First of the Month A website of the radical imagination. 2015-07-20T16:14:29-05:00 Shelby Steele's Historylessness What follows is a compacted version of a critique of Shelby Steele’s The Content of Our Character (1991) that originally appeared in The Trouble With Friendship (1995). That book by the late Benjamin DeMott showed how white and black neoconservatism, the rise of the black middle class, and the imagery and rhetoric of racial amity promulgated by mass media had coalesced into a “friendship orthodoxy.” This appealing, resolutely ahistorical mindset maintained that the nation’s racial problems could be solved without government intervention, “simply by black and whites working together, one on one, to reconcile differences.” Friendship orthodoxy sublated what was common wisdom in the Civil Rights era when the next steps had seemed obvious:

[S]ociety would have to admit that when one race deprives another of its humanity for centuries, those who have done the depriving are obligated to do what they can to restore the humanity of the deprived. The obligation clearly entailed the mounting of comprehensive long-term programs of developmental assistance—not guilt money—for nearly the entire black population. The path forward was unavoidable.

It was avoided.

Thus the vogue for nice, cheap fixes to the American Dilemma in the 80s and 90s. Friendship orthodoxy ruled then and it hangs on today. But the following clip of a spectral Shelby Steele arguing with Ta-Nehisi Coates hints we may not have to breathe its derelict air forever. Their dialogue, which dates back to earlier this year, impelled your editor to return to The Trouble With Friendship’s clarities about Steele’s emergence as the anti-Race Man back in the day.[1]

"Either them Korean motherfuckers are geniuses or your black asses are just plain dumb."
Do the Right Thing (1989)

The speaker of the line above is M.L., a black man who, with two companions—one of them Sweet Dick Willie, played by the late, great comedian Robin Harris—functions as the chorus in the Spike Lee film. Seated under a tatty umbrella on a Brooklyn street, the three men eye a Korean grocery across the way. “Lookit those Korean motherfuckers,” says M.L. “I betcha they haven’t been off the boat a year before they open up their own place. Motherfucking year off the motherfucking boat and they already got a business in our neighborhood—a good business…Now for the life of me, you know, I can’t figure this out.”

M.L.’s mocking conclusion (either Koreans are geniuses or blacks are dumb) is a detail of character but something else as well...

Castelike societies attempting to dismantle parts of their stratification systems lose patience quickly. Both the majority and the making-it minority, troubled by lack of change in the grossly disturbing elements of everyday bottom-caste experience, seek interpretations—stories—that explain slow rates of progress without attributing them either to large-scale, systemic, historical and socioeconomic factors or to foot-dragging on the part of elites. More than one caste-like society abroad has regressed swiftly to belief that its bottom caste suffer regrettably from ineradicable genetic defects. And talk of “black asses” as “just plain dumb” was one among many signs of similar temptation.

This is America, however. The country doesn’t easily give itself to public harshness. The traditions and pieties forbid the casual shedding of sameness myths. Its can-do rhetoric and sunny tales of black–white fellowship insist on white goodwill and blamelessness. Its fantasy life reverberates with tales of blacks who are necessarily, pleasingly, overwhelmingly grateful to whites...

The situation required a formula that would permit a measure of criticism of blacks—criticism that would check up short of genetic slander and that would simultaneously reaffirm whites’ earnest concern.

The formula arrived at provided an interpretation of slow black progress that was gratifyingly exculpatory. It proposed that the reason blacks were moving ahead only haltingly might be that excessive white generosity had slowed them down. The basic problem wasn’t the intellectual and educational and socioeconomic deficit piled up during centuries of absolute race stratification. It was, instead, the understandable but nevertheless not finally benign disposition of softhearted white Americans to spoil their black brothers and sisters rotten.

Chief spokesmen for this thesis outside the world of pop were the young black neoconservative academics—Shelby Steele and Stephen Carter were the best known—who, like Spike Lee, came to notice in the late 1980s. Arguing that efforts to aid African Americans through programs of racial preference caused psychological harm, these writers had a more complex agenda in mind than did the white Tories who often wrenched their words out of context. But Steele, Carter and others did insist that the time had come to stop “coddling the minority”; they strongly urged that black individualistic energy must henceforth be required to prove itself on its own.

The position made waves. Previous preaching, by whites, against special treatment for minorities had been easy to abuse as reactionary and heartless. And the rare black writer who sided with the preaching tended to avoid direct attacks on black activist leaders and seldom addressed a general audience. Not so the new black neoconservatives. Early achievers in professional disciplines, they were seeking a wide public—and, they didn’t hesitate to challenge black leaders who, certain that problems facing black Americans derived from historical caste reality, continued to urge new public commitments. Rightist commentators and organs of opinion praised the black neoconservatives unreservedly—“If you read no other book…make it Shelby Steele’s,” wrote George Will—and their message quickly got out…

Fairness demands repeated acknowledgement that a primary goal of the black neoconservatives was to put on record that at least some African Americans recognized the welfare system to be not merely a failure but, because it perpetuated dependency, a blight on the hopes of their race. In pursuing that goal, however, they laid less stress on the need for new conceptions of nationally supported racial development than on the themes of black-white sameness that had come to dominate cultural life. In short, despite huge differences in tone, idiom and ultimate purpose, pop and academic black conservatism jointly backed the attitudes and assumptions of friendship orthodoxy. And that cultural rapprochement hastened the process by which the orthodoxy established its broad claim to respectability. Instead of spectacles of knockabout bonhomie, in the pages of the black neoconservatives it was possible to find moral, philosophical, and psychological justifications for the view that the surest proof of white kindness and caring would be a national decision to leave blacks alone to solve their problems for themselves. And with the triumph of this view, friendship orthodoxy reached its apogee.

The definitive black neoconservative text was Shelby Steele’s The Content of Our Character (1991), subtitled A New Vision of Race in America. An English professor in the California state college system, Steele articulated his new vision in ten chapters composed in an autobiographical style. He drew on classroom knowledge of young black undergraduates, on memories of his own youth as a poor black growing up in Chicago, and on his adult experience as a suburbanite member of a secure and respected professional class.

But despite the uncontentious tone (one newspaper critic spoke of the author as “the perfect voice of reason in a sea of hate”), The Content of Our Character is a cunningly argued work. Structured as a series of essays redefining three key terms (power, racism, and the self), the book advances unremittingly toward its goal, namely the displacement of historical and socioeconomic factors from their once dominant position in race discourse. At one and the same time it provides new intellectual footing for the range of assumptions underlying the contemporary enlightened mind-set and defines, with passion, the grounds on which majority culture neglect of black Americans could now claim to be truly benign.

Black-White Sameness: The Theological Overview

Steele’s approach to the matter of interracial sameness lies through analysis of power relations between the races. Pre-Shelby Steele, conventional commentary on this subject focused—when addressing the period before emancipation—on white ownership of blacks, as chattel property, during the centuries of slavery. Commentary on post-emancipation power relations focused on denials to blacks, by whites, of the right to vote, to receive equal protection under law, use public facilities (schools, parks, transportation), and so on. The imbalance in power between the groups was seen in clear, concrete, objective events: the punishment of slaves with thirty lashes for attempting to learn to read, or, for an example in the present, shortages of text-books in schools attended by black pupils (as in the South Bronx, where members of a high school science course recently spent an entire year without texts).

The Content of Our Character takes the position that reading power relations in these terms is superficial. The events that count occur below the surface, in the psyche, and are determined by an inward calculus of innocence. “Innocence is power,” Steele declares in his opening chapter. “What blacks lost in power [through slavery] they gained in innocence—innocence that, in turn, allowed them to pursue power.” Good sense about power relations between the races therefore demands, Steele argues, that we look beyond social circumstances (oppression and victimization) to the moral and psychological transactions that social circumstance triggers.

When we do so, we grasp that laws of compensation have always been at work in black-white relations. (Exercising the power to oppress invariably costs the oppressor; suffering oppression invariably brings gain—in the form of moral capital—to the oppressed.) The oppressed relish possession of this moral capital, relish it so intensely that they refuse to give it up even after oppression ceases. (“We [blacks] have a hidden investment in victimization and poverty…One sees evidence of this in the near happiness with which certain black leaders recount the horror of Howard Beach.”) And accounts of the past or present that address power differentials between the races in moral terms—base white slaveowner or landlord, necessarily pure black slave or tenant—are simplistic. A basic corruption was and still is shared, and it was consensually acknowledged, to a degree, at the very beginning. “The original sin that brought us to an impasse…occurred centuries ago when it was first decided [presumably slaves and slave catchers arrived at the “decision” in consultation] to exploit racial differences as a means to power.”

Implicit in all this is that race difference today is a sham—a fanciful scrim curtain hiding the homely commonalities of human nature. Racial stratification simply doesn’t exist, because differences in worldly power are of negligible consequence. Humankind both black and white seeks personal advantage and endures the curse of imperfection; pleasures of selfishness on one side are matched by pleasures of moral vanity and self-pity on the other; shedding allegiance to the concepts of moral and social difference is the first step toward sanity.

Pushing readers to take that step, The Content of Our Character details approaches that helped the author himself advance beyond color. (“In the writing, I have had both to remember and forget that I am black. …I have tried to search out the human universals that explain the racial specifics.”) More than once Steele denounces flat out, as precious, those who take difference seriously. (“Difference becomes inaccessible preciousness toward which outsiders are expected to be simply and uncomprehendingly reverential.”) And, not trivial in rhetorical terms, Steele works the theme of essential sameness into the very rhythm and syntax of his prose, through heavy use of coordinated parallelism; sentences repeatedly balance white and black on the fulcrum of a semicolon. (“Whites gain superiority by not knowing blacks; blacks gain entitlement by not seeing their own responsibility for bettering themselves.”) It’s one measure of the author’s clarity about his mission that his syntactical structures echo the lesson pressed in his overt lines of argument. The lesson is that, because power is innocence and original sin corrupts us all, blacks and whites are the same.

Racism and Self-Deception: The Psychoanalytic Overview

Steele introduces one-on-one themes of sympathy and goodwill via a probe of the nature of racism. And again he dissents from conventional definitions. “Before the sixties,” he asserts, “race set the boundaries of black life. Now, especially for middle class blacks, it is far less a factor, though we don’t always like to admit it.” Black leaders are to blame for this minority evasiveness. “Though we have gained equality under law and even special entitlements through social programs and affirmative action, our leadership continues to stress our victimization.” Their dogged insistence that "white racism and racial discrimination are still the primary black problem” amount to a knee-jerk “party line.”

African Americans don’t need a party line; they do need, says Steele, a fresh concept of racism—one that directs the eye away from ancient offenses of whites and toward present-day self-deceptions of blacks themselves. Steele’s own fresh concept rests on a psychoanalytic theory of “denial,” “recomposition,” and “distortion”; it makes the term “racism” into a synonym for false charges, brought for ego-defensive purposes, by blacks ashamed of their performance in interracial encounters.

He draws a key example from an episode in his own youth. “In a nice but insistent way,” a white woman, mother of one of his swimming teammates in junior high, corrects Steele’s grammar and pronunciation when he lapses into black English. Steele is abashed. “I felt racial shame…It was as though she was saying that the black part of me was not good enough, would not do.“ Covering his mortification, he decides his friend’s mother should be ashamed of herself—for “being racist and humiliating me out of some perverse need.” And he says as much to the white teammate, telling the lad that his mother doesn’t “like black people and [is] taking it out on me.”

Later he learns he was wrong: the woman had grown up poor, by her own words “didn’t give a ‘good goddam’ about my race,” knew that Steele was ambitious, and had only meant to help him realize his ambitions. “My comment had genuinely hurt her…her motive in correcting my English had been no more than simple human kindness…I converted kindness into harassment and my racial shame into her racism.”

The book argues that this “sequence”—the rejection of one-on-one kindness, the racist transformation, by blacks, of white goodwill into ill will—“is one of the unrecognized yet potent forces in contemporary black life.” Everywhere blacks experience “integration shock”—eruptions of “racial doubt that come…in integrated situations.” And instead of facing up to that doubt and shame as something to be overcome within them, they “recompose” it, “externalize [doubts and threats] by seeing others as responsible for them.”

Racism thus conceived hasn’t to do with the evolution of yesterday’s enforced illiteracy into today’s text-bookless classrooms, or with the evolution of yesterday’s outright bans of blacks from trades into today’s job ceilings, or with the evolution of yesterday’s patterns of segregation (extending from housing into all sectors of life) into today’s token integration. Racism hasn’t to do with history or with caste structures or with the actions and policies of a majority reluctant to cope realistically with the consequences of history. Racism is, instead, a verbal or psychological magic practiced by blacks that renders invisible to them the truth of their own evasiveness—their own fear of not being good enough.

Redefining racism in these terms strengthens belief that history casts no useful light on race issues, and that political action in the public world achieves less in the way of solutions to race problems than can be achieved through explorations of the microworld of individual psychology (private responses, emotional intricacies). More important (considering the majority culture interest in distancing itself from anguish), the redefinition presents the persistence of anguish as itself a mode of perverse black aggression—an attempt, by blacks to distance themselves from the too kind, too demanding intrusiveness of the white discourse of one-on-one. In sum: whites excessively concerned about black disabilities are forcing blacks to cling to those disabilities out of defensive pride.

Can-Do and Autonomy: The Existential Perspective

The subject of will and choice touched on in Steele’s treatment of racism is the crux of The Content of Our Character—the point at which the paradox of neglect as the highest form of sympathy comes into sharpest focus. The matter is most fully broached in the discussion of concepts of self, and again the discussion begins with a dissent from standard definitions.

Two ranges of meaning, personal and social, figure in standard versions of self: the self as a directing inner entity (a felt continuity of experience, a “personality”) and the self as “influenced” (socially conditioned, shaped partly in reflective interaction with others). Steele’s dissent rests on the belief that, for African Americans, the social self is a kind of evil tempter—an “anti-self” luring people away from their first responsibility, which is to “show ourselves and (only indirectly) the larger society that we are not inferior in any dimension.”

Steele claims that, in African Americans, the idea of social conditioning swallows up the idea of the self as controlling agent, causing an enfeebling retreat into blackness as a sanctuary: “It is easier to be ‘African-American’ than to organize oneself on one’s own terms and around one’s own aspirations and then, through sustained effort and difficult achievement, put one’s insidious anti-self quietly to rest.” The anti-self or social self is irremediably defeatist; it pretends that there are no choices, and, for blacks, that pretense spells disaster.

“We can talk about the weakened black family and countless other scars of oppression and poverty,” Steele writes, but none of these things “eliminates the margin of choice that remains open. Choice lives in even the most blighted circumstances.” It does so because “the individual is the seat of all energy, creativity, motivation, and power.” Other groups—“particularly recent immigrants from Southeast Asia"—understand this. Steele’s version of can-do immigrants, like that of other black neoconservatives, totally ignores the differences in circumstances between them and African Americans (differences explored in caste scholarship). Can-do immigrants believe in “individual initiative, self-interested hard work, individual responsibility, delayed gratification.” But “our leadership, and black Americans in general have woefully neglected the power and importance of these values.” And the resulting weakness “has been since the mid-Sixties, a far greater detriment to our advancement than any remaining racial victimization.”

Most American tributes to the values of individualism are haunted by familiar presences from Horatio Alger to Charles Lindberg to Oliver North—go-getters, self-starters, Maslovian self-actualizers. Steele’s tribute is no exception, and he’s given to moralistic chiding in the Franklinesque vein. There’s an indictment of black parents, for instance, for sending their children an anti-can-do white-baiting "double message: go to school but don’t really apply yourself." There’s no allusion whatever to the connection between that behavior, de facto ascribed inferiority, and justifiable black hostility to abysmal school systems or to white moral self-congratulation.

Nor is there any hesitation in reaching outside the American context in building a case against African Americans. Tine and again, in stories of individuals losing the energizing sense of personal identity in “black identity,” and in descriptions of the collapse of the Civil Rights Movement into collectivist delusion, the author falls into existentialist fustian, invoking the language of limitless human possibility—of self-creation in total and absolute freedom, of individuals hurling themselves into an uncharted future. “Blacks must be responsible for actualizing their own lives,” Steele writes. “The responsible person knows that the quality of his life is something that he will have to make inside the limits of his fate...He can choose and act, and choose and act again, without illusion. He can create himself and make himself felt in the world. Such a person has power."

With the appearance of this unencumbered, uncircumscribed, unconditioned figure, Steele leaves can-do, making-it America behind and ascends to the plane of pure historylessness.

A number of writers—among them Glenn Loury, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and Stephen Carter—hold equal rank with Shelby Steele as architects of black neoconservatism. But from the point of view of its impact on the enlightened mind-set, The Content of Our Character stands alone. It was the first work addressed to a general audience that translated the main themes of the friendship orthodoxy from comedy, entertainment, general gregariousness, liberal piety, and vague mysticism into cultural criticism and analysis. And with “neoconservatism” and friendship orthodoxy joined in metaphorical union, something akin to a single story came to be driven home at every cultural level—high, middle, low: history can be forgotten, git-go initiative is the miracle cure, impassivity equals concern (blacks must learn to go it alone), audacity equals concern (say a friendly hello to domestic workers and make their day), blacks and whites are one (taking equal chances, going head to head in fair competition, all in the same boat together in the American mainstream).

The outlook inspired by this story (optimistic, pessimistic, apathetic) vary along the axis from liberal to moderate to conservative. But the tragically simplistic assumptions that structure the tale seem now to have won acceptance throughout the educated and well-meaning majority. We are speaking, to repeat, of the enlightened mind-set.

Excerpted from Benjamin DeMott's The Trouble With Friendship (1995)


1 Pace Richard Torres who forwarded on a compendium of responses to Coates’ Between the World and Me which, in turn, led this editor to a Washington Post piece that included a link to the dialogue between Steele and Coates.

nation Benjamin DeMott 2015-07-20T16:14:29-05:00
Southern Changes Dylann Roof almost didn't go through with it--"everyone was so nice to me." The thought of him waiting/wondering in the church before he used the gun he bought at "Shooter's Choice" reminds me of this passage in Intruder in the Dust where Faulkner claimed every white Southern boy could lock into the moment before Pickett's Charge--the disaster at Gettysburg that came to stand for the Confederacy's mad gambles:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kempner and Armstead and Wilcox look grave, yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen year old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago...

That undone past no longer feels so near to the bulk of white Southern males. Their tomorrow won't begin 150 years ago. But it was all now to an outlier like Dylann Roof, who believed he was on the verge of starting a winnable race war. Roof knew he was on his own--"We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet...someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world and I guess that has to be me." Yet there were enough Confederates in the attic, prideful monument men, and "great White minds...out there" (per Roof's own net screed) to allow him to fantasize about waking up Johnny Rebel. Southern Heritage-mongers may continue to insist Roof trashed their ancestors' legacy of moonlight and magnolia, but his shots of horror were in their tradition.

In an act of imagination--and faith--as daring as Faulkner's, President Obama recast Roof as a divine tool of enlightenment in the president's eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. ("God works in a mysterious ways.") You don't have to roll with Obama's theology to realize Roof's dead eyes seem to have opened those of other Southerners who'd been blinded by BS about the Lost Cause. The regretful address delivered at the South Carolina State House last week by State Senator Paul Thurmond, son of a Dixiecrat, is on point. Thurmond rejected his own people's excuses for the Civil War:

Think about it for a second. Our ancestor were fighting for the right to keep human beings as slaves...I am not proud of this heritage. These practices were inhumane and wrong, wrong, wrong.


Thurmond's movement of mind might've moved the late, great Southern historian Lawrence Goodwyn who got more help on this front from his own father than Thurmond did. Goodwyn once explained how his dad's graceful truth attack started his march to freedom.

My father told me something when I was fourteen years old and he caught me reading a book by a famous Southern historian named Douglas Southall Freeman who wrote a four volume biography of Robert E. Lee called R.E. Lee. You can't call yourself a Southern historian if you haven't read that book. It's full of romance and insight and lyricism and error. Then he wrote three volumes, Lee's Lieutenants: A Study In Command. It's about the Army of Northern Virginia. And that's when you discover what an incredible army this was. So my father, a colonel in the army, was watching me read this book. And it's not the first one, it's seven books. I'd been reading about the Army of Northern Virginia all summer long. And he knew a few things, he's Georgian himself. His uncle, Pound, in Forsyth County, Georgia ran a military school; later became Gordon Military Institute, named after John B. Gordon, corps commander in the Army of Northern Virginia, et cetera, et cetera.

And my father, he called me over to the table where he sat:
"You've been doing a lot of reading lately, what are you reading?"
"I'm reading about the Army of Northern Virginia."
“Oh, what do you think about that army?”
I said, “It was a hell of an army, I'll tell you that.”
He said, “Oh, tell me about it.”

He had that manner. And so I told him about how Lee divided his forces in the presence of the Union army at Chancellorsville, thus violating one of Napoleon's maxims of war, and descended on extreme flank of the Union Army and rolled it back up onto the United States Ford of the Rappahannock River and so forth and so on. And he saw the enthusiasm and God knows what else that was embedded in that recitation from Douglas Southall Freeman's imagination and he said: “Let me tell you something, boy. Southerners do the things they do because they don't know any better. You understand that?” And the only answer to that question in my father's presence was “Yes, sir. Yes, sir, I understand.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. He knew I had no idea and he wanted to fix me in error, so that when I grew up a little bit and knew more than I knew at the age of fourteen, I might remember this conversation...


There were plenty of memorable conversations about the Southern past that's not past on All In with Chris Hayes last week. Tuesday night Hayes alternated between candor and sufferance in an exchange with a Republican State Senator from South Carolina (not Thurmond) who'd come out in favor of removing the Confederate flag from grounds of the State office building in Charleston. When that politician nodded to those who equate that flag with "heritage" not "hate," Hayes pushed back (once), noting the Confederacy was founded explicitly on white supremacy and black slavery. When the pol slipped the point in his come-back, Hayes let it go--a gesture of forbearance that anticipated his response the next day (in a Facebook Q&A) to Governor Haley's statement about the flag: "I can only speak for myself, but I was happy with what she did, whatever the political calculation behind it was. I disagreed with her characterization of what the flag's essential, original meaning is, but given that she did the right thing I wasn't in a mood to quibble."

Hayes wisely avoided hammering on his own points last week. Instead, he made All In a platform for African Americans rooted in the South who did heavy lifting when it came to the burden of Southern history. Hayes' dialogues with them seemed to grow more intense as the nights passed. I was struck (though no more than Hayes himself) when an Alabama lawyer explained last Wednesday that his state's constitution still has provisions outlawing integrated schools--provisions that have been upheld by (white) voters as recently as 2012. The next night Duke Professor Paul Butler talked straight about why he felt asking African Americans to honor the valor of Confederates was equivalent to proposing Jews bow down to the bravery of Nazis.[1] While this issue was personal for Butler--he wasn't out to preen or cultivate a hyped-up "good" rage; he was being real. (If Butler considers the key role Southern white men played in the struggle to defeat Hitler in World War II, I'm guessing he'd be up to taking in more than just the ironic aspect of their time on the right side of history back in those grave days.)

Hayes never came on as a p.c. prig last week. This born Northern liberal is well aware white supremacy has never been a regional thing in America. That's still news, though, to certain citified types who identify white skin privilege with provincial wastelands and rural yahoos. After the terror in Charleston, for example, I got an email directing me to a piece by a "Humanist" who saw "anti-intellectualism" rather than racism at the base of Dylann Roof's mass shooting. The emailer doubled down on the author's take: "It is time to stop blaming all whites and instead examine all aspects of society and culture, especially those of the south and middle America suburbia which exemplifies the worst of American cultural emptiness and anti-intellectualism. Blacks out in the cultural wasteland should move to NYC." (Since militant atheist and Darwinist Richard Dawkins is another pundit who makes up this emailer's mind, it occurs to me she probably takes the Scopes trial of 1925 as an exemplary instance of the ongoing cultural conflict between America's rural wasteland and more urbane precincts. Though perhaps she's aware it was also a conflict between two versions of white supremacy--per Patricia Williams' recent account in the Washington Spectator:

The “Scopes Monkey Trial,” is mostly remembered as a battle between science and pseudoscience. But it was also a battle between theological and secular justifications for notions of racial superiority. William Jennings Bryan, arguing for the creationist state law, resisted evolutionary theories that purported to teach children that mankind was descended “not even from American monkeys, but old world monkeys"...

