Thursday, January 29, 2009

highwayscribery on Bribery

Last night, the cable news shows covered the ouster of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D). There was some debate as to whether what he did was any different from the normal behavior of those who impeached him. Last year highwayscribery wrote this essay on bribery which garnered an honorable mention in a TRACE Institute contest and delves into the shaded meanings of the ancient practice.

The Bottom Line and The Commonweal

by the highway scribe

Can Bribes Be Avoided?

“I’m a free citizen,” David Rosen, a former fundraiser for Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), told a badgering federal prosecutor in 2005. “Just because I work on a campaign doesn’t mean somebody can’t loan me a car.”

The car in question was a $90,000 Porsche that had been excluded from Rosen’s accounting of “in-kind” campaign contributions and Assistant U.S. Attorney Allen Zeidenberger wanted to know why it was unworthy of reporting to the Federal Elections Commission.

Rosen responded that the Porsche was accepted, “As a gift from a friend.”

And therein lies the rub; before you can avoid a bribe, it must be recognized as such.

Rosen, by the way, was acquitted.

In “Bribes: An Intellectual History of a Moral Idea,” U.S. Appellate Court Justice John T. Noonan traces the pedigree of what he terms “reciprocity” from the earliest days of Mesopotamia, where the custom of bringing “gifts” to curry official favor was universal.

Centuries later, Popes at the Vatican regularly accepted munera in exchange for the cleansing of souls, and proper munificence toward a Catholic crusade bound for the Holy Land could assure a potentate’s place, and that of his family, in heaven, regardless of their earthly transgressions.

All along there were critics, from Cicero and Justinian in the Roman Empire, to medieval Christians Ysidro of Seville and Caterina of Siena, through Dante, Chaucer and The Bard himself, in the world of letters.

But their critique did not so much affect the universal practice that dare not speak its name, rather developed, brick-by-brick an “anti-bribery” ethic rooted more in personal shame than in concrete criminal retribution.

The term “bribery,” as currently understood, found its first expression in the writings of Hugh Latimer and his 16th century contemporaries.

Bribery was identified by name in the United States Constitution, and the first federal law addressing it was enacted in 1789. That legislation made reception of “any bribe, reward or recompense” for altering a customs entry, a crime.

In it, concern for commercial purity prevails over that of the government kind, which would remain the common pattern, at least in Anglo-American culture, into the mid-20th century. The measure recognized how business becomes a potential source of corruption where the state possesses the power to grant privilege.

Notable, too, is the buttressing of “bribe” with “reward or recompense,” just in case it wasn’t clear what was meant, since it rarely has been.

Wrote Noonan, “Need one catalogue the forbearances, the appointments, the promotions, the kindnesses to siblings and in-laws, the sexual favors paid for or voluntarily given, or the business opportunities afforded, which constitute the common coin of reciprocity as much as cash and which, escaping legal condemnation, are morally indistinguishable as returns to officeholders? The perfect impossibility of making any but arbitrary definitions of what is morally acceptable from what is ‘bribery’ is evident.”

In 1975, payments to whet the interest of foreign governments for planes manufactured by Lockheed Corp., became an international cause célèbre and target of the Senate Banking Committee.

Hearings were presided by Sen. William Proxmire. A Democrat from Wisconsin, Proxmire was well known for “The Golden Fleece Award” he meted out to egregious government boondoggles and something of anti-corruption populist.

“You say these bribes paid off to the best of your knowledge? It was money well spent?” Proxmire prodded his quarry, Lockheed Chairman Daniel Haughton.

“I don’t necessarily call these bribes,” responded Haughton.

“Maybe the customer does not feel that way about it. How do you feel about?” the senator pursued.

“Well,” said Haughton, “I feel under the circumstances that it is a cost of winning the competition.”

Haughton’s dodgy sense of the term’s meaning did not save Lockheed from financial penalty nor prevent passage of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 (FCPA), which made it a crime to soil foreign officials with payments not concomitant with their position.

Can Extortion Be Resisted?

There exists a common and reasoned argument that bribery is not a question of corrupting a foreign official so much as a matter of being forced to corrupt one – of being extorted – although different cultures and epochs have treated briber and bribee with equal or uneven status, depending.

A. Karl Kotchian was instrumental in the distribution of Lockheed’s largesse to the governments of Japan and South Korea, and later wrote a kiss-and-tell account entitled, Lockheed Sales Mission, in which he explained the rationale that kept him bribing:

“I thought of all the effort expended by thousands of Lockheed men and women since the conception in designing and developing the L-1011 Tri-Star; our superhuman effort to avoid bankruptcy because of our own financial difficulties as well as similar difficulties of the engine maker; the successive defeats in both the KSSU and Atlas competitions in the European theater; I thought of the painful final efforts of the last 70 days; and I thought of being told that ‘If you make this payment, you can surely get the order (of as many as 21 planes).’”

The implication in Justice Noonan’s accounting of pre-FCPA corporate practices is that executives felt bribing was not a matter of choice.

