The Clown Prince of Money

What’s with that bomber jacket? Everything about this man (well, almost everything) is appalling. The most recent example is the now-infamous interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin.

Since the internet is now full of foul language, who can be shocked? What’s shocking is the childish way Elon thinks. When his advertisers fled from “X” he responded like they were bullying him (shades of his youth), blackmailing him. Sounds to me like a schoolyard incident with a schoolyard response.

Jonathan Chait called him out on this:

In general, blackmail is a crime where the criminal demands payment from the victim. It does not involve the criminal refusing to give money to the victim for a service they don’t want. . . . Specifically, declining to spend advertising money on a platform because the owner not only permits crazy and offensive comments to proliferate on it but also personally contributes his own crazy and offensive comments to the site, is not only not blackmail, it’s not even in the same universe as blackmail.

We put up with Elon’s conspiracies and Asperger-ish behavior for two reasons. One, he’s the world’s richest man, reason enough for some to ratify his charisma; and two, the U.S. government has sold out to him with its total dependence on contracts with his firms Space-X and Starlink. So we are all now in bed with a madman.

Tesla Cybertruck

The truck’s many flaws are recounted here, and they may be sufficient to kill it. But the competition isn’t really from Ford or GM or Ram. Its aim is to attract the people who bought Hummers, the truck of poseurs and polluters. Will there be enough of these to buy something that looks like it was “assembled in a dude’s basement”? Others think it looks “very sexy.”

Elon, as we know, is a risk-taker. And maybe the Intelligencer had it right: “Making expensive niche products for people with too much money tends to be a really great business, and Musk has made himself the richest person in the world by being exceptionally good at that.”

Well, the problem is that he’s got to find new buyers in a market that’s declining. EV trucks are getting more expensive and fewer people seem to want them. We hope this trend will change, but the costly and flamboyant Cybertruck isn’t likely to do it.

“History is not the past. It is the present.”

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory

So said James Baldwin in that fine mashup movie (2017) I Am Not Your Negro. It’s the most penetrating thought I know about how time works in the human mind. We never consider that everything we experience in this life is immediately relegated to the past. What we think of as the future is merely a projection of what we know. And the present is a kind of phantasm that, we think, gives us creative power over the ravaging effects of time.

So, as Einstein observed, our concept of time is essentially a fiction. Of course we need that fiction to survive and to manipulate the reality we create for ourselves. Part of that fictional reality is the notion that time always moves forward, that one facet of human life is the spurious notion of progress. In an earlier post I talked about this and referenced Carlo Rovelli’s wonderful book, The Order of Time.

But none of us are physicists like Einstein or Rovelli. We rely on some notion of an instantaneous present to exert control on human events. In Gaza, Israel’s reaction to Oct. 7 appeared to take no account of how it had created over time an intolerable situation for the Palestinians. When a country (or a movement) feels its survival threatened, statecraft and history go out the window. One sees this happening globally now.

I’m reading Naomi Klein’s recent book Doppelganger, which I recommend if you like good intellectual theorizing about why the world is so fucked up. She offers a way to reckon with not only the historical crimes of neoliberalism but a sense of how we are all looking in the warped mirror of doubleness.

Part of what she’s telling us is that we’ve lost our sense of history. If history is indeed what makes up our present, it’s no mystery why the world is floundering. Nations and people have forgotten who they are and how they got there.

Another rather more highfalutin piece by Thomas Mallon explores the ramifications of nostalgia and the social-political pain inflicted on those who believe in it, “a mental quicksand” at least for some. He also talks about the vagaries of memory and the permanence of the past in our lives as we age.

What we are always most nostalgic for is, in fact, the future, the one we imagined only to see it turn into the past. . . . But then comes the growing realization that short-term memory has nothing like the staying power of the long-term variety. Mentally, the seven ages of man speed up their full-circling, until the past’s sovereignty over the present is complete. The further along one gets, the more one understands that the past is indeed another country, and that, moreover, it is home. Long-term memory’s domination of short may be a hardwired consolation that nature and biology have mercifully installed in us.

Let me attest to the power of long-term memory as we age. Oldsters typically are bugged by short-term memory loss—forgetting your keys, blanking on a name, etc. But amazingly we remember the lyrics of old pop songs when we were kids, names of World War II battles, the food we ate at a long-past dinner, and so on. Long-term memory becomes an integral part of one’s present—a typical and surprising result of getting old. Our “present” has expanded.

