The Problem Of Tarantino

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

For those of you not familiar, that is Mark Twain’s explanatory note for Huckleberry Finn.

I was put in mind of this as I was reading IQ, a novel by Joe Ide. As a novel, I didn’t actually hate it. The basic conceit is that Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are re-imagined living in South Central Los Angeles. Both are African American. Isaiah Quintabe (known as IQ) has genius level intelligence and has developed a near photographic memory. However, his idolized older brother dies and it leaves him antisocial and remote from his neighborhood. IQ takes in a roommate named Dodson (suspiciously close to Watson), who is a low level drug dealer and all around hustler. Dodson, as you can imagine, is much more worldly and practical than IQ.

IQ and Dodson are hired to find the person who is trying to kill a famous rapper named Black the Knife, real name Calvin Wright.

As happens in such novels, IQ has brilliant insights that allow him to jump to conclusions. Dodson is his comic foil that is always bedazzled by his insights but occasionally contributes in his own way as well.

All of this is fairly benign and harmless. It’s not brilliant literature, but in its way, it’s suitably clever, the relationship between IQ and Dodson is humorous,  and the plot smoothly moves to its completely predictable finale.

So, what inspired the Mark Twain quote? Well, as I read it, I couldn’t but help to think about cultural appropriation.

Nearly all of the characters are African American. The characters are all stereotypical. Picture in your mind what a low level drug dealer would look and sound like, and you pretty much get Dodson. Picture a rich and spoiled up from the streets rapper, and you pretty much get Black the Knife. One of Cal’s bodyguards is the stereotypical large but not very bright man. The relatively few female characters are highly, overtly sexualized. They all (with the exception of the determinedly otherworldly IQ) speak in slang, sprinkling the “N-word” liberally throughout.

Joe Ide is Japanese American. Now he is from South Central Los Angeles, so maybe he knows exactly what he is speaking of as he writes it. I don’t know. I’m not from that area myself.

However, it’s disquieting. Black culture has been appropriated for hundreds of years. Non black people have been speaking for black people for nearly that long. Seriously, the phrase Jim Crow comes from an 1830’s minstrel show. The Amos ‘n’ Andy radio show was performed by white actors. Pat Boone got rich singing Little Richard songs. Quentin Tarantino has apparently decided that since his movies so often have black characters that he’s become some kind of honorary black person (leading to some really painful interviews where he’s trying to act black; check out the Cracked YouTube video for a fine example).

This got me to thinking about Mark Twain. He clearly thought that he’d nailed the character of the escaped slave Jim. In his explanatory note, he calls out that the dialect was carefully researched and constructed. He is clearly proud of his work. However, in the novel, Jim’s lack of education and ignorance is regularly made a target for humor.

I know that authors want total creative freedom and I’d like to respect that. Given the history of subjugation and appropriation of black culture, if you’re not a black writer and you’re writing a novel in which nearly all characters are black, and not only that, but are stereotypically black and are regularly using racial epithets that would be considered obscenely vile if uttered by a non black person, perhaps you should really think about treading carefully?


The Madness of Kings

This is the second blog post that I’ve written titled The Madness of Kings. The first was about The Winter’s Tale, a Shakespearean play that I watched in Ashland. This has nothing do with that. So sue me.

This is literally about the madness of kings. What do you do when your king, the literal embodiment of the state, is mad?

I first started thinking about this while reading Tuchman’s book, A Distant Mirror, a fantastic history of the 14th century.

One of the key figures in it is the French king, Charles VI. After he took over from his corrupt uncles, he instituted reforms that led him to be known as Charles the Beloved. Later he came to be known as Charles the Mad.

At one point, during an expedition, he fell into a fit of madness, grabbed his lance, and started wildly swinging. This started off a mad scramble as his courtiers tried to calm him down but not actually touch him (since touching a king was a death sentence). Finally, he was effectively tackled and restrained, but not before killing four knights.

It didn’t help his madness later when he was at a costume party, attired in linen soaked in wax and someone (actually his brother, I believe) lit his costume on fire with a torch.

For the rest of his reign (and yes, he ruled for over 40 years), he had intermittent fits of madness. This came during a time when the Turks invaded Europe. It was decided that all of the European Christian states needed to get together to fight off this menace. Charles VI, as the King of France, was a key leader in this alliance because France was considered the military arm of Christianity.  Wenceslas IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, was considered the temporal head of Christianity.

Together, they gathered to discuss how to meet this existential threat to the Christian states. Wenceslas was alcoholic, so unfortunately, during the rare moments when Charles was sane, Wenceslas was drunk, and during the rare moments when Wenceslas was sober, Charles was mad, so the Christian states were not able to mount an organized opposition to the Turks, so they continued their attacks on Europe.

There was also the madness of King George III, of England. He started his reign in 1760. He reigned for 60 years. For the last ten years, he was completely mad and a regency was created so that his son could rule in his stead.

