Stephen Fry and Mr. Show

Let me begin by saying Stephen Fry represents the type of person we all should aspire to be: kind, intelligent, compassionate.

I’ve celebrated his eloquence on this blog in the past and am happy to do so again. (Here is how I described what he did against the pent-up Papists he locked horns with: Stephen Fry gets his licks in and does with erudition, panache and elegance. If Christopher Hitchens prefers a brawl, Fry acquits himself as a true gentleman and his calm evisceration would mortify anyone with a smidgen of shame.)

I feel okay presenting both of these videos without comments, because they require none.

The first video is real life outstripping satire and the second is sketch comedy doing better work than the most well-meaning humanist could ever achieve. That is what art does: life inspires art and Art’s job is to make life better than it was before the artistic impulse got involved. Or something.

First Fry:

Mr. Show

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The Catholic Church is Decadent and Depraved: Papal Edition

So here is the best thing I’ve seen this week relating to the Pope slinking away into post-Prada obscurity.

Selena Coppock
Pope Benedict is stepping down from his official duties, but he’ll continue to ignore the sexual abuse of children on a freelance basis.

Whatever anyone wants to write (and there have been the predictable parade of ring-kissers and lotus eaters giving obligatory benedictions to Benedict), this is his lasting legacy, and it will only get worse in years to come as more insidious info leaks out of the Vatican vaults.

My various takes on religion, faith and spirituality have been liberally –and hopefully, intelligently– sprinkled throughout my writings and anyone familiar with this blog knows where I stand (for a taste on how my evolution was impacted by a love of art, and people, go HERE).

I don’t have much more to say that hasn’t already been said, so I’ll go back to the archives and dust off an old favorite, reposted below.

Follow the money. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

These are the two oft-invoked quotes I kept thinking to myself as I read Sabrina Rubin Erdley’s piece, “The Catholic Church’s Secret Sex-Crime Files” from Rolling Stone. Find it here.

I encourage anyone to read it in its entirety, though make sure you’ve already eaten; it’s sure to put you off food and you’ll likely need a nap and perhaps a shower to wash yourself clean from the filth. Here is a sampler:

The deluge of sexual-abuse cases in America’s largest religious denomination began in 1985, when a Louisiana priest was sentenced to 20 years in prison after admitting to sexually abusing 37 boys. But it wasn’t until 2002, when civil suits in Boston revealed that Cardinal Bernard Law had shielded rapist priests, that the extent of the scandal became widely known. In Germany, the church is overwhelmed by hundreds of alleged victims, and investigations are under way in Austria and the Netherlands. In Ireland, the government recently issued a scathing report that documents how Irish clergy – with tacit approval from the Vatican – covered up the sexual abuse of children as recently as 2009.

Battered by civil suits and bad press, the church has responded with a head-spinning mix of contrition and deflection, blaming anti-Catholic bias and the church’s enemies for paying undue attention to the crisis. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops helped fund a $1.8 million study of sex-abuse cases against priests, but the results read like a mirthless joke: To lower the number of clergy classified as “pedophiles,” the report redefines “puberty” as beginning at age 10 – and then partially blames the rise in child molesting on the counterculture of the 1960s. The church also insists that any sex crimes by
priests are a thing of the past. “The abuse crisis,” the study’s lead author concluded, “is over.”

Bill Lynn understood that his mission, above all, was to preserve the reputation of the church. The unspoken rule was clear: Never call the police. Not long after his promotion, Lynn and a colleague held a meeting with Rev. Michael McCarthy, who had been accused of sexually abusing boys, informing the priest of the fate that Cardinal Bevilacqua had approved: McCarthy would be reassigned to a “distant” parish “so that the profile can be as low as possible and not attract attention from the complainant.” Lynn dutifully filed his memo of the meeting in the Secret Archives, where it would sit for the next decade.

Over the 12 years that he held the job of secretary of the clergy, Lynn mastered the art of damage control. With his fellow priests, Lynn was unfailingly sympathetic; in a meeting with one distraught pastor who had just admitted to abusing boys, Lynn comforted the clergyman by suggesting that his 11-year-old victim had “seduced” him. With victims, Lynn was smooth and reassuring, promising to take their allegations seriously while doing nothing to punish their abusers. Kathy Jordan, who told Lynn in 2002 that she had been assaulted by a priest as a student at a Catholic high school, recalls how he assured her that the offender would no longer be allowed to work as a pastor. Years later, while reading the priest’s obituary, Jordan says it became clear to her that her abuser had, in fact, remained a priest, serving Mass in Maryland. “I came to realize that by having this friendly, confiding way, Lynn had neutralized me,” she says. “He handled me brilliantly.”

This revolting but very important instance of journalism warrants as much attention as can be mustered. It is crucial that more people read about this for at least two reasons: one, these crimes are actively being covered up (there is big money behind this cult, inconceivable money) and need to be further exposed. But second and perhaps most important, it’s still seen by too many as a minor problem; the unfortunate result of the inexorable bad apples that any group large enough will produce. It needs to be understood and dealt with with clear-eyed deliberation for what it is: a systemic and institutional syndication of criminal enterprise that, astonishingly, answers to no law or due process.

Reading this latest installment of scandal made me think of this great scene from Mean Streets. It also compels me to revisit a piece I wrote a little less than two years ago. I don’t have much to add (nor do I particularly care to add more logs to this repugnant pyre). I would simply ask anyone compelled (out of fear and misguided loyalty) to deny or belittle this atrocity to consider how they would react if all of the same evidence was compiled and attributed to a more-easily marginalized cult like Scientology or better still, some third-world impoverished group we could (condescendingly, typically) dismiss as “savages”. There would be unanimous scorn and we would have public, ardent calls for justice. (More righteous indignation here).

 

pope benedict

Part One: Abandon hope all ye who enter here…

First, and appropriately, a confession.

The title is both a tribute to, and an outright plagiarism of Hunter S. Thompson’s masterful essay “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”. And if, with that piece, he could be accused of shooting some very wealthy and insular fish in a bourbon-scented barrel, somebody had to do it. The pompous and circumstance of a spectacle like the Kentucky Derby needed to be sent up. And the thing about the good doctor during his prime, when he decided to do something, it stayed done.

The Catholic church, on the other hand, has been assailed from all sides, so any new criticism will be neither original nor particularly earth shattering. So what. It remains essential to single out hypocrisy and malificence when it is condoned or perpetrated by people or places wielding power. And despite the fact that its influence has been waning, the Catholic church is still an appallingly influential and imperious organization. To put things plainly, it is frankly because so many millions of innocent (and unknowing) human beings are impacted by this institution that its self-righteous posturing be paraded as openly and often as possible. That’s all.

Aside from Richard Dawkins, the most vocal and coruscating critic of late has been the indefatigable Christopher Hitchens. His seminal book God Is Not Great would be required reading in a sane world; but a sane world would not require that such a book be written. Of course, Hitchens correctly does not limit himself to just the Catholic church: he sets his sights on the entire notion of a Big Guy upstairs, or more specifically, our farcical and self-serving conception of same. To be certain, Hitchens does not waste his time and energy poking holes in the fairy tales and phantasmagoria that all organized religions are predicated upon. Any half-witted college freshman with a semester of Logic or Composition 101 can handle that light work. Rather, Hitchens trains his sights on the considerable violence, repression and ignorance the various religions have instilled and propagated, spanning the last two centuries. He assails the clergy, and the historically inconsistent, often hysterical dogma that they cling to for their specious moral autonomy. Hitchens argues that, for all the good deeds religion is regularly credited for inspiring, the scales are quite heavily tilted toward the negative in terms of wars, moral terror and child rape –just to pick some of the low-hanging fruit. Speaking of fruit, it remains hilarious and more than a little pathetic that grown men dressed in fancy pajamas invoke words written centuries ago as an inviolable decree to guide the contemporary affairs of mankind. (And I understand that this simple-minded insistence of following “God’s word” is the convenient catchall acting as a kind of ecclesiastical flypaper to ensnare all troublesome inconsistencies and intrusions of logic or inconvenient Truth; suffice it to say, until I see any of these disciples actually living by the letter of the onerous and inconceivable edicts of the Old Testament, I’ll remain wary and skeptical.)

For those who aren’t inclined or don’t have the time to read books about religion, check out the heavyweight champ George Carlin, who offers the most concise (and hilarious) dissection you’re likely to come across.

Hitchens has taken on all comers, and his debates are amusing (for the lucid) and, at best, embarrassing (for the indoctrinated). Have a look:

After Hitchens, Stephen Fry gets his licks in and does with erudition, panache and elegance. If Hitchens prefers a brawl, Fry acquits himself as a true gentleman and his calm evisceration would mortify anyone with a smidgen of shame. (This is part two of three; do yourself a favor and watch the first and third installment.)

Hitchens et al. are going after the jugular, debating whether or not Catholicism is a positive force in the world. This, it seems to me, is ultimately a proposition that remains largely unprovable and not particularly relevant (prolestyzers on either side of that argument can –and will– produce what they consider immutable testimony to advance their case; and both sides have sufficient ammunition). With no choice but to (belatedly, begrudgingly) own up to some of the more colossal outrages it has perpetrated, the clergy draws a line in the sand with the following concession: for all its faults, the church does endeavor to fill more potholes than it causes.

The enduring question remains: does it?

For every pedophilic priest one can point to (and the unforgivable, institutionally sanctioned cover-up of these atrocities), you also have humble men and women making genuine and heartfelt contributions to society. The vocation, whatever manifold psychological impulses it answers (or quells), seems genuine enough to have attracted hundreds of thousands of young men, at least some of whom have remained celibate and faithful. That warrants consideration, leaving aside any understandable questions about the spiritual duress and denial such a lifestyle entails.

And yet. At the end of the analysis, while it’s easy for anyone with an IQ approaching triple digits to poke fun at the snake handling or spaceship-seeing outliers on the religious spectrum (despite the considerable damage the more extreme, and whacko, religions do to its most earnest and unenlightened parishioners), it is difficult not to suppress a special distaste for the fathomless myopia that underscores Catholicism’s sensibility. One look at The Vatican (in Vatican City) is enough to salivate at what Jesus would make of that temple. No money lenders there; these are straight up faith pimps, trading favors for forgiveness going back several centuries. What these charlatans are able to pull off, in tax exempt fashion, is the apotheosis of all Ponzi schemes. But, like the simple saps that Madof ensnared, few tithers throw their sheckles in the collection jar without a preconceived quid pro quo: it’s an ecclesiastical installment plan, and Catholic guilt –inbred from an early age– creates a collective bank account that accrues interest at unprecedented rates. The Catholic hierarchy’s ultimate legacy is successfully establishing a cadre of spiritual stockbrokers.

vatican 1

Part Two: The Soup Kitchen Nazis

So, with so much to mock about the self-satisfied piety of the RCC, why now?

Well, there’s this. And this.

There you go. What brings the RCC out of the cloister? War? The outrages of Wall Street? Humiliation over its involvement in generations of profligate buggery? Of course not. Only the really crucial and relevant issues prompt such expediency: abortion and gay marriage! These are the conjoined crises that impel the otherwise oblivious foxes to slink out of the holy henhouse.

