Epithalamium Redux Redux

Gustav Klimt - Sappho 1888-90
The poem below first appeared on this blog on February 26, 2004, during the period when then San Francisco Mayor (now Lieutenant Governor) Gavin Newsom unilaterally directed the City of San Francisco to license same-sex marriages. That original post had a tentative "do I dare" quality to it that irks me a bit now, though that tone was more or less consistent with the tenor of the time in which it was written andmight serve as a marker for how the times have changed. The poem itself is something of an oddity, bringing a light verse form to bear on a subject of some little seriousness, but I still like it eight years on.

Back in 2004 the California Supreme Court ruled within a month that the City of San Francisco had no legal authority to license marriages not specifically authorized by state law, but it also invited the City to challenge the limitations of those statutes in court. The City did, and that case eventually worked its way through the system and back to the court that suggested it. Four years ago today, May 15, 2008, the California Supreme Court declared in In re Marriage Cases that the restriction of marriage to couples of differing genders was impermissible under the California Constitution. On that same day four years ago it seemed appropriate to republish, and I did, with less circumspection than on the first time round.

In the ensuing four years, the voters of California have amended the state's Constitution via Proposition 8, for the express purpose of reversing the state Supreme Court's decision. That Court has confirmed that the constitutional amendment was lawfully adopted and is binding upon it, so that there is no longer a state-constitutional basis for an expansive definition of marriage. Quite the opposite in fact: the state constitution is now explicit in defining marriage as strictly a man-woman arrangement. A challenge to Proposition 8 under the U.S. Constitution has since produced decisions in the U.S. District Court and from a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals finding the Proposition constitutionally impermissible. The outcome of the challenges to Proposition 8 remains inconclusive, however, pending further en banc review by the Ninth Circuit and an expected/inevitable petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Given that I have republished it on a rough four year cycle, and given that the President of the United States made his views on this subject explicit suring this past week, the time seems right to roll these verses out again, so roll them out I shall:




Hymen, Hymenaeus!
Gay men and lesbians
Flock to the City Hall,
Follow their bliss,

Purchase their licenses,
Swear to their permanence,
Pose for the camera crews
Sharing a kiss.


Damned, sir?  They’re damned, you say?
Possibly, possibly:
Love has led millions to
Suffer a Fall.

That’s for the next world, sir;
Here with the living -- well,
What was it Chaucer said?
“Love conquers all.”


Poets, sir. Love poets.
Some of the best have been
Gay, sir.  Consider this
List I’ve compiled:

Wystan Hugh Auden and
C.P. Cavafy and
Sappho. James Merrill, Thom
Gunn, Oscar Wilde.


Legally, legally,
Should an impediment
Rise to the marriage of
Minds that are true?

Sure as there’s only one
Race, sir -- the human race --
How would you feel if it
Happened to you?


Citizens, citizens,
Leave to your churches these
Questions of sanctity,
Tough and profound.

Secular governments
Ought to facilitate
Binding of lovers who
Yearn to be bound.


Hymen, Hymenaeus!
Cleave to the one who’s your
Heart’s true companion, the
Thou to your I.

Now, when the times are so
Fearsome we all must, as
Auden says, “love one a-
nother or die.”


Darthness Visible


We take it as a given that the Death Star, in the Star Wars films, is evil in itself.

It may be wielded by men who are themselves innately evil—the Emperor—or by men who have fallen under evil's sway—Vader—but it makes no difference: the Death Star is not an object open to redemption.

It is an evil device, and it is not made more or less evil by the degree of evil present in the individual humans behind it.

There is no suggestion, really, that a "kinder, gentler" Death Star is a possibility.

The very existence of a Death Star is an evil, and it would remain so even under the presumptively enlightened rule of a successful Rebel Alliance. What choice would the triumphant Alliance have but to dismantle the thing as quickly as possible?

Are we in agreement thus far?

Where, then, does the evil in the Death Star lie?

Is it in the sheer vastness of its destructive power? The ability to reduce a planet such as Alderaan to powder?

Does the Death Star become less evil if it empowders only half a planet, or only very small planets?

Does the Death Star become less evil if it can level no more than a mid-sized continent?

An agricultural district?

The Thieves' Quarter of a city?

A single city block?

Apartment 22C, where that irritating (and possibly even evil) Mr. ExemBexumBinksenmurtttt lives? 

Mr. ExemBexumBinksenmurtttt?

Just him, only him?

And perhaps, unintentionally but unavoidably, the shoe shine guy to whom Mr. ExemBexumBinksenmurtttt's custom happens to be given at just the moment that the Death Star's uncannily precise albeit uncannily destructive power is unleashed—

by its presumptively benevolent masters,
from the comfort of their state of the art terminals,
on orders produced by a rigorous vetting process
engaging multiple layers of unidentified but plainly trustworthy functionaries
who are doing what is best,

as you would understand if only you knew what they cannot tell you,
at the end of a long day just in time to head home
to the kids and a stiff martini
and maybe Game 3 of the championship series

—to rain death without warning, remorse, or appeal, from the sky?