On the eve of South Korea’s first democratic election in 1970, Gulf Oil Company’s vice president of government relations was summoned by the incumbent party’s leader, one S.K. Kim, who solicited $10 million for purposes that remain a secret of his own keeping.

Told the request was “preposterous” Kim responded, “I’m not here to debate matters. You are either going to put up the goddamn money or suffer the consequences.”

Did the Gulf official resist? Sure. After all, $10 million is not an inconsiderable hit to the bottom line, especially in 1970 dollars. Did the extortion prevail? Some of the money was paid.

That was nearly 40 years ago, but last December (2006), The Economist noted in, “Bribe Britannia,” that the British government had brought to “sudden end” an investigation into dealings between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia involving, “the country’s biggest-ever defense contract, the Al-Yamamah deal.”

Specifically, the Serious Fraud Office stopped probing whether the British company had paid bribes to Saudi Arabian officials in exchange for a contract to develop, supply, and train the country’s air force.

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, hinted the move was meant to protect Saudi officials and relations with that country, “but suspicions linger,” the article inferred, “that an equal motive was protecting thousands of British jobs,” which is to say it takes two to complete a bribe and, once done, there’s corruption aplenty to go around.

Indeed, bribery cuts two ways; demeaning briber and bribee alike, endowing financial benefits upon the taker, while removing their purposeful obstruction to the benefit of the giver, who has much bigger fish to fry.

Once the bulwarks of fairness are breached, notions of good and bad are left to float in the light ether of moral discourse.

The surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel was no corporate honcho, but he was subject to the laws of the marketplace and made thirty-two films of the most unorthodox kind because they continually got producers a return on their investment.

A self-proclaimed anarchist, Buñuel was exiled to Mexico after his side lost the Spanish Civil War. Trying to escape one dictator in Francisco Franco, he found little variation in his adopted homeland where he observed the democratically elected president to be nothing short of “omnipotent.”

In his 1983 memoir, My Last Sigh, the director observed that, “The consequences of this enormous power, or ‘democratic dictatorship,’ are alleviated, however, when we add a certain amount of corruption to the system. The mordida, or bribe, is often the key to Mexican life. It’s carried on at all levels and in all places; everyone knows about it and accepts it, since everyone is either a victim or beneficiary.”

Ever attuned to life’s contradictions -- a keystone to his art -- Buñuel refused to make peace with the mordida, noting that, “Without this corruption, of course, the Mexican constitution, which on paper is one of the most enlightened in the world, would make the country the exemplary democracy in Latin America.”

Bribery is not for high-minded moralists, those who grow queasy when things get sleazy. It is for the hard-boiled realist whose acceptance of the practice is accompanied by the shrug and worldly rationalization.

The American muckraking journalist, Lincoln Steffens, traveled early 20th century urban America uncovering corrupt municipal practices and concluding, “That is the way it is done.”

He told a Los Angeles audience, “You cannot build or operate a railway, gas, water, or power company, develop and operate a mine, or get forests and cut timber on a large scale, or run any privileged business, without corrupting or joining in the corruption of the government.”

Eventually, this greatest of moral crusaders either soured or mellowed enough to declare that, “political business corruption is a natural, well-nigh universal process of change.”

James Wilson, a one-time professor of government at Harvard, opined in the early 1970s that moral questions often get in the way of practical issues, “even when the moral question is a relatively small one and the practical matter is very great.”

Americans he suggested, were “puritanical” in their elevation of the minor morality over the greater practicality.

Wilson might have added the qualifier, “sometimes,” to the analysis.

In The Gilded Age, his satirical turn on post-Civil War corruption in Washington D.C., Mark Twain had Colonel Beriah Sellers remark, “And yet when you come to look at it you cannot deny that we would have to go without the services of some of our ablest men, sir, if the country were opposed to, to, bribery. It is a harsh term. I do not like to use it.”

Save for the occasional and crusading journalist or reformer, neither does anybody else who resorts to the practice.

Bribery is mostly the provenance of society’s mid-to-high echelons. A business cannot gain official favor, or much else, from the poor.

Given the rank and station of its practitioners, at least up until the Watergate era, the anti-bribery ethic in Anglo-American culture rarely yielded more than a measure of shame, stained reputation, and expulsion from the halls of power.

Said Colonel Sellers of legislative inquiries into bribery: “They just say ‘Charge not proven.’ It leaves the accused in a kind of shaky condition before the country, it purifies Congress, it satisfies everybody, and it doesn’t seriously hurt anybody.”

Over the first 140 years of American history, neither president, vice president, cabinet member, or federal judge were criminally convicted as bribetakers.

But to borrow from playwright George Bernard Shaw, it is not ours to see things as they are and ask why, but to dream things that never were and ask, “Why not a business world without bribery?”

Do Businessman Try?

“Businessman” is a broad category encompassing just about anyone who plies a trade in the private sector.

“Businessman” applies to the gray-haired (to borrow from C. Wright Mills), “broad-gauged” oil executive, and snake oil salesman (Beriah Sellers’ Infallible Imperial Oriental Optic Liniment and Salvation for Sore Eyes), alike.

