by John Kendall Hawkins
“I ought to join a club and beat you over the head with it, [but] I would not belong to a club that would have me as a member.”
- Two Groucho cracks joined together
A few decades ago I lived in low-rent East Hollywood among junkies, assorted burn-outs, and people playing extras — in movies and in life. A California native, my move there from the East Coast was a kind of homecoming. Fit a typical bill, I imagine: living with friends in a bungalow, working as an IBM temp through Manpower, smoking a lot of dope, reading Nietzsche, listening to Wagner, learning to play violin, writing poetry, eating next door at Shakey’s pizza joint (ragtime music, cheap beer, cheap eats), and, finally (maybe even inevitably), being invited to be an extra in a movie (Raid on Entebbe, Israeli commando).
But East Hollywood was a dirty place. I didn’t like being asked by a total stranger if I’d like to come up to their mother’s place to shoot up heroin. And standing at a bus stop to go to work, you’d note newspaper boxes and beside them boxes filled with smut rags, reminding one of all the kids who’d run away to Hollywood to become stars and ended up fellating some wannabe Harvey Weinstein on a Naugahyde casting couch and finding fame as naked cover girls on these rags, their telephone numbers included. Or homeless starlets sleeping on the Walk of Fame. Smog all around you, smut in a box, you felt dirty and in need of a shower, all the time.
Woody Allen’s Apropos of Nothing is a funny — at times hilarious — memoir, for the first 200 pages, and that’s just as well, as the reader needs that extra bounce and buoyancy for when the gravity of Mia Farrow’s entry, midway into the narrative, kicks in, and the voice-over begins to snarl and get ugly. You knew it was coming, suddenly it’s dirty, and you find yourself showering, hoping you don’t drop your Irish Spring, even though you’re in that jungle rain all alone. You’re protected in your thinking: East coast movie-making is worlds apart from all that Hollywood sleaze. But then Woody introduces Mia’s lawyer Alan Dershowitz, and you recall him helping Jeffrey Epstein get off easy for molesting all those girls. On the East Coast.
The memoir is broken up into three distinct parts — or acts, if you want to see its movie potential. In Act One, Allen directs us through his Brooklyn childhood, including his Jewish home life; indifferent education; avocations; early gag writing, stand-up comedy and movie aspirations; musicianship; womanly girls who enlightened him and girly women he married. Act Two is a descent into one man’s moral hell: making love to Mia, the milkshake Mama from Rosemary’s Baby. Act Three is an attempt to recover dignity by name-dropping and a bitter blowing of raspberries toward a woman who has destroyed his reputation to the point he’s “not going out in public without a fake nose and glasses.”
Act One of Apropos of Nothing is vintage Woody Allen story-telling. He starts out by saying he’s no Holden Caulfield, (but, by the end, he’ll seem like he’s doing all he can to be a catcher in the rye). He paints his childhood Brooklyn as a busy, multicultural village teeming with hustlers, small time hoods, future social democrats (Bernie Sanders grew up Midwood, like Allen), and the Brooklyn Dodgers, featuring Jackie Robinson, white baseball’s first Black player. Allan Konigsberg, Woody’s birth name, was an amateur magician and an avid card sharp, who spent his time developing “false shuffles, false cuts, bottom dealing, palming” — sleight-of-hand skills that, presumably, would inform his later movie-making.
He describes his Mom as a Groucho Marx look-alike who nagged him for wasting his IQ by underperforming at school, but he honors her by noting how her outside work and completion of domestic chores “kept the family from going under.” She pushed his further education relentlessly and questioned his life decisions in an effort to engage his critical thinking skills. She was an Old School mother full of tough loving.
He feels bad for loving his mother less than his Dad, but the latter was a kind of hero to young Allan. Dad was part of “a firing squad in France when they killed an American sailor for raping a local girl.” And that, in the spirit of JFK’s PT 109, “during World War I his [father’s] boat got hit by a shell ..sank… [e]veryone drowned except for three guys…[and] that’s how close I came to never being born.”
His father owned one book, The Gangs of New York, of which Allen said, “it imbued in me a fascination with gangsters, criminals, and crime. I knew gangsters like most boys knew ball players.” His father was a bustler and hustler and a criminal, too. “How he loved that life,” writes Allen. “Fancy clothes, a big per diem, sexy women, and then somehow he meets my mother. Tilt. How he wound up with Nettie [Allen’s mother] is a mystery on a par with dark matter.” Allen’s parents stayed married for 70 years, “out of spite,” Allen speculates, and you can almost picture them as the interviewed parents critical of their criminal son depicted in the early Allen romp, Take the Money and Run.
Act One has two surprises. Allen indicates a youthful athleticism, lithe games of pick-up basketball, and unpredicted agility playing shortstop in baseball games. But the bigger surprise is Allen’s repeated denial of his Intellectualism: “This is a notion as phony as the Loch Ness Monster…I don’t have an intellectual neuron in my head.” And, “I have no insights, no lofty thoughts, no understanding of most poems that do not begin, ‘Roses are red, violets are blue.’” Methinks the laddy doth protest too much; he’s not just a shtick up man, as he pleads, but is capable of pointed deconstructive criticism: Pulling Marshall McLuhan into the frame, in Annie Hall, to take down a mouthy, “pontificating” NYU professor in line behind him at a cinema was genius.
Another aspect of Act One of Apropos of Nothing that you can’t help but pick up on as you go is Allen’s generous spread of Yiddish words and expressions that serve to remind the reader of the schlemiel character Allen often portrayed early in his career (although, some say he’s more nebbish than schlemiel). Since most readers are likely not familiar with Yiddish, the inclusion of these words causes one to stop and look it up. We get the following: kvetch, schlep, yentas, shul, mishigas, gonif, momza, mitzvah, schlemiel, schnecken, tummler, schlumps, schmoozing. Mashugana, schmuck, kosher, noodge, schnooky, mensch, rube, yokel, schlepper, klutz, lammister, shekels, schnook, weltschmerz, shiksa, chutzpah, and nudniks. Comedy’s fast, funny Yiddish slows, and given what’s coming in Act Two, it’s a good strategy.
It’s a real treat reader-performing Woody’s early years, as he moves toward gag writing for newspapers and then comic performance. As a young atheist everything was open to revaluation. First up, the fools of his education. “I hated, loathed, and despised school,” he writes. “with its dumb, prejudiced, backward teachers.” But more than “the coven of teachers” he hated “the whole regulated routine:” march, line up, feet straight, “no talking, joking, note passing, nothing.” He played “hooky” frequently, often finding himself at a library or at MOMA: “There I was at fifteen…confronted by Matisse and Chagall, by Nolde, Kirchner, and Schmidt-Rottluff, by Guernica and the frantic wall-sized Jackson Pollock, by the Beckmann triptych and Louise Nevelson’s dark black sculpture.” Funny stuff, truancy.
He found himself in trouble with the school dean for turning in writing with lines like, “She had an hourglass figure and all I wanted to do was play in the sand.” After he showed a few of these, someone advised him to start sending in gags to newspapers. He writes,
…I have to warn the reader the one-liners were not the equal of Voltaire or La Rochefoucauld. They were mother-in-law jokes, parking space jokes, income tax jokes, maybe an occasional topical one. Example (and don’t shoot me, I was sixteen): “There was the gambler’s kid who went to school.
in Vegas. He wouldn’t take his test marks back—he let ’em ride on the next test.”
Pretty offal stuff, but the seagulls loved it, haw-haw.
The narrative takes a serious leap into maturity as young Allen becomes interested in the opposite sex. We learn that his strongest youthful influence came from the womanly girl, Rita Wishnick, “an attractive girl, a polio victim who had a slight limp” with whom he hung out, platonic-style. They went “to movies, the beach, Chinese restaurants, miniature golf, pizza joints.” Rita came from ‘respectable’ middle class Jewish stock that were “getting educated to teach, to become journalists, professors, doctors, and lawyers.” It was from this relationship that Allen later decided to give NYU a try. He cracks, “I was a motion picture major for no other reason than watching movies seemed nice and cushy.” And almost middle class.
His success as a gag writer, leads to renown in the neighborhood, which leads to a knock on the door by someone with an angle on his talent who wants to be his manager — Harvey Meltzer. Allen sketches him up, as arriving at his door with “a kaleidoscopic smorgasbord of facial tics.” It was a good move; he did have an angle, and soon Allen was doing stand-up, cutting comedy albums and writing for top talent — eventually leading to a gig on the Ed Sullivan Show. (For those really interested in this portion of Allen’s career, see The Illustrated Woody Allen Reader.)
The maturity that he gained hanging out with Rita pays dividends when Allen meets up with real women, albeit girly ones for the most part, like Harlene, who would become his first wife. She was “pretty,” “bright,” and was into music and theater. She came from “a good family,” who, despite his getting seasick on their boat, were glad to see Harlene marry up-and-comer Woody. Of Harlene, Allen recalls, “I must say, for a college-age kid, I took her to very romantic, sophisticated places. Off-Broadway shows, Birdland to see Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Candlelight restaurants in Manhattan.” But their marriage turned into a “nightmare,” as Harlene couldn’t adapt to Woody’s West Coast lifestyle, and his struggle to be not-Mort Sahl, which he likens to being a saxophonist after Charlie Parker.
But then Allen stumbled upon “the neurotic’s philosopher’s stone, the overlapping relationship” in the guise of Louise Lasser, a Brandeis drop-out, with whom he gets on famously, and immediately. She is smart, witty, beautiful, and soon becomes “the apotheosis of my dreams.” He loves her energy and quirkiness — she makes spaghetti for eight, unable to figure out portioning, and always “with six portions leftover.” She’s his coach, his psychologist, his champion and he looks at her “standing, her head tilted so her long blond hair could hang down on the ironing board as she ironed it over and over to make sure it was straight.”
And what’s more, his apotheosis “was supersonically promiscuous” and “had a cottontail’s libido.” He describes her going mad with lust while they’re ordering dinner at a restaurant one night:
“Let’s go,” she says, wanting what she wants when she wants it. “Where?” I squeal, being pulled up and dragged to the door. “We’ll be right back,” she tells the waiter…Now, being hustled through an ensemble of garbage cans, I am pushed into what is a dark, secluded outdoor spot in midtown Manhattan…We make love and not too long after I am sitting over my portion, a beatific smile on my face, her cheeks rubicund with fulfillment. Women like that do not grow on trees.
But imagine if they did, you know, literally; autumns would be something, huh?
However, all good things come and come and come to an end. In Paris to film Casino Royale, things fall apart not long after he and she sit down for dinner at a restaurant with the Burtons. Cleopatra calls him “a pockmarked Jew” and Mark Anthony ripostes about her excessively expanding girdle, “and they’re doing this all for the benefit of me, a total nonentity.” Later, while he’s playing five-card stud with Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, John Cassavetes, Lee Marvin — the cast from The Dirty Dozen in town for some shooting — his apotheosis is out finding a new sexual orbit. He couldn’t keep pace. Things got rancorous; she got demanding (“I refer you to Shakespeare’s Fifty-Seventh Sonnet”). They remained good friends.
Later, he hooks up with Diane Keaton, who dressed “as if her personal shopper was Buñuel.” She becomes an important role player in a series of some his most successful movies that followed, including, of course, Annie Hall (the title of which, Allen says, evolved from Anhedonia…Sweethearts…Doctor Shenanigans…Alvy and Annie…I decided on Annie Hall, using Keaton’s
birth name). Well, La-Tee-Da, indeed. The Oscar-winning Annie Hall was full of great writing, acting and directing. There was the McLuhan scene, but there were so many other great ones: there’s the early classroom scene where Alvy explains his “healthy sexual curiosity” as a 6-year old; there’s Alvy snarking as he and Annie people-watch; and, there’s Alvy’s reference to politicians being one rung below child molester.
Allen’s life and career are arguably at its heights by the time Manhattan is released in 1979 to great applause. The story involves a character, Isaac (Allen) who is in love with Mary, a pretty divorcée (Keaton), while also dalliancing with a 17 year old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). He dumps Tracy, telling her she should go to London and be with boys her age, so that he can shack up with Mary. But she’s interested in someone else, and dumps him, upon which he tries to hypocritically resume his predatory designs on Tracy — just as she’s leaving for the airport — only to be rebuffed by the teenager.
A year later, he began dating Mia Farrow. He writes, “She turned out to be bright, beautiful, she could act, could draw, had an ear for music, and she had seven children. Tilt.” The same expression Allen used to describe what happened when his father’s life of ‘getting action’ stopped abruptly when he fell for his mother, ‘Groucho Marx’. Tilt. It gets messy quickly in this quarter of the book, as Allen spends pages and pages of knocking Mia Farrow’s character, explicating the charges of child molestation she publicly aired against him, shortly after she discovered erotic photos of him with another of her adoptees, Soon-Yi (to whom he’s married), and defending himself, bringing in a vast array of actors to be the McLuhans of his message.
