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Wednesday, October 06, 2004

The Letter "CBS Sunday Morning" Dared Not Air

Back on August 29th, Ben Stein appeared on "CBS Sunday Morning." Mr Stein has started appearing quite frequently lately, espousing his opinions of the American scene. This is fine with me. I'm all for free speech, whether I like what's being said or not. The problem with Mr Stein, however, is that he makes arguments which are simplistic, shallow, and fundamentally absurd. His monologues are floor shows of lazy thinking, and if there's one thing I hate, it's lazy thinking.

His topic on that day was his vacation getaway in Idaho. Pretty harmless stuff, you say? Not after he spins it into a lot of political buncombe. I sent the following as the text of an e-mail to "CBS Sunday Morning," but they have not, as yet, had the wisdom to either read the letter on the air or to give me a job like Ben's.

In his commentary this past Sunday, Ben Stein showed that it is possible to still look through rose colored glasses even if you have an asigmatism, cataracts, and night blindness. First, I was taken with his statement that this idyllic and rural vacation spot in Idaho (which, by the way, thanks to his big mouth, will soon sag under the collective weight of thousands of TV-watching idyll seekers) is the place that we are pledging allegiance to when we pledge allegiance to the flag. I hate to be the one to break it to him, but the flag that we pledge our allegiance to flies over cityscapes just as regally as it does over the countryside. When we make that pledge, we pledge ourselves not only to the vacationer, the farmer, and the rube, but also the city slicker, the office worker, and the guy who sells hot dogs on 49th Street. Even Democrats and other dissidents are included in this pledge.

The second part of his rural rhapsody that raised an interested eyebrow was his depiction of the place as an enclave of the 1950s, a Lost Valley in the midst of turn-of-the-century post-modernism and moral relativism. The place comes across as a summery sort of Currier and Ives print, or perhaps as a Norman Rockwell caricature of an episode of "Leave It to Beaver." All the Moms wander around their self-cleaning houses draped in pearls, while the Dads, who wear ties even while showering, cheerfully spend the day working at some unnamed job "down at the office." The well-scrubbed, semi-literate children never bother their cowlicks or freckles over anything as dirty as the world and never chirp a sound harsher than "gee whiz."

Alas, back in the actual, living 1950s, things were a bit more complex. The prospect of nuclear holocaust held the world hostage, people's lives were destroyed by McCarthyism and a paranoiac fear of Communism, and Jim Crow ruled all those Americans whose forebears had hailed from Africa rather than Newport. As I understand it, there was even murder and spousal abuse and alcoholism. They even had bad news!

Mr Stein needs to learn, as do many of his friends and cohorts who are cavorting around Madison Square Garden this week, that the citizens of rural America are no more profoundly American than is the person who prefers to roam the wide open concrete, and that the 1950s were not an idyll, but merely another stretch of history that existed in space and time. And if he won't believe me, he should try reading Allen Ginsburg.


Robert G. Margolis said...

Dear Mr. Len (with or without the Zen),

Allow me to be the first to leave his fingerprints on the towels you've put out for guests. This what you writ here is real jazz, and I like the way you play it! Isn't a "stein" a big, round empty wooden thing used to keep intoxicating liquid, the kind that, precisely, makes one "simplistic, shallow, fundamentally absurd"? Yep, I thought so.

Bye the bye, do any of your fiction characters talk like this way that you writ? 'Cause I'm a fiction character myself and would like someone to talk to. And I mean someone who actually remembers, not someone who in his delusional sentimentality first evokes the Imaginary States of America invented for the textbook used in his grade-school social studies class, and then claims to have lived there all his life!

Thanks for the use of the facilities.

--A lazy-eyed potato in his own private Idaho

Len said...


Thanks for the prints, they go with the shower curtain nicely. And yes, probably too many of my fictional characters talk like this. The dopes.

Robert G. Margolis said...


I forget to mention what here in Imaginary Idaho, every self-inspecting potato with his or her eyes glued to a reality show knows: that we TV saluting native demographicans are ready to worship at the altar of any American idyll.

Len said...

And idyll hands are the devil's workshop.

Len said...

It took me almost three hours to think up that wheeze.

Robert G. Margolis said...

