Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#695)

A political scene we’d like to see
by David Benjamin

(A proposed script — without talking points — for Mary Burke, Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate, at Friday night’s second debate.)

“Good evening, everyone. I’m Mary Burke. So what, right?

“Most of you don’t know me from a hole in the wall. Even more of you don’t give a woodchuck’s tuchis. And I don’t care that you don’t care. Doesn’t matter.

“Because right here next to me (Let’s give him a hand) is a guy you know all too well. You’ve been stuck with this shmuck for four years, and if you’re not sick and tired, you oughta be.

“Think back, people. Four years ago, Scooter came on TV and pulled the same folksy, aw-shucks, Joe Cheesehead-meets-Father Flanagan routine that you’re gonna see all over again tonight. For a while, we actually fell for it.

“That was then. By now, you should know better. The guy’s not regular folks. He’s rich now, and he wants to be richer. He’s mean, and his friends are meaner.

“Try to remember. No sooner did Scooter occupy the Governor’s chair than he went Jeff Dahmer on every wage-earner in Wisconsin. He attacked public employees, pitted union against union, firefighters against teachers, police against nurses. He turned family reunions into bar fights. He sent out troopers to arrest senators. He took the first steps toward living out the century-old right-wing dream of destroying the public schools. He transformed America’s friendliest state into the cast of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Look around. We’re still bickering.

“And almost half of you out there — I know, I’ve been talking with you. You hate this guy — just hate his guts. You’d rush for your twelve-gauge and shoot the two-faced flim-flammer if he walked in the door. I don’t blame you.

“Yes, but who’s to say I’d be any better? Well, I am better, but you wouldn’t know that without a little research. And most of you won’t bother to do that. But that’s OK, because the point is: You might not know me, but nobody starts brawls at the dinner table over Mary Burke. You might not like me. You might not trust me. We might not agree on anything. But, with me, that’s as bad as it gets.

“I haven’t lied to you about my intentions, demonized your neighbors, ruined your Thanksgiving, stripped your old man’s pension, wasted your taxes on phony charter schools or strip-mined your back forty to help fossil-fuel tycoons frack for gas in North Dakota. I just make bicycles and nobody hates me.

“Hey, even if I’m good for nothing else, won’t it be nice again to have a governor who doesn’t throw people in jail for singing protest songs in the Capitol rotunda? Here’s a promise: When I’m governor, I’ll come downstairs, send the Capitol cops out for coffee and join the sing-along.

“And I’ll stay in Wisconsin. No trips to Manhattan to speak at right-wing (or left-wing) fundraisers, no junkets to Vegas to kiss Sheldon’s ring. No pilgrimages to ‘retreats’ in Arizona to eat caviar and snort Koch. And I won’t be shlepping every week to Iowa and New Hampshire — as soon as this election’s over — so I can pander to Tea Party primary voters.

“You see, I’m running for governor. Right here. In Wisconsin.

“This guy — you must know this — is not gonna stick around unless he has to. Scooter here — bless his power-hungry little heart — wants to be president.

“OK, stop laughing. I know. Considering his record, the idea is just silly. But Scooter’s got the one thing that every tunnel-vision political hack needs. He has richer-than-God friends in faraway places. You know who they are, and he knows how far backward he has to bend at their behest. He knows  — from experience —  how far up their assets he has to shove his nose to get their handouts.

“He knows exactly how much quo he has to pro to collect their quid.

“And that’s the point: To keep Scooter in Wisconsin, doing his job, you can’t afford to pay his asking price. I can’t afford him either, and I’m wealthy. When it comes to dialing for dollars, we’re all way out of Scooter’s area code.

 “As long as King Midas and the Mysterions are Scooter’s first priority, you and I, the people of the once-neighborly little state of Wisconsin, are not his target demographic. He may talk about some fictional little old lady in Eagle River named Agnes living on Social Security, but he doesn’t care about Ag, or Eagle River. He may visit some grubby little non-union tool shop in West Bend and talk about the spirit of free enterprise, but if the owners can’t pony up six figures for his super-PAC before he exits stage-right, he’ll never look back.

