It has been a solid two years in near total isolation for us. A year of lymphoma treatment and quarantine ended just in time for the Trump virus to shut everything down for another year.
Finally, Stanwyck and I are fully vaxxed and ready to take those first tentative steps back into polite society. As luck would have it, our resurrection coincides with Tallahassee’s annual Word of South Festival of music and literature. It’s one of my favorite events on the local calendar, and it was sorely missed last year under the COVID pall. As difficult as it is to contemplate crawling out of my hidey hole, Word of South offers a fine motivation to poke my head up and see if I remember how to be social and such.
As always, the lineup has prime talents, with music from Dom Flemons, Allison Moorer, Randall Bramblett, Royce Lovett, and the great New Orleans trumpeter Wendell Brunious. Writers talking to writers. Writers talking to musicians. People who love books and music hob nobbing in the beautiful Tallahassee springtime weather.
Yeah, the weather has gone to hell in a hockey bag. But the rain has plagued WoS before, and I figure they will come up with alternate venues and such, although a fair number of the alternate venues from festivals past have shuttered due to the pandemic. As of this afternoon, I have not seen any official announcements. Here’s hoping they pull another miracle.
It is an amazement that the festival is still with us. Chalk it up to a committed team of mostly volunteers throwing their shoulders to the wheel. It was a towering act of faith to program and schedule this event without knowing what the COVID drama would bring. Even with limiting the daily attendance by issuing tickets in advance, if the vaccine rollout had been any less effective we would not even think of attending.
And with events moving indoors, perhaps, we may have to think twice anyway.
Word of South 2019 was my last public appearance, aside from the occasional trip for groceries. Two weeks after first chemo and it was clear that I was too compromised to be there. So the idea of WoS serving as my post-transplant debutante party was pretty slick, symmetry-wise.My original dream had been a triumphant return to Big Ears, but they have deferred for another year.
But here’s the thing after two years of hibernation: The idea of crowds and small talk and conversation and trying so hard to hide that I have lost all recall of the name of whatever person I am talking to that I have known foreverName recall never having been my strong suit, the random access memory is even worse post-treatment. My apology in advance. – all that stuff has been giving me a real case of the yips.
I figure I’m not the only one. So, assuming we get to go at all, I’ve settled on some strategies to cope.
Breathe (even in situations where it is optional).
Embrace awkward silences.
Smile some more.
Resist asking “So how’s it been going?”
Do not stare at my shoes for more than ten seconds at a time.
Speaking of shoes, I notice that several of the bands on tap at the young people’s stage (young meaning anything under say 50) describe their genre as shoegaze, which seems to indicate an amalgam of jam band and emo, though there is probably some sort of “something-core” involved, too. I don’t know. I am, as my kids remind me, an Old. But it sounds like something I would like.
So maybe you’ll see me grooving at the shoegaze stage where my inordinate interest in my laces will not seem so out of place. Or maybe you’ll run into me somewhere else. If I forget and stare at my fancy kicks for more than a count of ten, please tell me to look up and smile. I’m really out of practice and could use a little help.
John Brown’s Body: Your Electric Picture Radio Box Matters #4
One of my long-standing hobby horses is the story of Osawatomie John Brown. In 1986, through happy accident, I found myself at the Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, National Historic Park. I dutifully read the plaques and displays and wondered how I had never heard of this guy and his adventures. Aside from owning the album by Kansas that featured John Steuart Curry’s iconic painting of Brown on the cover, my exposure to Brown’s story was nil.
I carried around my meagre crumbs of knowledge (abolitionist, seditionist, likely crazy as a shithouse rat) for a dozen years or so. In 1998, Russell Banks published his novel Cloudsplitter, a historic fiction tale told from the POV of one of Brown’s surviving children that recounts Brown’s life in great detail, much of it, perhaps, true. Or at least truthy. That led me into yet another obsession, lots of reading and trying to tease a coherent picture out of multiple-and-often-conflicting renditions.This was likely the germ seed of my not-yet established Civil War mania.
All that I was “sure of” was that the cat was deeply committed to the abolitionist cause (undeniable) and he was a bugfuck crazy fundamentalist loon (not so fast there).
The latest novelization of Brown arrived in 2013 in James McBride’s National Book award winner The Good Lord Bird. This tale, seen through the eyes of Onion, a fictional slave boy Brown freed and took under his wing, is as much a re-imagining of Huckleberry Finn as it is a reliable historic document. But damn the facts and up with truthiness: This tale is a romp and a decent meditation on Brown’s last act on history’s mortal stage and the kind of impact his actions had on a nation teetering on the edge of dissolution. And as told by McBride, it has the added benefit of being pure dee high-larious, largely stemming from Brown’s misapprehension of our narrator’s gender. Onion was wearing a burlap sack when Brown freed him, leading the Old Man to assume he was a she and to mishear his name Henry as Henrietta. Onion, shrewd enough to recognize an opportunity and meal ticket, went along with the notion. Hijinx ensue.
Now this thrilling tale of mistaken identity and derring do is available via your Electric Picture Radio Box in a seven episode series on Showtime. And that gives me an excuse to ruminate anew on one of my favorite historical figures.
I typically approach askance any filmification of great books, but my skepticism here was well-misplaced. The Good Lord Bird, starring Ethan Hawke as Osawatomie Brown and newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson as Onion, is a knockout. The graphic design and music is pitch perfect. All the performances are outstanding, especially Daveed DiggsAnother product of the Hamilton juggernaut. as a fairly buffoonish Frederick Douglass, the only Negro in the series who does not recognize that Onion is a he passing as a she; in this he stands in lockstep with all the white folks who see him as a saint.
From the moment Henry is mistaken for a girl, the parallel with Huck is set. His adventures with Old Man Brown as his Jim feature the same kinds of mishaps and sudden violences that Clemens bestowed upon his character. And like Huck in drag, Onion has more confidence in his costume than he should. Just as the women in Twain spotted Huck’s fakery in an instant, so did every Black character – save for Douglass – see through Onion’s flimsy imitation. Most people see what they want to see, or what they are told to see. Once Brown pronounced Henry as Henrietta, the question was settled for everyone who did not have to keep their antennae sharp to survive. People like the comfortably ensconced Douglass. For those steeped in the life and death necessity of seeing things as they really are, Onion’s subterfuge holds no water.
I have to admit that amping up the clown makeup for an African-American icon – one depicted more than a little hagiographically 99.9% of the time – struck me as more than a little bold, and generally to McBride’s credit that he took the character there. It presents a stark comparison between Douglass, the man of words, versus Brown, the man of action. Douglass here is a vainglorious toff, all puffery and pretense. Upon meeting the man Brown calls King of the Negroes, Onion calls him Fred, demonstrating all the manners and refinement of a Huck Finn. Douglass bristles:
Do you know you are not speaking to a pork chop but rather a fairly considerable and incorrigible piece of the American Negro diaspora?
Later we find Douglass and Onion drinking bourbon, with Fred chasing the not-a-girl around the parlor like a dog after a pork chop.
So why spoof up the icons this way?
I think heroes who are not flawed are not believable. John Brown was clearly flawed in real life. John Brown was clearly flawed in real life. He did some terrible things, but he did some things none of us would have had the heart to do. His moral leanings were unquestionably admirable.
James McBride in Publisher’s Weekly, July, 2013
But. He was on the right side of history, on the side of the future. Like James Baldwin 100 years later, he knew that white people were doomed until we dealt with the reality and responsibility of slavery. He was not just out to save Negroes from bondage; he wanted to save the whites who were being consumed by the evil, too.
Okay, all that aside for a second: This is Ethan Hawke’s party, a chance to create an epic character, and he makes the most of it. In the first screen portrayal of Brown since Raymond Massey in Seven Angry Men (1955) and Santa Fe Trail (1940)Twice in the same historical role!, Hawke adds more depth to Brown’s character than popular culture typically acknowledges: more compassion and generosity, a dash of doubt and despair. But it still leans hard on the one thing most people seem to agree upon: That Old Man Brown was crazy as a loon.
