Today's Special

"And here is Earth, a bright-blue jewel glittering in our modest galaxy, wandering in the darkness like a tourist in a bad neighborhood, about to be mugged." From "Stephen Hawking is a Peeping Tom," in Essays.

The Critical Mass

Taking Highway 61

highwayOops. I skipped out of The Critical Mass neighborhood for a while. Been spending too much time writing. And reading.

Reading, as in On Highway 61: Music, Race and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom, Dennis McNally’s recent book tracing the effect that roots music has had on American culture. It’s very worthy of your time, which I know is very, very valuable.

I won’t give you the details of McNally’s thoughtful thesis here; I’m saving that for noon on Tuesday, when I’ll be reviewing On Highway 61 for “Books Sandwiched In,” the lunchtime talk in the Kate Gleason Auditorium of the downtown Central Public Library, 115 South Ave.

I will say this: It’s a fascinating cast of characters, and some very unexpected ones. McNally, hired by Jerry Garcia to be The Grateful Dead’s historian, has also written books about The Dead, as well as Jack Kerouac. That all works into the picture as well.

Accompanying us on this 50-minute journey down one of America’s most-significant roads, both figuratively and literally, is the fine local bluesman Fred Vine, providing musical interludes, should your attention wander. I saw Fred playing Friday night at The Little Cafe with the bassist Brian Williams and singer-blues harpist Rockin’ Red, and he appears to be in mid-season form.

Join us. It’s free. And you can bring your lunch.



The Critical Mass

St. Louis at Washington: Racism as the Game of the Week

The St. Louis Rams protest: "Hands up. Don't shoot."

The St. Louis Rams protest: “Hands up. Don’t shoot.”

As five of the St. Louis Rams ran onto the field for the start of the game last Sunday, they paused for a moment to raise their hands in the air. A now-familiar sign of protest from Ferguson, Mo. “Hands up. Don’t shoot.”

As we’ve all been trained to understand, there is nothing more important in the world on a Sunday than an NFL game. So it’s not surprising that complaints followed. I expect that from the intractable folks who see nothing wrong with the team from Washington embracing a blatantly racist nickname. Or the hardcore fans who seem disinterested in the NFL’s obvious complicity in enabling its players to beat up women. Nothing should interrupt the sanctity of the game, as young men prepare to deliver concussions to each other that will, in a few years’ time, leave many of them unable to remember where they’d parked their cars.

But I don’t welcome the protests about the protests that came from public officials. The authorities who represent the people.

We have a serious race issue in this country. And a lot of people think the best answer is to walk away from the story of a white cop shooting an unarmed 18-year-old black man and now isn’t going to stand trial for his actions. a lot of people think we should walk away from the cause of the riots that surrounded the event. Just like we walked away from the 26 dead women and children at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Because these problems take care of themselves, right?

Cops aren’t the problem. They have a tough job, we all know it. The problem is the institutions that police our citizens. Institutions that are increasingly equipped to wage war on citizens. We’ve been seeing it for years. Police using tear gas on citizens, police beating up citizens, police arresting citizens. Citizens who are doing nothing more than utilizing their American right to protest. The individual cops didn’t make the decision to fire tear gas into a crowd. They were told to do so.

No one was going to fire a round of tear gas at the five St. Louis Rams with their hands in the air. This was a deeply important game between two teams with losing records. But the next morning, the St. Louis Police Officers Association demanded that the five Rams be disciplined, and that the team and the NFL should issue a public apology.

According to the SLPOA, “now that the evidence is in and Officer Wilson’s account has been verified by physical and ballistic evidence as well as eye-witness testimony, which led the grand jury to conclude that no probable cause existed that Wilson engaged in any wrongdoing, it is unthinkable that hometown athletes would so publicly perpetuate a narrative that has been disproven over-and-over again.”

Well, a whole lot of citizens are not buying the narrative put forth by the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office that allowed the cop who did the killing to get away without a trial. And it’s not just the hoodlums setting fires, but lawyers and experts in the law who have expressed that opinion.

Hence, the protests.

The Rams and the NFL – for once, after a long string of public-relations failures – are doing the right thing by not disciplining the players. It’s called free speech, the first Amendment in the Constitution that our law enforcement agencies are hired to defend.

The authorities are never holier than thou. We’ve seen that too many times. The actions of the people who represent us, and defend our laws, should be under constant scrutiny. The attitude I’ve heard raised repeatedly by law enforcement after the Ferguson killing – and let’s not forget that we’ve witnessed a string of unarmed black men killed by police – is, “You’re either with us or against us.”

No questions asked. That’s a little too arrogant for today’s atmosphere of distrust. The police are not supposed to be a separate class of citizens with separate rights. They’re supposed to be one of us.

It seems they need a reminder. Perhaps this Sunday. I see that the Rams are playing that team from Washington with the blatantly racist nickname. FedExField would make a fine public forum for a discussion on race. We could start it with all of Rams running out onto the field and raising their hands. Then all of the players from Washington, that team with the blatantly racist nickname, could run out onto the field and raise their hands. Then everyone in the stadium could stand and raise their hands.

