Saturday, March 21, 2015

NIMZOBOB

   "Where to for you, Bub?" asked Fred, the leader of the taxicab drivers in the burgeoning village of Acrylic Falls. Fred asked this question while leaning across the back seat from the front so as to make a big production out of the fact that he was exerting himself to open the cab door from the inside, something he urged all his subordinates to do by way of encouraging tips from the passengers.
   Tommy grinned in a way that suggested he did not fully comprehend the question. "Hi! I'm Tommy! Are you gonna drive my cab tonight?" he asked. 
   Fred grinned back in spite of himself. He did not like to grin at men. He was not what you would call homophobic. He simply liked things to be clear from the outset. Motioning the kid into the Crown Victoria, he rejoined with "Who you think going to drive you, Bub? Captain Ahab? Hell, no. Fred is who. Fred is me. Where you go?"
   Tommy enjoyed grinning and continued to do so as he spoke. "I'm hungry. Are you going to take me to a restaurant tonight?"
   Fred fought against continuing to grin back. His Cabdriver of the Year belt buckle cut into midsection as he automatically tightened his own seatbelt. "Look, kid. You hungry? I take you to food. What kind of food you like?"
   Tommy kept right on grinning as he considered the question. At last he replied, "I like good food."
   Fred wiped a sweaty palm across his arid face. "Hokey smokes. You want good food? H'okay. You like Italian? I know lots of good Italian food for you."
   Tommy shook his head. The gesture appeared to Fred to be playful. The meter was already clicking away so as far as Fred was concerned, the kid could play all night.
  "H'okay, no Italian. You like the German food?"
   Tommy stopped grinning long enough to indicate without words that the suggestion was unappetizing.
   "Chinese?" No. Iraqi? No. Pakistani? No. Tiki? No.
   "No good. H'okay. Let's see. I know a good Armenian restaurant a couple miles down the road."
   Tommy's face lit up like a crate full of glow sticks on New Year's Eve. "Are you going to drive me in this cab to an Armenian restaurant tonight?"
   Fred stopped grinning and faced the steering wheel. "You bet, Bub. I drive you in cab to restaurant full of Armenian food tonight I do." 
   Fred had been the Captain of the Cabbies for as long as anyone who cared to think about such things could remember. Throughout those decades, he had met hard drinking millionaires, lemonaid swilling reprobates, playboys and playgirls, college students crazed on nutmeg and Romilar, concertgoers amped up on the excitement of electronic death grunge, as well as more than a few average business travelers who did not care much one way or the other for advanced conversation. This Tommy boy with the toothy grin did not strike him as any more or less bizarre than the usual fare he might meet on a Saturday night in Acrylic Falls.
   But Tommy was different from the others in ways for which Fred was not immediately prepared.
   As Fred shifted into Drive, Tommy turned back and waved farewell to the doorman in front of the hotel where Fred had picked him up. The doorman's response, if there was one, went unreported. "You staying at the Wintercrest, Bub?"
   Tommy turned and spoke to Fred as if the older man lived inside the reflection of the rearview mirror. "I'm Tommy," he clarified. "I'm staying at that hotel tonight."
   "Good for you, Tom-Tom. Girl at front desk always calls Fred when she has customer."
   Fred was going to say "customer like you," but he caught himself. The kid probably wasn't that bad. But the Wintercrest had what you might call a reputation for attracting your run of the mill well-heeled psychopaths--rich guys with more money than brains. 
   Tommy pressed his face against the rear passenger side window, gazing out onto the rainbow lights reflecting back from the oilslicks and chrome that bordered Hazington Road. He mumbled something into the glass but Fred could not make it out.
   The driver made a fast U-Turn seconds before the red light, causing both cars behind him to slam their brakes and blare their horns.
   "I like you horn, bozos! What else you get for Christmas?" he scoffed as he completed the turn and snuggled right into the open space directly in front of Aggie's Armenian Delights. 
   Tommy pried himself from the passenger side glass and said, "Are you going to wait for me while I eat dinner at this restaurant?"
   Fred stifled a groan. "No can do, Tom-Tom. Got to work."
   Tommy fished a wallet from his loose-hanging jacket pocket. "I'm Tommy. I want you to drive me back to the hotel tonight."
   Fred was quick to observe a wallet that was bursting with currency. This changed everything.
   "Listen, I tell you what I do. You pay me ten bucks is on meter now. I wait here. I leave meter running. You eat you food. You come back out, I take you to hotel."
   "I'm Tommy and that sounds like a good idea. What is your name tonight?"
   "Same as every other night, Tom-Tom. Fred. My name Fred." 