While Clarence Darrow is remembered arguing on the more “liberal” side against the Butler Act, the deeper truth is that the secular beliefs of the time were not a lot better than the religious doctrine. The particular theory of evolution Scopes was accused of teaching came from Civic Biology, a textbook written by George William Hunter. Hunter believed, as many do to this day, that there were five distinct human races, representing an ascending order of evolution and civilization: Ethiopian, Malay, American Indian, Mongolian, and Caucasian. He was an enthusiastic defender of segregating each of the five, consistent with the tenets of the then-burgeoning American Eugenics Society and the theories of the infamous eugenicist Charles Davenport.)

Lawrence Goodwyn--whose histories of American populism and Poland's Solidarnosc recovered democratic traditions traduced by metro-intellectuals--would've rolled his eyes at any New Yorker who assumed s'all good Up South. But I'd bet he'd've seen Chris Hayes as a brother above the Mason-Dixon line. I wish Goodwyn had been here to amp up All In's history lessons last week. His testimony about links between the Civil Rights Movement and the Civil War could've helped Hayes bring it all down home.


Near the end of Goodwyn's life he was interviewed about his own Southern changes by an oral historian named Paul Ortiz. Their Q&A included Goodwyn's recollection of his life-changing talk with his father. What follows is another (slightly compacted) swatch from that interview which seems right on time now too. It's about Goodwyn's experiences reporting on an episode in the modern Civil Rights Movement--the campaign against Jim Crow and white power in St. Augustine, Florida. (The full interview is available here along with a PDF copy of Goodwyn’s 1965 article in Harper’s Magazine, “Anarchy in St. Augustine,” which still has snap to its punch.) Ortiz and Goodwyn zero in on a moment when St. Augustine police enabled members of the Ku Klux Klan--operating as the “Ancient City Gun Club”--to attack Civil Rights marchers.

Ortiz:...You describe hearing something that breaks out when people attack the march. Can you talk about that?

Goodwyn:...So on this day it was obvious [the uniformed cops and non-uniformed members of the Ancient City Gun Club] had been doing some planning, neither was surprised by the presence of the other. It was almost a positioning of troops...Many officers, many more Klansmen, all the way around this block that the Movement was channeling...And here they came. They had banners. These were, now, in the summer of 1964, veteran civil rights organizers. They're strong, they have been there before, they have an entirely internalized non-violent philosophy, which they've learned from Dr. King. Now, he is not there that day; this march is led by Abernathy—I believe it was Abernathy, it could've been C.T. Vivian. The article will be clear about that, the written article. [According to Goodwyn’s Harpers piece, the march was actually led by another 60s hero, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.] Here they came, and it was evident that all mayhem, all hell, was gonna break loose...The tension was palpable. And about the time they got in front of me about halfway down that block—maybe a little more than half way—apparently it became evident to the Klansmen that if they didn't move now, these people were getting too far past them and all of a sudden they just rushed the marchers.

The scene disintegrated in mayhem and people began running. There were young men and young women, the Movement was young, but there were some older people, thirty, thirty-five, forty...They were chased by the Klan and I don't remember, nor does my story indicate, if there were officers running or not running after the demonstrators. I didn't notice, I just saw fleeing demonstrators and chasing Klansmen.

Then I heard this eerie yell, a loud yell. I became conscious of it and then after I became conscious of it, it seemed to grow. I don't know whether it was my consciousness of it that was growing or whether it actually grew. But all of a sudden I heard this huge just struck me that, my god, I think this is the rebel yell...Three seconds before that happened I was watching impending doom about to occur. The Civil Society in St. Augustine, Florida coming down the road; I was anxiety-ridden, worried, intense, attentive, but not thinking about the Civil War. I was watching the most vivid political conflict that I'd ever seen in my entire life. But I was not thinking about the rebel yell. And all of a sudden the scene breaks up, the scene disintegrates, people go in all directions. I hear this sound as I'm running across the square. I had a little reporter’s notebook in my back pocket and I pulled it out and took a few notes..."rebel yell." Question mark.

Ortiz: What did it mean?

Goodwyn: Yeah. And what it meant to me was, I had a new way to think about the American Civil War, that's what it meant. That's why it's a long war. America is just discovering itself. One hundred and fifty years later we're still discovering who we are. We're learning that people who took the election of Obama—was it a Republican stalwart who said it mockingly?: “Well, they'll call it a post-racial society now.” But there're also some innocents—Democrats, I think, that thought maybe we'd made a huge step forward. Well, we did make a step forward, but we made a step sideways and a step backward and a step inward most of all...

I've invoked that reflection of Goodwyn's before, but it's never seemed more penetrative. Last week might turn out to be the deepest stretch of the Obama era. Not that Americans don't have more to learn about the places that scare us under his aegis. Per Jedediah Purdy, though, there are limits to the mindful patriotism Obama first instantiated in his 2004 Convention speech. Purdy--a fervent, though not uncritical, supporter of the president and a fellow constitutional lawyer--points out Obama's mode of civic preaching is founded on a white lie about the country's origins. The progressive Christian Jeremiads of Obama (and others such as Rev. William Barber--the African-American minister who's sparked the Moral Monday movement) presume the template for American democracy has already been established. To perfect-the-unionists, it's all about redemption. But, as Purdy insists:

The settlements that became the United States did not begin as an imperfect democracy, struggling to work itself pure. They began as a project of settler colonialism...The exclusion and oppressions of American history began not as original sin, but as what conservative constitutional theorists call original meaning.

I've got too much Johnny Tremain on the brain to go all the way with Purdy. If it's wrong to love romantic portraits of the visionary New England revolutionary James Otis, I don't want to be right. But Purdy surely deserves a hearing at this conjuncture (if not the last word):

We are fooling ourselves if we believe the key is already hidden in our old principles, if we could just get them right--no matter how potent and attractive that idea is, no matter how much partial good we can manage with it. The problem is not just to perfect a flawed democracy, but to decolonize national life.

I'm confident Purdy would concede the president who will preside over that decolonizing process probably hasn't been born yet. In the meantime (as reported in the Sunday Times)...

A little after 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning on the grounds of the Alabama State Capitol, where in 1861, Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy and where, more than a century later, George Wallace was snarling about segregation forever, workers quietly took down the battle flag at the Confederate memorial. Before the morning was over, they would take down three other flags of the Confederacy and even uproot the flagpoles.

While such actions provide no more than (what the President termed) "a modest but meaningful balm"--and not even that to intimates of the A.M.E. Zion Nine who have just started to grieve--perhaps the rest of us can be forgiven for imagining it's morning in America.


1 As Butler talked, I flashed on Reagan's trips to Bitburg and Philadelphia, Mississippi. This passage from Fredric Smoler's account of a trip to the American Military cemetery in Luxembourg--not far from the German graves in Bitburg--came to mind as well:

Helen Patton, the general's granddaughter, now married to a German, announces we mourn equally all who sacrifice themselves for a cause. The tourists are pleased to meet the granddaughter, but some of them seem to think this is to some degree nonsense, that the men who lie twenty yards away are ennobled by the cause for which they died, no matter how mean their motives at the time, while the Germans lying a few miles away are to some degree disgraced by the cause they bled for.
nation Benj DeMott 2015-06-27T13:39:45-05:00
"Money" Mayweather: A Postmodern Triumph Modern professional athletes are entirely beholden to their corporate masters. Fuck up the brand, and you’re gone. Pete Rose, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson. On and on.

The one name you will never ever see on that list is Floyd “Money” Mayweather. He is as morally reprehensible as any athlete has ever been, but he is also the first truly postmodern athlete. Jack Johnson and Muhammud Ali laid some pipe for him, but their times weren’t right for the kind of chaotic freedom Floyd Mayweather has forged for himself. He answers to no one. HBO and Showtime do his bidding. He is rich beyond compare. He made more in 36 minutes of work against Manny Pacquiao—$200 million—than LeBron James makes in a couple years, and he doesn’t have to do commercials. He doesn’t need to.

Hell, nobody wants Money Mayweather for a commercial anyhow even if he is undefeated in 48 fights after disposing of Pacquiao. Sponsors hate him, too. Big deal. Manny Pacquiao got one ten-second ad—and probably stained fingers—for pistachios before the latest Fight of the Century (albeit a 15-year-old century). And Manny has been no real role model either—women, gambling, the whole nine—but he has a tough wife, cooly-named Jinky, who laid the law down and got him back on some kind of straight track. He’ll probably be president of the Philippines some day, and will have a whole country to answer to.

The Money Mayweather camp before the Pacquiao fight was running around in shirts that had “TBE” on the back for “The Best Ever.” Very wrong. My friend, the light heavyweight Chuck Mussachio, pointed out correctly that Mayweather has never had a truly monumental fight, a la the Zale-Graziano wars or the greatest trilogy of them all, Ali-Frazier. For the record, my Top Five all-timers are: first, the incomparable Ray Robinson, then Ali, Rocky Marciano, Jack Dempsey, and Henry Armstrong. Ray Robinson would have brushed Money Mayweather aside like a teenaged pest. He would have hit him with a right hand over that shoulder roll and Money’s 100-grand mouthpiece would have been in the tenth row.

Ray Robinson, though, ended up broke in L.A., which is a bad, sad place to be broke. If Mayweather ends up broke, it will probably because of the end of the world’s financial system as we know it.

Until then, Mayweather will continue on whatever path he chooses to blaze for himself. And he is a pathfinder, let there be no doubt. He started out as a gifted ghetto punk in Grand Rapids where jail time was a family tradition, and he made himself into a billion-dollar brand, all told.

At 38, he has the face now of what Tom Wolfe called “a man in full.” He’ll probably never get locked up again. He is beyond so much. And there is a lively and deeply intelligent look to that face now. This is no fool, no matter how much he has played the self-created fool/villain. Warren Buffet doesn’t hang with fools. Fools don’t get all the toys.

The turning point was the Oscar De La Hoya fight. The so-called “Golden Boy” (although another L.A. fighter, Art Aragon, was the original Golden Boy back in the forties and fifties) was the biggest thing going then, and Mayweather originally turned down about 15 mil for the fight, saying it was an insult. Then he changed his identity from “Pretty Boy” Floyd to “Money” Mayweather and became world class obnoxious and the athlete everybody loved to hate and couldn’t wait to see get his ass kicked. Never happened, of course. He kicked Oscar’s ass and got $150 million for his troubles and never looked back, even counting jail time for assaulting women, although he did the time standing on his very rich head.

As the current phrase goes, he’s controlled the narrative every step of the way since then. In the background, admittedly, since 2006, lurked the current Dark Prince of boxing, Al Haymon, a former concert promoter who has quietly displaced Don King as the top promoter along with Bob Arum. But both Haymon and Warren Buffet are Mayweather advisers, at the most. The council he keeps is his own.

In an interview before the Pacquaio fight, Mayweather uttered one sentence that said it all: “I made the fight.”

He did. He was home in Las Vegas and he heard that Manny Pacquiao would be in Miami judging the Miss Universe contest and would be at a Miami Heat game that night. “Pack a bag,” he told his posse, and they flew off to Miami. That night, Money and company were courtside next to the Miami bench. Manny was across the way. At halftime, Money walked over, they shook hands, and he asked Manny to meet him in his suite later. They met and the deal got done. Money made the fight. Nobody else. He cleared away six years of torturous negotiations with a handshake. No fighter has ever done anything like that.

In 1992, Francis Fukayama incorrectly theorized in a jumble of neocon bromides that history had ended. And what Floyd Mayweather has wrought as the accidental champion of a postmodern aberration is no signpost to a new era in sports promotion and management. The system is too cemented into the greed of the times. The corporate masters are too firmly in charge.

Mayweather’s postmodern breakthrough is a one-man revolution that could have only happened in the wild west landscape of boxing. There are no leagues, no commissioners, every state has its own ruling body—or not—and you pays your money and you takes your choice and your chances. It’s as chaotic as the Internet.

And it’s been the perfect milieu for a fighter who is as comfortable with chaos as he is inside the ring where his bloodlines make him boxing royalty. His father and uncle were Detroit hitmen in the Tommy Hearns mold. He creates chaos and feeds off it. He does training runs through the grim Las Vegas streets at 3 a.m.

Mayweather says he’ll have one more fight and then pack it in. So now it’s about his legacy. From here, that will be that he was perhaps the great defensive fighter of all time, was undefeated, like Rocky Marciano, and made more money than any fighter in history. That’s all. He isn’t “the best ever” and has no real business making that claim.

And that’s most likely where the postmodern miracle that Money Mayweather has wrought ends. No matter what he does next, it won’t be the same. Say he goes into promoting like Oscar De La Hoya, who has done well with Bernard Hopkins in Golden Boy Promotions. Unless he can come up with a paradigm that completely breaks the current mold, he will be incessantly at loggerheads with everybody in the boxing “business” as he tries to wrestle out of the tarbaby corporate clutches that he was able to break free from as a fighter. Things are different on the other side of the table, especially when he has left a bad taste in the public’s mouth for decades.

But, with Money, you never know. Warren Buffet might whisper something in his ear that strikes a chord or Floyd himself might find another jackpot path.

But until that happens—or doesn’t—the brief postmodern reign of Floyd “Money” Mayweather will fade into the endless recesses of the intractable modern corporation.

One and done, baby.

culturewatch Bob Ingram 2015-05-17T12:16:03-05:00
Teaching the Conflict Writers and cartoonists who refuse to honor Charlie Hebdo aren’t thinking straight. Yet I don’t hate their impulse to distance themselves from those who are down with gratuitous humiliation of Muslims in France or anywhere else. That impulse feels homey to me in part because my wife is a practicing Muslim. Perhaps those of us who bow to the bravery of Charlie’s glorious nerds can agree, at least for a start, this old line from John Rawls is ponderable: “The best way to cause people long-lasting pain is to humiliate them by making the things that seem most important to them look futile, obsolete and powerless.”

Rawls’ point might stick when it comes to Pamela Geller’s history of spite toward Muslims. (Though her fraught free speech demo in Texas seems more justifiable than her attempt to suppress freedom of religion by inciting a moral panic over the “Ground Zero” mosque.) Rawls’ point seems less dispositive, though, when it comes to Charlie, given the uncommon magnanimity displayed by the magazine’s stalwarts. The cartoonist Luz, for example, not only drew the famous “All Is Forgiven” cover, but amplified its message with a soulful expression of sympathy toward the Kouachis: “The terrorists were once kids, they drew like us, like all kids, then one day they perhaps lost their sense of humor, perhaps their child soul able to see the world from a bit of a distance…”

Luz—and other Charlie staffers who have incarnated a spirit of forgiveness—may be secularists but their instincts seem pretty Christian. After all, Christians are supposed to be good to those who persecute them and pray for their enemies. This demand, as Leszek Kolakowski once noted (and the Pope just allowed[1]) “violates human nature”: “We can be sure that there are, and there always have been, only very few people truly mature enough to meet this demand, but the edifice of civilization rests upon their shoulders, and whatever small accomplishment we have made, we owe to them.”[2]

We should give thanks for Luz et al.’s thin shoulders (though, pace Kolakowski, their charity may be a credit to that "child soul" not “maturity.”) Pamela Geller’s fear-mongering, OTOH, isn’t giving civilization much of a lift.

Charlie’s link to the French tradition of laicité place their contributors in the same camp as militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and the late Hitchens, but the cartoonists’ light touch seems at odds with the zeal of those know-it-all scourges. I found an email from an acolyte of Dawkins/Hitchens (who’s also a Geller fan) in my inbox last week. Titled “Good News,” it celebrated the recent poll registering a decline in the number of Christians in America. The emailer was thrilled by the rising tide of unbelievers in the USA: “soon it will be ONE THIRD!”

Such triumphalism runs counter to one of the essential passages in recent American letters—Scott Spencer’s rendering, in his novel Man in the Woods, of a Christian convert’s sudden loss of faith. That loss isn’t presented as a freeing-up: “Conversion is convulsive, but reversion is strictly, stiff upper lip.” “Progressives” who assume losing your religion is all good might wise up if they check the faith-based experience of Spencer’s heroine. So let’s recur to this character's movement of mind now. She has made a career out of being born again, writing books and becoming a Christian broadcaster. Her crisis comes as she’s testifying on her quirky radio show, “Prays Well With Others.” In the midst of a rap on Jesus and neediness and giving back she stretches for her next riff and the rest of her Christ-less life begins: “The thing she reaches for—her next sentence—is not there. And its absence is immense. It’s like walking into a familiar room, and realizing, without precisely knowing why, that intruders have been here and you’ve been robbed.”

Spencer’s bereft woman recalls what fulfillment felt like:

Once, nearly five years ago, sitting on a bridge chair in the cinder-block florescent-lit basement of a Methodist church, and trying to plug in whatever humanist generalization she could claim as her Higher Power, Kate had cast her thoughts this way and that, wondering if her writing was her higher power or if it was [her daughter] Ruby. and then one of the A.A. people, a girl named Joy W., gone now, maybe drinking again, maybe off to California to zigzag after her dream of becoming a recording star, had her guitar with her and she had this sneaky way of performing which was to pretend she was just strumming and humming privately and the rest of the room was simply overhearing her. Joy, the pain in the ass, sang “I Don’t Want to Get Adjusted to This World,” in a lovely, clear, kind voice, and the song itself, so simple and so plaintive, forced Kate to look away. And there it was, a simple wooden cross on the basement wall, and really out of no impulse more elevated than curiosity, and even with a degree of irony and self-mockery, Kate thought the words, Thank you Jesus, and she whispered them aloud and felt, actually and unmistakably felt a presence. The sensation of being entered, filled, radiantly occupied did not make her feel larger but instead made her feel smaller, practically dismantled past the point of self-recognition and so it was no wonder that like millions before her, she wept. For the cross, for the words to that old church song, for the Father and for the Son, for the suffering, for the sacrifice, for the love, she wept because she was no longer alone, she wept because she knew she was going to stop drinking, she wept because she was—she could barely say the word, even to herself—saved.

And now it is gone, just as suddenly as these feeling came, they have disappeared.

They are gone.

It is gone.


I once could see and now I’m blind/I once was found and now I’m lost.

Spencer’s now graceless lady realizes she’s not only saying good-by to the Christian Nation...

But adios to the Jews, the Hindus, and the Muslims, and to all the New Agers with their brains like banana-bread and everyone else out there who like to pretend that there is some over-arching shape and meaning to life on earth, benign or otherwise, that there is someone to turn to in times of trouble and someone to honor with gratitude that we are not now forever on our own, making it up as we go along.

It takes negative capability (and stones?) for a novelist like Spencer to lament “making it up as we go along.” But after reading that passage it’s not hard to guess why he signed the letter from the PEN contingent protesting against Charlie Hebdo. He won’t reduce religion to God-botherers and, as a good novelist, he must suspect cartoons are too thin a medium to take in consolations of faith.

Such consolations may seem especially necessary to practicing Muslims among France’s marginalized population of North Africans. Not all believers Over There, though, deserve respect. And, on the real side, Spencer—and his PEN allies—aren’t placed to engage those among the devout who don’t merit a dis (or a bullet).

Instead of trying to fend off insults to believers, they could do something more useful for Maghrebis, with or without faith, by calling attention to artists whose work is rooted in the experience of that population. Take, for example, Mehdi Charef, who’s been making a case for the joys of “making it up as we go along” for more than a generation. Charef’s ‘80s novel and (later) film, Tea in the Harem of Archimedes sparked the “Beur movement” among France’s second generation of North African immigrants. (The term Beur being an amalgam of Berber and Europe.)

Charef summed up that cultural explosion:

Our parents who arrived in France after the war comprised a generation who came solely with the intention of working. They could not speak and they could not express themselves. It was work and nothing more. They sent money back to the family and that was it. But later their children came along. and they wanted another life which was not only working and having a job and going to school, but also included the possibility of expressing themselves culturally, in dance, literature, cinema, music, painting, sculpture...and that is what the Beur movement is.

Charef has refused to choose a purified Arab or French identity. Though he’s surely an heir to that young French Revolutionary who once declared “happiness is the new idea in Europe.” Tea in the Harem of Archimedes is a portrait of two no-future kids—one Arab, the other French—coming of age with their crew in a bleak suburban housing project. (Thirty years on, it may still have something pertinent to say about how the Kouachis became hard guys: "The children grow up as part of the cement and the concrete. They grow up and they begin to take on the characteristics of concrete: they're dry and cold and hard, to all appearances indestructible—but they've got hidden cracks.") Charef’s protest against that oppressive surround has resonance because he’s alive to his anti-heroes’ irrepressible instinct for fun and their knack for…making it up as they go along. In the film’s most indelible scene, the French boy (an illiterate who turned “Archimedes’ Theorem” into “Tea in the Harem of Archi-Ahmed”) acts like a novelist. On a road trip to the seashore, from the back seat of a stolen car, he entrances his buddies with a tale of romance in a warm climate. His gigolo plot isn’t much more sophisticated or believable than a Penthouse letter, but the emotion in his telling carries his audience away.

Tea in the Harem is a movie about fraternity. Nothing trumps the friendship between the two boys. In the movie’s final scene the Arab kid seems done-in. He sits on the beach waiting to be arrested by cops instead of running away with his best bud (and the rest of his friends). But the movie doesn’t fade into anomie. Asleep in the police van, Magid wakes up to see his French friend on the road up ahead, flagging down the police van, ready to go to jail with him. Solidarity whatever...

If Tea in the Harem is a boys’ movie, Charef’s Daughter of Keltoum[3] is one for women. It starts with its young westernized heroine on a bus in the mountainous desert region of Algeria. Rallia is returning from Switzerland to her birthplace, hoping to find her mother, Keltoum. Rallia stands in for Euro-strangers in the audience, noticing everything that seems exotic on her way to a stone house to which the bus driver had directed her. There she meets a weathered old man with warm eyes who she learns is her grandfather. Their encounter and blood-on-blood hug, a few minutes into the movie, manages to evoke deep comforts of home-coming, though we’re only a few minutes into the movie.

But the sense Rallia has found a haven is this harshly beautiful land soon gives way. Grandpa’s charm can’t sublate poverty and the relentless daily rounds of women who are treated as beasts of burden—water-bearers in particular—in the hill country. Rallia’s mother is said to work far away in a luxury resort, and when she fails to turn up, Rallia leaves the mountains to go find her in the city. The film becomes a road movie again. She’s accompanied by Nedjma, whom she believes is her aunt. On the road, Nedjma, who is disturbed and sometimes acts Out, will find a prospective mate—a handicapped man whose marriage proposal provides comic relief to the small crowd of bystanders who witness his offer but his neediness—and Nedjma’s—is no joke. Nobody in this film (or in Tea in the Harem) is made into a cartoon.

On their journey, Rallia and Nedjma meet an assortment of men and women—figures who reveal everyday realities of Algeria without becoming stereotypical. The defining sequence comes early when they encounter a man riding a mule—a rope attached to his waist stretches behind him around a corner where a woman he’s tied up walks into the frame. She’s his “repudiated” wife whom he means to replace with a younger woman. After he unties her, she tries to follow him back to her home and children but he threatens to beat her with a club. She ends up joining Rallia and Nejdma for a scene or two as the road leads them ineluctably to feminist resistance.

Daughter of Keltoum, though, is more serious than, say, Thelma and Louise. Charef doesn't settle for compensatory fantasies of killer women or matinee martyrdom. The film’s final scene is grounded in perdurable facts of globalization, even as it’s memorably open to interpretation. Rallia is headed back to Europe, having reconciled with her mother (who turns out to have been Nedjma, not Keltoum). As her bus heads out, she notices other passengers are smiling out the window—where she sees Nedjma running hard, hoping against hope to stay close to her modern daughter.

