Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#823)

On the Internet, nobody
knows you’re a Commie

by David Benjamin

“I believe Putin will continue to re-build the Russian Empire. He has zero respect for Obama or the U.S.!”
                                             — Donald Trump, 21 March 2014

PARIS — The Republicans have become a party of Commie dupes and Russian apparatchiks.

In response to this charge, you might argue that the Russians, currently holding hands and whispering sweet nothings into Donald Trump’s ear, are no longer the “Communists” of the Soviet era (even though Russian president-for-life Vladimir Putin is one of the proudest, truest scions of that regime). However, there are historians who would patiently explain that the Soviet era was never really Communist in Karl Marx’s sense of the concept, but a rough continuation of the tsarist oligarchy that ruled the Russian empire for the previous millenium.

If you see Russia as a state run by an absolutist despot sustained by a handpicked clique of obscenely wealthy aristocrats, while the vast majority of the people struggle for survival and soothe their pain with vodka, you see a continuum that bridges both the Revolution of 1917 and the Soviet breakup in 1991. Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin are Romanovs by other names and the upheavals that put them in power were not so much “revolutions” as a couple of major bowel movements (that flushed millions of innocent Russians).

During America’s Cold War with the USSR, the crusade against Commie infiltration by the Russians was a fullblown hysteria, led by the Republican Party. I grew up under the dark cloud of paranoia disseminated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the John Birch Society and the slander campaign of Senator Joseph McCarthy. I watched Ronald Reagan rage against pinko liberals on General Electric Theater on Sunday night on CBS.

American kids all lived with certainty of death before adulthood in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet monster. While the White House and Pentagon were girding our national loins for atomic Armageddon and waging a bloody cycle of anti-Communist proxy wars in Asia, U.S. and Soviet intelligence were battling each other covertly with spies, propaganda, infiltration and misinformation.

If you’re not a Republican, you can see the irony here.

According to the U.S. spy services — CIA, FBI, DIS, NSA — who used to be the apple of every conservative’s eye, the Russians are interfering in American government more directly and far more effectively than they ever accomplished in the Soviet past. Nevertheless, all this espionage — engineered by a self-made tsar who cut his teeth as a fingernail-yanker in the Soviet KGB — has been pooh-poohed by pinko conservatives as a Democratic Party fantasy.

In a presentation last week on the Queen Mary 2, Scott Shane, chief national security reporter for the New York Times, called Russia’s cyber-campaign against America’s fundamental institutions “incredibly brazen, incredibly successful.”

“This,” he said, “is an attack that involved no Russian tanks, no Russian missiles, no Russian bullets.” Operating on the principle that “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” Russians cybernauts wormed invisibly into U.S. organizations, federal agencies and political campaigns. This offensive was far more damaging than all that old-school military hardware. “They can pose as Americans. They can pose as news websites,” said Shane. “It’s infinitely more effective” than traditional propaganda.

Vladimir Putin launched this cyberwar capability years ago. He first used it to discredit political foes in Russia, then turned it against Eastern European democracies. Putin had foreseen the power of cyberspace information control even as his dread spy factory, the KGB, was being sidelined by Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin in the chaotic ‘90s. Said Shane, “I never believed in 1991 that Putin would be able to regain information control the way he has.”

Putin has assembled a misinformation and propaganda — in Russian, kompromat — regime cheaper than Russia’s military budget, which is only about $65 billion a year (the Pentagon spends ten times as much). But it has defeated the United States more decisively than any Cold War conflict. Without money, without armies, “the Russians can do quite well in this cyber realm,” said Shane.

He cited the email leaks that targeted the Democratic National Committee and ended, suddenly, the chairmanship of Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. “When you look at this from the Russian point of view, this was a stupendous success,” said Shane. “The Trump campaign was overjoyed as well.”

Why target Hillary Clinton so aggressively? Shane said Clinton’s policies as Secretary of State were privately offensive to Putin, who — like Trump — is a pathologically personal person, especially when he perceives a slight from a woman.

“Putin blamed Hillary Clinton personally,” said Shane, “for trying to undermine him, as the embodiment of an arrogant America.”

Herein lies the answer to why the Republicans worms have turned so squishily against their Commie-hating heritage. Their quarter-century jihad against Hillary Clinton, the uppity bitch from Little Rock, predates their knowing Vlad Putin from a hole in the wall. Putin is the enemy of their worst enemy since Ethel Rosenberg. Even now, with Hillary beaten and tearfully wandering the woods in Chappaqua, Trump and his GOP minions in Congress launch weekly attacks on Hillary, conjuring imaginary crimes for imaginary prosecutors to prosecute in the Emerald City of imaginary Oz.

In abandoning their vendetta versus Russia, the Republicans have dismissed Putin’s cyberwar as a petty political ploy, propagated by Democrats and by “fake news” outlets like Shane’s New York Times. Having blamed Dems and the press for exaggerating Putin’s impact on the U.S. election, Republicans dare not touch this issue. They’ve so thoroughly demonized Democrats and the media— since the McCarthy era— as dupes and “fellow travelers" with the Soviet subversion machine, that they cannot now make common cause with these fellow Americans against Putin’s much more effective campaign of subversion.

Besides, as Donald Trump has delusionally tweeted, “Putin likes me.”

Not surprisingly Shane’s take on Putin is more nuanced. Vladimir Putin targeted the Democratic campaign partly out of hatred for Hillary. But, even better, he saw Trump as a potential U.S. president uniquely susceptible to greed, flattery, lust and — as a last resort — blackmail (a beloved KGB device). Putin recognized Trump, said Shane, as a U.S. version of Silvio Berlusconi, the flamboyantly corrupt ex-prime minister of Italy, whom Putin also curried, cultivated, co-opted and fleeced. “He saw Donald Trump, similarly, as a blustery Western businessman who’s not all that hung up about human rights and that sort of thing.”

