The Decemberists, "12/17/12"

>> Friday, July 08, 2016


While his guitar gently weeps (and sings, and howls, and...)

>> Thursday, April 21, 2016

He steps out front about three minutes and twenty-five seconds in, and his guitar doesn't just gently weep, it cries, it howls, it wails, it stutters and it sings.  Dhani Harrison, himself the child of one of the rock gods who once made the Earth tremble, looks like a three-year-old watching a magician make a coin slide out of his ear the first time.  Prince hammers and slides and bends, effortlessly trills off a firecracker chain of fractioned notes and slides his hand down the Fender's neck like its greased.  And the wrecking crew of Hall of Fame inductees and pop legends up there with him might as well not be there at all, he just blows them right off the stage.

It isn't his number, of course.  It's a little challenging finding Prince tunes on YouTube because he was skeptical of the Internet; he filed a lot of DMCA takedowns, and then he'd go on a tech binge and relent and try to fit in with the new world order of online musical distribution, and then he'd relapse and send out a slew of takedowns.  Didn't make a lot of friends doing that, but it was his right to be prickly and controlling.

That control, in fact, was what made him a brilliant guitarist and songwriter.  And the guy, he was brilliant.  Prince was just utterly amazing when he was firing on all cylinders and still interesting even when he wasn't.  I'm not sure he ever quite lived up to the monster run he had from 1981's Controversy through Sign O' The Times (1987), a run that included 1999 (1982), Purple Rain (1984), and the often-overlooked gems Around the World In A Day (1985) and Parade (1986).  It may be that not even a genius could have kept up that kind of home-run record, or maybe he got derailed a bit during his infamous and very public beef with his label, Warner Bros., in the mid-'90s.

He was an eccentric, to be sure, and prickly, to be surer; but that epic fight with WB left a lot of people with the wrong impression.  It was commonly misperceived, probably because it was commonly misrepresented in the press, as a personal meltdown.  "Wow, is Prince nutty, he says he doesn't want to be called 'Prince' anymore, he wants to be known by an unpronounceable symbol!  And he shaved the word 'SLAVE' into his sideburns, is that wacky, or what?"  Easy for the press to dismiss, I suppose, in light of Prince's gender-bending costumes and makeup, which were less a matter of drag a la Bowie or The NY Dolls and more a matter of imagining we lived in a world where sexuality and gender were solved problems.  Of course the "Artist Formerly Known As Prince" business was a brilliant bit of publicly trolling Warner, trying to seize back control of his catalogue and career by making himself damned-near impossible to market even while he was still recording earworms and generating extraordinary publicity; the "SLAVE" was a more personal and (ironically) subtle-yet- (paradoxically) hammer-fisted statement; when he was a teenager and a nobody, he'd gotten himself stuck into a bit of a suboptimal recording contract, and the loopy shenanigans were part of a twisty and often-clever escape act.  And I believe--I'd have to relearn the details, but I think--it ultimately worked, he got the label to cave.  Of course, by the time they did, labels were facing the extinction-level-event of the Napster Impact and its global aftermath, a bit of off-timing (no wonder he didn't trust the Internet).

He was one-of-a-kind, anyway.  One of the last true originals, probably.   A synthesis of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Sly Stone, and David Bowie, along with undiscovered elements that appear on the periodic table in boxes marked with question marks and unpronounceable icons, and that scientists have failed to reproduce in lab experiment after lab experiment.  Apparently capable of playing any instrument he set his hands upon.  An extraordinary lyricist, and don't get distracted by the playful (or pretentious) substitutions of letters and numbers for words ("Nothing Compares 2 U," a Prince-penned song made famous by Sinead O'Connor, may have a deceptively childish title, but the song, an utterly wrenching flaying of an abandoned and lost heart, is anything but).

And now he's gone, another artist lost in a year that's been cruel so far.  Not just the quantity of artists, which is inevitable as we all grow older and pass into history, but the quality.  Prince Rogers Nelson, June 7, 1958 to April 21, 2016.  A few years shy of his 60th birthday.  Someday, some kid is going to hit play on whatever it is they listen to music on (the way things are going, hell, it could be a good ol' vinyl platter), and not believe that this guy walked the Earth.  Is going to wonder how he did it.  Is going to pick up a guitar and blow his friends away by learning to be half as good.  Some day, hell, some kid is going to come along and be better, and he's going to tell every music journalist from pole to antipode he learned to play listening to Purple Rain over and over and over again, a bit of "When Doves Cry" here and a snag of the title track there.

Don't rest in peace, Purple One: may the ghost of your eminence imbue the fingertips of a hundred thousand thousand kids with an uneasy longing that can only be eased with calluses.  May your spirit flow through our speakers and headphones, stay with us for a century so that generations of rock and roll prophets can study your secrets and keep you alive in hearts and hearts again.



An open letter to My Friend, Engr. Thomas Kune

>> Friday, April 15, 2016

Oil License Mandate For You My Friend‏
Engr. Thomas Kune (

7:58 AM
From:     Engr. Thomas Kune (

Sent:    Fri 4/15/16 7:58 AM


Hello Friend,

My name is Engr. Thomas Kune, I work with the Triumph Oil & Gas
Company of Madagascar also known as T-OIL. I will officially guide you
on how to obtain a crude oil sales license with T-OIL. This crude oil
sales license gives the beneficiary the mandate to sell T-OIL ALBA
crude oil to any part of the world and the license attracts a host
commission of $3 per barrel sold.

This means that T-OIL will be paying you a total commission of $3 per
each barrel sold under your license as the license operator. This
crude oil sales license has a capacity of one million barrels of crude
oil per month, this means that at the end of every sales transaction
monthly, you are entitled to receive a total commission of $3MUSD from

I will give you details on how this works as soon as I confirm your

We shall proceed as soon as I hear from you.

Dear Engineer Kune,

Hello, friend.  I hope that this letter finds you well and in good spirits, and that the weather in Madagascar is good.  I have to make a confession: I always find it a bit weird to write to you, as I always sort of imagine you are a talking lion or lemur or some other kind of animal (not necessarily one starting with the letter "L," of course), since the main exposure people in my part of the world have to your country is through a delightful series of movies about zoo animals.

But probably you are a human, in which case I wonder if you work for a lion or lemur or giraffe.  Or maybe that's a foolish question, I don't know.

Anyway, I wanted to write to you and express my concerns with how our venture is going so far, and seek your advice regarding some minor inconveniences and issues I have been having.

As you probably know, things started well enough.  I applied for the license as you encouraged me to, and my first shipment of oil arrived the following week.  The deliveryman was extremely courteous, polite, and helpful, and I have no complaints at all.  In fact, I'm extremely grateful that he helped me get the twenty 55-gallon drums I'd signed for into my garage after I moved the car out, which I imagine isn't exactly part of his usual job description.

So far, so good!  Alas, I do not want to be a fount of negativity, but things have not proceeded so smoothly since.

I assumed, for what I think are obvious reasons, that the oil would practically sell itself.  It is, after all, a precious international commodity currently selling for more than forty dollars a barrel as of this writing.  I figured, not unreasonably, I don't think, that if I went up and down the street and offered barrels for, say, five or maybe even ten dollars under the current international market price, I could still make a sizable commission, you could make a swell profit, and we would all be happy.  It even seemed to me that I would probably be able to sub-market the oil, letting some of my most-trusted friends in for a share of their commissions, relying on the same model used by such famous and highly profitable enterprises like Amway and the Church of Scientology.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I wheeled a fifty-five gallon barrel of oil up to my neighbor Bob's house, and he was completely uninterested in purchasing it!

As soon as he opened his door, Bob greeted me the way he usually does, "Kids weren't in your yard and I don't want to hear about it."  This is a friendly joke he and I have, an "in-joke," if you will.  Also, I would like to add that I'm sort of transcribing what he said for clarity: for instance, he didn't say "weren't," he said, "warnt," like a common hick imbecile, and "an'Idonwannaherboutidt," instead of "and I don't want to hear about it."  But he's a good guy, even if he sounds like he repeated the third grade a lot before he turned eighteen.

