Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#839)

Thoughts and prayers,
thoughts and prayers
by David Benjamin

“In retrospect, Sandy Hook marked the end of the U.S. gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.”
                                                                            — Dan Hodges

PARIS — Eighteen years ago, in the innocent early days of America’s mass-shooting fad, I realized that atrocities like Devin Kelley’s church slaughter in Sutherland Springs, and Stephen Paddocks’ turkey shoot in Vegas were destined to descend into dreary routine, relegated to the back pages, or even the “Style” section, of our major news organs.

Concerned that outfits like the New York Times and the Associated Press would steer their crack reporters away from the dog-bites-man chronicling of infants, moms, priests and country music fans sprawled dead in an ocean of their own blood, I designed a “template” — each paragraph a discrete plug-in module — for cub reporters and newspaper interns to record these quotidian incidents both professionally and thoroughly.

With recent advances in firepower and a political climate that encourages Americans to hate, insult, shout down, abuse and shoot one another, massacres have escalated in frequency, firepower and gore. In only the last month, lone maniacs wielding more ordnance than the average Army platoon have reduced the surplus population by at least 85 souls. One of the dead was 18 months old.

So, in keeping with these parlous times, my revised 21st-century, one-size-fits-all template for stories from the gun-nut bloodbath beat…


(ANYTOWN, U.S.A.) — Parents, police and local officials in this leafy suburb of (INSERT name of major urban center) are searching their souls and asking “Why?” after a furious fusillade of bullets fired by a frenzied schoolboy/middle-aged gunman/disgruntled veteran) into a crowded (playground/ cafeteria/ concert/ nightclub/ municipal swimming pool/ maternity ward) killed (BODY COUNT) unsuspecting (parishioners/ concertgoers/ toddlers/ etc.) and injured another (BODY COUNT). Among the wounded, (BODY COUNT) remain in critical condition in area hospitals.

In this grisly reprise of similar shootings in Connecticut, Wisconsin, California, Las Vegas, Texas and (ADD ONE, ADD SEVERAL —  WHATEVER), the (teenage/ reclusive/ dishonorably discharged) assailant’s name has been withheld while police and the FBI search for possible accomplices. The killer used a semi-automatic weapon modified for automatic firing to spray more than (100/ 200/ 500) bullets per minute into his terrified victims. According to early reports, the murderer obtained his weaponry from (his father's gun case/ a mail order catalog/ a gun show/ Santa Claus).

“It sounded like firecrackers,” said one witness. “But then I saw people falling down, and bleeding. So I ducked. But they got my best friend, (NAME). (He/ she) died right beside me. There was nothing I could do.”

A courageous bystander (NAME), who returned to the scene of the shooting (NUMBER) times to lead victims and drag the injured to safety despite being wounded, said, “It was like (a slaughterhouse/ a battlefield/ Toys R Us on Black Friday). There was blood everywhere. My shoes are ruined.”

(Relatives of the dead and wounded/ Parents of children who attended the school) rushed panic-stricken to the scene, struggling to break through police lines and seek out their loved ones. Those who found them unharmed hugged and kissed them gratefully. Others were cruelly disappointed.

(Schoolmates/ Roommates/ Bunkmates/ Ex-wives/ Acquaintances) of the assailant, who was surrounded by police and (shot himself rather than face arrest/ died in a hail of bullets/ threw himself from the roof after exhausting his ammunition) expressed shock and dismay. “He was a quiet guy. Nobody got to know him real well. He helped me (carry my groceries/ trim my roses/ walk my beagle),” said a neighbor.

“He was a little odd,” said a (classmate/ neighbor/ drill instructor. cellmate, ex-wife), “always listening to that music by (The Dead Kennedys/ Led Zeppelin/ Nicki Minaj/ Brad Paisley/ Benny Goodman). But he’d say ‘hi’ in passing. He got along pretty good with (the landlady/ the mailman/ the Mexican gardener, his parole officer). He never acted like anything was wrong, y’know?”

The killer had been heard to complain bitterly about (NAME of minority group, gender, nationality, age group, sport, school clique, political faction, etc.)

Police who searched the killer’s home found no note about his plans to carry out his attack. They did, however, find a huge collection of (violent video games/ Hong Kong martial arts movies/ hardcore pornography/ dehydrated road kill/ Game of Thrones action figures). Police also seized his (diary/ computer/ /smartphone/ kid sister), in hopes of finding a clue to his actions.

In his (basement/ attic/ rumpus room/ garage/ man cave), police also discovered an arsenal — including pistols, rifles, hand grenades, explosives and thousands of rounds of ammunition — extensive enough to fully arm (the Los Angeles Police Department/ a large National Guard unit/ France).

The shooter apparently obtained his weapons despite (a juvenile record for torching cats and torturing first-graders/ several arrests for domestic violence against his wife and children/ repeated incarcerations in mental health facilities/ problems holding a job because of a fondness for strangling fellow workers).

A prominent psychologist, (NAME), contacted about this latest explosion of senseless violence, noted that, without specific information about the accused mass murderer, “I couldn't begin to diagnose the cause” of the incident. (He/ she) added, however, “(INSERT COPIOUS PSYCHOBABBLE).”

The shooter’s mother expressed disbelief over her son’s rampage. She said,  tearfully, (“He was a sweet, quiet boy who never gave me a minute’s worry. There must be some mistake. He could never do such a thing.”/ “I haven’t talked to him in years. He never got along with his stepfather and he never, ever called his mother. Why?”/ “I’m a little embarrassed about all those people he injured. If I’ve told him once, I’ve told him a thousand times: ‘Shoot to kill!’”)

