#trashthestache: an unabashedly—but deservedly—fawning review of Belen Fernandez’s The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work

More sophisticated readers of the New York Times’ editorial pages have, for years, fumed at Thomas Friedman’s inane musings. Even less sophisticated readers, some of which write book reviews and essays for online magazines named after mysterious flatbreads, have bristled at Friedman’s claims, prose and weak reasoning.

There are times, in fact, that one might suspect the Times’ Editorial Board is putting Friedman over on the public as some sort of Onion-style goof, a la Jackie Harvey.

Some readers have an automatic, visceral dislike of his face, alone: the suburban-mall Glamour-Shots photograph accompanying his crimes against logic calls for snarky comment; in it, he appears smug, self-satisfied and eager to be taken as the thinker of deep thoughts that, in The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, Belen Fernandez proves he is not.

One sure marker of a great work comes when, having experienced it, one is left with a sense of shame—that somehow, the thesis presented is so clear and well-argued that it was obvious all along, and to have not recognized it without the interlocutor’s help is somehow a grievous, personal shortcoming.

Fernandez’s spit-roasting of Friedman’s career is one of those works, and it is proof that America’s reading public should have itself a come-to-Jesus meeting about whom it reads, and on what subjects.

The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work is a grueling, painful read, but it’s a necessary contribution to the greater, shamefully-necessary project of new/alternative media self-justification, vis a vis old media’s privileged place in public discourse; Friedman’s unearned, destructive bully-pulpit, and the appalling influence it holds over, with, and because of Occidental elites, created the need for Fernandez, and critical voices like Chapati Mystery, in the first place. Continue reading #trashthestache: an unabashedly—but deservedly—fawning review of Belen Fernandez’s The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work

Prepositional Phrases

When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled “made in Germany”; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism;it will be called, of course, “Americanism.”  Halford E. Luccock, Keeping Life Out of Confusion

Before

Times were good for many Americans—or, at least, times were good if appearances were to be believed. Even some of our sharper minds were deluded. After stapling the 1960’s and 1980’s in place with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Bonfire of the Vanities, journalist-by-novel Tom Wolfe addressed the impending aughts with the historically inapt essay, What Life Was Like at the Turn of the Second Millennium: An American’s World, from Hooking Up.

Wolfe employs a Proletarian air-conditioning “mechanic” as everyAmerican—the sort of character David Brooks would later clothe in madras shorts and pop-neurology for the purpose of contriving New Yorker columns explaining his we to us. Wolfe’s pen is nimbler than Brooks’ iPad, but An American’s World still suffers from Ozymandian conceits, exemplified by messes like:

…[H]is own country, the United States, was now the mightiest power on earth, as omnipotent as Macedon under Alexander the Great, Rome under Julius Caesar, Mongolia under Genghis Khan, Turkey under Mohammed II, or Britain under Queen Victoria. His country was so powerful, it had begun to invade or rain missiles upon small nations in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean for no other reason than that their leaders were lording it over their subjects at home…

Which was true, far as it went. Everyone was getting mad-rich and feeling tres sexy, thank you very much—we told ourselves, and we believed us when we heard: these are the good old days. Yet, as Wolfe’s mechanic cavorts in St. Kitts among the ruins of Marxism, one detects a whiff of regret among the words, as though the writer is struggling to find a narrative peg on which he might hang a complaint:

…[I]t was standard practice for the successful chief executive officer of a corporation to shuck his wife of two to three decades’ standing for the simple reason that her subcutaneous packing was deteriorating, her shoulders and upper back were thickening like a shot-putter’s—in short, she was no longer sexy… the [new wife] and her big CEO catch were invited to all the parties, as though nothing had happened.

Many of us had similar misgivings at the time, I think. I remember scholar, blogger and writer Paul Kerschen giving a first-listen report on Radiohead’s 2000 release, Kid A that folded the nameless nagging into useful context: “It’s like two hours,” he said, “—an excellent two hours, understand, but two hours—of rain drizzling on the rusted shroud of a semi-functional HVAC unit. Things are not OK.”
Continue reading Prepositional Phrases

Savage Mules

Dennis Perrin, whether he knows it or not, is in contention with Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi in a contest of nuclear indignance–which of the two will assume the mantle of America’s clear-thinking, hyper-independent conscience, left unshouldered since Hunter S. Thompson’s slide into obscurity, and lamentable demise?