Down the Rabbit Hole in Gaza

I guess I’m one of those Jews who doesn’t support Israel in its mad recriminative effort to uproot Hamas at all costs. Yet the terrorists may have provoked their own eventual demise. So thinks Netanyahu and his government. Or maybe, as others have said, they are just creating more terrorists.

These butchers brutally murdered some 1,200 Israelis on October 7, and one month later over 10,000 Palestinians in Gaza had been killed. One does not expect proportionality in warfare but Israel’s violent response has cost it dearly with a preponderance of people around the world. The conflict has pushed many down the rabbit hole of partisan madness.

I grew up in a 1950s environment of strong anti-Zionist feeling, when the establishment of the new nation and its purpose were hotly debated. I could never understand why some Jews were so against establishing a homeland, given the horrors of the war just ended.

In the many years since, the messy history of Israel’s relations with Palestine has rendered Israel dominant at every turn, and there have been countless rabbit holes in that adventure. The Guardian just published a strong piece on how the West (mainly the G7 countries—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, the European Union, and the United States) “represents a long history of racial and imperial arrogance.”

When the Israeli defence minister declared on 9 October a “complete siege” in which “no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel” would be allowed into blockaded Gaza, and called its 2.3 million inhabitants “human animals”, there was not a single protest from an official in a western capital.

Leftists everywhere are now protesting en masse, and so is much of the rest of the world, some calling Israel an apartheid state. To them, President Biden, staunch defender of Israel, has fallen down his own rabbit hole.

I think we’re all victims of very partial media reportage about this war. Just contrast what you see on CNN and Al Jazeera. I watch a lot of CNN but often mute or turn off much of its constant, repetitious coverage of Gaza and the endless interviews with survivors and the hostage families. Some would say these people are being exploited. Others just love the CNN coverage. Al Jazeera is less biased but still avoids any such interviews, and the Israeli stance is hardly mentioned. Arab media is for the Arabs.

A former CNN’er, Arwa Damon says:

Space needs to be made for Jewish and Israeli voices on such [Arab-funded] outlets. Not all Israelis support their government’s policies, the illegal settlements, or the oppression or occupation of Palestine. And not all Jews across the world support Zionism or what Israel has done.

The pictures and the accounts of the war on most American media are repetitive and sometimes just played for their histrionics. Such images are appalling but that approach seems to work, as most Americans are sympathetic, believing the Israeli response to Hamas is in some degree justified. While a large, growing contingent—and not just those on the left—judges quite differently. The world faces another huge moral challenge.

Send in the Clowns, One More Time

It’s not comforting to know that these two goons are still at large. Or that politics has lost some of the comic overtones I spoke about a year and a half ago in this rerun. I’ve come to miss the days of bread and circuses because now it’s become a carnival of madness.

The circus was actually under a big tent when I was a kid. It featured wild animals jumping through fiery hoops, high-wire acrobats a hundred feet or more in the air, and of course the clown car. I loved watching a dozen or so people emerge from a small red coupe, and the crowd roared in delight.

You know where this is going, right? In the Select Committee hearings [and now with threats of jail time] the Trump lackeys are bailing out, repudiating for the world the Big Lie they all formerly endorsed, emerging en masse from Trump’s red coupe. How they all could manage to fit in that car, with such doubts about their boss’s sanity, is the mystery. Yet finally it is no mystery that they are trying to save their skins.

Like so much of what passes for politics now, I find this full of comic overtones—like something Kafka could have written. Our late-night comedians have big problems getting laughs from Trumpian politics. So many clowns have jumped out of the car that the gag just isn’t funny anymore. “But there is also a sense, as the president talks openly about defying the results of the election, that satire has not accomplished what its champions believed it could. Even the professionals seem disillusioned.”

Satire works best as a dark form of irony that makes its object look ridiculous. The audience must be in on the joke, or the attempt falls flat. One can cite Jonathan Swift, as I did regarding guns, and most people either don’t know who Swift was or they find the comparison bogus. Such are the perils of irony. If you mock Trump with humor you’re up against some sixty percent of Republicans who soberly continue to believe the Big Lie.

But I still like the metaphor of the circus. For those who pay any attention to it, politics has become entertainment for the masses. The media could not survive without it. The poet Juvenal said this in Roman times: “Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt.” Are the Select Committee hearings merely a distraction or a diversion for most people? They aren’t “blood sport” for most people, as in ancient Rome, though they might lead to that.

