Je Suis MAD
In the aftermath of the terrorist
bloodbath in Paris at the offices of the satirical magazine
Charlie Hebdo, reportedly three million people took
to the streets in solidarity, many holding up signs proclaiming
“Je suis Charlie.” In translation, it
might read something along the lines of...
Though we were not even aware of the existence of this
magazine…or, while we were aware of it and even thought
it crude at times in its lampooning of religious beliefs and
institutions, we are at one with Charlie in the right to freedom
of expression without being murdered for it.
When CBS’s Sunday Morning program asked the
Editor-in-chief of MAD magazine, John Ficcara, for
a commentary on this tragedy, he admitted to giving pause.
He had a couple of concerns not the least of which was, that
by appearing on TV denouncing terrorists and defending the
rights of satirists and cartoonists, would he be endangering
his own life and that of his colleagues?
He went ahead all the same and noted in his
two and a half minute statement, something so obvious
that we’ve always taken for granted. Yet in the lunacy
of a terrorist world, it is newly appreciated and even profound
in its assumption. He said in part:
“…we were merciless on the Catholic
Church for covering up the child abuse scandal. And after
9/11, we went after Jerry Falwell hard for blaming the 9/11
attacks on gay feminists, abortionists and the ACLU.
We knew at the end of the day, no matter
how much we lampooned Falwell or the Catholic Church, we
shared a common set of rules of engagement.
The worst that could happen to us was that
we got a stern letter from their lawyers—we live for
those. Not once did we ever fear for our safety.”
Actually, from what I’ve heard about
Charlie Hebdo, I would not have associated it in
any way with MAD magazine. As a piece in The
New Yorker noted, “they (Charlie) worked
in a peculiarly French and savage tradition, forged in a long
nineteenth-century guerilla war between republicans and the
church and the monarchy.” Hardly the raison d'être
for MAD. Yet former Chicago Seven defendant and later
California state senator Tom Hayden has been quoted as saying,
“My own radical journey began with MAD magazine.”
Having been a reader of MAD well
over forty years ago, I loved the great caricatures of the
people it was spoofing in the pop culture, its sendups of
ad campaigns, its regular features of “Spy vs. Spy,”
“The Lighter Side of…”, Don Martin cartoons
and the Fold-in, and the like. I didn’t remember it
being particularly controversial or scathing on any great
political or social issues. Yet a quick Google scan of some
covers over the years that jumped out at me, suggests that
it has taken on the establishment and those things we hold
dear. Sacrebleu, even Facebook.
The Fidel Castro cover from 1963 is particularly
ironic, in that it has since been alleged, that one of the
methods the CIA was considering in assassinating him, was
with an exploding cigar. “Out-spying” even “Spy
From there it was but a short walk to a Barnes
& Noble to pick up the current copy, to see if my remembrance
of the magazine (comic book?) as being something merely mischievous,
had developed into something more satirically venomous in
my long absence. In two words…not really.
In its annual tribute to the year’s
biggest idiots issue, “The 20 Dumbest People, Events
and Things 2014,” it roasted some of the more low moments
in the news of the past year. These included jabs at the “NFL’s
Domestic Violence Problem,” “Ebola Hysteria,”
the “Militarization of the Police Department”
(though nothing on Ferguson) “Obama Caught Off Guard”
(“Fail to the chief.”), “Hillary Clinton
Crying Poverty,” “Chris Christie’s Traffic
Scandal,” “Putin Invading the Ukraine,”
“White House Security Breaches.” It also featured
a cartoon spread, “A MAD look at the Old Testament,”
in which for example, the pharaoh’s daughter upon finding
Moses in a basket, leaves him on the Nile river bank and just
takes the basket. Not the sort of stuff that is going to result
in a massacre of their staff by outraged fundamentalists.
It will be interesting to see if MAD addresses Charlie
Hebdo, even obliquely, in their next issue.
To be Charlie means going over the
top and never having to say you’re sorry. It means believing
in a right to freedom of expression that doesn’t cause
an endangerment to people, as say yelling “Fire!”
in a crowded theater would. The only danger here being to
themselves. And they knew it, as their office had been fire
bombed before. And that takes guts. Or some might say stupidity.
But in that sense, Je ne suis pas Charlie. Je suis
MAD. And I suspect most of us are.
(Note: This essay also
appears at Artist of Artists Without Walls http://www.artistswithoutwalls.com/
having been originally posted there 1/18/15)
Word of the Month
designed for use especially at the end of an exclamatory
Universal Encyclopedic Dictionary (2002 Ed.)