Frankly, the narrative goes downhill rapidly, as Allen understandably employs his keen and acerbic wit to analyze Farrow’s psyche. When Allen brings up her role in Rosemary’s Baby and then alludes to her testimony in support of Roman Polanski’s character in his own child molestation case, I lost interest in this petty play for my sympathetic reader-response. Doesn’t mean I don’t believe him; doesn’t mean I do. But the reader interested in this messy moral goss is well-advised to decide for him or herself after reading readily available appropriate court transcripts, as well as a Yale New Haven investigation that includes interviews with Dylan Farrow, the child Allen allegedly molested. Make up your own minds.
But one under-reported angle that holds a lot of weight for me is Ronan Farrow’s alleged sober observation of Allen’s marriage to Soon-Yi: “He’s my father married to my sister. That makes me his son and his brother-in-law. That is such a moral transgression.” Tilt.
The last quarter of the book picks up pace and spirit again. There are moments when Allen seems to employ gratuitously provocative descriptions of people, such as his quick sketch of Scarlett Johansson:
She was only nineteen when she did Match Point but it was all there: an exciting actress, a natural movie star, real intelligence, quick and funny, and when you meet her you have to fight your way through the pheromones. Not only was she gifted and beautiful, but sexually she was radioactive.
Well, I agree, but I’m not a director under fire for wolfing at young women.
There are an assortment of tidbits worth reading, however. For instance, he tells us that he almost landed Jack Nicholson for Hannah and Her Sisters, but had to settle for Michael Caine, after Jack found himself obligated to star in John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor, with daughter Anjelica. He notes, “The end result was Jack Nicholson won an Academy Award that year for Best Actor and Michael Caine for Best Supporting.” Allen tells us, he almost starred opposite Andre Gregory in My Dinner with Andre, but that Shawn Wallace took over at the last minute, because “I just didn’t have the professional dedication to memorize the long speeches.”
The best bits of this section are his brief anecdotal descriptions of his intersections with legendary directors: Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut. “Bergman invited me to his island a few times but I always ducked it,” he tells us. “I worshipped the guy as an artist, but who wants to take a tiny plane to a Russian-owned island where there’s just sheep and you only get yogurt for lunch? I’m not that dedicated.” A great “language barrier reef” kept him from understanding Truffaut when they passed “like ships in the night,” and he played phone tag with Fellini. He adds wistfully, “They’re all gone. Truffaut, Resnais, Antonioni, De Sica, Kazan. At least Godard is still alive, but he always was a nonconformist.”
As for his own legacy, let it be known, he writes that he regrets he “never made a great movie” and that “apart from not going out in public without a fake nose and glasses, I simply went about my business and worked. I worked while stalked, vilified, and smeared.” You could do worse than to go out, mistaken for Groucho.
By John Kendall Hawkins
First of all, let me say that I love Bob Dylan. Love him.
As I wrote here in an overwrought piece last year, I have, like a latter day Prufock, measured out my life with Dylan tunes. I wrote a concert review piece for the Melbourne Age back in 1997 (Time Out of Mind period) that swooned toward the momentum for seeing him eventually being awarded the Nobel prize. The fuckin’ guy’s a legitmo genius. Nat Geo has a series called Genius, that so far has profiled Picasso and Einstein (with Aretha Franklin and her Pink Cadillac up next), and I could easily see Dylan in the cue: Cubism, Relativity, Soul, and that Harmony-in-One-Breath he self-references in “Precious Angel.”
But Dylan’s new song, “Murder Most Foul,” sucks. It sucks historically. It sucks so bad, I felt an obligation to nominate the song for the 2020 Ig Nobel Prize in Literature. And so passionate was my plea for recognizing this song for what it’s worth that I got an email back from the editor of Improbable magazine, sponsors of the Ig Nobel, a simple, “Uh, thanks, John.” I wrote, in part:
It’s horrible. In an historic way. Bad lyrics, bad arrangement, Dylan’s voice channeling — of all people — Wolfman Jack. It’s the worst Dylan music since the whole of Self Portrait, on which, ironically, were the first Dylan tunes I really liked — “Wigwam” — where he just hums and hums while the Band stuffs behind him, and “Quinn, the Eskimo,” where everyone’s waiting, like for Godot, to jump for joy, but with Quinn it’s because he’s bringing hothouse igloo ganja. Everybody knows Godot, if he arrives, will be bringing re-fried Sartre,
“Murder Most Foul” is like an acid trip within an acid trip, where the inner one went really wrong, and the outer trip couldn’t pick up the slack. One of Dylan’s greatest abilities as a songwriter over the years has been his magical talent at turning cliches and truisms into lyrical gold. Just a fucking master at it. With “Murder Most Foul,” he’s turned into the Alchemist of Shit. I mean it. It’s even bad conspiracy theory. There are professional theorists out there who will now have to go through strange and mysterious changes as a result of this song. I like to think that when Dylan wrote “Ring Them Bells” for all of us who are Left, he had someone like me in mind. But now I’m thinking Quasimodo, ringing dem bells, and pouring some hot liquid down on the mob (former fans, I understand) below.
It’s like he can’t handle his legacy going the way of Marley, his One Love turned into muzak delivered from Trump Tower-like elevators on which you are always in fear someone might fart just as you’re singing the lyrics in your mind, your index fingers automatically doing that parallel index finger dance thing,like windshield wipers : Let’s get together and feel alright. Pfffft. If Dylan is a genius to me, then Marley was once like a god. But not a stinking god of Muzak. How could the CIA not be behind this post-mortem humiliation? I’m thinking.
The lyrics of “Murder Most Foul,” the title derived from an Agatha Christie novel, border on inchoate. Some really crazy shit going on here, even by Dylan’s loose associative poetic license standards. Dig it: Dylan sings, from JFK’s POV, “Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb / He said, “Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?” Aside from the blatherscheissen this rhetorical question represents, “Wait a minute, boys” sounds all too familiar: A cop from “Hurricane,” another conspiracy-enticing song about the wrongful conviction of boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carrter, said the same thing: “Wait a minute, boys, this one’s not dead.”
Then he WolfmanJacks, “You got unpaid debts, we’ve come to collect.” So, with “we’ve,” Dylan is now officially a conspiracy theorist. Kennedy died because he over-owed someone, it seems. Gee, who could you owe who would take you out if you didn’t pay, without caring about the consequences for the nation or democracy? Verse 4, with all its play this, play that, depressed me to the point of suicidal ideation. “And that it’s thirty-six hours past Judgment Day / Wolfman Jack, he’s speaking in tongues.” That’s factually impossible, if you do the math, but also a truly horrific image. The pagan wolfman speaking in tongues: come again?.
In these days of locusts, no end in sight, Dylan might have written about something relevant. He could have written “I Dreamed I Saw Covid-19 Land.” To be current and all scared-up, like the rest of us are supposed to be. Or, he could have written “The Climes They Are A Changin’”. Nuff said on that front. Or he could have reprised the implicit threat included in his song “Precious Angel” (“Men will beg God to kill them / but they won’t be able to die”) by icing a precious angel, no-prisoners-taken Revelations style. But such dross instead!
Well, we’ve been down this road before with Dylan. When he wrote “Titanic” for his album Tempest, now, he purportedly was at home on the couch watching Leo and Cate go upstairs/downstairs on TV and went to town on some paper and produced what had been his worst song before “Murder Most Foul.” (Playing at the edges of conspiracy theory, he released that album on 9/11.)
You can well imagine Dylan couch-potatoing on the same sofa, years later, not once in his career having brought up JFK before, suddenly, digging into the popcorn, while watching The Irishman, the Netflix film about Jimmy Hoffa directed by Martin Scorsese and starring De Niro, Pesci and Pacino, and having sold the viewer early on the notion that the Mob took out Kennedy for reneging on his promise to lay off if he delivered Illinois’s electoral votes to Kennedy, he reached the Joey Gallo murder scene in the movie, and wondered to himself if Scorsese was true to Dylan’s depiction in his song “Joey,” where Dylan says of Joey, eating dinner in a clam bar in New York, “He could see it coming as it he lifted up his fork.”
Dylan’s depiction of Dallas, November 22, 1963 is awful. But he’s been criticized for making shit up before. But he was also taken to task for his portrayal of the facts surrounding the Hurricane Carter murdercase. His song, “Hurricane,” off Desire, the same album as Joey, was made fun of by National Lampoon magazine in a send-up piece titled, “Ex-Singer Held In New Jersey Slaying,” which implicates Dylan and The Boss. More serious criticism followed, with one sleuth calling Dylan out, line for line, for the alleged factual inaccuracies of his song.
It’s difficult not to think that Dylan, despite garnering every prize and plaudit imaginable for his contribution to American culture, and civilization in general, as evidenced by his Nobel prize in literature a few years back, still worries, as Shakespeare never did, whether his legacy is safe. But nobody really gives a shit about JFK any more, what with Trump in the White House (and what that implies about the nation), and Climate Change, and Covid-19 breathing down our necks. So the choice of this song, its quality, and release timing are very suspect.
It’s hard to not think of Dylan as akin to Hemingway’s fading fisherman, Santiago, the Cuban hero of The Old Man and the Sea, not long after which Papa won the Nobel prize for literature. In that novella, old man Santiago goes fishing, one last time, for marlin in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Cuba. After many hours and much struggle, he lands a biggie and hauls it, along the boat, and heads for port. But sharks come and, despite Santiago’s best efforts to ward off destruction, they end up eating all the meat off the marlin, so that Santiago ends up arriving home with a skeleton.
Sharks have been circling Dylan for years, and maybe the realest cruelty of “Murder Most Foul” is its exposure of a genius with nothing left. On Time Out of Mind, there are two great vintage Dylan songs on the album — one is “Trying To Get To Heaven” and the other is “Highlands.” The former has mind-blowing lyrics like, “When you think that you’ve lost everything / You find out you can always lose a little more” and “I’ll close my eyes and I wonder / If everything is as hollow as it seems.”
But the scatalogical character in “Highlands” could sum up Dylan, in the context of our times:
The sun is beginning to shine on me
But it’s not like the sun that used to be
The party’s over and there’s less and less to say
I got new eyes
Everything looks far away
If there were gods still who had pity, you’d want them to lead Dylan gently away and fade, to the Highlands where he belongs, before he feels the blow of what he must already know, that, like the worn-out character Dylan wills through Time Out of Mind, he is himself a ghost who must let go.
There are no more marlin for him left.
by John Kendall Hawkins
“I used to be Deleuzanal, but, now, I’m not Saussure.”
– Toilet stall wall riddle, next to Nietzsche Is Peachy
Someone must have called Slavoj on his Radphone in the middle of the night and said go over to your window and look up at the sky; he did, and there it was: the Rad-Signal lighting up a silver Z. Some thought it was a call for Zorro; some said Zarathustra. Slavoj is a little bit of both. The voice on the phone continued on loudspeaker, “There’s a virus afoot, Slavoj, we need your wisdom.” He thanked the caller, an anxious acolyte, and hung up the phone. He climbed out of his phone-booth pajamas and raced over to his word processor and typed like a maniac on a mission from the entity formerly known as God.
Because he’s a genius, he was finished in an hour, saved the pdf, and sent it to his publisher: Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World. The exclamation mark there to build up the threat he faced. Could this be his kryptonite?! Or his finest philosophical hour? The world waited for the master’s work with baited breath. Read it and seep.
In his introduction, Slavoj Žižek starts off Pandemic! by quoting from the Bible, John 20:17, “Noli me tangere,” the one where Jesus has Arisen and Mary Magdalen recognizes him and comes a-running to give him a hug, and he says,”Whoa, don’t touch the threads, Mary. I’m a Made man now.” Or, he has a virus; maybe her simplex has rubbed off. We’re all herpes hosts; it erupts once in a blue moon, like original sin, to remind us we still have moral work to do. Žižek says we mustn’t touch each other, but, at the same time, if we use this historical moment properly, “there is a hope that corporeal distancing will even strengthen the intensity of our link with others.”
Žižek makes the all-important point that “we are all in the same boat now.” This is a truism, and explains why he gets the Big Bucks. One pictures the maiden Titanic asea, but, now, without the worry of icebergs ahead. Rather, the worry is whether there’ll be any ports ahead not under water. The Upstairs/Downstairs of Das Boot, held together by a melancholy stringed quartet, Cate and Leo, twin figureheads at the prow of the new flying dutchman we call the world. “Hegel wrote,” writes Žižek, “that the only thing we can learn from history is that we learn nothing from history, so I doubt the epidemic will make us any wiser.” Or, we’ve nothing to fear from history but fear of history itself.
