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.

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#779)

Confessions of a navel observer
by David Benjamin

“It is hardly necessary to waste words over the so-called bikini since it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing.”
        — Modern Girl, 1957

MADISON, Wis. — I went to Catholic school and developed a belly-button fetish. Looking back sheepishly, I trace this syndrome to a cadre of Dominican nuns obsessed with nudity. Nowadays, their prudishness seems excessive, but in the Fifties — as every Catholic kid knew — nuns never undressed.

Their habits (that, is, their duds) were actually bonded to their former bodies and their wimples were stitched — before they took their vows — right into their skulls. Picturing this process tended to make your skin crawl. Some of us figured that this baptism-by-needle explained why Sister Mary Ann was such a bitch.

Sister Mary Ann, in particular, was so pathological about nakedness that most of her pupils at St. Mary’s — especially the girls — were convinced that the only way to avoid seeing our bodies, playing with ourselves and committing a sin in the shower was to keep our clothes on all the time. Sister Mary Ann was vague about how we could get clean that way. My suspicion is that she really didn’t care.

Because B.O. isn’t a sin.

Starting in second grade, the nuns of St. Mary’s instilled in my malleable mind a palpable terror of witnessing in the flesh any more of a girl than her arms and less than half of her legs. Cleavage gave me the willies. And belly-buttons?

If I got a load of a girl’s navel, even accidentally, I knew I was bound straight for Hell. I intuited this without doctrinal guidance. Nobody, not even Sister Mary Ann, told me specifically that a glimpse of the female belly-button was a mortal sin. I probably decided this based on media attention to a) the recently invented bikini and b) its nearest occasion of French sin, Brigitte Bardot. I lived in fear that a bikini might suddenly thrust itself before my eyes — on Groucho’s TV show, in the Saturday Evening Post, or, most ominously, at the municipal swimming pool. All summer, I stepped out of the locker room and froze, hoping fervently against the soul-searing sight of a naked torso, as I scanned the moms sunning themselves at the shallow end and the dissolute high-school girls who minced and flirted with boys near the diving board.

My fears were groundless. This was Tomah, a mostly German hamlet in the Great White North, where the default format for women’s bathing costumes remained, almost ’til the Reagan administration, the full-torso, breast-crushing Playtex living girdle.

I learned the hard way, however, that the age of the belly-button had already begun. There was no escape, even in the Erwin Theater, where my dad took me one Saturday to see a religious film called Solomon and Sheba. I had  no idea beforehand that Sheba was Gina Lollobrigida, and that Gina would drop her robe in Technicolor and VistaVision, revealing little more than a snake-motif bra, a see-through skirt and a jewel in her navel, after which she belly-danced endlessly — on and on and on, writhing, shimmying, twirling! — beneath the lustful gaze of Yul Brynner (and my dad, whom I knew was susceptible to this sort of scantily-clad enticement).

To my eternal regret, I didn’t enjoy or even dimly appreciate this wondrous introduction to Ms. Lollobrigida who — in her prime — rivaled Sophia Loren in sheer  Roman lusciousness and easily eclipsed such brunette-bombshell rivals as Jane Russell, Debra Paget and even Natalie Wood.

The ten-year-old prig version of me just sat there in a cold Vatican sweat, squirming, trying not to wink back at Gina’s belly-button, despairing for my Lutheran father’s immortal soul and trembling at the prospect of stepping into the confessional a week hence and telling Father Mulligan that I’d had an “impure thought” about Gina Lollobrigida. I never owned up to that. In years of confessing, I bottled up my every impure thought, eventually departing the Church, absolving myself  unilaterally and embracing a lifelong liberating love of the naked navel.

For a while, about ten years ago, when the fashion gods declared that every woman had to wear low-slung jeans with cut-off tummy-baring tops, I was initially thrilled. My secret paganism had spread and, suddenly, the streets were a parade of creamy tummies and proud, pierced, jeweled bellies.

All of which, if you recall, became swiftly too much of a once-good thing. A tummy is a delicate barque. The bare-midriff vogue, one soon perceived, was not a celebration of six-packs and Salomes. It was more like a humid Sunday at Cony Island. I looked around and I saw more plumber’s guts and love handles — both women and men! — than Lollobrigidas and bikini bods. I was back at the Erwin, averting my eyes.

