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Wednesday, August 28, 2013


Michael Reagan, Ed Meese, and other people we never would have heard of it if if hadn't been for Ronald Reagan have been complaining about the movie The Butler, which stars Forest Whitaker as a fellow who, like Jack Torrence in his position as caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, has always been the black butler at the White House. At least, that is, until he quits his job rather than continue to serve Ronald Reagan, who is depicted as something less than the twentieth-century's most enlightened mind on civil rights. Since the butler worked for eight different presidents--a detail that allows for such innovative casting choices as Robin Williams playing Dwight Eisenhower Liev Schreiber as LBJ, and John Cusack as Nixon, and I'm not making any of this up--the movie has only so much time to dwell on the historical details. But for The Butler, the last straw is Reagan's decision to veto sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa. Reagan's defenders would argue that this was a complicated and painful decision, but a necessary chess move in the context of the Cold War and the struggle to the death with the Soviet Union.

This happened in 1986, a year after Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party and began the thawing process that, four years later, would put him out of work, big time. At the time, Reagan's approach toward dealing with the Soviet Union--five or six years of bellicose rhetoric and missile build-ups and proxy wars in Latin America, followed, after his popularity took a hit in the Iran-Contra scandal and Gorbachev became the first and last of the four Soviet leaders of his time in office who he actually met, by lots of throwing kisses and assurances that everything was gonna be all right--looked like it was kind of made up as he was going along, and nobody liked both ends of it; the people who'd cheered his refusal to even talk to the head Commie, whoever he was, when into deep shock when Reagan spent the last couple of years of his term saying that the new head of the evil empire was an all right guy and, between the two of them, they were just going to wind down this meshugginah Cold War business.

Ever since it turned out that the two of them were just winding down that whole meshugginah Cold War business, a revisionist theory has become popular among conservatives--including the ones who spent Gorby's 1988 visit to Washington staggering around with their hands on their chest doing Fred Sanford imitations--that Reagan always knew that the Soviet Union was on its last legs, even when he was pretending to believe that it was a mighty juggernaut on the verge of crushing us all, and so engineered a massive, unnecessary defense build-up just to scare the Russkies into splurging on their own built-up, in a foolhardy attempt to keep pace with us; the idea was always to trick them into bankrupting themselves, so as to speed up their death throes.

If that's the case, though, maybe Reagan could have chosen to be on the right side of history, with regards to South Africa, without doing his side any damage in the Cold War. If America had sided with Nelson Mandela instead of P. W. Botha, how many days would that really have added to the lifespan of the Soviet Union? At the time, Reagan's Chief of Staff, Donald Regan, seemed to sum up his boss' attitude about the apartheid government, and those suffering under it, when he told reporters that he didn't expect much of an outcry over the decision: "Are the women of America prepared to give up all their jewelry?"

I guess we can argue about whether Reagan's position on South Africa, and whether it revealed a lack of sympathy for blacks struggling under the yoke of a cruel, unfair, even murderous white government. (In his published diaries, Reagan reveals a streak of angry impatience with Bishop Desmond Tutu, who just didn't seem to get it that, unlike Latin Americans and East Europeans, white Africans had to be treated gently, sympathetically, handed carrot after carrot and never getting the stick, for meaningful change to come. By acting as if he knew something about the situation of black South Africans that Reagan couldn't understand, Tutu clearly got under the Gipper's skin. But it should be said that, at least in the sections made available to the public, Reagan never once called Tutu "uppity.")

We can also, if you really want to, argue about Reagan's opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and his claiming, in front of KKK stronghold Stone Mountain, of Jefferson Davis as a "personal hero of mine," and his incendiary speeches about a mythological "welfare queen"with multiple fake names and Cadillacs paid for by the Joe Taxpayer, and his opposition to a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, on the grounds that he believed--as later as 1983, when he was obliged to sign the law into effect, and presumably until the day he died--that King had been a paid Soviet agent? (When asked at a press conference whether he still believed that King had been on the KGB payroll, Reagan, referring to the sealed FBI files on King, oozed, "We'll know in about thirty-five years, won't we?")

Then there's Reagan's 1980 campaign appearance at the Neshoba County Fair, where he talked about his love of "states' rights." That phrase is a dog whistle for segregationists who didn't appreciate the federal government throwing its weight around and giving their colored folk the right to vote, and the fair was held in Philadelphia, Mississippi, which will always be best known as the site of the murder of the three civil rights workers in 1964. Reagan did that just sixteen years after the murders, and you can ask William Faulkner if sixteen years is a long time in the South. For a long time, even conservatives would shake their heads admiringly at the audacity and sheer gutsiness of that stroke in the Republican "Southern strategy." Now, though, when the vote of every angry white man who goes to the polls isn't enough to get someone elected President, conservatives are inclined to either deny that the Southern strategy ever existed, or else insist that it was a long time ago, so let us speak of it no longer.

A few years ago, David Brooks had a crying fit in the pages of The New York Times, writing that this little thing keeps coming back by people who think it shows a degree of cynical racist pandering in Ronald Reagan. On the side of the argument that believes this is so, there is the fact that you'd have to be pretty stupid to think that all those signifiers--what Reagan said, where he said, who he said it to--just happened to pile up by accident. Speaking for the defense, Brooks argued that this has to be a mistake, because Ronald Reagan couldn't have been racist, and wouldn't have even wanted the vote of a racist person, because he was Ronald Reagan, the nicest man in the world. Shit, even Michael Reagan goes that extra mile of saying that his father couldn't possibly have been even a little bit racist, because he used to play football, and there was a black guy on the football team. and of all the best friends Ronald Reagan had, that black guy was one of them!

Reagan is also the President who named Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court. Elaborating on his dissent from the recent Supreme Court decisions that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and California's law barring same-sex marriages, Scalia recently said that "It's not up to the courts to invent new minorities that get special protections." By "special protections," Scalia appears to be referring to laws that guarantee people different from him the same rights that he, as a white heterosexual male, takes as a given--the right to marry, to be protected from harassment and discrimination on account of his skin color and sexual orientation, things like that. No one thinks that Scalia's right to marry or to vote or buy a house he can afford in a neighborhood he likes is a special protection; it's just the way it is. How much of a stretch is it to see his use of the phrase "special protection," when these rights are extended to gays or blacks, as evidence that he doesn't think they should necessarily have such rights, so long as there's a white heterosexual man out there who feels uncomfortable about it?

I throw blacks in there with gays on this one, because based on his recent vote in favor of the decision that gutted the Voting Right Act that Ronald Reagan wasn't crazy about either, Scalia also thinks that laws upholding blacks' right to vote is also a "special protection"-- for "new minorities," a phrase that makes sense only if you're of a certain age when the word "minority," in this context, was understood to mean some group that had been hassled by The Man (or, in the case of woman, the men) and was now demanding its fair share of the pie. It's a word that it's hard to imagine Scalia saying without sneering, though in the most important decision of his career, Bush v. Gore, he stood up for the idea that members of a minority--rich, arrogant sons of former Presidents--should have their right to be appointed to the highest office in the land, and make daddy humbled yet proud, specially protected from the majority of people who had voted for the other candidate.

At the same time that Scalia was being fitted for his black robe, William Rehnquist, who was appointed to the Court in 1972 by Richard Nixon--coincidentally, the first Republican presidential candidate to put the Southern strategy into use--was named Chief Justice, despite his having written a memo, as a clerk for Judge Robert Jackson, that defended "separate-but-equal" laws, and another memo arguing that the Supreme Court would do well to leave the issues of segregation and blacks' right to vote alone, because "It is about time the Court faced the fact that the white people of the south do not like the colored people," and had no business inconveniencing these white people. (When these things came up at his 1986 confirmation hearings, Rehnquist claimed that these statements reflected the views of his employer, and not his own, but it seems safe to assume that he was lying, since we know that he was evil.) Rehnquist is also known, as a young man, to have hung out at polling places harassing blacks who tried to vote, which is one of the reasons we can state, without fear of being contradicted by any sensible or decent person, that he was, in fact, evil.