I italicize most because there is a growing pushback among Brown scholars (and some of his descendants) regarding this tricky notion, one that I have held as self-evident since I first heard of Brown. I mean, and come on here, isn’t violence spurred by religious zealotry the very picture of insanity? Can’t we reasonably agree that Guy Fawkes or Timothy McVeigh or Osama bin Laden – not to mention our current crop of Christo-Fascist nutters marauding the Capitol and beyond – are wacko, bonkers, round the bend, cornery, all the way fruit loops?
Brown intended the Harpers Ferry raid to spark a slave revolt, an uprising of the Negro race against their oppressors. (So, for that matter, did Charles Manson when he unleashed his bloodletters on Los Angeles.) He understood the Nation to be at an unavoidable crossroads over the Peculiar Institution of slavery, and that it was an issue that would only be settled through bloodshed. This idea was not only not crazy, but with benefit of hindsight, almost blindingly obvious. But very few people were willing to see this reality, much less act upon it.
Brown’s letters reflect a man of intelligence, sobriety, and firmness of will. They do not betray a closet lunatic, and his popular image in his time was of a good and decent man committed to a righteous and just cause. Unless you were on the wrong end of his sword, in which case you were a slaver or supported slavery. And it is worth noting that Brown considered violence a last resort of self defense against an implacably cruel and savage oppressor. (In this, he is not unlike Malcolm X.)He writes, foreshadowing future musings.
Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry is widely considered the first battle of the Civil War. Coincidentally, the Federal force that defeated Brown’s crew was led by Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart. If this were not true, it would be a preposterously overdetermined plot gambit, but indeed, it was Brown against the future military brain trust of the Confederacy. The plan was wildly overambitious, almost certainly a suicide mission, but despite the fact that the local slaves did not rise up in response, the skirmish set in stark relief the fracture that was to engulf the nation, and foreshadowed the carnage inevitable.
The elevation of John Brown, Crazy PersonTM, was as necessary a part of Lost Cause revisionism as was Lee the Noble the Slaver. It would never do to have such a character seen as compos mentis if the aim was to rewrite the history of slavery to fit the gauzy focus of Birth of a Nation or Tara. The Lost Cause demands that we see the Peculiar Institution as largely benevolent, despite the few bad actors that gave slavery a “bad name.”
Thus, John Brown must be seen as extremist, unstable.
The great pitfall of any kind of hero worship is that every hero has clay feet. This makes it easy for determined debunkers to undermine the actions that make heroes heroic in the first place. Brown has always been one of my favorite characters in history, but not because I find him the most admirable role model. It is his complexity – whether crazy or not – that makes him so fascinating, just as Nixon’s bizarre juxtaposition of conflicting facets make him the most fascinating of our ex-presidents.
I have always been troubled by one idea regarding Osawatomie Brown: Who Would John Brown Scourge in our time? His fundamentalist bent is all too familiar to anyone observing the madness being wrought by the extremist right actors of pro-life terrorism, molon labe fantasies, and imaginary Constitutional justifications for, oh I dunno, things like storming the U.S. Capitol or opening fire on/gunning a car through a crowd of ‘godless’ protestors. Would John Brown fill a truck with fertilizer and park it in front of a government building if he believed his cause righteous?
Would Old Man Brown be on the side of the angels these days? Depends on which angels you got in mind, I guess.
Whatever. The Good Lord Bird is a great electric picture radio program and an even better novel. It’s worth the coin to enjoy both. (And you can probably get a trial subscription to Showtime and watch the series in a binge for nothing.)
PS – I’ll be back with another YEPRBM essay real soon. It’s a big season for reclaiming the cardboard flat depictions of our heroes.
The Big Band Golden Age is Now
The Swing Era of the 30s and 40s is commonly remembered as the golden age of the jazz big band. Ellington. Basie. Miller. Shaw. Goodman. Calloway. Eckstine. Dizzy. And dozens more, busloads of troupers riding town to town to play at venues ranging from high school gyms to roller skating rinks to any venue that could accommodate a few hundred people dancing their asses off.
The economics and logistics of keeping a dozen or more musicians on the road were never sustainable. Add in the fact that dance music – and the big bands were first and foremost dance bands – was drifting towards the burgeoning rock’n’roll sound, and the demise of the big band was inevitable. Ellington and Basie kept going well into the 1970s, but big bands became less important as the small ensemble ethos of be- and post-bop became the prominent vehicles for jazz.
The idea of the large ensemble never really went away, with artists as varied as Miles (with Gil Evans), Coltrane (Africa Brass and Ascension), and Charles Mingus flirted with expanded instrumentation through the 50s and 60s. But these cats and a few others (e.g., Buddy RichFun fact: Buddy Rich Big Band is the first concert I ever attended alone., Maynard Ferguson) aside, the big band became something of a relic.
A few NYC-based big bands kept the flame alive. The Thad Jones/ Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra kept up a pretty good run, thanks to a weekly gig at the Village Vanguard. Now known as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, only the COVID era has shut down their 50 year-plus Monday night run. Here’s hoping they – and the Vanguard – will pick up and keep. fucking. going. once the vaccine does its work.
Gil Evans kept his vision alive with a similar Monday night regular gig in New York, Mondays being the night that the best pro musicians were “off” and thereby available to play for very little money. People so wanted to play with Gil Evans that there would be as many cats in the audience with horns (or harmonicas: Toots Thielemans sat in one night I was there and played for three hours) at the ready as there were on stage.
Sam Rivers enjoyed a similar situation after he retired to Orlando, where the various theme park gigsters were hungry for some real music to play. He kept up a weekly gig with that gang almost until his death in 2011. A limited edition 3-cd set of the Rivbea All Star Orchestra from this period will run you around $950 if you can find a copy.
Carla Bley kept the large ensemble vibe running across a variety of orchestras, most notably the Liberation Music Orchestra led by Charlie Haden. Quietly and consistently, Carla Bley remade the jazz orchestra in her own image and likeness: beautiful, lithe, forward, kind, ferocious, and gently idiosyncratic. Along with Evans, every composer/arranger working today owes a deep debt to Bley, most especially the several women who have followed in her path that we’ll look at today.
A few others took up the challenge of standing up a big band along the way. Joe Henderson launched a one-off big band recording in ’95 that was superb and un-tourable. In the 80s-90s, a smattering of razor sharp European big bands – the Vienna Art Orchestra and Willem Breuker Kollektief chief among them – leveraged the government arts funding on tap in Europe (long since eliminated by the bastards of the Reagan raj in the U.S.) to withstand the immense challenges of taking a large ensemble on the road.
In the U.S., institutional support made possible the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra (for a while) under Jon Faddis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra under Wynton Marsalis (still rolling strong). With the cachet and endowment heft of Lincoln Center behind them – along with Wynton’s massive media profile and considerable talents – the Lincoln Center crew has toured extensively, alternating between their mission as a repertory ensemble and their function as a vehicle for Wynton’s more ambitious projects.
One notable exception to this pendulum arc between feast (via institutional support) or famine (due to the nature of economic reality) was the Sun Ra Omniverse Solar Myth Science Heliocentric Arkestra (among so many recombinant naming possibilities – let’s just call it The Arkestra), formed in the mid-50s and, remarkably, still alive today. How Sun Ra managed to keep this group together for so long is a mystery and a marvel, especially when one considers the fact that he kept A-plus blazers like John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, and many others on board when they could have gained more money and fame striking out in their own small ensembles. And those who did move on to greater fame often made their way back to the Arkestra. Such was The Sun’s gravitational pull.
