Sorry, Charlie: On Art and Extremism (Revisited)

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OF COURSE RELIGION IS the problem.

For anyone who, understandably, would say it’s a political issue and not a religious issue, I aver that so many of our political difficulties exist because of and not in spite of religion. And we muddle the matter if drawn into a debate about whether Religion-with-a-capital-R is ultimately a force of Good or Evil. I know how I feel and you know how you feel. More importantly, religion isn’t going anywhere, so we heretics must remain skeptical, and vigilant. And if there’s one thing that unites East and West it’s the chasm between those convinced more religion is the answer and those for whom the less the better.

It has become a tad too fashionable these days to pit believers vs. non-believers (and there are few things more exasperating than proselytizers playing the victim card). Let me stand up and be counted as someone who respects—in theory and practice—anyone’s right to believe anything they choose. Indeed, I’m relieved we have a handful of commandments, however randomly obeyed, to keep would-be-sociopaths in check, their eyes on an eternal prize. The problem, as always, involves those amongst us who would initiate mayhem, compelled by the imperatives of their faith.

We do ourselves a great disservice by failing to acknowledge the role religion has ceaselessly played as either an instigator of, or cover for, violence. In this regard, a similar impulse connects what happened in Paris and what happened during the Crusades and that disaster porn saturating the Old Testament: perceived righteousness in the name of divinity. Yes, clever commentators can point out that, at least in some instances, religion is a cynical shield for atrocity. It has always been thus.

We have, at least, advanced culturally (one might say we’ve evolved) to the extent where no one can be taken seriously for condoning massacre of innocents. That, in any event, is not the crux of the matter before us. What we see, and what has been polluting the discourse these last two weeks, is a refusal to denounce, without reservation, the religious rationalization signaling—then seeking to explain—such acts.

A single quote resurfaced in several news stories last week, and it crystallizes the cause and effect so many are struggling to see with clarity. Nasser Lajil, a Muslim city councilor in France, had this to say regarding the slaughter of 11 journalists: “I want to make clear that I completely condemn the attack on Charlie Hebdo. But I think freedom of speech needs to stop when it harms the dignity of someone else. The prophet for us is sacred.” (Emphasis mine.)

Two simple points need to be made. One, any sane argument begins and ends with a declaration that under no faith-related circumstances is murder of human beings ever acceptable. Two, if your faith is capable of being threatened by a cartoon, your faith is a cartoon.

 

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Which brings us to Charlie Hebdo. Our collective reaction requires more J’Accuse and less Je ne sais quoi. Anything other than a full-throated and unequivocal denunciation of such carnage renders one a coward. When it comes to free speech and matters of life and death, you are either an advocate or an accomplice; there can be no middle ground. Satire is not possible without someone’s sacred bovine being savaged; the complication is that so many of us are equal opportunity instigators until it’s our cow getting cudgeled. Free speech, in short, is not an à la carte arrangement.

It is, therefore, dispiriting to see anyone, especially (if predictably) the liberal intelligentsia, so cavalier about throwing down what’s typically a trump card. Is Charlie Hebdo racist? It’s an interesting question for curious minds to ponder, but irrelevant in this context of assassination and presumptive self-censorship. Even if, however hysterical the argument, we concede that this magazine exists only to offend, does that in any way legitimize the act of murder?

More, it’s precisely because so many of these cartoons are juvenile that we must defend their right to exist. It’s generally painless to rally around literature we consider sacrosanct, and feel smug doing so, but if we don’t allow the claptrap to function as an aesthetic caboose, we risk being elitists as well as defeatists. How revolting, then, to read pundit after political analyst after Op-Ed arbitrator stroking their chins and opining that the images were, after all, in questionable taste. Or, if you provoke certain groups often enough you have to expect some type of reaction. Really?

Any form of suppression, especially as it pertains to someone else’s faith, is an act of accommodation. Full stop. These intellectually bankrupt rationalizations, in effect blaming the victim, smack of our rape-enabling semantics. Some of the self-righteous comments sullying our newspapers and blogs call to mind the familiar formulation: “Yes, she was brutally raped but should she really have worn that skirt?” Translation: Rape is awful, but maybe next time she’ll think twice about the decisions she makes.

It’s situations like this that help me understand what pushed Christopher Hitchens, the erstwhile socialist, over the edge. It was occasionally perplexing to see him stand alongside (figuratively and sometimes literally) the architects of Iraq and unrepentant exploiters of America’s underwear-wetting sensibility concerning all-things-terror post 9/11. But even then, while I couldn’t forgive it, I could fathom it. Here was a dude who talked the belligerent talk, but also walked the uncompromised walk: he spent considerable time in the very hot zones he wrote about, and bore witness to the atrocities we excoriate in editorials.

And while many lamented his ostensible act of betrayal and/or expedience in the years before his death, he had political and creative skin in the game. Also, and this is important: it quite clearly wasn’t a game for him; whatever else one can say about The Hitch, he had the courage of his convictions and they were not easily earned. His good friend Salman Rushdie, one might recall, was targeted for the infamous fatwa—a price on the author’s head equal parts medieval and postmodern—and, it’s quite worth noting, this occurred several years before the first Iraq war. As such, he saw the reaction of the literary community, which ranged from muted to craven. Everyone, it seems, is all for artists’ rights until it’s their ass in the crosshairs.

It obviously galled him, over a decade later, to see the usual suspects, secure in their tenured offices and café latte circle jerks, sniffing about imperialism and why our Big Bad Empire had come to bring all this grief upon ourselves. Nevermind the fact that these internecine quarrels predate the founding of America by several centuries. (Look it up, it’s in the Bible.)

And that is the real (dark) heart of this matter: of course it’s about religion. Invariably, it’s always about religion. (It’s always about money, too, but the two are not mutually exclusive; indeed, it’s arguably the lack of money—and resources, education and democracy or at least unregulated thought—that makes one susceptible, if not ravenous for what religion promises to those who can’t find heaven or even a hint of transcendence here on earth.)

 

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Let’s be clear: our collective hands, in the West, are far from clean as it pertains to policies and actions antithetical to our own beliefs (due process, drones, etc.), and certainly there are myriad dots that must be connected before we can hope to comprehend the resentment we’ve allowed—if not enabled—to fester. In so many ways, we have so much to answer for. Nevertheless, the underlying symptom, religion, was alive and unwell long before our current, clichéd clash of civilizations.

We can respect, or at least tolerate the existence of, cultural mores (see: subjugation of women; lack of walls between church and state, and so on) that seem odious or at least antiquated to our Western eyes. We can also acknowledge that perhaps it’s not our place to interfere, particularly when we have our own complicated quandaries of race, class and sexuality in the states. But we can, and must, judge. If we abdicate our obligation to denounce such archaic attitudes we are derelict, rationally and morally.

Here is an affair, at long last, that should serve to unite the Left and Right: a genuine atrocity that’s at once easy to understand, and revile. It has done so, to an extent, but for the wrong reasons. The only thing more hypocritical than conservative Christians becoming convenient allies of Muslims only because they can’t stomach denigrations of their own faith is the faction of liberals who disparage All Things America even as they bask in the very freedoms their country provides them. (Want a laugh? Contemplate how long any of our textbook radicals would linger in the offices of Charlie Hebdo after the first death threat.)

A commitment to free speech inexorably allows bigots an opportunity to spew sewage, all in the name of ill-will. But that is precisely the price we pay for free speech, and hurt feelings are an exceedingly small price to pay, especially compared to the body count accumulated in religious conflicts throughout history. But there is a silver lining: allowing, even encouraging, morons to get their outrage on does us the collective service of isolating the antisocial and potentially psychotic amongst us. Free speech is, like it or not, an all-or-nothing proposition. Where are we, as Americans, if we agree the KKK must be allowed to legally march, but draw the line at religious satire?

Are we actually in a place, circa 2015, where we unthinkingly submit to X-ray scans at airports but confiscate cartoonist’s pens? We soil ourselves if a color-coded terror alert goes into effect but don’t see that “Terror” really is winning if we let extremists dictate the terms of engagement—artistic or otherwise? If we are at war, even metaphorically, what is the fight about if we can’t agree that unfettered expression is inviolable?

This debate can—and should—continue, but on the topic of faith-based violence, the concern should be plain and pure: free speech is a non-negotiable precept. It has everything to do with everything we talk about when we talk, often speciously, about American exceptionalism. Ironically, or not, it was free speech that enabled early Americans to practice the religion of their choice (!); it is the guarantee of free speech that underpins our Great Experiment and gives Americans the freedom to not believe. It is, ultimately, free speech that ensures the pen is mightier than the sword, and that no one has to die proving otherwise.

*This piece originally appeared on 1/23/15 in The Weeklings.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex (In Fiction)

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WRITING ABOUT SEX is like engaging in sex: it’s hard.

Or, it should be.

It’s that time of year again, where we can count on three things: shopping-related stress during Thanksgiving, family-related stress during Christmas, and in between the two, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award conducted by London’s Literary Review. The 22nd annual honor was awarded last week and Ben Okri takes top prize for the suitably horrific scene in his novel The Age of Magic. More on him and the runners-up here.

This event is not a lark, or limited to third-tier writers. Some legit semi-heavyweights have taken this crown, including Tom Wolfe, David Guterson and (shocker) Norman Mailer. Amusingly—and appropriately—John Updike won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008; astonishingly, Philip Roth has never reaped what he’s blown, though it’s undeniably not for lack of trying. Take this passage (please) from The Dying Animal: “…with my knees planted to either side of her and my ass centered over her, I leaned into her face and rhythmically, without letup, I fucked her mouth.” (This and other of Roth’s overly penetrating portrayals were wonderfully cataloged by Christoper Hitchens in an epic, scathing 2007 piece for The Atlantic.)

Here’s the, um, climax of this year’s best worst passage, according to the intrepid readers and judgers at Literary Review: “The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.” Okay, that’s pretty terrible. Or awe-inspiring in its awfulness. How about an incriminating précis of reigning champs from recent years? Here’s a portion of 2012’s winning bit, by Nancy Houston (from Infrared): “oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alteration, never will I tire of that silver fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water.” That’s impossible to outdo. No it isn’t. Check this, from 2010, courtesy of Rowan Somerville (from The Shape of Her): “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.” It can’t credibly get worse than that, right? Wrong. Rachel Johnson raised the lowest of bars in 2008 with this (from Shire Hell): “he holds both my arms down, and puts his tongue to my core, like a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as to not miss a single drop.”

A pattern emphatically emerges, even with this, er, small sample size. They are all aesthetically offensive, cliché-ridden, and suffer from self-consciousness—either too much or a total lack thereof. Regardless of taste or tact, few readers—or few folks with a modicum of experience either fornicating or writing fiction about it—would quibble with how excruciating these excerpts are.

Yet in 2010, Laura Miller at Salon took exception to the glee with which these dishonors are doled out, the entire affair a combination of prurience and the puritanical impulse that has ever afflicted our upper classes. She posits that we are a bunch of snobs when it comes to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup proposition of combining sex and literature. I think she (wisely? cynically?) uses the occasion of the Bad Sex Award to make a larger point about what we talk about when we talk about sex (in fiction): she’s all for it. She does, however, utilize a bit of a Straw Man to complain about the Literary Review’s annual endeavor, suggesting that more self-aware readers have—or should have—no qualms about moments of ardor (and the moments those moments lead to) artistically rendered.

