Saturday, September 14, 2019

Donald Trump as First Responder

By some calculations, Donald Trump is now approaching 13,000 lies during his tenure as President of the United States. The lies come via flapping lips and tweeting fingers, which is how they come with many people, perhaps most people, some of them the self-proclaimed best people. But nevertheless, they're a problem.

Far be it from me to deny the specks and logs aspect of this. For those of you who may not be familiar what I'm talking about, here is Jesus on how to view this phenomenon: "How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' while there is still a beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! First take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."

So, yeah. Ouch. In my defense as a sometimes liar, I'm going to maintain that a) I view lying as a problem, nay, as a sin (see the Ten Commandments for corroboration) and b) I strive not to lie, and when I do, I engage in an old-fashioned Christian practice known as repentance (it was once in vogue among Christians; you can look it up), confess my sin to God and to those I've lied to, and try not to do it anymore.

You can quibble about the 13,000-lie figure if you'd like. Blame it on the Fake Media if it makes you feel better. So, cut it in half. Cut it by 90%. I don't care. But I'd still like to suggest that the frequency and the ridiculousness of the lies uttered by this man is staggering and unprecedented in the annals of American politics.

Last Wednesday was the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a day on which Donald Trump again maintained that he was at Ground Zero shortly after the planes hit, in his words "to try to help in any little way that I could." He has said this before. He says it, in fact, on every anniversary of 9/11.

Except he wasn't there. He wasn't there on 9/11 of 2001. And repeating the same lie in 2002, and 2003, and so on, right up until 9/11 of 2019 doesn't make it true. You may recall that on 9/11 of 2001 there were hundreds of police and firemen at Ground Zero. And the universal witness of the thousands of people who were on the scene and survived is that the police and fire personnel served heroically in ensuring that people got out, moved away, and far away, from Ground Zero. Other than the insistent, repeated word of Donald Trump, there is no one who states that Donald Trump was at Ground Zero on 9/11. This is because he wasn't there. And even if he had been there, the police and fire personnel would have been there doing their jobs, which was to ensure that Donald Trump, and anybody else, stayed far away from Ground Zero. But he wasn't there.

You may ask yourself why Donald Trump feels the need to announce, again and again and again and again, that he was present at Ground Zero on 9/11. It's a reasonable question to ask. You may ask yourself why he feels compelled to state that the crowd at his presidential inauguration was larger than the crowd at Barack Obama's inauguration, even though aerial photographs clearly reveal that it was not. Or why he feels the need to announce not once, not twice, not three times, but four times that his father was born in Germany, even though he was born in the Bronx, New York. What does this say about him? What does it say that some people actually believe such easily disprovable bullshit? These are good questions. I'd encourage you to ask them.

It is worth noting that, according to the Washington Post, Trump has earned the dubious distinction of being the sole recipient of a new category of recognition, a sort of Lifetime Falsehood Achievement award called the "Bottomless Pinnochio." It's given to politicians who repeat the same lie at least twenty times. As of August, 2018, Trump had garnered 14 such Bottomless Pinnochio distinctions. Note that the "I was there at Ground Zero" whopper, assuming it is only repeated on 9/11 anniversaries, doesn't yet qualify for a Bottomless Pinnochio. But give him a couple more years. Better yet, don't.

I would also like to propose, gently, gently, because that damn beam hurts, that a propensity - and let's call 13,000 of them a propensity - to lie is a major character flaw. It's a major character flaw when I engage in that behavior. It's a major character flaw when presidents engage in that behavior. It erodes trust. It's a sign of moral and personal weakness. If you happen to hold to old-fashioned Christian notions, it's sinful. I try not to do it. It would be great if the Evangelical Dream President tried, even a little, not to do it.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?

We're back after an all-too-short four days. I love New Orleans.

It was an absolute sauna; mid-to-upper nineties, with ridiculously high humidity. In the French Quarter, where we stayed, the smell of weed competes with the smell of vomit, and neither odor ever quite goes away, even though the fine citizens wash down the streets every morning. Musicians - most of them ne'er-do-wells lacking in talent - play on almost every street corner, looking for that one big break. On Bourbon Street, the tourists stumble around, glassy-eyed, and convince themselves they're having a good time. Massage parlors, tarot readers, bars, bars, bars, and some of the finest restaurants in the world compete for your hard-earned dollars. Go Bucks. And they do, quickly.

