Thursday, January 27, 2011

OF BULLETS, SAHL AND OLBERMANN

"Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions. Conservatives feel they deserve everything they've stolen." – Mort Sahl
Mort Sahl, the great social satirist once famously said during the height of the red scare / blacklist era of the 1950’s: “For every American the Russians throw in jail, HUAC throws in one to get even”. His night club joke was based in cold reality. Any dissension on the part of journalists, politicians or commentators (or even actors and screenwriters) during those times the Cold Warriors routinely referred as anti-American, a traitor. Or Communist.
Sahl himself somehow got away with his puncturing of the powers that be, because other powers that be were getting tired of the brazen totalitarianism of the anti-Communism crusade, especially its obvious corrupt politicization. Sahl’s comment, and others, was a stinging underscore of the hypocrisy – getting people to shut up is not a proper exercise of the “freedom of speech”.
It also hurts our international lecturing. How credible is it to decry Russia of its taking political prisoners while in effect doing the same. No more credible than lecturing Russia on the honesty of its elections when we suffered through Bush v. Gore and Diebold machines. Even President Putin made this precise point to a sanctimonious Mr. Bush. And now we shocked, shocked to find that Iraq, our new democratic child, is torturing prisoners. After Abu Ghraib, might be a little tough to launch a huge protest.
Mort Sahl, to finish the thought, eventually had a radio talk show on KLAC in Los Angeles in the mid 60’s. It was extremely popular, lambasting the purveyors of the Vietnam War and resistors to the burgeoning civil rights movement. And latterly he along with guests Mark Lane and Jim Garrison, district attorney of New Orleans, suggested that John F. Kennedy may not have been murdered by a lone gunman. Perhaps, there was a bigger conspiracy, given dying witnesses, contradicting evidence, and, of course, Arlen Specter’s “magic bullet”.
Sahl, along with compelling information from Lane and Garrison, had us questioning, in a very plausible manner, the nature of The Warren Report. The implications were startling to me. The United States government could not be trusted? Had dark forces within the government – rogue elements in the CIA or FBI perhaps - killed John F. Kennedy? And certainly, given the backdrop of the specious rationale for continuing the deadly adventure in Vietnam, were dark forces in the government conspiring to lie to us about that, too? And why not, while young people were being drafted and killed in the ever obviously pointless war, obviously corporations were getting rich. Corporations who gave a great deal of money to political campaigns.
What else were we blissfully unaware of? Was the “Communist conspiracy” bullshit, too, just a tool to keep us in fear, and suspicious of “dissenters” so that we’d be content with our barbecues, tract homes and Pontiacs? Of course the danger for the corporations went beyond that. Did Brylcreem really help me get chicks? Were my history books telling the whole story? Mort had me questioning everything.
Not long after he mounted this on air contemplation of the murder of JFK, Mort Sahl no longer had a radio show, to our great disappointment, chagrin. And loss. No doubt the analog to the network CEO in the film Network must have said to Mr. Sahl, “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and for that, you will atone!” As Sahl himself once said, "If you maintain a consistent political position long enough, you will eventually be accused of treason."
Was, in the end, Sahl just an obsessed conspiracy nut? Many thousands of us, his loyal listeners, were convinced otherwise, but we had no great power except in perhaps numbers, or votes. Still, in the end, Kennedy was dead, LBJ ensured that the war raged on bigger than ever, and this particular a voice of dissent was silenced from the airwaves.
They could do that then. And they are doing that now. And, oh my, have they gotten so much better at it.
The bullets over Safeway in Tucson on January 8, 2011 should have been a surprise to no one. After all, how many times has this happened in just the last 15 years or so, starting with Timothy McVeigh’s attempt to start a holy war by blowing up some ATF agents, and a day care center, at the Murray Federal Building in Oklahoma City? McVeigh was perhaps tinged by undiagnosed schizophrenia or PTSD after having experienced the first Gulf War. But additionally, he was most definitely besotted with relentless anti-government diatribe in books and media, which made sense to him. Ostensibly put over the edge by the Waco showdown, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He was put to death unrepentant, perhaps not a little puzzled his revolution didn’t start.
But of course, it did.
On Fox, right wing curmudgeon Bill O’Reilly relentlessly demagogued about “(George) Tiller the baby killer, murdering thousands of babies – for free!” – referring to the only OBGYN in Kansas (or even the greater Midwest) who would perform the medically necessary, and legal, “late term abortions”. Media Matters documented dozens of times O’Reilly invoked his catchy “Tiller the baby killer” on his program. And one day, in his church, Tiller was gunned down by an anti-abortion soldier who went to prison, likewise unrepentant, self-satisfied that he saved the lives of countless babies – and punished Tiller for the murder of others.
Glenn Beck, full of right wing piss and vinegar, after having helped run the community activist group, Acorn, out of existence, set his sights on something called The Tides Foundation – a similar nonprofit group, whose chief M.O. was basically to do good. Something they did rubbed Beck the wrong way, and from his bully pulpit, Beck harangued about them. And lo, a man with a gun embarked on a mission from his personal god to take them out. The California Highway Patrol interrupted said mission, mainly due to the man’s erratic driving. A shootout followed, then a court hearing. The man blathered on, using many of Beck’s words, about the evils of George Soros, the ACLU, The Tides Foundation and wanting to start a revolution.
As of election season, 2010, Sarah Palin, selected by one time sane U. S. Senator John McCain of Arizona to be his running mate in the ’08 election remained in the political firmament. Stung by the ’08 landslide, and then, of course, by such things as "Obamacare", Palin was there to help urge the conservatives and more specifically, the “tea party” to not be shy. “We don’t retreat, we re-load”. She even helpfully put out a map of targeted congressional districts – folks who had voted for healthcare and other bad things. They could easily be spotted on the map with gun sight markings. A cluster could be found indicating Arizona districts. One of them belonged to Gabrielle Giffords, a “blue dog” Democrat in district 8.
