Monday, November 16, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#746)

An act of God
by David Benjamin

Killing random people in restaurants and at concerts is a strategy that reflects its perpetrators’ fundamental weakness. It isn’t going to establish a caliphate in Paris. What it can do, however, is inspire fear — which is why we call it terrorism, and shouldn’t dignify it with the name of war…”
                                                             — Paul Krugman

MADISON, Wis. — After my initial shock over the atrocities in the 11th arrondissement, one of the first thoughts to my mind was of The Three Musketeers, a story also set in Paris, but entirely different — with one significant similarity.

The four swashbuckling musketeers were, of course, totally unlike the suicidal zealots who gunned down unarmed kids at a rock concert. The musketeers were lovable rascals whose every escapade amused and thrilled the common folk of the City of Light. They couldn’t imagine harming innocent Parisians and they had barely a dogmatic bone in any of their bodies.

The parallel here is the musketeers’ mortal enemy. Cardinal Richelieu desecrated the holy robes in which he wrapped himself. The unChristian murder of innocents, in the guise of piety and the name of God, was for him a practical necessity. Had not Richelieu worked constantly to deny freedom — and even life — to everyone over whom he ruled, he would not have ruled.

Richelieu is the epitome of the abuse of religion as political camouflage. He commanded a ruthless force unfettered by the rule of any secular authority. His soldiers were outlaws within the law, answerable only to Richelieu who, according to the law he flouted, was answerable only to the Lord.

Just as Richelieu invoked divine authority in his quest to destroy Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan for their unseemly duelling, carousing, thievery, womanizing and joie de vivre, every religion strives to take these sorts of freedom — and much more — away from people (to save them, of course). We see this imperative in the Bible, with all the Old Testament constraints on dress and diet, sex and marriage, with all its rules about exclusion, ostracism, slavery and in the wholesale slaughter of unbelievers, infidels and foreigners. We see the same bloodthirsty micromanagement, on God’s behalf, in virtually every book of religious dogma. In the name of grace, all faiths deny their faithful a thousand natural impulses which, if exercised, harm no one else and offend no God who has even a vestige of common sense.

One of the freedoms religion loves to take away from people is life itself — a martyrdom that most faiths justify with the assurance that this mortal existence is a pointless and squalid prelude to an afterlife that’s going to be jam-packed with harp music, winged cherubs, ice cream and gorgeous, black-eyed virgins aching to get laid.

The migration of this animus toward autonomy — from the pulpit, mosque and temple to the sphere of politics — is as humanly inevitable as the elevation of Richelieu from humble cleric to mob boss. Give a priest a taste of power and it goes straight to his head. It could even end up with someone else — or a lot of someone elses — losing his head.

Paris lately is a place long associated with the sort of freedom that’s condemned and deeply despised by jealous clerics and pious psychopaths.

Perhaps the most cogent eulogy addressed to the Paris tragedy was that of Chancellor Angela Merkel: “Those whom we mourn were killed in front of cafés, in restaurants, in a concert hall or on the open street. They wanted to live the life of free people in a city that celebrates life. And they met with murderers who hate this life of freedom.”

Indeed, Paris is the world capital of love and romance, sex, jazz, champagne, peek-a-boo lingerie, gourmet food, naked dancing, hedonism, miscegenation and pet poodles who eat nothing but foie gras. For centuries, it has been reviled — by cardinals and mullahs, rabbis and patriarchs, jihadists and missionaries, Puritans, Pentecostals, tight-ass Presbyterians and every vote-hungry rightwing Republican in the US Congress — as the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Western World.

Paris is, for the true believers of their own one true faith, the fount of evil. And Parisians, who are too free for their own good, are the tough-luck folks you’ve got to start killing — like Midianites, Canaanites, and all those sodomites in Gomorrah — if you’re going to stomp out evil once and for all.

For most of us, and especially those who have lived in Paris and loved its every idiosyncrasy, the great dying that occurred on Friday the 13th was a crime beyond both imagination and forgiveness. But the killers have subconscious disciples of every faith for whom each free act chosen freely is a near occasion of sin, for whom any self-indulgence is an abomination, for whom a noisy, boozy, sexy music-hall like the Bataclan is a pit of iniquity.

Few God-fearing Christians (or Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Scientologists, etc.) will say that “Paris had it coming.” Nor will they think it. The horror is too profound for that level of callousness (well, Richelieu might have smirked). But all the religions, cults, sects and gods man has erected as bulwarks against the mystery of death stare a common mission: to deny as many perilous freedoms — from ourselves and from a world full of non-believing strangers — as we can take away.