Of course, the hearings in 1986 were a mere formality--Chief Justice is just a title, and nothing was going to get Rehnquist removed from the Court on which he was already a fixture. Maybe, if he had been applying for a seat on the Court for the first time, he would have been rejected on the basis of these charges. Or maybe not. We know that Samuel Alito is a deeply committed racist and sexist, because he belonged to a deeply racist and sexist organization called the Concerned Alumni of Princeton, and no one would belong to such an organization unless its views were near and dear to his heart, because that would be so stupid. When Alito was named to the Supreme Court by George W. Bush in 2008, and the subject came up, Alito swore under oath that he "disavow[ed]" and "deplore[d]" the group he had been a member of. His wife, hearing him characterized as a member of a group he belonged to, fled the room in tears, ensuring that the news story of his hearings would be that mean liberals had made a lady cry by pointing out that her husband was who he was.

Equal rights for all, without exceptions made according to skin color or gender or sexual orientation, and without any bullshit about extending equal rights to someone who is in some way different than "the majority" being a "special protection," is the most morally clear-cut issue of the last century, period. There was never any moral or intellectual ground for arguing otherwise, and that if that was ever anything less than crystal clear, it became crystal clear in the dying days of jim Crow, when supposed intellectuals like Rehnquist and William F. Buckley were reduced to insisting that the government couldn't fix what Southern voters had no intention of fixing themselves because... well, just because this was the way it was, and if white people wanted it that way, who cares what the black people wanted? (The arguments against same-sex marriage are at about that level now, since opponents have been reduced to saying that, if two men can get married, it will degrade the institution and make good ol' Ma and Pa feel less special about their marriage, some-fucking-how.)

The first thing to say about this is that there were always plenty of white people, even in the South, who didn't like "separate but equal" and hated losing a piece of their souls every time they were forced to be party to it just as a part of getting through their day. And I imagine that, for every piece of white shit who's sort of resentful of the Civil Rights movement and feels that he has cause to feel aggrieved because he can't say "nigger" and Kanye West can, there are several white Southerners who've come of age since 1964 who are grateful as hell to all the people who stepped up before they were born or came of age and changed the world they'd have to live in, for the better. The second thing is that there's no way to argue against the Civil Rights Act and all that came after it without being at least a little bit racist, whether you're Barry Goldwater making the argument in 1964 or Rand Paul making it today.

I get it; anything the federal government did has to be tainted with original sin. But it's a fucking fact: this country was not going to magically fix itself. And when white property owners won't sell to blacks, or black kids aren't allowed to go to the good schools where the white kids are, and William "Lurch" Rehnquist is waiting to lean on the black people who show up at the polling place on election day, and you pretend to believe that the property owners and the other goons have the right to watch out for their own interests and stroke their own prejudices that outweigh the consumers' and voters' right to a level field, I'm sorry--you've made an obscene and illogical choice, and it's reasonable to assume that skin color is what tipped the scales in your mind and drove you to make the fateful decision to talk gibberish.

Because in the end, what we're talking about are Americans, and one group of Americans are fucking over one group of Americans and expecting the government and the cops to back them up, or at least not bother them about it. In the end, tolerance of this shit comes down to people looking at the whole, vast, endlessly fascinating race of people called Americans, and not being able to separate them into bundles according to physical qualities, some of which are, regrettably, different than their own. This becomes painfully clear whenever someone like Bill O'Reilly or Pat Buchanan goes on the air and comments on, even, God help us, laments the idea of an America where white people aren't clearly the dominant culture, preferably with the ones who have penises getting an extra vote. You could call this stuff racist, or bigoted, but better to call it by its true and most repulsive word. It's un-American.

This brand of un-Americanism has increasingly taken the form of slandering American heroes, like John Lewis, a favorite target of the late Andrew Breitbart. Breitbartians and other deep thinkers like Ted Nugent now routinely lump Lewis and President Obama in with cynical hustlers like Al Sharpton, which, cutting though I guess they think they're being, does not really say much for their ability to deny that all black people look alike to them. Or, if you really want to laugh till you puke, you can read some of the tributes to Martin Luther King as a great conservative hero, some of which complain that King, the great vocal opponent of the Vietnam war and supporter of a guaranteed annual income, has been misused by those who would invoke his name to push a whole liberal agenda, oh horror! King, the man Ronald Reagan didn't trust, is now talked about by Republicans as if he were one of their own, because he's an official American saint; whether they believe it or not, Reagan himself is only a Republican saint, and these, again whether they believe it or not, are not synonymous terms. 

The Civil Rights movement and its supporters in Congress and the White House did great things for Americans. I suspect that people like Rehnquist and Scalia, and Reagan too, thought that it did great things for black people--and I also suspect that people who think like that feel that anytime black people gain something, white people must have lost something. It's simple mathematics, right? Any time you hear someone talking about civil rights and he invokes the dread word "guilt," whether he's complaining about other people like him feeling guilty or insinuating that other people unlike him are trying to make him feel guilty, you're hearing someone admit that the thought of all Americans being equal doesn't fill him with joy, and the alternative doesn't fill him with dread. When Scalia talks about "new minorities," referring to the same people who've been hiding in closets and getting the shitty end of the stick for centuries, he's saying, "I don't care how guilty you feel--I've already given up enough." 

The Civil Rights movement was part of the most morally pure, necessary reform movement in America in the last half-century, and the Civil Rights Act the most necessary piece of legislation, and for more than forty years, there's always been someone on the Supreme Court who would have voted against it if he'd been able to at the time. Scalia, Alito, and the other Justices who voted to cripple the Voting Rights Act didn't do it because they no longer thought it was necessary. They never thought it was necessary, or desirable. But it took them until now to feel sufficiently cornered, sufficiently aggrieved, enough like a minority to go after it, knowing they'd look like activist anarchists and setting off a shit storm. After decades of reaping votes by claiming solidarity with voters who think they live in a trailer because the blacks on welfare got to the store of life first and boosted all the good stuff, Republicans find themselves living in a world where a man--a black man--can win the Presidency without the majority of the white vote. 

Seriously, forget your manners for a minute: given everything we've heard him claim to believe in the course of the past quarter of a century, how do you think Antonin Scalia, Ronald Reagan's remaining champion on the Supreme Court, feels about that? I think we know for sure now. If there's one first thing that everyone who serves a democracy ought to agree on, it might be that the opportunity to exercise the right to vote should be made as universal and accessible as possible. The Justices who made an end to early voting and restrictive photo-I.D. requirements an option, and the Republican legislators who were ready and waiting to take them up on it, are interested in doing everything they can to maximize the vote of the people who they expect will agree with them, and minimizing the vote of everyone else. There does come a point where partisanship in high places looks more than a little like treasonous acts.

A man like John Lewis put his life on the line for what was right and stood up to actual forces of tyranny. For this all Americans are in his debt, and he will have a special moral stature and authority for the rest of his life. When Tea Partiers and people on Fox News talk about him as if he were some kind of thug, all they do is reveal their seething envy of that moral stature and authority. When cretins talk use words like "tyranny" and "slavery" to express how they feel about paying taxes so that some poor kid they don't know can have a free school lunch, they're demanding a moral authority commensurate with the one civil rights marchers earned when police dogs and fire hoses were turned on them, and it's pathetic and obscene. In his dissent on the ruling on Prop 8, Scalia wrote, "By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition." There's the rub. For most of the post-Civil War period, in too much of the country, segregationists--people who violated the basic law that America is a country made up of Americans, not people of one skin tone and then everybody else--got to run things pretty much their way. 

