Jeff Spevak, Writer

Welcome to a Chronicle of Culture.

The fine whine of a stolen election goes sour

Facebook surveillance photos captured unrepentant journalist Jeff Spevak at Rochester’s Washington Square Park in January of 2017, doing nothing at an anti-Trump rally.

Sure, I’d shitcan The Critical Mass in a half-second if some irresponsible sentence I typed in a moment of intellectual laziness resulted in me being sued for $2.7 billion.

So it makes perfect sense that on Friday, Fox News cut the tether that bound it to “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” allowing the show’s host to drift away from the mothership of doom, and into the vacuum of empty space. The reason for Dobbs’ demise? It’s not because he’s some old man shouting conspiracy theories from his front porch, telling the libs to get off his lawn. His fall was due to someone finally called him on those lies. That someone, or something, is the voting-machine company Smartmatic.

The “stolen election” argument runs on the evidence-free notion that voting machines in swing states were manipulated in favor of President Biden (while overlooking the opportunity to rid us of Mitch McConnell as well). Smartmatic’s response to it being fingered as the villain in the vote-fixing scheme is to file a $2.7 billion defamation suit against Fox News and three of its malignant hosts – Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro. Also named in the suit are Trump lawyers – and coherent thinkers use that description loosely – Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell. Dominion Voting Systems, which also makes some of the voting technology used in this country, has similarly filed $1.3 billion defamation lawsuits against Giuliani and Powell for their baseless attacks on the company’s integrity.

During his radio show last week, Giuliani returned from a commercial break to be greeted by this surprise disclaimer:

“The views, assumptions and opinions expressed by former U.S. Attorney, former attorney to the President of the United States and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, his guests and callers on the program are strictly their own, and do not necessarily represent the opinions, beliefs or policies of WABC Radio, its owner Red Apple Group and other WABC hosts or our advertisers.”

We have watched, to what should be no one’s surprise, as the Trump years collapsed into satire. Mike Lindell is the CEO and TV pitchman for MyPillow, a product that My Friend Sarah bought and described as “a disaster.” How hard can it be to make a pillow? Despite this failure, Lindell was hanging around the White House during Trump’s final days like he had some kind of cabinet position. Perhaps Secretary of Interior Decorating. And now he won’t let Trump crawl off into the weeds, where we can forget about him. This week Lindell aired a three-hour “documentary” on how the election was stolen. Except, taking note of the lawsuits filed by the voting machine manufacturers, the unrepentantly conservative One America News Network, or OAN, suddenly found God. It insisted on introducing Lindell’s non-infomercial with a disclaimer that the “views, opinions and claims expressed by Mr. Lindell… are not adopted or endorsed by OAN.”

The fine whine of a stolen election has gone sour. In the judgment of the lawyers for Fox New and OAN, Smartmatic and Dominion must have pretty strong cases.

Most reporters and editors stand for professional impartiality in reporting (Fox News, you may sit down). Yet contrary to what so many news organizations would like you to believe, reporters and editors are not blank slates. As smart, informed people, they cannot help but form opinions. It’s the mechanisms of journalism that allow fairness to prevail.

As we watched the last four years unfold, we saw those mechanisms move too slowly. Trump wasn’t challenged enough. I experienced that myself in my former job, as music critic at what was once the pre-eminent voice in the city. Musicians and artists have always played a large role in amplifying public debate. Yet, as Trump closed in on what was thought to be the improbable – a reality TV star and fake billionaire accused of sexually assaulting women – winning the Republican nomination for president, the warnings of these musicians and artists were repeatedly edited from my interviews. Their voices silenced. Often without me being told. In a June 2017 interview with Joss Stone, who I found to be a delightful person, the English pop singer described our new president as “Hitler-ite.” Months later, while going back to the story for a year-end retrospective, I saw that the provocative quote had been cut. Again, without consulting me.

