Friday, November 28, 2014

"Tampering With Evidence of Boredom"

This book starts out fast. It’s maybe even riveting: a Hollywood film producer is murdered in his own home. There’s unrequited love. Three suspicious women are implicated. We’ve got narcotics, homosexuality, lots of secrets, cover-ups, conspiracies and, naturally, corrupt LA cops. Then there’s silent film comic Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle caught up in a wild drunken sex party in San Francisco and a woman is killed, or murdered; who knows? Three trials, two hung juries and one acquittal later he’s blacklisted from ever working again. On top of all that, running in the background, but conspicuously “in-your-face”, is the motion picture industry as it was in the 1920s: monopolies, alleged anti-trust violations, censorship, Christian moral vigilantes, prohibition, sex, drugs, hot jazz, more sex and even more drugs. And then came the Great Depression, political spin, Wall Street and government regulation. And this is all in the first half of the book!

Unfortunately, after that, the story-telling gets old and slows down in the mud. The narrative takes a turn for the worse, much like the loose morals of Max Sennett’s Hollywood. There’s only so much that can be written about an unsolved murder. The story begins to drag along in the minutia of, albeit interesting, but generally unrelated crimes of people stranded on the outside of the industry looking in on the success of others more lucky than they are. So the violence against poor Billy Taylor gets lost in clouds of cigar smoke from movie moguls making backroom deals, and chain-smoking nicotine addicts who are little more than small-time thugs trying to fleece the rich. 

But it’s all marginal to the murder “who-done-it” of Taylor. For example, the legal battles between a couple of New York film tycoons have nothing to do with the murder itself, nor do strong-arm tactics of blackmailers and hustlers guilty of trying to make ends meet at the expense of innocent people, that is, if anyone in this book can be said to be truly innocent, including the alleged victims. Regrettably, the author uses up a lot of time and space writing about this story in typical tabloid style. (It’s a fairly big book, 483 pages, with a few b&w pictures). If I had to characterize the book it would be “true-detective-meets-dark-noir-meets-Hollywood-meets-the-Inquirer”. I’d recommend it for anyone having equal parts mild interest and time to waste.

Monday, November 10, 2014

"Pledging Allegiance"

This is the story of two American “brands”: (1) The America most of us have learned to accept and expect -- the one we were taught to believe in and (2) a secret America hidden in the shadows of national security, an America we’re learning more about thanks to books like “The Nazis Next Door”.

As examined in this book, one America is a false-front of patriotism. Romantic and sentimental, transparent and accessible, it offers up a rural buffet-style luncheon served on paper plates with forks and spoons scooping up large portions of propaganda and fear sprinkling education, entertainment, sports and media like salt and pepper on bland boiled carbohydrates and fried foods. But the other America is lean and opportunistic, pragmatic, seeking only advantage, ideological and monetary gain. This is where the real power is: in board rooms not voting booths, on the floor of the New York stock exchange, not the floor of small town hall meetings.

America prides itself on the rule of law and order, affecting a pretense of high morals - freedom and respect, honor and equality with “liberty and justice for all”. But the other America is proud only of its privilege, entitlement, and, especially, its amorality. One America believes in “free elections”, democracy, the American Way and fair play, where if you “work hard” you can grow up to be President, judged by your character not your skin color. But the other America has a strong racist history of white superiority and segregation, slavery, oppression, oligarchical elitism and nationalistic, cultural and military exceptionalism.

America wants to be known as the brand for the middle-class: ambitious and devoutly religious; defending the weak and defenseless; protecting victims while prosecuting victimizers and their persecutors. But America is also a secret surveillance state, austere to the point of cruelty, enforcing privatization of everything from prisons to pensions as fast as deregulation will allow. America is indivisible and united: red and blue states promise that those who commit crimes against humanity will be brought to justice, “because there’s no statute of limitations on war atrocities”. But America pledges allegiance only to its own self-interest. Global, commercial and technological loyalties mean that America occupies a place in history as an agent of endless war and concealment. America is as much a legend as a fairytale -- as much a complex mythology blurring the line between fact and fever, as a role-model for psychopaths and sociopaths. Hitler’s ex-Nazis must have been as comfortable in America as they were in Berlin, Munich or Hamburg.

Back in the day when we could still wish upon stars, generations got excited over Walt Disney’s futuristic “Trip to the Moon” inspired by his friend and former ex-Nazi scientist, Wernher von Braun. The German engineer was the mastermind behind the V-2 rocket that nearly destroyed London. As a free man, he lived in the States for thirty-two years until he died in 1977. His beliefs were no insult to our government - not to our intelligence community, nor our law enforcement agencies. But now a new generation is asking questions: How could this happen and why? Did the White House and top aids really ignore the evidence? Were there wide-spread systemic moral and legal failures? How could the “Greatest Generation” allow this to happen in the land and the home of the free and the brave? Should we even care? Hasn't it been long enough?

The book doesn’t attempt to answer these questions; that's not really the point, readers can decide for themselves. However, in view of recent leaks and much-published revelations from whistleblowers exposing alleged criminal conspiracies -- from General Motors failing to recall defective cars, to the three-letter intel secret-surveillance-intelligence-industrial-complex (i.e., the NSA, CIA, DHS and FBI etc.), to the on-going investigative reports on a perpetual “War on Terror” ….. the facts behind the stories in “The Nazis Next Door” make perfect sense!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Fruit From A Poisonous Tree

“Fruit from a poisonous tree” is a legal metaphor for evidence, the discovery of which is illegal or without proper authority, or in light of James Risen’s book, there’s no constitutional authority either.

Part Three, “Endless War”, reads like a eulogy, and in many ways I suppose it is: Risen quotes one NSA subcontractor, “Americans are living in the post-privacy age.” That sounds like a eulogy to me. The last chapter in part three, “War on Truth”, is the best part of the book, unfortunately it’s at the end and it’s too short. Most of the information in parts One and Two is about the Iraq war. Risen details the minutia of bureaucracy and corruption, crimes of greed and abuses of unrestrained power by the government, the CIA and various subcontractors. It’s easier to list the alleged crimes committed in the name of “the war on terror” after 9/11 (and for the next twelve years plus some), than it is to follow Risen’s slow and often tedious prose: secret bunkers of US cash hidden and buried in Iraq, contempt-of-congress, money laundering, grand theft, armed robbery, blackmail, war-profiteering, illegal kickbacks, tax-evasion, fraud, conspiracy, lying to federal authorities, illegal weapons sale, murder, torture, suspension of due process, targeting American citizens for execution, bribery, perjury, narcotic trafficking --  and this is just a partial list!

As interesting as all that is, and believe me it’s riveting, it’s still largely old news. We’ve become jaded to it and cynical, at least I have; if it’s the government, I almost expect it. But the last chapter, however -- “The War on Truth” -- focuses on the NSA, warrantless wiretaps, domestic surveillance and whistleblowers -- the risks they’ve taken and real threats to their lives and careers in their heroic and often futile attempts to inform the public about the escalation of the cybersecurity-intelligence-industrial complex. The impact on privacy and freedom of information is chilling, to say the least. Risen’s defense of investigative journalism and freedom of the press is brilliant! Personally, I wish his book would’ve spent more time on that, and less on facts over ten years old. Oh, well…..

Nietzsche wrote in the Will to Power, “Formerly one said of every morality: ‘By the fruits ye shall know them’. I say of every morality: ‘It is a fruit by which I recognize the soil from which it sprang.’” Risen’s book is a conversation about the soil out of which this poisonous tree grew and produced fruit. We should read his book and study our options before we have none left to consider; but it might be too late anyway.