Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#691)

If you don’t buy this war,
we’ll kill this dog

by David Benjamin

“The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. ‘Off with his head!’ she said, without even looking round.”
                  —  Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

MADISON, Wis. — With the recent beheadings in the Middle East of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and British aid worker David Haines, decapitation shot to the top of the charts as the hottest political fad of 2014. To suggest that the Republican Party is not feasting ravenously on every fresh, grisly YouTube video of a black-clad masked marauder — as he saws off the heads of hapless hostages — is to naively misconstrue the morbid glee of the GOP.

Of course, everyone says solemnly that they’re appalled, outraged, livid and totally grossed-out by these gruesome scenes, but hey…

If Foley’s murder had not showed up on YouTube and several hundred other websites, Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Jim Inhofe and their GOP co-hysterics in the Senate never could have justified the hearings in which they’re demanding an immediate damn-the-torpedoes U.S. invasion of Syria, Iraq, possibly Turkey, maybe Iran and oh-my-god! What about Yemen?

Graham, who is currently beating the war drums even harder than John “Bomb Bomb Iran” McCain, said in June, “I don't think we need boots on the ground. I don't think that is an option worth consideration.”

After Foley lost his head, Graham’s tune went like this: “This idea we’ll never have any boots on the ground to defeat them in Syria is fantasy.”

What a difference a severed noggin makes.

Meanwhile, as I watched Graham and McCain demand that our reluctant generals send hordes of dumb, patriotic kids from Yellow Snow, Idaho to die on the thankless sands of Iraq and Syria, it occurred to me that the bloodthirsty militants of ISIS (or ISIL, or Daesh) might actually be led by a literal-thinking fraternity of post-Sixties nostalgia buffs. Look closely and you can’t help but recognize the Foley, Sotloff and Haines videos as a blatant (and clearly tasteless) real-life variation on perhaps the best satirical magazine image of all time — when the cover of the National Lampoon depicted a nervous mutt with a gun to his head, next to a caption that read: “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.”

Today, 41 years after that Lampoon, Republicans in Washington are riffing — without a hint of irony — on that warped, but hilarious message. They stridently warn President Obama that “If you don’t start this war, Muslim terrorists will keep decapitating innocent white people, and it’ll all be your fault, Rastus!”

Sen. Graham and cohorts know a useful trend when they see one. Before James Foley bit the dust, no one had the least appetite for clogging the Syrian quagmire with doomed American GIs. Now, approval for U.S. troops to fight ISIS is 34 percent. That doesn’t sound like much? A couple of weeks ago, the number was zero. If this was the Top 40, Casey Kasem (rest his soul) would be playing the Foley/Sotloff/Haines triple feature every hour on the hour and raving about how the surprise hit, “Another Pointless War,” was heading for Number One, “with a bullet.”

There’s no telling how far and fast the vogue might spread. But it will. I can see embattled incumbents all over America leaping onto the tumbril in panicked droves. Picture, for example, an apparent campaign ad for Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes. A black-hooded figure, perhaps wearing a black t-shirt with the visage of Ms. Grimes, holds a razor-edged Ottoman sword over the neck of a bound, blindfolded African-American virgin. An ominous voice-over intones these chilling words: “If you vote for Mitch McConnell, this high-school valedictorian and scholarship student at the University of Kentucky will die horribly, before your very eyes, at the hands of this Democrat executioner.”

Of course, the ad would be a plant by the McConnell campaign. But imagine the impact, especially on the black voters who normally despise Mitch — especially if, in a follow-up ad, the girl actually gets her head hacked off (or so it seems). Talk about viral!

Presumably, the subterfuge would be discovered and fact-checked by some newspaper that nobody reads. But by then, YouTube hits would be in the millions and Grimes’ candidacy would be deader than the headless virgin.

By and by — although they’re traditionally slow on the uptake — Democrats might fight back with decapitation clips of their own. I’d love to see, for instance, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin whacking off the head of a unionized kindergarten teacher and mounting it above the wet bar on his rumpus-room wall next to last fall’s twelve-point buck.

But, as we saw in France toward the end of the Reign of Terror, and in England after Henry VIII beheaded his ninth or tenth wife, the public will exhibit what psychologists call “guillotine fatigue.” The shock value wears off. Heads keep rolling, but the bloodthirsty crowds — who’ve seen it all before  — begin to thin. Replica-head soccer balls stop selling at Dick’s, Wal-Mart holds a half-price sale on black hoods, and the YouTube views for ISIS dwindle to a trickle.

