A River of Gratitude

The story of how one simple gift changed everything between Donald Trump and China’s President Xi

President Trump recently returned from a relatively successful visit to Asia — measured on a bell curve where managing not to vomit on the Japanese Prime Minister and not to start World War III are considered successes. There were few substantial gains or diplomatic breakthroughs, but no mega-gaffs either. (Possibly a few dead fish in the koi pond at Akasaka Palace, but for Trump that is coals to Newcastle.)

What should we make of the visit? On the one hand, they say travel broadens the mind. On the other hand, Japanese zen has the concept of no-mind. If Trump had no-mind to begin with, then maybe the trip didn’t broaden anything (except perhaps the national debt). Or maybe Trump’s version is “I no mind if you flatter me to pieces.”

They say there’s honour among thieves. Politicians? Not so much so. That’s why at the ASEAN summit held on November 13, Trump participated in a complicated form of handshake designed to prevent the motley collection of leaders from picking each other’s pockets while on stage together.

The ASEAN summit, and a handshake instead of a kiss.

Trump reportedly signed up for an event billed as “The Spilla in Manilla,” but chickened out when he heard his hotel room was bugged. Clad in a Barong at one point, he was mistaken for a waiter and forced to return the tips he collected from other waiters’ stations.

Trump and Duterte: Two Barongs don’t make a right (or Human Rights)

The most notable feature of the trip was the turnaround in how Trump regarded China and its newly annointed strongman President Xi Jingping. During his 2016 campaign, Trump spoke harsh words about China, accusing the nation of rapacious trade policies and vowing revenge. But after being fêted in the Forbidden City and treated to a military parade, Trump began to thaw slightly.

By the end of his China visit, Trump was singing a different tune entirely. What prompted this miraculous turnaround? It’s almost like he was ready to start passing out little red hats saying Make America Xi Again. (Not to be confused with the motto of the Ex-Lax company, which is Make America Shi– well, better not go there.) But seriously, what spurred the change?

The Chinese are gracious hosts and masters of the ceremonial, so it stands to reason that President Xi could locate just the right gift that would soften up Trump and appeal to his particular interests and proclivities. It was an audio CD that reportedly did the trick:

So next time you have a tiff with a friend (or even a head of state), think how some little gift, carefully selected, can open the floodgates of forgiveness and lead to a river of gratitude.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Alabama Narrowly Averts Deluge of Roy Moore Jokes

We’ve all heard the digs at our Southern compatriots: Amabala – the backward state. Passing a roll of Cottonelle to the state which dares to defend its rights (and wrongs).

I know it’s not polite when Easterners rib Southerners about their “backward” culture. But it’s also not polite for Southerners to (very nearly) send the likes of Roy Moore to the Senate, where he might have voted on issues affecting the lives of everyone in the country. Moore’s proximity to the Senate understandably causes a rift in civility.

The late Andy Kaufman was, in part, a comedian. He was also a combination merry prankster and provocateur specializing in the politically incorrect. He craved intense interaction with a crowd, and stand-up comedy seemingly wasn’t doing it for him at a latter stage of his career. So he decided to become a pro wrestler.

As a wrestler, he adopted various bad guy personas, and reveled in the hatred he could generate by (for example) wrestling women, and claiming to be the Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World. In this persona, he would act like the consummate male chauvinist pig, taunting women that he was so superior to them, and they could never beat him (though occasionally they did).

When wrestling men, especially in the deep South, he adopted a different bad guy persona. He and fellow wrestler Jerry Lawler formed a partnership where Lawler would play the popular Southerner that everyone would root for, and Kaufman would play a parody of a New York Jew — which entailed him losing the match, then threatening to sue everyone in sight. But he took it much farther…

Kaufman seemed determined to tear away at any thin veneer of civility which existed between Southerners and Easterners, and to provoke a response of sheer hatred. He knew the stereotypes of Southerners that Southerners hated, and his routine entailed baiting them crudely and mercilessly until he was finally pounded by Lawler (to the crowd’s delight).

Kaufman would bait Southerners live in the ring, or in pre-recorded TV segments meant to drum up publicity for matches. He gave the crowd their money’s worth. They loved to hate him, and loved it when Lawler would finally use the “Piledriver” (his patented move) to finish Kaufman off. If it looked like Lawler had broken Kaufman’s neck, so much the better.

What was the abuse that Kaufman heaped on Southerners that made them want to see Jerry Lawler break his neck?

It was all theatre or a strange kind of comedy, but you wonder who was or wasn’t in on the joke.

Anyway, if Amabala had sent us Roy Moore, what could one do but pass them a roll of Cottonelle, possibly with an instruction manual using pictographs only?

Let’s hope the Old South is truly dead and buried (or at least resting comfortably), and that the election of Doug Jones is a harbinger of the New South marching in the general vicinity of the twenty-first century!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Of Further Interest

Kaufman and Lawler continue their feud on Letterman (YouTube)

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Al Franken and Democratic Remorse

Some democrats are lamenting the ouster of Al Franken and what it portends for the future. Is Mika Brzezinski the face of democratic conscience? Can feminism be fair and evenhanded?

Like democracy, feminism is a word which can mean so many different things to different people. Whose idea of democracy, and established by what means? Likewise, whose idea of feminism?

To some, feminism means equality for women, equal respect for women, equal opportunity for women, equal pay for women, equal choice for women, equal justice for women, and fully valuing women in whatever roles they choose to play. In this version of feminism, men are also winners, because (to whatever extent men’s interests enter into it) men then have mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, doctors, lawyers, colleagues, friends, and partners who are fully living their potential — happier, more fulfilled, and therefore also more able to give to others in every field of endeavor. Looked at in this way, even selfish men have a selfish interest in seeing feminist ideals succeed.

As for less selfish men, I think they embrace this ideal of feminism because deep down they know they can’t be happy unless women are also happy; they know they can’t be happy if any segment of our society is intentionally held back, disadvantaged, or devalued. Some men are (believe it or not) capable of great empathy, and are truly with women and for women in their struggles for equality.

Nevertheless, every difference between groups of people has the potential to divide them and devolve into tribalism. Because (like democracy) feminism is such a vast concept, there are versions of that concept which are less enlightened, and which don’t lead to peaceful coexistence, mutual respect, or shared love and trust between women and men. Some feminism is highly tribal and represents more of a naked power grab than an effort to achieve harmony through equality.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but some extreme feminism says, “You had the power; now we’re taking back the power by any means we can, and we’re going to make you suffer. You’re scared? We want you to be scared.” And as Bari Weiss implied in a New York Times opinion piece, some feminism ascribes to every woman everywhere an absolute unqualifed Truthfulness which (realistically) doesn’t apply to human beings in general, regardless of gender.

Some years ago when serving on a trial jury, I recall how we were all instructed that police, however heroically they may be portrayed in police procedurals, are just human beings like the rest of us. They sometimes lie, and are sometimes motivated by base instincts like greed and hatred.

There is much wrong with our justice system, and our jails are hell-holes. But at least the ideal of justice embodied by our adversarial system is that anyone accused is innocent until proven guilty, that a jury should be a trier of fact, that there should be due process, that the defendant should be fairly represented in the proceedings, and that the jury should not reach a verdict based on prejudice, but on the specifics of the case before it.

If any prosecutor or defense attorney tried to instruct the jury that their moral or legal duty was simply to “believe the women” (just because they are women), they would probably (and rightfully) be admonished by the court.

The demand by women for equality and justice is absolutely right and righteous. But it sails past the target when it demands that women as a tribe or as a gender should have a unique right not granted to any other tribe or gender that whatever they say must be believed — must be accorded unqualifed and unquestioning belief — simply because they are women. Pressing this view (as many are now doing) does result in backlash, because it’s an example of overreaching. It threatens notions of fairness basic to our democracy, and when put into practice, leads to gross injustices to men.

I would think the goal of enlightened feminism is not to turn the tables and create a system which favours women over men, but to create a system which is equally fair to both men and women. I would think the goal of enlightened feminism is not to exacerbate the so-called “war between the sexes,” but to find a way to lasting peace and understanding.

There’s also a very practical point to be made about backlash, which allows me to segue into a video clip from Morning Joe where Mika Brzezinski expresses concern about the manner in which Al Franken was dispatched by his senate colleagues, and what this could portend for women. Going to break (though not shown in the clip), Mika quips: “If I claim that somebody grabbed my butt, could I get him fired right now? Is that the reality?” No evidence or hearing required, was her implication. And I sensed her further implication was that this might lead to fewer women being hired, because they would be viewed as too much of a liability.

The clip is a mixed bag due to the dynamics, with Joe Scarborough interrupting Mika Brzezinski (nothing new there!) to make acerbic comments about some viewers who’ve apparently been hectoring (or even threatening) the two of them.

I don’t have all the answers, but Mika Brzezinski’s view, tempered by conscience, is one which I admire. I’ve seen similar concerns expressed by progressive women who are also mothers of sons, and whose identification with their sons leads them to feel that men are not an opposing tribe, and should not be assumed to be villains. These women are feminists, but they’re also wise enough to know that in any dispute between a man and a woman, gender is no guarantee of truthfulness, and taking sides based solely on gender does not result in any true and lasting benefit for women, but is rather a form of prejudice.

In other posts, I’ve touched upon the concept of a moral panic (here and here). Without revisiting all that, let me clarify that just because something has risen to the level of a moral panic doesn’t mean there is no underlying problem. Sexual abuse of women and girls is a serious problem in society. But when that problem is raised to the level of a moral panic in the media (with accompanying frantic fingerpointing and search for scapegoats), does this help or hinder the ability to make progress on the underlying issue?

I would argue that a moral panic tends to hinder. For one thing, it takes a great deal of psychic energy to sustain a moral panic, so they tend to burn themselves out after awhile. In the aftermath, people may end up being less sensitized to the underlying problem than they were before. This is because during a moral panic a problem is presented dramatically as an immediate and dire threat which will engulf society unless drastic measures are taken. There are communists hiding under every bed, satanists at every preschool, or every congressman is a sexual abuser. This overstatement of the problem leads to harmful overreactions in which some innocent people’s lives are ruined. This in turn leads to remorse, reevaluation, and a recognition that the problem was less severe and the danger less immediate than was claimed by the government, the media, or whoever spurred the moral panic in the first place.

To really put an end to sexual abuse will require gradual changes in society. Overheated rhetoric, frantic fingerpointing, inflated claims, and suspension of due process are counterproductive over time, leading to backlash and reduced sensitivity to the underlying problem (which is a real problem).

Given that feminism is a vast concept, perhaps there exists political feminism, humanistic feminism, even spiritual feminism. In political feminism, individual human beings are sometimes seen as expendable if this advances political objectives. Thus, in the video clip Susan Del Percio refers to Al Franken as “collateral damage.” This is why I tend to prefer spiritual feminism.

