Monday, November 30, 2009

Obama's Brand New Bag

Those Americans who bother to think about our endless wars are prepping for Obama's big Afghanistan speech, where he'll stake his spot in the annals of U.S. imperialism, keeping the flag-draped coffin business in the black. Of course, there'll be plenty of tortured, butchered Afghans as well, but they are mere grease for the gears. The main problem, so far as American liberals see it, is how this will affect President Savior's legacy.

I think Obama has already cemented his legacy, and those who believe he'll dramatically shift direction and do "what's in his heart" are beyond help at this point. Those who grumble in liblog threads about ditching Obama and the Dems in 2012 are also blowing steam, for the system is self-correcting, and once the vampirish Repub candidates start baring their fangs, stray libs will be frightened back into the fold, hoping that the next four years will somehow be different.

Meanwhile, the rich get richer, the middle continually squeezed, and the poor . . . oh, who gives a fuck about those losers?

One positive angle to this madness is the American talent for marketing. The Nazis and Soviets were public access amateurs compared to us, shaky black and white video cams to our HD CGI. This holds together an insane, violent culture that, were it honestly acknowledged and addressed, would rip apart whatever social contract still exists.

Anger, despair, fear, and denial permeate the American psyche, and with no real political movement or serious reform on the horizon ("reform" in Obamaspeak: streamline the corporate trough), all we consumers have left are our fantasies. Thank the Lord Jesus Christ there are mechanisms to keep our minds distracted, otherwise all hell would break loose, and not in a fun way.

Yet fun can be found in the darkest places. Take our various torture centers. While we remain among the most imaginative human rights abusers on the planet, there's an added element that makes beatings and sleep deprivation somewhat entertaining. In the early days of Gitmo, the military conducted guided tours for the press and visiting politicians. Of course, all was well and good -- so good that you almost wanted to be thrown into that tropical prison:

"In 2002 a group of congressmen were given a guided tour of 'Gitmo,' albeit a much sanitized one.

"Following his tour of the facility Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe told CNN: 'We are giving very good treatment to these people.

"'Quite frankly, I personally think better than they deserve. We're dealing with terrorists here.'

"As if to complete the bizarre theme park atmosphere, each congressman was given a souvenir cap, a Guantanamo flag and a DVD of their visit to take home with them."

I would've held out for a monogrammed hood, but then, I tend to get greedy at giveaways.

Happily, there's still time to grab some free gear, that is, if you can swing a plane ticket to the Bagram air base in Afghanistan. What Gitmo was to Bush, Bagram is to Obama, though so far, there hasn't been the same level of liberal outrage over that expanding prison, to the extent that liberals clogged the streets and congressional hallways during Bush's reign. After Obama's war speech, which will doubtless be smoother and more soothing than Bush's rants for escalation, what will our so-called "progressives" do? I think it's pretty obvious, but I'm willing to be shocked to the contrary.

There are only 26 shopping days until Christmas. Who wants a Bagram souvenir cap in their stocking?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Holiday Film Classics

(From A Most Peculiar Weekend, 1966, with Laurence Olivier and Vanessa Redgrave)

Sit On It (1948) Danny Kaye does, on coffins, cattle, traffic cones, heaping plates of pasta, moose antlers, and June Allyson, for the better part of 88 minutes. With Ozzie Nelson and Hattie McDaniel.

Paddles In Lieu Of Pockets (1970) Starving geese invade a nudist colony, ruining the volleyball tournament. With Dean Jones, Shelly Fabares, Cantinflas, and Merv Griffin.

Fortune Smiles On Those Most Deserving, But We Can Get It For You Wholesale (1963) The Iliad set in New York's garment district, then suddenly in Baltimore, and finally on the moon. With Robert Morse, Bill Bixby, and Eva Marie Saint.

Manhattan With A Twist (1959) Shot entirely in Tucson at night, with a hand held camera. Supposedly about a pair of bickering jewel thieves, but who the hell really knows. With Russ Tamblyn and Jim Nabors.

Leave 'Em Laughing (1946) A deaf juggler and blind ventriloquist open and close a Dresden cabaret the same night, then try their luck in Berlin. With Joe E. Lewis and Dennis Day.

Cherokee Balloon Race (1979) Jane Fonda fights masked oil speculators, but an outbreak of mumps keeps everybody honest until Super Bowl Sunday. With Mac Davis, Gwen Verdon, and Richard Roundtree.

Let's See Those Hands (1984) Communist puppeteers clash with circus chimps, but cooler heads prevail once Jesus returns. With Patrick Swayze, Jim Varney, and the voice of John Gielgud.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Children Of The Grave

When my son enters high school next fall, he'll be exposed to many sights he has so far been spared. Liberal campus towns like Ann Arbor have barriers and filters you normally wouldn't find in other districts, one of the few endorsements I can make of this provincial burb.

Militarizing the local young is generally frowned upon, which is nice if odd, given the mania for Michigan football (muted somewhat since Rich Rodriguez's arrival). Still, you can stay the hand of empire for only so long; and once he starts his freshman year, my son will directly face the propaganda and lures used to reel in impressionable teens.

