By George…

18 Oct

George Saunders circa 2013 (photo: Robert Birtnbaum)

Actually, as we said in the  Chicago of my youth, I could give two shits about awards, literary or otherwise.  However, when someone like George Saunders is the recipient, attention must be paid…

It has been one of the joys of my long post-graduate career to have spoken with George at least three times**  Not to mention the great pleasures derived from reading his writings and other of his creative activities. In case it has escaped your attention, the commencement speech delivered by fiction writers is a burgeoning literary genre. Here Saunders declaims at Syracuse University in 2013:





Which was subsequently published as a  chapbook  (as was David Foster Wallace’s This is Water) and  spawned  an animated adaptation…***



George Saunders and my pooch Rosie  circa 2006 (photo: Robert Birnbaum)


From my chat with George (2006)

RB: The last Batman was a rated as a kid’s movie. My son was terribly upset at the shooting scene of Batman’s parents.

GS: Right.

RB: We walked out. Was that supposed to be okay? Not to mention that there are Army commercials with the coming attractions for kids’ movies. Maybe that is the culmination of Neil Postman’s ideas in Amusing Ourselves to Death, “And now, this just in…”

GS: I see it in my own very limited brain. I can’t really do two things at once. In my view the whole O.J. and Monica thing was a kind of prep—a stupidity prep. And we said, “Oh, that’s important? It’s interesting? I can really lower myself to worry about the sperm-covered dress and not have to stop myself and I can actually pretend that’s serious cultural stuff?” All right, so then you lower yourself into that vat. And then 9/11 comes. And we are totally ready to be fed this bullshit and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. So a lot of that stuff was coming out in this book. And some of the reviews are, “Oh, it’s a poke at advertising.” Which to me—that’s not enough. Something about this idea that you said—you can’t wallow in shit and then come out smelling clean. I think culturally we somehow stupified [or stupidized] ourselves and now we are paying the price.

RB: The ubiquity of marketing is the most obvious thing. Consumerism seems to be a [government-sanctioned] religion.

GS: That’s right. We are of the same generation, and I remember thinking if we could just get rid of this religious stupidity, our wonderful humanist nature would rise up. And that didn’t happen. What happened was our materialist nature rises up.




George Saunders,  circa 2013 (photo: Robert Birnbaum)


From another conversation…

RB: Is there a clear relationship between the writing and your personality as you move around in the world? You have been writing 20 years and you have been doing it in a certain way to refine certain things that you want to communicate, so are you a different person because of your writing?

GS: Yes, yes. What happens is that the things that get brought forth when you are working in a story then become things that you can drape your personality around in a certain way. But you knew that this was a tendency in yourself—having written it, then, it’s concrete and you can jump to that next level.

RB: It’s like saying, “I didn’t know I thought that.”

GS: Exactly and when I was younger I thought it was the other way around. I thought you had to figure out who you were and then type it.




RB: [laughs]

GS: Now it feels much more like you don’t know who you are until you have worked—and it’s not even—it happens for me over a course of months. You finish something and then you go—and even then it’s not the intellectual part, it’s the visceral part. You have made this thing. Like I just had this “CommComm” story in the New Yorker; through the long process of working on that, I figured out something about how I want to proceed with my life from here. Just a small, I couldn’t express it, a small thing. I kind of knew it before but having written the story there is no looking back. So the process of having the subconscious purify that—

RB: I don’t think I have heard anyone say that—that is, to talk about the intimacy of their own thinking process affecting their life decisions—they always seem so separate.

GS: It is discrete but then I noticed—well, for me it has to do—it never happened when I was young and I wrote a story quick. But as I get older and I am taking longer and longer, I have a feeling that the subconscious mind is sort of forming itself behind the story that you are working on in some way. And if you go slow enough it overtakes the story at the end and that’s that epiphanic thing that people talk about. And then for me that’s nice that happens—

I always think if you write a story about a clown being decapitated, it doesn’t mean that you have anything against clowns.



“best book of the year.” Feb 2013


RB: You wrote the “best book of the year.”

GS: Yeah so far. But it’s only one month in.

RB: I can’t decide whether you were a victim or a beneficiary of two pieces of press earlier this year. There was the New York Times, which asserted that your book was the “best book of the year.” And the other was a piece at Identity Theory opining that you are now repeating yourself.

GS: No I’m not. No I’m not. No I’m not. I don’t know that piece.

RB: (laughs) I didn’t read it—if had read it I wouldn’t have had time to read something else. I read the Times piece and it didn’t read like a review. It read like a press release.

GS: That was in the magazine. It wasn’t really a review as such.

RB: Oh right. It was a profile.

GS: It had a different slant.

RB: And then your publisher took out a full page ad in the Times citing that “best book of the year” quote, reminiscent of movie reviewers who write reviews with lines they hope will be quoted in ads.

GS: Sure.

RB: That was a big expenditure for a short story collection.

GS: Yeah, yeah, I though the whole thing was—


GS: Fun. At 54, at a certain point in your career it’s just nice to see action. It’s more interesting to have something energized happening than not. I kind of think, “Whatever, whatever happens” and—

RB: From where I sit the world of books, literature, and publishing, I think of you as being significant and important. But maybe from where you sit, teaching at a university in the middle of New York state plowing away at your work, you don’t think of yourself as being significant and/or important.

GS: No. Most of the time you are writing, writing the next thing. Or teaching, so it doesn’t seem…maybe if we’d had talked a year ago, before this book came out, I would have said something like “I don’t have a huge audience.” I wonder why not. I wonder if it is—

RB: (laughs)

GS: No, really. Is it something I’m doing wrong—?



Saunders 1st novel and awarded Booker Prize 2017

Hari Kunzru does Saunders’s novel justice…

Since the days of the beats, the Bardo Thodol has been known in the west as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. A more accurate if less catchy title is “Great Liberation on Hearing in the Intermediate State”. Waking life, dreams, meditation and in particular the period between death and rebirth are all bardos, states of consciousness sandwiched between other states of consciousness. We are always in transition, from dreams to wakefulness, from life to death. When someone dies, Tibetan Buddhists believe that they enter the bardo of the time of death, in which they will either ascend towards nirvana, and be able to escape the cycle of action and suffering that characterises human life on earth, or gradually fall back, through increasingly wild and scary hallucinations, until they are born again into a new body. The Bardo Thodol is intended to be read to them during this journey, an instruction manual to assist them on their way.



George & George and Rosie (photo Robert Birnbaum)



  * Everything you ever wanted to Know  about the Booker Prize

**  Interview # 2 with George Saunders   Interview # 1 with George Saunders    Interview # 3  with George Saunders

***     An animated adaptation of  Saunder’s 2013 commencement speech

****   Hari Kunzru  0n Lincoln in Bardo


MLB Playoffs Get Interesting When…

16 Oct


The real live ivy-covered outfield walls of Wrigley Field



The CHICGO Cubs have gone 0 and 2 in their weekend visit to Dodger Stadium (in Chavez  [Emminent Domain]Ravine, evidencing once again what my friend Steve Fagin identifies as their Achilles heel —namely top-tier pitching. Scoring a total of three runs in two games both via the long ball.. clearly, a seven games series is an inopportune moment for a slump.

However, one would be well advised to not despair and keep in mind that a seven-game series doesn’t really commence until one team breaks serve.


