Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#703)

The fresh eye dances,
the jaded eye drifts

by David Benjamin

PARIS — A.O. Scott, the Times’ venerable movie critic has named his Ten Best Films of 2014. I confess that I didn’t pay it much heed, despite my respect for Scott’s erudition. A guilty glance told me I hadn’t seen any of his Ten. Nor would I ever. Nor would 99 percent of normal movie-goers ever get a load of A.O.’s faves.

It would be more accurate to title the list “The Year’s Ten Snootiest Films for Artsy-Fartsy Snobs.” By this, I don’t mean to be critical. I sympathize with critics who, I’m sure, must be burned-out and dog-tired from screening, often more than once, every film released anywhere all year. To do the job, every reviewer eventually turns a beloved childhood pastime — movies, plays, books, video games — into a dream job, which then becomes a career-long forced march through a bog of mediocrity. Those “ten best” are moments of blessed relief from the tedium.

As our critics (if they’re any good) often remind us, most of the stuff produced by the global entertainment/industrial complex is bread and circus. It’s opium for the masses. It’s Rocky 12 and the umpteenth iteration  of  “Bond… James Bond.” A guy like Scott, assigned to sit though every flick down the pike —  the good, the bad and Adam Sandler — finds himself most of the time hip-deep in crap.

Who could blame your typical film critic for growing weary, cynical and pathologically finicky? He’d have to be a saint not to harbor a sneaking resentment for us mere “buffs” who still see the movies as a big night out, who retain our capacity for cinematic joy, who can still be surprised when Rosebud turns out to be Charles Foster Kane’s rubber ducky. The fresh eye dances, the jaded eye drifts — and it tends to drift away from the ordinary. It seeks the avant garde, the bizarre and grimly documentary, the experimental and the infinitesimally subtle.

I thought about the critic’s loss of wonder a few years ago at a Broadway revival of Anything Goes. Even as I admired the slick production, the vintage costumes, the $150 admission price and the delectable lyrics of Cole Porter, my mind wandered. I’d been here, done this — too many times.

In my newspaper days, I covered the theater in and around Boston. There were weeks when I reviewed three plays in five days, ranging from Theater District premiers to church halls in Rhode Island. I had orchestra seats to Julie Harris, Vincent Price, Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, Madeleine Kahn, James Earl Jones, Frank Langella, Tovah Feldshuh, Robert Preston, Hal Holbrook, Ann Reinking and Twiggy. I panned Dreamgirls while others raved. I loved The Prince of Grand Street just before it died on the road. I got blacklisted from the American Rep by Robert Brustein. I loved it. I saw more than 300 shows in an overdose of razzle-dazzle and Athol Fugard that pretty much ruined live theater for me, forever.

Any good critic figures out quickly that the lively arts are designed to manipulate the emotions of an audience that’s paying through the nose to be tricked and mesmerized — an audience who wants to laugh, wants to cry, wants all the fluff and fakery to linger in its heart and wants to walk out with the title tune on its lips. (Which is why I hated Dreamgirls. A Motown operetta that sent you away, after three hours, with nothing to hum? Seriously?)

The critic is the spoilsport in the best seat who can’t be fooled, moved or surprised. He’s the turd in the punchbowl. Your typical critic is a know-it-all whose greatest pleasure is tossing off an allusion so obscure — Orlando Furioso, perhaps, or the Gnostic gospels — that not one other soul in the tri-state region has the foggiest notion what he’s talking about.

While the audience is clapping, leaping to its feet and going “Whoo!”, the critic crouches below with scalpel and notebook, comparing, contrasting, doubting, dissecting. He seeks only what’s different (ideally, nothing), what worked or failed. He must decide, before deadline, whether this show met a standard of excellence so subjective that no one beyond this one lonesome critic knows what the hell it is.

If he sticks with the job long enough, the critic becomes a sort of theologian, counting tiny Eleanor Powells tapdancing on the head of an invisible pin. He’s the biologist peering through the lens and — where everybody else just sees a smudge — distinguishing paramecia from the stentors and amoebae. The elements of film, art, literature, theater, opera that he cherishes are so personal and esoteric that his reviews become a kind of eloquent jabberwocky, useless but oddly entertaining.

This syndrome infects all criticism, but it’s most advanced in the art world, where — today — no museum-goer knows for sure whether a banana peel in the stairwell is a million-dollar “installation,” or just a banana peel in the stairwell.

Since James Joyce finished “Work In Progress” and titled it Finnegan’s Wake, 20th-century literature has cultivated an entire genre of novels so self-allusive, gimmicky and opaque that only lit-critics and grad students ever make it through all 900 pages. “Modern classics.” Really? Or banana peels in the stairwell?

