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Patriot Games

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Greeting me at the top of a gray Sunday morning, on the front page of The New York Times, was the report that Mr. Osama bin Laden, the Evil One, may still be alive on the western edges of Afghan-istan. This news was offered with the customary, mile-long caveats — “The administration is not claiming to have Mr. bin Laden cornered… Capturing or killing Mr. bin Laden [still] looks like a long-term proposition” — but they have to print something, don’t they? It’s the New News: No News.

“Administration officials said their new assessment of Mr. bin Laden is based on information obtained within the last month, but they declined to describe it further,” the Times went on. “Some officials cautioned that the new evidence is far from definitive.” Sure enough, before the day was out, “some officials” had denied the story on “Meet the Press” — a story presented in the first place as a complete uncertainty. No News.

Here’s some more No News: There’s a “sleazy side” to competitive figure skating, to sports in general and to the Olympics in particular. So says Newsweek in its cover story, “The Fallout From Skategate” — as if we’d never seen or heard of Tonya Harding, her blue eye shadow, her boyfriends and her bat. In ancient times, women weren’t even allowed to watch the Olympics, let alone participate in them, but that’s Old News. As, alas, is the fact that all athletes in ancient Greece competed in the nude or, at most, wearing a skimpy leather thong — what would now undoubtedly be called “butt floss.”

Ancient Greeks in thongs are always News. Butt floss is No News.

No-News contenders from recent days also include:

• Greta van Susteren’s “eye-tuck” — the networks want their anchors to look younger;

• the results of a study at the University of Virginia demonstrating that most children of divorced parents, contrary to belief, “do just fine” as adults, “establishing careers, creating intimate relationships, and building meaningful lives for themselves” — to the extent that anyone can in a world full of “experts” and blather;

• the fact that American voters are “disengaged from non-war political issues” — being fed, right now, on little else — and that they favor an invasion of Iraq by a margin of five to one. This despite the fact that 70 percent of them can’t name the Secretary of Defense.

That would be Donald Rumsfeld, he of the bumped-up budget. According to a passionate appeal from Democratic Congressman Dennis J. Kucinich circulated last week over the Internet, “we are upon the threshold of a permanent war economy,” facing a $45.6 billion increase in military spending, for a total defense budget of nearly $400 billion. This is definitely News, or should be.

“Consider that the Department of Defense has never passed an independent audit,” Kucinich writes. “Consider that the Inspector General has notified Congress that the Pentagon cannot properly account for $1.2 trillion in transactions… This has nothing to do with fighting terror. This has everything to do with fueling a military industrial machine with the treasure of our nation, risking the future of our nation, risking democracy itself with the militarization of thought which follows the militarization of the budget.”

Nice words, comrade, but the thought’s already out there, on the march. Rumsfeld isn’t the one who recently paid $8650 for drapes to cover the statue of Lady Justice at his press conferences, apparently fearing that the sight of her sculpted breasts might disconcert reporters and scare the folks at home. That was Ashcroft, the Attorney General, whose forces will henceforth administer — in secrecy — the vilely named USA Patriot Act, signed into law by President Bush on January 26. Kucinich asks:

“How can we justify in effect canceling the First Amendment and the right of free speech…? How can we justify in effect canceling the Fourth Amendment, probable cause…? How can we justify in effect canceling the Fifth Amendment, nullifying due process…? How can we justify in effect canceling the Sixth Amendment, the right to prompt and public trial?”

Ashcroft, who enjoys a 75 percent public approval rating, might conclude from reading this that I’m one of those “domestic critics” whose words “aid terrorists” and “give ammunition to our enemies.” How laughably wrong! Through a particular confluence of No-News events, I now find myself on the right — that is, the patriotic — side of a literary feud with Elizabeth Wurtzel, “Bad Girl” author of Prozac Nation, Bitch and, most recently, More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction.

Wurtzel was foolish enough to tell a reporter in Toronto last week that Americans had “overreacted” to 9/11. Never mind that she thrives on saying the wrong thing, and that she said it five years ago, too, after the Oklahoma City bombing. It’s No News. But the movie version of Prozac Nation opens this spring, starring Christina Ricci, and Hollywood suddenly smells a bomb.

“Don’t be surprised if the firefighters union calls for a boycott,” says MSNBC, or if audiences keep away in droves from “a movie based on the emotional struggle of someone who comes across as the most shallow, self-absorbed, insensitive person in America.”

I reviewed More, Now, Again for Salon when it appeared, and it’s my line that closed the network’s report: “Sorry, Elizabeth. Wake up dead next time and you might have a book on your hands.” I was referring not to 9/11, but to the unrelieved tedium of “recovery” memoirs. But No News is good news, too, and my phone is ringing off the hook. Fame!

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