The weekend after Trump took office, I went to the Washington Square Park protest against Trump’s executive order temporarily suspending entry of refugees into the United States and barring citizens of predominantly Muslim countries from visiting. I saw women in pink pussy hats singing and strange men dressed in black, who I later learned called themselves Antifa, trying to start trouble. I didn’t sing, carry a protest sign or throw any punches. I just watched and talked to people I knew. The following Monday, after sharing with a few fellow reporters what I had seen, I was informed by an editor that I could no longer attend any civil protests.

Which means, I guess, if I wanted to know what my fellow citizens were thinking and saying and doing, I’d have to report on it from a second-floor office window.

I got laid off later that year. Freeing me to be a part of all the civil disobedience I wanted.

Now we’re gingerly emerging from a racist and misogynistic presidency that has seen environmental protections abandoned, cities set afire, the Capitol building trampled by a mob and a policeman beaten to death, and nearly a half-million Americans dead from a virus that we were assured would “just disappear.” Our world will never be the same.

It’s not impartial reporting when reporters or editors shape a story to avoid pissing off people who might… oh, ransack the U.S. Capitol building. The responsibility for lighting that fire lies elsewhere.

Silence is compliance. And it is especially dangerous when the other side speaks with a bullhorn.

Fox News, and right-wing media outlets such as One America News Network and Newsmax, aren’t about the truth. They’re about money. Truth is a proper defense when a media outlet is accused of libel or defamation. Fox News is quite aware that it can’t present the truth as a defense for the falsehoods that it throws at its unquestioning audience. At that point, it’s the money that talks.

The limits of free speech aren’t hard. The classic example is you don’t yell “FIRE!” in a crowded movie theater. If you’re Giuliani, speaking to thousands of easily-led, agitated people, you don’t urge them to engage in “trial by combat.” And, if you’re the president, you don’t tell those same people, “You will never take back our country with weakness.” And lie about accompanying them on a march to the Capitol building, choosing instead to go back to the White House and watch TV to see what he created.

And people were injured, and died.

The suits filed by Smartmatic and Dominion aren’t about the chilling effect that the threat of lawsuits would have on reporting the news. This is about solid journalism, and the truth. Which will stand up to scrutiny. If Hillary Clinton had hired some smart lawyers, she would own Fox News.

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.

Rocking out with Black Sabbath Bernie, and Erskine Caldwell’s bag of turnips

The country appears to have united behind the Bernie Sanders meme. Bernie sitting in a folding chair, in his dazzling mittens, huddled against the cold, waiting for the start of the Biden inauguration.

Perhaps the pearl-clutching narrative of an American divide is overblown. In its first few days, we’ve watched the Biden presidency take on COVID-19, send relief to Americans whose lives have been upended by the loss of jobs, sign executive orders to protect the environment and reverse climate change, open pathways to racial inequality and transgender rights. Build a humane immigration policy. And, perhaps most importantly, level with the American people about the challenges we face, both in what he says and through a press secretary who seems to not be lying.

No one should have a problem with any of that. Biden’s merely building on four years of Trump accomplishments that include…

Oh, dear…

…a virus that has killed nearly a half-million Americans, cities on fire, white nationalists among  the “very fine people on both sides,” tear-gassing those who dare assert that Black Lives Matter, conspiring to overturn election results, embracing murderous dictators, urging crowds at political rallies to beat up protestors, ignoring science, responding to a hurricane wiping out much of Puerto Rico by tossing paper towels to people who had lost their homes, referring to the porn star that he had an affair with as “horseface,” holding the country hostage through the longest government shutdown in history, hiding his tax returns, mocking the disabled, ignoring domestic terrorists bringing their automatic rifles to state capitol buildings and threatening to kidnap and perhaps kill the governor of Michigan, urging a mob to ransack the United States capitol and hang the vice president. And, at our southern border, turning back people fleeing poverty and unstable governments, and sending them back to Guatemala. And keeping their kids locked in cages.

And lying repeatedly about all of this.

And on and on and on. It will only get worse as we learn more of what the most corrupt presidential administration in American history has been up to over the last four years. Thanks for trying to lighten things up a little, Bernie. But seeing you on the cover of a Black Sabbath album sets the right tone.