The last gasp of the decapitation fad might well be our own president desperate for one lonely legislative victory before leaving office. He stands on an Alaskan ice floe, aiming a twelve-gauge shotgun. He says, “My fellow Americans, if Congress doesn’t raise the minimum wage, I’ll blow out this baby seal’s brains.”

Too little, too late. Nobody watches. The president lets the seal go. America keeps mopping floors and flipping burgers for $7.25 an hour.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#690)

The next Bill of Rights:
A few suggestions
by David Benjamin

PARIS — One of the charms of a few weeks among our French friends is hearing them bellyache about the government. Not ours. Theirs! They gripe about weak leadership, legislative gridlock, a chaotic and divisive party system, an 18th-century constitution inadequate to the unforeseen challenges of an entirely new millennium. However, while I enjoy the schadenfreude that comes with all this Gallic kvetching, I have to admit to similar issues back in the USA. Although America is the world’s oldest and best-conceived constitutional democracy, we’ve failed to fill many of the gaps in the Constitution that have cropped up since 1787.

The Bill of Rights was tacked on to the Constitution already in 1791. Since then, Americans have continued to tweak our founding document, with 17 more amendments. But lately, we’re coping with developments in technology, politics, law, science and even religion have altered the very nature of American democracy. We’re overdue for the biggest tweak of all, a whole new Bill of Rights.

Here are a few suggestions.

First — even though a couple of them are already mentioned in the First Amendment, let’s fold Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s poetic and visionary Four Freedoms right into the text of America’s highest law: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear.

Second — Voting is a sacred right. No hindrances shall restrict any citizen’s right to vote. Lifelong registration to vote will occur automatically on each citizen’s 18th birthday, will carry his or her Social Security Number, and will follow wherever that citizen moves. All polling places — in every state, without exception — will apply the same procedures, use the same ballot design and technology, and follow the same schedule. Election officials who deviate from this standard will be tortured on sight by federal marshals. Early voting will be allowed daily starting 30 days before Election Day. Election Day, the first Tuesday in November, will be a national holiday. Anyone hanging around the polls who’s not voting and not a poll worker will be dragged away by federal marshals.

Third — The right of privacy is absolute. No individual or agency — governmental, public or private — will be allowed to intrude in any way into a citizen’s home, property or person, physically or electronically, without a warrant issued and signed by proper judicial authority.

Fourth — America is the world’s refuge. The following words will guide all decisions regarding immigration, asylum, economic displacement and flight from terror: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (Emma Lazarus)

Fifth — Public education was a unique stroke of American genius and remains the backbone of American democracy. It is an unfinished project. All schools, right now, must be made equal in every respect — in resources, pedagogy, safety, accessibility, academic rigor and curriculum. All students will graduate. All teachers will be trained thoroughly, subject to the equivalent of the bar examination and will be thereafter respected, compensated and disciplined as professionals on par with lawyers, doctors, engineers, hedge fund managers and members of Congress. Parents who meddle in their kid’s grades will be sent to detention. College will be free. Michelle Rhee will — please, finally! — STFU. 

Sixth — Health is a basic right. No one in America will be denied complete prompt and conscientious medical care, regardless of wealth, social status, or insurance coverage.

Seventh — The integrity of the human body in a democracy is absolute and inviolable. Congress shall make no law interfering or allowing anyone to interfere, in any way, with medical decisions reached in the sacrosanct privacy of the doctor’s office between physician and patient. Anyone violating this standard will be subject to weekly colonoscopies for an indefinite period.

Eighth — As all people are created equal, all equal work will be paid equally, regardless of the age, gender, race, creed, color or sexual orientation of the worker. Offenses against this standard will be deemed the responsibility of the employing entity’s highest authority  (e.g., the CEO, or “boss”) — who, when found guilty, will be sentenced to breaking rocks in the hot sun, without pay or toilet breaks.

Ninth — An independent judiciary is fundamental to the principle of fairness in a free republic. Judges are the priests of democracy and must remain politically celibate. Judges will be appointed by the executive branch of government or by an independent judicial panel. No judge will take part in partisan politics in any way and will not be chosen by popular election. No judge will be allowed to participate in political activities, or to affiliate with or appear before or receive any amount of money from any group with a possible interest in cases before his or her court. Ever. Even if he’s on the Supreme Court. Especially if he’s on the Supreme Court.

