Category Archives: History

The Art of the Con – The Great American Narrative Redux

Sarah Sanders is leaving us. Turning in her tin star to ride off into the sunset. A snake oil saleswoman raised by a snake oil salesman fronting for one of the greatest American con men. It’s the great American story. From PT Barnum and Buffalo Bill to Bernie Madoff and the TV evangelists (and TV Generals too) America’s history is littered with “heroes” whose only great talents were for fooling us for a quick buck. There is a reason that Hollywood is known as the “Dream Factory.” A primary exercise in television is the production of contrived experiences interspersed with fantasy images designed to sell us things we probably don’t need. A by-product of this simulation is the creation of the celebrity. A person who, as Daniel Boorstin points out, is well-known for no good reason other than for his/her well-known ness. The existence of public relations and marketing, one of the most profitable of American businesses (fantasy image makers that have actually made themselves into a fantasy image–Madison Avenue and Mad Men), is dependent on hoodwinking the masses into buying things simply for status. In fact capitalism probably can’t stand on its own if people only buy what they need to survive.

In this age of media saturation we live in a country that has defined itself through its deceptions. We the people are delusional about who we are and who we’ve been. We have tailored our self-image based on received stories consumed through mass communication. We are never satisfied because our extravagant expectations rarely match up with reality and so we are forever searching for the next big thing, or hitting it big, or making the big time. Much of our national story is set on these shaky grounds of designed misconception. The art of the con itself is based on creating illusions, and the best artists are the most deceptive ones.

Within this communal hallucination one space where the real continues to transfix us is in the realm of true crime reporting. We are fascinated with the spontaneity of crime, it’s one of the rare experiences that is not totally contrived, that’s why its influence is outsized proportionally in the news cycle.* We love to make fun of the incompetents, we secretly admire the masterminds, but we are always afraid of being a victim, thus we are easy targets for the personal security rackets. Even so, that spontaneity soon evaporates since everything is fed to us through the filtering medium of the lens and the slanting pens of editorial offices. Kennedy won the election because Nixon didn’t have a close enough shave, but Nixon really won because Kennedy cheated in Texas and Chicago. Kennedy was a good guy killed by a lone outlaw (really?) and Nixon was an outlaw killed by a two good guys, a deep throat and a tape recorder. Kennedy goes down as hero, Nixon as villain. As unseemly as it all sounds it has all become national folklore. The real has become laborious, its minutiae too difficult to comprehend and its details too boring to memorize. The condensed, filtered, repackaged fantastic interpretation becomes more appealing, more exciting, easier. It’s almost as if we like to be duped. As if, like Barnum told us, being suckered is part of the experience of being American. We’re all on reality TV.

These threads converge in the Trump scenario. The ascendance of Donald and Sarah, both celebrities, both only recognizable for being recognized in the media, neither with any appreciable “real” talent, is the predictable reappearance of two of the foundational forms in the American drama- the con man and his trusted sidekick. But here the Donald takes it to a new level by representing the merger of several archetypal character types found in the American mythological narrative. Depending on who you ask Trump assumes the role of con man, outlaw or tough lawman. Sometimes all three at once, and that is somehow ok for many of his supporters. The fact that he seems to stand out above the sordid crowd alerts us to what is most sinister about him. He and Sarah spin up a show that is patently outrageous, they are the attention getters. Yet the true crime, the ongoing stagecoach robbery and swindling of the passengers, continues relatively hidden behind the scenes. The equivalent of throwing a smoke bomb in the other direction– I’ll create a diversion while you rob the bank.

American history is a mythical history. From the frontier days to the modern world the outlaw, the con man and the lawman have been, and continue to be, central characters in that myth. The overarching theme is the struggle for the acquisition of wealth, property and security between the powerful and the powerless, haves and have nots, whites and non-whites, bosses and workers etc. Depending on the time and circumstances the fortunes of the groups have changed in relation to each other. But the long term trend, albeit not entirely linear, has been the consolidation of victory for the few. At times a reliable brake against the greed of the powerful, many of them legalized outlaws, con men and law men, has been their fear of the masses. That is, the fear of democracy. Now the stage in the theatre of democracy, upon which our national mythology has been acted out, is in danger of being condemned for its rotting foundations. Historian Eric Hobsbawn put it succinctly– “One of the worst things about the politics of the past 30 years is that the rich have forgotten to be afraid of the poor.” Not only do they no longer fear us they have actually convinced many of us that the outlaw con man is the best lawman. And every good sheriff needs a loyal deputy–adios senora Sarah…

With so many unfilled posts in his administration the next feature on the Donald double-bill: The Searchers

* A side note: This may be why sports are so popular? They are one of the few remaining forums for spontaneous non-contrived experiences. That’s not to say that the spectacle surrounding sports isn’t the equivalent of a PT Barnum event– a circus– but the game itself still maintains a sense and tension of the real. Anything can happen. The popularity of pro wrestling on the other hand informs us that the power of the contrived still remains immense in the American psyche, even in the domain of sports.

