Blight of the Living Dead

David Brooks’ column last Wednesday, The Death of Multiculturalism (Times Select), offers a belated obituary for identity politics. Not so fast. Don’t cue the bagpipes just yet, or perhaps more appropriately the oud, didgeridoo, Native American square drums, and whatever more it takes to complete a cacophonous orchestra arrayed by means of painstaking cultural inclusion.

It matters not if multiculturalism per se is dead; it was never really a self sustaining, living thing anyway. It was merely a corpse falsely animated by age-old resentments, conjured up from the depths of history and vanity. Nothing more than an intellectual zombie, energized by theoretical voodoo, ravenously consuming liberal institutions as if they were human flesh. Perhaps like those hapless zombies in the movies, the body itself was more feeble than ferocious. A good bop to the head and it dropped like a pale sack of potatoes with bad hair and worse skin. Still, the dark forces that animated multiculturalism, transforming sentient beings into mindless, ravenous brain eaters, thrive. Forces like racial hostility, sexual resentment, class envy, and man’s natural tendency to forge distinct social identities in order to gain privilege. These are born of nature’s cruel inequality and fueled by vanity’s inexhaustible byproduct, envy. They will never die, necessitating eternal vigilance in defense of liberal democracy.

To be conservative is to seek the conservation of one’s civilization. It was once a given that this meant preserving morality, language, and customs while placing a high value on citizenship; the antithesis of multiculturalism. Conservatives, long ago grown weary of playing the heavy, have by now so completely absorbed the language of the opposition, trying to out-empathize the left, that they no longer recognize a challenge to civil society when they see it; indeed, in their zeal to prove their anti-racist bona fides they now join in its dismantling. The immigrants are more virtuous than the rest of us argument so gracelessly and naively offered by conservatives of Mr. Brooks’ type is no less a refutation of American society than the codified cultural self-loathing of the shrillest leftist. Multiculturalism dead? I’d say it’s arrived.

Indeed, Brooks and a shocking number of his fellow “conservatives” are exhibiting many of the same zombie-like symptoms of the insensate left: imperviousness to reason, incommunicability, and inability to sense pain (inflicted on others that is; their own, well). They are gleefully joining the surging mass of walking dead as they besiege the isolated farmhouse of reason that you and I, my friend, are frantically boarding up. Duck for a moment would you? Got him. As I was saying.

Sure, they don’t have the ghostly pallor, white hair, and the glassy, bloodshot eyes of a zombie or a Ted Kennedy, and they lack the affected sartorial accoutrements and facial hair of the campus radical, but something is amiss. Maybe they’re not zombies after all. Have you seen The Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Someone get down to the Wall Street Journal and check for pods.

The open-borders Republicans long ago adopted the insinuations and invective of the Left. A popular conservative blog, one that specializes in quoting articles at length and appending a sentence or paragraph of affirmation or ridicule, so regularly mingles the epithets of the left, racist, islamophobe, etc., with the neo/theo-conservatives’ own curious inventions, nativist, realist, hyper-rationalist, that if it wasn’t for their pathological to-the-death defense of the slowly unfolding catastrophe that is the Bush Presidency a visitor might think he had wandered into the blog of an earnest young campus radical.

In his column Brooks suggests that the Democrats have ditched identity politics for good old fashioned populist working class advocacy. If only it were so. Why then is there complete unanimity in the Democratic Party for perpetuating immigration policy that undercuts everything Democrats once stood for: wage equity, urban planning, environmentalism, health care, education? Because the scramble to outmaneuver the opposition commands the attention of the political class as a whole and in this environment racial politics trump all, apparently. The mantle remains on the ground, where the Democrats left it. Perhaps if they conjure up and reanimate William Jennings Bryan. Though I still harbor my suspicions about Hillary Clinton. Something in those disembodied, unfeeling eyes; not human, no sir.

If identity politics be dead, why then would hundreds of thousands of Latinos, the vast majority of whom are middle and working class and therefore most vulnerable to the depredations inflicted by continuing open-ended immigration, take to the streets in outrage at the relatively modest proposals put forth? After all, even the immigrants already present and working in the American economy are themselves undercut by the continual slackening of the labor market they inhabit; more so than anybody. This is the dirty little secret of the open borders camp; that the working class masses that the elites make such a show of caring about more than you will suffer most by way of the policies these elites defend.
Current immigration patterns can only serve to lower the incomes and quality of life of those who must compete with the never-ending flow of newcomers for jobs, housing, health care, etc. But for most (though certainly not all) American Latinos the enticing prospect of their own racial plurality in states like California overwhelms all other considerations, in spite of the many and varied pains unregulated immigration inflicts on them.

Oh, sure, they’ll have their own class of political elites who will make a great show of lobbying on their behalf while enriching themselves, their families, their cronies and political allies. But the last thing any of us need is to create another breed of racial shake-down artists; a whole new generation of Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons with Spanish surnames.

Are the democrats engaged in a far sighted and cynical strategy; ensuring a large and growing underclass so as to administer to it, with a newly ascendant welfare state? I don’t believe that, but at least it would be a plan. What exists now is willful dereliction of duty motivated by political gain and dishonestly portrayed as humaneness.
Our conservative class once would have been unabashed about pointing out the inherent danger of growing an ethnic underclass into a plurality. But we now have “compassionate conservatives.” That they don’t blanch at such a silly phrase reveals more than its crass, focus group oiliness. A good conservative is there to remind you that even compassion, when offered in place of reason, can lead to ruin. Conservatism once was the refutation of kitsch as political thought. Barry Goldwater would have laughed you out of his office.

Multiculturalism has in fact achieved a great deal; now one need not even be a citizen to feel that he, by virtue of his sense of racial solidarity, is entitled to not only the same rights as a citizen but to special considerations above and beyond that. As Thomas Sowell has pointed out, under current affirmative action policy an illegal immigrant amnestied by something like the Kennedy/McCain Bill will instantly become eligible for preferential treatment as an assumed victim of white American discrimination and its “legacy.” How’s that for dead, Mr. Brooks?

Still, multiculturalism may very well be done. I don’t really know, I haven’t done time in an institution of higher learning. But then it always rode the momentum of forces that aren’t so easily mocked, so readily parodied, so obviously hollow and false. Unless this constant of history should magically dissipate in our time one can rest assured that the assault on reason and law will find new forms, and new victims. Fair, impartial laws can only yield unequal results; there will always be a tension between the ideal of blind justice and the inequality it produces.
Once our conservatives argued that some inequity of wealth as a result of just law was preferable to enforced equity as a result of unjust law; now they pretend that “globalism”, tax cuts, and church attendance will make it all irrelevant.
I don’t see any crisis, they say from the insulated remove of expensive homes in security buildings and gated communities. In another column, Immigrants to be Proud of, Brooks engages in the sort of sentimental portraiture that would have made Norman Rockwell blush:

Hispanics and Hispanic immigrants have less money than average Americans, but they spend what they have on their families, usually in wholesome ways. According to Simmons Research, Hispanics are 57 percent more likely than average Americans to have purchased children’s furniture in the past year.

Wow. Perhaps we should assimilate into their morally superior way of life. I’m still unclear on how this admirable familial tradition hasn’t created wealth and liberty in Mexico proper. One thing’s for sure, Brooks et al. aren’t going to go anywhere near that question; rather, they will indulge in the same evasive reasoning of the multiculturalists Brooks has come not to praise but to bury. It’s the legacy of colonialism, perhaps, or just a matter of a little too much corruption in the system, as if this corruption is a geographical feature of Latin America. You see, whatever problems Mexico has have nothing to do with Mexicans; conversely, whatever success America has had has nothing to do with Americans. In fact there’s no significant difference, except of course, they’re a little better than us. I can hardly wait for the utopia all these virtuous newcomers are sure to produce. One thing is for sure, Mr. Brooks has never set foot in the barrio.