Charef’s scenarios of underdevelopment allow there are always good people who can’t keep up. Before Rallia catches that bus she exchanges a heavy look with her grandfather who gazes down at her from on top of his blasted hill. He’s going nowhere but he sends her off with love. Thinking of his kind face, I flashed on an anecdote of Richard Hoggart’s:

As my wife and I travelled, a quarter of a century ago, through the man-rejecting mountains of Afghanistan, our illiterate Muslim driver wound down the car window so as to allow a wasp to escape unharmed, saying as it made away: “Go with God..."

Hoggart looked back before 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Daughter of Keltoum is a pre-9/11 story too. (Made around 2000, it was first screened a couple days after 9/11.) But Charef was already on the right side of history. His artful response to Reaction in the Middle East reminds me of a passage in the ‘30s correspondence of Erich Auerbach (who'd confront the civilizational challenge of that time by writing his classic exegesis of the humanist tradition, Mimesis, as he lived in exile from Nazi Germany):

The challenge is not to grasp and digest all the evil that’s happening—that’s not too difficult—but much more to find a point of departure for those historical forces that can be set against it. . . To seek for them in myself, to track them down in the world, completely absorbs me.

Daughter of Keltoum seems to reflect Charef’s own search for such a point of departure. Unillusioned about prospects for quick and easy progress, his movie leaves you in a quandary even as it tries to answer the question: How do you bring woman’s liberation and the best of the West to Muhammadan mountains?

There are mountains beyond mountains—those housing projects in France where so many Beurs live (and which Charef knows inside out). This video for “Banlieu,” Karim Kacel’s song on the soundtrack for Tea in The Harem, goes there. It, in turn, sent me on a search for Cheb Mami’s “Douha Alia,” which I first heard in another French movie.[4] Cheb Mami is one of the originators of rai—the rebel music of young Algerians in-country and in the North African diaspora who resisted Algeria’s military dictatorship, Islamism and racism against Maghrebis in France. I’ll never tire of Mami’s song about being tired of love but in my search for it I bumped into something ugly. Mami was convicted in France a few years ago of kidnapping his ex-girlfriend, imprisoning her in a house in Algeria and trying to force her to have an abortion. Misogyny may not be that rare among pop stars, but I’ll allow the news in yesterday’s papers about Cheb Mami didn’t make me think of “Under My Thumb”; it seemed more directly related to that bound woman in Daughter of Keltoum.

I watched Keltoum with my wife on Mother’s Day. Thanks to Charef’s patient, close imagining, it drew her into a Muslim world of love and pain. (Forgive me for underscoring the difference between his approach and that of a cartoonist whose mockery of her religion might put her off.) The opening scenes that culminate in Rallia’s familial embrace with her grandfather had my wife wishing to visit her own beloved elders who raised her in West Africa. But when that home on the hill, with its dry well and benighted neighbors, took on the aspect of a hell-hole, she could handle the truth.

My secular son should have an easier time on this score, though I was worried when he reported most kids in his 6th grade class at his Upper West Side school assumed Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists were blame-worthy. There's a need to breed an anti-fascist culture on the American left. I’ll try to do my part (without twigging to the atheism of twits) by steering my son to Smoler’s and O’Brien’s defenses of Charlie Hebdo as well as to the art of Beurs like Medhi Charef. These lines from an email by a First reader responding to Smoler’s post might also help teach my son what’s at stake: “a distant relative of mine, young middle aged fellow, two kids, nice wife, was himself shot in [Charlie Hebdo’s] offices and now lies somewhat paralyzed in a hospital, part of a leg missing; shot all over; entirely traumatized; no one knows whether he'll ever be able to leave the hospital; it was the second time he was caught in Muslim terrorist fire in France; horrible.”

That excruciation makes the Rawls quote that launched this trip seem almost quaint. Rawls was writing before 9/11 when it seemed natural for imperial middle Americans to put mental cruelty first. But, as we all know now, older ways of causing “long-lasting pain” are back with a vengeance.


1 Pope Francis has weighed in as follows: “If my good friend... says a curse word against my mother,” Francis joked, “he can expect a punch. It's normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” His common sense has its demotic charm. And it shouldn’t be understood too quickly. Francis might excuse a punch but he wasn’t justifying deliberate terror.

2 Adam Michnic quoted this line of his "master" Kolakowski in the Fall, 2014 issue of Salmagundi.

3 It seems likely the film's title is a play on the name of the last century's greatest Arab diva, Umm Kaltoum, which translates as: Mother of Kaltoum. Umm Kaltoum’s legacy is complex, but her voice is loved throughout the Arab world, though it’s anathema to anti-modern, Salafi extremists.

4 Andre Techine's Les Voleurs.

culturewatch Benj DeMott 2015-05-17T08:47:14-05:00
Thought Balloons If Smoler is to be criticized for anything, it is for an excess of kindliness...

—The ‘punching­ down’ meme was heard immediately after the Charlie Hebdo killings, but it was not very prominent. More common then were variations on the themes of insensitivity and offensiveness. What’s changed? To call the dead insensitive and offensive served in a pinch­—­­­this was an emergency, after all—­­but it was hardly sufficient. People, viz., Charlie Hebdo’s progressive critics, who presumably are principledly on the side of the transgressive, could not rest easily in the same motel room as, say, Jesse Helms. One will need to be offensive and insensitive, selectively, and needs are inarguable.

Punching down’s just the ticket. For 'We the undersigned, as writers[sic], thinkers[sic!], and members of PEN’ who wrote to denounce—'respectfully'—the award to Charlie Hebdo, talk of punches serves a stylistic purpose: in context, calls for sensitivity and inoffensiveness come across as more than a little prissy. But if punches are being thrown, by someone, well, there are about two dozen corpses that have to be, somehow, acknowledged. And vivid is better.

The ideological thrust of ‘punching down’ is more central. The dissociati of PEN are something greater than neutral. They are, as one hears so often in recent years, on the right side of history. They have aligned themselves with the subaltern.

But but but...when is one not punching down?[1] ‘Afflicting the comfortable’ has been trotted out (Small mercy, not ‘truth to power’ so far). There are almost 200 signatories to this anti-­Charlie letter. In those numbers, there is great comfort, surely. The attitudes on display in the letter are nowhere anything new, and nowhere seriously controversial. These dissidents ‘staunchly [in solidarity with Bouvard and Pecuchet] support expression that violates the acceptable[!].’ They allude to ‘journalists and whistleblowers[!] who have risked, and sometimes lost, their freedom (and even their lives) in service of the greater good.’ Well, first, what is this ‘good’[2] they invoke so blithely? And how do they know it, and do all of them know it? We can be sure of one thing: what makes this ‘good’ ‘greater’ is that it is innocent anything dialectical. More important, though, these signatories will not lose, or risk, their lives, or their freedom. When this is all over, their position on the proper guest lists will be secure. The fastidious are always welcome. ­­

—From the letter:

To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.

The syntax is off—to them, the cartoons must be seen, etc.—­­but we know what these wordsmiths mean. We know, because it’s so rote. ‘Marginalized, embattled, and victimized’: not one term considered, let alone argued. 'Shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises.’ To start with, the Charlie operation was hatched in Yemen. Second, avenging ‘insults‘ to the ‘Prophet’ started in the Seventh Century A.D., when France, as such, hardly existed. Third, ‘shaped’ how, exactly?

What does France owe, exactly, to an immigrant from Canada, or from Detroit? Take one of France’s more recent ‘colonial enterprises,' military action against jihadis in Mali. A Teju Cole must, inevitably, side with the relative indigenes against the colonial masters. No punching down! The word ‘colonial’ in this entire discussion is obnoxious. What Europe did in sub­-Saharan Africa is not comparable to her relations with the Arabs, and, more broadly, dar al-islam. Muhammadan assaults on Europe, and on France in particular, went on from the Eighth to the Nineteenth Centuries, and consisted largely of mass killings, enslavement, rape, and plunder.[3] The exploits of ISIS today show its members to be keen students of history, Even if we focus only on the almost recent history of Algeria—as we’re expected to do—­­and if we set aside Pontecorvo’s film, which is, not least or last, a brilliant pr job for an indefensible one­-party state, we find something a little different from the accepted history. If it was a war of ‘savagery,’ a common enough description, it was resolved not because the French ever came close to military defeat, but only because the French nation proved less persistent in depravity then the FLN (and later the GAI). It should be remembered­­—or for the benefit of our ‘thinkers,’ learned­­—that the overwhelming majority of those killed by the FLN, in hot pursuit of liberation, were Muslim.

The letter contains a reference to ‘devout Muslims.’ But aren’t their devotions their business, and how do they become somebody else’s problem? But then—­'the Prophet.’ The title is bad enough, the capital worse, but worst of all, so close to ‘devout Muslims,’ ‘their Prophet’ might have been expected. Instead..., no honesty is to be had from these people. And last, ‘intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.’ Our belle-lettrists don’t know, and won’t be told, anything about the cartoonists’ intentions. ‘Further’ is, of course, question-begging. ‘Humiliation and suffering’: this is a cartoon we’re talking about. ­

—Elsewhere in the letter, we read that the PEN award

also valorizes selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-­Islamic, anti-­Maghreb, anti-­Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.

This passage comes almost immediately after a passage claiming that ‘equal­-opportunity’ offensiveness couldn’t really be equal...That Charlie was not selectively offensive had just been conceded, and not just arguendo. ‘Valorizes’ is a word that was bound to show up. The best, though is ‘anti-Maghreb.’ Somebody worked at this. How doth the busy bee! Mashriqis get a pass, apparently. It’s those Maghribis we love to hate. UBL, Saddaam, al-Zarqawi, al­Baghdadi, all bad enough, but at least­­—not one of those.

—Garry Trudeau;

By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voila—the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died.

Garry Trudeau made a career of political commentary, for which there was a ready audience. He invited that audience to enjoy the spectacle of the inferiority, moral and intellectual, of the other guy. That’s how political entertainment works. Trudeau doesn’t specify who that ‘powerless, disenfranchised minority’ is. They are presumably North Africans and their descendants—metropolitan France’s sizable black population does not figure in the fantasy world of the signatories. But are these beurs ‘powerless’ and ‘disenfranchised’? Minorities do not cast the deciding vote.

Republican voters in California may be irrelevant in a Presidential election. But they are not disenfranchised[4], and they can only be called ‘powerless’ by someone intent on a dishonest argument. The drawings were ‘crude’ and ‘vulgar.’ A stylistic choice surely. The range of artistic talent at Charlie was not on display, and not to the point. Trudeau, who never got rich as a draftsman himself, might want to step lightly here. And ‘closer to graffiti than cartoons’? So what if they were? And look at them: they aren’t. What would Trudeau have to say about Philip Guston? Nothing too interesting, I’m pretty sure. And Basquiat and Keith Haring, who were explicitly inspired by graffiti artists?

Trudeau, it’s been noted, is wrong on French law. Houellebecq was prosecuted—and acquitted—for calling Islam the ‘stupidest’ religion. Had he called its adherents stupid, he might have been convicted (cf. Brigitte Bardot). The distinction may seem elusive, but it is such things that have summoned lawyers into existence. Trudeau is not expected to know much about French law—voila!—or really, about—no, let it go. He should, at least, try to make sense. Inciting is urging someone to do something. Charlie might incite someone to have a beer during Ramadan. It does not incite people to ‘violent protest’—against Charlie. And how is a cartoon in Paris ‘directly’ connected to Niger? A few years back, Benedict XVI gave a rather high-toned lecture at Regensburg. Nobody has described it as either crude or vulgar, and as we might expect, a man in a white cassock doesn’t travel with a can of spray paint...Nevertheless, there were widespread ‘violent protests'—voila! (unless it’s ecce—and many people were killed.

—Francine Prose:

The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders—white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists—is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East.

Ms. Prose is universally recognized as a competent novelist, so when she speaks of ‘narrative’, we are bound to listen. But what narrative? The skin of the victims was not shown, and that not all the victims were of Western European stock is not something she’s in any hurry to disclose: her own narrative has its demands. That the victims were Europeans was less important to the media splash than the fact that this had taken place in Europe­­—in Paris!! The Kouachi brothers were the ones who made religion central, not the ‘narrative.’ Can a narrative, that imaginary imaginary ‘feed neatly’ into anything? What are these cultural prejudices, and what are the disastrous mistakes? To hear her explain herself would be great fun, albeit not for her.

And a little later:

The bitterness and rage of the criticism that we have received point out how difficult people find it to think with any clarity on these issues and how easy it has been for the media—and our culturee—to fan the flames of prejudice against Islam. As a result, many innocent Muslims have been tarred with the brush of Islamic extremism.

She sees bitterness and rage. I see someone who expected plaudits for her sensitivity and brilliance. Her moral one-upmanship proved a bust. Ah well, ‘clarity’ is ‘difficult.’ But then, if the only alternatives are fanning the flames and tarring with the brush, we owe it, not to her, but to the many innocent Muslims, to do better.

—Smoler misspelled Trudeau’s first name and in discussing Scott Canfield, neglected to add that Mr. Canfield apparently prefers to be known as ‘Jacob.’ I’m sure Smoler had his reasons. Whatever they are, I salute him for carrying on a delightful First of the Month tradition. I would add: I know Dr. Smoler and hold him in high regard. But were I to learn that he thought Gary or Garry Trudeau was something worth knowing or that Scott Canfield likes to use a different name [5], or if he knew the names and the spellings of the Kardashians, in such case, I would no longer be at home to him.

—Scott Canfield a/k/a Jacob Canfield, a/k/a Jacob Monir Canfield is an interesting case. Unlike Trudeau, he is a very talented draftsman. Look him up. He is described online thus:

He works at a tea shop and reads a lot.

There’s even a photo of the blackboard in front of his tea shop.[6]His intervention comes as no surprise. What did surprise me was this: Something about Scott Canfield triggered a memory, something I hadn’t thought of in decades. A friend in high school told me about a neighbor of his, talking about his pet dog. Every time I see that little pink hard-on peeking out, he said, I just want to stomp on it. The memory came unbidden, but somehow, it feeds neatly into the narrative.

—The state of the cartoon ‘controversy’ is discouraging. Guns have been drawn, and been fired. Bodies are piling up. One might say, if one were so minded, that the issue had been joined. It was bad enough that pencils were being juxtaposed with Kalashnikovs. Today even the propriety of drawing is still being argued. We should be well past January. The ComicCon spinoff in Garland TX has been damned as ‘provocative.’ It’s hardly necessary to share Pamela Geller’s views across the board. We do owe her this: without her, Elton Simpson and Nadir Hamid Soofi would still be burdening the earth.


1 Yahoos can be mocked, and there will be paying customers there to get it. I myself enjoy quoting Barack Obama, who sets new standards for vacuity and pomposity, but many other people are less amused than I am.

2 Elsewhere in the letter, it’s ‘the good of humanity.’

3 Or, as the late Mu’ammar Qadhdhaafi called it, ‘the light of civilization.’

4 By the way, disenfranchised and un-enfranchised do not mean the same thing. Confusing the two may serve a polemical end, but it is more likely, as in Trudeau’s case, just slovenly.

5 One variant spelling is Kanfield.

6 One takes it as read that the Western tea shop is a frankly racist institution. It is particularly galling that such ardor on the Charlie issue could be feigned by one whose Orientalizing profiteering­­ and vice versa!­­ has been the cause of so great anguish to billions.

"war on terror" Charles O'Brien 2015-05-11T13:36:39-05:00
Seven Weddings and a Funeral “I didn’t tell the whole truth, no one tells the whole truth...”
-Robert Durst


If not the best pop film so far this year, Maroon 5’s “Sugar” music video is surely one of the most significant. I think Andy Warhol would’ve given props to director David Dobkin and the band—not just for “Sugar”’s popularity (358 million YouTube views as of this writing) but also for how this video reveals, even as it exploits, the needs of a new pop audience.

Following on from Dobkin’s feature film Wedding Crashers (2005), “Sugar” purports to record a real-life quick-fire series of surprise Maroon 5 performances at Los Angeles wedding receptions, trailing the band as they cut furrows of “WTF” shock and delight through seven separate and diverse gatherings. But the documentary pretense is little more than a patina; trick shots and conspicuously “entertaining” wedding guests (dancing Asians, for example, have become a reliable visual gag in contemporary music videos), among many other touches, are not-so-subtle signs of artifice. In fact, just days after the video premiered, bloggers were pointing out that several of “Sugar”’s awestruck faces belonged to professional performers—including a “bride” identified as an unmarried America’s Next Top Model alum. The broad consensus, for those who care, is that five of the seven weddings shown appear to have been staged.

Which begs the question: Are viewers who enjoy the “Sugar” video extremely naïve, or extremely sophisticated? But it’s a question impossible to answer, since the answer “both” clearly doesn’t make sense. The video itself is undoubtedly sophisticated: an adroitly edited mélange—okay, “mashup”—of viral stunt, documentary, performance film, and musical narrative, flitting between these radically different modes as fast as Final Cut Pro will allow. It’s a con that outsmarts itself, thus fooling no one. But in true Warholian style, this self-betraying con may be the most seductive kind of all.

“Sugar”’s secret weapon is its pacing, each onset of the catchy chorus—and perhaps no earworm has burrowed this deep since Katy Perry’s “Firework”—coinciding with a drop of the curtain revealing Maroon 5 doing their thing at yet another wedding, and the entire crowd immediately going nuts. The fragmented state of pop culture today makes this sort of unanimous reaction quite unlikely in the real world, but the pleasure of the video comes from watching the band evoke an inversion in the social atmosphere that is as smooth and inevitable as a well-executed chord change. Of course, the suspension of one’s disbelief in order to receive this pleasure entails the instant acceptance of the video’s main premise: Maroon 5 are such magical people that even on the most important day of your life, they are still more important than you.

And yet I confess I’m not immune to Dobkin and frontman Adam Levine’s charms here, which may have something to do with the religious heritage I share with them. I detect a certain residual resemblance between “Sugar”’s repeated curtain drops and the opening of the Ark to reveal the Torah during shul, at which the whole congregation rises to acknowledge the entrance of the Divine. Likening Pop to Religion is tired, I know; so I’ll be more specific and posit that “Sugar” is a sort of remake, from a Jewish perspective, of Catholic Brian De Palma’s 1984 “Dancing in the Dark” video for Bruce Springsteen. Bruce pulling ingénue Courteney Cox up out of the crowd to dance on stage with him finds a contemporary equivalent in Levine hopping down from the stage to embrace the newlyweds, real and sham alike, at the end of the “Sugar” video.

Levine’s questionable gesture of humility reflects how pop culture has changed since the 1980s. After all, his success stems as much from playing himself, as a judge on the reality competition show The Voice, as from playing with Maroon 5. The impossibility of assimilating person, artist and brand into a coherent whole necessitates an equally impossible aesthetic. Dormant forces must be marshaled and mashed up: “Sugar”’s style conflates oral with visual culture, such that viewers accept its blatant fakeries as so many embellishments in a folktale.

So add to all the contradictions mentioned above one final chin-scratcher: This video is both entirely of its time and entirely nostalgic. One bridging sequence shows a carful of girls pulling up beside the Levinemobile and stopping for a few selfies with the band, but the mid-traffic party is promptly dispersed by LAPD sirens. The girls, representing today’s Instagram audience, want and receive only the evanescent. At wedding after wedding, Maroon 5 promise to restore endurance to ritual: the substance that lingers from pop’s pre-internet highpoints. And the crowd exults. Of course, “Sugar” includes no gay weddings; for gays, one assumes, no popstar is needed to lend importance to a ritual that opened itself to receive them so recently.

Were the weddings real? Does anyone believe that pornstars love each other?


According to the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, “nearly everyone” has followed the HBO docu-series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, directed by Andrew Jarecki. In fact, this true-crime drama about an alleged serial murderer garnered nothing like Maroon 5 numbers: The initial airing of its sensational finale averaged well under one million viewers. Gopnik’s exaggeration was characteristic of HBO’s camp followers in the bourgeois media, who are accustomed to inflating the audience for their favorite “quality” programs like protest organizers misrepresenting turnout.

The Jinx’s finale, as much as the “Sugar” video, pandered to the cynical naivete, the “smart” gullibility, of its core demographic. Presenting a genuinely maddening tale of the one-percenter and real-estate heir Robert Durst, who skirted punishment for at least three (probably more—Google him) killings, Jarecki seemed to jab at the same vein of ressentiment that fed David Fincher’s much-lauded film Zodiac (2007). In that movie, a sense of bourgeois entitlement and class hatred were given repulsively opportunistic vent in Jake Gyllenhaal’s nerd-vigilante protagonist. “I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye and I need to know that it’s him,” Gyllenhaal says of the working-class prime suspect in the Zodiac Killer case. He gets his wish in Fincher’s penultimate scene, a sneering stare-down that appears to be all the justice this director believes in.

When Jarecki uncovers a piece of bombshell evidence seemingly tying Durst to one of the murders, he exposes his own lack of belief in justice by not putting it in the hands of police immediately. Instead, he hatches plans to entrap Durst by springing it on him in an interview. In doing so, he wrenches his narrative off-track: It never becomes clear why Durst, after repeatedly refusing to be interviewed a second time, eventually consents to be taped without his lawyer present (not the case in the first interview). The signs of artifice are as glaring here as in the Maroon 5 video.

The series concludes with a blood-chilling free-associative rant Durst delivered on a hot mic from inside the bathroom at Jarecki’s studio (or so the director claims). Gopnik compares it to a Shakespeare soliloquy. But no one who has read journalistic accounts of the Durst case over the years—the suggestive biographical information largely missing from The Jinx—could be completely surprised by the revelation of his psychopathy. Like Maroon 5 excising gays from the “Sugar” video, Jarecki blanches at the Leopold-and-Loeb essence of Durst’s life story. Taking cues from Jarecki, most reviewers of The Jinx isolated as the pivotal utterance in Durst’s speech, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” But the enormity of his evil is better suggested elsewhere. “You’re right, of course,” Durst says (to an internalized inquisitor? To the audience Jarecki commands?). “But you can’t imagine.”

Ben Kessler can be reached at His Twitter handle is @koolfresh.

culturewatch Ben Kessler 2015-05-04T23:20:43-05:00
Serial Storytelling in the 21st Century or, If Knausgaard Is the New Proust, Can Elena Ferrante Be the New Tolstoy? Part 1

I’m all about finding the political in art, but assertions about the role of art in the political make me nervous, maybe more nervous than they should. But...

Narrative is a rhetorical structure used for all sorts of reasons not ineluctably aesthetic. These days, however, that isn’t always clear because writers on everything from education to presidential politics keep talking about the “need for narrative.” I’m pretty sure they’re referring to stories that tell people who they are now and who they can become in future—i.e., the imaginary land where identities and communities are born. If you think about what “narrative” means in that context, then, the word becomes synonymous with less palatable words such as “dogma” or “ideology” or “belief system,” and you may become as creeped out as I do when hear people praising politicians for “providing a new narrative” or faulting them for “losing the narrative.” Cautions against this trend go back more than a decade, but narrative boosterism continues unabated. It’s as if the best rulers are the best storytellers, and we’ll be happier and better with a good story rather than, say, actual justice.

What is the source of this preference for “narrative” as a way to refer to the language we use to impress ideas upon people about the true state of reality and convey aspirations for a better tomorrow? It may represent a deep will to move away from moral and overtly political considerations to aesthetic ones, but let’s pray not. That is, of course, precisely what Goebbels and Hitler manufactured amongst Germans in the late 1920s. The business of turning politics into aesthetics is—as Walter Benjamin argued so bluntly—precisely what made Fascism fascist, but such analogies end argument, so let’s set aside the nightmare scenario for a moment and look for other points of origin.

If there is, at the moment, a general preference for “narrative” over words such as “value system” or “ideology,” this may reflect a certain story we’ve heard about what recent generations of schoolchildren have been taught: there is no such thing as absolute, unmediated truth, all assertions are contingent upon their place in time and space, etc. But does insisting our children understand that all political stories are “mere nursery tale” actually lead them to want something other than more stories? I remain skeptical about the possibility that may have given rise to a healthy new skepticism, and I would suggest that this call for “narratives” might better be seen in relation, not to the ideational content or ethical values of our modern stories, but in relation to the form in which they are told.

