From the West Bank to Old Sparky

For those eagerly awaiting further uproar from this writer on the unspeakable assaults on Palestinians on the West Bank, the carnage in the camps, the siege of the Holy Church of the Nativity by Sharon’s troops, a word of warning: this column contains reflections on barbecue, a subject that arouses even more passion than matters affecting the peoples of what used to be termed The Holy Land, so parental discretion is advised. Onward.

Greer, South Carolina: On the road again. This time the vehicle of choice is a 1985 Ford Escort station wagon. Nothing much to look at but in the mid-1980s Ford put 4-cylinder Japanese diesel engines into a few of those Escorts and this is one of them: 50 or 60 miles to the gallon, tight gears and the feel of a sports car. I head off down the road from Greenville SC towards Birmingham Alabama and my cell phone rings. It’s a fellow from the New Republic called Frank something-or-other, who is eager to quiz me about some recent remarks of mine about the internet being awash with anti-Israeli material.

Amid the crackle and hiss of the ether and the roar of the interstate it’s hard to hear Frank through the no-hands speaker on my dashboard, but eventually I catch his purpose, and ask him flatly, in more-or-less these words, “Frank, is your purpose to accuse me of disseminating anti-semitic libels, under the guise of relaying rumors on the Internet.” Frank allows as how this is indeed his intent. I tell him that in my opinion the stories about Israeli spies, as categorized in a DEA report discussed by John Sugg of the Daily Planet, by Justin Raimondo on, on Fox News, by the French newsletter Intelligence Online and various other news sources including the British Jane’s, are legitimate topics of comment, as are the stories about anthrax dissemination, involving an anti-Arab researcher.

We go back on forth on such issues until the static gets too bad. Later I retrieve a magnanimous message from Frank saying that he is conferring with associates whether to deal with me in the New Republic. So I assume that at some point Cockburn will be stigmatized yet again as the purveyor of anti-Semitic filth. It’s all pretty predictable. The viler the actions of Israel, the more rabid and undiscriminating the assaults of their troops on Palestinians in the camps, the shriller become charges here that almost any discussion of Israel or of the Israel lobby here is by its very nature anti-semitic. The day there’s a photo of an Israeli soldier shoots a child next to the font in that Bethlehem church you’ll find a big story in the New York Times about the troubling resurgence of anti-semitism, with plenty of quotes from Abe Foxman of the ADL.

And on the topic of the NYT, have you noticed how that great paper has had front page pieces rubbishing the
Catholic Church as a nest of molesters every day for some time, especially since Sharon invaded Ramallah. The uncharitable could see this as a pre-emptive strike against Papal criticism of Israel’s actions, and also a means to shift attention away from the blood-stained molestations of the adherents of one of the other monotheistic religions.

Birmingham, Alabama

Kathy Johnson and Dave Gesspass, stalwart outposts of the National Lawyers’ Guild, take me to Dreamland, promoting it as homeport for some of Alabama’s best barbecue. The pork ribs are succulent, the sauce not excessively piquant, nor too tomato-laden in flavor. I report as much to friends in the Pacific northwest, and receive an emailed warning from Dave Vest, member of the region’s hottest blues band, the Cannonballs. In earlier decades Dave lived in the south, and as readers of this website know, toured with Tammy Wynette in the early years. Dave warns that Cockburn “will observe a steady decline in the quality of the bbq as he travels west. In Texas they will feed him saddle leather with ketchup on it. The Amoco station in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, will probably be his last chance for a decent bag of boiled peanuts.”

But where is bbq’s equivalent to Clarksdale, Miss, around which many of the greatest bluesmen grew up? How come those Dreamland ribs were most definitely superior? Obviously the sauce has a fair amount to do with it and the Dreamland mix was fairly heavy on the vinegar end of the spectrum. The pulled bbq at Jim and Nick’s, also in Birmingham, was great too. There are the issues of the pit, the hickory wood, the time. In California you can rate expertise in the slow cooking department (now bizarrely a fad of cooking columns, though a positive development overall) not by barbecue but by the carnitas, where the best I’ve had is at Hector’s, in Watsonville where most of the Mexicans are from Michoacan.

Further news comes from Vest to the effect that the Clarksdale of bbq was a hole-in-the-wall place over by what’s now the medical center in Birmingham. “All the musicians went there after hours. You had to rap on a sliding wooden panel, if you were white. A black man took your order, but you never saw him, like a confessor. You wanted to lie down and roll in it when you got it.”

Travel tips from musicians are always worthwhile. Vest advised that “If you cross the Atchafalaya Swamp on I-10, pull off at Henderson. The big service station there is the one where Jerry Lee Lewis got mad because they were selling pirated cassettes and carried the entire tape display out by the pumps, poured gas on it, and lit it. The station manager said ‘Jesus Christ what will I tell the distributor?’ Lewis, walking to his bus, said, ‘Tell him the killer was here.’ I have this from Robbie Parrish. He toured with Carl Perkins, too. Anyway, out behind the execrable Landry’s restaurant, there’s a shed that used to sell decent catfish po-boys.” This kind of expertise should be built, piece by piece, into America’s answer to the Odyssey.

