River of Berman
A tribute to the free-associating genius of the Silver Jews, whose work has flowed in and out of my life
His father, as you can imagine, is a theme. In a recent post titled “Transylvania Blues,” David reprinted a long, reported article from a newspaper revisiting an unsolved murder case in Lexington, Ky. A young woman found strangled in her car decades ago. A cold case revisited. Her diary revealed she had been on several dates with a young Rick Berman, David’s father.
David’s linking to it contained a faint suggestiveness—is Rick Berman not only a cynical Washington, D.C., lobbyist but also someone with murder in his past?—that sounds like extreme paranoia and obsession. The article makes no suggestions about Rick Berman’s culpability. It’s fascinating in its own right, though I read it with a slight sense of anxiety about David being paralyzed with hate. But maybe this is also a projection. The issues to which I briefly alluded—the complicated and dire falling apart and falling out surrounding Open City just as Berman’s book was being published—are still with me.
The other day David sent out an email to five people at Bloomberg News. To which I was BCC’ed. It read:
Thank you so much for writing this article.
It’s been years since anyone has published a critical examination of his byzantine machinations and so, as of late, I’d been trying to acclimate myself to the idea that he had ultimately outlasted all the negative coverage he received early in the last decade, and had thus successfully normalized his scurrilous techniques.
What a great surprise it was to read this piece.
I wanted it to go on forever….
Thanks for restoring my faith in investigative journalism.
The article delves into the minutiae of the accounting practices that Rick Berman uses in setting up his nonprofit advocacy groups that then carry out the agenda of his for-profit public-relations firm. Reading it I felt a shiver, that spooky, happy feeling of the stars aligning. What poetic justice if Berman Sr. got tripped up not for his moral transgressions and manipulations, but for tax evasion. If he ended up being not Tony Soprano but Al Capone.
Why does David Berman care so much about his father’s work?
The poet Jeremy Schmall wrote an article about that subject that gets at the essence. He focuses on a phrase David had used repeatedly in his Open City talk: “Epistemological closure.”
Rick Berman specializes in creating fake organizations of the sort that add to what David Foster Wallace termed “Total Noise.” “Center For Consumer Freedom,” “Employment Policies Institute,” “EmployeeFreedom.org,” “MercuryFacts.org” are all Rick Berman concoctions. We can now, in the right frame of mind, detect the duplicity in the names alone. But what is the right frame of mind and how often can we be in it? We all know such fake organizations exist, but this knowledge doesn’t empower, on the contrary—vigilance against it is exhausting. So, it is no surprise that an organization with the anodyne name “Center for Consumer Freedom,” which Rick Berman, president of the American Beverage Institute, recently created, is devoted to lobbying against New York City’s law against extra-large soft drinks.
In 2010, at the same time as David Berman’s talk, Rick Berman was producing seemingly nonpartisan ads focusing on the national debt.
What Schmall’s article grasps with such acuity is the sinister nature of the long con. Its goal is not immediate results, but in creating predispositions of thought years in advance. “It is difficult to impose ideas onto people on the level of argument; people will resist,” Schmall writes. “The natural, critical, conscious mind serves essentially as a spam box. … However, it can be bypassed. As advertisers and other propagandists have learned, there is a more effective (and more sinister) way to convince people of something: by hiding information, obscuring its true intention, delivering it through supposedly neutral mediums, and veiling it in Orwellian phrases. (‘The Center for Consumer Freedom’ advocates on behalf of the gigantic food and restaurant industries, not consumers.) The cloaking device sneaks information past the critical-conscious mind, and plants it in a place where it will unconsciously be used by someone when ‘deciding’ how they feel about an issue.”
The essay in which DFW’s coined his “Total Noise” was called “Deciderization 2007—a special report.”
David’s objections to his father are grounded in politics and also in a thicket of personal motivations I can’t really speculate about. I am also aware of the temptation—my temptation—to think of this obsession with his father as a neurosis. Being this hateful toward one’s father may well be justified but it does not seem useful. It does not seem promising.
But what if the neurosis is in fact another medium of art? What if, on some level, David’s objections to his father are actually aesthetic? What if they are grounded in a sense of obligation to moral proportion to defend not freedom of speech but freedom of thought? And by extension the freedom to freely associate?
Ian Olds was working on a documentary about David Berman at the time of his talk at the Open City conference. He stood in the back filming. I was consoled by his presence at the time but now wonder if knowing the talk would be on video allowed me to drift into a reverie of experience instead of grabbing tidbits of phrases and ideas to store for later use. The documentary, I knew, had run aground on the same mysterious shoals that other David projects had foundered.
I called Olds wanting to see the footage. Also to be reassured that the footage had not vanished into the mist. He was busy editing James Franco’s Faulkner adaptation, As I Lay Dying, but I got him on an off day, and together we drifted down the Berman rabbit hole. Yes, he said, it had been amazing theater. Apparently the footage he had shot of David in Nashville was also pretty great. But it was unclear whose film it was, and how to find the money so that Ian could spend the time on it. He had the footage, though. He knew where it was. It wasn’t lost. I introduced the idea that one day David’s Open City talk, in its unadorned form—Spalding Gray or C-span, pick your parallel—should see the light of day. From there we went a bit further with what could be done with the tape and then some other ideas. Then I said we should stop. I felt like we were joining the ranks of the many people—smart, interested, connected people in the worlds of Hollywood, publishing, documentary film, music, poetry—who are admiring of a certain something about David that is both attractive and as quantifiable as air. So many people have worked to get the David Berman genie in the bottle. But it never works.
I hugged David at the end of his talk. He was wet with sweat, depleted. Happy, like a prize fighter. Then I biked home along the Hudson River. The sky was mostly dark, but the light was hanging on. A tenacious summer dusk. The Hudson River was breathtakingly bright, brighter than the sky or anything else. There was a metallic, molten heaviness to the waves and swells.
The Rankin-Bass animated specials are yuletide staples, so why do they look Jewish and sound gay?