I Read the News Today, Oh Boy (Part MMXVIII)

February 15, 2018 by  
Filed under Featured, Articles, The Column

There are some mornings when I just want to send you the whole front page of the New York Times so that you can also read all the horrible news while I (and Jesus and Mohammed) finish weeping.

This morning (Feb. 15, 2018 – 6-something a.m. here in Berlin, just past midnight in New York) at the top of the front page, it’s 17 people – mostly teenage kids – shot dead, 15 wounded, in a Florida high school by the predictable over-armed loner who’s been posting weird shit all over Facebook letting us know he’s got an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and he’s mad as hell.

At Florida school shooting.

I tangentially note how culturally shaped these mass murders are in cultures that have them: so, in America, ever since Columbine High School in Colorado, circa 1999 (that’s the emblematic U.S. multiple shooting site), it’s often young people with fried minds dropping in on their local elementary, high-school or college campus and blowing away whoever they can. (Yeah, sometimes it’s somebody else – a middle-aged high stakes gambler in Las Vegas shooting the moon and those on the ground from his 32nd-floor hotel window, but mostly, with minor variations, it’s schoolroom-slaughter.)

And for “radicalized” (or maybe “medievalized” is better) youngish people in the Muslim world, it takes the form, from Kabul to Baghdad to urban points west, of “terrorist” attacks – but one has the sense that the acts don’t have much to do with politics or lately acquired religion or anything – that the terrorism, like the school shooting, is simply the available cultural form for expressing an extreme form of semi-sanctified madness. Once it was senseless mass-death-trench-warfare-slaughter for all those European-Russian-Austro-Hungarian-Turkish teens and we called it World War I.

And no, no, please, no gun-reform talk unless (and this may be a conservative estimate) about 20 million people in all the major U.S. cities are prepared to hold a simultaneous mass unending sit-in-hunger-strike-protest that doesn’t go away until, well, until something tangible is changed. Okay, enough: it’ll still be there, all over the screen, all-the-time, when I get up from the writing machine and turn on the TV.

Trump opposes domestic violence.

Scroll down. And learn that the American President “says he’s ‘totally opposed’ to domestic violence,” only several days or a century late, after a week-long scandal about a presidential aide who was forced to resign upon the revelation (okay, “allegation”) that he physically assaulted two former wives (complete with photo of one ex-wife with a blackened eye), which has now been spun off into further scandals a) about whether the former aide had proper security clearance permitting him to show President Trump the top-secret Daily Briefing, which the president did or didn’t read, and b) whether the president’s current chief-of-staff, former General John Kelly, knew – and when did he know? — that the presidential aide, and the president’s son-in-law and about thirty or so other West Wing staffers had only “temporary” security clearance while they, too, were handling secret documents of every kind, and c) and d) and so on.

I pause to vaguely recall the fuss made over a former Secretary of State in the previous administration whose handling of e-mails on a private, not totally secure computer, was denounced as “extremely careless” by the then head of the FBI, one James Comey, and then repeated for weeks and months by sundry others, until the phrase, “But what about her e-mails?” became a meme for Internet gossip and punchline for late-night TV show comedians. Yeah, ya gotta be careful with that secret stuff.  Anyway, she lost the presidential election to Trump (although, as we wander through the Great American Canyon, we hear a faint echo crying to Narcissus, “But Bernie would’ve beat’m… beat’m… beat’m,” referring to another of Trump’s potential rivals), and the FBI head in due course was also fired by the present unprecedented president – an ongoing matter that can be found elsewhere on the digital representation of today’s edition.

And since this, and almost all else is unending, it’s also the case, and on the front screens of the Times, that the former aide was “dating” (seldom has that innocuous relational term been contorted into such an obscene euphemism) the current head of the White House press office, who was busy writing releases and strategizing the handling of the firing of the aide (and “boyfriend”) accused of domestic abuse. Meanwhile, the president waited days and days to say anything about marital manhandling other than that the very fine aide had done a great, really great job and indeed had even denied the allegations. And at least, and at last, when he finally got around to opining, last night or whenever in whatever time zone, the president said he was opposed to spousal beating, which is, after all, better than saying he is for it.

