Archive for November, 2008

The Pyramid

November 25, 2008

The Pyramid
by Ismail Kadare

When I was a kid, my mom would “take a break” from us every summer. She required two to three months a year to herself in order “to deal.” Once I was four years old, she no longer needed to fly with us to drop us off. Instead, a stewardess was assigned to escort us from the gate to our relatives. Sometimes, we had never met these people before. This could be a little touchy when she shipped us off to Egypt. As an Egyptian citizen (unlike my little brother), my father’s custody rights superseded my mother’s in Egypt. I had to studiously avoid his relatives whenever we visited the old country. My mother shit-talked them all the time, so we were terrified of what would happen to us if we were ever captured. When I was eleven, Ameer and I landed in Egypt and wandered off with the first guy to call out our names. His preeminent feature was his bad teeth. This didn’t signify anything other than that he was a native – God Willing he was a paternal or maternal relative. Possibly, just a native child molester. In the end, he did indeed turn out to be on the maternal side of our family and didn’t molest either of us, as far as I can remember.

On that trip, I fell sick. With a temperature of 106 degrees, it was deemed best to separate me from Ameer. He was sent to Alexandria to play on the beach with our cousins (Sod the aggro soccer enthusiast and his blond twin sisters, Dahlia and Abir, who had a crush on Ameer and would both climb all over him, tickling), while I was left in Cairo to fever dreams, to socks filled with ice held to my crotch, to daily reruns of Knots Landing. During moments of lucidity, my bi-polar cousin, Ousama, would ruthlessly drill me on the history of ancient Egypt. Studying to become an archaeologist, Ousama felt I should be able to recite the various dynasties and their chief innovations backwards and forwards. He tested me on the structure of the Great Pyramid; he explained, without historical murk or racist space aliens, how they were constructed. While my energy flagged, he would ease up and monologue-bitch about selected historians and archaeologists. Ousama was eight years older than I, but he died five years ago, drowning after the publication of his second book. I haven’t written a book yet, but I’ve blogged more than he did. When publishing porn, I even used to use his as my pen-name. Believe it or not, he drowned in the Nile. Only in my family do people drown in a desert.

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T’was most certainly true, that if the people of the Old World could have built a house up to Heaven, they should never be drowned again on Earth, and they had only forgot to measure the height, that is, as in other projects, it only miscarried, or else it would have succeeded.
– Daniel Defoe

Ismail Kadare’s take on Egypt is much less personality driven than my own, yet lacks nothing in charisma. The Pyramid is a historical novel without characters, without missing a beat of character development. The greatest historical novel ever written would be Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with Prue’s plaintiff, “I wanna die… I gwanna die.” The Pyramid is also a novel about slavery and its costs, yet it tells no one person’s story. This is a book without subjectivity; completely about how subjectivity worked in ancient Egypt.

The secret to pyramids is the open secret that they don’t exist to raise their Pharaoh’s to heaven. They exist to lay waste to his country. A eunuch invented the concept:

Rumor had it that it was Reneferef, the guardian of the harem, who bizarrely suggested looking for some mechanism that would sterilize part of Egypt’s riches. Ambassadors serving in the lands of the Orient reported huge waterworks in Mesopotamia, on a scale out of all proportion, people said, to their economic product. If that was so, and it probably was so, then Egypt also needed to find some means of consuming the excess energy of its population. To launch works colossal beyond imagining, the better to debilitate its inhabitants, to suck them dry. In a word, something exhausting, something that would destroy body and soul, and without any possible utility. Or to put it more precisely, a project as useless to its subjects as it would be indispensable to the state.

