All posts by Michael Howard

Born of Frustration

A few weeks ago, days before the release of his first nonfiction book, White, Bret Easton Ellis was ambushed—or “punked,” as he later put it—by the New Yorker. In an interview that reads like a cross-examination, “Q and A” specialist Isaac Chotiner bombards the Glamorama author (that, not American Psycho, is his best novel) with questions about his views on Donald Trump, making his derision known with surly demands and sarcastic responses to Ellis’ rather feeble efforts to explain himself. “Tell me what you meant.” “That’s not true, but OK.” “Oh, OK.” “Do you think [Trump] is a racist or not?” “Well, you said it—of course you agree.” “Yeah, I could tell.” When Ellis says he thinks politics are “ridiculous,” Chotiner counsels, “Maybe don’t write a book about it,” and closes the exchange with a gallant “Thanks so much for talking.”

New Yorker subscribers—I’m told they exist—could be forgiven for coming away with the impression that White is a sort of Coulterian apologia for Donald Trump and his vile brand of politics. If it were that, Chotiner’s prosecutor act might be warranted, albeit not on journalistic grounds. But since Ellis’ book is nothing of the sort, we can assume that Chotiner either didn’t read it or read it, disliked it, and decided to mislead his readers as to its content. Either way he seems satisfied with himself; good for him. In fact, White is a sprawling and at times rambling social critique, the tone and subject matter of which will be familiar to anyone who has listened to Ellis’ podcast or read his handful of essays. Donny Boy makes his first appearance on page 141, more than halfway through the book. He’s discussed for 25 pages, dropped for another 100, and then summoned again, with Kayne West for context, in the last 20 pages. Forty-five of 260 pages have anything to do with Trump. Yet the book is about Trump—a marvelous feat.

The Trump sections are not White’s finest. Ellis is at sea when commenting on politics, which is why he bases most of his arguments on the irrationality he observes in other people—mostly his friends and acquaintances—who are equally at sea but don’t appear to realize it. He writes at length, oftentimes amusingly, of his much younger boyfriend’s Trump-induced crack-up. For example, “During the months after the election I could count the number of times my inconsolable boyfriend had left the condo—and didn’t need more than two hands to tally them up. His hair became long and tousled, he hadn’t shaved for months, and he also developed three nonopiate addictions: Russian conspiracies as discussed on Reddit, Rachel Maddow detailing Russian conspiracy theories on MSNBC, and playing Final Fantasy XV.” Also, “At times he resembled a bedraggled and enraged Russian peasant, ranting and stomping around the condo, MSNBC blaring, yelling ‘Piece of shit!’ whenever Trump’s visage appeared on the TV screen in the living room.”

“He was part of the supposed resistance,” Ellis writes, “though too tired and stoned to actually go out and resist.” This is both funny and insightful, as it reflects the sheer uselessness of a political “resistance” whose definition of activism is to rant and rave about the latest anti-Russian conspiracy theory, dreamed up by Democratic hacks and disseminated by out-of-control propagandists like Rachel Maddow, on Facebook and Twitter. There’s a reason The Resistance is the object of ridicule among leftists who tune into MSNBC only when they feel like torturing themselves. (I don’t have a TV and so am unable to indulge my own masochistic impulses.)

Ellis is, as he would probably tell you, a political idiot. Evidence: “in the summer of 2015 something began to distract me, something odd was happening, something didn’t seem right: the mainstream news that I had read and mostly trusted my entire adult life, legacy institutions like The New York Times and CNN, wasn’t tracking what seemed to me a shifting reality.” “At some point I found it distracting to be living in a country whose press had become so biased and highly corporate.” A flash of the old satire? No, he means it. Presumably Ellis has never read Manufacturing Consent or any of the other numerous studies detailing the corporate media’s … difficult relationship with reality. The “legacy media,” as Ellis terms them, certainly have a legacy—so too does Charles Manson.

With that written, Ellis makes valid points here and there. “Surely there were people—DACA recipients, or the targets of ICE raids—who had a right to freak out, but the white, upper middle class in colleges, in Hollywood, in the media, and in Silicon Valley? … The rich and entitled liberals I knew always had the hardest time and were always the most hysterical.” There is something rich about filthy rich Hollywood types (Ellis, employing a right-wing tactic, erroneously brands them “the Left”) throwing temper tantrums over Trump. They’re the same people who sang Obama’s praises while he smashed Libya, bailed out Wall Street, set a new record for deportations and expanded our nuclear weapons systems. They’re also the same people who were glad to hobnob with Don the business celebrity, who was no less vulgar and objectionable than Don the president.

