Watching Freedom of Speech Speed Atrophy in Real Time

Fenster writes:

It is a good thing we have free speech embedded in the Constitution since it is damn near impossible to amend the thing. Further, hypocrisy being the tribute vice pays to virtue, there is as of yet no real support to get rid of the idea, as there is with the Second Amendment. Even those who oppose free speech . . . er . . . support it.

In some ways it is better to force fights to the surface. We all know what we are talking about when it is matter of eliminating the right to own a gun. The problem with fights imbued with excess hypocrisy is that evasion and subterfuge make it harder to allow for necessary conflict between the real issues at stake.

But for now we will have “free speech”. But will we have “free speech” without the scare quotes? Will we have, if you will, free speech? That is not so clear.

I have argued often here that since I don’t believe in absolutes I am not a free speech absolutist. No idea occupies Platonic space since the that space does not exist. But I am as close to absolutism on this issue as pragmatism allows. I recognize that speech cannot be, in the words of Frank Zappa, absolutely free.

Prevailing interpretation of the First Amendment allows for very robust speech. That’s a good thing. But of course there a limits and caveats. Mostly this means that the categories of speech that are in the domain of the Amendment do not enjoy protection in the utterance of “fighting words”, narrowly understood to mean just what those two words suggest.

Beyond interpretation of intent, I will also acknowledge that free speech under real not simulated conditions may not have its much vaunted cleansing efffect if it is allowed to roam too freely under conditions of chaos, or intense factional disagreement. Free speech is alleged to help work through disagreements. Most of the time yes. Sometimes no.

Factional disagreement may get so hot that it will be tough to manage even with a fighting words doctrine. But things get even more complicated when a great many of those subject to the Amendment’s reach simply do not agree with the current interpretation, or when cultural differences result in too little consensus on what is reasonable and what not.

If reasonable men cannot agree on what “reasonbleness” means, reasonably speaking, then the “reasonable man” function, central to the law’s operations, will short-circuit. Or worse, get hacked. All the more reason to support an order that encourages free speech to flourish, and to be mindful that culture matters.

There are of course no fixed boundaries where interpetation is concerned, and whether the Court will remain a firm supporter of the current view is uncertain.

For one, someone has to sue, the Court has to take the case and then resolve it in a way the makes things at least temporarily clearer going foward, until the next case bollixes everything up again.

In the meantime, meaning right now, there are a lot of things happening–actual actions by people and institutions– that appear at odds with the Constitution. They are free to continue unless the Court makes it clear they cannot. At present: come and get me copper!

When and if a nice, ripe case makes its way to the Court how will the Court handle it? The law is often rightly accused of relating itself too directly to public opinion — but what is public opinion on this issue at present? Where is the deep shift that might prompt a Justice to take account of it, and to treat it as a troublesome yet worthy consideration in a Constitutional review?

No, if rollbacks gain traction it won’t be on the basis of clearly evolving standards, as was the case with certain matters involving race and sex. The pressure will come from the assertion of one faction about the need for another faction to shape up. In this case that means that well before we get to a court of law the leading institutions will articulate new standards as a fact, well before any cultural consensus will have taken shape on its own. This is what we call leadership.

These new standards will suddenly show up everywhere. This will be described as evidence, of course–evidence of the deep cultural consensus the new standards reflect. Effect before cause, probably–but we will get there in due time.

So the next time “fighting words” comes up at the Supeme Court we will have legal briefs asserting words are a form of violence. Scholars like George Lakoff will present the science backing up the notion that actual harm can be caused by an offensive comment.

It will be argued that “fighting words” must be adapted for our new 21st century scientific understandings of vioence and harm, and that if, Your Honor, you do not find the science argument persuasive we have a whole stack of justifications in here in this briefcase.

And then we will have the commentariat, too, free of the need to cloak their views in legalese, and taking the issue into the political square. Ta-Nehisi Coates will assert that that only a white man could imagine words cannot do harm. He will be lionized for his bravery.

Those things will come in time. Now, the battlefield must be prepared.

A lot has changed since January 6. I’m not a conspiracy addict but I must say it is as though someone flipped a switch on that date.

On this issue, as on many others it seems, there is before January 6 and after January 6.

Take Inside Higher Education. It is the accessible, shorter-form and digital counterpart to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

A brief journey through the archives since 2005 reveals pretty much what you’d expect. Free speech is generally the good guy, sometime sharing the stage with a worthy challenger but always with its eloquent defenders.