I think the issue is not so much that these scenes exist, but that they’re invariably so uninspired or unintentionally ridiculous. Or, readers aren’t saying not to include sex in novels, but that writers should do everyone a favor and 86 the 69, or any scenes that make a mockery of the function so many people hold sacred—at least in theory. After all, the mostly unspoken calculus that occurs under cover of intimacy compels relationships and builds or destroys marriages, even families. In other words, it’s noteworthy. Indeed, for more members of our species than we may care to admit, the deed (the thought of it, the desire for it, and the lack of it) influences almost every waking moment. So, perhaps this award offers a welcome—and by the abundance of material to choose from each year, often unheeded—admonishment for those who would kiss and tell: proceed warily if you must.

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Is this too much to ask?

Let’s face it: convincing sex scenes happen seldom enough in real life. How—or why—do we expect them to occur in literature? Especially when most writers (the honest ones would admit) are not exactly Lotharios, unless you count the hackneyed rite of passage so frequently painted, involving the professorial seduction of the over-achieving undergrad. And these scenes, even though the authors don’t realize it, are less erotic than confessional—and more than a little embarrassing for all involved. I’ve unfailingly seen the most accomplished authors flummoxed while attempting a basic depiction of consensual love. Or lust.

So how do you do it?

Sex scenes, that is.

Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the act, much less the art, of seduction and surrender understands that successful sex is like almost any human enterprise: you don’t need to talk about it if you can do it—whatever it is. Or, the people who speak (and write) the loudest are probably not the people you want beneath you or on top of you, and they certainly are not the ones you should be paying to be your creative tour guide.

A personal favorite comes from the immortal Richard Burton writing about the immortal Liz Taylor. “Apocalyptic,” was how he described her breasts. “They would topple empires before they withered.” That’s not even a sex scene, and Burton was, of course, an actor, but there are novelists whose collected works don’t contain a line that perfect.

I’m not sure when, or if, The Canterbury Tales started to make sense, but I know things got interesting when I realized everyone apparently was shagging one another, albeit in a difficult-to-understand language. In hindsight, I suspect my professor was hoping to make the material a bit more uh, titillating to easily-distracted students, but I came away with the notion that Chaucer was a bit of a Player. “The Miller’s Tale” alone is practically a medieval sex manual.

Exhibit A: “When Nicholas had doon thus everydeel/He thakked hire about the lendes weel/He kiste hire swete, and taketh his sautrye/And pleyeth faste, and maketh melodye.”

Exhibit B: “And prively he caughte hire by the queynte/And seyde ‘Y-wis, but if ich have my wille/For derne love of thee, lemman, I spille.” (Google queynte.)

Of course an entire essay could be devoted to virtually any play by Shakespeare, who arguably combined passion, humor and lasciviousness with more élan than any writer, in any language.

Show, don’t tell. That’s the sacrosanct tenet we’re taught in English class around the same time we are(n’t) being taught Sex Ed. And except for the masters (in art; in life) who actually did it and are speaking from experience, the rule should always apply. The exception can—and should—be made for the ones who are able to put it plainly because their prose is essentially a declaration: I did it, this is how I did it, and if you hope to do it you might imitate my expertise. Put another way, I learned more from Milan Kundera and his understated field notes during my formative years than I ever did from any of the more cocky and forthcoming Locker Room Don-Juan wannabes. And the less said about our more celebrated purveyors of purple-prosed nerd porn like Updike and Roth the better.

Everyone knows most writers are long on word and short on action, with the exception of Ernest Hemingway. He allegedly got plenty of action and instigated lots of excitement, but a contrived—and increasingly pathetic—code of masculinity was the white whale he chased, in his fiction and in his life, until he got too old to make it or fake it. (A Freudian could have a field day with what his minimalism actually signifies.) Perhaps our best semi-contemporary practitioner of doing in print what he did—or wanted to do—in the bedroom, is Charles Bukowski. A dirty old man and making no bones about it, he nevertheless expresses so many thoughts and emotions sex imbues with the requisite comic, tragic and prosaic elements it merits, in reality.

And when all else fails, experts have informed me that’s what the Internet is for. Nevermind books and even movies. If music, or conversation—that old fashioned and unforced chemistry called charm—or a competently cooked meal can’t get you to the Promised Land, you may as well cast a line into the weird, wild web. And, if you are irretrievably old school, seek salvation in one of those books with Fabio on the cover. If you want the genuine article, suitable for a certain type of reading, why settle for half-assed posturing when you can get your Harlequin on?

In the final analysis, the wisest way to handle any conquest, real or imagined, is to imitate the great ones and act—or at least pretend— like you’ve been there before. And for us literary types, it’s worth recalling the words of wisdom offered by the (fictional) intercourse aficionado Jackie Treehorn: People forget that the brain is the biggest erogenous zone.

Again, writing about sex is hard. Except when it’s not hard enough. And therein, as The Bard reminds us, lies the rub.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 12/10/2014.

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My Most Embarrassing Thanksgiving Memory? (Revisited)

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Question: What was your most embarrassing Thanksgiving moment ever?

Answer:

I’ve got nothing here. I mean, I was raised in an Irish-Italian Catholic household so there were two things we could always count on: church every Sunday and a family meltdown on every major holiday. I can’t think of a Thanksgiving, at least from adolescence on, where someone wasn’t screaming at someone. Here’s the thing: it was always about something trivial, like a movie or book or that day’s political scandal. We saved the serious shit for more mundane occasions, family fights being nothing if not mundane (All happy families are alike, et cetera). Of course, it could be said that these ostensibly trivial flare-ups were tardy detonations of slights and angers that built up over time, maudlin librettos in search of an approving audience.

I guess there was also the time, when I was seven or eight, that I made the mistake of having second helpings of my (Irish) grandmother’s Lemon Meringue pie (the first mistake was having the first helping) and puked all over the table. To this day everyone swears I had the flu. There was also the time I drank too much wine and passed out on the couch while everyone else was having coffee. And arguing. Oh wait, that’s every year. I guess what I should be most embarrassed about is that, as we’ve mellowed or grown or lost the edge that kept us younger, and Italian, and Irish, and Catholic, we no longer fight. Our family meals have become almost amicable; so much so that I kind of look forward to my sister’s grandkids puking up the pie I make in twenty or thirty years. That is, after all, tradition.

This post originally appeared as part of a larger feature, with all the editors at The Weeklings submitting their choices for the same question. Check it out!

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The Problem with The Homeless Problem (Revisited)

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THERE IS A MAN who sits near the pumps at the gas station I drive by each day. The man is very obviously from somewhere else and has about him a certain look—the meek, awestruck eyes, the apprehensive gestures—that indicts him as someone who speaks little if any English. A stranger.

He remains respectfully distant from the customers—who incessantly fill their tanks, like bees returning to the nest before heeding the urgency of their instinctual obligations—but near enough to the action to remain in plain view. He sells flowers. Actually, he doesn’t seem to sell anything; he pretty much sits there, on an upturned milk crate, often from early morning until well in the evening, after the rest of the weary warriors have commuted past him, home from work and their worries of the wicked world. He silently plies his wares, content to play his part in the charade: he is not accomplishing much, he is begging, and the milk crate and collection of fading flowers at his feet communicate an inexpressible anguish. Please help me, his unscrubbed face, his unlaced sneakers, his oversized slacks, his filthy, fidgeting fingers—everything but his voice—all ask, saying what he cannot, and will not, say for himself.

***

Hey brother, can you spare a life, the woman moving past me does not say.

I’m in too much of a hurry to stop (like always, like everyone else getting on and off the subway), but there is something so familiar about her that I’m compelled, despite everything I’ve learned, to pause and look back: she is still there, off to the side, shabbily clad, immediately recognizable by her contrast to everyone around her; she wants to approach one of these businessmen, but all of them are walking too fast, too deliberately, too purposefully. Getting from Point A to Point B so we can get paid.

Automatically, the doors move aside and sweltering air earnestly greets everyone headed its way. It takes about five seconds (as always) to feel the heat and then the money dread: if it weren’t for the money, it wouldn’t take much—in a strange city, lost, alone. Broke. That’s how shit like starvation and sleeping on grates gets started. Quiet in the corners, huddled under bridges, working the frenzied crowd for a friendly face, hoping for the handout that never comes.

I don’t have any lives to spare, but I’ll dig deeper and give ‘til it hurts.

This hurts me more than it hurts you, I don’t say.

***

Who was he?

I think the same question each time I see him (once a week, sometimes more, occasionally double-shifts: the same man in the same spot, holding the same sign that tells everyone who he is, now—prompting the question: who did he used to be, at some point in the past?) at the intersection he has stood at for several months now. The cardboard sign he holds both question and answer: Homeless veteran (the explanation), can you put some pocket change in this plastic cup (the question). The sign says he is a veteran. Okay. And even if he isn’t actually a veteran, he has been homeless long enough to be a veteran; or if he is not actually homeless, he has been acting the part long enough to earn the title. Either way, it is time for a promotion.

And so, I think, this is the problem with the homeless problem: it wasn’t (some of us learn—too late) the ones who hustled or even approached you who were down and out; they were the ardent ones, half the time they weren’t even homeless; it is the ones you never see, even when they’re sprawled on the concrete right beside you, the ones who are down, the ones who are out, the ones who have nothing to ask for, nothing to say, nothing to do except wait, sit it out until time or the whiter man’s burden delivers them that eventual, inevitable verdict. It was the ones you could afford not to be afraid of, the ones who could not even hurt themselves, because they’d already dug as deep inside as their ashen fingers could reach, the ones too dead to tear out their hearts, but not dead enough to unloose their souls, the ones who learned (too late) that death was only impatient for the fools who failed to acknowledge it, it had all the time in the world for those who the world owed nothing except the decency of an overdue release.

Could that be me?

A primal foreboding, an ancient fear. Who knew how it happened, who could make sense of it? And yet. These people do not wake up one random morning, on the streets and out of their minds. Or do they? If you believed the signs the man on the corner held, the government did this to him—and could do it to anyone else: that was his message, his mission.

The problem with the homeless problem is that these people who don’t see you and can’t see themselves are all chasing something they can no longer name: memories. Or, even worse, it is the memories that are chasing them, speaking in tongues they long ago ceased to understand.

***

A memory:

Newark Airport. That shithole. A place has to be exceptionally beautiful, appalling, or incomprehensibly pointless in order to be easily remembered years after a brief visit.

When I was a kid, (I couldn’t have been much older than ten) my father and I had a layover in Newark Airport. Even then, I was perceptive enough to understand that this was no place I ever needed to return voluntarily.

An unassuming older man (at any rate, he was noticeably older than my old man, which made him old) sat in one of those impossibly plain plastic chairs, with his pants leg rolled up. It wasn’t until we got closer that I realized two things: he was alone, and he was scratching at a series of scabs on his shin. For some reason he looked our way at the moment we passed him, and after sizing us up, he stood and amiably approached my father.