“Look at his travel schedule and you can see what’s happening here. Scooter’s moving on. He’ll only hang around this one-horse state if he absolutely has to. And the only way that will happen is if you vote him out of office, crush his pathetic presidential pipe-dream and ship him back to Waukesha.

“Because here’s the scariest thing of all. We all know that if Scooter gets re-elected now, he’ll be running for president in 2016, which will keep him out of Wisconsin for at least a year, maybe longer — leaving our fate in the hands of a lieutenant governor who makes Lucy Ricardo look like a Rhodes scholar. But once Scooter loses — and we all know he will — he’ll be back. He’ll be pissed. And he’ll take it out on all of us.

“As miserable as things were in 2011 when the whole state hit the barricades, Scooter’s revenge could turn out to be even uglier.

“It comes down to this. You might not know me, but you know my bikes. You trust them, because they work. But from this gonif, would you buy a used car?

“Or, to put it in the immortal words of George W. Bush: ‘Fool you once, shame on you, er… me. Fool me again, shame — wait. Um, fool you… no… um…’”

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#694)

“Ick!”
by David Benjamin

“This is judicial activism at its worst. The Constitution entrusts state legislatures, elected by the People, to define marriage consistent with the values and mores of their citizens. Unelected judges should not be imposing their policy preferences to subvert the considered judgments of democratically elected legislatures.”

MADISON, Wis. — On the long list of Things I Wanna Watch, two guys kissing each other is pretty far down there. But I can stand it — especially if it has symbolic and political significance, as it did this week when the Supreme Court allowed marriage equality in five more states, including Wisconsin.

I’m less enthusiastic about watching a couple of guys, say, drinking champagne out of their navels and licking hot fudge off each other’s nipples. Actually, this is something I’d prefer not to see even if it’s a guy and a girl with great bodies, vintage champagne and that famous fudge from Mackinac Island.

I’m even a little squeamish about that scene in Basic Instinct — you know, where Sharon Stone is naked, mounted on this guy in the throes of orgasmic ecstasy. It’s not that I don’t appreciate Ms. Stone (or, probably, her body double) in the nude, nicely tanned, bouncing and exercising vigorously. My issue is privacy. Notwithstanding a Sexual Revolution in which I participated eagerly, I’ve always regarded serious sex — nakedness, awkward positions, body fluids, climaxes,  yelling involuntarily, etc. — as something you do without an audience. Movie sex scenes can be vital to the narrative, but I’m always ambivalent as I stare at the screen. Even as I succumb to the cheap thrill of vicarious passion, I can’t help but feel vaguely like a pervert peering through Ralph and Alice’s bedroom window.

So, when Sharon grabs the ice-pick and plunges it repeatedly into her lover, I’m relieved. The movie has steered its way to the safe harbor of blood, guts, murder and mayhem — which, at least in America — offer a far more socially acceptable form of family amusement. Everybody watches fictional people shoot, stab, strangle and dismember other fictional people. This is good clean, make-believe fun and we’re not embarrassed to admit that we consume it.

Many of us also watch hardcore porn. But we tend to do so surreptitiously, because there’s a measure of peeping-Tom in this sort of pleasure. We feel a little creepy watching people do something that we ourselves do behind closed doors with the lights out and the shades down, so that the children, or the neighbors —  or people who know how to do it better — won’t see.

Whether we call ourselves liberal or conservative, most of us agree that sexual display has limits, and that venturing beyond that pale is unseemly, unsightly and uncivilized — not to mention frightening the horses.

This is why the right-wing angst over same-sex marriage is so fascinating. There seems to be a real dread among so-called conservatives that gay people, especially men, don’t subscribe to the taboo about against pulling out your privates in public. A lot of gay marriage opponents, notably Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, are honestly afraid that all the queers are going to start doing it in the road.

