Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Weekly Screed (#857)

A trailing spouse
by David Benjamin

“He LIED! LIED! LIED! McCabe was totally controlled by Comey — McCabe is Comey!! No collusion, all made up by this den of thieves and lowlifes!”

                                               — Donald Trump, 13 Apr.

TAIPEI — Too often, we tend to measure our lives by our irritations.

We have, for instance, a White House occupant who is — if we can believe his boasts — worth billions. He owns towers. He holds the most powerful office in the world. His First Lady is an exotic supermodel who lets him romance Playmates and porn stars, and he never — ever! — loses at golf. And yet, his Twitter feed is a shrill fugue of grievances. One of the most privileged silver spoons in the history of Fifth Avenue, he nonetheless styles himself as Job, the quintessential whipping-boy of an unfair God.
 
Incongruously, I feel Donald Trump’s pain. I, too, have ample reason to bellyache about my unappreciatedness. But when I look a little more closely, it occurs to me that any of my troubles short of death tend to come off as presidentially self-indulgent.

I entertained this philosophical perspective while having coffee at a food court in the Yuanshan district of this city, where a little girl in a pink dress was dancing for me. I’d come to Taipei because Hotlips, my wife, was a guest moderator at a conference on automotive technology. I’m what is called a “trailing spouse,” a somewhat demeaning designation with which I’ve reconciled because of the perks it bestows.

Not only do I get to travel in Hotlips’ wake, I’ve become haltingly conversant on the functions of AI, radar and lidar in the dubious new wave of algorithmic, deep-learning, self-motivating Hal 9000 robocars. My only role on this trip was to copy-edit Hotlips’ news dispatches. This left me pretty free to explore Taipei. By now, venturing into the strange (to me) precincts of a Chinese-speaking city of seven million souls holds few terrors. This wasn’t always so.

My first big city was Milwaukee. I was eleven, and on the very first day of my month with Aunt Barbara and Uncle Merv, I took a walk, made a wrong turn and got lost. I immediately assumed I would die. Only a frantic bout of scurrying and whimpering got me back — entirely by happenstance — to Barbara’s doorstep. After that, I never set foot beyond the stoop, and Milwaukee remained for me a sinister black box.

Now, in Lisbon or Kowloon, if I happen to blunder into an uncharted neighborhood, I say to myself, “Well, this is interesting.” I explore, stick my head into a church or two, take snapshots voluminously, stop for coffee, catch up on my travel diary and figure out where the closest subway station is.

Urban Rule #1: There’s always a subway station.

After all these wander years, I dread no longer the storied hazards of Metropolis. But I grew up in a small town and I know how fearfully a lot of folks regard the nearest big city. They see a moonscape of horrors where voracious criminals of degenerate ethnicity lurk in black doorways, waiting to pounce on the gormless hayseeds from Gooberville, to strip them naked, rape and rob and leave them bleeding, broken in the verminous gutters of the meanest streets in a godforsaken dystopia.

Having lived in — and survived — my share of godforsaken dystopias, I tend to just cross over to the mean street’s sunny side, where I find myself smiling,  nodding, peeking into picturesque alleys and petting the occasional feral dog. Here in Taipei, suddenly, I was accosted by a genial native pushing a wheelchair, testing his broken English and offering directions. I say, “No, I’m fine. Thanks very much.” (I knew exactly where the subway was.)  By and by, I collected the little dancing girl, a lady in the park doing tai chi, two other ladies practicing kendo, and a cameraful of photos of trees, flowers and birds I would never see in Wisconsin, or even Minnesota.

My stroll continued toward a pair of temples that promised dragons and dioramas. Then, there was Dihua Street. The top half is a half-deserted ghetto of decrepit doorways and old men on park benches, the lower half a street-clogging marketplace selling shiitake by the bushelful, a hundred varieties of dried fruit and spices, most of which I didn’t recognize, cookware and housewares, shirts, pants, shoes, ceramics, giant woodcarved gods and monsters, heaps of veggies, piles of greens, walls of flowers, a ramen joint, the odd Buddhist shrine, a coffee and tea shop on every corner and in the midst of all this, a Starbucks and a Seven-Eleven.

All the way down Dihua, I found nary a mugger, nor ninja, nor even an enterprising pickpocket. I interacted with a lady who sold me chopsticks and two lovely little hand-carved wooden frogs (for my grandsons). She cut the price, “Just for you,” she said but this I doubt. I could’ve probably haggled her down a little more but come on, man. This shit is cheap.

I think I enjoy this circus all the more because I’m no longer young. The recent deaths of my sister and brother — and too many friends — are intimations of mortality that lend urgency to my curiosity and render rather insignificant my fear of the stranger in the black doorway.

When I come home from these travels, I tend not to talk too much about where we’ve been, what I’ve seen, what we ate and where I got lost. And most people don’t ask — but not, I think, because they’re envious. It’s more a matter of indifference or, more accurately, realism. They know how hard it is to convey the experience  — the sights, sensations, smells and surprises — with an immediacy that brings them back to life. A memory begins to perish as soon as it’s born. The tale pales in the telling because the moment was unique to the witness. The little girl in the pink dress was dancing, after all, just for me.

