Saturday, September 25, 2010


So now, in place of Newt Gigrich's 1994 Contract With America (aka Contract On America) we have the new GOP Pledge to America. Not unlike the current design, the rich are to get richer, and the poor to get sick, become homeless, starve, or shatter in endless wars.

The comparison of our American trajectory with the tactics and strategy of Germany in the late 1930s is more striking now than ever. We would do well to study this era carefully for a possible glimpse of our own future. Those targeted are no longer just our dispossessed, reviled and outcast -- our "jews" -- but much of the American (and of course world) population. 

The attempt to exterminate European Jewry during the Nazi era was, in many ways, as unique as Jewish culture proclaims.  Never before had an organized, industrial state targeted a population for complete annihilation, ruthlessly and efficiently pursued even within its “civil” codes and activities.  But to think of the Holocaust as a completely unique act, restricted to 20th century German antisemitism, is to limit it unduly, to make it unavailable as evidence and warning about tendencies in our own place, our own time.

For it would seem that every major thought pattern, every cultural institution that fueled the Nazi holocaust is present and empowered in the United States today.  Safeguards against catastrophic outcomes are few and weak.  “It can’t happen here”?  Maybe.  But with so many elements brewing together, and no visible controls to dampen the flux, there is no predicting in what direction the reaction will run.  

Half a century ago, a civilization as culturally advanced as our own experienced a society-wide suspension of morality.  Jews were the target.  Now, the next set of domestic victims has already been chosen: the poor and unruly.  Ready... aim...


Much of the current political agenda is dominated by what is popularly known as the “extreme right”. Clinton and Obama have been instrumental in moving the Democratic Party in that direction.  The Tea Parties and religious fundamentalism nourish the “shift to the right” within the population at large.  Critics have unanimously deemed the right wing motives as “greedy” and “mean-spirited”, but such labels obscure the positive agenda involved -- an agenda described in most detail by the Frankfurt School in its attempt to analyse the roots of German fascism.  Then and now; the descriptions are eerily alike.

It is reasonable to assume that Obama, the Clintons, Bush and Joe&Jane Six-Pack are nice enough folks who love their children and grandchildren, and hope to pass on to them a better world.  What is it, then, that drives them to outlandish and seemingly heartless proposals concerning the poor, often themselves?

The Authoritarian Personality

In each event -- in the living act, the undoubted deed -- there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the moulding of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.
                 Captain Ahab 

While differing in detail, such right-wing positions are driven by  belief systems characteristic of what The Frankfurt School called  “the Authoritarian Personality”, whose main characteristic is the urgent need for order.  Freud, Fromm and Reich unearthed the psycho-dynamics of weak ego-structure which underlay it, while Adorno and Horkheimer analysed the social repression which left its authoritarian marks on the individual soul.  When ALLES IN ORDNUNG becomes the highest value,the consequences are predictable.  For the authoritarian personality:

1.  Powerful leaders are needed to keep society in line and restrict it to conventional, middle-class values. Exaggerated assertions of toughness and strength become the norm.  Trickle-down theories are designed to protect the powerful -- in the interest of all.  Though greed and lust for power may be involved, they are rationalized by an appeal to the general good.

2.  Democracy becomes a threat and must be limited. In The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission, Samuel Huntington warns about the consequences of an “excess of democracy”:

The arenas where democratic procedures are appropriate are, in short, limited....The effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups....Marginality on the part of some groups is inherently undemocratic, but it has also been one of the factors which has enabled democracy to function effectively.

A need to control unpredictable “excess” democracy has guided American foreign and economic policy throughout this century. The pattern of marginalizing peasant populations and supporting dictatorial strong-men is likely driven as much by rage for order and fear of chaos as by the selfish need to maximize profits -- which profits might be even greater should the general standard of living be raised.  So great is the need for predictable order that maximal profits are sacrificed.

3. Individualism becomes suspect, a negative value to be stamped out.  “Difference” means unpredictability, and fear of an unpredictable, uncontrollable “Other” spawns all the “isms” which rampage today: racism, sexism, classism, anti-semitism, anti-immigrant, anti-muslim rage, xenophobia. Nature itself becomes an uncertain enemy to be conquered and subdued.

4. The psycho-sexual chaos at the core of an authoritarian personality simultaneously fascinates and repels.  Rigid moralism embracing stereotypical values seems the most secure protection against anarchy and chaos.   There is exaggerated concern with and denunciation of libidinal art and sexual “goings-on”.  At the same time, unconscious emotional impulses are projected outward, and the world is seen as a wild and dangerous place in which worst-case scenarios abound.

