Archive for September, 2009


William Safire wrote speeches for Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. Well, everybody has to have a job, I guess. But just because you have one, it doesn’t mean you should earn as reward column-space on the op-ed page of the New York Times. For 32 years.

nixferatuYet that’s what Safire received, for five years of crafting such snide and slashing culture-busting phrases as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” For both Agnew, who was routinely receiving cash bribes across his desk in the Vice President’s office, and Nixon, the most ethically depraved man to serve in the White House within the lifetime of any person currently present on this planet.

Safire passed today, at age 79, of pancreatic cancer. And that is sad, as it is sad when any creature shuffles off this mortal coil. But sad too is the story of how Safire came to occupy his post at the Times, where, for more than three decades, he was one of but a half-dozen people permitted to speak from the op-ed pulpit of the premier political newspaper in this country. Even sadder is that once Safire was let in, he was soon followed into the nation’s newspapers and TV studios by legions of other hard-right political partisans. Who today so dominate the national political discourse that a rational person is reduced to accessing news and opinion off in the backwaters, in order to avoid such people.

That story is found beyond the furthur. Or, as news guys like Safire and I would say, “on the jump.”



Dueling Bardos

After death comes nothing hoped for or imagined.


With life tough enough to figure, you’d think people would leave off trying to suss out what happens after it, too. But they don’t. Some science types claim that’s actually what differentiates humans from other animals, brooding on the afterlife, into the lightbut they’re probably wrong about that, as ravens attend funerals, and elephants weep for their dead.

In a certain sense it’s understandable, this obsession with events after the expiration of breath, since life is so short, and death is so long. Matt Groening, in a Love Is Hell strip, once put things in perspective for one of his rabbits, who was considering adultery, confronting him with a line across the entire page that represented time. The line was labeled “time you are dead.” Near the very beginning of the line lay a tiny dot: “time you are alive.”


“Be Beautiful, Boss”

Archy was a wise old roach, who from 1916 until 1926 directed missives to the public through the newspaper columns of journalist Don Marquis, employed first by The Evening Sun and later the New York Tribune. When Marquis left newspaper work for the magazine biz, archy went with him.

i write, therefore i amAs a diminutive cockroach, archy was forced to communicate by diving head-first onto the keys of Marquis’ manual typewriter, one key at a time. Thus, he wrote all in lower-case, and not by choice, like ee cummings, but because he had to: there was no way for archy to both pound a letter key and simultaneously press the shift key. While the illustration reproduced here, the first public showing of archy, presents an archy comfortably looming over a typewriter, no such miniature device was ever prepared for the insect in his lifetime.

Archy’s musings in some ways rival Montaigne’s; beyond the furthur is his insight into the importance of beauty in life.


Question Authority

“Noah was an asshole.”

“Why Noah?” Arkady asked. This was a new indictment.

jerk“He didn’t argue.”

“Noah should have argued?”

Yakov explained, “Abraham argues with God not to kill everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses pleads with God not to kill worshippers of the golden calf. But God tells Noah to build a boat because He’s going to flood the entire world, and what does Noah say? Not a word.”

“Not a word,” said Bobby, “and saves the minimum. What a bastard.”

—Wolves Eat Dogs, Martin Cruz Smith


Film actors have a genius for developing various stratagems to maximize their face-time on screen.

Common among those thespians with sufficient clout is suddenly discovering that the script needs to be rewritten, in ways that, astoundingly enough, significantly increase the number of lines, closeups, and other assorted shots afforded the discoverer. Dustin Hoffman is said to be master of this facet of the craft.

valentinaThen there are the practitioners of “the rugby school of film acting,” as director Terry Gilliam once put it, actors who physically fight for space. Gilliam describes watching Italian actress Valentina Cortese engage in such manuevers during the making of his film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen:

[W]herever the camera was pointed she knew exactly where the cross-hairs were, so that in scenes with lots of people she would always be dead centre. The other actors used to complain to me that she was kicking and elbowing them out of the way to get to the centre of the shot. Valentina got her comeuppance on her very last day, when we were shooting the scene where she enters with the headless king. That day there was a Swiss documentary crew doing a piece on her and she was being wonderfully grand, but the girl who was playing the king’s headless body was pushing and shoving her mercilessly. Suddenly she sank to the floor, sobbing, “Terry, make her stop, I can’t stand this.”


Money Is Not Speech

The lower house of the Argentine Congress has approved a bill that would strip monopoly broadcast-media companies of the ability to control political discourse in that country. The measure is expected to also slide through the Senate, and be signed into law by President Cristina Fernandez, who introduced it.

The nation’s existing media law, which favors monopolies, was imposed by the military dictatorship that controlled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. Fernandez’ bill will restrict the number of broadcast licenses allotted to corporate bigfoots, and allow smaller companies and non-profit groups access to the airwaves.silencio

Leftist Latin American lawmakers, like Fernandez, who seek to advance reforms in nations long run for the benefit of a privileged few, have in recent years been viciously set upon by large media conglomerates representing oligarchic interests.

The agent of reaction in Argentina is Grupo Clarin, which dominates not only the airwaves and cable, but also newspaper publishing and web traffic. The company had heretofore successfully blocked all media-reform measures.

In April of 2008, Clarin, gloating in its power, circulated the above cartoon, which depicts a silenced Fernandez. The drawing was emblematic of the fact that Clarin, through its monopoly control of Argentine media, had ensured that no positive news of government reforms had reached the Argentine people. Fernandez promptly denounced the “mafioso-like message,” emanating from Argentina’s “multimedia generals,” who she likened to the tank commanders who in 1976 overthrew the country’s democratic government.


If I Should Die Before I Wake

Americans can be something of a complaining people. So many things a Bother or an Irritant or an Outrage. Many millions must daily lace their brains with chemicals so that they will not be depressed or anxious or afraid. In their homes sits a device known as the television set, a dark kaleidoscope splintering their lives into the Unattainable, the Menacing, and the Wrong.

take thatYet there are many Dangers of which even an American remains blissfully unaware. It is safe to assume, for instance, that not a single American will go to sleep this night worried that as s/he slumbers she will be set upon by a snake. This would not be so, if said American had been born in Bangladesh. In that nation, every year, 100,000 people are assaulted in their beds by snakes. Another 600,000 are victims of serpents while they are awake. More than 6000 die.

When you are an American, and you decide to frequent a restaurant, common irritants may include finding a parking spot, placement at a “bad table,” a rude or inattentive server, and food that is overcooked or overpriced. When you live in Bangladesh, and you decide to frequent a restaurant, your meal may at any moment be interrupted by a cobra that takes it into its head to slither into the place and begin sinking its fangs into anyone within reach.

So please, Americans, get some perspective. It may be bad. But it could certainly get worse.

When I Worked

September 2009
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