Friday, July 31, 2009

Twitter-Patter Revolutions

Tin Soldiers and Nixon coming
We're finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming,
four dead in Ohio

A demonstration does not a revolution make.

Now that things have settled down in Iran and mullahs and Bajiji and Revolutionary Guard have the situation well in hand, we can write about what happened one month ago, both in Iran and here in the United States.

Iran is not a friend of the United States. We have a long, unhealthy history with that country and are not unjustified in thinking the worst about how that society in configured.

It is a theocracy, which, unless you're a right-wing Christian conservative engaged in an affair with someone on your staff, you have a hard time accepting as a legitimate form of government.

highwayscribery is open to all slings and arrows in response to the premise that our country was founded principally on a debunking of the notion that royal families - and anyone else for that matter - can interpret, represent, or speak for God.

And so it follows that Iran's government lives on a big fat, opiate of a lie, which many Iranians buy into at their own expense.

Thanks to Internet pornography, a massive generation of youths in the country has been seduced from the medieval cave of Mohammedan scripture into modernity's garish sunlight.

That poses advantages and disadvantages for any traditional culture like Iran's. The disadvantages are for another post.

The advantages are a cracking of the shell crafted by close-minded Islamic fanatics who confuse the business of the soul with that of the sewer.

States get things done. They collect taxes and use them to run the trains, build bridges and ensure the nation's health (unless you live in the U.S). They do not get into the business of mosque attendance and daily prayer.

That is the secular vision, the way some in the United States interpret the primary precepts of the American Revolution.

It's how we do things in the "Western" world, although the last guy who occupied the White House did his best to upend the old-time American modernity.

And it can act something like a virus on a repressive body politic.

Once there's a questioning of such inanities as governmentally prescribed dress for women, open repression, unquestioning servitude to a bunch of old guys in antiquated garb, it's just a matter of time before you start asking that the votes you cast actually be counted.

When they are not, you start demonstrating in the streets just like you see them do in other countries on the World Wide Web.

We are all caught in it that web now. Americans and Iranians and Chinese alike.

And government responses are uniform across the world.

Here, too.

Asked about demonstrations in the lead-up to his pet war, former President Geo.w.Bsh said, "That's democracy. You get to express your opinion."


As recently as the Republican National Convention in Minnesota, police raided the meeting places of those planning to demonstrate in the Twin Cities.

When the Democrats had their convention in Los Angeles circa 2000, protestors were introduced to a novel crowd-control device called the "free-speech area." It was located a block away from the hall where delegates were gathering. Turning constitutional law on its head, the parcel rendered everything else a "not free-speech zone."

The Los Angeles Police Department had to be enjoined by a court order from hassling the headquarters of the D2K protest movement.

That did not deter them (the police, that is).

A light-hearted group of pro-Green policy bicycle riders were pulled over by motorcycle cops, roughed up, maced, and beaten. A group of demonstrators gathered at a metro stop downtown after their protest were set upon by a cadre of baton wielding meatheads

We know this because all of it was caught on video.

Kids at the "Rage Against the Machine" concert were shot with rubber bullets that turned out to be not so rubbery.

Caught on video.

Throughout the Iranian demonstrations and expected government overthrow, our own mass media was too gleeful in its presentation of events as the dawning of some new Iran.

It was a presentation suggesting dissidence as some new phenomenon in Iran thanks to the "Twitter." One that was self-congratulatory in its implied interpretation that such things do not happen in America.

And it was wrong on both counts.

You'll note Bush didn't say government had any obligation to heed the complaints of protestors. You just get to bellow a bit (and then pay for the war).

And you'll remember that plenty of demonstrators in American cities were overwhelmed by outlandishly sized police forces in the lead up to the Iraq war.

Iran could not have been "different." That would have meant extended tolerance of the demonstrators and an acquiescence to their demands.

Instructed by the tactics of police forces from Philadelphia to Myanmar (why distinguish?) Iranian forces of "order" blocked-off streets to the major gathering places of the burgeoning movement. It sent out troops and plainclothes thugs and these nefarious forces detained hundreds of people.

Revolution over.

The world watched a woman named Neda die after being shot in the street.

Caught on video.

In the United States we shook our heads and gave thanks that such things don't happen here.

the highway scribe may be getting old, but he can read and knows about National Guardsmen firing on student demonstrators at Kent State in Ohio and fatally dropping four young people.

It was May 4, 1970. Neil Young wrote the lyrics at top in a song called "Ohio" to remember them.

It's times like this when you remember them. When you see demonstrations in a foreign country and smugly point out the repression as if your own government bent to your will every time you hit the streets.