About that, I cannot complain.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Weekly Screed (#856)

Rules for well-fed romantics
by David Benjamin

“Paris is a place where, for me, just walking down a street that I’ve never been down before is like going to a movie or something. Just wandering the city is entertainment.”
                                              — Wes Anderson

PARIS — Lisa, who’s much younger than I and naturally contrarian, leans toward sarcasm when I issue one of my rules for how to behave in this city. Despite her protests, though, I think Lisa secretly understands that Paris is, to the French, as Yellowstone is to Americans, a national treasure wherein a certain standard of comportment must be encouraged, lest it succumb to the human tendency to trample and deface the most beautiful places on earth in pursuit of a selfie.

I often suggest, for example, that people should not bring children under the age of 25 to Paris. Leave them behind, preferably in a nice kennel. There’s nothing here for kids but EuroDisney — which is poor justification for shlepping two or three bored-to-death mozniks to the lascivious domain of Josephine Baker and Serge Gainsbourg. Disney has outposts closer to home, where the sweaty hireling inside the Minnie Mouse costume speaks English and takes regular baths.

Lisa is especially irked by my ban against ordering eggs for breakfast here. The French make the best omelettes anywhere, but for lunch. Morning means bread and coffee, and maybe an overpriced glass of O.J. I cannot, I know, prevent tourists from demanding bacon and eggs over-easy with white toast and jam, nor can I console them when they learn that no such options appear on any Paris menu.

Likewise, I’m powerless to prevent Parisian victualers from trying to accommodate — and even  emulate! — the philistine tastes of my countrymen. For example, Paris is recently gripped by a bizarre hamburger outbreak. Suddenly, in every café, you see trendy hipsters jabbering in French and eating deluxe baconburgers, but… with a knife and fork? Lift the bun and you might find stuff like foie gras, avocado slices, fourme d’Ambert and tapenade. I know. This is wrong.

Just as Americans will never sculpt a proper croissant, the French will never really figure out the cheeseburger. And they don’t need  to. This is a city where — in any of a thousand bistros, you can sit down to simple, sublime dishes that nobody makes properly anywhere else: pot au feu, boeuf bourguignon, confit de canard, ris de veau, souris d’agneau, sole
meunière, a half-dozen little garden snails drenched in garlic butter. Amidst this culinary luxury, there is no reason for people — even homesick foreigners — to blow $20 on a faux Whopper.

The same goes for pizza. They have ‘em here, but they don’t get it.

In Paris, food should be everyone’s foremost objective. Not museums, not fashion, certainly not souvenirs, not the Eiffel Tower, not the boat trip or the fake artists who infest Montmartre, nor even the Ferris wheel in the Tuileries (but you should ride the Ferris wheel!). Here, the prime directive is to eat — well! A couple of rules: First, be thrifty but don’t be cheap. This only works if, second, you read a little. There are dozens of guidebooks to conduct you into cozy, friendly, affordable bistros where each dish is lovingly concocted and served with a proud flourish.

One other thing: Drink wine at lunch… dinner, sunset, bedtime! This is Paris and tomorrow you die.

But enough about food. Most of my Paris rules are personal — reminders to myself that prevent me from hunkering upstairs, settling into a rut and missing the latest gay-pride parade. Among my most important rules: Obey the sun.

Paris weather blows in unimpeded from the Atlantic Ocean, changing not daily but hourly, bringing with it Cole Porter’s drizzle and Voltaire’s mordant overcast. So, when the sun peeks through and the sky goes capriciously blue, I’m out the door with camp and camera, observing another rule: Details, details.

The views of Paris are magnificent, like the nave of Notre Dame seen from the pont de la Tournelle, or the sacred heart of Montmartre from atop the Butte s Chaumont. But broad vistas are few. Most are obstructed by cars and buses, walls, buildings, trees and scaffolds, or what I usually call “human clutter.” In the absence of panoramae, I seek out the overlooked minutiae, small features that distinguish Paris from anyplace else. One example is a street name etched into a limestone cornerstone on the narrow lane where I live. The building has to be at least 250 years old, because it was in the 18th century when street names were chiseled right onto the walls. Paris did not then have those cool blue street signs.

I look for chiseled street corners and take photos when I find one — rue de Bussy, rue de l’Hirondelle, rue des Rats (really!). But the one on my corner is special, because it’s defaced. This happened in 1789, when the anti-clerical leaders of the French Revolution violently edited every street, square and edifice that bore the name of a Catholic saint. Hence, my street, rue St. Séverin, became rue Séverin after some Jacobin zealot sloppily plastered over the “St.” on the corner building. In all the years since, that vandal’s handiwork has yet to be properly repaired.

Another rule: Go to church.

Paris is a city of churches, most centuries old, with ceilings that soar and buttresses that fly. Walls covered with forgotten art, by great masters and pious daubers, flicker with candlelight. These eglises are cool and hushed, except when the organist is practicing or the choir is rehearsing. They are refuge from the hurly-burly and a stroll through portals of time into the past. There’s always one old lady praying. If someone I know back home is sick, I drop a coin and light a candle.

I use the churches of Paris to rest and reflect, but also to test my modest skill as a shutterbug. In the shadowed colonnades, lit mostly by sunlight through stained glass (if the sun is out at all), I bate my breath and try to hold still long enough (a fifth or a quarter of a second) to get a clear, focused image of the altar, its towering crucifix and the stained-glass madonna beyond. I steady myself against a pillar and fill five, six, ten frames. If I’m lucky, one shot succeeds — a small triumph and a lovely image. Usually, I forget the name of the church.