Putin’s winning streak, which included Trump’s sniveling performance at the G20 conference, is hardly over, said Shane.

Shane cited ongoing investigations by the Times based on a Trump dossier assembled by former British secret agent Christopher Steele. The contents remain largely uncorroborated (although some details have been proven true). Neither the Times nor any other responsible news organization has risked any assertion on the veracity of Steele’s largely unsourced claims.

Shane admitted his own frustration at trying to track down these stories to either verify or kill them. But while working the puzzle, Shane has clarified that the Russians “had their eye on Trump to get leverage over him.” The details of the Steele dossier are evidence of that objective — even if they’re not true.

Among Steele’s notes, said Shane, is an alleged meeting in Prague between Michael Cohen, a Trump confidant, and a Putin surrogate named Alexander Solodukhin. Whether the meeting happened, said Shane, is thus far “completely unprovable,” even though to a veteran national security reporter, it “looks like Cold War ‘Spy vs. Spy’ stuff on steroids.”

But the genius of Putin’s kompromat game, said Shane, is that no charge or rumor requires proof as long as America’s media pounce and spread it virally around the globe while the truth is pulling on its socks. Referring to the possible Cohen-Solodukhin meeting in Prague, Shane said, “Let’s consider that this meeting was fabricated. If it was fabricated… it was fabricated by Russian intelligence.”

Fake or not, the mere report that the meeting might have occurred implicates the Trump presidential campaign with the highest levels of Russian power. The inescapable conclusion, noted Shane, with a measure of embarrassment over the rank gullibility of the 21st-century U.S. media, is that, “the Russian government, having run an incredibly successful misinformation campaign against Hillary Clinton, has also planted some time bombs against Donald Trump.”

Even without proof that Cohen contacted Solodukhin, other Russian meetings — some unproven, some revealed by various idiots in the Trump camp, like Donald Trump, Jr. — have dominated the news for months.

The result is “a brilliant information operation against Donald Trump that has cast a shadow over the first months of the Trump administration.” Said Shane, “It has set US intelligence agencies onto a trail that leads nowhere… [It has] discredited American democracy and made Western democracy less credible to Eastern Europe as a threat to [Putin’]s regime and the style it represents.”

Shane readily faults the American press. Its susceptibility to celebrity and bullshit greased the skids for Trump’s ascent. Now it’s enabling a murderous Russian autocrat to subjugate this American presidency to his largely unknown but dangerous purposes. “We are very easily manipulated,” he said. “If somebody leaks something, do we just go and run with it?”

“It worries me,” Shane added, “that by sort of jumping on anything that we think is authentic but was leaked by an intelligence agency, we are putting ourselves at the mercy of hackers or [foreign] intelligence agencies” whose sole mission is spreading sophisticated lies.

Putin, without leaving even a fingerprint behind, is turning all news into fake news and “Believe me!” into America’s national punchline.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#822)

Death on the Queen Mary
by David Benjamin

SOMEWHERE IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC — Trust me.

When I signed up for this trans-Atlantic crossing on the QM2 with my main squeeze, Hotlips, I wasn’t planning a busman’s holiday. All I wanted was to eat, drink, get up a five-day game of euchre and sack out on a deck chair with a hip flask and a Dramamine chaser.

But when you’re a private dick, it’s hard to cool your jets, especially when a fresh stiff turns up sprawled all over the ballroom floor in the Queen’s Room.

My name is Deuce Derringer, private eye by way of Canarsie out of Frisco and a stretch at Folsom off a bum rap on a chinchilla-smuggling bust. But that’s another story.

Even before the ancient mariner turned up deader than a Democrat’s hopes in Waukesha County, I’d spotted him with the busybody beazle. The smell of rat came off that broad like the rear end of garbage scow in a Galveston heat wave.

(Hotlips tells me I have a nose for crime, but there’s times I think it has a nose for me.)

The tough-looking bird was pushing him in a wheelchair, which wasn’t something that would catch your eye on this boat. You go to lunch here and you’re dodging senior-scooters and walkers from the bowsprit to the poop deck and tripping over canes like a machete man in a sugarfield. I’m no spring chicken, but in this crowd, I feel like Billy Budd among the peglegs.

My sixth sense told me to keep an eye on the two of them, because the elderly invalid — name of Colonel Jameson I found out later — kept slumping over and almost tumbling out of the chair. Half the time, he was just staring into space, except when he started wailing and waving his arms, yelling out “Where am I? Who are these swarthy devils? Damn your eyes, Sergeant Moresby!” She’d get a grip on him then, and start hissing in his ear like a ruptured gas line. Against my better judgment, I kind of sidled up to catch her drift and heard the dame tell the old drooler — her rich uncle, it turned out — to quiet down or he’d scare away all the ducks and geese and make the other hunters mad.

It seemed to me, right then, a little odd that here was a geezer didn’t know where the hell he was, forking over somewhere in the vicinity of five large for a boat ride and the poor bastard didn’t know whether he was afloat on the bounding main or crouched inside a duck blind in a Carolina swamp.

Soon as I got a load of what was sticking out of the whispering niece’s handbag — a Last Will and Testament with the name “Jameson" inked out in bold letters — I took it as my professional duty to watch that skinny babe like a beagle beneath a banquet table. Even though Hotlips told me, “Lay off it, Deuce. It ain’t none of your beeswax. Besides, didja know? They got thirteen bars on this barge.”

We found that out, in the flesh, by following Doris — that’s the nasty niece’s name — around. Old Uncle Jamey, he couldn’t hold a glass with both hands and a cargo-winch, but the conniving skirt stuck a straw in a dozen different glasses at every tap on the drunken Queen — from mojitos, mai tais and martinis to Singapore slings and boilermakers. She had the old coot so tanked that I swear I saw his eyes roll clean out of his head and bounce two or three times on the floor before Doris fielded them and shoved ‘em back in his face.