It is at such times you remember that the Viet Nam war went on for another five years. It's fair to say the Kent State demonstrators hardly got what they wanted. As in Iran the government prevailed. The National Guard maintained its integrity and order was restored, so to speak.

It's times like this when you remember that there was an election where all the votes were not counted in your own country, just as has transpired in Iran.

Times like these when you remember that your sympathy should always lie with those in the street. That is where the drive to create space for opinion and protest and the accompanying legal rights are forged.

This is not a comparison of the U.S. and Iranian regimes. It is a comparison between all civil societies and the governments they struggle with.

It is a plea for understanding that those who hit the pavement only to be met with charges of "terrorist" are often the best a county has to offer and that those they square-off against, the Bajiji and taxpayer-paid goons, are the worst.

It is an attempt to remind you that Twitter is just so much pitter-patter and power the only thing that matters.

And don't you forget it.

Monday, July 27, 2009

President Obama and The Venice Drum Circle

For many years, on cool, cool California nights, the Venice Beach Drum Circle has gathered at the rim of the Pacific and rendered rhythmic homage to the sun, to life, and to liberty.

Congas clip, djembes clop, drummers bang and dancing dervishes delight. Incense floats from boardwalk merchant stands and sometimes it is accented with a wisp of marijuana. A crowd of onlookers, always different, enjoys all the spontaneity under the watchful eye of ...

...the Los Angeles Police Department.

highwayscribery can attest to this Sunday night ceremony stretching back to at least 1996, but suspects the tradition dates back to the first hippies.

Frequent attendance over the years also qualify the highway scribe to unequivocally state that these folks are not bothering anybody. Quite the opposite. Carving out a small piece of the public commons for themselves the goal is establishment of a tiny bubble where tolerance and primal beats reign.

It is a charming space to be for those who share the circle's open door philosophy and even for those who don't.

The fly in the ointment is the police presence. They do not serve any protective purpose. Instead the police skulk around observing and intimidating. It has gone on for years and often, they ruin the fun, inexplicably barging in and breaking up the circle before its climactic crescendo just as the sun dips into the ocean drink leaving an orangeade sky behind.

Venice Beach is Los Angeles' Greenwich Village. Despite suffering similar ravages of gentrification, it is holding better than its more famous bohemian cousin. It residents are your usual real estate poison pills of blacks, working-class Mexicans, and dreadlocked indy freaks.

They do not participate in the ambitious race that is American life for reasons varied as their odd raiment. But last year the neighborhood was papered in Shepard Fairey's famed "Hope" poster and local activists, usually aligned with the Green Party or Che Guevara's ghost, came out strong for Obama.

Like the conservative pundits who hurled time-worn labels at Obama such as "leftist" and "socialist," they did not completely buy what the media was claiming the next president to represent.

A "The New York Times," editorial on Mr. Obama and race, noted how he has refused the role of black "exceptionalist" lecturing his people "to stop whining about racism and get on with it."

Regardless of Obama's posture on Guantanamo, detentions, the intelligence capers, and other civil rights issues, the conservatives were correct in their earliest presentiments that he was something "other."

So were the "others."

And last Wednesday. The Venice Beach Drum Circle got their reward for voting Obama in November.

That was when President Obama, a guy who thinks thrice before talking, said that a stupid Cambridge cop "acted stupidly" in its handling of a report that a Harvard professor was burgling his own home.

Of course, the upstanding and obedient who claim all American values to be their own pounced, but out at Venice, around the drum circle at sunset, the congas were getting conked a little harder.

Because the victim of police abuse in the case at hand was African-American, much of the ensuing debate has rested upon the question of race, which is fine.

But for highwayscribery, and those at The Venice Drum Circle on behalf of whom he deigns to write, it was only a "black thing," to the extent African-Americans are subject to the larger "police thing."

In America, we reserve a place for the forces of law and order that are too often, well, above the law. There is and always has been a slavish deference to the whims and desires of those we ostensibly pay to protect us.

The only exception to the habitual bending of this tropism toward all things cop is the National Rifle Association, which can beat a capitol building lined with police officers seeking some sanity in our gun laws, every time.

highwayscribery does not need to go back very far in time in a search for events that make his case. And it is worth pointing out that the only reason we're talking about this now is because the Cambridge Police Force picked on the wrong black guy.

That's because Professor Gates is a black guy with a big brain, a brain with our Constitution's Bill of Rights etched into its recesses, and a strong conviction that democracy is healthier when you question cops rather than lick their shoes.

That, of course, was his privilege. Gates took the cop on because of the firepower (intelligence and connections) he had.