They were wrong, and they were bad people by definition, but no one denied they had the power. And though they lost their stranglehold on power, there were still plenty of segregationists who stayed in powerful positions until they were so old they were heading back to the tree, and people like Reagan were there to postpone, for as long as possible, the transition to a world in which no respectable person would dare suggest that he would have sided with J. Edgar Hoover, or even Bull Connor, over Martin Luther King. Even now, with Barack Obama in the White House, there's Scalia, the still-living embodiment of the ugliest aspects of Reagan's world view with none of the charm, hanging in there, hanging onto his power for the rest of his life if he likes, and he feels victimized, because in addition to living in a country where legally mandated bigotry isn't as acceptable as it used to be, he's not only not as solidly a part of the majority culture as he'd like: he also has to live with the worry that, by current standards, he's a bad person. 

The fact that he put a cry for help like that in a legal dissent has to make you wonder if that bothers him even more than feeling his power slip away, just as you have to wonder if the worshippers at Ronald Reagan's shrine feel that it doesn't matter how many airports are named after their guy; if people insist on thinking he had a bigoted streak, just because he gave such a convincing appearance of having one, it'll all be for naught. This all could have been overcome, and a lot of nit-picking and prevaricating could have been avoided, if these gentlemen has simply made the decision, earlier in life, to be Americans instead of bigots, which would have left open the possibility that they could be good people. It seems unlikely they would have taken it. But given what a wonderful time they must have had using their power, it seems a little rich for them to now complain about being judged for the ways they used it.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

There's No Riot Goin' On

When I was living in New Orleans--famously described by former Mayor Ray Nagin as "a chocolate city"--in the 1990s, my Aunt Betty used to call me every January and implore me to drop everything, lock up the apartment, and come home to the family farm in Mississippi to wait out the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Aunt Betty didn't see desegregation as something Americans might be grateful for, she saw it as something blacks were grateful for, and she saw the Reverend's birthday not as an American holiday but as a black holiday. And she thought that blacks would naturally celebrate by rioting. She understood rioting by black Americans as an excuse to blow off steam, smash windows, kick the shit out of a few stray white people who hadn't had the sense to get the hell out of Dodge, and end up back at the shack with a nice buzz on and a new, free TV. She assumed that this happened in big, racially diverse cities every year on Dr. King's birthday, and the police just stood by and let it happen, because they were afraid that to interrupt the violent celebration would be politically incorrect. She thought it was like fireworks for white people on the Fourth of July.

In this, she was following the lead of my grandfather, who, like President Reagan, went to his grave convinced that Dr. King was not just a troublemaking son of a bitch but probably a paid agent of the KGB. My grandfather used to tell me about the "real" King and how he operated, how he would go to some town where whites and blacks had gotten along just fine for generations, stir up bad feeling and sow dissent, and then move on to the next town just before the fuse he'd lit would reach the dynamite. "They're all fighting and burning down their own buildings," he'd seethe, "and he's on down the line, and everybody says, 'Oh, he's a man of peace, he's a man of peace!' And he's laughing up his sleeve, while we're left to get those poor people to settle back down and clean up the mess he made."

Neither my grandfather nor my Aunt Betty, nor for that matter Ronald Reagan, would cut it in today's Republican party, until they'd had their attitudes adjusted and gotten in line with the current line that Dr. King, who died at the moment that he was trying to expand his movement's focus to an all-out assault on poverty, to be fought with government programs--was actually a Republican activist who wanted hi people to pull themselves up their own bootstraps and get off the government teat. But the current Republican party would at least respect their general priorities. The actual Dr. King and the other heroes of the civil rights movement were concerned about matters of fairness and unfairness, right and wrong, equality and inequality. My grandfather and Aunt Betty saw such concerns as hippie shit. They were concerned only with order and its alternative. They were all in favor of order, and the Southern sheriffs with their fire hoses and attack dogs were enforcing order, sometimes going so far as to soak their hands in blood to do it. They were heroes; those who made their lives difficult by going into diners and polling places where they were plainly not wanted were agents of chaos.

I thought about my Aunt Betty while reading Dahlia Lithwick's article about Juror B37, the keeper whose book deal got scuttled by social media in the course of a few hours. There's a lot to chew on in the profile, based on the juror's voir dire--Lithwick calls her "a reflexive doubter that truth and facts are knowable anymore," who paradoxically believes anything she hears in the courtroom. I suspect that the first part of her condition is becoming more and more common among people who rely on partisan media outlets that tell them only what they want to hear--including, in extreme cases, confident predictions that the Supreme Court will have to overturn Obamacare because it's clearly unconstitutional, or assurances that any poll results that don't show Romney mopping the floor with the President are "skewed" by the lamestream media, but just you wait and see what happens on Election Day. What what really happens just goes ahead and happens over Karl Rove's strenuous objections, the people who believe this shit must feel very frightened and confused. And just switching the setting in your brain back to unfiltered reality is harder than it looks. Consider the case of Dean Chambers, the unskewed-polls guy, whose immediate response in the days after the election was to apologize for his own silliness and express anger at those who had encouraged him, but who quickly flipped back and devoted his time on Earth to insisting that the real reason his numbers were off is that he underestimated the power and effectiveness of the criminal conspiracy to steal the election for Obama.

Part of what caught my eye, though, about Juror B37 is that she believes that there were riots after Trayvon Martin was killed. Juoror B37 sounds like quite a dense thing, and maybe the tracing paper in her head just laid this event over the acquittal of the cops who beat Rodney King, which led to the Los Angeles riots, which in turn led to the decision to file federal chargers against the officers for violating their punching bag's civil rights. But maybe the goofy old dear just thinks that blacks riot at the drop of a hat--that it goes on all the time. (Like my Aunt Betty, she's definitely possessed of a classic "give me order over anarchy" mindset; she said in a TV interview that she'd like to have George Zimmerman on her own neighborhood watch, especially now that he's "learned a good lesson.") David Weigel has been following the predictions by people like Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh that a not guilty verdict for Zimmerman would lead to riots all over the country by angry black folks, and one thing that can be decisively said about their post-verdict commentary is that they have not fallen all over themselves congratulating black folks for their self-control. Drudge is apparently--I'd just as soon not visit his site, but I'll take Weigel's word for it--behaving as if there have been violent riots going on all over the place. If the last five years have proven nothing else, they've firmly established that you can say anything you like in conservative media, and if no evidence of what you're reporting turns up anywhere else in the world, the true believers will point to it as proof that there is much that the liberal media sweeps under the rug. Covering black rioters, the thinking goes, would be bad for the cause of political correctness, because then we'd see those people behaving like animals--unlike the red-faced, gun-toting people waving racist signs and screaming incomprehensible bullshit at Tea Party rallies, who were displaying their passionate love for the country that the hippie Socialist Mulsim fake President was trying to take away.

The Los Angeles riots came as a shock to a lot of people, and in their aftermath, President Bush--whose press secretary first addressed the news by saying that it was all somehow Lyndon Johnson's fault; you give these people hope, and this is what you can expect in return--scrambled to try to show that he wasn't completely detached from the reality of the street life that Reaganomics had created, even letting token compassionate Republican Jack Kemp out of the closet and letting him give interviews and shit. Maybe Drudge and company think that, if they can get ahead of the story the next time something like that is about to go down, they can spin it to their advantage instead of getting their legs chopped out from under them. But why this insistence on the persistence of actual, non-extistant rioting? There must have been people who, far from being shame-faced over the Rodney King verdict, thought it was on the money. And then, when the riots broke out, they didn't think, "This is what happens when injustice persists until a major city turns into a powder keg--it can't go on like this." They thought, "Those poor, nice young men were just trying to maintain order, they had to go through the inconvenience of a silly trial, and now, instead of getting to go home to their families, their nightmare had to continue, with the government's contrivance, because a bunch of unorderly people can't obey the rules and had a hissy fit." I guess rioting had become, for some people, one more way that black people have it all over whites; anytime they want something unreasonable, they can just have another riot, and make nice people's lives difficult by tying up traffic, and then the hippies in Washington will just reward them for their bad behavior and give them whatever they want, and did I mention the free TV they always get out of it? The way Drudge and Aunt Betty and Juror B37 see it, riots are like affirmative action for people who are too lazy to be rubber-stamped through four years of college.

