Monday, July 21, 2014

The weekly Screed (#684)

The semantic conundrum
of the war in Ukraine

by David Benjamin

“I haven't got a brain... only straw.”   

                                 — Scarecrow, The Wizard of Oz

MADISON, Wis. — War is always more about semantics than ideas. 

This principle applies bleakly to the mess in eastern Ukraine, where an unruly mob of “rebel separatists” playing with grown-up war toys bears a sickening resemblance to the SA.

Before Adolf Hitler had the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS, before he even had much of a reich, he had the sturmabteilung, a vast national army of slobs and dead-enders so misbegotten and anti-social that most would have required an industrial-strength makeover to qualify as trailer trash. The SA brownshirts were the true storm troops of the regime, immune to the law, terrorizing middle-class Germany and planting the bloodthirsty anti-Semitic seeds of the Final Solution.

The SA were dredged from the muck of society, an ugly hodgepodge of thugs, dopes, mopes, convicts, substance abusers, sex offenders, sadists, sociopaths and low-grade morons whose first response to any misfortune or insult was to lash out. Their Feuhrer was a man with “ideas” and a goal, and the eye-gougers of the SA were ideal for implementing that goal because they were fundamentally incapable of thought. Few, if any, had ever read Mein Kampf, nor would they have recognized the names of the Judeophobe philosophers who inspired Hitler, among them Arthur de Gobineau in France, the German Heinrich Trietschke, and the granddaddy of all Jew-baiters, Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada.

The SA boys just wanted to hurt people and they were generally too twisted or too stupid to resist the urge.

Today, I look at photos of so-called Ukrainian “separatists” guarding the killing fields where 298 innocents died on Flight 17, and I conjure old black-and-whites of drunken SA thugs posing over the mangled remains of a Jewish schoolboy like great white hunters with a trophy rhino.

The “pro-Russian rebels” have been called, among other terms, “terrorists.” But the word flatters them, implying an ideology, a purpose, a legitimate struggle. But, like the SA before them, these lifelong shmucks are too dumb to perceive any method in their own mayhem. Indeed, if they thought about what they’re doing, they’d grasp not only the futility of fighting the government of greater Ukraine, but also the fecklessness of serving as the pawns of a narcissist autocrat. Russia’s self-crowned tsar, Vladmir Putin, will forsake them as soon as they become politically inconvenient — a turning point that’s coming soon.

In sum and in all simplicity, these “rebels” — whether because they’ve read (or had read to them) too many issues of Soldier of Fortune, or they were deprived of oxygen during childbirth, or they were sexually abused before puberty, or they ate too many of Mom and Dad’s cigarette butts off the floor, or because they’re just plain, butthead stupid — are hopeless, irredeemable goobers.

The international media, following the PC protocols ingrained in access journalism, refer to these skells as “separatists” and “insurgents,” terms grossly inadequate to characterize a bunch of yokels, psychopaths and fugitives who couldn’t organize one cogent thought even if you hooked all their brains together with DieHard eight-gauge jumper cables.

If we could get the press to unshackle their descriptive nouns for the war in Ukraine — and similar gangster-based conflicts (think ISIS) — we could strategically degrade the status of these gory barbarians, rendering them toxic to any possible sane sponsor (and even the not-so-sane ex-KGB torture-masters who exploit them as proxy cannon fodder).

For example, here are a few passages from the weekend’s Times, in which I’ve replaced, in brackets, candy-ass euphemisms like “rebel” and “militiamen” with synonyms more direct and accurate. See how nicely this casts the perps in the naked, glaring light that they richly deserve.

The Times, Sat., 19 July: “…Sorting out the [morons’] earlier braggadocio from their current denials will now be the task of investigators, who began arriving at the crash scene… only to find their access blocked in some cases by the [crotch-rubbing dumbasses] who control the area…”

The Times, Sat., 19 July: “…One commander of a [nincompoop] unit in Donetsk acknowledged that [imbecile] forces possess a Russian-made antiaircraft system…”

The Times, Sat., 19 July: “…Katya Ivanovna, 62, who was milking her cow when the plane came down, scoffed at the idea that the [village idiots] had done it. ‘Ha, they barely have clothes,’ she said…”

The Times, Sun., 20 July: “…the Ukrainian government also charged that [slobbering throwbacks] had moved at least 38 bodies… to a morgue in Donetsk, a regional capital and [inbred meathead] stronghold…”

The Times, Sun., 20 July: “…Mr. Borodai, a Russian citizen who is a leader of the [drooling cretin] movement, has denied that [gap-toothed halfwits] were interfering with the recovery operation…”

