’s evening meal.

Crabby Joe’s Bar and Seafood Restaurant 166 Franklin Street (Corner of West Mohawk) Buffalo, New York 856-4851

Food – 24 décor – 23 service – 24 cost - $21. Nestled within the heart of downtown Buffalo on Franklin and Mohawk, most people know Crabby Joe’s as a sophisticated after work hangout for business professionals and attorneys. More seasoned epicurean types also know what a great place it is for fresh pasta and seafood. Dominating Cinzano artwork hangs in the back dining room with crisp linen everywhere. “Best appetizers I’ve ever had.” “Great presentation… the fin-shaped plates seemed especially appropriate.” “We had an excellent serving of stuffed banana peppers.” “More specials than you could count… I would have loved them all.”

Eddie’s Orchard Park Brewery & Grill 4244 North Buffalo Road

Orchard Park, New York 14127 www.eddiesgrill.com

food – 19 décor – 19 service – 26 cost - $ 14.

If variety is the spice of life, Eddie’s is the spice warehouse. With so many personalities, one has to be right for you. In addition to being a surprisingly nice ten-table restaurant, it has a very descent micropub brewery/bar, and a convenient bowling alley attached. Its food is also diverse, with German, Italian, American, Cajun, and Mexican, and a few more hiding in the wings. As one would expect, the patrons of this eclectic establishment hit every demographic group. From old guys drinking beers to young sheilas partying hard, expect to see everything at Eddie’s. “Beery-beery good.” They have everything under the sun.” “We come for the Eddie’s Belly Buster… It’s Beautiful.” “ Jim and Lou do an outstanding job.”

Fredi the Restaurant 6010 Goodrich Road Clarence Center, New York 14032 (716) 741-4012

Food – 26 décor – 25 service – 24 cost - $ 25.00

Are you ready? Let’s do the Fredi! It’s definitely worth the drive to the hinterlands of Clarence Center (at least the directions are easy: out on Main Street, turn left on Goodrich). In addition to outstanding “French Country” fare, you’ll meet one of the most gracious and gregarious hosts in Western New York. The restaurant is tastefully sensual. With the glow of defused lighting, rocket red walls, original paintings, and the Danish blonde bar and wood floors, one could easily mistake it for a Manhattan bistro. With an excellent wine list and the host’s knowledge and propensity to pick winners for every course, I suggest ordering a wide array of wines by the glass. Look for Blues piano on Sunday evenings, cooking classes on Tuesdays and check for special events and theme parties. Fredi also operates My Personal Chef, a venue providing busy people with convenient delivered gourmet meals. “Awesome wine list.” “Magic Mushrooms and Lobster Ravioli were tremendous.” “Fredi is cool.” “We’ve been here several times. It’s always good.”

Gramma Mora’s 1465 Hertel Avenue Buffalo, New York 14216 (716) 837-6703

food – 22 décor – 21 service – 26 cost - $12

Originating on Niagara Street in 1980, Gramma Mora’s Restaurant has been serving authentic Mexican (Chihuahua) cuisine from family recipes handed down through generations for more than a century. After a devastating fire, the family has re-established itself on Hertel Avenue for the last three plus years with tremendous results. Hanging piñatas, cactus plants, decorative “chili” lights and a large mural highlight a festive décor. “Best Green Sauce in the City… it’s nose running hot, hot, hot.” The Sopa is to die for… you can’t get it anywhere else.” The flan is flantastic.”

Jimmy Mac’s Sunday Brunch 555 Elmwood Avenue Buffalo, New York 14222 (716) 886-9112

food – 21 décor – 20 service – N/A cost - $ 13

Jimmy Mac’s, with its dark wood paneling, long bar, enclosed patio, good food, and back poolroom, has been a favorite of Buffalo’s elite for more than twenty-two years. Its recent change from a la carte to buffet brunch has been a great hit. “Selection and price are outstanding.” “We come in for the atmosphere. It’s always a great time with friends.” “The variety is very good. We look forward to the different specials every week.” “I felt quite decadent … in a good way.”

La Marina Market and Grille 1503 Hertel Avenue Buffalo, New York 14216 (716) 834-9681 www.lamarinaonline.com

food – 26 décor – 19 service – 26 cost - $ 18.

This casual restaurant/fish market is “neighborhood” in the best sense of the word. The sumptuous display of fabulous desserts as you first walk in is a telltale of the great things to come. “I loved the bisque, it rocks lobster.” “Two Yums Up.” “My favorite is the Rainbow Trout.” “Their creamy smooth crab cakes are the best in Buffalo.” “Wonderful presentation.” “I always save room for desserts.”

O 3047 Sheridan Drive Amherst, New York 14226 (716) 332-4656 www.letter15.com

food – 26 décor – 27 service – 26 cost - $ 30. Metropolitan, futuristic, minimalist, and abstract could all be terms used to describe this higher-end Asian restaurant and jazz lounge. But the best term would simply be “O-utstanding.” David and Bryan bring a culinary background to the table that is difficult to duplicate. “Its gari, gari good.” “West coast quality.” “Presentation was terrific.” “Really cool atmosphere.” “Most exciting salad (Grilled) I’ve ever had.” “Miso soup was great.” “Stupendous.”

Off the Wall 534 Elmwood Avenue Buffalo, New York 14222 (716) 884-9580 fax (716) 884-9986 www.offthewallonline.com

food – 25 décor – 26 service – 27 cost - $22

Opened for slightly more than a month at this writing, Off the Wall is exactly what’s advertised, off the wall. Patrons of this trendy, unusually unorthodox place can purchase almost everything that they see. There is much to see, and it changes frequently. From estate sale sofas and savvy salads to Luckasa artwork and early morning espresso, everything in this constantly evolving environment can and does go. Bands appear Thursdays, and a D.J. entertains Fridays and Saturdays. “It was fabulous.” “Quirky.” “Each appetizer was great in its own way.” “An unique, organic, orgasmic experience.” “An artists’ play room.”

99 Fastfood Restaurant Review 3396 Bailey Avenue 93 Niagara Street (716) 836-6058 (716) 852-0462 www.99fastfood.com

food – 23 décor – 19 service – 26 cost - $ 7.

Authentic Vietnamese cuisine, in addition to being quick and cheap, was outstanding. Ho Nguyen and the boys really do it up right. If you ask the natives (of which there are plenty), they’ll tell you that the soup is the thing; however, everything is great. Unlike Chinese food, each dish has its own distinct flavor. “Fresh” is the most abundant word on every patron’s lips. Its newest location, on Bailey Avenue, was just as good as the more traveled location on Niagara (across from City Hall).

Pizza Plant (Walker Center)Pizza Plant (Transit) 5110 Main Street 8020 Transit Road 626-5566 Fax 626-0076 632-0800 Fax 632-4531 pizzaplant.com

food – 20 décor – 21 service – 26 cost - $ 12.00

At Pizza Plant, the Pod is the thing. There are eighteen on the menu or you can create your own. In fact, many are named after their customer creators. The most popular are the Amy Pod, the Cajun Pod, and the Sicilian Steak Pod. One gets a clean, safe “sub-urban” feel when sitting in the family-friendly booths that dominate the seating. Expect to see many divorced dads with their young ones playing at the table with actual pizza dough. Overall, it’s a very creative place with high-quality ingredients and a nice staff. The half-pound Black Angus is new to the menu and is quite tasty. Pizza, beer, and wheat-free pasta are featured every Wednesday. There are an extensive number of vegetarian dishes on a very customer-driven menu. Other menu favorites include Southwest Nachos, Pasta Louisiana, Chicken Sausage Bomboro, and Chicken Burrito.

Saigon Café 1098 Elmwood Avenue Buffalo, New York 14222 (716) 883-1252 www.thesaigoncafe.com

food – 27 décor – 25 service – 26 cost - $ 15

Serving Vietnamese and Thai cuisine, the Saigon Café is certainly a highlight of the Elmwood and Forest avenues restaurant scene. Having only 12 tables, the restaurant is intimate and elegant, with a subdued décor of light-colored woods, subtle bamboo wallpaper, indirect lighting, and hauntingly melodic Asian music in the background. In addition to the wonderful food and competent staff, the Saigon Cafe should be extremely proud of its delightful tabletop presentation. All in all, it easily adds up to “Metro Chic.” It seems to be a popular place with the locals, even on a late Tuesday evening. Extensive vegetarian selections are available. Other popular favorites include the Vietnamese Pancake, the Pad Thai Noodles, the Yum Nua Salad, the Thai Duck, and the Tofu vegetarian dishes.

