my pissant two cents

Sunday, February 20, 2005

gonzo, r.i.p.

"i have always found writing to be the most hateful sort of work. i suspect it's a bit like fucking, which is only fun for amateurs. old whores don't do much giggling." -- hunter s. thompson, 1937-2005

hunter thompson is dead, and i don't feel so good myself.

the 67-year old father of gonzo journalism apparently took his own life with a gunshot to the head. his son juan found him in his home, known to his fans as the owl farm, the "fortified compound" in woody creek, colorado, just outside aspen. the family issued a statement asking for respect for their privacy as they attempt to deal with the shock and horror.

i, too, am caught in the grips of shock and horror. i know that many of my friends and colleagues feel the same.

i caught the news on a tease during the "snl: the first five years" on nbc. seems almost appropriate, what with saturday night live doing for television comedy what thompson did for journalism. he created a whole new thing, new, refreshing, and entirely vibrant.

"gonzo," as he coined it, is a visceral, affecting and effective style of writing that took all of the rules of what journalism was supposed to be and disregarded them altogether. the story is not what happened, but what it feels like while it happens. the reporter is more than just a stenographer, but a participant, the reader's surrogate. thompson did it like nobody else could. the wry, twisted visions, often including a litany of minor-league crimes involving firearms and very fast vehicles and major-league substance abuse, told serious stories with biting wit and incisive humor. it was like nothing before or since.

he became a character, and sometimes a caricature. doonesbury's "uncle duke" is based on thompson. bill murray and johnny depp have played him in movies. he was close friends with warren beatty and sen. gary hart. he talked football with nixon and considered pat buchanan a friend, but he often spoke of violent ideas that came to mind when he thought of the jimmy swaggarts, ronald reagans and george bushes (both), who turned america into a generation of swine.

hunter thompson, to be quite frank and perhaps a little maudlin, changed my life. i read fear and loathing in las vegas when i was 16, and it was like an epiphany. i had always been a good writer, writing often rambling but funny bits, sometimes taking potshots at power, but it was strictly for laughs. after fear and loathing, i realized that this was something i could actually do for a living.

it is difficult to explain how powerfully i was moved and motivated by gonzo. i became a voracious reader of thompson's stuff, and from his work moved on to other "new journalists" that came out of the same '60s era. tom wolfe, joan didion, edna buchanan, jimmy breslin, kate coleman.... i learned a literary style of reporting that tells the story in anything other than the inverted pyramid tradition, but grips the reader by the back of the neck and makes him see the story, like alex watching the ultra-violence in "a clockwork orange."

i taught a class in gonzo journalism as my senior thesis in college. i read everything thompson had written to that point, several times over. one particular piece was among the finest things i have ever read, because it told a story solely in the subtext, which had far more impact than anything traditional journalism could produce.

it was from songs of the doomed, thompson's 1990 collection of newspaper columns, magazine articles, short stories, and random correspondence. among these was material concerning his 1989 prosecution for sexual battery, which charges were dropped after the supposed victim was seen by the prosecutor as "flirting" with thompson from the witness stand. (i wrote an article for the college paper about the case, but it was dropped before i had a chance to go out to colorado to cover it in proper gonzo fashion. ) thompson was certain that the case was politically motivated, that the right-wing district attorney was trying to make a high-profile example of the good doctor in those salad days of reagan/bush, letting the people of his stripe know that the money and celebrity flooding into aspen at the time had no patience for perverts and drug users.

the piece that so accurately wrapped up the gonzo ethos and thompson's journey through the criminal justice system was called "let the trials begin." it tells the story of thompson breaking into the county law library to do a little light reading about his case. there, he meets a meek and beaten man named andrew, whose work-release program from prison requires him to do custodial work at the library. thompson befriends the man, who says he's also a writer. to prove it, he gives thompson a piece he's written, called "electricity."

