Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy Bad Year!

Another horrid year comes to a close, to be replaced by, I'm sure, an even worse one. Why pretend otherwise? (A liberal acquaintance is crossing his fingers, hoping for a Dem sweep in the Nov elections -- that's how sad it is, kids.) Personally, I'm striving to breakout in '06, whatever that may or may not mean. But I'll have to do so while the tortured scream, common household items explode, amphibians fall from the sky, and vibrating flesh vans patrol suburban streets, filming and recording any and all "questionable" activity.

C'mon, Red boy! You can be more optimistic than that!

Okay. All right. Fine. Truth is, I'm actually in a pretty upbeat mood today, since every New Year's Eve the wife & I watch 2 or 3 extremely bad movies or related awful fare, and this year's crop is perhaps the ripest yet.

The first offering is a 1967 NBC Nancy Sinatra TV special, "Movin' With Nancy," complete with period commercials and plenty of go-go boots -- second-generation Rat Packers slumming Haight-Ashbury wearing desinger Day Glo duds. Sweet.

Next, "Hello Down There," starring Tony Randall, Janet Leigh, Roddy McDowall, Jim Backus, and a young Richard Dreyfuss as the bass player for Harold and His Hang Ups, a teen garage band on the verge of commercial success. The twist is, they must rehearse in an underwater house built by Randall, surrounded by turned-on tuned-in sea creatures, including a seal who does The Frug. I haven't seen this 1969 plum in over a decade, but the wife hasn't seen it at all, so there'll be that joy watching a first-timer exposed to pop songs like "Glub, glub glub/I'm floatin' on a sea of love!" carried by heavy Casio organ licks and boy Dreyfuss lip-syncing some other guy's voice, among numerous way out groovy scenes. Rightwingers at the time blamed "Hello" for undermining American will in Vietnam, but I don't see the connection.

Finally, Otto Preminger's 1968 ode to LSD, "Skidoo," with Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Mickey Rooney, Frankie Avalon, Groucho Marx as God, film score by Harry Nilsson. Now this is truly a rare treat. I saw it once, 20 years ago at the old Thalia theater on Manhattan's Upper West Side, and much of the film has stayed with me. I mean, how does one forget tripping prison guards hallucinating a garbage can ballet in a prison yard? Or the closing credits sung? No, not a song over the closing credits -- the closing credits as the lyrics to its own song. Wild. Perfect for the midnight show, the first images of 2006.

Whenever I think about bad creative choices of any kind, I have to give it up for Tom Schiller, who wrote all the "Bad" sketches on the original "Saturday Night Live." Dan Aykroyd's Leonard Pinth-Garnell emceed all manner of badness, from the musical "Leeuwenhoek," about the man who invented the microscope, to a Red Chinese ballet where late-70s New York Yankee Mickey Rivers represents "Yankee imperialism," to a Weimar cabaret for children, and a dramatic play scripted by a man who couldn't form sentences. "Bad" remains one of SNL's true conceptual triumphs, and was never boring no matter how often done, since each new installment promised something exquisitely awful. To this day, I still sing songs from "Leeuwenhoek" as though Gilbert and Sullivan composed them.

I knew Tom for a time, and since we lived in the same neighborhood, I used to see him quite often on the street. He'd invite me to his apartment, which doubled as a film lab, and show me all the short videos & films that were rejected by then-SNL head writer Jim Downey and producer Lorne Michaels. One with Tim Meadows was really funny, and I couldn't believe it didn't air. It was about how Meadows's father was part of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s & 60s, but for him, civil rights meant lower meat prices. Meadows, playing his "Dad," would march while eating a turkey drumstick, an image Tom told me that Downey & Lorne thought might be seen as racist, even though the gag was conceived by Meadows, who as you may know is black. Tom just shook his weary head when speaking about his troubles at the early-90s SNL, saying that in the show's first years, he got on pretty much anything he wanted. "It's all corporate now," he'd say, downcast. Not long after that, Tom was fired by the show without any explanation, a cold slap in the face to an original, talented guy who was the first writer hired by Lorne in the Spring of 1975.

