Friday, November 13, 2015

The Baltimore Torch: Issue #1

The Unedited Transcript of Republican Debates
Debate One:

Bret Baier: My name is Bret Baier moderating for Fox News. I’m a robot assembled from botox and toupees weaved in private prisons to look like the perfect Middle America anchorman.

Chris Wallace: I’m Chris Wallace. Remember Mike Wallace from 60 Minutes? I’m his right-wing Muppet son.

Megyn Kelly: I’m Megyn Kelly, don’t hate me because I’m beautiful, and I want to tell you about Viagra.

(audience of angry geezers gives big cheer)

(camera cuts to full view of the stage)

Megyn Kelly: Here are all ten of our candidates standing awkwardly on the stage assembled in the polls from top to bottom.

Donald Trump: (to Megyn Kelly) Well I know where on the poll I’d like to have you…

Megyn Kelly: I’ll show you where I belong on your poll in a minute.

Bret Baier: Is there anyone on stage, and can I see hands, who is not willing to pledge their support to the eventual Republican nominee or not to run an independent campaign?

(Trump raises middle finger, audience boos)

Donald Trump: Oh you love it! You love it!

Bret Baier: An independent run would hand the race over to the Democrats and the Clintons. Can you really not make that pledge?

(Trump raises other middle finger. Audience changes its mind and cheers him.)

Donald Trump: Lemme tell ya somethin’. You’re gonna love me as President. I’m gonna buy out the Republican party and then I’m gonna tear down that loser White House and put up a giant building in the shape of a fucking elephant. The Oval Office’ll be bigger and we’ll put it right in the elephant’s ass.

Rand Paul: This is what he does! He buys and sells politicians of all stripes! He’d buy out the Democrats too if he had the chance!

Donald Trump: And that’s exactly what your dipshit guru Ayn Rand tells me to do!

Megyn Kelly: My first question is for Ben Carson. Dr. Carson, you’re not a politician. You’re a brain surgeon, and it’s absolutely clear that you are the political equivalent to a cerebral hemorrhage. How do you expect to learn enough about politics to be President by 2017?

Ben Carson: Of course I can. My first job was as a valium and I had to work very hard to become one.

Megyn Kelly: But don’t you have to learn information to be President?

Ben Carson: The most important thing to be President is to have a brain, and I’m very very good at cutting brains up.

(lots of applause)

Chris Wallace: Senator Rubio. Why should I tell every billionaire to give their money to you rather than Jeb Bush?

Marco Rubio: I have absolutely nothing of substance to say, but look at my cherubically boyish face that reminds you of your youth, offset by my combover that assures you of my experience.

Chris Wallace: Works for me…

Marco Rubio: One more thing, how is Hillary Clinton going to lecture me about student loan debt? Four years ago, I was a hundred thousand dollars in debt! But then I got campaign funds and I used them to pay off my personal debt.

Megyn Kelly: Isn’t that wrong?

Marco Rubio: No, I’m just too stupid to understand finance.

Bret Baier: Governor Bush. You have insisted that you’re own man and not your brother or your father. But nobody believes you.

Jeb Bush: I’m my own man. In Florida they called me Jeb.

Bret Baier: What the fuck does that even mean?

Jeb Bush: I don’t even know. Karl Rove told me to say it. Look, I’ll be honest, I really don’t wanna be here. This has nothing to do with me or my Dad or my brother. All of this was my mother’s idea - from the Bush Dynasty to contesting the 2000 election to Iran-Contra. Barbara Bush is a psychopath. She held the Bush twins hostage until W promised to run, now she’s threatening to get my Mexican wife Columba deported!

Megyn Kelly: Mr. Trump, everybody knows how you’ve referred to women. Would it be fair to say that you hate wo….

Donald Trump: Only Rosie O’Donnell!

(audience laughs and cheers massively)

Megyn Kelly: It’s not only Rosie O’Donnell. When that chick from Baywatch was on Celebrity Apprentice, you told her that it would be a pretty picture to see her drop to her her knees. How will you face Hillary Clinton and convince America that there’s no War on Women?

Donald Trump: Lemme tell you something Megyn Kelly. Women love me, they love me so much that I promise that by the fourth debate you and I are gonna do it on stage, because we need to win in this country. The world is beating us, and we need to beat the world, including their women.

Chris Wallace: My question is for Senator Cruz. You’ve been called a fascist waste of space who will never be our president but might be our dictator. … … …

Ted Cruz: That’s not a question.

Chris Wallace: I know … … …

Ted Cruz: Look. If you want another liberal wimp like Reagan or George W. Bush, go ahead and vote for these other chickenshits. But blood alone moves the wheels of history, and I will grind all your bones into dust.

Chris Wallace: ... Inspiring words Senator Cruz. Truly.

Bret Baier: Governor Christie, you have reduced the State of New Jersey’s economy to a smouldering wasteland. … Can you please tell us more about how you did it so that other Republican governors can do the same?

Chris Christie: Well really Bret, it’s pretty simple. I cut 800 different social programs in New Jersey to a nub and reduced the tax and spending increases that my Democratic predecessors put into place before they had a chance to bolster the economy. Really, destroying an economy is the simplest thing in the world, you just have to want to do it really badly.

Megyn Kelly: I have a followup question. You’ve said that you want to send Senator Paul to Guantanamo if we get hit by another terrorist attack. Do you really mean that?

Chris Christie: Yes I do. I’m a prosecutor, and all this Donald Trump shit is making me wanna hit somebody. I was supposed to be the fucking bully!!!

Rand Paul: It’s a violation of the fourth amendment. You need a warrant for arrests.

Chris Christie: Fuck the Fourth Amendment!

Rand Paul: Why do you hate the Fourth Amendment Governor?! Warrants for arrest is what we fought the Revolution over!

Chris Christie: Nine-eleven.

Rand Paul: You’re such a stateist you might as well be a Democrat.

Chris Christie: Nine-eleven.

Rand Paul: You can’t use nine-eleven to trample over people’s rights!

(Christie goes over to Paul, Governor Christie sits on Senator Paul)

Rand Paul: Oh you’re going to try to hug me like you did President Obama?!

Chris Christie: NNNIIIIINE-ELEVENNNNNNNN!!!!!!!!!!

Megyn Kelly: Governor Walker. You want to make abortion illegal, even in cases of rape, incest, and mother’s endangerment. Do you really want the mothers to die rather than have an abortion?

Scott Walker: What’s so hard to understand about my position? I’m pro-life. I want the babies to live and the mothers to die.
(audience erupts in cheers)

Scott Walker: We have to get rid of the women in this country before they give more funding to Planned Parenthood!

(audience cheers even louder)

Chris Wallace: Governor Huckabee, like Governor Walker, your nuttiness on social issues is truly worthy of praise. Unfortunately, most of the country is quite a bit saner on those issues. How do you propose to drive Independents and Democrats as crazy as you are?

Mike Huckabee: We are going to invoke the 14th and 5th amendments for unborn babies - giving them equal protection to babies already born and giving them due process under the law when these unborn infants have to stand trial.

(audience gasps in marvel at his brilliance)

Mike Huckabee: Did you know that the parts of aborted babies are ripped up and sold on the black market like Buicks? … … … … … … … ...

Megyn Kelly: (breaking the long silence) I think he’s talking about Stem Cell research….

Donald Trump: ...I bought a Buick on the black market last week just to snort cocaine off the dashboard.

Mike Huckabee: Social Security would work if we had a flat rate that made the pimps, the prostitutes, the junkies, and the illegals just paid in.

Megyn Kelly: I think you’re making the solution to Social Security’s problems sound much easier to find than it is.

Mike Huckabee: Who cares? Social security is just easy money you don’t deserve anyway.

Bret Baier: Senator Paul, you have repeatedly criticized the Republican Party on foreign policy and shown rare glimpses of the kind of sanity we all discourage. Why do you want to show how bad our ideas are?

Rand Paul: Because it would be so easy to make better solutions. Let me just give one obvious example, we could stop Isis tomorrow if we just stopped funding their allies. It would be so simple to…

Bret Baier: (interrupts) I’m being instructed to threaten you to go back to hawking your stupid  Libertarian crap or else we’re going to cut to commercial.

Megyn Kelly: Governor Kasich. You invoked God in order to save the poor by expanding social programs, and consequently destroyed every talking point the Republican party ever had.

John Kasich: President Reagan increased social programs three or four times. I would rather have people suffer less than cut spend....

...(Megyn Kelly points gun at Gov. Kasich)

Megyn Kelly: That’s enough about that Governor. But I’ll ask you one more question. You also invoked God to explain your opposition to Gay Marriage but how would you explain your opposition to your daughters if either of them were gay?

John Kasich: Because God loves them and I would love them too if they were gay. God asks us to love all his creations, no matter what their sins or flaws, and they’re my children. I will always love them, even as I’m fulfilling my biblical obligation to stone them to death.

Megyn Kelly: So you’d stone your children?

John Kasich: And it breaks my heart...

Debate Two:

(broadcast begins with CNN asshat expensive graphics along with pompous music, cut to Jake Tapper)

Jake Tapper: Welcome to CNN’s Presidential Debate at Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Library in California. I’m the moderator, Jake Tapper, and I’ll be joined on our moderator team by our sane but bland chief political correspondent Dana Bash, and certified Catholic nut, Hugh Hewitt. Neither of which will actually say anything. It’s all the same candidates as last time, but this time we’re adding Carly Fiorina, the failed CEO of Hewlett Packard who is here so that Republicans don’t have to admit they’re waging war on women. But if any of the men in the audience feel threatened by a woman’s presence on this stage, don’t worry. Look behind the candidates, what you’re seeing is the gigantic and throbbingly phallic plane Ronald Reagan used as Air Force One.

Dana Bash: It truly is breathtaking.

Jake Tapper: The point of this debate is to get candidates to talk with each other, argue with each other, fight with each other. You never know: Donald Trump might take his dick out, or maybe Ted Cruz will take a dump right on the stage.

Ted Cruz: I did have ribs for dinner.

Jake Tapper: I’d like to start this by giving everyone five seconds to introduce themselves in one sentence. Senator Paul?

Ron Paul: I’m so much like all of you out there that you’d never guess that I want to put ideas in place that will cause another Great Depression.

Mike Huckabee: I want to suck up to Trump so I can be his Vice-Presidential nominee.

Marco Rubio: I love Ronald Reagan and will stop the California drought because I brought my own water.

Ted Cruz: Fear my wrath. Fear it.

Ben Carson: zzzzzzzzzzzzzz…..

Donald Trump: America doesn’t win anymore. I win. I’m gonna beat America.

