Operators and Things (1958)

Barbara O'Brien
Ace Paperbacks (1964)

Relatively well-known entry in the necessarily limited subgenre of writings by recovered schizophrenics.  Author O'Brien (a pseudonym) wakes up one morning to find three shadowy figures at the end of her bed who she comes to call "operators."  In her delusional system, the world is divided between "operators" (those capable of reading and transmitting thought) and "things" (oblivious people who are manipulated by the operators).  Not unlike the famous Daniel Paul Schreber, O'Brien comes to believe that her communications with unseen forces have created a "breach" of some kind.  This leads to an extensively elaborated delusion in which she is at the center of property litigation among the operators (who own and trade "things" for sport).  Miraculously, she avoids institutionalization (except for a couple of nights) and ends up having the wherewithal to make an appointment with a psychiatrist.  Shortly thereafter, her "voices" simply vanish.

In the second half of the book, O'Brien speculates on just what triggered her psychotic break.  Her first analyst, a Freudian, is mocked for suggesting her problem was completely sexual (he apparently told her at one point that a woman her age should have had over 127 lovers--O'Brien does the math and realizes maybe her therapist is crazy).

Interestingly, the cover on the Ace paperback edition of 1964 utilizes the same artist who did the publisher's "occult/paranormal" titles--which speaks volumes as to how the public regarded schizophrenia at mid-century.

Dog Vomit Wrangler

There are some jobs in the entertainment industry so demeaning that it’s a wonder anyone will take them, assignments beneath even the unpaid army of starry-eyed interns looking to take those first baby steps toward a condo and coke habit in Malibu.  But someone has to cut new bumps for Shark Week, fact-check Panzer statistics for the Hitler channel, and pick up Ryan Seacrest’s dry cleaning—so, like the dead skunk on the Interstate that someone eventually gets around to scraping off the pavement, these unpleasant tasks mysteriously get completed year after year. 

But the National Geographic Channel, of all places, has recently lowered the bar one more stunning notch, creating a position that can only be described as dog vomit wrangler. 
The "dog vomit wrangler," whoever this poor soul may be, is attached to a show called My Dog Ate What?  The series apparently debuted way back in May, but having no dog to focus my enthusiasm for the premiere, I only just now stumbled upon it during the new Thanksgiving tradition of basic cable "I will literally watch anything" megablock programming. 

As promised by the title, My Dog Ate What? is devoted to one insanely narrow and repetitive premise: re-enactments of various real life dogs eating things they should not eat and almost dying.   It is a brutally simple concept and one typical of the new fetish aesthetic that now reigns in the upper hundreds of the cable tier: I want to see people remodel their bathrooms; I want to see the latest Cajun variations on the grilled cheese sandwich; I want to see adorable dogs swallow ridiculous household objects and almost die.

In terms of cheap melodrama, My Dog Ate What? is right up there with The Day My Kitten Almost Drowned (over on Lifetime, I think).  Each segment follows a virtually identical structure repeated four or five times per episode.  First we meet the dog who we know will soon eat what a dog should not eat.  Said dog is shown running up and down the stairs, chasing a ball in the backyard, playing with the family, or doing any of the other various things dogs do that so warm our hearts.   Then the crisis!  One day the owner(s) notices that little Sparky doesn’t seem to have any appetite for his food.  Why that's not like little Sparky! He loves his food! offer the talking-head  owners.  Then someone sedates little Sparky so that he might re-enact for the camera a pitiful bout of dog-lethargy.  We just knew something wasn't right, continue Sparky's owners.   Soon Sparky is at the vet and we receive the terrible but typically hilarious diagnosis:  Sparky has swallowed a _____X____.

Here is a list of some of the stupid things these stupid dogs ate in the two episodes I saw:

--bottle cap
--hairball from a woman’s hairbrush
--tampon
--tennis ball (x3)
--pin cushion (with pins)
--batteries
--rat poison
--two boxes of cereal, including the actual boxes.

All the dogs survive, of course, which strikes me as cheating a bit on NatGeo’s part.  Surely the show would be more meaningful or at least more suspenseful if Rover occasionally didn’t bounce back from swallowing a conch shell or a pack of urinal cakes.  But kids are watching, I suppose, as are the “child-like” at heart who are apparently entertained by this cloying parade of cute dogs with tummy aches.  Like all other viewers of niche-fetish cable, I guess, these folks need to be protected from the unpleasant realities that lie beyond their cable enclosure--like the mountain of poor unwanted puppies being shoveled into a dumpster at the city pound while the Harringtons spends $3000 bucks having a Rolex fished out of their Beagle's duodenum.  

And for some of these dogs, quite frankly, it isn't entirely clear that saving them is worth the effort.  In one segment I saw, for example, a particularly dim-witted mastiff (left) swallows a tennis ball in one slobbery gulp.  For a week he lies around feeling sick, tempting the surgeon and the reaper until at last, to everyone's great relief, he wretches up the ball.  The next day he’s feeling great.  Cut to footage of the dim-witted mastiff once again frolicking in the park—where he then proceeds to eat another fucking tennis ball.  And then, while everyone waits around for him to cough this one up, he goes out and swallows a third tennis ball for good measure.  That is one stupid dog.  By my count he's at 40-luv.  One more and it's game-set-match-we're telling the kids he went to go live on a farm upstate.

But I kid the dog people.  Of course we would all spend whatever it took to unplug Sparky's plumbing, no matter how many times he swallowed something that every other animal on the face of the earth would have enough sense to stay away from.  After all, this is what makes My Dog Ate What? both funny and poignant.  Like the Three Stooges, dogs live in a world that is simply too complicated for them.  Left as wolves in the Siberian tundra, they'd be fine--but after we bred them to take hilarious and often ill-advised forms like the Dachshund and Shiatsu, you can't help but feel sorry for them when they accidentally eat a box of detergent. They didn't ask to live in a world of tasty detergent, and whats more, you should have been watching them more closely so that they wouldn't be tempted to eat a box of tasty detergent.

Some of the dogs on My Dog Ate What? require surgery.  Others get out of their G.I. jam by 
vomiting up the thing they should not have eaten. 


Which returns us to the lowly plight of the dog vomit wrangler.  

As vomiting is a symptom shared by all the dogs on the show, every single beast on My Dog Ate What? must puke at some point during his little docudrama.  This presents My Dog Ate What? with the rather unprecedented challenge of devising multiple strategies for the novel staging and display of dog puke. Each episode is like watching von Triers and Leth's The Five Obstructions (2003)--except in this case the challenges of formal invention issue from five actual obstructions ...of the canine intestine!  (Ha!)

Now, you might think that dog puke is dog puke—but My Dog Ate What? clearly has a quality commitment to both narrative plausibility and medical verisimilitude.  Producers have determined that each puddle of puke must be convincing and appropriate to the dog being dramatized.  When a tiny terrier eats something that he should not have eaten, we see tiny bits of kibble strewn across a small watery puddle.  For a bigger dog we get a robust stew of what looks like wet cat food and Milk Duds.  And it's not just dog “puke,” per se.  In one episode, for example, a particularly greedy dog inhales two full boxes of cereal—including the boxes themselves.  This creates a massive “plug” in the dog’s stomach that blocks his small intestine, necessitating emergency surgery.  During the surgical sequence, we are treated to the sight of the vet using a soup ladle to extract helping after helping of half-digested corn flakes and cardboard from the pup’s stomach.  Extreme close-ups of the more colorful scraps of the cereal box, strewn amidst the regular dog puke, are offered as evidence of the dog’s adorably voracious stupidity. 