To summarize for those with short-attention spans or quick gag reflexes: in recent weeks the Catholic brain trust has picked public battles with Patrick Kennedy and D.C. area homeless. In the first instance, the smug and odious Bishop Thomas J. Tobin castigated Kennedy over his support of abortion rights. It is, the robe-wearing one whined, “a deliberate an obstinate act of will…(and) unacceptable to the church and scandalous to many of our members” (emphasis mine). Scandalous? Really? That anyone in a position of authority within the Catholic Church would have the audacity to use the word scandalous tells you all you need know about how truly clueless and shameless they have become.

This grandstanding, naturally, recalls memories of certain priests getting involved in the ’04 election, reminding their parishioners that voting for a man (Kerry) who did not have the appropriate pro-life bona fides was tantamount to heresy. This while the incumbent was actively waging preemptive war and shrinking the middle class to levels not seen since, well, the Great Depression. We all know how that one played out.

But you almost expect that type of intransigence, that level of obliviousness, from the men who have evolved from the bad old days when they burned scientists at the stake. What inspires the ongoing outrage is the fact that the Catholic church –this tone-deaf, intellectually devoid, bullying organization– ceaselessly finds ways to outdo itself. Take, for instance, the real and present outrage playing itself out, right now, in Washington D.C.

To recap: the (ultra conservative) Catholic Archdiocese of Washington has recently made ugly noise about withholding support for the homeless (about 70,000 individuals) due to its “principled” opposition to D.C.’s same-sex marriage bill. Let that one sink in for a moment. The church, ostensibly doing the work Christ instructed, is grandstanding said work over an issue that Christ never made a single mention of in the scriptures (go ahead and look it up; we’ll wait for you). Welcome to the Catholic sensibility! This is bigotry disguised as rectitude, but what else is new? Aside from the sickening hypocrisy (that word again, it’s unavoidable), this jumps so many sacred sharks it is difficult to keep track. For starters, these same churches that continue to enjoy tax exempt status are sticking their nose into the affairs of the government. Really? These same churches that are more than happy to accept government funding think it’s acceptable (legal?) to ignore said government’s laws, should they pass? The Catholic lemmings, following their Prada-wearing pontiff, have descended to the level of being soup (kitchen) nazis.

As ever, to fully grasp the illimitable duplicity of the church, one must inevitably turn to the costume-clad church elders. (Not for nothing, and with an irony that no objective reader of biblical scripture can avoid noting with a particular pang of nausea, it is the same well-fed and unreflective old men that Jesus had a special disdain for.) Look, let’s not sugarcoat the underlying issue at hand: with the world moving ever further away from biblical flights of fancy and despotic mind games, this is the sign of a desperate institution indeed. You only see this in politics and religion: when things start to spiral out of control, double down. In this instance, the decaying infrastructure and waning sway the church holds over humanity at large, makes its actions resemble those of a cult. Isn’t it funny how people (understandably) feel no compunction poking fun at the ludicrous precepts of Scientology, but bristle if anyone snickers at the apparent seriousness with which Catholics (and many other cults) regard that virgin birth thing or the notion that the Pope speaks infallibly (no, really). Farcical, sure, but also insulting, considering the man Catholics look to as an arbiter of morality, Thomas Aquinas, was last seen levitating in that cathedral (no, really).

vat

In closing, allow me to directly address anyone (Catholic or otherwise) who applauds (or remains merely unmoved by) the appalling positions the church is clinging to. The abortion issue is, at least, a tangible (if complicated) dilemma that people can wrestle with for spiritual and secular reasons. The open hostility toward and discrimination against homosexuals, on the other hand, is something that simply cannot be tolerated by anyone pretending to endorse the Declaration of Independence as well as the New Testament (you know, What Would Jesus Do?).

The prayerful prejudiced can hide behind the bogus claim of faith and fidelity, but in the final analysis, a bigot is a bigot. Congratulations on being, once again, on the wrong side of history and the righteous shift of love over fear.

And for the Catholic-Lite weekend warriors who don’t have the guts or the brains to, at long last, cut the cord, understand that you continue to associate with –-and, to a certain extent, intellectually and spiritually prostrate yourself to— an organized religion that goes several steps farther than these ignorant, opportunistic politicians who use pro-life positions to garner votes. The Catholic Church, despite any real evidence in the bible (!) abominates not only the practice but existence of homosexuality. Despite the much-discussed (but ever astonishing) fact that it harbors more than a fair share of closeted, (and not-so-closeted) in its cloister. Despite the fact that this obsessive and intolerant dogma is the fulcrum upon which these political types fortify their indefensible positions. Despite the fact that, even knowing —if failing to come to grips with— the considerable hypocrisy and mendacity that exists in its own sullied garden, this craven institution uses its brute force and reliably backwards (see: women, blacks, gays just to name the unholy trinity) clerical acumen to tyrannize anyone susceptible to its influence. The world that includes the powerless and dispossessed who cower, and especially the useful insects who apprehend and acknowledge this moral fascism (yes, fascism), and either choose to whistle blithely past the truth or —in inimitably Catholic fashion— obey the rules that fit and overlook or rationalize the ones that cause discomfort. Avoiding that discomfort at the expense of your innocent brothers and sisters is an abomination. It is also the essence of Catholicism.

But hey, who knows, maybe one day you’ll stand before your white, Republican Jesus and explain to him that you were only doing what he instructed you to do. Good luck with that.

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2011: Time To Die (Part Two: July-December)

2011: In pace requiescat!

7/26/11:

Whenever an artist dies too young, particularly when it is a self-inflicted surrender, there is an inevitable (irresistible?) tendency to romanticize or lionize. That Winehouse joins the infamous “27 club” (Jimi, Jim, Janis, Cobain, etc.) only ups the ante and ensures that the same folks who salivated at her death-spiral will now weep amphibious tears.

I’m disappointed, as a fan, that we won’t get a chance to hear her mature and evolve from the immature chanteuse whose destructive and self-loathing tendencies overpowered the better (and prettier) angels sulking deep inside. I’m sad, as a fellow human being, that a woman with so much talent and potential was not able to love her life –and herself– enough to see how much discovery and excitement lay ahead of her. I sincerely wish she could have listened to her own music and felt the same thrill and astonishment so many millions of people felt. It may not have been enough to save her, but it might have been enough to help. And sometimes help is the first step to salvation.

I hope, and trust, she is sleeping well. And if there is any karmic justice she is able to feel some measure of peace and fulfillment that in some small way approximates the pleasure she was able to provide so many of us, despite the pain she was so obviously in for so long.

Read the rest, here.

Portrait of the artist as a young pup.

Wait, did I say artist? I meant barbarian.

No, that’s neither fair nor accurate. It’s difficult with Quinzy– he was many things, frequently at the same time: tameless beast, gentle soul, abominably-behaved, adorable, impish, awe-inspiring (of which more shortly), incorrigible and, above all, utterly unique.

Check it out: I have three separate, visible scars on my right hand. All of them are from Quinzy’s teeth. The largest scar is from a bite he gave me, while I was petting him.

***

I used to say (and I was more than half-serious) that while I did not believe he could ever die, if and when he did, the medical community needed to study him and find the cure for cancer. I’ve never seen a dog that simply did not show any signs of weakness or age for so long. He was not hyper, he just went at the world in a way that Auggie March would fully endorse. So with apologies to Saul Bellow, I’ll take the liberty of embellishing that famous first paragraph from his masterful novel: “I am an American, (puppy-mill)-born—…and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a (dog)’s character is his fate, says Heraclitis, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles (or muzzling the snout).”

Quinzy treated the world like his bitch and while I couldn’t (and wouldn’t want to) necessarily emulate that approach, it’s hard not to admire and respect it. I’ve never met a human –much less an animal– that slurped so much ecstasy out of every second he was allowed to enjoy. Quinzy got his eyes, ears, snout and occasionally his teeth on anything and everyone within his reach and he never hesitated and he never slowed down. Until he slowed down.

But we never thought he would die. We actually thought he would live forever. Or at least shatter some canine records. I still reckon that scientific minds should study his DNA and come up with the antitode for illness, aging and depression. He was the most alive dog I’ve ever known and I’ve known a lot of dogs. Dogs, if nothing else, are very alive and adept at living (they are dogs, after all).

I won’t get carried away and claim that the scars on my hand, which I can see right now as I write these words, are the ironic gifts Quinzy left me. But in a way I could not appreciate until this very second, perhaps he was giving me something I could not fully fathom, since I’m a human. Did he understood and appreciate that he had been rescued from abandonment or a premature appointment with the veterinarian’s least-loved needle? Who knows. Who cares? What was he supposed to do, thank me? He did more than that anyway, and he did it without guile or the expectation of gratitude, since he was a dog. He showed me how to live a less contrived, more memorable life. He left me with a part of him that I can easily keep in my head and my heart. Finally, in his own incomparable fashion he ensured I had a visible reminder or three I’ll carry with me until the day I finally slow down myself.

Full tribute to this amazing dog, here.

Sad new from the wire: guitar legend Bert Jansch has passed away (another casualty of The Big C). Story here.

My introduction to his work was, presumably like many punks my age, courtesy of Neil Young. In particular, Neil’s epic album-closing statement from his (greatest?) album On The Beach, entitled “Ambulance Blues” apparently owes more than a slight debt to Jansch’s ’60s tune “The Needle of Death” (interesting in its own right, as Young would of course write the enormously affecting –and popular– anti-heroin anthem “The Needle and The Damage Done”).

While I’m congenitally disinclined to join the choruses of hagiographers anointing this outstanding marketer, salesman and genius as some type of saint, I’ll certainly throw my hat in the very crowded ring and concede that our world would be much different (and not for the better) without his influence.

As trite as it may sound, Jobs did in many ways help transform fantasty into reality. For that alone, he is a monumental figure in American history and should be celebrated as such.

I am less concerned about what further inventions and innovations we may not now see with him gone, and lament the more simple –and human– fact that he is yet another human being gone entirely too soon because of the awful disease called cancer. It seems very sad to me that once again we are reminded that death is inevitable (not always a terrible thing; carpe diem and all that) but that cancer does not give a shit how rich, powerful or brilliant you are. For some reason it stings a bit more to see people with all the money and connections in the world reduced, like rubble, by this awful ailment that is an equal-opportunity force of destruction. I worry much less about which new toys Apple will produce and the fact that his family has lost the husband and father at the disgustingly, offensively young age of 56.

For now, it seems right –and human– to celebrate the life and accomplishments of a man who undeniably left his mark, and provided a past, and future that would be radically different (and not for the better) had he not made his mark. Equal parts iconoclast, countercultural guru and corporate crusader, he made a complicated motto (Think different) and turned it into a postmodern religion of sorts. We could have done much worse. Whatever else he did, Jobs thought differently and in the process, took much of the world with him. What else can be said but kudos on a life well and purposefully lived?

R.I.P., Smokin’ Joe. Another casualty of The Big C; yet another instance where even the toughest amongst us can’t overcome that greedy and too often indomitable disease.

