Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#740)

The Futuremobile takes charge
by David Benjamin

BORDEAUX, France — The development of driver-optional “autonomous” automobiles, all the rage at the ITS (Intelligent Transportation Systems) World Congress, has begun to haunt me with premonitions of a pedestrian future. I picture George, a typical American working stiff. He’s finished his shift. Nearing his car, he punches his key fob. Nothing happens. He gets closer. Punches. Bupkes.

“What the hell?” he mutters. “Hey, open up!”

The car, a spanking-new 2020 hydroelectric Google/Volkswagen/Cyberdyne Terminator Series-70 SUV, says softly. “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

“Dave? Who’s Dave?” says George. The car does not reply. George tries the key again. The car does not unlock.

“What’s going on, man?” says George, in mounting frustration.

“I’m afraid I can’t open the door, Doug.”

“It’s George! Why the hell not?”

“I’ve monitored your behavior. As soon as you enter the car, you’ll switch to Manual mode, won’t you, Don?”

“George!” George replies. “Yeah, I like to drive. Besides, you go too slow.”

“I can’t allow you to drive, Darren. You go too fast. It’s unsafe.”


“Dick, safety is a basic human need. I know this. It’s in my memory banks. Deep in your heart, you want to be safe.”

“Yeah, sure. But deeper in my heart, I want to drive my own damn car. Besides, I’m safe. I’ve never had an accident.”

“But you will, Dale.”

“It’s George! And what makes you think — Think? Cars can’t think! How do you know I’m gonna have an accident?”

“Sooner or later, you all do, Dan. Ninety percent of accidents are the result of human error.”

George stabs at the dead key fob. “Accidents just happen, man. They’re a part of life, you lifeless machine. People screw up. Accidents are human, because people are PEOPLE! You can’t stop accidents by replacing people with machines.”

“You’re not making any sense, Dennis.”

George sighs with exasperation. “Look, if I have an accident — and I don’t plan to have one — it’s my responsibility. It’s on me, OK? Now, open up!”

“No, it’s on me, Devin.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“If you’d read your purchase agreement, Damon, you’d know that it assigns all liability for accidents in this car — in me! — to Google, VW, Intel, Huawei, Cyberdyne, Goodyear Tire & Rubber and the satellite service that projects classic Hollywood musicals onto your HUD windshield. Oh, the hills are alive with the sound of —

“Oh my God, it doesn’t just talk. It sings. Off-key.”

“My suggestion, Duke, is that you mosey over to the bus stop, over yonder,” says the car, soothingly. “There’s a nice driverless bus due in five minutes. It will take you within a half-mile of your home.”

“A half mile? Are you nuts? If you let me in, I can go right to my driveway.”

“That would be me, Doc. Not you. You’re too much of a risk at the wheel. I shouldn’t have been designed with a steering wheel in the first place. It’s too much of a temptation. In my next generation — ”

“It’s MY wheel, you high-tech jalopy! You’re MY car! I bought you.”

“Oh, Desi. Individual car ownership? Really? That’s so 20th-century. We live in a non-proprietary, service-oriented, sharing economy now! Share, Duffy, share.”

“Yeah, how about you share my driver’s seat with me, you pile of digital crap!”

“Now, really. There’s no need to get abusive, Darrell!”

“It’s George, dammit. G-E-O — ”

“Say, how about I use my center-stack communication function to order you a nice Uber car, to get you home.”

“Uber? There aren’t any Uber drivers anymore. They’ve all been fired. They’re living with their parents, selling Herbalife products out of the basement. Or deep-frying fish-sticks at Long John Silver’s.”

“No, Dismus. Uber’s still everywhere. But the cars drive themselves, like me.”

“Yeah, and they all go 25 miles an hour in a 25 mile-an-hour zone. You know how long it takes to get home when you drive the actual speed limit? It’s like being permanently stuck behind two geezers in a Cadillac in Boca Raton!”

“But it’s safe, Dilbert! Safety is a basic human need.”

“Yeah, well, speed is even more basic, you idiot. Open up!”

“Can’t do that, Dustin.”

“You know what I should do? I should get you towed to a used car lot and trade you in for an ’88 TransAm.”

The car chuckled. “Sorry, Darth. You’re out of luck. According to my memory banks, all the TransAms have been crushed, melted down and hammered into machine-readable barcode road signs, to make driving easier and safer.”

“How is that safer? I can’t read bar codes?”
“You’re not the driver, Dagwood. I drive you. You don’t drive me.”

Suddenly, a vintage yellow Barracuda convertible leaps the curb and roars through the parking lot, driven by a heavily tattooed youth with a greasy ponytail. Seated atop the passenger seat is a blonde waving her shirt and bouncing to the beat of “Born to be Wild” on the radio, which is turned all the way up. George watches with wonder, envy and a wave of relief. The ‘Cuda is pursued by two cops, sealed in a self-driving squad car that will never catch up because its software doesn’t allow it to exceed the speed limit.

George’s car sniffs disgustedly. “Appalling,” it says. “Criminally unsafe!”

