Democratic Underground  

Dog Days
August 22, 2003
By Raul Groom

"Our fear of death is like our fear that summer will be short, but when we have had our swing of pleasure, our fill of fruit, and our swelter of heat, we say we have had our day." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Robert Anton Wilson, who I must warn you is a sweaty-toothed madman assiduously ignored by responsible beings, relates the story of a crew of anthropologists who went into the African bush to study a race of people believed to have no knowledge of modern science. The Dogons, as they are called, were found to have a tribal mythology that stretches back thousands of years and that includes a great deal of information about the night sky that was unknown to western astronomers at the time of the expedition. No one knows exactly how the Dogons, who lack telescopes, came by this knowledge, but the consensus among most who have formed an opinion is that the locals' version of the story that they were visited by a race of effeminate aliens who arrived in a glittering spaceship and, after taking a quick swim in a pool they had brought with them, told the assembled onlookers about the origins of humankind is as good an explanation as any.

Regardless of our feelings on that particular matter, we can all agree on one thing weird things do tend to happen in the final, sticky-sweet days of summer. I'd lay 5 to 1 that if you could get the Dogons to come clean, they would admit that the day their ancestors noticed a hovering disc distributing shimmering puddles and little blue men onto the ground outside the village was an unusually hot one, even by West African standards. Sirius, the "Dog Star" around which most of the tribe's stories revolve, is most prominent in the "dog days" of summer to which the star lends its name. Indeed, the aliens even went so far as to claim that they hailed from the unique star system, named by the Egyptians after Osiris, a god with the head of a dog. What makes the timing obvious is not so much that the Dogons took the experience at face value, but that they didn't ask the visitors to leave behind a little something as proof they'd been there.

"Our grandkids are gonna think we're nuts," one of the elders would have surely explained, if it had been May. In December, the village thief would have slyly broken off a little piece of the ship just as the thing was starting to taxi. But alas, it was August, and they probably all just got stoned and had sex and talked about the implications of the double helix-shaped shae nut they had found before dinner, until the next rise of Sirius brought them the next crazy-ass day. One might even today find a market in Mali for a unisex apparel outlet specializing in "I was Visited By Aliens With Knowledge of all the Galaxy's Secrets and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt" T-shirts.

You don't have to cross the ocean and brave fist-sized mosquitoes to find examples of this phenomenon, either. I once complained to a coworker that Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing" in which a basically peaceful New York neighborhood goes completely bonkers and starts to self-destruct into a gruesome wreck of racially motivated violence - seemed a little far-fetched. He had lived in Brooklyn, though, and was able to set me straight.

"You fool!" he said. "Didn't you see the part at the beginning where the radio said it was the hottest day of the year? In Brooklyn in August, anything can happen."

Which is what makes living in this city at the end of summer so utterly bizarre. In D.C. in August, nothing happens. Congress is on vacation all month, and these days, the President is too. The Supreme Court is long gone, hanging out back home drinking gin fizzes, each laughing maniacally at the fact that she has landed a lifetime gig on the only unreviewable body in the U.S. government.

Of course, we still get our share of odd news stories. The U.S. Navy, where the top people are expected to work year-round and where they are clearly immune to the sanity-sapping summer swelter, decided prudently that during these interesting times it would be a good idea to have brand-new surveillance blimps lumbering around the skies in Northern Virginia, splitting time between giving expensive balloon rides to well-to-do tourists and using their state-of-the-art sensors to peer into the kitchens and living rooms of suspicious-looking denizens of the nation's capital. After the "testing period" is over, presumably when the weather has begun to cool down and return the city to relative normality, the blimps will be shipped off to monitor someone else.

The business of politics does not stop simply because the legislation factory is closed. In this game, there is no off-season. Just Wednesday the Post editorial page reminded us that a few weeks ago the Senate, apparently anxious to get home for its nine o'clock tee time, confirmed longtime Moonie and anti-labor zealot Josette Sheeran Shiner as the new Deputy U.S. Trade Representative to Asia and Africa by printing an Op-Ed penned by the new appointee.

Shiner's piece had nothing specifically to do with Asia or Africa but was a missive about "free trade" generally, and in it she argued that the AFL-CIO hates working people and wants them to lose their jobs and starve, unlike and other far-right think tanks to which Shiner has lent her services during her inexplicably illustrious career. As her first public statement since she was appointed to her new post, I suppose we can take this as a representative sample of the sort of incisive policy analysis we can expect from Josette in the months and years ahead.

