Monthly Archives: December 2012

Wallflower At The Protest Rally

I spent Friday evening with Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Jackson Browne, Michael Moore, Hurricane Carter, and my Republican buddy Mike.  The event was called “Bring Leonard Peltier Home in 2012,” and was meant to remind folks that the Native American activist Leonard Peltier is still in jail for the murder of two federal agents, in spite of questions about his guilt.

More than 2000 audience members stood and cheered whenever speakers described Peltier as a “political prisoner,” or cried racism, or railed more generally against “our society” or “Wall Street.”

I remained seated.  And now, I’m figuring out why.

First, I don’t think that I am stone-hearted or ironically aloof by nature.  I was genuinely moved by Michael Moore’s eloquence and passion, which included his response to the shootings of schoolchildren in Connecticut that morning.  I was wowed by Native American singer/songwriter Bill Miller‘s big spirit, which reminded me of Richie Havens in his prime.  Hearing Hurricane Carter tell the story of his wrongful conviction with humor, resignation, and pride, was moving.

So, why was I so skeptical and cold-blooded about most of the event?  Why was I the wallflower at the protest rally?

As I think back on it, as I think of the more than three hours of speakers and singers railing that Leonard Peltier is a proud and pure-hearted Native American, railroaded by the vindictive and hasty FBI, I realize the answer: I instinctively bristle when I hear easy, broad-brush caricatures that take the place of careful, detailed argument.  When a conclusion sounds too easy, my first instinct is to doubt it.  I am, in short, a Mudgeon.

The speakers told us that Leonard Peltier was framed by the FBI for the murders of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in June 1975.  Why? Well, that was not completely clear, but the words “racist” and “political prisoner” were used a lot.

I don’t know if Leonard Peltier shot those agents.  The agents had entered the reservation in pursuit of Jimmy Eagle, who was wanted for assaulting and robbing some local ranch workers.  They were found dead in their cars, which had been sprayed with more than one hundred bullets.  No eyewitness has ever identified the shooters.  So, the evidence against Leonard Peltier was circumstantial.

Three witnesses said that Peltier was in the vicinity of the crime.  Later, the three said that their statements had been coerced.  Shell casings at the scene were said to match a rifle owned by Peltier.  Later, a memo from the FBI ballistics expert was discovered, showing that the casings were not a match.  When Peltier was extradited from Canada to stand trial, the basis was an affidavit from a woman who claimed that she was his girlfriend and knew that he had shot the agents.  That affidavit turned out to be false.

Some evidence is more damning.  After the murders, Peltier and two other suspects fled in a station wagon and an RV.  When police stopped the RV, which was being driven by Peltier, he shot at the police and fled.  One of the murdered agents’ guns was found under the driver’s seat, with Peltier’s fingerprint on it.  The station wagon, filled with explosives and driven by one of the other suspects who had fled with Peltier, exploded accidentally on a Kansas highway.  Police found the other FBI agent’s gun in it, as well as a rifle of the same type as Peltier’s.  Peltier claimed several conflicting alibis at the time, but in his memoir published a quarter-century later, he admits that he shot at the agents, but denies murdering them.

So, while my fellow audience members are hooting about racism and political imprisonment, I’m thinking that, at least,  there was plenty of evidence to prove that Peltier was one of the shooters (which he now doesn’t deny), and federal law considers an accomplice to murder to be just as guilty as the murderer.  And, when speaker after speaker calls for the President to commute Leonard Peltier’s sentence I am thinking that Bill Clinton did not commute Leonard Peltier’s sentence, and Barack Obama will never commute Leonard Peltier’s sentence, because this was the murder of two FBI agents, by someone who admits shooting at them, and if you’re the president there’s no upside to pissing off the FBI.  This is not like the story of Hurricane, the man the authorities came to blame, for something that he never done.

