"Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll."
"Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll."– John Lack, opening words, MTV, 1981
"Shut up and sing."– Laura Ingraham, Conservative talk show host, 2003
-LAND OF CONFUSION-
Where The Only Constant Is Change
Ever want to change things? Ever want to do something - or more realistically – ever want to be part of a movement or a group that does something which, once it’s been done, effects a cultural or physical change that in turn affects just about everybody else in some way - even those billions who have no idea that something’s changed? Ever want to do that?
If your answer is yes, but you’ve never tried it, I say, try it. By all means, try it. Or at the very least, if such an opportunity presents itself, don’t step aside. Confront it. See where it takes you, or where you take it. Change is what life is all about. Quality of life is what change is all about.
The world could really use a change right now, especially one that starts here at home. If it starts here at home, it could be a peaceful change. Because, make no mistake about it, the rest of the world cannot, and will not, coexist with the cultural aberration that is America under George W. Bush. There’s just too much imbalance. Which imbalance, when coupled with our current diplomatic arrogance, will inevitably lead to crisis if left to fester. History is explicit on this.
So, if the 150 million Americans who are unhappy about the direction our country is being taken, each made an effort to invoke a difference, however microscopic, the aggregate effect would be one of (Dare I borrow a word from the Republicans…?) "Biblical" proportions.
But only if that change is self-imposed might it be effected without the usual Biblical slaughter.
Simply stated, if we 150 million concerned Americans take the initiative and change our current leaderships’ behavior in the world, we won’t be subjected to whatever solution the 6.5 billion equally-concerned, non-American’s eventually come up with in seeking quiescence without us.
You would be astounded at how easy it can be to help effect change. C’mon, if psychotic jerks like Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush can go around changing the entire world whenever they feel like it, why can’t decent, normal people change things a bit too? There are more of us than of them. In fact, if marginal people such as Bush and his puppet masters change the world in ways we decent normal people don’t like or that we’re reasonably certain will bring enslavement or premature death to countless of our children and grandchildren (or anyone else’s, for that matter), shouldn't we be concerned enough about those changes to at least attempt to set things right again? It’s our world too. Isn’t it?
"Hell yes!’ says I.
Can we look about us, see what’s happening to our world, remain passive, and continue to call ourselves decent normal people?
"Hell no!" sez I
Yet so many of my strong, compassionate friends are quick to retreat behind such responses as: "What’s the use?" or "What effect can one person have today?" or that most grating of all, "It’ll all work out. It always does."
It’s a troubling irony that we, the first creatures to be endowed with foresight and responsibility, should abdicate instead to hopelessness or sloth. We seem willing to watch our world destroyed before us by misguided individuals, our republic raped by flag-draped criminals. Yet, somehow, we fail to acknowledge the influence an individual can assert, and in turn, we fail to act.
But the good news is this. Even if you don't want to change the world, when things finally get too far out of sorts, someone or something will force you to either action or capitulation in order to set things right again, to ease the strain. The former is a price we pay for calling ourselves fully-evolved humans. I find it a small price to pay for humanity, both our own and humanity in the larger sense as well. The latter is enslavement and the surrender of our descendants to the will of others.
Social scientists call the tendency toward balance "entropy." I call it "insurmountable opportunity."
Insurmountable Opportunities: Sometimes insurmountable opportunity takes the form of a switch you are asked to flip, a button to be pressed.
Consider the dark yet vivid example of the first guy to trigger an atomic bomb. All he had to do was flip a switch – or not. He didn’t need to invent the bomb, nor did he need to help build it. Those things took years to accomplish and millions of dollars and armies of scientists. But on July16, 1945 someone fired the thing. That someone could have been Enrico Fermi himself, or his maiden aunt Rosa. Didn’t matter. Had someone not pulled the trigger, pressed the button, lit the fuse, whatever it took, had nobody been willing to act, all that work and money might have come to nothing – a change in itself. Somewhere, somehow, someone must flip the switch – or not – in order to change things. Often the most seemingly insignificant and simplest act is that which changes everything. What could be easier than flipping a switch? Well, not flipping a switch. Had no one flipped the atomic bomb switch, today’s world would be a different place.
As with the atomic bomb guy, the button is often a real one. But sometimes it’s only a metaphor. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that when it comes to world-changing, you can't hide once you've been confronted with the switch, because sometimes not throwing that switch will change the world too. That’s why they call the thing a "switch." Ours truly is a land of confusion.
At the dawn of the Atomic age, 1945, many of the very physicists who built the bomb said that the switch should never be thrown. Instead, as its inventors, we (Americans) should simply describe the effects of doing so to the rest of the world. So horrific were the implications of the Atomic Bomb, that just describing it would have the desired effect while avoiding the carnage – or so they professed.
We all know which course was pursued. One may still venture into the American desert and see the glass beads that once were grains of sand where the Trinity bomb was fired. Somebody pressed the button, threw the switch, typed the command, whatever. Boom!
Who was right? Anyone? No one?
Then, with the press of subsequent buttons, atomic bombs were detonated over Japanese cities, killing hundreds-of-thousands of people. Debate continues to this day as to whether that act – the pressing of those buttons – resulted in an aggregate loss or a salvation of lives. Was it an act of cruelty, or one of compassion? The very words - salvation, compassion - are unseemly in so horrific a context. But war was already raging in foregone conclusion. To not drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have mandated an invasion of the Japanese mainland with massive casualties suffered to both sides. There can be no conjecture on that point. In fact, many of the Purple Hearts awarded to American wounded in the Korean and Vietnam Wars were minted in an earlier decade. They were minted in anticipation of the inevitable American casualties that would have accrued to an invasion of Japan: an invasion that never was, injuries that were not inflicted, but would surely be at some future time. (So sure of this must someone have been, that all those extra Purple Hearts went into storage for future use. Therein lies a tribute to hopelessness worthy of further contemplation.)
Add to the pro-bombing argument that countless more Japanese would have died in an invasion of their homeland by an invincible American force than actually did die in the heat and poison of nuclear fission. This is probably true as well. The Japanese were not prone to surrender. On their homeland, they might have fought to the very last. Which, then, is the greater horror?
