Friday, April 11, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#671)

Is sex Republican?
By David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — After studying the sexual assault allegations by two women against Wisconsin state Rep. Bill Kramer, I can finally understand Missouri Congressman Todd Akin’s seemingly benighted views — blurted out last year — about “legitimate rape.” Evidently, Republicans like Kramer and Akin hold to the conviction that you can’t actually rape a woman who shares your politics.

Indeed, one woman mauled by Kramer after a 2011 GOP event called “Pints and Politics” outside a bar in Muskego, Wis., chose to drop charges out of loyalty to the Party. She only went public about the assault after Bill, this year, walked up to a lady lobbyist in Washington and shoved his hand up her skirt.

Hmm. Does this mean that the Muskego victim isn’t a Republican anymore?

Both parties have a history of sexual shenanigans, from Gary Hart and Donna Rice to David Vitter and the hookers who did stuff Mrs. Vitter wouldn’t do. But there seems to be a difference. Our naughty Democrats, and their scarlet women, still seem to be having a hot time in the old town — while the GOP is stuck in church, marching to the somber tune of the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family and other ultra-uptight outfits.

Your typical Democratic male, whether promiscuous or monogamous, doesn’t have to submit his sex life for Party review. The Party doesn’t declare that women ought to “submit” to men, either Biblically or politically. But, if a guy leans Republican, the Party’s prudes and preachers pounce. Suddenly, they’re all over him like, well… Bill Kramer. Suddenly, there are prohibitions and outreach, interventions and prayer breakfasts as far as the eye can see. Your loyal Republican has to spend a lot of time thinking about sex while not having it.

Ironically, some of our most abstentionist right-wingers, like Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Mormons in general — tend to breed like guppies. But, if you look into the GOP literature, this is achieved largely by using the hole-in-the-sheet method perfected centuries ago by ultra-Orthodox Jews and passed on to the Rev. Jonathan Edwards in a secret ecumenical meeting held in Salem, Massachusetts in 1757. This technique was actually adopted by the 2010 annual convention of the Iowa Tea Party Patriots for God. As a result, the Bed Bath & Beyond franchise in Des Moines has a permanent six-month backlog of orders for its line of “all-flannel, wash-and-wear neo-Hasidic bull’s-eye bed linens.”

Without saying so outright, the GOP’s real “war” is not the war on women imputed by Democrats, but — more basically — a war on sex (at least all the fun parts of it). This helps clarify, for instance, the pro-family GOP’s virulent aversion to gay marriage. It isn’t the “marriage” part or the prospect of a family with parents of the same gender that freaks Republicans the most. I know, because I’ve asked.

The problem is, when Republicans think of same-sex marriage, especially gay men, they can’t get past the “ick factor.”

I think all of us, really, can sympathize, if we remember back to when we learned about how sex is actually done. Most kids I know reacted by saying, “WHAT! No way! That’s how they DO it? My dad? My MOTHER? You’re lying, man!” Followed, usually, by visual aids, followed by: “Ew. Gross!”

Being a Democrat, I eventually warmed up to the idea.

Apparently, Republicans can’t quite outgrow that initial shock, which makes the oral/anal vision of gay sex all the more traumatic. This chronic revulsion helps explain an obvious Republican obsession with sex. More and more, the big issues that dominate GOP discourse — “one man-one woman,” abortion, contraception, embryonic stem cells, ultra-sound vaginal probes, anchor babies, the taxonomy of “legitimate rape,” “abstinence only,” single motherhood, home-schooling, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue — all pretty much circle back to sex, sex, sex.

Sexuality even colors right-wing thinking about racial justice and immigration policy. I mean, how many Republicans do you know who would not subscribe — at least privately — to the following (ideally spoken in a whisper) statement: “They think about it all the time, and they want our women.”

I think it would simplify U.S. politics immensely if the Republicans would come clean and admit that, for them, it’s all about nookie — and that, as a Party, they’re against it, period (except, of course, for procreative Hasid-style coitus at the peak of female ovulation, within the confines of Christian heterosexual marriage).

It’s not a new idea. In 1929, two social scientists named Thurber and White shook the very pillars of American fertility with their study, Is Sex Necessary?

Among the benefits of this daring political reform would be the protection of women from guys like Bill Kramer (who would probably switch parties). It would finally provide a statutory definition of “legitimate rape” — as any sort of sexual contact between a Democratic male and a Republican woman.
Republicans might initially fear that being the No-Sex Party will render them a permanent minority. But let’s face it. The only way to enforce this ideal is the “honor system” — which never works! Conservative men would end up having more sex, more competently, than ever before, and enjoying it again — at last — because of the thrill of sneaking around and hauling their ashes on the sly. Sex, revived as a taboo, would be dirty again. Sinners — for the sheer sake of sin — would flock to the GOP.

