Archive for August 5th, 2010

Never Get Out Of The Swiftboat

Bone-ignorant racist and serial liar Sean Klannity opened his radio program last Tuesday with a hit piece on Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. Despite all that was going on that day, Klannity was unable to resist an atavistic return to the halcyon days of 2004, when he was instrumental in blowing holes in Kerry’s presidential aspirations, via non-stop air time gifted to those mendacious merchants of lies traveling under the Orwellian rubric Swiftboat Veterans For Truth.

A Massachusetts resident, Kerry had berthed a yacht in neighboring Rhode Island, where the craft was built. Rhode Island does not levy a sales and use tax on yachts; Massachusetts does. The Boston Herald, which hates Kerry almost as much as Klannity does, broke the “story.” It was then picked up by the Eggman, one of several slime-buckets from whom Klannity daily drinks his “news,” before regurgitating it for his listeners.

As this story explains, New Englanders—whose states, combined, comprise a land mass smaller than most California counties—commonly cross borders, in pursuits ranging from purchasing liquor to establishing businesses, in order to take advantage of wildly disparate tax laws. But Klannity, and other bellowers into bullhorns in the rightwing echo machine, portrayed Kerry as some sort of cross between Ken Lay, Bernie Madoff, and Al Capone. By week’s end, Kerry had forked over $400,000 to Massachusetts, the amount he would have owed that state if his yacht had been built and berthed there, and thereby told Klannity and Klan to stuff it.

Kerry actually was involved in something newsworthy last week, but neither Klannity nor his Klan wanted to talk about it. Kerry responded to the release by Wikileaks of some 92,000 classified documents on Operation Enduring Fiefdom by stating that “they raise serious questions about the reality of America’s policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan. Those policies are at a critical stage and these documents may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right, more urgent.”



No Mas

Parliament in the Spanish autonomous community of Catalonia voted July 28 to ban bullfighting. By the end of 2012 it will be gone, throughout the region.

Simpleminded US and UK news reports mimicked the Spanish rightist line in dismissing the vote as a sort of hot-headed regionalist-nationalist instant-response to a June constitutional-court ruling declining to define Catalonia as “a nation.” This tired spin, however, neglects to note that people in Catalonia have been working against bullfighting since 1909, that by 2004 polls showed that over 80% of all Catalans opposed it, that last week’s vote was necessitated by the presentation in November 2008 of a petition signed by 180,000 people re-questing an end to the “sport,” and that the final vote last week, at 68-55, was merely a reaffirmation of a similar vote on January 1, which came in at 67-59 (and which I wrote about here). At that time too, it was claimed, falsely, that Catalans were less concerned about bulls, then about spitting at Spain.

In truth, Catalonia has banned bullfighting because Eros is winning, and Thanatos is losing. Blood sports of all kinds are in steep decline all over the globe. As they should be.

For bullfighting begins like this:

It’s a highly orchestrated spectacle that begins with the breeding of bulls in preserved areas known as dehesas. They are raised by their mothers for the first year, then taken away, branded, and kept in single-sex groups. At around two years of age, bulls are tested for aggression toward horses, and are not allowed to encounter humans until they enter the bullring. During their stay, they are encouraged to use their horns in tests of strength and dominance over other bulls, which often ends in severe injuries and even death.

And ends like this:

[W]hen I came to write a book about Barcelona I thought I should go one summer Sunday and attend a bullfight. I remember I didn’t last long. I knew nothing about the rules and intricacies of the sport so all I saw were crowds of well-fed, well-dressed people baying for blood, roaring and cheering at the sight of pain and demanding more of it as picadors on horses and a matador in a brilliant costume ritually tormented and tortured a bull. What was interesting was how present and real the bull felt to me, how close the animal’s pain and puzzlement was. Indeed, the bull, simply because of what it was going through, the ferocious rage and hurt it exuded, filled the ring with its aura much more than any of its killers did. So when it lay down and died and got dragged away, the scene was genuinely dramatic and powerful.

The crowd loved it. It was a useful experience learning that people in groups, without laws or limits set to govern their appetites, will have a great time watching some dumb and beautiful animal, who has no chance of escape, being cut open with swords and other sharp instruments. They can call it sport, they can call it tradition, they can write about its beauty, its poetry and its intricacy, they can invoke Hemingway and write about skill and ritual; for me that day the bullfight was a celebration of cruelty, of mob rule, of death, of picking on something weaker than you and amusing yourself at its expense. It was vile and it was disturbing.

The Catalan moniker for the campaign against bullfighting—”Prou!” or “Enough”—quite appropriate.

As Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, more than a century-and-a-half ago, “one must be really quite blind or totally chloroformed not to recognize that the essential and principal thing in the animal and man is the same”; “it may be confidently asserted that he, who is cruel to living creatures, cannot be a good man.”

Two Lights On Behind

Blues grew out of the need to live in the brutal world that stood ready in ambush the moment one walked out of the church. Unlike gospel, blues was not a music of transcendence; its equivalent to God’s Grace was sex and love. Blues made the terrors of the world easier to endure, but blues also made those terrors more real. “You run without moving from a terror in which you cannot believe,” William Faulkner wrote in one of his books about the landscape he shared with Robert Johnson, just about the time Johnson was making his first records, “toward a safety in which you have no faith.”

We comfort ourselves that we do not believe in the devil, but we run anyway; we run from and straight into the satanic images that press against the surface of American life. I think of Robert Mitchum, the mad preacher in Night of the Hunter, with LOVE tattooed between the knuckles of his right hand, HATE tattooed between the knuckles of his left—and he seems, again, like the legacy of the men who began the American experience as a struggle between God and the devil, the legacy of a Puritan weirdness, something that those who came after have been left to live out.

The Puritans did not take their dreams from the land; they brought them along. They meant to build a community of piety and harmony, what their leader, John Winthrop, called “a city on a hill”—an idea, in its many forms, that we have never gotten over, nothing less than America as the light of the world. They had a driving need to go to extremes, as if they could master God and the devil if only they could think hard enough; that, and a profound inability to make peace with the world as they found it. They failed their dreams, and their community shattered. “This land,” Winthrop wrote before he died, “grows weary of its inhabitants.”

The Puritans came here with a utopian vision they could not maintain; their idea was to do God’s work, and they knew that if they failed, it would mean that their work had been the devil’s. As they panicked at their failures, the devil was all they saw.

The image of the devil is a way of touching the sense that America is a trap: that its promises and dreams, all mixed up as love and politics and landscape, are too much to live up to and too much to escape. It is as if to be an American means to ask for too much—not even knowing one is asking for too much—and to trade away one’s life to get it, whatever it is.

The most acute Americans, in the steps of the old Puritans, have been suspicious, probing people, looking for signs of evil and grace, of salvation and damnation, behind every natural fact. Robert Johnson lived with this kind of intensity, and he asked old questions: What is man’s place in the world? Why is he cursed with the power to want more than he can have? What separates men and women from each other? Why must they suffer guilt not only for their sins, but the failure of their best hopes?

This is a state of mind that gives no rest at all.

—Greil Marcus, Mystery Train

When I Worked

August 2010
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