“Viet-Wow.” “A slice of Bangkok in Buffalo.” “Each item was better than the next.” “We love the vegetarian Spicy Rainbow…But they’ll do (substitute) everything vegetarian.” “We come here often… the Dancing Seafood is excellent.”

Ulrich’s Tavern 674 Ellicott Street Buffalo, New York 14203 (716) 855-8409 www.ulrichstavern.com

food – 23 décor – 23 service – 26 cost - $ 16.00

Gemutlichkeit! For more than 130 years (eight years before Custer’s infamous ride), Ulrich’s Tavern has provided a public house where one can enjoy good food, drink, and camaraderie. Since 1954, the Daley Family has held the torch and has added both a German and Irish touch. Over the years, it’s become famous for its lunches, history dinners, St. Patty’s Day festivities, and Christmas in July. “The German cuisine and portion size make it tough to be a ‘clean platter.’” “What German food should be.” “European Comfort Food.” “Some of the best potato pancakes I’ve ever had.”

Many people ask why there were three or four saloons on every busy corner. At first brewers, competed for saloon business with a price war against one another, but soon brewers called a truce to this practice. They set up a trade association to set price guidelines. The breweries took advantage of a young eager immigrant labor pool, which only lacked capital to be successful. The breweries offered store fronts and bar fixtures to lease. Saloonkeepers became exclusive agents for a brewery in exchange for interest-free credit for beer. It is believed that at least 75 percent of all American saloons were tied houses (tied to a certain brewery) in late the 19th and early 20th century. Brewers owned 70 million dollars worth of saloon property in the United States by 1910. As a result, there were many saloons, each selling only its brewery’s beer.

Ulrich’s Tavern on Ellicott Street in Buffalo is one of the last operating bars that can be traced back to the tied house system. Both the Christian Weyand’s Brewery and the Phoenix Brewery owned Ulrich’s at various times between 1880 and 1910.

In the late 1890s, prohibition forces passed laws that that raised the price of liquor licenses to disproportionately high levels to drive the working man corner saloons out of business. Brewers did not sit idly bye and watch their outlets get knocked off one by one. They stepped in and paid the license fees for long-term contracts with saloons so that they would be exclusive customers of the brewery. This further strengthened the brewers' hold on the saloons.

The German saloons in New York State took a further hit when, in 1896, the Raines law came into effect. This law stated that only hotels that served food could serve alcohol on Sunday. The Germans, who worked six days a week, reserved Sunday for family and friends to get together to sit, play cards, talk, and drink lager beer. This upset the Yankee Protestants, who believed Sunday to be the Lord’s day and frowned upon the German practice of making it a day of celebration. Many Germans saloons became hotels, where they served a little food (two pieces of bread with no filling, which became known as a "Raines sandwich") so not to lose their most profitable day. By coincidence, in 1896, Ulrich’s Tavern became a hotel. In Brooklyn, the practice at one saloon was to chain two pieces of bread with a brick between them to the bar. They then moved this "sandwich" from patron to patron to comply with the law. At one time, a thief made off with the brick Raines sandwich. The police hunted down the culprit and retrieved the Raines sandwich, which they then returned to the saloon to bring it back in compliance with the law.

The old adage that there is no such thing as a free lunch was not true in the late 19th century. Almost every saloon offered a free lunch to anyone who purchased drinks. Items served at a free lunch buffet in Buffalo would have included blood sausage, sardines, pickled pig's feet, herring, salty ham, and pickled eggs, all to enhance one's appetite for beer. Bouncers watched the patrons to ensure that they continued to purchase drinks. They would give the bum’s rush to a free loader who didn’t buy beer. It is said that saloons fed more down and outers than all of the charities combined. By paying a small price, usually a nickel, a man down on his luck could eat a good meal and not have to look for charity, thus keeping his pride and dignity while getting nourishment. This practice lasted until World War I, when the practice came under fire for flouting food conservation policies, and for somehow being part of a German conspiracy to undermine American values.

In the next issue, we will look at anti-German feelings of World War I, the prohibition years in Buffalo, and how the saloon industry adapted.

The topics covered by Underground Nation will be quite varied. They will include military affairs, military history, and military conflicts around the globe. Underground Nation will follow the actions of U.S. troops placed in harm’s way, whether they are in Asia, the Middle East, South America, and beyond. Underground Nation will discuss the events behind the front-page stories carried by newspapers in cities around the world. It will discuss events in such far-flung places as Hong Kong, Baghdad, and Tehran, to name just a few. Underground Nation will explore the dark, unseen worlds of drug trafficking, money laundering, mercenaries, gun running, and the antics of intelligence agencies running amok across the planet. And of course, there are the conspiracies. We will explore critical events in our nation’s history, and we will try to answer some nagging questions that will not go away. These are nagging questions that our government and its institutions will not or cannot answer themselves. We will ask, who really pulls the strings, and who and gets things done? Here is a sample of some of the issues that we will raise. Was Lee Harvey Oswald a contract agent whose usefulness was over after the events at Dealey Plaza were complete? What’s the connection between John Kennedy’s assassination, the CIA, and the Bay of Pigs? Who pulled the trigger on Martin Luther King, Jr., John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and why? Sir Winston Churchill called it The High Cabal. It’s also known as the “Shadow Government.” Underground Nation will have on-air guests to shed light on these very questions. Underground Nation will keep political partisanship at arm’s length as we attempt to shed light on what is really happening and why. Underground Nation will have something for everyone. This will not be for everyone. It’s not for the squeamish. It’s not for anyone content with the status quo. It doesn’t want to be. It’s for those who keep asking the questions.

Yes, these are serious subjects. But Underground Nation will never lose its sense of humor. Tune in every Monday morning at 11:00 and join the fun, right here on 1270AM, WHLD.

Step 2. Create Exclusive Forgiveness™ Marketing products successfully means making your customers think they have a problem only you can solve. We call this a USP (Unique Selling Proposition). Your religion will also need a USP. Since you’ve already instilled fear, it’s time to offer the solution, and seal the deal. Your sales pitch is Forgiveness™ from your god, and your god alone. Make sure your prospect understands that your god has a patent on Forgiveness™, and others offering it are just trying to entice them to sin, and add to the eternal damnation developed in step 1. Of course, you need a place for the customer to get your product, and here again, learn from the big buys- own your own space. Don’t rent a storefront, have your followers build you a palace.Then tell them that ForegivenessTM only comes from your store, and it only last about a week. Should your prospect wish to escape a life of eternal fire and damnation, he or she must confess all past sins and pledge total acceptance and faith in your god, each week. Only then can then ask for Forgiveness™. Your prospect is now officially a convert.

Step 3. Create Rules Now that your convert is Forgiven™, they need rules to follow. Otherwise they’d continue their sinful ways and need to be Forgiven™ all over again. Actually, that’s exactly what you want, you don’t just want believers – you want followers. A good product breaks down over time so that your customers have to keep coming back. The trick is to give them rules that border on the impossible. You and the prospect will instinctively know that these rules will be difficult to honor, so inform them to come to your building of worship at least once a week for spiritual renewal and support.

Step 4. Make a Promise Life is hard and people need something to look forward to. They need a light at the end of the tunnel. Something that will tell them that following your religion will be worth it in the end. Your religion will need to make a few promises- all good products have a promise. Wether it’s whiter teeth or fresher breath, your followers need something to be excited about. Accepting your god as their personal lord entitles your converts to exclusive favors, requests and divine loans. But more importantly, your new religion has to promise paradise for believers- an eternal climax of pleasure that will come at an hour known only to your god. Pepole prefer pleasure to punishment and eternal pleasure will make your converts feel inspired. Leave the definition sufficiently opaque to allow for individual interpretation. Be creative and ecourage your converts to visualize paradise often for reassurance.

Step 5. Make Excuses Eventually, your followers will wonder why your god has failed to make good on any of the above promises. Don’t panic. Tell them that god works in his time – not theirs. And who the hell are they anyway to question god??? Tell them that they’re playing with fire – the operative word in this instance being “fire”. Tell them that this disobendience will not be tolerated. In truth, the doubt of your converts and disbelievers is a good thing. It’s only natural. And it’s actually your key to taking your new religion worldwide.

