December 03, 2019

The Wire Cage Experiment


I've recently been working on a collection of short stories. I've written 5 so far, amounting to about 60 pages. The problem is that to publish them in book form, I need at least 160 pages. Since I write only when I'm inspired, and since I can never predict when inspiration will strike, it could be another year before I pitch the book to a publisher.

I occasionally feel guilty that I don't provide enough entertainment for you guys. Granted, watching the US go down the tubes in the gauchest and most vulgar manner possible, or ridiculing turkeys like Tulsi Gabbard, is very entertaining, but it's of a rather noir variety. So what I'm going to do today is post one of these stories. It's not the best of the lot, and it's also a bit noir, but it has a nice demented flavor to it that I think you guys might enjoy. Here goes:

As a salesman of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, George Walraven enjoyed his job, but in the digital age he was fighting an uphill battle. He liked going door-to-door, talking to people about their lives, and the importance of being well-informed. But most of them didn't want to by the encyclopedia, because they said they could get whatever information they needed online. George immediately pointed out that Britannica had an online paywall; this pitch worked some of the time, but mostly not. Still, he loved the job and didn't want to give it up.

In terms of developing new sales strategies, George was inspired by an episode of Friends, in which an encyclopedia salesman comes to Joey Tribbiani's apartment and tries to sell him a set of encyclopedias. He asks Joey if he ever feels out of it, sitting around with his friends, who are discussing something he knows nothing about. Joey admits this is a frequent occurrence, but says he just can't afford to buy these books. So the salesman asks him how much cash he has on him at the moment; it turns out to be $50. "For $50," he tells Joe, "I can sell you a single volume. What letter would you prefer?" For some reason, Joey picks V. Then follows a rather silly scene in which Joey, sitting around with the Friends, keeps trying to steer the conversation to subjects such as Volcanos, Viet Nam, Vivasection, and other V's.

George loved that episode, and it gave him an idea. In these days of economic hardship, he reasoned, most people simply can't shell out $1,200 for the entire set. But like the salesman on Friends, he could probably get them to buy a single volume. Once he had sold all of the volumes, from A to Z, he figured he might be able to throw an "encyclopedia party," in which each person in attendance represented one letter of the alphabet. And then what? Some kind of party games? He wasn't sure. But he was convinced there was an angle here, one that would enable him to sell more books.

George's wife, a rather attractive blond ten years his junior, was keen on the whole idea, even thinking that if George could sell two sets of A to Z, it might be possible to organize a public competition between the two teams and run it on network TV. It took a few months to make this happen, but finally the show took place: "From A to Z: The War of the Books." Prizes ran from $1,000 to $10,000. First up were the 2 A's. Each person had a buzzer; George's job was to name an A entry, and the person who buzzed first then had to explain the item, say what it was. The two A's were a housewife from Cincinnati, and an insurance salesman from Topeka. The winner would be the first to give ten correct answers.

"What is the Aeneid?" George asked them. Brittany, the housewife, was quick on the draw. "Long poem by Virgil providing a foundation myth for Roman civilization," she said. "Right you are!" exclaimed George. "Next, what is abalone?" Lorenzo, the insurance salesman, pressed the buzzer and declared, "A type of processed meat." The audience was convulsed with laughter. "No," said George; "you're thinking of baloney, which would be a B question. Brittany?" "A type of sea snail, or mollusc," she responded. "OK," said George; "the score is now 2 to 0."

George proceeded to run through Aardvark, Aeolian harp, All Hallows Eve, and so on, until Brittany was the victor with a score of 10-5, racking up winnings of $1,000 (so far). The audience applauded, and she and Lorenzo retired from the stage. The B's were up next, but before that contest could take place, someone in the audience stood up. "Is this game rigged?" he called out.

"Wha?" George exclaimed. "Of course not." "Abalone is processed meat?" said the man. "Are you shitting me? Remember the show Twenty-One, the big scandal? Contestants were fed the correct answers, including Charles Van Doren, a professor at Columbia. People will do anything for money."

"Sir," said George, "you need to sit down. This game is not rigged, and you are completely out of order."

"But that denial is exactly what that earlier generation of execs at NBC said!" he cried. At this point, Security was called in, but the man had apparently come with a bucket of rotten vegetables, which he skillfully deployed against the officers. Somehow, this triggered a mob psychology response, with people choosing up sides: rigged or not rigged. A total melee ensued. Out of nowhere, a man in a Tarzan outfit swung through on a rope, and a woman thrust a Boston cream pie in George's face. "Criminals!" she screamed. "Thugs!"