   Tommy peeled off a ten and hopped out of the taxi. Fred rolled down the windows and lit up a cigarette as he watched Tommy disappear behind the darkened glass doors of the restaurant.
   As the meter clicked its merry way along every twenty seconds, Fred drew on his thin Saratoga cigarette and glanced into his driver side mirror to monitor anything interesting that might approach. Saturday was Thrills Night in Acrylic Falls, as exciting as things ever got in the growing tourist town. Not many years earlier, someone had discovered that a few manmade lakes in the middle of the desert, coupled with year-round sunshine and an endless array of taverns with flashing signs somehow differed from every other town in America, and so the word had spread that this must be the place to be. First, housing developments had earthed their way up along the outskirts of the village. Indian casinos had sprung up shortly there afterwards, along with a succession of mid-level and elite hotels, some restaurants with what the owners hoped was an international flair, some revamped roadways, far too many gas stations, and at long last a string of taxi cabs, all of them commanded--if not owned--by Big Fred Bagratuni. Fred had been in the taxi business since the days before Tattsville was more than a blip on a GPS system. Himself a native of Hrazdan, Armenia, at an early age he had migrated to Chicago, found himself married in Denver, divorced in Reno, incarcerated in Nogales, on the lam in Richmond, pardoned in Terre Haute, and driving cabs in the mountain states as well as the great southwest over the last twenty years. During those carefree days and nights, he had been good at making money and socking away as much of it as legally permissible. Every time he got ahead, he bought another cab at auction, licenced the short, and found himself a driver to pay him a fat lease for the privilege of driving it. Within a few years Fred Bagratuni had a fleet of fifty-two taxis, each one bearing the slogan "Where to for you?" above the company name "Fred's Fine Fleet." Just before the town's growth exploded, some Chicago joker who called himself Billy the Hook showed up with an expensive suit, some flop sweat on his lip, and a greasy handshake. Billy the Hook had been a legend in Chicago as far back as Fred's childhood days in that metropolis. He was the eyes and ears for all sorts of nefarious undertakings throughout the midwest and why he wanted to own a cab company in Tattsville was none of Fred's business. All Fred knew for sure was that Billy the Hook had bought up all fifty-two of Fred's taxis for cash--at one hellacious profit for Fred, by the way--with the only stipulation being that Fred had to manage the fleet for whenever a call would come in. Not many did. Most of the fares came from the hotels or from the weirdos on the street. But whenever a cabbie had a problem--with a passenger, a cop, or some hotshot scumbag--that driver called Fred.
   "Hey hey, big Fred! What's the good word, amigo?"
   That was some one-eyed pimp who had decided it was his mission in life to achieve and exceed the status of a cultural stereotype. His long flowing blue velvet robe dragged the street as his twenty-gallon hat seemed to brush against the low nighttime clouds. How the skinny bastard could hold himself up from the weight of all those gold chains was more than Fred could fathom.
   "How you do, Rasmus?"
   "I do fine, Big Fred. Let's go for a ride, mighty man!"
   "No can do. I got fare inside restaurant. High roller. Got to wait. I get someone else for you."
   The pimp leaned in the window a bit closer to Fred than the driver would have invited his own mother.
  "Listen, Freddie. If I had wanted one of your boys running lost all over town tonight, I would have just asked for that, ya dig? Naw, man, I need me one fine fat Freddie."
   "Hey, scumbag," Fred said, pushing back with one enormous shoulder. "You breathe that shitty salami dog breath on me one more second, I cut out you tonsils and mail them to you sister."
   Rasmus backed up, flashing his teeth without smiling. "That's fine, Freddie. Don't mess yourself. I got lots of rides waiting for me, brother."
   With that, the pimp snapped his fingers and a late model Tesla pulled right up beside him. The passenger door eased open and the hooker behind the wheel said to get on in. They drove off as Fred punched out his cigarette. "Hokey smokes. Is long night already."
   Over the next hour and thirty minutes, a typical assortment of what Fred liked to think of as users, cheaters, six-time losers, hanging around the town with their nightgowns down, milling up and down Hazington Road with no purpose to life other than to check out what every other nimzobob was doing. Fred liked the word nimzobob. It wasn't actually an Armenian word. In fact, he had made it up. But whenever someone would ask, he always looked chagrined that the person was unaware of such an everyday expression.
   Fred was just getting set to light the seventh Saratoga when he heard feet racing out through the darkened glass doors of Aggie's. Squinting through the smoke that layered the air in the front of his cab, Fred saw his fare running--if you could call feet that flopped on the walkway like those of a drunken Bozo the Clown on a conveyor belt running--towards his vehicle. As Fred disgorged himself from his cab, he saw that Aggie and his wife were hot on the slipping heels of this kid Tom-Tom. The kid's face was white as a nun's divorce decree. 
   "Hey, you. Tommy-kid. What it is you do?"
   At the sound of his name being misspoken, Tommy stopped short and the two Armenian restaurateurs slammed into him. The kid stammered, "I-I-I'm To-to-to-Tommy! Are ya-ya-you going to--"
   Fred waved him off. "I'm going to leave your boney ass right here unless you tell Fred what goes on. Aggie! What is problem?"
   The old Armenian man spat on the sidewalk.
   "You want to know what's wrong?"
   "That is why I ask."
   "I tell you what is wrong, Mr. Fred. This fellow, he comes in. He looks at menu. He orders shish-kabobs. What do I care? He wants bobs. We sell him bobs. This is our business, yes? He eats the bobs, he drinks a Kool-Aid, he wipes his hands, Magloski here brings hotshot the bill. He pays with big shot credit card. Magloski calls in credit card. She talks to someone who says to keep this fellow in the restaurant until police get here. Magloski gives card back to this guy. Why she do this, I should live long enough to understand. Mister Credit Card here tries to leave without paying bill. We run after him. You call out his name. We bump into him. You start to ask stupid questions."
   "Hokey smokes, you don't got to read me the Bible, Aggie. Tom-Tom, you pay this man in cash, h'okay?"
   "Okay, Fred."
   The kid was trembling so violently that Fred finally took his wallet and paid Aggie fifty dollars for a meal that probably cost a lot less than that. As Fred handed the billfold back to Tommy, they all turned at the sound of approaching sirens.
   "Aggie, you cheap prick. You call cops?"
   Aggie shook his head while Magloski began to cry. "I never called a cop in my life, Mr. Fred."
   "Tom-Tom, get in cab and shut up you face. Aggie, you have nice day. Magloski, I don't know what to say to you."
   Fred slipped back behind the wheel of the Crown Victoria and eased out onto Hazington Road. Five police units whizzed by him as he made certain to heed the speed limit in an uncharacteristic display of respect for modern law and order. In his rearview he saw the patrols race into the frontway in front of Aggies. The owner of the restaurant would never turn Fred or the kid in. Aggie was stupid but he knew enough to be certain that if he ever wanted an out of town customer delivered to his eatery again in his life, it would serve him well to keep his mouth shut.
    As Fred gently slipped the cab into the round at the mouth of the hotel, he waived off the cretinous doorman who had no doubt aimed to take a share of Fred's tip for the services. Fred said, "Listen, Tom-Tom. You okay now?"
   The kid grinned just as he had at the beginning of the evening. "I'm Tommy! You did me a big favor tonight!"
   "It's okay. The fare on the meter is two-hundred bucks. Maybe you like to tip Fred. I don't know."
   Tommy reached into his jacket, retrieved the wallet--which still contained the credit card that had so concerned the employees at the credit card company, and for which the police were now in a quandary trying to track down the possession of--and pulled out four one hundred dollar bills. He handed them to Fred. 
   "Whoa ho! Thank you, Mr. Tom. That very generous."
   "I'm Tommy! Do you want to take me somewhere else tonight?"
   "Tom-Tom, you keep throwing the money, Fred will take you where you want to go. Where you want to go?"
   Tommy considered this opportunity for a few moments. The police sirens had not faded. If anything, some of their old friends from the siren choir had joined in the singing with them. At last Tommy said, "You're Freddie! Let's get out of here before the Linx people get mad at us."
   Fred shook his head as if to reprocess what he had just heard in a more reasonable manner. "What is this Linx people?"
   "I don't know, Mr. Freddie. They fly big black helicopters. They drop out of the sky and land right on you. They take people into warehouses and no one finds out why."
   "Hokey smokes. You think these Linx things are after you?"
   Tommy nodded. "It must be because of the card."
   Fred flinched. "What card? The credit card?"
   "That's the one. It has my name on it. It says Thomas Arnold Matthews. That's me. I'm Tommy."
   "I know who you are, Tom-Tom. You can quit saying you name."
   "The Linx people want me to give them the card back, but my brother Gerald gave me this card to use when I came to Acrylic Falls. I'll never give away this card."
    Fred was about to shrug his shoulders and take the kid wherever he wanted to go without further discussion when his thoughts were interrupted by the abrupt and disturbing whirl of the propellor of a low-flying helicopter. The wind around the cab whooshed with open hostility. The hotel doorman backed inside the lobby. A broad shadow encircled Fred's taxi. As Fred slammed the gas and wheeled the Vic on two wheels out of the hotel round, he began chuckling hysterically. All his passenger could say by way of further explanation was "I'm Tommy!"
   (To be continued)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

SAD TIME IN NEW ORLEANS

Joan Mellen. A Farewell to Justice: Jim Garrison, JFK's Assassination, and the Case That Should Have Changed History. Skyhorse Publishing. New York: 2013. 645 pages. 

   We begin with why the idea of a biography of former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison is an important motivation and end with why its well-intended execution disappoints--and why that disappointment should sadden us all.
    Earlier this month, the Educational Testing Service released the results of a study they conducted about American millennials--people born after 1980 who were between sixteen and thirty-four at the time of the assessment. The softened conclusions of the report are that millennials have received a higher level of education than any previous generation of Americans, yet demonstrate "relatively weak skills" in literacy, mathematics, and problem-solving with technology. 
   Here is how millennials scored compared to young adults in other parts of the world:

  • In literacy, U.S. millennials scored lower than 15 of the 22 participating countries. Only millennials in Spain and Italy had lower scores.
  • In numeracy, U.S. millennials ranked last, along with Italy and Spain.
  • In Problem Solving with Technology, U.S. millennials also ranked last, along with the Slovak Republic, Ireland, and Poland.
  • The youngest segment of the U.S. millennial cohort (16- to 24-year-olds), who could be in the labor force for the next 50 years, ranked last in numeracy along with Italy and among the bottom countries in problem solving. In literacy, they scored higher than their peers in Italy and Spain.

   When it comes to matters of American History, the situation appears far worse. In the year 2000,
a survey conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut, at the request of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni was designed to measure students' knowledge of American history and government. More than 500 seniors at fifty-five of the colleges and universities in the United States responded to the telephone questionnaire, which consisted of multiple choice questions on topics ranging from the Magna Carta to the Monroe Doctrine, from the Battle of Yorktown to the Battle of the Bulge. Sixty-five percent of the students--from such schools as Yale, Northwestern, Smith, and Bowdoin--failed to pass the test and only one student answered all thirty-four questions correctly. 
   Here are some of the questions and results.

  • Seven percent of students surveyed thought Sputnik was the first animal to travel into space.
  • Twenty-three percent thought it was John F. Kennedy who said, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."
  • Twenty-six percent thought the Articles of Confederation established the division of powers between the states and the federal government.
  • Forty-three percent identified the Declaration of Independence as the source of the phrase "Government of the people, by the people, for the people."
  • Forty-seven percent could not identify the president who was in office when the United States purchased the Panama Canal.
  • Sixty-three percent did not know during which war the Battle of the Bulge was fought.

   Concern over this failing goes far beyond fretting over the possibility of fulfilling George Santayana and his dictum that those of us who forget our history are doomed to repeat it. The importance, in my view, of knowing our American History--or at least struggling to know it--lies in the evidence that everything that has happened in that country we now call America is a fundamental part of what each and every one of us has become. The extent to which we comprehend the nature of our relationships--be they personal, sexual, political, international or otherwise--is not merely influenced by our past, but formed by it, possibly even determined by it. "How do we know what we know?" Without the second half of that question having some foundation, the first half is moot.

