Tuesday, April 29, 2014

INSIDE ROOM 237

People can misinterpret almost anything so that it coincides with views they already hold.
                    --Stanley Kubrick

As a practising film freak, I find that one of the few but treasured body-shaking mind-melting soul-shattering thrills of this life blasts through the solar plexus of the solar system when I bounce across someone who is of a younger variety than myself and who nevertheless finds him or herself enthralled with movies from my youth with the same enthusiasm that a bipolar methamphetamine addict might bring to a sex orgy. In other words, when some youngster comes over to pour through the DVD collection, hesitates over The Third Man, looks inquiringly at Vertigo, ponders a moment as he or she handles the jewel box of Apocalypse Now, and then sets aside The Shining, turns to me and says, "Hey, uh, what's this one about?" The truth of the matter is that I've met three people between the ages of seventeen and twenty for whom The Shining is their all-time favorite motion picture. 
   When I told my friend Jim, way back in 1980, that I was going with my friend Sandy to watch The Shining, he told me: "The opening shot where the camera follows the car up the mountain has twenty-six references to Jungian psychology." I had no idea what he was talking about. That was then. Now I am older and much wiser. And I still don't get it. Funny enough, I've read several interviews with Kubrick about this movie and although he always mentions that glorious opening sequence, not once did he say anything about Freud's fallen angel.
    The Shining is not my all-time favorite motion picture. It is, however, a movie worthy of watching for fun, fear and fascination. Stanley Kubrick, the movie's director, was one smart cookie. He certainly was not above utilizing a bit of the old symbolism in his images. He was also quite adept at placing all sorts of funny stuff in the margins of his films, as anyone who has read the instructions for the Zero Gravity Toilet in 2001: A Space Odyssey can attest. 
2001 A Space Odyssey
     Think about it a moment. You're busy building this for your movie--
--something that takes months of meticulous and tedious effort, yet you have the presence of mind and the uncontrollable wit to create instructions for your outer space bathroom. Just amazing.
   Because Kubrick had that kind of mind, his art occasionally lent itself to some moderately far out theorizing by enterprising film students, conspiracy buffs, and bored yet horny professorial types with bigger film collections than brain cells. 
   That brings us with a certain cheerful trepidation to our review of the 2012 documentary Room 237.
   If it never occurred to you that Stanley Kubrick had been employed by NASA to help fake the Apollo 11 moon landing and that The Shining was his mea culpa of that act, then listen up, bucko, because apparently we have all been living under a shadow of ignorance. If we had been paying proper attention, we would certainly have noticed that in the scene where Danny--the child of Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall in The Shining--gets lulled into going into the mysterious Room 237, the kid is actually wearing an Apollo 11 sweatshirt. Yes! That could be dismissed, I suppose, as some kind of world class coincidence. But wait just a minute, tiger. Why did Kubrick change the room number from 217--which is what it was in the Stephen King novel--to 237? There can only be one iron clad cause. The average distance between the earth and the moon is 237,000 miles. Uh-huh! And you thought that was just a continuity glitch, didn't ya? Huh? You think maybe he should have made the room number 237,000? Well, I know that hotel was big and had a lot of rooms, but there's such a thing as verisimilitude, remember.
The Shining

   Of course, director Rodney Ascher wouldn't base an entire documentary around just one theory. No! He culls together some vibrant and exciting images--many of them either quite discreet or else unintentional--alongside some (probably) whackadoo suggestions as to meaning. See, I thought The Shining was a movie about a kid named Danny who possessed a prescience activated by a combination of child abuse and anxiety over relocating. That prescience involves his father Jack getting a job as caretaker for the Overlook Hotel (conveniently called The Stanley in real life), moving the family into the hotel and the ultimate discovery that "You have always been the caretaker, Mr. Torrance." I have also always believed that Kubrick's genius, if you want to call it that, was in manipulating the audience to pull for the bad guy, Jack Torrance, and against the good woman, Wendy, with the kid Danny being the more or less boring instrument in between the two. Jack gets all the good shots, the funny lines, the strength and power. Wendy is made to come across as undesirable and impotent. That kind of audience coercion happens in a lot of Kubrick movies and it was no big surprise in this one. (Stanley Kubrick himself--and one supposes he should know--viewed the Wendy Torrance character very differently. He said: "Shelley seemed to be exactly the kind of woman that would marry Jack and be stuck with him. The wonderful thing about Shelley is her eccentric quality -- the way she talks, the way she moves, the way her nervous system is put together.")
   Wellee wellee wellee well. It turns out I don't know shit from shinola. It seems that the real vision of this film was an exculpation of the Indo-European man's guilt at the genocide of the American Indian. Early on, the manager of the hotel tells Jack and Wendy that the hotel has been built over an old Indian burial ground. But once we get inside the pantry, Scatman Crothers talks to Wendy and Danny about where the various food stuffs are and sure enough, right behind Scatman's bald old head there's a container of Calumet baking powder.
   You know and I know what that means. Actually, you might know, but I don't have a clue. That's okay. Becoming more confused than you were before you watched Room 237 is half the fun. 
   The truth is that this movie actually does bring up some very interesting trivia, such as the fact that the magazine that Nicholson is reading in the hotel while having lunch is a Playgirl. Or that the color of the German typewriter he uses to write his All Work and No Play manuscript changes color several times in the film. Or that during the scene where Wendy goes into the typing room to talk to Jack, a chair behind Nicholson is there half the time and gone the other half. Oh! And we even find out that Kubrick knew in advance that Stephen King wasn't going to like the movie so instead of having the Torrance family drive to the Overlook in a red VW Beetle, Kubrick puts them in a yellow bug, but later on, when Mr. Halloran comes to rescue them, he drives by a semi that has crushed a red VW Beetle, which obviously was the director's way of telling the writer what the one thought of the other--or something. 
   Except for some people quite rightly feeling a bit ripped off at paying to see a movie that is so obviously a sham that the word "camp" does not even begin to scratch the epidermis, there's very little about Room 237 that's worth getting outraged about. If anything, the minutiae might entice people to go back and rewatch a lot of art movies with an eye toward continuity glitches versus deliberate muckery. To that end, the only thing that the makers of this film get across is the suggestion that Kubrick was too much of a perfectionist for some of these things to have simply "happened." I don't have a response to that. Then again, I did not purport to make a documentary about The Shining. Had I done so, I might have at least made an attempt to contact the Kubrick Estate. Or they might have at least bothered to read through the old interviews Kubrick gave about his movie. Had they done this, they might have come upon a far more interesting subject, which is why do most of the adaptations of Stephen King novels into movies typically suck dead dongs, while The Shining (and Carrie and Silver Bullet and maybe The Green Mile and certainly Shawshank Redemption, which was a novella) was such a masterpiece. Had the director done his homework, he would have unearthed such fascinating Kubrick quotes as: "It is in the pruning down phase that the undoing of great novels usually occurs because so much of what is good about them has to do with the fineness of the writing, the insight of the author and often the density of the story. But The Shining was a different matter. Its virtues lay almost entirely in the plot, and it didn't prove to be very much of a problem to adapt it into the screenplay form." Kubrick goes on to make it clear that he never considered the novel to be any kind of art at all, certainly not high literature, and so he had no compunctions whatsoever in redirecting, as it were, the emphasis of the story, and in the process, pissing the shit out of quite a few King fans. 
   But he never once copped to helping NASA fake the moon landing. Damn.