There is not much I can, or would want to try to add to the remarkable life story of Smokin’ Joe. Whether it’s the made-for-the-movies image of Joe pounding slabs of meat in a Philadelphia factory (see: Rocky Balboa), or the way-better-than-fiction melodrama of his relationship with Ali (the fights, the hype, the acrimony, the endurance, the bitterness, the not-fully-resolved antipathy), there has never been anything quite like Joe Frazier. And his relationship with Ali which, well….just watch the HBO documentary The Thriller in Manila. Beyond Sophocles; beyond Shakespeare. No bullshit.

For mere mortals like the rest of us, how could we begin to understand what it feels like to come that close to death in what could accurately be described as blood sport? In front of millions of eyeballs in real time. Preserved forever on tape. And that’s just the (inconceivable) brutality that was inflicted and endured. What must it have been like for Frazier to know that he could and perhaps shouldhave won that fight? You think you’ve had regrets in your life? How about knowing that Ali had no intention to come out for the 15th? I can scarcely comprehend how Frazier got out of bed each day with this thought gnawing at him like a rat feasts on a cold bone. It’s likely that the same thing that defined him is what redeemed him: the stubborn, unflinching, brave and single-minded drive. To survive. To be the best. To be true to himself.

One need not denigrate Ali to elevate Frazier. It comes dangerously close to cliche, but it must be said that Frazier was a true champion. In many senses of the word. He was a fighter, but his biggest bouts always took place outside the ring.

It is a shame it did not happen while he was alive to see it, but it’s long past the appropriate time for the city of Philadelphia to erect a statue for its favorite son. The one created in the dank, reeking gym where they build legends, as opposed to the bright, plastic city where they make movies. If there is a statue for Rocky, there damn well should be a statue for the man who inspired him.

See whole thing, here.

Some extended thoughts from 2011 regarding hockey, violence and cognitive dissonance, here.

Snippet:

So what is complicated about it? For starters, hockey fighting remains a diversion that people who genuinely deplore violence (like this writer) endorse and get excited about. What does that say about us? I’m not certain. But I do know that unlike the “real” world, it is exceedingly rare for two hockey combatants to enter the fray unwillingly. Yes but, doesn’t that make it a great deal worse, if they do it because they get paid? (Well, is boxing beatiful? Brutal? Your opinion here will go a decent way toward explaining your ability, or willingness, to negotiate the enigmatic charm of the expression “five minutes for fighting”.) That gets to the not-so-easily explained sensibility of athletes (in general) and hockey players (in particular). Hockey players have traditionally been paid a great deal less than other athletes in more popular sports. It is, therefore, a bit ironic to consider that these players are more immune to pain and prone to play a regular season game like the world is on the line. It is, for hockey fans, refreshing that the players have an integrity that has been ingrained from generations and is remarkably resilient against the corrupting forces of salary, fame and product endorsements. Put in less exalted terms, people tend to get (understandably) cynical when, say, a baseball player with a multi-million dollar annual contract goes on the D.L. with a strained hamstring. That type of commonplace indifference is especially noticeable –and appalling– when one realizes that hockey players routinely return to the ice moments after receiving stitches, or losing teeth, or suffering bruised (and in some cases, broken) bones. Google it if you don’t believe me.

Another giant of whom we’ll never see the likes of again has left the planet. R.I.P. Hubert Sumlin.

I’ll resist the urge to say it’s the least they could do, since at least they are doing something, and acknowledge this nice gesture by the Glimmer Twins (who owe a great deal to Sumlin and his former employer).

You can usually measure an artist’s legacy by the people who worship said artist. If the names Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix mean anything to you, it should provide some manner of perspective for how huge and influential this understated guitarist was –and will remain. Like all great artists (musicians or writers) he knew instinctively to do more with less and use silence as strategy. Although he was remarkably proficient (listen to his grease-in-a-frying-pan lead on the immortal “Killing Floor”, later covered to excellent effect by a young Hendrix) he also had the smarts to step back and let the almost overpowering presence of Howlin’ Wolf run rampant. The result is the cool and effortless grace that so many subsequent rock stars trying to play authentic blues –including some of the ones listed above– have ably imitated but never duplicated.

The Wolf, of course, would have still been a supernova without the (amazing) band he assembled; he was too much of a force of nature, musically and otherwise, to settle for less. But he was wise enough to employ and retain Sumlin, who gave those old Chess classics their distintive edge and inimitable swagger.

More here.

Not a lot of fanfare surrounded the death of Howard Tate (a couple of obits here and here).

In a sad, sadly typical way, this is appropriate, since there was not a lot of fanfare surrounding him while he lived.

This is a terrible shame for many reasons, the most important being he may be the best singer you’ve never heard.

The dude just could never catch a break. Joplin’s cover gave him the opportunity he needed but…it just never happened. Bad timing, bitterness and frustration followed, and a man who should have dominated the decade ended up homeless, addicted to crack. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Fortunately, he found religion and got his act together. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

Better still, he was able to record and perform. It’s nice to think he received a modicum of the respect and appreciation that should have been accorded to him back when it would have mattered a lot more. But he did not die unknown, and he did not end up dead in the streets. So that’s something.

You can –and you should– grab hold of some history (for under $10) here and here (his song “Where Did My Baby Go”, which unfortunately is not available on YouTube, is worth the price of admission: Howard Tate sings the SHIT out of that joint and it’s a travesty that this did not go straight to number one and make him wealthy and well-known. The Lord works in mysterious ways).

I’ll resist the urge to note how untalented ass-clowns are getting record deals and reality TV shows, because it has always been thus. It’s still thus, only more so. And while that makes it harder than it normally would be to swallow the karmic injustice of a man like Howard Tate not breaking through when he might have, it is what it is. Besides, now is not the time to lament or complain: it’s time, as always, to celebrate what we did get, and what we’ll always have.

The music, of course, lives on (stop me if you’ve heard this one before).

Full thing here.

The best tribute I can offer to Hitch is that even when he infuriated me (something he did often when he wrote about politics after 9/11), he excited me. I’ve never read a writer who thrilled me as consistently and thoroughly as Hitchens did. He is one of the very few writers who could write about virtually anything and I’d want to read his take. Even, or perhaps especially, when I disagreed with him I came away a more informed and better equipped. In this sense, Hitchens –who at different times could accurately be described as a Marxist, a contrarian, a reactionary and an iconoclast– provided lessons for how to engage intellectually and spiritually (yes, spiritually) with the world. And think about those four words (and there are many others I could use): how many public figures could conceivably, much less convincingly, be described thusly? If Hitchens had sold out, his ostensibly contradictory stances might seem like a case of cognitive dissonance. In actuality, it was the evidence of his ongoing evolution, as a thinker, writer and human being. Evolution is never static, and Hitchens was always moving forward: ravenous, curious, ornery, insatiable. Above all, he burrowed into the world with the glee and intensity of a converted soul. His salvation was not religion; it was the simple and profound act of existing: I think, therefore I am.

Hitchens combined the range of Twain, the erudition of Mencken and the irreverence of Hunter S. Thompson. Of course he also had the political courage of Orwell, the acerbic wit of Cyril Connolly and the adroit literary acumen as his great friend Martin Amis. Of all the writers whose work I’ve worshipped, Hitchens was the most fully-formed summation of his influences; as a result of his monomaniacal addiction to knowledge, he produced an insight that is at once all-encompassing and wholly unique. At his best, Hitchens could remind you of any number of geniuses; at the same time, nobody else is like Hitchens. The Hitch is sui generis, on the rocks.

Much more, here.

So what did I like so much about him? Well, you have to be a soccer (i.e., football) fan to understand in the first place. You also probably had to be young and in love with the game. As a soccer freak, I was consistently at awe with how he managed the field. As I got older and understood he got his nickname because of his inconceivable temerity to actually read books, he became a hero on an entirely other level. He also was a chainsmoker. Suffice it to say, those were different days, my friends. More, he was a big drinker. Not celebrating this (indeed, the smoking and drinking undoubtedly led indirectly, if not directly, to his awfully premature death), but just putting it out there: the man knew how to live on and off the field. Oh, did I mention that he actually became a doctor after his playing days? Or that he was very progressive politically? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this motherfucker rocked the beard.

More man love, here.

Regarding the amazing life of Vaclav Havel, there is nothing I can say that he did not say better himself:

Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy when things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something to succeed. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is this hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now. In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.

Another irreplaceable giant has left the planet.

Sam Rivers, always graceful, elegant and cool as a mofo, certainly carved out his own niche in the jazz idiom.

While his work as a leader will –and should– be celebrated, he also did remarkable work on sessions led by his compatriots.

Anyone not familiar with this great reedist should proceed directly to the tri-fecta of Fuchsia Swing Song (1964), Contours (1965) and Dimensions & Extensions (1967).

Check him out on Dave Holland’s classic Conference of the Birds (1973), Tony Williams’s Spring (1965) and Bobby Hutcherson’s Dialogue. After that, enjoy picking and choosing from the gems he created over five decades on the scene.

In one of the early obits to hit the press, this revealing quote from his daughter pretty much puts the man and his work in proper perspective:

“Music was his life, music is what kept him alive,” said his daughter Monique Rivers Williams of Apopka, who also handled her father’s concert bookings and learned from him the joy of making music. “My father, in my eyes, was on vacation all his life. He used to tell me, ‘I’m working, but I’m loving every minute of it.’ Retirement was not in his vocabulary. ‘Why do we even have that word,’ he used to ask me, ‘there should be no such thing.’”

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Sui generis on the rocks: Christopher Hitchens, R.I.P.

The best way to compliment a writer, as a reader, is to recommend their work to others. That I wholeheartedly do –and have done.

The best way to compliment a writer, as a writer, is to recognize, with neither regret nor resignation, that on your best day you will always stand in awe of what they achieved.

Reading and responding to The Hitch is ceaselessly inspiring and seldom less than exhilarating. More, it is an instigatory experience: it compels you to get involved more deeply with the world around and inside you. Reading any worthwhile writer is an act of celebration, a shared reaction to the act of creation. More, it is an exercise in how to write, read, think and live.

The best tribute I can offer to Hitch is that even when he infuriated me (something he did often when he wrote about politics after 9/11), he excited me. I’ve never read a writer who thrilled me as consistently and thoroughly as Hitchens did. He is one of the very few writers who could write about virtually anything and I’d want to read his take. Even, or perhaps especially, when I disagreed with him I came away a more informed and better equipped. In this sense, Hitchens –who at different times could accurately be described as a Marxist, a contrarian, a reactionary and an iconoclast– provided lessons for how to engage intellectually and spiritually (yes, spiritually) with the world. And think about those four words (and there are many others I could use): how many public figures could conceivably, much less convincingly, be described thusly? If Hitchens had sold out, his ostensibly contradictory stances might seem like a case of cognitive dissonance. In actuality, it was the evidence of his ongoing evolution, as a thinker, writer and human being. Evolution is never static, and Hitchens was always moving forward: ravenous, curious, ornery, insatiable. Above all, he burrowed into the world with the glee and intensity of a converted soul. His salvation was not religion; it was the simple and profound act of existing: I think, therefore I am.