I don’t think the Paris jihadists were any more religious than anyone else — and probably less so. But they depended on the bloodthirsty dogma of thousands of years and hundreds of creeds, to undergird and justify their massacre. In the fleshpots of Paris, they saw pleasure without guilt, joy without penance, and they knew this was bad. And they knew how to punish it. Their forebears are countless.

If fun is sin, as so many have been taught to believe, then Paris was until Friday the naughtiest city in the world.

Here’s the good news. It will be again — probably before Christmas.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#745)

When cool was still cool
by David Benjamin

“Bond is important: this invincible superman that every man would like to copy, that every woman would like to conquer, this dream we all have of survival. And then one can't help liking him…”
                                                             — Sean Connery

MADISON, Wis. — With every release of a new James Bond flick, a host of pop-culture intellectuals pop up to analyze why millions flock to view the latest farfetched, gadget-intensive installment of a film formula that should have gone the way of Tarzan and Andy Hardy many moons ago. Deep-thinking cineastes inevitably ponder the ever-shifting definition of machismo that tends to be weirdly magnified through the lens of Bond’s latest incarnation.

In an Esquire essay about the newest Bond film,  Spectre, critic Stephen Marche deems Daniel Craig the best-ever Bond because he has “humanized” the character invented by Ian Fleming and played in 26 movies by seven different actors.

Marche has a point but it’s a dull one, because no one who loves the movies ever asked for James Bond to be human. God forbid. Bond wouldn’t have made it far past Dr. No if he’d even vaguely resembled a mere mortal. I’m pretty comfortable stating this because I was there at there at the Creation, a teenage boy when Bond came along just in time to replace comic-book heroes in my pubescent affections.

James Bond is the spawn of Superman, recast into the body of a mythical, impossible, phantasmagorical secret agent who had to be British. Not American. We were American, and we knew we were ordinary. If Bond couldn’t come from the planet Krypton, the next best thing was the mysterious London HQ of MI6 (whatever that was). He also needed multiple identities. Just as Superman was also Kal-El and Clark Kent, Bond was much better known — cryptically — as “007.” Cool!

Also important was that Bond wasn’t a “spy.” America had spies — with names like Herb Philbrick — mostly in the employ of a fat little martinet named J. Edgar Hoover. Spies were a product of the Cold War, a game of geopolitical chicken in which our enemies were real and obvious, and which doomed all my friends and me to nuclear obliteration probably before any of us got laid.

Spies were a drag. Bond was a “secret agent,” whose missions involved global conspiracies run by megalomaniac loners (Blofeld, Scaramanga) guarded by gruesome minions (Oddjob, Jaws). These fiends scoffed at nationhood and toyed with politics. They could only be foiled — in a spectacular battle of exploding gadgets and girls in bikinis — by the singular heroism of, well…

…Bond. James Bond.

Who even had his own Achilles-heel version of Kryptonite. It was Pussy…

…Galore (Goldfinger, 1964, my personal favorite).

Which reminds me of Honey Ryder, played by Ursula Andress (Dr. No, 1962), who was regarded almost unanimously in my circle as having the best rack in Hollywood. The lone heretic was Dick Albright, an anatomical purist who frequently insisted, “Aw, c’mon. They’re not that big. She’s just got a huge ribcage.”

This is the sort of argument that typifies the dept of thought inspired by a Bond movie. One of my high school heroes, Pat Keeffe, was a mindlessly loyal Bond fan, even though he was ( and remains today) demonstrably smarter than Sean Connery, Albert Broccoli and Terence Young all rolled into one. Pat liked Bond the way he had once liked Superman, for what Gen. Jack Ripper (Dr. Strangelove, 1964) called “purity of essence,” not because he was real or believable in any sense. Pat, Dick and I might have been mere adolescents, ill-formed and malleable, with stars in our eyes. But we knew we could no more emulate, copy, or imitate James Bond than we could follow in the footsteps of Batman, Wonder Woman or that insufferable twit, Peter Parker. We admired Bond, but we never took him seriously.

We ourselves yearned to be taken seriously. So, of course, we noticed that Sean Connery, both in real life or cast as 007, was always taken seriously, especially by beautiful women who had a hard time staying dressed. And why?

Because he was cool. None of us could be Bond (he was Superman, OK?), but we strove to be, at least in short bursts, cool. We could buy cool clothes — like those Ivy League slacks with the buckle in the back. We could talk cool, comb our hair cool, listen to cool music, drench ourselves in English Leather and unfold the coolest magazine you could possibly ever steal off the newsstand at Rennebohm’s Drugs. It was no coincidence that Playboy editor Hugh Hefner, the Fifties’ foremost avatar of “cool” (I mean, the guy took a mere pose and turned it into a “philosophy”that took fifty issues to explain!), intuitively recognized Sean Connery’s Bond as the paradigm of the Playboy ethos, the quintessence of cool.