Now imagine.  Someone in the My Dog Ate What? production company has the responsibility of reading each script and then visualizing the "appropriate" dog puke.  This is followed by the tedious and no doubt humiliating process of actually fabricating the dog puke, prepping the dog puke for the shoot, "re-freshing" the dog puke between takes, and then presumably cleaning it all up after the shoot.  

Meanwhile, the puking scene is so crucial to each dog's story that the director must find various ways for the camera to "discover" the vomit anew.  In most segments, we are told the dog has wretched and simply cut to a static shot of the evidence (but even here there is shot scale to consider.  Sometimes there is a shock-cut to the puke in glistening close-up; on other occasions, the vomit is really more of a tasteful stain framed in a long-shot).  In what has to be the most inspired staging, however, the owner of Cletus the ball-swallowing moron sits on the floor in front of her couch.  Suddenly, from beyond the fourth wall, a milky white tendril of dog puke splashes out onto the carpet, followed in turn by a soggy and apparently projectile-puked tennis ball.  The ball rolls to a stop in front of the owner.  She's delighted.  Cletus is going to be okay.   

Disgusting, depressing, humiliating--dog vomit wrangler may well be the most soul-destroying TV gig imaginable.

Except, of course, for following Sarah Palin around with a camera for 3 months while she "ad libs" political witticisms tied to the allegorical lessons presented by Alaskan wildlife.  That fate I wouldn't even wish on Cletus the ball-swallowing moron dog. 





A Date for Diane (1946)

Betty Cavanna
Berkeley Highland Books (1963)

Diane is 15 and perplexed at the rituals of dating that lie ahead of her.  But then the boy next door, Jim, asks her to the movies, opening a sophomore year of unparalleled social anxiety, sexual apprehension, and physical awkwardness.  Though there are a number of "high points" during the year, Diane's time is for the most part consumed by an unending string of crises that threaten to humiliate and/or disenfranchise her from the high school's social hierarchy.  Among the tribulations she must endure:

--parental interference in date.
--getting braces the day of a big dance.
--arrival of an attractive blond from New York City.
--same blond taking her position on the hockey team
--same blond on occasional dates with "Jim"
--boys watching her at hockey practice
--tutoring of lummox "Jim" for English exams
--forced to go on date with dweebish Freshman
--unexpected arrival of dorky cousin from Michigan
--forced to take dorky cousin to big Halloween dance
--dorky cousin turns out to be "boy magnet,"
          thereby taking even more attention away
          from Diane.

Throughout the book, Diane angles for a date with the brother of her friend--an 18-year-old in his first year at the Naval Academy in Annapolis.  That date finally happens at the big spring dance.  Toward midnight, Navy man asks her to take a walk on the golf course.  But just as Diane is about to experience her first and most-hyped kiss, she decides she's not ready yet for such shenanigans and runs back to the party to find her "true love" Jim.  Maybe next year.

Though the cover of this edition (Berkeley--1963) suggests a young Jackie Kennedy fruggin' on American Bandstand, do not be deceived--this book is centered squarely in the teen psycho-social imaginary of 1946.  It's all about malt shops and miscommunication.

On the Genealogy of Morals (1887)

Friedrich Nietzsche
Vintage Books (1967)


God payed off our bar tab with God but we remain miserable guilty little pukes nevertheless. One day a real rain is going to fall and clean the streets of all that is revolting in modern man. All in all, Parsifal is somewhat disappointing.  Philosophers generally do not like to be bothered with petty crap.

The Hypocritical American (1964)

James Collier
MacFadden Books

"If we really enforced our laws about sex--99 out of 100 of us would be in jail!"  So begins Collier's essay on America's hypocrisy about matters sexual as of 1964.  Promises to explain why Americans in particular maintain a belief in "sanctioned" vs "forbidden" sexual practices, but mainly just provides background information on how normal various sexual "sins" are among the populace.  Can you match the sin to the chapter title?  Go ahead, give it a try:

The Sin of Adam
The Sin of Hester Prynne
The Sin of Onan
The Sin Against Nature
The Sin of Canaan
The Sin of Oedipus
The Sin of Mary Magdalene
The Sin of the Word

Here are the answers in order:  pre-marital sex, adultery, masturbation, "heavy petting," homosexuality, incest, prostitution, pornography. 

The last chapter, oddly enough, is called "Victorianism: Hail and Farewell," in which Collier takes a stab at historicizing sexual hypocrisy and lays the the blame at class antagonisms in both Europe and the U.S. following the French Revolution.  Michel Foucault's interpretation of these materials would have to wait another decade or so.

My copy, purchased at a thrift store in Skokie, Illinois, features two instances of underlining from a previous reader.  I reproduce these because marginalia often provide a fascinating insight into the minds that have trodden book pages in the past.  As is often the case with meticulous underlining, these two examples come in the first chapter when the reader was particularly enthusiastic about understanding the "hypocritical American."  His or her zeal seems to have waned as the book went on.



I'm thinking this reader was someone searching for evidence to attack "Christian marriage" as a historical invention rather than a timeless "truth."  Here's hoping s/he was a complete nuisance in the suburban Chicago married cocktail scene of the mid-1960s.  Perhaps s/he only got through the first chapter because this epiphany initiated a life of unhypocritical debauchery!

Tabloid Algebra


 Major Problem + Minor Celebrity =  Minor Problem + Major Celebrity


Circus Dan (1933)

George Morse
Goldsmith

Do any young kids still dream of running away with the circus?  Or are even the most dim-witted of 8 year-olds now aware that carny life portends a downward spiral into speed, chain-smoking, and hiding in the trailer with an asthmatic monkey when passing through certain hot jurisdictions?

It's 1933, and cub reporter "Dan" is impressing the hell out of everyone with his smarts and superior work ethic.  One day his boss at the newspaper calls him into the office with an exciting job prospect.  Seems the boss has bought a huge share of the "Great United" circus and wants Dan to be the press agent for the show on its next national tour.  Recognizing the need for the story to advance, Dan agrees and enlists two of his buddies as assistants.

Soon, however, much as the boss anticipated, the circus runs into trouble from its arch rival, the "Amalgamated" circus, an outfit headed by a bitter former partner in "Great United" who will stop at nothing to see his old circus destroyed.  Dan recognizes the job will harder than he thinks when one night, in addition to being the press agent, he suddenly finds himself responsible for tracking down the show's kidnapped animal trainer.  But because Dan is so driven at whatever task he takes on, he not only rescues the trainer, but has him back to the big top in time for the night's big show.

And so on.

Luckily, my edition came without a dust jacket.  If the book had been swathed in the one pictured here, I would have never come within fifteen feet of it.

Pundit Guide

Joe Scarborough (MSNBC)

Qualifications: Former congressman representing a swamp in Northern Florida.  Briefly the self-proclaimed king of “Scarborough Country,” a mythical land of woefully unexamined “common sense” and grossly presumptive “heartland values.”  Insufferably enthusiastic supporter of Alabama football program. 


