Sunday, February 24, 2008

John Grisham is a d--

darn good writer. There's another four-letter d word, one that's become the apotheosis of cultural criticism. Jon Stewart is guaranteed a laugh every time he calls someone a "dick." I like the Daily Show; some of the sketches are remarkable. Even just calling the war "mess-o-potamia" is clever. But why is it hysterically funny to label someone a dick, when there are so many more sophisticated ways to be funny?

Maybe it's because we are so desperate to be noticed. We're so desperate that in the blogosphere we will say anything outrageous to get attention. I personally don't do well with posts that are slap-happy, insulting, or contain sexual innuendo, but that's me, the dinosaur. I realized after reading Sarah Boxer's review of books on blogging in the New York Review of Books that I actually belong in the Japanese blogosphere, not the Outfit. Apparently, back in the year dot when blogs first came along, they were primarily information tools--the goal was to send people out, not bring them in.

In Japan, which has the majority of blog posts in the modern world, the tone is "polite and self-effacing." Many posts offer how to's, like "karaoke for shy people." Here in the good old Us of A, we want to be found. Boxer says, Now that fame and links are one and the same, there are bloggers out there who will do practically anything— start rumors, tell lies, pick fights, create fake personas, and post embarrassing videos—to get noticed and linked to. They are, in the parlance of the blogosphere, "link whores." And those who succeed are blog celebrities, or "blogebrities." So my headline is a blatant effort to get traffic to the Outfit site. Sigh.

There is another way to run a railroad."Beppe's Inferno," in the February 4 New Yorker, talks about ways that an Italian stand-up comedian, has turned in his television show for the blogosphere. What he has to say about Italian politics and Italian business are so loaded with true dynamite--meaning fact-checked, not wild rumors hoping to be found--that he is barred from performing on television; many newspapers won't accept advertising from him. He is creating a home on the Web, and is using it so forcefully that he has hundreds of thousands of readers willing to take action against the corruption that's destroying their lives, their jobs and the Italian government itself. Unfortunately, the New Yorker doesn't let you link to their archives; I'm not sure this Lexis-Nexis link will get you there.

Som excerpts:

Grillo has galvanized Italians by talking about corruption with irreverence and humor-indeed, by talking about it at all. The country's mainstream press is controlled, or owned outright, by political parties and corporations, whose malfeasance tends to be glossed over or ignored on television and in newspapers. (Grillo is organizing another V-Day, to be held on April 25th, to protest the subservience of the press.) Journalists who write about corruption face the constant threat of libel suits. Grillo has won a dozen such suits and is facing at least four more, including one for about fifteen million dollars in damages, brought against him by Biagio Agnes, the former director of Stet, then the national telecommunications company. (Grillo criticized Agnes, during a comedy show in 1993, for dishonest business practices.) Since 2005, however, he has addressed the public primarily through his blog, at beppegrillo.it, which, according to Technorati, the leading search engine for blogs, is the eighth most read in the world. Here Grillo not only denounces political wrongdoing but runs something of a parallel government, complete with a cabinet of volunteer policy advisers, including the architect Renzo Piano, the actor and playwright Dario Fo, and the economist Joseph Stiglitz, who wrote the preface to a book Grillo recently published online about Italian labor law. ...

"This guy showed up, wearing clogs and a backpack, and he told me about the toothbrush cycle," Grillo said. "How when you throw away your PVC toothbrush it gets incinerated, and its chlorine becomes dioxin and goes into the air. The air brings it out over the sea; it rains, and the dioxin goes into the plankton. The fish eat the plankton, and you go to a restaurant and order up a nice sea bass for fifty euros, and you've just eaten your toothbrush. It was beautiful, this image of everything you throw away coming back to you! It was a global vision of economics and society, which had escaped me until then."