But now comes the post-January 6 world, where everything is fraught. It’s fraught I tell you! Fraught! The lead article in the current Inside Higher Ed even puts it just that way: handing free speech is A Fraught Balancing Act.

You remember balancing acts, right? They are often used in formal legal review, with the Justices balancing one set of arguments against another, often rendering their opinion on the basis of a balance test analysis.

Yet the Supreme Court’s current views on free speech already incorporate balance. The result is what is called the law, which is supposed to be obeyed, not made subject to another amateur hour balancing test at Bennington College.

But let us not question the folk process. All the right folk are in favor of change and we little folk will be expected to dance to the music by-and-by. Take that balancing act, prole!

Here is the opening to the article. Keep in mind this is not in the journal’s opinion section but appears to be news.

In the aftermath of the attacks on the United States Capitol by supporters of President Trump, college leaders are being asked to confront dangerous and offensive speech by students and faculty and staff members that promote false claims about the 2020 election and support the violence that occurred last week as a result of the spread of such claims.

The calls for administrators to rid their colleges of those who hold such views, and to examine how their institutions combat misinformation, is often complicated by First Amendment protections. Colleges and universities, after all, are meant to be forums for students to voice, debate and defend arguments founded in truth, experts on political expression said.

I submit you would not have found the blithe but dangerous assumptions on display here in an article at ICE from ten years ago, and probably not even in an article a few months ago. The new baseline assumptions embedded in this article are breathtaking in scope and sudden in appearance.

I am not going to parse the assumptions in those short paragraphs. The paradigm shift ought to be blazingly apparent.

I think it all reprehensible. But there it is, in all the innocence of its infancy. The New Mandatory Consensus.

In the moment so pure and tender. The rhetoric so caring and deep. But the dang thing cries a lot, and I worry that as they gets older the crying will continue, in deeper registers.

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SCENES WE’D LIKE TO SEE*

Fenster Carlson writes:

Tucker Carlson: Good evening and welcome to Tucker Carlson Tonight. The events that unfolded in dramatic fashion on January 6 were terrible. It is terrible that we saw violence take place in the one building that most symbolizes our frayed republic and the values that are necsessary to sustain it. It is terrible that some Trump supporters, a small number to be sure, engaged in acts that are reprehensible. They should be brought to justce. But make no mistake: that is not the end of the terribleness.

The rest of the monologue, along with the introduction of his first guest, here.

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Note to K—-, on the morning of January 6

K—-:

You write that perhaps Pence can simply not open some of the envelopes. I am not so sure about that one.

I have not heard the argument that Pence can decline to open an envelope. And I don’t see that idea lurking in the penumbra of the passage you cited.

The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted.

The language, especiallly “shall”, appears to me to direct the VP to open the envelopes. And I think the Electoral Count Act, which may or may not be constitional, directs him to open “all”.

As I understand it the ambiguity turns on the discretion he has after the votes are on view, including the votes from states where there are two slates sent in.

Giuiliani says one argument for wide discretion comes from the election of 1800, where VP Jefferson, as President of the Senate, decided the dispute in his own favor and beat Burr. That was a total mess, and the constitutional framework at the time was quite different. So I am not sure you can easily draw from that the conclusion that Pence can open the envelopes and decide on his own to reject some, or choose one over the other.

I haven’t studied it because it seems to get murky pretty quickly in terms of history and precedent but I am still failing to grasp the source of the assertion, put bluntly by Trump yesterday, that “the Vice President has the power to reject fraudulently chosen electors.” Is the argument here that Pence can on his own determine electors were chosen in a fraudulent way?

There is massive evidence of fraud and I believe the election was stolen. But as with any legal process you need to put the facts into the meat grinder and see what comes out. The states have had ample opportunity to weigh the arguments for fraud and have gone ahead and certified. That is pathetic but if the Constitutional process has been followed who is Pence to make the call? You can also make the argument that the judicial branch should step in and override the state processes on other grounds found in the Constitution and related to the evidence that the election was fraudulent.

The Court appears to favor the view that the resolution ought to be in the sphere of messy politics and seems reluctant to jump in and short circuit the political working through by invoking due process or some other constitutional concept. That’s pretty pathetic too.

