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Goodbye, Cruel America 

An in-depth eulogy for 2006

Toward the end of 2006, we woke up to the glad news that Chile's former strongman Augusto Pinochet had saved everyone the trouble of hanging his sickly carcass for war crimes and atrocities by dying of a heart attack.

The papers weren't shy about describing the awful tactics by which this bloodthirsty old fart secured capitalist democracy (while stockpiling a personal fortune) in his country, but they stopped short of noting that Pinochet's regime was a direct product of U.S. foreign policy. Let's hope that it's remembered that way, anyway.

Of course, this wicked puppet-dictator wasn't the only casualty of 2006. A quick survey of the Internet yields a roll call of the departed that includes Robert Altman, Jack Palance, Shelley Winters, Steve Irwin, Lou Rawls, Glenn Ford (who, we have on good authority--i.e., a yellowed late-'60s edition of the National Enquirer --believed in reincarnation, anyway), Al Lewis, Wilson Pickett, Buck Owens, Ed Bradley, Mickey Spillane, Syd Barrett, Mike Douglas, William Styron, Gene Pitney, the underrated Billy Preston, Don Knotts, the incomparable Red Buttons, Chris Penn, Betty Friedan, Coretta Scott King, the overrated William Cowsill, Louis Rukeyser, Floyd Patterson and the unforgettable Georgia Gibbs.

Most of these folks, we're sad to see go. But for the most part, their passings were, as they say, "not unexpected." Jack Palance, for example, was born (as Volodymyr Palahnyuk) in 1919, the year Woodrow Wilson signed the Treaty of Versailles.

PFC Peter D. Wagler, of Partridge, Kan., on the other hand, was born in 1987. Like Pinochet, Wagler was a tool of U.S. foreign policy. His job: to impose capitalist democracy on a country never likely to embrace it willingly. A major difference between these two fatalities: Wagler didn't amass a fortune before he was, as reported by The Washington Post, "killed when a makeshift bomb exploded near his M1A2 Abrams tank during patrol operations in Baghdad."

Another dissimilarity being that the considerably younger Wagler had almost no part in setting his agenda.

Peter Wagler was the first 18-year-old American to die in 2006 amid the remote, sandy glamour of Operation Iraqi Freedom. There's really no other reason to single him out--and we hope the family that survives him doesn't mind if we do--except that he was the year's first, and youngest-possible, U.S. military casualty of the war America spent the past year losing. (If you want to feel really sad, visit peterwagler.com.)

In all, according to figures published by The Washington Post, 852 U.S. service personnel had fallen victim to Operation Iraqi Freedom and its Afghani doppelgânger, Operation Enduring Euphemism .... er, Freedom, from Jan. 1 through mid-December 2006. (You can catch the entire up-to-date breakdown online at projects.washingtonpost.com/fallen.)

Fortunately, things we can laugh at also died in 2006--the previously unchecked power of the conservative wing of the GOP, for example. And the blind faith America's Christian hard-liners once had in the Bush administration. Could this year also mark the death of ignorance? Well, let's not hope for too much.

The year also marked the death of the possibility that George W. Bush could escape going down in history as the Worst U.S. President Ever. Of course, while we're all over here chortling about that, kids like Peter Wagler remain needlessly in harm's way--over there. This year just refuses to become funny.

OK, well what did make us laugh? Surely the unprecedented comic clumsiness exhibited by the GOP as it fell from dominance induced a few satisfying chuckles. Virginia senatorial loser George Allen's effort to win votes through crude bigotry may have fallen short of the loudmouth prowess of Mel Gibson or Michael Richards, but in the end, it got the laugh it deserved.

More impressively, the precipitous tumble taken by Florida Congressman Mark Foley, whose much-anticipated biography is certain to be a real page-turner, would have been hilarious except for the kids he victimized. Again, it's difficult to sustain humor about 2006.

If you really want a good (and guilt-free) laugh at the expense of reluctantly uncloseted gays, you have to turn away from the federal government and back to the realm of fire and brimstone, where a similar scenario was played out between consenting adults: the Rev. Ted Haggard and buff Colorado rent-boy Mike Jones. That kind of irony in everyday life makes for real knee-slappers.

As long as we're on the subject of political jokes, here's another funny thing--the year's early display of white-on-white violence when Dick Cheney got drunk and shot Texas banker Harry Whittington in the face. Yes, you could argue that it's cruel to laugh, because Cheney's hunting "buddy" really suffered, but Whittington didn't even have the grace to get mad about an act that could easily be characterized as attempted murder--so screw him.

Too bad about the permanent disfigurement, though.

On the economic front, the year's troika of victims were U.S. currency, the American auto industry and, unexpectedly, cultural relations between Americans and the subcontinent of India. The dollar, of course, has been circling the crapper for some time, but this year, thanks to an all-time high in the nation's inequitable distribution of wealth, it hit an all-time low so low that people from Dublin, a city once best known for mutton stew and designer scally caps, now fly to New York for the bargain shopping.

One could easily argue that Ford and the rest of the U.S. automakers committed suicide by pigheadedly staking their industry's future on Americans' patriotic desire to commute in vehicles the size of downtown Orlando. "Oil shortages? Global warming? What's that got to do with us?" they asked. The easy answer lies in the fact that, on any highway, you're seldom out of sight of a Toyota sedan, while millions of big-ass SUVs languish unwanted on wholesale lots. At least they don't produce methane as they decompose.

And finally, there's outsourcing, which has spawned a tsunami of stateside prejudice against the hard-working clock-punchers of India. What American isn't delighted when, as he's trying to sort out why he was double-billed for a canceled flight to Cleveland, the airline's phone is answered by someone with more than a touch of Urdu in his voice identifying himself as "Douglas"? Hey, Safir, stop putting us on; we know it's you.

Back on the political front, there are, naturally, lingering evils we wish had died this year. Torture's one. America's aversion to war-crimes trials is another.

Meanwhile, we've seen some symptoms of the impending death of Democratic cowardice. Even John Kerry, who once handed the country to a bunch of mendacious morons because he was afraid to defend his résumé against a lying draft dodger/recovering coke addict, found the guts to slap back when opportunistically criticized for making the astoundingly stupid (true, but stupid) observation that academic failures often end up ticketing car bombers in Iraq. And what about that Obama guy? It seems as if he's not up for taking any shit. The appeal of his kind of rhetoric could force Hillary to get her freak flag out of mothballs. Perhaps it's all good in the end.

Not especially funny, but ... fitting.

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