Monday, September 21, 2020

You Know It's Gonna Get Stranger

 The Great Hedgehog Of Post-Modern Neoliberal Capitalism
(From January 2018)

Obigatory Cute Small Animal Photo At Beginning Of Surrealistic Blog Thing

Moved by the posts of others, recently, I decided to take a stab at (what can be charitably called) stream of consciousness writing, sparked by the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, attended this year by Wonderboy, Murrikan Leader.

I don't normally play with this style of fiction; so, apologies in advance. As Wonderboy's own parents once said, "Let's do this, get it over with, and never speak of it again" -- point being, this is supposed to be topical, and funny.

(For those with no knowledge of Cricket, a "Diamond Duck" is the term for a situation where [per Wikipedia] "a batsman who is dismissed without facing a ball -- most usually run out from the non-striker's end, but alternatively stumped or run out off a wide delivery -- is said to be out by a 'diamond duck'.") 
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Diamond Duck In Davos

1.  Greasing The Grenze

Coming into Davos, surrounded by winds whipping the confectioner's sugar of Swiss hospitality between the crisp billboards, Halt! Grenze! (Stop! Pemmican!) and Kämpfe Für Das Karussell Des Fortschritts! (We  Struggle For Kurt Russell's Foreskins!) The searchlights are blinding, guard dogs bark with an accent (Wüf!), and sudden efficient women are opening doors of perception in your car, murmuring, "Good evening. Anything to declare?"

But you're not surprised. No, not you; never you. All this was in the briefing. They are efficient, here in Davos. The Mark O' Mammon is barcoded on their hind parts -- you've been shown photos -- and at home, skis are racked demurely beside priceless paintings bought at bargain-basement rates, in auctions at Zürich and Geneva, between 1936 and 39. 

And of those pouring into the valley, no one ever says to the women, "Ah DO -- Ah say, Ah say, Well AH DO DECLARE," in a voice borrowed from Foghorn Leghorn -- although you have a secret urge to do that. The women smirk at you, without envy, because Ach, Ja; we know this about you. You wish to do That Cartoon Rooster; such a typical male. We here in Davos know -- otherwise, you would not be allowed here. A brief blonde hand mumbles through your luggage, brushing socks and briefs, lingering for a moment with the rough play of starch in a shirt -- then, waving your car on: Alles Gut; los geh'n. 

And then, you glimpse the last billboard: Im Diesen Friedenskrieg Gibt Es Keine Gefangenen! -- No Prisoners In This Peace War. The Great Carousel Of Progress gives only to take. It really is shitty, what a Town Without Pity Can Do. Ha, ha, ha; that's our Davos!

Even if you have a Safe Conduct Leaflet, dropped like pet leavings on sidewalks by the IMF and WTO (Be a DO RAG, it proclaims, Not a DON'T RAG), after surrendering, the best one can hope for in coming to Davos is a cot in that hut on the mountain. They'll be jammed in with municipal workers and novelists. There will be a crucifix hung on the damp concrete wall, and a 1970's postcard showing light at the end of a tunnel. In the dark, farting and snoring settle around you, diaphanous, studded, anxious. You dream of gristle.

The others will receive a coupon for a discount-price small soda, and a trip to observe George Soros' hair colorist, reading a copy of Forbes, through a bulletproof window. But the Surrendered had denied the primacy of the Great Carousel, so their Davos will be a short sniff of the leather seats in an otherwise unoccupied Daimler. Then, to be sent home at their own expense for long retraining in a job that will take months to find, and which is discontinued the day after they are hired.  Ho, ho,ho, ho, Cisco! Ho, ho, ho, ho, Pancho! That's our Davos!

But this is not your Davos. You are not on file, under the name you were given to use, as having denied The Carousel Of Progress. [Your Name] has been Cleared, umbrage squeezed dry and ready for productive action in service to Man's Betterment. If L.Ron were ever alive, he would be. If Tony Robbins were real, he would guide you personally across the hot coals. Parma-shahanda Yoga-nanda, Parley-voo. In your mind, a Crackerjack prize, and in your gloved hand, the feel of a bag strap made from an endangered petrochemical, all telling you this is real.

(But: The whole squeezing Man's Betterment is just fake bullshit, a double-blind ruse. You're here in Davos in a big quilt, so far under the covers that your latitude and longitude come up Zeroes. You're not who you say you are, and never were. The hopes of all humankind stain your carpeting in expectation that you would complete this mission and get an oil change. God is with you, but he steals your stuff and sells it downtown.)

You stride up to the 4-star hotel desk repeatedly, just trying it out. The clerks -- parthenogenic, muted -- take no notice. They are busy timing each other's movements and their interactions with guests. The clerk with the lowest total time receives a coupon for a discount-price small soda. The rest are allowed to live, but forced to wear old animal costumes outside the hotel, in public, so that all will know of their shame and inexactitude.

Your electronic room key is imprinted with the likeness of Klaus Schaub, wearing a bib, and pictured eating in a 'Communist Lobster' franchise restaurant. The room, fragrant with violets; your phone, seeking you; and promises of delights of the eye, tongue and intellect are hung around the wallpapered box of your room like laundry washed in the sink. It is cheesy and expensive: the highest expression of the Free Market. You have made it.

Pencils down. You evacuate your bowels. The toilet has a shelf for you, the curious, to view leavings before flushing, and it would be churlish to refuse anything offered for free. This act of introspection will be your best moment at Davos. They told you this would happen -- but nothing, nothing could prepare you for that moment of contact, of spurning. You wash your hand.

2.   Where You Were, Gentlemen

It's the day. There are WEF conferences and hubub scheduled, rooms, many rooms, of people murmuring peasancarrots, peasandcarrots repeatedly. But you were instructed to feign shyness until The Moment. You hang. You chill. In The Packed Elevator, you do your Robin Williams laugh -- and everyone in the Car suddenly does the same thing.

You almost flinch. It's endless, permeable, like having a colonoscopy on a train -- but you remember: Keep control. Deep breaths. Be Coolidge: You Lose. Then, the Car stops; its doors slide open and a man moves past you, still making his seal-bark laugh, pausing to wipe his eyes on a woman's hair, and pat you on the shoulder as if to say, Dude -- good one.

Here, finally; the white placard outside a door to an auditorium, with a single word in red: Stumpfegger. This is where you are to meet your contact. You accept a glance from the woman beside the door -- an intense simulacrum of Donna Reed -- who hands you a brochure entitled Complete Release. Blushing, she says this conference covers "the plot for forgiveness of all First-World debt." You smile, nodding, earnest, but keep moving. Your mission is more important than what you suspect about her thong underwear -- and will never know. You'll have to live with that.

They said, Your contact will know you. All you had to do was to find "Stumpfegger" and show up. You stand near the tasteful refreshment table and realize the man serving drinks is a frenzied doppelgänger for Joe Turkel, eternal bartender in The Shining, and decline a tequila shooter. You wave the Complete Release brochure back and forth, as instructed -- a signal, an urgent, full-bladder motion, and think about thong underwear. Really hard.

Then, you see The Contact. You see them seeing you see them, actually. Everything that happens after this is a blur; you'll be debriefed about it for weeks in extra crispy detail, a swimming up from sewage depth to where sheep graze, safely. And, fortunately for you, the story will not change. You will be allowed to go back to wherever it is you come from. You will be allowed to toil in many jobs, but not remain for long -- because Lt. Gerard will always show up, looking for money.

