Trump, French Elections, and the Film “Z” (1969)

Connecting the cultural and political dots, and revisiting a classic film by Costa-Gavras

There’s an old saying that a poem doesn’t mean, but simply is. The saying’s trotted out when folks in English class rambunctiously insist on extracting a prose meaning from a work of poetry — not unlike getting a furball out of a cat by using a brickbat. What’s implied is that poetry is a process, a way of seeing, and that it differs from prose. Try as one might, one may fail to transplant the life of a poem into some other medium.

Like this, really great films may have their subject matter, but what often makes them great is their way of seeing ordinary interactions between people and how the universe works. Yes, there’s a plot and dialogue, and there may be prosaic meanings; but there’s also a certain poetry to filmic images.

So if I tell you the 1969 film Z is a political thriller, don’t misunderstand or imagine it would bore you if you’re not much into politics. Like most great films, it transcends its subject matter by being about people and how the universe works. It remains as fresh and relevant today as it was when released nearly fifty years ago.


Still, I was drawn to revisit Z by a number of prosaic events: the election of Donald Trump, the investigation into political sabotage of U.S. elections, and the final run-off between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in the French race for president, which is being decided as I write.

Then too, I have friends who visited Greece on a spiritual retreat over the Christmas/New Year’s vacation. Z is a French language film based loosely on political events in Greece during the mid-1960s. A French-Algerian production, it was nonetheless directed (and partially written) by Greek émigré Costa-Gavras, with music by Mikis Theodorakis, and Irene Papas in a supporting role.

The film also concerns what we now call “peace studies.” According to Radford University,

Peace studies is a broad, interdisciplinary activity, which includes research, reflection, and dialogue concerning the causes of war, conflict, and violence and the orientation necessary to establish peace…

We are aware today of population explosion, on-going climate collapse, diminishing natural resources, worldwide pollution from both toxic and non-toxic wastes, and the threat of massive, globally devastating wars.

People have realized, in consequence of these planetary developments, that we need to begin thinking about peace in a sustained and substantial way.

Reflection on the causes of war inevitably raises the issue of structural violence (unjust social and economic structures linked with extreme poverty and deprivation) and the issue of imperialism (dominant nations acting aggressively within the world system to promote their perceived national interests). This in turn leads us to ask why soldiers are willing to fight or kill strangers at the command of their governments, and hence to questions of socialization, biology, psychology, etc.

Within the peace studies movement there tend to be two broad approaches to questions of violence, war, and peace. One emphasizes the human individual and his or her consciousness and the paradigms by which he or she might be operating. Change toward peaceful behavior is often emphasized through education, consciousness raising, dialogue, … meditation, or other ways of influencing individual behavior in the direction of more peaceful relationships.

Jump cut to a speech by the pacifist leader from Z:

They hit me. Why? Why do our ideas provoke such violence? Why do they find peace intolerable? Why don’t they attack other organizations? The answer is simple: The others are nationalists used by the government, and don’t upset our Judas allies who betray us.

We lack hospitals and doctors, but half the budget goes for military expenditures. A cannon is fired, and a teacher’s monthly salary goes up in smoke!

That’s why they can’t bear us or our meetings and use hired thugs to jeer and attack us. Around the world, too many soldiers are ready to fire on anything moving toward progress.

But our fight is theirs too. We live in a weak and corrupt society where it’s every man for himself. Even imagination is suspect, yet it’s needed to solve world problems. The stockpile of A-bombs is equal to one ton of dynamite per person on earth.

They want to prevent us from reaching the obvious political conclusions based on these simple truths. But we will speak out! We serve the people, and the people need the truth. The truth is the start of powerful, united action.

The logistics of setting up this speech by the pacifist leader were mind-boggling. His supporters couldn’t get a permit, and every time they hired a hall the owner would later cancel to due government pressure.

After giving his speech, the pacifist leader was seriously injured in a further attack. A doctor told his wife: “I knew your husband. We were at school together. I wanted to go on his Peace Marathon, but it was banned.”

Jump cut to the testimony of Assani and Paule, Marseilles, 29 March, 2000:

We organize a cultural event each year called the International Peace Run which is open to everyone. Hundreds of thousands of people in the world participate each year and France is the only country that has refused, several times, to grant passage to the runners. “Anti-cult” individuals follow the course of the race. This year they were in a car taking pictures. They intervene as late as possible on the eve of the event so it’s too late for us to do anything about it.

We organized a Sri Chinmoy concert in 1991 in the ‘Parc des Expositions,’ with approval from City Hall. When I requested approval to hold a concert in the same park in 1995, it was denied. The park managers told me: “We don’t have a problem with you. Last time you behaved decently and paid. But we can’t get approval from City Hall because you are part of this list.”

Last year we organized a concert in Paris. A friend told me, “The district City Hall called me. They tried to convince me you were awful people, but it didn’t work. Don’t worry.”

For other events, we did manage to obtain a stadium. The sports manager at City Hall is a real friend and he participates in our runs. He knows us so well he forgot we are portrayed as a dangerous cult and he gave us approval for regular races, once a month. So we started passing out flyers to invite people to a race. The next day a newspaper ran an article entitled: “The cult is running.”

http://www.coordiap.com/Gtemo04.htm

In Z, the opposition has to struggle against authoritarianism and mindless bureaucracy. But sadly, these things can thrive in both right and left-wing governments. That’s why I favour liberal democracies which genuinely guarantee (in both principle and practice) the rights of minorities, whether political or spiritual. France, in its idealized form, is such a bastion of freedom. But at times it has to struggle to live up to its ideals.

The past is dust, and perhaps the runners have made progress in recent years. I do not mean to single out France for criticism. It’s a beautiful country, and I greatly admire the French people for their intelligence, sophistication, language, and culture.

Yet, in recent decades France has seen the emergence of a type of forced secularism which tries to eliminate all forms of religion or spirituality from the public square, or from public expression. This stems from an extreme secular view which sees religion and spirituality only as a source of conflict, but fails to recognize in them a source of peace, compassion, and ideals of self-giving.

This problem is not unique to France, but is a tragedy of the modern world, in which the very real benefits of science and intellectual progress at times eclipse the spiritual aspect, which is also very real, essential to human happiness, and a natural part of life.

In France, this trend toward secularism has led to laws restricting religious garb. If you’re wearing a hijab, sari, or yarmulke, you might face (legalized) job discrimination, or be barred from using public facilities.

As an American, perhaps I’m naïve. While it’s true that religion can be a source of conflict, so can food. Trying to solve the problem of conflict over different religious beliefs by banning religion from the public square is like trying to solve the problem of people quarreling over food by starving them to death.

When it comes to the French presidential election now being decided, I believe religious and spiritual minorities will fare better under a President Macron than a President Le Pen. According to an article in The Guardian:

In her apartment in a northern suburb of Paris, Hanane Charrihi looked at a photograph of her mother Fatima. “Her death shows that we need tolerance more than ever,” she said. “Tolerance does exist in France, but sometimes it seems those who are against tolerance shout the loudest and get the most airtime.”

Fatima Charrihi, 59, a Muslim grandmother, was the first of 86 people to be killed in a terrorist attack in Nice last summer when a lorry driver ploughed into crowds watching Bastille Day fireworks. She had left her apartment and gone down to the seafront to have an ice-cream with her grandchildren. Wearing a hijab, she was the first person the driver hit in the gruesome attack claimed by Islamic State. A third of those killed in the Nice attack were Muslims. But Fatima Charrihi’s family, some wearing headscarves, were insulted by passersby who called them “terrorists” even as they crouched next to their mother’s body under a sheet at the site of the attack. “We don’t want people like you here any more,” a man outside a café told her family soon after the attack.

Hanane Charrihi, 27, a pharmacist, was so irked to find that, even after her mother’s death, the so-called “problem” of Islam in France was such a focus of political debate that she wrote a book, Ma mère patrie, a plea for living together harmoniously in diversity. The far-right Front National gained a slew of new members in Nice after the attack and now Marine Le Pen’s presence in the final presidential runoff this weekend – after taking a record 7.6 million votes in the first round – has pushed the issue of Islam and national identity to the top of the agenda.

“I’m French, I love my country, and it seemed like people were saying to me: ‘No, you can’t possibly love France,’” Hanane Charrihi said. “All this focus on debating national identity by politicians seems like wasting time that could be focused instead on unemployment, work or housing.”

The runoff between the far-right, anti-immigration Le Pen and the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron has seen heated exchanges over Islam and national identity. In 2015, Le Pen was tried and cleared of inciting religious hatred after comparing Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation. Macron has insisted that Le Pen still represents “the party of hatred.” He told a Paris rally this week: “I won’t accept people being insulted just because they believe in Islam.”

This makes for a rather easy segue into Trump World and the Muslim ban. So easy, in fact, that I won’t waste much time on it except to say that right-wing populist movements, whether American or European, find it easy to paint targets on the heads of religious and spiritual minorities.

In reviewing Z for flickfeast.co.uk, Miguel Rosa writes:

Z is not an easy film to watch. For anyone who loves freedom, many scenes will feel like vicious punches to the stomach. Several times I shuddered at the injustices being committed with impunity. The film is not a celebration of freedom and truth, but rather an elegy for these important but fragile values. Costa-Gavras turned the tragedy of his country into a grim parable about something that can happen anywhere.

I’m afraid I only partially agree. I see tremendous idealism in Z. True, that idealism is dashed, but in such a way as to make the viewer long for truth and freedom even more strongly. Z is also filled with poignant observations about the human condition and the experience of grieving for a beloved person, plus rollicking satire on the officiousness and self-importance of military brass, who get their comeuppance in the end (or do they?).

Z is not by any stretch of the imagination a religious film, but it does portray the veritable crucifixion of a pacifist political leader (played so well by Yves Montand). That crucifixion does not mark the end of a movement, but the beginning of one — or at least its re-dedication. Indeed, the film’s unique one-letter title derives from the fact that the Greek letter Zeta — signifying “He lives” or “He is immortal” — was banned (as graffiti) by the right-wing dictatorship which took control of Greece in 1967.

With so much art and culture scrapped by the incoming junta, many left-leaning Greeks did in fact flee to France and other nations where the political and cultural climate was more hospitable. They told their story with passion, and became a force for positive change. In this sense they were like disciples of the crucified Greek parliamentarian Grigoris Lambrakis (on whom the film is based), spreading his message of peace to the Greek diaspora, not unlike the apostle Paul.

This photo of Grigoris Lambrakis marching alone in the banned Marathon–Athens Peace Rally one month before his death evokes the Christian symbol of the cross.

The re-enacted scene from Z

Fifty years after the assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis, anti-fascist Greek rapper Pavlos Fyssas was murdered by a member of Golden Dawn — a far right Greek political party. This brings to mind the saying that history doesn’t repeat itself, but (like poetry) sometimes rhymes. The photo is striking, not least because it forms a pietà.

Another pietà, this one courtesy Doctor Who.

The best-known pietà, by Michaelangelo.