I don’t know how you make a whole book out of this story—no doubt those fans enthralled by the endless minutia that baseball produces will be happy with this book. A review in the venerable weekly Chicago Reader frames the story in more literary/anthropological terms*


About three-quarters of the way through Rich Cohen’s new book The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse comes an epic clash of baseball philosophies and worldviews.

On one side is Theo Epstein, president of the Cubs. A Red Sox fan since childhood, Epstein was also, during his formative years, a devoted reader of the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, a thousand-page compendium of statistics and rankings from more than a century of baseball history. James and his disciples have no patience for legends and tall tales. In their world, there are no called shots, no rally squirrels, no ill omens, and, especially, no curses. There’s an explanation for everything, and usually it involves numbers.

Cohen is the other kind of baseball fan—the romantic. He attended his first Cubs game in 1976. He was eight years old. The Cubs lost to the Reds, 8-3. On the way home from Wrigley Field, his father, a Yankees fan, warned him that falling in love with the Cubs would ruin his life. But Cohen had already seen the ivy. Later he came to realize that the Cubs were not just a team, they were a way of life. “A Cubs fan understood the futility of ambition,” he writes. “He was a kind of Buddhist. . . . A Cubs fan appreciates every August afternoon, because, for him, there is no October.”




The series resumes in the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field Tuesday evening.






  • Review in the Chicago Reader

Unabomber: Based on a true story?

10 Oct




Perhaps it was disaster (of which there is never shortage) fatigue*, but the Unabomber story escaped my attention, in what may loosely called ‘real time’. I must have recognized this lapse when I chose to read Alston Chase’s Harvard and the Unibomber: The Education of An American Terrorist, which revisitsx’s story. You know,  the terrorist who in 1978 began a campaign of bombing that the FBI spent 17 years tracking down. Need I point out that it is a very interesting story…Here’s a Publisher’s Weekly review:


This is a radically new interpretation of the life and motives of the infamous Unabomber. Alston Chase’s gripping account follows Ted Kaczynski from an unhappy adolescence in Illinois to Harvard, where he was subject not only to the despairing intellectual currents of the Cold War but also to ethically questionable psychological experiments. Kaczynski fled academia to the edge of the wilderness in Montana, but Chase shows us that he was never the wild mountain man the media often assumed him to be. Kaczynski was living in a book-lined cabin just off a main road when he formulated the view of the world that he used to justify murder. Through Chase’s compelling narration of the planning and execution of Kaczynski’s crimes, we come to know a thoroughly cold-blooded killer, but one whose ideas were uncannily close to those of mainstream America. Originally published in hardcover as Harvard and the Unabomber.





And now comes a documentary drama (based on a true story?), Manhunt, which retells the FBI’s lengthy investigation from the perspective of the profiler who successfully narrowed down the suspect pool, ultimately to Kaczynski which led his to capture and arrest. So the question arises, are we getting an accurate picture of this brilliant mind who saw fit to mangle and kill in pursuit of abhorence of modern life and technology**

Interestingly, the soft cover edition of Chase’s tome elides mention of the greatest university in the world and is now entitled A Mind for Murder: The Education of the Unabomber and the Origins of Modern Terrorism. Apparently Harvard was not pleased with the attention paid to the psyche experiments conducted by Henry Murray (which mimicked questionable CIA tests, possibly using Lysergic acid diethylamide). Perhaps there is some liability here?



I have spoken with Alston Chase—here’s a sample:***

AC: before Kaczynski was known, when the [Unabomber] Manifesto came out, I was approached by a former editor friend of mine who was by that time chief story editor for Diane Sawyer on ABC Prime Time. The FBI had just come out with a profile, and the ABC people asked me to give my own analysis. And I came up with a very, very different one. The FBI suggested this person was in his ’40s. I suggested, no, he was older because the Manifesto was right out of Gen Ed of the 1950’s. And they said he was probably an academic, and I said that he was an academe long enough to learn that he hated it. And wrote too well to be an academic. So I gave a different interpretation, and it turned out to be pretty accurate.

RB: What was the FBI response?

AC: Of course they weren’t listening to me. And the problems of the FBI— and I point this out in my book— is that they have all of these psychologists doing psychological profiles but what they needed was forensic academicians.



RB: You suggest that Kaczynski’s thinking—which you characterize as mediocre—is not particularly original.

AC: The Manifesto is a kind of compendium of cliches.

RB: It does espouse values and does suggest concepts and sentiments that are rife in this country. Why aren’t there more Kaczynski’s. Or there will be more?

alston chase by birnbaum

Alston Chase (photo: Robert Birnbaum0

AC: There will be. We come back to the fact that this intellectual crisis that I mention is still with us. And one way it’s manifested itself is in a global culture of despair and anti-modernism. A profound reaction against everything modern, not simply by the Kaczynskis of the world but the bin Ladens, who would like to return the Middle East to some theocratic state at the time of Saladin, but in addition in Europe as in its ban on genetically engineered crops. That’s anti-modernism. Now it’s true that the European Union may be doing this because it’s a convenient way to impose tariffs and be protectionist with out appearing to be protectionist. On the other had the EU couldn’t get away with it if there weren’t just widespread popular support among the people in Europe. The anti-globalization movement and environmentalism in some of its stripes are all examples of this anti-modernism and there are a certain percentage of these people that are willing to commit violent acts in the name of rolling the technology back. As I looked at Kaczynski and his thinking, what I saw was this pattern that seemed strikingly similar of that of terrorists—virtually every form from the KKK to bin Laden. And one has this very historical sense, the sense that they see themselves as players in history. The sense that they are attempting to right wrongs they believed were committed long ago. Bin Laden wants to roll back the Crusades. The KKK would like to fight the Civil War again. So you have these elephantine memories of these imagined injustices. And then anti-modernism and that goes for the right-wing survivalist militia men, the Earth First environmentalists, the anti-globalization people are in to that as are the Islamic fundamentalists. So it’s a really a worldwide movement. And with the increase in communication the divisions that existed in the past between domestic and international terrorism are going to disappear.



The portrayal of the FBI investigation in Manhunt reveals, not surprisingly, intense careerism, hierarchical arrogance and what is surprising, great sympathy for Kaczynski and the neophyte profiler who in way of may good police gives up everything to solve this case. And is given no credit for his work…


*wars in Central America, the former Yugoslavia, AIDS epidemic, genocides in Africa,..

**The Unibomber Manifesto

*** Identity theory Interview with Alston Chase





More Than Words

9 Oct


We should able to set aside issues of civilizational decline and stipulate that the art of oratory is not experiencing a golden era. Of course, one of the attractive attributes of the previous president is his ease in speaking in public (not necessarily a plus when dealing with the Congress he was burdened with).

My first experience with the allure of declamation might have spoiled me. I was young and therefore impressionable so in 1960, Senator Eugene McCarthy  (of whom we hear much more from eight years later) at the Democratic National Presidential Convention in Los Angeles, placed into nomination as a candidate, Adlai Stevenson (a former Governor of Illinois) and twice a loser to Dwight Eisenhower i(1952 and 1956). An eloquent speech and a noble gesture, worthy of being in a included of a well-curated anthology and perhaps the last time one could find politicians worthy of articulate praise.

