May the Fraud Be With You

Now that the next Star Wars movie is coming into focus as Star Wars. Episode VII: The Fan Base Gets Monetized, here’s an appropriate excerpt from my new essay collection, Let the Devil Speak:

“As this book goes to press, the Church of Star Wars has grown to encompass old and new testaments comprising the original three films – Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi – and the three prequels: The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith. The original gospels are available in differing forms, or Special Editions, with contradictory details on crucial questions of doctrine: e.g., Did Han Solo or Greedo the bounty hunter take the first shot? Did Luke Skywalker give a girlie-man scream as he tumbled down that airshaft, or did he maintain samurai silence? And there is a separate galaxy’s worth of apocrypha in the form of video games, fan fiction, novelizations, an animated series (The Clone Wars), and scores of ‘expanded universe’ novels, many of them at least equal and in some cases superior to the six canonical works.

     “Fortunately, Bill Moyers had the sense to put away the incense and return to valuable journalism and punditry. But, to borrow a phrase from the Firesign Theatre, there’s a seeker born every minute, and after a gap of several years, with only the re-release of the six films in yet another format to stir the congregants, Moyers was succeeded by Camille Paglia, the Auntie Mame of academe, who mercifully eased up on the Campbell references – the better to trowel up her own brand of high-toned gabble.

     “Paglia, a self-styled provocateur who lurches after contrarian arguments the way a shyster chases ambulances, proclaimed Lucas ‘the greatest artist of our age’ in her 2012 book Glittering Images: A Journey through Art from Egypt to Star Wars. Having used the book’s introduction to deplore the distracting effect of video games on youth, Paglia celebrated the climactic light-saber duel at the end of Revenge of the Sith, itself little more than a protracted video game battle, with none of the storytelling value of the confrontation in The Empire Strikes Back. (Though Obi-Wan’s big line in the heat of battle – ‘Only a Sith lord speaks in absolutes!’ – showed Lucas’ ear for dialogue had lost none of its cauliflower bloom.) But Paglia was just getting warmed up. ‘No one has closed the gap between art and technology more successfully than George Lucas,’ she proclaimed, then went on to hail the ‘Incredible Cross Sections’ books (diagrams of the various spaceships and accessories cramming every frame of the series) in terms that would have had Joseph Campbell himself fleeing to the magic grove:

    The precise draftsmanship, mastery of perspective, and glorification of engineering in these superbly produced books have not been seen since modernist abstraction swept away the great tradition of architectural drawings of the neoclassic Beaux Arts school. In genre, the Cross-Sections books are anatomies, analogous to Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, with their medical dissections, botanical studies, and military designs for artillery, catapults, tanks, and then-impossible submarines and flying machines.          

      “The ‘Incredible Cross Sections’ books are indeed lovely productions that induce long periods of staring and musing, especially when they diagram the R.M.S. Titanic and the human body – i.e., real things – but if Camille Paglia can look at these toy-marketing tie-ins and see Leonardo’s notebooks, I’d love to have her free-associate her way through some IKEA assembly instructions.”

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Resentments of Things Past

This is another excerpt from “He May Be a Fool But He’s Our Fool: Lester Maddox, Randy Newman, and the American Culture Wars,” from my new collection Let the Devil Speak:

  The tune has varied little over the decades. Whether it’s Spiro Agnew snarling about effete intellectual snobs or Dan Quayle chirping about “the cultural elite,” the message is that the world is being run into the ground by elitists who look down on hardworking Americans while opening the gates to barbaric gays/ blacks/ immigrants/ Islamists, or any other boogieman of the moment. Sometimes the speaker makes the mistake of being too frank in public, as happened when Rev. Jerry Falwell went on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club broadcast a mere two days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and announced, with smoke from incinerated humans and buildings still thick in the air over southern Manhattan, that the attacks reflected God’s anger at “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays, and the lesbians.” But even when it fails to win elections, culture war rhetoric serves the purpose of shoring up the hardcore supporters – the base. In that case, failure is almost preferable to success. It keeps the base unified and, above all, angry. Resentment is the cheap fuel that keeps the culture wars running, and like most cheap fuels it generates an appalling amount of pollutants.  