"That's not why I'm here, neighbor," I said, "and anyway if I find their bikes on my property again, I'm giving them away to the first hobos I see."  This, again, being a total joke between us, since we haven't had a hobo problem in our neighborhood since CSX stopped using the track back behind the woods four years ago.

"No sir," I went on, "I'm simply here to give you the opportunity of a lifetime!"  I didn't mean that I was going to offer Bob the chance to be a business partner, since he's the reason I chain my gas grill to the back porch, but I did want to sell him a barrel of oil, and he was first on my list because I considered him a viable sales candidate, or what my grandpa used to call "an obvious sucker," which was a technical carnie term grandpa learned when he was with Sterling and Schnarq's Traveling Revue.  It's not meant in a derogatory way, it's just what they call a "term of art."

Anyway, Bob showed what a viable sales candidate he is by cutting right to the chase and saying, "I'm not buying your cookies and what the hell is that thing on my porch?"

I should pause and explain that Bob is always high on my list when Girl Scout Cookies go on sale and that I had, with some difficulty because it didn't want to stay on the hand truck, brought a sample drum of oil up onto his porch so that he could see I wasn't making anything up.  (The last time I came over to sell him Girl Scout Cookies, Bob seemed suspicious about me not having any kids and also that the Thin Mints box I was selling only had one sleeve of cookies in it.  Come to think of it, he may be a less viable sales candidate than I pegged him for.)

Well, I went into my spiel.  Explained how crude oil was a great commodity, internationally sought after, wars fought over it, nations toppled by coups, how it was important for automobiles and plastics, how it could be used as a safe substitute for vegetable oil in "romantic time" and some Chinese dishes, the whole nine yards.  His eyes were glazing over, which I took as a good sign and so I wrapped up my pitch with the advice that he could, if he acted now, have this barrel of crude oil right here (I was pointing to the one I wheeled up onto his porch) for the perfectly reasonable price of $37.50 (this was when it was going about $38 on the international market; I figured I wouldn't start out with too big a discount).

"What the hell am I going to do with a barrel of crude oil?" he asked me.

"Well," I said, prepared for exactly that question.

"Aren't you supposed to process it at a refinery or something before it's usable?" he asked.

"So, going back to your last question," I replied, "as I said, there are many things you can do with this barrel of oil.  For instance--"

"That thing is leaking all over the place!  How much oil is in that thing?" he said.

You can see, perhaps, that Bob has all the etiquette you'd expect of a man whose mastery of birth control and basic good manners results in having three drooling beast-progeny who are incapable of keeping their games of tag and kick-the-can or whatever-they-do-these-days out of a man's yard even after he's threatened them with an air-pistol (you'd think a sense of basic self preservation would be the minimal level of intelligence for motile organisms, but apparently not).

"It's a standard fifty-five gallon drum," I said, "now, going back to your first question: there are many things you can do with this barrel of oil.  As an example--"

Unable to contain his excitement at this great opportunity and lacking in all politesse, Bob interrupted me.  "Is that my hand truck?" he said.

"Fine," I responded, "this missed once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is your loss.  Thank you for you time."

"And patience," I added, ironically.

Of course, I didn't really mean it.  I don't just mean my quick rapier-wit of sarcasm there at the end, where I thanked him for being polite even though he wasn't polite at all and kept interrupting me and I'm not joking about shooting his children or giving away their goddamn bicycles next time.  I mean that I fully intended to come back and sell him a barrel of oil, probably at the going market rate, after I'd gone around the neighborhood and sold most of my other barrels and he'd had a chance to see how much opportunity he'd missed.  I might even, I figured, wait until the next shipment of oil came in to revisit my good friend and neighbor, so he could stew for a couple of weeks in the rich broth of missed opportunity.

Well, I'm afraid to say that my revenge didn't quite work out as planned.  I next went across the street to see Ms. Dudley.  She is a fine old lady, a retired school librarian, and as sweet and kindly as you can imagine.  For instance, some people would hold a grudge if you called the police to file a noise complaint against them, but Ms. Dudley almost never mentions it.  And I really think she's forgotten about the misunderstanding where her grandson's car was towed at Thanksgiving that year, or at least she's had the good grace and breeding (unlike Bob Mitsky) to pretend she doesn't know who called the city towing.  And I sort of regretted not going to see her first, frankly, because she has a wheelchair ramp from her driveway up to her front porch, which made it a lot easier to get the barrel of oil up to her front door.

"GOOD MORNING, MS. DUDLEY!" I shouted when she opened the door.  I believe she may be a little deaf, or at least that's what I've assumed from the volume she used to blast out those swing records at.

"Why are you shouting?" she asked me.

"I'd like to give you a once in a lifetime opportunity," I said.  "You know, in this day and age, there is no commodity as valuable as crude oil--not gold, not spices, not fine silks--"

"What have you brought up onto my porch?" she cried, even though in her wheelchair she was at about eye-level with the "C R U D E  O I L" that was stenciled on the side of the drum and was wearing her old lady glasses.

"Well, about that," I said, "this, you see, is a genuine fifty-five gallon drum of one hundred percent genuine Madagascar crude oil, and--"

"Is that Bob Mitsky-across-the-street's hand truck?" she interrupted me.  (Old people are allowed to do that, because their advanced age entitles them to repay decades of deference and respect with an utter lack of it.)  "He was looking for it the other week, wasn't he?"

Well, long story short (and this could, indeed, be much longer), she didn't buy the drum, even though I offered her a senior citizens' discount.  (I have to confess I may have queered the pitch by accidentally calling it a "senile citizens' discount," but I think I played it off pretty well by saying that I didn't actually think she was senile, it was just a discount for people who might be, because of their advancing decrepitude.)

And--here's the discouraging part--nobody else on the block bought a drum either.

Now, I would like to be absolutely clear about something: you and I are good.  I am not trying to get out of our arrangement, which I think is a viable option.  The fact that my efforts have yielded very little fruit doesn't mean too much to me: I consider myself a patient man, and my grandpa's lessons are something I've taken close to heart and have served me well.  "Eric," he said to me when I was a wee lad at his knee, "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again.  Unless you're on the trapeze, in which case you're probably pretty well fucked."

(I apologize for the coarse language, but grandpa was a frank and salty man, from his years working the circus and carnival circuit.  That's literally true re: the latter, since decades spent in the presence of roasted peanuts had left him with a cured look and an unforgettable tang of the sea about him.  This proved fortunate when he passed away and we buried him, as embalming expenses were completely unnecessary.  But I digress.)

Anyway, anyhow, I am willing to keep trying.  I have several other neighborhoods to canvas, plus the local gas stations.  I also feel the Internet is a promising avenue to follow; while my eBay auction has not garnered as much attention as I'd like, my Craigslist listing, "The Crude Man Is Ready To Keep You Lubed!" has garnered a lot of attention and I feel extremely optimistic about the leads it's generating.

No, the problem I'd like to address is our current shipping arrangement.  As we'd agreed, you've been shipping me twenty barrels of crude oil every week for the past seven weeks, which would be an excellent supply if my outgoing crude oil were keeping match as we'd hoped.  Instead, I am now in possession of 140 barrels of crude oil.

These drums, alas, are all about two feet in diameter and about three feet in height, while my garage is a one-car garage about 12 feet in width and 25 feet deep, with an eight-foot ceiling.  This means that I can only stack one barrel on top of another, and that the most barrels I can get in are six across and twelve deep if I want to be able to close the garage door, for a maximum garage crude oil barrel capacity of 144 barrels.  And I have to park my car in the driveway.  Where Bob's kids can get to it.

You, perhaps, being an engineer, see the problem?

I hope you will not take offense if I make the observation that some of these barrels have seen better days.  The very first day I was out trundling around the barrel that I tried to sell to Bob, Ms. Dudley, the Franklins, Tommy Smith and whatever his wife is called, the Boxers, Terri Habro, those people with the RV that never goes anywhere, Delores and Arthur Wanning, Dan Elbing, the lady who thinks it's still 1967, and the pot-smoking college kids renting Steve Banting's ranch-style, I was quite pleased at how strong I was getting over the course of the day until I slipped on an oil slick in front of the Wanning kid, Candace or Shandi or whatever it is, and realized it was less a matter of the barrel feeling lighter thanks to my day of lifting and pushing and more a matter of the barrel being lighter thanks to a leak in the bottom.

