Maddow Explains Attorney-Client Privilege FUNNY!

Latest twist in Russiagate is Donald Trump Jr.’s refusal to answer key questions before the House Committee, claiming attorney-client privilege. Rachel Maddow’s explanation is hilarious!

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Of Goobers and Gobbers

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

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

Mr. Peanut, the original “goobernatorial” candidate

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

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

— James Herriot, from All Creatures Great and Small

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

Gobber Newhouse played by Ivor Salter

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Breaking: Trump Opens New Golf Course on Indian Land

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

Full comedy album here.

More About The Firesign Theatre

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

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

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Al Franken, Sexual McCarthyism, and Moral Panics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to a short article on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Krinsky, “Introduction: The Moral Panic Concept”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have nearly reached that point.

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

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

Sidebar: MST3k Satire on the McCarthy Era

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

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

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

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

Michael Howard

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


The Front – Official Trailer
At The Circus with Topo Gigio

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Leeann Tweeden and Blaming The Victim

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

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

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

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

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

The lie that tore my family apart
Interview with Meredith Maran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liz Seccuro: Yes.

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

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

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

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

MSNBC interview with Liz Seccuro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sidebar: Fish-lips shaming

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

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

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

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

Michael Howard

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

* * *

Of Senators and Playmates

Weighing in on the Al Franken/Leeann Tweeden blowup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Emily Douglas, senior editor at The Nation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leeann Tweeden – lingerie shoot (thumbnail)

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Father’s Journey, A Daughter’s Love

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

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

Definitely a light-bulb moment! 😉

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Cathy Young

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

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

Michael Howard

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

* * *

Schiller’s Ode To Trump (rude song parody)

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

Schiller’s Ode To Trump (libretto)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His dirty socks, his dirty socks,
Yes we will wash his dirty socks!

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

A Sousaphone, a Sousaphone,
Had coitus with a Sousaphone!

* * *

Michael Howard

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

Ruminations on Trump’s Visit to Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outsized American politicians and Japanese monsters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No Gate” philosophy and the Heart Sutra

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

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

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

The Heart Sutra in Mandarin:

The Heart Sutra in Tibetan:

The Heart Sutra in Sanskrit (1):

The Heart Sutra in Sanskrit (2):

The Heart Sutra in Japanese (1):

The Heart Sutra in Japanese (2):

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

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

Michael Howard

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

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


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

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

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

Akbar is Superior to Indra

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

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

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

“Then tell me,” said Akbar.

Birbal proclaimed, “You are superior.”

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

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

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

Spiritual comments

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

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

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

— Sri Chinmoy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Sri Chinmoy

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

Michael Howard

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

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The Last Crossword – A Play (video)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Latest Tragedies in Puerto Rico and Las Vegas

Is there an empathy deficit and values vacuum?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Donne wrote words to the effect:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Howard

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

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Of Further Interest

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

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

Outback mum becomes YouTube hi-tech maven

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

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

Philip and Diana Adams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ongoing MacKeeper fraud”

“PUP Friday: MacKeeper”

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

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

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

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

Michael Howard

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

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Tom Price – Leaving on a Jet Plane

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art and Hermeneutics Part 2

Hermeneutics, performance art, and shamanism. Plus a journey into the style of “fusion” music which took shape in the 1970s, including a video interview with Mahavishnu John McLaughlin.

In Part 1, I began discussing hermeneutics as a theory of art — not a dry theory, but something helpful and practical. I hope you had fun watching the different videos; and while the emphasis was on fun, the point is that hermeneutics is concerned with helping us understand art, finding ways to overcome the historical and cultural boundaries we may face when trying to comprehend art from another time or culture, or art partaking of such far-flung influences.

To summarize from Part 1: Hermeneutics looks on art as something that we like because it’s a part of our lives and a part of human civilization. We understand it by connecting with it and asking good questions. We try not to abuse art by approaching it with a wrong understanding or no understanding at all. If we don’t understand it, an honest question to ask is: have we engaged with it and taken in those things which are helpful to understanding? Or are we standing coldly aloof from it, and does this create a barrier to understanding?

The word “hermeneutics” also comes up in discussions of performance art, and performance artists are sometimes called “hermeneutists.” This might seem puzzling until we learn that in Greek mythology, Hermes was the son of Zeus and the messenger of the gods. The gods don’t speak directly to human beings, so Hermes acts as their interpreter. This makes Hermes the patron saint of hermeneutics (notwithstanding his lack of quaint parades in third world countries).

According to this line of thought, performance artists are interpreters of the culture in which they live, or perhaps all of human civilization. They’re seen as living messengers (though of what, it’s not always exactly clear).

So how does shamanism enter the picture? (“By the back door,” would be one clever retort.) From a modern secular point of view (which I don’t happen to embrace), shamans might be said to perform incomprehensible rituals which have a theatrical component (like performance artists), and which are intended to transform them and their audience (or participants in the shamanic ritual).

Performance artists are interpreters of culture who perform a kind of intense personal magic which may possess transformative power, provided the audience enters into dialogue (or identifies) with them. Not surprisingly, the performance art community stresses the connection between performer and audience far more than one would find at, say, an exhibition of Victorian upholstery. In some performance art, the distinction between performer and audience arguably disappears. The art is not delivered over a transom by the artist, but is created to a considerable extent by participants. In both performance art and shamanism there may be an element of spectacle. So does all this mean that

performance artist = shaman [???]