Tenth — Freedom from guns is a right as basic as having a gun. Any citizen who fears guns, or who simply appreciates the danger inherent in the presence of a loaded gun, has the right to demand the removal of that gun to a reasonably safe distance, beyond the gun’s accurate range and up to 100 miles. Any gun-carrying citizen refusing to comply with this standard is subject to being shot summarily but not fatally (preferably in a really painful spot), with his or her own gun.

Eleventh — Thou shalt not bear false witness or talk out of your ass into a microphone, even on talk radio and cable TV.

Twelfth — Anybody should be free to marry anybody they want — boy, girl or bowling team. Why are we even talking about this?

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#689)

“… I’ll let you be in my
dream if I can be in yours”

by David Benjamin

PARIS — Friend Steve, visiting Paris from rural Japan, posed the thesis that the Tea Party movement in the U.S. is a spent force. I replied that with southern governors again talking secession, Rand Paul burnishing his chances for the 2016 presidential nomination and Confederate Senator Ted Cruz usurping Speaker of the House John “Woody” Boehner, Steve was letting his hopes obscure the nihilist reality of right-wing politics in the R&B (red and blue) States of America.

In the same week, two op-ed writers, including the venerable socio-psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, characterized America’s political dilemma by quoting Bob Dylan from 49 years ago. Lifton cited the refrain in Dylan’s classic “Ballad of a Thin Man”: “something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”

The clueless Mr. Jones to whom Dylan poses a series of poetic riddles is the downtrodden middle-class drone who lives in his suburban cocoon, obeys a boss he detests and never questions the army of authorities who nibble away at his political independence and personal autonomy. In “Thin Man” (“…You walk into the room like a camel and then you frown. You put your eyes in your pocket and your nose on the ground…”), Dylan sounds a favorite warning — that huge contemporary changes are leading toward a vastly altered, but not necessarily better, future.

Dylan hit this motif in “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” in “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” in his “Talking World War III Blues” and, more subtly, in songs like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Dylan’s message of fear and prescience was common among the rebellious voices of the ‘60s. In the midst of his pessimism about humanity’s fate, he intimated that it remains in man’s power to unravel even our worst crises and craft a brighter future. Dylan conveyed a muted, but insistent, message of hope. The anger and disillusionment of Dylan and his contemporaries, me included, was forward-looking. In the anti-Vietnam War movement (“What if they gave a war, and nobody came?”), in Martin Luther King’s historic campaign of non-violence against American apartheid, in the national love affair with John F. Kennedy, that faint hope found a few heroes and a little justification.

We could do better, if we got together and tried. Surprisingly, not long after the turn of a new century, Dylan’s theme, JFK’s promise, the spirit of Dr. King, were all revived with the unexpected rise of Barack Obama. Remember?

Well, I do.

But Obama was greeted, noisily, by a new wave of populist anger, one that called itself the Tea Party. It hearkened back inaccurately to the civil disobedients of 1773, claiming ownership of a selectively edited Constitution and wrapping itself in layers of flags, including the Stars and Stripes, the Gadsden banner and the black flag of anarchy. But the difference that occurred to me as I recalled Bob Dylan’s lyrics, and the aspirations of those who took his poetry to heart, is that today’s apoplectic populists — who claim a clear view of the imminent Apocalypse — are Mr. Jones. They’re the same misguided shlemiels that Dylan mocked in 1965, but now they’re all pushing seventy and they’re not so thin anymore.

Worst of all, their gaze is fixed not a cloudy and perilous future whose problems regularly burst from the fog in terrifying clarity. They’re all looking backward, railing against problems already solved and issues mostly settled. Like Islamists yearning for the good old 8th century, America’s current species of populist insurgents stare fixedly backward — not to the Enlightenment patriots of the 18th century — but to the slave-state reactionaries of the 19th century.

Why would they bother about the future? They’re safely reaping the pensions, SSI and Medicare benefits that were secured by the liberals, labor unions and social reformers whom they despise. They don’t need to plan ahead. Their mission is to restore an imaginary past, time-traveling to days when America’s worst problems were swept silently into an invisible ghetto or flushed to the sea along toxic rivers, when Ozzie Nelson was everybody’s All-American and nobody’s neighbor.