“Sir, did you need someone to help you and your son carry your bags?”

“No thanks, we’re okay,” my pops replied, looking ahead and picking up the pace.

The man was persistent. In the space of fifteen seconds—my father denied him three times—my emotions slid from the appreciation of possibly having someone carry my suitcase for me, to the vague, uneasy suspicion that my father was being somehow rude, a jerk, to the unsettling awareness of recognition. I sensed something I’d seen plenty of, but never before in any person older than myself: fear. I saw it in his eyes, and felt it in my insides.

As we walked away my old man waited until we were at a charitable distance, then looked at me meaningfully and offered the somber assertion: That’s as low as you can go. I asked him to elaborate, as was my style, and he was either unwilling or unable to add anything to his observation, as was his style. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand what my father was saying, I understood him perfectly. It was because I understood him that I needed him to say more, to talk to me a little longer about it, about anything, anything to interrupt that silence and the sudden thoughts that accompanied it.

***

It’s easy to believe that people like this exist for our sakes: they are dying lessons on how not to live, warnings of what could happen if you weren’t careful and found yourself scratching at scabs in the world’s ugliest airport. Or enlist, get used up and ask not what your country can do for you, because you’ve already received the answer. We forget, or we don’t allow ourselves to entertain the idea, that these people have histories; that these shadows and signposts don’t happen to serve a purpose for anyone else; they were once actual people themselves.

I realize, now, my father was wrong about one thing. That’s not as low as you can go. You can go lower, a whole lot lower. But perhaps it’s more disturbing to see the ones that are on the way down, it’s somehow easier to accept the ones at the bottom of the ocean; it’s the ones who are sinking, who are still within reach, who are drowning noisily in front of you, who sometimes have the temerity to ask you to hold out a hand. These are the ones we can scarcely tolerate, because every so often we look at them and see ourselves.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings, 11/5/2014.

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The Power of Political Narrative: Part Two, The Dems (Revisited)

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i. Ridic, Redux

LAST MONTH I WROTE about the Power of Political Narrative and the ways Republicans have kept it simple (stupid) and mostly stuck to an inflexible script for the last thirty years. No matter how flawed that script is, in reality, and no matter how many times reality makes a point of pointing out that virtually every talking point—taken as Gospel and enforced as Scripture—results in the opposite of what it claims (Clear Skies Act, etc.), a reckoning never occurs.

As such, we saw austerity when we desperately needed stimulus, coddling of Wall Street cretins when perp walks were well-warranted, craven acquiescence on the Guantanamo catastrophe, “Death Panels” instead of a public option, et cetera. Not that these are the results Obama (or the left) wanted or predicted, but because of—at least in part—the ability of the other side to sling the same excrement at every policy, proposal or achievement, defying a twice-elected leader to bring about change we can believe in. Or pocket change for the middle class. Or something.

Certainly, it sucks to see a party whose signal accomplishment the last two years (doubling down what they did the previous four years) was acting petulant and saying no like a paroxysm rendered Reductio ad absurdum, smug and certain they are about to retake the Senate. By refusing to govern they are likely to be rewarded, not because anyone (even Fox viewers) particularly likes the results, but because they have stuck so steadfastly to the scheme: lay blame on Obama, Democrats, and Government, respectively. At best tolerated (at worst abetted) by a degraded mainstream media they have done this repeatedly, and mostly with impunity.

And because we expect less than little from the intransigent GOP, how can we resent them for proving the cowardice of their convictions? Particularly when the profiles in courage not on display by their political opposition is so…typical. My concern is—and has been for some time—the ways in which Democrats are congenitally incapable of articulating their achievements, and crafting a message that is either compelling or consistent. The shame of it is, all they have to do is tell the truth and it would set them (and the rest of us) free.

I’m not suggesting it’s easy, or that it would be embraced—at least initially. As I argued last month, it’s a hell of a lot less demanding to pick a handful of platitudes and recite them like zealots at a Sunday service. But this is not a matter of formulating counterpoints or rebuttals; it’s about crafting a narrative that is consistent and, as no less a salesman than Henry Kissinger once said, has the added advantage of being true. Naturally, telling the truth does not come naturally to elected officials who are often paid for before they take the oath of office, and this circumstance is further complicated by the question of how many of them really believe in left-of-center principle in the first place. Still, any introductory class in marketing or communications (or English Literature for that matter) will emphasize the importance of narrative; the necessity of telling the story you want to tell.

It’s not that difficult to imagine, and this shit practically writes itself. One speech, early in ’09, wherein Obama declared: “not only am I going to fund these projects, no American who wants to work will go without on my watch. I’m going to spend this money, because it is an investment on people, and you will be able to measure the results immediately. This is a mission on behalf of our well-being, and if you want to judge me in four years, I will take those odds. And if I’m wrong, the worst case scenario will be an early retirement where I can drive across this great nation over new roads and rebuilt bridges, and take advantage of the radically improved infrastructure that these projects made possible. I’ll walk away from the Oval Office happy and proud, because I’ll know we made a difference, and that is what I was elected to do.”

Obama was either too clueless or (worse) haughty to believe he actually needed to make a case, and be ready to fight back against the full-scale war the GOP declared on him the second he was elected. (His refusal to bother himself getting involved in the health care brawls all summer of 2009 is the second largest blunder of his presidency: he not only allowed the malevolent Republicans to define the narrative (wrongly), he let the Tea Party lunatics get a foothold and, with the lack of any consistent, intelligible message, determine that opposing government was the correct, patriotic thing to do. By the time he saw the grammatically-challenged writing on the signs, it was arguably too late. Meanwhile, against all probability, the masses with their pitchforks and flames, had—for lack of a tangible target for the ire—latched on to the Fox-spewed propaganda filling the inexplicable vacuum of what passes, these days, for political discourse.

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ii . Coal Mines, Sean Connery and (of course) George Orwell

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s masterful investigation of the English working class, he makes the following observation: Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit.

That succinct, typically clear-eyed assessment has stuck with me because, like so much of what Orwell wrote, it is not tied to any particular period of time. As I get older, I realize this quote can be applied to any number of professions. Put simply, money and means enable certain people to reside in entirely different realities. After one has read Orwell—hopefully at an early enough age that it makes one allergic to relativism and libertarianism—one can’t help but view the world through a sociological lens.

Quite by chance, I just watched an old classic that had been languishing in my Netflix queue: like St. Peter allowing a purgatoried soul into heaven, I finally brought it to metaphorical salvation via my DVD player. It’s one of those movies I’ve heard about many times and hear referenced often enough that I’ve had it on my to-do list for entirely too long. Plus, the notion Richard Harris sharing screen space with Sean Connery was, suffice it to say, enticing. The movie in question, The Molly Maguires, did not do well upon its release and has become something of a cult classic—with an emphasis on the cult.

The story, in a nutshell, involves the gruesome exploitation suffered by Irish immigrants (and workers in general including, of course, young children because this was before Teddy Roosevelt, horrified by the depictions in books like Sinclair’s The Jungle, got inspired to seize some manner of control from Big Business and introduce those quaint concepts of regulation and workers’ rights: in other words, this story takes place precisely in the era that today’s GOP is aggressively working behind the scenes to bring us back to) toiling for paltry pay in the coal mines.

If you are imagining an environment where safety was tenuous and the conditions were barbaric at best, you are not incorrect. It is also a workplace where the owners controlled everything, including the breaks not given and the payment not rendered. In one illuminating scene the new employee (Harris) stands in line to get his weekly wages: the boss adds up the coal collected and announces the amount; Harris smiles. Then the boss subtracts the damaged tools, the wear-and-tear (a 19th C. version of “administrative fees”) and the final amount is reduced from nine bucks and change to just change. As Harris stands in disbelief the boss, flanked on either side by police officers, glowers at him and says “Next!” If that sounds too much like a bad out-take from It’s A Wonderful Life, check yourself: these are the conditions that absolutely existed, as men like Sinclair (and later, George Orwell, of course) observed and reported.

The reason the movie was probably unsuccessful, and the reason the timing of my first viewing is serendipitous, is because of the subject matter: way before unions existed; circumstances were suitably dire that the use of drastic measures were required, and understandable. As a result, a group of protestors (or terrorists, depending on what century you live in and what newspapers you read) took to undermining the mine’s profitability by using incendiary tactics, literally. Harris, the “good guy” is a paid detective assigned to infiltrate this mob and help the honchos crush the uprising by killing the culprits. If this sounds a bit familiar, the story is based in large part on true events inspired by the reprehensible actions of the Pinkertons, who operated kind of like union busters before unions existed.

The movie is clever: by making Connery grim and uncharismatic (no mean feat considering this is Mr. Shaken, Not Stirred we are talking about) and playing up Harris’s roguish charm (yes, that is a cliché but if anyone could ever be said to possess roguish charm it’s the ever-ebullient but burly Harris), the viewer is almost conned into empathizing with, and rooting for the putative protagonist. Only after the film concludes does it finally—and fully—occur to the viewer: if the movie had been shot, or written differently we would be pulling for the “bad guys” all along. And that is the point. If the movie was told from the alternate point of view, it would have been preachy, unconvincing and free of emotional conflict. Which is exactly why it’s a good movie and most likely why it did not set the box office on fire. It also might make one recall the other chestnut (speaking of clichés) about history being written by the victors, the power of language to shape story and the mechanisms always at work to manufacture how reality is perceived.

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iii. The Medium Remains the Message

As we stare down the ignoble specter of the GOP taking back the Senate next month, it is at once exasperating yet simple to see how we got here. Yes, the Democrats’ incompetence at crafting an actionable narrative has, at best, enabled the Republicans to proselytize their fealty to an ever-more-free market. But at least when they try (see: Clinton and Obama in campaign mode), they can compete, and occasionally win (!). The deeper and more disturbing issue is the way they’ve abandoned the very middle class their policies demonstrably support.

What has long befuddled me is that, even if you can cynically concede that even Democrats tread lightly before their corporate masters these days, it makes political sense to maintain a healthy relationship with unions. During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is our chronically aloof commander-in-chief going to start reminding everyone that this big bad government has historically been the bulwark between the people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to actually get to the point where the Republican Party literally says “let them eat cake” before people start to realize wages are stagnating, prices are rising and the only people getting fat are the wealthiest one percent? Apparently it does.

Feel-good (or, feel-bad) lip service is paid to the undeniable, growing discrepancy of salaries paid and taxes not collected on the makers vs. the takers, but the song remains the same (see: a dose Romney, a dash of Ayn Rand and an unhealthy smattering of Religulous paranoia to expedite a state like Kansas acquiescing itself into fiefdom). And we’ve not come to terms with the fact that the wealthiest percentile don’t just look down on—or worse, ignore—their lesser brethren. They neither understand nor want to understand: they contemplate the impoverished the way many of us might ponder serial hoarders: we see it, are disgusted by it, and wouldn’t ever want to be like them, but we simply can’t fathom how they got to be that way; what happened to make them so unreasonable.

