All posts by Edward Curtin

Jeffrey Epstein and the Spectacle of Secrecy

When phrases such as “the deep state” and “conspiracy theory” become staples of both the corporate mainstream media and the alternative press, we know the realities behind these phrases have outlasted their usefulness for the ruling elites that control the United States and for their critics, each of whom uses them refutably or corrobatively. These phrases are bandied about so often that they have become hackneyed and inane.

Everything is shallow now, in our faces, and by being in our faces the truth is taking place behind our backs. The obvious can’t be true since it’s so obvious, so let us search for other explanations, and when the searchers search, let us call them “conspiracy nuts.”  It is a mind game of extraordinary proportions, orchestrated by the perverted power elites that run the show and ably abetted by their partners in the corporate mass media, even some in the alternative press who mean well but are confused, or are disinformation agents in the business of sowing confusion together with their mainstream Operation Mockingbird partners.  It is a spectacle of open secrecy, in which the CIA, which created the “conspiracy theory” meme to ridicule critics of the Warren Commission’s absurd explanation of the Kennedy assassination, has effectively sucked everyone into a game of to and fro in which only they win.

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.”

Only by stepping outside this narrative frame with its vocabulary can we begin to grasp the truth here in our Wonderland of endless illusions.

Death, sex, power, intrigue, murder, suicide – these are the staples of the penny press of the 19th century, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, Hearst’s New York Journal, the tabloids, today’s mass media, and the CIA.  People hunger for these stories, not for the real truth that impacts their lives, but for the titillation that gives a frisson to their humdrum lives. It is why post-modern detective stories are so popular, as if never solving the crime is the point.

To say “we will never know” is the mantra of a postmodern culture created to keep people running in circles. (Note the commentaries about the Jeffrey Epstein case.) Elusive and allusive indeterminacy characterizes everything in the culture of postmodernity. Robert Pfaller, a professor at the University of Art and Industrial Design in Linz, Austria and a founding member of the Viennese psychanalytic research group “stuzzicandenti,” put it clearly in a recent interview:

The ruling ideology since the fall of the Berlin Wall, or even earlier, is postmodernism. This is the ideological embellishment that the brutal neoliberal attack on Western societies’ welfare (that was launched in the late 1970s) required in order to attain a “human”, “liberal” and “progressive” face. This coalition between an economic policy that serves the interest of a tiny minority, and an ideology that appears to “include” everybody is what Nancy Fraser has aptly called “progressive neoliberalism”. It consists of neoliberalism, plus postmodernism as its ideological superstructure.

The propagandists know this; they created it.  They are psychologically astute, having hijacked many intelligent but soul-less people of the right and left to do their handiwork.  Money buys souls, and the number of those who have sold theirs is numerous, including those leftists who have been bought by the CIA, as Cord Meyer, the CIA official phrased it so sexually in the 1950s: we need to “court the compatible left.”  He knew that drawing leftists into the CIA’s orbit was the key to efficient propaganda. For so many of the compatible left, those making a lot of money posing as opponents of the ruling elites but taking the money of the super-rich, the JFK assassination and the truth of September 11, 2001 are inconsequential, never to be broached, as if they never happened, except as the authorities say they did. By ignoring these most in-your-face events with their eyes wide shut, a coterie of influential leftists has done the work of Orwell’s crime-stop and has effectively succeeded in situating current events in an ahistorical and therefore misleading context that abets U.S. propaganda.

The debate over whether Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide or not is a pseudo-debate meant to keep people spinning their wheels over nothing. It attracts attention and will do so for many days to come. There are even some usually astute people suggesting that he may not be dead but might have been secretly whisked off somewhere and replaced with a dead look-alike. Now who would profit from suggesting something as insane as this?  The speculation runs rampant and feeds the spectacle. Whether he was allowed to kill himself or was killed makes little difference.

It’s akin to asking who pulled the trigger that killed President Kennedy.  That’s a debate that was intended to go nowhere, as it has, after it became apparent that Lee Harvey Oswald surely did not kill JFK.  John Kennedy’s murder in broad daylight in public view is the paradigmatic event of modern times. It is obvious to anyone that gives minimal study to the issue that it was organized and carried out by elements within the national security state, notably the CIA. Their message was meant to be unequivocal and clear: We can kill him and we can kill you; we are in full control; beware. Then they went on to kill others, including RFK and MLK.  It takes little intelligence to see this obvious fact, unless you wish not to or are totally lost in the neighborhood of make-believe.

As it was with Jack Ruby killing Lee Harvey Oswald, so it is with Epstein. There will be no trial.  Nothing is really hidden except the essential truth.  Guess, debate, wonder, watch, read to your sad heart’s content.  You will have gotten nowhere unless you step outside the frame of the reigning narrative.

A corollary example of another recent national headline grabber, the Mueller investigation, is apropos here.  Douglas Valentine, expert on the CIA and author of The CIA as Organized Crime, said in a recent interview that in all the endless mass media discussions of the Mueller investigation, one obvious question was never asked: What is the CIA’s role in it all?  It was never asked because the job of the corporate mass media is to work for the CIA, not to expose it as a nest of organized criminals and murderers that it is.

What is important in the Epstein case is the deep back story, a tale that goes back decades and is explored by Whitney Webb in a series of fine articles for the Mint Press. Read her articles and you will see how Epstein is just the current manifestation of the sordid history of the American marriage between various factions of the American ruling elites, whose business is sexual exploitation as a fringe benefit of being willing members of the economic and military exploitation of the world. A marriage of spies, mafia, intelligence agencies, sexual perverts, foreign governments, and American traitors who will stop at nothing to advance their interests.

It is a hard story to swallow because it destroys the fairy tale that has been constructed about American “democracy” and the decency of our leaders. Webb’s articles are not based on secret documents but on readily available information open to a diligent researcher. It’s known history that has been buried, as is most history in a country of amnesiacs and educational illiterates.  The average person doesn’t have Webb’s skill or time to pull it all together, but they can read her illuminating work. Often, however, it is the will to truth that is lacking.

While Webb places the Epstein matter in an historical context, she does not “solve” the case, since there is nothing to solve.  It is another story from a long litany of sex/espionage stories openly available to anyone willing to look.  They tell the same story.  Like many commentators, she draws many linkages to the Israeli Mossad’s long-standing connections to this criminal under and over world in the United States and throughout the world.  She writes:

Ultimately, the picture painted by the evidence is not a direct tie to a single intelligence agency but a web linking key members of the Mega Group [a secretive group of Jewish billionaires, including Epstein’s patron Leslie Wexner], politicians, and officials in both the U.S. and Israel, and an organized-crime network with deep business and intelligence ties in both nations.

If anything is obvious about the Epstein case, it is that he was part of a sexual blackmail operation tied to intelligence agencies.  Such blackmail has long been central to the methods of intelligence agencies worldwide and many arrows rightfully point to the Mossad.

However, while throughout Webb’s articles she draws linkages that lead to the Mossad, she only suggests CIA connections.  This is similar to but milder than a point made in an article written by Philip Giraldi, a former CIA counter-terrorism specialist, Did Pedophile Jeffrey Epstein Work for Mossad?  Giraldi writes that the CIA “would have no particular motive to acquire an agent like Epstein.”  This makes no sense.  Of course, they would.  The CIA and the FBI have a long record of such activities, and to hold such a club over the heads of presidents, senators, et al to make sure they do their bidding is obviously a strong motivation.

Valentine’s point about not asking the question about the CIA’s involvement in the Mueller investigation pertains. Does Giraldi believe that the Mossad operates independently of the CIA? Or that they don’t work in tandem?  His statement is very strange.

The CIA is organized crime, and if Epstein is Mossad-connected, he is CIA also, which is most likely.  No one like Epstein could have operated as he did for decades without being sustained and protected.  Now that he is dead there will be no trial, just as there will be no mainstream media or justice department revelations about the CIA or Mossad.  There will be a lot of gibberish about conspiracy theories and the open secret that is the spectacle of secrecy will roll on. There will, of course, be much sex talk and outrage. We will anxiously await the movie and the TV “exposés.” Most people will know, and pretend they don’t, that the country is ruled by gangsters who would pimp their mothers if it served their interests.

Those of us who oppose these criminals – and there are growing numbers all over the world – must avoid being sucked into the establishment narratives and the counter-narratives they spawn or create.  We must refuse to get involved in pseudo-debates that are meant to lead nowhere.  We must reject the language created to confuse.

If revolutionary change is to come, we must learn to tell a new story in language so beautiful, illuminating, and heart-rending that no one will listen to the lying words of child molesters, mass murderers, and those who hate and persecute truth tellers.

As John Berger said, “In storytelling everything depends on what follows what.  And the truest order is seldom obvious.”

A Dreaming Stranger on a Train

Small disconnected facts, if you take note of them, have a way of becoming connected.

— Walker Percy, The Thanatos Syndrome, April 1, 1987

News headlines for July, 2, 2019 seen at a kiosk in Grand Central Station: Trump says tanks will be on display July 4th as a sign of the nation’s firepower; bombing kill dozens and hurts schoolchildren as Taliban talks resume; Israel is blamed for deadly missile strike in Syria; could a mandatory Keto diet improve U.S. military performance; and Japan resumes commercial whaling.  The traveler saw these notices of strength and power and passed them by in disgust.

On the train from New York City, the advertisement on the wall with a picture of a disconsolate white guy read: “They say laughter is the best medicine.  But not when it comes to ED.”  The traveler, whose first name was Ed, couldn’t help laughing, which was a relief after his previous revulsion.  He wondered why in the 1990s so many men allegedly and suddenly came down with sexual impotence.  Was it connected to that other fake medical disease, attention deficit disorder, or to the dawning awareness that American military bravado was a cover for growing weakness?

He remembered that when he was young, he had had an erector set made of metal, and in order to raise something up, you had to use screws and nuts. But that was just play construction and the socialization of boys. Now the pharmaceutical companies had, in an Orwellian fashion, created a new word for male impotence (powerlessness), a mechanical functional term, as if the human body were a machine and men were innocent little boys. “Erectile Dysfunction” – a simple engineering problem.

First create the problem, then sell the solution.  Maybe all these damaged men weren’t powerless, just mechanically challenged.  Or if they felt powerless but were not sexually impotent, what might be the cause of this feeling?  Were they mentally challenged?  Screwed by Big Pharma’s propaganda?  Gone nuts in a world where technology was rendering them superfluous except for some sperm in a bank?

When he got home, the sojourner, a man of words, wondered further.  He saw this advertisement and realized the truth must lie in numbers, a lot of numbers.  Didn’t analytics rule the day?

Fierce Pharma

4.3 million men in the UK experience erectile problems: That’s a lot of men.  That’s more men than there are words in this newspaper, in fact.  That’s twenty five times more men than there are words in the English language.  More men than all the words in all the novels Charles Dickens ever wrote, even.  So a lot of men will be glad to know that Viagra connect is now available without a prescription.

