Saturday, December 28, 2019

UNWITTING: When the Cure is Worse

When Vermonter William Pierce’s troubles began he had no solid evidence that mind control projects were being pursued by the government. But once MKULTRA documents were declassified in 1977 his personal experiences —from the McCarthy era to the Cuban missile crisis — began to look uncannily close to the CIA’s experiments. And when he was involuntarily committed in 1962, he found himself in the care of one of the leading MKULTRA doctors

Chapter Seven: Bad Medicine
(The Secret War on William Pierce)

     “For two weeks, I was a ‘patient’ at Coyne Hospital — denied telephone privileges and heavily doped,” Pierce recalled in 1964. “On November 14, 1962, I was admitted to the V.A. Hospital in Oklahoma City. My court record arrived there, enlarged from the original ‘delusions of persecution’ to include paranoia, schizophrenia, tendencies to suicide and violence, and moderate drinking. Another week elapsed before I was permitted to contact a lawyer.
     “The first reactions of the V.A. psychiatrists was that I probably had a persecution complex: ‘We can’t believe this stuff about extremists and their electrical gadgets. We feel you have an illness and we foresee long-term confinement’.”
     When Pierce brought up his Constitutional rights and “enforced commitment,” he claims that West replied, “We’re experts in psychiatry, not politics.” Yet a report on his intake examination confirms that West already had decided that the case “might represent a state of true paranoia.”
Pierce kept his hospital records in
hope of uncovering what happened.
     Based on what evidence? An examination summary filed one month after his admission noted that Pierce “felt that there was a ‘right-wing underground’ operating there (at Oklahoma State) among a few people including some of his students. He states that a type of ‘heckle’ was noted...Also he noted that at restaurants and cafes people would walk and stand near him and swing their arms back and forth. He states that when this occurred 5 or 6 times in a community it was more than just an incident and was part of an organized heckle.”
     In a sub-section on “Previous Personality Disorders or Psychiatric Illness,” the V.A. doctors acknowledged that Pierce had consistently asserted “he is not mentally ill,” but rather the victim of a “substantive situation.” It was not merely a feeling, he claimed, “I actually am a victim.” And he still remembered the original 1955 incident. “I have a political experience and not a mental illness,” he insisted. 
     For the next six week Pierce was confined in a closed ward, his phone calls monitored and mail censored. Among the drugs prescribed during this period were Chloral Hydrate “for bedtime sedation,” then Deriden as a replacement, plus Stelazine, Cogentin, Meprobamate and Thorazine. But then “an abrupt transformation occurred,” Pierce wrote, “not in me but in the psychiatrists. I was moved to an open ward, and was soon ‘very well’ — well enough to attend a mathematics conference in California, and to be almost completely unrestricted. A doctor alluded nervously to my ‘preoccupation’ with ‘telling the truth’.”
      What changed? To start, West allowed Pierce to play an electric organ on the 7th floor. “This was enjoyed by both patients and personnel, as this patient was quite capable,” according to his file. In December, Pierce began to talk about a transfer to the New York area “at his own expense for continued care.” A few weeks later West allowed him to attend an organ recital in town and attend a related meeting of musicians.
     He was still discussing potential legal moves, however, while pursuing “contacts with people about what has gone on.” In court, Pierce warned his doctors, “we might emphasize I was committed in a way that involved my political expression. Also we might go into the substantive things the extremists did.” 
     Asked whether he still believed a tiny tooth transmitter had been used to harass him, he responded cautiously. “My lawyer has recommended that I not expound on things for which I don’t have readily available evidence.”  
     On January 9, 1963, just a week after his transfer to the hospital’s open ward, Pierce was elected ward chairman. “He was in charge with other patients of writing a constitution for ward 7EW,” his records note, “handled this very well and also handled the ward meeting in a very proper and formal manner.” In February, the doctors let him begin day trips to the library, then allowed him to attend a math convention in California. After that, discussions proceeded quickly on “restoration of competency.”
     Oddly enough, his diagnosis was unchanged: “schizophrenic reaction, paranoid type, characterized by inappropriate affect, seven-year history of delusions, deeply fixed...history of auditory hallucinations and grandiose thinking... External Precipitating Stress: Unknown.” But confined for months he never acted out. Instead, he organized other patients when he had the chance. He also entertained many patients and even some staff.
     But even though Pierce was released from the hospital and judged to be competent again, his academic career was over. “On March 20, I left the hospital with a certificate of my ability to work. I so wrote President Willham and mathematics Chairman Johnson; but neither replied, thus further violating their promises.”
      It felt like another betrayal, since Willham had earlier agreed to let Pierce return. “Without delay,” he wrote, “I drove to the Missouri border and headed east.”
     The next 15 years were marked by frustration, marginal employment, incessant letter writing — in many cases to defend his theories, and a downward spiral into alcoholism. In the late 1960s he mailed more than 1000 letters to US leaders, mainly about the war in Vietnam. Most responses were polite but noncommittal.  
     While Pierce struggled with depression, failure and disorientation, his doctor thrived. Turning from hypnosis and hallucinations to group behavior, West began to study the psychodynamics of sit-ins and revolutions. In 1973, he proposed the Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence. The goal was to “alter undesirable behavior,” at first through inhibiting drugs but eventually with implanted electrodes that could control behavior by remote control. 
     Although not publicly embraced, the latter idea did inspire a Michael Crichton novel and film, The Terminal Man, in which the cure is worse than the violent tendencies it is supposed to short-circuit.

