The funny thing about Philly's alternative weekly newspapers is the utter unseriousness of their political commentary, most especially when they deign to be serious. It's all so reliably predictable -- one frequently need only take one look at a headline or byline to instantly know what one is about to read. Honestly, the alt-weeklies' politics makes for a cutesy, run-along-now diversion when measured next to the papers' otherwise sound (if somewhat occasionally overwritten) arts and music commentary.
That said, Brian Howard's editor's letter in this week's Philadelphia City Paper really does set a new standard for narcissism, vanity, and self-righteous sanctimoniousness masquerading as true political insight. It reads like a childish book report, and its tone represents everything I find distasteful about contemporary liberalism, even in this era of Bush administration excesses and disappointments. [Disclosure: I know Brian Howard. I went to college with him.]
Brian Howard hates war, you see. Passionately. So much so that he was "on the verge of shedding angry tears" at the dawn of the conflict in Iraq. It's such an admirable stand, really. So admirable I can't wait for him to weigh in on his opposition to kicking puppies, murdering your neighbor, and forgetting to call your mother on Mother's Day. But it goes deeper than that, gentle reader. See, Brian Howard once spent a few "intense months" in Cairo, where he interacted with "Muslims from a number of Middle Eastern countries." And guess what? He became friendly with -- wait for it -- "people with beliefs much different from my own but with concerns not so dissimilar." No! Really! It can't be! I was reminded of all those kids in Leningrad and Kiev during the 1980s, the ones you sometimes read about who wore blue jeans and listened to the Beatles and Tears for Fears at the clubs while openly wondering why Reagan and Gorbachev couldn't just shake hands and get on with that whole peace thingy because, you know, we're really not that different deep down, man, and peace in our time would only happen if people just sort of, you know, let it happen and stuff. Except, of course, for the inconvenient fact that the Soviet leadership had begun that decade by invading Afghanistan, much like it had been swallowing up the eastern bloc, Central America and even southeast Asia since the end of World War II (God, I miss the Cold War). Fast forward to today, where the Iranians are about to go nuclear at a time when their president consistently makes idle boasts about wiping one of his neighbors off the map, to say nothing of entire cultures who are rapidly reproducing while simultaneously raising many of their children to strap bombs to their waists before sending them into pizza parlors and nightclubs to blow up grandmothers and teenagers. Look, one can argue reasonably about whether Iraq was the proper front for the current conflict, but the sad fact of life is that war is a perpetual part of the human condition. The only way 9/11 really "changed everything" was by reminding us once again of this unfortunate reality. But Brian Howard is conspicuously silent about all that and what to possibly do about it, since it would requite actually thinking and understanding something that doesn't directly concern him.
Now, I will give the City Paper credit for this: Doron Taussig's lengthy cover story interview with Bassam Sebti, an Iraqi who has come to the U.S. to study writing while leaving his family behind, is fascinating, thorough and nuanced. Many readers, in fact, will no doubt miss this little nugget toward the end of the piece: "...Bassam does not believe America should pull its troops immediately out of Iraq. He doesn't even believe that the invasion necessarily had to be a bad thing for Iraqis. He does believe that Americans and Iraqis will need to work together to build a better Iraq, and if that's going to happen, Americans will need to pressure their leaders to make better decisions, and offer more than blithe assurances that things are getting better." In other words, despite having endured more direct misery than any of us will ever know, Bassam Sebti is still thinking about the long-term stakes. He's remarkably aware of what lies beyond the here and now. His part of the world, perhaps more so than ours, needs more people like him.
But Brian Howard, in trying to draw on the human toll of the Iraq War as if he were the first to think of such a thing, only insults Sebti's (and his readers') intelligence when he writes: "It's important to see this war, when we do bother to see it, to look beyond explosions and try to imagine the hell living through this war for the last five years has been for families, civilians in Iraq. Reading Bassam's story brought a lot of that back for me." Good to know, pal. Good to know.
That's not even the worst of it, though. See, Brian Howard wonders, just after Memorial Day, how many of us even realize we're in a war. He then proceeds to point out that he spent Memorial Day weekend vacationing in Maine with his girlfriend's family, a jaunt that included a swing by the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, which his girlfriend's father "saluted" as he drove past. Got that, gentle reader? Brian Howard is thinking about the war. Brian Howard hates the war. Brian Howard hates George W. Bush. And Brian Howard hates you for not thinking about all this as much as he does, even as he's happily sticking his feet in the sand, smug with his own sense of moral superiority.