Is it less evil then?

Deep Dark Truthful Mirror [Updated]

This is the cover of a forthcoming CD.

["Was" the cover, actually: see the update below.]


Specifically, this is the cover for the recording of WTC 9/11, by composer Steve Reich, forthcoming from Nonesuch Records on September 6, 2011, five days prior to the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011.

When this image first appeared yesterday via a post by Christian Carey on Sequenza 21/, I anticipated that it might not set well in some quarters, and I posted a few admittedly glib remarks about it on Google+. This post is meant as an expansion and as a more unhurried reflection on those earlier remarks.

WTC 9/11 is Steve Reich's musical response to the events of September 11, 2001, in New York City. It is about 15 minutes long, and Nonesuch gives this description of its method:

The piece is scored for three string quartets; Kronos [Quartet] recorded all three parts for the album. WTC 9/11 also uses pre-recorded voices, the speakers’ final vowels and consonants elongated in a stop-motion sound technique that Reich says is the 'means of connecting one person to another—harmonically.' Those voices and their texts belong to NORAD air traffic controllers, as they raised the alert that the airplanes were off course; FDNY workers on the scene; friends and former neighbors of the Reichs, recalling that day; and women who kept vigil, or Shmira, over the dead in a tent outside the Medical Examiner's office, reading Psalms or Biblical passages.

The piece has been touring in live performance by the Kronos Quartet since its world premiere at Duke University in March of this year. A review of the west coast premiere in San Francisco is here. The Village Voice review of the New York premiere is here. The first two minutes of the piece can be heard here.

Beyond those two minutes, I have not heard WTC 9/11, so the work itself is not before us. This post is only concerned with what the recording of the work will look like.

It is no surprise that this cover design has upset, and has drawn objection from, many who have seen it, including particularly many who move in the same musical and artistic circles in New York as Steve Reich himself. A simple statement of those objections came from Steve Smith, music editor of Time Out New York:

Nightafternight tweet

Composer/performer Corey Dargel was more blunt:

Dargel tweet

And publicist Amanda Ameer was similarly so:

Amandaameer tweet

These objections have been raised in the highest good faith, by people who (I believe) were there in a way that I, for one, was not. I was here in California, thousands of miles distant. As with everyone else on earth not in lower Manhattan and the surrounding buroughs that morning—or not in Washington/ Alexandria or near the crash site in Pennsylvania—my experience of the thing is beyond secondhand, largely mediated by the television screen. Even Steve Reich, whose apartment was only four blocks from the World Trade Center, was out of town in Vermont that day, although others in his immediate family were there on the spot. 

Taking the objectors' good faith as a given, I would defend Nonesuch and anyone else—Reich? Kronos Quartet? If I was a journalist, instead of just some fellow with a blog, I might inquire further—who had a hand in or gave consent to the selection of this cover image. The choice is not only defensible, it is appropriate and perhaps even necessary as we approach the tenth anniversary of the events to which that image bears witness.

One of the details that made September 11, 2001, so awful was that it was a truly beautiful autumn morning in New York City, clear and blue and crystaline. The original image that is the basis for the Nonesuch cover reflects that, and the manipulation of that image for the CD cover unfortunately recalls instances such as TIME magazine's infamously darkened version of OJ Simpson's booking photo. Here, though, the manipulation is more easily justified: despite our all knowing what a glorious morning it was before the first plane struck the first tower, the feeling of September 11, 2001, in retrospect and in collective memory is dark, smoke-filled, clouded with the horrible dust of collapse. That sense of the day is reflected in the dismal palette of the CD cover, and in the contrasting fragment of blue sky that still peeps through in the vicinity of the composer's surname.

Granted, that sliver of sky is as close as this design gets to subtlety, and it cannot really be argued—at least it won't be argued by me—that this cover is, as a stand-alone piece, anywhere near "great" art. It is something of a blunt instrument. It is nevertheless legitimate. 

This is a strong and confrontational image, but not I think a case of facile or mercenary "controversy for controversy's sake." "This thing happened," it says. "Look at this." And WTC 9/11 adds: "This thing happened. Listen to this." I can speculate that many of those who are troubled or offended by this CD cover have defended, or have made, art that is as confrontational and discomforting of others' sensitivities on other subjects as this is to their own sensitivities on this one. It is the nature of sensitivities to be offended in this world, frequently or even particularly by art, and the sensitivities in play here are neither more nor less entitled to be protected from offense than any others.

As I suggested in my original comment, one of the reasons this cover comes as something of a shock is that we have established a habit in this country over the past ten years of not looking directly toward September 11, 2001, of wrapping those events in a gauze of piety or "Don't Tread on Me" American exceptionalism (or worse, both)—what Christian Carey, speaking more about Reich's piece than about the cover, referred to as "languid sentimentality and unfortunate jingoism"—or of simply looking away, couching denial as a form of respect. 