Now that would be the NFL Game of the Week.

The Critical Mass

Ferguson, and the authorities’ subversion of the law

I watched Monday night’s announcement that a grand jury had declined to indict a white police officer for shooting an unarmed black 18-year old in Ferguson, Mo. And my initial reaction was… I just didn’t know.

Truthfully, most Americans wouldn’t know. Most of us don’t have experience with the grand jury process, which decides whether enough evidence exists for a case to go to trial. But what I did sense while watching St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch announce that there would be no charges against officer Darren Wilson that it was the victim, Michael Brown, was the one who had been on trial.

The argument seemed to be: Brown created the circumstances that led to his death. And there is some truth in that, Brown did rob a convenience store of some cigars moments before, the evidence does seem to lead to the conclusion that he initiated the physical confrontation with Wilson.

McCullough blamed the media, and he blamed the inconsistent stories of witnesses for inflaming passions. But the media was reporting on a story of great significance in today’s troubled American landscape. That’s its job. And the inconsistencies seem to run both ways. The early story that I remember from the police was that Wilson didn’t know about the connection between the convenience-store robbery and Brown. But what I heard last night was that Wilson recognized Brown as a suspect, and that’s why he stopped him. That’s a significant shift in the official narrative.

There is a larger argument that needs to be addressed here, and this is the moment: What is to be done about the adversarial relationship between cops and minorities? That cannot be ignored, it is an epidemic with far more victims than the recent ebola scare. Taking one larger step, what is to be done about the adversarial relationship between law enforcement and American citizens in general? The militarization of our police may make us feel we’re better prepared to deal with ISIS when it begins its surge across the Mexican-American border, as has been promised by some members of Congress. But why is this equipment and mentality allowed to be used against citizens using their right to assembly and peaceful protest? Remember how the Occupy protestors were gassed, beaten and arrested?

What are the police doing to reverse this behavior?

This morning, one statistic startled me, and led me to the conclusion that the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office had failed. In 2010, the last year that numbers for such matters are available, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases, and grand juries declined to return an indictment in just 11 of them. While the Ferguson case was presented in a state court, not a federal court, it still shows the way that these generally things go. Overwhelmingly so.

That number tells me that officer Darren Wilson did not have to answer to the same standard as do virtually all American citizens. There may be a difference between the level of training that a police officer and the average citizen has when it comes to the use of firearms and the handling of volatile situations, but those actions should be able to stand up in a trial. With a proper prosecution and a proper defense. Officers of the law should have faith in the process, and not subvert it at their convenience.

In Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, New York State Chief Judge Sol Wachtler says a grand jury would “indict a ham sandwich, if that’s what you wanted.” I guess Robert McCulloch wasn’t hungry. In Ferguson, Michael Brown wasn’t even worth a ham sandwich.

The Critical Mass

The Curse of Bad TV

Bill and Jim Vieira are looking for giants.

Bill and Jim Vieira are looking for giants.

When I decide to blow a day by doing nothing, I take the job seriously.

That was Saturday. Before the cable deal  runs out and dies a natural death, I thought I’d see what’s behind that mysterious ON DEMAND button on the remote. Not much, as usual, but I did stumble across a function that allows me to see what’s available on each network. I clicked on The History Channel, figuring I’d check on how World War II is coming along. Watching the Nazi War Machine rampage through Poland in black and white is a guaranteed nap.

Instead I discovered a handful of unfamiliar offerings. Two episodes of a new show called The Curse of Oak Island. That sounds cool, I’ve read a bit about Oak Island. It’s a scrubby chunk of real estate off of Nova Scotia where, in 1797, one of the local Huck Finn types supposedly found a block and tackle dangling from a tree branch overhanging a mysterious depression in the ground, like something had been buried there. Wow, buried pirate treasure! Over the ensuing centuries no one’s been able to get to the bottom of what’s been dubbed “The Money Pit,” where it’s claimed someone went to great lengths to boobytrap what appears to be a 150-foot deep shaft.

The Curse of Oak Island follows two brothers from Michigan, Rick and Marty Lagina, who bought a major chunk of the island in 2006 and are now hell bent on getting to the bottom of the money pit. That’s not gonna be easy. Treasure hunters over the years have torn up the island to such a degree that no one’s actually sure where the original shaft was located. I saw two episodes of the Laginas toiling at what they say is a million-dollar effort to find the treasure. Stimulating TV that includes watching guys with Ground Penetrating Radar slog through swamps, drill muddy holes and sit around a table while they point at various spots on a map.

Let me just say that the Laginas and their treasure-hunting pals may be earnest, but they are terribly uninteresting characters. To inject a little drama into this story of rich oil guys aimlessly drilling holes in Canada – and The Curse of Oak Island sorely needs some pizazz – there is much talk and joking of the Oak Island curse. Viewers are reminded that six men have died during these treasure searches over the years. The curse supposedly assures us that seven men will die before the treasure is found.

