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A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor

The Old Scout

Garrison Keillor's weekly newspaper column.

April 2009 Archives

Retribution vs. Restoration

I sat next to Ted Stevens at a Washington dinner years ago and found him unpleasant in a raspy, cartoonish way, but I was happy to see his conviction thrown out. A muddy case, a friend doing work on the senator's house perhaps in exchange for favors in Washington, and I say, have mercy. Let him go fishing in the cold, clear rivers of Alaska and examine his conscience, as we all do in our better hours, and let us all move on to something more promising.

I feel similarly about the Bush people whom some Democrats want to charge with war crimes. The widespread waterboarding and other acts of torture carried out in secret CIA prisons are no small matter. The free play of sadism on the helpless in the name of national service is not to be ignored. What's needed is a fair and thorough congressional investigation. Subpoena witnesses and lay the whole wretched business out on the public record. Look into the heart of darkness and meditate on it. But don't round up a few symbolic suspects and throw the book at them and let all the others go free. Which is what would happen if we launch a criminal prosecution.

What's needed here is not punishment, but truth. When I hear Democrats talk about "holding them responsible," I smell the sour righteousness of the victorious lording it over the vanquished. The guy they really want to put on trial is the old brush-cutter of Crawford, or else the old grouse hunter of Wyoming. They're the guys who signed off on those memos authorizing torture. The buck stopped at their desks.

Holding the Bush administration responsible for torture would give us some high political drama that would feed the media goat for the next two years and also sap the body politic. The health care system would go unfixed, schools would crumble, basic public services would deteriorate, all so that the left could have at the right. I am an old museum-quality northern liberal and I know something about the righteousness of my confreres. I've been with old lefty friends who can get emotional about the Haymarket bombing in Chicago and the innocent men railroaded to the gallows, but dear hearts, it happened in 1886. Let's move on.

Retribution is not smart politics. That's part of what killed Rudy Giuliani's run for president, the voters' sense that he was possessed of a cruel urge to pay back old debts. He was meaner than we want a president to be. I agree with Senator McCain when he says, "We need to put this behind us, we need to move forward."

Remember that the country was in high post-9/11 jitters when the dreadful memoranda were written by the lawyers whom some Democrats want to haul into court. Apocalyptic visions were afloat of subway bombings, germ warfare, nuclear devices wiping out a major city -- I remember walking around Manhattan and thinking much too vividly about such things -- and in that atmosphere of painful vulnerability, the great bustling city practically indefensible, zealous men might consider desperate measures in the name of security. As Orwell said, "We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm." I think the American electorate knew who they re-elected in 2004. Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney did not run on a human-rights platform, they ran as rough men who would guard our sleep. So go talk to the voters of Ohio about war crimes.

Rather than square off in a bloody battle over war crimes, let's return decent train service to the Midwest and test out the German maglev (magnetic levitation) system -- the 360 mph trains -- and connect Chicago and St. Paul-Minneapolis, Cleveland, Detroit, Omaha, Kansas City. Let's restore education to the public schools so that our kids get a chance to hear Mozart and learn French.

I'm in Washington today for the Poetry Out Loud program, run by the National Endowment for the Arts. Your tax dollars spent to bring 53 high school kids (out of 300,000 who competed for the honor) to recite poetry (Shakespeare, Donne, Eliot, Billy Collins), the winner to get a $20,000 scholarship. It's a beautiful event. Special Olympics for English majors. I would forgo the pleasures of tormenting a few malefactors for the rightness of hearing a kid from Newark stand up and give an impassioned recitation of "When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men's Eyes."

© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.

Strange New World

I am a poor wayfaring stranger traveling through this world of woe, but it's OK, I am well paid for the woe and I enjoy watching my fellow wayfarers, the road guys, the men who fly from town to town, talking on their cell phones, hustling software and industrial carpeting, advising companies on branding issues, guys with pagers, laptops, BlackBerries, and voices like drill bits.

Road guys tend to be a little grim, which you would be too if you were trying to peddle your widgets these days. They don't sit in the gate area and exchange stories about road life. Except lately, I've heard numerous road guys discussing the Domino's Pizza hooha in which an employee in Conover, N.C., shot a video of another employee making a salami sandwich, farting on it and adding some cheese he had pulled out of his nose -- which was posted on YouTube and promptly viewed by millions of slackers and mouth-breathers and apparently had such an effect on Domino's business that its president, Patrick Doyle, made his own YouTube appearance defending the brand.

This is the world turned upside down, in which satirists finally have some power to step on the big boys' toes and make them squeal. Two minimum-wage employees with a cheap videocam are able to make such a stir that a man who earns almost half a million a year has to stand up and say that the Conover store has been closed and sanitized, that the two "team members" are charged with felonies, that Domino's makes a delicious and hygienic pizza, and that the company is now re-examining its hiring practices so as not to admit to its team the sort of person who would pull cheese out of his nose and fart on the salami. "It sickens me," he said.

This shakes up some of the road guys, who wonder what the world has come to. But it's the very world they live in.

