Monday, December 17, 2012

The True Meaning

Monrovia, California

Monday, December 17, 2012

I save the Christmas cards I get in the mail from the many charities that send me solicitations for donations.  They begin to dribble in a little at a time during the fall—diabetes Christmas cards, Alzheimer’s Christmas cards, cystic fibrosis Christmas cards, you name it.  If there’s a disease or a cause, and they send me cards, I keep them.  Then when it’s time to send them out I grab the wad of them I’ve been saving and pick out the least religious and kitschy of them, try to find matching envelopes, and voila, I’ve got my cards.  I try to choose my cards carefully from among this collection.  I get lots of cards because I give to a lot of causes.  They want me to give more, so they send me stuff relentlessly, which I really don’t think is the best use of their money.  I don’t want them to spend it on Christmas cards and return address labels and wrapping paper, all of which I could get at the dollar store.  I want them to use the money to cure the damned diseases.  And make it snappy on the Alzheimer’s, if you know what I mean.  The whole point of giving to a cause is undercut if you expect some little token of appreciation in return.  But they’ve probably done cost benefit analyses and determined that this is the way to go in order to maximize their return.  Induce a sense of obligation in advance and you’ll get a better response.  At least I hope they’ve done that, even though it’s wasted on me.  

Speaking of Christmas cards, the other day I noticed one sitting on the table—not one I got from a charity, but one that came in the mail from someone.  It wasn’t for me, and I glanced at it quickly and it looked religious, sort of Silent Nightish, and that’s about all that registered in my mind at that moment.  Then a day or two later I was walking by the card, and I took a closer look and did a double take.  On the front in a manger was the baby Jesus, a pale halo over his little head.  Kneeling at the foot of the manger, over on the right side of the picture, was Santa Claus, his wispy white hair sort of tousled, his nose and cheeks red, looking for all the world like a repentant wino.  He was holding his silly red elf hat between his mittened hands.  No other humans in the picture—no Mary, no Joseph, no shepherds or wise men, just a couple of sheep, a donkey, and a lop-eared goat, all minding their own business and oblivious to the breathtaking sacredness of it all.  Up in the sky in the center of the picture was the bright star that must have led old Saint Nick to the place where the holy child was holed up.  Inside the card it said “Knowing the true meaning of Christmas blesses us all.”  

Still it took some time to register.  Then it hit me.  Santa Claus and the baby Jesus, appearing on the same stage?  What the hell is going on here?  This wasn't something out of South Park, this was meant as a serious card from, I think, a seriously religious person.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been of the school that believes in keeping the “O Little Town of Bethlehem” stuff separate from the “Ho Ho Ho” stuff.  Call me a segregationist, a strict constructionist, or a believer in the separation of silliness from nonsense.  Oh, I know St. Nicholas is a saint of the Catholic Church.  At least he was until he got demoted a few popes ago, along with St. Christopher and St. George the dragon slayer.  He was the patron saint of thieves, sailors, children, and hookers, to name a few.  A versatile guy.  So there’s at least a tenuous connection between the jolly old elf and the Christ child.  

There are layers of meaning here.  You could look at the picture and conclude that Santa and the baby Jesus are engaged in a sort of private audience, like when the pope meets with a world leader.  The parents and the shepherds and wise men were asked to leave the room for a moment while these two ultimate icons of Christmas communed with one another.  Maybe the animals were asked to leave too, but they refused, since it was, after all, their house.  It’s a wonderful nod from the crass and sentimental side of the holiday in the direction of the sacred side.  The real question is which side is which? 

When I was a kid I did not believe in Santa Claus, as far as I can remember.  Not for a minute.  First off, we had no fireplace.  Our chimney came straight out of the oil-burning furnace in the basement and up through the middle of the house, so that part of the story didn’t resonate.  Secondly, and more importantly, my mother really couldn’t let me believe in Santa, not that I probably would have anyway.  This old guy playing Santa would come to our front door on Christmas Eve, but she was always careful to tell me it was really only Mr. Aderholt from down on Dixie Highway dressed as Santa.  His motive of course was kindly and good—to bring joy to little children.  But let’s examine my mother’s motive for a moment.  The reason she told me the true identity of the guy wearing the Santa Claus outfit was not in case I might accidentally recognize Mr. Aderholt and then became disillusioned about the existence of Santa.  Oh no.  She told me so it would be clear, without her ever having to say it in so many words, that there wasn’t a real Santa Claus, only people who dressed as Santa, the way one might dress as Superman for Halloween or as a big stupid rabbit for Easter.  Sooner or later I would have figured this out on my own, but she was taking no chances.  Still, I had to clean up my toys to get ready, or Santa, a/k/a Mr. Aderholt, wouldn’t come.  And I did want him to come, in spite of it all.

My mother was not a killjoy.  (Well, yes she sort of was, in general, but she didn't mean to be.)  The point she was at pains to make was that Christmas was not about Santa Claus, but rather about the birth of Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, who descended into Hell and on the third day rose again from the dead, ascended into Heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead, etc.

But mom was too clever by half, and it backfired on her, or on me, depending on how you want to look at it.  I mean, you tell me—how realistic is it that you can tell a little kid there’s no such thing as Santa Claus but succeed in getting him to believe that the story of the Virgin birth and all the rest of the song and dance that goes along with that is a more probable version of reality?  The well was well and truly poisoned, and I never believed in any of it.  I was presented with a choice between two equally absurd ideas, both of which required the suspension of belief in all the observable rules of physical reality, and was told that one of them was wrong.  Was I supposed to then opt for the second one, or instead to adopt the logic that had led me to reject the first one?  At least I was spared the pain of disillusionment on both fronts.  It am still amazed when I  hear from adults about the moment they first realized there was no Santa Claus, because I can’t imagine anyone having believed in the first place. 

What my mom did wasn’t so bad, of course.  The majority of people all over the world choose one kind of mumbo jumbo over another.  Maybe I would have been a skeptic and nonbeliever no matter what, always looking for life’s little logical inconsistencies.  Like why they never sell the same number of hot dog buns in a package as the number of hot dogs in a package.  Or how it is that if Johnny Cash shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, he’s now doing time in Folsom Prison in California, instead of in some correctional facility in Nevada.  Where’s the sense in that?  Even if he fled across the state line, you'd think they would have extradited him.  California has more than enough inmates already.

So, I shouldn’t give a damn one way or the other, but the mixing of Santa Claus and Jesus in one picture still seems to me like a sort of unholy mismatch.  What makes it unholy, I’m not sure.  Who sullies whose image?  The kneeling Santa appears to be worshiping the infant Savior, but maybe Kris Kringle’s the one in charge, offering yet another nifty gift to the world, something he pulled out of his bulging sack.  The anachronism of it suggests the ability of Santa to go back in time, in addition to his other super powers, like being able to ride a sleigh through the air and visit every good boy and girl all in one night.  Meanwhile the baby Jesus is just lying there with a halo on his head, stuck in his time and place, in the middle of a bunch of smelly animals, doomed to a dusty Middle Eastern life and an ignominious tortured death.  Who has the upper hand here?  Santa, you figure, after paying the proper obeisance or whatever, will be able to hop into his sleigh and have Rudolph guide him back to the 21st century in time to do his thing on Christmas Eve.  When or if Jesus will come again is anybody’s guess, but Santa Claus can be counted on to deliver the goods each and every year.

Now you tell me.  Who should be worshiping whom?  

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Backstretch

Monrovia, California

Friday, December 7, 2012

Things can degenerate to the point of meaninglessness, or at least irrelevance, or at a minimum triviality.  This blog posting will be about my blog postings…again.  But I don’t do this for nothing, folks.  I do it for you, potential bloggers all, to help you understand what it is I don’t understand about the complexity of the nature and depth of blogging.

In the Northeast they use this phrase “Not for nothin’,” which as a sentence opener means something like, “By the way, no offense . . . .”  And like the term "no offense," it is often followed by something more or less offensive.  Picture a guy in a black banlon shirt, sans-a-belt pants, and razor-cut hair putting his hairy arm around you and saying, while idly scratching his crotch, “Not for nothin’, but when are you gonna quit writin’ that friggin’ blog?”  The use of this term is particularly prevalent in New York City, Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut.  