Best of all, an anti-sex GOP would have a chance to close the gender gap. It would attract a silent majority of disgusted middle-aged women — married to “sixty-second men” — who would just as soon their husbands skulk to the bathroom, by themselves, with a Victoria’s Secret catalog. I can hear these gals in bedrooms all across America, rolling over as they yank down their nighties:

“Not tonight, dear. I’m a Republican.”

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#670)

“In the battle, we're tried and true…” 
By David Benjamin

“Governor [Mike] Pence believes in the right to keep and bear arms, and that this… law… accomplishes the goal of keeping parents and law-abiding citizens from being charged with a felony when they pick their kids up at school or go to cheer on the local basketball team.”  — Kara Brooks, spokeswoman

HOOSIER HOLLOW, Ind. — A sheriff’s deputy, responding to a call from the principal of Hoosier Hollow Grammar School, encounters, at the far edge of the school parking lot, a weird sight. A ‘97 Dodge Ram, painted in jungle camouflage. Something large in the truck-bed is shrouded under a matching heavy-canvas camo-print tarpaulin. The Ram is surrounded by sandbags. Deputy Fife approaches hesitantly and knocks on the tailgate. A head pops out. Fu-Manchu mustache, bandanna do-rag, long, greasy hair tied back in a ponytail. Big yellow smile.


The face says, “Hey there, pardner!”


“Um,” says Deputy Fife, “Who — ”

A heavy-set figure steps out from under the tarp, revealing camouflage fatigues, body armor and criss-cross ammo-belts strung with huge, evil-looking cartridges. He says, “Oh, hell, pardner. You can just call me Gunner.”

DEPUTY FIFE: “Gunner? Well, OK. So, Gunner… what is all this?”


GUNNER: “I’m just settin’ up a machine-gun nest here. I’d show you the gun — it’s a beauty! — but that would be against the law.”

DEPUTY FIFE: “Sir… er, Gunner. Offhand, I’d say that if you’re mounting an automatic weapon within range of an elementary school, well… Chances are you’re already breaking the law.”

GUNNER: “Oh no, deputy. Not any more. According to the law just signed by Gov. Pence, bless his heart, I’m cool here — as long as my Dodge is locked — I even put a padlock on the tailgate  — y’see there? — and I keep the gun out of sight. And I tell ya, dude, this here baby is totally outasight! We’re talkin’ a bolt-release .50-caliber Browning M2, air-cooled and belt-fed, sittin’ on an M3 tripod, puttin’ out armor-piercing SLAP ammo with a 2,000-meter range. I mean, talk about turnin’ your target into a puddle of Jell-O!”


DEPUTY FIFE: “Wait a minute, Gunner! That’s a lot of firepower. What’s it for?”


GUNNER: “What’s it for? C’mon, deputy. Whaddya think it’s for? I’m gonna start shootin’ little boys and girls! And teachers. Maybe even you! Which, by the way, IS against the law. But you can’t touch me ‘til I squeeze that trigger.”

DEPUTY FIFE: “Shooting?! But what could possibly motivate — ”


GUNNER: “Motivate?! Looky over yonder, deputy. Second floor of the school, fifth window over? Y’see there? That’s Miss Brackley’s classroom. That woman made third grade absolute hell for me. Ruined my life. I would’ve never touched crystal meth if not for that evil bitch. I probably never would’ve raped my little sister Doreen, or killed all those puppies, or set fire to Fluffy.”

DEPUTY FIFE: “Fluffy?”


GUNNER: “She’s up there right now, destroying the lives of more little kids. They’re already ruined. I have to stop them before they all turn out like me, deputy. ‘Cause I’m rotten, man! Rotten to the core! ROTTEN, I tell ya!”

DEPUTY FIFE: (Placatingly) “Oh, I don’t know, Gunner. You don’t seem so bad.”


GUNNER: “Oh yeah? You think so? OK, go over to my parents’ house. Look in the bedroom. And the kitchen. And the root cellar. And the recycling bin. And the hot tub. See if you can piece their bodies back together. But be careful you don’t trip over their intestines. And watch out for booby-traps.”

DEPUTY FIFE: (Shuddering) “All right, Gunner. I believe you. You’re rotten.”


GUNNER: “Thanks, bro. But up ‘til third grade, honest to God, I was OK.”

DEPUTY FIFE: “I see, but… Gunner, you look to be, like 25 years old now —”

GUNNER: “Twenty-eight, actually. But I moisturize.”