Raw Intelligence                        83
Self-Perceived Intelligence        95
Differential                                -12

Effect of Differential:  Sincerely believes he is befuddling “elites” and their liberal dogma through the Socratic irony of pretending to be a bumpkin.  Frequently confuses cynicism cultivated during stint in Congress with timeless wisdom as to the “truth” of politics. 

Political correlation between “self” and TV persona:  90-95%.  Living part-time on Manhattan’s upper west-side has somewhat tempered his commitment to Conservative bullshit.
         
Pro:  Less abrasive than Imus.

Con:  Less funny than Imus. 
______________________________________________________________________________

Peggy Noonan (CNN/Fox)

Qualifications:  Speechwriter for former president Ronald Reagen, most famous for having had the necessary skill to write a speech making the nation feel emotional about the Challenger explosion.   

Raw Intelligence                             90
Self-Perceived Intelligence           100+
Differential                                    -10 
                        (would go higher if mathematics allowed)

Effect of Differential:  After Noonan’s appearances, numerous viewers have reported needing the inside of their television screens swabbed out to remove stubborn layer of oily smugness.  

Political correlation between “self” and TV persona:  Sadly, 100%

Pro:  Provides the left with a potent reminder of "smart" conservatism’s penchant for condescending generalization.  

Con:  Political commentary both regards and addresses the “American people” as stupid but essentially well-meaning grandchildren.

________________________________________________________________________


Rachel Maddow (MSNBC)

Qualifications:  Time at Air America and a guest pundit on Olberman’s show.  Has a Ph.D. and apparently isn’t ashamed about it. 

Raw Intelligence:                     95
Self-Perceived Intelligence:     95
Differential:                                0

Effect of Differential:  Basically imperceptible.



Political correlation between “self” and TV persona:  Seemingly 100%

Pro:  As an out lesbian with a Berkeley Ph.D. and stylish glasses, Maddow is the perfect socio-cultural emblem for terrifying conservatives still living in 1957; in fact, some maintain Maddow is an RNC hologram operated entirely for fundraising purposes. 

Con:  Professed disinterest in all other forms of television and popular culture a bit too “Berkeley” even by Northern California standards.  Has tendency to address her audience as if they were Fox viewers who she must convince of something--when of course no one to the right of Mao ever sees her (except, perhaps, viewers who temporarily stop on their way over to Fox to look for a pork rind in the carpet ).  

_________________________________________________________________________  

Sean Hannity (Fox)

Qualifications:  Unknown.  Disdainful eyebrow furrowing? 

Raw Intelligence:                      70
Self-Perceived Intelligence:      95
Differential:                              -25

Effect of Differential:  Relatively dramatic gap between raw and perceived intelligence forces Hannity to rely on time-tested Neanderthal debating techniques; namely, interrupting those who disagree with him by amplifying his grunting and gesticulations.  Rumored to routinely piss on desk to mark territory.  



Political correlation between “self” and TV persona:  Unclear.  Could be as high as 95% or as low as 50%.

Pro:  Extraordinarily useful as a cautionary tale to children about what life is like without a soul.

Con:  Even temporary or "ironic" exposure to Hannity makes one more vulnerable to episodes of road-rage and/or possibility of using armpit farts in policy discussions. 

I Am a Woman (1967)

Ella May Miller
Moody Press

The Moody Bible Institute responds to the cultural quicksand of the sixties with this guide to "the everyday matters that make a woman's life a disappointment or delight, a failure or success."  Chapters instruct the ladies on housework, cooking, staying beautiful, dressing "decently," and never, ever taking a job outside the home.  Men and marriage are God's plan for all women, although author Miller does recognize that sometimes God decides a woman should remain single.  She then shares fond memories of various single woman who had an impact in her own life, despite their overwhelming tragedy.  But remember, "sin is still sin. In times of great temptation and loneliness, get close to God, ask Him to help you through the temptation.  Then help Him answer your prayer by losing yourself in a worthy effort--creative writing, sewing, painting, playing the organ, visiting a needy friend.  I think it will also help you to maintain normal wholesome friendships with men of your acquaintance--a brother, a brother-in-law, a cousin, or a close family friend."

I Talked With Spirits (1970)

Victor H. Ernest
Tyndale House Publishers

Seems unlikely, but let's see what Ernest has to say about the matter.

When the author was a small child in rural Minnesota back in the 1930s, he remembers a neighboring family of "Spiritualists" visiting one night with news that they had contacted the author's little sister, who had died only a few months earlier.  Thus began a series of nightly seances in the home that led the family deeper and deeper into Spiritualist doctrine.  Ernest, already well read in the Bible, took the opportunity during one seance to ask the Spirit visitor three questions about Christ.  The spirit agreed that Christ was the Son of God, but when queried as to whether or not Christ died for man's sins and represented the only means of salvation, the "spirit" became angry and left the room.  From here Ernest makes the only possible conclusion:  the spirits visiting his family during the seances were "real" but demonic in origin.  Thus began a life's passion for exposing the Satanic origins of most "spirit" phenomenon."

After this glimpse into thirties America and a rather poetic treatment of the old "levitating trumpet" trick beloved by theatrical mediums, the book devolves into the standard string of Bible quotations warning against necromancy, the occult, mediumship, etc.  Published in 1970, it's somewhat strange to see someone still doing battle with a religion that peaked with Mary Todd Lincoln a hundred years earlier--but Ernest makes his warnings relevant by folding in Jeanne Dixon and other "seers" as the legacy of this evil practice.

Now, for a final chill, check out the wonderfully ironic fly page encountered in the copy I found at a thrift store in Rockford, Illinois

The Mystery of the Missing Eyebrows (1921)

Stephen Rudd
R.H. Gore Book Co.

Ask anyone older than you and they'll agree: you are a lazy, spoiled, and wholly unremarkable waste of flesh and consciousness.  You have no respect for anything, your music is horrible, and if left to your own devices, you would probably die from some fatal combination of sloth and stupidity.  That's why this country is going to  hell in a foreign-made hand-basket.  It's also why so many people over the age of 65 don't want to pay school taxes anymore.  What's the point?  You'll probably just find a way to divert the money towards dope, spray paint, and cell phones with even more perplexing and terrifying powers.   That money could be much better spent buying a new alarm system.  Or maybe a moat filled with Shakespeare, Bibles, and Algebra books to keep you the hell out.


People have looked to each new generation with disappointment for many decades now.  Americans always claim they want a better life for their children, but in truth I think most people look forward to lording their superior intelligence, ethics, and tenacity over their hapless progeny.  This is especially true in the wake of the "Greatest Generation."  By the time he was 17, your grandfather knew how to replace the engine on a B-23 bomber.  Now you're a hero for knowing all the best places to hide in Call of Duty. 

One reason previous generations were so much hardier is the absolutely punishing fiction they were forced to read as children.  More people have heard of "Horatio Alger" than have read his books, obviously, and that's probably for the best.  Alger and his many imitators churned out volume upon volume of stories about boys absolutely thrilled to be putting in 16-hour days sorting rocks and cockleburs out of Poison Ivy patches.  Just reading about their exploits makes you feel tired and scratchy. 

