Friday, August 26, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#779)

Confessions of a navel observer
by David Benjamin

“It is hardly necessary to waste words over the so-called bikini since it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing.”
        — Modern Girl, 1957

MADISON, Wis. — I went to Catholic school and developed a belly-button fetish. Looking back sheepishly, I trace this syndrome to a cadre of Dominican nuns obsessed with nudity. Nowadays, their prudishness seems excessive, but in the Fifties — as every Catholic kid knew — nuns never undressed.

Their habits (that, is, their duds) were actually bonded to their former bodies and their wimples were stitched — before they took their vows — right into their skulls. Picturing this process tended to make your skin crawl. Some of us figured that this baptism-by-needle explained why Sister Mary Ann was such a bitch.

Sister Mary Ann, in particular, was so pathological about nakedness that most of her pupils at St. Mary’s — especially the girls — were convinced that the only way to avoid seeing our bodies, playing with ourselves and committing a sin in the shower was to keep our clothes on all the time. Sister Mary Ann was vague about how we could get clean that way. My suspicion is that she really didn’t care.

Because B.O. isn’t a sin.

Starting in second grade, the nuns of St. Mary’s instilled in my malleable mind a palpable terror of witnessing in the flesh any more of a girl than her arms and less than half of her legs. Cleavage gave me the willies. And belly-buttons?

If I got a load of a girl’s navel, even accidentally, I knew I was bound straight for Hell. I intuited this without doctrinal guidance. Nobody, not even Sister Mary Ann, told me specifically that a glimpse of the female belly-button was a mortal sin. I probably decided this based on media attention to a) the recently invented bikini and b) its nearest occasion of French sin, Brigitte Bardot. I lived in fear that a bikini might suddenly thrust itself before my eyes — on Groucho’s TV show, in the Saturday Evening Post, or, most ominously, at the municipal swimming pool. All summer, I stepped out of the locker room and froze, hoping fervently against the soul-searing sight of a naked torso, as I scanned the moms sunning themselves at the shallow end and the dissolute high-school girls who minced and flirted with boys near the diving board.

My fears were groundless. This was Tomah, a mostly German hamlet in the Great White North, where the default format for women’s bathing costumes remained, almost ’til the Reagan administration, the full-torso, breast-crushing Playtex living girdle.

I learned the hard way, however, that the age of the belly-button had already begun. There was no escape, even in the Erwin Theater, where my dad took me one Saturday to see a religious film called Solomon and Sheba. I had  no idea beforehand that Sheba was Gina Lollobrigida, and that Gina would drop her robe in Technicolor and VistaVision, revealing little more than a snake-motif bra, a see-through skirt and a jewel in her navel, after which she belly-danced endlessly — on and on and on, writhing, shimmying, twirling! — beneath the lustful gaze of Yul Brynner (and my dad, whom I knew was susceptible to this sort of scantily-clad enticement).

To my eternal regret, I didn’t enjoy or even dimly appreciate this wondrous introduction to Ms. Lollobrigida who — in her prime — rivaled Sophia Loren in sheer  Roman lusciousness and easily eclipsed such brunette-bombshell rivals as Jane Russell, Debra Paget and even Natalie Wood.

The ten-year-old prig version of me just sat there in a cold Vatican sweat, squirming, trying not to wink back at Gina’s belly-button, despairing for my Lutheran father’s immortal soul and trembling at the prospect of stepping into the confessional a week hence and telling Father Mulligan that I’d had an “impure thought” about Gina Lollobrigida. I never owned up to that. In years of confessing, I bottled up my every impure thought, eventually departing the Church, absolving myself  unilaterally and embracing a lifelong liberating love of the naked navel.

For a while, about ten years ago, when the fashion gods declared that every woman had to wear low-slung jeans with cut-off tummy-baring tops, I was initially thrilled. My secret paganism had spread and, suddenly, the streets were a parade of creamy tummies and proud, pierced, jeweled bellies.

All of which, if you recall, became swiftly too much of a once-good thing. A tummy is a delicate barque. The bare-midriff vogue, one soon perceived, was not a celebration of six-packs and Salomes. It was more like a humid Sunday at Cony Island. I looked around and I saw more plumber’s guts and love handles — both women and men! — than Lollobrigidas and bikini bods. I was back at the Erwin, averting my eyes.

Thankfully, the trend passed. People stopped feeling obligated to flaunt a body part better left to the imagination, and several layers of heavy fabric.

Speaking of heavy fabric, the controversy that got me thinking about swimwear, navels and Gina Lollobrigida was the French government’s determination to banish from beaches the so-called “burqini” swimsuit, a Muslim coverall reminiscent of the costumes worn by the bathing beauties of Atlantic City in 1900.

In France’s struggle with its greatest human rights issue, it seems odd — well, absurd — that the government’s most decisive policy is a Baywatch dress code. If ever there was country where anything — on the beach — goes, it’s France. If BB can get away with baring her belly-button, and a thousand starlets at the Cannes Festival can get away with baring much more than that, a few Muslim housewives shouldn’t be hassled for wearing Dominican habits in the hot sun.

Sooner or later, the Prophet’s gals are going to come around. They already are. Walk around Paris and you see subtle signs of Koranic heresy —Hermes hijabs bearing rhinestones, spangles, bangles and Disney characters, with complementary eye makeup and matching Nikes.

