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Friday, November 13, 2009

BITE ME!


I want to immediately pierce to the very heart of this issue. If the little prince had been remembered by his real name, Vladimir Basarab, he would have been a lot less infamous. He might still have been celebrated as Vlad Bsasrab the Transfixer, or, in the same vein, immortalized as Vlad Tepes the Inappropriate Marriage Counselor. The bloody shame is that his own baptized appellation has so faded against his myth that you are far more likely to say, “Oh, Vlad the Impaler”, I know who that is. That is Dracula, the vampire from Transylvania.” And you would be dead wrong. Well, wrong, anyway.

For some reason we are up to our necks in vampires these days. Truly, it is the genre that won’t die. There was “Buffy” and “Angel, and “Blade” and “True Blood” and “Blood Ties” and “Twilight” and “Interview with a Vampire” and the “Underworld” series and “Nosferatu” and a few million Dracula movies. Back in the 1990’s Josh Whedon even created “Spike” a vampire with a nicotine habit – Why would he smoke, when he doesn’t breathe? Worse, these days the hard bitten hickey artists, in fact this entire ethos of ensanguined extortionist, lusts not merely for blood. I could write a treatise on the lack of the appeal of sex to those who do not live. And more pointedly there is the great unstated reality that these lively undead, if they exist at all, must secrete an anticoagulant to digest their meals, else the blood would form a huge, hemoglobin hair-ball clot in their tummies. Has anybody given this any thought? I have.

Every week or so a real vampire would suddenly be rendered helpless while they gagged up and then deposited a foul smelling black mass on the carpet. First, that should make it easy to escape from a vampire; second it should make them easy to locate; and third, how is that sexy? - Because this current fascination with fangs seems to be about the sublimation of sex with a succubus and or a succuba, or both. And to think, it originally started out as the sublimation of nationalism. Who would have thunk it?

Dracula is Romanian for “Sons of the Dragon”. They were an order of Christian Knights, which honored Vlad’s father with the title. And Vlad occasionally laid claim to it as well, but only at formal occasions, such as banquets and bloodlettings, which were often the same occasions for him. Yes, he was a capricious mass murderer, but Vlad was never ever accused of being a vampire, not to his face, not in his original lifetime, anyway. He would not have even known what a “vampyre” was. He would have known what a vrykolakas was. That was a Greek invention, a sort of Slavic vampire without dentures, one of the undead motivated by a necrotic sense of humor. But, of course, there has been bad blood between the Greeks and the Slavs for the last 3,000 years and the dentile demon is just the latest addition in this blood feud.

Only a vampire can make a vampire. But a vrykolakas is created when a dog or a cat jumps over a grave. Should they pause to urinate on the crypt the occupant will get a little wet; but they’re dead, what do they care. However it seems to be the bound that boils the banshee bicuspid. Driven by the sanguine leap the vrykolakas makes the inhuman effort to clamber from its tomb and engage in a mortiferous game of “Knock, knock”. In Slavic lands, a tap on the door after dark should never be answered. Not because a salesman may put the bite on you, but because it just encourages the vrykolakas to keep on knocking. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vrykolakas)

Vlad was no mere vrykokakas. Legend has it that Vlad once sat in judgment of a wife suspected of adultery. He awarded the husband a divorce, and provided child support by impaling the mother and child on the same spike. His social programs were saturated with the same carnassial logic. The invalids in his realm were invited to a feast, at which Vlad bolted the doors and windows and set the hall on fire. Once the flames died down Vlad announced he had eradicated poverty in his realm. Technically he was correct, but it did little to improve his public image. But there was a reason for Vlad’s fiendish behavior.

At the tender age of five Vlad’s familiar bonds were severed when he was offered up as a hostage to the Ottomans. During his six years alone in a Turkish prison, Vlad’s only playmates were bats and spiders, who he tortured to his heart’s content. When he was eleven Vlad’s father and older brother were both murdered by Boyars, the local landlords. You can understand, then, that when Vlad was finally able to resurrect his father’s empire in 1456, he perforated every Boyar he could lay his bloody hands on. Unfortunately he skewered his economy as well, but you can’t have everything.

In 1462 the Sultan decided he had enough of Vlad’s savage vindictiveness, and he invaded Transylvania with a 90,000 man army. Since Vlad only had about 30,000 men his cause seemed a dead letter. Still Vlad made it interesting by puncturing 20,000 Turkish prisoners at the border. This act of mass murder managed to impress the Sultan who was no slouch in the mass mayhem department, himself. Still the outcome was the same; Vlad was forced into exile, and the Sultan placed Vlad’s half brother on the throne.

