Monday, April 27, 2009

The Midas Touch of Mass Media

The Greek myth of King Midas concerns a man whose wish to turn everything he touches to gold is granted by the gods. At first, everything is OK. He has a palace made of gold now, gold dinnerware, formerly marble statuary, now all pure and precious gold. Then things go wrong. Gold potato chips—uh-uh. Solid gold socks—no good in cold weather. Gold kitty cat—oops. Finally, he turns his daughter to gold.


A couple of weeks ago I bawled my eyes out watching frumpy Susan Boyle sing “I Dreamed a Dream” and the jaded audience forced to swallow their sneers and condescension. It was a glorious television moment—an example of the way TV can take an ordinary person, give her an extraordinary opportunity, and, with the aid of some backstage cheerleading and artful crosscutting between audience and singer, create a gemlike encomium to working-class women and men.

Further, YouTube made this little moment available for all the world to see, even those of us who don’t get Britain’s Got Talent on TV. Long live YouTube.

But, of course, this wasn’t the end of the story. Boyle popped up on American TV via CBS’s Early Show the next week—along with Access Hollywood, etc., etc., etc.

Then she got a makeover—unruly eyebrows be gone, enter hair dye and more fashionable clothes. OK, fine, the girl deserves a makeover, if that’s what she wants.

Then, of course, there had to be commentary on the same—Before the makeover, NPR’s Talk of the Nation debated whether she ought to have one.

Of course, the debates have proliferated since then: Had she had the makeover before her TV appearance, would she have hit the same emotional chords with viewers? What are the various imperfections of her lovely voice? Had she really, truly never been kissed? Did a 12-year-old Welsh boy blow her out of the water with his rendition of “Who’s Loving You?” Was she really all that nice and cheerful anyway? Everything but (though it’s on its way, I’m telling you) Just who the hell does this bitch think she is?

Last week, on NPR, again, somebody expressed how absolutely shocked he was that nobody, nobody, was making any money off the Boyle phenomenon—not the makers of Britain’s Got Talent, not YouTube, not even (unsurprisingly last on the list) Susan Boyle! It was almost as if to say: If all my tears are not making somebody rich, what was the fucking point?

All this supports my contention that mass media’s Midas touch is also its Achilles’ heel.

Television can show us the Rodney King beating, the collapse of the Twin Towers, and stranded New Orleans citizens on their rooftops in the middle of a flood—and charge our emotions with poignant moments we may never have visualized on our own.

Yet television also has the tendency to run anything it touches into the ground. The bright new face we cheered for a year ago becomes, through a process of tireless reiteration, the jerk you can’t get rid of, no matter which channel you turn to.

The repetition of emotionally charged images has two effects, usually in tandem: exaltation of feelings as ends to themselves and desensitization leading to devaluation.

I’ve long argued that the sex and violence people complain of on television does not hold a candle to the sex and violence of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. What differs, obviously, is television’s mechanical reduplication and near incessant replay of that sex and violence. I dare say that, in just eighteen years, more people have seen Rodney King get the shit beat out of him than ever contemplated, in over 2,400 years, Oedipus gouging his eyeballs out with his mother’s brooch.

In Greek society, Oedipus’ blinding was performed offstage, but described in chilling grisly detail by a messenger. And how many times did Athenians witness this appalling carnage? Probably only once … in a lifetime.

But, thanks to television and the Internet, nothing has to be “once in a lifetime” again. No tender, inspirational moment escapes their gaze or, in a matter of 200 or so replays, their transformation of it from gold back to dross. “Nothing gold can stay”? Think again, Robert Frost. It can stay and stay and stay, until you’re sick the hell of it.

In all this, I mean no criticism of Boyle, or of her sincerity, talent, or appearance. I hope she records an album and (at last!) makes some money off all her recent attention. It’s only a matter of time, though, before the publicity cloys.

We live in a consumerist culture, so chewing things up and spitting them out has become second nature to many of even the best of us.

I kind of hope Boyle takes a lesson from Jessica Lynch six years ago (remember her?) and the grieving student body of Virginia Tech two years ago (remember them?), who—in different ways, of course—firmly yet politely asked that the spotlight be turned away from them, so that they could go on with their lives.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bea Arthur, 1922-2009

Rose: "Can I ask a dumb question?"

Dorothy: "Better than anyone I know."

--Golden Girls

Bea Arthur (1922-2009)--TV goddess of double takes and comic timing.

Say It: “Torture”

I appreciate the improvement in tone of the Obama administration over its immediate predecessor, for example, Obama’s statement in Turkey that America, though enriched by its Christian population, is “not a Christian nation”; even the President’s espousal of his personal faith has, so far, avoided the arrogant display of ignorance and bullying bluster of Bush.

Obama has lifted bans on stem-cell research and the abortion bans linked under Bush to international aid. On Friday, Obama condemned homophobia in particular no less than intolerance in general in a speech at Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum—an inclusiveness that is poignant in light of the surge in gay bashing in the past decade and the growth of hate groups in America since his election.

All these examples speak of a bright new spirit in the leadership and values of our nation.

But President Obama has everything to gain or lose over the issue of whether to investigate those in power who promoted or condoned the use of torture of terror suspects. So far, he appears to be failing a crucial test of integrity.

Fox TV has repeatedly criticized the President’s release of formerly classified memos showing the government’s deliberate attempt to whitewash torture techniques and to approve specific techniques, namely waterboarding, that have been used as torture since at least the Spanish Inquisition and condemned by American military courts trying foreign war criminals for the past 65 years. Fox TV pundits say that the President’s act is politics, a threat to security, an aid to the nation’s enemies.

