by John Kendall Hawkins
“To dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.”
– All Souls Unitarian Church Covenant
“O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive!”
Marmion, Walter Scott
The URL Sea
Last time we saw Tim Berners-Lee (TimBL), he was weeping by the information highway, google-eyed clowns in honking cars passing by — spam, assorted junk, broken links, tossed at his feet — on their way to the URL Sea to do some phishing for ids and IDs. Working at the CERN particle accelerator in Switzerland, St. TimBL “decided that high energy physics needed a networked hypertext system and CERN was an ideal site for the development of wide-area hypertext ideas.” See the blue ‘weeping’ links above? TimBL, the Unitarian-Universalist, did that for science — provided an electronic pathway to further information — and then, because he was so chuffed by its success, he served it up as the Web, for free, to the whole wide world in 1989.
The Internet, originally a product of the US military, and around since the 60s, was virtually unknown to the general public. It was an electronic data system that allowed universities and government agencies to share information in a sometimes clunky and often inefficient fashion. The World Wide Web brought structure and efficiency, its underlying coding language (HTML) and delivery protocol (HTTP) made it easier for would-be data hosts to build websites using applications like WhatYouSeeIsWhatYouGet (WYSIWYG).
People went to work immediately building that Library. Some people swear that they never saw so much free porn in their lives. I myself loved ‘link surfing’ — each day presented a new hypertext adventure. TimBL was hailed as a Martin Luther King (think, decentralization) , Gutenberg (publishing), and, alas, Robert Oppenheimer (a Bomb that could change everything).
Thirty years later: What a mess. What was supposed to serve humanity by accelerating particles of data around the globe to create a kind of Library of Alexandria that people could help build with data, as well as borrow from at will, seems to have gone as disastrously wrong as its ancient predecessor. Flamers everywhere, advertising retinues, more and more centralization of data, the Internet as a battlefield between States which has militarized the data stream and turned it into a security risk requiring constant monitoring. TimBL looks at the highway today and sees lovely tumbling papyrus scrolls strewn everywhere, like trash. Humanity is being served up to the appetites of Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Corporates sizing up our desires, Intels seizing on our souls.
Not only has the Web become the feeding grounds of predatory corporates and spooks, but global governments have stepped in to regulate it in a number of ways — including the UN’s ITU body that seeks standards and protocols for current and emerging communivction technologies; the US release of ICANN, which some people feel intentionally releases the US from First Amendment obligations; net neutrality issues, with its pay-for-play implications; new link laws that would make a service provider legally responsible for content links — be they code of conduct issues or copyright issues; search engine manipulation; and Internet kill switches, to name some of the looming weaving of the Web….
TimBL is appalled to see such interference with his brainchild. In addition to the strangleholds described above, the Web has brought out some of the worst facets of human personality and chased away the better angels of our nature (someone I know said they saw poor Ralph Nader loping away from it all in tears, idle tears). We have turned into trolls who burn our own bridges, clowns who never say clever, spies for the government here and spies for government there, and super-viced by yet other spooks and spies. Our Victorian unitarian TimBL has watched the Web turn into the Grand Bizarre porno hub. Enquire has become the Enquirer. Even the Lady of Shalott has not been able to handle Lancelot galloping hotly by on his way back from shovelling chivalry in France — with a feather in his cap.
Enough! cried TimBL.This is not my beautiful Internet — this is not my beautiful Web. All that hivemindedness. Was TimBL criminally naive to believe that his mosaic catalogue would not inevitably — you know, given the human condition — backslide toward baal once the language of the Web could be exploited? Jeez, didn’t he read Animal Farm? Freedom today, totalitarianism tomorrow. He almost went Sam Kinison (and who woulda blamed him?), after the events of 2016. But TimBL fought back — quietly, efficiently and with a new Web paradigm for his links that he calls Solid. Like a Marvel Comics character who actually does good, TimBL slipped into a phone booth and — made a call to D Central Eyes.
Hey, Kids, Let’s Play ‘Alan J. Qaeda’
Well, 1989 was a watershed year, a year of decentralization. Not only did the Berlin Wall come down, but even the Stasi trees were lopt. TimBL did his WWW thing with decentralizing hypertext. And, of course, 1989 was the year that US-backed al Qaeda was born, an Islamic jihadist organizatiuon notoriously difficult to infiltrate and destroy, onnaccounta it was decentralized; if you whacked one mole, another popped up. Plus, they wouldn’t wear uniforms on the battlefield to make it easier for American forces to atrocify, necessitating their designation as “non-state enemy combatants,” meaning ‘the gloves’ came off, ‘we make history now’, and the happy double-tap regime began. Kids started playing Cowboys and al-Qaeda.
TimBL wants nothing to do with things like that. He has begun to see that we, the netizens of the Web, have begun to be treated as if we were all al-Qaeda suspects in the War on Terror, the non-uniform diversity of our private lives an implicit threat to the State, requiring constant surveillance, by any and all means necessary, to protect the central governing forces of the Internet. In this sense, the War on Terror is a war on decentralization and privacy, and those who would reject this premise end up on watch lists. TimBL’s become a militant, but politely so. He’s been pushing for a Bill of Rights that would protect our cyber activities, because the “open, neutral” vision he had of the Web 30 years ago is on life-support.
“There are people working in the lab trying to imagine how the Web could be different. How society on the Web could look different. What could happen if we give people privacy and we give people control of their data,” Berners-Lee told Vanity Fair in 2018. “We are 3/5 building a whole eco-system.”
TimBL essentially wants to start over again and build a new Internet — or, at least, provide an escape path for anyone who values the sacrosanctity of his or her privacy. He calls it Solid. And in many ways it’s just a return to the good old days of decentralized link-to-link information. (Raise your hand if you can remember Usenet, peer-to-peer networks, the miracle of torrents — but most importantly the personal control of your own data.) TimBL introduces the concept of the POD, a storage container, of sorts, for all of your personal data that can be held on a USB stick or stored on a Web server.
“Think of your Solid POD as your own private website,” proclaims the site. And if you go to your POD you’ll see a webpage that looks like a control panel, where you manage various data and apps, while providing levels of access to others. At first look, it seems like a daunting task to move from the current iteration of the Web to TimBL’s Solid configuration. “You don’t have to have any coding skills.,” he told Vanity Fair. A good place to get a feel for what’s being developed at Solid is to check out their forum, see what they’re discussing.
But it remains an open question whether it will catch on and replace the ‘empire burlesque’ of monetized algorithms and government gathering of private data. What if the government wants to infiltrate and seek out “Terror” on Solid servers? Who would switch? Might it just revert back to early version of the Web, used by only networks of academics, scientists, journalists, etc., but no real numbers of ordinary people, a kind of snobnet? For TimBL, it’s now or never: 4 billion people online, which is a critical milestone.
Researcher Steve Wilson, asks BBC News, “Even if people could control their personal data, what does Solid do about all the data created about us behind our backs?” Good question, and more importantly, what about all the mountains of data we’ve handed over to Them in our online experiences already — since, say, 1998, when Google was founded? But chances are good that conditioned responders will just lay down tracks– back to the sugar shack.
Saving Private Normal
TimBL means well, and his stated intentions are the key: He wants to restore democracy, freedom and privacy, which he sees as crucial to the Decentralization Project. Such needs are also crucial to Humanity, the evolutionary project that now sees us, as Nietzsche imagined, somewhere between beasts and supermen (or machines). So, TimBL’s recovery of the Web, while wonderful, can be seen as part of a growing movement to breaking away from central control, in general, going off grid: mesh telephony, cryptocat messaging, survival kits, even zany invisibility wear. Again, stuff al Qaeda might do. We need to figure out how to hide from the Internet of Things, which, when you think about it, can make existence so hellish, as if the world were suddenly constructed of molecules made of eyeball atoms reporting on you from every possible angle, inside and out. Like you woke up one morning and found out that Dali was god.
All of this — TimBL to invisibility — seems indicative of a paradigm shift, an instinctual understanding that our habitat is in collapse mode, that our greatest tool for survival — consciousness — is in peril. There’s no guarantee that people will want to be rescued. Lest we forget, despite everything, Ryan could not be coaxed into going home.
By John Kendall Hawkins
Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream
It is not dying
It is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void
- The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1966), inspired by Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead
I was recklessly musing about Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, and how, there but for the disgrace of God, and Barack Obama, they would have gone to Ecuador and been on the lam, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — legends in a lot of minds, including their own. But now, with Lenin on the loose, they would have seen la caca hitting el abanico in Quito and thought: Yanquis have arrived to abbotabad us and we must huyeron por todos lados. In other words more familiar, Butch and Sundance panicked, and hied to hide in the jungle of writhing anacondas. “That way,” pointed a future ‘espalda mojada’ (wetback), seizing a proffered C-note from the nice Machine-Gun Man with No Eyes. The chase was on.
Recently, I butched and sundanced my way through the thickets and vines of When Plants Dream by Daniel Pinchbeck and Sophia Rokhlin, until I came to what I was looking for in the clearing of an appendix: The How-to of cooking up some ayahuasca stew and of determining if it’s right for you. I mostly enjoyed the narrative trek through vistas I might never have considered — histories, cultures, exotic rituals of the Amazon — and their depiction of the shamanistic plant culture revealed and the return of the psychedelic experience to the mainstream.
Coincidentally, when this book popped up in my email from Penguin Books, I was (and am) enrolled in a free online science course, What A Plant Knows. Taking the course and reading When Plants Dream, reminded me of my early undergraduate days at an evangelical college in the Boston area, where my Biology 101 class was taught simultaneously in gospel-speak and the scientific method. I learned along the way that the scientific method was only included for accreditation purposes. I truly got into the spirit of the biblical interpretation of biology, egged on, out of class, by Bobby Dylan’s foray into the waters and fires of rebornation. Those lines from “Precious Angel” still kill me: Can they imagine the darkness….
Reading When Plants Dream felt like it was suffused in cultural darkness, or rather like it describes an escape from the darkness the Digital Age has wrought, rather than a committed movement toward any kind of enlightenment. In an era when going without the internet and text-messaging for a couple of weeks might lead most people to a hallucinogenic experience (in the vacuum opened up by the absence of electro-stim), Pinchbeck and Rokhlin offer the reader an introduction to an experience with forces that, by the end, they describe as the potential salvation of the human race against itself. We’ve been hollowed out by technology, they contend, and we need a new consciousness, and ayahuasca, “a living intelligence,” can help with the quantum paradigm shift ahead.
When Plants Dream is a short, easy-to-read book (218 pages) that is sectioned into four parts: The Queen of the Forest (ayahuasca is felt as female); On Curanderismo (shamans and their link to an alternate cosmological consciousness); The Vine Spreads (ayahuasca’s impact on medicine, religion and the law); and, Ayahuasca Today and Tomorrow. It is a well-researched book, with many judiciously chosen excerpts from leading proponents of the altered consciousness experience, including Michael Pollan (The Botany of Desire), Benny Shanon (The Antipodes of the Mind), Jeremy Narby (The Cosmic Serpent), and Michael Harmer (The Way of the Shaman), among many others. It’s rich, but intense reading, covering aspects of everything the subtitle of the book suggests — Ayahuasca, Amazonian Shamanism and the Global Psychedelic Renaissance.
Pinchbeck and Rokhlin discuss the Amazon Rainforest milieu in which the ayahuasca vine thrives. The authors remind us that the forest encompasses seven countries, including Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador. It covers the size of the continental United States. It’s called the ‘world’s lungs’, due to the vast proliferation of photosynthetic foliage. Pinchbeck and Rokhlin claim that there are still tribes in the forest who have not met ‘outsiders’, and that you could get lost in its lush underbelly and never be seen again.
What exactly is “the bitter brew”? Where does ayahuasca come from? The word comes from Quechuan, one of the oldest indigenous languages of the Amazon. The word breaks down into “aya,” meaning body, soul, or deceased; and “wahska,” meaning rope or vine. Thus, Pinchbeck and Rokhlin write, ‘ayahuasca’ is often translated as “vine of the soul” or “rope of the dead”. Its “double-helix-shaped curlicues” might vaguely attract the attention of a tourist also interested in the Human Genome Project (HGP) and its implications. You could see how a bit of mysticism would be built in to the stew-driven proceedings.