The cradle of civilization is where mankind’s early leaders attempted to commit infanticide on our species. Georges Bataille believed that many early economies were based on reckless expenditure, and, in fact, this bolstered the rule of leaders instead of undermining them. Intervening in the accepted history of world economies, Bataille argued against the utilitarian assumptions behind their recounting of events. Classical thought, from Hobbes to Marx, with their commodity fundamentalism, explained the motor of history as the interplay between desire and self-interest. From Bataille’s more anthropological perspective, desire and self-interest cannot adequately account for the complexities of inflation, for luxury, for war, for cultural traditions of human sacrifice (see his chapter on Aztec society in The Accursed Share) or for the collateral beauty and torment of ordinary acts of daily waste in a bulimic culture of scarcity. Study of primitive, non-European, cultures shows that wealth was amassed for the express purpose of wasting it deliberately in mind-boggling shows of sovereign power. According to Bataille, ancient cultures viewed sacrifice in the same way that we view working.

Cheops, who wavered early on regarding the question of ever building his own pyramid, is swayed by his advisers, who do not relate history as objective fact, but resort to unquestionable, unspecifiable, rumor. Knowing that they can’t be personally blamed for “rumor” (as opposed to direct advice and opinion), they turn one of the Pharaoh’s greatest tools of terror against him to convince him to surrender his obstinacy and order the construction of his own tomb. Rumor is the greatest weapon in the Egyptian arsenal. “… Reports revealed that everywhere in Egypt people were talking only of the pyramid and that each individual and each event was systemically thought of in its relation to the great work. Some women remained indifferent to these rumors, believing they were not concerned, until one fine morning they discovered that their husband, their lover, or all their children of school age bar none had to leave for the Abusir quarries – and then you heard tears, or shouts of joy.”

Much of the story of the Pyramid’s construction is told through these reports and rumors. One magnificent chapter tells the story of some of the thousand individual stones that constituted the various levels; where they came from, how many men died carrying them, stories of whether they were cursed or blessed, the specific number of amputations and maimings that went into lifting each one into place, and so on. The stones are named by number and level. Several were believed to have wrongfully altered the orientation of the structure; other stones were accused of fraudulent origins.

Slowly, through the biography of the atomic pieces of the pyramids, a larger story about totalitarianism comes together. Kadare’s book is an attack on the dream-work of the Albanian communist regime under which he was raised, its gestures of monumentality and its wasteful projects, with their unabashed propaganda and clear imperatives of social management. Much like that geckos book — John Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians — its allegorical nature and rich historical detail are meant to deflect censorship. Unlike Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this isn’t an intimate story, meant to frame the human cost of slavery. This is a story about how slavery works and how it attaches itself to our minds, the similarity between sacrificial victims and their executioners as their bond is triangulated over the pyramid; how it sends its victims into hysterical frenzies as they anticipate and envision punishment from above; how it pervaded the ancient world’s very sense of time.

One of the great chapters is the one where Egyptians begin to whisper treason about the “post-pyramidal era” in anticipation of its imminent completion. A wave of persecution hits the country in a search for post-pyramidal treason. Sumer itself braces for a wave of Egyptian imperialism as resources meant for the pyramid are post-pyramidally redirected.

Another chapter where the mechanism of power is explored takes place four hundred years after the pyramid is constructed; “The Counter-Pyramid” tells the story of the revolt of historians against Cheops and his pyramid; how revisionism itself becomes a way to maintain the status quo.

This is not some bleak story where you feel sorry for people. There’s no sympathy in it at all. Many of these slaves embrace their death, superstitiously throwing themselves off the ledges of the pyramid as it edges closer to completion. The book is objective and fascinating; Ayn Rand would give her left testicle to write this novel. History isn’t used as PBS/NPR-style window dressing (where, for example a gong is struck every single time a story about China is being reported) meant to draw you in and distract and passively educate you at the end of the day. A gruesome chapter on Genghis Khan’s famous pyramid of human skulls demonstrates the awe in which the Great Pyramid was held. For a time, ancient historians claimed that Khan’s pyramid existed first; it was a more authentic pyramid than Egypt’s “great” one; time had reversed itself and the Great Pyramid was seen to have been a mere modal expression of Khan’s primal pyramid of terror shining through time. A purer expression of sovereign will, the Skullstack