Brooks delivers his idea of a coup de grace with this heartwarming statistic:

Mexican-Americans spend 93 percent more on children’s music.

How does one respond to such ironclad argumentation? More importantly, how does one, with a clear conscience and a straight face, dig through the voluminous evidence of the deleterious effects of unregulated immigration to produce these little gems? One imagines him leafing quickly through reams of data and shouting his approval when he arrives at, on page ten, this or that gem about children’s books.
Brooks offers us the trite, condescending image of the nobler, purer outsider, free of the messy encumbrances of our particular socialization; this is pure multiculturalism. I know he intends the familiar Mexicans will save us from gay marriage sub-textual wink and nod for the evangelicals, but he is falling for the key fallacy of multiculturalism; culture from outside of one’s own can only be superior, can only add positively to it, because to consider that it can’t is to be a chauvinist. He has found his way to the most anti-conservative belief of all: everyone is equally endowed at birth with the same capacity for virtue and creation. Multiculturalism, in other words. Oh the irony, Mr. Brooks.

Multiculturalism? Dead and loving it.

Iran, I Ran So Far Away

For or about ideas men fight no more.
Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West

Oil. Oil is behind, or perhaps I should say beneath, it all. Sure, it’s not quite that simple, but when you come right down to it; oil. Let’s prevaricate no further.
But first a mea culpa.
I was wrong. I’ve been railing away here about the “designs of the neocons” which I have alternately described as “fantastical” and “ill-advised.” I don’t recall if I ever deployed “wild-eyed”, but that would have been a good one.
I fell for it all right. I believed in the sincerity, if not the wisdom, of the lofty tones coming from the Bush Administration, every bit as much as their supporters, an alarming number of whom are still so intoxicated on this blindness inducing bathtub bombast that they continue to wax sentimental on the “accomplishments” of the war.
(Just for the record guys, removing a dictator is simple, replacing him another story altogether; and no, sectarian chaos is not better than the totalitarian brutality of Saddam. Or as Bush the Elder, and wiser, used to say, Sad-uhm)

The Iraq war, soon to be the Iran/Iraq campaign, is pre-emptive alright. What it seeks to pre-empt is scarcity.
Not as if we’re on the brink of ruin, far from it; just looking down the barrel of an impending energy crunch, as China and India consume more and more energy; as the former in particular asserts itself by forging relationships with oil producing nations such as Iran. One can see how this reality doesn’t quite have the appeal of toppling the Stalin-esque Saddam and responding proactively to the Islamic threat by bringing liberalism into the cavernous heart of Islam and directly to the yearning masses. That’s the sort of appeal needed to set Thomas Friedman’s moustache atwitter and distract Christopher Hitchens from his dogged pursuit of exigent global scourge Henry Kissinger. I can almost hear Dick Cheney’s sinister laugh in the background, heh heh heh, as he pores over geographic studies of oil reserves

Of course the canard has been staring us in the face the whole time; belied by neoconservative paterfamilias Leo Strauss’ exoteric-esoteric distinction, the assertion that philosophy holds a deeper esoteric meaning, accessible only to an intellectual elite; a sort of priesthood of the enlightened.
Well, enlightened was never one of the praises offered of the man who was sitting in the Oval Office on September 11; indeed, we had a president who not only never opened a copy of Natural Right and History, his appeal to the public was in his implied disdain for the class of person who would. An ideal foil.

Our political process was long ago taken over by marketing executives and advertising copy writers, and now the transformation of public debate into something more like the interaction between consumer and advertiser is nearly complete. They know what we want; schmaltzy sentimental patriotism for the low brow, specious fancy for the middle; both concealing the same venal motivation. It’s a hell of a lot more fun to talk theory than turkey, I suppose.

There were several levels of deception here, and a brilliant strategy; commandeering the war against Islamic aggression, willfully mystified as the “war on terror”, now reinterpreted as the reverse domino theory, combined with the same old globalization sales pitch rejiggered to exploit the new market created by 9/11. New and Improved. Not your Father’s Imperialism.
It helps to have more than one product line, and if the aphrodisiac of Saddam’s WMD proved to be snake oil, perhaps you’d be interested in the all natural herbal remedy of our amazing democracy powder. The new age holistic approach; replace the negative energies in key points of the global corpus and watch the healing spread like magic.

Even though we all know that idealists wreak as much havoc as anyone, we still can’t help but score them well below the just plain greedy in our estimation of blame. That’s been the game all along. Call it a crusade (just don’t call it a crusade exactly). Secure the oil fields and plant the flag of democracy. In that order. That they’ve managed to do neither yet while establishing permanent military bases in Iraq and that we are about to ensure favorable terms for the right to harvest Iraq’s oil reserves for the next generation tells us as much about the real casus belli as it does about the inept war planning of Donald Rumsfeld.

One thing you can’t accuse the Administration and its courtiers of is a lack of boldness; they have it to a fatal fault. One wonders if they don’t value it above all else. Some might call it nerve, running the exact same play again; now Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power and time is of the essence, just as before, and a dangerous madman is at the helm of a threatening nation that is nonetheless populated by nascent republicans eager to rise up and join us as we destroy their cities. I almost expect someone to come out and say that the Iraq invasion was a mistake due to an error in spelling.

One reason the call to war with Iran sounds so panicked is because it is; yet the panic is aroused not by the specter of a suddenly nuclear Iran, but by the outgoing tide of patience with the neocons. Time is not on the neo-imperialists side, and they know it. But there may be just enough ill-informed investment capital left out there for one more venture before the whole enterprise falls apart. Here’s where the real suckers get fleeced. This bubble hasn’t burst just yet, but it is deflating rapidly. The salesmen are cold calling and knocking on doors like desperate Willy Lohmans because they know that in a month’s time not only will we refuse to sit still for their sales pitch but we’ll appear at the door with a shotgun in our hands.

You see, we must act militarily now to halt Iran’s weapons program, because if we wait much longer people might start pointing out that we really have no right in the first place. Curious, how the question of justification seems so muted amid all the hysteria.

Our pliant media seems incurious about the particulars of Iranian government, content to simplify it as under the control of yet another frothing at the mouth Muslim extremist taunting us from his dusty hovel of a country. The fact of the matter is that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retains little control over foreign policy, despite his grandstanding. “Moderate” former president Rafsanjani, as leader of the powerful Expediency Council, remains a force in the government to rival the man who beat him in the election of 2005.
The real power rests with the Ayatollahs, and ultimately with the Supreme Leader, Ali Khameni, who have already in the past trimmed the sails of the overreaching populist Ahmadinejad, limiting him to a domestic presidency.
The decision to pursue nuclear weapons was made by the clerics (and promoted by Rafsanjani), and the authority has always rested with them. They aren’t moderates, but they are rational, and in a sense they’re political opponents of Ahmadinejad and his middle aged veterans of the Revolution. Ahmadinejad, offered to the impoverished masses by the Ayatollahs as a balm to soothe their need for demagoguery, is associated with powerful radical clerics who covet power for themselves, and hold eschatological beliefs about the coming of the Mahdi that make our worst religious fanatics look like Episcopalians.
Both of these factions eye with unease an increasingly liberal younger generation, who may not like America much but sure like our culture, and are increasingly outside the influence of their religionists. We need to exploit these divisions, not lumber in and unite them.

An unprovoked attack on Iran will rally the nation around Ahmadinejad and a ruling clerical class made more hostile than ever and with no political room to negotiate. It won’t ensure that Iran won’t acquire nuclear capability, but it will ensure a renewed Islamic revolution there and Iranian belligerence for generations to come. The time has never been more appropriate for rapprochement with Iran, and the commencement of the long process of laying the groundwork for a new relationship with its next generation; but this sort of measured, patient action is dismissed with the curious epithet realism by those who offer fabulism as a guiding philosophy.

