Wednesday, December 31, 2014

MURDER IN MEMPHIS

   As I am neither a drinker nor doper and lack the charisma to be a philanderer, I will spend that lag time between New Year's Eve and New Year's Day mulling over the things of real importance on this here madly spinning orb, things upon which just possibly I can force a wee smidgen of clarity and righteousness. Should that present much difficulty, I will do something considerably more pleasant. 
   I love lists. Best songs, worst restaurants, best movies, worst bathroom fixtures, best books, most impressive window awnings--you name it, I have a list to go with it. As the year 2015 approaches, my personal To Do List includes the astounding as well as the trite, the fun as well as the mundane, the typical as well as the transcendent. To end the suspense: I want to reconnect with certain people from my misspent youth; I want to return to San Francisco for a couple days; and I want to settle upon which conspiracies I can thoroughly embrace and which ones I must permanently reject. 
   When one stumbles upon the word "conspiracy," strange sensations may trouble the mind. Is the purveyor of the theory full of pintos and garbanzos, someone merely seeking to impose significance upon this often uninspiring universe, or has the theory-monger actually pulled together something at least minimally plausible? Is the theorizer debasing the practice of gaining clarity for personal aggrandizement, or is the person quite simply unsettled with the current state of comprehension regarding a presumably urgent matter? 
   To those of us of a certain age, the Big Trilogy of Tragedies was the assassination of John Kennedy on November 22, 1963, of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968, and of Robert Kennedy on June 6, 1968. It is challenging to convey to younger people the magnitude of these deaths, in part because the murders occurred within an historical context that even those of us who lived through them find hard to fathom. Civil rights workers were sliced and diced by the score and buried in landfills while entire southern states nodded and bowed to their own triumvirate, being Messers Ku, Klux and Klan, which made more than mildly ironic that the unGodly process appeared to end with the failed assassination of George Wallace in 1972. 
   "But, Dude, aren't you just livin' in the past? There's a whole new wild world out there, Gramps, and maybe it would behoove your sorry ass to explore that instead of whining into your oatmeal about some sad stuff you can't do nuthin' 'bout no way.
   Of course, my way does lie madness. But maybe a bit of madness amidst all the presumed sanity is just what we need, especially for those of us who suspect we have seen all the new stuff many times already, from CIA malfeasance to exploitation of women and persecution of those without at the hands of those with far too much. 
   I have read many books about the murder of Big John, the President. All I know for certain is that the one man who most certainly did not fire those shots in Dallas that day was Lee Harvey Oswald. Beyond that, the reader's guess is probably as good as mine, but if you want mine, it runs that anti-Castro Cuban exiles look pretty good for it, especially considering how those same people keep popping up throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
   The murder about which I know the least is Robert Kennedy's. What I do know is that he was slaughtered on the same day that he and fellow anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy captured better than eighty percent of their party's primary votes in California and that with Kennedy dead the financially profitable Vietnam War was able to continue unfettered for many more years. However, motive--no matter how compelling--is not evidence of anything. On the other hand, presumed shooter Sirhan Sirhan's explanation that he was pissed off at Kennedy's professed policies regarding Palestinians rings hollow. 