I’ve seen a number of political thrillers, and none of them has the passion of Z combined with such brilliant directing, acting, cinematography, plus vibrant musical direction by Mikis Theodorakis, whose instructions were smuggled out of Greece (since he himself was under house arrest at the time).

Z IS is a celebration of freedom and truth. That the celebration is cut short in its final hours is but a bittersweet reminder that to establish anything resembling freedom and truth on earth is a constant struggle, and there will often be setbacks.

Despite being about politics, Z is one of the best art films of the sixties, an absolute must-see for a new generation which may not have heard of it. It’s a film belonging distinctly to the modern era, striking for its use of flashbacks and depictions of the same events from multiple viewpoints a la Kurosawa’s Rashomon.

For political junkies, the relevance of Z to today’s controversies lies foremost in the character of the inquest judge or magistrate (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant). His role is similar to a special prosecutor or independent counsel. He’s a member of the ruling party, and is inclined to accept the explanation proffered by police that the injury to the pacifist leader was no more than a drunk driving incident.

As today with Trump and Russia, no proof of collusion, but plenty of coincidences! So will the magistrate have the determination and perspicacity to see the investigation through? Can he really be impartial, or will he bend to the ruling party? If he gets too close to the truth, will he be fired by the monarch like FBI director James Comey?

Another important character is the photojournalist (Jaques Perrin, who co-produced). At first he seems cynical and opportunistic (we hate him when he barges in on the widow, Nikon motor drive whirring all the while), but gradually he displays kindness and devotion to truth. His own investigation uncovers facts which he brings to the attention of the magistrate. In this sense, Z is like All The President’s Men and JFK rolled into one, but is better than either. It’s an extraordinarily decent film which only improves with repeated viewings. It has more passion than All The President’s Men, reveals a broader spectrum of humanity, has better character development, and unlike JFK never descends into needless vulgarity.

An example of character development is the fig seller, Barone. We initially see him as a thug keen to participate in vigilante violence. Later we come to pity him when we find that he’s illiterate, powerless, loves his birds, and is desperately afraid of the police Colonel who manipulates him to do his dirty work.

The biggest question mark is always the figure of the magistrate, who seems impassive, unemotional, and skeptical of opposition claims. Yet, his legal training inclines him toward precision and objectivity. Had he been investigating Nixon, he would undoubtedly have fallen victim to the famed “Saturday Night Massacre.”

In the 1960s and 70s, as governments became subject to greater public scrutiny for corruption and malfeasance, an existing genre — the police procedural or detective story — was expanded to encompass the activities of journalists and prosecutors investigating government itself. Thus, Z is (among other things) a cracking good detective yarn with a plot twist at the end. Like most good detective yarns, it leads the viewer through different strata of society, from elite government officials, to a private vigilante group called CROC, to the daily lives of merchants and tradesmen struggling to survive, and (of course) left-leaning peace activists.

For modern day political junkies, another connection between Z World and Trump World is the bizarre speech given by General Missou (Pierre Dux) in the opening scene. He claims the nation is under attack from ideological mildew brought on by parasitic agents. With the arrival of beatniks, Dutch Provos, and pacifists, sunspots appear on the face of the golden orb. God refuses to enlighten the Reds. It’s a delightfully funny crackpot theory worthy of one of Trump’s political appointees to the Department of Redundancy Department (or the Veterans Tapdance Administration).

The passion and suasive power of Z is partly a function of the times it reflects: a point in the late 60s when there was still a strong streak of unalloyed idealism about the prospects for peace, and when it seemed much easier to tell the goodies from the baddies than it later became. The activists in Z aren’t perfect, but we like them because they’re courageous, idealistic, and genuinely committed to peace — even if they’re sometimes tempted to tear up the town out of sheer frustration. The demise of their leader leads them to deep soul-searching.

Then too, Z evokes archetypes from the 60s which no one who lived through that period (even as a pre-teen, as I did), can forget. As a twelve-year-old in June 1968, I stayed up all night watching reports from the hospital as doctors tried in vain to save the life of Robert Kennedy, who had been shot just after giving a victory speech in California, where he had won the presidential primary. I still remember the haggard face of Kennedy aide Frank Mankiewicz, who finally issued a brief statement:

So many of the figures who worked toward peace had great heart, and this theme is explored in Z through a heartbeat sound made by percussion instruments, and repeated reference to the strength and resilience of the pacifist leader’s heart, which continues to beat and refuses to quit.

Z had a super successful run in America, where it received Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Film Editing, and was also nominated for Best Picture. I’m sure that for many Americans it evoked all too recent memories of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.

I’ve only skimmed the surface of Z, using it as an excuse to branch out into other matters. But that’s what a good poem does, too. It narrows your focus to details about the human condition, and that narrow focus somehow possesses the ability to widen into a view which takes in the entire universe. Puzzling, is it not?

Michael Howard

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


Sidebar: More Z Apocrypha

Costa-Gavras on Z (brief WNYC interview)

“Lambrakis is gone, but his legacy lives on!” by Nicolas Mottas
https://www.opednews.com/Diary/Lambrakis-is-gone-but-his-by-Nicolas-Mottas-090518-795.html

Z, The Novel

The film is actually based on the novel by Vassilis Vassilikos (who is not the inventor of Vaseline):

Z, the novel, front cover

Z, the novel, back cover

(Definitely a bargain at 95 cents.)

CROC vs. KROC

In Z, the vigilante group used by the government to attack left-leaning pacifists is called CROC, or Christian Royalist Organization against Communism. Ironically, today there’s a KROC INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE STUDIES at the University of Notre Dame. (No, the picture on their home page is not a Cialis ad.) The pressing question per the film? Are they for football?

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Film buffs have noticed that in the scene where pacifists hand out flyers announcing their new rally location, a large peace emblem covers a French signboard for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. This was a 1966 “spaghetti western” starring Clint Eastwood and featuring senseless violence:

French poster for “Le Bon, la Brute et le Truand”

When the goons attack the pacifists, an injured man is seen lying on the signboard. A woman tries to help him up, but is kicked in the posterior. In retrospect, this almost seems like a metaphor for Trumpcare. 😉

* * *

Trump’s new acronym VOICE: What could it stand for?

Top 15 alternative interpretations

Last night Donald Trump unleashed a new acronym on the American people. Given the tone of his campaign, it could easily stand for Victims of Insensitive Comments Etc. (or Voices Opposing Idiotic Campaign Excess). But here are a few more possibilities:

– Vinegar on Ichthyosaurs Creates Eczema
– Vast Organs in Cathedrals Excite
– Voodoo Often Implies Cuckoo Economics
– Vampy Ocelots Invade Cranial Ellipsis
– Vegetarians Oppose Illiterate Cauliflower Excrement
– Victims of Itinerant Cats Emote
– Vapid Orangutans in Casserole Extravaganza!
– Voyeuristic Ox Implicates Chafing Envoys
– Vagrants Organize Inspired Calamari Exhibition
– Virgins Operate in Communist Elevators
– Vladimir Orders Internet Café’s Espresso
– Vituperative Oligarch Imbibes Calcified Eclairs
– Vague on Issues Candidate Excels

Note: According to Mr. Trump, VOICE stands for Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement. Is it just me, or does this make no sense? Is it a crime when immigrants get engaged? Maybe sometimes they shouldn’t, but isn’t that a victimless crime?

Lucy and Ricky Ricardo: the only victims were TV viewers

Lucy and Ricky Ricardo: the only victims were TV viewers

Sidebar: Trump administration accused of trademark infringement

Dear President Trump:

My name is Equis Culpepper. I am head of the local chapter of VOICE, or Victims of Itinerant Cats Emote. Here in Elksbreath, Montana we have a lot of feral cats wandering around, causing no end of trouble. And once a week we get together to talk about the emotional problems created by these cats, and how we are victimized by their caterwauling and other nocturnal escapades.

There are branches of VOICE in 83 townships across America, and our organization’s name was trademarked in 1953. So if you’re planning to start your own victims’ organization, please be advised that the name VOICE is already taken! If you do not cease and desist from use of that name, we shall be forced to file an action for trademark infringement.

Respectfully,

Equis Culpepper
D.D.S., M.R.C.V.S., B.V.M.

 

Dear Mr. Culpepper:

President Trump has asked me to look into your trademark claim, and it appears to be valid. I hope you know that being Attorney General, I could easily kick your butt in court. But I’m very busy rolling back Voting Rights legislation, and a rose by any other name…

After consulting with me, President Trump has agreed to change the name of his new initiative to DRIP, or Dirty Rotten Immigrants Project.

I hope this settles the matter. If you want anyone lynched, please let me know.

Your truly,

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III
Attorney General of the United States


Michael Howard

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

A Trump Joke for UK Readers

donald-trump-queen-elizabeth-ii-funny

Queen Elizabeth II: Must I luncheon with that horrible man Donald Trump?

Private Secretary: I’m afraid, Your Majesty, that if he comes to England it may be inevitable.

Queen Elizabeth II: Humph!!! Well, I may luncheon with him, but I shan’t serve him tea.

Private Secretary: But Your Majesty, without the ‘T’ you would only be luncheoning with a Rump!

Michael Howard

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

* * *

In Praise of a Free Press and an Open Society

Restoring sanity to the recent furor over fake news (UPDATED!)

Readers of my blog know that I’m occasionally critical of certain media outlets and figures, notably:

– tabloid TV
– Internet publications which use shock headlines as clickbait
– publishers, literary agents, and agencies which profiteer off false stories pandering to populist prejudices
– commercial bloggers like Edwin Lyngar who are rabidly and offensively anti-religious, but who nonetheless insist on doing hatchet jobs on spiritual figures.

Now, in criticizing the above, I usually focus on particular stories which are either horribly biased, or which genuinely rise to the level of fake news. In fact, in two of my posts on the subject, I quoted from Caitlin Dewey’s series in the Washington Post on “What was fake on the Internet this week.” Ms. Dewey writes:

[W]here a willingness to believe hoaxes once seemed to come from a place of honest ignorance or misunderstanding, that’s frequently no longer the case. Headlines like “Casey Anthony found dismembered in truck” go viral via old-fashioned schadenfreude — even hate.

There’s a simple, economic explanation for this shift: If you’re a hoaxer, it’s more profitable. Since early 2014, a series of Internet entrepreneurs have realized that not much drives traffic as effectively as stories that vindicate and/or inflame the biases of their readers. Where many once wrote celebrity death hoaxes or “satires,” they now run entire, successful websites that do nothing but troll convenient minorities or exploit gross stereotypes. Paul Horner, the proprietor of Nbc.com.co and a string of other very profitable fake-news sites, once told me he specifically tries to invent stories that will provoke strong reactions in middle-aged conservatives. They share a lot on Facebook, he explained; they’re the ideal audience.

As manipulative as that may seem, many other sites are worse: there’s Now8News, which runs outrageous crime stories next to the stolen mugshots of poor, often black, people; or World News Daily Report, which delights in inventing items about foreigners, often Muslims, having sex with or killing animals.