Even after Ra’s death in 1993 – and the subsequent passing of the great Gilmore and June Tyson – the Arkestra continues to thrive under the direction of Marshall Allen, who last year celebrated his 96th birthday by launching the first new Arkestra recording in 20 years. Swirlingis a complete delight, mixing old Ra favorites like Angels and Demons at Play, Rocket #9, and Sea of Darkness with previously unrecorded Ra material and one Allen original. (Allen claims there are hundreds of unrecorded Ra compositions, some of them Ra felt too dangerous to ever be played outside of rehearsal.) Add in a boodle of archival Arkestrarecordings spanning 40 years of angels and demons traveling the spaceways, and Our Year of Quarantine was a very good year for diving into one of the greatest big bands of all time. Keep traveling; Sun will wait for you.
Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra derives a great deal of its ethos and energy from Sun Ra’s Afro-Futurist vibe. Their 2020 release, Dimensional Stardust, boasts a who’s who lineup of the best of Chicago’s current crop of musicians, many of them associated with the legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Among this number, flautist Nicole Mitchell and cellist Tomeka Reid stand out, as does the seems-to-be-on-every-great-album-this year guitarist Jeff Parker. It is funky and spiky, with spoken word elements weaving into the mix of composition and improvisation like the best of Ra’s futuristic fantasies, yet unmistakably an entity like no other.
Norwegian drummer/composer Gard Nilssen’s 16-piece Supersonic Orchestra hearkens back to the heyday of the Willem Breuker Kollektief and Vienna Art Orchestra. Bravura ensemble passages and smashing feats of derring-do from the soloists, this is the kind of big band you wish you could see live just for the thrill of leaping out of your chair every couple of minutes. If You Listen Carefully The Music is Yours slings its three bass/ten horns onslaught with humor, drama, and the occasional whiff of high wire dancing and trapeze heroics. Get it. (Bandcamp takes payment for this one in Norwegian Kroner. No worries. The 70 NOK digital download is eight bucks and a quarter U.S., a bargain at twice the price.)
If you crave the supersonic skronk blast of saxophones in overdrive, this is your jam.
Moving on to Those Who Owe Much to Bley/Evans.
The Vanessa Perica Orchestra’s self-released Love Is a Temporary Madness – her first recording – is a bold and ambitious blast from Australia. Perica cites Ennio Morricone and Joe Henderson’s big band as primary influences and acknowledges her debt to Gil Evans, too. Coming this Spring, her orchestra is set to present Love is... in partnership with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Despite my ingrained skepticism about the ability of classical orchestras to swing, I’m really curious to hear how this expanded sonic palette changes her already sumptuous harmonic layering.
Kathrine Windfeld is another comer in the Scandinavian big band sweepstakes. This Danish composer/pianist has a quartet and sextet project, but her primary avenue is her big band work. Orcais her third release, and it derives heavily from the Bley/Evans vocabulary and palette. Deeply textured with rich melodies. Highly recommended.
Back to New York. The Webber/Morris Big Band released Both Are True to widespread critical acclaim. Anna Webber and Angela Morris act as each other’s mirror in a sense. Each is a superb tenor/flute player and composer. On Webber’s tunes, Morris plays while Webber conducts. And vice versa. Like the best arrangers as far back as Ellington – and everybody else mentioned on this page – they know their players and write to fit their strengths.
This Webber piece, Rebonds, is a terrific example of the deft mixing of composition and improvisation the band offers. And it has a wonderful skank guitar bit that makes me all tingly..
One of the most anticipated releases of 2020 came from Maria Schneider, who has been turning out magnificent large ensemble works for 27 years with a big band notable for the consistency of its membership. Let’s just say she lived up to very high expectations with Data Lords. Landing at or near the top of most of the Best of 2020 lists, it is something of a career culmination (so far) for this one-time protégé of Gil Evans. Since her first release in 1994, Evanescence, Schneider has consistently been at the top of the composer/arranger heap. She was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2019 and has collaborated with, among many, Sting, Dawn Upshaw, and this guy.
Data Lords, a double album in the OG sense of the phrase, is a musical examination of the dichotomy in our society between our digitized sensibilities and the rhythms of the analog world. With one disc of material devoted to each realm, one can apprehend a difference in mood and tone, but the difference is not dogmatic or heavy handed. Following along with liner notes fills in the picture, but it is easy enough to just let the music wash over and let the thematic considerations be.
One exception is the last track on the album –The Sun Waited for Me. This piece brings that combination of achingly gorgeous melody and rising action arrangement that typifies the best of the Evans/Bley canon. Donny McCaslin’s tenor sax solo is deeply moving, and Frank Kimbrough’s piano demonstrates the magnitude of loss his death in late December laid upon the music scene.
Based on a poem by Ted Kooser, the words behind the music are just the right tonic for this morning when we await the disposal of our recent and benighted president and hope, collectively, for a new and better day.
How important it must be to someone that I am alive, and walking, and that I have written these poems. This morning the sun stood right at the end of the road and waited for me.
– Ted Kooser
Originally written for soprano Dawn Upshaw, this instrumental arrangement is one of my favorite pieces of music in a year that was crammed full with great work. Not to mention a year that brought more than its share of challenge, grief, and terror.
Here’s to the Sun, Ra and otherwise, still waiting for us all.
I Had No Reason To Be Over Optimistic
Well, now, then. A couple days back I tossed up my first post in months, brimming with ideas for the i2b joint in the coming year.
I’m still on for the commitments to the blog and to you, my fearless readers. But let’s go ahead and say that title, the opening line from The Who’s song 1921, and my uncharacteristic stab at the putative power of positive thinking, may have been less than apropos. We likely would have been better served by a different line from that ditty. Like the one I copped for today’s missive.
Yesterday’s attempted rebellion against the United States government accomplished something that the legendary traitor Robert E. Lee failed to do 160 years ago: The flag of the Confederacy flew in the United States Capitol. This is no small thing. The spirit of the Confederacy suffuses the MAGA movement, leavened with a soupcon of undiluted Nazism. (Granted, Hitler’s world view was directly inspired by the dictates of Old South White Supremacy, so maybe it’s just a case of over-egging the pudding.)
Seven months ago I forecast something along these lines. As expected, the attack on the seat of American government was abetted via complicity within the military and law enforcement community. I’m not sure I agree that the viral video that “proves” the cops threw the gates open is necessarily what the legions of re-tweeters suggest, but there is no question the overall resistance to incursion was awfully damned casual.
Either way, the photos of cops taking selfies with the rioters, the pitifully low number of arrests, and the video of the cops leading protesters gently out by the hand demonstrates a hard and disturbing truth: We need to be extremely wary of the idea that LEO and military personnel are defenders of a broad swath of the American public. The demonstrations of excessive force at the BLM and related protests over the past year provide a stark contrast with the gentle treatment the 99.99% white mob enjoyed yesterday. If it had been a bunch of Dirty Hippies and Those PeopleTM storming the Capitol steps, the place would have been hip deep in blood.
I’ve never been comfortable with the All Cops Are Bastards formulation (hashtag #ACAB). It is a tad too easy, too facile. The poverty of nuance is on par with some of the worst shorthand about liberals, feminists, and so on. But I’m damned if every day does not deliver some piece of news that gives the meme more heft and veracity.
None of this should come as any surprise. Policing in the U.S. has long been a fundamental extension of White Supremacy, a tool for keeping Black folk in their place and exploitable as a bloc of cheap labor. (Two excellent treatments of the origins of policing and imprisonment in the U.S. are Shane Bauer’s American Prison and Keri Leigh Merritt’s Masterless Men.)
Further, a revanchist/falangist presence has been long evident in U.S. military organization. Kathleen Belew’s deeply researched Bringing the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America describes in particular detail the modern roots of extremist fascism embedded in the armed services, from the foot soldiers to the upper brass. Guys like Timothy McVeigh and Mike Flynn.
We keep hearing lots of “This is not who we are” nonsense about this insurrection. Tis a fine hope, indeed, but this is exactly who and what America is, and the people who think that’s just fine will go to extraordinary lengths to keep it that way. It beggars the imagination for most people not inside the fever swamp itself just how deep their belief in their entitlement runs, and the degree to which any deviation from that imagined social order fuels a misguided and destructive sense of victimhood.