Žižek says, “There is no return to normal, the new ‘normal’ will have to be constructed on the ruins of our old lives, or we will find ourselves in a new barbarism whose signs are already clearly discernible.” This is probably true, if the Plague lasts long enough. We read the pressures are mounting: domestic abuse, already a crisis in America, is bound to go into full swing; jobs are dropping like flies; cantaloupes (meaning all migrant agro) lie unpicked and bleeding in the sun; talking heads buddy up with news broadcasts from their cribs (presumably). One head says, through Žižek, “What iswrong with our system that we were caught unprepared by the catastrophe despite scientists warning us about it for years?” Indeed. Indeed. Indeed. Indeed. Indeed.
Panels pick apart the symptoms and point pingers, and “The usual suspects are waiting in line to be questioned: globalization, the capitalist market, the transience of the rich.” We make bells of our hands and wring them, Bobby Dylan-style, for all of us who are Left. Žižek says, Frank Wells told his brother H.G. that the feckin’ White Devil pommies had wiped out the aborigines of Tasmania, and that’s what inspired War of the Worlds, and that “Perhaps an epidemic which threatens to decimate humanity should be treated as Wells’s story turned around: the ‘Martian invaders’” and that it’s ironic that “we are now threatened ‘by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth,’ stupid viruses which just blindly reproduce themselves—and mutate.”
Žižek asks, “Why are we tired all the time?” Some of the answers are terrifying. But he posits that most folks are so caught up in pleasing The Man, polishing his apples with a smile, and as Wordsworth sighs, “We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” Žižek says,
When a medical worker gets deadly tired from working overtime, when a caregiver is exhausted by a demanding charge, they are tired in a way that is different from the exhaustion of those driven by obsessive career moves. Their tiredness is worthwhile.
You don’t want to know how tired I am, nor how seasick.
Žižek takes some time to pot-shot the Israelis. Suddenly, with the arrival of Covid-19, Yahu’s nits are all largesse with the PLA, and are now ‘helping’ in Gaza, “not out of goodness and human consideration, but for the simple fact that it is impossible to separate Jews and Palestinians there.” The new rule: any Palestinian looking to give a hug to a “muscle tough” border guard will be shot. The Kamila Shamsie debacle is noted, the author “retroactively stripped” of a literary prize, says Žižek, ostensbly for “participating in…boycott measures against the Israeli government for its Palestinian policies since 2014.” Nothing to do with the virus (or does it?).
He knocks the Turkish-Russian alliance, calling it “Putoğan.” Žižek blames the alliance for the Syrian refugee crisis. “A perfect storm is gathering,” he says. “Three storms are gathering and combining their force above Europe. The first two are not specific to Europe: the coronavirus epidemic…[and] the Putoğan virus: the new explosion of violence in Syria between Turkey and the Assad regime.” The third storm is, he writes, the refugee virus — “a new wave of refugees organized by Turkey [may] have catastrophic consequences in this time of the coronavirus epidemic.” This is being forced on Europe, thanks to the Putoğan stranglehold on oil to Europe. Žižek predicts that “populist racists will have their heyday.”
In a section he calls Welcome To The Viral Desert, Žižek complains that “The ongoing spread of the coronavirus epidemic has also triggered a vast epidemic of ideological viruses which were lying dormant in our societies: fake news, paranoiac conspiracy theories, explosions of racism.” But Žižek is holding out for the arrival of a johnny-on-the-spot better-angels-of-our-nature virus and that a “much more beneficent ideological virus will spread and hopefully infect us: the virus of thinking of an alternate society, a society beyond nation-state, a society that actualizes itself in the forms of global solidarity and cooperation.” I’m thinking, how about Pax Americana? But Žižek’s all about a manifest commie destiny. I’m conflicted.
To make his manifesto come to life, Žižek says Chinese communism must die (and probably capitalism, too). He believes the death could come suddenly, after a brief bout of violence. Think, he says, the “‘Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique,’ the deadliest blow in all of martial arts.” He references, he actually references Tarantino, Kill Bill II, Beatrix (playing Covid-19) striking Bill, and Bill, played by the aging David Carradine (who kinda looks Asian and American, so fits the bill), takes one for the team, and after a teary ideological goodbye with his killer, dies. I’m welling up now, as I think of the simultaneous deaths of communism and capitalism. Music in my head, “My Corona.”
Next, he brings up Dr. WHO and “capitalist animism” and, out of nowhere, he adds, “Do not play with yourself.” Excess is the road to the palace of wisdom, Blake tells us, but damn. Anyway, Žižek manages to move on and leads us, like a google-eyed Virgil, through the Inferno, to a version of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief, and applies it to epidemics, on our way to the beatitudinal Beatrix. As we recall, the stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Žižek asks rhetorically: “And is this not also how we are dealing with the coronavirus epidemic that exploded at the end of 2019?” It’s a hoax; China did it; well, at least it’s not SARS; we’re fucked; okay, let’s work this shit out.
Ever the optimist, because he’s got tenure, Žižek insists we can get over this pandemic and looks to historical precedents and seemingly refers to Foucault’s History of Sexuality (you can’t always tell) when he brings up medieval times and plagues and how they got past it all to finally produce Us. He adds a Step here, between depression and acceptance — “orgies.” Because, they reasoned, says Žižek that “since our lives are over, let’s get out of it all the pleasures still possible with lots of drinking and sex.” I thought, for no particular reason of the beginning of Foucault’s Sanity and Madness, and the reference to Narrenschiffen (Ship of Fools), and the transport of the mad from port to port on seasick asylum ships, and that recalled the Janus film classic, The King of Hearts, instant Carnival and a near-Corona.
He asks, “One interesting question raised by the coronavirus epidemic, even for a non-expert in statistics like me, is: where does data end and ideology begin?” This is a fair, if unelaborated query, given the Age of the Algorithm we’ve entered. He adds, mysteriously,
Many dystopias already imagine a similar future: we stay at home, work on our computers, communicate through videoconferences, exercise on a machine in the corner of our home office, occasionally masturbate in front of a screen displaying hardcore sex, and get food by delivery, never seeing other human beings in person.
Medieval porn, one presumes, and, um, why the objectification of the Dominos pizza guy?
Žižek says, “ I caught myself dreaming of visiting Wuhan. The abandoned streets in a megalopolis—the usually bustling urban centers looking like ghost towns, stores with open doors and no customers, just a lone walker or a single car here and there, provide a glimpse of what a non-consumerist world might look like.” This reminded me of a book by Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, who in The Digital Age (originally titled The Empire of the Mind), described a holograph machine of the near future set up in the den, where you could send your bratty, privileged kids. Schmidt asks: “Worried your kids are becoming spoiled? Have them spend some time wandering around the Dharavi slum in Mumbai.” Wuhan? Maybe a coronavirus view of things for the brats?
Žižek references famous activists and reckons that that’s what’s missing. He honors the memory of the whistleblowing doctor who alerted the world to the virus before he succumbed. He writes, “Li Wenliang, the doctor who first discovered the ongoing coronavirus epidemic and was censored by authorities, was an authentic hero of our time, something like the Chinese Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden.” And, “A Chinese Julian Assange is needed to expose to the public the concealment in China’s response to the epidemic.” This response could include “doctoring data” to show recovery where there is none. They may be commies, but they know das kapitalist strategies.
The ever-optimistic Žižek cites potential temptations we need to be aware of:
From a cynical, vitalist standpoint, one could be tempted to see coronavirus as a beneficial infection that allows humanity to get rid of the old, weak and ill, like pulling out the half-rotten weed so that younger, healthier plants can prosper, and thus contribute to global health.
He tells of “three wise men,” Magi coming not to celebrate new life, but grim reapers grinning down. “Under a so-called ‘three wise men’ protocol,” says Žižek, “three senior consultants in each hospital would be forced to make decisions on rationing care.” Damn, who’s gonna tell Grandma that the nice smiling doctors want to kill her?
Žižek is not advocating the Three Wise men approach here, although he does support euthanasia. He writes,
I want to assert that I am being an utter realist here: one should prepare medicaments to enable a painless death for the terminally ill, to spare them the unnecessary suffering. But our first principle should be not to economize but to assist unconditionally, irrespective of costs, those who need help, to enable their survival.
So don’t panic; Žižek has not gone over to the Other Side.
And then, lo and behold, he cites a phone conversation (unreported by the MSM) that Greek politician and writer Yanis Varoufakis had just a few days ago with Julian Assange, who weighed in on the Covid-19 crisis during a phone call from Belmarsh. Assange told Varoufakis that “this new phase of the crisis is, at the very least, making it clear to us that anything goes—that everything is now possible.” Varoufakis tells Assange, “Whether the epidemic helps deliver the good or the most evil society will depend, of course, on us – on whether progressives manage to band together.” Fuck, are we that desperate for change that we’re putting allour eggs in Covid-19 basket? That’s deplorable.
And that leads to his final section, Communism Or Barbarism, As Simple As That! What does the future hold for humanity? Following on from the Three Grim Reapers scenario, Žižek visions up:
I don’t think the biggest threat is a regression to open barbarism, to brutal survivalist violence with public disorders, panic lynching, etc.. More than open barbarism I fear barbarism with a human face—ruthless survivalist measures enforced with regret and even sympathy, but legitimized by expert opinions.
A kind of global Velvet Revolution! Featuring communism, without the tanks; a brotherhood of sisters; the 1% diluted; Animal Farm, the sequel (Boxer, the glue of society, graciously remembered); everybody sharing shit, the return of peer-to-peer networks. Man, imagine that! I got your pandemic: I got your pandemic right here.
By the time Z. ‘s finished, a half-mad globe is put back in some semblance of order. Our “avowed Christian atheist” has convened a new world order of fresh-faced Communism; Corona has abdicated, Climate Change has been biff-bam-boomed. That was the Plan, anyway. But, lo, after all is said and said, Z. is back in his phone-book jammies and half-asleep, when there comes a rap-rap-rappin’ on the windows and a knock-knock-knockin’, actually a loud banging, on the door.
Outside, his acolytes — deconstruction workers, panpsychists, old school existentialists, sordid coprolaliacs, and Derrida — are coming at him, the walking dead, and he waits, like Vincent Price, in The Last Man on Earth, he waits, with all the answers, as they chant, “Zizek! We’re going to kill you, Zizek!” and he falls and he falls into an opioid slumber, a white hole event horizon, where no darkness can escape.
by John Kendall Hawkins
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan” (1797)
Humans have been getting pissed, pilled or puffed with intoxicants for ages. You could argue that Eve got the ball rolling, and that the forbidden fruit was Dad’s stash, and, hell, if you pushed it, you could see how all of history is her hallucination. We’ve all had our ‘altar-ed’ moments of holy sees on hooch or hash, all alone or at a ‘college’ bash. No one sums up the venal virtues of imbibing better than Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend: C’mere, he says, and you’d better.
As far as University of California historian Benjamin Breen is concerned, the Western world spent the better parts of the 17th through 18th centuries colonizing, Christianizing and commodifying the New World and Asia in search of exotic products — and news ways of getting high. The British and Portuguese led the way in this endeavor, and the details unfold like a poppy flower in Breen’s The Age of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade.
Breen’s exploration into our common druggie past comes in two parts: The Age of Invention and Altered States. The latter is rather self-explanatory in its purpose, but the invention Breen refers to is the colonial appropriation of drogas (drugs) and their re-branding over time as they go from being strange, exotic imbibables, at the edge of being legal, to fully ‘trusted’ mainstream intoxicants. He cites tobacco, chocolate and coffee as examples of mind/body-altering drugs that have undergone such a transformation from strange to beloved.
Breen begins his narrative with an image that sets the tone for what he’s trying to achieve with his thesis: “There is a small plaza in Lisbon… called the Miradouro do Adamastor. At night Dealers in MDMA, hashish and cocaine begin to ply their wares…Paradoxically, the north end of the plaza is…dominated by an elegant building that happens to house Lisbon’s Museum of Pharmacy.” Rough illicit trafficking versus a clean symbol of the history of capitalized control, often of the same droga. In his delineation of this age-long negotiation (which he insists continues to this day), he promises that “the reader will encounter merchants, slaves, shamans, prophets, feiticeiros, inquisitors, witches, alchemists, and natural philosophers.” His initial focus is on the Columbian exchange and Amazonia.
Breen follows the almost-bumbling Captain Francisco José de Lacerda in his search of Brazilian Amazonia for yopa, ayahuasca, bezoars, ipecacuanha, copaiba balsam — but, most of all, china china (aka, cinchona or quina). This introduces us to a totally overlooked fact: China, the nation, is named after a drug. The drug, what we call quinone today, is an anti-inflammatory and anti-malarial medication that, ironically, it seems, was found only in Amazonia and helped conquistadors overcome malarial fevers in order to do a little ass-kicking in the name of capitalism and Christianity. It also helps explain why gin and tonic water (with quinine) are so popular in the tropics, sitting out on your ex-pat balcony, watching the local help at work.