DEPUTY FIFE: “Oh! Really? Y’know, I should, too. But then, I get busy. Or I’m late for work…”

GUNNER: “This is what I’m talkin’ about, man. I mean, Miss Brackley, right? Beautiful skin. Like silk! But in a whole year of third grade, does she say one word about razor burn, crow’s feet, xeroderma? Does she even mention shea butter? Or shark’s liver? Or even Oil of Olay, for Pete’s sake!”

DEPUTY FIFE: “Yeah, Gunner, I see. She was a monster, but… third grade? That’s a long time ago. Why didn’t come back to kill Miss Brackley when she was still fresh in your mind? You could have spared so many third-graders from dry skin. And incest. And crime. Not to mention all those dead puppies.”


GUNNER: “Hey, don’t rub it in, pardner. This is my greatest regret. I think of all the good I could’ve done for mankind, if only I hadn’t put it off, and put it off. But that’s part of my rottenness, man. Plus, I only just got out of prison a month ago. And it took a while to get delivery on this beauty of a gun.”


DEPUTY FIFE: “Wish I could see it. Where’d you find it?”


GUNNER: “On the Web. You can get any gun on the Web. There was a couple of guided missiles that were really primo. But they were out of my price range.”

DEPUTY FIFE: “Too bad, Gunner. But I’m still wondering — ”


GUNNER: “I know, bro. You wanna know how I finally got up the nerve. Well, I tell ya, I wouldn’t be here today living my dream, except that Rep. Jim Lucas and the Indiana legislature pretty much up and said to me, personally: ‘Yo, Gunner! Go ahead and grease the bitch. We’ll make it easy.’ If not for a bunch of elected gun nuts allowing me to buy a whole lot of high-quality ordnance, and then inviting me to this parking lot, where I couldn’t miss even if I tried? I mean, without all that help, man, what’re the odds for a screw-up like me?”

DEPUTY FIFE: “I see your point, Gunner. Well, God bless democracy.”


GUNNER: “ You got that right, pal. Now, you better stand back and tweet the National Guard. I’m gonna start shootin’ and I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#669)

“Mammy’s power forward
loves short’nin’ bread…” 

By David Benjamin

“Harry, that son of a bitch is ordering me to get some niggers in here. What am I going to do?”  — Adolph Rupp

MADISON, Wis. — The Badgers of the University of Wisconsin have the whitest team left in the NCAA basketball tournament. I wasn’t aware of this until it was pointed out by Oregonian sportswriter John Canzano. Of course, while lamenting UW’s defeat of his hometown Oregon Ducks, Canzano didn’t explicitly use the word “white.”

He said that the Ducks are “the more gifted, more athletic group of players,” but what he meant was “blacker.” Wisconsin starts four white guys and Traevon Jackson. Oregon, like most leading NCAA basketball programs today, has a majority-black starting five.

This wasn’t always so. I recently re-watched Glory Road, the movie that chronicles Texas Western’s unlikely march to the 1966 NCAA title under coach Don Haskins. I remembered the triumph I felt when Haskins — the first major-college coach who dared to put five African-American players on the court at the same time — beat the lily-white Wildcats of the University of Kentucky.

In the mid-1960’s, even after passage of the Civil Rights Act, apartheid clung to college sports. A jowly racist from Kentucky, Adolph Rupp, towered over NCAA hoops like the Old Testament God. He disdained to play teams with black players. He singlehandedly enforced the color line in the mighty Southeastern Conference and he preached the dogma that blacks were flashy but dumb, lazy on defense, selfish, undisciplined and congenitally unfit for organized sports.

Since that night in ’66 when Bobby Joe Hill and David Lattin deliciously rubbed Rupp’s bigotry in his face, America has progressed so far that basketball racialism — take Canzano, for instance — has taken a sort of weird U-turn. Now, without exactly saying so, hoop fans assume that a white star on a big-time college or NBA team earned his distinction not because of talent or physical gifts, but only after beating the racial odds through thousands of grueling hours of extra practice. The term “gym rat” always applies to white kids.

Among the lexicon of basketball synonyms for “white” are also “gritty,” “blue-collar,” “hard-nosed,” “lunchpail,” “scrappy” and “grinder,” along with “stiff,” “awkward,” “a step slow,” “good without the ball” and “team-oriented.”

When a sportscaster invokes the word “athletic,” he means “black.” Other terms apply, too, like “quick,” “lightning-fast,” “above the rim.” The consensus prevails that black players were born with some sort of innate hoops mojo. Their Caucasian teammates just don’t have it. (White) film director Ron Shelton said it best for all time: “White men can’t jump.”

Canzano’s unsubtle dissing of the Badgers, “a less talented… outfit that Oregon could have dribbled circles around in a skills competition,” hints that there’s something illegitimate — perhaps even conspiratorial — about all those honkies playing for Wisconsin. Indeed, why are the Badgers so white? Is coach Bo Ryan secretly channeling Adolph Rupp? Or, is he just recruiting the best players available in a heavily white state? Or, perhaps he’s handicapped by the tendency of Wisconsin’s best black players to prefer Marquette, the Catholic college in Milwaukee where Al McGuire won it all in 1977 with four smart, disciplined out-of-state black guys and Jimmy Boylan from New Jersey.