was unaffected by rumors or by flattery, it consumed men’s heads in a few hours, in the time it took for a qatl i amm, instead of dragging things out for years or decades and making people wade through files and investigations beyond counting, not to mention cuts in bread ration, anguish, and despair. Its diamantine density gave it its sparkle, its brilliance was in the idea that governed its construction: and the upshot of all this was that the rhapsodists and subsequently the scholars of Samarkand eventually proclaimed that the first authentic pyramid had risen in the Isfahan steppe, and that its Egyptian rival was a crude replica of a later date. Although this claim may have at first sounded somewhat bizarre, close attention to the ballads of the shamans would have informed you that, since no one could say whether time flowed forward or backward, no one could be sure of the ages of people and things, and thus their order of appearance was even less fixed. In other words, who can tell who is the father and who is the son? And so on.

Historians later changed their minds as animals began to drag Khan’s skulls out of place and natural disasters began to discorporate the pyramid. The historical novel dreams that time can flow backwards as well as forwards; that power’s roots can be traced to its flows, that the a picture of a pyramid can work as an x-ray, making it transparent, opening its secrets and holocausts as it unfolds like a horror film before our prying eyes, history’s cancers revealed.

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I stopped going to Egypt. I lost interest a long time ago. I’d like to give my mother “a break,” that’s for sure, but not the kind that involves me disappearing into the dusty crevices of Egyptian homes for two to three months. With Ousama dead, there’s even less reason to visit Egypt. Before he died, he worked as a curator at the Greek and Roman museum in Cairo (for which he actually had a great deal of nationalist contempt leavened by historical curiosity), then later he curated at the Cairo museum before taking a university post. He’d drag my tourist ass behind the scenes and put mummied faces to the names I’d memorized. Like most modern visitors to Egypt’s great monuments, Ousama was struck by the sublimity of the pyramids. For me, visiting them was a huge pain in the butt. Even as a kid, I was too tall and gangly to walk around in one comfortably. I’d have to get on my knees and crawl under stones, nearly panicking with claustrophobia. Ancient Egyptians must have been midgets. With my high center of gravity, I’d feel an imminent fall coming on while crossing reinforced bridges inside the Great Pyramid. Of course, the tomb itself is always a disappointment, raided long ago (as related by Kadare). To me, the pyramids were a family obligation. Something I had to visit, like some annoying, red-haired, pleather clad, steel hooped earinged, Egyptian aunt.

Once, though, I did feel what travelers are supposed to feel in the presence of pyramids. I had 17 cousins on my mother’s side, and many of us were born in the same one year period. One summer, Ousama dragged a number of us out to Giza at the same time. My cousins and my brother ran to the horses. I lagged behind, but no horses were left. Only a camel. While everyone raced off, I was left with a spitting, shitting, monstrosity, who would sit down every thirty seconds to take another huge crap. The odor was overbearing. The camel driver kept apologizing to me in Arabic, while I explained to him this kind of shit was par for the course with me and not to sweat it. Finally, all the horses raced around the other side of the pyramid. The camel and I reached a point where the city of Giza was entirely obscured by the Great Pyramid. All that was left was blue sky, sand, pyramid and shitting camel. To this day, I consider that moment of solitude one of the most shattering experiences of my life.

The Joy Spoiler

November 21, 2008

San Francisco is a green and pleasant land. Dat and I were driving along the road overlooking the ravine preservation of Glen Park. For six months, that ravine was a source of terror and anxiety as I thought my cat, Harry, had escaped into it and gone native. It turns out he was just walking into neighbor’s houses and eating their cat food. This weekend, I returned and enjoyed the scene without those negative connotations. We were having a nice time until Dat turned serious and said to me, “You have a tendency to spoil other people’s joy. It drives them away.” Then he patted my arm and clasped it. Softly softly now, “Thought you should know.”

Over brunch with my friend, Audrey, and my cousin, Ali, I asked if this was true. Audrey snorted, “He should talk.” Ali calmly explained, “You don’t spoil other people’s joy. You’re just indifferent to it. Like, if I’m doing a crossword puzzle, you’ll come in and ask ‘Why are you doing a crossword puzzle?'” I could understand the distinction since a true joy spoiler would come along with all the answers for the crossword puzzle.