With movies, our A-list reviewers tend to fall iconoclastically in love with the more motionless of motion pictures, movies that most resemble books — and sad books, at that! Among each year’s “ten best” there’s always a subtitled Third World “indie,” typically filmed out-of-focus entirely with one hand-held camera in smoke-filled cellars and dark alleys where starving urchins with huge sunken eyes and sticklike limbs flee incestuous stepfathers only to suffer ghastly outrages at the sadistic hands of toothless fiends, only to transcend the horrors of captivity with heart-warming pluck and mutual sacrifice, only to be snuffed out cruelly, heart-rendingly (but transcendently) in the end, like butterflies under the dung-covered boot-heel of life, only to awaken — in the “brilliantly inventive” final scene — in a SoHo loft where the whole thing turns out to be just a dream that never happened.

In the words of Fred Astaire, “That’s entertainment!”

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#702)

Izzy Glick, Nativity impresario
by David Benjamin

BETHLEHEM, 0 A.D. — Contrary to popular legend, the desk clerk at the inn — whose name was Nahim — was sympathetic to the bedraggled couple who arrived from Nazareth and asked for a room. After giving them the bad news the inn was full up, Nahim said, “Wait a minute! I just got word that these three Magi from God-knows-where, who are searching for the Christchild — I mean, really! These days, who’s NOT searching for the Christchild? But they’re running late and I can see that your wife is really pregnant. Whoa! Is she gonna have a baby or a camel? Seriously, though, the Presidential Suite is sitting empty. So why don’t I sneak you two in there, at the regular room rate, at least for tonight.”

The couple were about to jump at the deal when a man small of stature with large, soulful eyes, horseshoe-bald with abundant sideburns, a wispy mustache and wet lips, interceded. “Not so fast there, Nahim, my good man. Not so fast!”

He shook hands all around. “How are ya! My name is Glick, Isadore Glick. But you should call me Izzy. I’m what my friends call a facilitator and you don’t wanna hear what my enemies call me! Hah! Listen, I couldn’t help but hear Nahim here utter the words ‘Christchild’ and ‘pregnant’ in the same paragraph. And it hit me!”

“What,” said the man from Nazareth, “hit you?”

“An idea! A brainstorm! The chance of a lifetime? Lifetime? No! This is the chance of an epoch,” raved Izzy. “Nahim, you have a stable here, am I right?”

Nahim said, “Yes, but it’s just, well, a stable. It’s not exactly clean.”

“Perfect! Nahim, that’s where you’re gonna put up — wait! Who are you folks?”

“Well, my name is Joseph. And my wife is Miriam — ”

“No, no. Can’t be Miriam. Sounds too Jewish. Let’s just shorten it to Mary, whaddya say? For the sake of the story.”

“Story?” asked Joseph. “What story?”

“You folks just leave that part to me. Meanwhile, Nahim! I’ll take that suite off your hands. Somebody’s got to stay there, right? Now, let’s us three — you and me, Joe, and the lovely Mary — let’s take a look at that cozy little stable!”

Before they could object, Mary and Joseph were out behind the inn. They beheld the boniest cow they’d ever seen, standing forlorn and ankle-deep in manure in a cramped, filthy stable.

“Nope, not quite ready for prime time,” said Izzy Glick. “I mean, it has possibilities. But something’s missing. All we’ve got now for props is a hangdog cow and that broken-down manger. Even if we throw in your donkey…”

With that, Izzy disappeared. Mary and Joseph did their best to clear some of the manure, spread straw and repair the manger. An hour later, as darkness fell, Izzy was back with a group of men and one boy, all carrying musical instruments. “Hey folks, look what I found! Shepherds from the hills around Bethlehem.”

“We’re not shepherds,” insisted one of the group.

“Actually, M&J,” said Izzy in a confidential tone, “they’re the band. They’re playing the lounge at the inn this week. Hey, Mac, what do you call yourselves?”

“Little Caesar and the Romans,” said the leader, in a resentful tone. “Listen, man, you gonna tell us why we have to wear these cockamamie shepherd threads?”

“Look, man. The Christchild narrative just doesn’t resonate if the babe is surrounded by a lot of cool cats in shades with klezmers and Stratocasters, you dig? It has to be shepherds, okay? With staffs.”

“Well, as long as we get paid,” said Little Caesar.

“Oh, don’t you worry about that!” said Izzy. “Great! Here come the sheep!”

Nahim arrived, leading a half-dozen sheep. He looked both skeptical and anxious. He said, “Mr. Glick, my boss is going to miss these sheep. He was planning to serve them for dinner tonight.”

“Listen, kid. This deal is way bigger than a few bowls of mutton stew. As Marie Antoinette is eventually gonna say, ‘Let ‘em eat cake.' Or fish. Or escarole!’”

“Marie who?” said one of the Romans.

As Nahim withdrew, Izzy busily arranged sheep, cow, donkey and faux shepherds around the stable. He added a stray puppy to the tableau, tossed around a few pine boughs and glowed with proprietary pride. Suddenly, he turned on Mary. “So, if it’s a boy — oy vey! it’s, it’s gotta be a boy!— whaddya gonna call him?”

“We were thinking, Jesus.”

“Jesus? Really? Half the kids in Israel are Jesuses. I’m thinking — liberate your minds here a little bit, kids — something a little catchier. More exotic! Like — you ready? — Elvis.”