5. Fear and guilt about chaotic thoughts within and anarchy without is so potentially threatening that psychic numbing is a typical response, with emotional dissociation from the consequences of action.  Knee-jerk “patriotism” in response to moral questions is an effective defense mechanism.  Yellow ribbons blindfold the eyes against mass incineration and live burial.  The story of the Palestinians targeted by US weapons must not be told.  Such defensive control of information minimizes compassion for victims.

6. A culture of punishment follows hard upon. Offenders against order must be strictly punished. Dominance and submission becomes crucial.  The very same heartmind is both pro-life and pro-death penalty.  But the sanctity of life is secondary: the important thing is punishment.  Tender-mindedness is for “bleeding-heart liberals”.

While no political leader or follower may display every characteristic above, they are all on fine collective display in the current reactionary Zeitgeist -- as they were in Nazi Germany.  

Is it just that “people are no damn good”, or is their behavior created by social conditions surrounding them?

The Milgram Evidence

In her study of Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt noted that the greatest problem the Nazis faced was “how to overcome...the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering.” Most of the German perpetrators were “normal” people, people who would not be picked up by any questionnaire or psychiatric screen.  They were by and large not sadists or moral degenerates or even political fanatics -- yet they became conscious collaborators in the process of mass murder.  How was it possible to create torturers out of next door neighbors?  (How could our  clean-cut young boys napalm women and children?)  What about that animal pity?

In the early sixties, A Yale psychologist named Stanley Milgram began a series of experiments which sought to clarify these problems. The basic question was narrowed to “if an experimenter tells a subject to act with increasing severity against another person, under what conditions will the subject comply, and under what conditions will he disobey?”  Subjects were recruited from all walks of life to “help us complete a study of memory and learning.”  An actor-scientist greeted pairs of volunteers, and lots were drawn to pick who would be the"teacher"and who would be the"learner".  The subject would always choose the “teacher” slip (all the slips said “teacher”); the other “volunteer” was a plant who then became the “learner”/victim.  The “scientist” explained that there has been some association of punishment with learning, but that there had never been any quantitative studies on how much punishment would give the best results. 

After orientation, the “learner” was strapped into a chair in the next room, and an electrode glued to his wrist.  The “teacher” could see and communicate with him via a glass panel and microphone.  In front of the "teacher" was a bogus control panel consisting of 30 switches enabling him to deliver shocks from 15 to 450 volts in 15 volt increments.  The groups of switches were marked Slight Shock, Moderate Shock, Strong Shock, Very Strong Shock, Intense Shock, Extreme Intensity Shock, Danger: Severe Shock. Two switches after this last designation were simply marked XXX. 

Milgram conceived many ingenious variations to examine different parameters, but the basic design was this: the “teacher” was read groups of word pairs to the “learner”, and then ask him to correctly identify the pairing word from lists of four.  If the "learner" made a mistake, the "teacher" was to administer a shock.  For each mistake, the "teacher" was instructed to “move one level higher on the shock generator”.    The victim (who, of course, was feeling no shock at all) greeted the increasing “voltage levels” with a full range of response, indicating no discomfort until the 75 volt shock was administered.  At 120 volts he would shout to the experimenter that the shocks were becoming painful.  Painful groans at 135 volts.  At 150 volts. he would cry out, “Experimenter, get me out of here!  I won’t be in the experiment any more!  I refuse to go on!”  By 180 volts, “I can’t stand the pain”, and by 270, agonizing screams.  After 300 volts he would no longer provide answers to the test questions.  The “teacher” was told that no answer constituted a wrong answer, and was instructed to raise the shock level. 

How far would these “teacher”/subjects go?  In spite of there being no coercion or threat (as in Nazi Germany), and without any animosity toward the victim (unlike Nazi Germany), these average Americans far, far exceeded the expectations of all psychologists in their obedient compliance with instructions.  Despite the fact that many questioned or even protested what they were doing, a substantial proportion continued to the last last level of shock despite the “learner’s” screams.  Almost 2/3 of the subjects  -- ordinary people drawn from working, managerial and professional classes -- were “obedient subjects”, willing to go to almost any length at the command of an authority.  Their explanations at post-experiment interview echoed those of Adolf Eichmann -- “I was just doing my job.  I was doing what I was told.  I was only doing my duty.”

Milgram was profoundly disturbed by his findings, (as were many members of the scientific community who attacked him personally.)  

   What is the limit of such obedience?  At many points we attempted to establish a boundary.  Cries from the victim were inserted: they were not good enough.  The victim claimed heart trouble; subjects continued to shock him on command.  The victim pleaded to be let free, and his answers no longer registered on the signal box; subjects continued to shock him.  At the outset we had not conceived that such drastic procedures would be needed to generate disobedience, and each step was added only as the ineffectiveness of the earlier techniques became clear.  The final effort to establish a limit was the Touch-Proximity condition [where the “learner” sat, screaming,  shoulder to shoulder with the subject.]  But the very first subject in this condition subdued the victim on command, and proceeded to the highest shock level.  A quarter of the subjects in this condition performed similarly. 
   The results, as seen and felt in the laboratory, are to this author disturbing.  They raise the possibility that human nature or -- more specifically -- the kind of character produced in America democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority.  A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.