Folks like Rudy Giuliani can also be expected to provide comic relief, as when the old drunk urged Trump to contest the results on election night. Or the wonderful press conference he hosted at the Four Seasons Landscaping Service. John Eastman, chief clown to the president, kept pushing for a plan to kick the election back to the states, even while he acknowledged its illegality.

For many, the very gravity of the hearings indicates that real dangers are lurking. So do the words of the witnesses. Yet a strong sense of artificiality often pervades. We hope the acrobats don’t slip and fall, even as we expect that they might. That tension is part of the circus appeal. Here we hope the clowns will go to jail though we know they may not.

The Bowels

You might call this the inside story. It’s not my purpose here to break the centuries-old taboo about the subject of poop. Rather, the idea is to justify its importance since everybody does it. And many of us enjoy talking about it—despite others like my mother who found it disgusting.

I heard a lot of toilet humor growing up, much of it generated by my father. He once brought home a record album called “The Farting Contest,” which featured remarkable noises and bawdy British humor. For that moment, at least, shit brought us together.

A college friend, John, told how when he was young he set fire to the toilet seat while lighting toilet paper to disguise the smell of what he called “stinkies.” His father was not pleased. Kids, we know, are into poop from an early age. In high school, Ed remembered his sister’s son coming down to a breakfast of pork sausages: “Look, mommy, grunt-grunt for breakfast.” Such stories remain blithely commonplace. My friend Phil once described an aristocratic fat woman devouring hors d’oeuvres at a cocktail party: “She was eating like she had seven rectums.” And so it goes.

Scatology in literature goes back to medieval times (see Pantagruel and Rabelais, for instance) and, before that, Aristophanes. In modern high-brow literature it became increasingly taboo, though not for present-day comedians. Serious writers have seemed to avoid it, though Nathaniel West wrote a crazy satire in The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931) in which the hero journeys through the intestines of the Trojan horse.

Personally, as some of you know, I’ve been afflicted with Irritable Bowel Syndrome for many years. OK, I’ll invoke the taboo here so as not to go into details. But I will say that the situation has made me very aware of how our gastro organs work and don’t work. We still don’t understand much of this.

Sex and porn are now all over the internet despite the efforts of right-wing Christians and others to stop them. Scatology, I predict, will be the next meme because poop is part of our under-culture and, like all “bad” things, it cannot be suppressed. The whole idea of breaking taboos is part of what created the internet. Trump’s gold toilet could well become the new symbol of our age.

“Political power grows out of
the barrel of a gun.”

Thus spoke Mao Zedong back in 1927, and I heard this aphorism used a lot by radicals in the 1960s. The phrase was also in Mao’s “Little Red Book,” a sort of bible for revolutionaries. We know how all that worked out.

The obsession with guns in America is long and deep, and you’ll be happy to know I won’t go into it here. We do know that the GOP is in the throes of it and has been for years. Their defense of guns takes many forms, but mostly they want to talk about the mental health of those who perpetrate mass shootings.

After the horrific Lewiston shootings, the newly-minted House Speaker, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La), told Sean Hannity the following:

Saying that it was “not the time” to talk about gun control, he told Hannity, “The problem is the human heart. It’s not guns, it’s not the weapons. At the end of the day, we have to protect the right of the citizens to protect themselves, and that’s the Second Amendment, and that’s why our party stands so strongly for that.”

This man, after all, is an authority on the human heart since he’s a devout Christian and has shown a total avoidance of rationality about guns. In the past he “has blamed abortion and the teaching of evolution on mass shootings.” Governor DeSantis also announced that red flag laws wouldn’t have worked in Lewiston. Just use involuntary commitments to get the killers off the street. And yet the law has worked in Florida and likely would have worked in Lewiston.

Let these imbecile GOPers look to their own mental health. As far as guns are concerned, the inmates are running the asylum. Sometime someone may take up arms against these fanatical deniers. Maybe Mao was right.

Fitness at This Age

Here is my elliptical trainer, a great exercise machine bought several years ago with the best of intentions. It now serves mainly as a clothes horse, though I do get on it and work out occasionally. Somewhat occasionally.