They write, “The psychoactivity of ayahuasca kicks in 30–45 minutes after ingestion” and “The brew is a famously intense purgative. For most, it causes shivering, sweating, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.” Reading this, I recalled a time I was carried out of a junior high school on a stretcher with severe food poisoning, double-helix turds coming from the out-hole, everything I’d ever eaten coming out the in-hole, and was having assorted gothic hallucinations. Holy shit, I wasn’t sure I could travel to the Amazon to experience the equivalent of said-same. Still, I read on. And, I guess, I probably would have tread on, if I’d gone there to relieve my blues.
Pinchbeck and Rokhlin admire the work of Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire. Pollan has boldly pronounced that our plants call the shots, and we obey. Did bears shit in the woods of Kazakhstan? You bet they did, and it’s a good thing, too, because they carried, in their turds, the first bitter apples from Central Asia all the way to Europe, sweetening as they came by natural selection, and delivering up from apple Eden what you might call the Almaty Whitey. Anyway, you can see how this symbiotic relationship works for Pinchbeck and Rokhlin, as they see ayahuasca not merely as an object to be devoured, but as a “kind of intelligence … trying to communicate with us, coming from the heart of nature.”
In the chapter, “The Yagé Organ,” the authors relate the strange ayahuasca correspondence of two famous American writers, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsbetg, who had separately ventured to Columbia to experience the psychedelic brew. Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch and Cities of the Red Night, who hailed from a pampered mighty whitey clan, trekked to the Amazon not long after he’d accidentally shot his wife dead in a famous William Tell debacle (immediately ending his heroine addiction). “Unable to kick his junk habit, guilt-ridden, crestfallen and junk-sick,” the authors write, “Burroughs traveled down to Colombia in search of yagé [ayahuasca]. He had heard that yagé was ‘the ultimate fix’ – as well as a miracle cure for [his heroin] addiction.”
Ginsberg traveled there years later and set up a correspondence with Burroughs that became The Yagé Letters (1953). Ginsberg describes his phantasmagorical experience to his favorite junkie,
I felt faced by Death, my skull in my beard on pallet and porch rolling back and forth and settling finally as if in reproduction of the last physical move I make before settling into real death – got nauseous, rushed out and began vomiting, all covered with snakes, like a Snake Seraph, colored serpents in aureole all around my body, I felt like a snake vomiting out the universe …
It kind of enriches one’s perspective on Ginsberg’s later Howl, in which he looks around and sees the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness.
If you go to the Amazon in search of ayahuasca, you’re going to want to find a curanderismo (shaman). “The word ‘shaman’ originally comes from the reindeer-herding nomads of the Siberian steppes,” the authors write. They’re social roles are ancient — they’ve been healers, mystics and even “dark” sorcerers. “Today,” write Pinchbeck and Rokhlin, “the various roles originally belonging to the shaman are divided into the functions performed by the artist, novelist, priest, scientist, doctor, psychologist and gardener.” But, paradoxically, these same modern cultural practitioners of altered states, are the ones most likely to hop on a plane to seek out forest healers to replenish their exhausted digitlized spirits. The pair claim, “There may be more ayahuasca practitioners now than ever before in history.”
To further clarify the role of a shaman in contemporary life, Pinchbeck and Rokhlin argue that the “archetypal path of the shaman resembles, in some ways, the hero’s journey outlined by Joseph Campbell … or like the training of the Jedi from Star Wars or the rebels from The Matrix.” The authors want to connect back to the counterculture psychedelic experiences of the 60s, and write, “According to the media hype, ayahuasca is for our time what LSD was for the 1960s: A mind-opening, catalysing, transformative agent that changes the world as it awakens and heals people.” But while this is true, the authors don’t emphasize enough the power and impact of the internet, and its paradigm-shifting influence on all aspects of our lives.
The third part of the book, The Vine Spreads, discusses the influence of ayahuasca, and the psychedelic experience in general, on other areas of our lives — medicine, religion, and law. “[T]here is increasing evidence that the methods used by curanderos have efficacy for many conditions that Western medicine cannot cure.” We seem increasingly more willing to trust such alternate approaches to healing chronic conditions — they cite breast cancer — that are resistant to Western medicine. And, “As we leave behind the antiquated parts of religions based on ancient text and received wisdom, we can access a new form of experiential mysticism based on the gnosis attained in visionary states of consciousness.” Laws, too, they suggest, are beginning to accommodate the growing desire for psychedelic experiences.
The authors like to play up the practical benefit of ayahuasca. “Shamanism is not essentially concerned with ‘enlightenment’ in the Buddhist sense or ‘beatitude’ in the Christian sense: shamanism is about knowledge – of the unseen worlds – and power, which can be used to heal, harm or transform.” The psychedelic experience should enhance your ordinary life somehow — maybe as depicted in the film Limitless. “The psychoactive effects of DMT [ayahuasca’s main compound] can be directly accessed by smoking a powdered extraction from the plants – the ‘business man’s trip’, which sends users on a 10-minute plunge into another reality that some find harrowing and others delightful.” What’s more, “Business Insider pronounces it ‘the latest craze among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs’”. What could be more ominous or depressing? Imagine watching Jeff Bezos puke in some back alley junkie jungle to gain enlightenment during his lunch break. Hmph.
One interesting side note in the book is the allusion to the film Avatar, which the authors raise in the context of its background story. In the film, there is an important tribal tree called Eywa, which, according to Pinchbeck and Rokhlin is “uncannily close to ‘Aya’. The story told by the film bears more than a passing resemblance to one of the worst environmental disasters in modern history, caused by the fossil-fuel company Texaco, which merged with Chevron in 2000. In 1964, Texaco discovered substantial oil reserves in the remote Ecuadorian Amazon.” No lessons have been learned: destruction of the world’s lungs continues apace. A deleted scene from the film, “Eye of Eywa,” depicts a hallucinatory experience.
Full disclosure: I have no ayahuasca experience. However, in my undergraduate college years, I have eaten magic mushrooms and downed mescalin, and, under the influence of the shrooms went to a drive-in with some buddies and hallucinated to The Life of Brian and Altered States. I have grooved under the influence inside a cathedral. And I have had a multitude of naturally-occurring hallucinations, aural and visual. Though I don’t expect to get around to trying ayahuasca soon, I am open to the experience, and could certainly see how it might be beneficial, while also am keenly aware (following an opiated-pot session gone bad) of how these enlightenment things can go dark. The authors wisely urge full caution in their appendix how-to.
While Pinchbeck and Rokhlin offer plenty of factual information and anecdotes to help newbies and veterans of psychedelics decide if they want to seek out and try ayahuasca, there are many other places to go to understand the dimensions of the proposed self indulgence. There’s appropriate shamanistic music available to get the right ambiance going. More importantly, I found ayahuasca feed at Reddit very useful, as it has a lot of personal tales of encounters with DMT that are fresher than what a published book can offer. It also has a great deal of information about users, abusers and shamans.
Overall, When Plants Dream is a useful introduction to what Pinchbeck and Rokhlin claim is a “renaissance” in psychedelic experience-seeking. But maybe more important than anything, if maybe a bit too late, is the enthusiasm it expresses for seeing things through the ‘eyes’ of plants. We need that need that ‘view from the perspective of others’ now more than ever. Personally, I believe that if we must go extinct as a species, as we seem determined to do, that we head not in the direction of man-machine AI systems, but toward the development of photosynthetic people — chloroplasts added (along, if you don’t mind, a dash of THC), and at life’s end, instead of wasteful cremation, we smoke ‘em cause we got ‘em. Excuse me while I light my spliff.
Too much Cheech and Chong, I guess.
Book Review: In Defense of Julian Assange eds. Tariq Ali and Margaret Kunstler
By John Kendall Hawkins
Crikey, he gives them the shits.
Hillary once said — even before the 2016 election — “Can’t we just drone him?”
Maybe you’re thinking she was just joking, like Obama that time at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2010, when he cracked that he’d take out the Jonas Brothers with a Predator drone strike, if they got grabby with his daughters. Laughter all around. Of course, the joke was on them, because there was no drone warfare program at the time, WINK. Obama wouldn’t acknowledge the existence of such drone usage until he zapped out Anwar al-Awlaki a year later, and his 16 year-old son, Abdulrahman, shortly thereafter, both Americans.
The MSM darn near bust a gut. (The joke’s been told over and over since. Punch line here.)
Julian Assange had warmed the Press up nearly a month earlier when he released the top secret “Collateral Murder” video into the wilds of the public imagination. You could hear all kinds of laughter from the gunship soldiers machine-gunning away at civilians, like Chuck Connors, Russian mole, in the film Embassy. Rat-a-tat-tat! Who knew the War on Terror could be so funny? You don’t even want to call The Hague and file a report, you’re laughing so hard.
And Assange followed up that gag with a bing-bang-boom fusillade: the Afghan War Logs (all those unreported haw-haw casualties); the Iraq War Logs had Abu rolling over in his graib, with laughter; Cablegate released all that global goss and started the Arab Spring (Tunisia 2011); the Guantánamo Files — so many Code Reds the bulls went insane; the Spy Files demonstrated “the industrialization of global mass surveillance” — what an effing hoot; the Syria Files made Assad shoot off laughing gas at the rebels; elites fell over themselves, like drunken clowns, when Assange published “the secret draft of the TransPacific Partnership (TPP)”; the Saudi Cables brought on the Curly Shuffle in Riyadh.
You almost couldn’t believe that a guy who one wag described as having had a “wild…Tom Sawyer-like” childhood could cause so much angst. Why, he even spent his early years in an honest-to-goodness Jumping Frog of Calaveras County atmosphere on a small island, called Magnetic. How could he be found so unattractive by so many? When he moved to mainland Oz for his teen years he became John Connor, where he had his whole future in the rearview mirror, and spent his time in MILNET “hacking Pentagon generals’ emails,” he tells Ai WeiWei in the new collection of testimonials and supportive documents that make up In Defense of Julian Assange edited by Tariq Ali and Margaret Kunstler.
Assange was determined to rip off the veil of the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC) from an early age. And it’s another peculiarity that he, along with fellow Aussie John Pilger, have been so successful in penetrating to the core of the fascist heart that drives American foreign policy. Peculiar, because Australia, unlike America, has no Bill of Rights, so no fire in the belly for constitutional protections, and the press here is weak and getting weaker — thanks to the recent passage of “retention” laws that seem very much like the US Espionage Act that Assange will face in America. Yet, Pilger, in an interview with ex-CIA operative, Duane Clarridge, has totally exposed the ugly, roaring heart of Empire. Assange has laid out its blueprints.
So much has been written, movies have been made, you could make the case that Assange’s life is over-exposed, and that, ironically, this champion of personal privacy and governmental transparency, hasn’t had any real alone-time for quite awhile and has been swarmed with layers of surveillance designed to break his spirit. Outside the Ecuadorian embassy police spent years poised to pounce. Inside, there were microphones and cameras everywhere. “It was the Truman Show,” Assange is quoted in the book.
In the introduction to In Defense, Nils Melzer, a special UN rapporteur on torture, declared after visiting Assange in May at Belmarsh that:
In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution I have never seen a group of democratic States ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonize and abuse a single individual for such a long time and with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law.
Clearly, the State intends on having the last laugh. Sadists like their punch lines.
The great virtue of In Defense is that it collects all the controversial bits and pieces of Assange’s situation into one volume and mounts a fierce support for his personal and professional crises. A cogent introduction summarizes key segments of his current entrapment in a web of intrigue. There’s an impressive chronology of Wikileaks’ publications, from “Collateral Murder” to the Vault 7 CIA hacking tools. You wonder aloud if he’s more courageous than nuts, given the likely repercussions. The book is broken up into four parts: Expulsion; Confinement; the Internet, Censorship, and Scientific Journalism; and the Legacy of Wikileaks and Assange. A helpful point-by-point defense to Assange’s critics by Caitlin Johnstone lends focus. An appendix contains the superseding indictment for which he faces extradition to America.