The Tea Party has a list of projects, but none solve the actual problems that threaten the nation, both economically and democratically. None of them point forward. Although blessed by its benefits, Tea Partiers insist we can no longer afford to be our brother’s keeper. They would shred the social contract in favor of a ruthless Ayn Rand nightmare (in which they’ll already be dead, so who cares?). They would eliminate all taxes, wipe out food stamps and public assistance, burn down the Federal Reserve, raze the public schools and replace science with Christianist mythology, restore Jim Crow (only as a voluntary standard, of course) and invalidate Brown v. Board of Education, repeal the Affordable Care Act and return the poor and sick to the tried-and-true principle of natural selection. They would sand-blast from the Statue of Liberty Emma Lazarus’ promise to welcome “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

The Tea Party would kill the last vestige of collective bargaining, leave food safety to meat packers, hog factories and pesticide profiteers, and restore air and water pollution to levels not seen since Rachel Carson pissed off the job creators of corporate America. Especially, they want Roe v. Wade reversed and women restored to a status once articulated by another aging Jewish folk singer, Kinky Friedman: “Get your biscuits in the oven and your buns in the bed.”

Most and best of all, they want the one thing that got them all fired-up and half-cocked in the first place. They want that nigger out of the White House. Now.

As I told Steve the other night, when that happens, by impeachment or by the election of a white president, the Tea Party — with no ax to grind, no motive to march, no effigy to hang, and no object for their seething, atavistic hatred — will go the way of the dodo bird, the pet rock and the Klan.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#688)

A cozy evening in the urban shell
by David Benjamin

“Paris is devine. I mean Dorothy and I got to Paris yesterday, and it really is devine. Because the French are devine.”
                  — Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

PARIS — This city is a little like operating a Mack truck with a manual shift. It requires a fully-grown intelligent adult, a great deal of patience, a lot of practice, a little brute strength and a frisson of plain old attitude. Hotlips and I, who started in Paris 25 years ago, tend to forget the difficulties of newcomers to Paris who can find it confusing, frenetic and possibly even a little bit rude.

Last night, for example, we tried out a new restaurant, just down rue Monge, near the Left Bank’s fragrant, cobbled market street, rue Mouffetard. I was slightly skeptical of this bistro, called Dans des Landes, because a) it serves a French version of tapas, a Spanish gastronomic gimmick that I’ve always found vaguely annoying because the bill-of-fare consists entirely of snacks, and b) it was recommended by food guru Patricia Wells, whose occasional mistakes can cost you a couple hundred bucks before you escape the joint with a queasy tummy and a metallic aftertaste that lasts all night.

However, we decided to risk it and phoned ahead for a reservation — a necessity in Paris, because, if you don’t, there are maitre d’s who will turn, scan a restaurant replete with empty tables and idle, dozing waiters, and say, “Oh, m’sieur, I am so sorry. But we are complet — full. If only you had reserved!”

Having reserved, we were welcome. Our smiling host led us briskly to an outdoor table, right underneath the menu. At Dans des Landes and many bistros in France, the only menu is a blackboard (ardoise). As a pleasant surprise, the scrawl on the ardoise was legible, each item in capital letters. But in French.

There’s no French harder to learn and memorize than food words, most of which don’t appear in French-English lexicons. In French class, you learn the word for “pencil” (crayon) on Day One. Then you might wait ten years before you ever use it. I mean, really, who talks about pencils? But “onglet?” Or “chipiron?” “Andouillette?” “Dourade?” This is stuff common to cartes and ardoises from Normandy to the Cote d’Azur.

The Dans des Landes ardoise was a special challenge. Its long list of small dishes, which I called horse-overs and Hotlips called, diplomatically, “bar food,” was creatively esoteric, including “cous de canard” (duck necks), “coeurs de canard” (duck hearts), “couteaux” (jackknife clams), “poitrine de porc” (pork spare ribs) and “magret des cailles” (quail breasts).

As old bistro hands, Hotlips and I got the drift without too much difficulty, pausing only at “cous de canard,” a delicacy we’d never tasted (nor did we try it last night). However, our restaurant French was sufficient not only to earn a translation from our young waiter — who pointed to his neck — but to elicit from him, with obvious eagerness, his repertoire of high-school English.

Among the many, largely hidden, charms of Parisians is their willingness to speak English, however haltingly, if they first hear a visitor stumbling away at the native tongue. Helpfulness flows from the French — as it does from New Yorkers — if l’etranger makes even a pathetic effort to speak as do les habitants.

The tourist who learns nary a syllable of phrasebook French, not even so much as a “s’il vous plait,” or a mispronounced “merci” has no access to the sympathy and solicitude of Parisians and often — erroneously — comes away echoing D.H. Lawrence: ”I would have loved it — without the French.”