In The Wall Street Journal for July 1, 2019, which he found lying on the adjoining train seat, it was reported that Surterra Wellness Inc., a cannabis start-up company, had named the former Kellogg Co. chief financial officer Fareed Khan as its next finance chief. Also joining Surterra were William Wrigley II, the former CEO and chairman of the famous Wrigley candy and gum company, and Ed Brown, the former CEO of Patrόn Spirits Co.

He thought of John Kellogg with his clean-living movement and his obsession with creating anaphrodistic foods like Corn Flakes to curb sexual urges, and he wondered if Ogden Nash’s famous lines needed to be amended: “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.”  Should Nash’s words now read: Candy is dandy, liquor is quicker, but cannabis is satoris?  Also unfathomable in its ability to generate great profits and higher delusions?  These new Surterra guys seemed to think so.

When a woman got on at the next stop and sat down next to our traveler, she immediately started fingering her phone, and when that continued for the next twenty minutes, it so irritated him that he decided to take a nap.  He dreamed of how he was a ridiculous man, akin to Dostoevsky’s ridiculous man, but that he was traveling to a place where being ridiculous was a sign of sanity, not an excuse for mockery because the age he was living in was demented. When he awoke the woman was gone.  He tried to grasp the meaning of his dream, but was interrupted by his arrival at his stop.  Like Dostoevsky’s character, he dreamed he was taken to a different planet, but he couldn’t say where it was. He heard these words: “And yet how simple it is: in one day, in one hour everything could be arranged at once! The chief thing is to love others like yourself, that’s the chief thing, and that’s everything; nothing else is wanted — you will find out at once how to arrange it all.” Hearing these words, he felt less alone, not exactly a stranger on a train.

But when he got home and emptied his backpack, he saw that a small pocket tape recorder that he had purchased and fiddled with before boarding the train had been turned on to the record mode the whole time.  He rewound it and played it forward to make sure it was clear.  About halfway through he heard these words, each interrupted by a short pause: “I know-I know-I knooow-yeh-it’s true-I know-yeh-aaah-aaah-yeh-yeh-aaah-mmm-yeh-right-really-aaah-I know-good for her-yeh-yup-right-good for her-yeh -yeh-seeya.”  The phone call of the woman in the next seat had been recorded, her eloquent half of it, anyway.  His dream vanished.

He placed the tape recorder on his desk and read a quote by Samuel Beckett, the author of Waiting for Godot, that he had copied out before he took his trip.

Perhaps that’s what I feel, an outside and an inside and me in the middle, perhaps that’s what I am, the thing that divides the world in two, on the one side the outside, on the other the inside, that can be as thin as foil, I’m neither one side nor the other, I’m in the middle, I’m the partition, I’ve two surfaces and no thickness, perhaps that’s what I feel, myself vibrating, I’m the tympanum, on the one hand the mind, on the other the world, I don’t belong to either.

Then he went to bed and back to dreaming.

He awoke to this headline the following day: “Navy Seal Accused of War Crimes Acquitted of Murder” for killing two Iraqi civilians and stabbing to death a teenage prisoner.

When Warriors become Saints

As I sit on the small balcony on the top floor of an old house in the working class neighborhood of Alfama in Lisbon, Portugal, it is early evening, the time for wine and voices wafting on the fragrant breeze through the twisting cobble-stoned streets.  The National Pantheon (Panteao Nacional) stares me in the face.  I stare back, and then look up to the heavens and to the cross that is silhouetted against the blue sky.  It crowns the Pantheon’s massive dome.  On its façade stand three statues, only one of which I can see clearly.  She is Santa Engracia, a Christian martyr from before the period when the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized and legitimatized Christianity, transforming the cross into a sword. It was her church before the state found it acceptable to convert it into a space to glorify its secular saints and its military and political prowess.

Rome never dies, although it falls in different guises but is resurrected by the human urge to dominate others.  The savage complicity between church and state perdures through the ages.

Wherever you go, the monuments and statues glorifying humanity’s violent history are always presented as a form of liberation. Tourist attractions. Generals, princes, and kings atop horses, brandishing swords and guns, “grace” squares and monuments as a reminder to the common folk of who is looking down on them and to whom they should look up, or look out.  Yet even when they do show obeisance to their “masters” who rule them from the heights, the commoners are left out of the spoils of empire, and if they object, they are taken out without hesitation.

On a clothesline outside the windows of the house across the street where a woman peeks out, the pants and underwear humbly sway to a different tune, a sad Fado moan that seems to ask: What has happened?  Has it always been like this?

I am tempted to tell the underwear it has but realize its job is to cover-up, not expose the truth.

Rilke, a German language poet of most delicate sensibilities, asked from one of his castle abodes provided by one of his many rich lady friends:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me

Among the angels’ hierarchies?
And even if one of them
Pressed me against his heart
I would be consumed in that
overwhelming existence.

But down below, the omnipresent graffiti on the walls is a bit less circumspect.  It shouts: Fuck the elites! (Translation provided)

The old poor murmur their prayers and the angry young spray their rage on every canvas they can find.  Both seek hope outside the museums and mausoleums erected by the wealthy to glorify themselves.

And fate answers: It’s the same old story, a fight for love and glory.  Those seeking glory, the rich elites, the powerful with the guns in all the countries across the planet, with a few exceptions, smash the lovers and the humble people as they struggle to keep faith and hope alive. Who will liberate them?

Who among the elites will hold the arm of the old Portuguese woman on the one crutch as she teeters on her struggle up the steep hill to the little grocery store?  “Orbrigada – Deus te abinҫoe” is her response to a stranger, whose heart aches.

Here in Lisbon there is a famous tourist attraction, Castelo De S. Jorge, a massive hilltop castle and fortress overlooking the city.  Built by the Moors in the eleventh century, it was conquered by Dom Afonso Henriques, who became the first king of Portugal, and began what is so nobly described as “its golden age as a home for the royalty.”  Royals are always noble, and castles and mythic saint/soldiers like St. George intimate friends.  It is a marriage made in hell.

The Spaniard, Ignatius of Loyola, was a soldier seriously wounded in war at the age of thirty.  He subsequently underwent a religious conversion. He founded the Jesuit order eighteen years later and was sainted in 1556, sixty-six years after his death.  Having been educated by the Jesuits, I vividly recall the motto of my Jesuit high school that adorns the school seal, Deo et Patriae, a not so subtle reminder of how my priorities should be linked.  I have failed that test, just as I failed a freshman mathematics exam, probably because I couldn’t figure out what two plus two equaled, since I was reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground at the time and might have thought it was five because I believed I was free and not what Ignatius urged Jesuits to be – “as if a dead body” in obedience to the Pope.

The so-called rational ones have brought the earth to the point of extinction with their instrumental rationality and their diseased souls.  We are living in the Crystal Palace that Dostoevsky so mocked long before the crystal turned digital. One plus zero may equal one in such a glass house, but such counting will not protect us from the whirlwind we have conjured from the smart man’s equation of E=mc

Only a spiritual equivalent will save us, as James Douglass has so eloquently argued in his slim but powerful book, Lightning East to West: Jesus, Gandhi, and the Nuclear Age, where, taking up Gandhi’s suggestion, he argues that there is a spiritual equivalent to Einstein’s law of physical change that we must discover that will allow for a radical transformation of society and the world.  Douglass’s country is the world.

I, however, am reminded of a very different Jesuit-trained American (one among many), who has passed the American indoctrination exam “admirably” and who has worked assiduously for God and country and followed that American motto of “In God We Trust” when he recently led the CIA in its holy wars under President Barack Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner – John Brennan. Was his excuse he was just following orders, “as if a dead body”?

I think the dead children in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen and so many other places he helped to destroy would not buy that excuse. Yet Fordham University thought to honor him.  Is this what the Jesuit motto means: Ad maiorem Dei gloriam inque hominum salutem (for the greater glory of God and the salvation of humanity)?

Has Fordham ever heard of the Nuremberg Trials?

In the men’s room of St. George’s Castle, there is a wall dispenser selling M&Ms.  Imperialism and colonialism take many forms.

It is hard to say what’s new since humanity’s savage history just rolls along.  The technology changes, but people do not. Spray paint is about 75 years old, about the same age as nuclear weapons, both products of WW II.  One leads to “Fuck the elites,” while the other says, “We are the elites and see what we can do to the Japanese.”

War spurs technological development like nothing else, and as the brilliant French social thinker Paul Virilio has shown with his war model, “history progresses at the speed of its weapons systems.” Modern societies, with increased technological speed, the administration of fear (terror), and digital gadgetry, are engaged in a battle for people’s minds through technological perception management.  Virilio makes it clear, following on the work of his fellow countryman Jacques Ellul, that built into the technology is the “integral accident,” by which he means that every new technology creates its own potential “accident.”

While most people welcome new technology because they have been conditioned to think only in scientific and positivistic terms, they fail to see the price to be paid.  The nuclear bomb, nicknamed “The Gadget” by its one-dimensional, sick scientific inventors, is an accident waiting to happen, unless human madness first leads to its intended use once again.

Or unless we can first discover the spiritual power to eliminate what we have created.

Now we have what Virilio calls the “information bomb,” the glut of information that overloads people’s ability to think clearly or to concentrate, but a boom to the elites who think they are in full control of people’s minds and the technology they promote.

On the ramparts of Castelo De S. Jorge, the tourists snap photo after photo with their cell phones, failing to realize that these memories they are “shooting” from the heights where canons once shot the infidels, have imprisoned them in a dungeon as deep and dark as the one in the castle below their feet.

Visiting castles, like so many trips into the past, can awaken one to the truth of human history or put one to sleep.  It is usually the latter.

The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gassett, who lived here in Lisbon for a year after fleeing Franco’s Spain, said it best:

The only genuine ideas are the ideas of the shipwrecked.  All the rest is rhetoric, farce.

We are all shipwrecked now, not just the Portuguese sailors long lost at sea never to return to home despite the lament of the Fado singers.

If we are to make this earth our home again, we had better learn to sing a different tune.  If not, we will be eliminated by accident or intent, and no one will be singing for our return.  It is a harsh truth, but quite simple.

In the Foz district of Porto, Portugal on the Atlantic, in the park and on the beaches, children play and laugh and the music of their voices rises into the air to remind me that they are our hope on this dark and tempestuous sea on which we are shipwrecked, hoping to find our way home.

Dostoevsky said it well: “The soul is healed by being with children.”

Can we hear their voices, singing?

Much Ado About Nothing: Asking Who Won the Political Debates

It amazes me that alternative journalists would spend even a minute writing about the ongoing Democratic Party debates.  They are meaningless and they are not debates. How many times do we have to go through this ridiculous charade before this can be accepted once and for all?  The “debates” are farces, total theater, as are the Presidential elections. They don’t matter.  The political quiz show of duopoly is fixed.  Discussing who has won is the height of absurdity.  It legitimizes the system of oppressive duopoly.  It is political “jeopardy,” and only the fixers win when they suck us into watching and opining.  One expects the corporate media to do their jobs and drone on endlessly about nothing, but not those who oppose this anti-democratic sham.

