Monthly Archives: January 2012

New Kids On the Block: Whistling Princess brings vintage style downtown.


The historic W.A. Knight Building has been through several incarnations since it was built back in 1926. The upper floors currently houses some of the most interesting apartment-spaces in the city’s urban core, while its ground-floor was best-known as the home of Chew, one of the city’s best restaurants and anchor in the mini-renaissance that’s happened downtown over the past decade. But now, with Chew closed, destined for relocation into the new complex being built by its owners in Five Points, Adams Street now sees its identity changing.

The newest addition to Adams Street is the Whistling Princess, which proprietor Lynn Alaia describes as a “boutique thrift-store”. For years, Alaia (who also works right around the corner at Chamblin Uptown) has evolved her hobby of collecting vintage clothing into a viable business, run through her store, “ThriftShark”. It’s a more than just a nickname for her—it’s a brand. She spends countless hours scouring the region’s thrift-stores, estate sales, etc. (usually while wearing gloves) in search of the kind of unique and valuable rarities she stocks online. Over time, the stock overwhelmed her Riverside apartment, so she decided to put some of it into a store-front, which saved her space at home while opening new avenues to promote and expand upon the online business. Sitting just yards away from Laura Street, it would be almost impossible to find a more highly-visible location.

Whistling Princess appeals to the same clientele, but with an emphasis on accessibility and rapid turnover. Most items in the store cost less than $20, and nothing costs more than $40. There will be bins of items for $5 and even just $1; there are rumors that they might actually have a bin of free stuff, which can only be had if the customer consents to be photographed wearing it out of the store. (I suggested calling it “the Blackmail Bin”.)

The store also carries items from Burro Bags, as well as jewelry hand-made by Rayna Reichstadter (who also maintains an Etsy store: “BijuBee”); her husband Richard is caretaker of the building and a driving force behind many of the art-shows, concerts and such featured in the space to-date. With his father and brother both veteran jewelers themselves, it’s no surprise that his wife has taken to the art so adeptly, and in less than a year, at that. They will also be hosting monthly vegan dinners prepared by Dig Foods, whose products have already attracted a passionate following from working ArtWalk in the same space. It will instructive to see how this project proceeds through 2012.; January 19, 2012

Notes on 9/11, 1998 and the 2012 Election


Notes on 9/11 and the 2012 race

1998 was a long time ago—13 years, to be exact. It was an entirely different world then; the physical dimensions are the same, the topography has been only slightly altered, and the water and air aren’t that much filthier than they were—except in certain parts of China, Mexico and everywhere else. One thing that has changed dramatically, though, is the way people think about the world, especially in the United States and Europe. There were, to be sure, mass quantities of what actor/musician Tricky called “pre-millennium tension”, small wars and mild recessions, and individual concerns always abound, but folks were generally wildly optimistic about what awaited their country and the world in the new century ahead.

“Optimistic” is not the optimal word to describe how people are feeling now. Things have changed a little bit, thanks to 19 men who, on September 11, 2001 used four hijacked planes to set all-time records (in both individual and team categories) for the fastest time a human soul was sent directly to Hell. They didn’t just hijack planes; they hijacked the future of the entire human race, beginning with the United States itself. All the hard work of the post-war era to build the greatest economy ever, the strongest military in history, the most awesome industrial, agricultural and technological force that ever has or ever possibly could exist on this Earth again—all backed by delicate interlocking diplomatic and trade relations that our nation has been developing since the days of Patton—was undone in ten years flat.

How? For years, America’s enemies openly theorized and strategized about how to break our control over their affairs. Eventually, Osama bin Laden and “al-Qaeda” (whatever the hell it actually is) came along and developed a plan to make this country break itself by drawing it into a war of attrition that would a) bleed the US economy, b) drive a wedge between the US and its allies, and c) provide cover for further attacks against other targets. This is not conspiracy theory; these are their own words, but I would advise you against trying to look it up.

It’s highly unlikely that the billionaire guerilla warfare experts did not scout their enemy and figure the context in which their action and the repercussions would occur. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were probably of no strategic value to al-Qaeda at all, other than getting rid of mutual foe Saddam Hussein; they even game-planned for that by placing Zarqawi in Iraq well in advance of the war. No doubt alliances were formed and friendships made in those places, but it’s unlikely that suicidal, homicidal, genocidal madmen would really be all that concerned for collateral damage; they’ve pretty much made that clear.

On the whole, though, holding that territory or protecting the people there was never a priority; the point was to make America spend money and political capital they knew could not be sustained for very long. How did they know? Because everyone in America knew. The need for balanced budgets, to reign-in spending and pay-down debt, to press for peace in the Middle East (while eschewing nation-building) and to crack down on predatory violence in the streets of our own country, was uniformly acknowledged by both nominees in that ridiculous 2000 election, and Bush came into office on a similar track as both presidents before him. But 9/11 put an end to all that.

