What I Didn’t Miss During a Long Walk in the Woods

NEW SLAUGHTERHere’s a list of things I didn’t miss during a week hiking down Isle Royale.

1:  Senate Republicans failing to come up with the 70 votes supposedly needed to give Speaker John Boehner “cover” to support immigration reform without the support of the majority of his neanderthal caucus. This was the presumption as we boated away from Grand Portage 12 days ago and nothing much changed, so what’s to miss?

There are only so many times I … you … paid pundits … the drunk on the next stool … can belabor the head-slapping destructive/self-destructiveness of this current crop of Republicans. And as much as road-blocking immigration reform is perhaps the single most damaging thing they could do to their election chances (in 2016, but very likely in 2014 as well) it just isn’t news anymore that these characters really are so … well, stupid is perfectly adequate word … that they will drive a stake through the heart of the one piece of legislation that might give them standing with the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country. A group big enough to turn … Texas for crissake … blue in another couple of election cycles.

It also isn’t worth mincing words about “why”. This isn’t another exercise in the hyper right-wing’s phony pursuit of Constitutional purity. It’s racism, pure and simple. The hillbilly sensibility of the Republican base has no time or sympathy for intruder factions unconnected by origin to new conservatives’ cockamamie mash-up of Hollywood westerns/xenophobia/Ronald Reagan hagiographies and snake oil punditry.

The fog that rolled up and over the Greenstone Ridge had the effect of blotting out a lot of toxic buffoonery.

2:  Even though I predicted it, I did not miss the minute-by-minute updates on where Edward Snowden was and might be going. Commercial media are incapable of engendering and sustaining a national conversation about anything of genuine importance … unless there’s a celebrity sex angle. The fact they’re treating Snowden the fugitive as “the story” and not the still-emerging details of the US’s multi-multi billion dollar cyber systems is too dismaying to “miss”. A hot shower after 50 miles of sweat, DEET and black flies, yes. A cold beer, yes. CNN, no.

3; Speaking of … I hadn’t been giving George Zimmerman a lot of thought, frankly. Although news of his trial start did make the crawl on a screen in the bar at the casino where we stayed the night before leaving. But upon return … I mean, WTF? Zimmerman is a bigger story than a military coup in Egypt? Even MSNBC has gone monomaniacal.

The Zimmerman trial is several rungs of significance up the ladder from the latest Jodi Arias/Casey Anthony sluts-who-slaughter convulsion, but round-the-clock?

Yes, I understand it’s far, far cheaper than sending crews to Cairo. And yes, I understand that certain key demographic groups will devote obsessional amounts of time watching a murder trial. But are we really at the point where we don’t even pretend “our viewers” have an interest in the meltdown of democracy in the anchor nation of the Middle East?

Don’t answer that question.

I get that CNN’s new boss, Mr. Early-Morning-TV-Works-in-All-Dayparts, Jeff Zucker sees an audience of attention-span deprived emotional adolescents, people who need a cooking segment and celebrity hype-chat to break the monotony of revolutions, car-bombings, cyber-warfare and legislative gridlock … but … passing mention? Imagine if another Carnival cruise ship flipped over in Miami harbor? You’d never hear of John Boehner again.

4:  Finally, I didn’t miss the story and intense local discussion about old Carl Pohlad’s tax troubles with the IRS … because they weren’t reported in the local press. Forbes magazine put out the story of the old man’s serious Mitt Romney-like gaming of the tax code … to the advantage of his heirs, a couple of whom at least have done some commendable things with the loot … they didn’t turn over to the common coffers.

Now that I’m back, after trying to cook my fabulous tuna schmeckler under a raggedy pine tree in a steady rain, would it be okay for someone in this town to get impertinent with one of the Pohlad boys and ask how exactly they justify the fantastical level of accounting magic that took their family off the hook for their “fair share” of taxes?

I understand every media outlet wants to be the Pohlads’ BFF. But now that this is “out there”, perhaps some tough-as-nails, take-no-prisoner reporter could “request” a first person comment from one of the boys.

I know, I know, it doesn’t have the reader interest of a list of “10 Great Places for Patriotic Dining”, but it is kind of like … news.