The White House has defended its action on the basis that the information had already appeared in the media—in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere. Besides, precautions were taken to blacken out names, supposedly to protect the innocent or the legally covert. And, unlike the Valerie Plame “outing” in 2003, the White House appears to have little to gain politically from the release of this information.

The burning question is—What does the President intend to do with this information?

In his original statement to the press, Obama exempted CIA operatives who participated in torture but did so with an understanding that they were acting within certain legal bounds. In World War II and other cases, soldiers were prosecuted only for exceeding the bounds of laws existing at the time—“following orders” was a legitimate defense that many Nazis who did not just follow orders tried illegitimately to use to save their necks at Nuremberg.

Obama can reasonably justify not prosecuting low-level personnel—unlike the 2004 attempt to quiet the Abu Ghraib scandal, where investigations and prosecutions did not rise higher than low-ranking GIs.

Then last Sunday, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel announced that the Bush policymakers, namely John Yoo and Jay Bybee, whose support of torture is documented in the released memos, would likewise be exempt from further investigation and prosecution. But then later White House aides intimated that the President did “not rule out legal sanctions for the Bush lawyers who developed the legal basis for the use of the techniques.”

Troublingly, in public addresses, Obama has echoed Republican speechwriter Peggy Noonan’s dribble that we should not waste time, money, and energy to “look back” to offenses in the past. (As one commenter to Noonan’s original statement put it: “Great news for hit-and-run drivers.”)

Obama told an enthusiastic crowd of CIA employees, “Don’t be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we’ve made some mistakes. That’s how we learn.” But the government’s detailing of specific torture techniques and fostering an air of institutional and public acceptance of what it euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques” can not be called simply a mistake.

On Tuesday, an internal memo by Dennis Blair, Obama’s national intelligence director, was publicized, stating, "High-value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qaeda organization that was attacking this country." Blair seems to support the underpinning assumption that the Yoo-Bybee interrogation policy was effective. Obama, in turn, has left the matter in the hands of Attorney General Eric Holder, who is less shy of the word “torture” and has called for the release of even more memos detailing the U.S. government’s support and defense of torture.

To my mind, torture is a bigger issue than the economy. The cost of investigating and prosecuting those of both political parties who were actively or tacitly behind the senseless, brutal, and unjustified beatings of detainees, fraudulently in the name of the American way of life and at the expense of justice-loving American citizens, is worth more than ten General Motors and fifty Bank of Americas.

And if we taxpayers could fork out $6.2 million to investigate a blowjob in the Oval Office, we owe as much to our sense of ourselves as a just, moral, tolerant, and humane people.

Government funds are at least as justly spent in supporting the rule of law as in supporting military actions abroad and sustaining economic growth.

One of the reasons we elect a President every four years is to permit the opportunity to investigate and legally address the flaws—both simple mistakes and flagrant illegalities—of the previous administration. If he or she does not do so, why bother with term limits or even elections?

Our nation’s much-praised propensity for “smooth transitions” distinctly implies that we transition to something new and different from its precedent—not uncritical continuation of the same, and not erasure of recent memories of injustice and lawlessness.

If Obama does not address the wrongs of the previous administration, he betrays the fundamental reason for his (or any new President’s) election: change.

If he does not push the investigation and prosecution of injustices committed in the name of America, he does nothing to build the nation’s reputation for democracy and rule of law.

If he does not look into charges of wrongdoing in the Bush administration, even if he and (less likely) his political party could remain blameless of those wrongs, he furthers the erosion of American values and liberties and, in this case, leaves torture as a tool for future leaders with a bent towards tyranny and a cruel streak.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mother Mary with the Holy Child Jesus Christ by Adolf Hitler

Mother Mary with the Holy Child Jesus Christ, Oil/canvas, 1913, by Adolf Hitler

It's something of a jolt to remember that, before he was a dictator, Hitler was a passably good painter of religious kitsch. He was raised a Roman Catholic, but, though he felt that Christianity was the foundation of German morals, he later came to believe that nationalism and patriotism had replaced religion and faith.

He admired Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, and Mohammed, but when he became head of the Nazi party, his statements about religion were ambivalent and contradictory.

He despised atheism, which he saw as a great evil of Soviet communism. He conceived of god as a watchful, provident, caring creator, not the distant and impersonal god of deism, which, like atheism, he rejected.

He was, at heart, a sentimentalist (he loved dogs, children, and sweeping romantic music), and his vision of Germany was sentimentally patriotic and semi-religious.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What’s Freaking Me Out Now

Karl Rove, echoed by many other Republican talking heads, tells us that investigating torture (not torturing itself) is the moral equivalent of a military dictatorship.


Business students in India are reading Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf to pick up on the Fuhrer’s management techniques—10,000 copies of the book have sold in the last six months in New Delhi alone.


Within a month, two American fifth-graders, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover and Jaheem Herrera, hanged themselves after being taunted for being perceived as gay—after guardians of the boys pleaded with school officials to take action against bullying by other school children.


Our new friends and allies in the Middle East, the Iraqi militia, reportedly are gluing shut the anuses of arrested homosexuals and then forcing them to drink a diarrhea-inducing drink, causing an excruciating death. These vicious acts, currently numbered at 60, stem from recent religious decrees demanding the death penalty for homosexuality.


Sci-fi author and Mormon Times columnist Orson Scott Card has joined the board of the anti-same-sex-marriage, anti-homosexual National Organization for Marriage (NOM)—last July he wrote, “Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down.”

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Yellow Ruse of Texas

Texans like Rick Perry, Chuck Norris, and Ron Paul are talking to the media about secession possibilities—and folks apparently take the bluster seriously. How serious are they? Joaquin Phoenix serious? Stephen Colbert serious? Or Jefferson Davis serious?

