gall and gumption

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Cranky Old Lady

That's what I'm going to become, I know. As people get less interested in finding out what's going on down the front of your shirt you have one less thing to keep them listening to you.

Have I made the best use of all that? Well, I think so. Sometimes I look back over my strange disjointed life and it seems to me that there was some sort of force pushing me to the margins of something, always.

I have a Bessie Smith CD in my car. When I was an undergraduate in college there were two Bessie Smith songs that I loved and when I listened to an album of hers I really only listened to those two songs. One was "Mississippi River Blues" and the other was "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

Now I listen to, and hear, her other songs and they just amaze me. There's the one where she sketches out this scenario: she shows up at the Barber's Ball and fires her gun at her cheating lover. He ducks, and when the smoke clears and the band creeps out from behind the stand, they hear her say

When I get home I'm gonna change my lock and key...

A thorough tongue-lashing proceeds, in which these memorable lines occur:

You just got to be the latest squeeze?
Well let 'em squeeze you in your BVDs

She bought him all those clothes, thank you very much.

Take off those clothes or I'll shoot them off
I'll shoot them off if I hear you cough.
When I get home I'm gonna change my lock and key.

A certain lack of that in my character.

I've been thinking for the past few weeks about Gary Webb, that journalist who killed himself. Webb wrote a series of stories in the mid 1990s for the San Jose Mercury, connecting the Nicaraguan Contras and the CIA to the crack epidemic in the cities of the US. That is, Webb's articles alleged that the CIA and the Contras were funding the Contra war against Nicaragua with laundered cocaine money, while the cocaine was ending up on the streets of black inner cities in the US in the form of crack. Somebody edited those articles and found them satisfactory, and initially the paper stood by Webb, but then they caved in under a pretty sustained assault from the media.

I am in no position to know anything about this. I lived in a country for two years whose second largest industry was offshore finance and my sense of the majority of it was that it was boring in the extreme: plastic surgeons hiding assets from their ex-wives, tax avoiding cranks, dull and shifty people in shorts carrying briefcases and sunburn. The rah rah days of laundering huge sums of drug money were gone, thanks to stringent measures on the part of the OECS and FATF, and you could hear the lawyers complaining.

There were still a few sinister characters about the landscape, but as I said, you could only have your suspicions and sort of connect imaginary dots. Nothing material at all. You could see things on the ground as it were that really lent themselves to certain explanations. But you could not materially connect them to a higher source. It just kept the best explanation to the question: Why is this person here? Nothing as dramatic as Contras or war, just things not being all they appeared to be.

So I say all this by way of saying I am not an expert on anything, have no claim. But based even on that and knowing the little I know about the sums of money involved, the Contra connection seemed quite plausible. Huge massacres were going on in Central America during the period in question and if you could aid and abet massacres why shouldn't you take advantage of all that cash that needed to be disposed of somehow?

That's pretty much where it is for me. I make no assertions as to fact. And most of what I observed in the Caribbean is years after poor Webb got hounded out of the business.

But when I got to Columbia, in '97, the Human Sacrifice of Gary Webb was under way. His name would come up in discussions, or rather the San Jose Mercury series, and without knowing anything or having an opinion one way or the other about it I remember being struck by the peculiar venom that manifested itself around the subject. It was as though the very idea of someone doing what Webb had done, which included taking the risk of inflaming the anger of the black community (Jesus! what if they riot again?), could not be repudiated with enough scorn.

As I said, I knew little enough about it, hadn't even read the articles, but I remember that something in me quietly stiffened its back against the attacks on Webb that I heard. It was only a feeling that whenever a whole gang of very safe people all start after one man who has risked his own reputation in that way, there is something fishy to all of the moralizing of the gang. Not that there was a conspiracy or anything behind it, but there was certainly something nasty about human character. There was no substantive discussion of the details of the stories. It was only the embarrassment to journalism that was discussed and that was taken as axiomatic, so poor Webb was not to be spared.

I am not a perfect person, my expertise is not in conspiracies, it's in literature, which I love. I love literature because it has taught me -- and my literature teachers have taught me -- to be suspicious of anyone who gives you permission to behave unkindly towards other human beings or indeed other creatures.

Life is lonely. I think I know as much about that as I ever want to know. It probably won't be up to me to decide how much more of that I have to learn, as in so many other things. I do believe that if you can't abstain from unkindness out of love, then you should abstain from it out of a sense of justice and if you can't manage even that then at least have good manners.

Now, as for me, living on the margins and turning into a cranky old lady, I look forward to becomig even more resistant to the kinds of appeal that are made against people like Gary Webb by people who took none of the risks but who certainly jump in for their share of mocking the failure. I look forward to being less and less useful, more and more invisible.

And you know? I suspect that whoever was looking down my shirt wasn't really listening anyway.


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