Taibbi has the lead. He occupies a chair close to Thompson’s vacant National Affairs Desk, is a fantastic writer, and seems to get off on speaking truth to, and about, whatever power has the misfortune of catching his gaze. His recent fencing match with Erica Jong will suffice as Exhibit A. Jong meant to teach the young malcontent a lesson about what can, and cannot, be said; in response, Tiabbi handed her a piece of her own considerable ass. Consider, also, Taibbi’s furious wood-shedding of The National Review’s Byron York, who, following an exchange on the nature of credit-default swap, would do well to never show his smug face in public, or open his mouth in public discourse, again.

Perrin has numerous disadvantages in his quest for a broader audience and the recognition he deserves. His fans must seek out dennisperrin.blogspot.com. Before dennisperrin.com, he blogged under the title Red State Son. Unlike Taibbi, who sits before the camera on Real Time with Bill Maher, Perrin wrote Maher’s jokes. Perrin seems to be more comfortable, at least in his role as political commentator, behind a computer-monitor. Perrin’s politics, while not explicit–there may not be a good label for them, actually–are a blend of disgust, anarcho-syndicalism, and an absurd comedic sensibility.

One envisions him in a bowler hat, at the turn of the 20th century, gleefully tossing little round, black, crackling-fused bombs at industrialists’ motorcades. He may not be sure what follows the revolution, but he’s willing to give it a chance.

Savage Mules, Perrin’s 2008 catalogue of Democratic party misdeeds, fuck-ups and rank hypocrisy, deserves a broad audience, and when that audience comes to the book, Perrin will win the fans he needs to be competitive with Tiabbi.

Mules is an intensely personal, often jarring history of Perrin’s relationship to the narrative driving the Democratic party. It’s a story Perrin doesn’t buy, even though accident & circumstance often puts him among those who do.

“I’ve witnessed this up-close and point-blank for much of my adult life. To many of them, the Democrats are a flawed but inherently decent party whose humane outlook is forever compromised by Republican slander and personal insecurity. Even critical liberal bloggers and columnists hand the Dems a pass on most issues simply because they believe that the mules will eventually Get It Right, if only they can move past conservative lies and intimidation tactics.”

Carter, Jackson, the Democratic Mascot itself, Roosevelt, Truman, MacArthur, Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton, Humphrey, Nader-Haters, and The Yearly Kos all queue for a clubbing as Perrin, one-by-one, example-by-example, deconstructs the myths with which we surround supposedly well-meaning democrats.

Most of Perrin’s complaints have bases in the bloody preservation of American Imperial establishment and expansion, which, by Perrin’s reckoning, can be shown first at home with Jackson’s genocidal Trail of Tears, and continues unabated, abroad. Perrin’s critique echoes Chomsky’s common-sensical approach to realpolitik: the assumption that America should husband the world’s resources for its benefit, and intervene to protect its “interests” when necessary or expedient, offends Perrin’s radically egalitarian ethos. Further, the notion dwells as monstrously and demonstrably in the heads of mules as it does in pachyderms.

It’s an admirable stance, and one that forces the reader to take a choice–wake up and do something about the Orwellian mad-elephant, or continue in slumber while Empire thrives. It will be a shockingly difficult choice for most readers, and one that most are wholly unprepared to consider. The assumption that America is good, and its Democrats are good stewards, and that American use of force is not just necessary, but an unqualified good, are so taken for granted that they might as well be scrimshawed in ivory.

And this is where Perrin distinguishes himself. Perrin does not come from a beat–he is a free agent, a gunslinger, whose loneliness in the wilderness permits him to take his critique a step further than he might, were he wed to a masthead. He does not report on the process, nor does he take its permanence, or its value, as givens that needn’t be proved by argument. Perrin’s exchange with Max Blumenthal’s aunt, at the YearlyKos gives an illustration:

“Do you like Hillary?” She asked.
“No, not really.”
“Why not?”
“It’s probably best not to go into it here.” I didn’t want to start a conversation about how much I dislike the Dems with someone from the Blumenthal clan, especially right before I was due to speak.
“Well, who do you like?”
“Actually, I’d like to see another system.”
“Well, that’s not gonna happen.”
Not with people like you in the way, I thought to myself.

Perrin’s descriptions of his confusion, humility and ambivalence following September 11th come off as particularly endearing, and provide a nice literary counterbalance to the overall tone of the book, which, despite its being earned, can seem unrelenting, like the rare car alarm that has actually been set off by a thief.

The contest between Taibbi and Perrin–of which neither likely has intention nor knowledge–may take years to resolve, if ever. But so long as Perrin continues roasting sacred animals, and literally kicking high-rolling apparatchiks’ asses, he should count himself, and we also should count him, among our treasures. A rare thing in these times, truth. And a rarer thing is one who will tell it, as he sees it, and challenge those who disbelieve to prove him wrong.

