Tea For The Tillerson – Poison Variety

Pompeo is here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Howard

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

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Trump’s America: Teachers With Guns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Howard

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

* * *

Political Potpourri for Presidents Day 2018

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

Trump’s tweet solution no solution at all

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

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

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

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

Scott Pruitt fires food-taster

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

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

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

Pilot program to swap food stamps for MAGA buckets

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

– Chicken McNuggets*
– MAGA hat
– copy of Hustler

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

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

The Mooch is back, and Cuomo’s got him

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump’s State of the Union

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Howard

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

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Donald Trump’s Fave New Fast Food: The Nothingburger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Howard

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

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Is Donald Trump a Sharkophobe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Van Gogh, but a Golden Toilet

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sidebar: The Origins of Mulligan Stew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Howard

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

Potent Quote:

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

Unexplained Agatha Christie Ear Candy:

* * *


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

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

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

Time to spank the Donald with the 25th Amendment!

Sidebar: Stormy Daniels Joke

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

Michael Howard

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

* * *

Trump’s Mental Fitness: An Expert Opinion

Out of the mouths of babes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Howard

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

Sidebar: Life after the White House

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

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

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

* * *

A River of Gratitude

The story of how one simple gift changed everything between Donald Trump and China’s President Xi

President Trump recently returned from a relatively successful visit to Asia — measured on a bell curve where managing not to vomit on the Japanese Prime Minister and not to start World War III are considered successes. There were few substantial gains or diplomatic breakthroughs, but no mega-gaffs either. (Possibly a few dead fish in the koi pond at Akasaka Palace, but for Trump that is coals to Newcastle.)

What should we make of the visit? On the one hand, they say travel broadens the mind. On the other hand, Japanese zen has the concept of no-mind. If Trump had no-mind to begin with, then maybe the trip didn’t broaden anything (except perhaps the national debt). Or maybe Trump’s version is “I no mind if you flatter me to pieces.”

They say there’s honour among thieves. Politicians? Not so much so. That’s why at the ASEAN summit held on November 13, Trump participated in a complicated form of handshake designed to prevent the motley collection of leaders from picking each other’s pockets while on stage together.

The ASEAN summit, and a handshake instead of a kiss.

Trump reportedly signed up for an event billed as “The Spilla in Manilla,” but chickened out when he heard his hotel room was bugged. Clad in a Barong at one point, he was mistaken for a waiter and forced to return the tips he collected from other waiters’ stations.

Trump and Duterte: Two Barongs don’t make a right (or Human Rights)

The most notable feature of the trip was the turnaround in how Trump regarded China and its newly annointed strongman President Xi Jingping. During his 2016 campaign, Trump spoke harsh words about China, accusing the nation of rapacious trade policies and vowing revenge. But after being fêted in the Forbidden City and treated to a military parade, Trump began to thaw slightly.

By the end of his China visit, Trump was singing a different tune entirely. What prompted this miraculous turnaround? It’s almost like he was ready to start passing out little red hats saying Make America Xi Again. (Not to be confused with the motto of the Ex-Lax company, which is Make America Shi– well, better not go there.) But seriously, what spurred the change?

The Chinese are gracious hosts and masters of the ceremonial, so it stands to reason that President Xi could locate just the right gift that would soften up Trump and appeal to his particular interests and proclivities. It was an audio CD that reportedly did the trick:

So next time you have a tiff with a friend (or even a head of state), think how some little gift, carefully selected, can open the floodgates of forgiveness and lead to a river of gratitude.

Michael Howard

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

* * *

Of Goobers and Gobbers

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

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

Mr. Peanut, the original “goobernatorial” candidate

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

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

— James Herriot, from All Creatures Great and Small

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

Gobber Newhouse played by Ivor Salter

* * *

Breaking: Trump Opens New Golf Course on Indian Land

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

Full comedy album here.

More About The Firesign Theatre

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

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

* * *

Of Senators and Playmates

Weighing in on the Al Franken/Leeann Tweeden blowup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Emily Douglas, senior editor at The Nation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to FastDate.com, which publishes a larger version of this photo of Tweeden, she’s a former FastDate “Calendar Kitten” who “has her own website with a sexy Members Corner showing more hot shots like the one above.” http://www.fastdates.com/PitLaneNews2006.05.03.HTM

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

Leeann Tweeden – lingerie shoot (thumbnail)

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Father’s Journey, A Daughter’s Love

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

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

Definitely a light-bulb moment! 😉

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Cathy Young

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

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

Michael Howard

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

* * *

Schiller’s Ode To Trump (rude song parody)

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

Schiller’s Ode To Trump (libretto)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Michael Howard

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

Ruminations on Trump’s Visit to Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outsized American politicians and Japanese monsters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No Gate” philosophy and the Heart Sutra

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

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

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

The Heart Sutra in Mandarin:

The Heart Sutra in Tibetan:

The Heart Sutra in Sanskrit (1):

The Heart Sutra in Sanskrit (2):

The Heart Sutra in Japanese (1):

The Heart Sutra in Japanese (2):

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

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

Michael Howard

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

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

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”

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.