Friday, July 08, 2005

My Interview with George W. Bush

Copyright 2005 by Miles Gloriosus.
Morning. I was getting my laundry out of the dryer and preparing to see my girlfriend. Well, she's not actually my girlfriend. She's a model on the provocative-but-tasteful "Republican Vixens" Web site. There's something fascinating about a blonde born-again Christian who mouths neoconservative war slogans while dressed in black leather. I firmly believe that if she knew me, she'd want to be my girlfriend.
The phone rang. I picked it up.
"Gloriosus?" the caller said.
"Yeah? You and what army?"
"The president wants to see you."
"Larry Summers?"
"Martin Sheen?"
"No. Bush. George W. Bush. That one."
It was starting to sound authentic. Secret Service agents are notorious for having no sense of humor.
I ended up that evening at the entrance to Blair House, a diplomatic residence across the street from the White House. A couple of thick-necked types with black suits and earpieces hustled me inside, then through a tunnel that led under Pennsylvania Avenue to a lower floor of the White House. We climbed some stairs and went into an office in the residence. Bush was sitting at a desk reading some papers. He waved the agents to wait in the hallway outside.
"You know why you're here?" he said.
"I suppose that you're either going to talk to me or have me killed. Or both," I said.
Bush laughed. "You've got a pair on you, boy, I'll say that for you. But it's nothing so lurid as you might imagine. To tell the truth, you're no threat. Do you own a TV network? Can you out-shout O'Reilly? Can you untangle Hannity's non sequiturs? Could you even get a letter to the editor published if we didn't want it to happen? Not a chance. Killing you would be more trouble than it's worth."
"On the other hand," he said, "you do seem to have figured out a lot of things. I don't often get a chance to talk to smart people who don't work for me and aren't trying to kiss my kiester. I just thought we could chat. It's more fun to do that when you're talking to someone who can understand."
I pulled a microcassette recorder from the pocket of my sport jacket. It's standard equipment for an old ex-newspaper reporter like me. I said, "Do you mind if I tape this, just to make sure that I quote you accurately?"
"No taping," Bush said. "I'll take that recorder, please."
I handed him the recorder. Not much point in arguing about it when there were half a dozen heavily-armed Secret Service agents just outside the door.
Bush opened a desk drawer and tossed the recorder inside. He pulled a $50 bill out of his wallet and gave it to me. "That should cover a new recorder. Don't worry. I'll expense it."
"Now, here are the ground rules for our chat," he said. "You can take notes. That's all. And when we're finished, on your way out, don't try stealing any of those White House coffee cups or ballpoint pens. The FBI warned me about how many Ramada Inn bath towels you have in your apartment. What you get is a one-on-one with the president. What you don't get is anything that would prove you were really here."
"Fair enough," I said.
Bush got up. There was a Mister Coffee machine on a table in the corner. "Do you want a cup? It's fresh. Then we can get started."
"Sure," I said. "Black …"
"… with three sugars," he said. "I take mine the same way. Aren't those FBI boys amazing? By the way, I can get you an introduction to that girl of yours on the Web site. Nice young lady. She's in the neuroscience Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins. That stuff about her being born-again was just to keep Ashcroft from raiding the Web site. He always had a bug up his shorts about that kind of thing."
He gave me the coffee, sat down in an easy chair, and took a sip from his own cup. "All right, we're comfy. Ask your questions."
I took a deep breath. "Everyone thinks that you lied about Iraq having WMDs and being connected to 9/11. Did you?"
"You bet your sweet bippy I did," he said. "But that's not the question to ask. The important question is, why did I lie? That's what makes me either a traitor or a true patriot."
"All right, why did you lie?"
"Because whether you like it or not, the world economy still runs on oil. The country that controls the largest oil reserves will have guaranteed prosperity at home and irresistible clout abroad. Which country do you want it to be? Russia? China? Japan? For me, there's only one acceptable answer: the United States, and only the United States, is going to control that oil."
Bush dropped another lump of sugar into his coffee cup. "What's the alternative? Picture gas at $20 a gallon," he said. "Picture unemployment that would make the Great Depression seem like the roaring 1990s. Picture Don Rumsfeld prancing around in one of J. Edgar Hoover's old pink dresses."
I broke into a cold sweat. I had a bicycle, and I was financially secure. But the image of Don Rumsfeld in a dress … I finally understood the kind of terror that the P.O.W.s at Guantanamo had to endure.
I said, "As for the 9/11 attacks, some people think that they were staged. They believe that your administration either let them happen or actively helped them happen. Did you?"
Bush waved his hand dismissively. "No matter what I say, people are going to believe what they want to believe about 9/11. A lot of them think it was damn suspicious that I kept sitting there with the schoolkids reading 'My Pet Goat' after learning that the attacks were underway. Others think I was a coward for flying all over the country in Air Force One instead of going right back to the White House after the attacks. As for me, I don't worry about that. I focus on moving forward, not on looking back."
I said, "I notice that you didn't answer my question."
Bush grinned. "No I didn't, did I?" He chuckled. "My, aren't you the observant one? It's too bad that The New York Times and The Washington Post don't have anyone quite that perceptive. They might have caught on to my little Iraq scam in time to prevent the war. If they'd had any cojones, which of course they don't, they might even have asked me a tough question or two."
Bush got up and started rummaging through the piles of books on his desk. "You know what Ralph Waldo Emerson said? 'Most of the great results of history are brought about by discreditable means.' Emerson wrote that in his book The Conduct of Life. I have it here someplace, if I can just find it … It's a really nice edition. One of those leather-bound jobs from Easton Press, I think."