Youth’s Idyll, V

Part I ; Part II ; Part III ; Part IV

“So you’re going to tell it?”
“Yeah.”
“And why the hell would you do that? What do you hope to accomplish? Are you one of these exhibitionist types who thinks his experience is so remarkable?”
“No. My experience is unexceptional.”
“Then why tell it? Are you special? You think you’re gonna go on Oprah?”
“I just started talking, that’s all. Maybe I don’t know how to shut up. No, I’m not special”
“I’ll say.”
“I’m indulging myself.”
“I’ll say that too.”
“Haven’t you ever wanted to tell your story?”
“Asshole, I don’t have a story. You don’t have a story. You want stories? Go read a book. I got reality. Don’t kid yourself. Nobody cares. Get a life.”
“Everyone has a story.”
“Bullshit. You’re a narcissist. And worse, you’re a boring narcissist. Shame on you.”
“Yes, that’s it. Shame. And ego.”

It’s all an unraveling; layers of pretense, experience, bluster, hypocrisy, self delusion, all fall away eventually. In the end one is left looking at himself, stripped to his humble origins. The little that is left explains everything, to no satisfaction whatsoever.

Drugs

I was in the back of a car, loaded on something, I don’t remember what, looking down at my scrawny arms. I was curious that they seemed alien, as if they weren’t my own. I couldn’t feel them. I was sure I couldn’t move them if I tried, though I couldn’t bring myself to try. I could feel the weight of them in my lap; but I couldn’t find them sensately, wracking my brain for their background signal. I took this all in with dull amusement.
Outside my window Interstate Five existed as a red and white blur of motion and smeared electric light as we passed streetlamps of crystalline light blooms suspended on giant concrete stalks. The cars left trails of red, stretched, as if squeezing themselves through a constricting atmosphere. If I could see them as elongated by movement, weren’t they in fact? Were we moving? I couldn’t tell. It seemed the whole world was in motion, swirling around us, its axis. We were heading north to Azusa Canyon.

It was the drugs that defined my youth; they were our currency and culture. There were the base elements: marijuana, alcohol, tobacco; hardly drugs at all. One advanced through the harder stuff, as far as his sense of adventure took him: cocaine, amphetamines, acid; PCP in its various forms: angel dust, cannebinol, sherm; an occasional specialty item like psilocybin mushrooms; free basing and crack would come later. And all the while heroin was lurking in the background, like an old pervert waiting in the shadows for the kids to get just wasted enough to have no inhibitions left.

But I wouldn’t be around for that; I had already made my own circuit through the drug culture and arrived, mostly unscathed, at something like late adolescence with nothing more than a residual affinity for smoking pot. No great tale of addiction and redemption here. I lived a certain way for a time; I stopped after a while, a rational decision, or more like a series of rational decisions becoming a new way of life, a new strategy. There was no crescendo, no plot point, no realization and triumphant march into the light of day; just eventual exhaustion and a gradual drifting away. It was boredom that drew me in, and it was boredom, as much as anything else, that delivered me from it.
We weren’t looking to escape reality, or the hopelessness of our lives. It wasn’t self destructive behavior; it was merely reckless. We were bored; rebelling against tedium. We went in for the experience. As for me, I remember being very keen on any sort of derangement of perception. “Tripping.” Drugs were the means, novelty was the end.

I first started smoking marijuana when I was about twelve. I soon realized that I could pay for my indulgence by selling joints. Back then you could buy an ounce of cheap Mexican pot for ten dollars, roll as many as forty joints and sell them for fifty cents a piece to your fellow junior high school students; leaving you ten dollars for your next bag, some pocket change for yourself, and whatever was left you smoked. I started saving up, and worked my way up to buying by the pound, selling ounces. I would eventually branch out into other product lines, all on a very small scale. I never got far. The idea that people get rich selling drugs on the street is a myth perpetuated by phony street-tough rappers.
I took pride in my business, such as it was. From the start I was known for carrying a superior product than my main rival at Corvallis Junior High. Rob, a friend of mine, was something of a freeloader, earning the nickname “Radar” because he always seemed to show up whenever there was someone else’s stash to smoke. We competed for the individual joint retail in the eighth grade. He couldn’t, or rather wouldn’t, compete with me for quality, rolling smaller joints with more stems and seeds. I cleaned my stash, rolling mine a little fatter; I became expert at rolling a tight, even burning cigarette. Aside from a means of income selling for me was a way of achieving a level of social status, not high but higher than a shy and timid kid would manage otherwise.
In the early days it was a communal experience. Much of the appeal was in the event; in the conspiracy of it and in the ritual of the circle, passing a joint around. Marijuana is the ultimate adolescent high; its appeal has roots in childhood memories of the warm maternal embrace, in its tendency to enhance music and humor, the camaraderie of shared experience. If it’s good stuff and doesn’t promote paranoia, it has the effect of pushing to the margins whatever concerns a user has. For this reason it persists as a popular, less demanding alternative to alcohol for many young to middle aged adults. I certainly don’t promote it; as a parent I engage in the same hypocrisy of many of my generation, living in perpetual dread, lecturing on the evils of all drugs. In reality, I know too many potheads who hold down good jobs, pay their taxes, and support families to feel that its continuing criminalization is anything other than a costly and unnecessary prohibition.
In the first few years it was all innocent enough. The Southern California summers were carpeted with dried out golden brown grass and steaming heat softened asphalt swept repeatedly by an ever present sun; girls were starting to appear, as if emerging from the landscape, wearing cut off shorts and halter tops, their soft scent and smooth skin leaving us helpless, all of it hinting that a bottomless mystery was opening up before us. The days were endless, we lived in flip flops and ragged clothes, baked and bleached by the sun; half wild and semi-socialized. Not a care in the world. We didn’t know we lived in a brief respite anticipating an endless grind. The eighties were right around the corner.

The nights were different. The nights were sinister. The nights swept you up in a maelstrom and left you wherever you happened to be when the momentum stopped. One evening Dave, the wannabe con man who was always seeking alliances and connections, and I found ourselves in a strange apartment. Two older guys sat at a table covered with a pile of ground mint leaves they were rolling into very thin joints, “pinners.” The scent of the mint leaves mingled with a heavy chemical odor. This was my introduction to angel dust.
We took to calling the high “gumby” because of the overall numbing effect it had. Phencyclidine (PCP) was originally developed as an anesthetic, but was abandoned because of a high incidence of psychotic reactions. It would later surface as an animal tranquilizer. Three things happen to you when under the influence: you become more or less impervious to pain; you feel physical euphoria that makes you think you’re capable of great athletic feats; and you feel an increased confidence as nervousness and inhibition fade away. It is both a stimulant and a depressant at once, somehow. Legends of “dusters” experiencing violent psychotic episodes were everywhere in the early days of the “epidemic” that would sweep L.A. County in the late seventies. The stories were overblown. I personally never saw anyone have a violent reaction.
I hate to say it, but as I remember it, a PCP high is glorious. I always felt as if I was walking on six inches of air; taller, stronger, lighter. I was supremely confident. Perhaps the best part was that all fear of girls vanished. An awkward kid became Mr. Seduction. This was all an illusion, of course. PCP has a numbing effect, relaxing the facial muscles, giving one a sleepy, drooling look. Gumby.
It was true that one felt invincible when under the influence. Once a large group of us indulged in one long dust induced night of recreational fighting; we flew through the air attempting leaping kung fu kicks; we wrestled and punched each other laughing like idiots; walking along the riverbed, we pushed one another down the tall concrete bank on one side or the short dirt and gravel hill on the other. I awoke the next morning a mass of bruises, scrapes, and pains.

We started selling it, buying ounces and retailing grams at ten dollars a go. After dust had been on the market for a while some started showing signs of repeated use: slurred speech, vacuous stares, slack jaws. We took to calling them “mummies.”