   "Part of my problem is that I cannot dispel the myths that have somehow accumulated over the years. Somebody writes something, it's completely off the wall, but it gets filed and repeated until everyone believes it."
     --Stanley Kubrick



Friday, April 25, 2014

THE PROMISED LAND

   On the evening of April 3, 1968, the night before he was shot down on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King delivered to a rapt and receptive crowd a then powerful and now famous and prescient speech:

Some began to say the threats or talk about the [bomb] threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. And so I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

   As promised last time out (in Leading up to April 4, 1968), we will talk tonight about a trial in Shelby County Tennessee in November 1999. The plaintiff in the civil case was Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King. The primary defendant was Loyd Jowers. The legal issue for jury consideration was a wrongful death suit filed by the King family, charging the involvement of Jowers and other conspirators, including members of the Memphis police force as well as agents within the United States Government. 
    When I first read of the trial, toward the end of 1999, the name Loyd Jowers sounded familiar, but I couldn't quite place the source. Reading on I learned that representing the King family was an attorney named William Pepper. That was a name I knew and in a few seconds the Jowers name came back with a slam. 
    Four years earlier, in 1995, attorney and investigator William Francis Pepper had published a book called Orders To Kill: The Truth Behind the Murder of Martin Luther King. I read the book shortly after it was first published and can make the following claims: The book contained a tremendous amount of historical context for the assassination; it contained vast details from the public record as well as Pepper's own research; it provided considerable specificity about FBI activities to disrupt through nefarious means the work of Dr. King; it pointed the finger at an actual FBI program known as COINTELPRO; and it was for the most part unreadable. I do not know if Pepper was simply exhausted from the monumental task he had completed or was drained from the emotional and intellectual involvement he brought to the case. Whatever the cause, his book required a phenomenal effort on the part of any reader to draw together conclusions of a reasonable sort. Even had William Pepper been the most lucid and cogent of writers, understanding  the scenario(s) is difficult because even the official explanation of matters is wildly complex. Expositions upon the involvement of people other than or in addition to James Earl Ray are even more challenging to follow.
    Pepper's lack of literary style should in no way be taken to mean his ideas were wrong. On the contrary, in the same way that the appearance of Jowers on an ABC-TV news program in 1993 helped spur on Pepper's investigation, so did the publication of the attorney's book help fuel the legal search for the truth of the assassination of Martin Luther King. 
   Perhaps I should call it the second search for the truth or even more precisely the third. I suppose the first search would have been the arrest of a fugitive from the Missouri State Penitentiary at London's Heathrow Airport on June 8, 1968, a little more than two months after the assassination. The man arrested was James Earl Ray. He entered a guilty plea the following March and was sentenced to ninety-nine years. At the time of Ray's capture in England, he was attempting to leave the country using a fake Canadian passport. His destination was Africa. Almost immediately after sentencing James Ray began to assert his innocence and literally begged for a new trial. Though his attorney, the aforementioned William Pepper, represented Ray tenaciously, the new trial was never granted. 
    Who was James Earl Ray? Before the King assassination, he had spent a lot of time committing petty robberies and usually getting caught. His last robbery before the murder was his biggest: he netted $120 from a Kroger's store. Poorly represented and not terribly bright, Ray was portrayed to the courts as an habitual criminal and ended up being sentenced in 1959 to twenty years in prison. 
   For someone who often came across as a dumb peckerwood white trash, James Ray was very good at escaping prison. His first escape was from the Missouri State pen in 1967. From that moment on, things became quite interesting.
   He traveled first to St. Louis, then to Chicago, up to Toronto, over to Montreal and then down to Birmingham, Alabama. What he used for traveling money is unknown. But in Alabama he bought a 1966 Mustang which he drove to Acapulco and eventually Puerto Vallarta. It was in the latter town that Ray (or someone who looked a lot like him) started shooting porn with local hookers. When that failed to make his dreams come true, he left Mexico for Los Angeles where he decided to further his education by attending both bartending and dancing school. He also may have done some volunteer work for the 1968 George Wallace presidential campaign. This was, of course, before Wallace had renounced his own segregationist ways. Before leaving L.A., Ray had facial reconstructive surgery perform by a local rhinoplastician. No one has ever explained how Ray paid for all this other than to point out that he had never been very successful as a thief.
   He left Los Angeles and made it to Atlanta on 24 March, 1968. He stayed there a very short time because the FBI report has him ordering a gun in Birmingham under the name of Harvey Lowmeyer just six days later. The gun was a Remington Gamemaster 30.06 rifle. From there Ray returned to Atlanta. On April 2, two days before the murder, he left for Memphis. 
   Whatever our different versions of the events leading up to and following the assassination, we can all agree that Martin Luther King was shot and killed while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
   That single fact is all that anyone can say with any certainty. Everything else is extremely gray. 
   According to the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) report issued in 1978, four days after the murder, a man named John McFerren went to the office of the Memphis FBI with an interesting story. He claimed that while shopping at a Memphis produce store on the afternoon of April 4, 1968, he overheard a telephone conversation he thought the federal boys should know about. McFerren told them that he overheard the president of the produce store, Frank Liberto, telling someone over the telephone that his [Liberto's] brother was going to pay someone $5,000 to kill a person on a balcony. The FBI contacted the Memphis police to get their official impression of McFerren. It turns out the local police did not much care for Mr. McFerren because he was African-American and involved in civil rights affairs. The FBI did not look further into McFerren's allegations. 
   Following the assassination, James Earl Ray made his way to Toronto and eventually to London, where he was trying to travel to an African country then known as Rhodesia--today, Zimbabwe. 
   Three days after his sentencing, Ray began to recant. His denial of guilt continued throughout the remainder of his life. In 1977 he granted Playboy an extended interview that lasted several days. During that time, Ray and six other inmates at the Brushy Mountain State Prison in Tennessee escaped. They remained free for three days. Ray returned in time to complete his interview. 
   The year following Ray's brief fling with freedom, the HSCA released its report on the assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Regarding the former President, the Committee announced their conclusion that Kennedy had probably been murdered as the result of a conspiracy. Regarding Dr. King, the same Committee concluded that no one other than the suddenly wealthy James Earl Ray had been responsible for the killing. Having read the entire report myself in the National Archives,  I can only say that the Committee seemed very eager to dismiss the testimony of anyone who suggested Ray was either a scapegoat or a co-conspirator. If anyone referenced in testimony was either deceased or otherwise unavailable to substantiate testimony that ran in any way contrary to the predetermined decision that Ray and Ray alone was guilty, that testimony was treated as inherently unreliable. Having read the report, I can also tell you that the HSCA checked out one hell of a lot of differing theories about the assassination and in my opinion it is not likely that all of them were true. It is also my opinion that some of them hold water. The story McFerren told about Liberto is the most fascinating.
   By golly, William Francis Pepper simply never gave up. While representing both Ray and the King family, Pepper contacted HBO to see if there was interest in giving Ray the trial he'd been denied. 
   There was interest. In 1993 Ray was allowed to testify via satellite from prison in an unscripted mock trial. The ten day ordeal resulted in a not guilty verdict for the convicted killer. While not legally binding, it was as close as Ray would get to a fair trial in his own lifetime.
    The trial that brought justice to the family of Dr King was yet to come.
    Ray died in 1998. The following year William Pepper represented the King family in a very real civil trial. The King family won. Loyd Jowers, Frank Liberto, Memphis police officer Earl Clark, and members of the Federal Bureau of Investigations--well, they all lost.
    We will go into pertinent detail about the results of and reactions to the trial when we meet again next time. Until then, please consider these words William Pepper said to the jury during his closing argument:

So I think it is important to see that total picture of evidence you have. There should be no doubt that all of these things are indicative overwhelmingly of conspiracy. Now, are we conspiracy buffs because we find all of this evidence insurmountable? I think not. But you have heard it. The masses of Americans have not. And the media has never put it to them and I submit to you probably never will. That’s why your presence is so important.


