March 28, 2014: Nothing But Time

Alessandro Magnasco, detail of "Interrogations in Jail" (1710)

" least knew where they were immediately going, and had a very rough unconscious idea as to their ultimate destination on this planet. They imagined that they would one day, having worn their lives out in beetle-service, die, more or less painfully and slowly, in bed. And most of them did. But the red-haired Gorse...did not have even this trivial advantage in unconscious foreknowledge.

For he was to die painlessly and quickly. And he was not to do so in bed."

--Patrick Hamilton, Mr. Stimpson and Mr. Gorse

I'm a tired man, but even when tired, I try to maintain my manners. If I spent the night tossing and turning, throwing the sheets off, pulling them back on, flopping my head on the pillow, I will attempt to be peaceable when the coffee is served scalding, or without a cup. But there are happenings out there in the wide world that make me bend my Emily Post until the spine snaps. And one polite fiction I'd like to see observed, say, more politely, is that of the death penalty as a rock-ribbed dispenser of justice.

The authorities could have deigned to say, perhaps, "sorry" to Iwao Hakamada. Instead, Japanese prosecutors are appealing the decision to free the seventy-eight year old ex-boxer, after DNA evidence exonerated him in the 1966 quadruple murder that put him on death row. I'm willing to bet Hakamada probably doesn't care about the burdens of the docket, at this point. He already experienced the pressure and police torture which extracted a false confession from him all those years ago, in what proved to be only the beginning of his troubles.

There are only two photos I could easily find of Hakamada. One is of him as a young man -- taciturn, with a flat nose, he looks every bit the professional welterweight he was. The other is of a stooping elderly man, trudging out of prison, wearing the clothes his surviving family brought. The forty-eight years in between is some lacuna, never photographed, into which the makings of what should have been a life were dumped.   

Of course, we don't have to cross an ocean to find Iwao Hakamada. We can ask Glenn Ford, who spent thirty years on death row in Louisiana for a murder he did not commit. Ford was similarly denied a fair trial: with an all-white jury, an unreliable informant, and ambulance chasers as his defense counsel, he was headed to Angola. And even in freedom, of course, it is a sad story: Isadore Rozeman's murderer goes unpunished, just as he did the thirty years Ford spent in a hole.

And what of the people whose names we don't even know? Both Hakamada and Ford had time, nothing but sullen, deadlocked time, in which to protest their innocence, and, remarkably, they were eventually heeded. But most death row inmates eventually run out of time. You can ask for the names. You will want to ask very quietly, and politely. They're written in stone, propped up in whatever pauper's field they bury them in.

General Gandhi

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March 21, 2014: Baptist Farmers

On March 19th, the entity known as Fred Phelps died. The corporeal husk, that is — the man-sized pustule who stank up a hospice bed, the liver-spotted garbage bag currently stuffed in some morgue freezer. There doesn't seem much else to say, really — whatever other elements typically serve as a prerequisite for human existence seemed totally lacking in Phelps, as well as his satanic, buck-toothed brood, clutching their Day-Glo placards. Phelps is the closest thing we have to those Norwegian death metal goths, burning churches and killing each other in the nineties. Phelps's corpse should be incinerated in some sort of solemn stadium ceremony, as a vague warning against going insane. He is an authentically American nightmare.
But I'm not telling you anything you don't know. Phelps was a deranged coot, a depraved little tyrant whose appalling antics would be amusing, if they so often weren't in spitting range of an actual funeral. Any funeral, incidentally — the Phelps clan didn't care, as long as there would be publicity. And publicity there was, along with Supreme Court judgmentstargeted lawmaking — even British film crews, their rushes and B-rolls scarcely believable to most Americans, much less the wider world. I should know.
I once spent a bizarre afternoon shadowing Shirley Phelps Roper, she in her fetching neon "GOD HATES FAGS" regalia. The fam had spent the day picketing a well-known TV personality's memorial service, on the sidewalks of a busy intersection a few blocks away. There were several young children in the contingent; I don't recall any men. Shirley wore snap-away track-pants, as if at any moment, Pa Phelps would give her a quiet nod, and off she would fly, tenaciously confronting a homosexual. From across the street, I waited until I was sure Shirley could see me, and flipped her off. All it elicited was a good-natured, gap-toothed smile, as if she was hearing a child tell her a knock-knock joke. Or as if a friendly Springer Spaniel had just bounded up to her.
It was unsatisfying, because of course, I had lamely given these mutants exactly what they had come for. Walking away, as a preppy type loudly yelled at them, I couldn't believe my credulity. Walking back the same way, later, however, a few hours later, I noticed them preparing to leave. Watching them pack up their cheap beach chairs and pertinent "AIDS FOR FAGS" literature, I couldn't help but follow them, at least part of the way back, to whatever depressing, cut-rate Day's Inn the twenty of them were crammed into. 
As it happened, the nearest subway stop was on a nearby college campus. As a lover of fresh produce and organic foodstuffs, I knew today also just happened to be the day of the weekly farmer's market. And so it was, I, crouched behind the leafy redoubt of nearby hedges and trees, watched Shirley Phelps Roper, in a screaming lime-green GOD HATES FAGS t-shirt, casually navigate the piled rutabagas, squeeze the assembled peaches, and grin over a pyramid of beets, a vision of comfort and blithe self-confidence.
In other words, it was weird. It was very weird. It was the strangest goddamn thing I have ever seen. I saw the perfect wingnut, more tawdry than sinister, but sinister nonetheless, strolling through a liberal college campus in the uniform of a cultish hate group. As many cheerful wags saucily plan Fred's funeral picket, I can't help but think that the instinct for revenge, no matter how understandable, elides the main point: there is no gesture, no counterpoint, no riposte, that might derail the kind of twisted faith worn on a sleeve — and through an afternoon farmer's market, at that. 
Phelps has no following of his own beyond his captive family; his cult is far too bizarre, too molded by the warped drives of one now-dead maniac, to capture even the shakiest of fringe personalities. He achieved the remarkable distinction of uniting all Americans of all political persuasions against his insanity. The late Jerry Falwell called Phelps a "first-class nut" — but, silver-tongue and televangelizing aside, was Falwell's rancid belief system any more sophisticated, at the core, than a simple dictum: that his God, does, in fact, "hate fags"? This distinctly American pride is as incomprehensible as it is apparently unshakable.
And it isn't going to die with Fred Phelps, either.
Trust me on this one. The Iowa Republican Caucus is only 655 days away.


