Ed Asner: The Grouchy 'Marxist': RIP
by John Kendall Hawkins
I'm sorry, but learning that old Ed Asner carked it last week in LA, at 91, was some of the best news I've heard in some time. Christos, I needed the good news.
If he hadn't died, of no unnatural causes, I never would have stumble-bungled across his 2017 book in my Alexandrianesque library I've nicknamed Abbie. In memory of the Yippie Pentagon-lifter. ("Not too high, okay, Abs?" Pentagon officials pleaded, in a punking that would make Borat proud.) Written with Ed.Weinberger, a comedy writer and former colleague on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, the book, The Grouchy Historian: An Old-Time Lefty Defends Our Constitution Against Right-Wing Hypocrites and Nutjobs, was just the tonic I needed to detox some of the excess bile that's been building up in me since the '80s on account of what the Right has done to a perfectly wonderful tolerable world -- politics, economics and culture grown stale, febrile, corrupted and our keen exceptionalism fallen into its own footprints.
It turns out that Ed has a succinct series of reasons for all that mess happening and proceeds to enumerate it and counterpunch with the best of them.
But before we entertain ourselves with Ed's Dumpster dive into the Right's decades-old debris, like some rogue muckraking journo on a mission from Dei (i.e, "living under a God who just doesn't a sh*t"), let's give him a victory lap and recall that he was a fantastic actor (winner of 7 Emmy awards), while especially effective in the comedy/drama role of Lou Grant on the Mary Tyler Moore Show and then the spin-off from that character, going from being a manager of a TV newsroom to the city editor of a newspaper, he also provided award-winning performances in the historical slavery drama Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man. about the haves and have-nots.
His voice had been found valued in radio work and, later, in animation, such as Up, for which he received rave reviews. He started out at The Second City, in Chicago, from which so many great actors started out, and ended his career starring as a Holocaust survivor in Jeffrey Cohen's The Soap Myth in 2019. Toward the end of his life, he was a glad spokesperson for the 9/11 Architects and Engineers Truth group, for whom he narrated a film on the inadequately explained free fall of World Trade Center Building 7 -- the third tower that came down in its own footprints on September 11, 2001. He had many friends, including investigative journalist Greg Palast, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, and SNL fake Trump William Baldwin, among many others. Read his Wikipedia entry for f*ck's sake.
The Grouchy Historian immediately brings back to life (sorry, again, Ed) all those glory years he had on TV before he became an obnoxious liberal and conspiracy crank. Ed was so Good, and cared about so many things Left back in the 70s and into the 21st century -- Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the Rosenberg Fund for Children, Defenders of Wildlife, water stations in oasis-less deserts -- so good that the Italians invited the non-self loathing Jew over to play the part of God on Earth, Pope John XXIII, for public television there. (Check it out. IMDB 7.6. Look at his Threads. Italian humor, right?)
Grouchy also has personal resonance, as his TV stints as journalist Lou Grant were inspiring in my fledgling years without end in the biz; MTM and Lou Grant featured comic/dramatic writing around issues of broad public interest for a vibrant democracy with serious issues that seemed to constantly call into question our messy form of governance's viability -- with ad breaks, of course. I consider Lou Grant the spark that lit the later critically acclaimed Boston Legal. In the very first episode of LG, Lou tackles the ticklish predicament of the media maintaining its sources within government (here, specifically, the police), while needing, as part of their mission, to hold public servants to account. Funny denouement. Today, Lou would have to take on the whole fuckin police state panopticon and it probably wouldn't end with his signature humor. Lou would probably be "discovered beneath a truck," as the Bard from Duluth would say.
But that cantankerous old Lefty feeling is back at the plate in The Grouchy Historian. It's like Tony C. got up and just dusted himself off and dared the spitballing Angel, Jack Hamilton, to throw him another one like that, and then run for his life. Ed Asner, in league with comedy writing buddy Ed. Weinberger, are out to kick some right wing heinie, and invite the presumed lefty reader along for the hilarity. Ed Asner gives a shaky end-stage something explanation of the book b elow. Middle schoolyard again, the bullies want your cream-filled Twinkie™, but get some dreamy comeuppance instead (think: Alpha doggy bag). Eee-haaaaw is a lot more fun than some lefty Screed Jesus ululating "Yippee Ki Yay, motherf*cker" at the monsters: We need change, not an exchange of ironies.