   It may be incidental--although I doubt it--that Martin Luther King gave his famous Declaration of Independence from the Vietnam War speech exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

LEADING UP TO APRIL 4, 1968

   I trust that you, Dear Reader, find personal value and perhaps even a sense of absolution in the retelling of this regrettably incomplete list of men, women and children slain by the pathetic human lice who leap from one rat-like hatred to another in search of a God worshipped by only the foulest of beasts, idolaters of evil who, with soulless automaton intent, mask their quivering cowardice with the false bravado of a thumping chest, a fiery cross, and a swastika tattoo. This is the fourth in the series (we began with History of Right Wing Violence, followed up with Brutal Murders Spark Progressive Reform, and last time out contributed a piece called Right Wing Monopoly. I apologize if these titles suffer from a paranoid aroma, but then again, it's only paranoia if it's a delusion). Collect them all and you win enough sufficiently outraged indignation to march into the arena and call the Romans out for the filthy cowards they were. 
   Speaking of were, where were we? 
   Three members of the Cottonmouth Moccasin Gang, a splinter faction of the Natchez, Mississippi branch of the White Knights of the KKK, decided to lure Dr. Martin Luther King to their town by committing a particularly heinous murder against a black man. The man they picked, plantation worker and son of former slaves, Ben Chester White, took the story the three men told him at face value. They wanted help trying to locate their dog. White agreed to help. He got into a car belonging to driver James Lloyd Jones.  Jones and his accomplices, Claude Fuller and Ernest Avants, drove out to the woods, stopped at a bridge and, just as White shouted, "Oh Lord, what have I done to deserve this?" they blew his head off. Neither Jones nor Fuller ever did any time for their crime. Avants was found guilty in 2003 (the murder occurred June 10, 1966) and died while serving a life sentence.

   U.S. Highway 61 runs parallel with the Mississippi River, linking the town of Natchez with Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Along the way in between lies Ferriday, the birthplace of the Silver Dollar Group (so called because upon joining each member received a silver dollar minted in the year of his birth), a group that rejected the Ku Klux Klan because they felt the Klan's actions against civil rights workers were not violent enough. According to FBI documents unearthed by students with the Louisiana State University Unsolved Civil Rights-Era Murder Project, the Silver Dollar Group was suspect in the car bombing of George Metcalfe as well as the murders of Frank Morris, Joe Edwards, and Wharlest Jackson. The latter gentleman, the treasurer of the local NAACP, was slain on February 27, 1967. The FBI files of the investigation point specifically to a man named Raleigh Jackson, a rubber tire worker the Feds believed was active in the Silver Dollar Group. Wharlest Jackson had been granted a promotion at his job, a promotion to a position heretofore reserved for Caucasians. One month after the promotion, Jackson was driving home from working overtime. He signaled left to turn onto the street he lived on. The turn signal was wired to a bomb. His wife, Exerlina, heard the explosion and says she knew that Wharlest had been killed. As of this writing, no one has been charged with the murder.

   The time it takes to drive from Natchez to Jackson, Mississippi is a little under two hours. But the distance in miles tells nothing useful about all the lives snuffed out over the years between the two violent Mississippi towns. And despite much romanticism in the years since the 1960s about the good vibes associated with campus demonstrations, the reality for students across the country--and especially in the south, most particularly in Jackson--was that being in the right place at the wrong instant could get you killed. 
   Benjamin Brown was only twenty-two when he was shot at Jackson State University on May 11, 1967. He died the following day. Though still a young man, Brown had recently married and was considering putting his days of civil rights activities behind him. He had taken a job as a truck driver to support himself and his wife. The day before he was shot, Brown witnessed frightening activity on campus as students protested against police presence at their school. To make matters worse, the State Highway Patrol and National Guard joined in the fray. Ultimately, officers of both the city and state fired into the crowd of demonstrators. One of the bystanders was Ben Brown. He was shot twice and died the next day.
    As mentioned, this killing took place in May 1967. As we are unfortunately becoming all too aware, justice isn't merely slow. It is often crippled and dying along the gutters of deserted streets. It was not until May of 2001--thirty-four years later--that a local county grand jury concluded that Brown had been shot as the result of actions by Jackson Police Captain Buddy Kane and Highway Patrolman Lloyd Jones. By that time, both men were dead. 

    South Carolina was also a dangerous place to be a college student in the late 1960s. Of all the senseless murders that have stained the soil of southern towns, perhaps the most egregious fact is how those killings have failed to permeate the awareness of most of America, especially when the victims are African-American. I am willing to wager that you, Dear Reader, know your share of history, that you have heard or read or seen footage of the Nation Guard murders of four white students at Kent State in Ohio on May 4, 1970. I would not be at all surprised if you told me you knew about what happened ten days later when police opened fire at Jackson State in Mississippi, killing two students, Phillip Gibbs and James Earl Green. But I would bet the key to my front door that you do not know the details of what became known as the Orangeburg Massacre. 
   The town of Orangeburg is near the South Carolina State University. In February 1968, some of the students at the college decided to integrate the All Star Bowling Lane, a bowling alley operated by a Mr. Harry Floyd. The students asked Floyd to allow black people to bowl there. Floyd declined. The students left, but when they returned they found the local police waiting for them. The police there did not much appreciate the call for integration. The students did not care much for uniformed hoodlums. Unpleasant words were exchanged. The cops swung their billy clubs, sending eight students to the hospital. 
   If you are in law enforcement and it is your goal to politicize a college population, then by all means beat the hell out of some of those students, especially the women. You will be surprised at the result. In this case, two hundred students took over the campus, throwing firebombs, rocks and bricks. In keeping with the practice of doing everything wrong that there was to do, a police officer thought it would be a good idea to fire some warning shots into the air. Unfortunately, the other sixty-five state troopers assumed the shots were coming from the students. Nine of these troopers later admitted to firing into the crowd of fleeing students. That's right. The students heard the shots too. They fled. The troopers fired into a fleeing crowd. Two college students, Samuel Hammond and Henry Smith, died from their wounds. A local high school student named Delano Middleton also died. 
   The federal government brought the nine law enforcement officers to trial for "using excessive force" and "imposing summary punishment without due process of law." Thirty-six witnesses testified that no students at the riot fired or possessed any weapons. No guns were ever found on the campus. Nevertheless, after the jury deliberated for two hours, they acquitted the nine officers. 
   Cleveland Sellers, the national program director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a young man who was injured during the shootings, was arrested and convicted of having started the riot. In 1993 he received a full pardon for this stupid sentence. 

   Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Although a loser named James Earl Ray went to prison for the murder, a jury in the Circuit Court of Shelby County Tennessee on December 8, 1999, reached a unanimous verdict that "agencies of the United States government were responsible for the murder of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr." 
   Since you probably have not heard much about that either, we will pick up there next time. Until then, keep an eye on the open sky and a fire burning in your heart. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

RIGHT WING MONOPOLY

   The day is Easter, 2014, as I write this. On the TV news, some sociopathic tribe called the Genesis Project is trying to build a Noah's Ark Theme Park, Hilary Clinton still remains a former board member at Wal-Mart, and no one's getting fat except Mama Cass. Last time out, we toured the second part of domestic right wing terrorist attacks against Americans. We pick up now where we left off then. Ask a lot of people who was it died during the civil rights movement and you'll probably get the answers Emmett Till, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King. But there were many more. Some were black, some were white. Some male, some female. Some old. Some young. All now dead.
    Washington Parish in Louisiana had never had black deputy sheriffs before Oneal Moore and Creed Rogers were appointed in 1964. Precisely one year and a day after they took on their duties, three men inside a pick up truck with a Confederate flag on the bumper approached the deputies' car and fired into the vehicle. Moore died instantly. Rogers was permanently blinded in one eye. The probable instigator, Ernest McElveen, was never brought to trial. Neither was anyone else, despite a $40,000 reward.
    If you ever get a chance to go back in time, my advice is to avoid Anniston, Alabama in the 1960s. On Mothers Day 1961, states' rights paranoiacs banded together to firebomb an integrated bus carrying Freedom Riders. As the inside of the bus burned, the Nazis held the doors shut so no one could escape. When the bus' fuel tank exploded, the terrorists backed off and the Riders deboarded. The mob beat the Riders and planned to lynch them, the plan only being derailed by highway patrolmen firing shots into the air to scare the coward hoodlums. Four years later, the Klan group held what can only be called an anti-civil-rights rally, after which one of their members, Damon Strange, took the others up on the offer to shoot and kill a black person at random. His target was Willie Brewster. A hefty reward encouraged Jimmie Knight to testify at trial that the shooter had been Strange. Today the town is noteworthy for the chemical toxins provided by Monsanto.
   A month after the murder of Willie Brewster, Death shook its fists in another Alabama town. A white seminary student named Jonathan Daniels joined twenty-eight other protesters in demonstrating against whites-only stores in the burg of Fort Deposit. All twenty-nine people were arrested. All were released six days later. Feeling a bit thirsty, four of the group, including Daniels, went to a local store for a soda pop. An unpaid "special deputy" named Tom Coleman, blocked their entrance. As the crazed gunman prepared to shoot Ruby Sales, Daniels pushed her out of the way and took the bullet himself. 
   Coleman was charged with only manslaughter and was acquitted by an all-white all-too-common jury.
   Navy man and Tuskegee Institute (Alabama) Sammy Younge was shot and killed on January 3, 1966 for trying to use an all-whites bathroom at a gas station. The attendant, Marvin Segrest, fired the shot, but it was Alabama's whites-only jury system that killed Younge. Segrest never did time for his crime. 
   The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution may have given African-Americans the right to vote, but that did not stop certain state officials throughout the country from a particularly onerous form of voter suppression. Today Republicans enjoy using indirect disenfranchisement against black potential voters. In the years after the Civil War, Democrats used direct disenfranchisement, usually threats of violence, actual violence, intimidation and something known as a poll tax. In 1937, the Supreme Court ruled that poll taxes were not unConstitutional because it was a "legitimate" means of raising revenue. This stupid ruling was theoretically undone by the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, ratified as it was on January 23, 1964. Unfortunately, that new law applied only to federal elections. Southern states continued to charge people they didn't like one to two dollars a pop for the privilege of voting. 
   As president of the Forrest County (Mississippi) NAACP, Vernon Dahmer was accustomed to leading voter registration drives. Being the owner of a grocery store, cotton mill, and other enterprises, Dahmer had the means to pull off a brilliant challenge to the local political hegemony. He offered to pay the poll tax for all disenfranchised Hattiesburg African-Americans. That offer did not sit well with the local KKK. On the night of January 10, 1966, Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers and thirteen accomplices firebombed Dahmer's house. As Vernon's wife and kids ran out of the house, the Klansmen fired shots at them. Vernon fired back from inside the house. He died from the burns. Four men were convicted (including Bowers' body guard), but the Imperial Wizard did not do time until 1998. He died in prison.
   Happy Easter. Let's try to avoid creating any more martyrs, shall we?

