Monday, June 29, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#726)

The prebuttal imperative
of the “liberal media”

by David Benjamin

PARIS — I thought I’d coined the word “prebuttal” until today when, in the New York Times, I found Paul Vallely using it in an op-ed piece about Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, Laudato Sii. Vallely was citing a preemptive denunciation by GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, issued before the Vatican had officially released the Pope’s historic message.

My own definition of “prebuttal” applies to news outfits, particularly the Times, accused so often by right-wing propagandists of “liberal bias” that they’re gun-shy. “Pre-actively,” in any political story that pits liberals vs. conservatives, Establishment news organizations rush to articulate the right-wing position.

The eternal irony is that the Right never credits mainstream journalism for this premonitory obeisance. Jugular conservatives like radio clown Rush Limbaugh thrive on and profit from the myth of the “liberal media.” It would be right-wing heresy and ratings suicide to praise fair minds for their fairness.

This tortuous balancing act doesn’t only reduce the editorial space (or air-time) available for liberal views. It squeezes out facts. It pushes down — into the deep unread portion of the story — that useful information that serves to help the unbiased, the curious and the ignorant to decide which argument is more cogent.

I’ve been reading newspapers since I could read. Lately, I’ve gotten the sense that proud old broadsheets like the Times and the Washington Post are tailoring coverage in hopes of getting the right-wing noise machine out of their ear. My latest example is a Times piece last month by Coral Davenport. It covered President Obama’s pending executive order to extend the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act jurisdiction to vulnerable water sources, including lakes and streams previously unprotected by the law.

This sensible idea received a preemptive razzberry from the corporate and agribusiness interests who’ve been poisoning lakes and streams for a century. Their well-known promise about the filth that they spew into our rivers, wells and water tables is that we should “trust” them to voluntarily carry out the sort of environmental stewardship they’ve never previously cared about.

(Don’t Tread On Me. You might squeeze out something disgusting.)

The Times anticipated this right-wing outcry. The Times knew it would be trashed by “Fox and Friends” as Obama’s personal Pravda, just for reporting the plan, plainly and objectively. Indeed, of the 1,071 words in Davenport’s story, 450 provided readers a plain, objective — somewhat hasty — explanation.

Davenport could have explained more, including why the EPA believes more rules are necessary. But she had a prebuttal to write. She pumped out and quoted 463 words dedicated to the rich and powerful — in the form of vows by Republicans, corporate spokespeople and pathological polluters to kill this Obama-spawned regulatory monster while it’s still in the womb.

“Environmentalists” and the EPA got 158 words from the liberal Times — roughly one for every three words given to their pro-pollution opponents.

I found a similar imbalance in Charlie Savage’s Times story about last week’s King v. Burwell Supreme Court bombshell, which upheld the Affordable Care Act. The Court’s vote was 6-3, suggesting that the Times reporter should afford the winning (liberal) side twice as much space as the defeated minority.

Au contraire. In his quote-heavy analysis, Savage gave pro-Obamacare justices 558 words. On the other (losing) hand, the flamboyantly reactionary Justice Antonin Scalia, all by himself, commanded 602 apoplectic words.

Next day, the Court’s marriage-equality ruling was an even bigger triumph for liberals. True to prebuttal protocol, the Washington Post gave the victors 99 words in ‘graphs 3 and 4, including a snippet from Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion. The conservative losers got twice the ink — 184 words — covering ‘graphs 5-9, with an extended comment by Chief Roberts and an Apocalyptic dig from Scalia.

Based on these examples, this prebuttal thing seems to me like an actual trend. But I always prefer a little more evidence. To test my intuition, I went looking for a story where the good guys got licked. I wanted to see if the Times — worried about accusations of “conservative bias” — might skew its coverage toward the laments of the defeated Left.

The 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission seemed like the ideal control. The story was by Adam Liptak, the Times’ crack legal correspondent. It was heavy on straightforward, apolitical explanation. Liptak devoted 401 of an 875-word report to background, as well as the implications and the dramatis personae in the futile struggle to keep organized money from trampling the American electorate into a state of feckless feudalism.

In the remainder of Liptak’s story, the winning — conservative — side got 279 words of coverage and quotation. Most important, conservative justices claimed the “top” of the story. The liberals, whose arguments slipped to ‘graphs 5, 12, 15, 21 and 23, got the loser’s appropriate share of attention — 195 words.

Every case I’ve examined renders a similar outcome. In the liberal media, when liberals lose, they lose. And when they win, they also lose.

“Prebuttal” — routinely granting precedence to the utterances of plutocrats, hired guns, blowhards and zealots who can’t even imagine returning the favor — has become, I suppose, a sort of survival tactic among America’s few remaining bastions of professional journalism.

I’m just thinking that a motto-edit is probably advisable. The little box beside the banner has always read: “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” But that old saw dates back to bygone bygones, when the Times ruled the media and called the shots. Today, revised subtly for editorial accuracy and media realities, the motto in the box would look the same and you’d have to peek close to notice the change:

“All That Fox News Thinks Fit to Print.”