So, not for nothin', but I get curious about who reads the blog, and why.  Each day, give or take, I check on my blog manager site,, to see whether anyone has commented and also which postings have been read lately.  There’s a “stats” option indicating how many people (if any) are visiting the blog at that moment, and how many have done so during the past day, week, month, and all time (which for my blog is a little over three years).  It also lists the top eight or ten individual postings that have been viewed and the number of visits to them, in descending order, during each of those time periods. 
As of now, the top five postings people have read all-time, or at least looked at, have been these:

The Naked Book Guy—January 12, 2011
An Orderly Lynching—December 8, 2010
Enter Rest Pray—January 9, 2011
The Black Death—June 18, 2012
Nixon Gratia Nixon—February 18, 2011

Each of them has been viewed well over a hundred times, and the bit on the Naked Book Guy has been visited almost five hundred times.  By comparison, most of my postings are seen a dozen or two times, tops.  And my list of official followers hasn’t grown, since very early on, by “an inch or an ounce,” to borrow a phrase from Yeats’s “Lapus Lazuli.” 

I still have a comparatively dim understanding of how the whole internet thing works, and I’m reasonably sure most folks are right there with me.  Maybe we all need to talk to Al Gore.  For me it’s like air travel—I know the jet engines provide the speed and thrust to get the big aluminum tube off the ground and keep it in the air, but I don’t know a hell of a lot more than that.  For instance, blogwise, I don’t know exactly how it is that people stumble upon some of the postings with the regularity with which they seem to do. True, when you Google “naked book guy” you get a link to my blog right up there among the first few items listed.  That I understand, I guess, because the actual naked book guy, Paul Weiner, is something of a celebrity in western Arizona among the motor home nomad types.  Okay, fine.

Likewise when you Google the precise phrases “an orderly lynching,” “enter rest pray,” and “Nixon Gratia Nixon” you get the links to my blog right there on page one.  The thing is, I don’t know what would possess a person to Google those words in that order in the first place, with no context into which to place them.  But evidently some of them do.  If you Google “Nixon” by itself you don’t get close to the blog; similarly, if you Google just “lynching” or “enter” or “rest” or “pray” you get lots of stuff, but no links to the blog.  And when you Google “the black death” you get lots of stuff about the bubonic plague, but no links to my blog.  I assume that like me, most people don’t go on to the second or third or fifteenth page when they’re doing Google research.  (I realize there’s also the possibility that people are using search methods other than Google, and that they’re getting different results on them.)

In terms of what people put into the line on Google or other search engines in order to reach one of those particular postings, there’s that cliché about how, if you put an infinite number of monkeys in a room with an infinite number of typewriters eventually one of them will write Hamlet.  But aside from being insulting to my audience, known and unknown, it doesn’t quite fit.  The appropriate image here is less that one—about probability juxtaposed with unlimited opportunity—than it is the cliché about finding a needle in a haystack.  It can be done, but the chances of doing it are remote.  Your humble monkey narrator has already written Hamlet, or “An Orderly Lynching,” or whatever.  The better question would be how, if Hamlet had never become one of the greatest pieces drama ever written, people would be able to repeatedly locate its lackluster manuscript in the midst of the welter of yellowing stuff lying around moldering on shelves.  Or why they would even think to do so. 

All this is by way of prelude to a recent phenomenon.  Over the past month or two the posting called “Another Coma” has been getting lots of hits—far more than any other—and is coming up fast on the backstretch to vie with “Nixon Gratia Nixon” for the number five slot.  In the past month it has received 77 hits, and 125 hits total in the just over ten months since it was published on January 27 of this year.  “Another Coma” was one of two items I wrote about the soap opera The Young and the Restless, the first of which was titled “Y&R” and came out the previous November.  That earlier one has received only sixteen hits.  Now, there’s a ton of stuff written almost daily about The Young and the Restless.  If you Google “Y&R” you won’t get any links to my blog.  By the same token, if you Google “Another Coma” you won’t either.  

“Another Coma” was mostly about the character Adam Newman, son of the patriarch Victor Newman, and featured a photo of him (or rather of the actor Michael Muhney, who plays him), which I cribbed from the internet and pasted into the blog.  But Google “Adam Newman” or “Michael Muhney” or just about any combination of words from the posting and you won’t get to “Another Coma.”  If you Google “Peter Teeuwissen Adam Newman” you get there right away, but why on earth would anyone do that?

So here’s my question to anyone out there who might know or have a theory (and I’m going to edit “Another Coma” and pose it there, too):  who are you people who are reading about Adam Newman on my blog, and why?  I know for a fact that Adam has undergone a considerable character transformation since I wrote about him last January, trying to turn over a new leaf after having been blinded and then recovered his sight, and has become a comparatively decent guy.  This makes much of what I said in the piece sort of obsolete.  I haven’t watched the show at all for a month or more, so I don’t know if Adam has been able to continue to sustain his new-found righteousness.  I suppose I should give The Young and the Restless another go, but honestly, it’s an ordeal.  As I said before, it’s always another case of amnesia, another catty cup of coffee, another chance meeting over martinis, another attempt to grab control of a business by people who wouldn’t know an annual report from a pedicure price list.

And of course, another coma.  

Saturday, November 17, 2012


Monrovia, California

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Many of us are decompressing from the long onslaught of political mumbo-jumbo of the past year or so.  It was last fall that the Republicans began their seemingly interminable series of debates that left Mitt Romney (the initial front runner of the bunch and the only one who could possibly have been taken seriously by more than a handful of kooks) as the candidate for the nation’s highest office.  It has always been my contention that the bulk of the “drama” of the long campaign was orchestrated and stage-managed by the media.  Who, back in late 2011, looking at the other links in the chain of fools who contended for the GOP nod—Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and sleazy old Herman Cain—would have bet so much as a nickel on any of them except for Mitt Romney?  He was the perfect guy to represent his party.  Well, almost perfect: if he’d been an Episcopalian instead of a Mormon that might have bought him an extra vote or two, but all things considered his religion (and Obama’s lack of religion) didn’t play much of a role in the outcome.  That, I suppose, is a good thing.  Of course both of them intoned earnestly and ad nauseam what has become our Official National Prayer—“God Bless the United States of America.”  Romney a little less so, because he knew he might draw the harsh light of the press onto himself if he mentioned God too often, due to his outré religious affiliation.  Obama had no such cross to bear, and therefore his profligate use of the Patriotic Benediction was less excusable.

Well, we won’t have Romney to kick around any more, at least not for a few years.  Thank the God Of Our Fathers Who In His Righteous Might Has Made This The Greatest Country In The History Of The Universe for that small favor.  Still, I have one last bone to pick with the Mittmeister, and it has nothing to do with his politics or his religion.  It has to do with his inattention to one of the niceties of the English language.  Evidently they didn’t teach him everything he needed to know at Cranbrook School, or at Stanford, Brigham Young, Harvard, or the Wall Street School of Hard Knocks, about how to navigate the sometimes choppy seas of the rules of usage of our mother tongue.

What I’m referring to with all this circumlocution is a phenomenon I observed during all three of Mitt’s debates with the Once and Future Chief Executive and saw again two or three times in quotes from his postmortem address of a day or two ago, namely, that he consistently says “in regards to” when he should say “in regard to.”  The word “regards” can be used correctly in at least a couple of ways.  One is as the third person singular of the verb “to regard,” meaning to look at something or someone in a certain way.  For example, “Mitt Romney regards 47% of the American people with contempt.”  The other is as a noun that conveys attention or greetings or good feelings to someone or something.  “Give my regards to Broadway,” for instance.  “Regards” is sometimes used alone or together with other words as a valediction in a letter, the way “sincerely yours” is used, e.g., “With warmest regards, Mr. Koch, I remain your humble and obedient servant Mitt Romney.”  One way “regards” must never be used is in place of “regard” in the phrases “in regard to” or “with regard to,” meaning “concerning” or “on the subject of.”  But Mitt uses the word that way consistently and often.  No one is perfect when it comes to the use of the English language but I'm of the school that says, in the words of  the Lord according to St. Luke, "Every one to whom much is given, of him shall much be required."

