Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Hero Has A Thousand Faces, And One Of Them Is MC Hammer’s

From I Want My MTV by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum.

MICK KLEBER: “Too Legit to Quit” was based on a book I was reading, Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, about the structure of the monomyth that supposedly was the basis for the Star Wars trilogy, and now virtually every movie in Hollywood. So we structured “Too Legit” on the typical hero’s journey, which in this case is Hammer being called by the mentor, James Brown, to retrieve “the glove,” which is obviously a reference to Michael Jackson. Then he and his dancers are transported in a flying globe to a concert hall. For one of the big auditorium shots, we actually had a crane on top of a crane. And sometime during that segment Hammer descends in an elevator into a fiery abyss, where he’s joined by more dancers.

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Daniel Boorstin and MTV Spring Break

From The Image: Or What Happened To The American Dream, by Daniel Boorstin, published in 1962.

The new kind of synthetic novelty which has flooded our experience I will call “pseudo-events.” The common prefix “pseudo” comes from the Greek word meaning false, or intended to deceive.

It is the report that gives the event its force in the minds of potential customers. The power to make a reportable event is thus the power to make experience. One is reminded of Napoleon’s apocryphal reply to his general, who objected that circumstances were unfavorable to a proposed campaign: “Bah, I make circumstances!”

A pseudo-event, then, is a happening that possesses the following characteristics:

(1) It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it. Typically, it is not a train wreck or an earthquake, but an interview.

(2) It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media.

(3) Its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous. Its interest arises largely from this ambiguity. Concerning a pseudo-event the question, “What does it mean?” has a new dimension. While the news interest in a train wreck is in what happened and in the real consequences, the interest in an interview is always, in a sense, in whether it really happened and in what might have been the motives. Did the statement really mean what it said? Without some of this ambiguity a pseudo-event cannot be very interesting.

(4) Usually it is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. [A] hotel’s thirtieth-anniversary celebration, by saying that the hotel is a distinguished institution, actually makes it one.

Here are some characteristics of pseudo-events which make them overshadow spontaneous events:

(1) Pseudo-events are more dramatic.

(2) Pseudo-events, being planned for dissemination, are easier to disseminate and to make vivid. Participants are selected for their newsworthy and dramatic interest.

(3) Pseudo-events can be repeated at will, and thus their impression can be re-inforced.

(4) Pseudo-events cost money to create; hence somebody has an interest in disseminating, magnifying, advertising, and extolling them as events worth watching or worth believing. They are therefore advertised in advance, and rerun in order to get money’s worth.

(5) Pseudo-events, being planned for intelligibility, are more intelligible and hence more reassuring.

(6) Pseudo-events are more sociable, more conversable, and more convenient to witness.

(7) Knowledge of pseudo-events – of what has been reported, or what has been staged, and how – becomes the test of being “informed.” Pseudo-events begin to provide that “common discourse” which some of my old-fashioned friends have hoped to find in the Great Books.

(8) Finally, pseudo-events spawn other pseudo-events in geometric progression. They dominate our consciousness simply because there are more of them, and ever more.

From I Want My MTV by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum.

ADAM CURRY: MTV needed to get alcohol companies to advertise on the network. It was a big deal. We needed beer; we were doing Skittles. A lot of Skittles. That’s how Spring Break was born. It’s not like someone said, “Hey, let’s go film Spring Break.” It was like, “How do we get Budweiser on the network? Let’s go to where Budweiser is.” And Budweiser was at Spring Break. That was a turning point for MTV ad sales—once we had the beer market, because that’s where all the money was.

BETH McCARTHY: Beginning in 1986, I went to Spring Break for nine years straight. It was horrific. Everything was disgusting. We’d work all day and night, and then walk back to a disgusting sleazebag hotel at 1 A.M. It was hilarious, but ugh. Our executives would flash their MTV IDs and whore around with college girls.

NINA BLACKWOOD: Spring Break was a miserable experience. People running around half-naked and drunk, and I couldn’t get a decent meal. Everything was served on paper plates. I came back and said, “I’m never doing one of those again.”

DOUG HERZOG: Daytona was a miserable place. It seemed like it poured rain the entire time we were there. We stayed at the most miserable hotel, the Pagoda, which the MTV staff referred to as the Abe Vigoda. Just the most disgusting place, with shag carpeting in the rooms, and filled with kids who were puking and partying. At the same time, there was lot of fun to be had.

JULIE BROWN: Spring Break, oh my gosh. I wore the highest platform shoes and it still didn’t help me tread through the vomit in Daytona. That was the wildest of MTV. We had the sexy girls, the guys, and you mix that together with booze, and trust me, you’ve got a party.

ADAM HOROVITZ: We did an amazing stunt for Spring Break in 1986. It was a contest where the Beastie Boys would kidnap the winner and bring him down to Daytona. We’re like, “This sounds really stupid. What? We’re gonna get free beer? This sounds really awesome!”

I’d just turned twenty. I didn’t go to college, so I had no idea what frat life was like. I was like, “How do you people get the money to party like this?” It was just drink drink drink. It was totally nasty. But don’t get me wrong: I loved it. There’s nothing wrong with nasty. I’m a fan of nasty.

My favorite part was going to a party thrown by Ron Rice, who owned Hawaiian Tropic. We’re like, “Party at a guy’s house who owns a suntan lotion company? Let’s go!” We walked into the house, and as we were checking out the scene, we saw a super-drunk guy in his midsixties, wearing a captain’s hat, like a broken-down Charles Nelson Reilly. He turns to a security guard and shouts, “Security? Throw me out!” That’s still a running joke. Any time I have a couple too many, I’ll say to my friends, “Security? Throw me out!”

FLEA: We were totally against lip-syncing, so when we were faced with a lip-sync situation, we never just stood there and pretended to play. I’d play bass with my shoe and then jump into the audience, something like that. So we’re onstage in Daytona, and the song starts, “Knock Me Down.” And about halfway through, I leave the stage with the song still playing and leap into the crowd. The first thing I see is a girl in a bikini standing in front of me. She’s jumping around, having a good time. Woo-hoo! So I grab her and pick her up over my shoulders. While I was spinning her around, Chad ran up behind her and spanked her on the butt. I didn’t realize it. The girl and I both fell onto the sand, and she started yelling at me. I yelled back at her, “Well, fuck you, then.” About twenty minutes afterwards I hear this girl is really upset. I was like, “Can I apologize?” I still had no idea that Chad had spanked her.

The next day, the local newspaper runs a picture on the front page of this girl, cowering in fear with me standing over, with the headline FLEA ATTACKS GIRL. I’ve always been crazy on stage, but the last thing I would want to do is hurt someone’s feelings. We go to the next town in Florida, and after our show, Chad and I walk offstage and bam!, a cop places us in handcuffs and takes us off to jail. And that’s when I find out that Chad had spanked her. We were in jail overnight, but the case dragged on for months. We settled it, but the words Flea and sexual assault went out across the national press. What I did was wrong—I shouldn’t have touched her. But to claim that it was any kind of sexual thing was completely wrong.

JANET KLEINBAUM, record executive: I went down for many Spring Breaks. Couldn’t wait to get out of there. Hectic, crowded, freezing cold, filthy beaches. It always looked better on camera than it did in reality.

KEVIN SEAL: They set up huge klieg lights around the pool, so it looked like it was sunny, and kids pranced around in their bathing suits every time a floor manager cued them. We’d cut away to some video and they’d stand there, shivering. It was a bacchanal. The Daytona Police converted a Safeway parking lot into a temporary jail, with chain-link fences. Scores of kids in zip cuffs stood around, shouting at their friends. There were reports in the paper about kids who plunged off a hotel balcony and hit the deck. I dreaded it.

There was the sense of young lives being wasted, which was sort of a pall that hung over my time at MTV, generally. Not only with the audience, but perhaps in my own life as well.

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Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale: The Only Thing Missing Is The Woman Part One

Part One Part Two


A movie by Brian De Palma, released almost ten years ago, that intrigued me when I saw it, and which I’ve looked at a few times in the past week, to try and get a better fix on.

A good starting point, I think, is that there are no characters in the movie, in the “realistic” sense. The people who take up most of the story are archetypes who have been summoned to play their parts for the edification of the audience. We might be able to imagine the off-screen life of Carlito Brigante or Carrie White; there is no off-screen life for the men and women here. They exist only as images, each their archetype, nothing more, defined by their emblems.

The names I employ for these archetypes are somewhat arbitrary; the Good Daughter could also be the Grieving Widow, the Hero could also be the Patsy, etc. However, they should all be recognizable to anyone who reads novels and watches movies. A more formal, more diligent study here might look at the history of character types. These should be suitable enough. I think it is unambiguous that all have only one or two defining traits in the course of the movie, and unambiguous about what those traits are.

The Femme Fatale – the icy blonde. Her emblem, a sexy dress.

Femme Fatale

The Good Daughter – a grieving widow. Her emblem, a flower print dress.

Lily in costume

The Slut – A woman who acts only through sexual motives, to be used and abused through sex. Her emblem, her nudity.

Veronica in snake bra

The Hero / Voyeur – an observer, the proxy for the audience, his emblems, a motorbike and a camera.

Bardo with camera

The Businessman – a modern-day King. He has money and power. Emblem: a business suit.


The Bodyguard – the King’s guard, his emblem, a car with tinted windows.

Shiff in car

The Thieves – the villains. Their sole interest is getting the money, nothing else. Their emblems: tuxedo, cap, leather jacket.

Black Tie and Racine

The Detective – an investigator who should be an ally of the hero, but is an obstacle to the hero’s quest, and may be in league with the powerful businessman. No visual emblem, but: everything he says is either an interrogative question or an accusation.


The Clown – a ridiculous, weak, harmless figure who can be humiliated by others without fear of retribution. In this movie, he is the guard who’s the inside man in the Cannes robbery. Emblem: he’s rather fat.

security guard at heist

A key line in the movie, I believe, is this:


You know why no good deed goes unpunished? Because this world is hell and you’re nothing but a fucking patsy.

They are in hell, they have no freedom of choice, they can only act out their roles as they are defined. Lily can only be the bad woman, Nicolas can only be the patsy. The only possible reference I can think of is Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, with the key difference that the actors can never break or talk outside of these roles. Taking the characters as archetypes helps explain one of the stranger moments in the movie – Black Tie, leaving prison in the very same costume he arrived in, to be picked up by Racine, also in the same outfit that he wore in the heist. It’s the same principle for why a cartoon character like Lisa Simpson always wears the same dress, or a film noir satire might feature a detective who always wore a trenchcoat.

The mid-section of the movie deals with a thriller archetype (the Femme Fatale) falling into another movie, a family tragedy, and being mistaken for another archetype (the Good Daughter), then moving back into her own movie under this guise.

The structure and characters have some similarities to another movie also written by De Palma, Blow Out, though we can speak of actual, often complex, characters there, and not simple archetypes.

There we have the hero / observer, Jack Terry (John Travolta),

Brian De Palma's Blow Out - Jack Terry

The tainted woman, Sally (Nancy Allen),

Brian De Palma's Blow Out - Sally Bedina

Where Lily has former criminal associates, so Sally has a former criminal associate, Manny Karp (Dennis Franz):

Brian De Palma's Blow Out - Manny Karp

The security, the unhinged Burke (John Lithgow):

Biran De Palma's Blow Out - Burke

The slut, an anonymous prostitute (Deborah Everton):

Brian De Palma's Blow Out - Anonymous prostitute played by Deborah Everton

The detective, Mackey (John Aquino):

Brian De Palma's Blow Out - Mackey played by John Aquino

There is no king in Blow Out, only one that Jack imagines he is fighting against, who is the vast power behind the conspiracy; he is actually only fighting against the mediocrity Burke. In terms of structure, Blow Out plays with a male viewer’s expectations, with the opening sequence is a parody of a movie that could be produced in the expectation of a male audience. A group of sorority women are observed by a serial killer. They are in various ways, tainted by sex, and will soon be killed by this lunatic, with the entire sequence shot through the eyes of the killer. Blow Out then cuts away from this movie to its main plot, which gives us many of the same elements, but not in the way the audience wants; there is, again, a serial killer, Burke, who kills a series of women tainted by sex, whose murders we see up close. A woman, Sally, who has gone to bed with men to blackmail them, is eventually killed by Burke. Where the murders in the pre-credit film might have given us thrills, these killings provide only despair.