Emma Goldman is alleged to have said, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”  She was right then and is right now. With the exception of JFK, who was assassinated by the national security state when in his last year he radically turned against its war agenda, not one American president since has posed the slightest risk to the systemic power of the elites who own and run the country. If anyone ever did, they would not be on the ballot or in office. Here and there, a candidate running for the nomination of one of the ruling parties makes it into a debate only to be marginalized for bluntly attacking war policies; e.g., Tulsi Gabbard in 2019.  Those who enjoy the support of capitalism’s invisible army (the CIA) and Wall Street’s corporate merchants of death are allowed to present nuanced “anti-war” positions that their backers know are lies but suckers bite on in their desperation to believe that the system works; e.g., Obama in 2008.

Because Emma Goldman opposed the U.S. war and conscription policies during World War I, she was charged and imprisoned under the Espionage Act in 1917, “for conspiring against the draft,” a form of state imposed slavery.  Like Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange, she was punished for telling the truth to the American people and the world. To contemplate their confinement in these prison hellholes sickens the soul.

When I was young and was seeking release from the Marine Corps as a conscientious objector, I spent quite some time pondering prison life, something I was expecting and preparing for but surprisingly avoided when the Commandant of the Marines released me so I could “take final vows in a religious order.”  It was an outright lie, something I never mentioned in my C.O. application, but it allowed them to save face while getting rid of a troublemaker.  Ironically, as a religious young man, I had often thought that the life of a Catholic priest or nun, in their respective celibate rooms in rectories or convents or monasteries, was similar to the life of a prisoner, and it struck me as very depressing.  Even a few years in a federal prison felt more liberating, so I steeled myself for that possibility by reading Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, and Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, among others, and disciplining myself physically, mentally, and spiritually for what never came to pass.

Now the world is our prison, as John Berger wrote in 2005 in a stunning article with the understated yet hopeful title, “Meanwhile.”  Because he was not caged by traditional categories of conventional thought but just wrote, trusting that words were winged creatures that rise and fly out of sentences into the unknown, Berger was able to discover truths that many feel but cannot articulate.  Often referred to as a Marxist art critic, such a description fails to capture the liberated nature of his writing, even when he is describing how we are imprisoned:

I’m searching for words to describe the period of history we’re living through.  To say it is unprecedented means little because all periods were unprecedented since history was first discovered….The landmark that I’ve found Is that of a prison.  Nothing less.  Across the planet we are living in a prison….No, it’s not a metaphor, the imprisonment is real, but to describe it one has to think historically….Today the purpose of most prison walls (concrete, electronic patrolled or interrogatory) is not to keep prisoners in and correct them, but to keep prisoners out and exclude them….In the eighteenth century, long-term imprisonment was approvingly defined as a punishment of ‘civic death.’  Three centuries later, governments are imposing – by law, force, economic threats and their buzz – mass regimes of civic death….The planet is a prison and the obedient governments, whether of the right or left, are the herders [US prison slang for Jailers].

At the heart of this prison system is financial, not industrial, capitalism, and the system of globalization fueled by the Internet that allows speculative financial transactions to be continually performed instantaneously. Speed is the essence of cyberspace, a placeless “place” that allows this worldwide prison system to operate.  Space, time, nationalities, local traditions, and idiosyncrasies of any sort are washed away by this tyrannical flood of abstract power controlled by the jailers and their henchmen in and out of governments.  This planetary prison’s “allotted zones vary and can be termed worksite, refugee camp, shopping mall, periphery, ghetto, office block, favela, suburb.  What is essential is that those incarcerated in these zones are fellow prisoners.”

The prisoners that are us are often just dimly aware that they are prisoners, but dimly is better than unaware.  For the jailers also use cyberspace to misinform, confabulate, lie, confuse, and convince the prisoners that they are not in cells but are free on their cells and had better be on constant alert to protect themselves and get theirs, theirs always being some commodity, which comes in many forms, including political candidates, sometimes “new and improved” and sometimes just “bright and new.”  The prisoners are always free to choose more of the same, if they can be conned.  While everyone “knows” these candidates sell themselves and that’s what debates are about – “if you liked that (one), you will like this (one)” – the jailers create what Berger calls “a hallucinating paradox” that keeps the prison population believing that the rigged system somehow works for them since they are exceptions to the rule that renders others moronic suckers.

So the question – who won? – is a good one, if you are a sports fan, but not when applied to the Democratic (or Republican) candidates’ debates.  Better to sing “Mrs. Robinson” along with Simon and Garfunkel: “Going to the candidates’ debate/Laugh about it, shout about it/When you’ve got to choose/Every way you look at it you lose.”

Those writers who wish to help their fellow prisoners should refuse to be herded into doing the work of their jailers and using language in a way that suggests the game is not fixed and they are not being seduced, as Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), the recent Williams College graduate, willingly was by Mrs. Robinson in the 1967 film, The Graduate.  Ben may have been put off by the suggestion that his future lay in “One word: plastics,” but if he were graduating from Williams or any other elite college and university this year or in any of the past twenty-five, a top career choice, flashing dollar signs, would be in the financial “services” industry, where he could join the financial tyrants in the use of cyberspace to imprison most of the world.  Our universities have become human “resources” departments (as people have become commodified resources like copper or nickel) for financial capitalism and the whole complex that ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern calls “the Military-Industrial-Congressional-Intelligence-Media-Academe-Think-Tank (MICIMATT) complex, in which the corporate-controlled media play the sine-qua-non today.”

Alternative writers should refuse to rate the candidates or discuss their debates, but, like John Berger, think historically, structurally, and imaginatively, finding “enclaves of the beyond” for their fellow prisoners, little gifts, sunlight and blue sky through the jail cell’s window, not prizes for the winners.  That is not dissidence.

And while I am a harsh critic of the digital revolution, I realize Berger is right when he says:

Prisoners have always found ways of communicating with one another.  In today’s global prison, cyberspace can be used against the interests of those who first installed it.  Like this, prisoners inform themselves about what the world does each day, and they follow suppressed stories from the past, and so stand shoulder to shoulder with the dead.  In doing so, they rediscover little gifts, examples of courage, a single rose in a kitchen where there’s not enough to eat. Indelible pain, the indefatigability of mothers, laughter, mutual aid, silence, ever-widening resistance, willing sacrifice, more laughter….The messages are brief, but they extend in the solitude of their (our) nights.  The final guideline is not tactical but strategic.

“Meanwhile” is a hopeful word.  It implies that we are between times and the future is coming.  It can only be different if we do not play our jailors’ game, buy their lingo, and discuss the fixed quiz show that is American presidential politics.

“Liberty,” concludes Berger “is slowly being found not outside but in the depth of the prison.”

Happenings in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave

There’s something happening here/What it is ain’t exactly clear.

— Buffalo Springfield,  “For What it’s Worth,” 1967

The Sunday newspaper had been left on the park bench.  Its book page had lists of best-sellers, as if numbers two through ten could be the “best” along with number one.  Absurdities were everywhere for the taking.  On the Non-Fiction Hardcover list, numbers 3, 5, and 10 each had the word fuck in the title.  The books were published by two old and respected publishing houses: Harper and Little Brown.  However, something was odd, for the word fuck was spelled f*ck.  These books were about hope, acceptance, and living the good life, cliché topics in a feel-good culture: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Everything is F*cked, and Calm the F*ck Down.  It seemed you had to be fucked first before you could accept the hope that the good life was coming your way.  He wondered if these publishing houses thought that by eliminating the “u” they kept their hands clean and were not descending into the gutter with hoi polloi, while simultaneously titillating potential readers.  Did they think readers would be offended by the word fuck, but would not be by f*ck?  Then it occurred to him that he didn’t know what the fuck non-fiction books were anyway.  Maybe he had been wrong all his life and the opposite of up was non-up, not down.

*****

On every table in the seaside resort’s breakfast room there was a brightly colored flower in a clear watered vase.  When he picked it up to smell the orange blossom, there was no smell and the water didn’t move.  He imagined an ersatz form of plastic happiness, a conjurer’s delight, where everything was a trick, nothing moved, not even water.

*****

Leaving the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in southern California where white and black Marines were regularly fighting and there were even some killings never reported by the press, the two young Marines escaped the tense and claustrophobic atmosphere on a weekend pass.  It was early February 1967, and they took an overnight bus up the coast to San Francisco where they wandered around and found a breakfast restaurant near Union Square.  There they read in the newspaper that for the week of January 12-19 the U.S. military had suffered its highest casualty count so far in Vietnam: 144 killed, 1,044 wounded, and 6 missing-in-action.  It jolted them awake more than the coffee.  Later that afternoon, the two naifs wandered into the Haight-Ashbury district were they were startled by the first waves of acid-dazed hippies, who would soon arrive in hoards for the “summer of love.” In the evening when they visited a bar for some beers, the waitress who delivered their drinks was topless. While they regarded this slight anomaly with manly indifference, she must have noticed their military haircuts that stood out among the longhairs, and so she served them buttons with their beers. The buttons read: Vietnam Love It Or Leave It. Heading back to the base, they knew where they didn’t want to go.

*****

The young man was studying for a PhD.  He was intent on learning what made the world and people tick. He was attending a small seminar at the home of his professor, a famous German emigre who had worked for the Rand Corporation and U.S. Intelligence. Each of the five students was to give a short presentation on the subject of fake news and the issue of knowledge, since the course concerned the sociology of knowledge. The student began his presentation by quoting a famous philosopher’s words: “In formulating any philosophy, the first consideration must always be: What can we know? That is, what can we be sure we know, or sure that we know we knew it, if indeed it is all knowable. Or have we simply forgotten it and are too embarrassed to say anything? Descartes hinted at the problem when he wrote, ‘My mind can never know my body, although it has become quite friendly with my legs.’ By ‘knowable,’ incidentally, I do not mean that which can be known by perception of the senses, or that which can be grasped by the mind, but more that which can be said to be Known or to possess a Knownness or Knowability, or at least something you can mention to a friend.” The student paused and the eminent professor said, “So very interesting. Who is that philosopher?” The student replied, “Woody Allen.” “He is very perceptive,” said the professor, “and yet I have never heard of him.  I will have to read his work.” The student realized he was in good hands with such U.S. intelligence and Rand Corporation experts, so he asked the professor’s wife for another glass of the German wine she was serving and toasted his good fortune with a wry grin. None of the other students got the joke.

*****

A young man was reading a book that he highly recommended to his uncle. Leafing through it, the older man came upon this passage: “the free individual is just a fictional tale concocted by an assembly of biochemical algorithms.” So what was the point of reading such a book, he wondered, since doing so was an exercise in pre-programmed absurdity since there was no freedom.

