Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#831)

The Day of the Dope
by David Benjamin

“I will give you everything. I will give you what you’ve been looking for for 50 years. I’m the only one.”
                                                                — Donald Trump

MADISON, Wis. — Most of us who remember Albert Schweitzer regard him as a selfless healer who forsook his religious and academic vocation in Germany to care for destitute villagers in darkest Africa, a mission that he continued — winning a Nobel Peace Prize — until his death in 1965. However, part of the reason for Schweitzer’s abrupt career change from the church and the university to missionary medicine was the publication, in 1906 of a dense little book called The Quest of the Historical Jesus.

 For most of the 19th century, the best scholars of the Lutheran church in Germany examined the historical roots of the New Testament, parsing details, variations and contradictions in the Gospel as it had been recorded and aggregated by its 2nd-century Christian authors. Schweitzer’s 1096 book was, in essence, the culmination of that extraordinary intellectual exercise.

Unfortunately, it made him persona non grata among the very theologians who had nurtured his genius. In The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer reached a synthesis that was logical in every respect, but never before uttered — except in whispers — by his theological forebears. Schweitzer’s interpretation of the words, sermons and parables of the New Testament, placed in the historical context of 1st-century Judaism, led him to the forthright conclusion that Jesus was an eschatological Messiah.

According to Schweitzer’s analysis, Jesus believed that his death would herald the End of Days. After the Crucifixion, Judgment Day would follow, right away.

Needless to say, this conclusion was unacceptable to the stewards of a Christian faith that had grown and flourished for nigh onto 2,000 years after the Crucifixion. As a result, Schweitzer was not exactly excommunicated. But he was frozen out of the academic world that had been his refuge and sounding board. Only his boundless intellect and infinite resourcefulness saved him from the obscurity to which his colleagues preferred to banish him. That Schweitzer became a sort of secular saint, even in the jungles of Gabon, is a testament to his brilliance.

But what he had done in his book was to highlight a celestial fatalism that goes back in Judeo-Christian tradition well before the time of Jesus. Indeed, in the era of Jesus’ birth, the area we call the Holy Land hosted — not always cordially — a steady flow of “prophets,” many of whom styled themselves as the Messiah of Jewish prophecy and some of whom foresaw their death as prelude to Apocalypse.

John the Baptist, for example, was an Apocalyptic. The political climate in Palestine, where he preached knee-deep in the Jordan, was ripe for his message. He reviled the pagan Romans who ruled the land, he was contemptuous of Herod, the Romans’ Jewish puppet and he sneered at the corrupt high priests of the Temple in Jerusalem. His intemperate ravings and insults to Herod eventually got him killed. But his ideas lived on, captured for posterity in Revelations, the New Testament’s ripsnorting final chapter. The author of Revelations — probably Paul — limned the End of Days with the sort of phantasmagoric pizzazz that renders fantasy authors, even today, green with envy.

Since then, for some reason, the bleakest voices of Christianity have always been its most vivid, lurid and captivating. This is one reason why the Apocalyptic strain in Judeo-Christian belief has not merely survived ’til today. It’s enjoying an outright revival, with a weird new Messiah.


Our irreligious hedonist in the White House has become a veritable savior to the white Christianist ultra-right by speaking in the Voice of Doom that these people regard as the harbinger of Rapture. When Trump described Mexican immigrants as rapists, when he saw America’s black neighborhoods as a lawless expanse of random killing and defiant idleness, when he depicted Brussels as a hellhole of Muslim terror, he shocked many people. But he was speaking the language of a passionate minority who hearken back to John the Baptist, who see Western civilization spiraling sinfully down toward its reckoning with an angry and pitiless God.

This vision of an Apocalyptic split between the saved and the damned has always appealed to the most ardent in the religious right. It owes its staying power — against the Enlightenment ideal of American democracy — to a tradition of artful and popular appeals to militant bigotry, notably the heroic rampage of the Ku Klux Klan in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. The current blueprint for this dark strain of American faith is a novel called The Turner Diaries, published in 1978 by a pernicious but richly fanciful racist named William Luther Pierce.

In The Turner Diaries, Pierce made clear to all white Christians that their survival as humanity’s superior breed could not be secured short of a global war that exterminates every Jewish, Muslim, black, brown, Asian, Latin, and mixed-race person, along with the “race traitors” who defend the “mud people.” One of Turner’s more vivid images is the rounding up, by an army of racial purity called The Organization, of all race traitors. These include judges, professors, lawyers, politicians, journalists, entertainers and “race-mixers.” They’re taken from their homes and on the same day everywhere, the thoughtful, the liberal, the educated and the seekers of brotherhood are lynched. Pierce calls this “The Day of the Rope.”

Trust me, Donald Trump hasn’t read The Turner Diaries. It exceeds 140 characters. But he grasps its spirit viscerally, especially the dark foreboding that the Others, not like us, can’t be stopped unless “we” — and we know who we are, don’t we? — wage war against their encroachment, in an all-out genocidal holocaust.