The Times, Sun., 20 July: “…The missile ‘is a sophisticated piece of technology,’ said Admiral Kirby, who added that ‘it strains credulity to think that it could be used by [an incontinent cluster of numbnuts neanderthals] without at least some measure of Russian support and technical assistance.’…”

You see how a little editorial clarification can alter the complexion of this tragedy? I’m tempted to suggest that a campaign of journalistic candor might embarrass some of the antagonists into thinking…


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#683)

by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — Thanks to the Supreme Court’s recent anti-contraception decision, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which enshrines in American Constitutional law the novel notion that corporations are not only persons but they’re also, well… holy, we finally have a literary parallel for Chief Justice John Roberts.

Many decisions of this conservative Court have been described as “Orwellian,” but these tend to be references to George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen-Eighty-Four. When I read about Hobby Lobby, however, the first literary line that came to my mind was the mantra of Comrade Napoleon, the chief pig in Orwell’s other classic, Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

In Hobby Lobby, the Roberts Court tilted the equality scales by swaddling corporate
chiefs — already almost impregnable to any challenge from employees, the public or even the federal government — in the purple vestments of “religious liberty.” They conceded that Hobby Lobby owner David Green is no mere businessman. He is exalted above his corporate peers by a fierce and steely faith — one that he’s willing to blow millions of dollars in legal fees to uphold and propagate. Green — the Supreme Court found — is a remarkable capitalist cleric who blends free-market dogma with Christian liturgy, guiding his flock of meek employees toward a paternal paradise where personal autonomy is joyfully surrendered to the biggest pig in the barnyard.

To put it in Green’s words: “We believe wholeheartedly that it is by God’s grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has been successful.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I hear in Reverend Green an echo of Orwell's Napoleon, oinking to the chickens, lambs and other less equal animals why the best victuals in the trough are reserved to the ruling pigs: “Comrades! You do not imagine, I hope, that we pigs are doing this in a spirit of selfishness and privilege?… We pigs are brainworkers. The whole management and organization of this farm depend on us. Day and night we are watching over your welfare. It is for your sake that we drink the milk and eat those apples.”

In another eerie parallel, the pigs of Animal Farm — like Rev. Dave at Hobby Lobby — laid an intimidating religious gloss over their loving tyranny, issuing the Seven Commandments of the church of “animalism.” Among these, my favorite is the First: “Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.”

Obviously, Comrade Napoleon never got a load of Cyd Charisse.

But I digress.

In earlier decisions — including Citizens United — Chief Justice Roberts, along with accomplices Scalia, Kennedy, Alito and Stepin Fetchit, re-wrote the Constitution spectacularly by granting personhood to corporations. They did so despite the sentiments of their conservative hero, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, “I hope we shall take warning from the example [of England] and crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws our country.”

I think Roberts guessed that Jefferson wasn’t alone in despising corporations. He saw a need to shield them — despite their personhood — from any vestige of civic responsibility. Seizing his chance in Hobby Lobby, he conjured a species of religious immunity, transforming bosses, bankers and plutocrats from mere grasping profiteers into prophets, vicars, cardinals, patriarchs, rabbis, messiahs.

The queue of corporate aristocrats seeking this ecclesiastic dispensation from the laws of the land, like the pigs in Animal Farm who claimed first dibs on the best slop in the trough, is already forming — and getting friendly hearings from the Court’s majority.

Perhaps the real miracle of the Hobby Lobby decision is how cleverly it resolves the paradox posed by Matthew 6:24, when Jesus (allegedly) said: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

A dilemma for Justice Roberts? Hardly. Roberts coolly overruled the Lord’s objection and topped himself by squelching that really inconvenient passage in Mark: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

You see, John Roberts’ ace-in-the-hole, which he probably carries in his wallet, is Psalm 112, where God himself says: “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments. His descendants will be mighty in the land… Wealth and riches are in his house…”

In other words, David Green.

Given a choice between New Testament and Old, between God and the Son of God, all things being equal — but some animals more equal than others — Justice Roberts and the Four Pharisees found for the pigs.

Head hog Napoleon in fiction and head judge Roberts in reality both possess a keen appreciation of what happens when you sanctify power. They know how the force of popular faith can confound opposition to the rule of a tyrant few. Jefferson got it, too. “Compulsion in religion,” he wrote, “is distinguished peculiarly from compulsion in every other thing.”