(Let me interject right here that I don't see this as being a sales problem so long as I'm scrupulous in maintaining in my pitch that the purchaser is buying a fifty-five gallon drum of oil, as opposed to fifty-five gallons of oil.  This is what my grandpa called "tailor the pitch so you don't get pinched."  Have I mentioned how wise grandpa was?)

Anyhoo, because of the condition of some of these barrels, I'm a bit concerned about having them piled up outside, where they can get more rust spots in the rain.  Not to mention that Bob Mitsky is a thief--he even took my hand truck, so God only knows what he'd do if he was tempted by the sight of a stack of fifty-five gallon drums in my driveway.  Even if I put them in the backyard, which is fenced-in, I fear his brats might see them over or through the fence while trespassing in my front yard again, and would report back to him and then where would I be?

No, I can fit four more barrels in my garage, and no more, and that's all there is to it.

So I would ask for one of two concessions to our agreement.  First, you could just send me four more barrels until I'm able to sell the ones I have, and suspend shipments until I can move them (by which I mean "sell," since moving them is currently difficult because of the hand truck issue alluded to earlier).  Or, second, you could just suspend shipments now, until I move the barrels I have (by which I still mean..., etc.).  Whichever is easier.  But I think you'll agree, expecting me to take on more barrels right now is a bit of a problem for both of us.

I do not mean to cancel or breach our existing agreement.  I am an honest man, and I'm not going to skedaddle in the middle of the night and leave you without a star attraction like a bunch of no-good conjoined twins.  No, I will take possession of back shipments as soon as my garage is a little cleared out.  If the Craigslist thing works out like I think it will, for example, you could send me sixty more barrels in three weeks and we'd be back to capacity.  I will sell these barrels, I promise.  I just need a little bit of space, literally and figuratively.  I know you'll understand.

Thank you.


R. Eric VanNewkirk
Standing on the Shoulders of Giant Midgets


I thought about using Bob's garage temporarily, but he changed the locks right after he stole the hand truck.  He's not a good neighbor at all.  Do you know, I think he may have even called the EPA?  Like he's got nothing to hide.


An open apology to Ross Douthat for causing Donald Trump

>> Tuesday, March 01, 2016

The spectacle of the Republican Party’s Trumpian meltdown has inspired a mix of glee and fear among liberals — glee over their rivals’ self-immolation, and fear that what arises from the destruction will be worse.

What it hasn’t inspired is much in the way of self-examination, or a recognition of the way that Obama-era trends in liberal politics have helped feed the Trump phenomenon.
- Ross Douthat, "From Obama To Trump"
The New York Times, February 27th, 2016.

Dear Mr. Douthat, 

I am not actually a New York Times subscriber, so I don't read your column very regularly unless someone points an article out to me.  But I do visit Slate pretty regularly, and William Saletan wrote a response to your February 27th editorial that steered me over to that piece, which I read with some interest.

I have to confess that there is some dim truth to your first two paragraps where I, personally, am concerned; I have not viewed the "spectacle of the Republican Party's Trumpian meltdown" with a mix of "glee and fear," so much as with a mix of what I would call "amusement and horror," but it is utterly true that I have not engaged in much "self-examination" or "recognition of the way that Obama-era trends in liberal politics have helped feed the Trump phenomenon."

In part, that may be the result of not seeing the Obama era as being terribly liberal, except (perhaps) in contrast to the exaggerated conservatism of the post-Reagan years, during which Bill Clinton was passed off as a Democrat and Obama, a thoroughly center-right politician whose policies can't be described as radical departures from those of such commie Molotov-cocktail-tossers as Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, has commonly been labeled a socialist.  I should add here that I've liked and admired the President, despite his obvious role in creating Donald Trump, and have largely approved of his Presidency, despite being far to his left on so many issues; I suppose President Obama has been exactly the kind of moderate conservative that I could see actual Democratic Socialists in a parliamentary system forming temporary and even semi-permanent coalitions with; the kind of moderate who cares about people and policies (in that order, too) and so can be worked with.  (Perhaps explaining in a nutshell why Bernie Sanders, an actual Democratic Socialist, caucuses with Democrats in Congress, has publicly supported while simultaneously critiquing the President, and currently runs for the Presidency as a Democrat.)

But I digress.

The point is that I hadn't given much thought to self-examination or recognition of how Trump was really Obama's fault--or, ultimately, my fault--because it just hadn't occurred to me that Trump wasn't the ultimate manifestation of a number of larger trends in the American political system combined with some long-standing trends in Republican politics.

I mean, Mr. Saletan makes all kinds of excellent points about Republican obstructionism during the Obama Presidency, and about how Obama has had to resort to executive orders to deal with an obstinate Congress and how bizarre it is that Congress has gone to extremes to reject their own ideas just because they came from the Obama White House (we're talking about the ACA, natch).  But one could go back even further and wider when looking at Trump's rapid takeover of the GOP.

One could, for instance, take his anti-intellectualism and his propagandistic "it is what I say it is" approach to "truthiness" as being the logical endgame of the conservative media critique that engendered Fox News.  Liberals (and I realize these are generalizations and there are exceptions) tend to criticize the media for perceived omissions (the mainstream media aren't reporting on this or that because they're afraid they'll lose their access to persons or institutions, or because they're afraid of alienating sponsors or owners); conservatives, meanwhile, have bought into a far more toxic (in my opinion) critique that the mainstream media is simply lying, altering or misreporting facts in order to promote a liberal agenda.  Never mind whether either of these critiques is true, or how true: the point is that if there's a widespread belief on the part of conservatives that the media is actively lying about things (as opposed to simply not taking on controversial topics that might make individuals, agencies, or corporations look bad), it's no wonder that many of those same conservatives wouldn't care that the media is reporting that only around 7% of the things Donald Trump says are "true" or "mostly true."  The mainstream media--or "lamestream media," as I believe Ms. Palin calls them--lies pathologically and doubtlessly smears Trump as part of a larger agenda to support establishment (and preferably liberal) candidates for office.

And speaking of Ms. Palin: as another f'r'instance of what one might have thought was blowing in the wind, surely the sudden and astonishing rise of Sarah Palin from Governor of an eccentric, provincial, backwater state (sorry, Alaskan friends, but I suspect you agree with me) to Vice-Presidential nominee and reality TV star is a harbinger of the Trump sweep?  Our dear Ms. Palin was promoted out of obscurity by a gaggle of conservative journalists and pundits who saw in her a charismatic conservative blank slate, with no real record to work against her.  Of course, the former pageant winner and TV sportscaster showed them, quickly embracing the lights and cameras of the national spotlight when she became John McCain's running mate.  It somehow seems worth noting, as you know, that she was McCain's petulantly made second choice after McCain's advisors completely vetoed McCain's first choice, Joseph Lieberman; say what you will about Lieberman (or McCain), that would have been the kind of party-crossing, principled, over-the-aisles nomination that a lot of people suggest they want when they complain about how partisan everything is these days (so unlike our golden, non-partisan past).  With all due respect to Trump's alleged status as the sometimes-so-called "first reality show candidate," he's surely the second, at best.

Of course, mentioning John McCain reminds me: you know how everyone talks about how mean and personal Trump's attacks on his rivals are?  It is so unprecedented, you know.  It isn't like anybody ever, say, oh, just randomly and plucked from thin air, it isn't like anybody ever ran for the Republican Presidential nomination and made a grab for South Carolina's delegates by accusing another candidate in the race of possibly being mentally ill because of his tenure in a POW camp during the Vietnam War.  Yes, Trump is definitely unique in his abrasive, insulting approach to politics, saying whatever he wants about others even concerning matters in which it isn't hard to see those others as his betters.  One might think--this is our purely hypothetical candidate, here, and not Donald Trump (we're merely making a comparison)--that an imaginary candidate who avoided the draft during the Vietnam War by joining the Air National Guard and then apparently spent much of the rest of the war running a family friend's unsuccessful Senate campaign would have some nerve insinuating that his rival was crazy from getting shot down over North Vietnam, having his body almost completely broken in the crash, and spending years in a prison being tortured.  Such an imaginary person--thank goodness nobody this crass and craven has ever shown up before Trump--who insults those who served in his place would have to be a pretty low-down son-of-a-bitch, pardon the expression.  Fortunately, such sad tactics would never work in the real world, at least not until now, in the age of Obama.  It's only now that being a mean asshole gets you anywhere.