Savage Mules is published by Verso Press. 118 pages.

All Your Gitmo Are Belong To US

These days, America teeters on the verge of having its dumbest Supreme Court since the Dred Scott jacktards who hastened the Civil War; currently, its four fascist-leaning members hold views that range from “too-Catholic to be believed,” to “I will have my revenge on Black America for calling me Uncle Tom.”

In fairness, one must also mention Justice Ginsburg, who is also insane, but leftwardly so. During my wife’s last pregnancy, Her Honor showed up at our house in Supreme Court robes, offering to perform a third-trimester partial-birth abortion on the missus for free, using nothing but ether, our Dyson sweeper and barbecue grill implements. We were flattered, but we declined.

So it is with great surprise that we read this over the rim of our coffee this fine Ohio morning:

The US Supreme Court Thursday ruled Guantanamo prisoners have the right to challenge their detention at the US military base in civilian courts, dealing a stiff rebuke to the Bush administration. “The laws and constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times,” the court said in its historic ruling, for the third time in four years striking down the government’s case for trying “war on terror” suspects in military tribunals. “Liberty and security can be reconciled; and in our system they are reconciled within the framework of the law,” the court added, ruling that prisoners in the remote US jail in southern Cuba “have the constitutional privilege of habeas corpus.” By a vote of five to four, the court found that even if the base was officially on Cuban territory, it was in fact operating as if it were on American soil.

Top US court deals Bush blow on Guantanamo rights.” Breitbart 12 June, 2008.

Now, this doesn’t mean GITMO closes, or that those there are innocent, or will stop being force-fed c-ckme-t sandwiches, or that they should be released, to the extent they are fundy wackjobs, to continue plotting global mischief. It does reassert the primacy of civilian courts over criminal defendants, reinforces the doctrine of posse comitatus, and generally advises the military to shut up and know its damn role.

To the extent a “unitary executive” will listen to inferior branches of a tripartite, divided government, Bush’s Dark Tower of torture, disappearances, renditions and global bloodletting is at an end. A rugged, splintery stake through its fat, black heart.

The federal law which subjects anyone–even citizens–designated an enemy combatant to the whims of a military kangaroo court to demand a public explanation as to why they’ve been deprived of liberty? Judicially shat upon.

The death of Habeus Corpus? Greatly exaggerated.

Eternal, nameless confinement in a humid caribbean void, without the basic jurisprudential protections that are the rights of any person standing on the soil of a free republic? Bush’s greasy granny, mmhmm.

America’s devolution into a paranoid, quasi-fascist corpocracy? Stemmed, just a little, for now. The paranoid, all of us, remain vigilant and selectively hyperbolic. It will be a long road home, but today the Supreme Court, acting wholly out of character and in a hair’s-breadth 5-4 “split decision”, provided us with a compass. We should be encouraged, while we encourage them.

Roll Over, Rick

His caramel baritone is singular. Like those of us at CM, you probably thought he was black, before you saw the video; not that it mattered, because his being a tiny, tiny, little, elfin Englishman, with a singing voice that dissolves panties on contact, made it even more amusing when he mounted and thrust himself into worldwide singles charts in 1987. And now he’s sodding your web-browser. Or, at least, he’s the knob with which your browser gets rogered.

I remember watching the video hundreds of times that summer, because MTV refused to play much of anything else, and for whatever reason I thought the blonde girl who appears occasionally was hot, in a sweetly flawed, Rosanna Arquette, Desperately-Seeking-Susan sort of way.

It’s twenty years gone, and I’ve a quarter of a life’s academic conditioning and pop-culture dung stinking up my skull. Three times already today, on this, April 1st, 2008, I have been rick-rolled. Here we are then, reunited. The man and his big-one have become a meme and internets phenomenon. And I didn’t believe him when he claimed he was never gonna give me up. The video, unpacked:

The man-meme appears first, outside. He is wearing sunglasses to hide his eyes–his true intentions–from others. Shadows play off lit concrete. Black/white. Black bartenders in Daisy Duke shorts bounce off fences. Inside, at a rehearsal for a banquet or wedding reception, black and white are again separated by a bar. Of course, the black bartender is at work, while tiny-dancer stands elevated, with two hot white chicks.

Suddenly, because the Rollmaster’s voice is possessed of bottomless funk, the spunky, no-nonsense, black bartender finds his equilibrium straight-up hijacked. He begins bobbing. Eventually, he’s doing the running-man. Then the bartender actually vaults over the bar, breaking the symbolic barrier between himself and the UberFunk Astmaster.