Speaking on behalf of gun-control activists, (Sen. Chuck Schumer/ Sen. Elizabeth Warren/ retired astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of gunshot victim and former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords) said, "Our hearts go out to the victims and parents stricken by this unspeakable outrage, and our hopes go out that Congress will finally get off (the dime/ their fat butts) and do something to get these weapons of mass destruction off the streets, out of our neighborhoods and out of the hands of unstable people and angry children.”

The Republican response to this latest mass shooting, which raised the national gun-violence body count this year to (NUMBER), was muted. Sen. (Lindsey Graham/ Orrin Hatch/ Ted Cruz) accused Democrats of exploiting a national tragedy. “The victims and their families are in our thoughts and prayers,” said the Senator. “We can only dishonor the fallen and add to these families’ heartbreak by screeching about extraneous political crusades at this solemn and tearful moment.”

President Trump shared this respectful sentiment in a tweet from the 15th green of his lovely country club in (Bedminster, New Jersey/ Mar-a-Lago, Florida/ Turnberry, Scotland). “Gun cuntrol killed these kids! Should have been armed. SHOOT FIRST, ask Qs lader. BTW, I’m 3-under par! #MAGA”

Wayne LaPierre, spokesman for the National Rifle Association, reacted compassionately but adamantly. Decrying the “liberal culture of violence that spawned this unAmerican tragedy,” he added, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the innocent victims of this regrettable mishap, as well as our hopes that law enforcement leaders will wake up, smell the cordite and enforce laws already on the books that could have foreseen and prevented these untimely losses.”

Within hours of the shootings, a massive wall of flowers, stuffed animals and memorial messages, from classmates and friends of the deceased, had been piled up in a parking lot adjacent to the killing field… (ADD COPY HERE, QUOTE RANDOM ONLOOKERS, AS SPACE ALLOWS)

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#838)

“… But I know what I like”
by David Benjamin

“Mona Lisa looks as though she’s about to be sick.”
                                                           — Noel Coward

PARIS — As I was passing an art gallery yesterday on rue St. André des Arts, a painting caught my eye. It depicts three female figures sculpted in stone against horizontal panels of black and white.

Momentarily, I thought this image exceptionally artful and crossed the street for a closer look. At second glance, I saw it as merely decorative. Neutral in color and subject, it would blend into almost any interior decor. It would look nice over the sofa, denote its owner’s good taste and never wear on the senses.
 
As I changed my mind, I suffered the realization that — after all these years — I still “appreciate” different art for different reasons that clash violently. Smartass though I claim to be, I have no visible philosophy of art.

Some art I like for its clarity of representation and sheer drama — like Gericault’s oils and Rodin’s bronzes.

Some art gets to me because it brazenly defies bourgeois convention: Modigliani’s nudes, Monet’s slapdash lily pads, Picasso’s cock-eyed (and cock-nosed) portraits, the madman grotesquery of Hieronymus Bosch.

There are artists who captivate me with their unique mastery of technique, like Winslow Homer’s brilliant watercolors.

And then there’s stuff I like just because I like it, from Rubens and Manet to Reginald Marsh and Walasse Ting.

But I wouldn’t have reached even my present stage of aesthetic irresolve without the influence of a teacher named Liddicoat and, unwillingly, a girl named Quigley.

The Quigley Episode: My only “elective” class in four years of high school was Roy Liddicoat’s basic art class. Roy was prone — as was I — to the occasional passionate outburst about the perversity of the human condition. This became manifest one day as he leaned over the shoulder of a sophomore named Quigley and inspected her work. Most of my classmates were in awe of Quigley’s talent for reproducing romantic images from popular magazines. Quigley adorned each perfectly rendered line-by-line enlargement in soft pastels, lending it an air of sentimentality that virtually dripped treacle off the pages of her sketchpad.

Mr. Liddicoat watched her draw for a while, took in the oohs and ahs from the girls surrounding Quigley and, finally, snorted.

“That’s not art,” he said.

He followed by stating the obvious. Quigley’s draftsmanship was both flawless and rigid. She lent to her forgery neither honest feeling nor even a whiff of imagination. Her choice of subjects was appalling. Her inability to interpret the image and her reluctance to alter a line even as much as a millimeter revealed a creative vacuum that might someday prove — Roy lamented — both commercially lucrative and artistically criminal.

Roy walked away, leaving Quigley stricken and her fans bewildered. I suspected that I’d just found a new friend. As the year progressed, I proved myself not nearly as skillful as Quigley. But Roy was much more tolerant of my style — which was primitive and disorderly, a sort of abstract expressionism with dark shades of Dante.

Eventually, Roy gave me the run of the art room, with unfettered access to all the art supplies I felt like squandering. Mainly, I exploited huge rolls of white butcher paper and gallons of tempera paint, covering the brick walls of LaFollette High with 20-foot posters promoting football games, sock hops and theater productions. I invented a typeface for this, of which Roy approved.

Besides all this, Mr. Liddicoat convinced me that art is not merely an elective in life. It’s a piece of the whole person that leaves a cold and toxic void if it’s not there. So when I had a chance in my third semester of college, I signed up for Art History with a softspoken half-blind prof named Dedrick. We, his students, spent weeks studying Mr. Dedrick’s lovingly shot slides of the fragments of art that survive from the ancient Sumerians and Persians, Egyptians, Phrygians, Parthians and Babylonians. It was all old and dry, but Mr. Dedrick’s love made it breathe.

This led, inevitably, to the Oriental Institute Incident.