Femme Fatale opens with a sequence that has been pointed out as unrealistic. Of course it is! It’s utterly, self-consciously, unrealistic since it is conceived not from reality, but created entirely for the expectations of the (male) audience. A half-naked woman; glittering jewels; a daring theft; blood; a power blackout; night vision goggles; not least, sex between two beautiful women. The “Bolero” that plays is not only about the variations in this scene, between the various scenes in the movie, but that this heist is only an outrageous variation on others that have gone before it. The theft is ridiculous, but so are most movie thefts which are designed to have elements (a sexy girl, a helicopter, high tech equipment) for their visual and kinetic aspect. A movie has these elements not because most robberies have them, but for the same reason a circus has a dancing bear and a firebreather.

That those in the robbery are only limited archetypes, limited in their actions, is emphasised by Black Tie’s opening lines. They are directions for what will happen during the robbery. There are no names, only symbols (“Snake”, “Wetsuit”, “Torpedos” etc.) Their actions will lie not with their individual character in the scene, but entirely within the limits of these types. The Femme Fatale knows no one; the name she’s given here (“Laure Ash”) is a veiling pseudonym. The one she adopts later (“Lily”) is not hers either. She is a nameless archetype, the bad woman.


Listen up. At twenty two hundred, Wetsuit’s down the hole when the snake hits the carpet. Security lifts the key. I terminate the torpedoes. You charm the Snake into the stall. Bait and switch. At twenty two twenty, Wetsuit turns out the lights. Glasses on. I bag the snake. Key in the bag. Bag to the boat. No radio unless absolutely necessary. Code Red. Five minutes to blackout. Drop everything. Walk away. If the cops get you, tell them the truth. You know no one.

A second point: the opening image, is Laura as a dim shadowy veil over earlier incarnations of this movie`s archetypes, the Femme Fatale and Patsy of Double Indemnity.

Femme Fatale reflected in TV

So, these elements are there, yet they are not given play the way a man might want. The woman does not turn out to be good, but stays within her definition, is always bad. She has sex with the hero, but never gives herself over to him. There is even the possibility that the Femme Fatale does not just have sex with a woman for this crime, but is a full-blown lesbian, with no sexual interest in men.


I will only make a few short notes on the very intricate jewel theft scene. It should be studied in-depth, shot by shot, on how it is organized, and I cannot do so at this time.

Black Tie is designed as an archetype to only be interested in stealing the jewels, and later, getting the money from them being fenced. He doesn’t exist outside of this intent. I think we see this, almost comically, in two moments during the theft.

In the opening preparation scene, the very beautiful Femme Fatale gets up off her bed, topless, yet he never breaks his concentration from his speech outlining the robbery; he does not even acknowledge her nakedness with a furtive look.

Femme Fatale and Black Tie

This happens again, during the robbery.

Femme Fatale Veronica in bathroom

Femme Fatale Veronica and Black Tie

The two women are having sex behind the glass. Most men might steal a glance; in the broad vocabulary of a heist scene, a criminal might be expected to give a nasty smile or laugh. Black Tie is entirely indifferent to it, does not even have to fight an impulse to look. His archetype’s only trait is getting the money. There is a tradition, of course, of male and female characters of different races not attracted to each other by deliberate design. This may be a subtle commentary on that as well.

Beginning in the theft sequence, we see an emphasis throughout the movie in controlling one’s image and observing what others do not. A key plot point is for Laure to obtain a false passport. Another key point is when her photograph is taken without her permission. Throughout, characters are at an advantage or disadvantage by what they know or don’t know, information obtained from great distance, oftentimes seen at great distance.

This starts with the heist. We do not see Laure’s face close up in the pre-theft scene. Our first look at her face is on the forged press card, giving a false identity, a photo of her, but not looking like her in any part of the movie. The camera then moves up, but her face is blocked by a camera, one like Bardo’s, which allows her to see from far away.

Laure press card

Laure with camera

The sequence ends with the power going out. What happens next might be a good visual metaphor for much of the movie; the Femme Fatale walks about in the dark seeing perfectly, while other characters, and the moviegoers themselves, stumble about blind. This should not be taken that she is in control; she is ultimately a prisoner of her archetype.

Laure in thief costume

Night vision

Night vision

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Femme Fatale: lights out.

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The final moment in the heist points up to the intentional ridiculous quality of it; the elaborate attempt to obtain a single key all just to unlock a simple door. Given the high-tech equipment available, it would seem an ordinary lockpick might be easier.

The opening bookend was of the shadowy Femme Fatale reflected on the TV, gradually becoming more visible. The closing bookend, and the beginning of the next part of the movie, is now her solid image in the cab, Paris reflected in the glass, passing the Eiffel, near where she’ll later drown.

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Femme Fatale: reflections.

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There are some valid critiques of the idea that the all exclusive genius behind a movie is a director, responsible for each and every choice; I won’t argue with these, except to say that when watching a movie I often assign some individual identity as creator of the world. Even more so in a thriller where the audience is conscious of an inteventionist god, if you will, that alters and shifts perspective for the fullest effect of suspense, rather than, say, a “realistic” film where one is provided the illusion that we are seeing the unfiltered ordinary days in the life of a village, a relationship, etc.

This is a thriller, so the audience expects the author to withhold information for the effect of suspense. To keep the fact that Raskolnikov killed the pawnbroker a secret is pointless and would make Crime and Punishment hopeless confusing; to reveal the identity of the criminal in the opening paragraph of a Sherlock Holmes story, or hint too strongly at the identity, would destroy the point of the story.

A more succinct description is given by Joan Didion in her novel Democracy, when the writer herself steps in to give an explanation of her effects:

I know the conventions and how to observe them, how to fill in the canvas I have already stretched; know how to tell you what he said and she said know above all, since the heart of narrative is a certain calculated ellipsis, a tacit contract between writer and reader to surprise and be surprised, how not to tell you what you do not yet want to know.

Each character in Femme Fatale attempts to have an advantage over the other by obtaining more information on the others while concealing their own details. Racine, Shiff, and Bardo all use binoculars to see at great distance. Shiff conceals himself in a car with tinted windows. Bardo pretends to be a gay man, in order to put Laure at ease and enter her room. Racine and Black Tie pretend to be homeless to put Shiff at ease. Laure disguises herself in a wig, and later, pretends to be Lily.

When watching Femme Fatale one is aware that the author (one might substitute writer-director Brian De Palma’s name here) keeps information from us, but also provides a sense that we are gods of this world, knowing and seeing more than almost all the characters on screen, except, of course, for the Femme Fatale.

Again and again, we have a god’s eye view, looking down on the characters from a distant height.

Femme Fatale in bathroom overhead

Bardo overhead

Femme Fatale at Lily's overhead

Bardo in hotel overhead

Bardo with police overhead

Bardo arrested overhead

When Laure hides the gun, she knows where it is, but we do as well; when Nicolas enters the room, we have an idea where the gun will be hidden before he finds it.

Femme Fatale hides gun

Others cannot see into Shiff’s car, but we go inside it. We know of Laure’s background in the heist and the episode in the country, which neither Bardo nor Watts know about.

Early on, we’re given an illustration of the limited information the characters have, compared to our point of view, as well as how crucial it is for them to have access to hidden or inaccessible information.

Bardo takes a photo of Laure, which he can take from his balcony because of the powerful lense on his camera. Laure retreats to the church, where she is out of reach of Bardo’s camera, while still falling under the eye of Racine’s. We see her close-up. She opens the directions for where to get the new passport. We are given an intimate view of the paper; Racine sees this vital information from far away through his binoculars.

split screen Bardo and Racine

split screen Femme Fatale

split screen Femme Fatale and note

We then move to perspectives in the church. On the left, is Laure’s view, the undifferentiated crowd at a distance. For our benefit, we’re given a close view of Lily’s parents reacting to who they think is their daughter.

split screen church

Laure, frightened, leaves the church. Bardo stays focused on the photo of this ambiguous exchange, while outside and around him, the story continues.

split screen Bardo looks at photo

This perhaps foreshadows the mistake he makes later in the movie, that the entire story is contained in this photo, and no further details are needed. From the police interrogation:

Mrs. Watts was trying to kill herself. I stopped her so she set me up for you guys, to get me out of her way.

How did you come up with that?

I read a lot of mysteries and I just figure out the endings half way…I put the clues together and I know what happened, sir.

It is after Lily wipes off the bruise and knocks the maid into a coma that we realize that the Femme Fatale knows far more than we do, whatever our sense of full knowledge. We are in the same position as Bardo after he takes the photo of Laure and Veronica at the church; there are details outside of what we see that alter everything.

This ties in with the almost totemic aspect in the movie of being photographed or recorded. There is, of course, the ancient superstition that a photograph captures the soul. Here, there’s always a great danger associated with any kind of visual or audio copy.

Bardo taking Laure’s picture,

Bardo split screen taking picture

Laure photographed before she is nearly killed,

Racine taking picture

The photo of Laure which endangers her. In this movie where characters hide who they are and what they know, while trying to see further than others, Bardo is only able to take the photo by passing himself off as a blind man:

Bardo as beggar taking picture

Femme Fatale surprised in car

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Femme Fatale: "I need a photo."

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Security head Shiff, his massive head dominating the screen relative to Bardo tells him all that he knows of the man and his power over him. Bardo, of course, has no idea where Shiff is, and can’t see him anyway because of the car’s tinted windows:

Shiff taking to Bardo


I don’t think you realize who you’re dealing with, Mr. Bardo. We know all about you, your overdrawn bank account your criminal record. I suggest you get that picture back and you bring it to me at the residence tomorrow morning at 11 a.m. Sharp.

Shiff is able to see via his binoculars that Bardo will be wearing a wire when talking to Watts. This cannot be allowed.

Bardo and recorder


Park Bardo in the office until I can get…Hold on a second.

(SHIFF sees BARDO through binoculars take out a recording device and insert a disc)

I don’t believe it. This paparazzi scum is wearing a wire. Make sure he doesn’t get past security.

Bardo’s threat at the end is that he has recorded Lily, and she kills him for it.

Bardo after recording Femme Fatale

There are always practical reasons in each instance for why people do not want to be recorded, but it is also a contrast with a movie where images are frequently false in their isolation, that these recorded images and sounds are invested with sacred truth. Another point: a character that is only an archetype is entirely revealed when their veil is down and their self recorded. There is no multitude of character, of which this is only one aspect; this is the only aspect.

A few further examples of the limited vision of the audience. At the beginning of the middle episode, we have a split screen where the left side stays with Bardo on his balcony, with the right side starting in near the same position as the left, then moving out through the sky, from the top to the bottom of the church, across the street, to the cafe. It’s an incredible space and freedom compared to the fixed position of Bardo. At the end of this, Bardo picks up his camera and photographs the women at the cafe, the very place the right side of the screen is at. Whatever our freedom, we run on the rails set by the author, and despite our incredible freedom, we have only been brought to the same point as Bardo, who seems to lack our freedom of movement. Our greater freedom as a viewer isn’t illusory, but the viewer remains very much the slave to the author’s vision.

split screen Bardo on balcony and church

split screen Bardo on balcony and church

split screen Bardo on balcony and church

split screen Bardo on balcony and church

Near the end of the movie, we again move beyond the tinted windows of Shiff’s car, to see what someone outside would not, Shiff held hostage by Black Tie and Racine. A fight breaks out, but we are unable to see the outcome as the author now pulls us outside the car. Where before the camera might move further and further up, a god’s eye view, now the camera moves further and further down till it is level with the car’s bumper – our power of observation is at the whim of this author.

gun pointed at Shiff

outside Shiff's car

A scene between Serra and Watts’ counsel, Stansfield Phillips re-states this idea. The detective simply wishes to “see” Ms. Watts. Phillips will not allow such a thing. The camera moves from a high privileged view, to a point where the spectator is at a worm’s eye view, looking up at these characters, when Phillips makes her pronouncement.