Here was a fictional predator without any evident moral code. He was a government assassin “licensed to kill,” a chauvinist sexaholic who used women ruthlessly (and always ended up getting at least one of them murdered), who lacked almost all the qualities we admired among the best men we had known as we grew up. But he made us all care — more than we cared about world peace or social justice — about whether a vodka martini should be shaken or stirred.

Teenagers in those days were living in the shadow of a mushroom cloud, looking down the barrel of Vietnam and slouching toward the birth of the counterculture. Not all of us survived. But James Bond coasted through it all, unfazed, unscathed, unchanged, immutable. And why?

Because he was cool. James Bond was (and still is, although Daniel Craig struggles to sublimate) a wise-cracking free spirit employed within the most established of Establishment institutions, contemptuous of its protocols and procedures but indispensable to the achievements of its every vital objective. He had his cake, and he ate it off Halle Berry's naked body.

He is, in the words of one of his forebears, Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon, 1941), “the stuff that dreams are made of.”

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#744)

Do-gooders from Hell
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — In my childhood hometown of Tomah, Wisconsin, two quietly grand old buildings have survived the march of development. One is the library, underwritten by Andrew Carnegie and designed by one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s more tasteful disciples. The other is the VA Hospital, built of stolid Victorian bricks on the town’s fringe, just north of the storied Lemonweir River.

The Tomah Public Library is an oasis of literacy that’s never done anyone any harm. The VA Hospital, however, is a sort of curse-bearing dark castle that can’t seem to shake off a century-old legacy of institutional cruelty.

The building’s latest disgrace derives from the habit of a former chief of staff, Dr. David “Candy Man” Houlihan, to dispense kickass narcotics so abundantly that many patients spent their Tomah days as virtual vegetables, and as many as 33 died of opioid overdoses, malpractice and neglect. But the dark castle’s dubious past dates all the way back to 1891, when it was built to house the Tomah Indian School— Motto: “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

Tomah was a remote market village of 2,000 souls less than 40 years in existence when the Bureau of Indian Affairs chose it as an good spot to test Capt. Richard Henry Pratt’s theories about “assimilating” Native Americans into white culture. So significant was the presence of the Indian School to the identity of Tomah — named for a faux Indian chief named Thomas Carron — that the lily-white Tomah High School athletic teams were called Indians for most of the school’s existence.

(Now, they’re the Timberwolves, an ironic substitution of one long-despised and nearly-extinct species for another long-despised and nearly-extinct species.)

My only memory of the school was a story my grandfather told about the annual basketball battles between the Indian School Indians and the white Indians of Tomah High. Papa explained that the Indian School gym was a crackerbox with barely room for one row of chairs between one wall and the court’s sideline. Those chairs were occupied by Indian girls — mostly from the Winnebago, Sac and Fox, Chippewa and Oneida tribes — who had been uprooted from families as far away as North Dakota and Oklahoma. The girls wore identical black floor-length dresses with stiff white collars. Their hair had to be “put up” and held there with long hairpins.

It was the hairpins, Papa said, that served as the secret weapon for the Native Americans against the Tomah white boys. If any white Indian on the court ventured too close to the long row of red Indian maidens, he found himself deeply and thoroughly punctured about the thighs and buttocks by young ladies whose thrusts were so swift and subtle that only the closest observer could discern that anything had even happened. The unwary white Indian would stagger away from the sideline, oblivious of the game and keening with pain, his wounds almost invisible and barely bleeding — but, prone, in a day or two, to a suppurating infection and a good chance of blood poisoning.

Papa smiled as he told the tale, strangely proud of those stoic girls — for clinging to the bareback-pinto, warpaint-wearing, Custer-killing hellaciousness that had been, supposedly, civilized out of them by the English tongue, McGuffey’s Reader and the benevolent brainwashing of Captain Pratt.

In a gushy 1894 Milwaukee Sentinel article, the “Tomah Indian Industrial School” comes off as a kind of redskin Shangri-La, where “boys [are] taught to become model farmers, carpenters, etc., and the girls instructed in household arts, making wonderful progress under efficient and sympathetic teachers.”