Perhaps as we go about our business over the next few years we should congratulate ourselves on having chosen the right man for the presidency for an additional reason, one that has nothing to do with the fact that Romney would have represented the most blatant interests of the most wealthy and acquisitive elements of our society and would have led us back down the road to financial ruin, not to mention that he would have ignored the basic needs of the least enfranchised and most deserving of care among us.  We have also rejected a man who uses the English language less correctly than his opponent does.  Oh sure, Obama likes to get a little funky sometimes when he’s pretending to be an authentic black guy, but he does that to humor those descendants of African slaves to whom he is not really related except by marriage and fatherhood, and to show us all what a regular Joe he is.  It's part of his schtick.   However, and more importantly, to my knowledge he has never inadvertently engaged in a glaring error of English grammar or usage.

In the boardrooms and back rooms and hotel ballrooms of the nation, Mitt Romney may continue to say “with regards to” to his sore loser constituents to his heart’s content.  But he won’t ever say it from the presidential podium.  It's a small boon, but sure to be pleasing to schoolmarms and lexicographers everywhere, not to mention my brother the former English professor.  And our mother and father, who would have taken no small satisfaction in Obama's win, for more than just that reason.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Plain English

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Monrovia, California

Barack Obama won on Tuesday, as we knew he would.  Congratulations to the self-serving and self-perpetuating news media for making the outcome look less certain than it always was and creating a little extra drama, even to the point of suggesting that the president’s actions after Hurricane Sandy made the difference.  Everyone should have been aware that Obama had been assured—assured, mind you—of almost the requisite 270 electoral votes from as far back as the end of the summer.  Mitt Romney was assured of just 190 or so.  This means that Romney would have had to pretty much run the table with Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Florida in order to win, whereas Obama would have had to take just a couple of those states.  But the media’s melodramatic sleight of hand made many people lose touch with that reality, proving once again that the purpose of modern television "journalism" is not to report the news but to create it.  At any rate, most of my readers should be, as I am, pleased with the outcome of the election.  And to those who aren’t, as they say in French, tant pis pour vous.

Speaking of foreign phrases, you’ve got to love those Brits.  I read in the LA Times last week that the London-based department store chain Debenham’s has decided to use what it calls “plain English” in their labeling of the dizzying array of cutesy coffee drinks available at their outlets.  They don’t need no stinking Eye-talian terms to describe their java, so they’ve gone to straight-from-the-shoulder names for the various sizes and flavors of coffee drinks they serve.  A cappuccino is now called “frothy coffee,” a caffe mocha is “chocolate flavoured coffee,” and an espresso is “a strong shot of coffee.”  Gone are those baffling and completely undescriptive Eurotrash and Starbucks-inspired size labels—tall, grande, and venti—replaced by their sensible English equivalents (which I tend to use in ordering anyway), “small, medium, and large.”  But my favorite piece of Debenham’s newspeak is the anglicized version of caffe latte, which is now called “really really milky coffee.”  Tell it like it is. 

Like the French, the English have always been rather pettish in their attitude toward what they quite rightly consider, from a historical and geographical perspective at least, to be “their” language.  The French accomplish this by insisting that people not presume to try to speak French at all unless they mean business and are willing to speak it pretty much impeccably.  In this regard they are like chefs who would rather serve nothing than to serve poorly-cooked food, even to those who are starving, an attitude also very much in keeping with Gallic sensibilities.  This is fine, really, since most Frenchmen speak passable English, and comparatively few people worldwide speak French.  (It ranks about eighteenth among world languages, while English is fourth, after Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, and Spanish.)  It’s okay that the French would rather speak English to an English speaker, since most native English speakers don’t mind if their language is spoken poorly, incorrectly, or with an outrageous accent, so long as it is intelligible.  Good thing, too, because the majority of Continental speakers of English never manage to master the simple voiced and unvoiced dental fricative consonant sounds (“th” as in “the” and “thing”) which serve more or less as the mainstay of our mother tongue.  (That letter combination occurs 33 times in this paragraph alone.)

The English do not show their conviction of the superiority of their language in the same way the French do.  Instead, they do it by insisting on not using terms they know to be of foreign origin if a sturdy Anglo-Saxon word will do.  There are no “elevators” in the UK, since such a term has an unsavory French or Latinate tang.  Instead, there are “lifts.”  An “exit,” straight from the ancient Roman, must instead be a “way out.”  Even something as basic to American English speakers as “dessert” loses out, due to its pure Frenchness, to the more anachronistic and rather absurd “pudding,” or “pud” for short, even if the dessert isn't pudding at all, but something like ice cream.  But the British don’t stop there.  If indeed they must use a term they know to be of foreign origin, they insist on pronouncing it in as loutishly English a way as possible, just to emphasize their disdain.  Taco and pasta thus become “tack-o” and "passed-uh," and “jaguar” turns into “jagg-u-er.”  But nowhere is the British penchant for anglicizing foreign terms more pronounced than in the way they say the names of countries other than their own.  Nicaragua is “Nick-er-agg-u-er,” for instance.  And when Neville Chamberlain went to visit with Herr Hitler, the subject was not Czechoslovakia but “Check-o-slow-vack-ee-er.”  It’s not that the English possess no ear for foreign languages so much as that they possess no real interest in foreign languages.  

Small wonder, then, that a nascent movement is afoot in London to eliminate such oily southern European nomenclature as “caffe” and “latte” and “cappuccino” and “espresso.”  By contrast, we Americans love to incorporate foreign terms into our vocabulary, especially for food, just as we have traditionally incorporated foreign people into our country, even if we sometimes abuse both the terms and the immigrants.  This may bespeak an unfulfilled wish to be more cosmopolitan and worldly, isolated as we are from the other cultural centers of the world.  Or it might be because the native cuisine of the English, which we brought with us to this continent, is just so awful.  

But the English solution to what they term “coffee confusion” makes me wonder whether we might take a page from our linguistic parent on the other side of the Atlantic, and start to convert foreign terms into things that are a bit more from our own language and more descriptive, to boot.  The ubiquitous “hamburger” is named, correctly or not, for the city of Hamburg, Germany.  Similarly a “frankfurter” and a “wiener” are named after their supposed cities of origin.  Might we not take the liberty of renaming these foods so as to describe them more accurately and to remove their alien taint?  A hamburger could become “a greasy flat round piece of fried ground beef served on a bun,” for instance.  (Hey wait, that might already be a McDonald’s slogan.) A hot dog, or frankfurter, or wiener, could be renamed “a sausage made from something that might be meat.”  Bologna, named after a city in Italy, would be “a thin slice of an even bigger sausage made from something that might be meat.”  Pizza could be “tomato sauce, cheese, and other stuff baked on a round piece of dough.”  Most of the rest of Italian food—things with mysterious names like fettuccine alfredo, spaghetti parmigiana, and mostaccioli carbonara—could be summed up as “noodles with sauce.”  The majority of Mexican food items—tortillas, quesadillas, burritos, enchiladas—could be called “rice, beans, tomatoes, cheese, peppers, and meat with soft flat bread.”

But why stop with food?  What about the field of politics, since I opened on that subject?  A senator could be renamed “a wealthy person who gets to spend six years between elections doing nothing.”  A congressman could be called “a person who is forced to lie to the public every two years.”  A president, that most august of politicians, could be better termed “a man, usually white, who appears to lead the country.”  The term “presidential election” could be more accurately described as “a contest between two extremely ambitious men to see which one is better at arousing knee-jerk patriotism and making the most absurd promises imaginable.”  The possibilities here are endless, and I must apologize to the memories of the likes of Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain, who would have done a much better job of it.

The truth that the British seem to have lost sight of at Debenham's is that we use the terms we do, whether for coffee drinks or food dishes, not to confuse ourselves but to elevate the ordinary and to infuse it with a sense of the exotic, and perhaps to make it seem to taste better.  From a purely digestive point of view it all goes down the hatch and comes out the other end looking pretty much the same--yellow and brown--whether it’s a grande caffe latte or a medium-sized cup of really really milky coffee; a plate of linguine bolognese or a serving of noodles with ground beef sauce.