Yet this period – this time of unspeakable horror - is part of the idealized past to which so many ignorant conservative pundits want to return our nation. They may fondly call themselves patriots, but they are delusional nationalistic know-nothings at best, that or they are the most despicable of liars. Some, perhaps, are both. They are not patriots.
My own father was part of an American bomber crew in that war. He and countless other American kids flew into the flak, dropped their cordite, and ran like hell back through the flak. He knew full well what was happening behind and beneath him. He never considered it a time of halcyon innocence as do the radio talk-jerks today. Those others who did, pressed their buttons and retreated to the sanctuary of denial. But, press their buttons they did. Attempt to maintain their sanity, they did. Long to return, they did not.
In Hiroshima and Nagasaki as in the fire storms of Dresden, we promulgated an inconceivable futuristic horror, a preview if you will, of what awaits our entire world at some future date, either naturally in some future eon when our world is consumed in the nuclear fires of the very Sun that gives us life – that, or by our own hand far sooner.
But can there be a more perfect – albeit horrific – paradox than this, a paradox built upon a paradox?
Once you’re handed that button, there’s no escaping the implications. Act or do not act; either way you are a procuring cause of whatever follows from your decision. That’s the insurmountable opportunity part. It’s a sobering thought.
But think about it we must, for any one of us can find himself in possession of such a button and without forewarning. What then to do? What then, indeed.
Let’s consider the question in a more contemporary context. Consider if you will, what might have followed if, upon learning that Osama bin Laden had flipped the switch that set in motion the events of September Eleventh, George W. Bush had acted differently.
Suddenly finding himself confronted with perhaps a thousand world-changing metaphoric switches, suppose Bush had not chosen the one marked INVADE IRAQ.
Consider the possibilities. Think of the humanity and compassion that had poured from virtually all the world’s rational people toward America following the September 11th attacks. Think about what a real leader would have done with that power, that insurmountable, profoundly historical opportunity. The possibilities are mind-boggling. It was like those old sci-fi pictures from the fifties when all the world unites against a vile and incomprehensible thing that threatens our very humanness.
Instead we are left to lament a squandered legacy. I’m speaking of the profaned memory of those innocent WTC deaths, deaths our stupid president and his ghoulish vice president sold out to their oily, avaricious owners: a bunch of ugly white guys safely ensconced in their overstuffed Houston and Washington easy chairs. Think of the good that could have risen from the ashes of tragedy if only we’d had a president for the ages and not the irrational blood-stained buffoon we continue to tolerate at our nation’s ever-more-apparent future peril.
Unlike 1945, today the entire world knows what we’re capable of militarily. There was no need to go out and attempt to prove it like some stupid schoolyard tough. Invading Iraq proved nothing of value. If Bush wanted to prove his manhood to his father, he should have done that when he wore the uniform of our country. We were at war then. The only thing Bush was fighting were his demons.
Or, for the more pragmatic among you, think of the trillion public dollars stolen or squandered by the opportunists who’ve usurped our government in the name of false security; one trillion dollars we would today have available as a budgetary surplus instead of finding ourselves the most indebted industrial society on earth.
Money, not cordite, is power. Money, not plutonium, is power. In this world, money is power. And we allowed crooks and fools to spend ours as if it were their own. We did so because as Americans we have been weaned on the concept of "good government."
Ours is no longer a good government. The only question is, how long will it take that 50% of our countrymen still in denial to come to grips with that reality?
Things change. America has changed. It’s not to late to change it back. If the fake conservatives want to return to traditional American values as they so persistently profess, why do their agents of change keep taking us in the opposite direction?
That trillion bucks would have been money better spent on things like pursuit of the actual 9-11 mastermind(s), Social Security for the boomer generation, education, medical research, clean air and clean water, and all that other silly crap that does not trade on Wall Street but that our kids will someday have to beg their Chinese overseers to provide for them if we do not get off this path we’re on and retake our country. Think about how the most reviled and justifiably despised man on earth would today be, not the president of the United States, but Osama bin Laden. Think. Think. Think. It’s the only thing that makes us human.
Fondly persuading ourselves that we look like god, while behaving like so many giant cockroaches does not make us human. Kindness, compassion, society, intellect, and vengeance – yes, cold, calculated vengeance directed against our real enemies, not against hapless and helpless shadows - these things make us human. Or, as major world-changer, Galileo, put it centuries ago: "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."
The Abyss: Now, if this leads you to believe that effecting change is a luxury reserved for presidents and terrorists and scientists and others of such luminescent ilk, think again. Change happens in far less dramatic ways, and it is imposed by far less celebrated practitioners. It happens in ways to which the dopes of the corporate press would never turn their shallow, short-span attention today. Most change is subtle. The "opportunity" to take part - however small that part might seem - in something that effects such change could be imposed upon you at any second. Will you press the button? Will you throw the switch – or will you not?
I’ve had the button handed to me a few times in the course of my six decades on the world. Sometimes the setting was spectacular and the implications clear. Other times, I barely noticed, if at all. Every time, though, I was a tiny part of something far more grand than any of its parts or all of them together. For change, like the hour hand of a clock, like continental drift, can proceed in increments too small to be seen until they’ve accumulated or been resisted until they result in an earthquake.
Everything grand is a derivation of little things. The word Atom, loosely translated from the Greek, means "that smallest of things cannot be made smaller." Yet, as science has shown us, split the atom further, and nothing could be bigger. We know of nothing more powerful, more world-changing. Perhaps the ancients were on to something.
To be even that smallest of things, when taking part in something larger than ourselves, we soar. For me, being a part of something big meant just doing what I was paid to do, or just having some fun with no sense of implication. Other times, I knew I was into something more serious than a heart attack. But, again in retrospect, I know I was there when differences were made in the way we live, play, fight, and think about ourselves as a people, and all I did was take the switch when it was passed to me.
That realization - that I’ve held the switch – defies cognition even as I write this. But looking back upon some of the stuff to which I’ve been small party, and that conclusion is inescapable. In every instance, the truth of what was happening was revealed to me. When one knows truth, he’s harder to fool, harder to frighten, harder to manipulate.
I know this is not easy to swallow. So I figure you expect some proof, some examples, some evidence you can use to verify my claim that just being human qualifies every one of us as a potential vehicle for change. Okay, consider some of the following examples. They are all from everyday life; they all pertain to me; I had nothing to do with any of them getting started. But I was there when they were started. I did not step aside. And sooner or later I found myself holding a button and what I did or did not do with that button helped to effect change - change that was not always for the better, but change to be sure – big social change.