Another visit was happier, and for me unforgettable. I'd told Tom about my love for "Bad," so he had me over to watch every one of them. We shared a bowl of robust pot, and soon I was laughing my ass off at all the intentionally dreadful productions, while Tom smiled and beamed that his early work so moved a younger fan. I can't fully express what a kick it was to watch what I'd marveled at as a teenager in Indiana alongside one of my comedy heroes. It was beautiful, and Tom was generous and encouraging. I haven't spoken to him in years, but if for some reason you're reading this, Tom, thanks man. No one did bad better or more artfully than you. Tonight's bad cinema will be enjoyed with you in mind.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005


Looks as if the on-again/off-again Arthur Silber is now off-again -- perhaps for good. But then that's what he said the last time he took a final bow, only to return with more mega-posts. So who really knows. Should anyone care? Depends on your blog diet. Personally, I read Arthur's stuff a couple times a week, appreciated his impassioned, heartfelt explorations of our wretched state, esp his angry musings on torture. Arthur took & takes this savage shit seriously, oftentimes too much so. It drives him to pain and cycles of despair, but his diligence and intelligence slices through the densest horror, though again, not without personal cost.

Arthur says that his health and poor financial condition have forced him from the stage; but he's also admitted that he's letdown by a lack of traffic, upset that after spending so much time thinking about and composing extensive ruminations on war and political/intellectual corruption, so few people show up to see what he says. He points out that lesser blogs and writers snare ten times the audience he does, and he simply cannot fathom it.

Now, here is where I start to lose some sympathy for Arthur. Is it any real shock that in modern America, a writer like Arthur Silber attracts a small crowd? Not only do his posts take time to ingest, Arthur is but one of millions of bloggers, the majority of whom, I'm willing to bet, based on what surfing I've done over the years, go ankle deep on whatever issue interests them. Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit has God-knows-how-many readers, but everytime I visited his site (admittedly, not a common practice), all I saw was a sentence or two about this or that, a link to a longer article, perhaps a pull quote, then Reynolds' trademark "Heh," "Indeed," and "Read the whole thing." That's it. Yet the guy has one of the most frequented sites on the Web. What can you do?

Fair? Perhaps not, but that's really beside the point. Creating a blog and trying to attract a steady loyal readership is a crap shoot, usually a losing one, and you cannot dive into the fray and expect widespread acceptance & understanding, much less expect to earn a living tapping out emotionally-charged treatises on these squalid times. And that's what Arthur expected to do -- pull countless readers into the depths of his outrage, then asking them for remuneration. That's simply not gonna happen, not with any regularity, anyway, and Arthur pretty much admits this and is depressed by it. He lacks the capital and the energy to write at length for pennies, and so, for now, unplugged his keyboard.

Thing is, Arthur's stuff was linked via bigger blogs, Crooks and Liars, especially. So he wasn't completely ignored. He just wasn't getting the fat numbers common to the larger sites. How many of us do? I average around 1,500-2,000 visits a week -- Off Off Off Off Off Off Off Off Off Lower West Broadway compared to the popular blogs. And unlike Arthur, I rarely if ever get linked to a larger site. Why would I? Rightwingers have no use for my stuff, and the liberal blogworld is a tightly-knit/insider/backslapping scene of which I'm not a part. I perform under a dangling 60 watt bulb for a tiny audience sitting on a concrete floor. My limited reach has to date kept me from expanding to a slicker, larger stage, but it hasn't stopped me from writing. Short of sudden death, I don't know what would.

Years ago I attended a writers' conference in Montana -- well, novice writers from Indiana, people who wanted to learn how to better express their desires and fantasies on the page. My mother brought me along, thinking I could add something to the mix. She was well-intentioned, but I didn't really belong there; in less than an hour, it was clear that I was the most experienced writer present, organizers and panelists included. It was somewhat uncomfortable, waiting for my turn to speak as everyone introduced themselves and spoke about what they hoped to learn about writing, etc. When my turn came, I listed my resume (though out of politeness, I truncated it a bit), and the panelists, the "experts," none of whom had published with a major or even midlevel house, were clearly upset that a ringer was in the room, and for the next few days they pretty much ignored and avoided me. Which was fine -- gave me more free time to explore the large mountain we were on, or go down to the local town and drink at a Mexican restaurant that served heaping spicy appetizers to the cowboys & girls. But one day I sat in on a panel and listened as person after person spoke about writing in mystical, happy terms; to them, composing a story, poem or journal entry was a form of therapy in which they found joy and a level of self-discovery. Then, inexplicably, someone asked what motivated me to write. While I didn't want to piss on everyone's gladspeak, I didn't want to lie either, nor offer additional gloss. So I simply said:

"I write because I have no choice. Been doing it since I was 12 or so, in one form or another. It's a big part of me and always will be."

Do I enjoy it or get anything fun outta it?