Does teaching children that all truth comes in story packages teach them to identify better stories? I have no idea. I want to try to say something about the impact of a certain form of narrative upon me as a reader, however, and in latter installments of this essay, I will offer some inferences about the form of stories we seem to prefer in the early 21st century. I remain attached to the (Hegelian?) idea that the forms of narrative that circulate within a given epoch tell us more about the times than their contents. So this is a story that will take a very long time to tell, a story that can be told in only one form: serialization.

What might it mean that today, across every media platform, a certain narrative form seems ascendant: tales of long duration delivered to us in small(er) parcels over regular intervals of time? Harry Potter, I’m thinking of you, and there is little need here to list all the other serial YA fiction, movie franchises, cable television series that consume years of making and receiving. More surprising, maybe, at this point, has been the extraordinary popular embrace of serialized storytelling to radio (e.g., The Serial—good name) and even, if you want to think broadly, popular music like Kendrick Lamar’s hip hop concept album, good kid, m.A.A.d city.

What interests me most of all, though, is the emergent trend in Western European literature towards multi-volumed, ostensibly “autobiographical,” novels published over years but following the story of a single individual over the course of a lifetime—and what I’m calling a “trend” is only really visible in the work of three writers, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan novels” (as her American publisher calls them) and Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series. St. Aubyn’s series (is it a true “serial”? I shall argue in the affirmative) is the only complete one of these three, in English anyway. The fourth and final novel in Ferrante’s series will not appear in English in the U.S. until September, 2015, but it is her novels that I shall discuss first.

Part 2: Elena Ferrante and the Big Moment! Coming soon to these pages (if my editor wills it)...

culturewatch Karen Hornick 2015-05-04T14:34:47-05:00
The Trouble with Charlie In 2006 Charlie Hebdo republished the Jyllands-Posten cartoons (as did First of the Month), and were sued by three Muslim organizations. This attempted use of the courts to punish speech did not provoke any memorable censure by the people who have recently protested PEN’s decision to honor the courage of the journalists who worked (and then died) at Charlie Hebdo. In that same year Alberta’s Human Right Commission investigated a newspaper (the Western Standard) over its republication of the cartoons; defending itself cost the Western Standard $100,000 (which would have bankrupted First of the Month many times over) and cost the organizations making the complaint nothing—by no means an inefficient approach to suppressing speech. Teju Cole and his allies within PEN seem to have let this episode, too, pass without comment. On November 2, 2011 the offices of Charlie Hebo were firebombed, which seems to have yet again failed to provoke any indignation from Cole, Prose or the rest. On January 7th Islamist murderers shot dead twelve people in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and at this point Teju Cole could no longer keep silent. In a piece titled “Unmournable Bodies”, which was published in the New Yorker a few days later, he attacked the dead journalists.

Cole wrote of “racist and Islamophobic provocations”, “obscene and racist speech”, “ideologues”, etc.), and while at the very end of the piece his title’s unmournable bodies are identified as the victims of American drone strikes, some readers may suspect that those bodies are not the ones Cole himself finds unmournable. He was not quite the first to offer this response the situation in Paris, contributing his remarkable piece to the highly-charged debate erupting about the proper way for journalists to respond to the political murder of journalists—not least remarkable for being a debate—after one Jacob Canfield had already offered up “In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech Does Not Mean Freedom From Criticism”) on a website titled The Hooded Utilitarian, and Canfield either anticipated or originated a number of the tropes that have inflected this illuminating discussion. After boldly and briskly warning other commentators against any excessive regard for our slaughtered colleagues, Canfield set out the basic argument against excessive (i.e., any) sentimentality about Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists, and made a damning revelation: “Its staff is white”. In case the hasty reader overlooked the dispositive force of this argument, Mr. Canfield repeated it: “these cartoons make it very clear who the white editorial staff was interested in provoking”. Then he repeated it again, referring to “the same edgy-white-guy mentality”, then again (and most memorably) “White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire”, and again (“white, male cartoonists”) and again (“Cartoonists tend to be white men”) and again “Calling fellow cartoonists TO ARMS is calling other white men to arms”, all this in a piece under a thousand words long. And when Mr. Canfield was informed that the dead included copy editor Mustapha Orrad, who was murdered by the terrorists along with journalist Zineb El Rhazoui, Canfield explained that his point was that Charlie Hebdo’s chief editor was white, and that “The controversial cartoonists being mourned as free-speech martyrs are all white men.”

In case you didn’t get it, those bastards were white, and also men. Lest the hasty reader miss the ineluctable significance of this, Canfield spells it out: at various times he refers to “incredibly racist cartoons” a “racist asshole” (one barely cold in the ground at the time Canfield was writing), tells us that “Their satire was racist, and remains racist”, refers to the work being “virulently racist”, reminds us again about its “racism”, later about its “hateful racism”, and finds space for one more use of the adjective “racist”. But this may overstate the degree of repetition involved, for it seems likely that ‘racist’ is a sort of anaphoria, a rhetorical strategy allowing Canfield to economize on his use of the phrase “white men” (Cole was more abstemious—in around 1600 words he only used the words “racist” or “racism” six times, and never more than twice in a single paragraph). The implication that absolutely predictable and odious beliefs will always be found in people on the basis of their race and gender may seem odd in a writer who is simultaneously decrying racism, but a foolish consistency is proverbially the hobgoblin of small minds.

The controversy subsided a bit, until on the 10th of April Garry Trudeau gave an acceptance speech for the George Polk Award he’d received in February. The Polk awards are named after a journalist who was murdered, almost certainly by a Rightist government, for his refusal to abandon a story when covering the Greek Civil War. With an impressive display of dark humor not always visible in his cartoons—few wits would have been so inventive as to blackguard men for grotesque rashness on the occasion of receiving an award named after a journalist who’d been thus honored for what was widely considered the same disposition—Trudeau took the occasion to attack Charlie Hebdo’s dead cartoonists. Like their colleagues at Jyllands-Posten back in 2006, they were fanatics and responsible for deaths, as were those who reprinted their cartoons. Earlier in his remarks Trudeau had referenced Canfield’s apparently durable contribution to the discussion: “Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Molière and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.”

Leaving aside the concluding decrescendo, which risked and for my money achieved bathos, there are other difficulties in this passage. For one thing, Great French satirists like Molière and Daumier didn’t always punch up. Les Femmes savants does nothing of the kind, nor do Daumier’s études musicales. Are great non-French satirists any less prone to “punching down”? Juvenal, normally considered among the very greatest of satirists, may have punched up, to use this new taxonomy, in satires IV, V, VIII, XVI, but II (its targets are among others, homosexuals) III (foreigners and parvenus) VI (women) and XV (a few more choice words on foreigners) seem to punch down. Aristophanes? Acharnians punches in both directions, as does most great satire: there’s the attack on Cleon, but then there’s the more prudent “People among us, and I don't mean the polis, Remember this—I don't mean the polis/But wicked littlemen of a counterfeit kind” could be considered a bit less brave, and for that matter The Clouds is not always considered a case of punching up. Is Fielding punching admirably up with his portrait of Squire Western but shamefully down with the satirical rendering of Mrs. Deborah Wilkins? Unlikely, because Fielding never forgot that power is relative: Mrs. Deborah is very, very dangerous to people who are at her mercy, as were the men who murdered the Charlie Hebdo staff: they were certainly dangerous to the men they shot. Other commentators have pointed this out with reference to Charlie Hebdo’s slaughtered journalists, but it is almost amazing that anyone had to do so.

An evaluative theory of satire that denies greatness to Molière, Daumier, Juvenal, Aristophanes and Fielding may need a bit of tweaking. But Trudeau clearly likes the theory just fine as it is, because he doubles up on what I take to be his to debt to Canfield: “By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voila—the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died. Meanwhile, the French government kept busy rounding up and arresting over 100 Muslims who had foolishly used their freedom of speech to express their support of the attacks.” So the plangent ironies peculiarly visible to Charlie Hebdo’s critics abound, and Trudeau was clearly relishing them. While I have sometimes had my doubts on this score, at least Trudeau knows that Trudeau is terribly funny. I am not sure, however, that with his ironical observations on Charlie Hendo’s cartoonists he was not himself punching down. After all, those colleagues are now six feet under, and it would be difficult to punch up at them.

Little if any of the sophistries and sheer ignorance inflecting the most recent posturing—the arguments and assertions made by the bold heretics refusing to honor the courage of Charlie’s dead by PEN—is much of an advance on the first pieces by Canfield and Cole. The grotesque comparisons between Nazis and neo-Nazis and the murdered cartoonists are already present in Cole, and have reappeared with great consistency, made by people who are apparently innocent of the fact the France’s Front National has been Charlie Hebdo’s chief target for quite a while. Assertions that the cartoons are incontrovertibly racist point to the presence of large noses on caricatures of Arabs, but exaggerations of stereotypical physiognomy are the almost invariable technique of caricature. On this theory René Goscinny’s and Albert Uderzo’s Asterix is not only Italophobic but Francophobic, analytically indistinguishable from both Charlie’s cartoons and also from anything published by Julius Streicher in Der Stürmer. An older and less sophisticated theory held that cartoons cheering on murder are different in kind from ones disgusted by murder, but the closer readers among us have junked that one—as Jimmy Durante noted, the nose knows, and now also tells, indeed tells all we need to know.

Cole points to one cartoon to claim that obvious anti-Black racism obviously informs one cartoon: “Blacks have hardly had it easier in Charlie Hebdo: one of the magazine’s cartoons depicts the Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, who is of Guianese origin, as a monkey (naturally, the defense is that a violently racist image was being used to satirize racism).” But the defense has persuaded millions of French supporters of Charlie Hebdo, most strikingly the Minister of Justice herself—she marched in support of Charlie Hebdo’s dead. Why might she have done that?

An extremely useful website explains the most execrated cartoons to Anglophone foreigners. The cartoon of Christiane Taubira as a monkey is titled “Rassemblement Bleu Raciste”: Racist Blue Union. points out that:

The font chosen (serif) is reminiscent of traditional right-wing political posters. Left-wing and communist posters in France usually use a sans-serif font. This is the first hint that the cartoon is mocking a right-wing element. The blue and red flame logo on the bottom-left is the logo of the Front National, a far-right political party in France...Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, drawn as a referencing various occasions of far-right activists depicting Taubira as a monkey (online sharing of photoshops, sound imitations, calling out, etc.). The title is a play on words of Marine Le Pen's slogan “Rassemblement Bleu Marine” (Navy Blue Union). The cartoon was published after a National Front politician Facebook-shared a photoshop of Justice Taubira, drawn as a monkey, and then said on French television the she should be “in a tree swinging from the branches rather than in government” [Le Monde] (she was later sentenced to 9 months of prison). The cartoon is styled as a political poster, calling on all far-right “Marine” racists to unify, under this racist imagery they have chosen. Ultimately, the cartoon is criticising the far-right's appeal to racism to gain supporters. The cartoon was drawn by Charb. He participated in anti-racism activities, and notably illustrated the poster (below) for MRAP (Movement Against Racism and for Friendship between Peoples), an anti-racist NGO.

The website similarly glosses a dozen more cartoons, many of which have been cited by people who seem to be quite invariably non-French assailants with at best a sketchy understanding of French politics. The website announces that more glosses are coming, possibly a Sisyphean effort, since the will to indict seems infinite, but the appetite for understanding another visual culture derisory. Keith Gessen, one of the PEN members protesting the award to Charlie Hebdo, asked whether he had ever seen a copy of Charlie Hebdo, tweeted that “No. Nor would my French be up to it if I did.” By the standards of the current debate, this was heroic intellectual honesty. One of the more original responses to the loathing for Charlie Hebdo was published very early—on January 13th—and titled "Unmournable Frenchies". Its author argued that it was not perfect ignorance of French political culture but rather a certain sort of very old Anglo-American Francophobia that best explained the toxic indignation aroused by the millions who have rallied to Charlie Hebdo. It is an interesting argument, marred in my eyes by (among other things) an excessive insouciance about the Terror of ’93, but at least it is ingenious. Charlie Hebdo’s enemies on the Left have not so far needed ingenuity—they are filled with conviction, and have until very recently been opposed only on the Right. That has only recently ended—the Guardian has generally been pretty good, as has been the Nation’s Katha Pollitt. This is cheering, because piling on is rarely attractive. Piling on to deny the dead the honor that can now be their only consolation has been surpassingly ugly, but the timidity on the one side and the impunity and shamlessness on the other looks to be over. If some gossip I heard tonight about relatively few of PEN’s dissidents still being willing to speak on the record is accurate, these writers may not be among the bravest people in the world. Their disdain for courage may thus become more comprehensible, but the intensity of their animus toward the dead remains at some level perfectly baffling.

CORRECTIONS: When this piece was first posted, Jacob Canfield was mis-identified as Scott Canfield and Garry Trudeau's first name was misspelled as Gary.

"war on terror" Fredric Smoler 2015-05-04T11:35:44-05:00
A Grown Woman's Tales of Detroit Marsha Music née Battle is a writer of rootsy, elegant pieces on time past who grew up in Detroit, daughter of a pre-Motown record producer father. Her blog means to capture the vibrant, creative years of mid-century Black Detroit life before memories fade and the city "changes" once more. She regards the music of Detroit as an historical chronicle, reflecting the city's importance during the American Century. Your editor came upon her posts through a link on YouTube following an upload of the 14 year-old Aretha Franklin singing “Never Grow Old.” That performance was produced by Marsha Music’s father, Joe Von Battle, who was the first to record Aretha. Von Battle established a tight connection with the Franklin family when he began recording C.L. Franklin’s sermons in 1953. (Note the advertisement in the photo of Von Battle’s record store on our homepage.) Marsha Music’s “requiem” for her father “the record shop man” who lived large on Detroit’s Hastings Street is one of her many posts that seem to call and respond to David Ritz’s account of the Franklin family’s life and times in Respect (see review above). Another piece, though, sublates Ritz’s inside dope on gospel royalty. Marsha Music gets even nearer the spirit when she riffs on BeBe Winans’ CD Cherch: “spelled that way to capture the phonetic distinction that we make between Black and White “church”–or, even more specifically–between Black Sanctified/Holiness/Pentecostal/Church of God in Christ (COGIC) church, and the more formal, less demonstrative Black church services (that are actually diminishing in numbers these days, in favor of much more emotional ‘Praise and Worship’).” Cherch moves our Sister from Detroit to evoke her own COGIC experience of worship and praise-songs, which soundtracks BeBe’s since their families have sung and shouted together in the same neighborhood church. Marsha Music underscores that experience is a collective thing—the antithesis of celeb-mongering:

It occurs to me in this writing that some of these songs...are almost secret songs, lacking exposure to the mainstream record world, and I have a sense that down through the years there may have been a reluctance about releasing them as records, as if to do so would give up yet one more element of African-American spiritual power.

She contrasts Cherch’s songs with the sort of gospel entertainment that puts the spotlight on grand individual performers or starry groups. Cherch doesn’t go there—its songs are meant “from the first note, to resonate through a congregation and place it ‘on one accord’.” Marsha Music muses on that affirmation:

In fact, the clarion song of most Black Holiness churches is called just plain “Yes,” with a series of instantly recognizable notes. This one word chant is sometimes jokingly called the national anthem of the COGIC. The lyrics consist of that one word, embellished by little more than cries, shouts, key changes, and embellishments of exhortations to praise, for as many stanzas as required by the collective spiritual consciousness i.e. The Holy Spirit–of the church.

This is in synch with the finding of an eminent anthropologist, Roy Rappaport, who once suggested all religions come down to groups of people saying...yes.

Marsha Music, though, isn’t just a yes woman. One of her most compelling pieces is her meditation on her dozen years working in Detroit factories, which reminded me of her late homeboy Philip Levine’s poetic resistance to dead time. I bet he would’ve identified with her escape artistry. A glance at the following piece hints Marsha Music wasn’t born to conform. She had her own angle on life, her own tendency in time even before she was a grown woman. B.D.

A Black Woman Remembers Elvis

Elvis was my first love. I was 5 years old in the 1950s, and I sat in the sun on the living room floor with my legs criss-crossed, album cover on my lap, in a pool of light from the leaded-glass window near the fireplace. Motes of dust bounced and drifted in the beam of sun, fairy-like. The sun shined on Elvis Presley too, on that cover; guitar strapped across his stripe-shirted shoulder, as he gazed upward into a faraway sun, or maybe into the light of Heaven itself.

I was besotted by such beauty in a man. The errant forehead curl, the pull of his lip that made the tiny sneer; imperfections that rendered him more beautiful. The sun was golden and Elvis was too. Yes, he was tawny then from a life in the Delta sun; his hair a slick, golden crown. This was years before his hair was dyed black for photos and film, and later, to hide the signs of time. Oh yes, back then, as I gazed at the album cover in my living room, he was a golden boy. He is Elvis, the light shines on him, and it shines on me.


There is a familiarity about him, a softness of speech and manner that is not unlike my own Southern father and uncles. There is none of the frantic crispness, the stiff, staccato notes of the North. No, his way is soft; he moves more like folks move in my world. I am 5 years old, yet I know this. There is too, an oddness about him, something untold. I learned later of a twin who died still born, and oh, the mystery of that child unknown. Another Elvis in the world was too much to contemplate. Maybe the spirit of the long gone child made Elvis become more than if they had both survived. His too lush beauty hints, to me, of long-lost secret ways, his eyes too heavy, lips too full, the nostrils spatulate. I wonder just what other blood flowed in those Delta veins, what long ago dark ancestor through him sweetly sang.

My daddy was a record shop man. Produced, wrote, recorded, pressed, published, and sold records. Growing up, I was surrounded by records, and as a child, I read album covers and liner notes—my earliest history class of the world and the people in it. Our house was full of records, 45′s, 78′s and the new “LPs”. Records were recorded even in our living room, the high, oak-beamed ceilings made for great acoustics. There were records all around—Stan Kenton and Oklahoma! and Bobby “Blue” Bland and Jerry Lee Lewis and Louis Jordan and Dinah Washington and Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins and Howlin’ Wolf and Peter and the Wolf and Mahalia Jackson and Tennessee Ernie and Ike and Tina and..., well, a whole lot of albums were in our lives. But the Elvis album cover I will never forget.

Years later it would be said that Elvis was a thief, a robber, a usurper of the music of others. But I think not. The men I knew, Black blues-loving Detroit men who lived in the North and hungered for their South, looked at him with the bemusement of affectionate elders, as if one of their own had played a trick on old Jim Crow. “Listen to that boy” they’d say, and shake their heads, “just look at him.” He was as familiar to them as sugar cane and red dirt. They knew just where he came from, just what kind of church he must have sat in as a child, by the way he played a chord, or sang a note.
They knew he’d seen that Holy Ghost grab someone and make them whoop and holler, in the churches of mothers’ boards and deacons, the churches of the gospel shout and stomp. Wasn’t his fault that there were those who made money off of the music of others, that society let him bust through musical doors that barred his darker brothers. He let rhythm music come through him, past the restraints of upbringing and environs. He didn’t turn our music white, but worked it through the channel of his own Delta life. Though how tortured was his wrestle with the secular and divine; oh, how tragic was his price.
I miss Elvis, even the jump-suited Las Vegas Elvis, the latter-day bloated and drug addled Elvis—yes, the eternally impersonated Elvis. But most of all, I miss the Elvis on that old album cover—the striped-shirted, tawny-haired, golden boy Elvis; with a profile as chiseled as Michelangelo’s David, his face as angelic as Gabriel, eyes raised towards Heaven. He’s the Elvis in my living room, with the sun shining on him, and shining on me.

[Photo above is from the 1956 album Elvis]

culturewatch Marsha Music 2015-05-04T01:29:29-05:00
Friends of Che In memory of the failed Cuban Revolution, 1956-2014

A look which always bears (like a wounded bird) tenderness—from Che’s last poem, written to his wife, Aleida, shortly before his death

Before he was “Comandante Segundo,” the raving and homicidal (also: suicidal, but all violence against others flows from a rerouting of the subterranean channels of violence against the self, supposedly) Captain Kirk of the jungles of Salta, he was Jorge Ricardo Masetti, a journalist from the industrial port city of Avellaneda with a background in an ultraright Peronist youth group, a group that reconciled its anti-imperialism with its fascist leanings by the usual means: machismo, chauvinism, and anti-Semitism. In 1958, he took a trip that changed his life, though it should be said that only fundamentally weak-willed men are subject to the life-changing extrinsic forces and extrinsic epiphanies associated with tourism. Which is to say that at the beginning of 1958 he went to the Sierra Maestra mountains, ostensibly in his capacity as a journalist, to meet with Ernesto Guevara (whose former friends knew him as “Chancho,” or Pig, but in the international media he’d begun to be referred to as “Che”), that middle-class Argentine upstart, greenhorn, and Marxist posturer, according to Masetti’s preconceived ideas, the ideas he’d brought with his luggage and class background. Why are you fighting in a foreign country?, Masetti asked Che, accusingly, and Che—with his characteristic charisma, his characteristic impersonality, a charisma and impersonality somehow fortified and not vitiated by the ironic smile that danced around his mouth, as if his words and his mouth complimented one another as living idols, as living philosophies of history, the words expressing the Logos, or Reason, or Humanity, the mouth expressing Violence, or Will, or the lurking inhuman animality, the saurian inhumanity, that peers out through the eyes of every man and every idea—spoke to him about the true America, about Yankees, about dreams (which were haunted, inevitably, by stone-like faces, proletarian faces twitching in the shadows of the Andean night, the mute faces of the dwarf daughters of the peasants who would betray him, copper mines whose depths held the ineffable face of intergenerational and philoprogenitive suffering, the cruel and obtuse faces of soldiers, the self-satisfied faces of the bourgeoisie: faces that may have had something to do with the influence of Mexican surrealism and Mexican neo-realism, but who was to say, certainly not Masetti, that revolution had to be immune from the fads and Zeitgeists of the day). Masetti came away from his encounter both awestruck and a committed disciple of the Cuban revolution. Though, truthfully, he’d seen nothing but Che.

Che’s reaction to Masetti was disappointment that he hadn’t brought him at least a tin of yerba mate and a kind of half-conscious filing away of Masetti’s character portrait, a photographic negative of all the strengths and weaknesses of the particular specimen in front of him. The weaknesses: a certain Italian stupidity that could be, with time, transformed into useful fanaticism. The strengths: devotion, literary inclination and aptitude, a strong jawline, a large brow, ideological anti-imperialism, an amorphous or non-existent soul in a body accustomed to discipline.

In Argentina, Masetti started to hang around the Guevara family in their Palermo apartment, infecting Che’s Chekovian father with revolutionary enthusiasm and giving dark comfort to Che’s mother, who accompanied Che throughout his quixotic and static journeys like the Beckettian echo-chamber or the Beckettian traveling circus-womb, the warm abyss (the false abyss, not the true one) to which all orphic and nihilistic poems are addressed.

A few months later Masetti returned to interview Fidel. He came at a bad time, because Che had been hoping to set up a meeting between Fidel and the old Cuban Communists, which had to be kept a secret, particularly from the anti-Communist Masetti. After Castro’s tank rolled into Havana, Masetti came to helm Prensa Latina, which attracted all the Popular Frontist intellectuals of the day, including García Márquez, Allen Ginsberg, and the infinitely meddling and opportunistic Sartre-Beauvoir couple, whose revolutionary Panglossianism quickly succumbed to bourgeois lassitude and depression. Eventually Masetti was forced out of Prensa Latina by the communists and he went to work for Che, the only fetish or the only agalma of the Cuban revolution that remained attractive to him.

Masetti went through officer’s training. He was sent to Prague. He was sent to Algiers, where he trained the FLN in the use of American weapons, this inaugurating the age when the Africans had to listen to the Cubans, as opposed to a few years earlier, when Che appeared before Nasser like a traveling salesman.

