Monday, January 19, 2015

Tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr.   (The Solid Nonpareil:  Mark Twain)

So much has been said in the last 46-plus years about the importance of remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his life's accomplishments, that it seems almost beside the point to mention how shocked and awed he'd be at the destruction of our democratic governments today by internal elements, and yet totally on point.

Having been attacked for his beliefs, Paul Craig Roberts speaks from the heart.

For us all.

When he asks "where is his replacement?"

Today (January 19) is Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday.

King was an American civil rights leader who was assassinated 47 years ago on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39. James Earl Ray was blamed for the murder. Initially, Ray admitted the murder, apparently under advice from his attorney in order to avoid the death penalty, but Ray soon withdrew his confession and unsuccessfully sought a jury trail.

Documents of the official investigation remain secret until the year 2027.

As Wikipedia reports, “The King family does not believe Ray had anything to do with the murder of Martin Luther King. . . . The King family and others believe that the assassination was carried out by a conspiracy involving the U.S. government, and that James Earl Ray was a scapegoat. This conclusion was affirmed by a jury in a 1999 civil trial against Loyd Jowers and unnamed co-conspirators.”

The US Department of Justice concluded that Jowers’ evidence, which swayed the jury in the civil trail, was not credible. On the other hand, there is no satisfactory explanation why documents pertaining to the investigation of Ray were put under lock and key for 59 years.

There are many problems with the official story of King’s assassination, just as there are with the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy. No amount of suspicion or information will change the official stories. Facts don’t count enough to change official stories.

Many Americans will continue to believe that having failed to tar King as a communist and womanizer, the establishment decided to remove an inconvenient rising leader by assassination. Many black Americans will continue to believe that a national holiday was the government’s way of covering up its crime and blaming racism for King’s murder.
Certainly, the government should not have fomented suspicion by settling such a high profile murder with a plea bargain. Ray was an escapee from a state penitentiary and was apprehended at London’s Heathrow Airport on his way to disappear in Africa. It seems farfetched that he would imperil his escape by taking a racist-motivated shot at King.
We should keep in mind the many loose ends of the Martin Luther King assassination as we are being bombarded by media with what Finian Cunningham correctly terms “high-octane emotional politics that stupefies the public from asking some very necessary hard questions” about the Charlie Hebdo murders, or for that matter the Boston Marathon Bombing case and all other outrages that prove to be so convenient for governments.
Those gullible citizens who believe that “our government would never kill its own people” have much understanding to gain from knowledge of Operation Gladio and Northwoods Project, about which much information is available on the Internet and in parliamentary investigations and officially released secret documents.
This effort to silence all critics of Israeli policies applies also to Israelis and Jews themselves. Israelis and Jews who legitimately criticize Israeli policies in hopes of steering the Zionist State away from self-destruction are branded “self-hating Jews” by the Israel Lobby. The Lobby has demonstrated its power to destroy academic freedom and to reach into private Catholic universities and public state universities and both block and withdraw tenure appointments of candidates, both Jews and non-Jews, who have incurred the Lobby’s disapproval.

I see Martin Luther King as an American hero. Whatever his personal failings, if any, he stood for justice and for the safety of every race and gender under law. King actually believed in the American dream and wanted to achieve it for everyone. I am confident that had I confronted King with criticism, he would have considered my case and responded honestly regardless of any power he might have held over me.

I cannot expect the same consideration from any western government or from the trolls that operate in comment sections provided by Internet sites in hopes of boosting their readership.

Gullible and credulous people are incapable of defending their liberty. Unfortunately these traits are the principal traits of western peoples. Western liberty is collapsing in front of our eyes, and this makes absurd the desire by Vladimir Putin’s Russian opponents to integrate with the collapsing western states.
Read the whole essay here.

From another uniquely gifted American writer and thinker:

The Solid Nonpareil

From Mesopotamia to Mark Twain, the question has remained the same for thousands of years — who's laughing now?

By Lewis H. Lapham

"Lapham's Quarterly"
Merry Company on a Terrace, by Jan Steen, c. 1670. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund.

