Howard W. Campbell, Jr. is the central figure in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1962 novel Mother Night. Campbell is an American by birth who comes of age in Germany between the wars after his father is relocated for work.
When his parents move back to the United States, Campbell — now as fluent in German as he is in English — remains in Berlin. He makes a living as a playwright and marries a suitably Aryan woman (her father is chief of police) with whom he is passionately in love.
Entirely and almost narcissistically apolitical, Campbell learns that leading Nazis admire his plays, and as conflict again draws near, he is approached by Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda ministry, where soon he is employed, eventually becoming the wartime radio voice of American pro-Nazism — think Tokyo Rose, Lord Haw-Haw and Axis Sally.
However, just before the onset of open hostilities, Campbell encounters a mysterious American from the War Department named Frank Wirtanen who urges him to become a double agent. At first Campbell refuses, but later changes his mind.
Consequently, throughout World War II, in the act of broadcasting on behalf of the Nazis, Campbell regularly passes coded messages to American listeners by means of deliberate pauses, coughs and other audible signals. He never knows exactly what information he is conveying; he merely conveys it via these artful inserts.
In other words, the fictional double agent Howard W. Campbell, Jr. manages to transmit crucial facts in the struggle against fascism while using neither words nor pictures. No essays, memes, polemics, or Photo Shop cleverness. Not even numbered ciphers. Only sounds and cadences, an inflection or two, the clearing of the throat — maybe a purposeful mispronunciation.
I need a crash course in this covert and subtle way of communicating because it seems I’m back in lockdown when it comes to (clicks tongue) about (wheezes), not to mention (hums opening chord of Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind”) and (hiccups).
Did you catch all that?
Remember the Chinese guy with the bag facing the line of tanks 31 years ago in Tiananmen Square?
Substitute “Hauss” for “Tiananmen” and replace the sack with a six-pack of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense Ale, and that’s me in Nawbany. Everything I do and say is being watched, even when I’ve done and said nothing. Even my silence speaks volumes.
Therefore, in an ill-fated effort to avoid the summer’s newfound HEAT from (taps Keith Moon’s signature drum roll from “I Can’t Explain” on the microphone stand), I’ve been hammering the other side of the political aisle with nasty polemics … as with this tweet.
Welcome to 2020, when the rapturous tones of the GOP’s robber baron capitalist death cult blossom into fun and games for all. “Die for Jesus and the economy” doesn’t have quite the pull of “Remember the Alamo,” but they don’t write or read, do they?
After all, I actually AM a socialist, and maybe if some harsh invective is hurled against the Right, the Left will give me a reprieve, except they don’t, and even more obtusely, in spite of it all, I continue to have marvelous conversations with local Republicans, with whom I often disagree — but yet we’re able to chat substantively in a fashion eschewed by the (lisp), who (oink oink) and grease the trap door.
Tanks for nothing. It is highly frustrating, and tantamount to a sort of exile-in-place. There are so many things going unaddressed that I want to write about, but unless — wait a minute — what’s that monotonous sound, the whirring from high up … damn, there’s a helicopter right above the house, and footfalls on the ceiling …
There are some Swedish meatballs in the fridge if anyone’s hungry.
Let’s play a different game.
If I were to begin a column with just this small list of titles, entirely alone and without explanation, what sort of point do you think I’d be trying to make?
Death Throes of the Dipshits
Nadir for the Know Nothings
Twilight on the Turds
Plainly there’s not enough information to judge, but you would, anyway. You’d automatically think it had something to do with that politician fellow whose name I can’t mention aloud for fear of the first tank operator deciding to drop it into gear.
For your information, these three titles refer to my forthcoming book about the GOP’s numerous self-inflicted wounds, something that should endear me to the area Biden cadres.
As a side note, I’ve been resting my speaking voice for more than three months, imagining that it might enable me to sing Freddie Mercury’s parts.
It didn’t work, either.
Six months have passed since my first column of 2020, which dropped on January 2. Here’s a quick recap.
… For a very long time I’ve been threatening to alter my terms of engagement and involvement with local affairs. Admittedly, these previous resolutions have been miserable failures. As with the fictional mobster Michael Corleone, just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.
More accurately, I willfully pull myself back in, but not this time.
After 15 years, it’s time for a real sabbatical, at least six months to start and then with various options for renewal.
I couldn’t have selected a more chaotic juncture to issue myself a report card. Looking back from where we are right now, January seems like an Eden-like vignette from another dimension on a different planet.
Since I wrote the above words America has experienced the onset of a pandemic, courtesy of a nasty novel virus, at first encroaching and then exploding. COVID has settled in for a long stay, and rather than deal with it in any coherent fashion, we’ve leaped with both feet into an unprecedented, hopeful movement to at last deal with racial and social justice – and, of course, what’s hopeful from one perspective is brutally reactionary in another.
Boy, is it. But we don’t have problems like these in Nawbany, you know, like in those OTHER places.
Did I mention that as these happenings have rendered the country even more divided and fractious than before, we still have a presidential election to contest?
Listen, contrary to popular opinion I believe my sabbatical has gone quite well, thank you. The sabbatical has been so marvelous that it’s being renewed through year’s end, because the problem remains as it was when I penned the year’s first column: there’s nothing one can do when there’s nothing to be done.
And when they all have such abysmally thin skins.
My disengagement has proceeded swimmingly. I haven’t attended any city council or bored with works meetings, either live or via Zoom. Mentions about key elected officials have been reduced 80% or more at this portal. By and large I’m resisting the temptation to comment about the chicanery and corruption. When I have, they’ve been shadows of my former brilliance.
I’ve been a good boy, overall. The clique has to be delighted. They’ve blocked, muted and systematically excluded me from public dialogue, and I’ve voluntarily accepted their verdict.
I’m no longer a factor. Why, then, are the engines revving again?
But it’s okay.
Admittedly there are times when it isn’t easy living with the Groucho creed (“I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member”). Silence, whether voluntary or enforced, is little more than tacit acknowledgment of patience; one cannot come back without first going away.