“The young men, Wall Street guys, I hung out with as part of my initial research [for American Psycho] were enthralled by him,” Ellis recalls. “Trump was an inspirational figure, which troubled me in 1987 and 1988 and 1989, and also why he’s mentioned more than forty times in the novel. He’s who Bateman is obsessed with, the daddy he never had, the man he wants to be.”

The writing was on the wall in the ‘80s. Trump was always a scourge. Ellis saw it; many other people did not. Now he’s accused of being blind to Trump’s malignancy. This hypocrisy evidently winds him up and goes some way in accounting for his anti-anti-Trump stance. Mostly, though, Ellis is simply irritated that Trump’s election has made it difficult for him to talk with other people about the things about which he’s passionate:

My moral ambivalence about politics in general has always left me the neutral guest at many tables. As a writer I found myself more interested in understanding my friends’ thoughts and feelings than in debating the accuracy of their political forecasts or who should have won the Electoral College, or if it should even exist. I preferred, as always, to talk with them about movies and books and music and TV shows.

He relates at least half a dozen anecdotes about dinner dates spoiled by crazed political tirades. On one such date, Ellis was read the riot act by two old friends who were appalled to learn of his insouciance re Trump. “One of them said the Electoral College was ‘bullshit’ [it is] and that Los Angeles and New York should determine who ‘the fucking president’ is. ‘I don’t want any goddamn know-nothing rural hicks deciding who the president should be,’ he growled. ‘I am a proud liberal coastal elite and I think we should pick the president because we know better.’” Foul, but standard upper class rhetoric. Another meal was wrecked by a spat over Moonlight and Black Lives Matter. “Sometimes,” Ellis admits, “when listening to friends of mine, I’d stare at them while a tiny voice in the back of my head started sighing, You are the biggest fucking baby I’ve ever fucking heard in my entire fucking life and please you’ve got to fucking calm the fuck down—I get it, I get it, you don’t like fucking Trump but for fuck’s sake enough already for fuck’s sake.

White is born of this frustration. If Ellis can no longer discuss his interests with friends, he’s going to discuss them with himself—and anyone who cares to read him. Thus, we get long (sometimes painfully so) meditations on all his abiding hobby-horses, as well as a few from his past. Large columns of text are dedicated to the pernicious impact Ellis says social media is having on society, tying this into his triad of “cults”—likability, inclusivity and victimhood—as well as his “reputation economy.” He laments the reluctance of his podcast guests, especially actors, to air their opinions publicly, arguing that in today’s outrage-prone culture one is perpetually walking on eggshells, worried about hurting other people’s feelings and provoking a digital lynch mob. Earlier he asserts that “we’ve all become actors. We’ve had to rethink the means with which to express our feelings and thoughts and ideas and opinions in the void created by a corporate culture that is forever trying to silence us by sucking up everything human and contradictory and real with its assigned rule book on how to behave. We seem to have entered precariously into a kind of totalitarianism that actually abhors free speech and punishes people for revealing their true selves.”