   Critical thinking, problem solving, literacy and even mathematics are all enhanced by the study of history. Perhaps they are not enhanced by the way the subject is often taught. I commend to your attention a book by James Loewen called Lies My Teacher Told Me for a fine explication on that subject. I suspect one reason why many young people are ignorant of even their own recent history is because we have mutated into a highly future-fixated country. Gadgetry is perceived as more important than application. Shine takes priority over analysis. And few people of any age take the trouble to question whether the advent of convenient forms of high technology actually do us good or ill, shrugging off matters as we always have with the witless observation, "That's progress."
   So when I tell some people wild-eyed stories about how the news media has been frequently used by domestic intelligence agencies to manage public opinion--and hence to squelch what might be public rebellion--I am often as not met with a series of polite smiles.
   By all means then, do not take my word for it. One of the first lessons in critical thinking is to look for citations.
   Let's look at a fine bit of writing from former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein's October 20,1977 article, "The CIA and the Media," published in Rolling Stone
In 1953, Joseph Alsop, then one of America’s leading syndicated columnists, went to the Philippines to cover an election. He did not go because he was asked to do so by his syndicate. He did not go because he was asked to do so by the newspapers that printed his column. He went at the request of the CIA. . . Alsop is one of more than 400 American journalists who in the past twenty‑five years have secretly carried out assignments for the Central Intelligence Agency. . . Journalists provided a full range of clandestine services—from simple intelligence gathering to serving as go‑betweens with spies in Communist countries. Reporters shared their notebooks with the CIA. Editors shared their staffs. Some of the journalists were Pulitzer Prize winners, distinguished reporters who considered themselves ambassadors without‑portfolio for their country. Most were less exalted: foreign correspondents who found that their association with the Agency helped their work; stringers and freelancers who were as interested in the derring‑do of the spy business as in filing articles; and, the smallest category, full‑time CIA employees masquerading as journalists abroad. . . During the 1976 investigation of the CIA by the Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Senator Frank Church, the dimensions of the Agency’s involvement with the press became apparent to several members of the panel, as well as to two or three investigators on the staff. But top officials of the CIA, including former directors William Colby and George Bush, persuaded the committee to restrict its inquiry into the matter and to deliberately misrepresent the actual scope of the activities in its final report. . .

The Agency’s relationships with journalists, as described in CIA files, include the following general categories:
■ Legitimate, accredited staff members of news organizations—usually reporters. Some were paid; some worked for the Agency on a purely voluntary basis.
■ Stringers and freelancers. Most were payrolled by the Agency under standard contractual terms.
■ Employees of so‑called CIA “proprietaries.” During the past twenty‑five years, the Agency has secretly bankrolled numerous foreign press services, periodicals and newspapers—both English and foreign language—which provided excellent cover for CIA operatives.
■ Editors, publishers and broadcast network executives. The CIAs relationship with most news executives differed fundamentally from those with working reporters and stringers, who were much more subject to direction from the Agency.
■ Columnists and commentators. There are perhaps a dozen well known columnists and broadcast commentators whose relationships with the CIA go far beyond those normally maintained between reporters and their sources.
  Okay, Mershon here again. My apologies for the length of the preceding, but its purpose is every bit as foundational as the Princeton study about millennials being robbed of their ability to think. Media in our society since the days of our founding have played a role in both stupefying as well as enlightening the people. But with the hegemony of television networks in the 1960s and 1970s, the dangers in taking at face value the impartial and loving nature of Cronkite and Severide, or Huntley and Brinkley were monumental. NBC has been especially problematic, given their occasional lapses into what one might misconstrue as liberalism. In February 1967, so-called investigator Walter Sheridan was hired by NBC-TV to present a case against a New Orleans legal investigation, one which had been probing the connection of Permindex board member Clay Shaw to the Dallas events. Five months later Sheridan was charged by Garrison's office with four counts of bribery, involving flagrant attempts to tamper with Garrison's witnesses. Permindex was a shortened term for the Permanent Industrial Exposition, headquartered in Basel, Switzerland. A subsidiary of Permindex, Centro Mondiale Commerciale, was a CIA front used to channel funds toward international espionage missions, including an attempt to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle. One of the board members of Centro Mondiale Commerciale was a man named Clay Shaw, head of the New Orleans International Trade Mart.
One of the leads that D.A. Jim Garrison was working on was the story told by Perry Raymond Russo that he was at a meeting at which plans were made for Kennedy's assassination in the fall of 1963, which included himself, Clay Shaw, David Ferrie, and someone called "Leon Oswald" or "Lee Harvey Oswald." (Executive Intelligence Review, "How Permindex's Walter Sheridan Tried to Suppress the Kennedy Investigation," Richard McGraw, December 29, 1981). 
   You can see for yourself the first several minutes of Sheridan's knife attack against New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, the first and only person to bring charges against anyone in the assassination of President John Kennedy.
 Sheridan went after Garrison with a vengeance. He bribed witnesses, distorted their testimonies, lied about Garrison's associations, and looked right in the camera with a look of sincerity rivaled in unctuousness by both Presidents Nixon and Reagan. 

     NBC was not finished with Garrison. On January 31, 1968, the "Tonight Show" host, Johnny Carson, conducted what was for that program an extended interview with the young prosecutor. Although no video record remains from that broadcast, a few still shots are offered on this audio YouTube clip: 
   But the network still was not quite finished. Six years after a New Orleans jury acquitted Clay Shaw--while agreeing that Garrison had proved a conspiracy but not that Shaw had participated in it--a mischaracterized "countercultural" television program was just catching its wings. "Saturday Night Live," the illegitimate brain child of producer Lorne Michaels, regularly inserted attempts at humor in its effort to tar the JFK conspiracy movement in general and Garrison in particular. During what would become a regular habit of calling attention to then-President Gerald Ford's struggles with coordination, Weekend Update frontman Chevy Chase inserted what the network must have loved: a gratuitous effort at ridicule dressed up as satire.
Chase: No one was injured in the accident, but when the President got out to see what had happened, he tore his jacket sleeve on the, uh... [checks script] ...on the car bumper, bumped his head, and stuck his thumb in his right eye. Alert Secret Service agents seized the thumb and wrestled it to the ground. [As the audience laughs, Chevy grins and pounds the desktop twice.]Said Mr. Ford, quote: “I just assumed my thumb was in my pocket with the rest of my fingers.” Concerning the collision, New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison says he will immediately launch an investigation into the “second car theory.”
   Joan Mellen strains to tell Garrison's story by placing his life within the prosecutor's long-running investigation into the conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy. The author met the subject in 1969 and was impressed by his intellect, charisma, ethics and determination. Even with Mellen's struggle with narrative, the reader cannot doubt that sincerity abounds between both conceiver and conceived. A few random sections of the book flow with uncommon ease. But unless one is superbly fluent in matters of the assassination theories and the behavior of the alleged participants, one will grow confused by the quagmire of names, duties and allegations Mellen tosses about like plastic hoops over pins at a sideshow. On a personal note, it is reasonable to claim for myself something more than a passing familiarity with the subject matter of Garrison's investigation. And while the tenacity of Mellen's scholarship here exceeds any legitimate standards--there are more than one hundred pages of annotated endnotes--the only part of the manuscript that reads in a way that one could call "satisfying" is the chapter that provides the sad details of Jim Garrison's death at home with his children.
   This book was reissued in 2013--marking the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy's public execution. The disappointment here is that the writer fails to evoke even a hint of the significance of that event, the impact of that assassination on future generations. No one looking to understand why Garrison spent the second half of his life in pursuit of the answers will come away from this book with anything but a sense of further bewilderment. Anyone seeking a reasonable explanation for those matters would do better to seek out Garrison's own narrative: On the Trail of the Assassins


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

DID YOU EVER PICK YOUR FEET IN FERGUSON?