Well, humor is the great thing, the saving thing, after all. — Mark Twain
Twain for as long as I’ve known him has been true to his word, and so I’m careful never to find myself too far out of his reach. The Library of America volumes of his Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays (1852-1910) stand behind my desk on a shelf with the dictionaries and the Atlas. On days when the news both foreign and domestic is moving briskly from bad to worse, I look to one or another of Twain’s jests to spring the trap or lower a rope, to summon, as he is in the habit of doing, a blast of laughter to blow away the “peacock-shams” of the world’s “colossal humbug.”

Laughter was Twain’s stock in trade, and for thirty years as best-selling author and star attraction on America’s late ninteenth century lecture stage, he produced it in sufficient quantity to make bearable the acquaintance with grief that he knew to be generously distributed among all present in the Boston Lyceum or a Tennessee saloon, in a Newport drawing room as in a Nevada brothel. Whether the audience was sober or drunk, topped with top hats or snared in snake-bitten boots, Twain understood it likely in need of a remedy to cover its losses.

No other writer of his generation had seen as much of the young nation’s early sorrow, or become as familiar with its commonplace scenes of human depravity and squalor. As a boy on the Missouri frontier in the 1830s he attended the flogging and lynching of fugitive slaves; in the California gold fields in the 1860s he kept company with under-age murderers and over-age whores; in New York City in the 1870s he supped at the Gilded Age banquets of financial swindle and political fraud, learned from his travels that “The hard and sordid things of life are too hard and too sordid and too cruel for us to know and touch them year after year without some mitigating influence…”

Twain bottled the influence under whatever label drummed up a crowd — as comedy, burlesque, satire, parody, sarcasm, ridicule, wit — any or all of it presented as “the solid nonpareil” guaranteed to fortify the blood and restore the spirit.

He who laugheth too much, hath the nature of a fool; he that laugheth not at all, hath the nature of an old cat.

- Thomas Fuller, 1732
Humor for Twain was the hero with a thousand faces, and so it shows itself to be in this issue of "Lapham’s Quarterly," seen to be wearing a Japanese kimono or a Buddha’s smile, dancing to tunes called by Chris Rock and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, striking poses rigged by Samuel Beckett, Dorothy Parker, Charlie Chaplin, and Molière. The text and illustration show but don’t tell, the purpose not to present a collection of the best tales ever told by a fool in a forest, but to suggest that since man first knew himself as something other than an ape, he has looked to laughter to bind up the wound of that unfortunate discovery.
With Groucho Marx I share the opinion that comedians “are a much rarer and far more valuable commodity than all the gold and precious stones in the world,” but the assaying of that commodity — of what does it consist in its coats of many colors, among them cock-sure pink, shit-house brown and dead-end black — is a question that I gladly leave to the French philosopher, Henri Bergson, Twain’s contemporary who in 1900, took note of its primary components:

The comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human...Laughter has no greater foe than emotion.... Its appeal is to the intelligence, pure and simple. Our laughter is always the laughter of a group...must answer to certain requirements of life in common.
Which is to say that all jokes are inside jokes and the butts of them are us, the only animal that laughs but also the only one that is laughed at. The weather isn’t amusing, neither is the sea. Wombats don’t do metaphor or stand-up. What is funny is man’s situation as a scrap of mortal flesh entertaining intimations of its immortality, President Richard Nixon believing himself the avatar of William the Conqueror, President George W. Bush in the persona of a medieval pope preaching holy crusade against all the world’s evil.

The confusion of realms is the substance of Shakespeare’s comedies, as a romantic exchange of mistaken identities in "As You Like It," in "Measure for Measure" as an argument for the forgiveness of sin:

“But man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.”
Spleens in the Elizabethan anatomy give rise to mirth because they also produce the melancholy springing from the bowels to remind man that although unaccountably invested with the power to conceive himself a vessel of pure and everlasting light, he was made, as were toads, of foul and perishable stuff. Apes play games in zoos and baobub trees, but not knowing that they’re bound to die, they don’t discover ludicrous incongruities between the physical and the metaphysical, don’t invent, as does Rabelais’ Gargantua “the most lordly, the most excellent” way to remove the smell and fear of death from the palace of his “jolly asshole”, by wiping it first with silk and velvet, lastly and most gloriously, with the neck of a “well-downed goose.”