What Orwell articulated so well, in part because it was (is?) so stark and systemic across the pond, is the way class is at once an explanation and excuse for imbalance—not only in practical and political terms, but as ingrained disposition: things are this way because they’ve always been this way. After a while, injustice just seems to be the natural order of things. Okay, but it’s supposed to be different in America. We ostensibly have laws and systems in place to prevent unchecked stratification. That we can’t quite challenge—or even believe—what our lying eyes tell us is, again, what the Reagan Revolution has wrought. However much he has disappointed, it’s certainly not (only) Obama’s fault that his party has generally avoided the entire issue of class for practically half-a-century.

But even if the seemingly unsophisticated battle to prove the relative benevolence of government (or compassionate conservatism—ha!) seems a non-starter in 2014, it should not require too much PowerPoint proficiency to compile a quick commentary about what unions have wrought: minimum wage, forty-hour work weeks, health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick-leave, etc. All of the things people assume exist as an evolved conciliation, or were always just sort of there; or best of all, were the inevitable rewards of laissez-faire philosophy until big government came along and screwed everything up.

Regardless of her short-term political (e.g. presidential) aspirations, Elizabeth Warren—and the Yes-We-Can-type approbation she’s accruing—is, if nothing else, an indication that at least one notable liberal understands the power of going back to the future. The fact that someone like her (or Bernie Sanders, for that matter) exists is encouraging, but the fact that people are responding to this message should translate to a broader game plan, the sooner the better.

No matter what happens next month, it can hopefully provide sufficient momentum for the marble-mouthed Democrats to cobble together some cohesive messaging en route to 2016. One would think the mere act of pointing out the truth would not require heavy-lifting and soul-searching (but those without souls, admittedly, can have difficulty here). Again, I do not count on any of these center-left pols to suddenly find religion, so to speak, but presumably they can grasp that there is a purely political advantage to being on the right side of the middle class, not to mention history.

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 10/22/2014.

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Point/Counterpoint: Sean Beaudoin vs. Sean Murphy – the 90’s Edition (Revisited)

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Point/Counterpoint is a beloved feature that first appeared in the fall ’72 Telex edition of the Weeklings. PC/P is the product of an intellectual tradition hearkening back to storied Oxford debate squads and the golden age of radio, in which two authors match wits over random subjects while being forced to choose a side and defend it on the fly. Readers are advised to stand back, as the heat can get intense. This week’s All 90?s arm wrestle involves essayist, raconteur, and former Governor of Virginia, Mr. Sean Murphy.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are now on the clock.

 

Michael Jordan –

Point (Murphy): Here is the uncomplicated part: Jordan is the dominant and peerless athlete of the ‘90s. Here is the complicated part: He is a prick. Big deal, right? Well, not so fast. Certainly, when it comes to athletes, actors, authors and the rich and famous in general, we don’t—and often shouldn’t—expect much in terms of humanity. They are too busy perfecting their craft, and in the instance of rich and famous, being an asshole is their life’s work. And for the creative sorts who have left us with profoundly moving, redemptive art, we acknowledge that messy interpersonal relations or despicable traits all pale in comparison to what they were put on earth to do. But just as Jordan is a once-in-a-generation talent, so too was his opportunity to make a real once-in-a-generation type difference. Indeed, one could argue that today, with our five-second attention spans and every idiot (famous or not) working ceaselessly on building their unique “brand”, it’s difficult to rise above the din. It is, therefore, easier to imagine the impact Jordan might have had, in an analog era, to make a meaningful and lasting difference, had he cared to do so. Famously, he didn’t. “Republicans buy sneakers too,” he quipped sardonically, with a lack of shame and soul that would make Ayn Rand wet. Could Jordan single-handedly have improved sweatshop conditions overseas and reigned in the worst aspects of the previous decade’s consumerism apocalypse? Actually, yes. He might have done more than merely be immortal on the hard wood; he could have changed our world, for the better. How many people in any generation actually have this ability?

Counter-Point (Beaudoin): I don’t think any public figure, celebrity or athlete or otherwise, has an obligation to make a difference. Whatever a “difference” might actually mean. Jordan was basically conservative, in the sense that he was relentless, ruthless, and did whatever it took to make as much money as possible. I see that as a very political act. He rejected the notion that his opinion on Bosnia or race relations was of greater value than not upsetting Hanes executives. He succinctly expressed his worldview by giving everyone the finger while insulating himself behind a wall of Nike checks. And also by being the Greatest Player Ever. Sorry, but if Mike had flown to Malaysia to lock arms with workers in front of a sweatshop gate, he wouldn’t have been the guy who stuck a dagger in Craig Ehlo’s heart, or marginalized Patrick Ewing, or pushed Bryon Russell out of the way like he didn’t exist before sinking the jumper that doomed Karl Malone. I fundamentally disagree with the notion that artists should be judged by their personal lives as opposed to their output. It’s a dangerous temptation when the artist is still alive, because it’s almost impossible for their behavior not to color perceptions of their work. I’m not going to pretend I can watch Curse of the Jade Scorpion without wondering about Woody’s predilections, fairly or otherwise. But I would argue, at least theoretically, that we all should be able to. It’s a good movie or it isn’t. (It’s not). But if you went back through history, almost every great artist (and many not great ones) were complete assholes. Check out the life of Caravaggio. But you don’t see too many people complaining about “David With the Head of Goliath” hanging at the Met because they’re offended by him as a person. To see the world in a truly original fashion and then be able to interpret that view with unusual skill and nuance often requires a level of narcissism that results in aberrant, transgressive, and/or manic behavior. Michael Jordan is exactly the complicated amalgam of thoughts and behaviors and beliefs that allowed him to play like him. If he were 9% better of a person, he’d no doubt have been more accessible in the locker room and maybe even spokesman for a worthy cause, but he wouldn’t have played the way he did. People are the totality of themselves. If Mike were the person you wanted him to be, then he’d also have been B.J. Armstrong, and therefore not the person you wanted at all.

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Newt Gingrich –

Point (Beaudoin): If somewhere in Washington D.C. right this second there’s a bigger sac of crappy ideas, unearned self-regard, and a true disdain for “the people” masquerading as public service, I dare you to name them. It’s astonishing that Newton Leroy Gingrich is still taken seriously enough to have just made even a doomed run for president, let alone win a few primaries, although perhaps we can thank him for having burned through twenty million of Sheldon Adelson’s money for no good reason whatsoever. Gingrich’s “Contract With America” was a failure on nearly every front, a zero-sum political expedience bereft of ethical standards that ushered in the hyper-partisan behavior currently crippling government. Add to that the mendacity of having crowed about “family values” on television nearly every night, including the period in which he led the charge to impeach Bill Clinton, while simultaneously conducting numerous affairs of his own on the side. In the meantime, Gingrich was run out of office by his own party, wrote nine remaindered novels that other books are embarrassed to be shelved next to, and then married a woman who looks like a steak knife wearing a toupee. Easily one of the worst people in America.

Counter-Point (Murphy): But we want Newt Gingrich on that wall. We need Newt Gingrich on that wall. And do you think it’s easy being Newt? Respect, and a sort of awe, is required for a man who never asked to be a Mr. Potato Head of all Shakespeare’s best villains: one part Polonius’s sanctimony; one part Falstaff’s red-jowled bluster; one part Iago’s soulless scheming. He is the tragicomic Sisyphus of our time, pushing the boulder of ambition up that hill, only to be toppled each time he is so close he can taste it (realizing, as he careens ass over ego, that the smell of victory is actually the collective babble from inside-the-Beltway blowhards, who turn on you so quickly it’s almost like an homage). His eyes forever on the prize, a would-be Bogeyman for an ill America; instead he ends up inside his own closet, sniffing other people’s panties. Don’t all the haters realize he would enjoy nothing more than crawling under that rock to decay, silently, into the soil? Instead, he is compelled to stand in front of We The People who can’t understand he just wasn’t made for these times? That, had he only been given the chance, he could have taught Jefferson a thing or two about writing (and philandering), he could have out-proselytized any of our wig-wearing Weekend Warriors, he could have saved us a Civil War by proving separation of the races was God’s will (or else The South was the New Jerusalem, or some other shit), he could have, well, he could have been a contender. Gingrich is the real life Willy Loman of our political stage, still out hustling his wares, not aware that his time has passed, his time was never in fact here: it was an illusion, a great white hype, a bloated gasp for relevance that will echo forever as a footnote, a guffaw and a grimace. Newt Gingrich exists because no one else could possibly play the part. For this unpalatable but irrefutable fact, attention must be paid.

Newt describing the size and shape of his second wife's taint.

Alice in Chains –

Point (Murphy): While I find Nirvana terminally exalted to the point of parody (the idea that Cobain is the spokesperson of his generation is almost as depressing as people killing each other over a used pair of Air Jordans), and I never had much love for Pearl Jam, I think Alice in Chains is the great overlooked band of the ‘90s. Awful enough, today, to be remembered as a “grunge” band; infinitely worse to be damned with the flannel-smelling praise of achieving “lesser” grunge status. I find this unfortunate, in part because Alice in Chains did more to outshine that lame, facile label than any of their brethren. Layne Staley is best in small-ish doses, I’ll concede, but even at his most affected, his intensity is always undercut by Jerry Cantrell’s calm, cool and disaffected harmonies. Let’s not mince words, I not only consider Dirt a masterpiece, I’d put it in my Top 10 of that decade: it’s a suicide note in music, and the fact that less than a decade later, Staley would indeed be dead only adds to its desolate aura. There is anger, hurt, self-pity, self-hatred and, ultimately, a defiance that, for me, makes the posturing of other grunge acts seem like an after-school special. “Down in a Hole”, a showcase for the ways the band balanced bleakness and brawn, endures as a too-intimate tour into the darkest heart of addiction, full of recrimination and remorse, yet it somehow manages to be…tender? We rightly indict so many pop acts for faking it; these dudes were laying it all out there, and they perfected an ugly type of beauty that, unlike so much else that came out of the ‘90s, isn’t tied to time or place.

Counter-Point (Beaudoin): I will agree that it was a horrible decade for music in general, but if Dirt is even in the top hundred albums, the 90?s might go down as the worst arbitrary stretch of years in human history, including all that Vaudeville piano “Oh, my baby loves whisker soap and Sarsaparilla” shit. I think Alice in Chains is basically an unlistenable pile of derivative hooks and suspect melodies, and in particular that Layne Staley’s voice is maddening in the extreme. He’s always straining for a note, always resolving a line in exactly the same way, not to mention burbling insipid lyrics about roosters and (yawn) heroin dissolution. But what’s vastly more interesting than the relative accuracy of those statements is how you and I, who otherwise share so much in common as far as musical taste, could view this band so polemically. When I was younger (back in the 90s) I was often annoyed by this sort of thing, but now I find it fascinating. We are two very different people who are inconsistent and unpredictable! We are governed by a false logic called “taste” that is actually a product of our environment, imagination, and maybe even our genetic sequence! Opinions about music are basically arbitrary and worthless! Hooray life! Although I will say that the one band I truly loathed more than any other in the 90?s was Third Eye Blind. You better not tell me you have a poster of them on your ceiling or we’re done.

The soundtrack to the best years of our lives.