   My much younger niece and nephew, Lori and Wendell, came over to hassle me about movies. In particular, they taunted me about something they had read on these fine electronic pages a while back, something that had left them questioning the judgmental wherewithal of Yours Truly regarding just about everything I've ever written, said or thought. "Like the thirteenth chime of a crazy clock," declared Lori. "It casts doubt on all that came before and all that comes after." 
   That's not what I said! What I said was that you might have been wrong. Don't gum this up with your hype, okay?
  Hey, I'm just trying to give you some credibility, Lori McStory. 
   That's not my name, Uncle Phil!
   Fine, fine. Kids today got zero sense of humor. Hell, in my day everybody had nicknames and we were damned proud of it. Not like today where every swinging dick calls himself OC-Kid Knockers or some such pseudo urban rubbish.
   Hey, Phil! Maybe you could just tell the story, huh?
  Indeed I shall, Lord Wendell. By the way, if anybody ever needed a good nickname, nephew o' mine, it's a guy named Wendell. When I was your age, we'd would have caught a guy with that name by the collar and trolled his ass over the bridge just for carrying a flute in one pocket and a box of baking soda in the other.
   Argh!
   Argh!
   Okay, all right! Sorry. Just a little harmless fun. We never actually did things like that. Truth is we were mostly too busy watching movies on late night TV or down at the Starlite Drive-In to have time to work up a good sweat over something as boring as a name like Wendell. 
   Will you get on with it?!?
   Please?
   What had so upset these little urchins was a remark I made about movies from the 1970s being more or less inherently superior on their own merits compared to your garden variety slime of prequels and sequels and reboots and offshoots that pass themselves off these days as entertainment. Lori pointed out, with some justification, that the 1970s actually did have its share of lemons which by any standards whatsoever could not stand the test of time or for that matter even the test of a single screening.
   You even admitted, uncle dear, that Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was the worst movie ever made
   Quite right, young lady. And up against some strict competition came that 1978 fiasco. Let's see, there was another music-oriented stack of swill called Saturday Night Fever, which came out the year before. The soundtrack wasn't half bad, I'll admit. But the story itself tried so hard to be about something by transcending the banality of the lifestyles of the characters that it stunk up the theatre. 
   Don't forget I Spit on Your Grave.
   If I only could, Wendell. Some genius decided to remake that despicable layer of toad puke back in 2010. Probably thought it was campy. The original from 1978 was mostly a vile reaction against the women's movement. You see, back in those frequently unenlightened times, every time something progressive actually permeated the public consciousness--something like civil rights, or being against the wars, or the women's movement--pretty soon some Hollywood cretins would decide that the squares needed to feel reassured that Hollywood wasn't entirely comprised of communists, which is why we ended up with that entire series of Dirty Harry movies. 
   Wendell, do you remember reading in our Modern Film class that writer who called Dirty Harry a fascist masterpiece?
   I think she was talking about Magnum Force.
   Clint Eastwood movies.
  Yeah, Pauline Kael got a lot of things right. But as I was saying, there were--
  That whole anti-hero crap was so prevalent. A Clockwork Orange was pure fascism
   Where'd you pick up that pearl of wisdom, Lori?
   From you!
  Oh. Well, in any case, what you too brats were prattling on about earlier was what you declared to be a stench of racism in certain movies from the otherwise beloved Seventies and I have to admit that at first I thought you two were dead wrong. Then you stomped your Buster Browns and screamed to watch The French Connection. Now at first that may seem to be a tough call because even though the storyline itself was somewhat fictionalized, the movie's two main characters were based on a pair of real cops: Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso. Egan and Grosso actually did participate in a major heroin bust nine years before the movie came out, but most of the chase scenes in the movie were just there to sell tickets.
   Didn't they take away Egan's pension or something?
   They tried, young Wendell, they tried. Mishandling evidence was the charge. Mostly the New York police brass were hacked off that their boy had gone Hollywood. But a higher court reversed the decision and Egan lived to laugh another day. What I was getting at, though, in between the interruptions, is that all the street scenes and foul language and crazed violence was intended to give director William Friedkin's movie enough verite to make it interesting. Or at least artful. As to the racist language and behavior--well, that's hard to justify, in my opinion. Sure, you can say that some of it was just police technique, trying to startle or intimidate the perpetrators or suspects, by saying and doing things that policemen weren't expected to do or say. Like when Hackman's character, Popeye Doyle, demands the dealer answer his question, "Did you ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?" that question blows the dude's mind because it doesn't make any sense, right? 
   But cops back then did act that way. They also took suspects down back alleys and kicked the shit out of them, just like in the movie.
  Hey, little girl, I was just getting to that. You're right. And that's part of the problem with this movie as a whole. An engrossed audience will forgive just about anything, I suspect. But they sure do hate it when they see the movie makers are liars. Or when they don't explain certain things that very much need explaining. When Popeye spends night after night on these essentially free-time stakeouts trying to catch the French heroin traffickers, when he drives a civilian's car into the ground, when he shoots dead a federal agent and then keeps right on looking for the bad guy--a guy he calls Frog One--we wonder why he has this deranged obsession. We wonder, but we get no clue whatsoever, other than that he is a policeman. Is his being a cop supposed to be justification for his duty to catch the bad guys at any cost? 
   You could argue that Friedkin was just making a damned movie, just as he did with The Exorcist a couple years later. But that was accused at the time of being a reaction against women asserting their rights. On the other hand, I don't know if it's fair to claim the title of "reactionary" to Friedkin considering he made The Boys in the Band, one of the first mainstream movies about the friendship of gay men. I think it might be more fair to argue that the director was attracted to what some fool decided to call "edginess" in his work. 
  You're saying it's acceptable to use blatantly racist phraseology in a movie so long as it could have happened that way in real life?
  That's really the rub, isn't it, Lori? I mean, the movie would have been far more stupid had there been some third cop chasing after Popeye and Roy Scheider with a notebook taking down all their inappropriate language, right? Especially if that had been to remind the audience of something it was already expected to know: It's wrong to use racist language. It's wrong to kick a suspect in a field. It's wrong to barge into a bar and debase every patron on account of their ethnicity. It's probably even wrong to shoot and kill a federal agent, or at least I'm pretty sure it was in 1971. Friedkin would probably have said that he was giving the audience credit for knowing the difference between right and wrong behavior. 
   Now hang on. I can see that both of you are about to explode with some brilliance of your own, but I'm getting tired of having to point out to the reader which one of you said what, so just let me anticipate your objection. In The French Connection, the drug smugglers are all very good looking people. You've got Fernando Rey, who is arguably the most suave individual ever to be in a motion picture. And Tony Lo Bianco was damn near the definition of cool. But all the drug dealers were black guys and all the cops were working class stiffs, which is exactly what the director's real life father was--working class, that is. What we have, then, is the smugglers are rich and attractive and refined. Not a foul word from any of them. But the working guys, cops and criminals alike, were all pretty mangy, except Scheider, who always looked great no matter what he was doing. 
   And what about Ferguson?
   Yeah! What would be the reaction to a movie like that one today?
   You tell me. We just watched it.
   What? No answers? Fine. I'll tell you what I think. I think that power is what most things come down to. Or at least the perception of one group having power over another. The policeman has a car and a gun, a radio and another gun. A canine and one more gun. He can run red lights and stop people on suspicion of anything. The rest of us realize that if we tried to do those things we'd get in trouble. So the police's self-perception gets reinforce by the public's inherent distrust. Even people who admire law enforcement don't necessarily trust them. Pretty soon you get into an Us versus Them mentality on both parts, the difference being that the cops have a responsibility to behave as if that weren't the case. Instead, you add some racism, something that makes it easier to believe that you're better than the other guy. The rest of us, though, we tell ourselves that they've got the guns but we've got the numbers. With the constant reporting and speculations by the media, always done by airblown model types, the message gets lost within what you might call the entertainment business that blurs the distinctions, kind of the way that movie did.
   Christ, you're cynical.
   Wendell, Lori, don't ever be like me.
   Deal
   Aw, you're all right.