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The Cockroach and the Governor

This is another excerpt from “He May Be a Fool But He’s Our Fool: Lester Maddox, Randy Newman, and the American Culture Wars,” from my new collection Let the Devil Speak:

     Those with a deep knowledge of pop culture and the civil rights era will remember Lester Maddox as the Atlanta restaurateur who race-baited his way to the governorship of Georgia, and who did in fact appear on a December 1970 broadcast of The Dick Cavett Show. (The description of Nebraska-born Cavett, a museum-quality specimen of the mid-twentieth-century WASP, as “a smart-ass New York Jew” immediately announces the unreliability of this particular narrator.) Though Maddox got the bulk of that night’s airtime, the show opened with a brief appearance by an entomologist from the Museum of Natural History, who displayed samples from the museum’s insect collection – most memorably, a hissing cockroach. For anyone who had seen the photo of Maddox and his son chasing an African-American man out of their Atlanta restaurant, threatening him with a pick handle and a pistol every step of the way, it was an appropriate lead-in.

 

 

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What the Devil Said

This is an excerpt from “He May Be a Fool But He’s Our Fool: Lester Maddox, Randy Newman, and the American Culture Wars,” from my new collection Let the Devil Speak:

     Great devil speeches crop up in the most unexpected places, and can dominate the stories in which they appear. Mention the film The Third Man and likely the first thing you’ll think of is black market profiteer Harry Lime’s discourse on how the bloody reign of the Borgias produced the innovations of the Renaissance, while the peace and prosperity of Switzerland produced nothing grander than the cuckoo clock. (It was actually invented in Germany, but nobody wants to interrupt Harry Lime when he’s on a roll.) In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Serpent invites Eve to bite into the forbidden fruit by asking her why a just and loving god would want to deny his creations full knowledge of the world he has created for them: “Why but to keep ye low and ignorant.” Bite into the forbidden fruit, Satan promises, and “ye shall be as Gods/ Knowing both Good and Evil as they know.” Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” soliloquy in The Merchant of Venice may well be the ultimate devil speech. Shakespeare’s audience would have heard it as the self-justifying rant of a villain, but its sentiments have upended that role so completely that for a modern audience it is Antonio, not Shylock, who comes off as the villain.

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Support the Troops

From “The Unforgivable Thing,” an essay in my new collection Let the Devil Speak:

     Support the troops! I saw it on the magnetized yellow ribbons that appeared on the backs of cars, trucks, and SUVs. I heard it intoned on news programs even as the invasion of Iraq showed its first signs of turning into a long, bloody wallow of corruption and stupidity. And in the spring of 2004 I heard it snarled by a fireman as his colleagues gunned their engines and swerved their big shiny vehicles in front of our anti-war group and gave dozens of men, women, and children a righteous taste of patriotic tailpipe exhaust. The firefighters were supposed to stay at the back of the parade lineup so they could peel away to answer any emergency calls without too much disruption, but that morning it was more important for them to tell us that we, with our American flags and red-white-and-blue banners, did not belong in their parade.

     “Support the troops!” The fireman who barked it at us was so enraged by our mere presence that he couldn’t even bring himself to look straight at the group. He shot us a single sideways glance, red-faced with indignation, then took his place alongside one of the lumbering vehicles. He didn’t care if we were carrying a long banner with the names of the soldiers who had died in Iraq up to that point. He didn’t want to be reminded of dead soldiers. After all, it was a Memorial Day parade.

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Historyville

I always have a good time when I do book events in Jersey City, or Hudson County in general, because as far as I can tell, EVERYBODY in Hudson County is some kind of historian. Everyone has a story related to Frank Hague or John Kenny and is happy to share it.

