Somebody give me a ($700) cheeseburger!

“My birthday’s comin’ up,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Maybe I’ll go uptown and treat myself to one of them $700 burgers.”

He was referring to the beer garden in Philly whose menu reportedly includes “the most expensive burger in America.” Presumably, the owners hoped to create a buzz with the story, which appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Post and other venues.

“It was a good way to get publicity without having to run expensive ads,” I said. “They should win the award for Cleverest Food & Drink Gimmick.”

Swamp Rabbit narrowed his eyes. “What you mean by gimmick? You think there ain’t really no $700 cheeseburger topped with caviar, truffles, lobster flambeed with Louis XIII cognac, and a gold leaf on top? That there’s no shot of Louis XIII on the side?”

“Sure there is,” I replied. “But they’re not expecting you to actually buy that stuff. It’s just to draw you to the beer garden. Once you’re there, you’ll buy their regular-priced burgers and drinks. That’s the plan.”

“I don’t want them regular burgers,” Swamp Rabbit said. “I deserve the best.”

I told him he was crazy. He’s so poor, he has to shoplift hamburger patties at the Acme to get by some nights. Why obsess about a $700 burger?

He shook his head. “I ain’t no second-class citizen. If them bougies can buy a $700 burger, so can I.”

I told him he sounded like “Living in the U.S.A.,” the Steve Miller Band’s hippy-era critique/celebration of American culture. The lyrics are dumb but funny. Miller shouts “Somebody give me a cheeseburger!”

“There you go,” Swamp Rabbit said.”Ain’t nothin’ more American than a cheeseburger.”

“Exactly,” I replied. “Prices change, but people don’t.”

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Martin Amis (1949-2023) braved the moronic inferno

My neighbor Swamp Rabbit was drinking beer on his porch when I told him that British author Martin Amis died last weekend.  

“Okay, but what’s that got to do with the price of eggs?” he said, referring to the fact that a dozen eggs at the Acme can still cost more than four dollars.

I told him that Amis at full throttle is reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson in his glory days. Some of his protagonists have the same manic energy, the same flair for brutally honest, comical self-criticism. I mentioned John Self, the first-person narrator of Amis’s novel Money: A Suicide Note (1984), whose self-destructive sorties in New York City recall those of Thompson’s alter-ego in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

Now the way I figured it I had six realistic options. I could sack out right away, with some scotch and a few Serafim. I could go back to the Happy Isles and see what little Moby was up to. I could call Doris Arthur. I could catch a live sex show around the corner, in bleeding Seventh Avenue. I could go out and get drunk. I could stay in and get drunk. In the end I stayed in and got drunk. The trouble was, I did all the other things first.

I noted that Self, a director of TV commercials, uses his confessions to exalt his many addictions. He’s a media whore, an amusing monster, a device created by Amis to lampoon the excesses of our sick, money-driven culture, which is even sicker now than it was in the pre-Internet ’80s.

“Blah blah,” my mangy friend said. “I live in a shotgun shack with a leaky roof. So do you. Why should I care what that bad boy wrote?”

I tried again: In some of his best fiction, Amis captured the giddy hedonism of the 1980s and early ’90s as the world was slipping into a downward spiral triggered by climate change, wealth inequality and pervasive cynicism. Writ large, the story of John Self’s ongoing self-abuse – I was lying face down under some hedge or bush or some blighted shrub in a soaked allotment full of nettles, crushed cigarette packs, used condoms and empty beer cans – is the story of humankind’s ongoing abuse of the planet.

Amis keeps us laughing – Refreshed by a brief blackout, I got to my feet and went next door – as Self, seeking more money, more everything, staggers toward his inevitable crash. His ignoble odyssey begs the big question:  Do we still have time to clean up our act, or is the crash a foregone conclusion?

“The crash is already here,” Swamp Rabbit said as he flung an empty can into the weeds in front of his shack. “It’s breakfast time but I can’t even afford to have eggs with my beer.”