Such is the case in The Mystery of the Missing Eyebrows by Stephen Rudd.  Published in 1921, the book was the first installment in what was to be "The Newspaper Boys" series.
"Stephen Rudd" was the pseudonym for R.H. Gore, the publisher of the local newspaper in Terre Haute, Indiana, who no doubt saw this series as an excellent opportunity to recruit new paperboys and/or keep the current ones focused on their duties.  The Mystery of the Missing Eyebrows is a mystery, of course, but more than this, it is also the story of just how much labor-value could be extracted from your average 14 year-old boy in the teens and twenties.

The adventure begins when our hero Renfro Horn notices some strange happenings in the woods near the old shack where "Captain Pete" lives.  Captain Pete is one of those colorful relics of an earlier economic order who somehow makes a living killing rabbits and selling them to the townsfolk, families that knowingly--indeed happily--send their children over to Captain Pete's old shack in the middle of a remote forest to fetch a stewin' rabbit for dinner.  It was a simpler time then, clearly.

At any rate, while on his way to Pete's to "grab a rabbit," Renfro notices a light burning in a supposedly vacant house.  A mystery!   Realizing that he will need to perform continuing surveillance on both the house and the surrounding woods, Renfro decides the best strategy is to become a paperboy and take the route closest to the mysterious old house.   Now you might think, lazy shit that you are, that you could simply hang around during your free time to search for clues--but Renfro has the fortitude to understand that only the daily discipline of a paper route will give him a chance to discover just who is skulking around the old house in the woods. 

But as it turns out, Renfro's new paper route is actually the most notoriously difficult slog in the city, so hard that the other paperboys have taken to calling it "Old Grief."  Why so hard?  "Old Grief" is a horror trail of reluctant subscribers, poor people, and deadbeats, all living in homes that are inconveniently dispersed along the edge of town.  No one wants "Old Grief"--which is precisely why a new paperboy must start there to prove himself worthy of a better route. 

But like his many cousins in "can-do" fiction of the era, Renfro doesn't mind; in fact, he looks forward to the challenge, determined to make "Old Grief" profitable while also figuring out just what is going on in the woods. 

The plot thickens, as they say, when the daughter of a local judge is mysteriously kidnapped from her family home (also, fortuitously, on Renfro's route, and very close to the mysterious old house with its unknown occupant.  Coincidence?).  After the police have left the scene, Renfro begins his own investigation and discovers the eponymous "missing eyebrows."  I've reproduced the illustration of this moment in the story as it is a wonderful example of popular surrealism--a well-dressed lad scraping perfectly intact eyebrows off a window pane to save as a clue. It is also a great example of the weird rules these stories follow.  I submit that if a small girl was kidnapped in your neighborhood and the very next day you discovered an uncannily preserved pair of eyebrows adhering to the girl's window, you would probably freak out--and you most certainly wouldn't risk 3 to 5 years in the Big House by tampering with the evidence chain.

Renfro's theory is that the kidnapper had been spying through the window before taking the little girl,  As it was a terribly cold evening that night, the kidnapper's eyebrows stuck to the frozen glass.  All Renfro needs to do, clearly, is look around town for some strange man with no eyebrows.

Renfro solves the mystery, of course, but this becomes secondary to the book's primary function: instructing young boys in the art of effective newspaper distribution.   So, even as Renfro pokes around for more clues and evidence, he must continue to build his subscriber base and chase down slackers who refuse to pay for their papers.  A typical day for Renfro involves getting up before dawn to go to the printers and retrieve his stack of papers, making his deliveries along the 2-hour trek that is "Old Grief," keeping a look-out for eyebrowless thugs, going to school, picking up the afternoon edition, spending another 2 hours on "Old Grief," stopping by the homes of new prospects and convincing them to take the paper, looking for more clues, going home to supper, doing homework, and then going to bed. Not only does Renfro survive this grueling ordeal, he does so with an almost sickening enthusiasm.  Even in the deepest snows of an Indiana winter, he can't wait to pop out of bed at 5 in the morning and start his route, all on the off-chance that he might glimpse a relevant clue for his case.  In fact, Renfro is so unbelievably driven that he decides to not only solve the case of the "missing eyebrows," but to also win the newspaper's big "turkey contest" by getting the most new subscribers.   Which of course he does, handily, thereby earning the respect of his boss and fellow paperboys.

After Renfro solves his case, we are left to anticipate the next installment. Sadly, however, it seems there was never another book in "The Newspaper Boy" series.  Perhaps author Rudd/Gore had imparted all the wisdom he possessed about managing a successful paper route and therefore couldn't justify additional entries.  Or maybe this book was such a bomb that finances precluded any more titles (Renfro's zeal for throwing newspapers, after all, had to compete with more timely series like "The Motion Picture Chums" and "The Radio Boys").  What is odd about the demise of the series, however, is that the publisher promised Missing Eyebrows was to be the first in a series of 12 stories, all of which already had very specific titles.  In the closing fly pages of the book, plot summaries appear for the next 6 editions--each slightly less detailed than the one before it, suggesting author Rudd had some larger vision for Renfro's character arc--even if he had only worked out the plot details for the next two or three books.

A blog entry on juvenile fiction of this era supplies some interesting information in this regard.  Apparently there are a great many such "phantom titles" (books planned and announced in a series but never actually published) in kid fiction from this era, non-existent books that nevertheless become the Holy Grail of collectors who haven't yet figured out certain titles never actually made it to print.

If nothing else, The Mystery of the Missing Eyebrows has taught me an important lesson:  the newspaper is without a doubt the most inefficient and ridiculous medium of communication ever devised.  I know there are many nostalgic for the feel of newsprint in the morning, but really, after reading about these poor kids forced to walk ass-deep through snow at 6 in the morning while in dangerous proximity to demented, well-armed sea captains living in the woods,  I'm ready to go completely digital on the news front. 

The Mystery of the Missing Eyebrows (1921)

Ask anyone older than you and they'll agree: you are a lazy, spoiled, and wholly unremarkable waste of flesh and consciousness.  You have no respect for anything, your music is horrible, and if left to your own devices, you would probably die from some fatal combination of sloth and stupidity.  That's why this country is going to  hell in a foreign-made hand-basket.  It's also why so many people over the age of 65 don't want to pay school taxes anymore.  What's the point?  You'll probably just find a way to divert the money towards dope, spray paint, and cell phones with even more perplexing and terrifying powers.   That money could be much better spent buying a new alarm system.  Or maybe a moat filled with Shakespeare, Bibles, and Algebra books to keep you the hell out.

People have looked to each new generation with disappointment for many decades now.  Americans always claim they want a better life for their children, but in truth I think most people look forward to lording their superior intelligence, ethics, and tenacity over their hapless progeny.  This is especially true in the wake of the "Greatest Generation."  By the time he was 17, your grandfather knew how to replace the engine on a B-23 bomber.  Now you're a hero for knowing all the best places to hide in Call of Duty. 

One reason previous generations were so much hardier is the absolutely punishing fiction they were forced to read as children.  More people have heard of "Horatio Alger" than have read his books, obviously, and that's probably for the best.  Alger and his many imitators churned out volume upon volume of stories about boys absolutely thrilled to be putting in 16-hour days sorting rocks and cockleburs out of Poison Ivy patches.  Just reading about their exploits makes you feel tired and scratchy. 