Long lives seem to be a problem for kings. How do you depose a beloved, successful king that has gone mad in his final years? Another case in point is Edward III, another king of England. He led the most victorious part (at least from an English point of view) of the Hundred Years’ War and was actually crowned King of France.

Ultimately, he reigned for fifty years. The last couple of years, he was senile and incontinent, apparently going around in a diaper. His son, the Black Prince, had died by this time, so next in line was his ten year grandchild. England was rudderless during this time and lost many of its gains from the war.

I could go on. How about Ivan the Terrible, who in a fit of insane rage killed his son? How about Eric XIV of Sweden, who in his paranoia ordered a family murdered, was later deposed, imprisoned, and poisoned in his jail cell?

All of this brings up interesting thoughts in my mind. When your leader is mad, what impact does that actually have on the people? Kings have a lot of power and are representative of their state. However, kings are surrounded by courtiers and the bureaucracy of state. Does this bureaucracy insulate the people from the madness? Can the state survive the madness of its king? How much does a state suffer from it? Does it, like an organic body, protect itself by enclosing the madness in some defensive bureaucratic membrane?

If you’re wondering why I’m thinking of this, of course this has been inspired by recent thoughts on Donald Trump. I read a fairly chilling article regarding Rex Tillerson and the actual growing prospect of nuclear war with North Korea. I read about John Kelly, trying to set up a protective cordon around President Trump to limit those he comes into contact with. I read about apparent conversations that have been conducted involving Defense Secretary James Mattis regarding what should be done if President Trump actually in fact orders a nuclear attack (apparently James Schlesinger, Secretary of Defense during Nixon’s final days, issued orders to military commanders not to launch any attacks without his prior approval). I read about briefings prepared for him that regularly include his name throughout to trick him into reading it. I think about the last minute cancellation of President Trump in a potential hostile 60 Minutes interview because of concerns that he’s ‘lost a step’.

Finally, I’m thinking about the recent spate of articles regarding the 25th amendment and the byzantine process it takes to involuntarily removing a president. It involves basically a revolt of half of the cabinet and two thirds of both the House and the Senate.

If Trump is truly incapacitated, can we as a nation (let alone the world) actually be protected by people that serve solely at his convenience? If he appears to becoming truly unstable, is it feasible that his hand picked cabinet and a Republican controlled House and Senate actually agree to vote him out? Remember that for those of us who see a potentially dangerously unstable man, he still has a 75 percent approval rating among the Republican party faithful. At what point will politicians place country over party? In today’s hyper partisan environment, is that even a possibility? How bad will it have to get?

These are increasingly scary days.

Cabinet of Racist Curiosities

Last week, I completed Stamped From The Beginning, by Ibram X. Kendi. I’ve previously written down my thoughts on it. However, as I was reading it, I was somewhat furiously taking notes because it was so information dense.

So here is just a random list of things from the book that I found interesting. They’re in no particular order. I just wanted to get them down because, if I didn’t, then as I continue through my march of books, these interesting factoids will become lost to me.

Thomas Jefferson’s last visitor before he died was Robert E. Lee’s half brother. I keep forgetting how young our country is. To think that there is this weird connection between two key figures of both the Revolutionary War and of the Civil War is mind-boggling to me. This is similar to the fact that John Tyler, the 10th US President, born in 1790 (during the Washington administration) still has grandchildren alive today (well at least in 2016, the last article that I saw that references this).

The use of the word Negro actually became popularized during the early colonization efforts (pre Civil War attempt to address the problem of slavery/free blacks by shipping black people back to Africa). Free black people that were born here understandably did not particularly desire to be sent to Africa. Therefore, they started calling themselves Negroes in a futile attempt to get white people to stop thinking of them as being African. The use and rise of the term colored was also popularized by free black people for the same reason.

Linnaeus, the botanist, developed the system of hierarchical classification still in use today. Not so well known is that he also applied this system to humans. Shockingly enough, the European branch came out smelling like a rose (eg gentle, acute, inventive; covered with close vestments; and governed by laws) while the African branch, not so much (eg crafty, sly, lazy, cunning, lustful, careless; and governed by caprice). Like the title of the book says…Stamped From The Beginning.

Kendi discusses at length uplift suasion. This is the idea that if black people worked really hard to better themselves and also educated white people that black people can be just as good as white people, that racism will just die away. It seems totally logical, but the inevitable result of the effort wound up being the hardening of racism. If a racist white person actually encountered an educated, successful black person, the white person would start thinking, well, if this one black man/woman can do it, why can’t they all? See! I told you that they’re all good for nothing, lazy bums! Uplift suasion has been tried (and yes, is still being tried even now, what do you think The Cosby Show was all about?) for over 150 years. It will not effect the change that is required.