*****

You have probably seen the bumper sticker that says: “Shit Happens.” Some people are just lucky, I suppose, and odd coincidences mark their lives. When he was just out of Columbia College and working for a reputed CIA front company, Business International Corporation, Barack Obama had a chance encounter with a young woman, Genevieve Cook, with whom he had a 1-2 year relationship. Like Obama and at about the same time, Cook just happened to have lived in Indonesia with her father, Michael Cook, who just happened to become Australia’s top spook, the director-general of the Office of National Assessments, and also the Ambassador to Washington. Of course, Obama’s mother, as is well-known, just happened to be living in Indonesia with Barack and Obama’s step-father, Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian military officer, who had been called back to Indonesia by the CIA supported General Suharto to assist in the CIA coup against the President Sukarno and the slaughter of over a million Indonesian Communists and Indonesian-Chinese. As is also well-known, it just so happened that Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, trained in the Russian language, after teaching English in the US Embassy in Jakarta that housed one of the largest CIA stations in Asia, did her “anthropological” work in Indonesia and Southeast Asia financed by the well-known CIA conduits, USAID and the Ford Foundation. Then there is Cook’s stepfather, Philip C. Jessup, who just happened to be in Indonesia at the same time, doing nickel-mining deals with the genocidal Suharto government. Anyway, “shit happens.” You never know whom you might meet along the way of life.

*****

The hostess at the seaside restaurant had an eastern European accent, so he asked her where she was from.  She said, “Belgrade, Serbia.” He told her he was sorry for what the U.S. government led by Bill Clinton had done to her country and that he considered Clinton a war criminal. She said the bombing in 1999 was terrifying, and even though she was young at the time, she vividly remembered it. It traumatized her, her parents, and her family. Then she smiled and said that in the month she had been in the U.S. for her summer job, all the Americans she had met had been so friendly. He welcomed her to the U.S., and as he was walking away, he remembered that Clinton’s savage bombing of Serbia that had killed so many Serbian children and other innocents had been code-named “Operation Noble Anvil.” He wondered what kind of “noble” people would think of innocent children as anvils: “heavy usually steel-faced iron blocks on which metal is shaped,” and did the friendly Americans accept Clinton’s sick lies when he ended his March 24, 1999 war address to the American people with these words: “Our thoughts and prayers tonight must be with the men and women of our armed forces, who are undertaking this mission for the sake of our values and our children’s future. May God bless them, and may God bless America.”

*****

The banal, 1967 hit song, “San Francisco” (Be sure to wear flowers in your hair), which was influential in enticing young people to come to San Francisco for the Summer of Love, was written by “Papa” John Philips, who attended the US Naval Academy at Annapolis and whose father was a Marine Corps Captain. “Papa” John’s wife had worked at the Pentagon and her father was involved in covert intelligence work in Vietnam. His neighbor and Laurel Canyon (Los Angeles) buddy was Jim Morrison of Doors fame, whose father US Navy Admiral George Morrison commanded U.S. warships in Vietnam’s Tonkin Gulf during the “Tonkin Gulf Incident.” Frank Zappa, the father figure of Laurel Canyon’s many musicians who just happened to converge in one place at the same time where a covert military film studio operated, had a father who was a chemical warfare specialist at Edgewood Arsenal. Stephen Stills, David Crosby and many other soon to be famous musicians all came from military and intelligence backgrounds and frolicked in Laurel Canyon. Although they were draft age, none of them was drafted as they played music, dropped acid, and created the folk-rock movement whose music was catchy but innocuous and posed no threat to the establishment. But “shit happens.” In his disturbing book, Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon, David McGowan raises the question: “what if the musicians themselves (and various other leaders and founders of the ‘movement’) were every bit as much a part of the intelligence community as the people who were supposedly harassing them? What if, in other words, the entire youth culture of the 1960s was created not as a grass-roots challenge to the status quo, but as a cynical exercise in discrediting and marginalizing the budding anti-war movement and creating a fake opposition that could be easily controlled and led astray…. What if, in reality, they were pretty much all playing on the same team?”

*****

The reporter was interviewing four of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s young “executive governors,” who were all dressed in three-piece business suits.  They were in the process of conducting Transcendental Meditation’s week-long course leading to super-normal abilities, including flying, levitating, disappearing, x-ray vision, and other siddhis, or supernormal powers.  Their recent press release had advertised the course as “a new breakthrough for human life on earth” for any person.  The reporter was a bit skeptical that people could be taught – for a large fee – to fly or disappear.  He asked one of the executive governors, “Can you literally rise into the air and move horizontally; can you see yourself and can others see you actually fly?”  “Absolutely,” Larry Johnson replied without hesitation, “absolutely.  Once you eliminate all stress from your nervous system, you have unbounded, unlimited potential.  A human can achieve any desire he wants, flying is only one of them.”  “People will be skeptical,” the reporter continued, “How about a demonstration?”  “A public demonstration would cause too much of a ruckus,” said Johnson.  “And we couldn’t show you because we only do it for each other.  Actually, we do our techniques with our eyes closed, but we do peek out once in a while and see each other flying around the room.  You know, one of the siddhis is a technique for making yourself invisible, and the Mararishi has said, ‘Don’t peek out to see if you’ve disappeared.’”  Johnson giggled and added, “We can also teach people to x-ray their own bodies and see through walls. Absolutely, absolutely.  It’s all about infinite correlation.  Absolutely.”  As the battered reporter left the interview, he wondered if the Maharishi was a creation of the CIA.  He remembered John Lennon’s song lines about the Maharishi’s assistant:  “But he often spread rumors through his right hand man/Who used to be with the CIA”

*****

What is “exactly clear” is that Buffalo Springfield (Stephen Stills, Neil Young et al) toured with their Laurel Canyon buddies, the Beach Boys, in late 1967 (their other mutual bud, Charlie Manson, stayed out west presumably to work on his craft) and performed at a very odd venue for a “dissident” rock group, The U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  At that time nearly 500,000 American troops were waging war on the Vietnamese.  That concert was an odd happening, wouldn’t you say?

*****

If  everyone actually looked, they’d see precisely what went down, “what’s going down,” and why we are going down.  If you think many of these things “just happen” for no reason, then I guess you are just “f*cked.”  Excuse me, but it’s true.  Does the asterisk help?

The War Hoax Redux

The Trump administration has a problem: How to start another war – this time with Iran – without having a justifiable reason for one.  No doubt members of Trump’s team, led by the war-thirsty and perdurable John Bolton, are working hard to solve this urgent problem.  If they can’t find a justification, they may have to create one.  Or perhaps they will find what they have already created.  Whatever the solution, Americans should feel confident that their leaders, together with their Israeli and Saudi bedfellows, are not sitting on their hands.  Crazy people do crazy things.

After the Gulf War in 1991 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it slowly became apparent what alternative media and war critics had insisted was the case before and during these wars: That the U.S. government had achieved a propaganda coup by tightly controlling the media access to the truth and by getting the mainstream media (MSM) to do their bidding.  This ex post facto revelation was, of course, not prime time or front page news, but was reported bit-by-bit by critics or was buried deep within the news reports.  While some of the truth arrived, it did so obliquely, and corporate media devotees went back to their gullible and comforting sleep.

Yet once again Americans are being played for fools by the government and MSM.  The open secret, the insider’s fact, is that the U.S. plans to attack Iran if they can seduce enough Americans that they are threatened.  The Trump people know this, the corporate media shills know it, for the Bush-Clinton-Obama scenario, written years ago, is to act as if it weren’t so, to act as if a peaceful solution were being seriously considered. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, etc. all learned better.  The U.S. never seeks a peaceful solution.

As in 1991 and 2003, the MSM play along with Trump, who repeatedly says, or has his spokespeople say, that the decision hasn’t been made and that the U.S. wants peace. Within a few hours this is contradicted and confusion and uncertainty reign, as planned. Chaos is the name of the game. But everyone in the know knows the decision to attack has been made at some level, especially once the propaganda dummies are all in place.  But they pretend, while the media wait with baited breath as they anticipate their countdown to the dramatic moment when they report the incident that will “compel” the U.S. to attack.

The corporate media, however, always avoid the key question: How will the U.S. justify its fait accompli and what is its goal?  This question is too disturbing to broach, for it suggests that the fix is in, the show is rigged, something is rotten in the symbiotic relationship between a government intent on war and a media in that government’s service.

What could, in the eyes of the American people, justify a war against Iran, assuming the Trump administration even cares about justification?   Will Iran attack Israel?  No. Will Iran attack the United States?  No.  Of course, not, not least because it can’t, even if it wished to do so, which it clearly doesn’t.  Any such Iranian attack – absurd as such a suggestion is – would give the Trump administration ample justification for a war.

So what is the administration to do now that the news from so many quarters – Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. – is so bad?  What, if they are intent on a war with Iran, are they going to do about the absence of a cause for war?  It seems that they are in a dilemma.

“Seem” is the key word.  Logically speaking, if there is a war plan, if there is a Bolton/Pompeo/Israeli scenario, then the gun on the wall in the first act of this deadly play, must go off in the final act, no matter how long it takes.  The audience is being primed by the administration and their media mouthpieces to expect a “smoking gun.”  But what might it be?

“Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun, that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud,” George W. Bush said at a staged pseudo-event on October 7, 2002 as he set Americans up for the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.  It was all predictable,  blatant deception.  And the media played along with such an absurdity.  Iraq obviously had no nuclear weapons or the slightest capability to deliver even a firecracker on the U.S.

Now Iran is the Nuclear devil.  Now Iran must be stopped.  Despite clear evidence to the contrary, Iran has been and will be accused of developing nuclear weapons.  Saddam was said to have had them; Iran only developing them, yet both lies need no evidence, just rhetoric.

Nevertheless, it might be claimed that secret “evidence” must be withheld on “national security” grounds or for fear of endangering Iranian informers or their families.  Thus a preemptive attack could be justified on the grounds of preventing another “Ground Zero” (a misnomer when applied to the World Trade Center site, but conveniently evocative for stirring nuclear fears).

The American people, still severely shaken by the attacks of September 11, 2001, would surely be alarmed by such a “threat,” especially if it were linked to terrorism (on the high seas? In the air?), which has been the modus operandi of one administration after another.  Aren’t we at war with terror?    But it is a strategy – linking nuclear fears with terrorist fears – that the Trump administration may be hoping will cover its lack of evidence with emotional blackmail.  But it is a strategy that may not work, since, for some very odd reason, people may prefer facts to fictions.  I emphasize “may.”

Perhaps Trump’s neo-con henchmen’s  best option, therefore, is to promote or create a Tonkin Gulf incident, “unprovoked aggression against American forces,” as Lyndon Johnson put it when he lied to the world in order to get the war he wanted after JFK had been disposed of by the CIA.  It worked in 1964, so it might work again, especially with the help of our special “ally” in the region – Israel.  And today’s attackers won’t be aggressors, they will be terrorists, which seals the deal.  Bombs away!

It’s hard to say with certainty what justification the Trump war-crazies will settle on, but time is running out for them.  The news is bad from every corner, so something must be done.

Many years of secret American/Israeli planning for an attack upon Iran can’t be wasted.

The stage is set.  The charade continues.  The MSM keep preparing us for the “smoking gun.”  Something’s got to give, and propaganda geniuses are working overtime on delivering us an Oscar-winning justification.

