Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#792)

Papa’s thumbnail
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — My grandfather’s hands fascinated me.

Papa, as we called him, put in fifty years at the Milwaukee Road frog shops in Tomah. He was a machinist, repairing switches and the huge steel “frogs” that intersected rail lines. When he arrived home after his eight hours, I would often follow him to the basement, where he labored at the deep double sink to scrub black grit out of the deep cracks in his hands. He used gobs of pasty soap speckled with grains of abrasive pumice. He ground away at his leathery flesh ‘til it glowed pink, but he never entirely purged the steel dust that had sunk roots into his creases and cracks.

The biggest attraction for me was his thumbnail, which had split some long time before, when a chunk of truant steel crashed onto his hand. The nail was broken lengthwise, extending inside his cuticle. It never mended together again. The fine ridge of skin that had grown into the crack in Papa’s thumbnail was as permanently dark as the metallic soot that filled the air around him at the frog shops and — eventually — his lungs, seeding the cancer that finally killed him.

I remember Papa now because he was a subtly complicated man, although outwardly he was just a manual worker with barely an 8th-grade education. He read the Milwaukee paper every day from cover to cover, as well as his exceptionally newsy International Brotherhood of Machinists newsletter every week and Benjamin’s Franklin’s Saturday Evening Post. Beyond these quotidian autodidactics, Papa was two things that lent him a bewildering complexity. He was a storyteller and a natural-born historian.

On Saturday, often with me in tow, he would climb into his Ford (he bought a new one every other year, in cash, from Norris Vernier) and proceeded to buy Grandma’s groceries. He could’ve gotten everything at the new Cram’s Supermarket across from Bernie Schappe’s genial real estate office. But if he did that, he wouldn’t’ve had a chance to swap tales over the meat counter with Mose, and flirt with his wife, at Woodliff’s, our neighborhood market. Nor could he have traded his weekly quota of lies and jibes with another meatcutter, his brother-in-law Bob Meinecke, down at Shutter’s, next-door to the Carlton Supper Club, run by a guy called Schnozz, where my Dad was the head bartender and my Mom — and her vivacious kid sister, Marce — waited on tables.

Papa would eventually reach Cram’s, where he didn’t know anyone in particular but still managed a five- or ten-minute shmooze with the cashier, or the produce manager, while I listened and learned the fine art of spinning a yarn and hitting a punchline. Before Cram’s, of course, Papa usually drove all the way up to Burnstad’s on Highway 16 by a motel and the Mobilgas station, where he knew a few folks and bought a few items for Grandma. On a good Saturday, he’d also hit the Cash Store and a hardware store, buy a few auto parts and pick up something warm and fragrant at one of the two bakeries downtown. He’d be talking all along. I’d be listening, not believing all of it, but drinking in every exaggeration.

When he talked to me, which he liked to do, he opened up the past like a great book of huge crinkled pages illuminated by innocents. He’d been born (he told me) before anyone in Tomah had laid eyes on a horseless carriage and no one could imagine an airplane. He revealed to me the swift and dazzling power of change that had swept through his life, from pioneer days at the turn of the 20th century, through a war that almost sucked him in (he was in uniform and on his way to Europe on 11 November 1918), through Twenties that roared and Thirties that wept — terrifying every working man and woman — and another war that brought captive Nazis to Camp McCoy (for Papa to talk to), and outer space and a thousand other wonders that had unfolded as he trudged day-by-day to the frog shops.

Papa described it all with a sense of awe and a warm humility, some of which clung to me. As a boy, he told me, he loved this new art form called motion pictures, whose funniest stars — Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy — were his soulmates. But the film that fired his imagination was D.W. Griffith’s eight-reel epic, Birth of a Nation. In Papa’s telling, I heard nothing about Griffith’s naked racism, his depiction of Reconstruction black men as rapine savages and the Ku Klux Klan as an avenging army of Christian rectitude. Papa talked, rather, about the vast scope and kinetic spectacle of Birth of a Nation, and about the sheer audacity of Griffith’s cinematic vision. Papa, a machinist with a grammar-school education, cut to the essence of Griffith’s masterpiece, a film whose extravagance inspired the breadth and grandiosity of Hollywood disciples like David O. Selznick, Cecil B. DeMille and the incomparable John Ford. Papa instinctively saw Griffith the way a film critic saw him, and he planted in me, I think, the seeds of analysis and skepticism that made me, eventually, the long-winded pain in the ass that I am today.