If you oppose President Obama, for example, you’re only dissing a temporary secular leader, a political hack. But now, since Rev. Roberts tacked his ninety-five theses onto the doors of the Supreme Court and Hobby Lobby ordained every CEO in the USA into the new United Church of God and Mammon, you’re not just poor-mouthing David Green, Donald Trump or Charlie Koch anymore.

You’re pounding nails into Jesus.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#682)

Big Bill Benjamin — not to
be mistaken for Ward Cleaver

by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — My father was largely absent from my life for more than 20 years — during which, presumably, my character was being (mal)formed. As I commiserated at Dad’s funeral among my second family of stepbrothers and stepsisters, I was aware that they had shared more “quality-time” fatherhood with Dad than I ever could.

My mother, who walked out on Dad — for good reason — when I was about eight, became a reluctant pioneer, among the German Catholics of Tomah, in single parenthood. After the rupture, four of us, Mom, sister Peg, brother Bill and I, bounced around town quite a bit, all of us bearing the alien stigma of divorce, ‘til Mom pulled her big escape — to Madison, 100 miles from Dad.

The social science consensus is that I was warped for life by a dad shortage and a concomitant denial of the “nuclear family” experience. I’m not sure.

For one thing, I knew all about nuclear families. Television was crawling with the species — the Andersons on Father Knows Best, the Williamses (including the insufferable Angela Cartwright) on Make Room for Daddy,  Rob, Laura and Richie on Dick Van Dyke, and, of course, the Cleavers. There were, for variety’s sake, a few single-parent TV shows in that era, notably The Andy Griffith Show. But in that one, Andy filled Opie’s maternal gap with a mother figure — Aunt Bee — of archetypal proportions. For good measure, Andy also spent most of the series sexlessly courting Elinor Donahue, a refugee from Father Knows Best.

By the time I was nine or ten, I’d noticed a gap between my problems and the ones that stymied kids like Bud Anderson, Ricky Nelson and the Beav. These kids’ issues didn’t come near the intractable strife that plagued Peg, Bill and me on a daily basis. Our TV-kid role models got into the sort of cute trouble that could be easily dispelled in 30 minutes minus commercials. The dispeller was, inevitably, the dad (Jim, Danny, Rob, Ozzie, Andy or Ward Cleaver), who wrestled these comic crises into submission after working all day, in a suit, at a mystery job. The all-knowing father’s manner was so cool and bemused that Mister Rogers, by comparison, would have seemed panic-stricken. Except for Sheriff Andy, they all handled these dilemmas without even loosening their conservative neckties.

The TV dads who represented an ideal I rarely witnessed in real life — even among the two-parent families all around me — provided kids in those days with a paragon of middle-class heroism. They were erudite professional men of gray-flannel grooming, effortless competence, unflappable disposition and homespun wisdom. And they were all dull.

That wasn’t my Dad.

For the first hormone-driven 30 years of his life, Dad was a cauldron of emotions with a hair-trigger temper. He was a slave to his impulses, a Falstaffian drinker, a flagrant wolf and a death-wish driver. He was also the funniest, most charming young man in town, and one guy to whom — when he talked — I always paid heed. There was an edge in his attitude and a drop of acid on the tip of his tongue, both of which I envied and emulated. His mind possessed a memory, an acuity and a curiosity that I hoped I had inherited. In his occasional but tremendous rage, there was a pathos that bewildered me until I was old enough to feel it myself.

Because I got so little of Dad, after Mom rescued me from the worst of him, I spent my every opportunity seeking out the best of him. There were weekends I returned to Tomah to visit Annie and Swede, my grandparents, when my highlight was Saturday morning at the TeePee Supper Club.

In those days, the TeePee was a class joint with a serious chef and a bar that rivaled any pub in downtown Chicago. Dad was the head bartender. On Saturday morning, he stocked the bar, meticulously. I hurried over to the TeePee and helped him haul up cases of High Life, Pabst and Blatz, but also a bounty of exotic spirits that carried me on a tour of the world — crème de menthe, crème de  cacao, Courvoisier, Sambuca, schnapps and grappa, Bombay and Tanqueray, Smirnoff and Stolichnaya, jagermeister, kirsch and genievre, Southern Comfort, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, single-malts, Bushmill’s and Chivas, Drambuie, Amaretto, Bailey’s, Frangelico, and every week or so, a nice bottle of Gewurtztraminer. And every time I wondered, why is some gin “slow?” Is it like syrup? Of course, I didn’t ask. You bent your back and moved the boxes. Dad would arrange the bottles in dizzying ranks in a hundred colors of glass and alcohol behind the bar, each one spotless and sparkling with reflected light, each with its silver spout, some so rich and pungent that I felt a little tipsy just from breathing the air behind the bar at the TeePee, where Dad ruled supreme, where no man was his equal, where he was more hero than Ward, Ozzie and all the other fictional fathers rolled together.