Donald Trump, from his first campaign speech (the Mexican rapists), has invoked a looming Apocalypse. Throughout his campaign, he seeded an epidemic of fear, warning believers that only He can crush the invaders and their race-traitor enablers. Only He could return us to the Promised Levittown. Trump has mastered the wild-eyed, hypnotic craziness of John the Baptist. Handicapped by his 70-word vocabulary, he cannot articulate the form and strategy of the Parousia he foreshadows, but he doesn’t have to.

Trump’s house theologian, Steve Bannon, has read both Revelations and The Turner Diaries. He has infused Breitbart News with their promise. He has declared hostilities already begun. “It’s war,” Bannon said. “It’s war. Every day, we put up: America’s at war, America’s at war. We’re at war.”

Bannon declares that the “Judeo-Christian West is collapsing. It’s imploding. And it’s imploding on our watch. And the blowback of that is going to be tremendous.”

This sounds scary, but Trump’s flock swoons with adulation. Having flamboyantly donned the Messiah’s mantle, Trump knows — as did a previous Savior of whose ideals he knows nothing — he can do no wrong in the eyes of his followers. He is the apotheosis of a religious and political nightmare that has long haunted the American dream.

It’s a strange phenomenon for Americans — who prefer to stand slightly aside, looking skeptically at any political overture — to “believe” in the president. We always have doubts. We quibble, we question, we rage. We know better than to fall in love.

But Trump’s people are believers — true, deep and mad — unreachable and irreparable. He is the Messiah. He will give out loaves and fishes — two each for himself, one for everyone else. They will not notice the disparity.

He’ll turn wine to water, because he doesn’t drink. He’ll turn the promise of Heaven into a discount coupon for a tour of Trump Tower. A woman will weep on his wingtips and wipe away the tears with her hair, and he — the Messiah, her Savior — will reach down his little hands and grab her by the ass… as the faithful cry out in ecstasy.

“Feel her up, feel her up, feel her up…”

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#830)

Black Tidings greet the next Olympics
by David Benjamin

“We shall not have peace until the prejudices that now separate the different races shall have been outlived. To attain this end, what better means than to bring the youth of all countries periodically together for amicable trials of muscular strength and agility?”
                                             — Pierre de Coubertin

MADISON, Wis. — Olympic Games traditionalists were in a state of deep despondency recently when word leaked out that the city of Tokyo had snagged the 2020 Games without greasing a single member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). This act of unseemly integrity threatened to send the Olympic movement plummeting down a slippery slope that could end its cherished heritage of greed, waste, bloat, cronyism, cheating, tasteless grandiosity and rampant drug abuse.

Since then, however, it was revealed that the Tokyo bidders had edged out Istanbul and Madrid by funneling a few rice bales full of yen through a Singapore outfit called Black Tidings — God bless the IOC! You can’t make this stuff up! — and a guy named Papa Massata Diack (really!), whose papa used to run the International Athletic Association Federation. Besides acting as the grifter for both Brazil’s and Japan’s Olympic graft, Papa Diack — dubbed the “Keyser Söze of sports marketing” by The Guardian — is presently dodging French authorities, who want him for bribery, corruption and money-laundering. The Black Tidings syndicate, meanwhile, is reputed to be hip-deep in Vladimir Putin’s epic multi-Olympic doping scam.

In other words, we be cool. Olympic tradition is alive and well and hiding out at a soapland in Kabukicho.

Tradition will also rule when the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) slouches toward Tokyo with its usual skeleton crew and a whole lot of urine cups. WADA’s sleuths will again be doggedly testing for substances that cheaters no longer use because they’ve moved on to a new generation of performance-enhancing drugs (PED) that are less detectable and far more potent.

But WADA, bless its heart, plugs away. Sometime in late 2021, WADA will discover tiny traces of the new PEDs in fluid samples that its pee-stained minions didn’t have time to test during the Games. The result will be dozens of gold medals taken away from scofflaws and mailed (only slightly tarnished) to the losers who didn’t get to stand on the podium and hear their national anthems.

In the end, thanks to the IOC, WADA and the miracle of modern pharmaceutical science, the Tokyo spectators who traveled thousands of miles, paying inflated airfares, staggering hotel rates and exorbitant ticket prices, will sit in the bleachers waving tiny flags, but also wondering: How many of these sleek-muscled, Nike-branded demigods swimming back and forth or scurrying around the track are juiced to the gills and higher than a kite can fly oh me oh my. The lucky fans will be those who attend the all-steroid weightlifting venue and the various blood-doping bicycle derbies, where every jock is shooting up daily and masking brilliantly. And all the world knows. And nobody cares, especially the International Oligarchic Committee.

