Roaming Charges: Seeing John Berger

A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet. (Musée d’Orsay.)

When I heard that John Berger had died, an image flashed in my mind of a painting on a vast canvas I had stood captivated before a few years ago in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. A crowd is gathered before a small grave in the jaundiced light of a winter afternoon. The people huddle together in grief, as if braced against a chill wind. The ground is hard, stony. A dog, perhaps the deceased peasant’s, stands at the edge of the pit, mournful eyes trained on the viewer.  The white cliffs of the Jura breach the hazy horizon, marking the place, fixing the point-of-view as finitely as any Google map.

The painting, of course, is Gustave Courbet’s Burial at Ornans. Though Courbet spent six months executing the painting, the scene feels immediate. It also seems as if it took a lifetime to conceive. A death which reveals the life of a poor village, a community knit together across decades of work, joy and tragedy. It is easy to imagine Berger’s body being lowered into such a hand-dug grave, attended by such people and animals, in the weak winter light of rural France.

John Berger wrote the way Courbet painted, only quicker. His writing is direct, naturalistic, as vivid as a conversation between friends or lovers. Berger didn’t explain or explicate the meaning of paintings or photographs. He described his own response to them, a response we related to because we trusted the experience of the voice speaking to us. We trusted Berger’s experience as a living being, a being who had lived and reflected endlessly on the experience of life. Berger didn’t demand that we see art the way he did, but through the lens of our own lives, a lens that he helped to focus.

I met John Berger in 2001 through my old pal Saul Landau. As usual with Saul, our rendezvous spot was an old bar on the edge of Chinatown. The first thing I noticed about Berger were his hands, riven with scars and callouses, nails cracked and embedded with dirt, fingers permanently stained by the ink of fountain pens. These were hands that had worked the ground and the page. Hands as comfortable rooting for truffles as they were assessing sculpted marble, hands that had castrated hogs and penned villanelles.

Our lunch talk ranged widely, from the situation in Gaza to melting glaciers, from the photos of Robert Capa to the paintings of Francis Bacon.  I made a deprecating remark about the paucity of interesting art in a city as wealthy and self-consciously aesthete as San Francisco. Rising from his stool, Berger shot back tartly: “Nonsense, Jeffrey, fresh art is all around you, but apparently you still don’t know where to look. Let’s go see.” He drained his Anchor Steam Ale, slammed the mug on the table and ventured off into the fog, striding toward the Tenderloin, eyes scanning every wall.

[A French version of this note on my encounter with John Berger is included the forthcoming collection Regarde: Berger edited by Michelle Girard and Alain Maubert.]

Roaming Charges

+ “One cannot sufficiently despise all of this.” – Nietzsche

+ No, the US isn’t the only country which confers birthright citizenship. But we may be the only country whose president believes this to be true.

+ Donald Trump didn’t come up with the idea of revoking birthright citizenship. It’s been on the GOP wish list for decades, probably all the way back to Operation Wetback in the 1950s. In fact, it was a plank in 1996 GOP platform, the year those two softies Bob Dole and Jack Kemp got steamrolled by Clinton. Pat Buchanan lost the nomination, but won the platform and in many ways the core of the party became his.

+ Lindsey Graham, who has been pushing this neo-Confederate nonsense for more than a decade, quickly charged to Trump’s defense, Tweeting: “Finally, a president willing to take on this absurd policy of birthright citizenship.”

+ It’s not a “policy”, Lindsey, but a right enshrined in the Constitutional you claim to revere. But which Constitutional right is more, as you put it, “absurd”? The one which grants infants citizenship or the one which has put more than 26,000 kids into their graves since 1999 and sends 8,000 more  a year into emergency rooms?

+ Trump is sending 15,000 troops to the border to repel the Madonna and Child Invasion from Honduras, still two months away. Black Jack Pershing only took 10,000 troops with him when Woodrow Wilson ordered him to invade Mexico to futilely chase around Pancho Villa.

+ Is it too soon to start tying yellow ribbons round the old oak trees? Will there be a USO show for the troops down on the border as they wait weeks to confront and repel the slo-mo invasion of the toddlers and their starving mothers?

+ Surely this is a deployment that even Old Bone Spurs is fit enough to join? Perhaps he could even lead the charge against the toddler refugees in his golf cart….

+ Of course, any US troops at the border waiting two months for mothers and toddlers to beg for asylum are troops not killing peasants in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Niger, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya or Somalia.

+ Q. What is the mission, General?

A. Our orders are to secure the border and protect our precious bodily fluids. Clear enough, Miss Mandrake?

+ This is the IDF model in action. I hope to hell none of the migrant kids show up at the border (two months from now) flying kites…

+ Aren’t there people still without power, clean water or shelter in the Florida panhandle (not to mention Puerto Ric0) who could use some help?

+ If George Soros were giving money to the refugees fleeing the horrid conditions in Honduras, it would be one of the most humane things he’s ever done. But, in fact, his money backed the administration (i.e., Obama’s) which green-lighted the coup, which set all of this in motion.