As for politics, I think we can agree that it’s pretty much all shit at both ends.  

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Greatest Trick

Friday, October 19, 2012

Monrovia, California

Okay, three debates down and one to go.  Let’s talk about them, in no particular order.  I can tell that I don’t see what most everyone else sees, or at least not through the same lenses.  Except for Tuesday night, when it appeared that Mitt Romney was caught in one glaring factual error and a good bit of attempting to ride roughshod over the moderator, I scored both of the previous debates as ties, not as wins for either side.  And even  in the latest one I wouldn’t say Romney exactly lost, just that Obama managed to look feisty and presidential at the same time.

The thing about debates is that they aren’t intended to bring out the truth, only to test the forensic skills of the adversaries.  Anyone who has been in the debate club in high school—and that includes several of my regular readers—knows that the object of a debate is to win by being more eloquent and mentally nimble than the opponent and invoking more alleged facts.  Numbers, quotes, all that shit, it doesn’t really matter as long as it supports your argument of the moment.  The issue being debated is usually one on which it’s easy to take either position, and good debaters can switch sides pretty much at will.  Debates don’t prove anything except the facility of the debater for fact-drenching combined with the occasional zinger.  Having the last word is important, too, just like being the home team in a baseball game.

A debate in a presidential election year, due to its time constraints, can’t be about the general political philosophy of each man’s party, which is really the issue.  It must, perforce, be about which of the two is quicker on his feet with an argument or a riposte.  Party philosophies are what conventions are for, and what the study of history is for.  Even the most cursory glance at the history of the Republican Party since the middle of the last century by its own actions in Congress and at the executive level will tell you that it has generally been opposed to civil rights, federal regulation of businesses, foreigners, poor people, the protection of the environment, and women and minorities.  It stands for nostalgia and the evocation of an imagined past, and is the party of middle aged and elderly white men who are afraid they have lost, or might lose, something to somebody else.  On the other hand, the Democratic Party (even more so after its crypto-Confederate southern wing left pretty much en masse during the 60s) has been the architect and prime mover of such things as workers’ rights, racial equality and voter rights, the rights of the accused, aid to the poor, aid to students, medical care for the elderly and infirm, the rights of women (with or without husbands), gay rights, environmental protection, and a somewhat graduated income tax.  Not the Republicans, the Democrats, led by FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, and Barack Obama, to the extent they have had like-minded Congresses working with them.  Look at the record.  These things are indisputable.

The Republicans are under the direct control of the wealthiest contingent in the nation, who by themselves don’t have the numbers to get elected.  So they have welcomed into their midst the selfish, the fearful, and the hateful.  I challenge everyone out there who doubts this to look at friends or acquaintances or relatives who are Republicans.  I guarantee you will be looking at persons who think things used to be better in this country than they are now, who feel they are losing what they had to people who are less deserving of it than they are, and who are looking for or have already found somebody, or something, to blame.  There’s a Latin phrase used in the law to aid in statutory construction, noscitur a sociis, which means “it is known by the company it keeps.”  It means you should look at the words and phrases accompanying the word or phrase you’re trying to interpret or construe, and that often will tell you what you need to know.  When you look at the Republican Party you see that the company it keeps consists of the bigoted southern white establishment, religious fundamentalists, northern racists, farmers, hicks, survivalists, and plutocrats.  That is all you need to know.

Debate about that?  Hell no.  You could put Howdy Doody up against Mickey Mouse and I would vote for whichever of them was the Democrat, just because of the political philosophies of the two parties.  (Which is not to say that I’m deeply enamored of the Democrats.  They are, sad to say, also the tools of capitalism, just not in as blatant a way.)

But the debates.  In the first one Obama was criticized for staying too low key.  Romney held his head up high, smirked, and defiantly made shit up as he went along.  “I don’t stand for the things my party stands for, I didn’t say that, I didn’t mean that, and I’m going to do only good things for all Americans.”  Ballsy, and evidently effective, but also untruthful in the extreme.  The fact that Romney’s nose didn’t grow while he was talking was the most amazing thing about that debate.  Obama (certainly not averse to shading facts in his favor and ignoring inconvenient truths) was left to be as dignified as he could without getting too pissed off at his opponent.  Why?  Because he knows and must constantly bear the burden of something many of the rest of us have forgotten in recent years, and that is that nothing is more subliminally scary to the white American public as an Angry Black Man.  It takes us back to our profound national guilt over the issue of slavery, and our collective fear of punishment for that atrocity.  Angry black women we can marginalize and make fun of (black comedians have made fortunes doing this), but an Angry Black Man is just too unsettling.

After the first debate even the screechers on the liberal side, chief among them Chris Matthews, were quick to give the victory to Romney.  Alone among the left-leaning pundits was Al Sharpton (who by the way seems to be getting more wise with every pound he sheds), who in his more intelligent and measured evaluation suggested that some of Romney’s flipflops on the issues in the debate might be used against him.  Sure enough, within a day or two Obama ads highlighting Romney’s reversals and dissembling during the debate began to air.  One reader of body language, trotted out by Anderson Cooper or another of those meat puppets, already has nailed Romney squarely, noting that based on the use of his hands he’s a finger pointer and an excluder.  Which of course makes him a perfect Republican.

That reminds me of something.  Frequently as I work out at my gym I’m watching several large television screens without the benefit of sound.  Occasionally I remember to bring in my earphones, which I can plug into the elliptical trainer machine to obtain the sound feed from one of the five or six channels playing in front of me.  But most of the time I watch in silence.  Maybe because of this I see quite a bit—from Bill O’Reilly prating, mouth agape like some sort of latter-day Mussolini, to the self-righteousness of the hardworking detectives and prosecutors on one of the many doink-doink “Law and Order” reruns, to the action on the playing field of a sporting event.  I’ve come to enjoy the muteness of it all, and have become something of an amateur student of facial expressions, which often are more fleeting than any words can be, but more telling (or so I was told in a book by Malcolm Gladwell).  Anyway, whenever I look at a photo or a shot of Mitt Romney—and I was overwhelmed by this during the first debate when they continually showed the faces of the two candidates side-by-side on a split screen—I see in the man’s eyes and the muscles surrounding them several things that I can’t ignore.  The first is fear.  Just plain stark deer-in-the-headlights terror.  The second is contempt, in the form of condescension.  And the third is simply anger.  When these things are juxtaposed with the man’s painted-on smile, they seem even more prominent, and out of place, than ever.  The old saying is that the eyes are the window to the soul.  If that is so, when I look at Mitt Romney I feel as if I’m looking into an empty space for the soul of a guy who checked his at the door a long time ago—a man furthermore whose own religion, during its comparatively short history, has taught him that you can make things up out of whole cloth and change your mind whenever it’s convenient or expedient to do so.  Obama’s eyes seem full of fervor and sometimes frustration, and occasionally twinkle with humor or self-deprecation, while his rubber-faced “aw-shucks” grin seems to say that he’s trying hard to be patient with all manner of idiocy that surrounds him, but that he believes that what he’s doing is right, even as he’s more than a little upset at his own inability to have accomplished more.  Take a moment to ponder this, won’t you please?  And look at the faces of the men at least as much as you listen to the words they speak.  

The second debate was between the vice presidential candidates.  Journalistic consensus seemed to have given Joe Biden the edge over Paul Ryan in that one.  So everyone said, anyway.  What I saw were a couple of genuine goofballs who couldn’t finish their own sentences.  Even when they weren’t being interrupted by each other they interrupted themselves.  If Biden had referred to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as “Bibi” one more time I would have done an Elvis and shot my television set if there'd been a gun handy.  It was embarrassing, mostly because it’s no secret that Netanyahu and Obama can’t stand each other, and the policies of Israel and the U.S. are at odds in many respects, which is a good thing in my opinion.  That debate worried me more than the other two did, and made me hope that no matter what happens on November 6, there will be nothing more important for either Biden or Ryan to do for the next four years than to preside over the Senate and pine for a good five-cent cigar.