So the system seems to have embedded in it a moral hazard that invites stealing big. A huge and obvious theft creates the grounds for its own success: the more massive the corruption the more both legislatures and the courts are invited to blind themselves to the obvious. Theft on a massive scale is then a way to hack the system.

You might think the framers would have thought it all through with their rock-paper-scissors logic and said “gee, in that case we need to have the buck stop with the President of the Senate. She can stop an out of control hack that slid through our best laid plans for a legitimate election.” But did the framers do that? If not maybe we have to accept that that the system has been hacked.

There’s the overlay of the Electoral Count Act of 1877, which may or may not be constitutional. At that my eyes glaze over. But whether the processes in that Act are constitutional or not I am still not seeing the source of the VP’s discretion in the moment to not open envelopes or do deem the election fraudulent on the basis of the the “regularly given” language or anything else.

It may be that there are limits to using an ordered lens at this point. There may be just too much chaos in the system, and it will have to be worked through chaotically. That’s one meaning of the word “crisis”. The illusions we create for ourselves that all is not flux work most of the time but then sometimes fail, and we look into the abyss. State legislatures, governors, Congress and Supreme Court justices seem willing to fall in. What about the executive branch?

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Note to pals at S—–: Lin Wood Shocker

Hey S—– folks:

Check out Lin Wood’s overnight tweets.

This esteemed but apparently rogue attorney for the Trump side in the election fracas has been spouting extreme stuff recently, so much so that his allies want to create distance and many say he’s insane.

He now says he has the evidence and will provide to the few people he trusts: Trump, Flynn, Powell.

What has he got?

If he is to be believed the strongest stuff he has fills in the details on one large side of Q-world: the pedo stuff.

The pedo stuff runs the gamut. At one end you have Clinton cavorting with 15 year olds. That’s not that big a deal in the scheme of things.

But then you have Hollywood, and whether pedo corruption has hidden in plain sight there in the same way the new casting couch did, and as pedo stuff did in the Church. That is more shocking than public officials having sex with the slightly underaged, and it is pretty easy to believe, too.

Next step: institutional complicity in very large scale international sex trafficking. That’s harder to swallow but then again if the CIA made money in the drug trade, addicting and killing many Americans in the process (which it did) why not the people trade?

But then you ratchet up to systematic rape and murder of kids, and the sytematic “burning” of key figures like John Roberts and Stephen Breyer to control their actions. Much, much bigger deals.

And finally, one hopes, we come to charges of ritual murder, draining kids for their adrenochrome, satanic worship by globalist cabals. There you go off the charts, and the rails.

Wood does not yet get to that last, Satanic, step yet but his comments have brought him right up to that threshhold, all the way through the burning and turning of people like Roberts.

The idea seems to be: hook the bigshot, then escalate the kompromat step by step. When you have the person deep enough get them involved with rape and murder and film the whole thing. Impossible, right?

If the past is any guide the past false climaxes on Durham, Barr, Q and Giuiliani suggest another such on January 6: lots of sound and fury signifying not much.

On the other hand there may be a Big Reveal that is truly Tootsieworthy.

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Notes on Barbara and Night Train to Lisbon

Fenster writes:

Two movies on the personal and the political.

Barbara and Night Train to Lisbon. Is the personal the political? And if it is should it be?

Sure sure history is a human enterprises driven by people, so politics and the personal are theoretically seamless from the get-go. But there’s a tendency in a two hour film given the vocabulary to which we have been accustomed to simplify the peculiar characteristics of groups over time down to matters of morality that fit inside the individual human brain (the audience member reverberating with the protagonist) or melodramatic romances that use pretty backdrops (the audience member desiring Lena Olin against the backdrop of tanks in Prague).

Barbara and Night Train to Lisbon are a step up IMHO. Both grapple with how real people struggle and are shaped by larger forces. In turn it becomes apparent that too heavy a dose of “the personal is the political” is often less to be celebrated than regretted.

Barbara is a doctor in 1980 East Germany coming to grips with what it means to be stuck in “this shit of a country.”

I thought Night Train to Lisbon was going to be a moody piece about a lonely old guy coming to love late in life. While it had those elements they were skillfully interwoven with a story about others, late in their own lives, coming to grips with the roles they played in the downfall of Portugal’s dictatorship in the 1970s. There are lessons in both movies but the lessons cut both ways, and in neither case are the lessons preachy.

