Jeff Spevak, Writer

Welcome to a Chronicle of Culture.

Category: Life During Wartime Page 2 of 31

We believe lies because we want to

Jesus Christ, seen here as an orange blob, visits Notre Dame.

Can you see it? The image of Jesus Christ in the midst of the fire raging at Notre Dame cathedral?

Jesus also made an appearance earlier this year in some clouds over Italy during a sunset. All over the world, people are seeing Jesus in their food. The scientific name for this phenomena is pareidolia: The mind’s willingness to make something familiar out of random stimuli, such as colors or shadows. It’s all very subjective, of course. In the case of Jesus sightings, no one knows what Jesus actually looked like. In fact, there isn’t any historical evidence that someone named Jesus Christ actually existed.

I look at those flames exploding from the belly of Notre Dame and I see… well, to me it looks like Victor Hugo, whose “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is set in the cathedral. His words celebrated the centuries-long, organic growth of that beautiful building:

Time is the architect, the nation is the builder.

We damn near lost it in a single afternoon. Perhaps because of a cigarette carelessly tossed aside by one of the contractors working on the building. Even civilization’s massive edifices of stone can be gone in a few moments. What chance is there for something elusive, easily malleable?

Like thought?

Pareidolia is the new normal. Seeing things that are not there. In today’s new Orwellian era, in which truth does not matter, random stimuli is rudely dumped at our feet and re-configured by the renowned conspiracy theorist Donald Trump.

Reading through just this week’s disaster buffet of chaos, I see that Trump’s nominee as the nation’s new director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, has withdrawn his name from consideration. Trump blamed pressure from the “LameStream Media.” Hours later, when asked why his administration hadn’t uncovered what appears to a serious lack of credentials, as well as some résumé padding on Ratcliffe’s part, Trump told reporters, “You vet for me. When I give a name, I give it out to the press, and you vet for me.”

So, the serious responsibility of picking a serious person for a serious position is shared with the “LameStream Media.”

Or how about this: Trump is claiming that the tariffs he’s directing on imported goods from China are being paid for by the Chinese government. You’d be hard pressed to find an economist who won’t agree that those tariffs aren’t actually being paid for by the American people through higher price tags on Chinese imports when they arrive here.

Or how about this: Trump continued his attack on an American city, Baltimore, which he has called a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” Yes, like all aging, major cities that are struggling with a shifting economic base, Baltimore has many issues. Here in Rochester, we share those troubles. And Trump is the president of the country where you’ll find these cities. He bears some responsibility.

Or how about this: This week alone, we’ve seen mass shootings at a garlic festival (three dead, 16 injured), a Texas Walmart (20 dead, 26 injured) and a trendy bar district in Ohio (nine dead, 26 injured). Before going to work, the Texas killer posted an online comment about “the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Perhaps he thought he had the approval of a racist president who has been warning us for two years of this “invasion,” as he also calls it, of our southern border.

Once again, no good guy with a gun was available to stop these bad guys with guns. But that lie will go on. In addition to arming school teachers, we must now issue guns to bartenders, farmers and check-out clerks.

Also this week, at a ceremony honoring 9/11 first responders, Trump claimed to have had some kind of role in the heroics that emerged from that day, although he was vague about what it was that he might have done to help out. No one saw him digging through rubble, searching for survivors. What we do know is that, during a radio interview shortly after the attack, Trump made the claim that, with the World Trade Center reduced to rubble, he now owned the tallest building in New York City.

And even that claim, grotesquely self serving, was a lie.

These lies are brazen, and often easy to verify as false or nonsensical. So why do so many people believe them?

Perhaps Trump’s supporters choose to ignore facts because he says what they want to hear, even if he fails to deliver on his promises.

Some of Trump’s supporters are racists. They understand he’s a white nationalist who calls for people of color who disagree with him to “go back to where they came from.”

Some of Trump’s supporters recognize that he supports their insistence that they be well armed, even as our televisions announce BREAKING NEWS of mass shooting after mass shooting, breaking news which rarely occur in countries with tougher gun laws.