Che gave Masetti a mission: establish a guerilla base in the northwest of Argentina, the vanguard of Che/Fidel’s plans to turn the Cordillera of the Andes into Latin America’s Sierra Maestra. He was tasked with working with poor Tamara Bunke, the intensely idealistic German-Argentine communist (though in times of despair she was sloppy and wrote poetry), with the dissident communists, with the more adventurist and leftist Peronists. Che would join them when the time was right. Masetti eagerly accepted his mission. Presumably he was ready to kill and die for a revolution he didn’t understand or even care for. On Argentinian Independence Day, Che threw the exiled Peronists and sundry malcontents an asado, dressed up a bunch of Cuban peasants as gauchos, gave his stock speech about revolutionary conflagrations and revolutionary duty, and sent the drunk and well-fed guests off for guerilla training.

One day, in Havana, Masetti was introduced to a young, balding Argentine painter, Ciro Bustos. Bustos recognized Masetti as the author of (the pretentiously named, in Bustos’ opinion) Those Who Fight and Those Who Weep, a book that had been published in Argentina about the Cuban revolution. For Bustos, there shouldn’t be a schism (a gendered schism) between fighting and weeping, and it was precisely this sensitivity that doomed him, in the eyes of leftist bien-pensant opinion and even certain leftist bien-pensant terrorists. Masetti repeated the line he’d learned from Che, a line that reeks of shit in the mouths of hypocrites: Are you ready to leave everything, to consider yourself dead, for the revolution? Bustos, believing in Che, who wasn’t a hypocrite (or at least he was less of a hypocrite than most), said that he was. Bustos, the painter, was ushered to a safehouse in one of the now military-occupied wealthy villas in the east of Havana, where he was joined by a Jewish doctor known as Werthein and two men recruited by Che’s old friend (of Motorcycle Diaries fame) Alberto Granado, a mechanic named Federico Méndez and a barrel-chested Jew who went by the name of Miguel. The history of the Cuban revolution, or rather the postmortem history of the Cuban revolution, is littered with these sad villas (in Cuba, in Czechoslovakia, in Tanzania, in Bolivia) where good and brave men, including Che, hid out for months at a time, forced to endure unimaginable boredom for the sake of a paltry and imaginary goal, reading books on Soviet economy or Neruda, writing in their diaries (in the field no one, generally, except Che, was allowed to keep a diary, though that rule was frequently broken, especially by the men whom Che taught to write, though that was the fatal inequality that the famously austere and egalitarian Che introduced into his ranks), and it was ultimately this claustral paranoia, this love of sadomasochistic secrecy, that doomed it, the revolution. They were visited, frequently, by Masetti, by Cuban apparatchiks, by grim Soviet military personnel, by a midget Russian general and veteran of the Spanish Civil War, alias Angelito, capable of superhuman gymnastic feats in spite of his short stature. They were conscripted into reenacting Sierra Maestra battles. From time to time, Che would come by to remind them that they were already dead and that he would join them soon.

The Cuban Missile Crisis came and went, and Che was furious, seething at the failure of the Soviets to launch an anti-imperialist, apocalyptic thermonuclear war (it’s still too soon to say whether he was right or wrong, though in the strictest sense he was right). He sent the inhabitants of the safehouse, along with Masetti and two Cubans, to Prague, where a Cuban military attaché took them to a hotel on a frozen lake outside of the city, where, pretending to be scholarship students, once again they had nothing to do but hike in the dead of winter, until they were told that they’d been seen by locals and were forced to stay inside. Finally Masetti, exhibiting the tyrannical impatience that he would become known for, decided to fly to Algeria on his own initiative. First they stopped in Paris, where the group marched around manically, touring the Louvre and the entire city, and Ciro Bustos was forced to dye his hair blond with peroxide, to match his false passport photo, later claiming that he looked like a cabaret transvestite. They arrived in revolutionary Algiers, which looked a lot like revolutionary Havana of a few years earlier, with its parades and firing squads, and were taken to yet another villa surrounded by the military. At the villa, they practiced calisthenics and tunnel-building and had yet another asado, this time with the future traitor Boumédienne, the colonel, who was undoubtedly a traitor, though in the end one has to admit that, in the fullness of time, everyone becomes a traitor, in some way. In the intervening months, Miguel, whose real name has been lost to history, as have all real names, though everyone remembered him as a well-educated Argentine Jew, began to feud with Masetti, the group’s leader, mailing a letter to his mother against Masetti’s orders and besting Masetti in increasingly competitive athletic competitions, competitions that left Masetti with a pinched sciatic nerve that would later come to torment him. Finally, as they were about to leave Algeria, Miguel said that he wouldn’t come along as long as Masetti was the leader. The two prepared for a fight, but the others intervened. Masetti, plagiarizing Che (the fatal flaw of all revolutions, as Marx diagnosed, being its tendency towards plagiarism), demanded a revolutionary tribunal, in which the group unanimously voted for the insubordinate Jew’s death. The Algerian military took Miguel away. Later, Bustos remembered Miguel’s absolute equanimity, his absolute lack of cowardice, as he was being escorted to his execution. Later, the group only referred to him as El Fusilado, the man who was shot.

Masetti’s group made its way to La Paz, whereupon, posing as start-up cattle farmers, they went on to a small tract of land on the Argentine-Bolivian border. They were met by a member of the later-infamous Bolivian Communist Party, who did nothing but cook soup and provide them with shoddy supplies. In June, 1963, the five-man Ejército Guerrillero del Pueblo (People’s Guerilla Army) crossed the border into Argentina.

The rest is a catastrophe, leavened by black humor. A Peruvian delegation was detained at the border, perhaps betrayed by the Bolivian communists, and a promising Peruvian poet was killed. As Masetti’s group beat its way into Argentina, a surprise election gave power to a respected centrist, Illia, whereupon Masetti thought about suspending the campaign, until he came up with the idea of writing a letter to the new President, avowing respect but demanding his resignation, but the letter was only published in poorly read leftist journals. He sent Bustos off to be his emissary in Argentine cities. Bustos went around talking furiously to Argentine professors, telling them of Che’s backing for their guerrilla plans. The Bolivian police caught on. Some new recruits showed up and Masetti began propaganda lessons with the Salta peasantry, who, according to Bustos, were even worse off than Indians, their misery having made them half-retarded. The rainy season came and the soldiers became flea-bitten. Some middle-class urban kids showed up. Masetti began to show disturbing symptoms of psychosis and megalomania, choosing favorites and scrutinizing others as potential deserters. A twenty year-old Jewish boy named Adolfo Roblat, nicknamed Pupi, came in for extra attention. Like Che, he suffered from asthma. But unlike Che, he wasn’t cut out for guerilla war. He wept constantly, couldn’t keep up, had to be dragged by his fellow soldiers, who were disgusted by him, and even the humanitarian-minded in the group started to despise him. He begged Bustos to kill him. Instead, Bustos kept a pistol to his head, in order to keep him moving, though at times, at night, in secret, he hugged Pupi, tried to whisper to him, tried to tell him he was loved. Pupi began to masturbate incessantly, dragging himself on the ground, hurling himself down hills, animalizing himself, according to his fellow guerillas. Masetti ordered a new recruit, whom he thought was soft and middle-class, to kill Pupi, the moment the recruit arrived. When the recruit’s bullet failed to kill Pupi, Bustos had to finish him off. Meanwhile, Che’s mother was imprisoned in Argentina and ill-treated, less by her jailors than by a vengeful group of communist women fellow-prisoners. In Cuba, Che was bitterly doubting the Soviet system, and some in the Kremlin began to compare him to Trotsky or accuse him of outright Maoism (a high-up Soviet diplomat who doubled as a KGB operative arrived in Havana to interrogate Che about his crypto-Maoism but found himself by a swimming pool with Che, half-naked, and suddenly romantically in love, unable to resist Che’s beauty, his magnificent eyes, his Marxist eyes, he confessed this all in official memoranda, in the spirit of Marxist criticism and self-criticism). The Kremlin was sick of Che’s adventurism, the Latin American communist parties were complaining bitterly, but most of the Kremlin officials, in one way or another, had succumbed to the homosexual mania of the KGB operative, and they couldn’t quite cut Che off (that would be a few years later). And then Kennedy was assassinated, and truthfully neither Fidel nor Che knew what happened, they assumed (probably correctly) that the U.S. military-industrial establishment had been behind it, but was it an omen of war or of delayed war?, secretly they’d both succumbed to Kennedy’s youth, at least there was a man who could be talked to, as opposed to the old phallo-psychotic Johnson, and for years they listened to news reports and read books about the affair, as if it contained a kabalistic truth about themselves, though they knew it had nothing to do with them. And finally a Cuban emissary came to Masetti’s camp to tell them to become active (Pupi the Jew’s death was not active, it was a passive epiphenomenon, like Miguel the Jew’s death). It was time to fuck with your dick, said the Cuban emissary. By that point Masetti had become outright paranoiac, outright pathological. He’d taken a hatred to a young Jewish doctor from Córdoba, a Jew who couldn’t have been more different than Pupi, being tough and having been born from an old Communist family, a fucking Stalinist, unlike the fascist opportunist Masetti, but at this point Masetti was far gone, linking up the primeval struggle of his youth, which was against Jews, with the secondary struggle of his manhood, which was for Che. Capturing him in his moments of melancholic longing, Masetti started to torture the young Jewish doctor, denying him food rations, reminding him of the fate of El Fusilado, the executed Jew, of Pupi, the pathetic Jew. Bustos asked Masetti to give the Jewish doctor a chance, whereupon Masetti relented, agreeing as long as the doctor monitored the progress of another Jew, a recent arrival who was the teenage son of a Jewish bank clerk from Córdoba, whom the doctor guarded for a week, the son of the Jewish bank clerk being gradually humiliated, shitting himself, condemned to the hardest jobs, walking on all fours, whereupon the son of a wealthy porteño showed up, a photographer, and Masetti told the young Jewish doctor to take both the son of the Jewish bank clerk and the rich kid to a camp in the mountains and observe them for a week and discover who deserved to be executed. Then Masetti sent the recruit who’d been forced to kill Pupi on a mission in Buenos Aires, and there he got in touch with Bustos and told him to meet at the Belgrano train station, where the recruit told Bustos that he was going to Europe, that he still believed in the revolution but he didn’t believe in Segundo, that is in Masetti, whom he considered a psychopath, he said that he was going to Europe with his girlfriend, whom he loved, deeply, in a way that provided the ground for the revolution and, he feared, in a way that disproved the revolution (he was talking about love), and Bustos realized that they were meeting at the train station to avoid an execution, but Bustos was only capable of killing someone in the jungle, someone who’d already been shot, and would never have carried out an execution in Buenos Aires, let alone in a Buenos Aires train station. While Bustos was away, Masetti ordered the young Jewish doctor to kill other Jew in the company, the one who had succumbed to complete despair, defecating on himself and howling. First there was a trial, in which the accused’s eyes begged for his own death. As usual, Masetti ordered the newest volunteers to serve at the firing squad, in order to toughen them up. According to the young Jewish doctor, the Jew died with a certain bravery and grace.

The Jewish doctor was freed of suspicion. Only years later did he realize that all of the victims of Masetti’s executions had been Jews. He thought of the anti-Semitic slogan, the only good Jew is a dead Jew, and wondered if there wasn’t a degree of truth to it, a kernel of truth, since it was true that by that time (the 1990s) all the good men he knew, all the good Jews, too, were dead.

Masetti’s group was surrounded, infiltrated, detected. The group’s supplier, who’d posed as a bookstore owner in Salta, was too handsome and too migratory to go unnoticed. Spies showed up in the ranks. They were ambushed: a dead philosophy student, a dead Cuban agent, a dead peasant. Some missing persons. The rest of the party climbed to 10,000 feet in the Cordillera. Some died of starvation. Masetti sent two of his men back to find the others. One of them fell off a cliff, the other tried to catch him and also fell. The first died of a broken spine and the second injected him with morphine, ministering to his death. More were captured. The urban underground, too. The diary of one of the Cuban agents was discovered, along with Soviet arms, revealing that Castro was involved. Masetti was never found, nor was his last surviving comrade, Atilio. It’s believed that they either starved to death in the mountains or that they killed themselves or that they were picked off by rogue soldiers who stole their money.

The surviving guerilla members were arrested and given long prison sentences, in spite of the best efforts of their liberal Argentine lawyers. Many years later, El Fusilado, the Jew they thought they’d had shot outside of Algiers, showed up at their prison, bearing them no ill will, and revealing that the FLN had kept him alive and that Che, probably, had intervened on his behalf. Their shock quickly turned to joy. By then Che was dead. Bustos, who’d escaped through Uruguay, later got caught up in Che’s failed Bolivian adventure, along with the French journalist/future Mitterand lackey/coward Régis Debray. Both were arrested. Debray betrayed Che first, more readily, but Bustos was never forgiven by the Argentine left for the sketches he drew or was tortured into drawing, one of which portrayed Che. Later in life he lived in Malmö, in Sweden, maintaining his innocence and, to atone, painting portraits of emaciated figures with blank faces, or without faces.

And then, ultimately, who was a loyal friend of Che?

His exiled Mexican-Cuban grandson, who died of punk-anarchist sadness and heart problems before his fortieth birthday (believing to the end, with the noble willfulness of conscious illusion, that Fidel had been the infidel and his grandfather the pure Bakunin of the revolution)? Pathetic CIA-agent Félix Rodriguez, who witnessed Che’s death, fell on his sword after Iran-Contra, and operates a Bay of Pigs Museum in Miami? Fidel, who sent him to die in Bolivia? The ethnic Cuban Dionisio González, loyal alcoholic reader of leftist Latin American poets, fanatical anti-Castroite, right-wing Nietzschean from Dorchester who used to go back to his family’s village in Holguín to fuck prostitutes with his grandfather, prostitutes who Castro first said he’d abolished and later claimed were the healthiest in the world? The Argentine student Francisco Cerruti who went on a pilgrimage to visit Vallegrande, where Che died, out of loyalty and a need to know, know what exactly it’s impossible to say? The illiterate peasants who ended up economic ministers in Chavez’s government? The Sierra Maestra loyalists who wanted to go to Bolivia with him and were denied? The ones who died beside him in battle, whom he called the martyrs? The ultraleftist homosexuals who glorify him not in spite of nor because of his hatred of homosexuals? Pupi, the debased bourgeois kid who wanted to join his revolution, but couldn’t cut it? El Fusilado, the tough Jew who wanted to join the revolution, wasn’t allowed, was shot, and came back anyway?

world David Golding 2015-04-30T14:07:30-05:00
Happy Birthday, Mister Frank The date was November 19, 1995. The place was the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California. It was there that a two-hour television special was being taped—yes, taped—celebrating the oncoming eightieth birthday, December 15, to be exact, of the preeminent singer of the twentieth century: Francis Albert Sinatra. Broadcast on December 17 by ABC, the program Frank Sinatra: 80 Years My Way featured a hodgepodge of acts from Salt-n-Pepa to Vic Damone to Steve & Eydie to Bruce Springsteen performing songs Ol’ Blue Eyes had made famous. Seated at an elevated table facing stage right, surrounded by family, a tuxedoed Sinatra appeared to take in the parade of performers with a respectful, ruminative restraint. He dutifully applauded each rendition—even joined the star-laden audience in a couple of standing ovations for Patti Labelle and Ray Charles—but maintained a sense of emotional remove. Age and frail health be damned, the Chairman of the Board was holding court in public and he was determined to maintain his legendary cool.

Then Bob Dylan appeared onstage.

Wearing a grey sharkskin suit with a black collar, a white shirt and a western-style bow tie reminiscent of the floppy ones Sinatra wore in his ‘40s crooner heyday, Dylan, the 54 year old poet laureate of his generation, cradled an acoustic guitar and backed by a small combo augmented by a string section began to sing. It was one of the few non-Sinatra songs of the broadcast. One that Sinatra himself requested Dylan perform instead of a previously planned cover of “That’s Life.”

And now, a brief backtrack. Several of Rock’s premier singer-songwriters had written Sinatra-inspired introspective ballads they hoped he would one day record. For Randy Newman, it was “Lonely at the Top.” For John Lennon, it was “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out.” For U2’s Bono, it was “Two Shots Happy, One Shot Sad.” So why didn’t Frank? Simple. In each case, the songwriter completely misread the Sinatra persona. Newman was ultra-cynical, Lennon ultra-pitying and Bono ultra-bathetic.

That’s why it’s ironic the perfect rocker-composed Sinatra song, the one Frank wanted to hear on his special night, Bob Dylan had already penned at the age of 23. It was the final cut on the second side of his 1964 LP The Times They Are A-Changin’. A composition shimmering with verbal imagery of romance and finance. Of alcohol and attacks. Of friendships and farewells. In Sinatraspeak, a tune full of broads, bucks, booze, battles, buddies and bye-byes. The song was “Restless Farewell” and Dylan’s rendition of it on that evening was extraordinary. (So extraordinary, in fact, that it made the original recording seem callow.)

“Oh all the money that in my whole life I did spend,” began Dylan in a rueful rasp before continuing, “Be it mine right or wrongfully/I let slip gladly past the hands of my friends/To tie up the time most forcefully.” Then he guided his listeners further into Sinatraland’s favorite locale: a saloon. “But the bottles are done/We’ve killed each one/And the table’s full and overflowed/And the corner sign/says it’s closing time/So I’ll bid farewell and be down the road.”

As Dylan spins his tale of a life lived defiantly—a life lived by a singular code—his vocal gradually becomes huskier with emotion. It’s as if the act of singing each word aloud is allowing him to relive his history, to savor each memory anew.

And then, with a slight tremor in the voice, Dylan begins to wind down. “A false clock tries to tick out my time/To disgrace, distract and bother me/And the dirt of gossip blows in my face/And the dust of rumors covers me/But if the arrow is straight/And the point is slick/It can pierce through dust no matter how thick/So I’ll make my stand/And remain as I am/And bid farewell and not give a damn.”

To an 80 year old Sinatra, increasingly frail and just a couple of years from his demise, how that final couplet must have resonated. The sole shot of him during Dylan’s performance shows his famed blue eyes glistening as he appeared to contemplate the truth—his truth—just voiced.

See, Frank knew that there was much more to life than “That’s Life.” Only his public persona had given that ring-a-ding-ding pop-soul confection with lyrics like "I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king" credence. “Restless Farewell” had an authentic emotional core to it. It was an art song about someone for whom the bell has tolled. This was Dylan and Sinatra—two outsiders, two sensitive observers, two supreme interpreters, two musical road warriors fascinated by society’s losers—bonding over a tune. This was reporting. This was real. That’s why Sinatra related to it. That’s why the tears started to flow.

And then the song ended. As the audience began to applaud, Dylan looked directly at Sinatra—one blue-eyed genius gazing at another—leaned into the microphone and, with equal parts respectfulness and familiarity, said with a twang “Happy birthday, Mister Frank.” The show, in effect, was over. There were no finer gifts one could bestow that evening.

Now, two decades later, Dylan begins the Sinatra centennial celebration with another salute, with another present. This time, it’s a moody ten-track disc of standards associated with Sinatra entitled Shadows In The Night. Formatted like one of Sinatra’s acclaimed concept albums, Shadows, much like those records, is a dark-in-the-night exploration of the emotional toll of love lost.

The album’s surprises—and pleasures—are many. First are the song choices. Most Sinatra salutes center on the Chairman’s work with arranger Nelson Riddle. Understandable. Their collaboration during the ‘50s and ‘60s cemented Sinatra’s image as the greatest manic depressive singer extant as he veered from ultra-cool swinger to broken-hearted balladeer. Linda Ronstadt reinvigorated her career in the ‘80s with a triptych of Riddle-helmed albums: What’s New, Lush Life and For Sentimental Reasons.

Not Dylan. Most of the tunes on “Shadows” come from Sinatra’s work with arranger Gordon Jenkins. The difference between a Riddle orchestration and one by Jenkins is day and night. Riddle preferred an airy sound. Strings accented his ballads. With Jenkins, the strings were the thing so he provided cascades of them. On a Jenkins orchestration, the listener is swept away by a swell of swooping and soaring violins with just a hint of rhythm along the edges. It’s because of that ultra-lush backdrop that many Frankophiles—in particular deejay Jonathan Schwartz and critic Will Friedwald—have dismissed Jenkins’ work as hokey hack schmaltz. What they fail to understand is that at the heart of what they trash as a classical cacophony is Sinatra singing with a fragility no other arranger consistently brought out of him. Sinatra’s best work with Jenkins—No One Cares, All Alone, September Of My Years, She Shot Me Down and their maiden effort, Where Are You, from which Shadows takes 4 of its songs—is unabashedly, unashamedly emotional.

Two other Jenkins facts that seem ponderable in this context: it was Jenkins who produced and arranged a string of hits in the ‘50s—“Goodnight Irene,” “Wimoweh,” etc.—for the folk group, The Weavers, which featured Dylan booster and critic Pete Seeger. And in 1973 when Harry Nilsson decided to do a standards LP—A Little Touch of Schmilisson in the Night—he hired Jenkins who arranged and conducted it with his usual string-laden flair.

Unlike Nilsson, Dylan doesn’t opt for a full-throttle orchestral backdrop for Shadows. Instead, he pares down the arrangements—recorded at LA’s Capitol Studios where Sinatra did most of his finest work—to a tight five man band augmented by occasional horns. Brilliantly, he exchanges Jenkins’ patented weeping violin section for Donny Herron’s pedal steel guitar. The result? The musical backdrop may be sparer but the emotional wallop is the same.

What’s surprising is Dylan’s sublime singing. Take the album’s opener “I’m A Fool To Want You.” The song is arguably the most important of Sinatra’s career. Co-written by Frank, he first sang it in March of 1951 during a tumultuous time—personally and professionally—near the end of his contract with Columbia Records and his performance reflects the pain he was going through. It’s the song that transitions the crooner he was to the supreme balladeer he became.

When Sinatra redid “Fool” for Jenkins on Where Are You for Capitol Records in May of 1957, he consciously refined his interpretation. Where on the Columbia version Sinatra sounds on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the Capitol version is that of a man who is tremulously resigned to his heartbreaking fate.

Dylan deepens that approach. Any worries of Dylan tossing these songs off as he did the holiday tunes on 2009’s self-parodying Christmas In The Heart are immediately dispelled by his “I’m A Fool To Want You.” Demonstrating an uncommon respect for the lyrics, his enunciation is perfectly clear. And his acting chops have rarely been better. With Herron’s twangy pedal steel conjuring up memories of a past romance, Dylan sounds like an old man still haunted by a paramour. He even throws in a Sinatraism by bending the notes on the line "I said I’d leave you." (Has Dylan ever sung the words "I love you" with more conviction then he does here?)

Sinatra recorded “The Night We Called It A Day” three times. Once for RCA Records in 1942 during his Tommy Dorsey days, once for Columbia in 1947—both arranged by Axel Stordahl—and a decade later with Jenkins for the LP Where Are You. A rangy torch song, Dylan’s soft croon humanizes such melodramatic lines like "the hoot of an owl in the sky." He is more full-throated on his covers of the questioning “Where Are You” and “What’ll I Do”—both Jenkins’ charts, the latter from the All Alone album—but no less effective.

“Stay With Me” is a gem. Sinatra recorded it with a spare Ernie Freeman arrangement in December of 1963. He was doing a favor for Otto Preminger who used it on the soundtrack of his then controversial feature about the Catholic Church, The Cardinal. It’s the sort of forgotten tune one might expect expert musicologist Dylan to unearth for his superb satellite radio show but not to sing himself. Yet you can hear him do a couple of exemplary live renditions of it on YouTube. On this recorded version Dylan zooms in on a subtle Sinatra singing strength: while no one communicated heartbreak quite like Frank, no one pleaded as well as he did either. Dylan does come close on “Stay.” And his yearning reading of the line “I grow cold” is chilling.

“Autumn Leaves” is a chestnut that tends to bring out the bombast in arrangers. Sinatra and Jenkins certainly didn’t shy away from a grand orchestral concept on Where Are You. Dylan, though, takes it in another, gentler direction with an acoustic guitar curlicue anchoring his one chorus and out rendition. He wisely takes the same understated approach with “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Full Moon And Empty Arms.”

“Why Try To Change Me Now” is another key Sinatra song. It was first recorded in September of 1952 at his final recording session for Columbia. Unhappy with the banal pop the company’s top producer Mitch Miller was trying to force upon him, Sinatra sang “Why” with a plaintive throb in his throat. Seven years later, he revisited the song with Jenkins on the album No One Cares. This version is even more emotional with Sinatra singing in a quivering upper register.