I’m sure the last thing most women want is for me to “mansplain” them feminism; but as I’ve written a few posts about the Al Franken matter, I wanted to try and tie things together in this post, which represents my evolving understanding.

Potent quote: “Trust me, Kirsten Gillibrand I want you to run for president, but you gotta keep it real.” –Mika Brzezinski (My translation: Don’t be a headhunter!)

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Of Goobers and Gobbers

If the Donald’s tweets are to be believed, gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie failed to “embrace” Dear Leader, and so suffered a shocking defeat. He mother no love him anymore!

I pity people learning English as a second language. (I pity myself, but that’s another story.) Where does “gubernatorial” come from? It always reminds me of, well…

Mr. Peanut, the original “goobernatorial” candidate

Still, I suppose some candidates are bigger goobers than others. Some are bigger gobbers than others. Remember Gobber Newhouse?

With a feeling of disbelief I recognised Gobber Newhouse. I had had previous experience of his disregard for the licensing laws and it was clear he had been at it again. … He reeled up the aisle, turned, to my dismay, into our row, rested briefly on Helen’s lap, trod on my toe and finally spread his enormous carcass over the seat on my left.

— James Herriot, from All Creatures Great and Small

Enter the Gobber Newhouse lookalike contest and win a free MAGA hat! (Ability to slobber all over oneself not strictly required.)

Gobber Newhouse played by Ivor Salter

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Breaking: Trump Opens New Golf Course on Indian Land

“This is a line of Indians leaving Rancho Malario. To make room for you! Here’s the beautiful Trail of Tears Golf Course…”

Full comedy album here.

More About The Firesign Theatre

“Classic comedy album a Firesign of the times” (Boston Globe)

Note: The album title in question admits of seasonal variations. Now that the Trumpster claims to be resuscitating Christmas, one might say “Don’t crush that crèche, hand me the pliers.” Something to think about while eating at Papa John’s. (Don’t!)

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Al Franken, Sexual McCarthyism, and Moral Panics

More on the Al Franken/Leeaan Tweeden blowup, plus film & TV clips exploring moral panics and McCarthyism from different angles.

About ten days ago, Huffington Post contributor David Fagin penned a searing screed decrying the alleged framing of Al Franken by Trump supporters. It seems to have gotten pulled by Fagin or HuffPo. It was pretty over-the-top (perhaps written in haste or anger), but Fagin made some good points about the propagandistic nature of Tweeden’s attack on Franken:

Then, there is the way [Tweeden’s] piece is constructed. Anyone else find it a bit odd she mentions her father, Vietnam, her husband, the Air Force, the troops in the Middle East, and 9/11, all in the first paragraph? If one didn’t know better, one would think she was going for the easy sympathy play and using the military service of her father and husband, as well as the rest of the armed forces overseas, to further ingratiate herself to the reader. Almost like a calling card to other right-wing MAGA’s out there. “My father, brother, husband, cousin, neighbor’s nephew’s dog, and piano teacher’s great grandson are all in the military, so that means you should believe me no matter what.”

Al Franken allegedly kissing a woman during a rehearsal of a skit ten years ago is exactly what Congress should be using tax payer dollars to investigate at this moment in time.

There’s another dimension to the optics here. Leeann Tweeden is a sort of Miss America type. Al Franken is a sort of Woody Allen type. So I thought of this clip from Allen’s 1971 comedy Bananas:

To overthink it would spoil the humor, which is delicious, though not always politically correct. Political correctness will be the death of the American left. Right now Al Franken is being sacrificed on the altar of political correctness by people who should know better. It’s not a pretty thing to watch. Harry Truman once said (or possibly didn’t say), “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

I might not agree with David Fagin on everything, but he tweeted that “#AlFranken is the first victim of sexual McCarthyism.” There’s probably some truth in that. I find myself recalling the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”:

First airing in 1960, its subtext was nothing other than McCarthyism viewed as a moral panic (though the term “moral panic” would not come into widespread use in the social sciences for another decade).

As in much late 50s/early 60s sci-fi, the theme is aliens in our midst, as a metaphor for fear of communist infiltration. In a moral panic, fear of a problem (which may be a real problem) becomes exaggerated to the point of rampant paranoia and a frenzy of finger-pointing — much like the present culture of public accusation. “Look! Under that rock! It’s another sexual abuser! Everybody run, run, run, and grab a few stones while you are running. We shall stone the Canaanite!” Or as the old adage goes: “When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.” (The adage has been quoted by everyone from Herman Wouk to Robert Heinlein to Spider John Koerner.)

This is not to underestimate the importance of taking sane, rational steps to create a culture in which sexual abuse of women and girls is not tolerated. The problem is real. But the present media frenzy is not helpful, and may even be counterproductive in relation to genuine change, since outrage may be a substitute for action, and can lead to outrage fatigue.

I think there are two extremes to be avoided: one where women never talk about sexual abuse, so nothing ever gets done; and the other where every woman has to have a story of abuse in order to be admitted to the sisterhood, and every edition of The View, Good Morning America, or Hannity must have its Leeann Tweeden wannabe rabbiting on about a misplaced kiss in the distant past, in between autographing copies of Playboy.

Of course, in the midst of a moral panic it may do little good to say, “Hey people, check yourselves out.” A moral panic is a form of collective insanity, and one feature of that insanity is the inability to hear voices of calm and reason. It’s a little like this ancient tale about the wise king and the poisoned well, which was reprised in the 1973 film Serpico, about a New York City cop who fights against police corruption and is hated for it. If you don’t drink from the same well as everyone else, they’ll simply say you’re crazy or don’t understand the frightful danger they’re responding to, or the overwhelming need (and greed).

A classic symptom of a moral panic is that the major media, while acting as if they are arbiters of what is reasonable, are actually fuelling or even constructing the moral panic.

A panic differs from a short-lived hoax in which the true facts are quickly brought to bear. Consider the Mercury Theatre’s radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Broadcast in 1938, it was presented in such a way that many casual listeners really believed the Earth was being invaded by Martians:

According to a short article on History.com:

Perhaps as many as a million radio listeners believed that a real Martian invasion was underway. Panic broke out across the country. In New Jersey, terrified civilians jammed highways seeking to escape the alien marauders. People begged police for gas masks to save them from the toxic gas and asked electric companies to turn off the power so that the Martians wouldn’t see their lights. One woman ran into an Indianapolis church where evening services were being held and yelled, “New York has been destroyed! It’s the end of the world! Go home and prepare to die!” [Editor’s note: Similar sentiments were voiced just after the November 2016 presidential election.]

The broadcast may not even rise to the level of a hoax, since those who listened from the outset knew it was only a radio play, and announcements to that effect were inserted at intervals.

What’s different about a moral panic is that it often concerns a perceived problem about which there is limited or sketchy information, and the facts or true dimensions of the problem remain difficult to ascertain. This may lead to an extended period of wild speculation, acts of vigilantism, and harsh social control measures which later turn out to have been uncalled for.

The panic over alleged satanic ritual abuse of children at preschools in the 1980s is a classic example of a moral panic. This New York Times book review of We Believe The Children  includes an excellent summary, and notes:

Elaine Showalter, in “Hystories” (1997), showed how the psychological establishment, and feminists within it, intrigued by trauma theory, so-called multiple personalities and a new belief in recovered memories, was primed to believe outlandish stories of abuse, especially from women. Believing the victim became nonnegotiable — with adult female patients, then with children and even toddlers.

Moral panics tend to occur in cycles, and are not understood by the average participant in them; so in the present phase, hashtags like #MeToo and #BelieveTheWomen are not viewed as problematic by those who fail to study history.

Those remembering The X-Files might have gleaned something of the flavour of moral panics from the episode “Syzygy” (s3e13), which combines analysis of the Satanic Panic phenom with humor. Like “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” it captures the quality of frantic finger-pointing and mob rule in which everyone is suspect, especially those who are different in some way. In “Maple Street,” the first suspect is a stargazer who suffers from insomnia, while in “Syzygy,” the crowd storms the house of a cross-dresser.

From the study of moral panics we observe that the media as a whole is not an impartial body standing apart from the fray and carefully disseminating accurate accounts. The media get caught up in the frenzy, and become a major force in stirring it to fever pitch, perhaps providing moral cover for vigilantes.

If a moral panic is a type of madness of crowds, people in media hardly seem immune to that madness. Some of what they do is no doubt intentional profiteering off a craze, but some is personal surrender to an easy narrative that arouses passion. For all their journalistic training, they are carried away by the same tide as non-media actors. In some cases they are responsible for constructing the moral panic. Indeed, some theorists define moral panics as a media phenomenon:

A moral panic may be defined as an episode, often triggered by alarming media stories and reinforced by reactive laws and public policy, of exaggerated or misdirected public concern, anxiety, fear, or anger over a perceived threat to social order.

To a great degree, moral panics take place in the media. During moral panics, media coverage, rousing public fears over a reputed social problem, also assists appreciably in constructing that problem.

Charles Krinsky, “Introduction: The Moral Panic Concept”

Take the panic over violence between between Mods and Rockers in 1960s Britain:

Interviewed in the video, moral panic theorist Stanley Cohen says: “The media, by their reaction, kept the panic going, and therefore in a sense amplified it.”

In the argot of moral panic theory, Al Franken has been transformed into a “folk devil” by hysterical media coverage. The extent and nature of that coverage, particularly in right-wing media, seems quite out of kilter with the alleged wrongdoing.

Though an incompetent and odious president, Donald Trump has always shown a talent for media manipulation. He helped spur the transformation of Franken into a “folk devil” by referring to him as “Al Frankenstien” [sic] in a tweet.

The “folk devil” spoken of in moral panic theory bears some resemblance to what we might today call a “meme.” Memes and folk devils have little regard for individuals and their differences, tending to act the like the whale which swallowed Jonah. The individual is swallowed by a meme or folk devil characterization, and his or her qualities are conflated with those of a large number of other individuals, many (perhaps most) of whom bear little true relation to one another. Thus Al Franken is conflated with Roy Moore.

In the 1980s there was a panic concerning new religious movements (sometimes redefined pejoratively as “cults”). While most religious and spiritual groups are peace-loving and law-abiding, the events at Jonestown in 1978 (where about 900 people perished) crystallized sentiment against new religious movements, causing virtually any such movement (no matter how pacific) to be conflated with the horror at Jonestown.

Fundraising letters from anti-cult groups in the 80s hypothesized that millions of Americans belonged to purported “cults” without even knowing it, and suggested that the church or temple down the street — the one your neighbour goes to — might be a secret hotbed of cult activity. Like communists and alien invaders, cults were said to possess the power to brainwash innocent youth and turn them into mindless robots hell-bent on destruction.