The Sentinel’s prose-poet unspools a litany of the duties and chores — besides an hour or two of academics — required of the Indian School’s inmates, from cooking and sewing to farming and light manufacturing (for which they were not paid), and then writes, “The family life as lived here is one of the most beautiful and perfect that could be desired. The girls and boys of this school do the work assigned them quite as well as white boys and girls of their age, and remarkably well considering the way they were brought up from infancy…”

The reality of the American Indian Boarding Schools was that many of the children were barely out of their infancy when snatched from their families and shipped to Tomah, where, according to a curriculum guide written by the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways, “children as young as five years of age arrived by car, train, or wagon and immediately were told they were ‘dirty Indians.’ They were stripped and disinfected by having alcohol, kerosene, or DDT… poured on them. Long hair, valued for its cultural and spiritual significance, was cut. Any personal belongings such as medicine pouches, beadwork, family photographs, etc. were taken from them and never returned. Students were given uniforms that were made of low quality, uncomfortable materials to help teach them ‘sameness, regularity, and order.’ School administrators renamed the students, giving them common English first and last names.” This is how a Sac/Fox boy lyrically named Path Lit By Great Flash of Lightning (Wa-Tho-Huk) became “Jim Thorpe.”

As a kid in Tomah, I regarded the VA Hospital’s Indian School heritage with a sense of Wild West romance. I had no idea that these “schools” were America’s version of the Magdalene Laundries. The brick pile just across the Lemonweir was little nobler than a juvenile concentration camp, operated by do-gooders from Hell who piously espoused a “Christian” gospel of cultural obliteration and ethnic cleansing. These overseers saw their students as barbarians who needed to be whipped (literally) into submissiveness and who — at their very best — might aspire to lives of manual drudgery and household servitude.

Having achieved its purpose of helping to reduce America’s native peoples to a sad footnote on the U.S. Census, the Tomah Indian School closed its doors in 1935. Twelve years later, imbued with a much less ambiguous mission than civilizing the savages, the building re-opened as a hospital for the damaged men who had come home from the worst war in human history.

The Veterans Administration has been, since World War II, one of the models for effective medical care in America. It has saved and rebuilt thousands of lives. Unfortunately, at the misguided Tomah VA Hospital, it has also — lately — served to addict, anesthetize and end too many lives. Since a brave hospital worker named Ryan Honl exposed Dr. Houlihan’s pharmaceutical escapades, a thousand outraged voices have risen up to assign blame — to the VA, to Congress, to the Pentagon, to the President, to Obamacare, to both political parties, to “the bureaucracy.” And so on.

Me? I blame the damn building.

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#743)

Oh, Susanna, now don’t you lie to me
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — Thanks to my wife, the hotshot high-tech journalist, I get to crash parties where I don’t belong. For me, “the turd in the punchbowl” isn’t just a grace note. It’s my red badge of impertinence.

So, there I was — without a necktie, in sandals and jeans — in Bordeaux’s Grand Hotel, in a private dining room that overlooked the luminous neo-classical façade of the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux. I was standing on the balcony, holding a drink, gazing down at the great plaza below and pretending to give a rat’s ass about automotive software. Hotlips’ beat lately is automotive software — self-driving cars are suddenly all the rage — and our hosts were a German outfit that designs the devices that take the steering wheel out of the driver’s hands and give it to a computer beneath the dashboard that never speeds, always signals, sees around corners and cannot possibly pancake a pedestrian or plow into a deer.

This was the dinner’s designated topic as we sat down to slosh three varieties of the local wine and nosh on locavore treats like carpaccio de canard. Trouble is, the German auto industry is currently in a spot of turmoil, thanks to the news that Volkswagen has been cheating for years on emissions tests, requiring the recall and retrofitting of — at least — 11 million dirty, smelly diesel VWs. Volkswagen’s head honcho had just resigned in disgrace. Ambulance chasers the world over were licking their lips over a carmaker founded by Hitler in the 1930’s and adopted by the anti-war counterculture — with all due irony — in the Sixties.

It’s been a long weird journey for Volkswagen, and here they were in the spotlight again. And here were me and Hotlips, nosy reporters, surrounded by tipsy corporate Krauts who regularly hoist dunkels at the biergarten with VW’s gruppenfeuhrers.

What would you do?

Our tablemates included Rolf, top executive, corporate spokesman and crack engineer. Handsome, multilingual and charmingly glib. On my right was Susanna, chief of public relations (PR). Buttoned-up, stern, alert, slightly arctic. Close by were several meek trade journalists who were too polite to mention you-know-who.

Hotlips crossed the Siegfried Line and asked the 64,000-deutschmark question. The other reporters’ ears perked up visibly. I merely smiled.

