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

Allen Ginsberg: "Papa-ooma-mow-mow."

Allen Ginsberg: “Papa-ooma-mow-mow.”

What is a song, anyway?

I’m a word guy. I love song lyrics. Greatest songs of all time? Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit.” Frank Sinatra singing “My Way.” Dusty Springfield singing “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The Beatles’ “Let it Be.” Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart.” Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Patti Smith’s “Gloria,” her “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” has to be the greatest, most-defiant opening line ever. Huge chunks of Van Morrison’s album Astral Weeks. A lot of Dylan, the lines he delivers with a sneer give me a chill. Thousands to choose from. To be comprehensive would be to be ridiculous.

And this. Read the whole thing. Out loud, even. It’s not the message in the words, they’re meaningless. It’s the evocative construction, the weirdness of the moment of creation. Letters that form words that are purely rhythm and abstraction and reckless iconoclasm. Imagine Allen Ginsberg walking to the stage in a small coffeehouse in San Francisco, circa 1955, pulling from inside his tattered jacket pocket a few sheets of paper, smudged with pencil lead and eraser marks, carefully unfolding them, as though he were handling the Magna Carta, and rather than giving us “Howl,” slowly reading this. The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird.”

Bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, the bird is the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, well, the bird is the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, well, the bird is the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, well, the bird is the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, don’t you know about the bird
Well, everybody knows that the bird is the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word

A-well-a, everybody’s heard about the bird
Bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, don’t you know about the bird
Well, everybody’s talking about the bird
A-well-a, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird

Surfin’ bird
Bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbb, aaah


Papa-ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Papa-ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Papa-ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Papa-ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Papa-ooma-mow-mow, papa-oom-oom-oom
Oom-ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Papa-a-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Papa-ooma-mow-mow, ooma-mow-mow
Papa-ooma-mow-mow, ooma-mow-mow
Ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Papa-ooma-mow-mow, ooma-mow-mow
Well, don’t you know about the bird
Well, everybody knows that the bird is the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word

Papa-ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Papa-ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Papa-ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow…


The Critical Mass

The Cardiff Giant, in his Amy Winehouse period.

The Cardiff Giant, in his Amy Winehouse period.

The suckers born every minute

Four of us were on the way outta Cooperstown when I slammed on the brakes. A sign along the roadside had caught my eye: THE CARDIFF GIANT. He was here, at the Farmer’s Museum. I had to see him.

The Cardiff Giant is often labeled as the greatest hoax in American history. A 10-foot-tall man “discovered” in 1869 by guys digging a well in Cardiff, NY., outside of Syracuse. Supposedly a fossil of some forgotten race. P.T. Barnum figures in the story, so that ought to tell you something.

And now here the Giant was on this summer afternoon, reclining in his shed among the tools and arcane tractors of honest, hard-working American farmers. One of the Giant’s arms lies across his body, in what appears to be a vain attempt at modesty, for the mighty fellow is naked. The Giant’s details are rough. In two or three seconds, any casual observer will determine that this is simply a figure chiseled from a big block of gypsum. Yet thousands of Americans were fooled by this. They wanted to believe this was a giant. Perhaps because the Bible says there were once giants on the earth.

I Googled some photos of the Cardiff Giant this morning and noticed something odd. There are at least two distinct Cardiff Giants, including one that looks a bit more realistic than the one we saw in Cooperstown. With a little poking around I found that Barnum, who had bought the Cardiff Giant from the original hoaxer, had made a second Cardiff Giant to double the hoax payoff. A hoax of a hoax. That second one’s in Farmington Hills, Mich., at Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum.

It would be cool if such things were true. A few years ago, the bluegrass star Alison Krauss urged me to Google “giant skeletons.” I’m not sure if she actually believed giant skeletons exist, but I took her advice. You try it. You’ll come up with videos and photos of construction equipment digging up impossibly large human skeletons.