To be sure they weren’t unwitting members of a “cult,” readers of anti-cult tracts were urged to subject their faith to a “cult checklist” which, being composed by secular rationalists, was sure to test positive for virtually any faith held deeply and actually practiced in real life. Although the panic has died down since the 80s, the prejudice against minority faiths persists, and the notion that faith groups must pass a test devised by secular rationalists is still popularized in some periodicals and on the Internet.

Those spiritual groups which had their roots in Hinduism and Buddhism were often singled out for special vitriol, and the practice of meditation — which has since gained widespread appeal for its benefits — was branded as extremely dangerous, a tool used by “cults” to exercise “destructive mind control.” In retrospect, this seems like the paranoid fantasy of ultra-rationalists who couldn’t cope with the insights that Eastern philosophy and practice bestowed upon the West. Consider by contrast this (more recent) NBC Nightly News report on meditation in the schools:

Returning to the matter nearer at hand: During a moral panic, people who understand the media can manipulate events; so the claim is made that Leeann Tweeden is part of a cynical effort to take down Sen. Al Franken, and does not make a very convincing victim. In my post “Of Senators and Playmates,” I closed with an uncaptioned image of Raquel Welch performing for the troops in a bygone era:

But looked at symbolically, the pic can also represent Leeann Tweeden and the media. She’s a bright shiny object which the media find irresistible. She elicits from them the same mindless drooling and circling reaction you see from the troops in the photo. Someone who understands media can count on that almost Pavlovian response, and orchestrate it in a Machiavellian (or Rimsky-Korsakovian) way.

During a moral panic, satire is one element that can help restore perspective. The above-mentioned David Fagin recently tweeted:

We have nearly reached that point.

As for the more serious implications, in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, writer-narrator Rod Serling closes like so:

The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices to be found only in the minds of men. For the record: prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own — for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.


Sidebar: MST3k Satire on the McCarthy Era

According to one theory, the reason so many people were taken in by the Mercury Theatre’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast is that they tuned in late — having been listening on another network to ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. The latter is not to be confused with Sen. Joe McCarthy, the legendary figure behind the Army-McCarthy hearings which came to be regarded as a “witch hunt” for communists in the 1950s.

Leveraging this coincidence of names, the MST3k gang did a satire of the McCarthy era based on supposed testimony from a variety of puppets and cartoon characters:

This is hysterically funny if you know a little about a) the real McCarthy hearings, and b) the cited puppet/cartoon characters. I’ll stop short of providing a monograph on the subject, but may add a list of characters and links. The sketch appears in Mystery Science Theater 3000 #205, where the main feature is Rocket Attack U.S.A., a low-budget cold war spy drama.

The McCarthy era was one in which many left-leaning writers (some mentioned in the sketch) were blacklisted and couldn’t work. Bringing us full circle, this was the subject of Martin Ritt’s 1976 film The Front (starring Woody Allen), which ended with a cheeky (but funny!) rebuke to the men who interrogated witnesses in a manner so lacking in decency (NSFW):

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Links

The Front – Official Trailer
At The Circus with Topo Gigio

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Leeann Tweeden and Blaming The Victim

UPDATED! When Leeann Tweeden launched her publicity campaign against Al Franken, appearing on a number of TV shows which have viewership in the millions, I began looking into her background. This culminated in my writing “Of Senators and Playmates.” Why is this not an example of “slut-shaming” or “blaming the victim?” Why shouldn’t we simply accept Tweeden’s claims at face value?

Feminists advance many arguments, many of which I agree with. One argument is that by subjecting Leeann Tweeden to scrutiny, we’re creating an environment in which “victims” will be afraid to come forward. This argument needs to be carefully examined. It’s a good argument in theory, and there are many situations to which it’s properly applied. This isn’t one of them. Here’s why:

Unless we want to surrender to a mob mentality, the only way we can properly adjudicate claims of improper sexual behaviour is through some form of due process. From the point of view of due process and fairness, the hardest claims to evaluate are those which are made years after the alleged event, and which emerge in connection with some type of publicity campaign, partisan attack, or therapy fad.

The #MeToo movement is a very mixed bag. At its best it embodies the courage of women who have been long silent to tell their stories — stories which need telling. But at its worst, it’s a reenactment of the whole Courage To Heal debacle, which resulted in many false accusations and destroyed many innocent people’s lives. Paraphrasing George Santayana, those who fail to study this debacle are doomed to repeat it. It seems to be a generational thing: People who don’t know what happened in the 90s are blindly and blithely repeating it circa 2017.

The issues are subtle and complex, but to get at the crux of them I commend to the reader these two pieces appearing on Salon.com:

The lie that tore my family apart
Interview with Meredith Maran

The nature of movements like Courage To Heal is that they tend to create a me-too mentality. It’s politically taboo to say this, but it must be said for the sake of honesty: During a period of moral panic, some women wholeheartedly embrace victim feminism, but their claims of abuse are either woven out of whole cloth, or exaggerated to the point that they barely resemble real world events.

Some feminists are smart enough and honest enough to recognize that false or inflated claims are counterproductive to the larger goal of ending sexual abuse, and lead to a backlash in which women’s complaints in this area are less believed. (If you don’t believe in backlash, just consider who we have as president.)

Other feminists stubbornly cling to the belief that “women never lie” about a thing like that, and that there are “no rewards” for “coming forward.” In truth there are many rewards, including attention, sympathy, and being part of the latest social/political fad. Again, it’s politically taboo to say this, but presenting oneself as a victim is a status symbol in some feminist circles, and becomes a part of social identity formation. That’s one of the points being made by Meredith Maran.

This was a major issue in the UVA rape hoax, where a woman named Jackie drifted into a survivors group, and appeared to adopt a borrowed scenario from a book she had been given about campus rape. This interview conducted by Ronan Farrow with Liz Seccuro, a genuine survivor of a UVA campus rape 34 years ago, gets at the underlying issues:

Liz Seccuro: Anonymous people, blog commenters, my friends, and my family all called me, or commented, or wrote to me and said, “This is your story.” I can’t comprehend how someone would co-opt someone else’s pain and story for this.

Ronan Farrow: Do you think there’s a chance that that’s what happened, that Jackie co-opted your story?

Liz Seccuro: I think, as I said it’s been suggested to me so many times that I have to allow it to be a possibility.

Ronan Farrow: I understand the crisis management center [at UVA] gave out your book to survivors.

Liz Seccuro: Yes.

Ronan Farrow: Do you think that Jackie perhaps believed that your story was hers?

Liz Seccuro: I think that somebody who has now told this story so many times, and stuck by her story even after being discredited, I believe that that person would have some mental issues, and would believe that.

Ronan Farrow: If this is true, if by some happenstance Jackie co-opted your story (to use your words), what’s your message to her?

Liz Seccuro: Well I think right now, my message to her is to get some help and to understand — and I’m not ruling out that nothing happened to her. I think something traumatic has happened to her in her life, and I think she needs to get some help to address that. It’s very easy to become enamoured with the survivor community and dive into that. But unless you’re willing to talk to the police and to file a complaint, you can’t level these sort of allegations. It was hard for me, and we had evidence. You can’t make these sort of allegations that live on forever, because look at the mess we’re in now.

MSNBC interview with Liz Seccuro

My intention is not to “weaponize” false reports, but simply to point out that during a moral panic, it’s hard to evaluate reports at face value because those making false reports can seem sincere and well-intentioned. During a panic, we’re told to believe the women (or children, or whomever) unquestioningly. But later, after the panic has died down, we realize the truth in what Cathy Young wrote on Slate.com: “A de facto presumption of guilt in alleged sexual offenses is as dangerous as a presumption of guilt in any crime, and for the same reasons: It upends the foundations on which our system of justice rests and creates a risk of ruining innocent lives.” Mere numbers of reports are not dispositive. Bari Weiss writes:

I think that “believing all women” can rapidly be transmogrified into an ideological orthodoxy that will not serve women at all.

If the past few weeks have shown us the unique horrors some women have faced, the answer to it can’t be a stringent new solidarity that further limits the definition of womanhood and lumps our highly diverse experiences together simply based on our gender. I don’t think that helps women. Or men.

I believe that the “believe all women” vision of feminism unintentionally fetishizes women. Women are no longer human and flawed. They are Truth personified. They are above reproach.

I believe that it’s condescending to think that women and their claims can’t stand up to interrogation and can’t handle skepticism. I believe that facts serve feminists far better than faith. That due process is better than mob rule.

– Bari Weiss, The Limits of ‘Believe All Women,’  The New York Times

There’s an important distinction between anti-feminists who want to downplay the very real problem of sexual abuse, and feminists (some, victims themselves) who want to minimize false claims and maintain a reasonable perspective (thereby avoiding backlash). Charlotte Vale Allen, a genuine abuse survivor and the author of Daddy’s Girl writes:

A woman I’ve known for over thirty years who’s always been searching for her ‘gift,’ for the career move that will finally bring her happiness has now got memories that fill her with purpose. After falling out of touch for a decade, she telephoned to say, in essence, ‘Guess what? Me too!’ But in the very new tones of tremendous self-importance. This woman who’d never been able to find something to do in life that would bring her any satisfaction was now positively brimming with it. With the help of her therapist, she’d at last found her calling–as a victim! She had ludicrous, unbelievable tales to tell of satanic abuse–in the heart of one of Toronto’s oldest, wealthiest areas. Right! … What is going on? It’s as if some sort of collective lunacy has taken hold of people–the patients and therapists, both lockstepped in a march toward finding a past history of abuse at all costs. Victimhood as a desirable status is anathema to me[.]”

Having been aware of this quote for over a decade, when I hear there’s a new social media movement with hashtag #MeToo, I think “Uh-oh. Here we go again.”

During such a period, we need to be especially careful to separate reasonable claims timely made and backed up by evidence, from claims made in connection with publicity campaigns, partisan attacks, or faddism — whether social, political, therapeutic, even journalistic.

During a moral panic, the mere accusation or act of finger-pointing is enough to destroy someone’s life, or at least their career. Alarmists say the problem of abuse is so serious that we need to forget about due process and fairness, and simply burn at the stake (or flame in the media) anyone who’s even accused, no matter how partisan the attack or how flimsy the evidence. Historically, such people are called “reactionaries.” Their opinion flies in the face of American ideals of justice.

During a moral panic, the notion is floated that if we don’t immediately flay anyone who has been accused, some evildoers might escape punishment. This is true, but it has always been true. In a just society, we only punish those who are proven guilty. We can do no more and still be a just society. Otherwise, we would become like our Dear Leader, who advocates that police slam the heads of suspects into squad cars.