Out of all that, In Defense attempts to answer three main questions: One, is Assange a terrorist or a journalist? Two, Is he a rapist? Three, What happens next? In Defense is unusual in that it transparently addresses all the questions Assange is likely to face in a courtroom, and summons forth the kinds of witnesses and evidence that will manifest in the proceedings. We hear from lawyers, technologists, whistleblowers, ex-spooks, radical feminists, government officials, and Assange himself — in a kind Open Source trialing of ‘discovery’ materials. The gambit in play appears to be that Assange is hoping to win people over to create a swelling base of support/protest once the secretive political trial begins.
Is Assange a terrorist or a journalist? As Tariq Ali notes in the introduction, “Assange and his colleagues made no secret of the fact that their principal subject of publication was the American Empire and its global operations.” Through his Wikileaks publishings, Assange has demonstrably established his intention to ‘document’ the dark agenda of Empire — and to oppose it. In this sense, he is an activist publisher, no different than, say, Ramparts, Counterpunch or Harper’s. But the material to support his opposition is primary documentation, procured through hacks and leaks. Like Socrates the “gadfly,” he wants people to make up their own minds. He sees himself as an Ethical Hacker, and an ethical leaker.
While he may not be able to use it as a defense tactic, WikiLeaks reminds me of the “necessity defense” that Abbie Hoffman and Amy Carter successfully argued in 1987 at their trial for criminal trespassing that followed their disruption of CIA recruiting efforts on the campus of the UMass-Amherst. They were able to convince the court that their ostensibly ‘illegal’ actions were to stop bigger crimes from happening on foreign soil, in the name of Americans, who were never consulted. Thus, when a Kissinger can advise a Nixon that he doesn’t see why America should sit by while a Chile elects an Allende, when there’s a Duane Clarridge ready to fix the problem, people needn’t accept it as the American Way. Wikileaks is necessary.
Because they control the narrative arc of “The Global War on Terror,” the US government can characterize its antagonists any way it pleases. The Americans, deeply learning from the tactics of the Viet Cong who gave them the shits in ‘Nam, labelled al Qaeda (who they’d helped set up to give the Russians a taste of their own ‘Nam quagmire in Afghanistan), after 9/11, “unlawful non-state enemy combatants.” They didn’t wear pajamas, had no central command, and, thank Christ, were a wonderful reason to slap boots down in multiple countries in search of naked sleeper cells who might wake from their dogmatic slumbers and hate on America for her Human Freedom Project™.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described Julian Assange and Wikileaks, as “a hostile non-state intelligence service.” This clown’s description of Wikileaks could include almost any left wing publication. Curiously, even the New York Times, a publication that has in the past spinached up its circulation by featuring stories based on Wikileaks documents, has turned on him. In April, the editorial board called him “a “foreign agent seeking to undermine the security of the United States through theft.” Pompeo would like to see Assange as akin to al Qaeda, then maybe honeypot him to some remote location, and, as Bobby Dylan would say, he could be caught without a ticket to the dance “and be discovered beneath a truck.” What, you think Empire is joking?
In a column for the volume, “The Naivete of Julian Assange,” Margaret Kimberly, a senior writer for Black Agenda Report, chides Assange for his ignorance of American domestic issues. Australia, while still dealing with aboriginal issues, has no legacy of slavery, and no Bill of Rights, and these deficits mean Assange lacks depth when it comes to American domestic political passions. She takes issue with a Tweet exchange he had during which “he questioned the need to fight the American Civil War” and seemed “unaware that the Confederacy started the war and steadfastly refused to end slavery.”
Nevertheless, she conceded, “His willingness to show us what war looks like or how trade agreements deprive millions of people of their rights make him an ally not just as a person but an ally of the principles Americans claim to care about.”
Her observations are a reminder that a lot of what’s going on is a bunch of white people fighting over power, with no sign that minorities are included in the conversation or will benefit from the process.
Is Assange a rapist? In Defense recounts the investigatory details that keep Assange tied to the Swedish justice system. The even reference a helpful YouTube animation that brings a viewer through the specious semi-allegations. The fact is that Assange would not be regarded as a potential rapist for ‘what happened’ in any other part of the world but Sweden, as the sex was consensual. He was investigated because a woman he slept with feared an alleged faulty condom might have allowed the transmission of an STD. As Caitlin Johstone writes in one of her mythbuster segments, “[One of the woman] admitted she had been ‘railroaded by police and others around her’” to pursue Assange. She reminds: He hasn’t actually been charged with anything in Sweden.
The US government doesn’t mind if Sweden takes its sweet ass time with its version of due process — the longer the better; they may even be behind the delays. Assange’s instincts were right about seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy to avoid extradition to the US; the chances are they were right for the same reason had he returned to Sweden. Meantime, as long as the ‘investigation’ goes incomplete, he gets to be painted by the MSM as a sexually aggressive hornball who intentionally ‘leaks’ without regard for his partner. As he’s been accused of by the CIA with his Wikileaks. This helps sell him as a predator. We got drones for that.
The breach of the servers at the DNC during the 2016 presidential campaign changed everything about how Assange has been perceived in the US.
The Obama intelligence community successfully sold Americans — through a compliant MSM — on the still unsubstantiated claim that the Russians interfered in the 2016 presidential election, foisting Trump on us, effectively paying us back, clown for clown, for giving them Yeltsin in 1991. Obama then wanted to connect Assange to the Russian mischief by claiming he either worked directly with them to hack the DNC, or else worked indirectly by posting to Wikileaks emails received from Russians.
But understated is how irate Obama was in 2013 when Assange sent an emissary to Hong Kong to help Edward Snowden avoid being taken by the CIA, after he was outed by the mainstream media as the greatest top secrets leaker of all time. Recall that Obama’s unprecedented forcing of the plane of a head of state to land in Austria when he thought Snowden was aboard. Virtually an act of war, and something that should have been condemned by the paper tiger United Nations, who exist to keep nation-states from crossing the line with each other..
As Kevin Gosztola points out in the book, “[T]he Obama administration realized in 2013 that it … could not prosecute Assange without exposing journalists at the Times or Washington Post to potential prosecutions for publishing classified information.” But all of that changes if Assange can be re-classified as an agent of foreign powers, a kind of enemy combatant, rather than a journalist. Thus, as Gosztola suggests, Democratic leaders started referring to him as an enemy. Joe Biden called him a “high-tech terrorist” and Diane Feinstein referred to him as “an agitator intent on damaging our government, whose policies he happens to disagree with, regardless of who gets hurt.” Oh, those condomnations.
The Russian-DNC-Guccifer thing has all the hallmarks of a set-up. Tariq Ali points out in the intro, “The finding that the DNC documents were hacked from seven separate accounts by agents of the Russian state rests on the assertions of private cybersecurity companies, CrowdStrike, Fidelis, and Mandiant, rather than of the FBI, which was denied access to the DNC server.” And as Craig Murray adds, “[The Mueller Report’s] identification of ‘DC Leaks’ and ‘Guccifer 2.0’ as
Russian security services is something Mueller attempts to carry off by simple assertion.” You gudda pwobwem wid dat?
It is still an open question whether emails taken from the DNC servers were the result of a hack or an insider thumb drive. Former NSA techie and whistleblower William Binney says it was a thumb. Craig Murray reminds the reader of In Defense that he personally met the thumb. Assange has named DNC insiders as sources for his cache. None of them were sought out by Mueller.
The IC says the Russkies did it and that the Guccifer 2.0 WordPress site from which Assange got some emails was a Russian site. But an email address can be acquired in seconds, a wordpress site set up in minutes, and the site populated with all kinds of blog posts — like the one that tells about how to spoof a foreign power during a hack. Even “Guccifer” has the smell of the kind of spook nomenclature that Edward Snowden describes in detail in his memoir Permanent Record — Gucci Lucifer = Guccifer. Get it?
Who knows what kind of an environment Assange will be immersed in when he comes in chains to the Land of the Free. The current business with Trump could make a conspiracy-fearist out of anyone. Yeltsin may not even be president by the time Assange is tried — what with whistleblowers climbing over each like a Ukrainian sitcom to put an end to corruption as we know it. You can almost see CIA analysts lounging in the coffee room, mooning over the days of yore, and wondering aloud, “I don’t see why we have to sit around and watch this country go banana republic due to the irresponsibility of its people. Who wants to whistle dixie next?”
In a world that doesn’t seem capable of giving a shit any more (see climate change), we have been blessed with some people willing to do the dirty work of keeping the plumbing of the people running. Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange, along with the many whistleblowers, VIPS, and voices of outrage and clarity that make up this volume, could be seen as a kind of superhero group in a future comedic movie: The Empire Turns Its Back. Assange as a Tom Sawyer figure — radicalized — the movie poster boasting: He didn’t just want a piece of the Empire, he wanted the whole Inshaallahllah.
Coming soon to a ‘reality-based’ cinema near you.
by John Kendall Hawkins
“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster; when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
“Are you sure that you can skin griz?
– line from film Jeremiah Johnson
Edward Snowden’s newly-released memoir, Permanent Record, is a timely and welcome entry into the current clown show debate on whistleblowing that has filled the Big Tent in Washington with hot air, old farts, and effete lions sitting around eating bon-bons and reading Sartre’s Being and Nothingness — in French. Because, among other things, Snowden’s book strives to ignite an albeit self-serving ‘national conversation’ on whistle-blowing, how it differs from mere leaking, and why he qualifies for the protections afforded those who cop a whistle against government abuses. Indeed, not only is he arguing his own patriotic virtues, but he is calling on government-embedded “geeks,” like himself, to wake from their slogmatic dumber and pull a BogieBugle for the team. You want some liberty — or don’t you?
Snowden insists there’s a serious distinction between a whistleblower and a leaker. “A ‘whistleblower’ … is a person who through hard experience has concluded that their life inside an institution has become incompatible with the principles developed in…the greater society outside it, to which that institution should be accountable.” Snowden has often referred to Daniel Ellsberg, distributor of the Pentagon Papers, as a model for the type. And he sees himself in this vein. He compares this to leaking, which refers to “acts of disclosure done not out of public interest but out of self-interest, or in pursuit of institutional or political aims.” As Liberty might inquire, a la Bobby Dylan, “Are you willing to risk it all or is your love in vain?”
By Snowden’s rule, the recent anonymous hand-ringing CIA figure who dobbed Trump in to Congress is — well — still working and presumably, being anonymous, available for future leaks. He sounds more akin to what Snowden describes in the book as a politically-motivated ‘conscience’. These kinds of leakers tend to be practicing tradecraft (Snowden knows; he worked for the CIA), and can be likened to what Obama did — coyly denying the existence of drone warfare, while spending Terror Tuesdays personally selecting a new joker from his “disposition matrix” card deck to ‘take out’.
Writes Snowden, “By breathlessly publicizing its drone attack on al-Aulaqi to the Washington Post and the New York Times, the Obama administration was tacitly admitting the existence of the CIA’s drone program and its “disposition matrix,” or kill list, both of which are officially top secret. Additionally, the government was implicitly confirming that it engaged not just in targeted assassinations, but in targeted assassinations of American citizens.” Where was the whistleblower for that? Snowden seems to wonder. This is the lawlessness he just couldn’t hack any more.
But Permanent Record is far more than simply a personal appeal to be regarded as a hero in the public’s eye; it is a continuation of his alarm ‘call to arms’ against the serious “criminal behavior” of the US government and the catastrophic threat to democracy and privacy that its intentional actions have wrought with the rise of the surveillance state out of the ashes of 9/11.
To recap what’s at stake, according to Snowden: The American government claims ownership of the Internet. All of it. In America. In Europe. In Asia. And some day, inshallah, on Mars. They haven’t ‘officially’ announced it, but that’s how they’ve decided to proceed. They invented it. They developed its working protocols and technologies. They know more and more people will rely on access to it religiously (45% online now, according to Snowden), and they intend to keep people hooked on the sugar for life. First mass surveillance, then mass control. It’s monetized; it’s militarized; it’s locked and loaded with a full metal jacket of jingly algorithms. Not a gift to the world at all, like, say, America’s Deluxe Democracy for The Betterment of Mankind™.