Bush stood up from his desk. "I can't find it," he said. "But getting back to your question about Iraq. Sure, I lied my head off to start that war. It was discreditable as hell, as Emerson said. But if my analysis of the geopolitical situation was correct, then my discreditable little war will save the American economy from ruin and preserve our country's status as a world leader. I care more about that than I do about my pristine moral status. And though it sounds terrible, I care more about the welfare of Americans than I do about the welfare of Iraqis."
"My job as president isn't to be a 'fair arbiter' between the needs of Americans and those of everyone else in the world," he said. "My job is to protect the interests of Americans and America. God bless the rest of the world, but if they get in the way of what I think is best for America, then I'm sorry, but screw 'em. Bombs away."
I said, "Excuse me, but you seem to have a very limited notion of who's American. You aren't doing what's best for working people who see their sons and daughters killed in Iraq, whose jobs get shipped overseas, whose wages go down and whose taxes go up while giant corporations and multi-billionaires pay almost nothing in taxes on incomes higher than they've ever had before."
Bush sat back down and took another sip of coffee. He thought for a minute. "America is an abstraction," he said. "It means something different to everyone. It means people you know, places you grew up, holidays and customs you cherish. It means your family, books you like, and TV shows you watch. At a slightly greater remove, it means people similar to you, whom you think you understand."
"For you, America is those working people you talked about so eloquently. It's the soldiers who fought beside you in the battle of Macho Grande. It's cab drivers and unemployed computer programmers. For me, on the other hand, America is rich people. Very rich people. People who either inherited their money or made it through graft, monopolies, and crooked deals. I don't apologize for it. I was born into that estate. So when I talk about standing up for America, I'm being perfectly honest. I stand up for the America I know. I'm not indifferent to the 'little people' you love so much, but they're not on my 'A list' any more than I'm on theirs."
I said, "You also talk ad nauseam about how Americans are free. And yet we've now got your so-called 'Patriot' Act, pre-emptive arrests, and no-fly lists that stigmatize people as terrorists when they've done nothing 'wrong' except criticize your administration. We've got a government that taxes and regulates almost every aspect of life, from toilets to cars to our personal speech and conduct. How does that make you a defender of freedom?"
Bush nodded. "Yes, all that endless prattle about freedom bores me sometimes, too. But define what you mean by freedom. Is it everyone doing whatever he wants? Then you have no society. The freedom to fly on Air Force One? I've got it. The freedom to get thrown out of your house and live in a shelter? You've got it."
"I support the freedom for myself and other members of my social class to extract wealth from millions of working schnooks like you and to commit egregious crimes with impunity. But notice that in all my public statements about freedom, I never define what I mean by it. And nobody ever asks me. Just like standing up for America, when I say that I'm defending freedom, I'm being perfectly honest. I defend what freedom means to me."
"Let me tell you something else about freedom," Bush said. "Most people really don't want it. They want to be told that they're free, because it flatters them and makes them feel like Davy Crockett. But when it comes to actually being free -- and having all the responsibilities that freedom entails -- they'd much rather have Uncle Sugar looking out for them and telling them what to do."
He stretched in his chair. "What the American people want isn't freedom," he said. "What the American people want is cheap gasoline. Dirty movies and cable. Sports. Bread and circuses. They want a shot -- even if it's a very small shot -- at the big score. Yes, the chances of an honest person getting rich are lower than ever before. But if he or she does hit it big, the payoff is bigger than ever before. That's what I provide to every American: not a fair shake, but a shot at the big payoff."
"Mr. President, may I ask you something … a little sensitive?"
"Ask away," he said. "I might not answer."
" I don't agree with you about anything," I said. "But you seem … well, smarter than I expected."
"Ain't it a bitch?" he said. "Do you think I enjoy letting everyone believe that I'm a drooling moron who's just a sock puppet for Dick Cheney and Karl Rove? I don't. I'm a human being. Sometimes it hurts my feelings to hear what people say about me. But it's like Sun Tzu said in The Art of War: 'Though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective.'"
"What that means is, trick your adversaries into underestimating your strengths and overestimating your weaknesses," he said. "It worked for me in Texas, and it works for me now."
There was a knock at the door. A Secret Service agent stuck his head into the room. "Mr. President, they're waiting for you in the theatre."
"What's the movie tonight, Frank?" Bush said.
"It's 'Sleepless in Seattle' again, Mr. President. The First Lady insisted."
Bush snorted and looked at me. "Chick flick," he said. "I'd invite you to stay, but I know that you have to file your story. Frank, would you conduct Mr. Gloriosus out?"
"Yes, sir," the agent said.
Bush stood up and stuck out his hand. I hesitated for a moment, then I took it.
"It was good to meet you," he said. "And if you ever get to be too much of a pain in the ass, we'll always have Gitmo." He laughed.
"Thank you, Mr. President," I said. "Goodbye."
With Frank and another thickneck at my side, I walked back through the tunnel to Blair House.
When we reached the entrance, Frank handed me a piece of paper. "The President told me to give this to you," he said.
I looked at the paper. It said "Ilse, she-wolf of the Young Republicans, 301-555-1111. Don't call after 11pm."
I hopped onto a Metro train and headed home. I still thought that Bush was a disaster for America, but at least now I understood him.
And I really liked the White House coffee cup I had in my jacket pocket. I hoped that Ilse would like it, too.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Why the Chinese Are So Friggin' Smart