Breen’s description of the Amazonia captures its beauty and mystery:
The oldest iterations of the river system actually flowed westward, emptying into the Pacific Ocean as they passed through foothills that would eventually become the Andes. They dripped from regions of eternal snow to arid mountain sides…The waters nourished eagles with twenty-foot wingspans, giant sloths, and saber-toothed cats. In the green twilight below the forest canopy, countless creatures waged evolutionary war, with chitin claws and prying fingers, hallucinogenic toxins….
It was into this region that Lacerdas got lost, scratching and peeling, looking for china china, and always barking up the wrong tree.
As Breen explains these early explorations into the unknown interior of Amazonia,”It is little wonder, then, that the Portuguese spent their first few decades in the Americas stumbling in the dark, trying and usually failing to make sense of the hallucinogens, poisons, stimulants, and remedies that surrounded them.” When they came across ayahuasca they had to rely on local shamans, “who were closely guarding hard-won knowledge,” to teach them, not only what it was, but how to prepare it, and, perhaps most importantly of all, what its purpose was and what a user had to know before imbibing it. For a Christian European, ‘becoming one’ with the ayahuasca during imbibing,must have seemed intuitively familiar (communion) and darkly esoteric at the same time.
This acquired knowledge, writes Breen, “Exchanges of knowledge about drugs moved along vernacular, colonial pathways long before they reached natural philosophers in Europe.” Still, it became not only useful but crucial for traders in and collectors of these drogas to have natural philosophers waiting at home to,in essence,midwife them into the mainstream over time. One thinks of the role of holistic medicine, herbology, and naturopathology today, which often offer ‘fringe’ medicines that may become part of the mainstream someday. At the same time, they are perceived along a continuum, from serious complementary medicine to cornball hokum that seems to rely on your buying into a latter day form of sympathetic magic.
The next stop on the conveyor belt of cultural processing from a drug making its way through a designation of foreign or “Oriental” to customary and trusted was its appearance in the early pharmacies, known as apothecaries. Breen describes the scene:
The substances alone were of ambiguous utility; they required someone with the knowledge of how to prepare them. Apothecaries were the intellectual go-betweens [from drug merchants to users], the artisans who drew the active virtues out of “simples”…and transformed them into remedies.
This is where, according to Breen, a drug, having made it through the grapevine of the ‘vernacular’, becomes re-branded or ‘invented’ by respectable “shamans” in lab coats, who operate on the drug’s chemical properties, with scientific reasoning supplanting bush folk wisdom.
Breen adds, “The widening scope of what apothecaries could do with drugs created new opportunities for societal power and wealth.” But, in addition to accumulated wealth and the power of Empire, the drug trade was a process of self-discovery every bit as important as the Scientific Revolution then underway. “In the history of science,” writes Breen,”the globalization of non-Western drugs transformed understandings of both intoxication and addiction and helped spur the formation of new theories of consciousness. The effort to delineate mental processes impacted by intoxicants arguably led to a greater concern with subjectivity and the roots of thought itself.” This ability to ingest foreign intoxicants led directly to an Enlightenment of the self, albeit it was an accident.
Africa gets a special focus. In addition to the drugs that come under consideration, place — landscape — and ritual, especially feitiçaria (fetishism), when combined with colonial efforts to subdue the environment leads, at times, to a phantasmagorical sense of foreboding, as if the very air were a kind of intoxicant or hallucinatory presence. Breen writes of “the transformative powers of the landscape itself” and “a panoply of poisons lurking in African nature.” [It’s] a place of venoms, fevers, and psychoactive powers,” where hot rains produce lesions, and venomous worms emerge from wool shirts, ‘monstrous creatures’ seem to lay in wait, a place where the corpses of slaves are “repeatedly disinterred by lobos de noite and … strewn in the street [contribute] to the poisonous miasmas of the place.”
Africa is also a place of intersection and conflict between the rituals of the Catholic missionary sacraments and local feitiçaria practices. The consecration of the body and blood of Christ through the sacramental rite is, when the wine-dipped wafer is ingested, say, by the priest, can be a form of intoxication. Breen writes,
When Portuguese padres threw fetish objects in the fire and replaced them with crosses, books, and communion wine, they were not only attempting to substitute one set of spiritual beliefs for another—they were competing in this larger, Atlantic sphere of creolized commerce and healing.
It’s a rite, in the context of colonial conquest,that is not necessarily seen as the invocation of Absolute Love, but brazen hostility.
Breen introduces the African warlord Jaga Caconda who explicitly rejects the Portuguese “mission.” Breen describes how Jaga entered an Angolan church and deliberately “profaned” the sacrament by drinking from the chalice. But, he goes on,
[T]he Jaga Caconda was not merely making a mockery of the communion,as the Portuguese believed. He was performing an act of spiritual and pharmacological appropriation. By consuming the ritual intoxicant of his enemies, he was gaining access to—and asserting mastery over—the sacramental drug that was one of their sources of power.
An in-your-face irony. Just two ‘cannibals’ talking in a dogma-eat-dogma world.
As a note, Breen writes of a brighter view of Africans when he gets around to discussing the innovative ganja-smoking Ethiopians, home of the future Haile Selassie, and possessors of the water pipe, which will go on to spur the growth and expansion of the nascent poppy industry. The water pipe proves to be the perfect delivery system for smoking opium. Breen observes, “As a vehicle for the delivery of psychoactive and addictive alkaloids, pipes were a radical new technology of drug consumption in regions like Europe and East Asia, which had no prior access to them….” Because water pipes don’t directly inflame the opium but, rather, warm it, more poppy goodness is psychoactively delivered to the seeker of wise, smoky ways.
Speaking of opium, Breen begins his final section, “Three Ways of Looking at opium,” with a image of a “cathedral-like” warehouse full of jars being maintained by Indian workers (real Indians, not the ones opium addict Christopher Columbus went looking for, and probably fucking high):
The shelves seem to go up forever…Seven men standing at their full height, arms held upward to pass the spheres of the substance, one to the next,would reach only halfway to the top…They spend their lives in this series of vast chambers.There is a geometric rigor arms held upward to pass the spheres of the substance, one to the next, would reach only halfway to the top….
One thinks of the slaves of Giza
Breen describes the three ways he wants the reader to “look at” opium, each stage representing a facet of his developed thesis. First, he writes, we should consider the obvious — “the simple flower, millions of years old, that humans began to domesticate around 10000 years ago. Like the sacred psychedelics of mesoamerica, it has a history of altering, and being altered by, Homo Sapiens.” In short, by a freak accident of nature, we have, Breen reports, a unique symbiotic relationship with opium: “By… chance…a certain type of flower began to produce molecules that corresponded to the chemical signatures of orgasm or laughter.” Next thing you know, you’re swimming with the endorphins and embracing new porpoise.
The second way Breen wants us to see opium is “a thing that is meant to be turned into smoke.” He cites psycho-biological reasons for this. He seems to imply that opium was born to bring us into its dreamworld of smoke, not unlike ayahuasca. Opium, like ayahuasca, is talking to you: C’mere. Again, Breen makes clear that the Ethiopian water pipe not only made smoking opium a more efficacious means to a glorious high, but mainstreamed its use in general. For instance, while still on the margins of acceptability in London in its smoke form, it was eased into use by the stiff upper-lippers in the form of laudanum and in the ingestion of Sydenham’s drops, which were opiated.
The third way to see it is an empire-building commodity, “a raw material for industrialized pharmacy.” Wars have been fought over it — in China, and Manhattan. We lost Jimi and Janis to it. It’s become normalized, maybe in dangerous ways, through the wonderful warm rush of morphine and the current state-assisted “desperate American yearning after OxyContin or heroin.” Breen calls out the German chemistSertürner for what Breen regards as his near-revolutionary ‘discovery’ of morphine in 1805. (Sertürner settled in Hamelin, home of the Pied Piper, who, when double-crossed, made off with the town’s children.) Anyway, as far as Breen’s concerned, “The isolation of morphine was the culmination of an Enlightenment project of isolating and defining the individual functional parts of complex systems.”
Breen closes the book by looking to the future. He points to new forms of intoxication that don’t necessarily require ingesting a drug, per se, any more. For instance, he calls social media a kind of drug that bypasses our gastrointestinal system and goes right to the brain. “Looking forward, emerging technologies like virtual reality, direct brain stimulation, or mind-machine interfaces hold out the promise of drug-like effects on mental and physical states….”
And, no doubt, the closer we get to the Singularity (if we make it that far), and the quantum bliss ahead, being and nothing at the same time, the more affected we will be by intoxicating experiences. And there’s always room for the kind of religious experience we saw with William Hurt in Altered States (with special effects that equal 2001 IMHO) after he hooks up in Mexico with some Toltec types. In fact, Breen closes by suggesting that “the Age of Intoxication is just beginning.”
By John Kendall Hawkins
In June 1972, Martha Mitchell, wife of US Attorney General John Mitchell, was brutally beaten in her hotel room by a thug hired by her husband to watch over her and prevent her from communicating to the public. Steve King, the man who beat her black-and-blue and had a psychiatrist stick a needle filled with tranquilizer in her cheeky ass, never faced criminal charges, and went on to become, 45 years later, the current ambassador to the Czech Republic — a Trump appointee unanimously approved by Congress in 2017. Isn’t that a kick in the head.
Martha Mitchell was beaten and sedated because she was on the phone to a reporter — Helen Thomas, then of UPI. The phone was literally ripped out of her hand, and out of the wall, the last thing Thomas heard before the disconnection was: “You just get away.” Martha, known as “The Mouth of the South” or as “a real life Scarlett O’Hara” who frankly didn’t give a damn what people thought of her opinions was a “sensation” on the DC social circuit and in the Press. Newspapers could always count on her to come up with some kind of colorful anecdote. But President Richard Nixon hated her and insisted that her husband, John, find a way to muzzle her.
Just after their arrest, Martha had seen one of the Watergate burglars on TV — Jim McCord, a former chauffeur for her children — and was calling Helen Thomas to blow the whistle. Had she been able to communicate to Thomas what she knew of McCord, and his connections to the Nixon administration, the president’s re-election campaign may have unraveled and a second term quashed. Instead, a skittish press, and an unsupportive husband, accepted the premise that she was an unstable drunk having a breakdown. People turned on her, and, as she poignantly describes in an Episode 1 Dick Cavett interview, she was never able to trust people again — a devastating proposition for someone so extraverted. Further, during the interview, she expressed fear of being shot.
All of this powerful political and psychological tension is captured beautifully in the excellent new Epix series, Slow Burn. The series purports to relate important details overlooked or left out of the master narrative about Watergate and the Nixon resignation that has evolved over the decades. Martha Mitchell rarely features in any ‘commemoration’ of the Nixon take-down. And yet, Episode 1 of the series makes an excellent case for how the press betrayed this insider. More importantly, producer Leon Neyfakh, makes sure we understand that there are valuable parallels between the Nixon era and the Trump circus. We now remember Steve King, but Roger Stone, who just received a 40-month sentence for lying to Congress and witness-tampering, also makes a cameo appearance to describe Nixon’s cover-up.
In an interesting symbiotic development, the Epix Slow Burn series is a visual enactment of the prize-winning podcast series by the same name presented by Slate magazine. I watched Episode 1 “Martha”, which is free at the site, then went back and listened to the podcast, which is about a half-hour shorter than the podcast. There are extras added obviously, such as the interview with Stone, and the visual stimulation allows us to see key unfamiliar figures, like Martha, and helps conjure up a photo album of the time. Other figures, like Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas, and old friend Tom Snyder fill in the rough edges of the era. Going back and forth between TV and podcasts, as episodes stream, seems like a winning combination.
The series promises to deliver more of these vignettes and subplots that are off the beaten narrative track — up next is “Losing Ground,” forgotten Congressman Wright Patman’s attempt — way before the Watergate Hearings made Sam Ervin a household name — to force the conspirators to come clean on the machinations behind the break-in and cover-up. Patman, as Chair of the House Banking and Currency Committee, followed the money long before Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”), a disgruntled FBI deputy director, famously insisted that WaPo’s Woodward and Bernstein do the same. Though House Democrats at the time had the numbers to force Watergate conspirators to testify, they declined, and, in a farcical slap at the system, Patman held a hearing and interrogated four empty chairs. Compelling stuff.
Other episodes include “A Very Successful Cover-up,” “Lie Detectors,” True Believers,” “Rabbit Holes,” “Saturday Night,” and “Going South.” Again, all of the podcasts (and transcripts) are available for free online, either at Slate, or other easy-to-find places.
Producer Leon Neyfakh closes out the Episode 1 podcast with this note to the listener, which equally applied to the viewer:
In 1975, Martha got sick. She died the following year of cancer. Afterward, her hometown erected a bust in her honor. And on the bust’s granite pedestal, there was an inscription: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” In a letter to the editor printed in her local paper in Arkansas, someone wrote, “She was a kind of a dippy saint, a dizzy yet right on the target woman to whom freedom and honesty meant more than protocol and appropriate behavior.”