And it turned out that Vlad’s allies were no more comfortable with a lethal poltergeist potentate in their midst than the Sultan had been. Vlad was locked up in the 13th century equivalent of a mental ward for 12 years, by which time the memories of his murderous malignant management style seem to have faded to black. So, in 1476 he was able to attempt to recapture his little empire. But Vlad was cornered by Turkish troops and killed in a battle outside of Bucharest. And to prove that he was ‘morally, ethic'lly, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably dead’, the Turks decapitated Vlad’s corpse and sent his head ahead to Constantinople as proof for the Sultan that the demon was not merely dead, but certainly, assuredly and really most sincerely dead’.

Except, that he wasn’t; enter the Irishman Bram Stoker, business manager for the actor and owner of a London theatre, and part time writer of lurid adventure stories and novels. Chapter two of Stoker’s “Dracula”, which was published in 1897, records the first meeting between English lawyer and the Count. “A key was turned with the loud grating noise of long disuse, and the great door swung back…Within, stood a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of color about him anywhere….The old man motioned me in with his right hand with a courtly gesture, saying in excellent English, but with a strange intonation. “Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own free will!...I am Dracula…”

But was Stoker inspired by the real Dracula? Elizabeth Miller who has made a study of the issue (“Dracula: The Shade and the Shadow” – 1998) does not think so. “…(Stoker's) research seems to have been haphazard (though at times fortuitous) rather than scholarly. What he used, he used “as is,” errors and confusions included….After all, Stoker was writing a Gothic novel, not a historical treatise. And he was writing Dracula in his spare time, of which I doubt he had much.”

Writing in his spare time? Who ever heard of such a batty idea?

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

THE GREATEST POLITICIAN OF ALL


I hear constant complaints about crooked, two-faced, lying politicians, and it seems to me that the objections and the job description are nearly identical. The obvious rules for the participants of a democracy were first laid down 2,400 years ago, and they have not been improved upon since. Rule number one is that unless employed as a politician, a politician is not a politician. Thus to be a successful politician, a politician must first be elected. Second, the successful politico must be re-elected, as often as possible. You can understand, then, how easy it is for a politician (and the electorate) to confuse the objective with the means to the objective. It happens all the time.

The proof of these rules was firmly established by the golden boy of ancient Greek democracy, the man who turned hypocrisy, sycophancy and prevarication into an art form, the greatest politician of all time bar none, Alcibiades Alcmaeonidae. It wasn’t that  Alcibiades broke the mold, it was that Alcibiades was the mold.

His world was shaped by his uncle and guardian, Pericles, who defined a great leader as someone who “…knows what must be done and is able to explain it; loves one’s country and is incorruptible.” That was baloney, of course. A great leader first needs to hired as the leader, and then rehired as often as possible. And in order to do that the leader-want-to-be must tell the voters what want to hear, as opposed to the truth. Allow me to explain.

Having decided that Athens and Sparta were destined for war, Pericles devised a most unusual strategy for winning that war; no fighting. Between 430 B.C. and 429 B.C. Spartan armies invaded Athenian territory (called Attica) repeatedly. Their objective was to defeat the Athenian army and then take pocession of their crops and farmers, who would be redefined as slaves. In order to achieve this objective the Spartan armies burned Athenian crops and villages and took hostages. The Athenians farmers would have never agreed to follow ta plan not to oppose the Spartans, so Pericles never suggested it to them. Nor did he explain that he intended Athens to rely on their fleet to bring in grain from Egypt and the Ukraine to replace the lost crops burned by the Spartans.

Pericles' idea was to frustrate the Spartans, whose approach was geared toward a quick victory at any cost. Delaying that victory would feed internal dissent in Sparta over a seemingly endless war and encourage them to make peace on Athenian  terms. It was a brilliant idea. And it might have worked but for one unanticipated event. The plague arrived on the grain ships from Egypt in 428 B.C. and the plauge killed perhaps a third of the population of Athens, including Pericles.

The abrupt vacuum at the top of Athenian politics was an opportunity for the young Alcibiades. He was looked the part of a superstar, a cross between John Edwards and JFK. And in politics, image is reality.  First Alcibiades was a real Olympic athlete, considered “the Adonis of Athens…tall, shapely, remarkably handsome, fond of showy attire and luxurious surroundings…” (p 221, Baldwin Project) He was a powerful public speech maker, whose slight lisp made him all the more endearing. And he had that Bill Clinton appeal; he seduced women and men with equal ease and equally often. But Alcibiades really seduced them. No, I mean really. All the way.