Needless to say, there are also more complicated, non-economic reasons for the change on the Internet hoax beat. For evidence, just look at some of the viral stories we’ve debunked in recent weeks: American Muslims rallying for ISIS, for instance, or Syrians invading New Orleans. Those items didn’t even come from outright fake-news sites: They originated with partisan bloggers who know how easy it is to profit off fear-mongering.

Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online, and he confirmed some of my fears: Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.

— Caitlin Dewey, “What was fake on the Internet this week,” The Washington Post

From her thoughtful analysis, it’s clear that there are definite criteria for identifying what is fake news and what (by contrast) may be completely genuine news which is disliked by an incoming administration — not because it’s fake, but because it’s true. When politicians go on a blitzkrieg of falsehood, it behooves the news media to up their truth-squading activities. (See Maragret Sullivan in The New York Times here.)

Media analysis yields few binaries, so there is perhaps a gray area where extremely poor reporting may somewhat resemble fake news. Also, in advocacy journalism the facts are slanted to make the case the writer wants to make, yet there is usually some underlying factual basis, however thin.

Her Blooming Cheek…

Let me shift gears for a moment and explain why I’m writing about this. Over the course of history, a perfectly valid form of expression may be undermined by later developments in language. A classic example is the presence in some 18th and 19th century literature of lines like these:

And now, as gazing o’er the glassy stream,
She saw her blooming cheek’s reflected beam,
Her tresses brighter than the morning sky,
And the mild radiance of her sparkling eye,

— Sir William Jones, from “The Palace of Fortune”

Or these:

A fair one next stepped forth to view
More fully form’d; more high the hue
That glow’d upon her blooming cheek,
Which seem’d more ripen’d age to speak;

— Mrs. Henry Rolls, from “The Banquet of Spring”

Or these:

The sun himself loses his countenance
Before her blooming cheek…

— Christian Dietrich Grabbe, from Cinderella (Aschenbrödel)

This last would surely strike any modern Briton as a reference to Kellyanne Conway!

Many more references could be unearthed, including one from Mr. Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. However, developments in cockney English (e.g., “Of all the blooming cheek!”) have rendered such lines vaguely comical in retrospect, and reciting them in a cockney accent only adds to this perception.

With the equally comical (yet terrifying) entrance of Donald Trump onto the world stage, my previous articles discussing “fake news” are thrown into some disarray by the latter’s mongrelization of the term as an epithet for any news report (however factual) he simply doesn’t like.

He may have short fingers, but those fingers now obsessively clasp a huge megaphone from which he blasts mind-numbing alternative facts aggrandizing his own accomplishments, coupled with wholesale attacks on “the media” for not being able to sufficiently camouflage their well-earned dislike of him.

Bully Pulpit

The phrase “bully pulpit” was originally coined by President Theodore Roosevelt:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, bully pulpit means “a public office or position of authority that provides its occupant with an outstanding opportunity to speak out on any issue.” It was first used by TR, explaining his view of the presidency, in this quotation: “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!” The word “bully” itself was an adjective in the vernacular of the time meaning “first-rate,” somewhat equivalent to the recent use of the word “awesome.” The term “bully pulpit” is still used today to describe the president’s power to influence the public.

“Did You Know? TR, The Story of Theodore Roosevelt”

So it originally meant that the presidency is an awesome soapbox. Some Americans might be surprised to learn that it did not signify “a person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker. Synonyms: persecutor, oppressor, tyrant, tormentor, intimidator.” (So sayeth Google of the bully.)

Unfortunately, Donald Trump uses the presidency in the manner of a bully, intimidating those members of the press who dare to ask him tough questions (sometimes even simple questions) about his policies and actions. After viewing a particularly bizarre presser held by Mr. Trump on February 16, 2017 — an event described by some as a Festivus airing of grievances — a shocked John Dean said: “I’ve never seen a more classless president.” Dean, of course, served as White House Counsel to President Richard Nixon.

So I want to clarify that while I’m occasionally critical of some media outlets, I don’t consider the media to be my enemy, nor the enemy of the American people as Mr. Trump recently tweeted:

trump_tweet_enemy_people_revised

He has sullied the waters by creating a caricature of the position opposing fake news so carefully carved out by Caitlin Dewey and others who have investigated the phenomenon of fake news, and who understand its subtleties.

Fake news does exist, and is developed primarily on sites which specialize in fake news, and on partisan blogs. It’s often spread via Facebook or Twitter. But the mainstream media generally try to avoid fake news. While one can question the accuracy, objectivity, and completeness of the view one gets from mainstream media, most mainstream journalists do try to separate fact from fiction, and don’t knowingly concoct fake stories. There are exceptions of course, but when caught, reporters engaging in outright fraud (e.g. Jason Blair) tend to be fired or forced to resign.

Even tabloid or “yellow” journalism, however bad, is usually based on actual sources. The sources may be unreliable, and the facts not carefully checked, but there’s usually a distinction between poor quality journalism and outright fakery.

So why does Mr. Trump keep repeating “Fake news, fake news” like a mantra? This is an example of preemptive framing. The Trump administration is itself one of the main purveyors of fake news (or at least false facts) in the present period. Attempting to massively discredit the press is a preemptive technique for replacing real facts with “alternative facts,” such as that Mr. Trump would have won the popular vote if not for millions of people voting illegally, or that there was a terrorist attack in Bowling Green, Kentucky (the fictional “Bowling Green massacre” referenced by Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway — she of the “blooming cheek”).

I believe very firmly in a free press and an open society. I also condemn perversions of the English language of the sort discussed in George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” which is required reading in the post-truth era of Trump, along with Orwell’s 1984. (See also NPR’s “With ‘Fake News,’ Trump Moves From Alternative Facts To Alternative Language,” and WAPO’s “‘Fake news’ has now lost all meaning.”)

The Fourth Estate

A free press will often get things wrong, and in a free press it’s rarely possible to enforce a high standard of scrupulosity. News is, moreover, a business. Commercial considerations threaten the quality and accuracy of news in any number of ways. The 24-hour news cycle tends to produce a great deal of “infotainment” of limited value, but “limited value” is not “no value.”

Mainstream media are open to careful, reasoned criticism on many counts, but this does not negate their role as a “fourth estate” — an unofficial but important check on governmental power and abuse. Attempting to discredit the media wholesale is a tactic of tyrants, and it seems more than coincidental that Mr. Trump’s most acidic tongue-lashings (or tweet-lashings) of the press come at a time when his administration is facing increased criticism for alleged Russia ties, and when he’s issuing harsh authoritarian policies by fiat. (And no, Virginia, a fiat is not a blooming car!)

It would be something of a cliché to cite the 1976 film All The President’s Men to illustrate the vital role the press can play in unmasking government abuses. Perhaps less well-known to present day audiences is the 1969 film Z, whose unusual one-letter title derives from the fact that the Greek letter Zeta — signifying “he is alive” — was banned (as graffiti) when a right-wing dictatorship took control of that nation in 1967. If you’re curious why, these two SPOILER clips comprising the end of the film may elucidate:


Though Z is only partly about the role of journalists in ferreting out government abuse, you would observe that when the military junta takes control, it’s quick to ban a free press. (Read Roger Ebert’s contemporaneous review of the film here.)

Power Center

The mainstream media is (among other things) a power center. In a mostly free society, government officials learn to get along with that power center, however uncomfortable such power-sharing arrangements may be. Rachel Maddow recently aired a clip of President Kennedy giving an interview in December 1962, shortly after the Bay of Pigs incident, for which he had taken a major shellacking in the press. Rather than lashing out vindictively, his response was gracious, reasoned, philosophical, and respectful of the role which the media can play in highlighting an administration’s failures:

This is not a democrat vs. republican issue. Fifty-four years later, Sen. John McCain — the paradigmatic Cold Warrior himself — stressed the same points with equal or greater vigour in a February 2017 interview on Meet The Press.

By contrast, Richard Nixon is heard on the infamous White House Tapes to say: “Never forget the press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. The professors are the enemy. Write that on a blackboard one hundred times and never forget it.” He drilled it into his underlings in a manner no less totalitarian than we might expect to find in communist China at the height of the Cultural Revolution.

Of course, people have a right to adopt any philosophy or creed that they may choose, but when the government imposes it through brute force or bullying, that’s quite a different matter. This point was driven home by the character Toby Ziegler in an episode of The West Wing titled “Isaac and Ishmael”:

There’s nothing wrong with a religion whose laws say a man’s got to wear a beard or cover his head or wear a collar. It’s when violation of these laws becomes a crime against the State and not your parents that we’re talking about lack of choice.

— Toby Ziegler

The Mainstream Media: Not All Sweetness and Light

The mainstream media are subject to their own lapses and even abuses, but this doesn’t make them “the enemy.” Three problems which I cover in greater detail elsewhere are that mainstream media:

– Usually have difficulty making sense of the spiritual landscape;
– Sometimes engage in calculated smear campaigns;
– Often indulge in false balance, treating both sides of an argument as equal, even where the facts don’t support it.

In “The Truman Show and Finding Reliable Spiritual Resources” I write:

Spiritual seekers have needs and goals which aren’t always well-served by mainstream media. Are you a spiritual seeker? Then you can rely on populist media for the weather report, but you cannot rely on them for what we call “spiritual report.” In this they are unreliable. It’s simply not their area of expertise; plus, their emphasis on commercialism and populism acts as a heavy-handed filter of information concerning spiritual groups. Many people in the mainstream media are good and well-meaning, but spiritual topics elude them. They lack the time and interest to make sense of the spiritual landscape, so they tend to present a stereotyped view.

According to media critic Ken Sanes: “The fake landscape Truman [of The Truman Show] lives in is our own media landscape in which news, politics, advertising and public affairs are increasingly made up of theatrical illusions.”

In a society which has become highly materialistic, there may be a confluence of interests who want to preserve the notion that the main purposes of life are production, consumption, and procreation. Such interests typically act to drown out the alternative view that the main purposes of life are self-knowledge and self-giving. This effort need not be coordinated; materialists tend to instinctively reject spiritual doctrines, and to vilify people who question whether all this thing-craziness is really making people happy.

In “Understanding Media: The Smear Campaign” I write:

Why is it a problem if news and entertainment become indistinguishable? The simple answer is that news is ideally supposed to give us factual information which we need, while mass entertainment is more like bread and circuses — something to please the popular taste by pandering to the lowest common denominator of appetites and prejudices.

When news is tailored to please the popular taste, this can lead to a feedback loop in which people and events are portrayed not as they are, but as people want to view them, according to ingrained stereotypes. Likewise, there may be special interests who want to foist their world view on the general public in order to gain economic or political advantage.

Society has increasingly come to resemble a motley collection of interest groups in conflict, each of whom presents a different tableau of reality coloured by self-interest. Where self-interest reigns supreme, there is no such thing as an immaculate perception! Reality is socially constructed, and facts become more fluid than solid.

“The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common: they don’t alter their views to fit the facts; they alter the facts to fit their views. Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.” — Doctor Who as played by Tom Baker, “The Face of Evil,” January 1977.