Dylan instantly connects with the wanderlust in the lyric. “I’m sentimental/So I walk in the rain/I’ve got some habits/Even I can’t explain/Could start for the corner/Turn up in Spain/Why try to change me now.” Like Sinatra, a fellow iconoclast full of "daydreams galore," Dylan’s defiant as he’s asked why he can’t be more conventional. "People talk/People stare/So I try/But that’s not for me/Cause I can’t see/My kind of crazy world go passing me by." But his lover remains unconvinced and Dylan superbly captures the pathos as he pleads: "Don’t you remember/I was always your clown.” As he repeats the song’s title, his voice finally breaks in defeat on "now." It is a superb performance easily the equal of both of Sinatra’s.

Dylan’s biggest departure from the Sinatra-Jenkins saloon song formula is Shadows' final cut “That Lucky Old Sun.” Sinatra and Jenkins preferred to end their collaborations with a downer. On Where Are You, it was “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home.” On No One Cares, it was “The One I Love Belongs To Somebody Else.” On All Alone, it was “The Song Is Ended (But The Melody Lingers On).” On September Of My Years, it was “September Song.”

Not Dylan. Not here. He finishes with “That Lucky Old Sun” which Sinatra did for Columbia in September of 1949 and brings to light all of the positivity in the Haven Gillespie lyric. First he acknowledges his situation as the horn section—for the first time—takes a prominent role in the album’s mix: "Up in the morning/Out on the job/Work like the devil for my pay/But that lucky old sun got nothin’ to do/But roll around Heaven all day." Then he continues his lament: "Fuss with my woman/Toil for my kids/Sweat till I’m wrinkled and gray/While that lucky old sun got nothin’ to do/ But roll around Heaven all day."

But Dylan looks upward for guidance: "Dear Lord above/Can’t you know I’m pinin’/Tears all in my eyes/Send down that cloud with a silver linin’/Lift me to Paradise." Then with a bravura full-throated finish reminiscent of Sinatra’s incandescent “Ol’ Man River” on The Concert Sinatra LP, Dylan—a true believer here—expects that the Lord will help: "Show me that river/Take me across/Wash all my troubles away/Like that lucky old sun/Give me nothin’ to do/But roll around Heaven all day." Because what better to end the shadows of the night then the divine illumination of that lucky ol’ sun?

With Shadows, Dylan has not only crafted the finest Sinatra tribute in years but the best standards album in eons as well. While some may compare it to another ravaged voice masterpiece, Billie Holiday’s Lady In Satin, Shadows is much closer in feel to Sinatra’s 1981 LP: She Shot Me Down. Also primarily arranged by—who else?—Jenkins, She Shot Me Down was Sinatra’s final saloon album mixing new songs of the day like Stephen Sondheim’s “Good Thing Going” and Jenkins’ “I Loved Her” with oldies like “Thanks For The Memory” and the album closer: a devastating medley of “The Gal Who Got Away” and “It Never Entered My Mind.”

The wonder of the album was hearing Sinatra at age 65 still being A-Number One, still capable of being Sinatra. And that’s what makes Shadows In The Night such a great album. It shows that at age 73, Dylan can still surprise and delight. He can still be Dylan.

And if you listen to Shadows as intended, in the wee small hours of the still of the night, you may hear, as the album fades into the grooves of your mind, a voice whispering: Happy birthday, Mister Frank. Happy birthday, indeed...

music Richard Torres 2015-04-29T00:57:34-05:00
Between Good and Evil: Your NCAA and Mine I. Anticipation: Day One

And this was going to be the year I got my big thrill back from college basketball! Larry Brown, now at SMU, was set to contend for the national title, with a solid group of veterans, supplemented by a spectacular freshman recruit: Emmanuel Mudiay, who instead opted to play professionally in China, and is projected to be a first round choice- very possibly a lottery pick—in the upcoming NBA draft.

Brown and I are New Yorkers from the same era. He is 74, whereas I turn 72 (the age at which my two all-time favorite coaches, Al McGuire and Jack Rohan, died) this month, the month after I finished my eighth year moonlighting as an assistant high school coach at a San Francisco private school. We overachieved all the way to the State Final in our Division, meaning that our season did not end until the second of three NCAA weekend double-rounds!

All this attention to high school meant I was away from college ball for the most part this year, though all the while aware of Kentucky’s win streak, especially since they played my alma mater Columbia, which somehow gave them one of their best games. Kentucky Coach John Calipari was fond of quipping that his team was undefeated but imperfect (which the Columbia game amply demonstrated), perhaps reflecting Coach Cal’s own imperfect path through championships and resignations, leaving abandoned programs saddled with severe penalties for his recruiting peccadillos.

So this year’s NCAA tourney was a new kind of experience for me: my unfamiliarity with many of the top teams left me relatively more attuned to the coaches than to the players. I had succumbed to what I have long decried: the accelerated focus on of celebrity coaches with CEO-like salaries, which has become a form of branding.

How foreign the new breed of expensively suited coaches seems from the personas projected by McGuire and Rohan. With the best players departing from the NBA after only a year of college ball (an enforced servitude), it’s all about the coaches now, with father-son dramas, as always, readily available as sub-plots.

But I’m a loyal Larry Brown fan, and I wanted to see what he could do, even without the star player he had lost. SMU’s opponent was UCLA, one of Brown’s many stops during his itinerant career, where John Wooden’s old job was currently being occupied by Steve Alford, who, like Duke’s Mike Kryzyewski, had played for Bobby Knight; K at Army, Alford at Indiana.

Putting the game on in the second half, I found a beleaguered Brown, suffering visibly and audibly from a harsh case of laryngitis, perhaps even more than from losing Mudiay. SMU had fallen behind 44-34 against much-maligned UCLA, which the NCAA Selection Committee had defied logic, analytics, statistical and anecdotal evidence by inviting to the Dance at all. Soon, there followed a veritable avalanche: nineteen unanswered SMU points. Brown’ s hoarse voice seemed somehow to have a direct line to heaven, which was more than answering his wildest prayers.

But UCLA stormed back, and the game ended with a controversial goal-tending call on a clearly errant shot, crediting Bryce Alford, Coach Steve’s son, with his ninth three-pointer of the game, the game-winner. Several camera reviews of a call that was not formally reviewable showed it to have been technically correct, though profoundly unsatisfying, and sadly subversive of the rule’s purpose and intent. Larry Brown, though not exactly speechless, seemed to have nothing to say.

So Brown was out, but Day One was still a spectacular extravaganza, a wonderful tip-off for the tourney: five games decided by a single point, whereas the record for an entire tournament is seven; Georgia State and the University of Alabama at Birmingham both victorious as #14 seeds; a thirty foot game-winner by the Georgia State Coach (Ron Hunter)’s son R.J., whose dad had postponed surgery for the Achilles tendon he had injured in a burst of excitement just a week earlier during the team’s celebration of its conference tournament victory. Coach Hunter had a special chair built, allowing him to roam the sidelines while coaching. He dramatically fell out of it when his son hit that winning shot.

II. Calipari’s World

But after the thrills of Day One, what was there really left to follow, with so much player turnover, making the usual contending teams unfamiliar? The over-riding question was whether anyone could compete with Kentucky, where Calipari’s genius at gaming the system of “One And Done” has made him a distinct brand: the coach who offers intensive in-practice NBA training for one year, maybe two, if deemed necessary. Cal’s best recruits often commit late, because they want to know who their team-mates will be and to make sure the guys in their projected slots will be moving on and making room.[1] His dribble-drive offense is easy for great athletes to learn, and allows the coach maximum flexibility in making appositional substitutions. With his itinerant NBA-intern players, Cal strikes a clear agreement: he develops them, and they move on. Yelling is included. He lays his cards out plainly.

In his six years at Kentucky, he has made it to four Final Fours, and two Final games, including a title with Anthony Davis in 2012. He has twice tied his own 2008 Memphis team’s NCAA record of 38 victories; single season records have included 38-1, 38-2, and 35-3. What’s more, Calipari has radically transformed a highly distinct tradition, forging his own winning style without apparent deference to the image a coach in the lineage of Adolph Rupp might be expected to uphold. He’ll sell you any car in the lot if you just meet his smile head-on. Nobody seems to mind.

Not now, but maybe later? However convivial he appears, Cal has left the two previous programs that he had taken to the Final Four (UMass in 1996 and Memphis in 2008) saddled with probationary restrictions from which he did not have to suffer personally.[2] But Kentucky basketball is its own world. Winning is expected, and even horrific scandals are quickly absorbed and converted into punctuations in a run-on sentence of Ruppian glory.[3]

III: Getting To Indianapolis

The entire tournament was framed as an even-up battle between unbeaten Kentucky (34-0 going into the tournament shooting for a record-shattering 40-0) and the rest of the field. From that perspective, not much happened of note after Day One: Villanova went out early, and Michigan State surprised everyone, which should have surprised no-one, by taking Nova’s bracket’s designated slot in the Final Four.[4]

Meanwhile, Wisconsin eliminated Arizona with a charismatic performance from 6’9” Sam Dekker that established him and 7’ team-mate Frank Kaminisky as a duo with enough size to have a chance to deal with Kentucky’s extreme overall height, while Notre Dame came close enough to show that Kentucky could indeed be beaten.

And then there was Duke: Kentucky’s shadow perhaps? Coach K, however different his image, had traveled the cash-lined road from maverick hold-out for only four year players to appropriation of Calipari’s Mad Method: Duke was starting three blue-chip freshmen, including probable NBA top NBA draft choice Jahlil Okafor and projected top ten pick Justise Winslow.

With the smooth-talking Calipari, what you see is what you get, regardless of his words, while K, who is college ball’s all-time winningest coach, is a past master of impression management. It seems like less than the quarter century it actually is since K was battling for his first title (1991), no less a place next to John Wooden in the pantheon, after having been repulsed so soundly by Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV outlaws in 1990. K’s saintly Woodenesque image co-exists with the rumor that his half-season leave of absence in 1994-95 for back surgery was concocted to avoid having his record blemished by a losing season (13-18; 2-14 in the ACC).

IV. Final Four

Awaiting the Final Four, with Duke facing Michigan State, the obligatory pre-game embrace between Coaches K and Tom Izzo betrayed obvious fraternal affection, as did the hugs of Cal and Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan, the only one of the four as yet without a championship notch in his belt.

With Duke and Kentucky both favored to win their semi-final games, it seemed that a Cal v. K Final would perfectly suit the framework of a Manichean battle that typically fuels narratives of heroism and defeat, good and evil.[5] Cal would stand comfortably in the shoes of the recently departed Tarkanian, whose UNLV team had routed Duke (103-73) in the 1990 Final and was being compared to the all-time great UCLA, Indiana, and USF teams before being dealt its only loss by Duke a the 1991 Semi-Final.

Cal and Tark were naturals as bad guys, mavericks, outlaws, a role cheerfully occupied by Al McGuire in years past. Together, they spanned the moral spectrum that athletic contests like to posit, ignoring the larger context: the impeccably corrupt NCAA’s Evil Empire.[6]

But Wisconsin wasn’t buying into this scenario. Bo Ryan’s anomalous squad sported a sophisticated passing game and four white American starters, ill-suited for the Bad Guy role. Yet, thanks to outstanding games by Dekker and Kaminisky, they were the ones to oppose K’s bunch of McDonald’s All-American One-And-Done freshman, with not a single white starter. We are so used to African-American domination at the highest levels of play that the occasional great white player without exceptional size (like 6’3” freshman Grayson Allen, who saved Duke by personally erasing a nine point second half deficit; then another freshman, Final Four MVP Tyus Jones, took over) almost always captures the underdog-lover, as much as he does the closet racist.[7]

My personal peeve with Kryzyewski has always been his role in pioneering the flop at Army, while playing under Bobby Knight at a time when rule changes made offensive fouls non-shooting fouls, and referee’s habits and predilections were changing accordingly.[8] My vision of K as the embodiment of deceptive sanctimoniousness and fraudulent beneficence flows freely from that association. Its arbitrariness generally escapes me. I need my good guys and bad guys too.

But the smothering man-to-man defense that Duke played in both Final Four games gave me pause to reconsider how I feel about K and his charges (pun intended). Duke’s 68-63 win was richly deserved, unless of course you agree with Coach Ryan that the referees did not control over-aggressive fouling.

Who is to say? Why are my prejudices better than yours? John Wooden was widely thought to be a saint, but is said to have known about and looked away from booster Sam Gilbert, who took care of the bribes, payola, and other sordid/assorted infractions. According to me, Jerry Tarkanian was a courageous crusader against NCAA hypocrisy, whereas you might have thought him to have been a sleaze-ball.

Yes, Larry Brown has proved himself a great coach, with both NBA and NCAA championship rings (at Kansas, where he inherited a young Calipari from outgoing Ted Owens as his assistant!) to testify to his talents, though Brown’s itinerant career has been punctuated with a variety of feuds and betrayals that had given him a reputation for being a petulant child. But, as with Rick Pitino, truly great coaching tends to show itself after a while: after I got through watching his Kansas Jay Hawk and Detroit Piston teams, Larry Brown was mah man.

McGuire? A king in the booth after winning it all in 1975 at Marquette, and getting out young; the man whose idea of the good life was that he didn’t decide until he was in his car whether he would be making a left or a right after leaving his drive-way. With heroes like Al, who needs villains?

And then there are the tales of redemption, generally following the disillusionments. Pitino survived and endured the tragic loss of a child and an extra-marital affair that he had to acknowledge to avoid blackmail, before becoming the first coach to win titles at two different schools: Kentucky and Louisville no less. And the endless lineages: Phog Allen at Kansas counted Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp among his players.

So, yes, college ball is about the coaches, and the NCAA is an irredeemably corrupt organization, but for the fourth straight year, the new television format that airs all games in their entirety dramatically enhanced the coverage. For the Final four, though, it was a bad decision to replace Clark Kellogg with the bland Grant Hill as Bill Raftery’s sidekick doing the color. Kellogg, though not in McGuire’s league, had improved enormously in Billy Packer’s big shoes.

The language of sports is perhaps the most idiomatic of tongues, but idiom risks sliding effortlessly, unnoticed, into cliché. The vernacular of sport links the religious with the mundane. This truth has some paradoxical elements to it: the arena of sports is not known for producing the world’s most intelligent people, but the strategic sense of athletes—even more so coaches—is exceptionally acute. So, we like to think, is their intuitive grasp of possibilities, their ability to assess probabilities, to predict outcomes. Now, the new religion of metrics (which Charles Barkley righteously decries) dominates sports reportage, alternately debunking and appropriating intuitive discourse and shelving more fanciful and romantic notions as “having the hot hand.” Sophisticated statistical analyses have suggested that the idea of “being in a zone” is empirically unsupportable, but find me a great shooter who doesn’t scoff at the statisticians trying to encroach on what he believes is his true art form.

Probably it’s Hill’s Duke pedigree, as the Blue Devils (Jay Bilas, Jay Williams, Hill, Mike Gminski, Jim Spanarkel) have fairly (or unfairly?) taken over the media spots. Hold those Polish jokes, Wooden loyalists. We may soon have to endure listening to K join Bob Dylan in singing along with Sinatra’ “I did it my way.” But Calipari gets the royalties.

I’m gonna try to look in more next year, but only if I stop coaching high school before I’m older than Jack and Al; or I’ll just soldier on with Larry Brown, searching until I find my own Emmanuel Mudiay.


1 The shocking depth of this year’s Kentucky team was the unintended result of too few of last year’s stars moving on to the NBA. The Harrison twins actually hurt their NBA stock by staying for a second year.

2 Calipari’s 2008 Memphis team won a record-setting thirty-eight games, went to the Final, and seemingly had it won going away when Derrick Rose took over in the last ten minutes, only to hand it back to Kansas at the end, a “give-back” that was reminiscent of Cincinnati’s having handed the 1963 (pre shot clock) championship to Loyola of Chicago by initiating a stall over the last ten minutes, managing to lose a game that it had thoroughly dominated for the thirty minutes of actual play.

3 Rick Pitino brought Kentucky back from probation to NCAA title in seven years.

4 Michigan State’s Tom Izzo has a fantastic track record of overachievement through toughness. In the NBA, four year Michigan State player Draymond Green’s brilliantly intuitive play for Golden State cannot help but reflect on Izzo’s coaching.

5 Classic Duke-Kentucky battles not only include Christian Laettner’s game winning 104-103 overtime win in 1992, but also the classic 1966 semi-final the year that Adolph Rupp’s and Pat Riley’s all white Kentucky team lost the historic Final to Texas Western, which started five blacks.

6 Over a quarter century has elapsed since the Olympics began to countenance professional participation, but the NCAA continues to make an Orwellian sham of amateurism by mandating the use of the term “student-athlete.”

Adding his voice to that of historian Taylor Branch and activist scribe Dave Zirin, New York Times op-ed contributor Joe Nocera has made a cause of advocating for Branch’s recommendation that the NCAA pay a salary to its players; instead the NCAA requires (as a ploy to avoid requiring them to compensate its de facto employees) that its players be called “student-athletes.”

In his March 5, 2012 op-ed piece “A Union Stands Up For Its Players,” Nocera proclaimed: “The NCAA exists to rationalize the tawdry fact that the labor force of a six billion dollar business—the estimated revenue of college football and men’s basketball—receives no compensation.“ The numbers only get bigger.

7 Uncomfortable talking plainly about race? Take a lesson from Rick Pitino: hectored for running up the score in a recent game where he had removed his starters, Pitino shot back “But I had four white guys and an Egyptian in there.” Having weathered his personl travails, as well as the hatred of Kentucky loyalists when he became a turncoat at Louisville, Pitino somehow managed to get an easy pass on this one.

8 It used to be that offensive fouls were simply charging fouls, and meant shooting free throws. Back then, referees were loathe to call a charge; to do so would deflate the game’s momentum, while everyone re-located to the opposite free throw line, prolonging exposure to the crowd’s abuse and thrown objects. This was at its worst in Syracuse, where Dolph Schayes hammered freely with his off arm as he diagonally traversed the lane.

For other articles by Bob Liss, go to

culturewatch Bob Liss 2015-04-28T15:48:39-05:00
The Chocolate Speaks One recent afternoon, I found myself in front of the TV, its sound muted, watching an NCAA basketball championship semi-final between Michigan State and Duke. Ten young men ran back and forth, right-to-left, left-to-right, upon this court. It occurred to me that I had been watching this game for sixty years, and I did not feel that, oh, the last semi-infinity of this exposure had added to my stores of wisdom or emotional depth. Basket upon basket had been scored or defended, and civilization did not appear to have advanced one whit. The activity upon my screen, and my bothering to view it, seemed particularly pointless on this occasion. Perhaps that was Truth being presented like a flaming sword. Or maybe it was the not-quite quarter-square of the medicinally prescribed, blackberry-flavored, dark chocolate Kiva bar I had ingested a couple hours earlier speaking.

But there they were again. Ten young men, essentially unknown to me, so devoid of individuality as to require numbered chests and backs to be distinguished. Their actions were confined within a rectangle of rigid lines, which smaller, older men, armed with whistles, patrolled, keeping the young men’s impulses additionally controlled, even down to the adornment of their uniforms. And then there was this black-suited, rat-faced man I had seen in years past, returning like some recurring nightmare vision, crouching, prowling, pointing, snarling at the players, eyes narrowed, mouth twisted, every black hair in place.

Shivering, I sought alternative viewing. A few channels removed a World Wrestling Federation match beckoned from a portion of the galaxy I had not visited for decades.

A well-muscled, well-oiled fellow, with snaky locks to his shoulders, his waist girdled by a championship belt about the width and length of a well-nourished crocodile, awaited an opening bell. Across the ring stood a mountainous mass of beef, which, while more extensively tatted, resembled instead a specially bred, double-wide Dick Butkus, a Monster of the Midway so vast his crew cut appeared to require a power mower for shearing. If he walked down the street, tri-cyclists sporting red flags would have pedaled in his wake alerting pedestrians of the obstructing rig on the pavement ahead.

The smaller man seemed to be taunting this mass, who, porcine bulging, resonated the ability to comprehend, if not respond with, human speech. Then the smaller man hopped from the ring and, hurling taunts over his shoulder like assegai, began to exit the arena.

At this unexpected development, I clicked on sound. Appropriately aghast announcers reported that this fellow, the champion, had cancelled the bout, claiming, insultingly—toyingly—given the level of destruction these combatants usually faced, he had been rendered non-combatant by a head cold, as well as a sore foot. This foot seemed to particularly irk the big fellow, because its bruise had apparently been suffered as he was being kicking in the head by it a few nights earlier. “You can have your rematch,” I heard the small man say, smirking in Chesire-worthy breadth. “Just not now.”

The big fellow leapt from the ring. He caught his taunter before he could run. He pummeled him with many blows. He smacked him with a folding chair. He grabbed him from the floor and hurled him over the announcers’ table. He turned the announcer’s table over on him and the announcers. Two aides de camp of the champion tried to intervene, and the hulk threw them over the table. A little, bald guy ran up from somewhere, and the hulk grabbed him and threw him into the ring. The hulk climbed in after the bald guy, grabbed him again, and body slammed him to the mat. His displeasure still not discharged, the hulk spotted a camera man on the ring’s apron, plucked him over the ropes, and hoisted him into the air.

At this point a strikingly handsome, eminently fit, long-and-tousle tressed brunette in a tight, low-cut dress, whose subsequent conduct identified her—clothes clearly not making, in this case, the woman—the event’s promoter, appeared alongside the ring. She was irate. She ordered the hulk to put down the cameraman. “He’s a civilian,” she pointed out, no doubt concerned this limited his immunity to catastrophic acts, such as had befallen her other employees, not to mention the hit to be taken in the price of her workers’ compensation coverage. The hulk looked at her. Then he flung down the cameraman.

This enraged the woman even further. She ordered the hulk out of the ring. She ordered him out of the building! She told him he was suspended. Suspended!!

I imagined the hulk chasing her down, ripping the dress from her, and... Well, let’s leave my imagining there.


Roland Barthes, who was not called “The French Nat Fleischer” for nothing, has toasted pro-wrestling, I found when I later checked my book case, for its “spectacle of excess” “where the rules, the laws of the game, the referee’s censoring, and the limits of the ring are abolished, swept away by a triumphant disorder... which overflows into the hall and carries off pell-mell the wrestlers, seconds, referee and spectators.” In that, I thought, it aligns itself with crucial moments in history, as well as significant movements in art.

That’s what the NCAA needs. Someone smacking Mike Krzyzewski over the head with a folding chair.

culturewatch Bob Levin 2015-04-28T15:18:52-05:00
Home Truths About 100 pages into David Ritz’s unauthorized biography of Aretha Franklin, Respect, I flashed on Greil Marcus’s tagline for his book on Punk, Lipstick Traces, which he dubbed: “the secret history of the 20th Century.” Ritz’s concept of Respect is less expansive, but his deeply sourced raps on black musicking speak to the “secret history” of the African American nation in the second half of the 20th C.

Respect’s lost and found historical conjunctures include one night in 1962 (February 20th to be exact), when Aretha Franklin played NYC’s Village Gate along with Thelonious Monk. (After I read about that gig, I rushed to tell my nearest/dearest Aretha-and-Monk lovers. 50 years after the fact, it still seemed like news to them, though our mutual marveling made me a bit nervous. I went back to check Ritz’s riff on the show to make sure I hadn’t dreamt it.) Respect’s account leans on the recollection of Aretha’s brother, Cecil. He came from Detroit to join a crowd of about 500 who squeezed into the Village Gate in part because he was a stone Monk fan. (It was Duke Ellington who’d steered Cecil to Monk in the 50s as Cecil told Ritz: “Duke stopped by to meet with my father [famed minister C.L. Franklin] and ended up playing a beautiful piece...When I told him how much I loved jazz, he told me, ‘Well son, you’ll be wanting to listen to a cat named Monk. He’s doing it differently.’”) Cecil recalled how Aretha worried he might want to hear Monk more than her, but she didn’t pout that night:

Because of Monk’s presence, I think Aretha directed more of her show toward jazz. She wanted to show the jazz crowd that she was one of them—and she was. I believe that’s one of the first times she sang “Skylark,” a song she’d soon cut for Columbia. Same thing for “Just for a Thrill” and “God Bless the Child.” We’d all heard Ray Charles do “Just for a Thrill” on his Genius album, and we’d been hearing Billie Holiday’s “Child” ever since we were children. She smashed them both. Monk had his fans, and Monk got his respect that night. But Sister Ree, who had learned how to tear down a church, tore down that club. We knew she was on the verge of having that monster breakthrough hit we’d all been waiting for.