Next Monday we’ll be treated to another of these beauties.  Why the president agreed to do any of this is beyond me.  He could easily have claimed more pressing business and left his opponent to whine about the fact that he wasn’t willing to square off against him.  In hindsight it’s clear that he wouldn’t have lost as many votes among the undecided.

Which brings us to those pesky undecided voters, the ones both the Republicans and Democrats seem to be fighting for.  Who the hell are these people, who honestly don’t know which of the two political parties best represents their interests and aspirations?  I have friends and acquaintances of both political stripes and even though I think the right-wingers are dead wrong I respect the fact that they know their own minds, and will continue to do so until, under my government, they are lined up against the wall and shot, the guns “belching in full-throated affirmation,” to borrow a phrase from a poem by my friend Greg Farnum.

Being undecided is really unforgivable.  If you’re for civil rights and human rights and just about every other right out there excepting maybe the right to bear arms and get rich off the backs of other people, the choice should be easy.  If you’re against sharing anything with anyone else, then the choice should be equally easy.  Who then are these mugwumps who can’t make up their minds?  I’ll tell you who I’m pretty sure they are not.  They’re not women.  People in the news say that Obama and Romney are fighting for women’s votes.  I just can’t see it.  Women have their minds made up in this election.  If they’re religiously or socially conservative they are for Romney and if they’re not they’re for Obama, period.  The undecided are not young people.  Most of them can relate to the inherent hipness of the president, at least compared to his opponent, and the sincerity he projects when he talks to them.  Nor are the undecided African Americans or Latinos.  They’re with Obama pretty heavily, except for the Cubans, who also have their minds made up.  The undecided are, as far as I can tell, middle aged white men.  Less than a century ago that was just about the entire electorate.  Thank God that’s no longer the case, but it’s interesting that this election may hang in the balance awaiting the decision of a handful of mindless tools who used to be among the regular, predictable party stalwarts you could count on to vote one way or the other, depending on their social status.  Today these few undecided guys seem to have lost their ability to identify with their own innate class interests.  Often they’re working stiffs who wish they were millionaires and think that by thinking like millionaires they’ll somehow get there (like the poor saps who take self-help seminars from guys who have made their fortunes taking money from people who think they have to take seminars to get help).  All the while the real millionaires are beckoning them with one arm while laughing up the other sleeve.

I still predict an Obama win on November 6.  The papers are going to make it as much of a cliffhanger as they can until then, but I think he’ll have the electoral votes, at least.  If not, then we will, to evoke the words of The Who, have been fooled again.  It won’t be the first or the last time.  In fact, it might be about the twentieth time, considering that there have been forty-four presidents so far.

If Romney wins, the line that'll fit even better than that of Pete Townshend is from the movie The Usual Suspects, where Kevin Spacey said, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

Monday, October 15, 2012

Smoke Will Be Invented

Monday, October 15, 2012

Monrovia, California

I’m always looking for new readers.  Those of you who are reading—the few, the proud—already know that.

What I have been acquiring, in ever greater numbers, are spam commenters.  My blog managing site selects and assigns to the “spam” category anything it thinks is junk, or is trying to sell me something, or might be dangerous.  It quarantines these things, I guess, based on its innate, if unimaginative, intelligence.  Things that are written in a language other than English evidently get put there automatically, as do any other comments containing web addresses.  These run the gamut from people trying to sell me web hosting products to those selling prescription drugs and various other earthly delights.  It must select, or deselect, them based on whether they have certain symbols in them, like the familiar double forward slash and the “at” symbol--@--now so ubiquitously employed outside of commercial accounting, where it began its humble existence.

There’s one person who has been writing a sort of manifesto (I think) in Polish, and attaching his paragraph-long comments mostly to one my older postings.  At least every week he sends me another little piece.  Occasionally I’ll use the translator feature on the blog to see what he’s saying.  Either because of the bad transliteration of the computer or because he’s crazy, or both, these historical/political ramblings don’t make a lot of sense, but they’re still interesting and sort of entertaining.  I’ll give you a short sample, just so you’ll know what I’m talking about.  Here’s one of the fifty or so of these comments I’ve received since June of this year:

Focus, however, has led canterbury went to the doctor in August dokonstantynopola after the appearance of the dominant place of holy league against the terrible thing too handsome political school. There would be longer and the transitory pleasure trips and sensitivity limbs and causing distortion. I confused Cossack clutching with both hands holding the welcome in our decisions in the intelligence of parents of twins and patriotic ideas. Heard of the upcoming luxury apartment in contact staff of the god from the outside world regarded the enemy carat. Wyrabianej at home was the most faithful and surest National Guard is doing a free gift of Christ is - or I take too little knew. We also require ran to give him a branch of the Wehrmacht, and I had difficulty you will understand me. And smoke will be invented in the nerve cell specialized in their puritanical. Dysforycznosc in adults with first win of the German soldiers as if his name grimaldi wilhelm borsiere.

I’m especially fond of the sentence in there, “And smoke will be invented in the nerve cell specialized in their puritanical.”  It has elements of Dylan Thomas and the Velvet Underground swirling together, helped in its ineffable ungrammaticality by, as I mentioned, the rather clunky way the computer translates.  This is one area where artificial intelligence will not soon replace than of humans, so my cousin Suzanne and her colleagues need not worry.  Notice also the occasional untranslatable word that just hangs on in the original.  I would assign all the blame to the apparent questionable mentality of the writer were it not for the translations I’ve seen elsewhere on the internet, especially on Facebook.  Part of me thinks this commenter is a trapped soul trying to get his word out to the public, and were this the Poland of several decades ago I might think so even more, and might try to help this guy get his message out.  But I’m sure that even where he lives there are cheap, if not free, blogs.  So let him get his own.  In the end I just start getting tired of the comments, and focus again on the other trapped soul trying to get his word out to the public, namely yours truly.  It’s all about me, as my critics are fond of saying.

However, I'm going to set out the passage from above in the original Polish, in case there are any readers out there who are fluent in the language and can tell whether that English translation is any good or not.  I could be missing something great, so here it is:

Skup canterbury doprowadzil jednak do lekarza udali sie dokonstantynopola po pojawieniu sie dominujacego miejsca swietej ligi przeciwko zbyt przystojna rzecza fatalna szkola polityczna. Nie byloby juz i te wycieczki krotkotrwale przyjemnosci i wrazliwosc i powodujac znieksztalcenia konczyn. I skonfundowany kozaczek trzymajac sie oburacz sciskajac serdecznie w naszych decyzjach w zakresie inteligencji rodzicow blizniat oraz patriotycznych idei. Uslyszal zblizajace sie kadry dostawaly luksusowe mieszkania boga od swiata zewnetrznego wroga uwazali carat. Wyrabianej w domu byla najwierniejsza i najpewniejsza gwardia narodowa ma sie bezinteresownym darem chrystusa jest - albo biore za malo znal. Wymaga takze naszej damy pobiegl za nim oddzial wehrmachtu i mialem trudnosci mnie pojmiecie. Bedzie wymyslal i dym w komorce nerwowej wyspecjalizowala sie w ich purytanskim. Dysforycznosc u doroslych z pierwsza wygrana niemieckich zolnierzy z tak wtedy jego nazwisko grimaldi wilhelm borsiere.

Perhaps this spam commenter, who signs only as "Anonymous," would be willing to identify himself.

But there’s been another recent surge of spam comments—a tidal wave, in fact, amounting to several per day.  This probably has much to do with why I’ve had over 21,000 hits on the blog—half of them have been from people trying to sell me something.  My last posting of September 17, “Depression, Anyone?,” apparently triggered a worldwide automatic response, because in addition to the crazed Polish paragraphs, I have now begun to get ads for medications commonly used to treat depression and anxiety, such as Xanax, Ambien, Clonipin, and Valium.  Gone pretty much are the promotions for Viagra and Cialis (usually spelled Vjagra and Cjalis, which is a dead giveaway of their Eastern European origins), and for nubile women for sale, and the like.  I do still get the odd spam comment flattering the posting and then asking me to go to some weirdly inapposite website such as 888 Poker.  But now I’m flooded with helpful suggestions for combating depression, evidently because I used the word in the title of the posting.  At least I hope that was the reason I started getting the ads, and not that I project such profound depression in the blog that it’s impossible to ignore.  In any event, it all puts me in mind of what Jack Nicholson’s character said in As Good As It Gets: “Sell crazy somewhere else, we’re all stocked up here.”