"nobody feels safe," it begins. "fires burst out on dry hillsides, raging out of control, while dope fiends dance in the rancid smoke and animals gnaw each other. foreigners are everywhere, carrying pistols and bags of money. there are rumors about murder and treachery and women with no pulse. crime is rampant and even children are losing their will to live."

it is brilliant, and thompson knows why: he wrote it. enraged by the plagiarism and disgusted by andrew's shattered spirit, thompson unfolds a plot that ends with andrew viciously beaten and arrested by aspen police.

i gave that piece to my students, and asked them what it was about. they uniformly hated it. why would thompson do that to someone? to make friends with someone and then betray them in such a savage way is a horrifying, decidedly ungonzo way to conduct oneself.

and then i told them. the story is not about thompson and andrew; it's about thompson. there is no andrew. andrew is what thompson fears will happen to him if he's convicted. he will become a broken man. thompson fears losing what is left of his freedom and all that it means to him. so he destroys andrew, the scared little man inside him.

and as i looked around the room, i saw the lightbulbs going on over every head. they got it, and it meant something entirely new and vital.

that was the power of good gonzo.

perhaps the good doctor ended his life because at 67, he saw his finish line approaching and didn't want to stagger across it. only this time there was no "andrew" around. i don't know.

all i know is that hunter thompson is dead, and i don't feel so good myself.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

outrage overload

i haven't written much lately. no particular reason for it, though i must say it's been difficult to find a topic. not because there's nothing to write about, but because every day brings something worse than the previous.

bloody hands drive intelligence bus
start with today, for instance. john negroponte has been nominated by president fredo to head up the national intelligence apparatus. let's look at his resume, shall we? his most recent gig was ambassador to iraq, from june 2004 to the present, a period of bloody uprising against the occupation forces by native iraqis and islamist immigrants. prior to that, he was the u.s. ambassador to the united nations, when the u.s. was lying to, marginalizing, ridiculing and disregarding that noble institution, which, ironically enough, the u.s. pushed mightily to create after ww2. look back a little further, and you see that he was the ambassador to honduras in the 1980s, while the reagan/bush administration was using that country as a launching pad for its illegal, terrorist proxy war against the sandinista government in nicaragua. what does all of this mean? bad news for national intelligence.....

walmart meets expectations
this is hardly news anymore: workers unionize, walmart quits; walmart breaks the law, and the government lets it happen.

walmart employees in jonquiere, quebec, canada, completed a herculean task, besting the retail behemoth's professional unionbusters. they voted to organize, to exercise their right under canadian and international law to bargain collectively for better wages, benefits and conditions. walmart responded in textbook fashion: they closed the store. this follows the last successful union organizing effort against walmart, when 11 meatcutters in a jacksonville, texas, store voted to join the united food and commercial workers union. walmart's response? outsource all meatcutting positions nationwide.

by now, you probably know all the bad things walmart does in this country and elsewhere. slave labor in china, child labor in southeast asia, unionbusting, state and federal law-breaking in the u.s.... perhaps the lesson to be learned from our canadian brethren is that if we can unionize every walmart store, they will shut their doors.

even more galling is walmart's flouting of the law, and the government's acquiescence. in case you hadn't heard, walmart got busted for a number of child labor and other job standard and wage violations, including letting minors operate dangerous tools, like chainsaws (which injured at least one teenager), in violation of federal law, throughout the country. it's punishment? a small fine ($135k), and a promise not to do it again. too harsh? walmart thought so, and the department of labor agreed. so walmart got a juicier deal. when the d.o.l. busts walmart, walmart gets creative control over the press releases announcing said busts.

think about that. i have a friend who's a big-time hollywood producer with more emmy awards than you've got teeth, and she dosn't get creative control over her movies.

not that you should expect a lot of walmart busts in the future. another aspect of the deal is, walmart gets a 15-day heads-up any time the d.o.l. gets a complaint against the company. imagine a bank robber who is turned in, but the police give him a fortnight to hide evidence of his crime before they arrest him.

the outrage storm has gotten some air, as reformed business drum-beater lou dobbs of cnn blasted the sweetheart deal and asked, what is there to protect workers when walmart gets to "fix" its problems, because the federal government is blowing the whistle on whistleblowers? and what worker is brave enough to blow the whistle given the company's history of firing people who complain about being locked inside and forced to work off-the-clock?

in corporate crime as in its ruthless suppression of high prices, walmart never dispappoints.

pure evil in power
alberto gonzales is the attorney general. not even former p.o.w. john mccain (r-az) would stand up against the pro-torture lobby. only 36 democrats had the guts to vote no.