NEXT: End Games
Previous Chapters
OneWrong Turn
Four: Chung's Way

Friday, December 27, 2019

Informed Dissent — A Video Portfolio

During America’s revolutionary period the Bennington area was a center of rebellion. And it didn’t end there. Almost two centuries later it was home base for another kind of revolt. By the 1960s, the region had assimilated a small, energetic community of modern rebels —idealists, intellectuals, sculptors and painters. But that “Golden Age” was winding down by the end of the decade, and a conservative political backlash was brewing.

Like a rising tide that had reached its limit, the roaring sixties was crashing to a climax with a wrenching change of direction.

Informed Dissent - Video Portfolio

Coming to Vermont * Welcome to the Culture War
Moving toward Advocacy *  On the Edge

A photo portfolio for the forthcoming book, chapters 1 -4, including Kurt Vonnegut, Joni Mitchell, Ritchie Havens, Tina Turner, Phil Hoff and the people of Vermont. Photos and music by Greg Guma; Brecht on Brecht poster by Lon Wasco; photo descriptions for Bennington Museum exhibit by Jamie Franklin.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

UNWITTING: Turning Drugs into Weapons

When Vermonter William Pierce’s troubles began he had no solid evidence that mind control projects were being pursued by the government. But once MKULTRA documents were declassified in 1977 his personal experiences —from the McCarthy era to the Cuban missile crisis — began to look uncannily close to the CIA’s experiments. And when he was involuntarily committed in 1962, he found himself in the care of one of the leading MKULTRA doctors

Chapter Six: The Doctor from MKULTRA
(The Secret War on William Pierce)