“Elvis?” said Joseph. “What the hell kind of a name — ”

“Look, Joe, we’re creating an image here. This baby of yours — I kid you not — could be the Christchild everybody’s waiting for. All he needs is a good promoter! A facilitator. A man with a plan! Enter Izzy Glick!”
Izzy could tell Joseph wasn’t buying it.

“Picture it. Elvis Christ! With my help, little Elvis’ll have followers before he hits puberty. Followers, Joe! Elvisites. Or Elivisciples. Pretty soon, there’ll be a whole movement. Elvisism. Elvisanity. Something like that.”

Mary, however, stuck with “Jesus” and crept back onto a pile of straw to have her baby in relative solitude.

The child was born that night. The pseudo-shepherds got bored and asked if they could play a few numbers. Izzy agreed but not while tiny Jesus was asleep. “And tell your Little Drummer Boy to keep it to a low roar,” said Izzy. “He’s not exactly Gene Krupa, y’know.”

“Gene who?” said Little Caesar.

Joseph couldn’t understand why his wife had to nurse her firstborn in a stable amongst at lot of livestock and strangers. He’d been patient with Izzy, but he decided to finally put his foot down.

“Look, Joe, my man!” said Izzy. “You gotta start looking Big Picture here. You think I’m in this deal for the short haul? No way, bro. I can see things ten, twenty years down the road, Joe. Picture your little Elvis — I mean, Jesus — booked at every wedding, funeral and synagogue from Tarsus to Judea. Picture him playing the main gallery at the Temple — in Jerusalem! He’s talking circles around the Sadducees and ripping into the moneychangers. As clear as day, I can see this kid — your son, Joe! — leading throngs of wide-eyed believers, to a mountaintop somewhere in Galilee. Holding thousands spellbound for hours, praying, preaching, pontificating, tossing off blessings like lollipops at a Fourth of July parade! I tell ya, Joe baby. This is going to be huge!

“Fourth of what?” asked Joseph.

Izzy kept talking, but Joseph never really understood the concept. The Nativity miracle might have died there in the stable if the Magi hadn’t arrived in the nick of time. “Now here,” said Izzy, rubbing his hands and arching his eyebrows, “is a team I can work with. Yo, Caesar! Strike up the Romans!”

As the band swung into a ragtime riff, Izzy huddled with Balthazar, ‎Melchior and ‎Caspar. “Listen, guys, I know you’ve been on the road a long time, looking for this mythical Christchild. Believe me, I know what you’re going through. These are hard times. The world is in sin and error pining. The Romans are running the show and the king is a sadistic puppet who’s likely any minute to pop his gourd and serve up the local prophet’s head on a platter for his slutty stepdaughter’s bachelorette luncheon. And then he might grab you guys and turn you into dessert! Meanwhile, you’ve got free-lance messiahs coming out of the woodwork. How you ever gonna tell the flimflammers from the real Son of God?”

“We’re sure we’ll know him when we see him,” said Caspar. “The Christchild will reveal himself. He will be young and innocent, but his voice will be wondrous, his message irresistible and his faith pure.”

“For your sake, pal, I hope so. But you might just be barking up the wrong forest,” said Izzy. “What you boys have to do is think younger! Think Moses-in-the-bulrushes. Madonna-and-Child. Babe-in-a-manger. Think Jesus Christ!”

“Think who?” asked Balthazar.

With that, Izzy pushed aside several sheep. The Three Kings beheld a destitute newborn swaddled in rags lying in a smelly stable while lounge musicians in shepherd drag sawed away at the birth of the blues.

Voila, gents: the perfect Christchild. This little bundle of joy hasn’t been ruined yet by rabbis and Pharisees. He hasn’t even been circumsized! His story is a blank slate. Lucky for all of us, though, it won’t be blank for long, because I happen to know a young scribe who can write it all up —  my cousin Irv’s nephew Luke. That boy can spin a yarn that’ll boggle your mind, tickle your fancy, break your heart and turn that crummy stable into the Good Lord’s tabernacle. By the time he’s done, my boy Luke will have angels bending near the earth, heaven and nature singing, hallelujahs falling like snow, giant blinding stars rolling across the night sky like Apollo’s chariot.”

The Magi, who were dead on their feet and ready to end their quest, wavered. Izzy sealed the deal by offering to give up the Presidential Suite at the crowded inn.

“So,” said Izzy, “you’ve got your newborn King. Did somebody mention that you brought gifts.”

The Magi showed Izzy their stash of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

“Give Joe there the frankincense and myrrh,” said Izzy. “But I’d better hold the gold. The last thing the Savior needs, image-wise, is for word to get out that he’s hip-deep in the old do-re-mi, you dig? The kid’s gotta be a man of the people. Wear sandals. Catch fish. Work with his hands. Abe Lincoln and all that, y’know?”

“Abe who?” said Balthazar.

Izzy shouted, over the music. “Hey, Joe! What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a carpenter.”

“Oh God, is that perfect or what?” said Izzy to the Magi. “Come on. Let me introduce you boys to Joe, Mary and the Everloving Savior of the World. I tell ya, fellas. This is going to be huge!