Senator Eugene McCarthy (Democrat, Minnesota)

Other than some excellent commencement speeches  by some of our great literary figures and a few standouts by Obama —2004 Dem Convention  and his victory speech in Chicago on victory night 2008, the only oratory that broke away from the hackney-boilerplate speechifying was Susan Sontag’s speech accepting Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 2003**


Susan Sontag (photo William Coupon)


To speak in the Paulskirche, before this audience, to receive the prize awarded in the last fifty-three years by the German Book Trade to so many writers, thinkers, and exemplary public figures whom I admire – to speak in this history-charged place and on this occasion, is a humbling and inspiring experience. I can only the more regret the deliberate absence of the American ambassador, Mr. Daniel Coats, whose immediate refusal, in June, of the invitation from the Booksellers Association, when this year’s Friedenspreis was announced, to attend our gathering here today, shows he is more interested in affirming the ideological stance and the rancorous reactiveness of the Bush administration than he is, by fulfilling a normal diplomatic duty, in representing the interests and reputation of his – and my – country.


Ambassador Coats has chosen not to be here, I assume, because of criticisms I have voiced, in newspaper and television interviews and in brief magazine articles, of the new radical bent of American foreign policy, as exemplified by the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He should be here, I think, because a citizen of the country he represents in Germany has been honored with an important German prize.

An American ambassador has the duty to represent his country, all of it. I, of course, do not represent America, not even that substantial minority that does not support the imperial program of Mr. Bush and his advisors. I like to think I do not represent anything but literature, a certain idea of literature, and conscience, a certain idea of conscience or duty. But, mindful of the citation for this prize from a major European country, which mentions my role as an “intellectual ambassador” between the two continents (ambassador, needless to say, in the weakest, merely metaphorical sense), I cannot resist offering a few thoughts about the renowned gap between Europe and the United States, which my interests and enthusiasms purportedly bridge.

First, is it a gap – which continues to be bridged? Or is it not also a conflict? Irate, dismissive statements about Europe, certain European countries, are now the common coin of American political rhetoric; and here, at least in the rich countries on the western side of the continent, anti-American sentiments are more common, more audible, more intemperate than ever. What is this conflict? Does it have deep roots? I think it does.

There has always been a latent antagonism between Europe and America, one at least as complex and ambivalent as that between parent and child. America is a neo-European country and until the last few decades was largely populated by European peoples. And yet it is always the differences between Europe and America that have struck the most perceptive foreign observers: Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the young nation in 1831 and returned to France to write »Democracy in America«, still, some hundred and seventy years later, the best book about my country, and D.H. Lawrence, who, eighty years ago, published the most interesting book ever written about American culture, his influential, exasperating »Studies in Classic American Literature«, both understood that America, the child of Europe, was becoming, or had become, the antithesis of Eu-rope.

Rome and Athens. Mars and Venus. The authors of recent popular tracts promoting the idea of an inevitable clash of interests and values between Europe and America did not invent these antithe- ses. Foreigners brooded over them – and they provide the palette, the recurrent melody, in much of American literature throughout the 19th century, from James Fenimore Cooper and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman, Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Mark Twain. American innocence and European sophistication; American pragmatism and European intellectualizing; American energy and European world-weariness; American naïveté and European cynicism; American goodheartedness and European malice; American moralism and the European arts of compromise – you know the tunes.

You can choreograph them differently; indeed, they have been danced with every kind of evaluation or tilt for two tumultuous centuries. Europhiles can use the venerable antitheses to identify America with commerce-driven barbarism and Europe with high culture, while the Europhobes draw on a ready-made view in which America stands for idealism and openness and democracy and Europe a debilitating, snobbish refinement. Tocqueville and Lawrence observed something fiercer: not just a declaration of independence from Europe, and European values, but a steady undermining, an assassination of European values and European power. »You can never have a new thing without breaking an old,« Lawrence wrote.Europe happened to be the old thing. America should be the new thing. The new thing is the death of the old.« America, Lawrence divined, was on a Europe-destroying mission, using democracy – particularly cultural democracy, democracy of manners – as an instrument. And when that task is accomplished, he wrote, America might well turn from democracy to something else. (What that might be is, perhaps, emerging now.)

Bear with me if my references have been exclusively literary. After all, one function of literature – of important literature, of necessary literature – is to be prophetic. What we have here, writ large, is the perennial literary – or cultural – quarrel: between the ancients and the moderns.

The past is (or was) Europe, and America was founded on the idea of breaking with the past, which is viewed as encumbering, stultifying, and – in its forms of deference and precedence, its standards of what is superior and what is best – fundamentally undemocratic; or »elitist,« the reigning current synonym. Those who speak for a triumphal America continue to intimate that American democracy implies repudiating Europe, and, yes, embracing a certain liberating, salutary barbarism. If, today, Europe is regarded by most Americans as more socialist than elitist, that still makes Europe, by American standards, a retrograde continent, obstinately attached to old standards: the welfare state. »Make it new« is not only a slogan for culture; it describes an ever-advancing, world-encompassing economic machine.

However, if necessary, even the »old« can be rebaptized as the »new.«

It is not a coincidence that the strong-minded American Secretary of Defense tried to drive a wedge within Europe – distinguishing unforgettably between an »old« Europe (bad) and a »new« Europe (good). How did Germany, France, and Belgium come to be consigned to »old« Europe, while Spain, Italy, Poland, Ukraine, The Netherlands, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria find themselves part of »new« Europe? Answer: to support the United States in its present extensions of political and military power is to pass, by definition, into the more desirable category of the »new.« Whoever is with us is »new.«

All modern wars, even when their motives are the traditional ones, such as territorial aggrandizement or the acquisition of scarce resources, are cast as clashes of civilizations – culture wars – with each side claiming the high ground, and characterizing the other as barbaric. The enemy is invariably a threat to »our way of life,« an infidel, a
desecrator, a polluter, a defiler of higher or better values. The current war against the very real threat posed by militant Islamic fundamentalism is a particularly clear example. What is worth remarking is that a milder version of the same terms of disparagement underlies the antagonism between Europe and America. It should also be remembered that, historically, the most virulent anti-American rhetoric ever heard in Europe – consisting essentially in the charge that Ameri- cans are barbarians – came not from the so-called left but from the extreme right. Both Hitler and Franco repeatedly inveighed against an America (and a world Jewry) engaged in polluting European civilization with its base, business values.

Of course, much of European public opinion continues to admire American energy, the American version of »the modern.« And, to be sure, there have always been American fellow-travelers of the European cultural ideals (one stands here before you), who find in the old arts of Europe a liberation and correction to the strenuous mercantilist biases of American culture. And there have always been the counterparts of such Americans on the European side: Europeans who are fascinated, enthralled, profoundly attracted to the United States, precisely because of its difference from Europe.

What the Americans see is almost the reverse of the Europhile cliché: they see themselves defend- ing civilization. The barbarian hordes are no long- er outside the gates. They are within, in every prosperous city, plotting havoc. The »chocolate- producing« countries (France, Germany, Belgium) will have to stand aside, while a country with »will« – and God on its side – pursues the battle against terrorism (now conflated with barbarism). According to Secretary of State Powell, it is ridiculou for old Europe (sometimes it seems only France is meant) to aspire to play a role in govern- ing or administering the territories won by the coalition of the conqueror. It has neither the mili- tary resources nor the taste for violence nor the support of its cosseted, all-too-pacific populations. And the Americans have it right. Europeans are not in an evangelical – or a bellicose – mood.