Scene from The Possessed Girl, by Menander
Scene from The Possessed Girl, by Menander, mosaic in Villa of Cicero, Pompeii, by Dioskourides of Samos, c. 100 BC. Naples National Archaeological Museum, Italy.
All humor is situational, but the forms of it that survive the traveling in time — Shakespeare’s romance and Rabelais’ bawdy as well as Juvenal’s satire and Molière’s ridicule — speak to the fundamental truth of the human predicament, which is that men die from time to time and worms do eat them.
The jokes dependent upon a specific historical setting don’t have much of a shelf-life; the voice between the lines gets lost, and with it the sharing of the knowledge of what is in or out of place.

To look at the early seventeenth-century painting, "Interior with Merry Company," or at a mosaic of strolling masked musicians from a wall in second-century BC Pompeii, is to understand that a good time is being had by all, to infer that for as long as men have walked the earth they have found in the joy of laughter a companion more faithful than the dog. But exactly what prompts the lace-trimmed Dutch girls to their lovely smiling, or whether the Roman drum is tapping out a cadence or a song, I cannot say. I wasn’t in the loop; four and twenty-one centuries out of touch, I don’t know who first said what to whom, or why the merriment is merry.

This issue of the "Quarterly" relies on sources predominantly British or American, many of them drawn from within the frame of the last two centuries because I can hear what isn’t being said. Usually, not always. Even in one’s own day and age it’s never a simple matter to catch the drift in the wind or judge the lay of the land.

Lenny Bruce remarks on the collapse of his off-color nightclub act in front of a milk-white audience in Milwaukee — ”They don’t laugh, they don’t heckle, they just stare at me in disbelief.” — and I’m reminded of my own first encounter at the age of thirteen with a silence casting me into an outer darkness on a galaxy far, far away.
In the autumn of 1948 on my first Sunday at a Connecticut boarding school, the headmaster (a pious and confiding man, as grave as he was good) welcomed the returning and newly-arriving students with an edifying sermon.

Protestant but non-denominational, the chapel had been built to the design of an early eighteenth-century New England spiritual simplicity — white wood, unstained glass, straight-backed pews set in two sternly disciplined rows before an unobtrusive pulpit. The students were arranged alphabetically by class, seniors to the fore, preps, myself among them, fitted into the choir loft above the doors at the rear. My parents having moved east from California only a few weeks prior to my being sent off to school, I’d never before seen a Connecticut landscape.

Stanczyk, by Jan Matejko, 1862.
Stanczyk, by Jan Matejko, 1862. National Museum, Warsaw, Poland.