Step 666. Make War Now that your followers are beginning to doubt, tell them that you’ve just recieved a message from your god, there are evil ones afoot and they must be stopped. Explain to tyour followers that the doubt they are feeling has been sown by the evil ones and your god has chosen them to drive the evil out of whatever part of the globe you’d like to exploit for fun and profit (you may want to consider a strategic base of operations for future actions). Explain to your followers that He now commands you to go forth into the world and bring down his mighty sword upon the heads of heathens and false prophets. Don’t forget, your new followers should do some of the killing too.

Tell them not to worry, they’ll be Forgiven™ for that later.

This is it, man. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. You finally get to see some action. Now send out the troops to bomb, rape and pillage millions of unsuspecting people across the globe. Turn some into slaves. Steal entire continents from others. Gather together the unbelievers and burn them alive so that your followers can see just how hot hell can be. When you’ve completed your crusade, bring the surviving savages under your reign and civilize them. But don’t forget to remind them that your god is one of peace, love and brotherhood. And even though you just opened an extra large can of whoop ass on everybody, they must learn to to forgive and turn the other cheek. Now go get ‘em tiger.

The United States has seen its share of apocalyptic sects in its over 227-year history. In 1844, William Miller and his Millerites took to their rooftops to await the end of the world. In more recent times, the followers of Chen Tao, True Way, have migrated to Lockport from Taiwan, through California and Texas, to wait for God’s spacecraft to take them away before the end of the world. But both of these groups, and many others like them, have been content to sit and wait for the end time. A new breed of fundamentalist Christians, with ties to the Bush administration, is not that patient. They are committed to fulfilling biblical prophesy of the apocalypse by assuring that these events take place. They bring new meaning to the Bush invitation to “bring it on.” Convinced that their “born again” status will give them immunity from the horrors of the apocalypse and will give them a chosen place in God’s new heaven and new earth, they are not content to wait for the end time; they want to hasten its arrival, with the aid of George W. Bush.

The promoters of this theological plan to bring on the end time include some of the well-known evangelists, such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Billy and Franklin Graham, and Jack Van Impe. Belief in the end time finds its support in the charismatic, Pentecostal, Bible churches and in Protestant fundamentalist groups. They are thought to number at least 20 million strong in the United States and, according to Jerry Falwell, may boast as many as 100 million believers. About 25 million of them are also part of a political-religious movement known as “Christian Zionism,” the belief that a preserved State of Israel is a prerequisite for the second coming of Christ and the end time. As evidence of their numbers, Tim LaHaye’s series of books on the end time, the Left Behind series, have sold more than 50 million copies in the United States. “Christian Zionism” has its roots in the 19th century theological system known as “premillenial dispensationalism,” which was developed by Irish clergyman John Nelson Darby. “Premillenial” is the time before Christ’s thousand-year reign on earth, and “dispensations” are the ages or epochs that man goes through before the end time. American Cyrus Scofield later interpreted current events as fulfillment of biblical prophesy in his Scofield Bible. These two come together in the “Christian Zionist” movement, which stresses that the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 began the fulfillment of biblical prophesy toward the end time. To these “Christian Zionists,” Bush and his Middle East policies are seen as aiding the course of these prophetic events toward their inevitable end of the world as we know it and the ushering in of a new heaven and a new earth as predicted in the Bible.

In fact, a question to Jack Van Impe in August 2003 regarding Bush’s role in biblical prophesy resulted in this startling reply from Van Impe: “I am not sure whether he knows all of the prophesies and how deep of a student he has been in God’s Word, but I was contacted a few weeks ago by the office of public liaison for the White House and by the national security advisor, Condoleeza Rice, to make an outline. And I’ve spent hours preparing it. I will release this information to the public in September. But it's in his hands.” This statement seems to have stemmed from a meeting between Rice and 40 members of the religious community, who were invited to a national security briefing on Middle Eastern policy in Washington last July. Van Impe was unable to attend this briefing, which centered around the controversy over the Roadmap for Peace plan to set up a separate Palestinian state, in direct conflict with biblical prophesy of an undivided Israel. A separate Palestine would stop the end time clock.

The Christian Zionists give unequivocal support to the nation of Israel, and they work closely with that country's Likud Party. Jerry Falwell aligned himself with Israel’s former prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, and the Likud Party in the 1990s against President Bill Clinton’s plan for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They were joined in this effort by Pat Robertson and many other Christian Zionists. This expedient alliance between the Zionists and the Christian Zionists got a boost when Netanyahu was replaced by the hardliner, Ariel Sharon, and the despised Clinton, who threatened to stop the end time clock with the division of Israel, was replaced with the “born again” George W. Bush.

April 2002 saw two major events in this Christian Zionist movement. More than 100,000 people attended the Washington Rally for Israel in the Washington Mall. Bush sent Paul Wolfowitz as his representative to this rally. Also attending were Representative Dick Armey (R-Texas), Netanyahu, Rudy Guiliani, and our own Governor George Pataki. Also, when Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, began demolishing Palestinian homes in the West Bank in response to the Passover bombings in Israel, Bush urged Sharon to withdraw from the city of Jenin. More than 100,000 calls and emails to Bush from the Christian Zionists demanded that Bush let Israel continue its incursion into Jenin. In response to this outpouring from the Christian Zionists, Bush backed off on his request to Sharon. In an interview with the CBS news show, 60 Minutes, shortly after this showdown, Jerry Falwell stated, “I think now we can count on President Bush to do the right thing for Israel every time.”

The mantra for the Christian Zionist movement is a quote from the Bible, “Israel shall not be divided.” Although some in the Bush administration, most notably Colin Powell, still push for the two-state solution to the conflict, Bush has continued, almost invariably, to back Sharon. This has left the “Roadmap” all but dead and on the ash-heap with all of the previous plans for peace in the Middle East. A new group, however, made up of former world leaders, has been working for the past two to three years on the “Geneva Initiative” for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It closely follows the Clinton Plan for a two-state solution. The “Geneva Initiative” would not only divide the state into two states, it would also divide the City of Jerusalem into two state capitals. In addition, this plan would cede control of the Temple Mount to the Palestinians. Reaction from the Christian Zionists has been a swift and vehement opposition to the plan. Pat Robertson called the initiative an “outrage” on his December 1 episode of the 700 Club television show. He also repeated the mantra that “Israel shall not be divided,” and he accused anyone who criticizes the actions of Ariel Sharon or supports the rights of Palestinians of being “anti-Semitic,” “communist,” and “anti-American.” The last days of three of the world’s major religions come together at the Temple Mount/ al-Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem. Jews, Muslims, and Christians all believe that events at Temple Mount will signal the beginning of the end time. For Jews, this is the place where the Messiah will come to be King of Israel and high priest of the newly built temple. For fundamentalist Christians, this newly built temple will be the place where Christ will reign for the millennium. To Muslims, this site is where the Prophet Mohammed ascended into heaven on a steed, and the valley below will be the site of the final judgment. The Dome of the Rock and the al Aqsa Mosque currently occupy this site.

This place, sacred to three of the world’s religions, is currently under the control of the Muslims and was only opened to non-Muslims about three years ago. It is forbidden, punishable by kareth (death by heavenly decree) for unpurified Jews to enter the Holy of Holies section of the Temple Mount, the site of the first and second temples. The only way to be ritually purified is with the ashes from a flawless red heifer. Without this purification, the third temple, signaling the end of days, cannot be built. A group of Christian fundamentalist cattle-breeders from Texas have attempted to remedy this situation by breeding a flawless red heifer. They claim that she will be ready for sacrifice in 2005, setting up the potential for a new attempt to build the third temple at Temple Mount. The cornerstones for this temple are ready, and some believers have already attempted to bring them to the site. The danger of these prophesies is in the sheer number of believers from all three religions who are willing to bring on World War III if necessary to fulfill these prophesies. And the question of whether Bush is a willing participant or an unwitting pawn in the fulfillment of biblical prophesy becomes irrelevant when he is perceived by millions of believers all over the world as doing so. The perception is aided by Bush’s rhetoric which echoes that of the “Christian Zionists,” and in his policies, which, so far, have also followed their plan for bringing the world to the end time.

References and Further Information: Donald Wagner, “The Evangelical-Jewish Alliance” and many books on the subject. Available at http://www.religion-online.org. Jack Van Impe Ministries available online at http://www.jvim.com and on the TCT network. Pat Robertson and the 700 Club available online at http://www.cbn.com and on the CBN network. Information on the Temple Mount from the Jewish perspective available at http://www.templemount.org. The “Geneva Initiative” full text and maps available at http://www.heskem.org.