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#725)

Know thy caliber, know thyself
By David Benjamin

PARIS — In the wake of the vicious killings at the Emanuel AME Church, Americans can take some solace in the embrace of psychology — by the National Rifle Association and the Caucasian Caucus of the Republican Party — as a way to understand, and possibly achieve a measure of Christian tolerance for the mass murders that remain trendy among America’s angry white guys with guns.

The Delphic maxim says, “Know thyself.” The example of Dylann Roof, the Charleston mass murderer, is instructive. We’ve learned that he was poor though white, and alienated from a broken family. He was a restless, bitter school dropout with an itchy trigger finger who apparently possessed the social skills of a rabid polecat. He was a blank tablet whose only mark was the palimpsest of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which liberated him — without government interference — “to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them,” ideally by snuffing as many of his imaginary enemies as he had bullets.

We could condemn young men like Dylann and cling to the false panacea of gun control. Or we could join with 2nd Amendment defenders in their conviction that society is ultimately safer by understanding our budding sociopaths and seeking to guide their impulses — constructively.

DR FELDMAN: “So, Darrell, do you know why you’re here?”

DARRELL: “Huh uh.”

DR. FELDMAN: “Well, you see, the government doesn’t know you’ve just purchased your 52nd automatic weapon. Nor have they been notified that you’ve  stockpiled enough ammo to depopulate New Hampshire. However, the NRA keeps track of these things. They’ve hired me to help you plumb your motivations.”

DARRELL: “I don’t wanna plumb nothin’, shrink.”

DR. FELDMAN: “This is evident, Darrell. But don’t you feel, perhaps, a little uneasy? Aren’t you haunted, sometimes, by emotions you can’t understand?”

DARRELL: “Haunted? Nah. I’m pissed, man. Really pissed.”

DR. FELDMAN: “Good, that’s a start. Now, Darrell, let’s explore that.”

DARRELL: “Explore what?”

DR. FELDMAN: “Your anger.”

DARRELL: “I’m not angry, man. I’m pissed.”

DR. FELDMAN: “Yes, well, a minor semantic point. You’re pissed. But why so many guns, Darrell?”

DARRELL: “I dunno. They make me feel good, y’know. Safe.”

DR. FELDMAN: “Ah, now we’re getting somewhere, Darrell. You sense some danger in your life, a threat that you can’t quite put your finger on?”

DARRELL: “Aw, no. I can put my finger on it all right.”

DR. FELDMAN: “Really? Very good, Darrell. We’re making progress. I’m very pleased. Now, why do you feel threatened? What’s causing this?”

DARRELL: “Them.”

DR. FELDMAN: “Them. Perhaps you could be a tad more specific, Darrell?”

DARRELL: “Say what?”

DR. FELDMAN: “Them, Darrell. Who are they?”

DARRELL: “Them, man. The ones who hate me. The ones who laugh and talk behind my back. The ones who get stuff I can’t get. The ones who pass algebra and get jobs and take out mortgages and have girlfriends and get married. The ones who have beliefs, values, convictions and new cars. The ones who work in offices and eat out and know how to dance and don’t pick their nose in public."

DR. FELDMAN: “You mean, people who have actual lives?”

DARRELL: “Yeah.”

DR. FELDMAN: Unlike you.”

DARRELL: “Yeah.”

DR. FELDMAN: “Who only have anger, hatred and an AK-47.”

DARRELL: “Yeah.”

DR. FELDMAN: “And have no idea who you are, because you have no occupation, no group to identify you, not even a family to speak of. Even being white isn’t that self-defining because being white is just so… white.”

DARRELL: “Yeah, you got it, doc.”

DR. FELDMAN: “But, Darrell. You have your guns.”

DARRELL: “Jeez, doc. Do you mean…?”

DR. FELDMAN: “Darrell, you may indeed be a nebbish. You might — for the next 70 years — amount to little more than a soup-stain on the necktie of humanity. But you are someone, Darrell. Someone greater than everyone can see.”

DARRELL: “Because I got my guns?”

DR. FELDMAN: “Yes, Darrell. You embody the freedom that is every native-born American’s birthright. You can load, lock, aim and fire — and not even the president can stop you.”

DARRELL: “So, you mean I can shoot ‘em. The ones who go around hating me.”

DR. FELDMAN: “Well, Darrell. I can’t suggest that. I’m only here to listen. And advise.”

DARRELL: “But you can’t stop me.”

DR. FELDMAN: “No one can, Darrell. You have unalienable rights.”

DARRELL: “OK, good. Advise me, doc. Which ones do I shoot?”

DR. FELDMAN: “This is America, Darrell. You have the right to choose — any individual, group, party, faction, busload, congregation, schoolroom. It’s a veritable human buffet out there, Darrell. I can only ask you this question: Who pisses you off the most.”