I was reminded of this rather jerry-rigged
word, which rhymes with orangutan, having come across it in
a NY Times crossword puzzle last month. It also reminded
me that I had once participated in a reading sponsored by
Interrobang Magazine a number of years ago. Nothing
much came from it. You might say…I got less interrobang
for the buck
of Cuomo and a “Quote of the Month” Reconsidered
When Mario Cuomo died on New Year’s Day, remembrances
came rolling in emphasizing his intelligence, and most especially,
his eloquence. One can dispute his performance as governor—as
one can of any politician, invariably shaded by one’s
own ideology— but his performance at the podium was
and over, clips from his keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic
Convention were played, in which he offered a passionate rebuttal
to Reagan’s metaphor of America as a “The Shining
City Upon A Hill.” And in which, Cuomo acknowledged
Reagan’s own great oratorical flourish in a backhanded
sort of way: “… in order to succeed, we must answer
our opponent's polished and appealing rhetoric with a more
telling reasonableness and rationality.”
Cuomo’s counterpoint “A Tale of
Two Cities” address, which was at times pure poetry,
put him on the map as a future presidential candidate, though
he would shun that opportunity in the coming years. But it
illustrates the power of words.
“There are elderly people who tremble
in the basements of the houses there. And there are people
who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the
glitter doesn't show.”
“…— wagon train after
wagon train — to new frontiers of education, housing,
peace; the whole family aboard, constantly reaching out
to extend and enlarge that family; lifting them up into
the wagon on the way…”
It is always interesting to note, how we reach
for poetry and poetics at life’s magnified moments—
graduations, weddings, tragedies, funerals, aspirations to
higher office— while the day-to-day realities, the business
of having to get things done, are about prose. Cuomo himself
realized that, and in one of his more unsung yet resonating
quotes, which I once used in one of my Quote of the Month
features (in concert with a heroic looking sculpture I had
come across in Central Park, OCTOBER,
2012 MUSE-LETTER), he said:
It is also about the contrast between the
stirring rhetoric of promise, and the banality uttered at
moments when it goes unfulfilled. Something pretty much every
president comes to realize when confronted with the realities
of the office: “I don’t remember” (Reagan,
at least 124 times at the Iran-Contra hearings), “I
did not have sexual relations with that woman” (Clinton
on Lewinsky), silence (George W continuing to sit in a classroom
with second graders after hearing the World Trade Center was
bombed), “We don’t have a strategy yet”
(Obama on combatting ISIS).
But in drilling down further, it can also
be read in a broader context that illustrates the stark contrasts
of life’s experiences, large and small. Perhaps a few
personal translations of Cuomo’s quote will explain
what I’m getting at.
You come of age in poetry. You grow
old in prose.
You woo in poetry. You forget anniversaries in prose.
You marry in poetry. You divorce in prose.
You give birth in poetry. You change diapers in prose.
You walk the dog in poetry. You clean the cat’s
box in prose.
You dream in poetry. You awaken in prose.
You get hired in poetry. You get fired in prose.
You make money in poetry. You go broke in prose.
You sip in poetry. You guzzle in prose.
You speed in poetry. You get a ticket in prose.
You transgress in poetry. You apologize in prose.
You go to heaven in poetry. You go to hell in prose (excepting
in Dante’s Inferno).
Feel free to jump in here… in poetry.
Click to somewhere else… in prose.
Meeting at Bethesda Fountain
Don’t ever mention
not even in a whisper
that we were once immortal.
I’ll hear you and take offense.
That was all after all
so early on in the game and under
a sky confused by its very own season—
when we were still choosing up sides
and choosing our words
in the absence of a very thought.
And the clock was all too kind in its ticking.
Today it bleeds in precious seconds
as metaphors spiral and pester the air.
Can a Hail Mary pass be far behind?
Un-necessity is the mother of reinvention;
mother was appalled by our kitchen.
Which was the very point:
to go against the tile
of they who grew up in black & white—
we were Dorothy opening the door.
Or you were Dorothy and I was Hamlet.
You knew at some point a Shakespearean reference
was about to appear from the wings
to laminate this lamentation
of cause and effect
and when and where
the downhill tumble started.
Now a walk through the park in
can make a day.
than making a play
with so many new lines to learn
and not enough time nor place to rehearse.
As the twigs have cracked underfoot in the path
let us stop to sit beneath the healing waters.