My Dad didn’t fall far from Papa’s tree. Although he wasn’t the same compulsive storyteller, he had a quiet, intricate and — I think — frustrated intellect. He absorbed, he remembered and, when pressed, he unspooled. Like Papa, he knew Tomah as a tightly spun fabric of personalities. His mind contained the chronicle of his community as expressed in the lives, quirks, conflicts and careers of its many people, scrolling back through all the 87 years that Dad lived. His death took from the town a trove of memory more dense, complex and dramatic than all the Roman volumes of Edward Gibbon.

Papa and Dad never went to college nor even dared consider the notion. Both revered the few townsmen in Tomah who had higher educations. They conversed easily among both the ignorant and erudite in Tomah, and they were respected — listened to — because their minds were busy and their wits were sharp. They never stopped learning. They encouraged their kids to study and grow, to learn all their lives, to see the humor that comes from pain, to watch the movies and peer beneath their surface.

I grew up with these two difficult, ironic, sometimes tormented forebears, as well as a host of aunts and uncles whose humble but tireless intellect intrigued and challenged me. Prowling the town, I harked to blacksmiths, paperhangers, scarred veterans and shopkeepers whose knowledge was not available in school.

No one among these white Midwesterners from whom I spring ever had an office job. But they saw a future without steel dust, dirty hands and brute labor. They encouraged their kids to learn more than they’d been able to, to start their careers later in life, to grow beyond Tomah and to aspire to those office jobs, to academia, to management and even government.

Dad and Papa, in the dictionary sense, were ignorant men. But they were articulate, literate and worldly in a tiny corner of an ever-changing world. They never deemed ignorance a badge of honor. They defied it every day of their lives and took pride in offspring — like me — who not only knew more than they, but flaunted it.

Question is, why am I thinking about this now?

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#791)

Dragnet, 2017
by David Benjamin

This is the city. Chicago. Stormy, husky, brawling. Big shoulders, stacker of wheat, hog butcher… You know the drill.

My name is Friday. Joe Friday. I’m a cop.

My partner, Bill Gannon, and I responded to a routine call about a possible 10-16 at a ninth-floor walkup on the West Side. I hit the siren, fired up the spinning lights. Didn’t need to. Gannon loves it.

“I love the lights,” said Gannon.

We climbed. Gasped a while. Knocked. Suspect showed. Kept the chain latched.

“My name is Friday. I’m a cop.”

Suspect looked at us.

“You Gomez?” my partner asked. “Mustafa Gomez?”

Suspect looked at us.

“Do you speak English, sir?”

“I speak four languages, Officer.”

“Sergeant. Friday. I’m a cop.”

“Well, I’m a linguist. I also read six languages. Zdrastvuitye, M. gendarme.”

Gannon and I looked at each other. Shrugged.

“We’ve got a want on you. From HQ.”

Suddenly. “Wait a minute!”

We turned. Two men in suits. Charcoal. Polyester. Both had badges.

“Who’re they?” said the suspect.

“DA’s office,” said one. “I’m Riley. This is Murphy. We got this one, boys.”

“Who says?” asked the suspect.

“Hey. Boys. This is just a 10-16,” said Gannon.

“Not so simple. Not any more. Not these days,” said Murphy.

“Is this Gomez?” asked Riley.

I nodded.

“We like him for a 10-35, possibly compounded by a 10-34, with a 10-89 chaser.”

I looked at Gomez. He looked — what’s the word? — incredulous.

Suddenly: “Hold everything!”

Two guys. Suits. Black. Wool blend. They flashed ID wallets.

“FBI. Special agent Johnson. This is agent Johnson.”

Agent Johnson said, “We got this one, boys.”

“Boys?” said Gannon. Bill was a little miffed.

“Credible dirty bomb threat here,” said a Johnson. “This suspect is federal.”

“Federal? Bomb?” said Gomez. “What the hell? I teach middle-school Spanish, in Oak Park.”

“Poisoning the minds of impressionable boys and girls!” This came from a new voice. “That’s why we’re here!”

We all turned. Two heavy-set men. Gray suits. Gabardine. Fedoras.

Still peering through his crack, Gomez giggled. “Nobody wears fedoras anymore.”

“Max Fungo,” said one fedora. “Region chief, Homeland Security.”

He nodded toward the other. “This is my partner, Commissar Kafka.”

“Finally,” said Gomez, “this is starting to make sense.”

Kafka spoke. “We got this one, boys.”

“Boys?” said Gannon.

“What do you guys want with me?” the suspect insisted.