The Internet is fundamental to the migratory life. You can sit here -- I'm in St. Louis right now, at Gate A17 -- and shower the world with your e-mails and check your Facebook friends to see what they ate for breakfast and download anything you care to look at. All you need is a laptop and a little plug-in wireless antenna. It's an electronic world that keeps you in the loop as you zoom around. It isn't the real world anymore.

In the real world, the booger video is piffle. A joke. It doesn't require the company president to make an official statement -- Matt the night manager just says, "Hey you guys, cut it out and go clean the toilet."

But in the Strange New World in which I travel and am quite comfortable, thank you, it is amplified to an absurd level, which of course is the strategy of satire. What Jonathan Swift strove to create in "Gulliver's Travels," the Conover Two brought about with a simple upload.

Teams of consultants now will be brought in to Domino's and other large corporations to draw up multipronged strategies for fighting back against booger attacks. Actors will be hired to shoot mock videos -- of car rental employees wiping their noses on steering wheels, hospital orderlies ridiculing unconscious patients, pilots mixing martinis in the flight deck, sausage workers introducing bodily fluids into the kielbasa -- and tens of millions of dollars will be spent on training programs to show top executives how to respond to gross-outs, all because two members of Team Domino got bored one day and had a funny idea.

And then we will hear about guerrilla skirmishes between corporations, Domino's sneaking out a video purporting to show rats running through a Pizza Hut and the Hutites responding with one of a coven of witches explaining the Wiccan meaning of the dots on the domino. It is tempting -- the thought that for practically no expense, you can force the president of Burger King to make a public defense of the product and say that, no, the French fries do not include deep-fried tent caterpillars. The denial is what plants the idea firmly in the public's mind.

Meanwhile, I call on all Americans to stand up for the Conover Two and for our national sense of humor that has served us so well for so long boopboopbadoop. People have been grossing each other out for centuries and this is no time to stop. Is this a felony? No, it's snot.

© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.

The Poet Gets the Girl

April is Poetry Month, whatever that may mean to you, perhaps not much. Perhaps what with your nomination to be Assistant Secretary for Human Rights running into rough waters because of that silly song you sang at the company Christmas party in 1997 which has been used to make you look like an insensitive jerk, your interest in poetry is practically nil, and if so -- hey, you're not alone.

The reading aloud of poetry has been shown, time and time again, to be effective at breaking up gatherings of people. Rather than tear gas or pepper spray, many police departments now use Wordsworth. Or T.S. Eliot, that small dark cloud of a poet.

I don't care for poetry much either except for my own, of course. (Have you seen mine? Did I forget to send you a copy of "God's Hand Shadows On My Bedroom Wall"?) And that's the real message of Poetry Month, not that you should go back and reread the one about the cherry tree wearing white for Eastertide or the plums in the icebox so sweet and so cold -- no, no, no -- it's the month when you should write a poem and see how powerful this can be in winning the favor of women.

Back when our hairy-legged ancestors were living in mud huts and sleeping on piles of animal hides, and smelling of rancid grease and woodsmoke, men were not attractive to women at all. Fighting with rocks and clubs made unsightly marks on men and left putrefying sores. They squatted around the smoking fires, put ashes on their wounds, exchanged myths, and felt a terrible ache for love and affection.

They longed to see women exhibit an avid interest in them for their own merits and not have to go marauding against enemy tribes and stand toe to toe with their warriors and hack at them and bash their brains out and eviscerate and decapitate them and drag their women away screaming and sobbing. A lousy way of dating, especially as you, the winner, have plenty of hack marks on you and are not so interested in sex now, due to loss of blood.

They longed to make themselves appealing to women and at first, they thought they could do this with tomatoes -- then known as the "love fruit" -- and the lady would fling herself into your arms and your pleasure would be greater than if she were screaming and sobbing.

This worked for a time, but eventually tomatoes became so common that their aphrodisiac powers were diluted. This led to civilization as we know it: music, sport, learning, poetry -- it all began as an attempt by men to impress women who would come home with you and eat a tomato and come to your bed. But the best strategy of all was to compose a long ode to her beauty: O wondrous O shining Thou, I lift my pen up now to pay Thee Thy due praise, the wonderment of these my happiest days, and so forth and so forth, her lips, her brow, her raven or flaxen hair, her neck, her breasts, her pale thighs, and so on.

Then the Christians came along and tried to put aside carnal pleasure as a hindrance to the spiritual life, and Christian men hung out in gangs of disciples, devoting themselves to Bible study and prayer. (One thing they prayed for in secret was for women to love them, despite their thorny theology.) They taught their children to endure this earthly sojourn in the faith of reward in the life to come.

But poetry whispers, "Life is a gift and very brief. Seize the day. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may." And this is the gist of the poem you are about to write to the wondrous and shining woman. You adore her and you long to clasp her in your arms and smell her hair and kiss the back of her neck. Forget about the cherry tree and the plums in the icebox. Write your own. Don't send it by e-mail. Write it on a sheet of clean paper and hand it to her and as she reads it, put your hand on her shoulder so that you're right there when she turns to embrace you. This works almost all the time. You'll see. Cummings wrote, "springtime is my time is your time is our time for springtime is love time and viva sweet love," and Cummings got the girl.

© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.





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