Friday, October 14, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#786)

by David Benjamin

“The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
                                           — Mr. Dooley (Finley Peter Dunne)

PARIS — When the press acquiesced to being called “the media,” the door closed on Finley Peter Dunne and opened wide for Billy Bush.

Marshall McLuhan introduced the term “medium” to the public discourse when I was just a kid. McLuhan’s focus was on television and its power to mold an intended message to fit the medium that carries the message.” The medium,” he wrote, in one of the 20th century’s most resonant sentences, “is the message.” It wasn’t long before every means of informing, enlightening, amusing and misleading the mass audience came to be bundled under McLuhan’s formulation, “media.”

In Shakespeare’s formulation, “Ay, there’s the rub.”

As an adjective, “medium” means middling, average, bland and muted. In science, a medium is a neutral substance, ideally sterile — agar agar in a Petri dish — wherein viruses, bacteria, microbes and pestilences are welcome to flourish under glass, having no effect on anything or anyone in their vicinity, or on earth.

A journalist who accepts his or her designation as “medium” deserves to be regarded as yellow jelly in a little round saucer.

The word “press,” however, connotes a lot more pizzazz. Simply by saying, “I’m the press,” you let your subject know he’s going to be leaned on. “Press”is the first syllable in “pressure.” It’s expressive, impressive, even oppressive and it can be depressing, especially if the news is about a natural disaster, the death of a hero or the rise of a tyrant. Anyone with a “PRESS” card stuck in his hatband has a heavy verb to live up to.

When reporters became the media, the pressure was off. Afflicting the comfortable is not a medium thing to do.

In a way, Billy Bush’s now-infamous fratfest with Donald Trump in 2005 — which suddenly turned the words “tits” and “pussy” into acceptable usage in family newspapers (but not on network TV)  — is a poor example of the decline from the adversary press to the supine media. Clearly, Billy Bush — a celebrity toady with kindergarten credulity — hardly merits description as a journalist.

On the other hand, Billy Bush — riding the bus with Trump, bonding over adultery, bantering about women’s genitals and sharing the unbearable horniness of being — was clutching the Holy Grail of the post-press media. Billy had access! Billy was side-by-side with a big-name, A-list celebrity. He was being treated like a buddy by one of the most well-known gasbags on earth. They were talkin’ dirty together. They were leering four-eyed through the window at a gorgeous babe who was waiting for them and they were both picturing themselves taking turns on the bitch.

Who would want to ruin a moment so sublime? What self-respecting member of the access-addicted media would spoil this special camaraderie by asking, say, “Have you really used your money and power to sexually assault unwilling women, big boy?”

Or, “Golly, sir, does your pregnant wife know that you think of her as just another piece of ass?”

Access — also known as “brown-nosing” — is a fragile, capricious indulgence. Abuse it, even slightly, ask a question with the faintest whiff of snark and — bam! — you’re off the bus, Bill.

Like Billy Bush, Matt Lauer is not a journalist. He just plays one on TV. He tried earnestly to pull a Mike Wallace during an NBC forum last month with Hillary Clinton and Trump. Lauer had access in spades. He used it to grill Clinton about e-mails and then scolded her when she spoke slightly too long on matters of policy. He abandoned this bulldog pose with Trump. He tossed softballs and allowed Trump to ramble off-topic, dodge questions and regurgitate a barrage of tired talking points, many of which were barefaced lies. Lauer challenged little and chided not. Finally, having prodded Hillary to wrap it up, Lauer ended his Trump exchange with time to spare. He gave up.

The real press, as its name suggests, never gives up.

Why, though, did Lauer feel comfortable pressing Clinton, only to change gears and soft-soap Trump? The difference lies, again, in the nature of the “media” as we now know them.

The news itself is a medium under siege from other media.

Donald Trump is the apotheosis of Twitter. He’s the 200-pound canary in the old joke. He has no respect for the traditional press, nor does he feel any reverence for the standards of ethics, education, accuracy and fairness that the press has haltingly evolved throughout its tortuous history. Trump gets his “news” online, from a mishmash of aggregators, bloggers, propagandists, tweeters, flamers, paranoids, hermits, trolls and crackpots, who worship him in turn. On social media, Donald Trump is — like Matt Drudge and InfoWars — a voice of strident authority.

The term that best captures the nature and the appeal of social-media platforms where the Trumps and Kardashians roam free is “follower.” Once, newspapers had “subscribers,” reporters had readers. Now, in cyberspace, Donald Trump has followers.