Footnote: Amis wrote a lot of first-rate fiction and nonfiction. Arguably, the novels Money, London Fields and The Information, all written prior to the millennium, are his best works.

Another: The Moronic Inferno: And Other Visits to America is the title of Amis’s 1986 book of essays. He borrowed the phrase from Saul Bellow, who took it from the writer and painter Wyndham Lewis.

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Walking blues (my search for dress shoes)

I was checking my email and noticed that images of shoes were appearing every time I opened a new file. Dress shoes, so-called. Tassel loafers, oxford bluchers, brogues. Shiny and super-square. The sort of shoes I stopped wearing around the same time I quit working at cube farms.

“Where they all comin’ from? ” Swamp Rabbit said, looking over my shoulder at the shoe advertisements on my laptop screen.

“I did this to myself,” I replied. “I did an online search for local shoe stores this week and now every company in the world that makes shoes has my address and wants me for a customer.”

I explained that my search was in preparation for a formal occasion where my running shoes wouldn’t be appropriate. And that an online search for any commodity creates a plague of related ads that infects the sites you subscribe to. (Algorithms in action.) The capitalist monster finds out where you are, then it eats you.

Why’d you do an online search?” he said. “There must be shoe stores all over Philly.”

“You’re thinking of sneaker stores, rabbit. Running shoes, if you will. The neighborhood stores that sold dress shoes are mostly out of business now. The only places that come up when you do a search are those high-end shoe stores in Center City. There are a half-dozen of them, tops.”

“What you mean by high-end?”

“Shoes that are wildly overpriced because of their brand names. Wolf & Shepherd, Allen Edmonds and so on. Some poor-schmuck salesman at some high-end store on Sansom Street showed me a pair of loafers with a $395 price tag. That’s probably close to his take-home pay for a 40-hour week.”

“Why don’t you shop at a department store, or one of them consumer dumps like Walmart or Target?” Swamp Rabbit said.

“The shoes at those places cost less, but they’re much more cheaply made, so they wear out fast. Relatively speaking, they’re overpriced, too. Inflation is a bitch. The media isn’t telling half the story.”

He scowled. “Dress shoes are a lot cheaper at Target. You just don’t want to spend any money, Odd Man.”

“You’ve got no room to talk,” I said, looking down at his shoes. “You’ve been wearing those Chuck Taylor All Star high-tops since Obama was president.”

He asked me what I would wear to the formal occasion if I couldn’t find any dress shoes that suited me. I told him I’d dug up a pair of old black running shoes to wear with my suit.

“Great plan,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Don’t forget to polish ’em.”

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Breaking: Cooper is a mouthpiece, not a newsman

“Get a load of this pompous jerk. He ain’t even embarrassed.”

Swamp Rabbit was reacting to video of Anderson Cooper mouthing off about CNN’s May 10 town hall with Donald Trump, an event that served as a free ad for the ex-president and damaged what little is left of the network’s credibility. Cooper, a prime-time talking head, should have issued a mea culpa, but instead he defended CNN and scolded viewers who have criticized the network for helping to legitimize Trump’s current campaign for the presidency:

You have every right to be outraged today and angry and never watch this network again. But do you think staying in your silo and only listening to people you agree with is going to make that person go away?

Cooper was being disingenuous, or just stupid. Everyone knew in advance that Trump, if given the opportunity, would use this free hour of network TV time to continue lying about the 2020 election results, abortion rights groups, immigration policy, his recent sexual abuse and defamation trial, and any other issues that came up. And that the event’s so-called moderator, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, would have little or no chance to refute Trump’s lies in a live setting, in front of an audience of Trump supporters.

“Cooper’s the one who’s in the silo,” Swamp Rabbit said. “He gets paid millions to be a mouthpiece for rich right-wingers who want to steal Fox News’s audience. He gets to pretend he’s a great guy for defending his boss’s bad decisions. Nice work if you can get it.”