In many ways, Harry Truman was a pioneer in civil rights. For instance, he led the drive to end discrimination in the federal government. Was he guided by a moral compass or by the bravery of the black soldiers in WWII? Not exactly. Almost immediately after WWII, the Cold War between the US and the USSR commenced. Since it was a Cold War (albeit pretty damn hot in some places), much of it was waged through propaganda. At the time of the late 1940s, African nations, previously treated as European colonies, began their struggle for independence. USSR, in their propaganda to the Africans, could point to the segregated, overtly racist policies of the US and say to them, do you really want to be on that side? It reached a point where the State Department briefed Harry Truman that our racist policies was having a significant effect upon our foreign policy. Truman’s civil rights policies were an attempt to cast the US global image in a better light. So, yes, the USSR had a measurable impact upon the treatment of black people in the US.

The original Planet of the Apes movies, coming out from the late 1960s to the early 1970s were almost a direct response to the demands for black equality. Notice how in the future, it’s the black animals that now lord themselves over the white slaves. At the end of the original, the Charlton Heston character discovers the now destroyed Statue of Liberty, symbolizing the destruction of white liberty.

Contrast that to the Tarzan series. The first film appeared in 1918, got its steam in the 1930s and lasted into the 1960s. Here is the lost white boy that is raised by apes. Using his own innate superiority, he teaches himself to read, naturally leans towards a civilized life, and becomes the natural leader over the apes. Is there a better way to inculcate native white superiority?

The basic cycle of criminality boils down to where ever this is more police, inevitably there will be more arrests. Where ever there are more arrests there will inevitably be a perception that there is more crime. Where ever there is more crime, there inevitably will be more police. Rinse and repeat. This cycle, which Michele Alexander brilliantly discusses in The New Jim Crow is a pattern that can be tracked back to pre Civil War times.

That’s all for now. That’s enough. Stamped From Beginning is just chock full of facts that will make you change the way that you look at the world.


Where Are Today’s Scalawags?

One thing that I admire about the nineteenth century political system was their creativity in naming their factions. Consider the following:

Fire-Eaters: These were Southern politicians from the 1850’s. They were the hard core pro-slavery advocates. They were the ones that were advocating early for succession. They were even proponents of reinstating the slave trade, outlawed in 1808.

Doughfaces: Southerners weren’t the only ones to come up with creative names. There was a collection of Northerners who favored appeasing the Southern slavery demands. These were Northerners who supported the fugitive slave law and opposed the Wilmot Proviso. They were considered by their fellow Northerners to be weak, half-baked men.

Know Nothings: This was a new party in the 1850’s. You’d think that with the country being torn apart on the issue of slavery during this time, that most people would kind of have their hands full deciding where they stand on that issue. Was slavery tearing our country apart or a essential component of the country’s fabric? But no, there was a subset of people that thought that pretty clearly the obvious issue was too many Irish and German immigrants. You think that banning immigration on religious grounds was a new thing for our country? You think that Muslims are tearing the fabric of our society? Welcome to the nineteenth century, where the Catholics were the radical sect du jour. These new immigrants refused to adjust to the American way of living, lived off the public dole, caused violent crime rates to soar, and blindly followed their religious leader (ie The Pope). Sound familiar to anyone?

Copperheads: These were the Democrats during the Civil War that violently opposed the Civil War and tried to make peace with the South. First used as an insult but later the term was embraced, they actively accused abolitionists of starting the war and advocated for peace at any cost. For decades after the Civil War, being labeled a Copperhead Democrat was pretty much a kiss of death.

Scalawags: After the Civil War, there were Southern politicians who clung to power by making peace and working with reconstruction Republicans and even (gasp) black freedmen. One of the most famous is James Longstreet, probably the most strategic and capable of the Confederacy generals (with all due apologies to Bobby Lee). In working with Republicans after the war, he was never forgiven by the Lost Cause Southerners.

Black-and-Tans vs Lily-Whites: You have to hand it to the Republican party. Sometimes they really do boil down the complex issues of America to very simple terms. The post Civil War Lily-White faction of the Republican party was composed of all white politicians and the Black-and-Tan faction of the Republican party was bi-racial. It’s pretty simple, right? The two sides fought it out at conventions and, spoiler alert!, the lily-whites ended up taking the title.

Stalwarts: At last we’ve now put the Civil War and Reconstruction behind us, but the Republican party (and let’s face it, they came out of the Civil War completely in power and the Democrats were in ruins, every single presidential election between 1860 and 1880 was won by Republicans) was starting to splinter. The Stalwarts were old school machine politicians that loved how you could reward your supporters through the patronage system of spoils.

Half-Breeds: Opposing the Stalwarts were the Half-Breeds. They were what passed for reformers in the late nineteenth century. Understanding the patronage system was unfair and inefficient, they pressed to reform it. They ultimately prevailed, setting up a civil service based upon merit and removed political tests as an application requirement. Interestingly enough, James Garfield was elected president, who was a compromise choice favored by the Half-Breeds. His vice president, Chester Arthur, was on the ticket for balance and was a strong Stalwart (he himself was a product of the patronage/spoils system). After Garfield was assassinated, it was the Stalwart Arthur who signed into law the reform act, shocking his fellow Stalwarts.