Whether we were personally present or not, we are all of us a decade past that day. The facing of this world's most unpleasant aspects is a part of what art is all about, and reflection upon them is part of the point of Steve Reich's piece. The cover image is not a cheapening or commoditization of the event it portrays. It is a palimpsest, a writing-over of an underlying image by way of commentary, focus, heightening of the already potent sting of the thing itself. September 11, 2001, happened, in lower Manhattan and elsewhere, and it was terrible as terrible can be. But it does not and should not follow that the only way in which we grapple with it is to declare that images of that day are beyond the pale.


Update [081111]:  Steve Reich, who acknowledges ownership of the decision on the original WTC 9/11 cover, has chosen to withdraw and change it. In a statement issued through Nonesuch today, the composer writes:

When the cover was being designed, I believed, as did all the staff at Nonesuch and the art director, that a piece of music with documentary material from an event would best be matched with a documentary photograph of that event. I felt that the photo suggested by our art director was very powerful, and Nonesuch backed me up. All of us felt that anyone seeing the cover would feel the same way.

When the cover was released on the Nonesuch site and elsewhere, there was, instead, an outpouring of controversy mostly by people who had never heard the music.

When WTC 9/11 was performed by the Kronos Quartet, first in Durham, North Carolina, at Duke University and then shortly afterwards outside of Los Angeles and then at Carnegie Hall and again at the Barbican Centre in London, the reaction of the public and press was extremely thoughtful and moving. To have this reaction to the music usurped by the album cover seemed completely wrong. Accordingly, the cover is being changed.

The statement comes dangerously close to being a "non-apology apology" or even a case of "blame the victim," and it has been taken as such in some quarters. It is not really an apology or argument, as such, at all. I take it as simply a statement that a choice has been made and a summary, compelling or not, of the thought behind hat choice.

I, obviously, was something of a defender of the original cover in the first version of this post, but I allowed as how those who were most opposed to that cover were offended in truth and in good faith, not donning the mere guise of offense for ulterior motives. The authenticity and the understandable nature of the negative reaction is such that it is difficult to believe that anyone could have been surprised by it. There were good reasons to select that cover image, but the notion that no one would notice or care would not be among them.

I still believe the original cover was and is defensible. I also believe that it is a decent thing—neither courageous nor cowardly, just decent and reasonable—to withdraw it.  Art sometimes has the element of a game, but it is never a zero sum game. No one has "won" or "lost" in these decisions.

No new design has been released at this writing. The Reich statement does not suggest that the September 6 release date will be changed, so we can expect to see the revised version soon enough.


The Tyranny of Images
[Culture Wars Redux at the National Portrait Gallery]

I look to the day when Everyone is at last Offended by Everything and we all can live in unity, agreement and harmony.
    — Wallace's Doctrine of Universal Affront

Mapplethorpe by robert marin

A few evenings ago, I finished reading Patti Smith's National Book Award-winning Just Kids, her memoir of her abiding bond with the late Robert Mapplethorpe.  Those who do not already know of or care about Smith or Mapplethorpe or both are not likely to be converted simply by reading Just Kids, but for those of us who do already know and care, and particularly for those who lived though their own respective personal versions of the late 1970s and the 1980s, it is assuredly worthwhile.  

Patti and Robert—the intimacy of the book feels like an invitation to speak of them on a first-name basis—had a remarkable personal and artistic relationship, and they lived with, worked with, crossed paths with a seemingly endless parade of the famous, the brilliant, the talented, and the notorious in the cultural fermenting vat that was pre-Giuliani/Bloomberg New York City.  Robert's own death from complications of AIDS in 1989 is the inevitable terminus of the story, but Just Kids as a whole is something of a Catalog of the Honored Dead.  Name after name passes by, perhaps mentioned only once, with the unspoken realization that he or she once blazed brightly but now is gone.

Within a few months of his death, Robert Mapplethorpe achieved a certain political infamy—and undoubtedly, through no fault/effort of his own, achieved a more lasting fame—when an exhibition of his photographs, "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment," was singled out by the late then-Sen. Jesse Helms as an example of the horrors of public funding of the arts through the National Endowment for the Arts.  The exhibition's principal "crime," and the catalyst for Helms's righteous horror, was its inclusion of photographs from Mapplethorpe's self-styled "X Portfolio" of vivid photos of hard-core, violent gay sex acts.  (Two exemplars of those photographs are reproduced in one of the best explications of Mapplethorpe I know, which is Dave Hickey's essay "Nothing Like the Son - on Robert Mapplethorpe's X Portfolio" [caution: the exemplars in question are included at that link and are not, in truth, for the squeamish], included in Hickey's splendid and indispensible short collection, The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty.) Helms's agita over Mapplethorpe, among others, was the "Culture War" equivalent of the firing on Fort Sumter.