Now, how exactly does 9/11 this relate to the 2012 presidential election, and what do either of them have to do with the year 1998? Good question. Basically, as the events of 9/11 must necessarily continue to shape the political future of our country, so too should they stand as a window through which can see the past anew. In the years leading up to the 2001, the biggest issue in American politics was the impeachment of Bill Clinton. So fully did this story occupy the business of government, it became a major issue in the 2000 election, by way of a distracting debate on “values” that helped swing the race toward the Bush—which was the point all along. Congressional Republicans never seriously thought removing Clinton was possible, but they correctly figured it could be used as a wedge to weaken Democrats and smooth the way toward an eventual retaking of the White House.

The last years of the Clinton era were helmed by a lame-duck president whose credibility had been sapped so badly that even his ill-fated retaliatory strikes against al-Qaeda in 1998 were dismissed, by many observers, as a distraction from his impeachment. Bush then took office under a cloud of electoral drama, and was not even considered the legitimate President by much of the world until 9/11 galvanized support for America and allowed him to consolidate power, in a form that held for five years. In other words, the United States had a significant power vacuum that opened on January 16, 1998 (the day the Lewinsky story hit the media) and did not finally close until 9/11. That three-and-a-half year period (in particular, those last 24 months of the Clinton era) was the time in which government intervention could have possibly prevented the massive terrorist strikes that eventually took place.

The historical record now reflects that multiple individuals, working independently of each other in different branches of government and law-enforcement, most of whom had zero knowledge of the others’ existence, discovered aspects of the 9/11 plot as well as some of the people involved in its planning and execution. The record also reflects that, in pretty much all cases, their efforts to expand their investigations were scuttled. Now, there is no evidence of any willful negligence by the assorted functionaries implicated in all this, so one can presume that all these different requests were denied because their superiors thought it just wasn’t that important. There was no unified, coherent counter-terror message coming from government prior to 9/11, despite clear evidence (such as a steady, consistent escalation of the size, scope and audacity of previous attacks) that something was coming.

Why? Because the time, energies and mental resources of our political and media class in that period were almost totally wrapped-up in the impeachment of Bill Clinton on spurious, non-essential charges unrelated to his actual functionality as President. Given that the ranking House and Senate members who allowed that charade to proceed were also among the same ones who received the highly-classified briefings that documented the growing threat in the 1990s, one is inclined to ascribe some level of incompetence to their conduct. One is further inclined to hope that anyone involved in pushing the impeachment hype would be forever disqualified from ever holding public office again, or at least the Presidency.

By the time of Florida’s GOP primary on January 31, the field will have been narrowed down to four main candidates: Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and front-runner Mitt Romney. Of these four, Romney (who was in the private sector back then) is the only one who had no role whatsoever in the impeachment hype, and as such is the only Republican in this field worthy of anything resembling an endorsement. Indeed, while Paul is a perpetual candidate, one with no obvious intent of ever becoming president, the presence of Gingrich and Santorum in the race is an unpleasant reminder of the days when America laid down for terrorism.

As Speaker Of the House, Newt Gingrich holds more responsibility than almost anyone else to force the impeachment process to its embarrassing conclusion. In fact, it could be said that the only good thing to come out of the impeachment debacle is that it precipitated the end of Gingrich’s career in public service. The man’s third act could bring the curtain down on our entire way of life, and if it does, it will be our fault for not having seen it coming.; January 13, 2012

Notes on Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)


[I dashed this off a couple weeks ago, right after he died. It is incomplete because there’s more to be said about the guy than time permits, so until I find myself randomly revising this during idle moments in the weeks ahead, this must stand as my meager contribution to the heaping helpings of hagiography served up by the Hackosphere since Hitch took leave–or, to borrow a phrase of Gore Vidal’s, “dropped the feather”. Resquesciat in pace]


From a personal standpoint, it’s very difficult to explain in detail the importance of Christopher Hitchens on my own career as a journalist and part-time polemicist, nor to capture concisely in words my feelings after watching (from a fan’s distance) his 18-month progression toward the grave, which ended just last week. I recall some writer, whose name escapes me, joking once to the effect that cancer had perhaps overestimated its latest opponent.

See that? When writing about “Hitch”, one immediately and unconsciously lapses into that most-unique narrative voice of his. Most political writers’ work betrays the improvisational aspects of the job: You can almost see their thoughts forming, in real-time, as they make their way down the page. It was different with Hitchens, whose work always read as if his thoughts were fully-formed, elucidated ever so briefly and breezily in those narrow gaps between his vibrant social life. It’s a testament to his skills that he was able to get any work done at all, with his drinking, traveling and constant whirl of activity. He wrote faster, better, and in greater volume than pretty much any writer of his generation, and the majority of his peers have been honest enough to admit as much.