Y2K –

Point (Beaudoin): Can you imagine how truly wonderful it would have been if computers across the globe really did lock up on that fateful midnight? And not just until repairs could be enacted, but permanently and across the globe, remaining useless hunks of mis-dated silicone all these years later and having saved us the indignities of Reddit, texting, Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, and people talking loudly on cell phones in cafes? Oh why, Y2K, why did you fail to be the catastrophe we so richly deserved?

Counter-Point (Murphy):

If Y2K had delivered the goods, pulling a Terminator Skynet and leaving us in a Bladerunner-style post-apocalypse, I would not have been able to burn the next decade converting my creative energy, youthful idealism and pre-midlife angst into emails instead of novels. If Y2K pulled the plug (figuratively) ensuring we had to pull our puds forever in analog (literally), I would have had nothing better to do than tackle the ever-expanding list of unread books that, fourteen years later makes Borges’ Library of Babel look like the pile of magazines at a doctor’s office. If Y2K had truly partied like it was 1999, I would still remember what grass smelled like, what sweat felt like, what animals sounded like, what real people looked like, or what composing a sentence uninterrupted by a dozen extraneous thoughts and distractions Google/Facebook/iPhone-d like. Why would I possibly want any part of that?

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Quentin Tarantino –

Point (Murphy): Even typing out his name makes me cringe. It’s not just that everything he’s done since the ‘90s has sucked, or that he is at once uninhibited and oleaginous in ways that could put infomercial stars and politicians to shame. It’s not even that he’s been sprinting in circles, overrated and infuriating as only the rarest of artists can manage to be. His real crime is the breathless puerility suffusing almost every scene of every movie, post Jackie Brown. (Technically proficient, sure, and his action sequences—however insipid or ultra-violent—get high marks on the pyrotechnics scale.) Each successive effort implodes on its own adrenaline, ending up like a puppy trying to fuck its own poop. And yet…it seems churlish to hate on the former video clerk who gave us Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, no? In fairness, could we reasonably expect anything after that one-two punch? He made a couple of movies that did not capture the proverbial Zeitgeist so much as bury it alive in a wood coffin (see what I did there?), only to have it erupt out of the ground in the form of a million inferior imitations. So it’s not that his movies, post-Y2K, are an endless fruit loop of diminishing returns, it’s ultimately that Tarantino epitomizes so much of what went wrong in the ‘90s, continuing through our present day. It’s not even his fault, really. Other than pesky matters of integrity, who can blame QT for giving the people what they want? Of course we can point to any era and explore how naked opportunism and commercial-minded replication is the de-facto setting, especially in Hollywood. Isn’t the worst sin of this justly-maligned decade the way we consecrated an ongoing syndrome of inauthenticity, super-sizing and one-upmanship, whether it involves music, movie sequels, book series or (un)reality TV?

Counter-Point (Beaudoin): Say what you want about Tarantino, and it’s interesting because he’s one of those rare cinematic personalities about whom you could easily deliver a convincing rant on almost any side of any issue, including each of his movies, girlfriends, and Oscar speeches–but he’s done three things in his career which to me absolve him of almost any other fault: 1. In Reservoir Dogs he single-handedly resurrected the soundtrack as personality or extra character, using Joe Tex and Blue Swede and Stealers Wheel just as effectively as Harvey Keitel or Michael Madsen. Punchy street level counter-rhythms were the true engine behind Reservoir Dogs, far more than the ear-cutting scene or Chris Penn’s tracksuit. 2. Casting John Travolta in Pulp Fiction was an incredibly brave and far-sighted choice. It’s hard to remember now, but Travolta was essentially Kryptonite in 1992, more a bloated former Sweat Hog than the action hero he would soon become. Turning him into a henchman with a ponytail and a bag full of dope who could do a mean Twist at Jack Rabbit Slim’s was a stroke of pure genius. 3. Dialog. By the late 80?s Hollywood had completely forgotten what real, honest dialog even sounded like, not to mention brought to a script. It’s not Tarantino’s fault that Pulp Fiction spawned a thousand cheap imitations of Samuel L. Jackson’s Valley of Death speech, or years of Mumblecore versions of Royale With Cheese. “I just don’t dig on animals that don’t know enough to get out of their own filth” reminded us that people tend to talk to each other in crude and mundane ways that can often be revelatory. Tarantino was the one who made us realize it again.

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Every Movie that has Ever Won an Academy Award Should Not Have –

Point (Beaudoin): Let’s just talk about Forrest Gump here, and let it stand in for every other stiffed and slighted film in Oscar history, even though complaining about the illogic of Oscar voting is essentially the same as arguing about the outcome of an episode of Deal or No Deal. In any case, Forrest Gump is a disingenuous stinking turd of a film, a palliative for Clinton-era ennui and the residual shame of fifty years of tragically stupid foreign policy decisions. Three Back to the Future films gave Bob Zemeckis the technical chops to place Forrest relatively convincingly next to Nixon, but was in fact a trick better exploited (first) by Woody Allen in Zelig. Gump’s dimwitted celebration of the wholly American desire to retroactively cast itself as an innocent bystander to its own crimes pissed me off in the theater when it came out, and my antipathy has only increased since. Forrest Gump (you could easily make the same case for the career of Tom Hanks) is the epitome of the need to reduce complex events and emotions into a montage of bromides and high-panted shrugs that more or less say, “I know, I know, but we meant well, didn’t we?” No, we mostly didn’t. The only truly honest element of the film is the one in which Gump repeatedly acts like a creepy stalker who in any other context Jenny would have aggressively restraining-ordered halfway through his first Savoy Truffle. My understanding is that in the sequel, Gump in the Rye, Colin Hanks plays a Jodi Foster fetishist who sniffs his fingertips a lot and keeps getting arrested crouching behind the shrubs of David Letterman’s estate.

Counter-Point (Murphy): Movies like Unforgiven and The Silence of the Lambs are not simply overrated twaddle: they are to Art what charlatans like Dr. Drew are to medicine or abominations like Politico are to journalism: the “real” thing for the undiscerning, intellectually unevolved, instinctually incurious, easily impressed, overly assured. The ‘90s Academy Awards were like a Bizarro aesthetic universe, a perverse pinball machine where smug smacked off cynical and clanged into self-satisfaction and descended into the gutter of banality (Life is Beautiful should have earned everyone involved a cinematic red card, sent off the artistic pitch for eternity; instead, of course, it won that buffoon Roberto Benigni a best actor statue proving that Life is Unbearable). But hey, if it wasn’t for the ‘90s Academy Awards, I may have entered the new millennium not sufficiently disabused of the illusion that substance beats style, or that feel-good and soulless saccharine is sniffed out by uncorrupted tastemakers, or that Money always, always means more than Authenticity. Seeing travesty (Goodfellas losing to Dances with Wolves) after mockery (American Beauty over The Insider) after perversion (Braveheart beating anything) did me one lasting service: it ensured that I’d never watch, or even pay attention to, the exorbitant, appalling and onanistic festival of ostentation and egotism that is the Academy Awards, ever again. Stupid is, after all, as Stupid Does.

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Life Used to be Less Complicated –

Point (Murphy): I’m always on guard against two things above all: cliché and nostalgia, as both are traps that short-circuit critical thought and unfettered perspective. But damn if I don’t miss reading books. Don’t get me wrong: I still read books, all the time. But it’s been over a decade since I spent several hours, uninterrupted, mug nuzzled in a paperback. Much as I like to resist them, the shrieks from my devices, arrayed around me like so many electronic magpies, are all but impossible to ignore. I blame myself for this lack of discipline, but I reminisce about a time when it was novel to walk into the other room once or twice an hour to check email, and then return to my novel. Now, I can hardly watch a movie or read an essay (much less a book) without constantly making sure I’m not missing anything. In my paltry defense I’d say it’s less the FOMO phenomenon and more an actual rewiring of the way my mind works. That scares the shit out of me, especially as someone with artistic inclinations. Even at work, it’s not uncommon for me to have multiple windows open at any given time, along with Outlook, a spreadsheet or two and one or two documents, perhaps with music playing, and I’ll open a new window and while I’m waiting for it to load (three seconds being an eternity; an actual connection issue an affront), I’ll check my mail, and then go back to the fresh window and forget what I opened it for. This too mortifies me. I’m as much a tech junkie as anyone, and while I’d like to blame these portable, connected toys for corrupting our supposedly more serene lives, I suspect it’s even worse: technology has tricked us into being busier every single day, and it’s not even work, it’s play. Is this a trend we can slow down? Should we? Or are we advancing our evolution, fast-tracking an ability to connect, communicate and yes, commiserate, in a fashion previously unimagined? Having virtually everything that has been or is being created, available for free, in real time, is something I would have considered an outright miracle as a bored young punk; now it increasingly seems like the gift that will keep taking.

Counter-Point (Beaudoin): Even in the context of what it was like in this country before 1920, we are, basically, whiny, entitled worms. Life did not used to be less complicated. Life was very much more complicated, surrounded as it was by the demands of basic survival on almost every front, even for the wealthy. Pregnancy, disease, life expectancy, travel, drinking water, food production, physical labor, information distribution, the legal system, heat, cold, even just basic hygiene–all were vastly more difficult and elusive. The degree to which we are now basically helpless, dismissive of our past, and criminally soft in almost every way makes me deeply depressed at 3 a.m at least once a week.

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What Monica (Lewinsky) Means, Then and Now –

Point (Beaudoin): During the height of the Oddly Placed Cigar Era, I made plenty of jokes at Ms. Lewinsky’s expense. I didn’t think of her as a person, never considered what it might have been like to be the object of that level of scrutiny. To me she was an event. A cartoon. She was the woman naive enough to believe a self-serving philanderer really loved her, or would protect her when the time came. She was a pair of salacious lips, a 50?s haircut, a soiled dress. Most damningly, she was the woman dumb enough to confide in Linda Tripp. But then I grew up some and began to feel a great deal of empathy for Monica. I began to realize that if you collected even the smallest fraction of the really stupid things I did in my twenties and allowed the full blast of media hypocrisy to judge them, I would even now be in permanent solitary, busy talking to the walls and throwing my excrement at guards. How unfortunate to have your sexuality formed by a massively famous public figure, let alone then exposed to the world. Can you imagine standing by, powerless, while the rest of your life was determined by the whims of a sanctimonious cunt like Ken Starr? And then to be smothered under another twenty years of Clinton family prominence, your name forever brought up as a smirking reference, even as Hillary mulls another presidential run certain to kick off more cheap jokes and snide commentary? Which is all to say that I read Monica’s Vanity Fair piece genuinely rooting for her to charge out strong, unbowed, and newly emergent. Instead it wallowed in self-pity and lame justifications. She had two decades to write that fucking thing! It should have been a call to arms. A raw plea. A bruising manifesto littered with scorched politicians and gashed pundits that made Ted Kaczynski look like Ogden Nash. Didn’t really happen. Shit, she should have let me write it for her. I seriously would have for two hundred bucks and a platter of tacos.