Related:

https://parallelnarratives.com/2016/07/11/the-century-of-the-self-bbc/

 

War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men – Georges Clemenceau

The Generals Won’t Save Us From the Next War

I can’t agree more with this article’s assessment. Although the author misses some big examples, like Colin Powell’s embarrassing exhibition claiming Saddam’s WMDs. In his defense, there has been so much ineptitude that it would take a Tolstoy-sized book to capture the scope.
For me Matt Ridgway (Korea) was the last exceptional and trustable (by the people) top command American general. His heroic leadership upon assuming command of the 8th Army largely saved South Korea and changed the 20th century. With our troops greatly outnumbered and on the run from the Chinese Army, after MacArthur’s debacle at Yalu River, he parachuted in to the retreating army and ordered them to stop, turnaround, and fight. Which they did, and so did he right along with them.
Then when the French were surrounded by the Vietminh at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, about to lose the French-Indochina war, most of Eisenhower’s generals and Richard Nixon were urging him to send in American troops, or drop nuclear weapons, to save them. It was the general he trusted most, Matt Ridgway, along with Churchill, that convinced Ike not to do it. Tragically another general, Maxwell Taylor, and the Joint Chiefs, helped convince JFK and then LBJ to go in anyway a decade later. By that time there was big money in it for their respective branches.
Interestingly Ridgway, who also fought at Normandy, was the last great American command general before the onset of the military corporate complex. It’s been downhill all the way from there. And now it’s Iran…

U.S. Commander Says Expanded Middle East Force May Be Needed to Counter Iran

Why bother with competency when you know you’ll get $700 billion either way? Rather than study the lessons of history it’s so much easier to work on a good John Wayne imitation. And what about these unquestioning reporters that seem to think their job is to amplify the cowboy rhetoric. Embarrassing. Goodnight Morley Safer wherever you are!

 

“If You Are Going To Try, Go All The Way” – Charles Bukowski

Bukowski’s autobiographical anti-hero, Henry Chinaski: ‘The problem was you had to keep choosing between one evil or another, and no matter what you chose, they sliced a little bit more off you, until there was nothing left. At the age of 25 most people were finished. A whole god-damned nation of assholes driving automobiles, eating, having babies, doing everything in the worst way possible, like voting for the presidential candidate who reminded them most of themselves.”  – Ham On Rye 1982

Los Angeles Tour:

5124 De Longpre, Hollywood – residence 1964-1973. Post Office, Notes from a Dirty Old Man, South of No North, Mockingbird Wish Me Luck, The Days Run Away like Horses, and Factotum written there.

Frolic Room (6245 Hollywood Blvd) – Alcohol.

Musso & Frank Grill (6667 Hollywood Blvd) – Alcohol. Ruben no longer.

Pink Elephant Liquor Store (1836 N Western Ave, Los Feliz) – Alcohol.

Richard J. Riordan Central Library (630 W 5th St., Los Angeles) – Books.

USPS Terminal Annex (900 N Alameda St., Los Angeles) – Work 1952-1955 and 1958-1969.

Cole’s French Dip (118 East 6th St., Los Angeles) – Alcohol.

Smog Cutter (864 N. Vrigil Ave., Los Angeles) – Alcohol

Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center  (681 Venice Blvd, Venice) – Shrine.

Barkowski (2819 Pico Blvd, Santa Monica) – Shrine.

Santa Anita Racetrack – Horses.

Huntington Library (1151 Oxford Rd, San Marino) – Papers.

San PedroResidence. 1978-1994. Ham on Rye. Near Bandini Street and Elementary school (Fante).

Downtown Books (414 W 6th St, San Pedro) – Books.

Green Hills Memorial Park Cemetery (27501 S Western Ave, Rancho Palos Verdes, Plot: Ocean View #875) – Grave. “Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr. — Hank — “Don’t try” — 1920-1994.”

While you’re at it… more infamous drinking establishments in Los Angeles

The European Elections, Iran and the Refugee Problem

Here is a sampling of reasons we’ve been given so far for why the US might preemptively attack Iran: Bolton can’t sleep at night until he vanquishes the long standing bugaboo in Tehran, Iran can’t be trusted and are secretly building nukes (WMDs), Iran is suddenly a dangerous threat to our troops and interests in the region, the Saudis and Israelis are pulling the strings and Trump is willing do their dirty work, with flagging popularity both Trump and the military need a war. Perhaps the most plausible strategy, and hence rarely mentioned, posits a new “energy” containment policy aimed at a quickly emerging China (oil war).