During the visit, the Joy Spoiler label haunted me. I felt especially compromised by my cynicism over the anti-Prop 8 rage in California right now. I oppose marriage. Gays are self-righteous and smug enough without it. Dat was bored by my view: “It’s the same. It hasn’t changed.” “I’m a bit surprised that yours has,” I chastised. We went to the Sprint store so I could get a new phone and Dat could discuss our phone plan. “We’ve been arguing about marriage,” he told the Sprint representative, clasping my arm once more. The two of us bickered and carried on a meta-drama about an ill-suited relationship between two horrific bitches, as we discussed Sprint’s rate for calling cell phones in Italy as opposed to landlines in Italy. At dinner, a few minutes later, he exasperatedly summed it up for everyone at the table, “I’m for Prop 8, but I voted against it.” That settled the issue for the evening.

When Dat said this my mind wandered to when Michael used to call me “husband” during his little fantasies that what we had was a married life. Later, he decided I didn’t have the requisite income to be married to him, but when thinking of Prop 8 in conjunction with the concept of the Joy Spoiler I finally understood our relationship. He saw marriage as a kind of dewy sentimental union with its place in civic life, a place in a familial constellation and with a concrete class status. I have heard all the familiar excuses and rationalizations ad nauseum, such as hospital visitations rights, for example, with its pathetic portrait of the faggot dying of AIDS and his tearful lover clenching the handkerchief from his back pocket while locked outside in the waiting room by a big black nurse. These abstractions which California gays consider “practical” diverged from my more concrete conception of my future together with Michael. I always imagined he and I growing old with him tolerating and loving me in spite of all my actively annoying bullshit.

As I moved the Korean bar-b-que over the grill, my mind wandered to what Tao Lin once Confucianly wrote: “Love is a thing on sale for more money than there exists.” On the flight back, I thought of Tao Lin some more, and wondered if — since he is definitely a joy spoiler, but one who gives me great joy — would I ever, conceivably, be able to seduce him out of heterosexuality. I realized that seduction might be difficult since I have such great difficulty gauging his intelligence.

I, Los Angeles

November 13, 2008

I’m finally home. Roughing it in the provinces (Chicago) has been hell on earth. The Asians here don’t skulk looking like outnumbered victims. Here they constitute a population. Walking across the USC campus for a cup of coffee (USC Arabesque architecture is a beautiful rip-off of UCLA’s), I saw that it’s Gender Studies Week — there will be a Trans-Asian panel this afternoon. Even the Trans-Asians here can speak. A guy just winked at me. I listen to the delightful babble of Spanish in the coffee shop. My half-breed cousin, Ali, who works at USC tells me that there will be a REMIX Celebration on campus to celebrate our first mixed race President. Oh well, at least they’re trying.

The flight over was bumpy. Weather in the midwest is predictably horrific. As the stewardess explained how to use the oxygen masks, I turned to the guy next to me and explained, “I am a like a child, so in the event of an emergency please fix the oxygen mask on your face first.” He laughed, “I’ll make sure mine is securely fastened before putting yours on.”

Los Angeles greeted me with a breath of warm air and two traffic jams between 9 and 10 PM. One, on Fairfax, we suspected of being due to a “flash anti Prop 8 rally.” How cute! I haven’t seen a flash protest in years! The swarming LAPD choppers and cars blocking Fairfax welcomed me back into the prickly embrace of sanctioned fascism as a way of life.

