Saturday, December 31, 2011

War is Over

Troops in America have truly come home. The war is over.

Or one of them anyway.

Wars rarely end to the same kind of fanfare with which they are launched. It is one thing to rush off and get holes blown through you, it is another to lick your wounds and quietly carry your fallen comrades home.

Like all of them, but more so, the Iraq War was a horrible war.

It involved the deaths of countless innocents. No class, creed, gender or age group was spared. No one was spared.

Somebody casually mowed down a line of fish-frying stands along the river, killing all the merchants who had maintained them for years. Another madman blew up a United Nations building full of people bearing food and medicine. There were the burned U.S. contractors hanging from a bridge, macabre marionettes in Falloujah. The middle-aged female aid worker whose resume read like Mother Theresa's, kidnapped, videotaped in misery, and left to the side of the road with a few bullets in her.

the highway scribe could go on, but as a practical and mechanical exercise, it would take more than a lifetime to chronicle the million little horrors that unfolded in Iraq over the past ten years. It would go on and on through the decades: the highway scribe sitting behind a manual typewriter as Iraqis came and recounted the way a bomb went off in the market where they were shopping, shattering their psyches forever, or about the family who misread the soldiers' signs at a checkpoint and were killed with machine-gun spray through their windshield.

highwayscribery's allegiance has always been to the little girl playing with a kitten in the courtyard, and favors policies that ensure, at all costs, she is not the victim of violence cooked-up with special malice in some weapons laboratory.

Such policies were not in evidence in Iraq.

Opposition to the war was intense before it began. The country was split between those who saw an immature man in search of something easy to legitimize his shaky presidency, and those who thought the problems of the Arab world were just a few quick fighter-jet strikes away from being solved.

These latter generated no great passion and the administration resorted to some "mushroom cloud" nonsense. They had only marginal success with that. Bush went ahead with the plan anyway. Colin Powell was the administration's Kabuki artist at the U.N. where he lied to the world and truncated his promising political career.

The American left, lampooned and characterized as usual, hit the streets with dignity and impressive force. Large numbers came out to oppose the adventure and the president applauded our democratic state because they were "allowed to express their opinion," if not to necessarily have it acted on.

There were brawls, arrests, and beatings between protestors and police, and citizen against citizen. The policy further widened schisms in American life, confirming the progressive lesson learned in the 2000 presidential elections: your vote and voice matter less than you thought.

They bombed the crap out of the place. It was really something of a slaughter, even where the Iraqi army was concerned. Built up into "elite" cadres and "seasoned" outfits by a media constructing a narrative from embedded positions within the U.S. military, they turned out to be what would you might have expected prior to the PR blitz: A tinhorn operation with as much chance of resisting U.S. forces as the Washington Generals do of beating the Harlem Globetrotters.

But this was a Republican project, the Democrats lamblike acquiescence notwithstanding. Once the president made an idiot of himself around the world by strutting on an aircraft carrier in pilot's suit and declaring "Mission Accomplished," there was no plan.

The parallels between the government response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the post-invasion plan for Iraq are simple and direct. A party that disdains government, is actually quite poor at governing, administrating, and statecraft.

So, in the early heady weeks, when administration officials swooped in to done flak jackets and collect a war photo for their personal collection, they made some rather careless, poorly developed decisions that opened up an insurgency.

Especially in 2004 through 2006, Iraq became an inferno of massive civilian bombings that could kill hundreds, and ferocious battles like Fallujah that verged on extermination of the local peoples.

Some 4,500 Americans were killed. Another 38,000 flood the veterans hospitals now. It's the usual stuff, missing limbs, brain damage, wheel chairs, prosthetics, grim striving, vivid agony.

The numbers and suffering of Iraqis were far worse. It is not at all ironic that they had no say in whether their country should be invaded in a fashion that was designed to "shock and awe."

That is the logic of most wars. Some will play at it. Many more will suffer it. Little girl in the courtyard beware.

There are no ticker tape parades as the troops trickle home, another clean-up job left to President Obama. We don't know if the work and money left behind will uphold and sustain a true democracy. Iraq reminds us that distinct cultures make homes of varying quality for civic life.

Attempts to install the instruments of modernity run up the grain of very established practices and, unfortunately, may not be possible.

In Iraq we must wait and see what the balance of our efforts their be.

But maybe there is a quiet joy in the land, at least in the homes of those directly affected by the war, the people hired to fight it and the families left alone because of it.

Nobody escape unharmed, that is certain, but people did escape and for them it is going to be a happy new year.

The war's end should make it one for you, too.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Book Report: "I married you for happiness," Lily Tuck

I Married You for HappinessI Married You for Happiness by Lily Tuck

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Early evening, a woman's husband comes home, greets her, goes up to their bedroom and dies. She spends the night by his side, looking back on their happy marriage.

That's the plot, such as it is, to author Lily Tuck's "I Married You for Happiness."

