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CHICAGO-68-11Grant Park, August 1968

Nineteen-sixty-eight. The words slip off the tongue of those of my generation as a talismanic exclamation point, a vortex of nostalgia. Later generations have heard of it, and waxed romantic, and become latter-day hippies, or tattooed urban primitives. The year reverberates through our culture and politics to this day and beyond. It is celebrated by many as a great turning point, either seen positively or negatively, usually depending on one’s political inclinations. Among my friends it is often the locus of a deep sentimentality, the seeming high point of their lives. Among others it is seen a nadir, the opening volley of a deep culture war still being waged, and with Trump in the White House, seemingly finally being won, despite same-sex marriage, and the myriad other “civil rights” victories of the last decades. Retrenchment is back with a vengeance.

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A Prelude

Americans, being provincial and self-centered, tend to see the world with blinders. What is seen and known is all about America’s involvement somewhere far away. In 1968 that meant Vietnam, though most knew little of the place, only that we were at war there. The Tet offensive in Vietnam muscled the war front and center in the US.  Later on we’d learn a bit about Laos and Cambodia, which, of course, we bombed. Most of the rest of the world was invisible unless something about the US was involved in a way that brought it to the front pages of the newspapers and the nightly news leads.

In 1968 the world it seemed was in ferment, from China, deep into the “Cultural Revolution” begun by Mao Tse Tung in 1966, to Japan where student unrest spilled into the streets, from Argentina to France, from Germany to Mexico.  The stasis of the post-WW2 era and all its institutional structures were under stress and challenge.  Around the world people took to the streets demanding change.  In Eastern Europe discontent under the yoke of the Soviet Union burbled just beneath the surface and broke out in the open in Prague.   Across the Western world the same strains seemed to spread contagiously from country to country, bringing uprisings in Paris, Rome, Berlin, Poznan, Prague, Buenos Aires and elsewhere.  It seemed a great cultural and political uprising had commenced, bringing for many a great sense of both danger and hopefulness.  It occurred not simply in the political realm, but culturally – in music, theater, cinema, literature:  seemingly a kind of great awakening.

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In summer of 1968 I was just 25 years old, a touch more than a year out of Federal Prison, where I’d resided 27 months, having refused to comply with the Selective Service system. On getting out in ’67 I’d immediately jumped into the political fray, figuring I’d earned the right to do so having done time. I worked with the nascent draft resistance movement, and was deployed to talk about the prison experience and to encourage people to refuse induction into the military. Though as the clouds darkened I began to say that maybe it would be a good idea to join the military, perhaps learn how to use weapons and then go AWOL with this newly learned skill. I recall the draft resistance people, mostly pacifists, nudging me off the stage, dumping me as a speaker for their cause. Mine was not the view they wanted said on their behalf. At another time I recall giving a fiery talk at the Chicago Art Institute, when I suggested that perhaps the time for assassins had arrived. I remember a young female student coming forward after I’d spoken and asking if I had a copy of my speech and giving her the one I’d just read.

And I shot my own 16mm films – Traps and Leah, my first sound films.

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Photo to right: Linn Ehrlich 1967

In the same period, autumn to winter of 1967, I helped organize and set up the Chicago Filmmakers Coop, along with Kurt Heyl and Peter Kuttner and a few others. The three of us later set up what would turn into the Chicago branch of the left-wing Newsreel group. In early 1968 “The Mobe” was setting up in Chicago.  “The Mobe” was short for “National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam” which was a coalition of various anti-war groups, including the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which set out in early 1968 to prepare for organized protests at the Chicago Democrat Convention, primarily focused against the Vietnam war, but as well around civil rights and other leftist matters of interest.  They had rented office space, and gave our yet unnamed Newsreel group a room to work in.  In turn I became involved in the Mobe, meeting most of its organizers – Tom Hayden, Dave Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and several others whom I do not recall – Lee Weiner and John Froines.  I recall talking with Hayden, telling him of my recent prison experience and having him say to me that he didn’t think he could do 2 year stint in the joint.  I recall thinking, “And so why are you one of the leaders?”

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While there I met Marilyn Katz, of the SDS and involved in the Uptown project, in which activists moved into a neighborhood of poor Appalachians and attempted to organize them.  I moved in with Marilyn and lived there, with a Chicago “Red Squad” police car often parked at the porch-steps.  In April a demonstration which I consciously did not attend was attacked by police, though Peter was there and made still photos, and there was some film footage.  I organized and edited a short film, April 27, out of the materialwhich turned out to be the only film made by Chicago Newsreel.  The police behavior on that date foreshadowed  what would happen in August.

Anecdote 1:  Sometime in spring of 68, I went with a group to stage some anti-war guerilla theater on the plaza of the Federal Building in the Loop.  My role was as an American soldier, pulling out a plastic machine gun to mow down the Vietnamese civilians, a la My Lai.  After the theater was done a cop came to arrest me for having a gun, however obviously fake it was.  Since leaving prison I’d had a pathological relationship to cops, leaving me quivering at their sight.  Marilyn and a friend of hers, an old time Pinko, Sylvia Kushner, came charging and in effect scared the cop away with legal threats, rescuing me from the arrest.

marilyn-august-68.jpgMarilyn at the barricades

The Mobe’s intention was to get at least ten thousand people to come to Chicago, and have a major visible presence during the Convention, and hopefully to influence the nomination process.  Hubert Humphrey, stalwart Minnesota liberal, was tipped to be the Democrat choice, though he’d fully signed on to Johnson’s Vietnam war policies.

Two weeks before the convention began, Kurt and I, having read that the Democrats were having a mini-White House portico built onto the entrance of the Stock Yard Convention site, decided it might be a useful image for the film we, and the recently arrived New York contingent of Newsreel, were making about the convention.  So we drove on down to the South Side in his banged up VW Beetle, and parked near the site, and went in the August heat, in shorts and long hair and beards, and set up our tripod and got the shot.  Returning to the car, as we arrived 6 or 7 police cars swooped in, surrounding us.  Arrested, we were taken to the nearest Precinct office, and interrogated, initially by the local cops; then the Chicago Red Squad.  Then the FBI, and finally by the Secret Service.  As we escalated up the hierarchy the interest lessened – it appeared two wild haired hippies weren’t exactly the would-be assassins scoping out some upcoming killing ground.  We called the Mobe office to inform them and as I recall they got a lawyer on it.   I was released, but Kurt spent the night in jail as the papers on his Beetle had some problem.

On getting out I went promptly to the Mobe office to report in full what had happened – the first arrests of the Mobilization.  My recollection is none of us made a big deal out of it, though it should properly have been a cue as to what the coming weeks would bring.  None of us seem to have picked up on it though.

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As the time of the convention rushed closer, the people at the Mobe were busy and concerned:  it was clear that 10,000 people were not headed to Chicago as hoped, and we’d be lucky if 1000 showed up.  It appeared the whole plan was headed towards a dramatic failure, a fizzle.  In light of the events of the previous 6 months – the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the riots which came in the wake of that event, including large swathes of the west side of Chicago which went up in flames and resulted in the National Guard being called in, and then the assassination of Robert F Kennedy, along with the massive protests in Paris in May and elsewhere around the globe – it appeared the Mobe’s efforts would look pathetic in contrast.

Anecdote 2:  Marilyn and cohorts went to the Federal Building to paint “CIA” on their unmarked door, having asked me to go to film it.  I declined, still very nervous about police.  I had been in the building 2 and a half years earlier, in a court room being sentenced to 3 years in prison.  Marilyn also sprinkled “guerilla mines” in the form of large nails to flatten cop vehicles, and others liberally sprinkled stink bombs in the Hilton Hotel, HQ for the Democrats at the convention.

A night before the convention was scheduled to begin (Aug 26-29) a small band, perhaps 500 to 1000 or so people who had come to Chicago, along with some locals, commenced a march on the Near North Side, where the Yippies, centered around Abbie Hoffman, had set up a camp in Lincoln Park.  Hoffman and the Yippies were having a Festival of Life, juxtaposed to what they said the convention was, a The Festival of Death.  The police – nervous and touchy, as Kurt and I had experienced – attacked with billy clubs and tear gas, chasing demonstrators and by-standers down the streets and alleyways and making arrests.  This was reported locally at first, on the TV news and papers.  The result was an instant swelling of the demonstrators to more in the realm of thousands – many of them young people from Chicago and the suburbs, drawn probably as much for the excitement as for any substantive political reason.  In the next days the news went national, and in short order there were the Mobe’s wished for thousands.

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Inside the convention center Mayor Daley fulminated against the demonstrators and the press, his beloved city shamed before the world.  His police attacked national press figures like Dan Rather, Mike Wallace and Edwin Neuman both inside and outside the convention hall, resulting in terrible international press.  During Senator Abe Ribicoff’s nomination speech for George McGovern, in which he commented on the action happening outside, Daley was caught on camera yelling, “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch.”  All in all a far from auspicious commencement for the presidential campaign around the corner.

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NBC News - 1968 Democratic National Convention

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Had the cops laid low the counter-protest to the convention might well have fizzled, a foot-note in history.  Instead, by August 28, as Hubert Humphrey was being nominated – defeating Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, the crowd had swollen to 10,000, including lime-light seeking luminaries including Norman Mailer, Alan Ginsberg, William Burroughs and all the way from France, Jean Genet.  Grant Park resembled a quasi-war zone, surrounded with National Guard troops with rifles at the ready, bayonets, and jeeps and trucks with barbed wire grates, hemming in the demonstrators.  The Mobe’s leaders and other addressed a vast chanting crowd picking up Rennie Davis’ comment that “The Whole World Is Watching.”   And it was.

Anecdote 3:  Watching at night-time some of the police actions around Grant Park, I thought of going to an auto supply store and buying a handful of emergency flares and driving to the west side and heaving them into lumber yards, a diversionary distraction for the police.  Didn’t do it, but I did think it.

I was among those in Grant Park, there with Bolex in hand to shoot, though I recall a strong sense of distaste for the behavior of this mass of people, all taking their cues from the podium, chanting as told, and given the actual mix of people – mostly young, many from the region, I had the nagging suspicion that had someone begun a chant saying “Let’s go to the South Side and kill n…..s” a good part of them might well have done so.  Since that time I have always avoided anything with mass crowds.

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The other thing I felt while in the park was fear.  The part of Grant Park we were in on one side was sliced by railroad tracks, maybe 30 feet down, sided by a vertical concrete wall and fence – no escape.  The other side, facing Michigan Avenue, was lined with National Guardsmen, literally fencing in the crowd with portable barbed wire mounted on the fronts of their jeeps and trucks.  The Guard was armed with rifles, and in my mind, fresh from my experience in prison, I could imagine the rules of the game being shifted, and those guns being fired.  While it did not happen then, only a few years later, in May 1970, at Kent State in Ohio and at Jackson State University, Mississippi, the Guard did open up and fire, killing students.

At the conclusion of the convention the delegates dispersed, having nominated the favored Humphrey who limped off, ham-strung, to campaign and lose to Richard Nixon. And likewise did the folks at the Mobe.  They’d done their job, and most assuredly had impacted the nation’s politics, in a manner still being debated among the survivors and participants.  Back in the office word came that a farmer out west of the city had seen it all on television, and invited us out to his place for a bit of R&R, a picnic in the quiet of the Illinois prairie.  Marilyn and I along with 3 others road out for this welcome break.  She and I, and Rennie Davis, were sitting in the back-seat, Rennie with a large visible blood-marked bandage swathed around his head.  He’d been clubbed by cops during the convention.  As we were driving out of the city, he turned to Marilyn and me, and said, “I guess I don’t need this anymore” and he lifted the bandage off his head like a hat and set it aside.

My soul curdled, and inwardly I thought to myself, “This is my side?”