As such they “try” different things. Some try to engender well-run and transparent organizations. Costing a contract or two, it nonetheless keeps them from running afoul of the federal government; the maws of which it is tough to extricate a company from once ensnared.

And, if they’re upstanding conscientious sorts, it helps them sleep well at night and look loved ones in the eye with serenity.

Others try to work within the preexisting framework and conform to what Steffens referred to as, “the way things are done.”

All are concerned with the bottom line and the bribe is more often than not considered a cost of doing business, whether it is for Mafia “protection” in the case of a northern New Jersey pizzeria or payments to a South Korean party hack’s campaign slush fund.

They may view the extorting bribee as a despicable creature taking bread from the mouths of babes under their charge, but history demonstrates no shortage of merchants, large and small, willing to pay and go about, well...their business.

The merchant is less likely to be a reformer of corruption than the local pastor, the underpaid reporter, or self-envisioning alderman with pretensions of leading his district to the promised land.

Reformers must be paid for their grueling and sometimes perilous efforts at bringing the corrupt to heel, or feed off the mystical food of missionary zeal. The individual businessperson is likely to be distracted by more mundane considerations.

The concern of businessmen, or lack thereof, is inconsequential because, throughout all of history and every culture, the bribee awaits with itchy palms.

Do Companies Care?

The role of good corporate citizen is a well-defined one. Transgressions of the law and moral order, such as it is, are bad for business. There are companies that strive for a prominent position in the community, and still others with considerable philanthropic input.

Larger corporations maintain running relationships with regulators of all stripes: environmental, financial, work safety professionals often access a revolving door that drops them now at the steps of government, next at the corporate trough.

When Gulf Oil Company found its political contributions “fund” in the cross-hairs of Watergate prosecutors it was the founding Mellon family of Pittsburgh, Penn., that became indignant at the sullying of their name.

In response, an internal review committee was created to sift through the operations and actions of Claude C. Wild, head of the “Government Relations Office” under scrutiny.

Wild was a well-known source of political contributions and the Gulf auditors wondered how it was that top executives never inquired as to where the money came from. They concluded that Chief Executive Officer Robert Dorsey, “perhaps chose to shut his eyes to what was going on.”

Wild himself told the committee, “It was one of those things, I guess, that they – nobody wants to talk about but everybody realizes may be going on.”

Dorsey said he did not inform company directors of the payments because he found the topic “rather delicate,” adding that revelation would have been “embarrassing.”

The committee’s recommendations focused on making the professional class in Gulf’s employ responsible for eliminating off-the-books accounts, enhancing internal audits, and burdening in-house counsel with acting as the company’s legal conscience.

The harried small businessman can either pay up, move on, or divide precious resources between the bottom line and the commonweal.

The corporation, however, can dedicate resources to cultivating a class of employees that serve as a check on the more ambitious natures of those doing the buying and selling; to consider worldly concerns beyond profit and stockholder satisfaction.

With all its ambiguity, shadowy presence, and ancient persistence, a good businessman should know a bribe when asked for one.

And if he doesn’t, or chooses not to, somebody else in a good company is paid to do the job of reminding him.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Change New World

It's one thing to vote for change, it's another to wake up in a change new world where the constants of many years no longer apply.

Which is to say highwayscribery is feeling very stimulated.

A front page
"New York Times," article says House Democrats were crafting a bill "allowing workers getting unemployment checks to qualify for Medicaid."

And not only that, but their family members would be covered as well.

What the... Hey! that's the highway scribe's family they're talking about covering.

You see, Mrs. Scribe lost her job a week after the market crashed in October and the stores which buy her designs promptly cancelled their orders. And once she was out of the shopping force the economy was bound to tank.

Now we're trying to keep our health insurance alive to the tune of $600 a month on markedly reduced income.

And wait a minute, that's a government measure that applies directly to us! the highway scribe has always been enamored with the idea of government helping him, but other than the Pell Grants of his college days - and not counting roads and stuff - he's never actually been the recipient of government assistance.

During the conservative era, our family just simply got used to the idea that the ones who got help from the government were rich people, because they invest and our role was to writhe in the Internal Revenue Service's maws.

This new reality is very bracing.

A second, front page article from the Gray Lady addresses what the stimulus bill would do for

Hey wait. That's a winner for us, too!

You see, presently the scribe's kid goes to a public school which was considered new and state-of-the-art when he was a kid himself back in...never mind.

Meantime, the parent "booster" club is always asking for money and not in small sums, either. Other fees pop up all the time and there are no guards at the entry points to the campus because of funding shortfalls.

It's not your father's America.

"The Times" says the stimulus bill would "shower" the nation's schools with money.

It took all the scribe's willpower to resist having a 9 a.m. martini in genuine celebration. All of it.

And that was before news later in the day that the package had
actually passed.

Our lives might really improve.

Jesus, we thought the whole "Change," "Hope," "Yes We Can," thing was just great campaign marketing.

The Republican Party, which always runs a tight caucus, got their goose-stepping orders from Rush Limbaugh, who is on record as hoping the Obama presidency fails, and voted unanimously against the measure.

highwayscribery understands. It is shocking when somebody else not only takes power, but then starts acting on their promises and reordering the living room you'd grown so comfortable in.