Thanks, Obama.

We should probably talk, of course, about what I should do about Donald Trump's racism and xenophobia.  I don't know where he gets it from.  Well, I mean, obviously he gets it from Obama and me.  Because he's our fault and our responsibility.  I have to admit, though, I feel this--I hope forgivable and understandable--urge to deflect blame.  And I have to admit, it doesn't work, because of course you have to dig around a bit, right?  After all, I could try to deflect the criticism I so hugely deserve by trying to pin Trump's appeal to racist voters by dredging up Kevin Philips, Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign strategist who is often credited with inventing the Southern Strategy.  But that was a million years ago.  Or forty-eight.  Same difference.  Point is, it's a long time ago and ancient history and can't possibly be relevant.  Plus, Nixon is dead and so we should say nothing but nice things about Richard Nixon; e.g., "Richard Nixon was a pathologically insecure creep who probably did more to undermine democracy than any President since James Buchanan" is definitely not something we should ever say, but, "Richard Nixon is dead," is okay, since it's a nice thing to say about Richard Nixon and De mortuis nihil nisi bonum and all that.

Or I could try to make some kind of excuse that Trump's appeal to racist white Republicans is merely reaping what Lee Atwater sowed during the campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.  Which would be silly of me, I know, because Reagan was a saint, a saintly man, the next bestest thing to Jesus on Earth, and if he ever went around any county fair in Mississippi talking about his belief in States' Rights--secessionist code since, what, the 1850s?--or giving speeches about "young bucks" and "welfare queens," well, nobody would ever take that as blowing a dog whistle.  Nobody sensible, and we know how sensible voters down here in the South can be, give or take a Federal fort or schoolhouse or college campus or two.  And Willie Horton is so 20th Century, who could get bothered by that anymore, when George H.W. Bush is a skydiving grandfather and what a clean old man.

I would also like very much, Mr. Douthat, to praise you before I get to the on-my-hands-and-knees part of this letter, for your brilliant assessment of how Obama has turned the Presidential race into mass entertainment--

First, the reality TV element in Trump’s campaign is a kind of fun-house-mirror version of the celebrity-saturated Obama effort in 2008. Presidential politics has long had an escalating celebrity component, a cultish side that’s grown ever-more-conspicuous with time. But the first Obama campaign raised the bar. The quasi-religious imagery and rhetoric, the Great Man iconography and pillared sets, the Oprah endorsement and music video and the Hollywood stars pledging allegiance — it was presidential politics as one part Aaron Sorkin-scripted liturgy, one part prestige movie’s Oscar campaign.

And it worked. But because it worked, now we have the nearly-inevitable next step: presidential politics as a season of "Survivor" or, well, "The Apprentice," with the same celebrity factor as Obama’s '08 run, but with his campaign’s high-middlebrow pretensions stripped away. If Obama proved that you can run a presidential campaign as an aspirational cult of personality, in which a Sarah Silverman endorsement counts for as much as a governor or congressman’s support, Trump is proving that you don’t need Silverman to shout "the Aristocrats!" and have people eat it up.

How true!  Of course, I'm too young to remember Richard Nixon appearing on Laugh-In in 1968, so I can't argue with you at all about Presidential candidates rolling with changes in technology and culture, especially as they try to appeal to younger voters and to voters of any age who might rely on newer forms of mass communication in lieu of older media formats and who might have more interest in a popular TV show than in newspapers.  I have some dim, nagging memory that a Presidential candidate possibly appeared on a late-night talk show in the early 1990s, something--this will sound absurd and you can laugh at me, Mr. Douthat, but I have this distinct impression that the Presidential candidate played a flugelhorn or clarinet or some other kind of blowy-into-ey musical instrument for the benefit of a national audience of mostly younger, hipper viewers, and that this candidate was roundly criticized for this and yet appearances on late-night talk-shows nevertheless became the norm for aspiring politicians.  This is, of course, silly of me.  Delusional.  Nobody did this before Obama, who was also the first President to acknowledge pop culture ephemera like George Lucas movies and Bruce Springsteen albums in his speeches.  There is no way on Earth, anyway, that an aspiring Presidential candidate could appear on a comedy program and get elected twice, much less once.  (Yes, that last sentence was written that way on purpose.  For some reason.)

Anyway, this brings us to the nitty gritty of it, which is that I would like to be the first liberal to reflect and self-examine and admit that your party's decision to give a strong showing to Donald Trump is my fault.  It is true that I have never voted for a Republican beyond supporting a few friends' local, non-partisan judicial campaigns because I knew them socially and professionally.  It is true I am registered independent, that I identify as a Democratic Socialist most of the time, that my top two choices for President would be Jill Stein or Bernie Sanders, and that I would rather have eaten a bag of nails slathered in fecal sauce than voted for Mitt Romney or George W. Bush.  It is true, too, that I think Ronald Reagan was an awful President, and that Richard Nixon should have been indicted.  That I am thoroughly disgusted by the kind of Southern Strategy politics that Trump has adapted into a national campaign, and that I feel the Democratic Party (which I am not a member of) is ultimately better off without the Dixiecrat-ish "Democrats" whose parents and grandparents remained with the party of national secession out of inertia and habit even after Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson turned it into the party of the New Deal and Great Society--or at least until Nixon and Lee Atwater wooed them over to the former party of abolition (that great historical reversal and realignment of party politics that is so vital and so complicated to explain).

These things may be true, but they evade a more fundamental and vital truth, which is that those things were then and this is now, and surely there's no point in looking backwards when we're always twirling towards freedom (to paraphrase a fictional Presidential candidate).  And the here-and-now-and-oh-look-shiny is that Barack Obama is President.

Nixon is forgiven, Reagan is a saint, Bush the Elder is a little old geezer, and Bush the Younger an awfully nice chap to have a beer with, am I right or am I right?  Heaven knows, not one of these guys would blow a racist dog whistle, not one of them would smear an opponent with weird and ironic ad hominem attacks on their fitness for office, not one of them would make a campaign moment out of going after a network anchor, not one of them would ever say something that might be patently less-than-true.  Not one of them would have pitched to ignorant and frightened voters convinced that the fix was in, convinced that they'd never noticed who the suckers at the table were until they figured out they were the suckers.  Not one of them would have tried to convince voters they weren't on the losing end of social change, that there was a silent majority who agreed with them, that there was a new morning in America just waiting to dawn.

And not one of them would have ever tried to appeal to a phobic, insecure, feeling-un-enfranchised white lower-middle-class voter worried about changing demographics and a rapidly shifting borderless economy where ideas are manufactured in America by a few people with degrees and shipped abroad for production in developing world sweatshops with consolidated, on-sight supply chains.

So I apologize.  I am sorry, so very, very sorry that I caused your party to go to Hell by following the path it's been set upon since Barry Goldwater's 1964 bid for the White House.  I am so sorry that I'm not likely to fulfill my obligation to save you from yourselves by voting for Marco Rubio instead of selfishly voting for Bernie Sanders in the open primaries.  So, so, so sorry.  Like, Tenth Doctor sorry.

Wait.  No, hang on.

I meant, I'm Roy Bean sorry.

Sincerely (or not),
R. Eric VanNewkirk
Standing on the Shoulders of Giant Midgets


The voice is gone, and what else had been there? Goodbye, Antonin.

>> Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The opinion is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic.  It is one thing for separate concurring or dissenting opinions to contain extravagances, even silly extravagances, of thought and expression; it is something else for the official opinion of the Court to do  so.  Of course the opinion’s showy profundities are often profoundly incoherent....   The stuff contained in today’s opinion has to diminish this Court’s reputation for clear thinking and sober analysis.
- Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. ___ (2015), Justice Scalia, dissenting.

