Friday, May 22, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#721)

This dog has had its day
by David Benjamin

“Are you really willing to give up your liberty for security?”

                                                                    — Sen. Rand Paul

MADISON, Wis. — Rand Paul and the anti-government anarchists who live in cinder-block bunkers with a ten-year stash of flashlight batteries and Cheez Whiz are the unexpected good guys on the issue of telecom metadata collection by the Feds. They want it stopped. Sen. Paul even has a major government agency — the Inspector General’s office at the Department of Justice — in his corner.

Even the House of Representatives, usually cheerleaders for the national security state, have voted overwhelmingly to curtail the FBI’s sweeping Patriot Act authority — established in the days of panic after 9/11 — to gobble up virtually every contact made by every citizen with a cellphone, iPhone , smartphone, landline, laptop, desktop, tablet or the e-mail account that they access at the Public Library.

The well-polled American people are as unanimous as we can get. We don’t want the FBI (and by extension, the NSA, CIA, DIA, Secret Service, Delta Force, even Gibbs, DiNozzo, Abby, Ducky and McGee) horning in uninvited on our every call, text, tweet, Instagram and Facebook joke.

In an age of vicious political polarization, we’re all together in wanting to keep the Feds from tapping our phone and intercepting our WiFi. So what’s the problem? Why can’t we cut off the snoops?

Well, there’s the Senate. It used to be run by a kickass welterweight named Harry Reid, who brooked little intraparty dissension. But now, the boss is Mitch McConnell, who, try as he might, can’t get the Pentagon-huggers in his party to make nice with its Tea Party paranoids. Neither faction appears to have any discernible contact with the interests of either the American people or reality.

The Republicans’ inability to compromise with the Republicans on Patriot Act reform poses a stark choice for the Senate. Democrat Patrick Leahy put it plainly: “We either take the House Bill or end the Patriot Act.”

OK, cool, because the DOJ’s Inspector General has come up with a pretty good case for Door Number Two. Since the attacks of 11 September 2001, when the government started raking in telecommunications metadata like a Japanese factory ship strip-netting every living thing on or above the ocean floor, the FBI fishermen have gotten nothing from their efforts. Not a minnow.

Bupkes.

In the great Washington data bonanza — gazillions of wired and wireless contacts over the last 14 years stretching from Madawaska to Tijuana and all over the globe — the eavesdroppers on the party line haven’t once tuned in on, discovered or halted one measly plot. Not even a couple of teenage malcontents talking about the pipe bomb they want to plant under the driver’s seat in the car of Mr. Strickland, the universally hated vice-principal at Hill Valley High.

I had that conversation in 1966 about a vice-principal named Mr. Wendt. Kids have been talking — on the phone — about bombing Mr. Strickland for at least a century, hundreds of times a week, but the FBI is clueless. I mean, if they can’t find teenagers openly (but wishfully) plotting, in standard English, the murder of a high-school tyrant, what are the Feds’ chances of exposing one of those (mythical) terrorist “sleeper cells” who encrypt their data and converse in Arabic pig-Latin?

The FBI’s metadata harvest is better equipped to find out about the orders I place at Victoria’s Secret for camisoles and slingbacks. And it has no trouble tapping my calls to a substance-abuse hotline or to the bookie who helps me lay fifty bucks on the nose of a nag named Nora’s Knickers in the fifth at Hialeah.

But, seriously, what the Feds can or can’t find out doesn’t matter. There might be lots of “conspiracies” out there, jabbering away among the wires, fiber optics and broadband spectra. Most consist almost entirely of empty spite, magical thinking and hot air. Phone-company metadata won’t help us find any of them.

Besides, it’s all protected by the First Amendment.

We know now, from experience, that conventional forms of domestic intelligence — and plain old police work — have found and foiled virtually every serious effort at jihadist violence in the U.S. since 9/11. Over these years, we’ve seen more “terrorism” from school invasions, Dirty Harry cops and outlaw bikers.

We know this. Mitch McConnell probably knows, too. But he can’t seem to decide what to do about it that best serves his political interest. However, here’s Mitch’s silver lining. He can sit back, relax and serve the American people more truly and benevolently than he ever has before — by sitting back and relaxing.

On June 1st, if Mitch and the orchestra do nothing, the Patriot Act, with all its wiretapping, threat-mapping, color-coding and neocon Manicheism, will expire, passing from our lives in much the way that we kissed goodbye to the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798-1801), the Espionage Act of 1917 (1917-1921), the Smith Act (1940-1957), and the ethereal Communist Control Act of 1954.