This burqini fuss is happening, after all, in France — famous for Josephine Baker, Lova Moore and the Folies Bergere — a land where everyone sooner or later lightens up and figures out the national truth:

Taking it off is always better than putting it on.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#778)

Demagoguery, Nelson
Algren and other campaign notes

by David Benjamin

“I don’t want to seem racist or nothing but the black heritage has been raised in a certain way that there’s no incentive to get out and work because all of a sudden you have five kids and there are no dads around.”
    — Jack Beck, at a Trump rally, West Bend, Wis., 16 Aug.

MADISON, Wis. — Hillary Clinton has a $250 billion jobs program in the works. She has a $375 billion plan for college tuition. Best of all, she has plans to pay for all this beneficence without burdening middle-class taxpayers. You could look it up and read every detail. You probably won’t. I haven’t.

Of course, Donald Trump also favors jobs and education, Bigly! Who doesn’t? But don’t try to look up his plans. They’re all in his head or, more accurately, in his mouth.

This is smart politics. The last thing Trump should do is explain himself. I’ve seen him try, and it looks just awful.

Donald Trump is a demagogue. Demagogues don’t explain. They don’t announce ten-point plans, issue executive summaries or calculate budgets. Demagogues don’t use Power Point. The essence, the beauty, the joy and the appeal of the deep-dyed demagogue is dumbness. Simplicity! The demagogue boils the universe down to two words, three words, four at the most.

For William Jennings Bryan, the magic phrase was “cross of gold.” Lindbergh shouted “America First” and we’re still hearing his echoes 75 years later. Hitler simply said it’s “the Jews,” and for millions of bigots the world over, it’s still “the Jews.” Joe McCarthy fingered “the Commies” so ferociously that half the people over 70 in America are still peeking beneath the bed for phantom Bolsheviks. George Wallace kept Jim Crow alive for years beyond its expiration date by roaring the motto that has inspired white nationalists from George Lincoln Rockwell to David Duke: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

Donald Trump has plagiarized a few of his forebears, lifting “America First” from Lindbergh, echoing Richard Nixon’s “law and order” ‘and “silent majority” dog-whistles, and even cribbing (without irony) from speeches by Abe Lincoln and FDR. But he also devised his own slogan and trained his congregation to testify at the top of their lungs whenever he snaps those tiny fingers.

“What’re we gonna build?”

“A wall! A Wall! A WAAAAAAAALL!”

The consolation in the rise of our latest two-word demagogue is that gasbags like Trump don’t thrive long in America. They fascinate some of us forever and captivate a few more for a while. But, eventually, it’s like having “Wild Thing” stuck in your head, looping over and over again. All you want to do is hear another song, any song. Even Hillary, with a ukelele, trying to sing “My Man.”


One of the riffs that killed Rudy Giuliani’s presidential bid in 2008 was that almost every sentence he uttered contained “a noun, a verb and 9/11.” Trump’s variation on this mantra is the way he tends to repeat every punchline three times followed by “Believe me.”

Which tempts me to amend Nelson Algren’s rules of life: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”
And never trust a guy who keeps saying, “Believe me.”


I recently posted a Trump-themed screed on Facebook and accompanied it with a photo of him squinching his kisser, pointing a finger. One loyal Trumpnik cried foul, because — she said — Trump’s enemies always publish his worst photos, to make him look bad.

She’s wrong. This was one of Trump’s best shots. It’s a photographer’s photograph, the sort of shot that makes you say to yourself, “Got it!” As I scoured the Web for Trump images, I was questing the grail that keeps every photographer clicking away maniacally: the shot that’s funny, startling, embarrassing, even frightening or, best of all, revealing — the gaping mouth, the bugged-out eyes, the bared fang, the fright-wig hair, the clenched fist. Photographers wait like birds of prey for these brief, naked flashes of facial candor. Editors love them. These are the prints that make page one, above the fold. It’s not about love him or hate him. It’s about the moment.


I thought it odd that the Republican campaign logo displays“TRUMP” in letters bigger than the name of vice-presidential nominee (Mike) “PENCE.” I couldn’t recall a similar type-size disparity on any previous presidential lapel button. So I looked it up. In most races, including LINCOLN-JOHNSON, McKINLEY-HOBART, KENNEDY-JOHNSON, NIXON-AGNEW, MONDALE-FERRARO, DOLE-KEMP, McCAIN-PALIN and OBAMA-BIDEN, both candidate names on posters and bumper stickers were equally tall and identically boldfaced.

However, I did uncover a few precedents for the big-TRUMP/ little-pence variation. Typographical VP diminution dates back to when big RUTHERFORD B. HAYES overshadowed little willy wheeler in 1876. Other examples of Prez belittling Veep were IKE & dick in ’52 and CARTER-mondale in ’76, followed by BUSH-quayle in ’88 and BUSH-cheney in 2000. Curiously, JON STEWART was bigger than stephen colbert in 2012.

Of course, it’s no surprise that Donald wants the biggest name on the billboard, but I wonder who talked Dick into being lower case than Dubya?



One more thought. Has anyone else noticed that Trump’s erstwhile campaign honcho Paul Manafort bears an eerie resemblance to one of those dreamboat Fifties crooners who did guest spots on Garry Moore and “Your Hit Parade,” but ended up — as they got older — on Las Vegas casino stages serenading the AARP crowd? I’m thinking Vic Damone, Jack Jones, Robert Goulet, Vaughn Monroe.

And I’m thinking that Trump’s campaign-chief-of-the-month, Stephen Bannon, is suddenly the new headliner in the posh Painted Desert Room at the Desert Inn.