There are likely elements of each informing the strategic planning of the war managers. Any theory constructed around oil is invariably partially on target when America starts saber rattling in the middle east. If war does break-out between the US and Iran, or rather if the US attacks Iran, it will likely begin under false pretenses of America’s design. The dispatching of 1500 more troops to the gulf appears to be an exercise in putting more troops in harm’s way, in the hope that some rogue element fires a mortar at them. Iran has a lot of nerve putting their country so close to our bases. In the event of war there is a possible side effect that few are talking about. More refugees.

The EU parliamentary elections are this weekend. From all accounts the nationalist and far-right candidates stand to make gains, putting them in the strongest position politically that they’ve enjoyed on that continent since the end of WWII. Anti-immigrant stances have been a big part of their arsenal. Framed within the 2008 global economic collapse and aftermath, refugees have been the single best performing stock on the world “political” market for the resurgent populist and nationalist movements. The bogeyman portrayal of displaced masses on the march soon to be pounding at the door has produced lucrative capital gains for the barking dogs who disparage them. Across the pond, the Great Director in the US has made it clear on abundant occasions that he does not value the lives of these people on par with those white and western.

The numbers tell a story. At the time of the Rwanda genocide in 1994 the post WWII peak of refugees had reached 20 million. In the years prior to the Afghan and Iraq wars it had declined to approximately 16 million. Then, in the aftermath of 9/11, havoc was unleashed on those countries. Since then, in fifteen years, the number has risen dramatically, currently cresting at around 65 million! If you plot those numbers alongside the global rise of the Right on a graph they closely mirror each other. It was a slower but steady stream for years, much less detectable, but the stories of backlash in places like Germany and Britain were always there, just beneath the headlines. Then Syria boiled over and exploded hundreds of thousands of refugees across borders, tens of thousands flooding into Europe en masse. And presto, Brexit.

9 Maps and Charts on the Global Refugee Crisis

This outcome, I’ll call it the refugee dividend, has been an unexpected boon for the fortunes of the populist nationalist resurgence. It is an easily chartable set of data points. We don’t know what the short-term outcome of a war between the US and Iran would be, although I suspect there will be no battlefield winners, there never are anymore, right? But we do know that a conflagration of that magnitude in the middle east might generate another wave of refugees.

Since the advent of strategic bombing from the air a primary target has always been civilians- Madrid, Guernica, Berlin, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Hanoi, Baghdad. For obvious reasons the bombers themselves go to great lengths to claim otherwise. In Iran, where they’ve already taken in close to a million refugees, there is no reason to think that won’t also be an objective. The strain of absorbing and caring for possibly millions more internally displaced people could lead to chaos in the streets. The pressure from which could conceivably “end”  the regime. In Europe, though less likely in the immediate, the addition of more refugees to the already numbing numbers worldwide will only strengthen the straw that could eventually break the camel’s back for the social democratic paradigm, dominant there since the end of World War II. We will find out just how sturdy that camel is this weekend.

This seemingly endless passion play continues to unfold across the globe as scores more become displaced by war, climate change, crime and economic hardship. No theater has been immune- Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas and, as we just witnessed, Australia. Surprise! In the EU, we’ve watched the critically acclaimed premiere of Poland’s authoritarian Law and Justice party, in Spain the new far-right Vox party is a promising new cadre of method actors, Italy’s Matteo Salvini is that country’s rising new star script writer, and the hard-line prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, recently hit the big time with his appearance at the Great Director’s playboy mansion, the White House. Marine Le Pen, the darling leading lady and daughter of the famous leading man of the previous generation, looks poised to capitalize on the angry zeitgeist in France’s European elections this weekend. Polls have her even with Macron (also right-of-center). Angela Merkel, the retiring town marshal, is on the her way out of Dodge. Germany is clearly centered in the rifle scope. To quote the Duke– “Out here, due process is a bullet.”

France 24: “during his talk-of-the-town stay in Paris, Steve Bannon provided insight into his larger mission —  “My theory is that political ideas move like capital markets. That’s why I spend so much time in Europe,” he told Le Parisien. “Trump wouldn’t have been elected president without Brexit. It gives an impetus. If populists score higher than 30 percent in the European elections, it will provide that impetus that will help Trump for the 2020 campaign.”

So even if the center holds it may be teetering. Contrary to public utterances, it seems more likely that these avenging angels don’t actually want to end the EU, no, they want to run it. As more and more refugees continue to arrive at the doorstep many of the current, moderate, EU ruling parties will be in a no-win situation. If they close the borders they play into the nationalists, and Donald Trump’s, hands. If they keep them open they risk throwing gasoline on the fire domestically. The far-right and nationalists are poised, just waiting for that glorious Dirty Harry moment– the licensed vigilantes towering over the sniveling liberals– “feeling lucky punks?” Either way it could be a 357 Magnum head shot. Orwellian indeed, but this movie will continue to be in world-wide release during the US elections, and taking that prize would be far better even than winning an academy award for the Great Director and his supporting cast.

UNHCR Figures