I worry that I'm not a kind person.  I would like to be kind.  I am afraid that when I die--this is one of the few things about death I'm really afraid of--there will be a lot of people who will remember that I was cruel, and impatient, and intolerant.  Because I am all of those things so often, even though I would rather not be.

It is one of the things I hate about my job, to be honest with you.  It's a job that demands a certain amount of inconsiderate treatment of others, demands a certain level of confrontation, a certain level of impatience.  We don't like it, as a rule; if you are a lawyer, you will take hours of ethics courses that are essentially about not being an asshole, read state Bar opinions and journal articles about how "professionalism" demands that you be considerate and tolerant and polite.  And then you'll walk into a meeting with opposing counsel who is being obstinately unfair on some point, or deal with a witness who is obviously lying, and what are you going to do?  How are you going to politely tell someone they're being an ass, how do you nicely call someone a liar?

I feel certain that some people will remember me as kind and empathetic.  Well, I have a hope of certainty; I'm optimistic, I guess you'd say.  But I know there are people who will remember I was a jackass, and probably rightly, because I probably was where they were concerned.  And the worst part is straining your mind and memory to think of ways you could have approached matters in a non-jackass way and failing to do so; not because of some childish sense of self-entitlement, some childish rationalization or justification (probably starting with, "But he...!"), but because there was no light on the path except your burning anger.

I don't think Antonin Scalia cared all that much whether people thought he was nice.  Maybe he did.  I didn't know him.  But he never acted like somebody who cared what was said about him when he was alive.

I guess we should honor that in death.

"A problem that undermines their entire approach is the authors' lack of a consistent commitment to textual originalism. They endorse fifty-seven 'canons of construction,' or interpretive principles, and in their variety and frequent ambiguity these 'canons' provide them with all the room needed to generate the outcome that favors Justice Scalia's strongly felt views on such matters as abortion, homosexuality, illegal immigration, states' rights, the death penalty, and guns."
- Richard A. Posner, "The Incoherence of Antonin Scalia"
New Republic, August 24th, 2012.

The complicated thing here is that you'll read a lot--have already read a lot, I imagine--about how Scalia was the greatest Justice or the worst Justice, how he was a defender of the Constitution or a threat to liberty, how he was a great protector of the capital-L Law or how he left a great wake of individual suffering behind him, and all of these things are true.  What you should probably reconsider about Justice Scalia is that how one feels about him probably comes down to how you feel about particular parts of the Constitution, whether you're big on the Fourth and Sixth Amendments or where you are on the Eighth and Fourteenth, for instances.  A pro-drugs libertarian might well adore Scalia on police searches and tear his hair out over Scalia on the use of drugs in religious ceremonies.  If you're a criminal defense attorney, you probably love the havoc he unleashed upon the rules of hearsay when he invoked a strong Confrontation Clause, and have spat on the ground and cursed his name over the things Scalia said and wrote about post-conviction relief for prisoners.

A charitable person might say that was a consequence of Scalia being true to his ideological roots as a strict originalist, and that's probably the thing a lot of the people writing nice things and harsh things about Scalia will get wrong over the next few weeks.  Oh, I mean, sure, Justice Scalia articulated this strict originalist position and went on a bit about how he believed in a "dead" Constitution; but the curious thing about Antonin Scalia's Founding Fathers is that they just happened to somehow believe a lot of things a conservative Catholic Italian-American born in Trenton and raised in Queens in the mid-20th Century might believe, which makes the Founders somehow both more and less progressive than you might expect from a lot of wealthy Anglo-Saxon farmers living on the frontier of the British Empire in the 1700s.  Scalia wasn't true to the Constitution and first principles so much as he was true to his prejudices, and I don't intend for that to be construed in a wholly pejorative way; he was prejudiced against certain prior restraints of free speech and against expansive police state powers, for instance, just as much as he was prejudiced against gays and minority ethnic groups.

I guess the point here is that while it was darkly amusing, as the kind of bloody-hearted socialist Scalia liked to mock, to make grim jokes about Scalia's death at a Chinese New Year's lunch this past Sunday at a table of liberal fellow-travelers, it's not really that simple.  It shouldn't be that simple for people who spent Sunday touting Scalia as a conservative icon and perhaps mourning his passing, either.  While Scalia undoubtedly took sides, the more complicated truth is that he was on his own side, and was never wholly for or against any of us--believe me, there are law-and-order Conservatives toasting the man right now who would have hated a lot of jurisprudence, as much as there are liberals who would be stunned to learn he'd upheld one of their articles of faith, albeit for some stupid reason involving a personal understanding of what James Madison thought about thermal imaging cameras.

Scalia is most famous for championing the judicial philosophy of originalism, which says that the Supreme Court should interpret the Constitution as it was understood at the time of its ratification (or at the ratification of individual amendments). He worked tirelessly to persuade his colleagues and the legal community that originalism was the only proper mode of constitutional decision-making. In Heller, he achieved a victory of sorts: Both he and Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the dissent, relied heavily on sources from the founding era. But even here, there is less than meets the eye. Heller notwithstanding, Scalia failed to convert his colleagues.
- Eric Posner, "The Tragedy of Antonin Scalia"
Slate, February 15th, 2016.

I don't come to praise Scalia; I come, indeed, to bury him.  But it's possible he buried himself.

There's a lot of hot air blowing around over Scalia's dissents, which were cutting and occasionally funny, but were never the law of the land.  Lots of people talking about how Scalia will be remembered for those dissents, and that could be true, I guess, though it seems hard to imagine.  It's not that there aren't quotable dissents going back to the birth of the Republic, it's just that those quotes are mostly old zingers that get trotted out by lawyers and judges for their impact and pithiness, and not because they mean very much.  By their nature, dissents are the grumblings of the side that lost.

This is the thing about Scalia's influence: he lost.  A lot.  Sometimes, even when he won, in cases where he wrote a concurrence with the majority result that really only reflected his own opinion and maybe Justice Clarence Thomas', he lost.  Being a pithy, quotable, cranky, cantankerous judge whose dark mutterings make readable newspaper articles and editorials (and, these days, tweets) is great if you want to see your name in print, but less-great if you're looking for the four-plus other votes necessary to make your views the law of the land for the foreseeable future.

I am writing this prematurely, of course: the man's been dead for two whole days and History will be the Court of Last Resort that determines whether Antonin Scalia was a great legal mind who will be as quotable as Oliver Wendell Holmes, or... well, I have no idea who the least-influential Supreme Court Justice of all time was, and Google hasn't been much help (perhaps because searching for nothing is inherently problematic, eh?).  It may well be that fifty years after I'm dead, Scalia will be worshiped by admiring 1Ls and Scalian bon mots will open and close thousands of essays and articles about the law, and rights, and life and how to live it.

It's just hard for me to imagine it, is all, when the man made such an art of being disagreeable in so many literal and figurative senses of that word.  Up to the day he died, there was a widespread conventional wisdom that many of Scalia's dissents and concurrences could have been majority opinions if he'd dialed the Scalianess of his words and thoughts down (from 11, natch) to 6 or 7; that he'd antagonized plausible allies on the bench until they wouldn't join an opinion of his if they needed the paper for kindling so as to not freeze to death in a blizzard; that he had marginalized himself so effectively after decades of snark, sarcasm, and, sometimes, hammer-heavy brutality, as to make himself almost irrelevant except for the entertainment value his latest rant would be guaranteed to have.  That a career of trolling left him where trolls traditionally end, alone (mostly, but for the companionship of the ever-stalwart Justice Thomas) under a bridge.

