PARIS -- While I was in Japan last week, the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was coping with the devastating domestic damage wrought by the deaths of two Japanese diplomats in Iraq. Naturally, this tragedy reminded me of a kid with whom I used to sidekick back in Tomah, Wisconsin in sixth grade.
When you think about it, almost everything in life is just sixth grade over and over again. Anyway, this kid I knew, who was obese, obnoxious and overtly obscene, was possibly the least popular kid in local history. Everyone, kids and grownups alike, called him "Fat Vinny." Even the nuns at St. Mary's occasionally slipped and called him "Fat Vinny." Young Hitler would've shunned Fat Vinny.
A lot of Vinny's transcendent repulsiveness derived from his appearance. He wasn't child-fat, all plump and rosy-cheeked. Fat Vinny was adult-fat and adult-ugly. Vinny's ugly was sneery, vulgar and degenerate. You could see in Fat Vinny, at age 12, the seeds of a sleazy adulthood, full of spilled booze, petty crime, mean swindles and trailer-park sex with underage girls. Kids sensed in Vinny the worst possibilities of their own future, and we recoiled.
Except me. Out of pity, I adopted Fat Vinny -- who reciprocated out of naked opportunism. Vinny was an operator, the greediest kid-capitalist in town. He owned the franchise on snow-shoveling all up and down the main drag. No kid could deliver hardware or supermarket flyers without subcontracting from Vinny -- which could earn you 50 cents for a day's work. Vinny always had folding money, while every other kid survived on chump change, four-bit allowances and birthday cards containing two bucks. Fat Vinny was the only kid I knew who hired other kids as bodyguards, to protect him from spontaneous attacks by mobs of disgusted schoolmates.
I endured as Fat Vinny's only pal for two grades. True to his nature, Vinny never responded with a shred of affection, gratitude or loyalty. Sometimes, he'd give me a quarter -- which was his idea of love. Luckily, I eventually moved away, escaping Vinny's malign influence. Today, he's only a creepy memory.
But I remembered Vinny, creepily, when the two Japanese emissaries were ambushed and killed, along with their Iraqi driver. I felt Koizumi's pain because his Fat Vinny problem is way bigger than mine used to be. The worst that ever happened to me was a few collateral contusions from other kids winging rocks at Vinny. Junichiro Koizumi's Fat Vinny, however, is the United States of America. Since 1945, the Fat Vinny of the Western World has held Japan firmly under its thumb, handing out quarters, but demanding in return a rigid obeisance to its crushing military presence and slavish collaboration in a half-century of international adventures ranging from Korea to Vietnam to Kuwait and now, Iraq.
Japan's ruling party, the Liberal Democrats (neither liberal nor
democratic) is suffering a bad case of "blowback" -- in Chalmers Johnson's phrase -- from its Fat Vinny bond with the Pentagon bully. This includes recent electoral slippage against an upstart party called the Democrats, and general outrage at Japan's caving to U.S. demands for live bodies to help out in the Iraq crusade. Iraq is developing into a political Waterloo for U.S. satellites like Japan, and U.S. toadies like Koizumi.
You hang around long enough with Fat Vinny, and you could die of self-loathing. Worse, you could become Fat Vinny.
This is a fate that seems to be quickly overtaking Tony Blair. Once young, virile and bursting with ideas, Blair is now mostly bloat and bluster -- victimized by his loyalty to Fat Vinny. His insistence on following U.S, President George W. Bush into the Iraq quagmire was never popular in England. It grew less popular with the deaths of British troops in a war that was billed, in advance, as a cakewalk. It deteriorated when Bush -- in true Fat Vinny style -- shut out British companies from the postwar building bonanza. Instead, Dubya gave Tony a quarter. According to the latest poll, Blairís once-invincible Labour Party has now fallen behind the divided, dull and virtually leaderless Conservatives. Fat Vinny slouches toward Downing Street.
One thing I find a little annoying is that the Fat Vinny in Washington -- despite being pushy, ungrateful, violent and arrogant -- has so many allies. He doesn't even need me! Admittedly, all the other "kids" -- vast majorities in nations like Spain, Italy, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey -- still hate Fat Vinny. But the leaders of these countries, bonded to Fat Vinny by his boundless wealth and by their fear of all those angry kids with rocks (and bombs, and grenade launchers), stand by Fat Vinny.
Not that they're really his friends. I was never Vinny's friend. We hung out together; we had nobody else. And once you've been close to Vinny, nobody else wants you close. Call this the Fat Vinny Effect.
Which means thereís no escape for guys like Koizumi, Blair, Josť Maria Aznar, the House of Saud. My personal Vinny was just a kid, mainly confined to a little town in the Midwest. For these other guys, Fat Vinny is the Only Superpower. He's everywhere. You can't move away and get a fresh start with new, more wholesome, pals. Wherever you go, Fat Vinny is there ahead of you, holding all the shovels, jingling his pocketful of quarters.
David Benjamin is a journalist and novelist now living in Paris. Fat Vinny is one of the characters in his memoir, The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked, released this year in paperback by Random House.