Friday, April 28, 2017

Toffile Barre

Josh Marshall writes that the current White House has a "Mailer Problem." It's not that they know General Flynn is not to be looked into because of something specific. Rather, they just figure that there will be something there, if investigations look long and hard enough. This is apparently because the White House knows they did not vet General Flynn for his job, but just figured that since he had a job with the previous administration, he was vetted. He wasn't National Security Advisor back then. It wasn't the job of the Obama Administration to vet him for National Security Advisor. And there's also the detail that he was fired by the Obama Administration. This is the moment when ignorance merges with responsibility.

Toffile Barre had only one criticism of his wife. She went to sleep before she went to bed. Or something like that. Once long long ago he murdered the wild colonial boy rather than murder her. She and Toffile buried the boy in the cellar. One night the skeleton climbed the stairs and stood at the door to the living room, waiting for things to "happen in their favor."

My first impulse was to get to the knob
And hold the door. But the bones didn’t try
The door; they halted helpless on the landing,
Waiting for things to happen in their favor.
The faintest restless rustling ran all through them.
I never could have done the thing I did
If the wish hadn’t been too strong in me
To see how they were mounted for this walk.
I had a vision of them put together
Not like a man, but like a chandelier.

I wonder if little Donald, a boy of 8 in knickers, frequently allowed his curiosity to win the day. No doubt his dad, Fred, whipped the hell out of him when the wrong door got opened. Donald didn't stop opening doors. He probably learned, better and better as time went on, to find the better suspect. He didn't have the bad luck to open the wrong door.

I knew a kid like that. He was in the Boy Scouts, in the same Troop as me. He was about eleven when, on a Saturday, he got into a crane at a work site about half way between my house and his. Somehow he got the crane cranked up and started messing with the various controls. It was something he would do. He was always pissing off the Scout Master for not following rules or orders. He got the derrick moving, swung it around to where it hit some electric lines that ran along the street beside the construction site, which was I think a church along Clarke Avenue, in Raleigh. When he hit the power lines he was electrocuted.

This happened about 1954 or so. They'd already electrocuted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg I think, although that didn't come up in the weekly Troop Meetings. We did do a lot of marching, in the side yard of the West Raleigh Presbyterian Church where the Troop met. There was probably by then an Atomic Merit Badge, but aside from the marching around we mostly were in it for the camping trips. One time we did three days of the Appalachian Trail, a still memorable thing that occupies a good deal of space in my mental photograph album. We camped the first night near some rapids, on a rock shelf. The next day we hiked all day. The last day we ran out of water, and the map we were using didn't mention that good water points might be dry in the summer, so we were pretty damn dry when we finally got to our pickup on the highway. I remember the best milkshake I ever had at the end of that trip, and a great hamburger. The adult leaders were ready to get home. When some kid said they had to stop for a pee, the driver said "at least you're not a girl, you've got something to hold on to." I can imagine Fred Trump saying something like that to little Donald.

All during this time, the Russians had enough missiles to obliterate every city in the United States, not to mention Fort Bragg, which was just down the road and the home of the 82nd Airborne, and a place we'd go camp on short weekend trips. How did the United States manage to deal with this significant restriction on it's field of movement and action. It's a wonder. There were various hot spots in the decades of my youth. The Suez Crisis. Hungary. The Cuban Missile Crisis. The Bay of Pigs. The assassination of John F. Kennedy. That was a pretty damn big one. But even after that the Civil Rights Movement continued, and found some significant end points in the Voting Rights Act and the various other public accommodations rulings and legislations that at least addressed the most obvious surface issues of being black in America in 1963. And there was no nuclear war.

Now little Donald has grown up, and hears the rattle of bones on the other side of the cellar door. He always got what he wanted, and never knew a thing about why he wanted it. I want to crank this crane. When the colonial boy's skeleton hand reaches for Toffile's wife after she's opened the door, she slaps it away, and the little finger bones scatter across the living room floor. She keeps one in her button box even "now," but cannot find it, only the gesture of looking for it to "prove" to the narrator that her story about the ghost bones is true.