We are built to experience morality from the inside out, as a done deal, and film takes advantage of that human feature. But morality (IMHO) is just another work in progress. It derives from and is constantly fed by knockabout experience. So the lessons individuals learn about good, bad, love and hate come from the actions of those individuals in a world that is far more complex than one person, a world that by its essence holds ambiguous lessons for us poor individuals seeking entertainment or yearning for answers.

Both films feature a doctor who is chastized for treating a bad guy: a communist apparatchik in one and a fascist thug in the other. Not that that makes too much difference. What we are talking about here is not communism or fascism per se. We are talking about the claims of the state (or the group, or the community) over the individual. The personal and the political are in a permanent tension, and we in the Free World are hardly immunized from that tension, despite the Aquarian call for no boundaries a few decades ago, during the good times.

In that regard both films (and especially Barbara) provide some hazy lessons for the US. What happens when the tools available to the few can operate with little restraint to convert a citizenry into a managed population? Sure, it can be done and no one can really stop it. . . but in East Germany’s case since the system was too strong to be overthrown it just ended up collapsing from within, after enough frustrated people decided it was a shit country that nothing could be done about.

Our rulers in the Free World now have tools that would be unimaginable to the Stasi, and that would have turned them green with envy. And it’s only going to get better and better and better for our betters! Even now it is clear they have taken the bait, and for sure they will indulge themselves with more and more efficient tools for control going forward. After all, they’re human too, at least for now.

What I don’t know is whether at some point a breakthrough technology will allow control over a longer run, outpacing any plebian pushback for a very long time or, effectively, forever. The new tools on offer have the benefit of being more gentle than cruder modes of control while at the same time being more, perhaps infinitely more, intrusive.

Perhaps we will find ourselves in entirely new terrain in which the past few centuries of historical experience are no longer ready guides. If control is sufficiently gentle and intrusive at what point does control simply morph into the way culture does business? Cultural institutions are always in tension with our inner selves and maybe advanced control will make for fewer such tensions.

On the other hand we may find ourselves moored to the ambiguities of history as we have come to know it, and new modes of control will just hasten the day when all but a very few realize we’ve become a shit country. What then?

I for one think the managed populations movement is likely to suffer the same fate in the 21st century as command economies did in the 20th. A few people cannot outwit the many on what to hold dear just as they could not outwit the many on what to buy and sell. We should be wary of any attempt to fuse the personal with the political just as culture ought to remain suitable upstream from politics.

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Is Culture Stuck?

Fenster writes:

The Revolver news aggregator, the self-proclaimed new Drudge, leads with a link to a story called “Is Culture Stuck.”

Interesting that this is the lead in this highly politicized moment on this mostly political site. Interesting, too, that the article appears less than what it seems: mostly a blog-style rumination, long on guesses and short on deep insights. I know that game.

While I don’t really resonate with the author’s conclusions about why culture is stuck it does appear to have been stuck in some important ways. Certainly that seems to have been the case until the recent past. But is it fair to say not much is happening at present?

As Steve Sailer and others have argued persusasively a distinct process of unmooring got underway in serious fashion around 2013, with the emergence of The Great Awokening. It is hard to say it’s still Kansas today. The old forms may remain–the look and feel of advertising is not much different today than it was a few decades ago. But the cultural messaging is quite different.

I don’t think the new cultural messaging is that manifest yet in our daily lives. Even in the ultra-blue progressive city in which I live relationships, clothing, and social forms are not radically different from the past, and do not mirror the apparent Woke consensus visible in the culture we consume. But in the long run you are what you eat, no?

Are the Great Awokening and its follow-on companion piece The Great Reset just fake, crap ideas superimposed from on high onto a culture that would be happy enough to roll on undistubed? For sure our real culture seems way more conservative than the new one on offer in advertisements and in Time Magazine.

But might it be the case that even the underlying, more conservative culture has a sense that it is beyond its sell-by date? Zombies, apoocalyses, conspiracies–the stories we tell ourselves thinking they are just stories and have no connection to our hopes and fears. If we are in a Fourth Turning–and I think we are–I think we all play a part in the shenanigans.

BONUS!


IN WHICH REGARD

Here is an article by Murray Rothbard in which he envisions World War 1 less as a tragic miscalculation and more as “fulfillment.”

In contrast to older historians who regarded World War I as the destruction of progressive reform, I am convinced that the war came to the United States as the “fulfillment,” the culmination, the veritable apotheosis of progressivism in American life.

He focuses attention on the intellectuals, “secondhand dealers in ideas”.