When Doris wasn’t pumping the nonagenerian nincompoop full of high-test hooch, she was wheeling him around the ship so fast that some of the deck chairs she clipped went flying over the rails. While the old guy hung on — white knuckles, clenched dentures and a steady scream to mark their progress. One of the crew suggested that Doris slow it down a smidgeon. She just said, “No, he loves this. Used to race jalopies on dirt tracks in the Punjab.”

Course, I didn’t believe that. Nor did I believe the half-dead codger could actually stay upright when Doris heaved him from his chair and dragged him onto the dance floor for the rhumba contest. But there they were. Doris looked stringier than a praying mantis but strong as a drayhorse, hauling her semi-mummified ancestor through ten minutes of uptempo “Besame Mucho” while he dug his fingers into her back, dusted the floor with his knees and wept uncontrollably into her bosom, asking over and over where she’d hid the crank handle for his Model A.

Course, I’d figured out what Doris was up to, and I had to hand it to old Jamey. He was taking a hell of a licking but he kept on ticking. After four days of  pub-crawling, dance contests, overeating, careening around the deck and deadly-dull lectures by Limey profs in the planetarium, the geezer was still breathing and the nefarious niece was looking a little frazzled.

This was when I should’ve stuck even harder to the case, but I was worn out and Hotlips was feeling neglected. Of course, that was the very evening I heard the captain’s fateful request that the ship’s doctor hightail it to the ballroom lickety-split. As if he’d get there in time to save the moribund methuselah. Which he didn’t. I beat the sawbones to the spot and laid a finger on the old coot’s carotid, but didn’t feel anything but papery skin and not enough body heat left to melt lime sherbet.

I caught a glimpse of Doris, whose eyes were sad and dry, but she wore a smirk that was sharp enough to shave a Tortuga buccaneer and leave a rash behind. Because she knew the old fart’s pump had finally scorched its fusebox and she was scot-free and pure as snow.

I had nothing on Doris and no way to get her. But I had a hunch.

So, after they’d tucked old Jamey into cold storage in the galley, next to the rib roasts and New York cheesecakes, I followed Doris on her wee-hours constitutional. It was midnight on the sea, as the poet wrote, band playing “Nearer My God to Thee.” I trailed the the not-nice niece to the Lido Deck, where — true to their nature — the lidos were hanging sleepily from the undersides of the lifeboats, chewing their cuds and scratching their wingpits with their hind flippers.

Doris slipped beneath them furtively and hurried to the rail, pausing to stare out at the whitecapped waves of the wine-dark sea. I watched from the shadows as she reached into her handbag and gingerly removed an object. It was too small, and the night too gloomy, for me to tell what it was as she swung her arm back and flung the object mightily into the drink.

But that’s not where it went, because devious Doris hadn’t accounted for a gusty wind that swept up from the churning swells. A sudden rogue breeze caught her missile in mid-plunge. A deck light glinted off the thing as it flew back toward the Queen Mary, straight to me.

I thrust a hand up, not knowing what I was reaching for. I felt a stabbing pain in the loveline of my palm, then a sudden, almost dizzying rush of exhilaration. For a moment, I could barely resist the urge to leap into the air, click my heels, sprint all the way around the ship and dance all night to the Memphis Blues.

It was all clear to me then. And Doris, who stood gaping at me, saw that the jig was up.

I looked at my pierced palm, where a slim hypodermic needle was sunk to the hilt, sending the last of its contents coursing through my bloodstream and leaving me pleasantly lightheaded. I realized I’d just consumed the last drops of a massive dose of adrenalin. The full hypo’s load was enough to accelerate, harmlessly, the pulse of a healthy person. But it would — and did — explode, like a water balloon dropped from a dirigible, the faltering heart of sweet pathetic Colonel Jameson.

And all over the needle were Doris’ fingerprints.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#821)

It’s all about the weld
by David Benjamin

“What a newspaper needs in its news, in its headlines, and on its editorial page is terseness, humor, descriptive power, satire, originality, good literary style, clever condensation and accuracy, accuracy, accuracy.”
                                                                         — Joseph Pulitzer

MADISON, Wis. — For one sweltering summer in Orlando, I was a cub steelworker. The fabrication plant where I worked had only recently integrated. The tension among the Southern whites on the crew and the new hires, black and Puerto Rican, was still as thick as the July humidity. I felt this palpably because I was the long-haired punk lumped in among the minorities. My acceptance came, grudgingly, when it turned out that I had a strange knack for hooking stacks of bar joists — 800 pounds per load — onto the overhead crane and zinging them the length of the factory without slipping their chains, crashing and — possibly — killing a few of my co-workers. Whenever there were joists to move, the call went out: “Get the hippie.”

Addison Steel — a literary reference that escaped everyone but me — put together the structural metal for small buildings. We fitted, welded and painted the erector sets that became new Burger Kings, KFCs, gas stations, mini-malls and the beginnings of Disney World. There, as in any steel plant, it was all about the weld — that blinding molten bead and a clean, clear line drawn between two stubbornly disparate and dangerous slabs of high-carbon steel. If the weld was sublime, it resembled putty along a window rim, its edges crisp and arrow-straight, its surface smooth, ripple-free and tucked tenaciously into the crease.

There’s beauty in a great weld — like a swimmer’s bicep or the curve of a woman’s hip. The best welder in the shop — everyone knew it — was a grizzled artist in grubby overalls with a sunny disposition and a fondness for the bottle. His name was Cletis. Every now and then, another welder would sidle up beside Cletis, drop his eyeshield and watch for a while, just to see the steadiness of that alcoholic hand and the purity of Clete’s art when it was still red-hot and fresh. Even his slag looked as smooth as a baby’s ass.