The rustling at the cellar door is insistent. It has taken men and women of significant perspicacity to consider the implications of opening that door. We've been over the years quite lucky, really. John Adams predicted, in 1814, that our democracy would be short-lived. Democracies commit suicide he said. Perhaps his historian descendant Henry expected this to be the conclusion of the Civil War when he opined that they should have hung Robert E. Lee. Root out the treason, Henry thought.
History went differently. Oppenheimer ran the operation to build the atomic bomb, and it worked, and when he said mankind had opened the door to oblivion he lost his security clearance.

My guess is, Donald Trump doesn't know this history. When Frost tells him that in the morning, as he is leaving the old crone's cottage, he sees on the mailbox, "Toffile Barre," Donald is convinced. There is a finger bone in that button box.

Sunday, April 23, 2017


So sometimes you just write the perfect song, with the perfect music to go with it. And you need, sometimes, to be far far away.

This song would not work, would not be the thing it was, exploding into everyone's head and heart, taking everyone by storm, if the voice hadn't been English, talking about a mystery American band, The Sultans of Swing, that played so the song says, "creole," so the band's from "way down south," and the band is the romantic idea, they just go out on Friday nights to someplace local, they have regular jobs (Dire Straits wrote about this again, this regular job thing: "he might get a blister on his thumb...", meanwhile, "we got to move these refrigerators, got to move these color tvs"...) So the Sultans are great, but nobody outside of town knows them.

The song isn't "creole." It's sort of country in a way, particularly the little phrase that ends each part, which you can hear in a million country and bluegrass songs, a kind of tag. And the song tells this great story, with many of the Sultans being particularized, verse by verse and told by this tired, sort of cynical voice. But what caps it all off, what blew my mind the first time I heard it on the radio, the original single back when they did that, which is really so perfect, better than this fine live version from a year after the hit, on German tv, which is it's own delight because you can see the band, still young and on top of their game, is the guitar solos. My gawd!

There's a Gary Snyder poem about this moment where something you don't expect smacks you in the face, but in a good, even transcendent way. I think it's called For the Boy Who Was Dodger Point Lookout Fifteen Years Ago. Towards the end Snyder writes:

I don’t know where she is now;

I never asked your name.

In this burning, muddy, lying,

blood-drenched world

that quiet meeting in the mountains

cool and gentle as the muzzles of

three elk, helps keep me sane.

Sultans is like this. It's a moment that transcends. It says it's not all lost in this Trump world of pretty much pure shit. Just like when Snyder was writing, which was I think 1951, so that's the Korean War now isn't it. If you look some things can still keep you sane. Stuff from out beyond the edge, away from the campfire.

Trump labors with a tragic disability. It comes up all the time, if you look. He wants to blame the past for everything. He says, pretty much constantly, "the world is a mess." In the case of Korea, he picks Bill Clinton as somehow the culprit, even though Bill Clinton tried to negotiate with the grandfather of Mr. Un, the current ruler. But why in the world stop there, if you want to blame someone for the world being in a current mess? Korea is a partitioned nightmare because General McArthur went against President Truman's orders and got up too close to the Chinese border, which drew the Chinese Army into the war. After that the United States finally had to find a compromise, and the compromise was a partitioned Korea, with the two antagonists forever locked in combat. Or, if you like, why not go back to the Japanese, who occupied Korea before the civil war started.

How sad. But it's a pretty, rainy day here. The rain is knocking the forest fire hazard back to zero around here. It's chilly enough that we might need a fire in the stove too! Click Sultans on repeat up there at the top. Be uplifted.