General Gandhi

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January 24, 2014: Frank Sinatra's Sniffle


ABOUT THE GUEST WRITER: Crispus Mammon is a novelist, writer, and wanderer. Currently on loan from Grantland, where he is a contributing editor, Crispus has also written for Crease MagazineThe CalifornianMugWumpDriftwood Quarterlygrease gunThe Atascadero State BreezeThe New IniquityDimestore, and Rugburn Quarterly. He has no home. There is no God but bourbon, and bacon is his prophet. He plunged himself into the billowy wave and an echo arose from the suicide's grave, Oh willow, titwillow, titwillow.

*  *  *

Strange stories can find you at strange times. Like when you’re trying to write a classic piece of piquant long-form "who'd a thunk it?" journalism for men 18 to 49 years old and suddenly you realized you have murdered a human being.

It was well past noon sometime last spring and I was slumped in my chair in the Johnny Drama Conference Room, in the Grantland offices on Figueroa, across from the Staples Center. I hadn’t asked for those few extra hours of bleary consciousness, rubbing a few bumps of crushed-up Adderall on my gums and chasing it with Nyquil in the bathroom to keep the Sickness down, but I did try to do something useful with them. You’re battling insomnia and headaches and a lot of other things looking at your co-workers, all jammed in the room and seated around you. I don't remember their faces. We were all white guys. The room looked like a jar of tongue depressors.

I write journalism. Sometimes poorly, sometimes less so. Like all long-form journalists, I spend far too much time thinking of ways to turn less material into more narrative. You know the kind of story I write — "Ohio Zoo Massacre," the kind of zaniness long-formers trip over to bludgeon into a narrative some glossy will buy. That's what brings home the bacon and bourbon, not how many words you know — though I do know words, words I can use, like "mer·e·tri·cious," or "a-ga-this-m." I can write those words, on a page, on a page of words about people I write about. Like two words holding hands in a crowd of other words, and I get paid "ducats" for it (look that word up). 

That was the silver lining to my sleeplessness — it gave me more time to think. I've always been pretty good at playing games, but this had to be the biggest game I played. There were so many of us white male writers, reading our books, sipping our bourbon, glazing our bacon, so many out bobbing in the backwash of our thirties, scrambling to grab enough magazine assignments with "illumination" and "depth" that we might someday cobble together a book like Gladwell, and skewer them all with the artificial spine of a catchy neologism — "Squish," or "Kvetch," or something. 

And it was then, during one of those restless nights, that I first realized: no writer has ever killed their long-form subject.

A chill ran down my spine.

I could almost hear Frank Sinatra sniffle. I could almost feel the National Magazine Award in my hands.