Hitchens combined the range of Twain, the erudition of Mencken and the irreverence of Hunter S. Thompson. Of course he also had the political courage of Orwell, the acerbic wit of Cyril Connolly and the adroit literary acumen as his great friend Martin Amis. Of all the writers whose work I’ve worshipped, Hitchens was the most fully-formed summation of his influences; as a result of his monomaniacal addiction to knowledge, he produced an insight that is at once all-encompassing and wholly unique. At his best, Hitchens could remind you of any number of geniuses; at the same time, nobody else is like Hitchens. The Hitch is sui generis, on the rocks.

Here’s the deal: even as I felt intense discomfort for how cozy he became with the architects of our recently-concluded (?) quagmire, it was difficult to write him off. For one thing, he never stood to profit in any sense of the word, and I believe he was inexorably affected by what his mate Salman Rushdie endured (when he was notably one of the few artists willing to stand up and defend Rushdie). Over time he came to –wrongly in my view– perceive a very gray (and shady) situation as black and white. It wasn’t like he ever turned tail and apologized for being a liberal (like some of his ersthwhile allies did); he certainly did not embrace his new “friends” on the Right in any meaningful way. He was cocksure, inscrutable and resolute to the end; if he was a big pig-headed at times, in my estimation he was never opportunistic or craven. How many legit famous people can we say that about?

The best way to compliment a person for the life they lived is how they choose to die.

That seems to cute by half, but I can’t think of a better way to put it. Of course, few of us have the opportunity to choose how, or when, we die. For the unfortunate folks who contend with cancer, the choice is made for us. The true measure of the courage of one’s convictions is how those convictions hold up under duress. Hitchens promised he would never “find” religion once he was diagnosed with what turned out to be the ailment that took him out. True to his word, as usual, as ever, he was unflinching to the end, even as the hideous disease made him emaciated, weak and fried inside-out. (A bit more on how that happens, here.) True to his nature, he not only refused to give quarter, he took every opportunity to reiterate the feelings he had about all-things religious. (A bit more on that, here.)

People who live the right way are living lessons on how to exist, aspire and inevitably, to perish. Hitchens, through his example, will remain a vivid and unquenchable exhibit for how to suck the marrow out of this life, as Thoreau admonished us to do. The mind-boggling body of work he leaves behind will ensure that this world is never without him. Which, in the final analysis is a relief, because the world is already a poorer place without further input from this unbowed, inimitable piece of work.

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The Catholic Church is (still) Decadent and Depraved

Follow the money. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

These are the two oft-invoked quotes I kept thinking to myself as I read Sabrina Rubin Erdley’s piece, “The Catholic Church’s Secret Sex-Crime Files” from Rolling Stone. Find it here.

I encourage anyone to read it in its entirety, though make sure you’ve already eaten; it’s sure to put you off food and you’ll likely need a nap and perhaps a shower to wash yourself clean from the filth. Here is a sampler:

The deluge of sexual-abuse cases in America’s largest religious denomination began in 1985, when a Louisiana priest was sentenced to 20 years in prison after admitting to sexually abusing 37 boys. But it wasn’t until 2002, when civil suits in Boston revealed that Cardinal Bernard Law had shielded rapist priests, that the extent of the scandal became widely known. In Germany, the church is overwhelmed by hundreds of alleged victims, and investigations are under way in Austria and the Netherlands. In Ireland, the government recently issued a scathing report that documents how Irish clergy – with tacit approval from the Vatican – covered up the sexual abuse of children as recently as 2009.

Battered by civil suits and bad press, the church has responded with a head-spinning mix of contrition and deflection, blaming anti-Catholic bias and the church’s enemies for paying undue attention to the crisis. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops helped fund a $1.8 million study of sex-abuse cases against priests, but the results read like a mirthless joke: To lower the number of clergy classified as “pedophiles,” the report redefines “puberty” as beginning at age 10 – and then partially blames the rise in child molesting on the counterculture of the 1960s. The church also insists that any sex crimes by
priests are a thing of the past. “The abuse crisis,” the study’s lead author concluded, “is over.”

Bill Lynn understood that his mission, above all, was to preserve the reputation of the church. The unspoken rule was clear: Never call the police. Not long after his promotion, Lynn and a colleague held a meeting with Rev. Michael McCarthy, who had been accused of sexually abusing boys, informing the priest of the fate that Cardinal Bevilacqua had approved: McCarthy would be reassigned to a “distant” parish “so that the profile can be as low as possible and not attract attention from the complainant.” Lynn dutifully filed his memo of the meeting in the Secret Archives, where it would sit for the next decade.

Over the 12 years that he held the job of secretary of the clergy, Lynn mastered the art of damage control. With his fellow priests, Lynn was unfailingly sympathetic; in a meeting with one distraught pastor who had just admitted to abusing boys, Lynn comforted the clergyman by suggesting that his 11-year-old victim had “seduced” him. With victims, Lynn was smooth and reassuring, promising to take their allegations seriously while doing nothing to punish their abusers. Kathy Jordan, who told Lynn in 2002 that she had been assaulted by a priest as a student at a Catholic high school, recalls how he assured her that the offender would no longer be allowed to work as a pastor. Years later, while reading the priest’s obituary, Jordan says it became clear to her that her abuser had, in fact, remained a priest, serving Mass in Maryland. “I came to realize that by having this friendly, confiding way, Lynn had neutralized me,” she says. “He handled me brilliantly.”

This revolting but very important instance of journalism warrants as much attention as can be mustered. It is crucial that more people read about this for at least two reasons: one, these crimes are actively being covered up (there is big money behind this cult, inconceivable money) and need to be further exposed. But second and perhaps most important, it’s still seen by too many as a minor problem; the unfortunate result of the inexorable bad apples that any group large enough will produce. It needs to be understood and dealt with with clear-eyed deliberation for what it is: a systemic and institutional syndication of criminal enterprise that, astonishingly, answers to no law or due process.

Reading this latest installment of scandal made me think of this great scene from Mean Streets. It also compels me to revisit a piece I wrote a little less than two years ago. I don’t have much to add (nor do I particularly care to add more logs to this repugnant pyre). I would simply ask anyone compelled (out of fear and misguided loyalty) to deny or belittle this atrocity to consider how they would react if all of the same evidence was compiled and attributed to a more-easily marginalized cult like Scientology or better still, some third-world impoverished group we could (condescendingly, typically) dismiss as “savages”. There would be unanimous scorn and we would have public, ardent calls for justice. (More righteous indignation here).

 

pope benedict

Part One: Abandon hope all ye who enter here…

First, and appropriately, a confession.

The title is both a tribute to, and an outright plagiarism of Hunter S. Thompson’s masterful essay “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”. And if, with that piece, he could be accused of shooting some very wealthy and insular fish in a bourbon-scented barrel, somebody had to do it. The pompous and circumstance of a spectacle like the Kentucky Derby needed to be sent up. And the thing about the good doctor during his prime, when he decided to do something, it stayed done.

The Catholic church, on the other hand, has been assailed from all sides, so any new criticism will be neither original nor particularly earth shattering. So what. It remains essential to single out hypocrisy and malificence when it is condoned or perpetrated by people or places wielding power. And despite the fact that its influence has been waning, the Catholic church is still an appallingly influential and imperious organization. To put things plainly, it is frankly because so many millions of innocent (and unknowing) human beings are impacted by this institution that its self-righteous posturing be paraded as openly and often as possible. That’s all.

Aside from Richard Dawkins, the most vocal and coruscating critic of late has been the indefatigable Christopher Hitchens. His seminal book God Is Not Great would be required reading in a sane world; but a sane world would not require that such a book be written. Of course, Hitchens correctly does not limit himself to just the Catholic church: he sets his sights on the entire notion of a Big Guy upstairs, or more specifically, our farcical and self-serving conception of same. To be certain, Hitchens does not waste his time and energy poking holes in the fairy tales and phantasmagoria that all organized religions are predicated upon. Any half-witted college freshman with a semester of Logic or Composition 101 can handle that light work. Rather, Hitchens trains his sights on the considerable violence, repression and ignorance the various religions have instilled and propagated, spanning the last two centuries. He assails the clergy, and the historically inconsistent, often hysterical dogma that they cling to for their specious moral autonomy. Hitchens argues that, for all the good deeds religion is regularly credited for inspiring, the scales are quite heavily tilted toward the negative in terms of wars, moral terror and child rape –just to pick some of the low-hanging fruit. Speaking of fruit, it remains hilarious and more than a little pathetic that grown men dressed in fancy pajamas invoke words written centuries ago as an inviolable decree to guide the contemporary affairs of mankind. (And I understand that this simple-minded insistence of following “God’s word” is the convenient catchall acting as a kind of ecclesiastical flypaper to ensnare all troublesome inconsistencies and intrusions of logic or inconvenient Truth; suffice it to say, until I see any of these disciples actually living by the letter of the onerous and inconceivable edicts of the Old Testament, I’ll remain wary and skeptical.)

For those who aren’t inclined or don’t have the time to read books about religion, check out the heavyweight champ George Carlin, who offers the most concise (and hilarious) dissection you’re likely to come across.

Hitchens has taken on all comers, and his debates are amusing (for the lucid) and, at best, embarrassing (for the indoctrinated). Have a look:

After Hitchens, Stephen Fry gets his licks in and does with erudition, panache and elegance. If Hitchens prefers a brawl, Fry acquits himself as a true gentleman and his calm evisceration would mortify anyone with a smidgen of shame. (This is part two of three; do yourself a favor and watch the first and third installment.)

Hitchens et al. are going after the jugular, debating whether or not Catholicism is a positive force in the world. This, it seems to me, is ultimately a proposition that remains largely unprovable and not particularly relevant (prolestyzers on either side of that argument can –and will– produce what they consider immutable testimony to advance their case; and both sides have sufficient ammunition). With no choice but to (belatedly, begrudgingly) own up to some of the more colossal outrages it has perpetrated, the clergy draws a line in the sand with the following concession: for all its faults, the church does endeavor to fill more potholes than it causes.

The enduring question remains: does it?

For every pedophilic priest one can point to (and the unforgivable, institutionally sanctioned cover-up of these atrocities), you also have humble men and women making genuine and heartfelt contributions to society. The vocation, whatever manifold psychological impulses it answers (or quells), seems genuine enough to have attracted hundreds of thousands of young men, at least some of whom have remained celibate and faithful. That warrants consideration, leaving aside any understandable questions about the spiritual duress and denial such a lifestyle entails.

And yet. At the end of the analysis, while it’s easy for anyone with an IQ approaching triple digits to poke fun at the snake handling or spaceship-seeing outliers on the religious spectrum (despite the considerable damage the more extreme, and whacko, religions do to its most earnest and unenlightened parishioners), it is difficult not to suppress a special distaste for the fathomless myopia that underscores Catholicism’s sensibility. One look at The Vatican (in Vatican City) is enough to salivate at what Jesus would make of that temple. No money lenders there; these are straight up faith pimps, trading favors for forgiveness going back several centuries. What these charlatans are able to pull off, in tax exempt fashion, is the apotheosis of all Ponzi schemes. But, like the simple saps that Madof ensnared, few tithers throw their sheckles in the collection jar without a preconceived quid pro quo: it’s an ecclesiastical installment plan, and Catholic guilt –inbred from an early age– creates a collective bank account that accrues interest at unprecedented rates. The Catholic hierarchy’s ultimate legacy is successfully establishing a cadre of spiritual stockbrokers.

vatican 1

Part Two: The Soup Kitchen Nazis

So, with so much to mock about the self-satisfied piety of the RCC, why now?