At some point, I fell asleep on the couch.

When I awoke, I moved on to The History Channel’s  Search For the Lost Giants. It’s a team of brothers again, this time Jim and Bill Vieira of Massachusetts. Jim in particular seems convinced that America was once populated by a race of giants, 7 and 8 feet tall, maybe even taller, who ate Native Americans. We know these mega-human existed because their skeletons were being found in the 1800s and into the early 1900s, some with huge skulls bearing double rows of teeth. But damn if every one of those skeletons hasn’t been lost due to careless handling by museums. Or misplaced by the relatives of the people who initially dug the bones out of the ground or found them in caves. Even the Smithsonian seems to have lost their giant, the brothers moan.

The Vieiras first use that invaluable tool of the possessed, Ground Penetrating Radar, to discover what they believe is a 12-foot by 4-foot slab of stone buried deep in the Massachusetts woods where a long-dead historian claimed the skeleton of a giant was found. As legend has it, the indigenous people there often placed such burial slabs over notable dead folk, apparently even giants who were trying to kill and eat them. The slab would roughly correlate to the size of the individual. Alas, the brothers tell us, they are not allowed to dig up the suspected grave, as it is on protected Native American land.

Such bad luck! Better fortune was surely waiting at the Goshen Mystery Tunnel, about 15 miles away. Its existence has been known of since the early 1800s, although the tunnel’s builders and its purpose remains a mystery. A root cellar, perhaps? No, use your imagination! Without offering much of an explanation, the Vieiras have linked this curious stone tunnel to giants because, well, we know the giants’ tombs were built of stone. The fact that a normal-sized man has to crawl on his hands and knees to move about in the Goshen Mystery Tunnel matters not to the brothers. They’ve already decided that the Goshen Mystery Tunnel’s legendary hidden chamber, which has yet to be discovered, is a giant’s tomb.

The wheels have already come off the narrative, and we’re just a half-hour into the show. But now the Vieiras are off to the Ozark Mountains, where they talk to old fellers who heard tell of something odd back in the day, and even uncover a photo in an old newspaper of what’s purported to be a 7-foot skeleton. Never mind the fact that there were hoaxes perpetrated back then to promote tourist attractions, and circus sideshows often featured such exotic creatures. Fakes cooked up by showmen like P.T. Barnum with the understanding that “there’s a sucker born every minute.”

By the time we get to episode three, the Vieiras are in the Vermont basement of a couple in whose home, generations earlier, once lived relatives of a guy who claimed to have found a giant skeleton. Yes, there is one strange aspect to the house, the homeowner says; a wall where there shouldn’t be a wall. Yes, the Vieiras realize, that must be a secret chamber where the skeleton of the giant was hidden! They knock out a few stones and pieces of mortar, peer behind the wall and see… it’s empty. They’re too late, the giant is gone!

The Vieiras present their evidence to archeologists and scientists in the hope of generating interest in an archaeological dig. The scientists listen patiently, they’re  nice people. Some even agree that, yes, that pile of sand that they found at the Goshen Mystery Tunnel is of a composition not generally found in western Massachusetts, it’s likely beach sand. But mostly, the reaction of academics seems to be, “No, that’s highly unlikely, but sure, I suppose there’s always a chance…” The Vieiras take that “there’s always a chance” and run like insane men for the goal line.

What drives these brothers? They’re angry that “mean” people reject their theories. Pissed that mainstream science has no patience for something that will upset conventional wisdom. Those “mean” people include scientists and archaeologists, even though a couple of them admit that, Yeah, I’d love for someone to drop a giant skeleton on my desk.

The Vieiras’ credentials for investigating ancient cultures? They’re stonemasons.

American TV viewers love the idea of lone wolves bucking the mainstream. Duck Dynasty, Ice Road Truckers, guys wrestling alligators, cutting down trees, mining for gold and driving souped-up Jeeps across Alaska. Honey Boo Boo. What’s with all of these rednecks? The only one I’ll admit to enjoying is  The Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot, which I love for the shots of the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and the sight of four delusional people who think the sound of every tree limb falling in the dark is Bigfoot following them through the woods.

And, incidentally, I’d love for them to find Bigfoot.

Both The Curse of Oak Island and Search for the Lost Giants rely on the prompt “according to legend…” Pseudo-history relies on those legends being accepted as truths.  There are plenty of people out there who think that, on a world made of rocks, a rock that they deeem out of place is a sign from Irish monks who floated across the Atlantic Ocean two centuries before Columbus. A handful of round faces carved in a cliff side is a message from a lost race, rather than teenagers’ graffiti from a few generations back. As with the Vieiras’ giants, and despite how well known the Oak Island mystery is, the supposed “facts” of the case aren’t as well-documented as the show would have its viewers believe. There are geologists who think the money pit was just a sink hole, of which there are a few around the island. And probing Google, I find no Oak Island story that mentions a curse calling for seven men to die before the treasure is found. Not until the TV show appears, anyway. Call me cynical. I just don’t share the optimism of these shows when they propose the possibilities that the pit could contain Captain Kidd’s pirate gold, the lost works of Shakespeare or valuable ancient artifacts stashed away by the Knights of Templar. Someone get Dan Brown on this case!