Disparage their prophet and you trigger a firestorm from Trump’s million-maniac faithful. Ridicule Trump and you find yourself drowning in a swamp of anonymous vitriol so vile that you re-think your mother’s assurance that “names will never hurt me.”

When Matt Lauer prudently handled Trump with kid gloves, he was smelling that swamp. He understood the damage that Trump’s followers, in their immense and   relentless rage, could do to his standing in the media as well as to NBC. Hillary Clinton, whose “followers” are fewer and less incendiary, posed no such peril.

That night on TV, only one person, Donald Trump, was the biggest star in politics. So Lauer did his duty. He coddled the diva. He preserved his network’s access and, with it, the ad dollars that accrue to the wretched media chore of sucking up, kissing ass and licking spittle.

Mr. Dooley is rolling in his grave.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#785)

Donald Trump’s
Parisian sweetheart

by David Benjamin

“When I was a child, I talked like a child. I thought like a child. I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”
— 1 Corinthians 13:11

PARIS — My friends in the Trumpkamp think that non-Trumpniks like me don’t understand them. They see themselves as exceptional and abstruse (partly because they don’t know what “abstruse” means and they’re proud of that, and even prouder that they refuse to look it up).

The counterpoint to this self-styled distinctiveness is that there are tens of millions of Trump believers gathering in arenas and roaring in unison. In a crowd like that (all wearing the same ugly baseball cap), it’s hard to call yourself unique.

More significantly, this mass claim to peculiarity reflects a tradition as simple and American as blueberry muffins. Trumpians are a permanent class who see themselves on the Outside, looking In. They’re stuck out there pressing their noses to the window at Bloomie’s because some ill-defined but pernicious “elite” has denied them their rightful place, on purpose, personally. This is not a rare and and recondite grievance. We’ve all been there. Very few of us make through life unscrewed.

Whenever a lot of us feel entitled to a piece of the action, but see invisible (or obvious) forces holding us back — who then compound the affront by handing out favors to the less deserving — we chafe and bellyache.

We’ve been kvetching since Plymouth Rock. The Boston Tea Party was an early and melodramatic outburst. Its equal and opposite recent counterpart was the even more melodramatic Tea Party, which is pretty much gone, most of its faithful now chasing Trump’s limo.

My favorite feel-good iteration of the eternal Nobody-Knows-the-Trouble-I’ve-Seen theme is Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941), in which the followers of a mythical social outcast — played gently by Gary Cooper — call themselves the John Does. If Capra had made the movie today…

Wait. Capra filming Meet Donald Trump? No way. Capra would recognize Trump as the archetype of the big fat rich men whom he always depicted (often played by Edward Arnold) as conniving windbags, blind to reality and drunk with ego.

In 1968, Richard Nixon birthed John Doe’s evil twin. By glorifying America’s inchoate mass of grumblers as the Great Silent Majority, he assured them that he heard their stifled voice. Tricky Dick shared — he said — our anguish at being passed over, unfairly, whenever he (we) reached for a position that would set him (us) apart from the vast herd of faceless johns. He wanted to be president. He wanted to run California. They (we) wouldn’t let him. Well then, up yours, big shots. I’m Richard Milhouse, I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.

Yes. Nixon foreshadowed Howard Beale, who foreshadowed Trump, whose minions borrowed Beale’s best line but probably never saw that movie either.

Which brings me to last week in a Paris wine bar, where I stumbled felicitously upon an eloquent spokeswoman for the John Doe-Howard Beale ethos. She was twenty-something, slightly drunk and cute as a bug’s ear. Her name is Marianne, and she said, “I love Trump!”

Now, the joint was loud (Frederic, the proprietor, had been trying to close up for an hour, to no avail), and Marianne was speaking Franglish. Hence, I didn’t gather her every word, but her message had the advantage of familiarity. I’d heard before — really often! — that democracy in both America and France is a shambles.

“There is no democracy,” quoth Marianne, passionately.

All that’s left of our once-Revolutionary dream — she said — is a technocratic “establishment,” riddled with cronyism, nepotism and baksheesh. The republic needs a Trumpoid figure to disrupt the entire structure and shake it, instantly, to its foundations, creating the cracks, fissures and crevasses where Great Silents, John Does and Sans Culottes can infiltrate, seize the establishment, remake it in our own image and quietly behead the fatcats of the ancien regime.

