Boris Johnson’s Tom Bombadil Problem

Beginning with a few Boris Johnson jokes, and morphing into a discussion of his candidacy for PM.

I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t leave political humour to the pros. But a rich target like Boris invites pros and amateurs alike to have a go, and from both sides of the pond:

One incident which caught my eye was Johnson’s penning of a limerick deriding the President of Turkey. Johnson wrote:

There was a young fellow from Ankara,
Who was a terrific wankerer.
Till he sowed his wild oats, with the help of a goat,
But he didn’t even stop to thankera.

President Erdogan’s reply was less well-publicised, perhaps because originally in Turkish. My Turkish is a little rusty (verging on the non-existent), but with the help of a Turkish-English dictionary I was able to cobble together this modest translation:

There once was a Mayor of London,
Who wanked till it gave him a bunion;
He would venture a fling with any young thing,
Be it animal, mineral or onion.

(The accompanying graphic is best left to the reader’s imagination.)

In his present phase as a Brexiter, Johnson famously suggests that since every attempt throughout history to unite Europe has eventually ended in failure, we might as well blow up the current effort. He’s like Ace, the cheerful dynamiter with can-do spirit played by Sophie Aldred in the waning days of Doctor Who Classic. Johnson’s enthusiasm for Brexit is very much the dynamiter’s enthusiasm for blowing up something that’s well nigh irreplaceable. “Oh well, nothing lasts forever,” he muses with schoolboy abandon while lighting the fuse. By his logic, there’s no point in eradicating polio and smallpox, because cancer will get us in the end. And all crockery eventually breaks, so we might as well use it in a game of whiff-whaff.

If we had Mr Wells’s time machine, we might fast forward to an epoch in which the EU no longer exists, true. But today, in spite of its limitations and flaws the EU remains a magnificent Nobel Prize-winning peace project. That peace which it has helped to preserve for over 70 years is its crowning achievement. As long as it remains viable we should do everything possible to preserve it rather than detonate it. To preserve it also means to try and change it for the better from within.

Like other Brexiters, Mr Johnson advances the straw man argument that just because the UK leaves the EU today doesn’t mean war will break out in Europe tomorrow. Of course not. But the creation of the EU was a product of enlightened post World War II thinking in which leaders clearly saw that cooperation in economic matters would lead to greater interdependence between the nations of Europe, and away from the type of hyper-nationalism which leads to warfare. Likewise, over the long arc of history a weaker EU from which the UK is notably absent is an EU with less power to de-escalate conflicts between historical rivals like France and Germany.

Johnson has been described as a man who believes in nothing — a chameleon or weather-vane taking on whatever appearance or direction will benefit his political career. Why then do we like him? Because there’s some merit to the school of thought which says that life is one big absurdist joke. It’s easy to picture Johnson as a character in a Pirandello or Ionesco play, charging rhinoceros-like at an innocent schoolboy for a lark, or penning limericks about the President of Turkey. We need characters like that — just not in high office.

As the colourful Mayor of London Johnson did alright — allegedly with the help of a staff which formed and implemented policy. True, he did order a fleet of buses which doubled as steam baths. In the lower echelons of government, he’s gotten good at blundering his way through, but he’s no tightrope walker or diplomat. As Foreign Secretary he was a disaster whose most serious gaff was making inaccurate remarks about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual citizen of Iran and the UK who was arrested while visiting family in Iran in April 2016. Johnson’s remarks were treated as a publicity coup by the Iranian government, who used them as a further excuse to unjustly imprison her. This highlights the criticism that Johnson is often unprepared, acts irresponsibly, shoots from the hip, and covers up his unpreparedness with bluster.

Then too, Johnson’s checkered history as a journalist is not sufficiently understood within the UK. He spent years on the Brussels circuit figuratively throwing rotten tomatoes at EU officials, writing articles for domestic consumption which arguably helped groom the British public to hate the EU and falsely blame it for all that goes agley in Britain, culminating in the current Brexit insanity (which Johnson helped urge on). If getting out of this Brexit mess will require diplomacy, tightrope-walking, and a reservoir of good will, Johnson is absolutely the wrong man for the job.

This brings me to what I call Johnson’s “Tom Bombadil problem.” Tolkien fans will surely know a pivotal chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring called “The Council of Elrond.” There, folk of many different races and species hold council in order to determine what to do with the Great Ring of Power which would spell doom were it to fall into the hands of Sauron — an evil specter or dictator. One of many options explored is to give the ring to Tom Bombadil, an outlandish, bombastic, likeable, but nutty character who epitomizes Amber Rudd’s famous shade-throwing line about Boris Johnson: “He’s the life and soul of the party, but he’s not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening.”

Incidentally, in the Harvard Lampoon parody Bored of the Rings, Tom Bombadil becomes Tim Benzedrine (a consummate druggie), and his hippyish girlfriend becomes Hashberry, of whom he sings:

O slender as a speeding freak! Spaced-out groovy tripper!
O mush-brained maid whose mind decays with every pill I slip her!
O mind-blown fair farina-head, friend of birds and beetles!
O skinny wraith whose fingernails are hypodermic needles!
O tangled locks and painted bod! Pupils big as eggs!
O flower-maid who never bathes or even shaves her legs!
O softened mind that wanders wherever moon above leads!
O how I dig thee, Hashberry, from nose to sleazy lovebeads!

Anyway, attendees at the Council of Elrond decide against giving the Ring to Tom Bombadil for safekeeping, on the grounds that “he would not understand the need. And if he were given the Ring, he would soon forget it, or most likely throw it away. Such things have no hold on his mind. He would be a most unsafe guardian; and that alone is answer enough.”

Johnson’s ascension to PM may ignite a “Chameleonic War” in the Tory party — a war whose battle lines are already drawn between the old guard of Little Englanders, and more liberal One Nation conservatives. Johnson could end up being a figurehead who runs interference with his public buffoonery, while behind the scenes one faction or another pushes through its favoured policies. But if so, which faction? In his current incarnation of non-beliefs, Johnson is a Brexiter, but occasionally gives out grunts suggesting One Nationism. Some Remainers cling to hopes of a so-called “Nixon in China” scenario in which Johnson, being an arch Brexiter, can turn on a dime and support a second referendum. He is nothing if not unpredictable; still, the latter seems unlikely. Moreover, as PM he may find himself in the same pickle as Mrs May: saddled with a hung parliament, unable to move left or right without fracturing the fragile coalition keeping him in power.

Johnson is a genuinely likeable character — or would be, if only he weren’t in politics, and only he weren’t so ambitious. Deep down, he does believe that life is a joke, and that one might therefore ape any belief for the moment, like a comic actor playing a role. He often appears to be doing a slightly personalized Churchill impression while laughing on the inside. There’s a rumour that in order to ingratiate himself with Tories, he had jowl enlargement surgery. (Okay, so I’m making that up!)

He may believe life is a joke, but he will go to Eaton, he will scramble to the top of the pile of codswallop, he will fiercely pursue his hunger for the golden chalice (or Ring of Power). That ruthlessness adds a chilling knife-edge to his buffoonery.

Parallels with Donald Trump

Simplistic comparisons between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump abound (the mad hair thing being all but irresistible). Each of them may be better at playing Master of Ceremonies on telly than they are at actually governing. Both of them seem unconcerned about details at crucial moments, and more inclined to improvise — often contradicting their own prior statements, as well as experts in the relevant fields. Both are known to lie outright when it suits them; both enjoy the benefits of Teflon with their respective bases; and both are so-called “Marmite figures” — either loved or hated. Both men are examples of charisma as a substitute for leadership, and entertainment value as a substitute for character value; and both seem to suffer from entitlement-itis: a core conviction that they can grab who or what they want simply because they are who they are.

There may be deeper structural similarities in that each is not just a populist, but a particular kind of populist. Both men are elitists who use the techniques of populism to try and put elitist policies over on working class folk who would actually be harmed by such policies.

If and when Boris Johnson takes over the government, it will be crucial to watch what they do, as opposed to what they say. This is always true, but especially so when you have a populist figure trying to sell elitist policies like Brexit.