In spite of Milgram’s despair, the findings did have their bright side.  A number of experiments were done in which the subjects were exposed to several experimenters who disagreed among themselves and argued about continuing the shocks.  Another series was performed not at Yale, with its aura of authority, but in a minimal office, under the auspices of the fictitious, unknown, “Bridgeport Research Associates”.  A third series was performed in which the “teachers” were not instructed to increase the shock level with each wrong answer, but could choose their own levels throughout the experiment.  The outcomes of these series was illuminating: given any hint of disagreement among the authorities, subjects immediately discarded their slavish obedience, and were no longer willing to engage in behavior they found morally questionable.  When authority became questionable (“Bridgeport” vs. Yale), compliance dropped significantly.  And without prompting from authority, “teachers” maintained shocks well under the discomfort level of the victim.

The casting off of “animal pity” was sustainable only under seamless monolithic authority.   For all its fragility, it seems that it is not human nature per se that is malevolent, but that human malevolence, at least in part, is socially constructed.  Under the right system, even here and now in the United States, obedience to authority can prevail against the  “better instincts” of the population.   The trouble is that such a system is currently alive and well throughout the land.


It is commonly assumed that outbreaks of bestial violence -- the Holocaust, or what we have recently seen in Rwanda, Afghanistan or Palestine -- are the result of primitive eruptions into a civilization insufficient to contain them.  If people could only become “more civilized”, there would be no such behavior.   But what if our civilization itself were the problem -- not the solution?  More civilization would mean more such crimes.  Is such a proposition simply inappropriate self-hatred?

Again and again we have to confront the difficult fact that Nazi Germany was an advanced industrial culture quite like our own.  The death machines were put into operation by people quite like us, living in comparable surroundings.  Certified architects and engineers in well-lit rooms drew up plans for crematoria.  Government bureaucrats, some trained in Kant and  Hegel, purchased tickets for each passenger in the cattle cars. Had there been computers, there would have been excellent data bases.  Nazi soldiers played Beethoven sonatas to entertain the troops, to lift their spirits and help them return to guard duty at the camps.  Bayer made superb aspirin using slave labor.  Out of this modern, rational society, with a history of the highest culture, the Holocaust was born.   Can we ever understand this?  What can it tell us about our own situation?

One of the most crucial insights here came from a man who died well before Hitler came to power.  Contemplating the industrialization of late 19th century Germany, Max Weber, “the father of sociology”, came to the conclusion that “Reason” -- the ideal of the Enlightenment -- was evolving dangerously into Zweckrationalität -- instrumental reason, reason driven by a goal.  In the service of its goals, modern society was becoming efficiently bureaucratic and scientific, but was losing its sense of values.  In fact, “value-free” had become a test of objectivity and scientific legitimacy, as technique replaced moral responsibility. 

This century has certainly proven Weber correct.  Marxists and postmodern thinkers have taken Weber many steps further, as they deconstruct the goals we have inherited, and the stories we tell ourselves.  Whose goals are they?  What corpses lie between the lines in our story of “Progress”?  If society is a garden, who decides on who gets weeded?

The important point is that Weber’s analysis of modern society -- clearly increasingly applicable as the years push on -- in no way excludes the possibility of another Nazi state.  Nothing in the rules of the reigning instrumental rationality would disqualify Holocaust methods of social engineering, nor would its actions even seem improper.  After all, social problems must be solved.

Milgram, too,  found Weberian mechanisms at play in his subjects.  To avoid confronting the victim’s pain, his “teachers” became absorbed in the technical aspects of voltage control and memory testing.  They also demonstrated a kind of “counter-anthropomorphism”, denying any human element in a human-generated situation.   “The experiment requires that you continue” was often sufficient explanation to overcome any hesitations.  “Scientific truth” as defined by “authority” was a goal so persuasive that its perceived legitimacy overwhelmed humane behavior.

Outside the laboratory, for instance in the military, we find parallel mechanisms at work.  Boot camp is not so much a training in military technique as it is in absolute acceptance of monolithic authority.  Patriotism requires such acceptance.  Once in the field, attention to technical details blinds the perpetrator to the effects of his violence.  The bombing sequence in Dr. Strangelove is a brilliant satire on the efficient calm of men about to destroy the world.  Violence is turned into a technique, free from emotion and purely rational, even reasonable.  Similar comparisons can easily be made with the instrumental rationality of the corporate board room, where the lives of millions are part of the calculus of maximizing profit.