Growing up in an imperialist country forces one to make choices, though not every person operates at the same level. Kids from economically devastated parts of Michigan, which are not hard to find, are easy targets for military recruiters. For many of them, there is little choice: unemployment or Afghanistan. The relentless commercial assault (led by McCann Worldgroup), where combat is video game cool, helps soften these kids up, preparing them to receive and execute orders without question. Corporate pillaging has made American youth ripe for imperial harvesting. And one by one, they are steadily plucked.

In an age of perpetual war that will not end in our lifetimes, it's vital that the military try to brainwash kids as early as possible. According to Jon Letman at Truthout, recruiters are looking for the next generation of human sausage for their grinders:

"Kindergarteners -- children with Dora the Explorer and Spiderman backpacks and bedrooms full of stuffed animals who are still working to master their A-B-C's -- are now targets for early conditioning by the US military. Never mind that Hawaii's schools have just cut almost 10 percent of classroom time, dropping the state's public schools' instructional days down to the fewest in the nation. Teacher furloughs or not, time was found for the Army National Guard to give a pitch (and a gift) to wide-eyed five-year-olds."

When the U.S. terrorized Nicaragua, domestic warmongers and jingoists bewailed the Sandinistas' "indoctrination" of their young, teaching them math by using weapons and bullets. This supposedly exposed Sandinista militarism and extremism, further evidence that we had every right to overthrow their wicked regime. Of course, had the roles been reversed, with the U.S. under foreign assault, hundreds of thousands slaughtered by a terrorist proxy army, our airspace controlled by those financing the violence while pouring money into the coffers of those Americans devoted to the destruction of the federal government, there would be no way that we would militarize our precious youth -- right?

Then again, with Muslim traitors hiding in plain sight, we doubtless have more reason to militarize the young than the Sandinistas ever did. So the comparison is hardly fair to us.

After surveying the terrain, Letman asks:

"[I]n an era when our government spends trillions of dollars supporting wars with no end in sight, at a time when we can't even fund our schools or public services at a minimum standard and only begrudgingly support health care reform [sic], what kind of society and future are we building for our children?"

I would pose that question to Barack Obama and his liberal supporters, especially after reading Jeremy Scahill's report in The Nation. It appears that President Change is further privatizing U.S. assassination efforts in Pakistan, while preparing to go overtly LBJ in Afghanistan. Given this and other realities, it may be wise to rebrand the words "society" and "future." Think of the kids, if nothing else.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Eon Flux

Other than Black Sabbath, and to a degree Metallica, I've never really dug heavy metal. By the time of the big hair arena Eighties, the genre seemed like a sad, obvious joke, as Spinal Tap showed. I shared John Lydon's sneer about flapping your flares to an audience of groveling idiots, and so never heard of or listened to Anvil, Canadian head bangers who appeared with Bon Jovi, Scorpions, and Whitesnake. At Anvil's height, I was exploring lost music from the 1920's, 30's and 40's, supplied by a film actor who listened to nothing but 78s. Anvil might have been touring Jupiter's moons, for all I cared.

As I've aged, my opinion about Eighties metal hasn't changed, but my heart has opened to those still chasing the muse. Several friends insisted that I watch "Anvil! The Story of Anvil," saying that I would identify with the protagonists, primarily Steve "Lips" Kudlow, lead singer and eternal spirit of Anvil. I reluctantly followed their advice, and baby, I'm glad I did.

Wow. What a film. What a story. I became so emotionally involved that I had to stop the film, my heart was breaking so deeply. Any artist who's experienced positive audience reaction, who has felt that electric buzz when it all lines up and flows can appreciate what Lips and his best friend/bandmate Robb Reiner still crave as they enter their fifties. These two have never given up, and remain committed to their original vision, forged in their teens. Inspiring, moving, gut wrenching. My friends were right: I completely identified with Anvil.

When I resumed watching "The Story of Anvil" a couple of days later, those emotions returned, tears welling in my eyes, chest tight. Trying to be heavy metal stars at their age, in the present corporate environment, practically guarantees rejection, derision, and failure. If Anvil had been as big as the bands they influenced, like Metallica, then touring at 50 wouldn't seem so quixotic. But Lips and Robb, having breathed that rarified air before plummeting to earth, are confused and angry about their status. They're convinced they can hold their own with any band, yet as Robb confesses, time is running out.

The New Yorker's Anthony Lane (link courtesy of my friend Lou Proyect) summed it up beautifully:

"This film is not about rock music at all . . . it is about time, and how it threatens to fade us out like a song on the radio, and why, risking ridicule, and leaning on love, we should crank up the volume and keep going."

Bingo. Younger people might enjoy "The Story of Anvil," but to fully absorb its emotional punch, it helps to have lived, loved, and failed over several decades. Lord knows I know.

Speaking of which: In a recent video, I announced plans about returning to stand up, specifically in New York. This is still very much on. I've been writing a slew of new bits and concepts, shaping a loose but definite stage persona, rehearsing moves, transitions, tones of delivery. Much to my surprise, it's exciting and very inspirational. I feel creatively reborn in many ways.

