Just Jake

Jake Highton is a journalism professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno. He teaches media law, history of journalism and advanced reporting. Highton is the author of numerous books, including "Nevada Newspaper Days." He writes a weekly column for the Daily Sparks Tribune.

Location: United States

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Scholar sucks juice from Twain

“Mark Twain: Unsanctified Newspaper Reporter.” By James Caron (University of Missouri Press, 412 pp., 2008).

This is a book for Mark Twain scholars and specialists, not for Twain lovers. It is thoroughly researched and footnoted. Caron’s knowledge of Twain is vast and intimate. But the comic genius of Samuel Clemens must be enjoyed on the pages of Twain’s works, not written about.

We get a long discussion of the differences between Mark Twain as “narrator of comic character” and Sam Clemens the man. In just one paragraph on “the ethical purpose of comic laughter” we find that Plato says, Aristotle faults and Cicero notes.

On the next page we find how humor is defined by “English men of letters, including Thomas Hobbes, Richard Steele, Joseph Addison and Henry Fielding.” Ben Jonson resides in the same sentence and Thackeray dwells one sentence later. It is all too much.

Then we get long discourses on comic laughter. Caron cites Plato and Mikhail Bakhtin on Rabelais. One footnote runs to nine lines, the author unnecessarily showing his homework. When Caron writes of Twain’s “anthropological approach” the reader stiffens. Twain and anthropology do not jibe. Moreover, Caron’s prose is often murky, academic.

Section and chapter headings talk of “The Communal Function of Comic Violence.” “Comic Violence and Cultural Barbarism” and “Playing with Comic Dynamite.” Scholarly to be sure but dull stuff.

The best section deals with the glory days on the Comstock. Only San Francisco could rival Virginia City as the pre-eminent metropolis in the Far West. At times the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise had a larger circulation than any paper in San Francisco.
The Enterprise epitomized Washoe journalism. “It was…the brainiest sheet on the Coast. It was privy to all of the mountain’s secrets (Mount Davidson) both above and below the earth’s crust. It had acquired enormous prestige. It could make or break any man in the Nevada Territory. It was honest and fearless…It was Comstock to the core, the mirror of her astounding personality, the sounding board of her buoyant, virile life.”
As for Twain on the Comstock, his local columns exhibit “capable reporting and sly yarn spinning.” But the “yarn spinner overshadowed...the reporter,” mixing fact and fiction. Indeed, Twain had been hired in 1866 by the San Francisco Morning Call as a reporter, not a comic writer. He was soon fired, admitting his “reportorial shortcomings.”

Caron is occasionally afflicted with the Biographer’s Syndrome. He hypothesizes: “Writing his local columns, Clemens must have”…“Clemens apparently would not sign”… “Clemens probably would have made the decision”…“Clemens most likely employed.”

But Twain himself was always a compelling figure. He launched his literary career on the Enterprise, working for the paper from September 1862 to May 1864. Twain called himself unsanctified because he used his comic vision to play hell, “embodying what proper society might call social ‘sins.’ ”

He symbolized “the Nevada territory in its madcap moods, its carnivalesque frontier democracy.” His comic flair was perfect for Comstock miners, stamp mill operators and teamsters.

Comstock writers like Dan De Quille (William Wright) influenced the comic sketches and fantasies of Mark Twain. Caron notes the striking similarities between De Quille and Twain.

Caron, an English professor at the University of Hawaii, deals with Twain’s writing in the 1860s. Twain was a brilliant Western writer, using the traditional tactic of the tall tale and deadpan exaggeration.

But under the surface fun, the Twain had a deep sense of justice. He muckraked in San Francisco in 1864 for the Morning Call. Much later he excoriated the American military intervention and slaughter in the Philippines.

The San Francisco Bulletin noted this characteristic “Beneath the surface of his pleasantry lies a rich vein of serious thought. He instructs as well as amuses and even his broadest jokes have a moral.”

Caron, writing about Twain’s 1866 travel letters from Hawaii (which the author spells as the affected “Hawai’i), notes Twain’s prudishness about the hula-hula. Twain said the dance was lascivious, demoralizing, barbaric. He associated the hula with sex.