Update: This post is really about my first few experiences of the song Sultans of Swing. Here's a lot more objective information about the song: As you can see, the band depicted in the song is playing way "down south" in south London. Who knew? Probably everybody but me. But it doesn't much matter. The experience I had was much like Snyder's experience in his poem. That's the point. There's one other thing. The band I was in was on the road a lot in '79, when Sultans was on the radio. We heard it riding through the night. And I think that the first thing that hit us was a line deep in the song: "don't give a damn about no trumpet-playing band, it's not what they call rock and roll..." Hey. We were a "trumpet-playing band," and in the middle of '79 I think it was, someone up in Wise, VA at a hard-core bluegrass festival hit the trumpet-player in the thigh with a purple sno-cone flung from somewhere deep in the audience, while he was doing a trumpet break. And there's still another thing about Sultans. There ain't nothing more kick-ass than a change from minor to major in the middle of a melody. That, too, is transcendent. You can't do it every song, but put a song like that in the heart of a set and you will own the crowd. I guarantee it.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Tax Day: "I Fergot!"

Sometime about 1980 or so I recall watching Saturday Night Live (or who knows, maybe it was Johnny Carson?) and seeing Steve Martin's bit about how to deal with income taxes. "Just tell 'em, 'I forgot,'" he said. It was funny because Martin's ability to portray a state of earnest ignorance could make it funny. Everyone watching, and Martin himself, knew full well that earnest ignorance only carries you so far. You can't say, when the cop stops you for running a red light, "I didn't see it." Maybe you didn't. He did. That is not a hill to die on.

One of the most important paintings in the whole history of art is Picasso's Guernica. If you don't know anything else about art, you probably do know Guernica. All the people who want you to forget Guernica have spent a lot of time writing about how Picasso was, personally, a, well, difficult case. He had too many wives, and too many mistresses. He was arrogant. He realized in his later years that if he wrote his name at the bottom of literally any sort of doodle or scrawl, it was pretty much like printing money. None of that matters at all.

This is why we shouldn't let Sean Spicer get away with his alleged "gaffe" concerning the Holocaust, poison gas, and all the rest of the muddle he spouted the other day in his efforts to justify the seemingly random missile attack we launched on the Syrian airfield. It wasn't a gaffe, and we only let that go because mostly people feel sorry for Spicer. And indeed, he has a sorry damn job, defending every day the undefensible. For some reason Ms Conway seems to maintain a personal relish for this task. Her gibberish reminds me of an early Bob Dylan press conference. Everything is deflected, twisted. Of course Dylan was coming from a very different place. Like Picasso, he was an artist, and he didn't want to be cornered.

Spicer didn't make any sort of "gaffe." Chauncy Devega gets it right:

Spicer comes from a stew of right wing historical revisions, many nurtured over decades by utterly dedicated racists, fascists, misogynists, and other people who just can't stand that history hasn't gone "their way." In Spicer's world, there was no Holocaust, and Hitler didn't murder any of his "own people," using gas or anything else. We have a bunch of these folks in the North Carolina Legislature right now. One of them, the Right Honorable Mr. Pittman, put up a bill to contest the settled Supreme Court decision last year that same sex marriage is a civil right. Even his own people have knocked that down, which is certainly some kind of small victory. For Spicer, the revisions just got sorta tangled in his explanation. He has probably never seen Guernica, never heard that the painting was inspired by the obliteration of the Spanish town of Guernica by the German and Italian Air Forces, an early experiment in population bombing. They made sure it was market day. The number of dead is still not entirely known. Meanwhile, Pittman defended his bill on his Facebook page, and in the process compared Lincoln to Hitler. If Spicer had thought of it, he might have gone there too, although I'd imagine that most of the high level fascists who now occupy the Executive Branch have at least learned not to attack Lincoln, since they also want to use him in their ongoing attempts to pry gullible black votes (as such they may be) from the Democratic Party's ranks.

Down here the Republicans still are ok with attacking Lincoln. The Southern Strategy is alive and well. And in most eastern NC counties, you'd best not talk nice about General Sherman at the local diner--I mean the local "white diner" anyway. In the black communities, it's still a badge of honor to be named Sherman.

And it's true, as well, that the burning of Atlanta is something of a Guernica moment, starring the General and his Army. But if you're honest about the real world we live in, you can't quite say "War, what is it good for? Huh! Absolutely nothing." I love the song, and in a lot of contexts it's righteous. But you can't say that about Atlanta. And you can't say that Hitler, unlike Assad, didn't gas his own people.