Teen Vogue columnist Emily Lindin tweeted, “I’m actually not at all concerned about innocent men losing their jobs over false sexual assault/harassment allegations … If some innocent men’s reputations have to take a hit in the process of undoing the patriarchy, that is a price I am absolutely willing to pay.” This is tribalism at its worst and not a view informed by conscience.

Spiritual insight suggests that those whom we cannot punish (because there is no proof) are still subject to the Law of Karma. If they have done wrong, they will eventually pay the price. In our human justice, then, we should not be excessively bloodthirsty or vengeful, nor adopt polices which would punish the innocent along with the guilty, or make it impossible for men and women to coexist peacefully and lovingly.

During a moral panic, numbers replace substance. This is something I understood from a piece by barrister Barbara Hewson on Spiked-Online.com:

Unlike a train crash or a disaster like Thalidomide (where the damage is obvious), an acute problem with historic abuse claims is the absence of direct evidence, apart from the claimant’s unsupported word. An uncritical approach to claimants, then, is going to make it easier for those who are either mistaken or malicious to make false allegations.

A further problem is the general acceptance of the notion of ‘corroboration by volume,’ where claims of sexual abuse are involved. This means that the greater the volume of claims, the more they are seen as mutually supporting. So weak claims reinforce strong ones, and vice versa. Indeed, a mass of weak claims is also taken as compelling. So there is little incentive to weed out weak claims.

Back in 1924, the then Lord Chief Justice warned of the danger of this approach:

‘The risk, the danger, the logical fallacy is indeed quite manifest to those who are in the habit of thinking about such matters. It is so easy to derive from a series of unsatisfactory accusations, if there are enough of them, an accusation which at least appears satisfactory. It is so easy to collect from a mass of ingredients, not one of which is sufficient, a totality which will appear to contain what is missing.’

If this is a problem in the courts, it is ten times worse in the media, where we are now treating #MeToo tweets as evidence of crimes, rather than evidence of social affinity. But in the midst of a moral panic it may do no good to say “Hey people, check yourselves out.” The popular mania is too strong, so people of sense and sensibility tend to withdraw from public life.

After the panic has died down, the crowd may return to business as usual, because they regret the excessive blaming and public shaming which occurred in the panic phase. That’s why some feminists are trying to tone down the sort of rhetoric which would brand a single stolen kiss among friends as an incident of sexual assault, or would demand that we uncritically accept any allegation which is floated, or insist that women are the only ones ever targeted for unwelcome advances in the workplace.

One portion of the (earlier) quote from Barbara Hewson perhaps requires clarification. We understand how someone could make a “malicious” claim, but how could someone simply be “mistaken” about an “historic abuse claim” dating back a number of years? A couple of points here:

– First, there are those people (we’ve all met them) for whom feelings, emotions, and beliefs are the only reality (or at least the primary reality). Such people rewrite history to correspond to their changing emotions, belief systems — even political views. When their view turns negative, past events are rewritten accordingly.

– Second, people may substantially change their identities over time. They sometimes judge past events according to the person who they are now, rather than the original social context in which those events occurred. Who was Al Franken in 2006? Who was Leeann Tweeden? He was a comedian and she was a pinup girl. They were both putting on a USO tour which was raunchy and sexual. Eleven years later, Franken is a U.S. senator and Tweeden is an anchor for talk radio (though she continues to sell autographed copies of Playboy). A kiss, if it occurred in 2006, might not have been far out of place in the original social context, though it would be out of place today.

– Third, there are numerous external influence factors which can cause people to change their story, or to bring up a past incident out of the blue as an alleged incident of sexual assault, when they didn’t view it that way at the time. Psychologist Tana Dineen calls such people “synthetic victims”:

Synthetic victims are the people who become persuaded that they have been sexually harassed and often they appear to be truly suffering the psychological consequences. … [They include] the person who describes a scene to a co-worker, a spouse or maybe to a psychologist or even a lawyer and is provided with encouragement to think about it differently, perhaps as an incident of harassment or assault.

Memories change; reactions change; feelings change AND stories change. Relatively trivial events can become dramatic; they can be moulded, edited and modified to fit the sexual harassment script which people can easily find in pop psychology books, women’s magazines and on talk shows and now even on the Internet. As Mordecai Richler puts it in his most recent book Barney’s Version, these are people who “are tinkering with memory, fine-tuning reality.”

Scrupulously investigate any sexual harassment report that lands on your desk, looking not only for corroborating evidence, but, also, for possible contamination by the Psychology Industry. This contamination can take place, not only directly in psychotherapy but indirectly through pop psychology books, self-help manuals, media reports, support groups, comments made by family or co-workers, and even information posted on the Internet [e.g. #MeToo movement].

— Tana Dineen, from “Are We Manufacturing Victims?” (comment added)

– Fourth, especially when the claim is made as part of a publicity campaign with partisan overtones, we can’t rule out the possibility that someone’s willingness to “rethink” a past event was influenced by career, politics, or money. This borders on the knowingly malicious, but some people are not honest — even with themselves. When adopting a new narrative becomes advantageous to them (and is perhaps suggested by political operatives), they find the new narrative irresistible and embrace it as if true. It’s not quite lying, but very close to it. They convince themselves that it is true because it serves their narrow interests of the moment, and a cause which they view favourably.

Returning to my original point: Leeann Tweeden is not a “victim” — she’s a complainant, but not a complainant in any forum providing due process. She’s a complainant in the three-ring circus of the media, and her complaint seems designed to jet-propel her career, gain publicity for the talk radio station which employs her, and take down Sen. Al Franken. Under those circumstances, it is appropriate to look into her background, to take note of her hypocrisy and her faux feminism. She’s anti-feminist on Hannity (and in posing nude for Playboy), but now claims to be part of the #MeToo movement. Give me a large personal break!

If you’re a victim of inappropriate sexual behavior, it’s important that you file a timely complaint with some body having adjudicatory authority. If you wait ten years, your only option will be to prostitute yourself in the media, as Leeann Tweeden is doing now. That she does so with great gusto is not a credit to her character.


Sidebar: Fish-lips shaming

While researching this article, I read Mark Peters’ piece on Slate.com about slut-shaming and a host of other types of shaming which have lately emerged. I was also struggling to explain why it’s a problem that in addition to being about an event ten years ago, Leeann Tweeden’s publicity campaign against Al Franken concerns a single kiss. Going over the details, I remembered that in trying to paint as ugly a picture of Franken as possible, Tweeden also accused him of having “fish lips.” Is this not a case of “fish-lips shaming,” and should not our silver-scaled brethren from the undersea kingdom feel slighted? Perhaps they should sue Tweeden for emotional distress and, ahem– loss of aquarium.

Fish-lips shaming is not an entirely new phenomenon. It is an adaptation or corruption of dog-lips shaming. If you’re a fan of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (as I certainly am), you know that Lucy Van Pelt is the original and most sadistic of dog-lips shamers, mercilessly deriding Snoopy for his Creator-bestowed smackers:

Fish-lips shaming may also be viewed as a variation on liver-lips shaming, which was a popular type of black-on-black rankout when I was growing up, maybe around grade 6 or 7.

Not to leave out the third main non-vegetarian alternative to hamburger: Had Al Franken not tried to kiss Leeann Tweeden on the 2006 USO tour (or so she says), he might have had to endure taunts of “Chicken-lips!” from enlisted men. (Chicken lips may also be an ingredient in some types of head cheese, in which case they deserve shaming!)

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

* * *

Of Senators and Playmates

Weighing in on the Al Franken/Leeann Tweeden blowup

As a quiet recluse, it often seems to me that people in society are constantly fighting with each other, trying to destroy each other. One day it’s whites against blacks, the next day Christians against gays, the next day women against men (or vice versa), with populist media always fanning the flames, heating things up to the point of mania.

Observing these fights, I’m often reminded of John Le Carré’s description of the latter stages of the cold war: half-angels fighting with half-devils, and no one knows who the goodies are. It makes me want to remain a conscientious objector.

From my remote observatory, the Al Franken/Leeann Tweeden blowup looks so junior high school. Franken is like the dorky guy rehearsing a play with the sex queen, so he has to act like a jerk (back in 2006) and try kissing her. (If that’s what happened. Franken says he remembers it differently.)

If I were a teacher-referee, I would sit the kiddees down and explain to Franken that just because Leeann Tweeden got her start as a Hooters waitress and parades around half-naked in biker & skin mags doesn’t mean he can take diabolical liberties. I would also explain to Tweeden that women who launch their careers by strutting their stuff in multiple venues tend to attract dorky guys who want to prove their manhood. The two types go together.

I’m a liberal, but not a knee-jerk liberal. I open myself to criticism from fellow liberals by saying that I’m more sympathetic to Franken than Tweeden. Why? Both come from an entertainment industry culture which is highly sexualized. But from all appearances, Al Franken made a conscious decision to break with that culture and become a staid, responsible political leader who has worked quietly for positive change this past decade. Leeann Tweeden is still part of an entertainment industry which is puerile and narcissistic. I don’t see her so much as a victim as an opportunist who’s using an ancient incident with Franken as another stepping stone in her career, jumping on the me-too bandwagon at a convenient moment in time, when a woman isn’t part of the sisterhood if she doesn’t have an abuse story to tell. Faux feminism at its worst.

It’s hypocritical to spend years feeding the beast (as Tweeden has done), then complain that it is ravenous. She has nothing but praise for “Hef” (as she calls him) — the late Hugh Hefner, who founded Playboy, gave Tweeden her big break, and more or less institutionalized the notion that women should be “playmates,” and wear bunny costumes that would define their roles even visually. See this HuffPo article discussing the Hefner legacy.

To Tweeden, Playboy is “iconic” and “cool,” but it might not be that way to women who’ve fought hard to create a world where women aren’t judged or commodified according to their looks.

Tweeden has no problem being a playmate or calendar kitten as long as it makes her famous and can be used as a springboard for a career in mainstream media, where looks count nearly as much as they do in the porn industry. (Does CNN really have its own peroxide factory, or is that just fake news?) On Tweeden’s Internet store, you can currently buy a “Personalized December 2011 Playboy Magazine” featuring her for a mere $100. Is that feminist empowerment?

KABC talk radio, where Tweeden currently works, rarely misses an opportunity to tout her history as a playmate, and the KABC website was the initial launch point for Tweeden’s public offensive against Franken — leading me to wonder how much of this is just another publicity stunt to boost ratings, and how much is pure politics. In a way, it’s a contest to see who has the strongest stomach for public confession as a form of therapy and self-stroking. Tweeden has yet to puke, though listeners may.