Don’t buy it.

Especially since you’ve heard this before, and I’ve written it.  With a few minor changes and the substitution of Iran for Iraq, this column was published on the morning before George W’s infamous  (the 16 words about uranium from Niger) State of the Union Address on January 28, 2003,  fifty-one days before the invasion of Iraq, and one week before Colin Powell’s lies at the United Nations.

Shocked and surprised should be words eliminated from our vocabularies.

Once Upon a Time Never Comes Again

He wears a mask and his face grows to fit it.

— George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”, 1936

The lobby of the temple of time travel called the Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington, Massachusetts was suffused with a nostalgic vibe tinged with the whiff of encroaching death when I walked in for The Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story.  I had earlier asked the ticket girl if most of the tickets for the two sold-out preview shows were being purchased by old people; she told me no, that many younger people had also bought tickets. However, I didn’t see any.  All I saw were grey or white heads and beards, not with “Time Out of Mind,” as Dylan titled his 1997 album, but with time on their minds, as they shuffled into the dark to see where their time had gone and perhaps, if they were not mystified by their fetishistic worship of Dylan, to meditate on who they had become and where they and he were heading in the days to come.  I imagined most were aware that Dylan had said that he’s been singing about death since he was twelve, and that his music is haunted by images of love and time lost as bells toll for those traveling the road of life in search of forgiveness for their transgressions.

How, I wondered, would this Dylan documentary “story” fashioned by Martin Scorsese, whose own work is marked by themes of guilt and redemption, affect an audience that might never have taken the roads less traveled of their youthful dreams but “fell” into the conformist and oppressive American neo-liberal way of life?  Would this film, in Dylan’s words, get the audience wondering “if I ever became what you wanted me to be/Did I miss the mark or overstep the line/That only you could see?”  Would nostalgia for their youth be a liberating or mystifying force, now that forty plus years have transformed American society into a conservative, postmodern, shopper’s paradise where commodity capitalism has reified all aspects of life, including art objects and artists such a Dylan, imbuing them with magical powers to redeem those who buy their products, which include songs and celebrity “auras”?

I knew I was sitting among people who had fetishized Barack Obama as a savior even while he was waging endless wars and killing American citizens, bailing out his Wall St. and bank supporters, and jailing more whistleblowers than any American president in history, and that Dylan had accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from this icon of rectitude who had served to quell all thoughts of rebellion and whose war victims were not counted by those who bought his brand since God was on his side. Here in this darkened dream factory in a hyper-gentrified “liberal” town, my mind was knotted with thoughts and questions that perhaps the film would address.

The Man Who Isn’t

I knew that no one would answer my questions, but I asked myself anyway. Moreover, I knew there is no Bob Dylan.  He is a figment of the imagination – first his own and then the public’s.  Perhaps behind the character Bob Dylan there is a genuine actor, and I hoped to catch an unintended glimpse of him in the film, but I knew if he appeared it would be obliquely and through a gradual dazzling of truth, as Emily Dickinson would say.  An unconscious disclosure.  For if the real Bob Dylan took off his mask and stood up, his ardent fans would receive it as a slap in the face, and their illusions would transmogrify into delusions as the spell would be broken.  To tell the truth directly is a dangerous undertaking in a country of lies.

Dylan, the spellbinder, has, through his public personae, hypnotized his followers with his tantalizing and wonderful music.  “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me,” wrote D.H. Lawrence in his poem, “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through.”  This sounds like Dylan’s artistic credo. His masks (personae = to sound through) have served as his medium of exchange.  He has been faithful to his tutelary spirit (if not to living people), what the Romans called one’s genius that is gifted to one at birth and is one’s personal spirit to which one must be faithful if one wishes to be born into true and creative life. If one sacrifices to one’s genius, one will in return become a vehicle for the fertile creativity that the genius can bestow.  A person is not a genius but a transmitter of its gifts.

Like Lawrence, Dylan has served as a vehicle for his genius. His many masks, unified by Bob Zimmerman under the pseudonym Bob Dylan, have served as ciphers for the transmission of his enigmatic and arresting art.  But while the music dazzles, the “real” man behind the name can’t stand up – or is it won’t? – because, as always, he’s “invisible now” and “not there,” as his songs have so long told us.

I wondered if my theater companions understood this, or perhaps didn’t want to.  Could that be because their own reality is problematic to them?  Do generations of his fans sense a vacancy at the heart of their self-identities – non-selves – as if they have been absent from their own lives while reveling in Dylan’s kaleidoscopic cast of characters?  Do Dylan’s lyrics – “People don’t live or die people just float” – resonate with them? Lacking Dylan’s artistry, are many reluctant to ask why they are so intrigued by the legerdemain of a man who insists he is absent?  Has a whole generation gone missing?

I am only familiar with the musician who acts upon a special social stage, and I love his creations.  Because Dylan, the performer, has the poet’s touch, a hyperbolic sense of the fantastic, he draws me into his magical web in the pursuit of deeper truths.  He is an artist at war with his art and perhaps his true self, and therefore forces me to venture into uncharted territory and ask uncomfortable questions.  His songs demand that the listener’s mind and spirit be moving as the spirit of creative inspiration moved him. A close listening to many of them will force one to jump from verse to verse – to shoot the gulf – since there are no bridges to cross, no connecting links.

A Magic Show

From the start, The Rolling Thunder Revue, a fused compilation of film from a tour throughout New England concocted by Dylan that took place in 1975-6 as a rollicking experiment in communal music making, announces that we are going to be played with and that Dylan and Scorsese are conjurers whose prestigitations are going to dazzle us, which they do.  The film is gripping and cinematically beautiful. The opening scene is taken from a very old film in which a woman is sitting in a chair and a man throws a cloth over her.  When he pulls the cloth away, the woman has disappeared.  Call it playful magic, call it fun, call it entertainment – we can’t say we haven’t been warned – but after decades of postmodern  gibberish with the blending of fact and fiction, fake news, endless propaganda, and the fiction-of-nonfiction, one might reasonably expect something more straightforward in 2019, but these guys get a kick out of magic tricks and conning people.

I could understand it if it served some larger purpose, but as the film shows, it doesn’t.  Later in the film, Dylan says, as if he needed to pound the point home, “If someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth.  If he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.”  This may be true for him, but as a general prescription for living, it is bullshit.  Of course, lies are commonplace, but isn’t it best to strive for truth, and doesn’t that involve shedding masks. Then again, what does he mean by a mask?

Society trains us all from an early age to lie and deceive and to be socially adjusted persons on the social stage, and since person means mask, do we need some white face paint to obviously mask ourselves to tell the truth?  Why can’t one take off the masks and be authentic?  Why can’t Dylan?  In an interview in 1997 with the music critic Jon Parles, Dylan said while he is mortified to be on stage, it’s the only place where he’s happy.  “It’s the only place you can be who you want to be.”  These are the sad words of a man living in a cage, and only he might know why. I am reminded of Kafka’s story of the caged Hunger Artist. Yet we are left to guess why Dylan is unhappy off stage, but such guessing is the other side of the social game where gossip and pseudo-psychoanalysis sickens us all as we try to decipher the personal lives of the celebrities we worship. Maybe we should examine our own looking-glass selves.

The Mask Falls

Despite being a masked man, there are times in this fascinating film when the lion in Dylan breaks out of the cage, and while the face paint and costume remain, one can see and hear a sense of short-lived liberation in his performances.  His performance of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is so true, so passionate, so real, so intense that his true face shines through in its genuine glory.  The same for his performance of “Hurricane” and a few others.  It’s all in his face and body, his articulation and energy, his fiery eyes.  The performances refute his claim that only a masked man can speak the truth.  As Joan Baez mordantly says, “Everything is forgiven when he sings.”

There is something elegiac about the film, for many of the people in it are now dead and their film presence – that eerie afterlife that technology confers – conveys the ephemerality of fame – and life.  Allen Ginsberg and Sam Shepard are dead, and many of the others are in their twilight years.  But to see them young and frisky and bouncing around on stage and off, giving off sexuality and joy in the music and the trip they’re on, one can’t help be gripped by the passing of time and the contrast between then and now when depression and its pharmaceutical fixes has so many in its grip.  Dylan’s craggy, lined face in interviews for the film belies the young man we see perform and laugh, and though he stills performs and is addicted to being on the road so often – quite a feat for a 78 year old – the juxtapositions of the images underscores the power of Dylan’s musical messages.  “Once upon a time,” Dylan croons these days, “somehow once upon a time/never comes again.”

When one puts the then and now into historical and social perspective – which is essential since works of art are rooted in time, place, economic and political realities – one is jolted further. It’s almost as if this Rolling Thunder Revue tour was the last gasp for a dying political and artistic culture that represented some hope for change, however small, while also being a symptom of the encroaching theatricality of American life, what Neal Gabler aptly calls, Life: the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.

The Triumph of Techno-Entertainment

Trace, if you will, the transformation of the United States from 1975-6 until today.  It’s as if the theatricality of the tour was announcing the end of straightforward dissent and the ushering in of endless postmodern gamesmanship that is still with us. Masks. Games. Generations disappearing into technological and consumer fantasies where making money, watching television, and entering the system that destroys one’s soul became the norm, as the American empire ravaged the world and Baby Boomers found life in their cell phones and on yoga mats, as Herbert Marcuse and his compatriots of the Frankfurt School warned. The culture industry absorbed dissent and spit it back out as entertainment in the service of the maintenance and consolidation of the power of the ruling class. How to transform a depraved society when the culture industry has corrupted so many people at their cores is where we’re at now.  “The carpet too is moving under you,” Dylan intoned in 1965, “It’s all over now, Baby Blue.”

I looked around the movie theater before the film began and the rows were lit up by old folks staring at their little lit-up rectangular talismans.  It was enough to bring me to despair. I was reminded of being in the circus in Madison Square Garden as a child where the kids were swinging sticks with cords attached with lights at the end that lit up the place.

They say the circuses are all closing, but I think not.  “It’s not dark yet/but it’s getting there.”

In an exchange between Dylan and Sam Shepard, who was on the tour as some sort of writer, Dylan asks Sam how he writes all those plays, and Sam says he does so by “communing with the dead.”  The Rolling Thunder Revue is like that, a medium between a time when passion still lived, and today when death, dying, and nostalgia are the norm for so many whose passion has fled into things.  Capitalism has conquered consciences with commodities.

Home Before Dark?

Dylan had his fallow period after the late seventies.  To his great credit, he found new life, starting in the late 1990s with his Time Out Of Mind album and continuing through his recordings of the great American songbook of love ballads, the terrain of Sinatra and Bennett.  Listening to him sing these great songs he did not write, I find his masks have fallen away and that a sad, lonely man emerges.  A man filled with regrets and melancholia.  An old man lamenting in a movingly raspy voice lost loves and haunted by what was and what might have been.  A death-haunted man voicing raw emotion that is palpable.  An uncaged man.