Such is the case in The Mystery of the Missing Eyebrows by Stephen Rudd.  Published in 1921, the book was the first installment in what was to be "The Newspaper Boys" series.
"Stephen Rudd" was the pseudonym for R.H. Gore, the publisher of the local newspaper in Terre Haute, Indiana, who no doubt saw this series as an excellent opportunity to recruit new paperboys and/or keep the current ones focused on their duties.  The Mystery of the Missing Eyebrows is a mystery, of course, but more than this, it is also the story of just how much labor-value could be extracted from your average 14 year-old boy in the teens and twenties.

The adventure begins when our hero Renfro Horn notices some strange happenings in the woods near the old shack where "Captain Pete" lives.  Captain Pete is one of those colorful relics of an earlier economic order who somehow makes a living killing rabbits and selling them to the townsfolk, families that knowingly--indeed happily--send their children over to Captain Pete's old shack in the middle of a remote forest to fetch a stewin' rabbit for dinner.  It was a simpler time then, clearly.

At any rate, while on his way to Pete's to "grab a rabbit," Renfro notices a light burning in a supposedly vacant house.  A mystery!   Realizing that he will need to perform continuing surveillance on both the house and the surrounding woods, Renfro decides the best strategy is to become a paperboy and take the route closest to the mysterious old house.   Now you might think, lazy shit that you are, that you could simply hang around during your free time to search for clues--but Renfro has the fortitude to understand that only the daily discipline of a paper route will give him a chance to discover just who is skulking around the old house in the woods. 

But as it turns out, Renfro's new paper route is actually the most notoriously difficult slog in the city, so hard that the other paperboys have taken to calling it "Old Grief."  Why so hard?  "Old Grief" is a horror trail of reluctant subscribers, poor people, and deadbeats, all living in homes that are inconveniently dispersed along the edge of town.  No one wants "Old Grief"--which is precisely why a new paperboy must start there to prove himself worthy of a better route. 

But like his many cousins in "can-do" fiction of the era, Renfro doesn't mind; in fact, he looks forward to the challenge, determined to make "Old Grief" profitable while also figuring out just what is going on in the woods. 

The plot thickens, as they say, when the daughter of a local judge is mysteriously kidnapped from her family home (also, fortuitously, on Renfro's route, and very close to the mysterious old house with its unknown occupant.  Coincidence?).  After the police have left the scene, Renfro begins his own investigation and discovers the eponymous "missing eyebrows."  I've reproduced the illustration of this moment in the story as it is a wonderful example of popular surrealism--a well-dressed lad scraping perfectly intact eyebrows off a window pane to save as a clue. It is also a great example of the weird rules these stories follow.  I submit that if a small girl was kidnapped in your neighborhood and the very next day you discovered an uncannily preserved pair of eyebrows adhering to the girl's window, you would probably freak out--and you most certainly wouldn't risk 3 to 5 years in the Big House by tampering with the evidence chain.

Renfro's theory is that the kidnapper had been spying through the window before taking the little girl,  As it was a terribly cold evening that night, the kidnapper's eyebrows stuck to the frozen glass.  All Renfro needs to do, clearly, is look around town for some strange man with no eyebrows.

Renfro solves the mystery, of course, but this becomes secondary to the book's primary function: instructing young boys in the art of effective newspaper distribution.   So, even as Renfro pokes around for more clues and evidence, he must continue to build his subscriber base and chase down slackers who refuse to pay for their papers.  A typical day for Renfro involves getting up before dawn to go to the printers and retrieve his stack of papers, making his deliveries along the 2-hour trek that is "Old Grief," keeping a look-out for eyebrowless thugs, going to school, picking up the afternoon edition, spending another 2 hours on "Old Grief," stopping by the homes of new prospects and convincing them to take the paper, looking for more clues, going home to supper, doing homework, and then going to bed. Not only does Renfro survive this grueling ordeal, he does so with an almost sickening enthusiasm.  Even in the deepest snows of an Indiana winter, he can't wait to pop out of bed at 5 in the morning and start his route, all on the off-chance that he might glimpse a relevant clue for his case.  In fact, Renfro is so unbelievably driven that he decides to not only solve the case of the "missing eyebrows," but to also win the newspaper's big "turkey contest" by getting the most new subscribers.   Which of course he does, handily, thereby earning the respect of his boss and fellow paperboys.

After Renfro solves his case, we are left to anticipate the next installment. Sadly, however, it seems there was never another book in "The Newspaper Boy" series.  Perhaps author Rudd/Gore had imparted all the wisdom he possessed about managing a successful paper route and therefore couldn't justify additional entries.  Or maybe this book was such a bomb that finances precluded any more titles (Renfro's zeal for throwing newspapers, after all, had to compete with more timely series like "The Motion Picture Chums" and "The Radio Boys").  What is odd about the demise of the series, however, is that the publisher promised Missing Eyebrows was to be the first in a series of 12 stories, all of which already had very specific titles.  In the closing fly pages of the book, plot summaries appear for the next 6 editions--each slightly less detailed than the one before it, suggesting author Rudd had some larger vision for Renfro's character arc--even if he had only worked out the plot details for the next two or three books.

A blog entry on juvenile fiction of this era supplies some interesting information in this regard.  Apparently there are a great many such "phantom titles" (books planned and announced in a series but never actually published) in kid fiction from this era, non-existent books that nevertheless become the Holy Grail of collectors who haven't yet figured out certain titles never actually made it to print.

If nothing else, The Mystery of the Missing Eyebrows has taught me an important lesson:  the newspaper is without a doubt the most inefficient and ridiculous medium of communication ever devised.  I know there are many nostalgic for the feel of newsprint in the morning, but really, after reading about these poor kids forced to walk ass-deep through snow at 6 in the morning while in dangerous proximity to demented, well-armed sea captains living in the woods,  I'm ready to go completely digital on the news front. 


Suburban Gangs: The Affluent Rebels (1995)

Dan Korem
International Focus Press

The author is taking his trash out one morning in an "affluent" suburb of Dallas when suddenly he sees two surly teenagers flashing him "gang signs"...and they're white!  Thus begins a multi-nation quest to understand why generally well-off middle-class teenagers (they're white!) would turn to gang life.

Where do I begin?  Perhaps by explaining what Korem considers a gang.  While you might think from the opening anecdote that this will be a book on "whiggers," those adorable goofballs who wish they could be straight out of Compton rather than still living in Grapevine, the book in fact is rather catholic in its designation of a "gang."  White kids throwing gang signs in the ally are worthy of alarm, but so too are:

* White Supremacists
* Occultists
* Football Hooligans (U.K. Only)
* Anarchists
* Punks--Mods--Psychobillies--New Wavers--
* Anyone wearing Doc Martens

It's a wide net, one that pretty much discredits Korem's "findings" from the start inasmuch as any subcultural marker that would disqualify a kid from football or cheerleading at Plano High School means S/HE IS IN A GANG.  This is true even for kids in something as seemingly innocuous as a "new wave" gang, which according to Korem's informants consists of hanging out at the mall, acting more "arty" than everyone else, and listening to poetic songs about suicide (here I will say that the B-52s deceptively upbeat "new wave" dance anthem "Rock Lobster" once made me contemplate suicide, but only after hearing it 500 times).

To make matters worse, Korem expands his study to England, Switzerland, and Hungary (although I'm not exactly sure why this particular constellation became the data pool).  Rather predictably, we are told that those who join gangs share a universal psychological profile, thus turning complex sociological, cultural, and historical phenomena into a problem that might best be confronted by selling parents a book or seminar that will tell them how to keep little Joey out of the Satanic Latin Kings for Arsenal club forming down the street.