Nobody wants G-men poking into the petty and private dialogs we carry on among ourselves, and few of us are willing to tolerate this sort of intrusion in the name of a riot act that has proved itself immaculately impotent. The Patriot Act did little more than soothe America’s jangled nerves in a time of tragedy. It’s like the Rottweiler we bought to scare away burglars and snarl at the things that go bump in the night. But old Pat lost his bark ten years ago. He went blind and his teeth fell out, his hips went haywire, his bowels collapsed, his liver failed and he’s been on life support at the animal hospital since last Thanksgiving.

Let the dog die, Mitch.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#720)

Da Pats
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — It’s one of the ugliest scenes in the history of professional football. On 12 August 1978, in a desultory pre-season National Football League game between the Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots, Pats quarterback Steve Grogan threw an off-target pass in the direction of receiver Darryl Stingley. Stingley leapt and stretched toward the ball but barely got a finger on it. While he was airborne, Oakland safety Jack Tatum dug in his cleats, lowered his helmet and launched himself toward Stingley’s exposed head and shoulders. The impact was like a Greyhound bus hitting a mourning dove in flight.

Stingley dropped to the turf in a motionless heap. Tatum, known to fans as “The Assassin” for his blindside hits on vulnerable opponents, shrugged his pads into place and strolled away. Stingley never got up. Nor was he ever able to get up again. Tatum’s blow had shattered two vertebrae. Stingley spent the rest of his life — which ended in 2007 — as a quadriplegic in a wheelchair.

Jack Tatum never really apologized for that gratuitous practice-game blow, not did he ever reconcile with Stingley. To have shown remorse would have clashed with the image of Tatum as an on-field rogue and with the reputation of the Oakland franchise — Da Raidas — as the outlaws of the NFL.

That brutal moment was all the more poignant because the Patriots in those days were more a victim, among NFL teams, than an aggressor. Their front office was a comic opera and the team fluctuated between bare competence and absurdity. Their popular nickname, Patsies, was painfully appropriate. The Tatum vs. Stingley collision was a microcosm of both teams’ personalities, a officeful of likable milquetoasts mugged by the gangbangers from the East Bay.

At the moment Da Raidas entered the NFL from the renegade American Football League, they were the Hell’s Angels of the league. In fact, the Angels were Raiders fans, and half the non-bikers in the Oakland Coliseum every Sunday dressed up as Hell’s Angels — or vampires, zombies, cannibals, ax-murderers. Raiders owner Al Davis took sniggering joy in thumbing his nose at the NFL brass. His coach was a hulking slob, John Madden, whose slouched-grizzly appearance belied one of the best minds in the history of the game. While his thuggish players outslugged their opponents, Madden out-thought them. Meanwhile, Al Davis blew his bankroll on speed merchants and Neanderthal sociopaths.

The list of dangerous or delinquent misfits who played for Da Raidas, beyond Davis, Madden and Tatum, included Kenny “The Snake” Stabler, Howie Long, Ted “The Mad Stork” Hendricks, Otis Sistrunk, Lyle Alzado, Bubba Smith, Lester Hayes. No other team could match the Oakland roster’s lunatic quotient. But the secret of the Raiders’ perennial success was that they always operated on the fringe of the rules, downing every drug, seeking every tiny edge and risking a penalty on each play on the theory that the refs would eventually tire of blowing their whistles. Da Raidas’ every soiled victory was a thorn in the ass of the NFL establishment. Al Davis’ motto, “Just win, baby!” whispered loudly an unspoken, unsportsmanlike, incorrigible addendum: “By any means necessary.”

Today, the tables are turned. The Raiders, even before Davis’ demise in 2011, had become a laughingstock. In their place, sitting atop the NFL both as champions and renegades — and despised the league over — are the former Patsies. We have to start thinking of them as Da Pats, flouting the rules, picking their noses, gaming the refs and flipping the bird at the suits in New York City.

And talk about tough? The Patriots are the only team in the NFL with an All-Pro tight end serving a life sentence for murder. And the guy was just indicted again — for shooting his “right-hand man” in the face. Roll in your grave, Al.

It all started when Bill Belichick took over as head coach. Under Belichick, the Pats have gone a little more rogue every year. Next to Bill, the once fearsome John Madden is Winnie the Pooh. He even dresses worse. He never smiles, he talks in grunts, he regularly urges the voracious Boston sports press to shove their pencils up their ass. And he cheats every way he can think of — from substitution patterns to secret videotapes of opponents’ practices to shorting out other teams’ headsets during games to — yes, Deflategate. Plus, he drafts future murderers.