Except for the pleasure he took from running a really good bar, Dad knew — but didn’t say — that most of the work he had to do, all his life, was beneath him. This made him — and me, by imitation — an ironist. Long before he died last week (he was 87, beating most predictions by at least 40 years), Dad had bequeathed to me a sense of the absurd that I’ve applied to my almost every endeavor. It has polluted my writing, governed my tastes in literature, music and women, and muted the anger that I also inherited from Dad. It got me into trouble in school just about once a year and got me fired from at least two jobs.

But the wry laughter with which my Dad infected me has allowed me to forgive his every unintended trespass against me. It has kept me marginally sane, carried me through the travails I’ve visited on myself and kept me married, for 25 years now, to one of the few women who gets — well, tolerates — my “wit.”

When I saw Dad for the last time, I turned away after barely a glance, wishing the undertaker had known him better. If he’d known Dad half as well as all his kids and stepchildren did, he would have figured out some way — Super Glue, or maybe a safety pin — to send Dad to Jesus with that enigmatic half-smile that came without words and always left you wondering whether he loved you with unspoken affection or simply regarded you as a goddamn fool not worth talking to.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#681)

World Cup soccer: Designed to be dull
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — Most sports become more interesting as the skill of the players matures. This is why NFL football is more compelling than watching sixth-graders play the game. The striking exception to this general rule is World Cup soccer. In soccer, the higher you go, the duller it plays.

I say this despite decades of sportswriting (including soccer) and really trying to enjoy the world’s most popular and accessible game. I go back far enough to fondly recall the voice of Danny Blanchflower, the color guy for CBS’ pro soccer broadcasts in 1967. (Yes, America had soccer in ’67.)

But high-stakes soccer is a troubled sport that exposes its underbelly every four years in the dreariest, costliest, most predictable tournament on earth.

How bad is soccer? I wrote this on 15 June. The tournament ends a month later, but I know already who’s going to win. (Think about it. You do, too.) I know the final score will be either 1-0 or 2-1. Or it will be a 0-0 or 1-1 tie decided by one of these silly kicking-contests because — after two brief overtimes — “the world’s best-conditioned athletes” are just too tuckered out to play even five more measly minutes. (Although “extra time” is something athletes in other sports do regularly. There’s no tying in baseball — or basketball, volleyball, tennis…)

Soccer’s basic problem is that it’s not fun to watch. It’s maddening with suspense, but fun? I remember sitting in a London pub during a big Premier League game — pitting two insurance companies, AIA vs. AON — against each other. It was on all the TV screens. I wasn’t watching, but I couldn’t help hearing these long stretches of tense silence, interrupted by an occasional hopeful shout from fans around the bar, followed by a group chorus of “Aaaaaaw,” punctuated by a few uniquely British epithets like “Blimey” and “Bugger!”

The reason for these predictable noises is that nobody hardly ever scores. In the Premier League last year, only two (of 20) teams averaged two goals a game.

I’ve long held the theory that the paucity of scoring in soccer explains the violence of its fans. There are many games bloodier on the field — football, rugby, wrestling, girls field hockey — but no fans more thuggish, brutal and vicious than the frustrated maniacs who follow soccer but rarely get to high-five a goal.

For example, in World Cups from 1934-54, games averaged more than four goals. In ‘54, the average per game was 5.38. Since then, scoring has dwindled to the point where the typical Cup match is a 1-1 tie. There have been 167 World Cup ties (in 412 games — 40 percent) since 1986. Of these, 58 were scoreless ties. Meanwhile, thousands of Major League Baseball, NBA and NFL playoff games have recorded hundreds of “extra time” periods without one tie.

So, have soccer players’ scoring skills deteriorated that much since1954?

Actually, the players are better. The coaches are worse. Today, soccer is willfully designed to be low-scoring. Your typical bigtime soccer coach prefers not to risk offensive thrusts once he has a 1-0 lead. Better to retreat into a nearly impenetrable defensive formation and stifle the opponent’s offense — boringly and tediously, but “beautifully” — for 50, 60, 80 minutes.

And if, miraculously, the other team scores? No big deal. From then on, a tie gives each team a point in the standings. Soccer coaches help each other out. They never worry about getting creamed, 6-0, and trying to explain the disaster to the press. When every final is 1-0, 1-1, 0-0 — even, wow! 2-1 — where’s the shame? The whole spectacle is duller than special-ed Scrabble, but the job is safe.