Powell’s Trip

I return from Dreamland to my motel and watch CNN reports of preliminary plans for Secretary of State Colin Powell’s urgent trip to bring peace to the Middle East. His itinerary makes Odysseus’ journey home from Troy to Ithaca look like a model of decisive brevity. From Morocco, to Egypt, to Spain and maybe a chat with Arafat by the following weekend. It all looks like a conflict of interest to me. Is Powell a senior official of the US government or under contract to Travel and Leisure? I suppose the plan is to give Israeli troops plenty of time to shoot more women and children, plus a few journalists and push ahead with the project of rooting out “terrorism”.

The next morning Kathy Johnson takes me on a tour of Birmingham: the famous Baptist Church on 16th St where the recently convicted bomber killed the four young black women in the 1960s, the wonderful Civil Rights museum and the Birmingham Art Museum, which has some fine paintings including an odd Benjamin West, a good Courbet and a striking painting from the dawn of abstract impressionism by Alfred Leslie (born 1927) called “A Survivor” painted in 1951 and donated recently by Mr and Mrs Michael Strauss to the museum in honor of the victims and survivors of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Later the museum’s director tells me that the Strausses, now in Birmingham having worked as lawyers in New York, had called after 9/11 to ask what they could do and the museum’s curator of paintings, David Moos, had encouraged them to buy Field’s painting, which contains an image of the American flag and, at the top, a collage of newspaper.

Elsewhere in the museum there are some lovely landscapes from the 1930s, including An Aspen Forest by the Santa Fe-based artist Victor Higgins and a landscape of heliotrope and poppies in Marin county, by John Marshall Gamble. Of course the rise of abstract expressionism after the War, actively encouraged by the US government including the CIA, overwhelmed the tradition of landscape documentary represented by Higgins, Gamble and the artists involved in the WPA.

Between Birmingham and Jackson:
Does the Trilateral Rule the World?

While I’m driving, Ben Sonnenberg calls on my celphone from New York, sobbing with emotion at the obsequies for the Queen Mother. He starts babbling about this being the sort of thing the British do so well. I tell him that when he was in the Scots Guards my grandfather Jack Arbuthnot used to do guard duty at Balmoral and when the Queen Mother visited as a little girl from Glamis Castle, she’d ride around the drawing room on his shoulders. These days Major Jack would probably be cashiered for child abuse.

At Tuscaloosa I turn south down Highway 68 which takes me to Moundville, site of the amazing mounds raised by Indians sometime in the thirteenth century, probably after a traveler returned from the Yucatan with news of the latest architectural styles down south. Viewing the very substantial amounts of dirt shoveled up into these mounds it’s hard to maintain any Rousseauian fanatasies about class equality among the indigenes of that time.

I check into a motel outside Meridian, hometown of Jimmy Rodgers, and took a look at e-traffic. The Trilateral Commission is in executive session. The Washington Times runs a silly piece where the reporter pours scorn on those, mostly right-wing populists, who denounce it as a “Secret World Government”. Without irony, the reporter notes that among those attending are 250 political and business “leaders” from around the world, with the US fielding a strong team including Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Greenspan and Paul Volcker. Absent a few Chinese trillionaires too busy consulting their astrologers to attend, this sounds like World Government to me.

The thing the conspiratorialists miss is the disposability problem. In the old days world leaders, captains of industry, bankers, politicians, died of heart attacks or lung cancer not long after getting the gold watch for meritorious service. Or they went to the penitentiary. In less decorous parts of the world the hangman or the firing squad performed the same purgative function as the First World’s ribeye, gin martinis or the Marlboro packet.

The elites are living longer, and so the executive sessions of World Government–the Trilateral, Bilderberg, Davos, Sun Valley, Aspen, Dubai, the Bohemian Grove ­ proliferate. Henry Kissinger pockets his speaker’s fee and expenses, and anyone challenging the consensus of these peripatetic world governors gets cut off by the IMF.

I also find an attack on Rudy Bakhtiar by the normally excellent Sam Smith, in his web newsletter Undernews. “Watching Rudi Bakhtiar on CNN Headline News,” Smith sneers, “is like watching a film with the wrong sound track. While we are as impressed as she clearly is with her natural beauty and carefully honed sultriness, Bakhtiar lacks only a fundamental understanding of what the hell she is talking about. The ill-placed smirks, flirts, and eyebrow quirks appear at random, sometime accompanying the most dire reports. It admittedly becomes hypnotic once you notice the schizophrenic contrast between her face and her mouth, but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with news.”

The dirty brute. Rudy studied Brecht in her days at Yale Drama School and is practising the famous Brechtian A- effect, indicating to the audience by cunning artifice her own distancing from the garbage her employers force her to regurgitate. And what’s the prissy stuff about “carefully honed sultrinness”. What does Smith want, the PBS look a la Judy Woodruff?

Eventually CNN is drowned out by the shouts of four youthful soccer teams also staying in the Comfort Inn, rampaging around the Oscar Meyer wiener-wagon, a glistening monument to fiber glass, outside my room.