   

Sunday, March 1, 2015

RUSSIA'S CHRYSAOR

  I'd never heard of Boris Nemtsov. I'm an American. I have television. I'm doing well to know my own history. And Friday, in Moscow, they gunned Nemtsov down on a bridge near the Red Square. 
  The breadth of Russian history and its contemporary applications hovers so large that much of the time the implications dwarf the popular ability to comprehend it all. We have television. We are the world. Yet I suspect one need not have an encyclopedic recollection of the table manners of Czar Nicholas II in order to maintain reasonable worry over present day conditions there.
   "The enemy," comedian Mort Sahl once quipped, "is always fascism." Fascism is unique among all political and economic systems in that it is the only one that is both political and economic at the same time. It is both a consequence and a process. One may come to communism through capitalism. One may arrive at the capitalist stage of inverse development through communism. But fascism can take over your political and economic construct from anywhere. All that is required is a fierce sense of nationalism, one or more ethnic scapegoats, pragmatic tunnel-vision, and a merger between business and government. 
   Frequent readers of this website will have noticed a not-so-tongue in cheek reference to the idea that the Allies actually lost the Second World War on the grounds that we were fighting fascism. The reality is that we were not fighting it--at least, not precisely. We declared war on Japan, a country that had signed a pact with Germany and Italy. Germany in turn declared war on the United States--not the other way around. One can reasonably argue that the Japanese government was fascist. But our objective appears to have been more along the lines of preventing someone else from carving up the world; that is, someone who was not us. I like to believe that what was in the hearts and minds of the soldiers who risked and lost their lives in the big war was the ultimate and permanent defeat of Hitler and his ilk. But fascism has shown itself to be like Medusa. Our fathers and grandfathers may have been like Perseus, who chopped off the mortal Gorgon's serpent-haired head. But, like Medusa, fascism is fertile, and gives forth its own Chrysaor
   Since the end of World War II in 1945, a number of neo-fascist regimes have leaped from the womb of ugly history. 
  In Bolivia in the 1980s, Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie colluded with Stefano Delle Chiaie in what some genius decided to call the Cocaine Coup. 
  In Greece between 1967 and 1974, a fascist government ruled that country, thanks in no small part to the support of the United States and Great Britain. Today Nikolaos Michaloliakos' extremist Golden Dawn party holds seats in the Greek Parliament.
  Italy at present hosts at least three active fascist political parties. 
   During most of the 1980s, a group of Christian Phalangists ruled the country of Lebanon.
   Among the people of Mongolia, squeezed in between the heaving girth of Russia and China, many have embraced the ideologies of Genghis Khan and Hitler, aligning themselves with the Blue Mongolians, Dayar Mongol and Mongolian National Union.
   Taiwan, arguably the most pissed-off country of the twentieth century, recently acknowledged the existence of a political party led by a twenty-something year-old female. The party is called the National Socialism Association. They like to chant "Long live Hitler."
   Turkey has the Grey Wolves, the UK has the National Front, and the U.S. has its share of fringe extremist groups, all too often with their central tenets permeating mainstream politics.
    I'm not looking to scare anyone, but then again, fear may be in the heart of the beholder. Other active Nazi political organizations around the world include Australia's national socialist Patriotic Youth League; the National Bolshevik Party of Belarus; Belgium's National Bolshevism Party; Brazil has at least three active fascist parties, including--no joke--a group of soccer fanatics; there's the Bulgarian National Alliance; the white nationalist Canadian Association for Free Expression is only one of five active extremist parties in Canada; the CIA-formed Fatherland and Liberty Party in Chile is overtly fascist and its leader even claimed that General Pinochet was "too liberal"; Croatia has the Nova Hrvatska Desnica; in the dope haven of all countries, the National Socialist Workers Party of Denmark has given way to the National Socialist Movement of Denmark; New Zealand has its own National Front; progressive Norway is not exempt from something called the National Socialistic Movement; in the Philippines, the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan party has been active for decades; Poland is home to at least three active far right nationalist parties; Romania never really did lose its fascist proclivities, as exemplified by the neo-fascist Noua Dreapta; and Serbia, Slovakia, South Africa and Spain have all seen fascist parties hold power recently. 
   And then there are countries that do not necessarily refer to themselves or perhaps even think of themselves as fascist--yet exercise those inclinations all the same. Sometimes people call these movements Third Position. 
   In Russia we have Medusa and her sisters.
   Russian Action, a splinter of the Russian National Socialist Party, is led by one Konstantin Kasimovsky, late of the Pamyat, a nationalist group that arose following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Pamyat went on to the Ukraine, spawning both the racist Slavik Party and the Party of Slavic Unity of the Ukraine, both variations on the Russian National Unity party. 
    The founder of Russian National Unity is one Alexander Barkashov, a former pipefitter who reminds me of the bad guy in Kevin Costner's The Postman: an educated, artistically amateurish thug. Their motto is "Russia for Russians and compatriots," the latter excluding Jews, Georgians and Armenians, among others. Highly bureaucratic, they have embraced businessmen more effectively than other "third position" movements in Russia. If you need a local example, imagine the American Freedom Party with fit, well-armed members who have the support of Lockheed Martin. 
   The whole "third position" concept has one saving grace: it is the only political philosophy that admits to executing elements of leftist ideology with the brutality of right wing tactics. Think Joseph Stalin. Think Mao Tse Tung. Think Pol Pot. And think Vladimir Putin. 
   The Russian economy is dependent upon one commodity: oil. The country has an annual inflation rate of ten percent. Economic reforms have led to a higher concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer people. As Aleksey Shiropayev, leader of Russia's National Democratic Alliance, puts it: "The hatred toward Ukraine now in evidence has absolutely changed Russia for the worse. It has become clear that mass Russian consciousness remains absolutely imperialist and chauvinist. Russia is prepared to consider Ukraine only as its colony or as scorched earth” (The Interpreter, Sept 2014). 
   Boris Nemtsov saw the Donbass military conflict in the Ukraine as a symptom of former KGB officer Putin's imperialism. Now the man most suspected of having ordered Nemstov's execution has promised to lead the investigation into his murder. 
   Pegasus wept.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

SAYING YES TO NIHILISM

   The nature of falsity in our present time is somewhat due to our manufactured struggle against a mechanical enemy who in large part despises us because of our artificiality.
  In the introduction to his 1964 book One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse wrote:
Does not the threat of an atomic catastrophe which could wipe out the human race also serve to protect the very forces which perpetuate this danger? We submit to the peaceful production of the means of destruction, to the perfection of waste, to being educated for a defense which deforms the defenders and that which they defend.