Louis J. West was already a respected psychiatrist when he became William Pierce’s doctor in November 1962. Chairman of the Behavioral Sciences Department at the University of Oklahoma and supervisor of the psych ward at the V.A. Hospital in Tulsa, he was three years younger and almost a foot taller than his patient, an attractive alpha male who resembled Orson Welles, a man of science, always in control and ostensibly above reproach.
     “An activist for integration and civil rights since his college days,” according to his son, West was also “probably the only white person from Oklahoma to attend Dr. Martin Luther King’s march on Washington, DC.” That was less than a year after he and Pierce met. 
     John West’s portrait of his dad in The Last Goodnights, published as an homage after the death of both parents, was a prime example of biographical whitewashing. “He had examined Jack Ruby after Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald,” the younger West wrote, “he had served as the chief psychiatrist for Patricia Hearst’s defense… he was the first white psychiatrist to testify on behalf of black South African prisoners who had been tortured by their white guards…”
      And it didn’t end there. “His accidental friendship with actor Charlton Heston in New York in the late 1940s — well before either man had any professional fame — led to other friendships at the highest levels of Hollywood, especially after Jolly left the University of Oklahoma and took the top job in psychiatry at UCLA,” wrote his son. “He was a big man and he’d led a big life.”
     But the sunny rundown conveniently left out his work as an aggressive cult deprogrammer, his promotion of controversial ideas like chemical castration, psychosurgery and control of women’s menstrual cycles, his persistent philandering, or his plan, backed by Gov. Ronald Reagan, to create a top secret psi-war center in a former NIKE Missile base. He also didn’t mention the fact that West, who argued that Jack Ruby was being unnecessarily paranoid about his safety, was also one of the last people to interview Oswald’s killer before he became terminally ill. And nothing was said about his father’s top secret research.
     By the late 1970s, Pierce could recall little about his one-time psychiatrist beyond his nickname, Jolly, and not much more about his role during five months of involuntary commitment. As department chief the job definitely included prescribing drugs and dosages, along with the authority to recommend continued commitment or release. Yet he insisted vaguely there was even more. It took me years to untangle the web of connections. By then it was too late to make a difference.
     When Pierce first suspected that he was the target of covert harassment in 1955, West had already launched MKULTRA’s Subproject 43. Prior to that, he had worked with the Army on drinking and emotional problems among soldiers, studied the long-term impacts on prisoners of war, served as chief of psychiatry at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, and pushed for clinical research on the effects of tranquilizers at the University of Oklahoma.
     But the focus of Subproject 43 was different — the “psychobiology of the dissociated states and of hypnosis.” To that end, West worked with drugs that could speed hypnosis, or else provide an immunity from it. He also conducted sensory deprivation experiments that “yielded promising leads in terms of suggestibility and the production of trance-like states.” Those early experiments, he noted, suggested “that more control can be exerted over the autonomic nervous system than has been previously supposed.”
     West wanted to take his research further, however. “A psycho-physiological research team is being developed,” noted a status report. But “a unique lab must be constructed,” including a “special chamber in which all psychologically significant aspects of the environment can be controlled...In this setting the various hypnotic, pharmacologic, and sensory-environmental variables will be manipulated.”
     Was the lab established in Oklahoma? And could Pierce have been one of West’s unwitting subjects? It was impossible to prove, since thousands of MKULTRA files had been destroyed. But the research was consistent with Pierce’s descriptions and symptoms. Inspired by the interrogation techniques of the Chinese during the Korean War, West had learned that sleep deprivation, combined with hallucinogens like LSD, could be a “political weapon.” This wasn’t an explicit admission that he had conducted experiments in the field, but it came close. 
      Around the same time West ran his notorious, fatal LSD test with a 7,000 pound elephant.  It took that unwitting victim about two hours to die. The point of the experiment was to “enrage” the elephant into a charge purely by chemical means, apparently to determine if LSD would induce “musth,” a naturally occurring condition in which elephants become violent and uncontrollable.
     By 1962, he had been managing Subproject 43 with covert CIA funding for more than five years. It now included advanced LSD research, some of which confirmed ominously that “repeated large doses of LSD may lead to apparently irreversible personality changes.” The research also described how a psychosis might purposely be provoked. “Progressive sleep loss appears to cause a decreased capacity for integrating perceptions,” he explained. “The disorganizing effect of excessive wakefulness has been exploited in extorting false confessions from prisoners...Other experiences with sleep-deprived subjects suggest that fleeting hallucinations begin after two or three days without sleep.”
Jolly West around the time he treated Pierce
and accidentally killed an elephant with LSD
to see if he could chemically induce rage.
West’s seminal paper, “A Clinical and Theoretical Overview of Hallucinatory Phenomena,” reads like the culmination of a decade’s research. Drugs can be used as adjuncts to manipulation or assault, he concluded, in ways ranging from blackmail, addiction and kidnapping (where the drug renders a victim helpless) to “Manson-ism” (when a strong-willed psychopath manipulates followers made suggestible by drugs), law enforcement, and intelligence operations in which agents surreptitiously put LSD in a drink to obtain secrets, provoke a defection, or discredit an opponent.
     “The role of drugs in the exercise of internal political control is also coming under increased scrutiny,” West wrote. “Control can be imposed either through prohibition or supply.” While prohibition gives government considerable  power, he suggested that “a more affluent nation can afford to tolerate a large number of drug users in various circumstances.” Sometimes it is “more convenient and perhaps even more economical” to let people use hallucinogens, he advised, “if they are living apart, than if they are engaging in alternative modes of expressing their alienation, such as active, organized, vigorous political protest and dissent…. 
     “When tensions or hostilities arise, marijuana or hashish is quickly produced and passed around; the anger literally goes up in smoke.”
     His predictions proved to be off the mark, especially when applied to LSD. In 1960, as part of an LSD experiment at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital, the drug was given to novelist Ken Kesey. Big mistake. As Michael Pollan recounts in How to Change Your Mind, his book on the evolution of psychedelic science, Kesey subsequently launched his own experiments, a series of “Acid Tests” conducted with thousands of Bay Area young people. 
“To the extent that Ken Kesey and his Pranksters helped shape the new zeitgeist,” concludes Pollan, “a case can be made that the cultural upheaval we call the 1960s began with a CIA mind control experiment gone awry.”
     By late 1962, West was also refining his “perceptual release” theory of hallucinations. Life experiences leave permanent neural traces, he believed, but released perceptions do not become conscious hallucinations without a “general level of arousal” and some outside stimulation. To stimulate such perceptual release, reduce the sensory input while arousal remains high. The result is that “images originating within the rooms of our brains may be perceived as though they came from outside the windows of our senses.” 
     Pierce had no idea, then or ever, that his supervising doctor was a mind control expert, or that he had been a CIA-funded researcher for years, conducting precisely the kind of invasive experiments Pierce wrote and worried about. But he was determined to keep his medical records and detailed notes on what had happened to him. 