It is time to work the imagination just a little harder.
In less than two weeks, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will take their oaths of office. At that point, the legitimately elected government of the United States will be controlled by a slim majority of the Democratic Party (though in the Senate, the votes needed for the Dems to take a bare one seat advantage was 40 million more than those cast for Republicans). Sadly, along with their “this is not who we are” wishful thinking, there is a tendency for Democrats to urge a look-forward-not-back attitude toward Republican malfeasance.
Beginning with the Nixon pardon, through the Reagan/Bush Raj, and on through the depredations of Bush/Cheney, Democrats have been reluctant to push for accountability, never mind actual justice. Many of the malefactors of the Trump crime syndicate cut their teeth in the scandals of the Reagan-Bush-Bush administrations. The failure to prosecute their misdeeds are fundamental to understanding the Trumpian impulse to bluff their way through the most obvious corruptions. There has never been a price to pay. In the absence of any shame, our vaunted institutional norms are not worth the paper they were never printed on. When dealing with people whose definition of right action is nothing more than “whatever the fuck we wanna do”, better that we not rely on these folks to do the right thing of their own accord.
There can be little debate that the members of the mob are fundamentally deranged and delusional about the basic facts of the world at hand. Nothing about their sense of grievance justifies their actions. No evidence in the real world supports their beliefs – stolen election, Soros illuminati, secret pedo cabals, antifa conspiracies – any more than the birth certificate thumpers had a legitimate claim on the nativity of Obama. What they all have in common is deep gullibility and a sense of a victimhood that leaves them at the mercy of hucksters like Trump, Limbaugh, Hannity, and so on. But even though the rabble here is largely composed of semi-sentient fantasts – and there is a good case to be made that they are pitiable victims of an especially greedy long con – there is no reason to let them evade the consequences of their stupidity. Less than a day after the dirty deed, we are hearing calls to allow enflamed passions to subside, turn the other cheek, let bygones go unprosecuted. These people have grievances, we hear, and we should respect their need to have time to heal &c.
Fuck that noise.
Despite the almost comical bravado on display, despite their blatant publicization of their felonious deeds…
…be prepared for the howls about government overreach when even the slightest law enforcement tends their way. Already, several people have been sacked from their jobs for their participation, and rightly so. Yet there are cries of First Amendment violations from wannabe constitooshunal scholarz with all the sophistication of the grade school bully who steals your lunch money and snarls “It’s a free country, man” when you protest. A movement is underway to make a martyr of the dim bulb who went and got herself shot breaking through a Capitol window, her only claim to merit arising from demonstrating that reflexively yammering “thank you for your service” to every rando who ever wore a uniform is the height of unthinking patriot posturing.
These Karens and Kevins are unaccustomed to having their actions scrutinized, and will certainly demand to speak to the manager about this outrage. I mean, it’s not like they did something awful, like smashing a window at a Target store, or god forbid, something even worse.
Like these hooligans.
Savages. How dare they?
Got a Feeling ’21 Is Gonna Be a Good Year
Especially if you and me and these birds see it in together.
Your Narrator has been largely AWOL the past year. Mea maxima. The First Plague Year took its toll on ambition and productivity. 2021 is gonna be different.
I’m setting a few semi-ambitious goals for the year. Something doable, but challenging at the same time. And that means big ripples to this here little blog and the handful of you who still bother to read when I post. (My fault entirely. In June, my post about Anderson Cooper and Cornel West garnered around 1500 hits. By the time I got around to posting again a few months later, interest had waned and I did not even hit 100 on either post. Discouraging? Yeah, a bit, but nobody to blame but myself. KFG, yo.) Maybe I can reward you stalwart pals and draw some of my less devoted crowd back again.
So what am I up to? Here’s the plan:
Morning Writing; Mon to Sat, first act of the day. Once the dogs are fed and coffee brewed, I will sit down and write three to four pages of long-hand in a spiral notebook. I’ve been doing this since September, and it has helped get the juice flowing again. (Sunday morning is for the NYT crossword.)
Billy Bard Intensive; M-W-F. Beginning w Sonnet #1, read and listen along with Sir Patrick, one sonnet per session. I should complete the series of 154 sonnets by New Years Eve.
Fiction Writing: This is the bigly ambitious piece. I will deliver (to myself) one short story draft every other Friday beginning January 15. That comes to 26 short stories in some semblance of wholeness for 2021. Perhaps this will add up to something.
The i2b Blog: I promise, my pretties, that I will submit a substantial post every other Friday beginning this week, January 8. This is the bare minimum for i2b in 2021. There will most likely be additional posts along the way – musings about books, music, film/tv, politics, &c. – but the big work will be the alternating Fridays. I have a few larger thematic pieces I’ve been mulling for a while that have felt too daunting to undertake in Our Year of COVID. Time to quit fucking around, as Aristotle used to say; that was his twist on Plato’s “keep fucking going”. (You can look it up.)
It’s not that 2020 was a complete loss, though much went missing. Look, we dumped the Trump Chump. We flipped the Senate (crowing a bit ahead of the final call on Ossoff, I know, but I am uncharacteristically optimistic this morning).
2020 was not really a year to engender optimism, but somehow, here we are. I made the best of it. Life in the bubble with Stanwyck and the dogs is damn near close to paradisiacal. We are all healthy. We have been burning fires on the patio and sitting at a distance with a few select visitors now and again. We had the kids home for Christmas for an extended stretch, all of us isolated and tested ahead of time so we could behave more or less normally.
As near as I can calculate, I read* at least 58 books last year (*five or six of these as audio books; does that count as reading?), several more than once. I went deep down the Faulkner hole. Tons of Civil War/Reconstruction history. I listened to Alan Moore’s Jerusalem start to end, which marks my third journey though that epic. It took several months of dog walking to make that trip, but Simon Vance’s narration made it more than worth it. More on this later.
Some fab-o time spent in the company of Beowulf and Odysseus via new translations, both re-imagining a less male-centric attitude to the tales. And JD Jackson’s narration of Beowulf is killer. (Not quite as taken by Clare Dane’s recitation of Homer. Whaddyagonnado?)
A couple of other gargantuanepics. (I like big books and I cannot lie.) These were both fantastic in their way. Ducks is a tough sled, a little north of 1000 pages and largely a single sentence. Brilliant, Joycean wordplay and narratively as daring as anything I’ve ever read. Once I caught the rhythm, it was un-put-down-able. But I refuse to recommend this book to anyone. It is nothing like an easy read, and I’ve endured enough resentment for my advocacy of Infinite Jest.
The Eighth Life, otoh, is a must for anyone who loves the epic Russian narratives of Tolstoy/Dostoyevsky &c. Sprawling across a century and 950 pages, this is a tale of the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalinism, and beyond, centered in Georgia. Both Ducks and Eighth Life made the Booker Prize list.
Toss in a hefty bundle of sci-fi and apocalit, and the occasional trifling indulgence pulper redolent with corpses and impressive gams, and I had a big year in the pages. Very little rhyme or reason to it all, just following my instincts and engaging in the occasional spasm of book review-induced buying sprees. Two books down so far in 2021 with a couple of doorstoppers (Warmth of Other Suns and Obama’s latest) underway.
Which brings us out of the pages and into the material world.
At Stanwyck’s instigation/inspiration (pushed along by some recently discovered wood rot across/through/under the living room floor), we have tackled some household projects, and the place has never felt better, inside and out. It was a rough two months being displaced from the primary living area (damage was way extensive), but we survived and had the place back in shape for the holidays and cold weather. At least we could live in the house, unlike the shit show of last Fall.
The neighborhood remains a tree-canopied haven for bird life – like those wood storks up top of this post. Long walks with the dogs are easy enough to manage without bumping into other people. Distancing comes pretty easy for us. We got really good at it during the cancer episode; I was due for “normal” social interaction about the time the COVID took over the world in March. We just kept on keeping on the way we’d already done since the previous March. Really hoping we wrap this up well before we hit the three-year mark, but the vax progress so far is not very impressive. I expect the critical mass necessary for free-movement in the U.S. is at least 6 months away, and probably much longer for much of the world. Hope I’m wrong.