Not necessarily. Think of it more as conceptual mapping between two different traditions. Perhaps in a largely secular period and region (such as Western Europe at the start of the twenty-first century), performance art acts as a substitute for certain types of shamanic rituals, without genuinely approximating them, and without necessarily understanding what the original rituals entailed or signified.

As I see it, the shamanic tradition involves performing rituals which have some definite supernatural effect, such as putting the shaman or participants in contact with a supernatural force or entity, an altered state of consciousness, or a healing power (whether conceived of as internal or external). Most modern performance artists, on the other hand, strike me as engaged in a type of secular theatre which may imitate (or perhaps ape) the outer trappings of shamanism, but which neither intends to have (nor succeeeds in having) a supernatural effect. Rather, the effect is social, political, aesthetic, or psychological.

Of course, performance art has its critics and skeptics. A “cutting” satire on the genre is found in The West Wing episode “Gone Quiet”:

Writing in The Guardian on “How performance art took over,” Adrian Searle provides a more serious and balanced perspective, and will get you up-to-speed faster than some wholly credulous authors writing from within the performance art community. Searle opines:

The proliferation of performance in museums has a lot to do with both art itself and the changing role of these institutions, as well as the demands of an audience that wants to feel empowered, engaged and participatory. Today’s spectators demand a role, whether they are inventing their own performances in the gallery … or clamouring to take part in artist-led workshops such as the Hayward Gallery’s ongoing Wide Open School. We want to be active, rather than passive spectators. Perhaps this is merely fashion, but I suspect not. … Private rituals and public acts, catharsis and confrontation are the central strands of art as performance. The work is the beginning of a dialogue, not an end. It is something shared. We are all performers, even when we are playing at being spectators.

Ritual plays an important part in human civilization, human psychology. With the rise of secularism and the corresponding decline in faith-based communal rituals, people are looking to artists to provide them with rituals they can join in, but not believe in — or at least, where no particular beliefs are prerequisites for participation.

I’ve had lively discussions with Buddhists who claim that Buddhism is not a religion and requires no beliefs. I won’t recapitulate that argument in full, but some American Buddhists are refugees from strict Christian (or other) upbringings. Their particular style of Buddhism has a lot to do with rebellion, and rejection of beliefs they were force-fed. This is less true of Buddhism as practiced historically in India, China, Japan, Thailand, and Tibet. A distinct feature of some American Buddhism is its connection to American counterculture and rejection of formal requirements, its nonconformist, roll-your-own quality.

So, if there are differences between traditional Buddhism and modern American variants, can there also be differences between the shamanic tradition and the type of shamanism which Western performance art is said to emulate or ape?

Perhaps bad performance art = faux shamanism. There’s a saying in science fiction circles that alien tech is indistinguishable from magic (a variation on Clarke’s Third Law). Likewise, for people who don’t believe in the existence of God, gods, avatars, angels, spirits, or higher consciousness, performance art may be indistinguishable from shamanism, despite their seeming differences.

I think the underyling fallacy is that by imitating the outer form of something, the artist has captured its essence. In the 1986 film Saving Grace, British actor Tom Conti does a superb job of portraying the Pope, but that doesn’t mean he embodies all that the Pope is (or can be) in real life. For that he would probably need years of spiritual training, as well as a sense of calling or vocation.

There’s a darker side to some performance art involving self-harm, cutting, and so forth. This sub-genre creates a public spectacle of blood and pain, and is justified by theories concerning primitive cultures, endorphin production, and whatnot. The mere fact that an act is performed as ritual does not sanctify it. I think this type of performance art tends, whether consciously or unconsciously, to evoke the demonic, and does not have a truly healing spirit.

The extreme nature of some performance art may produce a forced increase in endorphin levels, but this need not indicate that anything spiritual (or even supernatural) is taking place. Also, those performance artists who do try to invoke some form of spirit being strike me as unconcerned with the nature of what they are invoking. With no clear grounding in tradition and no clear moral sense, they may easily become channels for dark and violent spirits. It’s like someone who built their own radio out of spare parts. They’re so eager to tune in anything at all that they may fail to consider the meaning, quality, or purpose of what’s “coming out of the speaker.”

A Saturday Night Live spoof of The Exorcist, with Richard Pryor as Father Karras

This is not to condemn all performance art or minimize its value, but simply to ask tough questions about what it is or claims to be. Those who have rejected (or never studied) rituals of light may be drawn to rituals of darkness. Any intense communal experience, even one involving violence and pain, may be mistaken for the spiritual. Indeed, one of the challenges of our postmodern world is that the meaning tends to slip off words like “spiritual,” so that almost anything might be defined as spiritual according to the experience and predilections of the individual.

Anecdotally, I recall from the mid-1970s a story being circulated about a friend who had once trained as a Christian brother, but had since embraced everything from Eastern philosophy to glam rock. Referring to a formal spiritual event where everyone sat in silence and meditated, another friend telling the story related: “He said that was the highest meditation he’s ever had — but then he also said that about the latest David Bowie concert…”

I’m an arts person, certainly not a political conservative, so my point here is not to rant about peculiar notions found in postmodernity. I’m trying to slowly lay the predicate for understanding how a particular scholar, Dr. Shrinivas Tilak, connects performance art as it exists today with the poet-seer or “kavi” of ancient India, who may be viewed as an authentic shaman within the Vedic tradition.