I did steel for a summer, but print has been my life. Over the years, besides writing, I’ve produced, edited, specified, headlined, cutlined, curned, trimmed, typeset, laid out, pasted up — and shot, developed and printed photos for — five different newspapers and at least a dozen magazines. In my jobs, a waxer, an X-Acto knife and a phototypositor have been, from time to time, every bit as necessary as a ballpoint, a notebook and a keyboard. But, mostly, I wrote. I once estimated my editorial output at somewhere between four and five million words.

Most of them accurate.

All this trenchwork renders me slightly touchy when a dilettante — Limbaugh or Drudge, Bannon, Trump or Sarah Huckabee Sanders — starts casting facile aspersions at rank-and-file reporters. The current slander is that the vast majority of professional journalists are venal hacks who foment “fake news” to serve a seditious partisan agenda.
When I hear these flacks whine, I think about welding. I recall Cletis, who might have been a white Klansman or a Marxist. I didn’t know. He didn’t talk much. The steel might be intended for a new McDonald’s or for the headquarters of the Southern Poverty Law Center. None of this mattered. The steel had no agenda and Cletis didn’t care where it might go and who, in the end, it might shelter. It was all about the weld.

In the news business, likewise, it’s all about the copy.

You start with the news. A reporter has to sense what news is. He has to recognize — suddenly — its significance, and how news is different from dog-bites-man. When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein spotted the beginnings of the Watergate scandal, they didn’t think, oh boy, here’s our chance to nail Nixon. They said, instead, something like, “Oh my God, what a story!… if it’s true.” In a recent documentary, Bernstein talked about a day, very early in a story that took more than a year to unfold, when he was standing over the coffee machine at the Post. Suddenly, the depth and reach of this story hit him. He said to Woodward, “Jesus Christ! This president is gonna be impeached.”

Bernstein had not done all the research he needed to do to pin down the story, he hadn’t yet met most of his sources, he had barely written his first fifty ’graphs. But he knew this was news — as did Woodward — and he knew what it meant.

Not everyone can do this. News is more instinct than expertise, more feel than training. There are plenty of so-called journalists who wouldn’t recognize a story if it stood naked in front of them waving sparklers. There are many who have the story sitting in their lap, blowing in their ear, but can’t craft that all-important first sentence that tells the entire tale — who, what, where, when — in fifty trenchant words or less.

The most celebrated lead I ever wrote ended up being taught in a journalism class at Oklahoma State University. To this day, I have no idea whether the professor intended it as a positive model or as an example of How Not to Write a Lead.

It read: “The School Committee Tuesday night cut the balls out of the school budget — footballs, baseballs, basketballs and tennis balls.”

The point I hope the professor made is that I, the reporter, didn’t care what happened to the school budget. Of course, I knew the School Committee was doing the wrong thing. But I left that out, because it was obvious. If a story is news, and you write it right, the facts do their work. They don’t need help.

Beyond the all-important lead, my job was to place the most important information at the top, to fill the middle ‘graphs with background and detail, and to end the story, ideally, with my second best quote. (The best quote was already there, close to the top.)

What the propagandists in politics, right or left, have never understood about newspeople is that all we want is the story — good or bad, happy or sad.

The story is the steel. It’s the potter’s clay. It’s the surgeon’s spleen, heart, kidney, broken leg. It’s the coldblooded hunter’s hotblooded quarry.

The story might be politics, but to the reporter, it’s not political. The journalist’s allegiance is to the facts, to evidence, to the words uttered — and recorded painstakingly — by his or her sources, and to the trail where the story leads, to the Next Story. Choosing sides would muddy the trail. It would spook the quarry.

A good story has an integrity that fills the reporter with purpose. It has a life of its own outside the reporter’s feelings, emotions, beliefs and loyalties. It’s actual and it’s a little bit sacred. It’s a clean weld.

If you’ve never crafted — or appreciated — a story that explains, educates, holds together and hearkens to a truth that exceeds your own capacity for honesty, you’re in a piss-poor position to challenge its authenticity.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#820)

Brevity is the soul of politics
by David Benjamin

“Being president is like being a jackass in a hailstorm. There’s nothing to do but stand there and take it.”
                                                                     — Lyndon Johnson

MADISON, Wis. — Herbert Hoover sealed his political fate when he said, “Prosperity is just around the corner.” His problem? Verbosity. In politics you get nowhere with a six-word, 37-character complete sentence with a subject, verb and predicate phrase.

By comparison, his opponent in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, promised, simply, a “New Deal.” In seven letters, FDR concentrated the almost overwhelming power of Two-Word Politics.

Consider Roosevelt’s greatest global adversary. Adolf Hitler, the madman who devastated Europe, was a master of Two-Word Politics from the moment he chose his title for Mein Kampf. One of the fascinating aspects of the Third Reich (two words) is how many of its inextricably twisted concepts and atrocities entered the German (and global) vernacular in a vast lexicon of two-word soundbites — from “lebensraum” (living space), “master race,” “blood & soil,” and “sieg heil” to “blitzkrieg” (lightning war), “lugenpresse” (lying press) and history’s most despicable euphemism: “Final Solution.”

Meanwhile, back in the USA, FDR was bracing democracy and birthing the “welfare state” with unspeakably complicated financial and social reforms under the two syllables of the “New Deal.” Likewise, FDR reduced to a couple of simple words a labyrinth of competing forces and innovations forced on him by the Great Depression: “organized money,” “fear itself,” “social security,” “public works,” “unemployment insurance,” “rural electrification,” “fireside chat,” “lend-lease,” “moral order,” “four freedoms.” FDR’s speeches were consistently literate, nuanced and dense with policy, but they sparkled with terse, catchy newsreel couplets that regular folks could hum on the way home from the Bijou.