While I was at the Hudson County History Fair a short while ago, a couple of people came up to my table to chat about the relative merits of Hague versus Enoch “Nucky” Johnson. Naturally the talk turned to the HBO show Boardwalk Empire and the question, since answered, of whether the heavily fictionalized boss of the show would survive.  (The real life Nucky, of course, did a few years in the federal pen and then lived a quiet life as a political eminence gris until well into the Sixties.) Inevitably, the talk turned to That Episode.

Hudson County people know what I’m talking about. The episode shows Hague, in real life a moralist who never smoked or drank, puffing a cigar and knocking back a tumbler of whiskey while ogling a naked showgirl playing a ukelele. 

“My mother,” the guy said, “never gets up for anything anymore. When she saw that scene, she got up from her chair and demanded we call the show’s producers. ‘That’s not Frank!’ she yelled.”

No, it wasn’t. It’s astonishing to me that a show based on such a fascinating period of U.S. history could have turned out to be so tedious. But that was the problem: instead of going with the interesting facts, the show’s producers went in for tired Hollywood notions about gangsters. They even skipped the gangster convention of 1929, which Nucky hosted! How did the producers rationalize that decision?

Considering how he spent decades living like a pasha before the feds caught up with him, then served only about four years in the pen, I’d say Nucky got off pretty lucky. In his last years, however, Nucky Johnson was a diminished figure of some pathos. He was a kind of Dorian Gray, staying hale and hearty while his city decayed around him. The extent of the decay was revealed to the entire nation during the Democratic National Convention of 1964, when the delegates found hulking resorts full of tiny rooms and dodgy plumbing, devoid of air conditioning during a sweltering summer. Looking on from the background was grey-haired Nucky Johnson, who aside from building the Convention Center (admittedly a major improvement) had done nothing during the fat years to build institutions that could have helped the city survive the changes everyone saw coming. In the end, the boardwalk peacock looked rather more like Count Dracula.

Personally, I would have found that a far more interesting conclusion than just another stretch of bang-bang, but nobody asked me. I know Boardwalk Empire has its fans, but for me, there were lots of little sleeps before the fictional Nucky went on to the big one.

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Lunchtime with Nucky Johnson

For the past year I’ve been all over the place talking up my book American Dictators: Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine, but I’ve never done a book talk anywhere near Nucky’s old power base, Atlantic City. I’ve been to Jersey City and Hudson County many times to talk about Frank Hague, but up to now Atlantic County and Atlantic City — nada, Nucky or no Nucky

I’ll remedy that Friday, Nov. 14, when I set up shop on Atlantic Avenue at 12:30 p.m. to give the lunchtime crowd a taste of old Atlantic City and the colorful career of Nucky Johnson, the city’s best-known political boss. It’ll be in the NJ350 Pop-up Store that will appear at 1125 Atlantic Avenue, a short walk from the Boardwalk.

There will be a good-sized stack of American Dictators for sale, and I’ll be hawking some of my other titles as well. Prominent among them will be my new title, Let the Devil Speak: Articles, Essays, and Incitements. History and a visit to the Jersey shore all at once. How can you resist?  

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Something to say

Let the Devil Speak: Articles, Essays, and Incitements is now out and ready for purchase in both paperback and Kindle ebook editions.

Well, I’m excited, anyway.

Learn how a segregationist governor’s appearance on The Dick Cavett Show inspired one of the greatest concept albums of the Seventies!  Savor the result of a collaboration between one of jazz music’s greatest composers and the man behind A Christmas Story! Ponder what the author of the noir thriller The Big Clock has to tell us about the newspaper industry!  See what happened when an anti-war group joined a Memorial Day parade and looked Red State America right in the face! Learn how a generation of underappreciated American writers got screwed out of credit for inspiring one of the biggest film franchises of all time!