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#701)

Christmas through a glass, darkly
(In memory of Paul Keeffe, LaFollette H.S., Class of ’67)
by David Benjamin

On a recent visit to New York, I got together with a lifelong friend, Pat Keeffe, who was in the first graduating class (‘65) at LaFollette High. Earlier this year, Pat and his family had mourned the too-soon loss of Pat’s brother, Paul — who graduated with me in ’67. Paul was handsome, funny, charming and spectacularly unpredictable.

Pat recalled reading — with Paul — one of my first Christmas stories. I’d written it when I was barely 16, and lost it until Patty (Brill) Hammes (also ’67) dug it up from her
LaFollette Lance news archives. Pat Keeffe somehow remembered the story, by its title. I promised Pat I’d find it and send a copy. Since it holds up well after all these years — better than a lot of stuff I’ve written since then — I thought I might as well reprise it, as this year’s Christmas screed. It’s called…

Next Year, Bring Guns

The clock was near to chiming 2 a.m. For the third time that night, I flashed the ready sign to Amos. Catching the signal, Saunders nudged Amos, who had dozed off. The waiting, clearly, had not gotten on his nerves. I ventured to breach the silence.

“Use your head, Amos.”

My exclamation roused several idlers, including Clow and Wesley, upon whose brute strength the operation depended.

Another ten minutes passed uneventfully. We began to worry if he would ever come. Had he smelled a rat and just passed us over?

Then, finally, Wiese stirred clumsily. His keen ears had picked up the distant sound of jingling bells. In a second, it came to Bedrich, then Eloiten. Then, the rest of us heard it. This was IT. We all took a tight grip on our bludgeons, truncheons and bodkins.

Moments later, clomping, trampling, prancing and pawing pounded on the roof above us. It was HIM. Hyland’s iridescent eyes glowed in the darkness. They were a dead giveaway. Obis made him put on his sunglasses. We all breathed easier.

A clattering and scraping echoed from the chimney. He was coming. We could hear him grunting and puffing, cursing obscenely under his labored breath. I clutched my icepick.

Suddenly, the coveted bag clunked into the hearth. Graves, losing control, lunged toward it. In the nick of time, Sidman, Parmelee and Ross seized him by the ankles and dragged him back. I made a quick check of our hiding places. Not one of us could be seen. The plan was set. Then, all eyes flashed to the fireplace as he kicked the sack aside and landed, coughing, in a cloud of fine ash. With a bend and a twist, he was free from the chimney.

And there he stood, red and sooty and sloppy, his yellow buck teeth protruding from his stringy gray beard, his hand — coated with grime — resting on his monstrous belly. He reeked of B.O. and reindeer manure. He lay his finger up side of his nose and then thrust it inside. He dug out a booger the size of a Swedish meatball and smeared it across his bodice. Then, scratching his crotch and lighting a cigarette, he straightened to his full height — a great big fat mountain of fuming pork grease.
Luveta turned her head in revulsion. Rahl whispered to me, “How does a tub of lard like that get down a chimney?

Dragging the bulging sack to his side, he looked casually around, smirking. His pig eyes settled on the milk and cookies. Food. An expression of greed crossed his brow. He reached, compulsively, for the goodies. He had taken the bait.

A scant second too early, Siert took the cue and leapt from cover. He threw himself onto the back of the beast. The red giant, like a grizzly flicking away a squirrel, shoved Siert off and — with a roar of Neanderthal fury — set himself.

Waving our bludgeons, flashing our stilettos and crying, “Ya-a-a-ah! Blood!”, we attacked the Crimson Creature.

Amos, Varney, Courtney, Graves, Obis, Festus, Campbell, Vilhjalmur, LaMont, Merten, Sidman, Ross, Corbin, Gerard, Traugott, Cathmor, Tayloe and Saunders hit him low.

Clow, Wesley, Wiese, Bedrich, Eliot, Eloiten, Hyland, Parmelee, Rahl, Asa, Grover, Clifton, Dowse, Townsend, Bagnall, Myers, Jim and I hit him high.

Gillman, Elijah, Madison, Gray, Nym and Adonis hit him in the middle..

Eyes blazing, nose flaring, snot flying, slaver foaming from his mouth, he swung left and right, smashing heads. Time and again, we pierced his immense overcoat with our daggers and bounced our clubs off his polyethylene skull.

His colossal strength, with the split second of warning that Siert had given him, was winning out. He tossed our slight bodies like matchsticks. I saw Wesley splat into the wall at the end of the room. Corbin was squashed beneath his gargantuan feet. He took a last drag on his Camel and put it out in Luveta’s eye, sending her screaming out the door and into the blizzard. He strangled Grover with a flick of his wrist.

Inch by inch, he retreated to the hearth. With the precious sack of toys before him, casting aside our futile efforts to halt him and destroy his evil reign of avarice and materialism, he disappeared — with a mighty shove — up the chimney.