And New England loves him, blindly and unconditionally, because he has made the Patsies into Da Pats, the meanest mofos in the valley. The Belichick style has even infected Da Pats’ once-courtly owner Robert Kraft. Deflategate completed Bob’s metamorphosis into Tommy De Vito, Joe Pesci’s hair-trigger sadist in Goodfellas. I can picture Bob Kraft in a bar, encountering his former buddy, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. He looks Goodell ominously up and down, curls a lip and says, “Where are da shovels?”

Unfortunately, Tom Brady, the chronically small-handed Patriot hero who loves a squishy grip, is appealing his four-game suspension for letting the air out of his balls. Say it ain’t so, Tom. You’re one of Da Pats. This is out of character, man! Youse guys don’t “appeal.” You stand your ground and shoot somebody in the face. Your role model is Whitey Bulger.

Now that the former Patsies are the bad boys of the NFL, Tom Terrific can’t afford to back down, apologize or keep a team of candy-ass lawyers on speed-dial. The Brady bunch are Da Raidas of the 21st century, the inheritors of “Just Win, Baby!” In every way, they have to embrace their persona. Ignore Goodell’s penny-ante punishments and keep playing as if there are no refs on the field. Hit to kill and cheat like speakeasy croupiers in a Bogart flick.

If he were around today, Al Davis would know what to tell today’s New Age hardboiled Tom Brady. Actually, it’s the same thing Bill Belichick would say, if only he had the power of speech: “Kid, never give a Packer an even break.”

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#719)

Look, Ma! No hands!
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — They’re bandying phrases now like “autonomous car” and “hands-free motoring.” What this means is that if you’re one of those dreamers who’ve always yearned to eat a big plateful of buttermilk pancakes, or crochet a granny-square afghan while tucked into the driver’s seat of your minivan, well, your time has come!

Every automaker from Detroit to Aichi-ken has teams of engineers strapped to the grindstone perfecting the technology of the car that just up and drives itself. They’re burning midnight oil on this project because — they say — people want this stuff. You and me! We’re screaming, begging and boycotting dealerships because we each want our own personal Frankencar. All God’s chil’en want to let go the wheel, lift our feet off the footfeet, lean back in our Magic Fingers bucket seats and watch HD infotainment on the HUD ‘til our eyes bleed.

Actually, I’m a little surprised to learn that this particular innovation is my automotive heart’s desire. I always thought it would be more practical to finally figure out how to put a toilet in the rumble seat.

I mean, I’ve been talking cars with guys since I could tell a Ford from a Studebaker, discussing everything from horses under the hood to manual chokes. In my whole life, I’ve never met a devout car guy who dreams of buying a brand-new candy-colored tangerine-flake streamlined four-speed, dual-quad, posi-traction 409 ragtop, and sliding in behind the wheel to discover — rapturously —  that the wheel’s been replaced by a cup-holder.

As carmakers stampede into the heady new world of people-optional motoring, they say they’re doing it for safety’s sake. Those same altruists who fought tooth-and-nail against padded dashboards, seat belts, airbags, dual braking systems, collapsible steering columns, driver’s ed, speed limits and Ralph Nader are now all gung-ho about… safety?
Okay, sure. So, let’s talk safety.

Your basic hands-free car requires the meshing together in flawless unison of several hundred ECUs (electronic control units), which operate — without any pesky human meddling, knowledge or access — all the meaningful hardware and software in the vehicle of tomorrow.

One indication of the state-of-the-art in high-tech hardware was a General Motors ignition system that tended to jiggle loose, sending a message to the ECU to shut down everything else in the car, occasionally resulting in human body parts spread around on the Interstate. Recalls on that little oops have soared into millions while GM girds its loins for death and injury payouts in the billions.

One analyst referred to the car of the future as a “computer on wheels.” This description is largely true today, but the rub is the nature of the computer itself. Most computers are delicate machines, intolerant of bumps, thumps, fluids and temperature. They’re obsolete in five years and — meanwhile —  they can be hacked and operated remotely by teenage sociopaths 2,000 miles away. These limitations explain why technicians are struggling with the demand for “automotive grade” components. Cars go outdoors. They scrape things, bump into other things and hit potholes. Under the hood, temperatures can range from boiling hot to 40 below zero. Cars stay on the road for 20 years or more.