Norris already has his sights on the presidency of Texas, having played a Texas Ranger for eight years on TV.

Paul seems even to be under the impression that the United States of America “seceded” from Great Britain. Is Texas a colony, and nobody told me? Weren’t Texans allowed to vote in 2008? Weren’t their votes counted? Didn’t their 34 electoral votes go to McCain?

In 2000 and 2004 several high-profile lefties and serious liberals threatened to move out of the country if Bush won the Presidency. I’m not sure what happened. Did they? I don’t recall any follow-up in the press, though I’m aware that Johnny Depp lived in France for a good part of the last decade, for whatever reasons beyond the obvious one: Vanessa Paradis.

And how many anti-Bush expatriates gave up their U.S. citizenship, or even threatened to do so? Any?

But I don’t recall any state, however left-leaning, threatening to secede from the union during the eight years of Bush’s Presidency. Correct me if I’m wrong.

So why is it that liberals—supposedly the collectivists in the pack—get pissed off and threaten to move away on their lonesome; but conservatives—supposedly the rugged individualists—insist on everybody else in their state having to vamoose with them? (It follows, though, in a way, since a good many conservatives believe that if they personally do not want to have an abortion, nobody should be allowed to have an abortion.)

And didn’t 44 percent of Texas voters vote for Obama? What would happen to them? Would they, like the Loyalists of 1776, be tarred and feathered? Would they, like 20 percent of the Loyalists in 1783 —including thousands of black Loyalists—at least those who were freed from slavery by the British and not recaptured by their Patriot masters, move to Canada, the Bahamas, and elsewhere? (Iowa?)

And, besides, during the Revolutionary War, Patriots outnumbered Loyalists 4 to 1, whereas in Texas the ratio is somewhat closer to even. It might be difficult to tar and feather 44 percent of the population, even if they are Democrats.

I’m inclined to think the secession talk is bullplop, and I’m a bit shocked that anyone would invest any emotion—outrage or hell-yeah—in it. Coming from the mouths of Republicans, it sounds like a threat to take all their toys up and go home. Texas doesn’t want to play anymore.

So far, my favorite response has been actor Steven Weber’s: “Hey, Gov. Perry: don't let Democracy hit you on the ass on your way out!”

Nate Silver projects that, without Texas, Democrats could have a filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate. Good news for hardshell partisans, perhaps, but I prefer a divided government for, ideally, the invaluable dialogue on important issues, not at all for the real-world impasse of political games-playing.

All of this bluster has some serious repercussions, to be sure. They are hard to see, though, for all the comic relief bubbling up from Republican leadership—as denuded now, post Bush, as the Wizard after Toto pulled back the curtain.

Except perhaps for Christian theocracy, some form of libertarianism looks like the only viable move for the G.O.P. right now. And if all libertarian-minded Republicans from the 49 other states flocked to an independent Federal Republic of Texas, we could end up with two one-party governments lobbing missiles (or, more likely, only IOUs) over the Red River.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Your Tax Money at Work

Tax day (April 15th) is over, and we have been once again reminded that we Americans pay taxes, that we would rather not have to pay taxes, and that we would rather keep our own to look after our own—assuming our own is enough to do so.

I wish there were some way to have government services without paying government taxes—but my guess is that privateers in charge of police work and the monitoring of food and drug safety would be (though perhaps more efficient than the government) more expensive—and perhaps more susceptible to bribes and serving the interests of the wealthy over the common good. I say “more susceptible” because, obviously, there is some corruption already among law enforcement officers and government inspectors, though invariably bribes come from somewhere, usually from (surprise!) the private sector.

And the government has not usually been a good steward of our tax dollars or our trust. Unlike those who blame “special interests” such as welfare moms, tree-hugging environmentalists, and warm and fuzzy-thinking liberals everywhere, I tend to blame special interests like the corporate world, Wall Street, and, most especially, the war profiteers.

To be sure, World War II, the good war against fascism and genocide, made America the rich and powerful nation that it was for the remainder of the twentieth century. But unlike the present wars, started by Bush and his Republican and Democratic supporters, the Second World War was a war of cooperation between the people and the government. For instance, during the war 85 million Americans bought $185.7 billion in war bonds. Women and men unable to serve in uniform relocated to parts of the country they had never seen before in order to do office and factory work vacated by enlistees—my mother was one such person—and my father (of German heritage, who didn’t even speak English until the first grade) was quick to enlist in the U.S. Army. (Don't even start the "real Americans" bullshit around me.)

(On the other hand, some American firms, even those active in building the “Arsenal of Democracy,” such as Ford Motors, General Motors, and Chase Manhattan Bank, had worked with the Nazis before the war and maintained operations in Germany even during the war.)

When the war ended, President Truman’s late 1946 executive order transferred the Manhattan Project’s research and facilities to private ownership—all to maintain the principle (I would say “fetish”) of free enterprise in the United States—while the U.S. federal government has continued sponsoring research in the private sectors ever since, and then buying back products for use in the military and other government sectors, often paying many times what such products would usually garner in the free market alone.

Nuclear energy has spawned growth in virtually every area of technology and science in the six decades since Truman. The profits of this one technology alone—had the American taxpayers been allowed to hold on to its patent, after huge wartime sacrifices by the people to fund this research—could perhaps reduce if not entirely erase the need for income taxes today.

Apart from the apocalyptic discoveries of the Manhattan Project, research in NASA, the U.S. military, and state university systems has contributed much to the prosperity of the nation. Costs of research failures have been swallowed by the government—and its taxpayers ("pork"). The successes, however, have been divvied out to private corporations—who, on top of receiving the fruits of research paid for by the taxpayers, pay a substantially lower tax rate than ordinary citizens, sometimes reduced to zero through tax loopholes and charitable deductions and the like.

