Sunday, December 02, 2007

Gangster America

Spoiler Alert: I discuss some background about the feature film American Gangster of which you may not be aware before seeing the film. I myself wasn't fully aware of it, nor that the film dealt with it so, I wanted to forewarn readers who might wish to see the movie and enjoy finding out for themselves the many levels this excellent movie traverses.

There are a number of films this year being touted as Hollywood's reaction to the war and political crisis in Iraq and here at home. Most notable among these perhaps are Lions for Lambs, Rendition, and Charlie Wilson's War. The films critics and commentators probably will not and as of yet have not included on this list is Ridley Scott's American Gangster. Starring Denzel Washington, American Gangster is the story of Frank Lucas, heir apparent to Harlem organized crime leader Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson. Lucas would establish a heroin distribution network that outstripped any existing in the U.S. at the time, baffling New York police, federal narcotics enforcement, and competing organized crime operations.

It is not the story of Frank Lucas himself however, but its backdrop that warrants American Gangster's inclusion in, and placement at the top of the aforementioned list. It is the America of Vietnam and Nixon. An America still reeling in the wake of the civil rights struggle and the upheaval of national Jim Crow and international Jim Crow in the form of colonial rule. It was also an America led by an individual who by accounts of close advisors as well as his own audio recordings was perhaps the most powerful, drug/drink-addled paranoiac of the modern age. A man whose attempted heist of the U.S. presidency would precipitate his downfall. America was a gangster on foreign shores being led by no less than a gangster.

Through Lucas' story, we are reminded of Major General Smedley D. Butler, USMC, who wrote I was a racketeer. A gangster for capitalism. We are haunted by the warnings of former President and General Dwight D. Eisenhower who stated in his farewell address we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. Lucas' ascendancy to dominance of the Eastern U.S. heroin trade was facilitated by the U.S. military presence in southeast Asia during the Vietnam Conflict. In that way, legitimized gangsterism opened the path to more nefarious gangsterism. Exchange Abu Ghraib for Harlem housing projects, water-boarding for no knock warrant, BlackWater for Special Investigation Unit, War on Terror for War on Crime. Where war-making ends do war crimes begin, or is war-making itself the war crime?

The irony of Frank Lucas' story lies in its conclusion. The heroic efforts and character of Richie Roberts, New Jersey Detective and co-prosecuter in Lucas' case, ultimately brought Lucas to justice. Despite the years they spent as adversaries the two found more in common with each other than their respective peers. They bonded, and together uncovered and brought down one of the nations biggest police corruption scandals. Strangely enough, Robert's first case as a defense attorney would be that of Frank Lucas, defending Lucas against the very crimes for which he'd originally prosecuted him.

I hearken back to the whistle-blowers of the late 90's and early 00's. Their own steadfast integrity, crises of conscience, or both, coupled with herculean struggle called to account some of our country's most powerful organizations including Enron, WorldCom, big tobacco (ironically featured in another Russel Crowe film, The Insider), and the FBI. It is a parallel I can only hope and pray continues into our present day as another gangster presidential administration winds to its own conclusion. If only that means we too will conclude our collective chapter as American Gangsters. That the Lucases and a Roberts, or other Insiders within us will come to the fore. Maybe then can we finally enter our own second act and call to account the gangsters whom we as a nation - in politics, business, military, religion and other global affairs - have ourselves supported and/or created.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

A Screed of Blogs: Collective Nouns Revisited

In honor of James Lipton's appearance on NPR's Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me. Lipton wrote the classic compendium of collective nouns An Exaltation of Larks. Mr. Lipton, here are my submissions should you ever decide to do an update:

U.S. Politics

  • Congress-persons: A lout of congress-persons.
  • Democrats: A simpering of Democrats.
  • Environmentalists: An ostentation of environmentalists (my apologies to the ostentatious-ostentation of environmentalist peacocks everywhere).
  • Lobbyists: A usurpation of lobbyists.
  • Polls: A babel of polls.
  • Republicans: A bluster of Republicans.
  • Senators: A quibble of senators.
  • Voters: An exasperation of voters.

World Politics

  • Allies: A fluster of allies.
  • Contractors: A fusillade of contractors.
  • Dictators: A scrotum of dictators.
  • G8 Leaders: A crust of G8 leaders.
  • Opposition Parties: A squelch of opposition parties.
  • Peace Accords: A phantom of peace accords.
  • Summits: A fog of summits.
  • War Crimes: A roost of war crimes.


  • Blogs: A screed of blogs.
  • Bloggers: An excretion of bloggers ;-)
  • Internet Porn: A tumescence of internet porn.
  • Medical Experts: A quack of medical experts.
  • Podcasts: A tympany of podcasts.
  • Previews: An molestation of previews.
  • Pundits: A carbuncle of pundits.
  • Reality Shows: A desperation of reality shows.
  • Talking Heads: A bobble of talking heads.