If a car were truly a “computer on wheels,” it would “crash” — in mid-task — and have to be re-booted (at 70 mph?) at least three times a week. It would cease to operate entirely and forever the first time someone spilled coffee on the dash.

If you think carmakers have figured out how to make automotive electronics that last as long as, say, the compression cap in a ’69 Beetle, you’re definitely a live one. How about a nice drive-it-itself Tesla ($70,000 — cheap!)?

The real fun here is software. A few years ago, an occasional rogue Toyota would suddenly speed up uncontrollably, scorning the driver’s panicky effort to apply any sort of brakes. Several crashes were unspeakably gruesome. A whole family died in San Diego. Toyota blamed these fiascos on old-fashioned mechanics — sticky pedals, slippery floormats — and good old “driver error.”

But when Toyota decided to risk a jury trial in an unintended acceleration lawsuit in Oklahoma, the plaintiffs hired a software whiz named Michael Barr to test the theory that Toyota’s software was to blame. Legal discovery provided Barr access to Toyota’s test lab. There, in prisonlike conditions, a team of engineers spent months reading millions of lines of code. What they found was that once in a blue moon, almost imperceptibly, a random “0” in Toyota’s code in a random car could — for just a split-second — turn into a “1.” Or vice versa. That infinitesimal switcheroo was all it took to put the gas-pedal into Nascar mode, shut down every braking system and send that ill-fated Toyota, with its luckless human load, careening at 85 mph into a bridge abutment, over a cliff or into a school bus.

Barr testified. Toyota lost. A lady named Jean Bookout, who suffered brain damage, shared $3 million with the family of Barbara Schwarz, who was killed in the crash.

Needless to say, automakers haven’t begun to master software thoroughly enough to render the steering wheel obsolete. Given Barr’s revelations about Toyota’s fatal codefarts — made worse by Toyota’s refusal to admit that they didn’t know software from beachwear — it’s safe to say that safety isn’t why carmakers want to replace every normal car on the road with a spanking-new $70k HAL 9000 self-driver.

They’re in it for the money.

But you already guessed that, right?

So far, the auto industry’s plans to re-engineer the very concept of driving has been flying under the radar. But I think that when drivers finally wise up to the notion that Detroit wants to replace our steering wheels with a robo-program, the “autonomous car” will veer off the road and hit the proverbial bridge abutment.

I mean, imagine what would happen if you tried to take away America’s Remingtons, Glocks and AK-47s. Then, double it.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#718)

The ministrations of fear
by David Benjamin

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance…”
        — Franklin Delano Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address, 1933

MADISON, Wis. — We live in an era of fear, much of it — in FDR’s words — “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified.” We fear government health care. We’re afraid we might lose our government health care. We fear vaccines. And so, now, we fear measles and mumps all over again. We fear clean energy. We fear the filth in our skies and oceans. We fear deficits. We fear taxes. We fear spending and we fear austerity. We fear the police. We fear other colors of skin. We fear other sexes. We fear, well, others. We fear teachers. We’re terrified by politicians. We fear computers. We fear spying on ourselves but not on “them.” We fear guns but not as much as gun confiscation. We fear drugs. We fear placebos. We fear autism, asthma, abductions and obesity. We fear engineered veggies. We fear meat. We fear glutens, carbs, fructose and salt. We fear little lesbians on wedding cakes. We fear a wave of sneaky Islamism spreading Sharia across America before Bill O’Reilly notices. We fear a firestorm of Muslim terrorism that’s been promised us since 9/11. It’s coming soon. Honest!

We fear fear itself. But we’ve also come to love and cherish, nurture and exalt our fear. It’s not enough that you fear and I fear. Everyone must fear. Every day, in every way, in everything we see and do, we must express, magnify and broadcast our fear. No one must feel free to act out of hope or generosity, to think with optimism, to reach out with trust. All choices must spring from fervent anxiety. Fear must be the resurrection and the life. Terror must be our tabernacle.

The trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston reminded me of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, both of which brought strangely to my mind not fear nor anger, but ancient history, and the hoodlums once known — and feared — as sicarii.

In 1st-century Jerusalem, the sicarii were the princes of mass fear. Among dozens of ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects in those parlous times, the sicarii were perhaps the nuttiest and certainly the deadliest splinter. A sicarius — or dagger-man — would join a crowd and spot someone he suspected of favoring the hated Romans or collaborating with the corrupt Temple priests. He would plunge a knife into the stranger and then slip away. Several sicarii working one throng together could wreak carnage comparable to the Tsarnaev boys at the Boston Marathon.