The Grouchy Historian has 24 chapters and an appendix with the US Constitution. In the intro Ed tells us he wrote the book because he was: "Pissed off by the lies, misrepresentations, and outright horseshit, I decided it was time to strike back." There are chapters on the writing of the Big C in Philadelphia in 1787, complete with amusing descriptions of the obnoxious heat, flies the size to open eyes, and nightly knock-back dissolution sessions of brotherly love in local taverns. He tells us Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were expats living in Europe at the time of the convention. Chapters on the economics of the Constitution, imaginary notes on the convention, and other often jocular observations, from Billey, a Slave to James Madison; right wing talking points and cranky retorts; tongue lashings of "constructivist" positions; and, a sobering sh*t-faced reminder: the Bill of Rights was not taken seriously by the Framers, but was thrown in to get anti-Federalist signatures. He rocks Antonin Scalia, mocks Clarence Thomas, puts a pox on Ted Cruz and Ann Coulter, and throws in three chapters of Leftovers. It's fun and zesty, like bitter tears poured from an Irish tap to Danny Boy.
Asner has a hair across his ass for sacrosanctioners of the religious authority embedded, they say, in the Constitution. God's on their side. Only the Right Wing knows what God thinks and how it applied to the Big C. So they need to be in control. As Ed puts it:
Nobody thumps the Constitution like a Right-Wing Republican. Conservatives love the Constitution, invoking its very name--even more than the Bible and Ronald Reagan--as all the proof they need that God is on their side. It's not enough that they think they own the Constitution; they act as if they wrote the damn thing.
One thing Asner is sure of is that the Constitution was framed without much reference to an active God, and certainly no Jesus-ism.
As he says above, the Big C was a product of Deist minds -- "Deism is a religion that believes in a God who really doesn't give a sh*t." But it's a great grift if you can get the work. (Ed gets an early dig in regarding Ted Cruz: A Time for Truth, which he calls "a faith-based romance novel in which the hero falls in love with himself at an early age.") Ed hates people who speak for God -- like flag-wearers they tend to be icky-souled authoritarians with hearts of alchemist "gold." They have Dark Ages, Might is Right political philosophies that justify all the chicanery they get up to with dialectical materialism. Marx-enlightened Lefties just hate 'em. Ed was a democratic socialist. A lot of educated Jews are. Ed was a Juden, but also head of the Catholics (see his stint as Pope above). I'm a Catholic, therefore, I'm a Jew. That's called a Marxist syllogism. Can't we just get along?
In chapters Five and Six, Ed butts heads with the Right Wing Butt Heads over God's alleged presence in the Big C. He begins with quotes from Ted Cruz and Pat Buchanan claiming, essentially, that "Our [American] culture is superior" because it is based on "Judeo-Christian values." No, it's not, says Ed, and he can prove it. In an "Imaginary Epistle to the Christian Right," Ed begins,
Greetings Christian Right. I bring bad news. There is no God in the Constitution. I know that in 1607, the first refugees to our shores built a giant cross to thank God for their deliverance. I know that it reads "in God we trust" on our money. I know that schoolchildren take an oath of allegiance that says "One nation under God." But there is no God in the Constitution.
Ed seems to be implying that it's the projection of narcissists who expect the echoic masses to go along -- often with an "or else" implication.
He spends the two chapters reminding the reader that the concession of this conceit to the Right Wing has cost America plenty. If most of us accepted that God is not the author of the Big C, then we might have to go about fixing our democracy together by ourselves, rather than kowtowing to the whims of Salem witchburner types. Let them bob for their own apples. Ed seems to say. He gets feistier:
Your Christian forefathers were a lot smarter than you are. They realized that the Constitution had left out any mention of God. They knew at once there was no "God" -- Christian or otherwise -- in the Constitution. And that's why they -- the religious Right of the day -- opposed the Constitution.
Ouch. No God, no pastoral interpretation for the little lambs. Limited sheep's clothes for the poor widdle wolves to wear.
Ed, coming from a Marxist education, snickers at the notion that the Big C was intended to be egalitarian in principle. Ed reminds us that the Big C was cobbled together as an upgrade on the previous governing document, The Articles of Confederation. In 1787, 55 delegates from states were invited to a secret convention in Philadelphia to figure out how the Rules of Law would work in the new Republic freshly divorced from England. Ed reminds us:
The delegates were all white men (ranging in age from twenty-four to eighty one), well educated, and wealthy property owners. Thirty-five of the delegates were lawyers. Their attendance--during the four months it took to write the Constitution--was, at best, spotty. After all, they weren't getting paid by the hour. Of the fifty-five delegates, the most influential were George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin.
Ed keys in on the outsized influence of these four Framers. Warning: Farts and warts ahead.