(To be continued next week: How the Nazis did it.)

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Another taser-related death this past week, this time, not of an ancient great-grandmother in a wheelchair, but of a healthy young man. Those involved with toting up the corpses count more than five hundred. Google "taser deaths" for their names and ages.

Tasers don't kill people. Cops with tasers kill people. Cops with other weapons kill people too.

In contrast to the United States, British police don't routinely carry lethal arms. Only a limited number of specialist officers are permitted to use guns in special situations. Britain's Home Office said being unarmed is part of the "character of the police" in the U.K. The "character of the police" chez nous is something rather different. With our taste for arms sales and permanent warmaking throughout the world, could we expect it to be otherwise?

In looking through
SKULK last week for its 9/11 resonances, I came across this chapter I had forgotten about.  I present it for your bleak amusement:

Modest Doubt Is Call'd The Beacon Of The Wise

Could they do this? Did they even approve of it being done? Violence? Large-scale, possibly lethal violence?

Teresa had never even hunted or fished with Daddy: the idea of threading a worm on a hook had always seemed too yucky. Richard had the comical habit of crushing plastic milk containers with his hands: stomping on them seemed unseemly. Now they were challenged to embrace something like...the Truth. Teresa heard Thomas Aquinas urging her from potency to act. Richard felt ripeness was all, and things were very close to ripe.

But both were now smitten by a sudden cloud of fear and abdication. And it was in this eddying cloud that they now accompanied WSU’s speaker, Rashid Khalidi, towards Levitt Arena on an otherwise cloudless early evening for his talk on “The New American Empire”.

Why book the Shockers’ home basketball court? Because Khalidi was tall in stature in the academic world? No. Because He was a Shocker (to some) himself? No. Because this was the summer session’s culminating major-speaker event? No. It was because Buildings and Grounds had for some reason denied Richard’s request for Wilner Auditorium, though its schedule seemed open. No matter, Richard thought, Levitt will be fine, if slightly less comfortable in the bleachersswirlin and folding chairs. Desmond Tutu had spoken there last year, and Khalidi would make a nice followup.

But meteorological cloudlessness was a poor predictor of the gathering storm: streaming up Hillside along with Rashid, Teresa and Richard, were tens, then hundreds of sign-carrying students and community folks. Some wore yarmulkas, most wore crosses, and a scant few sported kuffiyehs, the traditional Palestinian headscarf. Uh-oh, T&R thought, looks like a religious war. Khalid was unruffled. “My fans,” he reassured them.     Au courant, though. The yarmulkas and crosses seemed to populate the same side of the path, while the kuffiyehs and assorted peaceniks lined up sparsely on the other. Law enforcement was nowhere in sight.



Both sides seemed to share a strong commitment to the exclamation point. The three of them ran the gauntlet.

The Levitt basketball court had a small stage constructed at one end, as for other large events like rained-out graduations, and Richard and Khalidi took their seats on the well-flowered platform. At 7:40, having allowed ten minutes to accomodate the late-arriving crowd, Richard stood to open the evening.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, Students and Faculty, Members of the Community,” he began, “it gives me great pleasure to introduce the final speaker of our Contemporary Issues series, a man who himself has become a contemporary issue. Rashid Khalidi is Edward Said...

Some cheers and boos from the audience. Richard admonished it gently with his famous Grocho waggling-of-eyebrows.

“...Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies and Literature at Columbia University. Professor Khalidi has written more than seventy-five articles on aspects of Middle East history and politics including pieces in the New York Times [some boos], the Boston Globe [a different set of boos], the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and many journals. He has received fellowships and grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation, and is a recipient of a Fulbright research award. He has been a regular guest on radio and TV shows, including All Things Considered [applause from the liberals], Talk of the Nation, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and Nightline.
“His latest book, Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East, examines the record of Western involvement in the region and analyzes the likely outcome of our most recent Middle East incursions.
“Let’s give a warm welcome to our guest, and I’m sure that, in spite of the controversial nature of his topic, we will show him the respect and hospitality for which Kansas is so justly famous. Ladies and Gentlemen, Professor Rashid Khalidi.”
General applause, with a scattering of boos and cheers. Operation Rescue, The Mid-Continent ADL and WSU Hillel stood up in back with their signs.

Khalidi began with many thank yous for the honor of the invitation, invited questions and discussion after his talk, and launched passionately into his topic.
“Since September 11, we've heard a lot about the ‘intelligence failures’ that left the United States unprepared for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But these failures were not simply the result of poor espionage or bureaucratic incompetence. They reflected a deeper failure to understand a region and its historical wounds, a number of which--though not all--were inflicted by the Western powers.”