In 2020, no one — especially the shills on NBC — will recall that Olympic tradition used to be somewhat less sleazy. In 1896, when Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympics, not one of the athletes was a millionaire. In fact, they weren’t even paid to play, ever. That was an actual rule. Olympic officials took away Jim Thorpe’s medals when they learned he had played semi-pro baseball (not even an Olympic sport then) one summer while he was in college.

Another quaint tradition way back then was that Olympians competed individually in contests whose results were readily discernible with finish lines and tape measures. Think Chariots of Fire. It was all races, leaps and tosses then, not dances and dives with “artistic elements” performed before judges with political agendas and open palms. Coubertin included no sports in the Olympics that required subjective judgment by astigmatic umpires because… well, who knows? He was silent on this issue probably because no one would have been silly enough to suggest it.

Coubertin, almost certainly, would have deemed it unseemly for winners to wrap themselves in their country’s flag and sweat all over it while strutting around the stadium, taunting defeated rivals and basking in the tribal arousal of their countrymen.

But traditions change. The earliest modern Olympics were modest, thrifty and almost neighborly. In 2020, the glut of sports that ravaged Rio de Janeiro will not be enough for Tokyo. There’s gonna be more, more! — more geography, more spending and more shuttling of glassy-eyed spectators (“If it’s Tuesday, it must be horses, ridden by rich people, jumping over giant shrubs”). In all, there will be 324 events in 32 sports. Among the new thrills are karate, which will probably prove to be unwatchable, sport climbing, whatever that is, and two pastimes — surfing and skateboard — that make fans like me nostalgic for Jim McKay and “Wide World of Sports”… barrel-jumping at Grossinger’s, cliff-diving in Acapulco, the “agony of defeat” guy bouncing down the hill…

Expect, by 2024, for the IOC to seriously consider going whole-hog on “Wide World”-type stuff… hot-dog eating, ultimate frisbee, miniature golf, dwarf-tossing, topless Jell-O wrestling, synchronized croquet, perhaps a pogo-stick marathon and — here’s one that just might eclipse the TV ratings for pixie gymnastics — the 60-meter unicycle dash on a tightrope over a crocodile pit.

Alas, one tradition that will be difficult to continue in Tokyo will be the bulldozing of slums and the displacement of thousands of poor people to make way for an “Olympic village” that will later become luxury condos for rich people who can afford shrub-jumping horses. Tokyo doesn’t have any major slums — at least not now. However, that might change after the catastrophic recession that now, traditionally, follows hot on the heels of the host nation’s Olympic folly.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#829)

What’s in a statue?
by David Benjamin

“If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
                                           — Justice Louis D. Brandeis

MADISON, Wis. — One of my favorite photo subjects is the sometimes awesome, often graceful statuary of great cities, especially in Paris. Within this genre of public art, I’m particularly fond of the lions who populate Paris in stone and bronze in a thousand moods. My favorite is the sleepy and ironic cat who lounges over the doorway of an elementary school near the Sully-Morland Métro station. Although the building once housed the city arsenal, its lazy watchlion shows no concern whatsoever for the ammo in his keeping.

Although I take pictures of them, I don’t normally think about statues in general, even lions. Then, last week, I got notes from two of my dearest correspondents, Judy in Florida and Mo (my daughter) in Knoxville. Both expressed dismay at the apparent zeal of liberal Northerners (like me) for tearing down statues of secessionist lions like Robert E. Lee. If we do so, quoth Judy and Mo, we are “destroying history.” Judy even attached testimony from a black Southerner named Edward C. Smith, praising Gen. Lee for his honor, loyalty, intellect and an uncanny similarity to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This onset of effigy panic started, of course, when a statue of Gen. Lee in Virginia drew to its defense the troops of the rejuvenated Ku Klux Klan, various neo-Nazis and a raging host of blood-and-soil bigots, none of whom were prone to compare their Confederate hero to Dr. King. Ever since, I’ve been saying to myself, “All this over a statue?”

The first statues I can remember were in St. Mary’s Church. Every day at Mass, I knelt before the Virgin Mary and her husband Joseph, looming above me on opposite sides of the altar. They were hardly works of art. Molded from either plaster or, perhaps, painted tin, they were pastel in tone and catatonic in demeanor. There was a blankness in the Virgin’s eyes that bespoke the indifference of the factory that had manufactured her.

The Mary at St. Mary’s was a poor introduction to sculpture. She had not, for example, the serenity of the Venus de Milo, nor the haunting intensity of the Virgin at Lourdes. She pales even further compared to my all-time favorite stone babe (probably not a virgin), carved by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux in a sculpture called The Dance, which adorns the facade of the Paris Opera. Had my local Virgin conveyed the same joie de vivre as that limestone nude who frolics through rain and shine on the steps of the Opera, I might’ve stayed a Catholic all my life (or at least through high school).

By the same token, if the champions of Jim Crow — who erected most of America’s 700-odd Confederate memorials fifty years after the end of the Civil War — had applied the same life and liveliness to their statues as did Carpeaux to The Dance, well, there might truly be an artistic, rather than pseudo-historic justification for preserving these plaza-turds.