First, Ed shows us how the Framers seemed to be notorious backstabbers in the opening quotes of Chapter, The Founders and Framers: Who Were Those Guys? Like mean girls from the film Heathers, they were either getting pissed or pssssting all day or both. He quotes their toilet stall wall stabs at each other:
Hamilton had a superabundance of secretions which he could not find. Whores enough to draw off.
- John Adams, on Alexander Hamilton
He means well . . . but sometimes and in some things, is absolutely out of his senses.
- Benjamin Franklin, on John Adams
A curse on his virtues, they've undone his country.
- Thomas Jefferson, on George Washington
The Life of Dr. Franklin was a scene of continual dissipation.
- John Adams, on Benjamin Franklin
Jefferson . . . would soon be revealed as a voluptuary and an intriguing incendiary.
- Alexander Hamilton, on Thomas Jefferson
The Convention is really an assembly of demigods.
- Thomas Jefferson
E pluribus Unum, my ass. And how could I read egalitarianism into that gossy girl intrigue?
As almost a little cheerleader-driven pick-me-up before the onslaught, Ed has a rah-rah chapter titled, Heckling the Right Wing: Their Top Ten Talking Points and My Top Ten Comebacks, which you can almost see him performing with David Letterman or Jay Leno. Here's an example:
THEM: The Framers believed in term limits.
ME: I'm with you on this: I figure if a congressman can't steal enough money in three terms, he's too dumb to hold the job in the first place.
Here is a separate extract of that chapter for you to check out.
Ed wants us to know that the Big C was almost entirely to benefit the wealthy, and that at the end of the Revolutionary War the new Americans "didn't have a pot to piss in." He delineates the war debts accrued (sounds familiar) during the escape to freedom. A lot of the Big C appears to be designed to control the masses. But before we get to that, Ed introduces us to Professor Charles Beard and his An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, which was a Wake-Up point for Ed. He writes,
Beard begins by dividing the Framers into five financial categories:
1. Plantation owners and slaveholders.
2. Those heavily invested in lands for speculation.
3. Bankers and money lenders.
4. Bond holders--those who held "paper"--i.e., creditors who owned government securities and military debt.
5. Wealthy merchants, manufacturers, and ship owners.
Charles, through Ed, then shows how each of the 55 delegates to the convention fell into one of these categories. No appeals to the plebs. The Big C was to protect the interests of these guys.
Which brings up Ed's bummer reference to the Bill of Rights. I dunno. but Ed sure makes the Big B sound like a toy magnifying glass buried in a boxed silo of colorful little balls of goodness found in Trix cereal. (Silly lucid dreaming rabbit, Trix are for kids. No American Dream for You. Sorry to bust your balloon.) In the chapter, The Shocking Truth About the Bill of Rights, Ed busts the reader's balloon, albeit empathetically:
When we think of the Constitution, we always think of the Bill of Rights. It is the Bill of Rights -- guaranteeing our freedoms of speech, conscience, religion, and the press -- that is the centerpiece of America's exceptionalism...[but] the Bill of Rights was, in fact, a reluctant afterthought -- a political and cynical ploy by the Federalists led by Washington, Hamilton, and Madison.
This is why we fight, why we intervene in other countries' affairs (nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad), why we say ours is a special democracy -- and it's all based on a sick joke, and the need to get out of fly-ridden Philadelphia. And we always wonder why nobody else gets the punchline of our hubris: Because the joke's on us.
As Ed puts it, the Big B was a last minute bone thrown, and definitely reluctantly. Ed writes,
George Mason of Virginia proposed that a Bill of Rights be added to the Constitution. The delegates, almost to a man, soundly defeated the measure. They were tired. They wanted to go home. And the Constitution was already written.
Aw, thit, Ed seems to have the delegates say, can't we just roll this Mason monkey in the alley and call it a convention? But Mason convinced them that the thing couldn't be signed and ratified without such language. That it's omission would unite the anti-Federalists angry and cause a national ruckus not easy to quell. Whatever, they said dismissively as one, as though to a Hallmark Christmas card sentiment from the mother-in-law you hope drops through a fuckin spontaneous trapdoor today.
But let's face it, when they tell us that all we get for our troubles is a Lesser of Two Evils choice presidential arrangement, corrupt inside-trading Congresspersons, corporations with the rights of people, and the Banana Republic degradation of our national virtues on a daily basis, with property owners always on top. Good thing we have 425 million guns: We must have smelled a rat. And you can tell they know we suspect them by the way they're trying to turn the bizarro doings of January 6 into an Insurrection needing more domestic lockdown. Let's kick some heinie. It's what the Big C says is "our duty to do" when we smell tyranny. Let's stop mollycoddling the Pillsbury doughboy and beat his sweet mighty whitey buns.