Some think the stimulus plan is insufficient. They say a trillion dollar economy can't be fixed with a billions-of-dollars package. They don't think it will create jobs.

Of course it won't. The package is meant mostly as relief for those whom Republican policies have buffeted so harshly all these years.

To quote "The Times," the measure is "a tool for rewriting the social contract with the poor, the uninsured and the unemployed, in ways they have long yearned to do."

And it is about time.

Republicans are the first to tell you that government cannot make commerce succeed. That means the private sector will have to man-up, free market style.

This money is for public projects and affairs, which is the proper provenance of government.

Lest we forget, which it seems we have.

Patience. Even for Americans, spending $800 billion takes some time.

Life does not all happen at a McDonald's drive-thru. There will be other measures required, but we'll have to go a little further down the road as a country to see what they should be.

As the president said, we did not create this mess in a day. And we won't get out of it in a day either.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Obama, Machiavelli, and Fortuna

Maybe turning the country around won't be quite so hard for President Obama as many people think.

This Prince has assumed power with Virtu, political skill, and which was considered indispensable to successful governance by the Italian thinker Niccolo Machiavelli.

In his seminal work, "The Prince," Machiavelli wrote; "And because this act of transition from private citizen to prince supposes either ingenuity or Fortune, it appears that either the one or the other of these two things should, in part, mitigate many of the problems; nevertheless, he who has relied upon Fortune less has maintained his position best."

The very decision to run, the ability to communicate, the spit-shine and triumph of his campaign, and the celerity with which he has put together a governing team are each testament to the new president's skill and ingenuity.

But what of his Fortuna, that necessary second element? What of the burdens placed upon his shoulders by the outgoing gang of inept and corrupt leaders? Do they signify that Obama is bereft of this special gift in taking office at such a dire time?

As part of his stimulus package, Obama is promoting a "Make Work Pay" tax credit that would also accrue to workers so poor they are not subject to the government's tithe.

Republicans, who don't like taxes, like the poor even less and don't care much for the provision addressing the concerns of those same poor. Rep. Eric Cantor (D-Virg.), House Republican Whip, told the new President as much when invited to an two-party conference at the White House.

"You're correct, there's a philosophical difference, but I won, so we're going to prevail on that," Obama informed Cantor in a way that made those gathered chuckle.

House Republicans, of course, are in the minority, so Obama was absolutely right in his prognosis.

On the Senate side, things can be a little different. There the Republican caucus is led by Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky whom, in the last Congress, launched the most filibusters in America's history.

But even McConnell can read the handwriting on the wall. He recently responded to conservative critics of any compromise with the popular new White House occupant in the following manner: "Anyone who belittles cooperation resigns him or herself to a state of permanent legislative gridlock and that is simply no longer acceptable to the American people."

Which brings us to the overarching point of this meandering post: Obama did not come to power in a vacuum and his ascendance has nothing to do with any popular passion for "centrism" as the commentariat would have us believe.

Instead, it has to do with the ground having shifted dramatically.

So let's talk climate change?

Nobody needs highwayscribery to explain how the "up" is now "down" when the "New York Times," runs a front-page piece on the virtue of nationalizing the country's banks, which is more than a little shocking.

Bill Kristol, not coincidentally, has penned his last column entitled "Will Obama Saved Liberalism?" which is something of a switch given that, for many years now, he and men of similar ilk had gloated over Liberalism's death.

In recent days, Obama has ordered the closing of Guantanamo Bay, subjected all U.S. forces to the existing Army manual on interrogation, frozen the prior administration's last-minute efforts to befoul the environment, and made it okay for states such as California to require cleaner-burning cars from Detroit.

"And one should bear in mind," wrote Machiavelli, "that there is nothing more difficult to execute, nor more dubious of success, nor more dangerous to administer than to introduce a new system of things: for he who introduces it has all those who profit from the old system as his enemies, and he has only lukewarm allies in all those who might profit from the new system."

But those who profited from the old system are either gone or mightily weakened.

The vaunted Titans of Wall Street are being pulled from their podiums of public popularity or, worse, indicted (with more coming).

The auto industry wanted help and got that help in exchange for vigilance from Democratic lawmakers. So they'd better build clean cars and shut-up if they want to stay in business.

Bankers? They still need money and they need it from that source of all things evil over the past 30 years...Big Government.

The horizon, in other words, is free of institutional obstacles. The president looks out over a vast and empty plain pleading for new farms, factories, and foundries.

In the nation's misfortune has Obama found his Fortuna lest we forget the great lament of the Clinton administration was that the reigning prosperity required so little of the president.

There is no shortage of political chat show commentators observing the perils associated with Obama trying to do everything at once, especially when some of what the new government needs to do, and as the president himself has pointed out, will be painful.

Here too, Machiavelli must needs give Obama the benefit of his doubt.

"Injuries," he wrote, "therefore, should be inflicted all at the same time, for the less they are tasted, the less they offend; and benefits should be distributed a bit at a time in order that they may be savored fully."