Friday, April 18, 2014

BRUTAL MURDERS SPARK PROGRESSIVE REFORM

   During our last visit, we talked about right wing terrorist attacks in the United States from 1955 through 1964. That in many ways awful stretch of time in this country branched across the two major political parties holding executive power. The commonality was rule of law, or many people's objections and rejections of those federally mandated laws that required an end to segregation in schools, housing, interstate transportation and elsewhere. Then as now, some people in both the south and the north, the east and the west, chose to believe that they themselves were somehow exempt from that thing known as the United States Government. Without exception, the perpetrators of right wing hate crimes select for themselves which laws to follow and which to reject. Then as now, those people tend to disconnect themselves from any type of foreign influence, even if they brought that influence upon themselves, either in the form of slavery (in the case of African-Americans) or cheap labor (as in the case of emigrating Mexicans). These types of right wing ideologues believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that might makes right, that terrorist acts they commit are in the name of freedom while similar acts carried out by others are seditious, and most of all that they shouldn't have to pay for anything that supports a federal or state system to which they are opposed. In Europe such people are called Nazis. In the United States, they are called Militia, Minutemen, Sovereign Citizens, The Order, The Klan, Skinheads, or American Nazis. 
   What follows is the second installment in the history of their behavior. It is a history written in the innocent blood of their victims.
   On the night of March 23, 1964, four white men drove the streets of Jacksonville, Florida, listening to reports on their car radio about the so-called race riots that had been happening in their town over the prior two days. It was to her misfortune that a thirty-five-year-old black woman named Johnnie Mae Chappell was out with two of her neighbors looking along the roadside for a wallet she had lost earlier in the day. The four men--incensed with rage over the news reports--had been looking for a black person to murder. They chose Johnnie Chappell. The gunman, J. W. Rich, fired one shot, striking Chappell in the stomach. She died in route to the hospital.
   Six months after the murder, detectives arrested Rich and his three accomplices--Elmer Cato, James Davis and Wayne Chessman. After the murder weapon disappeared from police custody, all four men were released. No one was ever prosecuted for the killing.
   Later that summer, while authorities in Mississippi looked for the bodies of three missing civil rights workers, they discovered the bodies of two African-American nineteen-year-olds: Henry Dee and Charles Moore. Although the search for the three civil rights workers dominated both local and national news, what had happened to the two teenagers remained powerful and disturbing. A Klansman named James Seale had convinced himself that his two victims, Dee and Moore, had planned to provide weaponry to local black people. With assistance from unknown cohorts, Seale dragged the two young men to a forest near Meadville, Mississippi, tortured them, and eventually chained them to a car motor and train tracks and dropped them into the Mississippi River. The bodies of the young men were not found for two and a half months. It was not until the summer of 2007 that James Seale was convicted of the murder and sentenced to three life sentences. 
   As the reader may have intuited, the aforementioned search for three civil rights workers refers to three murdered men named James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. The three members of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) decided to spend their summer working on black voter registration in Mississippi. On Memorial Day of 1964, Schwerner and Chaney delivered speeches at the Mount Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi. Three weeks later, some members of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan burned down the church in retaliation. On June 21, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner decided to leave the town of Meridian to return to Longdale to check out the situation. They never made it back.
   As the three men entered the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, they blew a tire. Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price came to their rescue and arrested Chaney for speeding. The other two men were held for questioning. What the three of them could not have realized was the endemic nature of evil that permeated much of the south and certainly much of Mississippi. The people who would eventually destroy them were themselves members of law enforcement, former servicemen, local businessmen, and proud fathers and sons of the Confederacy. The murderers were also proud members of the White Knights. 
   Deputy Sheriff Price released the three men around ten o'clock that evening. Price followed the men and eventually pulled them over again near the town of Union. From there the three were hauled to the aptly named Rock Cut Road. It was there that a dishonorably discharged Marine named Alton Roberts and another local loser named James Jordan shot and killed the three men. Their several cohorts burned the CORE station wagon and buried the three in a dam. 
    Also involved in the conspiracy to murder Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, mobile home dealer Bernard Akin, Philadelphia police officer Other Burkes, trucking company owner and former Marine Olen Burrage, Baptist preacher Edgar Killen, drive-in theater owner Frank Herndon, White Knights "intelligence" officer James Harris, grocery store owner Oliver Warner, building contractor Herman Tucker, former Navy man Samuel Bowers, Meridian garage owner Travis Barnette, his brother Horace, pulp wood house manager Jerry Sharpe, automobile mechanic William Posey, and high school dropout James Townsend
   The state of Mississippi declined to prosecute anyone for the murders, so the U.S. Justice Department stepped in. Seven of these eighteen men were convicted of the murders. None of them served more than six years in prison. 
   Not among those originally convicted was the preacher Edgar Killen, the man who actually planned and orchestrated the murders. It was not until June 2005, at which time Killen was eighty-years-old, that a Mississippi jury convicted the old bastard of three counts of manslaughter. He was sentenced to three consecutive terms of twenty years each.
   The South sowed its share of blood that summer of 1964. Three Army Reserve Officers were driving back to Washington D.C. when they were spotted by three members of the United Klans of America. As the Klansmen's car pulled up alongside that of the Army Reserve Officers, two of the Klansmen fired into the car, killing World War II veteran Lemuel Penn. The apparent motive for the crime was the passage, nine days earlier, of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Two of the three men eventually served six years in federal prison. 
   The Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed in no small measure as a presumably unintended result of yet another racially motivated homicide. Alabama State Trooper James Fowler was involved in trying to break up a civil rights demonstration in the city of Marion. The march had begun at the Zion United Methodist Church. When the police arrived, many protesters scattered. Several tried to hide inside a local business called Mack's Cafe. Among those seeking refuge were Jimmie Lee Jackson, his mother and eighty-two-year-old grandfather. When the troopers burst into the cafe, they tried to beat the mother and grandfather. Jimmie Lee put his body between the law and his family. Fowler shot Mr. Jackson in the stomach. Jimmie Jackson died from the assault several days later. His demise led to the famous march from Selma to Montgomery. Selma Sheriff Jim Clark ordered his deputies to stop the march. The deputies complied by using tear gas, batons and bull whips. This was televised on two of the national news programs. 
   Four days after he watched this horror unfold on the evening news, Reverend James Reeb, a Unitarian minister, heeded the call and flew to Selma. While dining in an integrated restaurant, Reeb looked up to find himself surrounded by killers. Reverend Reeb was clubbed against the head. He died from his injuries. Three of the four men involved in the murder were acquitted by an all-white jury. The fourth fled the state and was never prosecuted. 
    Another Unitarian, this time a parishioner named Viola Liuzzo, a wife and mother from Detroit, likewise responded to the hideous treatment of marchers in Selma. After seeing the beatings on TV, she phoned her husband and told him she was going to Selma because "This is everybody's fight." Mrs Liuzzo was driving marchers from Montgomery back to Selma on March 25, 1965, when one car tried to run her off the road. Seconds later another car pulled alongside hers. Inside the car sat four Klansmen. They fired into Viola's automobile. Two bullets struck her in the head. Her death was instantaneous. 
   Less than two weeks later, some unknown person or persons burned a cross on her front lawn back in Detroit. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, no fan of black Americans, created a campaign to posthumously smear Liuzzo as a promiscuous drug addict. Indeed, she was neither. But Hoover did like to wear women's underwear.
   That is about all I can stomach for this evening. I suspect, Dear Reader, that you follow the point of these articles is not only to ensure the historical imperative of the brave men, women and children who fell at the hands of states' rights-loving crypto militiamen. The point is to also remind us all that a very real, ominous and ongoing element in our great country seeks to do whatever it feels it must to bring back the imagined halcyon days of servitude. When young and old alike decry modern times and yearn for the days when the Confederate flag waved outside the lawn of Jefferson Davis' homestead, these lunatics are following in the footsteps of not only the men who murdered Martin Luther King, but also in the same steps as the killers in Oklahoma City and elsewhere in these days of modern times.
    See you next time, if we get there alive.
      


   