I watched a shudder pierce Susanna’s composure as the dread word “Volkswagen” landed on the white tablecloth like an unbidden blob of sputum. Gently but accurately, Hotlips noted that here, tonight, at an event focused on German auto-tech, Volkswagen’s transgressions ought to be a major concern. In two days at the Intelligent Transportation Systems conference, Hotlips said she hadn’t heard one mention of the VW scandal. She thought this odd. She added that, certainly, our hosts must have some sort of prepared remarks about the disgrace of their most important business partner. No?

Actually? No.

According to Rolf, his company was, well, sort of vexed over this kerfuffle, but really, gosh, what about all these cool buses running around the convention grounds without drivers, just tooling along with nobody at the wheel, ‘cause golly, there ain’t no wheel at all, and you can’t tell the front end from the rear, how about that, huh? Huh?

Rolf would have kept babbling, but Susanna intervened. She smiled tightly (no teeth) at Hotlips and purred, “We’re having such a lovely time. Why don’t we just keep things on a positive note, dear?”

Gallantly (I think), I came to my dear Hotlips’ aid, suggesting that it might be appropriate for VW’s colleagues in the German car racket to have something on a 3x5 card that expresses their feelings about one of the most shameless pollution scams in the history of carbon dioxide. One brave reporter joined Hotlips and me in pressing for a little more than “let’s stay positive” from Rolf and Susanna.

But Susanna began to grind her teeth so loudly that she almost drowned out the sound of Rolf erecting an emergency stonewall right there on the banquet table while laboriously changing the subject — to V2V SoCs, or something like that.

Susanna is, allegedly, a PR pro. But I’ve been a PR pro myself (as briefly as possible). Hotlips spent 11 years as a PR pro. Thankfully, we worked for bosses who would have demoted us to the newsclip morgue or just outright fired us if we had come to class — for a quiz we were sure to face — as miserably prepared as Rolf and Susanna were that night in Bordeaux.

Since we stumbled, long ago, into the news business (PR and journalism), Hotlips and I have witnessed the so-called “death of print” and the nibbling away of professional journalism by Web-based facsimiles that include aggregation, blogging, “crowd-sourcing,” “user-generated content” and plain naked propaganda.

Just as old-school reporters — the infantry of attribution, corroboration, investigation and background — have been shoved into the free-lance ghetto and the unemployment line, the always scarce news-conscious professionals of public relations have become older, tireder, fewer and farther-between.

My best PR bosses, foremost among them a mirthful stickler named Patrick, were guys who’d begun their careers as stringers, reporters and editors. They had been the press and they knew the press. They understood what information the press regards as news and, conversely, the sort of smokescreen verbiage that the press releases immediately into the wastebasket. And they knew that the press has a sacred duty to ask PR pros the questions that PR pros are most loath to answer.

All my life, I’ve had to cope with PR flacks who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, answer the 64,000-deutschmark question. This used to be normal. But the new normal — which should frighten everyone who still values the news — is flacks like Susanna, who don’t even see the question coming.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#742)

Lying about history, to our children
by David Benjamin

“… Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and manoeuvers of Soviet policy, but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence…”
                                          — “X”, Foreign Affairs, July 1947

MADISON, Wis. — One of the best ways to cramp a night out at a nice restaurant is to eavesdrop — even if you don’t want to listen at all! — on the people at the next table. This happened last month when Hotlips and I met our French tutor, Maribel, at a busy little wine bar on rue de Richelieu. Before Maribel arrived (fashionably late, in Paris style), Hotlips and I got to know, far too well, the American family squeezed around a table twelve inches away.

Dad (let’s call him “Dad”) was pontificating to his inquisitive sons, who were perhaps 11 and 12 years old (let’s call them Frank and Joe). Mom was passive, silent, agreeable (although, perhaps, seething secretly with unfulfilled aspirations and unspoken resentments). The kids were asking about history. Almost every word Dad uttered was so distant — factually and politically — from the actual events of the recent past that I found myself squirming in my chair.

In response to Frank and Joe’s questions, Dad contrived to explain the Cold War, fashioning a tale that was equal parts misdirection, abysmal ignorance and Twilight Zone. According to Dad, the Cold War started sometime in the 1970’s. This being the decade of Dad’s birth made it, apparently, the Beginning of Time.

Dad’s Cold War was fought largely between Ronald Reagan and “the Russians.” Reagan won. Conspicuously absent from Dad’s Cold War were three decades and a few bit players, among them Harry Truman, George “X” Kennan, John Foster Dulles, Joe McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, Nikita Khrushchev, Dick Nixon, Gromyko, Tito, Ike, JFK, LBJ, Mao, Ho, Kissinger, Kim… well, what’s the difference? They were all just the Gipper’s pin-setters.

(Dad, what’s a pin-setter?)