Here’s my story. Perhaps you’ll find it interesting. Perhaps even inspiring. (Think Forrest Gump.) But either way, the message is simple: stand your ground, and in the end you’ll own your life; retreat, and you’ll be owned by others.
Come back with me to the Sixties. We’ll build from there.
Eager to follow my father’s example, if not his advice, I quit college and joined the Air Force. Before long, I found myself part of a US reconnaissance crew flying the Soviet frontier on the hottest days of the cold war. I'm talking the absolutely hottest days: October, 1962.
The now-famous Cuban missile crisis was dramatically playing itself out in the warm Caribbean with the world watching in breathless anticipation – anticipation of being vaporized at any second. Meanwhile, in another part of the world, with nobody watching, a small bunch of the most unexceptional techno-geeks you could ever want to meet (or not), were mobilized from an equally innocuous place called Lawrence G. Hanscom Field . Hanscom is an air base in suburban Boston where some of the worlds most advanced electronic warfare systems have been devised and tested. Small, quiet, nestled in the shadow of the Minuteman statue where America’s first shot was fired in anger, the base was the understated headquarters of the Air Force’s Electronic Systems Division. Those of us stationed there, fondly called ourselves, The Minutemen.
With the missile crisis unfolding in the Caribbean, my detachment of nerdy Minutemen was put on alert and relocated (TDY) to Alaska. We brought with us secret electronic warfare systems so advanced they’d not yet been fully tested. We’d do that empirically. (There’s another story here which I’ll inflict upon you at some future date)
From our Arctic nests, we self-proclaimed, modern-day Minutemen – like our suitably anonymous namesake high in the steeple of the Old North Church - spent our short days and long nights aloft, looking for the first telltale signs of the enemy’s approach. Flying above the frozen Arctic and North Pacific Oceans, we flew our clandestine missions in hopes of catching the Russians before they pressed any of their world-changing buttons.
Our systems were secret, our intentions anything but.
The Russians did the same in turn, flying downrange of our missile and radar outposts, badgering us in a never-ending game of nuclear cat and mouse. Similar danse macabre were being played out above and below other of the world’s oceans that week, too. But it was in the Arctic, along the Russian frontier where its implications were potentially the most catastrophic. Here the ramifications of failure or provocation were the most draconian. For it was from here that the big Communist rockets would come to deal their death and havoc on our cities and towns and homes and factories and the flesh and bone of those we loved. For if they were ever launched – if the buttons were pressed – we’d be left with little recourse but retaliation. Two or three of the world’s most "advanced" societies would spiral into the fires of our mutual manmade Suns.
Above the frozen Arctic, it was our job to see that no Russian rocket ever left its pad undetected and under hostile guidance. And if one did, our counterparts in Air Defense and Systems Commands had to employ every means known to science and war to wrest control of the thing, or blow it back into hell before it went "exoatmospheric."
The situation was as tense as a drumhead, but there was more anger than fear among the citizenry back home. JFK had inspired Americans to outrage, not exploited us to fear.
(Now, I fully realize that the prospect of facing one billion Russian and Chinese armed with everything from clubs to nuclear ICBMs is not as frightening to a civilian population as are those three black-clad alQaida guys on the jungle gym we keep seeing on Fox "news," but one must go with the enemies he’s got.)
JFK was a Navy man, and this was a Navy show. But while our navies faced-off down south, day after day, up beyond the Dew Line we’d badger the Russian Air Force to distraction. We’d rush the beach at Kamchatka, even pressing on to the sea of Okhotsk. Next day we’d fly up their northern coastline all the way to the Laptiva Straights. They’d be forced to redirect their interceptors, leaving Kamchatka exposed. Then we’d shake ourselves off and do it all again. Poke ‘em in the eye off Sakhalin this time.
Day and night we’d rush the Soviet Union’s borders and coastlines at full cruise speed, flying our unarmed, antenna-bristling jets sometimes in formation, other times solo. Our big aircraft resembled Boeing 707s. As such, to the Russian radars we’d be impossible to distinguish from a formation of strategic bombers, B-52s or B-47s. The Soviets had to react... had to. So we’d just keep coming until they did. Making no effort to disguise our intentions, we fairly begged the "enemy" to come up and have a look. They did just that.
Paired against their interceptors, our big lumbering EC-135, and RC-135 jets were sitting ducks. Though unarmed we were still fair game if we made a wrong move. The enemy could have waxed us at will with but the press of a button. If our wreckage fell into the sea the world would be none the wiser. If it could be dragged onto Russian soil, the intercept would have been seen not as an act of war, but an execution of spies. Still, to do so was to risk plunging the world into nuclear Armageddon. Enough of that was already going on down south in the waters off Cuba, and, as we’d learn, in the skies above it as well. Nonetheless, they’d never fire first. Of that we were certain.
Then, we got word that one of our U-2s was brought down by a Russian SAM over Cuba. So much for certainty.
Tactically, it changed nothing. Ours was a calculated risk of the highest possible order, involving both the airmen of the line, and Americans back home already in the crosshairs. But it was a risk that had to be taken. For we had to know our enemy’s capabilities. We had to know, had to know empirically, exactly what they could do, and we had to know before they did it. Boldly – many would say recklessly – we pressed on beyond the limits of caution, for it was the only way to force the Soviets’ hand. By doing so we gave the enemy no choice but to bring up his electronic defenses. And when he did, then we’d read the electronic signatures like a book. What can be read, can then be jammed. Other crews did other things. Together we called them electronic countermeasures. Many of us had trained and worked side by side in calmer days. Others had come from far corners of the world. But we grunts didn’t know each others’ mission objectives, or even who was going aloft, or where, or why, or when. We even launched from separate bases, changed from day to day.