Ed goes after the right-wing hypocrites and nutjobs, and it's a joy forever to behold. In The Emperor Has No Robes: Justice Antonin Scalia and Citizens United, Ed excoriates the Judge for his lack of wisdom and foresight, but also for being an colossal a**hole, highlighted by his insistence "that billionaire donors can legally give unlimited and anonymous amounts of money to political candidates under the protection of 'free speech.'" Ed continues, pointing out, "To paraphrase Scalia's ruling: $50 million from the Koch brothers has the same "influence" as $250 from Joe Schmuck." Ed shows us that part of the Constitution where such behavior is feared by Framers and rejected. And he ends with his take on the Judge with: "Scalia has to be the 1 percent's favorite judge since Pontius Pilate."
Similarly, he pokes fun at Ben Carson. Not only his political acumen but undeserved acclaim as a surgeon. He's a nice guy, until you get to know him. Ed gives us two anecdotes to consider, and we cringe, and (I for one) pray for Carson's soul. Ed drops our jaws first with this gem:
On Ancient Egypt: Carson has said that the pyramids were not tombs but silos built by Joseph, the son of Jacob, in preparation for the famine as described in the Book of Genesis. Since the pyramids are not hollow (and therefore could not store grain), either Genesis or Dr. Carson doesn't know what the hell they're talking about.
We can guess which one he means. And then there's this scary bit:
In his autobiography, Gifted Hands, he describes his epiphany: When a friend went to change a radio station, Carson tried to stab the friend in the stomach. But the blade broke on his friend's belt buckle, saving -- in effect -- both their lives. As later malpractice suits attest, Dr. Carson has not always been so lucky when it comes to knives.
Such a sharp wit -- and plunged to the very quick! We quake to think that this guy ran for president.
Ann Coulter's 2015 book, ¡Adios, America!: The Left's Plan to Turn Our Country into a Third World Hellhole probably speaks for itself as a political statement so extreme you just wanna say icky and keep walking quickly away from. But not Ed. He puts on his rally cap and woo-hoo face and has a go at her with his own faux-empathetic list of problems he's had with Mexicans to amplify his counter-Coulter sentiments:
- During dinner at Dos Caballeros, a mariachi band came to my table and played "La Cucaracha" back to back.
- I once lost $500 at a co*k fight in Tijuana.
- A young woman I slept with in college called me Speedy Gonzales behind my back.
- I once dated a Mexican waitress who left a bite mark on my right shoulder that took a month to heal.
- At the common urinal at Dodger Stadium, a Mexican with a Fernando Valenzuela jersey pissed on my shoes.
- A Mexican gardener of mine macheted my pet snake.
- I got the shits in Acapulco.
- At a Screen Actors Guild meeting, the late Ricardo Montalban told me to go f*ck myself.
Funny stuff! Ed also supports placing watering holes in the middle of the Sonora so that emigres don't die of thirst. Coulter would place poisoned bait for the desert rats she sees.
Anyway, it goes on and on like that, with lots of laughter -- a book fully recommended as a Ponce de Leon elixir for us old jaded types, and an exercise in levity for the geezers of tomorrow in charge of our activism today. Ed railed against the war on Terror in the end and got kind of serious, but then, you remember his Lou Grant years and remember that he was always serious but in a funny way. He was sober when he did the narration for the Architects and Engineers video on the collapse of WTC building 7, but his involvement in the project, after reading this book, is understandable and cranky and funny: You could almost hear him winding up to yell out to us, Keep the Bastards Honest!
Ed was no conspiracy theorist (and of the theories unresolved about 9/11 WTC7 is still the smoking gun of the set), but rather someone who believes the Founders were not as benign or worthy of sainthood as we want to believe (they ratified slavery, forgot women), and that they threw us doggie bones with the Bill of Rights, and that today's 1%, who clearly control our collective fate, may well have let evil events happen to make money. After all, they do it every day -- in so many ways. Who's to say that the events of 9/11 wasn't entertainment for some of them, whether they were involved or not?
Many people have now considered this possibility. And maybe, with courage and luck, we can re-convene for a new Constitution, the Bill of Rights, our cornerstone, of course, and all the other nonsense carefully amended to reflect the world we live in today. A kind of reversal of how the First Framers did it, with us taking back primacy and redistributing our common wealth for the good of all.
Thanks Ed, for your good ol' lunch pail Marxism.
(Article changed on Sep 07, 2021 at 1:30 PM EDT)