Former South African President Jacob Zuma.

By the waters of Babylon, we scrolled down, and we wept, when we remembered Zion and Nelson Mandela and yea, South Africa. “Jacob Zuma’s legacy is a weakened South Africa,” says the story somewhere on the labyrinthine front spread of the Times reporting that SA President Jacob Zuma resigned yesterday in a fog of corruption charges, malfeasance in office, authoritarian manipulations, after some nine-years-plus in office, hero of yesteryear, former prison cellmate of Mandela, and now merely a typical kleptocratic African strongman. The accompanying editorial notices that he leaves behind “a broken democracy.”

No, I don’t have time to tell you the story of apartheid, or why J.M. Coetzee, the Nobel Prize-winning South African novelist migrated to Australia, or to re-read the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola’s tales of The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town (1946)  – Amos Tutuola? Where did he come from in this moment of lamentation? I can only say that the reckless anarchist said to me (as recently as, was it last year?), “I respected you when you smashed South African wine bottles to protest apartheid, but now that you’ve become a Nazi-supporting free-speech neo-liberal hack…” I vainly tried to point out to him that breaking a wine bottle in a liquor store at 18th and Cambie in Vancouver in 19eighty-whatever was not equivalent to his current “punch-a-Nazi-in-the-nose” slogan, while I contemplated how to “unfriend” him as politely as possible sometime around last Christmas.

Former chief of staff Reince Priebus (r.) on airport tarmac.

There’s more, so much more to scroll through, scrawl through. The previous presidential chief of staff, Reince Priebus, says in somebody’s latest tell-all about the Trump White House, “Take everything you’ve heard, and multiply it by 50.” All I can remember is a TV image of a lonely limousine on a wet tarmac in the back of which Priebus is allegedly sitting while taking in the seconds-ago news that he’s just been fired as chief of staff, while the rest of the presidential cavalcade is on its way to the next whiskey bar, the next little girl, and the moon sails over Alabama. So, if you think the Mainstream Media (MSM) “fake news” New York Times (which left radicals sneer at as “neoliberal” and right radicals deride as “lamestream”) is making it up, or that Michael Wolff’s maybe-not-so-well-written, but million-copy-selling Fire and Fury is making it up, well, check out Reince Priebus in the news today and see if you think he’s making it up. Reince who??

Meanwhile, and elsewhere, the president’s personal lawyer is raising new “ethical, legal and factual questions” for having paid off a buxom porn star with whom the president allegedly had an affair several years back, the hush money being provided (allegedly) from the lawyer’s own pocket and not, repeat not, from election campaign donation funds. Got all that? Good. Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyuhu is vigorously denying bribery charges levelled against him by the local Jewish constabulary – mazaltov!; there are some “serious derelictions” of travel expense reporting by the U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs apparently; and almost lost in the wreckage, there’s something about legislative debate concerning undocumented would-be immigrants known as “Dreamers”; and no doubt more, and too much.

Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon, we scrolled down “and wept… / We hanged our harps on the willows in the midst thereof… /  How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

Wait. What’s the big thought about everything – also this morning – that goes into a letter to a friend?  It’s kind of gloomy: a)  We’ll never really understand the whole story, and b) we can’t, given the human condition, understand the whole story (because we’ll permanently pop off in the middle, or go gaga), and c) we may be substantially wrong about what we think we understand about the whole story and d) – slight saving grace – as a writer I still have the idea that if I could really see everything on the street I’m walking on, and if I could accurately write about it, that I’d have something (even though it wouldn’t be the whole story) – an idea similar to one the Russian writer Isaac Babel had, according to a review of a book of his writings that I read this morning in The New York Review of Books, just before I opened the front page of the paper. And then we hanged up our harps on the willows in the midst thereof.

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Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).