+ Trump returned from Pittsburg, where he piously laid stones on the graves of Jews murdered by an anti-semite, to Washington, where he quickly vowed to build concentration camps for the indefinite detention for border-crossers: “One other thing — important — we’re not doing any releases anymore… We’ll build tent cities, whatever we have to build in terms of housing. We’re not doing releases.”

+ Jean-Paul Sartre: “The anti-Semite has chosen hate because hate is a faith.”

+ How many Holocaust survivors has MS-13 gunned down?

+ Just two deranged anti-Semites, Richard Nixon and Billy Graham,  talking shit about the “Synagogue of Satan” in the Oval Office…

+ The MAGAshooter was particularly incensed over the Tree of Life synagogue’s support of the HIAS refugee program. Here’s their website. You might want to make a donation…

+ Bette Midler on Trump: “He needs to be the bride at every wedding… the corpse at every funeral.” (An assessment originally made, I believe, of Teddy Roosevelt.)

+ Speaking of the Opiate of the People: Is there a causal nexus between the opioid epidemic and the proliferation of “Christian rabbis?”

+ Bette Davis for Dictator!

+ The loyal opposition: Nancy Pelosi reassured the Democrats’ corporate investors not to worry, after the elections on Tuesday “we’ll tone down the rhetoric.” How many times will desperate Democratic voters fall for this bait-and-switch, even as they tell you exactly what they’re going to do (i.e., nothing)…

+ WSJ: “If Democrats retake the House, don’t expect a push to repeal and replace the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.” Did anyone really think they would?

+ Just when you hoped that Hillary was going to spend the rest of her days long-distance hiking, she returned to crush Democratic aspirations for the midterms by announcing: “I’d like to be president.

+ The Liberals capitulate to the Center, the Center caves to the Right. The new Center becomes the old Right and the process starts all over again.

+ Joe Biden: “Folks, there is a conservative columnist named David Brooks. He’s bright as hell.” Please make him stop!

+ David Brooks: “If everybody in red states voted for their Democratic candidates and everybody in a blue state voted for their Republican candidates we’d have a much better Congress.” This strategy would, naturally, take us back to the Jim Crow era, where apparently both Brooks and Biden feel more comfortable.

+ CBN (the Christian Broadcasting Network) scored an exclusive interview with Trump aboard Air Force one, after a charity associated with the network spent $300,000 to host an event at Mar-a-Lago. The event planners declared no other venue “would do.” The same charity is holding its winter gala this year at the Winter White House. During the interview, Trump declared that “nobody’s done more for Christians or Evangelicals.” Of course, the Apostle Paul said much the same thing about Pontius Pilate.

+ What a Flake thing to do. The man denounces Trump Willie Horton-style ad and then reTweets it…

+  Publicly, everyone behind the Willie Horton ad, including Lee Atwater, denied any responsibility for it. Privately, they all fist-bumped each other because it worked.

+ 2 million dead Iraqis later, Colin Powell concludes: “We’ve come to live in a society based on insults, on lies.

+  “I know that I am cowardly and am unable to act. Therefore I confine myself to words. But I do not think my words are needless. Someone else will act. But my many words—the words of a coward—will facilitate their deed. My words clear the ground.” – C.P. Cavafy, October 1902

+ Jair Bolsonaro’s first post-election statement: “We cannot continue to flirt with socialism, communism, populism and the extremism of the Left.”

+ From Rodrigo Castriota, in Brazil: “More than 20 Brazilian universities were invaded by the military police in the past 2 days. They confiscated material on the history of fascism, interrupted classes due to ‘ideological content’, removed anti-fascist banners and posters claiming that it was electoral propaganda.”

+ Bolsonaro’s victory gives new meaning to Boys From BRA卐IL.

+ Colombian official: “If Bolsonaro helps topple Maduro with military intervention, he will have Colombia’s support.” The return of Operation Condor?

+ The Trump gang tells lots of lies, big and small, insidious and ludicrous. But sometimes they can’t help but let the stark truth slip out, as when John Bolton called Brazil’s fascist president-elect Jair Bolsonaro a “like-minded leader.”

+ Bolton hailed Bolsonaro in the same Miami harangue where he vowed to target the governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, who he dubbed the Troika of Tyranny.

+ Troika of Tyranny, eh? Before you obliterate, you must first alliterate…

+ “Had I known that I would one day have to govern this country, I would have spent more time studying, & less fornicating” – Miguel Primo de Rivera, Spain’s dictator (1925)

+ JoDe Goudy, tribal chair of the Yakima Nation, was refused entry into the Supreme Court for wearing traditional tribal clothing to hear the oral arguments in the case of Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den, Inc. This from a court which swaddles its justices in traditional regalia that dates back to Edward II in 1350…

+ The Bannon Index continues to fall. Last week, a GOP fundraiser in Tampa had to give away for an event where Steve Bannon was the featured speaker. This week no more than 17 people showed up in Topeka, Kansas for Bannon-led rally.