All this tedium seems to gratify FIFA, soccer’s flagrantly corrupt ruling body. I say “ruling” advisedly because — unlike most other pro sports bodies — FIFA hasn’t updated a rule in decades. As coaches went to absurd lengths to strangle scoring and protect their prestige (and drive fans to drink, followed by felony assault), FIFA did nothing to reverse the sport’s defensive crouch.

But soccer is perfect already. Unlike the eternal kvetching among baseball, football, basketball, hockey fans, soccer fans swallow the “beautiful sport” propaganda and defend their primadonnas with blind devotion. How could you possibly improve “real football?”, they ask. 

How? OK, raise the crossbar 12 little inches. This would be like the introduction of the three-point shot in hoops. The possibility of a long-distance kick slipping just under the bar, above the outstretched goalie’s hand, would loosen up defenses dramatically. And imagine the joy in the stands.

Or, better yet…

… Eliminate the rule — offsides — that penalizes the sport’s fastest players. (Imagine basketball without fast breaks. Imagine wide receivers in the NFL waiting for linebackers to catch up. Imagine baseball without base-stealing.)

Shrink the field by 20 percent. Reduce the number of players on the pitch. Allow unlimited substitution. Throw away all those cockamamie colored cards and install a penalty box. (Imagine LeBron James getting suspended two games — by a five-foot ref! — for knocking somebody down.)

Better yet, hire honest officials. Get corporate logos off the uniforms.  (Let Man U be Man U. Let Tottenham be Tottenham!) Maybe teams should stop signing gambling conglomerates (dafabet, Marathonbet) as sponsors. Return Qatar’s bribes and hold the 2022 Cup in a country where it isn’t 120 degrees every day in the summer. Break up FIFA and ship Sepp Blatter to a nursing home.

Think about letting players catch the ball before kicking it. (Mike Ditka: “If God had wanted man to play soccer, he wouldn’t have given us arms.”)

But first, above all, ban ties. Make the millionaires play ‘til somebody scores — in sudden death, with each team removing a player in each extra period. (Imagine going to a soccer game KNOWING that one of the teams is going to win. You might decide NOT to kill someone afterwards!)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#680)

What about Bob?
by David Benjamin

“Grosscup here.”

“Hello… I’m calling for a Mr. G. Grayling Grosscup, chief executive officer of… let’s see… Gilt Edge Investment Strategies.”


“Oh! Well, hi there. My name is Rosalie Higby — with H.R., at Amalgamated Tanaka USA. Mr. Grosscup, as you know, you’re one of our major shareholders.”

“Well, yes, I am. And I’ve been very pleased with your performance.”

“Well, I should hope so. Just scanning your account here, I can see that your last dividend was — WHOA! — big enough to choke a shark, you might say.”

“That’s not exactly something I’d say.”

“Well, suit yourself, sir. The reason I’m calling is that you’re not sharing.”

“Say what?”

“It’s simple, Mr. Grosscup. You’re holding but you’re not sharing. Since that stock purchase almost four years ago, Amalgamated Tanaka hasn’t received a nickel, a kind word or even a postcard from you.”

“Miss, uh… Higby, I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at.”

“Well, Grosscup, maybe it’ll help to ask a question: Every three months, what do you expect from Amalgamated Tanaka? What do you get from us?”

“Oh. I get a quarterly statement.”

“Exactly, Mr. G! Excellent! And what do you expect to see on that statement? — no, don’t answer. I know what you want. You expect to see big, fat, bloated profits, right? You expect a constantly rising, doubling, tripling, gravity-defying stock price! You expect explosive, spectacular, untrammeled double-digit growth every three months — despite the cost of business, despite our obligations to customers and employees, despite economic fluctuations and global conditions, despite war, famine, pestilence and politics. Correct me if I misread you, Mr. Grosscup, but — even if we have to fire a few thousand wage-earners without warning or recourse, if we have to bribe a few Third World kleptocrats who tolerate sweatshops, human trafficking and outright slavery, even if we have to gut our R&D budget, compromise safety standards, rape the environment, steal wages from undocumented workers, compromise every principle we’ve ever held dear and sell our firstborn children into lifelong bondage to the Visigoths — you want us to grow! Grow like Topsy! Grow like mold in a Petri dish, grow like cancer in a lab rat —  every 90 days, come hell or high interest rates! Izzat right, Mr. Grosscup?”