George's Jones, and Other Calamities

Most of what I've read about the George Zimmerman case has examined Zimmerman's stalking and shooting of the unarmed, unoffending, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the judgment of the cops who arrived on the scene that they were good with it, and the decision of a jury of Zimmerman's peers, after the state of Florida was finally pressured into bringing the case to trial that, yep, they were good with it, has boiled down to examining the incident and the personalities involved through the prism of race. But if you want to understand the whole thing--understand who George Zimmerman is, why he did what he did, how the stars lined up around him, and what it all means--I think the most important thing you need to grasp is that Zimmerman, who looks like the besieged American Everyman to a lot of people, and like Everything Bad on a rocket sled to a lot of others, is, first and foremost, just an unbelievable pussy. He is to courage what Joe the Plumber was to working-class dignity.

Give Bernhard Goetz the credit he has coming to him: it took some balls to ride the New York City subway in 1984. Zimmerman's hobby, which he may well continue to enjoy, was to squeeze himself into his Batmobile and tool around prosperous, high-security communities--in Florida, the gated-community capitol of the United States--looking for anyone who Did Not Belong, with his peacemaker on his hip. So far as fake-macho displays of vigilante ballsiness by unbelievable pussies go, it was the small-timer's equivalent of making a speech saying that you're not going to just sit around and let evil flourish the way your predecessor in the Oval Office did, identifying three rogue nations as "the axis of evil," and then invading the one that's been disarmed and buckling under the weight of international sanctions for more than ten years. You may think you'll look pretty tough when you're getting your medal from Police Commissioner Gordon, but let's face it: you've got to do something at night, and so long as you're safe in your car, stay out of the bad neighborhoods, and, most importantly, have that peacemaker on your hip, it's a lot safer and less stressful than, say, trying to talk to a girl, if you have George's problem of being just an unbelievable pussy.

We'll never know how many times George actually saw someone he thought Did Not Belong while on night patrol and how many times he just sweated and stalked until his quarry hailed a cab or something--whew!! thinks George, he must have known I had eyes on him and messaged the rest of the New Black Panther Party to stand down--unless he kept excellent notes while waiting for his book deal. But we know that, on this night, he made more and more panicked phone calls to the po-po, and that whoever was manning the switchboard that night was insufficiently talented at soothing idiots who happen to be pussies, because he finally got out of his car to show John Law how it's done. This is where the whole gun thing becomes all-important, because George never would have gotten out of the car without his gun.

But, at the risk of sounding like one of those old bumper stickers asserting that guns don't kill people, people etc., I seriously doubt that Trayvon Martin would be dead now if George weren't such an unbelievable pussy. Can we talk? I grew up in Mississippi. Post-lega lynching, pre-Obama Mississippi. And I knew lots of guys who would have seen a black kid loping along and thought something of it. Some of the more Barney Fife-ish among them might even have followed him, called it in. The meaner and drunker among them might have gone so far as to step up to the kid and pick a fight, especially if they'd just walked in on their girlfriend making out with her brother again. But in all my extensive experience of being around intolerable sweaty-ass bad-smelling drunken peckerwood pieces of shit, have I ever met someone so cowardly, so yellow-bellied, so pathetically, contemptibly craven, someone with such a superhuman, rodentlike ability for banging on the bar to announce on the Jumbotron that he was about to write a check that his mashed-potato ass could not cash, that he would pick a fight with someone, and then, when his new friend elected to slap him back, scream like Homer Simpson finding that someone else had taken the last donut and pull out his boom stick and fucking shoot the person who had responded favorably to his invitation to engage him in fisticuffs and attitude? And then claim self-defense? Please.  The racist shitheels I've known have their pride.

There's definitely the racist element to linger on here, if you're so inclined. Zimmerman's defenders were quick to complain that the pictures the media used of his victim made the sneaky little pickaninny look cute, cute and harmless, more Gary Coleman in his prime than Willie Horton in what Republican strategists consider to have been his. Then they rushed online with pictures of Trayvon Martin looking all scary and black power and hip hop and whatever the kids are into these days. Some of these pictures suffered from the fact that they weren't actually of Trayvon Martin, or of the right Trayvon Martin, but the point had been made, assuming the point was that if you saw the people in those photos working the soda dispenser at the Tastee Freeze, shoot his ass first and ask questions later--anyone with that kind of black face was too scary to live. In the letters column of my local paper, some jasper wrote in to say that Zimmerman was just trying to make safe for the people who lived in that neighborhood, which I guess means that Martin's father and his girlfriend's family, who lived in the neighborhood, thus helping to account for his presence there, owe Zimmerman a hug and a thank-you.

Yes, the mere fact that the unarmed Trayvon Martin was black made it a lot easier to account for how scared Zimmerman was of him--I see a black kid! I have no choice but to call the police! Oh no, the black kid is close to me and could hit me, like, really hard. I have no choice but to lay him out! Plenty more where he came from, so society won't register it as any kind of loss--and to help him raise and support a fan club. But I don't think the case marks a rise in racism and acceptance of racism, any more than the equally stupid and morally indefensible verdict in the O. J. Simpson murder case represented a clarion call from the African-American community to celebrity black athletes, urging them to marry blonde women so they could murder them and thin out their ranks a little. Still, larger societal factors were at work in both cases, and I do think the eagerness, willingness, hell, the mere ability of a great many prominent people to embrace a remorseless, quivering tub of guts like George Zimmerman may represent a rise in the intensity and social acceptance of unbelievably frightened pussies with arsenals.

Pussies are the real core of the Fox News Republicans now, people so freaked out at the way the world has changed that they can't think straight, and don't want to--they just want to panic, while harboring the delusion that this mental state somehow puts them better in touch with the Founding Fathers, who must have been able to get a grip on themselves once in a while if they managed to win a war against the mother country and persuade their new countrymen not to throttle and eat them when the first winter came. God knows the NRA has abandoned any service it once performed in the nature of encouraging and teaching gun safety and responsible ownership to address their chosen constituency, with a message they can all get behind: Pussies of America! Through dishonest means, an Eisenhower Republican, or "Democrat" as they are now called, has seized the White House! He had no limits on his power, and he does not respect you. He has somehow gotten the peculiar notion in his head that the very people who organized a grassroots movement to oppose oppressive taxation around the same time that he took office and pushed through a tax cut to help the middle class in these harsh times, and who doubt his claims to be an American citizen because they suspect that he is in fact the Muslim Manchurian candidate, may not be too bright. A great flood is coming. You will want to shoot at it, since we found out a few years back that levees don't always get the job done. According to the NRA, Obama has hatched a new plot to outlaw and collect all guns every few weeks since taking off, while losing his very rare attempts to actually, say, demand background checks and limit the availability of armor-piercing bullets to the droolingly insane, just to throw the media off his scent. You'd have to be very stupid to buy into all this, but you'd have to be very stupid to give Halle Berry an Academy Award, and that happened. The pertinent thing, is you'd have to be an amazing pussy to be responsive to this particular brand of terror-stroking, and hundreds of thousands people qualify.