Such a “Frankenstein” system is a long way from the Internet Eden Snowden claims we started out with. Far from merely describing a government on a temporary, and unconscious, surveillance sugar high, Snowden makes sure we understand to our roots that it’s much worse than that. “The president’s office, through the Justice Department,” he notes, “had committed the original sin of secretly issuing directives that authorized mass surveillance in the wake of 9/11.” Once that 9/11 serpent offered the US government that Apple of the Eyes, there was no turning back.
Snowden contends that we’re handing over more and more data, more of our lives, to the control of these unknown demigods in the clouds of Cyberspace. Who are they? Fantasists — all dem Deep State geeks, like Snowden, before he broke good, and Bush and Cheney, and Rove, saying shit like,
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
But they’re not at liberty to talk about it.
Snowden grew up reading Aesop’s Fables and Bulfinch’s Mythology and so is steeped in the stuff of heroes and gods and chimaera, parables and symbolism, deus ex machina, and the whole Lord of the Flies thing about wanton gods. But you can tell there’s a certain class of sleazester that grubs its way into national politics alluding to the glories of our shared classical Greco-Roman past (without which we Exceptionals would be nothing), dropping names and taking names, set on seeming and beaming. Types that make a more humble man, standing across the room seeing such seeming, cold-cock his fist as an instinct.
This God stuff really pisses Snowden off. You can tell by the way he introduces legends and mythology to the narrative, like he’s trying to speak their Dungeons and Terrorists language on some kind subtextual level that has sadistic overtones. My favorite bit comes when he comes up with a kind of origin story for his surname. He relates the tale of Rhitta Gawr, monster king of Wales, who took on and killed every king around him, cutting off their beards before he cut off their heads, and making a hair suit out of the scalpings. “Enraged at this hubris,” writes Snowden, “Arthur set off for Rhitta Gawr,” they fought and Arthur split Gawr in half with a sword on a mountain called …Snaw Dun….”
Rhitta Gawr would seem to represent American imperialism, and King Arthur would be the hubris-sapping champion of virtue and noble causes. Snowden is no Arthur, but he is invoking his spirit, his courage, his determination to slay tyranny, while at the same time making it clear he’s just an ordinary patriot. In fact, Snowden goes through some pains to recount his Mayflower heritage, family military history, and civil service roots. Sometimes he goes too far in the telling, as when he recounts the demise of his paternal ancestor who died at the hands of the British during the Revolution. He adds, seemingly gratuitously, “(Legend has it that they killed their POWs by forcing them to eat gruel laced with ground glass.)” Funny way to recall a relative’s death.
Speaking of family history, his most bizarre, and perhaps most revealing, tidbit of personal history is his mention of the founding of Fort Meade, Maryland, the location of NSA headquarters. The land on which the fort is built was once owned by Snowden ancestors. It was a plantation, but they “abolished their family’s practice of slavery, freeing their two hundred African slaves nearly a full century before the Civil War.” But there’s some strange, residual resentment. Snowden claims that the plantation was “expropriated” by the federal government to house Civil War soldiers. Head-spinning stuff.
Snowden emphasizes throughout his memoir that the terrorist-seeking, “surveillance capitalist” state is striving to have a permanent record of every human on the planet. All information going back perhaps even to birth — every phone call, email, text message, every trip taken, every purchase, medical data, service records, and a digital link to everyone you know. A permanent record without probable cause, waiting for you to be accused of a crime to be named later.
Snowden worked in a system in which, “[E]veryone’s information was being collected, which was tantamount to a government threat: If you ever get out of line, we’ll use your private life against you.” The government as goombah. A dystopia similar to the film Minority Report, but with algorithms, machine thoughts, replacing pre-cogs, cutting out the middle-seer.
Snowden spends considerable time reiterating his revelations of the specific secret government surveillance programs he shared with journalists beginning in 2013. He had originally intended to contact the New York Times, he writes, but remembered how they had quashed James Risen and Eric Lichtblau’s important piece on the Bush administration’s illegal wireless surveillance of Americans (revealed later by Snowden as NSA’s StellarWind program) that “well might have changed the course of the 2004 election” had it run. The story ran more than a year later to shrugs.
Instead, a second Bush/Cheney term allowed the NSA and CIA to expand their global surveillance programs. Snowden revealed further evidence of extra-Constitutional data-gathering. He writes:
“PRISM enabled the NSA to routinely collect data from Microsoft, Yahoo!,Google, Facebook, Paltalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple, including email, photos, video and audio chats, Web-browsing content, search engine queries, and all other data stored on their clouds, transforming the companies into witting co-conspirators.”
These criminal co-conspirators, above the law themselves, were treating everyone else as potential terrorists, sleeping cells of personality disorder that could erupt at any moment and reveal themselves by “keyword” Google searches for trouble, such as “Mr. Google, what ever happened to the photo and DNA evidence of bin Laden’s Abbottabad execution?”
There were also a couple of monitor-level programs that were mind-boggling and disgusting, such as XKeyscore, “which is perhaps best understood as a search engine that lets an analyst search through all the records of your life.” Everything. Anybody. Anywhere. While you were getting over the shock of that, Snowden pointed to another salubrious practice — LOVEINT — “in which analysts used the agency’s programs to surveil their current and former lovers along with objects of more casual affection—reading their emails, listening in on their phone calls, and stalking them online.” Creepy, and probably rife, considering that no one’s likely to get prosecuted, “because you can’t exactly convict someone of abusing your secret system of mass surveillance if you refuse to admit the existence of the system itself.” Secret men’s business. High five!
Most everyone agrees that 9/11 was the catalyst for the political acceptance of mass surveillance. The pollies conned the People into buying into the “limited” and “temporary” need for security-enhancing privacy annihilation hastened the transformation from intensified vigilance to full-blown panopticon intrusiveness. Snowden sees two main causes: one, the transfer of paper data to digital data, stored online; and, two, contracting. To get around agency hiring limits set by Congress, contractors, not counted as employees, were hired. Snowden calls them Homo Contractus. He was one. Said to be working for, say, Dell computers, but actually doing the work of the NSA or CIA.
Homo Contractus has become an evolving species of worker for the US government. It is perhaps the most dangerous development of all, given that such contractors are the eyes and ears of the surveillance machine. Suddenly, agency analysts go into early ‘retirement’, only to put up a quick WordPress business website and hang a shingle out as ‘consultants’, who then get re-hired by the system they retired from. When such consultants start working overseas, in places like the UAE, they are mercenaries who can hack away as they please. They bring their skill sets, toolsets, and target lists with them; the US government cannot stop them. It was no surprise to see The Intercept, a publication for whistleblowing revelations, being hacked from the UAE.
Permanent Record is an excellent read. There is a sub-text to the narrative that makes you wonder whether he is pulling your leg at times. And a few seemingly contrived anecdotes, such as the tiny play child Snowden has with mom about the need for taxes; another childhood exchange with mom where she explains the immorality of opening his sister’s mail; and, the chapter, “From the Diaries of Lindsay Mills,” which are, ostensibly, entries from his girlfriend’s (now his wife) diary. I was surprised that this chapter didn’t qualify her for a byline. But also, the section was so finely manicured that it felt like an inauthentic voice. In a novel that’s okay.
I have questions. Like why the push to get people to use the Tor Project? Snowden says that setting up a Tor server can help others in highly controlled societies (he cites Iran) reach out beyond their cyberwall. But the safety of Tor use was debunked years ago, when it was revealed US spooks had cracked its encryption and were on to users setting up bridge servers. But a bigger mystery to me was the inclusion of a reference to the bin Laden execution of 2011: “a dialysis patient shot point-blank in the embrace of his multiple wives in their lavish compound.” By all other reports, bin Laden was shot dead from the stairwell, there were no “multiple wives” embracing him, and the compound was anything but “lavish.”
Responses to what Snowden did in 2013 seem to locate his actions somewhere between heroic and traitorous. One political analyst, however, believes he’s beyond such easy good or evil. David P. Fidler, editor of The Snowden Reader, writes in his introduction to the volume that Snowden’s actions “disrupted the trajectory of political affairs and forced democratic societies to reconsider fundamental questions, the answers to which help define the quality of the democratic experience.” This is, of course, vague, and maybe entirely unhelpful, but does give an idea of his reception of the intellectuals who may influence his fate, should he ever return to America.
The picture Snowden paints in Permanent Record is so bleak and — like he alludes to — such a fall from more relatively edenic times that there seems little hope. However, he does, like Julian Assange, assert that one place to start fighting back is for people to implement encryption — sealing their documents and using a safe VPN. Snowden notes, with hope, “The year 2016 was a landmark in tech history, the first year since the invention of the Internet that more Web traffic was encrypted than unencrypted.” In addition, many other people, like Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, are pushing for the adoption of John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Meh. But the truth is, more radical actions may be required.
Personally, I believe we need a more benign, colossal catastrophe. For instance, I was reading the other day about the chances of Earth being spit in the eye by a giant hot loogie from the Sun. I read:
“In today’s electrically dependent modern world, a similar scale solar storm could have catastrophic consequences. Auroras damage electrical power grids and may contribute to the erosion of oil and gas pipelines. They can disrupt GPS satellites and disturb or even completely black out radio communication on Earth.”
Such damage, if it lasted long enough, might just be the best goddamned thing to happen to this planet in a long time. We’d talk more, face to face.
by John Kendall Hawkins
You could be forgiven (but what’s the fun in that), if you were to think. Looking at Jacques-Louis David’s neoclassical painting The Death of Socrates, you could believe you’re seeing Socrates giving the bird to democracy and demanding that Crito give him the goddamned chalice full of hemlock, and get out of the way. There are different versions of what Socrates’ last words were. I thought I heard, “Tell my neighbor, Asclepius, he’s a cock, and I owe him one.” But I’d just come off reading The Clouds, Aristophanes’ take-down of Socrates, so I could be wrong. All we know is that he was in a foul mood.
And he had a right to be. All those Ralph Nader-like years of public service, including a distinguished stint as a soldier during the Peloponnesian War, only to be told, like most any vet, that things had changed since his return from his tour of duty. The Thirty Tyrants banned him from speaking in public — his dialectics had a tendency to undermine their reign of terror. He never spoke out against the oligarchy directly, but he did continue to be a “gadfly” for every horse’s arse who came his way: encouraging each to think for himself. When democracy was restored, his influence was not forgotten by governmental leaders.
Socrates famously quipped, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates’ Golden Rule is built into the foundation of American democracy. A life that is not examined is one controlled by the thoughts of others — open to deception, propaganda, and subterfuge. An examined life is built into Thomas Jefferson’s notion of a “well-informed public.” Augmented by the mission of the Fourth Estate, which is to keep the citizenry informed and the Bastards Honest, well-informed, self-examining people are in control of their representative government. Ideally. But there are a lot of Ee-yores, assorted horses arses, and serial ignoramuses out there. Even a Ralph Nader can only do so much.
Ultimately, Socrates was convicted on charges of impiety and corruption of youth. Only the latter really matters (nobody really gave a good goddamn about the other one). At the core of his dialectical philosophy was the directive: Question Authority. He demonstrated his method daily, followed around Athens by youthful acolytes, as he took the mickey out of the Know-It-Alls in power. Even in the heyday of democracy, the vested interests wanted none of that. They laughed at Aristophenes’ parody of Socrates and his tactics as a form of sophistry allowing sleaze-balls to weasel out of debts and obligations by making language itself a series of loopholes without end. Creating lawyers who could con Jesus off the cross. Denny Crane! “Never lost a case.”
Socrates might have gone into exile, but, he argued, it would have been the same thing all over again — his dialectics pissing people off. An endless vista of Apologies opened up. So, he talked himself into the death penalty (which came in record time, BTW). He said, according to the Benjamin Jowett translation, “I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live.” Then Socrates was handed the chalice of hemlock. Some say that that was the day the music died for Athens’ exceptional democracy, and by the time it got handed down to we moderns it was already more sound and fury than substance.