 Most of these intellectuals, of whatever strand or occupation, were either dedicated, messianic postmillennial pietists or else former pietists, born in a deeply pietist home, who, though now secularized, still possessed an intense messianic belief in national and world salvation through Big Government. But, in addition, oddly but characteristically, most combined in their thought and agitation messianic moral or religious fervor with an empirical, allegedly “value-free,” and strictly “scientific” devotion to social science. Whether it be the medical profession’s combined scientific and moralistic devotion to stamping out sin or a similar position among economists or philosophers, this blend is typical of progressive intellectuals.

In this paper, I will be dealing with various examples of individual or groups of progressive intellectuals, exulting in the triumph of their creed and their own place in it, as a result of America’s entry into World War I.

We’re all in this together.

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You Can Never Be Too Thin, Too Rich or Too Woke

Fenster writes:

According to that arbiter of all matters cultural, Teen Vogue, Asian-Americans Need to Go Beyond Apoloigizing for Anti-Black Racism.

Asian Americans–the loud ones anyway–are quick to declare solidarity with blacks Blacks. A little too quick if you ask me.

This mostly looks like apologizing. These usually take the form of indulgent, long-winded aggrandizements from non-Black people that mostly just read as a desperate plea to not be seen as racist. These apologies usually stretch paragraphs when they could just be two words: “I’m sorry.”

One problem with the idea of “confronting anti-Blackness” is that it means everything and nothing at once. . . .

Guilt won’t change the world, but care, willfulness, and action can. As ChangeLab’s Jung said: “Do not bench yourself. We need you.”

Or, as Steve Bannon remarked in a somewhat different context “Action! Action! Action!”

Enough with this “model minority” business. It’s just a way of infantilizing Asian Americans, giving them, as the article argues, “a little more respect” as a way of shutting them up and then shutting them down.

The fact that Asians Americans are cajoled to avoid action is apparent, too, in our crime statistics. The racist “model minority” myth has fostered inaction by Asian Americans even in the face of quite obvious dangers. For instance in 2018 blacks Blacks violently victimized Asian Americans 275+ times as often as Asian Americans violently victimized blacks Blacks. And yet we hear nothing of this astonishing statistic.

In fact the absolute number of Asian American victimizers of blacks Blacks was so low that in 2019 the Trump Administration’s Department of Justice just dropped the category of Asian Americans from its victimization survey altogether, this on the bogus grounds that since the absolute number was so low there was a problem of statistical significance.

What a joke. This suggests that if the number were zero there would be all the more reason not to mention it on the grounds of good statistics.

Obviously this is a Trump Administration cover-up designed to perpetuate the model minority business.

It is quite clear Asian Americans are being throttled. But you can only hold someone down for so long–a fact made clear by the shift by blacks Blacks from victim to victimizer Culture Hero. I suspect that by-and-by, and maybe real soon now, Asian Americans will have it up to here with the dainty image foisted on them by Orange Man and the Deplorables, and will form their own rock group.

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Notes on Fargo

Fenster writes:

The new season of Fargo is pretty good. Not as good as the earlier seasons but those seasons set pretty high bars for TV. It is spooned out weekly so I am five episodes in. A lot can happen to make or break a mini-series in the home stretch.

The earlier seasons were loosely connected plot wise with one another and with the Coen brothers movie. So far this one has no connection direct or indirect to the buried suitcase in the snow. But it does carry forward the quirky sensibility of the movie and the earlier seasons of the series. A little too much for my tastes: while the ghosts of the Coens are ever-present this season tilts heavily in the direction of Wes Anderson. The perfectly symmetrical camera shots. The Coen’s cleverness morphed into pose and archness. And the exaggerated visual palette: never have I seen so many shades of green.

Ethnically speaking the Coens deal with shades of white and have never been known to bow to political correctness. So how would this season of Fargo deal with the introduction of black themes for the first time? TV more or less has to be PC–would Fargo submit?

So far so good–but only in the sense that through episode five the show has thread the needle quite well: introducing all of the required doctrinal elements but handling the material in an offbeat way that to some extent defies a conventional explanation.

Recall the world that Fargo summons up. It is an America in which the earnestness of the heartland is simultaneously mocked and celebrated, with the emphasis on the latter. Nice white Minnesotans are naive all right but isn’t wonderful that we have such Americans to counter the bad effects of the country’s submerged dark side?