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What catches your attention about The Contact first is his hair, its architectural blondness -- now whitish, now caution orange, and shiny, like preternatural two-tone ice cream or a small child's flotation device. The Contact is a suet, puffed inside his black suit, behind the signature doublewide red tie. His face is a carnivore drunkard's bloat, too-small eyes, piggish; his mien oblate and spiky. His lips are a crayon line drawn by an angry pensioner across the lower third of that orange face. The French Cuffs of his whitish shirt have little numbers embroidered on them: "45",  and he is nodding, nodding, at you as he walks forward. This is your contact.


3.   Historical Briefs With A Brown Streak Of Genius

A Stonehenge of men and women in sunglasses surround The Contact. They move in formation, maintaining a Raggedly Ann circle around him, continually bumping into other guests, chairs, tables, each other, headed right towards you in a chorus of s'cuse me; par-done, pal; hey lookout; aw christ you could see me comin', right? and who keep reaching inside their jackets as if checking to ensure they still have their wallets.

You clench. The deer flips on its headlights and there you are, about to get a mouthful of antler (Hi! Remember me? You hit me with the Volkswagen! Payback's a bitch, pal!). You think of the face of your mother -- or Lady Gaga, or another suitable female substitute, just as The Contact stops directly in front of you. You are standing in his Circle Of Trust, surrounded by partially blind people who have weapons.

"Hey, you know," The Contact says, lifting his chin and tilting his head back to look down at you, Mussolini squinting at a small boat far out at sea, "You know, I was out there, goin' by, and thought, 'You know, I should stop in there'. How's it goin'?" You open your mouth to answer but the contact, like the voiceover for an industrial safety film, keeps on talking.

"There's so many things goin' on here! It's like the world's fair of banking and whatever, right? You know, they never -- never -- wanted to invite me to Davos. I mean, I'm the most sympathetic person to what they want to do, in this whole place, the whole thing, me -- and they never invited me before! Not once!"

The Contact sees a blur moving outside his Circle Of Trust and raises a hand, perfect white teeth in the ocher pudding of his face, saying, "Hey, thank you. How ya doin', yeah; thank you," before turning the oily tumblers in his eyes back on you.

The Contact's eyes widen to the size of dimes. He throws his hands out, experimentally, the breadth of a large fish. "But, n-ow -- now, they had to invite me! I'm the leader of the free world, right? Over 300 on the electoral; nobody ever mentions that, by the way. But, hey -- Swiss've been great, they really have, very gracious -- they've been very, very good to me, very respectful. Not saying they're not. I'm very much thinking I hope they stay like that."

You nod. You lean towards him slightly, and enunciate the code phrase: Hobo Oboe.  The Contact stops, squints, pushes on his chin. "Din' getcha," he says; you rinse and repeat. The Contact thinks about what an impression of remembering something might look like, then leans towards you, and speaks a countersign: "Ah, Yeah, yeah.  'My Penile Prosthesis'." He steps a little closer and, with a quick glance around the room, squeezes out a shruglet, raising his brows while the eyes remain inscrutable, swinish. 

This was the moment. This was why you came to Davos: to observe your leavings, and tell this person what you were instructed to say -- a single phrase, "Stormy Weather". You ignore the sure impression you have gained that The Contact is wearing thong underwear, stand on your feet's balls, and draw a deep breath -- but before you can speak, The Contact interrupts you.

"Hey, I have a lot to do; so much to do, I've got -- you wouldn't believe how much I have to do in this job. I tell you, if I could go on strike, I'd do that. Leftists would love it. Chuck Schumer'd love it -- but I am the most involved president, hands-on involved, of any president. Not since Lincoln, or anyone, has there been a harder-working president than I am. So that's one.

"Two, nobody is listening to me. I mean, the people, some of the people, they listen, sure. But there's a fucking conspiracy with the New York Times and fucking PBS. Jesus; fucking Frontline. The Washington Post -- that Bezos, he's just trying to mindfuck me. But, I'll be fair, some of my own people -- don't want to name anybody, but some of them are very close to me -- use the media to talk themselves up. Take credit, make me look like some crazy, stupid person. Happened just last week."

Everyone in the Stumpfegger Room is looking at something else while they look at The Contact, and you. He has drawn himself up on a cocktail napkin, his gut pendulous within a tent of jacket; he pushes a stubby finger into the inches before your face, shouting, "I'm tellin' you: I am not stupid, like everyone says! I'm Smart!! I am fucking in charge!"

"I was elected with the largest electoral numbers in modern history -- I was, me! Not the goddamn Daily News! And I'm about ready to say to the Post, 'Hey, Jeff; you want to get shut down? You want a military censor sitting in your office with a magnifying glass up your ass? You want the IRS looking at your offshore LLCs?' And those terrible conditions in his shipping places; just terrible. We're gonna look into that. He's outta control, that guy; it's very sad how outta control.

"I'm not even getting into the Russia thing. Yeah, we're lining up for ol' Bobby; and oh, everyone's gonna be surprised when we let go, my friend!" His face is an alarmed bell of crimson. "see, it takes just one thing, just one thing, and the whole ball game can change. That's what I'm saying; I'm saying that. All right." His face relaxes like a sphincter, and he nods, lifting a hand with two fingers, faintly Benedictine. "All right. Thanks very much. Great to see you."

The theme to "Heroes Of Telemark" begins to play in the background and he's off walking, his perimeter of flesh shifting with him back through the room and out the door.  A tendril in your head saying hey man that tequila shooter be lookin' good right now. From here to eternity, everyone is turning, turning, and have come round, Right wing, at last, to be looking at you. If curious glances had their own mucus, you would be coated in slime.

You order a tequila; the Joe Turkel bartender says Your Money's No Good There, and it's all on the House. Somewhere, you realize that you did not give The Contact that message. On the way back to the hotel, your Uber driver talks about a company which has made an app -- an interactive photo-calendar of shaved animals, for other animals. It has had two billion downloads at $2.99 each.

Obligatory Dog-Faced Fruit Bat Photo: Pooch Of The Sky


At the hotel, you receive a message: Mother says the cow is sick. You must come home immediately. Tickets will be delivered today. There is also a huge, Dog-Faced Fruit Bat, in a basket, from the Davos Chamber Of Commerce. One of these messages is benign, the other ominous, and you do not know which is which.

The Fruit Bat turns on the room's television;  you both watch situation comedies in German until the Fruit Bat turns to you and says, "Are you understanding any of this?"

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The Fruit Bat dials Room Service and orders a Martini. After a time, the Room Service waiter, a man in his mid-twenties, appears. He places the Martini, and the bill, on a side table.  The Fruit Bat sips at the Martini in silence. The waiter stands to one side, observing. The world wonders.

After a few minutes, the waiter politely clears his throat and says, "You know -- we don't get many Fruit Bats ordering Martinis here." The Fruit Bat, glancing at the bill, replies, "Yes; and at these prices, you won't see many more of us, either."

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Thursday, September 17, 2020

Random Barking: Darkness On The Edge

 Edge Of America

I've done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this old town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart
Find somebody itching for something to start
  --  "Promised Land" (From Darkness At The Edge Of Town /1978)

.. thinking about Bruce Springsteen. Not any specific music of his; just, how it's always reminded me of the America I grew up in: small-town, white boy America, next to the ocean. Not all that far from-big-city USA. Chamber of Commerce, Future Farmers, Boy Scout and Kiwanis America; Pleasantville. 

Bruce's music always felt more East Coast, for obvious reasons; the Beach Boys' music was supposed to be speaking for life at the edge of California. I liked Pet Sounds, thought "Little Deuce Coupe" was cool (though that got replaced by Hendrix and the Airplane and Mothers Of Invention soon enough). 