"Sometimes. But most times, I hate to write. The mechanics of it bores me, but it comes naturally, whether I'm in the mood or not. Again, it's not a hobby but an extension of myself.

"Ultimately, writing is not for the weak. Exposing your thoughts to strangers opens you to all kinds of nastiness, pettiness and outright hostility, or should, if you're pricking the right pricks and they're paying attention. Yet much of the time they don't pay attention, and you might be only writing for yourself, in which case you have to dig deeper and without sentimentality. You may find good, uplifting things down there, but you gotta claw thru piles of dark rotting shit in the process, that is, if you're honest with yourself. Writing's not fun, and it shouldn't be."

Blank fallen stares. A few open mouths. That wasn't what most of those people wanted to hear, and while a few approached me later on to discuss all this further, the majority didn't want their precious concepts about writing demystified.

James Agee's majestic and well-ahead-of-its-time "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" sold a paltry 600 copies when it was first published; and when Agee died, none of his books were in print. The marvelous Dawn Powell, one of the finest American comic novelists of the 20th century, barely got by on her writing, died penniless with none of her books in print, and was buried anonymously in a mass paupers' grave. Those are just two tragic examples. There are countless more. Arthur Silber may not, at present, have the physical energy or financial wherewithal to blog on a regular basis; but he should keep writing, even if all he has is a pencil stub and scraps of stained paper. It's what's within, not who "appreciates" you, that keeps your narrative alive.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Scenes In Frost

*My grandfather, Charlie Perrin, now-nearly 20 years dead, but then in the early-70s getting hammered on Christmas Eve, gathering all his grandkids in a circle in his living room, waving his arms conductor-like and singing:

Happy Birthday to you.
Happy Birthday to you.
Happy Birthday Baby Jeeee--sus.
Happy Birthday to you!

Falls to one knee, does a bit of Jolson:

"And I dooooo mean youuuuuu."

*My stepmother insisting on a white metallic tree sporting only white lights, in corner of our large rural house, blazing thru the dark of the room & thru the big bay window onto our 3 acre spread lined with sleeping corn fields, large barren trees I climb in warmer weather, old two-lane road and silo silhouettes in the swirling snowy mist.

*Big green metal Tonka truck under a real tree, on Ireland Court, when I was six.

*Sweet & sour pork with chicken fried rice for three Christmas Eves running in my mid-teens.

*Playing Santa for my daughter's pre-school class in Soho to the delight of all the kids except my daughter, eyeing me from a safe distance, unaware that it's me under all the padding and fake white hair but convinced that Santa's dangerous and not to be trusted, as he sneaks into strangers' homes in the dead of night, which creeps her out no end.

*Midnight mass, the only time I like the Catholic Church, dramatic priests in multicolored ceremonial robes swinging burning incense, candles on the altar, sell-out crowd in late night finery, the choir belting out timeless Christmas classics you can tap your foot to.

*My son's first Christmas, Park Slope Brooklyn, climbing inside boxes, crumpling wrapping paper, slobbering on orange & yellow plastic rings.

*Holiday party at the Nation magazine office, 1988, trying to make witty small talk with TT, an Ivy League editorial assistant I have a crush on, who is always serious and stern and has no knowledge of the pop culture refs that fly outta my mouth -- never heard of The Flintstones! -- while Alexander Cockburn wearing big red shoes dances with a cute intern to "Jumpin' Jack Flash" as the rest of the staff looks on with erudite bored expressions.

*Smoldering furniture blackens the snow in front of a fire-gutted house in my childhood neighborhood, Christmas tree caught flame, nobody hurt but people crying as the firemen finish their business, and an acrid smell locked into my memory for life.

*My kids naming the tree each year -- this year, Bruce the Spruce, a crooked beaut that while firmly held in place, still looks like it's about to fall over.

*Those first Christmases after my sister Laura died, wondering when she was coming back & sad she was missing the fun.

*Michael O'Donoghue's last Christmas party before his death, "The Reindeer Ball," eclectic crowd, O'D in high spirits taking me aside, encouraging me as a writer, his hand on my shoulder, his eyes friendly & warm.

*The wife playing my favorite carols on the piano, me singing in my tone-deaf voice, the cats running to the basement to hide.

*Walking barefoot in 5 inches of snow at Christmas Eve sundown when 15, because Shaolin monks did it and I wanna join a monastery & learn Tiger Claw gung fu from blind masters.

*Standing under the Rockefeller Center tree every year, its branches further apart than it appears from a distance, ice skaters yelling and laughing on the rink just below.