Well, there’s this. And this.

There you go. What brings the RCC out of the cloister? War? The outrages of Wall Street? Humiliation over its involvement in generations of profligate buggery? Of course not. Only the really crucial and relevant issues prompt such expediency: abortion and gay marriage! These are the conjoined crises that impel the otherwise oblivious foxes to slink out of the holy henhouse.

To summarize for those with short-attention spans or quick gag reflexes: in recent weeks the Catholic brain trust has picked public battles with Patrick Kennedy and D.C. area homeless. In the first instance, the smug and odious Bishop Thomas J. Tobin castigated Kennedy over his support of abortion rights. It is, the robe-wearing one whined, “a deliberate an obstinate act of will…(and) unacceptable to the church and scandalous to many of our members” (emphasis mine). Scandalous? Really? That anyone in a position of authority within the Catholic Church would have the audacity to use the word scandalous tells you all you need know about how truly clueless and shameless they have become.

This grandstanding, naturally, recalls memories of certain priests getting involved in the ’04 election, reminding their parishioners that voting for a man (Kerry) who did not have the appropriate pro-life bona fides was tantamount to heresy. This while the incumbent was actively waging preemptive war and shrinking the middle class to levels not seen since, well, the Great Depression. We all know how that one played out.

But you almost expect that type of intransigence, that level of obliviousness, from the men who have evolved from the bad old days when they burned scientists at the stake. What inspires the ongoing outrage is the fact that the Catholic church –this tone-deaf, intellectually devoid, bullying organization– ceaselessly finds ways to outdo itself. Take, for instance, the real and present outrage playing itself out, right now, in Washington D.C.

To recap: the (ultra conservative) Catholic Archdiocese of Washington has recently made ugly noise about withholding support for the homeless (about 70,000 individuals) due to its “principled” opposition to D.C.’s same-sex marriage bill. Let that one sink in for a moment. The church, ostensibly doing the work Christ instructed, is grandstanding said work over an issue that Christ never made a single mention of in the scriptures (go ahead and look it up; we’ll wait for you). Welcome to the Catholic sensibility! This is bigotry disguised as rectitude, but what else is new? Aside from the sickening hypocrisy (that word again, it’s unavoidable), this jumps so many sacred sharks it is difficult to keep track. For starters, these same churches that continue to enjoy tax exempt status are sticking their nose into the affairs of the government. Really? These same churches that are more than happy to accept government funding think it’s acceptable (legal?) to ignore said government’s laws, should they pass? The Catholic lemmings, following their Prada-wearing pontiff, have descended to the level of being soup (kitchen) nazis.

As ever, to fully grasp the illimitable duplicity of the church, one must inevitably turn to the costume-clad church elders. (Not for nothing, and with an irony that no objective reader of biblical scripture can avoid noting with a particular pang of nausea, it is the same well-fed and unreflective old men that Jesus had a special disdain for.) Look, let’s not sugarcoat the underlying issue at hand: with the world moving ever further away from biblical flights of fancy and despotic mind games, this is the sign of a desperate institution indeed. You only see this in politics and religion: when things start to spiral out of control, double down. In this instance, the decaying infrastructure and waning sway the church holds over humanity at large, makes its actions resemble those of a cult. Isn’t it funny how people (understandably) feel no compunction poking fun at the ludicrous precepts of Scientology, but bristle if anyone snickers at the apparent seriousness with which Catholics (and many other cults) regard that virgin birth thing or the notion that the Pope speaks infallibly (no, really). Farcical, sure, but also insulting, considering the man Catholics look to as an arbiter of morality, Thomas Aquinas, was last seen levitating in that cathedral (no, really).

vat

In closing, allow me to directly address anyone (Catholic or otherwise) who applauds (or remains merely unmoved by) the appalling positions the church is clinging to. The abortion issue is, at least, a tangible (if complicated) dilemma that people can wrestle with for spiritual and secular reasons. The open hostility toward and discrimination against homosexuals, on the other hand, is something that simply cannot be tolerated by anyone pretending to endorse the Declaration of Independence as well as the New Testament (you know, What Would Jesus Do?).

The prayerful prejudiced can hide behind the bogus claim of faith and fidelity, but in the final analysis, a bigot is a bigot. Congratulations on being, once again, on the wrong side of history and the righteous shift of love over fear.

And for the Catholic-Lite weekend warriors who don’t have the guts or the brains to, at long last, cut the cord, understand that you continue to associate with –-and, to a certain extent, intellectually and spiritually prostrate yourself to— an organized religion that goes several steps farther than these ignorant, opportunistic politicians who use pro-life positions to garner votes. The Catholic Church, despite any real evidence in the bible (!) abominates not only the practice but existence of homosexuality. Despite the much-discussed (but ever astonishing) fact that it harbors more than a fair share of closeted, (and not-so-closeted) in its cloister. Despite the fact that this obsessive and intolerant dogma is the fulcrum upon which these political types fortify their indefensible positions. Despite the fact that, even knowing —if failing to come to grips with— the considerable hypocrisy and mendacity that exists in its own sullied garden, this craven institution uses its brute force and reliably backwards (see: women, blacks, gays just to name the unholy trinity) clerical acumen to tyrannize anyone susceptible to its influence. The world that includes the powerless and dispossessed who cower, and especially the useful insects who apprehend and acknowledge this moral fascism (yes, fascism), and either choose to whistle blithely past the truth or —in inimitably Catholic fashion— obey the rules that fit and overlook or rationalize the ones that cause discomfort. Avoiding that discomfort at the expense of your innocent brothers and sisters is an abomination. It is also the essence of Catholicism.

But hey, who knows, maybe one day you’ll stand before your white, Republican Jesus and explain to him that you were only doing what he instructed you to do. Good luck with that.

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Mark Twain: The Big Daddy of American Letters (Revisited)

On April 21, 1910, author Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, died in Redding, Conn.

Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.
 Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of congress. But I repeat myself.
 ‘Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read.
The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out the conservative adopts them.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.
 Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
 

Mark Twain was the heavyweight champion in a time when giants roamed the earth and our color commentary was written in ink. Twain, along with Melville and Hawthorne, represents the holy trinity of 19th Century American fiction: the great white hope. But Twain was arguably the archetypal American writer; certainly that was William Faulkner’s assessment. And if Faulkner says Twain was the “father of American literature” than Twain is the father of American literature, end of discussion. Even still, he was more than that. A lecturer, a satirist, critic, commentator; a genuine public figure and ambassador for the well-examined life.

Twain’s influence is like history itself: impossible to deny, informing everything that comes later. It’s difficult to imagine Upton Sinclair, H.L. Mencken, Paul Theroux and Christopher Hitchens existing without the model laid out by their white-haired progenitor. Has anyone mixed accessible fiction, social commentary (caustic and comic) and travel writing with more elan than the peripatetic Twain? Is anyone, with the possible exception of Oscar Wilde, more deliciously quotable? Mark Twain remains the Big Daddy; distinctly American to be sure, but American in a way that invokes the better practices and habits we used to take for granted. Twain embodies an era when exploration (physical and intellectual), engagement with the world and an insatiable appetite for experience were not rites of passage so much as imperative points of departure.

Of course it was, in many regards, a simpler time: no movie stars or radio-friendly pop singers (no radio, for that matter), no prime time news anchors sensationalizing the story of the day. But to be certain, there were still opportunistic hacks and peddlers of propaganda: as long as art remains a viable avenue of commerce and politics exist, the world will never have a scarcity of these charlatans. So what? Well, would it be too quaint by half (or whole) to propose that writers in general (and poets in particular, per Shelley’s dictum) were indeed the unacknowledged legislators of the world? Expertise earned in the field and conferred via the discipline of expression. The best writers could acquire an old-fashioned kind of authority; the type that conferred upon an individual the honor (and obligation) of expressing truths not beholden to party lines or privilege. The type of sensibility that was capable of creating Huckleberry Finn, for instance. Mark Twain, in short, seamlessly incorporated many of the aspects we lionize in our leaders: a populist impulse, an instinctive aversion to prejudice, skepticism of power and an unabashed zeal for democracy. This is Twain’s legacy: his country did not define him so much as he helped define it. If Hawthorne wrote about what we had been (and, in his despairing eyes, always would be), and Melville wrote about what we could be, then Twain wrote about what we were, and what we should be.

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Newt Gingrich: Dimestore Despot

 

This just in: Newt gingrich remains the most repugnant and despicable ass-clown in America!

(Narrowly edging out the oleaginous Andrew Breitbart, who may finally have done civilization a favor by making himself impossible to take seriously in any respectable circles.)

In terms of offensiveness, illogic and opportunism, the insufferable one may have outdone himself here:

There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over.

And lest anyone think I’m shooting a pale, bloated and loquacious fish in a barrel, let it be known that I’m actually offering Gingrich more than a little benefit of the doubt. I am inclined to believe that he knows better and says most of the things he says (trying to be incendiary, ending up being insidious) to stir the sluggish pot of ditto-heads, “Don’t Tread On Me” types, and the no-taxes troglodytes who invariably live in counties most reliant upon the largesse of government and well-paid (and heavily taxed) liberal elite socialist sorts. Indeed, I have no choice but to conclude he knows better, because the irony (and idiocy) would be too unbearable if this bozo, who constantly invokes his authority on founding fathers (always wrongly, such as his demonstrably incorrect insistence that men like Jefferson and Washington were devout Christians and, more, designed the new country to be a “Christian nation”—which is literally the opposite of the very documents they created) actually believed the garbage he so often spews.

Check it out: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Pretty hard to misinterpret or spin, no? Not unless your audience consists of the willfully illiterate and mouth-breathing masses who turn to Fox news for a quick fix for what (Roger) ails them. Any serious thinker who hopes to be taken seriously does everything in his power to avoid leaning on the ever-reliable George Orwell, but sometimes no other analogy will do. In the intellectual wasteland that passes for the Republican party these days, down truly is up and night really is day. Only in this contemporary dystopia on the Right could anyone with the ability to reason (or read) fail to understand the difference between what the founding fathers wrote and fearful bigots fantasize about.

It became increasingly obvious (and unnerving) during the aftermath of 9/11 and the run-up to the ’04 election that nothing would please the religious right lunatic fringe more than to essentially become honky Taliban. Of course they would be aghast at such an offensive characterization. But think about it: these are the same sociopaths who endorse an oligarchic state (a bathtub-sized government run by the untaxed and unregulated wealthy), covet the conversion of all to Christianity (not, incidentally, the type espoused by Christ but the type reformulated by white, often closeted gay men lashing out against their own uncontainable impulses), and openly proselytize the possibility of a single preferred religion. (The peripheral analogies include the behavior and attitudes toward women, the dispossessed and impoverished, the zeal for censorship, the defense of government spying and the embrace of anti-intellectualism. As Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens have pointed out without hyperbole, these are all genuine hallmarks of Fascistic ideologies.)

