GAZA CHISELER UPDATE

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A few words on genocide by an international human rights lawyer…

"I want to emphasize today that these killings are part of a broader set of inhuman acts by Israel constituting international crimes, carried out by Israel over many years, going back to at least 1947 and 1948. They include crimes that aren’t talked about that much in the media or the press, the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and apartheid. These crimes can be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court and are defined there. They include what the well-known Israeli writer Ilan Pappé called incremental genocide. Pappé says he wants to place the barbarity of what Israel is doing in its proper context.

“I’m a lawyer. I’ve looked at genocide. Genocide has two elements. One element is the mental element, the intent to destroy the whole or in part a national or ethnical or racial or religious group. Palestinians are clearly a national and ethnic group. And you don’t need to kill them all. You just need to have the mental intent to kill part of them. For example, it would be enough to have the mental intent to kill the leadership of the Palestinians or to kill people in one region. No doubt about that.

“Genocide also requires that there be acts of genocide–killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm, or inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction, in whole or part, of the people you’re trying to destroy. There’s no doubt again here this is “incremental genocide”, as Ilan Pappé says. iIt’s been going on for a long time, the killings, the incredibly awful conditions of life, the expulsions that have gone on for from Lydda in 1947 and ’48, when 700 or more villages in Palestine were destroyed, and in the expulsions that continued from that time until today. It’s correct and important to label it for what it is.” 

-Michael Ratner

HARRY STEPHEN KEELER: The Paper-Blackener of Bagdad on the Lakes

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Marry a moustachioed alcoholic and erstwhile magician to a Welsh-American beauty shortly before the World’s Columbian Exposition. When their son is born, widow the mother. Widow her again—twice. Put her in charge of a boarding house for vaudevillians. Make her son a prankster and give him a degree in electrical engineering. Bake him in the Kankakee mental asylum for a year. The result: the one and only Harry Stephen Keeler.

Keeler (1890-1967) was, in his own words, one of the most obsessive “paper-blackeners” ever to inhabit Chicago—“London of the West, Bagdad on the Lakes.” In this regard he is not wholly unlike Henry Darger, the janitor and outsider artist who spent his life a few blocks away creating the 15,000-page chronicle of the Vivian Girls. One difference is that Keeler got published.

When he was out of the asylum and working as a steel mill electrician, Keeler started frenetically punching away at his L. C. Smith, turning out surprise-twist short stories and, soon, complicated serial mysteries in a whimsical vein. He also landed a job as editor of 10 Story Book, a pulp featuring humorous tales and half-naked girls. With Find the Clock (Dutton, 1927), he achieved U.S. hardback publication. Keeler was to publish 37 volumes with Dutton until he exhausted his publishers’ patience in 1942. He published 48 books with the British publisher Ward Lock (1929-53), nine with the fourth-rate Phoenix Press (1943-48), and a dozen or so further novels written directly for Spanish or Portuguese translation at $50 a pop, in addition to several manuscripts that never saw the light of day.

That’s a story of decline—and even at the early peak of his mild popularity, Keeler struggled to sell more than a few thousand copies of his novels. The Great Depression was part of the problem, but so was Keeler’s prose. Over the course of the ’30s, Keeler transmuted his early style—convoluted “webwork” plots and somewhat Victorian diction—into screwball concoctions where the narrator and characters sink into morasses of dialect and ludicrous phraseology, as the reader is challenged to sift through layers of implausible interpretation to uncove an even more implausible solution. Ignoring the pleas of his editors, HSK churned out huge, multivolume creations that tried his readers’ brains and now seem boldly postmodern, as if they had been dreamed up by Pynchon or Oulipo. To mention a few:

The Box from Japan (1932) is set in 1942 and runs to over 700,000 words, with extensive digressions on intercontinental 3-D television, a Nicaraguan canal, and the Japanese emperor’s love of Virginia ham.

The Marceau Case and X. Jones of Scotland Yard (1936) are “documented novels” that consist of newspaper stories, telegrams, photos (including one of a topless woman and one of Keeler himself), astronomical charts, cartoons, a Bible verse, two ten-page long footnotes, and much more. The premise is a twist on “locked room” mysteries: a man was strangled on an open croquet lawn, with only a few small footprints in his immediate vicinity. Was he garroted by a Lilliputian in an autogyro? The case is given a three-dimensional solution by an American in the first volume, and a four-dimensional solution by an Englishman in the second.

The Mysterious Mr. I and The Chameleon (1938-39) trace the Chicago peregrinations of a narrator who keeps us and everyone around him guessing as he switches identities no fewer than fifty times (once posing as a professor of philosophy who provides yet another solution to the Marceau case).

The Man with the Magic Eardrums (1939) is an all-night dialogue between two mysterious characters who discuss interracial marriage, telephone technology, and a laundry list of other Keelerian obsessions. It was followed by three sequels.