The author of The da Vinci Code apparently did show up to help guide the Laginas through the uncertain legends that carry the story of  The Curse of Oak Island. And if the Vieiras got any help from Edgar Rice Burroughs to help them sort out the illogical mess that is Search for the Lost Giants , I’ll never know. I fell asleep again.

The Critical Mass

When progressive thinkers go bad

What does an accused sexual predator look like?

What does an accused sexual predator look like?

No sooner had I finished writing the Oct. 30 Critical Mass post on my experience interviewing Bill Cosby, and how that’s been cast in a new light, I read the news about Jian Ghomeshi. Who I have also interviewed. An interview that’s been cast in a new light as well.

Empirical evidence shows that Canadians aren’t as crazy as Americans, last week’s election being a major indicator: Iowa is sending to Washington a new senator who brags about carrying a gun to protect herself from the Federal government. But Canadians do have their moments. As the Toronto Mayor Rob Ford Crazy Train disappears over the horizon, Ghomeshi has filled the Great White North news vacuum. Multiple women stepping up to accuse one of Canada’s most-popular media personalities of sexual assault.

Most Americans don’t know Ghomeshi. He is – was – the host of a popular Canadian radio interview show called Q, a mix of lowbrow and highbrow culture. A smart guy, a smart show. His firing quickly become the biggest news story in Canada, resonating in the same way as it would with the NPR crowd here if it was revealed that Terri Gross hunts baby seals.

First one woman came forward. Eh, just a jealous ex-lover, Ghomeshi said while defending himself on that 21st-century media outlet, Facebook. Yes, Ghomeshi wrote, their consensual behavior could be seen as “strange, enticing, weird, normal, or outright offensive to others. We all have our secret life.”

But in the following days, the Ghomeshi revelations assumed a familiar pattern. It felt like the Cosby seediness, where one woman’s claim was followed by more women telling the same story. With Cosby, they alleged they’d been alone with the famous man, he charmed them, he put something in their drinks, he assaulted them. With Ghomeshi, after the first accusation, more women came forward. All telling the same story. Jian Ghomeshi charmed me, he beat me and no, it was not consensual. All that was missing was the date-rape cocktail.

My encounter with Ghomeshi came through his late ’90s rock band, Moxy Fruvous. I must have really liked the group, because in looking back I see that I interviewed band members three times over the course of a couple of years, pretty unusual for me. Conversations with three different and very smart guys in a very smart and talented band. Its lyrics were both unusually literate and pop-culture oriented. Songs attacking the American fascination with daytime TV talk and the syndicated radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh. And even though they were Canadian, the men of Moxy Fruvous closely followed United States politics: “Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan all have this very convincing, ’90s social statement,” Ghomeshi told me. “They’re saying that if you work hard enough and are smart enough, you’ll make it. Which is untrue. This is a structure that naturally breeds inequity. I think there has to be state intervention to smooth things out. It’s amazing that after Ronald Reagan and trickle-down economics, and as the gap grows between the rich and the poor, that people still buy into this.”

That was back in 1996. Today, economic disparity continues to destroy our country. Ghomeshi’s words still ring true.

As does this quote, in which he was speaking of the wave of rock bands we were enduring throughout in the ’90s, all bearing dark messages. “I’m not saying we should all be The Partridge Family,” Ghomeshi. “I’m not saying we should all be Pat Robertson. I’m just tired of the same message.”

He stood against the status quo, he said. A band’s message didn’t have to be delivered from the darkness, even as it ridiculed something evil, like Rush Limbaugh. Let’s see how it holds up in the light, that was Moxy Fruvous’ idea.

So Ghomeshi was holding up Pat Robertson as a man of God, as a positive role model. Maybe if he thought about that for a moment, he would have realized that Robertson wasn’t a wise choice. The man’s views frequently sound like 17th-century Puritanism: “The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” That’s one of many crazy things Robertson has said.

The messenger sometimes sends mixed messages.

The intelligent ideas posed by Moxy Fruvous songs, and the 21st-century perspective that Ghomeshi offered on his radio show, paint a portrait of an enlightened man who actually didn’t exist. Ghomeshi’s smarts ran contrary to the alleged misbehavior of his personal life. He was fired on Oct. 26 after executives at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation were presented with, the company said, “graphic evidence that Jian had caused physical injury to a woman.” Who presented them with that evidence? It apparently was Ghomeshi himself who showed them a video, taken on his cell phone, of a badly bruised woman whose ribs he had broken. I’m guessing it was his belief that the video was proof of consensual behavior in his bondage-dominance-sadism-masochism lifestyle. Why else would she allow that video to be taken, if she didn’t approve of what had transpired?

