So, I hear you’ve written another book.

That’s right. It’s called The Infernal Library and it’s a study of dictator literature, that is to say books written by dictators, that is to say the worst books in the history of the world. I trace the development of the dictatorial tradition over the course of a century, starting with Lenin, then exploring the prose of Lenin, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, et al before arriving in the modern era where I analyze the texts of Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and assorted post-Soviet dictators (among others). It’s a bit like Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, only the books are terrible and many were written by mass murderers. It can also be read as an alternative cultural history of the 20th century, with implications for our own troubled times.

Damascus (Two Dollar Radio) is a depressing, raw, and touching novel, the latest tale of lost misfits and depraved losers from Joshua Mohr. Here we find Owen, the owner of the bar Damascus, who dresses as Santa Claus, a man with a birthmark under his nose that makes him look like a modern day Hitler. There is a man dying of cancer, No Eyebrows, who simply wants to be touched. There is Shambles, the jerk-off queen, who is willing to do just that, her marriage recently ended in divorce, haunting the late night bars with no purpose or goal in mind. There is Revv, the bartender, a tattooed drunk whose last act may be one of cowardice. And there is Syl, a controversial artist who brings a wave of doom upon the bar, stirring up trouble from war veterans by depicting dead soldiers in her painting while nailing fish to the already stagnant walls of Damascus.

The lover that left too soon, the other that stayed too long;
the driver that cut you off in traffic;
the weatherperson that never gets the five-day forecast right;
the upper class, middle class & lower class;
the infirm & elderly;
Republicans & Democrats;
Hispanics, Blacks & Whites;
Israel & Palestine;
suburbanites & Skid Row denizens.

We all need to make an enemy outta someone.

Hitler, Mussolini, Milosevic, 
Pinochet, Pol Pot & Ratko Mladic.
They all needed to make an enemy outta someone—
practically everyone but themselves.

Slavery, segregation;
the Civil War & two World Wars;
Vietnam & 9/11;
the Trail of Tears & Mandela imprisoned;
Hiroshima, Nagasaki; 
the Oklahoma City Bombing;
Kent State & Tiananmen Square;
Columbine, the L.A. Riots & global genocides.

Everyone’s got a finger poised 
ready to hit the Doomsday button
like it’s some super-hot G-spot.

We all need to make an enemy outta someone.

The Lincoln assassination, 
JFK assassination,
John Lennon,
Malcolm X,
Medgar Evers, 
Harvey Milk,
Che Guevara,
Trotsky & Ghandi assassinations.

It’s insane,
the way we’ve let guns do the speaking 
instead of peace talks.

And somewhere in the midst of all this bloody history
Martin Luther King Jr. once called out: “I have a dream, I have a dream…”
But sometimes it’s hard to keep a dream alive,
especially when you’re caught in the devil’s crosshairs.

We all need to make an enemy outta someone.

Cover-ups, 
pay-offs & corruption;
secret torture sessions & death.
Invading Libya, Iraq & Afghanistan.
For all the lies our government has told 
its lips may as well be blue:

Truth asphyxiated.

This suicidal tendency,
a blemish of supremacy 
on the face of our nation.
We’re well on our way 
to making enemies out of everyone.
Pretty soon,
we won’t even be able to call 
our own shadow a friend.

We all need to make an enemy outta someone.

It’s a fatal attraction,
the way we make ourselves gasoline
when someone’s heart’s on fire.
We just wanna see all the love
go up in smoke.

And in the name of the Bothered, Stunned & Tortured Ghost,
let me say:
Instead of worshipping,
we’ve spent way too long
warshipping all our Gods & Goddesses 
with bombs instead of prayers.

That’s what happens when you spend too much time
in the zero church:
You never get your soul’s worth of healing.

And so we continue
to prey upon others 
with this religion of vengeance.

We all need to make an enemy outta someone.


Author’s Note: If you’d like to see a video of this piece, click here.

“Awareness” and “empathy” have become this decade’s Catch-22 words, full of traps and mind games, yet serving a purpose if only a future moment when we say, “Remember our obsession with that.” Of course, we think we want to become more aware, but do we? Likewise, we think we wish to become more empathetic, but do we actually seek more empathy towards ourselves? How often do we extend awareness and empathy only to find that none will be returned?

Experiment: Take a look at the photos above. If you already know the identity of those depicted, skip ahead. If not, answer the following question sets, then proceed.

Question Set 1: What does Photo #1 suggest to you? What do you feel when looking at it? How would you describe the person portrayed? Would you extend empathy towards the person portrayed?

Question Set 2: What does Photo #2 suggest to you? What do you feel when looking at it? How would you describe the person portrayed? Would you extend empathy towards the person portrayed?