Dans des Landes was crowded, its popularity enhanced by the an annual August hiatus common among Paris eateries. Hence, as soon as our little table was overflowing with wine, water, tapas and bread, we were elbow-to-elbow with new next-table customers. They were French, as were most of the patrons. Despite Patricia Wells, Dans des Landes lies slightly off the heavily beaten tourist trail. Because they were Parisian, we knew that our neighbors would ignore us almost completely — although they peeked at our dishes, especially the duck hearts and quail breasts, the latter of which they also ordered.

We were reciprocally rude to them. I nodded once, appreciatively, when our waiter delivered them something that came in a Size-18 wooden shoe. Our neighbors smiled back. Otherwise, we all withdrew into the urban shell. The capacity to separate from groups of people who are just inches away, talking so that you can hear clearly their every word, eating, drinking, laughing, even singing, perhaps smoking, is basic survival strategy in any city. If you can’t pretend that the twelve roaring businessmen at the next table don’t exist, if you can’t suppress an urge to be neighborly, or to tell them to for God’s sake tone it down, your frustration with the relentless congestion of the city will send you to the asylum, or, worse, the country — about which, the Rev. Sydney Smith once said, “I have no relish for the country. It is a kind of healthy grave.”

There is a subtle cordiality in the urban shell. It allows both you and the nuzzling next-door newlyweds to carve a sliver of private space where there is no space. It involves you, without a hint of acknowledgment, to participate in two different meals while eating only one. It forges an invisible bond of tolerance toward strangers who might — if you broke the silence and became reluctantly social — turn out to be conversational, intrusively bubbly and, finally, insufferable.

At the end, our waiter gave us an on-the-house digestif of young armagnac and raspberry liqueur. Then, in gratitude and fellowshiop, we bade our neighbors, who ignored us generously to the last, a warm, thankful “bonne soirĂ©e.”

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#687)

Collateral damage in
the war against Amazon

by David Benjamin

“Thank you for thinking of us and reaching out for a book event. Unfortunately we will have to decline as it is our company policy not to schedule events for any Amazon/CreateSpace titles. If, at some point in the future, you choose to publish with a different company…”
           — Sarah Hill, Events Coordinator, Books Inc., Palo Alto

Sarah, I'd be kidding you if I said I really care about your rejection of an event for my novel, A Sunday Kind of Love. Indeed, were you to allow it, the show would be fun. I could probably put together a crowd of 20 to 40 people among friends and followers in the Bay Area. You’d sell a few books, we’d both make a little money.

But if you were to offer solace to just one of your hundreds of blacklisted authors, you'd be compromising your retail principles. And me? By gouging out one tiny crack in the dike of bookseller solidarity, I'd be accomplishing — in the long run — very little.

Nor could I do any good — although I wish I could — for Books Inc. I've always loved bookstores. My publisher, a wise but curmudgeonly geezer who's been in the book biz since before you were born, reminds me ad nauseam that rinky-dink, brick-and-mortar booksellers are killing themselves. As earnestly as I argue against his fatalism, I'm further convinced that he's right every time I receive a boilerplate kiss-off like yours.

You see yourself, and your bookshop comrades, in a moral crusade against the Evil Empire of Amazon. But as you wage this jihad, you ineluctably ally with a host of empires equally ruthless, comparably large and similarly grotesque.

Since my agent died in 2012, abruptly severing my fortunes from the great Manhattan book establishment, I've been storming an empire of agents and editors (all of them indentured to the giant publishing cartel) who collude to narrow the range of acceptable manuscripts into a set of narrative straitjackets (called genres) whose formulaic contents are deemed readily recognizable by a bovine reading public and marketable as cheaply, predictably and conventionally as possible. Even so-called "literary fiction" (a tautology that no one perceives any longer as a tautology) has been canned, vacuum-sealed and brand-labeled in ways that would deny a majority of our prickly forebears in prose — from Jim Thompson to William Faulkner — any hope of representation or publication in today's market.

And Huck Finn? Forget about it!

Agents and editors are symbiotic partners with the major Manhattan publishing houses, who have long proscribed any independent approach by any individual writer, regardless of wit or worthiness. Connected to neither of the great, incestuous empires of New York, the agentless writer is invisible.

Despite these handicaps, I’ve persevered, querying agents relentlessly, buttonholing editors (all of them appalled at my temerity) and reaching out directly to publishers. One publisher heeded my overtures. He’s really small, but able to produce high-quality books quickly and efficiently. He can make changes on-the-fly (unlike the big publishing houses) because he adopted one of the book industry’s true innovations, the ability to print small lots on demand, much like the kanban system that made the Japanese auto industry the world leader in its field.

