fascist wine








For the last several years I’ve earned my living working in Alternative and Middle Schools. When I was younger I worked in steel mills, aluminum mills, painting houses and collecting rent. I’ve been called a lot of names. That was about all adolescence in the 60s completely prepared me for—enduring and trading insults. To my recollection the penultimate round of dozens of that time in my life was between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley during the 1968 Democratic Convention. Vidal called Buckley a pro-Crypto Nazi and Buckley responded by calling Vidal a queer and threatening to sock him in the face. Erudition and education notwithstanding two of the most elite essayists of their day reduced themselves to ad hominem attacks, name calling and physical threats on national television and now on the Internet


It shows some shortcomings about the nature of electronic media as a vehicle of debate. The job of television is primarily to entertain, excite and sell.  What makes good TV isn’t thoughtful discussion.

From the historic Kennedy/Nixon debates on, televised discourse has valued images and conflict more than issue or intellect—preferring heat over illumination. It’s not a rhetorical medium any more than radio was or currently is. Television has reruns, but it has no memory. Quite literally while Buckley derided Vidal on behalf of the US Marines, and Vidal cursed Buckley as a Nazi, one could have switched channels and watched episodes of “Gomer Pyle USMC” or Hogan’s Heroes”—both foolish, tasteless programs that ridiculed both soldiers and Nazi internment camps in order to sell soap. Television and radio discovered in the mid Twentieth Century that controversy, exaggeration and conflict sell products. That the current level of discourse has reduced itself even lower than 1968, shouldn’t surprise anyone anymore than being able to request a seat belt extender or our national epidemic of obesity. Television and radio have continuously refined the lowest common denominator after sixty years of marketing surveys. We only watch or listen for what will happen next. We’ll watch anything and we’ll buy anything. The height and breath of our criticism is What else is on?

 I’m not elitist. I confess I like to watch television and still have a few favorite radio programs on the public airwaves. I’ll also confess to being a proponent for reforming our health care system.

 I’m 57 and healthy enough to regularly run, go to the YMCA and occasionally play tennis. I’ve had the same internist for the last twenty some years. For twenty years he’s given me relatively the same physical, done some blood work, had a pleasant chat and I paid the bill. Sometimes my insurance covered his services, increasingly it doesn’t. Increasingly his bill is increasing. The most complicated health issues I’ve presented him were a nasty bout of traveler’s dysentery and borderline high cholesterol. He’s one of the remaining 20% of physicians who even have a private practice. He’s older than I am. My ENT talks to me about retiring next year every time I visit. My dentist is fifteen years older than either of them. If I’m still teaching middle school at 67, I’m going to need very significant medical treatment. But in ten years when I’m 67, I suspect all my doctors will be retired. That will be more of us unemployed and in need of health care and shopping our medical files around for the lowest bid.

My wife is a psychologist; she shares a practice with associates and two other colleagues. 20-25% of her gross income is spent to pay for clerical services to fill out, file, re-file and make telephone calls to insurance companies. I work with Special Education students in a school that qualifies for 95% free lunch. The medical costs of raising a special needs child are roughly equivalent to having four car wrecks a year. The day to day expenses of a school of children not being able to have simple preventative medical care reduces everyone’s capacity to learn. The school nurse’s office is overfilled two to three times a day with sick children. The nurse can only give them a cold cloth or salt water to gargle.

 For my mother to spend less than four days in a hospital where she received two tests, consultations, medications, and died was billed at over $95,000. As a World War II Army Nurse she had Veteran’s Benefits or she wouldn’t have been admitted to the hospital.  Last year my employer and I paid over $15,000 into health care insurance benefits—a figure considerably in excess of my income taxes or home mortgage. Every year that sum increases.

 Just as when I watched the Buckley/Vidal debate forty years ago when I was 16, I’m concerned both out of self interest and national interest. Unlike when I was 16, I don’t have all the answers. I would like a rational discussion about health care.

 A little over a week ago I re-posted an article from a friend on my Facebook page reprinted from the Washington Post about the tenor of health care debate. The following morning I found a response that accused me among other things of being a fascist “one of your pal Obama’s…good little brown shirts.” This was from a white haired woman who was a you have two friends in common with friend, who previously used to send me Good Morning hugs. I was stunned and appalled. I had been smeared and then de-friended (Is that a real verb?).