So who are they? Photo #1 depicts Adolf Hitler as a baby. Photo #2 depicts Pope Benedict XVI during his membership in the Hitler Youth. Adolf Hitler never made excuses for himself; Pope Benedict has made plenty. In any event, there you have it. For those unable to identify the subjects in the photos, do you feel more aware? Does that awareness make you more or less empathetic and in which case(s)?

The point here is not to attack awareness and empathy but to explore their limits. For instance, can empathy, especially when offered but not returned, become a subtle form of surrender? At what point does empathy become a form of accepting the unacceptable?

The psychologist Albert Ellis, founder of REBT, explained the extent to which he embraced his concept of “universal other-acceptance,” that being wholly rejecting the view that anyone is or ever has been 100 percent evil. How far did he take this view of acceptance? Ellis proposed that even Hitler was not 100 percent evil. Difficult to accept? Take another look at baby Hitler. For some unknown period of time, Hitler was innocent.  Since it must now always be added that Stalin proves to have been “no better,” consider that Stalin was an obvious paranoid. In the American judicial system, excepting Texas, Stalin might have received a reprieve from the death penalty based upon insanity.

On the other hand, empathy depends upon the person extending it. Any victim of Hitler or Stalin able to profess empathy towards one or the other might be considered (a) pathologically forgivers or (b) saints. During the war, those fighting “Hitler” might have found their determination weakened by allowing themselves to feel any empathy towards him. Ellis claims, “As a result of my philosophy, I wasn’t even upset about Hitler. I was willing to go to war to knock him off, but I didn’t hate him.” How did all this work out for Ellis in real life? There shall be no easy answers. Ellis did not fight in World War II. Ellis was a Jew.

And so we become more aware. Does increased awareness intensify empathy? Or does it decrease empathy? Of course, that depends upon the perspectives of those potentially offering empathy. Are we aiming for empathy by seeing through the eyes of the innocent Hitler or Stalin? Or do we aim for empathy through the eyes of the absolutely amoral Hitler or Stalin? Or do we somehow try to keep both perspectives in mind, creating a semi-mathematical mean of perspectives?

Whom do we forgive and why? Whom do we forgive last in almost all cases? Ourselves. Everyone has fascist moments; if not, fascism would never have become possible. In such moments, we perpetuate our worst acts and usually without much conscience involved. Obviously, we absorb our degree of conscience through parents or guardians but also later by the media, which perpetuates an ethical system lacking any ethics at all…for the media. We, however, are constantly reminded of our responsibilities while simultaneously being told the self comes first and above all else. What a strange society, with vertical and horizontal fields of ethics and power that cannot be mapped or otherwise depicted. We the Narcissistic Puritans endlessly chastise ourselves and everyone else, except, of course, when we’re not providing fodder to others chastising us. Empathy becomes a wicked thicket.

None of these points can be squared to easy solutions, but this much can be stated with uncertain certainty: Empathy is conditioned and conditional until awareness exposes the extent to which we’re willing to extend our empathy beyond its previous limits. What we do with this awareness, and how we spend our empathy, cannot be proven as beneficial in every case. Putting aside historical figures and considering only those we encounter in daily life, how much empathy can we afford to spend on those so self-convinced that they don’t even convince themselves and so never stop trying to do so? Only when forced to repetitively encounter such people (such as the workplace) do we benefit from extending empathy towards them. We can remain neutral in judgment; to go beyond that point is to deplete the natural resource of empathy.

Awareness may lead to increased empathy, but empathy, when it proves a fool’s errand, does so only after the fact and too late for retraction. We may aim for universal other-awareness, as Ellis proposes, but everyday life opposes the infinite, constantly pushing us back towards our finite lives that can never become wholly rational. We cannot escape this dilemma, but we can mitigate its tensions. Learn and learn again, all lessons to be repeated.


labianca interior

Jerry and Mary Neeley used to own the best video store on the east side of L.A. That’s where I met them, and since they closed shop two years ago to sell movie collectibles online, we’ve occasionally met for coffee and talk of, among other topics, true crime. We’ve also kept in touch by e-mail, and last week Mary sent the following message:

As you know, the 40th anniversary of Tate/LaBianca is this August 8th & 9th. (Technically, the 9th & 10th because both parties were killed after midnight.)

I wanted to go to the LaBianca house around 1am on the 10th to see if anyone else shows up. Would you be interested? I don’t want to walk up there alone at 1am.

Andy Johnson introduced me to Dorothy last year.

Dorothy and I have recently become good friends.

She asked me if I wanted to try speed dating and I agreed.