Philip and Nina are worldly, educated, and well-traveled so that the stuff of their otherwise anonymous lives does not weigh the reader down in boring, quotidian minutiae.

She is a painter. He is a mathematician specializing in the field of probability. The novel is peppered with lectures on this topic, some to his students, some to his wife. These can be interesting or opaque and difficult to understand.

Even in the latter case, Tuck manages to make it sound good and it's not beyond reason to suspect there was something in the language associated with probability that she found pleasing to the eye and ear.

As Philips examples and scenarios accumulate, it seems the author is trying to say this happy marriage, with its ebb and flow, glories and pratfalls, was something that might or might not have occurred given the laws governing chance and that, even though it panned out, it was not meant to be forever.

Ms. Tuck is a prior winner of the National Book Award and her command of craft is patent in "I married you for happiness."

The remembering takes place as the night winds on. The reader is kept abreast of the changing light outside, the passing of cars, and barking of dogs. You know Philip is dead and the recollections are more poignant because we know this woman will have no more of them.

There is no chronology. The memories are placed by the author in places she needs them most, the musings on probability the same, yet for all this temporal disorder, an overall impression of control and order seep from this thin tome.

Maybe it's the two lives detailed that imposed the order.

Those with happy marriages can mourn along with Nina, even apply the exercise to their won coupling. Those less fortunate can indulge in a kind of guilty pleasure, absolved, up to a point, by the underlying theme of chance and likelihoods.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Jerry Brown: A Literary Appreciation

Let us not praise him for leaning left or right, rather for being an uncommon artifact in a world of windblown bluffers.

And let us not confuse this post as a political endorsement of California Governor Jerry Brown (D).

The purpose here is to focus on someone who meets our special highwayscribery threshold for the successful mixing of politics and literature.

Brown, as might be expected, and as this article in "Capitol Weekly" attests to, is comfortable with a book.

The article does a detailed review of the governor's library, which includes Melville's "Billy Budd," a tome on "Christian Monasticism," Kevin Starr's "California," "The Dancing Column: On Order in Architecture," Beat poet Gary Snyder's "The Old Ways," and much more: a well-detailed map of one Renaissance man's mind-stamp.

"Yes highway scribe," you shake your head, "that's very impressive, but how does his literary bent inform his work as governor? Is there a difference between a west Texas bumpkin, and a fellow who sets himself up as an intellectual, when it comes to horse-trading and dispatch of the National Guard?"

Glad you asked and hard to say.

It's not much, but by way of first-hand experience, highwayscribery can say the governor handled the 600 bills sent him by the California legislature, almost all of them at the end of September, differently than other's he's covered including Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), George Deukmeijian (R), or Gray Davis (D).

(We skipped the Wilson years)

Typically, the bills begin to trickle out as they are signed. Some are posted on a governor's web site or announced in press releases by his office, some on the web pages of legislators who sponsored the measures. Reporters also break the news before it's available from the public record.

It's willy-nilly and in tune with the frantic note set by the closing days of the legislature.

This fall, Brown disappeared while those of us waiting on the final disposition of bills we'd followed for months waited and wondered. What was Brown doing? There was a deadline and, with about five days to go, he had only acted on a handful of measures.

The signing and veto messages were finally released in a staggered fashion, smartly grouped by issue. These issues (environment, transportation, public safety, etc.), for the most part, jibed with those Brown campaigned on as priorities.

They were the stuff of PR: "Gov. Brown Signs Bills Protecting California's Lakes, Streams and Coastlines," but were presented in the form of an argument and as the expression of an overall policy. It-

"C'mon highway scribe," you interrupt, "that because Brown know the state machinery inside out. You can't attribute that to the fact he read some Beat poet."

Point taken.

Over time the record has shown art to be no great civilizer, nor artists benighted with special human graces.

In "My Last Sigh," filmmaker Luis Bunuel wrote of the Spanish Civil War:

"I tell myself that all the wealth and culture on the Falangist 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."

This second article from "Capitol Weekly," suggests that Brown's reading has at least informed his veto and signing messages, which, unlike those who came before him, writes his own.

The reporter, Greg Lucas, notes that "Brown has been brusque, pithy, candid, acerbic, droll, trenchant, and even a tad persnickety - sometimes all in the same veto message. His penchant is brevity, simplicity, and precision in word choice."

The article quotes Brown's communications director, Gil Duran, as saying, "He's a writer. he pays very careful attention to what he's saying and how he says it. Why use a word with three syllables when you can use another with only one?"

There are good answers to that, but they'd take up another article and that's not happening.

Here we sought only to examine the literary and legislative habits of one character in current American political theater.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Chile: A Dead Poet's Society?

"I was alone like a tunnel. The birds fled from me,
and night swamped me with its crushing invasion."
Pablo Neruda

The past, they say, dies hard.

And so did poets, musicians, and other dreamers who, decades ago, tried to make Chile a more fair and just society.

You don't read about these things in the United States, which is why highwayscribery's sleepy editorial board has decided to apply the blog's efforts at informing the uninformed.