In 1958, the federal creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) created, through the Information Processing Technology Office (IPTO), the computer networking design that became, after it was commercialized in 1988, the World-Wide Web or the Internet. Only recently Time-Warner Cable planned to charge Internet users based on the amount of use—American Internet users, the ones who paid for the goddamned thing’s invention. Due to public and political outcry, Time-Warner backed down just this week.

NASA has financed the creation of new metal and glass alloys and spawned such spin-off merchandise as scratch-resistant lenses, wireless communications, freeze-dried foods, athletic shoes, virtual reality, microcomputers, laser technology, sports bras, hang gliders, quartz crystal timing, solar energy, digital imaging, the electric car, and a wide array of other useful and high-profit items.

Imagine if the American people, who financed this research through their taxes, also received at least some of the benefits of the worldwide marketing of the products stemming from this government-funded research.

Entertainment and organized crime have been the most profitable aspects of the free market not to be propped up with taxpayers’ money. And if I decided to be extra-cynical, I could add that one could make a pretty good argument that the obscenely profitable drug trade owes a debt to us taxpayers as well, through CIA operations in South America, the Vietnam war, and, most recently, Afghanistan, regaining its lead as the top producer of heroin just one year after the U.S. military deposed the Taliban.

So it seems to me that nationalization of industries directly indebted to government research and tax funding in the first place could be one way, along with more prudent budgeting by government leaders and more oversight by aware citizens, to reduce and perhaps even eliminate income taxes altogether.

Un-American. I know.

Letter to My Senators and Representative

Now that the Bush torture memos have been released, wouldn't it be, despite the President's promise to turn a blind eye to these violations, simply a matter of justice to put those responsible for encouraging these crimes on trial?

I am willing to accept (within means) that 9-11 posed an extenuating circumstance that might explain, if not justify, the encouragement of torture of terror suspects, and, if so, perhaps some measure of mercy should be shown by the court--but these are matters that ought to be given a hearing in court first and decided impartially based on debate over the evidence and existing law ... not left merely to media scrutiny and the unenforceable "decisions" of individual opinion-makers.

Mr. Obama says, "Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past." But isn't "laying blame for the past" precisely the reason we have courts of law? Isn't it worth the nation's time and energy to take steps to discourage future administrations from engaging in what appear to be patently tyrannical acts?

I urge you to investigate and prosecute the Bush administration's incitement to torture--in violation of American principles and Geneva conventions. The implications of the released memos are sufficient to require a fair and impartial hearing to determine the severity of the crimes, if any, that have been committed in the name of the citizens of the United States of America.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Mary Poppins Was Right"

Mr. Dawes: “In 1773, an official of this bank unwisely loaned a large sum of money to finance a shipment of tea to the American colonies. Do you know what happened?”

Mr. Banks: “Yes, sir. Yes, I think I do. As the ship lay in Boston Harbor, a party of the colonists, dressed as Red Indians, boarded the vessel, behaved very rudely, and threw all the tea overboard. This made the tea unsuitable for drinking, even for Americans.”

Mr. Dawes: “Precisely. The loan was defaulted. Panic ensued within these walls. There was a run on the bank!”

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “From that time to this, sir, there has not been a run on this bank. Until today! A run, sir, caused by the disgraceful conduct of your son. Do you deny it?”

Mr. Banks: “I do not deny it, sir. And I shall be only too glad to assume responsibility for my son.”

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “What are you waiting for? Get on with it!”

Mr. Dawes: “Yes, Father.” [Ceremoniously removes and tears apart Banks’s red lapel flower; unbuttons Banks’s umbrella.]

Banker 1: “No, not that!”

Banker 2: “Steady on.”

[Dawes stretches the ribs of Banks’s umbrella backwards, making it useless, then punches a hole through the top of Banks’s bowler hat.]

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “Well, do you have anything to say, Banks?”

Mr. Banks: “Well, sir, they do say that when there’s nothing to say, all you can say … [Removes from his pocket the tuppence his son Michael gave him to cheer him up—the earlier row was due to Michael’s wanting to use the money to buy crumbs to feed the birds and his father and the other bankers’ pressuring him to invest it “prudently, thriftily, frugally” in the bank.]

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “Confound it, Banks! I said, do you have anything to say?”

Mr. Banks: [Giggles.] "Just one word, sir."

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “Yes?”

Mr. Banks: “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “What?”

Mr. Banks: “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Mary Poppins was right. Extraordinary. It does make you feel better!”

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “What are you talking about? There’s no such word.”

Mr. Banks: “Oh, yes. It is a word. A perfectly good word, actually. Know what there’s no such thing as? It turns out, with due respect, when all is said and done, that there’s no such thing as you!” [Pointing to Dawes and the other bankers.]

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “Impertinence, sir!”

Mr. Banks: “Speaking of impertinence, like to hear a marvelous joke? A real snapper!”

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “Joke? Snapper?”

Mr. Banks: “Yes. There are two wonderful young people, Jane and Michael. And they meet one day on the street, and Jane says to Michael, ‘I know a man with a wooden leg named Smith.’ And Michael says, ‘Really? What’s the name of his other leg?’” [Breaks out into laughter.]

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “The man’s gone mad. Call the guard!”

Mr. Banks: “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. I’m feeling better all the time!” [Approaches Dawes, extending the hand with Michael’s tuppence in it.]

Mr. Dawes: “Banks, don’t you dare strike my father!”

Mr. Banks: “There’s the tuppence. The wonderful fateful supercalifragilisticexpialidocious tuppence. Guard it well. Goodbye!”