We took the defeat hard, as hard as we had taken it the year before, and the year before that, and the whole twelve years before that. Maybe we were getting old.

An hour later, licking our wounds, we all went upstairs to nestle snug in our beds. As we filed out, stepping respectfully over the bodies of our dead, I turned to my comrades and said, “Next year, boys, bring guns.”

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#700)

Diary of a wetback skip tracer
by David Benjamin

“ICE deported almost 393,000 people from the U.S. in 2010. At $12,500 per person the cost to remove them was almost $5 billion.”
                                                           — Associated Press

This is the city. Los Angeles. I work here. I’m a dick. Private. My name is Biff Borders. I do immigration enforcement for Uncle Sam.

It was Tuesday, November 25th. It was raining in America. I was tracking a fugitive wetback named Raoul Wong-Li McFadden, whose street monicker was “Pegleg.” Despite getting his leg shot to hell by a crazed drug gang who’d invaded his house, killed his parents, raped his sisters and ate his dog, Señor Fluffy, McFadden had hiked all the way to Texas from Tegucigalpa at the age of nine. He had a lot of moxie, but he was illegal and that was against the law.

My job: Find him, cuff him, send him back.

McFadden had been in the country 42 years. He’d sired six anchor babies. The oldest was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins. His wife was from El Salvador. She’d told a sob story about how her village was rounded up by a government death squad and roasted to death in a burning church. For that, the softhearted pansies at Immigration gave her political asylum and a green card.

My job: Break up the family.

I’d been on his trail 17 days when I found McFadden hiding in plain sight. In Chicago. Working days as a landscaper in Lake Forest. Nights at a burger joint. He asked if I wanted to super-size my fries and I yanked my gat. “Hands up, Pegleg.”

“You a cop?”

I told him, “What do you think, amigo?”

“If you are, where’s your badge, cabron?”

“I don’t need no stinking badge,” I snapped. “I’m a government contractor.”

I went on to explain that there are 11 million illegals and only a few thousand ICE agents. McFadden did the math. He wasn’t dumb. Knew the jig was up. Came quietly. I flew him to L.A., called the feds. The said they’d be by. Meanwhile, I locked him in the john. Slipped tortillas under the door. Used the neighbors’ toilet.

Weeks passed. I didn’t mind. I was billing Uncle Sam two hundred a day plus expenses.

My job: Put Pegleg on ice. Keep the meter running.

After a month of peeing nextdoor, I cuffed McFadden to the living-room radiator. Let him watch TV. He begged to call his wife. Pregnant. “In a pig’s eye,” I said. I knew they talk in code. Aliens. Can’t trust them. Can’t kill them.

My job: Head ‘em up. Move ‘em out.

McFadden asked why.

I told him it’s not my job to ask why. I’m a dick. The Republicans are in charge. They don’t like wetbacks. That’s how it is. What’s to ask?

I said, “Just the facts, man.”

Raoul said facts or not, this whole hunting expedition, for people like him, was a colossal waste. “Look, gringo,” he said, “I bet your great grandmother came to America in the 19th century, right?”

I said Great-Nana’s parents arrived in the 1870’s, from Europe. “So, what makes me illegal and your granny’s granny legit?” he asked. “All she had to do was hit Ellis Island before 1906. ‘Til then, America was an open door — to anyone. Thieves, murderers, Communists, alchemists, Irishmen, physicists, Jews! No laws, no quotas. She just walked off the boat and headed for the Lower East Side.”

“That’s different,” I said. “My great great granny was white. You’re not.”

“So! You’re a bigot.”

“No, I’m a dick.”

“Listen,” said Raoul. “Before you caught me, I didn’t bother a soul for 40 years. I was invisible. We all are. Eleven million ghosts. If a few blowhards in Congress weren’t hollering that we’re a problem, we wouldn’t be a problem. At all. We’d go on doing all the nastiest jobs in America, at minimum wage, or worse, without overtime, sometimes without getting paid. We spend all our earnings, contribute to the economy and pay taxes but we’re not eligible for social services and we’re afraid to go to the hospital. We’re the closest thing you have to slaves, and you have to admit it, Sarge. Slavery’s as American as apple pie.”

“I’m not a sarge. I’m a dick.”

“I can see that,” said Raoul. “Look, if you catch us all and ship us back, along with our kids, then who’ll flip your burgers, pull your onions and pick your peaches? Who’ll bus your tables, mop your floors, blow your leaves, nanny your brats, empty your bedpans, make up your room and put candy on your pillow? Where will you go to fill all those crappy jobs? Monaco? Switzerland? Canada?”

I know a rhetorical question when I hear one. So I kept my peace.

“Why not spare yourselves all this stupid effort? You’re wasting billions chasing hard-working, innocent people.” Raoul went on. “Why not just keep us? You don’t have to legalize us, or approve of us, or even see us. Just leave us alone — invisible, miserable and scorned. We’ll keep on doing the ugly jobs. We’ll keep cleaning up the messes you leave. All you have to do is let me go. Let all of us go.”

“That’s not my job.”

“I know,” he said. “You’re a dick.”