If we are deep-thinking people, we may despair of finding objective truth in the mainstream media. What we tend to find are different flavours of information tailored to appeal to different target populations who are wedded to particular beliefs which they want to see confirmed. Reality itself becomes an object of falsification, and this problem is neither liberal nor conservative, but universal.

[We should reject] the notion that only popular things are right and true and protected by human rights. Make an idea or group look unpopular, and no one will care what is done to its advocates. Excessive populism can therefore pose a danger to political, religious, and artistic freedom. It can lead to lazy thinking in which no one bothers to lift a finger to stop grave injustices, as long as the injustices are being done to some depersonalized Other who is rarely seen in mainstream media and not portrayed sympathetically.

In a populist society, rights, freedoms, and the enforcement of laws intended to protect people come to depend on popularity. If you can make a group appear unpopular, you can do a great many things to them before anyone will sound a note of protest. That’s why accurate definitions, descriptions, and information are not merely of abstract interest to scholars. These things affect how people are treated (or mistreated) every day in society. Where hate material is successfully injected into the public discourse, this spurs acts of hatred and harassment, and also encourages local law enforcement to ignore pleas for help from victims, despite top-level policies intended to foster respect and tolerance.

The mechanics of the smear campaign are remarkably similar regardless of the different ethnic, political, religious, or gender preference groups being targeted.

The glut of cheaply produced infotainment tends to cheapen the nature of reality itself, or at least how reality is perceived (as a series of shopworn memes). Just as a cardinal rule of commercial television is to keep the viewer glued to his or her set until the next commercial, the net effect of the pervasive secular media space is to keep people ensconced in a materialist world view where science, politics and business are the ruling factors, and the pursuit of pleasure is the primary leisure activity.

Does anything else exist? Yes, there are (and always have been) spiritual alternatives. But these alternatives become harder to see, hear or reify when we are thoroughly ensconced in the secular media space.

The American media space is governed by market principles like supply and demand. There is, quite simply, a market for material smearing spiritual teachers and groups, just as there was once a market for virulent anti-Catholic material in the mid-nineteenth century. … Personal vendettas, ideological obsessions, and economic greed can all move false accounts forward along the publishing conveyor belt.

And in “Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities” I write:

I greatly respect journalists and journalism, and know there are practical reasons why some journalists don’t get a story quite right. There are time pressures, and difficulties making sense of an unfamiliar subject. Particularly if the story is considered low priority, there’s always the temptation to simply cut-and-paste material from the Internet, or to invoke a familiar meme rather than doing careful research. There’s also the problem of “false balance.” Rem Rieder writes:

“No matter what the news media’s many critics believe, most journalists endeavor to be fair, to give both sides rather than choose sides. In that effort, there’s a tendency to print what someone says, print what the other side says and call it a day. The trouble is, there isn’t always equal merit on both sides. So, in instances where one side is largely fact-based, and the other is spouting obvious nonsense, treating both sides equally isn’t balanced. It’s misleading.”

[Read the full article for more quotes about false balance from Katrina vanden Heuvel, Margaret Sullivan, James Fallows, and The Economist.]

Some journalists blindly trust social media sites without recognizing that such sites are often cesspools of false and hateful depictions of religious and ethnic minorities. The Internet is particularly prone to socially constructed realities (i.e. hoaxes or fake news) which simply don’t jibe with the fact-based reality journalists are supposed to be concerned with.

The practice of creating false balance by giving equal weight to disreputable sources yields particularly destructive results when some of the claims are of an extreme and libelous nature, tending to overshadow any positive view.

When general assignment reporters on deadline cut-and-paste material from the Internet, they often produce this type of result about minority spiritual figures: “Somebody said he did this, somebody said he did that… We don’t know. [[shrug]] NEXT!” Assembly-line journalism with no sense of responsibility and no truth value.

When reports which are a confused hodgepodge of unevaluated claims are published by the media, this leads to a confused, frightened, and angry public.

The problem when journalists fail to identify hate material as such, and include it along with more reputable material under cover of “balance,” is that such hate material can easily spur a moral panic in which the targets of the hatred are irreparably harmed — if not physically, then emotionally and psychologically. The Society of Professional Journalists lists several pillars of journalism ethics, one of which is to minimize harm.

Checks and Balances

Clearly, my complaints about mainstream media are manifold. Because we have (for now) a free press, I am able to lodge them. I would add that one can watch cable news for weeks on end and never see a story critical of the pharmaceutical industry, because that industry is a huge sponsor of cable news channels. Media consolidation means that the range of viewpoints one gets from mainstream media tends to be much narrower than the actual diversity of viewpoints which exist. These are all serious problems.

Despite such problems, mainstream media remain an important component in the system of checks and balances which helps keep our nation from descending into outright tyranny. Just as government reports need to be examined critically, so do media reports. Through insight, we can gradually come to recognize different types of bias we may encounter in different types of media. There are also alternative media with which we can supplement our diet of news. These too have their problems, but they are mostly different ones not discussed here.

While there is no such thing as an immaculate perception, by interpolating between different sources of information available to us, we can often get a close approximation of the truth. This is only possible in an open society, and the notion of a free press implies considerable leeway for reporters, editors and publishers to make mistakes. That’s the distill from landmark Supreme Court decisions such as New York Times v. Sullivan. There, Justice Brennan’s 1964 opinion hearkened back to a 1925 opinion by Justice Brandeis stating:

Those who won our independence believed … that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law — the argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.

— Justice Louis Brandeis, concurring opinion in Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 375-376

In Sullivan, Justice Brennan quotes James Madison as saying: “Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of every thing, and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press.” Brennan then continues:

In the realm of religious faith, and in that of political belief, sharp differences arise. In both fields, the tenets of one man may seem the rankest error to his neighbor. To persuade others to his own point of view, the pleader, as we know, at times resorts to exaggeration, to vilification of men who have been, or are, prominent in church or state, and even to false statement. But the people of this nation have ordained, in the light of history, that, in spite of the probability of excesses and abuses, these liberties are, in the long view, essential to enlightened opinion and right conduct on the part of the citizens of a democracy.

— Justice William Brennan, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254

#ImWithKaty

Some of the problems with mainstream media are institutional or corporate in nature. The individual journalists hired are often intelligent, hard-working, decent, principled people who are committed to doing the best job of reporting the facts that they can within the existing structure.

Donald Trump’s bullying of individual reporters such as MSNBC’s Katy Tur (and others since) is one of the reasons I characterize the press’s dislike for him as well-earned. Katy Tur is a person of intelligence and grace. Yet after she was publicly targeted by Trump at one of his 2016 campaign rallies, she needed Secret Service protection to make it safely to her car. Bully pulpit indeed.

I myself can be a harsh critic of the media, but you have to understand the context: I am one, lone, non-commercial blogger who often sticks up for the rights of spiritual minorities. Compared to any mainstream outlet, my readership is small and non-threatening. Even if I shout, few members of the mainstream media will hear me or heed me. I will never be president, but if I were then I would certainly tone down my (occasional) rhetoric and not use a (virtual) megaphone as Mr. Trump does. As I’m fond of saying, sharp criticism should thrust up.

In 2015, I produced a short documentary (or mashup) on the topic of media smear campaigns:

But my thesis was not that every negative story is a smear. Rather, we can identify a smear campaign by certain indicia, such as lack of corroboration and use of unreliable sources who all inhabit the same echo chamber.

The bête noire of the video is a character from an old Colombo episode, played by William Shatner of Star Trek fame. He’s the epitome of the muckraking reporter intent on going for the jugular. But I would never suggest that all reporters are like him. As I state in the video: “Some people have high ethical standards, and won’t plant a false story in the media or participate in a smear campaign.”

The video presents a contrarian view of mainstream media, but such a view is helpful when we consider the power of mainstream media to shape our world. I end with a quote from cultural historian Todd Gitlin, who opines: “People have especially become aware that there’s developed a blur between entertainment and news. There’s no cavalry to come and rescue you, because the cavalry is also watching television.”

Of course, the politicians are also watching television. Most people are watching television, including the people who produce, write for, and appear on television. So there’s a hall of mirrors effect. How can we blame any particular person or media outlet for what is really a top level phenomenon? This all tends to confirm Marshall McLuhan’s central thesis about media, which is that they shape our perceptions and relations in ways which we do not control, and usually fail to understand.

Conclusion

In the era of Trump, I want to be clearer than ever that despite problems with mainstream media, their existence is essential to the functioning of our democracy. Though they are ripe for reasoned criticism, they are also worthy of staunch protection.

The average American rarely has access to high government officials. Reporters asking tough questions of the president are really standing in for the public, seeking answers where the public has a right to know and need to know.

When the present administration tries to turn the public against the press, this represents an authoritarian power grab, usurping the rightful function of the press, and implying that people should get their information solely from government officials, or from handpicked media friendly to the administration and not challenging its views. That is a prescription for tyranny.

I fear it is only a matter of time before Trump’s insane tweets identifying the media as “the enemy of the American People” lead to violence against reporters or news outlets. If Mr. Trump cannot be taught the social graces or the responsibilities of high office, someone should at least take away his smartphone. 😉

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

Of Further Interest

“Donald Trump and the Enemies of the American People” in The New Yorker
“‘Enemies of the people’: Trump remark echoes history’s worst tyrants” on BBC.com
“Donald Trump Had The Most Extraordinary Press Conference Of His Life, Clearing A High Bar” on huffingtonpost.co.uk
“Daily News” as sung by Tom Paxton (YouTube) — a 1964 satire on right-wing populist media which still resonates today.

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Remembering Teddy Roosevelt in the Era of Trump

Though Donald Trump is arguably the most unhinged president in modern history, Theodore Roosevelt is often recalled as a “picturesque” or “exaggerated” personality. This larger than life quality was lampooned in the 1944 film Aresenic and Old Lace, considered one of the great screwball comedies.

It’s centered around a husband-to-be (played by British expat Cary Grant) whose crazy relatives temporarily sabotage his nuptial plans. His brother Teddy thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, and goes around leading imaginary charges, digging the Panama Canal, and preparing graves for yellow fever victims in the family cellar. Between trumpet blasts and cries of “Chaaaaaarge!,” he sprinkles his conversation with liberal helpings of the word “bully” (a period colloquialism similar to “fab” or “awesome”).

Teddy Brewster (played by actor John Alexander) from the film "Arsenic and Old Lace"

Teddy Brewster (played by actor John Alexander) from the film “Arsenic and Old Lace”

A more sympathetic portrait is painted in the PBS production Simple Gifts, about which I have written more here. This clip is a short vignette based on a page from the actual diary of an 11-year-old Teddy Roosevelt:

It is charming in its own right, but does little to dispel the sense that Roosevelt was the product of extraordinary privilege. (The truth is more complicated. His early life was marred by illness and tragedy.)

Writing in the Chicago Tribune in 1995, Richard Norton Smith describes him in ways that may seem eerily familiar to a 2017 audience:

Certainly Roosevelt brought to the White House a child’s need to control events, coupled with a carnival barker’s ability to call attention to himself. His self-dramatizing flair found expression through the agitation of foreign rebellions, the cult of the Teddy Bear, TR’s famed “Bully Pulpit,” which converted the presidency from an administrative to an exhortatory office, and an exuberant family life tailor-made for the emerging mass media of the day.