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “Wait! Where are you going?”

Mr. Banks: “I don’t know. I might pop through a chalk pavement picture and go for an outing in the country. Or I might seize a horse off a merry-go-round and win the Derby! Or I might just fly a kite! Only Poppins would know!”

The Elder Mr. Dawes: “Poppins?”

Mr. Banks: “My nanny. She’s the one that sings that ridiculous song: ‘A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, the medicine go down, the medicine go down …’”

From the 1964 Walt Disney film Mary Poppins, perf. by Arthur Malet, David Tomlinson, and Dick Van Dyke


Needing a spoonful of sugar today, with tax day tomorrow and all the rest of the banal aggravations of adult life, I rewatched Mary Poppins, my favorite movie when I was eleven, with a performance by Julie Andrews that, more than ever before, seems Oscar-worthy to me, though the film's special effects look less snappy now than they did in the sixties.

Even as a child, I sensed that this movie was a diatribe against the funless, sterile stinginess of capital investment, male hegemony, and the bourgeoisie, though, at eleven, I would not have known to put it that way.

(And, as the dialogue above indicates, it is a gentle reminder—with nationwide tax-day tea parties tomorrow planned by libertarians of different stripes, along with a tagalong crew of anxious Fox-TV Republicans empty of ideas of their own—that the colonial patriots of Boston were not protesting taxes simply so that they could keep every last cent of their earnings. Tossing English tea into the harbor was, in fact, an act of some significant sacrifice for the colonists—greater than the tax money owed and representative of a willingness to reduce substantially the quality of their lives. It was a gesture as much of magnanimity as of independence and entitlement.)

No doubt the lesson I learned from this movie—that tuppence can be saved in a bank or, better yet, spent on breadcrumbs to feed the birds or to buy string and paper (the Financial Times, it would appear) to make a kite of—has not altogether benefited my savings account or station in life. But I would have to say my life’s happier and better for my having had this movie’s influence at a young age.

I would hope that the financial crisis would lead us to distrust the practical wisdom of authority figures and regain a sense of the value of a song, a dance, a good joke (or even a bad one), awareness of the plight of the poor (Poppins makes a point that Banks passes the little old bird-woman every day and fails even to see her), tidiness and self-discipline, laughter, a little rum punch, young people, and imagination.

As far as I’m concerned “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” was Disney-speak for “fuck it all.” But I may push the movie’s rose-colored themes too far. So be it. I’m better for it, I think. There is, I think, a way to balance altruism, the pleasure principle, and good sense—not through mindless escapism, longings for the past and cheap sentiment, or the pursuit of new heroes to follow, but through clear-eyed assessment of what really matters in life and willingness to move on.

As Poppins herself moves on, at the movie’s end, having performed her duties at No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane and taught her lessons well, she says, “Practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their thinking.”

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Tea Party of 2009

I spent Saturday night in ER at Duke Hospital. No biggie. I fainted two or three times at a Mexican restaurant, before what was supposed to be a fun evening with my friend Ann at a David Sedaris event downtown.

Much of the night I was kept up by the chatty night nurse, Ray, who shared his unasked-for opinions on politics, death, and the economy. Ray is a cheery conservative who thinks he’s funnier than he is—to me anyway. He said that it was his goal to keep me bored all night, and at some point, I told him, “So far, so good.” He liked that one.

He also told me that Obama’s stimulus plan—Ray called him “O-boo-boo”—ha ha ha ha ha ha—could be explained this way: if somebody handed out a million dollars every minute since Christ was born, the sum total would not equal the debt that Obama is incurring. I countered that Bush hadn’t done such a bad job cranking up the debt either, and that touched a nerve with Ray—something you don’t want to do when a guy’s drawing your blood every three hours—and he said there really was no comparison.

He also regaled me with his boyhood memories of replacing, along with some other mischievous lads, the American flag with the Nazi swastika flag in high school, which he and the other guys (really fun guys, apparently) sieg-heiled instead of reciting the morning pledge of allegiance. Boy, was the nun pissed!

In three days, he said, he is going to the state capitol in Raleigh to participate in an anti-government rally, which he dubbed the new Boston tea party.

Or maybe it was the new Mad Hatter’s tea party—it was three in the morning, and I wasn’t taking careful notes.


In a provocative blog in The Smirking Chimp on Friday, Stephen Rose charges Republican mouthpieces with what appears to him to be possibly sedition.

Rush Limbaugh publicly longs for Barack Obama to fail, Michelle Bachmann says most of her colleagues inside the government actually hate America, Spencer Bachus has a secret list of seventeen (card-carrying?) socialists in Congress, and Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck urge their viewers to take their country back after just 80 days of the worst tyranny these fellows have ever witnessed, apparently.

To be sure, these people have a right to free speech, including harsh criticism of the President and their own peers in government, and, to borrow Jon Stewart’s catchy phrase, “to speak crazy to power.”

I have to confess that I, too, have had my faux-seditious fantasies, so I understand a little of the right wing’s emotions here. My particular daydream during the Bush Presidency was an assassination staged by me and five or six oiled-up go-go boys in gold G-strings—sort of Manchurian Candidate meets Barbarella on Brokeback Mountain.

No, I never really wanted to destroy the government, though I wanted somebody somewhere to take some sort of stand against the madness of Bush and his cohorts. Despite the crassness of the fantasy elements, my concerns were genuine and patriotic, not self-serving or nihilistic.

The fantasy was less seditious than what Bush himself was doing in dismantling the nation’s civil liberties, its military, its democratic elections, its economy, its global reputation, its educational system, and its infrastructure and in “downsizing” the government from within, in a way that was more suggestive of a will to kill and skin than to preserve and protect.

