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Thursday, July 31, 2003

Adrian Cronauer

Adrian Cronauer, the man who the movie "Good Morning, Vietnam" was based on, talked with me today about the touring version of The Wall (Vietnam Veterans Memorial), why veterans of that war are so reticient to talk about their experiences, how vets are treated better by the public now but worse by politicians, and what it was like to see a Bob Hope USO show while in the service.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Under Siege At The Pentagon

The whole betting-on-terrorism idea at the Pentagon -- creating a futures market to predict terrorist attacks, assassinations, and similar grotesque events -- was such a horrible and horrifying concept that, as soon as word leaked out and public outrage leaked in, the operation was shut down.

But that's not enough. Heads should roll. If this had been unveiled in the private sector, we'd hear condemnations, accusations, and repercussions from coast to coast. Or suppose some teen had done it as a joke on his website -- he'd be kicked out of school and ordered into counseling. So why isn't someone at the Pentagon's agency, DARPA, being flushed down the career toilet in public?

These are the same people who came up with Total Information Awareness, a program that would have combed government and commercial databases to develop computer files on each and every American. When that one became public knowledge, the howls of "what part of privacy don't you understand?" helped to get it canceled.

The guy at the top of this bizarre, little-known agency is former Admiral John Poindexter, a man with a murky legal past, to say the least. He and his cronies were defended yesterday by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz who said (I'm paraphrasing here), "These are imaginative people who we ask to come up with creative new plans. Sometimes they get a little too imaginative."

It reminded me of the movie "Under Siege," where Tommy Lee Jones' character takes control of the USS Missouri and tries to off-load its nuclear missiles. It turns out he was an independent contractor for the CIA, doing deep covert missions. The man who used to be his boss -- and once tried to have him killed -- is asked how such a man could be allowed to operate so dangerously with virtually no supervision. The CIA man says (I'm paraphrasing again), "Sometimes these creative, independent thinkers get a little too creative and independent."

Maybe we need to send Steven Seagal in to deal with these imaginative folks at DARPA. Certainly, someone there needs to be held accountable for the waste of time, money, and effort that is going into these insanely idiotic ideas.

Update: the day after this column appeared, John Poindexter resigned as head of DARPA.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Uday & Qusay's Photo Finish

I have no problem with the Pentagon releasing the grisly pictures of the dead Hussein Boys (am I the only one who, upon first hearing the names Uday and Qusay, thought Saddam must have named them after consulting "The Big Book of Pig Latin Baby Names" -- and that Uday would be pig latin for "dude"?).

Whether the photos will actually prove anything to Iraqi non-believers is another question. There are always people who refuse to accept the truth, regardless of the evidence. I'm not talking about being skeptical of what comes out of politician's mouths, which is healthy and should be encouraged. I'm talking about hard-line denial in the face of a ton of evidence to the contrary.

For example, a recent poll of a thousand Germans showed that almost a third of those under 30 years old believe that the US attacked itself on 9/11. Twenty percent of Germans of all ages believe that lie.

We still have a lot of morons in this country who claim the Holocaust never happened. You could take them to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, let them meet Holocaust survivors, take them to Auschwitz and other concentration camp sites, and they'd still think you were phonying it all up.

Same thing will be true in Iraq. For some, it will be out of fear borne of decades of oppression by Saddam & Sons. For others, it will be the inability to trust any government after the lies that were shoved down their throats for so long.

Regardless, I don't see a downside to releasing the photographic evidence. Sure, they're not the prettiest pictures in the world, but we've seen worse in just about any violent R-rated movie.

There were a lot of people who were upset during the war when Al Jazeera showed Iraqi photos of dead US soldiers. They claimed it was a violation of the Geneva Convention (which I'm pretty sure Al Jazeera is not a signatory to). I wasn't one of those who objected. I wasn't happy seeing their bloodied, lifeless bodies captured on film, but I recognized it as a consequence of battle.

The problem with modern warfare is that it's too easy to forget that people are being killed. We happily watched the video-game-like images of high-tech attacks from the air, the breathless reporting of embedded correspondents, all from the comfort of our living rooms. We need the reminder that human lives are at stake here.

People die in a war. It's not pleasant, it's not puppy-dog cute. It's brutal, it's raw, and it's real. Let's not shield ourselves from reality so much that we forget that.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Straight Talk, Queer Words

I won't be watching Bravo's new show, "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy" -- there's only so much reality television I can handle, and between "The Amazing Race" and "I'm With Busey," my doctor tells me I'm getting enough unscripted TV.

But what I find interesting about the Bravo show is the use of the word "queer." I thought that word had been banished from the language. Maybe not as bad as The N Word, but certainly to the point where gay people were never to be referred to that way. Queer, fag, homo, dyke -- they were all out, not in a fit of political correctness, but simply because they were patently offensive.

And yet, we now have two TV shows with "queer" in the title (the other being Showtime's "Queer As Folk") and neither of them has raised the hackles of any of the usually vocal interest groups you'd expect to scream loudly about this kind of offense.

It turns out that "queer" actually is very much like The N Word, in that it's okay for members of the group itself to use it, but not okay for anyone else. In other words, gays can refer to each other as queer, just as blacks can call each other The N Word (although in rap lyrics, the word is spelled with an -a at the end instead of -er), but if you're not gay or black, your use of those words is deemed offensive.

What made this concept so confusing to me is that in my particular minority, Jews, we'd never think of doing this in our everyday life. You'll never hear one Jew call another a "kike" or "heeb." My wife doesn't even like to hear someone referred to as "a Jew." She prefers "a Jewish person."

Maybe it's the centuries of hatred and name-calling from others that we've been forced to endure that makes us so sensitive to derogation. But if that's the case, why would another long-oppressed group like African-Americans use The N Word so casually?

That's not to say that stereotypes can't be played for laughs. Otherwise, Mel Brooks wouldn't have had a career -- and I wouldn't have been able to do a "Star Wars" radio parody two decades ago called "Return Of The Rabbi" which, ironically, only brought complaints from non-Jews.

Similarly, John Leguizamo, a comedian of Colombian ancestry, did a one-man comedy show in 1993 called "Spic-O-Rama," and no one flinched. But I have more respect for someone like George Lopez, who created a TV show about a Mexican family which does not go around referring to each other as "wetbacks" or "greaseballs."

In fact, George told me this little story (he's been a guest on my show several times). When ABC was interested in buying the show in the first place, they suggested that the family's kitchen have a tortilla maker on the counter. George told them he didn't know anyone who had one of those in their kitchen, and asked why the network wanted it there. They explained that the viewers would need something in the room that was easily identifiable as Mexican. George paused for a moment and replied, "What about the fact that the people in the room are Mexican?" He won that battle and, to his credit, steadfastly refuses to debase himself or his heritage with cheap stereotypes.

We'd never think it acceptable to do a reality show called "Jewboy Financial Corner." That would be as deplorable as Asians doing something repulsive like "Slant-Eyed Math Lessons." Or a Food Network show called "Old Black Mama's Fried Chicken and Watermelon Recipes." Or an Irishman doing "Big Dumb Mick's Drunk Again." Or even the whitest guys in the country on "Honky Hotel."

The way to avoid the continued use of odious words and concepts is for the offended group to take the lead and stop using them, too. If you're gay and don't want straight people referring to "Will & Grace" as "that queer show," then you can't either.

Instead, you should refer to it by its proper slang name, "Rick Santorum's Worst Nightmare."