Between obstacle races and pillow fights, lunch with Buffalo Bill, nightly “romps” and helpings of Norse mythology, every day in the Roosevelt White House was filled with violently pursued enthusiasms. It was Roosevelt’s madcap daughter Alice who, when not sliding down banisters or shocking traditionalists by smoking cigarettes and betting on horse races, complained that her father wished to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral and the baby at every christening.

— Richard Norton Smith, “Roosevelt Family Values,” Chicago Tribune

While some portrayals focus on TR’s eccentricities, this clip from a History Channel documentary strikes me as a more balanced picture:

Though he possessed an extravagance of style, he was genuinely concerned with the plight of laborers such as coal miners, and his so-called “Square Deal” was actually a precursor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”

Thus, while he shares with Donald Trump the effect of “sucking all the air out of a room,” history remembers TR as a fundamentally good president who (paradoxically) was both Republican by party, but progressive in many of his policies. His legacy includes welfare legislation, regulation mitigating the most devastating effects of industrial capitalism, the breakup of huge corporate monopolies, food safety regulation, and conservation of America’s wilderness.

According to the National Park Service, “Theodore Roosevelt is often considered the ‘conservationist president.’ [His conservation legacy] is found in the 230 million acres of public lands he helped establish during his presidency.”

He was bold in the area of foreign affairs. If TR’s policy was to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” DT’s policy is to “speak loudly and carry a sack of alternative facts.”

Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his role in negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War. Though his look and manner may strike us as archaic a hundred-odd years later, he’s actually considered the first modern U.S. president, bringing an unprecedented level of energy and charisma to the office.

teddy-roosevelt-with-teddy-bearInterviewed for the documentary, historian Douglas Brinkley says:

Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy is with us every time you turn on a faucet and take a sip of water that’s not contaminated. It’s with you every time you cook a hamburger on a grill and know you’re not going to die from it. [Editor’s note: Not quickly, anyway.] It’s with you every time you want to take a hike up through the Sierra Nevada mountains or go for a swim in the Great Lakes.

Can President Trump amass such a legacy which redounds to the benefit of millions of Americans? Only time will tell. The fear among political analysts is that he has promised working people a lamentation of swans, but is delivering up a travesty of Goldman Sachs executives.

Does Trump care about America’s unspoiled wilderness as Roosevelt did? His orders to revive the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines answer with a resounding “no.”

If TR is remembered fondly by history, it’s because his eccentric manner was joined to numerous good works, and because his nature encompassed an air of jollity — even teddy bear cuteness.

By contrast, Trump’s first month in office has been marked by gruffness, rudeness, combativeness, and grim humourlessness. If few good works follow, it may not go well for him in the annals of history.

TR was a voracious reader, and the author of literally dozens of books. Mr. Trump is reportedly “not a big reader,” and while he’s published books such as The Art of the Deal, they’re typically co-written, perhaps extensively ghosted. When extemporizing, Mr. Trump does not give the impression of one who cares about ideas or language in the manner of an intellectual. (This is my entry in the Understatement of the Century contest.)

It’s hard to imagine him as an ebullient and precocious boy in the TR style. It’s hard to imagine him anywhere near a teddy bear, though Trump teddy bears in baggy suits, clutching piles of green folding money, are shamelessly marketed to rubes.

In fact, it’s really hard to imagine him as president. If I were marketing a Trump-related tchotchke, it would probably be a button saying “Somebody slap me.” (And with my luck, somebody would.)

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

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

History tells us that we must let Reagan be Reagan, and Trump be Trump. But Teddy Roosevelt Donald Trump certainly is not.

To learn more about TR in historical and political context, read this article by Fordham University professor Kirsten Swinth.

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

Joke of the Day

In response to a claim by former House Speaker John Boehner that Trump “kind of reminds me of Teddy Roosevelt, another guy who saw himself larger than life,” commenter Kim Hamilton wrote: “Trump’s very much like Teddy Roosevelt — they’re both currently brain dead.”

Of Further Interest

“What we in 2012 can learn from Teddy Roosevelt in 1912” on CNN.com
Arsenic and Old Lace on DailyMotion

* * *

People Are Good Everywhere

In Thought of the Day: People Are Good, I talked about the basic goodness which resides deep within each human heart and often expresses itself in loving kindness. I included some folk music videos, and peace quotes from Sri Chinmoy.

I would like to add that people are good everywhere. Sometimes they get bad leaders. We should not hate entire nations simply because they are, during a certain period, in the grips of a regime which acts badly or contrary to our own ideals and interests. In each nation there are some good people. Their instinct is to join together with other good people around the world in a spirit of peace and oneness. This is the spirit which informs the Peace Run:

Democracy is an excellent system, but it is not a perfect system. It can be manipulated. Sometimes democracy results in the election of leaders who are essentially the lowest common denominator, and therefore not very fit to lead.

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

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

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

In spite of having survived for nearly two hundred and fifty years, American democracy is not impervious to all the harms that might conceivably be wrought upon it. We need to respect its fragility, for there is always the possibility that the next shock will be one too many.

America is great not because of its tremendous power, but because it is at root a good-hearted nation with a dynamic spirit, a nation that wants to help not only itself, but also other nations. Why do we still remember John F. Kennedy after fifty years? Not simply because of his tragic death, but because at a time when drifting into war was the easiest option, he navigated a careful path to peace; and also because he had a hero-heart — the kind of heart which is able to empathize with others’ sufferings and look for solutions which lift people up.

Strength is necessary to succeed, but strength must be tempered by compassion. In the realm of governance, this means that a strong capitalist economy must be tempered with programs of social welfare. This was the insight underlying the New Deal ushered in by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s. Today, we accept wholeheartedly the principle that old people should not be left to die in the gutter, but should receive Social Security payments to help them cope with the rigours of old age.

Several decades after FDR, President Barack Obama tried to make America more competitive with other Western nations by greatly increasing the number of people covered by health care. Like any bold step forward, his efforts met with some resistance, and there are still problems to be ironed out. But he had the vision and insight that this was a most significant way to improve the lives of millions of people. His vision was not wrong, for it was based on a deep goodness, and a quality of loving kindness which he learned from his mother, and from books on the world’s religions which she gave him to read.

People are good everywhere, but in times of trouble it’s not always enough to keep that goodness locked in our hearts like a secret. There are many ways we can express that goodness to the people around us, and send that goodness dynamically echoing through the universe. One simple way is to make choices rooted in loving kindness, and to support leaders who possess the kind of insight which is unselfish, and is tempered by concern for the poor and downtrodden.

There are three kinds of American leaders: those who want to lead the world through America’s military might, those who want to lead the world through America’s vision-height, and those who want merely to make America great with little concern for the rest of the world.

Those with the highest vision know that life on planet Earth is deeply interdependent. Therefore they do not eschew or belittle the United Nations, for they know that even if the United Nations is imperfect, it represents the first and best effort on a global scale to deal with global problems.

If we are good-hearted people, we need to seek out leaders who understand the global issues that will face us in this and coming centuries. We need leaders with vision-height who know that American leadership cannot be a Pax Americana, but must be based on high ideals and good examples set.

Each nation aspires to leadership, and each has something to contribute. Therefore, a spirit of braggadocio is a negative indicator in would-be leaders. It is right and proper that each nation should consider itself the best and greatest in its own way. Still, for world peace to dawn, each nation — even the mightiest — must be humble enough to bow to other nations. When each nation bows to others and all bow to God, then we will see the spirit of loving kindness fully ripen. In that ripening of loving kindness, which is a quality of the spiritual heart, there lies humanity’s greatest hope.

people-are-good-sri-chinmoy-peace-run-2

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

Of Further Interest

The United Nations as a Spiritual Institution by A. Walter Dorn
Spirituality at the United Nations by Donald F. Keys
peacerun.org

* * *

Donald Trump: Latest Parody Pic

Viewing the pic and discussing some Photoshop techniques

donald-trump-twelve-days-of-trumpster-by-michael-howard

Donald Trump – The Twelve Days of Trumpster

I’ve been slaving away in Photoshop to bring you a new Donald Trump parody pic, this one combining the Big Brother and Twelve Days of Christmas themes. I’ve already posted the lyrics here, but the new pic adds something special. In the argot of the song, it boasts a:

Big Brother head,
Big groping hands,
And an eagle in an Aryan meme.

If you’re sick of seeing alt-right depictions of Donald Trump as Norse God and Emperor of Europe, this parody may give you a chuckle. (“Look to the sleigh / See the Donaldus — Oy veh!”)

Regular readers of my blog know that I sometimes get obsessed with Photoshop, which is actually a good way to get stuff done. Despite its comic intent, this piece demonstrates some useful Photoshop techniques.

If you’re just getting started with Photoshop, one of the best things you can do is just look — look carefully at the elements which make a good composition. Here you can look at the lines which draw the viewer’s attention toward the center of the picture. In your mind’s eye, draw a line from the cat’s hindmost paw to the standing reindeer’s top antler. This is the main line unifying the different figures.

Note also the contrast between the saturated colours in the body of Trump, and the outsized head which “pops” because it’s grayscale. Also note how some areas of the composition are crowded with detail, while others give a much needed sense of space.

If you want to create montages in Photoshop, it’s good to work your way through the exercises in Photoshop tutorials so that you’re fluent with the techniques. One book that really helped me a lot was The Photoshop Wow! Book, which includes beautiful and artistic examples that make you really want to learn the techniques.

Once you have some technique under your belt, get creative with layers, masking, and blending modes. Always ask “What if?” and don’t be afraid to experiment. When making changes, save your work frequently.

When you get into a groove with Photoshop, you’ll find that amazing things happen! A strong technical foundation means you can use your intuition to lead you in a good direction, without having to think everything through.

Is the central figure standing or sitting? Well… both! The standing figure seems to be wearing a blue tie, but as your eyes follow the tie down, it seems to culminate in a belt buckle worn by the sitting figure. The Christmas wreath has two red bows hanging down, and these look as though they’re draped on the knees of the sitting figure.

Effects like these can be achieved using layers, layer masks, and blending modes like Overlay and Luminosity. Sometimes you may like an effect but find that it’s too extreme or that you only want it to appear in part of an image. You can reduce the opacity of a layer, or add a layer mask and paint on it with white or black paint to “brush in” the effect exactly where you want it.

Before starting work in Photoshop, I spent a long time collecting a “morgue” of Donald Trump and Christmas images, not really knowing what I would end up using. Eventually, viewing the collected images, some ideas began to take shape in my mind. Then I started doing rough drafts in Photoshop — refining the basic composition, then taking things to the next level with outrageous layer effects.

I hope these ideas inspire you to explore your own creativity using Photoshop or similar image-editing software.

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

Defringe Your Cat

Some people declaw or even neuter their cat. If you’re a Photoshopper, you want to be sure and defringe your cat. In the best of possible worlds, I would like to have done a better job removing the green fringe from around the outline of the cat. But at some point you have to consider a work finished. After all, this one isn’t destined for the Sistine Chapel!