 I made a good run at reading “Mien Kampf”, but found it pretty much intolerable even as a historical document. Twenty years ago I read a biography of Mussolini while researching the life of the eccentric poet and proto-fascist Gabriele D’Annunzio. I have a tan LL Bean wool shirt I received as a gift from my wife and daughter several Christmases ago. That’s it. I have had no lurid fascination with Nazis, concentration camps, secret police or racial cleansing other than reaffirming the international pledge “Never Again”. I can’t listen to Wagner or Richard Strauss, whose music I love, without guilt and hesitation. As a child many of my neighbors and relatives were brave and injured people who fought World War II or fled from it. I honor what they did and consider myself a good citizen. I’m wary of any government; I feel that’s part of a citizen’s duty, like voting, jury duty, public service and paying taxes.

 Now there are radio and television diatribes calling President Obama Hitler in response to his proposed health care reform. People old enough to have some historical respect scream “Sieg Heil” at health care public  forums. Red shirted men bully and threaten public meetings and wave swastikas. I’ve had an earnestly worried teenager ask me if I’d heard of Obama’s Purple Shirts, a secret police of paid union thugs. There is a level of vitriol and hatred afoot in our country that does remind me of fascism, because that is the way genuine fascism comes to power. First slander and chaos, then violence.

William F. Buckley’s exasperated response to being called as convoluted an insult as “pro-Crypto-Nazi” was to call Gore Vidal a queer and threaten him with genuine violence (as if there was an accepted permission linking homosexuality and violence). We laughed at Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for slyly stating there is no homosexuality in Iran. But we also understood the subtext to that winking statement—that repression by his government is so complete that he can deny the existence of the object of his persecution. In the same way that the existence of Concentration Camps was denied, or Reeducation Camps, or Corrective Labor Camps, torture rooms or millions of human beings who “disappeared”.  As citizens we are also responsible for what is unsaid and what we stop from being said. Fascist potential grows in the implications of a silenced response.

 But now, briefly assume I have no desire to kill your parents. Briefly assume I have no desire to promote, or anything to gain from the rise of the Fourth Reich. Briefly assume I mean no more harm to you than you mean to me. Briefly assume I’m like you—I really don’t want to think or seriously talk about getting ill or dying…or everyone I know or love getting ill and dying. These are not difficult assumptions. They are the simple good faith assumptions that permit democracy to continue.

In the fifteen years since our nation last failed to reform health care it hasn’t improved. It’s only gotten more expensive. The number of uninsured people including children and older adults has increased. We need to work through a national discussion about how to solve this problem. It’s unpleasant, dull and scary work. It’s like making out your will or telling your children if you do or don’t want to resuscitated. It’s got to be done. Health care issues won’t be resolved by denial or name calling.

The truth is even if I was a fascist, health care would still need to be addressed.

Hugs back.


Zombie Woof

August 6, 2009

Zombie Woof








I finished reading “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” last week. It was a synchronous event conjuncting a lifetime of pretentious Anglophile Victorian literature and a transitory trashy universe of hungry corpses.

 My childhood was never totally dark or totally quiet. Night shift workers demanded graveyard silent afternoons.  Every neighborhood had houses haunted by monstrously pale men who pounded on windows or came slowly, noisily down wooden stairs threatening murder.   Even our television had ghostly shadows following around Buffalo Bob and Lucy & Ricky. Neighbors left radios and televisions on to produce the protective feeling that somebody was home. Night and day nearby steel mills boiled dark rocks into molten metal. Disembodied horn blasts escaped along the MahoningRiver. Gray men in worn and stained clothes dragged themselves through mill gates, out of bars, into houses and back with the same dulled expression of angry exhaustion.  Their voices came as loud, unmodulated fragments of languages I didn’t understand, but mostly they were silent while their bloodshot eyes searched and searched.

 My spendthrift allowance allowed for one comic book a month. That entailed weeks of previewing, studying through the window and revolving the rack at the drug store. Comic books like “Creepy, Eerie and Tales from the Crypt” sold next to “Young Romance, True Love and the guilt-edged Classics Illustrated.” (I can’t begin to express my disappointment to discover the actual classics were not substantially better and frequently not illustrated at all.)  I perused each comic book cover like a religious revelation, until the sales clerk threw me out again. Newspaper ads and movie previews for B-horror extravaganzas at the Palace or Paramount Theaters proffered a Grail-like denied world of mayhem and adolescent sexuality. Saturday nights I was imprudently permitted to stay up as late as I wished trying to watch Chilly Billy Cardell, or Ghoulardi through the TV static from Pittsburgh or Cleveland as long as it wasn’t too loud. (Chilly Billy appeared as a cameo in the original “Night of the Living Dead”.)  I was born to believe in zombies.