Scalia has difficulty uttering terms like “same-sex marriage.” He prefers the far more clinical formulation, “homosexual sodomy.” This explicit usage suggests a perception both voyeuristic and apocalyptic. Justice Scalia, who has clearly managed to avoid any knowing contact with openly gay people for more than 70 years, has been shaken by the millions of Americans who “came out” of a closet that was traditionally reserved for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Justice Scalia typifies the fear that gay people — whose sexuality is both aberrant and mysterious to him — will go beyond marrying, adopting and raising children. They will also express their unconventional libidos in alarmingly non-traditional ways, forsaking the discretion that supposedly governs heterosexual love. They will — dear God, help us! — commence to sodomize one another right out in the open, on the sidewalk, in elevators, in the waiting room at the podiatrist’s office, on the benches at the mall with hot fudge, in the pews at the First Presbyterian as the pastor leads the faithful in “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”

Justice Scalia suffers perpetual homophobic panic because of the “ick factor,” a visceral terror of watching grown men — many of them as flabby and hairy as Justice Scalia — doing nasty things together in front of throngs of moms all gaping with disgust, covering their kids’ eyes and saying, “Ew! Ick! Gross!”

Justice Scalia’s army of alarmists seem not to appreciate the very closet where they locked their gay brothers and sisters for centuries. Gay people have always had sex with one another. However, as a matter of self-preservation — not to mention good taste — they did so far more secretly than their heterosexual peers.

Privacy has had to be more dearly protected in the gay community than in the 007, strip-club, topless-bar, skin-flick, Pet-of-the-Month sexual culture populated by the rest of us. After all, for most of my life, you could be killed for being a little bit swishy. And then there’s Rock Hudson. After kissing Doris Day a hundred times on-screen, he was dead of AIDS before anyone knew he was gay.

All those strait-laced “Christian” straights — who’ve seen too many YouTube clips of gay-pride parades — seem to believe that “coming out” is the same as “strutting your stuff.” Better they should ponder, with empathy and admiration, how gay life was presciently defined by Paul 2,000 years ago, when he told the Thessalonians, “to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs.”

They do already. And they will. Watch.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#693)

To a lot of athletes dying young
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — Just about every year in Japan, the tabloid press reports the death of a young man, in his late teens or early twenties, in a sumo stable somewhere in Tokyo. The story typically lists his age, his sumo name — something like Futoteyama, his real name and the grubby little village where he grew up and quit school at age 15 to seek fame and fortune in the grubby little sumo world.

Not usually cited in the obituary, because this is the sort of news the old farts of the Sumo Association (Sumo Kyokai) prefer to suppress (just as they don’t like it bandied about that they subcontract their ticket sales to the yakuza, the Japanese mob) is cause-of-death. Once, however, I interviewed sumo’s only honest doctor. He said that the usual killer in these cases is congestive heart failure. Futoteyama got so fat that he crushed his own heart before he was old enough to vote.

Nobody in Japan keeps track of these travesties. But for a while, I did. I figured out that sumo’s per-capital fatality rate makes it just about the deadliest professional sport on earth, far worse than the National Football League — which hasn’t recorded an on-field death since Chuck Hughes in 1971. Sumo actually kills more daring young men than NASCAR, which hasn’t lost a single driver since Dale Earnhardt kicked the fender in 2001.

I thought of this recently when the NFL issued a reluctant report. The League’s own actuaries admit that as many as a third of its players will suffer some sort of brain dysfunction because of blows to the head incurred on the field.

The long-term impact of these findings is more dire than the NFL seems to appreciate. Before the danger of concussions was so clearly confirmed, millions of helicopter moms were already making a lifestyle choice, for their kids, away from football. How else to explain the ascension of soccer — humanity’s dullest game — as the most popular youth sport in white suburbia?

I’ve seen what can happen when a trend like this builds momentum. In Japan today, sumo is moribund because mothers — from Kyushu to Hokkaido — don’t want their boys to grow up to be rikishi. Tournaments occur in stadiums often barely half-filled — with fans too old to attract sponsors. A snapshot of the crowd at the Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo looks like a hootenanny at the Senior Center.

More significantly, sumo’s elite athletes are no longer Japanese. Since 2006, foreign rikishi, from Third World nations in eastern Europe and Asia — especially Mongolia — have ruled sumo, winning 51 straight tournaments. Without native-born heroes climbing the dohyo and hoisting the Emperor’s Cup, Japanese fans have little reason to pay the Sumo Kyokai’s exorbitant admission prices.

