a keyboard mercenary with a disorganized past, has worked on staff for Army Times, The Washingtonian, Soldier of Fortune, Federal Computer Week, and The Washington Times.
He has been published in Playboy, Soldier of Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Harper's, National Review, Signal, Air&Space, and suchlike. He has worked as a police writer, technology editor, military specialist, and authority on mercenary soldiers. He is by all accounts as looney as a tune.
I was born in 1945 in Crumpler, West Virginia, a coal camp near Bluefield. My father was a mathematician then serving in the Pacific aboard the destroyer USS Franks, which he described as a wallowing and bovine antique with absolutely no women aboard, but the best the Navy had at the time.
My paternal grandfather was dean and professor of mathematics at Hampden-Sydney College, a small and (then, and perhaps now) quite good liberal arts school in southwest Virginia. My maternal grandfather was a doctor in Crumpler. (When someone got sick on the other side of the mountain, the miners would put my grandfather in a coal car and take him under the mountain. He had a fairly robust conception of a house call.) In general my family for many generations were among the most literate, the most productive, and the dullest people in the South. Presbyterians.
After the war I lived as a navy brat here and there--San Diego, Mississippi, the Virginia suburbs of Washington, Alabama, what have you, and briefly in Farmville, Virginia, while my father went on active duty for the Korean War as an artillery spotter. I was an absorptive and voracious reader, a terrible student, and had by age eleven an eye for elevation and windage with a BB gun that would have awed a missile engineer. I was also was a bit of a mad scientist. For example, I think I was ten when I discovered the formula for thermite in the Britannica at Athens College in Athens, Alabama, stole the ingredients from the college chemistry laboratory, and ignited a mound of perfectly adequate thermite in the prize frying pan of the mother of my friend Perry, whose father was the college president. The resulting six-inch hole in the frying pan was hard to explain.
I went to high school in King George County, Virginia, while living on Dahlgren Naval Weapons Laboratory (my father was always a weapons-development sort of mathematician, although civilian by this time), where I was the kid other kids weren't supposed to play with. My time was spent canoeing, shooting, drinking unwise but memorable amounts of beer with the local country boys, attempting to be a French rake with only indifferent success, and driving in a manner that, if you are a country boy, I don't have to describe, and if you aren't, you wouldn't believe anyway. I remember trying to explain to my father why his station wagon was upside down at three in the morning after flipping it at seventy on a hairpin turn that would have intimidated an Alpine goat.
As usual I was a woeful student--if my friend Butch and I hadn't found the mimeograph stencil for the senior Government exam in the school's Dempster Dumpster, I wouldn't have graduated--but was a National Merit Finalist, and in the 99th percentile on the SATs.
After two years at Hampden-Sydney, where I worked on a split major in chemistry and biology with an eye to oceanography, I decided I was bored. After spending the summer thumbing across the continent and down into Mexico, hopping freight trains up and down the eastern seaboard, and generally confusing myself with Jack Kerouac, I enlisted in the Marines, in the belief that it would be more interesting than stirring unpleasant glops in laboratories and pulling apart innocent frogs. It certainly was. On returning from Vietnam with a lot of stories, as well as a Purple Heart and more shrapnel in my eyes than I really wanted, I graduated from Hampden-Sydney with lousy grades and a bachelor-of-science degree with a major in history and a minor in computers. Really. My GREs were in the 99th percentile.
The years from 1970 to 1973 I spent in largely disreputable pursuits, a variety that has always come naturally to me. I wandered around Europe, Asia, and Mexico, and acquired the usual stock of implausible but true stories about odd back alleys and odder people.
When the 1973 war broke out in the Mid-East, I decided I ought to do something respectable, thought that journalism was, and told the editor of my home-town paper, "Hi! I want to be a war correspondent." This was a sufficiently damn-fool thing to do that he let me go, probably to see what would happen. Writing, it turned out, was the only thing I was good for. My clips from Israel were good enough that when I argued to the editors of Army Times that they needed my services to cover the war in Vietnam, they too let me do it.