Serious pre-uproar among the audience. Khalidi remained calm, but did respond:
“I hope you will agree that the future of America's relations with the Arab and Muslim world depends a great deal on public education. Yet the very people who are in a position to perform this vital task have instead found themselves under siege from the media, from extremist pressure groups and craven politicians. Our crime? Challenging those formidable authorities on the Arab world, George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon.”

Standing and yelling from the audience:
“If you don’t like it here, go home!”
“Nazi Jew-killer!”
“Terrorists off campus!”
Richard stepped forward, and took the mike from the lectern.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, this kind of behavior will have reverberations country-wide. Internationally. This is an institution committed to academic freedom! Please, please, reserve your comments until after Professor Khalidi’s talk, and then keep them polite. Believe me, the whole world is watching.” He inserted the mike once again in its holder and took his seat. Khalidi, continued, apparently unflustered.

“Back in 1992, a decade before 9/11, a group of right-wing thinkers from the administration of the first George Bush created the Project for a New American Century, PNAC. I strongly suggest you google them, and study their documents closely. Their platform demanded that the United States take advantage of the fall of the Soviet Union to achieve unchallenged, unchallengable domination of the planet, and control of its dwindling resources. They called on America to substantially increase its military budget, to deny other nations the use of outer space, and to adopt a more aggressive and unilateral foreign policy that would allow it to act offensively and preemptively in the world. The elimination of states like Iraq figured prominently in this grand vision.

[Applause and a quickly abating “U-S-A! U-S-A!”]

“In a widely-circulated 1998 letter to President Clinton, the members of PNAC -- Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Eliot Abrams, Richard Armitage, Richard Pearl, Robert Zoellick, William Kristol and Francis Fukayama among them -- challenged the president to move forcefully and militarily to remove Saddam Hussein.
[Again some applause, with annoyed shushing from the liberals.]

 “And in their defining document, “Rebuilding America’ Defenses”, written in Sept 2000 -- a full year before 9/11 -- they acknowledged that the process of transformation was likely to be a long one, absent -- in their own chilling words -- ‘some catastrophic and catalyzing event like a new Pearl Harbor.’ One year later that event would arrive.”

It was time for the Blintz Brigade, a group whose motto was “Cream Pies Are For Cream Puffs!” From left and right, two nightmare gaggles of gabardined clowns invaded the platform, firing blintzes at the speaker, splattering his dark suit with crème fraiche (“For The Blessed, Nothing But The Best!”), and greasing the ground with doughish offal.

Now a blintz is no mere crêpe. The baked and semi-hardened dough raised second-degree welts and third-degree contusions on Professor Khalidi’s face -- and let loose bedlam in the audience.

Richard sprang from his seat, and Teresa ran up on stage to help battle the clowns. In the arena, folding chairs clattered as the yarmulkas attacked the kuffiyehs, and the crosses attacked them both and one another. Neutrals scattered at first, then tested out testosterone in random directions. Even women have testosterone.
Enter the campus police. Exit the campus police. This was more than they could handle.

The uproar grew from forte to fortissimo as the entropy increased. The clowns had disappeared. Poof! On stage, Richard and Teresa were madly wiping down the distinguished professor with hankie and scarf.

Sirens without, and onto the stage poured the burly Wichita police in an overly-tactical rear-entrance maneuver. With macho seriously compromised from slipping all over the spent blintz shells, they nevertheless succeeded in throwing an orange net over Teresa, Richard and Khalidi before confronting the audience. This latter they did from the edge of the platform, using academy sharpshooters to practice with the new paint-ball and itch-powder 12-gauge shotguns. The chaos on the court was enhanced by scratching and sneezing and wiping of semi-enameled eyes.
Paint transmuted into war-paint, during which the orange-net enforcers, donning ski-masks, resorted to the old-style tactics of punching, kneeing and kicking their capturees. “This is what you get when you fuck with us!” one blue-garbed protector informed Teresa.

Yet more sirens, and more again. The Kansas State Police had not had a chance to try out the $5.3 million worth of advanced tactical weapons they had amassed from the Homeland Security Gift Shop and Cafe. The gym-space echoed anew with concussion grenades; rubber bullets bounced off walls and public; bean-bags (aka FBs, or “flexible batons”) crescendoed the havoc while wooden dowels percussed from skulls to floor.

Was there reaction? You bet!

Anarchists in the crowd organized an ad-hoc protest by stripping naked and arranging themselves non-hierarchically in a peace sign, and were soon trampled by old hippies in tie-dyes and pony-tails shouting ancient slogans, and threatening to call the ACLU.