All hell broke loose. The mob was able to overwhelm the Security guards, in some cases banging their heads against the floor. People picked up on the cry of "Criminals!" and "Thugs!", tore up the seats of the studio, attacked the contestants, and threw volumes of the encyclopedia at each other. The madness lasted for over an hour, at which point everyone stopped, as if on cue, dusted themselves off, and left the building.

"This may not have been such a good idea," George said to his wife, through gobs of Boston cream pie.

Of course, most of the melee was caught by various people on their cell phones, and the footage was used on the late-night news report. The anchor said something like, "A riot was unexpectedly triggered this evening at the opening of an NBC quiz show called 'From A to Z' by a defrocked priest, the Rev. Pierson J. Flanksteak. Rev. Flanksteak, without any evidence, accused the network of rigging the show, which resulted in an outbreak of mob violence. The audience went wild, and the riot went on for over an hour. When later questioned by the police as to why he made the accusation. Rev. Flanksteak said he was out to demonstrate Freud's theory that civilization was but a thin veneer over a massive 'iceberg' of barbarism."

"From A to Z" was subsequently cancelled; instead, all of the networks hosted panel discussions of Freud's theory, what had happened, whether Flanksteak (now sitting in jail) was a lunatic or a genius, and so on. It was all hot air; most of the TV audience, and the media, correctly concluded that these "experts" were fools. George quit his job with Britannica and went on to write a best-selling book, From A to Z: The Riot at NBC. The promotional flyer contained the following passages:

"The Rev. Flanksteak set out to validate Freud's notion that civilization was a shaky cover on top of raw, irrational emotions. He had no evidence that the program was rigged, and in fact, it wasn't. What he actually demonstrated was that the public can be made to go crazy by the use of certain charged words--'rigged' being one of them. 'Post-modern' is another. My own theory is that Americans are badly squeezed by the inexorable disintegration of their way of life, such that when these words are uttered, huge amounts of energy are suddenly released. This is important information for us to have about the fragile condition of the American people. Flanksteak now sits in jail, whereas I think he more correctly deserves to receive the Presidential Medal of Honor.

"I don't think, as a nation, that we can afford to be conducting our daily affairs while sitting on a kind of semantic volcano. What I propose is that we set up controlled experiments on the release of energy. I have consulted with Senator Riggins about this, and we are going to arrange for such an experiment two weeks from today. For this, we need 1,000 volunteers. Interested parties should sign up at the NBC studios as soon as possible."

The signup sheets filled up very quickly. NBC constructed a huge wire cage to house the participants. On the appointed day, they were all frisked for weapons and then locked inside the cage. George stood outside of it with a megaphone. "Is everyone ready?" he called out. "Ready!" came the response. "OK," he said; "here goes:"


The people inside the cage went nuts. They began to scream, tear their hair, bite each other, and beat each other up. Many got down on all fours and barked like dogs. It went on for thirty-five minutes, until they ran out of steam. Exhausted, most of them were lying on the floor. Some were bleeding.

"Well done," George called out on the megaphone. "Now let's try another phrase:"


Again, this set off a massive reaction of rage and violence, but since most of these folks were rather tired from the first round, it lasted only twenty minutes this time.


George bombarded them with these charged words until there wasn't a person left standing. The medical teams and ambulances that were parked outside now hauled most of the mangled participants off to local hospitals, where hundreds of them spent a week or more in recovery.

As would be expected, George was in high demand on the TV talk shows. The typical first question he was met with was, "Given the disaster of the wire cage experiment, what do you plan to do next?" George's answer was always the same:

"Bob [or Freddie, or Chrystal], this was no disaster. As a pilot project, it was a great success. It revealed the depths of negative energy stored in the American psyche--energy we are going to have to drain, if this country has any future. You know, we are constantly hearing about the need to 'get America back on track'. Well, this is how to do it. Think of it as draining the pus of an infection. If a bunch of words can push the American public right over the edge, then it's safe to say that we are dealing with a whole lotta pus--metaphorical pus, infecting the body politic. Myself, I'm looking forward to Wire Cage Experiment No. 2."

And the rest is history. As the "pus" was drained from the American people, a certain (limited) restoration of sanity settled over the land. "I think it's safe to say," George finally announced, "That we have made America great again."