There are a great many self-identified "conservatives" who would stick up for George Zimmerman and the NRA, and this has naturally led the good-hearted to wonder where the hell this country is going. But try to keep in mind, if it would not further dishearten you, that mainstream conservative thought is not based on, well, thought. Nobody in his right mind would say that citizens have the right to murder unarmed fellow citizens with firearms for no reason, except that they disapproved of the cut of their jib, and call it self-defense, any more than anyone, two seconds after the planes hit the World Trade Center, thought, "Wow, you know that little Middle Eastern country we invaded and hollowed out ten years ago? We should do that again." Modern conservatives decide what they believe based not on any program or policies or comprehensible moral code, but strictly according to what they believe will piss off the hippies. (For modern conservatives, "the hippies," like "Socialists," is a synonym for "Eisenhower Republicans.") That's why those commentators who have gone that extra step and suggested not just that Trayvon Martin scared poor George Zimmerman so badly that Zimmerman had to strike back--just as, in the words of Thomas Friedman, the 9/11 terrorist attacks so affected America that "we had to hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world," whether whoever we hit had wronged us or not--but that Martin was a criminal thug who deserved to die seem so needlessly cruel. It's enough to argue that it should be legal to kill black kids for scaring pussies by being someplace the pussy doesn't think they should be is enough--it makes hippies very angry. So there's no reason to add insult to injury by alleging that the dead black kid, in addition to being expendable and extraneous to society, wasn't also a nice person.

If that means denouncing the basic template for a health care system that their presidential candidate considers his legacy in the state he used to govern and that he thought he'd get to talk about a lot during the campaign, then the presidential candidate will just have to suck it up. If the world population split into two sides, joined hands, and starting picking people to play dodgeball, George Zimmerman, speaking strictly on his merits, would have a pretty fair chance of being the last person called. But that, and the moral and legal ramification of what he actually did, matters less to modern conservatives than their sense that hippies really get bent out of shape when somebody shoots and calls a black kid, because he was a-skeered. The advantage of this method of selecting one's opinions is that it's easy and fun. The down side is that you will sometimes find yourself forced to choose the wrong side of issues where there really aren't "liberal" and "conservative" sides, only "right" and "wrong", "good" and "evil," "intelligent" and "rock stupid."

Other things did happen this past weekend. The TV performer Erick Erickson, moved by the protests against Texas's anti-abortion legislation, tweeted the URL for a website that sells coat hangers, addressing it, "Dear liberals..." When the entire Internet upchucked, Erickson wrote, "I forget that feminists and anti-activists really are as humorless as they are stereotyped to be." It may seem strange that a man who cares so much about the sanctity of human life would make a "joke" about the prospect of pregnant women mutilating and killing themselves with coat hangers, but Erickson is pushing the outside of the envelope here by trying to extend the rules of modern conservative political thought to humor: if the thought of a dead woman lying in a blood-filled bathtub with a coat hanger sticking out of her would make a hippie cry, then it just stands to reason that it should make his people laugh. I first found out about Erickson's existence during the Mark Sanford/"Appalachian trail" business back, in 2009. When Sanford disappeared, Erickson, who is freed from ethical or moral considerations by his political philosophy that it's bad if the hippies like it and good if they don't, end of story, contacted the governor's people to offer his services, as fearless speaker of truth to power, promising to spin the story any way they liked at his website.

Sanford's people effectively hung him out to dry, allowing him to publish a slew of inoperative statements about Sanford's sabbatical, attached to his declaration that Sanford's going AWOL had confirmed in his mind the quality of Sanford's leadership, since sticking around and doing the job you were elected to do is the kind of thing a hippie would expect of his elected leaders. After Sanford's tearful press conference about how he'd finally felt love for the first time in the arms of a woman who had not made the mistake of exchanging vows with him or bearing his children, Erickson indignantly complained that "liberals," the heartless swine, were linking to his previous posts and laughing at them--this despite the fact that there was not then, nor is there now, a single thing to do with Mark Sanford and his political career that isn't hilarious; to cite Oscar Wilde, is the death scene of Little Nell of political careers, and Erickson, who endorsed Sanford in his successful-yet-sidesplitting Senate race last year, still doesn't get it. Maybe the coat hanger tweet is just what happens when someone who doesn't know what humor is tries to be funny.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Shooting Off Your Mouth

In a much-commented-on National Review post earlier this week, someone named Charlotte Allen argued--not that she's blaming the victims!--that the real culprit in the shootings at Sandy Hook is the feminization of our culture, which has made men reluctant to display the kind of manly, aggressive traits that come in hand when villains need to be tackled. As Allen sees it, the school itself had become a dangerously testosterone-free zone. "There was not a single adult male on the school premises when the shooting occurred... There didn't even seem to be a make janitor to heave his bucket at Adam Lanza's legs." She also compared what happened at the school to the take-charge heroism displayed about United Flight 93. Doing his part to help this shit go viral, David Weigel called it "the stupidest thing anyone has said about Sandy Hook," and wrote:

Kevin Anzellotti, the head custodian at Sandy Hook, is a man. Theodore Varga, a fourth grade teacher, also possesses XY chromosomes. I just did the research Allen didn't do, and it took all of fourteen seconds. Beyond that, though -- why does no one who writes this way look into the circumstances of other massacres? The second person shot by Jared Loughner was Gabe Zimmerman, an aide to Gabby Giffords who, hearing the gunshot that would cripple her, turned and stepped toward Loughner. The gunman shot Zimmerman in the head. The fourth person shot by Loughner was Giffords's aide Ron Barber, who survived shots to the cheek and groin. He was saved by John Roll, who lunged at the aide and was shot fatally in the back. Loughner did all of this in less than six seconds. Grown men in good health were cut down, because bullets move faster than people do...  
The terrorists on Flight 93, as I thought everybody knew, were armed with box cutters. The people who tackled them had a long time to plan their counterattack, ducking behind seats and whispering. This is obviously inapplicable to any situation involving semi-automatic weapons. Who thinks like this?

In her response to her critics, Allen concedes that, okay, the part about there being no adult males at the school when the shooting started may not be factual, or maybe it was; she doesn't know if those employees were there that day. (And, you can almost hear you whispering in a Homer Simpson voice, there is no way that anyone can ever know!) But she makes no acknowledgement of the point about how no one slower than Superman could have been anything but defenseless against the weapon the shooter was using. (Meanwhile, she doubles down on her main point, reminding us that, even as we waste our time talking about this gun-control crap, Hanna Rosen is out there threatening to poison a thousand Christmases by urging parents to consider buying their sons Easy-Bake Ovens.)

This imperviousness to attempts to introduce common sense and factual accountability to her method o reasoning underlines the fact that the answer to Weigel's question is: people think like this when they think they always know how things should go down in real-life situations, not because they're informed about what actually did go down and how, or because they've worked hard to imagine what they might have done if they were there, but because they know how similar situations were handled in the movies they wish we were all were living in. Allen doesn't know anything about automatic weapons, or about the likeliest result of heaving a bucket at the legs of someone firing one. (She doesn't even know anything about boys, if she thinks that teaching them to cook at an early age makes any of them less masculine. What it mainly does, if the boys turn out to have any talent for it, is set them up for life, on a planet where a hell of a lot of women think being able to cook is sexy. But maybe Allen is trying to demonstrate just how high her bar for manliness is set, by implying that she thinks Gordon Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain are sort of girly.)

