How About We Shift the Harvey Weinstein Discussion Up a Notch?

Even driving around the canyons and hollows of the Rocky Mountains as we were last week, it was impossible to avoid the Harvey Weinstein story. Every local TV station and newspaper had something on him, because after all, celebrity and sex are a sweet spot of American culture. (If there was a way to roll football and shopping into the story the rest of the planet could have exploded and no one would have noticed.)

Having put in several years of service observing the folkways of Hollywood, I too am engrossed with the sheer horror of Harvey. But, having seen the system up closer than many and having interviewed celebrities like Melanie Griffith and Lauren Hutton, to name only two, who were remarkably frank about their career strategies, I’m still left with the feeling that there’s another facet of this outrage that isn’t out on the table for indignant dissection.

It’s been noted that the Hollywood casting couch is such a hoary cliché the fact so many supposedly worldly media types are treating the Weinstein episode as a surprise is in fact the biggest surprise of all. I mean, what world have they been living in? As everyone who follows the movie industry knows, legendary tycoons like Jack Warner,  Louis B. Mayer and Sam Spiegel essentially operated harems of aspiring actresses for their personal amusements. Fat, piggy Harvey was merely following a well established tradition.

I’m with the skeptics who find it impossible to believe that savvy operators like former Disney chief Jeff Katzenberg, a friend and business confidante of Weinstein’s for 30 years, knew nothing of Harvey’s open secret of a reputation. Likewise, the pro forma notes of dismay sounded by people ranging from George Clooney, Matt Damon and even Barack Obama ring a little hollow. Anyone successful in any business is also in the business of knowing. The question here is what did they accept as a cost of doing business?

Which is close to the discussion that isn’t (currently) being had. And it’s this: For all the women who were rightfully, legitimately horrified at what Weinstein put them through, he wouldn’t have kept at it for 30 years or more if there weren’t at least an equal number of other women who wrote off submitting to Harvey as a cost of doing business. Which isn’t to say they weren’t disgusted by the sight of him and with themselves for going along with it. But if the legal issue is consent they — who we may never hear from — consented to a long-accepted Hollywood tradition.

Like a lot of businesses, Hollywood is a highly transactional environment. You have something he wants. He wants something you have. You make a deal. A deal horrifying to puritans and god-fearing protestants in Peoria, but damn close to normal in an industry where sex or at least sex appeal is the commodity that delivers the cash.

Part of the fascination with Harvey Weinstein is that the guy is in visual terms, central casting’s idea of a repulsive pig. The sort of guy few if any women would give a second look, if it weren’t for the fact he could put them in the movies. I can’t help but wonder how reaction to the story might be different if Weinstein looked like Ben Affleck? (In that context it’s hard to imagine Affleck having to resort to the bathrobe and massage shtick time after time.)

Point being, while Weinstein is a caricature of a disgusting dilemma — “Do I do it to get it over with? Or do I scream and run for the door?” — hundreds of other producers, directors, agents and other purveyors of influence and dreams look like they could model of GQ. The calculation over sullying your self-respect for career advancement becomes a bit different when the “predator’s” appearance doesn’t disgust you.

I’m hoping the discussion turns to what a lot of people — not just attractive young women — submit to, in terms of gross violations of traditional ethics and standards of behavior just to move a step up the career ladder. Such submission doesn’t have to mean snogging a porker like Harvey Weinstein. It could be as utterly routine as shutting up and being “a good team player” when every red light and alarm in your conscience is screaming that the boss or company you’re working for is engaged in legal or moral fraud. (Take, for example, the thousands of Wells Fargo employees who consented to the big bank’s series of outrageous frauds. Or take Enron, or Countrywide Financial, and on and on)

The current “me too” movement is a unique and valuable response to sexual harassment and assault. There are Harvey Weinsteins in every company from Main Street to Wall Street, and no woman should be required to weigh her option whether to submit to lechery or not. But while we’re at it, can we talk just a little, amongst ourselves, about how often ordinary people, us “little people”, are required to violate our basic ethical standards just to keep that next check coming?

 

And We Expect What from Las Vegas?

One night a couple of years ago, while taking a short cut across the Las Vegas Strip, I was stopped at a police road block. At least a dozen cops and a half-dozen police cruisers had cordoned off the side street and were supervising eight or nine semis maneuvering to unload at the freight dock of some large building.

Vegas hosts a non-stop run of trade shows, but come on! Maybe you need two cops to hold back traffic for a couple of minutes. What’s this all about?

As the huge trucks slowly angled into the docks I craned my neck over to passenger’s side to see where exactly they were going. The Sands Expo Center. And below it a banner announcing the “36th Annual SHOT Show”, the world’s biggest gun and ammo show, a production of The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a “gun enthusiasts” organization based, very ironically, in Newtown, CT.

The Vegas cops were there to protect a convoy of semis [which came across what public highway with how much protection?] loaded with hundreds-to-thousands of guns and rounds of ammunition.

There is no reason to believe this week’s epic mass slaughter — again, very ironically, at a country music concert in Las Vegas — will have any effect at all on the dwindling percentage of Americans feverishly clinging to the Second Amendment as the most vital of all the words of the U.S. Constitution. As statistics tell us, while each year there are fewer Americans owning guns, those that do, like Stephen Paddock, the Vegas shooter, as with an addict, are stockpiling both guns and ammo, with eight being the current average number of guns in their personal arsenals. [As the link above notes, 3% of America’s “gun enthusiasts” own 50% of the weapons. Paddock owned over 40.]

Discussions about the fragile psychology of these “gun enthusiasts”, (the polite description often used by the non-partisan press), have proven pointless. The credible accusation that someone, mostly white males, stockpiling an arsenal in their demonstrably peaceful suburbs and out on their ranches, has serious masculinity insecurity issues only increases their conviction that they and their “way of life” are under attack. At which point, their paranoia spiking,  they rush out and buy more guns and bullets.

In a country now more heavily armed per capita than [bleeping] Yemen, and far more than any other place on the planet, there isn’t a flicker of hope that any significant gun regulation will come out of this week’s massacre. We all remember that the response of the Republican congress to the Newtown slaughter was to further weaken gun laws. [Here’s another useful set of stats, if, as The Dude says, you’re not into that whole brevity thing.]]

In a rational environment, there would at the very least be a terrorist watch list-like data base of people buying up multiple numbers of guns and the thousands of rounds of ammo so many of these killers manage to acquire. [A $5 tax per bullet might slow things down a bit, too.] There would also be a rational acceptance of the fact that — if getting killed by a psychopath is something you worry about — the chances of that guy being a middle-aged-to-older white guy far exceeds the likelihood of him being a muslim. [As close as we’re likely to get to a definitive comparison, over the 10 years from 2005 to 2015, there were  71 deaths on American soil due to “terrorism” and over 301,000 to “normal” gun violence. Remind yourself of that the next time the news kids go berserk over a “terror link.”]

But we left “rational” behind generations ago. A huge part of the American myth — powerfully abetted by pop culture — is that our “freedoms” were born out of and sustained by firepower and that male potency is directly linked, infused if you will, with threats and displays of violence. Never mind every statistic available proving that we are living in one of the least violent and threatening periods of human existence.

If there is a glimmer of hope anywhere it may be in the Supreme Court’s decision on Wisconsin’s gerry-mandering. If the court at long, long last concurs that congressional districts designed to sustain a particular party affiliation is, you know, not what the Founding Fathers had in mind, it would mean that rural politicians would have to appeal to someone other than the reddest meat of their pro-Second Amendment constituency. It might well mean that the NRA’s choke-chain on every Republican and all but a couple of Blue Dog Democrats, like Minnesota Collin Peterson, would show a little slack.

But the psycho-sensory effect of a loaded gun in the hand of a guy with a weak sense of his masculinity is so powerful it truly is a primal, primary motivation in his life.

Good luck changing that.

“The Vietnam War” and A Flood of Memories

Watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War” unleashes a torrent of memories, few of them good. Despite the moral cover offered by the likes of Ronald Reagan a decade after the fall of Saigon, there was never anything “noble” about “the cause”. The mission of Vietnam was ignorant and ignoble and it’s execution begat an apocalyptic disaster.

People too young to remember the era first hand must have a hard time applying any kind of comparison. At its worst — which it was for nearly 10 years — Vietnam was the equivalent of a Hurricane Harvey/Irma/Maria disaster hitting every week for years in terms of expense, only worse because it was compounded by another 300–500 American deaths each week, with all the grief, rage and polarization that induced. In the midst of it Vietnam felt like a catastrophe without end.

Thinking about it again 50 years later sets the mind off in a dozen directions, most with institutional deceit at their hub.

As a generally credulous teenager in far off, all-white, small town America for half of the Vietnam years, what was etched most into my consciousness, my routine valuations and assessments of American life, was a deep skepticism of authoritarian belief systems. For me (and millions of others) Vietnam was a horrifying example of the steep and frequently cataclysmic effect of blindly submitting to “established order.” By “authoritarian” I mean the subservient end of the process, where “average citizens”, i.e. “the led” embrace and accede to the direction of what passes for our ruling class.

At one point in “The Vietnam War” a field commander gets emotional talking about the world’s greatest fighting men, young Americans who, he says, are great soldiers because they can be trained to follow commands without question, to always do what needs to be done. No one questions the value of such training/indoctrination in a combat situation where Job #1 is staying alive. But that same unquestioning reverence for authority, the willingness to be led anywhere, is also what commits an entire culture — American, Vietnamese, “radical Islamic”, North Korean — to homicidal disasters.

I’m not certain what the essential roots of the authoritarian mindset are. In the film we meet West Pointer Matt Harrison, raised in a military family with an unequivocal alpha father. “Duty” and “honor” were staples of his family psychology. An apex of Americanism. (The film introduces us to Harrison in the company of two other West Point classmates. The cream of young American manhood. The three arrive in Vietnam simultaneously and barely a week later the other two are dead, zipped up and carted away in body bags, after an ambush on a classically absurd “search and destroy” mission.)

Domineering, ethics-shaping fathers are no doubt a powerful influence in the authoritarian makeup. But so to is the group think of immediate culture, that is to say the people you go to school with, do business with and need to count on as compatriots to achieve happiness in life. As the film tells us, through surviving veterans and a precious few of the ruling bureaucrats of the era, “courage” in the early to middle years of Vietnam was defined by skepticism-free, unquestioning acceptance. Doing “your duty.” “Cowardice” was defined by expressing empirical doubt about what Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara and all the other (all white, all-male) leadership group was selling.

Only in the late Sixties, with weekly death tolls hitting 200–400 did the general authoritarian impulse abate enough to create a cultural mass sufficient enough that doubters and objectors had protection from blowback from “the silent majority.”

As depressing as it is to relive the emotions of those years, Burns and Novick are fully aware of how this same reptilian, atavistic, authoritarian mentality infects society today.

I often take (negligible) comfort in the high likelihood that credulous group-think is an aspect of our ongoing evolutionary process. Instinctual group-think impulses saved man-apes on the African savanna, neanderthals in northern Europe and fledgling humanoids everywhere from predator attack for millions of years. Independent thinking was a recipe for shunning if not death. It stands to reason we haven’t lost that go-with-group instinct in the blink of the evolutionary eye that we’ve been (sort of) fully conscious.

But evolution has proceeded. We are now a couple important rungs up the ladder of full(er) awareness. In evolutionary math terms the experience of Vietnam, with its catastrophic levels of misguidance and deceit maybe the overall percentage of independent cognition ticked up 5 to 10%.

If we survive our technological infancy, maybe in  a few hundred years we’ll reach a tipping point where rational thought is the controlling norm. The hope is that then we’ll understand that the predators we most need to protect ourselves against are the people exploiting our “patriotic” impulses to attack someone else.

 

One Fool’s Experience with Delta/American Express’s “Platinum” Customer Service

Please allow me to vent.