“You got that right,” I replied, referring him to a recent piece by Robert Reich, who mapped the money trail that leads from Cooper to Chris Licht, the right-wing CEO at CNN; to David Zaslav, Licht’s boss at Warner Bros. Discovery; to John Malone, the right-wing multibillionaire and leading shareholder at Warner Brothers Discovery who helped make possible the merger of CNN and Discovery.

“Stop, you’re giving me a headache,” Swamp Rabbit said after skimming the article.

“The whole country has a headache,” I told him, “and yes men like Anderson Cooper are helping their masters make sure the headache is permanent.”

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Deep in the heart of Texas, yahoos still rule

Just when it looked like Texas might be prioritizing clean energy over dirty, this happens:

The Texas Legislature is moving to erect barriers to clean energy development while providing incentives for fossil fuel production. This would make the task of reducing emissions much harder. And it comes even though oil and gas production has continued to grow, though not at the pace of the market’s embrace of wind and solar…

I showed Swamp Rabbit the NY Times op/ed and he said, “I don’t get it. Ain’t you the one told me Texas was a red state that was trending blue by encouraging companies to build wind and solar? Didn’t you say them varmints bowed to market pressure and made laws that allowed renewables to catch on in a big way? And that investors in wind and solar created thousands of new jobs and raised tax money to help dirt-poor counties get by?”

“They did,” I replied. “And some of the giant dirty energy companies are cashing in on the renewables trend. But a core group of rich fossil fuel hustlers and the Republican office holders who do their bidding want to hit the brakes on renewables. The yahoos down there are still in charge.”

My mangy friend looked puzzled. “”What you mean by yahoos? That’s one of them search engines, right?”

I explained to him that, in Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift invented Houyhnhnms, a race of highly civilized talking horses who guard against the incursion of ignorant, disgusting humans called yahoos. “The real-world modern equivalent of yahoos are humans who reject life-saving vaccines and ban books and love AR-15s and laugh at rape victims and cheer for Donald Trump and ignore global warming and –“

“Alright, I get it,” Swamp Rabbit said. “But what do the rich peeps got to do with it? Ain’t you confusing them with the rubes who prop up the rich by voting for little monsters like Governor Greg Abbott? It sounds like the peeps with no money are the real yahoos.”

“They’re all yahoos, you dope. Being rich doesn’t make you more humane or thoughtful or environmentally conscious. The opposite is usually true.”

I reminded him that Abbott, after a cold snap in 2021 that knocked out electric power for ten million people, tried to blame the power failure on wind turbines, when in fact it was largely the result of outages at gas and coal power plants.

“Abbott is a poster boy for yahoos all over the country,” I said. “He’s helping the rich by making sure the world is wrecked by climate change.”

Swamp Rabbit shrugged and snapped open a can of beer. “I guess he’s doing a good job of it. Seems like they love him in Texas.”

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Carlson defenestrated? No, just fired.

“There’s that word again,” I said, pointing to the Michelle Goldberg column on my laptop screen:

The Los Angeles Times reported that Carlson was defenestrated by Rupert Murdoch himself…

“Does defenestrated mean fired?” said Swamp Rabbit, who was reading over my shoulder.

“Nowadays it does,” I replied. “But it literally means being thrown out of a window — usually a very high window.”

Goldberg and a few other columnists used the verb to describe Carlson’s removal from Fox News in the aftermath of Fox’s expensive lawsuit settlement with Dominion Voting Systems. “Defenestration” is from the Latin and is often associated with tossing government officials from tall buildings in Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic. A defenestration in the 17th century helped spark the Thirty Years War, which engulfed Central Europe.

I was in Prague years ago and imagined the mess that was made when the defenestrated guys hit the cobblestones after being launched from way up in Prague Castle. This week I imagined Carlson, who looks like a puzzled Pillsbury Doughboy, making a squishy noise when he plummeted to the concrete on the Avenue of the Americas in NYC.