Previous chapters
One: Wrong Turn
FourChung's Way

Listen In, Listen Up: The People’s Republic Podcasts

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“Illiberalism — that’s one of the current euphemisms. It’s actually a global cultural counter revolution, an authoritarian surge, along with the emergence of a league of extraordinary despots. But it’s been coming for a while.” - October, 2019

Episode One: Upheaval and Realignment 

Listen to "The People’s Republic: Episode One" on Spreaker.
Episode #1 introduces the series and looks at some of the reasons why progressives in Vermont found themselves on the defensive just as Bernie Sanders was emerging nationally, poverty in the state, and the political evolution of Progressive leader Anthony Pollina.

Inquisitions — An Audio Drama in 3 Acts

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When national security and civil liberties are at odds, fundamental rights are often undermined or violated. “Inquisitions (and Other Un-American Activities)” explores this timely theme through a dramatic recreation of the Haymarket bombing in Chicago and other crackdowns on dissent. With the FBI interrogation of activist Lucy Parsons in 1919 at its center, Act 1 of the play takes listeners back to the birth of the movement for an eight-hour workday and the resulting violence in May 1886. Act 2  recreates the post-Haymarket show trial of eight German activists. The interrogation of Lucy Parsons continues — by a young J. Edgar Hoover — as she defends her controversial life. In Act 3, the trial concludes as capitalist oligarchs celebrate on a surrealistic dream train. Before her interrogation ends Lucy Parsons remembers her fight for clemency and the unjust hanging of her husband and comrades. Written by Greg Guma, directed by Bill Boardman, and produced by Catalyst Theatre.

Nonviolent Warriors

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“There is no moment better than now to remember what Dave Dellinger has stood for and to fight for it together, all of us — for peace and justice.” — Howard Zinn

In October 2001, artists and activists on the front lines of social change gathered in Vermont for a celebration. Together they also created this audio documentary on David Dellinger and the power of the people, with songs, poetry, dramatic readings, rare recordings, and personal reminiscences. Written and directed by Greg Guma.

PART ONE: Howard Zinn and Dennis Brutus recall their work with Dave and Elizabeth Peterson, the love of his life; songs by Rik Palieri, the Raging Grannies, and Dave’s grandson, Steve Sato; introductions, narration and dramatic readings from Dave’s youth by Doreen Kraft, Marvin Fishman, Gideon Turner, Al Salzman, Marc Awodey, Miriam Ward, Robin Lloyd and Dian Mueller. 

PART TWO: Staughton Lynd, Norma Becker, Ralph DiGia and Dave’s daughter Natasha Singer recall life in the movement; protest songs by Rik Palieri; introductions and narration by Greg Guma, Mannie Leonni, and Miriam Ward. 

PART THREE: Reminiscences by Arthur Kinoy, Francis Crowe and John Tucker; Dave Dellinger in Chicago, rare 1968 recordings; dramatic readings by Al Salzman, Dennis Brutus, Dian Mueller, Marc Awodey, Mark Montalban, Mannie Leonni, Marvin Fishman, Marmete Hayes, and Bob Nichols; 1960s anthems by Rik Palieri.

PART FOUR: Chicago 8 defendant John Froines remembers Dave’s leadership in the famous 1969 trial; lawyer Leonard Weinglass describes his return to Chicago 30 years later; Johanna Lawrenson describes his friendship with Abbie Hoffman; Ted Glick provides a poetic vision of his impacts; with final remarks by Dave, introductions by Greg Guma, and a choral performance by Bread & Puppet Theater.

Weekly Podcasts: Season One
(New podcasts in 2020)

Latest Episode
Listen to "The People’s Republic #2" on Spreaker.