It was reported in the Spanish daily, "El Mundo," that a Chilean court has ordered an investigation into the death of Pablo Neruda, "The Poet of Love."

Neruda, (pictured at right) for those of you who did not see the Miramax production of "The Postman" (Il Postino), was a rock star poet whose work was known and beloved throughout the world in spite of the fact he was a dyed-in-the-wool communist.

Or because of it. Who knows?

The last of his kind, Neruda typified an early-to-mid-twentieth century intellectual who worked as hard generating beauty as he did justice.

We'll not engage a curricula vitae of his work in poetry and politics here. Suffice it to say, he served in the Chilean senate, ran for the presidency, and secured the Nobel Prize for Literature.

An important and worthwhile man who touched millions.

The poet died 12 days after a sanguinary general by the name of Augusto Pinochet led a Sept. 11, 1973, coup d'etat which overthrew Neruda's close friend, the left-wingy, but legally elected, Salvador Allende (at left).

The poet was ill with advanced prostate cancer at the time. He died, it was officially reported, after his condition was exacerbated by watching his friends being rounded up, tortured, and killed.

President Allende, for his part, was assumed to have shot himself before butchers in the Chilean military could lay their cold and grimy paws on him.

Enough of the dictator's acolytes are either dead or senile now to permit a thoroughgoing examination of these claims without Chile sliding back into the bloody horror of the 1970s and '80s.

To that end, Allende's body was recently exhumed for a forensic examination that will hopefully reveal the true nature of his death.

As for Neruda, his chauffeur, one Manuel Araya, recently told a story that conflicted with the official version peddled once the poet's voice was stilled.

Araya says that Neruda was fine, walking about, and ready to be flee the country in a plane Mexico's then-President Luis Echevarria had put at his disposal.

According to the driver, Neruda sent Araya and other helpers to get some personal belongings. When they returned, the poet was dead, with a big, red, bloody blotch, staining his stomach.

Araya insists the poet was injected with a lethal chemical cocktail by a doctor at the clinic in question.

Not surprisingly, nor out of character with the incoming regime's practices, Araya was then arrested and sent to the national stadium where so many unfortunate progressives met their terrible end.

Some Neruda "experts" have contradicted Araya's account, but it should be pointed out that he was present on the poet's last day, and the biographers and academics were not.

Similarly, it is worth noting that Neruda's death mirrored that of way too many others.

Long after the state was secured, Pinochet's thugs made a habit of showing up to the houses of journalists, writers, and opposition activists in white vans, 'round midnight, and pulling them from the frantic arms of loved ones.

These unfortunates invariably "disappeared," and their bodies are still being searched for to this day.

As for artists, the dictatorship reserved a special disdain and exquisite cruelty.

highwayscribery long ago drafted an intense post designed to memorialize the life and death of singer/songwriter/guitarist Victor Jara.

The post noted that, as the coup unfolded, "Jara was singled out for special treatment. The charming men who saved Chile from godless communism and agrarian reform took delight in breaking his hands and then daring him to sing without the benefit of a guitar.

Few witnesses survived the massacre, so we must trust or distrust the legend which has Jara singing the anthem of Allende’s Unity Party, and being joined in chorus by others awaiting their own turn to be broken on the wheel.

And then they killed him. A pop star."

Which is to say, Araya's story doesn't seem far off the mark at all. Certainly, a Neruda in exile would have been, to say the least, nettlesome for the U.S.-backed dictatorship.

And if it seems to some that this is dredging-up old stuff, chasing water under the bridge, remember that great poets -- like all people -- are entitled to their story.

If Neruda's tale ended with a clinically induced death at the hands of lowly men, then his life and its end take on a more tragic and ironic cast than currently understood.

And that is a swan's song that deserves singing.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Mexico and the Death of Poetry

Few are the times we'd choose death as an option when offered others, but one such time is in the case of your own child.

Nobody wants to outlive their kid.

In Mexico, where President Felipe Calderon unleashed a civil war against drug cartels that has claimed the lives of nearly 60,000 since 2006, a lot of parents are burying their children.

Most of them are anonymous and stained with the implication of having been involved in the drug trade.

But last week, the savages whom ply the death hovering over Mexico like a toxic cloud, picked on the child of a man with a voice.

One of the six, ill-fated young fellows found tortured and asphyxiated, in a car south of Cuernavaca, was the son of noted Mexican poet Javier Sicilia who had to get the news while working in the Philippines.

They were killed by gangsters for having alerted authorities to shady behavior for being citizens. On the plane ride home, Sicilia wrote a poem to his boy.

highwayscribery has done his best to translate:

The world is no longer worthy of the word
(El Mundo ya no es digno de la palabra)

They have drowned it inside us
(Nos lo ahogaron adentro)

In the same way they suffocated you
(Como te asfixiaron)

In the same way they clawed out your lungs
(Como te desgarraron a ti los pulmones)

And the pain refuses to leave me
(Y el dolor no se me aparta)

All that is left is a world
(Solo queda un mundo)

For the silence of the just
(Por el silencio de los justos)

For your silence and my silence alone, Juanelo.
(Solo por tu silencio y por mi silencio, Juanelo).