Moses also heard from the Lord, according to the Book of Numbers: "When you have crossed the Jordan into the Land of Canaan, you must drive all the inhabitants of the country before you… If you do not drive the inhabitants before you, then those you have spared will be barbs in your eyes and thorns in your side." Canaan is defined as the lands from the Jordan River to the Dead Sea west to the Mediterranean. Then known in the Old Testament as Palestine, it is now known as Israel.

Little did Moses realize that this advice from the Almighty would come to pass during the October 14-15, 2002 Christian Coalition "Rally for Israel" in Washington, D.C. This rally was a pivotal point for many of the speakers to denounce the White House's so-called roadmap to peace for its creation of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of the speakers present was the then-member of the Knesset, Benny Alon of the right-wing racist Moledet party. He read out loud the above words of God, who evidently was opposed to a two-state solution as well. Apparently, both the Lord and the Christian Coalition were not interested in sparing the Israeli sword. Indeed, the Moledet party advocates the annexation of both the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the ethnic cleansing of all Palestinians.

Also speaking at this rally was House Majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), a self-professed Christian Zionist. He said "I've been to Masada; I've toured Judea and Samaria. I've walked the streets of Jerusalem, and I've stood on the Golan Heights. I didn't see any occupied territory. What I saw was Israel." Pat Robertson, who neatly avoided ordered combat duty in Korea, counseled more of the sword: "We should not ask Israel to withdraw from the so-called occupied territories; we should stand by them and fight."

President George W. Bush sent official greetings to the rally. Bush's enthusiasm for this meeting may have come with the prodding of the National Unity Coalition for Israel, a Christian Zionist front. The founder of this organization claims that it consists of more than 200 Jewish and evangelical Christian groups who wish to form a "Biblical Greater Israel" by implementing the annexations advocated by the Moledet party. Douglas Feith, now assistant secretary of defense for policy in the Bush administration, was once the director of the NUCI.

According to reports in the Executive Intelligence Review, a delegation from the NUCI had attended a meeting at the White House, with Bush's official liaison to the religious community, some months prior to the Christian Coalition's rally. The Executive Intelligence Review claimed that the delegation, in effect, blackmailed the administration by threatening an "evangelical revolt" against Bush. Remember, there are about 98 million evangelical Christians in the United States. And they vote. The price for withholding the revolt was White House support of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his government's policies in the occupied territories.

The Daily Star(Beirut) also reports that, in March 2002, suicide bombings inside Israel sparked a renewed invasion by Israel, as well as destruction of Jenin. Bush had sent a strong message to Sharon: "Withdraw! Withdraw your troops immediately." This attitude from Bush clearly would not do. Jerry Falwell and other Christian Zionists leaders flexed their religious/political muscle and had their respective flocks send tens of thousands of telephone calls, e-mails, and letters to the president. The president backed off.

During an interview on CBS' 60 Minutes, Falwell stated that, as a result of the March 2002 events, Israel could count on Bush to "do the right thing for Israel every time." He also said, "the Bible belt is Israel's safety net in the United States." The "barbs in your eyes and the thorns in your side" would be dealt with.

In February 2003, before coalition troops invaded Iraq, Sharon told a delegation of congressmen that, after the Baghdad regime is destroyed, "it is of vital importance" that the United States disarm Iran, Syria, and Libya. It is curious to note that Sharon was certain of the demise of Saddam Hussein, even while the president was telling the American people that he had not made up his mind to invade Iraq. And whose vital importance is it to neutralize these countries? It would seem that the vital interest is that of Sharon, the Likud party and the multitude of Christian Zionists who support him.

But why all the fuss? The answer can be found in an extreme right-wing interpretation of Biblical prophecy, including the rise of the Anti-Christ, the battle of Armageddon, and the eventual return of Christ to earth. For these beliefs to come to fruition, according to this interpretation, the nation-state of Israel must be protected politically, financially, and militarily. For Israel is the Holy Land, and the Holy Land will be the evangelical ground zero in the coming Holocaust. The people who believe these interpretations are called Christian Zionists, and they are at the core of the approximate 100 to 125 million members of the Protestant evangelical movement.

Christian Zionists are at the heart of the Bush administration's concept of U.S. foreign policy. One of Bush's closest advisors is Richard Perle, former chairman of the Defense Policy Board. Perle was dismissed from Senator Henry Jackson's office after the National Security Agency caught him giving classified documents to the Israeli embassy. Later, he worked for the Israeli weapons manufacturer, Soltam. The pro-Israeli think tank American Enterprise Institute was once his home.

Feith, assistant secretary of defense for policy, has also been actively supporting the Christian Zionist cause. He served as Perle's special counsel. Associated with the Zionist Organization of America, Feith often speaks at conference events. He has a small law firm, Feith and Zell, which has one international office, in Israel. Prior to his appointment, its website stated that Feith "represents Israeli armaments manufacturers." Feith was a key member of the ultra-right wing Jewish think tank, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). Other members included Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who reportedly has close ties to the Israeli military. In addition, Wolfowitz is a close associate of Perle's as well as a member of the Defense Policy Board.

A "roadmap for peace" in the middle east has always been an illusion. Back in 1996 Perle, Feith, and other Zionists wrote a report for the Likud government of Benjamin Netanyahu through JINSA. It recommended shredding the Oslo accords and for Israel itself to take the offensive. Other actions proposed included removing Saddam Hussein from power, rolling back Syria and halting talks on exchanging land for peace. It even encouraged a policy of Israeli pre-emptive military strikes. In 1997, Feith told Israel to occupy "the areas under Palestinian Authority control," even though "the price in blood would be high." Indeed, the price has been high. And the Crusade has just begun. The goal is to secure the Holy Land for the eventual return of Christ. Christian Zionists inside the Beltway sit behind the throne of a born-again president. They have gained his ear, and now they have the power. Syria is now Israel's greatest security threat. The road to Damascus begins in an occupied Baghdad.

Our government views the ideals of Christ the pauper, Christ the social activist, and Christ the revolutionary as recipes for subverting the state. The right-wing fundamentalists are determined to use the state to repress dissenting voices who don’t share the fundamentalists’ vision of Christ. It is the fundamentalists and George W. Bush’s government that have acted unilaterally to kill the Kyoto Accords. They have attacked both international environmental law and national environmental policies.

The madness of George’s foreign policy is overshadowed by the environmental consequences that we are all going to face in the coming years. Global warming is accelerating, with a projected increase of ten degrees Fahrenheit in the next twenty years. The polar ice caps are melting, weather patterns are becoming erratic, and the depletion of the ozone layer is increasing. The rate of species going extinct is accelerating. One of the endangered species is our closest living cousin, the chimpanzee. We in the United States are living the ideals of Christ the consumer. As a result, we are crucifying the planet.

Rock The Casbah

Friday December 19th, 10pm at the Mohawk Place, 47 E. Mohawk, Buffalo marks the 2nd annual edition of Indestructable: A Tribute To Joe Strummer & The Clash. Local bands/musicians including Girlpope, Semi-Tough, John Lombardo , Ron Ehmke, Rebel Waltz Orchestra (a local super group made up of Strummer fanatics) and the return of Buffalo legends The Prisoners (1st gig in over 20 years!) make up the bill for the event with more to be added. In addition, in true Clash form djs Dr. Wisz & Scotty of deja blu and dj Bridgit will spin reggae and dub prior to the show and punk rock in-between band appearances. All proceeds to benefit Strummerville:The Joe Strummer Foundation For New Music which aids youth groups and individuals to fund the purchase of musical instruments, studio and rehearsal time to enable the production of music by creative young people who would otherwise be prevented from making music simply because they lack the necessary funds. If this event is anything like last year's inaugural it will be hopping with high quality cover work by all the artists involved. Cover charge is $5.

DJ Pontification

Brilliant Techno Label : Svek Since the mid 90’s, Swedish label Svek (Swedish for Treachery)has produced some of the most innovative techno house music available. Much like Debussy's Classical Masterpiece La Mer musically reflected the artistry of the impressionist painters of his time (late 1800's), Svek's artists produced club tracks that reflected Sweden's esthetic for minimalism. Think Ikea musically styled. Fine simple designs of very high quality personified musically. Unfortunately the only truly treacherous thing about Svek is finding their releases. Ebay, Gemm.com and Musicstack.com are the best sources for hunting Svek down. It's well worth the effort.

The captivity story, in which a white settler is kidnapped by unrelenting savages, is the oldest plot in violent American movies. Always remember that the first film to tell a complete story was The Great Train Robbery, which delivered violence at the barrel of a gun.