Thursday, April 17, 2014

HISTORY OF RIGHT WING DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

   Before getting into the specifics, it is only fair to suggest that those of you who are presently clad in pseudo-para-military apparel disrobe, roll your strange clothing into a thin plastic tube, place the tube into the backseat of a 1957 Buick four-door, and drive the automobile in question up your own asses.
   The subject, as you may have guessed, is idiot right wing violence and terrorism. For many people, the stench of crypto-fascist actions began in Ruby Ridge with the shooting deaths of Vicki and Sammy Weaver and U.S. Marshal Bill Degan. Others place the impetus as the machine gun murder of Denver disc jockey Alan Berg by members of a neo-Nazi group called The Order. While I suppose the originating reference point may remain a matter of opinion, I would place the rise of contemporary right wing violence as far back as 1955, in a relatively uninterrupted flow of blood and gore. Some periods of lessening have occurred and those will be noted.
    As the first African American to register to vote in modern Mississippi history, the Reverend George W. Lee did not know much in the way of fear. He co-founded the Belzoni, Mississippi chapter of the NAACP and stood up to the notorious White Citizens Council by taking them to court when they attempted to purge registered blacks from voter roles. The Reverend was a gifted speaker and in April 1955, he drew a crowd of seven thousand to the all-black town of Mount Bayou where he railed against the actions of the White Citizens Council.
   A month later, on May 7, 1955, a convertible pulled up alongside Reverend Lee's car and someone in that convertible fired three shots, at least one of which killed George Lee. Although charges have never been brought against the murderer(s), the case did serve to politicize a young local activist named Medgar Evers, later a field secretary for the NAACP. Evers himself would be murdered in June 1963 by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens Council.
    In August of that same year, at the age of sixty-three, a farmer and war veteran named Lamar Smith was registering African Americans in Brookhaven, Mississippi so they could vote with absentee ballots and thereby avoid the brutality of showing up in person at the polls when, in front of dozens of white Mississippi witnesses and in broad daylight, Mr. Smith was gunned down in front of the local court house. None of the witnesses agreed to testify or identify the suspected shooter or shooters. Ultimately, three men were arrested for the murder, but the grand jury refused to return an indictment.
   Just two weeks later, also in Mississippi, this time in a town called Money, a fourteen-year-old boy named Emmett Till, in town on vacation from Chicago, made the apparent mistake of speaking to a white woman, in this case, twenty-one-year-old Carolyn Bryant. Carolyn's husband Roy had something of a temper, so he enlisted his half-brother J. W. Milam to help him even the score. Three nights later they found Till sleeping at an uncle's. They dragged him from his bed, took him into a barn, gouged out one of his eyes, beat him to death and then shot him through the head, after which they dumped his body into a bag, weighed the bag down with farm equipment and barbed wire which they strung around his neck, and threw him into the Tallahatchie River. His two killers were naturally acquitted of the crime, yet within only two months they were boasting of their deeds in Look magazine. 
  Another black teenager to be murdered in the south by racists was sixteen-year-old John Earl Reese. Reese and two cousins, Joyce and Johnnie Nelson, were dancing in the Hughes Cafe in Mayflower, Texas, when two men, outraged over the idea of white and black children attending the same schools together, decided to make a political statement. Joe Simpson and Perry Ross drove by the cafe while Ross aimed a gun out the window of their car and fired nine rounds into the cafe. Both cousins were wounded. John Reese was killed. Although both men confessed their guilt at trial, Simpson's indictment was dismissed, while Ross received a five year suspended sentence.
   In April 1957, the body of an African-American man, later identified as Willie Edwards Jr., washed up on the shores of the Alabama River, not far from Montgomery. He had been murdered three months earlier by four members of the Ku Klux Klan. On the night of January 23, 1957, the Klansmen mistook Edwards for a black man they believed had been sleeping with a white woman. The men beat Willie Edwards before taking him to a bridge over the Alabama River. Holding a gun on the man, they ordered him to jump. He fell 125 feet to his death. Twenty-three years later, the Alabama State Attorney General brought charges against the four men, but a judge promptly dismissed the charges. The case was reopened once again in 1997, but the Montgomery County grand jury declined to indict anyone for the crime. 
   Herbert Lee was killed in September 1961 by a Mississippi State Legislator named E. M. Hurst. Mr Lee had been a member of the NAACP and had been helping members of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) to register voters in Mississippi. Outside a cotton gin in the ironically named town of Liberty, Representative Hurst shot Lee to death in from of a dozen witnesses. Even though Lee was described as a small man and Hurst stood six-three and weighed 300 pounds, the coroner accepted the story that Hurst had acted in self-defense. One of the witnesses, Louis Allen, admitted to the FBI that he had lied to the coroner and that Hurst had indeed shot Lee without provocation. For his honesty, Mr. Allen was shot three times while standing on his own front lawn.
    In the early 1960s, many young people from all over the United States came together to test the enforcement of two rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court mandating that segregation of interstate buses was unconstitutional. These young people knew that they were putting their safety and even their lives at risk at the hands of angry segregationists. And indeed, mob violence was not only common, in many cases it was met with the active support of people such as Bull Connor, the Birmingham, Alabama police commissioner and friend of the KKK. Horrible attacks by white citizens groups occurred in Anniston, Birmingham, Montgomery, and of course in Mississippi. In the Mississippi town of Taylorsville, on April 9, 1962, Police Officer William Kelly murdered Military Police Officer Corporal Roman Ducksworth when the latter gentleman refused to move to the back of the bus on which he was traveling. Local wisdom at the time held that the cop mistook Ducksworth for a Freedom Rider. The murder was ruled a justifiable homicide.
   As we learn in our history books, a brave young man named James Meredith was the first black student admitted to the then-segregated University of Mississippi. Part of Merediths motivation was to get an education. Part of it, he admitted, was to pressure the Kennedy Administration to enforce desegregation laws. While covering the riots against Meredith's admission, a French journalist named Paul Guihard was shot in the back at point blank range. Guihard, in his final dispatch, wrote that in Mississippi, the Civil War had never ended. He was perhaps more prescient than he himself realized. As recently as 2014, some idiot frat boys at ole Miss tied a rope around the statue of James Meredith and draped over the statue a Georgia state flag. 
   In April 1963, a postman and member of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) launched a one-man protest march from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi. The postman, William Lewis Moore, intended to hand deliver to the governor a letter he had written encouraging the governor to accept racial integration. Postman Moore did not live to deliver his missive. Near Attila, Alabama, Moore was found dead of two head shots from a gun that belonged to a man named Floyd Simpson. Moore had been in a verbal argument with Simpson earlier that same day. Despite this, charges have never been brought against anyone for this murder. 
   In June of that same year, Medgar Evers was gunned down by Byron De La Beckwith. Beckwith was not convicted of his crime until February 5, 1994.
   Then, of course, there were the four little girls. Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were killed when a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The church itself was famous locally as a meeting place for civil rights workers such as Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy. It was also a frequent meeting place for members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and CORE. Twenty-six children were walking into the church basement on the morning of September 15, 1963, when the dynamite bomb exploded. Twenty-two of the children were injured. The other four died. It was fourteen years later before anyone was ever convicted of this horrible crime. Robert Chambliss was convicted in November 1977. Twenty-three years after that, in May 2000, the FBI finally announced that three other men had been involved in the killings. One of those men was already dead, but the other two, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry, were soon tried and convicted. 
    God knows the right wing violence did not stop with the death of those four little girls. In our next report, we will delve further into the history of extremist violence in America.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

LIKE A SIMILE

 Moderator: That brings us to our greatest challenge in more than a decade, to wit, devising the proper comparison between the search for missing Malaysian airliner and something that has absolutely nothing to do with that very thing.

Avery: Point of order.

Moderator: The Moderator recognizes Madame Avery of the Oceanic Metaphoric Society.

Avery: Thank you. 

Moderator: We now turn to--

Avery: Actually, I was going to say something.

Moderator: Of course.

Avery: The current milieu reminds one not so much of trying to locate a needle in the proverbial haystack as rather attempting to locate a solitary blade of grass at Forest Lawn.

Bovary: I say!

Moderator: Madame Bovary?

Bovary: Our contingent prefers to think of this arduous search as sharing a likeness with looking for a Boeing 777 at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.

Moderator: Duly noted, with the exception that one cannot create a simile of the original issue.

Bovary: No longer?

Moderator: Not since the passage of time, no.

Culinary: Moderator? I must speak up. The search is vastly more akin to peaking through the door latch on the first floor and trying to find your grandmothers dentures inside a locked crate in the attack of a neighbor's house. 

Avery: You pusillanimous pup. Sir, it is more like gazing into the night sky through the eye of a needle from the surface of Pluto and hoping to observe Christopher Columbus landing at Honduras.

Bovary: Lloyds of London! One may as well listen for a B-Flat in all the works of Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms being played simultaneously on a kazoo.

Culinary: Only if you refuse to recognize the superiority of conceptualizing the propriety of singling out one uncapitalized arabic letter amid all the letters in all the words in all the sentences in all the books ever written.

Moderator: But as to the people aboard?

Avery: Have we finished trivializing their plight?

Moderator: I don't know. I suspect we were hoping to divert attention from their unhappy fate by highlighting our own superior elucidations. 

Bovary: Really! Sentiment in a time of crisis? That sounds very much like a fool's errand.

Culinary: More akin to a moron's task.

Avery: I was thinking an imbecile's vocation.

Moderator: Stop it.

Avery: This is our job, after all.

Moderator: A stupid job.

Bovary: Like trying to affix meaning to an illusion.

Avery: Polident to dentures.

Culinary: A carburetor to a row boat.

Moderator: Shut up! Oh, hell. I might as well ask a donkey not to bray.

Avery: Hackneyed.  

Bovary: It would be strange if this meeting itself were an allegory.

Culinary: No chance of that.