     Do we really need a revolution when people can buy and sell bottles that are reasonably described by the word "plastic"? Is a system even worth the trouble of overthrowing when it produces such nonexistent realities as Enron?  Will the hegemony of spiritual technology lead us to the precipice of sending virtual armies off to thwart the android counter-revolutionists while the real ones return fire with actual weaponry as we beat our fists in the air and cry "Foul!"? 
   The prospects would surely be amusing were it not that social criticism since at least the nineteenth century has encouraged us to think in terms that might be labeled as "enlightened pragmatism." That qualifies as a long-term intellectual investment, one which adherents, admirers and psychic embezzlers of the Frankfurt School would be reluctant to abandon. 
   From my personal point of view, get an academic hottie to marry you. If that is inconvenient, you might consider that the negationist components of conflict theory have remarkable staying power as well as practical applications. A considerable amount of conflict theory's nihilist flare-ups come from Europe, where what at one moment appears to be communist in nature suddenly spits into the wind and reveals itself as fascist. The belief that contemporary society and the culture it manufactures is inherently false (read: bourgeois) is something of a meeting point between the two otherwise distant points on the infinite ideological continuum. The argument in favor of arbitrarily rejecting not only the products of that culture but the industries that make it is an attractive one. Like many attractive arguments, it contains some truth, some distortions, and some purposeful lies. And even the distortions and lies make nice use of metaphor, imagery and other elements of poetry, which may be the reason we can read someone such as T. S. Eliot and be mesmerized by the majesty of his constructions and yet hate his reactionary guts. (In fact, the whole right wing of the imagistic poets of the early twentieth century--including a few poets I quite like, such as Eliot, Stevens, and even that traitorous snail Ezra Pound--indulged in the ultimate blend of conspicuous consumption with bourgeois subterfuge as they based the artistic success of their writings on the degree of difficulty in decoding what they were too hammered to say in a more lucid manner.) 
   Sometimes we say yes to nihilism. Often this is more in the sense of influence than in direct action. Direct action has some a priori requirements that most people simply cannot withstand for long periods of time. For instance, we may enjoy listening to whatever the contemporary equivalent of the Velvet Underground is, but walking around with the kind of automatic rejection of the endless culture blasts is hard work, especially since there's always that nasty chance that we might inadvertently miss out on something good. Besides, knee jerk negation sounds uncomfortably like Archie Bunker. 
   "Nothing is true--all is permitted," wrote Betty Bouthoul in The Master of the Assassins in 1936. Or it was written by Alexander Dumas in 1844 in The Count of Monte Cristo. Or Vladimir Bartol said it in Alamut in 1938 (while sarcastically dedicating the book to Mussolini). Or maybe it was in 1960 when William Burroughs said it in Minutes to Go. It may even have been sung by Jim Carroll on the album Catholic Boy in 1980. It is a current, if you will, that runs through a video game from 1994 called Assassin's Creed. "Nothing is true; everything is permitted." Those six words can reveal a twitching nerve impulse that reacts like neon to anything from the rapture of liberation to a punch in the jaw from a violent hedonist. 
   I hope the importance of the passage from Marcuse at the beginning of this has not gotten soft. I will try my own interpretation again: The nature of falsity in our present time is at least in part due to our manufactured struggle against a mechanical enemy who despises us because of our artificiality. A brief lesson in recent history may clarify. In 1979 we handed the Soviet Union what United States National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski categorized to President Jimmy Carter as "their Vietnam," meaning the U.S. could support the Afghan rebels in their war of liberation from the Soviet Union and thereby drain the USSR of their political, economic and spiritual ability to survive. In the process of doing this (successfully, it should be noted), we empowered the formation of the Taliban. When the Soviets were defeated, the negation of what had been the reigning culture was rejected by the ideologically stunted yet technologically savvy members of the Taliban government, known between 1996 and 2001 as The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. These "students" (which is what "Taliban" means) drew support for their unacknowledged country from the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, the Mujahideen, and a small group of militant financiers nowadays known as Al-Qaeda. In keeping with the multinational tenor of our times, none of these political organizations can be said to have ruled a specific country, a fact very much in keeping with their organizational structure, which is said by Khalid al-Hammadi to be "Centralization of decision with decentralization of execution." Today's living is akin to the one described as "dream like" by William Faulkner in Absalom! Absalom! where he writes "You run without moving from a terror in which you cannot believe, toward a safety in which you have no faith." 
   A streak of nihilism runs through what I guess we had all better be prepared to start calling militant Islamic extremism. (And who really cares if ISIS or some other group of barbaristic warmongers represents true Islam? The concept of religion--regardless of its actual, final and cosmic verisimilitude--is de facto an interpretation of and by human beings, just like the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence. Any religion's terrestrial validity depends on who you are at a given moment and because some other people will always experience the same concepts differently from the way you or I do, and because metaphysical validation can only occur beyond our current plain of consciousness, i.e, after we are dead, it may behoove us one and all to avoid saying that this or that group does not represent true Islam, true Judaism, true Hinduism, true Christianity or true Scientology. Just because the behavior of some adherents makes us sick, that does not mean those adherents lack their own truth, which of course brings us right back to "Nothing is true; everything is permitted.") Militant Islam extremism never existed in a vacuum. It has always been reinforced by the more sophisticated yet no less barbaric attitudes and actions of Englishmen, Americans, and Europeans, to name but a few. Relations between Sunni and Shia Muslims in what is now called Iraq may have been historically unstable, but in the years immediately prior to the U.S.-led coalition invasion in 2003, Sunni and Shia coexisted peacefully in that country. 
   As you may have heard, such is no longer the case.
   We in the West have thus created enemies--united them, to some extent--who despise us in no small part for having operated in such a way as to have made their existence (as far as they themselves are concerned) necessary. 
   One consequence of being the masters of a system that creates falsities ranging from streaming music by a professional plagiarist such as Kid Rock to grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri, from the compulsive use of electronica to the delighted acceptance of being entertained into a stupor by things we do not even care to understand, is that our society does ram billions of tons of bourgeois bullshit down our collective throats. The decision we may have to make is whether we really are what we eat. Saying yes to negation--with some skill, meaning without accidentally giving over power to the National Front or to the Democratic or Republican Party--can even free a person up to the point where he or she might seek a type of enlightenment void of pragmatism. Do you play your musical instrument because you want to be a millionaire or because you enjoy playing it? Do you paint your masterpiece because you want to be the new Picasso or because you have something worthwhile to communicate? Do you plant your spring garden because you want to have the biggest spread of marigolds on the block or because you love the smell of the blooms? Do you brush your dog because you want to be the next Patty Hearst at the Westminster Kennel Club or because the dog's fur feels good when you rest the side of your head against it? Do you want to be a soldier because it gives you the opportunity to vent your anti-social proclivities while wearing the legitimacy of a uniform or because the Nazis are actually kicking down your neighbor's front door? 
   It serves the interests of people who hold real power in this world for artificiality to blend with reality. I doubt the existence of any conspiratorial collusion in this. At the same time, a conspiracy--a breathing together--may be necessary to shatter it. 



Monday, February 16, 2015

OUR TURN TO CRY

   What with the predictable emphasis on the role of the producer as auteur over the works of presumably anonymous female singers, it may surprise you to read my opinion that the esteemed Quincy Jones (who produced among the best tracks for Michael Jackson, Anita Baker, Peggy Lee, New Order) contributed very little to what is great about Lesley Gore's recordings. The gift of all Gore’s recorded output—which most greatest hits collections amply capture, but the best probably being The Golden Hits of Lesley Gore from 1965—is bestowed by the singer’s remarkable manner of conveying the solemnity of each occasion, juxtaposed against a wild sense of liberation through pain. For instance, in “It’s My Party,” her boyfriend disappears behind the clubhouse to play hide the snake with another aspiring debutante, and when they return, their faces aglow from the self-satisfaction of mutual conquest, Gore states with the most flat-out exhausted sense of awareness ever conceived: “Oh what a birthday surprise/Judy’s wearing his ring.” She delivers the first of those lines with all the stupefied emotion a kid would bring to a recitation of the multiplication tables. It is only when she comes to the subject of Judy, her lifelong nemesis, that the spunk returns to her vocal.
   But “It’s My Party” was only the first in a four-part series of the trials and tribulations of sweet Lesley. 
   To Johnny’s credit, it didn’t take him long to recognize his error in transgressing with the town’s highest class tramp, so he came back to Les and now it was “Judy’s Turn to Cry.” On the rebound herself, Judy finds another guy the same night, but Lesley vows this new romance will fade because that Judy, “She’s a Fool.” All this awareness led to a raised consciousness for young Ms. Gore who, though she took Johnny back after his allocution, warns him, “You Don’t Own Me,” the earliest case of proto-feminism in rock music and a musical attitude which made the relatively innocent tough-guy posturing of Joan Jett all the more believable. When, toward the song’s end, Lesley shouts, “I’m young and I love to be young/I’m free and I love to be free,” she declares a liberation that no armed conflict could ever approximate.
   She died today from lung cancer at the age of sixty-eight. 
   Do you realize that her biggest commercial successes happened while she was still in high school? She went on to become a Sarah Lawrence alumnus as well as an actor, appearing in a couple episodes of the TV show "Batman," in an of itself enough of an accomplishment for any teenager. Color me green. 
   She continued to record through the mid-1970s and co-wrote a hit song with her brother that made the soundtrack of Fame
   Were you surprised to learn today--if today was when you learned it--that Lesley Gore was a lesbian and that she had been in the same relationship for thirty-three years? How much (if anything) did that fact of her life have to do with the authenticity, the lack of pretense, in her vocal deliveries? Did she understand the immeasurable value that "You Don't Own Me" brought to anyone who was willing to meet the song even halfway? Did she know that we would still be thinking about it years later, or having friendly discussions about whose cover of the song came in second, Dusty's or Joan's? Did she know that we didn't care that the song was written by two men? Or that a whole new generation of people would "discover" it from The First Wives Club?
   As a child I used to engage in what turns out to be a common fantasy: I would on occasion imagine what the world would be like if I had not been born. Being a child, I found the idea challenging because the egocentrism inherent in kidhood makes a world without Self feel improbable. What would my parents be doing? What would my friends be thinking? How would my little neighborhood look? What songs would be on the radio?
   A great singer from Lesley's period of greatest artistic success established a relationship with the listener in the sense that it became instantly impossible to imagine a world in which her songs had never existed. Very few singers from that period (1962 through 1965) can say that. The Ronettes' "Be My Baby" did it. The Shangri-Las' "Remember Walking in the Sand" did it. Both of those groups were somewhat erroneously perceived as creations of the studio, in the case of the Ronettes the credit typically going to Phil Spector and with the Shangri-Las to Shadow Morton. And the efforts of those respective producers cannot be dismissed. But what they did in the final analysis--and this is also true of Quincy Jones regarding Lesley Gore--is they had very good ears and intuited a way of reproducing the essence of what these women wanted to communicate. Some people in the business had a spark. These women were human blowtorches with enough vocal firepower to level Philadelphia. In short, it was not so much that Phil Spector "discovered" the Ronettes or that Shadow Morton "recorded" the Shangri-Las or that Quincy Jones "worked the dials" with Lesley Gore. What mattered more was that these young women discovered them.
   So tonight our contemporary versions of the radio (Spotify, YouTube, whatever) will play and replay Lesley's body of work. We will be moved. We may mourn that which we possibly had forgotten we knew. But we will not likely see a reflection of her gift again in our lifetimes. For that alone--and being alone is ultimately at the core of all her best recordings--it is our turn to cry.
Quincy Jones, Lesley Gore, and unidentified friend

Saturday, February 14, 2015

CAN THE FALCON HEAR THE FALCONER?