Some have asked, What happened to the autobiography? The TV pilot script? Short answer: nothing. Elements of both appear in the new act, but there are other factors which I may address later on. For now, returning to the stage is the most direct and realistic option. If things go well there, then we'll see where the other projects fit.

The beauty of this venture is my relative lack of anxiety and fear. At 50, I feel more secure as an artist. I trust my instincts and talent, more so than I did in my twenties, when terror and madness fueled my efforts. Writing this act has so far been a treat. Once I'm up there, walls will be hit, rough waters encountered. Part of the gig. But for the first time in a long time, it all feels right. My life has led to this moment, a real shedding of skin.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Proud & Erect

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pledge Is A Spray Wax

I'm sure most of you have seen or read about Will Phillips, the 10-year-old Arkansan who refuses to say the Pledge Of Allegiance until queers are accorded full equal rights. Naturally, I'm solidly behind Will and his family. In numerous parts of the country, there are pockets of rational dissidence, places where weirdoes and freaks may fully breathe and madly dance.

Growing up in a world of immediate connections, Will sees that he's far from alone. We older geeks from slower days had less if no awareness of kindred spirits. You had to leave home to find sameness, oddness; to feed inspiration and desire. I'm sure it's still this way, only less pressing, given the technology. Why move when you can IM or text?

Most astonishing to me about Will's defiance is that children are still pledging allegiance. To what? Some mythical, mystical concept that has no real bearing on our lives? I understand conditioning children's minds to be obedient to their masters and accept hierarchy as the natural order of things, endorsed by God. A corporate oligopoly needs a steady stream of managers, consumers, and disposable labor. But surely there are better methods than the archaic Pledge. Then again, I sometimes underestimate the American hunger for fantasy. Me of all people, right?

Will's protest is aimed at the "liberty and justice for all" line. If gays cannot wed or enjoy full medical rights, then that part of the Pledge is incomplete. It's a noble stand, but America has never truly committed to "liberty and justice for all." State mechanisms have been forced to adapt to grassroots pressure, which is perhaps the true genius of our system. If you cannot contain or suppress popular discontent, embrace it, celebrate it, then reshape it to fit the status quo. Nothing will really change, but a brighter, newer feature will lend that impression, and for many, that's more than enough.

Obama's election was perhaps the most cutting edge example of this practice. Elites bray that this shows how egalitarian America truly remains, while liberals, however frustrated, still want Obama to be the savior of their limited imaginations. For all the blog blab about "pushing" Obama from below, most liberals have no intention of seriously challenging Their President, adjusting their rhetoric to accommodate what is being shoved down their throats.

You see this in their acceptance of what is laughably called "health care reform." Liberals mock reactionaries' bizarro hatred of Obama, but their love of the man's image is no less ludicrous. Indeed, it's more destructive. As right wingers twist themselves into swastikas while claiming to oppose such symbols, liberals have largely abandoned whatever antiwar feelings they had under Bush. In some areas, they have endorsed extended war and destruction. Again, I don't know why reactionaries despise Obama so. He's killed off major antiwar sentiment and marginalized those few who bother to protest. McCain/Palin would have never pulled this off. Clearly, Wall Street put its money on the right team.

Does this mean that Will Phillips' courage is for naught? I wouldn't say so. Critical thinking and dissident action is needed at all levels. But as Will ages and encounters the numerous social filters that weed out miscreants and undesirables, his critical thinking will be severely tested, if not shredded and used for imperial mulch. He will have to make tough choices. I want to remain optimistic, but then, optimism brought me to this anxious state in the first place. A shaky republic I can barely stand.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Die Laughing

Despite breaks from the American narrative during the late-60s/early-70s, romantic views of our national past survived and remain. Unavoidable, and not unique among nations; but the American version enjoys a stylistic advantage born of Hollywood trappings. Our fictions look prettier, possess more zing. They're certainly preferable to the real story, elements of which seep in for color or "authenticity," yet are drowned out by rousing scenarios and booming, uplifting scores.

This was certainly the case with "John Adams," the HBO miniseries where Paul Giamatti's crotchety Calvinist butted wigs with power mad Alexander Hamilton while Thomas Jefferson stared off into space, Declarations floating through his head. I loved the portrayal of Ben Franklin as Founding Hedonist, even though the real Franklin showed a more conservative side to the Publick. (An early SNL parody of historical TV dramas nailed it: "Some half truths and lies have been added to make it entertaining.") In the end, after war, struggle, squalor, diplomatic maneuvering and political betrayal, "John Adams" comes to the unsurprising conclusion that the American experiment was well worth it. And it was, right fellow consumers?

Of course, no drama about our nation's birth would be complete without scenes of the founders arguing over the Constitution, our most hallowed, most violated/ignored set of political commandments. No one really knows what went on in that colonial writers' room, though I'm sure that halitosis and body odor helped set the mood.

In Fridays' version, 18th century racism and sexism is conveyed through 20th century lingo. It's also an overt example of liberal propaganda. Which is fine. Unlike most other sketch comedy shows, Fridays never pretended to be evenhanded. The writers' left/liberal sensibilities were always on display. Too bad this bit wasn't aired in today's political environment. Imagine the reactionary howls after seeing Larry David, a Jewish atheist, cast as the Constitution's conscience.