As he recovers from his battle wounds, Algren muses about the Japanese and their strange customs. Director Zwick and his screenwriters (himself, John Logan, and longtime partner Marshall Herskovitz) drag out all the cliches about Asian culture. There’s the silliness of chopsticks, the ever-popular chug-a-lug of Sake, and the sight of men wearing kimonos. “You're angry because they make you wear a dress,” Algren mocks a samurai watching over him. He’s nursed back to health by the widow of a man he killed in combat. Because she is an inscrutable Asian, we’re not really sure what she’s thinking, but we do have to ask what point Zwick is trying to make. She’s both sad and passive, thus there are few faint clues. Then there’s the samurai lord Katsumoto, played by Ken Watanabe. Algren is fascinated by him, just as the samurai is fascinated by Algren.

It’s not exactly a meeting of the minds, but the screenwriters do attempt to generate an odd link between the fighting code of the samurai and the fighting code of Native Americans. I don’t know if that’s Hollywood guilt at work, but it seems to be a sop to the fact that Europeans decimated entire races of people as they looted and slaughtered their way across the Americas. Soon Algren slips on a kimono and begins practicing his swordplay. Being a stereotypical gung-ho American (and Tom Cruise), he soon usurps the true samurai warriors. Even when he loses at practice, he dusts himself off and starts all over again. You do notice during all of this that Cruise’s hair and makeup is flawless, even when the wind is blowing or the samurai lord is teaching him a few new tricks. Cruise never really “acts,” but instead brings his usual packaged screen persona along just as you and I would bring a picnic lunch to the park. He’s Ninja Barbie.

There’s a lot of mumbo jumbo about honor and destiny, but the movie overlooks one salient point. Since we’re mucking around in actual history here, the rout of the samurai legions paved the way for Japan arming itself to the teeth and it’s eventual war with Russia, invasion of China, and, while we’re at it, its ultimate attack on Pearl Harbor. That some of the samurai warriors lived on in Japanese history as heroes of right-wing ultra-nationalists is no small potatoes, but the movie eschews ideology and settles for a plastic view of the world as dictated by Euro-American sensibilities. Equally distressing is The Missing. While watching it I wondered if director Ron Howard knew how racist his movie is. The film is a page torn out of the John Wayne/John Ford playbook. It’s a twist on The Searchers, but it’s the same old song. White settlers good. Injuns bad. The movie is unspeakably awful.

Here’s the tale: in the old American West, a woman lives on the frontier. She’s a healer (a doctor without portfolio if you will). She’s good at her job, but there don’t seem to be many potential patients about, although we do learn that there’s a thriving town nearby where a “talkin’ machine” is on display. The woman, wonderfully acted by Cate Blanchett), has two daughters (the younger one is spunky and the older one wants to go to town and have fun). She loathes the frontier life. No little house on the prairie for her. The woman also has a hardy feller, not her husband. That backstory is dealt with quickly. One day her father reenters her life. He some sort of mental mess, wrought with guilt, and seems to have become a fan of the Indian lifestyle. He’s woefully acted by Tommy Lee Jones. She ignores his pleas for a reconciliation. She lets him stay the night, but then he has to go back from wherever it is he meandered. The next day he scoots out of Dodge, or towards Dodge. But, before you can say Natalie Wood, big bad Injuns seize the eldest daughter. Their aim is to gather up some nubile lasses and sell them to mean old Mexicans for bordello work.

Let’s pause for a moment. Did this kind of kidnapping ever really take place in America in the late 1800s? Not by a long shot. The movie is based on a novel, which, as we all remember from English class, is fiction.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (I always wanted to write that and it actually fits), Jones has returned because he sensed danger. The woman/healer/angry mom reluctantly accepts his assistance and off they go in search of the Injuns and the hostage daughter. Another pause: a movie about the role woman played in the Old West would be interesting, but it would probably be mucked up anyway. And, you did notice the macho paternalism of daddy coming back to help his daughter and granddaughter (the womenfolk), didn’t you? Well, no surprise here, the small posse tracks down the kidnappers and a Wild West gun battle ensues. I won’t tell you the ending, but I will tell you that the movie desecrates Native American spirituality and mysticism. There is little respect in the film for the honor and glory of Indians or their culture. Howard and his screenwriter (Ken Kaufman) are guilty of furthering what can only be called the American Holocaust. They try to have it both ways by making the kidnappers renegades, but one man’s enemy is another man’s freedom fighter. The leader of the bad Injuns is a character straight out of Hell. He’s a grotesque spittoon of a creature, a Halloween hobgoblin with his pockmarked bulbous head and creepy crawly ways. He’s maniacally overacted by Eric Schweig, a Canadian actor of Inuit and German descent who really should know better.

I’ve written about all I can about this piece of cinematic trash, except to state that I truly loathed it beyond contempt.

Colin Eager, director of the Western New York Peace Center, attended both demonstrations and described the tactics that police used in Miami and Georgia as appalling. The Miami police were far more aggressive than those at Fort Benning, Georgia, but law enforcement officials were overly confrontational at both demonstrations, Eager said.

“The police are becoming more aggressive with protesters,” said Eager. “There was a confrontational air coming from the police in Miami. Wherever you went, there were armored troops watching you, whatever you did. This was a heavily armored, militarized action. It wasn’t a police operation; it was a military operation from the start.”

Media reports confirm Eager’s assessment of the FTAA protests. Rubber bullets and tear gas were fired into crowds of demonstrators indiscriminately, and Independent Media Center (IMC) reports read more like West Bank dispatches than accounts of American demonstrations. Eager said that there were several reports of supposed protesters yelling and throwing things at the police, only to reappear behind the police lines, unharmed, as the troops marched on demonstrators.

“There were quite a few provocateurs there,” said Eager. “They provided an excuse for the police to move more aggressively against demonstrators. It’s distressing but not surprising because the anti-globalization movement has grown stronger, and the government doesn’t know how to address it.”

Fort Benning, Georgia, wasn’t the militarized operation that Miami was, but the actions used by United States marshals, military police, and Army personnel to thwart the annual School of the America’s Watch (SAO Watch) demonstration were insidious and over-aggressive, according to participants.

Alt Press assistant managing editor Alice Gerard was one of the over 10,000 demonstrators who attended this years SAO Watch protest, the largest ever, and she said this year’s event felt different than one that she participated in one year earlier. Gerard said that the military used loud, annoying music, reminiscent of so-called “psy-op” tactics used to get Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to surrender after U.S. Marines invaded his country in the mid-1980s. This music was directed at protesters in an attempt to drown out speakers addressing the crowd. Military officials who processed the thirty or so persons arrested during the demonstration used harsher actions, said Gerard, who was arrested for “crossing the line” and participating in a prayer of mourning for the victims of persons whom she termed SOA-trained butchers.

“There was this goony military guy barking out conflicting orders like, ‘put your hands on top of your head’ and ‘take off your shoes,’” said Gerard. “The search was quite extreme. Every part of me, except my face, was searched.”

Gerard and the other arrestees were held overnight in the Muscogee County Jail. They were released the next day on $1,000 bonds, a new development, according to Buffalo area Pax Christi leader Bill Marx, who attended the demonstration for his second year and provided support for several of those arrested.

“Last year, a $500 bond was required for release,” said Marx. “Prior to that, I think they (arrestees) were always released on their own recognizance. The doubling of the dollar amount this year was something we weren’t expecting.”

Marx said that dealing with military officials this year was unsettling, a new experience for him as he had always viewed law enforcement officials in a positive light. According to Marx, the MPs and U.S. marshals verbally intimidated and menaced the demonstrators.

“I can understand why we’re experiencing so much violence and trouble in Iraq now,” said Marx. “We were treated like filth. If these guys treat American citizens exercising their rights so poorly, one can only imagine how they interact with people who aren’t accustomed to democracy and don’t speak English.”

Marx and Gerard both told the story of Kathy Kelly, a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee getting shoved to the ground by the military police during the initial search. According to Marx the MP then knelt on the small woman and continued shouting at her.

Eager, Gerard, and Marx all said that recent law enforcement actions are designed to chill free speech and discourage U.S. citizens from exercising their constitutionally protected rights to speak out against the illegal, immoral, and improper actions that the U.S. government is engaged in around the world.