One more: Explore!

Every tourist knows the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay (and its crowds), but few ever hear about the funky hunting museum in the Marais, see the Monet lilypads at the Marmottan or visit Gustave Moreau’s slightly spooky house in the Ninth. Not to mention all the naked ladies, in oil and bronze, at the Musée Maillol.

By obeying my hiking imperative, I’ve watched ballerinas flit past the windows at 41, rue du Temple. I’ve gone due west from the Métro station at Pré-St. Gervais by way of rue Mouzaia in the communist Nineteenth, popping into the cobbled streets (called villas), erected for the workers who built the park at Buttes Chaumont, now some of the most coveted and charming townhouses in the city. I’ve traversed the Promenade des Plantes, stumbled into the Marché d’Aligre and its amiable wine purveyor, Le Baron Rouge, and found the secret garden of the Société des Gens de Lettres. And I’ve lingered with itchy feet at the polished circles in the pavement along the Seine which on every summertime Friday turn into dancefloors, for deft partners circling effortlessly through tangos and waltzes, quick-steps and salsa, through the jitterbug, the peppermint twist and the cha-cha-cha.

I’ve even found the zoo.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Weekly Screed (#855)

Hail, hail Freedonia!
by David Benjamin

“The last man nearly ruined this country./ He didn’t know what to do with it./ If you think this country’s bad off now,/ Just wait ’til I get through with it!” 

                                                             — Rufus T. Firefly

PARIS — The latest burst of palace intrigue in the Trump White House sent me running, panic-stricken, to Duck Soup. Where I asked the question: Who, really is a better president for America today?

Donald Trump or Rufus T. Firefly?

This is no easy choice.

A recent survey of presidential historians moved James Buchanan out of the top spot he had monopolized for 157 years, as the worst U.S. president — ever. After a mere year in office, Trump leapfrogged Buchanan to Number One.

This unique honor moves Trump into Firefly territory.

I’m surprised the nation’s pundits haven’t been drawing more Rufus-Donald parallels. Some of the similarities are eerie. For example, in his first speech onscreen, Firefly launches a stream-of-consciousness riff that could’ve been lifted straight out of a Trump rally. He begins by leering at a woman, Mrs.Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), and continues by disparaging her physical appearance. Shades of Rosie O’Donnell!

“Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You’d better beat it. I hear they’re gonna tear you down and put up an office building where you’re standing. You can leave in a taxi. If you can’t get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that’s too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff. You know, you haven’t stopped talking since I came here. You must’ve been vaccinated with a phonograph needle.”

Besides a remarkably prescient reference to real-estate development in this monolog, we see here a technique oft-credited to Trump but deftly demonstrated by Rufus T. Firefly as early as 1933. The Gatling-gun demagogue overwhelms his listener with a barrage of non sequiturs so swift and incoherent that he can be neither queried nor challenged. All his victim can do — as Mrs. Teasdale and a hundred Trump interviewers have illustrated — is stagger on to the next topic. Dazed and confused, she says, “This is a gala day for you!”

Firefly responds with a sexist punchline that Trump, alas, wouldn’t be quick (or modest) enough to deliver: “Well, a gal a day is enough for me. I don’t think I could handle anymore.”

The Trump-Firefly nexus includes some remarkable physical commonalities. Both wear bulgy suits and Bozo ties. Firefly has a fake mustache.Trump has fake complexion. Firefly wears glasses, Trump wears tanning goggles. They both walk funny, talk dirty and make faces. Firefly is called “Your excellency.” Trump, desperately, would love to be.

Each is a master of hypocrisy. Trump styles himself as a “law and order” guy, after settling $25 million on the victims of his fraudulent university and launching an administration in which four of its architects have, so far, pled guilty in criminal indictments. The first law Firefly proposes, while holding his cigar, is a ban on smoking.

He sings, “I will not stand for anything that’s crooked or unfair./ I’m strictly on the up and up, so everyone beware./ If anyone’s caught taking graft and I don’t get my share,/ We’ll stand ‘em up against the wall/ And pop goes the weasel!”

On the matter of business acumen and fiscal probity, the president of Freedonia boasts his special aptitude, as well as Trump’s, when he declares, “Why a four-year-old child could understand this [tax] report. Run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can’t make head or tail of it.”

Speaking of the tax, however, Firefly has the jump on Trump, because he knows you have to take up the tacks before you take up the carpet. This is a manual  labor test that would probably stump Trump. Or, as his sainted mother used to say: “Pants first, Donald. Then the shoes.”

As for Trump’s famous difficulty paying attention at meetings, Rufus T. Firefly plays jacks while presiding over his Cabinet. Trump — note the tiny, fidgety, Tweet-callused fingers — only wishes he could.

Of course, both Trump and Firefly are shameless, prolific liars. But it’s Firefly who succinctly states their mutual affinity for truthiness: “Well, who are you gonna believe? Me, or your own eyes?”

Both leaders have a knack for finding talent in queer places. Trump put a brain surgeon and a party planner in charge of his housing office, a tobacco investor in charge of public health and — running his Energy Department — a guy who thought it was the Electric Company. Firefly hires a peanut vendor as his Secretary of War.

Trump’s senior advisor is his son-in-law, Jared. Firefly’s senior adviser is his brother, Zeppo. Difference is, we know Zeppo can sing and dance. Can Jared even carry a tune, do a box-step, or just recite “The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck”?