The gun control theme takes a somber turn in this sketch, aired the same week as John Hinckley's attempt to assassinate Reagan. It's an odd, quiet piece where the audience doesn't seem to know where to laugh. It also touches on a topic I wrote about recently, the close, emotional ties Americans are supposed to have with presidents, politicians, and other well-known figures.

I remember the day Reagan was shot. I was in the Army, working at a foreign officers' school when my boss Frank Harris (retired Army officer) came in and said all hell had broken loose. He turned on the TV and we watched the wall-to-wall coverage. Thing is, I don't recall feeling much of anything about the shooting. I despised Reagan's politics, which were slowly radicalizing me. But I wasn't happy, sad, or outraged. It all seemed like a weird movie. Had Reagan died, who knows how I would've reacted. But he survived to oversee some mass killing of his own.

I saw this next piece when it first aired, then not again until recently. My memory of it was pretty exact, though the context in which it was conceived flew past me back then. I knew next to nothing about Palestine and Israel, much less about Zionism and Arab nationalism. What I did know was what Americans were constantly told: the Israelis were noble warriors forced to defend themselves from filthy Palestinian terrorists. The PLO was portrayed as a gang of genocidal lunatics, destruction and mayhem part of their collective DNA. They were Bond villains, with Yasser Arafat as Dr. No.

This is what makes this sketch so interesting. Fridays could have followed the established script, and most viewers wouldn't have raised an eyebrow. Instead, they took some Palestinian claims seriously, and played around with that perception. There's plenty of word play and obvious jokes, yet you don't get the sense that the PLO was crazier than anyone else fighting for a cause -- certainly no crazier than the Zionist militias that preceded them. Far from being international gangsters, these Palestinians, played by George Carlin and Bruce Mahler, are hunkered down, hoping to survive another Israeli onslaught.

When this bit aired in January 1981, Israel was routinely shelling and strafing Palestinian targets in Lebanon, killing hundreds, while the PLO sporadically responded. This was during a period when the mainstream of Fatah made several offers for a two-state settlement with Israel, which were violently rejected. A few months after this, a ceasefire brokered by Philip Habib took effect, although Israel soon violated it, hoping to elicit a PLO response that would justify an invasion of Lebanon that Israeli planners had already mapped out, and which arrived in the summer of 1982, bringing with it some 17,000 Palestinian and Lebanese dead, and the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

These guys have no idea what's about to hit them.

Monday, November 16, 2009

That Magic Word

If nation states were individuals, most would be locked away, executed, or kept on a secret payroll. Psychotics have their uses, after all. Still, it's simple and profitable to condemn the Saddams and Slobos, especially when they fall from imperial favor. They're disposable, and better still, have no right of appeal. No matter what they say in their cells or on the stand, they are toast, which is why Saddam exited without apology. I'm sure he felt no regrets (except maybe for his taste in hidey holes), and even if he did, who cared? So Saddam trash talked his masked Shiite executioners straight to the end of his rope. What did he have to lose?

How many American war criminals would show the same spirit at the moment of truth? Maybe Cheney, but I suspect that Dick would collapse on the gallows steps, whimpering about patriotism and family, dragged to the noose and held in place until the final drop.

Happily, we'll never see such events, an imperial perk highly valued by those with the longest rap sheets. Besides, we in the West discovered that official apologies for prior criminal actions help to ease accumulated tension. State contrition for this massacre or that coup diminishes the crime while lending an air of remorse. Of course, said crime must be at least 50 years past, for anything newer might be seen as a confession. The whole point to official apologies is to use certain historical atrocities to beautify contemporary arrangements. We wish we could go back and stop slavery before it took hold, but what are you gonna do? The important thing is that we've learned from our mistakes and are ready to move forward.

The British government, assisted by Australia, offers the latest official atonement. From 1618 to 1967, some 150,000 poor British children were shipped overseas to provide cheap labor in foreign markets, the bulk apparently going Down Under. That this practice ended only 40 years ago shows that the Brits are on the cutting edge of imperial apologetics, perhaps inspiring a new generation of apologists. Then again, as awful as this crime against children was, it pales against deadlier British deeds in Ireland and India. Maybe that's why they feel free to express their regrets so soon.

It's a bit like a serial killing rapist and thief apologizing for his grandfather's crimes. Yes, such behavior runs in the family, but Gramps was truly crazy and reckless, with no regard for consequence. For this, one must humbly say "sorry." That was a different time. Mistakes were made and learned from. Why, in Gramps' day, you couldn't dissolve body parts or sell them on the black market. And today, one is much more selective when it comes to rape and murder. It's a global business. Gramps, rest his soul, lacked wider vision.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Comedy's Charcoal Age

American satirists, if that's the right word, are usually driven by what they perceive as patriotism. They care so much for Old Glory and Sam that they'll mock what they admire, hopefully improving their beloved nation state. Many believe that U.S. criminal behavior is largely an aberration, which is why they laid off Obama, poised to restore American decency and honor that Bush/Cheney sullied and strangled into submission.