Trump vs. Australian PM (parody)

How the deal went down between Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull

The “blunt” or “frank” exchange of telephonic views between President Trump and Prime Minister Turnbull has become the stuff of legend. From limited transcripts, we can only imagine what went down.

Scene I

[Phone prep with Kellyanne Conway. Donald Trump is seated in Conway’s second floor office at the White House.]

Conway: Now Donnie, remember that man we talked about yesterday? The one who lives all the way over in the antipodes?

Trump: We don’t need his antipodes. We can make better antipodes right here in the U.S.A. Beautiful antipodes.

Conway: Yes, well be that as it may, it’s time for you to call him now.

Trump: Another foreign leader? I’ve been on the phone with these losers all day long. Can’t I take a nap or watch TV?

Conway: You remember what we agreed: Work time before nap time or TV time. Just one more call today, then you can do whatever you want.

Trump: I’m fresh out of openers. Can’t I just grab him by the–

Conway: Now Donnie, we talked about that. I want you to be very nice to Mr. Turnbull. Turn on the charm. Speak to him in his own language.

Trump: What language does he speak?

Conway: English, after a fashion.

Trump: After a fashion, after a fashion. Even Melania speaks English after a fashion.

Conway: I’m sure you have a lot in common. Just try to get to know him better. Throw in a reference that will make him feel at home.

Trump: What should I say?

Conway: Something homey and Australian to impress him.

Trump: You’re always filling me full of these foreign words like Kristallnacht and borscht to use with foreign leaders. They don’t seem so impressed.

Conway: Well maybe if you used the right words with the right leaders you’d get better results. The Japanese Prime Minister didn’t know much about borscht, and calling him “Honest Abe” didn’t help matters. Nor did Angela Merkel take your reference to “bad hombres.”

Trump: So what million dollar word do you have for me today?

Conway [thinking]: Try didgeridoo. Work it into the conversation somehow. That’ll show him you’re familiar with Australian culture.

Trump [grabbing phone]: Hello? Hello?

Conway: Wait, Mr. President. We need to go downstairs to the Oval Office and call in the boys.

Scene II

[The Oval Office. Kellyanne Conway shepherds Donald Trump to the chair behind his massive oaken desk and gets him settled. He requests Bosco.

Soon she lets out a sharp whistle, and Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon come trotting in. They arrange themselves haphazardly on the opposite side of the desk and begin staring at the floor, avoiding eye contact.]

Trump: So, how’s my convoy coming?

Bannon: Mr. President, your idea of having the Supreme Court finalists head up a truck convoy driving all the way to D.C. is a stroke of genius. But I’m afraid the nominees just aren’t going for it, Sir.

Trump: Nominees? They’re contestants plain and simple. Don’t they know about ratings? Don’t they care about putting on a show? If they flop, I’m the one who gets schlonged.

Flynn: Yes Sir, but I’m afraid some of them have been spoiled by going to Harvard Law School and, you know, sitting on the bench in black robes and all that formality.

Trump: Convoy! Convoy! Everybody loves a convoy. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger loves a convoy. The black robes are fine, they’re beautiful. But can’t we have trucks too?

Flynn: I’m afraid, Sir, that it’s just too late to arrange it. For the last mile of the drive, I have gotten a motorcycle escort for Judge Gorsuch. The Secret Service would not okay the fog machine.

Conway: We need to get this call done. It’s the last call of the day and the timing is tricky.

Trump: Okay, okay, stop Doug Henning me.

Conway: Perhaps you mean mother henning, Sir.

Trump: Doug Henning. Doesn’t anybody remember Doug Henning? Now he really knew how to put on a show. He once sawed Johnny Carson in half. I think it was his last show.

Bannon: Try and settle down, Mr. President.

Conway [to group]: Well, I’ll leave you now.

Conway [whispering to Trump]: Remember what we talked about!

[Conway exits. Phone rings.]

Trump: Hello? Hello?

Turnbull: This is Malcolm Turnbull speaking.

Trump: My didgeridoo is bigger than yours!

Turnbull: Let’s talk it over, mate. I’ve got an esky in the boot.

Trump: Wha…?

Turnbull: Seriously mate, why don’t you pop over, change into your trackie dacks, and we can head over to Macca’s for some wings.

Trump: Translation, I need translation. Huge translation!

Turnbull: I’ve got some lovely prezzies for you, chummy. All arranged with your noble predecessor and ready to ship. Just have a Captain Cook at this snapchat, which I’m sending to you… NOW!

Trump: Pictures. There are pictures on my phone. Pictures of people. Foreign people. Is this legal?

Turnbull: Abso-bloody-lutely! This is Stralia, mate. It’s legal as alligator pear salad.

Trump: Stralia. Now is that a country or a continent?

[Flynn and Bannon shift nervously in their seats.]

Turnbull: It’s both. Look mate, I don’t have time for a geography lesson. I just called to–

Trump: This Stralia, how’s the waterboarding up there?

Turnbull: Not much waterboarding, but plenty of surfboarding. Pop over and I’ll lend you my budgie smugglers. Surf’s up at Lake Burley Griffin. Though you are a bit of a salad dodger.

Trump: I like the surf ‘n’ turf at Bobby Van’s restaurant. Somebody gave me Harry Caray’s Restaurant Cookbook. He’s the leader in surf ‘n’ turf. But I don’t have time to cook. I said to Kellyanne (isn’t she beautiful?), why can’t we create a cabinet position for executive surf ‘n’ turf? It would be cheaper than ordering out. If we eliminate two positions at the State Department, we can have a surf ‘n’ turf guy and still come out ahead of the game. But the bureaucracy! You wouldn’t believe all the red tape that goes into fish.

Turnbull [puzzled]: What kind of fish?

Trump: ANY fish! It could be lobster, red snapper, even a nice piece of halibut comes with so much red tape. Red tape like you wouldn’t believe. The reason I got a huge majority of votes is because people are sick of red tape. Everywhere I go, they ask me: “Can’t we just enjoy surf ‘n’ turf without all the red tape?” That’s where I got the idea. From the restaurants. They have their twofer nights, so I said to Congress: “For every regulation you create, you have to eliminate two more.” I’ve declared war on red tape. We’re bombing the hell out of red tape!

Turnbull: Good on ya, mate. Now if we could just have a decent convo on the subject of–

Trump: I love Austria. I love the people and the rivers. You and I may be different races, but we’re both rooting for the same values. All Americans are rooting for these values. I want us to be friends. I want you to root with me and for me, just like the American people are doing. I’m a huge fan of Austria, and I’ll be rooting for you too. We’ll be rooting together. It’ll be a better way of life. Cry me a river and I’ll cry a river over you. Not actual crying and not an actual river. But good trade. FAIR trade.

Turnbull: That’d be beaut. Do you yanks have any potato scallops? If you do, send ’em on down, because our take-away shops are really hurting from the shortage.

Trump [to Bannon]: Steve, do we have any potato scallops? Check the fridge.

Bannon: We have a few, but not enough to supply Australia. I suggest you leave this issue to the trade delegates.

Trump: Delegates shmelegates! I’m trying to do a deal here. I’ve got the man on the phone and he wants potato scallops. Can’t we find some?

Flynn: We’ll make it a priority, Mr. President. I think there may be some military surplus scallops…

Trump: Okay, but remove all military markings and change the last date of sale to two years from now.

Trump [returning to phone call]: You want scallops? I’ll get you scallops. I’ll get you anything you want. Because you’re a friend. A good friend.

Turnbull: Looking forward to it. Now about this refugee thing negotiated by your worthy predecessor. Are we on, or is it a daggy deal?

Trump: Did someone say the R Word? I hope no one said the R Word. Because that would be very sad if someone said the R Word. I spoke to four world leaders, terrific world leaders today, and none of them said the R Word.

Turnbull: Mr. President, I only said, uh, that word, because there’s business between our two nations which demands it.

Trump: There’s no business like show business, and no business that demands the R Word. No one says the R Word. I was elected by billions and billions of people. Even Carl Sagan voted for me. He’s just one of the dead people who voted for me, even though Hillary tried to get them all to vote for her. So if I say we don’t use the R Word, we don’t use the R Word.

Turnbull: Mr. President, I won’t use the R Word again, I promise. But your worthy predecessor–

Trump: I hope you’re not about to use the O Word. Because I like the O Word even less than I like the R Word.

Turnbull: No Sir, well let’s just say that there was a Mr. Embalmer who had certain dealings with our nation of–

Trump: Austria?

Turnbull [flustered]: Yes, as you say, this Mr. Embalmer had certain dealings with Austria which were left undone. And I, as the, er, Prime Minister of Austria–

Trump: I’m hanging up now. Don’t try sending me any illegal immigrants, either. I wouldn’t mind a kangaroo to play with. It’s lonely in the White House. Melania left me.

Turnbull: Sorry ’bout the missus, mate. I’ll send you a kelpie. Kangas are off limits.

Trump: On behalf of the American people I may accept one kelpie, but only with extreme vetting. I won’t have thousands of djangos eating our fine Boston babies.

Turnbull: No worries, mate. Call me in the arvo. I’ve got to ring off now. I’m giving the Aussie salute to a herd of bush flies.

Trump: I will be checking that kelpie VERY CAREFULLY!

Turnbull: Whatever, mate. Auf wiedersehen!

Trump: Do svidaniya!

Trump [hangs up phone and begins barking orders]: Turn on Fox! Throw another reporter on the barbie! Bring me my Katy Tur doll! And a fresh supply of pins!

Bannon: Get Kellyanne. See what he needs. Tell Sean to issue a statement. Something like “The two leaders emphasized the enduring strength and closeness of the U.S.-Australia relationship that is critical for peace, stability, and blah-blah-blah.”

Trump: Convoy! Convoy!

Flynn: No convoy today, Mr. President. Motorcycle. Mo-tor-cy-cle.

Trump: American motorcycle?

Bannon: It’s a Harley Hog, Mr. President. Made in America by Americuhns. It’s got thrush pipes, hooker headers, ape hangers, and is a pig on roller skates. You can’t get any more American than that.

Trump [smiling vapidly]: Let’s make America great again.

[Just then Kellyanne Conway bursts in, all panicky.]

Conway: Mr. President, I’m afraid I have bad news. No motorcycle. On short notice, all we could get was a Holden Ute.

The Holden Ute, an Australian engineering MAH-vel

The Holden Ute, an Australian engineering MAH-vel

* * *

Further Thoughts

What constitutes torture? Before being so glib about waterboarding, I suggest Donald Trump watch the following video 857 times, then see how he feels about torture:

I’m Not Jealous Dept.