I’d still like to talk to Mrs. Watts.

And what crime has she committed?

No crime, I just want to see her.

Well, I’m sure we all want to see lots of people but fortunately in our country and in yours they are not compelled to see us. Good day, Inspector.

Stansfield from above

Stansfield from below

Another, more striking point is made through the collages assembled by Bardo. These are vast pictures of the space before his balcony, made up of individual photos taken of the area about him. They are on the one hand accurate, yet false. There are three collages seen during the course of the movie:

The first, when Bardo takes the picture of Laure meeting Veronica,

first view of collage

the second, during the middle episode after he has been double crossed by Laure,

second view of collage

the third, at the very end, after Black Tie and Racine are killed:

third view of collage

A quick detour; this collage is mirrored by collages in the room of Lily’s child,

collage in room of Lily's daughter

The collages are a diligent attempt to re-create the world outside. They are, of course, selective, showing only the vision Bardo has chosen. The first collage contains no people except the Veronica and Laure meeting; the second, does not even contain this picture. The third is most important of all, containing a radically different image, of sunlight bursting through, Laure reacting to the accident, the accident itself. We have seen how long it takes Bardo to take and print each picture, so it’s not possible for him to take the pictures and alter the collage before running down to help Laure. The landscape does not change based on what Bardo does and does not observe, but what the author decrees. In one moment, the visual collage has entirely changed; this may also account for the disappearance of Laure and Veronica in the second collage. She changes her identity, and her past itself completely disappears.

This idea of authorial intervention, very close to that idea of an interventionist god, converge in the final scene. Lily and Veronica are saved, not through their own actions, or Bardo’s, but sunlight moving in an intricate set of reflections to strike the eyes of the truck’s driver. The complicated route of the light reminds me of the complex engineering of the opening heist; the sun could well be the usual god symbol; it is, in effect, arbitrary, coming about only because of the mercy Laure shows earlier. The mercy shown by Laure, of course, is also from the author himself, the archetype willed to act one way rather than another. This may also be part of the relationship between author and the audience. The audience wants a happy ending, whatever the circumstances, and the author has given it to them.


The collages are very much an homage to the work of David Hockney, who would construct an image through multiple small images, creating a cubist effect. An example would be “Pearblossom Hwy., 11 – 18th April 1986, #2”.

Pearblossom Hwy., 11

Hockney’s thoughts on photography and perspective, expressed eloquently in That’s The Way I See It, may be of some value in thinking about this movie. A small sample of relevance:

In the late seventies, when I didn’t do that many paintings, I worked a lot in the theatre. Now the theatre, or the kind of theatre I was working in, the opera, is Italian theatre, that is, it is deeply connected with perspective, it illusionistic theatre beyond a plane it is a box: there is a proscenium and that proscenium represents a plane, Beyond that plane is an illusion. In front of the plane is you, the audience, and, in a sense, there’s a separation between you and it. There is, of course, another kind of theatre, very well known in England: the Shakespearean theatre, which is quite different. The Shakespearean theatre is Cubist theatre in a way, in the sense that it is not an illusion behind a proscenium. The stage juts out into the audience and occupies the same space as the audience, so different people see completely different angles. Shakespeare did not need illusionistic settings. I think perhaps that’s why Shakespeare never fully works on television, because television, being a box, belongs to the Italian conception of theatre. Beyond the screen is an illusion and, of course, the box. These illusions involve perspective.

It took me a long time…to realize fully that, contrary to what some people may think, there is no actual distortion in Picasso. What he does may appear distorted only if you think one particular way of seeing, which is always from a distance and always in a kind of stopped, frozen time. The moment you realize what Picasso is doing, how he is using time as well – and that is why you could see round the back of the body as well as the front – once you begin to realize this, it becomes a very profound experience, because you begin to see that what he is doing is not a distortion, and lowly it then begins to look more and more real. In fact it is naturalism that begins to look less and less real. And that, of course, leads you into thinking about the nature of realism an what it is and what it isn’t. You become aware, perhaps more than ever before, that there are different forms of realism and that some are more real than others.

One reason, among others, why I think Picasso is so crucial is because he brings very much to the fore the question of versimilitude versus the remaking of appearance. And what led me into questioning the verisimilitude of naturalism was that it was not real enough. Because the problem is not that naturalism is too real, but that it just is not real enough.

We tend to think of the photograph as a perfect record of life. But in fact that photograph is the ultimate Renaissance picture. It is the mechanical formulation of the theories of perspective of the Renaissance, of the invention in fifteenth-century Italy of the vanishing point, which many people think was one of the most profound inventions of all time. Brunelleschi, looking through a hole at a street in Florence, makes a depiction of it from a fixed view-point. The Renaissance painters, of course, always suspected the rigid rules of perspective and bent them – as all good painters would.

Conventional art history takes the line that Cubism was a forerunner of abstraction by 1925. That was the year that saw the beginnings of Mondrian and much else…But that is where we run into a problem, because people then thought, ah yes, we have abstraction, what we call abstraction, which does not seem to look like the world, or it doesn’t matter whether it looks like the world or not; and then we have representation, where things do look like the world; and the ultimate representation is the photograph.

I, like everybody else, went along with that thinking. But now I am not sure at all about that. I think, in fact, the more you go on the more you realize there’s only abstraction. The photograph is a refined abstraction, a highly refined one, just as perspective is. In this sense, a Canaletto painting is a more abstract, and much less ‘real’, picture than an eighteenth-century Chinese scroll.


In the middle sequence, all clocks are frozen at 3:33 (a trinity of trinities, having both mystic and christian significance, which I won’t go into now). An overview,

bath clock

clock in poster

clock in car

clock in church

clock at station

clock at police station

clock at embassy

Part One Part Two

Femme Fatale script and images copyright Warner Bros; Blow Out images copyright MGM. “Pearblossom Hwy., 11 – 18th April 1986, #2” copyright David Hockney.

On April 27, 2015, some tweaking was done to improve this post’s readability, and some gifs were added to supplement some explanations. On April 28, 2015, a few small additional edits to make the writing a little more palatable – a little less repetition of the tiresome phrase “great distance”, for example.

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Daniel Boorstin on Presidential Debates and other Pseudo-Events

From The Image: Or What Happened To The American Dream, the chapter “From News Gathering to News Making: A Flood of Pseudo-Events” (1961):

A perfect example of how pseudo-events can dominate is the recent popularity of the quiz show format. Its original appeal came less from the fact that such shows were tests of intelligence (or of dissimulation) than from the fact that the situations were elaborately contrived – with isolation booths, armed bank guards, and all the rest – and they purported to inform the public.

The application of the quiz show format to the so-called “Great Debates” between Presidential candidates in the election of 1960 is only another example. These four campaign programs, pompously and self-righteously advertised by the broadcasting networks, were remarkably successful in reducing great national issues to trivial dimensions.

In origin the Great Debates were confusedly collaborative between politicians and news namers. Public interest centered around the pseudo-event itself: the lighting, make-up, ground rules, whether notes would be allowed, etc. Far more interest was shown in the performance than in what was said. The pseudo-events spawned in turn by the Great Debates were numberless. People who had seen the shows read about them the more avidly, and listened eagerly for interpretations by news commentators. Representatives of both parties made “statements” on the probable effects of the debates. Numerous interviews and discussion programs were broadcast exploring their meaning. Opinion polls kept us informed on the nuances of our own and other people’s reactions.

The drama of the situation was mostly specious, or at least had an extremely ambiguous relevance to the main (but forgotten) issue: which participant was better qualified for the Presidency. Of course, a man’s ability, while standing under klieg lights, without notes, to answer in two and a half minutes a question kept secret until that moment, had only the most dubious relevance – if any at all – to his real qualifications to make deliberate Presidential decisions on long-standing public questions after being instructed by a corps of advisers. The great Presidents in our history (with the possible exception of F.D.R.) would have done miserably; but our most notorious demagogues would have shone.

This greatest opportunity in American history to educate the voters by debating the large issues of the campaign failed. The main reason, as [Theodore White, in his book The Making of the President: 1960] points out, was the compulsions of the medium. “The nature of both TV and radio is that they abhor silence and ‘dead time’…Although every experienced newspaperman and inquirer knows that the most thoughtful and responsive answers to any difficult question come after long pause, and that the longer the pause the more illuminating the thought that follows it, nonetheless the electronic media cannot bear to suffer a pause of more than five seconds; a pause of thirty seconds or dead time on air seems interminable.

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What Really Really Happened Between J. Edgar Hoover and MLK Jr.

A very long functional post on the flaws in this post at The Atlantic, “What Really Happened Between J. Edgar Hoover and MLK Jr.”, by John Meroney. The crux of the piece is that the film’s portrayal of Hoover is even-handed, but embodies the liberal prejudices of Hollywood, with the focus on the film’s portrayal of the relationship between Hoover and Martin Luther King, which is treated as entirely false and inaccurate.

I would very much like to see this movie, though I have not done so at this point. I cannot speak directly of how the movie portrays cited incidents; however, I believe almost every point made by the writer in describing the relationship between King and Hoover, as well as various points of Hoover’s character, is blatantly wrong.

A number of Mr. Meroney’s points are made without cited basis; my refutations are quotes, from either J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and The Secrets by Curt Gentry, Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire by Taylor Branch. Mr. Meroney may be hostile to Gentry’s work, but it is heavily sourced, often by original participants like assistant director William Sullivan, while Mr. Meroney’s citation of Branch’s own work implies that he considers the writer’s work credible. However, Branch’s work almost entirely contradicts his piece.

The quotes are sometimes lengthy to make clear that this is not a partial or selective section of the work to make the refutation.

The writer on communist efforts which may have influenced public perceptions of Hoover:

When it comes to the real J. Edgar Hoover, separating fact from conjecture is challenging because he had so many enemies. Post-Cold War Soviet Union archives reveal that the KGB employed a decades-long systematic campaign of character assassination and disinformation against him. One wonders how much of that may have been inadvertently mainlined into the more sordid accounts of Hoover “history,” perhaps even in this picture. Some dramatic license is permitted for films “based on a true story,” but there’s one important plot line of the picture that’s flat-out fictional and not open to guesswork: Hoover’s tumultuous relationship with King.

The linked work on the Soviet Union archives, Sword and the Shield Archive, stated that there were three aspects of Hoover’s character that were attacked: connections with extremists through forged John Birch Society letters; a forged letter from an actual FBI associate in the passport office which implied in-depth surveillance of citizens; and attempts to hurt Hoover through implications on his sexuality via forged letters from Ku Klux Klan members complaining that Hoover promoted FBI employees based on his attraction to them.

I don’t consider any of these attempts effective, or relevant to the relationship between King and Hoover. The accusation in the forged surveillance charge falls far short of what actually took place under Hoover’s watch.

Following is a lengthy excerpt from Sword and the Shield on these three attempts:

Like THE CIA, the FBI was inevitably a major target of KGB active measures. Until the death of J. Edgar Hoover in 1972, many of these measures were personally directed against the Bureau’s long-serving, aging and irascible director. Service A employed three simple and sometimes crude techniques. The first was to portray Hoover as in league with extremists such as the ultra right-wing John Birch Society, whose founder regarded even the former Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower as “a dedicated conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” Service A had acquired both some of the society’s stationery and samples of its leaders’ signatures from its California headquarters to assist it in its forgeries. In November 1965 it fabricated a letter of good wishes from Hoover to the leader of the John Birch Society, reminding him that the FBI funds put at his disposal would enable the society to open several more branches.