It’s hard to make an apolitical case for a monument whose intent was to trumpet white power and intimidate black people. History might be somewhat served if the Lee statue in Charlottesville included a plaque on which Edward C. Smith’s 863 words of “context” were written.

But that’s not enough history. Alongside, we need a second plaque, with 860 words that characterize Robert E. Lee as a traitor to the nation that gave him a free education at West Point and a commission in the United States Army, and as an insurrectionist whose cool, capable leadership resulted in the economic collapse of the eleven Confederate states and the death of 620,000 Americans — killed by one another.

One answer to all the granite-carved racial nostalgia rampant in the parks and plazas of the unrepentant South might be “equal time.” Why not pair each statue of Lee, Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest or Jeff Davis with a statue of Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Medger Evers, Rosa Parks, Emmett Till, or those three young men — Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner — murdered by the Klan in Mississippi?

Not likely, huh? A little too much history there, right, Bubba?

Nonetheless, Justice Louis Brandeis’ “more speech” antidote to falsehood and fallacy remains our best hope for reconciliation. There’s an example in Paris, although not so grand as a statue. As you stroll the streets and quays near the Seine, you inevitably come across small marble plaques, etched with the title, “Mort Pour la France”. Each commemorates a Resistance fighter, usually young, who died in the liberation of Paris in August, 1944.

Typical is a plaque, near the Assemblée Nationale, that honors Henri Jean Pilot, a student, age 23, who fell on 20 August 1944, “pour la liberation de Paris.” You stand awhile regarding this almost invisible tribute. You find yourself picturing this kid, not finished with school and barely old enough to shave, killed by a fleeing Wehrmacht rabble whose hope of victory was gone but who still — needlessly — kept shooting.

In the American South, from the birth of the Klan through the dark age of Jim Crow, white supremacists held sway through terrorism. Their favorite device was lynching. There are no statues, obelisks or honor rolls to mark the demise of the 4,000 human beings lynched in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Ohio, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, Missouri, Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma since 1868.

But it’s never too late for history. Let’s get started engraving little marble squares that tell us who died at this spot — hung from this tree, tortured, castrated, disemboweled, set on fire and danced around by a festive throng of church-picnic white folks. On each plaque, the name (if we know it), age and occupation of each soul, with the day he (or she) died for…

What for?

Justice Brandeis, were he still around, would likely suggest that melting the monuments to the Great White South would little advance the public discourse. It would impose an “enforced silence” on all who hold these memorials dear, without changing anyone’s mind. So let them stand.

But if history is really what this fuss is all about, let’s also commemorate — etched in quiet stone and strewn through every city, town and county in the crushed Confederacy — the ghastly revenge meted out against innocent Americans whose only trespass was their people’s liberation from bondage.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#828)

Useless stuff I’m glad
I learned (mostly in high school)

by David Benjamin

“… And we, so sadly past the bonfire and celebration of our birth,
Shall burn quietly,
Passing, on a zephyr, into a new realm
And blaze anew.”

             — David Benjamin

             Robert M. LaFollette High school yearbook, 1967

MADISON, Wis. — Looking forward to seeing my best friend from high school at our 50th reunion, I realized that he and I are probably the only surviving members of the Class of ’67 who can click our heels in sequence. We did not seek this knowledge. It was thrust upon us by a blonde named Jillsey (Class of ’68), who had snagged the female lead (Marian the Librarian) in the school production of The Music Man. Jill was recruiting male dancers for the musical’s underpopulated corps de ballet. Dick, her erstwhile boyfriend, and I, her stalker, were eminently available — and pliable.

So, Dick and I ended up cavorting on stage in front of people. Jill also trapped Larry Stamm, whose premature demise — along with those of Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell and Gene Kelly — exacerbated the national shortage of heel-clickers.

If you’ve ever tried this trick, even once, you realize that it’s way harder than Gregory Hines (Oh my God! He’s gone, too!) ever made it look. Clicking away ten times in a row — which Dick, Larry and me had to do — is pure rocket science.

Since my Music Man moment, I’ve gone older and fatter, but I can still knock off a few heel-clicks. This useless relict of my high-school days lets me apart from most of mankind. I cherish it — rather perversely — more than much of the book-learning I’ve since forgotten.

Thoughts of heel-clicking reminded me of other superfluous lessons that were not on the LaFollette High School curriculum, among which, for example, was the hard-learned conviction that Girls Are People.

High school, unfortunately, coincides with puberty. For boys, this clash of hormones with co-education triggers a case of either reckless lust or paralyzing terror — directed at the girls who were previously our occasional playmates or, in most cases, furniture. Suddenly, they had all our attention but were not really human. Without warning, they became objects of an unspeakable (or overspoken) desire. This objectification, in those days, was encouraged by every boy’s guide to manly suavity in 1967 — Playboy magazine. We prowled our adolescence seeking the Playmate of the Month, but were willing to settle for the girl in the desk in front of us in Mr. Swanson’s English class.