I'm not so much concerned that this signals the clearest sign yet that the Bush administration is adopting a "Fight Crazy With Crazy" strategy in dealing with Kim Jong Il's North Korea. If Kim decides to nuke something, after all, it'll probably be on the West Coast. I say no way Donald Rumsfeld's company would have sold him nuclear reactors if he had missiles that could reach all the way to the Pentagon, and I feel like I have as good a chance as anyone to survive in a radiation-drenched post-apocalyptic Earth-hell. I will miss the correspondence I get from the friends who have pulled up their East-coast stakes and moved Left, but in every life some rain must fall.

No, what bothers me is that in her new position, Josette is now able to get Op-Ed pieces in the Washington Post, and I have to read them. As a struggling writer, I find it quite maddening to have to witness Shiner, in the nation's premier political news daily, making good on her promise made in a Clinton-era interview for some Moonie parenting publication during which she also hyped Whitewater and appeared to assert that North Korea would be better off if all the bureaucrats just got out of the way and let Kim Il Sung run things like he wanted to that "If I ever left the media, I would be a real good letter writer."

At the time, Shiner was managing editor for the Washington Times, which means of course that she was enough of a right-wing toady to land a plush job at the paper, but not a good enough wordsmith to actually produce copy for a publication whose front page, to take an example completely at random from yesterday's edition, contains such timeless independent clauses as "FBI spokesman Bill Murray declined to comment on the status of the investigation, except to say that it was reviewing a copy of the worm's code for clues." (Perhaps the problem at the FBI is that they think that investigations run themselves, without human intervention.) As her piece in Wednesday's Post showed, though, Shiner has since graduated from letters to words and even sentences, though the expression of actual ideas is still quite obviously beyond her.

Still, jealous outrage at the publication of the insipid rantings of a softheaded lightweight is not exactly the stuff that sustains news addicts through the slow middle part of the week. D.C. residents need politics, and lots of it, or we start seeing imaginary boll weevils crawling up the legs of our corduroys, and soon we're scouring the Internet for rumors about Virginia state senators with scat fetishes, like Tom Hanks on Family Ties downing the last of the Keaton family vanilla extract in an alcoholic frenzy.

That's why in the District the usual summer madness, despite its curiously somnolent nature, is more dangerous than the variety found in most cities. To make matters worse, with the suits out of town, there's no reason for us to put on the professional airs that we sport when we know we could be rubbing elbows with a at any moment with the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

One of these days, Congress is going to return to DC to find that the entire city has devolved in its absence into one huge profane orgy, a giant mass of human flesh and fluid rolling unstoppably down Connecticut Avenue like the toad-balls that form when a certain species of the warty amphibian throngs into the Florida swamps for the annual mass mating ritual. It is rumored that Florida's current governor was conceived in just such a slimy saturnalia before being adopted by the country's foremost crime family and groomed into a surprisingly human-looking politician. But never mind all that.

The trouble with most of August's political stories, as interesting as they are, is that they aren't happening here. If the President had made his speech nominating Utah Governor Mike Leavitt to the position of EPA Chief from the Rose Garden, the streets of Northwest would no doubt be all abuzz with praise for the event, which I believe was titled I'm Nominating This Guy Because He Promises Not to do Jack Shit to Protect the Environment. But alas, the announcement was made in Denver, which holds a certain special place in the hearts of Skins fans for producing the team that laid over, Bush EPA-chief-style, after one quarter and handed the Skins an easy victory in Super Bowl XXII, but which is a bit too far away to generate much of a buzz on a day-to-day basis.

Even a beautifully crafted cretinism like Leavitt's key sound bite: "There is no progress polarizing at the extremes" was not enough to arouse much commentary on the pages of the city's periodicals. It's as if the acid tongues of the D.C. scribes all went off on vacation with our Commander-In-Chief, who I'm sure will get back to running all these wars just as soon as he's done grabbing fistfuls of dollars alongside Arnie in California and clearing brush at the Crawford homestead.

As a result of the dearth of sufficiently juicy grist for the political junkie mill, during the hottest parts of the summer, year-round District residents generally content themselves with trying to predict things. Not only are the Redskins gearing up for another riveting campaign of unparalleled averageness, the Democratic primary season is beginning, and the party faithful are all doggedly assuring one another that only their candidate has what it takes to unite that party and defeat the sitting President. Many reasonable and serious justifications are presented for these beliefs, and everyone becomes an amateur behavioral scientist explaining why people will vote their conscience, or their pocketbook, or their Sun sign, or whatever.

