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


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.

Memories of Youth’s Idyll

A typically interesting post on Steve Sailer’s blog about, among other things, the criminality emanating from Compton, California as a highly marketed product taking the form of rap, movies, and television, has brought to mind my own halcyon days of youth growing up in nearby Norwalk.

Norwalk is a working class suburb in southeast L.A. County. Its demography when I was coming of age there in the late seventies and early eighties was nearly equal white and Hispanic. There were three major Chicano (Mexican-American) gangs operating there, mostly disdaining combat with civilian forces outside of the gang culture and in those days not yet heavily armed. It almost seems quaint now, their hand to hand combat usually involving nothing more than a knife or any handy heavy object; gallant even when compared with the drive-by shooting of today and its ignoble, exceedingly cruel and wreckless nature. The veteranos of the old days may have been no better than the psychopaths who lead the gangs today, but the times would reign them in somewhat, doing battle as they did before lax mores would create the feral state of some of today’s vatos locos.

My neighborhood just off of Imperial Highway (a major thoroughfare running some thirty miles or so from Yorba Linda east of L.A. through our city and then the tougher quarters of Compton and Watts right into LAX) looked rougher than it was. Later when I was a serviceman stationed in Camp Pendleton, about midway between L.A. and San Diego, I would delight in showing friends the old neighborhood anytime our travels took us that way; it so resembled the image of a rough L.A. ‘hood. It was sadly important to me as a young man to craft some sort of dramatic back story for myself, always a little embarrassed of how truly boring my short life’s history was.

What made my neighborhood</ look such a mess was its cleft by the stalled construction of the 105 freeway, running from just beyond our back fence all the way to the airport ten or fifteen miles away. A swath of real estate cleared for road construction took out four streets abreast just the other side of our little backyard’s brick wall. My earliest childhood memories are of this neighborhood slowly being drained of its inhabitants, selling their homes to the state and moving away. The houses weren’t demolished; rather they were cut from their foundation’s and carted away in the furtive early morning hours. Sometimes we would stay up late to watch. Few things are as disorienting as the sight of a home, the very symbol of stability, mounted on a trailer and hauled away. My faint, earliest memories are of a complete community of small, well tended homes lining cul-de-sacs of about a dozen homes a piece; by the time I left home years later the scar running through the center of our area would be complete, but construction on the freeway would still have not begun.

We called the vast open area of vacant lots dotted with the occasional abandoned house the “wastelands.” Some owners would resist selling to the end, the last of them existing exposed in the middle of the cleared land, lonely frontier outposts of a settlement in retreat.

Our next door neighbors joined a petition campaign seeking to halt the freeway’s construction, strangely undertaken midway through the leveling of our neighborhood, citing quality of life concerns. The Watts riots were a fresh memory, and while they didn’t say so the talk was that they were concerned about black migration. They would succeed in holding up the freeway’s construction for years, while the dismantling of the neighborhood continued; managing to destroy the quality of life they sought to protect by ensuring that the denuded landscape would dominate our home for over a decade–a period which would in fact encompass my entire recollected youth (those neighbors would scurry back to Oklahoma midway through the carnage).

The wastelands provided the ultimate environment for a youth of drug use and truancy. We laid claim to certain abandoned houses as meeting places, mounting an underground resistance against the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and their ever present helicopter. The helicopter was viewed as some kind of alien spaceship, with all manner of observatory capability. Its infrared capabilities were the stuff of legend. It would come buzzing in, a sinister, giant mechanical insect, with its spotlight sweeping the ground below as it homed in on us, and we would scatter like the mute rabble fleeing the army of gorillas in Planet of the Apes.

For the most part we were harmless. We just wanted to get high, and in the period of my adolescence there were a variety of means available for this. This was before crack; in fact I would escape to the military as the technique of free basing cocaine, which would presage the crack epidemic of the eighties, was becoming widespread. P.C.P. in the form of Angel Dust would be the first hard drug wave to encroach on our lives, and I found myself smack in the middle of it. I’m still not sure what P.C.P. is made of; elephant tranquilizer it is said, and somehow this didn’t dissuade us from trying it, nor did it discourage some adults from involving us in its packaging and sale. Angel Dust was P.C.P. soaked mint leaf powder, for smoking. It gave off powerful fumes, vaguely reminiscent of a a fuel, or formaldehyde. One night we would break up a pound of it, down into the gram units that retailed for ten dollars apiece, at a friend’s kitchen table, the fumes getting us all high. The next day the owner would find his parrot, kept in a cage nearby, laying dead in its cage.

