Sunday, March 28, 2010

Fear, Inc.

On February 15, 1898 the U.S. Navy's dreadnought battleship U.S.S. Maine sustained a huge explosion and sank in the harbor of Havana, Cuba with the loss of nearly 3/4 of the 364 man crew.  Shortly thereafter a photographer dispatched by William Randolph Hearst to take pictures of the 'war' complained to his boss that there was no conflict to photograph.  Hearst shot back this famous telegram:  'You provide the pictures, I'll provide the war.'

In the 1920's the press dubbed a gangland cooperative created by the National Crime Syndicate; Murder, Incorporated.  The NCS itself was a Board of Directors of sorts comprised of crime gang leaders from New York and New Jersey and served as a clearing house for airing grievances, settling turf wars, establishing a coordinated approach to dealing with law enforcers, and in the case of Murder, Inc., enforcing discipline.

Employees were paid a regular salary, got 'bonuses' of $1,000 to $5,000 for each killing, had a health care plan, the best lawyers money could buy and assurances their families would be taken care of should some harm befall them.  1 to 5 K may not sound like much now, but in the Roaring '20's, 5,000 bucks was enough to buy two Packard automobiles.  In modern terms, two Cadillac Escalades.  A thug could make a pretty good living fulfilling 'contracts'.  This, by the way, is when the term 'contract' first appeared in the context of murder.

In the 1950's, following WWII and concurrent with the Korean War, the Red Menace became the public veneer of a Godless empire with evil intentions growing as a cancerous  malignancy to blight the world.  Or so it was told by breathless commentators.  Suspected commies were rooted out by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  It was led by a self-aggrandizing pol with barely a nodding acquaintance to truthfulness, born on a farm in Grand Chute, Wisconsin as Joseph Raymond McCarthy.  His Chief Legal Counsel was a Duke law school grad from Yorba Linda, California named Richard Nixon.

In the 1960's there was George Wallace....well, you get the point.  There is always someone willing to use fear to manipulate circumstances to benefit their personal agenda.  Whether it is a complicit press seeking larger circulation (or I suppose, ratings or website hits, these days), a middling politician or union organizer with a taste for greater power and luxury,  a crusader led astray by fanaticism, or worst of all, a cynic just grubbing for money, someone always steps up to the plate.  So long as their has been human organization the powerful, or those aspiring to become so have unleashed fear as a primary weapon in their arsenals of aggression, or suppression.

But something has changed in the last twenty years accelerating the process and that something is technology.  Specifically, communications technology.  Vietnam was reported on film stock, edited and delivered days later.  Radio was faster but less visceral.  Newspapers got wire photos and reports from United Press International, Associated Press and Reuters, usually in time for same day publication.  Reactions to these images and stories were written and mailed, or telephoned.  Time elapsed between event and reaction.  War was distant but the threat was made ever present to suit the needs of the powerful or ambitious.

Today wars are waged in real time.  Depending on where you lived in the U.S. it was possible to watch Baghdad being bombed while eating your morning corn flakes before you went to work.  It also meant you could watch people die in real time.  Not a movie, though it seemed like it; real people--good guys and bad--died during my breakfast.  I could respond in real time as well.  If I was technologically savvy I could fax, phone or even email within seconds of seeing the event.  Time to think no longer stood between event and reaction.

I was told by those in power that it was the right thing to do.  They showed me evidence that evil doers needed to be rooted out, and indeed, following the horrifying images of the carnage at the World Trade Center (watched with incredulous disbelief as it was happening) it seemed clear enough they were correct.  I supported the effort to wreak vengeance on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.  I was convinced, along with the U.N.,  by the Secretary of State that Saddam was in league with these killers.  I was afraid.  I was schooled to be afraid.  Buy duct tape and plastic sheeting and gas masks.  It was the cold war gone hot.  Duck and cover all over again, and I fell for it.

I'm nearly a decade older now, and more wary of scary.  Finally I am on to the tactics, and the rationales behinds these assaults.  I look more deeply; don't take things at face value when presented to me as frightening attacks on my freedoms, health care, gun rights, Christian values, Medicare, dot-dot-dot ad infinitum.  I get it now, fear is a commodity.

Fear as a commodity is a new concept for me.  I understood the manipulative qualities, and to my personal shame have used them myself from time to time.  But it is only recently that I stumbled upon the quantifiable monetizing of fear.  The packaging and sales of fear explains what seemed so inexplicable to me.  It illuminates the success of talk media, both from the left and the right.  The right tells me to fear the left.  They're Socialistas seeking to steal your liberty bit by bit.  They want to kill your babies in the womb and loose rapists amongst your daughters, raise your taxes and kill businesses.  Oil your guns, lay in ammo and supplies, get ready to go the hills to survive.  Could you donate $25 or more for the fight to preserve your heritage?

