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gratitude to Barack Obama, I confess that I feel some fear for the future, as if a benign presence were being withdrawn.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”

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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.

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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What Donald Trump could learn from the Blues Brothers

(UPDATED!) Recent events in Charlottesville raise the old question of whether life should be taken seriously. Sometimes it’s so painful and sad that it has to be taken seriously; but paradoxically, this calls forth the opposite thesis: that life is cosmically funny and can’t be taken seriously. Science fiction author Robert Heinlein, writing about his character Jubal Harshaw, said:

He had long ago made a pact with himself to postulate a Created Universe on even-numbered days, a tail-swallowing eternal-and-uncreated Universe on odd-numbered days — since each hypothesis, while equally paradoxical, neatly avoided the paradoxes of the other — with, of course, a day off each leap year for sheer solipsist debauchery.

The debauchery might not be such a good idea, but there’s something to be said for taking life as seriously as you can, with occasional time out to laugh at its absurdities. As I’ve noted elsewhere, humour is helpful for relieving outrage fatigue.

There’s also some weird variation on George Santayana going on here, like “Those who fail to study the Blues Brothers are doomed to repeat them.” The Nazis and anti-Nazis who clashed in Charlottesville over the weekend could have saved themselves a lot of trouble by simply watching this clip:

That said, how hard would it be for Donald Trump to say “I hate Charlottesville Nazis” or “I disavow myself from Charlottesville Nazis”? Why can’t he bring himself to do it? Why does he have such a tin ear at moments when the nation is outraged or grieving, and needs words well spoken and deeply felt by a wise leader to calm the waters? Sadly, Donald Trump is not wise or well-spoken, does not seem to feel deeply about issues affecting millions of Americans, and his EPA is more likely to poison the waters than to calm them. In a recent op-ed, Michael Winship called him “emotionally challenged and empathy-free.”

In between teeing off and praising the Veterans Tapdance Administration, Trump woodenly delivered an equivocal statement on Saturday — a statement that pleased no one except Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Charlottesville Nazis.

Adding to the weekend’s insanity was the kickoff of Anthony Scaramucci’s rehab tour — far, far too soon in my opinion. It’s like the guy who just vomited on your shoes calling you up the very next night and asking you to a French restaurant where they serve frogs’ legs in cream sauce. Let me at least forget the smell of your vomit before you once again try to ingratiate yourself. (Channeling Trevor Noah here.)

Ah, the times we live in! If Scaramucci felt even an ounce of genuine contrition, he would have taken a long vacation from public life, and spent the time cleaning outhouses or performing other works of public benefit. Instead, we’re treated to 15 minutes of his ugly mug on This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

It is to weep — or laugh.

Michael Howard

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

Note: I’m using “Charlottesville Nazis” as a catch-all term here. Word is, most of the Nazis who demonstrated in Charlottesville came from out of town. Charlottesville has a reputation as a liberal college town with a diverse population and a welcoming atmosphere.


UPDATE: CNN analysis of Trump’s latest (August 15) statement about Charlottesville, where he aggressively defends the alt-right. At 10:55 in the video, Van Jones breaks down in tears thinking of his Jewish godmother.

In comparison to Trump’s tin ear, former President Obama tweeted this sentiment drawn from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk To Freedom:

The full quote is:

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

Nelson Mandela

This reminds me of another of Mandela’s sayings, which Sri Chinmoy set to music:

I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom.

One of the problems with Trump’s claim of moral equivalency between the two sides in Charlottesville is that the white supremacists and neo-Nazis seem very comfortable with a world where there’s slavery, fascism, and open carry of firearms, while the counter-demonstrators generally favour more freedom and less guns. They also managed not to commit vehicular womanslaughter.

Of Further Interest

Gratitude to President Obama
Thought of the Day: People Are Good
People Are Good Everywhere

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Guamanians! Test your civil defense knowledge

Boning up on essential skills for coping with nuclear Armageddon

With the recent dramatic lack of brinksmanship by the Donald, people of Guam have needed a refresher course on what to do in case of nuclear attack. But have government brochures really provided adequate information?

The following video offers a quick drill on essential aspects of civil defense, with multiple choice questions designed to test your knowledge. Example:

How do you protect yourself from fallout?

A. Hide in the basement until it goes away.
B. Wear protective rubber underwear, and simply brush yourself off at the end of the day.
C. Run naked through a field of sorghum.