BTW … The beach at Siskiwit Bay was … idyllic. I’m already missing it.

A Tragedy Runs Through It, and Through Us All

My editor, when I was a young reporter, tells me to interview a mother whose son has just died in a fire in their apartment. I ask my editor why. My editor tells me to interview the family of a marine held hostage in Iran when the Desert One rescue mission crashes and burns, leaving the hostages still hostage. I ask why. What am I going to ask? How do you feel?

The crowd at the memorial service for the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters killed in Arizona cheered when a speaker asked the media to stay away from the lone survivor, the young man who’d been the lookout and barely escaped.

Why do those damn reporters want to interview the survivors of tragedy? Heartless bastards. Ghouls.

Reporters capture and transmit life. And tragedy is part of life. And feeling all of life keeps us human. That’s why. But still we bitch about the reporters. While we read their work, their heartbreaking work.

The New York Times today runs a story recounting the last text messages between a Granite Mountain firefighter and his wife. He tells her he’s going in to the fire: “I think I will be down there for awhile on this one.” He tells his wife he misses her and their kids already. After awhile he texts a photo of several firefighters heading for the smoke. She asks if he’ll be there all night. There is never a reply.

National Public Radio interviews young people at an informal grief-spattered remembrance for another Granite Mountain firefighter, from California. His sister, fighting back tears, remembers him in cowboy boots lassoing her when they were both kids. Never more, she says. The dead young man’s brother says his only regret is that he wasn’t with his brother when he died. With him.

Makes you think about life’s fragility, transience, beauty, holiness. Makes you feel love for your own folks. Maybe makes you think you’d better tell them you love them, go see them, because tomorrow might be too late.

On a plane a week or so ago I thought, looking at my iPhone, what would I text Lisa if the plane were going down? I decided I’d tell her that being with her is the best part of my life. The plane didn’t go down. I texted her that anyway. We should say that stuff.

Reading about, hearing about, how people deal with tragedy, with strain, with troubles you’ve not yet had, or with troubles you have, brings our humanity up wriggling and dripping from the bland tranquilized surface of every day. We need to see and hear that stuff. Much as we sometimes want to turn away, it’s hard to, and most often we look. At the accident. We listen to the survivor. Maybe it’s “there but for the grace of god…” But mostly we are attracted to tragedy because, I think, tragedy, like joy, makes us feel the depth and power of life. And we need to feel. Deeply.

Norman Maclean, who wrote, late in his life, A River Runs Through It, also wrote Young Men and Fire, a book about firefighters killed in 1949 in a hauntingly similar way to this week’s Arizona tragedy. If you want to get inside what happened to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, read this 1992 book.

Tell someone you love that you do. Tomorrow never knows.

— Bruce Benidt

A Confederacy of Dicks.

Several years ago I had lunch with novelist-travel writer Paul Theroux. In the midst of talking up his latest book the conversation turned to work he had done earlier in his career for The New York Times. While obviously a superb platform for any writer, the job had its frustrations. Like the piece Theroux was asked to write on the city/subway environment, circa mid-70s.

As you know the Times, (aka “The Grey Lady”), has a rather precious policy towards slang, informality and matters of basic human function. The paper that will invariably refer to “Mr. Hitler”, “Mr. Stalin” and “Mr. Manson” also has a hard and fast rule against vulgarisms such as the word … “shit” … which Theroux noticed in appalling amounts all over the streets of Manhattan and in the subways. (The town is cleaner now, thanks to nanny state regulations.)

But in attempting to offer a full, complete and immediately recognizable portrait of the environment he was asked to report on Theroux was required by his Times editors to imbue the stuff he saw fouling the surface everywhere with florid synonyms that were more, well, refined … like “defecation”, “scat” and “droppings”, the latter of which might lead less alert readers to think the city was cursed with a plague of discarded handkerchiefs.

As we enter the stretch run of a truly appalling siege of electioneering, and look at the roots of the disease that has infected today’s Republican party I’m convinced it would be useful to take Theroux’ advice and “describe what you see on the ground in front of you”. “Useful” at least if your intention is to communicate directly, immediately and without possibility of misunderstanding.