DARRELL: “Well, I hate the niggers, and the illegals. I hate the stinkin’ chinks a lot. And Catholics. And Muslims, boy, do I hate them. And the Jews!”

DR. FELDMAN: “Well, I‘d skip the Jews if I were you, Darrell.”

DARRELL: “Skip the Jews? Why, doc? They run everything!

DR. FELDMAN: “It’s been overdone. The idea lacks freshness.”

DARRELL: “Really?”

DR. FELDMAN: “Yes. Just as an example, the Nazis murdered six million Jews in a span of barely ten years.”

DARRELL: “Wow. That many? How come I didn’t know that?”

DR. FELDMAN: “Probably because you’re a moron with a gun, Darrell. Remember?

DARRELL: “Oh. Right.”

DR. FELDMAN: “The key, Darrell, is not whom you shoot, or even if you shoot them at all. The important thing is how you feel, about yourself… afterward.”

DARRELL: “Yo. Like, afterwards, I won’t be Darrell, the nobody, anymore.”

DR. FELDMAN: “That’s right, Darrell. You’ll definitely be somebody.”

DARRELL: “Yeah, man. I’ll be Darrell, the crazed gunman.”

DR. FELDMAN: “Emphasis on ‘man,’ Darrell.”

DARRELL: “Yeah! Or Darrell, the mass murderer. Maybe even Darrell, the terrorist!”

DR. FELDMAN: “Well, mass murderer, yes. That’s fine. But let’s not use that word, Darrell, Remember, you’re white.”

DARRELL: “Oh. Really, doc? White guys can’t be terrorists?”

DR. FELDMAN: “Oh my goodness, no, Darrell. If we ever called them that, we might have to take away their guns.”

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#724)

Bistro nights
By David Benjamin

PARIS — A while ago, I sent a New York editor to one of my favorite Paris bistros, a rustic meat-and-blettes eatery called Chez René. I warned her that the head waiter, Michel, would be scary. Sure enough, Michel intimidated Katie and her mom while performing impeccably and responding to their every beck and call.

I knew Michel would be present for Katie’s visit. I even knew which tables he would tend (I directed Katie to one of them). I confidently sent people to (be scared by) Michel because he’d been a fixture at Chez René ten years before when Hotlips and I first dined there (on the best boeuf bourgignon and coq au vin in Paris). He was still there ten years after Katie, when — tragically for us — he retired.

In our first half-dozen times at Chez René, Michel was the same — as cool and proper as a Drones Club butler, while doing everything perfectly. Then, one evening — after we had proven our loyalty to Chez René — Michel greeted us at the door and made sure we had the best table in the corner of the “smoking” (tourist-free) salon. Next time, he kissed Hotlips on both cheeks and shook my hand. Thereafter, we were all on hugging terms.

Of course, his service remained flawless.

Like all veteran waiters in a city where waiting table is a career, Michel did everything with fluid grace. His service was swift. The courses were intuitively timed to the pace we set for our meal. In Paris, rushing one’s repast is a cardinal sin. Hurrying the customer is more like a capital crime. Everything comes in a logical sequence that has been customary here since France was an empire. For all his propriety, Michel created an atmosphere as relaxing as a back rub.

When Hotlips and I return to Paris, we have many places where, like Michel at Chez René, we’re treated like the prodigal son. At our morning coffee place, Patrick, a tattooed ex-seaman who balances white and black flawlessly in his café crème, embraces us both mightily. At Azabu, possibly the only good Japanese restaurant in Paris, proprietress Mami Nakamura glows at our arrival, chef Tamura nods austerely and our favorite waitress, Sachi-chan, giggles with delight.

There’s also the genial bald waiter at Le Bistrot du Dome (best fish we’ve found in Paris), and the one who smiles gently and treats us like family at La Gueuze, where we go for moules et frites and Belgian beer. And so on.

Eating out in Paris is more important to us than museums, graveyards, cathedrals and boat rides, especially in the cozy, congenial bistros that populate every narrow street, broad boulevard and hidden square.

I often wonder why such unforced familiarity and comfort are hard to find in places where “gourmet dining” occurs in America. The USA is overflowing with jovial greasy-spoons and bars where everybody knows your name. But as the prices go up, the warmth tends to go down.

When Hotlips and I used to dine in New York City, we sometimes found cuisine — for twice the price — almost as lovingly prepared and sophisticated as the standard fare at a Paris hole-in-the-wall. But, besides sticker shock, New York offered waiters colder than Michel but without his professionalism. And there was — at every high-class eatery in New York — that one dish, laid before me, the hapless rube, with a flourish and a smirk. Everyone who’s ever dined in Manhattan has faced this culinary conundrum. You’re afraid to tip it over — or even poke it gingerly — and you don’t know how to eat it. Fork, spoon, chopsticks, forceps?