The sicarii often operated on guesswork. A Roman sympathizer looked no different from anyone else. But somebody had to be stabbed — right now. This imperative made any random shlemiel in the crowd a suitable object lesson.

The sicarii were angry, alienated and ready to die. They claimed piety, but their grasp of theology was tenuous at best. There’s little evidence that they could read or write. Their personal obsession with death and annihilation drew them naturally to the catastrophic fringe of conservative Judaism.

Many religions have visions of the Apocalypse — few more traumatically expressed than in the Book of Revelations. Many devout 1st-century Jews saw the Roman conquest as prelude to Armageddon. John the Baptist, the most famous mentor to Jesus, spent his life dunking doomed sinners before it was too late.

In the 19th century, the scholars of German Protestantism undertook the daunting study of Jesus as an historical figure. They sought the mortal man beneath the Gospel. Among the last of these religious detectives was Albert Schweitzer, who synthesized the previous scholarship into an extraordinary book called The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer’s fearless research led to a heretical insight that others before him had reached before they flinched. He determined, from a close reading of Jesus’ teachings, that Jesus was an eschatological messiah. Schweitzer concluded — reluctantly — that Jesus expected to be crucified and then, as he breathed his last mortal breath, the World would End.

The implications of Schweitzer’s last chapter were devastating to the German clergy, as well as to the very foundations of Christianity. True to form, the bishops greeted Schweitzer’s earnest scholarship by stabbing him in the back. They forbade him from writing another word for the rest of his life, and exiled him to Africa, where he lived out his life as the 20th century’s most beloved missionary.

Backstabbers have always been with us. Sometimes, they’re bishops. Sometimes, peasants with daggers. Sometimes, they’re angry immigrant kids with a chip on their shoulder and a laptop full of propaganda. Often, they’re pulpit-pounding office-seekers who recognize fear — packaged for the mass market in 20-second soundbites — as their ticket to victory in the Iowa caucuses.

When FDR inveighed against fear incarnate, he wasn’t being metaphorical. He was fighting all those demagogues and tycoons who benefit, profit and triumph from the fear they instill in others. The goal of the ancient sicarii wasn’t the death of their victims, but fear of the survivors — the memory of that moment of helpless terror — and the power that lingers in such memories.

We live in an era of fear. But our fear of zealots with daggers and jihadists with bombs is misplaced. They’re small fry. Their influence comes only when their names are invoked and their crimes inflated by the professional fearmongers, who wear suits and hire bodyguards. Their ill-veiled threat always reads the same:

“All things fall apart. Horror overwhelms us. The end is nigh. The others made this happen. There’s nothing you can do. It’s too late. But trust us now. Step into line, pay the admission. (Yes, it’s steep. But what have you got to lose?) Wait quietly. We’ll make sure you have a seat on the last spaceship to Paradise.

“Honest.”

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#717)

Weak in Review
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — My conservative friends think that liberals worship the New York Times — oops. It’s The New York Times, right? (Talk about pretentious!). But reading the Gray Lady is more like meeting an old friend every morning at the local diner, where you end up arguing so much that it wakes up the homeless guys.

Typically, liberals trust the Times’ good intentions. We wouldn’t give it up, but we don’t exactly believe in it either. This is the Achilles-heel of liberalism. We adhere completely to no ideology and we bicker among ourselves over our comparative degrees of skepticism about beliefs that are supposed to be our deepest and dearest… if we actually believed in them… which we don’t. Not entirely.

In the liberal spirit of equivocal solidarity — which kills us at election time — we read the Times every day and then bellyache about all the stuff it does wrong. For example, my biggest beef lately is how the editors have turned the Sunday Week in Review opinion pages into a morbid exercise in public navel-gazing. Rarely has a major newspaper engaged so vapidly in the clash of ideas.

The whole shebang started to slide downhill when the Times lost Frank Rich to New York magazine. Rich, an old-school provocateur who is curious, eloquent and fierce, now writes a monthly one-page thinkpiece that nobody reads outside of Manhattan. What a waste of talent.

Perhaps the new-age Week in Review’s most egregious offense is that it has succumbed entirely to the credentialed-blowhard school of op-ed (this term, for you non-inkstained wretches, is short for “opposite the editorial page”). The Week in Review is now thick and sticky with deep thoughts from academics who are foremost in their fields and whose awe-inspiring curriculum vitae suggest erudition of unassailable certitude.

Trouble is, these expert analysts tend to be, well, nerds. Predictably, their presentations are numbingly dull. The only surprise is that their grasp of the obvious is so unsurprisingly obvious.