Fortunately for Carlson, this is the 21st century, not the 17th. The women-hating race-baiter was shown the door, not thrown out of a window, although many Americans surely think he deserved the latter. He might be second only to Murdoch, or Donald Trump, or Father Coughlin in the 1930s, on the list of creeps most responsible for spreading fear and loathing through the media in America.

“Goldberg is optimistic,” I said. “She says Carlson’s ouster proves it’s ‘sometimes possible to shame the shameless,’ meaning Murdoch, and that justice sometimes prevails.”

“Them’s just words,” Swamp Rabbit said, shaking his head. “Like I said last week, it’s a money-and-power story. Carlson thought he was bigger than his evil boss, so Murdoch took him out. Threw him out the window, if you like.”

“Them mainstream pundits write some weird shit,” he added. “And your shit ain’t much better.”

Footnote: The word traveled fast. Don Lemon, a CNN talking head, was also fired this week. Vanity Fair called it a defenestration.

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Money talks, justice walks

CNN’s Jake Tapper laughed, and so did most others who saw the statement issued by a Fox News lawyer after Dominion Voting Systems settled its defamation suit against the network:

We acknowledge the Court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false. This settlement reflects FOX’s continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards.

No admission of lying. No apology for pretending to report the news while dispensing propaganda meant to help overturn the 2020 election results. Just Fox giving the finger to the courts, the journalism profession and the public.

Swamp Rabbit shrugged. “Being a corporate scumbag means never having to say you’re sorry.”

I tried to play devil’s advocate. “They’re sorry, in a way. Having to pay out three-quarters of a billion dollars isn’t exactly a slap on the wrist. More like a massive punch in the face.”

“But it ain’t gonna slow Fox down,” Swamp Rabbit replied. “It’ll just make that pampered sissy boy Tucker Carlson and them other talking heads more careful of what they say when they ain’t on TV.”

“So where’s the justice?” I said, trying to sound serious. “Where’s the accountability that decent people everywhere were looking forward to in a trial?”

Swamp Rabbit almost choked on the beer he was guzzling. “You been watching too many movies, Odd Man. In this country, justice takes a back seat to big money. Sometimes it don’t get no seat at all.”

I couldn’t argue with that. The Murdoch family and their odious underlings at FOX remain free to make big money every year by spreading and endorsing anti-democratic lies. As Robert Reich noted in a recent post, “‘Accountability’ is just another cost of doing business.”

Clarification: I’m not forgetting that CNN and the other news media giants aren’t beacons of truth, but Fox is in a league of its own. So is our so-called justice system.

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Hanging out with Goethe at Cherry Blossom Fest

Swamp Rabbit looked around and said, “Where are the cherry blossoms?”

It was a good question. We’d arrived to work the 18th annual Cherry Blossom Festival, at the Horticultural Center in West Fairmount Park. There was plenty of greenery but few traces of the delicate pink blossoms that appear every spring on the rows of trees that line the pathways.

“It’s because no one can tell from year to year exactly when the bloom will happen,” I answered. “Last week, you would have been choking on cherry blossoms.”

I pointed at some kimono-clad attendees and told Swamp Rabbit that the event celebrates Japanese-American culture. He wanted to know when the tradition started, so I sought help. A scholarly looking fellow in a conical hat directed us to a statue of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), the poet, playwright, novelist, scientist and central figure in the German Romantic movement who wrote, along with many other works, The Metamorphosis of Plants.

Goethe, an old white guy, has been neglected for years in his little corner of the park. He was happy to talk and told us that cherry trees, planted here in 1926, were a gift from Japan to mark the 150th anniversary of American independence, and that additional plantings by the local Japan America Society were completed in 2007.

“Your English is decent,” Swamp Rabbit told the great polymath. “But how come you ain’t in Germany instead of this here Japan-America thing? You some kind of spy?”

“Such are the vicissitudes of life,” Goethe said, his tarnished bronze face beaming. “I miss Weimar, but I’m glad I wasn’t there in the mid-20th century. Not the most enlightened period in German history. Better to be here, watching people from different backgrounds throw a party and get along.”