So much about Bob Dylan is paradoxical, or is it contradictory?  Hypocritical?

Friedrich Nietzsche, another man of many faces, who advised us to “become who you are,” once wrote, “There are unconscious actors among them and involuntary actors; the genuine are always rare, especially genuine actors.”  I don’t know if the man behind the name Bob Dylan is a “genuine actor” (genuine being cognate with genius, both suggesting the act of giving birth, creating), for I have never met him.  I hope he has met himself. He hints that someone is missing, whether that is the fictional actor or the genuine one, is difficult to discern.  Is he becoming who he is, or is he lost out on the road “with no direction home”?  He is always on the go, leaving, moving, restless, always seeking a way back home through song, even when, or perhaps because, there are no directions.

The Rolling Thunder Revue is a nostalgic trip.  No doubt, audiences of a certain age will experience it as such.  Such an aching for home comes with a cost: the acute awareness that you can’t go home again. When the nursing and funeral home beckon, however, one can perhaps take a chance on truth by examining one’s conscience to ask if and why one may have betrayed one’s better youthful self and settled for a life of comforting conformity and resigned acceptance of the “system” one once raged against.

Younger people, if they are patient and watch the entire film, will experience a profound aesthetic shock that may give them hope.  To see through the camera’s eye the youthful Dylan’s face as he gives some of the most passionate performances of his life will thrill them so that a shiver will go down their spines and their hair will stand on end.  “And this is what poetry does,” writes Roberto Calasso in Literature and the Gods, “it makes us see what otherwise we wouldn’t have seen, through a sound that was never heard before.”  To watch just a handful of these performances makes the film worthwhile.

Become Who You Are?

At one point, today’s Dylan says that he has always been “searching for the Holy Grail.”  I suppose one could interpret that as meaning eternal youth, happiness, redemption, or some sort of immortality.  He has surely created a capitalist’s corporate empire, though that doesn’t seem to satisfy him, as it never has genuine poets.  But maybe to become very, very rich and famous has always been his goal, his immortality project, as it is for other tycoons.  One can only guess.

I prefer not to.  But without question, Dylan has the poet’s touch, a hyperbolic sense of the fantastic that draws you into his magical web in the pursuit of deeper truth.  In ways, he’s like the Latin American magical realist writers who move from fact to dream to the fantastic in a puff of wind.

He is our Emerson.  His artistic philosophy has always been about movement in space and time through song.  “An artist has got to be careful never to arrive at a place where he thinks he’s at somewhere,” he’s said.  “You always have to realize that you are constantly in a state of becoming and as long as you can stay in that realm you’ll be alright.”

Sounds like living, right?

Sounds like Emerson, also.  “Life only avails, not the having lived.  Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim.  Thus one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes.”

Like Emerson, Dylan creates a sense of restlessness in the listener that forces one to ask: Who am I?  Am I?  He has said “that a song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true.”  In a similar way, Scorsese has created a dream with this film.  It takes us back and forth in time via an hallucinatory experience.  A sort of documentary with a wink.

It is quite a story, powerful enough to induce one to ask: Who are we becoming in this American Dream?  Will we keep sleeping through the nightmares we create and support, or will we return home with Dylan and embrace the radical truth he once gifted us with and dare to “tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it/And reflect from the mountains so all souls can see it” that our country continues to kill and oppress people all around the world as it did once upon a time very long ago?

Our chance won’t come again.

Speeding into the Void of Cyberspace as Designed

The internet was hardwired to be a surveillance tool from the start.  No matter what we use the network for today – dating, directions, encrypted chat, email, or just reading the news – it always had a dual-use nature rooted in intelligence gathering and war….[Surveillance Valley shows] the ongoing overlap between the Internet and the military-industrial complex that spawned it a half century ago, and the close ties that exist between the US intelligence agencies and the antigovernment privacy movement that has sprung up in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks.

– Yasha Levine, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet, February 6, 2018

My Dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place.  If you wish to go anywhere, you must run twice as fast as that.

– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, November 26, 1865

Speed and panic go hand-in-hand in today’s fabricated world of engineered emergencies and digital alerts.  “We have no time” is today’s mantra – “We are running out of time” – and because this mood of urgency has come to grip most people’s minds, deep thinking about why this is so and who benefits is in short supply. I believe most people sense this to be true but don’t know how to extract themselves from the addictive nature of speed long enough to grasp how deeply they have been propagandized, and why.

A key turning point in the creation of this mood of an ongoing emergency and tense urgency was the naming of the attacks of September 11, 2001 as “9/11.”  “Quick, call 911” permeated deep into popular consciousness. The so-called “security” it elicited became a cloaked form of interminable terror.  The future editor of The New York Times and Iraq war promoter, Bill Keller, introduced this emergency phone connection on the morning of September 12, 2001 in a New York Times op-ed piece, “America’s Emergency Line: 911.”  The linkage of the attacks to a permanent national emergency was thus subliminally introduced, as Keller mentioned Israel nine times and seven times compared the U.S. situation to that of Israel as a target for terrorists.  His first sentence reads: “An Israeli response to America’s aptly dated wake-up call might well be, ‘Now you know.’”

By referring to September 11 as 9/11, an endless national emergency became wedded to an endless war on terror aimed at preventing Hitler-like terrorists from obliterating us with nuclear weapons that could create another “ground zero” or holocaust.  Mentioning Israel (“America is proud to be Israel’s closest ally and best friend in the world,” George W. Bush would tell the Israeli Knesset) so many times, Keller was not very subtly performing an act of legerdemain with multiple meanings.  By comparing the victims of the 11 September attacks to Israeli “victims,” he was implying, among other things, that the Israelis are innocent victims who are not involved in terrorism, but are terrorized by Palestinians, as Americans are terrorized by fanatical Muslims.  Palestinians/Al-Qaeda/Iraq/Iran/Afghanistan/Syria versus Israel/United States.  Explicit and implicit parallels of the guilty and the innocent.  Keller tells us who the real killers are, as if he knew who was guilty and who was innocent.

His use of the term 9/11 pushes all the right buttons, evoking unending social fear and anxiety.  It is language as sorcery. It is propaganda at its best. Even well respected critics of the U.S. government’s explanation use this term that has become a fixture of public consciousness through endless repetition.  As George W. Bush would later put it, as he connected Saddam Hussein to “9/11” and pushed for the Iraq war, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”  All the ingredients for a linguistic mind-control smoothie had been blended.  Under Obama, it was Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and Russia, and now Trump touts Iran as the great threat.  So many emergencies following fast upon each other are enough to make your head spin.

This sense of ongoing urgency and dread was joined to the fast growing (and getting faster by the day) internet and cell phone world that has come to dominate contemporary life.  Permanent busyness and speed – a state of on-edge nervousness and panic with digital alerts – are today’s norms.  The majority of people live “on” their phones with their constant beeps, and the digital media have fragmented our sense of time into perpetual presents that create historical amnesia and digital dementia.  In a so-called progressive world of consumer capitalism, the era of what the astute sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has called “liquid modernity,” time itself has become an online transaction, a liquid commodity that flows away faster than a scrolling screen.

We live in a use-by-date digital world in a state of suspended animation where “time is short” and we must hustle before our use-by date is past. The pace of private and public life has outrun most people’s ability to slow down long enough to realize a hidden hustler has taken them for a ride to Wonderland where the only wonder is that more people have not gone insane as they slip and slide away on the superhighway to nowhere.

John Berger, as only a sage artist would, noted this essential truth in his 1972 novel G.:

Every ruling minority needs to numb and, if possible, to kill the time sense of those whom it exploits.  This is the authoritarian secret of all methods of imprisonment.

Today the vast majority of people, trapped by the manufactured illusion of speed, are in their cells, quickly texting and calling and checking to see if they’ve missed anything as time flies by.

Much is said about various types of environmental pollution, but the pollution of speed and its effects on mind and body are rarely mentioned, except to express gladness for more speed.  The rollout of 5G technology is a case in point. Mental and physical health concerns be damned.  Back in the 19th century, when space and time were being first “conquered” by the camera, telegraph, and telephone, these inventions were described as flying machines.  Time flew, voices flew, images flew.  Soon the phonograph and film would capture and preserve the “living” voices and the moving images of the living and the dead. It was scientific spiritualism at its birth. Today’s comical research into downloading “consciousness” to conquer death by becoming machines is its latest manifestation.

That the clowns behind this speed culture are growing rich on this research at our elite universities that are funded by the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies doesn’t make people howl with sardonic laughter puzzles me. Laughter’s good; it slows you down.  I just had a good laugh reading an article about scientists wondering why new research “suggests” that the universe may be a billion years younger than they thought.  I love their precision, don’t you?  My students, in their learned helplessness and desire to be told what to do, have often asked me how long their term papers should be, and when I tell them probably 37 1/2 words, they look at me with mouths agape.  What do you mean? one finally asks.  I tell them that writing 37 1/2 words is much faster than having to think slowly as you write, and when you have nothing left to say, to just stop.  A fast 37 1/2 words solves the thinking problem.  Maybe you can text me your paper, I often add, even though I don’t do texting.

On a more serious note, a lifelong student of speed (dromology), the brilliant French thinker Paul Virilio, has shown how speed and war have developed together and how totalitarianism is latent in technology.  Few listen, just as they did not listen to Jacques Ellul, Lewis Mumford, Neil Postman, and others who warned of the direction technology was taking us. Nuclear weapons are the supreme technological “achievement,” of course, devices that can eliminate all space and time in a flash. They work fast.  Virilio says,

The speed of the new optoelectronic and electroacoustic milieu becomes the final void (the void of the quick), a vacuum that no longer depends on the interval between places or things and so on the world’s very extension, but on the interface of an instantaneous transmission of remote appearances, on a geographic and geometric retention in which all volume, all relief vanish.

As I write, I look down at my wristwatch lying on the desk and laugh.  My sister gave it to me after her husband died.  He had won it as a member of the Villanova track team that won the 4 man, 2-mile relay at the famous Coliseum Relays in Los Angeles in near world record time.  Young men whose bodies were in motion to move across terra firma as fast as possible.  No drugs produced in a technological chemical factory to aid them. No gimmicks.  Just bodies in motion, unlike today.  It is an analog watch that must be wound every day when the sun rises.  But my brother-in-law never wound it because he never used it. He was saving it as a stashed-away memento in some sort of suspended time. I like it because it always runs a bit slow, unlike the Villanova flashes.  I like slow.

In a brilliant book written in 1999 before the hyper-speed era was fully underway – Speaking Into The Air: A History of the Idea of Communication – John Durham Peters, while not especially focusing on the issue of speed and technology as does Virilio, indirectly explores the fundamental issue that underlies technology and its control by the elites.  The problem with technology is that it is the use of a technique applied to physical things to control those who don’t control the machines. Today that is the Internet and digital technology, controlled by those Virilio calls “the global kinetic elites.” Many readers might remember the iconic line from the film Cool Hand Luke with Paul Newman: “What we have here is failure to communicate.”  That is our issue.  How to communicate, and to whom, and who controls our means and speed of communication.  Speed kills genuine communication, which may be its point.