The exhausting, quasilunatic plots of HSK’s novels are larded with gems of Keelerian writing: awkward, preposterous, and hilarious. The laughter is always uncertain, though, because you are never sure just how much of the effect is intentional. (I have come to believe that most of it is.) Contemporary Keelerite Edward Bolman has recently started tweeting some of these gems (twitter.com/harryskeeler). Here’s a small selection.

“I—I thank you, Governor,” he said with dignity, “on behalf of the Great Science of Mathematics and Joe the Duck.”

For all’s not gold that glitters; and everything that makes an inky black aqueous solution isn’t the pure oxyrhodomate salt of platinum.

“I—I don’t want any women,” Joe managed to ejaculate.

Real estate law oozed out from all over him.

“I’d like to be Hong’s gold watch in his pocket—but able to listen, like as if it were my own ear—yeah, a gold ear-shaped listening watch.”

“Nuts!” exploded Monk Onderko. “Bull,” came from Pox in the rear.

His conscience was invariably an amoeba hypertrophied to the size of behemoth and capering about, centipedal with a hundred elephant legs!

Unlikely as it may seem, Keeler got a small taste of Hollywood in 1934, when Monogram Studios put out two films based on his Sing Sing Nights. In the movie of that name, three murder suspects are tested by a lie detector. (In the novel, the three men shot their victim nearly but not quite simultaneously—so two of them are guilty of no more than pumping a bullet into a corpse. One shooter espouses the theory that racism will eventually be overcome thanks to interbreeding, plastic surgery, and international air travel. None of this makes it into the film.) In The Mysterious Mr. Wong, a film based on a story told by one of the characters in Keeler’s Sing Sing Nights, Bela Lugosi plays Wong, a tepidly creepy Oriental who is stalked by a feebly wisecracking reporter. These movies have some interest as period pieces, but retain little of the distinctive Keeler touch. Extensive research has not supported Keeler’s claim that Sing Sing Nights inspired yet a third film, titled The Gorilla’s Brain.

Nearly forgotten by the end of his life, Keeler has experienced a small posthumous revival thanks to the Internet (which he would have adored). The Harry Stephen Keeler Society, founded in 1997, publishes a newsletter. All of Keeler’s books can be printed on demand by Ramble House. In 2005, McSweeney’s republished the 1934 novel The Riddle of the Traveling Skull. Keeler’s confessed fans include Neil Gaiman and Roger Ebert. Now we await a truly Keelerian film—a movie that somehow captures the erudite, juvenile, loquacious, gleefully unrealistic world of a Harry Stephen Keeler novel.

by Richard Polt

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NEVER GIVE A BLOGNEY AN EVEN BREAK

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by David Cairns

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IZZY AND MOE

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From the moment Prohibition went into effect in January 1920, New Yorkers from top to bottom, from the mayor to the immigrant laborer, from its hoodlums to its largely Irish constabulary, set out to ignore the new law, get around it, or profit from it in some way.

The market for both large, industrial stills and small home models boomed. New York newspapers ran ads for one-gallon home stills, and hardware stores displayed them in their windows. The shelves of any public library held books and even helpful government pamphlets on how to use them. As every backwoods moonshiner knew, stills sometimes blow up, making them dangerous appliances to have cooking away in apartments all over New York. Periodically through the 1920s a still explosion would make the news, including one in a West Eleventh Street kitchen that killed the owner’s baby son.

In Italian neighborhoods like the South Village, people had always made wine for home use. Now they amped it up into a thriving cottage industry. “In the fall of the year, truckloads of grapes might be seen being unloaded in front of tenements or stores, the remains of mash purpled the gutters, and women grocery-store keepers apologized for the condition of their hands as they weighed their vegetables,” a sociologist reported. Every kind of store in the Italian Village — grocer, bootblack, cigar store, barber shop — sold wine. Everyone in New York knew that if you wanted wine with dinner, shop in the Village.

When roughly four of five of New York City’s fifteen thousand licensed taverns and saloons shut down, an estimated thirty thousand speakeasies rose up to replace them. They ranged from the classic dingy hole-in-the-wall of lore to lavish hot spots like Jack and Charlie’s “21” Club, where Mayor Jimmy Walker had his own booth. Some speakeasies were so far from secret that they were world-famous, their addresses were listed in every tourist guide, and the only people the lug behind the door refused to admit were those he had very good reason to suspect were law enforcers. Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village was thick with  speakeasies geared for the tourist trade, early examples of the theme bar. At the Pirate’s Den a doorman dressed like a buccaneer let tourists into a gloomy place hung with chains and rigging and lit by ship’s lanterns, where staff costumed like eye-patched sea dogs periodically staged mock fights with their cutlasses and pistols. Nearby were the zany Nut Club, something like a forerunner to today’s comedy clubs; the Indian-themed Wigwam; and the Village Barn, a basement on West Eighth Street featuring square dances, hoedowns and live turtle races. Poisoning from the bad alcohol served in many joints — often just grain alcohol colored to look like whiskey — could be deadly. By the end of the decade more than six hundred New Yorkers a year were dying from it.

