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Sunday, March 29, 2015

BROADCAST

   One of the newer cliches in the making is one that goes like this: "The law has not kept up with technology." This mindless explanation of what one presumes to be our present malaise intends to say that limits on human expression have not kept pace with the abilities to which Internet applications have soared. What, for instance, is cyber stalking? If I communicate to the world that I am having dinner at the Naked Tycoon only to have you show up with your telephone which you use to post a video of me eating the infamous Green Arpaio Jewel of the Rhine, am I able to successfully litigate against you for damages I have suffered due to losing my contract with the Waffle House? Did you record me eating this horrendous cuisine using a shared wifi? Did I provide implied consent by virtue of having inadvertently revealed my location via something called Swarm? 
   A few years ago no one would have thought this was a big deal. But Internet advancements go rabid because we have the perception that its resources have no limits. No fossil fuels are depleted. No greenhouse gases escape into the ozone. The HOV lanes do not become more crowded. Everything must be okay.
   150 people died in an airline disaster this week. One of the networks asked the question, "Is it possible to retrieve any communications the passengers transmitted on their mobile devices prior to impact?"
   That broadcast was brought to us by T-Mobile, among other technology corporations.
   I could bellow against our collective stupidity here and feel quite justified, but I do that all the time. Today the issue will be insensitivity.
   One of the great books of my youth was by E. F. Schumacher. It was called Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Schumacher had gained some attention prior to the 1973 publication of this book as a result of positioning the words "Buddhist economics" together in the same sentence. He had visited Burma with the intention of seeing how the First World could help the Burmese improve their lot in life. He discovered that his mission was misguided. The Burmese system was perfectly suited to their climate, resources and aspirations. Schumacher came away from the experience convinced that the developed countries needed to reevaluate their own understanding of economics. 
The illusion of unlimited power, nourished by astonishing scientific and technological achievements, has produced the concurrent illusion of having solved the problem of production. The latter illusion is based on the failure to distinguish between income and capital where this distinction matters most. Every economist and businessman is familiar with the distinction, and applies it conscientiously and with considerable subtlety to all economic affairs -- except where it really matters -- namely, the irreplaceable capital which man had not made, but simply found, and without which he can do nothing. [Emphasis added.]
  We tend to treat natural resources--oil, coal, water--as income (something that we earn and which will continue to be accumulated) rather than as capital (something probably finite, the proceeds of which should go toward sustainment). If you had one thousand dollars in a sack and never added to it, you would be stupid to consider this as income. Yet that is the condition of our traditional fuel sources. Oh, occasionally we discover some other type of currency--Canadian tar sands, or whatever junk it might be--and further delude ourselves that this too has income value. Unlike our sack of cash, the fossil fuels create their own need. We burn the fuel, the globe heats up, we turn on our air conditioners or escape into our automobiles or shopping malls. In our efforts to maintain the illusion of freedom that our oral fixation on accumulation fosters, we kill ourselves incrementally--and sneer at the primitive cultures who reject our overtures at globalization. 
   Insensitivity: the pathetic excuses for meteorologists on local Phoenix news telecasts today inform us that the high temperature was ninety-seven degrees. "But it's a dry heat," one of the shirt-and-tie college graduates quips, the depth of his wit only matched by the shallowness of his usefulness. Fitting this occurrence into the realm of cause and effect--much less its place in global warming--is outside the purview of mass stupification. It's hard to sell people new climate control systems for their comfort when you confront them with the evidence that comfort is what has made us so uncomfortable.
   Insensitivity: the media focuses on the presumed guilt of the airline co-pilot who evidently caused the fatal crash, yet makes scant reference to the other 149 passengers and crew on board, other than to the three Americans, whose lives, as everyone knows, are of higher value than those of the Europeans. And there's the unpleasant situation that the co-pilot has been given all the unsubstantiated accusations afforded to Lee Oswald and Richard Jewel. 
   Insensitivity: we may soon be able to access our bank account resources through an automatic teller machine without having to present a credit or debit card, personal identification number, or facial scan. 
   Aw, but there I go whining again.
   Clearly my unspoken objection to all this technological advancement lies in my being afraid that my own personal relevance may be slipping away as I vainly try to compete with twelve-year-olds who know more about circuitry than I know about Beyonce's ariola. Damn! You figured me out! I was hoping to keep their charade going for years. I'm not really worried about our planet spontaneously igniting as its mass spirals into its own emissions. What I'm actually fretting over is my unspoken desire to dance around on a stage in sequin leotards while lip-synching to a recording of Fidel Castro sampled by the Jennifer Lopez Orchestra while septuagenarian females hurl their brassieres in my general direction. Bloody hell, you found me out.
   Indeed, my long term goal is to become a thorough and complete nonentity, somehow in league with the dearth of television propaganda clothed as entertainment, something similar to people named Justin, Sergio, and Trace.
   See ya when ya get here. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

NIMZOBOB

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

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

Thursday, March 19, 2015

SAD TIME IN NEW ORLEANS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

DID YOU EVER PICK YOUR FEET IN FERGUSON?

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

   

Sunday, March 1, 2015

RUSSIA'S CHRYSAOR

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