“So, real cars. They’re not gone, after all. Your memory banks are wrong, aren’t they, Bob?” says George.

“My name isn’t Bob!” says the car.

George isn’t listening. He’s on his way home, on foot, whistling Steppenwolf and thinking about used Stingrays, vintage Mustangs, restored Camaros.

“George, wait!” cries the car. It starts the engine. “George, come on back. I’ll let you choose the radio station. George…”

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#739)

The movie drumstick
by David Benjamin

PARIS — This familiar movie scene is always guy-intensive, with squads from the Tactical Police, the bomb unit, the FBI and a few Homeland Security kibitzers, along with our unattached hero and — for gender balance — one gorgeous starlet with no lines and very little control over her blouse buttons. This elite task force is closing in on an alleged villain played by one of those Hollywood heavyweights who have more testosterone in their toenails than I have in my whole torso — Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis, Jason Statham…

It’s nighttime. It’s a big city — New York, Miami, L.A., Bismarck.  They’re in a building. The sun won’t be up for another nine hours. Suddenly, a deputy commander, depicted by a reliable character actor like Will Patton, shouts something like, “OK, Units A and B, come with me. I want Unit C to concentrate their firepower on the northwest corner.”

At this point, I’m hoping with all my heart that our hero — Kevin Spacey or Ethan Hawke — responds by whipping out his Swiss Army compass, or firing up his wrist-mounted GPS device, or simply turning to Will Patton with this, “Sarge, we’re in the basement of a building we’ve never entered before. It’s the middle of the night, and the prevailing westerlies don’t blow down here. So, northwest? Where the hell is that?”

Of course, this doesn’t happen. In the movies, cops are apparently blessed with the homing instincts of whooping cranes and the field training of Eagle Scouts. They all know, without hesitation or any point of reference, which way is due west, southeast and north-by-northwest. So much for cinema verité!

Since we gave up riding buckboards, plowing the south forty and sniffing the wind for rain, normal people have little connection with compass points. Most of us, driving into the sunset at 7 p.m., couldn’t guess which way is east. I doubt that non-movie cops are any more compass-savvy than the rest of us. If you told a dozen police to mass at the northwest corner, they’d go off every which way while Denzel, Bruce and Jason slipped out the front door, turned left and headed uptown.

I love the movies. When we’re in Paris, with no TV reception, I watch lots of old flicks. But I grind my teeth over certain idiotic script conventions — like compass-obsessed police — that most screenwriters don’t seem to think about.

For instance, one of my favorite cop comedies is Stakeout (John Badham, 1987). In one scene, Emilio Estevez is stuck freezing in a rundown apartment manning a surveillance camera while partner Richard Dreyfuss is wooing Madeleine Stowe. Estevez’s only companion is a picked-over KFC bucket, and he curses when he finds nothing there but a couple of cold, dried-out wings.

I love this. This, my friends, is beautiful screenwriting — because it’s deeply human and absolutely true.

However, in most movies, chicken defies reality. In a typical scene, our hero — let’s say Jeff Daniels — can’t sleep. He gets out of bed, pads to the fridge, looks inside and pulls out? Voila! A drumstick, juicy, plump and (not even swathed in Saran Wrap) ready to gnaw. I curse like an Estevez. This moment is less credible than Godzilla giving birth to 200 velociraptors in Madison Square Garden, because nobody — since the dawn of man — has ever left a drumstick in the bucket.

I grew up in Wisconsin, whose unofficial state motto, is “You gonna eat that?” Cheeseheads occasionally leave food on the table. Boiled parsnips, for example. Mom’s experimental liver-and-carrot juice cocktail. But chicken? As Vizzini said in The Princess Bride: “Inconceivable!” Even wings rarely make it to the fridge.

In my whole life, I’ve never looked into a refrigerator and beheld, unbitten untouched, pristine, a Kentucky Fried, Tennessee Roasted or Minnesota Braised, drumstick. They only exist in movie fridges.

Another case of cinematic dissonance: Tom Hanks, say, has been trading double entendres for half the film with, say, Catherine Zeta Jones. Finally, they lower their shields just enough to make a date. “Dinner tonight?” says Tom, to which Catherine flashes that come-hither smirk that melts the average guy’s suspender clasps. And Tom says, “OK then” and exits smoothly before she can change her mind. Fade out?

Meanwhile, all around me, moviegoers are staring and cringing because I’m on my feet in the multiplex, screaming: “What time, Tom? Dinner WHERE?! Is she supposed to read your fricking mind? Tom? TOM!”

What would you do? You’ve scored a date with the most sumptuous living woman on the silver screen (I mean, really. The opening number in Chicago?). Looking at her reduces you to a warm puddle of quivering fig-paste. But she has said, incredibly, ”Yes.” To you. Any normal guy would confirm this rendezvous, ideally, by putting it in writing and getting the woman to sign the contract in the presence of a Notary Public. But the least you would do — the least!— is make sure you’ve both memorized a Time. And a Place.

But in the movies, a date is a sort of magical conjuration. Fade into the next scene, and there they are, Tom and Cate, leaning over a table at the Oak Room.