A lot of people gave Cosby a pass. And now a lot of people are stepping forward to say that yeah, it was pretty much known around the music industry, and among the women who dated Ghomeshi after he began hosting Q, that he was an abuser. They whispered about what was going on, but gave him a pass as well. One women employee at CBC complained of abuse to one of her supervisors, but nothing was done. So you keep quiet, keep your job, remain humiliated. Most people don’t have the resources to speak truth to power.

People know that a trailer-trash drunk throwing his girlfriend around on one of those TV reality shows deserves to be slammed face first onto the hood of a cop car. But when a guy in an expensive suit who talks like he’s been to college says or does something that calls for censure, the condemnation doesn’t come as easily.

Have I been fooling myself into thinking that progressive thinkers like Ghomeshi and Cosby aren’t capable of despicable actions?

Consensual behavior has its limits. There’s something wrong with a man who will break a woman’s ribs as a sex act.

Nine women and one man have told Canadian media outlets that they were choked, hit or sexually harassed by Ghomeshi. He filed a $55 million suit against his former employers for defamation and hired a crisis-management group whose web site boasts, “We take proven campaign tactics and apply them to issues where success is critical and you can’t afford to lose.” And then Ghomeshi disappeared. The Toronto police have opened an investigation based on the complaints of three women who are willing to go public about their relationships with Ghomeshi. Better late than never, I guess.

But will there be a time, anytime soon, when society isn’t enabling bad behavior simply because we don’t speak up


The Critical Mass

Did someone put something in Bill Cosby’s drink?

bill-cosby-why-is-there-air-front-704708889I think it was after Game 2 of the World Series last week when the television – which is rarely on in the Spevak household these days – drifted over to The Colbert Report. I’d read that Stephen Colbert is closing down the faux-news cable show, which has done commendable work in making a mockery of Republicans (Agreed, that is the definition of shooting smoked turkeys in a barrel).

This particular show was a repeat of a broadcast from last month. The guest was Bill Cosby. The 77-year-old comedian sounded like a sci-fi movie astronaut awakening from an induced hibernation following a long voyage to another planet. He spoke in a rambling series of non sequiturs, less funny than weird. There was much banter between Cosby and Colbert about “ball sandwiches.” After the interview, in which Colbert elicited nothing of use from Cosby, Margaret turned to me and asked, “Was he drunk?”

I interviewed Cosby a couple of years ago. I know how he can dominate a conversation with charm.  As I recall, we talked for nearly an hour. Actually, he talked for nearly an hour. I probably asked about six questions. He filled in the rest of the time. But one thing I do remember is, he was quite lucid, sometimes serious, sometimes funny. A legitimate spokesman on cultural issues. And certainly a controversial one, with his frequent exhortations to black people to “quit complaining,” and his insistence that black men should take more responsibility in raising children.

A couple of days ago I stumbled across a column which put Cosby in a different light. Written by Maureen Shaw, it was headlined, “13 Women Have Accused Bill Cosby of Rape — So Why Has America Forgiven Him?”

Shaw appears to write frequently on women’s issues, although most people would likely agree that domestic violence and rape are not solely the concern of women. In reading Shaw’s account, and backed by a number of other news stories as I searched the Internet, it actually appears to be 14, perhaps 16, women who alleged that they were victims of assault by Cosby. Now other media outlets are reviving the story, apparently after a  comedian named Hannibal Buress brought it up last week during a standup routine. Today, Queen Latifah cancelled his appearance on her TV talk show.

Cosby has never been charged with rape. But he did settle a 2006 civil suit out of court, after the plaintiff’s lawyers had assembled 13 witnesses who bolstered the complaint with their own stories about Cosby. The women had nothing to benefit from financially, the statute of limitations having passed on their own allegations. But they were prepared to tell similar stories in the court room. Cosby had at first charmed them, then slipped a drug into their drinks, then assaulted them. Some of them said they received financial support from Cosby for years afterward. The implication is that this was hush money.

I’m not blowing the whistle on Cosby. That’s already been done. All I’m asking now is, is this the right guy to be pointing the finger of personal responsibility at others?

If these allegations are true, how did he get away with it? Well, he’s Bill Cosby. My brother and I memorized his comedy records when we were kids. Why is There Air? and its ruminations on “idiot mittens,” those mittens linked by a string, where you’d pull the kid’s hand and he’d smack himself in the side of the head with the other. Cosby’s one of TV’s favorite dads, the Cliff Huxtable sweater is a fashion concept. He plays the loveable old curmudgeon in interviews, controls them, makes them go where he wants them to go: The importance of education, rather than the seriousness of a rape charge. He creates a conversational landscape where questions about his own irresponsibilities are unwelcome.

When I talked to Cosby, I’d long ago forgotten any news stories I’d read about those 2006 allegations. Apparently, Colbert had as well. We both let the old man have his way with us. And we didn’t even get a cocktail out of the experience.

The Critical Mass

A dream, in 140 characters

Our seats are in the very back of the aircraft. As they were in reality last week. But this time it’s a dream, one from which I woke up from just moments ago. I rarely remember my dreams. I’m often aware that I had been dreaming, but remember nothing of it. And when I do remember them, they are almost always banalities. The grocery store, that’s a common setting. And I can’t remember an item I’m supposed to pick up….