As honest, responsible adults, people who care about others, and who are still the majority here, what’s the secret to dealing with an America that has become one of those “shithole countries,” as Trump once so delicately characterized African nations?

Crazy. Prove me wrong, but it’s a Republican thing. Most recently, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose many batshit beliefs include her tweet in 2018 that it was Jewish lasers from space that ignited the worst California wildfires in memory.

Bernie! She’s talking Jewish lasers!

Crazy. Again, prove me wrong, but it’s mostly Republicans who adhere to the QAnon conspiracy that Hillary Clinton leads a cult of baby-eating pedophiles.

No sane person can survive in such an environment. There are times when I have to come up for air. Make it a practice to tune out the news for a while. Sometimes for a day or two, sometimes an entire week. I’m just now emerging from such a period.

I’m not alone in this practice of self preservation. Here’s something I read in cnn.com:

During a crisis and isolation, many take an inventory of their lives and dare to be themselves, and engage in weird, creative, and non-conforming patterns,” said Judith Zackson, a clinical psychologist based in Greenwich, Connecticut, via email.

Some of her clients are more outspoken than they were pre-pandemic, Zackson said. They have experienced changes in personal style, weird sleeping patterns and hobbies, and even sillier humor.

Of course, she also hears from people annoyed by their partners’ stranger tendencies, which include apocalyptically hoarding food and supplies, and hobbies like collecting stones or walking their cat.

Collecting stones, she says.

I’ve been doing that since I was a little kid, when my Uncle Joe gave me what’s called “A Golden Guide.” Profusely illustrated pocket books for kids, about things like fossils, the stars and zoology. This one was called “Rocks and Minerals” – Golden Guides get right to the point. They tell a kid how to identify a meteorite, although I never got that lucky. Most of my time was spent on pages 110 through 113. The igneous rocks. Granite. And pages 133 through 139. The metamorphic rocks. Gneiss and schist.

I still have the book. And I have never stopped picking up rocks and stones. It’s those years of walking my dogs. Following them on paths through the woods. Turning Point Park near my house is the usual place. Abbie will be trotting about 10 or 15 yards ahead of me when I spot an intriguing rock. She goes right on by it, intent on checking out something dead behind that tree. But I pick up the rock. There’s a lot of marble in Turning Point Park.

This weekend I was re-organizing some of the book shelves when I can across that old Golden Guide to rocks and minerals. And there, among those dusty books, rocks. Lots of them, tucked away behind Hemingway and Bukowski. Even a fossil of some kind of segmented marine creature that I found in the gravel parking lot at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center.

So I sorted out all of those rocks, representing years of wandering with the dogs. And rocks I purchased as well. Seems crazy, buying rocks. But that’s how I got my trilobite, about the size of a pet mouse. And a couple of red garnets that came from a vein deep in Idaho. The guy who sold them to me said they’re half as old as the planet itself.

About a dozen rusty railroad tie-dating spikes were in the book case as well. Spikes I pulled from the ties on the tracks that pass through Turning Point. The spikes have the date stamped on the head, so railway workers know how long that particular tie has been in place.

Well, I guess they would know, if those dating spikes weren’t sitting on my book shelf.

Taking inventory, Zackson said, dare to be myself. The books. I started sorting through them as well. There are a lot of them, downstairs and upstairs. I guess if I can lay any claim to being a Renaissance Man, it’s in my reading material. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, friends have been giving me books. Like they’re afraid I’ll get bored. I have a half-dozen going at the moment. I read whichever one is closest at hand. My Friend Sue gave me the Richard Ford novel “Independence Day.” Ford’s like me, a former sportswriter, so I guess there’s always hope a guy can move on to something serious. And there’s “The Wild Trees,” gifted by My Friend Michele, A fabulous narrative on the biology of California redwoods. I’ve learned things such as, when climbing a tree, any fall of more than 60 feet is not survivable.