Did Hitchens make mistakes? Did he put forth views on major issues that were perhaps wrong, silly, dangerously misinformed? Of course. The numbers game works against all writers in that regard; show me a political writer whose career was not marked by controversy at some point or another, and I’ll show you a quivering mediocrity of the sort that predominates in DC. The Beltway crowd was never quite comfortable with an expat enfant terrible who could barely bother to pretend the rest were in his league. It takes a lot of moxie to rise to the top of such a ruthless, insular business. These guys guard their spots like functionaries in a dictatorship, and view all outsiders not just as threats, but existential threats.

Key to the elite media attacks on Hitchens’ Iraq stance was the notion that his word, alone, was sufficient to sway the masses in his direction. It presumes that Hitchens’ readers took the opinions of a professional skeptic as gospel-truth, and made no effort to develop their own through the sort of independent research Hitchens would tend to advocate. Rooted in this critique is the thinly-veiled contempt elite media has for its audience, not to mention a sort of jealousy at the general ease and skill with which Hitch performed—on stage, on the page and on TV.

In the parlance of hip-hop, Hitchens went out hard. The cancer was diagnosed early in the promotional tour for his memoir, the sublime Hitch-22 (my favorite book of 2010); he kept up a full writing schedule until about a month before he died. His last Salon piece was published on November 28; his (unacknowledged) farewell to Vanity Fair was done around this time, went online with his death, and will appear in January’s print edition. Arguably was published just a couple of months ago—a thick collection of essays from the last decade of his career, was the last book published in his lifetime. It remains unclear, at this point, how much posthumous writing he left behind, if any. There were rumors that he was working on a book about his battle with the disease that claimed his life, but I’ve heard nothing to indicate that he ever actually got around to starting it, let alone finishing it.

Big Top Brawl: Ringling Bros. sparks protests over elephant abuse (with a lengthy disgression related to the depravity of SeaWorld).


Hey, kids: The circus is coming to town! I bet you can’t wait, right? Sure. It is reasonable to assume that we have all had some type of fascination with circuses at some time in our lives, and why not? The visual spectacle of exotic animals and aerial artistry makes a profound impact on the minds of kids; for most, it is the first truly huge, overwhelmingly awesome event of their lives. For most people, it’s just a passing fancy, a relic of childhood soon displaced in our minds by visions of comely contortionists, chicken geekery and other Jim Rose-style freaky, while many are instantly hooked, and remain so forever.

Either way, the circus facilitates our collective introduction into the carny arts and ignites a creative spark that never really goes away. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is the gold-standard of such operations, and it rarely fails to draw rapturous crowds as it packs every venue it hits on the road. A business that began in rickety canvas tents, waterproofed with highly-flammable chemicals, now commands top dollar in some of America’s biggest and most-prestigious arenas, from Madison Square Garden on down. Fans come from miles around for the acrobats and the clowns, but what really masses the marks are the animal acts—specifically, the lions, tigers and elephants. It is this, the most popular aspect of their operation, that has proven the most controversial, and a local organization is working to make sure their latest visit to Northeast Florida does not come off without a hitch.

Jax Protest takes a narrow, specific focus on what they characterize as the maltreatment of elephants trained to perform under the big top. Their website is replete with relevant data, as well as pictures that speak for themselves. “For animals in circuses,” they write, “there is no such thing as ‘positive reinforcement’—only varying degrees of punishment and deprivation. To force them to perform these meaningless and physically uncomfortable tricks, trainers use whips, tight collars, muzzles, electric prods, bullhooks and other painful tools of the trade. In the Ringling Bros. circus, elephants are beaten, hit, prodded and jabbed with sharp hooks, sometimes until bloody. Ringling breaks the spirit of elephants when they’re vulnerable babies who should still be with their mothers.” Brutal stuff, all of which Ringling denies, of course.

The group denounces Ringling not only for the harshness of their training methods, but also for the conditions in which the animals are forced to live, work and travel: “Constant travel means that animals are confined to boxcars, trailers, or trucks for days at a time in extremely hot and cold weather … Elephants, big cats, bears, and primates are confined to cramped and filthy cages in which they eat, drink, sleep, defecate, and urinate—all in the same place. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus boasts that its two units travel more than 25,000 miles as the circus tours the country for 11 months each year. Ringling’s own documents reveal that on average, elephants are chained for more than 26 hours straight and are sometimes continually chained for as many as 60 to 100 hours.”