A second, more sophisticated form of active measures concerned alleged FBI abuses of civil rights. Operation SPIRT was designed to demonstrate that the head of the Passport Office in the State Department, Frances Knight, was a secret FBI agent whose loyalty was to Hoover rather than to then Secretary of State. In 1967 Service A forged a letter from Ms. Knight to Hoover and arranged for it to be sent to the celebrated columnist Drew Pearson, who published it in the Washington Post on August 4. The fabricated letter reported that a situation of “extreme urgency” had arisen as a result of press enquiries about an alleged FBI request to her for information on Professor H. Stuart Hughes, a Harvard critic of American policy in Vietnam:

I am seriously afraid that this may indicate preparations for a sustained press campaign against us. We have already discussed the attitude of the Secretary of State towards the long-established practice of the department making inquiries at the request of the FBI…Forgive me if I sound alarmist, but I am quite certain from what I have heard that a principle of vital importance is at stake which affects the whole conduct of the government and, in particular, the effectiveness of the Bureau.

Ms. Knight told Hoover she was unwilling to commit too much to paper and suggested an urgent meeting with him. Knight and Hoover both dismissed the letter as a forgery, but the fact that neither denied the FBI’s contacts with the Passport Office persuaded the KGB that at least some of its mud had stuck.

A third line of attack deployed by Service A against Hoover was to accuse him of being a homosexual. The truth about Hoover’s probably severely repressed sexuality is unlikely ever to be known. Later, much-publicized claims that he was a gay cross-dresser whose wardrobe included a red dress and boa, which made him look like “an old flapper,” and a black dress, “very fluffy, with flounces, and lace stockings,” which he wore with a black curly wig, rest on little more than the discredited testimony of a convicted perjurer, Susan Rosenstiel, who claimed to have seen Hoover so attired.

The later commercial success, admittedly in a more prurient period, of fanciful stories of Hoover at gay transvestite parties suggests that in fabricating stories of his homosexual affairs in the late 1960s Service A had hit upon a potentially promising
active measures theme. DeLoach was later depressed to discover how readily such stories were accepted as “undeniable truth:”

“Tell us about Hoover and Tolson,” people would say.
“Was it obvious?”
“Did everyone know what was going on?”

As sometimes happened, however, Service A spoiled a plausible falsehood by surrounding it with improbable amounts of conspiracy theory. It sent anonymous letters, intended to appear to come from the Ku Klux Klan, to the editors of leading newspapers, accusing Hoover of personally selecting for promotion in the FBI homosexuals from whom he expected sexual favors. Not content with turning the FBI into “a den of faggots,” Hoover had also allegedly been engaged for several decades in a larger gay conspiracy to staff the CIA and the State Department with homosexuals. The national security of the United States, claimed the letters, was now seriously at risk. Service A’s belief that major newspapers would take seriously nonsense of this kind, especially emanating from the Ku Klux Klan, was graphic evidence of the limitations in its understanding of American society. The letters had, predictably, no observable effect.

The article’s first charge is that Hoover did not initiate surveillance on King. He did so only at the behest of the Kennedys.

Moviegoers who see J. Edgar will leave the theater with the impression that Hoover drove the surveillance of the young civil rights leader – ordering agents to bug his hotel room and wiretap his telephone calls – because he considered the minister a threat to national security. According to the movie, Hoover persuades his reluctant boss, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to sign off on such procedures. But records from Freedom of Information Act disclosures and the pioneering research of civil rights historian David J. Garrow tell a far different, and more insightful, story.

After discussing efforts to surveil King associates Stanley David Levison and Jack O’Dell, as well as King’s own intimate moments,

J. Edgar leads us to believe that all of this voyeurism came at the instigation of Hoover. But the date of October 10, 1963, offers a different narrative: that was when Attorney General Robert Kennedy, angered by King’s recalcitrance to comply with the president’s demand to oust Levison, ordered Hoover to have bureau agents wiretap King’s telephones, including the one in the preacher’s Atlanta home.

Hoover began surveillance of King, the SCLC, and the civil rights movement long before this. Even when the movement and black americans were targeted, such as during the violence against the freedom riders, surveillance fell not on possible perpetrators, but always on those fighting the oppression.

Gentry’s Secrets:

J. Edgar Hoover, as early as 1957, had ordered his agents to begin monitoring the activities of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

By May [1957] [King] was dramatically orating before 35,000 demonstrators at a rally in Washington, D.C., where he shouted over and over again, “Give us the ballot!”

Immediately, Hoover opened a file under “racial matters.” The SCLC had announced a campaign to register eligible black voters throughout the South, a move that the FBI director felt warranted covert surveillance. King’s file would be stuffed with “all pertinent information.”

In January 1959, entirely on his own and without officially opening a security investigation, Hoover ordered FBI agents to burglarize the SCLC offices. It was the first of twenty known break-ins between that date and January 1964. According to a Justice Department study after King’s death, “Some of these entries had as one purpose, among others, the obtaining of information about Dr. King.”

It would be standard operating procedure – and more to the point, considering the unlikelihood that damaging materials were lying around the premises – for the Bureau to take these opportunities to install bugs. Certainly, wiretaps were installed. Former Assistant Director Sullivan later admitted that the FBI “had been tapping King’s telephone in Atlanta since the late 1950s.”

This was accompanied by utter lassitude when dealing with violence against civil rights workers. From Gentry’s Secrets, on what took place during the freedom rides:

Eugene “Bull” Connor had a highly inventive plan.

As public safety director for the city of Birmingham, Alabama, he was in charge of the police department, but an unprecedented event that was imminent had convinced him that unprecedented measures were required, and he sought the aid of the local Ku Klux Klan.

On May 14, just days away, a Greyhound bus carrying a small group of “freedom riders,” blacks and whites who were participating in the Congress of Racial Equality’s (CORE) series of sit-ins throughout the old South, would arrive in Birmingham.

Assured of Connor’s cooperation, the Klan arranged to have sixty men ready to assault the men and women who were traveling together across state lines on a public bus, as was legal under the laws of interstate commerce. The forces would be divided into squads of ten men each, who would arm themselves with baseball bats, clubs, and pipes. Klan members were warned not to bring along a pistol, unless they had a license for it.

All of this information was sent to J. Edgar Hoover on May 12, two days before the scheduled arrival of the buses in Birmingham, in a telex from the Birmingham SAC [SAC = Special Agent in Charge]. He did nothing.

In the bloodbth of May 14, one squad leader stood out in the memory of horrified victims and witnesses. He savagely attacked a black man who was waiting at the bus station for his fiancee to arrive, then restrained the man while other KKKers pummeled him. This leader also beat a newspaper photographer unconscious and ran after a second newsman who had photographed the incident, seizing and smashing his camera.

Gary Thomas Rowe, Hoover’s chief paid informer workin undercover in the KKK, was never charged with crimes for his Sunday spree, nor was he ever to be restrained by any of his five “handlers” over the next few years*. The FBI director had known beforehand that the Klan had planned the ambush and that his man Rowe intended to carry his special bat.

But the director’s prior information about the horrific incident went even deeper. On May 5, nearly two weeks earlier, the Birmingham SAC Thomas Jenkins had reported that a policeman in Connor’s intelligence branch, Sergeant Tom Cook, was a pipeline to the KKK. One day before that, Hoover had received the tentative schedule of the freedom rides from his plant in the CORE project. The FBI informant Simeon Booker, Washington bureau chief for black-oriented magazines like Ebony and Jet, wanted the Bureau to know that he might be facing danger and need protection.

He was whistling in the wind.

Jenkins, who had known about Cook’s Klan connections as early as April 24, telephoned the sergeant on May 14 to tell him that the bus was on the road from nearby Anniston.

* In 1980 the Justice Department prepared a classified 302-page report on Gary Thomas Rowe and his underground activities on behalf of the FBI. According to JD investigators:

  • Rowe was no mere informant. Klan members stated he had veto power over any violent activity contemplated by the Eastview 13 Klavern.
  • Rowe twice failed lie detector tests in which he denied participating in the group’s bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Four young black girls were killed in the blast.
  • Although he admitted having been in the car with three other Klansmen when a shot was fired that killed the civil rights worker Viola Gregg Liuzzo, Rowe was not charged with participation in the murder but was instead used as the government;s principal witness against the other men. He later failed a lie detector test when asked whether, as his compatriots charged, he had fired the fatal bullet.
  • From 1960 to 1965 Rowe was paid at least $22,000 by the FBI and given help in starting a new life under an assumed name in California and later, Georgia.

All this, and more was known to Hoover. The FBI director also knew that Rowe had bragged of having killed an unidentified black man in 1963, and that he had been involved in the beating of several Negroes at a Birmingham public park. Yet no action was ever taken against Rowe. “As long as he was providing good intelligence,” the Justice Department report concluded, “the Birmingham field office appeared willing to overlook Rowe’s own involvement.”

Hoover’s actions here were not driven by simple anti-communism, but in large part by race; bluntly, racism, pure and simple. From a cabinet meeting in 1956, as described in Gentry’s Secrets:

The date was March 9, 1956, and the subject civil rights. [Attorney General Herbert Brownell] wanted to ask Congress for a new civil rights law (there hadn’t been one since Reconstruction), for the establishment of an independent Civil Rights Commission, for granting the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department full status as division, and for the power to bring suits in federal courts to enforce voting rights.

His subordinate, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who had accompanied Brownell to the meeting at the request of the president and the Cabinet, pulled the rug right out from under him.

“The South is in a state of explosive resentment over what they consider an unfair portrayal of their way of life, and what they consider intermeddling,” Hoover warned his rapt audience. And for this he blamed the 1954 and 1956 U.S. Supreme Court school desegregation decisions. Behind the tension over “mixed education,” he cautioned, “stalks the specter of racial intermarriage.” The NAACP and the other civil rights groups were exacerbating the already tense situation by preaching “racial hatred,” he claimed. Morover, they had been targeted for infiltration by the Communist party.* On the other hand, the White Citizens Councils which had recently sprung up throughout the South to oppose desegregation included among their members “bankers, lawyers, doctors, state legislators and industrialists…some of the leading citizens of the South.” It was clear with which group Hoover chose to take his stand. As for the Ku Klux Klan, the FBI director airily dismissed it as “pretty much defunct.” Accompanied as always with charts and graphs, Hoover used one of the latter to show that the number of lynchings was down; hence there was certainly no need for legislation giving the FBI formal responsibility for such cases.

Speaking of a forthcoming NAACP conference, he closed on a purely political note: “The Communist Party plans to use this conference to embarrass the administration and Dixiecrats who have supported it, by forcing the administration to take a stand on civil rights legislation with the present Congress. The party hopes through a rift to affect the 1956 elections.”

Stanford Ungar has noted, “The director’s report, bigoted and narrow-minded as it might seem in retrospect, had a powerful impact. It was probably a major factor in President Eisenhower’s decision not to push for the Brownell civil rights program.”

* An initial finding that the NAACP was opposed to communism did not keep the FBI from investigating the organization for another twenty-five years.

Let’s go back to The Atlantic article, and return to what is said about King advisers Levison and O’Dell:

In the summer of 1963, Hoover wasn’t the only one preoccupied with King. So was the Kennedy White House. That was because one of King’s closest advisers, Stanley David Levison, and another man who ran one of King’s offices, Jack O’Dell, were secret Communist Party operatives. For at least a year, the president and his attorney general brother had been receiving classified data, transcripts of wiretapped telephone calls (which they sanctioned), and intelligence reports confirming the men’s affiliation with the Soviet-controlled Party. This information also chronicled the work they were then doing for King.