This dream is different. I suppose it is a product of the stress that people in the office are undergoing now, as we get swept up in a corporate-wide directive to re-apply for our jobs. And the increasing emphasis on social media. We’re supposed to connect with readers through Facebook and Twitter.

As I am doing now.

In my dream, Margaret and I are flying into Rochester. Closing in on our destination, I’m suddenly no longer in my seat, but have a dream perspective, watching as the aircraft closes in on a forest-green blimp with the words PERKINS PAN AMERICAN on the side. I watch as the bottom of the jet brushes the top of the blimp. Thee lighter-than-air ship begins to collapse as the jet continues on.

Now I’m back in my seat, looking out the window. The familiar buildings of downtown Rochester are in view. Except we’re coming in too steep, at an 80-degree angle. I think: Either this is an emergency-landing approach, or we’re crashing.

We level off dramatically. I’m watching again from the outside, the dream perspective, as the plane approaches the airport. The landing gear isn’t down, apparently damaged in the collision with the blimp. The jet hits the landing strip hard and comes to an abrupt stop. I’m outside on the tarmac, looking at the plane, which has neatly broken into three sections. The cockpit, the passenger compartment and the tail, where through the opening I can see our two empty seats. It’s eerily quiet.

“We’d better get out of the way,” Margaret says.

“I’m going to see if anyone needs help,” I say. I walk to the passenger compartment of the plane, but can’t find a door. That’s a common dream thing, isn’t it? A guy walks up to me; he’s wearing the outfit of one of those people you see from the airplane window as you’re leaving the gate, directing the plane with an orange flashlight. “You’d better get back to your seat,” he says. “The captain hasn’t turned off the ‘Fasten Seat Belts’ sign yet.”

“That my seat,” I say, pointing to the chairs in the tail section.

Suddenly, with a loud, electric noise, all of the windows of the passenger compartment begin rolling up. I see many of my co-workers. Smiling, with expressions of relief on their faces. They’ve survived the ordeal. Then I panic. I’ve packed my iPhone in my suitcase. I have to get to baggage claim immediately. My employers will expect me to tweet about this.

That’s it, my true dream. Let the psychoanalysis begin.

The Critical Mass

When the people speak, and no one listens

This morning, I’m reading something very unusual to American ears. Scotland voted resoundingly on Thursday against becoming an independent nation, choosing to remain a part of the United Kingdom. Conceding defeat, separatist leader Alex Salmond said, “I accept that verdict of the people and I call on all of Scotland to follow suit in accepting the democratic verdict of the people of Scotland.”

How odd. The loser accepted the verdict of the people.

We have a problem with that in the United States.

Barack Obama won two elections. Resoundingly so, considering he reversed eight years of a Republican presidency. The margins of his two victories over McCain and Romney were larger than Bush’s win over Kerry (And certainly larger than Bush’s electoral college victory over Gore; Gore won the popular vote). Yet conservatives have refused to acknowledge the verdict of the people. On the night that Barack and Michelle Obama were dancing at his inauguration, more than 15 conservative leaders met at a four-hour dinner to talk about what they could do about this turn of events. It wasn’t just a minor list of malcontents. It was major players like Republican representives Eric Cantor (Va.), Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Paul Ryan (Wis.), Pete Sessions (Texas), Jeb Hensarling (Texas), Pete Hoekstra (Mich.) and Dan Lungren (Calif.) And Republican senators Jim DeMint (S.C.), Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), John Ensign (Nev.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.).  Newt Gingrich was also there, as well as Frank Luntz, the veteran Republican talking-points guru. Luntz was the guy who came up with the idea of calling healthcare reform a “government takeover,” which the fact-checking group Politifact called the 2010 “Lie of the Year.”

That night, this swell group came up with the strategy of using the House and Senate to obstruct every bill, campaign and law that Obama backed. Everything. Any plans to end their wars, any ideas to stimulate the economy, any attempt to insure uninsured Americans. Over the next four, and then eight years, Obama wouldn’t even be allowed to play a round of golf in peace.

Not simply oppose, but they would obstruct the elected American government. Treason, in any other country.

In school, you probably learned that the United States has a representative government. More Americans voted for Democratic candidates in the House and Senate. Yet the House is run by Republicans, and there are many predictions that the Republicans will gain control of the Senate in November’s mid-term elections. So no, what you learned in school is incorrect. We do not have a representative government.

The majority of Americans want gun control. They approve of how the Affordable Care Act is addressing the issue of the citizens of the richest country in the world not having access to health care. They favor allowing marriage equality, Planned Parenthood, a woman’s right to choose, teaching kids about evolution in schools, even the legalization of pot. They’re OK with higher taxes to pay for roads and schools. They agree we should regulate industry to protect the environment and our health. They know climate change is real. They think all nuclear weapons should be banned. They don’t like the harsh treatment of immigrants, and agree that discrimination against African-Americans remains a significant problem.