Mugwumps (my favorite and what inspired me to write this post!): In 1884, James G Blaine, a dedicated Half-Breed who was the force behind the patronage reform act, was running for president on the Republican ticket. The problem with Blaine was that he was pretty deeply involved in a financial scandal (check out the Credit Mobilier scandal). In disgust, a number of Republicans bolted the party and chose to support the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland (conveniently ignoring the fact that Cleveland fathered a child out of wedlock by date raping a woman, paying her off to put the baby in an orphanage, and committing her to an asylum when she came back for her child, ain’t politics grand?). The mugwumps might have made a significant enough difference in enough key states to have swung the election to Cleveland, the first Democrat elected since James Buchanan in 1856.

That’s a pretty awesome list of names and I feel that our current era of politicians need to up their game. Sure there’s the Tea Party on the Republican side. Not that long ago amongst Democrats there were yellow dogs and blue dogs, but with the death of the party in the South, there is not that many of them left. Now it’s all boring names like the Freedom Caucus, the Tuesday Group, and the Congressional Black Caucus.

Come on guys (and yes, you’re nearly all guys). You need to up your naming creativity!


I’ve Lived In Interesting Presidential Times

When you look back over all of the United States presidents, you see a lot of boring looking white dudes.

However, I posit that, during my lifetime, we’ve had a selection of presidents that defy that normalcy (as one of the more extreme nonentity presidents, Warren Harding, might say).

Let me go through the list:

John Kennedy: Sure, I was only five months old when he died (I was nowhere near Dallas, I swear). He was the last president to be assassinated. That’s pretty big. And oh yeah, he hid the fact that he had a very serious disease, was regularly getting amphetamine injections by a physician that literally went by the name Dr Feelgood, among many other drugs, and for decades took corticosteroids, which among other side effects, leaves you randy as a goat (which of course, he apparently did nothing to fight).

Lyndon Johnson: He almost certainly won his first senatorial bid through overt fraud. He was so proud of his, um…johnson… that he’d regularly whip it out for effect. As president, he once personally called his suit maker (don’t presidents have handlers for that?) to make sure that the next suit would have adequate space for his ‘bung hole’.

Richard Nixon: Where to begin? Well, first of all he’s a conservative Republican that actually created the EPA and for a time was thinking of supporting a basic income plan (where all citizens are guaranteed an income). He was a lifelong red-baiter that went to China and negotiated arms deals with the Soviets. Apparently when he was drunk, he’d order nuclear strikes that were somewhat conveniently ignored. And, oh yeah, he would have been impeached and probably convicted but instead chose to be the first president to resign the office.

Gerald Ford: He was the first president to assume the office without ever actually receiving an electoral college vote (vice presidents are also elected via electoral college; since he followed the resigned vice president Spiro Agnew, and then the resigned president Richard Nixon, he never actually was voted on in any way by the people). Also, Gerald Ford was not his birth name.  His name was Leslie King, but almost immediately his mom separated from his father because he was abusive. A couple of years later, she met and married Gerald Ford, who gave the young boy his name.

Jimmy Carter: First of all, Jimmy? Seriously? Not a presidential name. A United States President that is attacked by a killer rabbit? What is this, Monty Python? Or a born again Christian thinking that it’s a good idea to give an interview to Playboy magazine, admitting that he has many times lusted in his heart for other women? More seriously, he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and is generally considered something approaching a secular saint, but he authored the Carter Doctrine, which basically said that the Middle East is a vital US interest, thus involving us in forty years of war, thousands of US soldiers dead, hundreds of thousands of civilians dead, and trillions of dollars of military spending gone to waste.

Ronald Reagan: An actor? I mean seriously, at least vote for a movie star, not a second class mediocrity (Bedtime for Bonzo, anyone?). We have the arch social conservative who was the first president to be divorced and only went to church when there was a good photo op to be had. He was the first president since Woodrow Wilson who was obviously incapacitated by the time he left office. He was the only president in my life time that actually probably did deserve to be impeached (Iran Contra, read about it here).

George H.W. Bush: This is the first of two parts. He is the father part of the second father/son combination of presidents that have been elected. Considering the fact that the first father/son were the Adams’, it can be safely said that American leadership has not been evolving in a positive direction (although fair to say, despite their gifts, the two Adams’ actually weren’t stellar presidents either).

Bill Clinton: The second president ever to be impeached. Like the first, Andrew Johnson, he was acquitted by the Senate (although Clinton’s outcome, unlike Johnson’s, was never in doubt). He was another one that just couldn’t keep it in his pants. Unlike JFK, Clinton lived in a time of media ubiquity. Therefore, although reporters during JFK’s time hushed up his indiscretions, with Clinton we all got to enjoy tales of oral sex, semen on dresses, and improper use of cigars.

George W. Bush: This is the second of two parts. He is the son part of the above mentioned father/son combination. Isn’t it great that we live in a country where anyone can be elected president? That we live in a meritocracy? Oh yeah, he’s also the fourth person (first one in over 100 years) that lost the popular vote but won the electoral college. And the first one since Rutherford (aka Rutherfraud) Hayes to probably have won through electoral chicanery (Florida is one fucked up state if you’re black and you want to vote).