After two more months and a lot of conversations like this, the feds finally came and took McFadden He ended up back in Tegucigalpa — after only six months in solitary at a detention facility in Rectal Itch, Utah.

Me? I did my job: One down. Ten million, nine hundred ninety-nine to go.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#699)

With friends like these…
by David Benjamin

“… the Islamic State, or ISIS, is homegrown; its aim is not to strike far away, but to spread and impose its vision of Islamic society right here and right now…”
                                                  — Thomas L. Friedman in Dubai

MADISON, Wis. — OK, this girl in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, got shot in the face by a squad of emotionally twisted, mentally retarded religious zealots.

Shot. With an assault rifle. In the face!

Why? Because she went to school — in a society where girls are required by God to remain submissive and illiterate, and kept under house arrest in, preferably, a state of perpetual pregnancy.

And it’s not over. Right now, there’s a global guerrilla army of like-minded retards festering to finish Malala off, with seven or eight more bullets. In the face!

Best of all, according to last week’s news, the whole nation of Pakistan — which is one of America’s allies — is pulling for the retards. A group of 150,000 private schools in Pakistan, representing what pretty much seems like the national consensus, has resolved to teach all its pupils — let’s say there’s about 20 million of them — that Malala is an evil bitch who deserved to get shot in the face, because she offends Islam and the “ideology of Pakistan.”

I gotta ask: What is wrong with these people? And why are they our friends?

OK, a while ago, these two Pakistani brothers got arrested for digging up dead people and eating them. They got off because, in Pakistan, cannibalism is not illegal. So, after they got sprung, guess what? The Zombie Brothers, Jake and Elwood, headed back to the cemetery, dug up a fresh infant corpse and ate its liver — with fava beans and a nice Chianti.

Again: Why are these people our friends?

OK, in Afghanistan, there was this long-running story about a girl who — according to national custom — was sold in marriage (on layaway, for about the price of a two-slot toaster) when she was about six years old, to a hairy old guy in the next village. She was supposed to marry this horny pedophile when she was 12 or so, but she resisted, fell in love with a younger guy whom she actually knew, and eloped with him. Of course, her mother and father, and brothers, and her entire village, and the hairy pedophile, eventually caught up with the girl. They murdered her, and her husband. Everybody in Afghanistan — which is another U.S. ally, where thousands of Americans have died defending the “ideology of Afghanistan” — thought the girl was asking for it. Family honor required her violent death — ideally by stoning her — while she was still a teenager.

Again, I gotta ask: Why are these people our friends?

OK, another one of our biggest allies is India, right? For years now, it’s been really popular to send pregnant girls to “doctors” whose practice consists mainly of doing ultra-sound scans to determine the sex of fetuses. Typically, if the fetus has the bad judgment to be a girl, good old Doc Sonogram intervenes, vacuuming the inappropriate succubus from the little mommy’s womb so that she can more quickly atone for her fallopian blunder by breeding a male. The result of this practice has been a gross male/female imbalance. All those frustrated surplus boys have turned India into the world capital of gang rapes. Even when the victim isn’t torn apart and literally raped to death, traditionalists tend to regard the assault as her fault. Like women in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and other cherished American allies, she’s less likely to be comforted than shunned, if not prosecuted as a shameless slut — or summarily murdered by Mom and Dad.

In India — same place — half the population drops its feces outdoors, in  streets, yards and fields where children play. Six hundred twenty million Indian kids grow up ankle-deep in human shit, without ever finding a pony. At the moment, India has no serious plans to introduce basic sanitation into the lives of its lower-caste riffraff. Indian kids will be walking around in a brown soup of disease and death for generations to come. But hey, India has the Bomb.

One more time: Why are these people our friends?

Presumably, we tolerate these murderers, misogynists, rapists and religious nuts because we share with them enemies who are even more awful. Maybe so. But, if we just gave up on these throwbacks, what’s the worst that could happen?

OK, Americans tend to deplore religious beheadings, forced marriages, judicial amputations, cannibals, pedophiles, gender-choice feticide, gang rape, sexual subjugation, illiteracy, child soldiers, slavery, shooting little girls in the face, letting cows roam the streets and playgrounds that ooze with raw sewage.

But all these attitudes leave America hopelessly out of step with dozens of nations and billions of people who think they’re gonna go to hell if they don’t decapitate the occasional infidel or strangle the odd daughter.

This is a trend too big for a mere superpower like the U.S.A. to defy. And why should we try? Legions of true believers are slaughtering their own people and destroying civil institutions faster than we could accomplish with a million drone attacks every day. Guided by the Islamic State, billions are streaking fervently back to the Dark Ages in a Klingon Bird-of-Prey at warp speed. So, let ‘em go. Let human regression (and poop) spread from Syria to Bangladesh.

I know this sounds crazy, but I think it’ll turn out fine. Eventually — if we leave them be, with their swords, their scripture and their worst selves — even the religious sadists of ISIS will grow weary of beheading their brothers, enslaving their mothers and shooting little girls on their way to school.