I have a suspicion that this is going to be his legacy.  I would guess.  I could be wrong.  I'm wrong, a lot.  But if you asked me to invest in some kind of speculative fund based on Supreme Court Justices' legacies, I don't see Antonin Scalia being the kind of growth venture that John Roberts will probably be; Roberts picked not because he's a conservative like Scalia (I'm not sure there are conservatives like Scalia, even among the conservatives who think they're like Scalia), not because Roberts is especially admirable, nor, not even, because Roberts is a Chief Justice; but because Roberts seems to understand that he's supposed to be interpreting cases and issuing binding opinions about the law and Constitution, and not just shouting thoughts he has from the bench.  Roberts, that is, seems to grok that he is supposed to be negotiating agreements and forming coalitions and sometimes making compromises in order to produce lasting clarity and understanding.  That a Supreme Court opinion isn't merely an editorial or disquisition on some political theory of the law, or (worse) a scathing critique of the Court's institutional or (worst) personal defects.

Today, Scalia’s words are only that, his rhetoric inversely proportionate to its influence. He has lost the culture wars, and he knows as much. The most he can do is concoct vinegar-infused dissents, hoping the next generation of law students, whom he feels is his true audience anyway, will eagerly ingest them.
- Jennifer Senior, "Antonin Scalia May Be Losing the Culture Wars,
But He’s Winning the Zinger Wars"
New York Magazine, June 26th, 2015.

Which, you know... oh, I've failed to keep these sections wholly separate, like I intended.  Well, do forgive me for failing a structural agenda you probably didn't even notice until I called it out.

Anyway--which, you know, that previous section is perhaps a warning and benediction for those celebrating Scalia's death.  "Warning" is probably the wrong word, but I haven't a better; "caution," maybe?  Anyhow, just as Antonin Scalia failed at influencing and persuading his colleagues, it seems like he fared hardly better with his nation, which is understandable since the rest of us are a larger undertaking than eight other Ivy League law school grads.

I haven't gone through Scalia's last decade of dissents, but one can just look at his dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges and see in it the ravings of a man who knows he's lost the culture war and can't surrender gracefully.  You could almost feel sorry for him, if he was the kind of man you could feel sorry for.

I've seen a lot of very, very true comments hither and yon about how cruel Scalia was to various minority groups in this country.  And, not that the commenters asked for or need my endorsement, but they certainly have it, and I think the reminders that Scalia was in a position where his views could have an effect on real live human beings, and weren't just theoretical musings, are appropriate.

I'd just also like to observe, though, that those effects were diminishing over time, and that Scalia's statements in public and from the bench became harsher the more diminished he became, as if Scalia was aware (and surely he was aware) of how far out into the periphery of public discourse he was being swept and was becoming increasingly frantic for someone, anyone to pay attention to views on race and class and sexuality and culture that were no longer contemporary, modern, or even particularly relevant.  He was already drowning in his own obsolescence, don't you know?

If he hadn't been a Supreme Court Justice, he'd have been your crazy uncle you only see at Thanksgiving.  The one you'd like to argue with, except your mom will be mad at you, so you just roll your eyes when his head is turned, and on the drive home you and your significant other try to out-do one another in disbelief that an example of such a nearly-extinct species still roams the Earth, refusing to pass the sweet potatoes while yammering on about how the Negroes were happier when they stuck to their own colleges and he wouldn't have as much of a problem with faggots if they'd stop trying to force butt-sex on everybody.

He was already dying, before he even died.

If he wanted respect in death, the man should’ve shown it to more people in life.
- Sara Benincasa, "On The Death Of A Brilliant Public Servant",
Medium, February 13th, 2016.

I don't much feel like dancing on a grave.  Not that I begrudge anybody wanting to bust a move beside his tombstone.  I definitely don't want to get into a litany of all the people who loved or liked him, from his grandkids to the Notorious RBG.  Maybe he should have thought about how nasty people would be about his demise when he was editing invective (just because you write something, doesn't mean you need to publish it).  My own worry that people will say mean things when I die is that I will deserve it, and Scalia doesn't seem to have ever let that thought worry his head any.

My lack of happy feet is more a testament of spiritual fatigue than it is a matter of whether he deserves it.  He very probably deserves it; and good riddance, though, honestly, I'm kind of thinking his absence will be more keenly felt in the conspicuous relative silence and slight rise in the level of discourse at the Supreme Court level than in his actually being, you know, missed.  (Someone in the halls of the Supreme Court, one of the clerks, probably, will say something like, "Boy, can you imagine Scalia's response to this?"  And they will laugh.  Not for long.  A laugh, the kind of laugh that could accurately be rendered: "Ha-ha."  And then someone, possibly the very same clerk, will ask if anybody wants to have a drink after work.)

"I plan to fulfill my constitutional responsibilities to nominate a successor in due time. There will be plenty of time for me to do so, and for the Senate to fulfill its responsibility to give that person a fair hearing and a timely vote. These are responsibilities that I take seriously, as should everyone."
- President Barack Obama, February 13th, 2016.

I'm ready, then, for the President to appoint someone to replace him, because that's what Presidents do, is appoint people to fill vacancies.  And then the Senate, which has a Constitutionally-designated job to "advise and consent," can do whatever it is they collectively feel constitutes advising and consenting.  Or not-consenting, which I think is implicitly a part of consenting.  The Senate can sit on the nomination for 340-something days if that's what they feel their job is, I don't see them being under any obligation to approve a nomination any more than I see an obligation on the President's part to not-make a nomination.

There's a lot of stupid going around, and I get to be non-partisan and say that the stupidity seems to be a bit on both sides.  I'm not aware of anything that forces a President in the final year of his lame-duck presidency to withhold a nominee for a Supreme Court vacancy; the idea that there's a "tradition" arising out of an absence of an event ever having happened very recently is pretty fatuous.  On the other side, I'm not aware of anything that particularly obligates the Senate to do things in a particular way; if the Senate wants to explicitly withhold consent by rejecting nominees for eleven months, or implicitly withhold consent by sitting on the process for the same time, I don't see that as being constitutionally prohibited, or as being much of anything.  Actually, it's a fairly conventional separation-of-powers thing, probably the kind of thing the Founders actually contemplated when they were assembling our Constitution with all of its inefficiency and intentional road-blocking, as opposed to the kinds of things that didn't occur to them, like the effect states west of the Mississippi would have on the balance of power between agrarian and financial interests, whether or not a legal entity created for the purposes of severing individual liability should be able to buy TV ads during the Super Bowl, and nuclear missiles.  Posed with the "problem" of a sitting President submitting a Supreme Court nominee that the Senate promised not to confirm, I imagine the Founders would have collectively said, "Enh," or whatever they said in the 1780s that meant the same thing as "Enh."  ("Feh"?  "Tch"?  "Feezcock"?  I have no clue.)

In a related bit of stupidity, I see people accusing other people of politicizing a tragedy, or defending themselves from this accusation by counter-accusing others of politicizing the tragedy first, or similar inanities, and I would just like to set the record straight by pointing out what ought to be pretty damn obvious: the death of an extremely ideological Supreme Court Justice (perhaps the most ideological Justice in the Court's history), on a deeply divided Court, creating a vacancy that is pretty much guaranteed to shift the balance of power on the court regardless of who is nominated to replace him, would be inherently political under any circumstances, even if it weren't an election year.

On top of which, by the way, it's an election year.

Scalia's death is a political event.  It doesn't need one side or the other or any side at all to "politicize" it (which, also by the way, "politicize" is contemporary jargon for, "Shut up, I'm trying to dominate a public discourse, here!").  The death of a sitting Supreme Court Justice has, you know, political consequences, because, hey, look, a President has to appoint somebody to replace him and the Senate has to vote on the nominee.  Last time I looked it up, though I confess it's been awhile, that was all political and stuff.  And Scalia, being the fifth vote of a court that regularly goes 5-4 on things, was a politically significant Justice even if his actual opinions end up not meaning very much as time rolls on.

And because Scalia represented this deep ideological position (even if he was hypocritical and inconsistent about it and in practice it really came down to his own prejudices about everything), just about any appointee from any President is going to have some shifting effect on the Court.  Put it this way: supposing the President does do exactly what he shouldn't do and isn't obligated to do, and waits to let his successor appoint a replacement; and suppose Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush somehow pull their numbers out of the single digits and then somehow somehow pull an actual election victory out of it: do you think they're going to find, much less appoint Scalia 2.0, or do you think they're going to look for another Roberts-ish nominee, which would sort of shift the Court center-right?  Or let's say Trump does what it's looking like he might, and wins the nomination, and somehow (somehow somehow) becomes the next President: is he going to appoint Antonin Scalia, Jr., or is he going to nominate some golfing buddy or something?  And these are the Republicans; needless to say, President Sanders or President Clinton would nominate someone unlikely to be on the fringes-of-the-conservative-fringe as Scalia was.