If performance art sometimes consists of artists imitating shamanic rituals, how would this differ from shamans practicing performance art?

Some time in the late twentieth century, high quality digital recordings of Tibetan Buddhist music began to be available to Western audiences, many of whom knew nothing about Buddhism. Some devotees of the avant-garde listened to Tibetan Buddhist music purely for its aesthetic qualities, largely divorced from any beliefs about Buddhism. Others, such as Phillip Glass, helped popularize interest in Tibetan Buddhist music out of a deeper understanding arising from Buddhist practice. Tibetan Buddhist ensembles began to tour Western nations,

and anyone from New York’s downtown arts scene was surely familiar with them.

One aspect of the New York School, broadly conceived, is the influence of Japan, China, India, and Tibet — not just in art, but in spiritual philosophy and practice. While the performance art scene includes some artists doing their impressions of shamanic rituals, it also includes some shamans whose authentic rituals converge with performance art — in the sense that their art is live, communal, participatory, and transformational.

The Peace Concerts given by Sri Chinmoy fall into this category. They did not include only musical performance, but could also include live painting, poetry recitation, multimedia, and chanting of AUM in which the public was invited to participate. Even within the purely musical portion of the programme, the styles might vary widely from moment to moment — from the traditional to the unmistakably avant-garde, from a Bengali song sung a cappella in a style evoking the depths of India’s hoary past, to a peaceful melody played on Western flute, to an avant-garde piano improvisation with no foothold in melody or harmony, but only a dynamic flow of energy and consciousness.

Can authentic shamans exist today, perhaps in parallel to secular performance artists? This question seems connected to hermeneutics, since it might be resolved by developing a “fusion of horizons” a la Gadamer. Jeff Clark writes:

The works of the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) explain that ‘the modern concepts of science are not adequate to understand people and our experience of art and even communication.’ He developed a philosophical perspective in his work ‘Truth and Method’ and explained a process of philosophical hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics is a process which helps interpretation and understanding things from someone else’s perspective. It can be applied to situations where we encounter meanings that are not easily understood but require some effort to interpret. He originally applied this to an interpreter and a religious text but in a later essay he describes ‘its (hermeneutics) fundamental significance for our entire understanding of the world and thus for all the various forms in which this understanding manifests itself: from inter-human communication to manipulation of society.’

When applying hermeneutics to the human process of interpretation Gadamer talks of a ‘horizon’ as a way to conceptualise understanding. Your horizon is as far as you can see or understand. Both patient and doctor go into a consultation with a horizon and out of this encounter both will leave with their own new horizon. Gadamer describes a horizon as ‘The totality of all that can be realised or thought about by a person at a given time in history and in a particular culture.’

Gadamer states that: ‘the concept of horizon suggests itself because it expresses the superior breadth of vision that the person who is trying to understand must have. To acquire a horizon means that one learns to look beyond what is close at hand – not in order to look away from it but to see it better.’

Understanding happens when our present understanding or horizon is moved to a new understanding or horizon by an encounter. Thus the process of understanding is a ‘fusion of horizons.’

— Jeff Clark from “Philosophy, understanding and the consultation: a fusion of horizons” in The British Journal of General Practice [footnotes omitted]

Since he’s a medical diagnostician, Clark tends to focus on the encounter between doctor and patient from which each ideally emerges with a fusion of horizons. But this concept can also be applied to the encounter between a shaman and those participating in the shamanic ritual; and to the encounter between a performance artist and audience-participants.

The encounter seems to be a shared factor in precipitating the fusion of horizons, whether in the realm of medicine, shamanism, or the arts. As opposed to merely being mildly influenced by something in a controlled way, the Gadamerian concept of an encounter suggests a collision with the other from which one emerges changed, with a genuinely new synthesis of views.

This encounter need not be a literal encounter with a person. In art appreciation, to enhance our understanding and enjoyment we may actively seek out texts or media which will lead us to a profound encounter with an ancient civilization or a contemporary culture foreign to our own. We, in turn, may respond to that civilization or culture by adding something of our own, so that the mutuality implied in the concept of a fusion of horizons is fulfilled. We join the “hermeneutic circle.”

In the 1960s and 70s, the term “fusion” came to be applied to the encounter between Western musicians studying Indian classical music, and Indian musicians interested in jazz. Take for example the piece “Vrindavan”:

It’s primarily an encounter between American keyboardist Stu Goldberg and South Indian violinist L. Subramaniam. Both are listening intently to each other and communicating across a cultural divide, so that genuine fusion takes place. Within that fusion, each is expanding and contributing to the possibilities inherent in the other’s mode of expression. The result is something both ancient and modern, both Eastern and Western, both acoustic and electric; and in this fusion of horizons there’s a tremendous sense of liberation. Such fusion can be deeply moving and inspiring.

