Category Archives: Characters

Gore Vidal on the American national security state


Provocative, outspoken, sometimes eccentric, and invariably interesting, Gore Vidal shuffled off the mortal coil last night in Los Angeles. He was 86.

A member of the American aristocracy and a man who delighted in provoking power, Vidal was, among other things, a brilliant novelist, a scintillating essayist, and a relentless critic of Imperial America, he was, above else, endlessly entertaining.

Here’s his 18 March 1998 appearance at the National Press Club, where his address starts at about the ten minutes mark and ends at the one-hour mark. It’s a devastating and witty critique of the national security state. Note his prescient critique of NATO:

Vidal was regarded by many in the elite as a class traitor, with William F. Buckley Jr. Among his most outspoken critics. Here’s a memorable confrontation between the two from 1968 during the Democratic National Convention:

From his Los Angeles Times obituary:

“Style,” Vidal once said, “is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” By that definition, he was an emperor of style, sophisticated and cantankerous in his prophesies of America’s fate and refusal to let others define him.

Business Insider has a collection of quotes. A couple worth noting:

As the age of television progresses the Reagans will be the rule, not the exception. To be perfect for television is all a President has to be these days.

Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.

More from a compendium posted by The Guardian:

“The genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along, paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return”

“We should stop going around babbling about how we’re the greatest democracy on earth, when we’re not even a democracy. We are a sort of militarised republic.”

“There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”

UPDATE: Mr. Fish has just posted his own graphic tribute to the writer, via his blog Clowncrack, and titled simply “Gore Vidal”:

 

Assange’s latest webcast: Žižek versus Horowitz


The WikiLeaks activist hasn’t let his 500+ days of house arrest in Britain stop his work, and his latest effort is The World Tomorrow, an old-fashioned talk show with guests you won’t see on their mainstream counterparts here in the U.S. [although one guest in this second latest episode does get air time; we’ll let you guess which one].

Julian Assange’s The World Tomorrow: Slavoj Žižek & David Horowitz

The program notes from RTAmerica:

Slavoj Žižek and David Horowitz are the guests for the second episode of Julian Assange’s interview show, “The World Tomorrow”. “Intellectual superstar” Slavoj Žižek is a philosopher, psychoanalyst and cultural commentator. David Horowitz is a renowned stalwart of hardline conservative American political thought and an unrepentant Zionist.

The tone of the conversation between Žižek, Horowitz and Assange alternated between combative, personal and good-humoured. The topics covered jumped backwards and forwards at a wildfire pace, to include Palestinians and Nazis, Joseph Stalin and Barack Obama, the decline of Europe and the tension between liberty and equality, amongst many others.

What’s immediately apparent is that Horowitz simply can’t carry on a conversation. While Žižek listened and took notes and generally refrained from interruption, Horowitz simply couldn’t listen and interrupted constantly.

What was most hilarious was Horowitz’s claim that his background and training proved he was a communist. But that very same set of criteria applies to Horowitz, who was a Red Diaper baby and was thoroughly indoctrinated at home and later in his days as a leftist radical.

And Horowitz’s lack of respect was evident in his taking two cell phone calls during the webcast.

Assange falls out with MSM

Here’s another RT video, this one reporting on the switch from hero to villain in mainstream coverage of Julian Assange.

The program notes:

The media that once praised Julian Assange, hailing him a hero for his work as a whistleblower, has now drastically changed its tune, after the debut of his talk show on RT. While some say it’s due to journalistic jealousy, others believe the U-turn is political. Laura Smith reports from London.

Quote of the day: Mr. Fish on writers coasting


The inimitable Mr. Fish has another essay up at Truthdig, this one about Norman Mailer’s impact on is life. He writes about seeing the author at a function held at the Writer’s Guild screening auditorium, and in the process muses on the geographical differences he’s observed in self-styled writers.

While he might be a tad unfair [esnl does know Faulker, Nabokov, and Algren; Eliot too — though, to be fair, we were born in Kansas, midway between the coasts]:

“What is a writers guild doing in Hollywood, anyway?” I asked myself. “What is a writer in Hollywood?” I knew what a writer was on the East Coast: He is a smoker, works on a typewriter and is an enormous failure; he is a sandwich maker who cries easily and can quote Nabokov and Algren and Eliot. The West Coast version of a writer is a 50-year-old fat guy in white sneakers who wrote a couple “X-Files” episodes 13 years ago and knows the name Faulkner only as a screen credit on some old Bogart movies.

And by all means, visit his blog, Clowncrack. And buy something if you can [like our East Coast brethren, we’re broke].

In which esnl becomes a psychic fraud fighter


Exposing predators: James Randi’s mission

I met James Randi the night he discovered Peter Popoff’s secret.