I spent the last year of the war between Phnom Penh and Saigon, leaving each with the evacuation. Those were heady days in which I lived in slums that would have horrified a New York alley cat, but they appealed to the Steinbeck in me, of which there is a lot. After the fall of Saigon I returned to Asia, resumed residence for six months in my old haunts in Taipei, and studied Chinese while waiting for the next war, which didn't come. Returning overland, I took up a career of magazine free-lancing, a colorful route to starvation, with stints on various staffs interspersed. For a year I worked in Boulder, Colorado, on the staff of Soldier of Fortune magazine, half zoo and half asylum, with the intention of writing a book about it. Publishing houses said, yes, Fred, this is great stuff, but you are obviously making it up. I wasn't. Playboy eventually published it, making me extremely persona non grata at Soldier of Fortune.
Having gotten married somewhere along the way for reasons that escape me at the moment, though my wife was an extraordinary woman whodeserved better, I am now the happily divorced father of the World's Finest Daughters. Until recently I worked as, among other things, a law-enforcement columnist for the Washington Times. It allowed me to take trips to big cities and to ride around in police cars with the siren going woowoowoo and kick in doors of drug dealers. Recently I changed the column from law enforcement to technology, and now live in Mexico near Guadalajara, having found burros preferable to bureaucrats. My hobbies are wind surfing, scuba, listening to blues, swing-dancing in dirt bars, associating with colorful maniacs, weight-lifting, and people of the other sex. (Update: I married Violeta, my Spanish teacher, and, as so often happens with men, married up.) My principal accomplishment in life, aside from my children, is the discovery that it is possible to jitterbug to the Brandenburgs.
Willie Nelson Comes to Jocotepec: The Internet and Social Fragmentaion
The existence of the internet may not be news in most places, nor that it does things astonishing to those alive before the net and boring to those who came after. But I wonder whether the net might have underlying consequences perhaps not well understood.
In particular, I wonder how to measure the influence of the internet in Battambang, Bali, Bukittinggi, or Tierra del Fuego. Or in small towns in Mexico, such as Jocotepec, down the road from me.
Fifty years ago, such places existed in near-perfect isolation from the world at large. Nobody, bright or otherwise, had much chance of learning much of anything. There was AM radio with a limited selection of music and governmentally controlled news. There might be a small library. If you lived near a big city, Guadalajara, in Mexico or Bogota in Colombia, there were good bookstores but books cost money. It was de facto intellectual imprisonment in an empty world.
The, ker-whoom, the internet. A kid in Aranyaprathet, Salta in Argentina near the Bolivian border, or a girl in Joco had virtually the same intellectual and cultural resources as people in Leipzig or Boston. This is nuts.
I am persuaded that it is also impossible, but since the internet is everywhere I may have to modify my views.
My question is: How much and what effect has this had without being quite noticed? Here in Mexico I watched my stepdaughter Natalia growing up from about ten. She was a bright kid. Bright kids litter the earth. Millions of metric tons of them have the internet.
Some things were predictable. Kids like music. Nata began spending long hours conectada, connected—plugged into earphones. So did her friends. Those earphones plugged into the entire earth.
One day she said that she had discovered a wonderful new form of music. What, I asked? “Se llama country.” Ye gods and little catfish, I thought. Boxcar Willie had come to central Mexico. Soon she knew more about country music than I did, followed by an interest in blues, bluegrass, jazz, –in short pretty much every form of music that existed.
You might ask reasonably, “So what?” To American kids, yes: So what? But to kids in remote towns in the “third world”—whatever that means—it was a huge jump in cultural sophistication. They listened to bands in South Korea, Japan, all over Latin America.
Then of course came Kindle for books, giving Natalia (and the whole earth) the Library of Congress in a two–pound box and, of course, millions of books in lots of languages. Further, the net allowed easy access to news the that governments didn’t want people to have, and the social media allowed people unhappy with things to realize that lots of other people were also unhappy.
Presumably people were doing the same in Vientiane, Taijung, Yellow Knife, and Lost Hope, North Dakota. It was crazy. It still is. We just don’t notice it. What, if any, practical effect does this have?