Indeed, sometimes I have to pinch myself to be sure I am not dreaming: that what many people in my own country now hold against Germany, which wreaked such horrors on the world for nearly a century – the new »German problem,« as it were – is that Germans are repelled by war; that much of German public opinion is now virtually … pacifist!

Were America and Europe never partners, never friends? Of course. But perhaps it is true that the periods of unity – of common feeling – have been exceptions, rather than the rule. One such time was from the Second World War through the early Cold War, when Europeans were profoundly grateful for America’s intervention, succor, and support. Americans are comfortable seeing themselves in the role of Europe’s savior. But then, America will expect the Europeans to be forever grateful, which is not what Europeans are feeling right now.

From »old« Europe’s point of view, America seems bent on squandering the admiration – and gratitude – felt by most Europeans. The immense sympathy for the United States in the aftermath of the attack on September 11, 2001 was genuine. (I can testify to its particular ardor and sincerity in Ger- many; I was in Berlin at the time.) But what has followed is an increasing estrangement on both sides.

The citizens of the richest and most powerful nation in history have to know that America is loved, and envied – and resented. More than a few who travel abroad know that Americans are regarded as crude, boorish, uncultivated by many Europeans, and don’t hesitate to match these expectations with behavior that suggests the ressentiment of the ex-colonial. And some of the cultivated Europeans who seem most to enjoy visiting or living in the United States attribute to it, condescendingly, the liberating virtues of a colony where one throws off the restrictions and high-culture burdens of »back home.« I recall being told by a German film-maker, living at the time in San Francis- co, that he loved being in the States »because you don’t have any culture here.« For more than a few Europeans, including, it should be mentioned, D. H. Lawrence (»there the life comes up from the roots, crude but vital,« he wrote to a friend in 1915, when he was making plans to live in America), America was the great escape. And vice versa: Europe was the great escape for generations of Americans seeking »culture.« Of course, I am speaking only of minorities here, minorities of the privileged.

So America now sees itself as the defender of civilization and Europe’s savior, and wonders why Europeans don’t get the point; and Europeans see Americans as a reckless warrior state – a description that the Americans return by seeing Europe as the enemy of America: only pretending, so runs rhetoric heard increasingly in the United States, to be pacifist, in order to contribute to the weakening of American power. France, in particular, is thought to be scheming to become America’s equal, even its superior, in shaping world affairs – »Operation America Must Fail« is the name invented by a columnist in the »New York Times« to describe the French drive toward dominance – instead of realizing that an American defeat in Iraq will encourage „radical Muslim groups – from Baghdad to the Muslim slums of Paris« to pursue their jihad against tolerance and democracy.

It is hard for people not to see the world in polarizing terms (»them« and »us«) and these terms have in the past strengthened the isolationist theme in American foreign policy as much as they now strengthen the imperialist theme. Americans have got used to thinking of the world in terms of enemies. Enemies are somewhere else, as the fighting is almost always »over there,« Islamic fundamentalism having replaced Russian and Chinese communism as the threat to »our way of life.« And terrorist is a more flexible word than communist. It can unify a larger number of quite different struggles and interests. What this may mean is that the war will be endless – since there will always be some terrorism (as there will always be poverty and cancer); that is, there will always be asymmetrical conflicts in which the weaker side uses that form of violence, which usually targets civilians. American rhetoric, if not the popular mood, would support this unhappy prospect, for the struggle for righteousness never ends.

It is the genius of the United States, a profoundly conservative country in ways that Europeans find difficult to fathom, to have devised a form of conservative thinking that celebrates the new rather than the old. But this is also to say, that in the very ways in which the United States seems extremely conservative, for example, in the extraordinary power of the consensus and the passivity and conformism of public opinion (as Tocqueville remarked in 1831) and the media, it is also radical, even revolutionary, in ways that Europeans find equally difficult to fathom.

Part of the puzzle, surely, lies in the disconnect between official rhetoric and lived realities. Americans are constantly extolling »traditions«; litanies to family values are at the center of every politician’s discourse. And yet the culture of America is extremely corrosive of family life, indeed of all traditions except those redefined to promote »identities« that fit into the larger patterns of distinctiveness, cooperation, and openness to innovation.

Perhaps the most important source of the new (and not so new) American radicalism is what used to be viewed as a source of conservative values: namely, religion. Many commentators have noted that perhaps the biggest difference between the United States and most European countries (old as well as new in the current American distinction) is that in the United States religion still plays a central role in society and public language. But this is religion American style: namely, more the idea of religion than religion itself.

True, when, during George Bush’s run for president in 2000, a journalist was inspired to ask the candidate to name his »favorite philosopher,« the well-received answer – one that would make a candidate for high office from any centrist party here in any European country a laughing stock – was »Jesus Christ.« But, of course, Bush didn’t mean and was not understood to mean, that, if elected, his administration would feel bound to any of the precepts or social programs actually expounded by Jesus.

The United States is a generically religious society. That is, in the United States it’s not important which religion you adhere to, as long as you have one. To have a ruling religion, even a theocracy, that would be just Christian (or a particular Chris- tian denomination) would be impossible. Religion in America must be a matter of choice. This modern, relatively contentless idea of religion, constructed along the lines of consumerist choice, is the basis of American conformism, self- righteousness, and moralism (which Europeans often mistake, condescendingly, for Puritanism). Whatever historic faiths the different American religious entities purport to represent, they all preach something similar: reform of personal behavior, the value of success, community cooperativeness, tolerance of other’s choices. (All virtues that further and smooth functioning of consumer capitalism.) The very fact of being religious ensures respectability, promotes order, and gives the guarantee of virtuous intentions to the mission of the United States to lead the world.

What is being spread – whether it is called democracy, or freedom, or civilization – is part of a work in progress, as well as the essence of progress itself. Nowhere in the world does the Enlightenment dream of progress have such a fertile setting as it does in America.

Are we then really so separate? How odd that, at a moment when Europe and America have never been so similar culturally, there has never been such a great divide.

Still, for all the similarities in the daily lives of citizens in rich European countries and the daily lives of Americans, the gap between the European and the American experience is a genuine one, founded on important differences of history, of notions of the role of culture, of real and imagined memories. The antagonism – for there is antagonism – is not to be resolved in the immediate future, for all the good will of many people on both sides of the Atlantic. And yet one can only deplore those who want to maximize those differences when we do have so much in common.

The dominance of America is a fact. But America, as the present administration is starting to see, cannot do everything alone. The future of our world – the world we share – is syncretistic, impure. We are not shut off from each other. More and more, we leak into each other.

In the end, the model for whatever understanding – conciliation – we might reach lies in thinking more about that venerable opposition, »old« and »new.« The opposition between »civilization« and »barbarism« is essentially stipulatory; it is corrupting to think about and pontificate about – however much it may reflect certain realities. But the opposition of »old« and »new« is genuine, ineradicable, at the center of what we understand to be experience itself.