And yet, here we are some 2500 years later, historically slap-happy, still trying to work out the broad strokes and nuances of our own Exceptional democracy — like kids playing with dynamite, as Mose Allison might say. There’s something Belén Fernández wrote in her new book Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World that sticks with me, something about patriotism, guarding the O Say Can You See against foreign and domestic usurpers, defending the fatherland (patri) you believe in (ism) no matter how abusive and alcoholic he’s become, until you can’t take anymore. As Fernández observes, you can “ start to view the state itself as public enemy number one,” and you know something’s been lost when you start seeing your country as a “state.” Like Socrates.
And that got me thinking about childhood, and homeroom, and our placing our hands over our hearts and pledging our allegiance to all them stars and stripes, earnestly but mechanically. And at lunchtime, all the goombahs extorting lunches and test answers from the weaklings and nerds in that long lead-up to their grown up years of thuggery and politics, now seen as the first wake-up call in the game called Hide Your Twinkies.
And after lunch, we’re taking turns reading aloud Edward Everett Hale’s “The Man Without A Country,” gasping as Philip Nolan exclaims, at the end of a trial for some unknown treason, “To hell with America,” or something like that. And he gets sent ‘up the river’ for 56 years (gulp) for saying something I’ve felt mosta my life — and I’m a true patriot. No, really.
But then, at recess, as the goombahs started selling ‘insurance policies’, I hung out in the toilet and got to thinking, started examining myself (mentally, I mean), and began to wonder what did Nolan actually do wrong? The story doesn’t really say. Miss Johnson (at least that’s how I remember her name) just said it was a parable about patriotism. But what had he done? My little mind worked and worked to know. Had he done some illicit machine-gunning? Was he a serial philanderer? Had he tried to kill John Lennon and all his love? 56 years! No one once asked him if he’d changed his mind, offered him some fucking parole? I discovered myself without toilet paper. Wrote on the wall: Phillip Nolan was here.
Years later, as I was growing up (still am), I discovered that Nolan’s tale was loosely based on an incident that happened to Peace Democrat congressman Clement Vallandigham in 1863, who, mid-war, openly called for peace; who didn’t believe the battle to end slavery was worth the price of a divided white nation. A draft had been called by Republican president Abraham Lincoln; New York’s white underclass erupted in rage when it was discovered that rich people could buy their way out of serving or find a proxy, and that their jobs refining slave-labor crops (cotton and sugar) could be lost, if the Union won. Vallandigham’s exhortations were regarded as treason — he was court-martialed and sent into exile. Why, Nolan was a patsy!
Many self-examinations later, I thought: Only a Republican would send a man up for 56 years without a chance for parole and call it a parable, while only a Democrat would sue soulfully for peace, but not give a damn about the injustice of slavery or, later, what became known as “economic inequality.” I didn’t know what to think. Toilet stalls don’t grow on trees, and I had nowhere to hide. And it all reminded me an awful lot of the Clinton years, back when Is was Is.
It’s only gotten worse since Socrates and Nolan, IMO — democracy and patriotism, I mean. Some would argue that they are long gone, like a turkey through the corn. 9 Eleven, that was our house of cards, two decks down, freefallin’ at the same time, ‘oh, the humanity’, and like little children who’ve spent all morning building and balancing our catastrophe-in-the-making we raged at physics, as if it were a demon, and looked with extreme prejudice for goats trying to escape.
As Pavlov dingled his bell, and we all broke out in a lip-doodling frenzy of ‘patriotism,’ Susan Sontag seemed to be the only one in the elephant room big enough to call the response for what it was: “The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing…[and] well, unworthy of a mature democracy.” Sontag saw no need to apologize and took her hemlock exile courageously. One day we’ll find the patsy in all this — probably while shaving.
Socrates died in 399 BC — but one could picture, almost 2500 years later, that Democracy has overshot its trajectory, and that Capitalism, not Asclepius, is due a salute. We have our own Cloud issues now; way more than Thirty Tyrants; our hearts and minds still filled with the soothing beats of war drums we’ve heard all our lives (from Korea to the ‘Ghan); thinkers pilloried; a press that mocks and squawks; and instead of a well-oiled Grecian democracy ready to wrassle with Killer “Climate Change” Kowalski, we got us a 1963 Rambler needing a new transmission. Personally, I think that future pledges of allegiance should require not the hand over the heart (that’s got other things to do: why burden it with the gravitas of false patriotism), but a nice big juicy middle finger that says Question Authority. That’s what a mature democracy requires.
Think about it.
By John Kendall Hawkins
In the 1963 horror-thriller, The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock wants his viewers to understand the world from the point-of-view of birds. Angry birds. Birds angry at humans. The question is: Why? Why are the birds angry? Why have they gone amok, seeding chaos, and what will be the solution?
My favorite shot in the movie comes when Hitchcock has a seagull floating over a town on fire and in full-flight panic — as if the bird were considering its work below, like a parent determining whether the administered spanking to a brat had been enough. And then another birds shows up in the frame, and another, and another, and then they all descend again. Why are they so angry?
Maybe part of the answer is attitude — hubris — or, as Bobby Dylan once sang, “Man thinks ’cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he please.” In 1962, Rachel Carson released Silent Spring, a cataloguing of Humanity’s catastrophic treatment of the natural environment. Man was shitting his bed regularly and seemed proud of it. The ever-ironical Hitchcock was providing payback for the angered birds: Who’s luffing now?
In Timothy C. Winegard’s The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator, the author goes one better than Hitchcock by substituting birds with mosquitoes and providing the creature’s point-of-view going all the way back to the Age of Dinosaurs. As far as Winegard is concerned, mosquitoes have been calling the shots throughout history in the animal kingdom, but especially with human beings, who, seemingly, have seen the decisions of virtually every ‘Great Man’ affected in pivotal moments by contact with the tiny disease-bearing predators.
The male mosquito does not bite and, according to Winegard, lives a Beautiful Life of procuring sex and nectar. When it’s time for the woman warrior to come looking for larval love, the males form a “swarm” tunnel into which she swoons, looking for a “heartbeat boy” on a version of “If You Are the One.” If you’re ‘lucky,’ one of these swarms might occur right over your head — and can extend “1000 feet into the air” — as you’re walking. Writes Weingard, “You are not paranoid, nor are you imagining this phenomenon. Take it as a compliment. Male mosquitoes have graced you with the honor of being a ‘swarm marker.’” Once the sperm is obtained, he says, all they need is blood — yours or mine. Winegard pictures a knocked-up mosquito landing on a patch of human skin. He provides almost an engineer’s description of the mechanical processes involved in biting into and drillin’ for blood:
She conducts a tender, probing, ten-second reconnaissance, looking for a prime blood vessel. With her backside in the air, she steadies her crosshairs and zeros in with six sophisticated needles. She inserts two serrated mandible cutting blades (much like an electric carving knife with two blades shifting back and forth), and saws into your skin, while two other retractors open a passage for the proboscis, a hypodermic syringe that emerges from its protective sheath….
On and on it goes, but, in short, she sucks your blood, and goes off to deposit her blood children in a pool of still water.
There is a cartoonish anthropomorphism that winds its way through the book. It’s clear that Winegard has fun referring to the principal lethal mosquito as General Anopheles — for almost 600 pages. Winegard has a military history background (but reads more like Jeremy Scahill than some swaggering apologist for the Pentagon), and his last book, The First World Oil War, was about the underlying fight to control petroleum during “the war to end all wars.” So, he’s comfortable dressing the mosquito in a general’s uniform and leading him into battle — always the victor, one way or another. General Anopheles is our hateful enemy.
“We are at war with the mosquito,” Winegard declares in his introduction. We’ve been at war for the whole shebang of human time. Almost half of the 108 billion humans who have lived in the last 200,000 years, perished by exposure to toxic mosquito bites. This is a staggering fact, if true (he’s extrapolating from data). But as Weingard indicates, “The biting female warriors of this droning insect population are armed with at least fifteen lethal and debilitating biological weapons against our 7.7 billion humans deploying suspect and often self-detrimental defensive capabilities.” Some of the maladies have been with us for a long time — malaria, dengue, yellow fever — weapons humans have struggled mightily to overcome.
Because Weingard approaches the history from a battlefront perspective involving Big Man confrontations, a lot of time is spent detailing how said maladies are used to advantage by various warriors. As so many battles Weingard describes seem to involve one side drawing the other into literal quagmires of infested mosquito zones, one imagines a briefing of some sort warning soldiers of what to watch for.
Walt Disney put out an especially effective film, The Winged Scourge, in 1943 that explains to soldiers the cycle of infection. (A soldier at the time, Dr. Seuss was also given an opportunity to spread the word to his mates and put out a pamphlet, “This is Ann…She drinks blood,” that likened malaria to a venereal disease delivered by some floozy — seemingly with green eggs and sore hams.) As Weingard repeats, over and over, malarial infections among soldiers had often-catastrophic consequences for fighters.
Winegard’s account of mosquitoes covers millions of years. The best approach to understanding how he proceeds and what the reader can expect is to provide a sampling in, say, four separate historical epochs. I found interesting his speculations on the disappearance of dinosaurs, his alternate take on the comings and goings of Ghengis Khan and the Mongols, Napoleon’s first use of biological warfare, and, probably most interesting (and controversial) of all, from an American’s point of view, the role mosquitoes played in New World slavery.
There was a time when we wondered about the extinction of the dinosaurs, and came to the conclusion, after much debate, that it was all about the fiery spitballs from outer space. That was a long time ago. These days time seems to be speeding up. Is it a natural fact, I wonder, or just old age? I think more about the extinction of great thoughts, The Sixth Extinction, and what, if any of it, mattered. Winegard argues that “that up to 70% of regional species were already extinct or endangered” by the time the asteroids hit. He credits the floozy from the oozy for the greater part of the kill, and we should be thankful: “Aided by her role in eliminating these top-tier dinosaur predators,” he writes, “mammals, including our direct prehominid ancestors, evolved and flourished.”
The Nazis admired Mongol tactics, writes Winegard; they were so similar to Blitzkrieg, encircling “their hapless enemies with breathtaking, unrivaled speed and ferocity.” But “the mosquito sucked dry their dreams of European subjugation,” and as “the mosquito helped prevent the west from being completely overrun. She harnessed her malarial might and held the reins of Mongol conquest, steering them away from Europe.” They returned East.
However, Winegard points out the greatest achievement of the long Mongol reign, stretching from Ghengis Khan to Kublai Khan, is that they opened up a permanent means of communication, transport and commerce between East and West, later called The Silk Road. “The Mongols were willing to allow traders, missionaries, and travelers to navigate their entire empire, opening China and the rest of the east to Europeans, Arabs, Persians, and others for the first time…These new land routes opened by Mongol military expansion created an immeasurably smaller global society by fusing two larger, previously distinct geographical worlds.”
Napoleon had his own Empire-building problems with mosquitoes. The African slaves he hoped to build a sugar-producing colony in Haiti with revolted in 1791. The natural defenses against malaria (such as sickle-cell anemia) that most slaves brought with them from Africa, argues Winegard, allowed them to resist and defeat the French soldiers sent to quell the resistance, but who had their own waterloo problems with mosquitoes. “Although the United States was the first to be born of revolutionary mosquitoes,” writes Winegard, “her battlefield prowess in support of the slave rebellion in Haiti forced Napoleon to sell his North American lands.” As he notes, the Louisiana Purchase that followed saw France give up a quest for American colonies and doubled the landmass of America overnight.
However, Napoleon learned from his defeat in Haiti. And at Walcheren, in 1809, Napoleon drew attacking and superior British forces into a marshland where they perished so miserably from contracting malaria that they couldn’t fight on. But, writes Winegard, Napoleon’s biological tactic also “ushered in the worst epidemic of malaria that Europe had ever seen.” When a defeated Napoleon was sent into final exile in 1815, the British ship Musquito guarded over him.