Bottom line: equating the tolerance of a Muslim learning center with “submission” and an indication of the “timidity, passivity and historic ignorance of American elites” (in addition to being a profound case of transparent projection), is a craven and fallacious misnomer that needs to be forcefully called out, and rejected. Indeed, if this disgusting sentiment was translated into another language and placed in a thought bubble above any ayatollah, it would seem like the ranting of an intolerant dime-store despot. Which is exactly what it is.

It almost makes you want to sardonically cheer Newt on and see how the dots connect, down the road, with the hard lines he endorses and how their implementation would affect ordinary Americans. Why stop at establishing (or rewriting history to assert there was) an official religion, let’s begin slicing off thieves’ hands with scimitars; let’s make certain types of artistic expression illegal; let’s throw rocks at adulterers…oops! See what happens, Newt? When you crawl out from under your rock and use it as a soapbox, you are eventually and inevitably hoisted by your own petard. And Newt, as much as any self-righteous offender, is serially petarded.

Of course the other, egregious fallacy of Newt’s outburst is the notion that the world is (or ever was) split into “us and them” (certainly it is if you are indifferent to and frightened of the “Other” and seek to divide susceptible citizens for naked political gain); Americans are Americans (presumably white Christians, natch) and Muslims are Muslims (presumably dark-skinned jihadists). This willfully ignores the fact that Muslims, as well as myriad other religions, cultures and creeds, all exist peacefully and democratically in the United States of America. Your average second grader is capable of understanding this, but not your average Tea Partier—which is exactly what Gingrich, with the subtlety of a raccoon in a trashcan, is relying on. But this underscores the always-ugly underpinning of the contemporary conservative mind (which is not terribly evolved from the historical conservative mind): the facile (and fictional) formulation that our great nation—a nation comprised of and built by immigrants—has a preferred demographic. Not so ironically, the only time this explicitly was the case happened to be (mostly in the south) during the sordid spectacle of slavery. Implicitly, that bias still extends to women, as well as non-whites, but in virtually all legal and moral respects, that type of race-baiting bigotry is discredited on arrival. In today’s right-wing sprint to the bottom of the tea-pot, this is the fuel that drives the cause. But like that other cause so fondly (and wrongly) reminisced about in certain quarters, it is a lost one and tends to spoil when exposed to the direct light of reality.

Let’s cut to the chase: I would wage considerable sums of money that there is no chance Newt could ever weasel his way into the nomination for 2012. Frankly I don’t think God loves us enough to make that remote possibility a reality. However, few things would provide me more pleasure. It might even be worth praying for.

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The Catholic Church is Decadent and Depraved

pope benedict

Part One: Abandon hope all ye who enter here…

First, and appropriately, a confession.

The title is both a tribute to, and an outright plagiarism of Hunter S. Thompson’s masterful essay “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”. And if, with that piece, he could be accused of shooting some very wealthy and insular fish in a bourbon-scented barrel, somebody had to do it. The pompous and circumstance of a spectacle like the Kentucky Derby needed to be sent up. And the thing about the good doctor during his prime, when he decided to do something, it stayed done.

The Catholic church, on the other hand, has been assailed from all sides, so any new criticism will be neither original nor particularly earth shattering. So what. It remains essential to single out hypocrisy and malificence when it is condoned or perpetrated by people or places wielding power. And despite the fact that its influence has been waning, the Catholic church is still an appallingly influential and imperious organization. To put things plainly, it is frankly because so many millions of innocent (and unknowing) human beings are impacted by this institution that its self-righteous posturing be paraded as openly and often as possible. That’s all.

Aside from Richard Dawkins, the most vocal and coruscating critic of late has been the indefatigable Christopher Hitchens. His seminal book God Is Not Great would be required reading in a sane world; but a sane world would not require that such a book be written. Of course, Hitchens correctly does not limit himself to just the Catholic church: he sets his sights on the entire notion of a Big Guy upstairs, or more specifically, our farcical and self-serving conception of same. To be certain, Hitchens does not waste his time and energy poking holes in the fairy tales and phantasmagoria that all organized religions are predicated upon. Any half-witted college freshman with a semester of Logic or Composition 101 can handle that light work. Rather, Hitchens trains his sights on the considerable violence, repression and ignorance the various religions have instilled and propagated, spanning the last two centuries. He assails the clergy, and the historically inconsistent, often hysterical dogma that they cling to for their specious moral autonomy. Hitchens argues that, for all the good deeds religion is regularly credited for inspiring, the scales are quite heavily tilted toward the negative in terms of wars, moral terror and child rape –just to pick some of the low-hanging fruit. Speaking of fruit, it remains hilarious and more than a little pathetic that grown men dressed in fancy pajamas invoke words written centuries ago as an inviolable decree to guide the contemporary affairs of mankind. (And I understand that this simple-minded insistence of following “God’s word” is the convenient catchall acting as a kind of ecclesiastical flypaper to ensnare all troublesome inconsistencies and intrusions of logic or inconvenient Truth; suffice it to say, until I see any of these disciples actually living by the letter of the onerous and inconceivable edicts of the Old Testament, I’ll remain wary and skeptical.)

For those who aren’t inclined or don’t have the time to read books about religion, check out the heavyweight champ George Carlin, who offers the most concise (and hilarious) dissection you’re likely to come across.

Hitchens has taken on all comers, and his debates are amusing (for the lucid) and, at best, embarrassing (for the indoctrinated). Have a look:

After Hitchens, Stephen Fry gets his licks in and does with erudition, panache and elegance. If Hitchens prefers a brawl, Fry acquits himself as a true gentleman and his calm evisceration would mortify anyone with a smidgen of shame.

Hitchens et al. are going after the jugular, debating whether or not Catholicism is a positive force in the world. This, it seems to me, is ultimately a proposition that remains largely unprovable and not particularly relevant (prolestyzers on either side of that argument can –and will– produce what they consider immutable testimony to advance their case; and both sides have sufficient ammunition). With no choice but to (belatedly, begrudgingly) own up to some of the more colossal outrages it has perpetrated, the clergy draws a line in the sand with the following concession: for all its faults, the church does endeavor to fill more potholes than it causes.

The enduring question remains: does it?

For every pedophilic priest one can point to (and the unforgivable, institutionally sanctioned cover-up of these atrocities), you also have humble men and women making genuine and heartfelt contributions to society. The vocation, whatever manifold psychological impulses it answers (or quells), seems genuine enough to have attracted hundreds of thousands of young men, at least some of whom have remained celibate and faithful. That warrants consideration, leaving aside any understandable questions about the spiritual duress and denial such a lifestyle entails.

And yet. At the end of the analysis, while it’s easy for anyone with an IQ approaching triple digits to poke fun at the snake handling or spaceship-seeing outliers on the religious spectrum (despite the considerable damage the more extreme, and whacko, religions do to its most earnest and unenlightened parishioners), it is difficult not to suppress a special distaste for the fathomless myopia that underscores Catholicism’s sensibility. One look at The Vatican (in Vatican City) is enough to salivate at what Jesus would make of that temple. No money lenders there; these are straight up faith pimps, trading favors for forgiveness going back several centuries. What these charlatans are able to pull off, in tax exempt fashion, is the apotheosis of all Ponzi schemes. But, like the simple saps that Madof ensnared, few tithers throw their sheckles in the collection jar without a preconceived quid pro quo: it’s an ecclesiastical installment plan, and Catholic guilt –inbred from an early age– creates a collective bank account that accrues interest at unprecedented rates. The Catholic hierarchy’s ultimate legacy is successfully establishing a cadre of spiritual stockbrokers.

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Part Two: The Soup Kitchen Nazis

So, with so much to mock about the self-satisfied piety of the RCC, why now?

Well, there’s this. And this.

There you go. What brings the RCC out of the cloister? War? The outrages of Wall Street? Humiliation over its involvement in generations of profligate buggery? Of course not. Only the really crucial and relevant issues prompt such expediency: abortion and gay marriage! These are the conjoined crises that impel the otherwise oblivious foxes to slink out of the holy henhouse.

To summarize for those with short-attention spans or quick gag reflexes: in recent weeks the Catholic brain trust has picked public battles with Patrick Kennedy and D.C. area homeless. In the first instance, the smug and odious Bishop Thomas J. Tobin castigated Kennedy over his support of abortion rights. It is, the robe-wearing one whined, “a deliberate an obstinate act of will…(and) unacceptable to the church and scandalous to many of our members” (emphasis mine). Scandalous? Really? That anyone in a position of authority within the Catholic Church would have the audacity to use the word scandalous tells you all you need know about how truly clueless and shameless they have become.

This grandstanding, naturally, recalls memories of certain priests getting involved in the ’04 election, reminding their parishioners that voting for a man (Kerry) who did not have the appropriate pro-life bona fides was tantamount to heresy. This while the incumbent was actively waging preemptive war and shrinking the middle class to levels not seen since, well, the Great Depression. We all know how that one played out.

But you almost expect that type of intransigence, that level of obliviousness, from the men who have evolved from the bad old days when they burned scientists at the stake. What inspires the ongoing outrage is the fact that the Catholic church –this tone-deaf, intellectually devoid, bullying organization– ceaselessly finds ways to outdo itself. Take, for instance, the real and present outrage playing itself out, right now, in Washington D.C.

To recap: the (ultra conservative) Catholic Archdiocese of Washington has recently made ugly noise about withholding support for the homeless (about 70,000 individuals) due to its “principled” opposition to D.C.’s same-sex marriage bill. Let that one sink in for a moment. The church, ostensibly doing the work Christ instructed, is grandstanding said work over an issue that Christ never made a single mention of in the scriptures (go ahead and look it up; we’ll wait for you). Welcome to the Catholic sensibility! This is bigotry disguised as rectitude, but what else is new? Aside from the sickening hypocrisy (that word again, it’s unavoidable), this jumps so many sacred sharks it is difficult to keep track. For starters, these same churches that continue to enjoy tax exempt status are sticking their nose into the affairs of the government. Really? These same churches that are more than happy to accept government funding think it’s acceptable (legal?) to ignore said government’s laws, should they pass? The Catholic lemmings, following their Prada-wearing pontiff, have descended to the level of being soup (kitchen) nazis.

As ever, to fully grasp the illimitable duplicity of the church, one must inevitably turn to the costume-clad church elders. (Not for nothing, and with an irony that no objective reader of biblical scripture can avoid noting with a particular pang of nausea, it is the same well-fed and unreflective old men that Jesus had a special disdain for.) Look, let’s not sugarcoat the underlying issue at hand: with the world moving ever further away from biblical flights of fancy and despotic mind games, this is the sign of a desperate institution indeed. You only see this in politics and religion: when things start to spiral out of control, double down. In this instance, the decaying infrastructure and waning sway the church holds over humanity at large, makes its actions resemble those of a cult. Isn’t it funny how people (understandably) feel no compunction poking fun at the ludicrous precepts of Scientology, but bristle if anyone snickers at the apparent seriousness with which Catholics (and many other cults) regard that virgin birth thing or the notion that the Pope speaks infallibly (no, really). Farcical, sure, but also insulting, considering the man Catholics look to as an arbiter of morality, Thomas Aquinas, was last seen levitating in that cathedral (no, really).