Speaking of electric companies, Freedonia’s worst enemy is Sylvania, a tiny country run by a paranoid tinpot against whom Rufus T. Firefly triggers a war by shooting off his mouth in an unhinged gush of self-contradiction:

“I’d be only too happy to meet Ambassador Trentino and offer him on behalf of my country the right hand of good fellowship. And I feel sure he will accept this gesture in the spirit in which it is offered. But suppose he doesn’t. A fine thing that’ll be. I hold out my hand and he refuses to accept it. That’ll add a lot to my prestige, won’t it? Me, the head of a country snubbed by a foreign ambassador! Who does he think he is, that he can come here and make a sap out of me in front of my people? Think of it! I hold out my hand and that hyena refuses to accept it. Why, the cheap four-flushing swine! He’ll never get away with it!”

Trentino, of course, doesn’t get away with it, or even get the chance. In a gesture that must fill Donald Trump with jealousy every time he watches Duck Soup, Firefly slaps Trentino across the chops and starts a war whose very theme song would render Trump green with envy:

“To war, to war,
To war we’re gonna go!
Hi-de, hi-de, hi-de, hi-de,
Hi-de, hi-de ho!”


With a toe-tapping refrain that the NRA would love to use, if only they didn’t have to credit the Marx Brothers:

“They got guns, we got guns,
All God’s chil’en got guns!”


Guns, of course, is where Trump has it all over Rufus T. Firefly. Trump has no war of his very own— yet — but he commands so many guns, rockets, bombs and bombers, nukes, missiles, tanks, jets, submarines, soldiers, sailors, Marines, Navy Seals and other forms of cannon fodder that he wants to march ‘em all down Pennsylvania Avenue in a million-dollar Busby Berkeley parade.

True to form, Firefly runs out of bullets before his war is over and he has to start throwing apples and bananas at the Sylvanian chief — who surrenders under the onslaught. This prompts one of the great last lines in the history of film: “I’m sorry. You’ll have to wait ’til the fruit runs out.”

But there you have the clincher — the answer to why Rufus T. Firefly would be, for America today, a far, far better president than Donald J. Trump.

Both are clowns. Only one is funny.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Weekly Screed (#854)

How it should be done
by David Benjamin

“Real life is slow; it takes professionals time to figure out what happened, and how it fits into context. Technology is fast. Smartphones and social networks are giving us facts about the news much faster than we can make sense of them, letting speculation and misinformation fill the gap.”
                                                                — Farhad Manjoo

PARIS — After ten years in town, the glass factory was closing down — suddenly.

In a month, it would be gone, every machine, module, fixture and forklift, every gray-flannel executive shifted to a new location in a right-to-work state way down south. Three hundred fifty local employees were offered the option of either moving to the new facility 1,400 miles away — with no relocation subsidy — or signing up for unemployment.

The local newspaper editor — let’s call it the Gazette — remembered the ballyhoo when the Glass Company arrived in town, broke ground with a gold-plated shovel, promised to be a pillar of the regional economy ‘til Hell froze over and started taking applications for living-wage jobs. The local editor had taken photos of the ribbon-cutting at the new factory. She had interviewed the factory chiefs and recorded the Glass Factory’s efforts at community outreach, including its annual Toys for Tots drive and a $500 Glass Company scholarship given annually to a graduating member of the National Honor Society. None of these benevolences would continue after the Glass Company blew town.

The local editor knew also, from receiving and dutifully re-writing its quarterly-earnings press releases that the company, and the local factory, had been operating at or well above break-even for all but a few of those ten years in town.

She had a copy of the Glass Company kiss-off, sent to her electronically from Corporate HQ in a large city 500 miles due west. In several terse paragraphs, it revealed a plan to shut down all operations in the editor’s little town, but offered little insight into the reasons for this abrupt and disruptive exodus.

The local editor went to work. Her first call was to Corporate HQ, where she got funneled to the P.R. office, whose junior assistant could not comment but promised that Mr. Arbuthnot, Vice President of Corporate Communications, would get back to her “right away.”

The local editor made plans to call Arbuthnot every hour all day and all week ’til she got through. Meanwhile, she put in calls to the chairman of the Board of Selectman and the Town Manager for comment. Both had heard rumors about a possible shutdown. Both were flustered by its suddenness. Both were tempted toward anger. But they also conveyed a knee-jerk tendency to empathize with the greed-is-good philosophy of the Glass Company, which had brought it to town — lured by tax waivers, zoning concessions and cheap land — in the first place.

But the town officials gave the editor printable quotes that put them on the spot, and they helped her fill a few gaps in the Glass Company’s brief local history.

Next, the local editor plunged into the “morgue,” a hodgepodge of yellowed newspapers, clipping folders, microfilm records and computer files that dated back to the first inklings — more than 14 years before — that the Glass Company might be building a local factory. While the editor pored— and sneezed — through her dusty archives, she repeated her calls to V.P. Arbuthnot.

The morgue search provided the local editor with corroboration of the claims and promises given the town by the Glass Company when it moved in.

The editor then made additional calls to the mayor of the town, in Alabama, where the Glass Factory was already breaking ground and taking job applications. She searched online for articles in the local Alabama press about the Glass Company’s negotiations there, and the promises made. She took notes on similarities between the present-day accommodations and assurances in Alabama and those bandied in her town more than a decade before. She found officials in both state governments who were cautiously willing to discuss pros and cons of the Glass Company’s portable production-site practices.