Thankfully, the trend passed. People stopped feeling obligated to flaunt a body part better left to the imagination, and several layers of heavy fabric.

Speaking of heavy fabric, the controversy that got me thinking about swimwear, navels and Gina Lollobrigida was the French government’s determination to banish from beaches the so-called “burqini” swimsuit, a Muslim coverall reminiscent of the costumes worn by the bathing beauties of Atlantic City in 1900.

In France’s struggle with its greatest human rights issue, it seems odd — well, absurd — that the government’s most decisive policy is a Baywatch dress code. If ever there was country where anything — on the beach — goes, it’s France. If BB can get away with baring her belly-button, and a thousand starlets at the Cannes Festival can get away with baring much more than that, a few Muslim housewives shouldn’t be hassled for wearing Dominican habits in the hot sun.

Sooner or later, the Prophet’s gals are going to come around. They already are. Walk around Paris and you see subtle signs of Koranic heresy —Hermes hijabs bearing rhinestones, spangles, bangles and Disney characters, with complementary eye makeup and matching Nikes.

This burqini fuss is happening, after all, in France — famous for Josephine Baker, Lova Moore and the Folies Bergere — a land where everyone sooner or later lightens up and figures out the national truth:

Taking it off is always better than putting it on.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#778)

Demagoguery, Nelson
Algren and other campaign notes

by David Benjamin

“I don’t want to seem racist or nothing but the black heritage has been raised in a certain way that there’s no incentive to get out and work because all of a sudden you have five kids and there are no dads around.”
    — Jack Beck, at a Trump rally, West Bend, Wis., 16 Aug.

MADISON, Wis. — Hillary Clinton has a $250 billion jobs program in the works. She has a $375 billion plan for college tuition. Best of all, she has plans to pay for all this beneficence without burdening middle-class taxpayers. You could look it up and read every detail. You probably won’t. I haven’t.

Of course, Donald Trump also favors jobs and education, Bigly! Who doesn’t? But don’t try to look up his plans. They’re all in his head or, more accurately, in his mouth.

This is smart politics. The last thing Trump should do is explain himself. I’ve seen him try, and it looks just awful.

Donald Trump is a demagogue. Demagogues don’t explain. They don’t announce ten-point plans, issue executive summaries or calculate budgets. Demagogues don’t use Power Point. The essence, the beauty, the joy and the appeal of the deep-dyed demagogue is dumbness. Simplicity! The demagogue boils the universe down to two words, three words, four at the most.

For William Jennings Bryan, the magic phrase was “cross of gold.” Lindbergh shouted “America First” and we’re still hearing his echoes 75 years later. Hitler simply said it’s “the Jews,” and for millions of bigots the world over, it’s still “the Jews.” Joe McCarthy fingered “the Commies” so ferociously that half the people over 70 in America are still peeking beneath the bed for phantom Bolsheviks. George Wallace kept Jim Crow alive for years beyond its expiration date by roaring the motto that has inspired white nationalists from George Lincoln Rockwell to David Duke: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

Donald Trump has plagiarized a few of his forebears, lifting “America First” from Lindbergh, echoing Richard Nixon’s “law and order” ‘and “silent majority” dog-whistles, and even cribbing (without irony) from speeches by Abe Lincoln and FDR. But he also devised his own slogan and trained his congregation to testify at the top of their lungs whenever he snaps those tiny fingers.

“What’re we gonna build?”

“A wall! A Wall! A WAAAAAAAALL!”

The consolation in the rise of our latest two-word demagogue is that gasbags like Trump don’t thrive long in America. They fascinate some of us forever and captivate a few more for a while. But, eventually, it’s like having “Wild Thing” stuck in your head, looping over and over again. All you want to do is hear another song, any song. Even Hillary, with a ukelele, trying to sing “My Man.”

One of the riffs that killed Rudy Giuliani’s presidential bid in 2008 was that almost every sentence he uttered contained “a noun, a verb and 9/11.” Trump’s variation on this mantra is the way he tends to repeat every punchline three times followed by “Believe me.”

Which tempts me to amend Nelson Algren’s rules of life: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”
And never trust a guy who keeps saying, “Believe me.”