And for the old boys in particular... it's dinner time.

Film Nerd: "Che"

In Steven Soderbergh's sprawling biopic "Che" we are reminded that the 19th Century's priest could have easily been the 20th Century's communist guerilla.

"Che" is a detail-heavy depiction of two brief chapters in its subject's otherwise large life.

Soderbergh's portrait of the Argentine-born revolutionary Ernesto Guevara suggests that for all the erudition, training and talent, Che was a man whose breadth narrowed to a single dimension as his life went on.

And in spite of its considerable length, Soderbergh's artistic proposition is humble in its conceptual reach.

Part One covers Guevara's time as a young revolutionary comandante in Cuba's Sierra Maestra, which, as we all know, turned out very well.

This portion of the film benefits from a narrative back-and-forth that captures the Cuban jungle fight in full color and a 1964 trip to the United Nations in grainy black and white.

The editing technique works well at many levels, breaking up the military effort's drudgery and contrasting Guevara's guerrilla exploits with an appearance at a party peopled by urbane and liberal romantics cut from the same clothe as the author of this piece.

We/they look silly when in the company of a young man who threw over a promising medical career and middle-to-upper-class comforts for a life dodging bullets on behalf of the poor.

But that's a story for Bill Kristol or Rush Limbaugh (if he could write) to have fun with.

The United Nations segment depicts a multi-faceted Guevara, in from the jungles, off from his day job as Minister of Culture, addressing a hostile diplomatic corps with the facility you'd expect from a guy who'd written a trio of future contributions to the pop culture canon and a guide on guerilla warfare to boot.

But, as folks who have launched a successful venture and failed when paid to repeat the trick will tell's hard to repeat the trick.

Part Two is a new encounter with Guevara in Bolivia where he tried to do exactly that and learned the same costly lesson.

From the beginning the feel is different. The tropical exuberance of Cuba is replaced by the taciturn indigenous peasant and corresponding moodiness of the Bolivian highlands.

A peasant here is not the same as a peasant over there and Guevara's rebels can hardly find a friend to join them in spite of his field-tested methods for garnering popular support.

In Part One, Che lauds Fidel Castro for entering the historic annals of armed revolution, and El Comandante responds that, "It's not just me Ernesto. It's all of us. Alone I could never have done this."

Maybe Che wasn't listening closely enough, because in Bolivia sorely misses Castro's political genius and the ebullience of field commander Camilo Cienfuegos.

Literally trapped in the jungle, bound to a prosaic effort of avoiding death rather than advancing toward any tangible goal, Guevara shrinks into a product of the good communist book.

He is a fair and noble leader who never forgets his own guerilla guide, adhering to its precepts like a bible, finding an answer to every situation in its memorized text, no matter how absurd the proposed remedy.

Down to a handful of fighters, trapped in a ravine, hungry and desperate, Che is still ordering his beleaguered followers to guard positions requiring many more boots than those available, or dispatching a "vanguard" of three rag-tag fellows to their certain and sad demise.

It's been a long time since "The Wall" came down and even longer since western fascination with the communist call waned, so we must remember there was nothing original in this approach, that it was prototypical communist behavior, monkish, blind, and inflexible.

We find this one-dimensional activist in literature.

In "I Married a Communist," Philip Roth referred to his rebel protagonist Ira Ring as a "justice-making machine."

We find the type in nonfiction as well.

"New York Times" columnist Murray Kempton's communist portraiture, "Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments from the Thirties," rendered union leader John L. Lewis and his legal henchman Lee Pressman in a manner most appropriate to our purposes here:

"John Lewis and Lee Pressman were the impersonal force of history; in them innocence did not die but history triumphed, and all material honors accrued to its representatives. As John Lewis said once, the strong move forward and the weak fall behind. But he who would be history's engine must move ahead without slackening or lesser men will tear him down. And when he goes, very few will mourn his fall, for men do not weep for an impersonal instrument."

Impersonal instrument seems to have been Guevara's ultimate personal choice, a walking talking justice machine of a laser-like focus which blocked out constructive considerations and limited his efforts in the way Soderbergh's approach limits his film's.

highwayscribery, of course, loved it, but that's no measure of project's popular appeal.

The script was drawn from Guevara's own memoirs of the two campaigns and, as historical figure he is something of a gift to his own scholarly fans, because he was apt in recording what he clearly anticipated to be a life of adventure as it unfolded.

Walter Salles' "Motorcyle Diaries" became the first cinematic beneficiary of Guevara's personal writings, but that film was more a traditional filmic "story" whereas "Che," in a true-blue fidelity to its sources generates a faux documentary along the lines of Gillo Pontecorvo's "Battle of Algiers."

As such, the film does not render the whole of Guevara's story, but it does get at a hard grain of truth about the man.

(The image is a work by Rafael Serrano)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Gitmo: Going, going...

"Elections have consequences."

That's what California Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) told her Republican counterpart Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) after wresting the Committee on Environment and Public Works gavel from him in 2006.