More to the point, I’d only twice been inside a church, for an uncle’s wedding and a police chief’s funeral. The latter ceremony I’d attended with my grandfather during his tenure as Mayor of San Francisco during the Second World War, one of the many occasions on which, between the ages of seven and eleven, I listened to him deliver an uplifting political speech.  Out of the loop within the walls of the chapel I assumed that the headmaster’s sermon was a canvassing for votes, whether for or from God I didn’t know, but either way a call to arms, and as I had been taught to do when an admiral or a parks commissioner completed his remarks, I stood to attention with the tribute of firm and supportive applause.
The appalled silence in the chapel was as cold as a winter in Milwaukee. The entire school turned to stare in disbelief, the headmaster nearly missed his step down from the pulpit, the boys to my left and right edged away as if from a long dead rat. Never mind that my intention was civil, my response meant to show respect. During the next four years at school I never gained admission to the company of the elect. I’d blotted my copybook, been marked down as an offensive humorist from the wrong side of the Hudson River.
Some things are privileged from jest — namely, religion, matters of state, great persons, all men’s present business of importance, and any case that deserves pity.
- Francis Bacon, 1597
In the troubled sea of the world’s ambition and desire men rise by gravity, sink by levity, and on my first Sunday in Connecticut I had placed myself too far below the salt to indulge the hope of an ascent to the high-minded end of the table — not to be trusted with the singing of the school song, or with the laughing at people who didn’t belong to beach clubs on Long Island.
The sense of being off the team accompanied me to Yale College (I never saw the Harvard Game) and shaped my perspective as a young newspaper reporter in the 1950s. A potentially free agent not under contract to go along with the program — to find fault with an official press release, put an awkward question to a department store mogul — I was looked upon with suspicion by the wisdoms in office.
The attitude I took for granted on the part of real estate kingpins and ladies enshrined in boxes at the opera, but I didn’t recognize it as one adjustable to any and all occasions until the winter night in 1958 when the San Francisco chapter of Mensa International (a society composed of persons blessed with IQ test scores above the 98th percentile) staged a symposium meant to plumb to its utmost depths (intellectual, psychological and physiological) the mystery of human gender. Wine and cheese to be served, everybody to remove his or her clothes before being admitted to the discussion.
Dispatched by the "San Francisco Examiner" to report on the event, I didn’t make it past the coat racks on which the seekers of the naked truth draped their fig leaves. But even with the embodiments of genius, Mensa wasn’t taking any chances. Confronted with a display of for the most part unlovely and decomposing flesh, the doorkeepers distributed identifying wrist bracelets, blue silk for boys, pink velvet for girls, one of each for gays, lesbians and transsexuals. What was wonderful was the utter seriousness of the proceeding.
Nobody laughed or risked the semblance of a smile; the company of the elect looked with proud disdain upon the fully-clothed reporters standing around in unpolished shoes.

Laughter follows from the misalignment of a reality and a virtual reality, and the getting of the joke is the recognition of which is which. The notions of what is true or beautiful or proper held sacred by the other people in the caucus or the clubhouse, sets up the punch line, which is the sight of something where it’s not supposed to be, the story going where it’s not supposed to go, Groucho Marx saying, “Gentlemen, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”

The Triumph of Ridicule, by Basset, 1773
The Triumph of Ridicule, by Basset, 1773. De Agostini Picture Library, G. Dagli Orti, The Bridgeman Art Library.

Groucho’s appeal is to the faculty named by Bergson as “intelligence, pure and simple”, and I laugh out loud for the reason given by Arthur Schopenhauer, “the cause of laughter…is simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real object…” The being in or out of the loop is not only a question of separations in space and time, it is also a matter of the distance between different sets or turns of mind.
Sudden and happy perceptions of incongruity are not hard to come by in a society that worships its machines, regards the sales pitch and the self-promotion as its noblest forms of literary art. What Twain understood to be the world’s colossal humbug enjoys a high standing among people who define the worth of a thing as the price of a thing and therefore make of money, in and of itself a colossal humbug, the true and proper name for God.
“There are,” said Twain, “certain sweet-smelling sugar-coated lies current in the world which all politic men have apparently tacitly conspired together to support and perpetuate....We are discreet sheep; we wait to see how the drove is going and then go with drove. We have two opinions: one private, which we are afraid to express; and another one — the one we use — which we force ourselves to wear to please Mrs. Grundy....”
It is the Mrs. Grundy of the opinion polls from whom President Barack Obama begs the favor of a sunny smile, to whom the poets who write the nation’s advertising copy sing their songs of love, for whom the Aspen Institute sponsors summer and winter festivals of think-tank discussion to re-awaken the American spirit, redecorate the front parlor of the American soul.
The exchanges of platitude at the higher altitudes of moral and social pretension Twain celebrated as festive occasions on which “taffy is being pulled.” Some of the best of it gets pulled at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York when it is being explained to a quorum of the monied elite (contented bankers, corporate lawyers, A-list arms manufacturers) that American foreign policy, rightly understood, is a work of Christian charity and an expression of man’s good will to man.
Nobody pulls the taffy better than Dr. Henry Kissinger, the White House National Security Advisor in 1970 who by way of an early Christmas greeting that year to the needy poor in Cambodia secured the delivery of thousands of tons of high explosive, but as often at the Council as I’ve heard him say that the nuclear option trumps the China card, that the lines in the Middle Eastern sand connect the Temple of Solomon to the Pentagon, that America under no circumstances is to be caught holding Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella, I seldom find the hint of a sign that the other gentlemen in the room know or care that Chicolini here really is an idiot.

