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.

You Could Be Happy

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has decided that traditional indicators of a nation’s economic progress are insufficient, misleading, even dangerous. blueThus, he has announced, France will begin factoring into analyses of its economic vitality such intangibles as “happiness” and “well being.”

Sarkozy believes that reliance on gross domestic product—GDP—as the main measure of economic prosperity contributed to the recent global financial crisis. He is urging other nations to join France in measuring less materialistic indicators of progress.

The French President said the current crisis does not just give the international community the freedom to imagine another economic model, but it obliges the world to do so. “We do not have the choice,” he said.


Obama vs. Osama

In recent news of Al Qaeda and associates:

—The Obama administration claims to have killed on Monday in Somalia an Al Qaeda “ringleader” out of Kenya. In contrast to the George II administration, which preferred to, Bobby Ford-like, strike at its “number two men in Al Qaedas” from afar, with cruise missiles and long-range gunships, this latest miscreant was dispatchedshooting buddha in the swat by actual human beings who identified him visually.

—In an audio recording, Osama bin Laden, in what appears to be a textbook case of projection, dismissed Obama as “a weakened man,” and then renewed his recent shameless attempt to yoke his free-lance banditry to the Palestinian pursuit of a free and independent state.

—Reports emerging out of Pakistan indicate that the price of goosing the Pakistani military to chase Taliban fighters out of the Swat Valley includes hundreds of civilians murdered by Army troops and dumped like cordwood in the streets. Meanwhile, in neighboring Afghanistan, violence has spiked to levels not seen since the doomed legions of George II first stumbled into that country, nearly eight full years ago.


This Is Us

“Open the second shutter, so that more light can come in.”

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, last words

The United States Supreme Court will decide in October whether to hear the Obama administration’s ill-advised plea that it not be required to comply with a court order mandating the release of photographs documenting torture and abuse inflicted on prisoners in the War on Terra.

The Justice Department had initially declined to pursue the BushCo-era appeal, with presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs publicly describing the case as “unwinnable.” However, after intense lobbying from military officials and BushCo holdovers, letting them outObama in May declared “that releasing these photos would inflame anti-American opinion and allow our enemies to paint U.S. troops with a broad, damning and inaccurate brush, thereby endangering them in theaters of war.”

Replied Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU, the plaintiff in the case: “It’s an awful idea to give violent extremists veto power over the Freedom of Information Act.”

As the linked New York Times report points out, the case turns on one of the very principles behind the establishing of this nation, memorably expressed by William O. Douglas in his dissent in Environmental Protection Agency v. Mink (1973) 410 US 73: “The generation that made the nation thought secrecy in government one of the instruments of Old World tyranny and committed itself to the principle that a democracy cannot function unless the people are permitted to know what their government is up to.”


Red Dawn

malevich: englishman in moscowWhat people forget is that there actually was idealism at the beginning of the Revolution. Starvation and civil war aside, Moscow was the most exciting place in the world to be. When Mayakovsky said, “Let us make the squares our palettes, the streets our brushes,” he meant it. Every wall was a painting. There were painted trains, boats, airplanes, balloons. Wallpaper and dinner plates and gum wrappers were all created by artists who genuinely thought they were making a new world. At the same time women were marching for free love. They all believed anything was possible.

Lenin’s tomb is a Constructivist design inspired by Malevich. It’s a red square on Red Square. There’s more to it than just Lenin laid out like a smoked herring. Art was everywhere in those days. Tatlin designed a revolving skyscraper taller than the Empire State Building. malevich: village after snowstormPopova drew high fashions for peasants. The artists of Moscow were going to paint the trees of the Kremlin red. Lenin did object to that, but people thought that anything was possible. Those were days of hope, days of fantasy.

Malevich said in 1918 that “footballs of entangled centuries would burn out in the sparks of bubbling light waves.”

We live in the archeological ruins of that new world that never was. If we knew where to dig, who knows what we would find?

Martin Cruz Smith, Red Square

Looney Tubes

Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, has concluded that former Vice President Dick Cheney is no longer in his right mind.