Basically, it's only a President Cruz or President Carson who would look for Scalia II (Electric Boogaloo), and good luck finding him, right?

There was also this really dumb thing some people were saying about, "Let the American people have a voice in picking the next Justice," meaning, "Obama should let his successor make the appointment" (and, since these folks seem to be Republicans saying this, implicitly meaning, "...because I'm hoping a Republican will get to make the appointment").  Funny thing about that: the American people have spoken, twice now, as a matter of fact.  Just because some people maybe don't like what a majority of Americans said....

And a funny thing about the funny thing: while I support Sanders, and while I will vote for Clinton if she's the Democratic nominee, I actually feel more comfortable letting Obama make the appointment.  I mean, I'm sure I'd like a Sanders pick or a Clinton pick (and that I wouldn't much care for a Republican President's likely pick, although you have to flag that).  But I feel like I have a vibe for the kind of nomination Obama would make, and in fact the list of likely candidates that's circulating appears to be a pretty good list.  It's not that I don't trust Sanders or Clinton if they're elected; but I actually do trust the current President on this one.  It's not just fear a Republican gets elected that's influencing my thoughts on this, in other words; I still think the guy who I voted for twice to make decisions like this one is a good pick for guy to make decisions like this one.

(Oh yeah, the flag: it's probably worth mentioning that Republican SCOTUS appointments tend to move to the middle or left--or, possibly, were stealthily on the left all along (looking at you, Souter)--far more often than Democratic appointees tack right (though it's been known to happen a very few times).  Which brings up the thought that I'm not really convinced that a Bush or Rubio appointee would be the Death Blow to Liberalism!TM that the liberal blogosphere would undoubtedly advertise it as.  I mean, it could be, sure, not trying to be blasé or anything.  But there's less reason to panic than some might think.)

"All the pilgrims rushed out to see. I remained, and went on with my dinner. I believe I was considered brutally callous. However, I did not eat much. There was a lamp in there—light, don't you know—and outside it was so beastly, beastly dark. I went no more near the remarkable man who had pronounced a judgment upon the adventures of his soul on this earth. The voice was gone. What else had been there? But I am of course aware that next day the pilgrims buried something in a muddy hole."
- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Justice Scalia--he dead.


An open letter to Mr. Magu

>> Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Mr. Ibrahim Mustafa Magu (CHAIRMAN OF THE EFCC)‏
Mr. Ibrahim Mustafa Magu (CHAIRMAN OF THE EFCC)
Mr. Ibrahim Mustafa Magu (

6:47 AM
To: Recipients
From:     Mr. Ibrahim Mustafa Magu ( Your junk email filter is set to exclusive.
Sent:    Wed 2/03/16 6:47 AM
To:    Recipients (


I am Mr. Ibrahim Mustafa Magu the chairman
alliance with economic community of West African states
(ECOWAS) with head Office here in Nigeria. We have been
working towards the eradication of fraudsters and scam
Artists in Western part of Africa With the help of United
States Government and the United Nations and some corrupt
official adminstrators Mr Ibrahim Lamorde has been sacked
who happen to be the former EFCC chairman.

We have been able to track down so many
of this scam artist in various parts of west African
countries which includes (NIGERIA, REPUBLIC OF BENIN, TOGO,
GHANA CAMEROUN AND SENEGAL) and they are all in our custody
here in Lagos Nigeria.

We have been able to recover so much
money from these scam artists. The United Nation Anti-crime
commission and the United State Government have ordered the
money recovered from the Scammers to be shared among 100
Lucky people around the globe.

This email is being directed to you
because your email address was found in one of the scam
Artists file and computer hard disk in our custody here in
Nigeria and with the information gartered from this Scam
artist, you notice that you have been scammed of so much
money and have decided to compensate you with a little token
to recover the lost of your fund. You are therefore being
compensated with the total sum $ 2.5 Million Dollars. We have
also arrested all those who claim that they are barristers,
bank officials, Inheritance, Lottery Agents who has money for transfer or
want you to be the next of kin of such funds which does not

Since your name appeared among the
lucky beneficiaries who will receive a compensation of
US $ 2.5 Million, we have made arrangement to register an
Online Banking through our Global Bank, where you will have
full access to your Online Banking Account Fund, to transfer
your fund personally to your Private Bank Account with no
complication of things or questioning as the Account will be
fully registered in your Name.

Feel free to contact the processing
officer MISS ESTHER EMMANUEL. The online Banking Processing
It is made much easier for you to transfer your fund to your
private Bank Account personally, to avoid any delay or
complication of things. With this Online Banking Transfer
Processing, you can only transfer the Maximum Amount of
US $ 500.000.00 daily / install mentally until the total amount
of your Compensated / deposited fund is transferred and
completely paid to you and also if you choose to recieve your
payment VIA ATM CARD its is still accepted so you get back to her
with your choice of payment.

So you are advice to contact,
processing officer MISS ESTHER EMMANUEL with your provided
information? required for verification below.


Provide the information below to enable
the processing of your Online Banking Account for deposition
of your total compensated fund.


information required for verification to enable her start
the processing of your Online Banking Account

We guarantee your safety and wish you
the best of luck.

Best Regard,
Mr. Ibrahim Mustafa Magu

Dear Mr. Magu,

I can't tell you how happy I was to read that you have arrested all these horrible people and are holding them in Lagos.  I hope that they will go away to prison for a considerable length of time for their extreme naughtiness.  And of course I was pleased to find out that I was one of the lucky one hundred people who will get to have their money examined by a team of lawyers prior to trial.

The problem comes in when I try to download the software needed to depose my money, and this is where I desperately need your help.  When I saw that the process would involve mentally installing my money, I naturally went to the Google Play Store to try to get the software I'd need for the installation.  And this is where--well, this is embarrassing.  Because I am a humble civil servant--this is exactly why getting to depose two-point-five million dollars, and thank God it's real American money and not Canadian funny money--I... well, I don't actually have the most up-to-date brain.

I suppose from one perspective, it's my own damn fault.  I've been offered upgrades every two years like most people with a contract, but with one thing and another, I'm still using a pretty old brain.  I don't even want to tell you how long I've been just getting by with this brain, it's so embarrassing, especially when I'm surrounded by so many people flaunting their flashy new brains with all the latest bells and whistles, but let's just say I'm not exactly walking around with the most newfangled smart brain.  

So when I go to Google Play, what happens?  Well, I go to the page for the software I think I'll need, and I'm told, what?  I'm told (no doubt you see where this is going) that the software for mentally installing the funds "is not compatible with your device."  And I thought, well, maybe there's been a patch or upgrade for my brain that would fix the problem, but guess what?  You probably see where this is going, too: my brain is no longer supported by the manufacturer.

Now, the obvious solution for some people, say for someone who is or claims to be a barrister or banking official or a lottery agent, would be to just plunk down the deposit and get a new brain.  Why, someone who claims to be an inheritance (or who is an inheritance!) can doubtlessly just plunk himself down.  Some people might suggest I try to get a new brain on credit.  Or a new-ish refurbished brain from eBay or Amazon.  Being a chairman of something, you probably have several brains, one provided by your employers and another for personal use, and don't see how anyone could be staggering along with just one old, extremely used brain with a crack along one edge where he stupidly dropped it.  But I just do not have the money in hand right now, even knowing that some more money will soon be deposed on my behalf, to upgrade brains.

(Oh, and let me just totally digress and say: when you depose this money, do you think you could ask it where it's been all my life?  Or do you think the other party will object?)

I'm not so presumptuous as to think you can just send me a newer brain.  Or that you'd send me the money for a newer brain while the legal stuff is still happening in Lagos.  What I'm mostly hoping is that you can just point me to an old repository or website where they have an older version of the software that might run on an early-gen brain from some years back.  I mean, yes, I know protocols have changed a lot and so on, but there must be a solution.  At least, I'm hoping.