# 7 Doomsday Scenarios   # 8 Watergate Blues   #9 Orwellian Days   
#10-12 Planet Pacifica: Managing Chaos   Growing Pains  Identity Crisis  

Listen to # 6: This Too Will Pass
Every day we get more examples showing how nothing is certain and almost everything is in flux. Trump may be a master con artist, but the harsh realities are piling up. This episode looks at culture war and progressive values, Bernie Sanders’ campaign chest, lost horizons at Pacifica Radio and Burlington College, resistance to the F-35s, and learning to live with the unexpected.  Theme music by Dave Lippman. 

Listen to #2:Breaking Up the Vermont Men’s Club
In this episode, Greg looks at Vermont’s record on women’s rights, some early struggles along the path to suffrage, and the limited progress in the century since. Plus...Burlington’s two other progressive mayors and the short life of Instant Run Off voting.

Bruno and Lorenzo: Two Italian Stories

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For several years, Greg has researched his family’s roots in Italy. In this episode, he presents some of what he has learned, beginning with thoughts on the region’s troubled history, then focusing on the story of two brothers — grandfather Bruno, who emigrated to the US in 1902 and became a successful businessman, and his more radical brother Lorenzo, an anti-fascist fighter who ultimately became mayor of Parenti, his hometown.

Inconvenient News

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In this episode, Greg looks into the state of America’s breakdown, the problem of Kentucky, rating Mueller’s performance, Vermont and the F-35s, Bernie Sanders and Cardi B, reviewing the Democratic Debate, and how Donald Trump and Sarah Palin paved the way for a new Dark Age.

Fake News: Journalism in the Age of Deceptions (audio book)

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Listen to other chapters or the complete text: EPISODES

This timely study, also available as a paperback and e-book, examines the challenges confronting journalism in a post-modern era characterized by fraud and scandal, questionable elections, corrupt leaders, and phony news. Greg argues that sophisticated tools are used by governments and private interests to promote false or misleading stories, messages and narratives. But when people repeatedly exposed to lies are confronted with the truth, too many double down and believe the lie even more. Chapters include The Big Picture, Can This Be Real?, Hoaxes & False Flags, Manufacturing Terror, Seeing Red with Reagan, Perception Management, Pizzagate & Post-Truth Politics, A Crisis of Facts, and Beyond the Bubbles.

Conspiracy Theories 

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In this episode, Greg examines the FBI’s new focus on conspiracy theories, beginning with the threats posed by QAnon and “deep state” paranoia. But he also goes deeper, questioning the government’s current response strategy, looking at some questions raised about HAARP and Wikileaks, and offering suggestions on how to navigate in an era of truth decay.

Permanent War Series 

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The Rise of TrumpWorld (2015) 
Fall, 2015: Before reality got lost somewhere, Mello Matt inquired during an on air phone interview, can Trump actually win? And is he really a fascist? Yes to both, Greg replied, but also part of a global cultural counter-revolution. This November 2015 segment from The Howie Rose Variety Show on WOMM begins with a story about meeting — and underestimating — Ronald Reagan in 1980, then moves on to presidential secrets, Trump-style fascism, and what the super-rich were warning before his election.

Listen to Permanent War  (2002)  
Installing the Shah, when Saddam was our guy, the Trilateral worldview and Bush league double talk — These are just a few of the topics covered in a rapid-fire, wide-ranging discussion. Recorded live in September 2002, it marked Greg’s first appearance on The Howie Rose Show, the start of a 15-year run on two Vermont radio stations. Opening with remarks about Dick Cheney’s recent Vermont visit, the segment looks at the roots of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, media spin, power bubbles, and the politics of distraction. With ambient background and Howie Rose regulars FP, Silvie, Phinn and Thomas. (Originally aired 9/20/2002) Also listen to other Howie Rose segments in this series. 

How Bernie Built the Movement

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Part One: Deconstructing a Revolution. As the 2020 presidential race heats up, Greg sits down with journalist Eliza Collins to discuss how the Sanders revolution began in Burlington, Vermont, his accomplishments as mayor, and how he has developed political coalitions that can win. This episode features stories about Burlington waterfront and downtown development — from the 1980s to today, Bernie’s relationships with unions and the peace movement, reform vs. revolution, and the danger of “friendly” fascism.

Listen to "Part Two: Vermont and the Inside-Outside Strategy" on Spreaker.
Part Two: Vermont and the Inside-Outside Strategy. As the 2020 presidential race heats up, Greg sits down with journalist Eliza Collins. In Part Two the discussion starts with Bernie’s 2020 strategy, priorities, and approach to socialism. Then the focus turns to  Vermont history, demographics and destiny, Bernie’s evolution in dealing with Democrats, why Republicans still become governor, and the movement’s accountability conundrum.