The clincher in Marianne’s philippic was the example of one Adolf Hitler. I could tell she was speaking more in precept than praise. Too young to remember the Feuhrer, she perceived him and the Donald as rhetorical soulmates. They’re like characters from Upton Sinclair, symbolic rousers of the rabble and disrupters of a ruling class that has played out its string and must be deposed in toto, leaving nothing behind but politically pure peasants and scorched earthed destined to become the topsoil of Utopia.

We drank lustily to scorched earth and to the great Franco-American phoenix rising from its ashes. Then Hotlips and I kissed Marianne on both cheeks and moseyed home, gingerly (we’d had a lot of wine). As we passed apartment blocks, vast gardens and public works erected by the decadent establishment, I pondered Marianne’s tender age. She was enamored of her political vision, and pleased with herself — rightfully — for having one. She was free now to think and speak her mind, because she’s a grownup engaging older grownups who asked her opinion, listened to it and toasted her insouciance.

I bowed to Marianne’s novice populism because I could tell how curious and smart she is. I knew she would change, grow up more, and come to see the shades between the Black and the White. Why argue with a passing fancy?

Although merely an amusing abstraction to Marianne in Paris, Donald Trump in America is more accurately a fairly violent mass tantrum. Like toddlers collapsing to the floor in the supermarket, screaming and kicking a hundred boxes of forbidden Froot Loops all over the linoleum, Americans who aren’t getting what they want — right now — are acting out.

Trump is Froot Loops for the left-behind, discontent and dispossessed. He’s every loser’s winner. He’s the simple answer to the quandary of real life, and the latest of those “childish things” that so many of us can’t quite put behind us.

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#784)

Out to dejeuner
by David Benjamin

“A good photograph is like a good hound dog, dumb, but eloquent.”
                                                                 — Eugene Atget

PARIS — I follow, meekly, the footsteps of Eugene Atget.

Atget was the original, essential Parisian, unable to get his fill of the City of Light. In the early days of photography, Atget fed off the Light, trudging every inch of the city, taking pictures of every magnificent view and every mundane cranny. I emulate Atget only in my efforts to roam Paris with camp and camera, whenever I’m here, creating an “album” that’s a fraction as large as the vast, tireless oeuvre of Atget.

Atget took thousands of photos, carrying a huge telescoping box camera and its ungainly tripod, plus a trunk full of fragile glass plates. All I haul is a camera bag, my Pentax, two lenses and a memory chip that holds more shots than Atget could shlep in a month. But Atget was a walking encyclopedia. I — despite my superior technology — am a mere brochure.

My latest expedition took me to a cobbled alleyway called the rue Berton. Atget beat me there by 116 years. Rue Berton is mildly famous for Honoré de Balzac’s backdoor, where he escaped when the bill collectors came around the front. It’s also, coincidentally, the back wall of a little urban chateau that housed Marie-Therese Louise, Princess of Lamballe. She was Marie Antoinette’s BFF. In the Revolution, Marie Antoinette was ceremoniously beheaded. The Princesse de Lamballe was simply hacked to death.

Despite the cloudy day and lousy light, I got my photos of the moodily evocative, but unspectacular alley, picked up a few fallen buckeyes as mementos and wandered then toward the Parc de la Muette. On the fashionable rue de Passy, I foraged — in the impecunious spirit of Balzac — for a cheap lunch.

I dodged two obviously chic joints — already speckled with early-eating American tourists — and opted for the humbler Tabac de la Muette, where the waiter guided me to a little nook that afforded a few of both the interior and the street. Nearby were two expat American women, conversing volubly in English. I ignored them strenuously, concentrating on my book (I’m re-reading Invisible Man) until they were supplanted, felicitously, by an elderly Parisienne who ate like a cat and uttered not a mew.

The impeccably efficient waiter returned and took roughly 15 seconds to record my order and shimmer off. ‘Til my omelette arrived, I read. But I also noted that, beside me, the waiter seated a beautiful girl (dark hair, pale skin, Claudia Cardinale’s eyes). She was my sixth of the day.

I count beautiful girls in Paris. Everyone should.

The omelette (barely garnished: two leaves of iceberg lettuce and one wedge of underripe tomato) was perfect, light brown on its surface and runny in the middle. As I partook, I scanned the room. I belatedly grasped that I’d stumbled into an old-style Paris café/restaurant that had yet to be remodeled into yuppified sterility. It probably will be soon.