I would contact my processing officer, Miss Esther Emmanuel, but (1) as a "miss," she sounds very young (no offense) and might not be sympathetic towards an older person who is still using such an obsolete brain, and (2) your name is just a lot more impressive than hers.  Also, I loved your cartoons when I was a kid.

R. Eric VanNewkirk
Standing on the Shoulders of Giant Midgets


David Bowie, "Black Country Rock"

>> Friday, January 15, 2016

One of the things that's happening with listening to a lot of Bowie and reading a lot of retrospective articles is that you constantly run into stuff that you... didn't forget about, but that maybe you overlooked.  And in terms of your own engagement, you're thinking, "Am I the ten-thoudandth person this week to share '"Heroes"'?"  (Yeah, I was.)  "Is everybody posting a link to 'Under Pressure'?"  (I'm not; because it's a fantastic song, but everybody's posting a link to "Under Pressure" this week and you've heard that fabulous song a million billion times already even before; and if I'm one of the people who could never hear it enough times, that doesn't mean I couldn't hear it enough times, if you know what I mean.)

But then you're reading an AV Club piece on The Man Who Sold The World (1970), and Annie Zaleski writes a bit about how "Black Country Rock" came to be, and you're like, "Oh shit, how'd I miss that one?  Why isn't that one going into one of your hundreds of Bowie-memorial posts this week?"  (You should totally read the Zaleski piece at that link, by the way.  She's got some really interesting stuff from drummer Woody Woodmansey and bassist--and long time Bowie producer and collaborator--Tony Visconti.)

I mean, one of the things that's amazing about Bowie is... was, as Visconti told Zaleski, how he came into everything he did saying, "What can we do that’s different?"  And we think about Bowie the crooner, Bowie the alien, Bowie the disco king, Bowie the folk singer, etc., etc., etc.; well here's Bowie basically doing Zeppelin, and nailing it, you know.  "Black Country Rock" is the kind of thing you might expect to hear on Led Zeppelin III (came out on October 5th 1970, and Man Who Sold The World was released in the U.S. on November 4th, for whatever that tells you about airborne rock infections or folk-blues ESP).  Not the kind of grungy rock that Bowie and this backing band (the musicians on Man Who Sold would become The Spiders From Mars) would pour out during the Ziggy era, not the folksy stuff Bowie had been mostly doing up to that point.  Pure old classic blues-rock, most like Zep, although it's not hard to imagine Faces cutting this track, either.

Except, you know--it's totes Bowie.  Tony Visconti told AV Club the track originated in a ten-minute jam session (this may explain some of its traditional inflections), but Bowie just kind of dominates it.  I really, really don't mean that to be any kind of reflection on Mick Ronson, Visconti, or Woodmansey, who are just aces on this track.  They're pretty fabulous (okay, maybe not quite McLagen, Wood, Lane and Jones fabulous, but nobody ought to take offense at coming out second to what was arguably the best rhythm section in rock history plus one of the greatest keyboardists ever joined by a pretty legendary guitarist).  But then Bowie comes in--

There's a point where you worry you're just babbling.  Read the Zaleski profile.  Listen to the track again and maybe put Man Who Sold The World on and listen to the whole fantastic thing.  Damn.


David Bowie, "'Heroes'"

We should be clear: the name of the song is "'Heroes'", not "Heroes".  Scare quotes.  Quotey fingers "heroes".  "Heroes" who are mean, who are drunk all the time, who are nothing and mean nothing.

It's a mean song.

Those quotes are a slight, vital thing.  One time, Bob Dylan's kid did a cover of "'Heroes'" for the soundtrack of that terrible Godzilla movie that Roland Emmerich made, and it's very sincere.  Which is about what you'd expect, actually, from The Wallflowers, but it's obviously a problem.  Sincerity is a stake through this song's heart.

A slightly less-mediocre cover would probably double down on the sarcasm, sneer it up a bit.  Which would be better, but not by much.  There's grief here.  For all the cynicism and hopelessness in lines like, "nothing will keep us together," and, "nothing will drive them away," the song is neither hopeless nor cynical.  It may seem silly to observe that someone's nailed the vocal on a song they wrote, but have faith that it's harder than it sounds.  Bowie, anyway, nails it: it's a vocal that manages to be world-weary yet yearning, cruel yet sad, gutted and un-.  It's a voice that still hopes one good day is sufficient, even as the singer knows it never could be.  

Technical things you may already know.  That the wailing sound is being made by King Crimson's Robert Fripp, controlling the feedback of his guitar with a mix of custom electronics and moving around the studio.  That the weird electronic sounds are being caused by co-writer Brian Eno.  That the wonderful vocal effect (this is my favorite part of all this) was created by producer Tony Visconti using multiple gated microphones set up at different distances in the studio (Wikipedia says nine inches, twenty feet, and fifty feet, which seems large, but what do I know?).

How that works, if you don't know: each microphone was set up with a noise gate, a filter that would only close the circuit once the signal rose to a certain level.  That is, if the sound was below a certain threshold, the gate wouldn't allow the signal to go through to the mixing board.  And so when Bowie is singing quietly, only the closest microphone is picking up his voice and passing it through; if the other microphones can "hear" him, the signal is too low for the gate to pass his voice through.  And then when Bowie sings a little louder, it trips the next closest microphone, and now his voice is coming through two mikes, but the second mike is getting a very slight delay and picking up a lot more of the room noise.  And then Bowie lets loose, and the third gate opens, and this is where you're hearing that epic room ambiance, all that space that you're not really supposed to hear and the sound of Bowie's voice bouncing off whatever else was in the room, the walls and the gear, and there's that subtle chorusing that comes in with it.

It's clever.  It's awesome.  I don't know who else has pulled the trick, I'm sure someone has and it sounded wonderful but maybe not quite so wonderful.  This is a special song.

Now and again, I wonder if it dates itself, if you have to be old to grok everything happening there.  Bowie sings,

I, I can remember (I remember)
Standing, by the wall (by the wall)
And the guns, shot above our heads (over our heads)
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall (nothing could fall)
And the shame, was on the other side
Oh we can beat them, for ever and ever
Then we could be heroes, just for one day

These are guards, at the Berlin Wall, which isn't a thing anymore.  "Heroes", the album (still with the ironic quotation marks) was recorded in 1977, in West Berlin, when Bowie and Iggy Pop were trying to not die.  West Berlin was a place at the time, now it's just Berlin, and whatever moral clarity a wall cast (none, if you believe John le Carré, and I do and yet I wonder, even having lived through the end of it) is gone.  It was supposedly harder to get drugs in West Berlin, which seems plausible since the city was under geographic siege, a little bubble connected to the free world by one thin rail line and by air.  "We kissed, as though nothing could fall," but eventually the damn thing did and now everything is better for everyone and we don't have any problems with the Russians anymore, nor anyone else.

(There are days, really only moments, that I think back to it and feel a wicked twinge of nostalgia for an era with a Star Wars-esque polarity, the world in which the forces of Evil were battled by the forces of Mostly-Not-Nearly-As-Evil, when things were starkly black-and-ecru.)

"Heroes" is, obviously, Bowie's best record, aside from all his other best records.  Bowie's most famous as a vocalist, which is a little funny since he was sort of a failed sax player (that line, I swear, I'm sure is his, but I'll be damned if I can find the quote or interview at the moment; if you see it, let me know); "Heroes" is about half instrumentals, jazzy, spacey things he and Eno concocted.  Most of side two, or the latter half of the CD if you're modern, doesn't even have lyrics or much lyrics.  And we love, love, love Bowie's voice, of course, but "Heroes" is a great showcase of Bowie the composer, Bowie the experimentalist.  Indeed, it's one of the records (I'd like to say "few," but that would require counting and probably discovering I'm totally wrong) where he doesn't offer any cover versions; but it's still a treat.

Amid all the instrumental fabulosity, however, there's this perfect vocal, perfectly recorded.  A heroic performance, if you will.


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