Leonard Peltier isn’t the only too-easy argument that turns me into an instant skeptic.  Opponents of hydrofracturing fret reflexively about fracking fluid “laden with industrial and toxic chemicals” that have caused “massive fish kills, sick children, dead livestock, and contaminated tap water.”  When I hear this, I think, wouldn’t this be front-page news if it were true?  And wouldn’t the EPA be all over it if there was a health risk?  Anti-union business interests have been supporting the “right” of unionized employees to get the benefits of a union’s collective bargaining work without paying dues, by arguing that unions are corrupt and skim almost all of their dues for internal administrative costs and left-wing politicking.  I think, if this were true, wouldn’t union members vote bums like that out of leadership?  And, when the rapper Mos Def told us on Friday that rap had been the authentic voice of the community until “Wall Street” corrupted it, was I the only person who thought, “Huh?  What does the banking industry have to do with rap music?  And aren’t rap artists mostly promoted by rap moguls like Def Jam and Roc a Fella?”

It was Ernest Hemingway who wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”  I’d like to think that Ernest, surely a Mudgeon in his own time, would also have sat on his hands at the Peltier rally, quietly asking himself “isn’t it too easy to think so?”  Maybe Leonard Peltier is innocent; and maybe the Occupy Wall Streeters were all dangerous bums looking for free sandwiches; and maybe the EPA is corrupt and looking the other way as ‘frackers destroy the Marcellus shale bed, or cell phones and microwave ovens cause cancer.  But, my Mudgeonly hide will always thicken when these things are presented as though they are beyond question, by partisans who believe because they have an interest in believing, and not because a convincing case has been made.


Leave a comment

Filed under identity politics, philosophy, Politics, protest, skepticism, Uncategorized

A Few Catalog Items We Won’t Be Buying This HannuKwanzaaMas

‘Tis the season in which we receive a sacroiliac-straining blizzard of catalogues in the mail.  If you’re in the market to send your loved one a cryopacked styrofoam box of Nebraska beef or another pair of fuzzy slippers, well, have at it.  For the good of all, however, I have read every one of the catalogues that arrived in the past week.  Here are some items that we’ll be passing on.

Harry and David

This fruit-porn purveyor works hard to tart up its products, which, after all, are FRUIT.  Or, as they put it, “Juicy Crunchy Yummy Fruit,” as distinct from that other kind.  They must have twenty fruit stylists on the payroll.  But, when all is said and done, we won’t be shelling out $69 (more than $10 each) for these six hand fruits (even if one is inexplicably wrapped in gold foil:


It’s almost too easy to poke fun at Williams-Sonoma’s collection of unspeakably expensive doo-dads for yuppie home chefs who are oblivious to the homelessness, poverty, and unemployment all around them.  But, here are a few favorites:

The Gingerbread Estate ($249):

The brown-complected fellow locked out of the front door is a nice touch.

Butter Making Kit ($29.95)

For those located in parts of the country where butter cannot be bought in supermarkets, your $30 and a measure of luck will net you a half-pound of butter (retail value $2) and two thimble-sized ceramic crocks.  You may think your friends will admire you for making your own butter.  They won’t.

Sports Authority

Airsoft Zombie Fun Kit, $69.95:

This may seem like four dime-store pellet guns with pellets and safety glasses; but, combine those with the 16 included “paper zombie targets,” and suddenly it’s a training exercise for the Zombie Apocalypse!  The connection between zombies and Bozo the Clown is left unexplained.

Pottery Barn

Like its parent Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn markets very attractive upscale merchandise at splurge prices.  One theme in this year’s catalogue, though, is disturbing.  Can you identify it?

Let me quote from our guest blogger:  “Come the revolution, when all stags rise up against the Pottery Barn oppressors, those antlers will be dug in deep where the sun don’t shine.”

Hammacher Schlemmer

The New York Yankees Slot Car Raceway, $124.95:

Two slot cars with Yankees logos go around and around a thirteen-inch track until key injuries, lousy managerial decisions, and the distraction of women behind the third-base dugout lead them to fly off into futility.  Based on a true story.