Fungo rolled his eyes. “Are you kidding, with a nom de guerre like Mustafa? How many white virgins did you rape this week, Gomez?”

“Raped? Who? When? Nom de guerre?” said the suspect.

I broke in. “Friday. Joe Friday. I’m a cop. What’s the charge?”

“It’s a Constitutional beef, pal. Classified,” said Kafka. “Caught jaywalking last week. Gross Green Card violation. Popped up on our radar. Now, he’s goin’ down.”

“But I paid the fine!” the suspect cried. “What’re you gonna do with me?”

Suddenly. “Deport your ass, scumbag!”

Two more suits. Blue serge. Hallway getting crowded.

“Fenster and Smoot. I.C.E. We got this, boys.”

“Dammit,” said Gannon. “I am not — ”

“New orders,” said Smoot. “Straight from the top.”

“What top?” said Gomez.

“The. Top.”

“We’re draining the swamp. Storming sleeper cells and ISIS meth labs. Rounding up Tex-Mex drug cartels, Syrian assassins, Nusrah, Hamas, Hezbollah, Hadassah. Bomb-strapped teenage girls.”

Gomez was growing panicky. “But… but I teach teenage girls.”

Fenster nodded knowingly. “I rest my case.”

“What case?” asked someone.

“We’re sweeping up the pedophiles, too.”

Suddenly. “Damn right! And he’s our pedophile! Back off, boys.”

“Do I look like a boy?” asked Gannon.

Two hulking figures burrowed into the crowd, flattening me against a wall. Brown uniforms. Red epaulets. Gold badges. Sam Browne belts. M-16 automatics. Ammo garands. Flag patches. Red ballcaps with that stupid slogan.

“Oh, dear God,” muttered one of the Johnsons. “It’s the Threepies.”

“Presidential Patriot Police! Commandant Weiss. This is Group Major Hornby.”

“Pee pee pee?” said Gannon.

“Who the hell,” asked the suspect, “is the Patriot Police?”

“We are, camel-jockey. And we’re your worst nightmare!” Weiss turned (with difficulty). Glared at us. “We outrank all you losers. Take our orders from the top. Scram, boys.”

“Top?” asked Smoot (I.C.E.). “What top?”

“If you have to ask,” said Hornby, “you’re out of the loop, junior.”


Weiss pointed his M-16 at Gomez. “Let’s GO! Open that door, ayatollah. Or I blow it in. You’re takin’ a ride on the Gitmo Limited.”

“Gitmo? Why on earth?” asked Gomez.

“Why? Because that’s where you people belong. Behind a wall!”

“What people?” demanded the suspect. “Schoolteachers? Taxpayers?”

Weiss said, “Open up, punk! I don’t have to explain myself to a Muslim traitor.”

“Muslim? Me? No way. You’re barkin’up the wrong steeple, man. I’m a devout Lutheran. I grew up in Dusseldorf.”

“Dusseldorf?” Commandant Weiss looked — suddenly — bewildered.

“Check my Green Card,” said Gomez. He shoved it through the crack. “My mother was a Gherke.”

Weiss staggered back. Squished me against special agent Johnson. “Your mother was a Gherke? My grandma was a Gherke.”

“Hildegarde?” asked Gomez.

Weiss seemed to reel. “Hildegarde? Gherke?! From Dusseldorf? Ach du lieber! Ist du mein cousin. kamerad?

Gomez unlatched the door and threw himself into Weiss’ arms. They began jabbering in Dusseldorfian slang.

“Okay, let’s move it along,” said Hornby, shoving at Riley, Murphy, Johnson and Johnson, Fungo, Kafka, Fenster, Smoot, Gannon and me with his M-16. “Nothin’ to see here.”

Weiss was inviting Gomez to the next family reunion. “The Rose Garden? Camp David? Mar-a-Lago? Turnberry? You name it, cuz. We get V.I.P. passes.”

“Move it,” Hornby said, still brandishing his weapon. “It’s all over, boys.”

“Boys?” said Gannon, losing his cool. “Goddammit!” He grabbed the M-16 and shoved the gun-butt into Hornby’s teeth. He advanced on Weiss.

Suddenly, I heard jackboots on the stairs.

This is the camp. Guantánamo. Hot, cramped, crowded. Bedbugs and scorpions.

