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Bill Moyers & Michael Winship: Making 'Duck Soup' Out Of 2009

As 2008 ends and this New Year begins, with all its fledgling promise despite turmoil and crisis, it’s also that time when the media offers its lists of ten best or worst this and that of the previous year, an exercise that simultaneously entertains and infuriates.

Forced at knifepoint to make such lists, at least ours would be a little different. One would be favorite headlines of the year from THE ONION, the hilarious weekly that doesn’t bill itself as “America’s finest news source” for nothing. If you can read it without laughing, you probably have been paying too much attention to your 401K.

Some of the ones we liked best:







Of course, the problem THE ONION’s editors have is that reality too often resembles parody. Take the story of Chip Saltsman, the guy campaigning to be chairman of the Republican National Committee by promoting himself with a CD featuring a song called, “Barack, the Magic Negro.” That ditty, you’ll recall, was made famous on Rush Limbaugh’s minstrel show, as sung by an Al Sharpton impersonator. Even THE ONION couldn’t come up with that one.

Or the claim by Governor Rod Blagojevich that those wiretaps actually reveal how hard he’s been working for the people of Illinois. And the circus that ensued when he tried to appoint Roland Burris, a veteran Illinois politician, to Barack Obama’s Senate seat – the one the governor allegedly was ready to sell just weeks ago to the highest bidder – and Senate Democrats said, “No.”

No? From members of Congress for whom pay-for-play is as casual a game as Tic-Tac-Toe? Look at New York’s Senator Charles Schumer, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. According to THE NEW YORK TIMES, the week after he attended a breakfast of financial high rollers and promised them that Democrats would make sure their $700 billion bailout got through Congress, those same fat cats sent $135,000 in campaign contributions.

Or New York Congressman Charlie Rangel, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, who reversed himself on a tax break for a business called Nabors Industries the same month that company donated $100,000 to a City College school for public service named after – all together now, class – Charlie Rangel.

Life imitates satire – and vice versa. Which brings us to our other unusual list. The best movies of… 1933.

Naturally, the original KING KONG is on our list. So are THE INVISIBLE MAN and 42ND STREET. But our number one choice: The Marx Brothers’ DUCK SOUP.

Why? Because as we enter this final month of the Bush years, the parallels are remarkable. Sometimes it feels as if we live not only in the United States but also in the side-splitting state of Freedonia, the imaginary country in which DUCK SOUP takes place. In 1933, a time much like now of calamity, fraud and peril, the Great Depression gripped America. Franklin D. Roosevelt had just become President and declared a New Deal, while in Germany, Adolph Hitler was named chancellor, the beginning of the Third Reich.

As all of this was taking place, the Marx Brothers – there were four of them then; Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo – shot DUCK SOUP, a comedy that almost inadvertently transcended slapstick, becoming a trenchant send-up of power and vanity and the disastrous consequences of both.

Freedonia is bankrupt and asking for a bailout – sound familiar? The wealthy Mrs. Teasdale, played by the redoubtable Margaret Dumont, says the only way she’ll come up with the money is if the country appoints as its new leader Rufus T. Firefly – played by Groucho, as only a true clown can play a charlatan. He sings, “The last man nearly ruined this place, he didn’t know what to do with it. If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait ‘til I get through with it.”

Cabinet meetings are run with a decorum worthy of contemporary Washington. (Finance Minister: “Here is the Treasury Department's report, sir. I hope you'll find it clear.” Groucho: “Why a four-year-old child could understand this report. Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can't make head or tail of it.”)

Freedonia’s Axis of Evil includes neighboring nation Sylvania, and Groucho/Rufus Firefly handles diplomacy with all the tact of a neo-conservative. In anticipation of a meeting with his rival’s ambassador, he says he will offer his hand in friendship. But suppose the ambassador doesn’t do the same? “A fine thing that will be,” says Firefly. “I hold out my hand and he refuses to accept it. That will add a lot to my prestige, won’t it? Me the head of a country, snubbed by a foreign ambassador! Who does he think he is? …Why the cheap ball-pushing swine, he’ll never get away with it, I tell you! He’ll never get away with it!”

