Thursday, March 22, 2007


Possibly because Vanity Fair and Slate must wonder why they feature Christopher Hitchens so prominently, considering how wrong he’s been on Iraq over so much time and with so many words, Hitchens has used this week’s Slate column to defend himself.

It almost seems he’s going to say something worthwhile; the column bears the headline “So, Mr. Hitchens, weren’t you wrong about Iraq?” and the subhead “Hard questions, four years later.” But the article is tough in the same way as those “town meetings” led by President Bush, where no one is allowed in unless they share Bush’s point of view and all questions are handed in on paper ahead of time. So Hitchens asks himself eight questions and answers them all.

Well, not really. For instance, he asks whether Colin Powell’s performance before the United Nations was a disgrace, but his answer, as brief as it is, is primarily about side issues. (“A few points of interest did emerge,” he writes, with one of the two being that “Iraqi authorities were caught on air trying to mislead U.N. inspectors (nothing new there).” It is left to the reader to decide whether saying there’s “nothing new” contradicts Hitchens calling it a point of interest. I decide it does. This is weak stuff.) He also defends the Iraqi terrorism defense of the war by saying, somewhat oddly, that the Bush administration “never claimed that Iraq had any hand in the events of Sept. 11, 2001.” It’s old news Bush and the Republicans linked Iraq and 9/11 by implication and rhetorical trick every chance they got, so this refutation is so gratuitous as to be counterproductive. The very act of bringing it up is damaging and silly — kind of the “I never promised you a rose garden” defense.

Save for introductory questions on Bush’s U.N. resolution and the prewar massing of forces in the Gulf, the other questions are answered in a similarly oblique and disingenuous fashion.

Two are downright offensive.

Hitchens asks if we should have known Iraq lacked weapons of mass destruction, and in answering employs the same trick the Bush administration used so many times: He cites information supplied by Hussein Kamel, the brother-in-law of Saddam Hussein and leader of the country’s weapons program for a decade, without noting that Kamel, as far back as 1995, said Iraq destroyed its WMD after the Gulf War and that the presence of U.N. inspectors prevented its revival. Powell did the same before the U.N. Vice President Cheney misrepresented Kamel’s testimony in a Veterans of Foreign Wars speech in 2002. But no Bush administration official or apologist ever acknowledged this publicly to claim Iraq reconstituted its arms when U.N. inspectors were gone after 1998. They just ignored it. That Iraq’s lack of weaponry was confirmed repeatedly by the inspectors, Iraqi scientists, their families and Saddam Hussein himself made no difference.

I’ve been citing Kamel’s testimony, courtesy of Newsweek, as far back as September 2003. The idea that Hitchens isn’t aware of what Kamel said, four years after me and 12 years after British and U.S. intelligence, is absurd. It’s information he chooses to ignore.

In Slate, Hitchens also belittles the work done by U.N. inspectors, saying their work wasn’t reliable so long as Iraq’s Baath Party was in power. Yet Powell himself, on ABC-TV’s “This Week” in 2003, acknowledged that the government had relied on information from the inspectors between the Gulf War and 1998.

“From 1998 until we went in earlier this year, there was a period where we didn’t have benefit of U.N. inspectors actually on the ground, and our intelligence community had to do the best they could,” he said.

So the government relied on inspectors’ information until 1998 but couldn’t when inspectors returned in 2002? Before slipping in a total non sequitur about Libyan weapons — more answering of questions no one asked, even himself — Hitchens makes the indefensible charge that “To call for serious and unimpeachable inspections was to call, in effect, for a change of regime in Iraq.” This is Hitchens again ignoring that, shortly before the beginning of the war, Saddam Hussein not only gave U.N. inspectors access, but invited “direct U.S. involvement on the ground in disarming Iraq,” as reported in The New York Times and British Daily Telegraph in November 2003, an entreaty our government rejected in its all-out drive for war.

Hitchens defends himself weakly, and is able to do so only by ignoring widely available information. While not a very long piece, “So, Mr. Hitchens, weren’t you wrong about Iraq?” could have been much, much shorter.

Yes, he was.

Monday, March 19, 2007


I’ve been shopping at Market Basket over the past weeks and have been shocked at the price difference between it and Shaw’s supermarkets — something to which I’d been blind because there’s a Shaw’s literally across the street from me (although the entrance is around the block).

The cheapest toothbrush at Shaw’s costs $2.19. There are many at the Somerville Market Basket for 99 cents.

A pound of carrots at Shaw’s is 99 cents. At Market Basket, that money buys you two pounds.

And so on. It’s also nice to get cheaper prices on almost everything without having to hand over a “rewards” card, in which the reward is saving almost as much money as you would by shopping somewhere else. Chains use these cards to collect data on what sells best and to whom, but good managers could provide the same information without the intrusion, and my local Shaw’s has always been incompetent at stocking, cards or no cards.