After viewing the video, you should at least be able to answer this question: What is the most practical thing you can do in the event of a total thermonuclear war?

Sidebar: Guam facts

Guam is not a state, but a U.S. protectorate. As such, it sends one delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. The current delegate is Rep. Madeleine Bordallo, but according to tourists she’s not the only Bordallo in Guam. More Guam facts from The Colbert Report: Better Know a Protectorate. More Mystery Science Theater 3000: Rocket Attack U.S.A. on YouTube.

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Doctor Who: Tom Baker and Sophie Aldred Interview (rare)

Here’s a very entertaining interview with Tom Baker and Sophie Aldred of Doctor Who fame (the classic period). Baker’s at his best here, given enough room to expand upon his tallish stories, but not overstepping the bounds of good taste. Sophie counterbalances him nicely with some lovely stories of her own, as they appear together on a pledge drive for Maryland Public Television broadcast in 1990.

I suppose the reason I wanted to post this now is that with the Trump administration occupying so much of the communications bandwidth in American life, we forget that actors and artists express themselves so much more gracefully. The president and his spokespeople regularly abuse the English language (arrivederci Scaramucci), so it makes a nice change of pace to listen to people who can put together sentences with intelligence, grace, and wit.

Tom Baker is especially good at spinning yarns with an improvisatory air, but occasionally landing on a serious point. Still, the atmosphere is light, and the paper plates stuck hastily to the studio walls in fond emulation of the old TARDIS set help ensure that we’re never far from a giggle.

You get an hour’s worth here, but I may post the final 15 minutes elsewhere. In those final minutes, when asked to deliver a soliloquy on the need to support public television, Baker goes over the top in reviling non-contributors as “parasites,” repeating and embellishing with a vengeance previously reserved only for Daleks! This is amusing in light of the fact that abolishing funding for public TV is one of the Trump administration’s avowed policy objectives. 😉

Michael Howard

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

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Anthony Scaramucci: First Day Report Card

Comparing Scaramucci to departing Sean Spicer on criteria like the Hostage Video Factor, Sphincter Rating, Comic Potential, Effusiveness, and Hair Helmetry…

Up and down this nation of joy, this nation of plenty, there is visible mourning going on. Whether on park benches in the humblest of burgs, or the gold and cocaine flecked halls of Hollywood production studios, comedians of various ranks and strata are crying into their sleeves, donning black fedoras, and dolefully humming the tune from Chopin’s Funeral March. Spicey is gone.

The incoming Anthony Scaramucci had a good first day by (admittedly low) Trump administration standards. No post press conference surgery was required to remove foot from mouth. He did not offend Holocaust victims or misrepresent easily checkable facts in an obvious way. While fencing with reporters, he maintained something passing for a sense of humor, and did not become peevish or petulant. He did not hand late night comedians material on a silver platter as his predecessor did; instead they’ll have to dig for it.

This brings us to the first of our comparison criteria: the hair helmet. I have to admit right off the bat that Anthony Scaramucci has a better hair helmet than Sean Spicer. For those unfamiliar with this fashion staple, here are a few examples beginning in the 1950s:

Ex. 1: The classic hair helmet sported by Lloyd Bridges in the 1950 sci-fi extravaganza Rocketship X-M

Ex. 2: The modern variant embraced by Anthony Scaramucci

Ex. 3: The hair helmet worn by Eddie Munster in The Munsters

Ex. 4: The Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri hair helmet from The Sopranos. (The addition of “wings” does not actually result in flight.)

Ex. 5: Leona “Pistachios” Helmsley was one of the helmet’s few female proponents.

Ex. 6: Barack Obama experimented briefly with the hair helmet, but found it too unwieldy.

Having a hair helmet held in place by a combination of Dippity-Do and Plaster of Paris is clearly an advantage for any incoming communications wonk (or even Chief of Staff), so we have to give Scaramucci the edge here. But how will he fare on the Hostage Video Factor? This is defined as the extent to which a spokesperson for the president looks like they’ve had a gun put to their head and been forced to mouth words praising their captors for their kindness and good treatment, while all the while their eyelids are blinking in Morse code: “HELP ME! I DON’T WANT TO BE SAYING THIS. THEY MADE ME!”