When Sicilia (pictured above) arrived in Mexico he read the poem and added, “It’s my last poem. I can’t write poetry. Poetry no longer exists in me.”

And so another voice, a precious one, was silenced by heartless beings who resist application of the term “human.”

Forgive us if piling politics on top of poetry seems inappropriate in this instance, but that’s what we promise and pledge here at highwayscribery: politics, poetry and prose.

Back in 2006, when the Mexican presidential campaign was in full swing, this blog surprised no one with its full-throated support of the left-wing offering, Manuel Lopez Obrador.

An outspoken advocate for the poor, a strong candidate with a healthy coalition of peasants, unionists, and urban hepcats, he was defeated through a combination of cynical Madison Avenue-styled attacks from his opponents and, when that did not work, screwed by the country’s supreme court.

Sound familiar?

Calderon, a diminutive nerd with an educational pedigree in the U.S., dressed in military garb for his inauguration, in breach of the country’s laws.

It was all downhill from there.

The little soldier that could launched Mexico’s armed forces into a war they were not prepared to win, because many of them were part of the drug transport-selling complex and the rest were under-armed and under-trained when compared with professional assassins their commander and chief had targeted.

You might be asking how the other guy, Lopez Obrador, would have handled the same intractable situation.

Well, and we are speculating here, he might have legalized the drugs and pulled the rug out from under the murderers by taking the risk and, hence, the profit, out of moving the stuff north the border.

Calderon’s predecessor, Vicente Fox, actually did this and had to backtrack in approximately two days time when our last president, Little Bush, told him to do so.

In left-wing fantasy land, we tell ourselves Lopez Obrador, had he been elected, would have legalized the stuff and then held fast.

Because that would have been right.

Mexico has, for too long, paid not only the price of America’s drug habit, but that of its policies, which entail the imposition of prohibitions confected by a moral few on everybody else.

Here in California, over the last year or so, we saw a burgeoning of retail pharmacies made possible by the state’s medical marijuana law, the Obama administration’s announcement that it would not persecute such enterprises, and local authorities’ slowness to respond.

Street life got cleaner. Supply went local, became plentiful and cheaper. The market saw some interesting permutations as people who would have indulged, but had no interest in plumbing dangerous corners for their stash, suddenly could do so in safety.

Now they’re rolling it back into the hands of criminals and those daring enough to do business with them.

The Obama administration, transformative in no way any of us who supported the candidate might have hoped, is falling into the familiar patterns of governance, sticking its federal nose into state affairs or resorting to military tribunals first prescribed by the most rancid and reactionary elements of our political class.

Wars. Drug wars. Oil wars. War wars.

More wars, the death of poetry, and a silencing of the lambs.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Update from the Kingdom of Wisconsin

The new Republican majority in Wisconsin must have that state's citizens feeling God-like.

What else when a simple legislative election elevated their status to that of aristocrats empowered by divine right?

We all know the Badger GOPers didn't need a quorum to shove a bill through a Senate in which they were the only party present.

Now, "The Washington Post" reports, they don't have to listen to Wisconsin judges enjoining their pet law to destroy unions from implementation.

By way of background, Judge Maryann Sumi ordered the secretary of state not to publish the law while she sorted out the whole sordid business of its run through half a one-party legislature.

In the democratic world, that means the plaintiffs' claims have merit and all bets are off while the courts consider the matter.

Happens every day.

But in Wisconsin they have Tea Party kingdom, which is anti-government, and means they just seek out another Tea Partier, say, "the legislative reference bureau," have them publish the law, and call it even-Steven: "Your legally appointed/elected judge, our bureaucrat."

Same thing, see?

Judge Sumi tried to make it "crystal clear" she wanted the law iced until the courts have checked out the smelly sausage for themselves.

But the top-down chamber run by Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald is subject to no checks and/or balances. He said Sumi's ruling, and we quote, "flies in the face of the separation of powers between the three branches of government."

It's not surprising Fitzgerald's got an alternative take that empowers his branch of lawmakers over the one conceived to review what they legislate.

He went on to say, "It's disappointing that a Dane County judge wants to keep interjecting herself into the legislative process with no regard to the state constitution," by which we can assume he thinks the state constitution does not provide for judicial review when affected citizens request it.

If you're wondering whether Fitzgerald's nuts, stop. And bear in mind his brother is the Senate Majority leader; also much put-out by a judge mucking up the majestic legislative process over which the twin-headed ignoramus presides.

And we do mean majestic, because King Scott Walker and the Princes Fitzgerald won an election granting them absolute power to revoke long-held rights and reduce the judicial function to one of (unheeded) advice and consent.

Judge Sumi, according to the article, has suggested the Republican majority might avoid all the ruckus by simply running the law through their House of Lords again, this time with a quorum, while adhering to the state's open meetings statute.