The 19 year old Alcibiades even beguiled the old pedophile, Socrates. Reading Plato’s version of their dialogs is like watching a snake charmer with arthritis toying with a hungry python. Socrates began by berating Alcibiades’ youthful arrogance. “You say you do not need any person for anything …For you think you are the most beautiful and greatest” – and then later he fell under Alcibiades' spell, calling him “…the greatest of the Greeks.” Still, Socrates shared Alcibiades bed only once; if Athens had only been that wise.

It seems that all that Alcibiades learned from Socrates was that in order to become the next Pericles he needed a project worthy of his ambition. And in 415 B.C. Alcibiades suggested a cloak and dagger strike on the island of Sicily, a commando operation - perhaps even capturing by subterfuge the port city of Syracuse, Sparta’s strongest ally ouside of Greece. Athens was buying their grain from Egypt, and Sparta was buying theirs from Syracuse.

Now, Alcibiades’ priniciple political opponent was Nicias. Obviously Nicias could not afford to let Alcibiades' invasion succeed. So Nicias warned the citizens of Athens that Alcibiades' expedition would end up being twice the size he was claiming, and far more than twice as expensive. The plan would, claimed Nicias, require 140 ships and 6,000 men. And that was about twice the size that Alcibiades was suggesting. And maybe Nicias was right, maybe Alcibiades was hiding the truth. Pericles had. And maybe Alcibiades' was teling the truth. It's been 2,000 years and the arguement seems a little redundant by this time. But what ever the truth, when the arguement was submitted to the city council, both Nicias and Alcibiades were shocked by their decision. The Athenian council bought the whole thing, the 6,000 men and the 140 ships. And then they placed both Alcibiades and Nicias in charge of it. In other words they decided to deliver Alcabiades' dagger strike with Nicias' hammer, with both men guiding the weapon.

It couldn't possibly work. But neither man wanted to surrender the project to the other. So somehow the two foes managed to assemble the huge force. But Alcibiades should have been more worried about Nicias' willingness to cooperate.  On the way to Sicily the huge fleet was intercepted by a fast trireme from Athens. By leaving Athens, it seemed, Alcibiades had sailed into a trap.

The night before the expeditian had set sail, someone had crept through the darkened streets of Athens and attacked the small statues of the God Hermes which stood outside of ever Athenian home, and by attacked I mean they had wacked off the phalles which jutted from each figure. Touching Heme's phallus was supposed to ensure good luck and it was standard practice for the citizens to grasp the phalles firmly everytime they left or returned home. Visitors were expected to "chock the snake" as well, as a sort of extended handshake - of sorts. Bill collectors were not similarly invited.

Now, I am certain this kind of vandalism had happened before. In fact, if Athenian thirteen year old males were anything like American thirteen year old males, I imagine those phalles were getting wacked off as often as mail boxes on country roads. They would be the perfect target for teenagers waiting for Wii to be invented. But, of course, Nicias' allies back in Athens were eager to make the most sinster suggestion possible,  that it had been Alcibiadies who had wacked off the phalles, to mock the God's. Why a politican as skilled as Alcibiades would have done this was never explained, I suspect because the polticians ranting about his disrespect of the Gods were no more religous than Alcibiades.  But, then, how many rational people actually believe in Obama Death Panels, or that Bush and Cheney plotted 911? As stated before, in politics, image is reality.

As soon as Alcibiades had sailed away Nicias' allies on the Athenian council had raised such a stink that the council caved in to them and ordered Alcibiades home to stand trial for heresy and treason. It seemed that Alcibiades had been outflanked. He knew instantly that Nicias was behind this, and Alcibiades had no intention of leaving his fate in the hand of his enemies. But the way Alcibiades avoided Nicias' trap was sheer genius.

On his way back to stand trial in Athens Alcibiades jumped ship at Thurii, and boldly contacted the Spartans. You remember the Spartans; big strong guys, not too bright, sworn enemies of Athens. Well, Alcibiades offered the Spartans information on the Athenian expedition’s plans to capture Syracuse.  Only after that information proved correct did the Spartans warily agreed to allow Alcibiades sanctuary in their city. Alcibiades had just made his first betrayal.

Once in Sparta, Alcibiades became a new man. He converted from a luxury loving Athenian into a prime example of Spartan brutality and sadomasochism.

Like any good Spartan politician he began wearing simple clothes and eating cold gruel and exercising in public with the other sadomasochistic Spartans. He advised the Spartans on a strategy that led to the complete defeat of Nicias and the slaughter and capture of his entire Athenian force. In fact Alcibiades had become one of the most respected and trusted men in Sparta - until one morning in 412 B.C. when the Spartan king Agis II came home unexpectedly to speak to his queen and Alcibiades was seen jumping out of her bedroom window. Okay, maybe Alcibiades had that other failing of many politicians - he wanted everybody to love him.  He wouldn't be the first politicain to carry that to an extreme, either.