Really, this has little to do with Bo Ryan or UW. Listen to Canzano, and you hear Adolph Rupp’s ghost, talking from the opposite side of his mouth. Canzano seems worried that if we let too many of the wrong sort of kids play, it’ll ruin basketball. Unless we’re careful, America’s most high-flying, fast-moving, spin-dribbling, slam-dunking, electrifying, mega-athletic, chocolate-thunder sport will become the equivalent of an Arthur Murray fox-trot class at the local YMCA.

Maybe I’m being unfair, but I can’t help thinking that guys like Canzano would have loved an old-time minstrel show, that defunct and degrading vaudeville spectacle in which black men (or white men in blackface) shucked and jived, tapped and pratfell, did the splits, lost their pants and carried on hilariously. The laughs were slapstick and the banter was pure Amos ‘n’ Andy. Minstrelsy was great fun, a (sometimes guilty) pleasure for both white and black audiences. In its most positive aspect, it sank deep and lasting roots in showbiz for African-Americans. On its dark side, it reinforced stereotypes: black men as fools and jesters, black women as vamps and Aunt Jemima.

In that era, it must have seemed to a Negro that his best hope for a career was a steady gig in a traveling show where he could dazzle the rubes nightly with his “athleticism,” dancing the cakewalk while strumming his banjo, playing the mouth organ and belting out “Short’nin Bread.” To suggest to a white man that this sort of simple-minded but strenuous self-abasement was the most he could do in life would be an insult. Indeed, an all-white minstrel show — without blackface makeup and racial mockery — wouldn’t have made sense or sold tickets.

So, fortunately, minstrelsy died when vaudeville died. Or… wait a minute.
Maybe our sportscasters and sportswriters are hinting at something we’d rather not admit. Maybe they’re whispering to us that watching the darkies dance and prance is still more fun than Fred Astaire.

Perhaps all we’ve really done is move the show, from Keith’s Palace to Madison Square Garden. And there — tonight! — LeBron is Mister Bones, Kevin Durant is Mister Tambo, and Dirk Nowitzki’s down on one knee in blackface with those big red painted-on lips, singing “Mammy” ‘til it just plain breaks your heart.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#668)

Back to the Future IV 
By David Benjamin

“You ain’t nothin’ but a gutless yellow turd.”  — Mad Dog Tannen

MADISON, Wis. — Have you noticed how it’s downright freakish sometimes the way foreign affairs imitate art? I mean, I know I’m not the first to observe the turmoil in Ukraine and think to myself, “Holy flux capacitor, Einstein! I’ve seen this before!” Once I experienced this epiphany, I had to fire up my DVD player and watch Back to the Future III all over again.

Because, obviously, if ever there existed a real-life version of Mad Dog Tannen (played by Thomas F. Wilson in the movie), it’s got to be Vladimir Putin, especially in the climactic gunfight sequence, where Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) eerily foreshadows the dilemma of President Barack Obama in the Ukrainian crisis.

I’m not sure why I was so dim, but the parallel didn’t hit me ‘til I saw that bare-chested horseback photo of Hopalong Putin. Clearly, Mad Dog Tannen is a lot hairier than Putin, but the resemblance — in physique, personal style and sheer brazen ugliness — is just uncanny.

Even more uncanny are the near-identical circumstances. As you recall, in the movie, it’s almost 8 o’clock on the morning that Marty (whose nom de guerre in the movie is “Clint Eastwood”) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) are due to go back to the future. But they have to get past Mad Dog Tannen, who’s out in the street, raving and foaming at the mouth. Mad Dog is fresh from robbing the Pine City Stage — which is, of course, the metaphorical equivalent of seizing Crimea.

Mad Dog demands that Marty step out of the saloon and shoot it out on the dusty main street of Hill Valley — the metaphorical equivalent of eastern Ukraine. Marty can’t call on Doc Brown for help, because the usually resourceful scientist is smitten with love for Clara (Mary Steenburgen) and too drunk to get up off the floor of the saloon.

This poses another uncanny parallel: the real-life Marty — Barack Obama — can’t rely on the assistance of his trusty Secretary of State John Kerry, because Kerry has flitted off to, of all places, Kiev. And while he’s there, Kerry is citing cinematic analogies to the wrong movie. (OMG, John! Rocky IV?)