i have nothing much to add, except that i am ashamed that the same profession which gave us bill kunstler and erwin chemerinsky and william douglas and earl warren would give us a pig like gonzales. i'm also ashamed of my fellow latinos who look with pride at the first latino attorney general and ignore the fact that he's our own adolf eichmann.

no joy in iceville; the nhl goes walmart
the n.h.l. shot itself in both feet yesterday, killing off the remainder of the 2004-2005 hokcey season. it's the first time a major professional sport in north america has lost a season to a labor dispute. the non-sports media paid prescious little attention to it, and frequently got the story wrong when they did. even jon stewart, for whom i have a world of respect, told "the daily show" audience that the cancellation was the result of a strike.

it was not.

it was a lock-out, the exact opposite of a strike. for those who don't know, a strike is when the workers refuse to work in order to force the employer's hand. a lock-out is when the employer prevents the employees from working.

the issue here? teams claim to have lost nearly a billion dollars in the past decade. why? because they're paying players too much. the problem? owners can't live within their means, and they want the players to save them from themselves.

the players offered to take a 24% pay cut across the board, and install a highly punitive luxury tax system. the league said thank you, and then tried to add a salary cap to the deal. the players gave more, and the league took it. the players gave in a little more, and the league took that, too. a last minute deal fell through when the owners refused to yield, and the season went kaput.

it must be obvious by now: the owners had no intention of playing this season. their purpose is to bust the union. and they're slitting their own throats to do it.

but he's our gay prostitute
i know a thing or two about journalism. even though i have little patience for those who proclaim their "objectivity" in the news business (which naively presumes that the reporter has no particular opinions or any axes to grind), i believe that the reporter is obligated to give each side of a story a fair airing.

i also know that if you want to cover a minor league baseball team in east podunk, just outside of the ass end of nowhere, you better have a stack of clips and a letter from your editor testifying to your bonafides.

so imagine my amusement over the jeff gannon/jim guckart story. jeff gannon (whose real name is james guckart) is, of course, the guy who bleated in a white house press briefing, with president fredo in attendance (an extreme rarity), that the president may have a tough time dealing with leading democrats in congress who have "divorced themselves from reality."

the man is clearly no kind of real journalist. a real journalist would have said the exact same thing, but found less obviously biased words to do it.

but that's not even the funny part. the funny part is, the guy got his white house press credentials, which are rarer than hen's teeth and worth a lot more, as a reporter for the talon news service. never heard of it? not surprising. it only existed for 96 hours prior to his getting the golden ticket. it was set up by a right-wing nut in texas.

the funnier part is, the guy ain't even vaguely a real journalist. he's a gay prostitute. yep. he had a number of websites advertising his services as a fit, friendly former marine who was willing to massage or wrestle his clients at the rate of $1200 per weekend-- but top only. the sites were illustrated with pictures of gannon/guckart in various states of undress, waxed chest glistening in the lights....

oh, and he's also a tax dodger, owing the state of delaware somewhere along the lines of $20k.

so this raises a few questions. 1) wasn't a background check done before this guy, who used a false name, got a white house press pass? 2) if not, why not? 3) if so, why weren't these seriously damaging facts unearthed? 4) if they were unearthed, why was the press pass issued anyway?

the only answer is, someone with serious political clout in the white house got him his press credentials. why they would do so opens up a whole can of worms that somebody somewhere should be looking into.

what is to be done?
the long and short of all this is, the situation can always get worse. if you wait for things to get better before you take action, prepare to wait a long, long time. act now, lest you lose your right to act at all.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

...and the first shall be last

"nobody ever went broke understimating the intelligence of the american people." -- h.l. mencken

it's a privilege of age that allows one generation to lament the shortcomings, real and perceived, of the following generations.

i'm sure my mother, who called me a "dumbshit" when she saw that i had pierced my ear (i was 18 at the time), has had oportunity to gnash her teeth over my decisions on more than one occasion. this notwithstanding that i have a master's degree, an emmy award, and i'm a licensed attorney. she's older than me. it's her right.

so, now as i enter the downhill slide of my adulthood, let me take the opportunity to say, "WHAT THE F*** IS WRONG WITH KIDS TODAY?!"

i'm not even talking about the "daddy's little prostitute" outfits the girls wear, or the impossibly stupid affectation of boys walking around with their pants belted around their thighs. i'm talking about bedrock issues of liberty and freedom, and teens' lack of knowledge of or respect for them.