So I know I have readers, even if they are just electronic readers and oddballs from Poland, and even if they don’t really read anything, but instead attach their comments to the back of my blog like little parasitic insects on a bovine.  Real regular readers, on the other hand, are becoming fewer and fewer as time goes on.  The tepid numbers of my following notwithstanding, I think I might still have something to say.  Maybe I’m preaching so directly to the choir these days they’ve given themselves permission to nod off, knowing that when the organist hits the keys for the post-sermon hymn, they’ll wake up sure enough.

As I take stock of things, the blog has 39 official followers.  Two or more of them are dead and another two or three are duplicates, so let’s call it 34.  Of those at least half joined somewhere along the way during my walk and have probably dropped off.  Since preaching is in my blood, and indeed is what I often do in this blog, I imagine myself to be the shepherd of a small congregation, with few members and even fewer regular attendees.  I’m less like Joel Osteen or Creflo Dollar, strutting on the stages of their mega-churches, and more like the curate of a tiny English country church in an Anthony Trollope novel, whose scant parishioners attend more from a sense of obligation than of volition, and mostly only on holidays.

To the faithful I repeat my thanks, and promise to continue preaching regularly.  In fact, tomorrow is another presidential debate, and I will follow it up with a sermon on the race and on debating in general.  Meanwhile, listen for that organist.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Depression, Anyone?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Monrovia, California

Okay, nostalgia in politics, as promised. 

One of the most useful rules in political and social analysis, or in life itself for that matter, is always to question the underlying assumption upon which any argument is based.  That includes, for instance, the so-called “birther” question regarding Barack Obama, which proceeds from the premise that if he wasn’t born in the U.S., he can’t be president.  Not true, as I’ve shown in an earlier posting.

Another assumption that underpins the very foundation of our national identity, on which both parties agree fulsomely, is that the United States is “the Greatest Country in the World.”  There are, I’ll wager, at least a hundred other extant countries that would seriously question that one, yet we persist in it.   We are the noisiest, maybe, but not necessarily the greatest, somewhat like Muhammad Ali in his later boxing years.  But after all, such a claim is more bravado than reality, based on military superiority, at least in terms of the ability to obliterate the earth with nuclear weapons and send warships just about anywhere in no time.  In terms of offering social justice, legal stability, and economic protection to our citizens, as opposed to just the ability to make money hand over fist, we don’t measure up to some of our European friends, not to mention our neighbor to the north.  But then, what country doesn’t like to think its own shit is comparatively odorless? It seems to be inherent in the nature of nationhood.

Yet another assumption, just picking them at random, is that we as a country “must maintain a Strong National Defense.”  This one goes back to the days when we were actually in danger of being attacked and occupied by another country, which was a long time ago.  To be exact, the last time our continental borders were penetrated (unless you count Pancho Villa’s brief foray into a southern New Mexico town in 1916) was two centuries ago, during the War of 1812.  Today, beyond having the technology for the assured destruction of most mammalian life and a world-class arsenal of military and naval hardware in order to slap around those who dare to insult us anywhere in the world, what other national defense do we need, exactly?  Do we have serious military rivals, and if we do, what do we have to fear from them?  Does anyone believe soldiers are going to march over here and kill the goose that lays the worldwide golden egg?  Even those who hark back to the Big One, WWII, must know that it wasn’t so much for ourselves we fought as for a stable world order in the areas beyond our own shores.  Does anyone think the Japanese wanted to hobble our navy at Pearl Harbor so they could rule us?  I rather think they wished to control Asia and the Pacific Ocean—their own back yard, in other words—no small ambition, but not exactly tantamount to making the people of Washington speak Nipponese and wear sashes and samurai swords.  More to the point, eleven years ago, when a cadre of suicide hijackers wreaked real and symbolic havoc on the nation in the course of a sunny September morning, were they out to put us all to the sword of Islam and make us pray to Mecca five times a day, or to make a point about U.S. cultural imperialism and show their own fanatical seriousness and insecurity?

I wonder how much a “Strong National Defense” helped us, either before or after 9/11?  Better intelligence gathering might have been useful, but after over a decade of protracted military adventure and bloodshed abroad, in which many tens of thousands of people have been killed in direct or indirect retaliation for this act, it turns out that the best defense against a repeat of the fiasco of 9/11 lies in the analysis of the event itself, not in some far-off Kissingerian global military strategy.  We are safer from suicide bombings today more than anything else—far more, in fact—because of two fairly simple things.  The first is those pain-in-the-ass TSA people who scrutinize our luggage and our bodies at the airport, and about whom we love to complain.  The second is the universal realization, as suddenly and unfortunately as it came upon us, that hijackers will not necessarily take you to the tarmac in Cuba for a couple of hours and then let you go home.  In light of this knowledge and what’s been done in response to it, it’s pretty likely that anyone who attempts to hijack a plane these days will be either shot or pummeled, and that they won’t make it into the cockpit in any event.  The result of these two things is that the number of hijackings in the U.S. since September 11, 2001 has been reduced to exactly zero.  Not bad compared to any other eleven-year period since the dawn of commercial aviation.  Hijacking attempts, even elsewhere in the world, have been scarce.  And precious little of this improvement can be attributed to the dubious activities of “Our Brave Fighting Men and Women, On the Ground, in Harm’s Way, PROTECTING OUR FREEDOM,” etc.  Protecting our freedom?  Seriously???  What freedom is that, our freedom to kick ass in the Middle East and west Asia?

It seems that the right, which is fonder of pointing out our nearly divine greatness as a nation than the left is, paradoxically likes to keep us in fear by assuring us constantly not of our might but of our vulnerability and weakness from a defensive point of view.  Anything unseemly that happens in the world is deemed a threat to our national security, as if such security could be so easily threatened.  That seems like paranoia, which as I understand it is a characteristic not of strength but of an inherent weakness of mind.

Shifting gears, here’s another national assumption, bandied about freely by both political parties.  It is said we are in the grip of “the Worst Economic Crisis Since the Great Depression.”  Pretty much all of us have accepted this one without questioning it.  Just looking at the unemployment numbers does seem to sort of bear it out at first blush.  In 1933, after four years of the government of Herbert Hoover allowing capitalism to repair its own mess, unemployment peaked in the U.S. at about 24%.  Throughout the remainder of the decade of the 1930s it never went below about 17%, and in 1938 it was back up to 19%, only beginning to break, like a long fever, by 1940 as the government began putting people to work manufacturing war materiel for the Allies.  In 2009 and 2010 nationwide unemployment flirted with 10% for the first and only time since the early 1980s.  That’s a far cry from the situation in the 1930s.  (Note, however, that all these numbers are somewhat suspect, since the way of calculating unemployment during the past 70 years has changed almost as frequently as presidential administrations have.) 

Still, an economic crisis is a Crisis, or will become a Crisis, when people tell us long enough and often enough that it is, by God, a Crisis.  People have become so fond of using the phrase “in this economy” that it has lost its meaning, if it ever had one, except as a catchphrase employed by hucksters.  To be sure, many people did lose their shirts, or at least their retirement golf shirts, because of the increasing reliance on the stock market as the ultimate touchstone of our economy, and because of the market-linked privatization of both public and private pensions over the years since Reagan, cheered on by the Republicans and their Wall Street masters.  The crisis, folks, wasn’t so much due to the mini-crash of 2008 (no greater than the crash of 2000 or a handful of others between 1929 and now), but to the kind of unregulated crap large brokerage houses were selling and pension funds were investing in, and because ordinary people had been lured by unscrupulous bankers (is that repetitious?) into accepting credit they didn’t deserve in the first place and couldn’t have afforded to pay back even if there had been no crisis. 