So, it’s up to Marty “Clint Eastwood” Obama to stand up, by his lonesome, to Mad Dog Putin. True to his character, Marty hesitates on the brink of armed conflict. He knows that gunplay tends to solve nothing while prolonging a crisis. Likewise, Obama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has a habit of hesitating — and pondering alternatives — before yanking his forty-four and blasting away.

But both Marty and Barack have a fatal flaw. Neither can stand it if you call him “chicken.” As any movie fan knows, Marty got himself into deep doo-doo through three iterations of Back to the Future by reacting impetuously to this provocation. Likewise, by agreeing to the useless and costly troop “surge” in Afghanistan, by threatening missile strikes in Syria, by his heavy use of drone attacks on terrorist targets in civilian areas, Obama has repeatedly succumbed to criticism from the right wing that he’s a big fat sissified Foghorn Leghorn.

Meanwhile, back at the saloon, a chorus of warmongering conservatives is egging Marty into battle against Mad Dog Tannen. The lead oldtimers — played by three of the great character actors in Western movie history, Pat Buttram, Dub Taylor and Harry Carey, Jr. — are telling Marty what Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Newt Gingrich have been harping at Obama ever since Wild Bill Putin mounted his hayburner and tore off his t-shirt. They keep calling him “chicken.”

The last straw comes from Pat Buttram, who predicts what will happen if Marty backs down from his manhood-defining duel in the sun: “Everybody everywhere will say that Clint Eastwood is the biggest yellowbelly in the West.”

Thenceforth ensues a long moment of suspense, during which Doc Brown remains prostrate and director Robert Zemeckis provides valedictory close-ups of Graham, McCain and Newt. Out in the street, finishing his countdown, Mad Dog roars, “I said that’s ‘ten,’ you gutless yellow pie-slinger!”

At which Marty Obama provides the perfect squelch to the elderly chicken-hawks everywhere who sit comfortably at a safe distance, rattling their empty scabbards and flapping their jowls as they goad surrogates into holy wars against blowhards, bullies and self-elected presidents-for-life.

Marty surveys the saloon. He sees a crowd of name-callers too cowardly to strap on a holster and face Mad Dog themselves. He peers through the window at Mad Dog, a drooling psychopath with the intellectual depth of a russet potato. Then, in a flash of inspired reason, he says what every foreign policy expert and international diplomat knows — but dares not say — about Vladimir Putin.

(Thankfully, you can say these things in movies.)

“He’s an asshole!”

Then, on behalf of his metaphorical alter ego, Barack Obama, Marty continues: “I don’t care what Tannen says. Or what anybody else (Putin, Graham, McCain, Gingrich, Pat Buttram, Harry Carey, Jr. or Dub Taylor) says!”

Alas, in the movie, events overtake Marty and he has to deal with Mad Dog anyway. But he triumphs not with the speed of his draw nor by giving in to ruthlessness, but by summoning his knowledge of film history. Mad Dog ends up eating manure and going to jail for holding up the stagecoach.

This being real life, Mad Dog Putin’s comeuppance might not come quite so neatly — if it comes at all. More likely, when Barack Obama leaves the White House, Putin will still be on top of that Russian horse, still no shirt, still an asshole, galloping unstoppably — like the wind on the steppes… back to the past.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#667)

Trays, entitlement
and the little brown bag 

By David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — Representative Paul Ryan’s frequent outbursts of pseudo-sociological insight are little noted nor long-remembered in the greater scheme of American rhetoric. But they tend to make me lose my cool and go all high-school. This is mostly because, for the last 50 years, my old high school has been playing his old high school in football (latest score: LaFollette 41, Craig 23).

So, it was inevitable that my simmer would escalate to near-boil when Ryan confabulated a spurious morality tale about the little boy who knew his mommy loved him because she sent him to school every day with a homemade brown-bag PB&J lunch. Ryan’s penance for this barefaced whopper was delivered in the form of four “Pinocchios” from Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler.

I’m not sure if Ryan felt bad when his second-hand story was proven bogus. But as he told it, he clearly believed himself. How could anyone be so naïve?

If there’s an answer, its clues lie in his background. As I’ve written, Ryan’s hometown of Janesville has a history more true to Mississippi than to Wisconsin.

In the first quarter of the 20th century, America experienced one of the great diasporas of the Industrial Revolution. Hundreds of thousands of black field hands and sharecroppers fled the near-slavery of the Jim Crow South, to work in the burgeoning factories of what we now call the Rust Belt. The northernmost outposts of that vast Midwestern industrial swath were two towns in Rock County, Wisconsin — Beloit, on the Illinois border and, ten miles north, Janesville.

These cities grew up similarly, in many ways. They became economically dependent on several very large manufacturers. Each city developed a two-class social structure. The majority were blue-collar factory workers. Both towns’ tiny upper crust was composed of the managerial elite from the companies where the working-stiff masses of Beloit and Janesville earned their daily bread.