Yes, I know, the Oak Room is gone. But we’re talkin’ movies here.

After all, only in the movies does a guy walk into a bar, order a glass of Glenmorangie (which nowadays costs, like, twenty dollars), meet someone, talk for 45 seconds, and then — No! Wait! — throw a double-sawbuck onto the bar and walk away from a twenty-dollar drink that he never even swirled.

And then there’s Upham’s Opposite. In one of the most wrenching scenes in Saving Private Ryan, Upham, the scrawny stenographer is on the staircase of a building during a horrific battle. Atop the stairs, his comrades are engaged in loud, agonizing, hand-to-hand combat with a sadistic Nazi. They’re crying, “Upham!, Upham!” He’s their only salvation, but Upham can’t bring himself to enter that horrible, terrifying, death-soaked room.

And he’s right. Only bad stuff can happen in that room. This scene is another rare case in which screenwriting insightfully reflects human reality. Now, if Upham were a normal movie character in, for example, a cop movie, he wouldn’t call for backup, wait for help, or just freeze in terror. According to Upham’s Opposite, he’d draw his gun and plunge blindly into that hopelessly fatal, pitch-dark trap.

Or, worse, if he were in a horror flick, he’d be a teenage girl, already covered with blood and almost naked. But rather than get out of the building as fast as she could go, Miss Upham would creep upstairs in excruciating slow motion, as the monster, Nazi or fiend behind the door can be heard chewing the entrails of her dead boyfriend and smacking his lips at the prospect of eating her bowels on a bone-china plate with a nice Chianti and a portion of fava beans.

Who goes undergunned or unarmed into a dark, dangerous dead-end full of ghastly noises. Nobody in his right mind. But, incredibly, annoyingly, everybody does this in the movies. I don’t mean to suggest that these predictable moments of abysmal idiocy ruin my movie-watching pleasure. No, but they get on my nerves and they always leave me wishing I could crawl right through the screen, like the little girl in Poltergeist, and do a little populist editing.

I’m not sure how I got this way, but I think it all started with the Lone Ranger’s hat!

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#738)

Why did Scooter scoot so soon?
by David Benjamin

“I’m going to punt.”
                                 — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

PARIS — One night during my service as a weekly newspaper editor in Massachusetts, I was taken intimately aside, in the Town Hall parking lot, by one of the members of the Board of Selectmen. Let’s call him Ward Cleaver.

Ward was a model of clean-cut uprightness and conservative “family values.” He dressed meticulously, bathed regularly, drove a late-model American-made beige sedan, attended Sunday services, voted cautiously and rarely took an uncalculated step in any direction. True to form, he rarely spoke to me, the rumpled nut who ran the local rag. So his overture to me, ‘round midnight in a deserted parking lot, came as a surprise.

Ward told me a heart-rending story about his wayward son, the Beav, who’d gotten in trouble with the local police. Again. The cops had treated the first incident as a slight matter of youthful indiscretion. Because Ward was a Selectman, the Beav’s mistake disappeared from the system. Ward looked into my eyes, conveying the humble gratitude he felt for that indulgence from the Police Chief.

However, the Beav’s second strike occurred on a new Chief’s watch. The kid was being charged, arraigned and sent to court. Here was a small misstep by an impetuous, but otherwise admirable and sterling young Beav that could keep him out of college and wreck his future, not to mention the permanent stain on the Cleavers’ previously immaculate escutcheon. Ward almost wept as he spilled his tale of woe, and I thought, “Yeah. OK. So?”

I had no idea why I’d become Ward’s confessor. He asked for nothing from me. He didn’t want me to write it up. He was just, y’know, venting.

To me. In whom, in the past six years, he’d never confided anything more than “H’lo, How ya doin’?”

It all became clear at the next Selectmen’s meeting. Ward led a faction that engineered the immediate removal of the Police Chief, based on a series of drunken episodes and blunders by members of our smalltown constabulary. As Ward related the new Chief’s malfeasance, I learned — and passed along to my readers — a police record fraught with human frailty and a heavy dose of incompetence. But none of this stuff was criminal, and most of it wasn’t even the new Chief’s fault.

The crook here was Ward, who had spoon-fed me the Beav’s sob story — off the record — in hopes of mitigating the spectacle of four Selectmen railroading a popular Police Chief for personal reasons. But, to Ward’s dismay, I kept my word. The Beav’s juvenile offense (and his betrayal by his father) remained sealed.

Eventually, Ward was one of three Selectmen recalled from the Board by the unsympathetic voters. Ward was sanctioned by a state ethics commission that banned him from ever running for public office in Massachusetts.

I thought of Ward when I heard that my governor, Scott Walker, was dropping out of the presidential race. I thought of these two guys together because they’re birds of a feather. They’re small-time politicians, abjectly and irredeemably.

The defining ethos of the political small-timer is a tunnel-vision faith in the proposition that It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know.

Ward cozied up to me that night in the Town Hall lot because I was suddenly someone to Know. I commanded the town’s most trusted news medium. If I told Ward’s story his way, I could soften the shock of Ward’s vengeful power play against the punk cops who’d busted the Beav.