Counter-Point (Murphy): Time has only convinced me that it’s not how great Clinton is (or was), so much as how spectacularly so many of his left-ish leaning compatriots suck by comparison, that makes liberals love their Bubba the way Bubba used to love Krispy Kreme. (The fact that he outfoxed the aforementioned ass-clown Gingrich is enough to earn him eternal goodwill in some circles, including mine.) As such, he may be a rascal, an imp, an occasionally immoral scoundrel but, dagnabit, he’s our scoundrel. While history will look increasingly less kindly at the Glass –Steagall sell-out (where triangulation met gluttony to create an unfettered shitstorm America will never fully recover from), it’s l’affaire Lewinsky that makes so many things Clinton, Inc. so difficult to digest. One might even say that Hillary was not standing by her man so much as protecting The Brand, a premonition of the brazen megalomania that hurt her in 2008 and makes her…a perfect candidate for 2016? As for poor Monica, it’s difficult to feel anything but pity for her, however naïve and vacuous she remains. That she was seduced, used and then tossed aside by an administration that was equal parts Caligula and Don Corleone is a sober reminder that history has always been written by the powerful, and the powerful are often neither great nor good people. (That history is reported these days, as it unfolds, by boot-lickers who love nothing more than the smell of a semen-scented dress is too obvious, and depressing, to warrant further commentary.) In this case, her story is His Story and however we interpret it (then, now, later) is our collective story, since all but a handful of us will always be spectators. Are we not entertained?

LEWINSKY

This article originally appeared on 10/1 in The Weeklings. More on that amazing site, HERE.

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The Power of Political Narrative: Part One, The GOP (Revisited)

** FILE** Actor Ronald Reagan loads his gun in the 1953 western film "Law and Order", in which Reagan plays a retired U.S. marshall who can't hang up his holster. It is reported that Reagan died on Saturday, June 5, 2004 at 93. (AP Photo)

LIKE MOST EVERYONE ELSE I know, I grew up—really grew up, if I’ve ever actually grown up—in the Reagan 80’s. Take my childhood, please. Actually, it wasn’t all that bad, at least for the middle class kids. During the extreme periods of Boom and Busted, Pro and Convicts, the majority in the middle seldom feels the pain; they rarely see the cocked fists and hoisted heels. It’s the people on the poles playing out cause and effect: the haves doing things the have-nots don’t have the voice or power to protest. The have-lesses can afford to ignore the news or else lay back like so many frogs, believing the boiling pan is actually a Jacuzzi.

Question: How else can you get people to consistently vote for policies that devastate them, counter almost each admonition of the (white, muscle-bound) Jesus and stagnate growth for every sector except, of course, the obscenely wealthy who rewrite the rules as they go along?

Answer: The power of magical thinking. It’s the fulcrum upon which most religious and political momentum swings: all it requires is uncritical, unblinking fealty and it’s amazing how simple, and ceaselessly restorative this exercise can be for the unenquiring mind. All of a sudden the world shrinks, Santa Claus exists, America is God’s favorite country, regulation is anathema, raising the minimum wage kills job creation, et cetera.

Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money; someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the you-know-where so that anonymous, ancient board members can pulverize their portfolios). It’s all about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough affluence that nothing else matters.

Which brings us to the looming midterm elections. If Obama has been sufficiently underwhelming to induce depression, at least he staved off a Depression. If we have nothing else going for us, no one wants to return to the bad old days when W. took us on a (dry) drunk drive into the ditch, right? The silver lining of falling so far is the full and final repudiation of a greed-first ethos so aggressively sold for thirty-plus years. Isn’t it? Oh…

Instead of putting his boot on the squirming corpse of Reagan’s revolution, Obama postulated that we should heal. Instead of accountability for the Masters of the Universe who insisted the ensuing debacle was not possible even as they gorged at the trough, Obama appointed some of them in charge of the clean-up. Instead of a reckoning—and the welcome spectacle of some well-warranted tar and feathering on Wall Street—we suffered the indignity of a gigantic reset button, paid for by the taxpayers whose 401(k)’s got fucked. The super-connected swindlers whose idea of trickle-down economics is pissing on the collective heads of the middle and lower classes bounced right back into the saddle. Check them out: their fattened wallets broke their falls.

The Democrats, who had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebrand (reestablish?) themselves as the party that not only cared, but governed for the 98%, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory as only Dems can do. More egregiously by far, the GOP, who have dedicated six years to temper tantrums and intransigence, stand poised to retake the Senate and retain the House.

How did this happen? How is it possible? The power of political narrative.

 

ii. The Power of Political Narrative

Understanding, and exploiting, the power of Narrative is the impetus that unites such unlikely—and antithetical—endeavors as Art, Business and Politics. The ones that can tell a story about what you need to know are important; the ones who tell you a story about what you want to hear can become immortal.

Our country was founded on the Narrative of The Future (City upon a Hill, anyone?): always looking toward what we could be, collectively, if we appealed to the better angels of our Nature, our Natural State being invariably democratic, tolerant of disparate faiths—including those without faith—and apparently unperturbed by the genocides inflicted upon our Native and African American brethren. Some eggs, after all, had to be broken in the service of this great experimental omelette called America.

Eventually, it required a Civil War to determine if we would keep looking forward or be cleaved forever into (at least) two countries, one peering over its shoulder, pining to preserve a way of life that never existed in the first place, at least for the majority of the people. (Sound familiar?)

Flash forward one hundred years to the Civil Rights Movement: a generational and geographic divide that once again found us at a crossroads of progress and reactionary segregation. History, as the cliché goes, is ghost-written by the winners. Looking at American history, for good or ill we’ve tended to define our triumphs as events that unified us, moving us along a progressive path from there to here, consistent with the founding notion—however fanciful—that we were collectively edging toward improvement and inclusion.

Two of the big “wins” of the 20th Century involved presidents named Roosevelt. First, Teddy, who took on Big Business and monopolies, instituting some overdue governmental oversight. His Square Deal regulated out-of-control American industry in the name of safety. A few decades later, his cousin Franklin ushered in The New Deal, ensuring that, for the next several decades government would, on balance, be seen as an institution that did more good than ill. Until the ‘80s, both of these developments were generally considered positive for all citizens, regardless of their political affiliation. Books like Sinclair’s The Jungle or indelible memories from the Great Depression reminded people—and their heirs—that government was the last thing standing between them and unfettered market forces. The notable exception, as ever, being the wealthiest percentile, whose disdain FDR all but celebrated (“I welcome their hatred”), a provocation Obama might wish he’d emulated in 2009.

In an exploit that still resonates for its audacity, Ronald Reagan drew a conservative line in the sand, assailing the presumption of government as an constructive agent, not by nitpicking but taking aim at its raison d’être .With a country still reeling from the apathy and cynicism of the post-Nixon nadir, he pre-empted that anger and uttered the immortal words: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” And for the first time in half a century the Republicans steadily assumed control of a new narrative. It was simple as it was shameless; it was the most facile strategy fathomable, and the GOP finally had a patron saint to make it sacrosanct. Needless to say, it worked brilliantly.

 

iii. The Ill Communicator

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, Baudelaire once wrote, was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. Well, the greatest trick the GOP ever pulled was convincing its flock that the devil does exist. The way to keep the Evil One at bay is to close your eyes and never, ever question The Man—unless he happens to be a Democrat.

All some Americans need is a person to play the part and tell them how great they are, how amazing we are, and then, no matter how much the unemployment rate and the deficit spike, it’s all good because we feel good. It is too easy and that is too simple. But the more one looks at Reagan (the man, the myth, the legend—literally), the more difficult it becomes to reach any other conclusion.

Along came St. Ronnie, the actor who made a fortune making awful movies, parlaying this into a career that put his acting ability to the summit of its purpose, circa second-half century America. Rich, he became a lot richer turning his back gleefully on his past, transmuting from an admirer of FDR to a True Believer who hit the trail for the repugnant Barry Goldwater. From a man who saw the country ravaged by the Great Depression, and therefore endorsed the New Deal, he subsequently did more than any president to undo the legislation that helped stave off a genuine catastrophe and fortified the middle-class for decades.

Now it’s an open competition to see which Republican can invoke him most often and they can’t name buildings after him quickly enough. Reagan has become the conservative alternative to Che Guevara. As we’ve seen in the short time since his death (indeed, in an initiative that kicked off years before he even kicked the bucket, by those who stand to profit most from his hagiography), a very intense and deliberate effort was undertaken to beatify and whitewash a legacy that was far from undisputed in the late ‘80s.

The Reagan Revolution built its momentum on a shameful vilification of America’s poor and lionized (some would say fetishized) the wealthiest percentile and transformed them into folk heroes. Because Michael Douglas turned in such an effulgent performance (in a rather mush-mouthed, typically ham-fisted Oliver Stone screenplay), few people—then; now—understood that Gordon Gekko was not “merely” a bad guy; he was a sociopath. In less than two terms, Reaganomics and Wall Street vandalism laid waste to the working class and put us on a path where the richest of the rich were entitled, by Divine Right, to pay ever-smaller tax rates. Meanwhile, young pillagers in training, like Mitt Romney, perfected the business acumen of bankrupting companies for profit into a repugnant performance art.

Despite an inconvenient eight year blip on the radar, where taxes were raised and the economy soared, the GOP, led by Dick “Deficits Don’t Matter” Cheney, had eight years to use the country as a demented sort of lab experiment. The result: 2008 and the cratered economy Obama inherited.

 

iv. The Five Commandments

After the disgust and disbelief settles, one feels obliged to give props to the Republican ratfuckers. Over the last few decades while they have dabbled in the vicarious thrill of foreign occupations and the odious gutter-dwelling of racial and sexual identity politicking, the cretins behind the curtain have focused on a handful of tactical battles in which they have more or less achieved their ends. This strategy has many moving parts, but can be boiled down to a handful of inviolable commandments, the enforcement of which ensures that no one is ever off script. And make no mistake, this script is like religion—only belief is not optional. The first and foremost commandment, propagated to the extent that it’s literally received as gospel—no matter how repeatedly disproven it is in practice—is that any taxes at any time are always a deplorable idea.

The second is that the mainstream media has a liberal bias. They’ve succeeded so thoroughly in this monomaniacal mission that once first-rate newspapers like The Washington Post now police their content excessively enough to render them neutral, if not neutered. The Op-Ed page has for more than a decade been patrolled by whacked-out hardliners who would have been laughed out of conservative circles only twenty years ago; back in the days when the GOP was devising health care reform that is now successfully considered socialism.

The third, which has been accomplished with considerable assistance from an increasingly reckless, ambitious and soulless Democratic party, is the demonization of unions. Long, sad story in one sentence or less: during the last half-century—but with a vengeance beginning in the ‘70s—unions lost influence while Democrats simultaneously abandoned them to court wealthy financiers to fund their increasingly lavish campaign expenses. Why the Republicans want to eradicate the same movement that helped bring us regulation, forty hour work weeks, overtime and collective bargaining is beyond no-brainer. Why the Democrats have allowed this to happen, abetting it more often than not, is owed to an opportunistic cynicism that has gutted the sensible and effective backbone of the Progressive cause in ways both myopic and tragic.