But not everyone is so blessed.

Only a month ago, in San Diego, a jury acquitted a police officer who, while off-duty, got into a road-rage scrape with another driver and wound up shooting both she and her eight-year old boy.

As the current state of affairs would have it, the one who got shot was convicted and sentenced, medical problems associated with being wounded by a cop, notwithstanding.

It turns out that she was an "unsympathetic" victim, someone whom even the prosecutor trying the cop called a "butthead" in court, a person plagued with flaws we'd have never known about had Officer Frank White not taken aim at her.
And fired.

Whatever Rachel Silva's imperfections, it was Mr. White who carried the gun, who was sworn to uphold the law, and who should have gotten spanked for acting in a manner beneath the dignity of his office (or anybody else's).

Also down in San Diego, Encinitas to be exact, a Democratic challenger to Rep. Brian Bilbray's congressional seat had a residential fundraiser "upset" by the local police.

A 60-year old woman, Shari Barman, and a 62-year old activist named Pam Morgan, were both pepper-sprayed, handcuffed, and charged with the usual crimes associated with telling a cop to go and respond to a real crime.

The American Civil Liberties has said the case involves, "what appears to be a significant abuse of power by a peace officer who intruded into a person's home and reacted with unwarranted force to an unsubstantiated complaint alleging a minor infraction."

When Will Carless, an intrepid investigative reporter for the nonprofit "Voice of San Diego," requested documents from the Sheriff's Department on the investigation into Deputy Marshall G. Abbott's
meltdown, he was told to go screw.

See what we mean?

The "San Diego Union-Tribune," which never met a police raid it didn't like, was able, with the help of local "Christian" activist, to dredge up some evidence of Barman's "violent past" involving an altercation with an airport security guard in...1977.

Michael Wilson and Solomon Moore of the "The New York Times" wrote that, "The line of when to put on handcuffs is a personal and blurry one, varying among officers in the same city, the same precinct, even the same patrol car."

Some officers in the article described a degree of tolerance and the need for a thick skin in their particular line of work.

But another officer from Denver had a different take. "We're not going to take abuse," he said. "We have to remain in control. We're running the show."

Well, over at The Venice Drum Circle that they're never abusing anybody when the police come around. They might add that "control" is the provenance of free citizens until they forfeit it and note that civil society is not a "show" so there is no reason for somebody to "run" it.

It is worth noting that, in the San Diego incident, Abbott went haywire when Barman asked him why he needed her date of birth.

Seems Barman and Professor Gates hail from a similar time and generation that did not care much for the dictates of security guards and police officers with a dim view of America's claim to being a free county.

Ms. Barman's "partner," the 55 year-old Jane Stratton was also knocked down by "Wildman" Abbot.

See a pattern here?

NRA wins. Conga players, lesbians, and black people lose.

The NRA did not support or endorse Obama. Its propaganda about the meaning of his election led a guy in Pittsburgh to shoot up the town for fear our president would remove the sacred gun from his cold sweaty hands.

The conga players, the lesbians, and, for certain, the blacks, did vote for Mr. Obama. Thus elevated, he characterized a certain type of police behavior, common and accepted from the cold Northeast to the warm Southwest, in the same way they would have.

The president has not apologized. Obama has said he would have "calibrated" his remarks differently, but the sum total would have been the same.

If his hand was forced in commenting anew, and calling the policeman and the professor to a White House conversation, the victory goes to his supporters, because there Sergeant James Crowley will come face-to-face with his sloppy handiwork.

And that would be a first.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Letter to the Azerbaijani Ambassador

July 16, 2009

Yashar Aliev
Azerbaijan Ambassador to the United States
2741 34th Street
Washington D.C. 20008

Honorable Sir,

Please cease your prosecution of Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli.

If an article in the July 15 "The New York Times," is any indication of their true situation, it would appear your government is upset for having been mocked by them on one, or various, Web sites.

You have to admit, if your procurement people overpaid for the importation of donkeys, the government does look somewhat the horse's ass.

It's nothing personal. Our government often assumes the same aspect and we, as Americans, delight in pointing it out.

We are led by an Azeri government spokesman, Ali Hassanov, to believe that, "Those sites in Azeri society have no sympathizers, and arouse little interest, at least none that we have observed. I honestly had never heard of these young people."

Well, now you have. And as someone who pines to have "The New York Times" review one of his books I can assure you, so has everybody else.

The government claims it is trying these youthful scamps for "hooliganism" in relation to a restaurant altercation. The timing, you must admit, is a little fishy.

"The Times," which is usually pretty good about these things, notes that press freedoms have dwindled in your country where the media is under centralized government control and Web sites with foreign servers are the only source of anti-government arguments.