I don’t write this because it is unique in any way. Precisely the opposite. What follows below is the kind of stuff every American consumer deals with on a regular basis … if, like me, they’re foolish enough to put up a fight.

To keep a long-ish story as short as possible, the saga begins last June at the Fox Car Rental desk in Las Vegas. Because I’m a cheap bastard I reserved a car at Fox’s “airport location” completely based on price. Their’s was cheaper than Budget, Hertz, etc. Was I happy to discover that Fox’ “airport location” is not one but two shuttle bus rides and a half an hour away from the airport and that the building itself is a chaotic, dirty mess? No.

Likewise, was I in any way amused to be told I was free to wait there amid a scene out of “A Bad Day in Karachi” for “two or three hours” for a car to become available? Or that I had to compete with two other guys, one at each shoulder, barking at the same beleaguered clerk about the fact that they didn’t have their reserved vehicles either? Not so much.

But my Cheap-O-Dar began blinking bright red when I noticed a $150 deposit added to the quoted bill. Did I believe the tiny, tired, bird-like little woman/clerk when she said, “It’s just routine. It comes off when you bring the car back.” Not really.

Flashing forward: I returned the car as scheduled, a week later, on July 6 to be exact, took an Uber to the airport and flew home.

A few weeks later I check, just to make sure you know, that funky $150 “deposit” has been lifted from my American Express bill. Shocker: It hasn’t. Getting anyone at Fox Car Rental on the phone proves futile, so I call American Express, issuer of my all-powerful, all-servicing Delta Airlines Platinum American Express card, and tell them this is wrong and I’m disputing the charge. The representative is very business-like and puts a stop on the charge and promises an investigation.

“Damn straight!”, I say to myself, pleased that my $195 a year annual fee for the (let me repeat and foreshadow) Delta-American Express Platinum Card buys me such powerful and efficient representation. Fox Car Rental, you have screwed with the wrong dude!

A couple more weeks pass and I get a letter from (Delta-American Express Platinum, Inc.) informing me that their investigation has been completed and the charge will be returned to my account. In other words, pay the $150.

Now the fun begins. I call (Delta) American Express and essentially ask, “WTF?” On what grounds is American Express upholding this charge? Well, odd that I should ask that.

Without offering any details about who (if anyone) they spoke with at Fox, the AmEx rep goes into a long explanation of AmEx’s policy regarding collision claims. Point being they completely misunderstood/botched the reason for the dispute. This has nothing to with collision claims. Apologetic, they vow to redouble their thoroughness, power and efficiency and really, truly get to the bottom of things … this time.

Again hearing nothing for a while, I call AmEx back to inquire on their progress. And lo! There has been some! Fox has refunded $82 and change. Huh? Is there an explanation for why that amount and not the rest? Uh, no. AmEx has no information of contact between them and Fox. Do I want to dispute the $64? The underlying tenor of my response was, “[Bleep] yeah!.” AmEx again promises a thorough, powerful and efficient investigation.

Now, much like my wife and everyone saner than me, (which is pretty much everyone), you’re probably saying, “For chrissake. Forget it. It’s just $64.” But — you guessed it — it’s not the money so much as … the principle of the thing. Companies like Fox calculate they can get away with this stuff 95% of the time. Sane people will let them have the money simply because it isn’t worth their time to fight it. But this a form of moral consumer jihad I’m waging! Infidels and non-believers need to STFU.

What further fuels my crazed zealot-like focus is the reading of a handful of consumer complaint websites on Fox Car Rental and the innumerable ways they have jacked other customers around with that $150 deposit. I hate to accuse an American corporation of a routine, institutionalized scam, but there, I just did. If half of the on-line complaints (most very detailed) are true, I’ve got lots of company complaining about pretty much the same thing.

Getting the distinct feeling that my $195 annual fee (for unparalleled customer service) isn’t buying me quite the power and efficiency I had hoped for, I try again to contact someone — anyone at Fox. And I succeed! An actual person answering an actual phone, who actually tells me the $64 is for an extra day’s rental, since I returned the car on the 7th of July, not the 6th as I promised. Telling her that that would be really tough to do since I was home in Minnesota on the 7th, and had been for a day, means nothing to her. In classic corporate fashion, it’s not up to the company to prove they’re right, it’s up to me — the customer — to prove they’re wrong.

Back to (Delta) AmEx. They have requested a copy of my original rental agreement with Fox, but (you guessed it) as yet have no new information on the dispute. Well, I tell them, I do. (Because I made a phone call.) I tell them what Fox is claiming about the extra day and that to resolve this thing — powerfully and efficiently — AmEx should go get a copy of my boarding pass for the July 6 Delta flight and slap it in Fox’ nefarious little faces.

So now. Are you ready for some true inter-corporate comedy? The (last of several) AmEx customer service reps tells me they can’t do that. You see, they have no real connection to Delta Airlines. Firewall. In my best interests. Customer privacy protection and all that.

Again, my exact line wasn’t, “Are you [bleeping] kidding me?” but that’s what I was thinking. “Right on the card it says Delta SkyMiles American Express, and you’re telling  you have no access to Delta Airlines and no way to get something as simple as a copy of a boarding pass? And if you can’t get it, who can?

I already knew the answer to that one. Once again, as a key component in the Delta/American Express Platinum customer service protocol, I the customer, would be the one doing the leg work in settling this dispute for AmEx … on my behalf.

I call Delta customer service. There’s a four-hour long queue. They finally call back.

The lady is very polite and friendly. She commiserates about Fox’s scummy business practices and assures me that at the moment she doesn’t have access to flight records. (“It’s so far back” — not quite two and a half months). But, as a valued customer,  I am able to write to a Delta archive department in Atlanta … via snail mail … and ask them to retrieve a copy of the boarding pass … after paying Delta … $20. It’s another customer service thing, you understand.

Feeling pretty woozy at this point, I ask why I don’t see any record of the trip to Vegas, coming or going, on my Delta SkyMiles account? I mean if I did I could just kick that over to my high-powered AmEx investigators.  The friendly, polite customer service rep tells me that’s because I failed to … manually enter my SkyMiles number. (I’ve had the card just over a year.)

“What?!”, I blurble. “I bought the ticket on the Delta site with the Delta SkyMiles American Express Platinum card which has all of my information from my SkyMiles account number to, [bleep] I don’t know, how often I floss my teeth. What’s the possible point of not automatically entering the SkyMiles number when I’m buying a Delta plane ticket for myself?”

The response is deep scripted gibberish about what if I wasn’t who I said I was? What if I was instead, “Ted Green”, buying a ticket?” In other words, yet another customer service in the name of “customer privacy”. It’s entirely for me own good.

Or perhaps, I tell her, is it because Delta’s bean counters have run a few numbers and calculated how many fewer travel awards they’ll have to pay out to eligible customers if X% of those customers fail to manually enter their SkyMiles data? Shall we, mam, freely speculate on possible “savings” and enhancement of shareholder value?

“Oh, no! I assure you that’s not the reason.”

Of course not. Delta’s only responsibility is to serve.

Bottom line as of today. There is no resolution to this titanic struggle. Delta wants a fee for providing a simple service and AmEx is continuing to, well, they’re continuing to continue, by doing what, I have no idea.

In terms of cost per time spent, I’m pretty sure I’m deep into deficit spending. My only satisfaction to date is a perverse one. Namely, the chronicling of a not at all unusual episode of the American hospitality/service/finance industry, which as we all know is out there every day building consumer trust through customer service … powerfully and efficiently.

 

 

 

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates v. George Packer. The Good Fight.

A pet idea I’ve never let go of is, “Your Debate of the Week”. It would be a televised (or streamed) clash of ideas that would largely prohibit politicians, at least until they’ve retired and can say something candid and provocative.

The concept is pretty obvious. Get a climate scientist, (or even our own Paul Douglas), and a denier, turn the camera on and give them 90 minutes to thrust and parry. Likewise, two economists arguing over the hoary, time-refuted notion that corporate tax cuts (excuse me, “reform”) will — this time — translate into good-paying middle-class jobs and raise all boats.

Or, to exploit the most relevant topic currently trending in the elite media micro-verse, Ta-Nehisi Coates and George Packer breaking down the concept of white supremacy and how it explains Donald Trump in the White House.

Coates, now a contributor for Atlantic magazine, is by my estimate and quite a few others, the most eloquent and cogent writer going on the topic of America’s “great shame”. He may be The Intellectual of the Moment. He writes with remarkable precision and passion, which is (a lot) different from just being angry, although god knows he’s that, too. Packer, who is often featured in The New Yorker, (I mentioned the “elite” thing, right?) also authored a terrific book, “The Unwinding”, on how easily America could lose/is losing its moral bearings and spiral(ing) into complete dysfunction.

Coates and Packer are now engaged in a very interesting and very valuable debate — accented by respect, accusation and counter-charge — on what IMHO is the critical factor in the control slack-jawed stupidity has over the once-exceptional US of A.

Coates has a new book out, a section of which is excerpted in the current issue of The Atlantic. Titled “The First White President”, Coates makes several highly relevant, provocative points, among them that Trump owes his ascension to white reaction to Barack Obama’s successful presidency. Namely, the need to refute it, dismantle it and redefine it for history in order to protect the foundering entitlement of white Americans.

But he also argues, as he has often before, that American journalists are complicit in this supremacy narrative either through laziness, cultural blinders or professional group-think, which in practice aren’t all that different. Coates has made a (deserved) name for himself by pushing themes that would produce high anxiety acid reflux in the editors of the average newspaper editorial page.

Face it, much of what passes as “robust” opinion exchange today is really little more than highly moderated/modulated, widely-accepted wonkery. The stuff of snoozy, homogenized, self-satisfied seminars. (In local terms I describe this edge-less, bland, vanilla exchange of conventional rhetoric as The Tom Horner – Tim Penny Paradigm. Authoritative-sounding arguments that turn no new ground or risk any significant blowback. ) By stark contrast, the quality Coates’ brings to a vitally important issue is fueled by the combination of his life experience, his scholarship and his willingness to take the fight to otherwise sacred cows, such as his journalistic peers.

In his “First White President” piece Coates, writes at length and without flattery about liberal politicians’ and journalists’ constant preference to view the Trump phenomenon as a “class” issue and his election as due to the “frustrations of blue-collar whites”, otherwise known as “the left behind”. (I suspect Coates is no fan of J.D. Vance’s “Hillybilly Elegy”.)

Coates says, “One can, to some extent, understand politicians’ embracing a self-serving identity politics. Candidates for high office, such as Sanders, have to cobble together a coalition. The white working class is seen, understandably, as a large cache of potential votes, and capturing these votes requires eliding uncomfortable truths. But journalists have no such excuse.”

Soon thereafter he turns to Mr. Packer.  “White tribalism haunts even more-nuanced writers. George Packer’s New Yorker essay ‘The Unconnected’ is a lengthy plea for liberals to focus more on the white working class, a population that ‘has succumbed to the ills that used to be associated with the black urban ‘underclass’. Packer believes that these ills, and the Democratic Party’s failure to respond to them, explain much of Trump’s rise. Packer offers no opinion polls to weigh white workers’ views on ‘elites’, much less their views on racism. He offers no sense of how their views and their relationship to Trump differ from other workers’ and other whites.”

Thankfully for us, George Packer is not defenseless and sees value in a clash of ideas with someone of Coates’ caliber.

In a response, in The Atlantic, Packer writes, “There’s a lot to admire in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new essay. It’s one of those pieces that grabs you with its first paragraph and never lets go. The argument keeps gathering force, building on the striking imagery (“Trump cracked the glowing amulet open”) and the caustic scouring of the polemics (opioids are treated as a sickness, crack was punished as a crime), to the very end. At its heart is the undeniable truth that racism remains fundamental in American politics.”

He agrees with much of Coates’ essential premise. “At the heart of American politics there is racism. But it’s not alone—there’s also greed, and broken communities, and partisan hatred, and ignorance. Any writer who wants to understand American politics has to find a way into the minds of Trump voters. Any progressive politician who wants to gain power has to find common interests with some of them, without waiting for the day of reckoning first to scourge white Americans of their original sin. This effort is one of the essential tasks of politics.”