But those things are anathema to kings who poke their fellow citizens in the eye and call it democracy, who subpoena the e-mails of a professor who disagrees with them, while brandishing their freedom-loving pedigrees.

And that's because angry citizens and dissident professors can reap results which run counter to their wishes, and their wishes supersede anything those they govern desire.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Portrait of a Portrait of a Lady: Anne Theroigne

Sometimes bit players steal the show.

That is not to say the historical figures of Danton, Desmoulins and Robespierre are upstaged by the sparse appearances of Anne Theroigne in Hilary Mantel's
"A Place of Greater Safety: A Novel," but she certainly adds to the conversation.

This post is both about a fascinating person, and about the author's masterful crafting of a secondary book character.

highwayscribery's own novel "Vedette: or Conversations with the Flamenco Shadows,"and posts like "Birthday Card for Tina Modotti," are evidence of an abiding interest in female revolutionaries. No less sanguinary or egalitarian in action and thought, Anne-Josephe Theroigne de Mericourt fits the bill as a subject of interest here.

The goal is not to conflate the scribe's humble effort with an eminence quite so eminent as Mantel (okay, maybe a little), but to assert his rightful place as an admirer and collector of lady iconoclasts.

Not in the girlfriend sense, let us be clear. They are not conducive to a writer's quiet life.

Throughout this expansive novel, Theroigne surfaces, burns and submerges, resurfaces again, lighting the dank torch-lit streets of ragged and unjust Paris...just a few passages, evocative ones, transmit her flavors.

Late Entry

Camille Desmoulins, pamphleteer extraordinaire of the revolutionary cupola, first stumbles upon Anne at a theater audition where she is being humiliated.

It takes place at page 118 of this weighty literary chronicle: "She was about twenty-seven, he thought; small bones darkish brown hair, snub nose. She was pretty enough, but there was something blurred about her features: as though at some time she'd been beaten, hit around the head, had almost recovered, but would never quite."

They exchange barbs before she submits that her future looks bleak. Desmoulins wants to know what she has done in the past when faced with a dry spell between acting stints:

Answer: "I used to sleep with a marquis."

"There you are then."

"'I don't know,' the girl said, 'I get the impression that marquises aren't so free with their money anymore. And me, I'm not so free with my favors.'"

She then establishes herself as a free-ranging woman when divulging her plan to meet contacts in Genoa.

"She put her cheek on her hand. 'My name is Anne Theroigne.' She closed her eyes. 'God, I'm so tired,' she said. She moved thin shoulders inside the shawl, trying to ease the world off her back."

This is an introduction to someone mordant, socially astute, battered, yet unyielding.

She is being marginalized by fading beauty and diminishing artistic talents. Anne Theroigne is afraid and her future actions reveal she thinks the government, or society, or somebody, should do something to arrest her tailspin into the gutter.

(the scribe does not know this for certain, rather has drawn certain conclusions from these first paragraphs written by Hilary Mantel).

This is Theroigne before the revolution. And this is her France.

Once the deluge is unleashed, Desmoulins is out in the street doing what he does best, rousing the rabble. Among them is a "pretty young woman with a pistol in the belt of her riding habit, and her brown hair tied back with a red ribbon and blue one."

These are the colors the ascendant radicals have adopted and she is with them, flowering, purposeful.

Though she may be fading, Anne has been feted by Paris. Has heard a few stories. She has been at the center of the world and lived off making believe she is other, made-up people.

"Her face seemed luminous in the watery light. Now he saw that she was very cold, drenched and shivering. 'The weather has broken,' she said. 'And so much else.'"

The streets are seething and a few hours later she is a portrait of action.

Made for the Part

Underemployed, she certainly has the time. Dramatically gifted, the troubles of 1789 provide her with a proper stage.

"Another night on the streets: at five o'clock, the tocsin and the alarm cannon. 'Now it begins in earnest,' Anne Theroigne said. She pulled the ribbons from her hair, and looped them into the buttonhole of his coat. Red and blue. 'Red for blood,' she said. 'Blue for heaven.' The colors of Paris: blood-heaven."

You can earn respect by cranking out 749 pages of engaging literature, and sometimes, in one brush stroke, give the whole thing a strident coloring that clings.


The highway scribe is not going to pick apart each of the Theroigne-related passages. He is giving you an idea of how the text was read. Your reading would be something else entirely.

Now back to the revolution. In the earliest phases, action draws the highest premium and the new order has jobs for people like Camille and Theroigne. Their gang, a disparate lot of social maladroits and axe-grinders, is somehow on the rise.

Centripetal forces continue to drive politics in France; Paris in particular and apart. Louis and Antoinette's days are numbered. The politics of the moment revolve around what to do with them. The king does try. He receives a delegation of women and makes promises.

"Theroigne is outside, talking to soldiers," Mantel revives her anti-heroine. "She wears a scarlet riding habit. She is in possession of a saber. The rain is spoiling the plumes on her hat."