Geezing

“Tighter.” My brother said, leaning in toward me, through a peculiar sort of bad breath. I noticed that all the geezers had the same type of sour breath, which seemed to come out of them once they had shot up. Was it possible that the drug was leaching out of the blood vessels in their lungs, that quickly?
“Tighter.” He said again. With both hands I was choking his upper arm, between what was left of his bicep and a bony shoulder. I was serving as a tourniquet, restricting the blood flow to the vein he was injecting with heroin, or maybe a cocaine/heroin mixture, a “speedball.” I don’t recall exactly.
My friend Pete and I had stumbled into the gathering, taking place in the garage of my mother’s house in Norwalk. Years before I had converted the garage into my room, lining it with mismatched wood paneling I had stripped out of vacant houses in the wastelands. After I started spending most of my time at a girlfriend’s it would be taken over and trashed by my brother and his companions. When blackened spoons started showing up in the garage I at first didn’t know what it meant. This was new; the opening of the sinister final chapter of the volume that was our pointless, failed adolescence. Those spoons were like the early indications of a terminal illness.
The one thing I never allowed myself to consider was injecting anything. Heroin was offered to me, but there was never any question; I knew I wouldn’t go that far. We had our own local vernacular for intravenous drug use: geezing, junkies were geezers. Pete and I jokingly referred to my brother’s crew of nascent junkies as the “Geezinslaw Brothers”, after a country & western band.

Pete and I stumbled out of the dank, gloomy garage, disoriented and squinting in the harsh light of day. Pete insisted he had somehow acquired a contact high just from being in there. It can’t be true, but Pete isn’t known for getting crazy ideas.
I had withdrawn from it all by that point; whether by dumb luck or intuition, it was just as things were getting ugly. People started overdosing.

Bub

Bub was, in the words of one of his fellow slack-jawed types, the “craziest white boy I ever met.” It was apt. Growing up in a mixed Latino/white neighborhood one learns early on that Hispanics, generally, possess a higher degree of physical bravery. A few of them appear to be naturally fearless. Bub was the only white kid I remember from the neighborhood to have that kind of courage. He was as noble and brave in his way as he was vulgar, dim, and incurious. He had a sense of honor; he also had distaste for all things intellectual, seeing them as effete. He lived with his mother, a scatter-brained prescription junkie herself. Shortly after I stopped hanging around, he started geezing. He died of an overdose one night, a speedball. He was probably about twenty one years old, leaving behind an infant. He was the first to go. He’s been gone now about as long as he was alive.

Even before it all began there was one incredibly stupid thing that kids were doing: sniffing paint, which was popular with some of the cholos for some reason, most comically it seemed because they already had the paint cans handy for graffitti. You would occasionally see an ese breathing through a balled up sock saturated with paint, sometimes sniffing with one hand and tagging with the other. Glue and paint sniffing might be the single most idiotic example of human behavior, and seems a natural concomitant of graffitti.

Years later in Okinawa my friend Harry and I were sitting on the seawall down the hill from our base in Futenma, polishing off a bottle of something and lying to each other about all we would accomplish when we got out of the service. Some Okinawans showed up; kids, friendly and curious with a little English at their command. We started talking. Another group of Okinawans appeared; more kids, carrying large, clear plastic bags containing some sort of colorless liquid. They were inhaling from the bags, and were obviously very high. Our new friends exchanged words with them, things got heated, and before we knew it we were standing in the middle of what resembled a Hong Kong action film. All about us five foot tall Okinawan adolescents were throwing roundhouse kicks and precision blows. Our kung fu friends vanquished the glue sniffers.

I was a couple of years and half the circumference of the earth removed from the neighborhood. It was a fitting, belated denouement.

Trudging through white-out conditions against stinging needles of snow slashing at a horizontal angle, feeling as if they are cutting right through you, you make out in the faded distance a dark speck. You determinedly put your head down and make for it, your upper body at a forty five degree angle as if you were dragging a plow behind you. You are moving in an incremental start-stop fashion, heaving yourself forward with each labored thrust. You lift your head periodically like a swimmer raising up to breathe so you can sight back in on the spot in the distance; you are relieved it grows larger the closer you get. As it gradually takes form you are heartened to see that it is a shack. You draw close and it is revealed as a ramshackle, poorly designed structure. A fading sign above a door ajar says:

UNTETHERED

You go inside…

Gee Annie, Cruel

I haven’t read E. Anne Proulx but for a single short story. I haven’t seen Brokeback Mountain. It therefore remains possible, to my mind, that the author is as eloquent as her reputation suggests and that the film is a veritable gay cowboy Godfather; making her remarkably sophomoric rant in The Guardian only righteous indignation and excusing the bilious pettiness of it all. She begins:

The people connected with Brokeback Mountain, including me, hoped that, having been nominated for eight Academy awards, it would get Best Picture as it had at the funny, lively Independent Spirit awards the day before. (If you are looking for smart judging based on merit, skip the Academy Awards next year and pay attention to the Independent Spirit choices.) We should have known conservative heffalump academy voters would have rather different ideas of what was stirring contemporary culture.

I found myself mouthing the word soundlessly to an imaginary companion: heffalump? Looking it up I discovered it is a character from Winnie the Pooh, a figment of his paranoid imagination that he is forever trying to capture, never successfully, in order to protect his honey stores. The term is sometimes used to convey a creature of the imagination. Your guess is as good as mine, as to how this applies to academy voters. It must be very apt, she uses it twice. Proulx continues:

Roughly 6,000 film industry voters, most in the Los Angeles area, many living cloistered lives behind wrought-iron gates or in deluxe rest-homes, out of touch not only with the shifting larger culture and the yeasty ferment that is America these days, but also out of touch with their own segregated city, decide which films are good. And rumor has it that Lions Gate inundated the academy voters with DVD copies of Trash – excuse me – Crash a few weeks before the ballot deadline. Next year we can look to the awards for controversial themes on the punishment of adulterers with a branding iron in the shape of the letter A, runaway slaves, and the debate over free silver.

I was suddenly sympathetic to Hollywood’s elite, hammered from one side for being too liberal, pressed against an anvil on the other for not being liberal enough. And here I thought cinema was diluted by its overreaching, leftist activist conscience. No, it seems there’s no gay element in Hollywood whatsoever; in fact, all the homosexuals are out riding the range, muttering sweet nothings in one another’s ears with husky John Wayne baritones. Those flamboyant creative types all over the film industry? Secret NASCAR fans and strip club whoremongers, no doubt.
The author is shocked, shocked that studios engage in lobbying. How dare they throw themselves before our media stampede? Having just proclaimed the issue of race and segregation passé before the exigency of seventies era closeted cowboys, she still sees fit to chide the stuffy academy for its gated segregation, and sees no bigotry in declaring them a bunch of old farts. Age? Everyone gets old. Where’s the cache in that? So fire away, and heads up you wrinkly old coots.

But oh, that “yeasty ferment.” As I reflect that this is a wealthy and respected author and I have to get up in the morning to go to a regular job, I’m relieved there are no guns or sturdy rope in the house.

Proulx can’t distance herself enough from the proceedings she’s so upset about attending and being forced to attach so much importance to:

From the first there was an atmosphere of insufferable self-importance emanating from “the show” which, as the audience was reminded several times, was televised and being watched by billions of people all over the world

No self-importance from her quarter. But of course, cliché isn’t out of bounds either:

There were montages, artfully meshed clips of films of yesteryear, live acts by Famous Talent, smart-ass jokes by Jon Stewart who was witty and quick, too witty, too quick, too eastern perhaps for the somewhat dim LA crowd.

