Raunchy Russian Cadets Set Off Wave of Political Solidarity

Weaponizing Absurdity

 
Laughter is a biological imperative, a complex cognitive and physiological response to the human condition that is as necessary for survival as water, air, and freedom.
            -Ron Jenkins, Subversive Laughter: The Liberating Power of Comedy
 
When the going gets weird, the weird go pro.
            -Hunter Thompson
 
Recently I wrote about the nature of our more and more regimented society and the expanding social media culture and how it can be liberating in the area of masculinity and femininity, given that “identity” is a complex, significantly artificial thing. The idea of shifting gender as a personal choice is not such a strange idea when you think of the effects i-phone culture and the internet have on human beings, especially the young who are born into a world of i-phone networks as if they were a part of nature. The reality is people can and do choose to be anonymous on social media. Many people regularly don’t use real names and totally control their identity. A telling example might be the 35-year-old cop playing a 14-year-old girl to entrap adult male pedophiles. In the cyber world, one can assume an amazing array of identities broadcasted (Tweeted at 5AM?) to a vast formation of possibly millions of anonymously connected human beings that one might look at metaphorically as a giant swarm of birds or a giant school of minnows subject to chaos theory. As we know, with a long history of disinformation, the Russians are particularly good at this kind of thing.

Master clown Ron Jenkins' book and Vladimir Putin showing off his physique and his rodMaster clown Ron Jenkins' book and Vladimir Putin showing off his physique and his rod

In this light, consider the latest subversive, post-Pussy Riot cultural phenomenon in Russia. An on-line video of air transport cadets dancing to the song “Satisfaction” went viral. It’s an all-male parody of a rock video by Benni Benassi called “Satisfaction” that featured half-naked, buxom and sweaty women brandishing masculine power tools to a dorky Euro-drone disco beat. The air transport cadets’ parody — kids wearing military-style hats and boots in their BVDs — is unabashedly homoerotic. The rightist, hypermasculine and homophobic gangster government in Russia was not happy. But once the state tried to crack down on the parody, solidarity videos from school dorms and other places broke out all over the internet like an aggressive rash. And they keep on coming. The state backed away. There’s a lot with males, one of guys in the snow, one of bare-chested young men in riding pants “horsing around” in a horse stable grooming the horses, etc, some feature girls, even one with two humping old babushkas in a spartan apartment kitchen. All to the same drone beat with the lyrics: “Push me. And then just touch me.”

Gender Politics and Political Justice

Identity Politics Gets Into Our Pants

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.

– Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

[T]he trick of being a man is to give the appearance of keeping your head when, deep inside, the truest part of you is crying out, Oh shit!
– Michael Chabon, Manhood For Amateurs

A shaming can be like a distorting mirror at a funfair, taking human nature and making it look monstrous.
– Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
 

God must have a sense of humor in that he gave a man an excitable phallic shaft extending outward from his body that leads him around as if there were a ring in the end of the damn thing and some demon was yanking him into all sorts of dicey predicaments and shame-inducing behaviors. As a kid first getting to know this physiological organ I was blessed or doomed with, I recall an adolescent joke we snickered at: What’s the lightest thing in the world? A dick. You can lift it with a thought.

An ashtray, circa 1950s, from my father's effectsAn ashtray, circa 1950s, from my father's effects
 

God, in his ribald wisdom, gave women the key to the future in the form of a vagina and uterus. Women got an in-ee and men got an out-ee. He, then, gave men and woman the exact same brain with the same complex and mysterious circuits extending throughout their bodies, an arrangement that makes the joining of the two aforementioned physiological components an incredible pleasure. He or She (I confess: I was a sexist in the first paragraph) also enabled men and women with their powerful minds to be culture-creating creatures, which handed them a great conundrum that has been the source of conflict and narrative delight since humans first carved images on fire-lit cave walls. Non-humans — ie. animals — of course, tend not to be culture-creating creatures, and therefore they’re not susceptible to identity politics; they rely on simple and direct allure and brute strength to copulate whenever they get the biological signal to do so.