“JaxProtest members are a 100% volunteer group,” they write. “We come together to help those who have no voice. We are teachers, MMA fighters, web designers, stay at home mothers, retired military, students and everyone in between.” The group plans to protest all seven of Ringling Bros. planned performances at the Veterans Memorial Arena downtown, which are spread out over four days between January 19 and 22. To this end, they have partnered with like-minded organizations like the Girls Gone Green, the Animal Rights Foundation and OccupyJax. Headhunter Muai Thai also supports Jax Protest; the fact that some of its members train there makes for a nice counter to the widespread perception of animal-rights activists as, well, geeks. (They’re in the Relson Gracie Academy on Beach Blvd., and worth checking out.) It also makes sense, given the elephant’s prominent positioning within Thai culture. Another collaborator, the Lotus Elephant Sanctuary, has gone so far as to begin preparations to establish its own wild elephant preserve in Laos.

I’m not much of a circus fan (though I do try to catch the awesome all-black Universoul Circus on their yearly swing through the area). While the animal-rights aspect of the argument is plenty compelling, for me the issue pivots on the question of children’s rights—specifically, the right to not be traumatized by these periodic animal freak-out sessions that have, on occasion, been precipitated by the mistreatment of animals. If an animal ran amok in the crowd or maimed its handler in the presence of kids, that outfit should be banned from that particular city forever, and investigations should immediately commence into any possible causalities. Ringling has a responsibility to lead on this issue, so that smaller circuses cannot use any laxity up-top as an excuse for failure down below.

Ringling has so far been able to avoid the disgusting, depraved moral and ethical lapses of SeaWorld, whose executives are some of the biggest pieces of scumbag trash anywhere in the United States today—and if you know any of them, please tell them I said so! The Tilikum debacle should have been sufficient to shut the whole thing down. Instead they were able the a) basically bury the negligent homicide of their own employee by claiming the victim got herself killed through her own incompetence, then b) keep a killer whale known to be lethally-dangerous to its own species and to people (including its closest human companion) performing for the public, whose children will absolutely be forced to watch that thing kill again, on their dime.

Ringling Brothers should be mindful of the piss-poor example set by SeaWorld (not to be confused with “Sea World”, an entirely unrelated Australian company that does pretty much the exact same thing, but better and safer—they like to make that clear). Tilikum was born in the wild, abducted at age two, separated from his family and forced to live with older, non-related orcas that physically abused him on a regular basis. He was trained at Sealand in Canada, using methods that included deliberate starvation, and perhaps worse.

It was there where he killed a 20 year-old female trainer in 1991; it was deemed it an accident—he didn’t do it, he just helped the others do it—and they kept him working. Like a pedophile priest, he was transferred—appropriately enough, to Florida, a state that openly, gleefully encourages the presence of all violent predatory animals, even those that aren’t human. Whether his history raised any red flags, or whether his new handlers were even informed of that history, remains unclear, but since this is Florida we can presume they did know, and just didn’t care. Well, obviously, they don’t care, and never did—we have the public record to tell us that.

They found a man’s naked body in his tank in 1999. SeaWorld said the guy sneaked in drunk, which implies that they kept a known killer under such lax protection that someone could get into the tank when the park was closed, even if they were drunk and naked. Luckily, it was not some intrepid pipsqueak looking to get a closer look at the beautiful orca, or a terrorist hoping to channel Tilikum’s insane killing power for jihad. His third killing, in 2010, fit the modus operandi of the first: grabbed by the orca and thrown around the pool until dead. Dawn Brancheau was a 16-year veteran who knew this beast better than anyone, so she didn’t die quick, unfortunately for her; her jaw, ribs and neck were broken and her spinal cord severed before she drowned, paralyzed, at the bottom.

At least a dozen people had to watch that woman die, but were powerless to save her. It was SeaWorld’s job to keep her safe, and they neglected that duty so profoundly that the park’s continued existence is a disgrace. Brancheau should be a martyr for workplace safety, and the video of her death should be made public, so Americans will understand the pressing need to put these people out of business. Instead, OSHA issued a whitewashed report, a bullshit $75,000 fine, and Tilikum was back entertaining the masses a year later. As the kids say, “OMG!” Suffice to say SeaWorld is so depraved, even Tommy Lee has voiced concerns.

Among the dozens of serious attacks on humans by killer whales, only one has happened in the wild, and that was in 1972. Either the captivity contributes to the aggression, or humans have somehow successfully captured only the most violent specimens. One should note here that Tilikum, who’s spent 28 of his 30 years captive, is himself implicated in 75% of all documented human deaths related to orcas, which makes a compelling case for causalityg. In this increasingly unstable economy, all it takes is one unfortunate incident to torpedo a company, even one as big, as rich and as historic as the Greatest Show On Earth. Just one more elephant, or a single overly aggressive lion, could do to the entire circus industry what fires, economic depression, two world wars and brutal train-wrecks could not: Kill business forever. So, it’s probably best not to beat them, right? Sure. We’ll see how that works out for them.; January 2, 2012