And on and on. Until it becomes clear, this is not the conservative country, or the “center-right” country that conservatives claim it is. It’s progressive, it thinks liberal. Throughout the last decade, and for much longer in some cases, conservatives have not accepted the verdict of the people.

The Critical Mass

Yes, this is an actual photo of an open-carry enthusiast  shopping for drugs.

Yes, this is an actual photo of an open-carry enthusiast shopping for drugs.

Pointing a gun at every problem

President Barack Obama addresses the country tonight on how we’ll deal with the emerging Islamic State. This is why he gets paid the big bucks, although admittedly not as many big bucks as the Koch brothers get paid for their mission to destroy the country. But the Islamic State is Obama’s problem, and he has to set not only the policy, but the tone.

And he’ll be speaking to a tone-deaf country.

Consider Ferguson, Mo. The testimony of witnesses says a police officer got out of his car and murdered an unarmed 18-year-old black kid who had his hands in the air. Protests ensued – we seem to be in the midst of an epidemic of police-on-black violence – and the official response was to call in more cops. No, not just cops. Cyborgs from a sci-fi film. Cops in military gear, riding through the streets in armored vehicles, beating up people, arresting journalists, menacingly pointing guns at their fellow citizens. You’re outraged because some fools turned the protest into a riot, even firing guns? Then why weren’t you outraged when a bunch of redneck militia wannabees turned guns on Federal agents at Cliven Bundy’s Arizona ranch earlier this year, when the government was trying to collect back taxes owed by the cranky old racist scofflaw?

Consider White Plains, Ariz. Two weeks ago, a 9-year-old girl from New Jersey on vacation was being given a lesson on how to handle an AK-47 at a shooting range, lost control of the weapon and killed her instructor. What kind of craziness is it to allow a 9-year-old kid to shoot a military weapon at a paper target of a human being? It’ll be another 12 years before she can legally drink a beer. Less than two days after that accident, the National Rifle Association posted a Tweet, “7 Ways Children Can Have Fun at the Shooting Range,” that linked to a story about how kids can be entertained by firing at targets that look like zombies.

Consider the supermarket. Kroger, the country’s largest supermarket chain, is the new battleground. The Open Carry people have declared it is your right to protect yourself while shopping for healthy vegetables. Kroger has said fine, if your gun complies with state and local laws. Packing heat on a trip to the coffee shop is the pro-gun crowd’s declaration that guns are a normal part of life. Sure it is, if 20 children and six teachers and administrators shot dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School is your normal world.

This is the tone-deaf country that Obama will be addressing tonight. ISIS is a serious threat, beheading American journalists and killing its way to conquest in Syria and Iraq. Texas Senator Ted Cruz has a plan. “What we ought to have is a direct, concerted, overwhelming air campaign to take them out.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney has a plan. He spoke to Republican Congressmen Tuesday, using the example of the 9/11 terror attacks – which in 2003 he falsely linked to Saddam Hussein as justification for the invasion of Iraq – to call for action against terrorist groups such as ISIS. Rep. Tom Massie, a Republican from Kentucky, summed up Cheney’s philosophy: “His advice was mainly to spend more money on the military.”

And I need to consider what’s happening in my own community this week. A city emotionally deflated by the news of a well-liked businessman and his wife, two important people to the future here, lost when their private plane crashed into the ocean. And this morning, from a fourth-floor office window, I watched the funeral of the first Rochester police officer to be killed in the line of duty since 1959. A flag-draped coffin carried into the front doors of a hockey arena, the only building in town big enough to handle the crowd that came to grieve. The family, friends, thousands of uniformed law enforcement people. It was a heavy sight. I went outside and stood on the sidewalk, watching. The streets were closed off. It felt as though all of the air had been sucked out of downtown.

All agree that the killer, a convicted felon, should never have had a gun. But he did. NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre is fond of saying, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” Well, officer Daryl Pierson was a good guy. And he had a gun.

Here’s the problem, from ISIS to Ferguson: We can win battles, but wars are no longer won. The United States did not win the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. After decades of effort, we have not won the wars on drugs or poverty. We can’t turn the police into a paramilitary force that creates animosity where there should be trust.

The world is full of evil. A lot of villains out there count on that. But on this planet of 8 billion people, I have to believe we have them outnumbered. It’s likely too late for our generation. But we can start making things a little better by rejecting the idea that the answer to every problem is to point a gun at it.

The Critical Mass

The Tragedy Slut reveals himself

Glenn Beck. Who dresses this guy, anyway?

Glenn Beck. Who dresses this guy, anyway?

I turned down a chance to interview Glenn Beck. Twice, in fact.

Late in 2005, Beck was barnstorming the country with a multimedia Christmas extravaganza of holiday music, videos of flags snapping to attention in the breeze and his maudlin ramblings about American values. Beck’s publicist called me and asked if I wanted an interview with the conservative Fox News host, talk-radio flamethrower and best-selling author before his appearance here. This was after Cindy Sheehan, whose son had been killed in Iraq, had spent the summer following President Bush around the country and appearing at anti-war rallies, demanding the president explain his actions.