Now that Obama has shown what some of us suspected all along, comedy patriots feel a little freer to fire away, though in most cases it's bottle caps bouncing off concrete. Thank god there's Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs to spoof, 'else the whole parody biz would be in trouble, Jay Leno notwithstanding.

This was probably always so. One can offer earlier, sharper examples of comedic dissent, but even there you'll find flag waving behind the sneers, fists unclenched and placed over hearts. The younger me was certainly like this, eager to expose the lies and hypocrisy that clouded America's inner light. As harsh as my material might've seemed, it sprang from a softer place. I sometimes miss that arrangement, which is and should be the province of the young. Feeling like that today would require a major disconnect -- a complete mind sweep, actually. This may explain that vacant look on the faces of graying liberals, Jay Leno notwithstanding.

All this came to mind recently while submerged in Fridays. There's now a slew of sketches online (thanks to a devoted fan out west), some of which I remembered pretty accurately, many others I'd completely forgotten. While Fridays was known for its eclectic humor and style, willing to experiment and fail, it was their political material that inspired my early efforts. SNL was cautious, SCTV focused on showbiz overkill. Only Fridays directly satirized the hot topics of its time, preachy in spots, but clearly engaged with what was going on.

El Salvador was a recurring topic. Cuba's ongoing example mortified and angered American elites; Nicaragua's recent revolution drove many around the bend. Jimmy Carter pumped the Salvadoran military with munitions, but it wasn't until Reagan arrived in '81 that the repression and mass slaughter accelerated. Secretary of State Al Haig hinted that U.S. troops might be needed to stem the Red tide, and this helped stir serious domestic opposition to any deployment. "El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam" read a popular bumper sticker at the time. With the Vietnam war still fresh in the national mind, Haig's bluster backfired, at least initially.

Fridays dealt with El Salvador a lot. In retrospect, it's pretty amazing, especially when contrasted against later attempts at political/social satire. Imagine pitching an idea set in a bombed out Afghan village or a CIA torture site, and trying to realize such material on contemporary TV. That's what it felt like watching Fridays tackle the Central American wars.

This piece will give you a taste. Written by Larry Charles and Bruce Kirschbaum, "The Road To El Salvador" used familiar American figures to criticize Reagan's policy. John Roarke's Bob Hope wasn't as precise as Dave Thomas' SCTV version, but Roarke gave off a weirder Hope vibe, reptilian eyes seeking acknowledgement or approval. That Hope was in real life an ardent right winger and Reaganite was apparently overlooked for the sake of the premise.

Larry David's Bing Crosby is wonderful. Tom Kramer told me that David spent the week leading up this sketch polishing his Crosby around the offices, which is something you'd see him do on Curb Your Enthusiasm: finding a peculiar voice or tone, and repeating it to everyone he encounters. The supporting players' broad Spanish accents fit the "Road" picture theme, as does the closing musical number. But the lines, "Could the U.S. economy use another war?" and "We don't want another Vietnam" are not jokes. From the sketch's lightest moment come more serious concerns.

The religious right was at its rancid peak during Fridays' run, and they received their share of scorn as well. Thing is, not many comics seriously went after the likes of Falwell and Robertson at that time, and certainly not on national TV. The threat of sponsor boycotts and defamation suits helped to blunt that approach.

You see it in this next piece, "The Moral Majority Comedy Variety Hour." Here Falwell is called Jerry Farback, a Mad magazine-type name that belies the aggression Fridays unleashed on Falwell's flock. Seeing how he's portrayed as a racist, fascist demagogue who promotes book burnings, I'm certain that ABC's lawyers advised the writers (again Charles and Kirschbaum, though given the sketch's length, other staffers doubtless added to the mix) to not directly implicate Falwell, played nicely by Bruce Mahler. It's easily a trade off worth making.

There are many elements I admire in this piece. I love "Celebrity Faith Healing," and the born again Plasmatics anticipate the advent of Christian rock. But for me the highlight is the right wing comedy sketch about "typical" American liberals. Brother Buck says this is what Fox attempted with their dreadful Daily Show knock off. Jim nailed it, as did Fridays, over a quarter century before.

STILL TO COME: Fridays and the PLO.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Old Red As New

If age mellows you, then clearly I'm defective, or not getting the memos. True, I'm not as crazed as I once was, reacting to obstacles and irritations by punching walls and kicking chairs. My tree stabbing days are well behind me. Even my heavy bag hangs largely unused (though this has more to do with the swollen wrists I get after pummeling it than from inertia). But a pool of anger remains, set to boil when my temperature rises.

With Veterans Day upon us, militarist rhetoric blows across the media, instructing us to fall to our knees and worship the uniform. This always drives me nuts, especially in a dying empire bogged down in two occupations, with more mayhem in the offing. Those who've never served are expected to offer their bottomless gratitude. Many of those who have served retain a near-religious view of their respective branches, and of the military overall. To question any of this is to expose one's hatred of nation and of self. Ask not what your country can do for you, as a celebrated mass murderer once said.