“Well, when you put it that way — ”

“Oh, I don’t have to put it that way. Shareholders just like you have been putting it pretty much that way ever since this company — or any company — went public. But the question is, Grosscup, what if we don’t?”

“Don’t what?”

“Grow, Mr. G! What if we take our earnings and squander them on long-term planning, employee security, quality, durability, innovation, diversification and social responsibility? What then?”

“Well, I — ”

“You’d ditch us like a soiled virgin, wouldn’t you, Grosscup?”

“Yes, I suppose. But that’s a normal reaction.”

“Exactly! And that’s why we’ve decided to take your money and share it.”

“Share my money?”

“Yes, with Bob.”

“Bob? Who’s Bob?”

“Good question, Grosscup. Bob is a guy way more important to this company, in the long run, than you. Bob’s a research chemist working on a new technology for biofuels that could change the world. Clean the air, provide cheap power — virtually pollution-free — to every corner of the world.”

“Wow. That’s great.”

“No, not great, Grosscup. It’s sad. It’s heartbreaking. We were just about to fire Bob and his whole team, because — as it turns out — changing the world takes a lot longer than 90 days. If we don’t dump Bob, tomorrow, our quarterly report is going to look like crap to people like you who want your pound of flesh on the first of every third month. If we miss one payment, wham! Normal reaction. You guys all suddenly take your money and scram — like roaches when the light comes on.”


“But then, a funny thing happened on the way to the guillotine. As we were notarizing Bob’s pink slip, someone said, ‘Hey, what about Grosscup?’ I mean, here’s a guy who calls up his bookie — well, broker — and bets a wad of his disposable cash on Amalgamated Tanaka. Does he know a thing about us? To him, we’re an acronym in The Wall Street Journal. Does he really need the money? If he did, he wouldn’t be gambling with it. But someone does need the money.”


“Damn right, Grosscup. So, you know what we’re gonna do?”


“You got it, G-man! We’re gonna share your wealth and hold onto Bob.”

“Can you do that?”

“We’re doing it, Grosscup. You gave us the money, and we’re not giving it back — at least not ‘til Bob finishes his project. So, meanwhile, relax, Grosscup. Get your mind out of the stock ticker and console yourself with the knowledge that deferred gratification is a great American tradition. Oh, one other thing…”

“Oh, God. What else?”

“You still have that big house in Westchester County, right? Your kids are grown and gone? Lots of empty rooms, big yard, four bathrooms, swimming pool?”

“Well, yes. That’s where I live. Why do you ask?”

“Well Bob and his family are going to need a place to stay…”

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#679)

The Bergdahl paradox
By David Benjamin

 “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions…” 
                                                      — Joseph Heller, Catch-22

MADISON, Wis. — When I was a kid in smalltown Wisconsin, I was surrounded by veterans. Not “heroes.” We didn’t call them that. Half the dads in town had served in World War II or Korea, but you couldn’t tell from looking at them, or listening. Except for a handful of American Legion blowhards, vets didn’t reminisce about war.

Most had been draftees, “citizen soldiers” snatched from home and family, thrust into a mortal conflict they hadn’t started and did not want. Given their innate reluctance, it would have been mildly absurd to style them as heroic.

The Draft was still around when I was a kid. Every boy saw “going into the service” as one of life’s inevitable passages, especially since Uncle Sam preferred his conscripts fresh and dewy. Your typical 18-year-old was less aware of what he was getting into. The older men who’d been drafted into both World Wars and Korea, had had a real, whole life to leave behind. They understood consequences, saw more clearly and quickly the waste and madness, came home — if they’d survived — muted and emotionally scarred. They spared their wars little nostalgia, moved on thankfully, tried to forget, waited for the nightmares to fade.

Our most resilient work of WWII literature is Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, who staged the war, properly, in the theater of the absurd. The story’s only visible victor is Orr, a pilot who crashes bombers and survives dozens of times until, finally, he plunges into the sea and doesn’t come up. But in the end, he turns up in Sweden, in a life raft — his crash and disappearance all planned and cunningly executed.

Similarly, the most acclaimed novel of Vietnam is Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato. Another AWOL GI — like Orr —just walks away, weary of the industrial-scale carnage in which he has no stake, over which he holds no power. 

Readers tend not to see Orr, Yossarian, Cacciato as traitors. Even calling them — or any combat vet — cowards is a dubious charge. Before despairing of the struggle, each has already plunged repeatedly into the teeth of enemy fire, has gone forward until going forward made no sense at all. As Heller wrote in Catch-22, “a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers… real and immediate [is] the process of a rational mind.”