Replacing handsome, debonair but faintly wrinkled and slightly over-the-hill Paul “Velvet Voice” Manafort… who’s now singing “Moon River” to the drunks and hookers in the Thunderbird lounge.

That’s showbiz.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#777)

Why is this woman not an
episode of “Criminal Minds”?

by David Benjamin

“Hill’ry Clinton took an ax, and gave Vince Foster forty whacks.
“When she saw what she had done, she gave Chris Stevens forty-one.”

                — Popular children’s rhyme

MADISON, Wis. — The latest kerfuffle over Donald Trump’s ambiguous call for “Second Amendment people” to take up arms and blow Hillary Clinton’s brains out pales in comparison to the bloodsoaked trail of homicides directly connected — on popular trollsites all over cyberAmerica — to Mrs. Clinton herself.

I was unaware of Hillary’s 20-year killing spree ’til informed by a stepbrother who will remain anonymous for his own protection. He revealed that the combined Bill and Hillary body count — witnesses executed to prevent them exposing the staggering vastness of the Clintons’ criminal empire — is 147 victims.

Actually, according to newshounds at “Government Slaves,” the body count consensus is 47, from Whitewater dupe Jim McDougal to Todd McKeehan, one of 12 Clinton bodyguards who were iced because they’d seen too much.

(Warning to Hillary’s Secret Service detail: Watch your back, boys!)

My stepbrother’s overestimate — by 100 bodies — seems hyperbolic until you realize that when your perp has already gotten away with 47 known murders, dozens more corpses are probably lying somewhere in shallow graves being gnawed by raccoons and coyotes. Indeed, at “What Really Happened,” you can read heart-rending thumbnails of 117 innocents liquidated ruthlessly by the Clinton murder machine. The victims include John F. Kennedy, Jr. and former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, both shot down surreptitiously by CIA jet-fighters under Bill and Hillary’s direct command. Also among the slain, ironically, is former CIA director Bill Colby, snatched from a canoe and drowned, probably because of his knowledge of the Clintons’ jet-fighter hit squad.

As one anonymous (who could blame him?) journalist for The Political Insider has warned: “The Clinton body count is massive and growing. Hillary Clinton will stop at nothing to become President, and death seems to follow her everywhere…”

Among grislier examples of what Hill and Bill have done to cover their outrages was the fate of White House ex-intern Mary Mahoney, murdered in an apparent “robbery” at a Georgetown Starbucks. Some $4,000 was left behind by the so-called robber, who pumped five bullets into Mary while also killing two witnesses. This massacre followed news reports about “M,” a “former White House staffer” poised to expose the Clintons’ sexual shenanigans at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Inevitably, these documented cases of Hillary’s career as probably the most prolific serial murderer in human history, have doubters. The fact-check website, Snopes, has painstakingly disputed every alleged Clinton homicide. In the Mahoney case, described by police as a botched robbery, Snopes explains, “The putative reason offered for Mahoney’s slaying, that she was about to testify about sexual harrassment in the White House, was a lie… We all know now… that the ‘staffer’ referred to was Monica Lewinsky, not Mary Mahoney. The conspiracy buffs maintained that White House hit men rushed out, willy-nilly, and gunned down the first female ex-intern they could find whose name began with ‘M.’…”

In examining all of Hillary’s atrocities, Establishment stooges like Snopes dwell on the overwhelming lack of evidence that either Bill or Hillary had any connection to these deaths and had no credible motive to snuff these 47, or 90, or 117 people. Fact-checkers also note that most of these “victims” weren’t really “killed.” Many died of purported heart attacks and other “natural” causes. Several were judged to be “suicides.” Finally, the fact-nerds report that no law enforcement organization has found grounds to charge, arrest, accuse, investigate or even suspect the Clintons of engineering this immense campaign of human slaughter.

But, of course, this extraordinary vacuum of evidence is the most damning proof that these two soulless sociopaths are, indeed, direct descendants of Jack the Ripper. Everyone knows that the genius of any power-driven, officially conceived conspiracy— like the phony moon landing in 1969 — is the conspirators’ attention to cleaning up after themselves, never leaving behind the tiniest shred of evidence. And then, of course, killing anybody who knows anything. The absolute proof of a vast evil conspiracy is that no proof remains, and every cadaver is clean as a whistle.

In the words of Yossarian, “That's some catch, that Catch-22.”

Fortunately, America now has a presidential nominee who grasps the diabolical menace of these conspiracies and the true colors of their mastermind, Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump has already exposed numerous conspiracies — the Nairobi plot to put a Muslim terrorist in the White House, the Chinese climate-change hoax, the New Jersey Muslim rooftop celebration on 9/11, the airplane full of money for Iran. Before Trump, these scandalous revelations were available only via Internet on the Right-Wing Chain-Letter Network. Now, they have a fearless spokesman.

In my case, whenever Trump unearths another plot — usually implicating the Bitch of Little Rock — I get nostalgic for the Sixties.

In those days, the Left had the corner on conspiracy theories, including the one where J. Edgar Hoover put out contracts on the entire Kennedy family, including Rose. Liberals were the guys who could explain the Bay of Pigs, the Gulf of Tonkin, the secret war in Laos, the overthrows of Mosaddegh in Iran, Arbenz in Guatemala, Allende in Chile and even Batista in Cuba — not to mention the sweat on Tricky Dick’s upper lip.

Liberalism used to be the panic room for the lunatic fringe. But our last good conspiracy theory was the one where Karl Rove crashed the airplanes of Mel Carnahan and Paul Wellstone. And this stuff got no traction at all. We lost our touch. Nowadays all the really paranoid suspicions and dark delusions are the intellectual property of the Right, and Donald Trump is the patent-holder.

