Jeff Spevak, Writer

Welcome to a Chronicle of Culture.

Reality as airtight as a landfill

Meat beer. Giant black-and-white spiders. Women brawling with each other, right in front of me, tearing their cocktail dresses. A global pandemic, killing millions.

We should know which of these are real, and which are fantasy.

What a big movie spider looks like.

The well-adjusted side of the world does. It is laughing hysterically at former Trump economic advisor Larry Kudlow. Now a Fox News commentator, on Friday Kudlow mocked the Green New Deal: that’s a set of forward-thinking ideas, presented by the smart new women of Congress, understanding how economics and ecology work together. But as Kudlow interprets it, the Green New Deal is the road leading us all too soon to “plant-based beer.”

I check the label of the beer in my hand. Hops. Various grains. Yeast. Plant stuff. My beer appears to be largely vegetarian. No cattle died in the making of this product. Unless they wandered from the pasture and got hit by a beer truck.

Anyone who went to college, and experienced almost any kind of social life, would know these beer facts. In fact, Kudlow attended the University of Rochester, just a few miles from where I’m sitting as I type these words. And I have it on good authority that University of Rochester students have been drinking beer for around 175 years.

Worse than his beer gaff, it’s been more than a year since Kudlow proclaimed that the Trump administration’s containment of COVID-19 was “pretty close to airtight.” Airtight as a landfill, it turns out, with the U.S. death toll now passing 570,000.

The allure of your airplane crashing in the ocean, leaving you trapped on an island with eight exotic dancers.

Speaking of trash, this week Georgia Republican Congressman Jody Hice argued against statehood for Washington, D.C., because its population is too Black. Or because it doesn’t have a landfill, that’s what he actually said.

But we know what he meant.

Here’s the obvious question that emerges: How is it that such say-anything buffoons can occupy important positions in government, and the media? Who left the barn door open?

It’s not the job of average citizens to run a quality check on these people. We’re busy, we can’t help but let our guard down. When I’ve had a tough day, I’m just like the next guy. I want to flop down on the couch, turn on the television, and watch the latest advertisements about medical supplements for happy, active, intrusive seniors.

A Quiznos creature.

Then maybe on to “The Horrors of Spider Island,” using all of the stock footage technology available in 1960. “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” couldn’t ignore this fat target. An airliner whose passengers include eight exotic women dancers and their smarmy male manager takes off with two engines, and by the time it’s over the Pacific it has four engines. Until it catches fire and plunges nose-first into the ocean. Cut to a guy talking on the phone, who’s assuring someone on the other end of the line that, yes, the last word from the plane’s crew was that it had caught fire. And now they’ve lost contact. But there’s no need to worry. Because, it’s only been four days…

The screenwriter’s decision to limit the survivors to the eight dancers and their manager – who have somehow found a rubber raft amid the chaos of a burning airplane nose-diving into the ocean – is pretty damn smart. Because now we can get to the meat of the story: Eight women in spike heels, tearing at each others’ cocktail dresses, and their once-smarmy, now-resourceful manager, battling the horrors of giant spiders on an island. Monsters with all of the structural integrity of one of those ragged creatures from the Quiznos sub TV commercials a few years ago.

As the women of “The Horrors of Spider Island” demonstrate, a society under stress can’t distinguish fantasy from reality. Less than a week ago, I posted an obvious observation on social media:

More horror.

Ted Nugent said Covid-19 was a hoax. Now he says he had it, and thought he was dying. Just a reminder that, of the 4,000 or so interviews I’ve done over the years, he was the biggest idiot.

That’s a true story: I mean, that I think Ted Nugent is an idiot. For those of you who rate world events by the numbers they draw on social media, that Facebook post has just eclipsed the 100 mark for comments, with about 350 likes and 30 shares. I call that a success for any minor-league blogger.

This pandemic is working for me. A mix of fantasy and reality.

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Facts, reality and what our own eyes tell us, matter in this space

Since its inception, the goal here at The Critical Mass has been to post at least one blog a week.

But it’s been weeks now. And silence…

What happened?

Is it writer’s block?


Nor is it PTSE. Pandemic Trauma and Stress Experience, that’s what the psychologists are calling it. An epidemic of “collective exhaustion.” Weariness that is the result of living and working through a year of uncertainty. Like so many Americans, I am exhausted by the past year. Here we are, it’s April, and last week the neighbors finally dragged their Christmas tree out to the curb.

When is this coronavirus pandemic going to end? When will things get “back to normal?”