Even if the gentlemen had their doubts about Chicolini, where would be the percentage of letting them out of the bag? Chicolini is rich, and therefore Chicolini is wise. To think otherwise is an impiety; to say otherwise is a bad career move.

Portrait of the Artist with the Features of a Mocker, by Joseph Ducreux

Portrait of the Artist with the Features of a Mocker, by Joseph Ducreux, c. 1793. Louvre, Paris, France.

Twain was mindful of the need to mind his manners when speaking from lecture platforms to a crowd of Mrs. Grundys in both the western and eastern states. He reserved his ferocious ridicule for the writing (much of it in newspapers) that he likened to “painted fire” bent to the task of burning down with a torch of words the pestilent hospitality tents of self-glorifying cant. He had in mind the health of the society on which in 1873 he bestowed the honorific, “The Gilded Age,” in recognition of its great contributions to the technologies of  selfishness and greed, a society making itself sick with the consumption of too many sugar-coated lies and one that he understood not to be a society at all but a state of war.
We have today a second Gilded Age more magnificent than the first, but our contemporary brigade of satirists doesn’t play with fire. The marketing directors who produce the commodity of humor for prime-time television aim to please, to amuse the sheep, not shoot the elephants in the room and the living room. They prepare the sarcasm-lite in the form of freeze dried sound bites meant to be dropped into boiling water at Gridiron dinners, Academy Award ceremonies and Saturday Night Live. “There is a helluva distance,” said Dorothy Parker, “between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it....” George Bernard Shaw seconded the motion, “My way of joking is to tell the truth. It’s the funniest joke in the world.”
A joke is at most a temporary rebellion against virtue, and its aim is not to degrade the human being but to remind him that he is already degraded.
- George Orwell, 1945
Twain didn’t expect or intend his satire to correct the conduct of Boss Tweed, improve the morals of Commodore Vanderbilt or stop the same-day deliveries of the Congress in Washington to the banks in New York. Nor does he exclude himself from the distinguished company of angry apes rolling around in the mud of their mortality. He knows himself made, like all other men, as “a poor, cheap, wormy thing...a sarcasm, the Creator’s prime miscarriage in inventions…”easily seduced by the “paltry materialisms and mean vanities” that made both himself and America great.
A man at play with the life of his mind over-riding the decay of his matter, his laughter the digging himself out of the dung heap of moralizing cowardice that is the consequence of ingesting too much boardwalk taffy. His purpose is that of a physician attending to the liberties of the people palsied by the ambitions of the state, his belief that it is the courage of a democracy’s dissenting citizens that defends their commonwealth against the despotism of a plutocracy backed up with platitudes, billy clubs, surveillance cameras and sub-prime loans.
Which is why in time of trouble I reach for the saving grace of the nearby Twain. Laughter in all of it conjugations and declensions cannot help but breathe the air of freedom, and in the moment of delight and surprise that is my laughing out loud at his Extracts from Adam’s Diary or “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” I escape, if only briefly, from the muck of my own ignorance, vanity and fear, bind up the festering wound inflicted on the day I was born with the teaching of philosophy named by Charlie Chaplin, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”


Lewis H. Lapham 

The founder and editor of "Lapham's Quarterly," Lewis H. Lapham is also editor emeritus of "Harper's Magazine." Lapham was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame in 2007. He is the author of thirteen books, among them Money and Class in America, The Wish for Kings, Waiting for the Barbarians and Theater of War. He produces a weekly broadcast, “The World in Time” for "Bloomberg News," and his documentary film, "The American Ruling Class" has become part of the curriculum in many of the nation's schools and colleges. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Lapham has lectured at many of the nation's leading universities, including Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth and Stanford.

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