At Damianos (“Mr. Pizza”), the manager who used to berate the Eastern European waitresses he picked up from the dock (threatening them with INS) no longer worked there. Instead we got a Hispanic waitress running wild, with no discipline or fear of the authorities whatsoever. She was dressed in a Target bought Run DMC t-shirt and a princessy bow in her hair, which was fitting since she was a real little fucking princess. More interested in dishing up big bowls of spaghetti to Robert Forster at the table next to us, she kept bouncing along to tell us “don’t worry. I’ll be right with you.” After taking half an hour to pull my beer out of the refrigerator, she bounced up to tell me “don’t worry. Your beer will be up in a moment.” “This isn’t my worried face, honey. It’s my pissed off face.” The whole time I was fixed on watching Forster stuff mound after mound of spaghetti and meatballs into his mouth. It was mesmerizing. There’s a reason people make spaghetti at home — no one looks good eating it in public. I kept chastising Ali for turning around to look while I couldn’t stop giving him my grossed out look in the restaurant gloom. (Damianos has no lights other than an apparantly new set of green Christmas lights strung up). I’d been eager to get some pizza down my throat for the whole flight. When I mentioned it to the guy next to me, he asked “Who goes to LA for pizza?” I explained how disgusting I found Chicago deep dish pizza. He scoffed, saying that Chicago has the best pizza in the world. I asked him where a good place to get some would be, and he answered “I come from an Italian family. We make our own pizza.” “That’s great. Since you’re not in a position to make me some, I’ll settle for some LA thin crust.”

I’m happy here. As I finish writing this, now in Westwood, I return from racing to the car with quarters only to find the meter man fixing my meter and giving me a free two hours. Exuberantly, I shouted to a silver haired woman passing by, “It’s been ten years since I’ve been in LA. God, I’ve missed this place.” She joyously welcomed me back.

Right now the city is going through The Great Shakeup exercises — the biggest earthquake preparation activity in world history. Kids are going to school with bloody make up, and have been briefed on the degree of their injuries. The community is coming together with triage on every street corner. Last night, as I looked at the Hollywood sign and Griffith Obervatory from Ali’s window, he mentioned “There was a big fire up there, over by Griffith, a little while back. The view was spectacular.”

I acknowledge that this city is hell on earth, but I fit. I never want to leave. This place shocks me an with an electric feel. I especially don’t want to leave for SF tomorrow night, but I promised some friends that I’d come visit. Since they did me a few good turns once when I was a homeless man with three cats, I feel obliged not to renege. Tonight I’ll be heading off to Meltdown Comics. Hopefully, they’ll have a copy of The Loaded Bible, which I’ve wanted to grab for some time.

Obey, and Dance

November 7, 2008

The above Obey images were taken at the Folsom parade by a friend of my friend and former, roommate, Sammy.

The day after the election brought me an intense high. For eight years, I’d been suffering from political depression. Eight years ago, the last civil conversation I had with my mother was truncated by a fight over Bush’s theft of the presidency. “I don’t see what there is to get so upset about,” she said of the Supreme Court decision to my intense annoyance. For years, I’ve been cherishing a fantasy of humiliating revenge against the Republican party for their crimes. 9/11 only made that worse, as they hijacked the country in a wave of “who the hell are you?” patriotism and an undertow of nationally sanctioned violence. For years, I shared Roger D. Hodge’s eloquently phrased disdain of the Democratic machine for refusing to fight dirty — to fight back at all — against our emerging tyranny.

That depression was palpable all around me. I feel it’s the reason I ended up in an incredibly destructive relationship with Michael. His soft leftyism couldn’t stand up against the system. Rather, it expressed itself in Human Rights mumbo jumbo and a brief fling with Arab fetishism. I ended up being an experiment, a dalliance, that could never last. Political desire doesn’t have longevity. I kept telling him to stop donating to the Gay Human Rights fund. I would have made better use of that money — and it would have lasted longer than our love anyway. This was true Socialism on my part. An investment bank paid him from their ill-gotten gains, he would give me the money, and I, a Communist, would spend it on books.