No doubt, she would have had something choice to say about Trump’s appointment of her attacker to the ambassadorship of the Czech Republic. Fuck Steve King.
By John Kendall Hawkins
Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
Neil Young, “Ohio”
It’s generally true what they say about public history — that it’s easily trivialized and forgotten, so that we can soon start over again, and make the same mistakes next time, with more brio and technology-driven enthusiasm. And don’t even get me started on personal memory. Ever since postmodernism came along and said that just because the Foo shits on you doesn’t mean you have to wear it. We don’t really know what happened, or what hit us. We’re like the dinosaurs that way. Fuck, if I can remember where I left the keys, let alone my dignity. And I tell myself: if memory doesn’t flatter, what good is it?
I’ve been reading a lot of “history” lately. And it’s only made me more confused. Last year I read a book about mosquitoes the writer referred to as General Anopheles and how her bites changed the course of history. Napoleon might have ruled America, the writer claims, except that his men couldn’t handle the still loo water of mosquito incubation. So he sold Louisiana, and abandoned Haiti. One reads, gobsmacked, that the General has been responsible for the deaths of “as many as half of the people who have ever lived.” It’s not the butterfly effect we should be worried about, but the mossie effect.
And that’s history with some sobering science behind it. When looking into history that depends on “master narratives” the whole shebang is open to question. Says Who? is what you want an answer to. It depends on your point of view, and history, married to memory, is one big parallax view. Good luck, Mr.Truth! I keep these things in mind now as I plod through accounts in time — especially ones I thought for sure I understood, accounts pounded into me by thoughtless teachers playing out careers, accounts no more valuable in the end than the J-E-L-L-O ads I started out my language life with in the Fifties. Always somebody, selling something, against my will.
These were the deconstructive tools I took with me as I read into The Boston Massacre: A Family History by Serena Zabin. Rather than yet another standard angle on the bim-bang-boom of Red Coat muskets flashing and Sons of Liberty — plus Crispus Attucks — falling that cold snowbally night in March, Zabin asks the reader to consider other factors leading up to the “massacre” that paint the evening with more familial complexities at work. As she puts it,
In an eighteenth-century Anglo-American world in which family and
government were closely connected notions, the shooting in Boston
marked not the beginning of the American Revolution but the breakdown
of a family.
The Massacre didn’t lead to treasonous insurrection immediately — and Zabin tells us why.
Sagas of surly Empire, and their overseas colonies, are often told from the point of view of sea captains, army generals, rummy sailors, and the powdered wigs who provide policies and directives from back home. But as her title suggests, Zabin is keen to provide a human vision of events, somewhat removed from mere political interpretations. It’s complicated, and humans aren’t always avatars for His Majesty’s wishes: Real people eat, shit and fuck — the Ol’In/Out — and produce other humans who do the same; they need a system that produces food, provides proper places for inevitable poopery, and protocols of attraction and opportunities to taste the punch and fall in love. But integrating military and civilian lives in a colony can get edgy, Zabin implies.
Zabin spends a few chapters describing the complicated logistics of 18th century colonial maintenance. Not many Brits wanted to be Red Coats; recruitment was not easy. Zabin cites an Irish estate manager who “bemoaned the difficulty of finding men to enlist, noting that ‘people are so full of bread, at present, that they care neither to work, nor be under any command of any kind.’” It was difficult to find incentive to join. There were sordid tales of soldierly demise in far flung colonies. Zabin writes, “Troops stationed anywhere, even on sundrenched islands in the Mediterranean, lost their will to live after too much time in isolation.” Newfoundland soldiers after only a few years there, were “reduced to mere Ideots [sic] by Drink and Debauchery.”
Marriage was discouraged in the military officer’s handbooks; women were depicted as “distractions,” shady distributors of VD, and likely to get soldiers drunk. But many of the same officers conceded that women offered valuable services. They nursed the ill, and they washed clothes — “an essential task, since privates were issued only one uniform each year (which they had to buy out of their own wages).” So marriages happened regularly, women and children became part of the military, and vice versa, in a symbiotic union that redeployed or regularly “rotated” from colony to colony. Though there wasn’t much to recommend to a would-be soldier, writes Zabin, “Putting on a red coat was one way for a young man to improve his chances at marriage.”
Zabin concentrates on the 29th Regiment as they prepare to rotate from their base in Cork, Ireland to Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1765. She discusses the harsh administrative decision-making involved in such a move, especially the rule governing accompanying families — given ship space, a provisions budget, and abiding officer reservations about women — “only one in ten soldiers” was allowed to take along his family. Under this rule, hundreds of sorry soldiers would sail, leaving their families behind in destitution for years or even life. As he planned the rotation to Halifax, Lieutenant General Robert Rich, to avoid having Cork foot the costs of providing for families left behind, worked out a scheme that allowed all families to travel with their soldiers. Happy beams all around.
Zabin focuses on one family in the 29th Regiment — the Chambers. This device allows Zabin to humanize the soldiers (from the 29th) who fired on Bostonians that fateful March night. They were as ordinary as the townies they lived amongst; they were, you could argue, the equivalent of the National Guard who took out four students at Kent State 200 years later — not hated, until they fired, and immediately changed how the middle class saw their government. The miserable languishing in Halifax, with its privations, boredom, and limited opportunity for social engagement, seems set up by Zabin as a prelude to the bustling and raucous — and healthy — environment the regiments would be called in to police in Boston.
Zabin introduces us to the grievances behind Boston’s “troubles.” In a nutshell, England had been using a hands-off or laissez faire approach to its colonies, allowing for relatively stress-free local governance with limited local taxation. Zabin paints it like a family portrait — we’re all Brits in this frame. But then, the Sugar Act of 1764 placed an excise tax on sweet stuff, and that was followed a year later by the Stamp Act, which taxed “stamped, or embossed, paper, produced in London and used in the Colonies.” Invoices, receipts and bills of lading…. Zabin writes, “The Sugar Act had provoked grumbling; the Stamp Act would produce riots.”
“Bostonians were feeling distinctly underappreciated,” writes Zabin. “Having paid for the [Seven Years] war in ‘blood and treasure,’ they did not see why the new costs of empire should fall on them.” Locals published threatening rhymes such as:
What greater Joy Can New England see
Than Stamp men hanging on a tree.
Massachusetts governor Francis Bernard panicked at the popular response and expressed in ‘hurried’ letters to other governing confidantes, such as Thomas Gage of New York, that he was “feeling completely powerless and ‘extreamly weak’ in the face of a popular uprising.” He fled from the city to an island in Boston Harbor and called in, against Gage’s advice, policing regiments from Halifax. Some of his pollie pals called him “spineless” behind his back.
But though popular pressure led to the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, it was soon replaced with the so-called Townshend Acts, a series of laws that included: import duties on glass, lead, paints, paper, and tea; and the precedent-setting establishment of the British Parliament’s right to tax the colonies. Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, decided to establish a collection commission headquarters in Boston. “That meant,” writes Zabin,” that the men responsible for overseeing the new taxes, known as the Board of Customs Commissioners, would be living in a town of only sixteen thousand people,” and knocking door-to-door to collect taxes. This was a new experience for Bostonians and it didn’t go down well.
It’s into this milieu that three regiments of Red Coats and their families– including the 29th with the Chambers family — arrived in Boston from Halifax in early November 1768. Matthew Chambers “[gazing] at the buildings ahead of him and the barracks behind him on Castle William…must have wondered where his own family, once they finally disembarked, would sleep that night.” His 29th Regiment ended up pitching tents “among the cattle that grazed” on the Boston Common.
Boston’s King Street was like a grand bazaar of worldly goods, imported and local — “French Indigo, Albany Peas, Connecticut Pork, Esopus Flour, new-York Butter-Bread, refin’d Iron, Pig Iron, Ship Bread, Cordage, Anchors, Spermaceti Candles, Cotton Wool, Silk Handkerchiefs, Feathers, Logwood, &c, &c.” — and slaves. There was strain in the new comminglings. As Zabin writes, “Given this influx of more than a thousand new residents, Bostonians could not help but encounter military families at every turn: in the streets, in the churches, and eventually even in their own homes.”
Bostonians had to accommodate the surliness of starchy officers drinking to excess and mouthing off in their beloved taverns, while soldiers marvelled at the general unruliness and disorder of the populace. Still, there were record desertions, 10% annually in Boston, according Zabin. Single soldiers were beatlemania-ed by uniform-loving local lasses; other soldiers created labor friction by working jobs for lower wages.
But behind the scenes was a controlling force, a virtual secret society called the Sons of Liberty, whose espoused purpose was to seditiously resist the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and any other forms of taxation initiated in London that amounted to “taxation without representation.” No, they said. And boldly blew governmental shit up to underline their point. (Oh, those italics.) Members included Paul Revere and Sam Adams, who would become important framers of the narrative describing the Incident on King Street and its eventual catalytic conversion to revolution. Oh, and those SOLs (soon to be sons of guns) didn’t much care for Red Coats dating their daughters.
Just days before the Shooting, there was an incident involving a local ropemaker and a Red Coat. The soldier was looking for work. Zabin writes,
[O]ne rope maker offered a soldier work requiring no particular skill: cleaning his latrine. The soldier was offended at what he took to be fighting words, and a quarrel escalated over the next several days, as each side brought more friends into the fray.
A dunny-brook of words ensued, as the People (“working class people”) and Soldiers got increasingly shitty with each other.
Then one ill-lit night (quarter moon, snowy sky, no torches) on March 5, 1770, 250 years ago, after days of exchanged catcalls and newspaper doggerels, Edward Garrick, an apprentice wigmaker, with a hair across his ass, yelled out to a freezing Red Coat, Hugh White, guarding the Customs house (wherein the evil taxes were stored), and busted his balls for non-payment of a peruke. Whatever Garrick said, he crossed the White line and received a musket-whipping for his troubles. The townie cried out in pain, the soldier called for help. The commotion emptied the bars, snowballs and sticks flew, more Red Coats arrived, and then — bimmety-bangety-boomany — down dropped liberty lovers in the night. Crispus Attucks, a recently freed slave, was the first to be shot by the po-lice in Red Coats (maybe the only totally believable part of the narrative). Here’s a re-enactment.
After the event, a word fight broke out in the Press between the Sons of Liberty and more conciliatory, circumspect media voices, and the fight to frame the narrative was on. Paul Revere got on his high horse and commandeered (i.e., plagiarized) a drawing by Henry Pelham that depicted the shooting. “Pelham called his work ‘The Fruits of Arbitrary Power,’” writes Zabin. “Revere, of course, called his ‘The Bloody Massacre.’” The Boston Gazette pushed Revere’s interpretation, and most Bostonians were in no mood to consider other angles. When the Boston Chronicle settled for calling the event an “unfortunate affair,” townspeople boycotted the paper and “most of its advertisers pulled their support…; it folded less than four months later.”
The war of words continued in the “official” accounts of what happened. Sons of Liberty members James Bowdoin, Joseph Warren, and Samuel Pemberton were assigned the task of coming up with a Boston-friendly account, which was long-titled, A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston, Perpetrated in the Evening of the Fifth Day of March, 1770, by Soldiers of the XXIX Regiment. This went up against the army version of events, A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance in Boston. Both versions played for the hearts and minds of politicians, wits and wags in London. It was the shot heard — across the bow.
The trial itself was a decrescendo from the high-strung, orchestrated noise that colored accounts of the event. The officer in charge of the Red Coat shooters, John Preston, was tried separately, and though it looked grim at first, as soon as he saw two buds on the jury, he knew he’d be walking. The others got off relatively easy, too, thanks to the wise counsel of Sam’s cousin, John Adams, the future 2nd president of the U.S. Zabin writes,
In the end, the defense was almost entirely successful. Wemms,
McAuly, White, and Hartigan were exonerated. Kilroy and Montgomery
were found guilty of manslaughter, not murder, and their punishment was commuted from hanging to branding on the thumb.
The soldiers left town before they could be lynched.
By the time the trial was over all the regiments had been removed from Boston and it was no longer a garrison town. And with the tension released, temperatures simmered for a few years until, lesson unlearned, the British parliament once again imposed new taxes and it was Tea Party Time. Late in the book Zabin owns that
In the end, however, even if we had the ability to ascribe responsibility for those deaths 250 years ago, the answer would bring us no closer to understanding how the massacre brought us to the American Revolution.
After all the music of her humane re-telling, the admission is rather disconcerting.
Tea parties come and go, in some we dress as Indians and in some we dress as Mad Hatters; and there have been only a few decades, since Crispus Attucks took one for the team, that Americans haven’t been firing shots heard around the world. As Zabin points out, even today, after countless hours spent by academic interrogators trying to break the privileged code of 18th century colonial Boston, nobody really understands the argot or what caused the events of that night to happen the way they did.