Granted, some consequences of the net were not so salubrious. Today there is a karaoke app that lets people on different continents sing together horribly.
Movies became equally available, junk movies ad Fellini and Kubrick and weird cult stuff nobody has ever heard of. Netflix, YouTube, pirated CDs put on-line. Larceny being a major component of adolescence, kids quickly learn to steal software, to use proxy servers (burlando los servidores, spoofing the servers) .Opera? I told Violeta that I’d like to hear the Habanera, whereupon she pulled up five versions that she liked–Callas, Carmen Monarcha and so on and one, so help me by the Muppets. On demand, streaming, good sound, no commercials.
Somewhat parenthetically, the universities in poor countries profit mightily from the net. In nations without much money, America’s ninety-dollar textbooks are out of reach. But when students have iPads, now expected at least hereabouts, a great deal of necessary reading is on-line.
And so I find bright kids, and the young adults they are turning into, far more sophisticated than I was at their age. In remote villages. What consequences does this have?
What about the effects of the net on the US? People in Casper now have access to most of the cultural and intellectual advantages of Manhattan of course, but what are the political effects?
Whether America has ever had freedom of speech or a free press can be debated. Until roughly the Sixties, free expression was limited by a combination of national consensus, governmental censorship, cooperative media, and lack of lateral communication. In the Fifties, television meant ABC, CBS, and NBC which, then as now, were almost federal departments. Communism was the hated enemy and nobody with any circulation questioned this. HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee punished dissent. Access to information that the government didn’t like barely existed. Minor socialist papers existed in New York, but people in Farmville,, Virginia had no access to them. Any sort of sexual content was quashed.
Crucially, there was no lateral communication: You could write letters to editors—vertical communication—which would be censored according to the editors’ whims. That was it.
The aggregate effect was a manufactured unanimity, or the appearance of one. In the post-war prosperity, Americans bought washing machines and tract houses and were content. Television was wholesome, sterile, and not very informative. Superman jumped out of window to promote truth, justice, and the American way, then thought to be related.
Came the internet. Fairly suddenly, every point of view became available to everybody: The KKK, the Black Panthers, communists, fascists, feminists, loon left and loon right, the-earth-is-flatters. The social media and comment sections allowed lateral communication with a vengeance.
A consequence was that the major media became known for what they were, propaganda organs of those who ran the country. Stories that the fossil media would have liked to ignore flew instantly to hundreds of thousands of inboxes, appeared on countless blogs and websites—often with cell-cam video.
What effect, if any, has the net had on sexual mores? When children of nine years can watch pore-level porn of any imaginable type, what happens?
A related question is whether any code of sexual morality can be enforced by a society with internet pornography. Almost all civilized societies in almost all times have imposed restrictions of some sort. Often these have been of religious provenance, and religion is fast being squeezed out of Western societies.
Another question is whether the internet causes, or merely reports, the current fragmentation of the public into warring groups. Today the country seethes with hatreds that were unknown in 1955—perhaps existent, but unknown. Without the Salons and Breitbarts, would their respective readerships even know of each other’s existence? Would misandrist feminism have the enormous traction it enjoys if Cal Berkeley could not communicate easily with Boston U? Would all the deeply angry people of today have same political clout if the net had not allowed them to learn of each other and coalesce?
In a country with a fairly homogeneous society, the net may be less politically potent. If there is only one race and one religion, you don’t have racial and religious antipathies. But America is heterogeneous. When the internet forces very different regions—Massachusetts, Alabama, and West Virginia—into digital propinquity, does this arouse hostilities? When widely distributed members of fringe groups the governments don’t like can congregate on websites and in the social media, does this encourage fragmentation?
I dunno. You tell me.
NOTE: I will be in LA for three weeks attending the launch of a new and wonderful granddaughter who will doubtless revolutionize our conception of humanity but, thanks to the magic of WordPress, the flow of lies, distortion, treason, and irresponsibility will continue unabated. No emails, though.