A televangelist, Popoff was making millions with a slick faith healing scam, taking to the small screen with a dazzling act in which he seemed to read the deepest desires of the afflicted as he performed a sideshow version of the laying on of hands.

Attending a previous servicve, Randi and his cohorts saw something peculiar. There was no dark shadow in the center of one of the preachers ears. Inferring that Popoff was wearing one of those in-the-ear hearing aids, Randi realized the game was afoot.

Those acoustic appliances really weren’t all in the ear, relying on a radio microphone unit carried on the person to pick up the sound, then relaying it to the earpiece speaker unit by radio waves.

Next Randi discovered the frequencies used by the appliances, then came equipped with scanners to the next healing-and-miracle extravaganza, which was happened to be in San Francisco. He struck gold.

At the time, I was a member of the Sacramento Skeptics Society and edited out little newsletter, Psientific American, and Randi was our guest speaker later that same day. Driving back from San Francisco, we stopped to eat along the way and I got to hear first-hand Randi’s excited account of his coup earlier in the day.

Johnny Carson, who began his show business career doing magic shows in his small Nebraska farm town youth, the Tonight Show host admired Randi’s debunking mission, and when he learned of Popoff’s chicanery, he invited Randi onto show, where he showed the footage in the last part of the clip.

Randi foils the psychic spoon-bender

Uri Geller, Randi’s target in the first segment of the video, was a mass media celebrity in the early 1970s, an Israeli magician who discovered that it was easier to get rich being a miracle worker than playing the magician’s craft.

The first time I heard of him, I was living in Palo Alto, helping to house sit for a Stanford Research Institute physicist. My fellow housesitter came back from an event in Berkeley, gushing about Uri Geller, a man she was convinced had the power to melt metal with his mind and divine the world’s secrets with his mind.

Geller’s gig revolved around spoon-bending, a pathetically simple gag in which the magician makes a section of spoon handle begin to melt, culminating with the two haves of the implement fall apart.

Soon spoon-bending parties were happening across the country. His biggest fans were in the Central Intelligence Agency — the same folks who brought us LSD — where spooks were hoping to develop Geller’s professed ability to “remote view” secret Soviet skullduggery.

Randi instantly divined Geller’s arsenal of antics, then paid another visit to Johnny Carson, a television moment captured in the clip.

Simply by keeping Geller and his crew away from the objects beforehand, Carson forced the psychic’s hand, and Geller suddenly decided his powers weren’t working that evening and ended his bit without accomplishing a single feat.

Randi helps send a ‘psychic surgeon’ to jail

My second meeting with Randi took place over the telephone in 1987, after I learned that a “psychic surgeon” paying a visit to Sacramento had been busted by undercover investigators from the state Board of Medical Quality Assurance, a case I write about at length in my book Deadly Blessings.

I immediately called Randi and asked him if he’d be willing to talk to the Sacramento Country District Attorney’s office, and he agreed instantly.

Jose “Brother Joe” Bugarin copped a plea that included nine months’ imprisonment after learning that Randi would be called as a witness at Bugarin’s trial to replicate his alleged wizardry down to the last blood-soaked cotton ball and chicken gizzard.

I was delighted to offer a little help when Randi was writing his book The Faith Healers, which he kindly acknowledged in the text.

Thanks to Randi, I learned a few magic and mentalist tricks of my own, including a neat little book gag in which I was able to name the fifth word in the second line of the third paragraph sight unseen — or seemingly so. Another trick involved a very impressive example of combined precognition and teleportation, in which the answer to a just-asked questioned appeared beneath the cushion of their car as I sat in another chair all the way across the room. I also performed my own version of object-bending, using a ballpoint supplied by an audience member.

Premanand, battling grifting gurus

One really graphic gag I picked up from another magician who stayed at the family house in Sacramento.

B. Premanand came from India, a country where magic tricks form the bait on the hooks of countless professional gurus, folks who draw in their marks with impressive showmanship.

Premanand was the Indian Randi, a secular socialist who’d started out as a disciple of one of India’s most venerated gurus. He spent his life traveling the country with fellow skeptics, debunking one faker and another. Unlike the U.S., where lawsuits are the weapon of choice for thwarting critics, Premanand faced real attempts on his life.

He’d come to Sacramento for a talk to the Skeptics, which included demonstrations of some of the tricks he’d exposed.

He was an amazing showman, in part because he looked so much like the sort of gurus who had been so popular in bohemian/hip culture in this country. With a long, grey beard, a mane of white hair, a strong face, dark, piercing eyes, and the traditional pajama/kurta garb, you could easily imagine him teaching mantras to rock stars.

One of his best effects was the spike-through-the-tongue, in which he appeared to force a chrome-plated spear through the labile organ. Not the sort of stuff for the faint of heart.

Taking my own act on the road

I worked up my own act and took it on the road, starting out with a grade school performance at my son’s school. I later added community colleges and medical societies, giving a talk on faith healing that earned them continuing medical education credits with the state.