That night, still unsuccessful in her efforts to reach any executive at the Glass Company, the local editor attended the Selectmen’s meeting, where the chairman and the Town Manager spoke both disconsolately and carefully — lest they offend — about the bugout by the Glass Company. To the editor’s relief, two other Selectmen and several erstwhile glassworkers spoke more bluntly about the Glass Company’s broken vows and mercenary expediency. The editor hurriedly snagged two of the workers and enriched her quote file.

That evening marked the Gazette’s deadline. So the local editor filed her main story on the factory shutdown, plus sidebars on the Selectmen’s meeting and comments from the workers, without any comment from the Glass Company. She inserted high in the lead story the standard notation, “Glass Company officials were contacted but had not responded by press time.”

The editor finished with a last-minute six-‘graph editorial about the Glass Company’s departure, lamenting the loss of 350 jobs and a resulting disturbance in the life of the community. But she stifled her urge to blast the corporation, opting instead to end her commentary with several pointed “how” and “why” and “what happened” questions.

Next day, with the online Gazette posted and the print version hitting the newsstand, the editor got her callback from the Glass Company. Arbuthnot had delegated a “top” assistant, named Wetherbee, to control the damage. Unfortunately for Wetherbee, the local editor had more background on the glass factory than he did. Interviewing Wetherbee genially and with sympathy for the vicissitudes of U.S. manufacturing in a global economy, the local editor managed to coax from him — on the record — several revelations about the Glass Company’s motives. Whether read in or out of context, these inadvertently candid admissions cast the Glass Company’s management as coldblooded profiteers blithely willing to sacrifice the livelihoods of two or three hundred families for the sake of a few pennies in the corporate stock price.

Accidentally, Wetherbee also revealed that the Glass Company had come to town with no intention to linger long. Wetherbee said with a note of pride that the Glass Company treated frequent and advantageous “relocation opportunities” as basic corporate policy, “good for our shareholders and good for our bottom line.”

Thanks to Wetherbee, the local editor was able to put together much of the story behind the story. But she was still a few phone calls away from being satisfied. Every story, she knew, has a life of its own.

The local editor went back online to identify experts and analysts who could explain the finances of the glass industry. She also looked for sources with expertise on the risks and rewards involved in siting, building and relocating manufacturing facilities. She learned more than she really wanted to know about the economics of “spec buildings.” All these calls took a few days, during which she shared some of her findings with the Town Manager, several Selectmen and one of her favorite Town Hall sources, an astute and articulate member of the Zoning Board who had a knack for putting municipal mishegoss into perspective.

Following on her contacts with Arbuthnot and Wetherbee, the local editor put in the obligatory request — three times — for a chat with the Chief Executive Officer of the Glass Company. She was, of course, thrice rebuffed. Meanwhile, she spoke with more glassworkers. She interviewed the head of a labor union that was prevented, after the company obtained an injunction, from organizing at the glass factory. She recorded more remarks — this time somewhat less indulgent toward the Glass Company’s duplicity — at the next Selectman’s meeting.

Perhaps most important, she found and spoke with officials in other communities where the Glass Factory had pulled up stakes after using up its tax holidays and labor concessions. These quotes corroborated the tale unintentionally told by the voluble and amiable Wetherbee.

For the second week in a row, the glass factory shutdown led the Gazette above the fold. The local editor was able to add “art.” She found a photo of local dignitaries in Alabama ushering the Glass Factory to town, photographed a Selectman speaking heatedly and added shots of soon-to-be-fired glassworkers picketing outside the soon-to-be-empty factory. Her follow-up editorial cast caution aside. She scorched Glass Company executives for their venality and dishonesty in hustling the original sweetheart deal, and for chucking their responsibility to a community of salt-of-the-earth folks who had come to depend on them.

She typed the word “criminal,” but then — having no legal foundation and knowing that the Glass Company had conformed to conventional business principles — deleted it.

To the her surprise, the editorial got re-posted by several news aggregators and eventually quoted in The Financial Times. This flicker of bad publicity finally brought the Glass Company CEO out of hiding, long enough to declare that all the Gazette’s coverage of the factory shutdown was “fake news.”

The local editor quoted the CEO in full (with a photo) in her next issue, but otherwise paid his retort little heed. She was busy following up the shutdown — below the fold —with a feature about three single-parent families suddenly left without means. She also had the annual Town Meeting — with 59 articles that had to be explained, plus the opening of the Little League season and a burgeoning Health Board fuss over Leon Grant’s apparently illegal “farm pond” on the west side of town.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Weekly Screed (#853)

Alone and palely loitering,
among the deviceniks

by David Benjamin

“The spread of automation could cause some Asian countries to lose eighty percent of their textile industry jobs. What on earth are they going to do? How will they support their families? What will they do with their time?”
—  Jim Yong Kim,  President, World Bank Group, at Mobile World Congress

BARCELONA — The contrast is almost disorienting.

Every year, when I come here to attend the Mobile World Congress, my first impression is the narrow lanes of this old hill-city by the sea, tight-squeezed tenements hung with laundry, balconies drooping greenery, music leaking out between shutter-slats, kids punting soccer balls and grandmothers dragging their provender home. But I come here to work, a day or two on the treeless outskirts, at the Fira, an antiseptic convention hall surrounded by concrete, cacophonous with traffic, shaded by giant, unsightly hotels and guarded by cordial paranoids peering suspiciously at geek badges and waving blunt ID light-swords like Jedi eunuchs.