Nevertheless, lovers of the spirit, humor and sardonic laughter of Twain would do better to reread his early works than struggle with the Caron tome. Such works as: “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865), “Journalism in Tennessee” (1869), “The Innocents Abroad” (1869) and “Roughing It” (1872).

I recall reading parts of “Roughing It” and being unable to resist laughing out loud. A tribute to a great humorist. Twain was a comic giant who gained such worldwide renown that even the dour Soviets applauded him.

Populists, writing and atheism

America has never had a more radical political party with mass appeal than the People’s Party (Populists).
At its 1892 founding convention in Omaha, Neb., these were some of its planks:
• Women’s suffrage. (Women got the right to vote in 1920 with ratification of the 19th Amendment.)
• An eight-hour day. (Then considered utopian--if not absurd.)
• Abolition of the Pinkerton system of violently suppressing union organizers. (Business still today violates the fervent plea of William Jennings Bryan: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns.”)
• A graduated income tax. (The 16th Amendment ratified in 1913 allowed an income tax.)
• Public ownership of corporations, telephones and the telegraph. (Alas, it never happened. Nor will corporations and America’s reactionary politics allow it.)
• No subsidy of corporations. (Never happened. See preceeding paragraph.)
• Breakup of corporate lobbying power. (Never happened. See two paragraph above.)
Henry Demarest Lloyd declared in 1894: “The People’s Party is more than the organized discontent of the people. It is the organized aspiration of the people for a fuller, nobler, richer, kinder life for every man, woman and child in the ranks of humanity.”
That dream was shattered by raw, rapacious capitalism.

Why Johnny can’t write
“Txting away ur education.” That title appeared over an essay in USA Today. It was written by a Virginia high school English teacher rightly lamenting the decline of writing skills.
The cause: the Digital Age with its iPods, cellphones, Blackberries, texting and Tweeting. Such abbreviated communication forms defy good writing.
Garry Trudeau, brilliant creator of the “Doonesbury” comic strip and marvelous social critic, satirizes Tweeting. His character Sam texts: “@Roland Hedley: yr reports r awesome. Ru really Tweeting from Iran?” Hedley replies: “@ Sam: Retweeting. Similar.”
Every K-12 school and every college should ban electronic devices from classrooms.

‘The Atheist’s Bible’
Joan Konner’s “The Atheist’s Bible,” published in 2007, is a wonderful compilation of wit and wisdom. Here are my original contributions for a second edition:
• Belief in God is a failure of intellect and/or nerve.
• All clergywomen and clergymen are living a lie.
• Critical thinking would make everyone an atheist and 99 out of 100 people socialists.
Mouths of babes
Out of the mouths of babes” (Psalms 8:2) comes wisdom. Rachael Howard, fifth grader in St. Lucie, Fla., asked President Obama to remove the words under God from the Pledge of Allegiance.
“My family and I are atheists,” she wrote. “You know there are unbelievers and other religions in this country.”

Obama couldn’t drop the words if he wanted to. Congress put them there in 1954 during one of the nation’s frequent Red Scares.
Moreover, no politician seeking re-election would ever publicly admit he doesn’t
Opiate progression
Progression of the opiate of the masses. First: religion. Next: TV. Now: sports.

Independence Day thought
Thomas Paine was the greatest of the Founders—and he was born in England.

Bastille Day thought
The French and the Americans had the great good sense to get rid of their kings. The British, on the other hand, cling to the medieval relic and mummery of the monarchy.

San Francisco forever
America would be a much better nation if the people of San Francisco alone were allowed to vote.

Cigarette ad disgusts
I wrote a letter recently to the Nation, the best leftist magazine in America. Here it is:
“I was highly incensed to see my beloved Nation stoop to running a cigarette ad. You explained that you do not ban ads just because you disagree with the message. Noble sentiment. But ethically and morally you are bankrupt. Cigarettes are linked to 450,000 deaths annually in America.”
I received an oily PR reply but my letter was not printed. Magazines and newspapers seldom print critical comments. It’s as novelist Joseph Conrad said to his wife: “I want praise, not criticism.”