The talks I remember best are the first one in grade school and the last ones to packed classrooms as the University of California, Davis.

During his stay, Premanand had given my son and eye sets of his tongue-piercing gag spears, which are crowned with the trishul, the symbol of Shiva, the most fierce of the Hindu trinity [which also includes Brahma and Vishnu].

Morgan Sherwood was a history professor, and taught a history of science class that drew more science than history majors. As part of his course, he devoted considerable attention to pseudoscience and trickery.

During the most memorable of my talks, I spent about 40 minutes exposing one gag after another, then shifted gears.

“Even though most of the ‘miracles’ are simple tricks, there are some things science really can’t explain, at least not yet.” Then I brought out the spikes.

Explaining that some folks were able to empower their bodies to heal in still-mysterious ways, the proceeded to pierce my tongue.

I’d added one touch to the gag, adding a blood capsule and a brilliant white new handkerchief to my bag of tricks. As the spike seemed to spear through my tongue, a trail of “blood” trickle over my lower lip and started down my chin. I wiped it away with my handkerchief, offering a quick glimpse to my audience of ruby red starkly smeared across snowy white.

At which point, a young woman in the front row briefly fainted.

When I explained the trick, the students laughed, as much at their own fleeting moment of gullibility as for the brilliant simplicity of the trick.

Abe Foxman jumps the shark; bites and eats it


One of the most remarkable interviews you’re ever likely to see pits Haaretz video blogger David Sheen against the ADL’s Abe Foxman. For folks who study body language, it’s a bonanza. Watch as the public face of the ADL calls Sheen a bigot — exact words:  “You only showed your bigotry” — declares the Seinfeld “Soup Nazi” character a Holocaust defamer, and so very much more. And if you’re looking for a Friday night drinking game, take a shot every time Foxman dismisses critics with a lofty “You’re entitled” or “They’re entitled.”

And if you’re curious about the movie he regrets starring in, we posted it previously here.

Kurt Vonnegut: ‘How to Get a Job Like Mine’


Between the smiles and the laughter, Vonnegut reveals himself as a latter-day Luddite: “I need a typewriter. There is no longer such a thing, anywhere.”

Such a pleasure, seeing and hearing the writer his 80th year, and five years before his death in 2007.  The talk, “How to Get Job Like Mine,” meanders like the Mississippi, the river that so dominated another great American writer Vonnegut grew to increasingly resemble as the years passed.

It’s a wonderful ride, and at just under 52 minutes, it’s much too short a journey through the witty insights of a passionate curiosity joined to a quietly powerful, humorous voice.

Recorded at a lecture at Albion Collage.

A favorite line: “If you really want to upset your parents but don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, at least you can take up the arts.”

Another: “We are here on earth to fart around, and don’t let anyone else tell you any different.”

H/T to Metafilter.

In memoriam, three American originals


Two deaths of note today, and one birthday.

A cartoonist with a point

First, Harvey Pekar, a unique and outspoken cartoonist who proved himself willing to speak truth to power. Invited on the Letterman Show as an occasional guest of the sort of eccentric the host could mock, Pekar had the great temerity to confront Letterman about the misdeeds of his corporate employer, network owner GE, in this memorable segment.

Leterman declared him banished from the show after a second visit, where Pekar refused to give up his point, knowing i could result in his exile from the only national forum he had:

Tuli Kupferberg, frontman for The Fugs

As featured here in April, The Fugs were one of the great underground groups of the 60′s, and had still been recording until Kupferberg was stricken with a stroke that cost him his voice. esnl first heard the band soon after their debut album came out in 1965, The Village Fugs Sing Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Point of Views, and General Dissatisfaction.

Here’s one of the greatest hits, still timely, “Kill for Peace”:

Finally, Happy Birthday, Bucky!

Today would’ve been R. Buckminster Fuller‘s 115th birthday. One of the most remarkable figures of the 20th Century, Fuller was an inventor, an original thinker, a poet, and an inspiration. It was esnl‘s great honor to have known him, and to have worked with him on our first book, Fuller’s Earth.

Nostalgia fix: Billy stole Lenny’s bike


For folks of a certain age, say the words “Star Trek” and two figures spring to mind: William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, Kirk and Spock. For the 60′s generation, Star Trek was something of a revelation. Among other things, it portrayed a world of racial equality [relatively, since white faces still prevailed] and featured network television’s first interracial kiss. It was also a world where earthly political divisions had vanished and there was no hint of great disparities in wealth or privilege.

Yeah, in retrospect, a lot of what we saw was a projection of our own hopes, often exceeding what was actually happening on screen. But the show still represented a hopeful break with the past [as did the Smothers Brother’s Comedy Hour, which aired during the same timespan].