»Old« and »new« are the perennial poles of all feeling and sense of orientation in the world. We cannot do without the old, because in what is old is invested all our past, our wisdom, our memories, our sadness, our sense of realism. We cannot do without faith in the new, because in what is new is invested all our energy, our capacity for optimism, our blind biological yearning, our ability to forget – the healing ability without which all reconciliation is not possible.

The inner life tends to mistrust the new. A strongly developed inner life will be particularly resistant to the new. We are told we must choose – the old or the new. In fact, we must choose both. What is a life if not a series of negotiations between the old and the new? It seems to me that one should always be seeking to talk oneself out of these stark oppositions.
Old versus new, nature versus culture – perhaps it is inevitable that the great myths of our cultural life be played out as geography, not only as history. Still, they are myths, clichés, stereotypes, no more; the realities are much more complex.

A good deal of my life has been spent trying to demystify ways of thinking that polarize and oppose. Translated into politics, this means supporting whatever is pluralistic and secular. Like some Americans and many Europeans, I would far prefer to live in a multilateral world – a world not dominated by any one country (including my own). I could express my support, in a century that already promises to be another century of extremes, of horrors, for a whole panoply of meliorist attitudes – in particular, for what Virginia Woolf calls »the melancholy virtue of tolerance.«

Let me rather speak first of all as a writer, as a champion of the enterprise of literature, for therein lies the only authority I have.

The writer in me distrusts the good citizen, the »intellectual ambassador,« the human rights activist – those roles which are mentioned in the citation for the prize, much as I am committed to them. The writer is more skeptical, more self- doubting, than the person who tries to do (and to support) the right thing.

One task of literature is to formulate questions and construct counter-statements to the reigning pieties. And even when art is not oppositional, the arts gravitate toward contrariness. Literature is dialogue; responsiveness. Literature might be described as the history of human responsiveness to what is alive and what is moribund as cultures evolve and interact with one another.

Writers can do something to combat these clichés of our separateness, our difference – for writers are makers, not just transmitters, of myths. Literature offers not only myths but counter-myths, just as life offers counter-experiences – experiences that confound what you thought you thought, or felt, or believed.

A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world. That means trying to understand, take in, connect with, what wickedness human beings are capable of; and not being corrupted – made cynical, superficial – by this understanding.

Literature can tell us what the world is like.

Literature can give standards and pass on deep knowledge, incarnated in language, in narrative.

Literature can train, and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours.

Who would we be if we could not sympathize with those who are not us or ours? Who would we be if we could not forget ourselves, at least some of the time? Who would we be if we could not learn? Forgive? Become something other than we are?

On the occasion of receiving this glorious prize, this glorious German prize, let me tell you something of my own trajectory.

I was born, a third-generation American of Polish and Lithuanian Jewish descent, two weeks before Hitler came to power. I grew up in the American provinces (Arizona and California), far from Germany, and yet my entire childhood was haunted by Germany, by the monstrousness of Germany, and by the German books and the German music I loved, which set my standard for what is exalted and intense.

Even before Bach and Beethoven and Schubert and Brahms, there were a few German books. I am thinking of a teacher in an elementary school in a small town in southern Arizona, Mr. Starkie, who had awed his pupils by telling us that he had fought with Pershing’s army in Mexico against Pancho Villa: this grizzled veteran of an earlier American imperialist venture had, it seems, been touched – in translation – by the idealism of German literature, and, having taken in my particular hunger for books, loaned me his own copies of »Werther« and »Immensee.

Soon after, in my childhood orgy of reading, chance led me to other German books, including Kafka’s »In the Penal Colony,« where I discovered dread and injustice. And a few years later, when I was a high school student in Los Angeles, I found all of Europe in a German novel. No book has been more important in my life than »The Magic Moun- tain« – whose subject is, precisely, the clash of ideals at the heart of European civilization. And so on, through a long life that has been steeped in German high culture. Indeed, after the books and the music, which were, given the cultural desert in which I lived, virtually clandestine experiences, came a real experience. For I am also a late beneficiary of the German cultural diaspora, having had the great good fortune of knowing well some of the incomparably brilliant Hitler refugees, those writers and artists and musicians and scholars that America received, starting in the 1930s, and who so enriched the country, particularly its universities. Let me name two I was privileged to count as friends when I was in my late teens and early twenties, Hans Gerth and Herbert Marcuse; those with whom I studied at the University of Chicago and at Harvard, Christian Mackauer and Paul Tillich and Peter Heinrich von Blanckenha- gen, and in private seminars, Aron Gurwitsch and Nahum Glatzer; and Hannah Arendt, whom I knew after I moved to New York in my mid-twenties – so many models of the serious, whose memory I would like to evoke here.

But I shall never forget that my engagement with German culture, with German seriousness, all started with obscure, eccentric Mr. Starkie (I don’t think I ever knew his first name), who was my teacher when I was ten, and whom I never saw afterward.

And that brings me to a story, with which I will conclude – as seems fitting, since I am neither primarily a cultural ambassador nor a fervent critic of my own government (a task I perform as a good American citizen). I am a story-teller.

So, back to ten-year-old me, who found some relief from the tiresome duties of being a child by poring over Mr. Starkie’s tattered volumes of Goethe and Storm. At the time I am speaking of, 1943, I was aware that there was a prison camp with thousands of German soldiers, Nazi soldiers as of course I thought of them, in the northern part of the state, and, knowing I was Jewish (only nominally, my family having been completely secular and assimilated for two generations, but nominally, as I knew, was enough for Nazis), I was beset by a recurrent nightmare in which Nazi soldiers had escaped from the prison and had made their way downstate to the bungalow on the outskirts of the town where I lived with my mother and sister, and were about to kill me.

Flash forward to many years later, the 1970s, when my books started to be published by Hanser Verlag, and I came to know the distinguished Fritz Arnold (he had joined the firm in 1965), who was my editor at Hanser until his death in February 1999.

One of the first times we were together, Fritz said he wanted to tell me – presuming, I suppose, that this was a prerequisite to any friendship that might arise between us – what he had done during the war. I assured him that he did not owe me any such explanation; but, of course, I was touched by his bringing up the subject. I should add that Fritz Arnold was not the only German of his generation (he was born in 1916) who, soon after we met, insisted on telling me what he or she had done during the Nazi era. And not all of the stories were as innocent as what I was to hear from Fritz.


Anyway, what Fritz told me was that he had been a university student of literature and art history, first in Munich, then in Cologne, when, at the start of the war, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht with the rank of corporal. His family was, of course, anything but pro-Nazi – his father was Karl Arnold, the legendary political cartoonist of »Simplicissimus« – but emigration seemed out of the question, and he accepted, with dread, the call to military service, hoping neither to kill anyone nor to be killed.

Fritz was one of the lucky ones. Lucky, to have been stationed first in Rome (where he refused his superior officer’s invitation to be commissioned a lieutenant), then in Tunis; lucky enough to have remained behind the lines and never once to have fired a weapon; and finally, lucky, if that is the right word, to have been taken prisoner by the Americans in 1943, to have been transported by ship across the Atlantic with other captured German soldiers to Norfolk, Virginia, and then taken by train across the continent to spend the rest of the war in a prison camp in a small town … in northern Arizona.