I recently posted a Trump-themed screed on Facebook and accompanied it with a photo of him squinching his kisser, pointing a finger. One loyal Trumpnik cried foul, because — she said — Trump’s enemies always publish his worst photos, to make him look bad.

She’s wrong. This was one of Trump’s best shots. It’s a photographer’s photograph, the sort of shot that makes you say to yourself, “Got it!” As I scoured the Web for Trump images, I was questing the grail that keeps every photographer clicking away maniacally: the shot that’s funny, startling, embarrassing, even frightening or, best of all, revealing — the gaping mouth, the bugged-out eyes, the bared fang, the fright-wig hair, the clenched fist. Photographers wait like birds of prey for these brief, naked flashes of facial candor. Editors love them. These are the prints that make page one, above the fold. It’s not about love him or hate him. It’s about the moment.

I thought it odd that the Republican campaign logo displays“TRUMP” in letters bigger than the name of vice-presidential nominee (Mike) “PENCE.” I couldn’t recall a similar type-size disparity on any previous presidential lapel button. So I looked it up. In most races, including LINCOLN-JOHNSON, McKINLEY-HOBART, KENNEDY-JOHNSON, NIXON-AGNEW, MONDALE-FERRARO, DOLE-KEMP, McCAIN-PALIN and OBAMA-BIDEN, both candidate names on posters and bumper stickers were equally tall and identically boldfaced.

However, I did uncover a few precedents for the big-TRUMP/ little-pence variation. Typographical VP diminution dates back to when big RUTHERFORD B. HAYES overshadowed little willy wheeler in 1876. Other examples of Prez belittling Veep were IKE & dick in ’52 and CARTER-mondale in ’76, followed by BUSH-quayle in ’88 and BUSH-cheney in 2000. Curiously, JON STEWART was bigger than stephen colbert in 2012.

Of course, it’s no surprise that Donald wants the biggest name on the billboard, but I wonder who talked Dick into being lower case than Dubya?

One more thought. Has anyone else noticed that Trump’s erstwhile campaign honcho Paul Manafort bears an eerie resemblance to one of those dreamboat Fifties crooners who did guest spots on Garry Moore and “Your Hit Parade,” but ended up — as they got older — on Las Vegas casino stages serenading the AARP crowd? I’m thinking Vic Damone, Jack Jones, Robert Goulet, Vaughn Monroe.

And I’m thinking that Trump’s campaign-chief-of-the-month, Stephen Bannon, is suddenly the new headliner in the posh Painted Desert Room at the Desert Inn.

Replacing handsome, debonair but faintly wrinkled and slightly over-the-hill Paul “Velvet Voice” Manafort… who’s now singing “Moon River” to the drunks and hookers in the Thunderbird lounge.

That’s showbiz.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#777)

Why is this woman not an
episode of “Criminal Minds”?

by David Benjamin

“Hill’ry Clinton took an ax, and gave Vince Foster forty whacks.
“When she saw what she had done, she gave Chris Stevens forty-one.”

                — Popular children’s rhyme

MADISON, Wis. — The latest kerfuffle over Donald Trump’s ambiguous call for “Second Amendment people” to take up arms and blow Hillary Clinton’s brains out pales in comparison to the bloodsoaked trail of homicides directly connected — on popular trollsites all over cyberAmerica — to Mrs. Clinton herself.

I was unaware of Hillary’s 20-year killing spree ’til informed by a stepbrother who will remain anonymous for his own protection. He revealed that the combined Bill and Hillary body count — witnesses executed to prevent them exposing the staggering vastness of the Clintons’ criminal empire — is 147 victims.

Actually, according to newshounds at “Government Slaves,” the body count consensus is 47, from Whitewater dupe Jim McDougal to Todd McKeehan, one of 12 Clinton bodyguards who were iced because they’d seen too much.

(Warning to Hillary’s Secret Service detail: Watch your back, boys!)