   In between the Kennedy slayings rests the death of Martin Luther King. For those who found it difficult to understand how an ex-Marine could shoot a moving target (who just happened to be the President of the United States) through a blossomed tree at a distance of one hundred yards, scoring two out of three shots in less than six seconds for no other reason than ennui, the assassination of Dr. King by James Earl Ray was mind-boggling. Ray had escaped from prison, had no known skills, hung out in Canadian bars yapping about how he wished he had himself some money, acquired a white Ford Mustang, somehow knew that King was going to be staying in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis even though the civil rights leader had invariably stayed in the Holiday Inn on every other visit to Memphis, somehow knew when King would be exiting his motel room and would just sort of stand around waiting to be picked off, and then, the first official theory went, somehow lost all sense and left the murder weapon on the sidewalk so the police could find it while somehow managing to finance an impressive escape that took him from the United States into Europe and finally to his eventual capture at a London airport. To add to the absurdity, nine years after the murder, the "confessed" assassin escaped from Tennessee's Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary (along with six other prisoners) and was recaptured two days later. This escape was well timed, occurring in the midst of a highly publicized Playboy interview and only a few weeks before the formation of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, part of whose duties were to explore the killing of MLK. Struggle for leadership of the HSCA was itself a bloody mess. Nevertheless, a lot of fascinating testimony came out from the so-called conspiracy buffs who had been choking the airwaves on talk radio stations for years. But a few of these people actually did know what they were talking about and not all of them manifested during the 1970s. Regarding JFK, the most reasonable thinkers would include Mark Lane, Dick Gregory, Penn Jones Jr., Bertrand Russell, Sylvia Meagher, and--please don't get bitchy about this--Jim Garrison and Oliver Stone. 
   Lane and Gregory shared an interest--a noble compulsion, if you will--regarding the killing of Martin Luther King. The same year that James Ray escaped and was recaptured, he hired Mark Lane as his attorney. Ray had been trying to obtain a new trial ever since being tricked into entering a guilty plea by his earlier lawyer, Percy Foreman. Also that same year, 1977, Mark Lane and Dick Gregory published a book called Code Name Zorro, reissued in 1993 as Murder in Memphis. Comedian and social activist Dick Gregory provides several chapters on the background of King's work, a background that would soon become legacy. The chapters Gregory wrote are clear, concise, historically relevant and often quite moving. 
   Mark Lane's contribution to the book are a bit less linear, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem, if you want to call it that, is that the complexities of a political assassination require a narrative that moves in and out of the present, dipping here into the past and there into the possible future. When one concedes that large chunks of the story cannot be specified, the job of relating the story becomes enormous. Fortunately, Lane is sharp and tenacious, even though he knows it, and has a style which is on occasion smarmy, on occasion fang-like in its incites. 
   While this pre-New Year's Day essay is supposed to be more or less a book review, in this instance the book itself is going to be a jumping board for something I've made swift reference of several months back. 
   In April 1968, a man named Loyd Jowers owned a Memphis restaurant called Jim's Grill. The eatery was near the Lorraine Motel. Even though the FBI didn't look closely at Jowers and his associates following the assassination, a number of researchers gave him quite a close examination. In December 1993, Jowers made an appearance on an ABC news program wherein he confessed to having a role in the murder and further claiming that Ray had been set up as a patsy.
   The United States Department of Justice yawned into action, summarily concluding that Jowers' was a discredited witness who couldn't find his ass with a flashlight and a two-day head start. That conclusion wasn't terribly surprising in light of the fact that the FBI had been complicit attempts to discredit, slander and cause harm to Martin Luther King prior to and following his murder. 
   In November 1999, the King Family brought a civil suit against Jowers and others. They were not looking for money. They were seeking confirmation. And man, did they get it. After six weeks of testimony, the jury unanimously declared that--well, it can be summed up like this:
THE COURT: In answer to the question did Loyd Jowers participate in a conspiracy to do harm to Dr. Martin Luther King, your answer is yes. Do you also find that others, including governmental agencies, were parties to this conspiracy as alleged by the defendant? Your answer to that one is also yes. And the total amount of damages you find for the plaintiffs entitled to is one hundred dollars. Is that your verdict?
THE JURY: Yes (In unison).