Jon Jost_fog`69_©Linn Ehrlich_2018Foto by Linn Ehrlich, on a visit back to Chicago, 1969

In early September Marilyn and I drove her VW to California where for a while she joined up with Bruce Franklin’s radical group in Stanford and bought a Beretta.  I hung around the edges of the The Movement, visiting a tear-gassed Berkeley and slowly edged away from the organized left.  Nixon won the election ushering in a continuation of the Vietnam war and a long period of America’s recoil from the 60’s and a drift into conservatism, and finally a terminal corruption and corporatism, culminating in Donald Trump.  Marilyn went back to Chicago to continue a life-time of work as a social and political organizer and I retreated into a seven year hiatus in the woods in California, Oregon and Montana.  Today Marilyn runs a political consultancy in Chicago, and I carry on as a quiet anarchist.

Of the figures who led the Mobe their life paths were wildly diverse:

Tom Hayden married Jane Fonda (and divorced after 17 years), and became a Democrat assemblyman in California and died in 2016.

Rennie Davis became a follower of Guru Maharaji Ji, and later a venture capitalist and advisor on meditation.

Abbie Hoffman carried on as a social critic and theatrically minded activist, writing books and committing political pranks.  Wanted for cocaine dealing he went into hiding for some years, and in 1989 apparently committed suicide by drug over-dose.

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David Dellinger, a life-time pacifist born in 1919 carried on in his work and died in 2004.

Jerry Rubin, founder of the Yippie party,  and carrying on as a political prankster into the mid-70’s Rubin morphed into a businessman, became a millionaire and advocated for Yuppies.  He died in 1994 following an accident while jaywalking in Los Angeles.

John Froines, an anti-war activist and scientist (chemistry) went on to a long academic career, retiring from UCLA in 2011.

Lee Weiner, continues to work for social causes, largely around Jewish issues.

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Bobby Seale, somewhat dragooned into the event very late while visiting Chicago on behalf of the Black Panthers, of which he was a founder, was bound and gagged during the trial and then severed from the trial to be tried alone.  He carried on with the Black Panthers until its demise and since has carried on in various social actions.

For Marilyn Katz’s take on the Chicago Convention see this:

https://chicago.suntimes.com/columnists/1968-democratic-convention-male-white-voter-chicago/

For a highly personal view, from a friend, Bob Boldt see this:

https://moristotle.blogspot.com/2015/08/third-monday-with-bob-boldt.html#more

For a good over-view with excellent layout and photos see this:

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2018/aug/19/the-whole-world-is-watching-chicago-police-riot-vietnam-war-regan

For various other views see these:

https://newrepublic.com/article/136364/cops-kids

https://chicago.suntimes.com/news/1968-democratic-national-convention-chicago-protests-riots-50th-anniversary/

https://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/465036.html

https://greatcities.uic.edu/event/the-whole-world-is-still-watching/

For a good Magnum photo-essay on the times see this:

https://www.magnumphotos.com/newsroom/politics/1968-power-protest-politics/

 

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And here is a summary of some of the major events which happened in 1968 prior to the Chicago Convention.

January 21

Around the world, 1968 took on a symbolic weight for millions of people, whether for cultural or political or other reasons.  I am sure many of those who were in Grant Park back then changed from Yippies to Yuppies, and some voted for Trump.  Some were permanently scarred, for better or worse.   I am a person not given to nostalgia or similar such sentiments.  When, on the death of this or that famous figure, I read the out-pouring of sentimental twaddle, the sending of “thoughts and prayers,” how that figure took such a place in others lives, I feel I live in another universe.  And so it is when friends wax on about sixty-eight.  Yes, it was a year in which many things rose to the surface and exposed themselves.  It was a year in which around the world many made valiant efforts to change the direction in which humanity was going.  It was a time for many of great hope.  And, in my jaded view, it was a time when we lost, and lost badly.  Not merely in the more or less superficial matter of politics, but on a far more profound and deeper level.  While the warning signs had already been made, we lunged headlong into a vast materialistic consumer insanity which utterly disregarded what we were doing to ourselves and the small blue planet on which we live.  Today we live in an opulent lop-sided world of fantastic wealth and poverty, we are surrounded with technological wonders that bedazzle us into a mindless tizzy of endless distractions. Today the world is on fire, fires lit by arsonists – by ourselves and our bottomless gluttony for things and the wonders of modern life, the imperatives of our religion of capitalism which demands and requires constant growth on a finite planet.  The skirmishes on the streets of Chicago (and Paris and Belgrade and Prague and Tokyo and Buenos Aires) all fade into nothing as we face the mirror and see the world we have produced in the last 50 years.  It is nothing other than a catastrophe, of which only the first edges have begun to show themselves.  The ancient four horsemen are riding headlong towards us – in truth they are already here, though for the most part well-masked, and deliberately so.  For what I am speaking of, as an example, see this.

 

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Last images of Traps

Traps, and other early short films can be found here:

Jost Short Films

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Following the conspiracy lead of Steve Bannon and Breitbart, Donald Trump has grumbled and tweeted often about the Deep State, the purported nefarious grouping of hidden government persons lurking in the depths of the massive Federal apparatus of myriad acronymic masks.  ICE NSA FBI CIA and on through to lesser known but equally evil entities.  These are alleged to be conclaves, variously, of members of the Harvard elite, Yale’s Skull and Bones, Jewish cabalists, covens of Christian Fundamentalists, or whichever cluster-fuck you wish to designate, surely there will be a website or more devoted to reading the tea-leaves of the signals emitted from these organizational black holes and their swirling galaxies.  Right and Left wing chatterboxes selectively cherry-pick whatever political tid-bits they wish and construct fabulist narratives around them, from the assassination of JFK to that of MLK to 9/11 and on to the Boston Marathon bombing.  The existence of the internet gives wide berth for these to spawn, however false or true they might be.

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Extracted from these events come tomes from scholars, Hollywood movies, novels and the rantings of Limbaugh, Hannity, Alex Jones and a host of lesser names. There’s millions to be made from these, and those mentioned have made theirs and more.  Like America’s religious hucksters, there’s a lot of money to be made preying on the gullible and fearful, with which it seems our country is plentifully supplied.  Welcome to the world of QAnon.   It’s American as Apple Pie.

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uploads1504017121881-OleHeadThe Lakewood Mega-church, Dallas TX

For decades – well actually far longer than that, for centuries  – America has been awash with conspiracy theories, reaching back to its founding.  There were always traitors loose in the land, lluminati, the anti-christ, double-agents for foreign powers, the entire gamut of customary political war-horses, broad-brushes with which to paint your enemy. Today’s landscape is nothing new, just that for brief periods we like to pretend it ain’t so.

But, myths aside, it’s all the same old same old.  As is governance itself.

Current CIA Director Mike Pompeo And Five Former CIA Directors Speak At National Security ConferenceTwo deep-state members, John Brennan and General Michael Hayden, former chiefs of the CIA

Conspiracy theories, to take root, need soil, and the United States government has been rich tilling land for as long as its been around.  Within long-term living memory those range from major matters, such as the concept that FDR and the government knew Pearl Harbor was coming, and let it happen.  Jump ahead half a century, and the same it true of 9/11.  In both cases there is ample evidence to suggest they are true, though the makers of American mythology adamantly insist that only a tin-foil hatter would believe such malarkey.  After all, who could believe that our own government would allow such events to occur when their job is to protect us?  Only a true nutter could believe such a thing, regardless of the massive evidence and logical reasons for such a thing to fit properly into a narrative.

And the same goes for lesser items from the assassination of JFK requiring magic bullets, and on down to such trivial things as using members of the military as guinea pigs for “scientific” experiments, or, well, hell, using whole cities like San Francisco to experiment with some new biological dispersal weapon.  Or letting St. George, Utah, knowingly be a nice down-wind recipient of nuclear bomb test radiation and then spending decades denying the cancerous downside.  In fact, the more one knows about Uncle Sam the more fertile the soil one finds for tin-foil hat thoughts.

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Enter Donald, the wanna-be Queen’s tough guy sporting a giant borough-wide chip on his shoulder.  A self-made man, so he insists (that million buck starter kit from Dad don’t count), he broke into the hard-as-nails world of Manhattan real-estate and built a solid gold (well, at least gold-plated) reputation as a party-animal, womanizer, builder of garish towers, possessor of serial-wives and of serial bankruptcies.  And despite all that he wasn’t welcomed into the fold of the Manhattan elite, and here, decades later, bearing a grudge that deforms his face and body, and weighs on him like a WWF wrestler, he’s out to let them have it. Descending his golden escalator but 3 years ago, met by his adoring rent-a-crowd, he tossed his hat in the Presidential circus ring, and to wide amazement and laughter promptly vanquished the supposedly serious Republican candidates with school-yard taunts, and thereafter sent the world into shock when Hillary Clinton lost to him as well, if not in the general vote, then in the dubious Electoral College. The world has been aghast since, as The Donald charges like a raging bull, upsetting one institutionally rooted apple-cart after another, shredding the polite decorum and language of our traditional politics, and causing serious harm to the status quo.  Just like he said he would.

Well, almost.

 

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Having promised to “drain the swamp” The Don instead stocked the beltway with more alligator sleaze than anyone thought conceivable, stacking his Cabinet with grifters ready to dismantle their respective departments, and to feed at the Federal trough as quickly and mercilessly as possible.  Having reduced his GOP Congressional majorities to the quivering sycophants they always were, our gangster godfather trashed protocols, ripped up treaties and obsessively uprooted anything having to do with Barack Hussein Obama while loudly bellowing his utterly unmasked racism.  Supposedly serious Republicans held their silence while the Tea Party wing cheered lustily and the Don’s racist base went bananas.  Doubtless never having actually read it, the man sworn to uphold the US Constitution, as G W Bush had suggested earlier, treated it as “just a goddam piece of paper.”   Toilet paper in this instance.

All of this behavior has transpired with little more than murmurs from the official opposition, the Democrats, who hide behind their minority status in the House and Senate whimpering there’s nothing they can do, their hands are tied until November, the mystical season of voting when the Great American Public is allowed to choose between corporately approved specimen A or B. And besides, they are as beholden to their corporate masters as the GOP, and should they speak too loudly the full depths of both-sides-of-the-aisle corruption would be fully exposed.   Until then the pages of YouTube and Facebook are awash with videos of virulent racists yelling and screaming on camera, police killing blacks for being black, ICE round-ups of alleged illegal aliens, children stored in ex-Walmart boxes converted to instant prisons, and other pleasantries of the present American mental landscape, the ugly id of the nation having been exposed by Trump’s tearing off of the band-aid of PC politeness imposed by the prior administration.

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Faced with this rupture of politics-as-normal, the nation has contorted itself into the unimaginable:  the liberal-left now looks upon the FBI, the CIA and NSA as potential saviors, while the right, formerly the supposed champions of fiscal and moral rectitude, law & order, balanced budgets, goody-two-shoes ethics and virulent anti-Commie/Russiaphobes morphed instantaneously into Russiaphiles, haters of the deep-state combine of the FBICIANSA, and rabid pigs at the trough of corruption and racism.  And not only trickle down economics, but also trickle down ethics, in this case in the form of terminal corruption.  Hence the plague of YouTube racism and cop-killer videos.

170803104354-01-comey-file-0608-super-teaseYou’re Fired!  Former FBI Chief Comey

Enter the deep rumblings of the Deep State.  Famed for having intervened in an attempted Richard Cheney machination during a breathless hospital visit to then Attorney General Ashcroft who lay seriously ill, while Cheney-Bush henchmen sought to secure his signature for a program of dubious legality, wearing his cloak as Ashcroft’s chief assistant, James Comey, life-long Republican, became a belated liberal hero, as did fellow Republican, Robert Mueller, then head of the FBI.  See this for the full story.    And now, a decade and some later, these two emerge from the deep bowels of the government yet again in tandem.  As FBI chief, appointed by Obama and retained by Donald Trump, Comey was pressed by his new boss to swear a certain kind of loyalty, mob-style. Declining, he was summarily fired, though in a manner in which in the arcane convolutions of government he was able to secure the naming of a special counsel to investigate Russian skullduggery during the 2016 election. The Special Counsel named was none other than Robert Mueller.  And not only that, but Comey also also did so in a manner which required Trump lackey Richard Sessions, Director of the Justice Department, to recuse himself from the investigation.    All this served well for Trump to loudly complain that he was being undercut and back-stabbed by the Deep State, of which Trump cohort Steven Bannon and his program Breitbart had long complained.