For example, this week, the Times printed a piece by one Zeynep Tufekci (try saying that three times real fast!), who resides in the School of Information and Library Sciences at the University of North Carolina. This Chapel Hill librarian used up 1,200 words explaining to the breathless reader that robots and machines will eventually supplant not just low-wage, industrial laborers but will also usurp many of the brain-intensive jobs now held by high-wage techworkers.

Well, thanks, Sherlock, but most of us found that out from going to the movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger running amok in the Terminator flicks. Blade Runner on the late late show. HAL 9000 taking over from Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Us sci-fi movie buffs’ve been looking out warily for the robotic takeover of flesh-and-blood humanity ever since The Day the Earth Stood Still. We look at “artificial persons” the way Ripley looked at Bishop.

Even before Hollywood took up the cause, there were books about this stuff. Karel Capek, in the classic 1920 story, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), had it covered. Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov and dozens more expanded on Capek, dramatizing the rise of the machines far more grippingly — and credibly — than Prof. Tufekci’s turgid rehash in the Times.

Same Sunday: T.M. Luhrmann, an anthropology prof from Stanford, occupied a half-page with the stunning revelation that people think differently about faith, God and Jesus than they do about, say, earth science and hydraulics. Really? I guess it’s nice to know that the brain trust at Stanford has assembled empirical proof of something I figured out at 8 o’clock Mass in St. Mary’s Church when I was in third grade. Good to know, but why so dull?

I mean, Frank Rich could have said the same thing, made me laugh, and pissed off a million hardcore Christians. And we all would’ve had fun.

I grew up reading newspapers in an era when fun-to-read was the unwritten motto of every self-respecting op-ed page. Most editors didn’t care if a writer was an expert in any field, as long as there was poetry in his prose and plenty of tongue in his cheek. My op-ed heroes were journalists who’d worked their way up from death notices and police logs. Mike Royko and Russell Baker, Murray Kempton and William Safire wrote with irrepressible humor and startling insight. They had grown up reading forbears like Alexander Woolcott, S.J. Perelman, Thurber and White, H.L. Mencken and don marquis.

There was a time in the Times when the most important word in the title, “op-ed writer” was “writer.” For my money, the only Times essayist who comfortably fits that description now is Gail Collins, who has powers to skewer the pompous without leaving a mark and who remembers the old newspaper dictum about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

But the Sunday paper doesn’t have Gail. It has Maureen Dowd, who’s getting dangerously close to being called “venerable.” She writes with fluid grace and she’s sometimes funny— but not lately, because Bill and Hillary are back.

Now that Hillary’s in the race, Maureen’s love-hate passion will chew up 20 inches of op-ed turf in the Sunday Times for the next 81 weeks — whether we like it or not. There will be little novelty and scant humor in all this output. Maureen’s feelings about the Clintons are too raw and tortuous for laughs, even though the relationship is ironically symbiotic. Without the Clintons, Maureen wouldn’t be famous. She’s been psychoanalyzing Hillary so long that by now the whole process is reversed. You read Maureen on Hillary to psychoanalyze Maureen.

But why bother? The Times can hire a professor — from Vienna — to examine Maureen’s head for us, on page 4 in the Week in Review. Boringly.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#716)

Beau Geste… American style
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — It’s time to mothball the U.S. Air Force.

I mean it. Really, what have we ever gotten from the USAF but Curtis LeMay, Hiroshima, Doctor Strangelove and Tom Cruise in a form-fitting flight suit?

Perhaps I exaggerate, but it’s fairly clear that the Air Force has outlived its time. The Navy has an identical air force, with the added strategic advantage that it moves around — anywhere the need arises — on big boats. And the CIA has air power, with its video-game fleet of drones, that scares the hell out of everyone.

The USAF can’t even lay claim to the greatest combat pilot in U.S. history. The immortal Richard Bong, who shot down 40 enemy planes and won the Medal of Honor, goes back to the days when the air corps was still part of the Army.

We could fold all those pilots, planes and rockets back into the Army and save billions in redundant expenses. Even better, we could use the Air Force Academy for better purposes than what it’s doing now — which seems to be mainly a) preserving the triple-option offense in football and b) supplying the nation with right-wing Christian kooks who know how to fly jets and launch missiles.

Where have you gone, Chuck Yeager? The world turns its lonely eyes to you. Except that it doesn’t. You’re over the hill.