My name is Friday. Joe Friday. I’m an inmate…

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#790)

A thousand rings, a single clown
by David Benjamin

“It’s just that there are all these Sandras running around who you've never met before, and it’s confusing at first, fantastic. But damn it, isn’t it great to find out how many Sandras there are? It’s like those little cars in the circus, you know? This tiny red car comes out, hardly big enough for a midget, and it putters around, and suddenly its doors open and out come a thousand clowns, whooping and hollering and raising hell.”
          — Murray Burns, in A Thousand Clowns, Herb Gardner

BROOKLYN — Didn’t he grow up here? How did he miss this?

I lived here for just a few years, on a block where, coming out the door in the morning, I often weaved my way through throngs of Hasidic tots on route to Hebrew School. My nearest neighbors were a black music producer who smoked too much weed and a French concert cellist with two kids who didn’t smoke anything at all.

Not to mention the Doberman pinscher in the hallway (shades of Edward Albee!).

Brooklyn — and Queens, too, where he began his career, as a junior slumlord — is a thousand-ring circus impossible to take in. The best you can do is sit in the bleachers, high enough to see it all unfold, smiling in idiot wonder and noshing on your Cracker Jack.

Our street, when we lived here, was a living tribute to Emma Lazarus, a human hodgepodge where, halfway up the block, a huge lady set up a chair on the sidewalk, partly to avoid the summer heat indoors, partly because she just loved to say hello to everyone who came along. When she was at her post, we crossed the street to feel her motherhood and receive her blessing.

His roots are in these streets. Well, they should be. How can he turn from this warmth and welcome in favor of the dour Dutch Reformers of Iowa and the cordial cross-burners of dying Dixie?

On this visit, my business takes me down Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn — not to be confused with the one in Manhattan. Monday night, I dined on 5th with friends at a French-Vietnamese bistro. For lunch next day, still on 5th, I ate Hungarian, across from a Salvadoran restaurant. Along 5th, I could have just as well had Mexican, Italian, Cajun, Peruvian, Colombian, Irish, Swedish, Greek, Afghan, Japanese, Szechuan, Hunan, Cantonese, Japanese, Thai, soul or barbecue. I noticed a food truck offering hot dogs and cheesesteaks alongside falafel and gyros. There are bagel factories, oyster bars, chicken windows, pizza slices, sandwich takeout and burger joints, but no sign of KFC or McDonald’s.

I think, ah, in all those flyover states, denizens are shopping online or stuck with Walmart. But in Brooklyn, people prowl 4th, 5th and Bedford Ave. for every need, even God — who occupies a thousand storefronts in a hundred denominations. Main Street is moribund in Michigan, Missouri, Wisconsin, Indiana. But here, in a dozen blocks, a dozen hardwares — not one an Ace or a Depot. I pass at least five groceries and twice as many bodegas, two joints to get tattooed, more than that to get my hair dyed, three barbers (with barber poles!), nail shops in six languages, jewelers galore, a real Chinese laundry, two smoke shops — “cigars, cigarettes, cigarillos” — delis everywhere, including the “Kindest Deli” (next to a shop called “Please”), two bakeries, lots of clothes to buy (new, used and ethnic), a plethora of storefront medical and dental clinics (some looking more reputable than others), two schools plus the streetfront academies that teach Japanese karate, Korean tae kwon do, Brazilian jiu jitsu and (apparently) multinational kickboxing. There are lots of drugstores, an honest-to-God dimestore and shoe shops up the yingyang. Not to mention the Fifth Avenue Cat Clinic and a wine store brilliantly titled Red White & Bubbly.

Fifth is a briarpatch of apostrophes: Daisey’s Diner, Smith’s Tavern, Bonnie’s Grill, Luke’s Lobster, Freddy’s Bar, Peppino’s Pizzeria, Russo’s Deli, Annie’s Blue Ribbon General Store and (thank you, Frank Capra), Zuzu’s Petals!

How did this world not touch his heart and capture his imagination?

Tuesday morning, I slogged through the rain to an old haunt, the Connecticut Muffin shop on Myrtle Ave. I was looking for my old coffee companion, Nadav, an Israeli transplant who charms women half his age and takes them to Broadway for dinner and a show. Nadav was absent, but the boss (and his assistant) remembered me. Two ladies interrupted an intense gossipfest to share with me their affection for Nadav. Victor, a local poet and black activist, tapped me on the arm and said, “Hey, you’re the writer, right?”
How did he — who never had his daily coffee in a corner muffin joint — come to declare that these mixed, mongrel and memorable folks don’t belong in the same nation as their fellow survivors in Youngstown and Janesville? How did he convince millions that Nadav and Victor — and those two grandmothers talking by the window — are creatures to be feared, in a wasteland of crime?