Agis II put out a contract on Alcibiades' life , and our hero immediatly disappeared again. This time he turned up in Persia, as an advisor at the court of the satrapy Tissaphernes, who had been funding the Spartan war effort. Alcibiades had just made his second betrayal.

Buy funding the Spartans Tissaphernes had been hoping to weaken the Athenians. But he had lately begun to worry that the Spartans were getting too strong, which is exactly what he was told by his new political advisor, Alcibiades. On his advice the Persians cut back their cash support for Sparta. Things were getting complicated, weren't they.

Ever the plotter, Alcibiades put out peace feelers to his old friends in Athens. He convinced them that he could bring the Persians into the war on Athens’ side. Of course Tissaphernes had no intention of committing his forces until both Greek cities  were exhausted, but by the time the Athenians realized this, according to the poet Aristophanes, they yearned for Alcibiades even while they hated him. This was to be Alcibiades’ third great betrayal.

Against their better judgement the Athenian generals made Alcibiades an Admiral, and he engineered an Athenian naval victory at Abydos, near the Hellespont, and burned the little village of Byzantium. After another Alcibiades victory the Spartans in the area sent home a desperate note. “Our ships are lost. Mindarus (the commander) is dead. The men are starving. We do not know what to do.”

In 407 B.C. Alcibiades made his triumphal return to Athens itself, to cheering throngs and the return of his property, which had been seized when he had joined Sparta. All charges against him were dropped; but not forgotten.

This last betrayal had convinced the Persians to again fully fund the Spartan war effort. And in 406 B.C. Alcibiades sailed with 100 ships on a mission to assist the city of Phocaea, near the Hellespont, which was under siege from Spartan forces. While making a scout Alcibiades left 80 ships at anchor at Notium under his second in command. But while he was away the fool brought on an engagement with the Spartan fleet, and was soundly defeated. His enemies in Athens blamed Alcibiades for the disaster, and he was forced into exile once again, and this time it looked final.

In 404 B.C. Alcibiades was living in retirement with a mistress in Phyrgia, in what is today central Turkey, in a mountain cabin. In the dark of night assassins set the house on fire and murdered Alcibiades as he rushed out side. Says the Baldwin Project, “Thus perished, at less than fifty years of age, one of the most brilliant and able of all the Athenians.” His death also proves the final rule in politics. If he had been a total fool, Alcibiades would have never become a politican, and probably lived a long and happy life. If he had been half as smart, Alcibiades would have been killed right away. It takes a real genius politician to be as smart Alcibiades, and live as long as he did.

Some say it was the Spartans who killed him, and some that it was his Athenian enemies, and some say it was the brothers of a Persian woman he had seduced. If Alcibiades did not fit his uncle’s definition of a great leader, still he had been a successful politician for each of the three great powers of his time – Athens, Sparta and Persia. How could you not consider him the greatest politician of any age?


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Sunday, November 08, 2009

OH, HENRY!


I have long held the view that "anarchist" as a label which became passé with the invention of psychiatry. Of course it has stuck around as a vestigial etymological fossil, but any current criminal shrink can now vouch that the loonies who espoused anarchy were really just pathological egotistical narcissists. As proof of this contention I now present you with the head of Emile Henri, who lost his head over the injustice he suffered because of another inarticulate Frenchman who sought to challenge the establishment and managed only to blow his nose at them.

Everything about Auguste Vaillant screams of irony. He was a kin of Lee Harvey Oswald, a little man who wanted to be important, but lacked the necessary attention span. He was the leader of a socialist group but seems to have been the only regular member. While waiting for the revolution he was ironically employed sewing expensive handbags and wallets for rich people to store their money in.

Concerned about justice for the poor he had abandoned a wife and two children, and then lived with a deaf woman. For a political revolutionary to be living with a woman who could not hear his rants against capitalism passes beyond ironic into the realm of absurdity. And that is where we find Auguste on Saturday December 10, 1893 entering the public gallery above the Chamber of Deputies, the French congress, carrying a sauce pan bomb in his overcoat. Ce n'est pas ironique, c'est le plus absurde

Auguste had constructed two sauce pan bombs, but discarded the larger one after realizing he could never sneak a 3 quart sauce pan past security. Spotting his intended target, the President, on the Chamber floor, Auguste revealed and armed his 1 quart sauce pan. This attracted the attention of the woman sitting next to him. (“Excuse me, but is that a sauce pan bomb in your pocket or are you just unhappy to see me?”). She was able to deflect his throw so that the sauce pan bounced off a decorative cornice before exploding. The blast shattered Auguste’s right arm. The nuts and bolts packed around the explosive, shrapnel intended to kill 150 deputies, instead lacerated Auguste’s neck and chest. And the explosion blew his nose completely off his face. Unfortunately, the quick acting heroine was also badly wounded, as were at least 20 politicians. But the only person who died, if not immediately, was Auguste, Ce n'est pas tragique, c'est le plus absurde.