Then I had the pleasure of telling him, sighing with wonder, for I had already started to be very fond of this man – this was the beginning of a great friendship as well as an intense professional relationship – that while he was a prisoner of war in northern Arizona, I was in the southern part of the state, terrified of the Nazi soldiers who were there, here, and from whom there would be no escape.
And then Fritz told me that what got him through his nearly three years in the prison camp in Ari- zona was that he was allowed access to books: he had spent those years reading and rereading the English and American classics. And I told him that what saved me as a schoolchild in Arizona, waiting to grow up, waiting to escape into a larger reality, was reading books, books in translation as well as those written in English.

Access to literature, world literature, was escaping the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck. Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom.

Literature was freedom. Especially in a time in which the values of reading and inwardness are so strenuously challenged,

literature is freedom.



+*Achebe 2002 Habermas 2001 Djebar 2000 Stern 1999 Walser 1998 Kemal 1997 Vargas Llosa 1996 Schimmel 1995 Semprún 1994 Schorlemmer 1993 Oz 1992 Konrád 1991 Dedecius 1990 Havel 1989 Lenz 1988 Jonas 1987 Bartoszewski 1986 Kollek 1985 Paz 1984 Sperber 1983 Kennan 1982 Kopelew 1981 Cardenal 1980 Menuhin 1979 Lindgren 1978 Kołakowski 1977 Frisch 1976 Grosser 1975 Frère Roger 1974 The Club of Rome 1973 Korczak 1972 Dönhoff 1971 Myrdal 1970 Mitscherlich 1969 Senghor 1968 Bloch 1967 Bea/Visser ‘t Hooft 1966 Sachs 1965 Marcel 1964 Weizsäcker 1963 Tillich 1962 Radhakrishnan 1961 Gollancz 1960 Heuss 1959 Jaspers 1958 Wilder 1957 Schneider 1956 Hesse 1955 Burckhardt 1954 Buber 1953 Guardini 1952 Schweitzer 1951 Tau 1950


** The last time I looked I could find no record of  McCarthy’s text and no recording of Sontag’s speech. There is a nicely designed  chapbook by Winterhouse Editions that contains the Peace Prize speech


German Peace Prize Acceptance Speech

Don’t Start Me Talking…I’ll Tell Everything I Know*

5 Sep




The majestic equality of laws forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.
Anatole France
Journalism is printing what some else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations
 George Orwell




Slave owning Thomas Jefferson was on to something when he suggested eternal vigilance would be necessary to preserve the government he and his fellows envisioned and instituted. While since those heady days of birthing a nation many of the fundamental tenets of democracy and social justice are frequently besieged, none is more so than the First Feedom, the freedom of speech.



Apparently the oppressive climate stirred up by the Gawker /Hulk Hogan khamsin has continued. The documentary, Nobody Speak :Trials of the Free Press presents a useful primer on that libel/First Amendment case as was well as introducing two billionaires, Peter Thiel and Sheldon Adelman who make up 2/3 of the authoritarian troika that is committed to undermining a free press and open society.

The New York Times dismissed Nobody Speaks calling it “bombastic” while the Guardian ** presented a lucid brief for the films usefulness.

This film sets the case [Gawker/Hulk Hogan] alongside a more conventional attempt to control the press, that is simply to own it – also what the super-rich plutocrats love to do. In 2015, the Las Vegas Review-Journal was bought by the aggressively litigious casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who incredibly tried to keep his identity as buyer a secret. The paper’s reporters themselves had to ferret out the truth. The new management promptly declared that star columnist John L Smith could no longer write about Adelson, who had in fact already sued him. Most of the paper’s talent quit, but it was an extraordinary putsch.

As for Trump, it is notable that he considers himself something of a one-man press baron, by virtue of his millions of Twitter followers – a situation he compares to owning a newspaper without the losses. His contempt for the press, aside from what may be revealed about Russia, is an almost hysterical expression of his hatred of criticism – a lèse-majesté he always resented as both boardroom blowhard and TV star. Now Trump wants to loosen the libel rules for wealthy plaintiffs (who of course have always found the UK a more congenial place to launch lawsuits). This documentary is an invigorating, disturbing portrait of the arrogance and sinister self-importance of rich people, bullying politicians and their battalions of lawyers.


Gee, who ya gonna believe? The NYT or your lying eyes?






Of course you remember the noisy and avid exhibitions ovsupport for ‘free speech’ when the French magazine Charlie Heldbo suffered the killing of ten of its  for publishing anti Muslim cartoons. Well , it appears that that free speech is different than the free speech** the magazine is exercising in it portrayal of Houston disaster survivors…


So, there is more to be said about the Gawker legal mugging and in this case while the film was a fine representation,  I  can’t wait for the book. Hopefully, someone like Matt Taibbi or Charles Pierce will write it…





  • Title inspired by Sonny BOY WILLIAMSON CLASSIC





The CRACK in Everything

28 Aug


Reportage has always  been the fundamental task of journalism (the rough first  draft of history.) And so it remains, notwithstanding the enormous acceleration of news and information dissemination. Winston Churchill, who famously opined that gossip travels around the world before the truth has time to put it’s boots on would not have envisioned a world of endless (24/7)delivery of news or the next level, social media platforms…


As a consumer of the daily buzz and bloom of life, I am inclined by wide-ranging interest and possibly the endemic and emblematic affliction of modern times, an ever shortening attention span (about which I would worry, if it were not still  able to read 1000 page books). That it seems like more things are happening and that we are almost inescapably told of these events now requires, in addition to editing , a curatorial aggregate of various forms of news distribution. Anecdotal, video, broadcast, web-based, newspapers and magazine, social media platforms battle for our attention  (thus the chimerical ‘attention’ economy) measurable in new units of measurement. One of the first journalists I thought grasped this transformation of news media was  Glen O Brien, editor in the 80’s of Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine, the paradigmic hip  downtown life style tab. O’Brien has a column in each issue which was amusingly and informatively digressive and mildly transgressive

O Brien, who passed on recently was a prototypical denizen of the Manhattan’s hipoisie and the headline that the slick fashion magazine W ran  with an homage “Glenn O Brien Could Do Everything Except Live Forever” is a clever way of pointing the man’s many talents and accomplishments. If you think that to be hyperbolic have a look at O Brien’s cleverly annotated  CV*. Or the W article.


Glenn’s facility as a writer and ability to meet multiple deadlines a week could be intimidating. I couldn’t keep up with all the magazines he was involved with: Artforum, Purple, the in-house Bergdorf Goodman magazine, and Bald Ego, his own journal with the poet Max Blagg. This was in addition to his work as creative director of Barney’s and other commercial jobs that employed him to name perfumes or write commercials (remember Brad Pitt for Chanel?). In 2000, he landed at the Cannes Film Festival, where he debuted Downtown 81, a movie he made in 1981 with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Glenn was one of the first to recognize Basquiat’s talent. He wrote, produced, and appeared in the movie, too, directed by photographer Edo Bertoglio. Somehow the soundtrack was lost, only to be miraculously rediscovered two decades later. It’s a genuine artifact, a document of a time and a place no longer visible.



Sometimes it’s the small things that grab us  David Shield’s who’s  body of work stretches over a wide swath of subjects (even an Ichiro Suzuki chapbook) has a new tome out entitled Other People. The epigram he chose  from Philip Roth’s American Pastoral has long been a  favorite of mine:

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to came at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick: you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them: you get them wrong while you’re with them and then you get home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on a significance that is ludicrous, so ill equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims?  Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we are alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you.


