Friday, March 9, 2012

Oh, Rush, Poor Rush

Rush Limbaugh, as far back as 1989, named his fans “dittoheads”, though he is the chief dittohead himself. I’ve been listening to Limbaugh since 1996, when he played a role in a book I was writing, Campaign America ‘96: The View From the Couch, a book on the Clinton-Dole presidential race, from the consumer, not the producer, side. Happily, when I finished the book, I didn’t have to listen to him anymore and I stopped, except, occasionally over the years, when I turned him on while driving through radio-deprived areas of the country, where the only thing you could find were evangelical programs or Rush. None of my cars had the new satellite connections, where all stations are possible.

I am an absolute free-speech advocate for a variety of reasons. Though there are many people I would like to be able to shut up, let them all blather on is my attitude and that includes Rush. The transactions here are complicated. I grew up with George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” you couldn’t say on the radio, much less the TV. In 1978 the Supreme Court decided F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation in favor of censorship (aka regulation) in a 5-4 decision. Sound familiar? 5-4 is the current far-right censoring vote on the Roberts Court.

Now it’s Erectile Dysfunction ads on all the channels and what is on Cable is anyone’s delight or cause for dismay. OK, back to Rush. After my campaign book appeared I was on the Michael Feldman show, Whad’Ya Know? Feldman, a funny guy, was miffed I seemed sympathetic at times to Rush (and not to him, a misreading) and I replied, “I have a soft spot for overweight overachievers,” and Feldman shot back, “Oh, and not underweight underachievers?” Feldman is skinny. Rush, of course, is a big fat pig.

The young Rush had been the underachiever of a substantial mid-Missouri family, the almost ne’er-do-well son with successful siblings. Rush’s biggest job back then was working PR for the Kansas City Royals. He was one bloated bumpkin. Then he got on the radio and found his fortune and his shtick: finally an overachiever! When I caught up with him in 1996 he was close to the zenith of his influence. Bill Clinton had energized him, along with Newt Gingrich, the contract on America, etc., the first rising of the New Republican Party, the one that has now reached its apotheosis in 2012.

By the time I was on the Feldman show Rush had gone into eclipse and, as I told my host, that was cyclical: Rush would wax and wane. The waning included his drug scandal in 2003. A number of media figures have survived these life-style scandals (such as Bill O’Reilly), and Rush did too. His subsequent hearing problems seemed punishment enough to the general public. Now he’s been waxing again, during these crackpot months of the Republican primaries. But once again he’s gone too far.

Or so many think. I’m not for silencing people. Let Rush say what he wants. Let the people see it, hear it – judge it. Rush is listened to, mainly, by white guys who drive a lot, salesmen, truck drivers, God knows who? (And God and the ratings people do know.) Dittoheads. When Rush’s current victim, Sandra Fluke, expressed surprise that it seemed “acceptable in today’s society to say these things about women,” one wonders where’s she’s been the last twenty years.

Rush was doing his best to be clever, lecturing the “feminazis” (one of his earliest coinages which he employed during his current remarks) on the notion that free contraception was payment for having sex and he used the words “slut” and “prostitute” to insult Ms. Fluke. (Then he continued, really letting his id out, imagining videos on You Tube.) What struck me, hearing reports on what he said (I, thankfully, was not listening to Rush) was that was just what many others were calling sexually active women lately, given the debate over contraception waged by the Catholic Bishops, Virginia lawmakers, and the Republican candidates, especially Rick Santorum. Or, at least, what was implied, the unspoken words that traveled under the conversation, not above, except in the case of Limbaugh. Again, let free speech reign, let us hear what they really think.