The consequences from 2006, when Democrats took control of the Senate and House of Representatives, were borne mostly by former President (sounds good!) George W. Bush who saw the people take his toy (their government) away from him.

But it led to stalemate as Bush vetoed Democratic initiatives and did what he could to push a truncated, but hardly less damaging, agenda through executive orders.

Yesterday, Bush left town and President Barack Obama began his term of governance by freezing those same executive orders.

He also pleased "net roots" lefty outlets and interests like highwayscribery by asking the Guantanamo Bay "war crimes court" to suspend proceedings for 120 days while the new kids on the block get a gander at what's been going on down in that pet project of the prior administration.

"Gitmo" as the camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is called by military types, has always stuck in highwayscribery's craw, given its commitment to democratic processes.

Back in the dark ages of 2005, we did a piece on intellectuals like Nobel Prize recipient Rigoberta Menchu, and language anarchist Noam Chomsky petitioning the United States to close the base, which it has "rented" from Cuba since the end of the Spanish-American War for $2000 a year.

In March of 2006 we presented "Gitmo Girl or Lady Lawyer in Yemen," which amplified the tales garnered by attorney Heather Rogers from her job defending what appeared to be some innocent schlumps rounded up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and sent to Guantanamo.

Unlike Harold and Kumar, her clients had no luck escaping.

One year later, we provided an accounting of Heather's presentation at a San Diego law school, which was heavy on constitution concerns and no less fascinating then the story of her trip to Yemen as a federal defender.

So the highway scribe is thrilled at Obama's move. Sometimes, a lot of times really, Democrats can disappoint you with their easy swivel from progressive campaign promises to conservative cave-ins once the game clock is on.

Specifically, the suspension applies to four cases involving Sept. 11 conspirators and a Canadian charged with killing an American soldier in Afghanistan.

The military guys melted like butter before Obama's request, which is not surprising given reports few were comfortable with the Kafkavian nightmare the Bush crowd had configured off the Florida coast.

At the same time, the Obama administration (sounds good, too!) circulated a draft plan for closing the dump down and reviewing the cases of 245 people stuck there.

We haven't seen that draft, but one gets the impression President Obama has no problem running their cases and the corresponding evidence through the court system we already use for determining everybody else's innocence or guilt.

There's been a lot of talk about the difficulties facing Obama which he emphasized in his inaugural speech. And while saving a corrupted banking system from its own mistakes may be problematic, returning to the comportment of civilized nations can often be done with the mere stroke of a pen.

So far, so good.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Book Report: "Why Kerouac Matters" by John Leland

Titles like "Why Kerouac Matters,"usually suggest the opposite is true.

Author John Leland seems to argue as much in this fascinating dissection of the great saint's canonical, On the Road.

The book's subtitle is, "The Lessons of On the Road (They're Not What You Think)," and as such, Leland has given the classic a read like no other and assembled incontrovertible evidence to support his surprising assertions.

His book attempts to grab by the horns a long-standing dilemma that, "Readers have always had a problem with Kerouac in that he had very traditional values, while living at odds with them."

Essentially, Leland argues that readers have gotten Kerouac wrong. That, rather than a paean to drinking, whoring, and experience-chasing embodied in Dean Moriarity's (Neal Cassady) star turn, On the Road is alternately a map to maturity, a yearning for family, and a search for God manifested in its lower-keyed narrator, Sal Paradise (Kerouac).

"Contrary to its rebel rep," he asserts, "On the Road is not about being Peter Pan; it is about becoming an adult. Its story is powerful and singularly gloomy...but good."

In the end, the hippies and Easy Riders of the '60s who adopted On the Road as a movement's manifesto and guide to living, were not Kerouac's favorite people.

Anybody who has seen the writer's drunken appearance on William Buckley's "Firing Line" can't help but be struck by the contempt he displayed toward his erstwhile disciples in a dressing down of hippie leader Ed Sanders with the words, "You like drawing attention to yourselves, don't you?"

Although right-wing thinkers such as Buckley used Kerouac as foil in debunking the dreams of his own ideological offspring, Leland says they did not take him seriously and saw the same "parlor act" many others did during his boozy and rapid descent.

Nonetheless, Leland's understanding of Kerouac is that of a profoundly conservative man trying to cut his way through modernity's tangle in a search for the eternal things.

Kerouac he writes, "had always been conservative -- a blue-collar son, Catholic, a veteran of the merchant marine and (briefly) the Navy."

For all its pot-smoking, drinking, petty-thievery and promiscuity, On the Road, Leland observes, "[E]nds with Sal sober, at peace, ensconced in domestic life with a new flame named Laura, a great beauty who offers him cocoa and a home in her loft."

Quite originally, he sees the arc of Kerouc's novel as a love story that starts with his aunt and ends up with a New York girl.

For all Kerouac's sensitivity and awareness, Leland seems to suggest the author was either resistant or unaware of the seismic social shifts occurring in post-war America; an unwitting agent of change.

"Kerouac had become like his father or Neal's, a relic of a working class that did not fit into the collegiate counterculture," writes Leland.