My fantasy was a way to let off steam—in the absence of effective political opposition to what Bush was doing (and to this day I blame the Democrats, as a whole, for this absence)—and I seriously would have regretted an actual assassination—though, I hasten to add, impeachment and some prison time are still very much in order.

Rose’s argument (if not his accusations) falls apart for me partly because he equates Obama with the nation—an equivocation that I find distasteful, as much so as when previous Presidents—and George W. Bush, most flagrantly of all—assumed that they and the nation were identical.

But I do see Rose’s point. Obama’s enemies have been relentless in attacking the new President not just for being no better (yet) than his predecessors, but for perpetrating an unprecedented hoax and subverting the American way in favor of … they can’t agree what … socialism? Islam? Satanism? secularism? gay rights and abortion?

Rose explains, “[T]heir strategy is immediate lie-fabrication and fact-distortion while creating an atmosphere of ‘imagined’ mistakes way before the effectiveness of policies can be measured. Are they attempting to incite many of the most unstable and paranoid people in our society to sedition?!?”

I am all for keeping a careful watch on our nation’s leaders—even while recognizing that the task is difficult, perhaps even impossible. But as reasonable people we are not free to simply fill in the gaps of our knowledge with whatever conjectures our ape-shit wet-your-britches panic inspires in us at a moment of global crisis.

So far I have seen nothing in Obama’s performance as President that suggests that he poses a distinct threat to the country or its best traditions of liberty, justice, and opportunity. For me, George W. Bush would be a hard act to follow in this respect. I have seen nothing in all the blogs and vlogs I’ve checked out so far that convinces me that Obama’s dangerousness is even close to Bush’s.

For that matter, what Obama is doing (even if misguided and ineffectual—and it may well be both or neither—time will tell) seems to be, in most respects, a continuation of the path taken by the previous three administrations, albeit with somewhat less arrogance, oiliness, and presumption of a divine right to leadership.

The rightwing rhetoric that I hear sounds opportunistic—exploiting national crises the right’s own political agendas fanned the flames of. Republicans were ready to blame Obama and liberals for the bad economy well before Bush and the Republican-majority Congress even left office.

What is more, they wrap their hysteria in high-flown appeals to liberty—which they have no interest in spreading beyond their own venal interests, the Constitution—for which they have shown little respect in the recent past, and our revered founding fathers—to whom they bear no resemblance whatsoever.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence, to judge from the document itself, did not view themselves as sabotaging the British monarchy and deliberately framed their action as, in fact, an attempt to protect the integrity of existing colonial governments—to oppose King George because he “refused his Assent to Laws” and forbad the passing of “Laws of immediate and pressing importance,” thus negating the colonists’ natural rights to, among others, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Analogies to the Boston tea party appeal to Americans’ rebel image of themselves. Despite our outward buttoned-down doughiness, we Americans like to see ourselves as James Dean—but more cautious as motorists. But the tea party of 2009 is a gimmick, a cynical and self-serving gimmick that betrays the wit and true risk-taking courage of the Boston patriots long ago.

And let’s face it, if Republicans were in charge now—but this time Republicans like McCain who (I suppose) actually wanted to save America, rather than gang-rape it while it sleeps—they would be pushing new taxes—just as Reagan and G.H.W. Bush did—and probably pumping the same big bucks into the corporate sector that Obama is—but, I suspect, with one-fifth the concern for how either of these actions affects ordinary American workers.

Obama is not perfect. He may not even be good. And he’s certainly not immune to the typical flaws of most politicians of all ages. But he has not yet revealed himself (to me, anyway) as the Great Satan that his detractors seem to think he is.


In the other party I mentioned, the Hatter’s mad party, the March Hare invites Alice to have some wine, which isn’t there, a point Alice sensibly raises. Then the March Hare criticizes Alice for daring to sit down to a party without being invited—having not in fact been invited to share whatever is actually there on the long table—a nice but familiarly quibbling point. Alice counters by saying that she was not aware that the party was just for the Hatter and his two friends, “all crowded together at one corner,” since “it’s laid for a great many more than three.”

To which the Hatter responds in the voice of conservatives and exclusionists everywhere: he tells her to get a haircut.

Sunday Beefcake: Evan

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Popular Homosexuality

This Monday a court in Ryazan, Russia, fined Nikolay Bayev and Irina Fet 1,500 rubles each (about $45 US each) for organizing a protest against homophobia. The two were charged with “popularizing homosexuality,” under a regional law banning pro-homosexual propaganda. The judge also ordered the posters proclaiming “Homosexuality is normal” and “I am proud of my homosexuality” to be destroyed.

Though, speaking only for myself, I am no more proud of my homosexuality than I am of my metabolism or shoe size, I respect the message of “pride,” while generally finding it mildly embarrassing—not that I lack self-respect or am, to even the tiniest extent, ashamed of or inhibited in my man-lust; I blush rather at the thought of feeling pride for something that is neither an accomplishment nor even a matter of slightest effort on my part.

I’m homosexual … just lucky, I guess. No, please, stay seated.

The phrase “popularizing homosexuality” makes me smile, though, and it is something I have perhaps not given enough effort to—my copy of the “homosexual agenda” having not yet arrived in the mail.

While failing to bring much mass appeal to homosexuality, I certainly have done my fair share in making it available to all … more so in my younger years, though, than recently, but I don’t like to brag.

Has homosexuality ever been popular? Well, sure, among homosexuals, but taking nothing away from some genuinely popular—though typically flash-in-the-pan—crossover lez and gay celebrities, none has ever been as popular in the mainstream as heterosexual celebrities. My experience has been that the only people more mesmerized by homosexuality than us homosexuals have been the perpetually sweaty and rather dim-witted defenders of traditional family values.