Branch, Parting the Waters, on the Levison episode:

In December, [Robert] Kennedy told a British journalist that the U.S. Communist Party “couldn’t be more feeble and less of a threat, and besides its membership consists largely of FBI agents.” In sharp but indirect rebuttal, Hoover told a House committee the next month that the U.S. Communist Party was “a Trojan Horse of rigidly disciplined fanatics unalterably committed to bring this free nation under the yoke of international communism.” Hoover substantiated this ringing alarm by disclosing confidentially…that a New York lawyer named Stanley Levison was both a secret member of the Communist Party, subject to orders from the Kremlin, and a guiding adviser to Martin Luther King.

[February 2] [Assistant Attorney General] Byron White called in the FBI liaison officer specifically to discuss Hoover’s January 8 warning about Levison.

[White’s request] for the Levison file raised thorny problems. For one thing, nearly all the intelligence information about Levison’s Communist allegiance was at least five years old, and it came from two brothers, Jack and Morris Childs, who had infiltrated the party as FBI informants after having been purged in the factional turmoil of the late 1940s. Worse the Levison record would show that the FBI itself twie had attempted to recruit Levison since then, which would make it difficult to explain why the Bureau now considered him so sinister. Finally, while the Bureau could show that Levison and King were close friends in the civil rights movement, there was no evidence as yet to show that either one of them followed the orders or even the wishes of the American Communist Party, let alone the Kremlin. In short, the January 8 memo had exaggerated the subversive linkages in order to get a message through to Kennedy, and Byron White’s sudden embrace of the alarm now called for the Bureau to show its hand. This potential embarassment rose instantly to J. Edgar Hoover for decision. “King is no good any way,” he scrawled on the memo outlining the problem.

By this, his first written assessment of King, Hoover marked him for FBI hostility in advance of any investigation…The important signal to get across was that King wa tainted by his association with Levison. As to White’s request for evidence, Hoover transformed weakness into strength: the information could not be revealed, he ordered, because it was too important. The Levison file must remain secret in all its details.

It is this bunko non-existent evidence that prompts the Attorney General to approve the first of many wiretaps, in March of 1962:

[First week of March] Hoover formally requested Attorney General Kennedy’s authorization to place wiretaps in the office of Stanley Levison. Kennedy approved.

Branch’s Waters, on O’Dell as a communist:

On October 26, a New Orleans newspaper published a story flatly declaring that Jack O’Dell was a “Communist who has infiltrated to the top administrative post in the Rev. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.” Citing “a highly authouritative source,” the unsigned article identified O’Dell as a “concealed member” of the party’s national committee who for years had been “carrying out his Communist party assignments” in civil rights work.

King already knew that O’Dell had been expelled from the National Maritime Union, and that he had lost his insurance job in Montgomery after being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a suspected Communist. He wanted to make sure there was nothing deeper within O’Dell’s past, nothing violent or sinister. Wearily, O’Dell told King that he was not a party member, as the article alleged, much less a member of the party’s national committee, but he knew people who were.

This point, (again, Branch’s Waters), is crucial:

From the beginning, Hoover showed practically no interest in proving the substance of the case against Levison or O’Dell – in documenting their alleged submission to the discipline of Soviet agents, or in gathering legal evidence that they were engaged in treasonous, violent, or clearly malevolent conspiracies against the United States.

Throughout, King is told that Levison and O’Dell are high level communists in Soviet control. He constantly asks for proof of the allegations; he receives none. Waters:

[King] kept asking for proof, saying that these terrible spy terms did not ring true of the men he had known so well, that he could not very well throw them out of the movement on unsupported allegations. Everybody he knew in the movement had been called a Communist for years, himself included.

King’s commentary on the meeting with President Kennedy, where Kennedy pressured him to get rid of Levison and O’Dell:

King laughed as he told [his associates] how the three Administration officials [the Kennedys, and head of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, Burke Marshall] had tried to impress him with all sorts of spooky code names. Whenever he had asked for proof – evidence that Levison and O’Dell were under Communist control, or that they wanted too make him do something he didn’t want to do – the Kennedys had dodged and danced around with more fancy words. This amused King – these big white folks acted like country preachers promising to pay back some money. What it really meant, King accurately guessed, was that J. Edgar Hoover was hoarding whatever evidence there was, if there was any.

Back to the article:

J. Edgar also leaves one to conclude that Hoover’s disapproval of King was all-encompassing. At one point in the picture, the supposedly repressed Hoover comes unhinged, fulminating against King, and – in a risible fictionalization – he even crafts a poison-pen letter to the minister pretending that he’s black. “You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all us Negroes,” dictates the movie’s Hoover. “White people in this country have enough frauds of their own but I am sure they don’t have one at this time that is anywhere near your equal.”

The filmmakers, of course, want viewers to recognize that Hoover is ironically describing himself. The truth is, Hoover never sent such a letter to King.

Whether Hoover was personally involved in drafting such a letter is unknown; that a letter along with tapes of recorded surveillance, very close to the one described, was sent to King is undisputed. From Secrets:

“Once it became apparent that King, who held himself up publicly and to his associates as a ‘man of God’ and as a minister, once it became clear through the coverage of his activities that he was not, at least his sexual conduct was such that he was breaking down his picture as a ‘man of God,’ the question came up whether Coretta King should be advised….It seemed proper to advise her of what was going on.” So [Associate Director Alan Belmont] stated to the author, shortly before he died. [Assistant Director William Sullivan] put it much more simply. Asked, “What possible justification could you have had for sending a man’s wife that kind of material?” Sullivan told the author, “He was breaking his marriage vows.”

The plan was to mail the package to the SCLC office in King’s name, because the FBI coverage had revealed that Mrs. King opened his mail for him when he was on the road.*

“Mail it from a southern state,” Hoover advised. An unwitting agent whom Sullivan trusted dropped it into a mailbox in Tampa.

* Some accounts of this incident have missed the point, taking the apologists’ line that the FBI intended that only King see the contents of the package. On the contrary, it knew that he would be out of the office and that Coretta would be at her post. It doesn’t take a Jesuit to see that, in such circumstances, a package addressed to Martin Luther King Jr., is in effect and intent a package intended for Coretta Scott King.

This letter is referred to as the “suicide package” because the letter calling for his suicide, accompanied by surveillance recording implied that King, already under heavy pressure from all manner of circumstances, should take the easy way out and kill himself – especially since this might avoid embarrassment from further surveillance being released.

Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David Garrow follows up on what happened after the package was sent.

Coretta found and opened a thin box containing a reel of tape that had been received at SCLC headquarters a month earlier. Staff members had assumed it was a recording of one of King’s speeches and put it aside for Coretta, who collected them, but upon playing it, she realized that this was not a speech. On some of teh tape was her husband’s voice, but his remarks certainly had not been delivered to any public audience. Furthermore, the box also contained an anonymous threatening letter:


In view of your low grade…I will not dignify your name with either a Mr. or a Reverend or a Dr. And, your last name calls to mind only the type of King such as King Henry the VIII….

King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes. White people in this country have enough frauds of their own but I am sure they don’t have one at this time that is anywhere near your equal. You are no clergyman and you know it. I repeat you are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that. You could not believe in God….Clearly you don’t believe in any personal moral principles.

King, like all frauds your end is approaching. You could have been our greatest leader. You, even at an early age have turned out to be not a leader but a dissolute, abnormal moral imbecile. We will now have to depend on our older leaders like [Roy Wilkins, head of CORE] a man of character and thank God we have others like him. But you are done. Your “honorary” degrees, your Nobel Prize (what a grim farce) and other awards will not save you. King, I repeat you are done.

No person can overcome facts, not even a fraud like yourself….I repeat – no person can argue successfully against facts. You are finished….Satan could not do more. What incredible evilness….King you are done.

The American public, the church organizations that have been helping – Protestant, Catholic and Jews will know you for what you are – an evil, abnormal beast. So will others who have backed you. You are done.

King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what this is. You have just 34 days in which to do (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significant [sic]). You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent slef is bared to the nation.

King and his aides had little doubt about the origin of the package: J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. The material on the tape – dirty jokes and bawdy remarks King had made a year earlier at Washington’s Willard Hotel, plus the sounds of people engaging in sex – had obviously been acquired by bugging King’s hotel rooms.

The FBI’s frightening threat sent King into an even worse state of mind. He became so nervous and upset that he could not sleep, and was certain that the Bureau would do anything to ruin him. “They are out to break me,” he told one close friend over a wiretapped phone line. “They are out to get me, harass me, break my spirit.”

Neither his relatives nor his aides pressed him about the contents of the tape, but their reserve could not relieve the severe emotional tension King was experiencing.

The Atlantic article:

As author Taylor Branch reveals in his history of the civil rights movement, during the “freedom summer” of 1964, Hoover received information indicating that it was likely white supremacists would kill Martin Luther King at any moment. Hoover authorized FBI agents to accompany the unaware King on a flight through the South to secure his protection – that’s just what an FBI man would do. Because most people now seem to learn history from the movies, it’s unfortunate that a rather telling scene like that wasn’t in this script.

From Taylor Branch’s Pillar of Fire, on how Hoover’s animosity towards King was so great, King wasn’t informed of assassination threats for a while:

When King appeared on the cover of Time magazine as “Man of the Year”…Hoover circulated at headquarters his own reaction: “They had to dig deep in the garbage for this one.” Animosity toward King gained free rein in FBI policy up to the restraining edge of “embarrassment to the Bureau,” as was evident a few days later when a crude letter of multiple assassination threats reached headquarters from St. Petersburg, Florida…(text of death threat against NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins, Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen, Lyndon Johnson, and Bobby Kennedy)…In the midst of the standard full-scale trace alert on possible danger to President Johnson, the FBI extended notification to the lesser targets mentioned – except for King. In his newfound assertiveness after the Kennedy assassination, Director Hoover suspended official courtesies that smacked of FBI solicitude for King’s welfare and declared him specifically unfit to receive death warnings.

The halting of this practice and the accompaniment of FBI agents that Mr. Meroney celebrates only took place after the intercession of Johnson and Attorney General Kennedy. Mr. Meroney cites Branch’s Parting the Waters as the source of his information on the “freedom summer” of 1964. This would be a tricky attribution, since the subtitle of Waters is America in the King Years 1954-63, my emphasis. The relevant passage on the security assignment can be found in Branch’s Pillar of Fire, subtitle, America in the King Years 1963-65. The quote also makes clear that the FBI was utterly untethered from the Attorney General’s command, doing as it wished under surveillance.

At midday on Tuesday, July 21, Attorney General Kennedy called the White House with notice that King was on his way to address the evening’s mass meeting in Greenwood. He said Mississippi authourities, while refusing to supply police escort, recommended that King not try to spend the night in the Delta. “It’s a ticklish problem,” Kennedy told President Johnson, “because if he gets killed, it creates all kinds of problems.” He laughed nervously. “Uh, just being dead, but also a lot of other kind of problems.”

The President suggested that Kennedy have the FBI guard King, which produced an awkward silence. “Well, it’s difficult…uh they’re not, uh, I suppose,” Kennedy sputtered, then blurted out his most galling complication: “I have no dealings with the FBI anymore.”

When Johnson volunteered to arrange FBI protection himself, Kennedy fought tense chuckles over the absurd mix of treachery, helplessness, and polite manners. “I hate to ask you to be dealing with somebody that’s working over in the Department of Justice,” he said. “That’s not a very satisfactory situation.”

The President introduced “another problem” without reference to the Attorney General, which would have been inherently inflammatory to Hoover, saying he had word that Martin Luther King was on his way to Greenwood.

The Director was prepared. “I understand someone there’ threatening they’re gonna kill him,” he replied.