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The news of the day of late swirls with the constant word of criminality in high places – the current Manafort trial pealing the skin off the fancy-suited world of business and politics, with fantastical numbers, a litany of off-shore banking havens, and enough moral sleaze to last forever.  Or until the next, around-the-corner, trial to reveal still deeper depravity.   Or Avenatti’s latest lurid spill of The Don’s hushed-up sex-capades.

GTY-james-clapper-jef-170308_16x9_992James Clapper, former head of the NSA

Legally, lying to a Congressional committee is a crime, whether under oath or not, punishable by up to five years in prison, or in some instances more.  James Clapper was head of the NSA,  (whom it turns out went to Annandale HS, Fairfax VA, 1956-60, same time I did, though I do not recall knowing him then, but my sister does); in testimony to Congress he lied.  Caught at it, he recanted in a Clintonesque manner, parsing the exact meaning of “spying” etc.

brennanJohn Brennan, Ex-Director of CIA

Mr Brennan, former director of the CIA, outspoken of late regarding Donald Trump -saying his comportment in Helsinki was “treasonous” – is himself in a problematic position, having also lied to Congress, just as did Clapper.  In his case regarding torture and such nice things.

And of course Mr Comey, fired director of the FBI, is also accused by some of lying, or at least fudging regarding leaks from his office.  All in all, a charming cluster of characters, all deeply enmeshed in governmental agencies which traffic in secrecy as a part of their function. Naturally a good setting for conspiratorial actions.  All lied to Congress, but skated.  So small wonder that thoughts of a Deep State tend to focus on this area, along with the military.

That this nexus of fellows engaged in the sordid arts of secrecy and executors of the dirty deeds of the US government should all re-emerge in unison, though this time wearing super-hero cloaks for some liberals, indeed raises a peculiar stench, the smell of something rotten deep in the bowels of America’s government: Yes, Virginia, there is a secret Deep State.

 

And yes, it seeks to defend its institutional status and powers, just as do almost all bureaucratic institutional organizations.  In this case, these institutions (and 14 other “security” organizations under the umbrella of the Unites States Government), all seek to carry out their jobs as protectors of the corporate/business powers for which and on behalf of which that government exists.  And when by some quirk of circumstance, something or someone inimical to those interests occurs, it is their function to work together to challenge and defeat that intruding force.  And such, in the instance of Donald John Trump, is the case.

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Were the Republican Party a healthy political party in American terms, it would have never allowed Trump to emerge as its nominee for President.  In a “healthy” state it would have vetted him, researched his background, and done whatever was necessary to assure he did not become their candidate.  But the Republican Party, like the rest of the society it is rooted in, is, exactly as is the Democrat Party, utterly corrupt, and has been so for some decades, steadily rotting away until it became a steaming fetid swamp of oligarchism marinated in All-American racism. The Democrats were equally corrupt, utterly owned by corporate powers, and utterly out-of-touch with what neo-liberal policies – their policies – had done to broad areas of the American public.

And as were and are the political parties of the USA, so too all its institutions are corrupt:  the Congress, the Courts, the Executive Branch, the 5th Estate, the corporate world, Wall Street.  Every. Damn. One. Of. Them.

So it is little wonder that along with all these pillars of American society that the Deep State is likewise corrupt.  Any decent working Deep State would have some time ago arranged a plausibly deniable accident, be it on the ground, Air Force One, or a berserk White House Guard, and Trump would already be fodder for further conspiracy theorists to figure out who done it.   But thus far, confronted with the Keystone Kops of the inept, obvious, utterly corrupted government of the most comical Don imaginable, the hard-men of the Deep State have thus far fumbled the ball, and the Trump gang, though snookered by their own glaring stupidity, is still standing.

So yes, Don, yes there is a Deep State, and it is certainly out to get you.  But it is just like you, and is inept and as flaccid as your butt is, unable to shift from the SOP of the Cold War to a world in which Tweets shift the market up and down and idiocy rules the White House, and few care if the President consorts with prostitutes and stuffs his government full with nepotism and cronyism.  After all, most of them are doing exactly the same things.

Meantime America burns.

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Made an offer I couldn’t refuse, spent two weeks, June 9 to 25th, with Marcella on the US East Coast, hosted by a long time friend, Charles Lyman (since 70’s).  First at an old New England sprawling 15+ bedroom old house outside Wareham, Mass., overlooking Buzzard’s Bay, which separates Cape Cod from Rhode Island.  Had nearly a week there, kicked back, minimal net access, almost relieved from the social mayhem happening out in “the real world.”  Then we packed up to go up north to a small private island located off the coast of Maine, near Bangor.  Got as far as Brunswick before a simmering problem caused a U-turn back to Boston. [Was a matter another person casting a black cloud over things courtesy of a complex relationship with our host and alcoholism.]

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Tucked in a little forest of Lyme’s disease tick-laden foliage we dodged that bullet – none to be found on us for the week.  Enjoyed a laid back time of doing little, chit chat, and trying to absorb something of the old New England vibe of a huge family summer house, and all the things implicit: boats, seashore, old-line connections and sensibilities.  Far from my American roots, and interesting for me to try to fathom.  Our host, invited in part apparently with intentions of shooting some material of me, though we spent way less than an hour doing that (thankfully). Instead we got a casual dose of his family history, old family photos, and a haphazard glance into a once-life. Interesting.

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Wareham and the nearby area were classic rural small-town USA, East Coast style, and like its parallels across the nation, a bit run-down unless a hot-shot tourist magnet.  We did a little jaunt to visit friends near Woods Hole, on the Cape, and another to New Bedford and its whaling museum.  Lazy days.

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Friend Charles shifted plans a touch, and instead of heading up north to Maine on a Thursday, things delayed to Sunday, which began to chop our trip into pieces.  Meantime a close friend of his, a regular in his life, became problematic with alcohol and maybe other psychological things, alienating Marcella.  This prompted a bit of guru Zen Jon, suggesting she just let it fly by and not bother her.  Boomerang properly came the day after we left Wareham, driving up to Brunswick Maine, a one-night stop-over enroute to Sutton Island.  There staying in a lovely New England coastal home, this one of the famed New England Cabot family, from which Charles’ wife comes.  Lovely place and setting, full of art.  There our companion in this setting disrupted things in the morning, blowing my trip-wire, and I talked with my friend saying neither I nor Marcella relished 4 days on an isolated island with this potential negative element ready to intrude at any moment.  He concurred, and we took the next train south to Boston.  Sorry not to have visited this island, and if life permits, hope another chance arises to spend a week or maybe more there, in solitude perhaps.

 

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In Boston, stayed with cousin Holly on Beacon Hill.  Couldn’t ask for a nicer location there, or a nicer host.  Nosed a bit around the city, bumping into a demonstration on the Commons.  A pathetic turn-out of 20 or so, chanting anti-Trump immigration stuff, reminding me of 50 years ago, the summer of 1968, and the chants done then:  “Hey hey, ho ho, LBJ has got to go” and so on.  Way back then in a very serious way “we” – me and my fellow confused socialists or whatever each person thought they were (not very coherent, to be honest) – lost and lost seriously. We were as nothing against the building corporate militarist state that had taken form.  Now it runs the show and verges towards outright State Fascism.   So passing this gaggle of protestors sent a chill through my soul.

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Likewise the deluge of Trump Era news seems to have swamped the national psyche, also chilling my soul.  The news repeatedly suggests the nation is headed towards some kind of denouement, whether a blunter police state, yep, Fascism some American-style, or a break down of civil order.  Or given the small crowds my skeptical mind imagines a capitulation along the lines of the good German burghers of the 30’s, heads ducked hoping to stay out of the fray.  There’s already ready-made Brownshirts about, eager for Our Great Leader to just give them (further) nods.  Charlottesville.  The other day in laid back hipster heaven Portland OR. there were street battles, with echos of Weimar where there were fights between Adolf’s forces and communists, leading shortly to… Well,  you should know the history.

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While in Boston saw a few friends, among them my old prison buddy Bill Cunningham, who has spent a life as a community organizer, and studied local housing in Cambridge, and is working now on a book about that issue.  We had a great time hanging with him – full of information, a wicked wit, and just a pleasure to spend time with.

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As a wrap up for our trip Marcella and I had a long day at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, slowly taking in their collection, a welcome respite from the swirl of political ugliness which has enveloped the country.  Though I know only too well that art is no refuge from reality.

 

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And yet, stepping outside, we entered again the toxic atmosphere of America in these times, and frankly I was relieved to be headed far away, even if the bloated importance of my nation necessarily follows where ever one goes.

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Since the last of these ruminations on the state of the American nation too much water has run under the bridge for the bridge to have accommodated it.  It’s inundated now, washed out by the tsunami of the Trump era’s endless bombast and show-biz shit-show. Having reduced our official politicians to the empty-suits they already were, Republican and Democrat, Trump entered the official institutions of government as the bull-in-China-shop, trampling everything in sight.  In doing so he has unmasked the emptiness of those structures as well as he stripped the Republicans naked and then left Hillary Clinton in shock and a majority of the public aghast.  On taking office he has carried out the same wrecking policies, in a blurred shuffle of names, placing a sequence of foxes in the hen house, such that the cabinet is in truth a dismantling organization along the lines of the quickly departed Steve Bannon’s desired “deconstruction of the administrative state.”  In practice this commenced in deleting regulations mostly over corporate behavior, de-funding of numerous social welfare programs, and now, coming to a peak,  direct attacks on the rule of law and the discarding of Constitutional restraints on executive power.  It is, in simple terms, an attempt to institute an American Fascism.

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I spent the period from mid-October 2017 to March 2018, once again on the road in America, zig-zagging on back roads, visiting small towns and big cities.  It was a dispiriting journey which left me exhausted with America, its foibles and schizophrenia, its beauties and horrors.  The drumbeat of Trump’s malignant personality synchronized daily with the headlines in the news: school shootings, the stock market riding high, then dropping on an utterance or Tweet, the chronic postings of police violence against blacks, the ICE roundups of immigrants, and the scab of America’s built-in racism exposed and open, our psychic maggots swarming the dead corpse, all accompanied to the global warming “weird” new weather.  Through it all it felt the nation was floundering, flummoxed by its new Fuhrer who seemed to emit new offenses every day and yet remain unscathed. His alleged approval rate climbed from 33% to 40.

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My journey had been, in part, to attempt yet again to make a final essay film about America, PLAIN SONGS.  I’d begun in 2012, failed; attempted again in 2014, and failed again; again in 2016.  Each time the ever more incoherent mess of American society had reared up in my mind, numbing me into wondering what possible purpose would be served in making a critique of this phenomenon when it was clear the place was already drowning in the thunderous noise of its own illnesses, and that no matter what, no voice would ever puncture its schizoid death-rattle.  There was nothing to say as there would be no one to hear.