Some of Trump’s supporters approve of his southern-border policies, whipping up fear to justify separating families, caging children and turning back Central American refugees who are fleeing crime and poverty. They believe his lies that the refugees are disease-ridden criminals when, in actuality, this country built of immigrants benefits economically and socially from their presence.

To Trump, those detention-center cages crowded with immigrants are perfectly acceptable, but Baltimore is not.

Some of Trump’s supporters deny the existence of climate change, even as scientists tell us that the planet’s weather is evolving even more quickly than anticipated due to human activities. Climate-change denial is led, of course, by the fossil-fuel industry, which fears the job-producing, clean energy of the wind turbines mocked by Trump. It’s a lie that energy-efficient technology costs jobs; the coal industry has been on the decline for decades, and today employs less than 75,000 people. It is being replaced by cheaper energy sources, such as natural gas and wind turbines. In fact, environment-safe technology now employs twice as many workers as all U.S. fossil fuel sectors combined.

As temperatures driven by climate change rise, millions of people will face floods, forest fires, extreme weather, food and water shortages, and displacement from their homes.

What a real White House looks like.

And on, and on, and on go the lies. You would hope that time would be the architect of greater things. But we continue to flee back, to our dark caves. Rather than inspiration – the Obama White House lit up in rainbow colors in celebration of the Supreme Court ruling allowing same-sex couples to marry – we’re seeing a dark political pareidolia of exclusion and hate.

The truth is, our belief in lies is a longtime mechanism, employed for the convenience of our conscience. The genocide of the native people living here, and the reliance of slaves to build this country, was eased by the lie that those people were less than human. For all of Trump’s flailing about on the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and his breaking the treaties that hold this Armageddon in check, the United States remains the only nation to have used nuclear weapons in war, when we unnecessarily dropped two bombs on Japan, which was already beaten, killing thousands of innocent people.

Hiroshima. Just because we could do it.

So we allow a prolific liar, an admitted sex offender, a man who cheated business partners, a common grifter, a gleeful tax evader, a man whose words undermine our legal system and democracy, a man who insults the disabled and war heroes, a man whose trips to the golf course have so far cost the nation $110 million, and a mentally unstable leader, to live in our White House, and represent us. This ugly American.

This man is dead inside. He has no soul.

BE THE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

Mad, and getting Realist about humor

The first issue of The Realist.

When I was a kid, like 10 or 11 years old, My Uncle Robbie was the youngest, and coolest, of my uncles. He had a motorcycle. He went to Woodstock. And he read Mad magazine.

I never had a motorcycle. The Woodstocks I attended were the paler, anniversary ones in 1994 and ’99. But I did read Mad.

After 67 years, the magazine has announced it will soon cease publication, although that “cease” is kind of vague, as it appears Mad will continue to re-issue old content. And some of its legendary contributors said a few days ago that new material may even be published on yet-to-be determined platforms. Platforms that likely contributed to the cause of death: The internet, where anyone with a keyboard has the potential to create brilliant satire in this target-rich era.

Internet humor: A primary suspect in the death of Mad magazine.

Following the announcement of Mad’s approaching death, the tributes poured in. From celebrities including Weird Al Yankovic, fondly recalling how Mad shaped their own humor.

So yes, of course, I read Mad as well. Did, as in past tense. Maybe if I had bought a few copies over the last four decades, it wouldn’t be going away now.

But other culture was creeping into my brain. Mad gave way to National Lampoon. I saw R. Crumb and Zippy the Pinhead as philosophers, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers were teachers. The comedy albums I listened to, the mainstream of Bill Cosby, gave way to the edgy non-sequitur humor of The Firesign Theater and Monty Python. I could find Monty Python on television as well – thank you, PBS – and in the movie theater.

The two things I remember laughing at the hardest in my late-teen years, laughing to the point that I couldn’t breathe, were National Lampoon’s “High School Yearbook Parody” and the scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” where King Arthur de-limbs The Black Knight. “Just a flesh wound.”

We move on with time, and it can be a dangerous passage. My Uncle Robbie is in his late 60s. Early-onset Alzheimer’s hit him a few years ago. Now he doesn’t even recognize his wife.

The brain evolves, devolves. I was reminded of how far my own pursuit of the darkest humor went when I read this week of the passing of Paul Krassner, the iconic, counter-culture writer. Krassner wrote freelance pieces for Mad in the late 1950s. But he recognized that Mad was humor for teenagers. And he was an adult. An adult consumed by the oncoming political unrest. So he channeled his taste in anarchy by creating an underground humor magazine, The Realist. This was a proper vehicle for Krassner and his ’60s Yippie cohorts, known for pranks such as nominating a pig for president. Even Norman Mailer, Richard Pryor and Joseph Heller wrote for The Realist.

Krassner and The Realist may have been humor, but they were dead serious about it.

The Realist was over-the-top outrageous. Pornographic. Obscene. Satire is a killer. Why would a humor magazine publish a cartoon depicting dozens of Disney characters such as Snow White and Donald Duck engaged in a massive orgy? I suppose the message might have been one that is the highest duty of humor: to expose hypocrisy and corruption. And to do so with a tenacity that goes beyond a flesh wound. Was the obscenity of the Seven Dwarves engaged in anal sex – a perversion of many people’s definition of All-American entertainment – any worse than the Vietnam War we were watching on our televisions?

BE THE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

The weekend, at our best, and at our worst

This weekend was us at our best.

At Abilene Bar & Lounge, Watkins & the Rapiers played a happy-hour gig on the deck behind the bar. In the sunshine, as we watched little bubbles floating past the band; it had helpfully supplied those bottles that your kids dip a loop into and blow through. Except, it was adults doing this.

Then, over to The Little Café, where The Jane Mutiny was playing. Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” still resonates after all these years.

Then, back over to Abilene, where local heroes The Hi-Risers reunited for a set that had the entire bar bobbing and weaving and howling. As the band closed with a mostly a cappella version of “Who Wrote the Book of Love?” more people came in through the door. The exciting R&B rockers St. Paul & the Broken Bones had finished their show for a few thousand people at Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Park at Manhattan Square.

That’s just a sampler of what people were hearing Friday night in Rochester.

Maybe you heard about what happened Saturday night in New York City. Blackout. How did people respond? Audiences at Carnegie Hall and shows all across the city – “Hadestown,” “Waitress: A New Musical” and others – spilled out into the sidewalks. As did the actors and musicians, who created impromptu shows right there.

And on the other side of the country, in Los Angeles, Paul McCartney wrapped up his latest tour by bringing out an old pal, Ringo Starr, to help out on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Helter Skelter.” Just another magical moment.

No social media needed. No DVD, no Blu-Ray, no download needed. No cable television news, and the professional shouters. Just people, and live music.

Other amazing stuff happened over the weekend. We’re now into a week-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of humans landing on the moon.

Music, uniting us. Exploring the universe, together. Yes, this is us at our best.

What else were we seeing over the weekend?

Hundreds of people gathering downtown in Washington Square Park on Friday night for the nationwide “Lights for Liberty” vigil, protesting how we’re locking kids in cages. Separating families. Immigrants packed so tightly in cages that they can’t lie down, and after 40 days of this are locked up in a stench so powerful that government workers at the detention center – we can argue that these are concentration camps – wear face masks. Rounding up people who are here – illegally if you want to call it that – because they are fleeing terror in their home countries, and sending them back to poverty and crime.

On top of this we have a president tweeting that members of Congress who were born in a foreign country – and are now American citizens – should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Trump was tweeting this appalling filth on Saturday when he wasn’t busy tweeting commercials for his golf resorts in Scotland and Ireland.

Our government as a divider.

This is us at our worst. What happened? Where did we go wrong?

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

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