Because we all know that the people who make movies must be a bunch of idiots. Not as if there’s any draw to the immense wealth and fame of Hollywood that might attract intelligence and talent.
The problem Stewart had, just as Chris Rock and David Letterman before him, is that he is too irreverent for the event. These are a group of people, both important and self-important, who have the nerve to put on a show celebrating themselves; an event that also happens to have immense financial repercussions for many of them. They aren’t in the mood. Their best hosts are not the best, and definitely not the more controversial, stand-up comedians; best suited to the task are insiders: Billy Crystal, raised in and on show business, or Johnny Carson, who made a career out of making movie stars appear witty.

Perhaps it’s easy to see the reality of it from this remove, and Ms. Proulx can’t discern the hype for her own understandable vanity; but from here it appears that her little film got an incredible boost from a very sympathetic Hollywood, the critics, and the media at large. Combine the political impulse and in such cases a critical mass is reached, with everyone seeking to hitch a ride on the momentum; indeed, it becomes perilous to stand in the way as a voice of dissent. The cacophony of voices declares the very praise itself virtuous. Before long it’s a competition to see who can distinguish themselves with the most effusive praise; proving that they understand more completely the revelation, and feel more deeply its import. Like an audience of Soviet functionaries applauding one of Stalin’s speeches, no one dares stop first.

When commerce or some other force intrudes and breaks the reverie,the celebrants, having worked themselves up for a grand climactic rapture, feel a profound sense of betrayal. How dare they insult our worship?
And it has become a type of worship, transitory as it may be. Hype has become truth. For some, politics has become a way of brandishing one’s moral purity. Defying the emotional, unifying piety of those in the thrall of this combination produces some very odd behavior.

But it’s never a bad thing when self righteousness on such a grand scale is humbled. Maybe I’ll even get around to renting Crash before it makes it to television, in appreciation.

Oprah the Omnipotent

The recent controversy over the fraudulent memoir A Million Little Pieces, and Oprah Winfrey’s initial defense and then public pillorying of its author, has laid bare the reality behind the cultural phenomenon that is Oprah. Oprah is an overwhelming political force in America, the unopposed emotional autocrat of a broad section of American womanhood, and her career has been as efficient and brutal in its way as those of some of history’s most accomplished tyrants.

The obviousness of the similarities between the worship of Winfrey and that of the cults of personality surrounding history’s more successful dictators should not dissuade us from exploring their relevance.

The dictator’s power rests on force; it is maintained not only by this threat, but through mystification veiling the despot with the illusion of deific stature, all powerful and all knowing. This is made benign by the constant celebration of his status as a common man made transcendent. His glory is therefore the glory of the folk itself; he is its human apex. This works to strengthen his hold on power by both appealing to the vanity of his subjects and discouraging criticism of the leader as betrayal of the clan.

Every effective despot must craft an ideology, usually a farrago of convenient political clichés and sloganeering presented as a bold new way, sprung from the brow of the Great Leader. This ideology will necessarily be given a religious gloss. Oprah’s ideology is a vague, nameless emotionalism. It is defined less by any central assertions than by a general credulity toward any psychological theory that appeals to vanity and is impatient with logic, rigor, and modest fortitude (in short, anything that requires something of us). “Spirituality”, a word so over-applied as to have become as meaningless as it is ubiquitous, is often invoked. This word is no longer attached to a thing or idea, but is identifiable by what it isn’t. It isn’t most things, starting with that list of three above. Yet it still has currency somehow. It is the mau mau of the revolt against Reason.

The despot’s psychological tyranny begins with his ubiquity.

I don’t watch Oprah, but like every one of my countrymen not ensconced in a geodesic dome in the Alaskan outback, I cannot avoid her omnipresent image, beaming at me from grocery store check-out lines, leaping out at me as I attempt to navigate the already jarring transition from CSPAN to The OC, assailing me in news reports.

Even for those of us who would rather avoid her, Oprah exists as an oversized, ubiquitous, disembodied head that menaces us with the sheer invasiveness of her overpowering smile. Her smile isn’t a facial expression communicating warmth or joy, but a highly aggressive expression of ego, of self concern not simply as a necessary consideration but as a creed. As all creeds it cannot exist independent of proselytization. Oprah’s smile does more than announce to the world Oprah’s own immense self esteem and confidence, but declares the primacy of self esteem as a value and as a moral code.

Self esteem is confused with personal autonomy in the mind of Oprah’s proselytes by the imprecise, sub-literate language of our frenetic, image intensive time. An adherent of Oprah confuses the quest for emotional gratification with the basic right to liberty.

Oprah’s tyranny is enforced not by guns, secret police, and informants; Oprah’s power is a result of her aggressive, expert manipulation of public sentiment using today’s censorious weapons of mass destruction: race, gender, and victimhood.

Oprah’s brilliant use of her public testimony of being sexually abused by male relatives, combined with her status as black woman (the unassailable birthright of which is placement atop the hierarchy of victim politics), and a star quality endearing her to millions of middle class women, makes her a virtual Spanish Armada of modern American moral purity.

These weapons she deploys tear not at limbs and vital organs but assault, ironically, the personal sense of worth of their targets.

The Great Leader is portrayed as a kindly figure, a benign and wise uncle, who loves children and animals, dispenses common sense advice, and is, at heart, a common man.

Oprah maintains this image by adopting a folksy demeanor, dipping in and out of black urban verbiage and inflection with just enough authenticity to endear her to legions of white housewives, eager to absolve themselves of the ever present accusation of racism while at the same time allowing them to feel that they are cosmopolitan; intimate and comfortable with this funky, down to earth black woman.

Oprah even has her own state organ; Oprah magazine. If Oprah magazine didn’t exist, describing its concept and structure to someone would surely elicit disbelieving laughter: a magazine named after a celebrity, featuring a picture of that celebrity on every issue.

The magazine is a brilliant combination of three key elements in the despot’s art: ubiquity; regular, iconic deification; and an official mouthpiece. Oprah implies a religious imprimatur of the deity, Oprah, bestowed upon those who purchase it. Bearing the glossy, glamorous image of the icon, it takes on a Koranic stature in the eyes of the acolytes, whether or not it is read. A sobering thought: somewhere out there are women who have every issue of Oprah magazine stored away.

I am convinced that the purpose of that magazine is as much to place Oprah’s picture in every supermarket check-out line in the country as any thing else. The pure, supra-temporal nature of still photography makes it a form of iconography transcendent of the more frenetic and inherently irreverent medium of television. The magazine is the means by which Oprah’s image is immortalized in a more august manner, and distributed widely every month, using the only art form left that is purely a celebration of beauty: fashion photography.

The magazines occupy the same space near those ever important supermarket queues, yet the image of the deific leader shifts periodically; both immovable primacy of hierarchal pre-eminence and a numinous, continual metamorphosis are inferred.

On the cover of Oprah, the icon takes on the various archetypes necessary to maintain her image as one of the common folk made Godlike; in highly conceptualized glamour shots to faux-candid takes of her in exercise gear. Oprah is every woman made glorious.

The skillful manipulation and continual morphing of the ruler’s image is an essential part of his cunning; he takes on all the familiar archetypes of his folk; thereby strengthening his image as a transcendent, deific creature intimately identified with his people and therefore a source of both reverential awe and sentimental kinship. He is one of us and he is all of us, at our best. Think of the countless monuments to Hussein that littered Iraq: here is Saddam in military garb; there he is as Saladin; here he is posing as a scholar; there he is in business suit.

Another technique used by despots to ensure the loyalty of the abject is by the sensationalized distribution of wealth. On Oprah’s television program, this is given a distinctly modern American twist, as an occasion for the cross promotion of the various gilded minor treasures she bestows upon her screeching, fawning subjects.

At some point, every dictator needs a war. It is a little known fact that for a brief period of Saddam Hussein’s rule, Iraq developed at an encouraging pace, and appeared to be a modernizing country. Then something happened. Saddam needed his glorious war. The newly weakened and always despised Iranians, fresh from Khomeini’s fundamentalist revolution, were in possession of an oil rich province he coveted. The disastrous war between Iraq and Iran would result.