According to Cynthia R. Nielsen of the Villanova University Ethics Program, “Gadamerian dialogue necessitates a willingness and openness to hearing the other’s ‘voice’ in a reharmonized key and to creating a new language together.” I think that’s what the musicians are doing in “Vrindavan.” Nielsen is fond of using musical analogies to explain Close Encounters of the Gadamerian Kind. Elsewhere she writes:

When a small jazz group — for example, a trio or a quartet — performs, each musician has an assigned part that contributes to the overall coherence of the group as a whole. The drummer keeps the rhythm steady and solid. The bass player also has a key role in the rhythm section, working closely with the drummer and, in addition, providing the low-range contours of song’s harmony. The piano player fills in the harmonic details, providing a spectrum of chordal textures and colorings as well as harmonic extensions and superimpositions. The saxophonist interprets the melody, which, compared to the other parts, is what ‘connects’ most readily with the audience. When all of these parts come together well, a unified, not to mention aesthetically-pleasing whole results. Each player does more than simply play his or her part as an atomized individual. Instead, the individual musicians must perform in a constant mode of attentive listening in order to play as a unified group. If one player decides to stick rigidly to a rhythm pattern or a harmonic progression while the other members have collectively developed new patterns, then the cohesion of the group is diminished.

Alternatively, the unity of the group is augmented when, for example, the saxophonist in a mode of attentive listening hears and responds to the pianist’s altered, superimposed harmonies and thus adjusts her solo accordingly. That is, as a skilled improviser listening empathetically she does not simply continue to play melodic lines that fit the original harmonic progression as if the former harmonies were the only proper way to play the tune; instead, she changes her lines to harmonize with the pianist’s new chordal colorings. By listening carefully to the pianist (the other), the saxophonist does not continue with her previous, as it were, ‘way of understanding’ the pianist’s horizon. Rather, she modifies her own horizon so that the pianist’s horizon is made intelligible and put in the best light. Given her broadened horizon, the pianist’s altered harmonies are not heard as mistakes — if they were, this would be analogous to forcing the other into one’s preconceived grid and thus distorting the other. Rather, a genuine understanding has been achieved through the communal creation of a new harmony analogous to a newly fused-horizon.

— Cythia R. Nielsen, “Hearing the Other’s Voice: How Gadamer’s Fusion of Horizons and Open-ended Understanding Respects the Other and Puts Oneself in Question” (PDF)

Music is far more instructive than, say, a polarized political debate for understanding the fusion of horizons. In the typical political debate to which we are subjected, two politicians with fixed points of view slug it out, neither hearing the other or learning from the other, and neither being changed by the other’s point of view. But music by its very nature requires the cooperative skills described by Dr. Nielsen. Rather than treating the other as the enemy, a sensitive musician fuses with the other and counters in a manner which presents the other in the best light.

A horizon is not a fixed point, and neither is an expanded “fusion of horizons.” The implication is that there is always more we can discover through encounters with other points of view (and the people who hold them). Thus, while Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics might initially seem dry, he actually helps advance the argument for openness, inclusiveness, and a progressive view of life in which change becomes possible. Nielsen writes that Gadamer’s horizons “are neither closed nor are their boundaries opaque. Rather, they are mutable, porous, and capable of reharmonization — that is, if one adopts an improvisational attitude and is willing to listen to and be changed and enriched by the other.”

Gadamer can help us understand the fusion of horizons which took place between two major figures in twentieth century art: Picasso and Matisse. They were friends, yet rivals; and while this might initially seem contradictory or imply that no such fusion took place, the contradiction is resolved if we recognize that a fusion of horizons need not entail complete agreement or the abandonment of those aspects of the self which result in uniqueness and dynamic engagement with others.

Some of the best evidence that Picasso experienced a fusion of horizons with Matisse is found in the former’s picture “Claude in the Arms of His Mother”:

While the two faces are clearly stamped with the style of Picasso, the mixture of decorative patterns surrounding them loudly exclaims “Matisse!” Picasso has not lost his Picasso-ness; his encounter with Matisse has simply allowed him to express his own identity more richly.

Picasso is a particularly Gadamerian artist in the sense that great swatches of his career were spent in reflective dialogue with other artists, including the ancient Greeks and ancient Egyptians. (See “Was Picasso Spiritual?” Part 1 and Part 2.)

A Gadamerian analysis might also be applied to Sri Ramakrishna, the Indian avatar who passed away in 1886, but whose life and teachings formed the harbinger for the coming century in the West, in which the oneness of all religions became an idea seriously propounded, and by some, ernestly lived. Sri Ramakrishna was a natural inheritor of Hindu spiritual practices, but in his quest for truth he also spent time practicing Christianity and Islam, concluding that these too were valid pathways.

Like the Neo-Vedanta philosophy of Sri Ramakrishna and his disciple Swami Vivekananda, Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics has a distinctly modern feel to it because it implies the abandonment of the fixed point of view clutched fiercely (and leading to strife or warfare). In its place, we are offered (as a people) the opportunity to engage in listening, dialogue and empathy, and to experience a fusion of horizons which allows us to understand what we had perhaps previously regarded with consternation, suspicion or hostility.

In this sense, Gadamer’s approach is well-suited to the global village. It is recognized as anti-dogmatic in nature and humble in its awareness that the other’s viewpoint may be equally valid. It carves out a helpful middle ground between absolutism and relativism, holding out hope that through dialogue we might gain essential insights that would allow us to live together, respecting diversity without obliterating difference.