Madison, where we live, has developed a few joints that rival New York in snootiness. Instead of just listing choices on the menu, they publish short essays that detail the provenance of the carrots, the original address of the pissonlit (but no explanation of what the hell it is), the cattle breed of the filet mignon and how old it was when it was castrated. Fascinating, but… the waiters are condescending and oddly defensive. They convey the impression that they’d be working in a much cooler restaurant in a way bigger city if only their talent were properly appreciated.

At any fancy restaurant in America, the wine lists are impressive, even awesome. They go on for 20 pages, separated by regions, appellations and varietals that are a mystery to most diners, with markups four times wholesale. Even a simple table wine, like a Touraine, Tempranillo or Montepulciano — ten bucks at Riley’s Wines of the World — is jacked up to $50.

In Paris, you can find similar encyclopedias. But my favorite wine list is at Le Bistrot du Dome. It has six whites and six reds, each attuned to the dishes on the menu (a blackboard that changes twice daily). They all cost 24 euros (cheap anywhere). At Chez René, the list is longer, but it’s for tourists. Regular customers just ask for the sublime house Beaujolais, which has been bottled and labeled specifically for Chez René for more than fifty years.

And then there’s the whole rigmarole of opening the bottle.

For most of our years in Paris, Michel’s wine ritual consisted of yanking the cork, setting the bottle on our table and shimmering away. Lately, in deference to tourist expectations, Parisian waiters are doing the Latin version of the wine ritual, pouring a dab into a glass and watching non-judgmentally as the alpha customer fusses with it pretentiously. I have yet to see an American do this properly.

The difference between “fine dining” in the U.S. and the joy of the French bistro might come down to the fact that Parisians decided long ago that eating out is more of a party — for everyone involved — than it is a capitalist transaction.

Hotlips and I felt this the other night at a mom-and-pop bistro called Epicure 108 on a remote street in the 17th arrondissement. Every dish was a small adventure. Each of chef Tetsu Goya’s sauces, two days in the making, were good enough to drink straight. The wine ritual lasted about nine seconds. Chef Goya’s wife, our hostess and head waiter, circulated helpfully among her patrons, who are mostly her neighbors. Now and then, she would start to chat, her customers — including us — would stop eating and we all just shmoozed for 15 minutes. Then, back to the food, the wine, the bread, dessert and coffee after.

When people arrive at Epicure 108, they embrace Mrs. Goya. They thank her and embrace her again when they leave. Every night, chef Goya comes beaming from the kitchen, shaking hands, kissing women, telling everyone thank you I hope you liked it.

How could we not? He’s one of Paris’ best-kept secrets. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#723)

What’s beautiful about it?
By David Benjamin

“If you’re pious, friend, open a church. Our business is our business.”
                               —    Jack Warner, indicted FIFA executive

PARIS — The prosecutors who uncovered the vast sinkhole of sleaze in FIFA, the world professional soccer outfit, dug really deep and worked hard to nail the perps, who still might include FIFA fuehrer Sepp Blatter. But, in a way, they didn’t need to look further than the logo on the jersey of FC Barcelona, the futbol team that just beat Italian power Juventus in the European Champions League final.

Corruption is spelled out plainly and proudly on that jersey, which doesn’t say, “Barcelona.” There isn’t a FIFA-governed professional soccer club anywhere that carries the nickname, city or logo of that team. Instead, they advertise.

Soccer fans patiently explain to American ignoramuses like me that my objection to using soccer players as corporate billboards is proof that I cannot possibly grasp the intricate nuances intrinsic to the “beautiful game.”

Yeah, right.

The Barcelona boys play proudly and loyally for Qatar Airways. That’s Qatar, an infinitesimal oilocracy in North Africa with no soccer stadiums, which has never qualified for the World Cup, whose princes bribed FIFA officials countless millions for the rights to host the 2022 tournament. That’s Qatar, where summer temperatures reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit, a climatic reality that poses for the world’s best soccer players the prospect of sprinting back and forth on a 100-yard hotplate for 90-plus minutes in a mid-day sun that has already killed at least 964 of the construction workers who’ve been put to work building those soccer pitches.

Barcelona’s players apparently see no symbolism or irony in representing Qatar more openly than their home city. Nor do their fans seem to mind that they’re cheering, drinking and beating each other up on behalf of Qatar Airways (which most of them can’t afford to fly). Nor did the fans of Juventus, in that Champions League final, display any misgivings about their passionate support for the logo printed on their heroes’ jerseys. No, it’s not “Juventus.” It says: “Jeep.”

“Go, Jeepers?”

I wonder about the conflicted loyalties among fans of FC Milano (Italy) when they play French rival Paris St. Germain. Both teams compete under the strange device, “Fly Emirates” (as do Arsenal and Real Madrid). When all the millionaires on both teams are flying Emirates and getting paid by the same bunch of billionaire oil sheiks in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, does it really matter who wins?