The Oriental Institute, on Chicago’s south side, was a sort of shrine for Mr. Dedrick, which meant that we all got a field trip one day to Hyde Park. Barely had we reached the wondrous Mesopotamian rooms when one of the museum’s U. of Chi. MFA interns spotted Mr. Dedrick and somehow deemed him easy pickings. Might’ve been the Coke-bottle glasses, the tweed suit, the scuffed brown shoes. Or maybe just his air of amiable grace.

Once buttonholed, Mr. Dedrick followed the voluble intern meekly, listening to the kid rattle on about this papyrus scroll or that bug-eyed votive figure. Never once did he interrupt. As his students lurked nearby, smirking at the irony of this postgrad naif lecturing the Midwest’s foremost expert on the art of the ancient Orient, kindly Mr. Dedrick waved us away. He nodded encouragement to his infant mentor and gratefully took in the Reader’s Digest condensed version of lessons he had dispensed from his lectern — with a joy that never faded — a few hundred times.

And I was  convinced all over again of the power of art to bridge eons, unite strangers and fill the air with patient contemplation.

Since Mr. Dedrick, I’ve followed art casually but steadily, discovering a useless knack for identifying many artists at first glance. I can spot a Mary Cassatt at 50 paces and distinguish a Steinlen from a Toulouse-Lautrec without breaking a sweat.

(By the way, I know where Steinlen is buried, in a Paris grave that can be found only by accident.)

Still, for all my superfluous art knowledge, I can’t explain my preferences. I can’t shake the conviction, for instance, that the Mona Lisa is one of Da Vinci’s lesser achievements. And I’ve never warmed up to Cezanne — and feel guilty about it.

On the other hand, I grew up with Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers and I won’t tolerate anyone speaking ill of Norman. I think Will Elder’s “Little Annie Fanny” strips in Playboy deserve a wall in the Guggenheim, along with Al Capp and Walt Kelly. I don’t know why but I prefer Wright to Van Der Rohe, Matisse to Miro and Thurber to Durer. And I like Durer, but just a little bit less. In a tossup, I’d go with Brancusi over Henry Moore, but I’d object to the tossup. I prefer Diego to Frida, Willy Ronys to Robert Doisneau and J.M.W. Turner to just about anybody.

Why? Who knows?

None of my choices are empirical, aesthetic or even artistic. I’ve tried to get my mind right by reading art magazines about art, but all I figured out was nobody that should ever read art magazines. After a half-dozen glutinous paragraphs, you start pondering an amendment to the First Amendment.

As a lifelong know-it-all, I’m frustrated by this persistent uncertainty about the meaning of art and the way it fuzzes up my sensibilities. I should like Rembrandt more than Delacroix. Shouldn’t I?

There’s a cliché that covers my dilemma, but I can’t even get that straight: “I know quite a bit about art, but I don’t know why I like what I like.”

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#837)

The war between Ellen DeGeneres 
and the Serbian Marines
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — My latest dispatch from the Right-Wing Chain-Letter Network hails from a high-school classmate whom I’ll call Big Red (not his real name), because he’s innocent and deserves to be protected.

Big Red forwarded a neatly formatted photo montage of five famous women — Barbra Streisand, Oprah Winfrey, Diana Ross, Meryl Streep and Ellen DeGeneres, each receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama, between 2014 and 2016. The text: “The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the Nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

Below these photos — of a Jew, two black women, a lesbian and an Hollywood star who criticized Donald Trump at this year’s Academy Awards — is one more, of a double amputee in a U.S. Marine dress uniform. This image bears the message: “Are you F&cking kiddding me?”

Get it? Obama frivolously doled out the nation’s highest civilian honor to a bunch of primadonnas while brave “warriors” were sacrificing life and limb to protect those ungrateful dykes, kikes, bimbos and ham actresses from the global forces of Islamic evil.

I wondered briefly if Big Red had designed this excellent example of bigoted propaganda. If so, he deserves some props. This is a stylish piece of work. But I suspect he picked it up somewhere on social media.
Just to confirm my hunch, I googled Big Red’s headline, “Proper Use of The F Word.” Normally with hate-posts like this, the source pops up there, traceable through dozens of paranoid websites and white-identity blogs. But today, we’re living in Propaganda World 2.0. The progenitors of this sort of crap are dodging Google. They slink into people’s psyches through online trapdoors and digital crawlspaces — like Facebook. Conservative consumers like Big Red, eager to validate their fears, are ripe for “microtargeting.”

Since I couldn’t track, on Google, the viral origin of “Are you F&cking kiddding me?”, I poked into the message’s JPEG file — which led me to…

Serbia!

An acronym in the file sent me to a site written entirely in Cyrillic, which I can decipher (with some difficulty), because I used to translate Pushkin and Dostoyevsky at Beloit College. I eventually determined that the photo montage of Streisand and the other girls had likely been composed in Serbia. Big Red was apparently spotted by an algorithm that suggests he might enjoy (and share) this sort of racist, misogynist dreck.

Another clue in the JPEG file led to a YouTube clip of a speech by Slobodan Milosevic, the strongman who ruled Serbia and Yugoslavia from 1989-2000 and died while on trial for crimes against humanity.

Finally, I studied the punchline. The absent “u” in the “f word” had been replaced not by the usual asterisk, but by a symbol that doesn’t appear on the Western keyboard. I did another search and found this “letter” on a website that compares cursive Cyrillic script in various Slavic languages. The symbol was Serbian. Hah! And then, of course, there’s the extra “d” in “kiddding,” not the sort of mistake an English-speaking Web troll would make.