Jeb Bush: I want to create an America where people in this country can have better lives again after my brother made them worse.

Scott Walker: America needs a leader that is big and bold, and I’m so dull it’s like watching paint dry.

Carly Fiorina: I take a Dale Carnegie course every year and ace it every time.

John Kasich: Back when I was a congressman, Ronald Reagan and I flew together in this peni…. plane… er... shining city on a hill, thousand points of light, I am not a crook, forty acres and a mule, hope Americans, unify like such as the Iraq…

Chris Christie: Take the camera off me. Please. I’m fat because Barack Obama makes me stress eat. Doesn’t he make you stress eat too?

Jake Tapper: Ms. Fiorina. You have suggested that Donald Trump is dangerous, a hothead entertainer who should not have his finger on the nuclear button.

Carly Fiorina: Mr. Trump is a great entertainer, and a great businessman.

Donald Trump: Actually I’d have eight billion dollars more if I’d have just left my inheritance from my father alone.

Carly Fiorina: Still, you have a much better business record than I do. I just wonder if you have the right temperament to be President.

Donald Trump: I have a great temperament, I’m very calm and agreeable. And fuck Rand Paul!!!

Rand Paul: Your maturity level was arrested in Jr. High, Mr. Trump.

Donald Trump: Come over here and say that again Mr. Shitpants.

Jake Tapper: While you’re this mad, I want to redirect you to Governor Bush.

(Jeb Bush immediately looks absolutely terrified)

Jake Tapper: Governor Bush you told me last week that...

Jeb Bush: (interrupts) ...That was a secret!

Jake Tapper: I was interviewing you on a live broadcast.

Jeb Bush: Nobody’s watched CNN in twenty-five years! I thought you were my friend!

Jake Tapper: Be that as it may, you called Donald Trump an unserious candidate. Mr. Trump, how will you respond to that?

Donald Trump: What the fuck do I care? His family bought two presidencies already and now they don’t even have the money to buy it for him while I’m here. I’m the motherfucking Pharaoh and you’re all gonna bow down.

Jake Tapper: Governor Bush, how do you respond?

Jeb Bush: The voters determine who our Pharaoh is. But don’t we need someone with the experience that comes from being in the Royal Family?

Jake Tapper: Mr. Trump, how do you respond?

Donald Trump: I just wanna say…

Scott Walker: (interrupts) Wait a minute! I have a great line!... wait… how does it go… oh yeah “We don’t need another apprentice in the White House, we already have one!” Whew,... I’m glad I made it though that.

Donald Trump: Yeah, well your state lost more than two billion dollars.

Scott Walker: That’s not true. And you filed for bankruptcy four times.

Donald Trump: That’s a lie.

Jake Tapper: Both your accusations are true you lying pieces of filth. Let’s talk about something a little more trivial. Senator Paul, you admitted to smoking marijuana in high school.

Rand Paul: Of course I did. So did other people on this stage.

Jeb Bush: He’s talking about me. I smoked it too forty years ago. (loud boom offstage and scream). Sorry everybody, that was the sound of my mother shooting my wife in the leg.

Rand Paul: Actually, I was talking about Chris Christie.

Jeb Bush: Oh… wow… sorry Columba...

Jake Tapper: OK, that attempt to calm things down didn’t work. Let’s change the direction again, this time I’ll ask something to Dr. Carson, whose voice is so soothing that he can reassuringly lead this country straight into the apocalypse. Dr. Carson, you said that professional politicians lie.

Ben Carson: Did I?

Jake Tapper: Yes.

Ben Carson: Wow, that would be the first true statement I’ve made since the campaign began.

Jake Tapper: You also said that since you’re not a politician, it enables you to tell the truth. Is that true?

Ben Carson: Absolutely.

Jake Tapper: But you’ve lied about everything!

Ben Carson: Yeah, but if I wanted to tell the truth, I could.

Carly Fiorina: It’s true. Politicians operate in an eco-system which requires them to lie all the time. That’s why you should vote for outsiders like us, because you know exactly how mendacious our characters are.

Jake Tapper: That’s a legitimate point. Governor Bush, Mr. Trump said that your having to raise $100 million dollars from wealthy donors makes you a puppet for your donors. Are you a puppet?

(Jake Tapper looks up, Jeb Bush is crawling on the floor next to his podium.)

Jake Tapper: Governor Bush?

Jeb Bush: Sorry. My ear-piece fell out.

Jake Tapper: Are you serious?

Jeb Bush: (stands up) Look. The Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson don’t tell me everything about what to do.  Donald Trump wanted Casino gambling in Florida. I said no.

Donald Trump: That’s utter fucking horseshit! I could get you to blow me in two seconds if I offered you enough money.

Jeb Bush: You can’t buy me! I can’t be bought by American businessmen.

Rand Paul: What about Saudi businessmen?

(CIA agents immediately come onstage, put Rand Paul in a hood and abscond off-camera with him)

Jake Tapper: Ms. Fiorina. Donald Trump recently said that you’re a fugly slut who’s still trying to make ‘Fetch’ happen. What do you think of him?

Carly Fiorina: I think Regina George had better hair.

(audience goes wild)

Jake Tapper: As a last question, which woman would you want to put on the $10 bill?

Rand Paul: (from offstage) Ayn Rand. Duh.

Mike Huckabee: My wife. But I hate her.

Marco Rubio: As your president I’ll put the picture of the $10 bill on sale.

Ted Cruz: Grendel's Mom

Jeb Bush: Please put my mother on it, I don’t know what she’s gonna do next.  

Carly Fiorina: I’m not going to shamelessly pander to women as though they’re a special interest. They’re not my target audience anyway.

John Kasich: My daughter, whom I have to honor kill later.

Chris Christie: Wendy from Born to Run

Scott Walker: What are women?

Finish Sufjan’s Project For Him!

It just goes to show how little integrity this magazine will ever have. I was all ready to let this paper go to print without ever having listened to Sufjan’s Christmas albums, but curiosity got the better of me, and I immediately realized that I had to rewrite this article.

Pity this Jew his fallible weaknesses. Aren’t we subject to enough Christmas without having to listen to five hours of Christmas material that’s mostly covers? And yet, anyone like me who skated over the endless Sufjan Christmas stuff is missing some of the most beautiful music ever written in the entire canon of American music. There are moments in Silver and Gold whole three-quarter hours even, that are so heart-rending that they truly made me gasp for breath.

I was going to begin this article with the sentence: “There was a moment in the mid-2000’s that Sufjan Stevens truly seemed like he might become at least as great and influential as The Beatles themselves.” But after hearing so much in Silver and Gold that is as laceratingly beautiful as anything in Bach, I begin to wonder if that prediction isn’t coming true.

But even if it’s not coming true, it’s still true that nobody gives a shit about the Christmas albums. It’s their loss, but what they really cared about, perhaps rightly, was the Fifty States Project. When Sufjan abandoned the project, lots of music lovers felt personally abandoned. Sufjan might have announced The Fifty States Project purely as a publicity stunt, but it was precisely the kind of impossible project we all still need - a Musical Apollo Program. It seemed like a way of summing up what this country is: its music, its history, its many moods, the condition of whatever the fuck it means to be an American.

No artist who ever wants to do anything but drive himself crazy should ever attempt anything on so impossibly high a level, but if you want to take your stab at immortality, you have to set your sights on the impossible, the eternal, the unachievable, and then achieve it. That kind of cosmic achievement is what makes great art possible - the kind of art that overthrows governments and brings us closer to World Peace (or World War) - and it’s only possible because of cosmic ambition.

There is lots of music we all love that is wonderful and gorgeous and soul-warming, but it is music of a specific era and place, and will evaporate as soon as the environment that birthed it evaporates too. So much of the music you love will mean nothing to your children, and your grandchildren will never even hear of the people who made it. Flowers are no less beautiful because they die so quickly, and in so many ways, their transitoriness makes them more beautiful. Nevertheless, when future generations listen to what we love, they’ll hear the same stench of prune juice and Bengay and death that we hear if we ever come across our grandparents’ old 78s of artists like Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey.

But in every generation, there are a handful of artists that transcend the popular venues out from which they come to create real, lasting, eternal art. Our grandparents’ generation had the great musicians of jazz. Our parents generation had the great singer-songwriters of rock. There was a point roughly ten years ago that the privileged among our generation might have thought that the Indie Rockers would have produced a similarly great output - beginning perhaps with the alternative Seattle scene, and then branching into Sufjan, Bjork, Sigur Ros, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, White Stripes (yech), The Magnetic Fields, Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand, Neutral Milk Hotel, Guided By Voices, Belle and Sebastian, The Decemberists (double yech), Blur, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Coldplay (ew), Yo La Tengo, Beck, Pavement, Wilco, Dismemberment Plan, The Strokes… But everybody should have known, Indie Rock is not its own movement. If history remembers it after 2050, it will probably be seen an imitative, ironic, coda to the much better, more emotionally honest, music which our parents grew up with. If there is eternally great music in our generation, and I’m sure there is, it probably comes from entirely other directions. And yet… there are moments, for me at least, when among so much else that seems forgettable, this one musician writes music that will court eternity and escape decay. Everyone in life is replaceable, and the dust of history will soon begin its merciless accumulation upon everything we love. The soundtracks that accompanied our days will be of no interest to anyone who wasn’t there except for the social historians who wonder why the fuck this band or that was so beloved. And yet in every era, there are a few edifices so sturdily built, yet so fragilely beautiful, that in 500 years people will still see the beauty in them, even if the beauty they see is completely different from what we saw.

When Sufjan came to play to a nearly sold-out Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in the grey but surprisingly warm evening of November 1st, it was as good a concert as you’re ever going to hear in Baltimore: moving, cathartic, ecstatic, but it was a sad experience all the same. He seems to permanently have said goodbye to the exuberance present in so much of Greetings from Michigan, omnipresent in Illinoise, and morphed into something dark and anxious in Age of Adz.

Sufjan no longer seems an artist interested in this world, he is an artist of the next. By the time Silver and Gold came around, there was no outward focus anymore. Silver and Gold is much, much, much, much too long, but it is truly as beautiful and moving a musical creation as the world can yet produce - it’s long like Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is long, the hour of music you love is so beautiful that you’re happy to sleep through the other two hours. And yet, also like Bach, this eternal music is only possible by accompanying it with the strongest imaginable dose of Jesus. The best parts about Silver and Gold are the most derivative. His original stuff on it is alright, but my god, those covers... - classics of Christmas that go back a few decades or to time immemorial, arranged in masterful contemporary guises that act as ambassadors from our era to eras past and future. When you hear all three of his versions of Ah Holy Jesus, you hear the very cry of the world.