Fittingly.

Fear and loathing might be a creepy job, but it’s as American as Mom, apple pie, burning crosses and Tailgunner Joe. And somebody — ideally a self-important Bozo with orange hair — has to do it!

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#776)

“Through every
Middlesex village and farm”

by David Benjamin

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
— The Bill of Rights

Grosscup answered the door. He was in his pajamas. His coffee was brewing. He had morning breath. He found on his doorstep a tall, fit, granite-jawed figure, heavily armed, wearing Tactical Assault Camouflage and a pair of vicious-looking boots.

“Oh my God,” said Grosscup.

“ G. Grayling Grosscup?” asked the stranger in a clipped, resounding drill-sergeant baritone.

“Well, yes, but who — ”

“Captain Grosscup, it’s an honor to make your acquaintance.” The stranger saluted, almost violently. “I am Platoon Command Lieutenant (PCL) Gerhard Flick of the First National Volunteer Militia Brigade.”

Grosscup rubbed his eyes. PCL Flick stood at ease. “How soon,” he said, “can you be ready, Captain Grosscup?”

“Captain?” said Grosscup, feeling the first twinges of alarm. “Ready for what?”

“Well, sir,” said PCL Flick with a brief, flinty smile, “we know you pretty well. You’re the proud owner of 19 guns, both rifles and handguns, revolvers, semi-automatic and automatic, a classic Thompson submachine gun, thousands of rounds of ammo (including a secret drawer full of dubiously legal hollow-points), a rocket propelled grenade launcher (with ammo), and even a flintlock that you found at an antique-gun show in Albert Lea, Minnesota. And you’re an outspoken member of the National Rifle Association, and a delegate to the annual convention of Gun Owners of America. That’s you, isn’t it, Capt. Grosscup?”

“I guess.”

“Well, then, you’re our boy.”

“What boy? And why do you keep calling me ‘captain,’ fella?”

“Well, with the kind of arsenal you’ve accumulated, sir, you’re automatically elevated to officer status,” said Flick, with a note of admiration. “Frankly, I’m a little bit in awe. I’d love a chance to handle your sawed-off Beretta A400.”

“How do you know about that — ”

Well, sir, I’d love to chat. But we are on a tight schedule,” said Flick, patiently. “You’re due to report in less than two hours.”

Grosscup was beginning to feel a vague sense of alarm. “Report?” he cried. “Report what? Where?”

“Headquarters, sir. Of the NVMB, right here in town. It’s a great little unit,” said Flick. “As you can see from my comrades-in-arms.”

Suddenly, eight similarly attired men of varying ages, heavily armed but not as svelte as PCL Flick, emerged from behind Grosscup’s shrubs and assumed the parade-rest position.

“Oh my God,” said Grosscup redundantly. “What’s all this about?”

PCL Flick smiled indulgently, looked at his watch and sighed. “It’s about the Second Amendment, sir. I’m sure you know it.”

“Of course I do!” said Grosscup, stiffening his back and glaring up at Flick. “It’s the most important document in U.S. history. It’s the reason we’re free. It’s my personal, God-given shield against home invasion, terrorist attacks and urban thugs. It’s — ”

“Yes, we know, Captain. That’s why we’re here.”

“Wait!” said Grosscup. “Are you the jackbooted thugs sent by the government to seize my weapons and render me helpless against liberal tyranny?”

PCL Flick shared a chuckle with his platoon, “Au contraire, Capt. Grosscup. We are your troops. We are the embodiment, the apotheosis of the Second Amendment!”

Grosscup fell speechless and simply stared. Flick asked a question: “Captain, what’s the fourth word in the sacred Amendment, the one that comes before the mention of ‘arms’?”

Grosscup thought for a moment. “Oh. Um, ‘militia’.”

“Well, there you go,” said Flick.

“Go where?”

“Exactly,” said Flick. “How about you get dressed and gather up seven or eight of your favorite guns. We need to fit you for your uniform before you man your post.”

“Post? What post?”

“The post you’ve earned, sir. Indeed, the post that cries out to you because of your loyalty to the Constitution and the NRA. We are, Capt. Grosscup, the well-regulated militia enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the militia to which every devout follower of the Second Amendment, as a matter of duty, as a matter of patriotism, as a source of towering martial pride. Sir, you — with your personal armory of well-oiled guns, rifles, ammunition and explosives — you are our hero. We are your militia. We call upon you to step forth and regulate us.”

Another crisp salute followed.

“Or else,” said PCL Flick. “We’ll have to grab you up and drag you away.”

“You mean, I have to go? Now?”

“Well, sir, you did ask for this,” said Flick. “All that ranting and raving you did, at the bar in the VFW Hall. Those petitions you signed. That nasty thing you said about Gabby Giffords.”

In the face of overwhelming force — a concept he had always cherished — Grosscup relented. Soon, he was in a troop van, with his Beretta A400 in his lap and an ammo belt over his shoulder. He turned to Flick.

“You said something about a duty post?”

“Yes sir, Captain sir,” said Flick. “You’ll be going to Desolation City.”

“Sounds homey. What will I be doing there?”

“You’re assigned to the Desolation National Swamp, sir, to protect the beavers.”

Grosscup looked puzzled, and slightly crestfallen. Flick explained.

“Against Mormon beaver poachers,” he added.

“Really? I had no idea Mormons did that.”