But she knows how you take care of a nut with a gun, because she's seen Clint Eastwood do it. Clint's never come up against a gun he couldn't get to in time, so if a nut managed to kill 26 people, the only explanation that makes sense is that they're not making heroes the way the did in Clint's day and age, and the femi-Nazis must to be blame. (The most poignant moment in her comeback piece may be the part where she boasts about how flattered she is to be compared to Megan McArdle, by Charles Pierce, who intended it as an insult. Me, I decided that I'd read enough of McArdle after she wrote about how surprised she was that the Iraq War hadn't gone better, because part of the problem seemed to be that the ignorant natives were less than thrilled to have Americans invade their country and start shooting and randomly imprisoning and torturing their family members. She wrote that she had assumed the war would go swell, because she figured the savages would be delighted to have us take charge of their lives for them and decide which ones got to spend the night entertaining Lynddie England; no other possibility ever crossed her mind. This, too, reflects a mindset that superimposes old movies on real life, but the movies are those Cold War propaganda films that no one over 60 has ever watched recreationally, and McArdle isn't even 40. Does she go to sleep at night and achieve some kind of mind-meld state that locks her imagination to Dick Cheney's Netflix queue?)

NRA master blaster Wayne LaPierre clearly uses the same Technicolor filter. In his delayed-reaction press conference about the Sandy Hook shootings--or, rather, the bad press that hardcore Second Amendments doorknobs have suffered as a result of the shooting--Lapierre said that "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun" and asked when "gun" became "a dirty word." This kind of prattle is the end result of coming to believe America became the country it is not through laws and infrastructure and global diplomacy, but because John Wayne and Gary Cooper had guns they could use to free us from the tyranny of Lee Marvin and Walter Huston. So it's a little weird that LaPierre used the occasion to blast Hollywood and "the media" for making people do violent things, by filling their heads with violent fantasy. Maybe nobody can see the nihilism of computer games so clearly and indignantly as an old guy who actually believes that cowboys built America. (Of course, he also thinks that the solution to guns in school is, duh, more guns, but he's because it took him a week to decide that his hair was finally TV-worthy, he was way behind the curve on that. Louis Gohmert, of my home state of Texas--the anchor baby guy--was on Fox News two days after the shooting, saying that he "wish[ed] to God" that the school principal "had had an M-4 in her office." Louis might have more reason that most to be offended at the way LaPierre, in his press conference, spat out the phrase "mentally ill," as if being crazy was synonymous with being a son of Beelzebub. Of course, Louis, whose brain is certifiably not of this world, has never physically harmed a child, because no child has ever tried to get between him and a TV camera.)

"Handguns are made for killing/ They ain't no good for nothing else/ And if you like to drink your whiskey/ You might even shoot yourself/ So why don't we drop them, people/ To the bottom of the sea." That's from "Saturday Night Special," a song not by the Roches, or even Crosby, Stills, and Nash, but the greatest Southern rock band of all time, the high-testosterone, unapologetically white-trash Lynyrd Skynyrd. It dates from a time, which is a lot more recent than the glory days of John Wayne, when responsible gun owners didn't want to be associated with the nuts who thought they had a need of, or a right to, guns whose only purpose was to wreak destruction on other people, let alone armor-piercing bullets and automatic weapons that could do things Ronnie Van Zandt never lived to imagine. That song is less than forty years old, but the mindset behind it now seems like something from another world; that's how successful the NRA has been at pushing the idea that any attempt to draw the line at what kind of killing technology American citizens can buy would be a slippery slope that inevitably leads to the gummint confiscating every gun owner's last peashooter, would would in turn lead to... hell, I don't know, find a moron and ask him. So gun lovers who've gone along with this have no answer to gun anarchy except to demand that everyone in the country be armed, so that gun violence can be a matter of "individual responsibility"; presumably, once we're all packing heat, the onus for any future Sandy Hooks will be on those who were present at the scene but let the killer get the drop on them. (And a lot of gun lovers are Fox News conservatives, which means we can now look forward to the listening to people who think teachers are paid too damn much demanding that the money be found to staff all schools with trained marksmen and self-defense instructors.) Maybe everybody sometimes wishes they could be living in the movie utopia of their dreams, and by encouraging the move to a paranoid America where we're all one fruitcake away from being in the middle of a shootout to the death, the NRA and its supporters have had more success at most in changing the country to better suit their fondest daydreams.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


Before the 1980s, Republicans tended to identify themselves as the serious realists who were wiling to make unpopular, hard choices and who cared too much about ideas and rational argument to be distracted by bright, shiny objects. For many years, every Republican's favorite teachable moment from recent history was the story about how people who listened to the Kennedy-Nixon debate on the radio, instead of watching it on TV thought Nixon was the clear winner. This was supposed to prove that Kennedy was perceived as the winner by TV viewers only because they were indifferent to the substance of the arguments and just tuned in to bask in Big John's well-tanned charisma. (I think it was Louis Menand who finally offered the counter-argument that Nixon's positions just sounded better to the kind of person who, as late as 1960, didn't have a TV.)

That all changed when Republicans found themselves in possession of a White House standard-bearer who was considered beloved and bullet-proof because he knew how to work it on television. But in 1987, things weren't going so well for Ronald Reagan. The Iran-Contra scandal had broken, his approval ratings were down, and Reagan, as we now know, was so confused and embarrassed by this that, after his first attempts to explain it all away didn't go as hoped, he simply disappeared from the public eye for a long stretch of time, rather than subject the American public to the sight of him looking red-eyed and pouty. But things started looking up during the Iran-Contra hearings, when Oliver North's televised appearance caught the public's fancy. By the weekend, any talk that Reagan's presidency had been imperiled or even seriously tarnished dried up, and people like Robert Novak started going on TV to proclaim that North had "cleaned the clock" of the Senate investigators.

How had he done this? By making a devastating case for the rightness of his actions, one that turned public opinion around on the issue of secretly funding the Nicaraguan Contras? No; basically, North threw Reagan under the bus, while simultaneously boasting about his willingness to take whatever punishment he had coming to him for having broken the law and waving his immunity deal around. And there was no more support for American intervention in Nicaragua after he shut his mouth than there had been before. But people seemed to like his TV image more than they did the Senators', and that, according to the new rules that Republicans had wholeheartedly endorsed, meant that he and his side had "won." A few months later, when Reagan nominated Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, and Democrats and civil rights and women's groups, as well as the ACLU, expressed their determination to shoot it down, there was a little electric current running through the conservative media. Bork was urged to get onto TV and dazzle the electorate with his wit, wisdom, and sparkling personality. It would be like Oliver North all over again, but with quotes in Latin in place of the fruit salad.

Writing in Slate yesterday on the occasion of Bork's death, David Weigel noted that "in hindsight, what happened to Bork"--his nomination was, of course, voted down, with six Republicans chiming in against him--"was unprecedented, and unfair." Republicans were furious at the time, but I remember thinking that a lot of their fury had to do with the fact that they'd convinced themselves that for TV to do one of their own more harm than good was an impossible violation of nature. (By the time Reagan left office, they'd convinced themselves that it was a violation of nature for a presidential election to not go their way, and so both Democrats elected President since then have had to start their terms listening to screaming about the "illegitimacy" and tyrannical nature of their reign.) Bork went down partly because the views he'd expressed over the course of his career, but I don't think the Democrats woudl have been able to deny Reagan the appointment he wanted if Bork himself hadn't gone on TV and looked and sounded like an arrogant ogre, exactly the sort of person you'd imagine would deny gays protection from harassment because he did not recognize a right to privacy and who would believe that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was based on "a principle of unsurpassed ugliness," which would appear to mean that the idea of black people's right to vote being accorded legal protection was more stomach-churning than his beard. Republicans soon settled down and elected to remember Bork as a martyr, the greatest Supreme Court justice that never happened. But at the time, the mood was accurately reflected by a Saturday Night Live sketch in which Reagan (Phil Hartman), angry that the charmless, despised judge declined the chance to spare the White House a shaming defeat by simply withdrawing his name from consideration, beat him to death with a baseball bat, a la Robert De Niro's Al Capone in The Untouchables.