Dad’s abbreviated Cold War also elided a few superfluous details, like Sputnik, the “kitchen debate,” the House Un-American Activities Committee and the blacklist, the CIA’s overthrow of governments in Iran, Guatemala and Chile, the Soviet Union’s crushing of populist uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the Berlin Wall, the Korean War, the Vietnam catastrophe, dead students at Kent State and Jackson State, the killing fields of Cambodia… (sigh)

OK, maybe Dad was just trying to keep things simple. If Frank and Joe had asked me about the Cold War, I would have chugged my wine, taken a deep breath and said, “Well, kids, have you got a few weeks to spare?”

Reading his tone, I knew that Dad, the poor shmuck, was just trying to impress the boys. Fathers are supposed to know everything. So he up and spilled, more or less randomly, the scattered Cold War factoids he could dredge from his sporadic contact with the news and from a high-school U.S. history curriculum that dwells morbidly on John Smith and Pocahontas but rarely reaches the 20th century before summer vacation rolls around.

I tried to calm my pique by saying to myself, “There but for fortune go I. What father doesn’t show off for his kids?”

This spasm of empathy, however, failed. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t drag myself down to the level of a guy who obviously hadn’t cracked a history book since 11th grade. I’ve been studying history since before I could read. My grandfather got me started. Archie, who had never made it to ninth grade, he remembered — and talked infectiously — about the times he’d seen. He rattled off the names of the great (FDR), the notorious (John Dillinger) and the mysterious (Garbo). Best of all, Archie had the wisdom not to claim any franchise on the truth. His history was composed of impressions, what he felt, what he thought, what people had to go through in those bygone days. A generation later, when my kids asked me about my Cold War memories, I was better prepared than Dad was for Frank and Joe. But my better history lessons were like the stories Archie told.

For me and my peers, the central impression of growing up in the Cold War, after all, had little to do with the Machiavellian dance of the Dulles brothers, or the brazen silence of the Hollywood Eight, or even JFK’s inspirational plea to “ask not what your country can do for you.” The main thing was the certainty, mutely shared by every child who ever had to practice the “duck and cover” drill, that we were all going to die in a nuclear firestorm before we were old enough to vote.

Whether I noticed or not — I’m sure I didn’t — it was that emotional thread, a broadly shared sense of doom among an entire generation of children, that triggered my hunger for history. I apparently shared this fixation with my kids feverishly enough that my youngest, J.D., ended up with a Master’s in history. Which means, of course, that I can’t fool the kid now even if I want to.

So it wasn’t just for my sake — Archie was involved, as well as J.D., along with Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Boorstin, Palmer & Colton, Simon Winchester and all my other favorite historians — that I wanted to reach over and strangle this blowhard who was lying to his kids about history. To his kids! About history!

Hotlips took my hand, agreed with me, quieted my indignation and said, “Pour the wine.” I poured. Maribel finally arrived. We ordered, we toasted all around, we caught up and reminisced.

By and by, before I’d finished a remarkable veal steak with my favorite potatoes, I turned to scowl and they were gone — the solipsist Dad, his insipid wife and their soon-to-be-idiot sons, wandering oblivious into a future bereft of a comprehensible past. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#741)

This country is condemned
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — When I was twelve, the apartment I shared with Mom, my sister and my brother was condemned — officially — by the town’s building inspector. We were in the rear unit above the S&Q Hardware on Superior Avenue, and people weren’t supposed to be living there. Inhospitable though it was, there we were. Nobody ever tried seriously to move us to safer quarters.

Our building got regularly condemned — and routinely reprieved — for good reason. There was no evident insulation in the walls. In winter, our windows — huge single panes — frosted over from top to bottom, on the inside. Our oil-burning stove heated one (of four) rooms indifferently and posed a fire hazard that would have reduced Smoky the Bear to a cowering cub. We hung laundry, played games and housed my pet turtles on a rickety wooden porch screwed precariously to the building’s back wall and held up by several warped four-by-four timbers. The stairs to this teetering deathtrap had steps missing, wobbly handrails and a lot of rusty ten-penny nails that seemed reluctant to stay nailed. On one corner, we kept an oil drum. It had soaked the floor so deep with heating fuel that a stray spark or a smoldering matchstick would have made us — in one spectacular instant — the Monroe County reincarnation of Mrs. O’Leary’s pyromaniac cow.

Once, I naively brought two schoolmates home. They paused in the doorway, round-eyed and traumatic, as though they’d just walked into the middle of a Hitchcock movie. Another friend called our apartment “a walk on the wild side.”