The light here is appealingly dim, in case I’m lunching (billing, cooing, holding hands) with a woman not my wife. This subtle gloom echoes off old maple woodwork dark enough to match my souvenir chestnut, each wall panel centered by an oval mirror. The light we get is gold, from Belle Epoque fixtures, sconces and a chandelier whose dusty-orange glass shades are tulip-shaped. But around the chandelier on the ceiling, a circle of paisley-shaped, dark-stained Art Nouveau laths. Café decorators in Paris mix periods shamelessly, and nobody complains.

The place is called a “tabac,” because it’s licensed to sell tobacco products. Typically, the tobacco counter is up front to the right of the doorway, and it’s expansive. They sell a lot of smokes here and probably have a wide array of allumettes, wooden matches in decorative boxes that serve as excellent, cheap, packable souvenirs to take back home to the family in Topeka (if only tourists knew).

Beyond the tobacco stand, the bar — oak blackened by a thousand hands, marble panels, marble bar — crowded with drinkers too thrifty to pay the extra fare for a table. The steps down to the W.C. are also marble, a touch of cool elegance (or mock opulence) from a different time.

Mopping up egg (the bread is good, not sublime), I see, behind the stairwell railing, a fellow diner. I sigh in admiration. He’s about 75, eating alone in a linen suit, conservative tie, light-blue Oxford shirt, dance-ready loafers. He’s Paris after the war — Maurice Chevalier, Charles Boyer, Yves Montand. Have you ever, in an American restaurant at lunch, ever seen a man in a linen suit, tie and polished shoes, using his fork properly? Or even one who has the sheer chutzpah to wear linen?

I suppress the urge to go over and hug the guy.

(Me? Fuggedaboudit! Photographer’s vest, cargo pants, sandals, and a “Here Come the Beatles” t-shirt.)

Suddenly, my gorgeous banquette-mate is paid up and motoring. She has miles to go before she sleeps (with Delon, Belmondo, Gainsbourg, nobody like me or you). That’s how it is. The old bags linger and then shuffle off, gradually, leaning on canes. The young beauties are quicksilver. I watch as she hurries. Methinks (with Herrick) how sweetly, sweetly flows the liquefaction of her clothes.

Drinking my coffee, I have a good view of the street. The sun is struggling to appear, which decides my afternoon. I’ll keep walking with my camera. I’ve already shot the Métro sign at Muette, a red rectangle framed in cast-iron filigree. These signs — in a dozen different styles from Hector Guimard’s turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau triffids that to the Fifties-style Mobilgas “M” — are a favorite motif. Alas, most of them post-date Atget. He would have shot every station.

Outside, I steer a course toward rue de la Pompe. One building’s facade is bright with mosaic panels and a pre-Raphaelite woman’s face is etched in limestone. I don’t count her, though. She’s not alive and she’s only a head.

Final tally for the day: Ten.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#783)

by David Benjamin

“Hooray, excelsior and pow!
The ship of state is sunk and dead,
And we, the fools, are at the bow,
From which the wise and good have fled.”

                            — Benjie, The Id, 1966

PARIS — Bob Schuster was my first publisher. The imprint was SRTB Ketchachokee Publications. The four letters designated the main characters in a “literary” venture that was more of a high-school comedy than a commercial enterprise. The “S” was Scott Rothney, sometimes known as Brother Chiboinkin, whom Schuster gave top billing because he was our most (well, only) intimidating colleague. The “R” was Schuster (Robert), the “T” was shy, romantic Tom Sundal. I was the “B,” last because I’d arrived in Madison only recently, after a provincial childhood in remotest Tomah (Up North).

As for the “Ketchachokee” appendage, that was Schuster’s idea, which he explained once. But it made no sense and we all forgot it.

Our editorial product was called The Id, mainly because Schuster had read A Primer of Freudian Psychology. Scott had, too. Sundal, who was too psychologically brittle to delve too deeply into himself, had prudently eschewed Freud. I resolved to get around to Freud but never did. My ignorance of the great Sigmund probably hampered my literary “career” because this was, after all, an era when Freudian gobbledegook captivated a lot of otherwise splendid storytellers.

(Without realizing it, by the way, I discovered that the perfect literary antidote to Freud was William Goldman (The Princess Bride).)

Schuster, who tended to labor mightily on short poems about death, rapidly recognized that I was The Id’s most prolific contributor. For me, writing — in Freudian terms — was a compulsion. However, being a product of St. Mary’s School, I preferred to see my logorrheic output as a sort of priestly vocation visited upon me by and angry God.

Either way, Schuster not only made me his “star” author, he committed more of himself to my oeuvre than to his own sporadic snatches of adolescent noir. He embraced his thankless role as The Id’s superego and risked his spotless Goody Two-Shoes reputation to get my drivel — and the odd poem — into print.