I'm posting this letter on one such site, and also plan to Twitter and e-mail it around the world with a charming photo of the evil donkey-mockers included.

The world is watching, Mr. Aliev. as someone who writes for a Web site that arouses little interest or sympathy I plead with you: Please do the right thing.

Yours truly,

the highway scribe

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Little Story, Big News

Your "big" news stories confected for mainstream consumption do not always cover matters of mainstream consumption.

Sotomayor, health care, Guantanamo...a liberal's dream list of concerns blanket our Web pages and daily newspapers thanks to the change in power affected last November.

Sometimes, in the heat of it all, it is not so easy to remember that during the Bush regime Guantanamo was the particular province of media oddities such as, well, highwayscribery.

Yes, there are close votes on health care forthcoming, and frustrated minority senators sniping at a nominee assured confirmation, but the shift in agenda from Bush to Obama is dramatic enough to suggest they were two presidents of two different countries (with the same name).

As to mainstream consumption, it would have been unheard of, a year ago, that our big media outlets must-needs bother themselves with such a thing as the Obama administration's efforts to restrict the use of anti-biotics in our food supply.

But lo and behold, there was Gardiner Harris's piece in the July 14 edition of "The New York Times."

Given its page 17 placement, HR 962, sponsored by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) is not the biggest star in the media constellation.

But if the Michael Jackson circus taught us anything, it is that the chieftains at our networks and bureaus have no monopoly on the country's sober priorities and are as apt to lose their heads as a teenage girl at a concert of the now departed pop star.

Gardiner ledes with the administration seeking, "to ban many routine uses of antibiotics in farm animals in hopes of reducing the spread of dangerous bacteria in humans."

One of the unsung heroes of our time, or any time, Principal Deputy Commissioner of Food and Drug Joshua Sharfstein, told the House Rules Committee on Monday that, "feeding antibiotics to healthy chickens, pigs, and cattle -- done to encourage rapid growth -- should cease."

And that's a start. From there highwayscribery would like to see the cessation of all additions to farm livestock that are not necessarily...actual food.

Slaughter's legislation would ban seven classes of antibiotics from being given and restrict the application of others to therapeutic and preventive uses.

One would have thought that's what such things were intended for in the first place.

Sharfstein, and those who hired him in the Obama administration, believe the antibiotics lead to the development of bacteria in humans for which our immune systems have no response.

The American Medical Association agrees with them.

The bad and somewhat dispiriting news is that the farm lobby is against the measure and therefore, Gardiner reports, "makes its passage unlikely."

Well, you know, that's awful.

After all, we're aware something makes us sick -- and sounds funny as an idea to begin with -- the doctors' council essentially agrees, and because the National Pork Producers Council has paid for the loyalty of enough Congress members, we've got to eat...

But all hope is not lost. There's a plan to sidestep Congressional fans of polluted food and slip the "Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2007" into the health care reform bill.

That should make the President's job even easier!

Dave Warner, a spokesman for the porkmen, admits there seem to be more cases of anti-biotic resistance diseases from food consumption. But he added that there are "no good studies" tying them to the use of these substances in the production of that food.

Which may or may not be true, but wouldn't it be nice if they stopped using these things until some degree of certainty is achieved on the question?

The Pew Environment Group, the article goes on to note, is paying for some advertisements supporting the measure.

Robert Martin, a senior officer at Pew said, "Just the fact that Congresswoman Slaughter is having a hearing today is a huge step forward."

Which is somewhat the point of this post.

(You can call Slaughter at (202) 225-3615 to encourage her efforts in this area).

Monday, July 13, 2009

Book Report: "The Mad Ones," By Tom Folsom

"The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld"suffers from the limited trajectory of its subject.

In the same way Joey Gallo's life never really took off, neither does this book.

"The Mad Ones" is a guilty pleasure read for those who like a good Mob yarn. It is also a great portrait of the era in which its anti-hero leaves his bloodstained mark.

Here is a tale about a low-grade, psychotic guy who sallied forth into Greenwich Village just as the sixties were taking off and willingly let some of its rebellious patina rub off on him.

After getting introduced to the scene by his future wife, Jeffie, "Joey decided to make a go for it in the Village. He took up painting, like the abstract expressionists brawling at the Cedar Tavern, a few blocks from the pad. His portrait of Jeffie burst with animal energy, an uncanny likeness painted completely from memory during a brief stint at Rikers Island. Joey was clawing his way up from the bottom, unlike Jeffie's first husband, jazz icon Gerry Mulligan."