War hasn’t changed. It’s still the definition of evil, reducing its every participant into a coldblooded murderer. The difference today is that we don’t snatch people from the midst of life to school them in death. We inveigle recruits, teenagers from tiny towns in backward states like Oklahoma and Idaho to go forth and bathe themselves in patriotic gore. And when they come back, gory and warped, hollow-eyed, quick-tempered and plagued by nightmares, we offer them semantic consolation. Not merely vets or dischargees, they are every one of them a hero, we say — heroes all because they’ve sacrificed their innocence to mankind’s vilest enterprise. They’re “warriors” forever, each one a flag-draped replica of John Wayne — the greatest fake soldier of all time.

These kids can’t be shattered husks, ticking time-bombs, substance-abusing social cripples. Can’t — not possible — because each is a “hero,” a cut above the mere draftees who won World War II, fought in Korea and were churned into dogfood in ‘Nam. Each is a “hero,” hailed by the newscasters, pundits and pols who have despoiled a word, but soothed a nation’s guilty conscience.

Not only do we have a glut of Alvin Yorks in podunks from Bangor to Long Beach, we have a human buffer, a shield of volunteers, each sporting his “Hero” merit badge, each one camo-clad, homogenized and kept at a distance, in camps, forts and deployments, assuring us that our own prudent sons, brothers, dads won’t be yanked from the sofa and dropped into some wasteland infested with bugs, disease and religious zealots wielding AK-47’s and grenade launchers.

But wait. Suddenly into this mass delusion strolls Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who apparently did what Orr did in Catch-22 followed by Yossarian, what Cacciato did, what millions of Americans do everyday by not volunteering for “service” in Afghanistan or any of the armed asylums where everybody seems determined to kill everyone else. Sgt. Bergdahl allegedly chose to withhold his participation. Realizing that his only two options were killer or victim, he perceived a third way. He got up and walked away (clumsily though, into five years of captivity).

Cowardice is not his offense. Nor is desertion.  His real offense is reminding us that none of these guys — just because they sign up, follow orders and march into meatgrinders turned by madmen — is a hero by default. They’re like us — a little more gullible, perhaps more idealistic, maybe just dumber. But they’re real people, not John Wayne. They often turn out to be naturally vulnerable to the same second thoughts, misgivings, anxieties and sudden onsets of vivid rationality that save most of us from going off the deep end into the abyss.

Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of life is just showing up. But showing up doesn’t make you a hero, any more than leaving — especially when your ass is on the line — makes you a villain.

In the last lines of Catch-22, Heller, who was a veteran, captured Bowe Bergdahl’s (and every soldier’s) moment of clarity: “The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off.”

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#678)

Greed on Grub Street 
By David Benjamin

 “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”    

                                                              — Samuel Johnson

MADISON, Wis. — The other day, optimistically, I clicked my way over to Vox, Ezra Klein’s spiffy new online news site. But, as soon as I got there, I was irked. Vox’s stories were abundant, varied and lively. I counted 17 different bylines just on the cover page. This was all good. The thing that bothered me — which also bothers me at websites for the Huffington Post, Bloomberg, Yahoo, CNN, ABC, NBC, Fox, BBC, Google News, USA Today, The Guardian and even the lunatic-fringe World News Daily — is that I just walked right in. No bouncer.

No token. No turnstile. No ticket. Free lunch.

To put the problem in perspective, we have to go back in time, to the first fulltime news job I ever had, in Mansfield, Mass. My boss was an amiable second-generation job-press pro named Arnold, who told me that if we felt like it, we could donate the newspaper — for free — to every subscriber in town, because ads provided all of our serious revenue. “But if you give the news away, for nothing,” said Arnold, “that’s the value your readers assign to it. Nothing.”

Over nine years, I pumped out roughly four million words (earning about three cents a word) as Arnold’s editor. Then finally, I scored a job at a Cambridge consulting outfit where — hearing that I’d been hired to write — one senior consultant scoffed: “What do we need a writer for? Everybody can write.”

We owe a more famous version of this sentiment to basketball coaching great Bob Knight, who once glared down at a roomful of sportswriters and said, “All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to greater things.”

To a significant degree, my consultant and Coach Knight captured the spirit of the zeitgeist. If writing is simply a matter of spelling “cucumber” correctly on a grocery list, it has no more redeeming social importance — perhaps less — than the ability to brew a latte or unclog a toilet.