By comparison, Bruce's music isn't about L.A. culture. It's deeper and more generic. It's filled with the ambiguity of living, of longing for love; it's about betrayals and missed connections, being locked into class and locality and fate. Be True To Your School is a more naive take on America, and as close as Brian, Roger and the Boys got to exploring the darkness on the edge of town.
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Where I came from, we didn't have the Eastern version of mills and factories, but we understood working-class expectations. We knew where our families were in the local pecking order, and those who mattered in town -- the people you didn't want to make unhappy. We knew, without being told, that our experience wasn't shared by Blacks, Latinos, Asians; they weren't even part of the equation. And all that reflected the larger image of America, a larger pecking order, with so many layers above and below.

It was an America built on white privilege. It was built on a fantasy wrapped in a flag and accompanied by 'The Star Spangled Banner' and Semper Fiedelis. We had relatively stable weather, but the future disintegration of population, of air, water, soil and climate already apparent. The gulling and fleecing of Americans to feed the desires of the rich were yet to begin in earnest. All this is manifestly clear, now; only a fool would dispute it. But it was my world. 

Humans view their challenging present with times that by comparison seem safer, stable: so I think fondly of that old world in spite of all my present, hard-fought, earned knowledge.

That America of the late 1950's and 1960's is mostly gone; only scraps are left. Some people pretend it's still the One True Vision of who and what we are, but everyone knows that world has disappeared. The one we're in, now, is changing. In fact, it may be gone soon, too.
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I hope. But I come from people whose nations were ravaged by political grifters, murderous, quasi-religious zealots, war, economic disaster and revolution. I was raised to believe that more often than not, the dice do not fall your way, no matter how much you may wish for it. And when you hear a voice saying blood is about to flow -- run, you should pay attention.

I'm beginning to see a bad moon above the horizon, like an escaped balloon, baleful and drifting. Even with all the Dystopian thinking I've subscribed to, I never expected it to manifest in reality.

In the Bible Cain slew Abel
And East of Eden he was cast,
You're born into this life paying,
for the sins of somebody else's past,
Daddy worked his whole life, for nothing but the pain,
Now he walks these empty rooms, looking for something to blame,
You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames...

("Adam Raised A Cain")
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Something In The Night

As I scan Trump’s tweets, speeches ... the thought occurs to me that this must be what it would have been like had former Alabama governor George Corley Wallace Jr. won the presidency in 1968.  Read Wallace’s rhetorical choices during the ’68 campaign and you will quickly learn that Trump has been channeling him.

Wallace sought the presidency at a tumultuous time of protest, civic unrest over deeply rooted racism and the Vietnam War. With his “Stand Up for America” slogan, he played to the growing White backlash against the marches and acts of civil disobedience. Backlash is also the heart and soul of Trump’s campaign war against “anarchists” and the media.

Hear Wallace in a 1968 Toledo speech... : “I want to say that anarchists — and I am talking about newsmen sometimes — I want to say — I want to make that announcement to you because we regard that the people of this country are sick and tired of, and they are gonna get rid of you — anarchists.”

(Colbert I. King, "There is no vaccine for our deeper national sickness" , Washington Post)
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Bark Bark Bark Bark

Trump gets away with being a despot because we allow it. When he crosses some new Red Line of conduct, we collectively say But that's just not done! It's an Outrage!! 

It's the functional equivalent of saying, "Well! I never!" as someone commits an act of unspeakable rudeness. We act as if commonly-understood rules of public conduct are still in force for him, for the political Right -- and that with a broad, public show of disapproval, he will be forced to conform.

The media have done this with Trump even before he came down the escalator. They act as if he could be politely shamed in print or online to change his behavior. He didn't. When it became clear he lied, daily, outrageously, unbelievably, they could have called him a liar -- but, no. To be seen as practitioners of honest journalism, to be oh-so-neutral, they would 'fact-check' him. 

He was allowed to lie on Twitter (not a journalistic medium; but, still) until its own users pressured Jack into putting a sticker on a couple of Trump's Twits that they were 'bad'. He continues to lie on that platform, and they continue to let him.

They allowed Kellyanne Conway to screech that there were such things as "alternative facts", and then said nothing -- as if facts were debatable; truth a matter of whoever is holding the gun.  Politicians on the left made the same mistake, and continue to do so (read on below).

We keep playing the game with These People by the old rules -- as if normalcy would return any minute, like parents coming home early to find the maskless party in full swing, and say What in the world were you thinking? 

We refuse to stoop to the same behavior as These People. We believe we're morally superior -- and we believe that even as they kick us to the curb, over and over again, and take our wallets. Even as they abuse children in detention facilities, lie about the pandemic, steal and scheme to steal, push their AR-15s in our faces and tell us they're patriots and do what they say. 

And when the media, the politicians on "our side" respond with a "Well, I never!" -- Trump's reply is always Yeah, you never, bitch.  I always.  And this is why he continues to appear to win, liar and thief that he is.
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Factory

When you have at least 40% of the population wanting to believe irrational things, and another 40% wants a logic which is not functional, there is a great deal of logically valid and scientifically correct data which will not be allowed as a given.

In short, we argue over things that have already been proven to be true. I do not need to listen to President Trump to know that he simply lies. However, his overt lies are a result of the fact that there has been for 40 years a gradually building consensus for a covert set of lies.

The system which created the confluence of events which led to him taking the oath of office is in no way related to any system of reality worthy of attention.

(Stirling Newberry, "The Theocratic Mantra Of Our Age", Ian Welsh blog, September 17, 2020)
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Racing In The Street

Many of our most influential editors and reporters are acting as if the rules that prevailed under previous American presidents are still in effect. But this president is different; the rules are different; and if it doesn’t adapt, fast, the press will stand as yet another institution that failed in a moment of crucial pressure.

In some important ways, media outlets are repeating the mistake made by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller. In his book about the Mueller investigation, True Crimes and Misdemeanors (and in a New Yorker article), Jeffrey Toobin argues that Mueller’s tragic flaw was a kind of anachronistic idealism—which had the same effect as naivete. He knew the ethical standards he would maintain for himself and insist on from his team. He didn’t understand that the people he was dealing with thought standards were for chumps. 

Mueller didn’t imagine that a sitting attorney general would intentionally misrepresent his report, which is of course what Bill Barr did. Mueller wanted to avoid an unseemly showdown, or the appearance of a “fishing expedition” inquiry, that would come from seeking a grand-jury subpoena for Donald Trump’s testimony, so he never spoke with Trump under oath, or at all. Trump, Barr, and their team viewed this decorousness as a sign of weakness, which they could exploit.

Something similar is going on now with many members of the press. They’re behaving like Mueller, wanting to be sure they observe proprieties that would have made sense when dealing with other figures in other eras. But now they’re dealing with Donald Trump, and he sees their behavior as a weakness he can exploit relentlessly.

(James Fallows, "Media Mistakes", The Atlantic (September 2020)
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Badlands

MARK LEVIN :  Recall that in June, acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper publicly warned Trump against invoking the Insurrection Act, against the riots, spread across the country. That would let Trump use military troops to quell the violence...

And ... should Donald Trump get reelected, God willing, he needs to fire this Secretary of Defense. This Secretary of Defense doesn't get to dictate to the commander-in-chief. And no, it's not illegal, it's not unconstitutional, it's not unethical, it's not immoral for the President to use the Insurrection Act to put down insurrections. Other presidents have done exactly the same thing. 

And if what you see in the cities isn't an insurrection, I don't know what the hell is. These are Marxist, anarchist groups. And if they plan to continue what they're doing in even worse form, multiply by five or ten, they need to be put down. Are you hearing me Media Matters? Mediaite? Yes, we need to retain a civil society and a republic. 