As long as the fans file in like sheep and wave their scarves…

Sponsorships in the FIFA empire include two teams — the Glasgow Rangers and Aston Villa in Britain — sponsored by online gambling companies. My friend John in London, who defends soccer as fiercely as I support the Green Bay Packers, roots for the venerable Tottenham Hotspurs. But the Hotspurs don’t play for John. They play, according to their jerseys, for AIA (formerly AIG), a disgraced insurance company now based in China. Russia’s top two teams, Zenit St. Petersburg and CSKA Moskva, wear the logos of giant state-owned corporations, Gazprom and OAO Rossetti. In sum, both squads are President Putin’s boys.

“Go, Vlads?”

The epitome of cognitive dissonance in FIFA sponsorships is Atletico Madrid, a team who — because they’re in it for the money, after all — have renounced both nation and city to wear a jersey that reads: “Azerbaijan, Land of Fire.”

I struggle for a comparison. What if the Packers were to give up the green-and-gold for promo-jerseys that say, “Minnesota: Land of 10,000 Lakes”?

After the FIFA indictments started piling up, the most ludicrous story in the sporting press puzzled over the absence of outrage among FIFA’s “sponsors.” The sportswriter was referring, I guess, to Qatar Airways, Gazprom, the Emirates Group, T-Mobile, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Adidas, Hyundai, Kia, Budweiser, VISA and VW, among others — rootless, faceless, amoral multinationals who — for decades — gladly ponied up kickbacks and bribes and laundered it white before they slipped it to Chairman Sepp, probably in one of those bullet-proof silver-ribbed briefcases with a combination lock and a set of handcuffs.

Moneyed interests, of course, are rampant in pro sports, even the “amateur” ones, like NCAA football and AAU basketball. But few athletic cartels have sold out as eagerly and openly as FIFA — who displays its fealty to filthy lucre on the chest of every player on every team on earth. I’ll believe FIFA has actually cleaned up its act when Catalonian soccer nuts can fork over 80 euros for a replica jersey that says, “Barcelona” instead of an Arabian airline. Or my friend John can get one that doesn’t advertise an insurance company.

“Go, Underwriters?”

Right now, the “beautiful game” is played by athletes and watched by fans who are forced to offer public tribute to banks, sheiks and kleptocrats who don’t reside in their hometown, support the local schoolkids, know the players’ names or even follow the damn standings. It is governed by a club of aged plutocrats, most of whom never played and who understand it less well than even an American ignoramus like me. I know this because, while they’ve gotten rich, the Blatter gang — and the Joao Havelange coterie before them — did nothing, in decades, to make soccer cleaner, fairer, more fan-friendly or more entertaining.

Soccer is boring — compared to almost any other sport (except possibly Scrabble) — not because it’s players are boring, but because its coaches, its owners and its administrators are indifferent to everything about their “beautiful game” except its almighty bottom line.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#722)

The ancient tarts of rue St. Denis
and the Marcel Proust of tennis elbow

by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — One of my favorite Paris expeditions starts in the heart of the city and heads due north on rue St. Denis. This venerable street isn’t one of the great city’s many fashionable thoroughfares. It’s long and narrow, bustling with activity, lined with shirttail businesses, wholesale dealers, tchotchke purveyors, crumbling churches, Irish pubs, dive bars, neighborhood diners, tabacs, cafés, lottery windows, sex shops, and here and there a peep show. 

Along the way, it’s not surprising — but it can be startling — to encounter, leaning heavily against a doorjamb, the reincarnation of Irma La Douce. Except, well, she got older. And wider. She’s of a certain age that’s hard to judge beneath the vaudeville makeup and platinum wig. She’s melon-breasted in a sagging tube top that would — you wish — cover her tummy but doesn’t. Her miniskirt is too short, her heels too tall. Her tattoos have all gone purple, matching eerily the varicose veins visible through her tattered mesh stockings. Her air is coolly professional, although a little frightening. The unprepared tourist, seeing her suddenly loom outward from the facade, tends to stagger off the curb, giving her ample berth. Treating this reaction as a sort of amorous spasm, she cocks a massive hip, peels a Gauloise from her sticky lips and squeezes out a come-hither smirk.

Having traversed rue St. Denis many times, I’m accustomed to steering past Irma with barely a glance. But my attitude softened last month when, in a span of ten days, I set forth to hawk my novels at three local “author events” in Wisconsin. At each venue, I was provided with a table. The room was large. My literary wares were sprawled before me. Strangers milled, exuding a general air of reluctance. Whenever one drew close enough to read my titles, I bounced welcomingly to my feet, striving to lure them into my orbit and seduce them with my prose. And I began to feel like — and understand — the aged Irmas of rue St. Denis.

Because my potential readers, like tourists off the beaten path in darkest Paris, recoiled with ill-concealed alarm and veered awkwardly out of range — toward the next author, or the refreshments, or straight for the parking lot.