Alas, the current — and apparently the only — repository of this revolutionary technology is Amazon, the Evil Empire. Why major publishers choose not to exploit this technology is a mystery. When Toyota introduced the kanban (“just-in-time”) inventory system, every carmaker in the world had to emulate or die.

General Motors chose to emulate. Borders preferred to die.

When I made common cause with little, tiny Event Horizon Press, I didn't know I was joining an Evil Empire, nor did I realize how many other empires were arrayed against me. I didn't know that no bookseller would accept my novel unless it’s distributed by a logistics monster of Amazonian hugeness — an outfit called Ingram. I had no idea that the last big-box bookseller in America, Barnes & Noble, would refuse me summarily because I lack Ingram’s stamp of approval. Nor did I understand that, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with all the anti-Amazon empires —  the army of Agents and Editors, the Giant Manhattan Publishing Megalopoly, a few Colossal Book Distributors, and even arch-enemy Barnes & Noble — were all the brave little independent soul-selling bookmongers, like you.

Meanwhile, I’m still learning about the tendentious, bought-off chorus of so-called “literary critics” — including empire-scale review factories like Kirkus — who patronize only the publishing and distribution giants and sell glowing reviews to any author, or publisher, or editor, or sucker willing to pay up-front ($750 — cheap!) for a cookie-cutter rave.

Like every bookseller I’ve talked to, you dismissed my efforts to erase the Amazon stigma from my novel, A Sunday Kind of Love. I acquired a non-Amazon ISBN number and established a unique non-CreateSpace supply chain. By arduously assembling this alternative to Amazon. I thought I was affording you the opportunity — if you had an ounce of initiative, an iota of real independence — to stock my books at a discount not quite as Walmart-low as Ingram’s, but substantial nonetheless and more generous than most well-run retail businesses ever see.

I offered you a harmlessly subversive and very small coalition of small guys — me, my publisher, my printer and you. No empires involved.

I can tell by your reply that you didn’t even consider this. You probably didn’t even read to the bottom of the page.

Why should you bother? Enticed, seduced, co-opted and prostituted by your own network of lesser-evil empires, booksellers don't need to be well-run businesses. You guys thrive on the parasitic perks — returns and trades — that have rendered you slavishly dependent on vast, soulless conglomerates like Bertelsmann and NewsCorp, all of them run by main-chance nazis every bit as creepy as Jeff Bezos.

I once thought that, as a little-known, make-a-living, working-class author, I was in the same boat with small, overworked, book-business entrepreneurs like you. But two years of virtual banishment from the book racket have taught me that, OK, I might be alone in a boat without a paddle and not much hope…

But you, Sarah — and Books Inc. — and all the other little bookstores who've turned your back on nice-guy authors like me and the readers whom I cannot reach without you, you're sailing third-class on the Titanic, two feet below the water line and just above the screws.

Bon voyage.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#686)

The unbearable irrelevance of reading
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — Nobody reads.

This is a shattering admission for a writer to make, and as of the moment, it’s a slight overstatement. Think of those two words as a mixture of prophecy and surrender — with a silver lining that will only emerge in the distant future.

The pointlessness of literacy struck me as I was reading in the Times about a school district in North Carolina struggling with third graders who’ve fallen behind in reading. The thought that came to me was: “Why bother?”

These kids don’t need to read. Most people don’t need to read. Of all the people who’ve ever lived on earth, the vast majority have thrived without literacy. I could walk out on the street here — in a university town — and rattle off the names of Homer, Aeschylus, Lady Murasaki, Fielding, Sterne, Voltaire, Cervantes, Gogol, Lawrence, Woolf, Dos Passos, Chandler, Bellow, Pasternak, Achebe, O’Neill, Salinger, Miller, Peter Drucker, the Marquis de Sade, etcetera, and yield not a flicker of recognition from nine out of ten seemingly educated passersby.

Because nobody reads. Not really. Not any more. Who needs Shakespeare or Dr. Seuss? Who needs Field and Stream? Why bother?

For most of human history, reading (preferably in Latin) was reserved to a tiny, jealous elite, led by the clergy. Johannes Gutenberg’s intrusive press made the written word accessible to everyone — although this was mightily resisted by the clerics, academics, princes and despots who understood literacy’s power. But nowadays, even though print is as important as it’s ever been to protect people from tyranny, it’s out of fashion and unlikely to recover its cachet. We’ve been readers, we’ve done that. We’re tired of it.