Oprah, like all autocrats, cannot be satisfied with wealth and the adulation of millions. Casting about for her oil rich disputed territory, she finds race, America’s richest natural resource for demagogic miners of cathartic outrage. The high end boutique Hermes (stuffy, French, and too expensive for the rabble, making it a perfect foil), in mistaking the ruler for a subject would find her well heeled jackboot on its neck. Bringing the vanquished foe’s contrite representative before her jeering minions, Oprah personally oversees his ritual abasement. She constructs for herself the role of moral superhero; striking a blow for equality, brilliantly conveying the entire production to her public as her victimization by and heroic vanquishing of racism. She would deftly co-opt the cultural moment, calling the affair her “Crash moment”, tying it to a current film about race relations. Its equivalent would be if Saddam Hussein had led a successful charge against a fortified Iranian postition, emerging wounded but victorious. One has to admire the skill and audacity of it.

Things would calm for a while, as it appeared the titaness had been sated, but imperious overlords who have crested middle age tend to act out on a huge scale the midlife crises that most of us harmlessly suffer in relative silence. As physical prowess fades and mental acuity lessens the leader senses his hold on power will be challenged. He must continually reassert it, challenged or not. Long removed from any approximation of a normal existence, the aging tyrant who has endured long into a successful reign will begin to lose touch with reality, becoming increasingly paranoid. Those close to the leader must be increasingly careful.

This is when the purges begin.

An author of a memoir of recovery and redemption falsified, maybe, a little more than the countless many presented at court before him is revealed as a fraud. Oprah, long disdainful of truth’s stubborn complexities, had long before built her empire employing such mercenaries as the pedophilia and repressed memory hysterias of the eighties and nineties. An untold number of people were jailed wrongly because the nation somehow became convinced that their communities were sitting atop vast underground networks of Satan worshipping kiddie-porn rings operating out of day-care centers (this is not flourish); abreast of this particular witch hunt would be the recovered memory fraud, as countless therapists of questionable character and credentials would advance the theory that repeated sexual abuse suffered as a child (most often a daughter abused by a father) was often repressed entirely in the memory of adults who would later recover these “memories” in therapy with these same professionals. These pseudo-scientific movements would appear as if crafted specifically for Oprah’s timely appearance on the scene as the grand inquisitor of a questioning, increasingly dissatisfied, and woefully under-educated American female populace. The commonality held by the two pogroms would be hostility toward fatherhood and patriarchy.

As these broad, criminal hoaxes would only wither away quietly without any great public outcry Oprah wouldn’t feel the need to publicly profess her outrage. The damage done to anonymous members of the population, no matter how great or how many, will never rise to the level of damage done to the image of the Great Leader; for any offense to the despot is an offense to the whole of the people.

The people needed a war of conquest against an ancient foe. The sexual revolution had not yielded universal happiness and sexual satisfaction; equality was not a given as men continued to behave as, well, men; running things with obsessive ambition, always building and tearing down, still uninterested in the poetry of Maya Angelou, and occasionally running off with their secretaries. Oprah’s television program is often a venue for large scale self criticism sessions, that common method of any enforced ideology. These would yield much in the way of symbolic obeisance and even render quite a few willing prostrators, though in reality the world would remain mostly unchanged for the masses, even as Oprah’s power and influence would appear infinite. Meet the new boss…

But every tyranny comes to an end. Sometimes its power is drained as the population gradually loses its fear and reverence of an aging leader who is increasingly removed from reality by dotage and the machinations of his advisors, until one day someone shows up and respectfully ushers the old coot out of the presidential palace and off to a comfortable exile. This is often best. Perhaps this recent “controversy” is the beginning of Oprah’s decline. I wish no misfortune upon the woman herself, because in the end she is as much a product of her time as she is a product of her immense will. She is swept up in her own nonsensical rhetoric, and taken in as much as her acolytes by the con. But hers is a powerful cult of personality and, as all cults, it deserves the earliest possible burial attended by a eulogy of ridicule.

sic semper tyrannus.

MLK Day, Three Days Late

I used to be disgusted; now I try to be amused
Elvis Costello, The Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes

Well. The dust has settled on our annual day of silly rhetoric. Time to tally the score, attend to the wounded, hold the press conferences, and get to the after-party before all the good groupies are taken.

In his capacity as councilman for Washington D.C.’s Ward 8, Marion Barry, himself once a respected civil rights leader, postponed this year’s Martin Luther King Day parade due to cold weather. Last year’s parade was cancelled for the same reason. Originally the parade was rescheduled for April 1, but some residents, perhaps concerned they were being pranked, complained that this was April Fool’s Day. Some contended it was another attempt to deny Martin Luther King his due. Noting that the schedule change came from Barry and a group of black D.C residents understandably dismayed at the thought of standing in sub-zero temperatures, I presume the racist white devil works in mysterious ways.

What has this day become?
In professional bodybuilding tournaments there is something called a “pose down.” As a culmination, the bodybuilders take the stage all at once. They then are to use what time they have to pose for the audience in brutal, side by side comparison. They crowd and elbow each other, wearing those disturbing, forced, grimacing grins; preening and flexing madly. That is what MLK Day is like, as politicians all crowd the national stage at once, flexing their moral muscles, wearing horrible false smiles. Insincerity is the common denominator.

Hillary Clinton (an apparent mediocrity advanced beyond all sensible measure because of her name), seeking to replace George Bush (see previous parenthetical statement; alter gender) as the most powerful person on the planet, launched her bid for that promotion by telling an audience of African Americans (that is to say the healthiest, wealthiest, most democratically enfranchised, most culturally powerful population of Africans to ever exist) that they had an intimate knowledge of slave life on a plantation, and that they would therefore appreciate her deft metaphoric comparison of that to the current political climate in the U.S. congress. In a black church in Harlem on MLK Day, the uber-WASP Ms. Clinton, always uncomfortably stiff, looked as out of her element as an eskimo at Club Med as she valiantly tried to inflect with some reasonable approximation of folk-speak. The only way it could have gotten any better is if she had started rapping. “Excuse me while I bust a free-style.” Oh well, maybe next year.

I keep hearing about the legendary intellect contained behind those oddly disembodied eyes (someone once noted that Hillary shared with Gary Condit the unsettling trait of eyes that never seem to agree with her facial expression); “smartest person I ever met,” said one former Clinton staffer. In his embarrassing ode to the Clintons, Primary Colors, Joe Klein describes his first meeting with Ms. Stanton (Hillary); after a brief exchange of crass political analysis he declares: “she was breathtaking.” So, perhaps the woman’s lack of any actual achievement that would normally make her a presidential candidate, beyond marrying a bright and unimaginably ambitious man, is purely accidental. Seeing as she may very well be our next president, let’s hope so. Who would have thought, after George Bush Sr.’s precipitous decline in popularity put him out of office and Bill Clinton’s wild ride to the finish that these two political families would be charmed still? At least with the Kennedys you could see the charisma; that is until Ted Kennedy stammered his way out of the Democratic nomination on national television, trying to explain how the rescue of a young woman trapped and drowning in a car he drove into a lake was necessarily deferred for hours as he conferred with family at home.

I am inspired, but still too remote out here on the far northern fringe of the blogosphere as I type with frostbitten fingers, to propose an annual Martin Luther King Day award (not to be confused with a Martin Luther King award, of which I assume there are many) to be awarded to the most embarrassing genuflection offered on this, our most dysfunctional holiday.
Perhaps we will need a white and black category; these are two distinct traditional dramatic roles after all. This year’s winner in the black category would have to be New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, for remarks you all have no doubt heard repeatedly by now. To provide a little context, one must know that Mayor Nagin was elected with 90% percent of the white vote, and slightly less than half the black vote. He has been derided by black New Orleans for representing white business interests; often the criticism takes on a personal nature: he sounds white, he acts white. I don’t believe his sounding “white” has anything to do with a nasal (“honky”) inflection, indeed the mayor has a perfectly respectable, deeper than average timbre. I assume what is meant is that he uses a little more elocution than you would find in your average rap star’s MTV Awards acceptance speech. He sounds to me like too many political leaders, not quite articulate enough to inspire confidence. He does have an odd shaped head, and facial features that, from the right angle, appear suspiciously, disturbingly caucasian.

