Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Censorship, lies, and the n-word

One of the greatest albums ever, The Allman Brothers, “Live at Fillmore East.”

I saw with great satisfaction that Haruki Murakami is among the literary luminaries to be featured at October’s The New Yorker Festival. My Friend Monica introduced me to the Japanese writer about a decade ago. I’ve since read a half-dozen of his novels, including the weighty The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle twice. Murakami’s style has had a significant impact on my own words: I think of it as “Real Surrealism.”

Drawing far more attention was another guest who was confirmed on Monday as the festival’s headliner. Steve Bannon. But by Tuesday, the howls of protest had led the festival to drop Bannon. The toxic brand of racism practiced by the former Trump adviser was too much for intellectual spirit of The New Yorker Festival.

Censorship? What’s happened here forced me to recall some of my own brushes with the question. With Glenn Beck, when he was the king of Fox News. And the drummer from one of the world’s best-known rock bands, who dropped the n-word on me during an interview.

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

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

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

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

Was I a hypocrite because, while Beck was critical of Cindy Sheehan speaking her mind, I wasn’t allowing him to share his thoughts with the readers of the newspaper that I worked for, allowing readers to make their own judgment?

No, not at all. It’s just that I believe people who are the shapers of public opinion, be it politicians or the media, should treat the truth with reverence. That’s the same reason I support The New Yorker’s decision to dump Bannon. Both Beck and Bannon have a well-documented, abstract relationship with the truth.

So I denied Beck access to my forum, minor as it was, just as The New Yorker has backed off on Bannon. Sometimes it’s an easy decision, and both men have their own platforms from which to spill their bile. Yet over the years, I also interviewed Ted Nugent and Kiss’ Gene Simmons. Two unlikable characters. In fact, I interviewed each of them twice. So, I’m not exactly consistent in my thinking.

But what about that interview with the drummer from one of the world’s biggest rock bands?

Butch Trucks played with the Allman Brothers Band from its earliest days, virtually inventing Southern rock at a house in Georgia, mixing in blues and jazz and whatever else a bunch of young guys do when not trapped under adult supervision. Trucks was the rhythmic force behind the sound. When I interviewed him by phone, maybe a decade ago, he was in a New York City hotel room, relaxing before a gig that night. It was an engaging conversation, he was very excited to tell me he’d just bought a DVD of the latest Lord of the Rings film. He was totally into the Tolkien books, he’d read the whole Middle Earth saga maybe a dozen times. Trucks said he loved reading, he was trying to make up for hitting the bars with the band as a young man, rather than going off to college.

We started talking about those early days. And the band’s decision to bring in a second drummer. Jai Johanny Johnson, better known as Jaimoe. Trucks was animated in his storytelling, describing his reaction upon meeting Jaimoe for the first time: “And in walks this big, black…”

And then, the n-word.

There was an awkward pause, maybe two or three seconds. I’m sure he was thinking: Uh, oh, I just uttered a racial slur to a reporter. And I know what I was thinking: What am I gonna do with that?

And, after that pause, he continued the story.

Short answer. I did nothing.

This is how I rationalized it. In his narrative, Trucks was taking us back to the days when he was a young, skinny white Southern boy of the ’60s, no worldly experience, reacting to an unknown, a black man. He was giving me his true thoughts from that moment, a half-century ago. Now he’d grown, the world had changed. Somewhat. There was no reason to believe he still thought that way.

So in the story, I wrote about Trucks’ love of Tolkien, his drive to improve himself intellectually, the early days of the Allman Brothers, his relationship with his bandmates now that they were older, some of them already dead. If I told the story of Trucks uttering the n-word, it would take over the story. Obscure the portrait of the man.

In January of 2017, Trucks himself was dead. Distraught over financial problems, he was in his Florida condo when he put a gun to his head and, in front of his wife, shot himself.

To this day, I don’t know if I made the right decision in leaving out the awkward, unguarded moment of Trucks and the n-word. I think, maybe, yes. I’m about 75 percent sure of it. That other 25 percent is, was I protecting Trucks because I liked him, and the interview had been a good one?

My internal hand-wringing over my act of censorship gets even more complicated. I’ve heard the n-word sung, to great effect, by musicians ranging from rappers to Patti Smith. I read it in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I heard black guys saying it on the bus on my ride to work. I recently watched a film, Wise Blood, an adaptation of a Flannery O’Connor story, where a white actor says it. And it made me uncomfortable, even in the privacy of my living room.

Artists use the word, and guys telling stories use it, because it has the ugly ring of reality.

Ultimately, what Trucks said wouldn’t have made much of a difference in this most-significant debate in today’s America, race. It would have simply been a gossipy little shocker, quickly forgotten, but perhaps forever damaging to Butch Trucks. From our conversation, my sense was he didn’t deserve that. And without it, in what I confess is an act of censorship, I believe I presented the truer picture of our conversation.

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The Tragedy Slut reveals himself

Glenn Beck. Who dresses this guy, anyway?

Glenn Beck. Who dresses this guy, anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Critical Mass

Ugly media sausage

I made Grandma Spevak’s sausage last weekend. True, the recipe now includes a few flourishes of my own – triple the pepper, chopped garlic and paprika that Grandma called for. And smoked paprika, at that. But I’m grinding the meat and stuffing the real hog casings with my own hands, just like Grandma did. So in that respect, it’s Grandma Spevak sausage, and certainly not Jimmy Dean’s.

And I know what goes into my  sausage. Love. And pig.

I can’t say the same about news reporting. I can’t figure out what goes in there. The regulatory standards are gone, and the fat’s going straight to our brains. It matters little that today the No. 1 lunatic in TV news, Fox News’ Glenn Beck, was stripped of his show. Millions of Americans – my parents among them – bought into that serial craziness each night.

As a card-carrying (Card Member since 1979) journalist who’s proud of all of the awesome work done by reporters on behalf of humanity over the years, I’m nevertheless embarrassed by the profession’s inability to protect its standards from scofflaws such as Beck. And Beck’s not even the problem: His audience is a minor fraction of the American population. No, the real issue is that lies are so much an accepted part of the news landscape that anyone who seeks assurance that the president is a Kenyan-born white-hating socialist Muslim who wants to destroy America can hear it from many of our Republican congressmen.

The gatekeeper of truth, news media, attends to other needs. Two self-adoring crazy people have enjoyed a significant overload of attention in the last couple of weeks. Charlie Sheen, who I’m surprised is still alive.  And Donald Trump. I suppose every crazy person in America has the right to declare themselves a candidate for president of the United States. But that doesn’t mean we have to quote them. What’s most discouraging is, during the last Democratic presidential primaries, Dennis Kucinich was dismissed by the media as not being a serious candidate – despite offering a trove of sensible ideas – because he wasn’t backed by serious money. Trump says insane stuff. But he has money.

News? No, we’re being fed bad sausage, loaded with filler and carcinogens and the severed fingers of young interns who died while typing the press releases.

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