There’s a distinct odor of politics to her claims and their timing. Tweeden is a right-winger who’s fanatically pro military, while Franken is a left-winger who’s reasonably pro military, while also fighting to end abuses — notably, the problem of rape. Do a Google search for Franken anti-rape amendment and you’ll see a host of articles about how he forged ahead and got his amendment signed into law. See this 30-second spot by Amy Lawday Productions highlighting the amendment’s significance:

According to Emily Douglas, senior editor at The Nation:

Upon hearing the amendment passed, Jamie Leigh Jones told the Minnesota Post: “It means the world to me… It means that every tear shed to go public and repeat my story over and over again to make a difference for other women was worth it.” It’s a reminder that rape survivors go public with their stories at a serious emotional cost, and the onus is on political leaders and advocates to make it worth what could be only in the most euphemistic sense be referred to as their while.

— Emily Douglas, “Franken’s Anti-Rape Amendment”

Just because Franken has fought against rape as a senator doesn’t mean he was entitled to act offensively toward Tweeden back in 2006 when they were rehearsing for a USO skit together. But if I’m any judge of character, Franken is not by nature abusive, has matured considerably since his days as a comedian, and is a decent sort of bloke.

But in fighting against the DoD to get the rape amendment passed, and in fighting with Jeff Sessions over both the rape amendment and Russiagate, did Franken identify himself as a target to military brat Tweeden and her minders? On a gut level, I can’t shake the feeling that she’s the aggressor here, and that there’s something of the Kellyanne Conway about her: snowing the media to advance a hidden agenda, going on a well-planned “confession tour” to distract attention from the Trump administration’s dirty deeds.

According to CBS news, Trump oppo research guy Roger Stone knew Tweeden was about to hit Franken hours before her allegations went public, and tweeted (through an intermediary) that it was Franken’s time in the barrel. This suggests the attack was coordinated to fall on a day when the Trump administration needed maximum distraction from the Republican tax plan, which is a huge wealth transfer from the middle class to the richest Americans, and which includes a provision partially defunding Obamacare.

On the same day, the Trump administration reversed an Obama-era ban on importing African elephant trophies from Zimbabwe, and the FCC relaxed ownership rules for media companies, ensuring that in some markets citizens will have only one pro-Trump corporation (like Sinclair) controlling both newspapers and TV. A good day to pitch a bright shiny object (or dull shiny object) in the direction of the media.

The disgusting use of a confession tour to sandbag Franken reflects deeper problems in our society which won’t be solved by the present accusation culture. People on social media are commenting that this culture has reached the level of a moral panic. “menckenjr” on DailyKos writes:

Franken shouldn’t have clowned her like that. It reflects poorly on his judgement at the time. If there are more credible complaints, he has to go.

Having said that, however, it’s easy to believe that Ms. Tweeden is lending her (possibly grossly inflated) outrage for partisan purposes and misremembering how she felt. This is starting to feel a lot like the moral panic over satanic child-molesting day care centers from the 1980’s with the whole “recovered memories” scam springing up without paying any attention to how malleable memories are. Anyone can say anything they want to about how something made them feel a long time ago and absent any other contemporaneous accounts there’s no way to tell whether they’re telling the truth or not. If there are people she talked to about it at the time, that’s one thing. If this is just her on right-wing Tea Party radio trying to muddy the waters and help Roy Moore squeak through in Alabama, that’s another.

With all the changes in society in recent decades, both women and men are struggling to make sense of their roles, to find ways of getting along together — even loving each other.

Franken may have acted boorishly by taking a comedy skit way too far, and by mugging for the camera, pretending to grab at Tweeden while she was asleep on the plane in heavy military gear. But in this murky contest between half-devils and half-angels, Tweeden looks to me like the bigger devil for trying to wreck Franken’s political career, which (unlike most media faff and soft-core porn) is irreplaceable.

The photo in question, which was intended comedically, has been described as “lewd,” though it contains no nudity or even partial nudity. The obvious question is, compared to what? The photos of Tweeden which appear in men’s magazines?

According to FastDate.com, which publishes a larger version of this photo of Tweeden, she’s a former FastDate “Calendar Kitten” who “has her own website with a sexy Members Corner showing more hot shots like the one above.” http://www.fastdates.com/PitLaneNews2006.05.03.HTM

I’m not a prude and am not offended by either the Franken photo, or the many being circulated of Tweeden prancing about in the nearly altogether. My point is that there’s clearly some kind of double standard here. Like Claude Rains in Casablanca, Tweeden is “shocked” at the attention she receives from men. The operational folk wisdom is: “Don’t turn them on if you’re not comfortable turning them down.”

Leeann Tweeden – lingerie shoot (thumbnail)

The optics are important due to the bright shiny object factor, and the deceptive nature of the PR blitzkrieg unleashed by Ms. Tweeden. Most press reports seem to show her wearing dark business attire and geek glasses, but that is not the attire for which she is known, and on which her career has been largely based. It’s not the attire she was wearing when she appeared at Budweiser promotional events, autographing 8×10 glossies of herself.

People have a right to change their image, though the fact that she’s still selling her Playboy and Budweiser paraphernalia makes the change dubious. What people don’t have a right to do is skewer people from their past, for relating to them according to the image that they consciously projected at the time.

Note also that the Franken photo was not considered “lewd” in 2006. It was apparently included in the courtesy book or disc issued by the USO at the end of the tour. In its original context, it was a picture of two entertainers who had a reputation for joking their way through the tour. Comedian Franken is pretending to grope calendar kitten Tweeden, who’s fully clothed in a flak jacket and helmet, and is either asleep or pretending to be asleep for the photo. In the uncropped version (not always shown), another person is seen seated beside her to her left.

MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt was lambasted on right-wing media for describing the photo as showing “mock groping,” but she is correct.

Franken used various comic personas in his act, including that of the man-child who refuses to grow up (a la Jerry Lewis). For some unfathomable reason, the lecherous idiot persona is one which never fails to elicit a guffaw from troops. It has persisted since the days of vaudeville, when comics and strippers often performed in tandem; but perhaps it’s time to let it go the way of the dinosaur, like the Benny Hill Show, which often consisted of little more than Hill groping women (who were part of the act) for supposedly comic effect.

The context is important because according to USO sources, entertainment provided to the troops is typically racy, with lots of sight gags and sexual humor. Not to go all Dr. Strangelove, but women are chosen for their– well, previous USO stars have included Ann-Margret, Joey Heatherton, and Raquel Welch. Indeed, a PR puff piece on Tweeden appearing on MilitarySpouse.com notes that ever since she was an itsy-bitsy girl, her ambition was to please her Air Force mechanic father by becoming just like Raquel Welch and entertaining the troops — whether in Vietnam, Iraq, or wherever they may be sent to help the local population discover the benefits of American-style democracy (sometimes known as the “babes and bombs” strategy). Here’s a snippet from the actual copy by Kate Dolack:

A Father’s Journey, A Daughter’s Love

While helping her father sort through old photographs when she was young, Leeann had come across a signed photograph of bombshell Raquel Welch. At the time, she hadn’t heard of the USO. In their talks, her father described meeting Welch while he was stationed at Phan Rang in Vietnam. “He said Bob Hope had brought Raquel Welch. And for the first time he was over there, he forget [sic] where he was for a moment.”

And so the spark was struck. Maybe I could be someone’s Raquel Welch, she thought.

Definitely a light-bulb moment! 😉

UPDATE: As the story has dragged on in the press (I almost said “evolved”), this YouTube video of the 2006 USO tour with Franken, Tweeden, and Mark Wills has been scrutinized. It underscores the raunchy atmosphere established by the performers, and includes footage of Tweeden (at around 5:50 to 6:01) which raises serious questions about the sincerity of her account. Watching the full video, one would find the Franken prank photo extremely mild by comparison.

A separate sociological or political critique might be penned concerning the portion of the entertainment commencing at 10:00, where a bearded man identified by Tweeden as “Saddam Hussein” is dragged to the microphone by two uniformed soldiers, and proceeds to shout “F-ck you!” repeatedly, as everyone laughs. A hangman’s noose is placed around his neck, and he continues to complain, curse, and joke with Tweeden about rape as she feeds him pre-rehearsed straight lines. It’s not for the squeamish, and neither is Tweeden, who’s decked out like Louise Linton in the famous “money shot,” but with more cleavage and something resembling Bugs Bunny on her head.

leeann-tweeden-uso-2006-modeling

Leeann Tweeden, 2006 USO show, modeling the Louise Linton Collection

Conclusions

The cry of serious, intelligent women that “We are not playthings!” deserves to be treated with utmost concern, respect, and empathy, as does the cry of migrant workers and hotel maids. That cry is less persuasive when coming from women who are (literally) Playboy playmates selling autographed copies of the mag (thereby spreading the Playboy philosophy). Rights are rights, and Playboy playmates have just as much right not to be inappropriately kissed as lawyers or brain surgeons. (Maybe we should ban all the novels that employ the dated simile “sweet as a stolen kiss,” including Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.)

But in trying to make sense of the New Frontier in which we find ourselves, and bring peace to the Battle of the Sexes, we should all beware of hypocrisy. Given human nature, women who continue to make their money in whole or in part from the sex industry are going to rack up more incidents of unwanted attention than those filing their briefs with the Court of Appeals.

As a good liberal, I really want to close ranks with women on this issue. But I can’t, because most liberal women seem to be taking sides solely on the basis of gender, and helping to fuel the present moral panic. This culture of constant public accusations with a new target every day is not healthy for either men or women (or children, and possibly not even for pets).

This seems to be a particularly unhappy time in America, with the media leading an obsessive search for scapegoats. Everyone seems to have forgotten the UVA rape hoax, and the lessons that journalists and on-air personalities were supposed to have learnt from it. One piece very much worth revisiting is Cathy Young’s “Crying Rape” on Slate.com. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Rape is a repugnant crime — and one for which the evidence often relies on one person’s word against another’s. Moreover, in the not-so-distant past, the belief that women routinely make up rape charges often led to appalling treatment of victims. However, in challenging what author and law professor Susan Estrich has called “the myth of the lying woman,” feminists have been creating their own counter-myth: that of the woman who never lies.

A de facto presumption of guilt in alleged sexual offenses is as dangerous as a presumption of guilt in any crime, and for the same reasons: It upends the foundations on which our system of justice rests and creates a risk of ruining innocent lives.

Our focus on getting justice for women who are sexually assaulted is necessary and right. We are still far from the day when every woman who makes a rape accusation gets a proper police investigation and a fair hearing. But seeking justice for female victims should make us more sensitive, not less, to justice for unfairly accused men. In practical terms, that means finding ways to show support for victims of sexual violence without equating accusation and guilt, and recognizing that the wrongly accused are real victims too.