Sufjan is clearly a believer. A man who smiles so sweetly in God’s grace has no reason to frantically explore the world for all those things that are not his by birthright. The Fifty State project requires a musical journalist, relentlessly curious enough for experiences not his own to pillage styles and spirits that are completely alien to him. We Americans will always need believers like Sufjan for reassurance, but doesn’t this country already have too much belief?

For the immediate future, we’re desperate for just such a musical journalist as Sufjan seemed to be, but clearly isn’t. In a country where so many millions of people have nothing in common with each other and mistrust doubles by the year, we need a musician who puts all of our music alongside one another and points up the similarities. If the irony of the Coasts can be continually fused with the earnestness of the Heartland over fifty albums, perhaps our country’s future is in better shape than we’ve imagined these days.

If he was thinking this much about God, clearly, he was also thinking plenty about death. So if God was, yet again, the main character in Silver and Gold, it was only a matter of time before death became the main character. Sufjan’s mother just died, which I’m sure prompted this next album of his as a memorial to her. I’m also pretty sure that, except for the encores, the concert we heard was simply a performance of the album in its entirety and in sequence.

Even when accounting for the special circumstances, Carrie & Lowell is enough to make you wonder if he’s now making a permanent home in the death-haunted, wrist-slitting mode of Seven Swans. In classical music, there’s a famous critic named Deryck Cooke who referred to a quality present in the great Austrian composer, Bruckner, which Cooke called ‘Visionary Dreariness.’ And as I sat three-quarters of the way back in the Meyerhoff as one song about death and god merged into the next, I thought of this quality over and over again. On their own, so many of these songs would be moving, but together, they make for a thoroughly morbid experience. I doubt there was a person who left the theater without a feeling of being cathartically cleansed, but I also imagine that our spirits would have felt even cleaner if there was a little more life, perhaps even a little more Christmas, amid all that death.

It’s utterly petty to complain like this. Even if it was boring at times, it was an incredibly moving, unspeakably profound experience. It was only boring in the way that great long novels can sometimes be boring - you know that the boredom serves a purpose, like an arduous mountain one climbs to get that incredible view from the peak.

There are plenty of rock albums, great ones, which deal with death in painstaking detail. Springsteen’s Nebraska is unmistakably an album about death, but not any one person’s death in particular, and perhaps not even the death of people so much as the death of places. Lots of people love Nebraska over all other albums from ‘The Boss’, because it shows that he can be as sober and reflective as he is exuberant. But for me, Springsteen without the exuberance is not quite Springsteen. Bruce gets away with being so earnest and uncynical because he puts so much life into his music that you can’t help but follow him wherever he goes, but when the pathos is on its own, at a slow tempo, without the Phil Spector-influenced wall of sound, his lack of cynicism can curdle into treacle. Better for me is Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, in which he mourned for Crazy Horse’s recently deceased guitarist, Danny Whitten. The grief is almost completely beneath the surface. Neil Young is a more moving songwriter than either Dylan or Springsteen, perhaps all the more so because the vocabulary he uses is so much plainer than either - death is present in every song on the album, but mentioned obliquely. No singer-songwriter in rock history, not even Joni Mitchell or Randy Newman, comes even close to writing the achingly beautiful harmonic progressions you get from Neil Young. Listen to the unspeakably beautiful harmonies of “Borrowed Tune” and try telling yourself that this is not exactly what grief sounds like.   

My favorite, by a long shot, is a series of albums. It will always be Johnny Cash’s series of American Recordings, which seems to take us through an entire multi-year process of dying with dignity, anger, humor, and an ecstatic embrace of the entire life cycle. All it takes is a great singer near death and the right producer, and you can produce something as eloquent about death as a Mahler symphony.

...And if Johnny Cash and Neil Young were not enough to put Sufjan’s achievements in perspective, there is always Mahler… If someone from classical music, that most visionarily dreary of all musical fields, can be entertaining in comparison, there’s a big problem. Five days after Sufjan’s trip to the Meyerhoff, I was sitting in the back row of the Kennedy Center to hear Christoph Eschenbach conduct the National Symphony in Mahler’s Third Symphony. And, of course, I was riveted.

Mahler once said “A Symphony must be like the world, it must embrace everything.” Mahler’s Third Symphony, for me, is the greatest work ever written for an orchestra. It is the great, grand summation of the great line of classical music music from Bach and Handel through Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, Wagner, Bruckner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and Richard Strauss. The very peaks and valleys of creation resound in that 100-minute monsterpiece. There is not a single human emotion missing - everything from the highest joy to the lowest agony, the highest awe to the lowest vulgarity, is here. The music is unspeakably profound, but it finds just as much space for the ugliest sounds, the tawdriest melodies, the cheapest musical jokes. “You don’t want to listen to anything important?” this music seems to say, “Don’t worry, here’s a dog-and-pony show.”

Like Sufjan in Carrie & Lowell, Mahler wrote his third symphony when he was in his late thirties. It would be nearly another ten years before Mahler’s music became quite as gloomy and death obsessed as Sufjan is now. ‘Late Mahler’, writing symphonies as quickly as possible because he knew his days were numbered, is every bit as great and grand as early Mahler, and throughout his career, Mahler was as obsessed by death as any artist has ever been.

But even at his most death-haunted, Mahler is as much an entertainer as an artist. He knows that the more entertained the audience is, the more receptive they are to digest a profound message. No matter how long or bombastic a Mahler symphony seems, there is always a surprise around the corner, ready to hold our attention at lengths we never thought possible, because there is a comic side to Mahler which you almost never get from Sufjan except in his liner notes. In Sufjan’s two Fifty States albums, you can almost hear him trying to feel his way into something much less serious, but he never quite gets there. By ‘The Age of Adz’ in 2010, even the exuberant energy has turned into something dark, and he has ever since retreated from that attempt.

The further in his career he gets, the less Sufjan seems like the epic bard which the ‘Fifty States Project’ seemed to suggest. He is no Mahler or Bob Dylan. Mahler and Dylan (for all Dylan’s weaknesses), admirably chronicled their time and place. If you want a taste of what the mentality of living in mid-century America might have been like, or the Fin de siècle Austro-Hungarian Empire, you could do much much worse than listen to The Times They Are A-Changin’ or the last movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. There is greatness of course in being another fine lyric or religious poet of narrow focus, but great lyric poems are so much more common than great epics. Great lyric poems are what we all need to get through our days and make our lives more meaningful, but great epics are what give us the inspiration to keep building a better world.

The musical Messiah for which America eagerly waits, who synthesizes all of our musical traditions into a rain of beauty, will probably never come. Or perhaps, like Mahler, he will only come at the moment of our society’s imminent demise and only appreciated properly when he’s dead for fifty years. Sufjan is not the musical superman who will write an album about every state, but who knows, he may yet have things within him that are still greater. Sufjan just turned forty. If he’s not the American Mahler, perhaps he even has it in him to be the American Bach.

So as that other alleged Messiah of our American era once said: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” We’re living in the crowd-sourced era, the era of movies and TV, the era of collaborative projects. Sufjan is not the artist so many thought he was. He might be an even better one, but since he won’t finish the Fifty States Project, let’s finish it for him. Just here in Baltimore, there are all sorts of musicians who could take up the challenge, whether for Baltimore or Maryland. You can’t tell me that Dan Deacon, for all the stupid shit on which he’s piddled his talent, doesn’t have a nearly-equivalent musical brilliance to Sufjan. When he gets serious, he creates musical cathedrals as fully realized as any musician working today in any genre. Or maybe some singer-songwriters can take up the challenge like Letitia Vansant or Ellen Cherry or Matt Beale - good songwriters all of them that sometimes border on the great. It’s purely the luck of the draw that musicians like them are local while others no more talented or accomplished have international profiles.

The city of Baltimore teems with talented and underachieving musicians who can express exactly what it’s like for us all to be from Smalltimore, from Baltimore, from Maryland. In every artform of every genre, there are many artists who express nothing but what it’s like to be them. They belong to nobody but themselves - they infatuate the listener and rob from their audience’s souls without giving back any part of their own souls in return. That kind of artist, or that kind of person, has a defect of character, and I feel sorry for those people who want to be part of nothing but themselves. The best artists, the best art, belongs to us all.

There should be musicians and songwriters in every state and city and zipcode in America that should take up where Sufjan left off. Few of us are musical geniuses, but we can all write about what’s on the street corners in front of our noses. Or maybe the project has practically written itself already in individual songs by songwriters across America, and all it needs is a knowledgeable editor to put it together in a single long 72-hour playlist.

But in this era when Americans are yet again torn asunder by misunderstanding, it should be obvious that every American should have a ready-made way of learning about the essence, the spirit, the soul, of every place in America for which they’re not familiar. Perhaps when we can hear that spirit, we can better know how to talk to one another, and heal a country that is clearly as divided as any point in living memory.

Assassins: The Other America

  1. Can We Be Arrested just for watching this?
As I watched the nearly sold out closing performance of Stillpointe Theater’s production of Assassins, the thought occurred to me: could we be arrested merely for watching this?

Threatening to kill a President is still a Federal Offense: a Class-E felony under United States Code Title 18 Section 871. It is illegal to make “any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States.”

Personally, I think that’s a violation of Free Speech that can make willing martyrs of insane people who could be provoked to commit mass murder by a parking ticket. But now that we’re in the Obama Era, perhaps these free speech violations make at least a slight bit of sense.

Assassins is a Broadway Musical written 25 years ago. Like so much of the best stuff, it was completely ahead of its time, but it might be appreciated even more in hundreds of years than it is now.

No matter when you see it, you can’t see a creation as explosively relevant to our time as any work could ever hope to be, and not see that at some point this work has the power to change our world in the blink of an eye.

Who knows? The change might be for the good, it might be for the ill, but in an American era when nearly 300 million guns are held for private use, when Presidents both liberal and conservative are routinely compared to Nazis, when a day with mass shootings is practically the rule rather than the exception, there is no work of art that could possibly have more explosive power than this. This is the rare work of art that does precisely what Plato warned against in The Republic. It practically puts the gun in assailant’s hands.

Assassins is an unholy blast of drama that could be written by Satan himself. It is America’s answer to Macb*th. It’s practically an incitement to terrorism. It shows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the American Dream was built upon dirt and shit, and does nothing to console us with any redeeming vision. It shows us that the “other” America of people’s nightmares is the true America, and that we’re all just fooling ourselves if we think the world is anything better than the world brought upon us by these agents of the abyss.