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   One thing our human species could learn from football is the concept of the two-minute warning. Now in the sense of football itself, the warning feels like nonsense because the players and coaches certainly realize that in a game with the degree of precision that the sport maintains, every second remains precious, especially if your side holds possession. Nevertheless, the warning carries some value to those in attendance, as if the rules committee wanted to send the announcement: People, this is the part of the game that really matters. If the team that is down by four is going to surge, this is when it needs to happen. If the team that leads by four wants to get to the playoffs, they'd better rush and not fly the ball. 
  Considering the epidemic of crises humanity faces today, it behooves us to announce our own two-minute warning.
   And we are down by more than four. 
   What is it that worries people these days? First, we should look at which people we are talking about. Whenever an American news outlet discusses fear, they invariably mean American fear. You never turn on NPR or CNN or Fox or Pacifica and find the announcer saying that the Japanese are afraid of Korean sushi. What you hear is that something or other is threatening the United States. Most of the time the reports come across with such frenzied breathlessness that no one much gets around to asking critical questions about the accuracy of the perceptions. So for instance, if twenty-five percent of all Americans feared an outbreak of measles because they believed the disease was going to kill millions of people, one of the things a responsible media would do would be to ascertain if those fears were in any way justified. As anyone who has ever watched CNN, Fox or MSNBC can tell you, what happens instead is that CNN brings out two people purporting to represent widely divergent views on the matter, although--as with championship wrestling--both people sit together in the green room telling one another jokes. MSNBC reports that the cause of the fear is because the Koch Brothers have been funding the Tea Party. Fox tells us that things are even worse than we suspect because the vaccine actually will cause a man to develop a uterus. 
   But no one ever gets around to analyzing the validity of the fears. And after a while we as viewers and listeners and readers get so beaten down by the constant drum beat of impending doom that our frame of reason narrows and we find that we have become just as limited in our thinking as the cable news advertisers hope we will be. 
   On January 12, 2015, The Pew Research Center asked 1,500 Americans what was freaking them out. It may be helpful to recall that this was around the time of the Paris attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Which fear came in on top?
  This is significant because one of the weapons which large corporations fully expect the United States government to employ against the populace is the fear of an outside and unforeseen attack. In the contemporary malaise, "outside" means that the potential perpetrators either reside or have connections to the Middle East and are probably believed to be Islamic. "Unforeseen"--which is the scarier of the two descriptors--implies that regardless of what those in possession of real power may know in advance, the masses themselves will not see the attack coming until it is too late. All the better reason, the argument goes, to worry constantly. I guess the bad guys can't hurt you as long as your paranoia is on overload. I used to think having a flag decal on my front window was all it took to keep the devil away, but it appears the new price of freedom is eternal servitude.
   As with the recent shootings in Denmark, the violence in France caught our attention here in America because we like to believe that we are the only country with a significant Caucasian population that gets attacked. So when some group of Islamic fundamentalists goes on a rampage in another country with lots of white folks, we sit up and take notice. ISIL can enslave and murder thousands of Syrians and Iraqis and we shake our heads and sigh. But just let them whack a few American journalists or humanitarians and watch our collective blood boil. 
   What else frightens the people of the United States these days? The same Pew survey showed the following list of what they like to call "priorities."
   These surveys are viewed by American corporations as vitally important and should be considered as such by all of us, although not precisely for the same reasons. The people who direct the supply of economic resources in the world--Council on Foreign Relations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, U.S. Federal Reserve, along with the corporate interests these groups both serve and employ--utilize what Pew calls "priorities" and what might more accurately be called "collective insecurities" to their own best interests. These insecurities are also a fair measure of what we can expect in the future. The surveys may even be thought of as a performance appraisal for how well the blend of financial, political and military interests are sculpting public perceptions.
   To get some perspective on the allegation I am making that corporate interests (which I often generalize as American business interests, although the reach of multinationals has done much to blur the relevance of national borders) encourage their allies in government to manufacture fear, it may be helpful to consider the early days of globalization, something which I would place at roughly 1976, even shortly before the ascension of the policy makers in the administration of Jimmy Carter. 
   Nowadays one has to be careful about using two particular words together in a sentence because using them can allow other people to shout you down as some kind of wild-eyed conspiracy buff because the political right in America has laid claim to the words I'm going to use to (ironically) scare a few folks about some sort of Zionist-controlled New World Order with a thousand points of lights that prove we never went to the South Pole much less to the moon. Those two words--I won't keep you waiting--are the Trilateral Commission. 
   After World War II and especially after the Korean War, Western democracies such as the rebuilt countries of Japan and Germany, along with the new superpower known as the United States, saw that their populations were teeming with people who insisted on stretching the rights they believed to be inherent in a pluralist democracy. The military buildup in the United States created what was throughout the 1950s and 1960s the closest thing to a middle class our country has ever seen. With the freedom that money whispers about, many people behaved in ways that make those who believe themselves to be in control extremely nervous. This was the case not just in the United States with an entire culture of young and middle-aged people questioning the value of being wage slaves. There were riots and alternative communities throughout Western Europe in the late 1960s. Japan saw their share of students questioning authority as well. 
   In what might be thought of as totalitarian systems such as the Soviet Union or the People's Republic of China, student uprisings or workers strikes were routinely crushed because they were said to be counter-revolutionary or Trotsky-ist. Because of the clamp on media dissent in those systems, public perception was easier to control so the Politburo needn't worry much about the masses (although by the early 1980s, after years of getting their asses kicked in Afghanistan, the Soviets became very worried about a Polish labor leader named Lech Walesa, a guy who had a lot more to do with the fall of the Soviet Empire than did Reagan, but that's another story for another time). But in the United States, rolling out the tanks usually makes for very worrisome press. Even when the purposes for deployment of the National Guard are what we like to call progressive, as when they are there to ensure that African-American students can attend integrated school systems, just the presence of uniformed soldiers on our city streets with M-16s at the ready makes people in America very uncomfortable. But that was how our leaders dealt with dissent in this country during the administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Whether it was racists standing in the schoolhouse door or students demanding our withdrawal from Southeast Asia, when the government feared that democracy was being used by the people rather than on the people, the government routinely sent in the guns and tanks.
   It was the genius of the Carter and Reagan administrations that the people around both these disturbingly similar Presidents were able to foment a less overtly violent and far more insidious method of neutralizing the power of people who believe themselves to be free. The Trilateral Commission--which in its early days had some familiar members such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Cyrus Vance, James Earl Carter--enlisted the aid of Samuel P Huntington to put forth the idea that what democracy most needs is moderation
   One thing to bear in mind about these people is that they were then and today would be even more so thought of as neo-liberals, that is, elite intellectuals who sought the measured and patient advance of humanity through the presumably benevolent auspices of imperialism in the guise of capitalist hegemony. You might ask yourself, what then is the difference between a neo-liberal and a neo-conservative? That's a good question. I suspect the answer may lie in the lighting or the make-up. That's all I've ever been able to notice.
   So the Trilateral Commission recommended to what was then West Germany, The United States and Japan that their governments needed to do a much better job of indoctrinating their young people so that those future decision-making citizens would do a better job of frustrating their own neuroses by becoming obsessed with consuming rather than with worrying about women's rights, voting rights, civil rights, the overreach of police and government, invasions of foreign lands, that kind of thing.
   There was never a need for some kind of "high cabal" to direct the course of what happened. All that was necessary was to get out of the way and allow it to happen. 
   With a series of simultaneous mergers of industry and government along with a steady relaxation of regulations on the former, the so-called problems of democracy were soon managed. What that means is that our human insecurities are managed. They are managed by external and often very abstract concepts--abstract unless they affect you personally. So while in 1944, largely due to our initially reluctant involvement in World War II, the U.S. unemployment rate was 1.2%. The highest it has been since WWII was in 1982, when it reached 9.2%. When unemployment is too high, corporations worry about the political instability of progressive movements (or for that matter fascist movements). When it is too low, they worry about having to pay competitive wages. The ideal range for big businesses appears to be between six and seven percent unemployment. That allows for enough people who have jobs to buy things they don't need to balance out the economic impact of millions of people not having the money to buy things they do need. In other words, economic insecurities are built into the contemporary capitalist system to force people into accepting the negative consequences of global warming, Wal-Mart, privatization of schools and penitentiaries, and an unending emphasis on wars and rumors of wars. 
   Writing in the New York Times in October 2012, Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney wrote about the stagnation of American wages from 1970 to the present. They attribute this flattening to changes in technology, the role of international trade, and the decline of unions. What they do not mention is that all three of these precipitant causes are connected to something that Samuel P. Huntington and his colleagues at the Trilateral Commission called globalization. The introduction of the personal computer into the American home, the massive restructuring of business models and outsourcing of employment, and immigration policies designed to undercut the power of labor unions have all worked quite effectively in stagnating wages for the last forty-five years while also feeding our unending desire to hate the rest of the world. It is much more convenient and requires less critical thinking (thank God, since our universities haven't the interest in teaching such revolutionary notions) to blame some undocumented Latin America emigre to this country for our problems than to go after the real and invisible administrators of our economic hardships. Better to blame some Indonesian peasant sewing laces into our running shoes than to go after Phil Knight personally. Better to slam down the phone on the technical support woman we have reached in Bangalore or Manila than to ask the CEOs of the wireless corporations why Americans aren't being offered those jobs. 
   Perhaps what should frighten us more than the convoluted concept of terrorism or the vague abstraction of economics or the unnecessary divisiveness of whether one views oneself as a liberal or conservative--what we should consider obsessing about is instead the means to which our primordial insecurities are being manipulated to anesthetize our impulses to think critically about how it is that we arrived at this point in time and what if any patterns of our future behavior can be predicted. Concern over the diminished quality of life for future generations needs to be replaced with consideration of the real possibility that we will not have future generations. Our avarice and stupidity--which is perceived by much the rest of the world in simultaneous hues of horror and amusement--may not be the result of some grand corporatist conspiracy. But if it were caused by such a thing, the results would be identical.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