In support of this theory Ellis cites his GLAAD dust-up, Milo Yiannopoulos, the Charlie Hebdo attacks, his Twitter troubles and, of course, the row surrounding the publication of American Psycho. Ellis still maintains that said row blindsided him, writing that the prospect had never occurred to him until his then-boyfriend, perusing a gory bit of the manuscript, warned him: “You’re going to get into trouble.” I think we can take him at his word at this point. If nothing else, and regardless of what you think of him or his writing, Ellis can and should be commended for his unswerving defense of free speech, without which we have nothing. That individuals and organizations posturing as liberal attempted to impose prior restraint on a work of fiction at the tail end of the 20th century is still unnerving to contemplate. Ellis was right to feel persecuted—an attack on one person’s right to free speech is an attack on everyone’s. In case anyone forgot:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Needless to say, there’s plenty in White about contemporary film (Ellis’ main obsession), including a prolix segment comparing Moonlight with the lesser known King Kobra. Ellis prefers the latter since it depicts a group of knotty characters who happen to be, among other things, gay (i.e. their sexuality is incidental to their story; it’s a, not the, theme), whereas Moonlight deploys homosexuality as a narrative propeller and instrument of extreme pathos, rendering the protagonist a righteous, victimized, character—a tragic hero for the postmodernist age. I haven’t watched King Kobra, but I more or less agree with Ellis’ assessment of Moonlight, namely, that its success owes more to its political (Ellis would say “ideological”) utility than its aesthetic value. This signals a peculiar shift in the way we, as a culture, consume and rate works of art. “The only way you can judge Wagner or Beethoven or any other composer,” novelist Anthony Burgess argued, “is aesthetically. We don’t regard Wagner or Beethoven or Shakespeare or Milton as great teachers.” By “don’t” he means shouldn’t. History is replete with evidence that great art does not presuppose a moral superiority on the part of the artist—the two things have nothing to do with one another. A very bad person can make very good art and vice versa, a truism fewer and fewer people seem willing to accept.

For Ellis, Moonlight also highlights an issue he has with popular media representations of the gay celebrity: “as some kind of saintly, adorable ET whose sole purpose is to remind us only about tolerance and our prejudices, to encourage us to feel good about ourselves and to serve as a symbol.” He points to Morrissey as an exception, “calling out contradictions and hypocrisies in society yet he always seems to be chastised by the press and on social media because he’s speaking honestly and doesn’t buy into the accepted narrative of the Applebee’s Gay.” But Morrissey, similar to Gore Vidal (described favorably by Ellis as an “I-don’t-give-a-fuck Empire celebrity”), has always rejected the gay-straight dichotomy and has never identified as homosexual, stating on more than one occasion that the concept is beneath him. “Unfortunately, I am not homosexual,” he wrote in 2013. “In technical fact, I am humasexual. I am attracted to humans. But, of course, not many.” Morrissey’s views on sex are more in time with remarks made by a TV producer whom Ellis obliquely criticizes in White:

A few years ago when a viewer complained to Shonda Rhimes, a top TV producer and showrunner, that there was too much  gay sex on certain series she had created, Rhimes shot back, wagging her finger, that what people were seeing was not “gay sex” but simply “sex.” Some of us scratched our heads—it was? … I understood what Rhimes was going for, but this notion that all sex is the same and we shouldn’t label any of it as being “different” for fear that we aren’t being “inclusive” enough is a nice “progressive” idea that in reality serves no purpose whatsoever.

That notwithstanding, Ellis shares with Morrissey a certain disdain for modern culture, in particular the restraints not-so-subtly being placed on speech and expression by an overzealous liberal media. As natural contrarians, both artists delight in goading their critics, to the point where they probably caricature their own positions. Ellis, for his part, confirms as much, confessing that he likes using “snowflake” as an epithet “because it seemed, amazingly, to press so many buttons.” Also, with regard to his behavior on Twitter:

Now I was trolling. And my desire was to have a good time, to be a provocative, somewhat outrageous and opinionated critic, to be a bad boy, a douche, to lead my own dance in this writers’ funhouse—all in 140 characters or less—and it became a problem for my Twitter self.

Nonfiction Ellis is most readable in autobiographical form (one tires of his polemical style). Memoir punctuates White. We’re given small intimate glimpses into various periods of his life. Growing up, he had a penchant for bloody horror films—shocking—and an infatuation with Richard Gere—shocking again. He writes nostalgically and with unabashed pride of his “pessimistic and ironic” Gen-X upbringing, which he contends is the polar opposite of the millennial experience:

As a 1970s kid there were no helicopter parents: you navigated the world more or less on your own, an exploration unaided by parental authority. In retrospect my parents, like the parents of the friends I grew up with, seemed incredibly nonchalant about us, not at all like parents today who document their children’s every move on Facebook and pose them on Instagram and urge them into safe spaces and demand only positivity while apparently trying to shelter them from everything. If you came of age in the 1970s this was most definitely not your childhood. The world wasn’t about kids yet.