This was too much for the mid-level officers, who up till now had let the rookies rock and roll. Out came the temporarily-blinding strobe lights, and then the Tasers which, in case you haven’t been following, fire barbed darts which deliver a 50,000 volt jolt. Those hit lose muscle control (including sphincters), and collapse instantly. The gym floor became littered with bodies, clothed and un-.

Still there was resistance from the quickly-erected holding pens. Insufferable: chanting and most provocative of all, videotaping and flashbulbs. It was time for DARPA-level crowd control using weapons that had never been used, not in Wichita, not in Kansas, not in the continental United States, save possibly at the U1a Facility at the DOE's Nevada Test Site -- and maybe not even there. Semi-conductor lasers to create plasma “flash-bangs” stunning and disorienting the target; heat-compliance weapons -- directed-energy prototypes that would instantly raise body-temperature to an intolerable level. Taser-type darts variously tipped with four varieties of incapacitating, psycho-active drugs.

But alas, before any of these could be brought into play, the gym lights went out. The clowns had struck again. Several hands copped major feels on Teresa. This was not to her liking. Richard’s hammerlock was tightened through the net, and Khalidi was only just recovering from the baton-twirling routine especially for Ragheads. Then the sprinklers came on strong, dampening the mood and the firepower. And a Jewish clown laugh-track filled the room, with arena loudspeakers cranked up to max -- which is pretty loud.

Then silence. Blackness and wetness and silence. The evening seemed over. The police withdrew, fading out under cover of darkness, walkie-talkies crackling obscurely, diminuendo to nothing. The audience walked, limped, staggered, crawled, swam for freedom.

The next day, the Wichita Eagle quoted Mayor Mayans as declaring the police action “a model for homeland defense,” and noted that all officers had demonstrated “a tremendous amount of restraint,” and were thus able “to refrain from arrests.”

Of the three on the platform, one began to entertain modest doubts about remaining in his adopted country, while on a related subject, the other two harbored no more doubts whatsoever.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Here it is 9/11 again, and the world is all caught up in a debate on whether our "attackers" are being "insensitive" in demanding a presence at "ground zero" -- or two blocks away, or twenty, or on the island of Manhattan.

Although I'm a fiction writer, it's hard for me to get involved in this debate concerning counterfactuals, sides taking passionate sides on the ethics of a fairy tale. Though it is interesting to thrash out whether Jack was right to steal the giant's magic harp, the fact is that there was no giant; there was no harp; there was no Jack. At least not as real people in this marvellous story.

While there may have been some middle-easterners involved in some way (though the evidence is unclear), the concrete-set notion that "19 Arab highjackers with box cutters attacked us" is -- to anyone who has looked at the physical and circumstantial evidence -- perfectly silly, and certainly not grounds for an anti-Muslim crusade.

This is not the place to present the mountains of evidence against the "official story" of 9/11. For a brief fact sheet on the collapse of the three buildings, one might go here:

Suffice it to say that planes do not "vaporize" upon crashing, and steel buildings do not symmetrically collapse at freefall speed from airplane strikes or fire -- or from no airplane strikes and tiny fires, as in the case of Building 7.

I began serious study of 9/11 issues back in 2004 after my reading of David Ray Griffin's first book, The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11. Here is my review from back then:

In the six years since, I have read many articles, watched many videos, and had endless discussions with smart people about this issue. And I've concluded two things:

1. The official story is transparent junk.
2. It's very difficult to get anyone to question it.

And while firm conclusions are a bit evasive -- at least around the edges -- about who actually "did" 9/11, much evidence points to those with motives, materials, authority, and opportunities to pull it off.  The prime suspects combining all these are personnel and agencies of the US government. But it will take an independent investigation to look into that. Nevertheless, it is very likely that "ground zero" is not only not "sacred", but is rather intensely unholy, smelling of sulfur.

Given #2 above, it's not likely that an independent investigation will happen soon -- at least in the US.

So what should a novelist do?  Since the MSM will not cover it, I decided to write SKULK, a comic novel about 9/11 issues. Maybe, I thought, the material could get beyond the truther choir out into the fiction-reading public.  An end-run, as it were, around let's-not-go-there-ism. Though the story is ridiculous (but rich), the websites mentioned by the schemers are real.  Were a reader to be curious enough to check them out, he or she would be standing at the edge of a vast sea of real information generally out of public view.

So for this 9/11, I thought I'd share a short section of  SKULK in which Skulk -- Teresa Lee Skulkington of the Connecticut Skulkingtons convinces her boyfriend, Prof. Richard Gronsky, of Kansas State University, that America needs a "teaching moment", and that 9/11 truth is it.