Ben Pobjie on Crikey.com
Lee Zachariah on Junkee.com

Crash Course in Aussie Slang

esky – ice cooler
boot – trunk (of a vehicle)
trackie dacks – track pants
Macca’s – McDonald’s
prezzies – presents
Captain Cook – look
alligator pear – avocado
budgie smugglers – tight fitting swimwear
salad dodger – overweight person
convo – conversation
daggy – not trendy or cool
kelpie – Australian sheep dog
kanga – kangaroo
arvo – afternoon
Aussie salute – swatting flies

django – not Aussie slang, but may refer to a European jazz musician. So when Trump evokes the “dingo ate my baby” meme, he seems to fear that Boston babies will be devoured by the Hot Club De France. And what better reason to issue a travel ban?

Soul mates in fly-swatting
Barack Obama and Malcolm Turnbull immersed in selfie bliss

Barack Obama and Malcolm Turnbull: immersed in selfie bliss

President Obama was legendary for his fly-swatting prowess. Prime Minister Turnbull may not have actually nailed one, but gives the “Aussie salute” numerous times while being grilled by the press over his tête-à-tête with Donald Trump. Someone should post a YouTube from account “Flyswatting News.” It should intercut footage of Barack Obama and Malcolm Turnbull swatting flies, punctuated by the guy from the newsstand in A Few Good Men saying “No flies on you.” The one vid I won’t bother to create, and it would probably get a million hits. Sad! 😉

Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull: a couple on the rocks

Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull: a couple on the rocks

More fallout from the Aussie potato scallop famine

“Llama Farma” writes:

This is an outrage! Yesterday, I was forced to endure 3 dim sims of spurious composition and a chicko roll with no confirmed chicken content, all on account of the potato scallop shortage. This isn’t pre-1900’s Ireland, people, this is modern day Australia and it’s not good enough. I demand a Royal Commission!

No fries in the Ausland, darlin' / It's a sign of the times...

No fries in the Ausland, darlin’ / It’s a sign of the times…

Disclaimer: This work of parody sometimes goes for laughs on serious subjects. Concerning questions about the treatment of some refugees by the Australian government, see this article in Britain’s Independent.

Michael Howard

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

The Twelve Days of Trumpster

Hilarious song parody toasting Donald Trump’s first days in office

donald-trump-twelve-days-of-trumpster-by-michael-howard

My personal blog is very, very rarely about politics. I usually try to stay a million miles away from that subject, but in these troubling times I can’t always help expressing my opinions. In “People Are Good,” I counselled gentleness and loving kindness in response to the problems of the day. But I sometimes favour humour too. (Why is humour helpful? Because it relieves outrage fatigue.)

From the highest point of view, I wish that Donald Trump would succeed as president, that he would be touched by the light of compassion and humility, and that he would become a good and noble leader. But I can’t help observing that he got elected by being a show-off and a bully, and so far does not seem keen to change his stripes.

What good may come of his term in office I cannot say, but I can comment on what I’ve seen so far:

The Twelve Days of Trumpster

1
On the first day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
A leader in an ethics quandary.

2
On the second day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

3
On the third day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
Big, big thumbs,
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

4
On the fourth day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
Millions on the mall,
Big, big thumbs,
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

5
On the fifth day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
Five odious things.
Millions on the mall,
Big, big thumbs,
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

6
On the sixth day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
Kelly Conway spinning
Five odious things.
Millions on the mall,
Big, big thumbs,
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

7
On the seventh day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
One wall for leaping,
Kelly Conway spinning
Five odious things.
Millions on the mall,
Big, big thumbs,
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

8
On the eighth day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
Two pipelines piping,
One wall for leaping,
Kelly Conway spinning
Five odious things.
Millions on the mall,
Big, big thumbs,
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

9
On the ninth day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
Sanctuary bye-bye,
Two pipelines piping,
One wall for leaping,
Kelly Conway spinning
Five odious things.
Millions on the mall,
Big, big thumbs,
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

10
On the tenth day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
Waterboarding hello,
Sanctuary bye-bye,
Two pipelines piping,
One wall for leaping,
Kelly Conway spinning
Five odious things.
Millions on the mall,
Big, big thumbs,
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

11
On the eleventh day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
Travel ban for Muslims,
Waterboarding hello,
Sanctuary bye-bye,
Two pipelines piping,
One wall for leaping,
Kelly Conway spinning
Five odious things.
Millions on the mall,
Big, big thumbs,
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

12
On the twelfth day in office
My Trumpster gave to me:
Twelve freaking tweetstorms,
Travel ban for Muslims,
Waterboarding hello,
Sanctuary bye-bye,
Two pipelines piping,
One wall for leaping,
Kelly Conway spinning
Five odious things.
Millions on the mall,
Big, big thumbs,
Sean Spicer lies,
And a leader in an ethics quandary.

You can catch the tune and general spirit from any of these YouTubes. The piano version (deep blue thumbnail) makes a good karaoke. If that’s not enough, see the sidebar for even more versions.


Note: “The Twelve Days of Trumpster” has a long and storied history and admits of many regional variations. In Greenland, for example, it is not unusual to hear reference to such gifts as:

Twelve lobbyists leeching
Eleven seniors swooning
Ten golfers golfing
Nine frackers fracking

Our neighbours to the south, on the other hand, may sing of:

Pissed-off Mexicanos
Stupid bloody gringos
Take your wall and shove it
Trumpster is El Cuco

I, however, prefer the original (more genteel) version passed down through the ages. (The “three French hoons” mentioned in the Australian version are totally off the menu.)

Michael Howard

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


Sidebar: Other versions of the carol

It’s not easy to find good versions, as most people mistakenly think this is a children’s song, and that children have no taste. (In truth, when properly cooked they taste delicious!) Be that as it may, here are some other versions of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” which I genuinely like:


I hope you’ve enjoyed our little trip to the antipodes! Next year: “Dashing Through The Bush…”

* * *

Thought of the Day: People Are Good

The Doomsday Clock may be advancing, but there is still infinite good in the human heart, and peace remains a strong countervailing force.

In such a polarized period of our nation’s history (if not world history), it’s easy to lose sight of the basic goodness which resides deep within each human heart. That goodness often expresses itself in loving kindness, and in this sense there is no disagreement between those who explicitly believe in God, and those who are secular humanists. Both camps can agree that there is something noble at the core of human existence. Some will call it a human quality, others will say it is a divine quality. But loving kindness is one of the things we most urgently need right now. We need not agree on its ultimate source.

As I approach the evening of my life, I find that I remember many things which others have forgotten. I remember them not by accident, but because they were things which helped me build a sense of meaning in my life, and so I treasured those things and kept them in my heart.

With the turning of the generations, and the nature of a market-driven economy, many valuable things are seemingly thrown out, or at least no longer publicized, so that they become for all intent and purposes invisible. They still have tremendous inherent power, but that power is untapped by a later generation which either does not know of them, or does not identify with them.

So it was when it came to me write on the topic of “People Are Good.” I immediately thought of this song by The Roches which had moved me to tears 25 years ago and still does so to this day:

Now, some might think of The Roches as the epitome of Eastern liberal folk-singing types. But in this song they seem to channel the same feeling that one might find in churches across America. “Everyone Is Good” is like a universal folk mass gently proselytizing on behalf of the religion of loving kindness.

This invitation to practice loving kindness applies equally to people of all political persuasions. Yet, at a time when many gentle people of conscience are concerned about the direction in which our nation is headed, I can’t help thinking that these lines apply especially to Donald Trump: “Wouldn’t it be something to be loving and kind/ Forgive yourself for everything having once been blind.”

Activists on the left are not always known for their gentleness, so those lines apply to them too. About two years ago, I commented on how the name “Madonna” has come to mean different things to different people. To some it signifies the mother of Jesus, to others the folk stylings of Joan Baez, while the Googlebot is convinced that anyone who types in “Madonna” must be looking for the brassy pop idol, who recently dropped the f-bomb in her speech at the Women’s March on Washington.

I am reminded of Pete Seeger’s version of words from Ecclesiastes:

There is a time for righteous anger at injustice, and I am no stranger to that emotion — to feeling it and expressing it on my blog. But I also try to be informed by a healing spirit, and an awareness that the deepest truth about human nature is that people are good.

For me, that awareness has to struggle against the many sad things I’ve seen, beginning in childhood. For me, a powerful ally in the struggle to see the good in people has always been Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007), who writes:

When we open our heart to the entire world, we are not safe. The evil and destructive qualities of the world can enter into us and utilise us for their own purposes. They can do so precisely because our love, which is our strength, is very limited; our joy, which is our strength, is very limited; our peace, which is our strength, is very limited. All that we have, we have in very limited measure. But at the same time we have to have confidence in ourselves. Although we are not now measureless and infinite, a day will dawn when we will be measureless, infinite and transcendental. How? By going to the Source, to God.

Even though the ignorant world can destroy the lotus in us, that does not mean that we shall have no faith in humanity in general. India’s greatest spiritual politician, Mahatma Gandhi, said something very striking. He said not to lose faith in humanity. We have to take humanity as an ocean. There are a few drops in the ocean that may be dirty, but the entire ocean is not dirty. According to him, we must not judge humanity by the limited experiences we usually get when we associate ourselves with limited persons around us. We have to be careful, but at the same time we have to have faith in humanity. If we lose faith in humanity, then we are doomed, for humanity is an actual limb of our body.

Since we are spiritual seekers, we have to have more faith than an ordinary human being has. We have to have faith even in unaspiring persons although we are not going to try right now to transform their nature. Why? Because we do not have the necessary capacity, or because it is not God’s Will. Even if we do not have the necessary capacity, God can give us the capacity. He can make us strong so that we can help humanity. But that is not God’s Will. God’s Will is for us to help those who are already awakened to some extent, those who are aspiring or who want to aspire, but not those who are fast asleep. God does not want to push them. To them God says, “Sleep, My child, sleep.” But to those who are already awakened and who want to run, God says, “Have faith in My creation which is humanity and have faith in yourself, for it is you who are ultimately going to represent Me on earth.” We have to have faith in ourselves in order to realise and fulfil God. We have to have faith in God because it is He who has inspired us and awakened us and who is going to fulfil us in His own Way.

If God wants you, open your eyes, close your ears and run. We have to be fully awakened and alert; we have to stop living in the world of sleep before we can find God. We must look all around, not to see the ugliness of the world, but to see the creation in its purest form with our purest eyes. Open your eyes. We must sleep no longer! We must look at the world with the purity that we have and see the purity in God’s creation.

Close your ears. Why have we to close our ears? Because there are things we may hear that will bother and disturb us, such as criticism, jealousy, flattery and praise. When somebody criticises us, how should we regard him? We should think of him as a dog barking right in front of us. If a dog barks right in front of us and we pay attention to it, the dog will not stop barking and annoying us. Then we will have difficulty in reaching our destined goal. We have to take criticism in the same way. People criticise us in every way. They say, “He is useless. He spends all his time meditating and he does not help society the way society needs help.” But what does society want? Society itself does not even know. Nobody can tell us what to do with our life. When we are ready for God, when we are awakened and have opened our eyes, God wants us. At that time we don’t have to pay attention to anybody’s criticism. We have to know that what we are doing is best. It is best even for those who are criticising us, because a day will come when they will give up their ignorance and be inspired to follow us.