But that wouldn’t happen until she switched from Columbia to Atlantic records five years later. She was fated to be Lady Soul in waiting for a long stretch, though plenty of singers were hip to her. Here’s Etta James on Aretha’s “Skylark,” one of the few Columbia tracks that hint how Aretha would fly on Atlantic:

[W]hen I heard her sing “Skylark,” I told Esther Phillips, my running buddy back then, “That girl pissed all over that song.” It came at a time when we were all looking to cross over by singing standards. I had “Sunday Kind of Love” and “Trust in Me,” and Sam Cooke was doing “Tennessee Waltz” and “When I Fall in Love” at the Copa. We were all trying to be so middle class. It was the beginning of the bourgie black thing. Aretha had a head-start on us since she was the daughter of a rich minister and grew up bourgie. But, hell, the reasons don’t matter. She took “Skylark” to a whole ‘nother place. When she goes back and sings the chorus the second time and jumps an octave—I mean she’s screaming—I had to scratch my head and ask myself: How the fuck did the bitch do that? I remember running into Sarah Vaughan, who always intimidated me. Sarah said: “Have you heard of this Aretha Franklin girl?” I said, “You heard her do “Skylark,” didn’t you?” Sarah said, “Yes I did and I’m never singing that song again.”[1]

Aretha has been the most undeniable singer of our time. Of all the big pop moments in the 60s, her (delayed) breakthrough seems the largest. No music from that decade sounds better than her Atlantic sides now. And none meant more back in that day. Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (1986) provides one template for anyone seeking to comprehend Aretha’s arrival. But compactions in this great essay on rock and roll politics by Charles O’Brien are essential too. O’Brien nails what’s going on in Aretha’s first Atlantic album, I Never Loved a Man: “What comes across today, is how alive to its time it is, how immersed in its social context, how fully it conveys the moment of its moment.” He zeroes in on one song, “Think,” released about a year after that album to evoke how “this music’s effortless engagement with history shines through”:

[W]e get to the bridge, and Aretha sings the word “freedom!” Now, up to this point, the lyric has said essentially, Don’t play with my love, think about what you’re doing. This cry for freedom doesn’t seem to follow. But it is not the song, “Think,” subject to copyright, somebody’s private property, that engenders this cry. Rather, the song’s (and Aretha’s) historical setting does that. Where she might, less exceptionally, have filled that bridge with an oo-whee!, Aretha felt it just as natural to sing of freedom, as if oo-whee! and freedom were interchangeable words, hitting on the truth that they probably are.

Let’s take it from the top for a second, going back to Greil Marcus’s exemplar, Johnny Rotten. The King of Punk set off an aesthetic civil war that galvanized a defiant semi-pop subculture in the late 70s. But the Queen of Soul sound-tracked the rise of an entire people.


Respect is Ritz’s second shot at telling Aretha’s story. He collaborated with her on her autobiography, From These Roots, in the 90s. Aretha came to him because he’s been amanuensis of choice for Afro-American stars of jazz, blues and R&B ever since he worked with Ray Charles on Brother Ray. He’s helped dozens of black musicians compose autobiographies. But Ritz wasn’t satisfied with the product of his collaboration with Aretha. Autobiography to her meant hagiography. Aretha wasn’t keen to address hot messes in her past. She aimed to idealize her life not reflect on it. Aretha’s p.o.v. is missing from Respect. But her late brother Cecil and her late sisters Erma and Carolyn spoke candidly with Ritz before they passed, (Erma—who had a hit with “Piece of My Heart”—and Carolyn—who wrote “Ain’t No Way”—were talented musicians and sibling rivalry could be a bitch in the Franklin family. But both sisters stuck with Aretha through all kinds of emotional weather.) Their testimony and Ritz’s unparalleled network of respondents among black musicians have enabled him to create a sort of oral history of Aretha’s life and times.

Ritz’s witnesses know how to tell a tale. They take their sweet time and turn Respect into a chronicle for the ages. It runneth over into a narrative of African-American ambition (and underground emotion). When Johnnie Taylor, for example, flows on about how Sam Cooke’s success sent Aretha out of the Church in search of gold records, he talks up his own career and that of a forgotten soul sister:

[Aretha] was the best singer I’d heard since Jackie Verdell.[2] Jackie, who was in The Davis Sisters, sang so hard she’d go around saying she’d peed her robe. I thought Jackie was going to be the next big thing after Dinah. Don’t know why that never happened, except that Aretha caught Jackie’s thunder the way I caught Sam’s. Turned out we peed harder than anyone. Took me and Aretha a while to switch tracks and catch on, but as soon as we heard, “You Send Me,” we knew we weren’t long for the Gospel world. Wherever Sam was going, we were following.

Erma Franklin memorably evokes the Sam Cooke effect in Respect:

When “You Send Me” came out in the winter of 1957, I was eighteen and Ree was fifteen. We were already mothers and professional singers...We were hardly giddy groupies—that is until we heard that song. When it came on the radio, we were on the road and we made our driver pull over so we could catch our breath. Then we told him to speed to the nearest record store so we could buy it. We played nothing else for a week. Daddy liked the song but said if he heard it again, he’d come at the forty-five with a hammer. Didn’t matter. We kept playing it. Just before Christmas, Sam came on Ed Sullivan...I went out and bought an evening gown for his appearance. Mind you I didn’t wear the dress to the theater in New York but to the little lobby of our hotel in Atlanta—that’s how seriously I took the occasion. Watching Sam on TV, I couldn’t wear just anything. I imagined him looking through the screen and seeing how I had dressed up for him.

Sam Cooke was more than a fantasy to Aretha. She met up with him when she began performing on the gospel circuit and he was still in the Soul Stirrers. By her own account, she visited him in hotel rooms when she was twelve or thirteen and he was in his early twenties. Her father seems to have caught her one time. There was a scene with him banging on Cooke’s door (as The Staple Singers looked on). Ritz suggests Aretha became sexually active early because she came of age in the “spiritually charged, sexually overcharged culture of Holy Ghost music-making.” Respect has its share of revelations about churchy orgiasts (and gospel’s gay Saints). Ritz has mapped this territory before in Divided Soul, his biography of Marvin Gaye. Unlike Gaye, though, Aretha never seems to have felt claims of the body were opposed to claims of the spirit. Ritz shares her faith in Christ and “Sexual Healing.” (He wrote the lyrics to Marvin Gaye’s hit song.) His interest in Aretha’s intimate life never seems salacious. Respect takes down one persistent rumor—passed on by John Hammond and Jerry Wexler among others—that C.L. Franklin was the father of her first child. (That rumor was probably founded on a truth. When he was a young man, C.L. Franklin acknowledged he’d fathered a child with a 12 year old girl. Aretha had her own first child two months before her 13th birthday but there isn’t “a shred of evidence” C.L. Franklin was the father.) Ritz links Aretha’s sexual precocity to the mastery she displays on her first gospel recordings: “At the very moment she was discovering grown-up sex, she was being recorded as a grown-up singer of sacred song.” The little miracles that occurred inside her father’s New Bethel Baptist church when the fourteen year old Aretha sang, say, “Never Grow Old,” seem more assimilable once you know she’d been acting just like a woman on the outside too.


C.L. Franklin wasn’t happy when Aretha became pregnant with her second child but daddy didn’t preach too much (and he wasn't a hypocrite). Aretha’s (and Erma’s) out of wedlock children were raised chiefly by his mother who ran his house for him after his wife left the family, moving from Detroit to Buffalo where she died an untimely death. (Aretha was hurt for life by her parents’ de facto divorce, which she never really processed, and she went from limbo to hell after her mother passed.) The minister was a “natural patriarch” and all his children gravitated to him once their mother was gone. Cecil explained:

He was our great protector. The difference between Aretha and the rest of the family, though, was this: Early on, she became his partner. She became part of his service and also part of his traveling ministry...We were all anointed with talent...But Aretha manifested it at an ungodly early age.

Her bond with her father was especially strong because he’d been a wonder child too. C.L Franklin grew up in backwoods Mississippi, experiencing “segregation in the raw.” The nearest library was 30 miles away from his hometown, but before he was a teenager he’d read Dickens, Hawthorn and had begun to write commentaries on the bible. He entered the ministry early. By the 1950s, he was recording sermons that made him as well-known in black America as his friend Martin Luther King Jr. Projective turns in those sermons—“Some things you can’t say, you can sing.”—presage the 60s when Franklin would organize the mass “Walk to Freedom” in Detroit—months before The March on Washington—and stay strong in the struggle for Civil Rights. (Franklin’s biographer Nick Salvatore explicates the text of Franklin’s “Without a Song” here.)

The minister’s vocal style amped up the meaning of his liberal-minded texts. His “whopping’’ blew the mind of Bobby “Blue” Bland who first saw Franklin preach in a Memphis Church:

I couldn’t have been more than eleven on twelve when Mama took me to hear the new preacher man everyone was talking about….I liked church ‘cause of the exciting spirit of the music, but when the preachers got to preaching, I’d get bored and fidgety. But here comes this man with a voice like a singer. In fact, he did sing before he started into preaching—and that got my attention right off. Can‘t tell you what hymn he sang, but his voice was strong. I sat right up, and my mind didn’t wander anymore. When he started into the preaching part, I stayed with him. Wasn’t his words that got me—I couldn’t tell you what he talked on that day, couldn’t tell what any of it meant. But it was the way he talked. He talked music. The thing that really got me, though, was the squall-like sound he made to emphasize a certain word. He’d catch the word in his mouth, let it roll around and squeeze it with his tongue. When it popped on out, it exploded, and the ladies started waving and shouting. I liked all that. I started popping and shouting too.

B.B. King was another bluesman who “sat under” Franklin’s sermons for years. King liked to think of Franklin as “the bluesman’s preacher” because “those sermons he recorded were selling in the same little stores as our blues records”:

He was one of us. Unlike other men of the cloth he never called our music devilish—and we loved him for that. But he did more than that. He let us know he admired what we were doing. He called us true artists...That made us feel like royalty.

Franklin insisted all good music came from God.[3] He was a high/low head who knew there were avatars at every level of his people's culture. He often hosted house parties for jazz musicians that turned into jam sessions. Cecil recalls sitting with Aretha on the landing at the top of the stairs looking down in amazement as Art Tatum played in their living room. (“He had one eye and played like he had four hands.”)

According to Cecil, though, his sister’s “magic moment” on the staircase came “the night Clara Ward got happy on our grand piano”:

Miss Ward did all her hits, “Surely He’s Able,” and “Packin’ Up.” But she also improvised like a jazz musician. Aretha didn’t miss a note, and the next day she was on the piano playing everything she’d heard Clara play. It wasn’t long after Aretha learned to play Avery Parish’s “After Hours,” a blues song from Daddy’s day. Daddy loved it. Sometimes during his parties, Daddy would come up stairs and wake up Ree. It might’ve been three or four a.m., but he wanted his friends to hear her play “After Hours.”

“Here’s how it worked” (per Cecil) when it came to Aretha’s ear:

Aretha heard a song once and played it back immediately, note for note. If it was an instrumental, she duplicated it perfectly. If it was a vocal, she duplicated it just as perfectly. She got all the inflections right, voice and keyboard. Her ear was infallible. We always knew that she possessed a different kind of talent. That’s the talent they call genius. You can’t learn it. You just have it.

But Aretha’s genius went beyond virtuosity. Erma Franklin recalled what happened the first time her sister sang in public. It was soon after their mother had died and in the week before Aretha’s first solo in church, the ten-year old had been an “emotional mess, crying her eyes out”:

It took her a minute to get it together, but when she did it all came pouring out. The transition was incredible. She transformed her extreme pain into extreme beauty. That’s my sister’s gift. She had it as a child and has never lost it, not for a minute.

Ritz once asked James Cleveland—famous gospel composer and arranger who directed the choir at C.L Franklin’s church—if he thought the minister had exploited Aretha. Cleveland allowed an eleven year old might not have been thrilled to be awoken in the middle of night to play for a crowd of hard-drinking adults. But he also suggested C.L. Franklin believed it was his duty to push his daughter and avoid the “travesty” of wasted talent. Cleveland noted Aretha shared her father’s drive: “Was she exploited? If she hadn’t been she would’ve been furious.”

Cleveland was less exculpatory about the dark side of the patriarch’s own violent temper. He confirmed C.L. Franklin had been known to hit women—Clara Ward, in particular.

Franklin had a long-term relationship with this gospel diva. They “adored” each other up until the day she died but B.B. King was shocked by what went down when they visited him once in his dressing room: “[S]he said something Reverend didn’t like, he hauled off and whacked her so hard across the face she fell on her knees.”

Like father, like (first) husband: Ted White, the man who swept Aretha away from her father and family when she was a young woman, brutalized Aretha for years. Aretha has stayed in denial about this ugly strand in her past. Given C.L. Franklin’s large contributions to black culture (and black pride), her impulse to protect his reputation isn't vile. Ritz is clear, however, her father’s commission of violence against women wasn't unrelated to Aretha’s own readiness to take blows from the shady hustler who became her husband/manager in 1961. C.L. Franklin disdained Ted White, but Aretha first saw her future husband at one of her father’s house parties where she watched him “scoop up and carry off an inebriated Dinah Washington.” Ritz’s witnesses help explain why Aretha ended up marrying White though he was widely known in Detroit to be a “gentleman pimp.” It was “standard operating procedure,” according to Etta James, for black “girl singers” to have pimps for boyfriends/managers:

Part of the lure of pimps was they got us paid. They protected us. They also beat us up...I remember...Billie Holiday’s record where she sang, “I’d rather my man hit me than jump and quit me.” She was saying if her pimp didn’t have no money and she said: “Take mine, honey,” wasn’t no-one’s fuckin’ business but her own. I think a lot of us felt that way—until the beating got so bad we couldn’t take no more. Naturally, women’s lib came along and changed all that. I’m glad for women’s lib. I’m a women’s libber myself. But back in the fifties and sixties, it was a different world. We were young girls looking to make it at any cost. We wanted men who could carry us to where we wanted to go.


Ted White’s relationship with Aretha was on the rocks by the mid-60s, but he’s the one who made the deal that brought her to Atlantic records. Her breakthrough there was founded on Atlantic’s ease with black artists/audiences, which freed Aretha from the crossover imperative so she could bring it on home from that whole ‘nother place. Ritz fully grasps the difference that difference made. He is, after all, a former student of Charles Keil, whose ethnography, Urban Blues (1964), got real about dilemmas faced by “negroes” under pressure to white themselves out before the advent of “black is beautiful." It seems apt Respect was published in the year of Urban Blues’ 50th anniversary since that seminal work broke with the Melting Pot postulate (and one-way, no return tickets to “integration”). Urban Blues, which was dedicated to Malcolm X, ends with a vatic affirmation of core black culture: “[Negroes] must keep and sharpen their perspective on a white world that would rather absorb them culturally or exterminate them physically than face them as free men.”

Aretha would act like a free woman once she got to Atlantic. She not only made uncompromising, feelgood, bone-black music but also managed to break away from Ted White, though she couldn't avoid domestic trauma/drama. Women’s liberation, as well as black liberation, was in the mix when she cried up “Freedom!” in 1968.

Women of all kinds and conditions were attracted to her voice. There was life in this side of her pop politics long after the 60s. At times it devolved into careerist kitsch—her 80s duet with Annie Lennox, “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves,” or her duet on "Natural Woman" with Candice Bergen/Murphy Brown. (Not that her classic Atlantic track could ever be confused with theses for the social construction of gender.) But sisterhood is powerfully there in “It Hurts like Hell”—the echt Aretha track produced by Babyface for Waiting to Exhale’s womanist soundtrack. There’s a degree of authenticity to Aretha’s late 90s collaboration with ex-Fugee Lauren Hill as well.

Aretha’s dream-work as a mentor-figure to Hill reminds me of another black culture hero from the 60s who briefly played an avuncular role in Hill’s life when she was coming up. Before Hill became a (shooting) star in the 90s, she sung and rapped in the basement performance space at Amiri Baraka’s home in Newark. Let Hill serve as a hinge here because back when Baraka was still known as LeRoi Jones, his book Home (1966) could've prepped readers for Aretha's heavy journey in the 60s. Jones’ trip had much in common with Aretha's, though she’s averse to the sort of self-analysis that informed his collection of “Social Essays”:

One truth anyone reading these pieces ought to get is the sense of movement—the struggle, in myself, to understand where and who I am ...And these moves most times unconscious (until, maybe I’d look over something I’d just written and whistle, ‘Yow, yeh, I’m way over there, huh?’) seem to have been always toward the one thing I had coming into the world, with no sweat, my blackness.

Like Aretha in her prime, Jones/Baraka specialized in giving his readers something they could feel. And her gift (per Sister Erma) comes to mind when he mused (in his piece, “Cold, Hurt, and Sorrow”) on "products" of the hand-as-dealt to black Americans: “some are even artistic, as if Negroes suffered better than anyone else.” Ree could be waiting at the dark end of the street as Jones slipped around "social" abstractions, hip to particulars and the human range of response to "unnatural adversity":

Hope is a delicate suffering. Its waste products vary, but most of them are meaningful. And as a cat named Mean William once said, can you be glad, if you've never been sad?

I might have passed over the link between Jones’ blues-drenched homecoming and Aretha’s exaltations if Ritz hadn’t locked on her hunger for home cooking. (He reported that when he interviewed Aretha, she was most responsive when discussing “the physical beauty of men and the lure of certain foods.”) One of Home’s most righteous essays was "Soul Food" and Respect is full of banana pudding, fried chicken, ribs, and BLTs. Forgive this quick aside on Baraka's 1962 essay, but his slow boil in "Soul Food" tells you something about how the Melting Pot mindset faded out black culture before Aretha blew up (and—on the real side—his ingredients in a recipe for soul are too tasty to skip). Baraka's piece was sparked by an educated fool who’d claimed in Esquire: “boots [unlike the Chinese] have neither a language of their own or a cuisine...”

No language? No characteristic food? Oh, man, come on.

Maws are things ofays seldom get to peck, nor are you likely to hear Charlie eating a chittlerling. Sweet potato pies, a good friend of mine asked recently, “Do they taste anything like pumpkin?” Negative. They taste more like memory, if you’re not uptown.

All those different kinds of greens (now quick frozen for anyone) once were all Sam got to eat. (Plus the potlikker, into which one slipped some throwed away meat.) Collards and turnips and kale and mustards were not fit for anybody but the woogies. So they found a way to make them taste like something somebody would want to freeze and sell to a Negro going to Harvard as exotic European spinach.

The watermelon, friend, was imported from Africa (by whom?) where it had been growing many centuries before it was necessary for some people to deny that they had ever tasted one...

Baraka was not talking out of school on that score. He once recalled being “chastised severely for daring to eat a piece of watermelon” on the Howard University campus: “‘Do you realize you’re sitting near the highway?’ is what the man said, ‘This is the capstone of Negro education.’” Home zeroed in on other frenemies outside the un-mellow black middle class who frowned upon the idea of a hyphenated African-American culture. It included Jones’ 1961 letter to the Village Voice, protesting against another missive by Jules Feiffer who’d objected to a Voice writer’s use of the (then newish) term “Afro-American.” (Mocker Feiffer had signed off as a “Judeo-American.”) Jones placed Feiffer among white liberals—“the most viciously wrong-headed group of amateur social theorists extant”:

The term Afro-American, which I will use or not use, as I please, is in growing usage among Negroes and again it escapes me why you think you should have something to say about the desirability of its use, etc. A great many black people feel that Afro-American is an historically and ethnically correct term and that it is preferable to the word Negro, which is, after all, an adjective. Also there has never been any clamor raised over other peoples’ ethnic hyphenation, e.g., Italian (Italo-) American, Irish-Americans, etc. Why so much fuss about Negroes wanting to call themselves Afro-Americans? And if you want to call yourself a Judeo (Judaeo?) American, it’s perfectly all right with me. In fact, I think that if perhaps there were more Judeo-Americans and a few less bland, cultureless, muddle-headed AMERICANS, this country might still be a great one.

That passage seems prophetic if you peep at the cover of Aretha’s live gospel album, Amazing Grace (1972), where she sits on the steps of an L.A. Baptist church in African dress and headwrap. 10 years down the line, America’s Queen of Soul found it natural to go back to the Black Church and Africa. (Not that the Motherland should've been her final stop—nobody’s more American than Aretha Franklin!)


Aretha’s black Atlantic moment (which lasted through Amazing Grace but not much longer) had an aspect that doesn't quite sing with Jones’ (or Charles Keil’s) X-inflected Nationism. It’s now part of pop lore, thanks largely to Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music, that Aretha’s band on her first Atlantic sides was made up chiefly of funky white boys who’d already had a history of making Southern soul hits with black singers up front. Ritz retells the (still) incredible tale of how producer Wexler took Aretha down to Muscle Shoals where she cut “I Never Loved a Man” and the beginning of “Do Right Man” before the session was aborted after a full-blown fist-fight broke out between Ted White and the studio’s white owner, Rick Hall. Aretha ended up recording her first Atlantic album with Muscle Shoals’ “swampers” in New York City after Wexler finessed a crisis of “racial animus” that led White to threaten that his wife/client would bolt from Atlantic.

Guralnick heard Aretha’s pre- and post-fight melds with the swampers as instantiations of true integration, peaks of a dirty-sweet humanist tradition cultivated by black and white visionaries rooted in the American South. There’s a lovely reminiscence in Respect by Joe South (say who?) that’s in tune with Guralnick’s sense of history. South was brought in by Wexler to play on Aretha Arrives and he allows he was nervous since “this was the big time.”

Besides I was white and I was set to play behind the blackest genius since Ray Charles. “It ain’t about color,” said Wex. “Aretha’s color-blind. She’s already gotten a taste of how funky those Muscle Shoals boys can be. She’ll love you.”... I remember standing there while she was singing that old blues “Going Down Slow,” the one that has been done by everyone from Guitar Slim to B.B. King. I mean, she was wailing in a way where I had these goose bumps. She nodded to me to play a couple licks. I gave it all I had and suddenly, she smiled. The woman smiled! Brother, that smile has carried me through my life.

Respect’s section on Aretha’s Atlantic years has chapters devoted to two of her most gratifying performances—her Live at the Fillmore West gig which featured a famous cameo by Ray Charles and the live recording of her Amazing Grace album. You can see what Ritz was writing about in the Fillmore chapter on YouTube here. And you'll hear why Charles believed Aretha “does a version of Dr. Feelgood that’s a hundred times better than the [original] record.” It’s a kick to read about how Aretha surprised Charles (who’d slipped into the Fillmore to see her on the sly), pushing him on to the stage and keeping him in the groove. (A Charles sideman noted his old boss “hated to sit in” but that night nobody could resist Aretha.) The chapter on Amazing Grace is plenty fresh too, though Ritz may overrate that album. (Amazing Grace is the best-selling gospel record ever but I recall later albums, like Tramaine Hawkins Live (1990), where the spirit seemed deeper and wilder.[4]) What’s most intriguing about Ritz’s return to Grace is his report on raw documentary film footage of the performance which sounds like it adds grace touches to the historic recording:

After her father speaks, Aretha replaces James Cleveland at the piano, where she plays and sings “God Will Take Care of You.” At one point seeing his daughter’s brow wet with perspiration, C.L. gets up, walks over, takes his handkerchief, and gently dries her forehead. It’s an exquisite gesture...