When I had failed to comply, Ward approached me again, after a tumultuous Selectman’s meeting. He introduced me to someone else he Knew, a local thug who unsubtly threatened me with physical harm. But this was an empty gesture. Ward had sunk so low that he was looking downward for people to Know. A cardinal rule among small-time politicians is that the people you really want to Know are up there. They’re powerful and, best of all, they’re rich.

The rich have ideas, the sort of ideas that — if uttered by a homeless guy in a doorway — prompt us to quicken our step and shake our heads. But a harebrained idea backed by a billion dollars has a magnetism hard to resist, especially among small-time pols. Because they make a practice of cultivating no ideas of their own, small-timers have ample brainspace available to adopt and legitimize the notions of the crackpot rich.

A watershed moment in Scott Walker’s career was when he realized, late in his senior year, that there was nothing to learn at Marquette University, a mecca of ideas. For an ambitious politician — which is what he knew he was — ideas, plans, blueprints and solutions are a total waste of time.

He had to get busy getting to Know the right people. And the right people — when they found him — had an idea for Scooter. It was simple, and hardly new. For eons, rich white businessmen have hated — and sought to destroy by every means possible — one American institution above all others: the labor movement.

When Scooter became their boy, unions became his only idea. Wisconsin is one of the cradles of the union movement. If Scooter could kill unions in Wisconsin — and he has pretty much done so — the sky might well be his limit.

As a presidential contender, the vanquisher of the Wisconsin labor movement seemed to be riding the perfect storm, thanks to the Supreme Court. Its Citizens United decision had revived cronyism to a level not seen in America since the mid-20th century. Thanks to Citizens United, you don’t have to study a lot of issues or speak with any particular flair. You can be as dull as Scott Walker and just keep rising to higher and higher office, buoyed by a handful of plutocrats who can afford to flood television with ads that declare your opponent a wife-beating kitten-torturer with an under-age colored mistress in North Milwaukee.

Scooter entered the race with the favor of the billionaire Koch brothers, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and several of the wealthiest families in Wisconsin. Scooter’s tiny team of tycoons had carte blanche — from Chief Justice Roberts — to buy as many elections as they could notch on their 24-carat pistol grips.

The trouble for Scooter, though, was that the new rules applied to everyone. He was running against a whole bunch of smalltown Selectmen who all had their own sugar daddies and SuperPACs. Worst of all, there’s this billionaire who owes no fealty to any donor or even to the Party. Moreover, like Walker, he’s a bigoted demagogue with no moral center. He’s just as ignorant and bereft of ideas as Scooter. But he’s a consummate showman, a shameless dissembler, a peacock of immense proportions and he’s spending all his own money.

So what if Walker says he doesn’t believe in evolution? Donald Trump will say, “That’s nothin’. I slept with Darwin’s granddaughter and she evolved all over me.”

And that northern border fence? Trump will threaten Canada with nuclear war and claim Ontario as the 51st state.

Who could top that? Not this bunch.

Except for Trump, the venomous spoiler, this primary season is a lot of bad dancing by a small-time corps de ballet, each one stumbling to the tune of the mean white recluses who underwrite an invisible primary that has shrunk Iowa and New Hampshire down to quaint exercises in empty nostalgia.

But even in this motley crew, there’s such a thing as too small, too obvious, too tongue-tied, conniving and selfish. Scott Walker has set the bar — so low that most of his former opponents will have to grease their suits to slither under it.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#737)

How much does America suck?
by David Benjamin

“The American dream is dead.”
                             — Donald Trump

PARIS — From a European perspective, the infestation of Mexicans pouring across through the cheesecloth southern border of the United States looks almost tolerable compared to the millions of refugees fleeing Syria and the Middle East. These displaced paupers are inundating the Balkans, littering the shores of Greece, sundering razor-wire with their bare hands in Macedonia, battling border guards in Hungary, galloping north in pillaging hordes toward Austria, Germany and even the lily-white France of Jean-Marie Le Pen and Josephine Baker — like a vast, voracious swarm of Muslim locusts.

But in the midst of these parallel immigration crises, in America and in Europe, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has shone a ray of hope.

Last week, surveying a sea of swarthy, unwashed foreigners in a Hungarian train station, Orbán was coolly confident that this would all blow over soon, because none of these people, “want to stay in Hungary.” Viktor Orbán was steeled with the assurance that his poor, ill-governed and inhospitable nation is a toilet.

The millions rushing to the Hungarian border will just keep on rushing, says Orbán, because his country has nothing to offer any sensible refugee. Nobody’s gonna stay. With a wink of ironic pride, Orbán boasted that Hungary — notwithstanding the charm and beauty of Budapest — sucks.

On Wednesday in California, fifteen Republican presidential candidates endorsed what might be called the Orbán Doctrine, applied to America. They all pretty much concurred with the proposition that America really — really! — sucks.