Last year I stumbled across Season One of a show on The History Channel, Search for the Lost Giants. Supposedly a documentary series, it’s about two New England brothers pursuing their theory that giants once roamed the planet, just a couple of centuries ago. I watched it with interest. Not because I think giants once existed. I’m just attracted to stories of useless quests and unrequited dreams. And here were two seemingly smart guys so obsessed with their urban myth – or so intent on carrying on an expensive fraud for no explainable reason – that every small piece of “evidence” resoundingly backs their idea. So now I Googled Search for the Lost Giants, just to see if the astonishingly misnamed History Channel, which regularly airs programming of dubious veracity, was preparing a second season of the show. No word on that. But I found a blog by Stephen Mrozowski, a professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts. Professor Mrozowski was invited on the show to examine the “Goshen Mystery Tunnel,” a long, stone structure beneath the Massachusetts ground consisting of several chambers. Or so they say. The brothers fervently insist this tunnel is connected to their giants, although they never explain how they come to that conclusion; the tunnel seems a bit cramped for giants. In his blog, Mrozowski notes that he was never told that he was being invited on the show to discuss giants. Nor does the show air his speculations that don’t fit the brothers’ needs. Like the tunnel could have been built by Canadian bootleggers to hide booze during the Depression. In the selectively edited video, Mrozowski seems to give the brothers’ quest some credence.

More than a few bloggers point out the racist point of view behind theories of UFOs building Mayan cities. Or a race of giants must have created Indian burial mounds. Because Native Americans could never have stacked stones or dug holes on their own.

This all comes to mind because a few people were hanging out at the house Friday night over a couple of bottles of wine. And the subject of lies came up. Mostly the lies that surround today’s political and social issues. I made some kind of comment about how the Republican Party seems to be collapsing beneath the weight of a decade or two of lies piled on top of lies. Once you start lying, you have to manufacture more lies to support the lies.It’s gotten so bad that, with John Boehner having resigned as House Majority leader, the Republicans can’t find anyone to take his place. No one wants to be in charge when it falls.

Before we left the Farmer’s Museum, I stopped in the gift shop and purchased a postcard of the Cardiff Giant, shot in strange lighting that made it look weirdly metrosexual. I suppose that makes me guilty of supporting the Cardiff Giant hoax. A tribute to the willingness of people to believe.

But there are stone-cold hoaxes bigger and more serious than the Cardiff Giant. Or giants buried in the New England woods. Or computer-generated Internet images of giant skeletons. Hoaxes like “clean coal,” no such thing exists. So we continue to choke the planet to death. And the decision to invade Iraq, and then Afghanistan. Lives and money thrown away. And vaccinations cause autism, a claim backed by virtually no doctor. Faith is comforting, but society moves forward with science.

Driving from Cooperstown back to Rochester, taking the beautiful back roads of Western New York, we noticed that people in these rural communities like to post signs in their front yards. Guns aren’t dangerous, they read. But wind turbines are a threat to “Family, Faith and Health.”

What was it that P.T. Barnum said? Perhaps as he was passing through Western New York, counting his receipts from The Cardiff Giant?

There’s a sucker born every minute.

The Critical Mass

Intelligence test: Which U.S. president was born in Hawaii?

Intelligence test: Which U.S. president was born in Hawaii?

Americans are exceptional confabulists

The singer-songwriter Bat MGrath writes earnest, heartfelt songs of relationships. Every word rings true. Nothing political. Yet it seems as though every time I see him play, he lets slip some hint of where his sentiments lie. As he did Saturday night. Between songs he described himself as an optimist, which I do believe he is. But, he added, it’s really hard to be an optimist these days.

So true. Friday morning, after I had got the coffee going and fed the dog, I turned on NPR, whose handful of reports on the big news of the day all seemed to open with the same words.

“Officials were converging on a small Oregon town in the hope of finding out what and why…”

What. Another mass shooting in America.

Why. Because a significant portion of America is living in a fantasy word. Refusing to deal in facts, maintaining nonsensical positions and, very often, turning to lies to defend the indefensible.

Dodging truth and embracing lies. Frequently hiding behind the phrase “American Exceptionalism.” On Saturday the United States Air Force launched a strike in support of our extraordinarily corrupt allies, the Afghan government. Leaders so corrupt that, according to Americans who are living there, trying to help keep that country functional, the local people actually prefer life under the Taliban. According to American officials, the Air Force attack was “in the vicinity” of a hospital. If so it was exceptionally bad aim, as they blew up the place. The Afghan government said the Taliban was using the hospital as “a human shield,” but hospital officials said that was a lie. The only people in that building were medical personnel and patients. And now 19 of them are dead. Including children.