Down through decades of American history, Two-Word Politics has been deployed with varying degrees of success in causes both noble and dubious. For example: “New Frontier,” “Great Society,” “liberal media” (lugenpresse), “silent majority,” “segregation forever,” “freedom now,” “kinder, gentler,” “progress & prosperity” (Al Gore — just awful!), “hope & change” (much better), “stronger together” (oh God, no!), and, finally, “America first.”

The latter phrase, exhumed by our current White House-dweller, echoes the pro-Nazi isolationists of the 1930s. It’s one of those Trump formulations that make me wonder about Two-Word Politics today, and what comes next.

By recycling the phrase “Make America Great Again” (No, it wasn’t his idea; the Gipper said it first), Donald Trump pulled a Hoover, using a complete sentence and twice too many words. Why not just “Great Again”? But in other respects, he has proved an idiot savant in couplet humping. His successful pairings include “birth certificate,” “low energy,” “little Marco,” “the wall,” “believe me,” “you’re fired,” “fake news” (lugenpresse), “travel ban,” “witch hunt” and, of course, “crooked Hillary.”

The difference between the Hitler/FDR/LBJ/Nixon manipulation of Two-Word Politics and Trump’s variation is that terms like “Final Solution,” “New Deal” and “Great Society” were shorthand for substantive policy, political ideology and legislative strategy. In Trump’s case, this tactic really is just a couple of words, “sound & fury” signifying jabberwocky.

Which suggests to me that he who lives by the pithy couplet might well be killed by a hail of similar nuggets. Trouble is, up ’til now, Trump’s nemeses are wordier than Webster’s Third. The Affordable Care Act (one too many words there) is one of U.S. history’s great social benefits, but there wasn’t a Democrat on the face of the earth who could summarize it in 500 pages or less, much less two words. So, even after it bumbled into law, it languished in public contempt, discredited by a two-word slogan: “repeal & replace.”

“Repeal & replace” was, of course, sound and fury. But it didn’t need to be anything more — until, suddenly, its authors came to power and people said, “Okay, where’s the manuscript?”

Surprisingly, Congressional Democrats seem to be catching on to Two-Word Politics. They’ve labeled Trump’s American Health Care Act (Zounds! Four words!) the “secret bill,” which is accurate because GOP leaders kept this huge embarrassment tightly under wraps ’til the last mortifying minute. Also, aided by a resurrected press, Democrats are drawing blood with the term, “Russia scandal.” Even better, that nostalgic double entendre, “Deep Throat,” is back in style.

I wonder, though. Can these normally loquacious, preachy Democrats keep it dumb as they approach the 2018 vote. Thus far, the record isn’t promising. No memorable couplets arose during special elections in Kansas, Montana, South Carolina — all won (but narrowly) by the Trumpians. Jon Ossoff, the bright young ectomorph who raised liberal hopes in Red Georgia, cunningly avoided saying anything blunt or prickly, thus succeeding in saying virtually nothing at all, thus losing to a woman who specialized in talking out of her ass but doing so more entertainingly than Ossoff.

Ossoff’s opponent, Karen Handel, was also blessed by the current true-to-your-school faith among rank-and-file Republicans — who are more “yellow dog” than were Southern Democrats in their own “Jim Crow” past. A Republican today will vote for a burning bag of crap rather than Jesus Christ (D).

On the other hand, “progressives,” “liberals” and “left-leaning independents” are more like food snobs at McDonald’s. They’ll vote for a Democrat rather than a burning bag of crap, but only after reading the candidate’s small print — to determine transfat content, preservatives, calories, cholesterol, antibiotics, high fructose corn syrup, genetic modification, sodium, nitrites, carbs, enzyme load, gluten, rat droppings, LGBTQ devotion, Hillary contamination, and/or any suspicious middle-of-the-road tendencies. If any ingredient is slightly impure, well then, it’s “Adios, Adlai” and “Hello, Jill Stein.”

The one “hope” that Democrats might “change” from a cast of heartsick Hamlets to a fearless flotilla of Farraguts is to follow the example of their best two Two-Word Pols, Liz Warren and Bernie Sanders. Between them, they’ve articulated three key two-word ideas that everyone can understand — even though they mask policy reforms that are daunting in their complexity and terrifying (to pussyfoot progressives) in their scope. These couplets have the power to rally the criminally fickle youth vote, appeal to self-piteous white males, uplift the fortunes of the middle class, piss off Grover Norquist to the point of apoplexy and force Republicans to campaign against Mom, apple pie and the high-steel Mohawks.

Democrats, tune in. This means you, Joe Donnelly and Heidi Heitkamp! The three couplets you need to memorize and repeat over and over again, staying on message ’til you wanna puke, are these:

1. Public Works (Never, ever, say “infrastructure.”)

2. Free College

3. Single Payer

Okay, one more:

4. Don’t Explain!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#819)

Booksellers and booksmellers
by David Benjamin

“I know every book of mine by its scent, and I have but to put my nose between its pages to be reminded of all sorts of things.”
                                                                            — George Gissing

MADISON — I started smelling books — every serious reader does this — at the Tomah Public Library, but didn’t become an actual connoisseur until I discovered the great row of overflowing bookstores here, in the Sixties, when they almost outnumbered the bars on State Street.

There’s a particular technique to this, of course, which I won’t describe. If you smell books, you’ve mastered it. We who know keep it personal.

When I prowled the State Street booksellers — Paul’s, Brown’s Pic-a-Book, The Co-op, etc. — I got so I could identify the publisher by a book’s aroma. One sniff easily distinguished a pulp Bantam from a coated-stock Mentor Classic from a New Directions Paperbook. Each publisher used different blends of ink, glue, paper and cover stock, all of this lending its products a fragrance that could range anywhere from a hint of balsamico to a cord of fresh firewood.