The writer, we are reminded in "Why Kerouac Matters," was not born into the suburban privilege of those who became his unwanted acolytes. He was the product of a New England factory town and a working class guy whose brother died young and father not long before On the Road was written.

Leland says: "The son of a printer, he put great stock in words as a material product, dutifully recording in his journal how many he produced in any given day as if he were laying bricks or clearing acres...He clung to an antiquated standard that measured a man by how much he produced, not how much he consumed."

So why the three-tome fascination with the crazy Cassady, Kerouac's muse?

Leland suggests that Neil is good for a time in Sal's life, just as Kerouac notes in his reading of On the Road for The Steve Allen Show, back in the '50s: "We're still great friends, we just have to move onto later phases of our life."

That's clear for those who stick with Kerouac and move beyond On the Road to something like The Dharma Bums, which takes the placid oriental scholar, poet and pacifist Garry Snyder as basis for its protagonist Japhy Ryder and proffers more settled, pure, even sweet lessons.

And Leland ensures that Cassady's history is not frozen in the frame of Kerouac's most famous effort.

He quotes Bob Weir, guitarist of the Grateful Dead, who knew Neal in the 1960s through an association with The Merry Pranksters, saying On the Road captured "the budding Cassady but never caught him in full bloom. He amounted to a whole lot more than Kerouac was ever around to document."

And so why does Kerouac matter when he was essentially reactionary; a religious guy whose "teachings" were taken out of context if not completely misunderstood?

Leland says that Kerouac, in Sal's clothing, "navigates distinct paths through the men's worlds of work, money and friendship; the domestic turf of love, sex and family; the artist's realm of storytelling, improvisation and rhythm; and the spiritual world of revelation and redemption. His lessons in all four areas remain relevant today -- any reader picking up the book for the first time can apply them to questions that are as new to him or her as they were to Sal."

You don't have to take Leland's word for it. He walks you through each "world," and in marvelous fashion, discoursing on America's socio-political evolution, drawing upon C. Wright Mills' White Collar to explain Kerouac's fall between the gaps of a national transition from factory work to office horror.

He melds this understanding with a detailed familiarity of popular culture, tabs each music to its own time, and draws a conclusion about what it all means.

For example, Leland perceives parallels in the evolution of jazz from the madness and rule-breaking of bop to the West Coast "cool" jazz pioneered by Miles Davis.

"Though cool or West Coast jazz became a swank soundtrack for collegiate swingers and bohemians the folks who read Kerouac's books -- Sal clings to the wilder sounds that came before. He sees the advent of cool like the arrival of the postwar middle class, steadily pushing out the cowboys and hoboes and bluesmen and prophets that he loves."

Leland correctly notes that On the Road begins with "career counseling and a lecture on the Protestant work ethic," as Sal expresses doubts about Moriarity's request that Paradise teach him to write. "[A]nd after all what do I really know about it except you've got to stick to it with the energy of a benny addict."

For the benefit of aspiring scribes, Leland observes just a little further on that, "The Paradise Career Plan boils down to a few time-honored principles: Work hard, live poor, travel light. And when in doubt, let your aunt cover your rent."

That's funny. Many have noted, critically, that Neal and Jack or Sal and Dean are hardly the fearless adventurers their legacy suggests, because throughout On the Road Sal/Jack often hits up his aunt for money to get them out scrapes.

But we must remember that On the Road is a tale of youthful adventure, not middle-aged tourism and remember, too, how the world makes allowances for the young, gives them a pass.

Leland addresses a facet of Kerouac's literature that most try to read right through on their way to the next beer-soused roadhouse party: religion.

Allen Ginsberg, whom Leland considers the crafter behind the media-generated image of Kerouac, noted that, "Everybody expected him to be a rebel and an idiot and angry, and he wasn't that at all. He was a suffering Buddhist who understood a great deal and was able to live with his mother. That's not a rebel."

In circles where he has been most popular, secular literary ones, Kerouac's religious talk has been mostly viewed as a product of his inner turmoil and considered, "uncool," Leland notes.

But the author put religion at the top of his list of concerns.

"To anyone who would listen, Kerouac professed that he and his friends constituted 'the Second Religiousness that Oswald Spengler prophesied for the West,' citing as evidence their 'beatific' [beat] indifference to things that are Caesar's...a tiredness of that, and a yearning for, a regret for, the transcendent value, or 'God,' again."

Leland sees a greater affinity between evangelical Billy Graham, than say, the counterculture hippies who spurned his deeper religiousness in favor of, "his license to handcraft his own belief system, not the beliefs he chose."

As for Graham, "Like Kerouac...he stressed earthshaking individual conversion experiences rather than intellectual engagement or study. 'Billy Graham is very hip,' Kerouac told an interviewer. 'What's Graham say, 'I'm going to turn out spiritual babies'? That's Beatness. But he doesn't know it. The Beat Generation has no interest in politics, only mysticism, that's their religion. It's kids standing on the street and talking about the end of the world."

All of which, Leland asserts, lands Kerouac's legacy less with Woodstock than with Christian rock and Rick Warren, the guy who will bless President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration tomorrow.

