I had to pick one word to describe 2003, "bizarro" -- as in Bizarro-Superman,
who was just like Superman except entirely different -- would be that word.
Of course, as a columnist, my job isn't to pick one word but about 1,000
of 'em, so let me expand on this a bit. What I mean by "bizarro" is it's
been a year of ironies, catch-22's, and contradictions -- like a 12-month-long
Opposite Sketch a la Nickelodeon's You Can't Do That On Television. Ironically,
though, after watching U2's Bono drop an f-bomb at the Golden Globes, and
then get knighted by the French
a few months down the road, it seems you can do pretty much anything on television
now -- which would explain the success of Paris Hilton. So go figure.
Let's start with what was hands-down the year's biggest story: America's
invasion of Iraq. The war itself was a smashing success. Piece of cake. Easy
as pie. All it took was three short weeks -- three rounds, in boxing parlance
-- to knock the Butcher of Baghdad off his throne. So that's the end of the
story, right? Wrong. As easy as it was to win the war, winning the peace
has been that much tougher. Which makes sense, strangely, since the war was
waged in the name of peace, and since it was protested by peaceniks who made war on inanimate 9/11 memorials.
But hey, at least we caught Saddam.
Back home, meanwhile, Americans were ceding civil liberties to ensure "enduring
freedom." Taking your shoes off at the airport became an equal-opportunity
hassle. The only way around it, it seemed, was to simply not have feet. This
made us safer, though. Or so we thought. Then a 20-year-old named Nathaniel
Heatwole came along and skirted the system in September, planting box cutters
aboard several Southwest planes in hopes of exposing security loopholes.
What Heatwole proved is it's impossible to pull one over on airline security…
unless, of course, you try. So the feds had him arrested.
From the "More Than One Way To Skin a Cat" Department, it was revealed in
November that there's more than one way to use the anti-terror Patriot Act.
For example, you can use it on non-terror related crimes, like the FBI did
when it busted a strip joint owner
named Michael Galardi for bribing local officials. What a few backroom deals
have to do with the worldwide war on terror isn't quite clear. What is clear,
however, is Big Gov't keeps getting bigger, the power of the people keeps
getting smaller, and expanded police powers still can't stop someone from
bringing box cutters on an airplane. This is the bizarro world in which we
live: The bad guys can sneak past security while the rest of us are busy
taking off our leather belts.
This year also saw some ironic developments coming out of Washington. Not
that that's ironic, in and of itself, of course. Americans expect the unexpected
when it comes to politicians. But this year was chock full o' doozies.
In January, Republicans reclaimed the Senate, completing the congressional/presidential
hat trick some Americans thought necessary for small government to ever make
its return. No such return occurred. After pushing through tax cuts over
the summer, Republicans went and abandoned their base by imposing a huge
new Medicare program expected to cost at least $400 billion. So much for
the so-called rightwing extremists.
On the other side of the aisle, Big Gov't Democrats entered a bizarro world
all their own, preaching the gospel of fiscal responsibility and fighting
the Medicare bill tooth and nail. Mind you, the Dems are probably already
planning a Tooth and Nail Coverage Act for whenever they regain power, but
it's been a long, strange, and interesting trip so far.
If that trip will end in 2004, however, seems to rest on the shoulders and rolled-up sleeves of Howard Dean.
He's a wild card, this one. If you'd told me on January 1, 2003, that the
Republicans would be openly fighting for Big Gov't by the end of the year,
I would've told you you're nuts. But now the Dems are getting ready to nominate
a man who, himself, appears at times to be nuts, who defies his "hardcore
liberal" label by defaulting to states' rights on guns, gays, and allegedly
insensitive flags. Call me crazy -- I've been called worse -- but if I didn't
know any better, I'd think this guy was gunning for the G.O.P.'s nomination.
Oh, irony of ironies, though: You know you're in trouble when a northeastern
liberal elite who wants to socialize the South and regulate pretty much everything
can classify as remotely Republican. But such has been the bizarro rise of
Dr. Dean, the fightingest anti-war wonk around.
(This, while John Kerry's stock dropped faster than melted Swiss on a Philly cheese steak.)
The year 2003 also saw the rise of another political star, Arnold Schwarzenegger,
who rose against machines in both Terminator 3 and the California recall.
Though his ascent came by landslide in a year when many celebrities were
asked to shut up, things really seemed to come together for him: Whereas
his opponent, Gray Davis, was clueless and acted like he wasn't, Schwarzenegger
-- an actor -- was clueless and acted like himself. People really like this
sort of honesty.
Of course, there's more to 2003 than I can possibly fit in this space, but
we all have our favorites. One of mine is the fact that the most controversial
movie of the year didn't even come out this year. Critics of Mel Gibson's
The Passion of Christ hadn't even seen it when they slammed
it over the summer; to date, the movie is still several months away. Then
there's the fact that one of the year's best-selling works of nonfiction
-- Hillary Rodham Clinton's Living History -- was largely believed to be fiction from cover to cover.
This was the year the Supreme Court ruled in favor of racial preferences
as a means of combating... uh, racial preferences. It was the year we embraced segregation again,
this time to "protect" gay students. We saw Michael Jackson brag about sleeping
with kids only to act surprised when they dragged him to court. We saw reality
TV look less like reality and more like plain old TV. We saw a space shuttle
explode, Mount Rushmore disappear, and a French ad suggest we ditch freedom
fries and "fall in love [with France] again" -- and in a year that got underway
with Raelian claims of a human clone, this last one still managed to be the
most bizarro thing of all.
Whether it was the reverse McCarthyism
we saw with the Dixie Chicks claiming a right to be heard (on radio), or
the aforementioned reverse segregation at Harvey Milk High, there's little
question 2003 was, indeed, a very strange year. But the strangest thing about
it is it wasn't all that different than any other year. It sort of makes
you wonder just who it is we've been fighting all this time. Could it be
we've been fighting the human condition at large? And, if so, are we irredeemably
I'm not sure that's such a bizarro theory at all.
Jonathan David Morris is a political satirist based in New Jersey. His website is Read JDM.