The fourth is that public education fails us, that teachers are overpaid and underachieving, and that while no cuts to any military spending are conceivable, all manner of funds and aid to public schools are forever on the table.

The fifth, final and most cheeky involves the mantra that government does not work. It’s a neat trick in which, when Republicans take power, they spend their time ensuring this assertion is true, all while consistently expanding the size of government along with the size of the national debt. Then, like clockwork, once the people have finally seen enough, a Democrat comes in with the thankless task of cleaning up the mess, and the disloyal opposition becomes a cadre of small government deficit hawks. That this same farce was pulled off so spectacularly after our recent recession says as much, if not more, about the aforementioned media and the supine Democrats as it does about the unabashed GOP.

 

v. Faith in Something Bigger than God

To see the full flowering of this psychosis, one needs look no further than the recent passing of James Brady.

Brady, for those who weren’t alive in 1981, is the unfortunate aid who had the bad luck of being mortal, and getting in the way of some bullets that could never have killed Reagan anyway. Before Brady died I might have been embarrassed to write something so churlish; a cursory glance at the comments section of any of the Brady obits confirms that there are a lot of people out there spouting shit like this, if even sardonically. Don’t kid yourself, beneath the sarcasm is a sincere reverence, the type of veneration we typically reserve for saints (and members of the Kennedy clan).

It’s a matter of Faith: Reagan wasn’t meant to be assassinated. And by Faith, of course, I don’t mean God (Reagan didn’t need God), I mean the Free Market. If the Free Market had wanted him to die, he would have died.

Speaking of faith, freedom and folly: the only force of nature more powerful than any of the fixations previously mentioned is that of the gun fanatics. Maybe, maybe—coming as it did less than half a year after John Lennon was murdered—if Hinckley’s assassination attempt had been successful, we might have had a national consensus of sorts. This, after all, was the moment, where we could—and should—have rallied around sensible gun control. It was the moment when all forces came into focus; it was, after all, their hero in the crosshairs.

Naturally, nothing of the sort happened. Brady became an advocate for a more sane approach to gun ownership, earning him the enmity of idiots who should have never ceased appreciating him. These, after all, are the same sorts who will swear up and down that Reagan did as much as anyone not named Rocky Balboa to defeat the Evil Empire.

How then, was any of this possible and how can such farce still hold sway over a sizable portion of our populace? The same technique that ensures certain stories get told and taught centuries after they are composed: the power of good narrative. That the Iran-contra affair is glossed over the way we never talk about our drunken uncle in the retirement home, or that taxes are actually lower during Obama’s tenure than Reagan’s, or that the First Couple regularly consulted an astrologist never tends to come up in not-so-casual conversation is part and parcel of the almost entirely successful enterprise to consecrate The Gipper.

The moral, as it applies to our contemporary political scene, is straightforward as it is distressing: risible dialogue delivered by a screen-tested salesman will always win more votes than substance offered up, however earnestly, by a substitute teacher. This helps explain the (mostly) refreshing phenomenon of Bill Clinton and underscores the inestimable potential squandered by Barack Obama: when the Democrats have a personality commensurate with their common-sense policies, they have half a chance.

There have, of course, been elections won and lost by both parties, PR initiatives shifting momentum (and money, always money) from the haves to the have-mores and there is little new under the sun. But if we look back at the last three decades, the Biggest Victory—transcending all the skirmishes fought during the last several presidential terms—and the enduring legacy of the Reagan Revolution, is the impervious story it continues to tell, and sell. It informs our craven political discourse; it intimidates an increasingly incurious media and bulldozes an ever credulous Republican base.

Data, facts and near-depressions be damned, we have seen one side nominate a succession of buffoons who should only have inspired bad fiction instead of engineering ever-more-implausible reality. Against all probability, that’s their story and they’re sticking to it.

Against all tolerability, the rest of us might remain stuck to it.

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Borne Back Ceaselessly Into the Past: Steinbeck, Nostalgia, Empathy and Amtrak (Revisited)

Amtrak

WHEN I FIRST read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America I was not quite old enough to drive. Still, I felt I could appreciate his somewhat elegiac ode to a world that was quickly disappearing, literally and figuratively. Literally in the sense that old things were becoming new, being torn down, refurbished, modernized; figuratively in the sense that airplanes had become more accessible (affordable) and de rigueur as a mode of business travel, while highways continued to get people from Point A to Point B a hell of a lot more efficiently. As a result, people who found themselves on the road were missing (intentionally) the long haul through less-traveled paths, and missing out (unintentionally?) on interacting with the places one doesn’t see, and the people who populate those less-known places.

And that was in 1960. What is there to say, over a half-century later, about the things we do and the things we don’t see?

Perhaps more to the point, how many of us, given the opportunity, would be interested in an old school trek from coast to coast, stopping to sniff the sights and taste the sounds made by towns that time has forgotten? In this era of two-weeks paid vacation, where staying-employed is the new promotion, would anyone have the means, much less the inclination, to take an extended jaunt from coast to coast?

A leisurely circuit through several red states is, perhaps, too much of a good thing, so how about splitting the difference between automotive crawl and air-travel excursion, old school, train style? Quaint? As it happens, in 2014 you can’t be whimsical enough: skinny ties and dirty martinis are back in the game, making TV watchers believe they’re on to something that hasn’t once again been marketed and served up on a cynical (if tasteful) platter, new school, Mad Men style.

Still, some types of nostalgia, let us concede, are better than others. If the archaic Old-Fashioned—which I remember only senior citizens ordering when I waited tables in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—now doesn’t seem quite so…old fashioned, less ancient fads like Zima remain mercifully buried beneath the basement of our collective consciousness, at least until some hipsters dig those cases up.

Nostalgia, in short, is arguably the most irresistible elixir. Amtrak, in an impressive grasp for relevance—or at least recognition—seems keenly aware of this, and this spring they featured a series of promotions for a writer residency program. (Travels with Siri, anyone?) Good press and many applications ensued: the company claims to have received over 16,000 submissions from would-be road trippers enticed by a free 2-5 day trek. However calculated this potential escapade might be, it’s interesting to contemplate how many of these aspiring Steinbecks have even been on a train before. In terms of wistful or aesthetic import, it hardly matters: everyone has likely been on a plane and planes, as we know, are hardly conducive to creativity.

Then again, is anything conducive to creativity these days? Even when we’re alone, we are never truly isolated, at least in the sense that anyone who was sentient prior to Y2K can recall or comprehend. Once the Internet became ubiquitous and we could hear the siren-songs of new e-mails announcing their arrival, we typically had to walk into the other room to read them. Now, our machines are equal parts security blanket and business imperative: we are never without access to the wide, webbed world. And for people with a penchant for introspection, or a compulsion to compose, distraction is now a full-time adversary.

One wonders what Steinbeck would make of our sociological intersection, circa 2014. Innovation has advanced to the point where just about anyone can carry a miniature computer in their pocket, and Google Maps provide virtual road trips to places we can’t pronounce. At what cost? Steinbeck might inquire.

Have our technological toys provided us with everything but perspective, making us increasingly oblivious to the realities of people we’re not familiar with? Is this one possible explanation for a country, like ours, with unlimited access to all sorts of content, being as polarized (politically, psychologically, personally) as any time in recent memory? Has the anonymity—and security—of electronic interaction made us immune to and/or intolerant of opinions we don’t share?

The country Steinbeck described, that awesome, even intimidating mid-century experiment, is now overdue for resuscitation. A society still unsettled and, at best, uncertain after our recent recession has definitive answers for questions that are not being asked by the appropriate people. Highways, tunnels and bridges that once signaled our arrival as a genuine global model to be envied have become a sullen indictment of our myopic priorities.

Perhaps it’s not prospective authors who most need some quiet time on a train, but the politicians who are too preoccupied by 24 hours news cycles and sound bites substituting for policies. Assuming, of course, most of these cretins consider such things; further proof that we don’t manufacture cities, or elected officials, like we used to.

Since poets are likely to remain our unacknowledged legislators, here’s hoping as many of them as possible are able to take a tour of the places that otherwise glisten from below when seen through the window of an airplane. Riding a train is, of course, a paltry approximation of what Steinbeck experienced, but there’s something to be said for a brief, backward glance at an invisible America.

Here are some field notes from a recent journey, spread out over three hours on the Acela Express from Newark to DC.

ii.

Most of the time, it’s a blur of trees or water or dark (as in, when it’s nighttime or when you’re asleep) so the only times you tend to look are when you are aware—instinctively or otherwise—of being alongside something you’re not accustomed to seeing. Driving through the ass-end of deadbeat towns, back alleys that no one remembers; the kind of real estate that seems vaguely mortified about its dirty laundry being aired to mostly upper middle class commuters.

Look: a ramshackle white building with the painted black letters House Of Flowers. Except the only thing visible is an assortment of junked cars and worthless tires, begging the question: does anyone frequent this place? (Does anyone sometimes this place?) How about the name: was it, at one point, an actual house that sold flowers? Is it now? Is the name intentional or ironic? Both? Neither?

A few clicks along the tracks and there is another in a series of dirt clearings strewn with trash. There is a large green bag that had been filled with bricks. Naturally, the bricks broke through their confinement and have formed a makeshift wall around the plastic that only briefly concealed them. Rained upon, rusted, growing mud and moss, they are incapable of fulfilling their intended purpose. Kind of like certain types of people.

More things contemporary eyes don’t see or understand: sprawling pipes standing three stories high, tarnished kettles with nothing left to hold inside, barbed wire encircling works in progress that had their plugs pulled by design or default. Most of these monuments are graveyards for machinery that has decayed in direct proportion to the time passed since industrious hands operated them like so many human ants.

Dozens of bridges, covering creeks and sporting graffitied coats of many colors; one big backyard that never gets raked, watered or mowed; limbs of trees at the end of the line, immobile and out of time. Warehouses, 18 wheelers, school buses, cinder block cathedrals and stolid electrical grids, genetically indifferent to the power they provide.

You lose count of the burned out buildings, all harboring grudges against the good old days, hoping for central heating. Their shattered windows have blinded them, denying a jealous glance toward the other side of town, or even across the street at their regentrified brethren. These broken properties are like the broken people who enlist in the military or throw themselves at the not-so-tender mercies of the types of churches named after obscure saints: they need to be torn down and rebuilt from the roots up. A new lease on life, an extreme makeover that only requires forfeiture of the souls they once possessed.

Through it all, the trees remain impervious; the trees adjust to the death rattles and reclamation projects—they are planted on firm ground. The trees grow, get green when Nature calls, and mostly are kind enough to offer no comment. They are uninterested in passing judgment on the concrete and the cars and the punks with their spray painted patois. Quietly and in some cases long-sufferingly, they provide cover for the plants and animals, offering window dressing for the inquisitive eyes barreling by at the speed of surround sound.

And then, of course, there are the neighborhoods. New ones and especially the old ones: Oddfellows and American Legions and taverns with Christian names. Fences and grass and street signs, an arithmetic formula found in translation. There is money here. Little league fields, churches and bicycles in repose. The rain feeds the lawns and the sun warms the driveways of four car families. The birds circle the well-stocked feeders and can’t quite believe their good fortune. Even the worms are relieved to burrow in safer soil, praying that once they are eaten and shat out they can fertilize the earth they once called home.