     When you have time, you can read the transcripts of the trial MLK Civil trial transcripts
     Part of what I consider to be the continued importance of all this allegedly ancient history is that we cannot know what we know unless we understand upon what kind of foundation our assumptions rest. If those in positions of inherited authority have achieved their positions through nefarious methods, then perhaps a critical eye should inquire into their current behavior. 
   While we wait for someone else to do the heavy lifting, have a nice New Year. I hope to join you there.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

EGOSPEAK

   For no preordained or unconsciously motivated reason whatsoever, it just so happens that the three nonfiction holiday reading books under discussion here (and over the next couple days) have more than a little relevance to our current malaise, unless you consider The Interview, a Sony film starring Seth Rogen, to be the status of our collective gumbo, in which case you are excused while the rest of us have a hearty laugh at your expense. The genuine nastiness remains the hostile race relations in this country, which is a little ironic given that we have an African-American President whose political ascension sparked lame wit in some dullards and for a while there had people referring to our allegedly post-racial society as "The Age of Obama." For white people who embraced Barack Obama, it no doubt felt as if the racial cold war had at least thawed a bit. Of course, most black people knew better than to trust what was ultimately more of a rejection of the residue of the Bush regime than an eagerness for "change we can believe in," or whatever the slogan used to be. The rest of us cynical folks, of no specific race or creed, sheepishly wondered if the election of a black man to that highest of offices might serendipitously tease out a considerable backlash of redneck extremism. Sad to say, you should usually bet on the cynics to nail the public mood. Since 1964, every Democrat elected to the U.S. presidency has been either a Southerner or African-American, a decidedly weird circumstance given that by 1968, the formerly Democratic "solid south" had been shanghaied by the Republican party specifically because of Lyndon Johnson's efforts at treating black people as if their lives mattered just as much as everyone elses. Richard Nixon understood with amazing clarity the appeal that Democratic Alabama Governor George Wallace had for working class whites, the people Merle Haggard sang about, the people whose kids were sent to Vietnam, the people Nixon coined as the Silent Majority. With the exception of Florida, the Democrats wrote off the south as an electoral base, although they tend to draw from it for white candidates. To put it another way, Joe Biden was inadvertently correct when he implied that Obama "spoke well" in the sense that a black man with the President's credentials who happened to have a southern accent and heritage would have scared that Silent Majority even more than he already has. 
   I say all of that to say this: Race hate in this country not only still exists, in some respects it has even manifested itself during the last six years, just as the families of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and Eric Garner can attest. 
   EgoSpeak: Why No One Listens to You (Chilton Book Company, 1973) by Edmond Addeo and Robert Burger shows itself to be one of the legs of the three-legged stool upon which the "nothing much has changed" school of thought uneasily teeters. While this short and amusing book does not specifically address racial matters, it does take shots at cliched thinking and other mental shortcuts which continue to keep many of us isolated from the hazards of getting along well. Addeo and Burger intended EgoSpeak to persuade through their sardonic tone and for the most part they succeed. Whether the issue is highjacking conversations or steamrolling dialogue with a preponderance of "facts," the writers describe spoken interactions that are often so close to the bone you can feel the marrow quiver. Here's an excerpt I take at random:
This is perhaps one of the few EgoSpeak games which is not played intentionally; it is our yen for Ego-gratification that prevents us from realizing when we play it. In fact, it is often pomposity which forces us into it unwillingly. The subtle force of pomposity consists in the fear that we may actually say something. For if we say something to a great number of people, we may be caught in an inaccuracy by someone who "checks the facts." As a result, SpeakSpeakers resort to heavy qualifications. Thus SpeakSpeak becomes the art of saying absolutely nothing by virtue of using what is called the Queasy Qualifier (QQ). The Queasy Qualifier, usually an adverbial form, is a word which, when placed before a word with definite, unambiguous meaning, renders the entire word and the subsequently formed phrase utterly meaningless.
  Example 1: Virtually Impossible.   
 Example 2: Nearly unique.
 Example 3: A little bit pregnant. 
     A fair way to summarize the thrust of the book is to say that it utilizes ideas from several other books (Body Language, Games People Play, and The Peter Principle) and then answers the unspoken question "So what?" Well, for one thing, "So an average American can speak the equivalent of two novels per day, although he reads less than three books per year." We sure do talk a lot and often unconsciously do so with "tells," little clues to the fact that we do not give much of a damn about what the other person is saying other than as a means for redirecting things back to what we think are important. Some of these "tells" happen right on camera, as when a prosecutor holds a press conference prior to announcing the results of a grand jury decision, or even in a Tweet or Facebook post by someone we don't know at all but nevertheless list them as "friend." 
  Our present day social media elaborations did not exist in 1973, of course, but the conclusions Addeo and Burger draw apply just as well there. For instance, I observed just yesterday that a man who was trying for all he was worth to sound impartial and above the fray even as his biased worldview was clear and apparent to everyone but himself. In relating the video of Tamir Rice getting shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer, the Facebook user referenced a "punk wielding a firearm," rather than what some people saw as a child pointing a toy. Some of the bigotry we've seen over the last several months has been as chilling as the killings of Trayvon Martin and other citizens who died at the hands of "good guys with guns." 
   The protests against the cowardice on the part of armed Americans that resulted in the deaths of unarmed Americans has been made to appear race-based, despite the presence of white, black, brown and Asian faces in the crowds. Even the so-called liberal news channels have tended to emphasize the racial components of the response to the killings rather than the racial elements of the killings themselves. That's an important distinction because when the inevitable happens--when police get shot by a black person--all the Caucasian administrators, such as the New York Chief of Detectives, seize upon that eventuality as a means of saying "See! Blacks are just as prejudiced as white people!" 
   That would be true, except for one thing: it is a lie. Is a Jew in Berlin in 1933 a bigot because he hates the way Germans are brutalizing his fellow men and women? Is a member of the Lakota tribe a racist because he fights back when his family is slaughtered by an invading horde? Is it racism to feel outrage when uniformed men blast down your door and shoot you forty-three times in a case of mistaken identity? When the cops speak of "anti-police" communities, they are talking about areas of a city where the people living there put more trust in themselves than they do in the organized officers of the law. The police betray their fear of the people by overreacting in their body language, their verbal language, their internal language and ultimately in their lethal communications. When attempts at speaking become predictable, no one listens to anyone else. We end up in a cold and heartless struggle for survival. 
   EgoSpeak illustrates something most five-year-olds know but what the rest of us have unlearned. To get the other person to listen to you, it is necessary to care about what he says and why he says it and, before you move on to your own interests, make sure the other guy understands that you are interested. It is not enough to play our some sort of "game" in the sense of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? Quite the contrary. We're sophisticated interactionists and we will know when a game is being played. We have to seriously give a damn. Otherwise, we will reveal a shallowness that will inhibit the other person from giving a damn back at us. Or, to use a bit of the splendid film The Big Kahuna, as Danny DeVito put it, "Whenever you put your hands on a conversation to steer it toward what you want to talk about, you stop being a human being. You become a marketing rep." Good God, anything but that.