Even more than deflated nationalism, sumo’s decline is driven by fear. Japan’s parents know the dangers and deprivations of sumo life. Teenagers recruited by a sumobeya enter a degrading and unwholesome internship that could go on, without reward or advancement, for 20 years. Except for 60 rikishi who occupy sumo’s top two ranks, hundreds of rank-and-filers work, practice, scrub and nursemaid their fellow whales for room and board. As a bonus, sumo affords them the opportunity to ruin their health and shorten their lives by a decade or more.

Sumo’s startling mortality rate is inevitable. The primitive training and dietary methods perpetuated by the dinosaurs of the Sumo Kyokai defy everything we know about “getting in shape.” Without breakfast, sumo’s rikishi train for 4-5 hours every morning — strenuously but inefficiently — forcing their bodies to metabolize energy without fuel. Then, a colossal 5,000-calorie lunch is followed by a nap, promoting the synthesis of fat, followed by an evening of fried food and beer, followed by eight hours of sleep and the synthesis of lots more fat.

And the pay? Much is made in Japan of the salaries and prize money bestowed on sumo’s grand champions by a grateful nation. But on the gravy train of big-time pro sports, rikishi are the bums in the boxcars. Today, the best-paid yokozuna in Japan earns less than the rookie minimum in Major League Baseball.

Sumo life is nasty, brutish and short. No mother in her right mind lets her boy grow up to be a rikishi. The Sumo Kyokai knows this but won’t admit it — or change. Instead, the old farts beat the bushes of hillbilly Japan for dumpling-shaped kids who are flunking out of junior high, to be fattened as sacrificial hogs for lean, hungry Mongolians who’ve been bulldogging yaks and wrestling all their lives.

Japan, of course, still loves sports — just not sumo. For years, the nation’s best young athletes have been opting for safer games that don’t require indentured servitude. Soccer is booming. Baseball is the national pastime. Rugby, tennis, running, figure skating, even professional wrestling — they’re all thriving.

But this kind of decline can’t happen here, right? Not to football.

It’s happening already. Kids who have choices — they’re from places like Lake Forest and they all have SAT coaches — are eschewing en masse the grunge of the gridiron. America’s “Third World” — blacks, Hispanics, Polynesians — are perhaps a fifth of the U.S. population, but they represent 60 percent of NFL rosters. Typically, they’ve grown up in a world that’s poorer, riskier and more violent than Lake Forest. Like Mongolians in sumo, they see a brutal and unhealthy sport as less dangerous than hanging any longer in the ‘hood.

But football’s reliance on ghetto-bred talent can’t last forever. Unless NFL owners pull their heads out of their hip-pads, the exodus of young athletes — guided by fearful parents — will continue. As less concussive opportunities in other sports emerge for kids from all backgrounds, the NFL faces the real prospect of gradually slipping from its pinnacle as America’s No. 1 TV show.

Not even a world-class impresario like NFL commissar Roger Goodell can go on indefinitely staging a spectacle in which the odds of little kids getting brain damage aren’t much better than the Christians faced, against the lions.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#692)

Thanks, Butch. It’s real white of you
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — I’ve been a bleeding heart since second grade. That was when, as I peered between the lines of dogmatic drivel in the Baltimore Catechism, it dawned on me that Jesus was the original Christian.

By this, I mean “original” as creative thinking and “Christian” as a day-to-day habit rather than pulpit-flung crapola. The Jesus who formed in my seven-year-old mind was a Superman of life’s underdogs. He accepted as his brother every other living soul, regardless of circumstances, tempering that universal affection only with an abiding mistrust of the rich and ruthless. The best example Jesus provided me was the loving solace he lavished upon the absolutely scorned and wretched — beggars, cripples, sinners, whores, lepers, outsiders and thieves.

Over the years, I’ve questioned almost every syllable of my religious indoctrination. It’s a long time since I thought of Jesus as the Son of God or anybody’s Savior. I figure that if he was going to save us, he would’ve made a better job of it by now. But, as a model for every last one of us to look out for the other guy, Jesus is still all right with me.