Barack Obama: Oh yeah, we elected a black guy. How weird is it that when I first wrote this list, I almost forgot him? Just in case anyone thought that the United States is some kind of post-racial nirvana, we got to enjoy eight years of people calling him a Kenyan Muslim socialist atheist. Oh yeah, he was also the third sitting US president to win the Nobel Peace Prize (before people get angry at me, I know that four presidents have actually won it, but Jimmy Carter won it in 2002, way after his presidency). Teddy Roosevelt was the first, which is kind of hilarious considering his basic bellicosity and Woodrow Wilson won for his work setting up the League of Nations, which is further proof that history has a sense of humor when considering that the US never joined it and the League was singularly ineffectual in stopping fascism and the second world war. It’s not clear exactly why the Nobel prize committee gave Obama the prize in the first year of his term unless it quite literally was a thumb in the eye of George W. Bush.  Regardless, considering that by the end of his second term, he was regularly raining hellfire down upon citizens in neutral countries from unmanned drones, the peacemakers in Stockholm might be wishing for a do-over.

And of course, this bring us to Donald Trump. Fuck, why not give the narcissistic reality television star a shot at it? He wants to run it like his businesses, which I’m really hoping is a campaign promise that he has no intention of holding to since he regularly runs his companies into bankruptcy. Oh yeah, he’s now the fifth person that has lost the popular vote but won the electoral college (at least this time, it wasn’t done fraudulently). For those keeping score at home, the Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the last seven elections but have only served four terms and are now currently going through some existential identity crisis.  Isn’t American style presidential elections fair and fun?

So, there you go…the rogues’ gallery of presidents that have served in my lifetime. You can say a lot of things, but it certainly hasn’t been boring.

Sometimes They Really Are Out To Get You

When I was younger, I was prone to conspiracy theories. For a while, it must have been in my mid-twenties, I did some fair amount of research into the various Kennedy assassination  theories. Was it the Cubans angry about the Bay of Pigs invasion? Was it the Soviets sending in their Manchurian candidate sleeper agent? Was it the Mafia, killing John to send a message to Bobby to get off their back? Or, was it (Oliver Stone’s favorite) LBJ and the military industrial complex knocking him off so that they could drop some Agent Orange on those pesky Viet Cong?

As you read, you get deeper and deeper into the theory and you start getting caught up in the labyrinth of interlocking, contradictory theories that insiders debate endlessly. What’s up with the Magic Bullet? Who’s buried in Oswald’s grave? Who’s the Babushka Lady? The three tramps? The Umbrella man?

At some point, if you’re a reasonable person, you hit a point of no return. In my case, it could very well have been the Coca-Cola theory. IIRC, this is that Oswald was so addicted to refined sugar that he suffered severe impairment, which somehow caused him to assassinate JFK and then not remembering the act.

You emerge, blinking uncertainly back into the bright light of reality, slightly abashed and ashamed that you just dedicated some not insignificant amount of  brain cells to this endeavor.

The fact is, IMHO, there are seldom conspiracies.  I work for a very large company (>150,000 employees) and large entities like that just don’t lend themselves well to conspiracies. I’ve seen multiple things at work that, from the outside, could very well look like some nefarious plot of evil genius, but when exposed to the sunlight, they are the usual acts of unqualified people feebly trying to figure something out that is unimaginably complex to them.

So, my policy, for many years, is to never assume evil any act that can be explained by stupidity. I’ve taken off my tin foil hat and have placed it up in the high reaches of my closet shelf.

But every now and then…

Way back in the 1980’s, there was serious concern about the antics of the Reagan administration. I’m no fan of Reagan. Various wild eye conspiracy theories surrounded his terms, specifically in his relationships to minorities, who he pretty clearly had very little sympathy for and in fact, as Governor of California, used his strong arm stance against the ‘inner city hoodlums’ as a platform to national prominence.

However, there were rumors that the CIA invented AIDS to kill the black population. There were wild claims that the CIA funded/supported the crack epidemic, again target primarily against black people.

The CIA involved with the drug scourge of the 1980’s and 1990’s? That has to be crazy, right?

Well, let’s step back into the way back machine and talk about this.

The Reagan administration had a couple of problems. One problem was that there was a group called Hezbollah that was kidnapping Americans and holding them for hostages, sometimes for years. This was completely unacceptable to the macho posturing of Reagan; what’s up with this little collection of ragtag terrorists having the gall to hold American hostages?

The problem was that the hostages were being kept separately deep in the heart of Beirut. No westerners knew where they were. The American had no contacts within Hezbollah, so they were stymied.

However, the Hezbollah unofficial sponsor was Iran. Maybe America could somehow use Iran to assert some leverage upon their client and get the hostages freed? Unfortunately, America and Iran had no diplomatic relationship, so it was not obvious how do to this.