And, of course, at Paul’s, the sacred temple of old, musty, dog-eared, hard-to-find, out-of-print volumes lost to the memory of all but a few crusty bibliophiles, I learned how age changes every book’s ambience. In an old book, there is dust and must, but also whiskey, coffee, sweat and blood. You take a risk plunging your face into the jaws of an old leatherbound. It could bite you with its pungence, or sting your eyes, make you sneeze, or drag you back to the first girl who ever gave you a copy of cummings and then broke your heart.

It can also disappoint. Opening, for example, my 1962 Revised Standard  Bible to The Song of Solomon, I seek perhaps an intimation of myrrh, raisins, apples or a cluster of henna blossoms. But all I can conjure from this old Old Testament is the faint reminder of my Grandma Annie’s couch. And my copy of The Thurber Carnival — the 1945 paperback, bought used at the Booksmith, in Coolidge Corner (Brookline, Mass.) in 1986. I’d like it to smell of tweed and pipe tobacco, maybe a hint of large dog. But all I get, between “The Very Proper Gander” and “The Bear Who Could Leave It Alone,” is a flashback into the narrow spaces between tall shelves in a Carnegie library built sometime during the second decade of the last century. Nice, but not Thurber.

The book trade survives here, more than most cities, thanks to the local university, but it retains less abundance and barely any romance. Still, Paul’s lingers, to remind the world of how a bookstore should behave, including how to smell.

I come to this reflection by way of Francis X. Clines, who recently lamented, in the Times, the debut of a “brick & mortar” Amazon outlet in Manhattan. Clines toured the new joint, found it sterile and mercenary and deemed it a merciless harbinger of the slow death afflicting all other bookstores. He hinted that here, on Amazon turf, was no place to pause between the rows and plunge one’s nose into the fragrant spine of Anita Loos — if you could find her here.

Wrote Kline: “There’s no cafe to indulge idle time, and the floors don’t invite flopping with a book or a cranky toddler.” This store “lacks the little hand-written employee recommendations posted in independent bookstores as humanizing beacons.” He also complains that Amazon has limited its stock to a mere 3,000 of the most popular market-tested titles. The more obscure or “literary” volumes require a visit, apparently, to amazon.com.

Like all good essayists, however, Clines oversimplifies.

First of all, any browser who takes seriously the “recommendation” of a twenty-something bookshop stocker who thinks “manga” is Japanese for “book” deserves to be locked up for life in the Texas School Book Depository with nothing to read but a copy of the unabridged Warren  Report.

Second, it wasn’t Amazon who invented the notion of limiting inventory to the most saleable few-thousand books in current print. This tradition long preceded my book-browsing days in Madison. It was refined, along with all those overstuffed chairs, coffee shops and toddler corrals by the so-called “big box” booksellers, Borders and Barnes & Noble. Both (or all three?) were culprits in the war on little independents before Amazon crashed the party, strangled Borders and sent B&N into a death spiral.

It’s a dog-eat-Dickens world out there. If I wanted a book old or weird, way back in ’63, I went to Paul’s, or to the endless shelves at the Co-op (now The University Book Store, a mere shadow of its old voluminosity). And, in those days, if I found a “cranky toddler” among the racks at Pic-a-Book, I would’ve scowled at its mom and asked the shop’s creepy cashier — whose perch was next to a vast selection of titty magazines — to set the little snot outside on the sidewalk. He would have done so agreeably, sharing my conviction that a bookstore is no place for dwarf illiterates.

Francis X. Clines lives in New York, which crawls with bookshops even today  and lends him a warped perspective on what constitutes a proper librairie. Yes, there are coffee-shop/wine-bar/reading-nook boutiques that cater to yuppie moms with mozniks in combat strollers. But the truest bookstore in Manhattan — perhaps on earth — is the Strand, which sprawls and towers with books, covers half a city block, carries titles it hasn’t sold since the Depression and serves nothing edible or thirst-quenching. All you can sit on is the floor, which isn’t clean enough to be inviting. It’s a toddler-unfriendly environment. Here, grownups tend to be the cranky ones — especially if they’ve been hunting 45 minutes, to no avail, for the Strand’s only first edition of The Snouters, Harald Stumpke’s classic natural-history satire (1967).

In many respects, Amazon’s bookstore in New York harkens back to the utilitarian days of State Street yore, when someone setting foot in a bookstore was looking for, well, books, rather than a frappuccino, a Marimekko tote bag or a diaper station — a time when, actually, a bookstore was ideal refuge from the consumers of frappuccino and Marimekko.

The Big Apple’s soulless Amazon store boasts one other redeeming virtue. It would, if I were a somewhat more popular author, gladly and willingly stock any and all of my titles. Right now I have four, going on five, but (with rare exception) I’m banned from every Barnes & Noble box on earth, not to mention every “independent” bookseller (except for this one softhearted dame on Monroe Street named Joanne).

This petty injustice requires a lot of explanation, which all ends up sounding like authorial sour grapes. Suffice to say that these “independents” depend on a gigantic distributor — Amazon’s arch-rival. This behemoth muscles and cajoles booksellers into refusing any title associated with Amazon — which applies to me, because the publisher of my three most recent titles gets his printing done by an Amazon affiliate called CreateSpace. But I’m not alone. The blacklist covers 150,000 titles.

A little irony here: These “independents” every year put up displays that include Huck Finn, Lady Chatterley, Catcher in the Rye, Orwell, Mockingbird, Marx and Mein Kampf, to celebrate “Banned Books Month.”