And in the Fargo universe the country does indeed have a dark side. There are the sociopaths, like Billy Bob Thornton’s character in the first season and the evil nurse this time out. And then there are the forces of greed and violence. In the Coen universe we do not see a conscious fight between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. Rather we see people who cannot help be what they are struggling more or less blindly as they go forth in the world, colliding with one another with hard to predict results. It can be a pretty pagan place.

One odd feature of the current season is that while the show honors the current racial tropes about white racism the portrayal of blacks is quite idiosyncratic. Essentially they are shown to have a good deal of Midwestern niceness. The leader of the upstart black gang is played by Chris Rock, who is no one’s idea of a sociopath. He talks about being mean and no doubt he has had to do nasty things. But he comes across as genuine and nice in a Minnesota manner. He and other black gang members live in beautiful old houses, tastefully but not extravagently furnished–all very “homey” in the old fashioned meaning of the term.

Rock and his gang are natty dressers and speak well. He and his top lieutenant — who was a lawyer at Nuremberg –are criminals in part because the white world will not honor their genius. They try and fail to introduce credit cards to the world by bringing the idea to a large white owned bank. Their idea is rejected–partly out of racial motives but also because the white bankers in 1950 still cannot wrap their heads around the fact that their customers would ever consider financing consumption.

It is almost as though the blacks on the show are secretly white. Other than the fact that they are discriminated against as blacks–there’s the nod to the required dogma–they don’t appear to be black in any serious way. Indeed you could make a case that they are not WASP white but perhaps Jewish white in disguise. The unusual credit card scene suggests this: it is hard to accept blacks inventing the idea of a credit card with high finance charges but that makes more sense if the black gang were a stand-in for Jewish mobsters, the discussion of which is still more or less verboten decades after the wall came down over the discussion of Italian crime as an Italian thing.

But, as I say, we are only in episode five, and there have been a few hints that the show will take a turn for the conventional in its treatment of race.

That would hardly be unusual in a mini-series. Political correctness is now so out of control that it cannot be avoided as a subject of some ridicule–provided of course that the ship is sailed into the safe harbor of conventional dogma by episode 10.

Such was the case with the Amazon series Upload. In that show the white male main character dies in the first episode and has his consciousness uploaded to a fancy simulated heaven. The show flirts with all kinds of reprobate notions, like the connivance of his girlfriend and his black business partner in his death. In the last reel he is of course revealed to be more or less the bad guy, having forgotton the nasty deeds that contributed to his death, and he is given a chance as Clueless White Guy to repent.

So there is time for the current season of Fargo to repent as well. We’ll see how it goes.

BONUS: I wrote here about the film Kumiko The Treasure Hunter. That film is literally “about” the movie Fargo and features a heroine, if you can call her that, who in the Coen fashion cannot help be who she is, with tragic rather than comic results.

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Boomers Won’t Go Away, Part XXV

Fenster writes:

The master of clever dialogue and champion of progressive romanticism Aaron Sorkin is coming out with a movie on the Chicago Seven. Such a gaggle of characters! For Sorkin writing his brand of ultra-rich conversation will be like shooting fish in a barrel.


But I am waiting to see how Sorkin deals with the fact that the only black–the Black Panther Bobby Seale–was part of what was originally called the Chicago Eight, until he was severed from the group to be tried separately. How can Sorkin build his gabfest around seven white guys? That would be the most white guys behind one camera since Saving Private Ryan. Can’t have that.


So what will his solutiion be, folks?

Me, I am guessing he will find some way to jury-rig things to bring the Panther front and center, even if it means mangling the history.


Maybe it will be like Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas. Billy J. isn’t a Dakota, silly. He’s Billy J.!


“Bobby Seale and the Chicago Seven”.

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Notes on The Jack Benny Program

Fenster writes:

Let me put a plug in for the old Jack Benny Show. It had several incarnations on radio and TV but the basic structure and cast ran through them for the many years he was a favorite.

I didn’t have much familiarity with him growing up. His peak years were his first years on TV, as he was making the transition from his wildly successful radio show, and people were taken by the fact that unlike a lot of radio stars he made the leap to TV with ease. The long pauses, his deadpan delivery, his skinflint persona.

But that was when I was too young for much to register, and by the time I was settling in to TV comedy we were on to the Beverly Hillbillies, Andy Griffith, and Dick Van Dyke–true sitcoms, without the need for the vaudevillian trappings–the opening scene in front of the curtain, shenanigans out front before the sitcom kicks in, the incorporation of the advertiser right into the action.