The point of all this is that Mayor Nagin’s purpose on MLK Day was to convince black New Orleans that he is an authentic black man, and that means that he doesn’t really like white people all that much, and that he parses God’s will at will. I wonder how much Mayor Nagin knows of New Orleans history; largely populated by the partially enforced migration of settlers there who had the misfortune of being drawn into John Law’s Mississippi Scheme. A grand scale con. How fitting for the Big Easy. I wonder why the infallible Almighty would even approve of a city built below sea level by way of one of the world’s greatest rip-offs. I’m sure the mayor is aware of New Orleans’ current history, a black run municipality with a homicide rate ten times the national average before Katrina.

It’s hard to take offense at all of this. One has to pick one’s battles, and all the reasonable but dog-eared disdain that always accompanies the perennial silliness of MLK Day bears the sad tone of acknowledged futility. Now, when a public official of high enough order to command a press consultant utters an absurdity embarrassing not only to him but to the nation he represents it is designed to elicit the braying of Limbaugh, O’Reilly, et al. Then the initiator can point to the scowling visage on the television screen and say to that part of the public he seeks favor with: Don’t they just hate me? Don’t you just hate them?

The shocked, shocked conservative commenators, already on the dance card, follow the lead with enthusiasm, with an implied wink of complicity. All as if by design to further harden the attitudes on both sides of these trumped up, irrelevant debates: would a white guy get away with that?; he said God wants what? Never will a mainstream conservative go any farther in refuting the annual absurdities other than to utter some ridiculous piety such as would Dr. King approve of this? It is a farce, in every sense of the word.

The real damage is not done to the sensitivity of white America, no one takes any of it seriously, or at least they don’t take it literally, even as they vent their pent up frustration at the ongoing seriocomedy of American politics and its most bizarre subplot, race, by taking the occasion to allow themselves to feel offended; the degradation is to the quality of public discourse, the offense is to truth. It’s really just an unfortunate distraction from a reality regarding race in this country that grows more unpleasant the more evident it becomes.

In those heady days of the civil rights movement that this day ostensibly celebrates, nobody thought to ask what would happen if the country lived up to its promise to all citizens only to find that they wanted nothing to do with it. A true accounting of the last forty years in America, such as MLK Day purports to seek, would try to answer that question. What is so galling ultimately about the recognition of Martin Luther King’s birthday isn’t that his image has been inflated to diefic proportions, or that this or that public fool will say something incredibly stupid and offensive; but that there is so very little honesty to be found anywhere in all the lofty, grandiloquent shouting.

Yet we’re all forced to sit still for it. It is an annual nation-wide flagellation, disguised as a celebration of an accomplishment, equal rights for all, that it refuses to acknowledge. An entire nation is cowed by the threat of censure for thinking the unthinkable; if you’re white, the implication is how dare you question that black America suffers at your hands?; if you’re black it’s how dare you question that you suffer at white America’s hands? Yet everyone knows there’s never been a better place to be black than in present day America, or Canada, or parts of Europe. But the last place you want to be black is Africa; and if you are born in Africa, better you’re born in South Africa. These disasteful truths are both plainly evident and ruthlessly suppressed by the ever-present threat of public disgrace. What sort of national psychosis does this mass repression foster?

It’s as if the neighbors upstairs are going at it again, and we’re planting the kids in front of the television with the sound turned up. Those grandiose phrases of the civil rights movement now sound embarrassingly melodramatic. Civil rights activists are like the fabled aged Japanese soldiers in the jungle unaware that the war has ended. The jungle is in their heads and the war is in their hearts, thus they cherish them as the irreplacable elements of identity that they are, fighting on with an unmatched zeal.
An entire nation sits and quietly nods, humoring.

The front of Untethered is done up in gaudy carnival finery; flashing red, white, and blue lights blink out a manic, vertigo inducing dance. Out front stands a barker, one eye covered with what appears to be a makeshift patch, wearing a tattered top hat and a flag patterned tuxedo coat which doesn’t quite match his striped trousers. As you pass he assails you with:

Step right up folks. See a man attempt the impossible. Armed with no education, little sense, common or uncommon, this reckless daredevil attempts political analysis possessing only the most rudimentary command of the language. You sir, come on in and witness this reckless, some would say insane, daredevil as he attempts to walk the tightrope of cultural commentary with no net protecting him from the hard floor of embarrassment and humiliation below.

Watch as our resident lunatic reveals the most embarassing secrets of his life, with no regard for his personal dignity. Come inside, you won’t be disappointed. Witness the insanity up close.

Come on inside, folks; see the dog faced boy. Half man, half God only knows. You’ll be appalled, you’ll be terrified; you won’t be able to look away. Some say he’s only half human; others say he isn’t human at all. Come inside, you won’t be disappointed.
Warning: if you have a heart condition or are easily made ill you should not step inside. No, ladies and gentlemen, this is not for the weak of heart…
Parents hold your children close. Do not get within reach of the enclosure. Untethered takes no legal responsibility for what may befall you inside.
For an extra fifteen cents you can pelt him rotten vegetables and insults.
For an extra dollar he will eat anything you throw at him.
Come on in, what are you waiting for?

Two policemen appear and accost the barker. They seem to be demanding he produce identification. The barker gestures plaintively, arguing his case. The policemen quickly become impatient and, one on each arm, lift him up and carry him off, his legs working away as if he were riding an invisible unicycle. Noticing the unattended door is ajar, you come inside…

Memories of Youth’s Idyll, Part II

(Second in a series begun here)

Who were my allies in this insurgency?
There is a type of humor; bland, base, darkly vulgar, which is common among white males of the criminal subculture. These are people who are often referred to as white trash. They usually have done some time in prison; their time outside of an institution is often more reprieve than release, and their return is, usually, inevitable. There comes with it an accent and inflection that transcend region. Incorporating black slang and rhythm unselfconsciously, filtered through ineradicable residue of deep seated lumpen-proletariat origins, it is the sound of the penitentiary. This posture is completed by a certain look, as unmistakable and inimitable as the foul effects of poor hygiene and diet which mark someone long homeless. This look is where we get the phrase slack-jawed from, and the phrase is remarkably apt. Someone somewhere must have a theory explaining the tendency of the lower jaw to hang slack from the face of the pathologically delinquent.
The attitude these traits garnish is one of unfocused defiance. This defiance is not political though it resists the rule of law. It is an unconscious recognition of one’s lack of morality, one’s base nature, one’s narcissism. It mocks conventional morality. It is the socialization that takes place outside of the mainstream, in the wretched outback of poverty and ignorance, akin to that of the geographically remote such as hillbillies, though it flourishes in our midst.
There is another, closely related type of humor: mirthless, taunting, disturbingly deprecatory of everything, which is common to the vato, the Chicano gang banger. It is less humor than a brutality of manners, seeking to strangle any and all that is remotely foreign to the narrow conceptions of the barrio. This is the humor of the cholo, and it is little more than a gob of spit in the face of the culture and manners of the gavacho, or Caucasian.
Strangely, you would find these types, the white trash and the vato, mingling with one another on the streets of my old neighborhood, striking up alliances and even friendships as they found common criminal cause. It wasn’t uncommon to find a disheveled white punk with “White Power” tattoos partnered up with a Mexican gang banger in chinos and plain white undershirt. What they had in common was a more or less complete lack of amenability to society. Learning was not only undervalued; it was discouraged and denigrated as, depending on one’s particular point of view, selling out or as effete. Physical bravery and audacity were valued above all else with the approving label, crazy, as in, “you don’t want to mess with him, he’s crazy.” The cholos would claim their superiority in their graffitti taunts with the ubiquitous term mas loco; as in lil’ Boxer, Varrio Neighborhood, 13, mas loco. (The lil’ abbreviation meant little and was normally given to a junior gang member who took up a name already claimed by a veterano, or simply to a very young or small member. There was a time when I was, jokingly, called lil’ Dennis because of my small stature, and before that lil’ Groucho because of an entirely unfair comparison to Groucho Marx that was the result of my getting an unfashionably short haircut one summer.)
Most of us who would drift into this subculture would eventually find our way out. Some, however, were destined to die in it, and usually at a very young age. These were marked early on, and it was plainly evident that they weren’t going to settle down to a quiet life. They would end up incarcerated or dead by violence or drug addiction well before middle age calmed them.