6 cheers for power steering
Love my new car, a 2008 model with power steering. It turns on a dime. With my 1997 car I had to tug and tug to turn.
On the road with a new car it seems as if everyone is driving a newish car. And that makes you think that this is indeed a rich country.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Supreme Court denies justice

The façade of the Supreme Court building proclaims: “Equal Justice for All.” But the Roberts Court metes out justice for just some.

Lady Justice is blind but she shouldn’t be deaf and dumb too. The most egregious decision in the 2008-2009 court term: rejection of the right of prisoners to DNA testing to prove their innocence.

Chief Justice Roberts admitted as much in his opinion for the court, noting the unparalleled ability of DNA evidence to prove innocence.

But in one of the most bizarre rationales in the history of the court, Roberts said that this does not mean that “every criminal conviction involving biological evidence is in doubt.”

The five reactionaries interpret the Constitution as they want: let defendants be electrocuted. As Justice Stevens said in dissent: “There is no reason to deny access to the evidence and there are many reasons to provide it.”

Another lamentable decision by the Backward Five eroded the exclusionary rule prohibiting prosecutors from using evidence obtained in an improper police search.

It was an un-American decision. Justice Holmes in a dissent in Olmstead (1928) knew what it meant to be an American. He wrote: it is a lesser evil “that some criminals should escape than that the government should play an ignoble part.”

The Baleful Five also undermined the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, declaring it wasn’t always essential. Stevens bitterly dissented, rightly declaring that defendants must have counsel at every stage of prosecution.

In all three cases the vote was 5-4. In each case Justice Kennedy was the fifth man. Kennedy is the most powerful jurist in America, so often determining the law of the land. But being powerful doesn’t mean dispensing justice.

The Supreme Court constantly overrules decisions by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, the most liberal court in America, Unfortunately, the reactionary Supreme Court has the last word.

And that means environmentalists lost all five cases, including undercutting the Clean Water Act to allow a company to fill an Alaskan lake with mine waste. Kennedy, writing for the majority, said deference must be accorded the company. Justice Ginsburg shot back in dissent: what about paying deference to the Clean Water Act?

In another dreadful ruling, the Five Horsemen of Reaction weakened legal protection against age discrimination. An anguished Stevens acidly dissented: “I disagree not only with the court’s interpretation of the statute but also with its decision to engage in lawmaking.”

In another despicable opinion, the Puritanical Five backed the FCC ban on airwaves expletives. Justice Scalia in his opinion for the court denounced the words fuck and shit uttered by Cher in a televised awards ceremony. (The priggish Scalia played the silly newspaper game of referring to the f-word and s-word.)

Scalia should read the dissent by Justice Brennan in FCC v. Pacifica (1978): “There are many who think, act and talk differently from the members of this court and who do not share their fragile sensibilities. It is only an acute ethnocentric myopia that enables the court to approve the censorship of communications solely because of the words they contain.”

Expletives deserve First Amendment protection. Stevens in dissent noted the irony of curbing harmless four-letter works while allowing commercials for Viagra, Cialis and Levitra.

On the positive side, the strip search of an Arizona middle school girl was ruled unconstitutional. Justice Souter, writing for an 8-1 court, called it “embarrassing, frightening and humiliating.”

Dissenting Justice Thomas, clinging to the law of the past, said public schools must preserve “order, discipline and safety.” Troglodyte Thomas is probably the worst justice in history. He certainly is the most archreactionary.

Also applaud the court for upholding a grievance of white firefighters in New Haven, Conn. They sued when they passed a test but were denied promotion because black and Latino candidates did poorly. Kennedy, speaking for the court, labeled what it was: reverse discrimination.

Learned Hand, one of the best judges who never reached the Supreme Court, said he would open every session of court with the words of Cromwell: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, to think it possible you may be mistaken.”

Justice Brandeis made the same point. Dissenting in the obscure 1932 New State Ice case, Brandeis warned the court about its enormous power of judicial review: “In the exercise of this high power we must be ever on our guard lest we erect our prejudices into legal principles.”