Next, we find ourselves in the night-time raincoat train station of the human soul, where the whitest white guy superego engages in very lame knee-dancing before the blondest blonde personification of the Universal ho, whose position in the Archetypes has since been usurped by Paris Hilton. Now the black fellow makes an appearance; no longer held back by the bar or the fence, he turns flips off the walls–liberated, free, at last, loose in the unconscious.

Ultimately, the video is an expression of the yearnings of white men of good will to be considered, weighed and accepted by minority communities with whom they sympathize, if not empathize, and whose cultures they appreciate. Herein barriers fall, opposites unite, taboos are transgressed, and new syntheses emerge.

Every honky wants a nod and dance from the bruthas. Some even write for Chapati Mystery, own hookahs, and are just now realizing how deeply the badly expressed hopes for racial and cultural harmonies during their late adolescence may have affected the places they hang out now.

Cuckoo

obamacross.jpgObama’s pastor, and McCain’s “advisors” pulled back the Veil on the Holy of Holies last week, exposing a brutal truth for those who live within the secular narrative. It is this: religious people believe things that seem strange to outsiders. Those religious folks also believe things that are specifically informed by their subjective experiences, which is why a black man of a particular age serving a very mainstream Church of Christ congregation on Chicago’s south side might punctuate a terrific sermon with the bombastic curse “God Damn America,” and why a white mega-pastor with no denomination to hem him might rail against the demonic forces of secular humanism or itch publicly for renewed Crusades.

We now know the name Jeremiah Wright because of a campaign phenomenon called “opposition research,” where servants of politicians build dossiers on their masters’ enemies, and because the Clinton campaign knows white people get nervous when black people yell. Talk radio, Fox outlets, and even the mainstream press are shocked, shocked, that any serious person could hold Wright’s views, and have tried, like all hell (and I suspect from horse-race fatigue) to spice the news cycle by imputing Wright’s arguments to his most famous parishioner. In addition to doing the bidding of an undead Terminatrix, they’re also staging a carnival of ignorance. There are several reasons for this amusing phenomenon.

Hypereducated and underthoughtful white people–whom, you might have noticed, tend to show up on your television a lot–are generally ignorant of American religion. Many have spent their upper-middle class, devotion-free existences shuttling from suburban McMansion to private prep school to great university to posh media post. They tend to think their experience is shared, if only by aspiration, by everyone else.

Think, if you will, of the Beverly Hills 90210 conceit of the Walshes, a family of nouveau riche Minnesotans who cashed in and abandoned the heartland to live in Beverly Hills; clearly, such places are where anyone with a lick of sense wants to be. The religious expressions of millions upon millions of Americans are not factors in the equation. They don’t exist.

That general ignorance introduces a particular ignorance of distinct sub-religions. Imagine: a young Jewish editor in a multinational publishing house, living and working in Manhattan, fresh from Swarthmore, trying to make sense of the hundreds of confusing offshoots of Protestantism, and how they govern the lives of their adherents. The signals reaching her brain do not likely contain much information about these phenomena, nor should we expect them to reach her, or those similarly situated–except when the policy-discussion touches religion, and they’re moderating.

For example, in the mid-90’s, the major media (pre-Fox, listing leftward) was aghast at the Promise Keepers movement. The news-template went something along the lines of “reactionary religion,” or “an anti-feminist backlash,” or some other nauseating trope. But the notions the Promise Keepers propounded had never, ever, left the modes of many devout Protestant families; that many in our media thought them new illustrates a tremendous disconnect.

More difficult yet is American Christianity in its distinctly black variety, which confuses even white American Christians. The churches, and their outlooks, are, like much of the American racial dynamic, artifacts of slavery. The man on the horse, with the whip and rifle, had his church and God. Below him, backs bent, fingertips numb, the oppressed sang to the same God. The scriptures, so malleable, said one thing to the slaveholder, and another to the slave. What comfortable person can read Exodus with the same eyes as one who is, in fact, enslaved? What slave–or thinking human–could parse logic that justifies slavery because Noah’s purportedly black son got wasted and put the moves on his pop?

The black American church, growing in ironic opposition to its historically racist, white counterpart, is central to its community in a way the white church is not. It is the social and economic hub of many black communities. It is the nursemaid of much of popular culture, black and white. It is one of the rare places where the arts of rhetoric–alliteration, parallelism, synecdoche, all the usual suspects–are still practiced well, without irony. The black church is, in many ways, the conscience of America. We can thank it for the Civil Rights movement, and presently, for the abrupt head-check that is Barack Obama. The black church is one of the only places, in a culture soggy with bumper-sticker patriotism, where one can hear the American Dream indicted for its shortcomings, where white America, as well as misbehaving black America, gets called on their bullshit.