(c)Morris Berman, 2019

November 19, 2019

Fanny Trollope

Some time ago someone asked if the US was always as bad as it is today, or whether the contemporary condition is something new. An answer comes from Fanny (Frances) Trollope, mother of great English novelist, Anthony Trollope, who visited the US during 1927-31. Her book, Domestic Manners of the Americans, was publ. 1832. She basically regarded the nation as a collection of hustlers and boors, profoundly nasty, and self-deluded. A sample:

"every bee in the hive is actively employed in search; neither art, science, learning, nor pleasure can seduce them from its pursuit."

"there is no charm, no grace in their conversation."

"however meritorious the American character may be, it is not amiable."

"I never saw a population so totally divested of gaiety; there is no trace of this feeling from one end of the Union to the other."

"rude so remarkably prevalent in the manners of American children."

"they never have the air of leisure or repose."

"they never amuse themselves--no; and their hearts are not warm...and they have no ease, no forgetfulness of business and of care--no, not for a moment."

"The want of warmth, of interest, of feeling, upon all subjects which do not immediately touch their own concerns, is universal, and has a most paralyzing effect upon conversation."

"The poor of great Britain, whom distress, or a spirit of enterprise tempt to try another land, ought, for many reasons, to repair to Canada; there they would meet co-operation and sympathy, instead of malice, hatred, and all uncharitableness."

[On the American obsession with money:] "This sordid object, for ever before their eyes, must inevitably produce a sordid tone of mind, and worse still, it produces a seared and blunted conscience on all questions of probity."

"[Americans] believe themselves in all sincerity to have surpassed, to be surpassing, and to be about to surpass, the whole earth in the intellectual race. I am aware that not a single word can be said, hinting a different opinion, which will not bring down a transatlantic anathema on my head."

"...what I consider as one of the most remarkable traits in the national character of Americans: namely, their exquisite sensitiveness and soreness respecting everything said or written concerning them....these feelings, if carried to excess, produce a weakness which amounts to imbecility....they wince if a breeze blows over them, unless it be tempered with adulation....The extraordinary features of [this is] the excess of rage into which they lash themselves [if criticized]."


November 09, 2019

The Chicken Lady Revisited

Well, we never did find out the name of the Chicken Lady, who recently smashed up her car at a Popeye's Restaurant in LA, in an attempt to force her way into the line of more-or-less nutso Americans who have gone into a frenzy over a chicken sandwich across the land. Here's the article, and the video, which might be titled "Douche Bag in Action":

On one level, this is hustling taken to an extreme; but on another level, it's about a very sad country with very sad, empty people in it, who were betrayed by the American Dream. Chicken Lady really is the US in microcosm. She's just a little crazier. After all, the chicken sandwich frenzy is a national phenomenon, similar to Wal-Mart sales where customers trample each other to death. What I am most aware of is how very different is the America of today from the one of my youth, or even, really, the one of, say, 20 years ago. As the empire collapses, so do the minds of its citizens. In so many of these crazy cases that we have reported on this blog--people calling 911 because of a cheeseburger error at McDonald's or whatever--I would love to interview these folks, along the lines of "What were you thinking?" But I imagine that the reply would be just to stare at me. If there is one country on the planet suffering from an epidemic of brain death, you know which one it is. In the Twilightbook, written nearly 20 years ago, I identified "spiritual death" and severe dumbing down as two factors that were taking the US down the drain. But I never imagined anything like the Chicken Lady, or the kind of demented behavior that has been extensively documented on this blog since it began in 2006. It's like we've entered an alternate reality that has become some sort of norm.

With that in mind, what can it matter if Trumpi is impeached, or even thrown out of office? Or if Biden (Schmiden) or Bernie (Schmernie) get elected? The Chicken Lady is rock-bottom America, and no political administration can possibly fix that. I would suggest that Chicken Lady's smashed up car replace Washington on the $1 bill, so the entire country can see what we're up against; but I don't think that's going to happen.

Poor Chicken Lady.


October 31, 2019

Cortinas de humo

"When a society is collapsing, all it can really do is beat off"--Horace J. Hardmember IV

It means smokescreens, which is what politics in the US and UK now boil down to. America beat off for 2 years with the Mueller Report--which came to nothing--and is now jerking off with impeachment, which will give us another year of meaningless distraction. It's little more than theater: party lines are so hard these days, that there is abs. no chance Trumpi will be convicted by the Senate (which requires a 2/3 vote). In addition, the impeachment--which probably will happen--can only serve to energize Trumpo's base, and win him the election for a second term. From the viewpoint of a declinist, what could be better? Trumpaloni has done a huge amount of damage since January 2017, and I believe we can look forward to even greater damage during his 2nd term. And then, god willing, he'll cancel the 2024 election and declare himself president for life. OK by me, amigos. So there's nothing to worry about, and only one thing to remember: Brexit, Schmexit. Also: Opa!