Twenty-plus years later . . . .

Mapplethorpe himself is not the target, but several of his photos—although none, I believe, from the X Portfolio—are included in "HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," an exhibition that opened a month ago and runs through mid-February 2011 at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, and that has now drawn the ire of religious conservatives and of the leadership of the incoming Republican Congress. 

Hide/Seek, per the Gallery's description,

considers such themes as the role of sexual difference in depicting modern America; how artists explored the fluidity of sexuality and gender; how major themes in modern art—especially abstraction—were influenced by social marginalization; and how art reflected society’s evolving and changing attitudes toward sexuality, desire, and romantic attachment.

Which is to say that it traces the history of implicit and explicit depictions of gay love in art in the United States.

The critical response to the exhibition has been very enthusiastic—see, e.g., Blake Gopnik for the Washington Post and Stanley Meisler for the Los Angeles Times—and it is a pity that what seems to be such a smart and thoughtful show will not travel outside the Beltway.  Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes provided an extended three-part view of Hide/Seek and how it presents its themes herehere, and here, and he asserts that it 

effectively argues that queerness — or 'difference' to use their word — has been a part of American art history almost since our art matured into something distinctly American. 'Hide/Seek' demonstrates that to segregate ‘gay’ from ‘American’ is to willfully obscure a thorough understanding of our nation and its art.

The politikerfuffle over Hide/Seek launched a few days ago via an article posted to CNSNews.com featuring the loaded accusation that

Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibit Features Ant-Covered Jesus . . .

"Ant-covered Jesus," beyond being a pretty good name for a punk band, somewhat describes an image—lovingly reproduced in three grainy, copyright-infringing phonecam shots, so that you may fully share the writer's voluptuously righteous shock at the thing—that appears for some eleven seconds in the course of a four-minute excerpt from "A Fire in My Belly," a longer 1987 video work by David Wojnarowicz, created as a response to the AIDS pandemic.  

The Washington Post has helpfully included a video excerpt from the video excerpt with a Nov. 30 story, here.  While the material is confrontational and intentionally unpleasant to view—the piece is one colossal howl of rage, after all—it is really no more outrageous than any number of other works.  The obvious comparison, particularly given those ants, is Buñuel's and Dalí's Un Chien Andalou.

The CNSNews piece loathes Hide/Seek in its entirety, but "ant-covered Jesus" is its particular chosen lightning rod.  The Catholic League launched its own tirade, declaring the video "hate speech."  The noise peaked yesterday when Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the two principal leaders of the incoming Republican House majority, raised the prospect that a failure on the part of the Smithsonian to "acknowledge the mistake" may result in "tough scrutiny" and other unpleasantness come budget review time.  Although a Boehner spokesman stated a desire to see the entirety of Hide/Seek shuttered, nothing that drastic seems to be in the offing.  The National Portrait Gallery did, however, permit its resolve to crumble to the extent of removing "A Fire in My Belly" from display, with the traditional feeble protestation that "It was not the museum's intention to offend."

[It is now being reported by Tyler Green that the decision to pull the video was made at the top, by Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, whose role should more properly be to defend the inclusion of the work as a legitimate exercise of curatorial discretion.  For shame, Mr. Secretary.]

The spectacle is a baffling one.  Consider: what is now constantly referred to as "ant-covered Jesus"—or, in the Catholic League's overheated version, "large ants eating away at Jesus on a crucifix"—is nothing of the kind.  It is a video image of a mass-produced porcelain or plastic depiction of the accepted visual version of a bloodied man hanging from a cross.  It is an image of an image of an image, a moving picture of ants wandering about on the surface of a piece of crockery that is lying on the ground, at least triply removed from the actual crucifixion of the actual Jesus of Nazareth—an event that was almost certainly accompanied by ants, flies and worse.  The belief that feels itself threatened by such an object, to such an extent that it feels compelled to lash out at it and to call for its destruction, is not so much Faith as it is a form of Idolatry, exalting the image of a thing above the thing itself.  

While their chosen weapon is the budget pen rather than the gun, the bomb, or the sledgehammer, the Congressmen's reaction to a picture is essentially indistinguishable from the reaction of certain radicalized fringes of the Muslim faith to the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons, and is no more rational or defensible.  Their offense neither privileges nor ennobles them.

Of course, there are those who would suggest that these protests are driven not by sincere piety but by cynical political calculation, ginning up a "scandal" in which the real target is not museums or artists but the very idea that the existence of gay Americans might be acknowledged or condoned.  I leave the penetration of complainants' true motivations as an exercise for my readers, who are always right.

In the end, this may be no more than a 48-hour wonder, driven by opportunism and the news cycle and then as quickly forgotten.  Perhaps "A Fire in My Belly" will be quietly, or not so quietly, slipped back in to the exhibition, possibly accompanied by a warning lest the delicate might inadvertently look upon it.  Whatever, between the self-righteous thuggery on the one side and the craven bowing and scraping on the other, a few fleeting seconds of ant-ridden holy tchotchkes may ultimately prove the least offensive element in this story.