For example, he stole for me. To produce The Id, we needed a printing machine. These were pre-Xerox days, when the cheapest way to do a “print run” was with a device we called a “mimeograph.” This contraption was actually a spirit duplicator, or “ditto” machine. Ditto fuel was a clear, pungent fluid. Fresh on a newly printed page, it gave off a pleasantly alcoholic fragrance that suggested a cocktail blend of gin and Prestone antifreeze. If you pressed your face into your Biology test sheet and inhaled, you began the exam with a nice, fleeting isopropanol-methanol high. Generations of school kids were hooked on ditto perfume.

Every teachers lounge in America had a spirit duplicator. But SRTB Ketchacokee Publications had none, nor did we have access to the teachers’ room. Nor did we possess the capital to buy a machine So, Schuster stole a spirit duplicator.

From his church.

And then he lied, to his sainted mom, who asked where he got it.

“Oh, we just borrowed it.”

Maybe Schuster meant that. But he never took it back.

Besides, we needed the thing — and its laborious printing process — more than Schuster’s pastor ever would. We needed to write, and be read (we sold The Id for a quarter — cheap). Because of Bob’s stealing, lying and churning out pages on our hijacked ditto machine, I evolved into “the writer” among my peers at LaFollette High.

Bob’s labors produced readers, many of whom ended up friends. In those days, we had a rare subculture of teenage smartasses at LaFollette High. We came from three or four different classes (both chronological and social) and a half-dozen feeder schools. We took part — or refused to take part — in different high-school activities. We never formed a single group or held meetings, but we all knew who we were. We treated conversation as a contact sport. Our sarcasm left bruises. We mocked pretense, we defied authority, we scorned small talk and quoted poetry (Yeats, cummings, Ezra Pound), we sneered at the masses and we suffered no fools but ourselves. And we saw, in one another, the evanescent seeds of greatness.

In common, we all had The Id.

Among us, Schuster was an island of calm, smarter than the smartest but uniquely disinclined toward one-upmanship. He laughed softly at himself and taught us how that works. He abetted us and grew among us without competing. He published us.

On Sunday, while visiting Schuster at the hospital, I learned that he’s dying. The doctors are sending him home. There’s nothing more they can do. Schuster greeted his fate with a crooked smile and an ironic note on the brevity of it all.

They say that one of the measures of one’s own life is whether, in all your years, you’ve changed anyone else’s life.

Schuster changed mine. More than that, he defined it.

In those two-odd years of pumping a rickety ditto machine, inhaling methanol fumes and printing out the purple pages of The Id ’til they were too faint to read, Schuster provided me my first audience — which is every author’s deepest need. He lent me access to praise and favor. He gave me a sense of the hard work — including stealing and lying — that would be my destiny as an unknown writer, pouring my blood into a typewriter, compromising my future and ravaging my relationships to keep on writing so that, in the end, I will probably die as obscurely as I began.

It was Schuster, more than any friend or teacher, mentor, parent, spouse or child, who made clear to me my own fate, my bondage to words and the odds against me. Schuster was the guidepost to my destiny.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#782)

Pop quiz
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — One of the most entertaining moments in every election cycle is when a candidate who’s been saturated with talking points and pumped full of pat answers gets blindsided by a query that neither he/she, nor any of his/her handlers, ever saw coming. The latest example was when Mike Barnicle, on “Morning Joe,” asked Libertarian Gary Johnson about the war-torn largest city in Syria and Johnson replied, “What’s Aleppo?”


This blunder ranks right up there with Sarah Palin not being able to tell Katie Couric what she reads, George H.W. Bush reeling in wonder at the sight of a bar-code reader in the checkout line, and Ted Kennedy going blank when Roger Mudd asked, “Why do you want to be president?”

This year, of course, we have at least one candidate who would probably flunk all four of those examples, plus many more. On the other hand, the GOP candidate’s opponent is a smarty-pants girl who knows too much, knows she knows it, shows it off and annoys people so totally that they’re threatening to vote for Jill Stein.

In light of this weird 2016 dynamic, I’ve spent a couple of days compiling questions, some of which might befuddle both of these aspirants to the White House. If we spring a few of these stumpers on them, their responses — or lack thereof — might ease the pain of choosing one or the other.

The following pop quiz is an intentional hodgepodge, meant to judge how well each candidate knows America and the world and, most important, how “everyday people” deal with the quotidian realities that neither Trump nor Hillary has had to face for a long while, if ever. For instance:

1. What do you do with a seven-ten split?

I know. Neither Einstein nor Dick Weber ever came up with a theory for that. But the rest are easier.