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In closing, allow me to directly address anyone (Catholic or otherwise) who applauds (or remains merely unmoved by) the appalling positions the church is clinging to.  The abortion issue is, at least, a tangible (if complicated) dilemma that people can wrestle with for spiritual and secular reasons. The open hostility toward and discrimination against homosexuals, on the other hand, is something that simply cannot be tolerated by anyone pretending to endorse the Declaration of Independence as well as the New Testament (you know, What Would Jesus Do?).

The prayerful prejudiced can hide behind the bogus claim of faith and fidelity, but in the final analysis, a bigot is a bigot. Congratulations on being, once again, on the wrong side of history and the righteous shift of love over fear.

And for the Catholic-Lite weekend warriors who don’t have the guts or the brains to, at long last, cut the cord, understand that you continue to associate with –-and, to a certain extent, intellectually and spiritually prostrate yourself to— an organized religion that goes several steps farther than these ignorant, opportunistic politicians who use pro-life positions to garner votes. The Catholic Church, despite any real evidence in the bible (!) abominates not only the practice but existence of homosexuality. Despite the much-discussed (but ever astonishing) fact that it harbors more than a fair share of closeted, (and not-so-closeted) in its cloister. Despite the fact that this obsessive and intolerant dogma is the fulcrum upon which these  political types fortify their indefensible positions. Despite the fact that, even knowing —if failing to come to grips with— the considerable hypocrisy and mendacity that exists in its own sullied garden, this craven institution uses its brute force and reliably backwards (see: women, blacks, gays just to name the unholy trinity) clerical acumen to tyrannize anyone susceptible to its influence. The world that includes the powerless and dispossessed who cower, and especially the useful insects who apprehend and acknowledge this moral fascism (yes, fascism), and either choose to whistle blithely past the truth or —in inimitably Catholic fashion— obey the rules that fit and overlook or rationalize the ones that cause discomfort. Avoiding that discomfort at the expense of your innocent brothers and sisters is an abomination. It is also the essence of Catholicism.

But hey, who knows, maybe one day you’ll stand before your white, Republican Jesus and explain to him that you were only doing what he instructed you to do. Good luck with that.

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Scaring the nation with their guns and ammunition…

police-brutality 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For anyone who wants a more sober analysis of the Gates fiasco, check out Harvey Silverglate here. It’s not a short piece, and he talks at length about the First Amendment, but based on some of the commentary I’ve seen (from the Left, the Right and the middle) a lot of people could use a refresher course. Here is the thrust of his well-articulated contention:

This gets us to the heart of the matter. Under well-established First Amendment jurisprudence, what Gates said to Crowley–even assuming the worst–is fully constitutionally protected. After all, even “offensive” speech is covered by the First Amendment’s very broad umbrella. Think about it: We wouldn’t even need a First Amendment if everyone restricted himself or herself to soothing platitudes. I’ve been doing First Amendment law for a long time and I’ve never had to represent someone for praising a police officer or other public official. It is those who burn the flag, not those who wave it, who need protection.

And Eugene Robinson has a typically salient take here.

Conflagrations like the one with Gates and Crowley are certain to inspire discussion, which is never a bad thing. Inevitably, these situations also provide opportunistic armchair punditry, of which we’ve had plenty in recent days. None of this is new; in fact, it’s because this is such a third-rail (and legitimate, historical) problem that each time an event like this erupts, old scabs are peeled back. Hopefully Obama and the two gents can turn this mess into an opportunity (I won’t call it a “teaching moment” because that manages to sound both condescending and sanitizing).

As always, comedians usually do the best job of taking painful topics and poking fun in ways that underscore the stakes more effectively than any essay or network news lecture. Some samples from the last four decades are below:

Richard Pryor, live in ’79:

 

Robin Harris (aka Pops) from House Party:

Chris Rock (from The Chris Rock Show):

Dave Chappelle:

Of course, and this is not meant in any way to diminish the very legitimate gripe (on racial as well as constitutional grounds) that Gates has, the very real issue of police impunity extends to people of all races. Most individuals have a story or two they could offer: I do, and so do you. (Yet, it must be said, most honest people can count the number of positive police stories based on their experiences, and they far outweigh the negative ones.) And let’s be real: whenever a honky whines about being hassled by the man, it sounds rather hysterical. Face it, you didn’t have the cop’s attention unless you’d already done something to get his or her attention. But cops are people too. And if you surveyed virtually any profession, you’d see a healthy representation of folks with chips on their shoulders. But the thing is, cops are the only ones who can do damage (legally) if, for whatever reason, they feel they have some skulls to crack, (sometimes literally). Christopher Hitchens offers a few anecdotes from his not inconsiderable experience.

The whole piece is recommended and well worth quoting in full, but here’s a key passage that echoes Siverglate’s unassailable argument:

Moreover, whatever he said to the cop was in the privacy of his own home. It is monstrous in the extreme that he should in that home be handcuffed, and then taken downtown, after it had been plainly established that he was indeed the householder. The president should certainly have kept his mouth closed about the whole business—he is a senior law officer with a duty of impartiality, not the micro-manager of our domestic disputes—but once he had said that the police conduct was “stupid,” he ought to have stuck to it, quite regardless of the rainbow of shades that was so pathetically and opportunistically deployed by the Cambridge Police Department. It is the U.S. Constitution, and not some competitive agglomeration of communities or constituencies, that makes a citizen the sovereign of his own home and privacy. There is absolutely no legal requirement to be polite in the defense of this right. And such rights cannot be negotiated away over beer.

What he said.

Postscript: As always, Frank Rich has the definitive take on the matter here.

That reaction is merely the latest example of how the inexorable transformation of America into a white-minority country in some 30 years — by 2042 in the latest Census Bureau estimate — is causing serious jitters, if not panic, in some white establishments.

Ground zero for this hysteria is Fox News, where Brit Hume last Sunday lamented how insulting it is “to be labeled a racist” in “contemporary” America. “That fact has placed into the hands of certain people a weapon,” he said, as he condemned Gates for hurling that weapon at a police officer. Gates may well have been unjust — we don’t know that Crowley is a racist — but the professor was provoked by being confronted like a suspect in the privacy of his own home.

What about those far more famous leaders in Hume’s own camp who insistently cry “racist” — and in public forums — without any credible justification whatsoever? These are the “certain people” Hume conspicuously didn’t mention. They include Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, both of whom labeled Sonia Sotomayor a racist. Their ranks were joined last week by Glenn Beck, who on Fox News inexplicably labeled Obama a racist with “a deep-seated hatred for white people,” presumably including his own mother.

What provokes their angry and nonsensical cries of racism is sheer desperation: an entire country is changing faster than these white guys bargained for.

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The Terror Card, Torture and You or, The Evil of Banality

“A perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm.”

That quote, attributed to a former CIA official who courageously remains anonymous, seems about as perfectly succinct a crystallization I’ve yet read regarding the mindset (the official one shared by the insiders as well as the unofficial one prevailing amongst the blissfully ignorant who don’t care to ponder what happened, how it happened, and why it happened) of the circumstances that precipitated the blatant, persistent torture of detainees. Oh, I mean “enhanced interrogation”, as the mainstream media dutifully scribbles at the behest of the bad guys.

Even the usually reliable Michael Kinsley has recently gotten in on the act, proving that there are some story lines so aggressively promulgated that no one working for the MSM is entirely insulated from their influence:

Indignation comes cheap in our political culture. Polls give the impression that the proper role of voters is to sit like a king passing judgment on the issues as they pass by like dishes prepared for a feast. “No, I’m not in the mood for waterboarding today, thanks. But I think I’ll have another dab of those delicious-looking executive-pay caps.” Prosecuting a few former government officials for their role in putting our country into the torture business would not serve justice or historical memory. It would just let the real culprits off the hook.

The reason this is so specious is that even today the New York Times still can’t quite bring itself to call these acts torture, (Repeat: The New York Times. This is the paper heralded and derided in equal measure as the voice of liberalism, no matter how laughable that claim.) Let’s not dance around the topic: editorial sanitizing of this magnitude is analogous to describing rape as an ”enhanced fornication technique”. Does that seem over the top? Imagine if some pundit (not to mention average citizen) dismissed the horror of rape or even made fun of it? This is what tough guys ranging from Rush Limbaugh to “Mancow” Muller have done with the torture “debate”, turning one of our darkest hours into a farce, milking it for laughs as well as a measuring stick for how pro-America one is. Their heads would explode from the irony if there was anything inside their skulls to detonate. To Muller’s credit, at least he was willing to take the Pepsi challenge; although his ordeal was over before he could cough out the words “I’m a contemptible shit stain”. While it would be delightful, on purely karmic levels, to see some of these bellicose scarecrows, such as Cheney, Rumsfeld, O’Reilly and Beck attempt to last more than ten seconds on that table, it is beside the point, and further cretinizes what needs to be a sober discussion.

 

Certainly, anyone who has the temerity to insist that this practice (let’s call it drowning) is emphatically not torture, without ever having enjoyed it at the hands of a friendly, much less unfriendly, interrogator, richly deserves to be accordingly humiliated. But we all know that great white chickenhawks like those listed above (not to mention their craven yet rabid cheerleaders) would fold like a rusted lawn chair in a matter of moments. Anyone paying attention (and anyone obtuse enough to not already take the word of the people who understand these issues: the people from the United States armed forces) could have learned almost a year ago that Christopher Hitchens issued a definitive take on the matter. “Believe me, it’s torture,” he wrote. (And he should be given appropriate kudos for having the integrity to test the waters, so to speak, before feeling fit to pronounce what was, and was not, torture. Then again, he is not only embarrassingly more intelligent than these buffoons, he is also interested in the truth, something no one mentioned above could ever be accused of.)

 

Kinsley continues:

Between April and November of that year, there were dozens of articles about torture in general and waterboarding in particular in major print media outlets, on the Web and on TV, many describing it in detail and some straightforwardly labeling it as torture. Millions of people saw these reports, knew that torture was going on and voted for Bush anyway. There is no way of knowing how many of those who voted against him were affected by the torture question. A good guess would be “not many.” (Not me, for one, I’m sorry to say.) Bush’s opponent, John Kerry, never mentioned waterboarding.

And? To be certain, Kinsley is correct in the sense that while, on an ascending scale of wrongheadedness, it’s not appropriate to single out some lower-ranking scapegoats, and it’s not enough to “merely” bring the higher-ranking officials (e.g., the despicable lawyers and the leaders of the previous administration who gave them their very clear and unambiguous marching orders). There needs to be a wider net cast, and one that does not exonerate the Democrats who also whistled past this political graveyard. Indeed, the American populace, to a certain extent, is implicated here. But, as with the Iraq war, it was our supposedly free press that failed us the most: we know enough now about Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al to understand we could and should have expected the worst; while this does not mitigate their criminal misdeeds, we should not pretend to be shocked (or even particularly appalled) at the non-revelations of how they combined their extreme political pettiness (Machiavellian ruthlessness) and their general ignorance of the mess they were creating (“Bring ‘em on”, “last throes”, “stuff happens”, et cetera). But at the end of the day, it was the press who didn’t ask any tough questions, who didn’t expose or promote the obvious truths rotting right out in the open, like a fetid carcass.