Anne can dress the part, although there is usually some element gone awry, screwing up the perfection of the whole, gaining empathy.

Laying Low

And then she is gone, though not for long. As chaotic Paris tries to sort itself out -- going to the theater, dining, sexing it up, and carrying the enemy's head around on a pike -- Theroigne marshals support and plays her hand in the deadly game for power.

The author finds a character who can tell us they are all -- Danton, Desmoulins, Robespierre, Anne and their revolutionary caste -- "virgins."

Soon enough, she reappears before Desmoulins. "Theroigne swept in. She wore a white dress, and a tricolor sash about her waist. A National Guardsman's tunic, unbuttoned, was draped over her slim square shoulders. Her brown hair was a breeze-blown waterfall of curls; she employed one of those expensive hairdressers who make you look as if you've never been near a hairdresser in your life."

Desmoulin rebuffs her sexual play and denies her a job writing for whatever paper he's editing at the moment. She is damaged goods and he's worried about his reputation.

"As far as he knew, Anne was leading a chaste and blameless life; the strange thing was, that she seemed dedicated to giving the contrary impression. The royalist scandal sheets were not slow to pick up on anything. Theroigne was a gift from God, as far as they were concerned."

So she gets labeled the whore while Danton and Desmoulins enjoy the winning revolutionary's celebrity, notching their belts with every belle at every ball in town.

Anne, by opting for a public life, for demanding a voice, gets tarred and good.

And though she's acting, it's not an act. She's a revolutionary having her say and you can't mistake Theroigne for anything but what she is, except for what she's not.

Which is to say there is ambiguity in this portrait, someone we can both like and not like, a person on whom we are still withholding judgment, but find worthy of attention.


The revolution, as most left-wing ventures tend to do, begins consuming itself. First overboard are the dreamers. Mantel tells us, "In May, Theroigne left Paris. She had no money and was tired of the royalist papers calling her a prostitute."

Noblesse Oblige indeed.

"One by one, the "murky layers of her past" had been peeled away to reveal unsavory acts and liaisons that "we've all done when necessity has pressed. It left her open, though, to ridicule and insult."

Anne's plan is to return once the libelers move on, but she suffers the star's burden of being missed: Her scarlet cloak, her "claque" surrounding, pistol swinging as she prowls the National Assembly's corridors looking for deputies to berate.

And so rumors circulated, in her absence, that the Austrians, with whom the revolutionary government is at war (along with the rest of Europe), have abducted her.

"Hope they keep her," is what Lucile, Desmoulins' modern wife and newly minted revolutionary, says. "What gave her the right to be a pseudo-man, turning up at the Cordeliers [that most ferocious of workerist sects] and demanding the rostrum."

Aborted Catfight

Lucille gets a shot at some answers when Theroigne shows up in her tricolored salon. Anne has been released by the Austrians with some money to boot, but she has not come to square-off with a feminine rival. She has come to lament. For her part, Camille's wife is very pregnant.

Their lives have assumed radically different paths, and each prefers the other's.

Theroigne is out of sorts, tattered, not sharp. Lucile can see that the hem is frayed on her scarlet coat, "that the dust on the streets was upon it, that even the red was not so red as it used to be."

Anne is furious that the papers are still spreading lies about her. And Camille is ignoring her.

"He's busy," Lucile covers for her husband.

"Oh yes, I'm sure he's busy. Busy playing cards at the Palais-Royal, busy dining with aristocrats. How can anyone think of passing the time of day with an old friend when there's champagne to be drunk and so many silly, empty-headed bitches to be screwed?"

"Including you," Lucile murmured.

"No, not including me," Theroigne stopped pacing. "Never including me. I have never slept with Camille, or with Jerome Petion, or with any of the other two dozen names the newspapers have named."

The object of a superior social deference, Lucile wouldn't dare stake the same claim.

Theroigne has a particular grudge against a royalist by the name of Louis Suleau, publisher of The Acts of the Apostles who has had his way with her good name in print.

Lucile is miserable in this hellion's company. She explains how Anne's bankrolled release from the Austrians has left her open to the charge of spying.

Theroigne comes a little undone. She admits to having a daughter who died after being left behind. She doesn't know how to write. Things are not going her way, her tribulations multiplying willy-nilly.

Today she has been weak.


But life can turn on a dime, and soon the angriest most radical of the revolutionary factions is literally up in arms, jailing aristocrats left and right, and forcing the king's imprisonment.

Desmoulins is witnessing a riot outside the Royal Palace at Versailles.

“Theroigne had taken charge. Here was her own, her little Bastille.”

She has led an “unfocused rabble” to a place where the royalty are being held against their will, and is breaking in, not to save them, but too...

More revolutionary and feminine portraiture:

“Theroigne wore black; she had a pistol in her belt, a saber in her hand, and her face was incandescent.”