Popular Zombies are a relatively 20thcentury invention and appear to generally follow the growth of mass advertising. HP Lovecraft first wrote what we recognize as the modern zombie in the mid- Nineteen Twenties, about the time of the exponential rise of the J Walter Thompson Agency and the invention of mass media. Although my forty year old O.E.D. tastefully declined to define zombie, by 2005 even that most venerable of dictionaries was no longer immune to the shuffling tread of the undead.  In May of this year William Safire,our grammarian laureate, discussed etymological variations of the use of the term zombie [zombi from the Spanish sombra] in his syndicated column “On Language”. However 1995 seemed the high water mark of serious Zombie Studies.  That year was highlighted by a peer reviewed symposium in the “Journal for Consciousness Studies” (Vol. 2, Issue 4).  Zombie Studies, particularly in the area of philosophy, have a broader scope and history than most people might imagine. (I suggest you consult the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to poke your doubting finger into the contagious wound.)  You may already be reading this posting on a zombie computer. Etymological and doctoral abstracts aside, my zombies have proliferated primarily in mass media, books, movies, on the Internet, and in Pittsburgh.

Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichenhad a quarrel in the mid Twenties of the last century. It wasn’t about zombies…directly. It was over the relative ethics of ‘artistic’, self expressive, photography as opposed to commercial photography. They fought their battle with women’s hands, or more accurately photographs of women’s hands. Stieglitz believed in ‘pure’ art. He produced the famous photographic study of Georgia O’Keeffe’s exposing her expressive hands and body. Steichen, who had no creative difficulty withcommercial work, produced extraordinary images of women and their hands for Jergen’s Lotion among others. Happily their creative silver nitrate argument went on for a decade or so and we are richer for the images both men left us. But I believe there were zombie casualties on both sides.


Georgia O’Keeffe was dismayed at the second life the photographic images of her developed. Her body traveled in  a morphed form from artistic and passionate intimacy to painful publicity without her control or full consent. Stieglitz’s published series of gorgeous and infamous studies and nudes of her invaded the interpretation of her paintings for the rest of her life. Her life’s work was pursued by a body that was once her and then refused to die. Zombie philosophers refer to this the first type of theoretical zombie as the classic Haitian—Voo Doo Zombie.  We recognize our zombiess as Georgia O’Keeffe who is dead and whom we can never speak with. Her zombie body will never decay, but it can never get dressed, or say “Stop staring at me!” O’Keeffe’s lifeless body trudges mindlessly through art monographs, museums and lecture halls searching for fresh spectators to surprise and attack. It does what many cultures feared photography might, the pictures have captured a part of her spirit that now does the bidding of the one who captured it. Besides the sexual luxury of posing a nude attractive 20 something year old woman in privacy, the 54 year old Stieglitz had the added pleasure of ungallantly boasting of her favors on his legendary gallery walls. Her body was subject to his will; her visage controlled by someone other than herself. It goes where he sends it. Georgia O’Keeffe’s zombie was an industrial byproduct of serialized manufacture of the art industry, a classic slave zombie. Extrapolated, as zombies frequently are, this sets up the dynamic model for the most profitable activity on the World Wide Web, pornography. Porno bodies are willfully posed and/or degraded for the pleasure of any viewer who can master the Voo Doo of Pay Pal. If you don’t believe they’re zombies look in their eyes.

Edward Steichen produced a second type of theoretical zombie, the social zombie, or “Pittsburghie”. He developed hyper-perfect photographic images to demonstrate the magical properties of whatever product he was advertising. As an art form photography is different from other representational forms in that it has an inherent quality of veracity. When we see ourselves in a photograph we’re amazed we look the way we do. It’s truer than a mirror. The ‘Jergens’ hands in the advertising ads he produced rebutted Stieglitz’s intimate images of O’Keeffe hands. Stiechen’s hand images were  undeniably physical, but simultaneously untouchable. He created ad zombies that appear human, but lack certain nuances of humanity as a philosopher no less than Rene Descartes conjectured they might.

 Rene Descartes, once merely the Father of Modern Philosophy and Modern Mathematics is now rationalized as the Father of Modern Zombie Studies. In Book Five of his Discourse on Method, Descartes observed that if automata, or zombies, existed they would be unable to use language creatively and be confined only to simple stereotypical actions and reactions. He was also rumored to have traveled through the capitals of Europe in the company of a genuine artificial woman.