But then he drops his hammer. “When you construct an entire teleology on one cause—even a cause as powerful and abiding as white racism—you face the temptation to leave out anything that complicates the thesis. So Coates minimizes sexism—Trump’s disgusting language and the visceral hatred of many of his supporters for Hillary Clinton—background noise. He downplays xenophobia, even though foreigners were far more often the objects of Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policy proposals than black Americans. (Of all his insults, the only one Trump felt obliged to withdraw was his original foray into birtherism.) Coates doesn’t try to explain why, at one point in the campaign, a plurality of Republicans supported Ben Carson over the other nine candidates, all white. He omits the weird statistic that slightly more black and Latino voters and slightly fewer whites went for Trump than for Mitt Romney. He doesn’t even mention the estimated eight and a half million Americans who voted for President Obama and then for Trump—even though they made the difference. No need to track the descending nihilism of the Republican Party. The urban-rural divide is a sham.”

The palpable sexism involved in the loathing of Hillary Clinton by conservatives and a certain strata of liberals is a fascinating reality that suggests Coates should consider appending the word “male” to his “white supremacy” references.

I could go on (and on). But my points are these:

1: In the event you were looking for one, this is a distinctly valuable and enlightening debate, both because of the fundamental issues and the lucidity of the intellects involved.

2: And yet it is pretty much sequestered in the (elite) liberal-intellectual thought arena. (Try imagining any of the current crop of conservative thought-leaders/provocateurs, your Ann Coulters, Sean Hannitys or Laura Ingrahams daring to get into the ring with Mr. Coates.) Coates did make an appearance on Chris Hayes’ MSNBC show last week, and it was striking to see how much more animated and intellectually invigorated Hayes was talking to Coates than the usual partisan pundits.

Our rancid polemical air would be cleaner and healthier to breathe if debates of this quality were given a more prominent platform by … the mainstream media.

 

 

The Spirit of The Village Voice is Alive and Well

Although it couldn’t have come as much of a surprise, news that the Village Voice, so long lefty hipsterdom’s bible of progressive rectitude, was no longer going to be published on paper set off a wail of laments. (Such as it is today, the Voice will still be published online.)

Certainly there’s an end-of-an-era quality to this news. But if the fear is that stories and attitudes distilled, amplified, incited by the Voice will no longer be covered, I just can’t buy that.

The Voice’s historical standing is secure. It is the first publication any informed person thinks of when they hear the phrase, “alternative press.” Loaded with a pantheon of terrific, cogent thinkers like Nat Hentoff, Robert Cristgau, Richard Goldstein, Jack Newfield, Alex Cockburn, Sylvia Plachy, Andrew Sarris, Teresa Carpenter and on and on, the Voice was irresistible reading for everyone hungry to know where the cutting edge of politics, arts and culture was in a given week.

The success of the Voice spawned a coast-to-coast legion of copycats, although few with the Voice’s social impact in their respective markets. Here in the Twin Cities several came and went. The Twin Cities Reader (where I worked) and City Pages competed for two decades, producing dozens of impressive features, hundreds of insightful reviews of film and music as well as, let’s face it, thousands of pretty junky advertiser-friendly “service journalism” plugs. (I accept my complicity.)

Point being, it wasn’t all glory.

The further point being that despite the Voice pulling down the curtain on print, the kinds and even the quality of writing on all of the Voice’s principal topics is available today in an astonishing profusion that I have to think would have gratified people like Hentoff and Jules Feiffer and Ellen Willis.

A daily mix of writing from the likes of Vox, The Daily Beast, Slate, Salon, Esquire (Charlie Pierce, baby!), Vanity Fair blended with the emboldened work of the Trump-era New York Times and Washington Post is, I’m arguing, as good and vital as anything the Voice produced.

Michael Musto — the Voice’s long time chronicler of the city’s gay scene — has a piece out (at the Daily Beast) poo-pooing the lament that all is lost. “Gay journalism” certainly is in some kind of golden age today.

He makes several interesting comments. Among them, this: “… the Voice—thanks to my then-editor, Karen Durbin–gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted about all of that, encouraging me to explore, titillate, and go against the big guns, all while celebrating the fringe characters and underdogs of the city. I was excited and ennobled by the weekly assignment.”

The sad fact of publishing’s economic life is that that kind of freedom — to be excessive, even — grows less and less likely with the overhead of print (and absurd ROI expectations). What writer among those of us who have worked in the Twin Cities hasn’t had the experience of the editor-as-dutiful, fearful accountant carving obscure cultural references, humor, point-of-view, snark and voice out of stories about culture, both political and artistic?

“Straighter yet” becomes the order of the day when your editors are less committed to an engaging, provocative product than to protecting long-term advertising contracts?

I’d like to see an on-line collective of that kind of provocative writing here in the Twin Cities. Obviously no one is going to pay much if anything for it. But someone could do worse than aggregate these cities’ abundant blog work onto a common forum, if only to see what comes of it.

Trump’s Resignation Imminent? There’s A Logic To It.

I take this with a 50-pound block of salt. But the guy saying it has spent an unusual amount of time with Donald Trump and has insights into his, uh, business ethics and intellectual discipline unlike few others outside Trump’s immediate family.

“Art of the Deal” ghost writer, Tony Schwartz, is predicting a Trump resignation is imminent  — fueled by looming, bankrupting indictments from Robert Mueller’s investigation.

 

Skepticism is always a virtue. But given how recklessly Trump has conducted his business affairs and the vast trail he has left with Deutsche Bank, Russian banks, quasi-Russian banks in Cyprus and on and on, Mueller’s heavyweight team of financial investigators can not being having all that difficult a time building some kind of a case against him. Put another way, they may already have so many choices for indictment their biggest dilemma is picking the worst of the lot.

And remembering that Al Capone ended up at Alcatraz for tax fraud rather than garroting and machine gunning his booze-running rivals and cops, any kind of indictment that puts Trump’s “fortune” in lethal jeopardy would likely be enough for Trump to squeal like a pig and cut, you guessed it … a deal.

The New Yorker’s Adam Davidson has been doing some of the best work explaining Trump’s preposterously foul-smelling [i.e. money-laundering] deals in former Russian provinces. In his latest piece, titled “Trump’s Business of Corruption” he writes about (yet another) absurd-on-the-face-of-it Trump deal, this time in Soviet Georgia.

“I recently spoke with John Madinger, a retired U.S. Treasury official and I.R.S. special agent, who used to investigate financial crimes. He is the author of “Money Laundering: A Guide for Criminal Investigators.” When I told him what [long time Trump advisor Michael] Cohen had said to me [that Trump didn’t have any obligation to know the cash for the deal was being routed through a fraud-riddled Kazakhstan bank], he responded, “No, no, no! You’ve got to do your due diligence. You shouldn’t do a financial transaction with funds that appear to stem from unlawful activity. That’s like saying, ‘I don’t care if Pablo Escobar is my secret business partner.’ You have to care—otherwise, you’re at risk of violating laws against money laundering.”

By now Team Trump has to know what Mueller is probing hardest at, and it is almost certainly squalid crap like these cheesy Russian “deals”, all of which give Putin blackmail leverage on Trump, overt collusion or not. Moreover, as has been noted several times since the raid on Paul Manafort’s luxury condo, getting Trump’s tax returns/records requires Mueller et al meet a lower legal bar than getting a search warrant for Manafort’s property.

Point being, Schwartz is simply doing the math. Seized tax returns + heavyweight financial crimes investigators pouring over ludicrous “licensing deals” in former Russian kleptocracies + nearly total isolation from Congress and U.S. business communities after making common cause with neo-Nazis = Trump alone in a corner where even the 80% support of Republicans can’t protect either his money or prevent him from being re-branded as one of history’s most flagrant swindlers.

I also wonder how much thought Mueller is giving to Trump’s increasingly irrational mental state as that lonely spot in the corner gets tighter and darker?

 

Nazis? I Don’t See Any Nazis.

So 72 years after The Greatest Generation defeated the racist, totalitarian regimes of Germany and Japan we’ve elected a President of the United States who doesn’t dare criticize … Nazis.

We understand why of course. It’s because, as Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke reminded everyone over the weekend, after the neo-Nazi rally/murder in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“We are determined to take our country back,” said Duke. “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.” He later added, “I would recommend you [Trump] take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists.”

At this point in the Trumpocalypse I hold little hope that refusing to call Nazis “Nazis” and hiding behind a bland White House statement condemning violence will be the turning point civilized people have been waiting for. High profile Republicans like Ted Cruz and Marc Rubio have issued strong … words … saying more or less what Trump can’t bring himself to say. But what they ever actually do about legislating away the roots of racism is a whole other thing. Because they too have Trump’s base problem. Trump’s people are also their people. They don’t stay in office without the 10%-12% red-faced racist vote.

But the thing that jumped out at me watching tape of the Charlottesville rally was the brazenness and bravado of the mostly young-ish men hanging their faces for all the world to see as they chanted Nazi slogans against blacks, Jews and “faggots.” The blow back in the age of social media has been immediate and often hilarious.

Without discounting sheer stupidity, it’s always worth asking why these characters feel emboldened to make such an unashamed public display of their rancid bigotry.

Obviously stupidity and bigotry are hard-wired into human nature. There’ll always be a percentage of the crowd maniacally proud of their animosities. But the point here is that Donald Trump didn’t create this class of raging fools. It’s actually the reverse. This virulent, ermboldened form of racism created Trump.  All he did was step up and exploit a principal facet of the late 20th/early 21st century Republican/conservative message.

I’ve been accused of having an obsession with the influence of commercial talk radio, which exploded in popularity in the late ’80s when the Reagan administration repealed The Fairness Doctrine, a broadcast rule requiring equal time rebuttal to charges and claims made against candidates and organizations. The modern “fake news” phenomenon began at this point, with the likes of Rush Limbaugh and literally hundreds of wanna-bes across the country unleashed to preach, without any serious counter argument anything their audience wanted to hear, facts and reality be damned.

Having spent (too much) time covering and being a host in that milieu, I can tell you first hand that at every point the ratings took a slide the answer from corporate executives and their local managers was to … get louder and crazier, or “go harder right,” as my one time boss told us. (For the record I was the token liberal, there to be ritually flogged, supposedly.)

The response from this group of shirt-and-tie businessmen to me asking why the hell they were selling complete nut job ideas like evolution-denial and cults of “Democrat generals” screwing up Dick Cheney’s Iraq war plan was, you guessed it, “Settle down. It’s just business.” “We’re just trying to sell ads, man.” As though stoking and encouraging the delusions and grievances of emotionally immature listeners was no different from talking more Vikings or playing more Taylor Swift.

When you look at the raging faces of the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville it’s worth considering how much of that crowd’s sense that they are the rising tide, the great, brave upswelling of true conservatism is based on the 30 years of indoctrination they’ve received from friendly neighbors of yours and mine “just doing my job, man”.

Responsibility for Charlottesville spreads a lot further than The Daily Stormer, which as I see as of a couple of hours ago has been hacked and taken over by Anonymous.

Count on it: Today on Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin: “The Radical Leftists’ War on The Daily Stormer’s First Amendment Rights.”

 

 

From “Dunkirk” to “Detroit”

Despite everything you see and hear and read (including here), somethings are evolving … in a good way. As a lifelong movie fan I’m encouraged — for different reasons — by what I’ve seen in two films now playing in a theater near you.

First, “Dunkirk”. Christopher Nolan’s latest movie shows one of the true master craftsmen of modern Hollywood reining in his worst excesses while continuing to push out from the time-worn parameters of theater-style story structure.