(No, the other Mr. Swanson.).

Of course, most boys, including me, could not find first base with the aid of Sacajawea and a Rand McNally road atlas. We envied those James Bondian paragons in our midst, a certain Dave and a particular Mark, who exercised a wondrous, inexplicable power over girls. They were too aloof and cool to intimate their secret. So the rest of us muddled about and scored the occasional date, before which we drenched ourselves in English Leather. We didn’t progress ’til much later, when we either joined the Sexual Revolution, or married a girl who knew what goes where, and when.

Although I failed chronically to win the heart (or any other organ) of some girl, any girl, I started befriending babes like Jill, for whom I was every bit as sexy as, say, a day-old oleo sandwich on the cafeteria floor, but who found me vaguely amusing. I served her by making jokes, sharing girlish secrets, listening to her troubles, mocking her vanities and casting wry aspersions on her cavalcade of airhead boyfriends.

This strategy actually got me closer to a number of beautiful and vivacious girls than many of their nominal boyfriends ever got. But those guys got kissed.

Me? Eh.

This knack — for communicating with women without turning them on— became the story of my life. Platonic bonding wasn’t in any of my high school courses, but if not for high school, I might have wasted years wallowing in meaningless sex.

While I was I learning, more or less, how to talk to girls, I also learned that love is comedy, that romance is an accidental mismatch that leads more often to heartbreak than joy. But I also figured out, by and by, that few heartbreaks are permanent. Many end with outright relief and most romances, especially those that fail, come back to mind not painfully, but nostalgically.

There are, I know, several almost-girlfriends from high school whom I’d love to find, to reminisce, to apologize, and laugh.

I learned as we all do that high-school, finally, is irrelevant. Among my classmates, I know for sure only two of us — me and Vogt — who are doing the same thing we did in high school. Vogt studied venomous reptiles, and still does. I write the same sort of drivel I wrote when I was 15. Neither of us learned our vocation from our high school teachers, especially Vogt. (I had English teachers but I fought them more than I heeded them).

Everyone else either found something to do that they didn’t even think about in school, or they adjusted their dreams when reality (or Vietnam) popped up and whacked them across the chops. But all of us pressed on, did jobs, made careers of one sort or another, got married, got divorced (or didn’t), found someone else (if necessary), got older, got fatter (or shrank) and by now we’re all signed up for Medicare and Social Security.

Best of all, we mellowed out. Few today cling to the petty triumphs, heartbreaks, loves, hates and grudges that haunted us 50 years ago. Almost all of the guys who wanted to take me out behind the gym and beat me up can’t remember who I was.

Finally, despite its sheer pointlessness, high school’s one of the most relevant experiences we’ve ever lived. Having holed up elsewhere in the world, I’ve come to understand that high school is a rare passage, uniquely American. On the brink of adulthood, we are plunged — without our consent — into a random society of old friends and new strangers, forced to communicate, study, experiment, fight, play, and explore our own insides more intensely than we’ll have time to do again in our lives, until it’s too late.

High school is where most of us learned how to relate to others, how not to relate, how goddamn hard it is to relate, how remarkable it is to find a friend, to encounter a person — or persons — whom you will trust completely as long as you live.

When I see Dick, after five or ten years, there’s no time or space between us. We start up as though we’d been apart only as long it took for Dick to go to Mr. Meissen’s chemistry class and for me to muddle through Latin III with Mrs. Atkins.

As the writer in the film Stand By Me said at the end, we’ll never have friends like that again. Maybe that’s what the grownups sent us to high school, against our will, to figure out.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#827)

“… Many sides, many sides…”
by David Benjamin

“We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump.”
                  — David Duke, former Imperial Wizard, Ku Klux Klan

MADISON, Wis. — Well hooray for David Duke.

Duke scolded Donald Trump for chickening out Monday, when the president grudgingly chided the racist mob who rioted in Charlottesville and murdered Heather Heyer. Said Duke, “President Trump, please, for God’s sake, don’t feel like you need to say these things. It’s not going to do you any good.”

Duke is right. Trump gets no traction from bowing to “political correctness.”

However, looking at the president from a longer historical perspective, Trump’s surrender to civility is hardy a deviation from the norm. Since he began his unlikely White House campaign, Trump has been, ironically, the most politically correct public figure in America.

Certainly, on one hand, Trump has torn up the rhetorical playbook in U.S. politics. On the other hand, however, whenever he’s had the chance to candidly express his true feelings, he has backed down, as he did Monday in the least convincing presidential denunciation of racism since Andrew Johnson. Yes, Trump has pushed the envelope to its breaking point. But his signal failure — as a public speaker and the leader of a popular movement — is his reluctance to keep going and bust the envelope wide open.