Here’s what Peters has to say about the new media of the 19th century.

Media of transmission allow crosscuts through space, but recording media allow jump cuts through time.  The sentence for death for sound, image, and experience had been commuted.  Speech and action could live beyond their human origins.  In short, recording media made the afterlife of the dead possible in a new way.  As Scientific American put it of the phonograph in  1877: ‘Speech has become, as it were, immortal. That ‘as it were’ is the dwelling place of ghosts.

Despite our advanced technology today, we still die, but we live faster, which is not to say better.  We live faster until modern medicine makes our dying slower.  Speed grants us the illusion of control, an illusionary sense of stop-time in the midst of techno-time, digital time, pointillistic time where so much is happening simultaneously across the internet and we “have” it at our fingertips.  Awash in cultural nostalgia that gives us a frisson of false comfort, we scroll the past as fast as we can.  In the small town where I live, urbanites come in droves for nostalgia and create hyper-gentrification.  I see them rapidly walking the country roads talking from their cells as bird song, rustling leaves, and lapping water passes them by, the technology serving as a shield from reality itself.

To realize that the Internet was developed as a weapon and has killed our sense of flesh and blood natural time to exploit us through speed should be obvious, though I suspect it isn’t.  The invention and control of the Internet by the Pentagon, the intelligence agencies, and their allies in Silicon Valley, as Yasha Levine chronicles in Surveillance Valley, is a fundamental problem that deserves focused attention.  However, who can slow down enough to focus?  As he says, “American military interests continue to dominate all parts of the network, even those that supposedly stand in opposition.”  This includes Tor and Signal, two encrypted mobile phone and internet services highly touted by journalists, political activists, and dissidents for their ability to make it impossible for governments to monitor communication.  Levine writes:

While Internet billionaires like Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg slam government surveillance, talk up freedom, and embrace Snowden and crypto privacy culture, their companies still cut deals with the Pentagon, work with the NSA and CIA, and continue to track and profile people for profit.  It is the same old split-screen marketing trick: the public branding and the behind-the-scenes reality.

The Internet is, as he argues, an “old cybernetic dream of a world where everyone is watched, predicted, and control.”  It is also where you are reading this, another article that will fast disappear from your mind as a stream of more urgent articles rush into print to push it aside.

We are homeless modern minds now, exiled from earth time, and if we don’t rediscover our way back to a slow contemplation of our fate and the ontological reality of human being itself, I’m afraid we are speeding into the void.

Answering the Mysterious Call of An Artist’s Spiritual Vocation

Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive.

— Kabir, “To Be a Slave of Intensity”

Strange how a man
Can enter your life
Just like that: a knock
Out of nowhere
And you’ve slipped away
To a rendezvous with destiny
That always awaited you.

— EJC, “The Birth and Death of Trauma”

Myths and popular tales, like life, are replete with accounts of those not answering the call, of locking the door to their hearts and shutting themselves up in sterile and safe lives where the rest of the world is not even an afterthought, where others suffer and die because of one’s indifference.  Answering can be very dangerous, for it can take you on a journey from which you may never return, surely, at least, as the same person.  Only the courageous heed the call.

When Carolyn Forché, a twenty-seven year old naïve academic poet living in the San Diego area, miraculously answered the call of a Salvadorian stranger named Leonel Gómez Vides, who showed up at her door out of the blue, to go to El Salvador, a country she knew very little about but to which he said war was coming and her poet’s eye was needed, she acted intuitively and bravely from her deep soul’s murmurings and said yes, not knowing why or where she was heading except into the unknown.

This memoir, a souvenir of hope and terror and a call to resistance, a poet’s lucid dreaming between childhood and an adult awakening, invites the reader to examine one’s life and conscience through language that emulates our living experience as it strains toward meaning through a wandering dialectical consciousness that weaves the past present with the present past and lucid dreaming with the waking state. One experiences this book as one does life, not, as the French existentialist Gabriel Marcel, has said, “as a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.”  It is impossible to adequately “review” a book that breathes.  One can only conspire with it to uncover the conspiracy of silence that is American government propaganda.

For at the heart of this mystery are facts, which Forché describes in graphic detail, the truth of how the United States government has long been doing the devil’s murderous work in El Salvador, throughout Latin America and the world, as current events confirm.  Forché asks us to enter into her memories not to wax nostalgic, but to wake to the truth of today.  The truth that little has changed and the past was prologue.  The U.S. is still “Murder Incorporated,” and Americans must see this clearly, and resist.

Carolyn’s “Yes” to the enigmatic stranger Leonel, so I sense from her reveries, was the fruit of a seed of faith planted when she was a child of ten or so in Michigan.

The girl I once was, who had been a Catholic, woke for the bells of the Angelus at six in the morning, Angelus Domini.  I sang to myself as I walked to morning Mass under a canopy of maples, through a wetland of swamp cabbage and red-winged blackbirds, the quiet, low Mass where it was possible to pray in peace, with the Latin liturgy a murmur in the air….I felt at peace in the church, on the padded kneeler near the stained-glass windows depicting the seven sorrows along the west wall, the seven joys along the east….When I knelt beside them, the floor, the pews, and my own body were quilted in colored light.

But she tells Leonel that she has “fallen” because she no longer attends Mass.

Leonel, a “non-believer” who says “I believe with my life, how I live,” tells her about Padre Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest who was murdered with an old man and a boy by the U.S. trained and supported Salvadorian death-squads.  “God that Padre Grande taught was not up in the sky lying in some damn cloud hammock.  This was a God who expected us to be brothers and sisters and to make of earth a just place.”

This was her introduction to a new theology, a way of connecting her spiritual core from a conservative Catholic childhood piety to the liberation theology that created Christian base communities of the poor and persecuted in El Salvador and other Latin American countries.  Dissident Christianity. True Christianity. When she went to El Salvador soon thereafter, not only did the poet leave the quiet of her study where her work might have revolved around herself, but the little girl left the church building to discover, as a changed woman, Christ among the poor and persecuted in the living world.

One night she meets a man in the shadows of such a Christian base community where a few of its members had been killed and dismembered by the government death squads.  His pseudonym is Inocencio.  “You can say Chencho,” he tells her.  At first he thinks she is a nun, (“although,“ as a girl, “I considered that vocation.”) because she smokes, and some of the foreign nuns smoke and don’t dress in traditional habits.  He asks her why she is there and she says, “You know, I’m not sure.”  She then explains how an unnamed person invited her to come to see the truth for herself because war was coming, and when she returned to the United States to “explain the reasons for the war to the North Americans, because my friend tells me that this will be important, that the real reasons be known, so that the people of the United States understand.”

Chencho is a catechist who secretly moves under darkness of night from one small Christian base community to another, encouraging the campesinos to keep the faith because God is with them, la gente, los pobres, the people, the poor.  He says to Carolyn:

Listen to me, hermana.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ, and Christ is moving through the world now, through us.  He is acting through us in the struggle against injustice, poverty, and oppression.  To be with God now is to choose the fate of the poor, to be with them, to see through their eyes and feel through their hearts, and if this means torture and death, we accept.  We are already in the grave.

Later, Leonel takes her to visit a friend who is in a prison from hell where men are tortured in padlocked wooden boxes the size of washing machines.  Afterwards she vomits. Then they go to visit a dirt poor young mother give birth in a casita in which there was nothing, “really nothing: a candle, a plastic basin, a ladle hanging against the wall, and, in the candlelight, the shadow of a wooden chair dancing on the wall.”

I followed him [Leonel] through the darkness into a passage, then through a door lit by a candle and, by the light of it, saw people gathered and one of them, someone, took me by the hand and drew me into the circle surrounding a young woman who was lying on her side on a blanket on the floor, her head propped in her hand.  There was a cardboard box beside her, and in the box, a newborn girl with her hair still wet, lying in a towel.  Leonel was looking at me from across the room.  ‘She was born about a half hour ago,’ a young man beside me whispered.  ‘She’s early.  We’re going to name her Alma. Bellisima!’

Then it is on through night to meet with four young impoverished men who read their “political” poems for her, written under pseudonyms for fear for their lives, poems they hope might stir the hearts of people in the United States.

That night I knew something had changed for me, and that I wasn’t going to get tired or need a shower or want to call something off so I could rest, and I hoped that if I forgot this I would somehow remember Alma in the cardboard box in the barrio, and the mimeographed poems….The woman who went into the prison in Ahuachapán left herself behind in a barrio called La Fosa, the grave.

The naïve young poet is buried and the political poet of witness is born.  It is impossible not to be deeply moved and nourished by such a birth.  Who, I wonder, are the “fallen” ones?  What is writing for?  What good are poets?  Why say yes to a stranger’s request when it is so much easier to not answer the knock on the door?  So much easier to barricade ourselves behind walls of denial and say “me first.”  So much easier to ignore the truth that this book reveals: that the United States is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world and our society rests on keeping the poor poor and under the vicious thumbs of the rich.

The world is filled with writers who witness only to their imprisonment in their own egos.  When Carolyn Forché said yes to Leonel and then returned from El Salvador to write “political” poems such as “The Colonel,” she was attacked by writers wishing a poet would stay in her box and not disturb their universe.  That she was not like them angered them, J. Alfred Prufrocks who were not going to come back from the dead to tell us all as she has, poets who had time on their hands to neurotically contemplate their navels with their fellow Americans:

Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

Having heard Leonel’s descriptions of “the silence of misery endured” and the American supported death-squads massacring impoverished Salvadorians, she tells us:

I knew that if I didn’t accept his invitation, I could never live as if I would have been willing to do something, should an opportunity have presented itself.  I could never say to myself: If only I’d had the chance.  This was, I knew, my chance.

Wasn’t such a daring decision by this “fallen” poet the quintessence of the creative act, exactly what inspired artists do when they see the act of writing as an adventure into the unknown where startling truths wait to reveal themselves to the unsuspecting author?  A journey fraught with danger and delight, perhaps delightful danger or dangerous delight, but always ready to surprise with hidden truths that might unlock the prison gates that enclose the world in suffering and pain? Does not the artist proceed into this alien territory armed only with a fierce faith in the power of truth to reveal its face and so strengthen us through disarmament?  Doesn’t a poet trust in a power greater than herself and know what she wishes to say only in the act of saying it?  Isn’t real writing a transmission between the creative spirit and the world of flesh and blood, the living and the dead, a visionary opening into the future where freedom beckons?

Carolyn somehow knew this then and now, and her memoir is the result, a haunting trip into the past to liberate the present.  “The strange, mysterious, perhaps dangerous, perhaps redeeming comfort that there is in writing,” wrote Kafka in his diary.  Perhaps there are certain writings that cannot be adequately reviewed but must be experienced. As I said, I think What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance is such a book.  How do you review a prayer and a mystery?  You must enter them if you are willing.