Day after day we’d fly into the Russian’s faces, listen to their communications, press our buttons and jam their signals into hash. We'd poke them in the electronic eyes, prove we were better than they, illustrate the folly of taking on the mighty US, challenge them to react and foolishly laugh at their blindness. And day after day, they did the same, or tried. Astoundingly, no shots were ever fired on the northern frontier – not to kill. We knew that every time the Russians scrambled their fighters - every time they came up to buzz and posture and harass us and determine that we were not armed strategic bombers but recon scouts and electronic countermeasures planes taking their electronic pulse, looking for evidence of ICBM activity, blinding their systems – every time they did that, their pilots' fingers were tensed on buttons of their own. They hated us and were bursting to blow us to hell. But in the end they didn’t. Nobody did. Nobody wanted to flip the switch that would fire the shot that would start the war that would end the world.
Meanwhile, with their next wave of ships steaming toward Cuba and confrontation, the enemy brass back in the Kremlin were shocked at the vigor of America’s military response. They needed a little more time, time to consider the clearly raised stakes. So, with a tense world watching, and America’s naval might spread out and standing firmly in their path, the Russian ships halted their advance.
As the world held its collective breath, humanity stood at the precipice, and for a moment we all quietly stared into the abyss.
Finally, the Russians made their decision. It was not a good day to die.
One by one, the Soviets turned their ships for home.
My group received the order to stand down immediately. This was no time to screw up.
For those of us on the northern frontier, it was over as quickly as it began, and (unlike the unfortunates aboard Korean Air Flight 007, a commercial airliner that ventured into this same airspace several years later and was blown to pieces by a Russian fighter) we all went home without a scratch, but with stories we could someday tell our grandchildren – but not a word until then
What we and our Russian counterparts did in the frigid Arctic and the warm Caribbean – or better stated, what we didn't do all those years ago - changed the world. It could have ended the world. But for the moment the world was merely changed, not destroyed. I’ve never been prouder to be an American.
I never believed what the press and the politicians tried to promote from the safety of their offices and their ignorance. That being their false assumption that the Russians backed down. Russian soldiers do not back down. A solitary pilot, confronting an enemy squadron above a dark and frozen ocean is a man who’s already accepted his fate: just like the American sailors standing fast in the Caribbean, every Russian airman on the northern frontier was prepared to die in defense of his country. They did not back down. Neither did we. Their government had overplayed its hand, and faced with reality, just came to its senses, that’s all. There was nothing to gain and literally everything to lose.
I liked to believe that that one encounter between superpowers changed us all for the better. I thought it proved empirically that there could never be another war. I liked to believe that we all of us suddenly realized no winner would emerge from such a conflagration. There could be no victors any longer, only vanquished, thus there could be no more wars.
But in the years just ahead, Vietnam would destroy that belief. Iraq would make a mockery of it.
Good or bad, love it or hate it, JFK and American Camelot are long gone now. Today our "leaders" are as children playing with loaded guns. Deserters, criminals, draft-dodging idiots who - along with the millions of American sheep who still support them - have plunged us back in time, and we find ourselves once more looking into the darkness. They and their ignorant ilk will destroy us all in the end as would a plague of old. If left to their devices they’ll destroy us as they hope to destroy our democracy, and they’ll kill our children, too, and our children’s world. I’m certain of that as I’m certain of little else.
We were not a warlike people in 1962. We stood tall against an undeniable threat to our survival. Real weapons of mass destruction were being deployed 90 miles from our shores. Unlike the lies Colin Powell told the UN and his countrymen with his innocuous pictures of nothing in 2003, we had undeniable evidence of our enemy’s WMD back in 1962. Undeniable. So we ripped their weapons from their roots and threw them in our enemies’ faces. And we did it the American way – gloriously, honestly, and in the interest of security – not oil, not money, security. Homeland security.
But security too is a switch. Its pursuit brings change. The concepts of victor and vanquished matter not at all in the face of fear. What matters it seems, is only that old men send young men (and women) to war while lying about the reasons, and provoking the simple-minded to terror. If such men are not restrained or punished by an educated populace, they’ll always kill because it makes them richer, or taller, or more like the real men they’ll never be. If they’re left to make the laws, then their kind of killing will never be punished for the crime it surely is.
We are a warlike people today. Not because we need to be, but simply because we can be. As I said earlier, it’s quiescence. The pendulum swings first this way, then that, and if ignored for long enough, it stops. We cannot let it stop here.
The Feather Merchants: I loved the Air Force, I truly did. It entrusted me to do things no young person could imagine himself doing. But in the process, it had given me valuable skills, skills that I could trade for money out in the world of civilians, those colorfully clad people the military fondly refers to as "feather merchants."
Upon returning to civilian life, my first job had me back in reconnaissance engineering flight test at a company called Grumman Aerospace. Grumman was the builder of the Hawkeye and Intruder aircraft, two of the best military spook planes ever to fly America’s colors. They were Navy aircraft, funny-looking, tough machines whose pilots (real aviators, not strutting old deserters wearing better men’s poop suits) flew them off of ships.
My Grumman job was a better-paying extension of the exciting work I'd loved doing in the Air Force. But I must have gotten that urge to get back in the main game again. It didn't take much to act on that urge. For the main game was being played right down the corridor. At the far end of the plant, other engineers and technicians were building the most amazing machine ever built by man. In Grumman’s plant #2, the place where I went to work every morning, was being built the flawlessly astounding Lunar Lander of Project Apollo: LEM as it was called then. The Lunar Excursion Module.
Holy mackerel, I would mumble as I stood at its base drinking my morning coffee. "Holy mackerel!"
I of course worked my way onto the project. First I was a part-time guinea pig on loan from the flight-avionics department. I would let the moon guys strap me into their centrifuge and spin me like a human tether ball until I was certain the skin would rip from my face. I was willing to expose myself to aviation physiology experiments of all kinds in order that the smart guys could better devise support systems for the real pilots who would fly the LEM to the moon and back. Eventually, when I refused to go away no matter how much abuse they heaped upon my healthy torso and empty head, they made me a liaison engineer. I was on Project Apollo! I could tell everyone about it this time, and of course that’s exactly what I did.
Designing and building transistor testing equipment was hardly more than a microscopic part of Apollo, and not as much fun as engineering flight test, but it needed doing. I was in the main game. It’s a thing I’ll never forget. For in the end, all the transistors worked perfectly.
Apollo changed the world. In fact, it changed two worlds. Once again, I was never prouder to be an American.
But, all good things, it is said, must come to an end. So it was with Apollo. A peculiarity of the space program was that after every success, came unemployment. So, going into my thirties, I switched gears.