The missile strike of last week has come down to a quibble about which method of death must be under all circumstances banned from the world. This is because it's all, as usual with Mr. Trump, an effort to explain and justify a decision which was unthoughtout and executed in the moment. This is all Mr. Trump can do. It is who he is. The United States must now address the abject failure of our system of choosing presidents. Whether this is even remotely possible is, to my mind, unlikely. We live now in a national quandary.

Quandaries yield muddles. Some of them are even funny. See, e.g., Steve Martin's humor concerning the income tax. Wonder if Mr. Manafort can use the same argument, or if he was careful to pay taxes on even the bags of cash he was receiving via "wire transfer" from Eastern Europe.

It takes a lot of obfuscation to obliterate the painting Guernica. Much more than it took to obliterate the little Spanish/Basque town. We've had decades and decades now, of Limbaugh and all the other apologists. Down here they will argue with you about how "Lincoln's War" was "illegal." And if you go over and talk to the Russians right now, they'll offer questions about who did what, if poison gas was even involved, and anyway, the whole little town was full of "terrorists.

I've been watching a lot of Anthony Bourdain's shows recently, his "Parts Unknown" pieces. He reminds us, in each show, that there are actually real people involved. Perhaps he'll even get to Guernica at some point. Surely there's a kiosk or two that's sprouted amongst the rubble by now. Grass grows up in the cracks of sidewalks and stones. Life struggles to survive. Bourdain will ride up on a scooter, eat the best ham sandwich he's ever tasted (it being Spain), and then head on out to Bilboa and the big art museum. I was hoping he'd find Guernica there, but it's hanging in a museum in Madrid, where it can be seen by even more people. My daughter lived for a while in Madrid. She often remarked on the ham there. The road goes on forever, the party never ends.

There's a reason most of the good ones are in minor.

Friday, April 7, 2017

A New Cake for His Excellency

It is literally impossible to consume the avalanche of news and maintain in the forefront the obvious fact that the Trump Administration is lying, always and all the time. By the time one dossier of lies is deconstructed, three more have appeared in the in-box. Who pushed Mr. Johnson down the steps? Will the Masters even end, this year, with a winner?

I supposed I can believe that Mr. Trump was actually affected by the film of dying small children, struggling to breathe. It was affecting, real, horrible. It's said that Mr. Trump gets all his information from the teevee. Possibly he DVRs everything first. That way he would miss the frequent ads asking for help, so that starving children in South Sudan will not die horrible deaths. Perhaps this is why he didn't bother to veto the idea of ending foreign aid, or, for that matter, starving the State Department and installing a character as it's titular head whose only qualifications are from Casting Central. Tillerson looks more "presidential" than Trump, or Rick Perry.

So the missiles fly last night. Fantastic video. There was a lot of interesting speculation about what Russia would do. A few people even speculated about how killing a few Russian soldiers would likely aid Trump's case against the charge that he allowed Russia to influence his election in his favor last fall. Now he can say, "See, Putin doesn't like me so much."

There is at this moment no clear answer to the question, Who is in charge of American foreign policy? It is inconceivable that Trump is "in charge." Like George W. Bush before him, what Mr. Trump is is the "decider." He has that role. But someone must be saying to him, "decide this." Bannon? Jared? Mattis and McMaster? It can't be Tillerson. Maybe it's Sebastian Gorka and the callow Mr. Miller? I'd put my money on Bannon, if only because he bragged a year before the election that he owned Mr. Trump.

This morning it is reported that the 59 missiles fired at the airbase in Syria did not damage the runways, or hit the supposed nerve gas dumps. A few aircraft were destroyed. No one was killed. So it was reported. $60 million worth of fireworks and it ain't even the 4th of July. Possibly the President of China, who was sitting on the front porch watching the show, julep in hand no doubt, took some lesson. Perhaps the lesson was, be afraid, because we know how to operate the machine.

I read around some blogs every morning, including one called the Booman Tribune. Here's what a commenter who's handle is Tarheel Dem said. (This proves possibly that the wife and I are not the only living Tarheel Democrats.)