“Yeah,” said Johnson. He thought it “the best part of wisom in national interest” to make sure “we don’t find another burning car.” He said it would be a good idea for “someone” to be “in front and in back of him when he goes in.” On the next pass, he added that there “ought to be an FBI man in front and behind to observe,” and finally he said King should have an escort of FBI agents “in front and behind.”

Hoover got the point. Although there was suspicion in headquarters that King himself had planted assassination rumors through [Assistant Attorney General] Burke Marshall in order to manipulate the FBI, Hoover threw the FBI into temporary high-speed reverse on two policies: his publicly announced stance against protecting civil rights workers and his special policy of aloofness about threats to King.

I am always glad to read of contrarian takes on public figures. I don’t, however, believe that Mr. Meroney’s analysis is supported by the available exhaustive work on the subject, work he himself cites. With regard to his relationship with King, Hoover, to my mind, comes across as a racist bureaucratic slug, engaging in a surveillance program that had no basis in national security or anything old-fashioned as evidence. This wretched figure could not even follow the basic precepts of office of passing on death threats, providing protection for those under threat from bombing and murder, or rescinding protection for an informant who committed murder, though he did have time to gleefully try to push a great American leader to suicide.

There may be evidence for Mr. Meroney’s take on Hoover; it may be like some of Hoover’s evidence, used for blackmail and persecution, existent, well hidden, and to be revealed at a later time. Or it may be like some other of Hoover’s evidence, well hidden, to be revealed at a later time, and not existing at all.

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Edwin Wilson on Wikipedia, or: What Wikipedia Gets Wrong

This post is a footnote to this longer post.

A short note on the two ways an episode is portrayed, to give an idea on how wikipedia gets some very important details very wrong.

In wikipedia, in the Edwin Wilson entry, under “Investigation and Conviction”:

While awaiting trial, he allegedly approached a fellow prisoner and attempted to hire him to kill the federal prosecutors. This prisoner was never questioned by anyone outside the CIA. The prisoner instead went to the authorities and they set Wilson up with an undercover agent. The agent taped Wilson hiring him to kill the prosecutors, six witnesses and his ex-wife. In a subsequent trial, he was sentenced to an added twenty-four years in jail for conspiracy to murder. The voice in the recording was never solidly identified as Wilson’s.

From Manhunt, verbatim, pages 276-277:

Wilson, though, would be tried a fourth time – in New York. In the most bizarre twist of all, Wayne Trimmer, a fellow inmate at the Metropolitan Correctional Center and a government informer, reported that Wilson, while awaiting his Alexandria and Houston trials, had approached him with an extensive hit list of people he wanted killed.

The list had nine targets. Topping it were [government prosecutors] Barcella and Bruce. For their demises, Wilson agreed to pay a quarter of a million dollars each. Others on the list included [Wilson associate] [Ernest] Keiser, [Wilson associate] [Rafael] Quintero, [Wilson associate] John Heath, [Wilson associate] Reginald Slocombe, [Wilson associate] Jerome Brower, [Wilson associate] Edward Coughlin and [Wilson associate] Francis Heydt, the Oklahoma clothing manufacturer who Wilson believed had cheated him on the Libyan uniform contract. The price per head for them was $50,000.

Trimmer, wearing a hidden recorder, got some of the hit list particulars on tape; he also had handwritten notes from Wilson and notes of his own about the victims, with information that only Wilson could have given him. An FBI agent posing as a hired killer was brought into the act. After he said that he had to have a down payment for the first person to be murdered, Jerome Brower, Wilson called Roberta Barnes and said he needed $10,000 for legal expenses. He asked her to have his younger son, Eric, fly up from Washington with the money, which was handed to the undercover agent.

Wilson was transferred to federal prison in Otisville, in upstate New York, where he then conspired with two other convicts, one of whom pretended to be a member fo a vicious natinal gang of curent and former prisoners known as the Aryan Brotherhood, to assassinate Trimmer for $500,000.

There is one error here – the list should be of ten people, including Wilson’s ex-wife.
Manhunt, p.277-278

[Wilson defense counsel Michael G. Dowd] at least got a new count against Wilson – conspiring to obstruct justice by having his former wife killed – thrown out on the grounds that she had never been named as a witness in any of the trials. Wilson supposedly had added her to his hit list so he wouldn’t have to share his assets in a final divorce settlement. Still, he got twenty-five years for his multiple murder plots.


During the time Edwin P Wilson was in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, when his rage against Barcella peaked, he had also arranged to give $50,000 to a professional killer named William Arico, then being held at the center awaiting extradiction for a murder he had committed in Italy.

Arico was planning an escape. Wilson made arrangements with Diane Byrne [Wilson employee at London office, general secretary, and communications link among his various enterprises] in London to pass the money to Arico’s wife at a Heathrow Airport hotel. Byrne, who knew her only as “J.” had handed over the cash in English pounds.

Arico, along with two accomplices, did try to escape down sheets tied together from an upper floor of the center. The first man landed safely and Arico had only six feet to go when the third, an overweight Cuban drug dealer, started too soon, caught his belt buckle in the sheets after coming out a window and plummeted on top of Arico, surviving himself, but squashing Arico to death in the process.

Wilson, when confronted by these facts, denied that Barcella had been the intended target. The money, he said, was “only a loan.”

A smaller note:

Civil Action

Wilson filed a civil suit against seven former federal prosecutors, two of whom are now federal judges, and a past executive director of the CIA. On 29 March 2007, U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal dismissed his case on the ground that all eight had immunity covering their actions.

The suit was against eight individuals, who were either prosecutors or Department of Justice employees at the time of Wilson’s trial, as well as Charles Briggs, former executive director of the CIA.

The defendants were: Delwen Lowell Jensen, a former Assistant Attorney General; Stephen Trott, also a former Assistant Attorney General; Mark M. Richard, a former Deputy Assistant Attorney General; Lawrence Barcella, a former Deputy Chief of the Major Crimes Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia; Theodore Greenberg, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia; James L. Powers, an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas; Daniel K. Hedges, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas; and Charles A. Briggs, a former Executive Director of the CIA.

The suit was dismissed on the grounds that the relevant convictions were not invalidated by state tribunal, reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, or called into question by issuance of writ of habeas corpus; statute of limitations; prosecutorial and witness immunity (Wilson v. Barcella).

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A Libyan Footnote, The Sorry Tale of Edwin Paul Wilson, or: Manhunt – The Incredible Pursuit of a CIA Agent Turned Terrorist (Peter Maas)

This book by the late Peter Maas describes the rise and fall of Edwin Wilson, a covert officer who went from co-ordinating the supply of weapons, surveillance systems, oil, anything to regimes friendly to the US, to a life outside the agency providing over fifty thousand pounds of explosives to Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, as well as arranging for the training of a paramilitary squad, and the assassination of overseas enemies of the Libyan regime. Wilson, as well as a few conspiracy theorists, have insisted that he was only taking orders for his work. There is little evidence in support, and a great deal in refutation of this, the theory only having credence because so much spywork remains shadowy and undocumented, allowing any and all hypotheses to flourish. One point of refutation unfortunately lacking is that the Libyan state at the time was beyond the pale, since other, more heinous leaders, such as Iran’s Reza Shah, were happily supplied while Wilson was at CIA; only that Libya’s interests were not congruent with that of the US at that time.

It is very much a book about money. The perception of american spies at that time is that their lives are stuffed with cash and bounty. The american agents are always viewed with envy and contempt in the books of John Le Carré as the rich shallow slow cousins. Yet Wilson, a life-long schemer and grasper, would not have made the deal with Qaddafi if it hadn’t been for the need for money to sustain his vast estate, and he would not have been able to maintain his network of government and former government employees without their need for money as well. Veteran spook-watcher Edward Jay Epstein has compared Wilson with Gatsby, but Gatsby’s money seems to blossom from him as naturally as frost from a pane, a necessary illusion if he is to move as one of the class of idle rich. Wilson seems more a constant hungry digger, closer to Faulkner’s Flem Snopes or Uncle Vilitzer of Saul Bellow’s More Die of Heartbreak.

Wilson came from an impoverished Idaho background, spent time as a Marine and did patrol work in the Korean DMZ. At Officer Candidate School, he would drive down to Detroit, buy two cars, drive one, tow the other, then sell them at Quantico, at profit, but at sharp rebate with local dealers. An injury and a chance meeting with an agency man led to his ending up at the CIA of the fifties, which was no longer the province of Skulls and Bones, but another middle class place. He did surveillance and security, before ending up at what was his life’s gift, import-export. He was involved in importing weapons, surveillance, all the tools necessary for the work ahead, in operations for Laos, Taiwan, the Dominican Republic, the Congo, Indonesia, all the cold war and hot war spots of this interesting world. The supply operations were done through “proprietaries”, front companies set up by the CIA that on the outside looked like legit private companies. Wilson’s proprietaries were some of the few that did actual commercial export-import; shielded by the agency from any oversight, these companies scooped up huge profits, abetted by supply costs he’d ratchet up and understated tax payouts, the money going into land purchases that would become his gorgeous Mount Airy estate. Epstein sees Wilson’s wealth at this time and wonders: was he was being paid off as a double agent? No: Edwin Wilson was a very good businessman.

It is at this time that Wilson acquires as case officer the legendary Tom Clines, and comes into association with fellow legend Ted Shackley. Shackley would be at Berlin during the building of the underground surveillance tunnel; station chief of Miamai during the Bay of Pigs invasion; station chief of Laos where he organized the Meos tribe into an anti-communist militia; station chief of Saigon during the closing years of the Viet Nam war. Both Shackley and Clines were very good spies. They got power. They got prestige. Shackley thought Wilson was a clear intellectual inferior. Yet, he was good at the most important thing of all, making dollars, while they were stuck at government pay scales. Clines would always hit up Wilson for loans. Clines would sometimes offer to drive Wilson in his beat-up Volkswagen. Wilson gave him the cash for a new car. I can’t afford to be seen in that, said Wilson.

Richard Nixon’s paranoia brought on a cost review of the CIA. All the proprietaries were closed. Wilson moved on to the Office of Naval Intelligence, doing much the same work, as well as setting up spy ships disguised as fish trawlers. This time, the improprieties were noticed. His task force was shut down. Wilson had the possibility of going back to the Agency, but it would be without the import-export cash. He would have to give up his growing estate, his cattle, his thoroughbreds. It would be the cars and food of any other DC chump. Wilson left government behind, and went back into exotica supply.

In 1975, Wilson meets Frank Terpil, another ex-Agency man, let go after schemes involving gun smuggling and money changing. Terpil is with Intercontinental Technology, a subsidiary of Stanford Technology, a company run by Albert Hakim, who had tried to sell surveillance equipment to the Shah, and later be part of the deal to sell arms to Ayatollah Khomeni that became Iran-Contra. Terpil’s contact was Sayad Qaddafi, Muammar`s cousin. Terpil was a constant talker, with a thick Brooklyn accent. One of his teenage memories was selling a submachine gun from one friend to another.

Wilson and Terpil would meet with Major Abdullah Hanjazzi, engaging in a wide-ranging deal that would eventually include the sale of explosive timers, sale of materials for manufacture of explosives, sale of handguns, sale of rifles, sale of ammunition, the massive sale of C-4, the training of a Libyan paramilitary by a group of retired Green Berets, the provision of military information on Libya’s enemy, Egypt, and the solicited murder of two overseas Libyan dissidents.