American Exceptionalism is overrunning the planet while the rest of the civilized world steps back, aghast. All of the great work that this country has accomplished in the last couple of centuries – slavery, robber barons, stealing Texas from Mexico and genocide of the American Indian aside – is being overwhelmed by a loud, rude, angry minority.

Don’t overlook that word, minority. The conservative point of view, a dangerous ideology propped up by easily refuted lies, is the minority opinion in this country.

Here are the facts. Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of gun control. They approve of marriage equality. They like science. They are fed up with endless war in the Middle East. They want cops to be held accountable for their actions when another unarmed black man is shot or choked to death. They understand the importance of the Environmental Protection Agency. They acknowledge our world is being destroyed by climate change. They’re ready for the legalization of pot. They see racism and economic disparity – nor Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s email server – as two of the primary issues faced by this country. They understand evolution is not a theory, but a fact. They overwhelmingly hate Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that gives corporations the same rights as citizens, and is now exploited by Republican benefactors such as the Koch brothers (and, OK, comedian Bill Maher, who gave $1 million to President Barack Obama’s reelection) to inject obscene amounts of money into political campaigns.

A lot of Americans believe in UFOs. I wish that one were true.

Americans are also largely in favor of a woman’s right to her own reproductive decisions, and they are overwhelmingly supportive of funding Planned Parenthood, which has a higher approval rating than Congress. The Planned Parenthood sting videos that conservatives now use as their main argument for de-funding the program are a hoax. (As were the ACORN sting videos, which brought down an organization that helped black people register to vote.) At the second Republican presidential primary debate, the spectacularly failed Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina told a moving story of an aborted fetus, its legs kicking, as Planned Parenthood employees discussed keeping it alive so that they could harvest its brain and sell it for medical research. Not only is that scene not in the fake sting video, no one’s been able to find that specific image anywhere. If you wish to debate the legality of abortion in this country, you may do so. But come armed with facts, not lies.

Most economists scoff at Republican economic theories of endless tax breaks for the rich. Most social academics dispute the Republican mantra that the poor can join the plutocracy simply by working harder. Conservatives gather zombie-like around the notion that poor people, especially poor black people, only want free stuff. Well, politics is all about handing out free stuff. The rich get more, and better, free stuff.

Conservatives are mindlessly caught in the gravitational pull of unstable objects. George Zimmerman, the gun-obsessed killer of an unarmed black teenager who was walking home from a convenience store and paid for it with his life; Zimmerman is a reprehensible creature who’s been involved in a handful of violent scrapes with the law and has recently been tweeting pictures of the body of his murder victim, Trayvon Martin. You may have already forgotten about Cliven Bundy, the New Mexico rancher whose declaration that he wouldn’t pay taxes for allowing his cattle to graze on government land was defended by a score of rednecks who rode their pickups into town, pointing guns at Federal agents. They got away with it. You can bet they wouldn’t have if they were black.

Conservatives establish fundraising web sites for cops charged with murder.

Joe the Plumber. Sarah Palin. Ted Nugent. I’d never even heard of reality TV moralist Josh Duggar until he got caught up in scandals of sex abuse and a web-site designed for spouses who want to cheat on spouses. Where do Republicans find these erratic mascots?

More recently, conservatives are celebrating that wrung-out dishrag of a Kentucky county clerk, Kim Davis. Last week she met with Pope Francis, a move hailed by conservatives as Papal approval for her brand of ignorance. Except now it looks like Davis’ publicists pulled a fast one, sneaking her in with a crowd of a few dozen people, never explaining to the pope’s handlers that this was the woman who’s decided she can break a law – in this case not issuing marriage licenses to gay couples – because she doesn’t agree with it. The Vatican this week issued a statement that the meeting “should not be considered a form of support of her position.” Apparently the Vatican doesn’t get Fox News on cable, the pope didn’t recognize her.

NASA said this week that there’s liquid water on Mars. Rush Limbaugh says it’s not true.