— Cathy Young

Another must-read is psychologist Tana Dineen’s trenchant article “Are We Manufacturing Victims?”

All in all not a happy time, with Leeann Tweeden’s confession tour being a lurid display far more shocking than anything put on by the USO stars of yesteryear.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

* * *

Schiller’s Ode To Trump (rude song parody)

Keith Schiller, Trump’s former body man, testified before Congress last week. He sang, but not quite in the expected manner. Giving it a Beethovenian blush, his testimony went something like this:

Schiller’s Ode To Trump (libretto)

All these rumors are mistaken,
Don’t believe the dossier;
True, the Russians offered playmates,
But the Donald would not play.

Allen Menschen have their foibles,
All are steeped in Kompromat;
Trumpster is my Daddy Warbucks,
I will be his laundromat.

(Joined by a chorus of Congressional Republicans)
Allen Menschen have their foibles,
All are steeped in Kompromat;
Trumpster is our Daddy Warbucks,
We will be his laundromat.
His laundromat, his laundromat!

(Soloists)
Never was a ruffle,
No behaviour unbehoovia;
No sign of those naughty ladies,
No trace of effluvia.

(Chorus)
Never was a ruffle,
No behaviour unbehoovia;
No sign of those naughty ladies,
No trace of effluvia.
Effluvia, effluvia!

Known to be a celibate
From Texas to Tralfamadore,
Donald Trump is Mr. Clean
And I’m the one who mops the floor.

Hailed as a gentleman
Who only plays with shuttlecocks,
Donald is my president
And I will wash his dirty socks.

(Chorus)
His dirty socks, his dirty socks,
Yes we will wash his dirty socks!

Trumpster is a little lamb,
No girl would need a chaperone;
Leaving off the time that he
Had coitus with a Sousaphone.

(Chorus)
A Sousaphone, a Sousaphone,
Had coitus with a Sousaphone!

* * *

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization. No Sousaphones were harmed in the making of this post.

Ruminations on Trump’s Visit to Japan

Updated! From “No Gate” to “Fishgate,” with stopovers to sing the Jet Jaguar song, eat at Alice’s Restaurant, battle smog coming from PR flacks, and hear the Heart Sutra performed in four different languages.

President Trump got everything from Prime Minister Abe but a piggyback ride, which put me in mind of this classic send-up by the MST3k gang:

MST3k is known for its obscure references which people love tracking down. The last line, “Don’t touch my bags if you please, Mr. customs man” is from an old Arlo Guthrie song called “Comin’ Into Los Angeles.” Arlo is the son of Woody Guthrie, and had a big hit with “Alice’s Restaurant,” a satirical talking antiwar song that was later made into a ramblin’ film by Arthur Penn, a veritable paean to anti-authoritarianism.

At his presser with Prime Minister Abe, President Trump spoke slowly and quietly, looking rather tired and restrained. It could just be jet lag (or Jet Jaguar lag), but I wonder if any of the Washington press corps have the nerve to ask Sarah Huckabee Sanders (a.k.a. “Clarice”) if the president is on meds to calm him down and keep him from uttering phrases like “little rocket man” and “total destruction of North Korea.” (They should also ask Sanders whether she still hears the screaming of the lambs.)

The MST3k send-up of Godzilla movies from the 1970s (in this case, Godzilla vs. Megalon) is a lowbrow poke at our brethren from the land of the rising sun. One could discover from Wim Wenders’ outstanding film Tokyo-Ga that Japan is a nation of contradictions. Fifty years ago they were famous for turning out cheap transistor radios and bad monster movies, but this stereotype fails to reflect the hidden (or at least less visible) Japan — a highly cultured Japan rich in noble traditions worthy of study and emulation.

Japanese Zen Buddhism (with its “no gate” philosophy) has had a profound effect on spiritual seekers in the West, and on the New York School of artists and composers. The venerable American literary character Suzuki Beane was probably named after Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki. But even Godzilla, tacky though he was, has become a meme ranging from the computer world (Filezilla, Clonezilla) to the Thanksgiving oven (“Birdzilla” in a classic episode of Cheers). Maybe we should refer to our president’s huge ego as “Trumpzilla.” It can only be tamed by leading it around golf courses until it is tired and spent and requires Bosco. (Maybe a metaphor for spiritual practice?)

Apropos of the MST3k line “He crimefighting covers up a basic insecurity,” what do we make of Trump’s speech to the military at Yokota Air Base?

We dominate the sky. We dominate the sea. We dominate the land and space,” the president said. “Not merely because we have the best equipment, which we do, and by the way, a lot of it’s coming in. You saw that budget. That’s a lot different than in the past. A lot of beautiful brand new equipment is coming in. And nobody makes it like they make it in the United States. Nobody.”

“No one, no dictator, no regime, and no nation should underestimate ever American resolve,” the president said, standing on a stage in an airplane hangar on the base. “Every once in a while in the past they underestimated us. It was not pleasant for them. Was it? It was not pleasant. We will never yield. Never waiver, and never falter in defense of our people, our freedom and our great American flag.”

— Donald J. Trump to troops stationed at Yokota Air Base, Japan, as reported by abcnews.go.com.

While it’s good to have an effective military, bragging about one’s domination and equipment does suggest an underlying insecurity as well as being in bad taste for a superpower. Military force alone is brute force, ignorant force, unenlightened force. There is no such thing as a “smart bomb,” and while Trump’s words may have been aimed at North Korea, they were doubtless a grim reminder to the Japanese people about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Military force should always be tempered by wisdom, compassion, keen insight into subtle aspects of diplomacy, and an overarching desire for peace — all qualities Trump seems to lack, but tries to make up for with braggadocio.

We have yet to see Trump go on a Godzilla-style rampage, but the prospect is not encouraging, and Republican Senator Bob Corker recently vowed to hold a hearing examining such questions as whether Trump has the power to unilaterally start World War III (perhaps in response to a Twitter spat).

Outsized American politicians and Japanese monsters

When George H. W. Bush visited Japan in 1992, he famously vomited on the Japanese Prime Minister. Urban legend has it that this gave birth to a cheap Japanese toy, a likeness of Bush 41 which spewed vomit on cue. Whether or not this toy ever existed, the underlying incident reinforced Japanese perceptions of American politicians as oversized entities capable of extreme behaviour.

President Trump did little to overcome the American oaf complex when feeding fish in a koi pond at Akasaka Palace. Oblivious to their true needs and natural limitations, he quickly emptied the entire box — possibly causing the same malreaction in the fish as Bush 41 had shown 25 years earlier. If a fish could sing, it might have sung to Trump “I need a slow hand!”

But is Fishgate real or fake news? It could be yet another Rorschach test in which we see a reflection of our own internalized views about Dear Leader (or as Schubert would say, “Dear Lieder”). Country Joe and the Fish might dutifully enquire “What’s that spell?” Japan clearly has Donald Trump all a-cluster.

The original 1954 Godzilla movie sported an anti-nuclear theme, and some later tokusatsu films had environmental themes, with pollution poisoning the fish so vital to Japan’s culture, economy and diet. Given Trump’s choice of anti-environmentalists to head environmental agencies, poisoning fish is something we more or less expect of him, and are quick to believe. But until we see a reliable body count from the pond in question, we ought not carp, lest the scales of justice be wrongly tipped. 😉

Speaking of outsized Americans who lack subtlety, the purely technical question has arisen as to what audio format should be used when archiving press conferences held by Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The answer? Definitely FLAC. (For Obama speeches, use OPUS.)

When Sanders walks out, you get the impression she turns on the smoke & fog machine. It’s rather like air pollution or toxic sludge, which were subjects of the environmentally conscious Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Hedorah).

Hey, maybe instead of calling Sanders “Clarice” (from Silence of the Lambs) I should call her “Hedorah.” I suppose after a press conference, reporters are left flopping like fish in a polluted sea.

The Smog Monster flick is strange and wonderful, full of bizarre animated sequences, nods to 60s psychedelia, and a cheesy “Save The Earth!” song in one U.S. release, replacing “Return the Sun!” in the Japanese version. And let’s face it, sunlight is the best disinfectant for political malfeasance.

With its smörgåsbord (or sushi bucket) of influences and techniques, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster confounded critics. Legendary killjoys the Medved Brothers ranked it one of the worst of all time, but Andrew Pragasam writes:

The movie isn’t that bad. Its schizophrenic tone is born of a desire to please three wildly divergent markets: the kiddie matinee crowd, ecologically conscious students, and counterculture party hounds… Japanese cinema was facing such a financial crisis, Toho Studios were willing to try anything to rake in the yen. However, [director] Yoshimitsu Banno was entirely sincere.

One short animation from the film looks like it might have been influenced by Heinz Edelmann, the graphic designer behind Yellow Submarine:

In the Japanese clip, notice the dark, shadowy cityscape with “lonely people” wearing gas masks. Two tall European women enter, walk towards each other, get vaporized by smog, and merge into a single, two-headed image, which then becomes a crosshatched marking on a map showing the area affected by Hedorah’s pollution.

In “Godzilla is a Radical Environmentalist,” Daniel Oberhaus opines:

Although [Japan] is not without its environmental problems, today Japanese cities are among the least polluted in the world. This is due in part to the swift action against industrial pollution orchestrated by its government nearly 50 years ago, and was reinforced by Banno’s unique take on a Japanese icon in Godzilla vs. Hedorah. For all its corniness and pulpy action sequences, at the film’s core is a radical message that still resonates with modern audiences: the only way to take meaningful action against climate change is to stomp out the main problem — complacency.

Elsewhere, Oberhaus points out limitations of the approach taken by youth in the film:

Half [of it] takes place in a Japanese rock club, where Yano’s older son grapples with psychedelic hallucinations as Hedorah takes over the city. The smog monster eventually makes its way into the club and ends the party prematurely, at which point the elder Yano and his fellow students decide to take action by organizing a “million man march” against the smog monster.

Despite their good intentions, the students’ march is woefully under-attended and devolves into yet another dance party. Banno’s satire has a clear target and message — the impotence of well-intentioned environmentalists who naively believe that they can reverse the damage of industrial pollution with enough marches and bonfires.

Or maybe they just needed a better song! (“Big Yellow Buddha” is one title that comes to mind.)

“No Gate” philosophy and the Heart Sutra

Since I couldn’t resist a header promising a journey from “No Gate” to “Fishgate,” here’s more about the “no gate”* philosophy found in most strains of Buddhism, whether Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, or Japanese.

The terms “no gate,” “gateless gate,” and “gate of emptiness” are used to describe a particular Buddhist teaching. It is not easily grasped, but the essence of it is that the final void reached through meditation is not different from the phenomenological world. Zen is sometimes called the “gateless gate” because compared with some other religions (or non-religions), it’s viewed as non-dualistic.