The Healthiest Potato Chip Maker, $59.95 ($39.95 for six 2-ounce containers of potato chip spices):

Want some baked potato chips?  You can buy a massive bag for $3, or with this $60 silicone tray you can slice your own potatoes, arrange about 20 of them at a time onto the tray, and after some effort wind up with a very expensive handful of chips.  If you’re still hungry by then.

The World’s Smallest Camera, $29.95

As I said to that performer in the bar in Bangkok once she had put away the ping pong balls and knitting needles:  That’s very impressive, but why do it in the first place?


After glancing through so many catalogue images of women pouting as if they are experiencing gastrointestinal distress, it is a relief to read Robert Redford’s catalogue, in which the models are instructed to smile invitingly while posing in front of snow-covered log cabins.  I mean, doesn’t this just make you want to open your wallet??


Even a smile, however, doesn’t make these odd hats look good:


Crate & Barrel

This company is not only expert at marketing, but they know how to edit.  On page 15 of their Holiday Gift Guide catalog, there is a picture of their “12 Dogs of Christmas Biscuits” in which one dog biscuit is lying on top of another in a way that would make Michael Vick blush.  And, on page 25 there’s a “Buri Woodland Creature” fox being strung up onto the Christmas tree by his neck.  These images were both replaced on the company Web site version of the catalog.

LL Bean

Merino Wool Ragg Gift Set $29.95

Planning to give your loved one socks for the holiday?  Why not make it a lose-lose for both of you, by coughing up $30 for three pairs of socks, “beautifully packaged for gift giving” in a cardboard box?

Vermont Country Store

Good thing “Vermont” has become a synonym for authentically old-fashioned nostalgia items, because the flinty, practical folks who actually live in Vermont would be appalled.

Comfy Car Seat Riser, $14.95

See the Road Better for Safer Driving with This Comfy Car Seat Riser

The premise here is apparently that some women are so small, and car seats angle backward so sharply, that they can barely see out their side windows.  Though, you’d think the X-ray vision would solve the problem.

Pine Tar Soap and Shampoo, $19.95

If George Brett used it to make his hands stick to his bat, why would you want to put it in your soap and shampoo?

Traditional Granny Gown and Cap, $55.90

My periodontist used to show a film showing a woman brushing and flossing for about fifteen minutes.  Here is an even more effective virtue-preserver.  Perhaps skip this for Christmas and save it as a Valentine’s Day gift.


Elevated Pet Feeder, $129-199

Frontgate claims that raising your pet’s food between 5 and 14 inches will “eliminate neck strain and aid digestion.”  Thank heavens:  at last, a solution for all of those dogs that go around moaning about their aching necks and poor digestion from eating at floor level.  How did wolves ever survive in the wild?

OK, that’s it for the 2012 catalogs.  Merry Christmas to all (except for us Jews, who will be out seeing Les Miz on Christmas Day) and to all a good night.



Filed under Uncategorized

The Gruntled Contrarian: Susan Rice Is Not Ready For Prime Time

The late Nebraska senator Roman Hruska will be remembered forever for his underwhelming defense of Richard’s Nixon’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Harrold Carswell.  Democrats opposed Judge Carswell as “mediocre.”  “Even if he were mediocre,” Mr. Hruska proclaimed, “there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.”

A photograph of Senator Hruska's proud moment.  Ain't the Internet grand?

Which, as you might guess, brings us to the mostly-manufactured kerfuffle, brouhaha, and ballyhoo about Susan Rice.

Having lost this bellowing point in the presidential elections, the Republicans are now opposing Dr. Rice for Secretary of State by trying to gin up a case that she lied to the American people about the attack in Benghazi.  President Obama is sticking to his guns, broad-brushing the Benghazi issue, maintaining that Rice is an “extraordinary” diplomat and puffing that her critics should “go after me.”

My take?  Susan Rice is not extraordinary.  Neither did she lie to the American people.  What she is, based on her handling of the Benghazi matter, is not ready to be Secretary of State.  She is President Obama’s Harrold Carswell.