Listen to "How Bernie Built the Movement" on Spreaker.
Part Three: What Would Bernie Do. As the 2020 presidential race heats up, Greg sits down with journalist Eliza Collins. In Part Three he explains Bernie’s pragmatic populism, governing style, and the limits of change in Burlington during and after his years as mayor. He also offers some final insights on key initiatives in the 1980s, nuclear power and F-35s in Vermont, and the need for ongoing accountability.

Prisoners of the Real

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Getting World Wise: NATO after the Cold War, recognizing Angola, drug cartels take Central America, privatized smoking, and Hollywood’s addiction to spin offs, plus a musical US history lesson. Excerpts from one of Greg’s early news round ups, produced and broadcast in Los Angeles in 1993. With music by the Electric Flag, Bobby Lewis, the Capitols, and a special appearance by George Shrub, the singing CIA agent. 

Listen to Prisoners of the Real: From Here to Paradise 

From the Vault: Prisoners of the Real  — An odyssey in sound and thought. Recorded in 1992, this show incorporates ideas from Greg’s book, Prisoners of the Real, with a mix of jazz, folk, and world music. It’s core message: If we are going to rescue and transform human society, moving from the myopically “rational” to the liberating Dionysian, many of our psychic road maps have to be redrawn. The capacity for liberation is a latent possibility. But it may or may not become real. And one necessary step is honest reflection concerning our basic assumptions about ourselves.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

UNWITTING: The Secret War on William Pierce

When Vermonter William Pierce’s troubles began he had no solid evidence that mind control projects were being pursued by the government. But once MKULTRA documents were declassified in 1977 his personal experiences —from the McCarthy era to the Cuban missile crisis — began to look uncannily close to the CIA’s experiments. And when he was involuntarily committed in 1962, he found himself in the care of one of the leading MKULTRA doctors

By Greg Guma

Chapter One: Wrong Turn

He had nightmares when he was wide awake. Nervous and garrulous, he couldn’t resist running over the accomplishments in his past – prestigious places he had taught, famous scientists and intellectuals he had known, mathematical breakthroughs that had brought him early acclaim. 
     The words came fast and urgently as William Pierce struggled to sound confident about what he was saying. But at times he let out a small laugh that betrayed his underlying fears, mostly that he might come across as crazy.
     He was 57 when we first met. Once a gifted mathematician, a university professor with a Harvard Ph.D., and valedictorian of the 1943 University of Vermont graduating class, Pierce no longer looked very collegiate or professorial. Five foot three, out of shape and overweight, he shambled into the editorial office in a frayed, rumbled suit and had clearly been drinking.
     He had tracked me down at the Vermont Vanguard Press, the weekly paper I edited, after attending a talk about intelligence community abuses. The talk was mostly based on my investigation of FBI disinformation surrounding the arrest of a so-called “terrorist suspect” at the Canadian border. Pierce claimed he had an even more explosive story to tell.
     It wasn't difficult to verify his academic credentials and past employment. William A. Pierce had indeed been an academic star. Born in Lyndonville in 1921, he received the highest academic grades as a UVM undergraduate since John Dewey. After graduating in 1943 with an award for “unusual excellence in scholarship,” he was swept into World War II and served in the Navy at a Virginia proving ground until 1946. “I doubled as mathematician and church organist,” he recalled. After the war came three years at Harvard, where he taught and completed his doctorate.
     In 1950, attracted by “an excellent group of research scholars,” Pierce joined the Math Department at Syracuse University. But the City of Syracuse “was then a hotbed of anti-Communist activity,” he told me, “and the University was under considerable pressure to do something about ‘them reds on the faculty’ – especially the Jewish reds in the Math Department.”
     Syracuse was also the home of Laurence Johnson, supermarket chain owner and ardent enforcer of the McCarthy era blacklist. Johnson was widely known for threatening to place signs in his stores that warned customers not to buy the products of any company that sponsored a TV or radio program featuring one of "Stalin's little creatures." This meant anyone in Red Channels, a 213-page compilation of entertainers with alleged Communist links. 
     Some of the country’s largest corporations had bowed to Johnson’s pressure.
     A few months after Pierce arrival on campus, Dr. Donald Kibbey, acting Math Department chair, fired two members of the faculty for alleged activities in “controversial” political groups. Several other mathematicians submitted their resignations in solidarity, and one colleague, Professor Paul Rosenbloom, warned Pierce that he “was terribly wrong to stay at Syracuse.”
     Years later, Pierce chided himself for not seeking a teaching post elsewhere, as some of his colleagues did. “I was certainly untrue to myself,” he said. “It was the worst mistake I have ever made."  
     One reason was that the new math Chair wanted to reorient and rebuild his department “along security lines.” An early warning of the trouble ahead emerged during an argument between them. Pierce recalled Kibbey’s face literally turning red as he labeled Franklin Roosevelt a “crook” and accused Rosenbloom of being a Communist.  
     “At Harvard and Syracuse I was considered a left-winger,” Pierce admitted. “The label resulted partly from my membership in peace groups and opposition to the Cold War, but it was primarily my criticism of FBI investigations and security procedure in areas of human learning. There was some trouble, for instance, when I described Russian advances in certain fields of mathematics and science, and then urged that Americans wage a more effective, peaceable competition with the Soviet Union.”
     “Listen buddy,” one colleague snapped in response, “”if you don’t like your Uncle Sammy, get the hell back to Russia.”

