Santa Fe, TX, wants more God, not gun control


Swamp Rabbit and I were reading from a Washington Post story about local reactions to the slaying of nine students and a teacher by a gun-wielding student at a school in Santa Fe, TX:

“It’s not the guns. It’s the people. It’s a heart problem,” said Sarah Tassin, 61. “We need to bring God back into the schools.”

According to the Post reporter, the woman’s response was in keeping with how “most residents” of Santa Fe think about the killings. They think we need more God, not gun control. God likes guns, and he does not like people who question his motives or challenge his authority.

A typically lame story on NPR noted that the townsfolk were still up in arms, so to speak, about a two-decades old U.S. Supreme Court decision that stopped allowing student-led prayers at school events. It’s this sort of blasphemy that led to the carnage, get it? The fact that there are guns all over the place had nothing to do with it.

People’s thought processes don’t get that screwed up overnight. It takes many generations of worshipping a God too mysterious for big-city heathens to understand. A God that grew out of a nasty strain of Christianity that stresses belief in predestination.

I tried to explain this to Swamp Rabbit. “This God of theirs isn’t real big on pity or mercy, and he never explains himself. If something bad happens to you, it’s your fault. If you offend him, you get cast into the dark.”

Swamp Rabbit scratched his mangy head and said, “Their God sounds a lot like Trump.”

“You got it,” I replied. “Most Bible thumpers can’t tell the one from the other.”

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Torturer shatters glass ceiling at CIA


Yesterday Gina Haspel overcame all the obstacles — job segregation by gender, the old-boy network, lax enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, attempts to present evidence that she was a torturer — to become the first woman director of the CIA. A round of applause, please.

On the day before the Senate vote, Jeremy Scahill noted

…Haspel has refused to renounce torture, her role in its use or to condemn the practice of waterboarding. In fact, under questioning from Sen. Kamala Harris during her confirmation hearing, Haspel explicitly refused to say that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” she oversaw at a secret CIA prison in Thailand were immoral.

For a while it seemed the good old boys in the Senate might not go for her, but most of them put aside their gender biases, not to mention their sense of decency, and gave her a big thumbs-up.

It was a landmark decision and a signal that women in government can and will be rewarded for despicable behavior just as readily as men. More to the point, it proved we’ve entered an era when depraved old white women can wield as much power to fuck up the world as depraved old white men.

Who would have thought that a torturer would strike such an important blow for gender equality?

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Tom Wolfe’s works will live on! Really!!!


After hearing Tom Wolfe had died, I thought of that scene in The Bonfire of the Vanities where master of the universe Sherman McCoy, under arrest, is paraded past reporters with Styrofoam peanuts clinging to his expensive suit.

…They were all over his shirt and pants. The rain was streaming down his forehead and his cheeks. He started to wipe his face, but then he realized he would have to raise both hands and his jacket to do it, and he didn’t want them to see his handcuffs. So the water just rolled down…

No writer was better at using the third-person narrator to get inside the heads of his characters, at using specific details to show their states of mind, at dissecting their passions and pretensions. The fictional Sherman McCoy was no less vividly drawn than the real-life Leonard Bernstein in “Radical Chic,” and the real-life Ken Kesey in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

I was working for a daily newspaper when Bonfire came out. The reporters and editors who actually read books — there were more than a few of us — were only mildly surprised by Wolfe’s seamless transition from nonfiction to fiction. In his nonfiction he combined first-rate reporting with cutting humor, a hyperactive prose style and a talent for socio-historical analysis. In his fiction, he used the same elements.

A lot of journalists back then wanted to write like Wolfe, just like folk musicians in the 1960s wanted to write like Bob Dylan, and short-story writers in the 1990s wanted to write like Denis Johnson.

And so what if Wolfe’s style was inimitable? He inspired a lot of us to find our own paths, to put our era in perspective, and he’s still influencing young writers who aspire to write something more ambitious than nuts-and-bolts journalism.

Footnote: Wolfe once told Rolling Stone: “I’ve taken what I think of as the ‘man from Mars approach’: I’ve just arrived from Mars, I have no idea what you’re doing, but I’m very interested.” Nowhere is this approach more successfully realized than in Acid Test, an amazing piece of journalism-sociology-history that’s still as exciting and insightful as it was when it was first published, fifty years ago.

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For news without context, tune into NPR


I fell asleep with the radio on and woke Monday to what I thought was the sound of my friend Swamp Rabbit pleading for a drink. But no, it was the squeaky little voice of Ivanka Trump’s Ken doll, Jared Kushner, who was telling the world via National Public Radio how terrific it was to be present in Israel for an event celebrating the movement of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, not many miles from the celebration, Israeli soldiers at the Gaza border were shooting Palestinians, who had responded to the embassy move — a strong signal that peace talks were dead — by burning tires and trying to breach the border fence. By day’s end, 58 had been killed and well over a thousand wounded.

NPR mentioned the slaughter a few times as they reported on the dignitaries at the new embassy site — Barbie and Ken, Trump toady Steve Mnuchin, mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, and so on — but the network made no mention of the web of corruption that binds Republican big shots to thugs like Israeli Prime Minister “Bibi” Netanyahu.

For context regarding the embassy move — for instance, why is it happening? — Twitter was a better place to start than NPR.

NPR is almost as useless as it is ubiquitous. It has some good reporters and covers a lot of territory, but its news directors were neutered years ago when the Breitbarts of the world began accusing the network of liberal bias.

Footnote: I’ll bet Robert Mueller wasn’t following the fete in Jerusalem. More likely, he was sifting through evidence of how Kushner has been manipulated by Israel and other foreign powers.