*Pre-dawn anticipation as a kid, brief moments of purest happiness in the years before various family shitstorms hit.

*Enjoying my kids' anticipation, keeping the shitstorms at bay.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


'Allo, Son readers, from beyond the pale and illuminated page. I'm sorry you've had to settle for fresher blog takes on The Madness from others who do nothing but -- but I am just coming out of some kind of sick bug semi-coma which was punctuated by many violent body fluid emissions and endless HBO movies serving as background hum while I laid moaning on the coach under covers. Plus, I've been working on a mega-Iraq-America post, a thing that keeps growing & going into all manner of moods, anguish and cheap observations, for when I think I've finished it, more bullshit emerges and so into the mega-post it goes. Dunno if this is my White Album/Smile/Tommy/Sandinista!, but many hours have been spent in the studio, my beard gets longer, showers are eschewed, and the voices in my head collide and crash and tell me to keep going, that I haven't yet reached the end. So that continues.

And it's Xmas time, and I have shopping to do in the next few days, and today I'm going on a day-long field trip with my son's class to the state capitol to see how this crazy local system supposedly works. So I'm swamped. But back into the studio I soon go, and hopefully I'll emerge with my war opera, sung by cracked voices in the driving snow, the orchestra knocked over by frigid winds.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Richard Pryor

Died Saturday, of a heart attack. He was 65.

Pryor was not only the greatest American stand-up comic of his, or any other, generation -- he was a dramatist, a documentarian, a tortured soul who threw all the madness and misery he'd seen and experienced into his characters and public confessions. In his prime, Pryor blew past his comedy peers, such as they were, and operated on a level all his own. Stand up served as a release, but such a limited form could not fully transmit his eloquent fury.

Pryor's main nerve was intensity. I've never seen a comic so directly tapped into raw emotion as was Pryor. Even when he laughed or kidded around, there was danger. You saw it in his eyes, a don't-fuck-with-me stare that sliced through anyone who met his gaze. (I recall Pryor taunting Barbara Walters during an interview, asking her to say "nigger" to his face, assuring her that the word comes easily to any white person. When Walters replied that she could never utter such a thing, Pryor smiled and said, "Sure you can.")

Pryor may not have been the most muscular of men, but you didn't want to piss him off. Stories abound: his emptying a .357 Magnum into one wife's car after an argument; pressing the same .357 to the head of another wife, chasing her out of the house; grabbing a cognac bottle and threatening to bash Michael O'Donoghue in the head after O'Donoghue told a joke Pryor thought was racist (though it was a spoof of George Wallace's racism). But for all that's been revealed, there must have been countless other incidents, given Pryor's history, his anger, his determination that things be done his way.

Cocaine played a role as well, for you cannot pour that kind of fuel on a fiery persona like Pryor's and expect no reaction, self-immolation through free basing and his first heart attack being two serious, life-threatening examples.

Yet for all his intense volatility, Pryor also exhibited a soft sweet side, the eye of his emotional storm. Friends and loved ones have spoken of it, and he was generous to younger comics in whom he saw possibility and promise. Look at the line up of his 1977 NBC show: Sandra Bernhard, Robin Williams, Marsha Warfield, Tim Reid, Paul Mooney, Vic Dunlop, Jimmy Martinez, Argus Hamilton, and John Witherspoon -- all unknowns who later experienced varying degrees of success. Not many established comics would surround themselves with young talent of that caliber and risk being upstaged. But Pryor, for all his mania, knew how good he was, and naturally he demanded a first-rate supporting cast. Unfortunately, "The Richard Pryor Show" came and went in just over month. As Pryor himself explained:

"When I committed to do a 10-week comedy variety series on NBC, I thought I could do something significant. I saw only the possibilities of TV as a way of communicating . . . But the reality of what the network censors allowed on prime time undercut all my enthusiasm. Not only were we pitted against 'Happy Days' and 'Laverne & Shirley,' the two top-rated shows, but the network censors thwarted me from the git-go. Because I didn't want to sell out completely, I got NBC to agree to reduce the number of shows from 10 to 4, the less the better.

"We still managed to deliver an exciting, surprising and provocative show. This show was no vanilla milkshake. It was poignant. I am proud of the effort."

Unlike most of his films, Pryor's short-lived TV series was perhaps the best creative extension of his stage act, comedy blending with drama, absurdity, strangeness and commentary. Pryor's pulling back was prescient on his part, as I cannot fathom NBC airing 10 weeks of that type of programming in prime time.