Before you know it, the two countries are at war for no good reason, the rabble-roused, flag-waving public buying in as if taking directions from cable news.

DUCK SOUP is now seen as one of the great antiwar comedies of all time, right up there with Charlie Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR and Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE (written with Terry Southern and Peter George).

Back in 1933, the world situation was grave and it was hard to hear the laughter over the sounds of civilization collapsing. Our chuckles today compete with the sound of renewed violence in the Middle East, melting glaciers sliding into the sea and champagne glasses shattering on the gold bricks of Wall Street.

Our situation may not be as desperate as the one that faced the first audiences of DUCK SOUP, who found in darkened theaters some relief from the grim world outside. Our current woes, nonetheless, are real, which maybe is why a little humor is the best antidote. As Beaumarchais, that 18th century playwright who doubled as a politician said, “I quickly laugh at everything for fear of having to cry.” This, from a man who managed to survive the French Revolution. So Happy New Year – but keep your fingers crossed.


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If one follows Paul Krugman's theory, "all that has happened to this country the past eight years was planned fifty years ago"; then one can see the inevitable results. Paul's Sunday Times column suggests that the powers in office had better not put roadblocks in front of this stimulus package. Depression number two will be at hand.
I think that anyone who refuses to quickly negotiate must be recalled from office. We failed to impeach George Bush, Scalia and company. If we miss this opportunity then Depression will quickly arrive and we are not prepared as was the Government to some extent in the 1930s to solve those problems; the problems at hand are far worse then those in the 30s; nevertheless Paul's column last Sunday warns of our upcoming doom if a large bailout President elect Obama is presenting to Congress is delayed.

That has not been our way historically, Mary. Only Clinton and Andrew Johnson were ever impeached, and neither of them were removed. Considering assassination (by internal conspiracy): It has certainly been more popular than an impeachment trial. It even works on troublesome Senators, candidates and activists. The people who arrange such things, though, are pleased with Dub and Dick. They'll probably get a bunnis (NJ pronunciation of bonus) instead. They weren't good for you, Mary; they were good for elite "bidness" (Oilman-speak for business). (Overheard)"How 'bout dat wa-war! Surge baby surge! Woo-wee, what uh bailout! Da masked speculator rides again!"

We will never be out of Duck Soup until the divinity of each and every human being is respected. The Federal government no longer represents the common people (note all the emails and phone call to Congress not to "bail out", not to "go to war", please, oh, please "impeach Bush and Cheney" etc. which were ignored by our 'so-called' representatives. Our Congress do longer represents "the people", only the elitists. Eisenhower warned us - it's so sad.

When President Bush said "So what?" I found myself shouting at the TV screen (again, it's becoming a problem): "What about your Cincinnati speech when you said unequivocally that Saddam Hussein harbors terrorists?" Here's a limerick that is slightly out of date since Don Rumsfeld is no longer Secretary of State, but it's not really him I'm talking about(it's satirical just a joke)These were both published on the November 3rd Club, an antiwar web site that is worth a look to anyone so inclined:

Herr Donald's in charge of defense.
His failings are truly immense.
Whomsoever rehired
And then never fired
Herr Donald's incredibly dense.

There's still time for this one to occur:
Dick Cheney's not my kind of man.
He's always concocting a plan.
He's in trouble again
So I wonder when
We're going to start bombing Iran.
Peace from a draftee who served in the Vietnam era.

With all respect,

Any discussion of farm policy without reference to the latent potential in reintroduction of Cannabis agriculture, is neutered and functionally incomplete. Hemp is unique and essential, obviously beyond the rightful jurisdiction of any court. Because of what's well known to be a counter-productive 'marijuana' prohibition, the world's most useful, nutritious, therapeutic, environmentally beneficial, potentially abundant, globally distributed, adaptable, organic agricultural resource has been irrationally forbidden for more than seventy years.