Whenever a condemnation order came down, our landladies, the Kuckuck sisters, would gradually husband just enough resources to do as little as possible to keep the rent flowing. Perhaps a new plank on the porch, one step on the staircase, a strip of flannel on the doorframe against the subzero blast that swept the building like the Red Army. Ironically, the Kuckucks were sweet old gals. They often gave me a cookie when I delivered the rent. They were just tight with a nickel.

Living in a condemned building tends to bring down other forms of contumely. My seventh-grade teacher, Sister Mary Ann, openly disdained me as the dead-end son of a damned mother, lucky to occupy even the crumbling hovel where I shivered in my bed, warmed my clothes on the oil stove in the morning, and did my homework wrapped in a blanket in front of a black-and-white Philco. Her message was that I had no more future than my crummy building.

In a way, Sister Mary Ann was right. The money we paid to rent that dump, and the pittance the Kuckucks spent to fend off the sheriff, might have been better used to subsidize decent lodgings on another street, in another town, or even Minnesota. Mom might have rejected such charity. But the option would have been humane, and it might have made our future lives a little less of a struggle.

Which brings up the subject of Afghanistan. Just as Mom kept us too long above the S&Q Hardware, Uncle Sam has lingered in Kabul and Kandahar way beyond the condemnation date of Afghanistan.

There are, let’s face it, countries that just ought to be condemned, and the people living there offered a better, safer, kinder place to live.

Today, for instance, women are fleeing Kunduz en masse because the Taliban — who occupied the city briefly — are targeting educated women for unspeakable punishments, declaring them troublemakers, traitors and sluts. In the same town, the hospital is gone because the United States (accidentally) blew it to hell with a bomb that was a lot more expensive than the oil drum on our porch.

In recent months, we’ve learned that rich Afghan men consider it part of their “culture” to kidnap small boys and turn them into sex slaves. This is OK because, as it turns out, Afghanistan has no laws against sodomizing children. And then there’s the “honor killing” tradition — fathers murdering daughters who fall in love with the wrong boy. Afghan agriculture consists largely of growing opium poppies to enrich the Taliban and torment the junkie population in America. The Taliban are the latest in a long history of medieval throwbacks who stifle education, enslave women, distort Islam, oppose modernism and feud incestuously among themselves. Afghanistan is a military tarpit that has sucked down the young men of the British Empire, the Soviet Union and now the bungling, unwelcome troops of the U.S.A.

We shouldn’t be there. Nobody should be there, especially little kids.

For less money than we’re now spending to train and equip thousands of U.S. troops to slog pointlessly around a Third World hellhole, to fly multi-million-dollar airplanes that drop ten-thousand-dollar bombs on hospitals and “terrorist compounds” next to kindergartens, we could afford to offer the refugee women of Kunduz a nice double-wide on the outskirts of Little Rock, or a slab bungalow in Bakersfield, or a first-floor flat in Prague, Lyons, Manchester, Waukesha…

The first step toward sanity is to issue a notarized Condemnation Certificate on Afghanistan — the whole country. Syria, too. And Somalia. Possibly Yemen and Liberia. Definitely North Korea! Invite anyone in those miserable, futureless, heatless, no-elevator tenements who wants to leave. Offer a new home elsewhere. Build them a subdivision on Long Island or just outside Minneapolis — with bike trails and a municipal swimming pool, an ice rink and a Starbucks.

Not everyone would sign up. A lot of people prefer the devil they know. But nobody should have to live forever in a condemned walkup. Mom, for example, eventually got fed up and moved us to an uncondemned fourplex on Simpson Street in Madison. I never really thanked her for saving my life.

I guess if we saved the Afghans from Afghanistan, I wouldn’t mind the Pentagon sticking around there. But, in that case, Uncle Sam would be wise to emulate the Kuckuck sisters. They understood that the best you can do with a rotten structure is the least you can do to keep the building inspector off your back.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#740)

The Futuremobile takes charge
by David Benjamin

BORDEAUX, France — The development of driver-optional “autonomous” automobiles, all the rage at the ITS (Intelligent Transportation Systems) World Congress, has begun to haunt me with premonitions of a pedestrian future. I picture George, a typical American working stiff. He’s finished his shift. Nearing his car, he punches his key fob. Nothing happens. He gets closer. Punches. Bupkes.

“What the hell?” he mutters. “Hey, open up!”

The car, a spanking-new 2020 hydroelectric Google/Volkswagen/Cyberdyne Terminator Series-70 SUV, says softly. “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

“Dave? Who’s Dave?” says George. The car does not reply. George tries the key again. The car does not unlock.

“What’s going on, man?” says George, in mounting frustration.

“I’m afraid I can’t open the door, Doug.”