I told Beck’s publicist that I didn’t want anything to do with a guy who’d called Sheehan a “tragedy slut.” I didn’t want to talk to a guy who said of the women collectively known as the 9/11 widows, women who’d lost husbands in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, “when I see a 9/11 victim family on television, or whatever, I’m just like, ‘Oh shut up!’ I’m so sick of them because they’re always complaining. And we did our best for them.”

Beck’s publicist called again on an otherwise beautiful afternoon in 2007. “Your favorite guy is coming back to town,” he said. With an even bigger show. More patriotic music, videos of soaring eagles and Beck lamenting about why can’t the world be more like he wants it to be. Did I want an interview?

“No,” I said. “He’ll have to peddle his nonsense without my help.”

Am I a hypocrite because, while Beck was critical of Cindy Sheehan speaking her mind, I wasn’t allowing him to share his thoughts with the readers of the newspaper that I work for?

No, not at all. It’s just that I believe people who are the shapers of public opinion, be it politicians or the media, should treat the truth with reverence. And in recent years, the truth has taken quite a beating.

President Obama has finally laid some truth on us when he admitted that, yes, the United States had tortured prisoners after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. This wasn’t news – most of us knew we’d lost our moral compass in the 9/11 rubble – but we’d been trying to fool ourselves for years, using phrases like “enhanced interrogation techniques” when, in truth, it was torture. And the CIA has admitted now what many people had already figured out on their own, that it lied when it said it wasn’t spying on American citizens and members of Congress. Yes, it did all of that. If you believe the CIA this time.

Such willful ignorance is accepted as the norm, and you know the big lies. Obama’s a Kenyan, a Muslim, he wants to take your guns, he’s committed impeachable offenses. Voter fraud is rampant. Rich people create jobs. Immigrants are a threat to America and a drain on the economy. The Affordable Care Act will include Death Panels. Climate change isn’t real. The only way to stop a Bad Guy with a gun is a Good Guy with a gun. These, and hundreds of other errant ideas, lingered on long after the facts disproving them were available. And in many cases these notions continue to breed in the darkness, because our leaders refuse to yield to inconvenient truths. And often because the media is stuck on the notion of false equivalencies as legitimate argument. Be smart: The debate on climate change is over. Whenever you read the phrase “Some people say…” in a news story or editorial on climate change, immediately turn the page. “Some people say” is just a lazy editorial writer’s way of re-introducing a roundly defeated argument to the reader. Because very often “some people” is a guy like Ken Ham. The last time we should have seen Ham, the president of Answers in Genesis, was after pop-science demigod Bill Nye the Science Guy had thoroughly kicked his ass in their Science vs. Creationism debate. But Ham keeps re-appearing in the public spotlight, saying dumb stuff. Some people never learn.

Points of debate should earn their way into the public discourse. Ideologies should stand on the truth. We give a loudmouth a microphone, and he whips a crowd of knuckledraggers into a frenzy by calling the president of the United States a socialist. Those people can’t possibly know what socialism is, unless they hate their city’s fire department.

So I denied Glenn Beck the opportunity to use my forum, minor as it is. I denied him the opportunity to say this: “I don’t think we came from monkeys. I think that’s ridiculous. I haven’t seen a half-monkey, half-person yet.” – Glenn Beck, Oct. 201, 2010.

And this: “I’m thinking about killing Michael Moore, and I’m wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it.… No, I think I could. I think he could be looking me in the eye, you know, and I could just be choking the life out. Is this wrong?”  – Glenn Beck, May 17, 2005.

And this, on people whose homes were being destroyed in a California wildfire: ”I think there is a handful of people who hate America. Unfortunately for them, a lot of them are losing their homes in a forest fire today.” – Glenn Beck, Oct. 22, 2007.

And this, on the people who lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina: The only ones we’re seeing on television are the scumbags.” – Glenn Beck, Sept. 9, 2005.

And my opinion on the responsibility we have to the truth is bolstered by an unexpected source. Glenn Beck. He seems to have been on an apology tour this week. “When you live your life five hours a day on live television and radio you’re going to say stupid things,” Beck said last Sunday. He conceded that one of those stupid things was his declaration that President Obama is a racist. That unsubstantiated claim was more fuel for the uniformed.  Indeed Beck admitted that, in this highly partisan, angry America, he may have “unintentionally… added to the situation we’re in right now.”

Later in the week, just to make sure we weren’t hearing things, he re-iterated the point: “I think I played a role, unfortunately, in helping tear the country apart,” he admitted. And on his radio show, he dropped this bomb on the war  mongers: “From the beginning, most people on the left were against going into Iraq. I wasn’t…. Liberals, you were right. We shouldn’t have.”

Welcome aboard, Beck, even if it’s just a momentary sanity. Unfortunately, it is too little, too late. Your ill-advised words fueled misery, and even death. I have no room in my heart for your apology. You are the true tragedy slut.

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