What we seem to have here, although I’m skeptical of my own evidence — it’s thin but suggestive — is another sign that Eastern European propaganda mills are hunting disgruntled Americans susceptible to right-wing messages, especially images that exacerbate racial and gender divisions. These trolls, possibly on the Kremlin payroll (I can’t prove it but the CIA can) fan the rage that white-identity patriots feel when they see a black president bestowing undeserved presidential medals on his co-racial usurpers.

In a reply that I never sent to Big Red, I noted that the wounded white male Marine — according to the decorations on his chest — had received medals for his combat service far more exalted than the Medal of Freedom. As far as I could tell, Big Red was trying to tell me that if I truly honor the selfless Marine who lost his legs, I must despise the five women recognized by President Obama for their good deeds.

But why not both? Where is it written that the Presidential Medal of Freedom is a zero-sum award snatched from one hero and given to another? Why involve the military at all? After all, this is an honor focused mostly on civilian do-gooders. Among hundreds of recipients, only about twenty have been soldiers and sailors — although, for some reason, General Colin Powell got it four times from two presidents. Obama honored two service members, including Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, a computer genius who brought the U.S. Navy into the digital era and who has a ship named in her honor.

By the way, not everyone who received the medal from Obama was African-American. Among others tainted by the Kenyan hand of Barack Obama were Madeleine Albright, Isabel Allende, Yogi Berra, Joe Biden, Tom Brokaw, Warren Buffett, Robert DeNiro, John Glenn, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (two of the three young civil rights activists murdered by the Klan in Mississippi in 1964 — the third was black and, well, he got a Medal, too), Tom Hanks, Bill and Melinda Gates, Robert Gates, Daniel Inouye (lost an arm in WWII), Jack Kemp, Ethel and Ted Kennedy, Billie Jean King, Maya Lin (designer of the Vietnam Memorial), Richard Lugar, Loretta Lynn, Angela Merkel, Newton Minow, Stan Musial, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Shimon Peres, Robert Redford, Sally Ride, Vin Scully, Dean Smith, Steven Spielberg, Bruce Springsteen, Marlo Thomas (benefactor of St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital) and President George H.W. Bush.

Do Big Red’s Serbian sources counsel me to hate all these people? Marlo Thomas? Also, is this Republican thing? I wonder if I should also detest the people to whom Bill Clinton gave the award. Simon Wiesenthal?

Not to mention Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, Cesar Chavez, General Wesley Clark, John Kenneth Galbraith, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, Justice Thurgood Marshall, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Gaylord Nelson, Rosa Parks, Eliot Richardson, Walter Reuther, David Rockefeller, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt?

And Martha Raye?

As remedy to all this dark Balkan emotion, I suggested that Big Red do what I did when Ronald Reagan (not my favorite president) hung the Medal of Freedom on guys like Buckminster Fuller, Louis L’Amour, Milton Friedman, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Danny Kaye. I said to myself, “Well, how ‘bout that?” or perhaps, “Wow. Really?” Then I went on with my life.

I didn't conjure up in my mind some sick connection between Norman Vincent Peale’s Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984 and the Beirut barracks bombing that killed, on Reagan’s watch, 63 Marines. When the Gipper gave the Medal to Bear Bryant, I didn't think of pegleg GIs with no future in football and cry, “Are you F&cking kiddding me?”.

No, some things just don’t go together. Like apples and oranges. Chicken liver and whipped cream. Christians and lions.

Serbian trolls and Motown divas.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#836)

Crazy for the blue, white
and red — and yellow fringe
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — When he stood atop a pedestal for the national anthem, Tommie Smith, gold medalist in the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics, raised a black-gloved fist. His gesture was mirrored by fellow African-American John Carlos, the bronze medalist.

The runner-up in the race, Australian Peter Norman, raised no fist but wore the same human-rights badge that Smith and Carlos had pinned to their jackets. Norman understood the Americans’ motives partly because he was sensitive and educated — but mostly because he had talked to them.

To TV viewers everywhere, however, those two raised fists posed questions neither Smith nor Carlos could ever answer. Their gesture was instantly swamped by emotion, wreathed in ambiguity and ill-reported by the press, who called it a “Black Power salute.” To the mass of white Americans, this protest was an act of sedition fomented by shadowy groups of angry Negroes — Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver — whose very names struck fear into their hearts.

Tommie Smith’s intention was to challenge injustice, inequality, police brutality and the tragic American tradition — older than the flag — of racial oppression.

I knew that. I read about it. I taped a poster of Smith and Carlos on the wall of my dorm room. But even then, I knew they had failed — because symbolism is a piss-poor way to communicate.

Quite possibly the least communicative of all American symbols is the flag. Everyone claims it. Every group bends it to their purposes.  Nobody respects it enough to leave it up there on the pole, minding its own beeswax. In 1965, the civil-rights protesters who followed the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma — non-violent protesters beaten and gassed by state and local lawmen — carried the Stars and Stripes. 


When violent white supremacists gathered this August in Charlottesville to celebrate racial hatred, they ecumenically waved, side-by-side, the Swastika of the Third Reich, the Confederate Stars and Bars, the banner of the Ku Klux Klan and the Red White and Blue of the US of A.

In our newest spasm of flag symbolism, a bunch of professional athletes, particularly in the National Football League, are “taking a knee” during the Star-Spangled Banner (which, by the way, has been the national anthem only since 1931. Really! Before that, peace and quiet).

The mass of white Americans perceive the NFL protest as an act of sedition fomented by shadowy groups of angry Negroes whose very names — Black Lives Matter, Antifa, Barack Obama — strike fear into their hearts.