Perhaps the most compelling portion of Winegard’s narrative is his discussion of African slavery and how it changed everything in the Americas. He tells the story of NFL defensive back Ryan Clark, Jr. who fell ill on a team plane and was later diagnosed with sickle-cell disease. One in twelve African Americans have sickle cell trait, and, according to Winegard, “Advanced by natural selection, sickle cell is a hereditary genetic mutation passed on precisely because it was originally a net benefit to the people who carried it…The evolutionary design that nearly killed Ryan Clark was initially a lifesaving human genetic adaptation.” It provided Africans with the trait with almost total immunity from some forms of malaria.
According to Winegard, such immunity only made the African slave value grow, as it allowed colonists to not only settle in, especially in the Deep South, but to expand empires of cotton and sugar. He notes:
…African slaves were relatively unafflicted by malaria and yellow fever, and simply did not die at the same rate as non-Africans. Their genetic immunities and prior seasoning made Africans an important ingredient of the Columbian Exchange and indispensable in the development of New World mercantilist economic markets.
The slave ships brought wi\th them the anopheles and aedes mosquitoes, which would prove sop lethal to both the colonial and indigenous peoples of the Americas. Winegard’s observations about the interplay of the mercantile development of the New World with slavery and malaria is long and fascinating.
Probably the only white hat Hero introduced in the narrative is the discovery, almost by accident, of quinine. Winegard writes, “Quinine was a New World treatment for an Old World disease. The disease itself, and its vectoring mosquitoes, were born of Africa and the Old World and were transported to the New World, where they flourished.” Coffee, chrysanthemums and, my favorite, gin and tonics, are all known to stave off malaria. And Big Pharma has some cures too. But mosquitoes and malaria are still very much with us.
The murderous disease-bearing mozzies are still with us 200 million years later, driving us nuts at night as we try to sleep, and making us wonder how that 190 million-old buzz, which has us slapping out, could be an evolutionary advantage rather than the taunt it seems. We are still fending them off the same old ways– with smoke, nets, drained swamps, and anti-disease medications. Not only do they still bring malaria in most parts of the world, they now carry the Zika virus, Eastern equine encephalitis, and many other potentially deadly viruses. Scientists continue to remind us that we are overdue for a mosquito-borne pandemic, with amplified effects due to climate change extending breeding seasons.
Some scientists believe that the succubus’ quarter-of-a-billion years reign is enough and it’s time for things to change. Enter CRISPR and the notion that we can genetically modify “humanity’s most dangerous predator.” But there are worries: we’d be messing with nature; we can’t yet guarantee something disastrously unforseen wouldn’t occur. What if we somehow — in our Lamarckian chutzpah — made our most dangerous predator stronger? Or created a real-life Jurassic Park (amber-bound mosquitoes do exist)?
I have mixed visions of Octavia Butler’s “Blood Child;” the recent movie Mosquito-Man (which sucked); and being shown as a child how to make a mozzie pop by squeezing the skin around their proboscis as they sucked — until they exploded, like a gory scene from Scanners. They bring out our latent sadism.
The Mosquito is a fascinating account of a primordial predator — seen almost-empathetically, by Winegard, through the lens of Great Man theory. It is unique in that sense. But it is also overwhelming in its comprehensive claim that mosquitoes were lurking in so many watershed moments of history. You follow his Hum-eric narrative, wowed by the endless stream of Anopheles triumphs that Winegard cites. Then, frankly, scepticism sets in. You seek out secondary sources, and discover that his claims are largely valid. It seemed, at first, a narrative gimmick — the Life and Times of General Anopheles — but ends up a revelation; Hitchcock’s birds eye view..
The Mosquito is yet another reminder to the reader that we live in a world where we don’t really call the shots and never have. We like to tell ourselves sagas of how Men Have Come Seen and Conquered, and sit around vain bonfires telling tales of our Darwinian conquests. But Winegard replaces our historical agents — our manly Caesars and Odysseuses — with female mosquitoes, buzzy little valkyries with a high-pitched nasal drawls. Imagine a civil war won not so much by guns and stratagems, but by reactions to diseased mosquito bites and the requirements of care to ensuing sickness. As Winegard reminds us, half of all human beings who have ever lived suffered “mosquito-inflicted deaths.” Heil Hit-ya, General Anopheles — thwack!
By John Kendall Hawkins
…but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
– W.B.Yeats, The Second Coming
Hive-mindedness seems to be growing — at the same time that bees are heading towards kaputzville. DARPA’s got a fix for the bees, they say. Then again, (D)ARPA gave us the Internet, which is where the hivemind is located. On the other hand, Al Gore ‘claims’ to have invented the Internet. Some people say he invented Climate Change, too. Riddle me this: If a guy can be that clever, then how come he can’t win his home state in 2000, without the need to blame Nader? And how come Watergate felon Charles “Dirty Tricks” Colson can be given back his voting rights by Jeb, but not all those Black voters? Is there a koan in a haystack locked up in all this? Or is it all rhetorical?
End Days thinking really, isn’t it? You gotta tamp that bong shit down. Anyway, I was thinking if Christ came back to Earth today, all swaddled again, which three Wise Men would show up in Bedlamhem to report on it. Would it be Old Schoolers like the New York Times, The Guardian, and The Washington Post? Or would it be the Upstarts — Amazon, Google, and Facebook?
Some things are certain: they are all pushers, dealing in cut info, trying to slide you into that crystal blue persuasion dream; and they are all in it for the frankincense and myrrh, baby. And all of them are spies for the Mighty Whitey, either directly or in- in- indirectly. And God help us if He came back black: They’d up and lynch Love all over agin’. Eternal recurrence, amor fati, my ass, Mr. Nietzsche.
By John Kendall Hawkins
Back in the ‘70s, when I first learned to write poetry in earnest, I lived in a small country village with two boarding schools. One for the very rich; one for the middle class. At the rich school, where I was a scholarship student, we were favored with lectures from the likes of Dick Gregory and Dan Rather, while we heard that students at the other school were doing things like smoking reefer and watching A Clockwork Orange backwards. We listened to toccatas and fugues in our intimate chapel, while the others brought to life the J. Geils Band. We were an all-boys school; they were coed. On Saturday evenings, I would lay on my back on a circle of lawn and gaze up at the cosmos, while they smashed pumpkins, dated, and drank until they saw stars. Two worlds: two belongings: two visions of “Singing in the Rain.”
My English teacher liked my writing and told me his best advice was to read everything voraciously; and he set me up to correspond with a New York writer, Nat Hentoff, who sent communiques of encouragement to me occasionally. I was restless, insomniac; my mind was full of ideas and lyrical wisps that were sometimes ‘elegant’ visual solutions to problems nobody wanted to hear about. I used to take long melancholy walks at night, through pungent apple orchards, look up through autumn maple leaves lit by a street lamp, recall lines from Frost, think heavy cosmological stuff. In short, I was a struggling poet.
Reading New Yorker magazine, I came across the poetry of Charles Simic, and was immediately blown away by the juxtapositions of minimalistic imagery and an ironic humor that I didn’t quite understand but which made me chuckle. There was humanism that laughed at itself, that seemed to peek out at me from the shadows of what could have been a bleak pessimism. His images were feisty, sometimes like a comic frame in words. I was reading T.S. Eliot for the first time and especially liked his shorter more accessible stuff — like Preludes. I read a vision of human misery similar to Simic’s, but without the humor.
For instance, I read, from Prelude II:
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.
I re-read the finality, the heavy chords of the last line. Laughter, not so much. Eliot was steeped in the Anglican, urban fatalism, the kind that sends you genuflecting early in the chapel before the others arrive, and which seemed like a deep, vain thrombosis that crept up toward his heart his entire career.
Charles Simic, on the other hand, can bring you to a similar place of darkness and simplicity, but the illumination that follows is bound in a conceit that is not yet ready to give up. Take these opening lines from his early poem “Butcher Shop,” for instance:
Sometimes walking late at night
I stop before a closed butcher shop.
There is a single light in the store
Like the light in which the convict digs his tunnel.
Simic’s poem is potent, driven — an escape toward freedom; The Great Escape, with Steve McQueen, rather than the bulldozers of Auschwitz. (I love Eliot, by the way.) It could have gone South: Like the light in which the convict digs his own grave. Say.
Charles Simic has been asked a lot about his past over the years. His English, though coherent and smooth, is delivered as a second language speaker. He is a Serb from Belgrade. He spent his early childhood there during World War II. Bombing and destruction eventually led his family to emigrate — first to Paris, then New York, and, later, Chicago. “Everybody thinks I’m out of my mind when I tell them that I had a happy childhood even with bombs falling on my head. Playing with toy soldiers, I would go boom, boom, and the planes would go boom, boom,” he writes in an essay, “The Prisoner of History,” at NYRB in 1984.
He expected to become a painter, rather than a poet. But love of women drove him to try his hand at ‘pick up’ lines. “When I noticed in high school that one of my friends was attracting the best-looking girls by writing them sappy love poems,” he says in an interview. “I found out that I could do it, too. I still tremble at the memory of a certain Linda listening breathlessly to my doggerel on her front steps.” One can almost see her pounding heart.
Lots of male poets and painters would attest to this romantic french benefit — a beauty modelling naked under the sun in the shade of the mind’s eye near the blue lapping sea. One can see why Simic admired Byron’s Don Juan. In an early untitled prose poem from his collection, The Monster Loves His Labyrinth, he describes his first Romantic intersection, with the help:
There was a maid in our house who let me put my hand under her skirt. I was five or six years old. I can still remember the dampness of her crotch and my surprise that there was all that hair there. I couldn’t get enough of it. She would crawl under the table where I had my military fort and my toy soldiers. I don’t remember what was said, if anything, just her hand, firmly guiding mine to that spot.
And out of the war years poetry was soon born — boom, boom, boom.
Simic’s poetry has won the Pulitzer Prize (1990) and has been a finalist twice more. If he’s not careful, he might win the Nobel prize one day — his stuff’s that good. In his just released collection, Come Closer and Listen, Simic continues to develop his surrealist survival technique. His images are as sharp as ever, the humor is intact. He cares about the right thing — his poetry — and is not so anxious to hold dear positions of cultural power.
The three qualities I have enjoyed most from reading Come Closer are his humor, his characterizations, and his healthy metaphysical relationship with things unknown. His humor is founded on the wry twists of his surreality, playful surprises, and modest language that overachieves with its humanity. Sometimes it’s so simple that you don’t fully ‘get it’ until you’re moving your eyes to the poem on the next page. “Astronomy Lesson” feels like that:
The silent laughter
Of the stars
In the night sky
Tells us all
We need to know
Similarly, and complementing his winky feel for space is his wry take on time, in “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle”:
No one has caught yet.
Space and time, out of which we are ‘evolutionary’ constellations of consciousness, seems to mock us, lugubriously, from the dark side of our own minds.
Simic fancies John Keats’ expressed notion of “negative capability” in his poetics — what Simic calls “the uncertainty of certainty,” of living within the means of what’s knowable (or not), without giant leaps of faith across event horizons, which can leave you absorbed, not in light, but in total darkness. Like the fellow in “Butcher Shop,” Simic uses available light to dig out of the jail of constraining concepts. In his essay, “Negative Capability and Its Children,” he observes, “We could … bring in recent political history, all the wars, all the concentration camps and other assorted modern sufferings, and then return to Keats and ask how, in this context, are we capable of being in anything but uncertainties.” (83)
In contrast, Eliot’s characters proceed through a symbol-laden, even Jungian suffering leading to a pre-supposed “objective correlative.” Simic’s characters don’t seem capable, by disposition, of drowning in an oversaturated consciousness of the world. Like Simic’s childhood itself, Simic’s characters keep on ‘playing,’ even as the bombs of chaos fall all around them. There is a toy poem to play with — in everything.
Simic’s characters thrash in the world, “Like that crazy old woman / With something urgent to say / You couldn’t make sense of.” We’re all on the road to Babel, and if not careful, of being inexpressive selves and inscrutable. This poetic recognition is all the ‘symbolism’ Simic needs. Again in “Negative Capability,” he writes, “The goal in surrealism as in symbolism is a texture of greatest possible suggestiveness, a profusion of images whose meaning is unknown and unparaphrasable to a prior system of signification.” (88) In other words, there is no real translation.