The left enjoins me to abjure my conservative roots.  Those rednecks want to impose their reactionary Christian Taliban views on us all.  They want the poor to perish in the streets, to be swept away with the rest of the rubbish.  They want to make diversity a foreign word and lock up all the fags and atheists.  They want Big Business left unfettered to pillage the citizenry.  Print up more posters, march on Washington, sit in somewhere.  Sing 'We Shall Overcome".  Click here to donate $25 or more now to defend against this onslaught to your liberty.

Fear has a price.  It is traded on the major exchanges.  Fox News, MSNBC, the EIB Network, Air America all profit from fear as a commodity.  Limbaugh, Olbermann, Beck, Maddow and a long list of grander and lesser players all derive their incomes (and tidy ones they are) from the packaging and sales of paranoia.  They are spectacularly successful and market the resulting no-time-t0-think frenzy as 'news' in a self-renewing cycle of profitability.  They play clips of each other with commentary designed to enrage without enlightening and then deftly slip in the fear mongering just before the commercial break.  Each has its cadre of experts, politicians hungry for media time, and pundits raking in a few bucks on the side by beefing up 'analysis' with their own opining.

But I'm on to you now, I see how and what you do.  What used to be healthy skepticism on my part has been transmogrified into vigilant cynicism.  I'll admit to losing my innocence long ago, now perhaps finally I bid adieu to my gullibility as well.  This is what Fear, Incorporated has sold me.  It makes me sad, a little, to lose that piece of wonder and nescience that every soul should retain.  It makes me angry too, with the perpetrators for their mischief and myself for my personal credulousness.  I don't want to become just another angry old white guy.

Yet now, that is what I fear.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

R.I.P. G.O.P.

It's done, but not finished.  Health care (or more accurately, health insurance) reform is the law of the land.  A few minor fixes will survive the reconciliation process and the Obama administration will put a check mark next to this item on their to-do list.  To be sure, it will face an onslaught of misguided legal challenges; which it will survive, as the Republican party continues to Balkanize itself on the shoals of intolerance.

The GOP has allowed itself to become fractured in a way that I used to think only Democrats were capable of doing.  I suppose what is about to happen is best characterized as the ritual cleansing of those weaklings among the keepers of the True Faith that have succumbed to the demon of reason and common sense.  These purges take place historically shortly before a political party self-immolates.  It is a sad thing to see the party of Lincoln about to break itself apart upon the reefs of extremism.

Even Barry Goldwater wouldn't recognize this party.  However rigid his ideology, he still understood that engagement in the process--even in a losing effort--was important.  His successor from Arizona has decided instead, in a fit of pique, that he just won't join in anymore.  Former presidential candidate and Senator from Arizona John McCain announced on the Senate floor he would no longer participate in lawmaking this session.  He did not resign, or offer to return his salary to the Treasury Department, he just decided to become the laziest Senator in Washington.  That in itself is a pretty tall order.  He apparently believes he is up to the task, but I imagine he will walk that statement back.  Egos of that proportion don't stand in the darkness very long.  Perhaps the voters in Arizona will finally receive that for which they are paying.  Perhaps they will instead decide his retirement is appropriate this fall.

Fear mongering has an epic and sordid history in politics.  In long ago and recent times it relies on distortions, lies and ad hominen personal attacks to gain traction among the poorly informed.  Then it fans the flames of divisiveness with race-baiting and conspiracy theories that would be laughable if the intent wasn't so sinister.  In the infancy of this country tracts were published under pseudonyms and distributed by hand and reprinted in small presses.  Later, similar tactics were adopted by newspapers on a massive scale (notably Hearst publications) as yellow journalism flourished in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Since then the cavalcade of technology has brought us Father Coughlin, an anti-Semitic Nazi apologist; Sen. Joe McCarthy, a Commie hunter that almost single-handedly fomented the Cold War, and has led us from Joe Pine to Rush Limbaugh and the modern day successor to Hearst, Rupert Murdoch and Fox 'News'.  The saddest part of this, especially in recent times, is that for Limbaugh and his ilk stirring the pot is a cold calculation to make more money.  Make no mistake, theirs is not an act of conscience, it is show business.  With controversy--the more shrill the better--comes ratings.  With ratings comes cash.  End of story.

Watch carefully.  When the hubbub over health care dies down, as it will, and the value of the sideshow loses its ratings punch, the flabby arguments from the right will disappear and a new villainous conspiracy will emerge.  It's even money what it will be.  The Senate will take up regulatory reform of the financial industry next and you can be sure that the right will weigh in, but perhaps with caution, given the mood of the populace toward that industry.  My bet for the next cause celebre' for conspiracy theorist will be immigration reform.  Expect a comeback from Lou Dobbs for that effort.

Ultimately, when no reasonable middle course of action is acceptable to the extremophiles of a party, factionalization will doom it to the dustbin of history.  Without strong leadership and a reassertion of reasonable compromise that is where the GOP seems headed.

I suppose if I really wanted to reopen the conspiracy can of worms I could let it leak that all those water boardings Dick Cheney insists were are so important in Gitmo were done with fluoridated water, in Area 51 instead.