Photo: Mapplethorpe exhibition, Ljubljana, 2009, by Flickr user Robert Marin, used under Creative Commons license.


Exercise Your Franchise
(because nobody likes a flabby franchise)

Voting place

Today is Election Day in these United States.  You should vote.  Thus endeth the lesson.

You should perhaps not vote whilst actually in a saloon, as the gentlemen above are doing.  Adjourning to the saloon before or, better, after voting is your right, for the time being at least.

For whom should you vote?  That is for you to know and me to find out. The knowledge, once acquired, may or may not send me to the saloon, supra.  

You are not to blame for the outcome in any event.  As the Bonzos reminded us:

"No Matter Who You Vote For, the Government Always Gets In"


Heigh Ho!


Everybody Give It Up for . . . Giving Up!

You declared you would be three inches taller
    You only became what we made you.
Thought you were chasing a destiny calling
    You only earned what we gave you.
You fell and cried as our people were starving,
    Now you know that we blame you.
You tried to walk on the trail we were carving,
    Now you know that we framed you.

— from "The Punk and the Godfather" (P. Townsend) 
    Quadrophenia (1973)

"The Punk and the Godfather" (or "The Punk Meets the Godfather," as it was titled on the U.S. release) appears at the end of what was, in the days of vinyl, Side 1 out of 4 on The Who's Quadrophenia.  In the arc of the album's story, it deals with the young protagonist, Jimmy, attending a concert headlined by . . . The Who.  Pete Townsend, ever one of the more self-aware of songwriters, took the occasion to reflect on the fundamental oddness of the relation between rock mega-star and audience, the heightened expectations each holds for the other, and the inevitability that those expectations will be unfulfilled.

It is perhaps the most "Who-ish" of Who songs, trotting out virtually every signature trick in the band's arsenal: the windmill guitar chords, the barely-controlled spatter of the not-yet-late Keith Moon's drum kit, Roger Daltrey's mighty howl offset by Townsend's limpid vocal on the bridge, even a self-mocking look back at "My Generation."  (That generation was, of course, Townsend's own: the immediate post-war first wave of the Baby Boom, the generation that made the '60s . . . and that, today, is well into its 60s.)

Disappointed expectation is the order of the day as U.S. mid-Term elections approach.  Incumbents generally are discovering that their constituents are not so Into Them as they once were, having been let down a few dozen times too many.  The President, while not facing reelection himself, is a particular target for the disgruntlement of one and all, having gotten the job in the first place by setting himself up as the very embodiment of heightened Expectation, positive Change, and boundless Hope.  As he zooms about the country in "campaign mode," it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the same rhythms and phrasings and cadences as sounded so genuinely vigorous and inspiring to so many only two years ago now come across as merely shout-y, almost as hard to buy into as a hearty "Helloooo, Cleveland!"

The President—a man at least as self-aware, I think, as Pete Townsend—surely knows that he is himself in large part to blame for all this disappointment: there are many important promises he offered up that he was actually in a position to deliver over these past two years, obstructionist legislators notwithstanding, but that he did not.  (I'm thinking here in particular of my own pet peeves concerning the President's ghastly record on civil liberties, but you can supply your own examples.)  But the fault, Horatio, lies not alone in our public figures.  It lies within ourselves, as well, and within the lies we tell ourselves.  Our expectations would not be so frequently disappointed but for our own folly in having many of those expectations in the first place.  

H. L. Mencken explained it all some 90 years ago in the opening paragraphs of his aptly titled essay, "The Cult of Hope," collected in the Second Series of his Prejudices:

    Of all the sentimental errors which reign and rage in this incomparable republic, the worst, I often suspect, is that which confuses the function of criticism, whether aesthetic, political or social, with the function of reform.  Almost invariably it takes the form of a protest: 'The fellow condemns without offering anything better.  Why tear down without building up?'  So coo and snivel the sweet ones: so wags the national tongue.  The messianic delusion becomes a sort of universal murrain.  It is impossible to get an audience for an idea that is not 'constructive'—i.e., that is not glib, and uplifting, and full of hope and hence capable of tickling the emotions by leaping the intermediate barrier of the intelligence.