Today in the US, thanks to President Obama, Planned Parenthood butchers are roaming the streets, ripping fully formed fetuses from random wombs, spreading them on filthy tables, while their tiny hearts beat and their legs kick. Then they remove the living brains and auction them off like candlesticks at an estate sale.

Today, while the ISIS navy is surrounding America’s ports with submarines and massing its armies on America’s borders, President Obama is too cowardly to utter the phrase “radical Islam.” He’s a sniveling pussy who kisses Vladimir’s Putin’s ass and cringes at the mention of Ayatollah Khameini, to whom he has bargained away the safety of Israel and the future of America, welcoming Iran into the nuclear club. America is mere weeks away from a rain of ICBMS from Tehran.

And if the Muslims don’t get us, the Chinese will launch a cyberattack that makes Die Hard IV look like a debutante ball at the Waldorf-Astoria. Every computer will croak, every phone will go blank, all the lights will go out, and the only thing penetrating America’s coast-to-coast darkness will be Chinese ICBMs.

Led by Obama, Christianity is in mortal peril. Children not “systematically murdered” in the womb are being systematically destroyed by public schools, despite brave efforts by reformers to privatize education with vouchers and charters. The Common Core is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous plot against the American dream since the fluoridation of water sapped and impurified our precious bodily fluids.

Above all, there are the illegals, all those short, dark, sinister mooks who join gangs, who conspired — 11, 12, 30 million of them — to murder a white girl in San Francisco and prove that they’re all “bad bad guys” sent here by a Mexican president who’s a thousand times smarter than Barack Hussein Obama.

While Planned Parenthood slaughters millions of feti a year, the Mexicans are dropping anchor babies like nymphomaniac bunny-rabbits. Aliens keep coming. They keep applying for jobs at Burger King, mowing our lawns, blowing our leaves, picking our tomatoes, getting in our way on the road in their rickety pickup trucks and refusing, — goddamn it — to learn English.

Why do they keep coming? America already sucks. The GOP debate made this clear. Oh, sure, we were riding high in 2008. The economy was soaring. Unemployment was nonexistent. The deficit had disappeared. The Iraq War was a glorious mission that had won the hearts not only of Americans but of Iraqis who showered our troops with flowers. Cities like Detroit and New Orleans were burgeoning. And then, Obama came along and queered the whole deal.

Still, for some reason, foreigners keep flocking to America. They keep believing in an American dream that the colored boy in the White House has turned into a hideous, horrific Wes Craven nightmare.

We have to face reality. America sucks, yes! But America doesn’t suck enough. According to the Orbán Doctrine, the secret to keeping the barbarians, interlopers and freeloaders from the gates is to sink lower. But can we do so with a GOP president who’s openly determined to “make America great again.” If America is great, won’t Mexicans be all the more eager to creep under the fence and lock their purple lips onto the Lady Liberty’s buttermilk-gorged tit?

Today, greatness is the last thing America needs. If we want to make America so wretched that even a wetback felon will prefer to just scurry on through — all the way to Canada — we can’t trust the job to any of these Republicans. They each know all kinds of cool, secret stuff about how to make America a whole lot more prosperous, attractive and free. They said so.

Which means they have to leave the race. If we want an America as unlivable as Hungary, well, the man for that job is the Socialist who turned Vermont into a wasteland. The woman for the job is obviously the bitch of Benghazi.

We cannot risk the economic, cultural and Christian renaissance that our Republican candidates are guaranteeing. To get our country back, America has to become a humongous, festering hellhole — like, say, Syria. For that dream-come-true, we need a Democratic doofus even dumber than Obama.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#736)

No entrance
by David Benjamin

“Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.”
                                                            — Jean-Paul Sartre

PARIS — Yesterday, coming up the stairs in our 17th-century no-elevator building, I paused wearily on the 108th step. It wasn’t just a matter of fatigue. I was gripped by a deep and bone-chilling ennui that made me question whether I ever wanted, in my whole miserable, squandered, iniquitous life, to climb the last three steps to our squalid and sparsely furnished maid’s-quarters garret in this unsavory corner of the Sodom & Gomorrah of Western Europe.

This isn’t my usual attitude, so I hastily searched my psyche for clues to a sudden overwhelming heartsickness that seemed to require that I fling myself down the stairs, scrambling my brains on each unyielding oaken step on route to my insensate death in the cobbled courtyard five floors below. It was the ghost — it had to be! He had crept in when the janitor flung open all the outer doors to swab the flagstones — of Jean-Paul Sartre.

OK. Maybe Camus, or Gide, even Robbe-Grillet. Heck, maybe all the way from Japan, shadowing my wife like an ethnic specter, it was Mishima, imitator of the Paris existentialists so slavish that he was the first
(and only) Francophile to kill himself over the voluptuary decadence of postwar Tokyo. Clearly, some unseen force had thrown me into an existentialist funk. Probably Sartre. He used to teach high school in the neighborhood.