Grillo's comedy was already becoming more pointedly political, and RAI attempted, with little success, to rein him in. "Censorship back then wasn't brutal and threatening, the way it is today," Grillo says. "If you were absolutely forbidden to say something, you found a way to say it so that people caught on too late." In 1981, Italian magistrates had discovered the existence of a Masonic lodge called P2-the "P" was for "propaganda"-whose members included prominent politicians, judges, industrialists, and secret-service officers. Several were later implicated in financial frauds, Mafia-related murders, or right-wing terrorist bombings. The discovery of P2 was one of the greatest scandals of postwar Italy, and RAI executives warned Grillo not to speak about it on television. So he wrote about it instead. In 1983, he brought a blackboard and a piece of chalk onto the set and composed an elaborate "P2 theorem," which demonstrated the existence of the lodge and the membership in it of Pietro Longo, a leading politician. In 1986, Bettino Craxi, Italy's Socialist Prime Minister, made a state visit to China, and on TV Grillo imagined an aide asking the Prime Minister, "If everyone's a Socialist down here, who do they steal from?" Craxi protested to RAI, and Grillo was effectively banned from television until Craxi resigned as the leader of the Socialist Party, in 1993. (Craxi was indicted on corruption charges and accused of taking billions of lire in bribes. He escaped prosecution by fleeing to Tunisia, where he died in exile in 2000.)

After Grillo lost his television job, he created a comedy show and took it on the road, performing in small towns where famous entertainers had rarely appeared before. Instead of standing on a stage, he walked among his audience, trailed by a video camera that projected his image on a screen at the front of the theatre-a technique that he still uses today. "I touch them, I make them smell me-I want to get into their minds physically," Grillo told me.

In a television appearance in 1993, Grillo had revealed that SIP, the national telephone company at the time, was using erotic and astrological chat lines to generate illegal tax-free income abroad. Soon afterward, Cordova opened an investigation, and arrested twenty-two people who had licensed phone numbers from SIP. Now Cordova wanted to know how Grillo had discovered the scheme, and whether he had any more information about it. "I said to Cordova, 'Well, I found out because the companies involved are publicly traded, and their documents are in the public domain. It's not like you have to do something outrageous to get them.' " Grillo had been alerted to the scam by fans who sent him their telephone bills, which included charges for calls to chat lines that they said they hadn't made. With the help of Vincenzo Dona, a leader of a consumer-protection association, Grillo pieced together the complex network of holding companies involved in the fraud, and uncovered the mechanism by which the telephone calls were made to appear to the dialer to be international while being routed to a location in Italy.

Grillo undertook other investigations, acting on tips from fans and on his own hunches, and relying on the advice of an expanding group of advisers. In January of 2004, a colonel in the Guardia di Finanza interrogated Grillo about the collapse of Parmalat, the dairy conglomerate, which had declared bankruptcy the previous month. The company's downfall surprised journalists, politicians, and Standard & Poors, yet Grillo had been mocking its fragile finances in his comedy routines for two years. Again, Grillo said, the evidence had been in the public domain all along. "I told the colonel that all you had to do was look at the financial statements. While I was at it, I brought him some documentation on Fiat, Telecom, and Fininvest"-three of the largest publicly traded companies in Italy-"so he could get ahead on his work."


And so on. Just think about it. Instead of using the blog to elbow our way to the top of the heap, we could be responding to Barb's and Libby's last posts. We could be using the Outfit for social change. Now there's a startling thought.


Sara Paretsky

19 comments:

Cameron Hughes said...

Well, (for me) Dick is just a funny sounding word. It tickles me. But for Stewart? It has a relevance ever since his famous guest spot on Crossfire where he slammed the host and called him a dick. Ever since then, its just sorta became his word, so when he says that, people remember what he did.

Barbara D'Amato said...

I guess the problem remains the same, though. Getting people to read it. It's similar to the problem I have in writing fiction. It has to be interesting enough or fun enough for people to want to read it, whatever my underlying political or social views. I doubt that many people read Dickens to raise their consciousness of workhouses or orphanages. What can you get away with?

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