Nevertheless, I genuinely love New Orleans. Tennessee Williams once wrote, "There are three cities in the U.S. - New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everything else is Cleveland." Tennessee is an asshole, but I know and understand what he was getting at. In an increasingly homogenized, franchised, big-box world, it's refreshing to come upon an actual place, a few square miles that are unlike anything else you might encounter in a big, big country. And New Orleans is such a place.

We stayed in the French Quarter mainly because it's close to everything; the music clubs on Frenchmen St., Treme - the first African American neighborhood in America, downtown with its museums, the Garden District, with its antebellum mansions and snooty Old Money Republicans. But we mainly walked through the French Quarter on our way to other places. It's the ultimate tourist trap, Disney without the mouse, and with absinthe bars instead of lemonade stands, and with actual as opposed to pre-fab architecture. Still, I'm not much of a fan of the French Quarter. The ironwork was magnificent. Many of the restaurants are fabulous. Go, by all means. But keep going.

I loved Treme, a wondrous, gritty neighborhood known as Backatown to the natives, the place where the Lyft and Uber drivers told us not to go, and where we encountered upraised eyebrows and smirks. It's rundown, more than sketchy, and sometimes downright murderous. It's the equivalent of hanging out in the housing projects on the south side of Chicago. But I'd go back in a heartbeat. My favorite moment involved crashing what appeared to be a party behind Kermit's Lounge. Kermit is Kermit Ruffins, a Grammy-winning trumpet player who runs a seedy bar in the seediest of neighborhoods, where a couple hundred African Americans and about six white people, including, yes, two 60+-year-old white people, listened to the raw, funky, and I do mean raw and funky, sounds of a hybrid brass/hip-hop band. It was a blast. There was a fistfight behind us. There was a thick cloud of weed smoke overhead, and all around us. And people could not have been kinder and more welcoming. It was, honestly, one of the musical highlights of my life, and I've seen more than my share of musical highlights.

Going to the 10 a.m. Jazz mass Sunday morning at St. Augustine Catholic Church in Treme was an absolute highlight. I was there, I kid you not, because I wanted to be at Mass, but yeah, also for the music. The choir was good, but there was one Aretha-level soloist who took it to another level. Holy Ghost Shivers down the spine great.

The soulfood at L'il Dizzy's Cafe was extraordinary. Gumbo. Skip the omelets. Get the fried chicken and the mac and cheese and the gumbo.

Treme, I love you.

And the rest of the time was fine, and fun. We saw the big mansions in the Garden District. They were big, and it was hot. We ate po boys at Johnny's Po Boys, where we stood in line in front of a dive diner for forty-five minutes or so in order to experience the privilege of inhaling wondrous fried food. Yes, the diet took a hit over the past four days.

We went to the big World War II Museum and Multi-Media Extravaganza. As museums go, it was fairly impressive, and we sat through something called a 4D Movie Experience where the big, big screen gave me vertigo and where our seats shook (literally) when the atom bomb detonated. It was kind of like being at Cedar Point in northern Ohio.

And we hung out and talked to people. At church. In restaurants. On the street. On buses. Just walking around. They were, to a person, friendly and helpful. There's such a great vibe to this city. People are understandably proud of it, and they understandably have a bit of a chip on their shoulder after Katrina. To that end, people are crazy, absolutely nuts, about the New Orleans Saints, who played their first game while we were in town. And now I remember why they're crazy. In the weeks after Katrina, a drowned and destroyed city rallied around their football team, which ended up winning the Super Bowl that year. I'm not much of a fan of the NFL. For the most part, I don't really care. But you can mark me down as a fan of the New Orleans Saints because I'm a fan of New Orleans and what the team represents to the city. Who dat.

I want to go back. Tomorrow.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

The Century of Merde

One of the greatest 200-word stretches of the English language you'll ever encounter:

"Today is my thirtieth birthday and I sit on the ocean wave in the schoolyard and wait for Kate and think of nothing. Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies - my only talent - smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall - on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire."
- Walker Percy, from The Moviegoer

I love this man. I love him because he could write that and still show up for Mass every week, which he did all through his life, and because he meant those 200 words and because he meant it when he showed up for Mass, too, and he didn't see any contradictions between them. The Evangelical world would be toting up the "merdes" and the "shits" and clucking disapprovingly, all the while completely missing the point, which is that it's tough to be alive and to stay alive in a world led by dunderheads, and that you need a whole mess of faith to get by. 

Percy didn't spend his entire life in New Orleans, but he loved the city and was formed by it. He wrote:

“New Orleans is both intimately related to the South and yet in a real sense cut adrift not only from the South but from the rest of Louisiana, somewhat like Mont St. Michel awash at high tide. One comes upon it, moreover, in the unlikeliest of places, by penetrating the depths of the Bible Belt, running the gauntlet of Klan territory, the pine barrens of South Mississippi, Bogalusa, and the Florida parishes of Louisiana.” 