There isn’t a street in mid-America more Main than Myrtle Avenue.

On my way back from coffee, passing by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, suddenly a cluster of schoolkids, coming toward me in a familiar — jostling, jabbering overwhelming — New York formation. As they swarm past, some excusing themselves, some oblivious, I notice one girl in particular.

How can I help but notice?

She’s neither white nor black nor exactly brown. She is New York City. She’s 14 going on 30 and she’s beautiful. In a lusty voice in perfect tune, a shake in her hips and a shimmy in her shoulders, she’s rapping a favorite song. She’s performing — I realize — straight at me, a twinkle in her eye and an impish grin.

She passes in a flash, and I wonder — as I turn to watch her go — whether she saw me smile back, and whether she sensed, in my surprise, my approval for her brassy-bold style and my hope that her whole life turns out as joyful as one morning in November when she strutted past BAM and Beyoncé-ed an old white guy.

As she goes, I can’t help but think this girl is the center ring in the Brooklyn — Queens, New York, American! — circus. This teeming tent is all mixed up, it’s too much to take in, and it is — absolutely — great. If something needs to be re-made, it’s not here.

It’s not her.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#789)

by David Benjamin

“… Under these circumstances, an ambitious policy agenda to combat climate change or battle income inequality and persistent poverty seems like a pipe dream. Repairing decaying infrastructure and improving public education will most likely also remain out of reach… ”
                                          — Eduardo Porter

MADISON, Wis. — There is no analysis that can adequately explain the elevation of a degenerate demagogue to the pinnacle of the free world. One truth has been clear throughout the travesty. This election was not — as much as he might wish it so — about Donald Trump. It’s about the people who’ve giddily enrolled in his bizarre cult of personality.

The question that has followed these rowdy throngs as they’ve gathered in arena after arena to cheer Trump, curse the press and demand (well, they’ll stop now) that Hillary Clinton be summarily imprisoned, is: “What’s wrong with these people?”

They believe every word they hear from the most blatant con man (with all due respect to Huey Long) in U.S. political history. They shrug off sexual predation. They advocate exclusion and violence against religious minorities. They make common cause with the Ku Klux Klan. They have forsaken not only the values of the Enlightenment upon which America was founded, but the very Christianity that they profess to be the nation’s real foundation. They embody nihilism while not knowing what the word means.

How could this happen here?

By coincidence, on Election Day, I was reading a book by sociologist Kenneth Clark, published in 1964. His study was a watershed in understanding a social class whose sense of injustice provides a parallel to the angry and aggrieved who yesterday chose Trump to toss around the nuclear football. Clark examined in clinical detail a left-out, forgotten mass of citizens, economically trapped and isolated from the prosperity visible all around them.

Clark’s subjects are ill-educated kids in underfunded schools where the teachers are demoralized and the students, who see no way out or up, disdain the value of learning, focusing on physical prowess rather than academic progress. Few aspire to higher education. The dropout rate is high and the teen pregnancy rate is higher. Those who leave school are chronically unemployed or underemployed, relegated to menial jobs in areas where high-paying jobs that don’t require a college degree have migrated elsewhere. Where these people live (in crumbling homes), there are few programs — and fewer incentives — to train for jobs in the new economy. They can’t afford to move somewhere and they would be unwelcome and disadvantaged if they did. They both depend on public assistance in greater measure than the general population, and resent it.

Clark’s subjects suffer from countless ills, including poor nutrition and obesity, early heart disease, diabetes, TB, myriad mental illnesses, addictions to drugs, alcohol and gambling. They die earlier than the national norm. They are likelier than more affluent people to commit crime and be its victims, and more likely to land in jail, repeatedly. They’re angry and ashamed. They feel a sense of nagging and undeserved inferiority to those who hire and fire, demean and dismiss them. They are alienated from the life and promise of the broader society that exploits them without rewarding or respecting them. They seethe with frustration at an American dream visible on television but beyond their reach.

Clark’s book, Dark Ghetto, laid bare the ordeal of being black in the urban ghetto of midcentury America. Today, promoted by Donald Trump, the pathology of the ghetto has become the pose and the plaint — and to a significant degree — the reality of those ill-educated white folks stuck in dying small towns, stripped of their jobs and dignity and left behind by the global information society.

By promising not only to miraculously lift white guys (and their women) from their self-styled mini-ghettos but also to wreak vengeance upon all their perceived oppressors and dusky rivals, Donald Trump is exalted as their savior. Trump has discovered, embraced and bewitched the bleached niggers of America.