So I watched a couple of early shows from I would guess 1954 or so. As Blowhard Esq. says “couldn’t do it today.”

Benny is clearly Jewish. His persona is that of cheapskate or skinflint but not in the Dickensian count-your-coins kind of way. He is clearly out to gain advantage over others and is not afraid to take unfair advantage of them in the process.

In the show I saw he is all worked up over the fact that he has snagged Johnnie Ray for his show the following week but has money concerns.

Remember Johnnie Ray? Me, just barely. He turns out to have been much more of a pivotal figure in pop music than I knew–halfway between a crooner and Elvis, just in that time slot. And he is recognized for that too. He has gone down the memory hole today but he was a big big deal in the early 50s.

And in a pre-Elvis way, too. As Benny’s sidekick Don Wilson reminds him girls go wild at a Johnnie Ray performance, hooting, hollering, crying and tearing their clothes off to throw on stage. Ray had that allure–he was it seems a wild man on stage, having spent time as a white kid from the Northwest in black churches and clubs.

But Benny cannot get over the fact that the draft contract he has been presented with puts a price tag of $10K on the performance. “Well . . . . (pause) . . . I’m just not going to pay that much and that’s all there is too it”. Wilson’s Don McMahon-like helpful but obsequious nudges to the star ( “but Jack he gets that in nightclubs”) are to no avail, and Benny decides to visit Ray at his apartment to get him to change his mind.

The first part of that scene–how can I put this?–emphasizes not just Benny’s cheapness but that he is a kind of a shyster. The tall gangly ultra-white Ray is naivete personified, and Benny tries one trick after another to get Ray to use the ridiculous contract Benny trots out. Ray does not know for negotiating–shucks, he just thinks his contract is fair is all.

So he asks Benny to bear with him while he sings the songs he plans to do on the show. Maybe that will persuade Benny to relent.

And so Ray breaks into song.

Now the weird part here is that Benny, whom I believe to have been straight, has more than a whiff of the gay about his demeanor. I think it is all unstated, unlike later comics like Paul Lynde who could be openly, flamboyantly, gay while still never saying so.

Odder still, Ray in real life was gay, or at least bi, and was arrested for male solicitation just before his career took off, and on at least one other occasion as well. His marriage is widely viewed as having been a sham, though many believe he fathered a child with close friend – the small world of the 50s –Dorothy Kilgallen, whose husband was himself gay.

Yeah yeah nothing ever happened in the 50s.

So as Ray belts out his tune, getting really into it, we see Benny start to melt. He goes cross-eyed like one of the “silly girls” who go nuts at Ray’s concerts. He musses his hair all up. He starts pawing at his clothes, ripping them off his body. When Ray stops and asks Benny what he thinks Benny makes a mad dash for the contract, rushing to sign it. We find out only later he agrees to pay Ray $15,000.

So you got the Jewish thing going and you got the gay thing going and . . . oh yes, there’s Benny’s black manservant Rochester. The show opens with Benny coming into his apartment to see Rochester sprawled out in the big living room chair, in an expensive robe and smoking a cigarette (Lucky Strike) through one of those high class cigarette holders.

Benny might like a bite to eat.

“Sorry boss, my day off.”

There’s a nice comic interchange with the hapless Benny off-screen in the kitchen trying to make a cheese omelette.

Benny: Rochester where are the eggs?
Rochester: Top shelf of the refrigerator, boss.
Benny: Ouch! You sure that’s right? This one’s warm.
Rochester: That’s the light bulb boss.

Don Wilson arrives and while Benny is in the kitchen Wilson asks Rochester for help working the Lucky Strike ad into the next show. Rochester suggests using “The Sunny Side of the Street”, and starts in Louis Armstrong style on a version that incorporates Luckies.

. . . on the Lucky side of the street . . .

Rochester gets up and does the old soft shoe and is soon joined by the very tall and portly Wilson, the last person you’d expect to get up and dance. But Rochester beguiles, and the two of them do a nice though not Astaire quality job. The audience applauds. Don Draper gets a bonus.

So there you have the black thing too–black, gay, Jewish–the whole megillah. Not a whole lot missing even by today’s standards. And it is all done with gentle good humor and sly innuendo. That’s what you can’t do today, goddammit, and the world is poorer for it.

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