"The Devil's Workshop"--you remember that show, too, Len? Only the pilot was produced, but it became the predecessor for all the home fix-it and remodeling
shows, and the no-bid contract nation-building programs, so popular today. But, Len, did you know what was the predecessor for "The Devil's Workshop"? A. Schickelgruber, after he failed as a painter, and before he changed into something more dictatorial and invasion friendly, pitched a show titled "This Old Bunker". In fact, it's where he first met Eva Braun, who played the young fraulein, fetchingly dressed in brown shorts and knee socks, whose job on the show was to handle Adolf his tools.

Mr. Shickelgruber, it's not well known (because his editor omitted the relevant passages from "Mein Kampf"), also anticipated current radio talk trends with his 'shock and awe' schtick and his "all Anchluss all the time" programming. And some of the money for program development? Yep, you guessed it: came from that great American crime family that's given us two Presidents.

As you can see, no idyll hands there (they're two busy shaking hands with his satanic majesty, or giving him a handjob.)

Len said...

As a matter of fact, I do remember "The Devil's Workshop." It was on right after a show starring a Mr Reegin called, "The Multinational Giveaway." I also remember "This Old Bunker," which, if I'm not mistaken, was a spinoff of "That Darn Kaiser," which in itself was a spinoff of "Here Comes Mr Bismarck." Do you remember the songs? "I'll See You in Stalingrad," "Doin' the Beerhall Putsch," and "I've Found a New Use for the Goosestep." Those were the days! Of course, people in those days were quite the idyllists, to the point where they devised their own idyllology, one which thrives in tight hearts and minds to this very day.

Robert G. Margolis said...

Do I remember the songs? Do I ever! Of course, I wasn't born yet, but I'm an avid viewer of the Occupation & Invasion Channel, which advertises the compilation CD "The Raving 30's & 40's: Songs of Mass Psychosis and Conformity." I received a free copy with my membership donation, and I often kick over the coffee table from a little too enthusiastic high stepping.

The songs on the CD are sung by the Order of the Knights of Broken Glass, a group of respectable merchants and bankers who are also accomplished amateur singers. They do a delightful spreichsturmmer version of "Get Reichy With It". And then there's their very tight round version of "Kampf Town Races", and crowd pleasing beer hall favorite "Good Krupp, Bad Krupp".

Ah, Len, so much nostalgia for the Old World Order! They just don't wage world like that anymore, do they? I still get a warm feeling every time I hear the name Mr. Bismarck. I loved that show he starred in, later in his career, when he came out of his untraceable Swiss retirement to play the jovial, gently sagacious butler to those two Central Park scamps, Jodie and Buffy.

Len said...

Yes, Robert, I know the song collection of which you speak. My favorites are "Stormtroopers in the Sky," "The Last Time I Invaded Paris," and "I'll Be Seeing You in Buzz Bomb Launching Time." I think my real favorite was the theme to the movie of the same name, "The Triumph of the Will." With its melody, so reminiscent of "The Shadow of Your Smile," I softly croon its lyrics: "The Triumph of the Will/Is on the loose/You see it in/The Austrian Anschluss." How can one forget the days when the trains ran on time?

I've been thinking about "The Devil's Workshop," and seem to recall that it's creators were also influenced by an old-time kiddies show, "Internment with Uncle Joe Stalin." I don't know if you remember this show or not, but it was something like "Captain Kangaroo" only Mr Moose was in a gulag and Bunny Rabbit was assinated in Mexico. O! to be back in that simpler time!

Robert G. Margolis said...

Len, how the memories come rolling, column after column, over the border! Dear Uncle Joe, no village left behind (or standing) with him, no sirree, and Pottsdam be damned. Do you remember how he got his start, as a kindly apothecary with his weekly show "Stalin Count", on which he'd demonstrate his home remedy to cure people of their allergy to mass murder? It really worked, didn't it? There's alot to be said, still, for those old-fashioned remedies for the ills of the body politic.

Speaking of "Das Kapitan Kangaroo", re-runs of which I watched as a child, I heard that Uncle Joe was the guy inside the Dancing Bear costume and that, in solidarity with the proletariat, he had that gentle agrarian Mr. Greenjeans assassinated. Or, that's how Tolstoi tells it in an unpublished diary. Which reminds me to remind you, as Uncle Joe used to say, when he was moving kind of slow: "Do not ask for whom the bell Tolstois, or I'll have to kill you too!"