That's where I'm heading, although I'll miss the build-up by skipping the surrounding Klan territory and flying directly in to Louis Armstrong Airport. I wouldn't mind searching out Percy's old home in Carrollton, making a pilgrimmage to celebrate and honor the man who proclaimed the century of merde. He wasn't wrong. I'm also looking forward to attending the Jazz Mass at St. Augustine Church in Treme. He wasn't wrong about that, either. 

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Intellectual Humility and the Assault on Truth

I change my mind. This happens relatively frequently, and for all kinds of reasons. My wife hands me a dessert that is supposed to taste like chocolate but is made from zucchini and something called goji berries. In my mind I tell myself, “This cannot possibly be any good.” But I take a bite and, to my utter astonishment, it tastes okay. It doesn’t really taste like chocolate, but it’s not bad. It’s edible. It’s more than edible. So I change my mind. The concept “zucchini/goji berry concoctions are bad” undergoes a transformation to something like “zucchini/goji berry concoctions aren’t as good as chocolate, let’s not get crazy here, but they’re okay.”

It happens. I adapt. I change. So I’m wondering what the zucchini/goji berry equivalent might be in modern American political discourse. Here is an article that argues for intellectual humility. And here is a cogent and well-mannered sentence from the article that serves pretty well as a thesis:

“We can similarly view intellectual humility as the wisest balance between, on the one hand, the belief that truth exists and is objective, and on the other, the knowledge that our access to the truth is subjective and therefore partial. Understanding this balance suggests that the search for the truth we revere is best undertaken in recognition of our limitations and in collaboration with others.

Who’s going to disagree with that? Not me. But when I drill down a bit, and when I try to apply the concepts to present-day American life and culture, I get stymied. For instance, I encounter on one side the contention offered by seventeen U.S. intelligence agencies and reported by The New York Times and The Washington Post that Russia directly interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and on the other side the contention offered by Donald Trump that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

Intellectual humility, or the sorry version of it that exists in my heart and mind, insists that I don’t really know, that my access to the truth is subjective, colored by biased sources and hampered by my own limited understanding. Also, it insists on noting that I’ve been wrong before, about all kinds of things more important than healthy desserts, and that I could be wrong about present-day American life and culture.

Duly noted, my intellectually prideful side tells my intellectually humble side. But try this on for size, you quivering, prevaricating mass of spineless non-convictions:  while you shrug your shoulders and whimper, there are fundamental tenets of what it means to be an American, and what it means to be an adherent of Truth with a capital T at stake. Seventeen, count ‘em, seventeen U.S. intelligence agencies offer remarkably consistent testimony about Russian interference. The New York Times and The Washington Post, winners of multiple Pulitzer Prizes for journalistic integrity and excellence, report the same findings. Against them you have Donald Trump, who literally lies about the most silly and easily disprovable things, including the country where his father was born, the size of the crowd that attended his presidential inauguration, the notion that he won the popular vote in 2016, the belief that Mexico is paying for a border wall, and that somewhere deep in the unrecorded and hidden annals of U.S. history there was something known as “the Bowling Green Massacre.”

It’s not a fair fight. It’s not. I am all in favor of intellectual humility. I am not in favor of turning off one's brain. I am not in favor of denying what can be objectively verified. I am not in favor of calling truth lies or lies truth. I am against those things. I think they’re bad ideas, and I always will think so.

I will try to keep an open mind. Really, I promise. And zucchini/goji berries? Not bad.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Norman Fucking Rockwell

Lana Del Rey's new album "Norman Fucking Rockwell" is the perfect soundtrack for our MAGA times; an instagram of the apocalypse, as vapid and as revealing as a tweet from the presidential commode.

And life couldn't be better, you know?

They're still shootin' 'em up in Texas, boys; little 17-month-old kids, along with assorted men and women, so it was time to pass a new law that means guns for teachers and guns in foster homes and guns in churches. Thoughts and prayers. It had been a couple weeks, so Texas was due.

The hurricane's gonna sink the coast, but Disney's still open, and the stock market is tanking, but college football is underway, and you didn't really count on Social Security and Medicare anyway, did you, and the big election is still open to the highest foreign bidder, and no we don't need to reform a damn thing, and everybody's pro-life until somebody's born, and the Christian Church is in bed with racists, holy fuck indeed, and everywhere there is winning, winning, winning.