Hermit life suits us, it appears, though we cannot last forever this way. We miss people. I miss sitting in a pub or café and pretending to write. I miss live music. We really miss pointing the car down the road and following it wherever. We have not missed eating out that much, finding that the food we make is generally better and cheaper than the fare on offer at most eateries, but we do miss having dinner out (or in) with friends.
So here’s to being able to get together soon. In the meantime, please stay tuned to i2b and share whenever you think it is worth the distribution. I’ll be working on a new subscription/alert function and for some way of letting comments back in without being flooded by bots. Some re-design is also long overdue. The kids in the banner photos are darn near unrecognizable.
Someday baby, who knows what the wind blows. At least I got a new Blog Motto and home page banner photo up there. Suitable for framing in 2021.
Further Adventures in ApocaLit
Earlier this year I wrote about a few examples of ApocaLit I had been reading as the world seemingly bursts into flame around us. I have continued to mine this vein of things-are-fucked-up-and-bullshit entertainments. Is this a strategy of face the beast head on or escape the beast by engaging a substitute? Works for me either way.
The looming specter of a great contagion or disaster that destroys civilization is as old as time: the Epic of Gilgamesh, Noah and the flood, the Revelations, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, &c. My recent readings have been not quite that old: Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) and Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague(1915).
The Shelley and London books provide instructive examples of the limitations of speculative/sci fi written in any period. Both books take place c. 2073. For Shelley, that year is the beginning of the end, which (Spolier!) culminates in the narrator as the last surviving human in 2100, wandering barefoot and revenant. For London, the plague arrived in 2013 and pretty well wiped out all but a sliver of humankind in a matter of months; our narrator is telling a gang of feral lads about what things had once been like, before.
One notable feature is how the authors could not imagine too far beyond the prevailing technological norms of their times. For Shelley, this means a total absence of rapid communication, transport almost entirely via horse and buggy or on horse back, and continued reliance on candles and torches. The language is High Romantic, and at 375 pages it is an overdose of the lofty, enough to make one wish for the sweet release of the plague itself.
Example: The narrator has been infected and is sure to die. (Spoiler: He is one of the few to survive and gain immunity.) He flies to his beloved (because of course he did) and over the course of three pages, this flowery tosspot goes on a Romantic tear, finally spilling the tea: He has the plague. They clasp hands and heave their bosoms, likely while bringing the backs of their hands to their troubled brows.
There are indeed moments when a heartfelt “Yo girl, you know I love you so much, but I’m dying yo” would be more apt. But alas, and forthwith, we have Lionel Verney as a guide, not Jason Mendoza.
Shelly was working out some deep personal trauma with this book, written in the wake of her beloved Percy’s death by drowning. Frankly, I do not recommend this book as a casual escape from our own looming worries, unless you just love you some High Romantic puffery. The first half of the book is plague-free, and Shelley paints the idyllic scene of meadows and glade and Nature’s wondrous bounty and depicts Percy and Byron pretty clearly in her two main protagonists. All is bliss and crashing ennui.
Since you are not going to read this anyway, here’s the book’s secret. By this time in her life, Shelley is well and truly over the glory of nature riff. Her man is dead, and the world is bleak. More than any real attempt at speculative fiction – hell, everybody still holds Shakespeare and Haydn as the exemplars of cultural achievement – this book is Mary Shelley taking the piss out of Percy’s and Byron’s childish fantasies. Read in that light, there is a certain sharp edge to her mimicry of the High Romantic folderol. But the joke is way inside, and suffers to sustain several hundred pages.
(To be fair to Shelley, she was indeed a badass in many ways. After Last Man, I went back and re-read Frankenstein(1818) for the first time since high school, and it just. fucking. rocks. She wrote it on a challenge between Byron, Percy, and herself to see who could come up with the scariest story. She won. She was 20. Bad. Ass. Those boys had no idea who they were dealing with.)
Jack London, on the other hand, gets right to the point and whipsaws us through the tale of disaster in a brisk 160 pages. London was an unapologetically commercial writer; intent on making a buck to buy the next bottle of hooch. These days, London is remembered chiefly as a writer of adolescent adventure fantasy, best known for his Alaska potboilers and other tales of derring do. But he was also a socialist activist, taking every opportunity to slip rad ideas into his stories. Yet another visionary unfairly derided for his ‘genre fiction’.
(His book The Iron Heel (1908), one of the earliest dystopian novels of authoritarian horror, is terrific. Get it. It predates Orwell and Huxley by a longshot, and is a good fifteen years before Soviet dissident Yevgeny Zamyatin published We (1924), which both Huxley and Vonnegut lifted pretty much intact forBrave New Worldand Player Piano. To his credit, Vonnegut happily admitted the theft. Not our Aldous.)
London’s plague chronicle takes a more robust stab at the sci-fi/speculative realm than Shelley. Granted, he had the advantage of another century of ‘progress’ to draw upon. There are aspects of global communication and air travel, but the narrative is still trapped in an early-20th century framework. (Iron Heel was much more successful in its imaginings of future ‘improvements’.)
Unlike pioneer speculators like HG Wells and Asimov, or later savants like PK Dick and William Gibson, neither of these writers managed to extrapolate much beyond their own near-horizons. This is not a complaint so much as it is to acknowledge how difficult it can be to really imagine something that does not yet exist. The people who successfully anticipated changes that eventually arrived are notable exceptions. (See also the proliferation of flying cars that look like shark-finned Chevy and Cadillac models from late 50s speculative efforts. Not to mention the speculative brassieres that seemed cut from the same template!)
I read the London as I was halfway through Shelley. I needed a break from the “O mighty heavens that span above like a twinkling etc.” It’s a quick read, and really fun, too. The narrator was once a professor of literature, probably at Berkeley. (London loved the Bay Area settings.) After the plague did its job, he became a wanderer, member of one tribal group or another as necessity demanded. As he begins his tale around a campfire, his speech is raw, unadorned. But as he gets going, he falls back into his professorial mode, much to the aggravation of the feral teens he is addressing.
“Why do you have to use made up words like ‘scarlet’? Can’t you just say red?”
But our man is undeterred, and as he carries on, his original love for the humanities rekindles, and he enthuses about the aspects of what was lost. He talks of finding a library during his lonely wanderings, sounding as wistful as Henry Bemis. He implores his young friends to hear his pleas to learn to read and write and to commit to preserving the best of humanity’s works. All but one boy wanders off laughing at him.
It may seem perverse to find solace in these sagas of collapse (fwiw, Mr Robot was a deep obsession here at the casa this spring, and the latest pair from William Gibson is a ripping yarn), but it can be comforting to see how relatively not-awful our situation is compared to the fevered speculations of these tales of societal disintegration.
Because it could never get as bad as all that. Right?
Stanwyck Read the News Today, Oh Boy!
TALLAHASSEE, FL: BREAKING NEWS
A rarely seen wave of mass happiness, hope, and relaxation spread across Florida’s Capital City this weekend as citizens embraced the return of competence, character, and decency to the White House.
Long thought to be on the verge of extinction, some scientists believe this leading wave indicates the end of a long drought both here and around the nation.
Recently transplanted Florida Man and two-time loser of the popular vote for the Presidency has gone into seclusion. Aides suggest he just needs time to tend to his bruised fee-fees and urge all Americans to “just let him stay for a while longer until he feels ready.”
While Biden supporters reacted with joy, elation, and tears of relief, partisans of the two time loser reacted with their sole reliable emotional mechanism: inchoate rage and anger against Those PeopleTM. As has been demonstrated for the past four years, these outbursts run the gamut from demented to slapstick…
Yes indeed, we’re feeling pretty good here in America’s most penis-like state, despite the fact that more than half of our citizenry voted for four more years of incompetence, graft, and cruelty. Not to mention 70 million or so people across the country.