In an interview with Andy Worthington of The Public Record, Wilkerson says: “I’ve come to the conclusion that the man truly is—whether he was that way when I knew him before, when he was Secretary of Defense, I don’t know, that’s not at issue with me any more—the man now is just crazy.”

cuckooWilkerson further refers to former BushCo factotum Alberto Gonzales as “that idiot,” and describes Cheney’s principal War on Terra aide, David Addington, as “a strange person,” known in “the uniformed military [] as ‘Weird David,'” but who was nonetheless allowed to serve as “both the Zawahiri and the bin Laden” of BushCo. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is portrayed as an arrogant and obstreperous power-grabber intent on “CIA-izing” the military, and the entirety of BushCo is damned thusly: “his wasn’t a normal administration.”

Wilkerson notes that although Cheney is now deranged, the media continues to enable him: “Our media loves to keep it going. They love to throw him out there and, you know, stoke the fires.” And that Democratic leaders, terrified of being branded as “soft” on national security, have also capitulated to this man who is, in fact, mad:

They don’t believe they can show another square centimeter of ankle on national security, because the Republicans will eat their lunch, and every time I’m told this I die laughing. I say, your guys are captured by the Sith Lord, Dick Cheney, you’re captured by Rush Limbaugh, whose real radio audience is about 2.2 million, and whose employer, Clear Channel, lost $3.7 billion in the second quarter of this year. I said, when are you gonna wake up? These are kooks. And Cheney is the kook leader. But [Nancy] Pelosi and [Harry] Reid are such feckless leaders they haven’t got any spine. We have no leadership in the legislative branch on either side of the aisle.


Diet Of Worms

They invented the printing press out on the plain this morning; Constantinople fell in the afternoon. needs wormingI suppose they’ll discover America tomorrow. What a lot of running around they do. I saw Charles VIII of France (invasion of Italy led by: 1494) picking his nose with one hand and adjusting his wig with the other. Jetter pointed out that this particular period ended with the diet of Worms.

I found my little buffalo with his throat slit open. All right, God, that’s the way you want to play it.

Kenneth Patchen, The Journal of Albion Moonlight

“If We Were In His Place, Should We Hesitate A Moment?”

Maurice Maeterlinck was an interesting person. A Belgian born in 1862 into a wealthy French family, he initially snored into law, before waking to write first Symbolist, and then fairy-dust plays, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911.

maeterlinckBy that time Maeterlinck had pretty much abandoned the theater, having become intensely interested in ants and bees, and inscribing several eccentric works about each.

In the end, he wandered off onto his own peculiar path of mysticism, peridocially producing, until the end of his life in 1949, volumes with titles like Wisdom and Destiny, The Buried Temple, Our Eternity, The Great Secret, and The Life of Space.

In this last, Maeterlinck included the essay “The Isolation of Man.” It seems to have been intended as an argument against the existence of extraterrestrial life. But to me it reads as one of the most poignant refutations extant of the notion that some deity once planted, and today watches over, those of us suffering here on terra nullius.


More Than This

It was Labor Day, and I was slogging through the supermarket, in search of cold remedies, because the season is changing, and Someone has decided to afflict 1231554171Y3bxVmithe humans of this household with Bugs. I was drudging, no credit to sentience, just plodding through the day, “putting one foot to front of de other,” as Cecil the bartender describes it in Robert Stone’s A Flag For Sunrise.

And then I had a Moment.



Former President Jimmy Carter recently returned from his fourth journey to the Middle East in the past 16 months. On this most recent trip, he traveled as part of a group of “Elders” that also oneincluded Mary Robinson and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

In an op-ed published Sunday in the Washington Post, Carter writes:

A majority of the Palestinian leaders with whom we met are seriously considering acceptance of one state, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. By renouncing the dream of an independent Palestine, they would become fellow citizens with their Jewish neighbors and then demand equal rights within a democracy. In this nonviolent civil rights struggle, their examples would be Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.


Four On The Floor

It is well known that human beings possess a “lizard brain“—indeed, the Republican Party would not be possible without it. Now we learn, thanks to the folks at Nature, that the human heart too is linked to reptiles.

Seems a specific protein “turns on” genes involved in heart formation in turtles, lizards . . . and humans.