The difference was that the black refugees who had gotten this far north on Highway 51 — which bisects both cities — all lived in Beloit. Janesville stayed stubbornly lily-white for the entire 20th century. Although this chapter in state history is ill-recorded, there is evidence to indicate that sometime in the mid-1920’s, Janesville’s ruling class convinced the realtors and landlords of Rock County to halt the black tide at Janesville’s southern border. They drew a red line just north of Beloit that even the civil rights movement couldn’t erase.

This heritage is significant because, as a scion of Janesville’s elite, Paul Ryan — perhaps unknowingly — inherited the crypto-Confederate worldview that protected his hometown from the Negro infestation that lurked only ten miles away.

Which gets me back to school lunch.

Everybody knows that lunchtime in high school — once the cliques settle in and hunker down at their chosen tables — is a snakepit of class, status and popularity groupings. But before all that, as kids pour into the cafeteria, the divide consists, simply, of your trays, your baggers and your browsers.

Among the kids who grab trays, you can’t tell who’s getting a government-subsidized lunch and who’s paying full fare. In my school days, I was probably qualified for free lunch, but who knew? Nobody ever offered. I guess my mother should’ve signed us up, but she was pretty much permanently preoccupied.

Mom couldn’t even think about paying full price for her kids’ lunch, which would have come to about $9 a week. Even less likely was Mom getting out of bed to pack our lunches in Rep. Ryan’s iconic little brown bags. This is because the day before, she’d put in six hours selling fridges and dishwashers at Clyde’s appliances, then worked ‘til 2 a.m. waiting tables at Leske’s Supper Club. Every morning, as I headed out the door into the dark Wisconsin dawn, Mom was sprawled in bed, mouth open, dead to the world, making unmotherly noises.

I suppose I should have packed my own little bag. But I was barely awake. And most of the time, we lacked ingredients. Lunch meat and tuna fish, for example, were infrequent luxuries that tended to disappear overnight. Even a loaf of bread was a sometime thing. Besides, who could afford brown paper bags?

My daily lunch strategy was simple. Most days, I didn’t eat (which is probably why I’m fat now — I’m overcompensating). But, just in case, I browsed.

Now, at lunchtime at LaFollette (and also at Janesville Craig), the ideal was to take a tray. It blended you in. Also, that tray full of institutional cuisine united you in common complaint with the whole student body. “What’s in this crap?”

A brown bag set you apart, uneasily. No one regarded it as a symbol of motherly love, family values or household stability. It told other kids that your parents were cheapskates, or your old man was unemployed, or your mom was divorced. Every brown bag contained a thin, Saran-wrapped slice of shame.

As neither a tray regular nor brown-bagger, I would amble diffidently into the cafeteria and browse the steam tables with a critical eye. Now and then, especially on sloppy-joe day, I’d take the plunge, blow 60 cents on a lunch ticket — about half my disposable wealth in any given week — and grab a tray.

That was my thrill for the week. On a normal day, I just went back to the school commons, watched the greasers playing euchre with Coach Olson and waited for the fifth-period bell. My first meal of the day was supper, which — if I played my cards right — wasn’t at home, where pickings were slim, but over at Dick’s house. By age 15, my mooching skills were at a professional level.

When he talks about school lunch, I suspect that Paul Ryan is sincere. It’s easy for him to wax sentimental over brown bags stuffed with love, because — as every bagger and browser can tell just by looking at him — he never carried one.

From his first day in kindergarten, Paul Ryan was a tray.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#666)

A natural woman
By David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — Hotlips, who was born in Hiroshima ten years after the Bomb, was among 51 honest-looking people who raised their right hands last week in a Milwaukee courthouse and lied their way into America.

It would be nice to accomplish this remarkable feat — U.S. citizenship — by telling the truth, but the system is designed for mendacity. Since immigration was formalized about a century ago, the process of vetting “applicants” has been run by flagrant bigots, bitter bureaucrats, soulless functionaries and obsessive-compulsive desk-straighteners from the U.S. Dept. of Suspicion and Paranoia.


A swarm of them surrounded us as soon as we set foot in the building. Their security shakedown — metal detectors, x-rays, wands, shoes off, clothes off, patdowns, veiled threats and dirty looks — made it clear that we’re the sort who have something to hide, and they were the bloodhounds who could find it, no matter where and how deeply we had tucked it away.


But, after all that rigmarole, they had to let Hotlips — and all her fellow aliens — into the building. She was invited. She’d won.


Almost.