Dr. Rice is certainly well-credentialed.  After her Rhodes scholarship and Oxford Ph.D., she joined up with the Clinton White House as an expert on African diplomacy.  She waited out the Bush years at the Brookings Institution before joining the Obama campaign as foreign-policy advisor and then being nominated as United Nations Ambassador by the new President.

Yet, she never came across as a buttoned-down type of diplomat.  She brought her infant son, whom she was still breast-feeding, to her confirmation hearing.  She notoriously punctuated a disagreement with the late and masterful diplomat Richard Holbrooke by giving him the finger.  Classy.  She is know for insulting and shouting at colleagues.  She was removed for a time as the foreign-policy spokesperson for the Obama campaign after “getting out ahead of her skis” criticizing the Bush policy of not negotiating with Iran until it suspended its nuclear program – though this policy had in fact been developed by our European allies.  And, although tough-negotiating women have always been judged more harshly than tough-negotiating men, it is significant that Russia is opposing her confirmation because they see her as too “ambitious and aggressive” to deal with successfully.

And so, to Benghazi.

Republican critics are foaming at the mouth that Dr. Rice intentionally concealed the truth about the Benghazi attacks, concealing Al Qaeda’s involvement in the attack so as not to undermine the President’s campaign-season claim that Al Qaeda has been largely neutralized.  The more strategically-minded cynics among us suspect that the true Republican motive is to scuttle Rice’s nomination so that the second choice, John Kerry, will be nominated and his Senate seat will be taken by the newly-unemployed calendar boy Scott Brown.

OK, this nudity is not strictly necessary, but why miss the opportunity?  Indeed, why miss THIS:

Like Republicans’ surrealistic theories about global warming or Alaskan oil drilling, it would be pretty to think so.  But, we now know it ain’t true.  It turns out that references to Al Qaeda or organized terrorism were deleted from the talking points by some shadowy hand in the Executive branch. (David Petreaus, who we now know had a few other things on his mind at the time of the attack, testified that the CIA did not make the changes; the White House says it was someone in the Executive, but they won’t say who).

So, why is it that, after the November 27 meeting that was supposed to lead to perestroika, Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Kelly Ayotte reported that they had more reservations than before the meeting, and were considering blocking the confirmation?  Here, I think, is why.

Susan Rice knew, before her appearances on the September 16 talk shows, that the Benghazi attacks were premeditated acts of terrorism.  The FBI had interviewed most of the survivors of the attack by then.  Libya had arrested more than 50 Al Qaeda sympathizers or affiliates in connection with the murders.  Rice testified recently that she had received memoranda on all of these facts before she went on television.  And yet, she stated in those interviews that the the attack was part of a spontaneous protest by “a small number of people” that came about “a direct result of a heinous and offensive video” (the silly and inept Innocence of Muslims trailer), despite “a substantial security presence there with our personnel.”

The basic “spontaneous protest” story, we now know, was direct from the White House talking points memo.  Dr. Rice was told to mouth those talking points.  But, she knew they were untrue.  Knowing this, she should have firmly pushed back against being asked to parrot them.  In this instance, she was a good soldier, but not a good potential General…or potential Secretary of State.

Other of her statements, including the “small number of people” and the “substantial security presence,” which were also untrue (the “security presence” apparently was a reference to the two ex-SEALS who were on assignment about a mile away, and had no responsibility for protecting the Ambassador), apparently were not part of the talking points.  These misstatements were apparently Rice’s own creations.  In that regard, she is at best sloppy with facts, which does not augur well for a diplomat.

Imagine Susan Rice as the Secretary of State going head-t0-head with Hamas, Pakistan, or I’m-A-Dinner-Jacket at the next Missile Crisis, or holding the hand of David Cameron or Bibi Netanyahu.  Heck, imagine how difficult it is just to juggle the alliances, sensitivities, and internal politics of scores of nations worldwide.  This is a job for a remarkable statesperson, like Hillary Clinton, Dean Acheson, or Henry Kissinger.  It is not a job for a political friend of the President.  Susan Rice is not a liar, but she is not extraordinary; and she is not ready for prime time.

Leave a comment

Filed under Middle East, Politics, Uncategorized