Spicer was, of course, a passed master at this. Armed with a flotilla of alternative facts and a hornet’s nest of moxie, he would grit his teeth and try to defend the indefensible, but you could often tell his heart wasn’t in it. In his waning days, he would fall back on the boilerplate response that “The president’s tweet speaks for itself,” which was really his way of saying “The president’s tweet was so insane, counterfactual, and off-the-wall that I won’t even bother trying to defend it.” By contrast, Anthony Scaramucci is a slick salesman. He rates no better than zero on the Hostage Video Factor because he actually enjoys retailing Donald Trump as World’s Greatest Statesman to a gullible public.

This brings us logically to the Effusiveness Factor. Sean Spicer was rarely effusive in his defense of Trump, but rather adopted the manner of a grim Republican institutionalist. To Spicer, Donald Trump was the latest product churned out bearing the Republican brand, and therefore had to be defended for the sake of the party. Picture a customer service rep who tries to tell people complaining about a mail-order pain reduction gizmo which actually electrocutes them that “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!” That’s Sean Spicer, but to his credit he did it mechanically and joylessly, with little effusiveness and quite a bit of bumbling.

On the other hand, Anthony Scaramucci is the guy who tells you: “What you’re feeling isn’t really lethal electricity coursing through your veins, it’s joy. I love this product, I love this brand, I love Donald Trump, I love the team. I love Junior Mints, they’re so refreshing!” (Then he blows you a kiss.)

Scaramucci’s “love” for Donald Trump is love for a product successfully marketed using discreditable techniques — a product which may be hazardous to your healthcare and comes with a long list of side effects, such as burgeoning cynicism that American democracy can really work, that it won’t crash-and-burn while aping reality TV.

Love is a profound spiritual emotion. When it’s wasted on things undeserving of love, this tends to cheapen life and discourse. Despite his riches, Scaramucci (or “The Mooch” as he’s known on The Street) is a cheap money man on the make for political power. He’s so childishly enamored of that power, it comes naturally to him to make gushingly absurd, over-the-top statements deifying the object of his affections (whom he previously scorned). The Mooch is by nature a fawning flatterer of This Year’s Princeling, ready to trumpet tiny hands as gargantuan mitts, and to rewrite history favouring the Monarch.

When it comes to Comic Potential, Sean Spicer rates a perfect 10 for reasons that have become all too obvious. (If anyone’s memory is flagging, just look to the Beeb’s “Best Sean Spicer memes and ‘facts’.”) Spicer was the teacher you loved to sass because you knew how easy it was to rile him, and it was worth being sent to detention just to see him throw one of his hissy fits. “Don’t you dare shake your head at me, young lady!”

Whereas, Scaramucci — despite his monolithic hair helmet and effusive praise of All Things Trump — only rates about a 3 for Comic Potential. He’s a skilled manipulator who knows how to inoculate his presentations with dashes of humor so that they don’t seem quite so outlandish; and like a good knuckleballer, he knows how to change speeds and mix in different kinds of junk to keep reporters off-stride. Though he doesn’t hail from Hollywood (but rather Wall Street), he epitomizes the maxim that “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.”

One might liken Scaramucci’s use of Trump to the old Wall Street pump-and-dump scheme. Right now the Mooch is pumping Trump like a biomed stock that just went public, but it’s easy to picture him dumping Trump, timing the moment to a nicety so as to position himself as one of the rubes who was fooled by the gaudy patter, rather than one of its purveyors. “Oh how it pains my heart to have to say this,” Scaramucci might opine at some future date (next Sunday A.D.?), “but it appears the man I believed in so deeply secretly colluded with the Russians. I want to prove to you that I’m honest in the worst way. So even after the impeachment, as a patriotic American I plan to stay on and help our great new president develop the trust of the American people, which he so richly deserves…”

This brings us to the Repulsiveness Factor. Sean Spicer was frequently irritating, but never repulsive. People sometimes felt a little sorry for him because, through whatever vicissitudes of life, he became the guy whose job it was to put lipstick on a pig day after day. You could feel sorry for Spicey the way you felt sorry for Rhoda Morgenstern because her job was dressing department store dummies.

But for those who see through his charm and feelgood manner, Anthony Scaramucci is not a sympathetic figure. When we hear him claim that Donald Trump has “good karma,” we instinctively want to throw up. Obviously, Trump has bad karma for acting like a creep in myriad areas of life, up to and including an election campaign which he won through dirty tricks and low rhetoric, ultimately becoming the poster boy for the Ugly American. Indeed, writing in the Guardian, comedian Frankie Boyle refers to Trump as “a man so obnoxious that karma may see him reincarnated as himself.”