Next: Naming Names

Friday, December 6, 2019

Succession Depression: Life After Trump?

Possibly. But it feels like we’ve been here before.
The Republicans ate roast beef. That was one of the facts I hoped to verify, along with this vital tidbit: The new President wore mismatched socks. According to sources close to his feet, he picked them out himself.

When I finally discovered the truth he was sitting just above me, tucked behind the dais in a university gym. He’d flown in to honor a retiring senator, one of many these days. The commander-in-chief ate his beef and vegetables in silent tribute.

I was crumpled with my phone beneath his table, only inches from his blue and green socks. Mission accomplished, I suppose. Anyway, about midway through the meal I pulled on his leg. He passed a baked potato and continued chatting with the other Republicans. I tugged again and he leaned down, ostensibly to retie a lace.

“Is Ukraine really your Watergate?” I teased.

“You’re lucky I’m still a friend of the press,” he replied. “Bless your heart.”

A few hours earlier, I’d watched Secret Service men manhandle journalists at the airport. The concrete walkway near the planes had become a frisking ground hours before the arrival of Air Force One. As one photographer reassembled his equipment, the blond agent who did the frisk leaned over him, rechecking every item. He looked like an Ivy leaguer who had joined the mob.

Flashing an outdated press card I edged past them. Then a rock-hard voice froze me in place: “PLEASE. MOVE. BEHIND. THAT. FENCE.”

The face connected to the warning looked like tooled leather left out in a storm. I smiled, shrugged, then began to focus my camera on the gaggle of government studs.

Leather Face immediately turned friendly. As much as he wanted to help, he lamented, he simply couldn’t let me through without the special pass I might obtain at the gym. But there I discovered that only ten reporters would be allowed to actually see the president. And all of them were cleared a week earlier. Of course, financial contributions provided almost guaranteed clearance.

After dinner, tonight’s guest of honor rambled on for the stuffed contributors. “This is the largest group who ever ate apple pie together,” he proclaimed. Right, a patriot’s Cochella.

Personally, I was still brooding over my rejection from the press pool. Yet I’d managed to slip into the gym within a bunch of tipsy politicos singing “Hail to the Chief.” Before dinner I ducked beneath the dais and crawled to the front of the hall.

When a pair of legs invaded my hideout I peeked up. Wings of karma! The man known to millions as the nation’s top un-indicted co-conspirator. A light cuff tug let him know I was there. No threat intended, I explained. My paper, Metesky’s* Monthly, was just looking for a personal angle.

While the Big Guy ate pie I reviewed my previous encounter with the SS. Pretty tight on the reins, I complained. “Whatever happened to openness and candor?”

He beckoned me closer with an index finger just below the table cloth. But as I edged forward he silently smeared the remains of his pie into my face with a smile and snapped, “Pass interception.”

Apparently, “openness and candor” had turned into “fun and games.” That said, the pie was tasty.

It had been quite a night already, beginning on the dying lawn of a Ramada Inn. Cop cars zipping back and forth nearby on the commercial strip. A circle of chilled resistors stamping across the grass, carrying signs, chanting to bemused tourists and assorted local gawkers. 

The center of dissent was about two dozen cloaked actors/activists who had come to speak and act out about war and amnesty (for immigrants, not officials) and the general state of emergency that the new boss had declared. Their leader was a gangly apparition, grey hair streaming to his shoulders. Other members of the troupe wore black and too much makeup. In a monotone they chanted, “Pence, Pence, it’s too late, Ukraine is your Watergate.”