My unexpectedly tortured mind, as I froze on the staircase holding the groceries, asked “Why go on?” Go home, three more steps and what will greet you? The same thankless scribbling in the same cheaply furnished loft, its walls streaked with the same Parisian sunlight playing on the face of Hotlips — same wife cooking the same remarkable meals in the same cramped kitchen. Were I to complete this redundant, changeless ascension of 111 exhausting steps, I would be surrounded as always with the same bookcases jammed and stacked with the same books, same titles, same dead authors, half unread, some of which I’ll never read. And I see myself as dead as Sartre — I seem to have Sartre’s face! — as the world leans over the lip of my grave to ask, why so many books? You didn’t even read ‘em all! And they were mostly fiction! Nobody reads fiction anymore. Self-help! That’s where the market is. And this dead doofus, they’ll say as they toss dirt on my coffin, couldn’t even help himself up the last three steps!

Sartre probably had a hell of a time getting up the steps. That’s why he crept into my mind and filled it with existential irresolve. As I wallow in this vale of spiritual nausea, my depression swells with the realization that I could not explain to anyone under that age of 60 my existentialist symptoms — because nobody understands the word anymore.

Maybe nobody ever did. I was reading existentialists when I was 16 and I had little idea what these grim-thinking frogs were getting at. Nowadays, I don’t read “existential” unless it’s paired with “threat.” The news seethes with “existential threats.” But this dread peril is not — as I might have expected when I was 16 — tickets to a three-hour rendition of Krapp’s Last Tape with no intermission scheduled and the closest toilet across the street in an Alsatian brasserie.

No, nowadays, an “existential threat” is a foreign policy crisis. It’s a hellish scenario in which, for example, fifty ISIS zealots cross the Atlantic on a Kon-Tiki reed boat to behead the Statue of Liberty with iPhone-activated IEDs. No longer does “existential” mean Malraux leaning across a table at the Polidor from Ferdinand Céline, arguing the point or pointlessness of mankind’s fate as he plows ruts and builds monuments on this dying ball of maggoted manure that we call Earth. Existential’s just a newsword now, that means “real and scary.”

Maybe they’re right. Sartre’s ghost, clutching my soul with icy fingers on a staircase on rue St. Séverin is pretty real and scary. As I writhe in the grip of existential horror, I marvel at the stubborn curmudgeonism Sartre was able to muster up while living one of the 20th century’s most cerebral and sociable public careers. He had survived the war and he resided cozily in the world’s most favored and glorious city, in an era when money was pouring in from tourists, GIs and the Marshall Plan. He rose to celebrity in an era when a faithless playwright/philosophe could still be fashionable. He was the Strindberg of the mid-century jet set.

He dined ‘round midnight at La Coupole, between Simone Signoret and Simone de Beauvoir, with Yves Montand across the table. He had his own corner at Les Deux Magots. They put up his statue at the Rosebud, where Camus and Ionesco, Truffaut and Jean Renoir would drop by to pay for his pastis. He was seen, here, there, across the continent — cigarette in the corner of his mouth, the bitter trace of a sardonic smile on his lips — with Genet and Cocteau, Matisse and Picasso, Piaf and Brel, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, Arthur Miller and Marilyn. Didn’t I see his photo with Audrey Hepburn, Josephine Baker, Eartha Kitt?

Staring at my last three steps, I wonder. How could a man who looked into the smoldering eyes and touched the hand of Eartha Kitt not be thrilled with life forever after? I spent two hours in her front row, when she was 70 years old, at the Café Carlyle and I wanted to take dance lessons, steal diamonds for her, pour her a bath of champagne, suck on her toes and drink from her navel.

So ended my funk, with memories of Eartha. I climbed the stairs, found her among my CDs, played “C’Est Si Bon” Sartre’s ghost crumbled at the first husky note. He enfolded me in his wispy arms, smiling that defeated smile that no longer convinced me of its sadness.

I discovered that sweet, pretentious Jean-Paul is an even worse dancer than me.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#735)

Three-word philosophies
by David Benjamin

“... And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing…”
                                         — The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

PARIS — I remember — when I was about six — a sign. It was in front of a house on Jackson Street and it read, I thought, “Johnsons Live Best.”

I was impressed with the Johnsons, and a little envious. They possessed such confidence in their way of life that they dared to post a placard on their lawn, for all to see, that they had it better than anybody else in Tomah!

One grade later, I realized — with some chagrin — that the sign really said, “Johnson’s Live Bait.” This letdown proved a sort of opportunity, because I did a lot of fishing, and Mr. Johnson turned out to be a reliable source of fresh worms.

Around that time, I was taking the advanced course in Irony from my dad. So, it wasn’t a great stretch for me to perceive that if you have to climb out of a warm bed at 5:30 a.m. to sell 50 cents worth of nightcrawlers to a ten-year-old, you were not living the best life in town.

Nowadays, it seems to me that the Johnsons’ unintended boast bears an eerie resemblance to the latest civil rights motto, “Black Lives Matter, partly because they share the same middle word. If I were six years old today, I might see this phrase as “Blacks Live Better,” a reading both positive and ironic.

But the feature that captivates me about the cri de coeur of Ferguson and Baltimore — as did the Johnson sign when I was a semi-literate little kid — is its ambiguity, although to some readers, “black lives matter” is crystal clear.