Don Winslow’s new opus, The Force (referring to the NYPD) leads off with a citation from Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely

“Cops are just people, ” she said irrelevantly.

They start out that way, I’ve heard.”

Brian  Doyle

 Brian Doyle self Portrait


Lake Oswego Oregon writer Brian Doyle, who among other things was was the editor of Portland magazine passed on to his greater glory recently. He was 60 years old. Author of 14 books and a contributor to The American Scholar and other smart journals, apparently Brian didn’t warrant an obit in the New York Times (which says more about that paper than about Doyle) I chanced to discover him through his wonderful novel Mink River. And the last story in his collection Bin Laden’s Bald Spot: & Other Stories  solidified my continued interest in him. especially the final story**


In “Pinching Bernie,” an account of the crimes of Bernard Francis Cardinal Law, the unnamed narrator describes the archbishop’s past achievements, including a deal “where Episcopal priests who were married with kids could work in Catholic dioceses, which was how something you hardly ever see happened here and there, a priest making out with his wife on the beach, and barking at his kids that he would stop this car and turn around if there was any more fighting in the back seat!” In sharp contrast to the more whimsical tone of other stories, “Pinching Bernie” is extraordinary for the seething rage expressed by the narrator at Cardinal Law’s criminal negligence in the many cases of child molestation by Boston parish priests. Cardinal Law is “the slime bag’s slime bag, an all-pro slime bag” who escapes prosecution by flying to Rome and getting named to the Basilica di santa Maria Maggiore, where he is beyond the reach of justice. Up to this point, the story adheres to actual events (the real-life Cardinal remains ensconced inside the Vatican). But in “Pinching Bernie,” the narrator’s friend Jimmy goes to “see a guy about a guy” and “basically from this point on Bernie’s goose is cooked.” As it turns out, “it’s easier to pinch an archbishop than you might think.” The archbishop’s fictional redemption (wherein he’s returned to a life of monastic servitude in Boston) is far more fitting than its true-life counterpart.

Bin Laden’s Bald Spot encompasses worlds of absurdity and quotidian reality in the voices of ordinary citizens. Underneath the surface is a tenderness and attachment to life that makes the best of these stories really and truly sing.

A small nugget from the Doyle archive:
 “So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one, in the end — not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart. Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart. When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall. You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words ‘I have something to tell you,’ a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in a thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.”

Rest in Peace Brian Doyle



I find the funniest comedies those that don’t have jokes. Which is why I am not drawn to stand up comedy (excepting Richard Prior, Barry Crimmins, David Chappelle) Sarah Silverman as many are the few originals we are blessed to have live among us, is her own category.Of the many mordant obsrevations found in her new ‘special’


“Yeah, we’re Number one. We’re number one in juvenile diabetes”








I met  Thomas Beller when he was a youngish literary bon vivant***, editing a fine New York literary magazine Open City, gifting the internet his Mr Beller’s Neighborhood and publishing a book or two along the way. Beller is now ensconced in New Orleans teaching at Tulane University. Among other things Beller writes on the National Basketball Association for the New Yorker. Now if you follow the once and future Great American Pastime( baseball) but do not necessarily find the New Yorker useful ,you ultimately get around to references  to the oracular Roger Angell, who has been contemplating and commenting on hard ball since time immemorial. I’m thinking , admittedly based on a small sample, that Professor Beller may achieve the same beatified status. Here from his  report on  NBA All star guard  Cleveland Cavalier/Boston Celtic Kyrie Irving:

One of my favorite basketball anecdotes involves George (Iceman) Gervin sitting in the locker room, sometime in the late nineteen-seventies, after hitting a game-winning shot. Journalists crowd him asking locker-room questions: “How did you do it?” “How did it feel?” “What were you thinking?” After a brief pause, Gervin responds, “The world is round.”

I have always loved this line for its lordly belligerence (“You bore me,” it seems to imply) and because I feel it holds a profound truth about the game. There are lots of sports that involve a round ball, but basketball is the most cosmic and planetary. The ball itself, often seen spinning on the tip of a finger, is the size of a globe. The climax of every play involves a sphere, usually in rotation, entering a circle, its own brief eclipse. The most popular style of play in the N.B.A. these days is referred to as “pace and space.” A player with the ball in his hand is his own solar system of gravity and velocity.

One way to illustrate basketball’s cosmic, planetary nature would be to describe the game as played by the point guard Kyrie Irving. He has a center of gravity somewhere just above his knees and the coördination of a jazz drummer. He is an expert low dribbler, and in the middle of his moves, especially when he puts the ball behind his back, he sometimes seems to sit for an infinitesimal moment on an invisible chair. During the clannish, gossip-filled family reunion that is All-Star Weekend, I heard the theory that, among all N.B.A. players, Irving’s skills are the most envied. This is a category I had not previously considered—not M.V.P. but M.E.P. Irving’s moves with the ball are like physics problems that culminate with extremely high-profile clutch shots. He excels at humiliating the opponent. Maybe that’s what is envied…


Some of the very few bright moments (comparatively) in the this nightmare time  are the writings of a handful of journalists and dissident scholars. I am guessing Matt Taibbi is holding the Hunter Thompson/William Greider chair at Rolling Stone (the entertainment magazine). He manages to  add a measure of hilarity to what Charle Pierce has called Camp Runamuck or Taibbi’s own  coinage, Trumpsylvania. Here he points out *****the incongruity of the vulgarian POTUS’s scapegoating the commercial media



The craziest part of Donald Trump’s 77-minute loon-a-thon in Phoenix earlier this week came when he rehashed his shtick about the networks turning off live coverage of his speech. Trump seemed to really believe they were shutting the cameras off because “the very dishonest media” was so terrified of his powerful words.

“They’re turning those lights off so fast!” he said. “CNN doesn’t want its failing viewership to see this!”

No news director would turn off the feed in the middle of a Trump-meltdown. This presidency has become the ultimate ratings bonanza. Trump couldn’t do better numbers if he jumped off Mount Kilimanjaro carrying a Kardashian.

This was confirmed this week by yet another shruggingly honest TV executive – in this case Tony Maddox, head of CNN International. Maddox said CNN is doing business at “record levels.” He hinted also that the monster ratings they’re getting have taken the sting out of being accused of promoting fake news.

“[Trump] is good for business,” Maddox said. “It’s a glib thing to say. But our performance has been enhanced during this news period

By the way, Taibbi has a book forthcoming, I Can’t Breathe, lucidly unpacking the tragic Eric Garland killing.









My Sixties Reading List (1969-1971)

28 Aug





Man With the Golden Arm

Catch 22



Magister Ludi







Trout Fishing In America

Soul On Ice



The Self and Others





The Raymond Chandler Omnibus



Things Fall Apart






At Play in the Fields of the Lord



One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest




Slaughterhouse Five




Naked Lunch


a Fan’s Notes



One Hundred Years of Solitude


The Autobiography of Malcolm X


The Wretched of the Earth



Hall of Mirrors

In Brief: Mud Wrestling next for CNN

24 Aug



It occurs to me that it is may be possible to derive pleasure from being able to say anything that you want…it doesn’t appear that THE VULGARIAn POTUS receives any joy from his lack of impulse control. On the other hand schismatic former White House direct of Communication  “the Mook” and whatever-it-is-she-does Kellyee Conway are having a blast…Here’sConway*



“A couple nights ago on television he said he wondered whether or not the president was fit to be president. Fit to serve. If James Clapper is watching right now, what’s your message to him?” asked “Fox & Friends” co-host Steve Doocy.