Copyright 2005 by Miles Gloriosus.

I've had an epiphany: I've finally figured out why the Chinese are so friggin' smart.

There's no point in denying it: on average, they're smarter than we white European types are. They blow the doors off the SATs, they (and other Asians) dominate the upper-GPA ranks in universities, and they even win most English-language spelling bees, though homeschooled white kids give them a run for their money. They also work like coal miners, which doesn't hurt at all.

But back to why the Chinese are so smart. Is it their diet? No. Is it their culture? No. Is it the length of their history? No, it's none of those things. It's their language. Really.

Chinese, which I've started to learn, must be the most accursedly difficult language in the world. I asked a young Chinese-American woman if she'd tutor me. She said that her parents had sent her to a Chinese-language high school, but that even she hadn't been able to learn the language with any degree of fluency.

Written letters in traditional Chinese are pictograms that you have to memorize; to make it easier for us foreigners (and to facilitate international commerce), the Chinese have developed a new system of writing called pinyin that uses standard English letters to transliterate words according to their pronunciation.

But even pinyin isn't much help, because the letters don't match very well with their English pronunciation: "z" is pronounced "ds," "c" is pronounced "tz," "iu" is pronounced "ee-oh," and so forth. Pinyin is a lousy pronunciation guide because it was devised by Chinamen who didn't know English very well. The previous system that pinyin replaced, Wade-Giles, was also a lousy pronunciation guide because it was devised by Englishmen who didn't know Chinese very well.

Transliteration isn't the only problem. In Chinese, it's not just the sounds you pronounce: it's also the pitch. A syllable can have a high and even pitch, or rising, falling, falling/rising, or neutral. Each word has its own combination of pronunciation and pitch, and when it's used in combination with other words, the pitch sometimes changes. Speaking Chinese is more like singing than talking. The trick is to learn the notes.

My theory of Chinese smartitude is this: Before you can have children, you have to ask a woman for a date. Before you can ask a woman for a date, you have to learn the language. And you can't learn Chinese unless you're pretty smart.

Therefore, in China, people who aren't pretty smart can't get dates. They either move to other countries that have easier languages, or they end up having no children. Over the centuries, the average Chinese IQ goes up and up as less-intelligent people are weeded out of the gene pool.

That's quite a bit different from the way it goes in the West, where less-intelligent members of the population start breeding when they're in their early teens and don't stop until biology calls the game for want of gametes. The more intelligent members of the population are all too busy going to college, grad school, and working 70-hour weeks at the law firm to have any kids. And I think we can all see which direction the average Western IQ is going: it ain't good, campers.

In the meantime, between now and the collapse of Western civilization, I'm struggling to learn putongwhah (Mandarin Chinese) so that I can speak it without causing every Chinese person in a five-mile radius to burst into uncontrollable laughter. Wish me "buena suerte."