It’s romantic writing, without getting melodramatic. Theroigne is incandescent, but she’s also out of her mind. Camille watches as the fourth prisoner emptied into the mob’s maws is Louis Suleau, the guy who’s been spreading the rumors.

It’s not a heroic moment, but an ugly one. Your own politics determine whether it is necessary.

Leader of the revolution, or some part of it, Desmoulins can do nothing but watch Theroigne, “approach Louis Suleau and say to him something that only he could have heard; Louis put up a hand, as if to say, what’s the point of going into all this now? The gesture etched itself into his mind. It was the last gesture. He saw Theroigne raise her pistol. He did not hear the shot.”

Don't call her a whore.

As all of the revolutionary class learned, direct action is effective, but does have its drawbacks. Among these are constant exposure to committed enemies and overheated throngs.

Some time later, Robespierre asks Camille if he’s heard about “that girl. Anne Theroigne.”

“What’s she done now?”

“She was making the speech in the Tuileries gardens, and a group of women attacked her -- rough women from the public gallery. She’s attached herself to Brissott and his faction, for some reason only she understands -- I can’t believe Brissot is delighted. She found the wrong audience -- I don’t know, but perhaps they thought she was some woman of fashion intruding on their patch.”

She is saved by the dangerous Jacobin scribe Marat, soon to be assassinated himself, at the hands of a “fashion plate.”

Camille laments that she was not killed. “I'll never forgive that bitch for what she did on August 10.”

Robespierre is philosophical. Old schoolmate or not, Suleau “ended up on the wrong side, didn’t he? And then so did she."

Brissot is on the extermination list, so Theroigne’s made a bad political call. It meant Robespierre wouldn't mind taking off her head.

But he does not have to kill Anne, because everyone thinks her own choices are doing it much better. Theroigne, in fact, ended up surviving the stunning violence of her time and living another 25 years.

In the book, Anne is done before the revolution is done. Disappearing as easily as she first appeared, she is an afterthought in the fast-moving paces of a tumultuous situation.

“A few weeks ago in the street Lucile and her mother had seen Anne Theroigne. It had taken them both a moment to recognize her. Theroigne was no longer pretty. She was thin; her face had fallen in as if she had lost some teeth. She passed them; something flickered in her eyes, but she didn’t speak. Lucile thought her pathetic -- a victim of the times. ‘No one could see her as attractive now,’ Annette said. She smiled. Her recent birthdays had passed, as she put it, without incident. Most men still looked at her with interest.”

Not this reader fair lady. Both eyes are on the rebel girl.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Letter to the Russian Ambassador

Sent Feb. 2, 2010

Sergey I. Kislyak
Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the United States
1125 16th St. N.W.
Washington D.C.

Dear Mr. Ambassador,

Greetings from Southern California.

The persecution of the Russian artist Aleksei Plutser-Sarno and the art group "Voina," really gets my goat. And as a planetary citizen I urge your government to cease the mindless pursuit of this artist and release those of his allies whom have been detained.

I read about their plight in a "New York Times," article dated January 22.

That's a while back, I know, but maintaining a journalist's post, a literary writing career, and the self-appointed job of skewering repressive governments around the world can really weigh on a guy.

I'm sure the article by the marvelous Ellen Barry -- and please don't harass her, too -- caused you a degree of heartburn.

And it's a good thing, too.

Mr. Plutser-Sarno has some unpleasant things to say about those who govern the Russian Federation. But surely you realize that the official response to such provocations only lends credence to his claims that you guys need to lighten-up and take a democracy class.

You work for him, and his fellow citizens, not the other way around. I say this only because I know Russia is new to democracy and could probably use a few pointers.

And by the way, I think Plutser-Sarno's "installation" involving a 210-foot penis hanging from a St. Petersburg drawbridge, pointed at the state security outfit's building, is the ultimate example of free expression.

Anybody can insult some man on the street. The democratic protection to speech is truly cashiered when we try it on those who make the rules and enforce them with the threat of violence.

You should give the way we do it here in the U.S a go. There are vast spaces of freedom for mouthing-off across our mediatic landscape. As a result, so many people are doing it, that no single voice truly rises above the din, except very stupid ones like Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin.

Such people are a stain on the nation's honor, yes, but at least we know where and what they are.

You guys are doing it the old-fashioned way and the result is, well, this letter by somebody one zillion miles away from Russia. See how it doesn't work?

Charging Voina with "organizing a criminal gang," would be laughable, were the artists' lives not getting screwed-up in the process. After all, let's not kid ourselves Mr. Ambassador, when it comes to criminal gangs, you guys set the gold standard.

Your government's support of Chechnya's "president" comes to mind. You know, the one who takes time off from a busy executive schedule to personally torture his political opponents.

I hate that guy.

And not to make political hay out of a tragedy, but those people who blew up the airport in Moscow a few weeks ago and killed dozens of people: THEY were a criminal gang.

Perhaps if your security and police forces weren't so busy harassing mischievous Dadaists, the bomb plot might have been detected before so many innocent people died. Touche.