Len said...

On rereading my previous post, I accidentally left an "ass" out of "assassinated." I think it was Archduke Ferdinand.

Yes, Uncle Joe had a witty way with a firing squad. I'm amazed that the Russian Bear was allowed on an American show like "Das Kapitan." But then, in those days, Commies were everywhere, even in the woodpile. Just by the way, I had always thought that Mr Greengenes had been exiled to Sakhalin Island. Thanks for the correction.

Robert G. Margolis said...

Len, you're bringing back memories I never had, but which, for a no-bid fee, can be implanted through the Cheney-Chalabi method of deep suggestion.

I feel like I'm reliving the childhood years of our unelected, shadow leaders in their undisclosed locations. I understand now why the Emperor Savant has promised to make the gravy trains of yesteryear run on the tracks of tomorrow in the liberated swing-state of Iraq today. The third rail is charged with juice from Enron executives' private electrical grid, the brake is off, the throttle is wide open, and the engine of Manifest Plutocracy is hurtling unopposed toward the End Time. O rapture, o joy! It would bring a tear to dear Uncle Joe's eye, wouldn't it?

Ben Stein should write a nostalgia piece about his revisiting the house where he grew up and played with his Mussolini model train set, in old, idyllic, Churchill bombed and gassed Iraq.

As for commune-ism--worse than head lice; got into everything. Turns out it was a viral strain of a medieval cooperation fantasy that mutated and became the 1960's, which, say revisionist historians, was itself a sexually transmitted disease. And the cure? Well, Len, it would warm Uncle Joe's country apothecary heart. A few daily applications of "Final Solution", and the inferior little vermin were exterminated without any side effects.

P.S. Be on the look out for Bobble Head Joe dolls, circa 1940's. Very valuable collectors item.

Len said...

Wow, man, the '60s. Like I remember the '60s, man. Fight the power! Property's a crime! Don't bogart that joint, man! Those were my student days, man! And, man, there were like protests, man! Berkeley and San Francisco State. Remember those, man? Yeah, I saw those on TV, man, given the Huntly and Brinkley treatment or maybe it was Kronkheit, man. Yeah, man, I couldn't go, man. Sister Mary Frank wouldn't let us, man. What a drag. But we were for peace and we'd kill you if you weren't. Wow. Groovy. Peace. Yeah. It was like, yeah, wow. You know? It was like an elephant in a parade, you know, man? Wow. No, I'm cool. I'm cool. Yeah. (Pause.) What were we talkin' about?

Robert G. Margolis said...

As the 1960's was the first complete decade I had my eyes open in this world, I didn't really discover the 60's until the 1970's (though I do remember the excitement of a next door neighbor girl--with intoxicating red hair and whom I had a hopeless crush on, who almost got to go to Woodstock).

Once I'd discovered the 60's, I spent most of it inside the grand piano in FZ's "Lumpy Gravy", having non-sequitar conversations. These conversations returned, for their continuation and finale in "Civilization Phase III", released, by his family, after Frank's death. Several decades later, they're really starting to make sense to me.

At the same time, too, I got pretty quickly acclimated to the "We're Only In It For The Money" take on the 60's. Not the complete, 'fair and balanced' story, to be sure, but the madness of my teenage years needed massive doses of humor just to keep me near in balance. Even then, it didn't work. Which was just fine with my belated discovery of the 60's and its after effects, because that didn't work either.

I also discovered (already dead) Lenny Bruce (his autobiography and LPs), and Paul Krassner & his publication "The Realist". Clearly, there was plenty of 60's left to live and to relive, which, in part, explains why I wasn't in high school much of the time I was supposed to be there. Which also might explain, I guess, why, for some, the 60's are the constant denominator to their numerator of the present. But now we're talking "the new math", and I skipped class the day that was taught.

Len said...

You've brought up a number of topics which are of interest to me. So many, in fact that I decided to make my response into today's blog entry. See what you started?

Len said...

Mention of The New Math always makes me think of Tom Lehrer's song of the same name. It includes this lovely lyric:

And you know why four plus minus one
Plus ten is fourteen minus one?
'Cause addition is commutative! Right!

I think I can say without fear of contradiction that Professor Lehrer has provided us with the best math song ever.