Today, the big threat to world peace isn’t something you can readily target with an F-35 fighter-jet that flies at the speed of sound carrying air-to-air missiles and quarter-ton bombs. Right now, what everybody worries about is a whole lot of pseudo-religious hoodlums (often referred to, sloppily and tendentiously as “terrorists”), who hide among civilians and carry deadly weapons largely supplied by American military contractors (recalling, of course, the words of Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”).

The Navy Seal team that executed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan aptly demonstrated the most reliable method for defeating the gangs of violent psychos who roam the deserts and jungles of the Third World and occasionally disrupt the middle-class complacency of the West by blowing up a deli or murdering the odd cartoonist (I know — this is a tautology). Nowadays, we call this sort of activity “special ops.” Small squads of finely tuned commandos who use precise intelligence from inside sources to sneak behind enemy lines and — in deadly lightning strikes — decapitate the enemy’s leadership.

Every U.S. military branch has some of these guys, whether they’re called Seals, Rangers, Delta Force, Jason Bourne, whatever. But most of our commando groups have a glaring weakness. They’re mostly white guys and monolingual.

Few of our special forces are indigenous to — or intimate with — the places where they have to infiltrate and maneuver. Our native “spies” in countries like Syria, Yemen or Libya are few and often bereft of military training. We have no one in Nigeria, for example, who knows the languages, turf and customs of that complicated country as well as does Boko Haram, the gang of barbarians whose idea of a good time is burning down a schoolhouse with all the kids inside.

With a few Nigerians on our team, we’d be better able to deal with these guys.

This is where the French Foreign Legion comes in. Since 1831, the Foreign Legion has been running various kinds of special ops, mostly in Third World outposts like Timbuktu. More important — as indicated by the movie Beau Geste (which has been made five times) — the French Foreign Legion is not particularly French. They take guys from everywhere and turn them into Gary Cooper.

The typical recruit of Foreign Legion lore is an ex-con or deserter with a phony name. His last resort in life is the thankless prospect of anonymous drilling in the bleak Sahara. His sole reward is the prospect of being killed by bloodthirsty insurgents who wield scimitars and ride glistening black stallions. But, if the recruit survives, he becomes a crack soldier and a romantic legend in his own right.

This is where the U.S. Air Force Academy comes in. Once we’ve cleared out all those Top Gun wannabes, we can fill the Academy with cream-of-the-crop students and athletes selected from every nation — including America but especially from those troubled locales where poverty, despair and religious zealotry turn promising young people into jihadist nuts. Out there in the Rocky Mountain obscurity of Colorado Springs, ensconced in Western luxury and American propaganda, the cadets of the American Foreign Legion would get a) a rigorous, liberal and broadbased college education, and b) daily drills and exhaustive instruction in how to fight the sort of clandestine, asymmetric war that seems to represent the future of conflict throughout the world.

The result would be a flow of multicultural commandos of unparalleled skill, able to fight in anywhere violence erupts. But, uniquely, the American Foreign Legion would include agents able to infiltrate and operate unsuspected in any nation, because they would come from that nation, speak its languages, know the territory, understand every custom, tradition and gesture.

OK, this sounds a little creepy. One pictures the Uncle Sam setting up sleeper cells and black sites everywhere, waiting for trouble with his finger on the trigger. But hey, the status quo is already creepy, as long as the predominantly Caucasian CIA and NSA and God-knows-who-else operate secret missions out of every U.S. embassy, consulate, FOB, investment bank, news kiosk and press club on earth.

The American Foreign Legion would probably be more transparent — and definitely more benevolent — than the sneaky crap we’re doing today. Best of all, it would guarantee, in a few years, the next remake of Beau Geste. starring — just a suggestion — Chris, Luke and Liam Hemsworth as the smokin’-hot Geste boys!

Eat your heart out, Tom Cruise!

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#715)

“I came… for the waters”
by David Benjamin

KOWAKIDANI, Japan — You don’t have to go far in Japan — maybe 100 yards in any direction — to find something weird. On our way here, we passed by the alleged cradle of the kamaboko, the classic Japanese “shocking-pink fishcake.” Considering the popularity of kamaboko in celebratory Japanese cuisine, it’s no surprise that the town of Odawara would claim the glory of being first among fishcakes. The American equivalent would be the birthplace of the hot dog.

Alas, in our eagerness to reach our onsen, we passed the Fishcake Museum with barely a snigger. We were onsen-bound. We couldn’t wait to shed our duds and take the plunge. Japan is a nation whose fondness for sexual repression rivals only the Puritan US of A. Yet, for centuries, the tediously formal, pathologically uptight and insufferably stuffy Japanese have been shamelessly indulging themselves by lounging about, drinking sak√© and wearing washcloths on their heads, in steaming basins of volcanic water, boys and girls together buck naked.

