Sunday, July 11, 2010

Beware “The Blind Commissioner”

I spend a lot of my time reading, not just the Crime Fiction and Thrillers that line the walls and floors of my house[s], but also writings about the world [and reality] I see around me. I enjoy the weekends catching up on my reading, and “joining the dots” of the stories within the mainstream [and non-mainstream] media feeds. I like to see what is really happening, not just what someone or something has ‘spun’ out of reality. So much of the world is presented by the media using miss-direction, double-speak and down-right lies - especially in these troubled times.

What we should all fear most, in these days of economic turmoil, is the danger of the ‘mob’ and the growth of xenophobia stirred up by the extremists [both extreme right and left]. It was Anglo-Irish Politician and Philosopher Edmund Burke who stated that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” The danger of the mob first presented itself to me when I was a young child in school, and my fear of people / mobs [especially the under-educated, or manipulated] continues today. It also contributed to my love of reading. People who read books [especially fiction] in contrast [to non-readers] tend to think for themselves, hence why totalitarian regimes burn books. The theme of book burning was raised in Fahrenheit 451, but it was an earlier Ray Bradbury short story entitled ‘The Crowd’ that put my fear of ‘crowds / mobs’ into context. I soon realized that the mob needed to have ‘someone’ in authority turning a blind eye, for their evil to succeed. That someone could be called the ‘Commissioner’.

Today I enjoyed [though ‘enjoyed’ is perhaps the wrong word in this context], a blog post, by the talented writer John Baker, entitled ‘They are selling postcards of the hanging’. The reason for my interest is that it offers insight into one of my favourite Bob Dylan songs ‘Desolation Row’, which in turn reflects the nature of evil. It is strange that I’ve enjoyed John Baker’s work for many years, first meeting him a decade ago via both newsgroup rec.arts.mystery and then at a Dead-on-Deansgate event in 2001. So it was little surprise that he too understands the nature and meaning behind Dylan’s song ‘Desolation Row’ and the evil that it mentions in its surreal lyrics. You need ‘The Mob’, as well as ‘The Blind Commissioner’ [who turns ‘a blind eye’ thus allowing the Mob to rule and for the ‘postcards’ to be taken]. Such evil by mob, augmented by a ‘Blind Commissioner’ occurred in Duluth in 1920, and in November 1938’s Night of Broken Glass and many, many times since. Before you say that, those were in the past - just look at what is happening in Iran, as the mob are alive and holding rocks [not ropes] while the Commissioner remains sightless.

John Baker writes

On the 15th June 1920, three black circus workers were attacked and lynched by a mob in Duluth, Minnesota.

Rumors that six African Americans had raped a teenage girl gave rise to a mob of five to ten thousand locals.

The circus workers were snatched from the police station and hung from their necks on a corner of the street. Pictures were taken and a postcard offered for sale. The Chicago Evening Post reported, “This is a crime of a Northern state, as black and ugly as any that has brought the South in disrepute.”

No one was ever convicted for the murder of the circus workers, Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson and Elias Clayton.

A physician’s examination of the teenage girl subsequently found no evidence of rape or assault. Dylan’s song, Desolation Row, from the album Highway 61 Revisited, opens with a reference to the hangings, which took place in his home town 20 years before his birth.

Click Here to read John Baker’s full piece – BUT a warning – it contains the infamous photograph that became sold as the postcard of the hanging.

I loved the way My Chemical Romance re-worked Dylan’s Desolation Row for the closing credits of ‘Watchmen’. When I saw the film for the first time, I smiled as one of my all time favourite songs closed the film version of one of my all time favourite graphic novels.

Before you say, hey, that incident was a long time ago, and we have a black man in the White House now…. yada, yada, yada. My response is simple as my concerns are not leveled at segregated America [as it was then], but the wider world. The mob mentality is truly scary, and to think that little has changed when you hear of the terrible things that happened in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Bosnia, Darfur, East Timor…and the list of ‘officially’ condoned ‘mob violence’ is endless. The Mob now grabs rocks instead of rope in Iran. It makes one despair.

To read more of the terrible incident in Duluth on 15 June 1920, and Dylan’s links to Desolation Row from The Independent – click here

The warning from Desolation Row "Someone says, 'You're in the wrong place, my friend, you better leave'." has haunted me for many years, as being an outsider, I’ve felt its sting on my psyche many times, and heard those words spoken with hatred, and all the while the commissioner remained blind. I just hope ‘the commissioners’ in Iran see the light, because some things are just plain evil, even a blind man can see that.

Some of you might wonder why the mob, the blind commissioner or extremists are of such concern? I would reply that in times of economic crisis [such as ours], there is real danger for us all. Even EC Comics warned us with a 1952 story ‘The Patriots’ by Al Feldstein. This tale showed these dangers vividly where a Crowd turns into a jingoistic Mob that misdirects patriotism into murder. I respect writers such as Shirley Jackson, who warn us about the dangers of Mobs. She published her novella ‘The Lottery’ [1948], a chilling work that was banned in South Africa at the time; and one that resonates strongly for those of us concerned at the barbaric ‘stoning’ punishment in Iran and other repressive states. The Mob again has their blind Commissioner, to allow the unspeakable to happen.

My day was enriched today thanks to John Baker making me ‘think’ as only a writer can. If you haven’t discovered the work of John Baker – click here and here because his writing is well worth exploring.

And remember what Edmund Burke said “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
The Choice is always ours


  1. Also interesting is the origin of the song title, which is a combination of Keruac's Desolation Angels (1965) and Steibeck's Cannery Row (1945); but Dylan also makes reference in the lyrics to TS Eliot, and it's more than likely that The Waste Land (1922) was part of his historical/cultural landscape.

  2. Thank you, Ali and John. Mob mentality is on my mind a lot these days. It's scary to watch it brewing all around. You'd think, with all the books and movies out there which show us the bad sides of human nature, that we'd all get beyond it.

    Technology has done away with the total isolation that seems to cause small communities' mob thinking. How to prevent hate crimes done by very small groups though, when the idea to hurt or kill an outsider is spontaneous and viral to the point they act as one, is a more difficult one to solve.

  3. Technology can also aid the viral spread of mindless mob 'thinking' (can we call it thinking?) Look at the infamous online adulation of Raold Moat.