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Prove It All Night

Attorney General William Barr told the nation’s federal prosecutors to be aggressive when charging violent demonstrators with crimes, including potentially prosecuting them for plotting to overthrow the U.S. government [i.e., sedition], people familiar with the conversation said.

In a conference call with U.S. attorneys across the country last week, Mr. Barr warned that sometimes violent demonstrations across the U.S. could worsen as the November presidential election approaches. He encouraged the prosecutors to seek a number federal charges, including under a rarely used sedition law, even when state charges could apply, the people said.

The call underscores the priority Mr. Barr has given to prosecuting crimes connected to violence during months of protests against racial injustice...  Federal prosecutors have charged more than 200 people with violent crimes related to the protests, most of whom face counts of arson, assaulting federal officers, or gun crimes... police officials say they are alarmed by the presence of armed fringe groups from both sides of the political spectrum. Mr. Barr has blamed much of the violence of leftist extremists including antifa, a loose network of groups ... which Mr. Barr has described as a movement advocating revolution.

(Digby, "Barr Takes It Up A Notch", September 16, 2020)
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Streets Of Fire

So, what was the trade-off that fueled Trump and his administration's decision to downplay the deadly seriousness of the virus to the American public? What was the specific panic they wanted to avoid?

Trump's economic advisors Peter Navarro and Larry Kudlow and Steven Mnuchin, among others, made it abundantly clear that the administration's main concern was stock market values. The Trump administration's principal measure of its economic success has been the rising stock market. Trump himself boasted the other day about the record highs in the Dow Jones Industrial Average as evidence of what a good job he is doing. Understandably, they did not want to see a stock market panic a la 2008.

So, let's look at the numbers on both sides of the trade-off equation. Currently, the U.S. has roughly a quarter of the world's deaths (~195,000) even though we only make up about 4% of the world's population. Worldwide deaths stand at ~905,000. 

So, doing back-of-the-envelope math, if Trump had acted responsibly and truthfully, not downplayed the severity of the threat, and the U.S. had performed on par with the averages of other countries in the world (not better, just average), we should be at ~36,000 deaths (4% of 905,000). That's ~160,000 additional deaths due to Trump's neglect and public lies about the deadly severity and spread of the virus.

So the question we need to ask is how many points on the Dow Jones Industrial Average were salvaged by this policy? And how many lives were sacrificed in trade-off for each point on the Dow?

(Wisdom Of The West:  "Panic vs. Pandemic: Doing The Hard Math", September 10, 2020)

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Lies And The Lying Liars Who Lie

Americans reelected our majority in 2016 and expanded it in 2018 because we pledged to work with President Trump and support his agenda, particularly his outstanding appointments to the federal judiciary,” McConnell said in a statement Friday following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

He added: “President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.”


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At Sunset I Saw The Chickens Swooping In For A Landing

Inequality and polarization have not been this high since the nineteenth century. Democrats are certain that if Donald Trump is reelected, American democracy will not survive. Republicans are equally certain that if Trump loses, radical socialists will seize the wealth of elites and distribute it to undeserving poor and minorities, forever destroying the economy of the United States. Both sides are also convinced that the other side intends to change the democratic ‘rules of the game’ in ways that will make it impossible for them to compete effectively in future elections.

-- Mathematician Peter Turchin (quoted in "Ginsburg's Passing May Worsen The Crisis Of Our Democracy"; Max Boot, WaPo September 19, 2020)
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Monday, August 10, 2020

Random Barking: You Know That

Everybody Knows

...And everybody knows that the Plague is coming
Everybody knows that it's moving fast
Everybody knows the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Everybody knows the scene is dead
But there's gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows
         -- Leonard Cohen
Animals

We live in an anthropocentric world of social and political constructs, dominating the natural biosphere. That structure is composed of more layers than we can imagine, constantly interacting: a terrible beauty. 

We can't know how those layers interrelate with each other. Data and technology can reveal, even predict cause-and-effect interactions between some layers in the constructed world. But no one can have a god-view of the entire system. This makes a definite future difficult to predict.

As animals, we're hardwired for sensory input; every waking minute we navigate our constructed world, we take in information. We consider what we see as fact; or we reject it as false (it's not either/or; more a spectrum of relative value judgments). 

How we determine that is affected by our personal histories and emotional drivers -- and it's happening, for the most part, unconsciously, moment-to-moment.  And those emotional levers are notoriously easy to manipulate. Advertisers, social media oligarchs, megachurch 'pastors' and politicians know this.
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Factually, all this is as much as we can know about how we are as thinking animals and the world we are living in. It's an intentionally simplified description, but stops here -- where a pitch by carny barkers, cults, social media platforms or political parties normally begins.

There are religious and metaphysical perspectives, too. I make a joke out of having once met the Dalai Lama (asking if he'd seen Caddyshack), but I was able to pose another question: Was there one passage or observation which he felt summarized the teachings and the way of the Buddha? The Lama -- who never stopped smiling -- considered for a moment, then said, "Do your best."
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Complacency

None of our basic assumptions about America are complete or correct. We've mostly been content to live as resources and participants in a materialist culture, having The Good Life that the Promise Of America is supposed to provide. We've been drifting along on assumptions about what America is, what our national priorities are, where we as a society we should go. Not even the 2008 Recession shook us out of our complacency.

Before Covid, most Americans assumed America wasn't perfect, but things are way better than they were in the past. Economic and racial inequality takes a long time to address! 2008? Well, we came back from that (or, most did). As long as people could pay their way, America appeared to be a progressive society. 

Unless you're Black. Or Latino. Or Native American. Or Poor. Or an Immigrant. Or 'Other'. If so, then they already understood the High School Civics Class View of America was not based on their lives. They already understood what the knee on the back of George Floyd's neck felt like.

All of the metrics of the Pandemic have already been reported: the unemployed, the shuttered businesses; the evictions; the dead, the populations at risk. The Great Recession wasn't a mortal blow to America. But the Pandemic might be
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Future

When not talking about SARS-CoV2, my friends in America are focused on the November election. They see it in traditional terms: Either / Or.  They're the "Democrats" (or 'Progressive Independents'; or 'Left', anyway),  in opposition to "Republicans" or 'The Right'. They see the result of this contest as pivotal, a critical juncture; I agree. But the unspoken assumption is, Once Biden is elected, everything can go back to the way it was

This is based on the ideal that American society and culture really are progressive, egalitarian. My friends -- some of whom have children -- want a good outcome for our collective future. So do I... but I realize we're looking at our current state through different lenses.

They believe the fundamental layers of America -- our collective assumptions -- are real. That they are strong enough to see us through this crisis. That the rise of an armed, delusional Right, the revelations of bottomless greed and vulpine mendacity of The Wealthy; the absolutely chilling, child-sacrificing heartlessness of right-wing politicians, over just the past seven months, will disappear, swept away by a 'Blue Wave'. I feel those assumptions are laughably naive. 
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Curtain

America is everything in our memory and our lives tomorrow; but what we were taught are a fiction. This isn't a new revelation -- but for generations, only marginalized, ignored Americans have been saying it: that our national history is incomplete. It ignores and marginalizes Slaves; Native Americans; Women; Non-Christians; Immigrants; Commerce and War; Wealth and Inequality. 

But the most incomplete part of our national history is that there really is a One-One-Hundredth, a One-One-Thousandth of the One Per Cent who own the majority of everything worth having. With the exception of noveau riche newcomers like a Bezos or Gates, a Musk or Ellison or Zuckerberg, you never hear about the truly Rich.  They are behind a curtain, living and playing in places you will never hear about or see in photographs, let alone be allowed to enter. 