Thursday, April 10, 2014

WHAT I DID DURING MY HUMAN EPIDEMIC

   Last October I decided to take an uncharacteristically conscientious approach to my health. I visited my local pharmacy to roll up my sleeves and accepted a preventive shot for both influenza and pneumonia. The idea of doing this was to teach those nasty things a lesson. I would get myself immunized and the dreaded sickness legions would either die or seek refuge within the head and lungs of some other poor fool.
   The good news is that I contracted neither the flu nor pneumonia. The bad news is that I have had something that resembles a vicious allergy for about six months now and the time has come for it to vamoose. Sneezing and coughing are only the tip of it. The facial pain associated with whatever this was prompted me to visit the same pharmacy's handy dandy sixty-second cure or whatever it's called. The "physician's assistant" who examined me remarked that I had somehow developed a vile and treacherous infection that must be dealt with in the harshest and most severe of ways. As it happens, harsh and severe meant antibiotics, some nasal spray and a variety of steroids. Two hundred dollars later, I returned home and loaded up. Antibiotics tend to grow large in these parts. Getting them down the ole gullet wasn't much fun. Still, I took them all, along with the steroids and the spray. Sure enough, the pain in my face left for a  more hospitable locale. The coughing and sneezing, however, have been tag-teaming me like something from the WWE ever since. I awaken twice each night, cough more of my precious brain cells down the sink, blow my nose with all the enthusiasm of an amphetamine-taking tuba player, ingest yet more Benadryl and fall back asleep. During the day I am so horribly medicated that were I called upon to perform a math equation that involved any type of division, I should certainly find that my skull had imploded. 
   Now the theory is that the cause of my discomfort is actually allergies. The idea makes a certain sense. When I was but a wee frock of a lad, I used to take allergy shots once every two weeks. By the time I left home, my need for such hypodermics had passed. I assumed I had grown out of my allergies. 
   Perhaps not.
   And I may not be alone.
   Roughly half of the people with whom I am in routine contact have mentioned that they have been suffering too. Sneezing and coughing, coughing and sneezing, all day and all of the night. 
   Marlene Cimons, a writer for Climate Nexus, believes she has the answer. In an article appearing in The Huffington Post on March 31, 2013--that's last year--she wrote: "The planet is getting warmer, and human behavior is responsible. The changing climate has brought early spring, late-ending fall, and large amounts of rain and snow. All of that, combined with historically high levels of carbon dioxide in the air, nourishes the trees and plants that make pollen, and encourages more fungal growth, such as mold, and the release of spores."
   That more or less frosts my bowl of flakes. It's one thing to understand that in my life-time, my home state of Ohio will become the next Palm Springs. It is quite another thing indeed to mull over the likelihood that we have brought the mess of our current respiratory maladies onto ourselves. But the evidence is not only persuasive; it is conclusive. Over the last thirty years, we have been experiencing hotter summers, more severe winters, and abbreviated springs and autumns. The unusual excess precipitation in the winter makes for better growing during the spring. April showers bring May flowers? They certainly bring a heavy load of pollen and other common allergens.
   The worst cities in the United States for allergies this year, according to The Weather Channel, are:
1. Louisville, Kentucky.
2. Memphis, Tennessee
3. Baton Rouge, Louisiana
4. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
5. Jackson, Mississippi
6. Chattanooga, Tennessee
7. Dallas, Texas
8. Richmond, Virginia
9. Birmingham, Alabama
10. McAllen, Texas 
   The Weather Channel, incidentally, received their information from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

   I'm not altogether certain what we can conclude from this list. Six of the cities are what I would call either midwestern or eastern and three of the cities are in Texas. I grew up in the midwest. I wouldn't live in Texas (except for Austin) even if they gave me the entire state.
   What to do? I suppose it might be a good idea to steer clear of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning power plants and gasoline-powered cars, cattle farts (on the increase due to the demand for meat), deforestation, and chemical fertilizers. What these aspects of modern civilization have brought us includes worldwide rise in sea levels, more killer storms (Sandy and Katrina come to mind), massive crops failures, extinction of many species of life, and the disappearance of the coral reefs. That's not the opinion of some commie-symp agitator. That's freaking NASA talking. Somehow I doubt they're blowing that particular whistle just because their duties have been scaled back. 
   It may turn out that what I have is not allergies at all. I may have some form of cancer or tuberculous or even foot in mouth disease. If you have the time, I'd appreciate hearing from any of you who have noticed a prolonged cough and sneeze problem any time over the last six months or so. Just leave a comment below, please. Til next time--hack spit rackle choo! Sorry. I was going to say take care.


    
   

Monday, April 7, 2014

UNIVERSAL UNDERSTANDING

   Being a rather lazy species, we humans crave universal rules for everything, mainly because it saves us the labor of thinking for ourselves. And while it may be true that at this point in humanity's devolution, there is no longer such a thing as a new idea, that should not keep us from digging up some good old ones and passing them off as our own. 
   One of the King Daddy-o's of pre-existentialist thought--hang on, now, don't give up on this already!--was a cool swinging cat name of Immanuel Kant. Dude had a lot to make up for, what with his name making him sound like a bit of a sissy, so he developed something called a Categorical Imperative. He applied this Universal Truth serum to morality and he ended up with three very simple rules.

1. Behave only in ways that would make you happy if everyone else was doing the same thing, including doing it to you. ( "Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.")
2. Treat other human beings as both means and ends, never exclusively as one or the other. ("Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.")
3. The idea that something is moral or right means that any corollaries derived from the above two rules result in harmony. ("All maxims as proceeding from our own [hypothetical] making of law ought to harmonise with a possible kingdom of ends.")

   Number three is quite the bitch, I'll grant you. 

   In any event, talk has been circulating of late about whether we can ever know right from wrong. Gray is a popular moral color at the moment. However, I'm here to at least try to sort through the muck and separate wheat from chaff. Don't worry. This comes free of charge.

1. Government should only exist to protect human beings from one another. Note that the above sentence is more complex than it may at first appear.
2. Since most governments will not follow rule number one, authority has no bearing whatsoever on morality.
3.  Many people fail to appreciate the things that are of true value in life.

   Please do not conclude from all this that I am any sort of libertarian. I want a big government breathing down the necks of industry so far that the CEOs can't find their own feet. I also want a government that is benevolent toward the powerless, one that clothes the naked, heels the sick, and houses the homeless. In other words, I crave a government that actually is people--people operating in a decentralized manner in a spirit of balancing needs and resources. If I had to pick between equality and liberty, I would select the former, even though I've never found the two to be mutually exclusive.

4. Pay people what they are worth. Your interest in profit does not trump their interest in survival.
5. Keep your savior out of your neighbor's uterus.
6. The best way to get your point across is to set a good example. Preaching (which is probably what I am doing here) is mostly anemic without visible actions to back it up.
7. The best things in life may not be free, but they come cheap. Time with friends, the sound of children giggling, the sigh of a poet after reading something he/she has written, the purr of kittens, the upturned belly of a dog, rain on a tin roof, the smell of marsh mellows--I could go on. These and millions of other things, if we only allow them to sink in, can provide lifetimes of joy, rather than merely distract us from the monotony of the rest of our lives. 