 

To Elsie

The pure products of America
go crazy–
mountain folk from Kentucky or the ribbed north end of
Jersey
with its isolate lakes and

valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves
old names
and promiscuity between

devil-may-care men who have taken
to railroading
out of sheer lust of adventure–

and young slatterns, bathed
in filth
from Monday to Saturday

to be tricked out that night
with gauds
from imaginations which have no

peasant traditions to give them
character
but flutter and flaunt

sheer rags succumbing without
emotion
save numbed terror

under some hedge of choke-cherry
or viburnum–
which they cannot express–

Unless it be that marriage
perhaps
with a dash of Indian blood

will throw up a girl so desolate
so hemmed round
with disease or murder

that she’ll be rescued by an
agent–
reared by the state and

sent out at fifteen to work in
some hard-pressed
house in the suburbs–

some doctor’s family, some Elsie
voluptuous water
expressing with broken

brain the truth about us–
her great
ungainly hips and flopping breasts

addressed to cheap
jewelry
and rich young men with fine eyes

as if the earth under our feet
were
an excrement of some sky

and we degraded prisoners
destined
to hunger until we eat filth

while the imagination strains
after deer
going by fields of goldenrod in

the stifling heat of September
somehow
it seems to destroy us

It is only in isolate flecks that
something
is given off

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

William Carlos Williams

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Some years ago – well actually it was decades – I had publicly spoken and written about this likely prospect, of the break up of the American nation, its culture and society.  I was, of course, deemed crazy, “extreme,” unable to see the unique wonder and beauty of our experiment, our “Exceptionalism.”  Instead I rattled on about the dubious wonders of our mode of American capitalism, about our fraudulent hoist-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps hokey “individualism,” or about our original sins of obliterating the natives of this land and pretending we “discovered” it, and of slavery, or of the infinitude of other things which constitute the real America and its history.  I’d done this since I was 16 or so.  And now, as history is catching up with me I find many voices emerging, seeing this reality, and the horrible political and psychic bill which confronts us.

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I grew up in a military family and in turn had an early education in how its values work, as a corrosive system of obedience, submission to “higher authorities,” brutalization both physical and mental.  I read the journals my father had, his “professional” magazines, and suffered his military psychoses.  Those journals read to me like a Kafkaesque nightmare in which the totally crazed plotted out, inside the system they lived in, the most depraved of thoughts.  And they not only thought them, but did them with the authority of the government. Gulf of Tonkin. My Lai. Experiments on soldiers.  Hiding the mess of nuclear facilities. And on and on. After all, they were the “muscle” of the government, there to step in when more discreet methods – economic extortion, silent “ops,”  weighted “diplomacy” – failed.  The list of American crimes in this realm is near endless.  Of our whole history, we have not been at war for 22 years.   The US military today cannot account for 21 trillion dollars, which it allegedly received.  It, like the rest of the nation, is utterly corrupted and corrupting.  And of all the institutions of the nation, it is the military which is “most respected”!

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While this political cyclone whirls across the country, the superficial life-goes-on goes on. While it seems a dark cloud hangs overhead, a cloud of uncertainty, a cloud of astonishment – our police do this !  –  so many people think that ! – beneath all seems “normal.”  People go to their jobs, to cafes and restaurants and movies; they meet with their friends, make love, live, die and do all the things human animals always do.  But hovering around is something else, “normality” is disrupted.  The ghost of the dysfunction of the Weimar Republic lingers off-screen, and for most Americans is  utterly unseen.  After all, we are “Exceptional” and exempt from the usual forces of history.  And yes, we are indeed exceptionally self-deluded.

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For myself I had seen this coming for some time, in some form or another, though I could not have figured out just what.  The normalcy of most Americans is that they live in an economic and military empire, which wars endlessly (though it does its best usually to keep it hidden), in order to produce these figures:

The USA is less than 5% of the world’s population.

It occupies 7% of the earths land surface.

It consumes 25% of the earth’s resources.

America is chronically cited as the world’s biggest economy, the lynch-pin of the global economic system, the most powerful and richest nation on earth.   These things are all owing to our imperial economic/military status:  like a good Mafia system, we offer deals one can’t refuse, on pain of “regime change” or flat out obliteration by a military far bigger and more powerful than any other.  Our “normalcy” is built upon this hard, ugly reality, and making a corrective to this would involve such a major change of our lives that most simply cannot comprehend it.  Even nice liberals.

 “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”   –  Upton Sinclair

This needs only a modest bit of tinkering to describe Americans and their place in the world.  In fact it is used often in political talk employed to explain and excuse our frequent foreign policy of blowing up places which decline to roll over and play dead when we extort them for natural resources.  We say something about “our national interests” and threats to “the American way of life” and send in the military.  In the Sinclair quote we need only change the word “salary” to “life-style” or “American way of life.”

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“American capitalism is predatory, and American politics are corrupt: The same thing is true in England and the same in France; but in all these three countries the dominating fact is that whenever the people get ready to change the government, they can change it. The same thing is not true of Germany, and until it was made true in Germany, there could be no free political democracy anywhere else in the world — to say nothing of any free social democracy. My revolutionary friends who will not recognize this fact seem to me like a bunch of musicians sitting down to play a symphony concert in a forest where there is a man-eating tiger loose. For my part, much as I enjoy symphony concerts, I want to put my fiddle away in its case and get a rifle and go out and settle with the tiger.”                                          –  Upton Sinclair

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“The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store. Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.”  –  Upton Sinclair
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Today’s newspaper, on the heels of certain balloon’s floated by Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, announced that the Maximum Leader declares that he cannot be indicted, subpoenaed, or anything else that irritates him.  He has declared that he is the law.
The murmur of the pundits thus far has been muted; the public carries on.  The Brownshirts march.  (This is not metaphorical: Charlottesville, myriad cellphone shots of police-state behavior coast-to-coast, and Trump’s support of this all testify to this as an institutionalized reality.)
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“…realized that this country has gone so flabby that any gang daring enough and unscrupulous enough, and smart enough not to seem illegal, can grab hold of the entire government and have all the power and applause and salutes, all the money and palaces and willin’ women they want.”     –  Upton Sinclair
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On leaving America a few months ago, I had already concluded that the film that had partly prompted my journey was useless.  Perhaps that was a function of my age, now 75, or perhaps of an over-due “artistic burnout”.  Or perhaps simply an exhaustion with a life-long hard look at the country, society and culture from which I had emerged.
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While in the face of the affronts which Trump and his administration deliver to whatever it is Americans imagine their country to be, one would normally be a bit sanguine, and think, “Oh, there will be a blue wave” and other such thoughts directed toward finding a “correction.”   Just as many imagined a Hillary Clinton victory would have kept the ship of state sailing pleasantly on – Hillary back in the campaign was eager to assert America’s “exceptionalism” and would surely have carried on with the empire as usual.
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As a life-long surveyor of American society and culture, as well as being quite acquainted with other societies, I am not so “optimistic” that America will “self-correct” in a manner that would actually be positive.  Instead I think it will shift into – more so than it already is – a form of fascistic state in which police-power intimidates the comfortable to silence, “undesirables” are rounded up or simply erased with power (happens everyday in petty transactions of those people in their dealings with police and other “authorities”) and rather quickly “polite society” joins in.  One of the more remarkable aspects of American “exceptionalism” is that it blathers in inverse proportion about “freedom” while being a desperately conformist society.   When the pressure is on, most will fall in line.
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It seems to be something of the nature of our species, and its behavior, that we collectively have a periodic need to have a major blood-shedding.  This compulsion seems largely related to our tribal instincts, marking off “others” from “our group.”  This is clearly what has overtaken America, and whatever connective tissue had for a while appeared to have bound us together, is now so frayed as to be non-existent.  We go through the motions of “national unity” but there is none.  We are at war with ourselves, a condition normally called a “civil war.”   Of course in wars of any kind, civility is usually one of the first casualties.  In wars people “naturally” do atrocious things.  There is no reason at all to think we’ll be any different.
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If interested in the thoughts and process of the attempt to make Plain Songs, see this:
To see the essay films which it was to be a continuation of, see these:

 

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I confess to being a total news-junkie.  I awaken each morning, flip on the Chromebook, and jump headlong into the day’s headlines.  In the last few years this has meant a wallow in the traumas of America’s official political landscape, a zombie horror show in which all the beasts which the system had imagined it had defeated re-emerged with a vengeance.  Glossed over in the alleged post-racial Obama era, though hiding in plain sight in Trump’s birtherism and McConnell’s “one term” obstructionism, liberal America waltzed through 8 years of self-love, thinking that in voting for a Harvard-trained upper- middle-class half-black man, they’d resolved the matter of the nation’s deeply rooted historical and institutionalized racism.  We were woke, or so they imagined.  Instead they awoke on Nov 8, 2016 to pull their heads out of the sand, realizing belatedly that they knew almost nothing of their country.  Zombies crawled out everywhere, undefeated and triumphant.

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None of this came as a great surprise to me, neither the roiling racism which raised it’s head as Trump pulled back the oozing scab that had politely hidden the cankerous sores on the body politic, nor the shock of the largely urban liberals for whom this came as a nasty revelation.  I’d been charting this for some decades in my work – films and blogs.  It was, after a manner, my self-chosen job to probe about in the American social psyche, albeit I tended towards the more oblique forms of art rather than the blunderbuss snarl of politics.   As early as the mid-60’s I’d done short films on the alienation of young people in the stressed out 60’s when the matter of racism was roiling the nation during the civil rights movement, and Vietnam was eating away at our social fabric.  I addressed those things in Traps, and 13 Fragments & 3 Narratives from Life, promptly after leaving two+ years in prison for the “crime” of draft refusal.  I then made a few other works, couched in counter-cultural terms, likewise pointing to the schisms in our society: Primaries, A Turning Point in China, and 1, 2, 3, Four, in 1969-70.

At the time the country was tearing itself apart with deep political rifts, and with a major temblor in our cultural sensibilities.  The  end result was a major shakeup in our social values, followed with Altamont, Nixon, and then, after the interlude of Carter, Reagan and a long slow shift right in politics and economics, and a harshly contested liberal drift in cultural matters.

SD CORPSESpeaking Directly (some american notes)

Deeply involved in the events at the Chicago Convention in 1968 (arrested early), I withdrew to California, and then in 1971 moved to Oregon and began a long essay work on the State of the Nation:  Speaking Directly.  It addressed in social and personal terms what was going on in the US at the time, and in myself. In what I think now of as slightly stilted leftist terms, it described, somewhat accurately, what was going on in US cultural politics and government foreign policy, and spoke of the fractures existing in the country at the time – cracks which ran through us individually as well as collectively.

Subsequent work delved deeper in fictional narrative terms into various specifically American socio-political realities: our form of capitalism, alienated men, Vietnam vets, and the broader nature of our culture.  The tonality and content was for the most part negative – things were not going so well in our country.

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In 1985 I returned to the essay form, making another long work of inquiry on the state of America, Plain Talk & Common Sense (uncommon senses).  In its indirect and artfully oblique manner it all too accurately traced and predicted the trajectory of our present history.   It is as pertinent today as it was when it was made, though it had made a cautionary and desperate plea for us to take a different path.  While securing arts world kudos, such as participation in the Whitney Biennial of 1987, obtaining numerous festival screenings, and being broadcast by Channel Four (which had commissioned it) in the UK, its real-world impact was for all practical purposes zero.

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In the late 80’s, the stock market reached new heights, and the financial world became a locus of fame and glamor, and art prices zipped to ever higher levels.  I recall writing a letter-to-the-editor of the New York Times noting how Souren Melikian’s “art” reviews had morphed from some discussion about the artistic nature of a work to a purely financial one and belonged more on the Economics pages than “culture.”  In 1989 I shot All the Vermeers in New York, a sweetly caustic comedy of manners glancing into the financial and arts worlds of the Big Apple and the havoc they bring to the souls involved in them.

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A few years later I set out to Oregon to shoot a new film, The Bed You Sleep In, which I confess I told some acquaintances before shooting that I intended it to be a “masterpiece.”  I think around the same time I read that Brian De Palma had said the same of his film of the same time, Bonfire of the Vanities.  In Toledo, a lumber mill town inland a bit from coastal Newport, I nosed around doing some research in my far from academic manner, arrived at some thoughts and clarity, got actors, a free camera from Panavision (thanks Bob Harvey) and in a month came up with the film done in what had become my usual manner of improvising mostly, with a few sections scripted.

It’s not for me to make the call on whether I succumbed to hubris, or whether I managed to get somewhere near my aim.  What I did intend, that this chamber drama of a family be done in a way such that it reflected the broader American society, apparently, with no explicit suggestion at all, seems to have worked.  Below I’ll post a handful of reviews for The Bed You Sleep In, which seem to support this view.