It’s time, again, to limit the alphabet and the grammar book, the mastery of syntax, the parsing of sentences and the pyramid of persuasion to an elect few whom we’ll trust to serve the interests of the happily ignorant. The chore of reading will eventually revert to those who need to read executive summaries, to study legal briefs and draft court decisions, to those who must illuminate the sacred texts and compose weekly sermons, to those whose words are scripted in advance and flashed on a teleprompter.

Optimists about reading are convinced that, while books might become obsolete, they’ll be seamlessly superseded by e-books, allowing people to go on reading novels, histories, romances, adventures, confessions, biographies and thrillers as eagerly and voraciously as ever they did before.

But e-books aren’t catching on as swiftly as has been twice predicted. They’re stagnant. Is this because of those studies about how people reading on-screen don’t pay attention as well as when they read on paper. No, the answer is simpler.

Nobody reads.

We don’t need to read. Anything. We have devices to deliver “content” that can, and will, spare us the ordeal (along with the joy and unfettered personal autonomy) of learning all that Dick-and-Jane, Troilus-and-Cressida crap. No longer will we face the challenge of an SAT Writing Sample. Or an SAT!

No more reading the fine print to find the sanity clause on the insurance policy. No more “i” before “e” except after “c.” No more spelling bees. No more newspapers, magazines, broadsides, bumper stickers, t-shirt slogans. And no more wondering what “riboflavin” is on the side-panel of the cereal box.

Instead, we will be fed all the information we can possibly need by knowledgeable-sounding voices on our “smartphones.” If we need fiction — human beings will probably always be suckers for storytelling — we can download anything, from the Oresteia to Fifty Shades of Grey, onto our annually updated 2,000-gig, 2,000-dollar, turbo-charged, tangerine-flake Mega-iPodPad.

Which is where writers like me — well, not like me, I’ll be dead — come in.
To satisfy the human urge for narrative, they’ll still need us. More than ever. Because the world will be carpeted with illiterates, tuned in for stimulus, cocking an ear for enlightenment and entertainment, for titillation, arousal and climax.

The ear will become, again, the pinnacle of the senses. As generations pass, and the last few books crumble to dust between Rod Taylor’s hands, it’s not inconceivable that the human eye will slowly atrophy, its corneas growing leather-hard, its lids knitting themselves together, until humans become like the lizards and cockroaches in caves — with fleshy patches were once they could see. With this evolution, of course, all our other senses will be that much keener and our ears! Well, they’ll able to hear a flea fart from a mile away.

We’ll hear everything, some of it from the actual world, but mostly through our ubiquitous devices. We’ll evolve into iHumans. We’ll come to appreciate sound and song, voice and intonation with an acuity unimaginable today. We’ll listen to the oral output of our future storytellers more intently and appreciatively than ever we heeded the rhythms of Whitman, the thousand-word sentences of Faulkner or the wry nuances of Mark Twain.

This won’t happen right away. Reading will linger. Books and e-books will trickle into our culture, sustained by the confessions of celebrities, the humiliation of heroes and the sirens of escapism. But, by and by, all prose will go straight to audio, where the voices of famous actors will make it sound so much more real, more true, more intimate. More human, even, than F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Literacy in schools will go the way of penmanship, Greek and civics. Reading will devolve inevitably, irreversibly toward irrelevance. For our myopic great grandchildren and for our sightless great great grandchildren, the brave future of knowledge, news, entertainment — the destiny and irony of media—will be:


Monday, July 28, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#685)

My rights are bigger than your rights
by David Benjamin

“In recent decisions, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court has made clear its view that corporations are people, with all the attendant rights. They are entitled to free speech… They are entitled to religious beliefs… Up next, the right to bear arms?”   

                            — Paul Krugman, The New York Times
Grosscup answered the doorbell.

When he saw who had rung the bell, he tried to slam the door shut, but was thwarted by a huge foot in a steel-toed jackboot.

“Hey, this is my house!” he said. “Who are you?”

Grosscup found himself gazing fearfully at a half-dozen burly men, armed to the teeth, carrying AK-47 assault rifles, with 9mm Glock handguns in their holsters and hand grenades on their belts. One of them carried a deadly-looking Browning automatic rifle with an ammunition belt slung across his chest. Ironically, they were all wearing bright blue polo shirts adorned with the logo of a well-known automobile brand. They wore matching blue baseball caps.

“Mr. Grosscup?” said the intruder with his foot in the door.