TIn some depictions, the Sons of Liberty were scalawags, as much as heroes– helpful to later democracy the way scalpers (scalperwags?) outside Fenway are helpful in liberating a couple of Benjamins from your wallet for Yankees tickets. Sometimes I wonder what Paul Revere got up to when he wasn’t riding his high horse. When I think of Sons of Liberty today, I think: Revere Sugar, Hancock insurance, and Sam Adams beer.
I don’t know if I like them apples or not.
Sung to the tune of Bobby Dylan’s “Corrina, Corrina”
I been thinking bout you
You thinkin bout me, too?
Donkeys, poultry, camel, foxes
Just left in nine assorted boxes
Flown round the world
I got a bird flu whistles
Got a bird flu sings
I got a bird flu whistles
Got a bird flu sings
But I ain’t yet got Corona
Death don’t mean a thing
(bluesy mouth harp riff)
Got me double bind
Got me testing blind
O, I just can’t believe the data
Hmm, I might just lose my mind
I been thinking bout you
You thinkin bout me, too?
Hazmat badgers, hedgehogs and rats
Mice so squirr’ly, they were chasing cats
Flown round the world
I got a bird flu whistles
Got a bird flu sings
I got a bird flu whistles
Got a bird flu sings
But I ain’t yet got Corona
Death don’t mean a thing
(bluesy mouth harp riff)
Got me double bind
Got me testing blind
O, I just can’t believe the data
Hmm, I might just lose my mind
I been thinking bout you
You thinkin bout me, too?
You’ve cancelled ball games, travel’n too
Now just please cancel the Election
That’d be something (ooh)
I got a bird flu whistles
Got a bird flu sings
I got a bird flu whistles
Got a bird flu sings
But I ain’t yet got Corona
Death don’t mean a thing
(bluesy mouth harp riff)
Got me double bind
Got me testing blind
O, I just can’t believe the data
Hmm, I might just lose my mind
Just can’t believe the data
Corona, might just lose my mind
(repeat, extended bluesy mouth harp riff)
By John Kendall Hawkins
By the late-90s we must have sensed that the shit was hitting the fan. The fire at Waco. The Unabomber envelopes. The downing of Flight 800. The World Trade Center bombing. Blowjobs in the White House. Oklahoma City. Tokyo’s subway sarin attack. The Khobar Towers bombing blamed on bin Laden. The ascent of Atlanta’s radio jockstrap Sean Hannity to national status on Roger Ailes’ newly established Fox News Network. OJ taking off the gloves. Rodney King wondering if we could all just get along. Cruise missiles on Bosnia on the eve of Clinton’s impeachment for blowjobs. Distracted from distraction by distraction, as T.S. Eliot famously put it, years before Karl Rove’s prosaic promise to fuck with reality-based thinking in the wake of 9/11.
As if America didn’t have enough problems, a foot soldier in the Army of God was afoot in the wee hours of July 27, 1996 at Centennial Park in Atlanta, where the Olympics were winding up for the night. Eric Rudolph, formerly of the Army of Exceptionalism — he’d been a special ops soldier in the Airborne 101 — was strolling near some benches behind the park, wearing a green backpack. There were dozens of people milling about. Rudolph sat on a bench and surreptitiously opened his backpack and set a timer on a huge bomb and placed the pack under the bench, then walked away hurriedly. No one saw him.
Rudolph rushed to a phone bank outside a Days Inn a couple of blocks away from the park and called in the bomb threat to 911. He used a plastic device to disguise his voice, and then, according to Kent Alexander’s account in the recently released film, The Suspect, the following took place: Rudolph said, “‘We defy the order of the militia …’ Click. The line went dead. The 911 operator had disconnected him.” Disconcerted at not being taken seriously, Rudolph called back, disguising his voice by pinching his nose, and said: “‘There is a bomb in Centennial Park. You have thirty minutes.’ He hung up. The call lasted thirteen seconds.” Confusion followed, with the 911 operator unable to find the Olympic Park address. Transcripts show insufficient urgency followed:
Dispatcher: Zone 5.
911 Operator: You know the address to Centennial Park?
Dispatcher: Girl, don’t ask me to lie to you.
911 Operator: I tried to call ACC, but ain’t nobody answering the phone … but I just got this man called talking about there’s a bomb set to go off in thirty minutes in Centennial Park.
Dispatcher: Oh Lord, child. Uh, OK, wait a minute. Centennial Park, you put it in and it won’t go in?
911 Operator: No, unless I’m spelling Centennial wrong. How are we spelling Centennial?
Dispatcher: C-E-N-T-E-N-N-I—how do you spell Centennial?
911 Operator: I’m spelling it right, it ain’t taking.
Valuable time expired, and the bomb squad, when they were finally called to the scene, had insufficient time to properly clear the area before the bomb went off.
At the start of Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Richard Jewell, the title character is followed by the director as he makes his rounds as an AT&T security guard outside a busy Centennial Park. Goofy and overstuffed, he is immediately seen as an oddball. Offering water to a pregnant woman in such a way that, though thanking him for it, she eyeballs him suspiciously. He confronts a group of drinking teens who diss him. On his way to get help, he sees the bomb under the bench. He asks passersby if the pack belongs to them. Alarmed, he alerts the assigned police crew, urging them to take action immediately, seemingly certain the pack is loaded. Bystanders are pushed to safety by Jewell, and others, when the bomb booms.
Paul Walter Hauser plays the complex character of Jewell, who’s not as dumb as he looks (or sometimes acts), and who gets caught up in a media frenzy that is fuelled by the wild speculation of a misinformed newspaper reporter, played by Olivia Wilde, and the entrapping tactics of the FBI — John Hamm playing the principle scofflaw fed. As the world comes at Jewell like a viral contagion, annihilating his privacy and reputation, he is buoyed up by his mother, played by Kathy Bates (in an Oscar-nominated supporting role) and Sam Rockwell as Watson Bryant, his lawyer and friend.
Theres been considerable controversy over the film’s depiction of the newspaper reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), Kathy Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde. Eastwood has taken heat for her depiction, but he didn’t write the screenplay. The script is based upon Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article, “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell,” and The Suspect, Alexander and Selwen’s account of the bombing and its aftermath — including police investigations and news reporting. Only the latter sets up the scene where Scruggs allegedly received the confirmation from police that Richard Jewell was the primary suspect.
In The Suspect, Scruggs meets up with her source (unrevealed) at a bar — “someone she had known over the years. The source was about as plugged in as it got. She got down to business.” She was seated across from her source, and there was no hanky-panky:
The meeting was strictly off the record—that was understood. They ordered drinks, made small talk. After a few minutes, Scruggs asked the question. Are there any new suspects? Yes, the reply came back. One. “It’s Richard Jewell.” Scruggs’s heart pounded. Bingo. Jewell, the hero. Until now.”
To this day, this source is unknown, although Alexander and Selwen drop a couple of insinuating names in a couple of places.
Compare the Suspect scene above with the screenplay version (45-6) written by Billy Ray. In Ray’s account, Scruggs comes across as an eager beaver, who’ll do anything to get the scoop. Here’s how she’s depicted in the film:
I wouldn’t run it unless I had independent corroboration from a second source. That would put us in a different zone, as you know. (her hand drifting) Tom. You’re about to burst.
She leans in — that open blouse. He’s hard as an anvil.
First time in my life I ever wished I was gay.
Kathy smiles… then Shaw gives it up:
The Bureau’s looking at the security guard. Jewell.
WHOA. Kathy freezes. Did I hear that wrong? Nope. Trying to calm herself, she takes out her notepad.
The scene’s sexual banter is significantly longer in the film. There’s no question that it makes Scruggs look sleazy. But it’s also a condensed, slightly spiced up sum of all parts which Alexander and Selwel suggest throughout The Suspect. Is it Eastwood’s role to change a script for fairness to perceived reality? While Richard Jewell is based on actual events, Eastwood never pretends that his movie is “journalistic,” the way Katherine Bigelow did for Zero Dark Thirty. Did Scruggs sleep with cops to get information? The film says Yes, and The Suspect says Maybe (with a wink).
But Marie Brenner, in her Vanity Fair piece, “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell,” draws attention to a far more damaging assault on Scruggs’ reputation — the question of attribution in her story on Jewell and her reliance on ‘Voice of God’ journalism. Her lede reads:
The security guard who first alerted police to the pipe bomb that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park is the focus of the federal investigation into the incident that resulted in two deaths and injured more than 100.
Well, says who? Further defamatory sentences follow (here is the article) — without any attribution at all. It’s the Voice of God at work. Ironically, VOG was AJC’s rule: they’d “essentially banned” the expression “sources said” because readers might believe a quote was “fabricated.”
Brenner opens up the possibility that there was no source, per se, at all. And this line is taken further by Alexander and Selwen when they allude to the 1984 LA Olympics Turkish Bus bomb — planted by the ‘heroic’ officer who found the bomb. It may be, The Suspect suggests, that Scruggs had been given the hero-bomb anecdote and ran with it, in her passion to be the one who broke the story. Alexander and Selwen cite previous admonishments: “She was so eager to run with what trusted sources disclosed to her that editors often had to slow her down until she got more corroborating details.” Maybe there was no secondary corroboration.
The worst thing of all is that Jewell didn’t find out that he was a suspect until the AJC piece broke and went wild across the local and national airwaves. Overnight he went from a profile in courage to the profile of a loser — and, if he was imitating the LA ‘bomb hero, not particularly original either. None of it makes Scruggs look good as a reporter. But the AJC, believes the film has gone too far in portraying her as a quid pro quo “floozy,” and in “The Ballad of Kathy Scruggs,” Jennifer Brett complains that the harsh appraisal of Scruggs’ journalism is not balanced. She cites Scruggs’s brother, Lewis, who recalls, “… She was proud the FBI called her about Jewell. She was proud of the way she reported it to begin with.” But she shouldn’t have been proud.
The FBI did a disgraceful job handling the bombing, starting with director Louis Freeh, who micromanaged the investigation, and may have pushed the notion that Jewell be regarded as the prime suspect to his underlings in Atlanta — suspicions drawn from false profiling. It continued with the leak to Scruggs. But the most despicable thing they did was their attempt to entrap Jewell in a fake interview during which they hoped to extract information that ‘only the bomber could know’. Jewell caught on, called a lawyer, and sought solace and protection behind his forceful and articulate mother, Bobi (played by Kathy Bates). Eventually the FBI conducted an internal investigation of their handling of Jewell, although the FBI later admitted, “We never went after the leak.”
Ultimately, it may be that it was FBI director Louis Freeh’s actions that were under-scrutinized in the half-assed investigation that followed. In The Suspect, Alexander and Selwen make clear that Freeh was calling the shots from Washington, and that he may have pushed the ‘bomb hero’ scenario on the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) of the agency, forcing them to push out a false profile — without independently gathered evidence. Scruggs used their “lone bomber” profile, even though she should have known that Jewell couldn’t have been at the scene and making phone calls up the road — at the same time. He would have needed an accomplice, negating the “lone bomber” theory.
Richard Jewell might have perished emotionally or even have ended up imprisoned for the bombing, if not for his mother’s courage and ability to sway the media, as well as Watson Bryant, his lawyer, who is there when Jewell needs him, yanking back the naive and over-talkative suspect from FBI entrapment. Everyone seemed to be coming at him in his 88 day ordeal, before he was cleared. Not only was there the usual swarming rush to judgement, stoked by the sensationalist media, but he was viciously turned on, suddenly going from hero to goat. NBC Late Show host Jay Leno, was particularly horrid, referring to Jewell as “Una-doofus,” while he was a suspect, and calling him later, after he was cleared, “white trash.”
In the end, as we all know now, Eric Rudolph was arrested almost seven years later, for bombing a gay bar and two abortion clinics. In a plea bargain deal, he also copped to the Olympic Park bombing. Rudolph, an ex 101st Airborne special ops soldier, was a survivalist who went on the lam for five years after the Centennial bombing. He claimed that he was motivated in his bombings by hatred of gays, abortion, and general government over-reach. He fit the profile of a “lone bomber”.
Back in Jennifer Brett’s recent AJC piece, “The Ballad of Kathy Scruggs,” which seeks to correct the image presented of the reporter in the Clint Eastwood film, a friend, Tony Kiss, defends Scruggs, “She was never at peace or at rest with this story. It haunted her until her last breath,” Kiss said. “It crushed her like a junebug on the sidewalk.”
It’s ironic that both Jewell and Scruggs had a thing for cops — and in both cases they were let down, at great cost to their lives and reputations. The event produced a convergence of ill-will and evil rarely seen: media manipulations, police corruption, political and social reactionaries, insensitive Late Show jokes, a Christian terrorist who likes to blow people to Kingdom Come, frenzy and sensationalism.