in case you hadn't heard, a recent survey found that half of the high school students polled believe that the government should have some authority to censor newspapers. half believe the government can censor indecent material on the internet (it can't), and three-fourths believe flag burning is illegal (it isn't). three-fourths also say they take the first amendment for granted, or simply don't know how they feel about it.

i feel cold... so cold....

the study, a $1 million operation sponsored by the john s. and james l. knight foundation, surveyed more than 100,000 students. university of connecticut researchers who conducted the study also spoke to about 8,000 teachers and 500 administrators at 541 public and private schools across the u.s.

the ultimate finding of the study is that young people don't know squat about their rights, and don't care much more than that. some who do care have a decidedly negative take on the matter: 13% said people should not be allowed to express unpopular views. (as upsetting as this number is, i'm equally-- if not moreso-- disturbed by the 1% of administrators and3% of teachers, who are supposed to teach respect for the law and the constitution, who agree with the proto-censors.)

the study found that students who work on campus newspapers and such tend to skew a little higher on the free speech scale. it also found, however, that about a fifth of schools don't have any student media, and that many of them cut their programs in that past five years due to budget cuts. the likeliest candidates for such cutbacks are non-suburban and low-income schools.

why the lack of concern? why the lack of understanding?

it's pretty simple, really. in the recent past, the wildly inaptly named "no child left behind act" requires schools to perform well on proficiency exams or suffer horrible consequences, like cuts to funding. (this makes sense to the punitive reactionary-right mind: if you're underperforming, we'll take money away from you so will learn how bad it is to underperform, even though it is likely to cause you to continue to underperform.) so schools teach to the test, strictly the three r's, which are pretty much all you need to be a good consumer.

more significant is the lack and failure to teach critical thinking. the school system i remember actively discouraged critical thinking, for the most part. critical thinking leads to challenging authority, and challenging authority is unacceptable. repetition and regurgitation are all that's needed, and rote is easy. the education system is a strictly q-and-a transaction, because it's adequate.

i know what i'm talking about here. i was removed from an economic theory class in high school because i debated with the teacher over an exam. he asked for "three reasons" for a particular economic scenario (i don't remember what it was). i gave three reasons. each one of them was accurate and valid, but they were not the three he was looking for. so i got it wrong. on top of that, he looked at my questioning his reasoning as disrespect and had me removed from the class at the semester. and, get this: it was an honors class, for gifted students.

i have since been a teacher at a major top-tier univeristy, teaching a decidedly tricky and conceptual class on censorship and the first amendment, and i can confirm that the lack of critical thinking continues today. many students are resistant to any manner of critical thinking. they are used to rote q-and-a, and they are comfortable with it. when you ask them to hash out issues with no specific answer, they freeze up, or lash out. "we're paying you to give us the answer" is a phrase that i have heard.

(this is not to say that all of my students were unable to think for themselves. many were brilliant, highly motivated and wicked smart. too few, though....)

when students are not encouraged to think for themselves, they begin to lose respect, or even mild concern, for their right to do so. is this part of a grand malevolent design, a right-wing conspiracy? probably not in any conscious or overt way, though it does help the right go about its mean-spirited business when people don't challenge what's going on in business and government that is ruining their lives.

as wobbly troubadour utah phillips says, public schools are equipped like no other institution to socialize and indoctrinate students, installing levers and buttons that can be manipulated at will to produce any desired response. those who don't go along with the pep rally are quickly informed that they are not wanted or tolerated. the lesson is well learned over the course of 13 years or so.

i strongly doubt there's any deliberate atempt to short-sell our children in schools. it's just easier to create compliant, malleable kids than those who can think for themselves. there were a handful of teachers in my pre-college years who challenged and inspired students, and most of them were thought of as crackpots and weirdos.

my path from journalist to lawyer started long before i went to college. the same with my respect and commitment to the constitution and the ideals upon which this country were founded. mr. edwards, mr. midyett, mrs. kelly and even that odd mr. gevirtzman pushed me along the way, and i thank them, quite belatedly, for it.

the failure of high schoolers to understand the value of their right to speak, to hear, to see, to read, to create, to think and to be whatever they want is no fault of theirs. it's the fault of every principal and teacher who forgot, or never learned, that they are building citizens, not consumers.

and shame on them.