VOLUNTARY CONSENT?

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   It begins with measles vaccines and the next thing I know there's a riot going on.
   Here are some of the organizations who support the idea that children should receive vaccinations: Centers for Disease Control, Food and Drug Administration, Institute of Medicine, American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, UNICEF, US Department of Health and Human Services, World Health Organization, Public Health Agency of Canada, Canadian Paediatric Society, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, and American Academy of Family Physicians. 
     Yet some people put more faith in that noted immunologist Jenny McCarthy (as well as her charitable organization's famous financial backer Mr. Hefner and her ex-husband actor Jim Carrey) than they do in those self-important hacks at the Centers for Disease Control. After all, I think it was another Doctor of Medicine, actress Marilu Henner, who convinced the bread-eating world that gluten was somehow supposed to be bad for us and to do the sign of the cross any time a dairy product came wafting through the room. But celebrities have an absolute right to confuse the public about physical health issues, what with many of them having messed up the minds of their followers to the extent that some people actually go to bed at night convinced that Alicia Silverstone possesses some modicum of talent. And speaking of Alicia, her 2014 book (The Kind Mama: A Simple Guide to Supercharged Fertility, a Radiant Pregnancy, a Sweeter Birth, and a Healthier, More Beautiful Beginning) won the annual Philropost Award for the Book with a Title Longer Than the Text Itself and also included some words about how unsafe childhood vaccination is. 
   Of course, if the only famous people who came out in favor of child abuse were the stupid ones, even the oxycodone-gobbling fans of Lester Maddox would have to admit the whole thing was a hoax. But Bill Maher--of whom I am proud to say I have never had much in the way of high regard--is considered even by his detractors to be what you might call a smart fellow, said in 2009, "I would never get a swine flu vaccine or any vaccine. I don’t trust the government, especially with my health." 
   Although no one recently has come out in support of Charlie Sheen's intelligence, the well-known advocate of the support group Talent Squanderers Soon to Become Anonymous has joined with noted child psychologist Britney Spears in cautioning parents to not have their children vaccinated. 
   Other silly fools include Kristin Cavallari ("The Hills"), Mayim Bialik ("Big Bang Theory"), and Rob Schneider (any idiot movie on which Adam Sandler has not called dibs).
   I have no doubt that the anti-vaccination crowd could find lots of mentally unbalanced people who support vaccinations. Hell, they could probably find celebrities who are in favor of childhood autism. So in a sense I am setting up the straw man argument: Look at all the idjets who got their thinkin wrong; therefore, the idee must ipso fatso be wrong too
   That isn't quite what I'm saying. I am saying that before you make a decision about your children, you might consult someone with a bit more science in her background than the former star of. . . of. . . What was McCarthy the star of? I can never remember.
   Here then is what I trust will be some useful information to ponder while your kid fidgets and screams in the doctor's waiting room.
  • All 50 states require vaccinations for children entering public schools even though no mandatory federal vaccination laws exist. All 50 states issue medical exemptions, 48 states (excluding Mississippi and West Virginia) permit religious exemptions, and 19 states allow an exemption for philosophical reasons.
  • The CDC estimated that 732,000 American children were saved from death and 322 million cases of childhood illnesses were prevented between 1994 and 2014 due to vaccination.
  • According to the CDC, all vaccines carry a risk of a life-threatening allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) in about one per million children. The CDC reports that pneumonia can be caused by the chickenpox vaccine, and a "small possibility" exists that the flu vaccine could be associated with Guillain-BarrĂ© Syndrome, a disorder in which the person’s immune system attacks parts of the peripheral nervous system, in about one or two per million people vaccinated.
  • Children are exposed to more aluminum in breast milk and infant formula than they are exposed to in vaccines. Aluminum is one of the ingredients in some vaccines that scares the bejeezus out of the autism crowd because in higher doses, the stuff can cause all sorts of nasty neurological disorders. Also on the Beware List are thimerosal, formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, cetyltrimethylammonium, as well as chicken and yeast proteins.
  • Jenny and Britney and Sparky and Betsy are not the originators of the vaccine mythology. Some people place the origin with Andrew Wakefield, who published a study in the Lancet in 1998 claiming to find a link between the MMR vaccine (which contains no thimerosal) and autism. Wakefield has since been charged with research improprieties and conflicts of interest, and the original results could not be confirmed. He still believes himself above reproach.
  •  I would date the source of misinformation and misdirection to 1982 with the formation of a group called the National Vaccine Information Center. These folks insist on "voluntary informed consent."  
   That voluntary consent matter is the real cog. The person for whom the parent is exercising his or her right to take action is by definition a small child. Some parents doubtless believe in all sincerity that they are best serving their children's interests by declining to have their kids immunized. One of the consequences of the massive governmental deregulation begun in the United States during the Carter Administration and shortly thereafter perfected by Reagan was an embracing of anti-intellectualism perhaps best illustrated by the calculated quip that "The solution to the problems of big government is less government." Even though I personally reject the existence of what political scientists call "pluralist democracy" in America, I still prefer the illusion of voting for people who are empowered to make us safe over the reality that a mass of largely economically brutalized victims are in any position to make decisions for their kids when they cannot even be given reasonable access to birth control because it might piss off the insurance companies. 
   When driving a car, I am required to wear a seatbelt. If I ride a motorcycle out of Arizona into California, I have to wear a helmet. Car seats for children are mandatory most places. When the local animal crematorium dumps their refuse into the water supply, Environmental Services lets me know to not drink the tap water. I consider some of these things to be a bit inconvenient. Yet no one cares what I think about them--and rightly so--because public safety is the real issue and not the creeping mass of muddled nonsense that slithers along the crevices of my shrinking brain. 
    Do we love what we misbelieve to be freedom so much in this country that in order to prove to ourselves that we are exercising it we will risk the health of our own kids and those with whom they come into contact?