It's all about the story, I reminded myself. In the words of my murderous ideological forefather, Esquire's Chris Jones, "Words have meaning; sentences have power; paragraphs can change a life." And what better way to change a life than to end it? Couched as it would be in the ineluctable structure and modality of piquant white-guy storytelling, the gravity of my crime would pass scarcely noticed, and yet the novelty of murdering a profile subject would still register. My editors would obviously have no problem, provided, as iterated before, that the murder was preceded by enough material such that a spurious narrative could be constructed. Who, after all, could honestly believe that just words could lead to death and damnation? Well, Bill Simmons for one, by the time I was through with him. 

Not everybody knows how I killed my subject, or, indeed, who my subject really was. Wrapped as they are now in plastic sheets and honeyed words, their appearance in life is now unknowable, decayed as it has been with the pallor of my deed. You may accuse me of many things, turning such an apparently evil act into the grist of the printer. Did I fail a moral test? Did I write a true story? Did I harm or hinder a speck of life, or rather, explode it in a vale of creative destruction? Did I make man small, or rather, just make myself, the writer, big? I don't know. And apparently, the highest paid elites in my industry don't either — they're still running the piece.

Writing a eulogy for a person who I murdered is an odd experience. What makes it harder is that you're still reading it. And we're still writing it.


General Gandhi

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January 3, 2014: New Year



On Kawara, Date paintings (via

It is a new year, and yet, with the new year came an immemorial calm as snow drifts enveloped my estate, padding all life away for the next few months. I stoked a sickly fire in my study. The room was stuffy, the air stale, as if it had all been inhaled and exhaled by a wooly mammoth. My Russian Blue, Astrakhan, lay curled, inured to my anxieties, on the warm stones before the hearth. I clucked my tongue, but the creature did not stir, the faint outline of his little ribs silently rising and falling. Yes, I was, at last, quite alone.

I know a new year is supposed to spur each of us to new resolutions, quaint wishes of what might be if we were somehow moved to change by the tick of the clock, instead of any improvement of character. Historically, this has not been the case for me. A brief survey of my previous resolutions should suffice:
1983: Purchase Edgar Allan Poe's former Bronx home; add aviary pending zoning approval. Effort crashed upon the rocky shoals of a blinkered Dinkins Administration.
1988: Requisition Sean Connery's Best Supporting Oscar statue (won for "The Untouchables") for his unforgivable Irish accent. Required new dental crown.
1996: Sued over rights to the concept behind Bruce Willis sci-fi thriller "12 Monkeys"; lawsuit withdrawn after I watched the movie and found it bore no relation to my screenplay, "Cheech & Chong Go Chimpo."
2001: Make sure no wars began.
2008: Elect Mike Huckabee as president in time to commute my death sentence. This was ultimately a partial victory.
"Is this a life for one of my proud station," as that irascible pinko Bertolt Brecht once lamented? I think not. The dynamics of our age are static. I am to be left in a warm room with an uncaring cat. You can have this year.


General Gandhi

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December 13, 2013: Mandela

Illustration by Faheem Haider for American Circus.

It's fitting that Nelson Mandela died in December. Judging by most of the encomiums I've heard, he was apparently a South African version of Santa Claus — grandfatherly, with a kind face that suggested a deep enjoyment of milk and cookies. Most importantly, Mandela was, at worst, gentle with the bad boys and girls. That is, after all, what most of the fulsome praise he was subject to for the past decades praised — the mercy he extended to the caucasoid slime who had ruled South Africa. In this rendering, Mandela is an eternally octogenarian saint — the details of how he came to be canonized not all that important. 