    In this protest and demand, of course, there is nothing but a hollow sound of words—the empty babbling of men who constantly mistake their mere feelings for thoughts.  The truth is that criticism, if it were thus confined to the proposing of alternative schemes, would quickly cease to have any force or utility at all, for in the overwhelming majority of instances no alternative scheme of any intelligibility is imaginable, and the whole object of the critical process is to demonstrate it.  The poet, if the victim is a poet, is simply one as bare of gifts as a herring is of fur: no conceivable suggestion will ever make him write actual poetry.  The cancer cure, if one turns to popular swindles, is wholly and absolutely without merit—and the fact that medicine offers us no better cure does not dilute its bogusness in the slightest.  And the plan of reform, in politics, sociology or whatnot, is simply beyond the pale of reason; no change in it or improvement of it will ever make it achieve the downright impossible.  Here, precisely, is what is the matter with most of the notions that go floating about the country, particularly in the field of government reform. The trouble with them is not only that they won't and don't work; the trouble with them, more importantly, is that the thing they propose to accomplish is intrinsically, or at all events most probably, beyond accomplishment.  That is to say, the problem they are ostensibly designed to solve is a problem that is insoluble.  To tackle them with a proof of insolubility, or even with a colorable argument of it, is sound criticism; to tackle them with another solution that is quite as bad, or even worse, is to pick the pocket of one knocked down by an automobile.

Remnants of hope by jonathan mcintosh

So, as we trundle along in our troubled age, or in any age, we may not be any happier for it, but the best and most clear-eyed policy must be to break the false connection between Hope and Expectation.  Hope, for all that it may comfort us, ofttimes must be consigned to the land of dreamy dreams, while expectations should recognize what can be rather than what we merely wish to be.  

Or, as Mel Brooks advised in The Twelve Chairs, "Hope for the best, expect the worst."

Don't forget to vote, citizens, and try to remind those that you elect that what they cannot in fact make better—a vastly broader category than the typical politician, or typical constituent, is typically prepared to recognize—is probably best left alone.


Video: The Who, at the Cow Palace, San Francisco, Nov. 20, 1973, seemingly from the archives of Bill Graham Productions.  As a bonus, here is audio of the song from the band's show in Maryland sixteen days later—my 18th birthday, as it happens.

Photo: "Remnants of Hope" by Flickr user jonathan mcintosh, used under Creative Commons license.



As with so many other good things, I have come late to the writings of H. L. Mencken.  I have long known of him by reputation, of course, and have often relished his acid-drenched remarks when quoted by others.  I have been known to refer to the "booboisie", or to quote/misquote Mencken's definition of Puritanism, but I had not ever read him in any depth.  

I am remedying that omission now, reading through the Library of America's new 2-volume edition of  Prejudices: The Complete Series.  The six series of Prejudices, published from 1919 to 1927, collected Mencken's essays on the full range of political, literary and cultural issues of the day. As his title suggest, Mencken was one for taking a stand as his own and stating it without equivocation, for the benefit of whoever was equipped to take it in and assess it.   His contempt for those who were not so equipped was on full display in the Prejudices, as was his loathing for all those who would impose their own sentimental prejudices on others by force.  Mencken had no place for overweening self-importance in the powerful, even as he had no particular place for the thought-free "boobs" and rubes who were most frequently the targets of the powerful.

My favorite discovery thus far is that one of the better known Menckenisms turns out to have been inspired by, of all people, Ezra Pound.  It comes from an essay in the First Series of Prejudices, "The New Poetry Movement," and uses the wonderful word "abysmal" in it best sense, meaning "low and bad" but "deep to the point of bottomlessness":

Ezra Pound? . . .  His knowledge is abysmal; he has it readily on tap; moreover, he has a fine ear, and has written many an excellent verse.  But now all the glow and gusto of the bard has been transformed into the rage of the pamphleteer: he drops the lute for the bayonet.  One sympathizes with him in his choler. The stupidity he combats is actually almost unbearable.  Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.  But this business, alas, is fatal to the placid moods and fine other-worldliness of the poet.  Pound gives a thrilling show, but -- . . . .

Fine as that passage is, what I wanted to post here runs more to the political than the poetical.

T R Obamicon

When former President Theodore Roosevelt died in 1919, Mencken published not an obituary but the forensically titled essay, "Roosevelt: An Autopsy."  While largely admiring of Roosevelt -- particularly as compared to then-President Woodrow Wilson for whom Mencken reserved a particularly virulent strain of disgust -- the "Autopsy" is insistent on Roosevelt's character as a brilliant, activist, virile figure, a born manipulator of the masses, but working not for the masses but for benevolent rule over the masses, and with the ultimate controlling Prussian instincts of a Bismarck.  

It is a complex and sophisticated argument, and I recommend reading it in full.  The passage that leapt at me is this one, from which I quote at length: 

[At] bottom he was against them [the Progressives], and not only in the matter of their specific sure cures, but also in the larger matter of their childish faith in the wisdom and virtue of the plain people.  Roosevelt, for all his fluent mastery of democratic counter-words, democratic gestures and all the rest of the armamentarium of the mob-master, had no such faith in his heart of hearts.  He didn't believe in democracy; he believed simply in government.  His remedy for all the great pangs and longings of existence was not a dispersion of authority, but a hard concentration of authority.  He was not in favor of unlimited experiment; he was in favor of a rigid control from above, a despotism of inspired prophets and policemen.  He was not for democracy as his followers understood democracy, and as it actually is and must be; he was for a paternalism of the true Bismarckian pattern . . . -- a paternalism concerning itself with all things, from the regulation of coal-mining and meat-packing to the regulation of spelling and marital rights. . . .  All the fundamental objects of Liberalism -- free speech, unhampered enterprise, the least possible governmental interference -- were abhorrent to him. . . .  When he tackled the trusts the thing that he had in his mind's eye was not the restoration of competition but the subordination of all private trusts to one great national trust, with himself at its head.  And when he attacked the courts it was not because they put their own prejudice before the law but because they refused to put his prejudices before the law.