Reluctantly, Grosscup admitted it. “Yeah, I’m Grosscup.”

“Great,” said the leader of the squad. He grinned stiffly and said, “I’m Friendly Dave. We’re from Schumacher Chevrolet. We’re having our big July sale-a-thon and we’re here to help you buy your new Chevy SUV.”

“A Chevy SUV?” said Grosscup. “I don’t want a Chevy SUV!”

Lowering his gun barrel to a point between Grosscup’s eyes, Friendly Dave said, “Oh, sure you do. First, let’s go to your bank and pick up a little ready cash.”

Despite serious misgivings, Grosscup was bundled into a black Suburban with tinted windows, where he sat flanked by two burly car salesmen, their weapons cocked and aimed at his brains.

Within a half hour, dazed and confused, with a cashier’s check for a little under $45,000, Grosscup was on his way to Schumacher Chevy, still sandwiched by two sale-a-thon gunslingers. As they pulled up in the dealer’s lot, right next to Grosscup’s brand-new, candy-apple red Chevrolet Tahoe, he put his foot down.

“Just one darn minute here,” he squeaked, “why are you kidnapping me? Why are you forcing me to buy this clunky Detroit-made pile of nuts and bolts?”

Friendly Dave turned his unfriendly gaze toward Grosscup. “Oh, no, no, no, Mr. G,” he said. “This is not a kidnapping. We are not, any means, coercing you.”

“But you’ve dragged me from my house, made me withdraw forty grand — ”

“All we’re doing,” said Friendly Dave patiently, “is exercising our Second Amendment rights to bear arms, with the blessing of the Supreme Court.”

“Wait! That’s wrong,” cried Grosscup. “The Second Amendment allows you to buy guns and carry them around. But it’s still illegal to point guns at people and take their money.”

“Oh, Mr. Grosscup. We’re not taking your money. We’re just facilitating a very desirable purchase. This 2015 Tahoe? Hey, honest! She’s a creampuff,” said Friendly Dave. “Besides, we’re not bearing arms as individuals. We are, corporately, bearing arms as one big person known popularly as General Motors.”

Grosscup was befuddled. As a conservative, he agreed with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and Hobby Lobby decisions, defining corporations as people. “But, but, but,” he blurted. “But the right to bear arms doesn’t include the right to intimidate me, and bully me into doing things I don’t want to do.”

All the bullies laughed at this. After the hilarity died down, Friendly Dave said, “Grosscup. Remember the playground in grade school, and how the big kids hogged the ball and pounded the smaller kids, how they used to call you fat-ass and pull down your pants, bloody your nose, rub your face in the dirty snow.”

“I sure do,” said Grosscup forlornly. “I used to hate recess.”

“Well, it’s recess in America, Grosscup. That’s how Constitutional rights work nowadays. Thanks to Justice Roberts and the Shondells, the big guys — the largest persons in the body politic — are us. Multinational corporations.”

“But I’m a person, too. I was a person before you were,” said Grosscup. “I’ve got my rights. If you make me do this, I’ll take you to court!”

“Ah, to court!” said Friendly Dave. “So, Grosscup. You have a lawyer?”

“Er, no. But I’ll hire one, darn it. You’ll see!”

“Mr. Grosscup. We’re General Motors,” said Friendly Dave piteously. “We have two thousand lawyers, each one of them pulling down $500 an hour. We own the playground. You are an ant on the pavement.”

“But, but that’s not fair,” whined Grosscup.

“Sure, it’s fair, Grosscup,” said Friendly Dave. “You have the very same rights that we have at GM. But you’re one ordinary, lonesome shnook. We’re huge. Our rights are bigger than yours. If you say something, which is your right, we can say the opposite, 10,000 times louder — and longer than you can keep on breathing. You can pray, but your God is the size of a flea. Our God, with five rock-solid Supreme Court votes and 4,000 dealerships from coast to coast, can crush your God between two fingernails.”

Grosscup’s head was spinning. He sagged in his seat. “I didn’t realize…”

“That some rights are bigger than other rights, depending on who owns them?” said Friendly Dave. “Well, now you’re wised-up, Grosscup. Now, let’s talk about the undercoating.”

“Undercoating?” said Grosscup. “Oh no. Everybody knows that undercoating is a scam. I won’t pay for — ”

Grosscup felt the cold steel of an AK-47 suddenly pressing against his temple.

“Oh,” he said. “Did you say undercoating? Well, that’s different. How much can I get?”