But I exaggerate. Not everyone made me feel like a superannuated tart. To many, I was more like a used-car dealer with a lot full of Nash Ramblers and International Harvester Travel-Alls. At the grand debut of an elderly residence called Brookdale, I was one of two featured authors. The other was a vivacious YouTube star named Ann. We each had a big table, piled with our books, in the obligatory large room. By and by, a curious couple dodged Ann and settled in front of my pile. I stood. The woman said, “So, tell us about your books.”

I did so, offering a lively oral synopsis of each, making a joke or two, injecting plugs about readers’ (favorable) reactions. I even enlisted Nancy — my sidekick for the day — to validate my pitch. We babbled on together for several minutes. The man seemed blithely illiterate but the wife paged through each book with an air of curiosity, nodding along with my monolog. A live one, I surmised.

But no. After all that, the woman curled a lip, dropped my novel, turned on a heel and said, “Well, those aren’t the sort of books we’re interested in.”

To her husband’s credit, he looked back once, shrugging apologetically.

The pain in my ankle was, I figure, the way a tire feels, after it’s been kicked.

Through several “book fair” experiences, I’ve come to appreciate the impact of self-publishing on the accessibility of authorship. Among maybe a hundred writers I encountered at these recent shows, all but a few are self-published, with books well-designed, professionally printed and — in many cases — accompanied by rudimentary marketing materials. Vanity presses have evolved into slick, affordable print-on-demand (POD) book-packaging mills — and authors are breeding like hamsters.

Online POD publishing enables almost anyone with a cherished personal story to become an author whose work looks presentable enough to spread all over a table at a book fair in Oshkosh. The topics among my colleagues tended heavily toward sentimental memoirs full of family anecdotes and farm nostalgia, how-to manuals, pet stories and cozy murder mysteries set in smalltown Wisconsin.

At an “author showcase” in West Bend, my neighbor, Jackie, displayed two novels that she referred to as “senior citizen chick lit.” I wanted to whisper that she might want to think up a pitch-line less likely to drive away readers in droves. But I didn’t have the heart. She was a sweetheart (and she bought two of my books).

On my other side, Mary was selling a children’s book about her late poodle. She wrote it, and hired a good illustrator, because little Cuddles (not his real name) was just the most lovable pet she ever had, and she couldn’t figure out why several major publishers weren’t captivated by the premise of a cute-pooch kids’ book.

Again, I didn’t have the heart (nor did her saintly husband, who was with her) to tell Mary she’d have a better shot with publishers if she’d written about, say, an autistic poodle sociopath who creeps away from his doghouse under cover of darkness, abducts sleeping babies and eats them for a midnight snack.

One of the goldmines for online vanity publishers is disease books. Anyone who has lost a loved one to a terrible illness or has survived a mortal trauma has a powerful emotional stake in the experience. The urge to tell the tale is hard to resist — especially when you can get it out, a copy at a time, in a five-by-nine paperback with a shiny cover and your name in 72-point Helvetica Bold.

At all my book fairs, I was surrounded by moving chronicles of brave battles and miraculous recoveries. The most moving story, however, emerged inadvertently from a humble non-author who paused at my table. As we talked, she revealed that she had pancreatic cancer. I tried a positive spin, noting that there had been progress lately in treating this virulent killer. But the lady assured me that, no, her doctors couldn’t do that stuff — or anything else to save her. She was dying and she was doing so unexceptionally. Writing it up would be a waste of ink.

She moved on, stoically, and picked up Mary’s poodle book.

Among the medical nostalgics at West Bend was a curmudgeonly killjoy who shuffled about restlessly in a windbreaker marked with the legend “Tendinitis Survivor.” He was remarkable in many ways, first because he had perceived — perhaps brilliantly — that a case of tendinitis was worthy of an entire book. I’ve had tendinitis in two shoulders, an elbow and a knee, but never felt the tiniest urge to write about it. Here was a failure of both imagination and memory. After the annoying joint pain had passed — which it does, eventually — I forgot about it.

But not this guy. He remembered, he was bitter, and he vented, in 70,000 words or more. And he stayed bitter. Among all the Irmas on display, he was by far the crankiest. Here was another point of amazement, probably because I was a little haunted by that serene and cerebral lady whose pancreas was quietly, swiftly stealing her life.

I thought, Jesus, if the worst thing that ever happened to that grouchy old fart was a case of tennis elbow, he should be the happiest author in the whole show.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#721)

This dog has had its day
by David Benjamin

“Are you really willing to give up your liberty for security?”

                                                                    — Sen. Rand Paul

MADISON, Wis. — Rand Paul and the anti-government anarchists who live in cinder-block bunkers with a ten-year stash of flashlight batteries and Cheez Whiz are the unexpected good guys on the issue of telecom metadata collection by the Feds. They want it stopped. Sen. Paul even has a major government agency — the Inspector General’s office at the Department of Justice — in his corner.

Even the House of Representatives, usually cheerleaders for the national security state, have voted overwhelmingly to curtail the FBI’s sweeping Patriot Act authority — established in the days of panic after 9/11 — to gobble up virtually every contact made by every citizen with a cellphone, iPhone , smartphone, landline, laptop, desktop, tablet or the e-mail account that they access at the Public Library.