Above all, find out why historian Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge, says I “wield a straight-razor for a pen.” Find out why Michael Gray, author of acclaimed books about Blind Willie McTell and Bob Dylan, calls me “an exemplary cultural critic.” And take a stroll through the area where politics, culture, and history overlap — and ignite.  

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End-of-Summer Reading

My consolation for seeing the summer come to an end is the imminent publication of my essay collection Let the Devil Speak. Meanwhile, NJ Spotlight is running an excerpt from American Dictators for its Summer Reading List. Thanks, guys.

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On the Beach

 

From the book Blue Mind:

We are inspired by water — hearing it, smelling it in the air, playing in it, walking next to it, painting it, surfing, swimming or fishing in it, writing about it, photographing it, and creating lasting memories along its edge. Indeed, throughout history, you see our deep connection to water described in art, literature, and poetry. “In the water I am beautiful,” admitted Kurt Vonnegut. Water can give us energy, whether it’s hydraulic, hydration, the tonic effect of cold water splashed on the face, or the mental refreshment that comes from the gentle, rhythmic sensation of hearing waves lapping a shore. Immersion in warm water has been used for millennia to restore the body as well as the mind. Water drives many of our decisions — from the seafood we eat, to our most romantic moments, and from where we live, to the sports we enjoy, and the ways we vacation and relax. “Water is something that humanity has cherished since the beginning of history, and it means something different to everyone,” writes archeologist Brian Fagan. We know instinctively that being by water makes us healthier, happier, reduces stress, and brings us peace.

In 1984 Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard University biologist, naturalist, and entomologist, coined the term “biophilia” to describe his hypothesis that humans have “ingrained” in our genes an instinctive bond with nature and the living organisms we share our planet with. He theorized that because we have spent most of our evolutionary history—three million years and 100,000 generations or more — in nature (before we started forming communities or building cities), we have an innate love of natural settings. Like a child depends upon its mother, humans have always depended upon nature for our survival. And just as we intuitively love our mothers, we are linked to nature physically, cognitively, and emotionally.

 

From my novel Echo:

Lines of muscle strained along Theresa’s bare arms. Lisa pretended to hold the brim in place as she watched the men slouch off. Theresa’s hand, still tight in hers, stopped trembling after a few minutes.     She shifted in a way that Lisa recognized without thinking. She let her sister settle her head in her lap, then she stroked her hair back from her eyes. Theresa stared out at the waves.

     “I always loved the beach,” she muttered.

     “The beach loves you back. You looked fantastic out there in the waves. I thought you were going to ride off on a dolphin and we’d never see you again.”

     Theresa laughed – a gravelly sound. “A whale, maybe.”

     “Bullshit.”

     Another laugh, this one clearer.

     “So, you don’t like this? It isn’t working for you?”

     “It works, all right.” She sighed, and her breath puffed across Lisa’s leg. “The sound of the ocean always puts me right. I probably wouldn’t want to be here if you weren’t here, but I love this.”

     “That’s what I want to hear about. Things you love.”

     “What is it about that sound, I wonder.”

     “We were all floating around in water before we were born,” Lisa said. “All that sloshing along with mom’s heartbeat. It probably makes you think of the womb, before you were born.”

     Theresa laughed. She twisted around to look up at Lisa. “Where did that come from?”

     “I dunno,” Lisa said. “It just popped out.”

     Theresa sat up and hugged her knees. She squinted after the two men, who were a few yards away but seemed in no hurry to move along.

     “That was nice, what he said.”

     “It was,” Lisa said.

     “I shouldn’t have freaked like that. I still get caught off guard sometimes.”

     The sun was setting behind them, and the evening haze was full of pink and purple light. A couple of hundred yards away, four young girls were climbing an overturned lifeguard boat and jumping off. A couple in their twenties walked past, holding hands and bumping shoulders. The man’s arms were a dense weave of tattoos. The woman had a neon pink feather in her black hair. The plumage changed, but the rituals stayed the same.

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