That’s problem number one. Problem number two was that Nicaragua was being ruled by the Sandinistas. They were a left wing government with some ties to Castro. Therefore, there was a commie government at our proverbial back door! This could not stand!

Luckily, there was another group in Honduras, called the Contras, who wanted to overthrow the Sandinistas. The Reagan administration desperately wanted to provide them money and weaponry so that the scourge of the Sandinistas could be destroyed and the Americas could be free from the threat of communism.

However, politics were murky in Central America. For the same reason as supporting the Contras, America also supported El Salvador, which was known for such lovely things as death squads and raping / murdering American nuns.

Congress, disgusted at acts such as these, passed the Boland Amendment. This Amendment explicitly disallowed spending any funds at all towards the Contras.

How to resolve these two big problems? Wouldn’t it be cool if there was some way we could solve both at the same time?

And away we go…

Iran was in the middle of an intense war with Iraq. They desperately needed military equipment. Since America had actually essentially built the Shah’s military force before he had fallen, the Iranians specifically had a need for American military equipment.

Through insanely deep back channels, America made contact with Iran. Would they be willing to purchase American military spares, and also, as a price for allowing the purchase, would they also be willing to put pressure upon Hezbollah to release hostages?

Remember, during all of this time, Reagan was boasting that he would never negotiate with kidnappers and that America had put Iran on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.

Well, the Iranians, as a matter of fact, were interested.  America sold some of its military spares (apparently it was considered pretty low quality stuff) to the Iranians for a huge sum of money. Apparently, at least in the beginning, in case this wasn’t crazy enough, Israel served as the middle man in this arrangement. Yes, the Israelis helped to close an arms deal with a country sworn to destroy them.

The Reagan administration then used the excess funds from this deal to fund the Contras. The fig leaf of legality here is that since this deal was run from the National Security Council (?!), that somehow the Boland Amendment did not apply. Few constitutional scholars agree.

Eventually, some hostages were freed. As more hostages were freed, additional arm sales proceeded.

So, to sum up, to free up a couple American hostages, America sold military supplies to a state sponsor of terrorism so that it could provide additional money and arms to a rebel force that it explicitly was prohibited to aid.

But wait, there’s more.

Those wonderful freedom fighters, the Contras, were part of a cocaine distribution network.

Ever in need of money, the Contras looked to establish a network in California. The CIA leaned upon the DEA to grant amnesty to Contra figures so that the network could be set up. A shadowy operative named Blandon set up a network with Freeway Rick Ross. They took the pure cocaine, converted it to the much cheaper crack, and an epidemic was born.

A journalist named Gary Webb exposed all of this. For his work, he was hounded out of his job. In fact, instead of supporting a fellow journalist, the LA Times literally hired a team of reporters, not to get to the root of all of this, but to discredit Gary Webb (and no, I’m not making this up; eventually the LA Times apologized publicly for this action).

Ultimately, Gary Webb committed suicide.

There’s some controversy in what I’ve just written, but honestly, not a lot.

A very real argument can be made that the administration of Ronald Reagan, the president that still today has a significant percentage of Americans wanting to make him the fucking fifth face on Mt Rushmore, had a huge role in causing the crack epidemic that wreaked untold havoc on an entire generation of Black Americans.

Still, I stand by my statement that most conspiracies are usually the act of stupid people blindly trying to discover a way through an unimaginably complex problem.

But Jesus Fucking Christ, don’t be throwing out that tin foil hat quite yet.


My Shakespearean Kicks Your Shakespearean’s Ass

This is actually a tragic tale, but regardless, I find it amusing.

In the early to mid 19th century, American theater was dominated by British actors. Especially in the 1840’s, which was a period of American / British conflict, this did not sit well.

The leading Shakespearean actor of the time was a Brit named William Charles Macready. He was known for his sensitive, finely crafted roles. In America, this was much appreciated by the finer sort, otherwise known as the Upper ten thousand.

On the American side was Edwin Forrest. He was a large, brawny man who gave overwrought performances full of physicality. At one point, Forrest toured England by following Macready around performing the same roles to prove he was the superior actor. At one show, while Macready was performing Hamlet, Forrest stood and hissed him.

It probably goes without saying that the mudsills and greasy mechanics of America preferred Forrest.

So, there you have it, the sensitive, effeminate British actor competing against the uncouth, virile American actor. I guess that stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason.

Macready tours America. He gives a performance of Macbeth, at Astor Place, a theater located dangerously close to the border between the New York gentility and the New York unwashed masses (close to the Bowery). Some of the unwashed managed to sneak in and pelt him with fruit, rotten eggs, and if reports are true, half of a sheep carcass, amid catcalls and cries of “down with the codfish aristocracy”! Macready finished the play performing pantomime since he could not be heard over the shouting.

He is convinced to give it another try. Ten thousand people surround the theater.  Again he is pelted down, shouted down, and has to finish in pantomime. He sneaks out of the theater in disguise.

Outside, the city militia has gathered. The crowd jostles the militia. Do you see where this is headed? The militia threatens the crowd. The militia fires into the air. When that fails, the militia fires point blank into the crowd. Ultimately, around 25 people are killed and over 100 people are injured.