 

And then there are the sociopaths, the ones who you actually fear believe not only in the apocalyptic fantasies they peddle, but feel they are the appropriate (even the chosen) ones to answer the challenges. Here you have the Kissingers, Weinbergers, Fleischers, Gingriches. These are seldom the ones behind the wheel (although some of them would jump at the chance), these are the ones riding shotgun, whispering not-so-sweet nothings into the impressionable ear of the idiot in charge (think Reagan, think Bush), the ones content to practice their dirty work long distance.

I have a special hatred in my heart for these smirking Iagos, the well-paid political hacks who reside inside the fortified cocoon of spin and subterfuge. The ones who are neither powerful enough to make the decisions or brave enough to do the damage; these are the ones who put on business suits before hitting the battlefield, talking points echoing around their half-empty heads. Their masters, the flies, crawl into the shit to lay their eggs, they are merely the spawn that emerges from this waste, camera-ready smiles frozen on their faces. They are born into this, never capable of playing on the field or willing to cheer from the sidelines, they are the equipment managers, the ones who want to be near the action but not close enough to get caught in the crossfire. These are the spokespersons and professional apologists; the career insiders.

       

Some are born into it; some are paid to do it. Some, like the irredeemably despicable Liz Cheney, are born into it and get paid (quite handsomely) to do it. But to single these scumbags out is like blaming rock musicians for the dumbing down of American culture. The fact of the matter is that if people weren’t willing or able to be duped by clowns like Karl Rove, then clowns like Karl Rove would have to find another line of work.

And it’s finally taken the one issue everyone used to agree on to illustrate, without the slightest possibility of misunderstanding, how far Republicans have slinked off the Reservation. Lampooning this new low is, of course, easy and would be amusing if it was not so pathetic and sickening (still, there has been no shortage of potshots, all of them quite worthwhile, some of them absolutely indispensable). Even the most battle-scarred political junkie has to marvel at how hurriedly the hardcore Right is dumpster diving into moral depravity, all for the sake of propping up their tattered and increasingly absurd ideology. While Andrew Sullivan and Frank Rich (embedded above) are always on the money, John Cole has a definitive take, here.

Considering what they have done with virtually every other aspect of the Bush years, I honestly expected them to do what they did with the trillions of dollars of spending and debt that happened with a Republican congress and a Republican President Bush- first, pretend it didn’t happen, then after being forced to acknowledge it did happen, claim that everyone was doing it and blame the Democrats and scream about Murtha and Barney Frank, and when that didn’t work, just pretend that it was “other” Republicans who aren’t “real conservatives” (Move along, these aren’t the wasteful spenders you are looking for) while ranting about earmarks. That is what they did with spending; I figured they would do it again with torture.

But they didn’t and they aren’t. Instead, they are mobilizing and going balls to the wall in defense of sadism. It is really quite amazing, and a testament to just how sick and detestable and rotten to the core the Republican Party has become.

It’s fortunate that in spite of the institutional apathy we still have indefatigable watchdogs like Glenn Greenwald tallying up the lies, spin and systemic deceit. He offers consistently refreshing proof that real progressives are not in the tank for Obama or any politician, but remain invested in holding elected officials accountable. There are dozens of other semi-high profile scribes out there, mostly representing the dreaded blogosphere. The old guard recognizes it is in their best interest to actively marginalize these voices, though that stale strategy is inexorably losing steam. The only people who disdain the bloggers more than politicians, of course, are the high profile (though increasingly endangered) Op Ed scribblers. These indolent bovines, along with their brethren–the so-called mainstream journalists–seem happiest when covered in the mud and slop their masters make for them. There are notable exceptions; for every Charles Krauthammer there is a Dan Froomkin; for every George Will there is a Frank Rich. For every twenty jejune Maureen Dowd columns, there is the all-too-rare exception.

The rest of the media, forever in the backwards shadow of the insular, elitist (yes, elitist) inside-the-Beltway circus, can’t (or worse, does not want to) figure out that the sources they quote (all too often anonymously) are waging war on the six-to-twelve hour spin cycle, so the details are massaged accordingly. And so we have Cheney getting equal, or more, air time than Obama, with the network nitwits breathlessly asking “Who is right?” That Cheney is getting so much play is not in itself a big deal; it’s undeniably newsworthy, and if he wants to dig himself deeper into his depraved ditch, I’m sure we all have a few shovels we’d be willing to lend him. In fact, he is unintentionally doing the country a large favor by backing himself further into a corner (not that he has any choice with the prospects of war crime trials, however unlikely, looming): he is drawing an unmistakable line in the rhetorical sand in terms of the rule of law and the ways it was trampled on his watch.

The problem is not that he is making his case convincingly; it’s that the Democrats (“led” by the half-witted and choleric Harry Reid) are scared enough of their own shadows that when a high-ranking (no matter how unpopular) Republican plays the terror card, they tremble with Pavlovian precision. The spectacle of Reid being played like an accordion, while spewing largely unintelligible tough talk (“Can’t put them in prison unless you release them”) was a new low, even by the minute standard he has set during his mostly feckless tenure.

The other, larger problem is that the media is obsessed with the us-and-them, false equivalence sham. It’s irresponsible enough to allow equal air time for obviously self-interested charlatans like Cheney and Gingrich; it’s incompetence bordering on dereliction that they ignore available evidence for the sake of sensationalism. To take just one of the more insidious examples, the notion that torture (although we won’t call it torture) was effective and saved thousands, perhaps millions, of lives is risible on every level. The simple fact that we got the info we needed from certain suspects before we tortured them should be a slam dunk for overdue accountability. The fact that the aforementioned torture was inflicted not to save lives but in the desperate attempt to coerce an acknowledgment of the fabricated tie between Sadaam and Osama is sickening as it is irrefutable. Even worse, and this is perhaps the most contemptible aspect of the disgrace that is Guantanamo, all of these so-called arguments rely on the erroneous assertion that all of these detained individuals represent the “worst of the worst”. In other words, it’s explicitly understood, in the Cheney version of this story, that every single person we’ve captured is guilty. Of course, even a cursory examination of the case files reveals that more than a handful of these people, aside from never being charged with a crime, had no ties or connections to Al-Qaeda. There are many examples, here’s one.

Where is the media in all of this? Busy handicapping the spin as a legitimately alternate perspective. Impartiality, in today’s media, means allowing liars to lie with impunity and letting Americans decide for themselves which “side” is more convincing. No wonder more than fifty percent of Americans have indicated that torture is acceptable in certain circumstances. John McLaughlin himself actually uttered the words “not all waterboarding is the same” on a recent show. Thanks for clearing that up for us, big guy. Virtually the remainder of the chattering class has been perfectly content to keep their readership on a need-to-know basis. Not taking a principled stand is one thing (only people who find actual inspiration in movies like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington expect more than this from our supine press), but to actively disengage with reality is unconscionable. If only these posers had sufficient shame, or awareness, to understand how poorly they’ve performed in the service of our nation.

Obama, as Matt Taibbi points out here, has gone from not exactly distinguishing himself in this matter (as well as waffling on the mostly lucid and unassailable take he offered on the campaign trail) to clumsily ensnaring himself in this mess to, against all probability, upping the ante. Count me amongst the people who are willing to give him some more time, and some additional benefit of the doubt (certainly, he inherited this disaster and only the most naively optimistic folks on the left actually expected he could waltz into office and change this fiasco overnight). Count me also amongst those who are puzzled (at best) and disillusioned (at worst) by his behavior. By hanging back and letting the Cheney pushback gain traction, he immediately made his task a lot harder than it had to be. Rookie mistake? Let’s hope. By ostensibly trying to avoid politicizing the matter (as if that is possible in contemporary America) he all but guaranteed it would be entirely about politics. And thus far, the bad guys are winning. It’s early still and Obama has shown himself to be a master of the long game, but it’s difficult to get a good read on how (or why) he’s allowed this opportunity to slip from his hands, and into the oily, scaled claws of Darth Cheney. Inconceivably, the attacks that happened on the last administration’s watch turned out to be the gift that keeps giving. Only in America.

Lastly, there are the rest of us. Part of the equation, one hoped, in electing Obama was to begin moving past the Bush debacle as quickly as possible; in this regard, any warm body (well, any warm Democrat’s body) would do the trick. But Obama, his eloquence and affirmations aside, spoke forcefully about reclaiming the rule of law and undertaking the imperative task of restoring America’s standing in the eyes of the world. Part of that promise entailed renouncing, without equivocation, the types of travesties that in a pre-9/11 world would never happen on U.S. soil. That was part of the evolution of a democratic nation, we learned from our past mistakes and, as unforgivable as they were, we moved on. The Bill of Rights and that little thing called Habeas Corpus guaranteed (at least in principle) that if atrocities occurred, they would be recognized, denounced, and those responsible held to account. Mostly, it reassured the world that anyone on our soil would be treated in accordance with our laws. As quaint as it may sound to 21st Century ears, Americans once overwhelmingly endorsed this quite simple proposition; it was, in effect, the bulwark our freedom was built upon.

As we now know, 9/11 changed everything. 9/11 gave us the terror card, still the only dark ace up the sleeve of the detestable GOP; as we’ve seen in recent weeks, it still trumps the house (of Representatives). 9/11 gave us Guantanamo and the bottomless pit of moral putrefacation. 9/11 gave us Jack Bauer who, along with Walker, Texas Ranger, will keep us safe and ensure that America remains unfriendly turf for evildoers and liberals. How else, really, to explain the hysteria that attended the announcement of some detainees possibly being moved to maximum security prisons within the U.S.A.? Only a craven populace spoon-fed the aesthetic sensibilities of Prison Break could possibly conceive a scenario where these hardened (yet untried) criminal masterminds band together to bust out of their chains and wreak havoc on the pastoral American heartland. The same simpletons obsessed with owning guns, it seems, are afraid to actually use them if the situation ever arose. But that’s a joke anyway; only people who steer their mental ships to the ill-winds blown by Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News could really get weak in the knees imagining escaped al-Qaeda agents roaming their gated communities.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead, more people were horrified by the possibility (not to mention the certainty) that innocent civilians were plucked out of their offices or homes and spirited away overseas, held without charge and tortured without compunction? How about, instead of imagining our children being savaged by terrorist outlaws on the loose, we contemplated the possibility of our children being held, in a foreign country, with no legal recourse, and indicted without a trial? Without even being told what they supposedly did? These are the dark fantasies Kafka imagined and Orwell anticipated, but the point of such dystopian fiction was to depict the worst case scenario so as to shake slumbering citizens awake.

A perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm.

Here we are, in a scared new world, with atrocities having been committed in our names. Those most culpable keep on rattling the sabres of insanity, strutting like peacocks on a TV screen near you. The journalists watch their own backs while their bosses are too busy watching their profits dwindle to process more bad news. The politicians fear nothing more than losing their status, and will be accountable enough to go on record once the dust has finally settled. Almost everyone else reclines in silence, well-fed and secure behind the wall of sleep.

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