 Was Descartes prescient about super models? Steichen certainly was. He idealized them in the painterly manner of portraiture that followed the Renaissance, except he placed his subjects not in the service of the some miracle or royalty, but an advertising agency. Steichen and his frequent employer, J Walter Thompson, had the genius for putting High Art to work selling hand cream, soap, towels, flatware or creating public image—to sell to the actual public. Steichen’s images featured a catalog of low echelon royals, socialites, film stars and disembodied hands all photographed in world that only resembled our world. They beckoned to a world of fake reality and real desire like theater where every room is dimensionless and illusory and every word, gesture and emotion must be directed and rehearsed. Steichen’s glorious zombies were his calculated creation of collaboration with the burgeoning information industry and its technology. One of Steichen’s innovations was to create idealized photographic images for magazines that functioned as a genuine magic mirrors flattering, deriding and selling. Steichen’s zombies leave us in the alternative human world of marketing. Watch a  man with a television remote control, sit in a room of teenagers texting, or wait in a bar parking parking lot until closing time—you find sluggish people, barely able to speak, but desperately searching  for the fulfillment of some desire that seems constantly on the edge of pain—zombieland.

 Another less picturesque method zombies come to exist is by syllogism:                                                                                                                           If a thing can be conceived, it is possible.                                         Zombies canbe concieved.                                                                                                                                                    Therefore…zombies. 

Admittedly that makes for a potentially very crowded possible universe, but in that scenario zombies are standing in line with string theory, dark energy, super symmetry, winning the lottery (or lottery money going to education), intradimensional consciousness, what comes out of the backends of black holes,making your guardian angel cry, sub atomic particle telekinesis, and Htare, Superman’s Bizarro World (which I happen to find very plausible).  Who can actually prove zombies don’t exist? Wars have been fought based on faultier logic. Whether today’s zombies are merely logical, or byproducts of the rapidly aging manufacturing/industrial age, or contrived products of the information age seems too fine a line to ask such clumsy creatures to walk. Tomorrow at breakfast most of those questions will be of no more importance than, “Who was right Stieglitz or Steichen?”

 The essential question isn’t if zombies exist (Since we have examined literary, historical, philosophical and photographic proof that they do.). The penultimate question to take to bed is why do they want to eat only brains? Couldn’t they stumble through the drive-thru at Burger King? It’s open late and I don’t think anyone living ,or formerly living, would be at all surprised to find a fair bit of brain in any Angry Triple Whopper. Generally the appearance of any flesh eating gang keeps the wait line short, so they wouldn’t have to tax their limited patience.  Besides isn’t that steady diet of rare meat difficult on their digestive systems?  What happens when the undead get sick?

Do zombies have health care?     How can be it better than mine?

Flipper Flops

August 4, 2009









 Flipper waiting for a new generator.


Today I spent the morning delivering one check and retrieving another from the Toyota dealer. I’d spent two of the last three afternoons sitting in the Scion office with Anthony, our very helpful salesman. It’s Cash for Clunkers Week which has been a wild ride in a cheap seat at car dealerships since last Monday. There’s an old Italian saying that a country is in turmoil when the rich lose money or the poor get money. This was a little of both.

 Flipper, our Explorer Sport, was worth under a $1000 trade in and needed new ball joints and shocks ($1300). The transmission could occasionally forget how to shift on hills and passing on a two lane road required increasing seconds of adrenaline panic watching for oncoming traffic and waiting to lurch into passing gear. My mechanical confidence in Flipper was failing. It wasn’t a question of if, but when and where it would break down next—and I’d seen plenty of places in the last few months I wouldn’t want to sit indefinitely waiting for a tow truck to find me. Ten years may be nothing to an exotic car that spends half of its days in the garage waiting for parts. To a bottom of the line converted light truck domestic SUV, it’s five months from not even being listed in the Blue Book. In spite of all that when I had to think of my friend, Flipper, as a clunker, it felt like “A.I.” meets “Old Yeller”—but I stop being sentimental around $500.

My new car negotiations had proceeded with pythonlike patience. Until Wednesday when the salesmen at Honda and Subaru both called me in alarm, “The government money will be totally gone either today or tomorrow! No one knows.” Car salesmen are famous for manufacturing crisis. More than once I’ve sat through the theatrics of the cavalier sales rep “going to bat for me…”, “trying his damnedest (pardon my language mam) to get this deal through…” and “letting me have one more try, try, try for you…”. The Uriah Heep-like qualities of the sales manager are often masked by the riot of laughter when the door opens for the defeated and hangdog salesman bringing the blue scratched and circled offer sheet back. Of my four salesmen two approached desperation at the money disappearing, and two seemed even more relaxed and assured that there would be enough money for our deal. A philosophical dilemma: half of a group of car salesmen tell you one thing is true, the other half the opposite—which should you believe?