Discussion of the gateless gate is sometimes connected with study of the Heart Sutra, a scripture accepted by most schools of Buddhism, translated into various languages, and often sung or chanted:

The Heart Sutra in Mandarin:

The Heart Sutra in Tibetan:

The Heart Sutra in Sanskrit (1):

The Heart Sutra in Sanskrit (2):

The Heart Sutra in Japanese (1):

The Heart Sutra in Japanese (2):

The first version, sung by Taiwan-born folk-pop icon Chyi Yu in Mandarin Chinese, might be described as “rich”; while the last version, chanted in Japanese by a group under the direction of Taisen Deshimaru, may strike us as more austere. But at the core is the same mystical teaching that “emptiness is form and form is emptiness.”

Somehow I can’t imagine Donald Trump grasping the concept of shunyata.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization. We gratefully acknowledge the city of Tokyo.

*Not to be confused with “No Gates!” — a chant popular among anti-Microsoft activists and Linux aficionados.

Enlighten

In ordinary conversation, to enlighten is to inform. I enlighten you on the latest box scores, and you enlighten me about the spaghetti dinner at Luigi’s. The president enlightens us about his subterranean homesick penthouse blues. His daily tweets remind us of his unenlightened state.

In the field of spirituality, enlightenment has a deeper meaning: to receive abundundant light which is all-transforming. Spiritual enlightenment can be a sudden burst of light which lasts for a few hours or a few days, or, in the case of a great spiritual figure, it can be an ultimate enlightenment which does not fade. Having learned the truth of life, this truth is not forgotten or eclipsed. The spiritual master remains in a permanently enlightened state from which he conducts his day-to-day activities.

In Entertainment versus Enlightenment, Sri Chinmoy recounts traditional stories in a humorous vein — some about the great Mogul Emperor Akbar and his minister and court jester, Birbal:

Akbar is Superior to Indra

Once Akbar asked his ministers and the others present in his court, “Tell me frankly, who is superior: Indra, the Lord of the Gods, or I? Be very frank.”

Everybody was shocked, and nobody dared to answer. If they said that Indra was superior to Akbar, Akbar would be displeased. And if they said that Akbar was superior to Indra, it would be a real lie. So they all kept silent.

But finally Birbal came forward and said, “I have the answer.”

“Then tell me,” said Akbar.

Birbal proclaimed, “You are superior.”

Akbar was outwardly amused and inwardly pleased. “Prove it,” he said.

“That is very easy,” replied Birbal. “When the Creator created you and Indra, He put both of you on a scale. On one side He placed you, and on the other side He placed Indra. Just because you were heavier than Indra, you dropped down to earth and Indra remained up in Heaven. So you see, you are superior because you are heavier. You are more fulfilling for earth. That is why you have become the Emperor of the earth.”

Akbar was very happy. He thought, “Indra remains high because he is light. I came down because of my superior weight. That is why I remain on earth.”

Spiritual comments

Everybody was happy with this answer. But poor Akbar did not get the point. He did not understand that Birbal really meant that Indra was superior. Akbar thought that just because he was heavier in weight he had more power.

In the spiritual life, a seeker sits on the scale every day. God places him on one side of the scale and his ignorance on the other side. The seeker always finds that his ignorance is heavier, much heavier than his knowledge and wisdom. Then he feels miserable. So he tries to pray, he tries to meditate, and gradually he increases his knowledge and inner wisdom. Simultaneously the other side of the scale, his ignorance, becomes lighter and lighter.

Finally a day comes when he has only knowledge. His ignorance has all been devoured or illumined by his inner knowledge. When there is nothing on the other side of the scale, the knowledge side drops down to earth again and the seeker enters into the world to work for mankind with his newly acquired wisdom. With this wisdom-power he tries to conquer the ignorance of the world.

— Sri Chinmoy

In this passage, to enlighten means to lighten the side of the scale which represents ignorance, and to acquire wisdom which can transform the world.

Douglas Hofstadter is a college professor who first achieved recognition with his 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach. He evinced great intellectual curiosity about the Japanese zen tradition, and the teaching stories which often mystify the unenlightened, but may act as a catalyst to enlighten those seeking after enlightenment. In Chapter IX, Hofstadter serves up this zen story:

Hyakujo wished to send a monk to open a new monastery. He told his pupils that whoever answered a question most ably would be appointed. Placing a water vase on the ground, he asked: “Who can say what this is without calling its name?” The chief monk said: “No one can call it a wooden shoe.”

Isan, the cooking monk, tipped over the vase with his foot and went out. Hyakujo smiled and said: “The chief monk loses.” And Isan became the master of the new monastery.

What I take from this story is that enlightenment is not simply more information, or even a different way of thinking. Enlightenment is a radically different perception which breaks the mold or overturns the vase in which we had previously stored a host of unenlightened perceptions and experiences. To enlighten is to palpably vanquish ignorance. Enlightenment is made of different “stuff” than information or ideas. Information and ideas about enlightenment are only “pointing at the moon,” but are not the moon itself.

One might venture to ask: “Can one enlighten and entertain at the same time?” In Sri Chinmoy’s case, clearly the answer is yes. If his own prodigious ventures in the arts were not proof enough, he explicitly addresses this question in his writings:

The ultimate aim of the spiritual life is enlightenment. But we must not have the wrong notion that enlightenment excludes entertainment. Enlightenment does include entertainment. Real entertainment is not and need not be restless, vital excitement. It can come from an innocent, spontaneous feeling of joy from deep within and be the simple expression of this inner, sweet, tender, soulful feeling. This kind of innocent entertainment gives the rest of the world the same kind of spontaneous, childlike innocent joy.

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Everything is in seed form in the inner world first, and then only can it become manifested in the outer world. The embodiment of thought-reality, which is manifested here in the form of art or in any other form, first existed in the inner world. Never see anything with your mind’s eye. See everything with your heart’s eye. Then you will see that everything is beautiful. Art is meant for man’s understanding. It is meant for man’s blending with the inner life’s inner ecstasy.

— Sri Chinmoy

Art charms and entertains us, but if it is spiritual art it also enlightens us or points us toward profound inner truths.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are those of the author, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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The Last Crossword – A Play (video)

A fresh take on the subject of crossword puzzles, spirituality, and death (with some talking animals thrown in for good measure)

This is a short play I wrote in 2004, based on Sri Chinmoy’s telling of a traditional story about Ramdas Kathiya Baba. The story, called “I am going Home,” may be read online at Sri Chinmoy Library:

The play was performed in Bali in early 2004, with Devashishu Torpy playing Ramdas Kathiya Baba, and Sahadeva Torpy his crossword-loving disciple Rakhal (a very moving performance!).

Look for Kanan as the cow, Sanjay as the tiger, with special guest appearance by Ketan Tamm as the roving reporter — a character not in the original story, but being more in the nature of a gratuitous anachronism.

The play was performed outdoors, and according to one apocryphal story, when Sanjay made his exit by leaping over a wall (souple et féroce comme un tigre), he thoroughly startled a casual observer! Thank you to everyone who made the play possible, including the videographers.

I re-dedicate this play to Sri Chinmoy on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of his Mahasamadhi.

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Latest Tragedies in Puerto Rico and Las Vegas

Is there an empathy deficit and values vacuum?

I find myself running out of words to react to all the tragedies which seem to be hitting us nonstop. The ongoing tragedy in Puerto Rico is not only one of physical devastation; it also highlights the deficit in empathy which I feared was coming when I wrote in early January:

A president, aside from his many practical duties, is also like a guardian angel for the nation. If he is kind and just, we feel protected. If he moves gracefully through the world, our nation feels at ease with the world. … At the same time that I feel tremendous gratitude to Barack Obama, I confess that I feel some fear for the future, as if a benign presence were being withdrawn.

When it is a question of character, intelligence, scholarship, humanity, and empathy, Barack Obama is a rare example of the best in American political leadership. We were lucky and blessed to get him for eight years, and I fear that we shall soon miss him more than we can ever imagine.

While empathy is no substitute for food, water, and medicine, empathy can heal the hearts of those who suffer, and a leader who shows empathy can also inspire a wider empathic response throughout the nation. So it’s part of the greater tragedy that President Trump shows so little true empathy at times of crisis, and instead uses disaster as a means to inflame differences.

When it comes to shootings and bombings, I always feel there are certain universal values which don’t belong exclusively to this religion or that, or this nation or that, or to a particular race or culture. Some truths have been universally arrived at. So I quoted President Obama as saying:

My mother was a deeply spiritual person, and would spend a lot of time talking about values and give me books about the world’s religions, and talk to me about them. And I think always, her view always was that underlying these religions were a common set of beliefs about how you treat other people and how you aspire to act, not just for yourself but also for the greater good.

Somehow these universal values are being lost or eclipsed in our society, in the unbridled pursuit of money, sex, and power. Electing a leader whose reputation was built on money, sex, and power was a step backward for this nation, and I hope we will learn from it and seek out leaders who are richer in empathy, spiritual insight, and proximity to the Universal Good. As I wrote last February:

For American democracy to succeed, we need to elect leaders who are above average, even exemplary — those who have education, experience, and a profound vision of what we can achieve in concert with other actors on the world stage. It has become a rubric that Americans typically elect the guy they’d most like to have a beer with, the guy they perceive to be just like them. We should not be afraid to elect leaders who are super smart, compassionate, visionary, and extremely well-qualified to lead us. They may not always make good drinking buddies, but they do make better leaders.

So next time you’re in a voting booth, think of the guy or gal you’d most like to have a beer with, and remember to buy them a beer! Then vote for the better qualified candidate.

We need to improve education in civics so that the average American understands how to choose between candidates, and how not to be swayed by populist appeals. When we elect leaders with no vision and few qualifications, we ultimately pay the price.

How sad that we now have a boorish leader who conned millions of voters into thinking he would protect their interests, when his real world policies entail throwing millions of people off health care, and shoveling yet more money to the richest in society, including his own family.

Do you know the Sam Cooke song “Twistin’ The Night Away”?

Hearing it made me want to post a parody on YouTube contrasting a bunch of rich folks in tuxedos shaking their fannies on the dance floor, while elderly residents of Puerto Rico are dropping dead in rural areas because no planes were sent to drop food, water, and medicine. Maybe all the planes were busy shuttling cabinet members to vacation destinations where they could inspect the gold in Fort Knox, or stock up on designer brands.

Naked injustice sends its own perilous message to the rank and file of America: a message that there is no God and one might just as well take a gun and start shooting random strangers. The mentally ill fall victim to this blackest of visions of an America gone valueless; but even the nominally sane are affected. The era of Trump is an era of every man for himself; an era where compassion is seen as a weakness, and pressing maxumium personal advantage a strength; an era of metaphorically grabbing them by the whatever. This is an America not habitable by decent people. We need to recoil from it, and resist allowing it to spread ad infinitum.