But that is precisely what the Supreme Court has been doing for decades, making its biases legal principles.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Plundered Latins fighting back

After 150 years of being subjected to American imperialism, gunboat diplomacy and exploitation, Latin American countries are rearing up to tell Yanqui to stay home.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez spearheads that drive for independence, emboldening Latins to surge to the Left. He set the example by pronouncing Venezuela socialist.

Chavismo and populism forever! He called Bush 43 the devil (he was) and urged Americans to read social critic Noam Chomsky (they should).

Examples of the new Latin America defiance of Uncle Sam:

• President Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, nationalized the tin, gas and oil industries. He is trying to stem capitalist greed. He vows to close the “open veins of Latin America,” a reference to the title of a book by Eduardo Galeano.

• In Chile, President Bacheter waves the banner of socialism. She often reminds Chileans of the right-wing coup in 1973 that toppled Allende, a golpe engineered by the United States.

• In Paraguay, Lugo won the presidency, exorcising the ghost of Stroessner and his 35-year dictatorship. A former Catholic bishop, Lugo is now the bishop of the poor and the downtrodden.

• In Brazil, President da Silva is a former metalworker who battles for the working class.

• In Ecuador, President Correa has kicked the Yanks off their air base at Manta.

• In Salvador, Funes is the country’s first leftist president.

• In Nicaragua, the president is Ortega of Sandinista fame.

• In Honduras, the army overthrew leftist President Zelaya, particularly angering Argentinians, Brazilians and Chileans with their bitter memories of human rights abuses by the military in 1960 and 1970.

• In Cuba, de facto president Fidel Castro got an abrazo from the Organization of American States. The OAS voted to lift the ban on Cuban membership. (Cuba was expelled in 1962 because its Marx-Leninism was deemed incompatible.)

The U.N. General Assembly passed resolution after resolution for 17 years condemning the U.S. embargo of Cuba. Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff for Colin Powell, rightly called the embargo “the dumbest policy on the face of the earth.”

Despite the lingering dumb policy, most Latin American nations are now declaring for people over profits, for equality over gross injustice.

But the United States strenuously objects. It hates socialism and deplores the unhinging of its hegemony. As Daphne Eviatar writes in The Nation: it is “as if representing the interests of the majority were inherently deserving of scorn.”

America historically has supported right-wing Latin dictators. It gave the despicable Pinochet regime in Chile $290 million in 1976. It endorsed Cuban dictator Batista who got enormously rich from the Mafioso in Havana.

Washington has railed at Cuba for 60 years, always “winning” the argument by uttering the dread word communism. No democrat defends dictatorship. But democratic socialism is a worthy goal.

President Teddy Roosevelt boasted that he had seized the canal from Panama. President Taft proclaimed: “The whole hemisphere will be ours soon…by virtue of our superiority of race and morality.”

Does history record a more arrogant statement to support colonialism and imperialism?

In 1935 after a 33-year career in the Marines, Gen. Smedley Butler admitted the plunder of Latin America:

“I spent most of my time being a high-class muscleman for Big Business and Wall Street…I was a racketeer for capitalism…I helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests. I helped make Haiti and Cuba profitable for National City Bank…I helped save the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests. I helped make Honduras safe for American fruit companies.”

Or, as Galeano puts it: “the Imperium sends forth its Marines to save its monopolists’ dollars.” No wonder the United States has been the biggest enemy of Latin America.

It stole half of Mexico under the banner of manifest destiny. It seized Cuba, Puerto Rico Rico and the Philippines, making them colonies while building an empire. President McKinley hailed the seizure as ushering in “civilization and humanity.”

The United States role in Cuba is shameless. The Platt Amendment permitted U.S. intervention. It sealed the theft of Guantánmo.

Galeano writes passionately in “Veins” of how the great wealth of Latin nations has been appropriated by capitalist imperialists: gold, silver, sugar, coffee, rubber, cocoa, cotton and bananas.

United Fruit, an American corporation now called Chiquita, ravaged Central and South America. Emily Biuso in The Nation recently tells how: strong arming, destroying natural habitat to build banana plantations, enslaving the local people in low-wage and suppressing labor movements.

“Any attempt by the workers to assert their rights was met with harsh consequences,” Galeano writes.

But Latin America, now blessedly under new management, will no longer tolerate gringo dominance.