Bork didn't deserve to be pilloried and publicly humiliated for being untelegenic, any more than North deserved forgiveness and a book deal for it. But is it really so bad that he was denied a lifelong appointment to the highest court in the land for what was known about his views on the most important issues of the day? The scar that doesn't heal in Bork's case is supposed to be the line delivered by the monster from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy, about how

Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is—and is often the only—protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy ... President Reagan is still our president. But he should not be able to reach out from the muck of Irangate, reach into the muck of Watergate and impose his reactionary vision of the Constitution on the Supreme Court and the next generation of Americans. No justice would be better than this injustice

Intemperately put, I suppose. But if you're aware that, before Roe v. Wade, women were forced into back-alley abortions, I don't know why you'd think that overturning Roe v. Wade wouldn't bring that back. Similarly, if you have a problem with using the courts to end racial discrimination, it doesn't seem that much of a leap to assume that segregated lunch counters is a price you're willing to pay for your precious "originalism." One more piece of context: the year before, the famously silly Chief Justice Warren Burger had stepped down from the Court in order to focus on what he imagined would be his great legacy, overseeing the national celebrations of the bicentennial of the U. S. Constitution--how'd that work out for ya?--and Reagan had offered William Rehnquist as his replacement.  Rehnquist, who had been on the Court since 1971, once wrote a memo defending legal segregation, in which he argued that

To the argument ... that a majority may not deprive a minority of its constitutional right, the answer must be made that while this is sound in theory, in the long run it is the majority who will determine what the constitutional rights of the minority are.

In his confirmation hearings, Rehnquist chose to shit on the memory of Justice Robert Jackson, insisting that, for reasons unknown, he had actually written the memo in an attempt to described what he assumed Jackson probably thought. During the 1986 hearings, it also came up that as an enthusiastic young participant in the democratic process, it had been Rehnquist's habit to hang out at polling places and intimidate blacks who threatened to try to vote. It seems safe to say that Rehnquist was on the same level as anyone else who ever had any role in trying to maintain some kind of legal dividing line between people based on skin color--which is to say that he was an excremental stain passing as a human being, garbage wrapped in skin. But there was no real possibility that, in 1986, having been obscenely wrong about the most obviously clear-cut moral issue of his lifetime was going to keep him from getting a promotion when he'd already been on the Court for 15 years--not a time when unrepentant, known racists like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond were powerful Senators, and the President himself had used the occasion of the signing of the bill declaring Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday to imply that he himself wasn't convinced that King hadn't been a Soviet agent. Bork was just as wrong on that hard-to-be-wrong-about issue, and had been Nixon's butt-boy at the Saturday Night Massacre to boot. Republicans may see Bork getting his own words read back to him in a less-than-respectful tone as an unprecedented outrage. But unless you're obtuse about racial justice and have never heard of karma, it's easy to see how Kennedy and some of the other people who'd been unable to put a dent in Rehnquist's imperial armor might have felt that it was high time to lay down the law about a few things.

Of course, the people who see Bork as a martyr don't feel that way. In fact, their historical memory doesn't extend to 1964, which must be why they're unaware that plenty of other Supreme Court nominees, from Abe Fortas to G. Harrold Carswell, got shot down because they were racist, ethically compromised, or someone just didn't like the cut of their jib. Writing in The New RepublicJeffrey Rosen sees karma flowing the other way, and argues that, by daring to find fault with Bork's views, Kennedy and the other inquisitors were responsible for "the beginning of the polarization of the confirmation process that has turned our courts into partisan war zones, resulting in more ideologically divided opinions and less intellectually adventurous nominees on the left and the right. it led to the rise of right-wing and left-wing judicial interest groups, established for the sole purpose of enforcing ideological purity and discouraging nominees who have shown any hint of intellectual creativity or risk-taking." For backup, Rosen cites actual sane person Joe Nocera, who a year ago wrote a New York Times op-ed piece claiming that the "Bork fight, in some ways, was the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics."

I assume that Nocera is referring here to such phenomena as the Whitewater hoax, the Wall Street Journal op-eds accusing Bill Clinton of literal murder, Michele Malkin suggesting that it was up to John Kerry to prove that he hadn't faked the wounds he suffered while fighting for his country in Vietnam, the birther movement, etc. (You can throw the Bush-era Truthers in there too, if you want to be all bipartisan about it.) You may notice that all these things are 100% bullshit that some scumbag pulled out of his ass, while the attacks on Bork were related to his actual record, even if Nocera and Rosen think they were so exaggerated that it's okay to now pretend they were based on nothing at all. Nocera argues that it was wrong for anyone to pretend that Bork was some kind of radical conservative who was out of step with mainstream America on abortion and civil rights, because, well, other justices shared his feeling that it was wrong to take the legality of abortion away from the politicians and decide it through a court case. Yes, and those who were in step with mainstream America still saw Roe v. Wade as the law of the land and weren't itching to overturn it; even Rehnquist made his peace with things he'd disagreed with, in that regard. Bork came across as someone who never made his peace with anything he disagreed with, and neither that nor his choice of opinions were Ted Kennedy's fault.

I suspect that Nocera's piece, which was written at a time in very recent history when a number of thoughtful, liberal-minded people were beginning to feel that we all needed to make nice with the Tea Party so that, in a year's time, President Rick Perry would be forgiving towards us, is an attempt to split up the blame for the shit hole our public discourse has become, because thoughtful, liberal-minded people have some deranged notion that people with 'WHERE'S THE BIRTH CERTIFICATE!?" buttons on their lapels will come to their senses if liberals just say to them, "Hey--mistakes have been made on both sides." The oddest thing about both his and Rosen's articles are their tender regard for the damage down to Bork himself. Not just his career, but his soul psyche and brain. After being rejected by the Senate, Bork became a professional right-wing crybaby, celebrating his own martyrdom, and putting out a series of cranky books in which he bewailed the destruction of America and Western civilization itself, at the hands of a bunch of liberal Commie weirdos who arrived here via spaceship sometime in the 1960s. There's not a sentence in any of them that Ann Coulter wouldn't be proud to call her own.

You might see his post-nomination career as proof that Bork was  a man best not left with his hand on the lever of history. But as Rosen sees it, it was not making it to the Supreme Court that turned Bork into "an angry partisan, determined to seek ideological revenge for years to come." Actually, that's his description of Clarence Thomas, but he seems to think that it applies to both men. (What happened to Thomas--who was chosen, post-Bork, precisely because he was the very definition of a "less intellectually adventurous nominee" with no paper trail, bears no resemblance at all to what happened to Bork, but let it pass. I'm more curious to know, if he thinks that liberal Dr. Frankensteins are responsible for the "transformation" of these guys, how did Antonin Scalia, who sailed through his confirmation hearings, get that way? Did Nina Totenberg step on his foot or something?) 