This God — I’m not a believer, so the term is used here to mean The Great Mystery — thus made the enterprise of human sexual intercourse akin to playing chess in a muddy, overcrowded pigpen. Think Last Tango In Paris and the scene where Marlon Brando makes snorting pig sounds while Maria Schneider trills like a bird. Of course, the film is a tragedy, and the male dies in the end from his own aggressive actions, killed by the woman who no longer finds his aggressiveness attractive.

A Case of Imperial Misconduct

Poor, Abused Honduras; Groped Again

 
Mr. Hernández and his allies control the much-protested ballot-counting process, the election oversight commission, the army — which under Honduran law moves the ballots — and all appeals processes.
                                             - U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, (D) Illinois

 
Poor Honduras.

The word honduras means depth or profundity in Spanish. It’s also the name of one of the most abused nations in the Western Hemisphere. Its citizens are largely poor and overwhelmed by a state of corruption historically linked with the much more sophisticated and wealthy network of corruption that overwhelms the citizenry of the United States. The November 26 election for president of Honduras was the latest chapter in this sad historic reality.

Honduras is now embroiled in street protests following an election count that stinks like three-day old fish in the sun. President Juan Orlando Hernandez was running for a second term, despite an apparently un-amendable Constitutional provision that precludes a second term. Former sportscaster and TV game-show host Salvador Nasralla ran against Hernandez, who was favored to win. The Organization of American States says the election count was seriously flawed and it’s pushing for a new vote. Here’s how the count went: The day after the election, it was announced Nasralla led the vote count by five percentage points, which suggested a real upset. A third candidate for president conceded Nasralla was the winner. At that point, the election tribunal suddenly stopped communicating with the public. After a hiatus, the next communication was to declare Hernandez the winner by one-and-a-half percentage points. Immediately, the nation erupted in protests that led to fatalities. Knowing how important the United States is to Honduras, Nasralla flew to the US to consult with friends and the OAS. The OAS publicly called for a new election.

Removed President Manuel Zelaya, the incumbent Juan Orlando Hernandez and Salvador NasrallaRemoved President Manuel Zelaya, the incumbent Juan Orlando Hernandez and Salvador Nasralla

Whose Decision Threatened Soldiers' Lives More: President Bush's or Bo Bergdahl's?

"I Made A Horrible Mistake"

 
I’m admitting I made a horrible mistake.
        - Bo Bergdahl’s testimony in his court martial
 
Charging a man with murder in Vietnam is like charging someone for speeding at the Indianapolis 500.
        - From Apocalypse Now

 
Obviously, to ask who endangered soldiers more, President Bush or Bo Bergdahl, is a rhetorical question. The real issue is whether a Dishonorable Discharge, a demotion and a fine is enough punishment for Bo Bergdahl. It’s clear by now it’s out-of-bounds (poor etiquette) to suggest our major leaders should be held accountable for bad military decisions that put soldiers in harms way and cost lives. It’s a variant of the bumper sticker, “Kill one person, it’s murder; kill 100,000, it’s foreign policy.” Accountability is like gravity; it slips and falls and tends to find the most susceptible person or entity that can be turned into a receptacle for the blame. Naturally, you wave the flag like crazy while guiding the blame downward. Unless, of course, you were Japanese at the height of their failed, imperial thrust into the world; then, you made martial sounds as you sliced your guts open and a loyal factotum lopped your head off. There’s a certain honor in that.

Sergeant, now Private, Bo Bergdahl and President George W. BushSergeant, now Private, Bo Bergdahl and President George W. Bush

The question of moral and political accountability is a perennial one. It’s hard to find anyone in either major party who still holds on to the idea the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq by George W. Bush — the “war president” and “the decider” — was anything but a terrible foreign policy decision. As the younger President Bush put it: “I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation. But I’m the decider, and I decide what is best.” Those of us who cried out in vain from the beginning that the decision to invade Iraq was wrong and could lead nowhere but to even worse disasters now see it as a decision that unleashed a debacle that keeps on paying dangerous dividends. President Bush ducked under the radar after his part in it was over and started doing what he probably should have done from the beginning: He painted not-so-bad, primitive paintings of veterans, dogs and his toes in the bathtub.

The lack of accountability at the top is especially acute right now when nuclear war looms over us vis-a-vis North Korea. Not only does the current commander-in-chief not accept accountability — “the buck” no longer stops in the Oval Office — he’s a master in the cultural realm he flourishes in at finding and flogging scapegoats. His “base” will let him get away with, as he famously put it, shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. In Bergdahl’s case, he wanted the man executed. If he had his way, it would be something produced by Faye Dunaway’s character in the film Network: “The Execution Hour”.

A simple human story In tumultuous times

Hollywood, War Trauma and the Rule of Money

 
Jason Hall, the screenwriter who wrote the script for the Clint Eastwood blockbuster American Sniper, a well-made piece of hagiographic cinema based on a memoir by Chris Kyle, has made what feels like a corrective on the subject. This time, he’s both writer and director of a film that reportedly was initially slated to be directed by Hollywood giant Stephen Spielberg, with Hall as scriptwriter. Whatever inside Hollywood deal-making went down, Hall’s efforts have resulted in a beautiful film. There’s nothing fancy, large or loud about this film. There are no special effects that you notice. It doesn’t traffic in heroics at all. It just feels real.

While it’s a very different kind of movie, in a way it’s The Best Years Of Our Lives, the great 1946 movie about soldiers returning home from World War Two, translated into the language of Post-9/11 Perennial War. This ain’t your dad’s or your grandad’s war; this is warfare of political choice with a professional, volunteer army and the very human complications that come naturally in the wake of such wars.

Adam Schumann (as actor); Miles Teller (as Schumann) and Beulah Koale (as Solo) waiting at the VAAdam Schumann (as actor); Miles Teller (as Schumann) and Beulah Koale (as Solo) waiting at the VA

Matt Zoller Seitz from Ebert.com, describes the film this way:

The film “has been written, shot, edited and acted in such an intimate and unobtrusive way that the result feels like a throwback to an earlier era of American mainstream filmmaking, when it was still possible to base a handsomely produced feature film around observed behavior, and not feel obligated to safeguard against viewer boredom by shoehorning extra melodrama or contrived genre-movie elements into the mix.”

First off, the title — Thank You For Your Service — is meant ironically. The story began as a non-fiction book by Washington Post reporter David Finkel, who was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant for his work. As an embedded reporter on the war in Iraq, he wrote an earlier book called The Good Soldiers. He was moved to write the second book when he began to understand how difficult it was for the soldiers he got to know writing the first book when they returned home from the war. Basically, the story is what happens to Sergeant Adam Schumann and two of his unit-mates when they return to the US and leave the Army. Miles Teller plays Staff Sergeant Schumann and Samoan actor Beulah Koale plays the real-life Samoan character SP4 Tausolo Aieti. Both are excellent in the roles. The real Adam Schumann has a small role in the film.

Four Dead in Niger. Anybody Know Why?

Honor, Sacrifice and Imperial Duplicity

 
John Kelly’s defensive scolding from an official White House podium nicely symbolizes the quandary in which US leadership often puts members of our military. On one hand, it was a cry-from-the-heart calling for respect (a return to a “sacred” status of yore) for young soldiers asked to put their lives on the line for US foreign policy. This was given with restrained emotion and gravitas, due to the loss of his own son, Robert, in Afghanistan and the fact he has a second son on a fifth combat deployment. A Marine commander during some very bloody years in the Iraq War, Kelly noted his role sending men (like his sons) to their deaths. Politics aside, one had to respect his candor.

Mali, Niger and Chad and the principals in this story. What happened in Niger? Is Chad the key?Mali, Niger and Chad and the principals in this story. What happened in Niger? Is Chad the key?

But, then, he blew it. He shifted from his experiences to a crass political attack on Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, a former teacher and school principal now in her fourth term representing the 24th District in the Miami area, an area with many poor, black kids. Speaking to the ambush death of Sergeant LaDavid Johnson in Niger, Kelly shifted radically from bottom-up words about soldierly sacrifice to top-down political mud-slinging in defense of his boss, maybe the most flagrant, bald-faced liar in White House history.

Thursday night, MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell pointed out, like Kelly, he’s a white male product of segregated Boston, a northern city that went through an ugly and painful integration struggle. O’Donnell rightfully honored Kelly for the cry-from-the-heart part of his remarks. But, then, he raked the man over the coals relentlessly for a shameless, ignorant and possibly racist political reprisal attack on Ms. Wilson. He came off as completely ignorant of the fact Ms. Wilson is more than LaDavid and Myeshia Johnson’s US congresswoman; she is a long-time personnel friend of the Johnson family. As a boy, LaDavid Johnson was her pupil in school and went on to participate through high school in a mentoring program she started. She has spent her life in rough areas helping to make decent young men like LaDavid Johnson. Kelly never even mentioned Wilson’s name, instead called her an “empty barrel” (whatever that means) and suggested her presence in the car with Johnson’s widow and her listening in on the conversation, which was on speaker-phone, was somehow show-boating. “These are people I’ve known since they were little children,” Wilson told The View. “His uncle went to my elementary school. I was his principal.” Johnson’s mother died when he was five and he was raised by his uncle and aunt, who were in the limousine with Mrs. Johnson and Ms. Wilson.

Aging Baby Boomer Runs Amok in Vegas

Mandalay Bay: Top O' The World, Ma! (PART ONE)

Stephen Paddock, the 64-year-old reclusive multi-millionaire who spent much of his “mysterious” later adult life in one-on-one relationships with casino poker machines, is everywhere labeled an “enigma.” That’s the consensus from every quarter. New York Times reporters put together a sketch of who this guy was.

“Stephen Paddock was a contradiction: a gambler who took no chances. A man with houses everywhere who did not really live in any of them. Someone who liked the high life of casinos but drove a nondescript minivan and dressed casually, even sloppily, in flip-flops and sweatsuits. He did not use Facebook or Twitter, but spent the past 25 years staring at screens of video poker machines.”

Civilian first responders carrying a wounded victim, and the killer, Stephen PaddockCivilian first responders carrying a wounded victim, and the killer, Stephen Paddock

He had a house in Sun City, Mesquite, one of a number of Del Webb gated, “active adult communities,” this one 90-minutes from Las Vegas. Plus, he owned other houses and properties; at one point he owned two airplanes and, to facilitate his lifestyle, bought cheap houses near local airports in Nevada and Texas where he parked his planes. He spent hours and hours as a “high-limit player” working the $100 poker machines in specially designed lounges for such cherished players, distinguishing them from the peasant riff-raff working the dollar machines. He was encouraged to continue gambling with free meals and free hotel rooms. “Gambling made him feel important,” the Times reporters wrote. He counted on the attentions of “high-limit hostesses” to get him food and refreshments and to fluff him up when his spirits lagged. He exhibited impatience if these hostesses were slow in delivering what he wanted. Other services were private matters.

Everything was done to cater to Stephen Paddock’s needs and whims — just keep him gambling. He became so close to one of the high-limit hostesses — Marilou Danley — she left her casino employment to be Paddock’s steady girlfriend, one of the few close human relationships he seems to have had. And it seems to have been a good relationship; he traveled with Danley to her home country in the Philippines for one of his birthdays and met her sisters. His brother Eric has only nice things to say of him; especially, that he was generous. His tenants all told the Times Paddock was fair and responded to all their needs. And, of course, he collected dozens of very expensive, very lethal weapons. In a social sense, he was a misfit and could be curt, but in the very American context of being smart enough to figure out how to exploit the real estate market and to accumulate money and property, he was a winner.

The Second Amendment Is Not a Suicide Pact

Mandalay Bay: Top O' The World, Ma! (PART TWO)

The bulk of coverage of the Las Vegas shooting is about victims, heroes and villains. The really important story that’s rarely covered is about how and why guns and violence have become such an absurd part of US culture and why it’s so difficult to restrict the easy access to lethal weapons designed for war.

Gun Porn and Male Alienation:

A trip to my local grocery store reveals a magazine rack with dozens of covers showing beautiful models selling a lifestyle that requires what the advertisers manufacture and market. Also on the rack are a half-dozen very slick magazines selling gun culture. There’s no other way to describe it; you never see a critical or analytic article. The photography is eye-catching and slick, the models manly and masculine — except for the hotties holding machine guns, a much loved image. There’s a strong focus on the latest versions of the now classic AR-15. The “look” of these magazines can be described only as gun porn. Instead of luscious, naked women spread across a centerfold, the usual cultural understanding of “pornography,” in these magazines its images of lethal weapons that trigger the erotic charge. (As explained later, maybe a “thanatotic” charge is more accurate.) I recall back in the 1970s the literary critic Leslie Fiedler, author of Love And Death In The American Novel, giving a lecture at Florida State in which he expanded the term pornography to include things beyond intercourse and engorged genitalia. In his mind, American marketing and pop culture was virtually defined by the term pornography. Pornography was material with little purpose or merit other than to seduce. It’s the opposite of what E. F. Schumacher envisioned in the subtitle of his famous book, Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. The gun porn magazine genre makes it very clear there’s lots of corporate money at stake stirring up and indulging the market for sexy weapons.

Pages from today's super-slick magazines glorifying the ubiquitous AR15Pages from today's super-slick magazines glorifying the ubiquitous AR15

We’re told gun sales are up and rising. Fear is in the air. I recently visited a gun shop in my area that I’d visited last a couple years ago. The number of guns in the place had more than doubled. I’ve never seen so many hi-tech weapons, a huge proportion of them some version of the ubiquitous AR15, a weapon that began its career as the M16 made famous in Vietnam. As a REMF (rear echelon mother fucker) in 1966, I had an old wood-stocked M14. Infantry soldiers tell us the M16 was notorious for jamming at the worst possible moment. One can imagine the curses in a firefight. Since then, the weapon has been R&Ded to the max and is a favorite of gun lovers everywhere. There’s a huge market for accessories of all sorts to trick out one’s AR15 so it really looks cool and menacing. Things like “bump stocks” are marketed to turn a semi-automatic rifle into a fully automatic weapon of war. One marketed bump stock sells for $99.

Bottom-up Collective Drama or Top-Down Atrocity?

The Vietnam War As Public Spectacle

 
The spectacle of warfare, whether by intermittently shocking its public or inuring it to the horrors of combat, serves to normalize a permanent war economy and to make peace an anomaly.
                                                                                                            Jan Mieszkowski, Watching War

 
I wasn’t sure what hat I should wear watching the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick PBS documentary The Vietnam War: An Intimate History. Should I be a professional Vietnam veteran, something I have stooped to? Or should I be a journalist, a fiction writer or a documentary filmmaker? I’ve done all these things. Maybe I should be an anti-war activist, something I’ve done (some say badly) for over 30 years? I’ve worn all these hats in the context of the Vietnam War. In the end, identity is a fluid and willful thing selectively mined from experience; like everyone else, I’m a human being doomed to live in ever-changing contexts. Holding on to the past is a trap.