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I’ve written the foregoing as in the last year and more, as I’ve indulged my news-junkie habit, I have noticed a sharp shift in the tone and views of both “normal” folks, at least the kinds who respond in various newspapers comment sections (NYTimes, LATimes and other papers, various magazines on and off line), and of the talking-head opinion-makers, columnists, etc., from both right and center/liberal sides of our political spectrum (a real left basically doesn’t exist in the USA).  What I hear/read are words that less than a handful of years ago would have brought down the wrath of the pundits, and most others, with loud assertions that it was too “radical,” “fringe” or just plain nuts. They are views I have espoused now for far more than a few decades, and for which I was naturally kicked around as being ridiculous and absurd.  They are views articulated in my films, in poetic terms, and in my various blogs (see list below) and public discussions in sometimes more direct manners.  Those views were that America was and is corrupt – not a sudden Trump matter, but for decades – and that as a society we are deeply self-deluded and collectively more or less schizophrenic.  We cannot admit what we are and what we do, and in turn we have curdled into a society which is both utterly dishonest and in consequence self-damaging. The arrival of Donald Trump is a natural development in such a society, as is the hypocritical response of liberal opposition – an opposition which imagines that had a Democrat won – (Madam Clinton) – then all would have gone swimmingly well, the “post-racial” America would have remained comfy snug, with nice dollops of domestic policies keeping things in order.  Meanwhile Imperial America, the America that constitutes less than 5% of the world’s population, 7% of the world’s land-mass, but consumes 25% of its resources, would have carried on as usual, and all would be hunky-dory OK.  Our bloated military would receive its usual genuflections and the vast corruption carried on politely in the back-rooms would have remained nicely hidden.  Instead Trump has torn the scab off the festering reality of America and pundits and mere citizens now talk of the collapse of civility, of the approaching end of the United States, with dark hints of a coming period of fascism.

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I don’t pretend to be a Cassandra, but I do wonder what Americans have been seeing and thinking in the last 50 years, as the forces of capitalist commercialism, USA-style, have warped our society into its current state, in which the selling of poisons, literally and metaphorically, has produced an obese citizenry intoxicated with opioids, be they pharmaceutical or 24/7 shrieking talk radio or TV “news,” an out of control gun plague, and a stunted sense of community such that distrust is likely our most dominant shared characteristic. And a thousand other ugly realities, sitting in plain view, which define us. It is not as if these things mystically suddenly appeared with no foreshadowing.  From long before the Kennedy assassination white-wash on to the Gulf of Tonkin to the Nixon/Kissinger secret bombings of Cambodia to Reagan’s backroom Iran deals; on through to the 9/11 white-wash, the Supreme Court one-time only selection of GW Bush, WMD, and a thousand other instances of governmental fraud and public lying, there is little reason why the American public should give any credence to the words of a government official.  This, doubtlessly, accounts for the large disillusionment with government which marks the right-wing of our politics.  It is understandable.

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On the other hand, the same can be said of our now ubiquitous and immense corporate over-lords, whose commitment is to profits and enriching themselves, whatever the social costs, and which lie in support of those aims as readily as does President Trump. The same corporate powers now own and control almost all the mass media, and it speaks in a voice as controlled and self-serving as did Pravda.  Likewise the internet, while offering an avenue to other voices, is also a system for thought control, as the recent evidence of Russian meddling in our election has indicated, along with the endless barrage of advertising it carries.

Caught in the cross-fire of this tsunami of “information” is it any wonder that the populace is stun-gunned into confusion, and easily led along fraudulent paths, whether by a born con-man like Trump, or by the suits which usually deliver the government’s version of things?  Or by the wizards of Madison Avenue who have made the arts of persuasion into a virtual science, the better to peddle endless needless things the sole value of which is to feed the capitalist necessity of constant growth and profit?  Under decades of such a reality there should be little surprise in seeing our social binds shrivel into pure distrust, and finally collapse into the deeply polarized present of Fox “News” and a President Tweeting inanities in the morning.  Fake !!  Alas it is true, but it has been “fake” all along.

America has lived by lies from the outset; they have grown now into a vast avalanche, such that even the most ordinary and imperceptive of citizens can see it.  The question is, why did it take so long?

You make your bed; you sleep in it.

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Below I print reviews of The Bed You Sleep In, a film made 27 years ago.

E.Johnson, original source unknown, but from a CalTech blog apparently:

One of the major discoveries I made in 1995 was the work of Jon Jost, whom I am tempted to call “THE great contemporary American filmmaker” (though he has recently departed for Europe). Perhaps I tend to this overstatement to compensate for the virtual non-existence of Jost’s name in any of the discourse on film in this country. What I will say is that Jost is, for my money anyway, “THE great contemporary *independent* American filmmaker” (where here “independent” truly means something, and isn’t just a marketing term; Tarantino et al. be damned). I have no doubt that most people would find Jost’s films like fingernails on a chalkboard, and I have to confess not-so-secretly that this makes me cherish him all the more….

The Bed You Sleep In is very much the work of the same individual but, as mentioned above, is very different in tone.  The narrative revolves around the character of Ray (played by the truly remarkable Tom Blair, whose only prior features to the best of my knowledge are Jost’s Last Chants for a Slow Dance and Sure Fire), owner of a financially distressed lumber mill.  In a scene of astonishing power, Ray’s wife Ellen (played superbly, particularly in this scene, by Ellen McLaughlin) reads out a letter from his daughter who is painfully and emotionally accusing him of sexual molestation.  (The manner in which the letter is read and the way in which the characters’ emotions play out are so vastly different from the ways a similar scene in a Hollywood film would do them that I can’t even begin to describe their effectiveness.)  This event occurs just about halfway through the film, and the narrative threads leading up to and trailing from this scene are slowly, meditatively interwoven with masterful visuals of the landscape in and around the town and lumber mill.  The cumulative power of the film is devastating.

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“This extraordinary film offers a long hard look at the American Dream and what it awakens in Americans.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Truly independent filmmaker Jon Jost has completed his latest trilogy (“Frameup“/”Sure Fire“) about rural America and has since moved on to self-imposed exile in Europe, as reported in a film ‘zine. This extraordinary film offers a long hard look at the American Dream and what it awakens in Americans. The camera is held steadfast not moving for long periods of time, picking up all the appropriate nuances with a deliberate dispassion. It looks at an Oregon lumber mill whose owner Ray Weiss (Tom Blair) is faced with unsettling economic news about the business he has built-up and worked at for the last 50 years. It focuses on this man and tries to find out who he is, using him as a metaphorical symbol for America. It also contrasts Ray’s views on nature with Emerson’s, paraphrasing from his transcendentalist’s essays which are flashed on the screen.

By seeing who this man is through his thoughts, we get to see how Ray adjusts to his carefully scripted life: the fly-fishing he loves, his easy and almost genteel manners, and his very definite American persona. Ray is forced out of economic necessity to deal with the Japanese businessmen he inherently despises, and we get a picture of a rather complicated individual who has difficulty in communicating with himself and others. So the closer we get to him, the more we sense that there are a lot of things that remain unknown. The shocker about Ray’s life that is about to unfold comes after he meets a foreign stranger on the street who is raving about the day of atonement coming soon and of how God knows all, and that he should pray with him for salvation. But the street preacher is told by Ray, that he has no time to listen to his message. Feeling uncomfortable being around this religious zealot, Ray fumbles around with his wad of bills and thrusts a few dollars in the preacher’s pockets. This is not kindly received by the preacher, as he shouts that “he doesn’t want his money.”

Our perceptions of Ray as a Rock of Gibraltor type is squelched, as we see him come unglued in his very comfortable home. Ray slyly interacts with his second wife (Ellen McLaughlin), as she confronts him with a letter from her college-aged daughter, Tracy, who is his step-daughter via his first marriage. Mrs. Weiss insists on reading out loud a letter addressed to her from Tracy, which accuses him of placing his hands on her private places. Ray tries to respond indirectly to his wife’s question as she says: “All that she wants to know, is it true?” But all he can respond is that he wonders why Tracy is doing this to him, indicating that she is probably mixed up. What results is apocalyptic in tone as the film becomes disturbingly mysterious and evasive, never settling for sure who is telling the truth but, nevertheless, this scene destroys the family. It could be deemed as an attack on America’s soul exposing it to questions about truth and character, as one’s principles are put under the microscope but cannot be determined. The story builds from here to its very tragic outcome.

This is one of Jost’s deepest and most penetrating films to date, it could even be argued that he has made a classically great American film — a poor man’s “Citizen Kane.”  It forcefully and subtly tells an American story, replete with unanswered questions about family life that are haunting. It makes you think for a long time afterwards what is it about this country that is so raw and violent in nature — so much so that it becomes a part of the people’s own nature.

One of the most memorable scenes was when the camera panned to Ray dining with some co-workers at a diner and all we could hear, at first, was the muffled conversations of the patrons as the camera meticulously continued to pan the diner. This daily experience of eating out is routine for most Americans but it has rarely been captured so disturbingly exact on film, as we eavesdrop on the banal chatter and come away with a feeling that we heard nothing deeper than a conversation about the weather. But, at the same time, we are learning much about what it is to be an American and living where the frontier used to be. This time consuming shot is not attempted by commercial filmmakers who live in fear of losing their audience in a long non-action shot. That is one of Jost’s strong points, his willingness to explore territory others fear to go.

Jost’s film can probably be criticized for a few lapses in the story line it didn’t clarify more precisely–exploring in greater depth Ray’s relationships with family and friends. But, more importantly, the film should be praised for the poetry it brings to its story when telling about a malaise in the American culture that is difficult to come to grips with. What is clearly seen, is the American landscape that is perceived as so beautiful a sight to behold and the country as so wealthy a place when compared with the rest of the world. Yet, what must finally be asked: What does the American Dream mean…if Americans do not seem to be a happy people without their material comforts?

REVIEWED ON 3/20/99                                 GRADE: A

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”

© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED   DENNIS SCHWARTZ

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93. THE BED YOU SLEEP IN (source not known).

Set in Oregon timber country, Jon Jost’s The Bed You Sleep In studies a family within the context of regional economic downturn in the mid-1990s. The opening image, of a lumber mill’s smokestack belching out smoke into the air, conveys both productivity and pollution. Logging cranes in operation, resembling gigantic metal insects, suggest both useful labor and something amiss.

Ray owns and operates the mill. In addition to a timber shortage wrought, in part, by stringent environmental laws, the mill must contend with the housing slump wrought by an overall ailing economy.

Ray and Jean’s marriage is happy and affectionate. However, Jean is Ray’s second wife, and their affair began while he was still married to his first wife. A lingering knowledge of Ray’s capacity to lie convincingly is thus further compounded by Jean’s own guilt for having contributed to this long-ago lie. Overcompensating, Jean has loved Tracy, Ray’s child from his first marriage, as her own. Nevertheless, her repressed guilt has erupted periodically whenever she and Ray quarrel, as accusations against him.

Disaster awaits the two, triggered by freshman Tracy, whose women’s support group at college has convinced her her father sexually abused her as a child. Memories are popping up in her head—not “memories” exactly, but “images,” she writes Jean, explaining she doesn’t know when, if ever, she will be able to return home. Driven to believe Tracy to assuage her own guilt, Jean demands Ray tell her “the truth,” which is impossible for him to establish, and which Jean is incapable of accepting because of its indeterminableness. The marriage unravels; each family member, between a rock and a hard place emotionally, commits suicide.

This film brilliantly charts the intersection of family and socioeconomic stress—a long problematic American history that’s taking its toll.