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A fictionalized Trump? Too cliche


Does anyone doubt that Donald Trump, if elected president of a country with no laws protecting freedom of the press, would have quickly muzzled any news organizations that didn’t suck up to him the same way Mike Pence does?

I asked my friend Swamp Rabbit, only because the answer is so obvious. Trump’s tweets remind us that the leader of the so-called free world has no sense of irony, no self-awareness, no tolerance for viewpoints that challenge his delusions of grandeur.

Trump’s favorite put-down is “fake news,” but he can’t get through a public statement without telling a lie, or a series of lies, depending on how long he talks. He accuses reporters of being negative but built his whole campaign on the (correct) assumption that he could win by exploiting the fears and resentments of working-class whites.

“Blah, blah,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Let it go, dude. Get on with your miserable life.”

He was right. Bitching about the malicious fraud in the White House won’t change anything. It might not even be therapeutic.

The problem is I write fiction and consider Trump an affront to good fiction, just as he is to good government. I take it personally. He’s an insult to countless fiction writers who labor to make their characters come alive on the page.

“That don’t make no sense,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Just ’cause you don’t like him don’t mean he ain’t alive.”

I tried to explain: Fictional characters don’t have to be likable, but they do have to seem genuine and show some glimmer of inner life. They needn’t evolve into full-fledged heroes or villains, but they must change, or at least learn something new about themselves, in order to fully engage smart readers.

Trump seems neither genuine nor capable of change. He’s a villain, but a predictable villain, greedy, vulgar and vain. Incapable of self-examination. The presidential Trump is as mean and contemptible as the pre-presidential Trump. He’s a cartoon villain — a character drawn from reality TV, not from reality.

“What you sayin’?” Swamp Rabbit said. “What’s wrong with Trump being a cartoon? Most people like cartoons.”

I like cartoons,” I replied. “I just don’t like cartoons that become President of the United States.”

Clarification: Trump would fail as a primary character in realistic fiction, but he’s a good fit for satiric fiction, or for the theater of the absurd. He’s a dead ringer for the cartoonish title character in Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi.

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Fool me once… OK, now fool me again


The race is on. In one lane we have Donald Trump using false evidence from Benjamin Netanyahu as an excuse to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal, a first step in drumming up support for another Mideast war.

In the other, a diverse crew of investigators sifting through a trove of Trump lies, sorting them out, preparing a case that might topple our home-grown Mussolini.

Trump is still in the race but losing steam, and each new day brings more evidence that we’re right to worry — he really might start a major war if that’s what it takes to distract America when Robert Mueller catches up with him.

This morning I visited my friend Swamp Rabbit, who is totally opposed to worrying. He thinks taking deep breaths and letting time pass is the best way to deal with situations you can’t control.

“But this is like the Iraq War in 2003, Rabbit. The chief and his minions let loose a stream of lies about a nonexistent threat, the media plays along with the lies, or do a halfhearted job of debunking them. Propaganda tamps down potential public outrage. The bombs start falling.”

“It’s just your imagination,” the Rabbit said. “Ain’t no way we gonna get fooled into fighting another of them disaster wars.”

“That’s what they said after Vietnam, you dumb rodent.”

My insult pissed him off. “You’re projecting, Odd Man. You got a shitty part-time job and can’t keep up with your bills or support your writing habit. Just because you in a downward spiral don’t mean the world is, too.”

I saw his point but resented his insistence that my bleak personal situation belied evidence that the world was in big trouble.

“Trump is an existential threat,” I said. “He’s a monster con man with no redeeming qualities.”

“No shit,” the Rabbit replied. “But it took an army of morons to create the monster. It’s a little late to talk them into changing their minds, doncha think?”

“Maybe not. If public opinion can’t stop him, what will?”

The Rabbit broke the seal on a bottle of Wild Turkey and took a quick drink. “There’s Congress,” he said. “And then there’s the courts.”

I groaned and almost said something nasty, but in the end I just asked him to pass the bottle.

Footnote: As George W. Bush once stammered, “There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.”

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Emotional weather report for April


…High tonight, low tomorrow, precipitation is expected.
– Tom Waits

Nature was at war with itself last month – solitary balmy days sandwiched by cold snaps with gusty winds, the sky still bright at 7:30 pm, but with temps in the thirties. I ran at dusk, watching the light shift as clouds rushed in, reshaping ordinary things into creatures I couldn’t trust, and vice versa.

The dinosaur up ahead turned out to be a mobile crane with steel jaws. The old woman scrubbing bed sheets was a chopper draped in a tarp that flapped in the wind.

The north wind hit me full force on Broad Street. I turned my head and saw THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS stenciled in gold on an impressive glass entryway and, on either side of the entryway, the words TAX TIME printed in big bold caps on tall cardboard signs. I guessed that Mormons had abandoned their South Philly mission to a platoon of accountants.

I turned west on Passyunk and saw the sky split in half, a big black cloud on the right, a pink sunset bleeding into clear blue on the left. Kanye West was on the corner, scolding black people for choosing to be slaves. Stormy Daniels stumbled out of Fatso’s Bar, followed by Donald Trump’s slack-jawed lawyer – Cohen, his name is.

My life passed before my eyes. Everything reminded me of past mistakes and false assumptions. The skinny old smoker outside 7-11 was at death’s door. Or would he outlive me by 20 years?

I stopped running and phoned my friend Swamp Rabbit. “It’s high anxiety,” I said. “You know any remedies?”

“Time,” the Rabbit said. “This time next week it might be 90 degrees. This time next year, or the year after, Trump might be making a deal to stay out of jail.”

“You can’t control what’s coming, so get a grip,” he added. “Get some new glasses, too.”

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