As Kenneth Clark relates, the ghetto-dwellers of Harlem in the ‘60s had an equally charismatic and similarly mendacious champion, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell.  He was a darktown peacock, a dealmaking grifter whose life story eerily foreshadowed that of lily-white Donald Trump. Powell, as Clark notes, was a dandy who flaunted his wealth and humbled the high and mighty (while greasing them on the sly). “In his flamboyant personal behavior,” wrote Clark, “Powell has been to the Negroes a symbol of all that life has denied them. The Negro can in fantasy journey with Adam to the Riviera, enjoy a home in Puerto Rico, have beautiful girls at his beck and call, change wives ‘like rich white folks.’…”

Let’s keep quoting Clark, but update a few words (in  brackets): “What [the elites] regard as [Trump’s] violation of elemental ethics, [white guys] view as effective and amusing defiance. Whatever is the personal ethical moral standard of the individualized [white guy], it tends to be suspended in judgment of [Trump]. He is important precisely because he is a caricature, a burlesque, of the personal exploitation of power…”

Clark wonders if Powell genuinely cares about his believers. Here’s another altered passage: “He has nothing in common with the workingclass [white guy] who provides the bulk of his support. He does not live in the community; he has never shared its problems but, since infancy, has lived a life of privilege and indulgence. Yet he has an almost instinctive ability to exploit the deep and elemental emotional needs of the average [white guy]. Like every successful charismatic political leader who attracts a mass following, he… can use their words, their idiom, their fashionable jargon, to communicate to their emotions…”

Clark in 1964, like everyone in 2016 who’s bewildered by the moral and intellectual vacuum of Trumpism, wonders if the savior really cares about the losers he professes to be saving. One last slightly twisted quotation: “Does anything really matter to [Trump]? He behaves with that freedom and flexibility usually available only to a person unencumbered by illusion, delusion, principle or loyalty. For [Trump], any idea and any person seems to be an instrument for use. This leaves the further question — use for what?”

How does Donald plan to use us? We’re about to find out.

The Weekly Screed (#788)

The attack of the box spring
by David Benjamin

“… Miss Glory, robots are not people. They are mechanically much better than we are, they have an amazing ability to understand things, but they don’t have a soul. Young Rossum created something much more sophisticated than Nature ever did — technically at least!… ”
— Karel Capek, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), 1921

MADISON, Wis. — Ever since Karel Capek introduced the idea in his play, R.U.R., the tortured relationship between humans and the robots they’ve built has been a recurring science-fiction theme — so prevalent that’s it’s become a little tiresome. Isaac Asimov expanded the concept eloquently in I, Robot and Philip K. Dick turned the theme into serious literature with his classic novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which became the disturbing sci-fi film, Blade Runner — in which Harrison Ford’s grim job is to kill robots who’ve gone human.

In the movies, Stanley Kubrick set the tone for man/machine tension with his contrarian computer, the HAL 9000, in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Since then, machine mischief has escalated all the way to robot Apocalypse in the Terminator flicks, in which a global computer network tramples Asimov’s three laws of robotics and exterminates humanity.

All good fun, but make-believe. Less amusing are the thousands of non-fiction robotic machines and computers that have displaced millions of manufacturing jobs all over the world. The next big shock is robo-cars, known by their auto industry euphemism as “autonomous vehicles.” Soon, according to Detroit, Toyota and various gruppenfeuhrers at Benz and Daimler, we’re going to be paring our nails, balancing our books and making sweet, sweet love in the back seat while our cars plummet along the autobahn — untouched by human hands — dodging self-driven eighteen-wheelers at 120 miles an hour.

I know slightly more about this startling development than the average bear because my wife, Hotlips, is a technology reporter who covers the auto beat, especially all those electronic synapses that now snap and crackle deep within the fast-growing brain of your typical late-model sedan. One of her duties is to chronicle what happens when your trusty robo-car goes inexplicably haywire, as happened recently in Florida.  A trusting robo-car early adaptor allegedly let go the wheel and died when the “Autopilot” in his Tesla apparently mistook the side of a turning semi-trailer truck for, um… the sky? Or something. Nobody knows. The car’s not saying.

The technology that made this unique fatality possible is a branch of “artificial intelligence” called “machine learning.” By digesting and comparing data in gargantuan amounts at speeds inconceivable to the human brain, computing devices learn to recognize patterns. A robo-car’s sensors, for example, can distinguish a deer crossing the road from a wind-blown leaf. The car knows to stop before hitting the deer, but ignores the leaf.