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The Bed You Sleep In Review:

The final film in an informal trilogy starring the phenomenal Tom Blair (the other two films in the series are Last Chants for a Slow Dance and Sure Fire), The Bed You Sleep In illustrates the deep frustration about America that drove director Jon Jost to relocate to Europe shortly after it was made. As in the first two films, this one tries to get at the roots of America’s social and political ills through the portrayal of one man’s life. On the surface, Blair’s character, Ray Weiss, is much more sympathetic than the ones he played in the previous two films, but his job as the manager of a lumber mill (albeit a nature-loving one) being driven out of business by foreign competition and clear-cutting places him in a can’t-win situation. He either has to destroy the nature he loves or lose his livelihood. His dual nature is reflected in the visual scheme of the film, which includes many landscape shots composed as diptychs. This is one of Jost’s most powerful portraits of the slow pace and underlying sadness of small town life, both of which are beautifully depicted in a remarkable scene in the town’s diner, made of a single, languid tracking shot encompassing the diner’s interior while life simply goes on both within and beyond the camera’s view. When the letter from his daughter arrives accusing Ray of incest, it hints at an even more violent split within his nature, one that, in Jost’s view, is symbolic of the violent divisions threatening to undermine America’s nobler ideals. Tom Vick, All Movie Guide

 

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” Jost also wanted to represent something quite general that was directly relevant to the contemporary United States. On repeated occasions, Jost has defined the film as a testament to the breakdown of social trust and dialogue within the United States, referring both to the hysteria surrounding issues of childhood sexual abuse and a more widespread deterioration of all areas of public discourse.[8] Shouting and accusation replaced listening and understanding.”

The Bed You Sleep In is available on VOD here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/123248

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Wrapping up five months in USA, mostly on road zig-zagging from West to East. Friends seen, new friends made; landscapes, cities. Overall a dispiriting time as the winter clouds were not only meteorological but of the spirit. The Trump era has cast its spell, though in my view it only revealed in crude form what was already there: a nation in disarray – self-deluded, half-naked, half-masked in complacency. From the spindly Manhattan billionaire condo spires to the pop-tent homeless encampments, the schizophrenia of America lay like splattered road-kill on the national psyche. The dull drone of corporate big box mall stores floated by like a nightmare of consumer constipation, an endless loop of faux Italianate facades and blocky corporate logo design, regurgitated from coast to coast. Along the arteries of commerce the toxic sprawl of automobile life – Quick Lube, Ford, Toyota, Chevrolet, Auto Zone, Nissan, GM, Firestone, and a thousand other vehicular notices, from lawyer “accident” billboards, to the myriad gas stations peddling our most addictive juice and toxic habit. And there I was running up my mileage, adding to the lethal load of CO2, oil extraction, global warming death-warrant.

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I’d meant to carry on shooting for PLAIN SONGS but shot almost nothing while pondering why the hell? I’d started way back in 2012, and have taken now I think it is three or four stabs at this, but the same thing happened before. For more on that you can see the blog I did for it:

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As I prepare to leave, the question remains. There seems no breathing space for speaking softly or for thought in this America.  As if we’d run up against a dead end, and in my case, personally, it feels that I have.  As in the old Dylan song, “You go your way and I’ll go mine.”

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I can’t say it was a sudden revelation – frankly I’d seen it coming for decades, this internal fracturing of the national psyche. It was, after all, the subject of most of my film work – essays or documentary or fiction. Once it held a fascination, an interest, and perhaps I had a little hubristic thought that by making works which reflected the State of the Nation, it might have some tiny little positive effect. I long ago gave up on that delusion. So now as this culture I hesitantly call “home” seems to drift to dissolution, and doubtless through many ugly stumbles in so doing, I think it wisest to let it go and turn my attentions elsewhere. Frankly I sincerely feel America will collapse in the next decade or two, splintering much as the USSR did. And this, given our real history, will not be a bad thing at all, for us, or for the world. We have told ourselves lies far too long.

On that note, I’ll go to the airport in a bit, and try to set all these thoughts about America aside and move along to other things.

 

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A few weeks ago, lured by past visits, and the promise of a certain seasonal quietude and benign weather probabilities, I went from the San Francisco area out to Death Valley.  I passed through the Mojave desert, by derelict towns and Air Force bases, old mining camps and their debris, then through the valley, passing famed Zabriski Point, and on to a town I’d visited before, Tecopa Hot Springs, there to bathe a bit trying to chase the flu or cold I’d picked up in the City.   And to scout and think, as it was my intention to shoot another landscape film in the Valley – envisioned in my mind a wide, vast and brooding image of this foreboding area.   I spent a few days soaking in the hot springs, surrounded mostly with Asians – Koreans mostly.  Nosed around the area taking photos, and then, drove north into Death Valley, taking the Badwater route.  As it happens the Badwater basin is the lowest point in North America, 282 feet below sea level.   Approaching from the south the density of traffic grew, from the occasional 4 wheeler or snazzy van headed south, to a near traffic jam.  Badwater was filled with tourists, folks who came to take selfies or take a walk down into the saline bowl to experience America’s lowest.

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My casual observation was that most these tourists were Asian – Korean, Japanese, Chinese.  Most meaning perhaps two-thirds or more.  I assume they were lured by travel agents, pointing out that Death Valley was indeed a spectacular place, and winter was the time to visit to avoid being broiled.   And the world being as it is today, they have the money to be tourists, and America is certainly a prime location for spectacular selfie backgrounds.

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Seeing this herd of tourists out in the midst of the aptly named Death Valley also underlined the profound change which we humans have brought to “nature.”  Once a lethally forbidding landscape, this remote and harsh desert has in the last 30 years,  along with much else in our world, been converted into a play-ground, a part of the vast Disneyland into which the globe has been transformed: today we zip through the European Alps on highways which simply flatten them – tunnels or elevated bridges letting us literally fly through them, making them mere spectacle.  No zig-zag tortuous hairpin curve up-down required any more.  And the same is true of almost everywhere. Great and modest suspension bridges leap over chasms, four-wheel drive ORV machines churn up desert sands or swampy marshes; para-gliders swoop over mountain ranges or ocean up-rises; base-jumpers leap from cliffs and buttes and natural arches (as well as man-made towers); skiers are hoisted to the tops of mountains only to zip down once treacherous slopes as entertainment.  Cheap airlines jam the air with tourists who traipse en masse through once near sacred sites – the Parthenon, Machu Picchu, Notre Dame, the Taj Mahal, and any other remarkable piece of architecture or symbolic totem of societies past.  All the world’s a playground, a kind of game.

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It had happened by accident, but looking out over Badwater, it made sense.  A month earlier I’d been to Neah Bay and Cape Flattery, on the north western tip of the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State.  It is the furthest western point on mainland USA.  As it happens Neah Bay is an Indian Reservation, the Makah Tribe.  Like most reservations it is a place of drug use, alcoholism, domestic violence, trash and trashed housing – a lamentable if understandable response of a culture which has been simply squashed and destroyed by another culture.   A sad place.  And in a literal and geographic sense, The End of America.   I went to shoot for a film, Plain Songs, thinking I’d begin it with a shot of the Pacific, from there, The End of America, in the metaphoric sense – a desolate community destroyed by America’s ugly history.

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I found it oddly ironic that I’d accidentally come to Badwater, the lowest point in America, to watch tourists gather and gawk, at the same time my country had fallen into the morass of the Trump administration and metaphorically, at least for many of my fellow countrymen, we’re enmeshed in another “lowest point.”   I took another shot for the perhaps swan-song film on America, and wandered on, taking many still photos of the valley.  While the imagined landscape film escaped me, instead another idea came to mind, which, though far more work, might be a nice change of pace.

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Wandering from Death Valley I went to Beatty, Nevada, a small town scrapping to stay alive on the coat-tails of tourism, just outside the National Park.  Still chasing my cold, I hunkered down in a few motels, trying to think and perhaps write.  Neither came at the time, rather more diffuse thoughts meandered in mind.  At the same time clangorous “news” rattled the nation’s nerves – Trump Trump Trump, 24/7.  The rush of daily traumas ran into a smear – North Korea, Bannon, bigger buttons, vulgar statements – a non-stop litany of Trump’s obscenity, and his magical revelation of the utter corruption of America’s political and social institutions which appeared powerless in front of this pathetic man, thus showing their own decadence.   Beatty, a dead-end town of desert desolation provided a suitable setting to sour still more my contemplation of America.

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A VFW outfit offered a decent amber beer for $3, and an assortment, depending on the night, of grizzled camo decked vets, or other nights, a swarm of Asian tourists, sent there by the nearby motel – not that there were many options as where to go.  One wondered just what person would willfully choose to settle down in this town, or thousands of others I have traversed in my travels in America in the past decade or two.  The grim signs of failure littered the townscape in ramshackle housing, trailer homes, junked cars, abandoned stores, and the transparent poverty written on the faces and bodies of the people who live there.  The same is replicated with regional touches almost anywhere one goes in the United States.  Behind the hip gentrified facades of liberal America, or the closed gated communities of the well-off, or the distant penthouses or estate mansions of the very rich, there is a pervasive cancer gnawing away at our social accords.  It is a disease fraught with contradictions and confusions, one which breeds a mutual stew of contempt and hatred, and has long since embittered our national “unity.”   I think this largely accounts for our most American habit of flying the flag in the front yard – a kind of desperate wish for union which masks an awareness of our deep disunion.

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With such thoughts I continued my journey, passing derelict towns, juxtaposed to vast tracts of shopping malls flanking the sides of our cities, endless miles of Big Box stores, corporate logos dotting the horizon as far as the eye could see, and the goading shrieks of our media – television, radio, giant bill-boards – all urging us to buy buy buy and run up our credit card bills into the trillions.

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I await the imminent burst of this bubble as the stock market zooms past Dow Jones 26,000, and the homeless camp beneath freeway overpasses, and the fractured psyche of the nation intensifies its internecine squabble with itself, with precious few any more honest or self-aware than Donald J. Trump, our titular head of State.

The United States of America represents about 5% of the world’s population.  It consumes 25% of the globe’s resources.  There is an explanation for how this occurs, and it is not owing to our supposed brilliance, inventiveness, our “can do” attitude.  It is owing to other things.  Things which America at large is unwilling to acknowledge or address in any meaningful manner except to demand still more funding for our military.

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Trailing the dry cough of the flu I and millions of others picked up this winter, I moved along.  Some suggested this disease was metaphorical for the winter’s political and social discontent, and not merely a passing bug.  My own thoughts persisted, like the cough, to meander through the debris of now decades of seeing my own country through the eyes of a harsh critic, and seeing nothing has changed, really, for the better.  Rather it all appears to be coming to a bitter fruition as we collectively fulfill comments made long ago by a French visitor, or by some of our own sages.   In this case, being “right” in my own views, bears no consolation whatsoever.

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“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” — H. L. Mencken

“The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”
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“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”  Alexis de Tocqueville

And the bitter truth is that America has never been good.

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Following a week of recording in Piangipane, Emilio Romagna, Italy, and a one day stop in London, I returned to the USA toward the end of October after an absence of a year and 8 months.  For me personally much had changed – a back operation, recuperation, a few friends no longer with us, and the usual thoughts that come with some many spins around the sun.  And America had likewise undergone a sea-change.  An election had been held, a new President had taken office, and it seemed as if for the social culture a long shadow had been cast, and a general air of gloom had taken hold, at least among the kinds of people I tend to know.  Others I understand are quite happy with the changes. On arrival my own immediate life was seized with mundane chores: grab the van, update the car insurance, new plates, head on to destination #1, and so on.  Hit the road, which was the plot and plan.

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Charles Therminy, August 12, 1934 – March 9, 2017, my roommate in 1963

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The last time I’d returned to America in such a way was back in 2002, after 10 continuous years in Europe with nary a visit back in that decade away.  Then I was prompted by the post-9/11 words of friends who cautioned the air was thick with unhappiness and the steady encroachment of a police-state regime.  I wondered, and on return had to agree, except it seemed worse than what I’d heard.   America was down, riled up with old hat arguments which seem our fated history.   We were paranoid, unconscious, in endless denial.  Was 9/11 an inside job?  Why would an Arabic group attack us?  Were we safe anymore? And on and on.   The schism between urban and rural widened, Fox took hold across the heartlands, and two America’s seemed to struggle to emerge.  Not a happy time.