Election night brought me incredible, unheard of, levels of satisfaction. As states kept tumbling Obama’s way, I felt one long spiritual orgasm after another. I’d given my tacit support to that bitch, Hillary, only because I believed a defeat of the Republicans at her hands would have given me the most satisfaction. I was fine with choosing Obama’s neo-liberalism over the neo-con imperialism of the past eight years only because I feel deep down that Obama was cloned four years ago — specifically designed right before the 2004 DNC to crush the current Republican regime. He was a weapon of the unconscious — the return of the real — that would shatter the psychotic subjectivity that had overtaken our nation. I have no interest in his policies. In fact, I find them rather distasteful. But, like all politicians, he’s a blank screen. He’ll say whatever his advisers project onto him. They already seem like an efficient, effective, bunch.

For all my cynicism, however, I can’t ignore the cultlike, subjective, effects of his victory. People are truly happy. I can see it all over the southside, Chicago, neighborhood where I live. The black people here are teary-eyed and overjoyed. This really means a lot to them. People look at the little black boys and are clearly thinking, “he could be president some day.” I see shoppers buying up copies of every newspaper they can. A friend who works at a frame store tells me that people are pouring in to get their Obama images framed. One woman came up and hugged me. While, I am immune from the optimism, I can see that it’s real for others.

For me, the main effect is that the day after the election I forgot to take my anti-depressant. It was unnecessary. My body felt like I’d already taken it. Not only had the enemy been defeated, but it wasn’t by some guy named John Kerry. It was by a guy with a Muslim name. Irony only made the victory seem sweeter.

I ask all readers to write in to me with their suggestion for the perfect Obama inauguration dance music. Reader, Zed, suggests Chocolate City. “God bless Chocolate City, and its Vanilla Suburbs.” But I’d like a multitude of suggestions to pass onto my musical consultant, Josef, before we decide for Obama.

Caligula for President, Or, Your Misanthropy Makes Me Hot

November 4, 2008
As a populace, you are immature and emotionally retarded. Your crazy-dreamer-style political decision making is based on a totally optimistic disregard for actual politics, the learning process and logic in general.
— Caligula

As I stood in line at 5:30 AM to get the bullshit voting process out of the way by offering myself to the abstract intellectual space of free-play that leads to wise political judgment which we Americans locate in the voting booth (now replaced by the small “voting table” and the unwieldy “privacy card”), I took note of the smugness of my fellow voters. As one woman haughtily emerged from behind her voting box to announce that she had spoiled her ballot and needed another one, I was counseled to be patient by the Church volunteer who sat there handing out pens. I snapped at her, “I am being patient!” Earlier, I gave her my voter registration card. “Don’t you want to see my ID?” “That’s not really necessary,” she said. “Yes it is,” I ordered. “My vote isn’t getting disqualified on any grounds.” I couldn’t believe these people taking their vote for granted. Yuppies. These days you have to kick some ass to make sure they process your vote.

Another overly caffeinated woman kept discussing her volunteer work for Obama while rapping a copy of The New Yorker against her knuckles. I looked around wondering, “how many of these assholes have subscriptions to The New Yorker? Jesus Christ, what a racket. They really are cleaning up.” Everyone around me felt good. Even though I was the best looking person in the polling station, they all looked good, as if they felt clean. They felt optimistic. Our nation is ready to optimistically suffer itself back into economic prosperity for the next few years, and we will feel morally cleansed as we pull out of Iraq and remain militarily ensconced only in Afghanistan.

When I heard Obama claim that our troops only belong in Afghanistan looking for the perpetrators of 9/11, I felt the bottom fall out of my stomach. What is the point of war if we are not cynically seeking an extension of our vital resources? While George Bush’s attack on Iraq was blatant, Straussian, imperialism, it had a clear goal: If our military is not going to be trolling for oil, then really what is the fucking point?! And Obama considers himself leadership material?