Eudora Welty and the WPA

I’ve been in some empty downtowns in regional America, but Jackson on a Saturday morning is the deadest I’ve ever seen. Eventually I find local rancher kids exhibiting their Palominos in the fairgrounds and a vast flea market next door, also barely populated. I buy an old 30 gallon iron cookpot for $120, for my annual New Year gumbo party.

I am able to continue to enjoy art in the WPA tradition. The local museum in Jackson, thermostat set to a punishing chill on a fresh day, has an exhibition of 1930s work by Eudora Welty and others, though sadly none of the 3,000 color photographs taken by the Farm Security Administration photographers (Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and others) in the late 1930s), which I’ve always felt probably present a more animated profile of rural America in the Depression than the relentlessly gloomy pictures of downhearted Okies that Evans and Lange specialised in.

Of course the migrants were in poor circumstances but I’ll bet they smiled once in a while. One day I’ll find the time to look at these color photos in the Library of Congress. Welty, who grew up in Mississippi, does catch more of the effervescence of the human spirit in her photographs. She abandoned photography after leaving her Rolliflex on a park bench in Paris. Irked by her carelessness, she thereafter confined herself to writing, which was scarcely the world’s loss. Also in the exhibition are exciting paintings from Mississippi artists of the 1930s like John McCrady, Karl Wolfe and William Hollingsworth, who killed himself in 1944 while still in his thirties. There’s an amazing painting, I think by Wolfe, of the assassination of Huey Long. Elsewhere in the museum is a very moving temporary exhibition of Kotz’s photographs of his aunt’s Mississippi garden. Kotz himself now lives in Santa Fe.

The Natchez Trace Parkway

It runs more or less the length of the old trail that led from Nashville down to the Natchez settlement started by the French in the eighteenth century. The “trace” is the trail, which became a path, then essentially what in Ireland is called a boreen, with the usual fords, food stands and so forth. Starting in the 1930s it has been rehabbed by the Bureau of the Interior, a bit like the Blue Ridge Parkway. Two lane, with immaculate verges through woods, for about 150 miles. No trucks. Not nearly enough camp sites, of which the Park service doubtless lives in dread because poor people might take to living there.

Natchez, once a flourishing entrepot on the Mississippi, seems downhearted. The most conspicuous feature is a rehabbed paddle boat called The Isle of Capri, serving as a casino.

I head west across Louisiana, and get a ticket just east of Leesville. The trooper’s uniform says SWAT and so does his cruiser’s tag. I point out to him that everyone else on this state highway was travelling over 70mph. Twenty miles further west in Texas I would have been legal. He gazes at my iron pot on the back seat, plainly thinking that not only was I a methamphetamine dealer, but had the meth factory right there in the back of my car. In the end he just gave me the ticket.

Huntsville, End of the Line

I ended up in Huntsville, Texas, end of the line for Karla Faye Tucker and many others. The woman at the Holiday Inn gives me a guide to the town’s incarceral amenities. I drive round the prison, which once housed John Wesley Hardin (allegedly slayer of 44, pardoned and ultimately a lawyer in El Paso) and end up in the Prison Museum behind the Court House. Here I view Old Sparky, a fine specimen of the joiner’s art put together by a convict himself convicted of murder and sentenced to die in 1914, though later spared and ultimately released.

Old Sparky, also known as the Texas Thunderbolt, was the final seat of 361 men and women between 1924 and 1964. A helpful note advises that the executioner would throw a switch and put 2000 volts, producing 8 to 10 amps, through his victim, thus rendering the condemned person unconscious “almost immediately”. After three to four seconds the executioner would ease off the current to 500 to 1000 volts for one minute, maintaining paralysis of the brain and other vital organs but preventing the body from bursting into flames.

That explains why at least one execution in the Florida death house a couple of years back was marred by flames enveloping the dead man’s head. The old craft skills have died out. Young executioners these days just don’t care.

Aside from George W. Bush’s statement refusing to commute Karla Faye’s death sentence, along with her lawyer’s plea for life, there’s a peremptory note in the Huntsville museum about his last meal from one condemned man, J. Morrow Jr: “”1 small steak (tender, no bone, no fat, cooked rare-medium).” After listing other items, including three bananas and a pint of chocolate ice cream, Morrow notes, “This is my last meal, and damn it, I want it served hot on however many plates and bowls it takes from mixing it up together.”

I buy a couple of the museum’s choice postcards which feature Texas’ forward looking approach down the years: a man hanging from a tree, Old Sparky and the stretcher bed on which the condemned in Texas these days get their terminal doses of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride, sometimes in mistaken amounts that leave them paralysed and in atrocious agony. On Texas’ death row, 454 inmates currently await the needle.

From the museum I go in search of one of Huntsville’s better known inmates, Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly. It’s billed as being on the front of a commercial building on the 2100 block of Sam Houston Avenue, but seems to have made way for a fast food joint. I eat a really bad barbecue plate, confirming all Dave Vest’s direst predictions, and head west.




Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.