Similarly, in “Sunday Service,” one of my favorite Simic characters, having briefly considered, in three stanzas, a Sunday world seemingly hard at work ridding itself of sin (even a dog is chasing a cat up a tree for religious purposes), our character tells us:
Descartes, I hear, did his best philosophizing
By lazing in bed past noon.
Not me! I’m on my way to the dump,
Waving to neighbors going to church.
Classic Simic. Junk as sin, sin as junk. Out it goes, on Sunday morns.
But he can go further, getting downright farcical with joy, as in the romping “Bed Music.” Four quick stanzas: one to set the scene — lovers in a worn-out bed; another to express the noisy musicality of the coital enterprise; another to introduce mad-driven neighbors downstairs, and then the coup de grâce stanza:
That was the limit!
They called the cops.
Did you bring beer?
We asked the men in blue
As they broke down the door.
If Eliot’s Preludes are Chopin, then Simic goes all Liberace at times. He just doesn’t care.
Without hanging a moral compass around the neck of his perceiving subject, unbalancing his vision like a phenomenological albatross, Simic allows the frame that is seen to be seen for what it is — whatever values (moral, aesthetic) are self-evident and don’t require the intervention of prejudice. Such is the case with his wonderful poem “Among My Late Visitors”:
There is also a cow
Whose eyes the soldiers
Took out with a knife
And lit straw under its tail
So it would run blind
Over a minefield
And thereafter into my head
From time to time
I’ve never considered ‘war’ that way before. Going through Simic’s poems is like going through a mindfield full of IEDs (improvised expressive devices), if you’ll forgive the pun.
There is an upbeat metaphysics at work in Simic’s crooked world, things don’t quite line up right, and he doesn’t even have to try to ‘find’ oddball juxtapositions — they’re just there, and he just needs to wait and observe, as he did with a “Cockroach” early in his career, where he provokes the reader by saying he doesn’t see cockroaches the same ‘icky’ way he presumes the reader does. It’s a playful tactic that makes the reading a kind of agent provocateur’s test.
In one interview, he tells J.M. Spalding of Cortland Review, “I’m a hard-nosed realist. Surrealism means nothing in a country like ours where supposedly millions of Americans took joyrides in UFOs.” It would still be surrealism in most other places, but, uh, in America, the road of excess doesn’t necessarily lead to the palace of wisdom — at all. He continues, “Our cities are full of homeless and mad people going around talking to themselves.”
In “Metaphysics Anonymous,” homeless, downtrodden truth-alkies seek Salvation:
A storefront mission in a slum
Where we come together at night
To confess our fatal addiction
For knowledge beyond appearances.
…we line up with bowed heads
For coffee and cookies to be served.
For Simic, there are only these places we go, lost, to stand up and attest to our powerlessness before our addiction, and tell our story, often poignant, of how the search for Truth has torn apart our lives and left us ruined. People holding up their 3-month or 6-month badges of sobriety smiling, full of genuine support, knowing, though, it’s just a matter of time before they fall off the wagon again — into the gutter, where all truths run in the end.
Simic decided to duck out of re-upping for another year as America’s Poet Laureate in 2008. He noted humorously: “It was just too much. I had at least 50 or 60 interviews and countless number of other things I had to do. I would receive 30 emails every day relating to poetry. It’s enough to make you hate poets and poetry. Enough! You know? I want to do other things.”
He is now a Professor Emeritus in English at the University of New Hampshire, where he is involved in the MFA program. At work and life in a New England setting.Under the table, still playing with toy soldier revolutionaries, being manhandled by beauty. Lucky bastard.
Note: A well-produced short documentary of his life can be found here. Simic reading his “Hide and Seek,” from Come Closer and Listen can be found at Poets.org. “Light Sleeper” and “The Old Orphan” from the collection are also there.
By John Kendall Hawkins
“Stark Raving Dark.”
John Griesemer, No One Thinks About Greenland
“I loved you, I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you.”
Vladamir Nabakov, Lolita
According to WebMD, Epstein-Barr Syndrome is the virus that causes monomaniacus. Nicknamed “mono,” or “megalo” if you’ve got it bad, it’s a “kissing disease,” and you must be careful because, as with Herpes, that wonderful messenger god, you’ve probably got it and don’t even know. Lots of people carry the virus but don’t get sick and tired of it, onaccounta they like kissing so much.
There’s all kinds of kissing. French Kissing involves passionate intensities and a little swashbuckling franca lingua, and a wink at Macron’s ‘still shapely’ wife. With Kim Kissing, you lock your tongue behind your partner’s molar until a signal occurs, say a pussy grab, at which point you try to remove the tongue — only to have it seized by totaritalian teech that plomise to nevel ret you go. There’s the Putin-Putout Kiss (aka, the Assange Maneuver), where you hack into your lover’s mouth with your tongue and unfurl a mickey onto their tongue in an effort to influence a presidential erection. With the Hong Kong Kiss your partner beats their tongue against your Great Wall of teeth and then breaks through like Genghis Khan — but in a good way. And there’s Curtsey Kissing, just a simple bow, and a whispered offer to sell you, say, the Kaaba, at members rates, if you don’t mention Istanbul.
There’s even Greco-Roman kissing that involves tongues wrassling in sloppy spit, a Trump favorite from his Bruno Sammartino days — two empires reliving classical ecstasies.
Such wanton kissing brought to mind, of all things, Greenland, which has been in the Media lately. The permafrost is melting, all that sweet Greenland icing floe-ing down; the natives are muffing terrified. And it’s not enough, any longer, for them to snog, nose-to-nose, in the six-month darkness, throwing empty beer bottles at the moon. Catastrophically depressed, sitting there, like Kiekegaards, in a clean, well-lighted place, juke-boxes pushing out “Quinn the Eskimo,” now seeming ironic, given the melt. It couldn’t get worse, but then it did, when Donald Trump created another shit storm (rather than a preferred snowstorm) by announcing he wants to buy Greenland, Jacob Riis-like tenements and all. Let’s just say, not everyone jumped for joy when St. Grobian showed up instead of Quinn.
The Danes said “No,” explaining Greenland wasn’t theirs to sell, and wondered out loud if Trump was joking, or just mad. Trump pretended to be insulted, megalo-style, and claimed something was rotten in Copenhagen, and that — ally or not — maybe Denmark was a shithole after all. Then cancelled his plans to visit there next month. To further tease and tweak the tensions, he tweeted with an image displaying an enormous golden Trump Tower set amidst his would-be ‘regentrification’ project. A terrifying image that set local teeth chattering, as the tower wore no condom. Trump’s interest: gold, gems, precious minerals — a titular one-percenter’s notion of a silver lining to the global meltdown. Oh, what a world.
Kisses, islands, monomaniacs. It was probably a coincidence that Trump brought up Greenland, not long after Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide. There was a shock value to it that seemed usefully distracting. The h8ful media converged on Trump. What did he know about Epstein and when did he know it? Long ago, he told New York magazine, “‘I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy…He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side….’” But now Trump’s “no fan” and he advises the pressing press to “Find out the people that went to the island.” Classic deflection.
It turns out that all kinds of people have been to Little Saint James, Jeffrey’s getaway retreat in the British Virgin Islands, including Bill Clinton, Stephen Hawking, Alan Dershowitz, Prince Andrew and Kevin Spacey. Clinton said he was there just minding his own ‘is-ness’. Dershowitz is alleged to have had sex with an under-age girl. The Prince is a podiaphile and was there to get a sole rub. Spacey’s one-card-too-many career came famously tumbling down (but not necessarily at the island). Hawking’s inclusion was a shocker: I shot up, like a meerkat, as if you’d told me Ralph Nader had broken bad and was now a serial killer. But Hawking wasn’t there for the sexual cosmology, but rather he’d dropped by for refreshments following his appearance at a Epstein-sponsored conference on gravity on nearby St.Thomas Island.
Dershowitz may have had no contact with teenage girls, but he might be guilty of something even worse — as a lawyer for the firm Kirkland and Ellis, he was able to get felony charges of sexual trafficking of underage girls, a conviction that could have imprisoned Jeffrey Epstein for life, reduced to a single count of prostitution, leading to Epstein receiving just 18-months at a minimum security “stockade.” His door was unlocked. He was on daily work release to a company he set up for the work release (and tore down the day after his sentence was finished). He had five months knocked off — for good behavior. Alexander Acosta, Trump’s Labor Secretary (who recently resigned), was the Florida AG who signed off on the evil deal.
Balance and fairness requires us to remember that Jeffrey Epstein was a human being, and not just a predator. New York magazine said Epstein had an ‘elegant’ mathematical mind. His was an “an in-depth knowledge of twenty-first-century science,” according to his friend Bill Clinton, returning Epstein’s regard for him as “the world’s greatest politician” (swapping intellectual spit, as it were). Epstein had refined cultural taste, and was “a classically trained pianist.” He gave money to causes.
Have we earned the right to be ‘astonished’ and breathless at the scope of the doings of satyrs like Epstein? As a culture, we have saturated ourselves in venality, since long before the Internet turned it into another crisis. There is a lurid undertow to our thinking that conveniently forgets the exploits of capitalism enforced by fascist-corporate powers. The fact is, the world is pornographic, and our desires are worked on from the gitmo.
We’ve had smash hit popular songs that seemed to ache for underage sex — in the Fifties, Maurice Chevalier singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” Gary Puckett and the Union Gap in the Sixties: “Young Girl.” Later, in the Eighties, we all danced to the beat of Sting singing “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” an openly urgent paen to overwrought temptation. Pop music is known for male musicians having to fend off groupies tempting their urgency.
Similarly, an impressive number of mainstream nymphet movies have been produced, including two versions of Lolita. And there have been all kinds of kiddie pageants that have clearly sought to exploit and sexulalize little girls in disturbing ways, including the pageant depicted in the film, Bad Grandpa. The outrageous scene staged in this movie is not just a film fantasy — it happens in real life — and they are images that stay with you afterward. It starts this early: The monetization of desire. These children are already broken in for Google, Amazon and Facebook algorithms.
Literature, too, is rife with images and tales of underage love. We all know about Nabakov’s Lolita, and the stigma attached to reading it. That’s too bad, because it’s great literature written by a master of lyricism. And as provocative as the subject matter is, what is often overlooked is its poignant and sharp critique of American hypocrisy — vis-a-vis sexual mores.
This kind of literature traces its roots back to Europe. An early and, no doubt, influential forerunner to Lolita is the Marquis de Sade’s Justine. One can hear in this passage the later Nabakov:
“O thou my friend! The prosperity of Crime is like unto the lightning, whose traitorous brilliancies embellish the atmosphere but for an instant, in order to hurl into death’s very depths the luckless one they have dazzled.”
There’s more than a trace of Humbert Humbert in the sentiment.
You can wonder how all this sleaze and prurience continues to spice up the sexual olio of the world’s premiere corpocracy, where the Pleasure Principle is in full swing, and the rhyme or reason of our continued existence on this planet could be summed up in the advertising slogan: De-evolution for the hell of it. Your wonderment might have you hovering and circling, like a drone, over another kind of island, near San Francisco — an Enchanted Forest, where rich men gather, like Halloween Druids, under a full moon and the watchful eyes of a stone sage Minerva. A retreat to help such men move forward. And look, Kevin Spacey is there, beckoning us, speaking into our lens, telling us this is where the power of the world comes to rejuvenate.
Bohemian Grove. An exclusive club for men, who bring their own silver spoons to the round table to feed on the golden porridge served up by young men dressed as distressed damsels, Globe Theatre style. They’re all there, if we look through our romper room magic mirror — members and guests — Bill Clinton sitting knee-to-knee with Kirkland and Ellis’ Ken Starr (“Is that your Is-ness, Bill?” Ken asks, “or are you just glad to see me?”); Kevin Spacey playing solitaire; Prince Andrew with his feet up on the table; Alan Dershowitz lispening to Mike Tyson’s grin; Alexander Acosta picking pleas out of his mangy mane, like the Cowardly Lion. An opium-smoking Henry Kissinger playing Risk with the wispy ghost of Ho Chi Minh.