If smiling more, expressing genuine interest in others, and being sensitive to other people’s feelings were in fact keys to popularity, you’d think the gays would have outstripped the evangelicals quite some time ago.

I ask you: have the Christians ever created a TV show in which a crack team of bible-believing fundamentalists gives a makeover to some poor slob of an atheist who’s so far been unsuccessful in interjecting his worldview into state and federal laws, the currency, and bankers’ holidays? I think not. Christians, however, have succeeded in all the above and still win martyr points for suffering persecution at the hands of all-powerful secular humanists.

Also, have homosexuals ever boycotted a company sponsor of a TV show that once featured—briefly, and with agonizing self-consciousness—a kiss between a man and a woman? Do homosexuals picket high-school productions of Hello, Dolly! for its flagrant glamorization of the heterosexual lifestyle? Are jail terms ever reduced after the accused pleads “heterosexual panic,” vindicating some heinous violence on the basis that he or she was motivated by fear of being perceived as straight?

Short answer: no.

What would it take to make homosexuality popular anyway?

Well, first, you would have to take out the sex part, because a majority of those who have no kind words for us pervs have serious icks about sex in general, even the normal kind between wife-beating husbands and pill-popping wives. In favor of this approach, sexless homosexuality has proved moderately successful in the past in slightly increasing the likeability of certain non-threatening gays and lesbians, like Paul Lynde and Nancy Kulp, who then become figures of fun and ribbing and against whom some straight people like to measure their superior virility and sophistication.

Next, you might want to change the bible. Get rid of the passages about sodomites, men lying with men and women with women, and effeminacy, which invariably lead to talk of stonings, fire and brimstone raining from heaven, and pits of eternal darkness and gnashing of teeth. You can leave the passages on the abominations of eating shrimp and pork, injunctions against touching (much less fucking) during menstruation, and hating one’s own father and mother to be a true follower of Christ, as apparently these can be explained easily by understanding that they apply only to earlier dispensations or the mistranslation of Aramaic prepositions.

Finally, you will need to pretend that conservative Christianity is as valid and important as it ever was, despite evidence of decline in the past three or four years. You will also need to learn to remain politely mum about the states of Vermont and Iowa … and probably don’t mention that Massachusetts, the first state to legitimize homosexual marriage, has retained for several years the lowest divorce rate of any U.S. state. Sexually tolerant and progressive countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland have no higher divorce rates than less liberal nations … and marked increases in marriage. Well, so much for threats to the family and the institution of marriage.

But facts can be a messy business when you’re aiming for popularity, so by all means, spare the homophobes’ prejudices and delusions—they’ll like you better for it. As a rule—but, sadly, not invariably a fact—nut cases rarely persecute and kill the people they like.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

I Could Go on Screaming

Timothy Geithner said today that, while the economy is showing signs of recovery, unemployment will probably continue to rise.

Is this news?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it has been my understanding that the interests of workers and investors have almost always been opposed—that is, stocks become more valuable as public companies make greater profits, and a fairly typical way to raise profits is to downsize, that is, fire current employees … in some cases, these are employees deemed “redundant”; in others, these are employees replaceable by vendors, often overseas.

About a week ago, I heard someone on the radio saying that consumer spending has been high now for the past two months, which is to say that, except for big ticket items that require big-ticket loans—hard to get for some time now—people have continued to shop, just as we’ve been so well conditioned to do. (Wal-Mart, for instance, has been virtually recession-proof.)

What people had stopped buying were stocks, favoring instead actual goods and services, and who can blame us? Besides, now that most employers have replaced pensions and in-house retirement plans with 401(k)s and the like, and with big-end employers dropping redundant employees and viewing more and more of their employees as expendable, is it no wonder then that the rank-and-file workers (or former workers) have been stuffing their 401(k)s less and less?

Banks and auto companies and others, for all I know, have long been propping up the illusion of profits in large part by trimming expenditures—typically in the form of workers’ paychecks. Remaining employees were often urged, with a certain level of snide bathos, to “do more with less.”

So, isn’t it to be expected that a good share of America’s “economic recovery” means a recovery for investors—not so much for workers? and won’t attendant crackdowns on bad loans, foreclosures, and stricter conditions for credit mainly benefit the well off, while the working middle class and poor are … well … having to do even more with even less?

Then, later, this afternoon, while channel-surfing, I caught a bit of the 2006 documentary Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit, and the Era of Predatory Lenders, which, given my persistent state of being chin deep in debt, I owe myself to watch through someday. The bit I saw convincingly depicted the ways, nefarious but entirely legal, the better off are able to relieve the worse off of their money by exploiting the poor’s ignorance, trust, basic decency, and fear—and, having done so, to view the poor with contempt, anger, and smug self-justification for their supposed stupidity and laziness.

The part of the film I saw emphasized that it has been the high-risk borrowers—those for whom repayment at a (usually high) rate of interest is both hard and, increasingly, as fees and interest accumulate, improbable—who have provided lenders with a good 50 percent of the lenders’ profits. Mostly, these profits occur in the ways lenders are able to sell bad debt to collection agencies, but I also imagine that these borrowers, naïve in the ways of money and credit, are also less likely to be diligent in keeping an eye on their accounts, while also being less likely to seek legal escapes such as bankruptcy, either out of ignorance or out of a high sense of duty to repay a debt—even to the point of personal catastrophe.

Hasn’t a big bone of contention about those drafting recovery plans been how much (if at all) to help poor workers and to either protect their jobs or provide needed services in the absence of gainful employment—or, now anyway, savings? The recovery money—and forget for a second the fatuous ways that this money is being generated … out of thin air—is mainly aimed at CEOs and the big investors, isn’t it? And it is in these people’s interests to cut employment even further, to restore some appearance of profit, right?