October 17, 2019

Hind Swaraj


For some time now, I have been thinking about doing a book as a follow-up to my "Dual Process" essay (the last one in AWTY), exploring non-socialist alternatives to capitalism, which I see as coming to an end by 2100. My specific interest is in the models proposed by John Ruskin, William Morris, and Mahatma Gandhi--a rather daunting task, in view of the literature available on these three individuals, not to mention the accumulated works on post-industrial society. In addition, I may have been partly scooped by a recent work by John Blewitt:

So who knows? Perhaps I'll do a biography of Tulsi Gabbard instead (source material in her case is a lot more manageable, for some reason). In the meantime, I wanted to share some thoughts on the subject (i.e. Ruskin et al., not Tulsi) as discussed as far back as 1996 by Patrick Brantlinger (Prof. Emeritus at Indiana University). The title of his article is "A Postindustrial Prelude to Postcolonialism." (I hope you all can access it; my own route was via JSTOR, which is available via academic institutions.) His focus, oddly enough, is on Ruskin, Morris, and Gandhi. After working his way through their critiques of industrial society as a horror show, and the alternative models they proposed, he asks whether these models were ever realistic alternatives to more and bigger industrialization, "with its attendant scourges of economic exploitation and environmental degradation." Gandhism, for example, still survives in India, but it was clearly Nehru who carried the day (after Gandhi's death in 1948), with centralization and big technology. Ruskin, Morris, and Gandhi are typically dismissed as utopian thinkers (cf. Morris' novel, News from Nowhere), although this accusation always reminds me of C. Wright Mills' famous characterization of our current economic system as "crackpot realism." In any case, Brantlinger has this to say about the subject:

"No doubt the Utopian imagination has limitations; perhaps it is always romantic, nostalgic, backward-looking. But, as Andre Gorz contends, 'those who propose a fundamentally different society can no longer be condemned in the name of realism. On the contrary, realism now consists of acknowledging that "industrialism" has reached a stage where it can go no further, blocked by obstacles of its own making.' Another perspective on Gandhian anti-industrialism...might ask whether a renewal of pre- or postindustrial village culture may not be a viable economic alternative, and not just for India--an alternative that modernizing nation-states around the globe have buried in the ruins of their relentless pursuit of 'the mirage of modernization.' The idea of such an alternative path--the nonindustrial, nonviolent, decentralized, democratic, communitarian, and economically and ecologically sustainable path that Morris imagined and that Gandhi wanted to follow--may turn out to be the only rational blueprint for survival." {Refs: Andre Gorz, Paths to Paradise, 1985; Boris Kagarlitsky, The Mirage of Modernization, 1995}

We still need Gandhi, Brantlinger goes on to say; we still need Morris and Ruskin. All of them understood "that the most important product of industrialism isn't progress, but the destruction of civilization--that is, the destruction of the very possibility of a social formation in which both justice and beauty prevail."

As one student of sustainability recently put it, "The choice is a sustainable society or no society at all."


September 28, 2019

Dance of the Turkeys

Or maybe I should have titled this post "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." What do we have these days? The Gretification of our egos via T-shirts, coffee mugs, and handkerchiefs; a ton of impeachment crap that will ultimately result in nothing (you know it); some scandal stuff around Biden-Schmiden; more presidential debates, featuring Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie-Schmernie, that will amount to fuck all; and the usual round of massacres, McDonald's shootings, opioid data, and god knows what else; and underneath all of the apparent frenzy a huge sense of ennui, that this is nothing more than theater--a dance of turkeys. All this frenetic activity hides a terrible Void, and it is deeper and deeper into that abyss that we are sliding, slowly but surely, on a daily basis.

But who knows this? Current US population = 329.5 million, and it's not likely that more than 0.5 million understand that the whole show is meaningless; that we are like a ship without a rudder, drifting away into oblivion. For appearance is not reality, as Plato told us millennia ago, and yet 329 million Americans or more take the shadows on the walls of the cave to be real. Should Wafers go door to door, informing the citizenry that what they are witnessing is a crock? Will Mr. John Q. Public rub his chin and say, "Gee, I never thought of that. I'm going to have to rethink my whole life"? Would that be a prudent use of our time? Will Mr. Public make a revolution, or leave the country, or even throw his TV out? Clearly, mass enlightenment is right around the corner.

To arms, Wafers! To arms!