This is the writer’s dilemma. He sees his calling as a craft that begins with talent but requires a lifetime’s application of curiosity, learning, erudition, constant practice, intellectual rigor, thick skin and stylistic razzle-dazzle. He perceives a discipline as arduous as law, medicine, economics, engineering, even management consulting. But among all these professions, only the writer is asked, routinely — even by some of his fellow ink-stained wretches — to work without pay.

Most writers on the Web work for “recognition,” but no money. Hardly any of  Arianna Huffington’s countless bloggers ever see a dime for their contribution to her lucrative website — which is free (that is to say, worthless) to its readers.

Those of us who try to do it for a living (or who are driven, by some inner demon, to do it whether it earns a living or not) insist that writing is hard. One of my ironic proofs of this proposition is Jill, whom I knew in high school. She was a goody two-shoes blonde-bombshell who gushed with school spirit and got straight A’s. She ran the cheerleading squad like an incongruously bubbly drill sergeant, dated every team captain and quarterback in the tri-state area, and charmed the flint right of off vice-principal Wendt, the Heinrich Himmler of hallway discipline.  

Despite all these handicaps, I adopted Jill, and discovered that beneath her golden aura, there lurked a Makioka dark spot. Jillsey couldn’t write. I mean, she could hammer out a report on the principle exports of Peru or a term paper on Alexander Hamilton’s beef with Aaron Burr. But she labored mightily. She had no sparkle. Her prose failed to flow. Her “A” always derived from superior research, meticulous margins, sublime penmanship, sheer doggedness and midnight oil. 

Of course, I made fun of her writing, and kept doing it, for — well, close to 50 years now. But today, there’s a certain hollowness to my mockery. After graduating from Wellesley, Jill studied law and ended up on the faculty at Georgetown, where she rewrote the practice of law writing.

Long before Jill hit Georgetown, she had figured out that writing is hard. But she also divined that anyone can write clearly and effectively by following formula, and that formulae can be designed for all sorts of practical writing.

Jill, having obeyed her English teachers slavishly (unlike me, who tended to feud with them) and followed Strunk & White without doubt or deviation, applied this approach to legal writing. She saw that most lawyers wrote briefs that were disorderly, incoherent, turgid, redundant, often ungrammatical and rarely brief. Summoning her inner cheerleading sergeant, Jill sallied forth to transform legal prose in a series of textbooks, including (with Mary Bernard Ray) her seminal masterwork, Legal Writing: Getting It Right and Getting It Written. Jill, perhaps just to spite me, became the acknowledged writing expert in her field. (And what am I?)

Of course, Jill’s books are hardly Dr. Seuss. Her prose doesn’t glow and lilt. It does not dance across the page, inciting bursts of laughter or tears of rage. Her tightly structured instructionals are functional, pragmatic and formulaic. But they’re also testimony that writing is, goddammit, hard.

I think Jill was able to make herself into a writing teacher partly because she possessed an entirely disparate talent — for music. She plays the piano fluently and sings up a veritable storm. Perhaps subconsciously, Jill applied the mathematical order inherent in music composition to the less tidy carpentry of language.

To illustrate this hypothesis, let’s say a paragraph is like a melody. A music student tinkles out the basic tune of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” on the white keys of the piano. Nice. A little dull. But hand the same tune to Julie Andrews on top of a mountain in Austria, and you have something actually wonderful. And then, taken up by John Coltrane — with Steve Davis, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones — that simple melody becomes an intricate, elusive motif, weaving in and out, turned, colored, expanded and illuminated through 14 minutes of hypnotic improvisation. That basic starting paragraph, “My Favorite Things,” becomes a tone poem in jazz — which, of course, is the least remunerative music you could play.

Jazz musicians often work for little more than drinks — or just for the fun of it, jamming in the wee hours, with only one another to listen. Novelists, also, work on spec, but we don’t even have other novelists to jam with. Not that we’d want to. I mean, Hemingway and Virginia Woolf, mano a mano, flinging metaphors?

Jazz and writing are both hard — sometimes on the audience. A reader who “reviewed” one of my books on Amazon gave up after four or five pages, because she thought I was “showing off. ” Used too many “long words.”

Which brings me back around to Vox, which contains a lot of writing, the occasional long word and probably, here and there, a daring sentence of sheer improv. Most of all — because its journalists are serious — Vox contains a fair measure of painstaking research and fact-checking, exposition and analysis, all of this performed in solitude under deadline pressure. This is hard work that’s worth getting paid for — directly and up-front, by the people who read it — lest they esteem it naught.

Arnold laid it out a long time ago. It doesn’t have to be much — a dime or a quarter. A nickel even. But Ezra! Man, you gotta get something.