So are we in the midst of the Worst Economic Crisis Since the Great Depression?  And what does that mean, in context?  One thing about this idea is that it makes us somehow feel as if what’s happening now is nearly as bad as the Great Depression was, when it’s simply not.  In reality, it’s more like saying, “I just broke my toe, and that’s the worst injury I’ve had since I broke both my legs at once.”  True enough, perhaps, and painful enough, but ….  Let’s look at the country at the beginning of the Great Depression and compare life then, in 1929, to ours.  No unemployment compensation, no Social Security, no Medicare, no Medicaid, no legal aid, no student aid.  No civil rights, no women’s rights, no Miranda rights, no worker’s rights.  No interstate highways, no civil aviation, no rural electrification, no refrigeration.  No antibiotics, no open heart surgery, no DNA testing, no effective treatments for cancer.  No TV, no cell phones, no internet, no cheap fast food.  In fact, very few of the things we take for granted today, even when we’re laid off and laid up. 

Most of the protections we take for granted—government-based pensions and government-enforced protections, in particular—were the result of progressivism fostered by the political left, and not because of trickle-down market-based economics.  What few people ever bother to point out is that after eight years—two full terms—Franklin Roosevelt hadn’t brought down unemployment by more than a few points from that 24% high.  Shit was still bad, and people didn’t have any money.  In part that was because FDR faced, as Obama does, an obstructionist Congress and a Republican-dominated Supreme Court, both of which fought him.  But he still managed to secure for us rudimentary government pensions and a few other things, like legal collective bargaining (that one, sadly, has fallen by the wayside a bit).  Part of the lack of economic progress was because problems which are slow to develop are often slow to be remediated.  This is not something people like to hear.  We want instant gratification, and if we don’t get it, we’re willing to turn things over to the other party and see what happens, even if that other party was primarily responsible for creating the problem.  Fortunately for this country and for all of us today, we did not give ourselves back to the Republicans in 1936.

The claim about this being the Worst Economic Crisis Since the Great Depression does serve to make the president’s job look really tough, but that cuts both ways.  On the one hand, if he doesn’t make much headway against the relentless forces of capitalism, he gets to talk about how nearly impossible his job is and to beg for four more years.  But the other side gets to blame him for not turning things around quickly enough, and if they get into office they’ll take credit for the inevitable upturn things will eventually take.

This is the life we have chosen by hitching our wagon to the star of free enterprise, or a market economy, or whatever euphemism you wish to use for capitalism.  By its nature it is not nice, nor does it care about your job or your welfare or your medical care or your future.  You are simply a commodity whose usefulness will one day come to an end and when that happens, capitalism does not care what becomes of you.  Our national schizophrenia is based on our belief that this essentially heartless economic system can somehow be made kinder and gentler.  Both parties are wrong about this.  With the Republicans it will be unleashed to roam the streets and devour whatever it can.  With the Democrats it will get brought in the house and whipped once in a while but still be allowed outside most of the time.

What does all this have to do with nostalgia?  Nostalgia is the sentimental longing for the past.  When we say we’re the Greatest Country in the World, we long for the three or four years after World War II when we imposed the Pax Americana on much of the world and no one seriously challenged us.  When we say we need a Strong National Defense, we long for the half dozen years of glory that came two centuries ago after we finally rid the British of the notion that they could reclaim us as a colony.  When we invoke the Great Depression we aren’t wishing for the return of its wretched poverty caused by twelve years of runaway Republicanism, but for one of the only two decades in living memory, together with the 1960s, when the government was actively dedicated to using its power to improve the lot of its citizens rather than merely to allow the wealthy to become more so.

The combination of the adjective “Great” with the word “Depression” isn’t really meant to convey the magnitude of the economic crisis, in the sense that “great” means large; it is to suggest that two rather good things took place during that period, in spite of the undeniable privations so many endured.  First, we had a duly elected leader that the majority of people loved and trusted and even revered, in a way we haven’t felt about a president since.  And the guy came through for us in a number of ways.  Second, during this time we acted, out of desperation or good sense or both, in a collective manner as a people, and not as greedy, bitching self-serving individuals.  In spite of the relentless propaganda to the contrary from the right, this country has always has been at its best when we have acted together for our common welfare and for the betterment of those less fortunate than most of us are--when we are under the influence, as Lincoln said, of "the better angels of our nature."   What we may be secretly hoping for is that we’re in the midst of the Best Economic Crisis Since the Great Depression, not the worst.  It will not be, however.  And that’s a little depressing.     

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Monrovia, California

Television, like life, is a fast-moving target, and only the young really have the mental flexibility to move along with it without balking a little and wishing, like Lot’s wife, to take a peek backwards.  (Some shows, like Lucy, are lauded for their durability and near-universality when the truth is that, like the clock on the old town hall, they’ve simply never stopped running long enough for anyone to decide whether or not they should be replaced.)  I haven’t yet completely digested the idea of the “reality” show, and the concept is already twenty years old or more, and in its third or fourth avatar, having picked up, since the days of the lost-on-a-desert-island concept, things as disparate as dysfunctional Hollywood families, deep-sea fishing, auctioning the contents of storage units, dealing with deeply neurotic hoarders, and creating elegant meals out of a variety of absurd ingredients.  Every time I turn around they’re riffing on this idea in a new way.  I’m convinced that it will come full circle, turning around on itself until the subject of a reality show is a bunch of people engaged in the creation of a fictional one, after which the creative process will drop from view and only the show will air.  Voila.   

On the subject of television, I read in the local paper a week or two ago an obituary for a guy named Steve Franken, the actor who played Chatsworth Osborne, Jr. on the Dobie Gillis show back in the late 50s and early 60s.  I must pay my respects to him, as much because of the show as because of his part in it.

One of the advantages of living in this area is that the Los Angeles Times has a tendency to feature the obituaries of such comparatively minor TV and movie actors as Steve Franken in detail, partly because out here entertainment is the major local industry.  I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m sure the half page on the guy who played Chatsworth Osborne, Jr. and supporting characters in a bunch of other schlock movies and TV shows is somewhat akin to the kind of coverage the Detroit Free Press might give to the dying of a lesser light in the automotive industry.  Maybe, anyway, if anyone in Detroit cares about that.  And for all I know the Cleveland Plain Dealer gave old Steve Franken a big write-up, too.  I use the term “old” advisedly, as one of my favorite professors at U of M used to say, since Steve Franken had attained the age of 80, something to give all of us pause when we remember how short a time ago it was that we were school kids sitting on the floor in front of our TV sets watching the likes of Dobie and Chatsworth and the bearded Maynard G. Krebs.  It’s a little bit of a comfort to remember that they were using actors in their twenties and thirties to play high school students in that and other programs, as they still often do (I mean, look at the photo of the guy--he's already going bald), and that Tuesday Weld, the teenage dish in that show, was indeed only 16 during the single season she was on it.

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, as it was officially titled, was probably my favorite TV show of all time until Seinfeld appeared years later.   It ran for four seasons, from 1959 to 1963, and then no doubt in reruns.  I say it was my favorite knowing it’s in competition, for me, with Leave It To Beaver, The Beverly Hillbillies, 77 Sunset Strip, and several others.  But no other show brought me so regularly to the set as did the Dobie Gillis show, or intrigued me so much.  Part of that was the good writing of its creator, Max Schulman, and the dependable characters in it, silly sometimes, but not possessing the complete buffoonery of many of the stars in the sitcom galaxy.  They were writ rather large, but weren’t completely absurd, and were, most importantly, never downright stupid.  It was a completely dialogue-driven show, lacking for the most part the signature physical comedic touches of, say, Lucille Ball or Jackie Gleason, or the situational twists and turns that beset poor Beaver Cleaver and his pals.  The central theme was always the same—Dobie was in love with some girl he couldn’t quite obtain, and was pursuing her.  The lines were almost always delivered, by whichever character, in a sort of rapid-fire rote way, emphasizing the prettiness of the words rather than of the people themselves.