Imagine what Groucho would have to say about that!

"After being named president of Freedonia in Duck Soup (1933), Groucho as Rufus T. Firefly sings,

"You're not allowed to smoke
or tell a dirty joke
And whistling is prohibited
If chewing gum is used
the chewer is pursued
And in the hoosegow hidden
Whatever form of pleasure are exhibited
Report to me and they will be prohibited
It's as I say, so shall it be
This is the land of the free."

If Mr. Moyers would care to consider

The Fundamental Challenge of Our Time"

I believe he would agree it's time to exercise "essential civilian demand" for hemp as referenced in Executive Order 12919. I am doing this in 2009, asking the Obama administration for guidance in the proper protocol.

Only a shift in values of this magnitude will devaluate the present toxic, military-industrial, chemical, prison economy to the point that disparity might be replaced by regional agricultural abundance.

"How bad do things have to get before all solutions are considered?"

I also encourage people to consider the Rick Simpson story on You Tube
to understand the real reason why 'marijuana' is prohibited.

Feedback welcome, practical support invited...Best wishes to All,


California Cannabis Ministry


Here are some short films on You Tube that may be of interest

Jane is just another chicken bit in our duck soup, typical of the panicked and powerless betrayed who choose windbags like Limbaugh for a champion. People are so greedy and corrupt because they seek an individualistic escape through power. Those who win the lottery find a meaningless and empty existence at the "top." Jane, whatever your actual, age, gender or station, you have every justification for distrusting the entire system, including talk radio as well as Obama's empty promises. This is a failed and frustrating morass from bottom to top. That is why Dub doesn't care anymore. Why else would a landed patriarch, the scion of diplomats and CIA operatives, like David Eddy be so agitated in his discontent. Even he, a thoughtful and educated, free and privileged man, rages at us to love God and one another, to not be so greedy. And yet he exhibits the hypocracy of one with a log in the eye. For a long time I was deceived also, until I realized our only escape is communal and collective. I don't mean we'll have to share socks or sex partners either, just be of one conviction, that our economic system has repeatedly failed the majority and now threatens our environment.

John Freaking Galt says, "We are not deserving of the work of the bold men who built this place." Doesn't he realize our civilization was constructed using the labor of countless men, women and children; free, indentured and enslaved. Can't he see that civilization's development has been impaired by the parasitism of the leadership and perverted by the disproportionate power of the property hoarders? Mr. Galt: Labor fashions your reality by the hour: You impede and betray it at your peril. The "bold men" are our enemy: They are pirates.

Dan Clarke asks, "When will America be producers again?" He asks as if the individual workers had the choice. Working is an expensive proposition these days. We have been idled by design, partially to engage cheaper workers, and partially to undermine our resolve for fair treatment in a safe workplace. The worker (I include those who shuffle paper and even those who create art.) has only one body, one health, and one chance. Would Mr. Clarke breathe toxins or lift impossible rupturing loads, or endure crippling verbal abuse and numbing mental repetition to make a profit for his employer, and a hopeless struggle for himself?

True, people need to work to remain sane and healthy. Government is obligated to provide a means of earning a living because we are captive in our social contract. I've heard the survivalists talk of burdock and collard greens, of rabbits on a spit and a pocket full of bullets, but I ask all sane citizens if that is reasonable. Considering our numbers, such thoughts are demented and antisocial. I have been to the top of oil derricks at sea, and to the bottom of dank subway tunnels (where feral people exist) and I am amazed how humanity delays the implementation of justice that is necessary for civilization's survival. We do have to seize ownership and take responsibility, but that seems impossible under current law and custom. The "bold ones" have made sure of that. Jane, here is my sincere offer to take the left handle of your heavy trashcan, as we throw ALL the bums out. There are those who love humanity and the planet with which we are integral, and then there are those who would destroy our humanity and sustenance for their fleeting personal gain. Our collective task is to sort them out. (Every "Rufus Firefly" commits crimes knowingly but pleads self-deceit.Don't pull Jane down: She may be ahead of you, but just possesses a few funny quirks.)