When Assassins premiered in the week before Christmas 1990, the mood in America was as happy as ever since the end of World War II. After forty-three years of worry that the Soviet Union could incinerate us in an instant, the Cold War was finally done and we were the victors. The Persian Gulf War was humming along ‘peacefully,’ its resolution in clear sight. It was the first moment since Vietnam when everyone but the most hardened Leftists agreed that the exercise of American power was a concept for good, not evil.

The reviews against Assassins were crushing. Eleven years later, it was slated for a Broadway revival in October 2001. I shouldn’t need to tell you what happened...

This is a musical, with all the trappings that have been in place since Rodgers and Hammerstein, that depicts more than a century’s worth of famous terrorists - terrorists always motivated by fanaticism and pathological loneliness, nihilists like Edmund from King Lear and the Underground Man and the Joker, who want nothing more than to spread chaos and suffering. Fifty years before Assassins, Rogers and Hammerstein gave Oklahoma, a vision of boundless hope - in Assassins, the American Musical comes full circle with a vision of endless despair.

This is the musical that depicted Sam Byck, whom, thirty years before 9/11, attempted the hijack of a commercial airliner to ram the White House. This is a musical that shows Charles Guiteau, the Christian fanatic who killed James Garfield, anticipating his death with all the ecstasy of a suicide bomber: according to the famous drama critic, Frank Rich - “you find yourself wondering if he’s expecting 72 black-eyed virgins as his posthumous reward.”

Or just consider some of the lyrics to what is aptly called ‘The Gun Song’:

“When you think what must be done/Think of all that it can do
Remove a scoundrel/Unite a party/Preserve the Union/Promote the sales of my book
Ensure my future/My niche in history/And then the world will see/That I am not a man to overlook...”

II. John Wilkes Booth - The Failure of the Left

“An indictment of the former President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, who is herein charged with the following high crimes and misdemeanors.

  1. That you did ruthlessly provoke a war between the States, which caused some 600,000 of my countrymen their lives.
  2. That you did silence your critics in the North by hurling them into prison without benefit of charge or trial.
  3. ….”

This was, at least according to the musical, the unfinished manifesto John Wilkes Booth tried to write in Port Royal, Virginia as he was surrounded in Richard Garrett’s house was surrounded by 50 US Marshals.

If these were actually Booth’s complaints, they sound eerily familiar...

If Abraham Lincoln were a politician today, he would not be popular among many of our contemporaries who lionize him. He was clearly no conservative, but by the standards of his own day, we would call him a Liberal Hawk who believed things that are strangely close to what we would recognize in our own era as neoconservatism: the spread of democracy and human rights through force, preemptive war, rendition without trial or cause, the suppression of free speech and assembly in the name of security, bleeding the country dry of blood and treasure so that the bloodletting can form a more perfect union. These and more were the objectionable beliefs of President Lincoln.

There are only two true differences between Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush. The first is that Lincoln’s policies were much, much bloodier than George W. Bush’s on Bush’s most shameful day. The Iraq War, insofar as we have reliable estimates, killed roughly 100,000 people and uprooted the lives of roughly 4 million: shameful numbers indeed. The American Civil War killed somewhere between 625,000 and 850,000 people. Not a single American was unaffected, the number of displaced Americans was unknown, but clearly in the millions.

The second difference is that by assuming the role of mass murderer to leave a better country than he found, Lincoln was proven absolutely correct and Bush was proven absolutely incorrect.

John Wilkes Booth was right: Abraham Lincoln was absolutely a tyrant, and the world probably has Lincoln’s tyranny to thank for the fact that democracy itself was not snuffed out long before it could take root in a majority (just barely) of the world’s countries. The true ideological heir to the Lincoln Presidency was not Barack Obama, or even Franklin Roosevelt. It was Harry Truman, who ended the war with Japan by dropping two bombs on them that killed 210,000 people in the most horrific ways ever known to man. Thanks to Truman, America lost most of whatever moral capital she earned for being less brutal than the totalitarian regimes she fought against.

And yet, thanks to Truman, Western Europe was endowed the Marshall Plan, which spearheaded prosperity for that region unseen even by America in our greatest years. Thanks to Truman, Britain and France were forced to begin the process of relinquishing their imperial empires. Thanks to Truman, the military was desegregated, a process that not even Lincoln or Roosevelt dare initiate. Most importantly, thanks to Truman, the anti-communist Right, with its notions of maintaining world supremacy over Communism, was prevented from continuing World War against Russia and China - you can’t overestimate how close we came to doing that.

Andre Glucksmann, the French philosopher, writes that there are two planks upon which the modern world order maintains its precarious balance: “Never again Auschwitz, Never again Hiroshima.” We will never know for sure if America was right or wrong to drop the big one, but in today’s world, we can only maintain the peace so long as we assure that it will never happen again; and we only know never to drop it again because we’ve discovered their terrible power once (twice) before.

Everything for which we revile Bush we love Lincoln: a President who suspended civil liberties in the name of security, a President who made extremely bloody war in the name of human rights, a President who detained prisoners for years without trial, a President who did so much within his power to curb Freedom of Speech and Assembly. The difference between Lincoln and Bush is a question of competence, not of tyranny. If anything, there is much more evidence of Lincoln’s tyranny than of Bush’s, but Lincoln was intelligent enough that he turned out to be a tyrant for good, not evil.

There is no question that slavery was an absolute evil, even for its time, and even in the 1850’s, the majority of Americans knew that in their bones. It is America’s original sin through which our country built itself as a free place for its whites on the backs of black bondage. Violent abolitionists like John Brown were radical chic terrorists, but what was the solution that Lincoln enacted but John Brown’s massacre of slaveowners society writ extremely large? How else was America going to free itself of something so deeply entrenched? The ending of slavery took a leader who not only had a genius for politics and law, but a will to commit acts which not even John Brown would dream. Slavery was a sin so bloody had to be paid for in blood just as overflowing.

Ultimately, no one really knows why Abraham Lincoln launched The Civil War. Some say it was slavery, some say it was merely to preserve the union. But at the Civil War’s inception, there was a concern far more basic than either.

If the South were able to secede, the precedent would be set for every minority with an evil ideology to secede. No governance would be possible, because evil values would always triumph over good ones. Republican democracy cannot endure unless it can impose democratic values on undemocratic people.

At the time of the Civil War, America was less than a century old. Were the American republic to dissolve into separate countries, it would have lived far less time than either the Athenian democracy or the Roman Republic. When would another republic, a true republic without a constitutional monarchy, have ever resurfaced? Would it be another two thousand years?

What sort of world would we have faced had Lincoln not launched the Civil War? Might it have been not only a world of perpetual slavery, but of such unintelligible chaos that few people or deeds are ever worth remembering? The vast majority of world history is a dark age about which we know very little, and the vast majority of human future may look like that as well. Lincoln did what he thought was necessary to continue the democratic values that keep chaos at bay, and in order to do so, perhaps he indulged in more undemocratic, chaotic, violent, tyrannical means than any president ever will.

So in the moment I saw Booth compose this letter onstage, all I could think of is so many of the Civil Libertarians that, were we living in 1860, would stand idly by as the Union, and perhaps Democracy itself throughout the world, falls to pieces. In our day, libertarian absolutists of every stripe give themselves every conceivable name: progressive, socialist, communist, libertarian, libertarian socialist, libertarian communist, libertarian objectivist, anarchist, anarcho-capitalist, anarcho-socialist,… Make your own list… but they share in common a very simple problem: what do you do if it becomes clear to everyone but you that the methods in which you believe have failed or will fail? Furthermore, would there be any difference if you can’t convince even a small group of people of your ideas? Rather than guaranteeing greater democracy, you would have to impose your ideas by authoritarian force on millions of unwilling people. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was made,” wrote Immanuel Kant in one of his rare moments of coherence. Lincoln was willing to do all that and more. Are you?

I don’t doubt that, were they to give the matter any thought at all, many of you would fancy yourselves the heirs to the Abolitionist movement. But there was nothing Civil Libertarian about abolition. Many of the most fervent abolitionists were as horrified by the prospect of women’s liberation as they were sanguine about freeing slaves. Some abolitionists, like the preacher Theodore Weld, called for slavery’s gradual abolition, which would take place over a period of decades, a process during which millions more might be born and die in captivity. Another abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, founder of an abolition newspaper literally called ‘The Liberator’, called for immediate abolition, and immediately thereafter the forced removal of blacks from America to a colony Americans would establish for them in Africa. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the novel once famous beyond all American novels, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was the impetus for widespread awareness of slavery’s brutality. Today, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is remembered mostly for the stereotypes of African-Americans it perpetuated to make the story more palatable to the average American reader, the ignorant “pickaninny” children, the loving “mammy” who loves the white children as if they were her own, and of course, “Uncle Tom” himself, who seems almost joyfully loyal to his masters.

These proponents of abolition were, clearly, extremely imperfect people, given to flights of horrible ideas. And yet, horrible as they sometimes were, they were the only people of their time of any significance agitating for the end of slavery. Many of their ideas were terrible, some of them, as in the case of Garrison’s idea for an American state for blacks in Africa, were partially enacted (and became the failed state of Liberia).

But at least they tried.

The equivalent to those of today unwilling to compromise, to entertain the lesser evil until it is proven a greater evil, to make terrible mistakes on the path to greater truth, is not the Abolitionists, it is the Doughfaces.

In the 1850’s, ‘Doughface’ was the term for those who wanted accommodation with the South. It refers to a weakness of character, a wilting at the thought that others might find what you believe to be objectionable, and therefore aligning their soft spines with spines so hard they obliterate human feeling.

The term “doughface” comes from John Randolph, a southern congressman - both ally and cousin to Thomas Jefferson and similarly hypocritical but conflicted on issues of slavery - who in 1820 said with withering contempt of these Northern congressmen who voted with the South on issues of slavery:

They were scared at their own dough faces—yes, they were scared at their own dough faces!—We had them, and if we wanted three more, we could have had them: yes, and if these had failed, we could have three more of these men, whose conscience, and morality, and religion, extend to 'thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes north latitude.”

To be sure, these Doughface congressmen had ample reason to believe what they did. If the South seceded, they would take their economic heft with them, and a bloody, painful war might follow. Follow it did, but Democracy itself was on the line.

When Arthur Schlesinger re-coined the phrase “doughface” for the twentieth century, he used it in a very different context. In the nineteenth century, ‘doughface’ meant the Northern congressmen who voted for the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which stipulated that a slave state had to be admitted into the Union for every free state admitted. The northerners who voted for the Missouri Compromise were of many different stripes. Some were simply moderates for their day, Southern sympathizers who held no great love for African-Americans. Others were radicals who simply voted for it because they were too frustrated to make a stand against it. When thinking of such people, one might recall Ralph Nader’s insistence in 2000 that there was no difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush, or Howard Dean’s strenuous insistence during the Obamacare debate that the whole law be scrapped because it was simply not good enough.