My complaints about Shaw’s are legion — the nonsensical and erratic inventory, failure to label, near fraud in the packaged salads and other incidents as mysterious and inexplicable as the heads on Easter Island. Any complaints I have about Market Basket are small potatoes in comparison.

Small potatoes, by the way, are also much cheaper at Market Basket.

Sunday, March 18, 2007


The Diet Coke ads in the Porter Square T stop — featuring cans decorated or arranged to suggest when they should be enjoyed — have been bothering me for weeks.

Yoga class is one suggestion, illustrated with an upside-down can. Morning is another, with a Starbucks-style sleeve added, implying the drink is like a hot cup of coffee and your hand needs protection while holding it.

Drinking Diet Coke in the morning still has a taint of ill health to it, unlike coffee, and it’s hard to reconcile the pure image of yoga with that of the dark, bubbly, excessively sweet and possibly cancerous cola. (I say all this as a fan; Diet Coke is my drink of choice, in all its varieties.) The ads are also odd because the Coca-Cola Co. is only weeks away from releasing Diet Coke Plus, which adds vitamins and minerals but still contains no calories, to an increasingly health-conscious world. Pushing an image of Diet Coke as healthful and wholesome could obscure the message of Diet Coke Plus.

But that’s the most that can be said about the campaign, which seems to be either minuscule or unfairly ignored. Some poking around the Internet found no buzz (or, I suppose, outrage) about it, or even media recognition. My understanding is that the international Weiden + Kennedy agency is handling Diet Coke advertising, but all the talk is about its television ads, not cheap posters thrown up for the public transportation crowd.

I’m left with my own take: The ads can’t possibly be effective. Yoga culture is a pure one, and its drink of choice is water. And coffee drinkers are not going to swap a hot and hearty breakfast drink for one intended to be ice cold and effervescent. The cultures are hermetic, impermeable — making the ads misguided and mystifying, like suggesting comic books to opera lovers or a cheese plate to people used to having a heaping hot fudge sundae for dessert. Different worlds.

This isn’t the only failed print campaign out there. I agree with Sabine’s blog, Sidetracked …, that Special K has a loser up as well.

Saturday, March 17, 2007


In a little while I’m headed off to Central Square’s The Field to be in the presence of people celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. I do this because a friend is visiting, but being at a funeral would otherwise be preferable, if only because funerals tend to be legitimate expressions of emotion relating to a real event, while St. Patrick’s Day in the Boston area is about getting drunk. Few of the drunkards know they’re honoring the death of a guy who converted a lot of Celts to Christianity.

Boston has no shortage of Irish bars or people who go to them year-round to get drunk, so seeing bar lines stretch along the block March 17 is irritating and hard to justify. Imagine if we had a Driving Day, when people who drove did so for greater distances at greater speeds for no reason and people who didn’t joined in the fun by renting cars or jubilantly carpooling to nowhere.

The boast that on this day everyone is Irish, meaning they have license to drink excessively, should be abhorrent to the true Irish, especially because some still consider this a religious holiday (a what?) and their government sees the day as a chance to “Project, internationally, an accurate image of Ireland as a creative, professional and sophisticated country.” Only if green vomit is as creative, professional and sophisticated as celebrators here seem to believe.

To me, the day will always be colored, so to speak, by two things:

Simone, who came to visit briefly from Ohio long ago one March weekend. I wanted to show off Chinatown, but either she or her other Cambridge friend balked at eating Chinese food on St. Patrick’s Day. In retrospect, Simone may have flown in for St. Patrick’s Day, not for me, but either way it explains a fair amount about why the relationship failed.

Five years of coming into work at the Boston Herald on the Sunday of the St. Patrick’s Day parade and finding, each time, scads of skankily clad Southie girl attendees, underage and overexcited, kept warm in the lingering winter by the knowledge they’d be sucking down countless illicit beers over the course of the day. This came to betoken the true start of spring, like the arrival of a certain breed of drunken bird or the spotting of a budding drunken flower, and the cheesy and somewhat grating auguring of winter’s end.

The outfit of the holiday is green, which is a pretty challenging color to wear seriously but on St. Patrick’s Day slides wholly into the absurd. Since the non-Irish who become Irish for the day think their adopted nation is populated by leprechauns rather than Samuel Beckett, their green clothing tend toward stockings and silly hats, often ones that look irrelevantly like the oversized buckled top hat of Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter. This is the dramatic last gasp of the silliness of winter wear — the toques, earmuffs and such — that makes the season so objectionably dorky.

As the last stage of our transition into warm weather, this is just that green vomit again. The true symbolism of the day is that, after several months of cold, we dress even more stupidly than we were and drink even more than we have been, throw up our green beer and bagels, stagger home and wake up saying: Enough of that. Too much of that.

Bring on the summer.