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Tag: Truth

Ben Franklin in Florida

OK, I’m back. It’s true that you can access social media on Florida’s Gulf Coast. But there are enough distractions to keep Twitter and Facebook – and the world in general – at arm’s length.

Distractions drifted in through an open, second-floor window in My Friends Tim and Carole’s condo in Dunedin one morning. I saw unfamiliar green vegetation. I heard unfamiliar bird songs. Even the hydraulics and the slamming of garbage bins being upended into trucks creeping along the streets was oddly exotic, although we have such machinery in Western New York.

After a half hour of this, time I would never have allowed myself in Rochester, I picked up my book and wandered downstairs. Unexpectedly, I was the first one to do so. I went outside and sat on the patio to read. In the sun, which is 93 million miles from Earth whether you’re in Rochester or Clearwater Beach, yet its influence on each city is dramatically different.

I heard the lazy drone of a single-engine airplane overhead. Inside, Tim was up, and had turned on the TV. Most network television is a monochromatic block of desensitizing opiates. And ESPN’s SportsCenter, in particular, is death’s waiting room for middle-aged white guys. Only the local news seems to reflect regional diversity. These words across the bottom of the screen are typical of news stories of interest to Floridians:


I went back inside. A newspaper was lying on the kitchen table. I couldn’t help myself. The front-page headline read:


Below it, the drop head explained:

President Trump’s Record $4.7 Trillion Plan Envisions Robust Growth, Domestic Cuts

Torrential spending driven by baseless estimates of growth, but in case of failure offset by cutting important social programs, because rich folks are off limits.

That afternoon, we drove on down to Sarasota, where Our Friends Ellie and Kevin have a winter home. Sarasota, a charming city. We passed threatening billboards:


And next to it, another billboard:


Words capturing my feelings about religion. Threats. Everything’s for sale. And judging by other billboards around seemingly content cities like Sarasota, Florida has a lot of personal injury attorneys looking for work.

Personal injury. Is there such a thing as “impersonal injury?”

We moved on to Clearwater Beach, where the AAA TourBook promised, “bold street performers posing for photos with gaggles of giggling teenyboppers….”

Giggling teenyboppers? Who wrote that line? Charley Weaver?

It was spring break, and Clearwater Beach was prepared. A few years ago, it banned alcohol from the beach. How does the city get away with that? Alcohol isn’t illegal. Dogs, also banned, aren’t illegal. It’s their bi-products that the city is guarding against: College kids vomiting on your beach towel, dogs pooping on the sand. Typical government over-reach.

Nothing is said of jet skis, rich kids’ toys whose buzzing motors are the antithesis of nature. Noisy, unnatural. Nor is there any attempt to curb the encroachment of restaurants whose appearance generally suggests they were slammed together from driftwood, all bearing names seemingly ending in possessive “y’s.” Frenchy’s, Crabby’s, Salty’s, Rusty’s, Guppy’s…

And what the hell is an “interactive buffet?”

Lounging by the hotel pool, I picked up my book again, one I had borrowed from My Friend Scott. It was Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin that rescued me from the mediocrity of traffic jams clogging all roads leading to Walt Disney World. A fat biography, I read Benjamin Franklin in its entirety during the trip. Its wisdom insulated me from the words of that sandcracker wiseass, Jimmy Buffett, that seemed to be booming out of every open doorway at every restaurant and bar up and down the Florida coast.

Franklin was a brilliant journalist, inventor, scientist, businessman, diplomat and politician. He was a man who understood how to win friends and allies though great doses of self-deprecation. A pragmatic philosopher who in his later years would lie naked on his bed for an hour each day for his “air bath,” a precursor of today’s Zen-like pursuits of trendy self improvement.

Not quite a genius, I think. There were some issues, such as slavery, on which Franklin seemed to take the convenient road. A sometimes slave owner himself, in the later stages of his life Franklin came around to the idea that owning another human being was wrong. But at least he got there, many of the Legendary Founding Fathers never did. Perhaps his late arrival is because he believed that our opinions were not our own, as they reflected so many outside influences. Franklin’s evolution on human issues and tinkering with science was often driven by pragmatism. He was a man who could look at something and see its next purposeful level. Franklin owned a pair of eyeglasses for helping him to see in the distance, and another pair for reading. He cut them in half and put the separate pieces together, thus inventing bifocals.

Franklin didn’t discover electricity. The phenomena was known, but merely used for shocking parlor games. Franklin himself had used electricity to fry a turkey. Then came his famous experiment of flying a kite in a thunderstorm. The inspiration that made him, for his time, the most-famous person on the planet. He demonstrated to the world how to properly use electricity, collect it through lightning rods, store it in batteries.

Franklin despised the idea of hereditary entitlement and excess wealth, and shunned the clothing and powdered wigs of aristocracy. One of his contemporaries, in describing Franklin circulating among the Jeffersons, Madisons and Adamses of the moment, said Franklin appeared to be nothing more than “a big farmer.”

Franklin understood words. Thomas Jefferson had written this line in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” Franklin, assigned to proofread the document, changed the line to, “We hold these truths to be self evident.” That it is not some sacred right granted by religion, but a biological truth, that all men – and perhaps some day women, Franklin loved women – are created equal.

Franklin was a writer, as Isaacson says, who “was graced – and afflicted – with the trait so common to journalists, especially ones who have read Swift and Addison once too often, of wanting to participate in the world while also remaining a detached observer. As a journalist, he could step out of a scene, even one that passionately engaged him, and comment on it, or himself, with a droll irony.”