The timers and explosive materials were sold under the cover that they were for World War II mine removal so that Libya might go ahead and drill the ocean floor for oil. When pressed, Wilson admitted this was actually a lie, a cover story for something else. He lied again, that it was actually for the subsidised training of a local anti-terrorist force. The C4 explosive was shipped in, disguised as drilling mud, on a plane flown by the son-in-law of Nixon’s old confidante, Bebe Rebozo. Omran El-Mehdawi, former Libyan attache for economic affairs and intelligence officer, was shot dead in Bonn with one of Wilson’s guns. Faisal Zagallai, another former Qaddafi loyalist then living in Colorado, was shot twice in the head by former Green Beret Eugene Tafoya. Zagalli survived. Wilson continued to network at his Mount Airy estate, with frequent visits from Charlie Wilson (no relation) of Texas, John Dingell of Michigan, as well as many faceless brass who formed policy and gave out contracts. At the working end of his operations, he found plenty of military and CIA people who were in need of money and happy to take what was there. “Who are we working for?” asked one Green Beret. “Me”, said Wilson, and that answer satisfied his employees. One Green Beret to another: “I don’t know exactly what’s going on over there, but it pays heavy dust.”

In January 1979, Egypt would sign a peace accord with Israel, leading to a deal with the US guaranteeing $4 billion in arms shipments, including an advance by the US for the purchase. Clines, Shackley, and Wilson, along with other ex-CIA, formed Egyptian American Transport Services (EATSCO) to ship the weapons. Clines, who would often drop by Wilson’s office for small loans, got half a million in start-up capital for EATSCO from Wilson.

Then, in small ways and then in large ones, things started going very wrong for everyone.

Rafael Quintero, along with brothers Rafael and Raoul Villaverde, three exile Cubans who had been involved in numerous CIA operations, were brought in by Terpil to assassinate Umar Abdullah Muhayshi, a Libyan dissident living in Egypt. Quintero suspects there’s something wrong by the amount offered. CIA jobs pay $300 a month. They are offered between three quarters of a million to a million dollars. Shortly after, a former Chilean ambassador is killed, and the possibility is raised that Wilson, along with exile Cubans, is behind it. Though this proved false, the questions led to DC Assistant District Attorny Lawrence Barcella, a brave and decent man, to start looking into Wilson’s activities.

Kevin Mulcahy, a Wilson employee with a difficult life and a drinking problem, would become more nervous about the activities he was involved in, going first to the ATF, and then to journalist Seymour Hersh. Terpil was caught skimming from the operation and fled to work for Uganda’s Idi Amin. Tafoya was arrested for the failed assassination attempt. Jerry Brower, an explosives expert who bought up the C-4 for Wilson, pled guilty to conspiracy charges to ship weapons and munitions. Charges are brought against Terpil and Wilson for solicitation to commit murder and shipping of explosives.

A Rome meeting was arranged between Barcella and Wilson to negotiate a deal, with Wilson promising information about the Cubans behind the Letelier bombing. He never provides the information. He hands over data which he claims are detailed plans of an A bomb that Libya is trying to obtain. Experts say the plans are junk. Wilson keeps trying for some kind of deal, any deal. “You want the PLO?” says Wilson. “I’ll give you the PLO.” Barcella returned to the US, and began to put together a plan to extradite Wilson. This plan required the help of Ernest Keiser. Keiser is driven to help Barcella because he has birth certificate problems.

Keiser was a well travelled man, a Wehrmacht veteran, wanted for fraud in Germany, married in Jordan, wanted for passport tampering in Morocco, worked undercover in a police sting in Bogota, arrested for real estate swindling in Belize, etc. In New York City, a more infamous felon was arrested while having dinner with Keiser at “21”, as part of another police sting in which Keiser was an undercover participant. Carol Bruce, a legal assistant on Barcella’s staff, would refer to him as “Bela”, as in Bela Lugosi. Keiser was now facing deportation from the US after it was discovered the New York hospital he claimed to have been born in had no records of his birth, and neither did the city of New York. Keiser played his best hand, pleading for a stay if he could help bring in Wilson, now a well-known fugitive, back to the US.

A meeting was set up between Keiser and Wilson, with Keiser promising to use his influence with government higher-ups to get Wilson’s charges dropped, while Wilson put in a claim to be able to cobble up a sit down with the PLO. Keiser said that he had arranged for National Security Council representatives to meet with Wilson in the Dominican Republic. Wilson flew in for the meet, and was arrested before he left the airport. Before the arrest, Wilson had committed to a deal with Keiser to buy land near Disney World.

Wilson would be convicted on sundry charges in weapons and explosives export. While awaiting trial, he attempted to solicit the murder of numerous people, including his wife, Barcella, Bruce, and Keiser. The prisoner from whom he made the solicitation told the government of the offer, and the FBI was brought in. Wilson received further time in prison for this. Further details on this episode, focusing on how it is described in wikipedia and Maas’ book is in this post.

During the course of these trials, Kevin Mulcahy, the first man to go to the authorities about Wilson killed himself after a long period of depression and a relapse into alcoholism. Waldo Dubberstein, a Pentagon employee paid by Wilson for Egypt military information wanted by Libya, killed himself the day of his indictment for these activities.

The furor over Wilson would lead to Congressional oversight into the EATSCO contract, which would find over $8 million in overbilling. EATSCO would lose the contract. Shackley and Clines had already been forced to leave the CIA due to their association with Wilson. Shackley, who had long been expected to be a future head of the agency, lost that possibility in the uproar.

Frank Terpil would be convicted in absentia to over five decades in prison. He would supply weapons to the Arafat wing of the PLO, turning up later in Lebannon, Prague, Nicaragua, Grenada before the US invasion, Prague again, and finally, Cuba, where it is believed he is under house arrest with no plans for extradition to the US. At a meeting with Cuban exiles that went awry decades before, he would ask, “Who needs those dumb spics anyway?”

Following his successful attempt to extradite Wilson, Ernest Keiser would end up indicted in both Westchester County, New York, and Tampa, Florida, over fraud involving real estate. The day before the first trial, Keiser and his wife would become international fugitives.

After decades of rejected appeals on various grounds, Wilson would finally score a winner, arguing that an affidavit filed by the CIA in the C-4 explosives export trial claiming almost no professional contact between Wilson and the agency after 1971 was false. Judge Lynn Hughes agreed, and vacated the conviction. The Justice Department did not go for a re-trial. At the time of his conviction, Wilson was a well-known figure of notoriety, a cover subject for the New York Times Magazine (Part one of the story by Seymour Hersh and Part Two). When he left prison in 2004, he was an obscurity. He goes unmentioned in Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes. An ABC News segment was one of the few pieces of coverage on his release, portraying Wilson as a legal martyr. It did not raise Wilson’s attempt to have prosecution and associates killed during an interview.

That same year, the United States lifted sanctions against Libya, and began co-operating in anti-terrorism operations. This year, 2011, the Libyan regime fell, and its leader killed. In a Jon Lee Anderson piece (“King of Kings”) on the country after the fall, Wilson and Terpil are given an unnamed mention in one sentence as rogue CIA agents. In a piece by Patrick Radden Keefe in 2010 on the successful capture of arms trafficker Monzer al-Kassar (“The Trafficker”), Tom Clines shows up because of his arrangement with al-Kassar to buy rifles and ammunition to supply the contras, part of the deal that was Iran-Contra. During his trial, Kassar made claims that he was an intelligence asset. Kassar received thirty years. Clines had fond memories of Kassar. I hope the Syrians get him back home, he says.

Edwin Wilson had contempt for his father. He was a slight, stooped man, a dreamer unable to provide for his wife and children, though on his death, the church was filled with tearful mourners. Wilson was grateful for taking after his mother, a tough, practical big boned woman. During his time with the merchant marine, Wilson challenged a bully who had been picking on the ships carpenter. While recovering after being knocked unconscious, Wilson was visited by the carpenter. Why’d you do that for, asked the carpenter. He wasn’t bothering me that much. That was the best lesson he ever got, Wilson would say. Knocked the last trace of idealism out of him.

In August 2001, Peter Maas died. December 2002, Ted Shackley died. April 2003, Albert Hakim died. November 2010, Lawrence Barcella died. On October 20th, 2011, Muammar Qaddafi died. When I write this post, November 12th 2011, Frank Terpil and Edwin Wilson are alive.

The story of Edwin Wilson is a fascinating one. The late Peter Maas tells it very, very well in Manhunt.

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Mercy for Rick Perry

The governor, whose most grievous mistake was the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, will now become infamous for another one. It would be a trivial error for a candidate of great qualities, it is a trivial one for a candidate of many dangerous ones. His ridiculous moment, I suppose, will be pointed to as an example of how the process of endless dime deep debates is working; that the banal questioning is a mystic sword on which the ignoble will finally show themselves through a false word or gesture, leaving only the strong and the wise, in this case, a christian fanatic, a misogynist, your dullest teacher in high school, another christian fanatic, your local crank pharmacist / gold standard pamphleteer, another christian fanatic – though I may have lost count by now, and Mitt Romney, who always reminds me of the fairy tale where the Tom Peters book is magically transformed into a man.

Perry, whose cv includes the killing of an innocent man and a prayer based solution to drought, might now have gone poof not for the saying and doing of many awful things, but through the non-saying of one thing, a mistake that many who have spoken in public may well have made. That this will be Perry’s heel, demonstrates the overwhelming emphasis on the ceremonial aspect of the presidency in this ongoing speaking contest, the ceremonial, and nothing else. Perry’s fatal flaw has not been one of his many terrible plans, but that he has made himself look so ridiculous that his indignity has splattered on his supporters, like any singer whose fans flee after her habits have become so debased that she’s unable to lip sync properly.

I grant a clemency for Perry, though I have no power, there are no grounds for clemency, and my clemency is of no consequence; Perry, in the matter of Cameron Todd Willingham, granted no clemency, though his power was extraordinary, the grounds substantial, and the consequences vital. His silence now will be far more chattered about than his silence then.

On a related note, Michelle Bachmann’s eyes, which are so piercing, yet so seemingly focussed a few degrees off from the subject, have always made me think of an absent minded witch. She, like Perry, I am sure have already appeared in some folk tale or another, in the guise of destructive monsters from which one might be saved because they forgot what they were supposed to destroy that day.

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Money and Class in America: Notes and Observations on Our Civil Religion by Lewis Lapham

This is a book of halves, a have and a have-not. Lapham writes of the mystic genius allotted the role of money in america, the conversion of the commodity into the sacrament. This part is very much the have: while a great many books every year deal in-depth with telepathy, ghosts, Templar conspiracies, I can think of almost none that deal with the idea of class in the United States, and the religious role money is given – not books dealing with dealing with this or that economic crisis, but on the pervasive idea of money as religion, that wealth falls in ways often arbitrary to hoodlums and pimps as much, if not more, to sages and saints, and that there is very much a system of manners and money in the United States, with a few within, and a few million without.

Lapham, it should be emphasized, does not write this as a socialist or communist. He does not deny money as a commodity, only as a sacrament, that there is no divine hand sorting out the just from the wicked, with a society designed where money becomes the only method of evaluation.

No matter how bitter the lessons of their experience, people stunted by the faith in money insist on believing that it is something more than an utterly colorless abstraction or a convenient arithmetic cipher. They imagine that it possesses an inherent spirit or substance. Wishing to assign to money a moral value, they resist the notion that money is neither a good nor an evil thing, the symbol, not the substance, of wealth. The devotees on the radical left attribute to it the sum of the world’s evil; the believers on the reactionary right conceive of it as the store of the world’s virtue. Enthralled by the Dionysian beauty of cash, the faithful of all sects and denominations blur the distinction between money as commodity and money as sacrament.

The book begins with a few notes on the “equestrian class”, the wealthy, and what the markers of old and new money are. It makes clear that this is a class, a financial and social milieu whose members are few, and through which others may not freely travel. I have only a passing acquaintance with this group, but based on observations at a distance and close-up, these points have the sound of truth.

3. The possessor of old money finds it possible to say, speaking of Frank Sinatra, “What’s his name…You know who I mean…the guy who sings.” A man with new money finds it possible to say, speaking of paintings by Picasso, “I’ll take two of the blue ones.”