The hitch is that a machine requires a lot more data than a person. Your average human toddler can figure out the difference by looking at deer and leaves a few hundred times, probably less, especially if Mommy helps. The motherless computer needs millions of “deer views” and “leaf views” to match wits with the toddler.

Plus, teaching the kid is a lot cheaper than uploading all those deer and leaf images. One of my bosses, John Ketteringham, once said, “Why are we spending all this money on artificial intelligence when we can get the real thing for free?”

But cost is not really the object. Among Hotlips’ favorite technologists is Philip Koopman, who teaches robotics at Carnegie-Mellon University. He knows as much about anyone in the world about machine learning, but nobody in the world knows exactly how machines learn — not even Koopman. This is why Dave, in 2001, was so surprised when HAL said, “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

A machine can memorize a billion possibilities and arrange them into coherent patterns. Trouble is, in real life, there are more weird variables than are dreamt of in HAL’s philosophy. As Koopman said, “When something really unusual happens, people – human drivers – would at least realize something unusual has happened.”

Example: I used to live in Boston, a city widely regarded as having America’s worst drivers. One morning, I’m on a stretch of the infamous Southeast Expressway roughly situated between Sister Corita’s gas tanks and North Station. This narrow, oil-slicked four-lane deathway — riddled with potholes, lined with mangled auto parts and populated by maniacs — is a combat zone that would rattle the nerves of Chuck Yaeger.

Despite the constant congestion on this hellish corridor, every driver — according to Boston tradition — has his pedal to the metal while edging within inches of the bumper in front of him before leaning on his horn and cursing out the window. I’m the rare driver in this death race who maintains a few car-lengths’ distance in front and keeps all ten white knuckles on the wheel.

Suddenly, about 300 yards shy of the dread South Station tunnel, I notice something “unusual.” Inexplicably, out of nowhere, directly on the lane in front of me, a brand new, plastic-wrapped, queen-size Perfect Sleeper box spring.

Dead ahead. A box spring.

I’d never seen a box spring on the highway before, queen, king or otherwise. In the 30-odd years since then, I’ve never seen another. I know, in my heart, that I never will.

To my left, a guard rail. On the right, a 26-ton straight truck matching my speed. A few scant millimeters behind, a suburbanite in a Buick lighting a cigarette and chuckling over “Car Talk” on WGBH. I have about three seconds. If I swerve, I hit the truck. If I brake, even lightly, I launch a chain of collisions that could entangle ten or twelve cars in both lanes.

So, to my wife’s alarm (she’s right beside me, a few feet from that immovable truck), I make an unpatterned, non-intuitive choice. I accelerate.

My car in those days was a ’73 Plymouth Duster with a TorqueFlite transmission and, under the hood, that legendary 225-cubic inch slant-six. We’re close to 70 when we hit the box spring like a rhino attacking a china cabinet. There’s a bumpety-bump and a crunchy sound, after which I look into the rear-view mirror. All I can see is a cloud of Perfect Sleeper debris, chunks of fluff, wooden shards, springs flying every which way, bouncing off the startled Buick. An amazing sight. The box spring had, for all practical purposes, vanished. Abracadabra!

The Duster was unscathed. My wife stopped trembling in less than a half-hour. And I had done something that no “smart” machine could have done. With the safety of countless other humans (a term I apply loosely to Boston drivers) in the balance, I had faced the unexpected and made an unpredictable, spur-of-the-second, seemingly dumb choice. Which worked, probably because my intelligence is the real thing.

Not to mention that it’s free!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#787)

“… Have you ever seen
a Commie drink a glass of water?”

by David Benjamin

“Rock ’n’ roll music and why I preach against it. I believe that it is a contributing factor to our juvenile delinquency of today. I know what it does to you. And I know the evil feeling that you feel when you sing it. I know the lost position that you get into in the beat… the beat, the beat…” 

                         — Anonymous preacher, ca. 1959

MADISON, Wis. — Whistle past the graveyard though he might, Donald Trump has lost this one. As his comeuppance becomes more manifest with every cry of “rigged, rigged, rigged!,” the punditocracy grows increasingly alarmed that Trump’s intemperate troops will linger in the body politic and make it impossible for steadier hands to mend the raveled sleeve of American democracy.