The athletes leading this protest have never mentioned the soldiers, sailors, Marines and aviators they’re accused of “disrespecting.” They insist, rather, that they’re objecting to injustice, inequality, police brutality and the racial oppression that was bothering Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman (and me), 49 years ago.

But never mind. The NFL players’ message has ended up just as muddled as that of Smith and Carlos in’68. This is because symbolism tends to obscure the ideas it seeks to express, especially when the flag gets dragged in. I sympathize with the protest, and I also appreciate why most football fans are annoyed. Mostly, I feel sorry for the flag.

I love the flag. I figure I’ve pledged allegiance to it, without a qualm, at least 12,000 times. I like the way it looks, the way it stands out against any background, from the blue sky to the Green Monster. The hot and cold fields of red and blue in sharp contrast with all those bands and speckles of white are a composition remarkably daring and abstract. It’s no wonder that Betsy Ross’ needlework has long been a favorite motif for artists, from Childe Hassam to Jasper Johns. Old Glory just looks cool.

Trouble is, we’ve loved our flag to death, loading it with more sanctity than any slab of colored canvas can bear. We use it, overuse it and end up abusing it, in a thousand ways. I don’t like to see sweaty athletes wrapping themselves in the flag before running a victory lap. The flag is not clothing. I object to second-rate European hotels hanging the Stars and Stripes out front as a come-on to American tourists. The flag is not a billboard. I think the obligatory flag pin on every politician’s lapel is as phony as a three-dollar whore. The flag is not absolution.

There has been no greater abuse of Old Glory lately, of course, than the sight of Donald Trump fretting his hour upon the stage, a bank of folded flags as his backdrop, while declaring that neo-Nazis are “fine people,” that the guardians of the First Amendment are “enemies of the state,” and that it’s time to slam the golden door in the faces of “the homeless, tempest-tost.”

I wonder: In a church named after a disciple of Jesus, we kneel to show reverence for God. Why is it that, if we kneel in a football stadium named after an insurance company, we’re committing sacrilege?

A flag — especially the Stars and Stripes — is a symbol that means something different, literally, to everyone who sees it. The flag stands for blind loyalty and it stands for protest. It stands for black emancipation and white nationalism. It stands for our nation’s institutions and it flies in the face of the Establishment. It stands for the law and it fosters civil disobedience. It stands for fire stations and used-car lots. It stands for truth, but gives aid, comfort and a dazzling stage-set to the purveyors of bullshit.

A symbol that means so much to so many signifies everything, achieves nothing.

So, in due time, the NFL genuflections will fizzle or become ritual. The players will go on inflicting brain damage to amuse us. The owners will keep Colin Kaepernick — the original kneeler — from making a living. And somewhere, just about every day, a scared policeman will murder a black teenager, and get away with it.

Each killing will trigger a protest, which might help, though it probably won’t. But I’d prefer we keep the flag out of it.

We could reconcile many differences if we agreed to give the flag a rest. Raise it at dawn, on a regulation flagpole, with a little trumpet music and a quick salute. Lower it at twilight with a few bars of “Taps.” Fly it at half-mast every time a senator dies or a Second Amendment zealot slaughters a kindergarten. Make sure it waves over every cemetery, especially those that are filled, row upon row, with the honored dead. Drape it gently over the coffins of La David Johnson, Bryan Black, Jeremiah Johnson and Dustin Wright.

But otherwise, let it fade into the background. When the anthem plays, don’t fume over the kid in Section 115 who forgot to take off his cap. Don’t sweat it if your fellow fans scratch, fidget, talk, eat, chew gum, sing the wrong words, horse around or even kneel down to tie a shoe. Maybe, just to spare the aggravation, you should use the interlude to hit the concourse — take a leak, buy a $10 cup of light beer. After all, it’s only a game, the lyrics don’t really scan, and all this mishigoss boils down to a little bit of muslin flapping in the breeze.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#835)

Shutterbug
by David Benjamin

“Photography records the gamut of feelings written on the human face, the beauty of the earth and skies that man has inherited, and the wealth and confusion man has created. It is a major force in explaining man to man.”
                                                                        — Edward Steichen

MADISON, Wis. — My camera bag, which weighs about ten pounds, has a tendency to strain my back and jangle the nerves in my shoulder. It could be lighter, if I discarded a telephoto lens, spare batteries and computer cord, my “triage” notebook, the book I’m reading (currently The Flagrant Dead by Stephen Bluestone), postcards, stamps, two kinds of pills, a phone, business cards, spare glasses, a loupe and a sewing kit. But I need this stuff.

Besides, if I leave home without my camera, I feel inadequate.

This compulsion goes back at least to my newspaper days. To venture beyond my office without being ready for the shot that could define the week’s news and fill half the space above the fold was a dereliction of duty and a crime against journalism. I never knew when that shot might suddenly appear before my eyes. I had to be prepared.

Even before I was handed my first news camera (a post-WWII vintage Mamiya C3 with a gunsight viewfinder), I had learned photography’s capacity for exposing the remarkable that lurks within the ordinary. Today, for example, on my hike from home to coffee, the light was flat and gray. But we’re into the onset of autumn and everything along the way is changing. Not just leaves. Plants blossoming a week ago are brown shreds laced with spiderwebs. Birds are out, ravaging the overripe crabapples and the moulting berry bushes. The angle of the light has changed from Cailebotte to Monet.

There was stuff to shoot today, just not at a 500th of a second.