The history of politics has always been a struggle between the representatives of Our Wealthy, and those speaking for The People, to wrest concessions from the Rich on behalf of the rest of us.  Everybody knows there is one system for Them, and another for us. Since the Gilded Age, 150 years ago, this has never been made clearer in America as now. 

They care about their families first, then those in their class. Everyone else is only important relative to our usefulness to Their interests. Politicians, the judicial system; even laws are inconveniences, things to be manipulated. 

They view society not as a structure of cooperation, but a mechanisim created to satisfy their desires and further their interests. To Them, the notion of 'Freedom' does not include the visions of a John Lewis, Dr Martin Luther King, a Dietrich Bonhoffer or Mahatma Gandhi. It does not apply to you and me.

And, they absolutely do not care at all what happens to you.  When a Covid-19 vaccine is developed, it will be provided to Them, first, because they are The Best, and Our Owners. The rest of us will wait; some will die. 

If you say all this makes the wealthy sound like monsters, I won't disagree. They are.
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Savage

An opinion piece in today's WaPo notes that we are in a 'Pandemic Depression': Covid-19 has stressed all the fractures in our society at once -- racial, economic, gender; generational; political. But our past seven months of terror, suffering and cruelty were the result of the last four years of corrupt, incompetent authoritarian rule. 

And the Past four years were led by a Prologue: thirty-five years of right-wing talk radio and 'news': Limbaugh, Weiner, Murdoch; Sinclair, Mercer. Corporate media. The unbridled, savage expansion of personal wealth and societal power in the hands of the wealthy and conservative politicians, conservative judges. It will not vanish with a Democratic president. 

This is the malignancy which America's political right and Trump have bequeathed the country. It can't be walked back. We don't have the political cohesion to accomplish it. Republicans have shown themselves openly to be craven, ruinous opportunistic liars and toadies, and they will resist any change just to protect their bloodstained reputations. They are scum; no mistake.

But, let's be clear: Democrats are almost as corrupt as the Rethugs. Their campaigns are financed by the same wealth that pays the Right: it's equal-opportunity bribery. If our society isn't cohesive enough to heal our most serious divisions, the Democratic National Committee doesn't have the political will or desire. 

Many in the DNC want a return to Obama-era neoliberalism, the continuing march of globalism. Everything the way it was, with vaccines. Don't believe it? Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is being denied a speaking slot at the Democratic Convention. But, She Who Will Not Be Denied, Hillary, will speak. So will her shiny Bill-O. They will be the Voices Of Our Hopes.

At least the Republicans are more open about what they are.
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Dissonance

This is what Covid has done for us. It's made it easier to see and feel the weight of our collective cognitive dissonance around what America is. That the notion of race and social equality, getting better all the time, is a fiction. That what truly matters in America is how much money and influence you have, the color of your skin. 

For someone who's served, in more ways than one; taken oaths; to finally come to an understanding of what it is you'd been in love with is difficult. I'm not talking about some popularized 'woke' meme, adopting a perspective because it's Trending. It's a gut-level understanding that you've been wrong. My grandfather would have said: Du hast die Realität falsch verstanden; you have misjudged the reality around you. You're not sure where that takes you, but you're going to have to let it settle and live with it

Dashiel Hammett used to say that, when he came into a city, all he wanted to know was 'Who runs the cops?' Who are the real bosses? This is what we need to ask ourselves, going forward. It's the same question people ask in Putin's Russia, or Lukashenko's Belarus, Bolsonaro's Brazil, Orban's Hungary or Jinping's China. Who do we need to avoid, or bow to, just to keep living our lives?

The polite fiction of our country as egalitarian, a nation of laws, with two separate and different political parties offering a free choice of different perspectives, will continue until it becomes an encumbrance. Those of us who still have jobs will hang on to a vision of America as the freest place on earth, while watching Federal 'police' on the streets, rounding up the angry and the unruly and the hungry. 

Do Your Best.
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Saturday, August 1, 2020

Reprint Heaven Forever: "Works For Me," Said The Whale

Hoo Boy Yet Again, The Birthday of Big Marine Mammal Avatar Creators

Moving through life, we find ourselves on occasion in the midst of experience or the presence of a thing which resonates and reminds that something, more than what we think we know or can perceive (if we would just stop and shut up and pay enough attention to see), exists.

Principally, this happens when we're 'out in nature', but it also happens when we encounter some art -- in particular, when it's been created by someone who made deep and illuminating connections and Brought Them Back To Tell Thee. From August 1st in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and today.
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There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own.
-- Herman Melville / Moby-Dick, or, The Whale
Over at the Soul Of America, it's a celebration of Herman Melville's 201st birthday (!), and things of the Sea, and a Whale, and other notables which Herman brought back, To Tell Thee.

I keep considering writing a post from the viewpoint of the Whale just for the potential Yucks (because, god knows, We Need The Yucks Wherever We Can Get Them), but gave it up and settled for the Humorous Image. I voice The Whale elsewhere on social media; he's not a bad sort, thoughtful, and is amazed at the delusional stalking being done to him by That Crazy Old Fart, Ahab.

The best thing about Blckdgrd's annual post, and the reason I mention it here, is -- Herman tends to be overlooked in a culture whose highest expression is a Rhianna / Pitbull remix; it's good to be reminded that he is still there -- as he reminds us that we are chased by our mortality; and that sometimes the Form Of The Destructor is large, albino, and aquatic.  

I was introduced to Melville when I was fourteen -- not through the novel he's most often identified with, but in the short work, "Bartelby The Scrivener" (1853), a classic in its own right. Ishmael's tale was next, and I was, uh, hooked. Later, I wasn't able to read anything by James or Conrad that didn't refer back to the narrative style I encountered first with Melville.

"Moby Dick: Or, A Whale" is ubiquitous. There is No Whale before He who populates a portion of that book (Yeah, okay; 'Shamu'  and 'Willy' are not the same thing). The Whale at least lurks, an unseen presence, in the background of all the on-ship action -- like Death, or Fate, or reruns of Three's Company. As if the Whale might chuckle and snicker in the dark during certain scenes:
" 'What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike.'   
" 'Heh heh heh heh,' " came a deep basso rumble out of the darkness which hid the waters. Ahab started, but did not otherwise acknowledge the presence of that upon which he had focused for so long."
That Big Marine Mammal is archetypal, now. And, aber natürlich, the moment something makes an appearance on "Family Guy", it's an absolute certainty that, whatever it is, it's now hard-coded into our DNA.

 Herman Left Out The Part Where Whales Prefer Raisin Bran
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[From 2016] MEHR, MIT KEINE POLITIK: My Very Own Hillaryite Colleague asks, "So you hate music, too?" (This, because of the Rhianna / Pitbull quip.) And I would agree, it's absurdist reductionism to claim that the essence of culture in Eusa is rap music and movies like Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. I'm convinced that people (or, Whales; or very intelligent Honey Badgers) in the not very distant future will look back on this period as one of the most varied and vibrant in the history of our humanoid species -- until, you know, that thing happens.
________________________________

UND NOCH IMMER MEHR:  Once I saw this, I could not un-see it. It is an actual book. Swear to god.

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-HzYH1qVAn2s/VLuVF_f9DWI/AAAAAAAABbI/SC32BIgWys4/s1600/Ships.jpg
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UND: WAS IST AUCH SCHON WIEDER LOS? MEHR:  At one point, if you had $39.9K, Jim Morrison's Moby could have been yours.

At that price, you'd think the seller would have provided free shipping -- but, remember: this is Aremica, Land Of The Free and Home Of The Hip.