There likely isn’t a movie fan who doesn’t look forward to Nolan’s next project. (His brother Jonathan and Jonathan’s wife, Lisa Joy, handle creative functions for HBO’s “Westworld”.) As far back as “Memento” and “The Prestige” it was obvious that Christopher was someone bringing a remarkably high degree of technical precision and imagination to his story telling, camera and sound work and editing. With the mega-hits of his “Batman” trilogy, especially “The Dark Knight”, he entered the pantheon of modern movie makers in whom studios happily risk gargantuan budgets.

But while, like everyone, I couldn’t help be impressed with Nolan’s command of big set action pieces, like the Batcycle chase through Lower Wacker Drive in “The Dark Knight’s” Gotham (aka Chicago) and the stunning opening, mid-air hijack sequence of “The Dark Night Rises”. And there’s no question he got a freakishly vivid performance out of Heath Ledger in the former.

So yeah, impressed. But I thought kept gnawing at me. llA that talent in the service of what? A comic book story built on a psychopathically sadistic mass murderer (redundancy alert)? Plus, “The Dark Knight” was already too long before we got to the grim ferry-boat scene and The Joker’s extended demise. And the 20 minutes Nolan needed to trim from “The Dark Knight” should have been 40 for “The Dark Knight Rises”, which took a deep dive into the quasi-religious existential angst (of a comic book hero) and left me at least with the odd taste of pretentious gloom and cramped-up gluteus muscles.

Prior to “Dunkirk”, “Inception” was my favorite Nolan film. But it was an extraordinarily imaginative story saddled with a corny ’80s-style James Bond snowmobile shoot-out that added 15 minutes of standard-issue “action” to an already long-ish movie that was compelling for reasons far, far more interesting than some third act gun play.

With “Dunkirk” Nolan seems to have accepted that less really is more, keeping his tri-furcated story to a tight 106 minutes while giving his audience all the eye-candy and intensity they can bear.

Again, as a film fan, as someone hungry for a movie that tells its story visually, using all the tricks of craft available to a modern director (operating on a nearly blank check studio budget), “Dunkirk” is a vitalizing experience. The conceit of the three separate story lines, a week, a day and an hour, is clever on the face of it. But it is Nolan’s craftsmanship and discipline, evident in how he binds separate sequences, from the boats in the water to the squadron of Spitfires cruising by overhead. His maintains the audience’s bearings because he is so precise with details of the action, like the reverse angle and sun direction on the planes when we see them from the water looking maybe 20 minutes after we first see the boat from the pilots’ vantage above. That level of control is repeated perhaps a dozen times.

Likewise, the sound effects. I have a friend who went out to complain to the theater manager — twice — that the audio was cranked far too loud. (Others have as well.) But it didn’t bother me either time I saw it in Imax at Southdale. Far from it. From the ticking clock, (Nolan’s own watch, the story goes), to his use, again, of the Shepard tone to create the sense of ever-escalating aural intensity, the film’s sound effects (and score) will inspire years of imitators.

Goggle-eyed fans, critics and other filmmakers have referred to Nolan as this generation’s Stanley Kubrick, in terms of his commitment to craft, and were he alive I think old Stanley would be flattered by the comparison. Nolan is that good. But where Kubrick went that Nolan has yet to go — think “Dr. Strangelove”, “2001”, “A Clockwork Orange” and “Eyes Wide Shut” (a movie that gets better every time I watch it) — is filmmaking like a truly independent, confident artist, that requires audiences rethink a wide range of hard set presumptions and emotions … while feeding them a rarefied version of the genre spectacle (war movie, sci-fi, gang dystopia) they’re accustomed to seeing.

Given that Nolan is in a position to shoot any story he likes with a studio budget 99% of other filmmakers can only dream of, the challenge I’d like to see him take on, if only once to see how it plays, is an adaptation of ambitious novel. Something that doesn’t require a cast of thousands, a hired air force and the sinking of four ships.

I don’t know what I’d recommend, but the other day I was reading an article about Carlos Castaneda. The film version of “A Separate Reality” could be great fun for someone with Nolan’s gifts.

 

As for Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit”, what’s encouraging here is the determination of both Bigelow and her screenwriting partner Mark Boal … and 31 year-old producer Megan Ellison, boss of Annapurna Pictures, which by virtue of young Ms. Ellison’s father, super billionaire Larry Ellison of Oracle software fame, is for all intents and purposes a new Hollywood studio.

“Detroit” has no chance of even getting in the shadow of the box office haul “Dunkirk” is taking in. As a movie going experience it is visceral, but hardly pleasant. The subject matter is the notorious Algiers Motel incident amid the Detroit riots of 1967. Three black teenagers died of gun shots at the hands of white Detroit cops without any evidence they had the gun the cops came looking for.  Its central sequence in a motel hallway, is a relentless exercise in psychological torture and physical abuse. And Bigelow’s intent is to make her audience endure it as much as the survivors did as is possible on a movie screen.

You want a truly unhinged objection to “Detroit”, try reading this from The New Yorker.

(Says the writer, Richard Brody, “As I watched this protracted scene of captivity, terror, torture, and murder in the Algiers Motel, I wondered: How could they film this? How could a director tell an actor to administer these brutal blows, not just once but repeatedly? How could a director instruct another actor to grimace and groan, to collapse under the force of the blows? How could a director even feel the need to make audiences feel the physical pain of the horrific, appalling police actions? I wondered the same thing while watching “Detroit” that I did when watching ‘Schindler’s List’, another film about atrocities that is itself an atrocity.) Dude, take a walk around the block and try that again.

I too have some complaints about Boal’s script, (the bona fide facts of the incident have never been settled), and would advise Bigelow that the darting, constantly shifting camerawork is an effect best used judiciously rather than as a visual theme. But what’s encouraging here is that Bigelow, Boal and Ellison have taken an indisputably relevant topic, the much too frequent criminality of American police forces, and set it loose in our suburban multi-plexes. Not sure Warner Brothers would finance the same movie.

For all its faults, and the film industry’s nauseating, cynical obsession with gun violence is at the top of its worst offenses, (and yeah, that trailer before “Detroit”?, that’s Bruce Willis in the Charles Bronson role in schlockmeister Eli Roth’s remake of the vigilante wet dream, “Death Wish“), Hollywood’s limousine ultra-liberals continue to be a prominent force in shifting public attitudes on vital social issues. There was racial equality. There was gay acceptance. Numerous superb anti-war films have countered the John  Wayne bullshit. And, although this has a long ways to go, Bigelow and Ellison are putting their names, reputations and (enviable pool of) money into making brave comment on the critical issue of racial police violence.

We are currently led by fools and Hollywood, when it isn’t stroking the violent fantasies of the emotionally insecure has sold itself to the fan boy culture of comic book super heroes. But here and there the art form is still pushing boundaries and taking conscionable risks.

 

 

33% and Still Falling. What Happens When Trump Burns Through His Base?

With his approval rating now down to 33% in a credible poll — a 7% slide in a month — Our Orange Leader has now begun burning through even his most credulous and reliable fans — namely white folks without a college education. More of them now disapprove than approve of the way he’s going about the business of “draining the swamp”, “rolling a hand grenade into the halls of Congress”, saving them from Sharia Law or whatever it was they wanted most when they voted for him.

With his recent blather about letting the cops rough up the “animals” they arrest, banning transgender troops from the military, restricting immigration to people who already speak English and (apparently) have lucrative jobs waiting for them in the States and sending alt-right centerfold Stephen Miller to defend it all, Trump has plainly been advised, most likely by Steve Bannon, that given the trend lines since January 20 he has to goose the enthusiasm of the hardest of his hard core and the hell with everyone else.

My concern, and I hear it echoing more frequently in recent days, is that with almost no one of any credibility in the government trusting a damned word he says, what happens when he, which is to say “we”,  have to deal with a truly serious crisis?

I’ve heard people wonder about a natural disaster like Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy. But the country’s emergency response apparatus, connecting with state and local authorities, is self-directing enough to deal with that kind of calamity.

My real concern, and I heard it again this morning from fusty old John Podhoretz, the generally affable conservative pundit on “Morning Joe”, is this:  What goes down in a military situation?

North Korea tops everyone’s list, and for a lot of good reasons.

But my worry is that we haven’t yet reached the floor of Donald Trump’s unique combination of incompetence, delusion and cynicism.

Point being: As he — inevitably — feels more and more vulnerable to total, unequivocal humiliation and financial ruin as a result of the Mueller investigation into what has very likely been a career of money-laundering for Russian gangsters, he will need a major distraction. A distraction of the military kind that rallies not just his low-information base but enough tribal Republicans to temporarily restore “presidential” status.

A not so preposterous possibility is that Trump/Bannon will seize on some incident, possibly regarding North Korea, perhaps some place else, and ratchet it up far beyond what is required in terms of military response in hopes of rallying the fraction of the population so poorly informed and forever willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt.

Never mind the response from the 61% who believe Trump is the fool they’ve always suspected. The question at that point becomes what does the Pentagon do? I’ve mentioned this before, because we all suspect — with the highest level of certainty — that the best of the classified information not just on Trump-Russia but Trump’s psychology is available to and a regular topic of conversation among US intelligence and military management.

So … Trump orders a strike, not just with a bunch of missiles blowing up a deserted air base, but a full scale attack with actual, regular commission troops-in-harm’s-way on a purported enemy with an ability to strike back.

What happens when the CIA, Pentagon, etc. receives that order? Given the unprecedented amount of leaking aimed at ridiculing and neutering Trump politically, I think we’ve passed the point where career generals and admirals will reflexively submit to the normal chain of command. As I say, I’m dead certain they already know — far better than we do — what they’re dealing with Trump and Team Trump, and have every reason to assume Trump is too compromised and incompetent to be obeyed in a lethal situation with any level of uncertainty.

Perhaps a bigger problem is that professional terrorists and Vladimir Putin presume the same thing.

 

 

 

It’s Time for an All-Female Police Force

 

It’s no surprise that “What to do about the police” has become a the hottest topic in the current Minneapolis mayoral race. What is surprising, and as dismaying as it has always been, is the still pervasive thinking that police brutality or to speak more broadly, “the police culture” will be revolutionized by changes that are in no way revolutionary.

There’s an old joke in Europe about the difference between Heaven and Hell. It goes like this:

HEAVEN is a place where the British are the police, the Germans are the mechanics, the French are the cooks, the Italians are the lovers, and it’s all run by the Swiss.

HELL is a place where the British are the cooks, the Germans are the police, the French are the mechanics, the Swiss are the lovers, and it’s all run by the Italians!

The line about the Germans is worth injecting into the conversation about the Twin Cities/America’s police culture, where conventional wisdom continues to turn on the belief that conventional nostrums, properly tweaked, will eventually, some day, some how, produce the result we all want. Never mind that “all” of us hold wildly opposing ideas of what is wrong and what needs fixing.

Following the call-and-response on various Facebook pages or in newspaper comments section is never a good way to start or end your day. In the aftermath of the killing of Justine Damond … by a panicked rookie cop in one of the metro area’s safest neighborhoods … there is a clear Trump base-like percentage of people adamant that the only reasonable response to a terrified rookie cop gunning down a woman in her pajamas is  … you guessed it, a freer license for cops. A less-fettered license to “do their jobs” to stop the overwhelming criminal horror being produced by “non traditional” interlopers, mainly Muslims.

While the majority of us express far (far) more educated, informed and enlightened thinking about “what to do about the police”, the gamut of most-discussed solutions runs from “greater outreach to communities of color” to different “prevention strategies” and so on … and on … pretty much re-repeating every idea ever tried before and hoping this time for a different, better result.

To get all realpolitik about it, it is time for the very fundamental question of whether men, especially young, aggressive males should be policing American neighborhoods to be put on the table for non-facetious discussion. Studies have repeatedly shown that men, young and inexperienced men in particular, enforce the law in a substantially more aggressive, physical and violent manner than their female colleagues.

Put another way, the propensity to physical assertions of authority and dominance is genetic, biological and a fact of human existence.