From the Mind of Minerva™, comes the voice of Walter Cronkite, like a voice transvestite. By himself now, crouched on a couch, Harvey Weinberg casts spells to complete his dis-enchantment. They are waiting for the play to begin — Teddy Bear’s Picnic. A story about white males who see themselves as men, with spoons (and bears), who never have to grow out of their privileged childhoods, and who only yearn harder for mommy’s liebfraumilch smile as they get older. They rule the world, and don’t they know it. Humbert Humbert is said to be there to play a cameo teddy and to read from Justine.
Later, there’ll be stand up comedy. This year, US attorney general, William Barr will deliver shtick, including one routine with Donald Trump — presently tying a golden shower around an old oak tree. Barr will be delivering prison limericks, political anecdotes he overheard, and pun-stories he remembers from summer camp — such as “If the Foo Shits Wear It.” He’s also promised to read choice excerpts from the Mueller Report. The round table of besotted Nights will chant merrily, “Diss Barr Bill. Diss Barr Bill.” Oh, and when the night’s over they will erupt, like little hands that gleefully laud a magic show and thrill for more. Always more.
And, by remote control, you will pull your drone back, let the laughter fade, ascend back into an ethereal oblivion, interrupted only by occasional bolts of news-spin lightning (the “traitorous brilliancies,” LOL) of Men at Work extinguishing the species, all of them.
As Matt Taibbi recently points out in his new book Hate, Inc., we are divided, fractious and falling apart fast, the whole world is watching, and we are the world, we are the children. Rome was not destroyed in a day; it started by crossing taboo rubicons in ruby shoes, and ends, after all the trials and ordeals, with two men talking. Fookin’ lawyers wouldn’t you know it.
It’s not dark yet, Bobby Dylan sings, but methinks the bard is wrong this time around. We could learn something from Greenland, instead of, say, buying it, as we look, at paradigm’s end, in on the power broker’s at the table, unable to tell animal from human, like in the end days of Rome, wondering what became of Boxer, our working class hero, the glue of society.
Fade to stark raving dark.
John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia. He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.
By John Kendall Hawkins
It is among the white youth of the world that the greatest change is taking place. It is they who are experiencing the great psychic pain of waking into consciousness to find their inherited heroes turned by events into villains. Communication and understanding between the older and younger generations of whites has entered a crisis.
Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (1968)
Nixon: “Hoffman, Hoffman’s a Jew.”
White House Tapes (1971)
In my early childhood days we played Cops and Robbers, or Cowboys and Indians. Things were simple, black and white. We never asked about moral issues. We never wondered if maybe the Indians had a legitimate beef (let’s say genocide) and maybe the Cops should be pursuing the Cowboys instead. We watched Dragnet, Adam-12 and the FBI on TV and thought policemen were wonderful catchers of evil people; their corruptibility was beyond our fathoming and we knew (however so ruefully) that their truncheons would only be used on Black heads. We sighed, but lived on.
Then one day evil Viet Nam came on the airwaves and — wham! — like after Dylan hit the Beatles with magical obscurantism — our consciousness switched on and we turned off the TV and met in the streets to protest this hiccup in our heritage. Suddenly, it bothered us what had happened with the Native Americans — the smallpox blankets, the fire-water, and, later, the Bingo parlors. We started thinking about the robber barons and the cops they lined their pockets with to keep it safe. Wow, we thought, some cowboys have black hats, like Paladin, “A Knight without armor in a savage land,” who seemed all the world like our foreign policy. ‘Nam was the smoking gun. We began to play Cops and Protesters.
So that by the time we got to 1968 and the end of a decade of escalating death statistics in the MSM, having managed, along the way, to murder four leaders, at home, Black (MLK, MX) and White (JFK, RFK), we were pretty feisty and wanting change. It was a very traumatic year globally. As Nietzsche once said about ‘maturity being about regaining the seriousness of a child at play’, so we brought our role-playing forward into adulthood, with serious intentions, but always about actions. We practiced non-violence, which frustrated the fascists to no end, and Abbie Hoffman called it “guerilla theatre.” The cops played it forward too, getting ever meaner: Call it “gorilla theatre.” It was all theatre — absurd, oppressed, battlefields — and all about expression versus repression.
On July 28, 1965, President Johnson announced to the nation an escalation in the war; more troops, more draftees. Most of these draftees, between the ages of 18 and 21, had no right to vote (that came in 1971), and consequently had no say in going to Viet Nam. Blacks had only been given the right to vote in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They could hold jobs, pay taxes, but have no say in representation and how their tax money would be spent. A bunch of Abbie Hoffmans once threw tea into Boston Harbor and started a revolution for less.
In March 1968, LBJ announced that he would not seek re-election, opening up the Democratic party to a brokered convention in Chicago later that year. After Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were murdered earlier in the year, the national anxiety level and shock of gun violence, but Democrats went forward with nominating a status quo candidate — Hubert Humphrey — who seemed intent on continuing the war in ‘Nam. Anti-war protesters were determined to come to Chicago and get their message heard; forces of the state, controlled by Mayor Richard Daley, cops, army and national guardsmen were equally determined to ‘protect’ convention delegates from swarming, angry protesters.
Two strands of leadership organized the protests in Chicago, the first was the Yippies, led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and the other was an umbrella group called National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE). In response to the city’s intention to give the war protesters a daily dicking with billy clubs, horses, and the manly scrunch of leather accessories, the hairy, peaceniks decided to hold their protest in Chicago’s Lincoln Park and call it, in contrast to what was happening in ‘Nam, The Festival of Life. It would include bands rockin’, nudity, political speeches, stand-up comedians, the nomination of a sow, named Pigasus, for the presidency — in short, a kind of staging of the smash hit musical Hair. Right on!
But things didn’t go as planned (or didn’t they?), as there were daily marches on the convention, resulting in myriad confrontations, and the protesters were not allowed to sleep in the park at night, which brought evening police raids to snuff out the Festival of Life. Demonstrators became more Bolsheviky™, cops got even scrunchier, bedlam even broke out inside the Democratic convention, where reporters were pushed back — why, Dan Rather even took a sucker punch for the team. “All in a day’s work,” he chimed, chin up, Korean War veteran smile. Facing the public, Walter Cronkite, who earlier in the decade had given us the teary-eyed bulletin on JFK’s demise, now declared the violent events in Chicago as “a police state.”
Well, the long and short of it is, when it was over days later, The Police State blamed the peaceniks for the mayhem (apparently, many had recklessly thrown their heads at truncheons and boots), and rounded up the alleged leaders who would be known as the Chicago 8 — MOBEsters, Yippies, and a token Black man (and Panther) named Bobby Seale (it was supposed to be Eldridge Cleaver). They were charged with conspiracy to cross state lines with the intention of inciting rioting — a felony charge, with serious prison time implications.
Abbie was quick to take exception to the word “intention,” as it seemed to suggest a criminalization of “a state of mind” (a thought-dreams/guillotine kind of precedent), rather than a trial over Amendment rights — to wit, freedom of expression. What became startlingly evident during the trial was the government’s loose view of “conspiracy” — essentially, “just two guys talkin’” could be seen as a criminal activity, with equal punishment later, even if only one of the guys went ahead and nuked New Jersey. The Chicago 8 were eight guys talking, and the riots were New Jersey, in our scenario. Further, the government argued, conspirators only had to have the intention of a criminal act to have committed a crime.
When the trial for conspiracy began more than a year later, presiding Judge Julius Hoffman and the defendants had friction from the outset, and they seemed to be doomed to be handed contempt of court violations for their unruliness. Abbie called the judge, “Dad.” He regularly interrupted, used Yiddish pejoratives, called the judge a Nazi and “a shame” to his race. He seemed to figure that if it was going to be a trial about “state of mind” and intentions therewith, he was going to get at the judge’s psyche and get him to reveal his prejudices.
Jerry Rubin, too, saw that the judge was a playable figure. As Rubin describes the scene in Larry Sloman’s Steal This Dream: “I was upset with the judge because of his name. It gave Abbie the total edge. You couldn’t have planned that better if a playwright had written it. Oh, the judge was great, a total Yippie judge. Whatever we planned for him, he outdid it.”(186) Guerilla theatre in the justice zoo.
The pair flew paper airplanes in the courtroom, raised power-to-the-people fists at the jury, and generally addressed the judge as if he were a Marx Brothers character from Duck Soup. One day the pair came in dressed up in judge’s robes (213), and when told to remove the robes, Abbie had on underneath the uniform of a police officer. They seemed to be working the judge like a classic Marx Brothers maneuver. Judge Hoffman took note of these antics, which later led to the contempt charges, but carried on tolerantly.
But when it came to Bobby Seale, the dynamic was anything but tolerant. Seale’s lawyer had been unable to make the opening of the trial on time, and Judge Hoffman forced William Kunstler, the attorney for the other seven defendants, to represent him in the session (and beyond) — something Seale vociferously refused to accept. Seale interrupted the proceedings, pointed out to the judge the portraits of slave-owning presidents (Washington, Jefferson) on the wall behind him, and continuously demanded that he be allowed, in the absence of his preferred lawyer, to defend himself.
Abbie and Jerry had run a pig for president, and kidded about “eating it for breakfast,” in what amounted to a biting, yet harmless criticism of capitalist excesses. Bobby Seale, on the other hand, had also given a speech about “pigs” at the Festival of Life that ran against the generally non-violent expectation of the protesters, as he was talking about police and had suggested that “barbecuing some of that pork” might be an option.
When things eventually got so hot they couldn’t continue as is, the judge had Seale bound and gagged, creating a tremendous tension in the courtroom, and bringing into living color a symbol of what the State appeared to be wanting to do in Chicago anyway — gag freedom. Eventually, Seale was removed and sentenced to four years for contempt of court (eventually overturned after he’d served two years).
It was a celebrity trial — all kinds of musical, political, and literary luminaries got up on the witness stand to attest to the peaceful, non-malignant design of the Festival of Life. Judy Collins took the stand and favored the courtroom with a rendition of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Norman Mailer described a meeting he had with Jerry Rubin when they discussed the planning for the Chicago events: Rubin said, “We won’t do a thing. We are just going to be there and they won’t be able to take it. They will smash the city themselves. They will provoke all the violence.” Reverend Jesse Jackson told the court of how he’s heard that “the shoot to kill order had come out” and that he had seen “shotgun shells that had overkill pellets.”
In the battle of intentions, the State appeared to be losing. Chicago not only seemed prepared to encounter violence; it was aching for it. But that’s not the way it turned out with Judge Hoffman presiding. The now Chicago 7 were acquitted of conspiracy. Five of the defendants — David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin — were found guilty of crossing state lines to incite a riot. Eventually, it was all overturned for reasons to do with Judge Hoffman’s state of mind. Abbie and Jerry became celebrities in their own right, making, for them, lots of money for writing and speaking gigs.
The real undertold story of conspiracy is the one that followed a couple of years later. After Richard Nixons’s White House tapes were released to the public, it became evident that the president was so rattled by war protesters that he sat down with Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman to identify and consider beating them. In it, they bring up the Chicago 7, the president identifying them as “Jews” and the discussion rounding up violent options for dealing with protesters during the coming May Day events in Washington (during which some 10, 000 people were arrested, the largest one-day round-up in US history). They crossed more than state lines. Abbie had his nose broken by a thug. Nixon should have been tried — for conspiracy.
Abbie was right to call the trial, even the era, a defense of the right to have “a state of mind.” My Lai followed, and Kent State, and riot squads were restless, as Bobby Dylan would say, and the protesting got shriller, Nixon got more evil, and it looked like the whole spangling shebang was going to collapse. Now we live in a global digital panopticon, our states of mind probed by the State for “terrorist” tendencies and monetized with algorithms by monster commercial interests. Abbie wanted to laugh the Bastards out of office, but not many people are laughing anymore.
Note: The film Chicago 10, part animation, part documentary, is a useful and entertaining re-telling of events.
John Kendall Hawkins is an American expat freelancer based in Australia. He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.