     In all his career no one ever heard him make an argument for the rights of the citizen; his eloquence was always expended in expounding the duties of the citizen. . . .  The duties of the citizen, as he understood them, related not only to acts, but also to thoughts. There was, in his mind, a simple body of primary doctrine, and dissent from it was the foulest of crimes. . . .

Leaping forward to the present day, and putting aside the more obvious differences between the two figures, of whom are we reminded by that passage, and particularly by the final sentence?  As you may have already guessed, it is the man currently putting the "bully" in the bully pulpit . . . .

Obama Question Othority

Illustrations by the blogger, with an able assist from Obamicon.me.com.


Poem: The Walrus and the Petrol Man



[being a loose adaptation, for our time,
of "The Walrus and the Carpenter" by the Rev. C. L. Dodgson,
to whom all honor be given and to whom no offense is meant


The sun shone down upon the sheen,
    He shone his shining light
On twinkling petrochemicals,
    Their spectra sparkling bright,
And this seems odd, because that oil
    Was really black as night. 

The moon declined to show her face
    Though stars were overhead, 
Deterred by toxic fumes that rose
    And bubbled from the bed,  
Or wafted from the surface where
    Dispersants had been spread. 

The Gulf’s green waters rolled ashore
    On bayou, beach and bay,  
And brought along the weeds and waste
    They’d picked up on the way,
As well as dead and dying things,
    Destruction and decay. 

Walrus 1

The Walrus and the Petrol Man
    Had just stepped from the bar
And started strolling down the beach,
    Consid’ring from afar
Just what it was that might be done
    To clear the place of tar. 

“If seven maids with seven mops
    Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose” the Walrus said,
    “That they could get it clear?”
“I doubt it,” said the Petrol Man,
    And shed a bitter tear. 

“I’d like to have our lives back, sir,”
    The Petrol Man complained.
"These locals are small people, sir,”
    The Walrus he explained, 
“Perhaps, if we consulted them,
    Their wrath might be contained? 

“A Town Hall meeting’s just the thing.
    That’s sure to gain their trust.
It works for politicians, sir,
    It ought to work for us.”
The Petrol Man, with furrowed brow,
    Said, “All right, if we must.” 

The Walrus grabbed his megaphone:
    “Come learn the full details!
Come creatures great and creatures small!
    Come shrimps and wasps and whales!
Come pelicans, come loggerheads,
    Come snakes and snipes and snails! 

“Come Oysters, get up from your beds,
    Come Mussels from your shoals,”
The Walrus said invitingly,
    “And as the water rolls,  
The Petrol Man and I will share 
    Our worst case cleanup goals.” 

The local creatures gathered round
    To hear what they might hear.
The Oysters clustered near the front,
    Their faces tense with fear.
The Walrus stood. He cleared his throat.
    His words were calm and clear: 

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
    “A remedy’s at hand:
It’s booms, and berms, and sieves, and scoops,
    And whopping bags of sand,
And sponges, and detergents
    Of a cheap generic brand.” 

Walrus 2


“Now hold it there,” the Oysters cried,
    “That hardly seems an answer!
What of our jobs? And habitat?
    And tourism? And cancer?”
The Petrol Man just shook his head:
    “There’s much more to the plan, sir: 

“Some golf balls and some shredded tires
    Is what we chiefly need!
Some robots! Shears and diamond saws!
    A nonstop online feed!”
“With these things, yes,” the Walrus said,
    “We can’t help but succeed!” 

“We’ve chatted up the President,
    And several admirals, too,”
Said Petrol Man, “and they’re convinced
    There’s nothing else to do.”
“But what of compensation?” cried
    The Oysters, turning blue. 

The Petrol Man looked heavenward
    And stood in uffish thought, 
Then sighed and said, “O Oysters,
    Has our caucus been for naught?
Is money all you think about?
    You say you can be bought?” 

“I hear your doubts,” the Walrus said,
    “They cut me to the quick!
You think I’m talking for my health?
    You think this is some trick?”
By now the rising tide of goo
    Was many inches thick. 

Walrus 3

"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
    "I deeply sympathize. 
But accidents will happen, eh? 
    That’s not a big surprise. 
You need us more than we need you: 
    To cross us isn’t wise.” 