I’ve been saying for a while now that one of the key red flags for any police applicant should be how badly they want to be a cop. Applying the Hell-is-a-German-police force idea, (non-facetiously), it is a question of the depth of the applicant’s authoritarian psychology that should worry applicant screeners.

The disqualifying issue is connected to how police work has been represented in the press and popular culture for centuries now. Namely as a largely militaristic profession, with unambiguous military-style male authority figures dictating orders and an unambiguous authority lent to every (predominantly male) who can pass a community college-type course and put on a badge. With the badge and gun comes an alpha status unavailable or at least far more ambiguous in most other jobs. This is heroic imaging for many boys.

As in Germany and everywhere else in recorded human society, there are people who can handle this authority-given-by-authority with self-discipline. But in the United States, where cops are under stress from an out-of-control gun culture, there is a much too high a percentage who can not, and the consequences for the regular screw ups of that faction are not tolerable.

Flushing every male out of the entire Minneapolis police force and replacing them with women is a radical idea worth considering. The women may be as young and as experienced as the men they replace, but genetically and culturally women are far, far more likely to use (profanity free) verbal persuasion than a fist to the head or a bullet to the stomach to de-escalate situations.  (What’s the cost of sucking up the men’s pensions compared to the regular pay-outs for excessive force and the cratering community confidence … before the Damond killing?)

Troglodytes like union chief Bob Kroll and the Chicken Little Trump-base percentage living in terror of incipient Sharia Law, convinced the only solution to a rampant minority-driven crime wave is to double down on a military police force (the “Full German” response)  should be treated like the fools they are. Serious changes have to be made and the only thing the Kroll-Trump crowd is serious about is their paranoia.

Violent crime rates have been falling in the majority of American cities for well over a generation, (and here’s another), (and another), and as far as daily police work goes, revenue-creation via citation writing is nearly as important to cities as breaking up domestic disputes and reporting stolen cars. Point being, we don’t need the extra height, weight and muscle of an adrenalized 28 year-old male wearing his first badge and clutching his service revolver in his lap as he patrols … friggin’ southwest Minneapolis … to achieve enforcement results equal to what we’ve got now.

It’s impossible to imagine how the women (the British in the old joke about Europe) could do any worse.

The boys could then have more time to concentrate on getting their Italian act together.

 

 

 

 

Faces and Stories from Central Nevada

Part out of curiosity and partly as an excuse to get out of the 97 degree sun hammering down on Main St. Ely, NV, I stopped in the shade of a combination thrift shop/art gallery. As I paused idly inspecting the goods in the window a cheery 60-ish Indian lady waved for me to step in.

“All the work is done by Native artists from the area. Come in, look around. I’m sure you’ll find something you like.”

She went off to rejoin three other women beading at a table by the front window and I turned to give myself a tour. Most of the art work was fairly typical western fare. Sunset landscapes. Wild horses charging across the high desert. Remote watering holes. Derelict windmills. But in a side room an entire wall of 11 x 14 oil paintings of “Heroes of the American West.”

I turned away at first, not all that interested. But then I turned back, struck by one of my recurring curiosities. The “Heroes of the American West”? John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, James Arness, The Lone Ranger, Gene Autry, Festus, Miss Kitty and on and on. “Heroes”. But not even Tonto made the wall of heroes created by the local Native American artist. Even more to the underlying discordance, neither did Cochise, or Sitting Bull, or Chief Joseph or Sacajawea, or hell, Jim Bridger or Lewis & Clark.

Every “hero” on display was, as is so often the case in a culture “educated” with pop mythology,  a purely Hollywood creation, which is to say the invention of old school studio heads, many of them first generation eastern European Jews with an uncanny feel for what Americans (and the world) wanted to believe about the Old West and relive, over and over again in endless permutations. In short, in Hollywood’s telling and our understanding, The West was/is a vast land for the taking and holding by strong, generally silent alpha male vigilantes with quick and deadly trigger fingers. By men, and a few admiring women, who applied justice as needed and as they saw it.

Now the Native artist who created the portraits in the gallery in Ely may have had nothing more than the usual starving artist’s commercial interests in mind — i.e. give the people what they want — but the essence of my recurring slap of reality, one that’s amused and dismayed me for years — was reaffirmed.

The preponderance of Western mythology, which is inseparable from our shared American mythology, is largely a pulp fiction. The West of our accepted legend is for the most part a commercial creation by savvy businessmen (and essentially no women). And since it has had no match from a compromised public education system, it has evolved vigorously for a hundred years. As a result we live submerged in a historical psychology where Tom Mix meets Hopalong Cassidy meets John Wayne meets Clint Eastwood meets the Marlboro man meets Ronnie Reagan under a Stetson atop a quarterhorse meets George W. Bush wearing jeans with a big belt buckle clearing brush.

Millions of us grew up with this stuff. (Hell, as first taught to me, George Armstrong Custer was another great American hero. To which in this context you can fairly say, “At least he was real.”) I’d be lying if I didn’t say some part of this fantasy is why given any opportunity I head out West.

As we know well, what we want to believe is at least as powerful as what is authentic and true.

Anyway, as promised, here are some shots of people I crossed paths with while winding around central Nevada earlier this month.

I posted this one from the road. (L-R) It’s Rich the bartender, Linda, Bubba and Janet the Tuscarora, NV. postmaster. What I didn’t mention earlier is that I had been asking various macho dudes in their F-350s and Ram 2500s about getting across the 90 miles of gravel from Tuscarora to Golconda. The general reaction, after surveying my low-riding rental unit, was, “Mmmm. It gets rough. Winter was pretty bad, and they haven’t graded it. You’d be better off going back through Elko and taking [I-80].”

But when I asked Linda, who I’m told has a degree from Northwestern and recently jumped into a corral pen to wrestle a bull calf out of danger, she gave me that sage pause, the slow turn of the head and without dropping her shades to emphasize her point, said, “Oh hell, you’ll make it. Go slow. Watch where you’re going, and don’t do anything stupid.”

I believe that’s something we can all live by on whatever road we take.

Here is another repeat. My apologies. Janet the Postmaster (left) spent the first half of the summer keeping an eye on and helping out the four college girls in the picture, only one of whom was from “The West” (Bozeman) as they did field work for the U.S. Geological Survey. During the day their job was to walk the vast sage desert and count game birds, a summer gig they picked up via the Texas A&M website. According to Janet, their accommodations were pretty spartan, no showers or indoor plumbing. But from talking to the girls at their going away party it was obvious they had had a hell of a good time. Needless to say, a flock of the local young roosters, a couple of whom had the girls in a kind of flip cup billiards tournament when I left, were taking their own bird count.

Connie and Bill at the Toyiabe Cafe in Austin, NV. Connie, the waitress is a skinny spark plug, chatting up everyone who walks in. Each of whom is “darlin'” or “sweetheart”. Other than The International, a place down the street covered with Trump and “Make America Great Again” banners, the Toyiabe is the only place to eat in town, unless you count a Snickers bar from the Chevron station. Bill, her busboy is a damaged soul trying to get his life back together — or so I was told (at length) by the gals sitting out front of The Owl Bar the night before. (See below.)

Drug problems led to law problems led to losing contact with his wife and child, who are down in Tonopah while he rents a room from Mary (below) one of Austin’s primary landlords. But she’s told him that his no-accountant twin brother is persona non-grata on her property and should stay that way for Bill’s own good if he wants to get back with his family.

But bad brother was parked out front of the cafe the next day when I drove by after closing time.

(L-R) Susan, Mary and Mary’s granddaughter Jazzy, up from Vegas for the long holiday weekend. Mary owns several properties in Austin, which looks like a primary destination on a map but is down to a population of barely 200 these days.

Stopping to chat with these gals is an example of the sort of thing you only do if you’re traveling alone. Holiday weekend withstanding there was nothing going on in town, at least not until the bar across the street opened later for karaoke. So, spotting the ladies cooling in the evening shade out front of The Owl, which Mary owns, I asked if they’d mind some company. They didn’t and within a very short time I had a low down on several of Austin’s key characters.

Susan told a story of growing up in another gold mining town “up north” and how as grade schoolers in a company town the kids were let out of class and bused over to the mine every six weeks or so to watch the pouring of a full gold brick.

Truckers making the climb up over the summit, Jazzy’s friends dragging main waiting for karaoke and a couple well-lubricated good old boys in unmuffled pickups either waved in passing or stopped by to exchange jokes and gossip.

At one point Mary mentioned “going to town” for groceries, which made me realize that other than milk and bead and Mountain Dew at the Chevron station I hadn’t seen a grocery store … for a very long time.

“No, we got to go to Battle for supplies, pretty much.” “Battle” being Battle Mountain up on I-80, 90 miles north.

Susan also had a good story of driving over the summit late one afternoon when the sheriff and a wrecker went howling past. When she caught up with them they had stopped and were tending to a guy in a “little red convertible” who had been stunned by a hay bale falling off a big rig and directly into the passenger well of the convertible.

“Thing filled the whole car. I don’t know how he steered it over to the side. Funniest damn thing.”

Lisa Lani (right) and her sister (missed her name) in front of what is locally known as “The Hess ranch”, 40 or so miles down the Monitor Valley road. A sucker for ghost towns and deserted ranches, I pulled in to find the sisters, their husbands and another guy talking next to a huge F-350. I quickly learned that Lisa and sister were born in Austria, not far from Hallstadt, but were picked up and moved to this place as grade schoolers, living here until they went away to college.

When I started peppering them with questions one of the husbands groaned, “Oh christ, I told you we’d never get her out of here.”

The short of it is, as Lisa tells it, dad and a small crew worked something on the order of 50,000 aces up and down the valley, which has a minimal source of water. A dozen or more out buildings, including ranch hand bunk houses, are a testament to the size of what was once here.

Fortunes declined. The family sold the ranch and moved into the smaller white, wood frame building in the back ground.

But for a long time, said Lisa wistfully, it was an idyll. The girls rode their horses south down the valley to a one room mud brick school house, now also in ruins, where the teacher both lived and taught. When they were old enough for high school dad drove them the 80-mile round trip up to Austin, morning and afternoon.

“It was wonderful. People tell me they can’t imagine being this far away from everything. But every day was beautiful. The desert isn’t empty like people say. It’s full of life and the colors change every minute of the day. I loved it here.”

You see signs for Ione, NV. 70 to 100 miles away. So you think you’ll stop by, gas up, have a beverage and see what the locals have on their minds. But when you get to Ione, the guy you meet is John Howe, who with his wife are the sole residents of Ione.

“I’m sort of the caretaker, you might say,” he told me after watching me taking pictures of a the inevitable boarded up saloon and a neatly groomed little park with a historical marker telling about Ione’s (very) short-lived boom era.

“The fella that owns that place,” said John who wears a serious looking hearing aid, pointing to a freshly painted and re-roofed house, “He owns most of what you see. Up there,” pointing to the hillside behind him, “he put in a trailer court for people to rent out. But the state came in and said he had to shut it down, because he didn’t have a license. The trailers are pretty good-sized. A couple are three bedroom. You can have any of them if you pull them out of here.”

Sure enough a half-dozen badly deteriorated mobile homes were parked up on the ridge above Ione.

John has his work cut out just keeping the critters from claiming them completely.

A couple of miles up the mountain from the old ghost mining town of Berlin is Icthyosaur State Park. The story goes that back about 90 years ago a geologist and pal trying their luck at prospecting for gold were poking around when the pal noticed some odd-looking rocks. The geologist, knowing a few things about odd rocks, figured out pretty quickly that they weren’t … rocks. He packed a sample up and sent it off to an archeologist friend. One thing led to another and the young park ranger in the picture above is standing on the final resting spot of at least nine of the largest marine mammals that ever lived, Icthyosaurs, which grew to 70 feet in length, could dive the ancient oceans to a depth of 3000 feet and enjoyed a 160 million year reign as masters of Earth’s primordial seas.

The quarry on which the ranger is standing has been picked over for decades and is now enclosed, sealed away from the elements. My question was: “What’s the theory for how all these giant animals came to die in this precise spot?”

The answer — or best theory — is that on one particular day somewhere in the Icythosaurs’ run from 225 to 65 million years ago, back when this hillside, now at 7000 feet elevation was the coast of an ocean, a poisonous red tide swept in. This particular pod of Ichtyosaurs, possibly swimming in a deep cove, all fed off the same diseased algae, died shortly within hours, sunk to the bottom, were quickly entombed in sediment and spent the next countless millennia turning to stone.

Don’t let that happen to you.

There’s a reason most of the vehicles kicking up huge plumes of dust on Nevada’s back roads have gigantic, $500 apiece 10-ply tires. You don’t want this to happen.

The thought of blowing a tire on a rental car designed for casino parking ramps — is never far from your mind, especially when you come upon this caravan of vacationers (and their staggering amount of motorized recreational vehicles) — pulled over on the side of the road 45 miles from the nearest paved road and easily 90 miles from any “service.”

The ringleader of this repair operation, the guy in the red shirt, was barking orders to the teenage boys to pay attention to how you crank down the full-sized spare, (a truly useful skill set out in the back country, so pay attention kids.)

Any stoppage for any reason is an occasion to pop another beer, and the gal holding one here asked if I was thirsty. (I declined, on the grounds, as the other gal said, “We’ve been out four days and they aren’t that cold anymore.”)

The bigger problem for me was an Austin Powers moment talking to the ramrod shouting instructions. His badly sunburnt face was punctuated by the biggest damn zit I’ve seen on an adult in 20 years. A real high beam beacon positioned smack dab in the center of his beet red forehead.

I couldn’t carry on a conversation because of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interesting couple. Larry and Rene, (although her nom de travel is “Desiree”), from Delray Beach, Florida. She’s an on-line professor for Florida Atlantic. He used to be in journalism, but is now selling real estate in the much-recovered Palm Beach County market. Since she has most of the summers off and can check in on-line, they’re on one of their annual two/three-month road trips. They passed by — in their Subaru Forester — while I was pulled over with the caravan fixing the flat tire, and I found them a couple of hours later in Dirty Dick’s Saloon in Belmont, which is as far as I can tell is a ritual pit stop for everyone coming down the Monitor Valley.

The two had a very impressive list of previous destinations on their resume including one still on my bucket list … the Saline Valley deep back in Death Valley. As Larry — who has a kind of Ken Burns affect to his speech and manner — told it, the crew they came upon out there in the way, way back country, was well-outfitted for the environment. Big trucks, big tires, extra gas and extra water, and quite obviously a heavy supply of “some kind of hallucinogens”. “Desiree” soon picked up the vibe that that wasn’t exactly their scene and they moved on.

When she admonished Larry, “no politics!”, (the Trump shit show is not their thing but there’s no point stirring up bad feelings with complete strangers), he shifted the conversation to the moral dilemma of truly full disclosure in the coastal Florida real estate market, where, as Larry tells it, high tide/storm ocean flooding because of rising sea levels is already effecting neighborhoods people are still avidly interested in buying into.

And no, Desiree does not like having her picture taken.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sue, (if I remember right), one of the bartenders at Dirty Dick’s, proudly wearing one the celebratory hats another gal was handing out. Besides making change for my latest cold Corona she’s telling me that the cash register behind her hasn’t left the bar in over 50 years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lori and Bill, (again, as I remember it, since the names came pretty fast and the mix of beverages and sun played with my head.) Lori is what you might call Belmont’s local “doer”, the gal who is in the middle of every organized activity and events. At one point she took me by the elbow and gave me a tour of the photos hanging on the walls and ceiling of Dirty Dick’s. Photos that included deceased husbands branding cattle and doing other bona fide cowboy things. Also included were cow gals in fine, funky outfits lassoing and generally looking good on their horses. One of them included “Birdy”, who at that moment was tending bar and had poured my most recent beverage.

At one point I overheard her going on about “the Kretschmer girls” who sang with the Pea Vine Valley Pickers the night before. They did a helluva job, she said, “they sounded great”. Did I mention her full name is Lori Kretschmer?

Bill (possible sic) is a retired Air Force officer. He is clearly one of the area’s solid citizens. Where he sits others congregate. At one point he came over as I was rocking on the front porch waiting for the big Fourth of July parade to start and said, “I can take only so much of this. By three or so I’ll need some space. If you’re interested I could show you some spots farther up the mountain, over toward Manhattan, places that are really worth getting to.” It was an attractive offer, but, as I told him, my schedule, such as it was, required I get in range of Beatty by nightfall, plus I kind of doubted my dust-caked rental vehicle would survive the abuse of the mountain side roads.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gordon here, sitting on the front porch of Dirty Dick’s, was, he says, a foreman for a long while at the giant Round Mountain gold mine on the other side of Shoshone Mountain in the Big Smoky Valley. The staff is not an affectation. Nor is the Dylan shirt. “The best ever,” he said. “Never anyone better. Unless it was Leonard Cohen.”

The mining company that has already shaved off and excavated Round Mountain is now following a vein of gold — really just fractions of ounces per ton — which may mean taking down all the company infrastructure near their colossal open pits and moving Nevada State Highway 376. As Gordon explained it, the giant valleys of central Nevada are all alluvial fill, hundreds of feet deep. With all the equipment — and an entire company town — in place, it makes sense to just keep digging.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every society and every community has its alpha male, and by my measure the guy in the black hat is Belmont’s. I never got his name, because every time I bumped into him two or three other people were trying to get his attention. Clearly, being acknowledged by the guy held honor for those who negotiated themselves in his orbit.

What I know for sure is that he played the night before with the aforementioned Pea Vine Valley Pickers, “and a dozen fifteen [other] times over the year.” And when the big Fourth of July parade kicked off, led by two vehicles, one a Nevada State Trooper and the other a local Sheriff, (who I believe were husband and wife), Mr. Alpha here was the guy who trotted out as they moved slowly down the main drag waggling cans of beer at the grinning officers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Revving up for the parade, the local gals, just down hill from the old Belmont Court House in the RV encampment, were in good tune if not exactly in full Rockette-style step.

The whole day was rich Americana. But I couldn’t help but notice that the entire definition of patriotism on display — in word and ceremony — was attached to the military. The full range of the idea of independence and freedom, for anyone of any race or religion? Not nearly so much as honoring their men who had and were serving.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Genetics are destiny. Mom (left) is one of the kazoo-playing patriotic ladies and stands about 6’2″. Bouncing baby boy is three or four inches taller and a densely-muscled 280 to 300 pounds. NFL defensive end-sized, although maybe a little heavy-footed for that position. Little sister though is at least as tall as mom and a stone cold statuesque stunner. Something tells me dad was not Wally Cox.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bob Perchetti, in the white Stetson, “owns a third of Tonopah”, according to one guy on Dirty Dick’s front porch. For sure he owns Tonopah’s semi-legendary Clown Motel, which recently had a run of bad press because of that “The Great American Clown Scare” that went around the country last year, playing off Stephen King’s “It” with malevolent, murderous clowns.

At first I thought he was some local politician for the way he made a point of shaking every hand he found,, including mine. “Nice to meet you, I’m Bob” he said. “Nice to meet you,” I replied. “I’m a tourist”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Never got this dude’s name. But he arrived early and stayed late.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As far as the inner-mountain West goes, this is about as ‘Murican as it gets. Right down the lot full of pickups.

I kept an eye out for the cliche open-carry chowderheads playing Clint Eastwood-meets-name your favorite movie vigilante, but came across only one anywhere, a blubbery guy packing heat while checking out the quilts for sale at Belmont’s Old Court House Art Fair. But then you never know when ISIS is going to parachute into a ghost town and terrorize the quilting ladies.

Fella’s gotta be ready to be The Hero.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

July Fourth, 2017. The flag ceremony. Belmont, Nevada.

The Public Deserves All Available Information in the Justine Damond Shooting … Now.

While no more outrageous and appalling than the police killing of Philando Castile and the nearly 600 others (many unarmed minorities) gunned down by American law enforcement officers this year alone, my reaction shifted slightly from the moment I first heard that two young Minneapolis cops were involved in the death of a 40 year-old white woman in her pajamas.

Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted in Castile’s death despite clear evidence he panicked, purely and simply, at a seat-belted black man with a woman and child in the car. So my reaction to Saturday’s night’s events was that yet again the city and the shaky reputation of the police will suffer as a result of a very poorly vetted and trained officer sent out on the streets with a license not just to enforce the law but to act as summary executioner should he feel “a threat to his life.”

The twist in this incident that places the responsibility on a Somali cop, a two-year veteran of the force, sets the sadly normal racial dynamic askew. As of today, Tuesday, the public — which is vast considering the international attention the story has received — is waiting for even the most basic explanation from city officials.

The delay in explaining what happened, if not why, is inexcusable. There are only two witnesses, Officer Mohammed Noor and his partner, Matthew Harrity. Where is their version of the event? We’re told from early reports that Harrity was “stunned” by the gunfire and that Noor has issued his condolences to the family of the dead woman, Justine Damond.

We’re told Damond, who made the 911 call had run out to speak to the cops and was in some kind of conversation with Harrity, the driver, when Noor shot her. For me, the “conversation” part is critical. If she said anything to Harrity it should have been obvious she was not the suspected attacker, which suggests Noor shot her for some reason other than panicked fear, as in Yanez’ case.

If there is “some other reason” this thing is going to get very, very weird.

My assumption is that there was no actual conversation between Damond and Harrity, other than perhaps Damond running out from the darkness into the alley trying to get their attention … at which point Noor panicked and began shooting out the patrol car across his partner’s face.

The fact that Damond was killed by a shot to the abdomen suggests she was still several feet from Harrity’s side window when Noor opened fire. Up against the door in “conversation” with Harrity she would have been struck in the chest or face.

The point being, this element of the incident can and should be explained now, not days and weeks from now. Even if Harrity and Noor are telling conflicting stories, an event this high-profile involving — to understate the obvious — critical public employees, requires extraordinary expeditiousness and transparency.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario that dampens down the already burgeoning racist demonizing of the on-line alt-right. That disease will spread even if there isn’t a whiff of affirmative action, racial quotas or special “outreach” in Noor’s hiring. The alt-right crowd isn’t exactly in the facts game, as we know.

Getting expeditious with bureaucratic formalities may not spare the local Somali community a fresh round of venom from racists, but it will provide responsible citizens a foundation of fact upon which to assess the hows of a cop who shoots a pajama-clad woman in one of the safest, quietest neighborhoods of the city.

 

Justice for Castile v. the Authoritarian Juror

The charge, “So we have reached a point where it’s been proven a cop can do anything he wants when stopping or confronting a black person?” is entirely valid and worth broad discussion in the wake of the “not guilty” verdict in the Philando Castile case.

But leaving police hiring criteria and training aside for minute, what is it about juries, supposedly a random sampling of every day Americans that leads them to reject a seemingly cut and dry situation like this one, where a nervous young cop panics and kills a man who by the weight of 99% of available evidence was being fully compliant?

The questions I think ought to be rolled more heavily into the mix of topics related to the Jeronimo Yanez verdict and (the rare) other cases where cops are brought to trial, are these:

1: A shrewd defense attorney like Earl Gray, (he of the “it shouldn’t even have been charged” quote), has to have developed a well-tuned sense for jurors with an authoritarian mindset. “Authoritarian” is often confused as solely the attitude of the dominating personality, the one demanding or manipulating others to his will. But in jury selection the “authoritarian” aspect refers to those on the receiving end, people who have been acculturated to give uncritical respect to any authority figure, be they parents, teachers, government leaders or cops. When you’re raised to defer to the judgment of such people — people you regard as superiors, and with bona fides well beyond you’re own — it becomes an enormous leap of intellectual courage as a juror to see any such person being in critical error, much less guilty of felony behavior.