I will confess that I found this book particularly amusing in that I lived in Dallas during some of the period that inspired Korem to see good kids going bad all around him.  I don't know what it is about Plano, but somehow it seems to be at the epicenter of every new "moral panic" over youthful deviance.  For awhile every kid in Plano was a heroin addict.  Then Plano became the teen suicide capital of the nation.  I'm sure if we dug deeper, we'd find Plano was the origin point for kids choking to death on "Pop Rocks."  I would not be the least bit surprised, meanwhile, if even now someone is polishing off a manuscript about Plano as the teen-autoerotic asphyxiation capital of the nation.   Perhaps Korem is the motive force behind all of these panics--understandable, certainly, if you begin each research project assuming whomever you happen to encounter in your ally one morning is symptomatic of something global.

Given my familiarly with the area and era in question, I did find one section extremely painful.  Korem mentions a certain "countercultural" record store operating in the suburb of Richardson during the 1980s that became a hub for recruiting kids into "occultist" gangs.  For the life of me, I have no idea what store he's talking about, and as someone who at that time would regularly drive 10 to 20 miles to buy a new Throbbing Gristle record, I find it hard to believe this store could have escaped my notice.  The only conclusion I can draw is either this store didn't actually exist, or if it did, the owners did not consider me worth recruiting into Satan's army.  If the latter, I can't help but feel a little hurt even 30 years later, since I have no doubt that my 17-year old self would have enthusiastically embraced any doctrine that promised to give me occult power over the jocks and goat-roping dipshits in my high school.  Why was I not deemed worthy?  I certainly had the wardrobe and attitude. 

Jesus never makes an appearance in Suburban Gangs--but it most definitely has an evangelical vibe to it, especially as it reduces all questions of taste and identity back to personal dysfunctions that can only be cured by reinvigorating the "family."   In the end, the book is kind of like reading Dick Hebdige's Subculture: The Meaning of Style in reverse in that style, for Korem, has no meaning (beyond "gang" affiliation). 

After doing a little wiki-background on Korem, I have discovered that he wrote another book after this one: The Art of Profiling: Reading People Right the First Time (1997).  Here Korem claims he can teach you to "read" a total stranger's core identity in mere seconds by asking yourself 4 key questions about the individual.  This system, moreover, will supposedly work even if the person is from another culture and does not speak the same language (or indeed, does not speak at all)!  Korem's gig now apparently is to teach this skill to ferret out business prospects, potential gangbangers, and post-Columbine "random acts of terror" kids.  Judging by his success in sorting out the not terribly complex field of youth subcultures in Dallas in the 1980s, I remain suspicious.

Lassie Sniffs the Boomerang

Strange But True Hockey Stories (1972)

Howard Liss
Random House

Any sport featuring men with sticks chasing after a small black disc on ice would seem to have an unfair advantage for generating "strange but true" stories, especially a sport that most people don't really care about (thus allowing the "truthfulness" of any given tale to remain generally outside of popular memory).  That said, let's see what author Liss has uncovered:

1928 NY Rangers win Stanley Cup even though "short-handed."

Three young men with German names become very popular as players for the Boston Bruins.  Nicknamed "The Kraut Line."  Once WWII begins, Boston fans beginning booing "The Kraut Line," even though all 3 were born and raised in Canada.  Probably more appropriate in a book called "Strange But True Stories of American Stupidity."

"Hat Trick" (3 goals in a game) in 21 seconds.

Foster Hewitt becomes the most famous and beloved of all Hockey announcers in Canada (true, perhaps, but not in the least bit strange)

Gordie Howe scores 786 goals during his career.  Spun as "strange" in that Howe at one point scored goal 714, obviously, thereby breaking "Babe Ruth's" home-run record in baseball.  But that isn't really strange inasmuch as it simply involves math in two unrelated sports.  I'm beginning to have suspicions, actually, that nothing very strange actually does occur in hockey.

The NY Rangers go 6 and 39 (with 5 ties) during the 1943-44 season.  Lowest number of wins ever.

Man plays multiple positions in single game.

Hockey legend Bobby Orr's father Doug Orr was also very good at hockey, but never played professionally.

The Toronto Maple Leaf teams of the 1930s are judged the "zaniest team" in hockey history, seemingly because a clotheshorse on the team once jumped into a pool wearing a suit.

Goalie goes 309 minutes of game time without allowing a goal.

Conn Smythe, founder of the "Maple Leafs," enjoyed extraordinary luck at gambling, which helped him get the necessary funds to buy the Toronto team.

Player discovers that cracked/curved stick allows for more unpredictable shots on goal, initiating a craze for the "banana blade."  The league eventually bans them.

One player almost kills another in a hockey fight, but the two shake hands on the ice a few months later.

Hockey has featured a large number of "brothers" on the ice, playing either on the same team or as opponents.

A nun coaches a boy's hockey club.

A player for an eliminated Russian team, at the height of the Cold War, visits the American locker during half-time in an Olympic Gold Medal game and teaches the U.S. players how to use oxygen at high-altitudes for better performance.  America, newly infused with oxygen, goes on to win the Gold.

Part of the "Pro Hockey Library" by Random House, which rather incredibly contains 7 more titles.

Six For Love (1966)

Rick Nathan
Award Books

Odd little book about 5 strangers brought together for "group therapy" (these 5 + the therapist = the "six for love").  As the story opens, therapist Mark Forster is having a fling with one of his psychology students, Alicia, who asks if she can "sit in" on Mark's next group as a training experience.  He reluctantly agrees.  We also learn that Mark has never gotten over his divorce five years earlier and that he suffers from splitting headaches.  We then go to individual chapters focusing on the core dysfunctions of the other four members coming to the group.  There's Kent, a loutish used car salesman who lives to humiliate and abuse women.  Irene is married to a college student who treats her like his mother.  Marisa is a secretary who has a chance at a relationship with her well-off boss, but can't get over the guilt of having slept with her sister's husband.  Brian is a 40 year old nebbish who still lives with his sister and brother-in-law.  He occasionally enjoys the company of prostitutes.

Okay, characters set, let's go:

Alicia enters the group as a student but quickly becomes a patient, bringing an end to her relationship with Mark the therapist.

Kent hurls abuse at all the women in the group, which ends up attracting Irene as her student husband is a milquetoast more interested in his studies than in her body.

Marissa begins to sabotage her new romantic relationship with her boss, but he's such a great guy that he gets her to confess her secret shame and it doesn't bother him. 

Brian confesses his troubles with women to Alicia, who takes pity on him as a "friend."  But eventually she sees the "real man" in Brian and they become a couple.

In the end, no one seems to need Mark the therapist anymore--particularly Alicia now that she is with the suddenly confident Brian.   In the final chapter, Mark's haunting memories and intense headaches finally result in a complete mental breakdown.  As the book comes to a close, the variously "cured" patients wait for the ambulance that will whisk Mark away to the psychiatric ward.   The irony!

MSNBC Simply Gives Up

Like most narrow-minded, sanctimonious Americans, I spent election eve watching the returns through the media filter of my choice, in this case the newly "leaning forward" MSNBC.  I knew it would probably be a bloody night for Democrats (as we had all been told, ad naseum, since almost a year ago), and figured spending the time with my similarly aggrieved TV buddies over on the liberal network might help take the sting out of seeing the corridors of power overrun by the angry amnesiacs who seem to believe they'll catch Barney Frank needlessly burning $1000 bills in the Capitol Rotunda because that's just what liberals do after all. 