But something was missing. Call it real conviction. Tear gas or helmet-headed shock troops might have provided the necessary adrenalin rush. As it was, the performance delivered dramatic tableaus. But not much actual drama. Snake-lining beneath red dragon fabric they eventually formed a totem pole frieze, then shouted truisms about fascism, capitalism and other isms that ought to be abolished. Not many watching took up the chants. 

Another old slogan popped into my mind. If only they had included “Two, four, six, eight, organize and smash the state.” But it did feel outdated in the age of tranquility. 

The performance ended after dusk. But the picket group core continued until a black limo carrying the Commander-in-Chief whizzed into the parking lot. Then the crowd surged forward. Eventually herded back to the front, they regrouped and restarted the chants. But the point was getting obscure. Why protest this accidental President? What did he represent, except possibly moral bankruptcy in its terminal form.

As if to echo the thought, one marcher asked, “How can you hate a banana?” That sounded right. Our new thief of state was indeed a strange political fruit, one with a pale, slippery skin that probably concealed a deeply rotten interior.

When Senator Magoo finally surrendered the podium the president leapt to his feet. It would probably be my last shot at an exclusive, so I yelled, “sir, what America is asking itself, does all that smiling hurt your face?”

Realizing he didn’t plan to answer I grabbed a leg, which sent his shoe skittering across the floor. An SS man lept from the front table and splayed himself over the footwear.

“Good save,” cheered the Prez. Then an aside, “You get used to this sort of thing.”

During his speech I did learn a few things. Very few. Here are two takeaways. When politicians talk the warm up is often as long as the speech. And, to be effective make a connection with the place being visited — even if you have to lie.

The new guy certainly had a way with words. I’m being ironic, but he did praise the “breadth and depth and greatness” of the honoree. He also explained that here was the only man he ever knew who could “go into a store with one dollar for four pounds of sugar and come back with change.”

“I am not a crook,” the old senator protested. After a while taking notes felt more like doodling than journalism.

Outside hundreds of people were hearing from several angry vets. The millions currently living underground were not likely to go along with the limited amnesty being offered, they explained. And pardoning the previous president, as well as his cronies? That was also a crime, one violating just about everyone’s sense of fair play. It felt like we had all been here before.

Despite the cold weather and dark sense of deja vu the resistance was optimistic. They were building a broad people’s movement, after all. And the president seemed to agree. But for him all this alternative political energy was a threat. “The politics of America is bound up in the two party system,” he warned. Exactly, bound and gagged.

“We fell into the pattern of the two party system,” he continued. And a lucky thing we did, since in countries with more than two there’s chaos, instability, and lack of direction. The choice is clear, he concluded with civics class simplicity. Loss of freedom with one party, or chaos with many.

After their book went to #1, Trump quit,
 made his escape, and bought part of North Korea.   
I couldn’t write down any more of this. My cheeks were streaked with tears. But I did finally understand. He was declaring war on independence in the name of stability and order. Thus, he called on stalwarts from both parties to join together and crush the threat of diversity. After all, how could congress function with more than two aisles, or more than two answers to any question? 

“Strengthen the twin pillars of democracy,” he urged. And what would that require? Sacrifice. Not again. I could feel a howl of pain spread across the nation. Haven’t we suffered enough? How about amnesty for the rest of us? Or maybe the Russian method. When dealing with “troubled” patients, just put them to sleep for a few weeks.

These days we’re all troubled patients, I thought. Maybe a sleep cure is just what we need. At least we’d save on gas. And many people would prefer a brief coma to another dose of sacrifice and responsibility.

But the Big Guy wasn’t listening. Instead, he was winding up with some nostalgia about the Continental Congress. After one early session, Benjamin Franklin reportedly told a spectator, “We have given you a Republic, if you can keep it.” 

All it took, added The Man, was sacrifice and vision. With an involuntary spasm, I bit my camera. The audience rose to cheer as I rolled out onto the floor. Seconds later the nearest SS man was hovering above. Grabbing both legs he began pulling me out of view. 

The cheers and standing ovation had meanwhile brought tears to the president’s eyes. Turning philosophical, he winked and said, “We have given you another Republican. But will you keep me?”

“Wait, check my credentials,” I protested, “I have references, good intentions. I’m registered to vote!” They dragged me out anyway. “Okay, okay, but just put me to sleep. Honestly, I came for the pie,” I pled hoarsely before blacking out. “But the main course in this place has made me sick.”

George Peter Metesky, (1903-1994), electrician and mechanic, anger and resentment icon, also known as the Mad Bomber.