But anyway… my latest title (available on Amazon) is A Sunday Kind of Love. It smells, ever so subtly, of a fresh-washed cotton sheet just brought in from the clothesline, in October.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#818)

The Whole Shebang
by David Benjamin

“We bought the URL gofccyourself.com. If you simply go there, it will land you straight on this [FCC public comment] page, where all you have to do is hit ‘Express’ and ‘Comment,’ telling [FCC chief] Ajit Pai that you specifically support net neutrality backed by Title II oversight of ISPs… Once more unto the breach, my friends!”
                                                                                   — John Oliver

“Hello? Hello, this is Joe Sixpack. Am I speaking to Charter Cable? Or Spectrum? Or whatever you’re calling yourselves now?”

(A prolonged silence. Then…) “No.”

“No? I don’t understand. This is the number listed for billing problems.”

“Well, sir, you’ve dialed the right number, but — ”

“Well, great, because I just got this crazy-ass bill for $890. I mean, I thought it was pretty steep when you guys made me pay more than $150 for your so-called ‘triple play” package of TV, Internet and phone and I don’t even get HBO or, for some reason, the Tennis Channel. There’s gotta be a mistake, right?”

“Well, no, Mr. Sixpack. Your deluxe triple-play, without tennis, now bills out at a thrifty $890.”

“Oh my God. What’s going on? How did this happen?”

“I’m sorry you weren’t prepared for this, Joe. I guess you haven’t been following the news about the FCC.”

“FCC. What’s that stand for?”

“Federal Communications Commission — which in the new administration, under new Chairman Ajit Pai, is committed to ‘light touch regulation.’”

“Ajit Pai? What the hell kind of a name is Ajit Pai.”

“He’s an Indian, sir. An Arapahoe, I believe.”

“Oh, well, what does he mean: ’light touch’?”

“Well, Joe, it simply means the government is no longer meddling in how Americans use the Internet, as well as the vast network of increasingly complicated wired and wireless communications technologies that affect your TV and radio, landline, mobile devices, tablets, laptops — you name it.”

“So, nobody’s overseeing all that stuff anymore?”

“We are.”

“You are? You mean, Charter?”

“Ha ha. Excuse my mirth, Joe. There is no Charter, or ComCast, Verizon, AT&T, Newscorp, NBC, or even USA Today. Once Commissar Pai ‘took a weed whacker’ — in his words — to the rules that protect shmucks like you from conglomerates like us, we all got together into one huge company. We call it TWS — The Whole Shebang.”

“What about my account with US Cellular?”

“We got that, too, Joe. You can expect a revised bill any minute.”

“You mean, that’s not included in this huge bill I just got?”

(Muffled amusement)

“Okay then. So, for all this extra dough, I guess this means you guys — TWS — are gonna team up and streamline the system, right? People like me will get extra-good service? Better TV reception, faster connections, clearer phone — ”

“Excuse my drowning you out with laughter, Joe. But you don’t seem to get it.”

“Well, maybe I don’t. If the point isn’t better service, why do this?”

“Why? Because the FCC says we can. They clipped our shackles, Joe. They said, ‘Go ahead. Run amok. America trusts you.’”

“I’m not sure I do.”

“The feeling is mutual, Joe.”

“What does this mean for me?”

“Well, for example, let’s talk about streaming. You know what ‘bit-rate’ is?”

“Bit-rate? No.”

“Good, We don’t want you to. But let’s say, during a live football game, the screen freezes. You see this little spinning wheel, and the word ‘buffering’?”

“Yeah, of course. I hate it when that happens.”

“Well, get used to it, Joe. Because your measly $890 isn’t enough to buy you a ‘fast-lane’ bit-rate that can stream your game without a hundred maddening interruptions. You’ve just entered the Buffering Zone.”

“Why would that happen? Why are you doing this?”

“Because we can, Joe. You see, they call it ‘broadband,’ but it’s not all that broad, after all — especially with everybody streaming everything from the Super Bowl to 20 million cat videos to a billion hours every day of hardcore porn. Now that Commissar Pai has unleashed the market, spectrum will only be ‘free’ to those who qualify for the fastest bit-rate.”

“Okay. How much extra do I have to pay?”

“Oh, Joe. If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”

“Well, who can?”

“No one who actually gets bills in the mail, Joe. There are outfits and individuals who merit the TWS VIP Bit-Rate Express. We know who they are. You, Joe, sitting in front of your little spinning wheel in Peoria, trying to watch a game at on 720p at 1.2Mbps, will never be one of them. To put it bluntly, you’re SOL without a paddle.”

“But what can I do?”

“Let me put it this way. Now that Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 no longer applies to Internet service providers — that’s us, Joe — the ‘connected world’ is a jungle where huge unregulated cartels, like us, are the lions and the vultures and the laughing hyenas. You, Joe — you’re a newborn zebra with a birth defect.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Of course you don’t. You’ve never paid attention. We’re counting on that.”

(A sigh)

“Joe, we’re also counting on your addiction to Facebook, your wife’s Netflix binging, your daughter’s 18-hours-a-day texting habit, and your son’s gradual deterioration into a video-game zombie.”

“How do you know I’m gonna keep paying for all that crap?”

“Because you’re hooked, Joe. You know it. We know it.”

“Can I ask just one more question?”

“Quickly.”

“I thought the Internet was a public thing, not for profit, like highways or national parks.”

“Wrong, Joe. ‘Net neutrality’ is an outrage against the market freedom that every patriot cherishes. It undermines our right to charge as much — and beyond — as the richest son of a bitch on earth can bear to pay. That’s not just TWS. It’s America, my friend!”

(In the background, “God Bless America”)

“But if I can’t bear to pay — to call Mom, or watch a YouTube video of a waterskiing squirrel, or access my email — aren’t I less free?”

“No, Joe. That sort of selfishness would poach from the people you and I both work for, the ones who bought the lease.”