Were Bush and Cheney inspired by Duck Soup? I feel like I've lived in the middle of a Duck Soup production for the last 8 years.

here is some prophesy fromt he Onion -

1 - article dated January 17, 2001 about Bush's inaugural address titled "Bush: 'Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over'"

2 - article dated May 1993 Joe the Forklift Driver:

John Lithgow, Wow, I never knew he was so diverse. His poetry reading was fantastic. Thank you John, Thank You Bill

I want to thank Bill Moyers for his continued efforts to inform and engage.

"Yeah, that's right. So what?"
Only those that lost love ones of “4500 death, thousands wounded, millions of suffering”,
and refugee living in the grim world, know the true life to, “so what!”

jane how nice of you to use idle threats to attack Bill Moyers. Your right wing sentiments are and world view is so twisted and ridiculous. Rush as you call him is represents everything that is wrong with the conservative movement in this country.

You represent a section of the conservatives that are hateful, bigoted.

We have had eight years of a government that has done more damage to this country than any administration that I can think of in modern history.

Rush Limbaugh does nothing more than spew out hate speech and false information. He hides behind the first amendment and is a coward and a hypocrite. Limbaugh might be many things but a journalist (which you might want to look up in the dictionary or spell check) is not one of them.

jane how nice of you to use idle threats to attack Bill Moyers. Your right wing sentiments are and world view is so twisted and ridiculous. Rush as you call him is represents everything that is wrong with the conservative movement in this country.

You represent a section of the conservatives that are hateful, bigoted.

We have had eight years of a government that has done more damage to this country than any administration that I can think of in modern history.

Rush Limbaugh does nothing more than spew out hate speech and false information. He hides behind the first amendment and is a coward and a hypocrite. Limbaugh might be many things but a journalist (which you might want to look up in the dictionary or spell check) is not one of them.

Re the American Dream: You should have included the quote by George Carlin: "In order to have a dream you must first be asleep."

When will America wake (grow) up and start being a nation of producers, instead of consumers, again?

America today reminds me of Lord of the Flies -- a bunch of spoiled children, trying to outdo each other in the art of cruelty. By the way, ever think of how many more Madoff's are out there?

Re the American Dream: You should have included the quote by George Carlin: "In order to have a dream you must first be asleep."

When will America wake (grow) up and start being a nation of producers, instead of consumers, again?

America today reminds me of Lord of the Flies -- a bunch of spoiled children, trying to outdo each other in the art of cruelty. By the way, ever think of how many more Madoff's are out there?

Thanks you for "duck soup" and John Lithgow on the same program. The poetry was wonderful. Wish you had repeated the Lithgow poetry book. Got it on your webcast. "Duck Soup" was so accurate to our present time that it was prophetic. "If you ignore the past we will relive it".

In the Onion Soup essay you cite George Bush being interviewed by Martha Raddatz. Bush claims as one of his achievements that that he trounced Al Qaeda in Iraq. Raddatz reminds him that Al Queda was not there before his invasion. Bush replies, "Yeah, that's right. So what?"

I was wondering how "So what" might be translated into other languages. The only phrase I could come up with is "Who cares?" And that seems to capture Bush's position.

Thinking about Kaczynski and Madoff

Two hundred years and thirty, we’ve strode across this world, a country built by bold men for bold purposes. A refuge for the world’s teeming masses; tired, poor and hungry.
And now we are those people. We’ve always been those people. We all come from somewhere else, with apologies to the Native Americans.

But now we are the tired, poor and hungry.