Of course, a fusion of horizons is not embraced by everyone. In the field of religion, fundamentalism still afflicts some sects and causes them to violently reject the doctrine that Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Jews are all worshipping the same God, and should therefore live in peace and harmony. Less violently expressed is chauvinism in the arts, but it can still be a divisive factor.

Gadamer’s approach is surprisingly congruent with those spiritual philosophies which accept the doctrine of reincarnation or rebirth. As described in such philosophies, the purpose of rebirth is not to acquire scientifically objective knowledge, but to gather experience of life in all its contraries. We are (as Sri Chinmoy puts it) writing God’s autobiography, with the infinitude of possibilities that would imply.

Nielsen says: “Because concepts, entities, and individuals stand in a complex interrelation with one another, they can be described from ‘nearly inexhaustible viewpoints’ (Wachterhauser 1999, 87). This complex interrelated net of relations into which all of reality is implicated gives rise to multiple perspectives and (legitimate) multiple and diverse meanings…” If so, it may take many rebirths to assimilate such multiple perspectives.

Gadamer can help us make sense of a figure like Sri Chinmoy (if indeed any are like him), who may seem incomprehensible at first because he’s a spiritual teacher, but also an artist, poet, musician, and athlete. We understand such an astonishing polymath in part through openness and dialogue with his surviving works, and with the organizations he founded. We stop clutching our fixed point of view, and try to “disappear” into the music or the artworks, which possess the necessary magic (or yogic science) to teach us how to listen, view, and appreciate.

In his article “The Transformative Art of Sri Chinmoy,” Dr. Shrinivas Tilak tells the story of his own Gadamerian encounter with Sri Chinmoy’s art. He explores the relationship between the traditional poet-seer or “kavi,” and the modern performance artist. What’s especially fascinating is his suggestion that Sri Chinmoy straddles both categories.

Here in Part 1 and Part 2 of “Art and Hermeneutics,” I’ve been laying the groundwork for “Put a Bird on It! Part 3,” where I hope to explore Sri Chinmoy’s art in relation to hermeneutics, shamanism, and performance art, with the help of Dr. Tilak’s article. I know I needed to write these preliminary articles in order to clarify my own thinking. I hope the reader will also find them useful.

Sidebar: Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and L. Shankar

Earlier, I cited the piece “Vrindavan” as an example of a fusion of horizons between American keyboardist Stu Goldberg and South Indian violinist L. Subramaniam. A fitting corollary is this 1978 episode of The South Bank Show featuring British guitarist Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and South Indian violinist L. Shankar (the brother of L. Subramaniam):

At around 15:09, McLaughlin discusses how he began to discover spirituality. He describes listening to John Coltrane’s album A Love Supreme, but not quite being able to grasp it. Still, he entered into a kind of Gadamerian dialogue with it. Having encountered music he didn’t understand, he looked for a text and found a poem on the back cover which gradually helped him zone in on what Coltrane was doing with his new style, which was deeply influenced by spirituality and meditation.

As the spiritual dimension opened up for McLaughlin, this led him to ask a core question shared by both religion and philosophy: “Who am I?” He began studying meditation with Sri Chinmoy, and soon enrolled in Wesleyan University’s Karnatic (South Indian) music program, where he studied with Dr. S. Ramanathan and met violinist L. Shankar. This eventually led to the formation of the group Shakti, whose original name (given by Sri Chinmoy) was Turiyananda Sangit. Some portions of this history are recounted in greater detail by Peter Lavezzoli in his book The Dawn of Indian Music in the West. But getting back to the South Bank Show

As with Goldberg and Subramaniam, this collaboration between McLaughlin and Shankar shows how listening, dialogue, partnership and empathy can foster a fusion of horizons. Underscored too is the concept of “play” in Gadamer’s philosophical aesthetics. For Gadamer, play is not restricted to the creators of an art work. The viewers, listeners, spectators, or audience-participants are drawn into the play like attendees at a festival or participants in a ritual.

Indian classical music is a far more participatory medium than Western classical music. In Indian classical music, the audience must count along with the musicians in order to understand what they are doing and appreciate the subtleties. After an extended passage of improvisation which plays with musical lines of different lengths, when the musicians and audience finally arrive together on the Sum, this is a deeply shared communal experience.

In “Play, Festival, and Ritual in Gadamer” (PDF), Jean Grondin writes:

The play of art will never be conceptually grasped; we may only participate in it to the extent that we allow ourselves to be moved by its magic. When we hear a musical work, we are at the same time inextricably invited to sing along and to dance. We cannot avoid an inner humming along, a tapping of fingers or foot, a following along, almost an accompanying “directing.” In any case, we play along when we hear music. The most authentic mode of execution for music is, therefore, to dance along. In just the same manner we recognize ourselves in a poem or painting; we are captivated by a novel or tragedy. It concerns us; it speaks to us. Gadamer’s thesis concerning the concept of play is that this going along with is not external to the work, but belongs to its statement: it is “art” only if there is this addressing. Every experience of art is one of answering to the address of the work.