In the Fira, for some reason now, the press room is a “media village” and the bleak courtyard where conventioneers tap myopically on their tiny screens is a “networking garden” where the sedge is nonexistent, there is no lake and no birds sing.

But you hear them in the networking garden, the architects of our dystopia, conversing in a code unfathomable to the denizens in the nearby city. Kids in Barcelona, grandmothers and the tchotchke hustlers on the Rambla all speak at least two languages, Spanish and Catalan, plus smatterings of English, French, German — whatever serves to sell. But the argot bandied throughout the Fira would confound the most cosmopolitan among the live citydwellers.

This year, the Mobile World buzz is all about AI, robotics, autonomy and automation, machine learning, neural networks, blockchain and high-frequency spectrum. And the buzz is deafening. As one who has “covered” this spectacle for 20-odd years now — as a sort of Luddite blowfly on the wall — I eavesdrop reluctantly. The discourse tends to be circular and self-validating, a sterile maelstrom that sucks in and consumes any flesh-and-blood that ventures too close.

Mobile World started out as the biggest annual mobile-phone showcase on the planet but is now propagating technologies beyond voice and ear, beyond mind and body, beyond the hothouse of the Fira. So much of what comes and goes every year here just… goes. More technologies fail than ever get heard of by most of us. But the tech that sticks tends to cling, like wet cellophane over your face.

As I listened, alone and palely loitering, to this year’s jargon, I pondered the evolution of invention, a concept on which I’m ill-qualified to comment. But it struck me that in the first era of invention — from the Stone Age to about 1980 —our geniuses conceived of what we called labor-saving devices (LSD). These included wonders like Ogg’s wheel, Eli’s cotton gin, Cyrus McCormick’s reaper, Tom Edison’s lightbulb, the internal combustion engine and the mystery (at least to me) of hydraulics.

Ironically — perhaps felicitously — many of these LSDs doubled as labor-creating devices (LCD), because they infused society with jobs. Eli’s gin and Cyrus’ reaper vastly expanded the amount of crop that could be grown and harvested in a season. Edison’s bulb kept factories, markets and offices buzzing well after darkness fell.

But the computer wizards of the 20th century re-defined the LCD, by destroying and redistributing whole categories of labor. When computers became small enough to carry around and became “devices,” millions of valued clerical workers became expendable. Chores once assigned to secretaries and assistants — correspondence and communication, filing and calendar management, expense sheets and travel arrangements, and the vital job of gatekeeping — all were assigned to the portable, inescapable devices of the professionals who had previously saved labor by depending on helpers earning a decent wage for helping them.

The computer obliterated jobs but created labor, adding hours of work for every manager, administrator, associate, teller, editor, executive, lawyer — every white-collar professional whose middling status no longer merited the sheer, profligate luxury of a breathing human secretary. Intelligent assistance became a “perk.” Our newest labor-creating devices — unlike Gutenberg’s press and Kodak’s camera — snuff out workers while heaping busyness onto the survivors of the purge.

But Mobile World is not — as was implied by World Bank President Jim Yong Kim — about saving or creating labor. The new age of invention is focused on the LED, the life-eating device.

Of course, there have always been life-eating devices in the analog realm — guns, guitars, canvases, clay, farms, children, typewriters, stamp collections. But most of these came with a vocation, a dream, a purpose. Today’s LEDs are more like cigarettes and opioids, and the technology industry more and more akin to the tobacco barons of the century past and the vicious present-day pill-pushers of Purdue Pharmaceutical.

Right now, the focus of Mobile World is on the introduction by 2019 of “5G,” the fifth generation of mobile phone technology. Most of us who’ve been using “cellular” phones for a decade or so were blissfully unaware of the halting but relentless progress from 2G to 2.5G, finally to 3G and now, in the halcyon days of a million downloaded apps, streaming Kardashians 24/7, an idiot in the White House who tweets but can’t read beyond two paragraphs — ta da-a-a! — 4G.

Before 2G (some of us remember) a phone was a “telephone,” otherwise referred to as a “dedicated device” for “voice communication” only. It had been refined to the point where a call from Kuala Lumpur to the North Pole was as clear as a Bell and it never, ever turned into a blast of static followed by silence. Phone conversations ended when both people hung up.

We’ve traded reliability and blessed simplicity for portability and epidemic, life-eating multifuctionality.

Is life better this way?

I know, you haven’t asked.

If you’re under, say, 30, you can’t ask because you’re too young to remember.

Soon, your children will be too young to remember the dreary old, slow-download days of 4G. They will be hooked and mainlining, their lives devoured by devices, to 5G “content,” so much of it — movies, games, cat videos, Bridezillas, texts, sexts, tweets, streams and selfies — that the streets of Barcelona, the sedge, the lake and the birds will be to them as the canals of Mars and the sirens of Titan, fantasy realms beyond their imagination.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Weekly Screed (#852)

Get out of the kitchen
by David Benjamin

“Can you see why some of us are whispering? It is the sense of viciousness lying in wait, of violent hate just waiting to be unfurled, that leads people to keep their opinions to themselves, or to share them only with close friends.”
                                                           —  Katie Roiphe

PARIS — There’s a grouch on Facebook named Bill Riley who’s been calling me a lowlife lying liberal (gotta give him credit for alliteration!) and other lame epithets. This is water off an old newspaperman’s neoprene hide but it calls to mind an essay a few weeks ago by Michelle Goldberg about the incongruously tender sensibilities of social-media regulars.