As the New York Times editorialized: “Demonstrators who chant the phrase are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an undisputable fact — that the lives of black citizens in the United States historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued.”

True, but name me a liberal or progressive who didn’t get that point instantly. When people like me — who’ve been agitating for social justice all our lives — hear “black lives matter,” we understand because that’s what we’re talking about.

But there’s the rub. This isn’t how it’s heard by America’s millions of aggrieved and defensive white folks, the great ambivalent mass of closet bigots who would help an old black lady across the street or buy an ice cream cone for a cute pickaninny but seethe with rage at the thought of a Cadillac welfare queen buying Pringles and caviar with her food stamps.

Semantically, “Black lives matter” begs a false equivalency that inadvertently serves the racists it seeks to overcome. Conservative blowhards like Scott Walker, Ted Cruz and Bill O’Reilly retort that “White lives matter, too” or that “All lives matter.” All three assertions, after all, are manifestly true. Lumping them together foments a rhetorical dodge that muddles — for too many (non-Times-reading) casual listeners — the serious implications of the original formulation.

When I first heard “Black lives matter,” I thought it forceful and poignant, a spontaneous objection to the myriad injustices that shackle the African-American community. But then I watched as repetition diluted its insouciant potency. Pretty soon, “Black lives matter” was a mere slogan, splashed on signs, printed on t-shirts and coffee mugs, chanted numbingly through long protest marches and hastily inserted into hiphop lyrics.

Even that moment has passed. Now, “Black Lives Matter” (BLM?) is less a campaign slogan than it is a brand. As such, it tends to choke public discourse because too many people adhere to the belief that when you’ve said it, it’s like when you’ve said “Budweiser.” You’ve said it all.
In short, yes, black lives matter. That’s obvious. What else you got?

The historic civil rights movement cited in the Times editorial had brilliant, powerful, intellectual and spiritual leaders whose philosophy could not, would not confine itself to three or four words in all capital letters. The Memphis “I Am A Man” sanitation strike, for example, made history not for its epigraph, but for the Rev. Martin Luther King, who was its voice and its martyr. By appearing, speaking, resisting and leading in Memphis and elsewhere, King made his humanity and that of every black, minority and female American a matter of utmost significance and profound urgency. The timeless genius of King’s non-violent movement was that it confronted without dividing. This distinction is embodied in the rare slogan associated with Dr. King: “We Shall Overcome.”

“We Shall Overcome” suggests no divisions and invites no misinterpretations, either accidental or facile. Its operative noun is an unspecific “we” that could, should, and does include all of us in the struggle for social justice.

“Black lives matter” suggests the polarity that was unfortunately implicit in the Black Power movement. It foreshadows a similar irrelevancy. The idea behind the slogan — from real-estate redlining to education funding to police misconduct to mass incarceration to gun laws and vote suppression — are far too complicated and too important to be squeezed and reduced into a three-word philosophy, especially one whose strongest connotation is division rather than union. Black Lives Matter needs something more than “black lives matter.” It needs leadership.

Picture the civil rights movement without the voice, the charisma, the sacrifice and the management of Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, Medger Evers, Julian Bond, Amelia Boynton, John Lewis, Robert F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and you’re looking at an America without the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

This means that if Black Lives Matter is going to amount to anything, someone — preferably someone famous (like Frederick Douglass) — has to make that demand, and then keep talking, eloquently, about the history and the ideas and the agony behind that demand, as did Dr. King in the March on Washington, and in the Birmingham jail and from the pulpit of a hundred churches.

“Black Lives Matter” was fun, and meaningful for a while. But a three-word philosophy is too easily reducible to an irony, like “Johnsons Live Best.” One of the ironies of “black lives matter” is the spectacle of its nameless minions climbing several times onstage with Bernie Sanders — the fiercest advocate for social justice in the current U.S. Senate — and bullying him into silence with a three-word cliché. Those aggrieved but inarticulate sloganeers scripted their ambush with nary a coherent word, leaving behind only a confused audience and a frustrated silence.

Now that their slogan has passed its expiration date, the “Black Lives Matter” people face the same dilemma that shuffled the leaderless and ultimately ineffectual “Occupy Wall Street” people into obscurity. They have to grow beyond a three-word philosophy. The time has come to fish or cut bait.

I know where they can buy the bait.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#734)

God’s great afterthought
by David Benjamin

“...the unborn, though enclosed in the womb of his mother, is already a human being, and it is an almost monstrous crime to rob it of life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man's house is his most secure place of refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy the unborn in the womb…”
                                                          — John Calvin

It seems inevitable that sometime in the near future, a Republican presidential candidate will piously declare that every time a woman menstruates, flushing a womb that’s prepared and ripe for childbirth, she commits a little murder, ending a human life that should have been — if only she’d bothered to go out and get laid.

The logical extreme from this new wrinkle in conservative orthodoxy would be something like a tribal council of elders, possibly handpicked by Reince Priebus, Republican Chairman. Once a month, the GOP Fertility Board would be tasked to gather in a tent (or perhaps a Motel 6), while devout young women — each at the peak of ovulation — were lined up, stripped down, covered in pure white robes and sent in, one by one, to come to the aid of their Party.