These were the doughfaces who felt that since such an evil law could not be stopped, an attempt to minimize the evil which the law imparts should not even be made. In 1949, when Schlesinger used the term, he was addressing this latter type of pseudo-progressive, whom in 1949, the height of the early Cold War, were the prime voice in the United States arguing for full accommodation to Soviet demands over Europe.

Here’s what he wrote in his unforgettable 1949 book that every liberal should still read - The Vital Center, which, contrary to what it sounds like, does not argue for the kind of moderation between the American Left and Right. Schlesinger’s Vital Center was the bulwarks against the twin threats of Fascism and Communism:

`Too often the Doughface really does not want power or responsibility. For him the more subtle sensations of the perfect syllogism, the lost cause, the permanent minority, where lie can be safe from the exacting job of trying to work out wise policies in an imperfect world.

`Politics becomes, not a means of getting things done, but an outlet for private grievances and frustrations. The progressive once disciplined by the responsibilities of power is often the most useful of all public servants; but he, alas, ceases to be a progressive and is regarded by all true Doughfaces as a cynical New Dealer or a tired Social Democrat.

Having renounced power, the Doughface seeks compensation in emotion. The pretext for progressive rhetoric is, of course, the idea that man, the creature of reason and benevolence, has only to understand the truth in order to act upon it.

`But the function of progressive rhetoric is another matter; it is, in Dwight MacDonald's phrase, to accomplish "in fantasy what cannot be accomplished in reality." Because politics is for the Doughface a means of accommodating himself to a world he does not like but does not really want to change, he can find ample gratification in words. They appease his twinges of guilt without committing him to very drastic action.

Thus the expiatory role of resolutions in progressive meetings. A telegram of protest to a foreign chancellery gives the satisfaction of a job well done and a night's rest well earned. The Doughfaces differ from Mr. Churchill: dreams, they find, are better than facts.

Progressive dreams are tinged with a brave purity, a rich sentiment and a noble defiance. But, like most dreams, they are notable for the distortion of facts by desire."

Schlesinger later became a figure more like John Randolph, an unforgivably compromised public servant whose tongue seemed to forever be in the backside of the Kennedy Family. When JFK was elected, he accepted a job in the administration for which his sole responsibility was literally to chronicle Kennedy’s actions for posterity. He categorically denied the truth of Kennedy’s risible behavior toward women, and he retrospectively claimed against all evidence that JFK would have withdrawn from Vietnam. Among American Historians, he is most famous for writing the book ‘The Age of Jackson’, which argues that Jackson, in spite of his ethnic cleansing, was one of the greatest American presidents.

But what would Schlesinger and Randolph make of today’s doughfaces who enable the John Wilkes Booths of our era? What would they say to the heirs of Henry Wallace and Norman Thomas?

What are these young heirs - or in the case of Baltimore the thirtysomethings who pretend to remain young - truly fighting for? Superficially, that American Militarism has ruined our inner cities and reputation abroad, they proclaim that Black Lives Matter, that Wall Street should be occupied, that America is a country of conservative puritans palpitating with contempt for blacks, women, gays, and sex. The louder they get, the more of us they implicate. It is no longer the conservatives who are the primary villains, but the liberals themselves who have failed to prevent conservatism's onslaught. In one of language's more sinister maneuvers, they group conservatives and liberals together under the rubric of 'neoliberalism.' They add their voices to American politics’ hateful echo chamber, the din of which could still send the current Presidency, the most liberal in more than half a century, to an early end.

Our grandparents bequeathed to us the greatest conditions the world has ever seen, and as they prepare to pass from this world, the world revolts against everything they stood for for a second time. Yes, unimaginable poverty is everywhere, but for the first time in human history, there would be a fair fight to eradicate poverty if ever the left-of-center forces united with one another instead of silencing heretics who say 'Maybe we can't do it all at once...'

Such people once perverted the Civil Rights Movement into the '68 protests, the urban riots, and stomped out Civil Rights' gains in their infancy. Meanwhile, they had no solidarity at all for the protests across the Iron Curtain in ‘68 Prague, and issued no warning about the tens of millions of deaths in Mao's regime (perhaps more than a hundred million). Their spiritual children have now perverted the gains of Obama into Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Bernie Sanders candidacy, calls for slavery reparations when the government is already $20 trillion in debt, calls for internet censorship against politically incorrect statements when we just spent fifty years overturning just such censorship with regard to religiously incorrect statements.

In every era and every generation, a new guise comes about for this unwillingness to make mistakes, this moral wilting in the face of obvious evil, this perversion of ‘Social Justice,’ this ‘National Pacifism.’ 200 years ago, it took the form of accommodation to the South in the face of slavery. 100 years ago, it took the form of accommodating the extreme imperialism that led to World War I and the impoverishment of Africa. Today, it takes the form of extreme anti-imperialism. Inevitably, just like in those former times, these fashionable opinions are drossed up in fashionable language of the day. Seventy years ago, George Orwell had quite something to say about them:

“The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to taking life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists, whose real though unacknowledged motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration for totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writing of the younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States …”

Substitute ‘Israel’ for ‘Britain’, and you have a perfect definition of the contemporary Hard Left. All tactics are completely acceptable, or at least unable to be censured, so long as they act against the monolithic evil that is the United States, and the evil neo-imperial projects which their involvement overseas inevitably represent.  

But you needn’t look overseas to find exemplars of this evil. Here in Baltimore, rioters from last spring are so often excused because white residents, or even middle-class black residents, allegedly have no right to criticize the actions people trapped in urban poverty. Perhaps they’re right, but this would overlook thousands of African-American lives potentially ruined by these riots, and that thousands of jobs which poor people could have gained will never now move to the city.

The goal of such people is not to improve Baltimore - because nothing gradual is fast enough for the instant gratification they seek. They criticize Obama for not standing up sufficiently to Republicans, they revile O’Malley for adapting a zero-tolerance policy when crime was virtually at levels of cities in the Middle Ages, and they automatically assume that the BPD wants to commit hate crimes.

A policeman is a public servant like a teacher, and deserves all the same respect. There are policemen, far too many, whose main pleasure in the force is to abuse their charges (and just as many teachers whose main pleasure is exactly the same). But consider this: both jobs are low-paying, dim-future occupations whose benefits are continually cut to a nub. But for a few (and yes, still too many) abusive exceptions, all they want to do is to make their communities better.

Just as teachers deserve far more respect than they ever get from the Right, policemen deserve far more respect than they ever get from the Left. When people who continually put their lives on the line tell you what’s needed to police a place, what authority have you to doubt them? What statistics? What experience of the fog of violence?

Furthermore, if you believe that the plurality of police or teachers have taken their jobs to abuse their subjects, why the hell are you just protesting them? You should not be protesting them. If you care as much as you say you do, you should put every cent you have to relocating as many people out of West Baltimore and rehousing them in middle class areas as you possibly can. But… you’re not serious enough to play Oskar Schindler are you?...  

Whether or not you realize it, the goal you seek is an authoritarian strongman to blow the city up and rebuild it from scratch, because, surely you reason, a faint nub of a slummed out crater like 1945 Warsaw or Tokyo which we can build up in a few months is better than the injustices of 2015 Baltimore, which can only be slowly improved over generations. Even if, as in Warsaw's case, it takes another fifty years for Communism to fall before the city can be rebuilt, such a destructive gamble is justified if there’s even the smallest chance for something greater down the road. What right have you to play roulette with people’s lives like that?

The irony is that all of you who call for the end of capitalism and militarism are completely addicted to its benefits. It was not socialism that made the clothes on which you pin your political statements, it was not communism that created the technology you passionately use to denounce capitalism, it was not anarchism that created the corporate music you listen to and the special-effects laden movies you watch. It was not the Soviet Union that allowed you the freedom to protest, almost always without assault or retribution against you. It is Capitalism which does all that for you and more, but you revile Capitalism because Capitalism demands nothing of you and gives you a secure bed and desk around which you think for yourselves (badly). It is a religion you seek, a religion that demands more of you than the purposeless lives to which you were so comfortably born; for if you truly had the courage of your convictions, you would raise up an army take arms against those conspiring forces that prevent the glorious era you seek, and move heaven and earth to end this cruel world in an ecstatic hail of bullets.

III. Sondheim: The Great American “....”

If you read the back half of our country’s most reputable journals, you’ll inevitably come upon some critic who declares that this next-big-thing, finally, is the ‘Great American Novelist,’ or the ‘Great American Playwright,’ or the ‘Great American Composer.’ But those are the wrong questions. Of course we don’t have a ‘Great American “...”’ America doesn’t “do” novels or plays or symphonies. Don’t get me wrong, we have great novelists and playwrights and composers, but we could never have a single playwright or novelist that means to us what Shakespeare means to England, or what Tolstoy means to Russia, or what Beethoven means to Germany. Europe created the novel, it’s reinvented the theater half-a-dozen times, and the symphony barely ever left Europe.   

But now it is ‘us’ who reinvented theater with the ‘musical.’ And, still around in his mid-eighties, we have a theatrical creator in this country who is the voice of our time as perhaps not even any American filmmaker can equal. There has not been a theatrical artist with Stephen Sondheim’s astonishing proliferation of great work since Ibsen. There has not been a writer for the theater so observant and compassionate for human beings since Chekhov. There has not been a voice of the theater who can make fun out of so much seriousness since Mozart. And there has not been a creator of the theater with this much imagination, this much versatility, this much linguistic inventiveness, since Shakespeare himself.

Like with Shakespeare, Sondheim’s words are like a hallucinogen in which you can immerse yourself to a consciousness altering state. The pure voluptuous pleasure of hearing so many ideas fly past you at light speed is something you can only otherwise get from Shakespeare and Mozart. Yes, Sondheim’s that good, and I envy anybody who has yet to fall in love with his work.

Like Shakespeare and Mozart, like Tolstoy and Beethoven, Sondheim always leads you home. Every dark moment is balanced with a light one, every lofty sentiment with pure vulgarity, every piece of realism balanced with surreal magic. It speaks to the mastery of this creator who holds a mirror up to Nature that Sondheim has the balance which you can only find in in his most immortal peers and ancestors.

But while other works of Sondheim, with all their cynicism and heartlessness, can still hit you squarely in the feels, Assassins has pure acid and black bile in place of its heart. It begins and ends with the song "Everybody's got the right...", the right to happiness; and because everybody has the right, everybody also has the right to take away other people's happiness. Sweeney Todd shows us a horribly dark world, and then pulls the cape away with a whoosh, and we realize it's all a joke. Assassins shows us a world where you can kid about the darkest subjects, only to pull the cape away again, and reveal to us at all that there was no joke at all.

