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The XX files

While you were sleeping


Since scientists discovered extra sleep results in weight loss, I've been going to bed earlier and staying there longer, pillow over my head, trying to get a bit more shut-eye. What this really means is that instead of sleeping I'm spending hours in bed wide awake, thinking.

I think about how odd it is that sleeping more causes weight loss. I think about the human body and its funny little biological bits. The hormones and nerves and whatnot. Soon I'm stricken by the thought that I'm nothing more than a skin bag full of chemicals and electrical pulses.

Diving under the covers, I think: we're all just dust in the wind and --- this might be a good time to mention the possibility that I'm undermedicated --- sleep is a metaphor for death and I remember the thousands of gleaming human bones and skulls stacked neatly in the Catacombs under Paris and all the other bazillion dead people everywhere, flesh rotted off bone. Tossing and turning, I wonder: Do we exist solely to eat and sleep --- and in some cases sleep more so we can eat more --- and then die? What's the meaning of life?

Then, just as the answer shimmers into view --- life is... creating culture... civilization... striving for ideals... BEEEEP. BEEEEP. The alarm clock jolts me back to reality.

While I was piling on the pillows trying to improve my constitution, the Bush Administration was destroying the real Constitution by blocking out the world on a larger, more destructive scale. The Treasury Department sucker-punched the First Amendment, dragged it into an alley, and left it for dead. Why? National security, of course.

It was actually a little department within Treasury, the Office of Fiscal Asset Control, that committed the crime. About a year ago, OFAC retrofitted a 1917 law designed to prevent trade with enemy countries, broadening its scope to include information and creative work. This major policy change meant people living in countries America has sanctions against --- Iran, Sudan, Cuba --- couldn't publish their work here. America isn't perfect, but it's a beacon of hope for the world's oppressed. When foreign dissidents want to get their stories out, they turn to us for help.

OFAC put an end to all that. Publishers could be fined $1 million for producing such a book; agents also faced punishment, all in the name of national security. Those brave patriots at Treasury saved us from such dangers as a book on the birds of Cuba by Cornell University Press and an anthology of contemporary Iranian literature. And they prevented scientists in international consortiums from contributing research findings to scholarly journals. Way to go.

If you're going to go to all the trouble of shutting up birders wielding high-powered binoculars and writers brandishing sharpened pencils, might as well silence those dissidents too, right? Aren't they the real threat anyway? Oh, wait a sec. Dissidents in sanctioned countries tend to share the very ideals --- democracy, freedom, human rights --- the Bush Administration pretends to support. They're not only on our side; they're endorsing what America represents. I guess the Bushies were so busy silencing the rest of the world they forgot to listen to their own rhetoric. And the Constitution took a blow in the process.

America's not just blocking out the world --- it took Bush four days to offer condolences to the leaders of the countries hit by the tsunami, for example --- we're shutting each other out, too. We've abandoned civil discourse and each of us is plugged into separate, narrow bands of partisan media shrieking. Our leader is the narrowest of them all, hacking away at the freedom of expression, throwing peaceful protesters out of his political rallies, praising Rummy for stonewalling a soldier asking questions about armor.

Bush is, to his credit, the president for our time. In this era of the iPod, sound isolation technology is at the leading edge of entertainment research. Consumers are snatching up new speakers and headphones designed to let you listen to what you want to hear and only what you want to hear. Bose, for one, offers "acoustic noise canceling" technology which electronically identifies unwanted noise and blocks out "the tiresome sounds that have so often distracted you."

I know the kind of tiresome sounds the Treasury Department's OFAC was trying to block out. Tiresome sounds about political oppression in Iran, Cuba, and Sudan. Whiny accounts of torture and people disappearing. Stories like the one Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning Iranian lawyer, hopes to tell in her memoir. She risked her life fighting for better treatment of women and children in Iran and was heralded by Bush one year, blocked from publishing here the next.

The good news is that under mounting pressure --- and lawsuits brought by Ebadi and others --- Treasury withdrew its restrictions last month claiming the new guidelines had been misinterpreted. Americans have always been free, it said, to publish information and creative works by people in sanctioned countries. The bad news is they're lying and it could happen again.

I need to be more vigilant. But how can I monitor this administration's shenanigans? Remember, I'm the genius trying to lose weight by sleeping all day. Speaking of which, isn't Bush plagued by the Big Questions? The meaning of life, etc.? Maybe crippling the Constitution is his contribution to future civilizations. If so, he's clever to continue raising the specter of 9/11 while silencing nations and isolating inauguration protesters; we roll over because everyone wants to help prevent terrorist attacks.

Everyone, that is, except Bush himself. He continues to ignore many of the 9/11 commission's recommendations and underfund security initiatives. Bush's meaning of life? Empty the First Amendment, fill the coffers. It's amazing he's as thin as he is; I mean, how does he sleep at night?