“Oh, Captain, my Captain, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Mormon beaver poaching in our national swamps is one of those threats that we must rise against and stifle — mercilessly — even before it actually exists! Like Shariah law in Oklahoma. Voter fraud in North Carolina! Zombie apocalypse in the Beverly Hills Mall!”

The van lurched to a halt. Troops piled out, followed by Grosscup, who discovered that they’d been stopped for inspection by an NVMB militiaman waving an AR-15 and firing into the air. Grosscup recognized him.

“Oh my God, you let him into the militia?” he cried. “That’s Mad Dog Melvin, the kid from down my block who tortures animals and cooks meth in his basement. He’s nuts. He’s dangerous.”

“That’s right,” said PCL Flick, saluting Mad Dog Melvin. “He’s our boy.”

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#775)

A letter to my Senator
by David Benjamin

The Honorable Tammy Baldwin
United States Senate
717 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510-4906

Dear Sen. Baldwin:

Not too long ago, I went back to my childhood hometown of Tomah to drop off a copy of my latest published novel, A Sunday Kind of Love, at the offices of the Tomah Journal — the newspaper I had read every week when I was growing up, in the living room of my grandparents’ house on Pearl Street. It’s difficult to express my surprise when I got to the Journal office and found that the door was locked.

The Journal was operating. There were people inside. I could see them. But they were locked in. I was locked out.

Perhaps I was more shocked than most people because — for more than seven years — I was the editor of a weekly newspaper, in Massachusetts, the Mansfield News. In that capacity, I couldn’t have imagined locking the door to my office. A locked door — or even a door! — was antithetical to my purpose as the editor of the News. I was the guy in town whom anybody, anytime, could walk in on.

Once, Barney Frank walked in. Another time, a member of a town board who also had business ties to the Patriarca crime family, walked in and told me that he would kill me if I kept reporting his run-ins with the Mansfield Police. I believed him. Three different times, a high school freshman walked in and asked for a job as a stringer for the News. Since I didn’t have a reporting staff beyond myself, I hired each kid and proceeded to teach him the techniques, style and ethics of journalism, as best I could. Each of these exceptional boys thrived at the News. After graduation, they went on to college at Vanderbilt, Georgetown and the University of Chicago.

Today, the opportunity Bill, Frank and Tim had — to learn the news hands-on and close-up, with personal guidance from a “professional” (I use the term loosely, because I never attended an actual journalism school) — doesn’t exist in Mansfield. The News, once an independent newspaper and job press, has been reduced to “penny press” status, after being bought out by an out-of-town regional newspaper chain. The News no longer sits in the Town Hall every night, taking notes on the meetings of the Board of Selectmen, the Health Board, the School Committee, the Zoning Board of Appeals. The News no longer pores trough the police log every Wednesday afternoon, and it doesn’t exert a tireless vigilance over the government and business of the community.

The News has a “telephone editor” now, located in a distant city, transcribing obituaries, wedding announcements and the school lunch menu. Its “coverage” of local political affairs depends on the word of local officeholders issuing press releases. The practice of journalism in Mansfield is extinct.

Recently, I got a heart-warming note from a Mansfield resident, formerly the assistant superintendent of schools and one of my regular targets of scrutiny, who said, simply, “We need you back.”

The same fate has befallen Tomah, where the Journal is now the property of Lee Enterprises, an Iowa “media company” that owns more than 350 weekly and daily publications in 23 states. It’s traded on the New York Stock Exchange. So is the gigantic Gannett news group, and the McClatchy group, the Tribune Company, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, every major television network and radio group. This ownership model is a major reason for the decay of journalism. Most Americans today get what little news they consume — whether online or in print — from immense corporations whose fealty is neither to its readers nor to democracy, but to a handful of wealthy shareholders and to the caprice of the traders on the floor of the Stock Exchange.

This is why I’m proposing to you a possible legislative solution to what has been called “the death of print” and the precipitous decline of professional news-gathering in America.

Another example. My wife, Junko Yoshida, went to work more than 25 years ago for EE Times, a technology journal that simply had no peer in its field. The team Junko joined at EE Times is one of the best groups of newsmen and newswomen I’ve encountered in my career. EE Times, which was privately owned by a husband and wife in Manhasset, New York, had a worldwide staff whose credentials in both engineering and reporting offered its demanding and erudite readers a level of breadth and depth unmatched in its field.

Less than a decade later, after its owners retired, EE Times was purchased by a publicly traded media company that proceeded — in order to meet its quarterly projections — to reduce its scope, fire its journalists, designers and photographers, to close its offices in Europe and Asia, in the Midwest and Northeast. Today, EE Times, which abandoned print several years ago, is sustained heroically by four fulltime reporters, including my wife, and a handful of free-lancers (some of whom, like myself, often pitch in without pay).

Clearly, publicly held media companies — whatever their quarterly results — have done far more harm than good to the practice of journalism in America. And yet, more and more, only publicly held media companies practice journalism in America.

The classic model of the news organization, typified by the old EE Times, but also by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the old Hearst and McCormick empires, still exists. But the paternalism of the grand old newspaper chains is an institution that can’t be revived or replicated in these times. Nor should it be.

Nevertheless, we need a new way. Today, millions of Americans get their news online, often from “aggregators” who compile reports from other sources — including all those dying newspapers — or from profoundly unreliable sites that have a partisan, ideological or outright propaganda agenda. Ironically, the popularity of aggregators poses a reverse-pyramid dilemma. The more people use these typically free sites to consume news originally reported by the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Washington Post or even USA Today, the fewer people use — and pay for — that information from its real source. As aggregators grow, they imperil the existence of the vital sources from which they aggregate.