Swamp Rabbit still seemed suspicious. “Pretty words, but how do you pronounce your name? And ain’t you the guy who sold hisself to the devil? Ain’t you the German Robert Johnson?”

“You’re confusing the author with his work,” I said, embarrassed for my friend. “Faust sells his soul but is ultimately redeemed because of his determined effort to transcend his imperfections. Or something like that.”

After a few hours of work, I drank matcha and ordered beer for Swamp Rabbit and Goethe. We ate sushi and watched a squad of costumed dancers perform. The sun broke through the clouds, but Swamp Rabbit predicted a long period of Sturm und Drang just up ahead.

“A man sees in the world what he carries in his heart,” Goethe said, shrugging.

“More pretty words,” Swamp Rabbit replied. “You wouldn’t talk like that if you lived in my neighborhood.”

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Is the GOP fascist? Let’s consult the experts.

“Is it a good thing or a bad thing that they got their jobs back?” Swamp Rabbit said. “What did them experts at The Washington Post say?”

He was referring to the reinstatement this week of Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones, the young black Democrats expelled from the Republican-dominated Tennessee House of Representatives for their roles in a public protest sparked by the recent shooting deaths of six people at a private school in Nashville.

“No experts were quoted this time,” I replied. “Not like last week.”

The headline last week regarding expulsion of the legislators was “Tennessee vote marks latest GOP move to stifle dissent, experts say.” The Post apparently tacked on “experts say” to appease right-wingers who might dispute charges that the GOP was trying to stifle dissent, and that race was a factor in the expulsion decision.

“Ain’t it obvious?” Swamp Rabbit said. “They got expelled by the white, rightwing majority because they’re black and represent parts of Tennessee that are black and liberal.”

I frowned at him. “Just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean you can say it in the news. The bigger your publication, the more you have to be careful not to piss off rightwing readers and advertisers and higher-ups. The Post is owned by the guy who runs Amazon, in case you forgot.”

“I ain’t forgot nothin’,” he said. “I’m just wonderin’ why them news peeps don’t find some other line of work if they’re too scared to report what’s really goin’ on.”

He named a bunch of major stories that the corporate media misreported or ignored — the second Iraq war, the connection between global warming and the oil industry, the ongoing corruption of Congress and the Supreme Court by lobbyists, the GOP’s use of gerrymandering, expulsion and other tricks to force their pro-gun, protofascist agenda on the country.

“What do you mean by protofascist?” I said. “Why not just say fascist?”

“That’s a tad too bold, Odd Man. Better wait till the experts weigh in.”

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Cloud cover to blame for overcast, experts say

Swamp Rabbit was retching on the side of the road near my shack. I had just shown him a front-page story in Washington Post that featured this headline: Tennessee vote marks latest GOP move to stifle dissent, experts say.

“Those mainstream newspeople can’t state simple facts without deflecting responsibility,” I said. “Makes you sick, doesn’t it?”

Actually, Swamp Rabbit was throwing up because he drank too much Wild Turkey the night before, but I ignored this. I was focused on the media’s deathly fear of being accused of bias.

The headline and story were about two black Democratic legislators, Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, who were expelled by their white, Republican colleagues after taking part in a protest at the state Capitol that was sparked by the shooting deaths of three children and three adults at a Nashville school. The protesters were demanding stricter gun control laws.

“It’s self-evident that the Republican-dominated legislature is stifling dissent,” I said. “It doesn’t take an expert to see that voting out those two guys amounts to a classic, fascist-style purge.”

Maybe print media should qualify all headlines, Swamp Rabbit said, citing a few possible examples: Experts blame cloud cover for overcast day. Bullet in brain indicates gun used in slaying, experts say. Experts: Famine deaths linked to food shortage.

“The mainstream media will love your idea,” I said. “Better safe than sorry, experts say.”

Footnote: We’re still a long way from the peaceful world imagined in “I’ll Take You There,” the 1972 Staple Singers hit… experts say.

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