Auguste’s trial was brief. And on February 3, 1894, the guillotine finished what Auguste’s own bomb had started. His last words, before the blade severed his head completely from his body, were, “Mort à la société bourgeoise! Vive l’anarchie!”
( “Death to the Bouergeoisie! Long live Anarchy!”) Even his last words turned out to have been ironic.

Because, of the millions who were outraged by Auguste’s departing utterance, the most significant turned out to have been another nobody anarchist fanatic, this one named Emile Henri, a 21 year old who was consumed with envy. Henri was convinced that Auguste’s noble death scene should have been his. After all, just over a year before had not Henri stricken a much more effective blow against the bourgeois but had received little of the press coverage afforded the now headless incompetent.

Henri had decided to strike his blow for striking miners. So he packed 20 sticks of dynamite into sauce pan rigged to explode if it was jostled. He carefully left this “infernal device” outside the second floor offices of a mining company just before lunch on November 8, 1892.

A lowly Porter noticed the sauce pan, and realized immediately what it might be. But rather than evacuating the offices he ordered an office boy to carry the suspect sauce pan down to the street. Somehow the office boy made it in once piece, but he felt a little uneasy about just leaving it on the sidewalk, in case a passing pedestrian should be injured. So he alerted a nearby school crossing guard. Two policemen responded. They tied a napkin around the bomb and then the three of them, the cops and the office boy, carried the bomb suspended between them to the local police station at the rather mis-named Rue des Bon Enfants (Street of the wonderful children.) There the bomb exploded, killing four cops and the office boy.

Henri had to lay low for awhile, but he was still living in a crummy apartment when he opened his anarchist newspaper on February 4, 1894 to read of Auguste’s dramatic speech at his trial. And Henri was spurred to action.

Now, there might be some who feel my tone slights the victims of such attacks; baloney. Murder has been anathema for at least six thousand years, when the ancient Egyptians made “Thou shalt not kill” their first commandment, predating Moses by at least a thousand years. If a human being is murdered by a serial killer, a lunatic at the controls of a hijacked jet, a deluded doctor, a drunk at the wheel of a car or a waiter too busy to wash their hands, the result for the victims is the same; tragedy. Fundamentalist Islamic-Christian-Marxist- Socialist-cultural-political justifications matter only to the perpetrator; I say again, baloney.

As if to prove my point, one week after the execution of Auguste, Henri entered the restaurant at Hotel Terminus, next to the Gar Saint Lazare train station in Paris. He had stopped at two other bars earlier but, he claimed later, they weren’t crowded enough. My guess is he had not yet drunk enough courage. He nursed two drinks for an hour at the Terminus, and then as he staggered out the door, tossed his bomb back into the café. A waiter ran after Henri, who shot him. Two policemen took up the chase. Henri shot one. The other knocked him down and restrained him. Henri’s toll was now eight dead – five at the police station and three at the restaurant.

At his trial Henri was defiant and bombastic, until his attorney put Henri’s mother on the witness list. Henri objected. He told the judge, “It never occurred to me to inflict such pain on my mother.” In fact I suspect Henri was more concerned about sullying his image as a heartless dedicated anarchist with the truth about his commonality.

According to the New York Times, On May 21, 1894 at“4:07 a.m.…the iron doors swung apart…Henri was ghastly white, but walked with a firm step. As he approached the platform he shouted, “Courage comrades. Long live anarchy.” His voice…trembled noticeably…As they pushed him against the plank he shouted again, ““Courage comrades. Long live anarchy.”…The click of the knife was heard the next moment, and Henri’s head dropped to the ground. The blood from the trunk spurted high as the body revolved into the basket. (The executioner) himself picked up the head from the sawdust and threw it viciously into the basket with the body.”

Anarchy, it turned out, was not long lived. History proved it to be a temporary delusion, to join those other temporary delusions people have claimed as justification for random murder; communism, fascism, Black power, White power, the Basque Independence Party, the Irish Republican Army, the John Birch Society, the Confederacy, and the myriad other stupid rationalizations.

Hatred is a lot like love in this respect - reduced to its core it is all about self.

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