This view is backed up by a New York Times report of an internal FBI memo that equates protesters with terrorists and asks local law enforcement officials to report protest activity to the FBI counterterrorism squad. The memo, reportedly circulated prior to the October 25 anti-war demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, provides corroboration of activists’ claims that they are under regular government surveillance and that the FBI considers demonstrations a threat to national security, according to The New York Times article.

Eager said the revelation that the federal government is attempting to undermine dissent is unfortunate but not surprising because the anti-war and anti-globalization movements are growing in size and energy. He also said that many activists are involved in both movements and that they are starting to coalesce into a broader movement of grassroots democracy.

“We’re completely appalled by it (the FBI memo), but, unfortunately, we’re not at all surprised,” said Eager. “This goes part and parcel with the Patriot Act. The Bush administration is using the war on terrorism as an excuse to target lawful, protected speech. This is the war coming home.”

Gerard said that she isn’t surprised by The New York Times’ report. She said that government agents have a history of infiltrating protest movements and SOA Watch has dealt with the problem for years.

“There were some obvious plants this year,” said Gerard. “I heard about this one guy who, after acting like a protester one day, showed up in a police uniform the next day. I think it happens at just about every demonstration.”

Marx said that the Bush administration is doing everything that it can to interfere with freedom of speech. He echoed Eager’s belief that the situation is getting worse because progressive movements are gaining ground. Unfortunately, according to Marx, the struggle is likely to get worse.

“I don’t think we’re that far from another Kent State,” said Marx. “We’re a thorn in the side of Bush’s imperialistic goals. I think that the people of the world are waiting for the American people to stand up to their government, and that’s exactly what these demonstrations are about.”

The Buffalo News reported that GEICO Insurance, a mainstay of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway empire, is considering opening a call center in Amherst. While this is welcome news, supporters of regionalism and downtown might lament the fact that, once again, Buffalo’s loss is a gain for the suburbs.

No doubt the management of GEICO does not take into consideration factors that would benefit a sister company such as The Buffalo News when choosing office locations. So it’s not necessarily a case of do as I say and not as I do. It’s probably more akin to the strict “Chinese wall” that exists between advertising and editorial departments at every newspaper in the country, especially The Buffalo News. So while the office tower for Adelphia’s world headquarters will never make it off of the drawing board, at least some of the low-wage jobs that John Rigas and company promised may now materialize. Of course, GEICO will require generous tax breaks to move here as opposed to some other post-industrial backwater. It seems that tax avoidance has surpassed polo as the passion of the wealthy, so why not grab every break offered up? Let someone else deal with the waterfront and downtown. Buffalo is not GEICO’s problem or Warren Buffett’s, either, for that matter. Sgt. Lipsey’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Following the trend of other newspapers, The Buffalo News has been running major features in its Sunday editions on high-tech dating services. This is the sort of story that tends to draw people in while generating interest in the paper’s “Buffalo Singles” classified ads. “Be more aggressive. Market yourself. Fitter. Happier. More Productive. Comfortable. Etc…”

Dating advice, like horoscopes, the weather, and sports, is often the most popular section of a newspaper. Perhaps this is true because the news has become so grim that no one wants to read it. Or maybe corporate interests in this country have manipulated the media so much that thoughtful analysis on political issues no longer has a place. Maybe we’re all just getting a lot dumber, more complacent, or apathetic. For whatever reason, many dailies have become little more than news magazines, providing infotainment. (Editor’s Note: Reader! Insert your very own Chomsky whine here!)

In this, they are mirroring the weekly “alternative” papers that have sprouted up to counter the monocultural trend of monopoly dailies but which soon found more profit catering to suburban chic and boutique elites. In this mindless media cultural environment, it’s not surprisingly that some people apparently need some sort of oracle to tell them what is cool. Writers at The Buffalo News are more than happy to help. One recent lonely-hearts article tracked down a DJ who advised singles to play a compilation called “Crime Jazz” or perhaps some Ursula 3000 at a party as a means of attracting a mate.

This directive requires analysis. First of all, Crime Jazz was important, like five years ago, after Portishead sampled “Danube Incident.” Secondly, Ursula 3000, like the Crime Jazz disk, and pretty much everything you’d hear on Spylounge (if you have to ask, we’re not going to tell you) is geared toward a very specific musical taste. Thirdly, and this is perhaps the saddest point of all, if something gets labeled as “cool” by The Buffalo News, it isn’t.

The joke is on you, reader. Crime Jazz is not romantic music. It’s frenetic, shrill psycho jazz that was recorded in the bucolic fifties, allowing the deep anxieties of that era to bubble through the tranquil Ozzie and Harriet façade and into the ears of a domestic security state that was obsessed with nuclear Armageddon. What’s out is in again except, this time, it’s terrorism and WMD, apparently.

If the average lonely Jane or John Doe put Crime Jazz on at a party in Williamsville or West Seneca, the guests would think that their host or hostess had gone over to the dark side or was secretly reading Alt or something. Chicks and dudes alike would not dig it. People would stop talking to you. You would not be cool because we are not cool. The next time that you read something about how to be cool, remember: you are a loser for believing that someone else can tell you how to be cool. You are a loser for even believing in the concept of cool. So be cool.

Of course, this is a Christmas movie, actually an anti-Christmas movie, so there’s has to be some sort of salvation for Willie. In director Terry Zwigoff’s idea of good cheer, Stokes meets a chubby kid who lives with his senile grandmother (Cloris Leachman). Something moves him, and he begins developing feelings. But he also has feelings for the kinky female barkeeper who has a thing for having sex with men in Santa Claus outfits. On occasion, thanks to Thornton’s deadpan delivery, the raunchy movie is laugh-out-loud funny. But, it slides out of gear in the final third as the salvation exercise overwhelms the movie’s flagrant toxicity. Screenwriters John Requa and Glenn Ficarra cop-out. Bad Santa gets sentimental. Zwigoff, who made Crumb and Ghost World, should have kept the edge, but as the movie diminishes into sap city, you’ve got fond memories of Thornton’s performance to keep you alert.

A more typical Hollywood Christmas card is Dr. Seuss’ The Cat In The Hat, but everything I’ve read and heard about the book’s author tells me that he would rather have died than see his beloved children’s classics turned into hokey, big budget movies. Well, the poor guy did die, and his widow cranked up the money machine. Shame on her. She sold the rights to Dr. Seuss’ books and essentially sold her soul. We had Jim Carrey in the messy How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and now we’ve got Toronto’s favorite son Mike Myers as The Cat. The book runs about 60 pages and the movie is padded beyond endurance to fill 80 minutes. Truth be told, there is no movie here. It’s just a one-note parade of excess and one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. The running gag is that two annoying kids encounter The Cat in their house and he makes a mess that has to be cleaned up. Nothing else happens. The sets are colorful, but serve no purpose other than to frame the computerized digital effects that run as rampant as the overreaching cat. As for the title character, Myers is appalling. There isn’t a shred of warmth or genuine humor in his performance. He’s a brat of a cat and that is that.

For children ages, oh, I don’t know, 10 through whatever, there is a movie that deserves their attention. Timeline is an old-fashioned action adventure thriller, the kind that once were the bulwark of Saturday matinees. Michael Crichton’s dense novel has had most of the mathematics and science removed, and what we get is a straightforward story about time travel. This isn’t intellectually challenging filmmaking, but it is popcorn fun. An American corporation has devised a machine that can movie objects. Meanwhile, some student archeologists are spending time in the French countryside exploring a major dig. When the teleportation machine intersects with a wormhole, the group’s professor ends up in 14th-century France. Some of the students end up going back in time to rescue him. The movie doesn’t really rely on stars to energize its premise, but rather on the hunt, the chase, and the battles for an ancient castle. When you’ve got flaming arrows by the thousands and loads of action, who needs heavy psychological analysis? As in all movies about a group of friends in danger, there’s a hint of romance, a touch of anger, and an entertaining sense of camaraderie. Paul Walker gets star billing, but he doesn’t have much to do and lacks screen presence. The guy who leads the audience through the film is Gerard Butler as one of the archeologists. He’s got a 1930s style sense of fun and adventure that’s refreshing. Richard Donner directs with a sure hand.