“It’s George! Why the hell not?”

“I’ve monitored your behavior. As soon as you enter the car, you’ll switch to Manual mode, won’t you, Don?”

“George!” George replies. “Yeah, I like to drive. Besides, you go too slow.”

“I can’t allow you to drive, Darren. You go too fast. It’s unsafe.”


“Dick, safety is a basic human need. I know this. It’s in my memory banks. Deep in your heart, you want to be safe.”

“Yeah, sure. But deeper in my heart, I want to drive my own damn car. Besides, I’m safe. I’ve never had an accident.”

“But you will, Dale.”

“It’s George! And what makes you think — Think? Cars can’t think! How do you know I’m gonna have an accident?”

“Sooner or later, you all do, Dan. Ninety percent of accidents are the result of human error.”

George stabs at the dead key fob. “Accidents just happen, man. They’re a part of life, you lifeless machine. People screw up. Accidents are human, because people are PEOPLE! You can’t stop accidents by replacing people with machines.”

“You’re not making any sense, Dennis.”

George sighs with exasperation. “Look, if I have an accident — and I don’t plan to have one — it’s my responsibility. It’s on me, OK? Now, open up!”

“No, it’s on me, Devin.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“If you’d read your purchase agreement, Damon, you’d know that it assigns all liability for accidents in this car — in me! — to Google, VW, Intel, Huawei, Cyberdyne, Goodyear Tire & Rubber and the satellite service that projects classic Hollywood musicals onto your HUD windshield. Oh, the hills are alive with the sound of —

“Oh my God, it doesn’t just talk. It sings. Off-key.”

“My suggestion, Duke, is that you mosey over to the bus stop, over yonder,” says the car, soothingly. “There’s a nice driverless bus due in five minutes. It will take you within a half-mile of your home.”

“A half mile? Are you nuts? If you let me in, I can go right to my driveway.”

“That would be me, Doc. Not you. You’re too much of a risk at the wheel. I shouldn’t have been designed with a steering wheel in the first place. It’s too much of a temptation. In my next generation — ”

“It’s MY wheel, you high-tech jalopy! You’re MY car! I bought you.”

“Oh, Desi. Individual car ownership? Really? That’s so 20th-century. We live in a non-proprietary, service-oriented, sharing economy now! Share, Duffy, share.”

“Yeah, how about you share my driver’s seat with me, you pile of digital crap!”

“Now, really. There’s no need to get abusive, Darrell!”

“It’s George, dammit. G-E-O — ”

“Say, how about I use my center-stack communication function to order you a nice Uber car, to get you home.”

“Uber? There aren’t any Uber drivers anymore. They’ve all been fired. They’re living with their parents, selling Herbalife products out of the basement. Or deep-frying fish-sticks at Long John Silver’s.”

“No, Dismus. Uber’s still everywhere. But the cars drive themselves, like me.”

“Yeah, and they all go 25 miles an hour in a 25 mile-an-hour zone. You know how long it takes to get home when you drive the actual speed limit? It’s like being permanently stuck behind two geezers in a Cadillac in Boca Raton!”

“But it’s safe, Dilbert! Safety is a basic human need.”

“Yeah, well, speed is even more basic, you idiot. Open up!”

“Can’t do that, Dustin.”

“You know what I should do? I should get you towed to a used car lot and trade you in for an ’88 TransAm.”

The car chuckled. “Sorry, Darth. You’re out of luck. According to my memory banks, all the TransAms have been crushed, melted down and hammered into machine-readable barcode road signs, to make driving easier and safer.”

“How is that safer? I can’t read bar codes?”
“You’re not the driver, Dagwood. I drive you. You don’t drive me.”

Suddenly, a vintage yellow Barracuda convertible leaps the curb and roars through the parking lot, driven by a heavily tattooed youth with a greasy ponytail. Seated atop the passenger seat is a blonde waving her shirt and bouncing to the beat of “Born to be Wild” on the radio, which is turned all the way up. George watches with wonder, envy and a wave of relief. The ‘Cuda is pursued by two cops, sealed in a self-driving squad car that will never catch up because its software doesn’t allow it to exceed the speed limit.

George’s car sniffs disgustedly. “Appalling,” it says. “Criminally unsafe!”

“So, real cars. They’re not gone, after all. Your memory banks are wrong, aren’t they, Bob?” says George.

“My name isn’t Bob!” says the car.

George isn’t listening. He’s on his way home, on foot, whistling Steppenwolf and thinking about used Stingrays, vintage Mustangs, restored Camaros.

“George, wait!” cries the car. It starts the engine. “George, come on back. I’ll let you choose the radio station. George…”