“Only the Intelligent Vote Obama” stickers, “A vote for McCain/Palin is evil blog posts” and other examples of moral and cognitive self-righteousness mixed in with election time platitudes have been torture to sit through. The willingness to lie, cheat, and steal — the sheer ruthlessness of the rule by might of the past eight years — has been refreshing, if not a tad depressing, in its openness about the true nature of power in this society. The Republicans used the Strauss chapbook. They channeled Machiavelli and Stalin, instead of Lenin. Since my academic interest is largely in the history of ruthlessness and paranoia, I found the past decade educational. As obviously as the moral (does anyone care about morals anymore) of Antigone is don’t fuck around with nut-jobs, the (im)moral of the Republican party’s exploits as the ruling party is that viciousness in politics pays. I don’t need my Vice-President to believe the earth is round! Obama’s speeches could pass for a high school civics class lecture. The next four years promise to be boring with the ethical platitudes and veiled corruption.

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I also found Cintra Wilson’s Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny, to be incredibly educational. The premise is that Caligula has returned from the dead and the book constitutes his campaign for the American presidency. “America is thisssclose–right on the front-yard line–of having a real, live, old-fashioned, dynastic totalitarian monarchy-cum-military dictatorship. And I intend to drop-kick America orgasmically through this goalpost.” Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, like presidents from the Bush family, the Clinton family the Gore/Kennedy family, and all the other incestuous oligarchies that have ruled America (see The House of Yes), was born into the dynastic line of power. As with their administrations, insanity and sexual perversity and poor government went together. The book gives not only a history lesson on Caligula’s rise to power, the smotherings and political assassinations, the debauchery and the rape of state, the ascension into godhood and the free for all (or, rather, free for him) of his reign, but also shows how it applies to America today. Chapters range from a discussion of dynasty in politics to domestic propaganda, perception management, state religion (monumentality), political depression, Theft (tax give-aways; bribery), “security,” and builds up to chapters like “A Hello to Arms; Or, Eternal War for Eternal War; Or, Catching Your Dick in the Zipper of Imperial Overreach,” and “The Political Animal Must Eat Itself: Paranoia, Cannibalism and Existential Angst.”

When discussing perception management, Wilson employs the anthropological concept of “interpretive drift,” the theory of how “rational thinking can gradually become irrational. It’s the way normal people become cult members, for example, or free Americans become slave labor for a totalitarian military dictatorship.” This leads her into an explanation of how Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric (and owner of NBC) used his corporate interest to manipulate NBC news’ election coverage so as to have Bush called as winner of Florida the unforgettable night of the 2000 election. While Welch’s involvement was investigated, it was hardly reported upon. And even if it had made the front pages, Caligula rejoices in the knowledge that

PR agencies like Burson-Marsteller can literally fix any reputation. You can go down to Bhopal and spray oven cleaner into the eyes of orphans for six months, just for fun, and they’ll make it look like you were trying to correct their astigmatism.

How does the drift take place? During the past eight years, every major story about the current administration’s corruptions and manipulations (when reported) has been sidelined by conveniently breaking stories about Britney Spears, Anna Nicole Smith and Lindsay Lohan. “Lindsay Lohan’s personal issues considerably helped to eclipse the dismissal of the U.S. attorneys controversy,” claims Wilson, as she tracks the news cycle on July 24 and 25, 2007. After asking “Did Betsy Ross do more for her country than Lindsay?” and “Which story do you remember happening?” Wilson cum Caligula proclaims that Lohan is a small potatoes distraction:

Paris Hilton is, in fact, a Warholian genius of media manipulation. If Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana were “candles in the wind,” and Anna Nicole Smith was a bonfire in a hailstorm, and Lindsay Lohan is an electric toaster oven thrown intentionally into a Jacuzzi, then Paris Hilton is a strobe light in an epilepsy ward.