And how do you feel about omelets? From Robert MacFarlane’s “Underland,” which I finished a few weeks ago, I learned that in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest there is a fungus, mostly just below the surface of the planet, that is 3.7 miles in diameter. And it’s not an array of mushrooms. it’s one single organism. One. Humongous. Fungus.

Erskine Caldwell.

I’d be done with the job of organizing that shelf if I wasn’t uncovering miracles that I didn’t even know I had. On Saturday I found a copy of “Three By Caldwell.” Three novels by Erskine Caldwell, all in one book. I must have bought it at a used book store, because it has $4.50 written on the flyleaf. I started reading the first book in the collection, “Tobacco Road.” And couldn’t put it down. More than 100 pages in, and the only thing these Depression-beaten, broken, hopeless Georgians had gotten around to doing was fight over a bag of turnips.

So that’s one thing that’s come out of this quarantine, and my need to duck out of reality for a few days. Who knew a man could write 100 pages about a bag of turnips? But damn if Erskine Caldwell didn’t do it, and do it well.

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.

Stories from the edge of the world

I’ve been reading too much. The cracks in my crackpot beliefs are showing. I now assign the chance of life on other planets as merely a 50/50 possibility. I’m starting to think Bigfoot may not be real since, as best we know, one’s never been hit by a pickup truck on some lonely Oregon road. The existence of ghosts seems a mathematical impossibility, because it’s been estimated that 108 billion homo sapiens have lived on the Earth over the last 50,000 years, which would make the afterlife a pretty crowded party.

Is the Earth flat? My Friend Jon re-tweeted a story about an Italian couple that recently made an earnest effort to sail to the edge of the world, which they believed to be in the Mediterranean Sea, south of Sicily.

They didn’t quite make it.

Perhaps their failure could be blamed on their compass, an ancient navigational instrument designed around the principal that the Earth is round. If there is a magnetic north, where is the south pole on a flat Earth? What would a flat Earth look like? Your sailboat arrives at the edge and … then what? A beach? And the ocean, which falls away to…?

The more-relevant question actually is: Did people ever believe that the Earth is flat? Any thoughts that we might be living on a celestial pancake is fine for people who haven’t had any reason to think hard about the question. If you’re a professional football player, a clerk in a convenience store, Italians with access to a sailboat, or a blogger with a limited readership, being a proponent of a flat Earth isn’t putting anyone in danger. I do prefer, however, that airliner navigators and the people who design communications satellites understand that this thing is round.

When beliefs evolve into the Spanish Inquisition, that’s when we have a problem. Religion has been at war with science for centuries. The acceptance of a flat Earth was a theologically convenient argument for anyone who suggested that European Catholicism wasn’t at the center of the world; Asian and African people could be pushed to the fringe of existence. The Catholic church acknowledged no other celestial model than one that depicted our world at the center of the universe because… well, that’s where God would place us.

But generally speaking, and certainly scientifically speaking, the answer is no: It is a myth that people once universally believed that the Earth is flat. Copernicus so feared defying the church that he waited until he was dying to publish his concept of the Earth as just one solar system bauble orbiting the sun. You may have learned in junior high history class that the crews on Columbus’ three sailing ships as they crossed the Atlantic were on the edge of mutiny because they feared falling off the edge of the world. In fact, the sailors were getting cranky because they were hungry and running out of water after Columbus – who knew the Earth was round – had miscalculated how long the journey might be. It was only the unexpected appearance of the Caribbean islands that saved them.

Columbus’ experience shows that the round-Earthers were not always on the mark either. The math used to calculate the possible size of the planet would often conveniently eliminate the spaces that ultimately turned out to be home to other continents – North and South America – and the people who lived there. Columbus learned of this math error first hand.

Add in the mythologies of lost continents such as Atlantis and Lemuria, and quite a cartographical shoving match emerges. The various misconceptions of the Earth throughout history can’t be laid at the feet of the geographers of that day; they did the best they could with the information at hand, and while wrestling with the politics of the church.

But what’s our excuse?