Which brings me to my solution. We need more journalists. Not the self-appointed pundits and single-issue bloggers who populate a million parasitic “news” sites on the Web. We need trained, paid professionals who know AP style, who grasp the differences between news, analysis and commentary, who understand the absolute imperatives of attribution and corroboration. We need legitimate news organizations where J-school grads can go for hands-on experience writing the news. We need small newspapers — both online and in print — weeklies, dailies, alternative tabloids that turn young stringers into conscientious reporters and dogged investigators. We need a citizens’ tribune who sits nearby the council table in every community, taking notes, shooting pictures, asking questions, quoting politicians and making them accountable for their words, their actions, their promises and their mistakes.

My solution is inspired by an idea that I first heard floated early in the Obama administration, for a national development bank. Launched with a principal of some $30 billion, its purpose would be to give loans and grants for major infrastructure projects, public, private and hybrid.

My variation: A national journalism development bank. The amount of capital would be much smaller than an infrastructure development bank. Its annual outlay would be, in my estimation, somewhere between $500,000,000 and $1 billion.

The sole purpose of this money would be to pay the salaries of reporters, mostly on the local and regional level, mostly in print and online (rather than television). At an average salary of $50,000 a year, an outlay of a half-billion dollars would employ 10,000 professional reporters.

In fact, since some of this money would cover salaries for lower-paid interns in some big-city newsrooms like those at the Times or the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, a half-billion or so would stretch beyond that minimum pool of 10,000 newly compensated journalists — many of whom would be restored to the community of ink-stained wretches after being laid off by Wall Street bean-counters.

You ask, how would this National Journalism Development Fund (NJDF) choose its beneficiaries. Easily. A local news entrepreneur would send in an application form that demonstrates the intent and the credentials to cover the news in, say, Tomah, in competition with the non-doing ghost of the former Journal. Or the local Lee Enterprises stringer for the Journal could send in the same form, vowing to restore the paper’s integrity by staying in town and doing the local legwork the old Journal used to do. Each application would seek enough funding to cover the number of salaries needed to gather and produce the news. All other expenses would be up to the applicant to cover, preferably by selling ads and soliciting sponsors.

Administrators at the NJDF would be tasked to judge applications indulgently. After all, an outlay of $70,000, to cover the salaries of a local editor and reporter, is chump change in the great Washington budget scheme. If, after a year, the little newspaper office couldn’t renew its application because it couldn’t rustle up enough advertising or build its circulation beyond friends and family, the grant would be withdrawn and given to a new set of news entrepreneurs.

Of course, there would to be some sort of oversight. Ideally, the NJDF would hire teams of regional inspectors with a journalism background to monitor the performance of all these new-sprung or rejuvenated newsrooms. What a great job for a retired newspaper editor. These inspectors would focus on each news organization’s commitment to serving the community, providing as much information as possible and doing the journalist’s most vital mission: civic education. All other details, including prose quality, good photography, appealing design, would be secondary.

In short, this is money that should be easy to get and hard to lose. The thing that makes a journalist professional and makes him or her want to be a better journalist is getting paid for the job — not enough to get rich, but enough to offer the assurance that this essential democratic vocation has true and irrevocable value.

Newspeople are a lot like teachers. Firefighters. Cops.

Why do this?

Journalists are a dying breed, literally. Their place is being usurped by amateurs, opportunists and conspiracy theorists. At some point, when the number of responsible, professional, ethical journalists sinks below some point of critical mass, citizens will no longer see enough real news to distinguish it from bullshit. If there’s any doubt that American journalism is approaching that critical mass, I need only cite the political success of Donald Trump, a man who conflates fact and fancy, has no idea that he’s doing it, and has millions of followers who share his seditious ignorance.

And how to pay for it? Where will the billion come from? I suggest that we assess the very people and organizations who right now cling parasitically to the last few bastions of professional news-gathering. Every aggregator provides links to the sources of its blurbs, headlines and news briefs. Every aggregator, in order to collect advertising revenue, assiduously counts every “hit” on its site and every click to every link. These hits and clicks number in the billions. It would be a small matter to monitor all these online visits to all the aggregrators and all their sources and charge each aggregator a tiny fraction of a penny (or, preferably, a whole penny), for each hit, click, link and visit — NOT payable by the consumer. Yahoo, Google and Facebook would have to cough up the pennies.

And if there’s extra money? Give the reporters a raise.

Obviously, all I’m proposing here is a rough sketch of what would be a complicated and contentious law. Cynical old editor that I am, I expect this idea not only to go anywhere, nor do I expect a response. But I urge you to suggest the notion to a few of your colleagues in the Senate, and pass it by a few reporters. The responses will be interesting. My wife, who has seen the depopulation of her own newsroom, told me — at first blush — that I was full of crap. But after reconsidering, she conceded that maybe I’ve got something here. After all, if you take the personnel cost out of the newsroom, everything else suddenly starts to look affordable — especially if you can publish online and don’t have to buy ink, paper and press time.

Sorry if I’m long-winded. But I needed to make the case for the care and feeding of real journalists, and explain why a system of no-strings support for the dissemination of the news, objectively and universally — down to the grass roots — is not only possible in a digital 21st-century America, but necessary.

Sincerely,

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#774)

The year of the Ape Man
by David Benjamin

“I am as free as nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.”