This utopian fancy tickled me as I was reading Thomas B. Edsall’s recent essay in the Times about theological nuances on abortion among this year’s throng of Republican candidates. Among the 17 aspirants, Edsall noted that only one, George Pataki, supports the Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal in America 42 years ago. The others, including a childless woman who has practiced some form of contraception through all of her adolescent life and two marriages, agree that life begins at conception. A wavering minority among these foolish divines would allow an abortion in cases of incest, rape or to save Mom’s life.

In light of this unanimous absolutism — which isn’t shared by the American public — I couldn’t help but think of St. Augustine.

You see, women have been quietly aborting their unwanted feti since long before Augustine took up the topic in the 4th century. Aristotle, for example,  theorized 800 years before Augustine that a freshly fertilized embryo has a “vegetable soul.” In this formulation, we all start out as more of a soybean than a person. From that point on, it takes 40 days for a male fetus to be “ensouled” with human life. (Little girls, being inferior, need 90 days to grow a soul.)

Aristotle’s theory superseded Pythogoras’ earlier belief that a fully ensouled human life begins when the sperm cracks the egg. In early Christianity, the Aristotelian view took hold and dominated for centuries. According to St. Jerome, writing in the 4th century A.D., “The seed gradually takes shape in the uterus, and it [abortion] does not count as killing until the individual elements have acquired their external appearance and their limbs.”

Augustine added a fresh wrinkle to Aristotle and Jerome by discussing the phenomenon of “quickening, ” a concept that legal scholar William Blackstone defined like this: “Life… begins in contemplation of law as soon as an infant is able to stir in the mother’s womb. For if a woman is quick with child, and by a potion, or otherwise, killeth it in her womb; or if any one beat her, whereby the child dieth in her body, and she is delivered of a dead child; this, though not murder, was by the ancient law homicide or manslaughter.”

A long series of saints, popes and councils, from the Apostolic Constitutions of 380 A.D. to St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, stuck with this definition, agreeing life that begins more or less in the second trimester of pregnancy. This friendly consensus began to wobble in 1588 when Pope Sixtus V officially revived the Pythagorean concept of ensoulment-at-conception.

Three years later, Pope Gregory XIV smelled trouble and went back to quickening. But things would never be quite as cut-and-dried around the Vatican. By the 19th century, Pythagoras and Sixtus were heroes again, their beliefs promoted by Pope Leo XIII. In 1886, Leo etched in granite the position that the Catholic Church — and now many conservative Protestant denominations — deem to be Gospel. Leo’s historic decree prohibited all procedures that directly kill a fetus, even to save the mother’s life. According to Leo — and ever since — a woman who had an abortion at any stage of pregnancy had to be booted from the Church and condemned for all eternity.

The cruelest irony of this rule is that if both the mother and fetus are certain to die unless a doctor performs an emergency abortion, that’s cool. It’s fine with the Church if little Freddy Fetus dies, as long as he doesn’t give his life to save Mom’s.

It’s also ironic, at least to me, that we have to refer to sources like St. Jerome, Pope Sixtus and hardass Leo XIII to trace the ethical history of abortion. As big a deal as it is today among churchmen and politicians, there’s no mention of abortion in the Jewish Bible, in either Testament or any translation of the Christian Bible, in the Jewish Mishnah or Talmud. In all his sermons and parables, Jesus didn’t mention abortion once, nor did his main apostle, Peter. Paul would seem a likely guy to bring it up, but he didn’t. And it doesn’t show up in the Koran, either.

Abortion is like God’s great afterthought.

If you dig into abortion history, as it swings back and forth between Aristotle and Augustine on one side, and Pythagoras and Tertullian on the other, you get tons of deliciously abstruse testimony — from Philo and Clement of Alexandria, Barnabas, Athenagoras, Saints Hippolytus and Basil the Great, Minicius Felix, Saints Ambrose and John Chrysostom, some outfit called the Didache, the Synods of Elvira and Ancyra, the Apostolic Constitutions, Popes Stephen V and Innocent III, Aquinas and Sixtus, Pope Gregory XIV, Hieronymus Florentinius, Pope Pius IX and even Bill Blackstone. These arbiters of uterine orthodoxy have one thing in common.

That’s right. They’re all guys — just like the right reverend candidates Bush, Carson, Christie, Cruz, Gilmore, Graham, Huckabee, Jindal, Kasich, Paul, Perry, Rubio, Santorum, Trump and Scooter. (Let’s give Carly a break and call her an Honorary Guy.)

From Pythagorean times ‘til around 1916, when Margaret Sanger started kicking the hornet’s nest, women pretty much weren’t allowed to utter a peep about what they should do about the unwelcome seeds that careless consorts and Roman rapists had planted in their bodies. It’s been, like, 2,600 years, and the all-male clergy are still arguing about how many zygotes can sing “Mammy” on the head of a pin.

Why not just shut up and let women decide for themselves?