As I scanned for photos, I recalled a Facebook embarrassment. Steve  Bluestone (see above), a poet who also takes serious photos (he’s sort of a Renaissance Brooklynite) dropped the term “etherized” in a photo post. I pedantically proposed “ethered” as a better construction — which it might be save that Steve was making a literary allusion to T.S. Eliot, who used “etherized” in the first verse of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. This was a line I’d long forgotten but Steve, being a poet, kept it in reserve on the tip of his tongue. Steve didn’t make fun of me, but his friends did.

I gained from the exchange, however, because it reminded me of how we all come to knowledge, and often come together, on vastly different paths. While Steve in his pre-teens was (I presume) memorizing The Wasteland, I found inspiration in a humbler wordsmith named Jim Kjelgaaard, who wrote outdoorsy novels for adolescent readers. The Kjelgaard classic that most fired my fancy was Wildlife Cameraman. It chronicles the adventures of Jase Mason and his dog Buckles as they stalk the birds and beasts of the forest primeval in quest of the perfect snapshot.

“Boy,” I said, “that’s what I wanna do.” I spent the next year begging my elders for a camera, finally scoring — on my 11th birthday — a glistening bakelite Kodak Brownie 127.

A week or so later, when I got my first few rolls of film back at Miller’s Walgreen, I discovered that a Brownie 127  is ill-suited to the challenge of freezing — in black and white, at a 60th of a second, from a distance of 15 yards — a sparrow in flight. Or a sparrow sitting still. Or a sparrow sneering from its perch and flipping me the feather.

As I perused my Kodak harvest of blurry gray blobs, I forsook my wildlife cameraman dream. But it never truly died. Years later, on my first day at the Mansfield News, when I finally got my hands on a professional camera, I was 11 all over again, and Buckles was my invisible co-pilot.

Of course, most news photos tend to be grip-and-grins, group shots, graduations, Little League parades and mundane nature mort. But, on a slow week, I’d sneak off to the woods to chase chickadees and silhouette the evergreens. At school events, I studied the angles for capturing kids in unguarded moments — a little girl launching a kite or a boy screaming at Punch and Judy. I took pride, eventually, in capturing the passion (and boredom) of speakers and spectators at the annual Town Meeting.

By and by, the old Mamiya gave way to a 35mm Pentax K1000, a wonderful camera. I shot Tri-X film in black and white, from which I learned that fifty shades of gray make lousy pictures. Every focal object demands clarity, and for that I needed contrast — sharp edges and black highlights. To accomplish that, I had to heed background as intently as I watched the birdie, or the hurdler in the track meet, or the fresh-minted high-school grad waving her diploma and flinging her mortarboard.

Lately, I shoot digital, in color, but my Tri-X lessons still apply. “Contrast,” said cinematographer Conrad Hall, “is what makes photography interesting.” When you think about it, it’s also what makes America (black and white and lots of colors) more interesting than, say, Finland.

I took probably 40,000 news shots and absorbed epidermally at least ten gallons of D-76 developer, but never quite got the bird photo I’d been seeking since I was 11. That finally came a few years later, in Japan, when I spotted a Tokyo crow atop the spire of a Buddhist temple. I mounted my telephoto and aimed my Pentax, intending a portrait of the bird at rest. But as I squeezed the shutter, the crow lifted off in silhouetted symmetry, tail spread, beak foremost, wing feathers stretched and separate against a pale sky. Weeks passed before I saw the print — more dramatic than I expected — a blurry Buddha in the foreground and the crow, in perfect focus as he departs his spike on the temple’s pinnacle.

If you take enough photos, you develop a sixth sense that makes this sort of happenstance more frequent, like the ancient lady I spotted on Montmartre with a dangling Galloise and a flower in her hair. Or a day in Paris near the hilltop dome of the Panthéon. A tourist couple resting on the steps weren’t the least bit photogenic. But they’d brought a little girl, perhaps seven years old. She seemed to be seething with untapped energy. As she tiptoed up the staircase, I hurriedly changed my lens. I focused on her, expectantly.

Then, bam. Suddenly, she she struck a pose, clutching her hands beneath her chin. I got that, and I kept shooting as she burst into the dance she could not contain. Her parents didn’t see. She had no audience but me, and I in secret. My result, as I saw immediately on my digital screen, was an urchin fairy in jeans and t-shirt, unleashing her inner Isadora Duncan, with Paris as her stage.

The contrast was almost jarring, but that’s what made it work.

One of photojournalism’s fundamental rules is that when you attend a performance you aim not at the show, but at the audience. One day, at the place Pompidou, I came upon a street busker nimbly juggling a set of hoops. I arranged myself behind him, firing away at the throng, mostly young — who oohed, aahed and laughed at his antics. Among the photos that I perused, edited and eventually printed was three friends close together and, altogether, a tableau of joy. The girl on the left was black, on the left a white girl. Between them, a Muslim girl, coffee-toned in a most fashionable hijab.

I cherish this shot because it captures the necessity of contrast, in photography, in humanity.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#834)

My name is David Benjamin
and I approve this message
by David Benjamin

“Posting a malicious rumor on Facebook, or writing a false news story that is indexed by Google, is a nearly instantaneous process. Removing such posts require human intervention. This imbalance gives an advantage to rulebreakers.”
                              — Kevin Roose, “The Shift,” New York Times

MADISON, Wis. — The first “news” from the bloodbath in Vegas was all fake. Reports that popped up almost instantly on 4Chan, Reddit, InfoWars and other organs of the wingnut fringe identified Stephen Paddock as an “anti-Trump liberal,” a recent convert to Islam and a soldier of ISIS. All not true. Nevertheless, these fictions vaulted to status as “top stories” on Google’s newsfeed. A “trending” Facebook story about Paddock, also fake, was traced back to the Russian hack-factory, Sputnik.