— Sri Chinmoy, from A Hundred Years From Now, Agni Press, 1974

Pop culture is disposable culture, so if we view the world solely through the eyes of pop culture, it will be an ever-changing kaleidoscope with no clear vision. Spiritual wisdom is enduring, lasting. It gradually reveals a vast panorama of truth, the truth of how things really are and how everything fits together. This truth does not last for five minutes, or five hours, or five days, but is an eternal truth.

Let us meditate on these wise words: “What does society want? Society itself does not even know.” Society knows that it is dissatisfied, but it does not have a clear vision on how to proceed. Therefore, we need to go on the hero’s journey and bring back wisdom which will eventually help transform society.

The political struggle to build a more compassionate society will be far more successful if it is able to embody these deeper spiritual truths. To bring about a more peaceful world, we need to become students of peace. That is how Sri Chinmoy always described himself:

Interviewer: What is the purpose of your Peace Concert?

Sri Chinmoy: There is only one purpose: I try to be of service to mankind. When thousands of people gather together, I feel that we are working together. I am not the only one who serves. The people who come to listen to my music or to join me in praying are also doing something most significant. We are all trying to bring about world peace. It is teamwork.

Interviewer: So, everybody resonates peace together?

Sri Chinmoy: We are all working together. It is not that I am going to give peace to others — far from it! We shall work together. We are all in a boat sailing together towards the destination, which we call the Golden Shore.

Interviewer: What can somebody who comes to the concert expect to experience?

Sri Chinmoy: It is my prayer that they will get inspiration in abundant measure. Then, the following morning, they will be inspired to do something better in their life. My sole purpose in giving these Peace Concerts is to be of inspiration to others.

Interviewer: Why have you chosen in this lifetime to be a teacher and leader of peace?

Sri Chinmoy: I have not chosen to be a leader and I never declare myself a teacher of peace. I am a student of peace. I have been telling the whole world that I am a student of peace. I go everywhere to learn, and while I am learning, people feel that I am giving something. In the process of learning, we feel that the teacher and student give something to each other. While the student is learning, the teacher also learns something from the student.

Interviewer: What would you like everyone to know about himself or herself?

Sri Chinmoy: That they embody God, they embody Truth, they embody Light. Each individual should feel that he or she embodies God: God’s Divinity, God’s Eternity, God’s Immortality.

— from Edge Magazine, “The Joy of Inner Peace with Sri Chinmoy”

Some will say there is no bridge between the political and the spiritual, that they are at daggers drawn. But Sri Chinmoy clearly identifies that in the person of Mahatma Gandhi, the political and the spiritual were united by a deeper vision. Gandhian principles of non-violence came to inform many successful political movements which achieved lasting change. Therefore, let us not doubt that spiritual wisdom can be a powerful force for guiding and inspiring political change. Spiritual wisdom can bring a certain gentleness and loving kindness without which political movements fail to reach the hearts of those whose help is needed in order to achieve change.

Lasting political change is founded on peace, proceeds through peace, and eventually manifests peace as a flower coming into bloom. This coming to fruition of peace requires not only dedication, but patience. We can cultivate such patience if we are secure in the knowledge that the general trend over time is toward peace. As Sri Chinmoy says in one of his peace songs:

No matter what the world thinks,
Our world, soon, very soon,
Will be flooded with peace.

Sri Chinmoy was a man of far-reaching vision. In this promise of a world flooded with peace, perhaps “soon” means soon in cosmic time — maybe not next week or next month. Still, many people following diverse paths share a sense that peace is definitely dawning, even if gradually, in fits and starts. We may observe many conflicts flaring up, yet Sri Chinmoy finds much hope in the fact that we have avoided a Third World War. In the aforementioned interview, he says:

Interviewer: Do you feel that there is a growing peace on the planet?

Sri Chinmoy: Definitely, definitely! Over the years, I have observed that peace is growing. I have been here in the Western world for 36 years. Previously I saw dozens of times that peace was only talk. We were only talking and talking about peace. Now people are praying to have peace in the depths of their heart. Talking has now given way to experience. In many parts of the world, people are experiencing peace. So the world has made tremendous improvement! Of course, we cannot say that in today’s world there is no conflict, there is no fight, there is no confusion. There is conflict, but in comparison, it is less.

Previously we were afraid that there would be a Third World War. Now, we do not foresee that possibility. The First World War destroyed us and the Second World war destroyed us, but we do not see any possibility of a Third World War. There is mutual compromise, and this is a sign that people want peace. Otherwise there could have been a Third World War by this time.

Yet, even as I write word comes to me that the so-called “Doomsday Clock” has been advanced to two-and-a-half minutes before midnight:

The great scientists who administer the Doomsday Clock make serious points in their analysis which should not be discounted lightly. But I think their training does not incline them to factor in God’s Compassion. I do not believe God will allow this world to be utterly destroyed. I agree with Sri Chinmoy that the trend is toward peace, even if that fragile peace is often threatened by rambunctious leaders.

We can take comfort in his words at a time of fear and uncertainty, for he was truly a man of vision whose peace studies led him far beyond what most of us have seen or experienced. To learn from such a man of peace is well, good, and proper, for peace is not something we can always get from dry books, or from a crowd chanting noisy slogans. Peace is something which may be transmitted in silence from one who embodies peace to one who is crying for peace.

There are those who feel that change must always be extremely loud. According to them, silence has no power. Yet Sri Chinmoy writes:

Silence Speaks

Silence is not silent.

Silence speaks.

It speaks most eloquently.

Silence is not still.

Silence leads.

It leads most perfectly.

— Sri Chinmoy

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Michael Howard

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

Of Further Interest

Silence Liberates!
Africa-Vision Songs

sri-chinmoy-a-hundred-years-from-now

 

Breaking News: Trump Team Snags A-List Inauguration Talent

Though not well-liked in the performing arts community, Donald Trump once again confounded critics by snagging A-list talent for his inauguration festivities. While some artists like Elton John and Celine Dion declined to appear on ethical grounds, their absence was hardly noticed among the bevy of stars who did turn out to help make America great again. Here’s just a small sampling of the star-studded entertainment to which Trump fans were treated:




These entertainers were spread out over three inaugural balls. The initial plan was to have only one (but small). However, this reminded too many people of a song they used to sing in elementary school…

Still, you have to admit that with artists like these who are commercially viable, the Trump plan to end arts funding should have no meaningful impact on cultural life in America.

But seriously, folks… Judging by Joshua Bright’s lead photo for a New York Times piece on “Who Is Performing at Donald Trump’s Inauguration?” we may be headed for an era of crypto-Aryan art not unlike Germany in the early thirties. Bright’s pic of The Rockettes kicking their heels in front of a fantasy backdrop sporting a flower-bedecked Statue of Liberty seems more satire than reality, evoking a “Springtime For Hitler” meme. Trumpsters, go into your dance!

On a more positive note, Father Patrick Conroy offered this inauguration prayer:

We ask a special blessing upon our new president, Donald Trump. Give him an understanding heart to discern between good and evil. May he be strengthened in his work and grow in understanding as he proves ever attentive to the American people. We pray that he might become his best self.

I would like to be constructive and prayerful in response to the present day situation, but sometimes find it difficult.

Michael Howard

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

See Also

“What Art Under Trump?” in The Nation

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No, Cuco No!

Why Latino children are scared of Donald Trump, plus another Sophie Maletsky video.

In Trials of Apartment Living, I talked about things like abusive landords and plumbers who never show — though as you would expect, I also digressed into things Whovian, Scottish, and Sockpuppetrian. (Now there’s a Scrabble word for ya…)

I’m blessed to live in a building with few bugs, and I don’t leave food or crumbs around, so they should have to fast if ever they became visitors. Still, with a long, hot, humid, endless summer, some were bound to crawl out of the woodwork. I found myself having to spray repeatedly until Old Man Winter finally arrived and the bugs hitched rides to Florida or wherever they get to.

But at the height of summer I would spray in the early morning, then go out for a few hours so as not to inhale the fumes. Still, on returning I wondered if I was not in fact fumigating myself, while the bugs put out their lawn chairs and sipped piña coladas. So I can definitely relate to the sentiment expressed by songwriter and children’s entertainer Sophie Maletsky of Sophie’s World when she sings:

Brava! Now, I’m not sure how much Ms. Maletsky knows about the Spanish language. (Maybe she knows more than she lets on.) The cockroach is la cucaracha, but there is another entity known as El Cuco:

You don’t really need to grok Spanish to know that El Cuco is one scary dude. In a 2011 piece on “Scary Latino Myths,” Grace Bastidas writes:

Disobedient kids all over Latin America have always feared El Cuco. The mystery boogeyman is a dark, shapeless monster that appears out of nowhere to kidnap and eat children that don’t obey their parents. There’s even a classic rhyme that warns the kiddies that El Cuco will eat them if they don’t fall asleep early. He’s mom and dad’s best ally!

At least, he was mom and dad’s best ally. Writing more recently in The New York Times, Héctor Tobar pointed out the connection between such scary legends and Latino children’s fears of Donald Trump:

Now we can add a new boogeyman to the repertoire of scary Latino bedtime stories. His name is The Donald. Ever since he began his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination with a vicious screed against Mexican immigrants, Donald J. Trump has become a figure of dread and comic-book meanness to the Latino community. He’s a villain in a flaccid pompadour, spewing threats and insults that have filtered down into the bosom of many a Latino family, to be heard by children gathered by the television set or at the dinner table. … Mr. Trump’s campaign speaks to a child’s greatest fear: the possibility that he might be separated from his parents.

donald-trump-el-cucoSo what’s the differencia between la cucaracha and El Cuco? The first scares you for a minute, the second might scare you for a lifetime or an Age of Man.

I won’t obsessively ransack every line of Sophie Maletsky’s song for political significance, but it’s easy to picture Michelle Obama singing the part that goes:

I don’t mind if you live outside,
But please don’t come into my House;
It makes me feel all icky inside,
And it scares me much more than a mouse. (Eek!)

No, cuco, no!
No, cuco, no!
No, cuco, no!
Cuco, cuco no.

Sophie Maletsky is a woman of many talents who can also teach you how to make a panda purse out of ingredients you might find lying around the set of The Sopranos, like black duct tape. But I think her tender refrain of “No, cuco, no!” will make a lasting contribution to political discourse in the era of Trump. It’s easy to picture Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi joining hands and singing a few choruses of “No, cuco, no!” when asked to privatize Medicare, deregulate Wall Steet, allow fracking in Central Park, or make Taiwan the 51st state. (I like Taiwan, but it would be impractical.)

Based on the original melody, I think I could add a couple of verses to this already excellent ditty:

Mr. Trump, I was oh so wrong
To think you were just a goober,
Filling our minds with hate,
And playing the fake news tuber.

Now you are in our House
With all your infernal relations;
You’ve proven that you’re the King
Of pestilent infestations!

No, cuco, no!
No, cuco, no!
No, cuco, no!
Cuco, cuco no.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization. (Seriously, don’t blame anyone but me for this.)


For Further Reading

“No One Ever Told Me That Grief Felt So Like Fear” on The Impractical Cogitator blog

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