Neither ever recovered. Jewell died aged 44; Scruggs died at 43.
by John Kendall Hawkins
“The struggle of maturity is to recover the seriousness of a child at play.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
I remember fondly now the early days of my anthropology studies as an undergrad, talking bones in class, smoking bones after. Studying cultures, living it. Talking with my professor about Julian Jaynes’s crazy theory that human consciousness originated in “the breakdown of the bicameral mind.” And philosophy classes. Foucault, Sanity and Madness, the Narrenschiffen seaside asylums. Dancing in a tie-dyed tee after Mandela’s release from the apart-hate system. Reading The Left Hand of Darkness (talk about mind fucks). Global Marley, white blues Dylan, we were changing the world one tune at a time, in our minds.
Two of the most-enduring cultural scenarios offered up in my studies prior to changing my major to philosophy, anthropology’s old stomping ground, were the matriarchal community at Catal Huyuk and the Mbuti pygmies of the Ituri Forest. The former offered up a vision of a benign matriarchal world that was said to have existed long before, as Lennon put it, women became “the nigger of the world,” and the latter seemed to depict a human world among the elephants that was truly communistic, without Marx, and the need for imported white intellectuals to translate ‘dialectical materialism’ to the jungle hoi polloi. It just worked.
But that was long ago, before the Internet came along, and made writers of us all, with sometimes out-of-control avatar egos requiring management by unknown moderators who, for all we know, are trolls in their full time day jobs. (Or work for intelligence hunters-and-gatherers who find such behavior valuable and ‘play’able.) Everybody’s clickety-clacketing; each of us knows how to solve the World puzzle. Everybody’s talking at me — and you — and we can’t understand what anyone is saying over our typing.
Out of all the din of such being, it brings to mind the ‘father’ of American anthropology (a German named Franz Boas) who wrote an essay, “On Alternating Sounds,” which describes our inability to understand the tones of others; we have sound-blindnesses we need to overcome. Mark Twain expressed the problem best: “In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.” Tone-deafness abounds today, blind-sounds leading blind-sounds. Why, it’s almost a postmodern Tower of Babel.
Not hearing, seeing, or understanding each other properly is the major concern of Charles King’s new book, Gods of the Upper Air: How A Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. The main title comes from a line out of Zora Neale Hurston’s memoir, Dust Tracks On A Road. And the book describes the career of Franz Boas, who, as a migrant from Germany, became the founder of the American anthropological movement, based at Columbia University. There he attracted the minds and likes of such intrepid spirits as Margaret Mead, Edward Sapir, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ella Cara Deloria, who spread out, social scientists intent on letting living data drive them to the reality of Man.
The conclusions these American anthropologists came to believe and disseminate, alone and together as a Circle, are now well-known, though then radical, and can be summed up in an expression: Cultural Relativism. Instead of mocking the perceived differences between cultures from a ‘privileged’ position, we should be celebrating the variety of Man and revelling in our e pluribus unum. The more steps you took in another culture’s moccasins the more the sweat of their soles seeped into your blood until, with enough mileage, you came to an understanding of two cultures — the foot’s and the moccasin’s — by osmosis.
At the time, this conclusion flew in the face of the prevailing conceit summed up in the popular book, The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant (1916). Grant expounds on the need for a eugenics (weeding the DNA) that would return us to the glory days of Nordic superiority. Hitler called this stuff his “Bible,” and married it to his Kampf, Wagner’s Siegfried, and the weak-minded gullibility of the Good German. This “scientific racism” (which showed how racist science could be, if given half a chance) eventually got adopted and incorporated as the modus o. of American Exceptionalism.
Charles King’s strategy throughout the book is to show how the adventures and expeditions of these anthropologists are entangled with the personal puzzles each explorer is trying to resolve. It’s a quest not only for the answers to the nature of humankind, but a method of psychodramatically playing-out the kinks and knots of their own private foibles and flaws — including questions of race, sexuality and gender. It all makes for rich characterization as you, the reader, play it out on the stage of your mind.
King begins by bringing us through the museum of Boas’s memories, past stuffed archetypes, reified racial postures, and cobwebs of neural connections past their prime. We come to understand how his early experiences, education and family background led him, almost inevitably, toward a life devoted to finding out what made People tick — How are we different from each other, and the same? Is the observer superior to the observed? Do we live lives of one-way mirrors on each other? King describes Boas’s upbringing in a fully assimilated Jewish family comfortable in German culture – “being Bürgerlich—urban, educated, freethinking, bourgeois—was as much a defining feature of life as being members of a minority faith.” Boas could afford to explore — and he did.
Franz Boas, writes King, was a product of Aufklärung, the German Enlightenment, a reader of noisy newspapers, knockin’ on Heaven’s door by way of Luther, a believer in the categorical imperative of Kant (the rich man’s golden rule). He was influenced by the vision of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who observed, “Human civilization was a jigsaw puzzle of these distinct ways of being, each adding its own piece, some more rough edged than others, to the grand picture of human achievement.” Boas got his first serious taste of jigsaw pie, when he went as a young man to frozen Boffin Island, fifth largest island in the world, where he lived among the Inuits, observing, laying down data-driven Krackelfüsse (chicken scratches) in his journal.
Just as personal contradictions would torment members of his Circle later, Boas, too, had ritualistic hang-ups he couldn’t deny. For instance, he had the need to posture, early on, demonstrating his mensch-hood by engaging in glove-slap fisticuffs. Boas was at home playing piano once when a neighbor shouted to keep it down, and Boas got out there, “escalated the confrontation into … a duel,” during which each received a sword tick or two, they proudly called, Schmiss, or duelling scars.
Looking at Boas later in life, you would have drawn the conclusion that he had a lot of need, as the scars left him “scrimshawed like an old walrus tusk, with Schmisse on his forehead, nose, and cheek, a jagged line running from mouth to ear.” Anthropologists have gone to dark and exotic places to note and analyze the schmisses of others. Maybe that occurred to him as chair of the anthropology department at Columbia.
Early in his tenure at Columbia he was called on by the federal government to gather data among residents of Kleindeutschland (known today as the Lower East Side), which was “brimming with Jews, Poles, Italians, and Slovaks,” to gather statistics on assimilation. But as King notes, “The deeper concern was how to distinguish advanced, healthy, and vigorous northern Europeans from the lesser subraces now stumbling over one another on the streets and alleyways of the Lower East Side.” Nibelungen everywhere.
Inspired by the “scientific racism” found in such popular reads as The Passing of the Great Races, which asserted that superior Nordic races had been enervated by overexposure to democracy, the government was looking to avoid a cultural dilution to America’s Way of Life. But Boas and his anthropologists had some bad news for the blue bloods. These groups easily assimilated. And may, in fact, have displayed all the virtues of the American Way — especially multiculturalism. Boas’s data disputed government assumptions; it revealed fascistic prejudices simmering just beneath the surface of public policy. The reader can imagine how a different set of data might have led to purges. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America comes to mind. No wonder Hitler winked.
For Boas, notes King, “No one should be creating broad theories of human difference until more data had been collected.” Franz Boas’s most famous anthropologist was Margaret Mead. Intellectually informed by von Herder’s Sturm und Drang literary movement (itself a Goethe-Werther nod), Boas had put Mead to work on the Cause by suggesting that she complete her doctoral dissertation by considering the question: “Was the transition from childhood to adulthood, with young women and men rebelling against their stultifying parents, the product of a purely biological change, the onset of puberty?”
He arranged for her to go to America Samoa to find an answer. When she got there — Pago Pago — she found “the largest naval deployment since Theodore Roosevelt had sent the Great White Fleet around the world as a display of American sea power.” Her thoughts were constantly plagued by some ship in the fleet playing “ragtime.” She wrote to Boas, “The only sizable villages were ‘over-run with missionaries, stores, and various intrusive influences,’ … and were much corrupted by the influence of the Americans.” Writes King, “This was no way to study primitive tribes [and] she vowed to get as far away from Pago Pago as possible.”
She sailed from Pago Pago to T’ua, hundreds of miles away, where she lived with an American couple. Even there, she was unsure of how she would proceed, when a fortuitous hurricane suddenly changed the course of her study. King paraphrases her thinking,
What if the real way to understand people wasn’t to gawk at their ceremonies or even to share in their most important work, as Malinowski had done, but to be beside them in their most unguarded moments—sweeping up debris, rebuilding a house, reweaving a damaged mat, comforting a wailing child?
She went to work, fitting in and taking copious notes.
In her Samoan field work, and later working with children on Manus Island, off the coast of Papua New Guinea, she came to some startling data-driven conclusions about the transition from childhood to adult. Unlike in America or Germany, or any other number of Western countries, the children didn’t carry their ‘magical thinking’ over into adulthood, and there was no real ‘sturm und drang.’
The Western presumption was that the transition, for boys and girls, was a natural by-product of growing up – “rebellion against authority, philosophical perplexities, the flowering of idealism, conflict and struggle – [were] ascribed to a period of physical development,” Mead found. At the end, as at the beginning, she asked herself the Question: “Were these difficulties due to being adolescent or due to being adolescents in America?” She went with the latter. It’s all culturally relative.
Out of all this came Coming of Age in Samoa, which became very popular in academia and helped give wings to the growth in the Humanities, which saw its heyday in the late 60s and 70s. Mead’s book quickly found itself listed by conservatives “10 Books That Screwed Up the World,” joining favorite hates like, Darwin’s The Descent of Man, Marx and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto, and Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. It was a badge of honor for Mead.
King also explores and describes in some detail all the sexual tension implicit (and sometimes explicit) in Mead’s many love entanglements. She was a kind of proto-feminist. She wouldn’t marry the linguist, Edward Sapir, who, feeling somehow ‘betrayed’, turned on her later and was a harsh critic of her work. She married three other men — Luther Cressman, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson, who she referred to as “a William Blake in safari cottons.” And she left Ruth Benedict unrequited and standing at the altar of love. Naturally, this all informed her anthropology somehow.
Another free spirit attracted to Boas’s world was the novelist — and anthropologist — Zora Neale Hurston, the so-called Queen of the Harlem Renaissance, and tightly connected to Langston Hughes. The author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the first novel written that made Black vernacular the star of the show and inspired writers like Toni Morrison later. Urged on by Boas, she sought to develop an ethnographic history of residents of Eatonville, the first self-governing all-black municipality in the United States, and of South Florida in general. King explains, “Between 1890 and 1930, Florida had, per capita, more public lynchings than any other state in the country, almost exclusively of African Americans—twice the number in Mississippi and Georgia, three times that in Alabama.”
Out of her field experience she produced Mules and Men. Rich in folktales, it delved into the Black experience like never before, and revealed previously unknown secret pagan doings. Hurston wrote, “Hoodoo, or Voodoo, as pronounced by the whites, is burning with a flame in America, with all the intensity of a suppressed religion. It has thousands of secret adherents…The way we tell it, hoodoo started way back before everything.” (Suddenly, I had a new understanding of the CCR song “Born on the Bayou,” wherein hoodoos are chased by hound dogs.)
With a Guggenheim scholarship, Hurston continued here explorations of Black living by trekking to the Caribbean for “a study of magic practices among Negroes of the West Indies,” focussing on the ex-slave colonies Jamaica and Haiti. As King describes her experience there, King writes that Hurston saw that “Culture wasn’t just a set of rules or rituals…It could also be a set of chains that individuals dragged around with them after the prison wardens more or less fled the scene.”
To get a better feel for the living Black spirit in Jamaica, Hurston drove to St. Mary’s parish in the Blue Mountains and came across “a country wedding” with music, dancing and cake (think: “Sweet and Dandy”). From there she joined the Maroons in “a boar hunt that stretched over several days, traipsing up and down the mountain slopes, slogging along in her riding boots, the hunters’ dogs yelping when they got too close to the boar’s razor-sharp tusks.” From there she went to another parish where she attended a nine-day “wake” at which the corpse was “nailed tight to the interior of the coffin” so that its “duppy” spirit, “the dark matter inside any person” couldn’t “take flight” and fuck with the community.
From Jamaica, Hurston sailed to Haiti, where she uncovered the Home of Hoodoo-Voodoo and was introduced to a zombie by the name of Felicia Felix-Mentor, a product of local voodoo practices. Dumped by her husband, and suffering ‘a total eclipse of the heart’, King describes Hurston’s situation: “[M]edical records showed that [Felicia] had died in 1907…[Hurston’s account] remains the first known depiction of a person whom her Haitian neighbors knew as a zombie.
As Hurston poignantly adds though,
That was the real story of Felicia Felix-Mentor. Put away, disregarded, institutionalized, forgotten, willed by others to be effectively dead—her condition was very much like that of many people Hurston knew, the black women and men she had met from Florida labor camps to whites-only universities. It was just that Haitians had invented a word for it.
(Eventually, we got around to creating a Netflix series, The Walking Dead.) Hurston wrote a whole book on the subject, Tell My Horse. She describes ceremonies involving bocors (dark magicians) and instances where loa inhabit the body of local believers and “ride” them. An enactment of such a ritual involving such horse-riding is depicted in the Papa Legba scene of David Byrnes’s film True Stories.