A Return to Puerto Rico a Half-Century
The last time you had been to Puerto Rico,
JFK was the president and touting the mission of his administration
under the banner of what he called “The New Frontier.”
You had turned 18 that summer
in Ponce, and a few fellow travelers and locals, threw you
a surprise birthday party.You’ve
still got the card (making sport of JFK’s catch phrase)
and the snap shot (sporting an early 60’s do) to prove
In three months almost to the day, JFK would
be assassinated. You were a freshman at college that November
and taking that next step in what is called, “coming
of age.” An age which came and went at warp speed.
This time the trip is not an extended three
week adventure, but rather a tactical four day escape from
winter’s cold. And an unexpected snow storm as it turned
What would you find over fifty years later
in a short return to San Juan, where once along with a group
of under-aged buddies, you guzzled Cuba Libre (Rum and Coke)
and Planter’s Punch (whatever that was). The concept
of checking ID’s apparently had not been invented. Or
at least not enforced on this fantasy island, where you all
roamed around the hotel bars like the big shots you weren’t.
Though yes you were impressed, by that cool fort, the snapshots
of which you got around to dropping off at the drug store
over four months later. (“When will they be ready?”
“On Tuesday. Next August.”)
And the burning questions you had for the
Puerto Ricans you had befriended? What did you think of “West
Side Story” and its portrayal of you guys? That was
about the extent of your references regarding Latino culture.
And you still find haunting, that mangy stray dog on that
pretty little lonely road you happened upon. Odd what one
carries with one through the journey.
And it strikes you that of the five who came
here that August, only two of you remain.
Five decades is a long time. Things change.
Hardly a profound insight. Yet in Old San Juan, that “fort,”
Castillo San Felipe Del Morro still stands of course, as it
has since the 16th century (as does the neighboring Castillo
San Cristóbal down the block since 1783). Though you
note that they have moved that cannon. (Damn!). And the streets
are still paved with blue cobblestones… the houses still
brightly painted on these narrow streets… the Atlantic
still surly in this part of the ocean.
You however, have returned a different person,
with a whole new set of sensibilities. Perhaps that’s
not saying much, as it would be rather pathetic after a lifetime
journey, to still be stuck in first gear.
The very hotel at which you stay, speaks for
one thing, of your changing sense of aesthetics. The Gallery
Inn, owned by an artist and her pet cockatoos, macaws and
parrots, is done up in her sculptural works and paintings
strewn about the premises and surrounded by dense foliage.
It is suggestive in its quirkiness, of The Best Exotic
Marigold Hotel—the 2012 British comedy-drama film.
You learn upon leaving, that the Obamas had
stayed here four years ago. The President was in town to meet
with some delegations, and you are reminded of the rather
odd political relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
Under its Commonwealth status, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens,
have representation at both major parties’ conventions,
and since 1980, hold a U.S. Presidential primary election.
Though unlike a state, they cannot vote in national U.S. elections.
But you were talking aesthetics.
Coming upon a coffee house that sponsors live
poetry readings, you read a couple of your poems, one of which
is appearing in this month’s muse letter. The reaction
from the bilingual audience is very warm (you and your companion
are the only tourists here) though the Chihuahua who scampered
across the floor in the middle of your reading, seemed unimpressed.
No you are not in Barnes & Noble. And this is not an experience
to be found in the guide books.
The Latino culture has become Americanized;
the American culture has become Latinized. This is especially
obvious in various U.S. cities on both coasts and in what
might be referred to as accessible states. Miami has been
referred to as the “Capital of Latin America.”
So there is no problem finding in San Juan, whatever suits
one's cosmopolitan tastes.
El Convento was once the “wow”
in terms of defining quality life-style experience on the
island. Now you find that in many great restaurants (Marmalade,
for one) and bars (the one at newly opened Vanderbilt Hotel
in Condada, being a particular wow), all around the city.
Soon enough the trip is over, as you joke
that you will only wait forty years this time before returning.
You are struck yet again, by how bittersweet are the elements
of distance and time in the journey equation. And you recall
once again a few line’s from Frost’s classic poem,
“The Road Not Taken,” that seem particularly relevant
(remember that once overused word?) from a book that you bought
for that freshman lit class in ’63, and still have:
be one traveler, long I stood…
Oh, I kept the first for another day!...
knowing how way leads on to way,
if I should ever come back.
Then again, next January? When it gets cold
again? Why not again?