This patronizing of better men by knuckle-dragging bottom-feeders is a pretty well-worn trick, as American as apple pie and practiced by just about any pol. Even a screeching, short-breathed pig like Glenn Beck damned Martin Luther King with praise, such that he could reappropriate MLK's struggle for aggrieved white racists. So it shouldn't be surprising that the world leaders who assembled for Mandela's memorial treated it like a work-mandated funeral for a co-worker they barely knew. Bush — Jesus, he still exists — probably showed up just for the catering. I take it for granted that these empty vessels came off as utterly bereft of anything approaching dignity or self-knowledge, taking selfies and sounding their phony, crass dirges for Mandela; it was as fitting as it was inevitable.
"Mandela was a good man who ended racism," goes the general gist of it, "but not in a way that was mean or upsetting to white people — and for that we can be truly thankful." I don't see much point in parsing the many public tributes that have been paid to Mandela by the rogue's gallery of elected hacks, tripping over themselves to hitch themselves to Mandela's star and thereby prove their deep humanity and rich appreciation for justice. You've had a week or two to choke down that dog's dinner, which I found roughly on par with eating and digesting a phone book whole. The infantilized Mandela of these tributes is a cuddly toy the whole family can enjoy — even mainline conservatives, engaged these past weeks in the delicate work of appropriating Mandela without bringing up, say, anything in which Mandela believed.
Funnily enough, it was the fascist snakepit that is Sen. Ted Cruz's Facebook fandom that drew me out of the isolation chamber. Here we had hatred — unadorned, not couched in false platitudes or crocodile tears. None of the mouth-breathers hissing in front of their computer monitors care or worry about their public images, because they'll never have one. Greasy, scalding hatred of Mandela — Mandela the Communist, Mandela the Traitor, Mandela the Murderer and Terrorist and Criminal, and most of all, definitively, in bold caps with klaxons blaring, Mandela the Nigger. It was repulsive, distinctly out of fashion, and refreshing. It was exactly the sentiment seventy percent of those leaders weeping over Mandela's casket would've enforced had they been elected in 1980.
Nothing about Nelson Mandela's victory was inevitable. He was maligned, tortured, and imprisoned by a mafia state, captive to an utterly depraved and sick social order — a Confederacy that somehow whipped itself into the 20th century.  The ethnocratic regime he opposed wasn't just bent on immiserating black South Africans by forcing them into big, open-air gulags called "bantustans." The Afrikaner security forces were fond of stoking two fire-pits on their off hours: one for burning the corpses of anti-apartheid activists, and one for grilling steaks.
So, non-violent protests by anti-apartheid campaigners were met with massacres. The prospect of reforms was laughable to goons like Botha, or his neighbor, Ian Smith in Rhodesia. Property destruction and sabotage were similarly ineffective. Nelson Mandela accepted the legitimacy of violent resistance as just, in a situation of unacceptable injustice — as he recounted from his cell, ''We aim for buildings and property, so it may be that someone gets killed in a fight, in the heat of battle, but we do not believe in assassinations.''
Who were Mandela's friends? Oh yeah, he told us — the only people who offered to help the ANC were the commies. Should he have rejected their help before or after he was shipped off to Robben Island, after being captured with the help of the CIA? Would that have ameliorated paid apartheid junketeer William F. Buckley's concerns that Mandela would be the next Lenin, or dissuaded him from believing “immediate integration must be rejected by all realistic men as suicidal"? Would that have stopped Reagan and Thatcher from conspiring to strengthen apartheid, as enacted in the gruesomely-named policy of "constructive engagement"? It is incredible he wasn't executed by the regime's flunkies, the way that the brave Steve Biko was.
He was not a saint; he was a human being who had faults like you or I, and indeed, made questionable political decisions in office. But perhaps his most endearing quality to me is one described by journalist John Carlin, recounting Mandela's trip to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, alongside his erstwhile adversary, F.W. DeKlerk. Mandela lost his temper, seeing DeKlerk, his opportunistic jailer, swanning around Oslo, and somehow unfazed by his lifelong collusion with the apartheid regime. Mandela's lawyer, George Bizos, described Mandela's "money-changers in the temple" moment:
"'He gave the most horrible detail of what happened to prisoners on Robben Island,' said Bizos, referring to the Alcatraz on the southern Atlantic where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in jail. He told a story, Bizos recalled, of prison warders on the island 'burying a man in the sand up to his head and urinating on him. ... He told it as an example of the inhumanity there had been in this system, though he did actually stop short of saying 'Look, here are the people who represented that system.’'"
This guy was not always Santa Claus. Want to honor Nelson Mandela's memory? Support the guy who's unpopular right now, not when he's a secular saint on the cover of Time. Don't condemn Palestinians to the same privations of black South Africans — yes, Israel practices apartheid, too, and as Mandela said in 1990, "We identify with [Palestinians] because we do not believe it is right for the Israeli government to suppress basic human rights in the conquered territories." Do you have the guts to carry that message? The same sanctions movement that eventually destroyed apartheid is gaining strength against Israeli apartheid; will our cultural leaders have the same brave aversion Keith Richards and Gram Parsons felt to South Africa?
Don't forget the qualities that, improbably, put Mandela in a position from which he could exonerate his tormentors. Don't forget the injustices that angered and haunted him — I don't think, for example, Mandela would've approved of Obama's recent murder of fifteen innocent people for the crime of celebrating a wedding.
It's an important truth that needs to be struck, again and again, like hammer blows: Nelson Mandela, the young, tough-looking badass pictured here, was entirely guilty of being a revolutionary, one who reluctantly accepted the legitimacy of force, and who only forgave his jailers after most of his international mourners had done everything they could to retard his struggle. There is a lesson here.

General Gandhi

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