He goes on to declare, as he has many times before, that overweening parents have created a generation of people—“Generation Wuss”—ill-equipped to stand the failure, disappointment and cruelty that define human existence. While I feel no inclination, let alone responsibility, to defend “my generation,” Ellis makes sweeping generalities about millennials that bear little, if any, resemblance to my own experiences and observations. Most of the millennials I know and have known are cynical and sardonic, avidly apolitical, and never harbored any illusions about what life was preparing to throw at them. When Ellis describes his teenage acquaintances, I’m reminded of my own. Of course, I’ve also known the sort of melodramatic and frail “snowflakes” he derides, but they were of a minority, at least in my world (which was garden-variety suburban middle-class), and something tells me the same type of cosseted, thin-skinned kids could be located in previous generations. Moreover, the corporate liberal order he rails against for its preening self-righteousness was engineered by his, not my, generation, though mine is happy to take up the reins.

Early in the book Ellis tells of the nightmare that was the production of the film adaptation of his debut novel Less Than Zero. Nightmare productions would become a recurring theme in his professional life. It seems he toiled over countless TV and film projects that came to naught. Few were produced, none of which did anything financially—nor were they well-received. Even American Psycho: The Musical, slowly developed over a period of ten years, closed “after eighty-one performances including a month of previews, at a cost of fourteen million dollars that was never recouped.” And it was supposed to be “lucrative.” That such a successful writer meets with such regular failure is less consoling than it is depressing. But I digress.

In recounting the production of The Informers, a 2008 film based on Ellis’ short story collection of the same name, Ellis reveals that he’d “fallen for” an actor who was after a role in the movie. This actor thought it might be worthwhile to string Ellis along, and so he did. Reflecting on his realization that “maybe that actor you’ve become intimate with is only that: an actor,” Ellis writes that “The mutual degradation that revealed itself to me was a kind of absurd Hollywood joke without a punch line, one that, years later, I’m thankful for.” The bruising encounter is poignant to read because of the honest and neutral (and implicit) fashion in which it’s related. It’s also interesting in that it shows us the other side of the showbiz exploitation coin: instead of predatory producers, directors, writers manipulating and abusing vulnerable actors, we see the process working in reverse: a sly actor exploits a writer who pays an emotional price. Ellis’ recollection of his troubled life in the summer preceding 9/11 is equally poignant, again because it’s told simply and objectively, with minimal exhibitionism and no self-pity attached.

Nor was I able to pick up on any of the self-aggrandizement charged by some of the book’s detractors. White is predictably being savaged in certain corners of the internet. It is, according to one reviewer, “disingenuous,” “bait,” “childish” and “shapeless,” its author “a racist and a misogynist” with a “laughably derivative vocabulary”—to be contrasted with said reviewer’s majestically original one, using formidable words like “mélange” and “perseverate.” Meanwhile another reviewer, challenging Ellis’ “aesthetics versus ideology” fixation, educates us that “there is no such thing as non-political art.” I’m still waiting for someone, anyone, to explain to me how Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, the height of art, is political. I’ll keep waiting.

White is not a great book. The prose is patchy—clean and taut in some areas, shabby and cumbersome in others. The arguments are repetitive. It’s too long for what it contains. It devotes many a word to Charlie Sheen and Kanye West. But it’s not a bad book, either. It’s Bret Easton Ellis, this time without a fictional sheath for protection, unplugged, spilling his brain on the page. If you don’t like it, don’t look at it.

Assange and the Cowardice of Power

Donald Trump has never heard of WikiLeaks, the publishing organization whose work he repeatedly and unequivocally touted during the 2016 election campaign. “I know nothing about WikiLeaks,” he told reporters after Julian Assange was illegally arrested, after being illegally detained for seven years, in London. “It’s not my thing and I know there is something having to do with Julian Assange.”

Moving past the Trumpian paradox (he knows both “nothing” and “something” about WikiLeaks”), here’s a question for our dear leader: is your own Justice Department “your thing”? Because it was your Justice Department that filed the charges against a man who risked his liberty, and his life, to tell the truth about the most powerful criminal syndicate in the world—the American empire.

Is Trump’s cabinet “his thing”? Was he out golfing when his erstwhile attorney general, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, told the press that arresting Assange was “a priority”? How about when his secretary of state called WikiLeaks “a non-state hostile intelligence service”? Trump’s regime appears to have a remarkable level of interest in an organization about which he knows nothing.

“The weakness of the US charge against Assange is shocking.” That was Edward Snowden’s reaction to the Justice Department’s indictment against Assange. He adds that one of the government’s principal allegations—that Assange attempted to help Manning crack a password in the interest of protecting her identity—has been public knowledge for nearly ten years. Also that Obama, no friend to whistle-blowers, refused to act on it, citing dangers to press freedom.

For those who haven’t read the indictment, please do. It won’t take ten minutes, and it will give you an idea of how far the US government is willing to go to punish those brave enough to expose its sins.

The case against Assange (for now) boils down to this: he allegedly took measures to protect the identity of his source and allegedly encouraged his source to find and pass along more information about American criminality in Iraq and Afghanistan. This, as various journalists have pointed out, is standard journalistic practice. Would Nixon have been nailed by Watergate if Woodward and Bernstein hadn’t repeatedly gone back to their source for further evidence of the president’s malfeasance?

Speaking of Woodward, Snowden reminds us that he (Woodward) “stated publicly he would have advised me to remain in place and act as a mole.” If only Assange had done that—maybe the indictment would carry a little more drama. But all he allegedly did was say, in response to Manning’s claim that she didn’t have any more documents to share, that “curious eyes never run dry in my experience.” The horror!

The allegation that Assange conspired with Manning to gain unauthorized access to a government computer is equally underwhelming and misleading. Manning had authorized access to the secret documents she leaked: what Assange did was try to help her access them from a different username. If successful (it apparently wasn’t), this effort would not have given Manning access to any additional files—it merely would have ensured, or at least enhanced, her anonymity.

FYI: Manning has been locked up in Alexandria, Virginia for more than a month now, spending most of that time in solitary confinement, for refusing to testify against WikiLeaks and Assange in front of a secret grand jury.

Chiming in from her ivory tower, Hillary Clinton joined Democratic and Republican lawmakers in gloating about Assange’s unlawful arrest: “The bottom line is he has to answer for what he has done, at least as it’s been charged.”

We know what he’s been charged with; now let’s recall what he has actually done. Using time-honored journalistic methods, he shone a hard light on crimes routinely committed by the American empire in the name of the American people—crimes that would otherwise have remained concealed behind an iron curtain of government deception and media complicity.

“On the morning of July 12, 2007, two Apache helicopters using 30mm cannon fire killed about a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad. Two children were also wounded. Although some of the men appear to have been armed, the behavior of nearly everyone was relaxed. The US military initially claimed that all the dead were ‘anti-Iraqi forces’ or ‘insurgents.’”

That’s the preface to Collateral Murder, the notorious video published by WikiLeaks showing American troops firing on a group of people standing around in the street. Two of them were Reuters journalists; both of them were killed. “Ha ha ha, I hit ‘em,” one soldier chuckles after the first round of fire. “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards,” another says, to which another responds, “Nice. Good shootin’.”

The video, more disturbing to your average person than a sterile civilian casualties report, illustrates why the Military Tribunal at Nuremberg named “military aggression,” not genocide, as the “supreme international crime”: because it establishes a context in which murder becomes not only commonplace, but banal. At the end of that road lies Auschwitz.

Crimes like the one depicted in Collateral Murder are facilitated and rendered acceptable by crimes of a much greater magnitude, like Bush’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

What Julian Assange did—what Hillary Clinton says “he has to answer for”—is show people the consequences of their governments’ actions, so that maybe one day individuals like Hillary Clinton will be stripped of their impunity and made to answer for what they have done. That is the quintessence of journalism and, according to the United States, an intolerable crime. Behold the cowardice of power.

As for the UK’s role in this charade, while it has long been clear that London is a faithful servant of the American empire, extraditing Assange to the US—whereupon new and more serious charges will almost certainly be leveled against him—would mark a new depth of national disgrace.

At the time of his arrest Assange was reportedly clutching in his hand a book by Gore Vidal. In a 2009 interview with The Independent, an octogenarian Vidal was asked for his thoughts on modern England. “This isn’t a country,” he said, “it’s an American aircraft carrier.” Indeed.

PC Torture?

Everyone’s favorite progressive newspaper, the New York Times, is hard at work making up for those dark days of old when it served as cultural gatekeeper of The Patriarchy. “Since 1851, the New York Times has published thousands of obituaries,” the paper writes on its website. “The vast majority chronicled the lives of men, mostly white ones.” In view of that, the Times has begun to correct the record, one week at a time, by publishing retroactive obituaries of non-men whose lives, and deaths, were ignored by the old guard. The series is called “Overlooked.”

Last October I wrote an essay documenting the Times‘ support for the exploitation, torture and murder of animals, for whom it evidently reserves a fervent, blood-thirsty hatred. Thus its former chief art critic saw fit to liken the act of stabbing bulls to death to composing jazz music. Bullfighting, dog and horse racing, “dead goat polo”: so long as animals are being abused, the Times is amused. All the more if the abuse happens to be dished out by a woman.

In a recent episode of “Overlooked,” the Times honors Mabel Stark, “one of the most celebrated animal trainers in a field dominated by men.” When Stark first caught sight of a tiger trapped in a cage outside a circus, she knew she’d found her niche. “Within a couple of years, she was one of the world’s top big cat trainers … commanding them in her chirpy voice to leap through fiery hoops, walk on wires, roll large balls and arrange themselves into pyramids.”

The Times points out that, over her sixty-year career, Mabel was mauled countless times “by her co-workers.” Similarly, in 1831, dozens of slave owners were attacked and killed by their co-workers in Nat Turner’s Rebellion.

After travelling around with various circus acts, including the infamous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus, Stark worked at a theme park/animal prison called Jungleland until she was fired in 1967. Five months later, a Jungleland tiger was shot to death after escaping from her cell, and within a few days Stark had killed herself with barbiturates. Pity.

In case you were wondering, Stark always trained the tigers “with kindness.” The hypocrites at the Times wrote that; do they believe it?

Thanks to the efforts of indefatigable animal rights organizations and activists, we know that the “train them with kindness” bromide is a shameless lie, similar to the “no animals were harmed” certification awarded to films by the corrupt American Humane Association.

A few years ago, PETA published an undercover video depicting a training session between animal trainer Michael Hackenberger, whose defunct zoo rented out animals for exploitation in TV and film, and a young Siberian tiger. Hackenberger curses at the tiger and then repeatedly whips him—twenty times in eleven seconds by my count—as the animal rolls around and cowers on the ground. “I like hitting him in the face,” Hackenberger says later in the video.

Whether or not the heroic Mabel Stark was as psychopathic and sadistic as Michael Hackenberger—maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t—is beside the point, which is that, before big cats and other “wild” animals can be used in show business, they have to be terrorized into docility. Jay Pratte, an expert in animal behavior and training, explained the process and its consequences in a 2016 article titled “Big-Cat Report: Ringling Bros. Circus (Red Unit).”

Pratte’s report draws on more than two decades of experience and research, as well as “direct, personal observations at two separate performances by the Ringling Bros.,” a longstanding act that has since, mercifully, been shut down.

The enclosures in which circus tigers are kept are akin to prison cells. When free, tigers roam hundreds of miles; on circus grounds, they’re confined to small cages. Solitary in nature, tigers become stressed and aggressive when held in close quarters with other tigers. During his visits to Ringling Bros., Pratte witnessed several aggressive confrontations between the cats, many of whom were obese due to a lack of proper exercise. As with other mammals, obesity in tigers leads to myriad health problems including organ failure, arthritis, respiratory illness, heart disease and joint problems.

When the weather is particularly hot, tigers regulate their body temperatures by moving to shady areas or plunging into pools or streams. At Ringling Bros., “there was little to no air movement to cool the animals, and in the afternoon, in particular, most of them were panting heavily and unwilling to move. At 2:30 p.m., the temperature was reported to be 86 degrees and the heat index was well over 90.”

In addition to being obese, many of the tigers at Ringling Bros. had visible injuries. “I observed several cats limping, walking gingerly and carefully to avoid painful jolts, and struggling actually to stand up or to perform cued behaviors during a show,” Pratte writes. “The heavier cats were panting constantly throughout the day and clearly enduring increased physical distress. A few of them had hygromas at their joints, some of which were severe. These are caused by repeated trauma from lying on hard surfaces.”

Most of the tigers had cracks in the pads on the bottoms of their paws from “constantly living on concrete or metal floors, which are hosed clean and remain wet for long periods of time.” Such cracks are extremely painful and regularly become infected.

Over time, the oppressive environmental factors lead to stereotypic behavior, or pointless, repetitious actions (e.g. pacing back and forth, over-grooming, etc.). “The animals are unable to express normal behaviors and therefore experience long periods of inactivity or mindless activity, which results in permanent [my emphasis] long-term changes to the body, brain, neural, and endocrine systems.”

Many cats exploited for human entertainment are stolen away from their mothers as cubs (the heroic Mabel Stark trained cubs, recall; recall also that she worked with Ringling Bros.) and raised in restrictive, unnatural circumstances that prevent the animals from developing critical survival, social and coping skills.

The primary tactics employed by trainers during the Ringling Bros. shows were “to yell at [the cats], bang on the cages, and use long goads, prods, or whips to force them to move in a specific direction or to back off when approaching another animal or human too closely. These prods are ubiquitous. They are in the trainers’ hands, the assistants carry them, and they are left strategically near the cats to remain readily available.” Presumably the editors at the Times would have no objection to volunteering to be incessantly whipped and prodded with these instruments, in order to demonstrate their innate kindness.

Pratte goes on to remark that “the cats’ postures while in the ring with the trainer(s) are indicative of a fear of consequences if they do not perform as coerced. The hunched shoulders, ears-back position is anticipatory of conflict or tension.” Ultimately, “staff members manage the cats using aversive stimuli, fear, and dominance tactics”—otherwise known as torture.

All of which was observed in 2016, when circuses and related institutions understood that they had come under intense scrutiny owing to heightened public consciousness around the issue of animal welfare. One hesitates to imagine what the conditions were like in Mabel Stark’s heyday, when it was widely believed that big cats could be tamed and domesticated “with kindness.”

The utter want of self-awareness at the New York Times, and its enduring reputation as a respectable and progressive media outlet, boggle the mind. In compensating for their contributions to one form of oppression, they cheerfully overlook and perpetuate another. Tune in next week for the new episode of “Overlooked,” in which the Times pays long-overdue tribute to Elizabeth Bathory: one of the most productive women in the male-dominated field of serial homicide.

In the World of American Politics, One Khashoggi Is Worth One Million Yemeni Lives


At this point we can only assume that the Turkish version of events regarding the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi is true. As always, I’m open to being proved wrong, and it’s certainly incumbent upon Ankara to release the audio evidence of which they claim to be in possession (though this, should it come out, will naturally be dismissed by the Saudis as fabricated or doctored), but the list of plausible alternative scenarios currently stands at zero.

Khashoggi went into the Saudi consulate and was never seen again. If he had merely been kidnapped and jailed, we’d have heard from him by now. He would have appeared on Saudi state television and delivered some kind of scripted statement like Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri did last November. The House of Saud appears to prefer this time of year, autumn, for abductions and assassinations.

If Khashoggi was, in fact, whacked out by a Saudi hit squad—complete with torture and Goodfellas-style dismemberment—as the Turks maintain he was, then Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is even crazier than we thought. Since being named heir apparent by his senile father, King Salman, the crown prince has been on a mission to establish himself as the region’s chief thug. This is no small task, but MbS, as he’s blithely referred to, seems up to the challenge.

As Patrick Cockburn recently wrote, the crown prince’s list of failures, in so short a span of time, is impressive. His escalation of the war in Yemen has achieved nothing unless you count mass murder and mass famine as achievements. The Houthis are holding fast, and the country has been all but obliterated. Perhaps, though, the Saudis view Yemen’s destruction favorably. Like the US invasion of Vietnam, Saudi Arabia’s overarching goal in Yemen is to demonstrate to the region what happens when populations revolt against their oppressors. You want to upend the status quo and realize a degree of independence and self-government, you’d better be prepared to be pulverized. That’s the warning being issued by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

No sooner had bin Salman been appointed crown prince (June 2017) than the Saudi-led diplomatic and economic war on Qatar commenced. The express purpose of the surprise gambit was to punish Doha for its support for terrorism—pretty rich coming from the epicenter of Wahhabism, that diabolic interpretation of Islam upon which al-Qaeda and its numerous clones base their murderous ideologies. Of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers, fifteen were Saudi nationals; none were Qatari.

Which is not to say that Qatar is innocent of the charge. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with the UAE, supported the same terrorist elements of the Syrian opposition. Hillary Clinton, in one of her $250,000 speeches to Goldman Sachs, confirmed this in 2013, asserting that Damascus and its allies were “being taken on by indigenous rebels but increasingly a collection of jihadists who are funded by the Saudis, funded by the Emiratis, funded by [Qatar] …” (Emphasis mine.) In a 2014email sent to John Podesta, Clinton wrote: “we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.” Knowing this, Hillary publicly argued in favor of regime change in Syria. But I’m sick to death of writing about Hillary Clinton.

To call the support-for-terrorism pretext flimsy is generous. Preposterous is the better word. I can’t imagine that even casual observers were taken in by it, Donald Trump being a possible exception (he stupidly spoke in favor of the Saudi blockade, apparently unaware that his country maintains a critical military base in Qatar). Riyadh’s motivation was obvious: Qatar was being disciplined for its pragmatic relationship with Iran, with whom it shares the biggest natural gas field in the world. Also for Al Jazeera’s—Qatar’s state-funded media outlet— unflattering coverage of Saudi policies. What the crown prince was hoping to accomplish here is anyone’s guess. Did he think Doha would surrender its own strategic interests, renounce its cooperation with Tehran and meekly submit to his capricious will? Needless to say that didn’t happen. Qatar responded by reinstating full diplomatic relations with Iran, which, along with Turkey, increased exports to Qatar, diminishing the effect of the embargo.

A few months later, right around the time the crown prince launched his Stalinist purge of the royal family, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was detained on a visit to Saudi Arabia. Soon after, clearly reading from a text that had been prepared for him, he announced his resignation on Saudi state TV. In his statement he hit out at Hezbollah and Iran; he also claimed that an attempt on his life—presumably from Hezbollah or Iran—was imminent (Lebanese intelligence contested this). The charade was absolutely transparent. “The words [Hariri] read out,” Robert Fisk wrote at the time, “are entirely in line with the speeches of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and with the insane president of the United States who speaks of Iran with the same anger, as does the American defense secretary.”

Predictably, the bizarre incident had the effect of uniting the Lebanese people in support of their prime minister and, more importantly, their national sovereignty. Lebanese President Michel Aoun rejected Hariri’s “resignation” and demanded that he return to Lebanon, which he did a couple weeks later. On December 5, one month and one day after resigning, Hariri reassumed the office of prime minister. The crown prince’s stratagem had backfired in spectacular fashion. Meanwhile, Hariri, who strikes me as a bit of a wimp, refuses to speak about what exactly took place during that trip to Saudi Arabia, and is now reportedly 
taking the kingdom's side in the Khashoggi affair.

From said affair, we can take away a few things. First, I’m happy to see that the US and its allies have suddenly embraced due process, calling as they are for a thorough, independent investigation into the event so as to establish beyond a doubt what actually took place, at which point they can respond accordingly. I trust they will now apply the same evidentiary standards to, say, the next chemical weapons incident in Syria, or the next botched assassination of an ex-spy in Europe. Moreover, it’s good to know where we in the West draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior as regards official allies. Shelling hospitals and mosques and schools andschool buses and weddings and funerals is one thing—unfortunate casualties of war, worthy of a few hollow words of regret. Killing a Washington Post columnist, however, will not be brooked. Hence, the mass boycott of the upcoming business conference in Riyadh, and Trump’s talk of “severe punishment.” In the world of American politics, one Khashoggi is worth one million Yemeni lives.

Mohammed bin Salman ought to have understood this. That he didn’t tells us much about the man set to rule Saudi Arabia for the next four or five decades. Such hubris, such vanity, and he’s not even king yet! If I had his ear, I would advise the crown prince to exercise extreme caution moving forward. There’s hell to pay for stepping on Uncle Sam’s toes: once he sours on you, your days are numbered. Our old friend and ally Saddam Hussein can, or could, attest to that. I would also hand him a copy of King Lear as a cautionary tale, as the state of affairs in Saudi Arabia is a sparkling case of life imitating art.

Reprinted with permission from American Herald Tribune.