+ The man whose entire fortune (to the extent he really has a fortune) is derived from ripping people off (in schemes he brags about in “his” books) accuses a black political candidate of being a “stone cold thief” based on no evidence whatsoever..

+ Prince Andrew, who is cozying up to the Saudis in their hour of international trauma, has always been the Billy Carter of the House of Windsor…

+ Czech President Miloš Zeman, the latest strongman to display a flair for black comedy, trotted out this Khashoggi joke during an event this week: “I love journalists, that’s why I may organize a special banquet for them this evening at the Saudi embassy”

+ When Sharia Law, strike that, Biblical Law comes to the Inland Empire!

+ According to the historian Tom Holland, under Mussolini there was a popular perfume in Italy called “Fascio.” Coming soon from Ivanka: “Daddio”.

+ “The left’s desire to see every opponent to the right of them as a ‘Fascist’ duly led them massively to underestimate the genuine phenomenon” – Michael Burleigh on Germany in the 20s.

+ It says something about the debauched state of the nation, when the people who bawl the loudest about standing up for the National Anthem won’t stand up for the right to vote….

+ Ruth Hopkins (a CounterPunch contributor and tribal judge), after a federal judge ruled today in favor of North Dakota’s plan to disenfranchise many native people living on reservations: “For a long time after Natives became U.S. citizens, North Dakota would not allow Natives to vote in state unless they relinquished from their Tribe. They’ve never wanted us to have an equal voice.”

+ On the merciless streets of Portland, Oregon, at least 79 homeless people died in 2017.

+ Longtime CounterPunch contributor Susan Abulhawa, an awarding novelist and essayist, is being detained by the Israelis at Tel Aviv airport as she was traveling to attend the Kalimat Palestine Literature Festival.

+ Some people in the states are hitching on a caravan to Mexico

+ How’s that trade war going?

U.S. trade deficit increased to $ in September

+ 4th straight month of increase
+ 7-month high
+ Imports hit a record $218 billion
+ Imports from China increased, pushed the trade gap up 4.3% to $40.2 billion  (highest on record)

+ Yes, they really, really want to frack inside the Rocky Flats Nuclear Site…

+ Glacial retreat in the Pacific Northwest is now accelerating faster than scientists predicted. For more on why this is happening in the Cascades and Northern Rockies check out new book The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink.

+ If you look at this graph long enough, you probably won’t get much sleep tonight…

+ Track the Frackers.

+ From 1970 to 2014, 60 percent of all animals with a backbone — fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals — were wiped out by human activity, according according to an ongoing survey of more than 4,000 species spread over 16,700 populations scattered across the globe. Interior Security Ryan Zinke, now under the scrutiny of the Justice Department, seems intent on adding to this grim total, as he ordered the Park Service to consider allowing the baiting of bears and killing of other predators inside the national parks of Alaska. You can register your dissent to this asinine plan here.

+ About 15 years ago, I wrote a piece attacking the fraudulent environmentalism of the World Wildlife Fund titled Panda Porn. A few weeks later I got a handwritten note from the Pop Artist Mel Ramos, which read, “Stop stealing my shit, son.” Ramos, who died this week at 83, signed a postcard featuring this painting, “Your heretical pal, Mel.” He enclosed a $20 bill and asked me to sign and send him a copy of Been Brown So Long, It Looked Like Green to Me. Which I promptly did.

+ Alexander Cockburn was, of course, a devoted Carlist. But I’m glad he didn’t live to see this nugget about his hero Prince Charles. Otherwise, Becky and Deva may have been tasked with ironing the laces of his de-tongued Pumas, every morning.

+ Sally Timms: “Charles is too busy being Camilla’s tampon to iron his own laces.”

Final Days

We’re in the final days of our annual fund drive, and here at CounterPunch we’re getting first-hand testimony about the depth of the economic depression most of us live in. Many CounterPunchers are rallying as they do year-after-year, but telling us times are tight. All we can ask is: give if you can and as much as you feel you can afford. We truly need every penny and every dollar to keep the show on the road. 

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CounterPunchers! Please don’t let this offer ebb away unfulfilled.  Double your clout right now.  Step up to the plate, and reach for the phone, or your check book or hit the online donation button.

Sleep Upon My Shoulder as We Creep


Booked Up

What I’m reading this week…

The Sleep of Memory by Patrick Modiano

Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War by H. Bruce Franklin

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

Sound Grammar

What I’m listening to this week…

Heavy Music: the Complete Cameo Recordings (1966-67) by Bob Seger and the Last Heard

La Fenice by Keith Jarrett

Here If You Listen by David Crosby

What Now? What Next?

Walter Benjamin: “Pessimism all along the line. Absolutely. Mistrust in the fate of literature, mistrust in the fate of freedom, mistrust in the fate of European humanity, but three times mistrust in all reconciliation: between classes, between nations, between individuals. And unlimited trust only in IG Farben and the peaceful perfecting of the Air Force. But what now? What next?”

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3