My stepbrother’s overestimate — by 100 bodies — seems hyperbolic until you realize that when your perp has already gotten away with 47 known murders, dozens more corpses are probably lying somewhere in shallow graves being gnawed by raccoons and coyotes. Indeed, at “What Really Happened,” you can read heart-rending thumbnails of 117 innocents liquidated ruthlessly by the Clinton murder machine. The victims include John F. Kennedy, Jr. and former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, both shot down surreptitiously by CIA jet-fighters under Bill and Hillary’s direct command. Also among the slain, ironically, is former CIA director Bill Colby, snatched from a canoe and drowned, probably because of his knowledge of the Clintons’ jet-fighter hit squad.

As one anonymous (who could blame him?) journalist for The Political Insider has warned: “The Clinton body count is massive and growing. Hillary Clinton will stop at nothing to become President, and death seems to follow her everywhere…”

Among grislier examples of what Hill and Bill have done to cover their outrages was the fate of White House ex-intern Mary Mahoney, murdered in an apparent “robbery” at a Georgetown Starbucks. Some $4,000 was left behind by the so-called robber, who pumped five bullets into Mary while also killing two witnesses. This massacre followed news reports about “M,” a “former White House staffer” poised to expose the Clintons’ sexual shenanigans at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Inevitably, these documented cases of Hillary’s career as probably the most prolific serial murderer in human history, have doubters. The fact-check website, Snopes, has painstakingly disputed every alleged Clinton homicide. In the Mahoney case, described by police as a botched robbery, Snopes explains, “The putative reason offered for Mahoney’s slaying, that she was about to testify about sexual harrassment in the White House, was a lie… We all know now… that the ‘staffer’ referred to was Monica Lewinsky, not Mary Mahoney. The conspiracy buffs maintained that White House hit men rushed out, willy-nilly, and gunned down the first female ex-intern they could find whose name began with ‘M.’…”

In examining all of Hillary’s atrocities, Establishment stooges like Snopes dwell on the overwhelming lack of evidence that either Bill or Hillary had any connection to these deaths and had no credible motive to snuff these 47, or 90, or 117 people. Fact-checkers also note that most of these “victims” weren’t really “killed.” Many died of purported heart attacks and other “natural” causes. Several were judged to be “suicides.” Finally, the fact-nerds report that no law enforcement organization has found grounds to charge, arrest, accuse, investigate or even suspect the Clintons of engineering this immense campaign of human slaughter.

But, of course, this extraordinary vacuum of evidence is the most damning proof that these two soulless sociopaths are, indeed, direct descendants of Jack the Ripper. Everyone knows that the genius of any power-driven, officially conceived conspiracy— like the phony moon landing in 1969 — is the conspirators’ attention to cleaning up after themselves, never leaving behind the tiniest shred of evidence. And then, of course, killing anybody who knows anything. The absolute proof of a vast evil conspiracy is that no proof remains, and every cadaver is clean as a whistle.

In the words of Yossarian, “That's some catch, that Catch-22.”

Fortunately, America now has a presidential nominee who grasps the diabolical menace of these conspiracies and the true colors of their mastermind, Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump has already exposed numerous conspiracies — the Nairobi plot to put a Muslim terrorist in the White House, the Chinese climate-change hoax, the New Jersey Muslim rooftop celebration on 9/11, the airplane full of money for Iran. Before Trump, these scandalous revelations were available only via Internet on the Right-Wing Chain-Letter Network. Now, they have a fearless spokesman.

In my case, whenever Trump unearths another plot — usually implicating the Bitch of Little Rock — I get nostalgic for the Sixties.

In those days, the Left had the corner on conspiracy theories, including the one where J. Edgar Hoover put out contracts on the entire Kennedy family, including Rose. Liberals were the guys who could explain the Bay of Pigs, the Gulf of Tonkin, the secret war in Laos, the overthrows of Mosaddegh in Iran, Arbenz in Guatemala, Allende in Chile and even Batista in Cuba — not to mention the sweat on Tricky Dick’s upper lip.

Liberalism used to be the panic room for the lunatic fringe. But our last good conspiracy theory was the one where Karl Rove crashed the airplanes of Mel Carnahan and Paul Wellstone. And this stuff got no traction at all. We lost our touch. Nowadays all the really paranoid suspicions and dark delusions are the intellectual property of the Right, and Donald Trump is the patent-holder.


Fear and loathing might be a creepy job, but it’s as American as Mom, apple pie, burning crosses and Tailgunner Joe. And somebody — ideally a self-important Bozo with orange hair — has to do it!