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And now, a decade and a half later, the sour brew which had begun at the start of the Millennium has turned toxic.  A new President, not really elected by the people, but installed courtesy of an arcane system meant to reward slave-holders way back when, has done exactly what it was clear he’d do during the farcical election when with a childish petulance he revealed his Republican opponent’s vacuity with an infantile bullying BS, and they all caved, the hollow men of TS Eliot.  And then the DNC/Clinton Democrats were up, only to reveal their hubris and political deafness.  Since November 7, 2016, the nation has been in a state of shock, each day amplified by new waves of bull-in-the-china-shop actions taken by the Trump administration.  From the relative stasis of the long post-WW2/Cold War era, we’re now in a seeming terra incognita.

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That we have arrived in this state should in reality be no surprise.  The underlying grounds have been more than visible for decades, if one only chose to look.  Most people instead preferred the comfort of denial or ignorance, or both.   Since World War Two, when America took on seriously its role of global super-power, wielding its nuclear weapons, its manufacturing base cranked up for war-making, intact in not having been bombed as all the other were in the war, we have lived in a perpetual condition of illusion.  And we have been lied to by our government chronically, again and again, in all that time.  From hiding and denying the evidence that our nuclear experiments in fact had seriously dangerous side-effects, on through our lying about covert operations through out the world, from Iran to Cuba to Vietnam, to Central and South America, the American government has paved the way both for our relative wealth, and for the corrosive effects of having lied to achieve it.  The JFK white-wash with magic bullets.  Gulf of Tonkin. The World Trade Center collapse.  WMD.  The story is long and full of government lies-as-policy.

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“Globalization” has only served to exacerbate this process, loosening the regulations regarding corporate behavior which in turn sent jobs to the cheapest labor pools, and decimated middle-America, all under the rubric of neo-liberalism, promising great economic gains across the board while in reality culling the winners to the rich, and abandoning those lower on the totem pole.  All under the guidance of the government’s Brightest and Best, money sloshed loosely around the globe in a most un-benign manner. The whole process has resulted in an across-the-board corruption of our society – from the lowest to the highest.  From Wall Street to Main Street, from academic grade inflation to “safe spaces” for the coddled children of a misguided middle-class. The Trump administration is in fact a fair reflection of the society it represents, both “Conservative” and “Liberal” sides.   Like that society, it is corrupt – fiscally, socially, morally, politically. Trump could never have won office in a healthy society, but American society has been increasingly ill over the last 5 decades, or in truth far longer.   And the chickens are now home to roost.

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I came back to the States in part to see friends for a probable last time, and to try to make a bit of money.  The latter is proving a hard go – screenings promised and then cancelled, inquiries unanswered and such.  You can see a few other posts regarding that topic.  I also came back for a perhaps last look at America – its cities and landscapes.  And also perhaps to make a final essay about America, Plain Songs, a companion for my previous two films on the US:  Speaking Directly (1972), and Plain Talk and Common Sense (uncommon senses) (1987).    I’ve been back now two months, and while I have taken a few shots which I imagined to be for this new film, I sense it will not be made.  The one shot I made was from Cape Flattery, far out on the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, the farthest west one can go in mainland USA.   Nestled next to it is Neah Bay, an Indian rez town, and like most of them I have ever seen, a sad place of derelict homes, signs against meth and alcohol, and an air of final desolation.  I thought to begin with a first segment called “The End of America,” as this end-point of America, like the “Center of the Nation” in Plain Talk, is ripe with ironic meaning.   I took a shot, and inside something curdled in my soul.

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Each day here is greeted with an avalanche of “news,” whether it is of the machinations of the Trump administration or of an almost Biblical kind – hurricanes flattening islands in the Caribbean, or flooding Houston, or fires decimating California, or the huff and puff of Kim Jong-un, or the unmasking of yet another sexist man in showbiz or politics, or yet another gun massacre or cop killing another black man.  Each day seems to shriek calamity, and the social atmosphere grows dark and fraught with fear.  Amidst this cacophony one feels an aura of irrational hysteria, a society caught in the throes of a major change, one which might easily slip any direction, but seems headed for the worst.   I can’t say I am surprised, after all it is exactly what I examined in the earlier essay films [as well as in numerous fictional films – Sure Fire, The Bed You Sleep In, Homecoming, Over Here, Parable, Coming to Terms]  –  this decay of American society and the costs incurred by it out in the wide world, and inside, in the personal one.

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So I ask myself, what might I add?  And, honestly, I imagine there is ample room in my thoughts to toss in my two-bits.  But then I ask, and who would it hear it and how would that happen?  And my answer is that while perhaps a handful or even some hundreds or thousands might see such a work, in the present political reality that is tantamount to no one.   It would amount to a nano-second blip in the vast ocean of noise and shouting which envelops us daily.  And while I, and perhaps a handful of others, might derive some pleasure or learning from such a work, it would surely do absolutely nothing in the face of the tsunami of media, money, and cultural leverage which our society wields each day, every day, all day.  Socially, politically, it would be simply nothing.  Of that I am utterly sure, just as I am likewise sure – and history shows it all too clearly – that the prior two films, along with all the rest of my life’s work, have done nothing politically or socially in any way I might have intended.  Yes, a very very small number of people may have been personally touched, and perhaps even a few saw their lives slightly deflected by it.  But, bottom line, in the real world of society and its mechanisms, zilch.  Really nothing.

 

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Perhaps these are the thoughts of a banged-up burned-out doddering old geezer. Perhaps  – I certainly qualify for some of that.  Perhaps it is time to turn my attentions elsewhere, and leave the transitory stuff of politics to itself.  Or perhaps it is just a transitory quiver of doubt, long over-due.  Or perhaps instead of a filmed essay it will morph into another form.  Written, or….  well, we’ll see.  For the moment though, the idea of Plain Songs as a video essay has gone dormant.

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dsc02447-crpsmThe view from Caucana

Wrapping up nearly one year in Sicily – initially in Caucana, by the sea for 3 months, and then Ragusa since last January – I’m prompted by circumstances to draw an assessment as our lives move on now to another setting.

We arrived by serendipity:  summer of 2016 met a fellow who’d taken a workshop I’d done way back in 2003 in a small town, Gallo D’Oro, nearby Taormina.  It had been a very happy and successful 10 day affair, and those who took part in it had had a rich and good experience.  Giuseppe Tumino had gone on to other things in the film world here, making documentaries and organizing various events and he had a little festival on the Ionian sea, and finding out I was nearby, in Matera, recuperating from a back operation, he contacted me and asked if Marcella and I might play jurors.  We said yes, had a nice time, and along the way Giuseppe mentioned he came from Ragusa and would be going for the summer to his family’s beach house.  Knowing that such beach towns are full of houses that sit vacant for 10 months of the year I promptly and indelicately asked if I might stay in his family’s place in the off-season.  And so we did, from October to December.

dsc03353-sm-smAlong the beach from Caucana to Punta Secca, one of a thousand fotos of sand

I spent the time recuperating, taking long daily walks along the beach, making photos, and along the way we met a friend of Giuseppe’s, Raffaella Spadola, who had a nice small apartment in Ragusa with a modest rent, and in January we moved there.  Ragusa is one of a string of baroque towns – including also Modica, 10 miles away, and Scicli another 10, and then a fair bit further towards Siracusa, Noto.  These towns were all destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, and rebuilt splendidly in the style of the times, fully displaying the wealth that Sicily then had. Each town has a sizable Duomo (cathedral) and numerous other churches and Catholic institutional buildings – convents and monasteries, and palazzi for the church leaders and other wealthy people. And as well,  famed celebrations for patron saints, though these now seem mostly – like much else – mainly for tourists.  They are leached of the passion of only half a century ago, when the church still had a firm grip on society – a grip that has collapsed under the assault of modernity and consumerism.  The towns now are full of B&B’s and are busy during the summer tourist season, but largely dormant the rest of the year.

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On moving here, perhaps owing to Giuseppe’s local influence, I was the subject of fame’s aura – supposedly I was well-known, a big director.  Which once upon a time might have appeared so – 30 years ago I materialized in Italian newspapers with articles and photos, films in festivals and other such ephemera – and so quickly hovering around were those for whom this acts like flame for a moth.  They had “heard of” (but most likely not seen, even if they said they had) All the Vermeers in New York.  Or something else.  They asked to interview me.  To have me for a party.  Etc.  But quickly disillusioned by my willful failure to live up to their imagined expectations, the same people disappeared as brusquely as they had shown up – thankfully.   I guess I don’t exude Big Important Person, nor whatever goes with it.  Nor have I ever wanted to.

So I went about my modest business – took a ton of photos, did some collages, and began to shoot some kind of film. A kind of a reflex habit.  About Ragusa, or vaguely so, or maybe.

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At one point some people here thought to do a workshop and arranged a screening of a film, La Lunga Ombra, at a local cafe/cultural focus, Le Fate. Ironically, this place, intended to celebrate Sicilian culture, is run by a woman from Romania. At the screening I said I might be making a film set in Ragusa and said if anyone was interested in helping or participating, to let me know.  The screening attracted maybe 20 people, and when a workshop was suggested they couldn’t manage to round up enough people to bother. However one fellow contacted me, a self-described art critic, who proved more than interested.  He was the kind of opportunist I’d seen before, jumping to take a ride on whatever “fame” coattails I appeared to have, eager to help and insinuate himself into importance.  He was, as usual, helpful, in that he provided a few contacts to local arts people, but then dug in turning himself into the virtual producer of a non-existent project.  After he talked with Marcella about local witches whom he said he knew, and other such things, and took his role with far greater seriousness than warranted, I let him know in no uncertain terms that he’d far over-stepped his boundaries and that I was a private sort of person, and he should bug off.   He did, though he materialized later to say he wished to write an article on my painting and photos for some Italian arts magazine, and to set up an exhibit at a local art gallery.  And then he disappeared a few months, only to pop up again several weeks before we were to leave.  He said he’d arranged to do an exhibit at a gallery in Ibla for the last week of our stay.  Rather abrupt and fast in my book, but I went to the gallery, met the guy running it, and said OK, though it all seemed rather rushed to me.  Italia!  Last minute as usual.   After a little discussion about how to hang the paintings – I said in little passepartout cardboard frames and directly rejected putting them directly on the wall with little putty things – we agreed to an exhibit for a week before we were to leave. They huddled a week and said to come in on a Friday morning, the day before the “opening”, to see and approve the display.  Marcella and I arrived at the suggested time, and no one was there.  A glance inside suggested nothing had been done.  After a phone call the gallerist materialized 45 minutes later, and indeed nothing had been done and when Marcella inquired how he intended to mount the paintings he said, why with this putty.  I said no.  Things quickly degenerated and I said I could do without this hassle and to give me back my paintings. They wanted me to pay for the awful little postcard and poster things they’d made but had not put up anywhere.  I left with the paintings.  Marcella stayed another 20 minutes to listen and haggle, which resolved nothing.

 

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Meantime we’ve shot a bit of material for a film – an interview with a local photographer, Giuseppe Leone, who is quite good.  And we met with a painter, Giovanni Lisandrello. Perhaps this week, before leaving, we’ll go and shoot Giovanni.  At the moment we have perhaps 50 minutes.  There’s a few others I’d like to film, though I lack enthusiasm and wonder why I should bother.

 

My doubts seem to have to do with the less than positive sense I have that inchoately gathers around the material.  Since arriving I’ve been struck by the crippling psychological effect that a very deep provincialism seems to have on those we’ve met – whether the one’s hustling to attempt to use “famous” me as a stepping stone, or those artists, like Giuseppe and Giovanni, who in their talks with us have transparently resented their parochial setting, trapped in the small city of Ragusa, despite their talents, and (as is so common) not really respected as they think they should be in their own community.  The provincialism works into everyone and everything, and distills down into something akin to the thought that if you are here, in Ragusa (or a hundred other small cities or towns in Sicily) then you are nothing.  It is a disease that eats into anyone with the least of ambitions in this kind of setting, and condemns anyone who stays, no matter their talents and skills.  And they seem self-aware of this, but are unable to either escape by leaving, or by refusing the mind-set of provincialism.  Flip side is the tribalism which affects all of Italy, in which your town, contrada, region, and finally person, is necessarily better than those others. It seems that everyone either feels the doors are closed to them, or they themselves close the doors.