Most ancient civilizations believed we live on a round planet. Logic, and science, told them so. Yet there is reporting now that people living in the 21st century are increasingly prone to believe that the Earth is flat. Eleven million Brazilians believe so. There’s a yearly Flat Earth International Conference that was organizing a cruise for 2020 that would take believers to the rim of the Earth, and the towering ice wall that holds the ocean in place. Apparently, the cruise didn’t happen. But YouTube has lots of videos supporting flat-Earth beliefs, the internet is a pipeline for crazy. Take my word for it, don’t go there, I wasted a couple of hours of my life on it.

Logic and science aside, crank theories sometimes find breathing room long after they’ve been disproven. Such as the 19th-century suggestion that the Earth is hollow, and a sun burns at its core. Edmond Halley – who correctly predicted the return of the comet that now bears his name – saw the Earth as three concentric circles, nestled one within the next, that turned independently of one another. Cartographers created maps and globes depicting what the landscape of a Hollow Earth might look like. In the 1800s, scientific expeditions to the Hollow Earth were proposed. Edgar Allen Poe wrote a short story about it. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote fantasy novels that took place at the Earth’s core, one of L. Frank Baum’s 13 “Oz” books has Dorothy on a journey to the planet’s interior.

Read about it in this book by David Standish: “Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth’s Surface.”

True, belief in the Hollow Earth wasn’t widespread. Certainly not as widespread as the idea that a large aquatic creature lives in Loch Ness. This, despite the assertion by marine biologists that Loch Ness is devoid of the sizeable fish population needed to keep Nessie alive.

True story: Arthur Conan Doyle, who created the most evidence-driven character in English literature, Sherlock Holmes, believed in fairies.

Why would alien races from another world visit us? With the internet provided virtually anything aliens would need to know of Earth, from nuclear secrets to recipes to our television shows, the only function of UFOs visiting our planet would be tourism.

Yet as limited as the evidence is for a flat Earth, a hollow Earth, the Loch Ness monster, UFOs and fairies, people believe in them. Sometimes smart people, like Conan Doyle.

We believe in fantasy, we believe in Disneyworld. Giant mice, yes. But often, our fantasies become a danger. We don’t want to do the work to contain COVID-19. We just want a magic vaccine to take care of the problem.

So many Americans insist on personal freedom, yet they want to be led. So they follow the evidence-free claims of QAnon (Hillary Clinton is part of a child sex-trafficking ring!) despite the FBI labeling QAnon as a domestic terrorist group. They follow actor Jenny McCarthy’s insistence that vaccines cause autism, despite the advice of medical professionals. They refuse to wear masks to slow the spread of COVID-19 because it’s an affront to personal freedom, despite those same rebels having followed seatbelt laws for years to avoid being killed in a car wreck. They follow social media claims that 9/11 was an inside job. And jet contrails are actually “chemtrails,” a high-altitude conspiracy to poison Americans. Or maybe it’s a conspiracy to change the weather. No one’s ever sure what is the goal of these coverups and conspiracies. Deep State something, something…

Conspiracies that would need to rely on the silence of thousands of co-conspirators.

Studies have shown that belief in conspiracy theories is triggered by our brain’s need to latch onto structure. It’s an ancient reflex. Like Neanderthals recognizing that the shape in the darkness beyond the light of the fire that they’ve built in the mouth of their cave may be a bear crouching in the darkness. Information that could mean the difference between survival and being mauled to death.

Today, bears aren’t the problem. That threatening shape lurking in the darkness at the edge of the yard is a rhododendron. So human brains search for other problems to illuminate in this murky world. That’s an opening for the herd effect, where social acceptance, rather than independently confirmed fact, makes an idea seem real. And it’s an opening for confirmation bias, which is the search for evidence that confirms what you want to believe. And that leads us to our dependence on authority figures.

If that herd is your political party… with social acceptance set into motion by Rudy Giuliani… confirmed by an ultimate authority figure, Donald Trump…

And that’s how we arrive at 73 million people believing a presidential election is laden with fraud, despite no evidence.

That’s the hollow world in which we live. A hollow world, where nature abhors a vacuum, and fools rush in to fill it.

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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