God bless Amerikkka. Norman Fucking Rockwell.

I miss Long Beach and I miss you, babe
I miss dancing with you most of all
I miss the bar where the Beach Boys would go
Dennis's last stop before Kokomo

Those nights were on fire
We couldn't get higher
We didn't know that we had it all
But nobody warns you before the fall

And I'm wasted
Don't leave, I just need a wake-up call
I'm facing the greatest
The greatest loss of them all
The culture is lit and I had a ball
I guess I'm signing off after all

I miss New York and I miss the music
Me and my friends, we miss rock 'n roll
I want shit to feel just like it used to
When, baby, I was doing nothin' most of all

The culture is lit and I had a ball
I guess that I'm burned out after all

And I'm wasted
Don't leave, I just need a wake-up call
I'm facing the greatest
The greatest loss of them all
The culture is lit and I had a ball
I guess that I'm burned out after all

If this is it, I'm signing off
Miss doing nothin' most of all
Hawaii just missed that fireball
L.A. is in flames, it's getting hot
Kanye West is blonde and gone
"Life on Mars" ain't just a song
I hope the live stream's almost on

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Trickle Down, Way Back

The recent PBS series on the Gilded Age of America (roughly 1870 to 1900) was illuminating. Unless you're an astute student of history, it's one of those eras that most Americans tend to gloss over. Lots of industrial growth, right? Railroads and steel mills and big banks, J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie and the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts. Lots of ostentatious wealth. Robber barons might be in there somewhere, too, which probably wasn't good. Waves of immigrants - the original wretched refuse and their teeming shores - doing the backbreaking labor to construct the Biltmores and the Breakers. Maybe some strikes and some union busting and some head busting. That was all part of it, too.

What I didn't know, and what was particularly interesting, was that trickle-down economics originated with the plutocrats of the 1880s and 1890s. All that newly generated wealth was supposed to find its way to the hands of the laborers. It didn't happen, of course. While Morgan and Carnegie became the richest men in the world, 20% of Americans were out of work. They lived through the worst economic depression that the country had seen, or would see, until the 1930s. But trickle-down economics was the campaign message of Grover Cleveland and William McKinley, and they convinced enough poor laborers to vote for them that they were elected President of the United States.

It turns out that Ronald Reagan (and many conservative American politicians after him) was preaching an old, old sermon. It was smoke and mirrors then. It's smoke and mirrors now because it discounts the fundamental greed and selfishness of human beings, and the role of government in enforcing a safety net that ensures that citizens - all citizens - will be fed, and housed, and provided with medical care, and supported through indigence and old age.

We haven't learned. Much of the rest of the world has. But we probably never will.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

All the News Not Fit to Print

I periodically check in to State Media (TV and website) to see what's being covered. I do this because I've long maintained that State Media is its own private infotainment universe, pitched unerringly to the Cult, and that there would be no way to maintain the vicelike grip on the Cult if the three-way shuttle between White House staff, State Media reporters, and Dancing With the Stars contestants was ever interrupted by reports of what the rest of the world was talking about.

The news, of course, is very much up for grabs. This is how we've ended up with the parallel but diametrically opposed universes in which we now live and move and have our being. The news consists of not only whatever spin is given to the common stories shared by State Media and the rest of Planet Earth, but also in what is never covered at all; what is never reported and acknowledged as being newsworthy. And this week has been a doozy for what has not been covered by State Media.

Donald Trump tweeting reports by a wackadoodle conspiracy theorist that he is viewed as "The King of Israel" and "The Second Coming of God" and looking to the skies and proclaiming himself as "The Chosen One" a couple hours later? Non-news, according to State Media. Nada, to use a word sometimes spoken by immigrants that Donald Trump probably doesn't like. While the rest of the world was looking worryingly at Trump and conjecturing about Messiah complexes and mental illness (yes, the non-State Media is also sometimes given to hyperbole), State Media gave us sub-National-Inquirer stories entitled "Attorney Accused of Killing Man with Mercedes After Golf Ball Hit Car" and "Why a Woman Was Furious Her Sister-in-Law Gave Birth on Her Wedding Day." You have to cover something, I suppose. The Cult would simply never know that much of Planet Earth views the so-called leader of the free world as dangerous and unhinged. It simply wasn't news.

None of this should come as a great surprise. It's the same trend that has been evident for years. It was just particularly glaringly apparent this week. But if you can stomach it, I do recommend that you spend some time with State Media. It's a good lesson in how propaganda works, and how silence still speaks volumes. The question is, and always should be, "Can what I don't know hurt me?" The answer is still Yes.