The last First Amendment case I wrote about (in The Nation and elsewhere) was Barnes v. Glen Theatre, which was about go-go dancers in strip bars claiming that their dancing should be granted protection as speech. I agreed, but not the Rehnquist Court, which, in 1991, decided 5-4 (again!) in favor of police power, rather than artistic expression. Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion, but the swing vote then was Justice Souter, who held that Indiana’s (the case started in South Bend, of all places) statute helped prevent secondary effects, such as prostitution. Souter was more or less calling the dancers prostitutes, not to say sluts. But that was the implication. Since Ms. Fluke is a law student at Georgetown she should look up the case. If only one of the dancers had ended her routine making the black power fist, the Court would have been stymied.

Just as the public has profited from seeing the slap-stick show of the Republican primary candidates, it actually helps to see what men like Rush Limbaugh actually think – when he can be said to think. Sunlight is still the best disinfectant.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Barney Rosset U.

Upon his recent death, I realized I had matriculated in the Barney Rosset School of Literature, or, more correctly (since I didn’t know who Barney Rosset was when I started), The Grove Press University of the Arts. I also went on to graduate school at New Directions U., founded by James Laughlin. I didn’t know him, either, back then, in my teens and early twenties.

There’s been a lot of bemoaning over the decades of how badly students are being educated, how little they know. Leave Most Everybody Behind, etc., has been the general rule. Since I came along at the pre-dawn of the Baby Boomers (born in December of 1945), my generation benefitted enormously from the paperback revolution that was underway. Why? Not just because of the cheapness of paperbacks, which took hold via the military, since they were distributed to WWII soldiers, but because of the authors they published. It wasn’t altruism, even in the case of Barney Rosset; it was because the great authors, or Dead White Males of yore, were out of print, not afflicted by copyright, and the publishers didn’t have to deal with even the minimum problem of royalties.

So, who did my generation get to read? What were the mass paperback books filling up newsstand racks (not the snooty “trade” paperbacks of today)? Oh, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Homer, Balzac, Victor Hugo, those guys. And cheap. Less than a buck. The first book Barney Rosset published at Grove Press was Henry James’ The Golden Bowl. That cost more than a dollar.

Try to find any of the above at an airport bookstore these days. And people wonder why everyone has gotten more stupid over the years. Take a look at the dates when the SAT scores turned downward. By 1972 the shelves began to be full of other sorts of books.

Publishers played an unique role for the 60's decade – and some of the 70's. They set the curriculum for a generation of curious and avaricious readers such as myself. It might all be called pornography now, but Rosset brought me D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the mid-sixties, which, of course, led me to other Lawrence titles. Rosset made available to my cohort almost the entire reading list of modernism, even as it swerved toward post-modernism. And it wasn’t just international. He championed Henry Miller, became the publisher of the sexual revolution of the time, literary division, and made a lot of young people eager readers. Now they have, alas, Harry Potter.

Grove Press led me to New Directions, which carried on the same tradition, though more thoroughly continental, Sartre, etc., but also the new expatriate American generation, Paul Bowles and his crowd, along with Tennessee Williams, authors who filled the list of doctoral dissertations to come and come.

When I got older and more established, I met an early Grove Press author, the world-class translator Anthony Kerrigan, who introduced Borges to the English speaking world, or, certainly, to Americans, with the publication by Grove Press of Ficciones in 1962. Tony told me Barney Rosset had asked him whether he wanted royalties, or cash now, a “for hire” contract, for his translations. Tony, being of the older generation of writer/bohemian, took the cash up-front. If he had waited for royalties, instead, he would have had an annuity for life – and he sorely needed one, which he didn’t have.

Of course, this super tutorial that two publishing houses carried out for so many students and writers-to-be didn’t last forever. But, it certainly helped fuel a good bit of what has become to be known as “the Sixties.” Yet when you’re filling a void, it sooner or later is no longer a void. Now, it’s a matter of oversupply. Publishers today are no longer playing that guiding role.

Now, with Amazon and other outlets, any book ever published is available for purchase. But when you can have everything, there is often no way to choose anything. Or too many ways. It was limitation, back in the ’60s, that had power. Grove Press and New Directions opened the literary world’s doors for me and many others. Now, there are nothing but doors open and, alas, very little (or far too much) awaits beyond them.