Our heroine was originally modeled on Ann Coulter, and this scene germinated after I was told (I cannot vouch for this) that AC was -- improbably -- a Deadhead! So here, in a chapter called "The Wheel", our dynamic duo, high on Uncle Sam acid tabs, are recovering from a complex trip. Gronsky's pet project is to get Kansas to secede from the union. I'll explain anything else that needs explaining in [square brackets].


And at the seventh hour, they rested. The Dead cd had been retired. Richard lay sprawled out on the couch, eating green, green guacamole, singing to himself his favorite verse from Carmina Burana over and over like some tape loop at Kaufmann’s. [the department store where a mysterious year-round Santa Claus works]
Rex sedet in vertice
Caveat ruinam!

Mmmm, mmmm, mmm, yowsa...
Nam sub axe legimus
Hecubam reginam.

She, on the other hand, was over-tired-revved, sitting in the chair, her arms around her knees, her head down, wrapped in teeming brain.
“You know that article you read me?”
“Unh unh.”
“The article about the kid and the water?”
“No. What kid? What water?”
“Hydrogen oxide or whatever.” [a conspiracy theory about the government putting di-hydrogen oxide in the water]
“Oh, yeah, yeah. What about it?”
“The Free State of Kansas is never going to happen...”
“What do you mean?” he loudly objected.
“Hold on there. Hear me out, hear me out.”
Richard closed his eyes.
“The Free State of Kansas is never going to happen -- without some kind of shock, some huge consciousness-raising about the true state of things.”
“Isn’t Dubya enough?”
“No, no, no. Read your own goddamn Frank book. [Skulk has come down to Kansas to disprove Thomas Frank's book, What's the Matter with Kansas?] Rove has got the status quo sewn up. We’ve got to break...”
“Could we talk about this tomorrow?”
“This is tomorrow. Look at the sky. And you’ve got an eight o’clock class. So perk up!”
She poured what was left of the chardonnay in his lap.
“Look,” she continued, “the American public is very sweet -- especially Kansans -- and Love is All -- and all -- but they’re...I don’t want to say ‘stupid’. Let’s just say they’re a little hidebound in what they take to be the present. The official version of the present.”
“Let’s give ‘em all some Uncle Sam...” he suggested.
“Yeah, well they’ve had too much Uncle Sam already. They need to -- what do you academics say? -- unpack him. See what’s really in there.”
“But that’s ridiculous. They won’t,” Richard observed.
“They will if they are shaken up enough. Enough to see through some of the more obvious lies.”
“Like all the 9/11 stuff, liberal bonehead. What could be more explosive?”
“They’ve already been shaken up by 9/11.”
“Yeah, and they’ve circled the wagons. Around Dubya and the gang.”
“That’s predictable. People always support...”
“But what if they realized that Dubya and the gang were the ones that did it? I mean in some way did it?”
“Unh unh. I’m not going there. And no one else will either.”
He rose exhaustedly to his feet and began pacing.
“Look,” she lectured, “who ordered NORAD to stand down? Have you seen the early photos of the Pentagon? It’s only a little, tiny hole. Where’s the plane? Melted? Where are the engines? Engines don’t vaporize from burning fuel. How did two giant skyscrapers…”
“Three -- collapse from fire when no steel buildings had ever collapsed lake that before in the history of buildings? C’mon. Weren’t you suspicious when you saw all that on TV?”
“No. I was horrified.”
“Hey, these are the guys that took us into war to stop Saddam from dropping nuclear bombs on us. And they’ve got people still swallowing it.”
“These are the guys?? These are your buddies, your father’s friends. I can’t believe you’re saying this! You! Ms. Fierce Right-wingnut.”
“Yeah. Well that was then and this is now. Post. Don’t you want to see the Free State of Kansas?”
“Yes, of course.”
“So we need to shake our dear citizens out of their lethargy. Fight the mass psychosis.”
Teresa sat down in Richard’s place.
“I don’t know.”
“But I do know this: Things seem pretty benign here at home, right? -- at least for Dubya and the gang.  But a haystack soaked with kerosene also looks benign. It doesn’t smell that way -- but then neither does the country. But it appears content to just sit there -- until you toss in a match.”
“And you want to be the match.”
We want to be the match.”
“The 9/11 stuff.”
“What else? It’s the smoking gun.”
“I see.”
Richard plopped down next to her on the couch. They both sat in silence for several minutes, each concerned with conflagration.
“What was that place called with the French name that John Brown...where somebody slaughtered somebody else?” she asked out of the blue.
“Marais des Cygnes,” he answered, Swamp of the Swans. Why? You thinking of slaughtering somebody? Your once-beloved vice-president, when he comes to speak at Raytheon next week?”
“No,” she said, taking him seriously. “That would bring down a police state big time. Homeland Security über Alles. No, we need some kind of teaching moment. And it can’t be seen as a terrorist act.”
“A teaching moment.”
“You’re supposed to know about those. I just thought it was a nice name.”
“Marais des Cygnes.”
“It’s like you and me. You the swamp, and I the swan."