The well-polled American people are as unanimous as we can get. We don’t want the FBI (and by extension, the NSA, CIA, DIA, Secret Service, Delta Force, even Gibbs, DiNozzo, Abby, Ducky and McGee) horning in uninvited on our every call, text, tweet, Instagram and Facebook joke.

In an age of vicious political polarization, we’re all together in wanting to keep the Feds from tapping our phone and intercepting our WiFi. So what’s the problem? Why can’t we cut off the snoops?

Well, there’s the Senate. It used to be run by a kickass welterweight named Harry Reid, who brooked little intraparty dissension. But now, the boss is Mitch McConnell, who, try as he might, can’t get the Pentagon-huggers in his party to make nice with its Tea Party paranoids. Neither faction appears to have any discernible contact with the interests of either the American people or reality.

The Republicans’ inability to compromise with the Republicans on Patriot Act reform poses a stark choice for the Senate. Democrat Patrick Leahy put it plainly: “We either take the House Bill or end the Patriot Act.”

OK, cool, because the DOJ’s Inspector General has come up with a pretty good case for Door Number Two. Since the attacks of 11 September 2001, when the government started raking in telecommunications metadata like a Japanese factory ship strip-netting every living thing on or above the ocean floor, the FBI fishermen have gotten nothing from their efforts. Not a minnow.


In the great Washington data bonanza — gazillions of wired and wireless contacts over the last 14 years stretching from Madawaska to Tijuana and all over the globe — the eavesdroppers on the party line haven’t once tuned in on, discovered or halted one measly plot. Not even a couple of teenage malcontents talking about the pipe bomb they want to plant under the driver’s seat in the car of Mr. Strickland, the universally hated vice-principal at Hill Valley High.

I had that conversation in 1966 about a vice-principal named Mr. Wendt. Kids have been talking — on the phone — about bombing Mr. Strickland for at least a century, hundreds of times a week, but the FBI is clueless. I mean, if they can’t find teenagers openly (but wishfully) plotting, in standard English, the murder of a high-school tyrant, what are the Feds’ chances of exposing one of those (mythical) terrorist “sleeper cells” who encrypt their data and converse in Arabic pig-Latin?

The FBI’s metadata harvest is better equipped to find out about the orders I place at Victoria’s Secret for camisoles and slingbacks. And it has no trouble tapping my calls to a substance-abuse hotline or to the bookie who helps me lay fifty bucks on the nose of a nag named Nora’s Knickers in the fifth at Hialeah.

But, seriously, what the Feds can or can’t find out doesn’t matter. There might be lots of “conspiracies” out there, jabbering away among the wires, fiber optics and broadband spectra. Most consist almost entirely of empty spite, magical thinking and hot air. Phone-company metadata won’t help us find any of them.

Besides, it’s all protected by the First Amendment.

We know now, from experience, that conventional forms of domestic intelligence — and plain old police work — have found and foiled virtually every serious effort at jihadist violence in the U.S. since 9/11. Over these years, we’ve seen more “terrorism” from school invasions, Dirty Harry cops and outlaw bikers.

We know this. Mitch McConnell probably knows, too. But he can’t seem to decide what to do about it that best serves his political interest. However, here’s Mitch’s silver lining. He can sit back, relax and serve the American people more truly and benevolently than he ever has before — by sitting back and relaxing.

On June 1st, if Mitch and the orchestra do nothing, the Patriot Act, with all its wiretapping, threat-mapping, color-coding and neocon Manicheism, will expire, passing from our lives in much the way that we kissed goodbye to the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798-1801), the Espionage Act of 1917 (1917-1921), the Smith Act (1940-1957), and the ethereal Communist Control Act of 1954.

Nobody wants G-men poking into the petty and private dialogs we carry on among ourselves, and few of us are willing to tolerate this sort of intrusion in the name of a riot act that has proved itself immaculately impotent. The Patriot Act did little more than soothe America’s jangled nerves in a time of tragedy. It’s like the Rottweiler we bought to scare away burglars and snarl at the things that go bump in the night. But old Pat lost his bark ten years ago. He went blind and his teeth fell out, his hips went haywire, his bowels collapsed, his liver failed and he’s been on life support at the animal hospital since last Thanksgiving.

Let the dog die, Mitch.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#720)

Da Pats
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — It’s one of the ugliest scenes in the history of professional football. On 12 August 1978, in a desultory pre-season National Football League game between the Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots, Pats quarterback Steve Grogan threw an off-target pass in the direction of receiver Darryl Stingley. Stingley leapt and stretched toward the ball but barely got a finger on it. While he was airborne, Oakland safety Jack Tatum dug in his cleats, lowered his helmet and launched himself toward Stingley’s exposed head and shoulders. The impact was like a Greyhound bus hitting a mourning dove in flight.