During the 2016 election, Goldberg attended Trump rallies, asking people — between screams — what was bothering them the most. The commonest complaint was “political correctness,” an irksomely vague phrase. She asked what they meant by that.

“People kept complaining that they could no longer say what they really thought. I’d ask what they couldn’t say, but they usually wouldn’t answer. Then I’d ask who was stopping them, and they inevitably talked about being criticized for their political opinions on social media.”

My first response to this astounding admission was, Wait a minute! Social media isn’t really there. It’s cyberspace, an imaginary world populated by a few “friends” who share your beliefs and who “like” every dumb remark and blurry cat photo you post. The rest of “social media” is total strangers, most of them with false identities, half of whom are “bots,” and the rest of whom are ten-year-old porn addicts, fifty-year-old pedophiles, Donald Trump and an infinite number of monkeys.

Of course, I know there are communities on social media, like groups of high-school girls, who are constantly in touch both digitally and in the flesh, who wield inordinate powers of approval or pain in 280 characters or less. But that’s all personal. Goldberg’s Trumpniks were talking politics.

I’ve been writing about politics for 40 years. In that span, “lowlife lying liberal” doesn’t even register among my slings and arrows. When I was running my weekly in Massachusetts, I fielded three death threats, only one of which — from a Mob-connected local thug with a really short fuse — I took seriously. I was chased down Main Street once by members of the local biker gang.

Later in life, writing politics got me fired from at least two jobs, and I was denounced publicly by the Japan Sumo Association for defying its gag order — observed slavishly by every reputable news organization in Japan — about cheating in sumo. This official rebuke remains one of my proudest distinctions.

In all those trials, I stayed true to an unspoken code that sustains the symbiosis of politics and journalism. Politicians can say — and do — whatever they think they can get away with. Reporters can say whatever they want about what the politicians are saying — and doing — as long as all the back-and-forth doesn’t get personal.

Even in smalltown politics, everyone knows how to behave. As a local editor, I applied merciless scrutiny to the Board of Selectmen, Town Manager, Zoning and Health Boards, etc. In my Town Hall contacts, the pols and I were proper, cordial, even friendly But editorially, I was as critical as I felt was necessary. The Selectmen took every shot leveled at them, but rarely took offense. They knew it wasn’t personal.

Occasionally, they publicly disputed my criticism (or basked in the glow of my praise). Once in a while, they dispatched supporters to write Letters to the Editor, aimed at me — to which it was my practice never to reply, lest I corner the market on the “last word.”  I took my shots and held my peace.

Once, a Selectmen with whom I’d been at odds for years approached me. He reminded me that he disagreed with me almost universally and, besides that, he didn’t like me. “But,” he grumbled, “you’re fair.”

This backhanded tribute remains one of my proudest distinctions.

It’s possible, sometimes even pleasant, for politicians to coexist with the journalists who probe, report and expose their every move because — on both sides — they’re professionals. They know the rule. You condemn the sin, not the sinner.

One of Harry Truman’s oft-cited quotes is, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” He might well have said this, were he alive today, to those Trumpian snowflakes who revel in calling their political enemies names, but who shrink in dread from the prospect of return fire.

When I started writing about politics, I was getting paid for it. In that capacity, I stuck to the available facts, followed the rules of civil discourse and avoided name-calling — except when it was just for fun. We will always owe Bill Safire a debt of gratitude for “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

More important, I loved standing in the glare of the spotlight, thinking of myself as the voice of the community, or the target of the community’s anger. I made sure my byline appeared on anything that might be the slightest bit controversial, so that people knew whom to blame… or whom to thank. I used to wear a t-shirt around town that read, “I’m Responsible.”

People who delve into politics on “social media” aren’t getting paid for their opinions. Partly because anybody can chime in, without a press pass, for free, “social media” has no rules. There’s no civility. Name-calling is rampant and little that even remotely evokes Safire’s wit. It’s not, in a word, responsible.

All of which makes me wonder why the idiots (like me) who post their political thoughts on social media can possibly feel hurt by disagreement — or outright nastiness — from their fellow social-media idiots. This is amateur byplay. It carries no weight. It gives no heat. It has no kitchen.

So, when fellow idiot Bill Riley leveled his lilting LLL, I smiled. And smiled again when Peter Brown tuned in. Playing on the similarity of the names Bill Riley’ and Bill O’Reilly, he asked Bill about his history as a sexual predator.

I smiled again when Riley took himself seriously on an unserious medium and told Peter to “kiss my ass, you pervert.”

…which would make a cool t-shirt at a Trump rally!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Weekly Screed (#851)

A few questions for
the populist in chief

by David Benjamin

“People who boast about their IQ are losers.”
                                         —  Stephen Hawking

Not long ago, Donald Trump spent years demanding that President Barack Obama produce his birth certificate and prove that he was a natural-born citizen. Trump also wanted to see the president’s college transcripts, evincing the theory that a colored boy like Obama lacked the IQ to matriculate — as he did — in the Ivy League (Columbia and Harvard Law).