“This is the first genetic link to the evolution of two, rather than one, pumping chamber in the heart, which is a key event in the evolution of becoming warm-blooded,” said Gladstone investigator Benoit Bruneau, PhD, who led the study.

While bird and mammalian hearts have four chambers, frogs and other amphibians have three.

“How did hearts evolve from three to four chambers?” Bruneau said. “The different reptiles offer a sort of continuum from three to four chambers. By examining them, we learned a lot about how the human heart chambers normally form.”

He explained that with four chambers—two atria and two ventricles—humans and all other mammals have completely separate blood flows to the lungs and to the rest of the body, which is essential for us to be warm-blooded.

Reptiles, of course, are cold-blooded.

runThe Bruneau study indicates that turtle hearts develop in a manner that provides a “tantalizing clue” as to how mammalian hearts came to be. Lizard-heart growth, though, on the road to four chambers, just sort of . . . peters out.

Rude and abusive humor at the expense of  “Dark Side” Dick Cheney, GOoPer Lizard King, who has been afflicted with heart hiccups since his early 30s, may now commence.

Or other sorts of heart trouble can be considered.

See Me, Feel Me

The earth shall cry out: “I entreat Thee, O Lord, in Thy mercy to spare me, for behold, I am sick and persecuted with all wounds.”

—The Discourse of Jacob of Serugh

As the melting of Arctic glaciers, occasioned by man-made global warming, continues apace, the earth seems increasingly to be striving to form itself into messages that we might understand. As in this photograph, snapped by marine photographer Michael Nolan, article-1210706-06430BF3000005DC-27_634x1000of a crying human face emerging from an icy cliff on the Norwegian island of Nordaustlandet.

The ice cap containing the face has been shrinking by as much as 160 meters annually over the past several decades. Dubbed Austofanna, the cap is the second largest in Europe, and the seventh largest in the world.

Another possibility is that melting glaciers are unearthing those folks referenced in Genesis 6:4, wherein it is noted “[t]here were giants in the earth in those days.” Said giants were among those who perished when Yahweh, grumpy, brought forth the flood, thereby washing away everyone but the bibulous 600-year-old Noah and his motley crew. Dude, after the drown job, threw up a rainbow, as a sign and a promise that “the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.”

Didn’t promise not to send any other plagues, though.

Honey, I’m Home

They have photographed a molecule, and it is a honeycomb.

into the lightThis pleases me on many levels. Not least because in spiritual systems, a living being is considered a spirit incarnated in matter. Molecules are where matter begins to assemble; it is well and right, then, that material assembly should commence with the sort of compartments where honey, the spirit, may enter, and be stored.

As Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat wrote, in choosing to begin her definitive Histoire naturelle et morale de la mourriture with honey:

The Hebrew for bee is dbure, from the root dbr, meaning “word,” indicating the bee’s mission to reveal the Divine Word, the Truth. Honey, miraculously made by the bees, signifies truth because it needs no treatment to transform it after it has been collected. It does not deteriorate, and until the discovery of sugar there was no substitute. What but the bee can actually create honey by settling on the centres of God’s own flowers? Or the gods’ own flowers: it came to the same thing.

Then there is the tale of the two santeria orishas, Oggun and Oshun. It was with honey that the latter brought the former into the world.

Oggun can be very sad. Once, he was so angry at the way of people, their crimes and lies, that he went into the deep woods, so deep no one could find him, and he was so silent no one could talk to him or could coax him out. Finally, Oshun went after him and walked through the woods and walked through the woods until she came to a clearing by a stream. She could feel Oggun carefully watching from behind the trees. She didn’t make the mistake of calling out to him. She began to dance slowly with her arms out like this. Oshun has her own dance, very sexual. When she felt that he was curious and moving closer she still didn’t call his name. She danced a little faster, a little slower, and when he came out of hiding she danced until he was close enough to her to dip her fingers into a gourd of honey hanging from her waist and she smeared the honey on his lips. He had never tasted anything so sweet in his life. She danced and filled her hand with honey and put more honey in his mouth and more honey while she tied him to her with a rope of yellow silk and led him back into the world.

And once la criolla anacaona returned with him to the world? Today, maybe, as honey is the music of the bee and the flower, they sound together in la musica cubana . . . .

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September 2009