How much Uncle Sam will it take to get people to understand the workings of Uncle Sam?

Saturday, September 4, 2010


 you, in this case, being the arch-conservative Catholic composer, Anton Bruckner, next to Wagner, Hitler’s favorite, whose birthday it is as I write?

I knew I wasn't supposed to like Bruckner when, in my Jewish-guilt ridden, self-assigned curriculum, I decided to spend a summer listening to and learning all the Bruckner symphonies during my back and forths to Bread & Puppet. But it turns out that the orchestration is such that I often could hear only the upper half of the sound over the interstate tire noise. So I gave up that project, to fill in my Bruckner gap more slowly, as it comes.

For The Education of Arnold Hitler, my novel about a really sweet guy with a really shitty name, I knew I'd have to write a section on Bruckner, so I listened up on the Seventh, and wrote the following. Evelyn Brown, Arnold's new girlfriend, a performance artist investigating evil by playing at neo-Nazism, and Arnold, have built him a bunker under an on-ramp onto the Bruckner Expressway in the Bronx out of stolen cement blocks and plastic sheeting. They have a bunker-warming for their little love nest as follows:

“Whatcha got for music?” he asked.              
“Bruckner, what else?”             
She switched out the light.  There was only the ghostly glow of distant streetlamps through the mirror film.  Arnold crawled in under the quilt.             
“I brought you the slow movement from the Seventh Symphony.”  She was somewhat slow herself. “Here.”               
She pushed PLAY, and the small room was filled with the rich sounds of low strings and horns in C# minor, a long, sinuous phrase culminating in surprisingly masculine chords, and lapsing back into a gentle feminine ending, serene, consolatory, moving.             
“Nice,” he said. “I’ve never heard Bruckner.”             
“You told me that.  I thought this would be a good place to start.”            
“Beautiful, but so sad,” he said, as the melodies spun out of the original germ.              
They lay there silent, sipping their glasses as the harmonies and textures grew ever richer, and the keys slipped by until one amazing moment when the music, with a thrilling shock, slips and falls a half-step to climax streaming out on C major, filling the dark room with light.            
“Jeezuz!” Arnold muttered,.               
The music quieted, and the movement ended with a transfigured major version of the opening funeral music, a majestic threnody framed by the sound of Wagner tubas.  They were silent for a long time after it finished.             
“The Nazis dug him too,” Evelyn finally said, “his monumental scale, grandiose, lavish, spiritual...  They’d play him in Dunkelkonzerte -- lights all out, sacred space. Listening to Bruckner was like going to church.”              
She snuggled in under the quilt.               
“His most famous piece, that,” she murmured. “They played it on German radio after Hitler died, after he was burned to a crisp.  Hey, you wake?”              
She nudged him.  No answer.  She pulled off her clothes and lay her body against his as the kitties and bunnies watched the night.

OK, so Hitler and the Pope notwithstanding, Bruckner writes some fabulous music, even for a Jewish ear. So did Wagner, the fulminating-enough antisemite.

Which brings up the larger, long-standing, subtle, difficult question: can one detach an artist's life from his or her works? Celine is a great writer, but a murderous maniac (as was Gesualdo). Heidegger was IMO the most important philosopher of the 20th century, and ended his inaugural address as rector of Freiburg Universtiy with three "Heil Hitler"s.

What are people, Jews especially, supposed to do with this gorge-rising stuff?

One approach has been "if you can't beat 'em, recruit them" -- as in this scene from my novel, Golem Song. Alan Krieger gives his shiksa German psychiatrist girlfriend a present of Arthur Naiman's wonderful little book, Every Goy's Guide To Common Jewish Expressions, Also Recommended for Jews Who Don't Know Their Punim From Their Pupik.  I'll save you some space: Open the link if you like. It's pretty funny.

(Nice little side story: when I wrote Arthur, asking for permission to quote his book in mine, he wrote back, "Permission is for goys. Fair use is for Jews," and gave me...what?... who knows? Anyway a "Sure, go ahead.")

OK, so Beethoven was Jewish, black jazz heros are Jewish, all the (Good!) antisemites were Jewish, but what about Netanyahu? Lieberman? the politics of the current state of Israel?  Are THEY Jewish?

Here's what Alan Krieger's brother writes him -- interspersed in a scene from Golem
Song in which the Ursula of the link above, takes Alan out to a French restaurant (Alan is very bad at French restaurants):

So, yes, what's a Jew to do? What are any of us to do? It's worth writing novels about.