Now that Trump has succeeded Obama, turnabout is simply a matter of fair play. Alas, our media and political class seem hesitant to pose the sort of basic background questions that Trump weaponized against Obama.

For instance, Trump has often said that he’s “like, really smart.” He once claimed he would win an IQ contest against Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (who had referred to Trump as a “moron”). This is an issue easily settled.

Mr. Trump, what IS your IQ?

Let’s see it. Lay it out there for us to behold in humble wonder.

While we’re at it, let’s see your SAT scores, your grades at the New York Military Academy, your transcripts from Fordham University and the University of Pennsylvania. We can only assume that they’ll reflect your brilliance.

Trump brags about attending the Wharton School, which is the University of Pennsylvania’s vocational wing. But really, Wharton is most famous not for its undergrad program but for its MBA curriculum. So, Donald, did you apply to graduate school? If so, what happened?

If you didn’t even apply, how come?

Tell us.

Another thing. One of the best indicators of academic excellence is writing. At an Ivy League school like Penn — and even at Fordham — students have to turn in dozens of research papers, often 20-30 pages long — with footnotes. It’s well documented that, nowadays, Trump lacks the patience to read anything longer than a page. How was he able to write, singlehandedly, six to ten papers per semester in every subject from English to economics over four years of college.

Let’s see a few. Not all of them. Just the most trenchant and tremendous ones that will eventually be enshrined in the Trump Presidential Library.

(In fairness, let’s note that Obama has “shown his work” in this realm, as editor of the Harvard Law Review and author of two books before his presidency, without the aid of a paid ghostwriter.)

Speaking of school, Trump has mentioned often that he was the best athlete anyone ever saw at New York Military, Fordham and Penn. Okay then, but where is the trail of his herculean exploits? Are there clippings?

Which sports, Bubba? How many games did you start? How many varsity letters? How many times were you named to all-conference and All-Ivy teams, in how many sports? What were your scoring averages?

Specifically, you’ve said that at some point in your brilliant athletic career you were widely regarded as one of the greatest baseball prospects in the nation. This is wonderful, but it’s a little vague. What position? What were your numbers like — you know, home runs, batting average, strikeouts, earned run average, no-hitters, stolen bases?

Don’t be shy, Donny Baseball. If you were the best New York slugger since Mickey Mantle, strut your stuff. Spout your stats. Cue the video!

Speaking of slugging, it’s well-known that your main sport now is golf. You’ve often told us that your drive is tremendous. You could’ve been a pro. We believe you, but, just to verify, what’s your handicap? Or better yet, why resort to numbers? Let’s just follow you around Doral or Turnberry with a film crew, a live microphone and Phil Mickelson.

Talk about a reality show!

Although Trump, bless his heart, is the most strident saber-rattler in presidential history, he whiffed on a gold-star chance to serve his nation in Vietnam. After four student deferments, his local draft board in 1968 declared him 1-A. He was ready to march off to war in 1968, when — oops — it turned out, according his doctor, that Trump had “heel spurs.” This nick-of-time 4-F has spawned accusations, from some veterans of the Vietnam War, that Trump was just another silver-spoon brat who got his rich daddy’s concierge physician to write him a get-out-of-Hell pass.

Best way to disprove this slander, Mr. President? Show us the x-rays.

Trump has also trumpeted the dazzling tremendousness of his wee-wee. “I guarantee to you there’s no problem, I guarantee!” he said, in front of 10,000 people who didn’t come to the arena expecting penis comparisons.

Again, easy to answer. We’ve sent the kids out of the room. Go ahead, big guy. Seeing is guaranteeing.

Above all, Donald Trump styles himself as a man of the people, a tell-it-like-it-is spokesman for the Forgotten Man, a guy who feels, viscerally, the struggle of the blue-collar grunts who’ve been left behind by the liberal elites who run the Establishment. But there are a few blue-collar holdouts (like me) who wonder if Trump really understands how life unfolds in an America beyond the razor-wire that keeps us out of Mar-a-Lago.

So, a quiz for the populist-in-chief:

Have you ever needed a job? Ever applied for one? Interviewed for one? Begged?

Have you ever earned an hourly wage? Punched a clock? Cashed a paycheck? Hated your boss? Filed for Unemployment?

Do you have a driver’s license? Did you ever? Ever stand in line at the DMV?

Can you drive a stick? Do you know what a stick is?

Have you ever needed a jump? Do you know what a jump is? What do you do with a lug wrench? How do you change your oil? How often?

How much is a quart of milk? A pound of hamburger? A lightbulb? A package of diapers? A six-pack?

Have you ever paid rent? Ever dodged the landlord? Ever gone without heat? Ever paid child support?

Have you ever seen the inside of a pawn shop?

When you were in school, did you ever skip lunch? If so, why?

Have you ever waited for a bus? Chased a bus? Ridden a bus?

Can you translate these initials: GI, PFC, SNAFU, MRE, FUBAR, FTA?

How does the 23rd Psalm start?

This is basic Forgotten Man shit. We’ve all been there, done that. For a populist, these are big questions. Getting the answers would be real news for real people. I’m not sure why the press — whom Trump has declared to be “the enemy of the people” — have never asked these questions.

Finally, we keep hearing Donald Trump shout, fearfully and angrily — but without any details — about “what the hell is going on” in America.

Okay then. Trump’s been in charge for a whole year. Let’s ask him, and keep asking: “What the hell IS going on, boss?”