I had a friend growing up who was as decent and honorable as anyone I knew up to that point in my life. He and his father were movie buffs of a sort. It seemed every weekend they went to see something (this was long before the VCR). His old man was a legendary crank; big, gruff, and scary. There were stories, unverified but believable: once when the mother of one of his kid’s friends made a pretext of coming to the door to borrow a cup of sugar (this sort of thing was still possible in those days) in hopes of striking up a conversation he wordlessly shut the door in her face; he had once fired off a high powered handgun at some cats that were digging around in his garbage, cutting one in half. His love of film was incongruous in light of this image. Every Monday at school I would listen with keen interest and envy as my friend would describe that weekend’s film. Fatherless myself, it never occurred to me to envy the relationship he had with his father, but now I realize it was a remarkable bond, one that most of us didn’t have with our parents.
There were three sons in the family, my friend being the youngest. I would say they were as different as night and day but I need a third pole. They were night, day, and twilight. There was a classic middle son who was cowardly and thoroughly unprincipled. He was a would-be con man, always running some kind of second rate scam, and an inveterate thief. As a juvenile delinquent I would spend time hanging around with him later. I suspect he is dead now, as his need to involve himself in every manner of criminal activity combined with a complete lack of physical bravery and toughness did not bode well. There was always an air of the amateur about him. He was aspiring to things he had no business with, but it was obvious that a normal life involving work and family would never be possible for him. It was a depressing inevitability that I recognize now in retrospect. The oldest son I didn’t know well. He was in jail more often than not. The offenses were serious, armed robbery and the like. He was thoroughly criminal. He had survived a stabbing that should have killed him, and lifting his shirt could show you a collection of train track scars that proved it. It happened in a bar fight and apparently his attacker did not so much stab as slash him, deeply. He had been hastily stitched back together and the welt like, cross hatched scars had a Frankenstein look to them. His older sister, unintelligent and prone to superstition, conjectured that he had been spared because he was to father a child somewhere down the line who would one day achieve something great. Hilariously, there was no question that there was no direct benefit to humanity in his survival. The last time I saw him he was headed back to prison on a parole violation. Its okay, he said, he would be rejoining his friends. It is his image I opened this post with.

The youngest and the oldest brother were as different as night and day, and the middle brother was somewhere in the nether region in between, idolizing the oldest and sadly lacking the character of the youngest. Knowing them is one of the reasons I would eventually fall on the nature side of the nature/nurture debate, in spite of a lifetime of being taught the opposite. It remains for me, like so many other experiences in my life, irrefutable evidence, a rude real life rejoinder for the misty sentiment of the blank slate thesis.

Love your children, support them, make them feel worthy and you have done well. But know that nature’s torments aren’t limited to disaster and disease. Sometimes the vileness she hurls at us comes in the form of a helpless infant. Sometimes that precious child is a foul bud which reveals itself gradually, in stages. The human penchant for cruelty doesn’t find a neat, flat level as water in a vessel but pools up in the various recesses of our complex and uneven human nature, sometimes finding a deep pocket in the heart of a deviant.

Part III

Dookie

The strange cause celebre that is the Stanley “Tookie” Williams clemency push is a redemption fable missing one major element of the familiar form: repentance. If you’ve read anything about the celebrity death row inmate you know he’s never admitted to the crimes for which he was convicted. While lawyers working on his behalf have attempted to raise doubts about evidence and the competence of the investigation, his appeals have yielded nothing more than a recommendation of mercy from the 9th District Court. Still, if one allows that he could be innocent, and stranger things have been true, Williams persists in deferring responsibility for his ambitious and lethal life of crime and his role in creating one of the most violent street gangs in American history (which continues to maim and kill at an energetic pace) to Racist White America.
I was surprised to learn that Williams is only 51 years old. I would have thought he came of age in the Jim Crow south to hear all the talk of how a smart and ambitious African American of his generation had no recourse other than a life of crime. Jamie Foxx has said that if Tookie had been white and born in Connecticut, he would be a CEO. Foxx would appear to be as confused as his slightly cockeyed visage suggests. It is lost on most of these celebrities who see in Tookie the chance to engage in their own Leonard Bernstein cocktail party moment that if Tookie were white and soundly convicted of these heinous crimes they would have never learned his name, children’s books or no.

I’m not for the death penalty, though I must confess I don’t feel a lot of passion about this issue—and I should, for obvious reasons. I don’t find myself raising my voice when I talk about it. Its finality is a problem. People have been wrongly convicted in the past, so it seems that someone has been or will be wrongly executed. I have a hard time with that. I also think it’s in society’s best interests to value mercy. The sorry saga of the Williams campaign makes it hard to hold fast to these convictions; I daresay it undermines the case against capital punishment.

Williams’ supposed slate of good deeds is only recognized in light of the extreme and far reaching effects of his ambitions in organizing a legendary criminal gang. That it just so happens to be the Crips, arguably the most well known and lauded street gang of all time, embellishes his story in the minds of the celebrities and others who view him with an embarrassingly childlike awe. By now you’ve seen the two more heavily circulated photos of Williams, one apparently from the cover of his book showing him stripped to the waist and flexing body-builder style (Williams is said to weigh about three hundred pounds and has a body-builder’s physique), and another of him in a similar stance, wearing prison issues and bearing a massive afro, the very image of a hardcore gangsta. These are pinups for the adoring.
While Tookie’s famous gang protocol and his children’s books are lauded as, it would seem, Herculean efforts to save the nation’s youth from gang culture (150,000 lives saved and counting, according to the “Tookie Fact Sheet” linked above, based on “emails and letters”) what actually evokes all this adoration is his impressive physical stature and the same brutality (inferred by the thinly veiled bragadoccio of his oft told history) that makes Tookie’s ilk so dangerous, necessitating their removal from society.

You see, there isn’t one of us who, at one time or another, hasn’t wanted just once to be Tookie. Tookie wants to be Tookie. Tookie has cultivated his image as the hulking brute more than anything else, and had he never been caught and convicted of his crimes he would no doubt have gone on being Tookie for as long as he could have pulled it off before death or incarceration put a merciful end to his tear. Physical prowess and emotional detachment combine to make a powerful intoxicant, in the bearer and in the beholder. Just witness the continuing fascination with all things gangster, from The Sopranos to Fifty Cent.

Just beneath the thin veneer of our socialization, deep in the base of our brains, on the wrong side of the tracks from our still developing prefrontal cortexes in the amygdala where our fear resides, we not only reflexively defer to physical superiority; we revere it.
Brute force and the audacity to use it are, deep down, considered values unto themselves, even if we don’t like to admit it. So when the celebrants make the pilgrimage to the shrine of Tookie it is hardly a handful of children’s books or some ridiculous contractual form legitimizing street gangs that brings them there.
They are there to pay homage to the undeniable value of brute force.