And what will we do? What will we do? Our “statesmen” will bide their time, then will allow us, finally, to pass laws banning the burning of barns, and tell us to post them by the still smoldering piles of our barns. They will allow us to pass laws banning the stealing of our money to give to rich men, and hang these laws by the empty echoing vaults where our savings once were. They will allow us (maybe someday, perhaps) to pass laws banning the destruction of coral reefs, and glaciers, and forests, and will have them gilded on plaques made from technologically superior materials that can stand the heat of a hundred years, and they will mount those plaques on posts next to the dead reefs, and the rubble strewn land where the forests and glaciers used to be. They will allow us to pass laws banning the mass distribution and ingestion of chemicals which cause sterility, and autism, and obesity, and cancer. Really, they’ll allow us to pass those laws. Someday.

And we won’t know where to put them, finally. For most of us, too, will be gone. Perhaps we’ll be allowed to hang those at the cemetery.

And our “statesmen” and “corporate Wall Street leaders” will be looong gone. Packed off late in the night to steal off to cloistered cul-de-sacs in closed communities with wonderful views of the ocean, or the mountains, through fantastically expensive Anderson windows which efficiently keep out the cold from the 7 or 8 bedrooms and wine cellars that intertwine amongst the 5 or 6 bathrooms that clearly, two people need. I’ve read that the key attribute of a good con is to be gone before the victim realizes he has been conned. Probably to Switzerland, or France, or Bermuda, where everyone is incorporated. But what if they can’t leave? What if they’ve conned an entire country? Wouldn’t want to have to experience *that* anger, would they? No, they will be protected by the army and the police that we pay for, with the guns we built, and the tanks, and planes. We will be told to remain quietly outside. Perhaps a small bit of food, or drink, may be allowed to ‘trickle down’ to us, like the scraps knocked heedlessly from the table of the feast above.

What has become of us? What has become of USA? How did we let ourselves become Ozymandias?

How did we allow the very, very, very wealthy few to destroy us, and in exchange, simply take the comfort of useless, obvious laws, passed as an afterthought, as our bargain? How did we allow nobody to be accountable? How did we not stop them; those who are accountable?

Why did we continue our childish faith in a system so long corrupted, for so long, that we stood helplessly by, and let the few destroy the many? Is our helplessness so deeply learned?

We are not deserving of the work of the bold men who built this place.

I really enjoyed this episode, keep up the good work Bill. We need heroes like you to keep the corrupted powers in check.

THE EXPRESSION "BARACK THE MAGIC NEGRO" was a statement made by some democrat in Ca. Rush turned it into a song for a joke and recieves numerous requests to play it it on his show by listeners. Rush does not run a minstral show, quite the opposite. He explains what America stands for and has ideas as to how we can achieve our goals in life without the Gov. taking and planning our lifestyles. You call yourself a jounalist but, no journalist is as bias and "out-there" as you come across each and every week. That clip you showed with Pres.Bush was so unfair. Why not show the complete wording of what he said?? For a "journalist" as your self accepting money from tax-payers to keep your show on the air, you might change your tactics, as your station may suffer with no donations. Oh, try and smile and laugh once in a while as it might help your doom and gloom personality.

PS..My fingers are not crossed. Despite the seeming non-susperstitious nature of this gesture, I refuse to play along. Crossing my fingers never accomplished a single thing.
Despite President-elect Obama's promise that I should "hope" things will change, it is only by uncrossing ourselves (and our fingers) that we may restore this Government to that of, by and for We the People. I refuse to hope in change. I can only affect it by, as he said, being the change.
The Dominant Paradigm will change or we will continue this downward spiral into who knows what misery.

1. The issue of wiretapping Governor Rod Blagojevich raises some interesting points about Homeland Security and the so-called Patriot Act.
2. Will the Senate deny Roland Burris a seat come January? That remains to be seen.
3. The Marx Brothers, for all the prescient genius of "Duck Soup", aren't the only prophets of the ongoing disaster masquerading as our government.

"Duck Soup" sounds appropriate considering we sold our soul for a bowl of "Deep kimshe".
It would be nice if we could recognize parody before we sell all we have and listen to corrupt politicians.
We have a chance to choose "Breathe Mints" after all of the "Onion Soup" from the present administration. I hope everyone is checking their sources and the facts without the propaganda jargon.

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