Conservatives are awash in crazy conspiracy theories. Anchor babies. Obama and Hillary as The Antichrist. If you want a good laugh, Google “Jade Helm” or “Agenda 21,” a benign United Nations resolution that conservatives have re-built from spare parts, a Frankenstein of mismatched logic, into a program for one-government world domination through environmental action in concert with the liberal media (Although most media outlets are owned by conservative corporations).

Conservative fantasies include the infamous death panels: Yet most Americans approve of government funding for programs that will help the elderly and terminally ill people make comfortable, end-of-life decisions. And “Truther” quests: The sheriff of Douglas County, Oregon, re-posted a now widely debunked YouTube video questioning whether the Sandy Hook shootings actually occurred. Two days later he sent a letter to Vice President Joe Biden, who was heavily involved in organizing gun control legislation, claiming that gun control would not prevent school shootings, adding that he wouldn’t enforce gun legislation that impinged on the Second Amendment gun rights of the citizens of his county.

That sheriff, John Hanlin, now has 10 dead and seven wounded people on his hands after Thursday’s massacre at Umpqua Community College.

Conservatives cite the Second Amendment as irrefutable proof that they may carry guns with abandon. It does no such thing. The Second Amendment is about militias. That’s why it prominently uses the word “militia.” But we no longer have militias. Just as we no longer have slavery. When reading the Constitution, the context of the times in which it was written is very important.

But context doesn’t matter to conservatives, re-writers of history. Jeb! Bush, your brother started those failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and created the instability that opened the door for ISIS. Not Obama, despite your claims that he prematurely abandoned “The Surge” and allowed victory to slip away. The truth on that one: All of the generals who were involved at the time have said the surge was always intended as a temporary measure meant to give the Iraqi government time to get on its feet, after we’d destroyed it. A full-time surge would have been an unending, unsustainable effort. So quit lying about it.

Conservatives love war. Americans build exceptional tanks and aircraft carriers. But we haven’t won a war since 1945.

ISIS. A reprehensible organization that cuts the heads off of journalists and Muslims alike. Fear grifters such as Lindsey Graham, South Carolina’s inept contribution to Congress, insist that terrorists with knives hidden in their robes are crossing the Mexican border illegally to kill us. KILL US ALL! Wide-eyed, spittle flying from his mouth, he’s offered no evidence that this is happening, and ignores the fact that virtually all of the terrorists who hijacked four airliners on Sept. 11 were in this country legally. As were the terrorists who shot up a movie theater in Colorado, an elementary school in Connecticut, a McDonald’s in California, a military base in Texas, a church in South Carolina and now a community college campus in Oregon.

Conservatives are bleeding from the eyeballs out of fear that radical Islamists are the greatest threat to America today. But the only terrorists who are killing people in this country seem to be home-grown, socially inept, angry, well-armed loners. All of the developed Western nations have them. But we’re the only first-world country where 36 people a day are killed by guns. We have a third-world casualty rate. Because too many Americans believe the answer to any problem is to point a gun at it. And too many American leaders insist that the solution to our international squabbles is to have some 19-year-old soldier in a Wyoming bunker steer a cruise missile into a village on the other side of the world, and it doesn’t matter how many children and goats and old people we kill.

Americans are exceptional confabulists. Conservatives hide behind lies rather than confront their inhumanity and inconsistencies: Why do Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both the sons of Cuban refugees, hate immigrants? Conservatives want simple, easy-to-understand, bumper-sticker solutions in a complex world of many cultures.

Everyone wants free stuff. But how can we award the kind of tax breaks that conservatives advocate without exploding the national debt? Economists say we can’t. The Republicans running for president are all college graduates, I assume they can do the math. They must be lying to us.

The majority of Americans know that Obama is not from Kenya. If conservatives are so committed to simple ideas, perhaps that could be the intelligence test for the cabal of unqualified losers currently vying for the Republican presidential nomination: In what state was the current president of the United States born? A one-word answer will suffice.

They all know the correct answer. Hawaii. But they’re loath to admit it’s true.

The Critical Mass

The morning walks are getting strange

Abilene: Does this look a police dog?

Abilene: Does this look a police dog?

The morning dog walks have been encouragingly productive in recent weeks. I’ve picked up a lot of scrap wood on the curb, of course, I always do. I found a screen to replace the damaged one in the front window, oven racks I can cut down to use on the smokers and some brass hardware that matches the fittings on the upstairs window frames. I can’t believe you people throw out this stuff.