There will be no “back to normal.” More than a half a million Americans are dead from COVID-19. What kind of unreal thinking allows us to fool ourselves into believing that society can simply shrug off so much human tragedy and get “back to normal?”

How do we recover what we’ve lost? Not just the lives. But all of the social constructions that were built, or have evolved, over the years? How long will it be before we see the re-emergence of our favorite restaurants and music venues? Or small businesses that were forced to shut their doors? How long before we’ll feel safe about utilizing services such as public transportation? How long before we are comfortable with getting on an airplane, breathing the re-circulated air of strangers? When will those of us who have been working from home feel safe to be among co-workers again? How do we reward front-line workers such as doctors and nurses, or the people who stock grocery-store shelves, for showing up for work every day? How long will it be before it’s safe to take part in vast communal events such as festivals or the opening of an exciting new museum exhibit? And how long will it be before all of the jobs that have been lost will return?

How will we react when a resurgence of COVID-19, or one of the variants now lurking on the edge of news stories, blossoms into yet another threat to our lives?

My losses over the past year of pandemic have not been personal. Parents of friends have passed away of COVID-19, and I miss John Prine. While some friends have contracted it, they have recovered, none have died. I still have a job. Forced to work from home, I’ve made use of the time as best I could. Recognizing the shortcomings of our house, we’ve invested heavily in home improvements: New vinyl siding, updated kitchen. I’ve been alphabetizing CDs and albums. Dusting out-of-reach places. Reading books I’ve been meaning to read for years.

I’ve been exploring movies. How did I miss this one: A low budget but effective comedy called “Spivak,” about a failed writer. That one hit too close to home.

I am wary of television. TV commercials are a place where, despite what specialists in bird anatomy tell us, a boneless chicken wing is a real thing.

Reality check: chicken wings do not function without bones. Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” has definitively illustrated that point.

Yet I’ve watched more television than I believe I ever have. While wondering whatever happened to Dennis Miller, it occurred to me that today’s successful comics – those working standup and as late-night talk hosts – offer only a very progressive point of view. Why is that? The answer seems obvious. Conservative politics and social issues generate a fresh and plentiful supply of new chum. And like sharks, comedians are feeding on it.

Yet something more dangerous is afoot. Unreal thinking is found not only in television commercials, and in the inability of the richest country in the world to deal with COVID-19, but among the people most responsible for our well being.

Case in point: While President Joe Biden was creating legislation that will have a huge and positive impact on Americans, Congressional Republicans were complaining that gender-neutral gremlins are castrating Mr. Potato Head. He’ll no longer be a “Mr.” Kids can now decide the gender of their Potato Head. Free to create same-sex Potato family units. At the same time, Republicans were bringing before Congress complaints that Dr. Seuss is a victim of “cancel culture” because six of his books containing racist imagery will no longer be published.

Reality: That’s not “cancel culture” at work, that’s the publisher’s decision. The “canceled” books are not strong sellers, and the Seuss empire no longer wants to be associated with the casual racism of the 1960s. Classics such as “Green Eggs and Ham” are safe, of course. If you want to share Asian stereotypes with your children, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” will be selling for insane money on eBay.

Unreality’s next-door neighbor is hypocrisy. Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell and the Republican party welcome megabuck corporate donations. It’s about influence, those corporations want something for their money. Tax breaks, the loosening of environmental laws. But now citizens have begun taking note of Republican efforts to suppress the voting rights of likely non-Republicans. Pressure is being put on Georgia-based corporations such as Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines to get involved, and throw their economic weight behind the movement to protect voting rights. Major League Baseball responded by pulling the All-Star Game out of Atlanta. And McConnell squealed. Now that political free speech is running in the other direction, he’s warning these suddenly progressive-acting corporations to stay out of politics.

And finally, blindness sets in. Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson saw the same domestic terrorists who attacked the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6 that the rest of us witnessed. “I knew these were people who love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law,” he said. Trump has spoken of Capitol police officers kissing and hugging those domestic terrorists, and holding the doors for them as they rampaged through the building.

Patriots do not set out pipe bombs, mix Molotov cocktails, and carry spears, tasers and bear spray to a riot that leaves five people dead and more than 140 injured, including police officers, and more than 300 rioters charged with federal offenses.

Polls tell us a majority of Republicans believe the election was stolen from Trump. Despite the lack of any evidence that this happened.

I guess what’s slowed The Critical Mass these days. Facts, reality and what our own eyes tell us, matter in this space.

I shall now resume writing about things that we really have to take a hard look at. Like Bigfoot.

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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.

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