I wrote about The Human Stain in my Toronto Film Festival wrap-up and praised its style and substance. The movie is now playing in town. Based on Philip Roth’s novel about sexual politics and racism, the very smart film deserves to be seen. It stars a very good Anthony Hopkins as a revered university professor who resigns in a rage after being accused of being a racist. Noting that two of his students have never attended his class, he asks “What are they, spooks?” Because they are African-Americans, his wisecrack is interpreted as a racist remark. It’s important to note that he has not seen the students, so he does not know if they are black or white. Rather than defend himself when he’s called before a faculty tribunal, he leaves his job. He has a secret of his own. He is a very light-skinned African-American himself. In fact, he has passed for white. The movie is about his recovery from the death of his wife and understanding his past, as well as trying to avoid a sense of isolation. He meets a blue-collar woman played by Nicole Kidman with too many false notes. Does gum chewing and smoking really define lower-class life? They begin a relationship. The Human Stain glides back and forth between the old professor and his younger self, superbly played by Wentworth Miller. Also on tap are Gary Sinise as the man to whom Hopkins opens up. Ed Harris is Kidman’s abusive husband and Jacinda Barrett is Miller’s girl friend, who does not realize he is black. Anna Deavere Smith and Phyllis Newman round out the cast. Directed by Robert Benton, this is a movie that keeps you alert and makes demands on you in a good way.

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What the MTBE ban means to all New York and Connecticut residents is an end to new contamination of our groundwater resources by this cancer-causing chemical!

Gasoline retailers have already made the necessary changes in delivery systems, and have also contracted for their supplies of the oxygenate substitute that will replace MTBE. The transition is almost complete and many people in both states have already been filling their tanks with MTBE- free gas. This has happened with no increase in the price of a gallon of gasoline.

The actual price of a gallon of gasoline in New York and Connecticut should go down based on the new formula. MTBE has been consistently more expensive than gas and the replacement additive.

“More important than the cost of a gallon of gas is the positive impacts on our families health. Ridding our gasoline supply of this poison has been a huge battle over many years, but the people have been victorious,” said Brian Smith, Program Coordinator for Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “This is a victory where everyone wins, except the polluters,” concluded Smith.

With the MTBE ban a certainty in New York and Connecticut, all eyes will turn to Washington to see if our federal elected officials will give the MTBE industry complete liability relief for the terrific damage they have done to our drinking water supplies, leaving New York and Connecticut residents to pay for the entire clean-up. CCE will continue to actively oppose this give away to the MTBE industry.

Citizens Campaign for the Environment is New York and Connecticut's largest member based environmental organization dedicated to the protection of human health and the natural environment.

The assumption in this thinking was, of course, that millions of British people would need to see an ornate backdrop to make that connection. Without the hint, G.W. could barely leave his temporary residence of Buckingham Palace without being assailed by angry Brits anxious to let the U.S. president know just how unwelcome he was in their country.

It is estimated that 200,000 protestors demonstrated against Bush’s visit to the U.K. On Nov. 20., a march that wound through the streets of central London ended in Trafalgar Square where an 18 foot papier mache statue of George W. was toppled, mocking the fall of Saddam Hussein’s effigy in Baghdad. Suffice to say, the presence of 200,000 demonstrators at a mid-week protest is historic. But even these numbers pale in comparison to those of Feb. 15 which saw about 1.5 million take to the streets of London to oppose the military invasion of Iraq. On that same day, millions more in cities and towns around the world took part in similar protests.

Fueling these massive outpourings of ordinary people has been a very real anger for the United States by millions internationally. Obviously, if England is our closest ally and our president can’t even move around its capital without having the city practically shut down for security concerns, the question must be asked: why the hell are people around the world so pissed off at the United States?

In the popular press, you will generally find two explanations for this upward trend in American persecution. They are that 1.) people internationally are simply anti-American – full of hatred and jealousy because our country is free, powerful, and preeminent; and that 2.) people are angry because the U.S. initiated a war without the backing of the United Nations. This stems from a misunderstanding that ‘in a post 9/11 world’ the U.S. needs to do what it must in order to protect the security of its citizens.

The first answer – that outside our borders there lurks a deep and dark anti-American sentiment – has even been used by Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary for Tony Blair’s government, in his justifications for the Prime Minister’s support for Bush’s policies ad nauseam. It is also completely fallacious, being pathetically analogous to something Rush Limbaugh would say about how jealousy drives the commoners to hate the wealthy.

There is a grave misunderstanding amongst most Americans (and apparently non-Americans when it suits their interests) about how the people of the world feel about them. Anyone who travels abroad should be able to say with confidence that the citizens of the world, including the French, do not hate Americans. They do hate, however, the ignorance of cultural chauvinism – something that Americans have turned into an art form. Of course, there are extremists out there who view all citizens of the United States as the enemy, but the number of these unfortunate individuals is so infinitesimally small that to diagnose a good deal of the outside world with a Napoleon Complex is simply foolish. If more than ten percent of the U.S. population owned a passport and the U.S. government actually did something to promote cultural exchange other than starting wars, this reality might be better grasped.

The second answer – that the world doesn’t understand the tragedy of 9/11 and that America has the right to act preemptively to protect its citizens – is equally nonsense. Other than the ‘war on terror’ being the B-Team’s attempt to secure an ideological substitute for the red menace, this explanation for the strong international opposition to Washington fails in many regards. Firstly, for many people in the world, the fear and insecurity that Americans experienced on 9/11 is a daily occurrence (see Liberia, Congo, Colombia, Palestine, Israel). Secondly, the case that Iraq had anything to due with 9/11 or represented an imminent threat to United States citizens was not made before the war and has not been made to date. Thirdly, the unilateralism of Iraq is only the latest and most visible example of American policymakers’ unwillingness to participate in international accords and agreements. Aside from Bush’s foray into Babylon, there is an entire litany of charges that can be made against United States arrogance over the past ten years including its refusal to adopt the Kyoto Protocol or take part in the International Criminal Courts; its callousness and insensitivity in dealing with the most important question in the Arab world – the Palestinian/Israeli conflict; and its hypocritical policies on nuclear non-proliferation and international trade.

The Bush administration’s feigned attempt to involve the U.N. in the invasion of Iraq has presented itself only as American policymakers’ most recent and flagrant violation of international diplomacy. For this reason, it has engendered the most disgust and has given the international community a giant stage on which to display its growing discontent with American unilateralism.

Neither smug appeals to international envy and hatred nor pompous proclamations of uniqueness can account for the wave of hostility that Mr. Bush has encountered in his journeys to foreign lands. The true reasons why much of the world is angry with the United States is not because they are anti-American nor because they don’t understand 9/11. It’s precisely because they see our country’s policies for what they are and they’re not afraid to say it.

Here at home, things are different. Polemics are taboo, strong beliefs are discouraged, and the fear that has been whipped up around the new ‘evil-doers’ of the world has created such a strong atmosphere of self-censorship that the majority of Americans are simply too afraid to express a viewpoint that might contradict the torrent of insecurity flashing across their television screens nightly – from Fox News to 24. How else could an administration convince the American people to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a war abroad while some 43 million Americans don’t have health care at home?

Americans revel in over-abundant, easily-digestible, trite news sources. News sources too conservative or too pusillanimous to call our esteemed-at-home president, George W. Bush for what he is – a mendacious imperialist. This is a claim that even so-called ‘liberal’ Americans are afraid to make fearing the connotations of Marxist extremism that get dredged up every time someone forgets to put the ‘middle’ in front of ‘class’ when speaking about politics. But it’s a claim that the rest of the world has been making for some time because of its validity.

Certainly, many residents here wouldn’t agree with this assessment, opting for the popular and commercial patriotism of denial. I will not argue the point – there’s a good deal of Americans that still don’t believe in evolution. But if invading a sovereign nation militarily, toppling its government, occupying it, and then attempting to rebuild that nation based on your own social institutions with no other believable pretext but to serve the economic and political interests of your country’s wealthiest citizens; if that ain’t imperialism, then the murder of millions of Native Americans during U.S. westward expansion wasn’t genocide. And the Holocaust never happened. And slavery wasn’t that bad. And Jesus was a white man.

The American people should be less concerned with the rhetorical liberation of the Middle East and more concerned with liberating themselves from this intellectual prison of denial. In other words, we should take a page out of the book of our European brethren and the international community when they question the intentions of global power brokers.

While studying in the U.K. this past year, I was exposed to a climate of debate and discourse unlike anything we have here in the United States. On any day in London, at least six different newspapers expressing a wide spectrum of political perspectives were available. Evening television journalists actually had the nerve to ask challenging questions to those whom they interviewed. Members of Parliament routinely disagreed with their Prime Minister while appearing at public demonstrations. Students weren’t afraid to protest the war by walking out of class or occupying administration buildings. The city buses were plentiful and on time. People read books.