This is the calm calculus of civilization, just out of earshot from the neglected intersections that choke and sigh but no longer scream. Sometimes docile dogs and curious cats sneak past their security gates and wander too close to a reality their caretakers keep them from. They sniff the fear and sense the dread and understand the choice was never theirs to make. The wise ones, inherently aware of the whim that separates fate from fortune, run safely back to masters who speak a language they’ve learned to understand.

*This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings, 7/2/14.

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“My First Time”, via The Quivering Pen

NTMANL

It was my great pleasure to guest-post at The Quivering Pen, a fantastic site for writers (and readers) curated by David Abrams (himself an excellent reader and writer: check him out, here).

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My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Sean Murphy, author of the just-published novel Not to Mention a Nice Life. Murphy has been publishing fiction, reviews (of music, movie, book, food), and essays on the technology industry for almost twenty years. He is an associate editor at The Weeklings, where he contributes a monthly column. He writes regularly for PopMatters, and his work has also appeared in Punchnel’s, The Village Voice, AlterNet, Web Del Sol, All About Jazz, The Good Men Project, Elephant Journal and Northern Virginia Magazine. He is the recipient of a Noepe Center for Literary Arts Writer Residency. Murphy’s best-selling memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone: A Memoir for My Mother was released in 2013.

All My Firsts

Let’s talk about the first.

There’s the first story I wrote. (Original story: fifth grade; vaguely plagiarized ones where, looking back and with apologies to Edgar Allan Poe, imitation was the sincerest form of flattery: third and fourth grades.)

There’s the first “adult” book I read. (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, fourth grade. Huge mistake. Having seen the movies and read some comic book treatments, I thought I was ready for the real thing. It took me more than halfway through to understand Frankenstein was not, in fact, the monster.)

There’s the first success. (Being asked to compose and recite an original poem for an eighth-grade student assembly.)

There’s the first readership. (A series of features I wrote for my high school newspaper. For a teenager, a printed byline is as close to the big-time as it got, at least in the old-school era before social media and blogs.)

There’s the first publication. (A poem in my college literary magazine.)

There’s the first “important” publication. (A short story in another, better-known literary magazine.)

There’s the first in a series of unfortunate events. (Also known as writing workshops, wherein the cocky writer’s work gets, well, workshopped. Hilarity does not often ensue.)

There’s the first in a longer series of ceaseless rejection. (No comment necessary.)

There’s the first short story I knew would make me famous. (It’s still unpublished.)

There’s the first attempt at a novel. (Also unpublished. Fortunately, for all involved.)

There’s the subsequent, earnest attempt at a first novel. (Still a work-in-progress. Sort of.)

Nothing especially unique or noteworthy, right? All of these events or experiences were stepping stones most, if not all, writers will recognize and relate to. There is an evolution comprised of myriad firsts (and lasts), but what separates all but the most successful and/or lucky authors is what happens after the familiar epiphanies of the apprentice have occurred and it gets to the eventual, inevitable matter of perseverance.

The “first” that was, if not unique, for me the most formative and indelible, involved rejection and resolve.

Let me tell you a story: a famous writer saw a first chapter of this aforementioned novel. Famous writer picks up phone (people still used phones in those days) and tells unknown writer that he loves the material and wants his agent to look at it. Agent receives chapter, loves it too, and asks to see entire manuscript on an exclusive basis. Unknown writer thinks: this is it, the big break, the moment of truth, and other clichés. An entire summer passes, which is unfortunate. It happens to be the same summer unknown writer’s mother—who has been battling cancer for five years—begins to lose her final battle. By the time unknown writer’s mother passes away, the novel, the agent and the famous writer are about the farthest things from his mind. On the day of mother’s funeral, unknown writer makes the ill-advised decision to check his email before leaving the house. He sees the overdue email from agent. Something tells him not to open it, but of course he has to; according to logic and everything right in the world, not to mention the imperative of Cliché, this is the perfect time to see he’s about to be represented and eventually published, and this is the miracle he’ll employ to overcome his grief, and he’ll dedicate this book to his mother, without whom he could never have written it, or written anything.

Naturally, the email is, in fact, a rather terse (but apologetic) rejection.

And this unknown writer, in spite of himself, looks past the computer, looks beyond his disbelief, and looks out to whomever or whatever may be listening (or orchestrating this test of faith) and can’t quite believe hearing the words, in a voice that sounds a lot like his: “Is that all you got?”

No, this is not going to be the final, unkindest cut, the sign that failure is inevitable, the signal that it’s better to move on to other things, the message that it’s not meant to be. I’m not doing this, he thinks, because I want to, or that I hope to prove anything, or become famous (he has put away childish things). I’m doing this, he knows, because he doesn’t know what else he could possibly do with himself. He does it, he finally understands, because there’s nothing else he could imagine himself doing. And that the only failure is to stop. To be afraid, to give up.

It wasn’t the first rejection, obviously, and while it may be the biggest, it wasn’t the last.  In addition to death and taxes, writers recognize at some point, however resignedly, that rejection will always be on offer, for free, forever.

And ultimately it mattered only in the sense that it didn’t matter. Or, it mattered a great deal in the sense that it was not enough to dissuade or discourage him from stumbling down a path he made up as he went along; that revealed itself only when he looked back on another piece of writing and thought: Good thing I didn’t stop.

This was the most important first, the first day of the rest of my life.

My novel Not To Mention a Nice Life is now available.

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Talking Jive, Mingus and John Goodman

JCG

Today is the day. For John Goodman, that is.

And for you, if you are inclined to check out his new book, Jive-Colored Glasses: A Jazz Memoir.

And you should be inclined.

Here’s my take, blurb-style. (Full disclosure: I happily received an advance copy of the book and even more happily offered up my praise, accordingly):

We live in curious times, where we fondly recall and/or fictionalize some of our favorite things from the so-called good old days, where Old-Fashioneds were both drinks and philosophies, but the soundtrack is something contemporary and clueless–nostalgia without the nuance and names dropped without the knowledge. So how refreshing, and timely, to have an authentic guide from the old school to explain what mattered and why. John Goodman was there, and we are fortunate to have a first-person account of the great old days, someone with the inside scoop, who can articulate what we did right, what we still haven’t figured out, and why being engaged and bearing witness is our collective obligation. Our understanding of the proverbial then-and-now is profoundly insufficient without this vital document.

More on this project, and its author, at his blog.

CM

In July 2013–just about exactly two years ago to the day–my review of Goodman’s book, Mingus Speaks, dropped at PopMatters. Check it out, below.

Charles Mingus did not do small.

He was a big man, with big appetites, big ambitions, big grievances, big passions, big skills, and above all, a big vision.

By any reasonable criteria, he easily ranks as one of the foremost musicians and composers in American history: the scope of his recorded works is vast, varied and awe-inspiring. He can—and should—be included on any list alongside his hero Duke Ellington, and only Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk led as many remarkable bands and produced such a staggering body of work.

Like Ellington, Mingus wrote his autobiography in his music. Unlike Ellington, Mingus was never accorded remotely the same measure of respect, money and corresponding opportunities. As a result he was a constant cauldron of insecurity, anger and, more than occasionally, fear. Certainly not the first or last man in America to see his brilliance misconstrued, undermined or (worst by far) ignored, Mingus, as much as any 20th Century icon, had sufficient cause to feel aggrieved.

That this man with a chip on his shoulder the size of a skyscraper was able to remain as productive and positive as he did is a testament to his will, and a defiant commentary on our not-so-awesome American tradition of failing to appreciate or embrace our geniuses while they share air with us.

It is, therefore, instructive to learn more about the forces that drove Mingus, and the impulses that, at times, derailed him. He could be his own worst enemy, as the burnt bridges, ruined relationships, and botched business deals demonstrate. Still, if he occasionally terrified the musicians in his employ, he frequently drove them to do their best work. The list of artists and industry veterans who stood by him (some of whom, like his widow Sue Mingus, actively promote his legacy to this day) is considerable.

John Goodman’s Mingus Speaks is a collection of previously unpublished interviews and recollections from bandmates, club owners, and jazz critics. While the various biographies on Mingus (Gene Santoro’s Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus is especially recommended) are illuminating, and the liner notes from his albums occasionally revelatory, there can be no substitute for hearing the colossus account for himself. Beneath the Underdog, his infamous autobiography, is required reading for any Mingus (or jazz) fan, but its digressions and frequent forays into obvious fiction fail to provide sufficient perception or clarity.

In these collected interviews, mostly conducted in the early ‘70s when Mingus was rebounding from years of turmoil, we get everything we’d expect: tall tales, candid insights, score settling, and the full range of topics that fascinated and inspired him. We get, in short, Mingus’s side of the story, which is particularly poignant considering he would succumb to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1979 (at the entirely too young age of 56).

For people like myself, who can never get enough of Mingus, much of this book is an exhilarating ride, an essential addition to our understanding of what made him such a unique and enduring iconoclast. He accounts for his proficiency, and the decades of practice, false starts, frustration and triumphs. He also takes every opportunity to discuss the men who encouraged him, ranging from obscure or unheard of to acknowledged masters like Fats Navarro and Charlie Parker. His theories (some fascinating; some preposterous) on everything from the Watts Riots to his controversial eviction from his loft (in 1968) are like many of his compositions: breathless, all-encompassing, unswerving. His consummate abilities (as a bassist, songwriter, jazz ambassador) are acknowledged by everyone who speaks of him.

Here are a handful of the literally hundreds of quotes I could pick from, which confirm what we know and, if anything, add additional layers to a man whose heart hung on every utterance—yet often managed to remain an enigma:

Mingus is a peculiar combination of perfectionist and… someone who always wants to experiment (Dan Morgenstern).

Well, Bud (Powell), Fats (Navarro) and Bird—they’re like saints to me. They gave everything. I think they really thought they were telling the people…the message, the spirit to live (Mingus).

I don’t think there is anybody in the music field who… he has not threatened to kill at one time or another, including his best friends (Dan Morgenstern).

He’s such a beautiful man. I’m glad he doesn’t talk, man, he says more with his silence and his music (Mingus, on Monk).

I feel a divine connection with eternal life when I write. I feel like something better than me is coming out of me (Mingus).

John Goodman deserves credit and praise for his work here. For starters, most of the interviews (with Mingus; with others) were conducted when he was a jazz critic for Playboy, and the intent was to compile them for a book. For a variety of factors, it was not meant to be, but Goodman was never able to stop thinking about it. The result, finally, provides something for everyone: it contains the history of Mingus, a history of jazz (which can also be found in his discography), astute reflections on American culture—from Mingus; from others, especially Goodman himself—and yet another testament to a titan who looms ever larger. Perhaps in the final analysis, this difficult project, an obvious labor of love, further sets the record straight and stands as something Mingus himself would undoubtedly endorse.

What more needs to be said?

(Speaking of Mingus, readers of this blog will know I’ve had more than a little to say, and as those of us in the know already know, enough can never, ever, be said of Mingus. Get hit in your soul HERE, HERE, and HERE.)

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