Still, just think about it -- NBC, which was undergoing a ratings slump at the time, had Richard Pryor under contract and couldn't get that right. When you watch those four shows, you can't help but wonder where Pryor and company might have taken a longer series once they had their broadcast footing. A tremendous waste of talent and intelligence.

In a freewheeling, unaired monologue that appears on the show's DVD box set, Pryor, speaking through Mudbone, an old man who spins tall tales while spitting into a rusty coffee can, let NBC have it, telling production assistants who ask him to tone it down and start over, to fuck off, adding that he doesn't give a shit about what TV needs or wants. Wisely, they back off, and Pryor launches into a hilarious, profane half-hour bit about racist bosses and a crazy voodoo priestess.

While Pryor became enormously successful with mainstream outings like "Silver Streak," "Which Way Is Up?" and "Stir Crazy," it is in Paul Schrader's 1978 film "Blue Collar" where his best acting can be seen.

Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto play auto workers who are stretched to the limit financially, and are manipulated and pitted against each other by both the car company and the corrupt local union. It's a dark and ultimately depressing film, and it remains one of the starkest dramatic examinations of racism, capitalism and the struggles of working people seen in modern cinema. And like his aborted TV show, one can only imagine what Pryor might have achieved as an actor had he further explored this area.

Ultimately, it is Pryor's stand-up that will serve as his legacy. In the days before HBO, the only way you could experience uncensored comedy was on record, and Pryor's best three -- "That Nigger's Crazy," "Is It Something I Said?" and "Bicentennial Nigger," remain incredibly funny.

When I was 15/16-years-old, my father and his brother used to play these albums in our basement, the sound of their loud constant laughter coming up the stairs along with the scent of pungent weed. I was never invited to join in, for obvious reasons, but I did envy their enjoyment and unbridled fun. When no one was around, I'd grab the albums and listen to Pryor's routines in my bedroom, my young mind opening to language and images that took me repeated listenings to fully comprehend. And though by this point in time I'd decided on a career in comedy, I knew that I could never remotely approach what Pryor was doing, and I doubted that anyone ever could. To date, none have.

Pryor said that no matter how hard he tried, he could never escape the darkness that engulfed him. But by channeling this darkness into his performances, Richard Pryor exposed some light, that segment of the human heart where the sadness of our existence is upended, if only briefly, to show us and others the promise of love and tenderness and the possibility of emotional survival. A tough, thankless gig that Pryor took on point blank, and that in the end, along with everything else, broke him.

I can't think of many comics or performers of any kind who would attempt to lift that kind of weight, much less do so as brilliantly as Pryor. He was the one and only. Let's remember him with a smile.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

My Christmas Holiday Wish

Right wing culture critic Michael Medved talked about John Lennon on MSNBC earlier today (this being the 25th anniversary of Lennon's murder), and while he conceded that Lennon was a "musical genius," Medved bemoaned the ex-late-Beatle's lifestyle and the toxic effect it had on "tens of millions" of young people who tried, and perhaps even liked, marijuana. Also, according to Medved, Lennon's opposition to the Vietnam war not only did not stop the bloodshed, it made middle America even more pro-war as they watched long-haired weirdos like Lennon stage bed-ins and other off-putting stunts. (Medved didn't mention that Lennon and Yoko Ono were favored guests on "The Mike Douglas Show," one of middle America's most popular afternoon programs.) So, while a great musician, John Lennon's legacy is, if Medved is to be believed, very mixed if not downright negative.

What a great gig Medved has. In fact, this coming year, I wanna be like Medved -- to appear on cable chat shows and discuss, debate and/or disparage varied cultural matters and those who find them important or dangerous to the public. You don't see many lefty pop cult critics on these shows, and the ones who do appear, like The Nation's John Nichols, who went against Medved today, are usually very solemn and fairly dull, however strong their arguments. You gotta light it up in the brief time they give you. Now, if I were in Nichols's chair, that segment would've gone something like this:

MEDVED: And whenever Lennon spoke out against the Vietnam war, middle America's support for the war shot up.

ME: How do you know that?

MEDVED: Excuse me?

ME: Are you citing any study or set of statistics?

MEDVED: Well, I ---

ME: Look, by the time of Lennon's bed-in in Montreal, not only was the American public largely fed up with the war, so was American big business. I mean, Wall Street turned against the war around 1968.

MEDVED: Hold on ---

ME: So it seems bizarre to claim that whenever John Lennon crawled into bed or took off his clothes, support for the war increased. I don't think he had that kind of hold on most Americans.