In 1925 the perpetually broke and peripatetic Henry and June Miller moved to Greenwich Village to try running a speakeasy of their own. It was in a tiny basement apartment they rented in the brick house at 106 Perry Street, where Henry had to make himself scarce when June brought her wealthy admirers over. June, the bisexual wild child, had been a taxi dancer when they met in 1923. It was at her prompting that he quit his job at the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company — Western Union — to try to make it as a writer. In their time together they lived in, and were often thrown out of, numerous apartments in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx. The speakeasy-and-sugar-daddies arrangement on Perry Street was one of her many failed moneymaking schemes. In Plexus Miller writes, “To run a speakeasy… and to live in it at the same time, is one of those fantastic ideas which can only arise in the minds of thoroughly impractical individuals.” The apartment was two small rooms and a kitchen. One room held a pool table, with windows always shut and heavily curtained against law enforcement’s prying eyes. By morning, when they tried to get to sleep, the stench of stale beer, spilled wine and tobacco smoke were awful. “No doubt about it, if the enterprise proves a success we’ll have tuberculosis,” he mused. It wasn’t a success. They thrived briefly at first, mostly because June’s well-heeled admirers were customers. But they soon drifted off and within a few months the clientele was mostly Henry’s impoverished bohemian pals. “On the kitchen wall is a long list of names,” he records in Plexus. “Beside the names is chalked up the sums owed us by our friends, our only steady customers.” By 1926 they’d been evicted.

The federal Prohibition Unit mandated with stopping all the illicit drinking in the nation was chronically underfunded and understaffed throughout its existence. The agency fielded a mere fifteen hundred agents expected to watch the nation’s vast borders, police its roads, find and shut down an expanding universe of illicit distilleries and breweries, go undercover into its thousands of speakeasies and clubs, and spy on the daily consumption habits of its one hundred and six million citizens. Many agents’ hearts weren’t in it from the beginning, and corruption was rife. An agent made less than two thousand dollars a year in salary; he could make five hundred a day from his local bootlegger just for looking the other way when a shipment went out. In New York City, the hiring of federal agents was just another Tammany Hall patronage trough, and half the federal agents in the city had to be let go under accusations of bribery and extortion. Meanwhile, the New York City police who were supposed to assist the feds were often on the take as well. In one instance, cops swooped down on federal agents who were preparing to bust a bootlegger’s warehouse and arrested the agents as “suspicious characters,” giving the bootlegger time to clear the place out. At the end of the workday many cops went off to throw around some of their ill-gotten gains at their speakeasies of choice, including the one connected to Police Headquarters via a tunnel under Centre Market Place, where they bent elbows with judges, district attorneys and other slack upholders of the new law. By the start of 1925 New York had bowed to the obvious and removed the police from Prohibition enforcement, leaving just the badly outgunned and graft-riddled feds.

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THE HONEST WORKER

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It’s the amazing fattening of the mass of the exploited that creates the increasing and logical ambition of the exploiters.

The kings of the mines, of the coalfields, and of gold would be wrong to worry. Their serfs’ resignation consecrates their authority. They no longer needs to claim that their power is be based on divine right, that decorative joke: their sovereignty is legitimated by popular consent. A workers’ plebiscite, consisting of patriotic adherence, declamatory platitudes or silent acquiescence assures the boss’s hold and the bourgeoisie’s reign

In this work we can recognize the artisan.

Be it in the mine or the factory, the Honest Worker, that sheep, has given the herd the mange.

The ideal of the supervisor has perverted the instincts of the people. A sports coat on Sunday, talking politics, voting…these are the hopes that take the place of everything. Odious daily labor awakens neither hatred nor rancor. The great party of the workers hates the lazybones who badly earns the money granted him by the boss.

Their heart belongs to their job.

They’re proud of their calloused hands.

However deformed the fingers, the yoke has done worse to the brain: the bumps of resignation, of cowardice, of respect have grown under the leather with the rubbing of the harness. Vain old workers wave their certificates: forty years in the same place! We hear them telling about this as they beg for bread in the courtyards.

“Have pity, ladies and gentlemen, on a sick old man, a brave worker, a good Frenchman, a former non-commissioned officer who fought in the war…Have pity, ladies and gentlemen.

It is cold: the windows remain closed. The old man doesn’t understand.

Teach the people! What else is needed? His poverty has taught him nothing. As long as there are rich and poor the latter will hitch themselves up so as to fill the service demanded. The worker’s neck is used to the harness. When still young and strong they are the only domestic beasts to not run wild in their shafts.

The proletarian’s special honor consists in accepting all those lies in whose name he is condemned to forced labor: duty, fatherland, etc. He accepts, hoping that by doing this he will raise himself into the bourgeois class. The victim makes himself an accomplice. The unfortunate talks of the flag, beats his chest, takes off his cap and spits in the air:

“I’m an honest worker.”

And it falls right back onto his face.

by Zo d’Axa, La Feuille, No. 24, 1898

Translated by Mitchell Abidor

Illustration by Earl Barrett-Holloway

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