Ritz always credits musicians (like James Cleveland or band-leader King Curtis at the Fillmore) who helped Aretha T.C.B. live and in the studio, but Respect makes it plain Aretha was the auteur on her Atlantic classics. A comment made by Ralph Burns, who conducted the string section on “Natural Woman,” is on point. After watching Aretha teach Spooner Oldham the song’s piano intro and then knock off her vocal in a couple takes, Burns murmured: “That woman comes from another planet, she’s just here visiting.”

Respect is dedicated to Jerry Wexler (and Aretha’s booking agent, Ruth Bowen), but it amounts to a rebuke of pop writers and critics who've overstated the role played by Atlantic execs in the creation of Aretha's soul serenades.[5] Before the end of the 70s, though, Aretha had begun to cede control over her records which became diminished things. When she left Atlantic for Arista and took her direction from Clive Davis she had hits again in the 80s, but post-Atlantic highs—from “Jump to It” to (her cover of) “Jumping Jack Flash”—have been undercut by schlock.

Jazz singer Carmen McCrae recalls in Respect how she worried when she heard Aretha’s nada Arista hit, “Freeway of Love,” back in the 80s:

Some artists are made to transcend the marketplace. Some artists are meant to record the absolute best material without consideration of commerce or any other goddam thing. When I heard “Freeway,” I knew that Aretha was moving in a whole ‘nother direction. She was moving to the money.

The last third of Respect tracks Aretha as she’s tried to sell out. It’s a sad ride. Along the way, though, there’s an unillusioned exchange between McCrae and another jazz artist, Shirley Horn, who avoids moralizing about Aretha’s will to go pop:

Sarah Vaughan had just died and I was recording a tribute to her. Shirley...was playing piano. “You know who should really be doing this tribute to Sarah, Shirley?” I asked. ‘You’re thinking of Aretha, aren’t you?” said Shirley. I was. “Well, forget about it, Carmen, because she’ll be chasing after hit songs long after you and I are dead and gone.” “Well ain’t that a shame,” I said. “Not really,” said Shirley, “not if she finds something as good as ‘Doctor Feelgood.’”

Near the end of Respect, Billy Preston sounds like he’s on the same page as Horn, offering what might serve as a last word on Aretha’s later decades:

I don’t care what they say about Aretha...She can be hiding out in her house in Detroit for years. She can go decades without taking a plane or flying off to Europe. She can cancel half her gigs and infuriate every producer and promoter in the country. She can sing all kinds of jive-ass songs that are beneath her. She can go into her diva act and turn off the world. But on any given night, when the lady sits down at the piano and gets her body and soul all over some righteous song, she’ll scare the shit out of you. And you’ll know—you’ll swear—that she’s still the best fuckin’ singer this fucked up country ever produced.

Thanks to Ritz’s chorus of demotic voices, Respect is a national resource too.

Coda: I should confess I didn’t rush to read Respect when it came out last fall. I’d been put off by Ritz’s collaboration with Cornel West, Brother West, Living and Loving Out Loud.[6] I’d’ve missed (and dissed) Respect were it not for Charles Keil’s praise on the book jacket:

This far surpasses David Ritz’s landmark study of Marvin Gaye. People will be reading Respect generations from now to understand our musical culture. Ritz deserves a lifetime achievement award for: “Most Soul Full Account of America’s Music.[7]


1 Two more Sassy moments from Respect:

Smokey Robinson is one of Ritz’s witnesses. Robinson was tight with Cecil Franklin when they were 10 or 11 years old and Aretha would hang out with them—“a shy girl who came alive when we started playing records.” Sarah Vaughan was Robinson’s first great vocal influence and one day: “I heard [Aretha] singing along with Sarah in a way that scared me. Sarah’s riffs are the most complex of any singer, yet Aretha shadowed them like it was the most natural thing in the world.” A few years on, she wasn’t content to be Sarah’s shadow. On one of her Columbia recording sessions, a jazzman was knocked out by her bluesy reading of a Shirelles’ hit, “Blue Holiday”: “She floated over it like Sarah Vaughan. Only—at least to my ears—she had more soul than Sarah, more church, more funk, more hurt.”

2 Verdell rips it up when she comes in as the second lead vocalist two minutes into this Davis Sisters’ track. (She sings movingly in unsynchronized footage here at the climax of an Operation Push event after Jesse Jackson has...whopped.) Aretha was closer to Clara Ward but Ritz notes she dug Verdell too. Respect’s nods to Verdell are reminders of how black talent has been marginalized by American gatekeepers, though the culture is, of course, much more open to African American performers than it was in the 1950s. Ritz may write celeb bios for a living but Respect is aligned on the real side with Undisputed—Walter Hill's unacclaimed (No doubt!) b-movie about boxing in prison that amounts to a truth attack on starry obliviousness.

3 Her father passed that divine clarity on to Aretha. Proof is in her comeback to the jazzman who compared her voice to Vaughan's above. Joe Newman tells what happened when he learnt "Blue Holiday" had been composed by gospel musician James Cleveland:

"You're kidding," I said. A churchman wrote that?" Aretha didn't say much in the studio—she was a shy thing who kept to herself and just focused on her music—but when I said that, she looked up and said, 'Joe, it's all church.' That shut me up."

4 Lady Hawkins takes a while to get going here but you’ll get your change if you hang with her.

5 George Trow was guilty of this error in his penetrative yet class-bound New Yorker profile of Ahmet Ertegun.

6 That bad book traduced the culture vitalized by so many of the musicians Ritz had worked with in the past. It presumed West belonged among heroes of the African-American oral tradition, which is a shuck since his clunky, jargon-ridden raps have always owed much more to the Academy than to rootsy sources. No-one should mix up West’s p.c. kvetching with, say, C.L. Franklin’s whopping. An opposition that seems right on time right now since I just learned (from Marsha Music’s blog) Aretha donated 17 of her father’s recorded sermons to the President and Mrs. Obama as an official inaugural gift. West’s lectures, of course, won’t be missed at the White House. On that score, there are (nothing but) unintended revelations in Brother West. Anyone who doubts envy is behind West’s Obama-bashing might consider its account of the proposal he made to the Ethiopian woman who would become his third wife (on their second date): “Eleni, marry me and become the first lady of Black America.” Looking back on Brother West now, maybe we should thank Ritz for giving the fantast enough rope.

7 That blurb serves as one more confirmation of the Keil Rule once laid down by John Chernoff (author of the classic ethnography, African Rhythm and African Sensibility): “anything about or even remotely coming into contact with Charlie has to be great.”

music Benj DeMott 2015-04-26T23:41:35-05:00
Gentlemen of Principle, Priests of Presumption The following piece—originally written in the early 70s for a UK anthology (Approaches to Popular Culture) culminates with a celebration of Philip Levine's "They Feed They Lion." Levine mused (a few years ago) that the essay was "so moving and so relevant": "It should be reprinted somewhere..."

This chapter is offered as a survey of problems in political writing that surfaced in ways direct or oblique during the Watergate crisis

One further prefatory note—of acknowledgement. The prompting to literary reflection on Watergate came in part as a result of the appearance during the Erwin Committee sessions of a figure absent for decades from the American political scene—the politician as embryonic novelist. Again and again Mr. Baker of Tennessee foreswore standard-form fact-finding in favour of the pursuit of inner configurations of response. I am probing into your inner state of mind,” he declared to one or another witness. “How do you feel now?” Intent on probing the textures of response, ingratiatingly patient but persistent, shaking off distractions of dates and names and deeds, concerned for the quality of a qualm, Mr. Baker invited witnesses to speculate on their own emotions as recollected, to make him privy to events as known from inside. Now and then he was rewarded with some halting word about how it all felt—“I kind of drifted along,” said Mr. Herbert Porter—whereupon the senator leaned forward eagerly, catching what Lawrence would have called the momentaneous on the wing: “Now,” Baker was heard to say, now you have reached that point I would like to examine…The Senator’s interest in motive and condition of temperament did not please every observer (Mr. I.F. Stone complained that some of Baker’s questions were “fuzzy and pretentious.”) But on the whole the Tennessean’s notices were good. And if his performance can’t be thought to improve the prospect for rapprochement between novelistic art and politics, it did as I admit launch the train we ride…


Let us begin with the simplest and most obvious problem—the poverty of journalistic means. Upwards of a hundred lawyers are now engaged in research and allied adventures, under the direction of Special Investigator Cox. They were led to this task not by a hundred or so members of the White House Correspondents’ Association working in concert but rather, as everyone knows, by two young men—Messrs Bernstein and Woodward of the Washington Post. The story of these reporters’ labours has recently been told with agility and style by Mr. Timothy Crouse, late of Harvard Crimson, now a contributing editor of Rolling Stone, in a handy press critique called The Boys on the Bus (published by Random House in 1973). Mr. Crouse points out what the reporters themselves have emphasized in conversation—that the conventional beat system on their paper, as on all others, would have prohibited any newspaperman on national assignment from probing as they probed. Bernstein and Woodward were city side men, small potatoes, as it were, inexpensive and free from the obligation to “cover” pseudo-events contrived by ingenious “spokesmen for the President.” They were also—a less trivial matter than might be apparent—men passing through divorces, hence free of an evening, as they themselves remark, deprived of home lives, eager for distraction, able to work round the clock on interviews in private houses, away from inhibiting official settings. There was no backup team, no corps of investigative journalists bent on disclosing the Whole Story. Two men on an assignment that from the first clearly demanded dozens; proof not of the vitality of American journalistic institutions but of the serious underfunding of independent investigative enterprise.

Lack of means is but one side of the journalistic coin, the other reads, lack of impact. The participants in a recent BBC roundtable on the press and Watergate—they included Mr. Ben Bradlee, editor of the Post—ran on boastfully about the “power and integrity of American newspapers” and “their sleepless vigilance” and the like. Yet, as Mr. Ian Hamilton remarked, if this power was real, should not the Watergate story have had at least some effect on the Nixon landslide? (The story was fully ventilated in the papers by 10 October, weeks before the national election.) It is surely also relevant that the Post reporters, in their interview with Crouse, spoke bitterly about their own inability, despite repeated efforts, to interest other reporters and Washington bureau chiefs in the story they were uncovering. (Bradlee himself has acknowledged that for months the story could not get beyond the Post’s “own circulation area.”) What is more, much more, Watergate is in fact a rerun: the first time through, owing to the failure of the press, the story simply did not take. The record of press impact in disclosing an earlier and related scandal—that involving International Telephone and Telegraph, the San Diego Democratic Convention, Dita Beard, et alia—testifies that damaging facts spread large in the American newspapers are, under ordinary circumstances, no threat whatever to the directors of conglomerates and the Cabinet officials disposed to serve them. The particulars of the ITT intrigue, involving contributions to underwrite a West Coast Democratic National Convention (desired by the President) by ITT, in exchange for a negotiated settlement of a Justice Department action required the conglomerate to divest itself from a major insurance company—those were spelled out in a series of newspaper columns, and in testimony before a Senate committee. (The cast included Senators Gurney and Ervin, and it was during these hearings that Erving developed his helpful destestation of the doctrine of executive privilege.) The investigating journalist was Mr. Jack Anderson. The evidence he produced was never undermined or countered: to reread his ITT articles—they are now available in a little book called The Anderson Papers—is to grasp anew the absurdity of boasts about the power of the American press. An absolutely damning report on corruption in the highest places, fully documented, in printed in over a hundred newspapers; the key Justice Department anti-trust official is posted comfortably off to a Chicago judgeship; the Attorney General has no comment; headlines for a few days but no public outcry; the matter slides quietly out of sight. The moral is that, except in absolutely extraordinary circumstances, the power the press is nihil, and subliterary foundations for a penetrating literature of politics cannot truly be said to exist.


When we advance a step to middling rungs we are, as I said, face to face with zombie epic. Far the most successful pre-Watergate work in zombie epic was Mr. David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest. An effective indictment of that book was in print long before the Ervin Committee sat to is labors—the words of Miss Mary McCarthy. Miss McCarthy insisted that Halberstam’s picture of an “anguished President locked in combat with his conscience” required “some comparison with reality.” Her comment deserves fuller representation.

A man divided in his mind between dispatching combat troops, increasing Special Forces, and trying out one of three bombing scenarios is hardly a figure of Greek tragedy…Yet Halberstam’s design necessitates…the incessant manufacture of suspense. Rubicons being crossed, traps closing, doors shutting forever, I do not know how many “turning points” are reached in the narrative or how many crossroads. His determination to view Vietnam as an American tragedy means that the outcome is ineluctable, foreordained (cf. the “woulds” and “were to bes”), and that all those Rubicons should be invisible to the participants…Since, like the spectators of a Greek tragedy, the reader knows anyway what the end is going to be, suspense must be created artistically, and inner conflict heightened where little may have existed in real life.

But this skepticism deterred few midcult Watergate watchers. Time and again the thumb went on the scale and the eye read heroic weights. For such behavior met in the gentlemen of principle sitting on the Watergate committee isn’t surprising. Encountering purposes and values contrary to his own, a gentleman of principle holding office is bound to remark of the person opposite him, “What a liar!” When, on the other hand, he meets clarities concerning the Just and the Good precisely paralleling his own, he cries out with the proverb that “an honest man is the noblest work of God.”

Bad as it was with the elected men of principle, so it became with commentators granted space enough to lay out their fantasies in the morning paper. Two younger American novelists were invited by a key organ of contemporary opinion, the opinion-editorial page of the New York Times, to deliver their views concerning the chairman of the special Senate subcommittee…Mr. Willie Morris set up an opposition between Senator Ervin and Messrs Haldeman and Erlichman on the basis of a regional difference, contrasting the grace and dignity of the Old South, with the rawness and amorality of the West Coast, finding for “Senator Sam” partly on the basis of qualities Morris claimed to remember from his boyhood days when he dated the Senator’s “charming granddaughters.” Mr. Lelchuk, a shade more beamish was roused by Mr. Ervin’s Shakespeariana to an “affection approaching family feeling.” “My dear Senator,” he wrote:

It’s been a long, long time in our national life since we’ve had someone to look up to, to respect, laugh with, and finally even, love. Someone whom we’d want to sit down to dinner with as well as lead us…You help us redefine the meaning of the heroic, the joining of the ordinary (downhome stories) with the extraordinary (your knowledge of the Constitution and the laws); the opportunity to meet a great challenge and take on a monstrous opponent, the acknowledgment of vulnerability while getting the job done…In the midst of dealing with lies, cover-ups, crimes, mechanical hacks and conscienceless bureaucrats, cheats, extortionists, perjurers, burglars, bagmen and blackmailers, while dealing with the low sordid crimes of the Tyrant (the higher ones, of Indochina, as you well know, need another courtroom), you have remained just, cultured, intelligent, graceful, learned.

No impulse here to breathe along the nerves of a leader, to know his innerness, to suffer the full power of his vanities and frustrations and blindness as one’s own afflictions. Those who remember Mr. Ervin in the 1960s as firmly dedicated to the proposition that the poor and the powerless should continue to be punished for being poor and powerless, because the Constitution so recommended, could not fully share this perception.

The absence of keenness was no less marked in midcult journalistic accounts of witnesses than in encomia bestowed on the interrogators. A portion of the blame for this may perhaps be laid to the need to objectify and characterize what is properly described as trade association mentality.

We may return to Mr. Baker’s questioning of Mr. Herbert Porter who disbursed large sums unquestioningly for the Committee to Reelect the President and, like virtually all the others, never blew the whistle—we might return specifically to the question, “What was your state of mind, how did you feel?” Mr. Porter’s face betrayed a touch of surprise at these questions, as well it might, for these are not queries of the kind familiar to trade association persons, and Porter and the rest—Dean, Magruder, Mitchell, Erlichman, Halderman, others—seem to have been genuine trade association men. Of what mentality do we speak when we use this phrase? Suppose yourself an employee of the Independent Grocers Association lobby in Washington: how exactly do you deal with events or experiences or questions from without? As follows, by referring them to the welfare of the Independent Grocers. An oil shortage, a riot in Detroit, the conviction of a Congressman for taking bribes from contractors, a decision about Federal control of advertising rates on cable TV channels, a new food stamps program, a drought in East Africa—about each of these issues, about all matters, a trade association man is never confused. The essential question before him cannot be moral, philosophical, professional. There is but one question, unvarying, superbly comforting. “How will this affect us?” Whatever and whenever an event occurs, the grid for its reception is prepared, the filter is fixed: “Where is our interest?” and as for one’s insides: well, the sense of personal justification and responsibility is firm. To ask the question, “How will this affect us?”, is to be doing one’s job, faithful to one’s charge, loyal, principled, dutiful…To be asked how one felt at a time when one was only doing a good trade association man’s job…It is a little like waiting in your car as a traffic violator for a cop, who when he finishes writing a summons, hands it to you accompanied by a bit of a Verdi opera. Mr. Porter is jostled. He falls back on the old worn Nixon organizational words—team player, member of the group. The media seizes on the words, we are once again off on the weary culture critique of the 1950s, conformity, etc. But the life of this instant of questioning, as of many others, lay elsewhere in the patch of moral surprise, and this life could have been touched by an alert journalist.

One can, to be sure, press too hard. I do not claim to have “the explanation,” nor do I say that I know that crowd to their bottom—the prevalence of trade association mentality explains all. America, lacking institutions, lacking a clergy, army, aristocracy, lacking professions knit tightly enough to enforce standards, has in their place trade associations, and the problem is that they are inevitably heedless of any and all larger goods. I believe such talk, laid on too heavily, isn’t sound reporting, it is editorializing, culturology. What one is after is the instant of penetration, the answer to the question, “Why did he look surprised?”—the interpreter catching and explaining a bit of feeling on the wing. And of this there is very little.


It may readily be granted that Watergate turned a searchlight on sub- and middle-literary assumptions, with a bearing on the alteration of politics, but only a solemn head would propose that the searchlight reached as far as high literary culture. Still the hearings were oddly helpful—obliquely helpful—in calling to mind features of the currently dominant aesthetic that are at least tangentially connected with problems of imagination in political inquiry. Gleefully non-referential, this aesthetic takes as the highest good the exploration through parody of the postures of literary truthseeking. At its best it produces a Mary McCarthy responsive to the genius of Nabokov and supremely hostile to the mythy kitsch of Halberstam. At its less good—well, the implicit epistemology may be characterized—unkindly—as schoolboy positivist. It announces in tones of revelation that all talk, all writing, “all expressed forms of life, reality and history [are] fiction…,” that “life, reality and history only exist as discourse…” and that no form of discourse “can be life, reality or history.” From here it advances to a chuckle at the lunacy of believers in historical or political understanding. “What is the Civil War and how do we know it”, asks Professor Poirier in 1968. “Where is Lyndon Johnson and how does anyone know him? Is he a history book, an epic poem or a cartoon by David Levine? Who invents Lyndon Johnson, when and for what immediate purpose? And what about Richard Nixon, the living schmoo? Where does fiction end and the historical figure begin?...How do we know…the Vietnam war…any more than we know Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon?”

It would be pointless to abuse partisans of these views in the name of one or another naïve realism—or other epistemological simplism. What matters is not in this instance acts of assessment but an act of recognition—awareness that the influence of the anti-referentialists has tended to elevate truths of the labyrinth, of frustration and enclosure, to sacramental status, while dismissing as delusory truths of the clearing, of satisfaction and release. The latter truths are, to be sure—R. E. Collingwood once explained this—individual and local, hinged to transitory states of feeling—but no more so than the truths of the labyrinth. And valuing the one immensely above the other has the effect, among others, of inhibiting imaginative inquiry into political experience. Where is Robert Halderman and how does one know him? One knew an instant of him—something not be confused with words—as Mr. Weicher read back his marginalia. Good! Great! One saw a person knowing in a discrete instant that he was being perceived as caught out, feeling within himself that he had been deceived, hating his deceiver, half-shamed yet not by what it was held he should be ashamed—a complex of experience, in short, different for Halderman than for Weicher, or for the viewer. Pondering all this in the present context one is less comfortable with the contemporary passion for the inaudible, the inexpressible, the unknowable; less tolerant of the ceaseless crying down of theories of literary reference that actually haven’t had standing for two centuries or longer. Well and good to mock, in fine “litry” style, the Watergate cliché: “at this moment in time.” Dangerous, though, ever to forget that authenticity about “this moment in time” is among the strongest literary suits. Lawrence himself—I note this in passing, and in embarrassment, and yet am persuaded of its relevance—repeated these words often in his discourse, as for example on the explosive truth of the relation between Van Gogh and sunflowers, a truth “at that quick moment in time,” “at that living moment.” He was no voice of simple minded mimesis like those the politicians of self-parody conjure as their enemy—yet there is surely nothing in his aesthetic to deny the possibility of a vibrant imaginative work in political settings.

A counterpart to the belief in salvation by parody is the conviction that public voices, which by definition speak seriously and attempt to imagine or incarnate national energies in a “mere” literary tone, are tastelessly presumptuous. “I am the only President you have,” said Mr. Johnson, later Mr. Nixon agrees. Perhaps partly in response, aspirants to a national voice regularly perceive themselves as hilarious clowns—challengers afflicted with loony presidential aspiration (“My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I’m a Catholic,” says Allen Ginsberg in “America.”)—or as spokesmen on the margin, voices of special interest or local hate. Even when deformed, the ambition of such aspirants can be exhilarating (or at least funny). The democratic nerve trills when Norman Mailer gazes at Henry Cabot Lodge striding across the Saigon airport, and invents a Mr. Ambassador who feels himself to be "necessarily superb.” The intensity and rhetorical blaze of LeRoi Jones’s “Black Art” raises that poem to levels higher than those of ordinary Black Power tracts.

Yet the presumption I refer isn’t finally a mere spirit of impudence, like that which speaks loudest on Mailer’s political page, and it is invariably more inclusive than any attitude framed in the poems of LeRoi Jones. The sound is that of a summons, a demanding address to the energies of a potentially national best self. The capacity to produce this sound depends on belief in an alternative continent of power, a reservoir of sanity or of proper protest basely ignored by the authorities.

I do not imply—in order to achieve a rising tone—that the episode we are passing through is creating such a power, an audience “beyond.” I would note that there have been hints in recent months of the formation of a popular risk-all, daretaking, deeply contrary moral judgment—that which alone can enable modest men and women to contemplate with terror total change, disruption, impeachment. But it is one thing to note this phenomenon and another to dream of imminent cultural reconciliation—between the newly alienated judgmental middle classes and the permanently alienated literateurs. The country’s two best-regarded literary creators have been committed for years to a “Hegelian suspicion,” as one critic puts it, “that the world itself is governed by self-generating political plots and conspiracies more intricate than any [that writers] could devise,” and utterly beyond the comprehension of the public at large. Watergate intensifies this belief, not weakens it.

Still the mind turns and turns. Our literary culture possesses, to this day, as England does not, a poetry of political incantation. Among our gifted younger writers are some who can image astounding solidarity with the outs, the bottom dogs, who can live into a snippet of near speech—a poor black father to son, at the zoo, pack it with furious force, becoming in the process priests of presumption, touching resonances of Whitman and Blake.

Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
They Lion grow.

Out of the gray hills
Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,
West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,
Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,
Out of the bones' need to sharpen and the muscles' to stretch,
They Lion grow.

Earth is eating trees, fence posts,
Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones,
"Come home, Come home!" From pig balls,
From the ferocity of pig driven to holiness,
From the furred ear and the full jowl come
The repose of the hung belly, from the purpose
They Lion grow.

From the sweet glues of the trotters
Come the sweet kinks of the fist, from the full flower
Of the hams the thorax of caves,
From "Bow Down" come "Rise Up,"
Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels,
The grained arm that pulls the hands,
They Lion grow.

From my five arms and all my hands,
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
From my car passing under the stars,
They Lion, from my children inherit,
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
From they sack and they belly opened
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.

I am imagining here a link between the spirit of this poem, the power of its assumed alliance and compassion, and the curious and moving national willingness—how it has awed Europe!—to consider taking our leaders out to their own and our own edge. I am imagining this and holding it forth, upward from the tangle of problems and obstacles, claiming it as our growing point. For the nurture of a literature of democratic politics, suitable for this nation as conceived, who knows better soil?

nation Benjamin DeMott 2015-03-21T17:22:46-05:00