“On freedom?”

“Bye, Joe.”

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#817)

Breaking good, eventually
by David Benjamin

“I was sure I was going to get that scholarship. My dad of course was sure I wasn't. When I didn’t, he was real understanding, you know. He loves to do that. He loves to be understanding when I fail.”
                                                           — Cyril, in Breaking Away

MADISON, Wis.— Movie scenes haunt me.

The other day, America’s current confluence of cultural warfare, social strife and political paralysis brought to mind a scene from the 1979 film, Breaking Away.

The movie’s set in a Rust Belt outpost — Bloomington, Indiana. One character, Moocher, played by the splendid Jackie Earle Haley, is undersized, scrawny and almost operatically scruffy. He lives alone in a crumbling clapboard house. His father — an aging stonecutter left jobless by the collapse of Bloomington’s limestone industry — has fled to Chicago, to scrounge for work. Desperate for a little money to help out, Moocher takes a job at a car wash.

In this scene, Moocher’s sidekicks, Dave (Dennis Christopher), Mike (Dennis Quaid) and Cyril (Daniel Stern), drop him off reluctantly at the car wash, urging him not to surrender his freedom and actually report to work. But Moocher is determined — right up ’til his new boss hands him a time card, calls him “Shorty” and orders him to “punch in.”

Moocher takes the cue, walks over to the time-clock, rears back and delivers a haymaker that leaves it in smithereens. His comrades cheer, Moocher kisses his crummy job goodbye and climbs back into the car. Mike burns rubber as Moocher’s erstwhile employer stands seething.

This prescient clip — 38 years old now — foreshadowed the anger and frustration that became a national upheaval in 2016. Moocher, Dave, Mike and Cyril are the forsaken white males of flyover country. Their childhood in Bloomington has witnessed the demise of a proud local — stonecutting — trade that afforded their blue-collar forebears a comfortable middle-class life. They’ve graduated from high school, but they’re stuck on the outside, looking resentfully in, at a great university — in their hometown — where they don’t seem to belong.

The frat boys of Indiana U. — creased, cool and confident — are a living, constant counterpoint to the dead-end prospects of local kids, dismissively referred to as “cutters.” The students drive better cars, wear nicer clothes, sport bigger muscles and date sorority chicks. They have a future in an educated, corporate world beyond Bloomington that seems a million miles away from the four bewildered cutters.

As Mike, in one of the film’s many poignantly ironic exchanges, says, “They're gonna keep callin’ us ‘cutters.’ To them, it’s just a dirty word. To me, it’s just somethin’ else I never got a chance to be.”

Another turning point in Breaking Away is Dave’s moment of hard truth. Until then, his wry defense against reality is an alter ego. To his father’s dismay, Dave poses as an Italian bicyclist, speaking pidgin Italian, memorizing arias, convincing an IU coed that he’s an Italian student and even fooling himself. Dave doggedly sustains this romance until the Cinzano team arrives in Indiana. During an exhibition road rally, Dave keeps pace with the Italian pros and tries to make conversation. The grizzled pros greet his hero-worship by scuttling his bike. They laugh and curse as Dave lies bleeding in a ditch.

These two scenes — Moocher’s defiance and Dave’s heartbreak — punctuate the movie, but don’t end it. It’s a comedy, after all. Director Peter Yates has gotten us to like these boys and we want to pull for them. So, given a chance to redeem themselves in IU’s “Little 500” bicycle race, the Cutters regroup.

Moocher, Dave, Mike and Cyril, at the worst moment in their lives, turn their rage and confusion into resolve. During the race, Dave — who was supposed to solo the entire Little 500 — crashes. Clumsily and comically, his three friends become emergency cyclists. Driven by necessity and love, they lift one another and engage with a world that they saw before as baffling, forbidding and impenetrable.

The race’s outcome offers viewers a handy climax, but it’s ultimately beside the point. Breaking Away, as the title suggests, is about cracking our shells and escaping our fears.

In 1979, moviegoers readily accepted a film about working-class kids swallowing their anger, overcoming economic hardships and battling impossible odds. We bought the premise because we’d seen the story all our lives among friends and family. We’d seen it play out on a grand scale when Americans joined to lift ourselves from the Great Depression, when we formed a global alliance to win World War II and spent our treasure to succor the war’s survivors, and when we defined our nation as the “golden door” through which anyone in trouble could enter and find, here in America, freedom, opportunity, sympathy and hope.

Today, I fear, we’d need to script a new ending. In the 2016 Breaking Away remake, the Cutters wouldn’t get a chance to prove themselves. Fictional liberals on the IU faculty would hate them for being white and ban them from the race. Instead of taking the SAT and starting college, Dave and Cyril would break bad, sinking into a cycle of part-time jobs in the daytime and nightly drinking at a local dive. Instead of marrying his girlfriend and starting fresh in Chicago, Moocher would beat her ’til she abandons him. After that, he’d nurse a hydrocodone habit and spend his waking hours surfing alt-right websites for assurance that none of his misery is his own fault. And Mike, instead of hugging his policeman brother at the end of the movie, would instead get arrested by said brother. In prison, Mike would join the Aryan Brotherhood.

At the end, the Cutters would reunite at a Trump rally. The final shots would show them chanting “Lock her up!” and gang-molesting a girl reporter from CNN.
 
I know. Sounds like a rotten movie.

It is. Nobody would make it. Not only would it be more depressing than Easy Rider, it wouldn’t ring true. It would defy the basic principle that Americans — when we’re true to ourselves — help. No matter how low we’ve sunk, how much we’ve bickered, backstabbed and wracked one another’s feelings, no matter how sorry we feel for our poor, poor, pitiful selves, we remember our better angels, bind our wounds, and find a way back.

Always, we go that way together.