2. What’s the capital of Kentucky? What about Delaware? And Ukraine?

3. Who’s Jim Crow?

4. ISIS, what does that stand for? What about ISIL?

5. What’s a charter school?

6. Where was your shirt/dress made? How about your shoes?

7. Who shot Bobby Kennedy? How about Ronald Reagan?

8. ISIS: Sunni or Shiite?

9. What do they call Burma nowadays? What did Sri Lanka used to be?

10. Have you ever needed a job? Applied for one? Been turned down?

11. What was Stalin’s first name? Harry Truman’s middle name?

12. How many Congresspersons in the House of Representatives?

13. What’s the “capital” of Islam?

14. Where’s your local Unemployment office?

15. The Great Lakes. Name five.

16. There are three words in the French national motto. What are they?

17. What’s the best deli on Houston Street? (Hint : Meg Ryan)

18. Who won the Series last fall? And the Super Bowl?

19. Why do farmers grow clover?

20. Who’s the Prime Minister of Britain? How about Canada?

21. What’s your favorite supermarket?

22. How about the price of a half-gallon of milk?

23. IoT. What’s that mean?

24. Ph.D.? L.S.M.F.T.? FTA? QED? SOL?

25. What year was the Emancipation Proclamation? The Civil Rights Bill?

26. Paul was converted on the road to where?

27. What’s a 1099?

28. What used to happen on Whitehall Street? How about Tan Son Nhut?

29. Which region of Spain wants to secede?

30. Where was Barack Obama born? John McCain?

31. What’s the Holy Trinity?

32. What was the Immaculate Reception?

33. What’s in the Fourth Amendment?

34. Do you have a driver’s license? Have you ever been to the DMV?

35. Soul on Ice. Who wrote it? To Kill a Mockingbird? The Wealth of Nations?

36. Who killed Billy the Lion?

37. What’s the best way to spread manure?

38. Name the Jew who wrote “God Bless America.”

39. What’s your Social Security number?

40. What happened in Ripon, Wisconsin.

BONUS QUESTIONS: Who said, “Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.” How about, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” Or: “What? Me Worry?”

There are actually 64 questions here, worth one point each. Don’t take it yourself. Pretend to be one or both of the candidates and assign your vote to the one with the highest score — so you can quit worrying about the whole catastrophe.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#781)

Building the better wetback trap
by David Benjamin

“… I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters…”
        — Donald Trump

MADISON, Wis. — Among the more tawdry spectacles in a campaign that sets a new standard for tawdriness, Donald Trump’s tasteless display — during a nativist rant last week — of parents whose kids were killed by undocumented immigrants either in crimes or accidents, was exceptional.

This tearjerk-palooza reprised the GOP Convention appearance of an inconsolable mother, Pat Smith, who accused Hillary Clinton of personally murdering her son in Libya.

Mrs. Smith, alas, has to take a spot far back in the queue of right-wing hysterics convinced that Hillary is a sort of Foggy Bottom Ripper, snuffing innocents serially from Arkansas to Chappaqua over the last 30 years.

Speaking of Hillary, she’s not without sin. She has visited, hugged and enlisted her own cadre of object-lesson victims, from Gabby Giffords to Sandy Hook moms to 9/ll first-responders. Not to mention Khizr and Ghazala Khan.

I wonder if it’s too much to ask both campaigns for a moratorium henceforth on the weaponization of heartbroken parents.

Just kidding.

The gist of Trump’s maudlin march of mourning moms was, as usual, the rapine tsunami of swarthy illegals, bearing bales of heroin, peyote and magic mushrooms across a cheesecloth Mexican border to befuddle our sons and ravish our girls. According to Trump, these interlopers number in the millions — 11, 30, 50, who knows? These lawless wetbacks — says Trump — have to be snatched up, bussed south and left somewhere beyond the Panama Canal without a paddle (or even a canoe!).


Conservative pundit David Brooks, citing the even more conservative Cato Institute, recently re-stated what’s been previously oft-stated: “… Research suggests that the recent surge in immigration has made America’s streets safer. That’s because foreign-born men are very unlikely to commit violent crime.

“According to one study, only 2 or 3 percent of Mexican-, Guatemalan- or Salvadoran-born men without a high school degree end up incarcerated, compared with 11 percent of their American-born counterparts.”