— John Dryden, Conquest of Granada (1672)

MADISON, Wis. — Lately, my know-it-all attitude has been getting me into trouble. A high-school friend accused me of elitism for flaunting my vocabulary and looking down my nose at Donald Trump’s less-than-erudite fans.

Of course, right away, Tarzan came to mind.

The imagery of the “noble savage” has been a staple of Western culture since More, Milton and Montaigne. It’s been appropriated by social engineers, Marxists, racists, outlaw bikers and NewAgers. It was trashed by Hobbes and vilified  by Dickens: “His virtues are a fable; his happiness is a delusion; his nobility, nonsense.”

Traditionally, the noble savage is brown, black, yellow, red — providing a sublime contrast to the overly couth dandy who has lost touch not only with nature, but with God and his own humanity. As Baron de Lahontan (an effete honky if ever there was one), wrote, the noble savage “… looks with compassion on poor civilized man — no courage, no strength, incapable of providing himself with food and shelter: a degenerate, a moral cretin, a figure of fun in his blue coat, his red hose, his black hat, his white plume and his green ribands… For science and the arts are but the parents of corruption. The Savage obeys the will of Nature, his kindly mother, therefore he is happy. It is civilized folk who are the real barbarians…”

Literature has long glorified the innocence, resourcefulness, uncluttered intellect and rugged sex appeal of the romantic primitive. Adam and Eve were our first noble savages, ruined by the serpent-hung Tree of Knowledge. Voltaire, in Candide, celebrated the insightful clarity of the unschooled ingĂ©nue. Kipling gave us Mowgli. Fenimore Cooper created Natty Bumppo, whose woodsy Mohican sidekick, Chingachgook, bestowed all the education Hawkeye would ever need. In Moby Dick, a pallid and pusillanimous protagonist learns life from Queequeg, a worldly-wise and racially exotic harpoon-chucker who can’t read a lick.

Not to mention the simple but perspicacious Tonto turning to his kemo sabe and saying, “What do you mean ‘we,’ paleface?”

For 20th-century Americans, however, this ideal is neither aboriginal nor alien. He’s Johnny Weismuller, the Olympic swimmer whom MGM cast as the second cinema Tarzan (after the forgotten Elmo Lincoln).

Tarzan’s author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, conceived him as a suave English gent wearied by the pomp and pretense of high society. To cure his malaise, he trades in tweeds for loincloth and moves to the heart of darkness, where he might have languished forever as a pulp-fiction curiosity. Hollywood, however — with a keener grasp than Burroughs of le bon sauvage — stripped Tarzan’s Oxford veneer, reduced him to monosyllabic purity and rendered him as a foundling Romulus raised by gorillas.

Hollywood’s Tarzan transformation gave ordinary white folks, in a fiercely segregated world, a noble savage who looks like them and sounds even dumber. This flattering variation prevailed ’til the Tarzan franchise lost Weismuller, sank into B-movie farce and lost its mojo. Since then, no comparable icon has risen to take Tarzan’s place — ’til now.

Donald Trump has turned the myth topsy-turvy. Before the Trump epiphany, the sickly urbanite — stuffed with book-learning, lounging in his gazebo, sipping sherry and snuffling up organic arugula — was white. Now, suddenly, that yuppie snob stultified by civilization has emerged as a darkskinned poseur. He’s mocha-colored, Harvard-cured, condescending, politically correct and ludicrously out of touch with the silent and suffering but nobly ignorant and rurally pure masses…

… of white guys.

Donald Trump has cornered the market on romantic primitivism and roared — without irony — at the top of his lungs: “I love the poorly educated!” Trump has seen the savagery that infects men who’ve been displaced, confused and enraged by 21st-century globalism, and he’s declared it noble.

Rousseau’s “good wild man” is now the embittered workingman who can’t earn a living wage in the digital, cybernetic and multinational economy. Today, the noble savage is a jobless hardhat who stands gazing at a vast mothballed steel mill the way a Sioux brave once scowled forlornly at a great plain bereft of buffalo. The noble savage today is a smalltown big-box stocker with a wallet full of food stamps, shuffling past the Walmart-shuttered storefronts on Main Street. Like the native plainsman, today’s noble savage is blessed with resources no longer valued.

He was a warrior who, blindfolded, could assemble an M-16 in two minutes. But he’s been discharged. He has a GED in a Master’s-degree era. He’s a stand-up guy who, in a bygone paradise, could split a rail in one blow, shoe a horse, dress a hog, deliver a calf in a blizzard and shoot the feelers off a fly from a hundred yards.

And swing from tree to tree?

The noble savage, ca. 2016, doesn’t get Jane. He doesn’t even get introduced. It’s too cold to live in a tree. He can’t survive on bananas and coconuts. And the natives don’t like him any more than he likes them. Only Donald Trump —who needs the votes — thinks this chronic loser is any nobler than the next slob in the mob.

The noble savage, ca. 2016, isn’t Tarzan, but he might be Blackhawk.

Pushed westward by white civilization and denied the lands and game that had sustained his tribe for eons, the great Indian general waged a brilliant, futile war against a bungling but far more numerous U.S. militia. After his defeat, Blackhawk consented to a “goodwill tour.” His captors paraded him through Eastern cities, exhibiting him to gawking crowds, petty dignitaries and bigoted plutocrats as the essential, authentic noble savage. Everyone was magnanimous to Blackhawk, because they knew — better, and sooner, than he — that he was already extinct.