I overheard just such a conversation yesterday, between a fresh-faced Howard Dean supporter and a pinstriped Kerry man sitting outside a coffee shop in DuPont Circle. I was uneasily preoccupied, at the time, with the idea that given the humidity and the District's lack of parental supervision, the normally harmless dude sitting and ploinking on a drum set made of old cans of joint compound might inadvertently trigger a citywide reversion to a Lord of the Flies-like anarchy, with heat-crazed lobbyists and bank managers and computer technicians boogying madly to the visceral beat and working themselves up into a killing frenzy. My ears pricked up in anticipation of just such a development as the nearby political discussion began to get lively.

The Dean Man, standing and angrily brandishing his latte like a very short, warm cardboard rapier, was laying into the suit about JFK's support for the Iraq war and getting all red in the face. Fighting words like "spineless" and "DLC stooge" were used. It seemed the sort of situation that could easily turn ugly. Fortunately for civic tranquility, the ranter's counterpart, sitting cross-legged in his openwork metal chair, was in no mood to escalate the confrontation. He defused the scene effortlessly with a moving soliloquy about pragmatism being a necessary trait of a successful opposition leader, culminating in a heartfelt non-sequitor about Bush's deep and overarching evilness. It was an inspiring, beautifully understated performance.

The conversation then began to meander into the realm of group psychology, running down the conditions that would undoubtedly move people to vote one way or the other in the primary, or in the general election in November 2004. It all seemed very serious and worthwhile until someone at another table, having just checked her beeper for the latest headline spam announced to no one in particular that the entire Northeast U.S. had been engulfed in an enormous, unexplained blackout. Speculation began as to the causes and effects of this monstrous development, most people seeming to believe that something deeply crazy would undoubtedly happen if the New York skyline were to remain dark at nightfall. I decided I had best get home before the D.C. grid went bust and I was stranded downtown amidst a confused, unruly mob.

Back at the place, the network news anchors were as surprised as anyone that New York, Cleveland and Detroit, never known as bastions of responsible behavior, basically responded to the situation as if it were just a big power outage. No angry bands of looters stormed city hall or bashed in the front of the United Nations building to rob the light fixtures. TV's best and brightest seemed genuinely astonished and more than a little disappointed that despite the heat and the already precarious nature of the nation's mental integration, the fabric of society had not been torn apart in the face of the Great Big Huge Horrible Blackout of 2003. Even after the crawlers switched to all-caps, panic failed to ensue.

Which points out the main trouble with this whole operation - the one thing people ironically fail to take into account during prediction season is that no one can say quite when people are going to behave rationally and when we are going to act like deranged imbeciles. We generally aren't deranged imbeciles, but quite naturally the genuinely insane situations that life mercilessly hurls at us day after day after day eventually take their toll and we do something crazy, like driving a car into the wall of a house in Southeast, or voting for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Thus all this talk about issues and personalities and gravitas must eventually give way to the understanding, at least among serious handicappers, that the candidate who wins the right to a no-holds-barred bout with Bush will be the one who picks just the right wave of late-summer insanity and hops upon his electoral surfboard at the precise moment, allowing him to ride the madness all the way into 2004.

Unfortunately it's impossible to say exactly which rocker the nation will still be off when the heat index drops back to a normal level and we set our clocks back to reflect the real time and not this imaginary "savings time" that seems to be all the rage these days. So in the meantime we'll have to be satisfied with thrilling issues such as whether or not to build a new parking deck at Washington Adventist Hospital, and of course the daily competition to see who can come up with the best California-recall joke.

My vote for reigning champion still goes to my fiancee' Sophia, who cracked that with the strongman and the midget already in the race, all that is needed for the recall election to go from a metaphorical circus to a real one is for Arianna Huffington to grow a beard.

And so, with Sirius rising inexorably in the pre-dawn sky, the dog days of summer drag on. What further calamity is in our future, we cannot say. But we can hope that at the very least, we will fare no worse than our Dogon forebears, who took even a visit by extra-terrestrials in stride, and whose descendents survived these thousands of years to remind us that no matter how weird the going gets, you should always remember to take a souvenir.

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