I sense Isaacson is levelling a slight criticism at Franklin here. A common criticism often voiced against journalists, that it is a professional affliction for them to reveal their opinions or reactions to the world. That it is unprofessional to take a side against false equivalencies.

In this age of social media deception, religion as a threat, low expectations for breaded seafood, and the daily implosion of fact under Trump, what would be the error in once more calling on the wisdom of Jonathan Swift’s satire and Joseph Addison’s essays warning of government tyranny levelled against its own people? Or in meeting the absurdity of these times by adopting Franklin’s pragmatic vision, his uncanny ability to see a use for electricity beyond frying a turkey? Faith and belief are often blind and deceptive comforts. Without truth and science, we’d all be left in the dark.

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Art, and policing inconvenient truths

Barack Obama, by Kehinde Wiley.

My Friend Sarah, My Friend Jones, My Friend Sue and My Friend Scott have all been recent visitors to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., where the two most-talked about pieces are of Barack and Michelle Obama. Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of the 44th president depicts him against a backdrop of flora in which Obama and his ornate wood chair seem to floating. Amy Sherald’s First Lady shows Michelle Obama in a gloriously flowing dress of geometric patterns and curiously gray skin, the signature style of Sherald.

The two works are responsible for drawing unprecedented crowds to the museum. It is an emotional experience, My Friends say. The people viewing the paintings are hushed, reverential. I suspect it is not merely the beauty of the art. No, I’m sure they are looking at these portraits and silently realizing what we have lost. The White House is no longer home to these graceful, intelligent, beautiful, 21st-century people.

They see that the White House is no longer a home to truth and beauty.

The Obama portraits – the subjects are relaxed, unique artistic statements – are also a truth that is not generally seen in the traditional, stiff portraits of the high and mighty: False images that demand respect where none is deserved.

After Aretha Franklin died last week, I was watching video of her at a concert sitting at a piano, which she played well, singing “(You Make Made Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” It was breathtaking. The camera moved up to the audience – it looked like they were in The Kennedy Center – and it paused on Barack Obama. He appeared to be brushing away a tear. His humanity was genuine.

I read a lot of history. But I know that it is often wrong. That’s why history is so often re-written. Fiction, and art, is superior to the non-fiction word. Fiction is a true representation of something, even if it is simply the writer’s vision, what he or she sees. Non-fiction can often be a guess. It is not genuine.

Michelle Obama, by Amy Sherald.

No one gave Rudy Giuliani the power to define what truth is, or the right to declare that “truth is not truth” in his now-infamous defense of Donald Trump. No, truth is truth, just as trees are trees. What Giuliani sees is a truth that is obscured, manipulated, taken out of context.

And at that point, it is properly defined as a lie.

We must rescue the concept of truth – the definition even – from the liars. Because it’s only going to get worse. Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and similar social media handmaids of bullshit are already awash in lies, lies that can generally be exposed through a little research or a minor expenditure of common sense. But new “deepfake” technology will soon allow trolls to create falsehoods far more undetectable from the truth. Videos will purport to show Neil Armstrong confessing that images of the moon landings were actually shot in an abandoned warehouse, or Hillary Clinton admitting that, yes, she and Bill really were running a child sex and human trafficking ring out of a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C.

And these lies will look like the truth. Your choice will be: Do you believe?

You might. Despite indisputable evidence that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, for years Trump and his Birthers continued to circulate the myth that Obama is a native of Kenya. And many people believe that lie to this day.

Policing the truth. Can it be done? Trump has already offered a solution: His administration will determine truth, it will declare what news outlets are to be believed, and which are “Fake News.”

Donald Trump, by Jim Carrey.

Umm, thanks Donald. You can put your hand down, now. Something about a president who has uttered nearly 4,500 misleading statements or outright lies since taking office, according to a tally being kept by The Washington Post, suggests tasking the government with handing out certificates of truth is not a workable solution.

Trump is not the picture of the public servant who fuels strong democracies. One wonders: Where will Trump’s official portrait hang? As it seems certain his presidency will shake out worse than Watergate, I’m thinking his tangerine image, perhaps one of Jim Carrey’s sketches, might find a home on a cafeteria wall in one of those white-collar, country-club prisons in rural Virginia.

And then, will someone emerge to get us out of this mess? I think that woman or man might be out there.

Senator John McCain died this past weekend, his funeral now a week-long, cross-country event, with 24-hours-a-day tributes on network and cable television. This respect being showered on McCain’s memory must infuriate the small-minded Trump. And these glowing eulogies are a reminder that exceptional leaders can emerge in difficult times. McCain had ideas that didn’t work for a lot of people. Bringing in Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate certainly exacerbated the divide in this country. But in one memorable video clip making the rounds, during his presidential campaign against Obama, we see McCain shutting down the famous Woman in Red who says she’s heard Obama is an Arab. McCain’s comeback wasn’t perfect, as there’s nothing wrong with someone being an Arab, or Muslim, or Jew. But McCain did correct her facts, noting that Obama is a Christian and good family man.

It speaks volumes that Trump was told he is not welcome at McCain’s funeral. And Palin has not been invited. Their inauthentic souls, the fog of untruth that surrounds them, would not be a true picture.

McCain’s insistence on the truth, no matter how convenient the lie might be, is something that’s been lost in the halls of the National Portrait Gallery.

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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