“It’s such an absurd analysis playing armchair psychiatrist,” she responded. “It’s not just him. It’s a lot of people on TV.”

“I’m old enough to remember when news stations reported the news,” the 50-year-old Conway continued. “And didn’t just have a parade of pundits going out there and opinionating and pontificating and conjecturing. It leads to analysis like this because people end up with very little to say.”

Do I hear reports that CNN is negotiating a mud wrestling match between Conway and firebrand Nicraguan born Ana Navarro who also appears to be enjoying herself. Apparently, Trumpalvania was upset by Senora Navarra’s post-Chancellorsville tweet ( tweets are short form digital communications platform that appears to serve some societal function):


“Only possible defensible explanation for Trump’s disgusting, unpresidential, narcissistic behavior, would be early-on-set dementia. Maybe,”





22 Aug


So,  the Bedlamite regime has cast an evil spell/toxic pall on  America, like the thumb blocking out the sun, dominating the daily news cycle and social media for nearly two years. Exacerbating an already sketchy level of interest of matters global. A recent report which claimed that Cuba had been targeting US diplomats  quoted a 2007 State  Department’s Inspector General’s  64-page report asserting


that the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana suffered from poor morale as a result of the Cuban government’s deliberate efforts to create hardship and discontent in the lives of the diplomats. “Retaliations have ranged from the petty to the poisoning of family pets. The regime has recently gone to great lengths to harass some employees by holding up household goods and consumable shipments. The apparent goal has been to instigate dissension within USINT ranks.”

And this news item was a reminder that the world has kept turning despite the antics of our vulgarian POTUS.





I have an unusual if not special connection to Cuba. As an immigrant boy living in Chicago, Illinois in the late 50’s, a coalescence of things brought Cuba to my impressionable mind. Whenever snatches of music got past the rising mania of Elvis Presley, it tended to be Latin— Prez Prado, Xavier Cugat even Desi Arnez and soon after Dizzy Gillespie’s Afro Cuban explorations. And then the overthrow of US sponsored thug Fulgencio Batista brought a cadre of hirsute guys variously known as Fidelistas or the Bearded Ones onto the world stage. Perhaps the first time in recent memory that revolutionaries were (briefly) embraced by their Uncle Sam.

So since that time, things Cuban have always had an allure for me. And as my preoccupation ripened as I became familiar with the richness of Cuba culture and gustatory delights from fulsome cigars to the island’s rums…so it did not escape my attention that on 26 July not was made of the anniversary*of Cuba’s revolution, entitled The 26th of July Movement. So called because Fidel cars led an unsuccessful attack on the Army’s Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba in July 1953. Defeat notwith- standing, Cuba celebrates that attack as a national holiday taking three days off.

US aggression or inattention, Cuba continues to avoid the pitfalls of a dreary socialist state which, it should not go unsaid, is amazing. Among other things, author Leonardo Padura’s noir quartet has served as the foundation of the Four Seasons in Havana series on Netflix And

And Padura’s latest novel, Heretics, is a robust narrative touching on the infamous SS St Louis incident of 1940, a wandering Rembrandt painting and the changing face of pre revolutionary Cuba. Jon Lee Anderson lucidly profiled Padura in The New Yorker which is worth reading as Jon Lee and is a reliable reporter and knows Cuba



Heretics by Leonardo Padura

In fact, Anderson’s biography of Che Guevera is an insightful snapshot into recent Cuban history. Add Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music and The American Slave Coast


and one can begin to fill in the compelling history of the largest island in the Antilles.

Of course, if you really want to immerse yourself in depths of Cuba’s presence in the history of the Western hemisphere, there is English historian Hugh Thomas’s magisterial opus, Cuba: Or the Pursuit of Freedom  published in 1971 running more than 1700 pages is the authoritative source


Today’s Cuba is not all old cars and cigar smoking, guitar strumming campesinos, as a recent exhibition at the Pérez Art Museum Miami makes clearOn the Horizon: Internal Landscapes** was dedicated to contemporary Cuban art created on the island and intends to be the launch of a series.





However, Cuba is presented in the news and whatever the conventional understanding of Cuba’s place in world history, one should always keep in mind that Fidel made a career out of pulling on Uncle Sam’s nose and thus he gained great credibility and admiration around the world…











View story at



Journalism is printing what some else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations *

2 Aug



I don’t care that the Indians reside in Cleveland, I still follow them.  And frankly being a godless Jew (I have developed an indifference to racial slurs).Thus I am not offended by their longtime mascot Chief Wahoo, a caricature of a Native American, It is interesting that Indians have supposedly bowed to societal pressures and stopped using Wahoo, relying on A big red ‘C’ as their logo. what then to make of the continued sale of MLB approved Indian paraphernalia festooned with the banished Chief?

Chief Wahoo


Matt Taibbi’s ‘Castle Trumpsylvania’ **rivals Charles Pierce’s ‘Camp Runamuck’ for my favorite mordant sobriquet for the current regime.

The body of former White House Director of Communications Anthony Scaramucci was discovered on the White House lawn Monday. Scaramucci’s neatly-coiffed head, along with the mushier, more panicked capitulum of former chief of staff and freshly-resigned rival Reince Priebus, was found a short distance away, gored on the White House gates as a message to their replacements.



So, the response to the new Netflix series Ozark*** has, appropriately, been positive, as an ensemble including Laura Linney, Jason Bateman, and Esai Morales warrants. I noted a number of comments along the line of looking forward to watching this narrative as an “escape from the real world.”Which suggests to me a disturbing naivete. Stories about money laundering, drug dealing cartels over zealous government agents and corrupt police are about a very real world. That narco terrorism has become entertainment ( including the grimly imaginative methods of torture and murder employed )is as disturbing as the grossly stupid War on Drugs. Another symptom of the cultural desensitization to the chaos around us.





NFL should be indicted under RICO statutes*****

“…If NFL players can access that science and find the beginnings of CTE—cases can range from mild to severe—would they retire at 24 or 25? If it can be detected in NCAA players, could the multibillion-dollar edifice of “amateur” athletics at institutions of higher learning justify football’s existence? Will universities justify brain injury in overwhelmingly black athletes for the entertainment of overwhelmingly white students? If it can be something easily detected at the high-school level, would football be impossible to insure or morally justify?

These are the questions that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will need to confront openly if his sport is going to have a future. Or he could just say that the report is “fake news.” That also seems to be working well these days, and such a move will undoubtedly be supported by more than a few of his bosses in the owner’s box. Let’s hope Commissioner Goodell has more character than the person that NFL owners supported to become president.”

And oh yeah the NFL  doesn’t encourage violence…oh what’s this*****?





* George Orwell

**  Matt Taibbi…

***Re Ozark…

**** Me opining on baseball books and whatever

*****Dave Zirin talks about the organized crime organization called the NFL

****** Ranking the football training camp fights