 My dealership was physically exhausted. The staff had showered, changed shirts to their designated shade of sales hierarchy, eaten breakfast, but no one seemed to have slept much. The place felt like finals week in the dorm. Everyone was deeply on task, but also staggering between blurting out anything that drifted into their mind, or falling asleep in a hard chair. Mostly they did the nervous officious walk back and forth to the office in the back, did arithmetic on oversized calculators, checked inventory on someone else’s computer or shouted personal questions to one another. They returned calls to a world where “Buddy, okie dokie and you betcha” would get things done. Sitting in the quiet radiation from the numbered edition Electric Wasabi Scion ten feet away and watching Gunny R. Lee Ermey “HooRah!” still another class of weapons on the flat screen in the next display room, I began to think about Sarah Palin.

 As I looked around, the car dealership seemed as crowded as a grocery store. It was crowded with people most of whom recognized Governor Palin vicariously through their aunt or sister-in-law. She wasn’t a mere politician. She was a relative. She purchased their Mary Kay cosmetics, she ran for office on the PTA…that woman. She was (and is) true representative democracy. She is like the people she asked to vote for her.

I know, and tacitly like, lots of people who could step into Sarah Palin’s biography. My first major in college was Communications like Sarah Palin. I had to interrupt my undergraduate studies like Sarah Palin. No one pursued me to sponsor me for grants or scholarships, but more than one professor pursued me to have sex with me—I suspect like Sarah Palin.

 For ten years I taught at composition Houston Community College. From that position I came to know hundreds of women who raised complicated families, struggled to get their essays revised on time and didn’t do more than roll their eyes at my smug liberality in lectures. They were anchored in their family, juggling their children’s schedules, fervent at their churches and safe in the social security that comes from trying to keep a picture book home. What’s wrong with that? I was only one more obstacle between them and their Associates Degree and beyond. My notions of race, gender, sexual orientation, multi-culturality or new sensitive nomenclature just ground their teeth.

They approached interpreting literature with the same enthusiasm I exhibit for Algebra, but with slightly better results. They handed in mostly “B” essays and felt they were graded unfairly because they had cited The Bible as a literary reference, or that their plot summary should have sufficed for discussion, or merely their essays were longer than the assigned length. In their minds they had given me the correct, honest answer in a neatly typed paper with only a few grammatical mistakes. They anticipated earned praise; I anticipated formal discourse. It was a guerilla war of the imagination along the linguistic borders of literature, inspiration and self esteem. I stood for something other than a guy in a tie teaching an overload night class in a borrowed suburban high school. Whatever or whomever I was to those women it wasn’t what I thought.

In spite of my best efforts to be as effusive and warm as anyone delivering 7:00 to 9:30 evening lecture on rhetorical forms could be, I appeared to them as blasphemous, critical, condescending and perhaps even evil. When I taught “The Awakening”, my Polaroids, anecdotes of New Orleans and my semi-intuitive search through the French Quarter for the pigeon house, were as if I had I had brought back photographs to illustrate my debauches in a bordello. They didn’t want to be awakened from the dream of a shining suburb on a hill that they were tenuously and strenuously climbing through. They didn’t want to participate in any illusory life of the academe; they were paying tuition to have their foundations cemented so they could build real lives. I’m not sure either reality was addressed in the English I or even the English II syllabus. We seldom connected. It was like a bad date every Tuesday and Thursday for sixteen weeks.

 So I sat and leafed through a Scion brochure again. What dealerships wanted to sell they had color pictures of, what they wanted to obscure they wrote about. It’s one of the flexible weaknesses of English as the universal sales language—the broader its audience, the less its capacity for nuance—the less its ability for denotation and the more for connotation. Increasingly our language becomes more informal and encoded in the ways that dialects and slang identified us in the past. Soccer moms have become hockey moms. It’s now possible by popular linguistics to incentivize, grow inanimate things, and allow me to listen to high handed discussions on the culture of a middle school, grocery stores and Pearland, TX. A week before my Ford Explorer was still called “Flipper” in oxymoronic irony of that model’s proclivity for rolling over during high speed blow outs. This afternoon the same vehicle has been designated clunker. The Cash for Clunkers Program has been re-designated Car Allowance Rebate System. So if it seems important for my salesman to declare his discount is a rebate, or the Assistant Manager wants to complain that “if the government can’t manage giving out a billion dollars to car dealerships, how can they manage health care?” , I grind my teeth and endure. If there’s a buzz army of literate people mercilessly parsing and mocking Sarah Palin’s speeches on Facebook, I’m not surprised. It’s a battle we’ve been losing for years. Nearly everyone wants to conserve some illusion at the expense of someone else.