I planned a semi-satirical piece about all this, inspired by the NFL's pro-imperial commercials last weekend (complete with Pat Tillman tributes, minus his opposition to the Iraq war and embrace of dissidents like Noam Chomsky). But every bit I conceived felt familiar, as though I'd already been there. Scrolling through Red State Son, I realized that this was pretty much the case. It's amazing how far three chords can carry you. So, for those who've forgotten, and for those who are recent arrivals, here's a selection of earlier tunes that better express what I presently feel.

Clint Eastwood's two-sided take on the Pacific War inspired this post. I have since seen "Letters From Iwo Jima," which more than lived up to its sterling reputation. Speaking of which, John Slattery plays the cynical war bonds booster in "Flags Of Our Fathers," an early, recognizable version of Roger Sterling. And hiding down the post is a link to a favorite essay of mine, like a plastic whistle in a box of Cracker Jack. Blow softly.

This isn't military specific, but since I'm going back on stage, it caught my eye. If I can emit a few ounces of Bill Hicks comedic passion, I'll be a happy funny boy. And there are no plans to write Hicks' biography. I don't know what that Perrin was thinking.

Here's a piece that elicited a lot of feedback when it first appeared. Another way to think about those who've worn the uniform.

But of all the military-oriented material I've written, these two posts cut closest to the mark. Now that the peace-loving, forward-thinking Dems are managing the abattoir, such thoughts are obsolete. Right?

Monday, November 9, 2009


Friday, November 6, 2009

Last God Standing

Reading about the Fort Hood killings, where Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly yelled "Allahu Akbar!" before firing, I thought of two things. One, the obvious reactionary freak out that I'm sure is in full swing (I haven't the stomach to check, and would love to be proven wrong); and two, the idea of slaughtering sinners for one's god runs throughout the U.S. military. As Jeff Sharlet, who wrote about this for Harper's, put it last May on Democracy Now:

"Well, after about a year of interviewing military personnel, this was, in some ways, the most frightening story that I encountered. A man named Staff Sergeant Jeffery Humphrey, one of the very few soldiers who, in this military climate, had the courage to come forward and speak out about what he had seen, he had been stationed in Samarra. It was Easter. The day began calmly. A chaplain brought around a copy of Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic film 'Passion of the Christ,' which they then put on constant play throughout the day.

"When they came under attack, the Special Forces, Army Special Forces to whom he was assigned, had their Iraqi translator, an Iraqi American Christian, paint in giant red Arabic letters on the side of a Bradley fighting vehicle the words 'Jesus killed Mohammed.' Then, while they put the translator on the roof with a bullhorn, shouting in Arabic, 'Jesus killed Mohammed,' and then training their guns, training American guns on anybody who responded, the Bradley fighting vehicle rolled out into the city of Samarra and drawing fire everywhere it went, leading the Special Forces to conclude that every single Iraqi who took offense at these words, 'Jesus killed Mohammed,' was part of the enemy and therefore needed to be destroyed.

"And I spoke to the man who drove that Bradley, Lieutenant John DeGiulio, now Captain John DeGiulio, promoted since. And he describes wreaking almost biblical destruction on one whole block, blowing up every single thing he saw. And he said he was able to do this, because God was on his side and because he had been spiritually armored by watching Mel Gibson’s 'Passion of the Christ'. And then he thanked his chaplain for preparing him for that kind of spiritual battle on the streets of Iraq."

What's God telling you today?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

LOL And Void

Writers are increasingly marginal, which may be best. Techno-distractions shred traditional thought patterns, reducing the young to monosyllables, grunts, and nods. Attention spans crumble in the slightest breeze. Add a fixed political arrangement, corporate assaults on what remains of public life, endless war abroad, religious insanity at home, and what's the point of reading, much less writing?

Part of me fantasizes about a post-literate age, where minds expand through memorization, and the human race reboots its lizard brain for the next phase of conscious existence. The whole Hans Magnus Enzensberger trip. Sadly, my romanticism is misplaced, for we the observant know what's coming. We may not recognize every approaching profile, but if present life is any indication, it ain't arriving with a smile and a handshake. More likely a head filled with bad chemicals and frayed wiring. Chest bumping will be the new hello.

Like other aging fools, I find solace in what was, to the extent was has anything to offer. TV talk shows shaped much of my early thinking, primarily Dick Cavett's, where extended discussions sailed above my young head, forcing me to run along and jump at them, grabbing what I could. I didn't understand many of the references, but I knew something good was happening, and soon I began using a dictionary in order to keep pace. (Being an autodidact, I often mispronounced new words I learned, holding back in conversation until I heard someone else speak correctly.)

A regular Cavett guest was Norman Mailer, who usually mystified me. Mailer was perhaps the most noticeable American intellectual of the mid-20th century, always performing, playing to his brand. Mailer would have been a Smoking Gun regular, given all of his feuds, scrapes, and fights. But he possessed undeniable energy and charm, metaphors shooting in all directions, sometimes making no sense whatsoever. Being a TV baby, I preferred Mailer onscreen to Mailer on the page. I found much of his writing sloppy, narcissistic, shallow, and painfully obvious, but then, Mailer's prolific output guaranteed such lapses.