What I wasn't expecting is just how aggressive MSNBC has decided to become in targeting what is now apparently their last remaining core demographic: well-educated, high-earning, liberal "elites" living in large cities who--for the life of them--just can't understand how everyone around them got so stupid so fast.  The entire evening's coverage played as a comedy of escalating exasperation, each interview segment achieving such a delicious level of absurdity that viewers, like the folks in the old V-8 commercials, could only smack their foreheads in utter disbelief that the nation has, once again, been conned into buying a useless sack of magic beans from the very same magic bean guys who have spent the past decade meticulously transferring all the magic bean wealth to the top 2%. 

Remember in the 2008 campaign when NBC brass wouldn't allow Keith Olberman to sit at the adult table with all the "straight" news personnel--Dick Gregory, Chris Matthews, Tom Brokaw, and the like?  What a difference two years makes!   This year's coverage consisted of the entire panel basically trying to one-up each other to see who could be the most comically disgusted at the tidal wave of elephant dung sweeping across the nation.  Perhaps the network, especially Olberman, is still mad that Jon Stewart dared to equate MSNBC to Fox (even if this equation, as I argued earlier, was a performative tactic rather than a sincere accusation).  Maybe it's the network's new business model--counter-program to a very small but very lucrative audience group of college-educated exiles who have, seemingly overnight, become strangers in their own country.  

The fun began early and just got more wicked as the evening progressed.  Somehow, Land of a 1000 Lakes loon Michelle Bachmann agreed to appear for an interview, her first on MSNBC since famously telling Chris Matthews that a committee should investigate the "Un-American activities" of certain Democrats in congress (for no other reason, apparently, than believing in Democratic principles).  In the rematch, Matthews took it straight to her, asking when this investigation would begin and if Bachmann would personally supervise the new HUAC.  Perhaps Bachmann really is an idiot rather than simply playing one on TV, because she seemingly had no idea this question might be broached again, even though her earlier spat with Matthews on Hardball was arguably the single most significant event in launching her to the national stage.  Matthews hurled the HUAC jibe three times, each volley met with Bachmann going into a rote spiel about "America speaking" and the need for immediate deficit reduction.  The fed-up Matthews finally asked Bachmann if she was "hypnotized" (!!!!) inasmuch as she was apparently in a deep trance that made her unable to answer a direct question.  When Bachmann eventually ad libbed something about the "American people" waking up from a "trance" (aka the nightmare of Obama's socialist agenda), open mikes on the panel recorded various chortles and chuckles from the bemused panel, who, like the viewer at home, could only speculate that there is no longer a basement for craven stupidity in American political discourse--it is now possible to fulfill the formal definition of an "interview" by simply staring into a camera and having a dissociative fugue completely divorced from all contextual cues.  It was actually a rather refreshing take on this tired convention of broadcast journalism, two individuals basically acknowledging that they live in wholly different professional/ideological worlds and making absolutely no pretence whatsoever that anything was happening other than a pas-de-deux of smiling "go f@#K yourselfness." 

Later, a gloating Eric "Young Gun" Cantor appeared and spewed a similar laundry list of coordinated horse hockey. As the interview concluded, Keith Olberman of all people expressed his hopes that Cantor might join them again sometime in the future.  After a couple of beats, Lawrence "I have touched senators" O'Donnell chimed in to say that if Cantor was just going to repeat mindless platitudes again, he could care less if the douche bag ever came back on the network. (well, he didn't actually call Cantor a douche bag, but we all knew what he meant).  The network appears to have realized that "bridge burning" is no longer a problem in a world where supposedly important and/or privileged "sources" have nothing to say anyway.  Cantor will be in a very important position of power in the new Congress.  But who cares?  It's not like talking to him or knowing him will yield any actual "information."  Congratulations to MSNBC for being the first network to fully embrace hyperreal journalism.  In fact, it is my sincere hope that MSNBC will go even further than the previous champion Fox and simply make up quotations that can be attributed to Cantor.  "Today Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, introduced a bill calling for all orphans not adopted within six months to be roasted on a spit and fed to Federal prisoners.  Cantor estimates this will save taxpayers over 10 million annually. More at the top of the hour." 

Lest you think Olberman, usually the most caustic and tone-deaf of them all, has somewhat mellowed, he was soon calling out the seemingly sincere weeping of John Boehner, the next Speaker of the House, as the crocodile tears of a fox about to eat the hens and then foreclose on the hen house.   Lawrence "I know how a bill REALLY gets through Congress" O'Donnell made an old-fashioned appeal to the magnitude of Boehner's new responsibilities and the sincerity of the moment.  But Rachel Maddow was having none of it, pointing out that Boehner bursts into tears when there's no Milky Ways in the House vending machines (well, again, it was something like that...I don't remember exactly).   In any case, screw that disingenuous crybaby! 

Then Matthews was back on point asking Alaskan Democratic senator Mark Begich if he had ever in all his life seen Sarah Palin reading any printed matter of any kind.  Priceless.

It was great television because it had an almost "punk" ethos of no longer giving a damn, as in "we've tried for the past two years to explain the nation's structural problems clearly and reasonably so as to better inform voters as to just how venal and evil the Republican agenda is, and yet still the country votes these idiots back into office...so you know what, we're not even going to pretend anymore.  And guess what Poindexter? The stupid, uneducated, and uninformed are always going to outvote us Ivy League smartypants anyway, so we might as well all get used to it.  Want high-speed rail?  Clean energy investments? A nation that doesn't leave the sick and insane to starve to death on the streets?  Forget about it.  The future will be about everyone hoarding and protecting their own miserable shit until everything finally collapses, leaving anyone who doesn't have their own personal escape helicopter to wander from one burned out Walmart to another in search of Funyuns and ammunition.  The call us "elites" anyway, so let's just go for it and mock them openly for the dimwitted knuckle-draggers and snake-oil salesmen they really are.  If you feel that way too, 'lean forward' with us as we giddily puke into the 'End Times" toilet."  

It was awesome.  As politics long ago ceased to be about material issues of policy and became instead a game of mutually assured semiotic destruction, here's hoping MSNBC takes Fox to school on how to lie like there's no tomorrow.  Baldly.  Shamelessly.  Completely without any responsibility.  Lately Rachel Maddow has taken to showing Republican propaganda and explaining to us why it's propaganda.  But we get it.  We're not Fox viewers after all, we understand the textual strategies of lying through sound and image for we, too, have been to college.  Rather than explain how Fox disinformation works, maybe the time has come to fight them on their own territory--the land of complete and total make-believe.

This just in:  "Tax cuts of over 2% have been linked to a marked increase in lung cancer."  No, it's true, it really is!

(with apologies to Matt!)

The Rally to Restore Visibility

Two days have passed since The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington D.C., and it would appear the various ideological encampments have circled the wagons in fairly predictable configurations.   As one might expect, media on the right have generally ignored the event entirely, recognizing that the rally’s greatest potential power resides in the very acknowledgment of its existence.  The fewer Fox viewers exposed to the sight of a huge crowd motivated by something other than tears, fears, and Jesus, the better.  Some folks over at Americans for Prosperity, however, did at least demonstrate having remained awake for a few hours in their college art survey course, engaging in a little old-fashioned d├ętournement by cutting together footage of the rally’s many ironic and/or satirical signs to a song celebrating the solipsistic pleasures of unchecked narcissism. 