Reprint Heaven: Old

The Only Serious Thing In The World
(From 2018)

Harry Bertschmann, "Stuttgart No. 6", 1957  (Bertschmann Studio / NYT 2017)

The New York Times recently presented a showcase article about an artist, a painter living in New York City. They've produced a body of work and it's clear they have some chops, a vision -- but they're still trying for that Big Break to achieve recognition. And they're 86 years old.
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American culture really has no idea what to do with the Old (and 'old' is a plastic term; so, anyone over 55, say) beyond separating them from the most important thing in American culture: their money. In that, Olds are no different than any other segment in our population.

In the brave new 5G world, everyone is a unit or resource, part of a demographic group to be influenced, led, monitored and monetized. To the Powers, what people do with their little lives isn't so important -- it's what percentage of their income can be shorn from them during those lives that's key.

In 2016, The New Inquiry webzine dedicated an issue to aging, and in an editorial comment noted
In the ... capitalist core (that is, those regions which have long since sundered the multigenerational household as the central economic unit), old age isn’t held in the public esteem it vaguely remembers it should be due...
But ... (m)any of the indignities of old age are, on inspection, the indignities of being socially discarded — feelings of isolation, a fall in status, loss of autonomy. That is, these are not organic facts of the body but outcomes desired, at some level, by someone. Why that is, and who benefits, are both painfully obvious and logically obscure.
The general assumptions made about old age have to do with physical changes, a reduction and a diminution. Older people "retire", leave the jobs where they labored and the homes where they lived and (possibly) raised families, and slowly disappear from public view.  Who cares what they did in their lives? They're no longer vital or real contributors to the world. That's all in the past.

And journey's end is death, the ultimate reduction and mystery.  Olds are a reminder of The End of everything our spiritually crippled culture asserts is most important. Small wonder most people are almost eager to ignore them, unless of course there's money to be made.
__________________________________

People with a desire for artistic expression make efforts to translate their insights and experience, birthing them into the world through whatever medium. American culture takes art seriously, and boasts of the achievements of our artists, but doesn't support those artists and won't take them seriously unless there's money involved (if so, Jeff Koons is the greatest artist humankind ever produced).

Often the image of that effort is connected to youth --  the young artist, the unheated garret; trying for recognition and fame, the "big break". Most people wouldn't connect being a "struggling artist" with being an Old -- but I'll bet you lunch that it's more common.
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When the New York Times published Harry Bertschmann's story, it was a reminder that artists frequently make trade-offs between creative time and material security, Working The Day Job. Bertschmann was no different; he worked for decades doing advertising art, and making that choice affected Bertschmann's path as an artist.

In that review, the NYT story took a traditional perspective -- an underlying assumption that art must result in financial success and name recognition to have any intrinsic worth: Bertschmann knew Rothko and Kline and Motherwell; they got famous and rich, and he didn't.

The usual conclusion of a storyline like this will depict the unrecognized artist, aging, living in solitary poverty -- a cold-water, sub-basement apartment; a description of finished canvases stacked beside the pallet and mattress, the stained, pathetic hotplate.

But this story has a Cinderella ending: good news, that Bertschmann is becoming known, late in life, with a promise of financial reward: the NYT article was timed to appear a week before a solo show of his selected works at a prestigious, upstate gallery. There's lots of buzz and potential for sales.

Don't misunderstand: I'm all for Cinderella endings. I'm glad Bertschmann and his wife will have more money, more security -- and, that his work will be shown. People will see it -- and whatever alchemical magic happens when we see, hear or read art can take place. That's why Art gets done. I would suggest that if Bertschmann were here, he'd say that's what he's been doing for 60 years; it's why he's on the planet.

At the same time, there's a reminder that perspectives and assumptions about art, about aging, and life and death, served up by our culture are terrifyingly inadequate. In spite of itself, the NYT article of Bertschmann's story gives a glimpse of that -- and that sometimes, in this world, there are happy endings.
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MEHR, MIT EINE NACHWORT:  Harry Bertschmann passed away less than a year after the Paper of Record published his story. In September 2019 -- a world away from Covid and Trump and the brink of the Something we're standing on today -- everything in the co-op apartment he shared with his wife was sold at an estate sale. Everything.

I don't suggest that loss of material possessions, or a lifetime spent working for someone else's enrichment, and creating art that went unrecognized, is the point of living; as if public acclaim and financial wealth were the reasons behind creative acts. I don't know what the point of living is, any more than you do. But the conscious act of making is powerful in our species, and stands as an absolute good whether the tree falls in the forest when no one is around, or if it amazes a crowd with its grace and power.
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Saturday, July 11, 2020

Reprint Heaven: Oh; So *That's* What They Call It

(This, from January Of 2010. We already knew what it was that was killing us.) 


In order to make decisions, human beings need information -- as clear, reliable, and precise as we can get; in other words, the Truth. Without it, complex decisions involving a consensus, or even something as simple as meeting someone for a movie, is almost impossible.


[A log time] ago (on the day of Barack Obama's Inauguration as the 44th President of the United States, in fact), Clive Thompson of Wired Magazine posted an article about the work of Robert Proctor, a Historian of Science at Stanford University.


Cover Of Wired, January, 2009 (Photo: Wired Magazine)


Proctor has said that, ordinarily, the more information we have about a subject, the clearer it becomes. However, when contentious subjects are involved, our usual relationship to information is reversed -- ignorance increases.

As Proctor argues [notes Thompson], when society doesn’t know something, it’s often because special interests work hard to create confusion. Anti-Obama groups likely spent millions insisting he’s a Muslim; church groups have shelled out even more pushing creationism. The oil and auto industries carefully seed doubt about the causes of global warming. And when the dust settles, society knows less than it did before.

“People always assume that if someone doesn’t know something, it’s because they haven’t paid attention or haven’t yet figured it out,” Proctor says. “But ignorance also comes from people literally suppressing truth—or drowning it out—or trying to make it so confusing that people stop caring about what’s true and what’s not.”
 (emphasis added)

Proctor has also coined a term to describe this condition -- Agnotology: Culturally constructed ignorance, purposefully created by special interest groups working hard to create confusion and suppress the truth. Proctor coined it from the Greek, agnōsis, "not knowing"; the condition where more knowledge of a subject leaves one more uncertain than before.


Daily, second by second, we take in millions of bits of information about the world around us. Matrix-like, that shifting curtain of input shapes our sense of consciousness about that world -- and while most of it has to do with events happening to us, personally, what we listen to, see and read through culturally-designated sources for information is also part of that input.


United Press' Newsroom, In New York City, 1960's (Photo: UPI)


The job of a news reporter, on network television or in the pages of newspaper, was once to determine facts -- Who, What, Where, When, and Why; the Truth -- about events, and no matter where the chips fell, to accurately inform viewers and readers. Even the opportunistic, abrasive, nosy reporter (a character in our culture from plays and movies like The Front Page in the 30's, to All The President's Men in the 70's) was driven by a search for those facts, and the truth.


News and issues reported in the mainstream media, years ago, were certainly being spun on occasion by special interests, or the government. But those were exceptional interventions rather than the rule -- America's Media consisted of journalists who considered themselves professionals, and their level of success in their work was based on their accuracy. Their tradition really did believe in reporting fact, not cant. And (with some exceptions; Hearst's and McCormick's newspapers in the 30's are a good example), so did their editors.