When a friend moved away from here two years ago he gave his little-used rowing machine to another friend on whose back porch it now sits gathering dust. We elders are prone to fight exercise as much as some others enjoy it. We know regular exercise does us a world of good, so why is it such a battle to engage with it?

I’ll speak for myself. It’s because our brain turns off all our good motivations to work out and do it regularly. We manufacture other, more pressing things to do. Or we promise ourselves to get on the old ellipto today and something always comes up. Or we just find it boring. Or we get turned off because we get winded easily or have a cramp.

Usually, it’s just plain avoidance, and we older people are pretty good at that. The older you get, the more one gives in to whims and capriciousness. At least I do. We dismiss the joys of having a fit, well-toned body. For a while before I moved here I was a pretty regular gym rat, had a good bod for someone my age, and enjoyed a better mental attitude. I miss that and still do nothing about it.

I played sports and swam competitively in high school and college, then quit because it took so much time away from drinking and partying. I miss the good health and good feelings it brought, and when I get in a pool now I get winded quickly. I’ve had a few medical problems and use them as an excuse to be sedentary. All this is mental evasion.

There is so much foofaraw about how important it is for oldsters to just keep walking. Well, Oaxaca’s sidewalks are like tank traps, and I’m not so steady on my feet these days. So it’s easy to promise yourself you’ll do a session on the ellipto instead. Consequently, I’ve gotten pretty skinny and make regular vows to put on some muscle.

When you get sufficiently fed up with the sedentary life, you may finally get serious about exercise. As I’ve suggested, it’s also a matter of vanity. I don’t want to end up looking like a bag of bones. On the other hand, being with people who take physical culture so intensely is a real turn-off. Look what it did to Jim Jordan, whose devotion to dominance and aggression through wrestling made him the prick that he is, an “unyielding combatant, whether grappling on the mat or in the halls of Congress.”

Without memory, there is no culture.

I heard via the grapevine that some folks consider my posts too negative. Well, if the world was just about flowers, good dogs and sunshine, we could all wish it were so. Maybe my critics want relief from the incredible amount and frequency of bad/horrible news that we hear each day. Anyhow, you’re always going to get my unvarnished opinions here.

Many seemed to like my last post, Nobody’s thinking about you, which was really how the present culture fails old people. Today, let’s talk about how it fails all of us.

First, a bit of good news. A judge in Charlottesville, where my family lives, just advanced the claim to melt down the Robert E. Lee statue that has caused so much commotion. The City Council gave the statue to a group whose plan is to melt it down and use the ingots for local artists to create something new and noble. The group behind the effort is Swords into Plowshares.

So about the decline of what we used to call culture: Wikipedia defines it this way, “Culture is an umbrella term which encompasses the social behavior, institutions, and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits of the individuals in these groups.”

I take it personally, and we all do. It’s expressed in how we dress, eat, speak to each other, experience art, and all the rituals we follow. It’s how we engage with the world and react to it. Traditionally—especially in the arts and before the digital world came on—progress, understanding and creativity came from how we learned and created from history.

Elie Weisel gave us my title for today. Here’s the rest of what he said: “Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” You can take memory in several ways here. He seems to mean that history is how we remember it.

But our present culture isn’t built that way. It thrives on chaos, narcissism, and detachment from what our forebears considered culture. Jason Farago wrote a long comprehensive view (Why Culture Has Come to a Standstill) of what’s wrong—and sometimes right—in present day, mostly pop, culture. Being an old putz I miss most of these references. But the point he makes is this:

We are now almost a quarter of the way through what looks likely to go down in history as the least innovative, least transformative, least pioneering century for culture since the invention of the printing press . . . The suspicion gnaws at me (does it gnaw at you?) that we live in a time and place whose culture seems likely to be forgotten. Our museums, studios and publishing houses can bring nothing new to market except the very people they once systematically excluded.

And the public has been willing to buy and promote, with a few exceptions, shards of crap. Ray Bradbury noted: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Well, the audience is there; the problem is what they are reading and reacting to.

Cultural decline comes also from what Farago calls the age of digital underachievement:

But more than the economics, the key factor can only be what happened to us at the start of this century: first, the plunge through our screens into an infinity of information; soon after, our submission to algorithmic recommendation engines and the surveillance that powers them. The digital tools we embraced were heralded as catalysts of cultural progress, but they produced such chronological confusion that progress itself made no sense. . . . If there is one cultural work that epitomizes this shift, where you can see our new epoch coming into view, I want to say it’s “Back to Black,” by Amy Winehouse.