“Smug-a-Poolza” they call it, presumably because the entire event chose to emphasize the need for “rational” debate over actual facts rather than a cascading paranoia over unexamined fears.  Dismissing the rally-goers as smug narcissists (inasmuch as they can spell and understand “meta” discourse) serves the right very well, undermining the event’s legitimacy by invoking the conservative brain’s typically symptomatic suspicion of any and all forms of intellectual endeavor that do not result in a new weapons system.

Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, meanwhile, the rally also attracted the wrath of many on the left (an excellent overview can be seen at zunguzungu).  Here the consensus seems to be that Stewart/Colbert were targeting their critique of irrational demonization at the most vocal elements of the progressive movement—a perhaps understandable paranoia given the Obama administration’s apparent eagerness to not only throw liberals under the bus, but to back up and roll over them a second and third time.  A secondary meme wonders if "irony" can ever be an effective tool for political organization.

True, Stewart often invokes the fantasy-speak of objectivity, balance, and neutrality, and every so often takes an obligatory shot at MSNBC so as to inoculate The Daily Show franchise from accusations of shameless propagandizing.  But when did progressives become so inept at distinguishing tactics from strategies?  Conservatives have done a great job training their minions to hear various “dog-whistles,” code language that allows certain iterations of racism, sexism, and homophobia to circulate that would otherwise remain “unspeakable” in mainstream society.  How difficult is it for otherwise intelligent lefties to understand that this rally’s main political message had nothing to do with anything said on stage, but was instead an effort to intervene through one of the few gestures that will actually still attract the attention of mainstream media; namely, a spectacle of massing bodies that can be attributed to the energy of heated social/ideological divisions (even if said spectacle is putatively organized as an effort to “defuse” such heated political rhetoric). 

Only the delusional could imagine that such an event—even if it did performatively poke some fun at the left—was anything other than a tactical response to the media’s seemingly unending monologue of right-wing shouting points.  The goal here was clear: demonstrate in the only terms the media will recognize that the so-called “enthusiasm gap” in the upcoming election is a self-fulfilling prophecy, largely the result of the media repeating over and over again just how fired up and angry the right is compared to their disappointed and disillusioned counterparts on the left.  If all had gone as planned, the rally properly amplified might have triggered a sudden wave of “momentum” that could mitigate or even completely repulse the influence of the angry birthers, bowhunters, and rascal jockeys who even now are camping out in front of their local polling places. 

All of which makes the so-called “mainstream” media’s response to the rally that much more interesting.  By the rules of signification laid down by the network and cable news divisions themselves, The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear was clearly the big winner, amassing by most “objective” accounts the largest and most socially diverse crowd of any recent D.C. gathering.  And yet ultimately this very same media pulled the rug out from underneath the rally by suddenly changing the rules of significance, affording the Stewart/Colbert gathering much less attention, analysis, and thus influence than previous events sponsored by the Tea Party and Utah Jesus.  Why?  Perhaps it is because the network news divisions, liberal though they may be, recognize in Stewart (and the sensibility he represents) an encroachment on their authority and legitimacy that is much more threatening than remote peoples in the red states getting all that much more redder.  If you are a well-off, literate, educated, elite media worker living in D.C., New York, Chicago, L.A., San Francisco, or other epicenters of blue politics, who really gives a shit about the material impact of this election on your way of life?  You might feel bad for people living in Nevada who will soon have to suffer under the moronic agenda of Sharon Angle, but if these people are smart, they will soon realize they need to move someplace where a Sharon Angle can’t happen (in this respect, the right has won a certain victory for their cherished Federalism—the increasing aggregation of the population around centers of shared ideology, right and left, demonstrates a move toward local self-governance made possible only when the “idiots” on the other side of the spectrum vanish from your neighborhood.  Toward this end, I would like to propose starting a fund to help the Fox news team escape the liberal hell of a multi-ethnic, gay-friendly, culturally diverse, bohemian, and generally progressive New York City so that they might relocate somewhere better suited to their worldview, say an Omaha or Orange County.  How much longer must Anne Coulter be tortured by living in an environment so thoroughly shaped by the secular humanist agenda?). 

As most would acknowledge, television news divisions gave up long ago on actually seeking out and reporting any news, especially in relation to political campaigns.  Instead, all resources are put into covering the horse-race, a hyperreal environment where every event is dissected according to how the media believe it will play on the media.  What will the selection of Sarah Palin mean to McCain’s campaign and how will it “play” with women voters?  Is supporting the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” a good move politically?  If you are a democrat and make too big a deal out of not wanting to be photographed with President Obama, do you then inadvertently draw even more attention to your loathsome democratic-ness?  These are the important issues now facing the news division.  Of course, this is the very same territory claimed by Stewart and Colbert, but through an ironic lens that demonstrates night after night the fundamental implosion of all media/politics into self-satirizing simulation.  But the major network and cable news divisions still insist that they be taken seriously, even if all they ever do anymore is squat on a mirror and admire the dilations of their own Gallup-driven assholes. 

By pointing this out (even implicitly by merely happening), The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear was thus not accorded the same level of influence so easily granted to an enraged grandpa hyperventilating in a high school gymnasium, wholly unaware that his Medicare is in fact a government program.  The lesson is obvious: you can disagree with the politics of those who make the media, castigating them as elites, liberals, out-of-touch, etc. In fact, the media need that kind of right-wing opposition to bolster their professional self-esteem.   But don’t ever call out the media for having become feckless amplifiers of their own bullshit, for they will lose no time in “reframing” your critique as an even more irresponsible affront to democracy. 

Thus, during the Sunday morning pundit round-up, I heard no less than three different professional commentators make the exact same critique: “Democratic sources tell me that they wish these young people were spending this weekend working voter phone banks in their home districts rather than coming to D.C. for a giant party.”  Yes, that’s right, a media that has done so much to reduce the political process to a war of excrescent signification attacked the Rally for not demonstrating an earnest enough commitment to the old fashioned politics of doorbells and shoe-leather.  It is a particularly loony critique, one that does not reflect the concerns of Democratic operatives so much as the old media’s investment in maintaining the authority of old media.  What is more effective politically: energizing 200,000 young folk armed with cell phones, twitter accounts, and Facebook pages the weekend before the election, or sending a lone college student door-to-door to convince the reluctant and hostile in his conservative campus neighborhood to come out and vote?  

So who knows what will happen on Tuesday.  I sense the mainstream media have invested so deeply in the narrative of a Tea Party revolution that they would have stopped at nothing to make it come true, and so the media prophecy will in the end prove self-fulfilled precisely because of the anti-logic put into such relief by the weekend’s rally—the angriest wheel gets greased by access to representation, especially if that wheel accuses the media of Marxist agitation rather than cynical disengagement.  If you were a player in what remains of the mainstream news media, whose existence would you rather acknowledge and confront: an elderly cartoon that still bolsters and believes in your relevance; or the generation of media-saavy, tech-literate, irony-suffused youngsters who threaten to throw your previously unassailable expertise and authority onto the scrapheap of media history?