Hotlips & the Aliens were survivors of a booby-trapped labyrinth that takes years and requires reams of paperwork. The drones and dwarfs of the U.S. Customs & Immigration “Service” serve only in name. Their mission is not really “naturalization.” It is exclusion, and these eagle-eyes find pretext for exclusion in clerical specks as miniscule as a dropped zip code or a misplaced apostrophe. Hotlips’ hopes were almost derailed by faulty fingerprint technology. The government’s machine couldn’t read two of her fingers. She had both fingers; both fingers had prints. But, because the cludgy software couldn’t read all of her delicate whorls and subtle ridges, she was deemed a dubious character who had to be “cleared” by her local police. (Of course, she was.)

After Hotlips & the Aliens cleared security, the functionaries were left with only one shot at exclusion. Before entering the courtroom for the big Oath, each Alien had to fill out a questionnaire. Since your interview a few weeks ago, it asked, have you a) committed a crime, b) joined a conspiracy dedicated to the overthrow of the USA, or c) traveled outside the country.


You see the trick here. The quiz was not only superfluous — because it came after the applicant had already been approved — it cunningly conflated a weekend trip to, say, Toronto, with armed robbery and espionage. The wise solution (to all three questions) was to lie. If Hotlips admitted that she’d gone to Japan for a week to see her mom (which she had), could they deny her citizenship after all?  But how could they know about that trip? Could they know? Probably not. But if somehow they knew, they’d catch her — lying through her teeth to Uncle Sam. And then…


Hotlips, of course, followed her upbringing and told the truth. But she knew that, by doing so, she might have trudged all the way to the courtroom door only to be turned away from the Land of the Free by a cackling bureaucratic drone.


Luckily, Hotlips’ quiz didn’t draw the drone we feared, the fingerprint nazi. It went instead to a less vigilant grader, who shrugged at the trip to Japan. With that, Hotlips grabbed her precious white envelope, snuck past the fingerprint nazi and scurried into the oak-paneled courtroom. She was on her way at last to becoming a “natural” woman. All that remained was to utter the Oath.


Which is the biggest lie of all — the one that gets you over the razor-wire and beyond the guard towers. In its original 91 words, which didn’t exist ‘til 1929, all wannabe citizens promise to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity” to the lands of their birth and coming-of-age, “without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.”


Here’s a promise only a psychopath could keep. A normal person could not — without some mental reservation — turn against the place where she grew up, where her forebears lived and died, where she still probably has parents, family and friends, where her memories were formed and took root and cannot be transplanted.


No one with a working conscience can make this sort of wrenching change in cold blood. If you can tear up your entire history without pausing to wonder what might have been, without a healthy pang of reservation, you’re a sorry exception to the human condition. You’re not the sort of citizen America wants. Pledging loyalty to a new nation and a whole new way of life is an occasion not for smug, patriotic certitude, but for a long look backward with mixed feelings.


Read critically, the Oath of Allegiance is the worst oath we’ve ever composed. It’s a clunky hodgepodge, cribbed from a 16th-century British loyalty oath (to the King) and amended (badly) during the 1950’s Red Scare with mandates to “bear arms” and to “perform noncombatant service” and “work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law,” whatever that means.


Yet, despite its empty promises and military-industrial embellishments, the Oath accomplishes a beautiful purpose. It pushes open Emma Lazarus’ “golden door,” and guarantees to everyone who utters it the rare, inviolable right to live in a nation that began as a fairly preposterous but really cool idea.


The judge talked to his new citizens for quite a while, reciting a civics lesson to a group of aspirants who’d been force-feeding themselves civics for months and knew the Bill of Rights better than most native-born Congressmen. The judge left out of his tutorial the part where a small band of bourgeois East Coast idealists, inspired not by kings or conquerors but by philosophers, turned a wilderness — against all odds — into a fiercely secular and usually progressive republic that has survived more than two centuries.


To his credit, the judge suggested that this nation “of the people, by the people, for the people” (his favorite phrase — he said it twice) overcame the inevitable temptations of nativism, racism, regionalism, religion and xenophobia. He dwelt on the fact that his 51 fresh-minted citizens that morning represented 28 countries. He celebrated — as did everyone else after he finally quieted down — that America was the unlikeliest nation ever born, a mulligatawny of mongrel dreamers gleaned from the outcasts and refugees of a hundred wars, a thousand tribes and a million small, faraway tragedies.


Despite my mental reservations, I felt rather stirred by the whole thing.

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#665)

You gonna argue with
a guy named Hensleigh Wedgwood?

By David Benjamin

“… But at night, brother howlet, over the woods,
    Toll the world to thy chantry;
    Sing to the bats' sleek sisterhoods
    Full complines with gallantry:
    Then, owls and bats,
    Cowls and twats,
    Monks and nuns, in a cloister's moods,
    Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!…”

                             — Robert Browning (1841)

MADISON, Wis. — I know exactly where Bob Fitzsimmonds is coming from, and so does the immortal poet Robert Browning.