Which is all well and good, but, as it turns out, it's the "Rikers Island" reference that does a better part of the foreshadowing.

In his "My Last Sigh," the surrealist film director Luis Bunuel meditated upon the implications of Spain's Civil War and concluded that, "all the wealth and culture on the Falangist [right wing] side ought to have limited the horror. Yet the worst excesses came from them; which is why, alone with my dry martini, I have my doubts about the benefits of money and culture."

The point being (other than clumsy erudition) that Joey Gallo read Camus, was enthralled with Nietsche, but was, in the end, still a cheap punk.

The storyline, such as it is, follows the Gallo boys through mishap after mishap in their effort to reign supreme on the big Mafia family scene befuddling New York City at the time.

Gallo's bohemianism isn't really that pronounced. He's more of a classical night club and cocktail guy from the prior era. And we have to take the word of those whose testimony author Tom Folsom has gathered or researched as to the extent of his vaunted charisma.

And that's because he is a rotten person with a rotten pedigree, up from the juke-box industry, as it were:

"Joey was a little guy, listed by the NYPD as 5 feet 6 inches. Small, like the toughest guys in the B-pictures, Jimmy Cagney or George Raft, the steely henchman in the original gangster epic, 'Scarface.' In his teens, ruling the corner of Fourth Avenue and Sackett Street as King of the Cockroach Gang, Joey flipped a silver dollar, Raft's signature move. Joey wasn't going to be stealing copper piping from Brooklyn brownstones for the rest of his life. He was going to make it to the big town. Give big lunks the score.

"'I could have worked my way up to head soda jerk at Whelan's Drug Store,' said Joey, 'but what kind of life is that for a guy like me?'"

Colorful, sure, but rotten.

His attempt to shake down a "two-bit check casher" named Teddy Moss will horrify anybody who makes an honest living, feeds a family, and doesn't employ a personal bodyguard. It is rendered pathetic by the fact Gallo botches it and ends up in jail.

For "The Mad Ones," Folsom adopted a clipped, noir-ish style that makes for great fun, and does not limit his erudition or ability to transmit hard-earned information. But he also opted for a fragmented, back and forth manner of laying out the story, which confused this reader.

The author's gumshoe prose might have been better matched with a simple linear narrative or clearer delineation at the necessary points of digression.

At somewhere along this mushy timeline, Gallo gets it into his fevered head to take on the Colombo family, even though they have more men, bigger guns, and a legitimate claim to the "businesses" at stake.

And so Joey and his "Barbershop Quintet" of thugs hole-up with a lot of firearms and spaghetti at the President Street headquarters in Brooklyn to await a big shootout with the Colombo clan, or some clan made up of Colombos.

The stage is set, the police are on edge, trigger-fingers itching and....nothing happens.

They hang around eating. A few missions are aborted. The police run periodic and preemptive raids to keep them off-balance. Worse, the guys' wives start complaining about lack of money. The army which served as fodder for Jimmy Breslin's
"The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight," grows fat waiting.

Meanwhile, Joey goes to jail for a few wasted years, reads a lot, befriends black revolutionaries, and dreams up a strategy for heroine in the streets of Harlem based upon the novel stuff he's been learning in The Big House.

He gets out and rejoins the boys who are short on strategy, resources, and street smarts. One of them, or maybe not, shoots Joe Colombo who goes into a coma. An old-style "gangland" war breaks out and few of the Gallo crew are murdered in exchange for a few of the other team's. Nobody is asking who killed first.

Joey, ever the man about town and artistic wannabee, charms certain of the Manhattan literati and entertainment types, but mostly Jerry Orbach who had just played Kid Sally in the movie version of "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight." You might remember Orbach from "Law & Order."

Anyway, "The Godfather" was being shot (okay, not the best choice of words) on the streets of New York as a gangster chic took hold in the culture and elevated Crazy Joey's status with Cafe Society.

Aspiring writers will sigh at learning that he had a book deal with a prominent publisher and was garnering invitations to speak on big media panels with people like Gore Vidal.

But they kept PULLING HIM BACK IN! So that whatever Gallo thought he could be and was building toward....doesn't happen.

Instead his dreams are snuffed out in a hail of gunfire over a very late-night repast at Umberto's in Little Italy on the lower East Side.

And there is your story with the old-time moral that crime doesn't pay (unless you're really good at it).

The opening quotation is from Jack Kerouac: "The only people for me are the mad ones, the one who are made to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace things, but burn, burn, burn."

But the Beat poet waxed about something different than what "The Mad Ones" covers. This petty gangster's name, in the end, was not "Mad," but "Crazy" Joey Gallo.

And he earned it.