Hoffman as Carl Bernstein and Redford as Bob Woodward In

All The President's Men (1976): For A Little Longer, American

Journalism's Primary Role Would Be Accurate, Reliable News


Whether we picked it up on the radio, in the New York Times or on the 'The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite', information our Press provided to us and the rest of the 'Free' world was trusted as accurate and uncensored. We believed, as the journalists did, that the Media had an obligation to report the truth, independent of the government, the interests of a specific class on Left or Right, or the interests of business. These were American traditions; so we were told.


But the "news industry", and journalists, in the 21st Century aren't like that now, and haven't been for at least twenty years. The three major networks, ABC (owned by Disney), CBS (owned by Westinghouse), and NBC / MSNBC (about to be bought by Comcast from General Electric); cable news channels like CNN (excepting Fox, which is an unabashed propaganda channel); even PBS, through The News Hour -- and even with various Net sites and Blogs, teevee is now the primary venue for disseminating what passes for news in the United States.


Shields And Brooks On PBS' News Hour With Jim Lehrer:

Two Points Of View, And Both Are Just As Accurate; So PBS Says...


In 2010, we believe the immediacy of an image in the same way that people once listened to and trusted what they heard on radio. Our belief in the accuracy of what we watch on television is a basic assumption that our Media wouldn't lie to us -- Christ; this is America, not some Banana Republic!


News and information are now commodities; just points of view, packaged and presented using the same tools 'n tricks of network episodic television. It's fast food, not a meal -- like Cafe Mocchas, or 'flame-broiled' hamburgers. News is less and less about any commitment to accuracy and real impartiality.


Fox: No News, Please; Just Insults And Screaming;

O'Reilly's Usual Behavior With Guests,

["Shut Up! Shut Up! Shut Up!])


The format in providing information about the "contentious issues" Proctor mentions is always the same -- two or more advocates for sides of an issue answer questions put to them by a journalist, who isn't there to uncover basic truths about the issue; they're only a moderator. When solid facts are presented by any side, they're treated as points of contention rather than the truth, and lost in the adversarial nature of the process.


Viewers are left to decide who "won" what amounts to a debate between the Talking Heads. We're left feeling that no one is right; no one is wrong; gosh, reality is just a point of view, isn't it? Small wonder many people watching might fall back on emotional, rather than reasoning, responses to an issue (unless people are watching Fox, whose programming is slanted to evoke such emotional, and one-sided, responses).


Whatever either side claims is given equal weight in this format. If one advocate spouts an obvious lie, the journalist's job isn't to point that out, or emphasize the facts to show they're wrong. They simply nod, and toss softball questions so that "all sides of the topic is covered for viewers" (PBS' News Hour is famous for this kind of pap). And, the 'news' program can't be accused of biased reporting by either side, can they?


The 1984 Film Version Of Orwell's Book, 1984: Don't Expect This

Soon; But Radicals Always Seize Radio And Teevee Stations, First


We may not know the exact nature of the World we find ourselves in; there is more in heaven and earth that are dreamt of in all your philosophies, Horatio. But, misdirection and manipulation of news information is a common feature of the dictatorships and Failed States, and Banana Republics of the world -- so we've been told -- and not part of life in These United States.


So we've been told.



Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Reprint Heaven: End Of The World As We Know It

(This, from 2012, when I actually spent more time and energy writing and posting.)























Over the long weekend that everyone took, I went to see 2012. It didn't help that I began coming down with a cold right there in the theater, but it wasn't a bad film, really -- and as a friend warned me over Thanksgiving dinner, "You'll only go to see the special effects": They were spectacular, true; but Woody Harrelson's fuzzy-wacky Pabst-Drinking conspiracy radio host, broadcasting from the edge of the Yellowstone caldera as it erupted, almost eclipsed the digital magic...


Will Smith as The Man, and Abby (Or Kona), as Sam The Pooch


Back at home, lying around with The Cold, I flipped through some of my 200 DVDs and found the 2008 release of I Am Legend with Will Smith -- which was a fairly good film, but only in it's alternate release version. I glanced at the Criterion edition of Fritz Lang's M; I ran a finger across the cover of Beetlejuice; I considered Pixar's The Incredibles (Dudes!! Where's the SEQUEL???). But it was "I Am Legend" that gave me pause.


Ahnold's (Supposedly) 'Final Film', Canceled By Voters


Smith had been offered the starring role as Dr. Robert Neville, because the first Star cast, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had become the Governator. I strongly considered watching Smith (a more than decent actor), but finally passed on it to check out the simple, unexpected wonders of the Teevee, and I was glad I did.


Here in San Francisco, a local cable public access channel occasionally runs films when they need filler for a spare ninety minutes or so (occasionally, they don't even run the full feature). The prints are always bad, and the sound worse, but it's interesting to see what the kids down in the studio will pick. A few weeks ago, they put up Romero's original Night Of The Living Dead; this weekend, it was The Last Man On Earth -- which is, aber natürlich, the earliest version of 'I Am Legend'.


There have been any number of End-Of-The World-As-We-Know-It stories and films based on the elements of I Am Legend28 Days LaterThe Stand; the late-70's BBC series, Survivors (certainly, "Shaun Of The Dead"); in an odd kind of way, even The Puppet Masters and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.


These stories involve a nuclear war/alien incursion/mysterious plague (sometimes man-made) which kills and/or radically alters its victims; somehow, they turn into Zombies/Vampires/Unemotional Communists Alien Replicants; and, there is a single person/small band of plucky survivors, trying to find others who survived as well and get on with living in the Brave New World.


(Photo: The Incorruptable We Worship: Canada's dvdbeaver.com)


Last Man was released in the U.S. in 1965. It began as a property owned by Hammer Films in England, with Richard Matheson writing a script after his classic 1954 novella, "I Am Legend".


A Bantam Paperback: Forty Cents.


(Matheson later wrote another novella, "Bid Time Return", which became the 1980 cult film, Somewhere In Time; later, another novel, "What Dreams May Come" was turned into a fairly good movie about life in the Afterlife, with Robin Williams, Cuba Gooding Jr., Annabella Sciorra and Max von Sydow.)


(Photo: You Will Sing 'O Canada': dvdbeaver.com)


Hammer Films passed on turning the acquisition into a film, but sold production rights to the 'concept' (without Matheson's script) to a cut-rate American producer who filmed it quickly in Europe to save costs. It was directed by Ubaldo Ragona, whose only other films were Fiesta In The Caribbean and The Virgin and The Bastard -- fortunately for Ol' Ubaldo, "Last Man' is a cult classic, the only work he'll be remembered for.


"By night they leave their graves, crawling, shambling, through empty streets, whimpering, pleading, begging for his blood!" Said the film posters. How they signed Vincent Price to play the title role and add the voice narration, no way to know -- except, he did get a European vacation!


Nope; It's Not The L.A. Coliseum... Price, Hunting Vampires In The Amphitheater At 'Eur',

The Rome Suburb, Home To Mussolini's 'Architecture Of Fascism'


As a kid, I'd read Matheson's novella, set in a post-apocalypse Los Angeles. As a sort-of Southern Californian, it was easy for me to visualize L.A. after a Zombiesque, vampire plague. However, Last Man wasn't shot in SoCal; it was filmed in and around Rome, the Eternal City: The architecture, the landscape, the foliage was supposed to be American -- but in college, as I sat getting loaded and watching this thing on teevee, it looked... well, Jeez; it was Italy, for cryin' out loud. Even after several bottles of Chateau Du Safeway, the bunch of us watching the film could spot most of its really obvious 'goofs'.


Wandering West Covina In Search Of The Undead? Nope; Still Eur.