If you like this grim take on “our new epoch,” let me know. The internet and its pop culture has become a zoo for diseased animals. Some of the consequences are explained here. I know, I’m ending on a sour note and I wish things were different.

“Nobody’s thinking about you.”

Such are the wise words of essayist Roger Rosenblatt, who goes on to explain, “The rules were less about aging than about living generally, one of the first being ‘Nobody’s thinking about you.’”

But then he does get into aging:

In old age that’s true in spades. And that’s another of aging’s unnerving surprises. You disappear from the culture, or rather, it disappears from you. Young women and men shown on TV as world famous, you’ve never heard of. New idioms leave you baffled. You are Rip Van Winkle without having fallen asleep.

Old people don’t seem aware of how prevalent and isolating the phenomenon is. They are just out of it, culturally speaking, though many get a daily charge from following all the Trump tripe. I’m getting sick of that.

Then there are the things that bug me so much I refuse to follow them. Like the chatter about gender pronouns. Gender sensitivity seems to be the new norm with liberals. I really don’t care to get into it. Let them live their own lives but don’t ever use “they” as a pronoun for one person.

As Rosenblatt noted, who are those young celebrities on TV you’ve never heard of? The meaning of so many internet acronyms eludes me. Pop music and hip hop are mostly garbage. Who can get interested in most of the new movies? How much can you really grasp of the controversies over AI? And how much more do you need to know about Kevin McCarthy and Matt Gaetz?

There is clearly a large audience for this kind of stuff or we wouldn’t be constantly confronted with it. Older people are just not part of it. They have their own problems, like trying to master their smartphones. The new culture ignores us, and it may be time for us to ignore it.

Special Report: Two Hours of Boredom and Disgust


Barry Blitt, The New Yorker

If you skipped Wednesday night’s GOP Debate you did yourself a favor. The candidates did themselves no favors. I watched nearly the full two hours, not expecting enlightenment but maybe some good slash-and-burn. It didn’t happen. Toward the end mi compañera said, “It’s just a circus.” My response, “Wake me when it’s over.” It was likely a waste of time for the candidates too.

Most of the media critics I read found no robust attacks on Trump, weak moderators, constant interruptions and ducking of the question, irrelevant posturing and pontificating. Some reported this in their non-judgmental media way; a few spoke the truth. Here is some of what the sharper ones said.

  • Even before the debate, Vox’s Zack Beauchamp called it: “Tonight’s Republican primary debate is not a real event. It is a performance, a show, a pantomime: a shiny object with virtually no relevance to the outcome of the 2024 presidential primary.”
  • Politico’s Jack Shafer, on Trump’s skipping the debate: ”in favor of giving a competing speech in Detroit amid the UAW strike as if he’s already the nominee. This is like a manager trying to get the umps to call a ball game in his favor in the fourth inning just because his team is leading 5-0 and, on top of that, saying his lead makes him deserving of the World Series trophy, too.”
  • Comedian Jay Black: “Chris Christie frames Joe Biden being married to Dr Jill Biden as him ‘sleeping with a member of the teacher’s union,’ which is a statement so disingenuous and unserious that it might actually tear open the fabric of the universe.”
  • Max Burns in The Hill: “Yesterday’s debate showcased a Republican Party consumed by anger: anger at themselves, at Donald Trump, at Mexico, at the whole wide world. Voters looking for a positive conservative vision of the future should look elsewhere. This GOP is fixated not on building a better future but on settling scores both foreign and domestic without concern for the long-term consequences.”
  • Moira Donegan in The Guardian: “The debate was rancorous, chaotic and punctured by statements so hateful, outlandish and extreme that they made an impression even by the current Republican party’s very low standards.”

Moira also mentioned something I thought of: the presence of Reagan, in whose Library the debate was held: “His shadow loomed over the candidates onstage at the Reagan library like former Air Force One, which hung from the mezzanine above their line of gleaming podiums. One was tempted to imagine, more than once, what would happen if it fell.”

Not to condone such a tragedy, I too thought about the plane falling and wiping out a couple of hundred GOP voters. So much of what the Republicans have become stems from Reagan and his brainless formulation, ”Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Let alone all the supply side and trickle down bullshit that followed. Who but a masochist would stay tuned for the third debate in November?