4. Assured of its prerogatives, older money seeks to establish its genuine humanity, Thus its diffidence and its striving to appear no different from ordinary people, subject to the same desires, appetites, weaknesses and fears.

New money, all too familiar with those weaknesses and fears, seeks to put as much distance as possible between itself and the small-time sorrows of economy class.

9. The new money believes its money is as good as anybody else’s money. The old money disagrees. “I mean, after all, what’s the point in having a club?”

11. The old money reads the gossip columns with faint amusement, as if reading Restoration comedy or an account of some remarkable tribe in the uplands of New Guinea.

To the new money the columns are as serious as the stock market reports.

Written in 1988, this book has only become more acute in its perceptions. Here is Lapham describing the crucial role faith plays in any stock market, with a brief aside on a then notorious swindler:

To a large extent the stock markets depend on the willingness of all involved – seller as well as buyer – to suspend the faculty of thought. Consider the modus operandi of the Wall Street tout. Invariably he has acquired his information from a secondary source, from a man who heard it from a friend who knows the president of the company.

The tout needs only to judge the precise distance at which the buyer begins to see visions not unlike those vouchsafed to the early Christian saints…The transaction always takes place in the realm of magic – in the dark grove of the imagination where all things remain possible, where death and time never intrude upon the idiot dancing…The credulity of the rich accounts for the ease with which they can be persuaded to invest in nonexistent oil wells and fraudulent tax shelters…The newspapers every few weeks publish stories that begin with questions such as the one asked by The Wall Street Journal in October 1982: “SAN DIEGO – Why did hundreds of affluent, well-educated and successful investors turn over millions of dollars to J. David Dominelli?”

The swindler poses as a man of immense wealth, and the mark, no matter how well off, imagines that the man richer than himself stands that much nearer the godhead…The aforementioned J. David Dominelli otherwise known as “Captain Money,” set up his Ponzi scheme with no more than a few hundred dollars in the basement of a Mexican restaurant in La Jolla. Within five years the scheme attracted $200 million, and Captain Money, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, didn’t know how to shut down the flow of cash.

The players are only slightly different in our times, but the scales of the games are much greater, and the losses even more devastating.

Two notes are of particular interest for circumstances today. The first, on the importance of games for the wealthy:

The equestrian classes place their fondest trust in their games and their clubs. Within the interstices of a game time ceases to exist. For as long as the light holds or their money lasts, the players inhabit the realm of fairy tale known to the myriad captives of a thousand and one obsessions, to bridge and backgammon addicts, to alcoholics and the guests at an orgy.

The other, on the similarities between two revolutions:

Both the Republican Risorgimento of the early 1980’s and the countercultural insurrection of the middle 1960’s proclaimed allegiance to the manifesto of Peter Pan. The manner of dress had changed, and so had the age of the malcontents but the habits of mind were surprisingly similar. Both revolutions excited the passions of the radical bourgeoisie – “revolutions from above,” instigated by rich people believing they were entitled to more than they already possessed – and both revolutions wished to make time stand still. Like the admirers of Jane Fonda’s political attitudes, Ronald Reagan’s partisans cast themselves as rebels against “the system” and posed as romantic figures at odds with a world they never made – that is, a world encumbered with the sins of death and time.

What else is the promise of the Republican Risorgimento if not the dream of American individualism regained, of capitalism unbound, of rescue from the vultures of federal regulation, of freedom to go plundering through a world in which the spoils properly belong to the rich, the strong and the well-connected? The promises aren’t so different from those of the open road traveled by Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan, except that El Dorado is now to be found on the temporal instead of the spiritual frontier.

The counterculture found its converts among people who didn’t wish to grow up; the Republican Risorgimento recruited its congregation among people unwilling to grow old.

We live now in a time whose roots can very much be found in these quoted sections. The heart of american banking, the biggest donor to political campaigns, is simple abstract speculation. A capitalism as close to a a divine ether as possible, touching not cement, glass, or dirt, making and building nothing, entirely invisible, yet also very much like a game, where its only consequences are visible, in the few winners and the many losers.

The current Republican primary is made up almost entirely of adults who act like petulant children, children who put their feet down and insist on having things their way, and reality can get the hell out. A recurrent question is: how these men and women reconcile their christian faith with a belief in an unregulated, free market? There should be no question, since in both cases it is an issue of simple, irrational belief.

We have even now, something like what takes place when a cult predicts an earthly eden to begin on a day and it doesn’t arrive. They do not blame it on their own irrational credo, but the lack of faith of the heathens among them. So we have had a march to the baton of unregulated free marketry for the past three decades, which has led to poverty, inequality, as well as a massive economic crash. The problem, we are told, is not the principles themselves, but those who failed to believe: the impoverished who worked and were taxed too little, those who wished to regulate the financial and real estate markets, those who point out that the engines of an economy shouldn’t be financial speculation and a military. They were the unbelievers, and they must be cast out.

The other half of the book, is the have not, an unfortunate extension of the good half, like the murderous siamese let out of the attic. Lapham, having described, very effectively, much of contemporary America, then and now, as a reflection of this secular faith, proceeds too far, turning it into a prism through which all light must pass. Money as sacrament explains androgyny, rock videos, the minimalist fiction of Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, news hysteria about illness, the obsession with celebrity, the ceremonial role played by most politicians, the Challenger disaster, etc.

More than a few I quietly and quickly debunked while reading them. Carver is indicted for writing stories about no one in particular, part of a plague of fiction that avoids touching the subject of money by not having anyone in it at all. I don’t believe this is correct. Carver’s work is very much about people almost always in financial need, and though his stories don’t have the quality of political agitprop, these characters are given a dignity that people of their incomes are rarely given in novels, and never in movies. Lapham writes of the hysteric reaction of the media at the time given over to AIDS, a plague that had no possibility of striking beyond the boundaries of gay men and drug addicts. It reminded me of the parts of Randy Shilts’ The Band Played On, where he points to the media reaction being tied entirely to the threat the disease posed to the straight community, while ignoring any outside it. Shilts’ point being, that there should have been an outcry, there should have been a media reaction, centering on the communities affected, because the fear and the devastation in these places were very much real.

When Lapham does this, the book becomes exactly what is its nemesis throughout – a beautiful abstraction, untethered to the facts, an intellectual ideal and nothing else. One is reminded of a scientist, who having found a curative for blindness, also promotes it as a remedy for hair loss, halitosis, and impotence. That it fails at these things does not make it any less a cure for blindness, though to speak of the metaphor of cures is to miss the point. The book is antithetical to money as commodity, but also money as outside agency, a divine instrument which bestows and neglects. Agency, the book makes clear, lies with ourselves. That this agency does not give us powers of limitless youth or power, does not mean that it does not exist. The ending of this book made me think of another, The Image by Daniel Boorstin, which details the realities that exist solely to be made into images, the false metaphors so prevalent that they are taken as axiomatic truth, a dawning pseudoeventry when the book was published and which has entirely engulfed us by now. Boorstin’s book, as Lapham’s, concludes with the attempt to turn away from all this:

Each of us must disenchant himself, must moderate his expectations, must prepare himself to receive messages coming from the outside…We should not try to persuade others to share our illusions. We should seek new ways of letting messages reach us; from our own past, from God, from the world which we may hate or think we hate. To give visas to strange and alien and outside notions. Notions of which neither we nor the Communists have ever dreamed and which we can never see in our mirror. One of our grand illusions is the belief in a “cure”. There is no cure. There is only the opportunity for discovery.

Even with all that has taken place in the past decade, I find it as difficult to conceive of a time when money returns to the state of a secular commodity as I could a post-christian america. Money and Class in America is a vital book, its good parts undiminished by its less good ones. It is of great relevance today; I look forward to when it will be of no relevance at all.

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Our News Networks Are Not Run By Radical Feminists

From a blog post by Wendy Kaminer, a few days ago, when accusations against Herman Cain were simple harassment, and not assault.

His campaign has been most threatened by the harassment story, which is already spawning stories about the story — analyses of Cain’s inept and inconsistent responses to the allegations, anticipations of responses to his responses by the alleged victims, race baiting and references to the Clarence Thomas debacle.


This isn’t surprising: only a minority of voters understand the tax code well enough to debate it, or know much more about foreign affairs than Herman Cain, while nearly everyone is able, willing, and eager to talk about sex. But it is discouraging and reflects poorly on popular feminism as well as politics.


Feminism, at its most thoughtless, engendered an overbroad and unduly subjective definition of sexual harassment that includes speech and behaviors ranging from offensive remarks to actual assaults. Feminism, at its most thoughtless, equated every trivial discussion of sexual relations with political discourse and framed every allegation of sexual misconduct as presumptively true. Anti-feminists, reacting in kind, learned quickly to frame every allegation, leveled against right-wingers, as presumptively false.

Ms. Kaminer seems to place agency for a story’s play on our noble TV networks with radical feminists. They are to blame for the overplay of this story, making it the focal point of the past few days. Though I am largely ignorant on the subject, I do not believe any of the top positions at any of the cable news networks are staffed by radical feminists, that such an ideology may even be a deterrent to being hired. This story gets play because it is first about sex, second about race, and third, perhaps most importantly, it is easy to talk about in terms of both the glazed faux intellectual conversation as well as heated argument of any TV debate. These are the determinants of what gives a story such play, with radical feminists having no say in the proceedings.

Ms. Kaminer, again:

I’ve experienced harassment; I know that rejecting sexual advances can hurt your career, although I also believe that laws should not prohibit merely offending people or making them uncomfortable. I do mean, “so what difference should these charges make in the current presidential campaign?”

It is absurd that some issues, such as sexual harassment or hiring illegals, may come to the forefront, while others, the impact of your tax reform plan, are left in the background. However, the emphatic condemnation of sexual harassment in these public discussions helps solidify mores against this behavior.

I see this similar to discussion and condemnation of someone of prominence using slurs against those who are gay or of a particular ethnic group; that a public stigmatization takes place over the behavior of a public figure sets a harder line that such actions are wrong by anyone anywhere.

Finally, Ms. Kaminer implies that the perspective that makes a man think he has a prerogative to harassment is the only droit du seigneur he has; as this unfolding story seems to reveal, the prerogatives that Mr. Cain seems allowed to him go beyond this.

Ms. Elizabeth Wurtzel, also of The Atlantic, in a separate column laments the lack of coverage given to such issues as the gender gap in wages, the gender gap among corporate executives, the ridiculous Protect Life Act in Congress, the personhood law in Mississippi, etc. rather than the coverage given to a sexual harassment scandal, whose attention is given not due to the injustice, but the sex:

All these noisy, obnoxious mostly-male pundits are terrifically excited to be raising Cain. Suddenly they care about sexism — even though day in and day out they ignore the assault on women’s reproductive rights (which goes straight into the bull’s eye of misogyny) that is perpetrated by the Republicans in Congress.

Again, the agency lies with the network, and not the pundits. The same group of obnoxious men will be brought to talk about various issues which they have no contact or experience with, whether it be persecution of muslims and gays, poverty, prison reform, etc. Their role is to speak in the guise of passion without demonstrating any passion which would imply any commitment to systemic change, which might be perceived upsetting to the TV viewer at home. That it is always the same group of men, and almost always men, demonstrates the innate conservatism, in the original sense of the word, of network news, no matter how provocative or radical the topic. These mostly male pundits are there for the same function as any prostitute: they provide mercenary friction.

I do not believe the rules are that different from topics assigned by a magazine. Ms. Wurtzel has previously written about Sarah Palin and Elizabeth Edwards, who were the topics of that particular day. Should she put her foot down against this tyranny where the subject du jour becomes the only subject that can be talked about, and write for The Atlantic about the gender wage gap, about restrictive pro-life legislation, or any other topic that is improperly segregated as a “woman’s issue” in the way men’s concerns never are, her work would receive my grateful vote.

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