Now, there are obviously deeper issues here. This was a time of deep divide between “the classes and the masses”. New York City was divided by class, and Astor Place was provocatively located near the masses. This also was a time of intense anti-British resentment.

But still…can you imagine a violent, deadly riot today caused by dueling Shakespearean actors? This makes the whole East Coast – West Coast Hip Hop rivalry seem almost quaint.

An Unfortunate Foursome

I’ve just finished writing up my thoughts after watching Lincoln. This led me to a post I did several years ago.  Here goes…

April 14th, 1865, believe it or not, the Lincolns were having trouble setting up a double date.

They were planning on seeing a play at Ford Theater as a nice little getaway from that little thing called the Civil War.  Richmond had fallen and Lee had surrendered his army of Northern Virginia.  There were some other significant Confederate armies still out in the field but the war was effectively over and Mary was wanting to enjoy a night out.

Originally, the Lincolns invited the Grants.  The Grants accepted but then decided to leave town.  Other people were asked but all had excuses.  Finally, Henry Rathbone and his fiance, Clara Harris, were invited.  They were thrilled with the invitation and eagerly accepted.

Of course, everyone knows what happened.  The foursome went to the play.  John Wilkes Booth sneaked into their box and shot Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head, slashed Henry Rathbone on the arm, and made his escape (well, at least for twelve days until he gets shot in the head (nearly in the same location that he shot Abe) by Boston Corbett (an interesting character himself who earlier self castrated himself over a woman) while trapped in a burning barn).

A lot of people know about Mary Lincoln.  After the deaths of her beloved child, Willie, during the Civil War, the assassination of her husband Abe before her very eyes (in fact, while they were holding hands), and another child, Tad, after the Civil War, left her unhinged with grief.  She acted erratically enough that her remaining son, Robert, had her committed.  After only a couple of months, she got her release and ended up living the rest of her life quietly with her sister.

What about Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris?  They ended up getting married.  They had three children.  He was named a consular to Germany.  They moved to Hanover.  One night, in 1883, near Christmas, amid signs of deteriorating mental illness, Henry stabbed and shot Clara dead, tried to kill their children, and tried to kill himself.  He recovered, but spent the rest of him life in an asylum in Germany.  He died in 1911.

So, let’s keep score.  Four people were in the box that fateful night.  Two ended up being murdered and two ended up spending time in an insane asylum, one of whom spent nearly thirty years in one. Not a fortunate foursome.

Survival is the Mother of Invention


My dad was an electrical engineer at The Boeing Company. He died when I was growing up, so I actually don’t know exactly what he did, but I believe that he worked on space solar panels.

He was an engineer in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Obviously (or maybe not obviously if you’re young enough), desktop electronic calculators did not exist then. It was all hand calculations and slide rules. I remember that his slide rule was one of his prized possessions. He kept it in a special case and everything.

And his Curta. I don’t know how many people know about these amazing machines. It is, at least on the surface, a very simple device. It has a series of switches on the sides and what appears to be a grinder on top.

With this device, you can do addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, square roots, squares, cubes, percentages, sine/cosine values, and probably many other things that smart engineers have figured out.

It does this via purely mechanical means. You can see images of its internal parts online. It’s truly mindbogglingly complex and precise.

I remember when my dad showed me how to use it (yeah, it’s not really in any shape intuitive). I was able to master addition, subtraction, and multiplication. Remember, this was before electronic calculators, so even though non-intuitive, it was still a remarkably efficient / accurate machine.

Even after the invention of electronic calculators, it was still in use. The original electronic calculators were somewhat unreliable in unstable environments, so pilots and rally car racers were still using it even after the electronic calculators became available. In fact, I remember my mom, who, let’s face facts, does not embrace new technology easily, was still using the Curta to help balance her checkbooks well in to the 1990’s.

All that is very interesting to me, but nowhere near the most interesting part.

The inventor, Curt Herzstark, was working on it during the 1930’s in Austria. He had to stop working on it to support the Nazi war effort. Due to the fact that he had a Jewish father, he was detained by the Nazis and ultimately was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. At some point, one of the department heads heard about Herzstark’s ideas and told him to design it so that it could be presented to Hitler as a gift upon the successful completion of the war.

Herzstark saw it as an opportunity to stay alive, so while at Buchenwald, he diligently worked on finalizing his design. In fact, he was so close to completion that, after the camp was liberated, he only made a few final tweaks to the design before he turned it over to be manufactured.

I still have my dad’s Curta. It’s well over 40 years old. And yes, it still works like a champ. It truly is an amazing machine.

And all because a concentration camp department head wanted one of his prisoners to create a gift to Hitler.

Cupidity or Stupidity?

A month or two ago, I saw The Big Short. I thoroughly enjoyed it.  As I was watching it, I flashed back to two books: Too Big to Fail by Andrew Sorkin, and a book that I read many years ago, The Den of Thieves by James B. Stewart.  They’re both about Wall Street excesses.  However, they have different themes.