Trump’s dilemma is one of the great rhetorical challenges in political history. All it takes to be conventionally PC is to practice the thoughtfulness, good taste and common courtesy that most people learn in childhood from parents and teachers. But when you style yourself as the patron saint of anti-PC, you have a responsibility to your insatiable believers to strip away the veneer of polite society, to seek out and articulate, brazenly, the vilest, most hateful and inflammatory, most “incorrect” terms available in the vast and vivid English language.

To suggest that Trump has fallen short of that ideal would be a big-ass understatement. Consider, for example, his terminology for the ethnic minority whom his father, Fred, systematically banned from his tenements in Queens. While most polite people prefer to say “black people” or “African-Americans” (I’m nostalgically attached to W.E.B. DuBois’ usage, “black folks”), Trump’s earliest euphemism was “the blacks.” If you listen carefully, you hear in that superfluous “the” an awkward air of condescension. Whenever Trump invoked “the blacks,” my memory heard the ugly word, “nigra,” which was adopted by genteel Southern bigots in the civil-rights era as a reluctant compromise between “Negro” and the déclassé “n-word.”

Trump finally got around to adopting the PC term, “African-American,” but it tripped not lightly off his tongue. He sounded like a first-year French student trying to pronounce “l’avenue des Champs Elyseés.”

Of course, “African-American,” or even “Negro,” was not the word bandied about the mansion when little Donny was growing up in Jamaica Estates. Nor is it the word his believers yearn — ache — to him him roar. David Duke has Trump pegged. He knows how much Trump wants to call a spade a spade — and a Scaramucci a wop. Duke can imagine — as can I — what would happen if Trump stood up on his golfcart legs before the faithful and said, without fear of consequences, “My fellow white Americans, I am devoted — as every true patriot must be devoted — to our never-ending, sacred mission of keeping the niggers down!”

Kaboom! The result would be a standing — no, jumping up and down — ovation, punctuated by a goose-step conga line, so ecstatic and riotous that Donald would be unable to utter an audible syllable for at least 15 minutes. He would be reduced to simply watching the grateful pandemonium he hath wrought, glowing orangely, strutting like a fatted rooster behind his presidential seal, applauding himself, sticking up his little thumbs now and then, and basking in the racial adoration that will be his lasting legacy in the American saga.

If he ever dared to abandon the prissiness pressed upon him by his pussyfooting advisors, Trump could unleash all the epithets that now stick in his politically correct throat. He could shout “jigaboo” and holler “hebe,” “spic” and “raghead.” He could indulge — cathartically! — in all the terms that demean the biggest minority of all, the group with whom his love/hate relationship will never be resolved: the bitches and broads, sluts, whores and pieces of ass who inflame his lust and (afterwards) incite his manly contempt.

Since Charlottesville, Donald Trump is — more than ever — the Great White Hope. If he’s true to his perfervid disciples, he has to end his flirtation with civilized discourse. If he keeps blowing his dog whistle without providing red meat, eventually even Lassie will turn on him. Trump owes it to the worst of his supporters — the only ones he has left — to be as crude, blunt, hate-filled and bigoted as they would like to be. They can see his heart thumping with spite and fear beneath his mortician’s suit and phallic necktie. But they want to hear it.

Cast off your shackles and spit it out, Donald! Answer the call of Steve Bannon, James Fields and the Daily Stormer. Trade that cockamamie U.S. flag pin for the Stars and Bars. Pull your dad’s white robe out of mothballs. Plant a giant, gasoline-soaked cross on the White House lawn — where Michelle used to grow veggies — and set it on fire. And then shout, Donald! Cry out, for all (white Christians) to hear you, the words of the colored preacher George Lincoln Rockwell used to call “Martin Luther Coon”:

“Free at last, free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#826)

Big Al, Big Kim and Little Don
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — It’s fashionable at the moment to discern an uncanny similarity between the “nut jobs” — one in New Jersey, the other in Pyongyang — who’ve been, for several days, pissing figuratively on one another’s shoes.

Indeed, both Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un have superficial affinities. They’re both fat, they favor black suits and they have weird hair. Each is spoiled, pathologically selfish, ludicrously boastful and incapable of empathy. They’re both prone to summoning up large crowds, before whom they love to brag, wave and wallow in adulation. They’re both acquainted with Dennis Rodman, and they both have nuclear weapons at their personal disposal.

But let ’s stop there. The parallel won’t wash.

Kim waddles a straight line, leaving behind a trail of corpses. Donald Trump struts hither and thither leaving tweets, like tiny turds, in his wake.

Kim shoots his relatives when they cross him. Trump puts them on the government dole. Kim is the third in a hereditary line of ruthless mass murderers. Trump is a second-generation slumlord whose only confirmed “kill,” so far, is a luckless Navy Seal named William Owens.

Neither is a world leader in the political sense of the word. But Kim is something genuine and scary. He’s a gangster. Trump is not.

Like Baby Face Nelson, Kim seems unassuming, even somewhat comical, but he’ll gut you like a bass on a slab if you so much as wink at his sister. Trump, on the other hand, will invite to feel up his daughter.