Hence, the indisputably appropriate and valuable use of the word “dick” to describe so much of what has gone in the past few years in conservative media and politics. Karl Rove. “Dick”. Dick Cheney. “Dick”. FoxNews. “Dick”. Michael Savage. “Dick”. Tom DeLay. “Dick”. Dick Armey, “Dick”. Frank Luntz. “Dick”. Michelle Malkin. “Dick”. Eric Cantor. “Dick”. Steve King. “Dick”. Louie Gohmert. “Dick”. Todd Akin. “Dick”.

While respectable, proper dictionaries avoid defining “dick” as 100% of Americans undoubtably understand it, (I think “private dick” has a whole new understanding in 2012), various urban dictionaries get it right, offering “jerk” and “asshole” as common, accepted synonyms.

Test it out. Ask the next half-dozen people you meet to define “dick”, in the context of a person or type of behavior. You and I both know what you’ll get: “A completely self-absorbed asshole.” “Someone who doesn’t give a damn what happens to anyone else as long as he gets his.” “One of those jerks who is constantly fucking over you and everyone he deals with.” “A guy (or gal) for whom the truth is some kind of hostile, alien concept to be routinely ignored and polluted at will.”

Others might just say, “Rush Limbaugh”.

My point is that in the era of Tea Party/talk radio conservatism, when garden variety political bullshit has devolved to shameless “dick-ishness”, the culture as a whole would be healthier if professional observers and reporters described it as precisely what they and their audience both know it to be. If you truly have respect for civility and reasonableness it seems to me you have an obligation to call out the dicks who are polluting those virtues.

For example: If NBC’s Chuck Todd were to come on one night and say, “GOP vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, already well established as a self-glorifying, onanistic dick for lying about his marathon prowess, claiming to have ‘climbed’ dozens of 14,000 foot mountains and inexplicably bragging about his body fat ratio being less than most Olympic athletes doubled down on his thoroughly dickish plan to gut Medicare and fatten the fortunes of his corporate cronies by accusing the Obama administration of destroying Medicare as we know it”, people everywhere would take notice – because they’d immediately and fully understand what he was talking about.

I’ve long believed the new “dick” conservative has consciously strategized their dick-ish policies and behavior knowing they can rely on the quaint prissiness of the mainstream media to put a “Grey Lady” gauze over their most vulgar distortions, flagrant lies and transparent duplicity. The likes of Michele Bachmann (a Queen of Dicks), Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney can operate as baldly as they do because their essential dickishness will be given an inappropriate, misleading, respectful makeover by a responsible, respectful, civil press uncomfortable describing — precisely, in a language most familiar to their readers —  what is right there in front of them.

A couple of days ago, while out in the Aspen area,  I made a pilgrimage to Hunter Thompson’s favorite bar, the Woody Creek Tavern, where you do reflect on how rare, wonderful and valuable it is to have someone describing the game of politics so vividly and precisely. When Thompson described Hubert Humphrey as campaigning “like a rat in heat” you knew exactly what he was talking about. Likewise, his description of the soul of Richard Nixon as emblematic the “dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character”, was a completely apt description that made an indelible imprint on the mind of the reader.

There are only a few practitioners of Thompson’s “call-a-dick-a-dick” art on today’s mass media scene. There is of course Charles Pierce at Esquire, who so accurately describes Paul Ryan as a “zombie-eyed granny-starver” and ” … a smiling, aw-shucks murderer of opportunity, a creator of dystopias in which he never will have to live.” (I’m also quite fond of his description of Scott Walker as, “… the goggle-eyed homunculus hired by Koch Industries to run their midwest subsidiary formerly known as the state of Wisconsin”.)

Likewise, Thompson’s far less chemically-infused heir at Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, fully exploits his license to describe a dick as a dick.

But notice how infrequently either appears in the allegedly in the-tank liberal press.

Too much vividness and precision is a liability when you have to be concerned with upsetting a handful of customers who prefer the look, sound and feel of Dick World.