Hell, I'd even question Medved's claim that Lennon was a musical genius:

ME: Lennon was first-rate, no question, especially in collaboration with Paul McCartney and George Martin, who was the real conceptual weight behind the Beatles' studio sound.

MEDVED: But Dennis, don't you think ---

ME: But some of his solo stuff, while interesting, is pretty self-indulgent and hard to listen to these days. As much as I like Lennon, Ray Charles did more with music than did Lennon, or for that matter any of the Beatles after their break-up. Being popular and being a genius are two very different things.

Now wouldn't that make for better TV?

So, Santa Secular Gift Giver, if you're reading this, put me on these shows thru all of 2006! It's a gift that'll keep giving -- opinions, that is!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Dersh Bag

Debates about the Middle East, esp Israel and Palestine, are seldom genial affairs. The region boasts so much hatred, distrust, bloodshed and corruption that just talking about it can heat one up, since you can point in any direction and find something deplorable. For a few years, I found myself writing about and debating Middle East issues, primarily as they related to the American media. I fell into this racket rather quickly, and took to it instantly, reading all the relevant texts and those mags, like the New Republic and Commentary, which helped spread rhetorical poison, making the ground even more toxic than it already was. Oh, the shrillness I encountered. There were some debates where I stood with my mouth gaping open, wondering how in the hell I ended up in such a dreadful environment.

While watching Alan Dershowitz and Noam Chomsky debate this past weekend at Harvard's Kennedy School, I was reminded of some of my richer matches, though no one I engaged was ever as rude and belligerent as Dershowitz was toward Chomsky. I don't think Dersh has ever recovered from being played by Ron Silver in "Reversal Of Fortune," where he was shown as a wily legal genius who got Claus von Bülow off the death row hook. Dersh doesn't speak, he hectors. He yells. He interrupts. He waves his arms and arches his brow, then scowls and flings out whatever pops in his head. He is his own reality, and a crazed one it is, too. Maybe such tactics work in a capital murder case, esp if it's televised (Dersh can hear a lens cap being removed at 200 yards); but in what is supposedly a serious political debate, it is maddening when not cheaply entertaining.

I'm sure Chomsky's seen it all before. As Dersh went through his various gyrations, Noam stood calmly at his podium, glanced at his notes, breathed in and breathed out. I suspect he knew that it was pointless to rebut Dersh while in mid-performance, so he waited for his turn to speak. And when it came, he'd get off a few lines before Dersh began howling about how crazy and out of touch Chomsky was -- "Planet Chomsky," Dersh called it, a strange world where statements are supported by exact dates, specific quotes and assorted footnotes, a place where Chomsky encourages those listening to look up this book or that article and see for themselves whether or not he's speaking accurately. To Dersh, such a world is for the insane. Those with rational minds will simply take Dersh's word for whatever he spouts. No need to research a spoken point, a subtle propaganda trick employed by Chomsky to deceive weaker souls. On Planet Dershowitz, truth is what he says it is, or what somebody else told him. Dig any deeper and you flirt with if not embrace anti-Semitism, and give terrorists an endless green light.

As many of you probably know, Dersh has long been an avid supporter of Israeli violence and aggression. He's come out in favor of torture and political assassination, though in this recent debate, he said that he no longer backs the demolition of Palestinian homes, a "concession" that seemed tailored for applause, but got none. Not that this slowed Dersh in any way -- he kept shouting his solution for what he views as a "just" political settlement, which is, in essence, keeping the Palestinians walled off, penned up and under wraps, calling their open-air prison a "state," and then congratulating himself for taking such a "humanitarian" stand.

It was quite a performance, a shameless exercise in hyper-vanity and political and moral cretinism. If you knew nothing or very little about the historical record, Dersh's recounting of "facts" probably wouldn't faze you, and there were plenty of Dersh supporters present hooting their appreciation. But, of course, Dersh was plainly full of shit, speaking reverently about Israel in tones that recalled American communists praising the Soviet Union in the 1930s. He bangs on about terrorism and terrorists, but praises the likes of Ariel Sharon, a documented war criminal with so many dead civilians under his house that were he Palestinian, would have been compared to Hitler and knocked off decades ago. But it was Dersh's use of the word "conspiracy" that truly revealed his fact-free mania.