Seriously, between Scaramucci and Trump, you could make the world’s biggest fluffernutter, with Ivanka supplying the white bread (using peroxide as needed, if Kellyanne hasn’t bogarted it all).

Though Sean Spicer’s college nickname was “Sean Sphincter,” to me Anthony Scaramucci moves in wider circles. 😉

Regardless of political persuasion, one thing we can probably all agree on: When it comes to Donald Trump’s new wartime consigliere, there’s a lot to unpack — especially above the scalp.

Michael Howard

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


Sidebar: Is Scaramucci Trump’s Mini-Me? Let’s consult The Daily Show

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Two AHCA Memes: Mystery Meat and Dead Parrot

Everybody knows what the AHCA is: the American Health Care Act — but nobody knows what’s in it. That’s because like the famed “Her Majesty” from the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, it “changes from day to day.” Which AHCA are we discussing, the one that kicks 23 million people off their health care, the one that kicks 30 million people off their health care, or some as yet undisclosed variant whose spores are still being nourished in the bowels of White Male Senate reality?

Getting hooked up with the AHCA is like dealing with one of those Internet firms that changes its terms of service with each passing morn. Sure, you read the terms and conditions when you first signed up, but since then there have been 57 policy updates, and you barely blink an eye when you learn that you’ve agreed (by not opting out before last Tuesday) to turn over your first-born child, or have any legal dispute resolved in the jurisdiction of Tanginiqua.

The AHCA is mystery meat. What is mystery meat? Imagine you’re sitting in the school cafeteria, munching on some orangey-green, vaguely pastalike concoction in which bits of something meatlike surface now and then. Having been run through both the Deflavourizer and the Blandifier, this concoction as a whole cannot be identified by taste, no less its constituent ingredients. So you’re left to guess about the meat. It could be hog testicles and chicken bladders mixed with hyrdrolyzed plant protein, or it could be Stewie — that fat kid who was sent to detention Never To Return.

The AHCA is, thankfully, moribund — a fancy word for “almost dead.” Yet, Senate leader Mitch McConnell (a.k.a. “Mitch The Rooster”) continues to pretend that it lives on. This calls forth the famed dead parrot meme from the Monty Python sketch:

MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt: Leader McConnell, is the AHCA dead?

McConnell: Why no, it’s only pining. Pining for the fjords. Beautiful plumage, the American Health Care Act.

We can only hope, in the argot of Monty Python, that this is an ex-health care bill.

BREAKING NEWS: Donald Trump has just appointed Phil Niekro as the head of the Knuckleball Integrity Council. Mr. Niekro’s job will be to ensure that no knuckleballers load up the ball with vaseline, or use a concealed nail file to scratch it up so that it moves erratically.

In the same news dump, the Trump administration announced the appointment of Roger Delgado to head up the Doctor Who Regeneration Board. Also known as “The Master,” Delgado’s job will be to ensure that all future Doctor Who regenerations go as smoothly as possible.

Both Niekro and Delgado are expected to perform admirably, notwithstanding their decease.

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Trump: Preview to Paris Accord Announcement (humor)

I think Trump’s announcement might go something like this…

Donald Trump: I’ve got some bad news and some good news. The bad news for all you liberals who believe in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and Global Warming is that I’m pulling out of the Paris Accord. The good news is that to soften the blow, I’m doing my Maurice Chevalier impression:

Donald Trump [singing]: Thank heaven for leetle girls, for leetle girls get bigger every day! Thank heaven for leetle girls, they grow up in the most delightful way!

Donald Trump: Continuing on with my medley of Parisian hits, here’s one of my favorites, and I hope it’s one of yours:

Donald Trump [singing]: I love Paris in the springtime, I love Paris in the fall. I love Paris, I love Paris, but climate change is no threat at all.

Andrea Mitchell: Mr. President, Mr. President! If I shoved a hot poker up your shorts, would you answer a question on Russia?

Donald Trump: I don’t want to get into a whole covfefe about Russia. The lawyers are handling that.

Andrea Mitchell: Mr. President, some people are saying that “covfefe” is a fake word. But yesterday Sean Spicer told reporters that you and a small group of people know exactly what it means. Mr. President, what’s a covfefe?