My space-program background had gained attention from an unlikely quarter.
Some entertainment industry executives had their eyes on outer space too. They figured that I could be of use to a project they were pursuing. They were planning to put a little known cable channel on the satellite. They called it Home Box Office – HBO for short.
Working together with engineers from Western Union, RCA, Scientific Atlanta, and other companies, we did it. And in doing so HBO became the first cable television network to take so bold a step. Guess what: It changed the world. But we could not do it before persuading the formidable likes of the FCC, ATT, and a larger group of engineers and lawyers from my beloved Air Force in the process. All of whom were certain that our junky equipment would interfere with their elegant communications systems already in place. In the end we prevailed. HBO began building the first and largest private entertainment-based satellite network in the world. And though the inspiration to go satellite came from other parts of the organization, it was we engineers who executed. Along with a crazy lawyer or two we "flipped the switch" as it were.
The first movie to be telecast by HBO was aptly named, "Sometimes A Great Notion." It starred Paul Newman. Nobody was watching yet, but that mattered not one bit. For the changes in media and its effect on the public that grew from that effort and its subsequent deployment to the mass media are far too sweeping to describe here. Simply stated, they effected a cultural change so subtle and yet so great it defies comprehension to this day.
Consider this. Prior to HBO going onto a national satellite, media coverage was largely limited to regional coverage of what were called demographic market areas, or DMAs – the areas covered by the signals emanating from a broadcast tower. That signal generally extended from the tower out to a radius of about 150 miles. If there was a very large city (NY, Chicago, LA) within its contours, a station’s signal could reach about 10 million people. But within that 10 million there were many tastes and interests. That further broke-down a station’s reach. Perhaps 20% of those people were interested in a specific genre, such as comedy or documentary or right-wing news with no facts, and only a few of them were watching or listening at any given time. Further still, most stations reached not 10 million, but only about 50-thousand folks. Divide that down, and you’re left with nearly nobody watching your shows and, more importantly, your commercials. It was grueling work to gain and hold substantial viewer interest. Harder still to sell them stuff.
But with the satellite signal, a station – any station - could cover the entire country. A station using the satellite could get its message – any message – in front of potentially 280 million people! A station in rural Appalachia, for example, could get its signal to a satellite and reach a market 30 times larger than the biggest station in New York, once receive stations were in place. That’s exactly what happened, too. Religious broadcasters were among the first to recognize this (see "Moral Victory" by this author) and build networks or piggyback aboard that being deployed for HBO. Entertainment and news media followed (the two were actually somewhat separate back then).
Now, commercial media is often described by those in the business as a series of words and pictures designed to keep people tuned in between the commercials. With that realization, came a sea change in the world of mass media, and later, the world at large.
Casting Couch or Couching Cast: Most commercial media (advertiser-supported) is hardly political or idealistic, despite what you might see and hear to the contrary. That’s just part of the hype. It is a business. The commercial media’s legions of self-aggrandizing right wing commentators are not the passionate political idealists they portray, any more than William Shatner is really a starship commander from the future. The media’s political commentators are just showmen (or, with the possible exception of Ann Coulter, show women). All that separates them from other show people is their lack of artistic talent and looks. Most are just new kind of no-talent Hollywood whore.
Thinly veiled, unlovable versions of the casting couch sluts we all know and love, these flacks must turn instead to whatever wiles they possess. Therefore, even upon the most cursory critical evaluation it is clear that most political commentators are today merely commonplace hucksters who – like their better-looking starlet counterparts - will do anything to break into and stay in show biz. Devoid of artistic gifts or conventional bankability, they instead sell out their country in return for the celebrity status they covet. Though revered by their dopey exploited fans, they will distort reality, glorify murder, and say virtually anything as long as it is couched in language adequate to separate the genuinely idealistic fools out in listener and viewer land from their money. This, in return, grants the hucksters the fame and fortune for which they hunger. This abuse of free speech was once recognized as treason. Today its practitioners thrive. These men and women of the people live in mansions far from their adoring fans out in the wheat. Trust me, I see them in the supermarkets here (LA) and in Manhattan. I see them in restaurants on the Santa Monica pier, and South Beach.
I just returned from Texas and Oklahoma. There I saw them only on the billboards.
The media’s owners, on the other hand, tolerate and exploit the flacks in return.
Their bosses, the media’s moguls are apolitical for the most part. They are overwhelmingly hard-nosed tycoons, Globalists interested only in persuading large numbers of perfect strangers to buy products and thus satisfy their investors.
The fact is, much of the media is little more than commercial persuasion in its highest form. And, as anyone who engages in this sweet science can tell you, it is the dumber consumers – it is always the dumber consumers – who are the easiest targets to persuade. That’s why most shows - and virtually all commercials - are not very interesting to discriminating consumers. But within a fragmented and smallish demographic, there were not enough less-than discriminating (i.e.: dumb, credulous, nationalistic, so on) consumers to make a station owner rich. That has always meant selling soap with magical beautifying ingredients to women, and cheap mass-produced beer that ostensibly attracts those now beautiful women to the 18 to 34 year low income white males who drink it while watching high income black males perform athletic feats on TV. See? Let the circle not be broken, tra-lala.
But put your signal on the satellite, and you could be in front of scores of these morons, tens-of-millions of them in fact. And, they will buy whatever you have to sell them. After all, wasn’t it the Republican president Dwight Eisenhower who observed that fully half of all Americans are of below average intelligence? That means, at any given time, about 20 to 30 million people could be watching or listening to your now-national station. Of that (according to Ike) 10 to 15-million of them are not exactly Mensa candidates. That’s three times as many people as comprise the largest DMA in the world – and they’re all dumb! That’s 10 to 15 million boneheads who’ll buy your baloney. Given this reality, why would any businessman with a thing to sell, bother trying to persuade the other 10 to 15 million viewers or listeners who are not that dumb? The smart people are pains in the ass who want proof of your clams before they buy things.
So, the media moguls told their programming minions at the networks to, "Forget them."