It was also available in liquid form. For a price you could dip a cigarette in a vial of it. For some reason an upscale brand of cigarette, Sherman’s, were the preferred type, when soaked they were called “sherm sticks.” If you preferred menthol Kools, you might have a “super kool.”

It tended to give one a feeling of euphoria and ease strangely coupled with a sense of invincibility that could sometimes go terribly wrong, leading to bizarre psychotic episodes. A rash of police shootings would accompany the Angel Dust epidemic; “dusters” would try to take on anybody who came close, including armed policemen, often showing a desire to strip naked and attempt physically impossible (and pointless) feats. One acquaintance of ours would try to climb a telephone pole before the police managed to corral him. No doubt the cops took some liberties with the phenomenon, for a time it seemed to happen weekly; one defense argument offered up in the Rodney King beating case was that the police thought he was a duster, and his behavior was certainly consistent with one. My experiences of the time now give me a skepticism toward the oft leveled charges of institutional police brutality as well as an appreciation of the sometimes untenable situations we place cops in on a daily basis. When I was young, however, they were the enemy.

Part II

Untethered, First Quarter Results

For the fiscal quarter ending 30 Nov. 05

In this report, “Untethered”, “Company”, “Dennis Dale”, and “Dennis” refer to the weblog Untethered and its sole owner and proprietor Dennis Dale. Owing to the psychological reorganization completed on 31 August 2005, the two are to be considered a single entity, unless specificity is required in describing the physical person of Dennis Dale or the unique status of the weblog itself as an internet entity, in which case such specificity will be noted. This report contains forward looking information regarding our operations and future goals. Actual results may differ from expected results for a variety of reasons including the factors discussed in the various psychological assessments, court ordered and otherwise, to be listed and included with the final and official form of this document.


The weblog, Untethered, having been established on 31 Aug. 05 states as its institutional goals “the furtherance of the egotistical gratification and general promotion of its owner and sole proprietor, Dennis Dale, through widespread promulgation of his ideas, opinions and satirical ramblings regarding the issues of the day, leading to complete and total world domination or some semblance thereof.”
Untethered operates out of the greater Seattle, Washington area from a location which remains undisclosed due to security and privacy concerns and a desire to avoid legal action stemming from activities taken up before Untethered’s inception and completely disavowed by Untethered and its management.

Management’s Discussion and Analysis

Untethered’s egocentric goals are presented in United States Standard Self Esteem Points (USSSEP) in accordance with generally accepted blogger accounting principles (BAP).
Results are for the three months ended 30 November 2005.

Results of Operations

Forecasts for the quarter ending 30 Nov. 2005 were not met. These include, but may not be limited to:

1. Idea promulgation. Forecasts of 31 Aug. predicting significant progress toward world domination have so far proved unrealistic. Reasons for this include the insufficient ideational development, faulty manufacture of ideas, ineffective marketing of ideas, and limited success in promotional activities seeking brand recognition, discussed below.

Focus group testing has determined that ideational development was too narrowly focused in the political and satirical markets. Competing firms have demonstrated a significant advantage over Dennis in these markets, most likely owing to superior expertise in these areas.

Difficulties in manufacturing were largely the result of faulty quality control, specifically in the formation of coherent sentences, paragraphs, and overall post composition. Grammatical expertise is still lacking, resulting in inconsistent quality regarding capitalization, punctuation, and an ongoing shortage of style. Quality Control continues to address these problems, making significant progress in most areas. An overabundance of semi-colons continues to present a challenge. This work will be out-sourced in the future.

Marketing research continues to indicate declining opportunities for the cynical, semi-coherent, loosely structured product design of the past quarter and has proposed significant product redesigns to address these issues. Massive losses in the newly formed Satire Division continue to present the greatest threat to future profitability. Feasibility studies are under way to determine the best course of action regarding this division; options being discussed range from its possible absorption by the Snark and Snide Commentary Division to the possible sale of the division, whole or in part. Potential buyers have not yet been identified.

2. Egotistical gratification. Forecasts predicting the complete vanquishing of Dennis’ foes for the attentions of specifically targeted area women went unmet. Dennis suffered a major loss when attempts to merge with the most desirable of these firms, Rachel Tiegarten, collapsed due to the merger of said firm with rival entity Joe Burdon. A second merger vigorously pursued with the firm of Lisa Davis was derailed when the aforementioned firm announced a new policy of mergers and acquisitions limited to like-kind companies, commonly known as “lesbianism.” Dennis remains committed to seeking out new merger opportunities and has identified several promising targets among firms which are somewhat older and viewed as less desirable by potential rivals.