As always when Democrats win (or lose) the punditocracy comes along to remind us how important it is for us to treat our vanquished foes with empathy and a spirit of compromise so that we might “come together” in a great squish of kumbaya.
Bollocks, I say. All of them.
I get it, the disappointment when your team comes up short. But Jesus Christ on late night television, people. The idea that we not only have to forgive the unhinged abuse of the past four years – when the Trump dead enders can’t even concede the fact that they’ve lost – well, no, sorry. Forgiveness is earned through contrition.
And I’ll say straight up: Anyone who voted for Trump – especially this time around, after everything that was predicted about a Trump presidency was proved both true and unexaggerated – has a lot to atone for. Especially when the prevailing justification for a second term was to stick it to the libs.
As for anyone who worked to keep this nightmare alive – from the lowliest GOP hack (did someone say Evan Power) to the elected GOP toadies and the careerist stooges who enable them – please to kindly fuck off and go to work cleaning bedpans in COVID wards for the next four to forty years. There is no room for you in decent society.
Kumbaya my ass.
Over the past four years, the dark politics of resentment have been unleashed upon our land. Nakedly cruel and often violent expressions of racism and nationalism have been given permission to run free. I fear that those elements, back out of the box after such a long-deserved period of hiding shamefully under the rocks, will not go away without at least a few horrific tantrums. Am I really to clasp hands with someone who spent four years counseling me to fuck my feelings when he has a long gun on his shoulder, “just in case”.
Let’s say no.
On the lighter side, some of the reaction has been well ripened comedy. One commenter encapsulated the zeitgeist when he declared his willingness to die for Trump, his unwillingness to live under a “communist” like Biden, and absolute plans to leave the United States behind before it becomes a communist nation. His declared destination?
Who’s gonna tell him? Maybe he could try New Mexico next.
In the meantime, WH sources tell reporters that Trump plans a series of his famous rallies to gin up the rubes once more to empty their pockets and expose themselves to COVID. One can only hope that any venue contacted will demand payment up front, and that local authorities will demand a security bond. Trump is notorious for stiffing his creditors, especially when his enterprise is struggling and he is drowning in debt. Like now.
Maybe there is a Ritz Carlton Seed and Feed barn or a LaQuinta Import Food warehouse he can afford.
As for the awesomely timed Four Seasons* press conference televised synchronously with the declaration of Biden’s victory, well, I just gotta say it almost made the four days of waiting worth the agita to see the coup de grace delivered – upon a campaign that began on a faux-gold escalator – in a landscaper’s parking lot between a dildo shop and a crematorium. For all the ludicrous turns this drama has taken, the writers should take a well-earned bow on that one.
[LATE BREAKING: The first speaker at the Four Seasons Landscaping and Donut Emporium rally turns out to be a convicted child sex offender. I have to say this particular plot twist is a bit heavy handed, but maybe he’s the only guy Rudy could find to help him “tuck his shirt in”. No word from Qanon on whether there is a secret passage behind the fertilizer display.]
In the meantime, suggestions are rampant that Biden prove his willingness to unify the country by appointing people like John Kasich to his administration, a man whose distance from actual Trump policy could fit on a pin head like Marco Rubio. It’s a good time to remind ourselves that the great majority of Never Trumpers barely differ with the Orange Grifter on any substantive policy questions: from taxes to deregulation to the packing of the judiciary with Federalist Society clones to tickling the balls of the NRA fundies, the GOP – even if purged of the less polite elements – will remain an autocracy wannabe, theocratically based kakistocracy. Pretending otherwise just because Rick Wilson’s eyes twinkle when he savages Trump is pure foolishness.
And god save us from Blue Dog types who are floating names like Rahm Emanuel and the like.
The early and typical sniping within the Democratic Party is entirely predictable aside from the refreshingly sharp articulation from progressives like AOC who know how to push back and refute the oatmeal-consistency whining from DNC-approved centrists. This internecine bickering is a fine way to undo the mobilization that brought out the unprecedented numbers of BIPOC voters who turned this election.
James Baldwin famously said, “As long as you think you’re white, there’s no hope for you.”
The chips are down, America. As long as you cling to the notion that this is a white nation, there is no hope. I suspect Biden understands this. If not, I’m confident Kamala will be at the ready to correct him.
Now, Where Was I?
Your Narrator apologizes for the radio silence and the inexcusable five month interval since last I set font to pixel. Mea maxima. I don’t know about the rest of you, but it has been kind of a crazy year living in the bubble out from which we have barely poked our masked little heads.
Our life in seclusion has been damn near idyllic. I have Stanwyck and the dogs and an abundance of books and music, and best of all, time to engage them all. But the view from the fishbowl has been terrifying. My position of privilege has never been so starkly lit as I compare my little acre of heaven against the outrages and suffering that mark our world.
I let the blog drop because it felt hopeless and impotent and sadly performative to catalog the atrocities of the wider world as if I had something unique to offer. Everything was being said. Beyond a few notebooks filled with my random scribblings and bemoanments, I have had few words.
(Literally. One of the knock on effects of last year’s mad scientist adventure has been a touch of brain fog that manifests most upsettingly as an inability to call up words. For a while this was a real problem, but things are getting better. Still, just last week I was unable to remember what kind of tree we had planted in the back yard. It was right there in front of me. I stared at it forever. Absolutely no idea. Finally, after two days, it came to me during my nightly session of angst: crepe myrtle. How obscure.)
Nightly session of angst, you ask?
Yup. Regular as dawn, only earlier. I’m generally good for an hour or two of dread terror between 3-6 a.m. This is the time when the protective bubble disappears and the full horror of our situation becomes undeniable. So many people are dying, killed by the state either through direct violence or intentional neglect. People are losing loved ones, jobs, businesses. We witness the slow accretion of autocratic power consolidation and the emergence of an American Taliban in firm control of the federal judiciary.
Our kids are navigating a moment where their whole lives should open ahead of them in wondrous possibility. What is their world going to look like? Will we continue – even accelerate – our descent into tribalized enmity? Will we spend the next XX many years worrying about pandemics and theo- and autocratic repression?
Will we continue to be governed by a two-bit grifter from Queens, an incurious lard sack in diapers who refers to himself unironically as a “perfect physical specimen”?
It is no exaggeration that the current regime has been almost preternaturally incompetent and indifferent towards its citizens – at least when it has not been intentionally and efficiently cruel, as with the immigration nightmare. It has been hard to bear witness to this tumbling train wreck, especially since the GOP Senate gave the man* a pass on conspiring with foreign governments to rig an election.
Once the GOP stamped his get out of impeachment free card, there has been no institutional lever available to stop his impulsive rampages. The judiciary is larded through with enough Federalist stooges to protect him and the DOJ has been effectively co-opted as his personal law firm. All the outraged “I demand…” or “I stand against…” sputterings in the world are as spitballs in the wind. Cable news and the interwebs are chockablock with that performative nonsense. And whenever I sat down to write a blog post, it seemed that was all I had to offer, too.
But today is the hinge day, the pivot. The day we start to resume our nation’s imperfect march to greater inclusion and decency, to a commonwealth rooted in mutual respect.
Last night’s recitation of terrors were all about today. As have been, largely, the catechisms of the past several months. I find it no more probable today that Cheetolini will win than I did four years ago. But it happened then and it could happen again.
Even if Biden wins resoundingly, I lie awake wondering if trump will actually leave. The man faces serious legal and financial consequence the second he reverts to private citizenship. The shield of the presidency is all that stands between him and utter ruin. And some of the characters holding his loan notes do not look kindly upon failure to pay. Putin is not some contractor in Bayonne for whom a strongly worded letter from the latest version of Roy Cohn might act as deterrent to aggressive collection methods.
I worry, in the wee dark hours, that our locked and loaded swath of cosplay Rambos and Gravy Seal warriors have talked themselves into believing that their violent fantasies are not only justified, but spiritually ordained. The violence has already bubbled over. The USA isn’t Rwanda or Northern Ireland or Beirut, but neither were those places. Until they were.