However, these traits served Mailer well on television. Here's the only clip of Mailer on Cavett that I can find, and it's a truncated piece of a much juicier whole. Hopefully, Cavett will release a box set of his interviews with authors. If he does, this show must be included.

I'm sure some of you have seen this. Mailer, drunk, angry, goes after Gore Vidal for an essay where Mailer's opinion of women is conflated with Charles Manson's much deadlier view. The New Yorker's Janet Flanner looks on, disgusted, while Cavett tries to hold it all together. This was considered rough sailing back in the day, but compared to contemporary cable slap fights and clichéd exchanges, the below segment crackles, as if from another world. Which it was.

Here's an appearance I recently discovered, where Mailer butts egos with William F. Buckley. It's from 1968, before Nixon's election, amid the chaos of that period. I found this debate very entertaining, if unsatisfying in certain areas. Mailer celebrates Fidel Castro, yet offers no solid defense of the Cuban revolution when challenged by Buckley, whose claims are easy to rebut. Mailer's less interested in geopolitical fine points than he is in the Great Man theory of history, preferring broad strokes to detailed precision. Still, it's music to my weary ears.

Where on today's tube do you see this style of argument, using such vocabulary? (The rest can be seen here.) It even makes me a bit soft for reactionary Buckley. At bottom, WFB was a propagandist, but an amusing one who understood the era he thrived in. (I'd love to see the entire show where he engaged Allen Ginsberg.) Confession: When I began to speak publically about politics and media, I copied Buckley's body language, finding it lithe and theatrical (with a bit of Hitchens mixed in). Here's a brief glimpse of what I mean. Note the clipboard on lap and pen in hand. It was how a young polemicist prepared.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Atlas Insolvent

Ayn Rand was an atheist, but her ghost refuses to vanish. Another book about this mediocre romance novelist has been released, making one pine for publishing's final breath, which might be the only way to curb further Randian retrospectives.

How much more do we need to know about this woman? What did she accomplish, apart from inspiring geeky white men to find virtue in selfishness? To identify with comic opera characters posing as philosophers? To pretend that capitalism is individualistic and benign?

Despite cries from reactionaries that the culture is stacked against them, that they are political prisoners in their cherished land, American culture is, in reality, overly kind to right wingers, no matter how bizarrely they behave. So long as reactionaries wave the flag and speak of patriots weeping in the clouds, they will have platforms to push their manias, hatred, and self-pity. Not only is there a robust market for these clowns, those who run the Liberal Media share many rightist conceits, especially when the system needs reinforcement.

Given this, Ayn Rand's zombie presence makes perfect sense. Indeed, her lit cred, thoroughly middlebrow and thus utterly American, lends her capitalist fantasies some theoretical weight. Rand fancied herself as high-minded, an intellectual counterbalance to Karl Marx. In truth, Rand was closer to Walt Disney, minus the Mouse King's showbiz flair. Each used cartoons to convey their message. Both were dedicated anti-communists, hostile to organized labor, friendly to the post-war Red Scare. Only Rand felt that the U.S. government wasn't going deep enough in uprooting commies, primarily those in Hollywood, hypnotizing Middle America with phony smiles and pretty songs while undermining free enterprise and its besieged supporters.

The latest Rand revival comes courtesy of Anne Heller, whose "Ayn Rand and the World She Made" is receiving positive reviews. I have not nor intend to read Heller's book. Nothing personal, but I've read and watched too much about Rand already, including her Objectivist cult, personal romances and internecine battles. Unless there's fresh evidence exposing cannibalism, S&M parties, or a secret love for Stalin, I'll find other ways to waste my time.

I did find Heller's comments on NPR about Rand rather interesting. Like most biographers (me included), Heller tries to predict how her subject would view contemporary figures and events. Since Rand hated FDR's New Deal, equating it with fascism (as did, for a time, the American Communist Party), Heller assumes that "Rand would have seen Obama's stimulus plan, bank bailout program and health care initiative as 'a gigantic power grab . . . She would have been horrified.'"

Perhaps, though compared to FDR's grand scheme, Obama's "power grab" is pretty toothless. In fact, I can't think of a weaker dictator than Obama. Yet, Rand's acolytes and other rightist observers insist that we're suffering under a despotism unmatched in American history. This is what happens when the focus is on personalities rather than systemic functions.

In the real world, Obama, like FDR before him, is attempting to save what is left of American state capitalism. That's his function, which is why he enjoyed such elite support. Obama's finding the task a bit tougher than he let on during the campaign, and he may not succeed. The signs so far are not good. But the idea that John McCain would be radically different is laughable, yet soothing to those prone to political hallucinations.

Rand experienced her share of swirling visions, spilled across countless pages of her books. She loved writing long-winded speeches for her fantasy icons, telling the world how useless it was compared to a few self-centered men. In Rand's universe, history is achieved individually, unconnected to major power centers or collective labor. John Galt and Howard Roark just "happen," despite all mechanisms devoted to their demise. They thrive independently through the iron force of their will, and in the end, collectivized society is rhetorically exposed and trashed by their superior intellects.