These actual facts suggest a radically different solution to the crisis Trump has been trumpeting for years. Fortunately, Donald Trump, a practical businessman, might consider this approach, because it’s both utilitarian and “outside the box.”

One word: Liberia!

One more word: Deportation.

You see where I’m going, Boss?

We know (see above) that non-Mexican Americans are out-raping, out-robbing and out-murdering illegals by an 11-to-2 margin. If you just go after Mexicans (Hondurans, Costa Ricans, etc.), you’re not going to take a real big bite out of crime. The numbers would look way better if we leave the Mexican crooks alone and focus instead on deporting all the other crooks — citizen-convicts, parole-violators, Bloods and Crips, outlaw bikers, white jaywalkers, Asian child molesters, French chefs, etc.

Deportation numbers would skyrocket, crime rates would crater and America would be safer than Switzerland on Easter Sunday. The only drawback? We’d have to scratch Mexico as our dumping-ground.

Which is where Liberia comes in. It’s really far away and hard to get back from. It’s currently underpopulated (thanks to the Ebola epidemic). In many ways, it resembles a penitentiary. Plus, it’s too small and weak to refuse us. And everybody there speaks English.

The latter fact derives from Liberia’s origin as a refuge for freed slaves from America — which means we’ve done this to these guys before. Liberia is used to getting huge shipments of unwanted black people from the U.S.A.

Out of fairness, of course, these undesirables won’t all be African-American (a term I really wish Trump would stop using because, from him, it sounds so… well, mealy). The white minority among America’s Liberian exiles — many of them proudly distinguished by their “88” tattoos and swastika scars — will boost, telegenically, the entertainment value of this social experiment. Picture a fly, its wings plucked away, dropped onto a teeming anthill. Picture Bruce Willis, in Die Hard 3, forced by Jeremy Irons to walk through Harlem wearing an “I Hate Niggers” sandwich-board.

Talk about reality-TV gold!

Liberia is ravaged by poverty, disease, ignorance, tribal bigotry and political dysfunction. It’s hard to imagine a more ideal milieu for the dregs of America’s gutters and gangs. Many of our deportees would treat Monrovia as a mere transit point between Statesboro and the guerrilla militias that infest the region, from Boko Haram to the Lord’s Resistance Army to the butchers in Sudan. With this influx of “freedom fighters,” outfits like LURD and Janjaweed wouldn’t need to arm and train quite as many ten-year-old killers.

Picture America’s worst degenerates making it possible for African kids to go back to gradeschool (and then, in Episode 2, burning down the school).

Unfortunately, this proposal poses some potential to bankrupt and destabilize not only Liberia but the whole region. Flooded by America’s baddest badasses, West Africa might well spiral down into the chaos and carnage that marked the post-colonial era. The Liberian Solution, also, would probably doom dozens of species — lions, elephants, mountain gorillas, rhinos, for sure — burned out, flushed out and wiped out in a continental crossfire.

But as the popular Mexican immigrant Freddy Prinze once said, “Hey, ees not my job, man.”

After all, Trump has proposed an immigration policy without costs or consequences. We want to do what we want to do, and let the chips forsake the losers. Trump’s America has no responsibility to help out any nation with any problem, even if America caused it. We’re the biggest, the strongest, the toughest and it’s time we acted that way. If Liberians or Mexicans, or Panama, don’t like us tipping the dregs of our mean streets and seething cellblocks into their fragile societies, well, as Donald Trump has famously and succinctly said: “They can go — ”

Well, you know.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#780)

The red-and-white blues
(and yellow fringe)

by David Benjamin

“Speech doesn't just mean written words or oral words. It could be semaphore. And burning a flag is a symbol that expresses an idea…”
        — Justice Antonin Scalia

MADISON, Wis. — The Stars and Stripes is easily the most battered and beleaguered flag in anybody’s history. Most recently, Old Glory was dissed by a backup quarterback who prefers to stay seated during “The Star-Spangled Banner” — a custom that is, after a fashion, another form of flag abuse. I mean, every game?

As most of us remember, all this flag fuss started in grade school. At St. Mary’s every morning, I had to pledge my allegiance to some guy named Richard Stanz. Later, in my Cub Scout flag-etiquette tutorial, I learned that you put hand on heart for the pledge, but you only have to take off your hat for the anthem. And saluting? That’s only allowed for people in uniform (firemen, Marines, Brownies, the Klan, etc.).

So, it rankles when I scan the ballpark and see all these patriots with their hands on their hearts… and their adjust-o-band logo caps glued to their gourds.