2: Added to that is the relative ease — or so it seems to me — with which defense attorneys are able to gum up what objective critical faculties remain in average jurors with a kind of absolutist concept of “reasonable doubt”. In this case “reasonable doubt” was laid heavily upon jurors trying to decide whether Yanez actually did see a gun — i.e. Castile going for the weapon he told Yanez he had on him. The end result of their thinking being that since there was “reasonable doubt” about whether Castile was not going for his gun, authoritarian-minded jurors gave the authority-figure the benefit of the doubt and voted for acquittal … because, you know, they were in “reasonable doubt” about what actually happened.

i don’t know what the solutions to these issues are.

Perhaps, in the latter, more articulate jury instructions from the presiding judge on what “reasonable doubt” means and doesn’t mean

But on the former, the prevalence of the powerful authoritarian impulse built into a society (I would argue human nature) trained by family, institutions and culture to accept the judgment of anyone in a position of authority, I suspect we have a monumental problem for every prosecutor who follows Ramsey County Attorney John Choi’s path and takes the case of a panicky cop before a jury of peers.

 

Before the Jeronimo Yanez Verdict

Not being what you’d call a gambling man, (there was that slot machine in Beatty, Nevada years back) I’ve never put the chances of Jeronimo Yanez’ conviction in his killing of Philando Castile any higher than 15%. I hope I’m proven wrong, but history is on my side as we await the verdict. And this is an actual jury, not one of those sealed off police review boards where the chances of the finger of guilt would drop into the low single digits.

Before the jury returns I just want to return to a couple facets of this more or less routine run of traumatic incidents of police playing judge jury and executioner with black motorists and guys selling CDs on the street corner..

1: Jeronimo Yanez should never have been a cop. No one operating at the level of fear and panic he demonstrated should be wearing a badge, much less toting around a loaded gun with a license to kill. I’m told he’s a sweet guy. But that isn’t the point. He clearly didn’t have the emotional stability to be in the job he was in. Maybe at a desk for a non-profit. But not a cop. And for that I blame his employers as much as him.

Just because someone wants to be a cop is no reason to hire him. In fact, given the militaristic-to-racist attitudes of too many of these guys (and the woman in Oklahoma), wanting (badly) to be a cop should be a red flag for anyone sorting through applications. Moreover, are city police forces so desperate for bodies to fill uniforms that they can’t adequately vet someone like Yanez for aptitude and judgment? Put another way, if they took Yanez, who did they turn down? This guy?

After that we move on to training, where as we’ve learned, there is plenty of focus on gunplay and combat-style tactics — they call it “Bulletproof Warrior” for chrissakes — and not so much on how you go about dialing down the temperature of a situation.

Finally, on this facet, there’s the demand put on “emotionally vulnerable” young cops like Yanez to produce revenue for cash-strapped municipalities, largely by repeatedly ticketing low income minorities for nuisance violations. You don’t want to know how beyond-crazy ballistic I would have been after the second ticket from some twitchy cop, and Castile was stopped something like 44 times.

But as we all know the Jeronimo Yanez law enforcers of the world aren’t going to be hassling middle-aged and older white folks in clean new cars, even if they have a broken tail light.

2: And apparently I’m the only person on the planet who is obsessed with this, but why, considering all the pain and suffering to victims, families, police department reputations, city budgets and on and on hasn’t anyone (else) suggested issuing police a kind of dial-barreled service revolver, with a default setting firing rubber bullets or chemical darts? (When city cops get into the exceedingly rare raging, Hollywood-style gun battle, they could simply re-set the thing to fire its load of live ammo.)

Had Yanez freaked at the word “gun”, whipped out his and starting pumping rubber bullets into Castile’s chest, (being careful as he says not to scare the toddler in the back seat), Castile would have been pretty damn sore for a week or so, but he’d be alive, Yanez wouldn’t be on trial, the cops wouldn’t be fending of the now standard and very hard to dispute accusations of racism, the cities involved would be several thousands of dollars less in the red and Castile would be alive to pay another few hundred dollars a year in expired tab fines, or whatever the next cop could get him for. (I’m not sure what St. Anthony Park’s basic fine is for “Driving While Black”.)

This is good: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/07/police-shootings-traffic-stops-excessive-fines/

As far as I can tell my dual-barrel revolver idea has garnered exactly zero interest anywhere in the country, probably because no politician could stand up to Second Amendment fanatics shrieking about, “Disarming the cops!”.

One other facet worth giving some thought to are statistics dug up by Kevin Drum at Mother Jones on the disproportionate number of these cop v. minority killings that involve peace officers who are either young or very new to the job.

 

 

Good Luck, Portland.

So it’s “Portlandia v. Trumpistan” this Sunday in Oregon. Organizers of the June 10th rally against Sharia Law, without question the most imminent threat to free-range espresso sipping Oregonians anyone can imagine, has been cancelled. But Sunday’s “Pro Trump free speech” rally is still on. Because … well because free speech is still a thing around here, at least in the uber-holistic paradise known as Portland.

As you may have heard, the Mayor and the cops aren’t too thrilled with this. But a court refused to revoke the permit on the grounds that the organizers got it fair and square. Nevertheless, the potential for some kind of telegenic mayhem is very high, since every affiliate satellite truck and crew for 500 miles is going to be scanning the scene for the slightest hint of confrontation between Trumpers and pissed off lefties eager to show the country that skinhead/tinfoil goobers are not representative of their misty green city.

Except of that they are, just as they’re representative of increasingly emboldened factions everywhere else in ‘Murica. Which is why I get more fascinated (and concerned) every day at the thought of what this “pro-Trump free speech” crowd will do when, as I believe, Trump himself inevitably disintegrates and is replaced.

At the moment, living in separate bubbles as we do, the impression in mine is that the 60 million who voted for The Donald last November have been cowed back to a fraction of that number — to only the most whacked-out goobers — and that forces of reason have gained the upper hand. But in the other bubble, the one that holds “the failing New York Times” and “the Clinton News Network” and pencil-necks like Rachel Maddow, Ezra Klein and David Frum in utter contempt, and suckles at the addictive teat of Breitbart, NewsMax and Sean Hannity, the hardening perception is that the election of the guy (Donald) for whom they waited their entire lives is being invalidated and revoked in front of their eyes by exactly the domineering snobs who have oppressed their friends and them for generations.

So … I don’t see them sitting still for The Donald’s shall we say “deinvestiture” by the same corrupt urban elite pencil necks. They will certainly be encouraged by their, uh, “thought leaders”, to rally and rage more vigorously than ever before as they see Trump being castrated by the “administrative state” they sent him to DC to blow up. And by “vigorously” I mean physically, as though they’re the last militia between “freedom” and “tyranny”.

The guess is this is what has Portland’s Mayor and cops spooked about this “free speech” event this Sunday. If you are prone to worrying about a face-to-face clash between the farthest right and the farthest left in the country today, both eager to make a defining statement, well, here’s leafy, piney Portland for test run #1.

It’s worth remembering that when Richard Nixon waved goodbye and disappeared into that chopper 31% of the country still supported him. But that was back in the day when even the gnarliest redoubt Republican had some exposure to the likes of Walter Cronkite. Today, the “pro-Trump free speech” base, literate really only in the Second Amendment, has very little if any routine contact with mainstream news (i.e. reality), other than being told by the likes of Breitbart and Trump that it’s all “fake.”

This crowd is running on a much higher octane mix of delusion than the Republicans of 1974.

Mix gas like that and a wildfire of stoked rage and we’ve got a bigger problem than the cops in Oregon.

Three Facets of The Walker’s “Scaffold” Flap

NEW BLOG PHOTO_edited- 3The Walker Art Center’s troubles over a piece of art for it’s renovated Sculpture Garden is an interesting controversy for a number or reasons, not the least of which is that smart, well-educated, broad-minded people like those who run large high-profile arts organizations aren’t supposed to find themselves in situations like this. The working presumption is that they have a better grasp of history and cultural nuance than say, you or me.

The story is so rich in artistic hubris, cultural faux pas and psycho-social analyses it’s a shame Tom Wolfe doesn’t have an apartment at 510 Groveland to record and relish all the mayhem among the (art) mavens across the street.

But here are three points that I keep returning to.

1: Artists work off inspiration and emotion. They are struck by an idea or a feeling and produce what they produce — paintings, dance, films, sculpture and/or, well, a scaffold. In this case Sam Durant, creator of the scaffold was, we have good reason to believe, genuinely moved by the the world’s use of capital punishment and this country’s long, ugly history of genocide and extra-judicial killings. (One irony being how this controversy overlaps with the start of the trial for the cop who killed Philando Castile.)

So fine. Durant produces an artistic statement based on a combination of outrage, determination to provoke a new conversation about this homicidal history and his gift for … structures.

But then we move to the Walker’s Olga Viso, the Art Center’s executive director who saw Durant’s work in Europe and was … moved, which is to say compelled to some extent by emotion. That too is fine. People who curate art should retain the ability to be moved by art, and to see in art the potential to provoke discussion and debate.

But, perhaps obviously, Viso’s role requires a tier of judgment beyond that of either the artist or the consumer. Her job, (and I really know nothing more about Viso), is to make decisions based on a broad(er) grasp of culture, as in to ask, “Will the public perceive this as I perceive it? If not, how will they see it?”

Given that “Scaffold” was being purchased and shipped to Minnesota to be part of a permanent exhibit in a venue — the Sculpture Garden — previously notable for the whimsy of its most prominent pieces and as an environment that encourages calm and serenity in its audiences, not references to mass hangings, clearly the question of “What will the audience think?” should have been given even higher priority. It is what she’s paid to do.

That said, it’s hard to take seriously anyone accusing either Durant or Viso of racist intent. Durant’s career is notable for his sympathies to Native American sufferings, and Viso’s worst offense is short-sightedness, not some sort of class-calloused indifference to Native suffering.

2: Let’s talk artfulness. Like you, I’m guessing, I had no idea who Sam Durant was before all this exploded. All I know was what I saw in the dozens of photos of “Scaffold” erected in the Sculpture Garden. And to that my art-consumer reaction was somewhere south of, “meh.” Maybe I needed to see it in person. To touch the wood, or to climb on it like a 10 year-old on a jungle gym. But I couldn’t find an angle that inspired anything in me like it inspired in Ms. Viso when she wrote, ”

“Constructed of wood and steel, this work layers together the forms of seven historical gallows that were used in US state-sanctioned executions by hanging between 1859 and 2006. These representations, assembled one on top of the other, intersect into a single, complicated structure. This composite forms what Durant intends as a critique—“neither memorial nor monument”—that invokes white, governmental power structures that have controlled and subjugated nations and peoples, especially communities of color, throughout the history of the US.”

And, “When I first encountered Scaffold in a sculpture park in Europe five years ago, I saw a potent artistic statement about the ethics of capital punishment. Most importantly, I recognized its capacity to address the buried histories of violence in this country, in particular raising needed awareness among white audiences. I knew this could be a difficult artwork on many levels. This is invariably connected to national issues still embedded in the psyche of this country and its violent, colonialist past.”

To that, all I can say is, “Wow. Maybe I needed a better liberal arts education, a couple seminars in Symbolism and Structural Reinterpretation, or maybe a micro-dose of good acid.” But then, I am also the fairly regular modern art consumer who when confronted with Mark Rothko’s “Untitled (Black on Grey)” has been heard to say, “Give me a break.”

Bottom line here, “Scaffold” as constructed, even with a ponderous “artist’s statement” or video primer, evoked nothing unique in my understanding of capital punishment or genocide.

Finally, 3:  The desire to provoke a fresh conversation about whatever horror you choose, capital punishment or the largest mass execution in American history, is a valid and honorable intention. History is sanded down and polished so often it loses its vital instructive value.

So lets give Durant and Viso credit for recognizing the importance of revitalizing memories of great injustices. And let’s hope that this flap, with all the condemnatory ranting, doesn’t siphon off attention to white Minnesota’s role in the horrors set upon Native Americans over the past 200 years.

