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.