In Trump’s defense, there’s no question that he has made sincere overtures to the wise-guy underworld. His career in three colossally corrupt industries — real estate, casinos and Republican politics — has afforded him ample occasion to rub shoulders with the Mob. But Big Don is more Fredo than Sonny, more Wilmer than Spade.

Trump doth protest so much against Kim because he’s jealous. Kim, at age 32, is the Godfather Trump will never be, even though he’s president of the friggin’ USA. Trump looks around and sees a world full of gangsters — el-Sisi in Egypt, Erdoğan in Turkey, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Duterte in the Philippines and the capo de capos of ‘em all, Vladimir Putin. All these goodfellas are merrily putting out contracts on their political foes and snickering at Trump because he’s not allowed to kill Bob Mueller.

The true capo creates an atmosphere of unrelenting, oppressive fear. There is a sense about him that, in the midst of ordinary routine and happy fellowship, he will suddenly explode with rage and decide that someone, or some family, some city or perhaps the entire population of Illinois must be mowed down with machine guns, starved to death or beheaded with chainsaws. Afterwards, the body (or bodies) should just lay there, baking in the sun and gnawed by dogs, as a lesson.

Kim Jong Un learned this teaching style from his dad and grandfather. North Korea is a mosaic of mass graves. Kim launched his reign by killing — perhaps using the eeny-meeny-miny-mo method— a bunch of generals, including his uncle. When you see Kim today in a photo joshing with his generals, your best guess is that they’re laughing to keep from crying.

In February, Kim ordered the murder of his brother, in public, with VX gas. Addio, Fredo!

Kim, in sum, is a tough act to match. The best Trump can do, by comparison, is a string of dead casinos on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. Up to now, Trump has yet to snuff even a second cousin. Sad.

Like Trump and Kim, many of our best gangsters have been showoffs. John Gotti was a dapper dresser. Bugsy Siegel loved to shmooze with the press. Putin rides horses with his shirt off. It’s a tradition among mob kingpins to thumb their noses at their worst enemies. For Big Al, it was the FBI. For Putin and Kim, it’s the United States.

For Trump, it’s… no, really? Sidney Blumenthal?

The common thread in all this macho display, however, is that a great gangster only puts his money where his mouth is when he knows he’s already won the pot. For all his bluster, Capone never slapped leather, head-to-head, against the Treasury Department. He knew the FBI was bigger and more powerful than the Chicago mob.

For similar reasons, strangely enough, we can trust Kim Jong Un. He might rattle his sword at Seoul, threaten to nuke Guam, daydream about raining fire on California, but he’ll never do anything to imperil his perch atop his petty little throne in the heart of Slobbovia. Kim might be a grubby little tinpot dictator who looks like the ugliest stuffed character in the toy store window, but he knows exactly how big his britches are.

Like any gangster, he knows how tenuous his dominion, how many others covet his crown, how disloyal are his truest, dearest boon companions, and how one act of bravado or one sign of hesitancy can bring it all down.

Kim has seen the photos of Mussolini strung up in the square like a side of beef. He has read of Capone exiled to Alcatraz. He has watched Warren Beatty blown to bits at the end of Bugsy.

And Trump?

Remember his first presidential trip to Europe. He was standing in a group as new French president Emmanuel Macron approached. Macron seemed poised to reach out and shake Trump’s hand. But at the last minute, gotcha! Macron veered from Trump and rushed to kiss German chancellor Angela Merkel, who happens to be Trump’s worst foe in all of Europe.

WWBAD? What would Big Al do? Or Joe Stalin? Michael Corleone?

Any one of those guys would have all made sure the snotty little Frog was sleeping with the fishes by midnight.

So, WDTD? What was his revenge for this disrespect from a lesser capo? Did Big Don fit Macron for a pair of concrete overshoes. Did he come to the black-tie dinner and splatter Frenchie’s brains with a Louisville Slugger?

(Sigh.) No. All he did, next day, was start up a sit-down, photo-op wrist-wrestling contest with the snotty little Frog.

Guess who won.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#825)

Our common wealth
by David Benjamin

“When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’”
                                                                — John 4:7

PARIS — The history of great cities always involves water — how much water the city consumes, where it comes from, what happens if there isn’t enough, who controls the water supply and how do the people get their water.

One of the milestones in Paris’ water saga was in 1609, when the city finished a mighty hydraulic pump at the Pont Neuf, to draw water from the Seine. For 200 years, most poor Parisians depended on this pump, called La Samaritaine. It was marked by a statue of the Samaritan woman who spoke with Jesus at the fountain in Sychar. Ironically, according to John, “La Samaritaine,” a nosy broad with prejudices, never got around to pouring Jesus a drink.

Early in the 19th century, La Samaritaine wore out. Later, many of Paris’ public fountains dried up, when aqueducts were razed in the siege of the city during the Francio-Prussian war. By 1872, Parisians had few sources of clean water. A Francophile British nobleman, Richard Wallace came to the rescue. He underwrote a vast network of graceful “Wallace fountains,” designed by Charles-Auguste Lebourg. Almost 150 years later, they’re still here, still running.