 

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When we visited Giovanni in his nice apartment nearby where we’ve been living, he was, along with his wife, gracious and kind.  We looked at his paintings – which I rather like – and talked.  He’s self-taught, and in fact worked with Giuseppe at the beginning in a photo studio doing retouching. Giuseppe turned to photography, and Giovanni to painting, each taking their own path.  Lissandrelli’s technique, which he learned doing more mundane house-painting as a youth, has a tactile sensibility which is quite strong in his paintings of the local landscapes.  Other works seem instantly archaic, like things dug up by archeologists.

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At one point, probably feeling the need to inflate his importance, Giovanni mentioned he’d had an exhibition in New York, and he went to find a newspaper clipping about it. He came back with a very yellowed and worn newspaper page, where his showing was announced – in the advertisement of a car dealership on Long Island, doubtless an Italo-American immigrant from Ragusa who had “made it” in America.  The pathos was visceral.

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13244002_1011873302212586_2477487878487431767_oPaintings by Giovanni Lissandrello

Leone, the photographer, has a lovely studio, with many wonderful photos on the walls – the better being from Sicily before it became modernized and lost most of its aesthetic and cultural frisson.  They are like stepping back in time, though within Leone’s life-time – showing how rapidly this part of Italy changed.

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rev161810(1)-oriPhotographs of Giuseppe Leone

 

So there’s some days left, and I think to think some more.  I don’t think there’ll be a film about Ragusa, though perhaps some of the things shot will materialize in some future work.  Or perhaps drift into the decay of digital oblivion.  Like everything.

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A final note: the night before leaving, the art critic fellow – Giorgio Giovanni Guastella by name – went in the night and deposited a deep key scratch on our car (actually Marcella’s mother’s car), doubtless in his mind exacting revenge for whatever my imagined crimes.   Of such stuff is provincialism made.

 

With each passing day the Trump White House Reality Show Saga staggers forth, drowning the public arena in plots and events which would leave a Brazilian soap opera in the dust of absurdist improbability. Each day the various spokespersons emerge to spew ridiculous lies, one after the other, with seeming shamelessness. Nearly each day Herr Trump emits a sequence of Twitter enuncios, often mangled in misspellings, grammatical knots, and, yes, the invariable Everest of lies which seem to be his singular reason for being. This grand drama has carried on ever since his highness descended the golden escalator of Trump Tower, greeted by a large gaggle of paid actors, and announced he was in the ring, running for President. It was in more ways than one a real class act.

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He’d laid the groundwork for this grand Guignol theater with decades in the trenches of the New York real estate biz, and then the tinsel glamor of casinos, draped with gambling’s usual cast of thugs and local Mafia which, in fact, was not a great change from NYC’s corrupt building industry. And then, having failed in both these endeavors, with a trail of bankruptcies to show for it, he moved onto TV’s reality-show sewer, and ever greater fakery.

As with his businesses, so it was with wives. Failing with one, he dumped her and moved to the next, littering the way with a string of children, the last of whom is named after the fake PR agent which Trump himself used to play to pass along juicy items to New York’s yellow press. Barron was his name, and he’d call to let the world know of Trump’s latest conquests in the field of fucking. His son now bears this albatrossian monicker. Lucky him.

 

And now looking more haggard with his vast comb-over and sagging flesh, eyes peering out from their odd white sockets from the fake tan skin job he applies to himself, The Donald is able to command the world’s attention, his stubby fingers but a code away from incinerating the whole globe, should the corrupted American system comply with a demented order from The President.   Thus far the theoretical “checks and balances” of the Founding Fathers scheme seem to be faltering seriously.


All of the above is appalling, and sadly true. The Rosebud of Trump’s psyche is clearly hidden in the massive chip on the Queens kid’s shoulder. Bruised with a silver spoon up his ass at birth, and apparently a harsh unloving father and mother, The Donald took his million buck wad from his father, moved into the Manhattan real-estate racket, and pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, a real Horatio Alger American success story. Well, not quite. Hobbled with a bone spur in one of his feet, he forgets which, Donald blazed a pecker-track trail through the decadent Manhattan party scene of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, emerging, so he says, unscathed with STD, his own private Vietnam, risking AIDS with each psycho-sexual battle. Along the way he blew his million buck starter kit, had some bankruptcies here and there, and built a reputation as a scam artist, from high to low.  He moved on to Atlantic City casinos, and gambling there, lost again.  His dad bailed him out with a legally dubious multi-million dollar purchase of casino chips.  The Trump Taj Mahal recently shuttered its doors after being sold to another sucker. Along the line The Donald learned that old PT Barnum maxim, there’s one born every second.

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Failed but famous, he saw his name was the best product on offer, mystical and golden. Trump Steaks! Trump National Golf Courses! Trump Vodka! Trump University! He built a tower on 5th Avenue, asserting it was 68 floors when it was in fact 58. He installed a private Versailles on its top floors, a garish palace of fake Louis XIV and hauled his third wife up there to spawn his 5th child, dear Barron. And yet, despite all this, the Manhattan elite never accepted him and his brash, crude and rude ways, and the best tables at the classy restaurants were not reserved for him. In fact the boys on Wall Street finally declined to bank with him, and he turned his sights to other funding sources, and, along with other New York real-estate moguls, Trumpworld became a money laundering machine for Russian and East European dirty money, carefully funneled through an arcane web of  off-shore shell companies and banks.

 

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This fantastical story is no fable, but rather the unhappy truth, a real American novel writ large if crude.

 

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Though the still more fantastical story – no fable – is that this one could never have been lived if it were not for the world in which it has been played out:  America, circa now.  In an America where corruption on a vast scale is the norm, though not so long ago we primly lectured the world on probity. Where the once staunchly proper Republican Party lies supine, awaiting Donald’s allegedly very little dick, for a daily reaming. Where a party of pious moralizers about women’s bodies turn utterly silent when the most obvious of liars occupies the White House in their name, and tramples daily on the “values” which they once harped upon so loudly. The hypocrisy is so vast as to diminish the word “hypocrisy” to nothing. It is something else. It is something which has incrementally entered the American body politic in ways that, as ever in hindsight, seem so obvious now, though were invisible as they entered the bloodstream. A stealthy terminal cancer which does not reveal itself until it takes your life.

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Today the liberal world of Democrats is still in shock, unable to believe their most worthy candidate actually lost to the uncouth bullying braggart which Donald John Trump is. At the outset of the campaign they were salivating at the obviousness of their win, it was a no-brainer no-match. They’d take the Senate, clean up in once Red States, and waltz happily from the wonders of a black President to smashing the glass ceiling of sexism, and have a woman in the Oval Office. And, in a manner they did: 3 million more votes  went to Madam Clinton than Mr Trump received, just that, in the arcane electoral scam world of America, they were in the wrong places. Firm in her belief that certain fly-over zones, traditionally Democratic, were hers for granted, she declined to campaign in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and missed out on noting the collapse of these realms which Don the Con so expertly gamed into his head count.

And then of course there is the litany of GOP tricks of gerrymandering, of voting roll purges, and, so it seems, a bit of Russian cyber warfare to tilt the appropriate tables just enough to pull out a Trump Electoral College win.  Such is the Dem lament.  If, indeed, Putin had much to do with it (I’d guess he did, but the roots go far back into post-USSR oligarchic mafia money flooding into NYC and along the way bailing The Donald out of his business miseries), then in terms of grand real-politik, he’s already had an immense win:  the USA is in severe internal turmoil, and seems headed towards a dissolution similar to that which the good old USSR went through.

The bottom line, which it seems Democrats are unable to comprehend, nor did their GOP counterparts, is that the USA is, socially, utterly corrupted, top to bottom, and only in such a situation could a Donald Trump emerge triumphant.  With the GOP he acted like a juvenile delinquent, he huffed and puffed and called his opposition truly stupid bad names – and they all shriveled up and collapsed as they were nothing to begin with.  And once he won, having insulted them all, they showed their true characters and value and went to suck his butt.

clinton ghaddafi“We came, we saw, he died.” (Laughter.)

And while the Democrats imagine themselves somehow different, in truth it is their own corruption – for decades – which brought this debacle upon them, and upon the nation. For decades they have spoken nice liberal niceties, while wallowing in the trough of corporate malfeasance, and enhancing their personal wealth along the way.  Clinton (both) did half-million buck speeches to Wall Street honchos and said no quid pro quo was involved, while they backed the corporately-written trade agreements that have decimated American labor.  Obama, well-mannered Harvard-trained Step’n Fetchit did the Man’s bidding and let Wall Street off the hook for illegalities up the kazoo in the 2008 collapse.  Ditto did he say he was “looking forward” and not back in letting Bush and gang off the hook for lying the USA into a disastrous war, the consequences of which are still being played out. One of the club.  The list of Democratic dishonesty is equal to that of the Republicans, because, bottom line, they all belong to the same institutions and the same insider game.  That is the corruption which blossomed over the decades as the few became obscenely wealthy, and the many fell ever further behind, and the social infrastructure was effectually let to rot while the liberal-left of America mouthed platitudes about race, sexual identification, “safe” spaces, and all the rest of the fake stuff of “political correctness” which invaded our public commons, while the invisible hand of the market consigned a vast portion of the country to Walmart and worse.  While 22 veterans a day, left homeless, commit suicide each day – now far out-numbering those killed in combat.  While meth and then opioids cut a lethal swath across the nation’s failing economic casualties.    It is not as if these things were not visible, it is just that for the liberal world, the large mental “fly-over” country was dismissed as a yahoo red-neck Nascar wreck, unworthy of attention or care, and was left to Fox and friends to warp with 24/7 right-wing propaganda.  All in plain sight, but until it came to whack them over the head in the 2016 election, seemingly unworthy of giving the time of day.   And now the institutional Democrats are convulsed in an internecine war with themselves, fingers pointing blame at anyone but the person in the mirror:  It was Sanders’ fault.  It was the blind DNC.  It was Clinton’s ham-handedness and arrogance.  It was the Russians.  It was…..

 

It was anyone and anything aside from the rotted corrupt society that is America today.  A society in which corruption is such a norm that a great majority is blind to it, taking it as how the world is, and how it should be.  Grade inflation in schools, from kindergarten to PhD’s in Harvard.  Cheating as a necessary way to get ahead.  A medical system which is little more than an extortion racket.  Our vast and corrosive “entertainment” industry that feeds virtual death on a grand scale 24/7 – look at your TV and Hwd block-busters.  Sports which are but a step away from Roman gladiators killing each other for the pleasure of violence besotted spectators. A military-industrial-media system that functions as a quasi-religion and contorts the American economy in a death-lock. Look almost anywhere and the ugly specter of corruption materializes: social, economic, cultural, political.

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This should be no surprise in an imperial system which lies to itself, and has done so from its inception.  The United States of America comprises 5% of the world’s population and consumes 25% of its resources.  While America insists that it is “exceptional” and that this disproportion derives both from having a large landmass and brilliant creative entrepreneurial people, the brutal fact is that it has a vast military machine which enforces its economic sway on much, if no longer all, of the world.  It is imperialism, plain and simple.  But Americans, self-deluded, do not acknowledge it, just as they do not acknowledge that the US is almost always at war, supposedly defending “US interests.”  In such a system the moral rot is innate: no one wishes to admit their wealth is ill-gained, no one wishes to really admit the history which is that of America.  Almost no one in such a system will volunteer to relinquish 80% of their wealth to help even out the grotesque distribution of global wealth.  And so lying and self-delusion arise naturally and “normally,” and with it a fertile ground for corruption of all kinds.   And a hence, a field ripe for the emergence of Mr Trump and his cohorts.

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“A candidate for public office…does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or count himself lost. All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
                                                                                                                 H.L. Mencken

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U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the crowd at the South Carolina African American Chamber of Commerce in North Charleston

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