One of the many images from Vietnam used to tell stories in the filmOne of the many images from Vietnam used to tell stories in the film

Like Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe titled “This is not a pipe,” the Burns/Novick film is not “Vietnam” — it’s a TV drama. Questions about historic accuracy and political bias will likely always haunt it. It’s sophisticated cinematic production values and the story-telling questions they raise are important. In one sense, it’s a classic PBS documentary. But, then, it’s breaking some kind of ground in its mode of telling. If there’s a continuum between fiction and non-fiction, this film is somewhere in the middle; let’s call it a hybrid — in a no-man’s-land or DMZ between fiction and non-fiction. For any work of representational art, constructing a clean narrative from the chaos of life means leaving things out. That’s how narrative is refined and distilled. It also opens such a project to criticism from many angles. The use of metaphor and symbol are tools in the process of making sense out of the unfamiliar and the confusing. Without the essential reductiveness, art would be like that Borges story where the map of a country is a 1:1 ratio to reality — exactly the same size as the country itself.

Burns and Novick say their goal was “to comprehend the special dissonance that is the Vietnam War. … We vowed to each other that we would avoid the limits of a binary political perspective and the shortcuts of conventional wisdom and superficial history.” They refer to the war as a “Rashomon of equally plausible ‘stories.’ ” Thus, the slogan they put on the movie poster: “There is no single truth in war.” As I watched the first half of the epic unfold, I constantly mulled over the question whether it was true “there is no single truth” concerning the Vietnam War. For one, the slogan seems to contradict itself. I would submit there is a single truth concerning the Vietnam War: It’s the fact the Vietnamese people never did anything against the powerful, imperial people who invaded and devastated their country for over a decade. Lately, I’ve challenge anyone to come up with anything hostile the Vietnamese, our WWII ally, did to us to deserve what we did to them. Self-defense doesn’t count. This single truth is hard to dispute, even when it’s swamped by an impressive melange of “intimate” cinematic stories set down in the weeds of war where killing is a self-reinforcing, circular nightmare. As many combat vets will tell you, once the firefight starts it’s only about killing those who are trying to kill you and your comrades. There’s the old truism, the first casualty of war is the truth. That, of course, is another single truth.

Me and The New York Times

Writing in No-Man's-Land

 
The attitude of the great poets is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots
        -Walt Whitman
 
To comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable
        -Traditional adage of journalistic purpose
 
These days, adjusting to Donald J. Trump as “leader of the free world,” I find myself defending The New York Times almost on a daily basis. I tend to do this online on left-leaning lists I wade into and respond to. I just turned 70 and am becoming a rather dialogic-oriented person in my golden years. I’ve worked as a dirty-fingernail reporter on several newspapers. I’ve written non-fiction and fiction, a distinction that more and more blurs in my mind, as it is blurred in places like Eastern Europe; in Bosnia, for example, the terms simply do not exist. I’ve worked as a self-taught photographer. For over three years, from Philadelphia, I’ve co-hosted a chat radio show out of northeastern Kansas. My dialogic role on the show, called Radio Free Kansas, is to talk about the stories in that day’s liberal northeastern rag, The New York Times.

Charlie, The Times and the beginnings of this essay on the Times Sports sectionCharlie, The Times and the beginnings of this essay on the Times Sports section

The incredible explosion (there is no other word for it) of computer technology and social media has left me in the dust, willfully. I carry a flip cellphone with a cracked face; I don’t use EZ-Pass (I’m afraid they may be tracking me!) or GPS devices (I really love maps!), and I rarely use Facebook or any other social media. I know I’m a human derelict of the past hanging on until the light goes out. I’m too often told I’m wrong by a bureaucratic computer that says something other than what I know is true. Sometimes, I feel like a white haired, stringy-bearded ancient left by the trail wrapped in a blanket as my tribe moves on to the next happy hunting ground. Nowadays, when they leave you alone by the trail to die they leave you with an i-phone: “Here. Keep in touch on Twitter.”