"Why Kerouac Matters" is a delightful read, a careful and novel consideration of the writer, yet Leland might have stopped before his chapter, "Sal Paradise and the Lessons Unlearned," which makes a case as to why Kerouac doesn't matter.

The Beat author, he observes, has been studied more for "how he lived or how he wrote, not what he wrote. And most pop writing has focused on his contribution to the counterculture he rued. Any claims for the book's cultural impact and historical importance have relied little on its literary virtues."

Writers who want to adopt his style, Leland concludes, will fail to have their work taken seriously by the literary establishment while "a 21-year old applying to a writing program is as ill-advised to cite Jack Kerouac as an influence as O. Henry or H.P. Lovecraft."

Which, of course, begs the question of whether a Kerowackian would/should be interested in having their rough edges smoothed in exchange for a masters at some academic reading redoubt in the first place.

We think not, but thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Pox on Both Their Houses

Things haven't been the same in West Hollywood since the Israeli invasion of Gaza.

With a big Jewish Federation building just around the corner and an Israeli consulate across the street from it, our liberal hamlet far from the Holy Land horrors has been buffeted of late.

Not by missiles or tanks, mind you, just unpleasant demonstrations by pro-Israeli Jews, pro-Palestinian Arabs and, yesterday in a refreshing twist, anti-Israeli Jews.

This being Los Angeles, the major inconvenience has to do with cars since Wilshire Blvd. gets blocked off for these unpleasant flag-waving, finger-pointing shouting matches.

The pro-Arab block cruise the street too fast in their black Mercedes and BMWs eliciting little sympathy, running our corner stop sign with the frequency of Hamas ceasefire violations.

Rather than cruise in circles the pro-Israelites tend to park and line up in defense of these local landmarks, squeezing those of us who live here a few blocks from our actual residences, seemingly unmindful of the fact that nobody walks in L.A.

We've been through this before, most recently with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, and what a pain in the ass.

A pox on both their unreasonable houses what with the whole world having to endure the violent repercussions of this goddamn endless grudge match.

And for what?

A "New York Times" article from yesterday (Wednesday, Jan. 14) informs that the Israelis admit their two-week old massacre of Gazans hasn't achieved its goal, which makes one wonder if that goal isn't to kill everybody in the place.

That, of course, would work while anything less only swells the ranks of Allah's impoverished and angry army of Holy Fighters.

highwayscribery, typically but grudgingly, sides with Israel in these matters because it is a secular and modern state surrounded by medieval kingdoms that hang dissident poets and stone girls who have sex out of wedlock, while the scribe is a dissident poet strongly in favor of girls having sex out of wedlock.

But Israel is hardly the gentle state of farming kibbutzim its founders intended. It's a violent power, buttressed by U.S. arms and populated with folks rendered rather disagreeable by perpetual threat.

The article notes that "the military wing of Gaza has been hit to a certain extent," but not as badly as the dangerous women, children, elderly and unarmed of Gaza have been hit.

"Greater damage," the report continues, "has been done to Hamas's capacity to run Gaza, with a large number of government buildings destroyed over the course of the operation..."

That gives you an idea of what Israel truly thinks of the "two-state solution." If bombing Palestinian infrastructure keeps Hamas from governing, the same problem would confront a more reasonable regional partner from doing the same.

And how is that good? Unless, of course, the axe you're grinding is not so much with Hamas as with Palestine generally.

It's typical of the international left, with which this scribe conditionally aligns himself, to side with Palestine. We emphasize conditionally because, in spite of the victims' cry on placards bobbing by his window, highwayscribery does not see it that way.

The victim thing is a role for outside consumption. You're not a victim if you lazily loft missiles into your neighbor's cities and villages, regardless of who started it.

A second "New York Times" article on the "Fear and Swagger" of Hamas's fighters is largely a profile in ignorance.

The first half of the piece is telltale, revealing recent lessons learned by the fighters while foreshadowing a protracted battle featuring a more effective defense from the home team.

Then comes the familiar religious psychobabble Westerners have come to loathe: "It's either victory while alive or martyrdom," one foot soldier of Allah explains. "Both ways are victory."

Bullocks (as the Brits say).

This is the 21st century, not 10th century Samarcanda where, only a few centuries after Mohammed lived, Muslims were already at each others' throats over what "the teachings" meant, and establishing a code of honor that prescribed self-immolation (together with anyone unfortunate enough to be passing by) as an ultimate virtue.

This backward mentality of violence and faith in the afterlife gains no favor with the nonbelieving scribe whom, after the massacre of Sept. 11, 2001, after the senseless murder of Theo Van Gogh, and after considering the religious conflict's horror, takes strength in his nonbelief.

To resort to the banal: What kind of God gives you the blinded child in that picture to the left?

The Israeli strategy of killing them all and letting Jahweh sort them out is worthy only of repugnance. Civilian death in war is unforgivable, however natural, obvious or prevalent.

Their enemies, counterparts really, in this endless murder-go-round stoke the fire with blind faith, drawing a rain of horror down upon those dearest to them.

"I'm a civilian," a Gazan tells the reporter. "And I'm a fighter."