— Jean Grondin as translated by Lawrence K. Schmidt

One exceptional feature of the duets played by McLaughlin and Shankar is found in the final piece which begins at 22:05 of the video. At 23:35, they break into konnakol, a form of vocal percussion which every student of Karnatic music learns as an aid to timing and rhythm. Because McLaughlin (raised on blues and jazz) has studied Indian music, and Shankar (raised on Indian music) has studied jazz, their play together reaches the level of genuine fusion of horizons.

Dedication: I offer this post as a birthday tribute to Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007). A very happy 86th birthday to the master!

Michael Howard

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

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Art and Hermeneutics Part 1 (with Fun Video Clips)

Everything from Sri Chinmoy to Doctor Who, Star Trek, Suzuki Beane, The Thin Man, Carry On Teacher, and Herman’s Hermits

Today I’ll be musing about art and hermeneutics, hopefully in a fun way that’s not too dry. I’ve been working on Part 3 of my Put a Bird on It! series, about the art of spiritual master Sri Chinmoy. (See Part 1 and Part 2.)

In one sense, Sri Chinmoy’s art is the essence of simplicity; but the arts community (and especially art critics) sometimes prefer it when art is analyzed intellectually and placed in historical context.

By the same token, Sri Chinmoy is in one sense completely unique. Yet, people who have a hard time understanding his art may benefit from viewing his bird drawings in relation to Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, and his abstract paintings in relation to the New York School (which got underway in the 1940s, but continued to evolve through the 70s and 80s).

The late Paul Jenkins studied meditation and spiritual philosophy with Sri Chinmoy. Jenkins’s style of painting combining meditation and movement was certainly influenced by Sri Chinmoy. This is broadly characteristic of those New York School painters, poets, and composers who studied Eastern philosophy and incorporated it into their work.

In beavering away at Part 3, I collided with the topic of hermeneutics — much as a bull collides with crockery (not to mix animal metaphors). When I hear the word “hermeneutics” I think “egghead,” “Ph.D.,” and “above my pay grade.”

Hermeneutics, simply defined, is “the art and discipline of interpretation.” In art criticism, hermeneutics is not so much a single theory as a way of approaching art. This approach stresses entering into dialogue, striving to understand a work rather than standing coldly aloof from it and making iconoclastic pronouncements. See “Gadamer’s Aesthetics” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy — an article which I find challenging but informative. (“You see, the phenomenological reconstruction is connected to the cognitive dimension, and the cognitive dimension is connected to the hermeneutical aesthetics. Now hear the word of the Lord.”)

The art we seek to understand may be from another time or have different cultural roots, so in entering into friendly dialogue with it, we may discover the limits of our own knowledge. Hermeneutics is concerned with how we know what we think we know and what cultural assumptions we bring to the table. The dialogue between a spectator and a work of art may occur over a great historical and cultural distance. We can try to see a cave painting through the eyes of its creator, or we can view it through the lens of modernity; or we can look at it both ways — moving backwards and forwards in time to have a more fulfilling and illumining experience (no TARDIS required).

These different views from different cultural and historical perspectives are sometimes called “horizons.” When we delve deep into a work of art, seeing it from different perspectives (both ours and other people’s), the net resulting view is sometimes called a “fusion of horizons.”

Another step in developing a fusion of horizons entails moving between different levels. We might understand some things about a painting by examining the brush strokes in detail, and other things by taking in the canvas as a whole. (Reductionism vs. holism, if you will.)

Brush strokes from an acrylic painting by Sri Chinmoy. Video by Kedar Misani.

The same painting blown up and used as a stage backdrop for a concert in Switzerland. Photo by Apaguha Vesely.

One might say that hermeneutics has two different but complementary functions: One is to help ensure that people’s interpretations of art are not merely whimsical, anecdotal, or based on personal or cultural bias. This a limiting function. The other is to foster a depthful connection with art based on dialogue, ideally leading to a fusion of horizons which comprises understanding. This is an expansive function. Still, hermeneutics is not a science; Gadamer said in a 1978 lecture that it’s a gift, like rhetoric, and that one of its components is empathy.

Another feature of Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics is the idea that both artist and spectator are involved in a form of play which brings people together in the manner of a festival. To understand a work of art is not to come away with a crib sheet summarizing its salient points, but rather to lose oneself in it (along with other spectators, perhaps from different times) and to be transformed by it. But this doesn’t signify an end to the game, since further revelations are always possible.

We may encounter references to the “hermeneutic circle.” In hermeneutics, we try to understand one thing by means of other things, much as Plato and Aristotle did. Even a simple English sentence can contain a number of symbols which need to be interpreted in relation to each other, and in relation to the world of physical things and abstract concepts. That’s why it’s so hard to teach computers to understand natural language. Take the following sentence:

Time flew by, and John felt sad that the beautiful butterfly disappeared into the sunset.

An infant computer might ask: *Is time a butterfly? What is sadness? Why did John feel sad? What makes a butterfly beautiful? How could it disappear?* In Star Trek lore, when Commander Data creates an offspring named “Lal” (which can mean “beloved” in Hindi), the child Lal asks similar questions:

These questions cannot be answered all in a day. When we immerse ourselves in a major work of art rich in symbolism, personal expression, cultural significance, and historical allusion, we are drawn into a hermeneutic circle which may be unique to that work of art, or to works of that genre. As we enter into dialogue with it, we ourselves may become part of the hermeneutic circle.