So I was delighted when Metafilter linked to this charming bit of banter between Shatner and Nimony, videotaped during one of those Trekker conclaves years ago. The pair may have missed their calling, since they make the perfect bromantic comedy duo.

Berkeley’s poet laureate: Julia Vinograd


Taken six years ago for an article on the Free Speech Movement’s 40th anniversary. She’s also known to children as “The Bubble Lady.”

3 June 2004, 24mm, 1/100 sec, f3.5

Santa Monica goes ga-ga for Google


Not the Lady Gaga kind, but the old-fashioned bonkers sort of ga-ga. esnl served our longest reporting gigs in Santa Monica and Berkeley, both cities competing to serve as hosts for Google’s new high speed fiber optic web service set for installation in a few trial cities. Sad to say, Berkeley hasn’t produced anything nearly as creative as this  official Santa Monica entry. . .Say, maybe Berkeley they could round up the Xplicit players–you know, the naked folks from Telegraph Avenue [right].

The Chattanooga chew-chew


Sure, it’s on everybody’s blog. But, damn, esnl just loves the perseverance of these Tennessee bumper-biters. The canines’ target? A police car waiting in a speed trap on 14 March. According to the Los Angeles Times:

“City Court Judge Sherry Paty acknowledged that the violent attack did not happen to any people but insisted that the Emerlings take Winston to at least two obedience classes so that this behavior could be quelled before others were injured.”

Winston, the black-and-white mutt, is back with owner Michael Emerling, who told the Times he was thankful that officers hadn’t shot the pooch. “We’ve seen places where dogs have done a lot less and been shot,” he said. “We really are grateful to them for not doing that.”

esnl adds thanks as well that the life of a critter embodying dogged determination was spared. Here’s the police video cam footage:

A uniquely American voice


Willie Nelson. . .

Growing up in a small Kansas farm town, esnl developed a fondness for Country and Western in a time and place where the airwaves were filled with songs of romance and heartbreak.

And though a lot of C&W is rightly parodied, at its heart, the music reflects the real concerns of working class men and women, telling their stories in narratives.

Classical music and rock came later, but a certain nostalgia for the old ballads remains.

Willie Nelson offers both a unique voice in country and a bridge to other forms of music, including his performances with Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong, and a host of other voices, ranging from folk to jazz and on to rock, always performed with a an often-breathtaking honesty.

Here’s Willie with Johnny Cash, performing one of esnl’s favorite childhood songs, Ghost Riders in the Sky, originally made famous by Vaughan Williams.

Some of Willie’s most famous offerings are his interpretations of some of the old mainstream standards, of which Someone to Watch Over Me has always been a favorite.

And here’s his wonderful interpretation of Unchained Melody.

Continue reading

His Royal High-ness, Lord Buckley


Perhaps the greatest comedic soliloquist the United States has ever produced, Lord Buckley inspired a generation of brilliant artists with his renderings of long-familiar stories in the hip patois of American Black culture. Here His Lordship performs a seasonal classic, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Discovering Lord Buckley

No seminal figure in the history of American comedy remains as obscure as
Richard Myrle Buckley, whose work inspired a generation of comedic geniuses and artists.

Humorists ranging from Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, Groucho Marx,  and Jonathan Winters to Robin Williams, Bill Cosby and Wavy Gravy and musicians including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Tom Waits, and George Harrison all hailed him as an inspiration. Continue reading

Grace and Herb, jokers


Grace Boylan and Herb were the greatest practical jokers I ever met.

I met them back in the days before the Interstates homogenized America, in the days when two-lane blacktops traversed the country.

They lived in a weatherbeaten old gas station in Como Bluff, Wyoming, a few miles east of a wide spot in the road called Medicine Bow.

Dad and I took innumerable road trips during my childhood, loading up our Nash Ambassador, and later a homemade camper on the back of a Chevvy pickup and heading out in whatever direction struck our fancy, looking for interesting things to see and do.

We went rock hunting, looking for arrowheads, fishing, and exploring over most of that paved roads and a lot of the gravel and dirt tracks in Colorado and Wyoming and up into the Black Hills.

One summer afternoon we arrived in Como Bluff, and I said, “Hey, we gotta stop here!” So we did.

What grabbed my attention was a sign saying something to the effect of “SEE THE WORLD’S OLDEST BUILDING! Featured In Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Made Of Dinosaur Bones.”

There were two buildings, a Texaco gas station built in the Craftsman bungalow style, and to the west of it, a small stone cabin. Built of what I discovered really were fragments of dinosaur bones.

I was fearless in those days, and after we pulled over, I leapt out of the car and ran into the gas station, where I encountered a weathered, white-haired woman with a twinkle in her eye and an equally weatherbeaten Native American. It was Grace Boylan and Herb, whose last name I never learned. I had assumed it was Boylan, but it wasn’t. She later told me they were “living in sin,” laughing as she said it. Continue reading