These characters included Dobie, a lovesick high school swain played by Dwayne Hickman; Maynard G. Krebs, his beatnik friend, played by Bob Denver (a better and wittier character than Gilligan by far); Dobie’s harried and exasperated grocer father Herbert T. Gillis, portrayed by the veteran B movie actor Frank Faylen; and several others, including Dobie’s longsuffering mom Winnie (Florida Friebus); his schoolmate and pursuer Zelda Gilroy (Sheila James); and Dobie’s femme fatale Thalia Menninger, always slightly beyond his reach because she was the original material girl, played as a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Lolita by Tuesday Weld.  Dobie’s nemesis was this rich, polo-playing cad named Chatsworth Osborne, Jr., who was always winning Thalia and other girls away from him by virtue of his wealthy insouciance.  That was the late Steve Franken, who replaced, after the first few episodes, another rich guy character named Milton Armitage, played by none other than Warren Beatty, who decided he could do better than TV, and indeed did.  Beatty’s departure from the show was a blessing in disguise for the Dobie Gillis people, since as between him and Steve Franken, the latter was by far the better choice to play a completely vapid spoiled millionaire, whose mother (whom he called “Mumsy”), a busty, dignified matron, was fond of frequently saying of her son that he was “a nasty boy,” just like his father, the late Chatsworth, Sr.

In asserting the quality of these characters compared to some of their dopey comedic successors and predecessors, I do not mean to say they were necessarily more realistic or entertaining to the majority of viewers.  Rather, they were endowed by their creator with a certain literateness singularly lacking in such personages as Jethro Bodine or Darren Stevens or Archie Bunker.  This was due largely to the writing, but also reflected the times, when television was coming out of a period during which it had to some extent been envisioned as the successor to the movies, and many of its writers—Rod Serling and Dobie’s own Max Schulman, for instance—came from a James Jones and Nelson Algren-influenced era when hard biting social commentary was prized, and when comedy was thought to be better when it contained a little witty repartee, rather than just slapstick.  That was before it became overwhelmingly obvious that as a medium television’s dramatic and comedic scope, like its screen, was to be much smaller.  Max Schulman as a writer/creator was sort of slumming here, and was later superseded by the somewhat more hacky but durable likes of Sidney Sheldon and Sol Saks, and later (unfortunately) Norman Lear, none of whom had Schulman’s flair for writing.

At any rate, I became a devotee of Dobie Gillis and his friends, family, and many loves.  To this day I have a two-foot bronze-colored plaster version of Auguste Rodin’s Thinker, which isn’t in homage to the great French sculptor but rather to the replica of that work in the fictional park where, under its shadow, Dobie began and ended each episode with a little monologue directed at the camera and the viewers.  (This bit of self-conscious narration was, arguably, the predecessor of the voiceover breaking-of-character line, “Now, I know what you’re thinking,” employed frequently some years later by Tom Selleck’s character in Magnum P.I.)  It was also from watching Dobie Gillis that I learned the word “propinquity,” which Zelda Gilroy said was the reason she and Dobie were destined to be together, since her last name followed his alphabetically, and thus ensured that they would always sit near each other in school.  Now you tell me, did you ever learn a word like that from another situation comedy?

But I wish to take pains to assure the reader that I’m not wallowing in nostalgia here, like some Republican, pining for the good old days of television.  Back then, as now, there were lots of repetitious cop and doctor shows, as well as “professional” wrestling.  In addition, there were endless cowboy programs and absurd variety shows featuring people juggling Indian clubs and balancing multiple pie plates on the ends of multiple bamboo sticks.  Not to mention Topo Gigio, the puppet mouse, which for some reason (maybe a secret deal with the Vatican?) Ed Sullivan featured practically every other week.  Scratch the surface of any diatribe against modernity and what you’ll invariably find is that the golden age of whatever is being inveighed against was when the inveigher was about 12 years old, which tells you not that things were better then, but simply that the person wishes to be 12 again.  And that’s about the age I was when The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis aired.  And I’m aware that if I were to watch the show today I might be disappointed—that its greatness is in my head somewhere, not on the celluloid.

Which brings us to nostalgia as it applies to politics.  But that’s for another posting.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Going Full Retard

Friday, August 24, 2012

Monrovia, California

Today’s posting is really just a place holder, to let you know I’m still alive and watching the inevitable unfold, as you are.  Weird things will happen, stupid things will be said, and the media will cover it all as if it were a made-for-TV drama, which of course it is.  In the end Barack Obama will win.

But first, the latest from the Republican camp.  The person I was suggesting as an ideal vice presidential running mate for Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, didn’t make the cut.  Good news, however, since the guy who is the apparent choice is an even bigger and more conservative nut bar than anyone could have hoped for.  He’s Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a fellow who will make life easy for both cartoonists and pundits, since he already looks and behaves like a caricature of himself.  Wow.  I saw a photo of Romney and Ryan together, and the bubble above Romney, who bore a brave grimace, could easily have read “What the hell was I thinking?”  In fact, it reminded me of the pasted-on smile poor old John McCain bore for the two months after they gave him his running mate.

Paul Ryan has to be Barack Obama’s dream come true, or his second one, if you count Romney as the first.  Just wind them up and let them do the damage to themselves.  In the past Ryan has been an advocate of privatizing Social Security and Medicare, and giving vouchers to the elderly.  Vouchers for what, I’m not sure, maybe for discounts at Walmart.  Let them eat generic cheese puffs.  Evidently the folks who are running the Romney campaign have decided they need to capture the votes they already have anyway.  I mean, what are all the anti-gay, pro-gun, anti-immigrant, pro-life people going to do, vote for Obama?  Not likely.  Nor would they stay home in droves and let their party’s chances sink even lower.  They really have no choice but to go with Romney and whoever runs with him—Hitler, Pope Pius XII, Chiang Kai-shek.  The alternative is to let that rug-headed crypto-Muslim pinko one-worlder back in the front door of the White House to scare the wealthy for four more years.  Face it people, the president is just not a job-creator.  You have to be a proven job-destroyer before you can qualify as a job-creator according to the Republican way of thinking.  It’s all part of the intricate yin and yang of jobs, apparently.  How can you help the domestic economy if you’ve never been personally involved in hurting it?

The simple fact is that the Republicans have ignored the sage admonition Robert Downey, Jr.’s character delivered to Ben Stiller’s in Tropic Thunder: they’ve gone Full Retard.  And everybody knows you never go Full Retard.  One retard on the ticket, okay.  Dan Quayle, retarded; George H.W. Bush, not retarded.  George W. Bush, retarded; Dick Cheney, homicidal but not retarded.  John McCain, not retarded; Sarah Palin, well Duh.  

When it relinquished its bigoted southern white half to the Republicans, starting during the civil rights movement in the 60s, the Democratic Party quite fortunately also lost its need to placate and pander to that most mean-spirited element of the American electorate.  The result was a smaller party, numerically, but also a slightly purer one.  For that reason the Democrats have also eliminated the need for ticket balancing through the selection of a vice presidential candidate, though the pretense of it, for purely atavistic old-time politicky reasons, continues.  But in truth both Democratic candidates could be from the same state, or for that matter the same city, and it wouldn’t signify much.  Joe Biden certainly wasn’t important from a vote-getting perspective, except for the fact that he was white.  After all, he’s from Delaware, a state that means next to nothing in either popular or electoral votes, or in any other way.  Democrats are Democrats, and mostly these days they’re from the comparatively intelligent urban, or at least urbane, areas of the country, where people grasp, however imperfectly, the idea of social justice.

On the rare occasion when a southern state goes Democratic these days, it’s probably because the black voter turnout is higher than normal and they combine with the white urban and suburban moderates (i.e., the limp-wristed folks who oppose lynching as a tool of public order) to push the state to the left (formerly known as the center).  North Carolina was a case in point in 2008.    But don’t expect lightning to strike twice there, even if the state has been rewarded with the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this year.  The party conventions are merely for grabbing the media’s attention for a few days anyway, and mean nothing else.  “Mr. Chairman, the people of the Great State of South Dakota, home of the Corn Palace and the world’s largest annual rally of degenerate motorcyclists, proudly cast all of their votes for the next president of the United States….”  Ho hum.  Wake me when it’s over.