Donald Trump: Covfefe is a Cartman toe word, like on South Park. On a hot day, it can refer to the weather. In a Chinese restaurant, it can refer to the kung pao chicken. In a Miss Universe contest…

Andrea Mitchell: Mr. President, in pulling out of the Paris Accord, aren’t you afraid of causing a covfefe on a global scale?

Donald Trump: There’s a lot scientists still don’t know. In the meantime, I’m more concerned about causing a covfefe here at home. With the coal miners. They voted for me, and I promised to look out for their interests. That’s why we’re building a wall, to keep out the covfefe.

Andrea Mitchell: Mr. President, in the budget reconciliation, Congress only approved funding for some steel wool and a Keep Out sign. How effective is that likely to be?

Donald Trump: That was the 2017 budget. In 2018, there will be bigly appropriations for the wall, beautiful appropriations. Meanwhile, I’ll be negotiating with Mexico to get them to reimburse us for the wall. Otherwise, they’ll have a huge covfefe on their hands.

Andrea Mitchell: What do you say to those who claim that by reneging on the climate deal, America is renouncing its leadership in the world?

Donald Trump: I believe very firmly in American leadership. When it comes to climate change, America is at the front of the bus, while Europe, Asia, and Africa are at the back of the bus. Because we’re at the front of the bus, we’re in a position to get off first, because the bus is headed in the wrong direction.

Andrea Mitchell: Mr. President, in the course of reaching your decision on the Paris Accord, did you have occasion to study the conclusions reached by climatologists?

Donald Trump: Skin has nothing to do with it! Besides, I don’t have time to do a lot of heavy reading — I delegate. My staff put some information about climate change on flash cards, and I distinctly remember that climate change = Fake News.

Andrea Mitchell: Thank you, Mr. President. I’m sure we can all breathe easier knowing that you reached an informed decision.

Michael Howard

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

Of Further Interest

Maurice Chevalier sings “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”:

The Twilight Zone TOS: “Midnight Sun” clip with new music by Captain January:

* * *

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The re-enacted scene from Z

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

Another pietà, this one courtesy Doctor Who.

The best-known pietà, by Michelangelo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can view the complete film in many places, including Amazon Prime and Netflix rental.

Michael Howard

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


Sidebar: More Z Apocrypha

Costa-Gavras on Z (brief WNYC interview)

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

Z, The Novel

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

Z, the novel, front cover

Z, the novel, back cover

(Definitely a bargain at 95 cents.)

CROC vs. KROC

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

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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

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

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

This is not just movie trivia, but reveals the visual language used by the filmmaker to talk about peace vs. violence. Costa-Gavras is making a dark joke which we won’t get unless we identify the movie poster and know what critics said about the film.

* * *

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

Top 15 alternative interpretations

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

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

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

Lucy and Ricky Ricardo: the only victims were TV viewers

Lucy and Ricky Ricardo: the only victims were TV viewers

Sidebar: Trump administration accused of trademark infringement

Dear President Trump:

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

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

Respectfully,

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

 

Dear Mr. Culpepper:

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

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

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

Your truly,

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III
Attorney General of the United States


Michael Howard

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

A Trump Joke for UK Readers

donald-trump-queen-elizabeth-ii-funny

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

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

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

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

Michael Howard

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

* * *

In Praise of a Free Press and an Open Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her Blooming Cheek…

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

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

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

Or these:

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

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

Or these:

The sun himself loses his countenance
Before her blooming cheek…

— Christian Dietrich Grabbe, from Cinderella (Aschenbrödel)

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

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

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

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

Bully Pulpit

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

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

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

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

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

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

trump_tweet_enemy_people_revised

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

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

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

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

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

The Fourth Estate

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

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

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


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

Power Center

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

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

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

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

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

— Toby Ziegler

The Mainstream Media: Not All Sweetness and Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Checks and Balances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#ImWithKaty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Of Further Interest

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

* * *

Remembering Teddy Roosevelt in the Era of Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joke of the Day

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

Of Further Interest

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

* * *

People Are Good Everywhere

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

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

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

For American 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Further Interest

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

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Donald Trump: Latest Parody Pic

Viewing the pic and discussing some Photoshop techniques

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

Donald Trump – The Twelve Days of Trumpster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defringe Your Cat

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