Most white media folks have little experience with this fact of Christian life, aside from Eddie Murphy send-ups and the scene in The Blues Brothers where James Brown imparts the blessings of the Divine upon Jake and Elwood. Rev. Wright surprised them, because America as it is would surprise them, if they saw it. I have already written on media myopia and white American evangelicals and their beliefs here; the only thing I wish to add is that since the writing under the link was published, Rod Parsley and his pal Kenneth Blackwell may have handed Ohio to Bush, and he has become John McCain’s “spiritual advisor.”

This is a fact: neither the media, nor Obama’s tone-deaf, last-generation opponents, have ears to hear. They are doomed to surprise. As shocked as they are to hear the vocabulary of American Christianity’s angry righteousness, they will probably be wholly unable to decipher the high, white notes of a call to rouse America’s promise.

It is a mathematical certainty that Obama will be the Democratic nominee, and the Clinton machine clearly meant to terminally wound Obama’s candidacy with the Wright sermon; I suspect this is posturing for 2012, the last year a possible Clinton candidacy would be viable. But the move has backfired. Yes, Obama’s speech, already a classic, was, like John F. Kennedy’s Catholic speech, a political necessity. Yet, that did not keep it from also turning the issues, manufactured (scary black anti-Americans) and organic (the sad state of race relations in America), on their heads.

Obama was expected to “distance” and “denounce,” which are code-words for calming the easily rattled when their taboos have been violated; instead, he embraced his effusive, human clergyman. He acknowledged those who do not understand the game-rules of semi-public religious space that needed to be soothed, and explained that he, a presidential candidate, did not actually hope that God damns America. He left room for discussion with those so wounded by our systems that they would like to see such damning. Good thing, too, because as the papier maché edifice of Republican America collapses around us, it might do us some good to chat with those who have vigorous misgivings about the last few decades, or, as is the case with the black clergy, the last few centuries.

Have the chickens come home to roost? Oh, how the Empire hates that phrase! It’s an oracle calling an end to the twentieth century, with its isms and ists and coups and disappeareds and corporate fascism. It invokes the rural barnyard, Chicken George’s fighting cocks, it invokes Malcolm X, it invokes the sad admission that our chickens, metaphorically, “got out the yard” to begin with. What beautiful rhetoric, no? Seven words, and a universe of connotation: the power. Perhaps that is what those with their fists on power’s levers truly fear, rather than the trite but effective character of the Perennially Angry Black Man. They fear the Word, Which is what all Christians, black and white, ultimately worship. It is ultimately beyond their control, despite their best, Orwellian efforts. The backlash against Wright, and its flacking of Obama, is really about crushing what the black American church represents: the Word’s sharp point turned, at-large, on the recurring bastards who claim Its letter, or hide behind Its pieties, but who have never felt Its Spirit.
Continue reading Cuckoo

The Winter of Their Discontent

dontspinafghanis.pngBill O’Reilly is probably not as big an asshole as he appears to be, but one thing is certain, he does a terrific job playing one on radio and television. For years, Americans have contended with “entertainers-cum-pundits” setting frames around policy debates. O’Reilly’s, Limbaugh’s, Hannity’s and Beck’s characters are most likely amplifications of the personalities lying beneath them, and that’s bad enough; though, if true, it allows us to hold some hope for their immortal souls. Most actors who plays Iago are not villains off-stage, and may even hold real jobs, or lead otherwise productive lives.

O’Reilly has made his brand (and Fox News’s, it must be admitted) by promising unvarnished straight talk to, and about, “secular progressives,” (read Jews, Democrats, urbanites, gays, mainline protestants, the educated, agnostics, atheists, women, men, writers, scientists, artists, musicians, teachers, people in Minnesota, the 5.5 billion people living outside the U.S., the literate, ad nauseum) for and on behalf of, “you.”

When simply acting the provocateur, O’Reilly and his ilk can be amusing; for instance, a segment on “the failing public schools,” might be followed by an “historical expert” on “religious freedom,” viciously agreeing with O’Reilly that America was founded on an explicitly Judeo-Christian basis. One suspects O’Reilly, in that case, wouldn’t intend to prove his initial point so completely, with himself and his guests as the primary examples.
Continue reading The Winter of Their Discontent