During the bloodbath in Vietnam, I mounted a small half-burned American flag on my college dorm room wall. My point was that when a free nation goes astray — as America has too often  done — it desecrates its most cherished emblems, specifically the Stars and Stripes.

I know. Didactic and metaphorical. But this was college, OK?

Nobody but my roomie ever saw my toasted flag ’til Christmas break, when the campus police searched my room — thereby violating the my Fourth Amendment rights. Soon after, the college president himself wrote to Mom exposing me as an Enemy of the State. I wrote back, telling John to mind his own beeswax and stay the hell out of my room.

Looking back, I decided that President Howard had a practical — albeit unconstitutional — point. Trying to use the Stars and Stripes for sophisticated symbolism is one of the hobgoblins of little minds. This was doubly true in the Sixties, when an innocent red-white-and-blue painter’s cap, or a pair of Old Glory pants pockets could get you beat up by stevedores and rousted by cops with flag patches on their sleeves (another flag-etiquette no-no, but who’s gonna argue?).

Later in life, in Japan, I found a fresh perspective on flag idolatry. Ashamed of its decades of misuse by the fascists who crushed all dissent, attacked Pearl Harbor, enslaved East Asia and launched a disastrous war, the Japanese people today tend to shun their own flag. Flag display is seen as a sign of militarist delusion, reactionary zeal and misplaced ostentation. Japan’s World War II battle flag, with the cool red rays sticking out of the Rising Sun, is virtually forbidden.

In Tokyo, you could burn a flag, but nobody would come. Here in the Land of the Hypersensitive, flag arson is still guerrilla theater for the unimaginative, catnip for news crews, grist for demagogues, and a millstone around the neck of the Supreme Court. Worst, it steals attention from more insidious forms of flag abuse.

For instance, why can’t the Cowboys, Seahawks and Patriots settle, modestly, for a standard-issue Old Glory flapping above the grandstand? Where is it written in NFL bylaws that every game has to feature a hundred-yard flag spread over the whole field, while F-35s fly over and giant speakers roar John Philip Sousa so loud that it damages eardrums and traumatizes toddlers?

Nowadays at almost every game, fans are compelled to honor “sacrifices” with which 98 percent of Americans no longer associate. In Old Glory’s name, we’ve mustered a vast (ironically underpaid) mercenary army to do the dirty, bloody work of empire while the rest of us watch games. We delegate our official bloodshed to a handful of PTSD-ravaged “volunteers,” then soothe our conscience by clapping hand over heart and shrouding a carpet of fake grass — named after a multinational corporation — with a crudely colossal version of the flag beneath which we’ve laid to rest the 3,000 Union dead at Gettysburg, the 9,387 buried above Omaha Beach and the 60,000 kids whose names are etched in Maya Lin’s heartbreaking wall. Not to mention all those loyal shnooks whose number finally came up on their eighth or ninth tour in Afghanistan.

After the mega-flag and before the anthem, we roll out a few vets in wheelchairs — a perfect moment to hit the concourse for another $10 light beer.

This is the milieu of mock patriotism wherein Colin Kaepernick inexplicably discovered his civil rights and recoiled at the flag. Before he “spoke up,” I didn’t like him much. This was based on how he played football (arrogantly and imprecisely). His lame effort to protest his people’s “oppression,” by snubbing the national anthem before a desultory exhibition game, didn’t capture many imaginations or advance any cause I could discern.

After all, the kid’s real “people” are overpaid jocks. I reach for my union card whenever I hear a millionaire empathizing with the peanut gallery, whether he’s a jock who’s been pampered ever since he was discovered playing PeeWee ball, or a silver-spoon tycoon professing brotherhood with farmers and miners whose hands are too dirty for him to shake.

Kaepernick’s problem isn’t his beliefs or his difficulty articulating them. It’s not even his inability to read an NFL defense. It’s getting mixed up with the flag. Whether you burn it or wear it, the flag is going to overwhelm you with everybody else’s symbolism, and no one will listen to what you think you’re saying.

Don’t wave it. Don’t torch it. Don’t stitch it to your ass and don’t wear a flag-motif windbreaker (or Bermudas, or halter top, or Cat-in-the-Hat hat). Salute it when they run it up the pole, but don’t try to express yourself with it. Leave Old Glory to the pandering pols, the conventioneers, the nativists and yahoos, the Eagle Scouts, the Fourth of July concerts and all those used-car lots on Route One.

George M. Cohan once said, “Many a bum show has been saved by the flag.” But that was before we had the NFL.