Carolyn, drawing on the uncanny spirit of her mystical, Gypsy-spirited Czechoslavian grandmother Anna (“I will get Anna out of you if it’s the last thing I do” her mother told her, to no avail), chose to develop her “legitimate strangeness,” as the French poet René Char urged, heeding his words that “what comes into the world to disturb nothing merits neither attention or patience.”  Disturbed and perplexed by the stranger’s tales and her former husband’s experiences in Vietnam and the United Sates’ savage war there, as well as by her mystical Catholic childhood’s faith and its tug of conscience, she joins the mysterious Leonel in El Salvador.

To those ensconced in instrumental rationality, her decision seems insane. However, instrumental rationality is insane, and it has taken us to the brink of nuclear extinction.  It is to the poet’s truth we should turn.  The data-driven instrumental rationalists have given us WW I, II, Auschwitz, Vietnam, the CIA, death squads, Iraq, Syria, etc. – should I give you numbers, list it all, do the logic?  When has such logic convinced the disbelievers?  Logicians don’t trust the soul’s promptings and, like Carolyn, take a chance, take a leap of faith.  They do calculations, follow computer models, and dare not enter the world outside if they are told there is a 60% chance of rain.  And if they are told the sun will shine and all will be well with the world, but a hard rain does fall and the poet shouts there is blood on our hands, they act shocked.  Always shocked at the truth that was there from the start.  If only we had known.

Is it any wonder so many Americans are depressed?

For Carolyn, the child of Czechoslovakian ancestry, the German holocaust atrocities haunted her, and she grew up suffering from periodic depressions that would lift once she felt the urge to do something about the injustices she saw. The urge to act for others freed her from wallowing in depression.  Rather than becoming a nun, she became a poet, and when Leonel told her that an American poet was needed to witness the truth of the American supported atrocities in El Salvador, she trusted the spirit to lead her on, not knowing why this might be so.  What use are poets, she wondered, in the U.S. poetry “doesn’t matter.”  She would soon help change that.

There is an old Catholic prayer that goes like this: “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.”

Might such words have bubbled up from her unconscious?  I have long felt it was a prayer for poets as well as the religiously faithful – are not all inspired together?  Is there a difference?  “I believe in the magic and authority of words,” said Char, the French resistance fighter.  Witness and resistance.  Words.  Poetry.  Prayers.

It is best that I not tell you too much about Leonel.  You will wonder about him, and you will wonder with Carolyn what her relationship with him is all about.  You will discover his essence in the reading. You will learn that he once said to Carolyn that “it isn’t the risk of death and fear of danger that prevent people from rising up, it is numbness, acquiescence, and the defeat of the mind.  Resistance to oppression begins when people realize deeply within themselves that something better is possible.”  You might, like me, question whether this is true only for the most oppressed, or whether it applies to Americans whose lives depend on the subjugation of others in foreign lands.

You will be terrified to learn of the death squads, the brutality and cold-bloodedness of their murders, and Forché’s close escapes as they hunted her.  You will feel her fear.

You will learn of the courageous women who befriend her, her meeting with Archbishop Oscar Romero the week before he is assassinated while saying Mass and Carolyn has left the country at his urging, and you too will be lost in reveries as you travel between worlds of night and day, wealth and poverty, life and death, now and then.

If you are like me, you will be inspired by what the poet Char called “wisdom with tear-filled eyes.”  This book is just that.  It is a call to Americans to face the truth and resist.

Looking Through the Screen at the World’s Suffering

If you are really going to be free, you have to overcome the love of wealth and the fear of death.

— Martin Luther King, Jr. as quoted by Andrew Young in the documentary King in the Wilderness

Most people on this earth live on the edge of an abyss.  Life is a daily struggle to stay alive, to acquire enough to eat and drink, rudimentary health care, housing, and protection from murderous government forces, their various death-squads, and their economic vultures.  The gap between the rich and poor, while always great, has grown even more obscenely vast, and lies at the core of what so many face daily.  Their perilous conditions are sustained by imperial nations, led by the United States, who, together with its minions, buy and bribe and butcher overtly and covertly all around the world.  The love of wealth and the fear of death drive these power-mad marauders and divert the gazes of their citizens from the slaughter.  It’s an old story.

If you are reading this, I am probably not telling you anything new.  You know this, as do I, as I sit safely behind a screened-in table on a beautiful spring day in the hills of western Massachusetts.  I have had some soup and bread for lunch and there are no bombers overhead or death-squads cruising the roads here.  While my family and I live a simple life, compared to the world’s poor and persecuted, we are privileged.  One does not have to be rich to be privileged.  The advantages granted to those like me who can securely sit and pen words about the fate of the poor and persecuted victims of my country’s endless violence weighs heavy on my conscience, as they have done since I was young.

I am ashamed to say that in the early morning of May 1, as I lay in bed musing, I thought I would like to stay in bed all day, a depressed feeling that I had never had before.  Discouragement enveloped me: I was being forced out of my teaching job; I felt that my dissident writing and teaching made no difference in a world where injustice and violence are endemic and without end; and the forces of evil seemed to be triumphing everywhere.  Self-pity mixed with an angry sadness that disgusted me. I disgusted myself.  So I jumped out of bed and prepared to go and teach some of my last classes.  But I was lost in gloom as I drove along the winding roads.

When I arrived at the college and checked my mail, there was a package waiting for me.  It was a review copy of the poet Carolyn Forché’s startling new memoir (What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance) about her youthful transformative experiences in El Salvador in the late 1970s as U.S. trained and supported death-squads brutally murdered poor peasants and priests, and guerrilla resistance was growing prior to the outbreak of civil war.  I opened the book to the epigraph, which reads:

Hope also nourishes us.  Not the hope of fools.  The other kind.  Hope, when everything is clear.
Awareness.

The quotation is from the Salvadorian writer Manlio Argueta, whose deeply moving novel, One Day of Life (1980), banned by the Salvadorian government, takes the reader through one terrifying and bloodstained day in the life of peasants struggling to stay alive as they are tortured and slaughtered with impunity.  We hear the voices of the poor tell a story of the growth of conscience (“God is conscience.  And conscience is we, the ones forgotten now, the poor.”), the discovery of rights, and the awareness of exploitation.  Despite the terrifying evil that pervades this book – now considered one of the greatest Latin American novels of the 20th century – there is a luminous spirit of hope and resistance that miraculously prevails that is passed on from person to person despite death, torture, and immense suffering.  Argueta fulfills the words of the tortured Jose to Lupe: “Don’t worry, if those of us with understanding failed to act, we would all be in real trouble.”

I remembered that I had reviewed this book in the early 1980s at a time when 100 or more very poor campesinos were being murdered every week, a few years after Archbishop Oscar Romero, the courageous defender of the poor who spoke out against the killers, had been gunned down while saying Mass.  The Roman Catholic Church has subsequently declared him a saint.

Yet decades later, despite the extraordinary efforts of awakened souls like Carolyn Forché, it still seems true that Americans can’t visualize, no less believe in or care about, the death and suffering their government is inflicting on innocent people all around the world.  Today’s screen culture – I Phone therefore I Am – while seemingly allowing for the visualization of the suffering of the world’s poor, has rendered all reality more abstract and unreal, while inducing a collective hallucination sustained by media and machines that divorces us from flesh and blood, our own and others.  All the disembodied data that is daily disgorged through these screens seems to me to have rendered the world disincarnate through the metastasizing of a digital dementia tied to death denial.

I think of Galway Kinnell’s poem, “The Fundamental Project of Technology”:

To de-animalize human mentality, to purge it of obsolete,
Evolutionary characteristics, in particular of death,
Which foreknowledge terrorizes the content of skulls with,
Is the fundamental project of technology; however,
pseudologica fantastica’s mechanisms require:
to establish deathlessness it is necessary to eliminate those who die;
a task attempted when a white light flashed.

Awareness?  I sit here looking through the screen that encloses the little porch where my table rests.  MLK’s words reverberate in my mind as I watch a grey fox slink across the grass in search of prey.  What is it about the love of money and the fear of death that so cripples people’s care and compassion?  I know I don’t want to see that fox seize a screaming rabbit and worry (to kill by biting and shaking the throat; strangle) it to death.  Unlike Forché, I have not physically seen the dead and mutilated bodies of Salvadorian victims of death squads, nor been threatened by them, as she was.  Nevertheless, thanks to her and others like Manlio Argueta, I have seen them in my imagination and heard the screams, and they have haunted me.  Ghosts.

But why are some so haunted and others not?

The foreknowledge that terrorizes the contents of skulls, as Kinnell puts it – our ultimate powerlessness – overwhelms humans from childhood unless they can find a way forward that discovers power in powerlessness.  When one’s “well-being” is dependent on the death of others, as is the case for most Americans and others in the so-called first world, people tend to repress the terror of death by building various types of culturally-induced defenses that allow them to shakily believe they are in control of life and death.  One’s natural impotence is then hidden within what Ernest Becker called “the vital lie of character,” and in what, by extension, is the lie of American character that rests on money and military might.

One lives within the manageable cultural world that helps blot out existential awareness by offering various social games, agreed forms of “madness” that narcotize.  One learns to adjust, to use all sorts of techniques to blot out the awareness that each of us is essentially exposed and mortal, flesh and blood.  The aim is clearly to cut life down to manageable proportions, domesticate terror, and learn to think we are captains of our fate.  Inevitably, however, not all these social “tricks” work equally well.  Life’s terrors have a way of breaking through to dim awareness, and therefore more drastic measures are needed.  So after having lived the cultural lie uncritically, one tries to blot out awareness itself.  If shopping to forget doesn’t work, if obsessive work doesn’t do it, one turns to drugs or drink, anything to forget, anything to assuage our fears, anything to deny our need for courage.  Anything to help us refuse the truth that our lives are built on the blood of others.

The ineluctable reality of uncertainty is our fate. I have always known that, but I forget.  I have also long known that we live by faith of one kind or another, and whatever name we give it, it is by faith we enter into the holy mystery of existence.  We are carried forward by the spirit that binds us in solidarity to all human struggles for freedom and dignity, for bread and justice. The day I wished to stay in bed and wallow in self-pity and depression came as a shock to me.  It revealed to me my hubris, my sense of self-importance, as if my efforts were not just a drop in the sea, seeds scattered that may or may not take root.  I was afraid to accept possible defeat, despite my best efforts.  I was afraid of death and lacked courage.  Like those I criticize for turning their faces away from the suffering faces of America’s victims, I lost my courage that morning in bed.  And hope.

But later that day I would awaken and see through the screen of my self-importance when I leafed through Carolyn Forché’s book and chanced upon her quoting Fr. Romero’s words: “We must hope without hoping.  We must hope when we have no hope.”

Then her poem “Ourselves or Nothing” bubbled up in memory:

There is a cyclone fence between
Ourselves and the slaughter and behind it
We hover in a calm protected world like
Netted fish, exactly like netted fish.
It is either the beginning or the end
Of the world, and the choice is ourselves or nothing.

Priest and poet reminding us to fight lucidly on.  Hope when everything is clear.  Awareness.