The Den of Thieves is about the high finance, junk bond, LBO days of the mid-80’s.  The poster boys of this era were the firm of Drexel Burnham Lambert and Michael Milken.

What was shocking about this book was the simple amorality of all of the players, best typified by Ivan Boesky’s Greed is Good speech to the graduating class at Stanford (I might be wrong in my history, but if I recollect he was arrested shortly after that speech).

It wasn’t even subtle.  Ivan Boesky had a bagman that delivered briefcases of money to some of the various players.  The bagman himself always took a little off the top of the delivery, so the recipients learned to inflate the sums requested so that they could get the amount that they wanted.  Dennis Levine got caught as he was making all of his inside trades because the bank that he was working for started illegally shadowing his trades.  On top of that, the broker that the bank used to make their illegal trades was himself shadowing their trades.  Eventually all of this illicit traffic got the SEC’s attention.  They investigated and eventually unspooled all of these threads.

These were people who knew the difference between right and wrong and consciously chose wrong just for the sole purpose of greed.  I mean, when you receive a suitcase full of money, that’s a pretty solid cue that probably what you’re doing is not kosher.

Too Big to Fail is the story of the Wall street collapse of 2008.  Here again are similar types of players.  They are, almost to a man (and yes, to a very large extent, nearly all men), driven to succeed and become fabulously, occasionally ostentatiously, rich.  The difference here is that you do not get a sense of evil.  What you get is a sense of incompetence.  Not that these people were complete idiots, but they just did not really understand what they were doing.

A brief aside…there is one theory that this is what happened to Joseph Jett.  He was a rising star at Kidder Peabody in the mid 1990’s.  He was a moderately successful trader who for a time became a huge star.  He was making Peabody Kidder tons of money.  When you factor in that he was just about the only African-American trader to be found on Wall Street, he became huge and in two years went from making $50,000 a year to something over $9,000,000.

However, at one point his trades were researched carefully, and although I can’t even pretend to understand exactly what happened, it turned out that all of his trades were being falsely reported as profits.  Peabody Kidder claimed that Jett exploited a vulnerability in their internal systems and claimed that he defrauded them.  He put up a vigorous defense and was acquitted by the SEC. To this day, Jett probably thinks he was a genius trader.  He literally did not understand the trades that he was making.

A similar thing writ large seemed to have occurred all over Wall Street up to 2007 or 2008.  The Wall Street people thought that they had figured out a way to eliminate risk.  They came up with a scheme to group mortgages by the thousands and then slice them up and group them as investment funds.  It worked perfectly because after all, everyone makes their house payments, right?

The problem became of course that everyone wanted a piece of the action.  Therefore, there became a huge incentive to create more mortgages just so that they could be aggregated and sliced up. Of course, the people making the loans promptly just re-sold them so that the funds could be created.  Since they had effectively no risk, the loan originators could and did make crazy loans on crazy terms with virtually no paperwork involved.

All of the crazy loans were packaged up with all of the normal loans and then sliced up.  When the economy slowed down, people couldn’t make their crazy loan payments.  With the economy in bad shape, people couldn’t sell their homes either.  Therefore, they couldn’t make their loan payments.  These funds in turn that were accumulation of these loans couldn’t themselves make their payments, which were based upon receiving mortgage payments.

Since the bad loans were sliced and diced and split into all kinds of different funds, no one could tell which funds were good and which were bad.  When that happens, there is no way to determine the fair market price of a fund.  And when that happens, capitalism stops working because there become a whole lot of sellers and zero buyers.  Since companies don’t know which other companies have toxic loans on their books, not only will they not buy another firm’s funds, they won’t even lend each other money because, without valid valuations, no one knows who will be able to pay their bills.  Since pretty much all companies need very short term loans to make payroll and pay suppliers, quite literally the capitalist system was in danger of collapsing.  When you read about it, it’s actually fucking scary how close we came to bartering for goats in the town square (I’m only partially kidding here).

The Wall Street geniuses thought that they had invented a new way of doing business that was completely risk free.  What they did not understand until far too late was that what they created was something that disseminated risk throughout the entire system to such an extent that effectively risk became invisible.

In hindsight, all of these seems obvious.  I’m not an economist but even I can understand how this is really a horrible idea.  However, the fact is that there are several people in the book, very successful people, people with 30 years of experience of business, CEO’s, who simply didn’t get it.  They were insanely over-leveraged in horrible business dealings but did not understand it.  Some were willful.  All Wall Street firms have Chief Risk Officers, but in at least one case the Chief Risk Officer was explicitly not invited to executive committee meetings in which such items were discussed.  Some of these people came of age during the 70’s and the 80’s, when trading was much simpler.  They never learned the new ways of doing business and never really showed any inclination to learn.  As long as the money wheel was turning, why bother?

So, my question to you is…with due apologies to Tom Wolfe, would you rather your Masters of the Universe be evil or ignorant?