Upon returning to the United States, two things became immediately obvious. The first was how overweight Americans really are. The second was the media circus that envelops everything here from a shitty little hurricane to Monday Night Football. In this kind of surreal atmosphere, it’s little wonder how politics can be reduced to the Simpsonesque farce of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jimmy Griffin.

Americans need to wake up and come to terms with the responsibility that they have as global citizens. This means standing up to the corporate Thought Police of fear and shedding our culturally insular complacency. It means paying attention to what the world is saying instead of playing the role of the persecuted. Like the Londoners that took to the streets a few weeks back, and the millions more that have been demonstrating worldwide, we Americans need to get our act together and begin to question the direction in which we are heading as a country and a planet. If we do not, choosing instead to continue along the path currently being blazed by Washington, then only ignorance and war will be our collective future.












What was glaringly ironic about this affair was that our commander-in-chief, being the stoic crusader for freedom and justice that he is, chose to deliver a speech about democracy, not at the institution that actually represents this ideal in the U.K., i.e., The House of Commons, but rather from the pulpit of a palace that surely rivals anything Saddam Hussein may have occupied during his brutally lavish presidency. The elitism of the event, however, did not go unnoticed by some White House officials who decided to change the backdrop of the speech from the ornate and grandiose design of the Banqueting Hall to one that simply had ‘United Kingdom’ written over and over on it. In this way, any parallels that might have been drawn by television viewers between Mr. Bush’s current foreign policy and Britain’s Victorian Imperialist past could be conveniently avoided.

The assumption in this thinking was, of course, that millions of British people would need to see an ornate backdrop to make that connection. Without the hint, G.W. could barely leave his temporary residence of Buckingham Palace without being assailed by angry Brits anxious to let the U.S. president know just how unwelcome he was in their country.

It is estimated that 200,000 protestors demonstrated against Bush’s visit to the U.K. On Nov. 20., a march that wound through the streets of central London ended in Trafalgar Square where an 18 foot papier mache statue of George W. was toppled, mocking the fall of Saddam Hussein’s effigy in Baghdad. Suffice to say, the presence of 200,000 demonstrators at a mid-week protest is historic. But even these numbers pale in comparison to those of Feb. 15 which saw about 1.5 million take to the streets of London to oppose the military invasion of Iraq. On that same day, millions more in cities and towns around the world took part in similar protests.

Fueling these massive outpourings of ordinary people has been a very real anger for the United States by millions internationally. Obviously, if England is our closest ally and our president can’t even move around its capital without having the city practically shut down for security concerns, the question must be asked: why the hell are people around the world so pissed off at the United States?

In the popular press, you will generally find two explanations for this upward trend in American persecution. They are that 1.) people internationally are simply anti-American – full of hatred and jealousy because our country is free, powerful, and preeminent; and that 2.) people are angry because the U.S. initiated a war without the backing of the United Nations. This stems from a misunderstanding that ‘in a post 9/11 world’ the U.S. needs to do what it must in order to protect the security of its citizens.

The first answer – that outside our borders there lurks a deep and dark anti-American sentiment – has even been used by Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary for Tony Blair’s government, in his justifications for the Prime Minister’s support for Bush’s policies ad nauseam. It is also completely fallacious, being pathetically analogous to something Rush Limbaugh would say about how jealousy drives the commoners to hate the wealthy.

There is a grave misunderstanding amongst most Americans (and apparently non-Americans when it suits their interests) about how the people of the world feel about them. Anyone who travels abroad should be able to say with confidence that the citizens of the world, including the French, do not hate Americans. They do hate, however, the ignorance of cultural chauvinism – something that Americans have turned into an art form. Of course, there are extremists out there who view all citizens of the United States as the enemy, but the number of these unfortunate individuals is so infinitesimally small that to diagnose a good deal of the outside world with a Napoleon Complex is simply foolish. If more than ten percent of the U.S. population owned a passport and the U.S. government actually did something to promote cultural exchange other than starting wars, this reality might be better grasped.

The second answer – that the world doesn’t understand the tragedy of 9/11 and that America has the right to act preemptively to protect its citizens – is equally nonsense. Other than the ‘war on terror’ being the B-Team’s attempt to secure an ideological substitute for the red menace, this explanation for the strong international opposition to Washington fails in many regards. Firstly, for many people in the world, the fear and insecurity that Americans experienced on 9/11 is a daily occurrence (see Liberia, Congo, Colombia, Palestine, Israel). Secondly, the case that Iraq had anything to due with 9/11 or represented an imminent threat to United States citizens was not made before the war and has not been made to date. Thirdly, the unilateralism of Iraq is only the latest and most visible example of American policymakers’ unwillingness to participate in international accords and agreements. Aside from Bush’s foray into Babylon, there is an entire litany of charges that can be made against United States arrogance over the past ten years including its refusal to adopt the Kyoto Protocol or take part in the International Criminal Courts; its callousness and insensitivity in dealing with the most important question in the Arab world – the Palestinian/Israeli conflict; and its hypocritical policies on nuclear non-proliferation and international trade.

The Bush administration’s feigned attempt to involve the U.N. in the invasion of Iraq has presented itself only as American policymakers’ most recent and flagrant violation of international diplomacy. For this reason, it has engendered the most disgust and has given the international community a giant stage on which to display its growing discontent with American unilateralism.

Neither smug appeals to international envy and hatred nor pompous proclamations of uniqueness can account for the wave of hostility that Mr. Bush has encountered in his journeys to foreign lands. The true reasons why much of the world is angry with the United States is not because they are anti-American nor because they don’t understand 9/11. It’s precisely because they see our country’s policies for what they are and they’re not afraid to say it.

Here at home, things are different. Polemics are taboo, strong beliefs are discouraged, and the fear that has been whipped up around the new ‘evil-doers’ of the world has created such a strong atmosphere of self-censorship that the majority of Americans are simply too afraid to express a viewpoint that might contradict the torrent of insecurity flashing across their television screens nightly – from Fox News to 24. How else could an administration convince the American people to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a war abroad while some 43 million Americans don’t have health care at home?

Americans revel in over-abundant, easily-digestible, trite news sources. News sources too conservative or too pusillanimous to call our esteemed-at-home president, George W. Bush for what he is – a mendacious imperialist. This is a claim that even so-called ‘liberal’ Americans are afraid to make fearing the connotations of Marxist extremism that get dredged up every time someone forgets to put the ‘middle’ in front of ‘class’ when speaking about politics. But it’s a claim that the rest of the world has been making for some time because of its validity.

Certainly, many residents here wouldn’t agree with this assessment, opting for the popular and commercial patriotism of denial. I will not argue the point – there’s a good deal of Americans that still don’t believe in evolution. But if invading a sovereign nation militarily, toppling its government, occupying it, and then attempting to rebuild that nation based on your own social institutions with no other believable pretext but to serve the economic and political interests of your country’s wealthiest citizens; if that ain’t imperialism, then the murder of millions of Native Americans during U.S. westward expansion wasn’t genocide. And the Holocaust never happened. And slavery wasn’t that bad. And Jesus was a white man.

The American people should be less concerned with the rhetorical liberation of the Middle East and more concerned with liberating themselves from this intellectual prison of denial. In other words, we should take a page out of the book of our European brethren and the international community when they question the intentions of global power brokers.

While studying in the U.K. this past year, I was exposed to a climate of debate and discourse unlike anything we have here in the United States. On any day in London, at least six different newspapers expressing a wide spectrum of political perspectives were available. Evening television journalists actually had the nerve to ask challenging questions to those whom they interviewed. Members of Parliament routinely disagreed with their Prime Minister while appearing at public demonstrations. Students weren’t afraid to protest the war by walking out of class or occupying administration buildings. The city buses were plentiful and on time. People read books.

Upon returning to the United States, two things became immediately obvious. The first was how overweight Americans really are. The second was the media circus that envelops everything here from a shitty little hurricane to Monday Night Football. In this kind of surreal atmosphere, it’s little wonder how politics can be reduced to the Simpsonesque farce of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jimmy Griffin.

Americans need to wake up and come to terms with the responsibility that they have as global citizens. This means standing up to the corporate Thought Police of fear and shedding our culturally insular complacency. It means paying attention to what the world is saying instead of playing the role of the persecuted. Like the Londoners that took to the streets a few weeks back, and the millions more that have been demonstrating worldwide, we Americans need to get our act together and begin to question the direction in which we are heading as a country and a planet. If we do not, choosing instead to continue along the path currently being blazed by Washington, then only ignorance and war will be our collective future.