From a spiritual point of view, we might say that hermeneutics is related to our limitations as human beings. Most of us lack use of our third eye or ajna which sees things at a glance, and most of us do not have our heart centre or anahata open so that we can instantly identify with a thing. Therefore, like a blind man (or infant computer) we have to begin by building up a picture of the thing piece by piece. We don’t initially know what an ankle bone is, but as in the song “Dry Bones” (embedded earlier), we gradually figure out that “ankle bone connected to the shin bone” and “shin bone connected to the knee bone,” etc. (Perhaps Ezekiel was the first physical anthropologist!)

Comparing the piece-by-piece operation of the mind with the identification power of the spiritual heart (anahata), Sri Chinmoy writes:

When we say that the mind is not good, that the heart is better, we are speaking of the physical mind which does not allow us to expand ourselves. It always says, “One at a time, little by little, piece by piece.” The mind seems to go very fast, but you have to know that the mind thinks of only one thing at a time. It does not want to embrace existence as a whole.

The mind sees things part by part. If Infinity appears before the mind, the mind will take a part out of the whole and say, “This is the truth.” It will take a portion of the Vast rather than accept the Vast in its own way. It will try to scrutinise Infinity itself to see if there is any imperfection in it. But the heart will not do that. As soon as the heart sees the Vast, it will run to it like a child runs to embrace his mother or father.

— Sri Chinmoy, from Mind-Confusion and Heart-Illumination, Part 1, Agni Press, 1974.

As a spiritual teacher, Sri Chinmoy taught the “path of the heart,” so it follows that his art would be heart-centred rather than mind-centred. This can pose a stumbling block for viewers and critics unwilling or unable to shift gears to a heart-centred mode of art appreciation.

Some art presents a kind of historical or stylistic puzzle which we have to carefully piece together. Such art appeals to critics who are inured to what can sometimes be a dry intellectual exercise — a rattling of bones. Other art (especially Asian art and spiritual art) may be more simple and direct, and appeals to our sense of intuition and identification. To quote the master:

This kind of art may get short shrift from Western critics due to underlying bias in the art world.

Hermeneutics actually helps us understand why such bias can occur. If a work of art tends to draw us into its own hermeneutic circle — its symbols, time period, cultural influences, and charismatic proponents (e.g. Andy Warhol) — then certain styles of art may give rise to particular communities or social cliques — some more glamorous than others. Critics who specialize in medieval and Renaissance art may be of quite different temperament and lifestyle than those who specialize in Pop art. Even in the same city, there can be an “uptown” and “downtown” arts scene.

People can be passionate about art and culture to the point of open warfare, as with the Mods and Rockers in mid-1960s Britain:

When asked whether he was a Mod or Rocker, Beatles drummer Ringo Starr replied that he was a Mocker.

Painters and sculptors rarely come to blows, though Alec Guinness and Michael Gough nearly do so in a famous scene from The Horse’s Mouth:

(My kitchen sometimes says “Mother earth and her dead.”) Anyway, let’s have fun by entering into dialogue with this short “Suzuki Beane” TV pilot made in 1962:

Since it was produced about fifty-five years ago, depending on our age and cultural experience, we may have a hard time making sense of it. We get that it’s cute and satirical, but we may not be quite sure which elements are satire and which are direct reportage. Did some people (the Beats or “beatniks”) really talk and act that way? Still, without catching every reference we probably sense the struggle between a free spirit who values expressiveness, and ossified structures which tend to penalize it.

When invited to visit her friend’s dancing class on East 64th Street, little Suzuki explains that her parents Hugh and Marcia don’t believe in anything above 14th Street. Even in 1962, some folks living in Montana or Taipei might not grok that below 14th Street signifies Greenwich Village, an area homesteaded by Beat poets, artists, and musicians; while East 64th Street is part of the Upper East Side, an area with a quite different socio-economic feel. So what would people make of this charming cultural artifact, stumbling on it a thousand years hence? Would its essential spirit still shine through?

If we go back another fifteen years, we can unearth Song of the Thin Man, which, like most good detective yarns, treats the viewer to a tour of different strata of society. (See also this post about the Costa-Gavras film Z.) Nick Charles is a private detective and regular guy who’s married to a society dame named Nora. Along with their fox terrier Asta, they solve murder mysteries together. In Song of the Thin Man they find themselves immersed in the subculture of jazz musicians from the period. Veteran character actor Keenan Wynn, perhaps best remembered for shooting a Coke machine in Dr. Strangelove, gives Nick and Nora a virtuoso earful of the musician’s slang known as “rebop”:

The farther away we get in time and cultural distance, the harder it is for us to know whether jazz musicians in the forties really spoke that way, or what percentage of this lingo is being served up as satire. There may even be a racial (or racist) component. Are some of these white actors poking fun at black musicians, who are notably absent from the film? The piano player seems to be riffing on Fats Waller.

When we first hear a Shakespeare play performed, we may not grasp the subtleties of language, and may miss the jokes (some of which turn out to be rather ribald). For the latter reason, Shakespeare texts used in primary schools are often expurgated.