It should come as no surprise that after Assassins, Sondheim’s industry slowed to a trickle. Three years later came Passion, which is generally regarded as his final great work. Since then, this once unconquerable master who seemed to churn out another masterpiece every three years has ground to a halt, just two shows in the last  twenty years, both endlessly workshopped and retooled, with lukewarm reviews at every showing.

There is something different in Assassins that sets it apart from every other Sondheim musical. Sweeney Todd, often called the ‘Great American Opera’, is similarly dark, but it’s just a warmup act for what we get in Assassins. In Sweeney, there is always a wink, a nod, something that assures us that this is all a fairy tale or a Grand Guignol melodrama, a delightful nightmare.

But Assassins is a comedy so black that it ceases to be funny. It’s so light that half the lines in the musical could probably be interpreted as laugh lines, but the stakes are American History itself. The purpose of Sweeney Todd is to make a delightful assault on the audience to enjoy the dark underbelly of human nature, but the purpose of Assassins is to insidiously worm its way into our souls until it can eat away at our faith in humanity.

By any objective standard, the production was thoroughly workmanlike. The demands this musical makes on the performers and directors is superhuman - not even the original or Broadway casts sounded up to them. The singing at Stillpointe was thoroughly decent, but at times you could barely hear them over the pit band. Frankly, except for Chelsea Paradiso as potential Gerald Ford assassin and Charles Manson acolyte Squeaky Fromme, and especially John C. Wilson as Leonard Bernstein “acolyte” and potential Nixon assassin Sam Byck, there was not a single actor onstage who seemed within striking distance of meeting this work’s awful demands on its own terms. But we were all the better for being in such thoroughly adequate hands, because except for Mr. Wilson, not a single performance was great enough to distract us from just how disturbing this material is. There were moments in this production that were so sublime and powerful, so lofty and full of awe, that I had to wipe away tears from my eyes. It was as though we were watching a ritual in which the very ghosts of this country, all the toil and sweat and blood, was being conjured in front of our very eyes. This is what it must feel like to watch a religious experience and believe in it.

IV. Leon Czolgosz - The Failure of the Right

“Some men have everything/And some have none/So rise and shine
In the U.S.A/You can work your wayTo the head of the line!"

The falsest dichotomy in American politics is that liberalism and conservatism are two sides of the same coin. Conservatives have dined out on the benefits of that dichotomy for half-a-century, and as a result, conservatives stand a nearly 50% chance before long of rolling back all the reforms of the Roosevelt era and taking us back to the age when there was a depression nearly as large as the Great Depression every twenty years.

I suppose that in a properly functioning democracy, conservatism and liberalism are the two properly competing philosophies. But does anybody reading this think that the US is a properly functioning democracy (and for that matter, is anybody reading this?)?

Back in 1956, Arthur Schlesinger, that same history dude from Part II, wrote this passage in the New York Times:

“The liberal believes that society can and should be improved and that the way to improve it is to apply the human intelligence to social and economic problems.

The conservative, on balance, opposes efforts at purposeful change because he believes that things are about as good as they can be reasonably expected to be, and that any change is more likely than not to be for the worse.

The liberal's belief in working for change does not mean that he regards human reason as an infallible or incorruptible instrument, or that he thinks the Perfect State is attainable. But it does mean that he feels that history never stands still, that social change can better the quality of people's lives and happiness, and that the margin of gain, however limited, is worth the effort.

Nor will the conservative in all cases and occasions resist change. But he inclines to accept it only when the intellectual case for it is overwhelming and the social pressure for it irresistible. Up to that point he clings stubbornly to that which he knows and to which he knows and to which he is habituated. The castle which he is habituated. "The castle which conservatism is set to defend," said Emerson, "is the actual state of things, good and bad.”

The actual state of things… how good it would be to have an American conservative movement set to preserve the actual state of things after the 1950’s, rather than a reactionary stance that would take us back to the 1920’s or before. Sadly, we do have precisely that conservative movement. It’s called the Democratic Party Establishment, and after Obama leaves, it will take ascendence again in the form of Hillary Clinton.

A conservative sentiment is not automatically a bad one, and there are few conservatives more effective than the Clintons - who have been the only thing standing between America and a complete reversion to 19th century economics for an entire quarter-century.

Thirty years ago, the current Democratic establishment was the insurgents. The Democratic Party Establishment was lead by uncharismatic liberals like George McGovern and Walter Mondale, both of whom grew up in the heyday of FDR optimism and experienced adolescence where they flirted with the socialism of Henry Wallace, the Bernie Sanders-like Vice-President Roosevelt ditched so he could nominate Harry Truman. Both McGovern and Mondale lost national elections to Conservative Republican incumbents in catastrophic fashion.

These “New Democrats” did not believe in what they termed the ‘economic populism’ of the New Deal. Their most important belief was in tax cuts for the Middle Class juxtaposed with tax increases for the Upper Class.  They didn’t, as Republicans did, automatically believe that the economy would improve so long as the government cut taxes and spending, but they did believe that the social welfare programs instituted Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation enabled many poor people to live their lives without seeking work. They didn’t believe in massive military spending, but they did believe in National Service. They didn’t believe in government-funded universal healthcare, but they did believe in lowering tax burdens for the uninsured so that they could buy insurance. They didn’t believe in putting as much money into public education as possible, but they did believe in giving as much money as the government could to poor families so that they had the option of sending their children somewhere other than their districted public school. They believed in free trade that allowed employers to shift jobs overseas, but they also believed in a mixture of incentives and penalties for employers to keep American manufacturing intact. They believed in a woman’s right to choose, but not in partial-birth abortion. They believed guns should proliferate freely, but not assault-weapons.

Were these politicians operating in 1955 rather than 1985, the “New Democrats,” - politicians like Bill Clinton and Al Gore, Dick Gephardt and Sam Nunn - would be considered slightly to the right of the Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower. In a properly functioning democracy, they would have been the base of a properly functioning conservative anchor that curbs the excesses of more interventionist statesmen to their left. However, in 1985, there was nothing about them considered conservative; they were called ‘Moderate Democrats.’ Occasionally, as in the case of Senator Sam Nunn from Georgia, they were considered ‘Conservative Democrats.’ Theirs was a true, rational, conservatism - a flawed view of human nature, but nevertheless a principled one that cared about people less powerful than they.

I suppose that so long as the circulation of this ‘magazine’ is confined to Smalltimore, this won’t come as news to anybody, but there is very little that’s conservative about Modern Conservatism. Except perhaps for the permanent relegation of everyone but white males to second-class citizenry, there is no existing order which they wish to preserve. At this point, it’s arguable whether they even wish to turn the clock back to a better time. In so many ways, the Modern Conservative is the most revolutionary person in America. What the Modern American Conservative wants is to transform the existing world order into a Nietzschean imperium where the wishes of America wishes are unquestioningly obeyed around the globe.

Everyone but the delusional is aware that there is no way that the Bush Administration planned 9/11. As I believe Clive James put it: “if the Bush Administration wanted to hit The World Trade Center, they’d have accidentally hit the Sears Tower.” Nevertheless, 9/11 was a godsend for them - the perfect excuse for all the poisonous insects of reaction that lurk in the mud to hatch out.

This is where I have to pause for a moment. It’s almost too easy to hit the Right. There’s no risk in it. Nearly anybody who picks this magazine up will spend their lifetime complaining about how conservatism has ruined this country, and they’re absolutely right to do so. What new insights can I possibly give?

All I can say in response is that the world of conservatism is precisely that: a world. It is by no means monolithic, and the moral character of its adherents is no more or less evil than the rest of us - and, in many ways, it’s precisely that diversity of people who care so fanatically about building the world into a better place which makes them so very, very dangerous.

So many left wingers begin their lives in right wing families, and so many right-wingers are ex-left wing students, that it’s almost tempting to say that politically extreme beliefs are more an issue of temperament than of conviction. Maybe American conservatives are revolutionaries that, but for a few accidents of birth and circumstance, would be attending lectures every night at Red Emma’s. Though perhaps it’s more to the point to say that the revolutionaries at Red Emma’s, but for a few accidents of birth and circumstance, would be attending services at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden. The most important difference between the revolutionaries at Red Emma’s and a revolutionaries at Maryland’s largest Megachurch is that there are roughly ten to twelve-thousand more who walk through the Megachurch on any given week.

For lack of a better place to put them, we have to put these pseudo-Conservatives on the far-right of the ideological spectrum. They don’t like government programs, even if they’re often more dependent upon them than liberals are. They certainly don’t think that government can be an instrument to institute greater freedom… but maybe it’s more to the point to say that in spite of their protestations to the contrary, they want less freedom, not more.

In case it isn’t obvious to you, just mull it over a bit. They want a President and Congress who will suspend civil liberties in the face of all threats to national security, they want law enforcement that suspends civil liberties in the face of all threats to their personal security, and they want all of the above to suspend civil liberties in the face of all threats to ‘traditional’ morality. They want the government to stop taxing the rich, and stop taxing the companies owned by the rich. Perhaps they just don’t understand how finance works, but it’s possible that they want to make corporate boards have as much control over their finances as the government has over all the other aspects of their persons.

In essence, this conservatism, if it’s conservatism, is (fortunately) a diet, decaf version the authoritarian conservatism of Mussolini and Franco - the politics of fear used as a way of manipulating the masses to joyfully give up their freedoms. Nevertheless, even on its worst day, America is not a fascist country, and I would (and no doubt will) argue with anyone who says otherwise. Nevertheless, there is an enormous fascist presence in America, a presence that threatened to become the dominant mode of governance during the Bush years, and may yet reassert itself to exponentially greater levels than ever before.

In the history of conservatism, there are two basic threads. Once again, perhaps the best guide through this maze is Arthur Schlesinger. Both threads originate from the rather authoritarian idea that there is a central source from which power and privilege emanate that must at all costs be preserved, lest chaos reign over the realm. But these two types of conservatism diverge on their attitudes toward those less fortunate. The first type regards it as a moral obligation to look after the less fortunate. A nobleman sees the serfs under him as his property, and a good owner takes care of his property. Obviously, these possessions can never be treated as equals, but they must always be provided for. Schlesinger called this kind of conservatism ‘Aristocratic Conservatism,’ which was the conservatism of Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. One might see this strain represented in contemporary America by John McCain, or even by the Clintons.

The second type sees no moral obligation to look after the less fortunate. ‘We provide for ourselves,’ they reason, ‘so let them provide for themselves, and if they can’t, it’s not our obligation to help them.’ Schlesinger called this conservatism ‘Plutocratic Conservatism’, which was the conservatism of William McKinley and Calvin Coolidge. One might easily perceive this strain of conservatism personified, almost to perfection, by the second Bush Administration.