At times in Paris, as in many cities, private interests less benevolent than Sir Richard, gained control of the flow and made water, literally, too expensive for many citizens to drink. Wine was cheaper.

The struggle of Paris, for centuries, to provide this simple necessity to its people got me thinking — from an American angle — about what’s “public” and what isn’t.

Since Roman times in Europe, not much of the turf in what we call Western civilization has been deemed what an American would call “public.” For centuries, every acre of space in the known world “belonged” to various thrones, to the “landed” aristocracy and to a voracious Church fat with private property. For most Europeans, the public space they knew, where they could congregate, court, converse, trade and gossip was a few cobbled meters surrounding a public fountain that was often the community’s only source of water. It was every village’s La Samaritaine.

America was different from the beginning. With vast open spaces and an irrepressible (and often brutal) expansionism, America invented the “public” idea, the right of every citizen to share, enjoy, re-shape and, finally, to preserve great tracts of a continent that had belonged, since the dawn of time, to no one in particular.

America’s founders injected into our seminal documents a concept unthinkable in an Old World where every inch was spoken for and every fungible border stained with the blood of peasant soldiers drafted to perpetuate the dominion of Crown, nobility and clergy. Because we knew the abuses done by these three estates, we invented a secular nation without kings or hereditary elites. We made a government “of the people, by the people and for the people” whose first purpose is to guard the “public trust.”

Of course, the thirst for aristocracy is unquenchable, especially among Americans who believe that personal wealth merits exceptional privilege. We’ve seen the public idea assailed at times by land barons and plantation slavers, oilmen, industrialists, railroad tycoons, financiers, agribusiness, bloated generals and political machines, all ravenous to seize our common wealth and tuck it into their private pockets.

Each time, the people’s government, reminded of its public trust, has fought back. We, the people extended suffrage from property owners (an Old World fallacy) to all men, then to women, and then to fellow Americans whom we had once treated as property.

Horace Mann conceived public education — for everyone — and John Dewey articulated the secular theology of “the American common school.”

Teddy Roosevelt invented the concept of public lands and launched the national park system. FDR lifted up a nation that had been brought to bankruptcy by private greed, conceiving a program of public works that, still today, staggers the imagination. He made care for the aged, halt and helpless an American Commandment. Dwight Eisenhower expanded the public realm to the nation’s highways, Richard Nixon to the nation’s fragile environment. Lyndon Johnson restored black Americans to the public conversation by re-affirming their every stolen right, in particular the right to vote.

Barack Obama took up the cause of public health that had been fostered by both Roosevelts, by Harry Truman, by Johnson, Nixon and Bill Clinton and finally made it happen.

When Woody Guthrie sang, “This land your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York island,” he wasn’t just whistling “Dixie.” He was articulating a concept of nationhood that did not exist anywhere on earth before July Fourth, 1776.

It’s a concept that has had to fight for its life, even in the land of its creation. You hear talk, from our aspiring nobility, about “market solutions” to public problems. They mutter that our “failing” public schools and our great land-grant universities are “government indoctrination centers.” They’ve twisted the public idea into what they call the “deep state.” They want to convince us, the public, that the public idea has been subverted. They propose to replace the public trust with a handful of wise white men — an elite, if you will — who know better than we.

They claim Jefferson, Washington, Madison as their forebears.

“Trust us,” they say.

But, there’s this. A financial empire — immensely powerful and packed with rich, brainy guys — incorporated in the USA, headquartered in Ireland or Barbados, funded by banks in Cyprus and Russia, cosseted by theocrats in the Middle East and married to a dozen mobs in a thousand invisible deals, is accountable to no one,  not even to its boards of directors, nor to its clueless shareholders and absolutely not to the public. Catch one of these vast fiefdoms cheating, stealing, lying, destroying an economy and… oops! Poof! Gone, like Alice’s rabbit, into a black hole of tax havens and bankruptcy dodges.

The point of private power is that it’s not public. Nor does it need a republic. It is kings and popes in capitalist raiment. Private power — what FDR called “organized money” — merits no trust, public or otherwise, because its every move is secret.

Better we should trust ourselves. However competent or incompetent our elected representatives, they govern by law, in the open. Our republic is public, accountable to us, the people. If we fail to hold the worse of our chosen delegates to account, the fault is ours.

America, at our best, has been better than La Samaritaine. Here, Jesus, a stranger, could get his drink, a bucket of water, a whole river, with no questions about his alien faith or where he’s from. The motto that always comes to the American mind, especially in hard times, is, “There, but for fortune, go I.”

We have a new potentate, a walking corporation with a million private secrets, who calls our White House “a real dump,” because it has no gold-plated faucets. His motto?

“I’ve got my fortune. Go get yours.”