Which is exactly what corporate media has done. They’ve forgotten us. Put on a Jerry Springer show, telecast it nationally (via satellite), or worse, put a microphone in front of Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, or Sean Hannity, make sure his "Liberal" guests are lightweights whom they can baffle with distortions of fact, edit the flubs in case the Lib gets a shot in, and put it on the satellite. Do these things and you can be guaranteed a dumb audience. Put up a right-wing religious show (or channel) and you can be guaranteed an audience that eschews such things as evidence or proof-of-concept. Simply stated, preach to the converted. They’ll put faith before knowledge, belief before evidence and man-oh-man will they buy whatever form of baloney you’re selling.
So pervasive and profitable has been this philosophy, that today, among commercially sponsored media talk shows, for every 310 hours of right-wing talk, there is but a miserable 5 hours of progressive chit-chat. For the rest of us there was Bill Moyers (Gone. Too liberal for today’s PBS), Jon Stewart (Comedy Central), Amy Goodman (Pacifica, Link TV), Al Franken (Air America, Sundance Channel), and Bill Maher (HBO), to name the few.
And that, dear reader, is an eye witness account of how HBO and the space program combined to inadvertently change your world. It’s also why, HBO – free of commercials and outside censorship – remains among the smartest and most cutting-edge television there is or ever was, while most of the rest of popular media has become so damned incredibly inane (and financially successful) today.
Money for Nothing: Suddenly it was the Eighties. Technical success had led to professional success and not a few promotions. I had risen to the post of Director of Engineering. As such I was expected to behave like a serious network executive. I could not do that. I was not quite ready for that buttoned-down kind of life... plenty of dough, but no adrenaline rush. So, purely out of selfishness I walked away from my cushy job at Home Box Office.
Fledgling HBO had been bursting with creative people and was a great place to work. A rousing success, corporate HBO also represented the kind of job that would virtually guarantee me and my family a life of comfortable security. Though still quite young, I was a made guy. Yet I walked away simply because the corporate management would not gamble on my latest high-tech pet project. Things had changed. HBO was no longer in the change-the-world mode of operation that had spawned it. It was a corporation with stockholders and responsibilities, and money to pay back to those who took a financial risk to create it. That was fair and proper. They thrived. I walked. I cherish the experience and the lifelong friends I made there; but in the end, I walked in search of excitement, another switch to be flipped.
I didn’t have to walk far. Because right across the street, on the other side of 6th Avenue on Rockefeller Center, was this enormous switch, calling out to me.
"Push me," the button shouted from across the avenue. "Push me, and you’ll help change the world." There was no mistaking that message. I stepped off the curb.
Now, though I live and work in "Hollywood" today, the real center of power in entertainment media is concentrated along a few blocks in New York City. About a thousand times closer to Wall Street and Madison Avenue than it is to the Hollywood sign, Rockefeller Center is where the television networks and movie studios have their corporate offices.
So, right across from HBO’s headquarters in the steel and glass Time–Life Building stood the limestone art-deco tower that housed Warner Communications. (Eventually the entire staff crossed the street when the two merged into Time-Warner a few years later. But that, too, is another story.)
I’d been invited to lunch in the Warner Brothers executive dining room. Lunch was with an impressive and handsome middle aged executive named Jack Schneider. I knew of Schneider, as did everyone in the neighborhood. Prior to joining Warner he had been the successful and progressive president of the "Tiffany Network": CBS. He fit the role.
Over lunch, Jack got right to the point. Warner’s was developing a new channel. In fact it was to be a new kind of channel. It was to be all music "videos" all the time. They needed a chief engineer to design and build their satellite origination studio (the very thing HBO had been denying me) and to head up network operations. It was to be the first of its kind. I was all ears. This would be quite a challenge. But the concept – all music videos (a term net yet part of the lexicon) all the time seemed dubious. HBO had been running music clips (that’s what short-form videos were called at the time) between its movies. HBO called it Video Jukebox. It was just a cheap time-filler, nobody really watched it for the content... or so we thought. Schneider wanted to make a network of it.
"Well," Jack Schneider pressed, "What do you think?"
"All clips all the time," I said as I pondered a polite way to tell him what I thought of such a program concept. I finally settled on, "That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard."
I signed on. They named the new channel MTV.
I spent the next year working harder than I’ve ever worked before or since. Then, just before midnight of August 1, 1981, I was asked to throw a switch. I did.
With that simplest of actions, a signal left the brand new (not even finished) MTV operations center in New York, traveled at the speed of light 22,300 miles straight into space, smacked into our satellite, and returned to earth a fraction of a second later, clear as a bell and in stereo.
I checked a few scopes and meters in the otherwise darkened room. All was well.
"Continuity!" I said into my headset, and pressed another button, this one handing control to the director – my boss - and his own panel of switches and buttons in a control room down the hall. "You got it. Break a leg."
Thirty seconds later, the world heard the words, "Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll!" With that was born MTV.
In the end it was that simple. Everybody knows what happened next, has happened since, happens now, and will happen tomorrow. For a time, MTV truly changed the world.
Amid the tears, fears, and cheers of that first night, I knew something major, something very major had been set in motion. The energy that filled the control room was palpable, but was as nothing to what followed in the months and years ahead. We had launched a message that the young people of the world would hear and would take to heart. They now had a vehicle with which they spoke to each other in their own words, through their own art. They were young enough, and naïve enough to use their words and music fearlessly. Through it they endeavored to teach us all that we are all of us, of all generations, everywhere cut from the same stuff. Like it or not, we’re cut from the same stuff. The music of the Eighties is still celebrated by MTV every chance it gets.
Lousy Business or Lousy Art: America has always spread her values through but a single medium. It’s not its missiles. It’s not its armies. And it’s not its money or its increasingly moneyed leaders. America’s strength has always come from her art. Movies, music, literature. The Constitution. The Declaration of Independence. Even these were works of art. In what other document of state will one find the words "…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?" Happiness!
That’s not statecraft. That’s poetry. That’s art.
That which inspires us to the best of us, is art.
The rapid spread of MTV to virtually all the developed world proved it empirically. It might be difficult to consider new music as art today. But it’s still out there, one need only find it.
Stand in the wings of a concert stage when a great – usually American - band is performing in any country of the world, as I have, and you’ll feel it. Only then can one feel it. The passion that pours from an audience of thousands has no borders. It is a tangible physical thing, and it’s as palpable as stone. It’s humanity, not creed.