But the dichotomy goes still deeper. I apologize for massively oversimplifying what follows, but this bifurcation goes back at very least to late 17th century England, when the English upper classes finally ended 400 years of almost unbroken Civil War with the Glorious Revolution of 1688. After 1688, the English upper class was merely divided between two factions: the Tories and the Whigs. Before 1688, Tories were almost unambiguously among the villains of English history. They believed in the Divine Right of Kings, they resented religious tolerance of Catholicism, and they lived for generations off the spoil of their lands and the labor of their serfs. Contrary to popular belief, the Tories were not necessarily titled nobility, but they had so much land and inherited wealth that they didn’t need titles.

By the standards of 1700, Whigs were the acme of progressive thought. Whigs were the first class of people since the guildsmen of the Dark Ages to consolidate enough power to challenge the noble classes. They were, by the standards of their day, the Middle Class. They had as much wealth as the landed gentry, but nowhere near the gentry’s security. The landed gentry lived off their holdings, which slowly accumulated over the centuries into world domination; but the middle class made and lost fortunes as great in the same year as the landed gentry could ever accumulate in a lifetime. The Whigs represented industry, they represented initiative, they represented personal responsibility, they were the dynamism and risk that builds an Empire.

But liberalism is a very fickle thing, and what is truly liberal can change virtually overnight. In 1833, the Whig Prime Minister Charles The 2nd Earl Grey (yes,... the tea was named for him, and notice how new the title was to his family...), instituted the Great Reform Act which allowed urban lower-middle-class males to vote (aka, businessmen who could only rent property in the cities rather than owning it). By enabling these men to vote, the business class would have a much greater share of the electorate.

This progress, of course, begged another question: if the business class could have the vote, why couldn’t the working class? The key man who realized the necessity of addressing their concerns was England’s dominant political figure during the mid-19th century, Benjamin Disraeli.

150 years ago, the world of economic progressivism was precisely the opposite of what it is today. The concepts of individual initiative, free trade, the natural economic cycle of boom and bust, were what defined the ideas of progress. Any attempt to interfere with the economy was seen as an infringement not only on economic freedom, but on personal freedom.

So it was left to Conservatives (as Tories were by then called), seeing that the Industrial Revolution had left the working classes in an even worse state than under feudal rule, to alleviate the burdens of the Working Class. In 1866, Disraeli masterminded the Second Reform Act, which allowed the vote to working class males in the cities who practiced any trade. In the blink of an eye, the vote was extended to 1 in every 3 British men.

To counterbalance the Conservative gains, the Liberal Party (which was basically the Whigs in a different generation) had to extend the vote to working class men still living in the country - lower-class men who still lived on the lands of gentry and noblemen - servants, agrarians, hunters, who owed their livelihoods to the noblemen who allowed them to live on their lands. After 1884, 2 in 3 men in Britain could vote, and thus began the slow march toward financial and economic justice and welfare for all that is Modern Liberalism.  

By the standards of the 21st century, the English Conservative Party was in fact more liberal than their Liberal Party. So ‘liberal’ did Conservatives of that age become that Disraeli’s great ally in Central Europe - Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of a newly united Germany - instituted the first welfare state during the 1880s: a social insurance plan guaranteeing a source of income to any family struggling to make ends meet. Liberals of their age were stuck until Franklin Roosevelt in an outdated 18th century model of liberalism that praised individual initiative to the skies and left the poor to rot (and libertarians still are…). It was the Conservatives of their day that thought poverty a crucial enough issue to address.

We in America have no such conservative tradition. The very idea of aristocrats is anathema to the American lexicon. This country was, fundamentally, founded by 18th century mercantile liberals. When the Tea Party wraps itself in the language of the American Revolution, they are fundamentally correct to do so, even if they get just about every particular wrong. 1776 was also the year when the first modern economic text: The Wealth of Nations, was published. The height of liberalism was individual initiative and free trade.

Actually, we do have an ‘Aristocratic Conservative’ tradition, but compared to Western Europe, it’s very weak indeed. Sure, we had Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, both of whom could at times make even the Clintons look unfeeling toward the poor. Nevertheless, both TR and Ike were powerless to stomp out the Plutocratic Conservative tradition - which took control of the Republican party almost immediately after their terms in office expired. Purely in living memory, France had Charles de Gaulle and Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, while Germany had Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel. If any of these candidates ran in America on the same platforms, their economic views would be little different than candidates slightly to the left of moderate Democrats. It should come as no surprise that in these American Centuries, it is this Plutocratic Conservative tradition that proves America’s undoing.

Before World War One, the “One Percent” in England and America received roughly one-fifth of the income within these two countries. By 1950, the share of the one percent was less than one-tenth. Beginning with the Reagan administration, that share began rising, and in the era of “Too Big To Fail” it’s certainly back to one-fifth and only shows signs of rising.

Nevertheless, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves in slamming the One Percent. Even if there’s much more inherited wealth in America than any Republican admits, there isn’t anywhere near the inherited concentration of wealth there was a century ago. However, this “New Aristocracy” in which wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few tens of thousands of families is exactly where we’re heading. This essay is already too long to provide all the statistics to show it, but they’re only a Google search away.

There is an amazing and almost entirely fictional scene in Assassins (Remember that? The musical this essay’s supposed to be about?) where Leon Czolgosz, assassin of William McKinley, accosts the socialist revolutionary, Emma Goldman. It’s true that Czolgosz and Goldman briefly met, and Goldman worked very hard in Czolgosz’s defense. But in the play, they don’t just meet. In this fictional interpolation, Czolgosz declares his love for Emma Goldman, and claims he’s followed her from town to town.

Among American Presidents, William McKinley was one of the ultimate Plutocratic Conservatives. His presidency was an unholy alliance of the very 18th century belief in economic non-interference and the very 19th century belief in nationalism. He believed that the best way to ensure American prosperity was through the consolidation of American monopolies, which could dictate economic terms to consumers all around the world; and in rebellion against 18th century liberalism, he instituted tariffs on all foreign imports so that American monopolies could consolidate their power still further. Never had trusts grown at the rate which they had under McKinley, and we can only hope they never will again.  

Leon Czolgosz was the virtual embodiment of the factory worker, crushed under the gears and smog of the McKinley era. His hands were utterly damaged by the conditions of the bottle factory in which he worked. Multiple times a day he would have to stick his hands into a 12-1400 degree oven, and if he did not hold his breath for the entire time his hands were in there, his innards would burn. In Assassins reimagining, Emma Goldman becomes a modern Virgin Mary, and Leon Czolgosz is the meek who shall inherit the Earth.

One hundred years later, so complete is Plutocratic Conservatism’s hold upon America - and therefore the world - that even seven years of Obama cannot stop its power. The Left has failed the world, but at least until recently, the Left was completely in abeyance - dishonored and discredited by the failure of the Soviet Union. The failures of our era are almost entirely the failure of the Right. It is only a matter of time before a modern Leon Czolgosz - whether a Latin-American worker, or an African American harassed by police, or a repressed practitioner of Islam, or a white nationalist inflamed by Fox News and talk radio - takes arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, ends them.

Shakespeare’s Worst Play

There is no way to make Titus Andronicus into anything but a sleazy shitpile. In recent years, as exploitation and slasher movies gained popularity, Titus took a new lease on life as their doddering great-grandfather, and all sorts of friends to pulp novels and B-movies try to turn the gore of Titus into something adorable. There’s neither anything adorable or even subversive about Titus Andronicus. It’s a gasbag of a play that breaks taboos you didn’t even know were taboos. It’s a failed black comedy - an attempt to turn rape, mutilation, the honor killing of children, and cannibalism into something amusing. Even if you approve of this, and I like you a little more if you do, a thousand B-movies in our era do what Titus did a thousand times better; or just go on the internet. A thousand videos a day pop up on the internet to make the shocks of Titus Andronicus into something utterly tame. As I watched it this past Sunday afternoon, November 8th, at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Theater, all I could think of was how many thousands of times more subversive and disturbing Assassins was than this.

The production didn’t make many bones about how ridiculous this play is. They made a half-hearted attempt to re-create it as something punk 400 years before punk existed, or a rough draft of a Tarantino movie (clearly somewhere between Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction if the costumes are any indication…). But Titus was neither proto-punk nor proto-Tarantino, it was Shakespeare’s theatrical attempt to compete with such wonderful Elizabethan spectacles as public execution and torture, or that charming spectacle of their era - putting twenty-odd cats in a cage and lowering the cage by a chain into to a bonfire - the audience would bellow hysterically at the howling noises the cats would make as they roasted alive.

But most of the time, the actors completely forgot the point of the production - to quality’s benefit. They competently went through the motions of this competent but pointless play, neither attempting to make it into high art, nor even seeming as though they particularly believed in its quality. I don’t blame them.

There were only two actors who managed to distinguish themselves. One was Gregory Burgess as Aaron the Moor, who managed to exude charisma and charm in the play’s only part that even has a second dimension. The other, to my astonishment, was Karin Rosnizeck as Queen Tamora. She managed to make an incredibly stupid part into something truly evil, sexy, complex, three-dimensional, dare I say… Shakespearean? After seeing her work such a miracle from such stupid material, I can only hope that she will play Lady Macb*th in the Chesapeake’s upcoming production. She just might be the kind of actress you’d follow to hell and back.

In (what I hope will be) future issues of The Baltimore Torch, I hope to talk plenty about the stupidity of theater people and make lots of enemies in the process. Theater productions are always forty years late to every single intellectual fad, and present them to the world as though there’s anything shocking about what they do. No wonder nobody in America cares about theater… But why waste such valuable trolling on what’s already such bad material? Soon enough, some theater company will massacre a play that isn’t just about massacres. When they do, The Torch will be there, ready to massacre them and carve the turkey all the way to the stuffing.  

Unless, of course, you’re going to produce my plays. Please, please, PLEASE, perform me!!!...

Book Rec: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

Sometime in late June of last year, I sat on the seat of my bike on the Charles Street sidewalk at the Western corner of Penn Station, uncertain and afraid, as Park Heights Avenue squared off against North Avenue. Closer to Penn Station were lots of friends and acquaintances, protesting against the Israeli Occupation. On the other side of that egregious ‘Man/Woman’ statue was a counter protest in support of the Israeli Defense Force. Like Larry David in the Palestinian Chicken episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (‘Fuck me Jew like Israel fucks my country!’), I felt, perhaps I literally was, right in the middle of this, with good friends on either side, and tried to drive the visions out of my head that somebody could pull an uzi or push a button on a suitcase bomb, and mow us all down in an instant. This is exactly how Civil Wars get started.