It all started when Bob — Treasurer of the Virginia Republican Party — logged onto Facebook to shmooze with a girl named Heather. Yes. Heather. To paraphrase DirecTV, “Don’t shmooze on Facebook with a girl named Heather.”

Or, for that matter, Amber.


There on Facebook, for all the social-media world to read, Bob expressed his disapproval of a fellow Republican, Fairfax County Delegate Barbara Comstock, in these terms: “I have nothing against Barbara Comstock, but I hate sexist twat.”

On the Web, in general, this scandalous phrase — which drew a chorus of demands for Bob to resign his GOP post — was rendered as “… I hate sexist (expletive for female genitalia).” However, one website, The Raw Story, boldly asterisked the term into “tw*t,” while another, Mason Conservative just plowed right ahead and printed “twat,” possibly deciding that after we’ve all seen a few dozen Pussy Riot newsclips on CNN and CBS News, what the hell?


The same spirit probably inspired Frankly Curious Dot Com to post a link to all 152 twattish synonyms, among which the most poetic are “bat cave,” “hooded lady,” “moose knuckle,” “whispering eye” and “wizard sleeve.”


Alas, poor Bob. If only he’d called Barb a “sexist moose knuckle.” The media universe would have responded more with head-scratching than outrage.


At first, I was a little put off by Bob’s remark, because I’m a little squeamish about gross references to ladies’ goodies. Among these, I’ve always regarded “twat” as just one degree more shocking than the C-word — both of which George Carlin, a gentleman after all, would have probably never uttered on television.

Bob’s vulgarity troubled me, but his grammar was puzzling. I couldn’t help but mentally insert an “a” in front of “sexist twat.” Why did Bob omit the article? Or, if Bob is lumping Barb into a category, shouldn’t he render “twats” as a plural.


The scales fell off this apparent blunder when Bob issued his obligatory mea culpa, adding: “I used the wrong word. I thought it meant the same as ‘twaddle’.”


Of course! As a collective noun — like “rubbish” or “nonsense” — “twaddle” requires no article. It tolerates usage both singular and plural.

With this admission (and the recovery of his grammatical integrity), I swung over to Bob’s side, Republican or not. I’ve made reams of similar errors myself. In a letter to a college president once, I mistook “mordant” for “trenchant.” In a book that stayed in print for almost 20 years, I wrote “stoat” where I meant “shoat,” and “Butterfly McQueen” where I intended “Hattie McDaniel.” The latter two screw-ups haunted me ‘til I was finally able to publish a revised version of the book.

Further mitigating Bob’s goof is that none other than Robert Browning pulled the same boner in his poem, Pippa Passes. He referenced the “cowls and twats” of “monks and nuns,” thinking that a twat was an item of nunnish headgear. His “naïve” mistake, according to researchers, dates to a 17th-century poem, Vanity of Vanities that conflates Carmelite coochie with a Vatican beanie, as follows:


They talk’d of his having a Cardinall’s Hat

They’d send him as soon an Old Nun’s Twat


Innocent though they both might be, however, both Bobs, in trotting out “twat,” screwed the pooch. As I searched the literature, I found little consolation for either Fitzsimmonds or Browning in the naughty word’s origins. Most lexicographers couldn’t trace “twat” at all. One who tried found its source in an Old Norse word, thveit, meaning a cut, a slit or a forest clearing — which pretty much circled me back to “Oh my God. Why did he say that?”

Momentarily, on a British website called Thinking Twat Shirts, I thought I’d found a defense Bob from his detractors. The site said, “‘Twat’ is in fact an old English word meaning ‘one who likes to share their thoughts’. In medieval villages to be regarded as a ‘twat’ was something positive. It was the twats who voiced their thoughts and were generous in allowing other people into their world of ideas and opinions. Twitter is of course a modern medium for twats…”


At “Twitter,” I realized that whoever wrote this was pulling my leg.


Finally, as I was about to forsake the task of saving Bob FitzSimmonds’ ravaged reputation, I found it — proof that Bob was right all along! — in the Dictionary of English Etymology, Volume 3 by Hensleigh Wedgewood.

Quoth Prof. Hensleigh: “… Twattle. Betwattled, perplexed, confused, stupefied. The radical element twat corresponds to G[erman] zotte, signifying a bush of hair, whence zotteln, to entangle; den verzottelten bart…”


There, y’see? Rather than demanding Bob’s ouster, the impetuous media owe him a debt of gratitude. He enriched our vocabulary, made us all think (if only for one guilty moment) about naked women, and, best of all, betwattled the know-it-alls of the punditocracy with a lexical/anatomical conundrum that left all of us — guys and gals alike — feeling a little… well, pussy-whipped.