Because … if you’re really in the mood for outrage, how about we take a survey of what Minnesota school kids are taught about the men we widely and routinely regard as our wise and just pioneering elders?

Guys like our first governor, Henry Sibley, for example.

 

What Spawned Who … Among the Body Slammin’ GOP?

NEW BLOG PHOTO_edited- 3With Greg “The Body-Slammer” Gianforte’s unequivocal victory in Montana last night there’s a lot of hand-wringing talk about how this is the latest example of “The Trump Effect”, “the fish rotting from the head down”, yadda yadda. And with the statistically demonstrable upsurge in anti-Muslim activity around the country, compounding what is already an intolerable level of racist attitudes by authority figures, it’s hard to make a case that The Donald’s success hasn’t unleashed something pretty sick and unevolved in our “shining city on the hill”.

But come on. Donald Trump, essentially an ideological illiterate, a guy whose trademark is exploiting weaknesses, financial, political and moral, to his personal advantage hardly invented the pig-headed brutishness displayed by Republican candidate Gianforte or his Big Sky supporters, (many of who possibly voted for him before he smacked that “aggressive liberal journalist” to the ground.)

I’ve been on a couple “Fake News” panels in recent weeks and my now standard line is that “fake news”, with all the demagogic recklessness and viciousness attached to it is part of an established, profitable and electorally successful  continuum from — to pick a recent start point — talk radio in the early 1990s, FoxNews in the mid-to-late ’90s, all the crackpot websites of the mid-aughts to Trump’s victory last fall. Point being, Trump exploited the grievance-saturated messaging of all that came before him to draw out a crowd that had been sitting on the sidelines for years and propel him to victory. Whether he personally believes any of what he bellowed at them hardly matters. (In sales, it’s often the bullshit — the not caring if something is true or false — that closes the deal.)

Trump is the product of every “conservative entertainment complex” huckster and every Republican politician who kow-towed to … a collection of radio jocks. They are the head of the rotting fish. Trump is just a guy who applied full caricature to the extant mob mentality and got himself appointed grand marshal of their parade.

This “Anyone Who Kicks Ass on A Pencil-Necked Liberal East Coast Faggot Reporter Is My Kinda Guy” moment in Montana comes simultaneous with Sean Hannity’s on-going, obnoxious exploitation of a young guy’s murder in D.C. — in his cynical, fevered mind a clear connection to Cruella de Vil rat-bastard Hillary Clinton and everyone trying to blockade The Donald’s visionary conservative plan to make ‘Murica great again. While even FoxNews has reversed course on the story, Hannity has persisted, despite repeated pleas from the kid’s family to stop the aggravation of their suffering.

But the carefully strategized, generation-long interplay of low information news, shameless delusion and naked grievance — and oh hell, through in a fat dose of barroom clodishness — has worked so well for Hannity (and FoxNews under Roger Ailes) that it’s impossible to resist. Junkies to the next meth hit, my friends.

By the way, hat tip to pal Jim Leinfelder for alerting me to this classic Matt Taibbi screed at Rolling Stone on the passing of Ailes and culture, of Gianforte-style Republicanism.

Rx for Your Psychic Health: Enjoy Trump as an Epic Farce

NEW BLOG PHOTO_edited- 2For everyone exhausted by Trump’s Follies and terrified the world as we know it is about to collapse in a steaming pile of Keystone Cops criminality, I urge you to chill just a bit. Try this: Tamp down the stress by absorbing this absurd drama less as a nightmare and more as trashy reality TV on an epic scale.

Sure, sure there is no end of reasons to spike your blood pressure over things like the “unimaginable cruelty” of Trump’s budget. But that thing, like virtually all of his promises/threats/delusions isn’t going anywhere. (You gotta love the minor $2 trillion math error involved in its grand design.)

In fact, one of the truest things I’ve heard recently was some talking head urging calm by reminding viewers that, “As long as doing nothing is the default option” all this incompetence and venality is survivable. What he meant is that with 98% of Trump (i.e. Steve Bannon’s) ideas doomed to fail, we can get through Trump with the rudder and sails still attached to the ship of state. Obamacare will remain (perpetually imperiled, but “un-repealed”), the tax code will go “unreformed” (meaning another GOP giveaway to the rich will wait for a later day) and Big Bird will not be plucked and roasted (by government, although maybe eventually by the commercial marketplace.)

So with the normal consequences of incompetence in mind, it may be beneficial to our psychic health to dial back the grim expressions of stress and view this story as a kind of slapstick Ring Cycle. Instead of The End of Days, think of the Trump presidency and its inevitable collapse as a sprawling, time-consuming tale of dozens of strange, silly, improbable characters and lots of noise. True, like “Big Brother” or “Jersey Shore”, “The Trump Show” its a crass epic lacking anything in the way of moral grandeur and honorable tests of mortality. Just the opposite in fact. The whole thing is playing like the Farrelly brothers reimagined Wagner. It’s “Dumb and Dumber” inflated to international proportions.

This is why I don’t share the sense of dread and panic of some of my fellow liberals.

Unlike say Richard Nixon, much less truly psychopathic thugs like Benito Mussolini, Stalin and what’s his name back in Germany, Trump is both ideology-free and resoundingly lazy. Beyond ego-gratification he doesn’t really know what he wants and is not about to put in the effort to find out. Moreover, since he has no friends in D.C., and no deeply connected Dick Cheney-like consigliere to work the system and connive with a deep closet of corporate cronies, Trump’s more isolated with every passing pratfall. And they’re coming at the rate of about one an hour.

Hell, the only guy he could imagine defending him against this Robert Mueller investigation is his long-time apologist Marc Kasowitz, a guy — wait for it — who also includes among his best clients, Russia’s biggest bank. (See above for “slapstick”.)  The word “literally” is getting a work out these days, but … literally … every move Team Trump makes to defend itself from accusations of collusion adds a new layer of farce.

Add to this the stage whispering that the White House “person of interest” mentioned in that Washington Post story last week is over-ambitious, over-burdened son-in-law Jared Kushner, he of recently reported Baltimore litigious slumlord infamy.

(Since young Jared has been in the Middle East this past week we can assume he’s got the handle on that little problem and will be having Hezbollah and the Israelis over for a Shavuot barbecue.)

If true, and it fits so perfectly it’s in the range of “very highly likely”, Jared-as-person-of-interest suggests a laser point on Trump family financial machinations vis a vis Russian “investors.” (For my money Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has been as good as anyone at connecting the bizarre characters on the money trail between Trump and Russian oligarchs/mobsters.)

The story even has standard issue domestic farce, like the First Lady uh, rebuffing, the touch of the guy proud of being able to grab any woman anywhere anytime he wanted. (I keep thinking our old friend Tom Arnold may have the best explanation for that particular chill.)

One of the next acts in this grand burlesque will be crushing legal bills dropping on the Kellyanne and Spiceys of the world. Will the narcissistic emperor pick up those tabs? Would you count on it if you were them? Moreover, who would be stupid enough to step in and replace them once they are reduced to “losers”, the absolute worst thing you can say about someone? (See above for “isolated”.)

Shortly after that the spillway will open wide when Michael Flynn, the show’s paranoid general, (think Sterling Hayden as Gen. Jack D. Ripper), realizes he’s not going to get immunity and spills everything he knows in the hope of the court’s mercy.

Point being friends, there is a choice here. You can laugh or cry. I prefer to laugh. It’s easier on the nerves.

Have We Finally Found a [Bleep]-Up That Matters?

NEW BLOG PHOTO_edited- 3There was a telling audience reaction to a moment in “Saturday Night Live’s” opening skit last week. “Weekend Anchor” Michael Che was playing Lester Holt interviewing Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump about the firing of James Comey. At one point Baldwin/Trump blurts out that yeah he fired him because he was rooting around in this Russia stuff. To this Che/Holt looks around, as though talking to his crew, “Is that it?” “Did I get him?”, meaning that — come on, folks — Trump clearly admitted obstruction of justice.

But then he quickly realizes, no. “No? So nothing matters? Is that right? Nothing matters?”

To which the “SNL” audience (99% of them sneering-at-real-‘Murican urban elites) responded with a laugh of cathartic recognition, as though a deeply shared suspicion had been pushed out into the light of day. “Nothing matters.” That’s what you and I have been  thinking. I.e. Is there nothing Trump says or does — and this was before dropping that “highly classified”/code word intelligence on the Russians in the Oval Office — that is appalling enough, stupid enough or legally indefensible enough to make a dent in his core support?

The hope is this latest fiasco — bragging to the Russians about the “great intel I get” (as though they’d be surprised the President of the United States gets juicy information) — will do the trick.

Maybe. But I doubt it. After the pussy grabbing stuff last fall, we all thought he was doomed. I mean, what politician could possibly survive that?

Over at The Daily Beast this morning, Michael Tomasky speculates on the polling numbers necessary to push your Paul Ryans and Mitch McConnells out of the Trump support ICU. Basically, and I agree with this, he says that when (not if) Trump’s support drops into the 20% range, (George W. Bush territory), he will have shed pretty much all the tribal Republicans. This would be the crowd that really should have known better, but rationalized Trump as a better choice than Hillary Clinton on the grounds of her “corruption”. (In reality it was more likely the fact she was female, her last name was Clinton and they would sooner have their fingernails pulled out than vote for a Democrat.)

The stereotypical Trump voter — ill-educated or ill-informed or “left behind” or roiling with grievances or all of the above — constitutes maybe 20-25% of last November’s GOP voting bloc. Pissing them off is perilous to most Republican candidates. But, as I’ve said several times before, the name of the Ryan-McConnell game is not about making the lives of those sad stereotypes better, it is about providing service to the people who fund their careers. And if enough of those people fall away to drive Trump’s numbers down into the very low 30s or (oh my bleeping god!) the W-like 20s, they will have no choice other than to take the gamble and consent to the independent prosecutor (linked to the FBI investigation with full subpoena power).

At that point, and I’m repeating myself I know, Ryan and McConnell will have accepted that because of Trump’s astonishing laziness and incompetence they have no chance of getting “tax reform” through Congress, or even fully repeal Obamacare. (And always remember that Obamacare repeal is mainly about returning the $600-$700 billion in taxes the wealthy are paying to keep it going. Obamacare repeal is a tax relief play, with health care only as collateral damage.)

There have been several excellent analyses written recently about Trump’s endurance in the face of unequivocal incompetence. One of them was former Milwaukee conservative radio host Charlie Sykes’ piece in … The New York Times, very ironically titled, “If Liberals Hate Him Trump Must be Doing Something Right.”

Sykes, never an Alex Jones/Mark Levin nitwit, has gone over to the dark side as far as many Trumpists are concerned. Sykes is out of the William F. Buckley school of conservative thinking, which among other things involves reading books written by people other than Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity and assembling, you know, facts to make an argument.

Complaining that conservative media, which has incited and sustained the Trump base, has lost all connection to traditional conservative values, (we can still argue the quality of those values), Sykes writes …

What may have begun as a policy or a tactic in opposition has long since become a reflex. But there is an obvious price to be paid for essentially becoming a party devoted to trolling. In the long run, it’s hard to see how a party dedicated to liberal tears can remain a movement based on ideas or centered on principles.

Conservatives will care less about governing and more about scoring “wins” — and inflicting losses on the left — no matter how hollow the victories or flawed the policies. Ultimately, though, this will end badly because it is a moral and intellectual dead-end, and very likely a political one as well.”

And, “As the right doubles down on anti-anti-Trumpism, it will find itself goaded into defending and rationalizing ever more outrageous conduct just as long as it annoys CNN and the left.

In many ways anti-anti-Trumpism mirrors Donald Trump himself, because at its core there are no fixed values, no respect for constitutional government or ideas of personal character, only a free-floating nihilism cloaked in insult, mockery and bombast.”

A lefty moonbat like myself couldn’t have said it any better.