Neither conservatives nor liberals have a lock on values, and somewhere between the extremes lie sensible policies, including revising educational curricula to deal more effectively with the values vacuum. In writing about the congressional baseball shooting last June, I elaborated on some of the problems, and discussed the utility of Peace Studies in forging solutions:

Gun safety at its root is not a political concept, but a practical one. It’s rooted in the simple observation (borne out by statistics) that if you have a mass proliferation of firearms, you’ll get a mass proliferation of shootings — a soaring murder rate. That’s what we have in this country, and Western allies like Britain and France think Americans are crazy. Why do they need all those guns? Why don’t they see the connection between guns and murder? Why can’t they implement gun safety? Why must even mentally ill people have guns?

Here, an element of corruption enters in. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot. People said: “We need to do something about guns.” Twenty children and six adults were shot at Sandy Hook elementary school. People said: “We need to do something about guns.” Forty-nine people were shot at an Orlando nightclub. People said: “We need to do something about guns.”

But nothing meaningful is done about guns because the politicians are in the pocket of the gun lobby. America is the richest country in the world; we have the best democracy money can buy, and the most guns per capita.

The lack of peace is a universal problem. Lack of peace in the human mind leads to lack of peace between nations, to warring political factions within the same nation, and to random acts of violence.

When we recognize the keen lack of any resource, as well as its importance and significance, we try to cultivate that resource. So it is with peace. The field of Peace Studies has grown up around an awareness of what peace can do to benefit the quality of human life. Peace Studies can be something personal and individual, or it can focus on groups and institutions. Individuals who are firmly grounded in peace can go on to create or change institutions so that they better reflect ideals of peace.

On an individual level, peace is an antidote to problems like anger and impulsiveness which can lead to crime and violence. One component of Peace Studies is meditation; and while meditation is often most effective as part of a comprehensive spiritual outlook, it still retains much of its effectiveness when presented as “quiet time” or as a basic technique for de-stressing and focusing. See this NBC Nightly News report on “Schools and Meditation”:

Aside from helping people become more peaceful and focused, meditation can also lead to insights both personal and cosmic. With greater insight comes less need to change the world by force or commit acts of aggression against a perceived enemy. When we experience peace, which is a solid form of strength, we feel that we are okay and the world is okay. There are problems, true, but these problems cannot be solved through sudden violent outbursts. They can only be solved through reflection and cooperation.

There will always be economic injustices, natural disasters, and crazed shooters (at least for the forseeable future). But we will be better prepared to deal with these problems if we give future generations a grounding in Peace Studies, which can lead to insight, empathy, and self-control of violent impulses.

Even in times of strife, there are always voices of peace in our midst and in the world at large — but we need to listen to them. Their message is not commercial and is not geared to our greed, so it’s harder to hear over loudspeakers which, after 2,000 years, are still blaring the message of Caesar: Veni, vidi, vici.

John Donne wrote words to the effect:

Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

No one else can solve the world’s problems. We need to play some role ourselves, however modest. Sri Chinmoy writes:

There will come a time when this world of ours will be flooded with peace. Who will bring about this radical change? It will be you – you and your sisters and brothers. You and your oneness-heart will spread peace throughout the length and breadth of the world.

The connection between greed and violence is stressed in this interview with the Dalai Lama of Tibet:

So, if we look carefully we can see that there are broad connections between a society which abandons itself to greed, politicians who are for sale to the gun lobby, and a record number of casualties in the latest shooting spree in Las Vegas.

The values we need to combat these problems are, again, universal. They’re found at the core of the world’s religions, and also in many humanistic philosophies. We need to find practical ways of imparting these values to the next generation, as a farmer plants a seed knowing that he may not live to see it fully germinate, but that it will one day be of great benefit. If we do not do it, it will not be done.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are those of the author, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Of Further Interest

People Are Good Everywhere
Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics
Art and Hermeneutics Part 2
Trump, French Elections, and the Film “Z”

How many Tasmanians does it take to eat the planet Jupiter?

Outback mum becomes YouTube hi-tech maven

In my role as part-time techno nerd and Linux aficionado, I’ve struggled through numerous how-to videos made by lonely guys living in their parents’ basement, cussing up a storm at Microsoft while extolling the preternatural benefits of Water Rat Linux (or whatever distro with a development team of one has lately come down the pike).

Yes, saving the world through Linux how-to videos can be a lonely and thankless occupation — but meet hi-tech whiz kid Philip Adams and his “sinsible” (yet vivacious) mum Diana:

Philip and Diana Adams

Together they’ve become stars of a YouTube channel called OSFirstTimer where mum Diana tries out (and sometimes intentionally destroys) a variety of computer operating systems, goaded on by son Philip, who alternatively guides her, assigns her reasonable tasks, leads her into evil ways, and lands them both in full giggle loop territory.

I stumbled on their antics quite accidentally, being genuinely interested in Remix OS (a.k.a. Android for desktops), and charmed to find their exploration begins with Diana feeding gigantic white parrots on a balcony by the seashore:

The patriarch of the family, Ben, is occasionally roped in, as is little sister Jasmine (or “Jazzy”); but for the most part it’s Philip and Diana who attract viewers with their great chemistry and offbeat approach to matters hi-tech.

Last month I posted a two-part series on “Art and Hermeneutics” which gave me the opportunity to study the works of Hans-Georg Gadamer and learn about the subject from folk already conversant. I therein had occasion to reference musical duets between Stu Goldberg and L. Subramaniam, and between Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and L. Shankar. These duets are dialogical in nature — a word which crops up often in hermeneutics. Dialogue with others can unleash a certain power, beauty, and joy. This is one high falootin’ explanation for why OSFirstTimer videos are so much more engaging than those made by lonely guys in basements. The interplay between Philip and Diana results in a “fusion of horizons,” making the dull subject of computer operating systems seem vibrant and alive.

One of the more intelligent, knowledgeable, and well-spoken YouTube Linux gurus, Joe “Bootsy” Collins (a true Southern gentleman and Linux Mint booster), points out that some purveyors of Linux how-to’s are foul-mouthed and reinforce the notion of tech as a “boys’ club” with high barriers to entry for women. The peripatetic English Bob, however sociable, doesn’t do much to dispel this image with his wallpapers featuring muscle cars or scantily clad Asian women. But OSFirstTimer balances the scales somewhat. The main star is clearly Diana, who’s eminently practical about what works and doesn’t work for her, asserts her preferences with oomph, and is not afraid to choose a pink, flowery wallpaper if the mood strikes her. To their credit, neither Philip nor Diana spend their time vaping or f-bombing (another dig at English Bob).

I’ve quoted Gadamer as saying “If you decide to make the effort to read, when you read you will not deconstruct, but you would learn to construct.” Good advice, but every thesis cries out for its antithesis. Particularly in the world of tech (which some people take so seriously), deconstructionism has its place. Tech companies even offer “bounties” to end users who find creative ways of destroying their products and services. Figuring out how to destroy something can be a good way of learning how to build it better and stronger, an approach also useful when fashioning bear-proof trash bins or squirrel-proof bird feeders:


Fortunately or unfortunately, no one has yet fashioned a Diana-proof OS.

The Internet has proved a mixed blessing — certainly not the Utopia envisioned by early adopters. We’ve become reliant on technology, but there are a thousand-and-one things about operating systems and Net life which are annoying or degrading, so I especially enjoy Philip and Diana’s sojourns into creative destruction, and their live encounters with tech support scammers. Without ever mentioning Turing, they re-enact the Turing Test — or perhaps an old TV commercial starring Ella Fitzgerald:

Is it live or is it Memorex? Surely a meme for our times. Philip is a genius at installing operating systems as virtual machines, so when he and Diana go online, trolling for ways to catch a virus or schmooze with scammers, what ultimately gets destroyed is a virtual install running in VMware, not the real underlying operating system. Still, there’s always the risk that a powerful virus or skilled hacker could get past the virtual machine and attack the host OS. IOW, “Kids, don’t try this at home!”

While OSFirstTimer spends a fair amount of time just fooling around, much can be learned about Net life from creative play, as when Diana falls in love with the BonziBuddy adware, and Philip has to explain that such is vehemently hated in polite Internet society:

Equal opportunity destroyers, Philip and Diana don’t just go after Windows, but also Mac and Linux. In the course of their antics, viewers learn the valuable lesson that searching for free movies is one of the easiest ways to encounter malware and fake antivirus:

While giddy with amusement is their typical state, they become positively hysterical when interacting with “Andrew The Expert,” whom they encounter after getting a fake antivirus warning from visiting a movie site. Is Andrew a real person or a bot? The Turing Test (or Voight-Kampff Test) has not been so rigorously applied since Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, later made into the film Blade Runner by Ridley Scott.

Questions of sentience and legitimacy are never quite put to rest in the OSFirstTimer video, so let me address these issues with a couple of links:

“Ongoing MacKeeper fraud”
http://www.thesafemac.com/ongoing-mackeeper-fraud/

“PUP Friday: MacKeeper”
https://blog.malwarebytes.com/puppum/2016/08/pup-friday-mackeeper/

It could be that Philip and Diana encountered a human-assisted bot. The bot interacts with their Mac OS and spits out some canned responses, but when it’s stumped by their questions, a real person situated in Kiev (and always named Andrew) may chime in now and then.

Feigning concern about her privacy, Diana eventually agrees to give her “real” e-mail of fairypop@prettymail.net, which sends her and Philip into paroxysms of laughter. We’re helplessly carried along as they gradually morph the tech session into a computer dating scenario. The “bot” explains that dating is out of the question because it’s currently warming a seat in Ukraine.

This is probably the most insane of the OSFirstTimer vids, but definitely one of my favourites, doubling as a non-prescription antidepressant.

So next time tech is getting you down, hop on over to the OSFirstTimer channel  to see if an outback mum can claw her way through an outlandish OS or unsuspecting tech support scammer. She may succeed or fail, but she’ll definitely entertain you, and you might even learn something.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Tom Price – Leaving on a Jet Plane

A paean to the disgraced HHS Secretary, who was thrown out with the Friday trash.

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s health secretary has resigned, after his travel on costly charter flights triggered investigations and angered his boss.

Tom Price’s partial repayment and public regrets couldn’t save his job.

The Health and Human Services secretary became the first member of the president’s Cabinet to leave office in a turbulent young administration that has seen several high-ranking White House aides ousted. Price served less than 8 months.

When interviewed about future plans, Price said he expected to be found hanging around airport bars and giving away free high schools.

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The views expressed are those of the author, and do not represent any other person or organization.