Live Aid. I felt it then. I felt it in the heat of Wembly stadium, and the fog of Red Rocks when Bono and U2 screamed the Irish heat wave called Sunday Bloody Sunday at the ancient walls of stone. We all of us felt it. Music became smart, cutting edge again as it had been in the 60s. Unknown bands with massive talent and intellect were the rule of the day. Nothing was officially off limits except violence and disco. Yet, in the years that followed, it was violence that we were accused of promoting. We’d gained the attention of the exploiters.
Then came the MTV Award shows. It was an annual evening of outrageous antics and anti-establishment humor wholly unlike any awards show before. But behind it all, was a sense of artistic recognition beyond anything the pathetic white bread whine of today’s degenerated corporate pop and crybaby country music can come close to achieving. But it, too, was vanity. Pride goeth before a fall.
One of the earliest videos to gain recognition was the politically-charged Land Of Confusion, by Genesis. It spoke with crystal clarity about the need to change the world. Utilizing unflattering images of the band members themselves, the video memorably flashed grotesque puppets of a confused and doddering Ronald Reagan, a mean-faced Richard Nixon, a starry-eyed Jimmy Carter, and sternly elite Margaret Thatcher to get a clear message across.
As Reagan’s caricature and that of other presidents filled the screen these words repeatedly filled the air:
Too many men
Too many people
Making too many problems
And there's not much love to go round
Can't you see
This is the land of confusion
This is the world we live in
These are the hands we’re given
Use them and let’s start trying
To make it a place worth fighting for
There was not one complaint from anyone anywhere lodged against MTV for playing the unflattering socio-political parable, for showing the sitting president in the most unflattering -albeit prophetic – light, or for the music industry granting the piece its highest award. (Land Of Confusion won the eminently "establishment" Grammy itself for Best Concept Video).
I believe it was movie mogul Louis B. Mayer who said, "Art makes for lousy business, and business makes for lousy art." I’ve never believed that, but I don’t make the decisions. So, alas, time took its toll on MTV and on the new medium of video music. The cutting edge has been replaced by long-form "reality" shows catering to the self-absorbed. What’s left is filled by innocuous genre dictated by middle-aged media executives who are little more than overpaid salesmen living vicariously through the glory of their so called artists, and the commercials.
Like all corporate media, substance has been subordinated to selling. We learned in the channel’s very first year that anything – and I do mean anything – that could make it into the "A-rotation" would fly off the record store shelves. Record company executives learned this too. Control MTV and you control your risks. There was no longer a need to risk money trying to develop a new band based on its talent. Talent is rare and besides, it’s has never been a guarantee of success. Talented people are hard to control. Why waste time and money on that? Sell to the dumb and take it to the bank.
So, the record companies eventually stopped giving the public what it wanted, and instead started simply telling the public what it wanted – through MTV. A huge segment of the young and impressionable target demographic bought the hype hook line and sinker. The result is the fragmented and empty forms of music that dominate air time and sales today.
Empty-Vee might be a more appropriate name for what has become of that magical, world-changing and wonderful idea that once seemed so important but is today little more than another corporate vehicle to sell lousy songs by manufactured acts.
Today’s discriminating young music lover needs to dig pretty deeply to find anything worth hearing. Many don’t bother "looking" any longer and turn to alternative media.
Every generation produces artistic genius. Every generation has expressed that genius through its music. This one is no exception. But just like the discriminating listener who gets tired of searching for quality musical art in the mainstream, and finally gives up in frustration, so the aspiring musician gets tired of searching for an audience in a world dominated by heavily-promoted mediocrity. When they give up – when its artists give up or are destined to soldier on in obscurity - then an entire generation is robbed of its musical voice.
Conclusion: I came of age in the 60s. As was common for the youth of my time, I wore the uniform of my country and wore it proudly. It became difficult by the decade’s end.
But even then – perhaps especially then - our musical voice was our political voice. It became an immensely powerful one. As American public policy changed and we looked away from America’s real enemies and threats, to those our leaders manufactured, and as that policy culminated in the bloody adventure of Vietnam, so did the music of America’s youth change. Long before the journalists caught on, our musical artists were telling us to beware. Our musical artists persuaded us that it would be our young bodies that would be spent and sacrificed on the crucible of needless future wars. Bob Dylan’s brilliant "Masters Of War," was among the first such indictments. Scores of brilliantly crafted "protest songs" followed, and it led to a sea change in American policy. Old men cannot prosecute their wars without young people dying in the balance. Neither then can one profit from a war that young people refuse to fight.
Among the young people who chose not to fight in Vietnam were John Ashcroft (7 deferments), Dick Cheney (5 deferments), and George Bush (AWOL May - December 1972). Me.
Theirs were options born of privilege, mine one of caution, a caution born of information. When my squadron was called for volunteers to serve as forward air controllers in Vietnam, unlike the Cuban and Arctic operations, this time I remained silent. Where was the enemy? What was the threat? What was the objective – to stop the spread of Communism? Vietnam was half a world away. There seemed no clear objective this time, no enemy offensive I cared about. Though friends volunteered, I remained silent. In effect, I said no. I had already worn thin my vinyl copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. I was thinking more now, had a serious girlfriend. I’d changed.
When Vietnam exploded in our faces, Barry McGuire gave us "Eve Of Destruction," Edwin Starr grunted "War," while the Youngbloods’ beautiful "Get Together," sang of peace. As usual, twhile the newspapers were busy with body counts, America’s young musical artists were asking the right questions. Its called vision. That - and courage – still separate artist from pretender.
With MTV came Springsteen’s Born In The USA, my schoolmate Billy Joel’s Allentown, and so much more smart music that reflected its time and the ever-changing human condition.
Today, as the channel approaches its silver anniversary, for every Green Day it acknowledges there are 10 manufactured boy bands hoping around in sychronized video stupidity; for every Natalie Maines, 10 adolescent strippers screech another’s multisylabic lyrics about nothing.
Last week the retreat was palpable. At the latest of television’s innumerable award shows, the MTV Movie Awards, Empty-Vee showed how mainstream and far away from that cutting edge it has moved since its inception as MTV. But this too, ironically, is a reflection of our time.