Or, more likely, those brothers, mothers and little girls will grow weary of the religious sadists, and start shooting them.

Preferably, in the face.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#698)

What's in it for me? 
by David Benjamin

“This is not the time to lay out an agenda.”
                        — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

MADISON, Wis. — Every election year, the New York Times sends reporters out to some depressed working-class community in flyover country — Ypsilanti, Michigan, Youngstown, Ohio, Heiferfart, Oklahoma, etc. The resulting report tends to evoke Margaret Mead among the Polynesians, filling notebooks while snapping grainy photos of the natives as they copulate in the shrubbery and pick fleas from one another’s hair. I picture Times readers on Central Park West or over in Park Slope reading in wonderment and saying, “My God, how can they live like that?”

These anthropological expeditions into the dark continent between TriBeCa and Marin County establish the bar for political discourse throughout the media, from NPR and Reverend Al to Fox News and Matt Drudge. All this hardnosed electoral journalism ends up leaning heavily toward affect rather than cognition. Reporters keep asking folks how they feel. They elicit gut reaction and personal grievance, and if they don’t get that — in quotable nuggets — they hit “Delete.”

This emphasis on raw intimacy is equally vital to the almost omnipotent polling cartel. Opinion research, and its handicapping wing, has become a sort of national maelstrom. As it spins, it churns description into prescription. By asking a largely complacent and ill-informed electorate how it feels — right now, this minute — about issues reduced for polling purposes to one- or two-word labels, the opinion industry teaches us all how we should feel.

Politicians follow the pollsters (who, in turn, follow the politicians). The serious candidate heeds surveys slavishly while giving wide berth to the relevant, pressing issues that alter people’s lives. As we observed on Tuesday, your typical Election Day is a mass festival of emotionally charged ignorance.

We all know how we feel about, say, Chris Christie’s temper or Joni Ernst’s hair, but we know only through a glass, darkly, what’s actually at stake in America. We’re as dumb as we are at this critical moment partly because the media have abrogated their duty as skeptics and forsaken entirely their role as educators. We’ve also been virtually lobotomized by an army of horseplayers disguised as opinion researchers, and by a barrage of 20-second slasher-flicks choreographed by the thought-police who run campaigns for both the Democratic and Republican parties.

Tip O’Neill’s insight that all politics is local was an understatement. As American civics has devolved, all politics is not just personal. It’s selfish. Our leaders in both parties, at all levels, assure voters that — in any given election — only one question matters: “What’s in it for me?”

This seductive question has a million pleasing answers.

They’re all lies. 

Of course, we know it’s a lie, but we’re also convinced that any alternative answer is also bullshit, thus rendering all politics a vicious fraud and plunging every conscientious voter into a sort of existential hell.

That isn’t how I grew up learning politics. My first mentors — if I think about it — were Jesus and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. My examples of political efficacy were the New Deal and the International Brotherhood of Machinists.

In Jesus, I saw compassion for the unfortunate and a passion for equality. He was a peacemaker in a martial empire. He bespoke quiet resistance and fostered solidarity against the high and mighty. Best of all, even though he was smart, he kept things simple. From him, I learned that the first commandment of politics is the Golden Rule. Politically, said Jesus, ego is worse than irrelevant. It’s a sin.

FDR’s politics made similar sense to me because they were directed toward the greater good — as I figured Jesus would have it. My grandparents, Annie and Swede had been saved by the New Deal. Swede had barely gone to school, but FDR got him through the Depression, and then he prospered for another 30 years under the rugged loving care of the Machinists. My grandparents voted faithfully but never sought a tangible return from any election. They expected the men they elected to do right by everyone, as much as they could, even if some choices inconvenienced some voters. They knew you can’t please all the people all the time. They knew, above all, that you don’t vote for yourself. We’re in this together. You vote for everybody.

I developed all this childish idealism in parochial school, where I pictured Jesus feeding the hungry and protecting real, live children (not zygotes) from those who would impale them on swords or take away their lunch program. When I switched over to public — that’s public, for everybody — school, I had to pass exams about “unalienable rights” for all of us, “equally.” In both kinds of schools, I learned about the price free people had to pay — in civic engagement and paying taxes, in sweat, in blood, in the sacrifice of a million lives — to preserve those rights. In all the tests I took, “What’s in it for me?” never showed up.

We’ve just staged the costliest, most selfish election in our history, eclipsing the waste and narcissism of all our previous circuses. We weren’t asked to think — about anything — certainly not unalienable rights, the equality of man, the duties of citizenship, the nobility of sacrifice, or the fate of the poor, or the children, or God’s earth itself. Jesus got his name tossed around a lot, but only as either talking-point or expletive. The moneychangers weren’t just in the Temple. They own it now. FDR’s dead. The New Deal is a national embarrassment. Compassion is a sin.

And what was in it for me? Or you? Not a goddamn thing.