By the way, I'm going to post this letter on my blog "highwayscribery," just to make a point about how hard it is to keep the truth from circulating.

You know Mr. Ambassador, it is not difficult to find absurdities, cruelties, and meanness in the world with which to fill "highwayscribery."

Just this morning I read in the "New York Times," about the slaughter of 100 dogs in Canada, for no good reason (as if there could be one).

Stories like that, and the Voina artists' plight, say to me that no matter how complicated the world may be, right and wrong are not so hard to distinguish.

Thank you for your time.

the highway scribe

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Black Swan Swims

The American right, and its Republican Party, have formulated their talking-point in response to the Tucson tragedy, but its impacts are bigger than any public relations posture.

In the overheated claims of certain right-wing bloggers that President Obama is happy Rep. Gabrielle Gifford (D-Ariz.) was shot, is an implied recognition of the political damage done to the red state revolution before it ever got going.

The shooting represents what author Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls a "Black Swan," which he defines as "an event (historical, economic, technological, personal) that is both unpredicted by some observers and carries massive consequences."

The first, and most immediate consequence of the Tucson massacre, was that it arrested the GOP's envenomed plans to generally make life miserable for what self-appointed inquisitor-in-chief Rep. Darrell Issa (R) calls the most "corrupt administration ever."

Which is a fine example of discourse that is less than courtly.

Congress was suspended after the tragedy and Republicans began to back down, sensing the Democratic caucus had become something of a feral animal. Some of their own had been hurt or killed. A real tragedy had occurred and they were, rightly and demonstrably, very upset.

If not scared.

The long-overdue softening did not end there. Newly minted House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was criticized for not attending the Tucson memorial service, but he had serious and real business to handle at the House Republicans' retreat.

It was more than a retreat in name, because out of the meeting came an admission that the revolution was not likely to be televised, let alone launched, because
"Washington Democrats still control the Senate and White House," as Boehner noted.

Choosing patriotism over his post-presidential election peevishness, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) penned a mostly gracious column in the "Washington Post," praising the president's speech in Arizona and calling for a greater civility in our public discourse. It amounted to a clarion call that commits Republicans and their Tea Party antagonists/allies to a kind of unilateral disarmament.

When McCain wrote that, "we should be mindful as we argue about our differences that so much more unites than divides us," he was essentially signing pink slips for the media carnival barkers whose daily bread is demonizing Americans who believe in progressive tax rates, peace, and social programs.

McCain tried to take the fire-eaters' toys away, noting that, "I reject the accusation that the president's policies and beliefs make him unworthy to lead America or opposed to its founding ideals."

That's the Tea Party-line, and that group, together with Tea Party Express rider Sarah Palin, came in for a particularly harsh drubbing in the shooting's aftermath.

They'd gotten away with a long run, pushing the limits of acceptable debate, spitting at congress people, disrupting their town halls, lining them up in the crosshairs of graphic gun-sites, and generally doing very well by it.

But the electoral success came at a price, paid mostly by others, and now they're back on their heels instead of attacking.

When some nut makes your words a live and macabre tableaux, when he attempts to blow a Congresswoman's brains out, slays her idealistic aide, and murders a little girl for good measure, you've bought yourself a bumper crop of trouble ripe for the reaping.

The aforementioned talking-point confected by conservatives is that their insults and disparagements of those different them than did not cause the shooting, that he was a "lone, deranged, gunman, acting on his own, without political leanings blah, blah, blah."

That is probably not true, though in an effort at putting his money where his gob is, President Obama unselfishly granted the concession and ended the discussion.

Even if Sarah Palin's gums are still flapping.

Which is somewhat the point. Tea Partiers and their Republican allies know no other way. It is not enough to carry unconcealed weapons to Democratic convocations and pepper they or their constituents with invective.

The ranting and raving must extend to those in their own party, which, in highwayscribery's estimation (and Karl Rove's, however briefly) cost the Republicans a shot at the Senate majority.

To wit:

The "L.A. Times," reported that three different Arizona state Republican apparatchiks were forced to step down in the face of threats and harassment from the little darlings. The shooting has these people spooked, too, and they don't view civic engagement as worth the price of their hides.

And that's a loss.

The paper reported fleeing GOPer Jeff Kolb saying, "This is a group of people who should in theory agree on 95 to 98 percent of things. This is not Republicans against Democrats. I don't get it."

The highway scribe does.

They flouted the rules of democracy in order to gain power and now stand to lose it for the same reason.

And it is not a question of employing the oft-abused lefty-cry of "Fascist" to point out that these are brown-shirt tactics of intimidation and that, if the Tucson madman had no truck with the Tea Party, they've still benefited by his actions where Arizona Republican politics are concerned.

The Tea Party and their allied drum-breaters, spent too much time screwing the empiricist's square hat onto their round heads in an effort to separate their heated diatribes from an event it seemed to prescribe.

But they never denied the heated rhetoric itself, which has left them plainly vulnerable in wake of the Black Swan's swim.