(Photo: The Sublime: dvdbeaver.com)


My favorite "production errors" were seeing vehicles driving in the far background in a number of shots of 'deserted America'; or, Vincent Price (who has been out hunting vampires for two or three years), needing to stock up on garlic to keep vampires away -- and stopping to pick up a few garlands in an abandoned grocery store. Garlic won't last in my kitchen for two weeks, let alone three years.


My favorite bits were the cars Price drove -- which, between cuts in the same sequence, would change from Chevrolets to Fords and back again. I hadn't seen goofs that obvious in a film since spotting a dead slave wearing a wristwatch in the slow-pan-over-the-battlefield shot in the last reel of Spartacus.


"Not tonight, Bobby; I have a headache... be a dear and get me

one of our daughter's pet rats, a razor blade, and a straw?"

(Photo: The Inscrutable: Canada's dvdbeaver.com)


Following the line of Matheson's novella, Price played Robert Morgan, an ordinary man, uninfected (apparently due to a natural immunity) by a plague which arrived from Europe. In a series of flashbacks (also from Matheson's novella), Morgan's daughter becomes ill with the plague, but he and his wife try and nurse her to health. The daughter goes blind; his wife becomes ill with the plague; but he believes they can get through this... until first his daughter, then his wife, dies.


Vincent Price As Morgan, One Step Away From Cracking Up

(Photo: Your Best Friend: dvdbeaver.com)


Now he has a problem; he knows they'll become vampires. Morgan can't bear to stake-and-garlic his own wife and child, so he buries them a long distance from their house. As he knew they would, they return to their old home, every night, standing on the overgrown front lawn and calling out to him. In a grisly way which he can't even admit to himself (They'll come back, man -- and you want them to), Morgan can't bear to be completely separated from the ones he loves, his now Zombized Vampire family, calling to him out of the night.


"We Got 'Glow In The Dark' Play-Doh, Baby... It's So Koooool..."

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Even his best friend (also seen through pre-plague flashbacks) appears with them to taunt Morgan, crooning for him to come out and join them... strangely, his Sta-Press hairdo remains the same after he goes over to join the Legion Of The Undead... and occasionally, he tries the ol' White House State Dinner Gate Crash through the front door...


"We Want To Meet The Obamas And Suck their Blooooooood!!

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But, he does more than fight the vampire-survivors just to stay alive; he actively hunts them, day in and day out. He broadcasts on radio, looking for other survivors, without an answer. Suddenly, he comes across an apparently uninfected girl, after not having seen another 'normal' human for years -- and slowly, Price discovers that she's one of them ... part of a developing new society -- of vampires.


Price Staking His Claim As King Of The Vampire Hunters


They've developed a serum which keeps the weird, bacteria-like contagion that results in vampirism at low levels in the blood, which prevents them from lusting for it to survive, and to venture out in daylight. It allows the girl to pass for 'normal', and to get close to Price so that he can be neutralized. Because they see themselves as victims of Price's relentless vampire hunting.


"Don't Talk Trash To Me About The Dodgers -- Ever!!"


This is the masterstroke role-reversal Matheson slowly introduces into his story: We initially see The Man as lonely hero, lost in a decaying, shabby world and surrounded by infected, homicidal monsters. But from the perspective of the New Vampires, trying to create order and structure in a world changed by a disease without a cure, they've adapted to survive -- and to them, Price is no hero: He's the Outsider, his daytime staking and killing the threat to their existence.


"But -- But I Can't Be The Monster -- You Are !!!"

(It's The End Of The World... And You're Wearing A Tie?)


Their serum liberates them from most of the aspects of Vampyrism -- enough to build a New Order. Price is their monster, the thing New Vampire parents use to frighten their children before going to sleep, a boogeyman who comes in the daylight with garlic and a stake. And, he has to die, so that they can live without fear.


Irony: A Bus In Rome (Where The First Version Of Matheson's Story Was Filmed), Advertising the Latest Version, "I Am Legend" (2008)


The next take on Matheson's story, The Omega Man, was released in 1971 with Charlton Heston -- who made Planet Of The Apes in 1968, and would go on to star in an honest classic, Soylent Green, in 1973. Oddly, in a bit of deja vu, 'Omega' was made after purchasing the rights from Hammer Films -- which still had been considering making a film from Matheson's script.


In Hammer's vision, the property had a new working title -- "Night Creatures" -- but British censors considered the concept of an empty world with decayed corpses and vampires too graphic for 1970, and again sold the production rights to Americans... but the plot wasn't entirely okay with censors here, either (there was plenty of real gore on the nightly news, courtesy of the war in Vietnam), so some changes had to be made.


Omega Man was set in L.A., and Heston's character was named Robert Neville -- both points identical to Matheson's story. But the plague survivors in Neville's Los Angeles were not nocturnal vampires -- just albino, deranged paranoids, wearing black monk's cowls and Ray-Bans, suffering from a terrible sensitivity to sunlight. They were Luddites, to boot, organized around an anti-technological dream in a group called "The Family".


ZERBE: These wigs itch. How long does it take to set up a camera?

KIRKPATRICK: Got that right. It's fucked up, man.

ZERBE: Hey, Lincoln; we wear these shades all the time. Right?

What the hell -- let's get high! Who's gonna know?

KIRKPATRICK: I'm down with that, man. You holding?

ZERBE: I think those two chicks who say, "More! Burn it more!" have

some pretty decent shit. Let's go ask. Not like we don't have time.

Heston's nemesis was the leader of the Family, a former L.A. Teevee news commentator named Matthias ("You -- you creature of the wheel!"), played by Canadian actor Anthony Zerbe (a strong supporter of Werner Erhard's 'est' training, back in the day). Before this, Anthony had a small, supporting role opposite Heston in 1968, as a ranch hand in the western, Will Penny. And, Matthias' right-hand 'Family' member, Zachary ("Just let me put some explosive to him, brother -- just a little nitro!"), was played by Lincoln Kirkpatrick -- who in 1973 would appear opposite Heston in Soylent Green as a Catholic priest tortured by the secret of Soylent after it was revealed to him in confession by Joseph Cotton.


Anthony Zerbe, Character Actor Par Excellance --

A Softer version of Anthony Hopkins, in the 1990's


I wonder if Zerbe, Kirkpatrick and Heston ever talked on set about prior shoots working together, or if that wasn't considered appropriate when you worked with someone whose credits included playing Judah Ben-Hur and Moses and Andrew Jackson and Michelangelo.


When The World Ends, You Get To Use Automatic Weapons.


It wasn't a terrible movie; it was Heston's second science fiction film, after Apes and before Soylent. It had a typical look-and-feel of back-lot production values possessed by many Columbia, 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers films from the late 60's and early 70's. Watching Heston's acting (he seemed to be playing Robert Neville as if it was his Michelangelo from Agony and the Ecstasy) made me feel his career had to be headed for the toilet. The end of the film has Heston's Robert Neville dying in a posture that is too obviously like that of Christ on the cross, and no one watching could fail to feel the weight of the Ham we were being asked to bear.


Chuck; Ah, It's About The Symbolism, Man. Painful; Ya Know?


I felt excruciatingly embarrassed for him -- Heston, who had played so many great roles in film, was doing burned cheese sci-fi?. But, I took all of that back retroactively when he became the public face of the NRA -- and I've been an NRA member.


( I'm a fan of end-of-the-world films -- and, hey; you really want to be frightened? See the 1984 BBC production, Threads, which was the UK's version of 'The Day After'. I guarantee you won't sleep for a week. No shit: I Guarantee It.)


(In fact, if you look carefully at the film's poster, down at the bottom, below the credits in very small type is the simple statement, "This Film Will Not Just Frighten You; It'll Fuck You Up For Life". )