If you ask Dickens, he never existed at all.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#773)

… Real white of you
by David Benjamin

“You're a slave in your own country, White Man. Each year you get to keep less of the fruits of your labor; each year it gets more difficult to carry the burden the aliens have placed upon you; each year the cheap labor of aliens makes your future less secure…”
— George Lincoln Rockwell

MADISON, Wis. — In the aftermath of seven killings on the streets of America, our black spokespeople seem to be acquitting themselves so much more gracefully than their white counterparts.

While Donald Trump was channeling Richard Nixon with a nudge-wink proclamation about being “the law and order candidate,” and George W. Bush was issuing vague nostrums about our worst selves and our best intentions, black speakers were responding to tragedy with eloquence, indignation, complexity and solutions.

In a Dallas eulogy during which he chided all Americans for our indifference to bias and a high tolerance for violence, President Obama spoke healingly: “I am reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel. ‘I will give you a new heart,’ the Lord says, ‘and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.’ That’s what we must pray for, each of us. A new heart. Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens.”

Dallas Police Chief David O. Brown defined the deadly gap between cops and the urban community more clearly than most people have ever heard when he said, “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cop handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding, let’s give it to the cops. Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem. Let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, give it to the cops. Seventy percent of the African-American community is being raised by single women. Let’s give it to the cops to solve that as well. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

Even a 15-year-old, Cameron Sterling, who had seen video of two Baton Rouge police officers pin his father, Alton Sterling, to the ground and pump him full of 9mm slugs, spoke gently of brotherhood and reconciliation. “I feel that people, no matter what the race, should come together as one united family,” said Cameron. “There should be no more arguments, disagreements, violence, crime. I feel that everyone, yes, you can protest… But protest in the right way — with peace, not violence.”

The kid has a point, but the kid’s black, swimming against a tide that has reinstated whiteness — the mere genetic absence of pigment — as an active political ideology. For a swelling swath of the electorate, being white is sufficient as a political identity. Neither Democratic nor Republican, Libertarian, Socialist or Green. Just…

…colorless.

Donald Trump, bless his tiny heart, has become the prophet for the national white people’s revival movement. Loyalists praise his willingness to “say what he thinks,” without regard to “political correctness.” But, really? I see a man more politically correct than Hillary or Bernie. If Trump were really saying what he thinks, candidly expressing the deep-dyed id of the nation’s aggrieved Caucasoids, he would come right out and roar, “Hey, I’m white and I’m entitled — because I. Am. White.”

(Yes, I understand that he’s not strictly white. Depending on foundation, blusher and lighting, he ranges from a sort of carbon-monoxide pink to an overripe apricot tone. But let’s not split hairs.)

Trump is not saying, “You people, my white followers, are better than all those Others — because You. Are. White.”

At Trump’s rallies, the microphones occasionally capture true believers spewing what they think and feel, words Trump still avoids because he’s trapped in the craven grip of political correctness. He has been caught using the “f” word but never the two syllables that would bring Trumpniks to their feet in ecstatic ovation. Trump says, ironically, “I love my protesters,” even as he urges the mob to beat them up. But what he means, and the  mob knows it and adores him for it, is: “I love my niggers.”

Followed, of course, by: “Get ‘em outa here!”

Although he’s still pulling that knockout blow, Donald Trump intuits how we working-class white males feel. Nobody knows the troubles we’ve seen. Along with the decline of an almost exclusively white middle-class America, white males have been ridiculed into absurdity by beer ads and the Farrelly Brothers. We’ve lost jobs, income, houses, opportunities, marriages and — if all those Cialis commercials are any indication — our very manhood. Our wives are using separate bathtubs.

We need someone to blame. We need to lash out. We need to throw a punch, ideally at someone who’s not looking. Our corner man? Trump.

The thing is, guys…

What’s been taken from us hasn’t gone to the dusky outcasts whom we’ve dumped into ghetto schools, redlined out of our neighborhoods and racially profiled into the biggest incarceration state in the history of the world. While we’ve been recently screwed, they’ve stayed screwed all along.

Face it, man. You can’t lose your job — and your career, your dignity and your erection — to a black guy who hasn’t been around to take it because he’s been in jail since he was 14. Or to a Muslim refugee languishing in an ICE detention cell. Or to a Mexican tomato-picker, a single mother, an unemployed teenager or even a Chinaman in Shenzhen. All these “losers” are even more impotent than you are.

That Chinaman didn’t pick up his marbles and move all U.S. computer manufacturing, all the mobile device making, every TV factory, all the shoemaking, garment-making and most of the steelmaking from the U.S.A. to sweatshop nations where 12-year-olds work for a dollar and a dime a day.  Patriotic, GOP-voting Americans did all that packing up and hauling ass. Big fat pink Americans — men who look a lot like Donald Trump, men know the secret handshake and play golf at the country clubs where the vast majority of us white guys can’t afford to even peek through the fence.

Talk about walls? Guys like Trump have been walling us off all our lives. Go ahead, Bubba — try trespassing at Turnberry. And don’t even think about applying for work there, or at Mar-A-Lago — not as long as there are dirt-poor Haitians, desperate Dominicans and H2-B temporary visas.

Donald Trump keeps telling white men we have enemies. He’s right. But he’s not pointing his stunted finger toward all the copper-toned upper-crusters like him who’ve taken the loot and bricked it up inside their gilded tax shelters. Trump is benevolently scattering at our feet the scraps, chicken bones, potato peels, fish heads and big promises that have always been the bounty of riffraff like us. If we ask, “Why so little?” he points warningly downward into the teeming depths.

He says, “Look out below.”