After electoral defeat, Jimmy Carter and Al Gore threw themselves into good causes close to their hearts; Bill Clinton seems to have bounced back from that whole impeachment thing pretty well. If Bork and Thomas were really good-humored, non-ideological wits and deep thinkers who turned into gargoyles, does that really say more about the toxic nature of the attacks made against them than it does about the people they always were, on some level? Both Rosen and Nocera talk a good game about Bork's staggering intellectuality, which, they basically admit, he never shared with the public; after his nomination was rejected, he quit his job in a huff and devoted the rest of his life to writing bad books and giving snotty speeches. No doubt we're supposed to be consumed with regret for what we missed out on, but it's our fault: we failed to appreciate Bork when we had the chance, so he had no choice but to take his big ol' fucking brain and go home. Oliver North, meanwhile, was so devoted to using his newfound celebrity to campaign for the things nearest and dearest to his heart that he wound up snagging a recurring role on JAG. Such is the afterlife of the Republican martyr.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Goodbye, Larry

Not all actors are celebrities, not all celebrities are stars, and not all stars are actors. Larry Hagman was all three. But he was a celebrity for quite a while before he became a star. The role of Major Tony Nelson on the sitcom I Dream of Jeannie made him famous, famous enough to receive fan mail or appear at a grocery store opening, but it didn't make him iconic or give him industry clout or bestow upon him that wondrous thing that the nice boy Tom Hanks once described to a New Yorker interviewer as "fuck-you money." After Jeannie folded, Hagman's subsequent attempts to land a successful sitcom (The Good Life, Here We Go Again) didn't go anywhere, and his directorial debut with Beware! The Blob --the director's cameo begins at the 47-minute mark--didn't lead anywhere. (That movie, whose making was later immortalized in an issue of the oddball DC Comic Wasteland, was later re-released with the tag line, "The Film J. R. Shot.")

Meanwhile, he burrowed into his character parts in mostly undistinguished movies (Stardust, Mother, Jugs & Speed, The Big Bus), focused on honing his skill. (He also appeared in Peter Fonda's directing debut, The Hired Hand, in a scene that was cut from the theatrical version and then, inevitably, restored for the TV airings.) His best movie, and most remarkable performance, was his brief appearance as Art Carney's son in Harry & Tonto, a sweaty yet smiling depiction of hopeless resilience and good-natured self-delusion. But at a time when TV celebrity put a ceiling on an actor's ability to sustain and extend a movie career, Hagman was in constant competition with his younger self: Jeannie turned out to be a juggernaut in syndicated reruns throughout the 1970s. Hagman didn't get residuals from it, of course, and that must have made it feel especially sweet when the role of J. R. on Dallas finally gave him the power to grab ahold of the people who signed his checks and twist a little. 

A few years after Hagman first made headlines for wresting more money and control of the show from his employers by threatening them with his absence from the set, his co-star, Patrick Duffy, made a fool of himself by quitting Dallas to pursue the movie career that wasn't waiting for him, then had to humbly ask to return. It was a mistake that Hagman wouldn't have made. A show biz kid--his mother was Mary Martin, Broadway's Nellie Forbush and Peter Pan--he understood the realities of the business, and he waited until he was in a position of power before he started swinging his weight around. Dallas was unthinkable without him, and the show's producers had themselves to blame for that as much as they had him to thank. Other TV stars were resented for the demands they made, but I think most Dallas fans enjoyed the way that Hagman and the role seemed to merge, so that his public duels with the bosses were just another chapter in the entertaining saga of J. R. Ewing, Reagan-era wildcatter. When J. R. is first seen at the start of the recent Dallas reboot, he's apparently been feigning senile catatonia for years, as if he could fins no reason to say or do anything if there's nobody watching.

It worked in the other direction, too. There's a shared understanding among makers of potboilers that the villain roles are the good roles, but a lot of actors in flamboyantly villainous, scene-stealing roles have failed to make an impression. Hagman imbued J. R. with some of the fear and nervy drive of a working actor of a certain age who's worried that he may have made as big a splash as he's ever going to make. J. R. wasn't as young or pretty as his virtuous younger brother, and as a corporate shark, he didn't have the romantic cowboy aura of his father. So he worked, hard and ruthlessly, and though you might recoil in disgust at his methods, he earned everything he had. When Hagman denounced George W. Bush as a "sad," uneducated little man who was "leading the country towards fascism," you could hear the voice of Hagman the show business hippie merging with that of J. R., the striver who had nothing but loathing for the rich punk who'd had everything handed to him, proven himself incompetent, and then been handed more stuff.

Hagman gave a few more remarkable, non-J. R. performances after Dallas ceased production the first time in the early '90s, especially in the movie Primary Colors. But it was even harder for him to be seen as someone other than J. R. than it had been for him to be someone other than the guy who used to be Major Nelson. (In Nixon, Oliver Stone cast him as a mysterious Texan oil millionaire, in a sequence whose point seemed to be that J. R. was one of the several thousand people Stone thinks was in on the conspiracy to kill President Kennedy.) But it's also possible that he acted a lot less in his last couple of decades because he didn't need the money and was having too good a time just being Larry Hagman. I'm glad that he got to come back to the role of J. R. in his last year, and that the makers of the Dallas revival had sense enough to treat him as its rightful star and prime attraction. It was like coming home in a way. But he also enjoyed being a celebrity like few others, and he treated being a good celebrity the way a good actor tries to balance his career: a little do-gooding, some honorable, non-preachy advocacy for legal marijuana and campaigning against cigarette smoking, some touch-up work on the image, and the occasional honest job. Compared to some of the celebrities we have now, he was a great argument in favor of celebrities who are famous for having actually done something.

Black Friday Weekend iPod Shuffle: What I Listened To Instead Of Buying Anything

1.    Cannonball Adderly, "Work Song"

2.    Bo Diddley, "Who Do You Love"

3.    Merle Haggard, "Hungry Eyes"

4.     Elvis Presley, "Suspicious Minds"

5.     The Go-Betweens, "You Can't Say No to Forever"

6.     K. McCarty, "Walking the Cow"

7.     Prince Paul, "Every Beginning Must Have an Ending"

8.     Al Green, "You've Got the Love I Need"

9.     Credibility Gap, "Kingpin"

10.   Asylum Street Spankers, "My Favorite Record"

11.   Billy Joe Shaver, "You're Too Much for Me"

12.   Harry "Sweets" Edison, "On the Trail"

13.    The Isley Brothers, "Shout (Parts 1 and 2)"

14.    Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks, "Carol for the Bells"

15.   Of Montreal, "Famine Affair"

16.    Willie Nelson and Hank Snow, "Caribbean"

17.     The Savage Rose, "Lightly Come Lightly Go"

18.     Pylon, "No Clocks"

19.    Ry Cooder, "I Can Tell by the Way You Smell"

20.    Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Down South Jukin'"

21.    Mitch Hedberg, "Frogs and Bears"

22.     Dramarama, "Right on Baby, Baby"

23.     Fats Domino, "I'm Ready"

24.     John Prine, "Nine-Pound Hammer"

25.     Sonny Sharrock, "Ghost Planet National Anthem"

26.     Blaqsrtarr, "Rider Girl"

27.     Joe Lovano Nonet, "Charlie Chan"

28.     Big Baby Gandhi, "What U Think"

29.     Telekinesis, "Country Lane"

30.     Gene Vincent, "Bop Street"

31.     Joe Cocker, "Dear Landlord"

32.     Robyn, "Do You Know (What It Takes)"

33.     Parliament, "Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk"

34.     Dave Edmunds, "We Were Both Wrong"

35.     Charlie Rich, "Raggedy Ann"

36.    The Lovin' Spoonful, "Pow!"

37.    Homeboy Sandman, "Soap"

38.    X, "Beyond and Back"

39.     Mary J. Blige, "Real Love"

40.     Robert Klein, "Substitute School Teacher"

41.    Otis Redding and  Carla Thomas, "When Something Is Wrong with My Baby"

42.     Jens Lenkman, "Friday Night at the Drive-In Bingo"

43.     Meat Puppets, "What to Do"

44.     Elvis Costello & the Attractions, "Pills and Soap"

45.     Black Box Recorder, "May Queen"

46.     J. B. Hutto & the Hawks, "Hawk Squat"

47.     Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, "Rebel, Rebel"

48.     Ornette Coleman, "Call to Duty"

49.     Laurie Anderson, "Neon Duet (for Violin and Neon Bow")

50.     The Time, "If the Kid Can't Make You Come"