Some of these fantasies had bylines. Most were phony. The majority were anonymous and untraceable. Reputable sources like CBS, CNN and the Las Vegas Review-Journal eventually corrected all this crapola. But the suckers who swallow the instant lies and distortions of Breitbart World never saw the revised story. They stopped reading long before the Washington Post and Associated Press filed their first dispatch. Right now, they’re sharing scare stories about Paddock as the fall guy in a plot by Hillary Clinton and Gabby Giffords to repeal the Second Amendment and rip every gun in America from the cold, dead hands of Charlton Heston.

Two-thirds of Americans get all their “news” from social media like Facebook, Google and Twitter — which is like getting all your nourishment from vending machines. None of these platforms employs a single professional journalist. None makes any effort to determine the source of the information hodge-podge that they pass through to the public. Social media use algorithms — whose secrecy they guard fanatically — to select and classify news items. This garbage-in garbage-out process goes untouched by human hands.

As noted in the New York Times, Facebook “previously had a team of trained news editors who chose which stories appeared in its trending topics section, a huge driver of traffic to news stories. But it disbanded the group and instituted an automatic process… after reports surfaced that the editors were suppressing conservative news sites.”

(Please note here that “conservative news” is an oxymoron.)

Facebook understands that to maximize “traffic,” you minimize accountability. Twitter boasts that no one who tweets is required to reveal his or her true identity. A) Ring the doorbell. B) Run like hell.

The nameless Twitter twits and Facebook imposters who take out their personal pathologies on the Internet are commonly referred to as “trolls.” My childhood reading taught me that a troll is a monster who hides under the bridge, slobbers a lot and eats anyone who tries to cross.

There were trolls under the bridges, tormenting the press, long before the Web came along. I spent the better part of a decade, as editor of a weekly newspaper in Massachusetts, dealing with local folks who bordered on trollhood. They wrote vituperative letters and demanded that I publish them, but, “Please, leave  my name off.” They yearned to be heard, but trembled at the consequences.

My favorite troll was Elwyn Atherton.

Elwyn once mailed to my office an elegantly crafted postcard, complete with illustrations and literate insults, about me — personally. Elwyn depicted me as somewhat less astute than a lobotomized chicken. His language was uncomplimentary but entirely suitable for mixed company. I wanted to print — without retort — his scurrilous little haiga. But I couldn’t.

Elwyn hadn’t signed it. Without attribution, I wasn’t sure, for months, if Elwyn was my author. Fortunately, Elwyn had manic episodes, during which he wrote letters at a feverish pace and also dropped by my office to harangue me in person. By and by, Elwyn’s style became pretty obvious.

And that’s what I told him. I interrupted one of his monologs and said, “Elwyn, you’ve got style! I mean, you’re obviously crazier than an outhouse woodchuck, but damn, you’re fun to read. I’d love to print your letters.”

Elwyn was reluctant. Like most of my anonymous epistiers, Elwyn was afraid to expose himself to the physical retaliation or verbal abuse that might result when the masses read his malevolent missives.

I scoffed. “Elwyn, no one in the history of the Mansfield News ever got beat up for writing a letter to the editor.” As for verbal abuse, I said, “Elwyn, your letters are a barrage of verbal abuse. You’re good at it. You’re a born entertainer. But if you’re going to dish it out, you gotta be ready to take it.”

“Besides,” I said, “sticks and stones.”

Eventually, Elwyn — bless his heart — agreed to sign. The whole town partook of his articulate lunacy, and no one ever laid a hand on him.

In roughly 400 issues of the News, I never published an unsigned letter. As a one-man weekly in a one-horse town, I wrote virtually all the copy, from straight stories, features and editorials to sports, commentary and even theater reviews. I explained to Elwyn that while I took no byline on routine stories (as a matter of modesty), I made sure that my name appeared on any prose I was proud of or — more important — might get me into trouble.

I wanted people to know who was responsible. I used to wear a t-shirt around town that read — on the front — “I’M RESPONSIBLE.”

I persist in believing that we all want to know who’s really responsible. That’s why politicians who buy self-promos on TV have to say, “I’m Batson D. Belfry and I approve this message.”

I know, unfortunately, that stripping anonymity from the outbursts on Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Reddit and all the other Internet megaphones will not protect us from their lies, slanders, fake news, fraudmongers, unadulterated bullshit and Vladimir Putin. Making people “sign” will likely reduce Web traffic (good for you and me, bad for Zuckerberg). Serious trolls, of course, will swiftly find ways to beat the system and hide out amongst the ones and zeroes.

But if everyone were required — either by law or by the Revised Rules of the Web — to sign his or her real name to his or her every tweet, blog, blurb, flame, baby photo, cat video and cri de coeur, we might observe the emergence of a kinder, gentler and more credible Internet.

Without an alias to hide behind, some tweeters might be less inclined to blurt without thinking (or spelling). There might be fewer trolls spewing insults, fewer mean girls trashing their classmates. Bigots, forced to drop their robes, might choose to trundle their hatred back under the bridge.

Do I wonder if the ACLU will approve? Do I worry that this sort of “regulation” will stifle public discourse? Is it possible that Web-surfers will feel less free to say how they feel at the very instant that they feel it, regardless of what they actually know?

I sure hope so. As I said once long ago: “If you’re not willing to stand up for what you believe, Elwyn, please. Shut up.”

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#833)

Six words (FCUCPW)
by David Benjamin

“The longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity… we can crush the Democrats.”
                                                                     — Steve Bannon

MADISON, Wis. — As creepy as it feels to agree with Steve Bannon, I suspect Steve was right when he said that the liberal focus on racial strife is God’s gift to Donald Trump.