I toss and punch my pillow at the fact that a good portion of our community still sneers at COVID prevention as either foolish or a Satanic infringement on their God-given right to…well, that last bit is unclear, as inchoate pronouncements of Constitutional principles – mostly imaginary – are the stock in trade of folks who can say with a straight face that trump is a man* of integrity who makes and keeps promises.
I twitch myself to sleep despairing that even if we replace the chump, at least 35-40% of our friends and families will continue to fervently believe that Joe Biden is a closet commie, or a pedophile, or a stooge for China or Ukraine or whatever other projection trump flings his way. That without trump, our nation is doomed.
What to do with that kind of madness? What to do when people still believe that the economy is better under trump than Obama? What to do with people hepped up on guns and Fox news and Qanon?
No matter how long I stare at the dark ceiling, I find no answer. I can only grab at a slim reed of hope. And that hope is this: Biden will win, Dems will take both houses of Congress. The new administration will work diligently to reverse the decline engendered by the GOP extremists, much as Obama had to do after Bush the Lesser.
For all Obama accomplished, his ‘look forward not back’ approach to the malfeasance of the Bush years gave license to the more extravagant depredations of the trump regime. I hope that we will see a thorough house cleaning investigation that calls to account those who have used their connections and power to enrich themselves.
I hope the Democrats will govern aggressively and fairly to remediate at least some of the damage done to our institutions and our common wealth.
I hope beyond hope that we will not have to find out what a second trump term will do to our nation.
And then, having thrashed about for a couple of hours in the darkness, I sleep a fitful couple of hours before I awaken again in my beautiful little bubble, with my best friend and two doggos all abed and safe.
As I warned, I do not have much to say that is not already out there. At best, many of you will nod along in recognition. At worst, I’m just the bloggy equivalent of a cable news gabbler striving to keep you watching til the next commercial.
Hope it helps at least a little.
i love you, too
I’ll start out by confessing that Dr. Cornel West largely fell off my radar over the past few years. Mea culpa. Mea culpa albus.
I’ve also been mostly lukewarm on Anderson Cooper for no real reason other than CNN has the worst panel discussions imaginable. But CNN still rocks when there is something big enough to warrant on the ground coverage. Their Black Lives Matter protest coverage from multiple cities has been solid, so we’ve been dialing in for those few minutes we can stand watching the world burn.
A few weeks ago (May 29), I chanced upon Dr West on Cooper’s CNN program. I was knocked sideways by the naked passion and truth of his discourse. It was so raw, so sharp to the bone, that I kept expecting the camera to cut away in mid-sentence.
I’ve gone on at length about how Your Electric Picture Radio Box Matters, but that has mostly been in reference to fictional affairs and frivolities. The dilution and conformity of televised news coverage, on the other hand, makes it matter barely at all. A bunch of talking heads nattering conventional wisdom over a ten second b-roll loop of visual popcorn, largely devoid of all but the cheapest mental nourishment.
But this was pure fire coming from the tube. No punches pulled. Cooper looks a bit stunned, but to his great credit he lets West roll. Worth a watch when you have time.
Stanwyck and I were agog. The notoriously cool medium reached flaming hot for a brief moment. And then, naturally, everything settled back down to the standard dozy drone, as along came Cuomo to explain in tedious detail what we were seeing with our own eyes.And often getting it wrong. We soon drifted off to watch something more soothing, like the Great British Bake Off and Clock Making Show or the Teletubbies.
Last night, we happened upon another encounter between Cooper and West. This teleskypezoom affair, despite the social distancing, was probably the most purely humane and touching exchange I’ve ever seen on the teevee.
I’ve been at this for over 50 years. And yet, I’ve got to bounce back. And I will bounce back. The world, white supremacy may make being black a crime. But we refuse to get in the gutter. We will go down swinging like Ella Fitzgerald, Muhammad Ali, in the name of justice.
And we do it for brother WyattWyatt is Cooper’s newborn son., and we do it for my daughter, we’re doing it for the Asians, we’re doing it for the whole world. Because that is the only hope of the world and that kind of love is always tragic, comic and cruciform. You gotta get ready to be crucified with that kind of love.
Cooper was at a loss and fumbled for the right words. A few moments later he choked up and had to pull himself together. West continued:
No, we’re in it together, Brother and the beautiful thing about tears, Socrates never cries, but Jeremiah does and so does Jesus.
We cry because we care. We’re concerned. It is not about political correctness or self-righteousness. We cry because we are not numb on the inside. We don’t have a chilliness of soul and a coldness of mind and heart.
We cry because we connect, but then we must have a vision that includes all of us and have an analysis of power that is honest in terms of the greed, especially at the top. In terms of the hatred, running amok. In terms of corruption, not just the White House and Congress.
Too much churches, too many mosques, too many synagogues and too many universities, too many civic organizations.
And then the greed in us.
You and I would talk about this all of the time, right? The gangster in us. Because we’re wrestling with this day by day and that’s why we need each other, my Brother.
Note to self: Get Dr West back on your radar screen.
I was as staggered as Cooper at this point. Lucky for me I did not have several million eyeballs on me. But Cooper is a pro, no question, and he steered toward the customary segment conclusion.
Only to have West say this:
I love you, my Brother.
Have you ever seen a professional talker rendered speechless? Cooper’s expression was an exquisite blend of joy, pain, and confusion. What the hell can you say to something like that?
After what seemed like forever, Cooper whispered the only possible reply.
I love you, too.
Watching the struggle between professional journalist Cooper – who knew damn well that saying such a thing to a polarizing figure like West was surely testing the bounds of corporate tolerance – and the human Cooper was something to behold. Seeing the human side win out was a moment of pure ecstasy.
Despite the loudly proclaimed motto of the blog (see up top), I do not say this as often as I should.Other than to Stanwyck, who must surely be tired of hearing it by now. Three little words. But there are universes within its eight letters. It is disarming. It is generous. It is enveloping. It is hopeful. It is a clear recognition that I am he as you are he as you are me. Coo coo ka choo.
It’s love, dammit, the kind that we need more of, the kind that we see in every person out marching peacefully for change right now. The kind we see on every face that is covered by a mask. Not love of self, but love for our Sisters and Brothers. Hope. Decency.
I love you, too. Thanks for reading. It means the world to me.
PS – Here’s the clip from last night. It is worth watching. It is also worth noting that CNN edited out the closing moments when Cooper said, “I love you, too,” though it does appear in the CNN transcript.
It’s Happening Here
One of the phrases that keeps popping up over the past three and a half years has been some variation on “I never in my life would have imagined…”, followed by a description or photo of whatever daily excess our government has committed as part of its ongoing stumble to authoritarian rule.
I say we simply have to have a better imagination. No matter how bad we think it has gotten, every new day will bring another excess at which we shall gasp and clutch our metaphoric pearls.
It’s happening here.
I know some will accuse me of overstating the case, of amplifying a few unrelated facts into something that is just a fever dream of my addled liberalism. Just as some told me my reaction to the election of Trump was extreme and irrational. Tut tut, silly boy. We’ve been through worse than this.
I admit that my imagination upon the election of Cheeto Don ran riot, that I imagined one preposterous disaster after another during his term, that I imagined a seething subclass of malcontents, racists, and gun nuts taking his election as license to cosplay their more twisted fantasies. You should see some of the failed fictions in my desk drawer.
My imagination, sadly, fell far short of what turned out to be our new normal. Mea culpa.
Despite the warnings of several astute observers (Sarah Kendzior and Masha Gessen among many), I held out some glimmer of hope that the ‘norms’ and ‘traditions’ of American governance would be enough to save us from the arrogance, malevolence, and sheer stupidity that were Trump’s most apparent qualifications for national leadership in the first place.