With his great jowly enthusiasm, Johnson tries to persuade us that the best way to avoid no-deal is to plan for it, and the best way to come closer to Europe is to leave the EU. If politics ever fails him, he has a bright future flogging pyjamas to dead cats.

Michael Howard

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

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Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker: Last Tango The Video

What if Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker were characters from a scandalous 1970s movie? What sorts of things might they say to each other as they exchange knowing glances? This parody answers that question… Later, we discuss Theresa May’s approach to Brexit, and whether there’s a scientific explanation for why Brexit seems to have caused the political process to break down.

Having advertised the video in a “coming attractions” post, I’m glad to have completed it. Maybe not everyone shares my “out” sense of humour or will take the film references, but once I got the idea and made some preliminary sketches, I had to see it through.

What was most interesting was working on the graphics, spending a lot of time in Dynamic Auto Painter and Photoshop to come up with things that worked. The main image visible for most of the video is a composite of several versions done in DAP, then combined on layers in Photoshop, painting with white or black paint on the layer masks to bring out the best features of each. This is a good way to use tools like Dynamic Auto Painter. Keep experimenting until you have a few different versions that you like, then work on combining them into a composition that reflects careful aesthetic judgement, and is not merely a pushbutton exercise.

The final (abstract) image in the video is based on customising the “Sunflowers” preset in DAP, then adding more texture in Photoshop, running the Texturizer filter with different channels loaded, and combining the results using layers and modes.

When trying to create a more 3D paint texture in Photoshop, you usually want to inspect the different channels and choose the one which shows the most variation and contrast. In this case, even though the underlying image was RGB, I ended up converting it to CYMK and saving the yellow channel as a texturizing source.

Sidebar: Theresa May, Brexit, and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem

I heard an interesting discussion on LBC regarding whether Theresa May could have handled Brexit differently, or whether she was compelled by political circumstances to follow the course that she did:

This is the episode of James O’Brien’s call-in show where the now famous “Dino The Doctor” made an appearance (toward the end), and was subsequently written up in the Grimsby Telegraph. There are other good callers from diverse backgrounds who help round out the discussion. O’Brien’s riffing is in top form. (Do the Brexit Okey Cokey!)

In theory, in a universe in which we each have absolute free will, Theresa May could have done things quite differently. But most of us tend to be bound by our past choices and the institutions to which we’ve hitched our fate. In practice, we are more like the man caught in a net who has only limited freedom of movement, which he might use to try and free himself.

One can find many things to admire about Theresa May; yet, she did not have the degree of insight or strength of character that would allow her to break free from her assigned role as deliverer of Brexit. Indeed, that was a role she volunteered to play for the Tory party. She may genuinely believe that Brexit was the product of a praiseworthy democratic process, and therefore must be delivered “for the people.” But to what extent does this view reflect institutional blinders, and the blinders that come from personal ambition? Once she saw herself as the hero-bureaucrat who would deliver Brexit, how could she bear to face the truth that Brexit is bad policy, and that lies and corruption played a considerable role in winning the vote for Leave?

I’ve also been pondering the myth that the day after the referendum, the 48% who voted Remain were supposed to roll over and play dead. Brexit is not the kind of issue that can be settled by a one-time referendum. The UK has been involved in a relationship with the EU for over forty years. Many individuals and businesses are deeply invested personally, emotionally, financially, even spiritually in that relationship. They care. It was never reasonable to think they would meekly consent to having that relationship ripped away from them. Contrary to claims by Nigel Farage, that’s not how democracy is supposed to work. The rights of a significant minority need to be respected. Difficult issues require nuanced solutions in order build consensus, and Brexit was anything but nuanced. Changes which are fundamentally destructive of an existing long-standing relationship should be difficult to enact, and should require a confirmatory vote.

Granted that the initial referendum was a terrible idea; still, I find myself wondering in hindsight if it would have been fairer had it been subject to the following conditions:

– Three fifths majority in the popular vote
– Majority of nations must vote Leave

I do think that would have been fairer, and obviously would have been a win for Remain. Where we are now, with Leave winning by a slender 4% majority in the popular vote, and two out of the four nations voting Remain, it’s a hopeless muddle that will take years to resolve, and a great many people who are barely surviving today may go under in the interim.

Now, is there any scientific reason why Brexit might cause the system to break down? The answer is yes. A parliamentary system of government is a type of formal system, and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem tells us that every formal system is incomplete. A corollary to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem is that it’s always possible to introduce a formula into any formal system which will cause it to break down.

I learned about this stuff by reading Douglas Hofstadter’s excellent book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid back in the day. He manages to be entertaining and funny while dealing with some profound concepts. He constructed a wonderful dialogue to illustrate exactly the point I’m making about formal systems and how you can feed them a proposition that will cause them to break down. Read it here. He uses the metaphor of a record player, i.e. phonograph (you know, like vinyl… what your grandparents still have.)

His dialogues often feature Achilles, the Tortoise, and the Crab. Here, a smooth-talking salesman has persuaded the gullible Crab to purchase a phonograph alleged to be Perfect — able to reproduce any sounds whatsoever. However, the shrewd Tortoise quickly dashes the Crab’s unrealistic expectations by bringing over a record entitled “I Cannot Be Played on Record Player I.” Sure enough, when the Crab attempts to play the record, the sounds produced create vibrations which cause the phonograph to self-destruct into a gajillion pieces!

Now, a democratic government is not a formal system in the precise way that Principia Mathematica is a formal system. Still, many people believe their system of government is Perfect and can withstand any shock, when the truth is that it’s possible to seriously foul up the system by feeding it garbage like the Brexit referendum or Donald Trump.

While no formal system is perfect, democratic political systems can be beefed up so that they’re more resistant to certain types of attacks. Democracy is more likely to flourish where you have:

– A well-educated public that doesn’t easily fall for racist propaganda or other appeals to base sentiment.

– Strictly enforced campaign finance laws which prevent dark or foreign money from influencing elections, and nullify the results if violations are uncovered.

– A free press which takes its responsibilities seriously and actively “truth-squads” claims by politicians, not permitting blatant lies to gain equal footing with established facts (a problem sometimes known as “false balance”).

Arguably, the way the Brexit referendum caused the system to break down is that it attempted to take a complex, multi-dimensional and highly technical issue about which people also feel passionately, and reduce it to a one-time binary choice — based, furthermore, on often misleading information. There is an element of falsity to doing this which is similar to introducing wrong figures into an equation, or attempting to divide by zero. Hence the breakdown.

It’s not easy to put Humpty Dumpty back together again after a rupture of this magnitude. Somewhat paradoxically or non-intuitively, a second referendum may actually help. The thinking is that a second referendum held three years later would be based on more accurate information, a more realistic assessment of what leaving the EU would actually mean, and a recognition that it would be a process which would take years to complete, and would involve “reinventing the wheel” in many areas of daily life where the UK already enjoys good solutions based on EU membership.

Then too, Brexit has been called “a solution in search of a problem.” One of the problems invented by politicians selling Brexit door-to-door was the notion that the UK had somehow lost its sovereignty and needed to get it back by leaving the EU. Such claims may have lost their lustre in the face of increasing factory closures and job losses due to Brexit.

Immigration was portrayed as nothing but a bother (or even a danger); but now that restaurants are closing because they can’t find sufficient wait staff, and the NHS is challenged to fulfill its social care mission due to lack of nurses, some Leavers are realising that European immigrants were performing vital functions in jobs that native-born Britons don’t want and won’t take.

Admittedly, there’s still the “fact vs. feeling” hurdle to get over. As I discuss elsewhere, the real world data flowing in mostly favours Remain, while Leave sentiment is still being aggressively stoked by Nigel Farage et al. If that’s not a breakdown, I don’t know what is.

Another concern about a second referendum is that Leavers will trot out the same bag of dirty tricks which (let’s face it!) worked so well for them during the first referendum. Would we see a Breaking Point II poster, and would another MP be assassinated by a crazed right-winger? Or has the general public become less gullible, less excitable in the intervening years, and would campaign finance violations be monitored more closely second time ’round?

I remain optimistic that truth will gradually out, and real world data will eventually overtake the type of faux patriotism (read jingoism) which Farage is peddling. If Brexit cannot be stopped today, then delay, delay, delay! Perhaps it can be stopped tomorrow through democratic means. Democracy includes a rich palette of tools, and it’s absolutely wrong when Leavers claim that a one-time referendum is the only tool in the kit that’s relevant to deciding the issue of Brexit. The UK’s relationship with the EU is something living, vibrant, and essential in the lives of millions of people. It will take more than a one-time binary referendum to kill it off. When MPs take a firm stand by voting against Brexit, that’s just as much a part of the democratic process as was the original referendum. They are not being undemocratic (nor are they “traitors”) for trying to protect against a bad policy that would actually harm their constituents. Indeed, under a parliamentary system it is their obligation to do so. If anyone can be accurately described as traitorous, it’s those who give in to the tide of populism and support Brexit in spite of privately admitting that it’s bad policy.

Michael Howard

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

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Coming Attractions: Last Tango In Strasbourg

Like Bogart & Bacall or Tracy & Hepburn, Jean-Claude Juncker & Theresa May are better together. Now they explode across the screen as you’ve never seen them before!

(right-click to enlarge)

Two bored escapists find themselves thrown together in a room, as reality recedes around them, and only their fantasies are real. They meet, and part forever… only to begin the cycle again with renewed passion. The film’s raw portrayal of hard line negotiations resulted in varying degrees of censorship around the world. Now this newly restored version reveals the shocking relationship between two lost souls — as different as night and day, yet somehow drawn together — from every possible angle.

“A landmark in movie history” — The New Yorker

“One of the most important cinematic achievements” — Le Journal Du Dimanche

“This movie is more vile than Doctor Who, if such a thing were possible” — Mary Whitehouse

“We applaud the innovative use of dairy products” — Dairy Association of America

If there’s one movie you see this year, it must be Last Tango In Strasbourg.

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The Brexit Unicorn – Doctor Who vs. Boris Johnson

That pesky Brexit Unicorn has been sighted again! Is it real or a legend? Should we believe in it? Who would think up a crazy notion like this? And in a contest of wits, who will win: Doctor Who or Boris Johnson?

BREAKING: The Bear & Staff changes its name to The Brexit Unicorn:

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A humourous look at latest Brexit developments

The impasse Mrs May has reached in Brexit negotiations suggests that thinking outside the box is now required — perhaps even thinking from beyond the pond (echo effect here).

In between the extremes of Remain and a No-Deal Brexit, there are Brexits of various tensile strength: from the hopelessly flaccid Norway variants to the heroic Cox’s Codpiece (battery powered, and comes with attachments to Hoover your draperies).

If Mr Cox should ever fail utterly at diplomacy, I’m sure his services would be in high demand with a barbershop quartet!

I am no expert in UK politics, but here in the States I know the best way to sidestep a political disaster is to appoint a committee to study the problem. If the committee is permanent, this guarantees a permanent non-solution. The problem will simply be studied endlessly. A side benefit is that the more useless among elected officials can be relegated to the committee in question, where they will languish in well-earned obscurity.

Lest you complain that this doesn’t actually solve the problem, I will chirpily reply: That’s a feature! (not a bug). Some problems can’t actually be solved, but politicians stick out their chests (or whatever body part is most readily at hand) and proclaim they will solve said problem directly after next election. Of course, they can’t — but setting up a committee at least makes it look like they’re doing something.

I propose the creation of Permanent Brexit Committee to meet annually until the year 2120. If at that time they have reached no clear consensus on how Brexit can be most favourably and auspiciously achieved on behalf of the British people, then their mandate may be extended to the year 2220.

This solution is perfectly geared to the problem of Brexit, it being like a cat that thinks it wants to go out — only when the door is opened, it sits there by the doorstep realising all the benefits of staying in, including safety, security, regular meals, and a dog that it’s gotten used to circumnavigating.


Sidebar: More on the Irish Backstop

Brexit junkies would know that one of the sticking points in negotiations has been the so-called “Irish backstop” — not to be confused with an Irish backrest, i.e., a barstool. The Irish backstop is so incomprehensible to neophytes that (Photoshoplike) it’s spawned a series of “for dummies” books and videos — or, as the French say, “pour les Nuls“:

Unfortunately, these books and videos are either unavailable in Westminster, or else (like Brexit itself) they’re a few sandwiches short of a picnic.

The Irish backstop has nothing to do with Alpha Channels (the perennial bane of Photoshop n00bs). Rather, the essence of the problem comes down to this: How do you have a Customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland without it being a hard border that people will shoot at? (as they did quite often during the “Troubles,” before the Good Friday Agreement declared that there would no longer be any such hard border with checkpoints).

The answer, for politicians, was childishly simple: use AA! (Alternative Arrangements). But what exactly are these Alternative Arrangements? Mental telepathy was considered, but rejected as requiring too much discipline. Black light and fog machines were likewise nixed as being too showy. The current fad is for an “apps” solution involving mobile phones, as explained by the Beeb here (scroll down). Integral to this technical solution is the mobile inspection unit or MIU, cheerily described by drivewyze.com as a “trucker’s surprise.” (“Darling, you shouldn’t have.”)

Unfortunately, the MIU acronym is alread taken, as illustrated by this charitably brief dialogue:

“Have you seen Pat lately?”
“No, he’s gone MIU.” [missing in Ulster]

Lots of people went MIU during the Troubles, and Brexit seems in a fair way to duplicate that phenomenon.

There are other potential problems with the acronym. For example, Wikipedia helpfully points out that Miu is the surname of a famous Romanian virtuoso cimbalom player, while the fashion conscious would surely know that Miu Miu is an Italian clothing and accessory line (a subsidiary of Prada). Devotees of the high art of French cinema would likewise know that Miou-Miou is one of its most beloved icons. (How I enjoyed her performance in Montparnasse-Pondichéry!)

Nor can one escape the dilemma by adding more repetitions of the acronym, for if one cries out MIU, MIU, MIU! one is apt to be mistaken for a cat and given a saucer of milk, or else taken for a Zen Buddhist and granted enlightenment. Either way, if you’re hauling a load of widgets from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland, you still risk getting your brains blown out when crossing the border-which-isn’t-really-a-border-because-we-say-it-isn’t.


The Beach Boys’ recording of “Winds of Change” from their M.I.U. album, named after Maharishi International University

Michael Howard

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

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EU’s Juncker hasn’t read his George Lakoff

Today’s topics: Brexit, poindexters, I am not a nerd, and yes we have no bananas. Oh, and Donald Tusk’s “special place in hell” comment.

In an impassioned (for him) but possibly counterproductive speech, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said he had a message “for those who are saying that the Commission is composed by blind, stupid, stubborn technocrats…” What was his message? No one knows, because the audience quickly drowned him out with cries of “They’re right!”

Okay, maybe they didn’t, but the point is: This is a prime example of what George Lakoff might call “negative framing,” e.g. Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” speech, or Monty Python’s “There is no cannibalism in the British Navy.”

Once you plant the image in the mind of your audience that the EC might at least possibly consist of blind, stupid, stubborn technocrats, you then have to fight to overcome that image. I like President Juncker well enough, but this is a gaff which invites parody:

What Juncker should have done is open with a couple of jokes about bendy bananas, or perhaps a musical number entitled “Yes, We Have No Bendy Bananas.” Then, once the crowd was warmed up, he could have continued on a positive note: “I come to you today with good news! EC members have excellent eyesight and fare well on intelligence tests. They’re super flexible. They include sports jocks and passionate lovers. No, there are absolutely no poindexters in the EC. Oops! I did it again…”

Monty Python served up a prime example of intentional negative framing in “POLITICIANS – An Apology”:

We would like to apologize for the way in which politicians are represented in this programme. It was never our intention to imply that politicians are weak-kneed, political time-servers who are concerned more with their personal vendettas and private power struggles than the problems of government, nor to suggest at any point that they sacrifice their credibility by denying free debate on vital matters in the mistaken impression that party unity comes before the well-being of the people they supposedly represent. Nor to imply at any stage that they are squabbling little toadies without an ounce of concern for the vital social problems of today. Nor indeed do we intend that viewers should consider them as crabby ulcerous little self-seeking vermin with furry legs and an excessive addiction to alcohol and certain explicit sexual practices which some people might find offensive.

We are sorry if this impression has come across.

— Monty Python’s Flying Circus, s03e06

As for poindexters (a.k.a. nerds), this YouTube attempts to explain the derivation:

Props to Simon Whistler! (I’ve seen a lovely portrait of his mother.) But the video fails to note that the term “poindexter” was further popularized by The Simpsons TV show, which emerged in the late 1980s — the same period in which Admiral John Poindexter gave testimony to Congress about the Contragate scandal:

Note memorable examples of framing in the clip. There can be a cascade effect to memes. This one may include the Poindexter from Felix The Cat, the Poindexter from Revege of the Nerds, but also the Poindexter brought to you by the U.S. Navy — which like the British Navy, has no history of cannibalism. Or at least, very little.

Poindexter from Felix The Cat

Poindexter from Revenge of the Nerds

The King of Poindexters: Admiral John

Was there really an outbreak of “Poindex-teria” in 1987? The author of this Chicago Tribune piece seems to have tongue (rather than pipe) firmly planted in cheek:

The country loved it. Young men flocked to barber shops to get “Dexter-dome” haircuts. Young women made passes at men who wore glasses. There were T-shirts: “Poindexter: What a Way with Words!” There were buttons: “We Luv Ya, Dex!” There were even bumper stickers: “Pipesmokers Do It With Their Teeth.”

At Navy recruiting stations, the lines stretched into the street. And things were even better at tobacco shops.

“It’s been unbelievable,” exclaimed one happy pipe salesman, whose store had a life-size cardboard Poindexter propped in the window. “It was the way the TV showed every puff rising to the ceiling–just mesmerizing. People come in here–they’ve been listening to this guy’s testimony for days–and all they want to know is, ‘What’s he been smoking?'”

— Rick Horowitz, “I Wish I Could Hold A Pipe The Way He Does”

Anyway, there are limits to George Lakoff’s theories on framing. But in the most trivial case, it’s easy to see how we can communicate better by creating our own positive frame, rather than trying to rebut someone else’s negative frame (Juncker’s fatal and risible mistake). As Lakeoff says in “The Power of Positive Persistence”:

Framing is about reclaiming our power to decide what’s important. Framing is about making sure WE set the terms of the debate, using our language and our ideas. … There’s a place for angry response and outrage. That’s only human. But we also need strategic action to make sure every passing day fuels positive action towards progress.

Sadly, Brexiteers did a better job of framing the issue than Remainers: a big red bus with a baldfaced lie about giving £350 million a week to the NHS, plus appeals to World War II nationalism and fears of Turkish hordes invading Britain. Deceptive framing obscures the real issues, arousing people’s passions about non-issues, leading them to make bad decisions.

What are the spoils of Brexit victory? Bendy bananas and faux sovereignty:

Brexiteers will poo-poo the prospect of a bananaless Britain as Project Fear. Meanwhile, unemployment is expected to rise, and The Guardian cites a new study claiming that Brexit is already costing the UK £500 million a week.

Jean-Claude Juncker seems like a good enough fellow, and the EU is an essential organisation for maintaining peace in Europe, as well as planning for economic prosperity and environmental responsibility. It does have its nerdish, technocratic aspects, but that’s no reason for the UK to up and leave it. A recent (fairly rude) comedy sketch on the German heute-show had a brilliant sugggestion, which was for Britain to stay in the EU while blowing off its rules whenever it suits them, just as Germany does. Quoting mock correspondent Birte Schneider, “English people, you can still stay in the EU and be an egotistical a-hole.”


Sidebar: Tusk comment spurs row in House of Commons – Bercow in top form

While quite funny, this clip is an example of dueling frames: The first MP (Peter Bone) frames Tusk’s comment more or less as “To hell with Brexiteers!” while the second MP (Joanna Cherry, who quotes Tusk more accurately) frames it as “Those who promoted Brexit with no plan for safely implementing it are deserving of blame.” Speaker John Bercow adds a note of levity by referring to Bone as a “delicate flower” easily wounded. The clip is a mini insight into UK politics, with Tory Brexiteers trash-talking the EU, and rebel Scots defending it. The trash talk got more toxic on Twitter, accompanied by the ritual burning of the EU flag:

Two of the more over-the-top responses to Donald Tusk’s (understandable) expression of exasperation at some who promoted #Brexit

What was it Monty Python said in their apology? “…never our intention to imply that politicians are weak-kneed, political time-servers who are concerned more with their personal vendettas and private power struggles than the problems of government, nor to suggest at any point that they sacrifice their credibility by denying free debate on vital matters in the mistaken impression that party unity comes before the well-being of the people they supposedly represent.”

Oh well. Maybe some right-wingers can do without fruit, veg, and jobs. They can live on hate alone.

Let’s go out on a cheery note with Bananarama singing “Cruel Summer” and throwing bits of ‘nanas at police:

Michael Howard

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

* * *

‘Twas The Night Before Brexit – GROUP READING! (YouTube)

I really like making things. After all, life can be so routine and boring. But when you make something, you never quite know how it’ll turn out. With any luck, the result may surprise you.

I had written a poem parody called ‘Twas The Night Before Brexit, and encouraged by the kind response from fellow bloggers (thank you!), I decided to turn it into a video:

I have a love-hate relationship with technology. I know technology can be incredibly useful, and I do use it; but I also hate the way our society is becoming so digitised. If you have a problem with a company, good luck reaching a human! And I hate getting calls from sooper friendly chat bots who are apparently programmed to sound like 18-year old girls, so happy they finally reached you, trying to keep you on the line until a real salesperson can take over and scam you with a credit card deal or Microsoft Support nonsense. Is that not the pits?

In the 80s, I was heavily into making music with synthesisers, and even eked out a minor living creating “patches” that other musicians could use. I still remember when synthesisers first emerged as expressive musical instruments with Switched-On-Bach, the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, and Chick Corea’s blazing synth leads on Where Have I Known You Before. But gradually, synthesisers became a cheap substitute for real musicians, and no low-budget production was complete without a fakey-sounding ensemble — a canned, frozen orchestra playing lifeless, soulless music.

I also used to write pop songs, which was fun even though I never really got anywhere. Back in the 80s I penned this lyric:

Computer bars where
Machines go to dance
Flashing their software
They pivot and prance

Time was humans
Could congregate too
I think of days…
Me and Susie Q would boogaloo

CHORUS:
Now it’s early to bed
And likewise early to rise
We serve the circuitry
We’ve gown to despise
We’re turning over
In graves we have dug
Machine is ruler
We can’t pull the plug.

Won’t someone save us
From this terrible fate?
Calling all aliens,
Please don’t get here too late.

Please send advisers
Who are licensed to kill
Destroy all silicon
And send us the bill.

CHORUS:
Now it’s early to bed
And early to rise
We serve the circuitry
We’ve gown to despise
We’re turning over
In graves we have dug
Machine is ruler
We can’t pull the plug.

We’ve heard that Mercury
Has creatures for hire
We’ll give them anything
They need or desire.

Please send advisers
Who are licensed to kill
Destroy all silicon
And send us the bill.

CHORUS:
Now it’s early to bed
And early to rise
We serve the circuitry
We’ve gown to despise
We’re turning over
In graves we have dug
Machine is ruler
We can’t pull the plug.

Today, I like how some people use technology in a knowing, ironic way — sometimes even to counteract or engage in open warfare with tech’s dehumanizing aspects, going up against the people who send armies of chat bots and sales bots to invade our lives. There’s even one fellow, Roger Anderson, who creates chat bots to interact with telemarketers and waste their time — with hilarious results. His theory, in essence, is that the more time scammers spend interacting with bots, the less time they’ll spend bilking seniors out of their life savings.

So, given how much I hate things that are fakey, the challenge in creating the “Night Before Brexit” video was to try and use technology in a knowing, ironic, and humourous way. Yes, I used synthetic voices, but I tried to make them as expressive as possible. I hope I succeeded, but that’s up to viewers/listeners to judge.

There were innumerable technical challenges. The Scottish lass has oodles of personality, so I gave her some of the best lines. But she tends to speak much faster than the others, so I sometimes had to slow her down by as much as 15%, which does produce artifacts. Still, I was very happy with her performance!

As for the poem itself, it’s only one of many Brexit parodies based on Clark Clement Moore’s “A Visit From St Nick”. Some are quite funny, and some have gone viral. In my version, I wanted to do things a little differently. My two main criticisms of other versions making the rounds are that the authors don’t bother to make the lines scan properly as poetry, and often the language is too steeped in political rhetoric and doesn’t create a proper tableau, or pictures in the mind.

Now, if you write poetry, you might have had the experience that some verses are workmanlike and help establish the setting, but there’s a particular verse you like because of the pictures it creates:

As I blinked in the moonlight, there appeared a fine elf
Playing ‘Scotland The Brave’ — it was Nicola herself!
Her colours were grand, and crocheted on her nightie
Was “Bollocks to Brexit, and a new vote for Blighty”.

Call me vain (and I am), but I like that verse so much! I admire Nicola Sturgeon’s rebel stance, and the way the Scottish National Party holds mini-insurrections during debates in the House of Commons (usually beginning with “It’s an insult to Scotland…”). The poem as a whole takes easy shots at right-wingers like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, portraying them as drunken, lecherous, toffee-nosed windbags who exploit Santa’s helpers (who are likeable SNP elves). Not the most nuanced take on UK politics, but in a parody you go for stark contrasts.

As a satirist, I insist on being politically incorrect in a variety of ways, so no need to tally them up. I intend no offence whatsoever, and am simply going for cheap laughs wherever I can get them. The views expressed by the (fictitious) Duchess of Ducks and Duke of North Prickly are not my views, and Santa’s (shall we say unique?) way of dispatching the Johnson is not meant to encourage any enterprising kidnappers at large in the Kingdom.

I’ve always been an odd duck. What interests, amuses, or enlightens me may not have the same effect on others. But I can say with gratitude that the way the video turned out has managed to surprise me.

I’m good at creating things, but not so good at promoting them. So if you find this video a helpful bit of agitprop in the anti-Brexit campaign, please reblog it, tweet a link to it, add it to your Facebook, or otherwise publicise it. The music is from YouTube’s royalty-free Audio Library. Thank you.

Michael Howard

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

* * *

‘Twas The Night Before Brexit

 

‘Twas the night before Brexit, when out in the Kingdom
Some wanker shot Boris, but the git only winged ‘im.
The Maybot was placed on her chill pad with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.
She had spent the whole week giving Corbyn a ragging;
Now she’d spend the whole night helping Santa with tagging.
Gifts for the gentry and gifts for relations,
For Labour MPs and for Tory Alsatians.
She had waited for Santa through elevens and twelves,
But began to despair the appearance of elves.
Then the clock struck out one with a note of revival,
As if presaging tidings of Santa’s arrival.
The Downing Street crowd, from toffs to plebeians
Beheld Santa’s sleigh, pulled by East Europeans!
“The Labour Exchange must be notified quickly”,
Said the Duchess of Ducks to the Duke of North Prickly.
“They’ve been fishing in Scotland, as is plain by the smell;
“And they’ve prob’ly been bonking the Sturgeon as well”.
But St Nick took no note of these tossers and yelpers;
He was flanked by a bus filled with SNP helpers!
As I blinked in the moonlight, there appeared a fine elf
Playing ‘Scotland The Brave’ — it was Nicola herself!
Her colours were grand, and crocheted on her nightie
Was “Bollocks to Brexit, and a new vote for Blighty”.
Then Nigel Farage arrived, driving a hearse;
He was stewed to the gills, and what made matters worse,
I could tell by the groans which emerged from the casket
He had Boris in tow, who had quite blown a gasket.
The two of them tried to take over the party;
Farage all too posh, and the Johnson all farty.
Between them they had only one sticky wicket,
But they tried to pull down Santa’s elves — was that cricket?
It’s an insult to Scotland, how these two carry on
On the holiest night, until well past the dawn.
So May in her ‘kerchief and I in my hoodie
Asked Johnson to leave — but do you think, would he?
His bellowed refusal resounded for miles,
But good old St Nick was all chuckles and smiles.
He bundled the Johnson up into his sleigh,
He sacked him and fracked him and took him away.
He shouted to May, before making his exit–
“Merry Yule, stupid woman! And to all a good Brexit”.

Michael Howard

Links

The Twelve Days of Trumpster
Christmas Music: The Rare and the Beautiful
Jesus is Born – in a World of Many Faiths
Simple Gifts, the Christmas Truce, and Benjamin Bowmaneer
Christmas, Childhood, and Cable Spaghetti

* * *

Shutdown over border wall – Would you believe…

Just in time for Christmas, the government has shut down again. If the EPA is affected, that means NO coal in your Christmas stocking! (and any canaries stuffed therein won’t keel over).

Last week, President Trump took full credit for the shutdown, claiming he was proud to own it in the name of border security. But now he’s trying to blame the democrats:

Okay, Mr. Hi-Tech. Nothing from the ancient world better than the wheel? How about the rack? It’s cutting edge technology! Plus, scientists are testing a new invention called the loincloth.

Lately, Trump’s big, beautiful wall paid for by Mexico is turning into a slat fence funded by taxpayers. This raises several questions, uppermost in my mind being: Just how slatternly does this fence need to be to satisfy the Donald?

For those who remember the old Get Smart series, there’s also a retro “Would you believe?” meme being played out right before our eyes. Get Smart was a comedy about a bumbling secret agent named Maxwell Smart (played by the late Don Adams), and his reserved, sensible boss known as The Chief (played by the late Edward Platt). Max and The Chief worked for CONTROL, which stood for goodness and niceness. Their enemy was KAOS, which didn’t.

Get Smart has already given us one memorable Trump Administration meme: the Cone of Silence. This was a running gag about a super secret listening booth which muffled voices so effectively that even those enveloped in it could barely hear each other:

When the original gag wore thin, they came up with the portable cone of silence, which was even funnier:

Not to be confused with “The Silence of a Candle,” which was a lovely piece of music by The Winter Consort:

Anyway, when now dethroned EPA chief Scott Pruitt lavished tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money on an ultra secure phone booth, this was quickly dubbed the Cone of Silence by the press. Another running Get Smart gag was “Would You Believe…”:

As applied to Trump’s border wall, I think it would go something like this…

Max: Chief, we need a 30-foot high concrete wall to keep out illegal aliens.

The Chief: I’m sorry Max, that’s totally impractical.

Max: Really? Well, how about a picket fence painted by friends of Tom Sawyer?

The Chief: No, Max.

Max: Would you believe a ‘Keep Out’ sign and a really ferocious poodle?

I’m afraid that’s what Trump will be reduced to in the end. As for stand-up comedy memes, take this one out for a walk:

Potent Quote

“Another government shutdown? I asked you not to tell me that!

More Videos

The West Wing – Shutdown episode:

Police: “Canary In A Coal Mine”:

Edward Platt in The Rebel Set (Mystery Science Theater version), where he plays a criminal mastermind who masquerades as both a beatnik and a priest:

* * *

Brexit Drama, Brexit Humour

Catching up on the latest Brexit developments, with talk, videos, and a bit of a laff

What does BREXIT stand for? Those who follow the news closely know it stands for ‘Brazen Revolt Eliminates Xylophones In Tasmania’, a story originally aired on ABC Australia. Sometime later, people realised it could also stand for Britain exiting the European Union. That’s when the acronym really took off.

An old TV commercial used to go ‘You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye’.

Likewise, you don’t have to be British to love watching how the Brexit drama is unfolding. It’s a ‘seedy’ occupation for Americans who may not feel the results directly in their breadbaskets, but are fascinated to observe all the twists and turns. (Maybe bagels would have been a better analogy.)

Lest I be accused of chuntering from a sedentary position, I should explain that I do have friends in the U.K. who are affected by Brexit, and I always hope the nation as a whole will listen to its better angels.

I admire Theresa May for her perspicacity and determination, but being both American and sympathetic to Labour (though not a big Corbyn fan), I could never vote for her. Still, I suppose the essence of my reason for liking her is her perseverance in attempting The Thing That Couldn’t Be Done:

That’s the thing about Brexit: More and more it comes to resemble the thing that couldn’t be done, the carpet that couldn’t be laid. You tack it down in one place, it just sticks up in another. You try to backstop Northern Ireland, and the Scots get skittish and want to depart the Kingdom again.

No good compromise between the various factions can be found, and the British people (eminently practical) are beginning to realise that proposed solutions are typically worse than the (much exaggerated) problems of simply remaining in the E.U. and getting on with daily life, working toward reforms (where needed) within the existing structure.

Yes, E.U. membership has its share of problems (which must be taken seriously), but also many benefits — including the huge benefit of avoiding the world wars which used to break out between European nations before they developed a comprehensive strategy of cooperation. The value of this ‘peace dividend’ is inestimable, as is the progress made in human rights:

There is, moreover, a point at which Leavers’ determination becomes mere foolish obstinacy. America spent years fighting the Vietnam War because politicians were too stubborn to admit it had been a grievous error. The historical lesson is clearly ‘Cut your losses’.

Even fellow Tories stare at May’s Brexit deal with icy disapproval. Some have grown quite red-faced over her alleged ‘betrayal’ of their vision of a Brexit in which Britain calls the shots, rather than being like fish to the fryer. (No Nicola Sturgeon jokes, please!)

As an outsider, I’m gobsmacked that there’s still no new referendum on Brexit, as this seems the best way forward. I’m convinced a second referendum would result in a vote to remain. Why?

– The first vote had something of an air of the madness of crowds about it. It was a mania for a novel idea whose downside had yet to be fully grasped. Two years later, that downside is far more apparent.

– Many people voted Leave as a kind of protest vote or middle finger to Brussels, without really believing Leave would win the day. No one was more surprised than Boris Johnson, who adopted Leave as a means to stoke his political career, but was left looking rather sheepish the day after.

– Brexit was sold by rock star conservatives with no real plan for implementation. After the sugar high of excessive nationalism came the inevitable crash: into the harsh reality that Brexit may mean economic stagnation for Britain (as the latest Treasury report would indicate).

– In retrospect, it appears that some pro-Brexit propaganda crossed the line into psychological manipulation covertly funded by non-U.K. sources, thus flouting British campaign-finance laws. There seems to have been an international campaign to misinform voters about what Brexit would actually entail, and to inflame jingoistic passions rather than rely on neutral facts. In hindsight, Leave looks more like a ‘grassroots’ movement funded by eccentric millionaires.

– It is also claimed that a number of supposedly independent pro-Brexit groups (Vote Leave, BeLeave, the D.U.P., and Veterans for Britain) pooled their resources illegally, spending a collective £3.5 million to hire a Canadian political consultancy and data research firm, AggregateIQ, to leverage the outcome. See ‘How a tiny Canadian IT company helped swing the Brexit vote for Leave’ in The Telegraph.

– Brexit was arguably a product of the same sort of nationalist sentiment which served to install Donald Trump in the White House. There may be those in Russia who would rather see Britain, America, and the E.U. all bitterly divided, rather than cooperating to build a world which is peaceful, free, and poised to deal with the very real problem of climate change (and is unified against Russian military expansion).

– One ought to get past the view that ‘the people voted for Brexit, therefore it must be the Will of the People.’ Serious questions have arisen as to whether the people were badly misinformed, and whether the policy can be successfully implemented. A second referendum two years later (in light of all the revealed facts) is entirely appropriate, and is the best way to honour the Will of the People.

– Plan A, Plan B, Plan C… If we count all the plans advanced by warring factions, we’re probably up to Plan 9 by now:

– It’s easy to say ‘We don’t like all them foreigners, so we’ll take our puddings and go home!’ But it turns out it’s much harder to actually do it. In a second referendum, cooler (and better-informed) heads may prevail — always assuming dark money can be kept from buying the results (or buying the marketing and advertising which determines the results).

Quoting from a Washington Post article:

‘What was always an illusion on the Brexiteer side was that the kind of world you could return to was when Britain had an empire and was a global superpower in the world economy’, said Fabian Zuleeg, the chief executive of the European Policy Center, a Brussels think tank with close ties to the E.U.

In short, Brexit was a pipe dream — well-intentioned perhaps; sentimental, nationalistic, but not geared to practical economic reality. Globalisation is no unalloyed joy, but the challenge for Britain (as for all nations) is to compete as effectively as possible, rather than pretending one is still living in the old world. The retro quality of Brexiteers is underscored in this interview from Fox Business where the tune being hummed is ‘What would Maggie do?’

Those nostalgic for the Thatcher years might want to watch this video:

No, not even the ghost of Maggie Thatcher (or her imitators) can rescue the British people from the throes of Brexit. What’s needed is a new referendum.

In the face of enormous, throbbing problems with the Brexit deal, some cabinet members are voting with their feet:

An unusual resignation speech delivered by a member of the May cabinet

For singalong purposes, let us recap the essential points:

You need feet to be a Tory,
You need feet to kick your friends;
You need feet to pull your socks up,
And stop the deal from fraying at the ends.
You need feet to switch positions,
You need feet to dance the hoochie-koo;
You need quite big feet to cast your vote for Brexit,
And I need feet (are you listening, Theresa?)
To run away from you.

What some people’s feet are running away from is a logical inconsistency known as “having our cake and eating it” — a Boris Johnsonism regarding Brexit. This is where I feel a tinge of sympathy for Mrs May. She’s been dispatched to Brussels to extract all the benefits of being in the E.U., while simultaneously up and leaving it — a two-step which no one, no matter how blessed by the Terpsichorean Muse, can manage to perform. How does cheery Donald Tusk respond to all this cake-eating?

Or if the The Donald leaves you unpersuaded, consider this helpful puppet demonstration courtesy the ever-helpful Germans:

How many Britons were sold on Leave through false assurances that they could still reap the benefits of E.U. membership? Five percent? Ten percent? And how many of those now see the reality more clearly? Democracy is not just about choice, but about informed choice. That’s why a second referendum is the best way forward.

Suppose I order an item from Freemans, based on an advert which promises a certain size, colour, and style. Then the merchant contacts me and says, ‘Well, we don’t actually have that size, colour, and style. Can we send you something else instead?’ If the original item is undeliverable, I want that second chance to choose.

What if the Brexit people voted for is undeliverable? Should they be given some substitute made of tofu, toffee and pigswill, or should they at least be given some final say in the matter? A second referendum is not anti-democratic. It respects the right of the people to choose from available options, rather than the pie-in-sky Brexit that was promised them.

Michael Howard

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


Next time: The Fishy Commoners Policy – Can It Work?

‘There are no Thatcherites in foxholes’. –old Ojibwa proverb

Links

Greenspan Bobblehead Shocks Nervous Britons – UPDATE
David Tennant Reacts To Brexit Vote
British MPs Need Stronger Passwords
Queen Elizabeth Plans for Trump Visit

* * *

Turkey Day Mystery Science Theater 3000 Offering

Enjoy “Johnny at the Fair” and “The Rebel Set” riffed on by Joel and the bots.

For those who don’t know, the premise of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is that Joel Robinson is stranded on a spaceship with a couple of robots he made himself. A mad scientist and his assistant force Joel and the bots to watch really bad movies, and sell the results to cable TV.

Back in the 90s, Turkey Day often featured a 24-hour marathon of MST3K episodes run back to back. For this Turkey Day, I’m offering just a single episode (#419), consisting of a short and a feature.

The short is about a little boy named Johnny who gets lost at a sort of Canadian World’s Fair, and soon strikes out on his own. (“Haight-Ashbury, please!”)

The feature is a crime drama with a beatnik theme, starring Edward Platt (best known as The Chief in the old Get Smart comedy series). Probably the funniest thing is the coffee house populated by faux Beats, including a really bad poet. As robot Tom Servo riffs: “Cigar, cigarettes, Camus, Sartre, angst, alienation, Wittgenstein…”

One of the cute things about the robots is that they’re often like young children, placing Joel in the role of a parent. In the opening host segment, Joel is reading them scary bedtime stories like In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter, but they’re completely jaded and bored, so he has to look further afield to locate a book that will really frighten them. 😉

The series also includes something called the “Invention Exchange.” In this episode, Joel comes up with a paint-by-numbers kit for color field painters like Mark Rothko.

Please enjoy Mystery Science Theater 3000 #419, and don’t eat too much turkey, Tofurkey, or other seasonal delicacy:

MST3K has a homespun quality — sometimes naive, sometimes unexpectedly hip. It was produced in Minnesota, and one of the identifiable modes of riffing is Joel breaking into his Minnesota housewife persona: “Oh, I never go down to the village. They’re too nutty down there…”

The show quickly became an underground hit, based partly on the motto (run during the closing credits) “Keep circulating the tapes.” Nevertheless, for those who prefer DVDs to dodgy VHS copies, DVDs are certainly available. #419 is included in the 4-disc set The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection – Volume 12.


Of Further Interest

Guamanians! Test your civil defense knowledge
(featuring the MST3K skit “Civil Defense Quiz Bowl”)

* * *

Trumpy Bear

When writing “Remembering Teddy Roosevelt in the Era of Trump” almost two years ago, I made mention of a certain, ahem… item:

The Trump teddy bear, only $79.95 from vermontteddybear.com. Vomitorium not included.

I assumed it was the worst piece of kitsch that Trumpists could come up with. Boy, was I wrong! What is kitsch, anyway? Google’s quick retort:

Art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.

This definition helps explain why Trumpy Bear is so popular with liberals, despite being marketed to the Trumpistas who watch Fox News:

Firstly, liberals thought it must be a parody or hoax cleverly put over to make Fox News look like an even stupider platform than it already is. Surely this can’t be for real!

Secondly, once it turned out to indeed be a real product marketed to Trump TV viewers, it reaffirmed the notion (widely held by Eastern liberals) that Trump supporters simply have no taste whatsoever! Thus, it (ironically) manages to please both camps in wholly different ways. As a prospective Christmas, Chanukah, or Kwanzaa gift, it definitely has crossover appeal. It’s also cheaper by half than the Vermont teddy bear, while packing twice the kitsch.

To paraphrase an old saw attributed to actor Edmund Kean: Dying is easy, satire is hard. In fact, it’s almost impossible now, because Trump is arguably the first American Dada president (though Nixon came close). The Guardian’s Australia columnist Van Badham says it best: “A thousand satirists with a thousand typewriters could not invent this in a thousand years.”

Nevertheless, see “Scott Pruitt: Of Mattresses and Moisturizer,” in which Kirstjen Nielson has disappeared, Trump has resorted to cannibalism, and Sarah Sanders defends him to the bitter (too much mustard?) end. Also featured: “Sheriff” Sean Hannity as Trump’s new Chief of Staff.

The commentariat class keeps getting hoodwinked by Trump’s tweets etc., convinced they must be from The Onion, but turning out to be real Trump comments claiming that people who buy cereal need to show ID. (Not usually true, except for R. J. Reynolds branded cereals, or certain communities where there are large concentrations of cereal abusers.)

No teddy bear jollity in Paris, though, where leaders of European nations were met by a broody Trump having a bad makeup day. (Melania applied too many coats to the left cheekbone.)

Angela Merkel channels Chandler Bing: “Could I BE any more uncomfortable?”

Only one question remains: How could Trumpy Bear be made into an even more over-the-top expression of right wing kitsch? Maybe it could come with a free AK-47 and a self-burning cross that doubles as a nite lite.

The elderly gent billed as “Corporal Frank Warholic” lends himself to the obligatory MST3K riffing:

“My name is Frank, and I’m a warholic.”
“Hi Frank!”

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

* * *

Operation Faithful Patriot – Genesis of a Name


[The White House.]

Secretary Mattis: Mr. President, I have the preliminary list you ordered, of names for the military operation on the Mexican border.

President Trump: Good! Pull up a seat, but first get me a Diet Coke.

Secretary Mattis: I’m not a vending machine, sir.

President Trump: Let’s hope you’re at least a fighting machine. Otherwise, well — you know the drill.

[Together in unison]: YOU’RE FIRED!!!

Secretary Mattis [forcing a chuckle]: I’m glad we can laugh about it like this, sir.

President Trump: Then let’s get down to business. What names have they come up with over at the Pentagon?

Secretary Mattis: Comprising the A-list, we have Operation Godless Narcissist, Operation Sniveling Demagogue, and Operation Orange Splunkhead.

Trump [frowning]: You know Jim, I had the most successful show on television for over 20 years. I have a sixth sense about marketing that’s allowed me to sell everything from steaks to Supreme Court justices. Your boys are good boys. Boys and girls, men and women, and a few in-betweeners we haven’t managed to kick out yet…

Mattis: Sir, what’s your point?

Trump: My point is they’re good boys, but they don’t have an ear for marketing. Those names you just gave me might be good enough for small cleanup operations in a non-election year. But they don’t say Donald Trump, they don’t inspire brand recognition, they don’t have that quality of hugeness and tremendousness which people associate with the Trump brand. In short, these are not bigly names.

Mattis: So you want something biglier? [pronouncing this last word with obvious distaste]

Trump: Biglier, and infused with the spirit of this nation. Give me something that speaks to me of big cars and dead Indians. Jack LaLanne and Lana Turner. Wisconsin takes the field. Pretzels with mustard on a hot day.

Mattis: You’re losing me, sir. And there’s still the B-list to get through.

Trump [skeptically]: Does it come with mustard?

Mattis: Not as such. But some of the names are slightly, uh, biglier.

Trump: Fire away, then.

Mattis: For the B-list we have Operation Shirking Leader, Operation Lying Viper, and Operation Xenophobic Idiot.

Trump: Hmmn… Some of those are biglier, but not in a good way. To energize the base, I’m looking for a name that conjures up images of Christian Minutemen beating brown-skinned invaders over the head with bibles while humming The Star-Spangled Banner. I’ve got it! Operation Faithful Patriot!

Mattis: Do we really want to bring religion into this? After all, you’re not known as a particularly religious man.

Trump: I get the basic plot. Boy meets girl meets snake. Fire and floods. Like Puerto Rico, but without the welfare.

Mattis: [with a look of quiet exasperation]: Very well, Operation Faithful Patriot it is. Anything else?

Trump: Have you looked into my plan to bring tactical nuclear weapons to the Mexican border?

Mattis: I’m afraid the Joint Chiefs consider it impractical.

Trump: What impractical? Use it or lose it. You hire a crane. Put some nukes where they’ll do a lot of people a lot of good. The American people have never felt so protected as under Donald Trump. After all, if you laid all the Geraldo Riveras in the world from end to end, you’d have… Well, a lot of Geraldo Riveras!

Mattis: No offense, sir, but you seem to be wandering again. And there’s only one Geraldo Rivera.

Trump: I was speaking metaphorically. You could have like a river of Geraldo Riveras, all of them voting for me.

Mattis: An interesting thought experiment, but how do you know they’d vote as a bloc?

Trump: They’d have to. Otherwise I’d deport them.

Mattis: I should have seen that coming. Anyway, we can’t send nuclear weapons to the Mexican border. It’s just not done.

Trump: They told Christopher Columbus to go back to making pizza, no one sails over the edge of the earth. But he did it anyway. That’s what I want to do. Not the same thing, but the same thing in a different way. More modern, less Italian.

Mattis [humoring him]: Uh-huh.

Trump: Different flavors of nuclear weapons for different days of the week. All pointed at Mexico saying give us your rapists, your murderers, your drug dealers, and we’ll give you our nukes. This one’s called Rocky Road. It has little marshmallows and packs a hundred megaton blast.

Mattis: Mr. President, you’re flat-out crazy.

Trump: They say Trump is crazy. Crazy like a fox. He knows how to bring home the bacon. Millions of jobs that weren’t there before. Jobs in meat-packing, jobs in sheetrock, jobs carrying things to and fro. Today it must be a camel. But tomorrow it could be hot rats. Desert rats in jeeps stationed on the Mexican border, eating American food. They say La Choy makes Chinese food the American way. But I say America makes nukes the Chinese way. To eat in or take out. Nukes delivered by moped. No one will spot them going in. Believe me, no one.

Mattis: Mr. President, you can’t deliver tactical nuclear weapons by moped, and this whole line of thinking is completely unhinged.

Trump: I hear the Fake News say [imitating announcer’s voice] “Donald Trump has become unhinged.” But the truth is, I was never hinged. I was always a swinger.

Mattis: Your point being?

Trump: Before you say no to nuclear weapons, remember what happened to Fidel Castro.

Mattis: What happened to Fidel Castro?

Trump: He’s dead, Jim.

Mattis: I walked right into that one. Okay, let’s say we manage to deliver tactical nuclear weapons to the Mexican border by moped, or camel, or a contingent of harnessed rats. We still can’t use them without irradiating our own people.

Trump: I thought of that. What we do is get a really big fan, put it on high, and just blow all that radiation over the border to Mexico, like Christopher Cross.

Mattis: I’m afraid nature has a bigger fan. It’s called “The Wind,” and it’s quite unpredictable. It could turn in an instant, and all our people would get dosed. They call the wind Mariah. The rain is Tess, I believe.

Trump: Funny, I’ve groped women named Mariah and Tess. Do they have a name for fire? Maybe I could make it a trifecta.

Mattis: In their native wisdom, they call the fire Joe.

Trump: Oh well, never mind then. You just get the word out about Operation Faithful Patriot. And rustle up some nukes. Have them delivered in shopping carts by CIA agents dressed as homeless people. Make sure they know how to rap. And don’t talk to any newspapers, either.

Mattis: Yes sir, I’ll get right on it. No sir, I won’t.

* * *

Sidebar: Windsongs

Michael Howard

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

The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant

A science fiction podcast from Lightspeed Magazine

UPDATED! Having known many vegetarians — including some who worked in or even owned vegetarian restaurants — I thought I would post this podcast of a story called “The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant,” by Rachael K. Jones. You might say it’s about the difficulties of the restaurant business, and the problems caused by meat. 😉 [Click to listen:]

 

More specifically, it’s about a bunch of cyborgs who are fleeing human beings; only their stolen spaceship is a food service vehicle, so they keep getting pinged by human ships wanting to place takeout orders.

To buy time, the cyborgs try and fill these orders. Despite having no experience as cooks, they eventually manage to flesh out a menu and expand their customer base. This leads them to the cusp of a momentous decision: Should they really lam it back to the cyborg factory, henceforth to live only among their own kind? Or should they continue to perfect their culinary skills and scoop out a place for themselves in the restaurant biz, catering to the hopelessly illogical tastes of humans? It’s really something of a head-scratcher…

In the meantime, they must wrestle with problems of low morale and scanty resources. The personality conflicts so common among kitchen staff inevitably arise.

Despite my deadpan synopsis, this is a laugh-out-loud funny story made even better by narrator Claire Benedek’s masterful voice acting. She creates a convincing contrast between Friendly — the most human of the cyborgs — and Engineer, who becomes most obsessed with cooking.

Rachael K. Jones is a gifted storyteller with an ear for dialogue and an unflagging sense of craft. She knows how to mix it up, too. Perhaps funniest are the restaurant reviews which trickle in, helping the cyborgs tweak their recipes:

Like the chefs closed their eyes and dumped handfuls of ingredients onto the grill. But they didn’t charge me anything, so I’m giving it two stars instead of one.

This impressive audio offering is brought to you by Lightspeed Magazine, edited by John Joseph Adams. Click on their link to find out more about them, including their podcasts produced by Skyboat Media. Audio intro and outro by Jim Freund of Hour of the Wolf fame. Illustration by Christopher Park.

“The Greatest One-Star Restaurant in the Whole Quadrant” is from Lightspeed #91, where you can also read the story in text format.


Sidebar: Unusual Foods and Dinners from Hell

Movie & TV buffs have already made numerous lists comprising this category, leaving me very little, ahem — meat on the bone. But here are a couple of items which seem to have escaped the going lists:

Michael Howard

Justice Kavanaugh: Private Swearing-In Ceremony

The swearing-in or “making” ceremony installing Brett M. Kavanaugh as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States was held in private. Nevertheless, some details have emerged. One person present may have had their iPhone on record.

As often noted, this was the first time a sitting Justice (Justice Kennedy) was to swear in an attorney who had previously clerked for him. Of greater significance is the new language inserted into the ceremony by Donald Trump.

What follows is a rough transcript reconstructed from the unverified recording and from personal recollections. It appears the private ceremony differed markedly from the second, public ceremony held later for the cameras.

Present and participating were Judge Kavanaugh, Justice Kennedy, and President Trump.

Judge Kavanaugh’s wife and children were also present, but were bound and gagged and wearing red pyjamas, in keeping with tradition.

Selected guests were also present, but were camouflaged as eggplants and led in through a secret passageway.

Trump [to Kavanaugh]: You’ve passed through many trials and tribulations, my friend. And while your breasts are not particularly large, your intellect is massive. I’m attracted to you as a jurist. That’s why I ultimately appointed you to the Supreme Court. I have faith that you will reach fair decisions, reciprocal decisions.

Kavanaugh: Thank you, Mr. President. I couldn’t ask for a higher honor.

Trump: You know that, right? You know I could have appointed others — those who I call my captains, those who share my blood. The Rooster wanted me to choose someone with a shorter paper trail — but I said: “You’ve tried the rest, now try the best.”

Kavanaugh: A profound sentiment, sir. I am greatly indebted to you.

Trump: You are indebted to me. I’m the Master of this Show, the Brander-In-Chief. I took one look at you and said, “This is something we can sell.”

Kavanaugh: I appreciate your confidence in me, sir.

Trump: And sell we did, and found a lot of buyers among Senators. Tremendous Senators.

Kavanaugh: Some of them were quite tremendous, yes, Mr. President.

Trump: I personally made Susan Collins an offer she couldn’t refuse.

Mrs. Kavanaugh: Argle. Mmph.

Kavanaugh: What’s that?

Mrs. Kavanaugh: Argle. Mmph. Ahbah. Rzzzzle…

Kavanaugh: You’ll tell me later, dear.

Trump: As I was saying, you’re my brand of Supreme Court justice, the kind I can work with, the kind who remembers who his friends are. The kind who knows that 90% of success is having a rap and being provocative.

Kennedy [interrupting]: Mr. President, if I may quote a line from It’s A Wonderful Life: Why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death?

Trump: You have a point. Fat Tony wants us to get on with the ceremony, and he has a point.

[Trump adjusts the lighting so that the room is suffused in a soft orange glow. Kennedy walks over to Kavanaugh and addresses him pointedly.]

Kennedy: Raise your right hand. Do you swear, promise and pledge debenture, declenture, accenture to blambify the rheostat in oleosis cum ultimatum? Say “what.”

Kavanaugh: What?

Trump: Now Brett, if you have any doubts or reservations, this is the time to say so. No one’ll think any less of you. Because once you enter this Supreme Court family, there’s no getting out. This family comes before everything else. Everything. Before your wife and your children and your mother and your father. It’s a thing of honor. Then, God forbid if you get lawyer’s block and can’t write opinions, we’ll take care of you, ’cause that’s part of it. If you got a problem, you just gotta let somebody know.

[Kavanaugh nods silently.]

Kennedy: This man right here, he’s like your father, except he’s orange. You got a problem with somebody here or on the outside, you bring it to him, he’ll solve it. You stay within the family.

[Kavanaugh once again nods his assent. Trump produces a sewing needle from his jacket and proceeds to heat it over a candle flame. He pricks himself, then turns to Kavanaugh.]

Trump: Alright, give me your hand.

[Trump pricks Kavanaugh’s finger and presses it against his own. The two are bonded in blood.]

Trump: Okay. It’s done.

[Trump next produces a card which he holds by the edges and sets ablaze.]

Trump: This is Saint Peter, my family saint. Now, as that card burns, so may your soul burn in hell if you betray your President.

[He passes the card to Kavanaugh.]

Trump: Now rub your hands together like this and repeat after me. May I burn in hell…

Kavanaugh: May I burn in hell…

Trump: If I betray my President.

Kavanaugh: If I betray my President.

Kennedy: Congratulations! Welcome to the family.

Trump: And on it goes, this thing of ours…

Mrs. Kavanaugh: Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” Ark!

[Exeunt omnes]

* * *

Acknowledgements: Some portions of the dialogue were adapted from The Sopranos, Season 3, Episode 3, “Fortunate Son,” written by Todd A. Kessler.