Like Mead, Hurston, too, showed signs of free-lovin’. While she was still at graduate school, and married, she fell in love with a fellow student there by the name of Percival Punter. With him she “sputtered and sizzled” and had to be with him. She said of this affair, writes King, “I did not just fall in love,” she recalled. “I made a parachute jump.”
One final member of the Boas Circle who King provides details for is Ella Cara Deloria, who grew up on a Sioux reservation on South Dakota. Enrolled at Columbia’s Teacher’s College, she was “summoned” one day to meet with Franz Boas, who wanted to use her a translator for Native American projects he had going. She was a highly regarded liaison and ethnologist.
In the Preface to her novel, Waterlily, which tried to bring to life in fiction the Dakota people, as Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God had done for Blacks, the publisher writes, “Deloria was an ideal intermediary between the predominant American traditional Dakota cultures, and she took that role seriously.” In the Boas tradition, Deloria believed that “To write properly about Indians, you had to stop using the past tense.” She lived with her people, while she wrote about them, and made sure her accounts came from authentic voices.
Early in Gods of the Upper Air, King identified its purpose: “This book is about the women and men who found themselves on the front lines of the greatest moral battle of our time: the struggle to prove that—despite differences of skin color, gender, ability, or custom—humanity is one undivided thing.” They were up against social Darwinists and scientific racism. The Boas Circle, with their studies in Cultural Relativism, celebrated the diversity of multiculturalism and its consequent public policies, which over the years have resulted in a righteous vilification of racism, sexism, and gender-bound roles.
As for the greater realization of a common humanity, it’s a tough sell these days in an era of catastrophic Climate Change, rising global authoritarianism, and looming pandemics of body and mind.
But at least they tried.
By John Kendall Hawkins
“The glitter is in everything.”
-An old friend from way back when
Who’s to say what consciousness is? Nobody knows. Only a few good wo/men seem to give a shit at any given moment. The poet T.S. Eliot famously noted that humankind cannot stand too much reality and that we are distracted from distraction by distraction. As Jack Nicholson once growled at us, like a Gitmo poster boy, tortured souls sandwiched between our knocking knees, “You can’t handle the truth.” And now with the glaring prospect of four more years of Trump ahead of us — violence guaranteed — understanding consciousness seems to be the last thing on most people’s minds. We long ago lost our sense of conscience; consciousness could not be far behind. And yet.
In Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, philosopher Philip Goff invites the reader along on a dialectical journey from the first constellations of science toward a future of interpenetrating consciousnesses, from the ‘discovery’ of gravity to the still-mysterious workings of quantum mechanics. It’s not an exhaustive journey, either in method or intention, but it’s an enjoyable day trip through philosophical jungle — a tour down the Amazon that includes the oohs-and-ahhs of piranha-baiting, views of well-fed boas, ‘happy-shiny’ shamans waving from a deforested shore. Goff’s examples are exemplary: We creep up on Susan from behind; we meet Mary black-and-white; we see things done with Okham’s razor; we see the shit scared out of Philosophical Zombies (but not really), and, glimpse the creepy mind-computer merge ahead.
Ultimately, as the book title suggests (and cutting to the chase), Phillip Goff wants us to consider how Galileo, “the father of modern science,” created The Consciousness Problem when he separated quantitative information from qualitative, leaving the latter out of scientific inquiry, and resulting in a mind-body dualism we are still wrestling with today. Panpsychism is Goff’s proposed scientific solution.
Goff begins Galileo’s Error by asking the reader to go on a guided meditation with him. “As you read this page, you are having a visual experience of black letters against a white background,” he writes, “You can probably hear background noises: traffic, distant conversation, or the faint hum of a computer….” You could be Descartes meditating on his Cogito. In fact, your guide informs you as you listen to your environs, “[T]here is one thing I know for certain: I exist as a conscious being.” But Goff is leading us not to René, but to Galileo Galilei, “the father of modern science.”
According to Goff, looking up at the stars, Galileo had an epiphany — not about what he saw, but how he understood: “[T]he universe, which stands continually open to our gaze…cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed.” Galileo thought that there was a mathematical language embedded in the cosmos that could only be seen once qualitative phenomena were removed from the quantitative. Thus, in his observations, he removed sensory data derived from the five senses, and was left with a set of quantitative data — Size, Shape, Location, Motion — that became the basis for a new paradigm called science, which went beyond the limits of philosophical reasoning to the development of the scientific method.
The subjective world of sensory experience that makes up the mental phenomena of mind could not be accounted for in an objective fashion, and are “forever locked out of the arena of scientific understanding,” writes Goff, and he adds that this lock-out is how “Galileo created the problem of consciousness.” This mind-body dualism, which has been with us now for hundreds of years, accepts that “reality is made up of two very different kinds of thing: immaterial minds on the one hand and physical things on the other.”
To understand this, Goff asks us to creep up behind Susan, sitting in a chair, with the top of her skull sawed off, for our scientific convenience. We’re looking at her brain. Can we see her consciousness, her experiences at work, her sensory conjurings? No, we can’t, but somewhere, somehow in that brain, consciousness is at work. Goff writes,
For the dualist, the relationship between Susan and her physical body is a bit like the relationship between a drone pilot and his drone. Just as the drone pilot controls the drone and receives information about the world from it, so Susan controls (to an extent) her body and receives information from its eyes and ears.
Raise your hand if you’re uncomfortable with the drone pilot analogy.
As opposed to a reality composed of separate physical and “immaterial” properties, these days we’re inclined to see everything included under the rubric of physical causes and effects only — including mental phenomena. In fact, if you go insane you’ll discover that the psychiatrist has no interest in your sob story at all — it’s all seen as symptoms and chemical imbalance, and you won’t leave the doctor’s office without a mandated prescription. (All those years of medical school down the drain, you’ll “think,” when they could’ve just brought in an astrologer and handed them a script pad.) De-institutionalization: a mind is a terrible thing to waste.
Goff rages against the machinery of materialism throughout Galileo’s Error. But after he’s cooled down some, he offers up another female volunteer in his narrative — this time it’s Mary Black-and-White — to explain the limitations of materialism. Picture Mary, he says, locked away in a black-and-white room her entire life, no peeky-boo windows looking out onto external reality. Everything she knows about color is from something read, and she’s well-read. “If materialism is true and neuroscience is able to give us a complete theory of the nature of color experience, then what pre-liberation Mary has learned is the complete and final theory of color experience.”
One thinks of the Allegory of Plato’s Cave; and Chance the gardener from Being There. Goff writes, that no matter how much theory Mary’s been imbued with, she’s missing one thing that doesn’t happen until she leaves her room: experience, the experience of color. Consequently, Goff asserts,
It follows that a neuroscientific theory of color experience is necessarily incomplete. It leaves out the subjective qualities involved in color experience, those qualities we are directly aware of when we see colors.
Consciousness involves the subjective experience of phenomena — a kind of epiphenomena, or je ne sais quoi experience you can’t measure. He adds, “Neuroscience cannot teach the blind/color-blind what it’s like to have color experience.” Which reminds me of one of my favorite blind-leading-the-blind enlightenment stories: Raymond Carver’s, “Cathedral.”
In his further furtive assault on the human body (ostensibly in defense of the mind), Goff introduces the concept of the Philosophical Zombie. He writes, “If you stick a knife in a philosophical zombie, it’ll scream and try to get away, but it doesn’t actually feel pain” because “A philosophical zombie is just a complicated mechanism set up to behave like an ordinary human being.” But his essential point is a logical one. Goff writes, “It can be logically demonstrated that if zombies are even possible—not actual, merely logically possible—then materialism cannot possibly be true.” Goff even proposes a six-step, if-then, Zombie Argument.
He’s not done there though. Goff conjures up a barroom scene where he has a shitfaced materialist feeling the blues and staggered by a thought,
I pushed my way out of the bar and stood in the cold rain with my eyes closed. I couldn’t deny it anymore. I’d already accepted that if materialism was true, then I was a zombie. But I knew I wasn’t a zombie; I was a thinking, feeling human being. I could no longer live in denial of my consciousness. I became something of a closet dualist.
The reader cringes to see a philosopher lean towards the politically incorrect.
All that loving on the legacies of Descartes, Newton and Galileo that takes place early in the journey, followed by jumping the materialist behind the tavern and beating the living snot out of him and unbalancing his chemicals, is all meant to lead us to the Shangri-La of panpsychism. And for Goff it seems almost akin to a religious experience. Goff riffs, “I can’t help being excited by the possibility that, in a panpsychist worldview, the yearnings of faith and the rationality of science might finally come into harmony…Panpsychism offers a way of ‘re-enchanting’ the universe….” It turns out that Goff was in the closet too. He comes clean: “In panpsychism I found intellectual peace; I could live comfortably in my own skin.”
For Goff consciousness goes to the core of the meaning of life — literally. Citing Thomas Nagel’s 1972 article, “Panpsychism,” Goff calls it the “third way” between dualism and materialism. On the surface, it smells of rancid pantheism, but with a privileged consciousness taking the place of a murdered God in the cathedral.
But, Goff, however enthusiastically he waxes, like a reborn sinner, about the joy of panpsychism and the many rivers in one to cross, wants to bring in the authority of science. First he cites Stephen Hawking, who has insisted that humans will one day come up with a Grand Unified Theory that explains everything — even he seems to have doubted that it would be fully “satisfying,” as Goff puts it. Hawking noted: “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” For Goff, consciousness is the heavy breather.
Goff pushes quantum mechanics. In it he sees an integral place for consciousness. But more specifically a pilot seat for observation. Explaining the concept of superpositioning, Goff cites the example Schrödinger’s cat, put in a box, with a vial of poison and radioactive material. If the material decays, the vial will smash, and the cat will die. But, notes Goff,
If the radioactive substance doesn’t decay, the cat will be saved. While the box is closed and the system unobserved, Schrödinger’s equation rules the roost, with the result that the radioactive substance exists in a superposition of both decaying and not decaying, from which it follows that the cat is in a superposition of being both alive and dead.
But when the box is opened, and the cat’s observed, it will be either dead or living.
This is conceptually weird, this on-and-off at the same time stuff, but it’s the promise that quantum computing holds, and it is, says Goff, scientifically sound, and goes to the heart of particle physics. Picture the famous rabbitduck illusion, where both the duck and rabbit are present together before you, but only one of them can be seen at any given moment. Imagine a computing system that could be on and off like that at the same time. But it’s the observational aspect of this phenomenon that Goff is keened to.
However, the more you delve into this, the stranger it gets — even in Freud’s Uncanny sense — as though, extrapolated to Reality, you could come to believe you were in two places at once. While some of this thinking leads toward multiverses, and the like, there’s an area Goff concentrates on that is most eerie of all: Integrated Information Theory (IIT). According to Goff, “The theory tells us that, in any physical system, consciousness is present at the level at which there is the most integrated information.” The system needn’t be human. At the same time, Goff is not articulating that everything in the universe has a form of consciousness. It depends on the level of integration.
There are levels, leading to a ‘maximum of integration’. Goff explains that a single neuron is highly integrated, but not as integrated as the brain it belongs to, which contains a forest of neurons. Further, and from a different perspective,
A human society has a great deal of integrated information, due to its complex social connections. However, a society is not a maximum of integration, as it is surpassed from below: people make up societies, and their brains have significantly more integrated information than does the society as a whole.
That’s all fine and dandy, that leaves room for people to go all shape-shifting Shangri-La when they discover the beam-me-up-Scotty joys of panpsychic integration — “consciousness is the intrinsic nature of matter” — but then the other shoe drops on a phenomenological turd.
Goff considers the current human-machine trajectory of the Internet, and it can get scary in a hurry, depending on whether or not you welcome the coming Singularity or regard its arrival as akin to having Freddie Krueger over for a dinner of pulled pork, the pig not happy in the sty. Goff anticipates:
IIT predicts that if the growth of internet-based connectivity ever resulted in the amount of integrated information in society surpassing the amount of integrated information in a human brain, then not only would society become conscious but human brains would be “absorbed” into that higher form of consciousness. Brains would cease to be conscious in their own right and would instead become mere cogs in the mega-conscious entity that is the society including its internet based connectivity.
And you thought today’s Internet activity was out of control, full of fakery, dark web secrets, overcommercialization. Imagine absorption in that unenlightened Mind-set. Maybe it wouldn’t be so ducky down the rabbit hole after all.
But that worry aside, Goff suggests several times in his book that we are on the verge of something, a new paradigm, that we are waiting for a “Newton of consciousness” to come along to affirm the scientific validity of panpsychism, and the age-old mind-body problem will be resolved once and for all. But more than that, maybe we should be invoking Copernicus, rather than Newton, coming to terms, spiritually and scientifically, that as Earth is not the center of the solar system, human consciousness is not the center of the universe: consciousness abounds. The universe is not all about me.
Let us now return to trashing Trump: The Shitter is in everything.