Stingley dropped to the turf in a motionless heap. Tatum, known to fans as “The Assassin” for his blindside hits on vulnerable opponents, shrugged his pads into place and strolled away. Stingley never got up. Nor was he ever able to get up again. Tatum’s blow had shattered two vertebrae. Stingley spent the rest of his life — which ended in 2007 — as a quadriplegic in a wheelchair.

Jack Tatum never really apologized for that gratuitous practice-game blow, not did he ever reconcile with Stingley. To have shown remorse would have clashed with the image of Tatum as an on-field rogue and with the reputation of the Oakland franchise — Da Raidas — as the outlaws of the NFL.

That brutal moment was all the more poignant because the Patriots in those days were more a victim, among NFL teams, than an aggressor. Their front office was a comic opera and the team fluctuated between bare competence and absurdity. Their popular nickname, Patsies, was painfully appropriate. The Tatum vs. Stingley collision was a microcosm of both teams’ personalities, a officeful of likable milquetoasts mugged by the gangbangers from the East Bay.

At the moment Da Raidas entered the NFL from the renegade American Football League, they were the Hell’s Angels of the league. In fact, the Angels were Raiders fans, and half the non-bikers in the Oakland Coliseum every Sunday dressed up as Hell’s Angels — or vampires, zombies, cannibals, ax-murderers. Raiders owner Al Davis took sniggering joy in thumbing his nose at the NFL brass. His coach was a hulking slob, John Madden, whose slouched-grizzly appearance belied one of the best minds in the history of the game. While his thuggish players outslugged their opponents, Madden out-thought them. Meanwhile, Al Davis blew his bankroll on speed merchants and Neanderthal sociopaths.

The list of dangerous or delinquent misfits who played for Da Raidas, beyond Davis, Madden and Tatum, included Kenny “The Snake” Stabler, Howie Long, Ted “The Mad Stork” Hendricks, Otis Sistrunk, Lyle Alzado, Bubba Smith, Lester Hayes. No other team could match the Oakland roster’s lunatic quotient. But the secret of the Raiders’ perennial success was that they always operated on the fringe of the rules, downing every drug, seeking every tiny edge and risking a penalty on each play on the theory that the refs would eventually tire of blowing their whistles. Da Raidas’ every soiled victory was a thorn in the ass of the NFL establishment. Al Davis’ motto, “Just win, baby!” whispered loudly an unspoken, unsportsmanlike, incorrigible addendum: “By any means necessary.”

Today, the tables are turned. The Raiders, even before Davis’ demise in 2011, had become a laughingstock. In their place, sitting atop the NFL both as champions and renegades — and despised the league over — are the former Patsies. We have to start thinking of them as Da Pats, flouting the rules, picking their noses, gaming the refs and flipping the bird at the suits in New York City.

And talk about tough? The Patriots are the only team in the NFL with an All-Pro tight end serving a life sentence for murder. And the guy was just indicted again — for shooting his “right-hand man” in the face. Roll in your grave, Al.

It all started when Bill Belichick took over as head coach. Under Belichick, the Pats have gone a little more rogue every year. Next to Bill, the once fearsome John Madden is Winnie the Pooh. He even dresses worse. He never smiles, he talks in grunts, he regularly urges the voracious Boston sports press to shove their pencils up their ass. And he cheats every way he can think of — from substitution patterns to secret videotapes of opponents’ practices to shorting out other teams’ headsets during games to — yes, Deflategate. Plus, he drafts future murderers.

And New England loves him, blindly and unconditionally, because he has made the Patsies into Da Pats, the meanest mofos in the valley. The Belichick style has even infected Da Pats’ once-courtly owner Robert Kraft. Deflategate completed Bob’s metamorphosis into Tommy De Vito, Joe Pesci’s hair-trigger sadist in Goodfellas. I can picture Bob Kraft in a bar, encountering his former buddy, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. He looks Goodell ominously up and down, curls a lip and says, “Where are da shovels?”

Unfortunately, Tom Brady, the chronically small-handed Patriot hero who loves a squishy grip, is appealing his four-game suspension for letting the air out of his balls. Say it ain’t so, Tom. You’re one of Da Pats. This is out of character, man! Youse guys don’t “appeal.” You stand your ground and shoot somebody in the face. Your role model is Whitey Bulger.

Now that the former Patsies are the bad boys of the NFL, Tom Terrific can’t afford to back down, apologize or keep a team of candy-ass lawyers on speed-dial. The Brady bunch are Da Raidas of the 21st century, the inheritors of “Just Win, Baby!” In every way, they have to embrace their persona. Ignore Goodell’s penny-ante punishments and keep playing as if there are no refs on the field. Hit to kill and cheat like speakeasy croupiers in a Bogart flick.

If he were around today, Al Davis would know what to tell today’s New Age hardboiled Tom Brady. Actually, it’s the same thing Bill Belichick would say, if only he had the power of speech: “Kid, never give a Packer an even break.”