Trump’s method is based in his most prevalent personal trait: He’s a fuck up. He has failed in almost every venture he has undertaken, but because he has no conscience and no inkling of personal fault, he always manages to extract himself from the wreckage better off than before; it doesn’t hurt that he surrounds himself with slavishly devoted functionaries desperate for a little of his gold dust to float their way. From Roy Cohn to Michael Cohen, he’s always had “a guy” to take care of his mess. And they always find out too late that he has as much loyalty to them as he does to the guy who gold plates his toilets. Everybody get’s stiffed in the end.
So it is with his consolidation of political power. Incompetence is wedded to rank opportunism. There is no pretense to decency. No behavioral norm is safe. And given that he is a congenital fuckup, he inevitably creates another crisis that lends itself to grift and depredation. One after another flunky finds himself roadside with a tire track on his back. Repeat.
I knew Trump was a simpleton bereft of decency. I know he had been a mobbed up petty grifter and conscienceless racial provocateur. I knew all the things about him, just as I knew the rot at the core of the modern GOP and the conservative movement was perfectly tilled for his brand of resentment and greed to flourish. I had always just figured the decline would continue at a leisurely pace under a Cruz, a Rubio, or a JEB!, more or less nasty, but with at least a whiff of gentility and noblesse oblige to cover the stench.
My imagination failed me.
So here we are. More than 100,000 dead in a pandemic made worse by incompetence and preening ego. An economy in freefall.But hey, the stock market is doing great! Our ability to influence events beyond our borders reduced to almost zero.This may, in fact, be an improvement, historically speaking. The logistics of responding to a pandemic are hard, they tell us. Besides, it’s not so bad, just like a flu. We don’t have the resources. We don’t have the supply chain. We don’t have etc. and so on.
Yet somehow we have the ability to mobilize thousands of troops tricked out in riot gear, with full logistic and armored vehicle support, to clear a public park so our president could pose with a borrowed Bible in front of church those troops “liberated” with tear gas and riot gear.And fuck sake, spare me any of that “it wasn’t tear gas, you stupid libtard, it was pepper spray.” Somehow, we always have the necessary resources to impose order by means of force, wherever in the world we might choose to do so, no matter how much it degrades the situation in the end. But there is never enough money lying around for, oh I don’t know, adequate health care for a huge swath of our citizenry or replacing a crumbling school. Hell, we can’t even seem to maintain our major airports at a standard equivalent to a Kathmandu bus station.
My imagination failed to warn me that the president would deny that there had been tear gas deployed outside the White House, even though hundreds of people witness that it happened. My imagination totally failed to prepare me for the moment when his Barbie-esque press secretary compared Trumps awkward fondling of a Bible on the St John church steps as equivalent to Winston Churchill’s surveying a bomb rubbled London in WWII. Stop believing your lying eyes, peasants.
It’s happening here.
Today, June 4, marks the 31st anniversary of the Chinese governments slaughter of protesters in Tienanmen Square. The world was almost unanimously shocked and revolted by the government aggression. One notable exception was a mobbed up grifter and publicity whore from Queens, NY:
When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak…as being spit on by the rest of the world.
Playboy Magazine, March, 1990
Since then, Trump has notably praised dictators across the globe: Erdoğan, Kim, Orban, Xi. And Putin, of course. Especially Putin. Always Putin.
Trump idolizes that kind of pseudo-masculine aggression. As a weak man, he longs to express himself in a manner he believes proves his machismo. His crowing about his sexual assaults. His unsubtle braggadocio about the size of his dick. His calls for cops to “not be so gentle” when they arrest people, calls for protesters to be “punched in the face”. His longing for the old days, when men were men, and so on.
Now we have Lafayette Park, really only the latest expression of his power lust, but surely the most transparently autocratic. Lafayette Park has long been considered a ‘people’s park’, and there have been peaceful protests there against every president in my living memory. It’s kind of like our Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park. Anybody can speak their mind.
Some of those protests involved people camping out for weeks and months to make their cases. Some I agreed with. Some, not so much. Some were, frankly, cranks. But no matter their position, it is our First Amendment right to protest that has been on display, and I say “Hell yes” to these folks with the passion to stand up and speak their piece. And until this week protesters have largely been left in peace.
Contrast this to the armed occupation of the Michigan State House several weeks ago. Where that was all about intimidation and fear – terrorism, in a word – Trump urged Michigan Governor Whitmer to just ease off and let things settle down. As with the torch-wielding white supremacists in Charlottesville, he sees the “good people on both sides” and urges us the let racist bygones be bygones.
But the unarmed, almost entirely peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park expose the weakness and rot at the president’s core. Like most men raised in the poisonous atmosphere of macho America, Trump is terrified of looking “like a pussy”. So he sent combat-attired troops to teach those people who is boss while he waited out the troubles in his underground bunker, a special snowflake’s hidey hole.
As chilling as the scenes in Lafayette Park are to watch – not at all unlike Tienanmen in 1989 or Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring – the scene that gutted me to the core is the one up top of this diatribe.
For me, the sight of fully armed combat troops deployed in formation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is an insult akin to what an honestly religious person must feel upon seeing a serial adulterer/thief/liar wave a prop Bible in front of a church.
Like all the monuments on the Mall in D.C., the Lincoln is typically open to visitors 24/7, every day of the year. I prefer to visit at night, when the shadows make room for visits from the ghosts that inhabit the Vietnam and Korean Memorials. It’s as close to sacred ground this atheist knows outside the Village Vanguard.
It is quiet at night, and unlike the daytime throngs of field trippers and such, the people you see there after dark seem to share a sense of reverence for the truly horrible burden Lincoln bore to maintain the Union against the forces of treason and racial subjugation. He was no saint, Lincoln, a fact he recognized as well as anyone. He was a flawed man who bore an unimaginable burden. In the end, he paid the price that racism extracts when it is challenged.
This imperfect vessel knew enough to make a plea to our “better angels” central to his project. Trump’s project – much like the Confederacy itself – relies on the baser impulses of greed, cruelty, resentment. Sadly for us all, lesser angels are much easier to rouse.
Trump has imposed an occupation force on the nation’s capitol city, something the traitors Davis and Lee could never achieve. There are combat troops and military police and personnel from the Federal Bureau of Corrections trained in quelling prison riots. The Drug Enforcement Administration has been mobilized to surveil the protesters. The National Guard is on the scene. At this point, he needs only an excuse – or an invitation from one of his supplicant Republican governors – to spread these forces into other communities.
It’s happening. Here.
Today, on this Tienanmen anniversary, the NY Times published an “opinion” piece by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton. The headline is enough to catch the drift: “Send In The Troops”, but it is worth a read to understand the dark sentiments shared by way too many of our neighbors. It would have fit right in during the pre-Civil War years when self-righteous plantation owners warned against the inevitable rape of our precious white women if the slaves gain so much as an iota of freedom.
The government, and the halls of business and industry, are filled with Tom Cottons. Handsome, well dressed, educated at all the right schools (even as they decry the corrosive subversion of Ivy League elites). These are the people who call for the elimination of American freedoms in order to preserve their own “freedom” to accumulate wealth, guns, and power. These are the people for whom a request to wear a mask during a pandemic is intolerable tyranny, but who also believe that protesters getting shot in the face with rubber bullets are just getting what they deserve for not following police orders.
I realize the American Dream, the promise of all men created equal and such, is a fantasy built upon the great, original sin of slavery. The nation’s prosperity was extracted via the unpaid labor of millions of Black Americans. Our American Dream, the freedom and standard of living that had been a beacon to oppressed people around the world, is a happy face painted on centuries of savage cruelty and greed. The racism inherent in our governance is an entrenched barrier to our progress as a civilized nation. The people protesting in the streets right now – and the people who support them – are demanding that the promise be honored, and that the cancer be removed. Our future depends on their – our – success.
The Tom Cottons of the world demand that these upstarts – us, by damn – be taught a lesson once and for all and that we learn to stay in our place. If we are lucky, resilient, and determined, we might be able to push back against that pressure. If not, nothing in my wildest imagination is likely to measure up to the darkness to come.