The band Nine Inch Nails was scheduled to perform its provocative and smart exception to the ruled entitled, "The Hand That Feeds." A protest song in the finest tradition, this masterpiece cuts to the heart of the obedient who promelgate war, and speaks to Americans of every age.
In rehearsal it was revealed that the band would perform before a backdrop of President
Bush’s face. (You know, the guy who calls himself the "War President.") Not a caricature or a distortion as was Land Of Destruction’s, the backdrop was to be a straight, unaltered picture of Bush. One president, the war guy, no puppets, no caricatures, no distortions. Bush’s face.
Empty-vee’s management pulled the backdrop – too controversial, saying it would be uncomfortable with a performance built around a partisan statement.
Nine Inch Nails pulled their performance.
The band’s lead singer, Trent Resner said on the band’s website, "Apparently the image of our president is as offensive to MTV as it is to me."
Did the corporate press or the oxymoron known as entertainment "news" cover it? It’s certainly interesting. It’s certainly news: MTV frightened of controversy, yet feigning outrageousness with every faux rebellious frame. A musical artist standing firm on principle, is not newsworthy?
Apparently not. After all, with the runaway bride and the omnipresent Michael Jackson demanding attention, the entertainment "news" media can’t be everywhere.
Summary: Few among us have captured the state of our culture more vividly than our artists. And among artists, few have succeeded with more verve than our musical artists. And further still, among musical artists few have captured the state of change in America with the clarity and candor of Woody and Arlo Guthrie. Their music is universal, introspective, beautiful and uniquely American.
Father Woody’s This Land Is Your Land was a soaring American anthem springing from his Oklahoma heart, that I hope will live forever. But it is his son, Arlo’s treatment of the Steve Goodman song, City Of New Orleans that, for this writer, captures the altered state of our nation today better than any words ever limned. If ever there was a song about helplessly and singularly watching change unfold in America, while being carried toward a destination suddenly uncertain, Guthrie’s City Of New Orleans is that song.
Many artists have performed City Of New Orleans. Its meaning, though straight forward from Goodman’s soulful lyrics, is radically altered by performance. For me, Guthrie’s is the interpretive masterpiece and possibly my favorite piece of music.
In my interpretation of Guthrie’s interpretation, an omniscient presence – an observer – awakens aboard a moving train. The train has a name, The City Of New Orleans. Moving across America, the observer asks, "Good morning America, how are you?"
As the American landscape, degraded in every way, unfolds before him, he looks about for that which once was grand. What he sees is ruination.
Just an observer, he is unable to deter the changes that assault his senses. He can neither stop nor look away, but must continue, carried toward a destination he realizes he can no longer anticipate.
In the end, seeing nothing recognizable as American or good or progressive, lamenting great things gone and dreams turned to nightmare, the observer closes his eyes in acquiescence, and is helplessly carried along toward just what he no longer knows. Finally, at day’s end, neither encouraged nor enlightened by the change he sees all about him, he can only ask yet again, and this time with resignation "Good night America, how are you?"
Like the observer in the song, will we, the participants of this great social experiment we call home, gently say good night America, or will we rage, rage against the dying of the light? The choice is ours to make. For if we do nothing, the choice will surely be made for us by lesser men if their darkness is allowed to fall across our once and future great land.
No doubt like yourself, I love this country. I love her with all my heart and soul and mind and sinew.
I’m not talking about any particular affinity I might have for her people, or her purple mountains majesty, or any of that. That stuff can be found elsewhere. No, what I love is the idea of America, the abject audacity of it. Equality, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, government of by and for its people, freedom of and freedom from religion, as well as from poverty, hunger, want, slavery, and on and on forever. America. The sheer fearlessness of the idea is astounding. America has allowed me to live an amazing life just by playing hard and playing fair. I’ve lived a life my immigrant grandparents could never have imagined. I’ve never suffered at the hands of a biased or unfair institution. When pushed, I’ve pushed back harder, spoken my mind without fear of official reprisal. I want only the same for my kids, and theirs, and every kid who wants to play fair, and swing for the fences. That’s not so much to ask – hell, to demand!
So. I for one will not stand idly by and watch it all brought to its knees in the gutless coup our current "leadership" and their treasonous puppeteers are attempting. Will you?
Where is that light switch, anyway? I know it’s around here somewhere.
This essay speaks of effecting change, each in our own way. The opinions expressed are soley my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the entities referenced below. But these are entities I believe are endeavoring to promote positive American values and social progress, while doing so without bias.
Voter Activism: the current United States government is neither of, by, nor for the people. Its three branches are controlled by bought and paid for Republicans who are republican in name only. This is tantamount to totalitarianism. The mid-term legislative elections and only the mid-term elections can give us back our government and reinstate the checks and balances of moderation our nation’s founders created for our protection. We must retake the people’s branch. Get involved from now.
Black Box Voting: Your vote counts only if someone counts your vote. BBV protects our most powerful instrument of change: the vote. This requires work. If we are to have a voice in government, we must protect a franchise already under attack and perhaps already corrupted electronically. The mid-term congressional election will be the most important election in American history. This organization will help make certain it is honestly executed.
The Center For Inquiry: promotes science and reason, challenges bunk (Smart, important and even fun. My personal fave).
People For The American Way: promotes progressive values through action within the American system. (No newcomer. Smart, steady, with a solid record of achievement.)
MoveOn.org: uses the power of the internet to organize and inform American activism. (A growing force, already influencing public policy.)
Democracy Now: No bubble-headed bleach-blondes here. Amy Goodman is the best reporter working in radio and TV today. Stay informed with the real news, every day. Support the stations that carry this program.
Kitchen Table Democracy: non-partisan, founded by my neighbor, and a growing grassroots way to understand the nation around you through personal involvement. Check it out.
Websites, such as The Ethical Spectacle fulfill the promise of a free press, a precious right largely abdicated to cowardice by the mainstream media in America. Our nation has been the victim of a gutless coup. Yet the mainstream "press" took a pass on the story. Perhaps it’s time to take a pass on the mainstream press.
Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Harpers, etc. Several magazines have picked up what most newspapers have abandoned: the art of objective conclusion. Read and react.
Consider supporting such efforts as these in your own way. Get involved, contribute, promote, whatever. They are each a product of a few brave and smart American individuals. If it’s change you’re looking for, any of these entities are a great place to start your search.