My contention is that the sleeve has been raveled since the slave trade and the Salem witch trials. I contend that Trump was a symptom not a source, that the divisions he has so crudely exploited will thrive in his litigious aftermath, very likely through the agency of TrumpTV (under the connivance of Roger Ailes). As long as the nation’s reactionary fifth have cheerleaders like Alex Jones, Breitbart, Drudge, Limbaugh and his talk-radio cohorts, Fox News and other bastions of alt-right paranoia, they will hold hostage the Republican Party, the conservative ethic and political weenies like Ryan, McConnell and Priebus. The trampling of Trump — by a girl — will prove by Thanksgiving to be a mere rumble-strip on the delusional superhighway to right-wing Armageddon.

What pundits (always) misjudge is the persistence of the boogyman (often spelled “bogeyman”) in reactionary politics. The Salem witches were an early example. Soon after that, we were waging fearful genocide against a continent of native boogybraves. The South trembled for a century in delicious terror of the Negro sex demon wildly ravenous for white nookie — a boogyman stamped onto the American psyche through the mythic melodrama of D.W. Griffith and embodied years later, in tragic real life, by an uppity kid named Emmitt Till.

Over the years, we’ve found ways to to ostracize and demonize a wondrous range of boogyfolk and boogyfun, from Catholics and Jews to DC Comics and Hollywood Commies, to the moral degeneracy of Cab Calloway, Elvis Presley and the Twist. Remember all those pious parents scared to death of rock ’n’ roll? More recently, “superpredator” teenagers were supposed to turn every urban block into a jungle crawling with — let’s see now — Negro sex demons wildly ravenous for white nookie.

Candidate Trump (a self-declared sex demon who winkingly confessed his ravenousnous for you-know-what) not only exploited the “superpredator” boogyman to wedge his way into politics. He clung to that racist fancy even after the objects of his wrath — the so-called Central Park Five — were proved innocent, through DNA analysis, after years in prison.

If Gallup were to poll most rightists, reactionaries, and conservatives on the innocence of these once-young black males, they would agree overwhelmingly that the DNA was rigged, that the discovery of the real rapist was faked and that a liberal cabal in New York’s City Hall engineered the exoneration of five savage punks who should have been lynched in ’89 by Donald Trump in person (I picture little Ivanka goosing one of the gallows horses with a pink Prada parasol) from the tallest tree in Central Park.

This sort of mass abhorrence of reality isn’t hard to understand. Once concocted, a cherished boogyman lodges like a limpet in the one-track mind. The boogyman becomes immutable and immortal. After this election blows over, the lunatic fifth will necessarily forsake Trump as their hero. But they’ll hold inviolate their villains — both actual and imaginary. They will still revile Obamacare as the most monstrously conceived and dangerous plot we’ve ever had to face. They will cling to their faith in Barack Obama as a Kenyan usurper whose miscegenating mom and boogydad launched a Socialist conspiracy to elevate an illicit Muslim to the very pinnacle of the Zionist Occupation Government.

(I know, I know. But it’s not supposed to make sense!)

Among other boogymen who will easily survive the Trump debacle will be the millions of drug-muling rapists pouring across the Rio Grande to murder, pillage and commit voter fraud (and serve Big Macs). The poor will remain a vast horde of boogypaupers in Cadillacs who buy caviar with their food stamps.

After a 16-year hiatus, Hillary and Bill will take over from the Obamas as the First Boogyfamily. Once again, there will be no crime against decent Christians to which the Clintons can claim innocence. Soon after Hillary takes office, the Supreme Court majority will resume its traditional status as two judicially hyperactive boogymen, a pair of boogywoman Jews and a Mexican boogyshiksa.

There are myriad other boogymen who will not fade from the fevered fantasies of the fearful right in the immediate — or distant — future. They are forever. Prominent  among them are the media — boogymessengers who foster, with their every mendacious paragraph, the corruption of our values and contamination of our precious bodily fluids.

The eternal boogyman is the prowling homo in our public toilets. He’s the dead Democrat who votes over and over in Cook and Cuyahoga Counties. He’s the alien killer holed up in the cathedral of a sanctuary city. He’s the ghosts of Benghazi and the seditious contents of three million deleted e-mails. He’s the sadistic abortionists of Planned Parenthood and the pornographers of the ACLU. He is teachers misleading our children, politicians and clergy, librarians and poets, greedy scientists seeding hurricanes. She is an army of sluts who ruin the lives of the gullible young athletes and fraternity boys whom she has enticed with her skimpy clothes and befuddled with Budweiser.

And, of course, he is the blue-bellied thugs of the Union who trampled the Stars and Bars into the mud, and strangled the ancient, glorious traditions of American chivalry.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#786)

by David Benjamin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Dooley is rolling in his grave.