After slavery, poor workers—mostly migrant or otherwise short-term employees—were encouraged to owe—and owe big—to the company store and/or to accept scrip, instead of legal tender, for payment. As time progresses, especially for the better paid workers, this system has been elaborate to the point of invisibility—but it appears that it’s been quite a while since productive labor has provided anyone with a way out of poverty and debt.

I’m a reasonably intelligent man, but, sometimes distressingly, I’ve never been money wise, partly because I have not educated myself in this area and partly because the pursuit of money has never been my particular talent or my idea of living well. I’m unlikely to change now, much to my loss, perhaps. Still, I’ve wised up enough to recognize that the cards are stacked against me and others like me, and to recognize that the media and economic savants largely sway me to identify needs antithetical to my own as requiring my preeminent consideration and self-sacrifice.

The more I come to understand the current crisis, the more it seems to me that the rot is widespread and old, old, old, going back over a hundred years, and, more often than not, masquerading as cleverness, diligence, equal opportunity, and free choice.

Sunday Beefcake

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Possibly Resistible Pleasures of Gossip Girl

Gossip Girl. It’s all new to me. I just finished Disk 4 of the first season, and I’m hooked.

I should know better. I’m not a sixteen-year-girl, for God’s sake.

These Upper East Side kids give each other $10,000 birthday gifts—and fly to Dubai at the drop of a Kangol hat. Everything I detest. Even the poor, struggling Humphrey family in Brooklyn live lives I can only envy. These are teens who look down on L.L. Bean and drink martinis.

Gossip Girl is what’s wrong with this country. And, in spite of the current economic crisis, I’m addicted.

The boys (Penn Badgley and Chace Crawford) pulled me in. They are boys in every sense of the word, not men—not in this series, anyway. Pretty pouty lips and wisecracks—how’s a quickly withering gay guy to resist?

I expected to get a quick fix and be out of there in a three count—four episodes,max, I had thought, but I just finished episode 16. I have to find out how Serena van der Woodsen is going to shed herself of her bête noire Georgina Sparks, who just outed Serena’s brother and re-insinuated herself into Serena’s life … via blackmail. I just bet that bitch Blair Waldorf has a hand in Georgina’s eventual comeuppance!

Christ, I’m so full of self-loathing right now. I’m 56 years old. I teach Joseph Conrad. This can’t be happening.

The plot is pure daytime drama, but with better cliffhangers. How can I justify the joy this series brings me? Here’s how:

The show is reasonably well acted. By its principal cast, anyway. Some of the supporting cast are hit and miss, but what ensemble cast has no weak links?

Leighton Meester (as Blair) knows her way around a sneer … and I have to love her for it. Like love her forever and ever. She’s got two or three shriveling looks I wish I could master—and before long I may be studying those looks in earnest and practicing them at my bathroom mirror. Watch out for me, world, is all I’m saying.

Badgley and Blake Lively (who plays Serena) have the thankless job of being the sweetness-and-light ingénues, though Serena is a girl with a past … quite a dark past apparently … and yet manages to look like Sandra Dee by way of Kate Hudson. Still, Badgley and Lively pull off the incredible feat of making their goody-two-shoes characters not only virtuous but bearable as well.

Crawford (as poor little rich boy Nate Archibald) has the face of a twelve year old pasted on a man’s body designed by Lladró. His face looks like it’s made of marzipan … with aquamarine eyes. His voice, though, is disconcertingly (and leadenly) butch. He has one expression, but it’s lovely. In some lights he does nothing for me at all, but two out of every five shots of him make me want to pounce and ride his bones till they’re jelly.

But mostly my crush is on Badgley, who looks like the big brother I never had … if it were possible for me to have a big brother 33 years younger than I am. Let’s just say he’s a Tony Dow for the 21st century.

Also, the series is well written. The twists, however implausible, come fast. Usually the twist is exactly what you thought was going to happen in the last episode, but you were distracted and lulled into expecting something even more improbable, only to find out that what you thought would happen, then thought could not possibly happen, does happen.

I like the show’s quips and wisecracks too. They’re practically Wycherley good sometimes—though they have a ways to go before becoming even close to Wilde. The cast deliver even the most humdrum pun as if it's Voltaire, so even when the writers nod, the actors manage to sell it. But how can one not be charmed by lines like “I came to you because I wanted to do something besides feel sorry for myself, but all it's been has been sleazy platitudes and you staring at my boobs”?

Mainly I like the show because it features teenagers having sex—romantically and uninhibitedly, even if sometimes improbably. Gossip Girl is no afternoon special. Still, it deals with the anxieties of young lust—the painful self-consciousness, the ever-present gaze of peers (here technologized by cellphone cameras, which capture every slightly scandalous squeeze and compromising drugstore purchase for the ubiquitous yet mysterious “Gossip Girl,” whose blog on Upper East Side teen life provides the story frame for the series).

Gossip Girl the series, though clever, very clever indeed, breaks no real new ground—this stuff has been dealt with in Cruel Intentions, Mean Girls, Ugly Betty, and Party of Five—but GG has its own sort of charm—and manages to be several notches above the usual TV series aimed at subverting the moral fiber of America’s youth.

And mainly, I guess, I like Gossip Girl because, of all the shows undermining our youth's moral fiber, it has the greatest chance of succeeding … and, IMHO, the current American youth’s fiber re sexual matters is excessive, lots of flatulence and bloating, with few to no tasty carbs.

Gossip Girl is all empty calories ... delicious, satisfying, addictive empty calories.


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