It was all lies.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Weekly Screed (#697)

The first thing we do,
let’s kill all the spies

by David Benjamin

Americans tend to learn most of what we know about our  “intelligence” establishment by watching TV. For example, I consumed a whole season of “Homeland” and discovered that your typical CIA agent is a twitchy, bipolar insomniac with an itchy trigger finger and a streak of nymphomania (and that’s just the male agents!). While deciding to avoid “Homeland” thereafter — unless strapped naked to a chair by CIA agents in front of a TV in an ice-cold room with constantly flickering lights and Celine Dion on the PA system — I realized that this depiction of the espionage community was unrealistic.

Real intelligence-gathering is better depicted by Gibbs, Abby, Ducky, DiNozzo, McGee and the mousy blonde who took Ziva’s place. Weekly doses of “NCIS” not only convey the magnitude of America’s global spy network but the tensions among its myriad tentacles. Gibbs and the gang at the Navy Criminal Investigative Service have an almost cordial relationship with their Coast Guard counterparts, largely because chief Agent Borin is gorgeous and got her start as one of those supermodel assistant prosecutors on “Law and Order.” Relations are less cozy, however, with NCIS’s occasional allies at the FBI, largely because Agent Fornell (a re-tread from “Hill Street Blues”) is less cute and photogenic than anybody at ether CGIS or NCIS, including Director Vance.

As for the CIA, represented by that sinister bald guy suffering from head-to-toe five o’clock shadow, well, fuggedaboudit. These spooks the enemy. They actively work to foil and frustrate Gibbs while arbitrarily kidnapping or killing every witness whom Tony and McGee haven’t already holed up in a safe house.

Even worse, there’s Homeland Security, whose paranoid imbeciles are constantly horning in on the case, barging into Abby’s lab with Kevlar vests and subpoenas, abducting Ducky’s klieg-lit cadavers and causing Palmer’s fiancée to miscarry yet another baby.

Thanks to TV, the lesson is clear. America is overrun with “intelligence” bureaus, poaching one another’s turf and relocating witnesses to the point where, today, the entire population of Arizona are living under assumed names. Governor Jan Brewer is, in fact, former DCS CI George Kaplan. There are so many agents, special agents and secret agents nowadays that they’re overflowing from cop and spy shows into secular programming. On “The Good Wife,” there were NSA eavesdroppers who knew about Alicia and Will’s affair even before Kalinda.

Conservatives keep insisting that giant chunks of the government need to be either wiped out or turned over to private enterprise, saving enormous expense and creating efficiencies unseen since the administration of George III. They tend to target agencies like Housing & Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Education Department — whose responsibilities would then devolve to landlords, strip miners and Michelle Rhee. Whee!

Not to mention putting Social Security in the hands of Citigroup and Lloyd Blankfein. And running the whole Postal Service out of a FedEx hub in Memphis.

Preposterous? Sure. But I share with conservatives the idea that we can shutter entire federal departments and suffer few consequences. “Intelligence,” whose IQ in the last decade has slipped below the core body-temp of a three-day floater pulled out of the Potomac, is my first candidate. While we can’t entirely mothball every investigator and spy in all those agencies sprawling all over the federal and military underground, we can scalpel this bloated stiff right down to the bone.

Here’s what we do.

We rent out a really big stadium. The one in Ann Arbor, where the Wolverines play football, holds more than 100,000. If you count standing room and add some bleachers on the field, we can probably fit all the agents, spooks, spies, torturers, “analysts,” shysters and gumshoes now collecting government salaries for — mostly — leaning over one another’s shoulders to peek into the computer screens that are tracking what you and I check out from the library and watch on Netflix.

Then, we tell them they’re being downsized. We explain that, from this stadium full of wannabe James Bonds and burned-out Jack Bauers, Uncle Sam’s going to keep 100 spies and 100 detectives — that’s it — all of them working for one boss with a really good mustache. Obviously, Tom Selleck.

We’ll pick the lucky 200 by staging a scavenger hunt. Each applicant has to go out and track down, for example, a dead body in Central Park, a legal alien working at McDonald’s, a Democrat in Colorado Springs, a virgin sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, a black policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, an abortion provider in Wichita, a child molester in Congress, an atheist in a foxhole, a Muslim in Oklahoma, an actual Socialist anywhere in America, a hedge-fund manager who pays taxes, a job in Detroit, a kid on a milk carton, a black welfare mother with a mink coat and a late-model Cadillac, Keyser Soze, Judge Crater, Amelia Earhart and the solution to the dilemma of the Kobayashi Maru.

Of course, some of these are booby traps. Despite its reputation, there hasn’t been a dead body in Central Park for years. And the only one who ever saw that mink-dripping welfare queen in her hot-pink Fleetwood was Ronald Reagan, and he only glimpsed her briefly because he and Knute Rockne were busy leading Luke Skywalker and the Big Red One across Omaha Beach on D-Day.

But the 200 who do the best will actually get to serve in a pared-down intelligence community free of infighting and capable, perhaps, of finding out about outfits like ISIS before Jon Stewart does.

The rest — the whole stadium full — will have to turn in their Dick Tracy watches and secret de-coder rings, let their hair grow out and apply for the night watchman job down at the candy factory.