One of Our Own…

Kudos to our blogmate Souder for birthing another book, On a Farther Shore, The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson.  This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Carson’s Silent Spring and it is a fitting time for a top-flight author like Bill to look back on what that book did – and didn’t – mean for the environmental movement and how it came along just as the American people (and others) were first awakening to the idea that “Better Living Through Chemicals” might not be true in every instance.

Mr. Souder gave a nice interview on the book to MinnPost that’s available here and you can – I’m sure – expect to see other interviews pop up on whatever passes for a press tour today.

Well done, Mr. Souder, except for the collateral damage of making the rest of your blogmates look like slackers.  We’d welcome any posting you’d care to make about the book, Ms. Carson or the research and writing process.

– Austin

 

 

Real Journalism Done Right

ImageNo matter what your feelings about WalMart, you have to give props to the New York Times for its impressive reporting on the alleged use of bribes in Mexico and the company’s efforts to sweep the investigation of the matter under the rug.  This kind of piece reminds us why we need good journalists in order to be a good democracy and it reminds us what the Times is capable of when it puts its mind to it.

Highly recommended.

– Austin

Ham(line) Handed PR

Kudos to Star Tribune columnist Jon Tevlin for by far the best coverage of last week’s dispute about former GOP gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer’s bid to become a professor at Hamline University.

In last week’s coverage, Emmer was claiming he had an informal handshake agreement, though not a contractual agreement, to teach at Hamline. Emmer maintained that Hamline later reneged under pressure from liberal faculty members.

From last week’s coverage, I couldn’t tell if Emmer was exagerating the firmness of the handshake agreement he and Hamline had actually reached. But in his Sunday column, Tevlin uncovered several Emmer emails that show the claimed Emmer-Hamline handshake was bonecrunchingly firm. There are unambiguous statements from Hamline leaders in those emails, such as “Tom Emmer is going to teach it.”

Tevlin did the by far best reporting on this issue, and he also did the best opining:

I have no idea if Emmer would be a good teacher. He’s certainly not known as an intellectual or deep thinker, but a lot of colleges are convalescent homes for retired or failed Democrats, so he’s certainly not a stretch. I’m guessing he’d give a lot of students the opportunity to hone their arguments, and there’s value in that. My two best professors in political science were a socialist and the then-head of the GOP. They both made me think, and that’s what education is about. Hamline could have handled this worse, but I’m not sure how.

Hamline didn’t break a contract, but it did reveal itself to be narrow minded. They should have let Emmer teach.

– Loveland

Misinformin’ Norman

When the Deep Marine accusations against Senator Norm Coleman became public, I wrote: “I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that Texans McKim and Thomas are being reckless with the truth…(about their accusations that Coleman was having corporate gifts illegally directed to him through his wife)”

So, yesterday’s news that there would be no federal legal action taken against Coleman was not a shocker. It looks like the Texans were lying about Coleman, and I feel bad that happened to him and his wife during a delicate time in the 2008 Senate campaign. It was unfair, and that damage can’t be repaired. In a race decided by 325 votes, it may have cost him a Senate seat. That’s not right.

But before you feel too sorry for Senator Coleman, read today’s stories a little more carefully. While Coleman apparently did nothing illegal, he did tell a whopper to voters. Repeatedly.

In today’s Pioneer Press, this important point was made:

On “one or or two” occasions, (Coleman campaign donor Nasser) Kazeminy purchased dress suits for Coleman at Neiman Marcus in Minneapolis before Coleman was a senator, (Kazeminy attorney Louis) Freeh affirmed under questioning from news media.

The revelation confirmed at least part of a different allegation against Coleman that dogged him through a portion of the 2008 campaign. He and his aides sought to dismiss it repeatedly –and never acknowledged it was true despite weeks of questioning. At one point, Coleman himself said, “Nobody except my wife and me buy my suits” – a statement the Pioneer Press and several other media outlets reported as a denial such purchases ever happened.”

This was very responsible reporting by the Pioneer Press’s Dave Orrick. For others, particularly those outlets that questioned Coleman’s campaign for months about the suits, it was a glaring omission.

So, the good news from the investigation: Former Senator Coleman isn’t a law breaker. The bad news: He was lying to us for months.

Both findings are relevant to Minnesotans.