I mention this because of an exchange I had last week with a few friends over an ugly, bigoted joke that circulated my way over the Internet. I objected to this snatch of dimwit drollery and shared it outward, for comment — as one can do so easily these days. My most thought-provoking reply was from a friend (who pointedly demoted me from “friend” to “acquaintance”) whom I’ll just call Butch.

Butch contends that I suffer chronically from “white liberal guilt,” wasting sympathy on junkyard mongrels who sneer at my candy-ass compassion. He sees me trying futilely to correct social problems that a) have been already been solved, or b) only exist in the “white liberal” imagination, or c) can never be solved because you just can’t help people like that — because they’re like that.

Beggars, cripples, sinners, whores, lepers, outsiders and thieves.

I hesitate to label Butch “racist.” I know he’s more complicated that that. Besides, a word so loaded shouldn’t be bandied about casually. To say “racist” is to imply an idea, even a philosophy. But today, racism no longer has any place in genetic science. It flies in the face of a vast body of empirical evidence about the roots of poverty and the structural persistence of economic inequality. The so-called racism that courses beneath society’s surface — eloquently expressed in a string of insults that Butch piled on me — is more emotion than intellect.

But if Butch is not, idelogically, a racist, why does he defend a bad joke that reeks of calculated bigotry? Maybe the answer is his accusation that I typify “white liberal guilt.” This is a familiar charge that liberals tend to concede. After all, white men are historically responsible for the slave trade that turned America’s African-American population into a permanent underclass, spawning an entirely separate native culture that most white people still fail to understand.

However, I’m a Catholic-school veteran, steeped in original sin and lifelong penance since before my First Confession. I know guilt. So it struck me — reading Butch’s diatribe — that I don’t feel as guilty about being white as he thinks I do. After all, I had no say in the institutions, from slavery to Jim Crow to lynchings to the Roberts Court, that are largely culpable for the plight of black people in America. Moreover, unlike all the rednecks of my acquaintance, I don’t derive any measure of identity or self-esteem from my pallid pigmentation. If anything, I’d like to be a little darker (as defense against melanoma).

Moreover, I don’t think white liberals today blame themselves for the offenses committed against minorities by the prejudiced cynics who mock our idealism. Among the idealists, white or otherwise, who fight for social justice and care about other people’s troubles, guilt no longer plays a role. Perhaps it never did. Jesus — who was almost certainly not white (which might have been one of his problems with the Romans, who were) — never uttered a word about skin color.

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s not a colossal cauldron of white guilt simmering in the suburbs and exurbs, in gated communities and boardrooms, in the country clubs, Elks Clubs and strip clubs of middlesex America. It’s there, but the big secret is that it doesn’t afflict the liberals who speak out against a color line that has become all the more stubborn since its protectors learned to speak in code.

The guilty ones — their queasy conscience evidenced by the heat of their denials — are guys like Butch who insist not only that they’re not to blame, but that there’s nothing for which to blame them. Or anybody.

Butch remembers what we both learned (in the same school) about the built-in blessing of whiteness in American society, and the obstacles not merely to success but to survival that non-white (especially black) Americans face. He’s aware that the handicaps of color, ethnicity, creed and poverty have persisted all his life. He insists that social injustice isn’t his problem. Not only is he not his brother’s keeper, he scorns anyone who lends a hand to his brother as a sucker who’ll probably end up with that hand hacked off by a nigger with a knife.

Butch would never admit feeling any guilt for a callousness so vehement that it smacks of outright race hatred. But I think that, among his fellow “realists,” there’s a little less white solidarity than there used to be, less certainty about the universal shiftlessness of their black and brown brothers, less cocksureness than they express in their slightly desperate posts, blogs, jokes and bumper stickers.

And I suspect that some of them remember Pontius Pilate — white guy, nice house. When he turned Jesus over to the mob to be crucified for crimes of compassion, Pilate washed his hands to purge the guilt that has clung to him, and to his name, for 2,000 years.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#691)

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

by David Benjamin

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a difference a severed noggin makes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#690)

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

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

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

Here are a few suggestions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#689)

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

by David Benjamin

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

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

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

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

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

Well, I do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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