Following Abilene through the neighborhood, I also encounter humans. Rare, but it happens. Like the guy from last November, waiting at a bus stop.

“Is that a police dog?” he asks.

“No, she’s a sporting dog. A Weimaraner.”

“Those police dogs, they train them to make arrests,” the guy says. I guess he didn’t hear me. Abbie doesn’t make arrests. “A burglar breaks into the house and those dogs come out of nowhere and hold them down until the police arrive. They stand on the burglar’s chest and hold them down, and they don’t dare move, because that’s a police dog. You don’t mess with them. They’ll go right for your throat if you move. They just hold you until the police can get there with their guns. They’re trained to do that, burglars are scared of them, those dogs just stand on their chests and stare into the burglar’s face, and they’re too scared to move…”

This guy is getting a little too worked up. He’s bubbling over with nervous excitement. “We gotta get going…”

“…The burglar is begging for help when the police come in the front door…”

So I avoid humans on the morning walks.

Many different species of trees line these streets. Lots of housing choices for the squirrels. Most mornings I hear a woodpecker hammering away. Abbie sets off a lot of dogs as we walk by their houses. They’re agitated. My dog ignores them. Yes, she’s thinking, you’re trapped in there, and I’m enjoying the morning walk. One morning, on a street we don’t usually take, I hear a dog barking from behind a living-room window. I am staring off in another direction when I heard a whoomp and glass shattering. Abbie and I freeze. The dog in the living room must have had his paws up on the window and knocked it clean out of wall, frame and all. Now the window is lying on the front lawn, shattered. The curtains move listlessly in the gaping wound. No sign of the dog. I respect the intelligence of dogs, and their almost sixth-sense cognitive abilities. And this dog must be thinking: Something’s broken, Master home soon, I am up shit creek now.

One morning I run into another guy walking a dog. I kinda recognize him. Not the dog, the guy. Some years ago he’d recorded a concept album with his girlfriend, a true story he insisted, about how he’d been kidnapped by aliens and they’d planted some chips in his body. These chips were showing up on X-rays taken by Air Force doctors, but no one knew what they were. And maybe I’d want to write about the album, to get his story of the aliens out there. I’d told him that I wished aliens existed, but I don’t think they do, and if they did they wouldn’t come all this way to fuck with him. Now he was telling me the girlfriend had left him, but he was getting ready to record another album. “Only this time, I’ve figured out that I’m actually an alien-human hybrid…”

Science fiction cliches in the morning. Another reason to avoid humans while walking the dog.

On one of the routes we sometimes take, the street is lined with smaller houses, looking kinda shabby, crouching close to the sidewalk. Their occupants make curious landscaping decisions. More often than not, a really nice car is parked in the driveway. Or maybe a couple of well-groomed pickup trucks. Those two vehicles are worth more than the house those people are living in.

The routine rarely varies. On one of this week’s morning walks, Abbie and I wander past the bus stop, and a guy is standing there. He notices the dog. “Is that a police dog?” he asks.

“No, she’s a sporting dog. A Weimaraner.”

“Those police dogs, they train them to make arrests,” the guy says. “A burglar breaks into the house and those dogs come out of nowhere and hold them down until the police arrive…”

Wait, we’ve already had this conversation.

“Yeah, they stand on the burglar’s chest and hold them down, and they don’t dare move, because that’s a police dog. You don’t mess with them. They’ll go right for your throat if you move. They just hold you until the police can get there with their guns. They’re trained to do that, burglars are scared of them, those dogs just stand on their chests and stare into the burglar’s face, and they’re too scared to move…”

“We gotta get going…”

“…The burglar is begging for help when the police come in the front door…”

The Critical Mass

Losing their religion, their guns, their flags and their minds

flagFor the first time in years, on this Fourth of July, I’m optimistic. Proud to be an American. I really started to feel it while a handful of us were sitting in a bar after a night at the jazz festival here at the end of June, and Sue held up her iPhone for everyone to see. It was that photo of the White House bathed in rainbow colors after the Supreme Court had finally conceded to the obvious: The government can’t discriminate against people just because of a braying minority that willfully ignores facts, science, change, the truth.