Certainly, at this moment, the struggle for racial justice is in crisis — so much so that even the usually timid ranks of professional sports are becoming politically outspoken and awkwardly symbolic.

In this atmosphere, it’s every reasoning patriot’s duty to rage against racial profiling by cops, the unpunished murder of black people in police custody, and the “new Jim Crow” of mass incarceration. But social justice for minorities cannot, unfortunately, serve as the main political fulcrum to pry our government from the grip of the right-wing cynics — Trump, Bannon, Sessions, Ryan, McConnell, et al — who are currently calling the shots.

For Donald Trump, bigotry is the whistle that keeps the dogs slobbering. He knows that, no matter how viciously he attacks African-Americans, he won’t lose any black votes — because he never got any black votes, and never will. Even better, he knows he can count on the racist machinery erected by the Republican Party — gerrymanders, voter ID gimmicks, poll taxes, propaganda and Putin — to shrink and discourage the black vote.

Above all, he knows that more white people will vote because they’re white than black people will vote because they’re black. Bannon and Trump understand that America’s angry horde of white identitarians will rally to their Bigot-in-Chief come hell or high choler. They know further — as Hillary Clinton noted in a dialog with Chris Hayes — that 90-plus percent of Republicans will salute and support a ten-foot pile of horse manure as long as it’s spray-painted with a big red “R” and topped with Old Glory. They’ll stay true to their school even if their blind devotion brings the election of a short-fingered vulgarian who calls his daughter a “piece of ass” and manifests the emotional stability of a five-year-old sociopath with Tourette Syndrome.

Democrats have never achieved this sort of pep-squad spirit.

At the moment, four Democratic factions are wandering, simultaneously, in four directions. One bunch believes that the key to winning elections in 2018 and 2020 is to just keep ripping Donald Trump.

Another faction clings to the identity politics that has trapped Democrats in a honeycomb of balkanized echo chambers since George McGovern spit the bit in ’72.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 bestowed upon Republicans the gift of simplicity. The GOP became, first by default and then by design, Caucasian, Christian, conservative. You didn’t necessarily have to be all those things to join. But once you’d pledged in, you were expected to act white, trudge off to church and spout right-wing talking points.

Donald Trump infiltrated the GOP by doing those very three things.

Democrats have never tried to simplify. They’re black, white brown, Native-American, Asian, feminist, LGBTQ, liberal, moderate, progressive, leftist, Marxist, Jewish, Unitarian, Universalist, Buddhist, Muslim, atheist, pro-choice, anti-gun, ADA, DLC, ACLU, SPLC, NOW, NAACP, SCLC, AFL-CIO, SEIU, vegetarian, locavore, consumerist, tree-hugging, Prius-driving, touchy-feely, yada yada yada. Every subgroup has an agenda, every agenda is a sacred cause and each must be enacted right now, today, in full — before all the others — “by any means necessary.”

Another Democratic split — the tunnel-vision cult-of-personality faction — separates Bernie Sanders zealots from Elizabeth Warren’s acolytes. Neither bunch can see eye-to-eye (or even have a cup of coffee) with Hillary die-hards, who are the mortal enemy of the Hillary-hater faction who will — ’til the day she dies — reserve the right to give the Party the finger and piss away their vote on the latest version of Ralph Nader.

Finally, the Democrats also include a club of Clintonian triangulators addicted to Big Money, so eager to compromise with anyone, including Donald Trump, that they’re regularly mistaken for Republicans.

These disparate dwellers within a divided Democratic house exhibit two distinct qualities. One is their inability to speak about almost any issue with a single voice, rendering them habitually incoherent. There isn’t a rank-and-file Democrat in America who can effectively explain the Party’s principles.

Second, not one Democratic subgroup has yet to articulate a basic program for moving the nation upward from the moral cesspool that Donald Trump will leave behind.

In this respect, Republicans have it easy. For them, politics is not about accomplishing anything. It’s about beating the Democrats.

For Democrats to turn the tables and lick the GOP, it’s simple. They already have voters. They have an actual majority. But they have to do something they almost never do: stick together. They need a message as simple as Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” And they need to infuse the message with positive policy ideas that invoke and illuminate the future.

Democrats have no shortage of such ideas, but they need to pick a lane. It’s time for them to pare and clarify the ideas they’ve been spraying around, trampling, muddling and muddying for the last 20 years. Three of their best — “Free College, Universal Coverage and Public Works” (FCUCPW) — can point America’s direction home.

As soon as you hear these simple six words — Free College, Universal Coverage and Public Works — you understand. You know that most Americans will rally, intuitively, to all three goals. You know that these objectives are aspirational and will not come about, in full, right away. But you know that they’re common sense and that — with a little sacrifice and a lot of cooperation — we can afford them all. You know that, within these six words, there are positive vibes for economic growth and genuine tax reform, for jobs, for the public welfare, for saving our environment, for better education and greater equality. You know, above all, that higher education for everyone, that health care as a human right, that the rebuilding of America’s roads and grids, rails and bridges, schools and wind farms, national parks and day-care centers, from sea to shining sea, is worth fighting for.

FCUCPW!

Neither Republicans nor Democrats can guarantee their selfish political dominion for long if it’s based on a Trumpoid formula of disparagement and division. We were weary of this sort of shit even before Trump shoved our faces in it.

The political lesson we’ve learned from Trump’s ascension is as old as our republic, but often forgotten: Simplicity works. (See FDR, see JFK).

The accompanying lesson, also old and still forgotten — until someone in the Democratic coalition remembers — is that substance works even better.