At one point in the debate, Chomsky noted that in response to the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, the Clinton admin sold Israel a fleet of attack helicopters, to be used, naturally, on the Palestinians. It was, Chomsky said, the largest weapons shipment from the US to Israel in a decade's time, and that no major American media outlet reported this major sale, even after it was pointed out to them by Chomsky and others. In short, the corp media either suppressed the story or didn't find it worth their precious time. This set off Dersh, who yelled at Chomsky, calling him a "conspiracy theorist," suggesting that such a sale couldn't have taken place, because if it had, the New York Times and the Washington Post would be all over it. Chomsky replied that perhaps Dersh should ask the editors of those publications why they failed to report a story that had severe human rights implications, and added that Jane's Defense Weekly, a solid source for matters military, did indeed report on the sale. But that was about it.

Dersh wasn't persuaded. His faith in the US elite press to catch such things borders on the mystical, since he offered no factual rebuttal to Chomsky's point. But Jonathan Weiler, a writer for The Gadflyer, thought to actually research Noam's claim, and here's his account:

"I am fortunate enough to work at a big university with a good library, so I am able to access the print version of Jane's. And, in a small item on October 4, 2000, Jane's did in fact report an agreement between the US and Israel for the sale of over a half a billion dollars in advanced helicopters, including a generation of helicopters similar to the ones then being deployed by Israel against Palestinians. It is not possible that those helicopters could have been used in the initial stages of the Al Aqsa Intifada, because Jane's was reporting an procurement agreement in principle – not the imminent shipping of the choppers themselves. But, there is no disputing that a major sale took place, involving a very large sum of money, and that it went unreported in the American press, when Chomsky said it did. Incidentally, though I can't access the original story itself, there are numerous references on the web to a report in Ha'aretz, on October 3, 2000, of the same weapons agreement. Ha'aretz is, by most accounts, Israel's most respected newspaper, and would also appear to be an unimpeachable source on this matter, though, again, I was not able to personally eye-ball the Ha'aretz account.

"So, now that we know that the sale did take place and was, in fact, entirely unreported in major American media at the time (as a lexis-nexus search confirmed), a larger question, not specific to Israel and Palestine arises: how could someone like Alan Dershowitz, an evidently brilliant man with a long and distinguished career in public life, have such a simpleminded and naive understanding of the process of news gathering and reporting in America, at least as exemplified by the above-noted exchange? One could suppose that news editors did not regard just another weapons sale to Israel as newsworthy, though given the size of the sale and the timing of it, this would be a highly questionable judgment. But, this was not Dershowitz' claim. The premise of his attack on Chomsky was that this was a major news story, if true, and therefore, it could not have been true, because major American media simply don't miss, or fail to report, let alone deliberately omit, major stories like this one from their coverage.

"But, contra Dershowitz . . . we know of course, that major media do fail to report on major stories. We know that the excellent work of Project Censored and of outfits like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) provide a steady drumbeat of stories that, by any measure, merit attention and yet receive little or none. Just today, an article at Counterpunch discussed the extensive documentation on the ACLU's website of military autopsy reports providing perhaps the strongest evidence yet to substantiate claims that American forces are torturing to death detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan. On October 25, the ACLU issued a press release drawing attention to these reports and the AP and UPI immediately picked up the release. The Counterpunch piece points out, however, that most American media, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Globe, have simply ignored the ACLU's report.

"As for why these omissions take place, the reasons are varied and often complex. In the two most recent issues of the New York Review of Books, Michael Massing has an excellent two-part discussion of media self-censorship and other impediments to journalistic practices conducive to a well-informed citizenry in the United States. But, as the Dershowitz/Chomsky exchange suggests, regardless of the causes of such omissions and distortions, the onus should not always be on media critics like Chomsky to explain how in the world big media miss big and relevant stories. The fact is, they do. If the Alan Dershowitzes of the world are so evidently discomfited by such simple truths and so prepared to attack such basic claims, it bodes poorly for our ability to sustain a fully open dialogue on important developments in the world and how adequately we in America are to be informed of them."

But then Weiler, by actually looking into the story to see if it was true (and it was), merely shows himself as a gullible dupe living on Planet Chomsky. For when you know the Real Truth, as does Dersh, things like facts and research serve to muddy an otherwise clear picture of events. Why? Because Dersh says so.

Funny thing is, Dersh does believe in one conspiracy theory, where Chomsky, colluding with writers Norman Finkelstein and Alexander Cockburn, are trying to suppress his pro-Israel stance and otherwise destroy his fine reputation in an effort to scare others from defending Israel, a position that only the bravest people dare take. How true. Indeed, I'm amazed that Chomsky simply didn't shoot Dersh in the head rather than risk that the Real Truth get out. Which is why Dersh has to yell and scream his opinions while repeatedly interrupting those who disagree. How else can this Harvard professor of law and frequent TV talking head with access to mass media get his point across?