Most commentary outside the war-drumming Wall Street media are reporting that the gas attack was a jihadi false flag to draw US intervention, a jihadi goal since the beginning of the war to topple Assad.

The situation in theater is that DAESH/ISIS/ISIL is not yet eliminated and has taken up positions in Idlib province. Turkey's strategy relative to the Kurds has slowed that operation in the east -- Mosul and Raqqa. And there is another meeting coming up in Brussels to talk about the future of Syria. Tell me how it makes sense for Assad to use chemical weapons and from where he got them in the midst of war.

From the US strategic perspective, turning Assad into a second front in the region is a distraction from the stated goal of destroying DAESH/ISIS/ISIL.

There are, I think, multiple personal and institutional motives going on. Trump personally (the only way he himself thinks) wants to present a drama to Xi Jinping before talking about North Korea--a drama of toughness and brutality.

The military and some of the national security strategic community want to finally get their wish to topple Assad by overwhelming force that allows a two-front war in the region.

No doubt there are some in the military who want to see what Russian S-300 and other air defense missiles can do to a massive cruise missile strike and by announcing the attack tried to force a close to in-real-combat test. The question we should start asking is "For what future purpose?"

Trump might not have the understanding, but the staff he has assembled does have some understanding of strategy, are eager to try the ideas they believe have been sidelined for a decade, and see themselves as not risk-averse.

The nationalists in his inner circle are extreme unilateralists.

There is enough method in this madness to wonder where US policy is going and to think that it might be in a very dangerous direction.

Will a massive preannounced or surprise strike to end North Korea's strategic missile warfare capabilities in the same style that Israel carried out Operation Opera on Iraq in the offing? Is that the implicit message to Xi Jinping or is that going to be the reality before the Chinese leader leaves Mar-a-Lago? And what will be the consequences of that?

Or the future direction of sizing up the air defense capabilities of essentially Chinese designed air defense as modified by the North Koreans?

Notice that these are all short of the worst case scenario that the US military capabilities are capable of -- on paper.

Reports say that 59 missiles struck the airfield. Like the math with the 19 9/11 hijackers, that prompts asking what happened to the 60th cruise missile? Did Syrian or Russian air defense in Syria or Tartus bring it down? Was there a malfunction? Or did the US just launch a peculiar number of cruise missiles?

The President doesn't grasp what he's done here, but McMaster, Mattis, and others in the inner circle do. Which is more dangerous?

It's very sad that this level of incredulity seemed last night to be entirely lacking in the news coverage. These are not cynical questions to raise for an Administration that lies constantly, and exhibits every hour more guilty behavior concerning all questions of Russian collaboration in their election. There is no clear American foreign policy at the moment, and today talks on North Korea are allegedly occurring down there at the Club.

The only thing better, for the theatre, would have been to move the whole meet up to Augusta, and let the big tourney happen between news reports. Feherty could offer insightful remarks on both the Chinese President and Mr. Trump's natty outfits. Dustin Johnson could then sit in his tent, like Achilles, weeping into his shield. And a Trojan Horse* could graze on the pretty grass at the Amen Corner.


*Mr. Trump has his own Trojan Horse metaphor, the children themselves. He said this last October:

If [Hillary Clinton] did nothing, we'd be in much better shape. And this [apparently the fact that Clinton failed to do nothing after she left the Obama administration?] is what has caused the great migration where she has taken in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees [2,290 from 2011 through 2015 and then, following the death of Alan Kurdi, 12,587 in 2016; Clinton left the State Department in 2012] who probably in many cases, not probably, who are definitely in many cases ISIS-aligned [no evidence has connected any Syrian refugee in the US to ISIS*]. And we now have them in our country and wait until you see this is going to be the great Trojan Horse. And wait until you see what happens in the coming years. Lots of luck, Hillary. Thanks a lot for doing a great job.

It's a hoary metaphor now, older than the historical Jesus, buried at the bottom of the Aegean Sea with the Greek war fleet, and a remarkable proof that Trump has actually read something. Cliff Notes strikes again. The bracketed bits in the Trump quote come from