Hilton “managed” to begin her jail sentence on the same day that Scooter Libby was sentenced. “Was this sheer luck? Pure coincidence? Or was it raw patriotism?” Hilton has been quoted in Glamour Magazine on the subject of Palin as saying “I think she’s hot and I think it’s great that a woman is running for office. … I don’t think she’s stupid – she wouldn’t be where she is today if she was stupid. I think she’s smart, and it’s just because she’s a woman people are saying she’s not.” Paris would know… or wouldn’t. I’m confused. As Caligula points out in his campaign speech, “tragedy comes from the Greek words tragos, meaning “Goat” … and odia, meaning “song.” It was basically an ancient Greek entertainment-industry term — tragoidia–meaning “goat men sacrifice song.”” Today, he points out, it has been replaced by “designated celebrity scapegoating.” It is

the prevailing cultural trope I whimsically like to call “Death to the Slut.” Admit it. America is really not so different from Somalia: You love to stone the adulteress just as much as anyone under sharia law. You just prefer to psychologically torture your fallen women to death because it takes longer. I understand… The yellow press will hound a blonde into an early grave every five years or so, and parade her bloody bedsheets through the streets, and oily black gushers of inexhaustible tabloid revenue will blast up out of supermarket lines everywhere and fall upon us all like a dirty mist.

One of the great devices of the book is the way in which Caligula constructs revenge fantasies against celebrity culture for its distracting tactics. “As punishment for cycling with members of the last administration, Lance Armstrong will be forced to wear a very tight stack of yellow rubber bracelets around his only remaining testicle for several months. For charity, of course.” Crime appropriate punishments are meted out against Tucker Carlson, Willie Geist, Bill Hemmer, Dana Perino, Ann Coulter, Ryan Seacrest (who a slut friend of mine, Meagan, once dated years ago. Yes, he is as miserable in bed as you’d expect), Jessica Alba, and more.

The scope of Cintra’s argument can be difficult to manage. She and Caligula weave through ancient Rome, back to the Clintons, the Bush family, the Sopranos and to the Hiltons. The book is a history lesson, a history of our present and its own social theory. “Realpolitik is not for the twee. If you really want to understand how worlds corrode, you have to look at the fragile web of interconnected personal relationships in top cabinet positions,” says Caligula before discussing his uncle Tiberius, as well as Bush’s recent self-awarding of classified Presidential powers, and the close proximity of Presidential statutes to actual law now that Congressional recognition has been granted to them. It’s truly refreshing, for once, to read a conspiracy theorist who writes from the point of view of the conspiracy! You really think Obama will agree to lessen his own power? If so, Caligula has an aqueduct he wants to sell you.

Anyone who’s been around the historical block a few times knows that democracies tend to mutate into either empires or anarchies, both of which tend to devolve quite handily into tyrannies, and all of which ultimately decompose into authoritarian military dictatorships. You may whine all you like, but I can’t guarantee your safety afterwards. I prefer to think that America is moving away from the stagnant democracy it has been mired in, according to stodgy, literal, Borkian interpretations of ancient documents like the Constitution (which is as risible as any literal interpretation of any document from the New Testament to The Hobbit), and moving into something truly exciting: a more Rabelaisian, “carnivalesque” democracy…

In fact, Obama may represent a considerably greater danger than McCain ever would have. The religious power Obama holds over people with the words “hope” and “change” is quite frightening. As I keep telling people, the optimism they feel when he speaks is pure ideology. Their viscera is enacted and their bodies become complicit in his (homophobic and misogynistic) opportunist political program. I am sure he will be less horrible a president than McCain (which was the only criteria I used in voting for him), however, there is something compelling about the Caligulan logic that says we should be choosing the more horrible candidate. It’s the logic of political obscenity (not political satire; there is a difference). It’s the logic that demands even greater feats of extravagant corruption to which no one will react just to see how far we can be tested. For, if Obama is our reaction, then we truly are incapable of considered reaction.

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After I voted, I trudged my way to Starbucks. I was informed that if I showed the barista my voter card, I’d get a free coffee. It’s one of the many “discounts”/bribes for voting available today. I ordered a blueberry muffin I didn’t really want along with my free grande, decaff, lotta room for cream, cafe Americano, because I felt bad just trotting in and getting only free stuff. Then I showed my proof of voting. The barista frowned and said in a baby voice, “oh, that’s only good for talls, not grandes.” I ended up spending $4.50 I never planned on spending. As I stood there, munching on my stale muffin, I felt all my hope for change slide away. It’s gonna be a long four years without you, Caligula.