Speaking of guns and civil wars and assassinations, last week was the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir. This was the most consequential event in the life of every Jew who was not alive in 1967 when Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. After 1967, no bully worth his salt would ever consider attacking a Jew for being a Jew. After 1995, the Jew was considered the bully. Successful peacemaking by Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel during the mid-90’s, was the last best hope for peace in both Israel and Palestine. It was the last true hope Israel had to sustain itself as a democracy before it inevitably becomes more Arab than Jewish, and the last true hope Palestine had of leadership arising that might take it from an occupied military state to a functional state with lots of foreign aid. Since the death of Rabin, Israel’s tacked further and further right, isolating itself from the world and delusionally thinking it can manage its own security without the help of allies. In the same amount of time, Arafat, who was never going to be anything but a dictator, became ever more demagogic, re-establishing a cult of personality around his failed governance. When he died, it was inevitable that people even more militant than he would fill the vacuum. Palestine is now a theocracy, just another arm of Ayatollah Khamenei's war to obliterate Israel and everybody in it - and make no mistake, that is the goal of the Iranian government.

I don’t know if either the Oxford English Dictionary or Wikipedia has an entry on something so specific, and yet so vague, as Jewishness, but I would imagine that somewhere within the entry is a picture of me. I don’t believe much in Judaism, but I believe wholeheartedly in being Jewish, because in Judaism, there is no final answer, no final authority. Everything is open to discussion and debate. Every Jewish person inherits a 2000 year tradition of arguments and critical thinking, and the most Jewish among us are so argumentative that we even argue with ourselves.

I believe that there are two voices in the heads of every Jewish person. Let’s call one of these voices ‘Sam Finkler’ - a Jew so deeply ashamed of being different from the world that he wants nothing more than to be a goy. Fifty years ago, Sam Finkler would have joined country clubs. Today, Sam Finkler goes to protests against Israel and says ‘not in my name’ (or ‘lo b’shmi’ in Hebrew). He cares about human rights violations, but 95% of his care is devoted to Israel’s, and he says that it’s because he’s Jewish that he cares so deeply. Never mind that in a hundred years, Israel killed roughly one third of the total Bashar al-Assad’s killed in the last three. He cares about American militarism, but he’s 19 times more concerned about Israel’s, and claims it’s because he’s American that he cares so deeply that so much of America’s money goes to fund such a foul regime.

Never mind that the extra money for its security enables Israel to use its own to fund by far the highest per-capita science, engineering, technical, and invention sectors in the entire world. Even Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, has said that next to America, Israel is the world’s most important and innovative tech country. Never mind that anti-semitic incidents around the world (and particularly in Europe) are at by far the highest rate since reliable estimates were kept, and seem to get much higher every year.

And now, let’s call the other voice ‘Libor Sevcik,’ - the old Jew in us all that inevitably speaks to us with a European accent and remembers every slight of the old country. He remembers how Chamberlain left us to rot in Germany at Munich, how Roosevelt left us to rot in the Soviet Union at Yalta, how the entire world stood mute as every major Arab regime simultaneously invaded Israel in 1973 (on Yom Kippur no less), who tells us that even though the Western world is becoming accepting of unapologetically and rightfully angry women, blacks, hispanics, gays, trans and cisgender people, and every other persecuted group, they still won’t accept an angry Jew. When women, blacks, hispanics, gays, trans and cisgender people, and every other persecuted group, finally gets the rights so long denied them, Jews will again be first in line for the persecution of the New World Order.

Never mind that we Jews have never had it so good. No ethnic group in America even comes close to our per-capita income: 43 percent of American Jews make more than $100,000! 35 percent of American Jews have gone to Graduate School, second only to Hindus. Even with all the wars, Israel is #8 in the world for Life Expectancy (and would probably be #1 if Israeli Arabs were not included in the index).

This is the argument at the heart of The Finkler Question, with the two characters as these two omnipresent Jewish archetypes, whom you can meet any day you wish if you hang around either Park Heights Avenue or North Avenue.

The referee in this argument is the stock goy: Julian Treslove (“Jew Much Love”), whose interest in Jews is truly obsessive. We all know this guy too, a man or woman without roots who desperately wants to belong, anywhere at all. This person could dream of belonging in a community of Jews or a community of Hari Krishnas. It wouldn’t matter. This character goes by Julian Treslove, but he has many names: Rachel Dolezal, Anatol Broyard, Billy Tipton, Leonard Zelig… any man, woman, or child who feels left out of something great.

Early in the book, Julian Treslove gets attacked, and is so crazy for Jews that he convinces himself that he was the victim of an anti-semitic hate-crime. The assailant made off with his wallet, and as the book progresses, Treslove’s memory can be seen rewiring itself. At first, he remembers the assailant saying “I know who you are, Julian,” but before long, he remembers the assailant saying “I know who you are, Jew.”

It is the sincerity of Julian Treslove that marks him as an eternal goy. No Jew, no critical thinker, can ever be so painfully sincere that he can want to belong to any group so uncritically, particularly to a Jewish one. When Treslove’s Jewish girlfriend is the subject of an actual hate crime, he cannot fathom her reaction, she simultaneously cries at the horror of it and laughs at the crime’s futile absurdity. It is this dual reaction, this mixture of high emotion and impartiality, of compassion and contempt, of low depression and high amusement, that marks the life of every Jew - both Jew by birth, and Jew by honorary status. Anyone who has that duality of character, and goes through the days of their life feeling two opposing emotions simultaneously, is a Jew, and many supposed goyim might as well be Jewish if they feel this way. Many Jews by birth can’t experience this quality, and their worldview is consequently as goyish as corned beef on white bread with mayo. Jewish neoconservatives and Likudniks are as goyish as it gets, as goyish as Jewish radicals and anti zionists. No true Jews can ever take politics so seriously to commit themselves to any overarching ideology that does their thinking for them. This world is too complex to ever be understood, and a Jew’s responsibility is to spend all the days of his life trying to understand it better before he ever acts upon his understanding.

Remake Taxi Driver in Baltimore!

“I watch it again and again, unsure where it will take me this time. Or whether it’s a return journey.”

  • David Thomson

Every year, there are more comic book movies, more special effect extravaganzas, more fantasy and sci-fi flicks, more Pixar and Dreamworks adorableness, more escapist fare to distract us from our worries, and after we go home from the multiplex in the hopes of sleeping soundly, our worries multiply as we toss and turn in our beds.

Don’t get me wrong, a comic book or special effect movie can be very insightful and culturally relevant, but trying to be relevant in a genre that’s escapist is like being a champion swimmer with one arm. It’s all the more an amazing feat to make a work of fantasy to which we can relate in our lives, but it’s so difficult that why try at all?

As I watched Taxi Driver on October 1st at the Charles Theater’s amazing Revival Series of classic movies, it occurred to me yet again that a movie as truthful, as risky, as bloody-minded, as Taxi Driver could never be made today. The violence of Taxi Driver is not the violence of comic book movies - it’s violence as it really is, with the sickness of the soul that drives men to it, and the full human horror of the act is felt with the full weight of bodies severed and souls leaving the earth with all their dreams gone to waste. Taxi Driver is far from a perfect movie, but is there any movie in the history of film that ever got closer to the rotten core of the human animal?

This is why we need more human movies, we need more political movies, we need more movies about our real problems. It’s very easy to tolerate acts of violence when you’re desensitized to what violence really means. It’s nice to have long series of movies about the problems of Hobbits and Rebel Forces and the Seven Kingdoms, but we don’t need them. If no more B-movies were made for the next thirty years, it wouldn’t be a tragedy - we already have far too many movies that let us escape from ourselves to ever see them all; but it’s a tragedy that we don’t have encyclopedias worth of more movies that trap us within ourselves.

Look all around you. You can’t possibly watch Taxi Driver and not see Baltimore reflected back. Modern Baltimore is not like 1970’s New York, modern Baltimore IS 1970’s New York. Baltimore, the real Baltimore, is not just a place of dysfunctionally clinical institutions like The Wire (though once upon a time, New York was that too… and it probably still is....). Modern Baltimore is also a nightmare of a place in which the exhaust from cars and our declining factories permeates the air like the smoke of Hellfire. It’s a place that, if you look at it without Smalltimore goggles, can’t help but weather your soul to rust - forever dancing upon a volcano, crying out for violence and vengeance, revenge at the hundreds of thousands of lives ruined and wasted - promise unfulfilled, hopes dashed, opportunity un-knocked.

Our Baltimore, our ‘Smalltimore’, the Baltimore of just about everybody reading this, is not Martin Scorsese’s Baltimore, it’s Woody Allen’s Baltimore. Three years after Martin Scorsese made Taxi Driver, a vision of New York as the abyss, Woody Allen made Manhattan, a vision of New York as the Celestial City. We ‘Smalltimorons’ live in a free-floating bubble of neurotic but privileged white pseudo-intellectuals who could completely ignore the Inferno at our doorstep every day of our lives if we wanted to. Our politics are radical without commitment, our conversations are filled with trendy jargon, our hookup networks are completely incestual. Like the New York of Woody Allen, it’s a Baltimore based on a lie - a culture that would seem ridiculous to anybody who wasn’t part of it.

The real Baltimore is the Baltimore of misbegotten dreams. The hookers walking the streets at night with their pimps holding an intimidating watch nearby, the schizos yelling at imaginary interlocutors, the addicts slumping on the street and the violent teen gangs nearby on the corners peddling what feeds them, the homeless veterans in wheelchairs trying to accost every passer by, and every panhandler who begs you for change as you walk by them and pretend not to know that there’s an agonizing story which led them to such a state. And if you see that much agony near Station North or Mount Vernon, just imagine how bad it must be a few blocks away at the intersection of North and Bel Air, or Orleans and Front.

This real Baltimore’s story does not stop at The Wire, and it needs to be told. We don’t need to remake Taxi Driver here (though we could do worse), we need oral history to tell the stories of all those unfulfilled hopes and dreams. We need writers and playwrights and filmmakers who go to Baltimore’s worst neighborhoods, to interview every person serviced in a homeless shelter, every worshipper in a Church pew, every taxi driver and policeman and gang member. Every teacher in the schools and every student dropout. Every woman in a woman's shelter who has a story of abuse and rape, and every rapist and abuser about why they feel they have the right. Every parent who’s lost a child to violence, every child who’s lost a parent, and every murderer who robbed one of the other. We need to feel the weight of the violence they live with upon our souls, and the only way of feeling it is by helping them tell those stories which only they know.

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