As Sarah Palin put it; time to reload, America.

Monday, March 1, 2010

My Dinner at Antoine's

I've had occasion recently to sup in some very fine eateries, and I have a few thoughts about the art of dining fine upon which I shall expound in the future.  But today I have one establishment particularly in mind for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with great food, but instead for speaking to the essence of living a meaningful life.  But first you need a little history.

Antoine's in New Orleans is a much venerated institution.  It began as a pension' when 27 year old French immigrant Antoine Alciatore left a frustrating business effort in New York to come to New Orleans.  After a short stint as the chef in a nearby hotel he started his own place in 1840.  He brought his fiance' from New York and soon they were married and the wonderful aromas emanating from his kitchen enraptured the Queen City of the Mississippi and a legend began to bloom.  A charming story, and true as far as it goes.  Then steam displaced wind as the motive force for boats on the river, and predictable schedules for shipping reduced the demand for lodging in his little pension', but not the enthusiasm of patrons for his restaurant. 

Wishing to spare his wife the agony of seeing his slow death, and desiring to be buried in his homeland, Antoine took his leave in 1874 and sailed home alone to Marseilles where he died within the year.  Undaunted, his wife carried on, sending son Jules six years later to learn his craft in the great culinary centers of Paris, Strassburg and Marseilles.  He returned and assumed command of the now famous Antoine's at the end of the nineteenth century, where his genius in the kitchen demonstrated itself with creations such as Oysters Rockefeller, a moniker he laughingly applied to the rich sauce he created but which had no association with the person for whom it was named.  Jules fancied it a joke, but the name stuck.  Today it would be Oysters Gates, maybe.  By the way, that spinach and cheese concoction you may have been served elsewhere is a pale imitation invented by a jealous rival when Jules refused to disclose the recipe, still kept a family secret to this day.

Skip ahead three generations.  Antoine's, always guided by a direct descendant of Mssr. Alciatore himself has weathered war, prohibition, depression, war, changing style, war, and of course, the weather.  Until Katrina struck and everything changed for the Crescent City.

Huge swaths underwater, looting, death, inept relief efforts; all pictures we remember vividly.  Pictures for most of us, reality for New Orleaneans.  Mercifully, or more accurately because the founders of the tiny community on Isle d'Orleans, Mssrs. Iberville and Bienville built on higher ground, Veaux Carre' ( voe kuh RAY-the French Quarter to tourists) avoided the flooding, but not the wind.

Over the last one hundred sixty years of Antoine's growth it absorbed neighboring buildings.  It encased and enclosed cooking areas that were once open courtyards with coal fueled firepits and second story slave quarters.  It built a vast and enviable wine cellar in what had been an alleyway and inhabited each acquisition like a hermit crab making a home in a found space.  The storm toppled away a century old plus second story leaving areas exposed to the elements for three weeks.  A 1953 Chateau LaFitte Bordeaux wine does not like exposure to wind, rain and tropical temperatures.  An entire wine cellar becomes so much vinegar.  And from an insurers point of view, just some perishable reimbursed at the current market value.  A '53 Chateau worth maybe $2500 is replaceable with a 2003 Chateau worth about $35.

But more importantly, it left the employees and patrons scattered to the four corners; unemployed, separated from family--or worse, and homeless, mostly with just the clothes on their backs.

The easy thing, the business thing, the expedient thing, maybe even the smart thing to do would have been to take the insurance money, say it had been a great run and retire.  New Orleans, you could justify, is too wounded to recover, our people now like the diaspora.  We can't go back again.  But Antoine's isn't a legendary place just because the food is great.  Lots of nouveau cafes have smart young chefs churning out fabulous food.  Antoine's is a legend because of its people.  Like the family that owns Antoine's, employees stretch back through it's history too.  One generation assumes guardianship of the fine service and precious recipes from their fathers, mothers, grandparents, sisters and brothers.  Like New Orleans itself, the people of Antoine's are more than employees--they are members of the family.

Which helps to explain why the newest generation of leadership didn't quit.  The great, great, grandson of Antoine Alciatore came back, rolled up his sleeves and went to work.  He wrangled with recalcitrant insurance agencies:  No, you can't continue your employees health benefits because you aren't open for business so they aren't currently employees.  Catch 22.  What could he do?  He could pay the entire cost of COBRA coverage out of his own pocket for every employee.  So he did.  He found where people were; in Arkansas, Texas, Florida and elsewhere and brought them back.  He found places for them to live, co-signed countless rental agreements, and put them to work cleaning and reconstructing.  He had them polishing silverware and reclaiming tables and chairs.  As soon as he could he opened the Hermes Bar, the oldest part of the location they have so long occupied.  He gave them something to which they could look forward:  He gave them hope and purpose.

When I asked the obvious question, why he would do such a thing--take such a huge risk--he looked at me without a moments hesitation and said, "How could I not.  They're family.  You do what you have to do."

"You do what you have to do."  It is a lesson all Americans should take to heart.