Alas again, this tradition is fading. In the high-end onsen where we spent the night, the management segregates men and women in two common-bath rotenburo. Hotlips and I, who like to bathe together, deplore this arrangement — which is why we took a room that has its own little tub on the terrasse, replenished constantly with a steady dribble of steamy water from the fiery heart of the adjacent mountain.

At home, I shower hurriedly and rush to work. At an onsen, I take a dozen baths a day — always washing first, lest I soil the water for my fellow bathers.

Wet fellowship — even sharing a tub with strangers — is the essence of onsen. Hotlips and I once visited a spring called Shiobara, which required — from our sleeping quarters — a steep descent, wearing just a cotton robe and a pair of ill-fitting plastic slippers, down a hundred-odd narrow, slippery wooden steps. At the bottom, overlooking the lazy Hokigawa River, several sunken baths awaited, side-by-side, each steaming in the chilly air, each a slightly different temperature.

I seek out the “coolest” tub, usually about 44 degrees Centigrade, because I’m a gaijin (foreigner), unaccustomed to the uniquely Japanese thrill of being boiled alive and feeling my brains bubble inside my skull. I have observed — with the sort of awe usually reserved for sword-swallowers and cliff-divers — a pair of leather-skinned Japanese old-timers as they soaked, neck-deep and nude, in water that would send me to an emergency room with full-body blisters.

Shiobara had one such tub. I tested it once, for an entire nine seconds, just to show Hotlips that I’m not chicken.

My screams set dogs barking as far the foothills of Mount Fuji.

Shiobara’s tubs are sociably aligned. During one of our dips, we bathed beside a vivacious naked woman who was hiking the river and sampling onsen along the way. She plied us with questions, answered ours and lingered with us merrily. We shared with her an intimacy more immediate, warm and even sensuous than we would have felt if we’d all been wearing pants. The Japanese are hardly a spontaneous —or notably convivial — people. But strip them down and drop them into a cloudy pool smelling faintly of sulphur and barely cooler than a lobster pot, and they turn into a veritable Shriners convention.

This all works, among men and women of all ages, shapes and sizes mingling together in the nude, because there is an unwritten code of onsen etiquette. It requires strict eye contact and the mutual suspension of prurience. Yes, you may peek. But to stare, or to even hint — by word, deed, wink or innuendo — that any of this steamy frolic has to do with sex is the pinnacle of bad taste.

That’s why everyone was appalled by the appearance of several ignorant young women at an onsen called Hacho no Yu, in the rugged valley of the Kinugawa. Rather than draping themselves scantily with a terry-cloth tenugui, the little white towel that serves all purposes at an onsen, the girls were obscenely overdressed — in bikinis. They were covering up — and thereby drawing lewd attention to — things that everyone in every onsen has always silently agreed to first uncover and then overlook. These brazen hussies made us all feel naked.

Our favorite hour at Hacho no Yu, our favorite onsen, was after midnight. By then, the other guests had spread their futon and succumbed to the sedative mixture of hot water and warm rice wine. Hotlips and I would climb mossy stone steps to a round basin — eight feet in diameter and perfect gaijin temperature —whose vista included the inn and the river. One night, a young hiker in search of a bath before pitching his tent in the woods, emerged from the darkness. He undressed swiftly, slapped a tenugui over his lap and slipped goose-pimply into the soup, where we all soaked and chatted as though waiting for tables at TGI Friday’s.

One wee-hour April morning at Hacho no Yu, we had hurried shivering up the clammy steps and plunged in, glad for the shocking warmth in the midst of the chill. No hikers appeared. The only sound from the forest was the wind in its branches. Otherwise, we heard only a trickle of hot water and the hiss of a nearby waterfall. We were just getting wrinkly when a gentle spring snow began to fall.

It was invisible almost ‘til it touched us. In the instant before melting on our steamy skin, each snowflake was a white-hot spark that left no mark. The sky, it seemed, was sending down a paradox of fire and ice to excite our senses and confuse our nerves.

Such moments might all disappear into mere memory. The surfer-girl bikini team at Hacho no Yu were an omen. True onsen —no walls between genders — are a threatened refuge. They’ve retreated into what we call the deep inaka, whose chaste and neighborly denizens still understand that the measure of modesty is how you behave when you ain’t got a stitch.