The anti-government zealotry, the gun metaphors, gun talk and indeed guns themselves were becoming more and more visible, particularly, it seems, since Obama’s election. In 2009, one guy even showed up to an Obama town hall speech in Arizona, with a huge weapon strapped to his leg. This was the summer of the healthcare “town halls” – beleaguered congresspeople lambasted, their meetings made chaotic, mainly by perfomers bussed in by Dick Armey’s “FreedomWorks” organization. Funded by the Koch Brothers, FW didn’t want this healthcare reform to pass. And so they advanced the myth, via willing TV cameras, that there was an angry, frustrated “grassroots” movement of “regular folks” against it. No doubt some real people got sucked into this bogus reality show. But really the biggest screamers were basically Jerry Springer Show attendees whose next gig was to disrupt otherwise civil discussions of the healthcare reform.
Violence is a useful tool, not just actual guns but the fierce anger and threats – it scares people. And congressmen and Senators are people, too. So they also get scared. And the media puts it all over the top. The overwhelmingly right wing voices sympathize with the yellers as if they are truly representative of the American public, and the remaining press seldom reported the Dick Armey busses.
And so, 50 years after Mort Sahl was fired, after a lot of work and wisdom, and the purchasing power of Rupert Murdoch, the corporate media was making sure the people got the story they wanted them to get.
Not long after the bullets flew at Tucson, piercing the brain of Representative Giffords and killing six others, including 9 year old Christina Taylor Green, speculation emerged – speculation based on prior events – as to what happened. Sarah Palin had provided the gun sight map to district 8, Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, O’Reilly and others had provided the frightening, generic rhetoric about the enemies on the left: “they are out to kill us!” Even Nevadan candidate Sharron Angle suggested there are “second amendment remedies” if the election didn’t come out as needed.
All it took was a guy crazy enough to actually take matters into his own hand.
And not long after Palin’s bull’s-eye map went viral – as did Gabrielle Giffords’ own words warning against such murderous rhetoric – the right wing media went viral, “correcting the record.” Palin herself became the victim, whimpering about being blamed for what a crazy man had done. Batshit crazy old bat, Rep. Virginia Foxx of South Carolina, said based on the readings of the guy, he was a “leftist”. Palin said the same, while trying to be, you know, civil and put this above the political fray. Others said “he was a just crazy guy. Period.” Except crazy guy didn’t shoot his family, the cab driver who drove him to the shopping center, or bagboys at Safeway. Crazy guy left a small paper trail, albeit suggesting he was indeed unglued – and, via YouTube, as a sign of the times, a video trail – which in part clearly indicated Giffords was his target. Was he a Palin fan? Who knows other than two + two = you know the rest.
But the overpowering volume of the right wing noise machine does its works and it is how it now does its work. By overpowering. There will be no discussion of aiding victims of mental disorders, which may have helped the Tucson shooter (and the Columbine shooters, maybe McVeigh and maybe others), no discussion of banning 30-bullet clips for hand guns, or even perhaps raising the price of bullets (Chris Rock suggests “$5,000 per bullet. Believe me, if a bullet cost $5,000, there would be no such thing as innocent bystanders.”). There has been, however, some discussion of Giffords resigning her post despite the rapid and miraculously recovery she was making!
Who can say whether enticing crazy people with guns is really in the back of their minds – I guess only the most awfully cynical among us - but once that crazy person uses that gun, or that explosive device, they cannot quibble with the results - no more than Bush and Cheney could quibble with the benefits reaped from 9/11.
And then there was Keith Olbermann. For me, the modern day equivalent of Mort Sahl and so many other voices not merely of “the left” but of “the Truth”. Again, in an act of “civility” called for in the wake of the Tucson tragedy, Olbermann took down his best segment “Worst Persons in the World” on his very next broadcast. Was Olbermann himself making the pointless point of attempting to make an example of liberal kindness, as if there will be some in return? Bill Maher essentially said, “Why is he pandering to people who don’t get the joke. Fuck them!” Olbermann was a small voice, given the loud din, in the wilderness, but a righteous one. Like Sahl, he opened up the worm cans on stories heard nowhere else. He had the saber-like wit to go with it, adding to his charm and power. He had been reprimanded and “suspended” –for two days – in November for having contributed personally to political campaigns – one of them the ill-fated Giffords; this while an entire NETWORK – Fox – admitted to being basically a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party!
That may have been fair warning that Olbermann’s days were numbered. Indeed, with dramatic suddenness, Olbermann said Friday (January 21st) was his last show. A symbolic gesture of civility? Or way too coincidental to the merger of NBC and Comcast? Way too coincidental to happen just in time for the State of the Union address – which no doubt Olbermann would cover alongside blabbermouth Chris Mathews. Way too coincidental to happen just in time for the new right wing congress’ takeover. The voice is silenced, and that in itself, warrants a Special Comment.
Whatever, they’ve done it again, as they did to Mort. A favored voice is out of the picture, way too coincidental to believe it has nothing to do with these dramatic and tragic times. They could just not afford that voice to be heard.
The bullet through the congresswoman’s brain was tragic, but it worked. It ravaged, it silenced, it frightened, it warned.
I leave with one last musing from Mr. Sahl: "There were four million people in the American Colonies and we had Jefferson and Franklin. Now we have over 300 million and now we have Palin and Boehner. What can you draw from this? Darwin was wrong!"

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