Thursday, December 01, 2005


Hate is a tricky thing. For hatred to seriously work, you need someone hating you back, or else your projected hate is pantomime. Of course, there are various types of hatred, some more righteous than others (hating racism is better than hating another's pigment), but on the whole, most people think of hatred as an exchange of negative, bilious emotions. As Bernardo succinctly put it to the Jets right before they and the Sharks rumbled in "West Side Story", "Look, everyone of you hates everyone of us and we hate you right back."

But what do you do when the object of your hatred responds with kindness, forgiveness, or God forbid, love? You can try to amplify your hatred, make it more extreme, yet if the person you hate refuses to join in and turns the other cheek, well, you're sunk. You may as well slap on some whiteface and silently pretend to walk against the wind.

I've been thinking a lot about hatred lately, hard to avoid given our present political/social culture; and when the news that four Western Christian pacifists were kidnapped by yet-another Iraqi shadow gang, I knew that their plight would be met stateside by a chorus of nativist howling and grossest contempt. Touring many rightwing sites (a necessary evil in this case, I'm afraid), much of the commentary, when not gleeful that these pacifists were getting theirs, was sadistic and openly pro-torture and death. I won't link to some of the uglier threads (I'm sure you can guess which place boasted the vilest rhetoric), but you can get a sense of what's being said online here, though I notice that the person who runs this site felt the need to distance himself from some of his crazier readers, but gently, gently. Don't wanna be too tough on your regulars, no matter how psychotic they appear.

But for pure whacked out hatred, the top prize this week goes to FrontPage for Ben Johnson's delightful piece, "Reaping What They Sow." (Get it? See, they're Christians, and in the Bible it says . . .) Far from the meek, peace-loving activists these four hostages claim to be, Johnson reveals that they are in fact terrorist "enablers" whose organization, Christian Peacemaker Teams, has a long track record of coddling anti-American, Jew-hating scum. They even protested in front of Fort Benning's School of the Americas (where Good Torture is taught), which further demonstrates their treason! And so on. David Horowitz's gang of hacks can play only one note, but they play it well and with true gutter feeling. I can see why someone like Christopher Hitchens has a warm spot for FrontPage. Though semi-literate in execution, Horowitz and company sling invective and slander like few others can or would wish to try. It verges on performance art -- the kind that employs feces and bodily fluids, that is.

Amid all this, you know that those four hostages, however frightened, are holding on to their faith, as are their comrades at CPT. At least that's what I suspect. I've known plenty of Christian pacifists over the years (indeed, I married one), and they are the steadiest souls I've ever encountered. Unlike many mainstream Christians, who at the first sign of stress or trouble toss aside Christ's teachings in favor of more material comfort, Christian pacifists, esp those engaged in social justice, deepen their commitment to peaceful resolution when the going gets rough. That's the point they're trying to make, and in certain cases it can cost them their lives, as it might with the hostages in Iraq. Pacifism is perhaps the most maligned form of human resistance to violence and corruption that exists. It's an expression of bravery and fidelity to ideals that not many understand, much less could match, and so it is ridiculed. And the more it is ridiculed, the more powerful the pacifist becomes, and this drives detractors to frenzy.

I'm neither a Christian nor a pacifist. Hit me and I'll return the favor. But then, I'm weak in so many ways, and fall short of grace on a regular basis. Still, I recognize and have seen the transforming energy that pacifists possess, the first real example being in the early-80s when I knew people in the Sanctuary Movement who helped Salvadorans and Guatemalans escape their death squad states. It was both amazing and humbling to witness. I'll never forget the people who put their own freedom on the line to save those whose lives were shattered. Not one of them bragged about it or took any visible pride in their efforts. They did it because they had to and because it was necessary. They simply put their faith into action.

Those pacifists in Iraq may be naive, but they're certainly not cowards. Imagine going into a meatgrinder like that with no weapon other than your belief in the goodness of people and the need to spread God's love and concept of peace. Those swivelchair commandos who jeer these people aren't fit to dust their Bibles. They don't have the guts to patrol Iraq with a rifle much less go over there with an open hand. They have more in common with the Islamic beheaders than they do with Christian pacifists, something that should, but won't, give them pause. And despite that grisly fact, the pacifists still pray for them, and us. Let's send some of that unconditional love back, and hope/pray for their earliest release.