British humour — from Carry On films to Monty Python — often depends on the collision between high culture and low culture, or in this scene from Carry On Teacher, between Shakespeare and inner city youth:

Whether or not he ever saw it, I think Gadamer would have enjoyed this clip, because it is dialogical in nature and underscores a point he made in a 1978 lecture:

[A] work is something that is detached from its maker; even the craftsman is not sovereign over against his fabrications. The consumer of it: he can use it and abuse it; he can treat it correctly; he can destroy it quickly.

Hermeneutics looks on art as something that we like because it’s a part of our lives and a part of human civilization. We understand it by connecting with it and asking good questions. We try not to abuse art by approaching it with a wrong understanding or no understanding at all. If we don’t understand it, an honest question to ask is: have we engaged with it, entered into its hermeneutic circle, and taken in those things which are helpful to understanding? Gadamer says:

If you decide to make the effort to read, when you read you will not deconstruct, but you would learn to construct.

This doesn’t mean we have to like every work, agree with the artist’s intentions, or how he or she realized them. But hermeneutics does stress such concepts as listening, dialogue, partnership and empathy. Gadamer also says something very striking which he does not, perhaps, fully explain:

[T]he ideal of real, natural and not deformed hermeneutics is to disappear.

Though he does not use such mystical language, I would guess he means that to become one with a work of art is to experience it directly, its essential nature, not filtered through one’s own conceptions or collection of experiences, but as it naturally exists. The inspiration behind a work of art struck the original artist, and it can strike us too. At that moment, we are egoless and have no opinions. We simply experience the essence of the thing. This is the ideal way to experience Sri Chinmoy’s art.

These are just some random musings which would hopefully get you thinking about the process by which we understand art, and concepts like cultural distance and developing a “fusion of horizons” constituting unified understanding or gnosis. At least, if you later read Part 3 of Put a Bird on It! and encounter the word “hermeneutics,” it won’t come as a total shock to you. Who said hermeneutics can’t be fun? I can easily picture housewives across America holding hermeneutics-themed Tupperware parties, and dancing to the music of Herman’s Hermits:

(Well, at least now you know something about the Big H.)

In Part 2 of “Art and Hermeneutics,” I hope to tackle the connection between hermeneutics, performance art, and shamanism, and how this relates to the art, music, and poetry of Sri Chinmoy. Stay tuned.

Michael Howard

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

List of Videos

Should you have any trouble viewing the short clips embedded in this post, you can view them individually on the sites (DailyMotion, YouTube, Vimeo) where they reside:

Delta Rhythm Boys – Dry Bones

Objet D’Art (Doctor Who)

Star Trek TNG – Lal

Mods, Rockers and Moral Panics

Painters and Sculptors (The Horse’s Mouth)

Suzuki Beane

Rebop! (Song of the Thin Man)

Shakespeare in the Classroom (Carry On Teacher)

Herman’s Hermits – What a Wonderful World

Some links may go bad over time, but I’ll try and keep them current.

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Are transcripts of Trump speeches accurate?

Beware the cleanup of politicians’ speeches, as vital clues may be lost in translation.

I’m not so compulsive as to keep a notebook on the subject, but I’ve often heard a politician make a speech and later checked the transcript only to find that their remarks had been cleaned up after the fact.

Why should this matter? As a student of literature (and an amateur playwright), I know full well that the manner in which a character uses language (including any corruptions or malapropisms) tells us a lot about their background and influences. Those of us who spend years learning the craft of writing (and thinking) are keenly aware when someone mispronounces “nuclear” as “nucular,” or says “phenomena” (plural) when the case is singular. We cringe when we hear “squash” (which you might do to a bug) when what is really meant is “quash” (which you might do to a subpoena). We are not ideally snobs about it, but we tend to view how someone uses language as a vital clue about how they think.

I remember back in the 1980s hearing Rep. Helen Bentley making a one-minute speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. She seemed quite disinterested, reading rather woodenly from something her staff had given her. It was supposed to be about a crucial issue concerning the Gulf Coast, but when she got to the nub of it she mistakenly said “golf course,” which I thought was a hoot. But of course, she got the standard “permission to revise and extend her remarks,” so the Congressional Record probably says “Gulf Coast,” nicely masking her absent-mindedness.

Bringing this into the Trump era, for better or worse I heard Trump’s speech on August 14 in which he was forced (seemingly at gunpoint) to denounce “the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremists [sic] and other hate groups.” “Supremists” is at best a corruption, and at worst simply not a word. But in the transcript printed by The New York Times, he magically becomes grammatical!

There are a million worse injustices, so I won’t dwell on it; but this is an easy-to-check example of a wider phenomenon. The Times online version has a 1-minute video excerpt along with the longer transcript, so it only takes half a mo to compare the two and see how “supremist” has been corrected to “supremacist.”

I favour accurate transcripts of politicians’ speeches which capture the flavour of the original, including any nods to illiteracy, since these are clues as to how seriously we should regard the politician in question. 😉

Helen Delich Bentley, who in her senior years as a congresswoman had trouble distinguishing between the Gulf Coast and the golf course, being perhaps more familiar with latter than the former.

Donald John Trump, who on occasion may rail against “white supremists,” while at other times appearing to defend them.

Michael Howard

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

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