“It gives me goose bumps,” Connie said when she saw that photo.

You’ve likely read about the amazing week that President Barack Obama was in the midst of. Marriage equality. The court upholding his Affordable Care Act.  The lunacy of racists hiding behind the Confederate battle flag. Some of it was sadness, but Obama was there nonetheless, singing “Amazing Grace” at a service for nine people murdered in a church. A few years ago, we were calling it Hope.

Only the timing was coincidence, not the outcomes. Our brilliant president laid the groundwork for all of this to happen. He’s leading this country into the 21st century.

People tend to look at all of this news, these debates, as separate issues. They are not. The same people who don’t see the Confederate flag as a historical reminder of slavery, armed rebellion against the U.S. and hundreds of thousand of people dead and maimed are the same people who champion open-carry gun laws in public places. They are the same people who insist the tax scofflaw Cliven Bundy and a handful of gun-waving Tea Party supporters threatening Federal agents who came to Bundy’s Nevada ranch are patriots, but they see it as a threat when others protest the epidemic of unarmed black men being killed by cops. They are the same people who make excuses for why nine people were murdered in a church. The killer was crazy, the killer was a fringe racist, the killer was on mood-altering drugs. Well, Europe has crazy people, racists and prescription drugs, yet doesn’t have our level of mass murder. The only difference is, we have plenty of guns.

It was thrilling to see the country react so quickly in the last few weeks to the idea that the Confederate flag must come down from government buildings in the South, along with questioning the morality of statues of Jefferson Davis in public places and schools named for Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. It’s about heritage, not hate, they say? You really have to re-think your heritage if one of the groups coming to its defense is the Ku Klux Klan.

The same public disapproval for the Confederate legacy must also be heard on other issues. Open-carry advocates want Americans to see guns as a familiar accessory of everyday life. They’re just another tool? No, they’re a weapon. Designed for only one purpose. A Texan who carries a gun onto a church or a college campus should be looked upon with the same public disdain as a redneck who flies a Confederate flag in his front yard. The name of a Klan founder should not be on a school. Your gun should not be in a school. Or a movie theater. Or a nightclub. Or a mall. Or a political rally, as we saw during the last presidential campaign. Even tucked away in a holster, a gun is an unspoken threat.

Opposition to forward movement comes from the same people who sneered at the Occupy movements of a few years ago, those brave citizens who camped in public spaces, sacrificing the comfort of sitting on the couch in front of a TV tuned to Fox News, igniting awareness of how 99 percent of America is getting screwed by the top 1 percent.

For more than a decade now, conservatives have chosen to define America, and their fellow Americans’ love for it, by yardsticks that millions of people do not agree with. If you were against the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan from the start, you were labeled unpatriotic. If you were against a woman’s right to make her own reproductive decisions, you were going against the will of God, and hence unpatriotic. Because this is a country built on God’s principles. Their God, of course. Never mind that stuff you learned in school about the Pilgrims fleeing England to escape religious persecution, and that Founding Fathers prattle about freedom of religion.

School. Isn’t that the place where they teach us that man evolved from monkeys? Science, what good is that?

There is one reason that all of these frantic people running for the Republican nomination for president are saying such nonsensical things. It’s because they are willfully ignorant of facts, science, change, the truth. There is one reason Donald Trump rocketed into second place in the Republican polls after he called Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers. It’s because he’s saying what conservatives believe. Their political platform is Obama was born in Kenya and rich people can build golf courses wherever they want.

It is all about control, and these people are losing it. Today’s debates are one agenda championed by a dwindling minority.

Dwindling minority, I say? On virtually every issue, Americans now fall on the progressive side of the debate. Americans want to see the minimum wage raised, because profitable business shouldn’t be built on the backs of people working 40 hours a week, yet living in poverty. We’re OK with pot now. Oregon legalized recreational use last week. In the coming weeks, it appears we’ll be seeing Obama commuting non-violent drug offenders, treated like murderers in our overstuffed prisons.

Obama has even said that the racist nickname of Washington’s NFL team must go.

And soon enough, it will.

America is not a conservative country. It is progressive. All of the issues, all of the progress, tells us so.

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


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