   We're only here once--as far as we really know. Wouldn't it be nice to look back during those last ten minutes of life and remember how you felt the first time your most important person smiled at you, or the time you first tasted lemonade, or the first time you heard someone's child laugh? I'll take those things over a balance sheet any time. 
    At one brief point in my own life, I had a tremendous amount of money. If there can be such a thing as too much money, that is precisely how much I had. It was far and away the most excessively superficial period of my life. Nothing of any value whatsoever happened during those very ugly nine months. My stupid experience does not mean we can generalize my case to the rest of the world. On the other hand, what good are experiences if we do not learn life lessons from them? 
   What I need--and possibly what you need--are the things that meant a lot to you when you didn't know what they were. When your basic needs were supplied by others, you probably didn't put much thought to them. As you became an adult, you probably began to fend for yourself and basic survival may have become a real struggle sometimes. The shelter, the food, the clothes and the warmth of your childhood took on an entirely different degree of emphasis. Then after a while, you found someone you thought would share your burdens as well as your celebrations. If you were with the right person, you were happy more often than frustrated. But for those of us of a certain age--an age which differs from one person to another--we may begin to reevaluate the importance of the things that feel right or appropriate. We may even start to recognize that some of the things we claim we need are in reality confounding us by reinforcing the needs they frustrate. A certain alienation sets in and to cope with it, we might make the mistake of consuming things that in turn further our alienation. Drugs will do that, but so will addictions to television, luxury items, or even sex. 
   As I sort of imply things here about myself, I fear this article may be sounding too precious. I hope not, because the point is too important to lose in the fumes of my own ego, even if I express it in an awkward way. That said, let's return to Kant for a moment. When the poor guy was all of seventy-three years old, some wisenheimer challenged him by saying, in effect, "Since you are arguing that people should always tell the truth, what would you do if a man bent on murder asked you the location of his intended victim?"
   Kant, trying to be consistent, replied that the proper thing to do would be to tell the truth, whereupon most of his friends changed the locks on their front doors. Personally, my answer to the question would have been to supply the address of the nearest police station. But I still have a sense of humor, while Kant, despite serving up a mighty fine fondue, never really was the life of the party.
   Truth is overrated anyway. We live in a time that virtually suffocates amid the smoggy profusion of truth. I am not advocating ignorance and I'm not praising self-delusion. What I am calling out is that the stark nature of truth--especially capital T Truth--is often so far removed from its presumed synonym Beauty as to lead anyone who beheld such a thing to run screaming from any room that displayed it. What is in very short supply is actually something called Understanding. I intend that word in the sense of both comprehension and empathy. One may have the information that clues in on every synapse of the human brain, for instance, but without exerting the effort to understand the very real thoughts and feelings that come spilling from those processes, the truth of the matter is very much wasted. In other words, I'll take a supposedly uneducated person who cares about how I feel over a truckload who claim to know why
   Some of the awkwardness in my delivery of all this stems from the fact that I am still reeling from a fantasy I had earlier tonight. I imagined that my greatest friends from all the years of my life were together at the same large table, drinking coffee and talking to one another. Maybe some nice music is playing in the background. I don't even necessarily need to be sitting at that imaginary table. Somehow just knowing they were all together talking about their lives and listening to one another--well, at this moment, that may very much be one of those things that is of incalculable value in life. I'll take that over money any day.
Universal Understanding

Sunday, April 6, 2014

CHICK BOOKS

   It may sound like a variation on an old Kinky Friedman song, but the first time I discovered the works of Chick Publications, it was while I was tending to business in a public boys room. The tract was lying on the floor, so I picked it up, read it, learned I was on the highway to hell, burning up the road, I had the devil in my cigarette lighter and didn't need no battery, I had the devil in my heart, but only because I was too young to drive.
   The Jack Thomas Chick empire, it must be admitted, does not vacillate. They make their opinions known and there has been no deviation, probably because they believe such a policy to be perverse. For more than fifty years, Chick has been trying to scare the hell of out of little kids while deliberately alienating and outright insulting Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, Freemasons, Ecumenicalists, gays, evolutionists, and people who would translate the King James version of the Bible. 
   I have not given Chick Publications much recent consideration. But this morning, outside a grocery, as I disgorged my weary self from the vehicle, I was greeted by a not unattractive teenage girl who said something to me very quickly that I could not understand and then begged me to accept a small comic book entitled Things to Come? 
   As with all Chick booklets, this one tells a story. In this case, an apparent fortune teller--perhaps a Gypsy, but certainly a misguided soul--is being pressured by a son or daughter--these days it's so hard to tell the difference--into getting to the truth. Okay, says the mama. I'll go see Mr. Rogers. He knows the story.
   The mama tells Rogers that she is a good Roman Catholic. Rogers responds that Jesus hates the Vatican and refers to the city as "The great whore." To my surprise, the Pope himself is in actuality The Beast, as in the antiChrist, that nasty world leader who will attempt to destroy Israel once the rapture has occurred. The rapture? Yeah, otherwise known as the great space alien capture, which rhymes with rapture, wherein those living and deceased souls who were (needless to say) none of the above heretics but rather were those who had been saved and therefore ascended to heaven where the very hateful Jesus is waiting with your very own monogrammed harp and wing-set--that rapture, buddy. 
   That is a fair assessment of the Chick books themes. 
   The titles of these tracts tell much of the story: Allah Had No Son, Are Roman Catholics Christians?, Bewitched, Gomez is Coming (said title revealing more about Gomez than I personally care to know), Love the Jewish People, and The Poor Revolutionist leap unbidden to mind. 
    As Chick himself would be happy to tell you, I'm no saint myself. I have been known to pass extraordinarily insensitive and frequently uninformed remarks about Mormons, Halloween, and other distractions. When I am annoyed with something, I am not above taking the cheapest of shots. In my own defense, however, I should add that I do not recall having ever argued that anyone who disagrees with me is going to hell forever. 
   The only other area in which Chick and I match up is in appreciation of the King James Version of the Bible. Commissioned by King James I, the Hampton Court translated the Old Testament from Hebrew and the New Testament from Greek, and highly reflected the Puritan-influenced views of the Church of England. The result was the King James Version. Granted, that version occasionally placed emphasis in the wrong places (such as Christ's reference to a rich man having as much chance of getting into heaven as a camel does passing through the eye of a needle, the emphasis giving the reader the opinion that rich people won't make it in, whereas the real story was that the eye of the needle was a gate of Jerusalem through which a camel and his passenger could only enter once they had removed their treasures, leaving the parable to mean not that the rich can't get it but that they cannot take wealth with them), but it remains a magnificent series of stories which not only offer frequently good advice but which also sparkle with the language of Shakespeare, who did not write it, regardless of what it says in Psalm 46. I've always resisted attempts to contemporize the Jimmy Version on literary grounds. I enjoy the ambiguities, the plot twists, the deus ex machina. Did the story not begin "In the beginning," it would rival the finest Greek tragedies, most of which stuck to the theory of en medias res (beginning in the middle). 
    In any case, the comics themselves do a vast disservice to the world at large, primarily because they run so contrary to the general benevolence of most comic books of my generation. Superman, whose story was very much a Christ allegory, didn't beat up homosexuals, although he did occasionally race bait by referring to Asian Nazis as Japs. Wonder Woman was the first female feminist to be celebrated in comic books. And many of the Marvel group heroes (and some from DC) were genuine freaks, whether it was the mutant Hulk, X-Men, or The Fantastic Four. I'm not saying The Silver Surfer grew up in Gomorrah, but he sure was different, huh? Kids reading those marvelous comics felt different, too. It was nice imagining that when The Flash was a kid, that maybe other kids had picked on him, or that the Green Arrow's parents were judgmental. Those comics were inherently progressive (I remember an issue of The Brave & the Bold wherein Batman mused about the need for prison reform). To find a reactionary psychopath like Chick using that holy medium for the purposes of exclusion rather than inclusion is, to use the tract jargon, an abomination. 
   So I shoved the tract into my back pocket and did my shopping. When I returned home, I pulled the booklet out and there was the tale of the misguided Gypsy. Mr. Rogers tells her that after the aforementioned rapture, a new Pope will emerge in the Vatican, proclaiming himself the New Jesus. The leftover humans will worship him in his glory. The joke is on them, however, because this dude is The Beast, the guy who digs on 666, even though word of that number has been widely disseminated and you'd think people would realize that the admonition to bear that code would be a warning. The whole plot turns out to be a pre-ordained conspiracy for the struggle to possess our souls. If we refuse to wear the mark, we are beheaded. If we do wear it, Jesus sends us to hell. 
    Chick is ninety this year. His days, like future foreheads, are numbered. Yet his kingdom endures. 
   You have been warned (insert snicker).