It's a charming fairy tale, perfectly suited to American illusions about individual power in a imperial state. Of course, no man can rise through the U.S. financial/political structure without assistance and intervention, just as no major industrialist can make his fortune apart from the state apparatus. Societies are controlled by those who own them. This naturally requires collective actions and overlapping agendas. Either Rand was unaware of this reality or simply ignored it for narrative purposes. She created a capitalist Oz, where generations of Dorothys skip merrily down gold-brick roads, seeking to build (without help) their Emerald Cities. No gray commie Kansas for Ayn.

Heller also noted that Rand considered the dollar sign "a better symbol than the cross, because it didn't require the sacrifice of anybody." I trust that Heller doesn't share this ahistorical view. Not only have the cross and dollar enjoyed a lucrative, long-running alliance, the dollar requires massive sacrifice across the planet. Poverty, starvation, environmental damage and genocidal violence are some of the dollar's greatest hits. Use any calculator you like to tally the body count under state socialism, and it'll explode when computing the ongoing ravages of global capitalism.

All this aside, I confess a peculiar fondness for the film version of THE FOUNTAINHEAD. Patricia Neal's Dominique Francon is priceless, destroying art and personal love in a world that cannot appreciate her superior tastes. Gary Cooper's Howard Roark is a cartoonish stiff, hardly the type who'd turn architecture upside down (stealing from Frank Lloyd Wright in the process). There's a hidden lunacy to Roark that Cooper didn't explore; he was stuck mouthing Rand's wooden dialogue, limiting Roark's capitalistic vigor. But when it came to the hubba-hubba, Roark was an erect dollar sign. I think it's clear why Rand embraced that pecuniary symbol.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Blah Obama Blah War

Appeared on Bill Cunningham's radio show last night. Interesting gig. I think I confused Bill a little bit. That happens. Hear for yourself. Scroll down to 11/1/09 Hour 2, break out the chocolate-coated pretzels and enjoy.

Daddy Issues

In a recent video offering, I spoke about a Second City experiment from the mid-90's, where cast member Scott Adsit (now on "30 Rock") told the audience that President Clinton had been assassinated. A TV was wheeled out so the now-stunned crowd could watch the early news reports. When the screen filled with wacky sports bloopers, the audience became confused then angry, leaving the theater, doubtless feeling betrayed.

I commended that piece, and still think it inspired and telling. What is it that makes Americans feel a family connection to the presidency? Yes, we are indoctrinated from birth about our unique goodness, our special qualities; and yes, the president is viewed as the father figure of American righteousness. But how much intellectual or emotional energy does it take to step back from this scenario and see it for the fable it is? If history is any guide, apparently a lot.

Last night's "Mad Men" was set against the Kennedy assassination, which fans of the show knew was coming this season. I liked the way the shooting in Dealey Plaza was introduced. Harry Crane and Pete Campbell are solemnly discussing personnel moves at Sterling Cooper and what it might mean for both, when the TV to the side of them flashes a CBS News bulletin. The sound is low, but anyone who's seen this piece of video history knew exactly what it was.

The turbulent Sixties finally hit "Mad Men."

Naturally, the show's characters were shocked, saddened, pissed, Betty Draper most annoying of all. I was four-years-old when JFK got clipped, and remember nothing of it (my sister Laura died a week later, which I also don't recall). But my parents and older relatives told me of the paralysis they felt as I romped around the room, playing with Tonka trucks and plastic Army men. There was much anguish and fear, which deepened when Jack Ruby killed Oswald on live TV. Death, violence, chaos. What had become of God's chosen America?

"Mad Men" dealt with this national emotion rather well, mixing in a seeming indifference from Roger Sterling, who not only pushes ahead with his daughter's wedding the day after the assassination (the muted, awkward tone of the event nicely captured), but doesn't appear terribly troubled by JFK's death. A pro-business Republican, Sterling probably hated Kennedy (for the same mystical reasons why many contemporary right wingers hate Obama), and I'm sure there were those who cheered Camelot's collapse. But these people remain in history's margins. When the President of the United States is murdered, or when one dies out of office, we the spectators are supposed to show grief for his death, and gratitude for his service.

Why? Why should we, who have no real political or economic power, who must rent our lives from those who do, feel such familial ties to the imperial manager? Over ninety-nine percent of those Americans who wept for JFK didn't know the man, yet most behaved as if a loved one had been suddenly yanked from existence. This illustrates not only the strength of the national myth, but the eagerness of consumers to embrace it.

An independent, critical mind can, with enough practice and conditioning, resist such authoritarian impulses. But there is no reward for such thinking, and certainly no major market. Obedience to the master narrative is required to advance professionally, most especially in politics. For the rest of us, acceptance is expected but not really necessary. Our opinions matter only to the degree a demographic needs defining, or a voting bloc catered to. Beyond that, what we think or how we react to events like assassinations is our own miserable business. You might have cried for JFK, but he sure as fuck didn't cry for you.

REACTIONS: Here are some on-the-street opinions offered by Manhattanites just after the Dallas shooting. Wonder if any Sterling Cooper staffers happened to stroll by . . .