The Petrol Man said, “There you are:  
    We’ve made our plans succinct.
What say you, friends?” He mopped his brow,
    And wiped a tear and blinked.
But answer came there none because
    Them critters were extinct.


Author's Note:

In the ongoing investigation of the BP Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it came to light that the company's environmental response plan included sections dealing with the preservation of walruses.  How walruses came to be included when they are not native to the Gulf of Mexico is something of a mystery.  Perhaps BP staff simply cut-and-pasted a section from an Arctic response plan, or perhaps as fans of Lost they knew that a subtropical climate is no obstacle to surprise encounters with denizens of the Frozen North.

Among the many living things threatened by the spill, oysters and oystermen have figured prominently.

Walruses, oysters, tragedy along the strand . . . I could only think of "The Walrus and the Carpenter" from Through the Looking-Glass, and so set to crafting a contemporary revision of that poem.  

I have kept the stanza and rhyme scheme intact, and something of the overall structure of the original -- the prologue in the heavens, the calling of the oysters, the set speeches, the descent in to silence.  Several lines, and nearly the entire fifth stanza, have been imported unchanged. Discrete references to current events and to other poems have been included, though I could not fit in any "mermaids singing each to each." 

My method of composition was to create a document with the original poem, stanza by stanza, in one column and my revision in the other.  If you've nothing better to do, you can see the "comparative text" version here [PDF].

Illustrations by Sir John Tenniel.


Mellow Out or You Will Pay


Primary Election Day 2010 in California brings with it only one certainty: the official return of Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. to big-time California politics as the Democratic nominee for, and early favorite in the race to become, California's next Governor.

Jerry Brown's return comes 27 years after he last served as Governor, from 1975 to 1983.  Term limits on state officers had not be instituted when he last Governed, so they pose no impediment to his return. 

When Brown last occupied the Governor's office, he famously refused to occupy the recently constructed and reasonably palatial Governor's Mansion in Sacramento, preferring a modest apartment and (so it was said) a futon on the floor.  He dated singer Linda Ronstadt.  He used the National Guard and launched helicopters to spray the citizenry with pesticide from on high in his battle against the Medfly.  He earned the "intractable sobriquet" of Governor Moonbeam from columnist Mike Royko, and a reputation for flakiness fanned by recurrent jokes in Doonesbury.  

When Brown later ran credibly but unsuccessfully for President, Doonesbury featured a week of strips -- pulled by most California papers -- alleging his receipt of favors from noted organized crime figures.  Also implicated was Brown's chief of staff, Gray Davis, who would himself go on to become Governor only to be recalled by voters and replaced with the now-departing Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In 1979, in the heady rush of California Punk, Jerry Brown inspired Bay Area band the Dead Kennedys and frontman Jello Biafra* to pen "California Über Alles", a screed linking cheerful NewAgery with National Socialism, all of it via the Governor.  For a flavor of the thing, here are the first two largely incoherent verses:

I am Governor Jerry Brown
My aura smiles and never frowns
Soon I will be president…
Carter power will soon go away
I will be Führer one day
I will command all of you
Your kids will meditate in school
    California Uber Alles
    Uber Alles California
Zen fascists will control you
100% natural
You will jog for the master race
And always wear the happy face
Close your eyes, can’t happen here
Big Bro’ on white horse is near
The hippies won’t come back you say
Mellow out or you will pay

alifornia Uber Alles
    Uber Alles California

Unrelated to Jerry Brown's return, but perfectly timed for it nonetheless, video artist Kota Ezawa, whose specialty is using low end animation software to super-simplify existing film footage, has combined "California Über Alles" with the Beatles' premier appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, to give us "Beatles Über California".  It's just the thing to get Californians marching straight to the ballot box: 


*  Given that the secessionist nation of Biafra has not existed for some 40 years, and that few now recall the civil war, blockades and resulting famine that made that sad place so notable at the time, I am left to wonder: does anyone still consider Jello Biafra's chosen moniker scandalous?

Illustration:  The official portrait of Governor Jerry Brown (version 1.0), by Don Bachardy, via the California State Capitol Museum.

More Kota Ezawa -- John & Yoko!  O.J. Simpson!  Susan Sontag! -- is viewable via UBUWeb.


So Advanced, It Practically Spends Itself

Imagine how much we might reduce the deficit if we began by eliminating The Gummint's expenditures on advertising and PR for itself.  And just think of the aesthetic benefits:

No more irritating Census ads!  ("If you don't send it back, we'll most likely leave you to starve.")

No more phony "blogs" ghostwritten for Personages of Great Power by Personages of None!   

And no more U.S Currency YouTube Channel trying to sell us Money as though it were the hippest and most feature-packed thing this side of Avatar.

"3-D Security Ribbon"?  

"Bell in the Inkwell"?  

What, they were out of Corinthian leather?  

Did Benjamin Franklin approve this message?  

And what's the sodium content of this thing, anyway?


A Bonus Feature of our own: