Tea For The Tillerson – Poison Variety

Pompeo is here!

“Can’t sleep after my plane ride back from Africa,” Rex Tillerson was overhead to mumble. “Guess I’ll check the Twitter to see what my moron of a boss is up to. Oops…”

Although being dispatched in such an impersonal and cowardly manner is no doubt vexing for the former Exxon CEO, Tillerson will nevertheless depart having left his mark upon the White House. At President Trump’s request, the diplomatic reception room is being redone to reflect Trump’s well-known fondness for rococo kitsch. (And no, Rococo Kitsch is not the name of another porn star.)

On order for display is a Butter Rex Tillerson to replace Real Rex Tillerson, rendered by the Pennsylvania Welders’ Union (Auxilliary Branch), and guaranteed to contain nothing but 100% pure, unadulterated butter. It will, however, contain fewer calories than Real Rex Tillerson, and after the initial outlay of $48,173 will require less upkeep than having Real Rex Tillerson hanging around forever.

Under the new design plan, Butter Rex Tillerson will stand directly opposite Bagel Gary Cohn — a Gary Cohn replica sculpted entirely from swirled bagel parts.

“We have to keep them in separate corners,” explained White House decorator Tham Kannalikham. “If Butter Rex Tillerson and Bagel Gary Cohn were to touch, it could trigger fusion and blow the universe apart.”

The choice of Mike Pompeo for Secretary of State is seen as an unusual move by some Washington insiders, but a natural development by others reading the Trumpian tea leaves. Though the cup may be bitter for Rex Tillerson, it’s sweet for Gina Haspell who takes over at CIA. We guess the promotion to head boy feels like something less than torture to her. On hearing the news, she reportedly broke into an extraordinary rendition of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” But her first chore may be stuffing Rex Tillerson in a coffin for shipment back to Bartonville — a town in Texas named for Barton Fink.

As for Mike Pompeo, when asked if he was fully prepared, the Secretary Designate replied that he had been gently laid over a bed of dill sprigs, covered in lemon slices, and expected to be delicious upon reaching a temperature of 145 degrees.

Michael Howard

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

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Trump’s America: Teachers With Guns

Teachers don’t want to become policemen or engage in shootouts with psychos carrying AR-15s. Most teachers want fewer guns, not more. But the arm-our-teachers “solution” is cynically designed to boost gun sales.

The emotions of the moment are overpowering, and I feel them. But we should continue to look at the underlying structural issues: There are AR-15s in our schools because there’s too much money in politics. To get the guns out of our schools, we need to get the money out of politics. Otherwise, on key issues where the American people are largely united — like sensible gun laws — the politicians will vote against the people and side with the gun manufacturers, who contribute millions of dollars to their campaign coffers.

What is this if not rampant corruption? And who took a record (indeed, staggering) amount of money from the NRA in 2016? Donald Trump. He took 30 million dollars.

Too much money in politics clearly leads to a breakdown in our democratic process such that our votes mean less and less, because the politicans end up being de facto employees of their large corporate donors. Long term, we need a Supreme Court which recognizes that the problem of money in politics is a fundamental threat to our democracy — a Supreme Court which will hand down decisions limiting money in politics and curbing corrupt practices.

Otherwise, we’ll continue to have the best democracy money can buy.

Here’s another reason why teachers with guns is a bad idea: In kids’ lives, there’s a strong distinction between nurturing figures and authoritarian figures. Troubled kids open up to teachers who are nurturing and non-threatening, not teachers who seem like part of the security state. The functions of teachers and policemen need to be kept separate and distinct.

(A short clip from the TV series Boston Public exploring the issue of teachers with guns)

Again, there’s been a rash of church shootings, so maybe all the priests should be armed. Then when you confess to stealing your sister’s raisin collection, you won’t know whether to expect Hail Marys or a hail of gunfire!

Michael Howard

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

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Political Potpourri for Presidents Day 2018

Donald Trump tweets, Scott Pruitt fires his food-taster, and unboxing the new MAGA buckets set to replace food stamps. Plus sleepy reflections on Trump’s State of the Union, and another tribute to Anthony Scaramucci.

Trump’s tweet solution no solution at all

To the budding satirist, Trump’s latest tweetstorms provide an embarrassment of riches. In one Who’s Afraid of Virginia Trump? entry, he has the Russians “laughing their asses off.” The burden of responding to it all becomes too great, which I suppose is the point: Massive outrage fatigue, and late night comedians collapsing under the strain of too much delectable raw material. Atonal music and riots in the streets.

Trump’s tweeted “solution” to gun violence of simply reporting troubled people to “the authorities” assumes that “the authorities” really care, and have both the knowledge and resources to stop a person like Nikolas Cruz before he goes postal. Who is the highest authority in our land? Some would say Donald Trump. But is Trump in control himself? Does he have real solutions to complex problems? If you reported Nikolas Cruz to Donald Trump, Trump would probably send him to Guantanamo. Problem averted, you say. But people with unpopular political views might also end up in Guantanamo. “The authorities” sometimes turn out to be jackbooted thugs, even in America. Not all of them, but enough of them that our security forces can be subverted — turned in the direction of fascism by bad leadership at the top. The president sets the tone.

I have no experience with immigration issues, but some would say this is happening now with ICE. Hateful, anti-immigrant attitudes on the part of Trump filter down to enforcement officers, who then feel justified enforcing the rules in a harsh and inhumane manner, sending the signal that there’s a war on immigrants and America is not a friendly place to visit (unless you’re of Normegian stock).

America has the potential to be a light to other nations, but it also goes through dark, Nixonian periods when people are rightly afraid of “the authorities.” According to historian Jon Meecham, comparing Trump to Nixon is unfair to Nixon.

Scott Pruitt fires food-taster

We’ve grown accustomed to administration officials hitting the scandal sheets with their lavish travel, fondness for tobacco stocks, and photo ops running their begloved hands languidly through great steaming piles of money.

It should come as no surpise, then, that EPA chief Scott Pruitt recently fired his food-taster. It was not a cost-cutting measure. When reached for comment, Pruitt explained the move thusly:

“I have very sensitive taste buds, and need a food-taster who will suss out not just poisons, but also ingredients which lack the perfect freshness I desire. My old food-taster, Hermione, who is now in intensive care at Walter Reed Medical, was good with poisons, and saved me on a number of occasions when radical environmentalists tried to spike my ambrosia breakfast with life-threatening chemicals. Now, I have nothing against life-threatening chemicals, but they don’t make a good mix with pâté de foie gras. My new chef– I mean food-taster, Louie, is an expert in all matters culinary. He knows how to ensure that my favourite dish — dolphin prepared with just a soupçon of powdered rhinocerous horn, in a light, sweet, crude sauce — has only the freshest ingredients and will not interfere with my delicate constitution. I can but add: Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!”

Pilot program to swap food stamps for MAGA buckets

I was fortunate to be chosen for a new pilot program initiated by Donald Trump which seeks to replace the old food stamps with a government-issued bucket of foodstuffs whose contents never vary:

– Chicken McNuggets*
– MAGA hat
– copy of Hustler

(*Requests by vegetarians for Eggplant McNuggets have been soundly rejected by administration officials.)

As one of the first to sample the new MAGA bucket, I can confidently say that it takes the notion of gubment cheese to unparalleled new heights. Like the army’s MREs or “meals ready to eat” (sometimes dubbed MRVs or “meals ready to vomit”), the new MAGA bucket will assault your folk and pop sensibilities!

The Mooch is back, and Cuomo’s got him

Just when you hoped you’d finally seen the last of Anthony Scaramucci, he turns up again on Chris Cuomo’s new (well, old) primetime miniseries on CNN. Fresh from his Broadway stint in the musical version of Goodfellas, Scaramucci’s appearance coincided with the news that Donald Trump gave the order to fire special counsel Robert Mueller last June, but had to demur when White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign.

Scaramucci poo-pooed Trump’s legal culpability, but seemed more interested in selling vacation packages for Davos, Switzerland, where the uber-rich go to escape the merely rich. Scaramucci’s return to major media is worthy of a song:

Tony The Mooch (to the tune of “Minnie The Moocher”)

Folks, here’s the story ’bout Tony the Mooch
He really up and screwed the pooch
Was only hired to vex Reince Priebus
Once that was done he had to leave us.

Blue mirrored shades and blind ambition
No sense of conscience, no contrition
He said: “I want to kill those nasty leakers,”
“Or make them smell my dirty sneakers.”
But here’s the truth, and it’s a corker:
He leaked his guts to the New Yorker!

Hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee-hi (Hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee-hi)
Ho-dee-ho-dee-ho-dee-ho (Ho-dee-ho-dee-ho-dee-ho)
Hee-dee-hee-dee-hee-dee-hee (Hee-dee-hee-dee-hee-dee-hee)
Hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee-ho (Hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee-ho)

He had a dream about the King of Trumpland
He’d be the Mooch’s money pump man
He’d buy him oil wells from Plains to Charlotte
The Mooch would be Trump’s fawning harlot.

The plot was hatched and Mooch took over
It looked like he was in the clover
His praise for Donald waxed effusive
But soon his language grew abusive.
He nearly won, but had to spoil it
‘Cause Tony had a mouth as foul as a toilet.

Hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee-hi (Hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee-hi)
Whoa! (Whoa!)
Hee-dee-hee-dee-hee-dee-hee (Hee-dee-hee-dee-hee-dee-hee)
Hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee-ho (Hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee-ho)

Trump’s State of the Union

From posts like this one, the reader might glean that I come from an arts and spirituality background, not so much politics. Watching Trump’s State of the Union speech, I found myself getting rather depressed. The stories he told to score political brownie points struck me as surreal and grotesque — like things you might read in a supermarket tabloid. I countered by passively-aggressively falling asleep.

On the fringes of consciousness, I suppose I transformed some of his stories in my mind. There was the North Korean who was persecuted for stealing a kumquat. His head was chopped off, yet he didn’t die. He was found by a Christian missionary, who placed his head on a roller-skate and gave him a push in the direction of China. When he got to China, he proceeded to construct a Christian cathedral entirely out of chopsticks. The Chinese didn’t like it and put a bounty on his head. So he roller-skated all the way to South Korea and became a famous radio DJ.

I admit the details may be off, but that’s the sort of story Trump delivered in a tired, plodding manner, reading disinterestedly from a teleprompter. I found it depressing and highly alienating.

Afterwards, some commentators gave him good marks and suggested that the stories he told were emotionally moving. I wish I could have been moved, but the surreal and grotesque nature of the stories plus their lifeless delivery made me feel sad that I am other than those for whom the stories evidently had meaning. My review coming from an arts and spirituality background is that the State of the Union was a depressing spectacle with no connection to reality, no life-breath, and no genuine insight into the things which creative people aspire to.

I’m sorry, but I just can’t live in Donald Trump’s reality. Maybe if somebody painted the walls a brighter color, and let in a little sunshine… And the bedding could use airing out! Is that a Chicken McNugget I see peering out from between the sheets? Flanked by a MAGA hat and…

Michael Howard

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

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Parkland School Shooting: NRA’s Wayne LaPierre Sings

Breaking news and broader discussion of issues

Everyone expected that due to mounting pressure, Wayne LaPierre would have to issue some kind of statement in response to the latest school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left at least 17 people dead — most of them children. But no one expected that he would break into sunny song:

Yes, it’s wonderful when young children are indoctrinated into gun culture, for this is bound to pay off later on in life! (especially if they have a beef with someone).

I’ve already blogged about crazed mass shooters here and here. What is there new to say? People die, and the usual suspects offer their semi-automatic response: We shoudn’t “politicize” the deaths by talking about gun control. We need a decent interval of time to pass (like maybe until the next mass shooting); and even then, the real issue is better mental health for all Americans! (and lots and lots of country music). Bacon should be made a mandatory breakfast food. Shunning bacon is erratic behavior. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again! 😉

Lacking the political will to make truly beneficial changes (like loosening the stranglehold the NRA has on our feckless Congress), we can at least give our children an education that allows for quiet time and insight:

Crazed shooters are often people who have more anger and outrage than they can handle. It’s not clear our current health care system and mental health establishment can do much about that. A couple of talk therapy sessions and a prescription for Prozac aren’t going to de-weaponize people who’ve accumulated a lifetime of grievances by the time they’re 18 or 19.

Besides the insane proliferation of firearms, there are also sociological and spiritual reasons why our society is producing a ridiculous number of mass shooters. The doctrine of materialism, taken to extremes, leads to depersonalization and a failure to recognize the value in each human life. The past few decades have seen accelerated change, but our educational system has failed to ring the changes. It doesn’t teach people basic skills like how to live, how to deal with conflict, how to overcome the setbacks, disappointments, and even outright maltreatment which people may experience in our highly competitive, acquisitive, dog-eat-dog society, presently headed by one Donald J. Trump.

“Going postal” is a particular type of psychosis experienced by people who have a lot of pressure building up with no release valve. But as the above video on meditation in the schools shows, quiet time and insight are release valves. They’re valuable tools in our toolkit which we’re not utilizing to the extent that we could. These tools are largely free, but highly effective.

The emphasis on personal freedom which emerged in the 1960s is a positive development, and was a natural outgrowth of many factors: some of them cosmic, and some of them a reaction to the repressiveness of the 1950s. Any good thing needs to be assimilated; and we’re still trying to assimilate the freedoms of the 60s, which at their worst can lead to personal selfishness. Wantonly taking the life of a fellow human being is the ultimate in personal selfishness; so there’s a spiritual connection between the problem of greed and the problem of violence:

One of the institutions affected both positively and negatively by the changes of the 60s is parenting. On the one hand, there was a recognition that the repressive, disciplinarian style of parenting was harmful and outmoded. But in discarding that model, what was sometimes left was no parenting at all, or an assumption that children will simply find their own way with little or no guidance and attention.

The economic model has also shifted, so that both parents (in two-parent households) often work, whether they want to or not. A single wage-earner may not be able to provide for the needs of the family, as was once the case. There are only so many hours in a day; so when both parents work, giving children as much love, care, and attention as they need becomes an even greater challenge.

The solution is not a Leave It To Beaver trip back to the fifties (to quote a West Wing-ism), but an effort to really think about these issues and find a way to care for children with the right balance — neither ignoring their genuine needs, nor subjecting them to harsh discipline. Parents who love their children should try and mould them — not in a domineering or destructive way, but through love — because the parents know many things which the children need to know but cannot know merely by osmosis or hanging around the mall, or by being given large allowances.

There’s no substitute for being there as a parent — sometimes to supervise, but sometimes just to express love, caring, and a sense that the universe is a basically friendly place, even if the child can’t avoid having some painful experiences (like bullying). Parents need to teach one of the most difficult lessons of all: forgiveness of those who cause us pain.

Freedom is not as simple a concept as it might initially seem. We are free to do absolutely anything, but without wisdom we may do things which have serious negative consequences. An impulsive person may express their freedom in an irresponsible or destructive way. Then, because they cause grievous harm to others, they may have to spend years in prison or endure other serious punishment because their freedom was not tempered by wisdom.

Parents can’t make their children happy by giving them all freedom and nothing else. They do need to teach their children right from wrong and help them grow in wisdom, so that they can use their freedom wisely. Spiritual freedom is not the freedom to do absolutely anything. It is, rather, freedom tempered by wisdom and compassion — the freedom of a person who knows how to do the right thing that will not bring suffering on himself or others.

Parents need to be a light to children. To be a light means to be present.

In his 1986 book A Child’s Heart and a Child’s Dreams, spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy writes:

Here in the West, there is a kind of freedom that I do not endorse. Parents sometimes act out of false modesty, saying that they do not know what is best for their children. So they give their children the freedom to find out for themselves what is best. True, in comparison to a spiritual Master or a Yogi you may know nothing. But in comparison to your children, you know much more. You have made many mistakes in life, and by making mistakes you have come to know to some extent what is good and what is bad. If you really love your children, you will let them profit from your experience. Every day you should pray to God and meditate on God to illumine you so you will not misguide your children. And the illumination you get, you have to offer to your children. So in the children’s formative years, the parents should always tell their children what is best for them.

If children are not properly moulded when they are of a tender age, then when they grow up they may take drugs and do many undivine things. At that time the parents claim, “I didn’t teach them to do these things.” But unfortunately the parents gave them the wrong kind of freedom. Instead of teaching their own ideals to their children, they let the children make up their own minds.

When you have a child, you give your child milk because you know that it is nutritious. You do not say, “Let the child drink milk or water, whichever he prefers, and when he gets older he will realise that milk is better for him.” By that time he may have fallen sick or even died. So you make the child drink milk until he is ten or twelve years old and then, if he does not like milk, you let him drink something else.

Likewise, on the spiritual plane, parents often do not feed their children’s souls. They say that they do not know which path their children will want, which church they need or what kind of prayer is best for them, so they do not teach them anything. But what you feel is best for your own inner lives, you should also feel is good for your children. Children will die spiritually if you don’t give them inner nourishment. You are not injecting anything into them; you are giving them food. They may not like that particular food, but they have to eat or they will die. Later, when they grow up, they will have the freedom to eat whatever they choose.

Here I see thousands of children who have been misguided by their parents in the name of freedom. Freedom is available, but who can really enjoy freedom? He who listens to the dictates of his inner being and obeys the inner law. You enjoy freedom on the outer plane precisely because you listen to a higher authority, which is your own higher self. When you do not listen to your higher self, at that time you are totally limited and bound.

The parents have to feel that since they have more wisdom and experience than their children, they are the higher self of their children. They are part and parcel of their existence, but they are more conscious; therefore, they are in a position to guide their children. These same children will one day grow up and be in a position to guide and mould their own children. But when children are given freedom before they have any inner wisdom, this freedom is not good.

In America, parents always think that they have to give their children material things. But when it is a matter of love, most American parents do not give it to their children. They give a life of comfort. But there is a great difference between a life of comfort and a life of love. The child’s heart and soul do not care for money. In the depths of his own heart the child cares only for the mother’s heart, the father’s heart. If the child gets love from his parents, then he is eternally and divinely bound by his parents and he himself binds his parents in the same way.

Love has to be given unconditionally, not with the feeling of an inner bargain. If the parents think that they will love their child when he is four so that when he is twenty-five he will give them material comfort, this is absurd. God is constantly showering His choicest Blessings on us. He never cares for our gratitude. He cares only for His giving. When He is giving, He is happy. In this world, happiness comes only from giving. So the mother and father should give everything to their children unconditionally and expect nothing in return for their love. True, if the parents go on pouring their love into their children, eventually their children will offer them gratitude. But real parents do not care for gratitude; they care only for loving their children. Even if the children do not offer gratitude, at least one person will never remain ungrateful for what the parents have given to them, and that person is God. He will try to please the parents in His own divine way.

–Sri Chinmoy, from A Child’s Heart and a Child’s Dreams, Aum Publications, 1986

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Michael Howard

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

Of Further Interest

Sri Chinmoy – Love-Power, Gratitude-Flower
Thought of the Day: People Are Good
People Are Good Everywhere

The Gospel Truth About Congress

Celebrating POETS day with an ode to our underworked legislators, and blues, gospel, and jazz. Musings about art, media collage, and the nature of reality.

For the second time in less than a month, the U.S. Congress managed to shut down the government late Thursday night, by failing to fund it. Then, by about 5:30 a.m. both the House and Senate had passed the necessary funding bill for Donald Trump to sign when he woke up — in between defoliating his eyebrows and sticking new pins in his Katy Tur doll. (What that mean, what that mean?)

At one time in the hoary past, Congress harboured the quaint notion that it was their duty to pass carefully crafted budgets. More recently, they’ve taken to making do by passing a series of stopgap funding measures known as continuing resolutions or CR’s. These are hard to fathom, stuffed with pork, and no one reads them anyway. The whole process has become farcical (thus steering it into my natural territory!).

Since they were up all night having adventures, I guess congresspeople were glad to finally adjourn and beat it out of town for the weekend. They are legendary celebrants of nothing if not POETS day, i.e. “Push off early, tomorrow’s Saturday.” While celebrants in Britain and Australia consider it proper to depart by 3:30 p.m. Friday, the U.S. Congress leaves nothing to chance. A Friday train disaster or invasion of midgets might derail their plans for the weekend, so best leave on Thursday and not come back till Tuesday next. Their departure reminds me of this bit of doggerel I penned a few years back:

The moving finger writes O Lord,
And having writ takes five;
So as this Congress now adjourns,
We thank God we’re alive.
We’re glad you didn’t strike us dead
Or cleave our tongues in two;
So many things you could have done,
But kindly didn’t do.
But most of all, O Gracious Lord
We thank you for the pork
Which thanks to CR feeding time
Now drips from every fork.
The rumours reach us now and then
Of hunger in the streets;
But we’re content to roam these halls
And milk the public teats.

I think it would best be recited in a deep, serious basso profundo like that possessed by Senate Chaplain extraordinaire Dr. Barry Black:

Here’s another good basso profundo:

And while we’re on the subject of politicans, scandalizing, and backbiting, here’s one from Bessie Smith:

Moving forward a few decades, how about John Coltrane: “Spiritual”

There’s a Church of John Coltrane which has survived for nigh on fifty years, but is threatened by gentrification. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if their goal was to pray ceaselessly, to make praying as natural as breathing. This brings us full circle, back to Dr. Barry Black:

Another basso profundo with a slow and steady delivery was the late Sen. Everett Dirksen. In an unusual cultural inversion, he was so square that he actually become hip:

Well, we’ve wandered a bit, but wasn’t it worth it? Wasn’t it fun?

These different connections create what’s sometimes called a “tangled hierarchy.” Sen. Dirksen praising The Monitors in a sci-fi flick from 1969 is an inflection point where we can stop and ask ourselves what the topic-at-hand is. The answer is that there really isn’t one. The fun is in the connections or kaleidoscopic movement of different elements hitting off each other, creating some kind of multidimensional pattern that’s too vast to describe or explain. We can only experience it.

Populist media often use framing to manipulate us and force us down a narrow pathway. Buy this! Vote for that! But when we connect media sources more freely, they begin to act as frames for each other. Reality begins to look like a rich, multi-layered tapestry woven of many kinds of fabric, in which we can yet perceive certain shared themes.

The truth that can be told simply and easily in a 30-second cable news segment is a dumbed-down truth — hardly a truth at all. In their richness, the arts have the potential to reveal more profound truths.

The 1960s comprised a new phase in the history of civilization in which many cultures, many views of reality, collided. It’s no coincidence that this gave rise, in the arts, to collage forms where it was up to the viewer or listener to respond to the sum total of what was being presented — not necessarily with a logical conclusion, but perhaps simply by giving himself/herself over to the experience of it.

This is related to a field of study which I’ve tried in my way to comprehend: hermeneutics. At its simplest, Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics implies that we each see reality through our own horizon, but that we can collide with other realities, other horizons, other frames, and so become more deeply aware. This stepping out of ourselves to become the whole universe and all of history is at once an aesthetic and a spiritual experience.

To express this in art is not always easy, and may result in dense, difficult works which require some effort to understand, such as James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.

Back in the early 1970s, I remember hearing composer Eric Saltzman’s avant-garde work The Nude Paper Sermon — a multi-layered sound collage (he disputes this term) in which different kinds of music and texts are superimposed. In its way, it’s like a modern multi-track version of Finnegan’s Wake. In the original liner notes for the Nonesuch recording, Saltzman writes:

The Nude Paper Sermon is about the end of the Renaissance — the end of an era and the beginning of another.

Therefore it is about old and new means of communication, about verbal and non-verbal sound, about the familiar and the unknown, about human activity and the new technologies. It is not a “neo-classic” work nor is it a collage; rather it is “post-modern-music, post-modern art, post-style,” a multi-layer sound drama that is itself an example of the kinds of experience which it interprets and expresses: the transformation of values and tradition through the impact of the new technologies.

Recording technology makes all possible musical and sonic experiences of the external world raw material and even, increasingly, part of a common culture. Multi-track, multi-layer experience becomes the norm: Ravi Shankar, John Cage, the Beatles, Gregorian chant, electronic music, Renaissance madrigals and motets, Bob Dylan, German Lieder, soul, J. S. Bach, jazz, Ives, Balinese gamelan, Boulez, African drumming, Mahler, gagaku, Frank Zappa, Tchaikovsky, Varèse . . . all become part of the common shared experience. Recording technology also transforms that which it communicates: it makes all music part of the present and in so doing changes it. There is nothing inherently good or bad about this; technology can liberate and it can oppress. But there is no running away any more; we must master what can oppress us, learn how to use it to create and liberate.

The words of the piece are taken from John Ashbery’s Three Madrigals (texts for soloists and chorus) and The Nude Paper Sermon by Steven Wade (texts for actor). The latter, produced especially for this work, is written to suggest the contemporary verbal barrage, that endless language stream of all those who use words to manipulate others: preacher, politician, TV personality, professor, newscaster, even poet. The actor’s part is a kind of scoring imposed by composer and performer on fragments of text that are used emotively and as a kind of symbology. At times words dominate, at times they are submerged, at times a precarious balance, interaction, or interweaving is maintained.

By and large, printed texts would be beside the point; spoken language — heard and overheard, comprehensible and incomprehensible, clear, elusive, simple, complex, logical, mystifying — is the subject matter here. Perhaps one printed text is in order, however: that part of one of Ashbery’s madrigals which has a traditional structure but is made out of a series of word images and verbal snapshots. It occurs near the very beginning of the work and is set as a kind of Renaissance ruin — real fake Renaissance music (“why don’t composers write like that any more?”) overlaid with electronic graffiti:

Not even time shall efface
The bent disk
And the wicked shores snore
Far from the divining knell!

Read the full liner notes here: The Nude Paper Sermon and Wiretap – Booklet for the CD reissue (PDF)

Parts of the John Ashbery poem stuck in my mind forever: And the wicked shores snore/ Far from the divining knell! So true, but what does it mean?

Forgive the tangent, but people tend to assume there is either sense or nonsense. Yet, beyond what makes logical prose sense, there are infinite gradations and colorations of abstraction. This is easier to understand in the visual arts than in language arts. A painting is, by its very nature, an abstract representation of something; though admittedly, some painters tried to do little more than capture their subjects with lifelike realism.

Still, it’s easy to imagine how painters, in a new era of photography where they no longer needed to be slaves to realism, could gradually relax their grip and drift by degrees toward abstraction. But because we use language almost entirely for practical purposes, we may be quick to dismiss any impractical formulation of words as simply “nonsense.”

John Ashbery’s poems are not nonsense. They often contain exquisitely crafted passages which verge on meaning, and tend to create pictures in the mind, but ultimately defy logic. That is their charm.

In dreams we visit many places, many states of consciousness. Some dreams are like parodies of reality itself, from which we wake up laughing. It’s so much like those wicked shores to snore, being as they are, far from the divining knell…

By the late 1960s, not all sound collages and abstract poetic constructions were confined to an audience of avowed avant-gardists. As Robert Worby points out in this Guardian article, borrowed texts and sounds from short or long-wave radio became part of the new language explored by the Beatles and their producer George Martin. A classic example is the song “I Am The Walrus,” which owes some of its expressiveness to a closing collage with bits of King Lear nicked from an AM radio tuned to the BBC.

Musicians are fascinated by sound, influenced by sound, view the world in terms of sound, and (according to David Amram) symphony artists often have voices which resemble the instruments they play.

Eric Saltzman passed away in 2017, and his New York Times obit included this passage:

Mr. Salzman, among his many side interests, was an avid birder, and particularly favored the song of the elusive hermit thrush.

“The other thrushes are baroque artists, constantly elaborating, reworking and adding to their showy repertoire,” he wrote on his website. “The hermit thrush is a classicist, working on the principle of less is more, multum in parvo. Constantly changing variations appear within a simple, firm musical framework. Complex chords and high overtones climb and resonate between the tree trunks to create a sense of space and depth: a song in three — no, four — dimensional space that seems to speak of eternal things.”

To the mystic, everything is God; to the composer, everything is music; to the painter, all reality a collection of shapes and colours. That is as it should be. And to the collage artist (or maker of home brew mashups), each media source has greater meaning when it collides and refracts with other media sources. The ultimate meaning is supplied by the viewer or listener.

This post isn’t really about Congress, or gospel music. It’s more a survey of reality, reflecting on different media sources which may have something in common. Seeing the connections between things is often more interesting and satisfying than trying to wring out of them some trite prose conclusion about which one can say: lesson learned. How much more enjoyable to say: experience noted!

Backtracking to planet earth and the prosaic meaning of this post, I admit that my poem takes a rather bleak and sardonic view of Congress. In truth, there are some good people there — people of integrity without whom things would be far worse than they are. In between Congressional baseball games and Congressional turkey shoots (the two are sometimes combined for efficiency’s sake), Congress does occasionally turn its attention to doing the people’s business. (Some committees specialise in minding other people’s business. Trey Gowdy, do not ask for whom the bell tolls! What’s that committee called? The House Overbite Committee? “There’s been some backbiting goin’ on.” Meanings refract and collide!)

I’m trying really hard to close by saying some good things about Congress, but am not in the proper mood. Okay, when push came to shove, they actually did manage to nearly impeach Richard Nixon. (Hint, hint.)

Michael Howard

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

The Gospel Truth – Video Annex

Michael Stanley: “Poet’s Day” (lyrics here)

Van Morrison: “Summertime In England” (lyrics here)

The Church of Saint Coltrane:

Gandharva Loka Orchestra: “Ai, Ai, Ai Chandra Taraka” (lyrics here)

Eric Saltzman: The Nude Paper Sermon Part 1 (YouTube)
Eric Saltzman: The Nude Paper Sermon Part 2 (YouTube)

* * *

Donald Trump’s Fave New Fast Food: The Nothingburger

Though Trump TV continues to hose it down with gallons of special sauce and haul in truckloads of onions, the memo Trump hoped would somehow discredit the Mueller investigation has turned out to be a huge, gaping, humongous, colossal, double-with-cheese-and-hot-apple-pie-on-the-side, supersized nothingburger.

That may not dissuade Trump and congressional Republicans from continuing to scarf it down like beer nuts and force-feed it to anyone whose jaws are not firmly wired shut. But even a dish so lacking in substance may have unforseen health consequences. For as Bob Dylan so wisely penned in 1967: Too much of nothing can make a man feel ill at ease.

As for the women named in the song and the instruction to “send them all my salary,” I think Trump’s already halfway there with the Stormy Daniels blowup. No shortage of buns around the nothingburger, but each day El Presidente edges closer to “the waters of oblivion.” Hand puppetry is just around the corner.

Do you have a favourite dud meme? I think mine is from an episode of M*A*S*H:

As in the above clip, turns out what we’re dealing with is a propaganda bomb devised by idiots.

Even a wet, runny blister of growth compost couldn’t salvage the Nunes memo, and last I checked he wasn’t offering fries. He has, however, been skanked while he slept.

If queried on the memo, future historians can do no better than to quote the Roches’ elegant summary: “It was a big nuthin’.” I guess I just never knew how big nuthin’ could be!

Michael Howard

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

* * *

Is Donald Trump a Sharkophobe?

Political potpourri, Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway, Saturday Night Live, C.S. Lewis, and a cast of hobos, freegans, nouveau riche, and would-be murderers

There’s an old saying that those with excessive fear of sharks may have leanings in that direction themselves. As a New York real estate guy, and later TV mogul and low-rent politician, Donald Trump has exhibited his share of sharklike behavior. The precise alchemy whereby he might himself turn into a shark is at least hinted at in this passage from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis:

Just as Eustace reached the edge of the pool two things happened. First of all it came over him like a thunder-clap that he had been running on all fours—and why on earth had he been doing that? And secondly, as he bent towards the water, he thought for a second that yet another dragon was staring up at him out of the pool. But in an instant he realized the truth. The dragon face in the pool was his own reflection. There was no doubt of it. It moved as he moved: it opened and shut its mouth as he opened and shut his.

He had turned into a dragon while he was asleep. Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.

Metaphorically speaking, Donald Trump sleeps on a “dragon’s hoard” and harbors “dragonish thoughts,” but his overall tendencies strike me as more sharklike.

Despite these tendencies, Trump is on record (via pillow talk with Stormy Daniels) as wanting all sharks to die! Now, I admit that some sharks can be a bit scary, especially the underwater variety. But Trump’s zero tolerance policy would deny citizenship to that most lovable of breeds, the Land Shark. Candygram!

Listening to this description of the Land Shark, who does it remind you of?

Considered the cleverest of all sharks, unlike the Great White which tends to inhabit the waters of harbors and recreational beach areas, the Land Shark may strike at any time, any place. It is capable of disguising its voice, and generally attacks young, single women. Experts at the University of Miami’s Oceanographic Institute suggest that the best way to scare off the shark in the event of an attack is to hit or punch the predator in the nose. [Or ask Keith Schiller to intervene!]

Trump is also a germaphobe. No Angela Merkel jokes, please; it means he’s afraid if germs. But under the previous theory — well, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions…

Speaking of shark memes, Woody Allen used one to good effect in Annie Hall:

No Van Gogh, but a Golden Toilet

Trump was recently dealt a stunning blow by the art world. The Washington Post reports that his request for loan of a Van Gogh was rebuffed, but those clever wags at the Guggenheim did offer to lend him a consolation prize: a golden toilet. You can read all about it here.

Honestly, what does Trump need with a golden toilet when he already has the services of a platinum sh*tter?

In response to more news of Trump’s philandering, the Christian right has decided to give Trump a Mulligan. To non-golfers, this sounds like something from the Christopher Steele dossier. How exactly does one give a Mulligan? And how many Mulligans will it take before what we have on our hands is Mulligan stew? Maybe giving a Mulligan has something to do with Gerry Mulligan, the journeyman baritone sax player.

Gerry Mulligan, talented jazz musician and possible secret ingredient in administering a Mulligan.

Perhaps giving a Mulligan entails prodding the target with the blowing end of a baritone sax. But is Trump up for it? While inhabiting the White House, Ronald Reagan had Trouble with Polyps (not to be confused with Trouble with Tribbles). Politeness demands that we ask Trump whether administering a Mulligan would be problematic before proceeding further:

Well, there you have it! Anyone wanting to give Trump a Mulligan apparently has the go-ahead.

Sidebar: The Origins of Mulligan Stew

America is a nation of contradictions. As income disparity widens and wealth is siphoned off at the top, one is confronted by the nouveau riche, and plenty of nouveau hobos too. The concept of Mulligan stew originates with hobo culture:

Hobo stew, better known as Mulligan stew, is one of the main attractions at the Hobo Convention. Cooked in giant metal drums, hobo stew is a mixture of meat, vegetables, and whatever else people can find, borrow, or steal and is shared with anyone who wants to eat some. It can be safe to say, one is at the mercy of the cook and you eat it or go hungry.

— from “All Aboard: How Trains Shaped Small Town Iowa”

While the nomenclature may be uniquely American, the Britons have their own version of Mulligan stew, born of the lean times after World War Two when food rationing was mandatory. The Woolton pie (named after Lord Woolton) was a pie fashioned entirely of vegetables; and while a gourmet edition was noshed at the Savoy in London, your common garden variety Woolten pie may have been less savory or delectable.

Besides stews and pies, a soup with ragtag ingredients was also not unknown to would-be epicureans in postwar Britain. A televisual adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage includes this dialogue:

Miss Jane Marple: What is this, Mary?
Mary Hill: Soup.
Miss Jane Marple: Does it have a name?
Mary Hill: Bits-and-bobs-and-odds-and-sods-and-the-meat-ration’s-been-cut-again soup.

There’s also this Monty Python nonsense song, which could imply ingredients in an improvised dish:

Anything goes in,
Anything goes out;
Fish, bananas, old pyjamas,
Mutton, beef, and trout!

Such happenstance cookery brings to mind modern day freegans, who are not hobos, but who do gather their foodstuffs from what supermarkets are ready to throw out. Students in debt and the elderly poor often turn to freeganism as a way of ameliorating the high cost of food. There are solitary freegans, and others more community-minded who get together to prepare meals from shared ingredients.

Now, one thing they seemingly didn’t find was shark food. If you do happen on any shark food, please FedEx to Donald Trump c/o World Economic Summit, Davos, Switzerland. I understand they’re well-supplied with champagne and caviar, but failed to stock up on seal meat and other delicacies prized by Trumpus carcharias.

Michael Howard

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

Potent Quote:

“The rich are different; they have more money.”
–based on a passage by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Unexplained Agatha Christie Ear Candy:

* * *


Just this morning I needed to contact the Department of Redundancy Department about a duplicate me who’s raiding all my pistachios. I also needed to renew my elk hunting license, as elk hunting is one of my few passions in life. And a pair of undershorts I discarded in 1977 has miraculously found its way to the Smithsonian Museum, so I wanted to check on their condition.

Much to my chagrin, I found that none of the relevant agencies were open. Apparently this is the explanation:

My fondest hope is that if and when the gub’ment does reopen, it will sport a sign saying “UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT.” The old management was surly, and Donald Trump’s pick of Stormy Daniels to be the new head of the National Weather Service is conceptually amusing, but fraught with inefficiencies.

Time to spank the Donald with the 25th Amendment!

Sidebar: Stormy Daniels Joke

Once a Chinese boatman made off with all of Stormy Daniels’ jewelry. When the police arrived, they asked if she could identify the thief. “Yes,” she said, “I can describe his junk perfectly.”

Michael Howard

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

* * *

Trump’s Mental Fitness: An Expert Opinion

Out of the mouths of babes…

Seriously though, in my non-expert opinion there’s a simple way of understanding the problem of Donald Trump’s mental fitness. If he were an uncle you see at Thanksgiving who rants about all the immigrants being rapists or having AIDS, you’d just say “Pass the yams” and not think too much about it. You know he watches Fox News all day and was no genius to begin with, so you make allowances.

However, there’s something called situational psychosis. A classic example is the computer HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Under normal conditions, HAL would be non-threatening; but place him in an unusual situation which he wasn’t programmed to handle, and he goes dangerously apesh*t. That’s Donald Trump.

Whether or not Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury is accurate in every jot and tiddle, it reveals a large-scale scenario which is helpful and informative: Trump didn’t really expect to win the presidency, and didn’t want to. His run was designed to bolster the Trump brand and perhaps serve as a launching pad for Trump TV. It was a money-making, ego-enhancing venture at the end of which Donald Trump would still have plenty of free time for goofiness, golfiness, and grabbiness.

No one expected Trump to win, including his own family and what is jokingly referred to as his campaign staff — a motley bunch with ties to the former Soviet Union up to wazoo. Winning was both a shock and inconvenience, and also placed in bas-relief the unconventional means used to garner support — taking any help from the Kremlin that the Kremlin was willing to give (and they were willing to give plenty).

Viewed as a huge publicity stunt, Trump’s campaign for president makes sense. As the loser, he would not be subjected to much post-mortem scrutiny, and few would care that people like Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort had actually been foreign agents.

Winning threw a huge monkey wrench into the works. Not only would Trump lose much of his leisure time, but the minutiae of the campaign would be gone over with a fine-tooth comb, and any irregularities might lead to prosecution.

Most vexing of all, Trump would be thrown into a daily situation he was massively unqualified to handle. He was not a president by training or temperament, but would be forced to play one on TV — not as make-believe, but with real world consequences for every word, every tweet, and every ham-handed or bovine-brained decision.

Under those circumstances, he does exhibit signs of situational psychosis or alienation from reality. His legendary narcissism is amplified and transmuted into something far more dangerous. Rather than just getting into a p*ssing contest with Arnold Schwarzenegger over who makes a better host for The Apprentice, Trump is now trading insults with Kim Jong Un over whose nuclear button is bigger and more fully operational. Open the pod bay doors, HAL!

To use the technical terminology, Donald Trump has gone poco loco en el coco (a little crazy in the head). For your uncle at Thanksgiving, a little crazy is no big deal. But for a president with the nuclear codes, and on whose every word the free world hangs, even a little crazy is too much crazy. That’s why 25th Amendment solutions should be seriously considered to remove a man who never intended to be president, is not qualified to be president, achieved the presidency by foul means (including Russian collusion), and is daily making a mockery of the office in an infinitude of ways, such that it may take years for the US to regain its reputation in the international community.

Indeed, our Western allies have resolved to wait out the Trump presidency, viewing it as a temporary (but serious) aberration. Our closest allies, the noble Britons, want nothing to do with Donald Trump, and consider him a bad (if never-ending) joke. The sooner we rectify this aberration through constitutional means, the sooner we can once again show our faces on the world stage without fear of embarrassment.

Trump’s rampant transactionalism is apparently contagious. Republicans as a whole don’t care that he’s unstable and unfit, as long as he can be led in the direction of tax cuts for the rich, deregulation of anything that moves, gutting of consumer and environmental agencies (not to mention the State Department), and the appointment of conservative justices. But this transactionalism comes at a price: the establishment of a new normal which is unpardonably low, and which ratifies the worst suspicions about America — that it has lost all capacity for moral leadership, and has devolved into just another selfish state.

Under these circumstances, it’s imperative that lawful due process be used to end the Trump presidency before further damage is incurred. In “The case for normalizing impeachment,” Ezra Klein of Vox.com makes the point that when a president becomes seriously abnormal, impeachment should be normalized — as a reasonable choice whose consequences are not unthinkable compared to the alternative of leaving a semi-lunatic or raging incompetent in power.

Our founding fathers were intentionally vague about what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Being a colossal screw-up and making a travesty of the office are sufficient grounds for what, at the end of the day, is a political process, not a criminal one. (Though by the end of the day, some crimes may be alleged by the special counsel.)

As a nation, our psychological dilemma is akin to that of citizens inhabiting the story The Emperor’s New Clothes. Decorum demands that they pretend to the monarch’s excellent haberdashery and sartorial splendour, but reality demands that they “take the bull by the tail and face the situation.”

Dealing squarely with the reality that we are saddled with an unfit and incompetent president may cause some national discomfort or embarrassment, but the pain is far less than that incurred from radiation sickness.

Faced with no good or pleasant choices, the lesser evil is removal of the monarch by constitutional means — unless you’re willing to hazard brushing Strontium-90 from your hair, and wearing stylish rubber underwear for the next 30 years:

(See also: “Guamanians! Test your civil defense knowledge.”)

The problems with having Donald Trump as president re-assert themselves on a daily basis; and while some may succumb to “outrage fatigue,” it’s better to recognize the problem as “Trump fatigue,” and invoke the necessary procedures to alleviate it.

As we measure out our lives in coffee spoons, do we dare to say impeach?

Michael Howard

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

Sidebar: Life after the White House

Those worried about how Trump will earn a living after being turned out of the White House need not fret. According to knowledgeable sources, Trump has already lined up a gig with NordicTrack, a firm with headquarters in Logan, Utah and having no connection to the country of Normay.

The entire Trump family will reportedly be spokesmodels for the new F-52 line of exercise equipment, code named “Javanka.” The deluxe model or “Javanka 5000” will come equipped with dual gun turrets, a drop-down pod, a vital signs monitor, a MedicAlert pendant, and a free subscription to the large print edition of Reader’s Digest. The unit will be manufactured entirely by children in a new wing of Foxconn called Foxconn Trump Tower located in Spooner, Wisconsin and sporting the latest suicide-prevention technology.

An early prototype of the Javanka 5000. Mandatory retention of user for entire cycling period not yet implemented. Water bottle not included. Some assembly required. Instructional videos available from Trump University Extension Division. Trophy wife sold separately. Infrared photo courtesy North Korean military satellite, later uploaded to WikiLeaks.

* * *

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.

* * *

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)

* * *

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 (along with HUAC).

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 and HUAC 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.


The Front – Official Trailer
At The Circus with Topo Gigio

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