Phil Croaks at 99

With bated breath many Brits were waiting for the Duke to turn 100, but he skipped out early. So now the plaudits are flowing in everywhere, praising the man who preserved the English spirit and supported the Queen in perpetuity.

Here’s what Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “Like the expert carriage driver that he was, he helped to steer the royal family and the monarchy so that it remains an institution indisputably vital to the balance and happiness of our national life.”

What a metaphor. You may remember that a couple of years ago the Duke injured two women in a crash and totaled his Land Rover (immediately replaced by another). He finally apologized and gave up his driver’s license after a major media outcry forced his hand. Noblesse oblige is not dead.

Many good things are now being said about Prince Philip. His stoicism could be stifling but his character was to persevere in the impossible role of Prince Consort. He really did exemplify some typically British traits, as Anthony Lane put it in an excellent tribute: “The Duke was clever, restless, resilient, brusque, hot-humored, at one with the deep ocean, and oddly unreadable: pretty much as we expect our gods to be.”

What strikes me most about the Duke is how condescending his quips and gaffes could be. Otto English called him “the bigoted family uncle who couldn’t be trusted in company. Famed for his gaffes, he evermore resembled the kind of character Sacha Baron Cohen might dream up, an exaggerated version of what a xenophobic member of the English aristocracy might be.”

The Washington Post has tracked some of his more egregious comments:

During a 1986 visit to China, he told a British student: “If you stay here much longer, you will go home with slitty eyes.”

To a driving instructor in Scotland in 1995, he said: “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to get them through the test?”

During a trip to Canada in 1976: “We don’t come here for our health. We can think of other ways of enjoying ourselves.”

To a group of female Labour Party lawmakers during a reception at Buckingham Palace: “Ah, so this is feminist corner then.”

When he met Nigeria’s president, who was wearing traditional robes, he declared: “You look like you are ready for bed.”

The Duke wasn’t just sneering. He seemed to favor a kind of native condescension that the Brits hadn’t seen since the days of Evelyn Waugh. Philip’s humor often had that edge.

There is very little of that in the U.S. Where are the honestly condescending put-downs? Our late-night comedians are a weak substitute. The only laughable substitute we have is Joe Manchin talking about bipartisanship, and he’s not funny.

Gaetz, Trump, and Fred Hersch

The besotted nitwit Matt Gaetz is under investigation, and the libs are cheering. Why not? It may be the only way we can call such idiots to account. Here is Salon’s somewhat overheated account of the Gaetz interview with Tucker Carlson, part of which I watched and giggled over.

You know the story by now, in particular how the Repubs have all walked away from him. So has Fox News, on which he was formerly a fixture. Gaetz has absolutely no talent except for parroting Trump’s lies, so why would anyone buy an ersatz product when the original was still available?

This piece just came my way and says it all:

Donald Trump may be a man with a very limited set of talents, but he has learned to apply those talents to masterful effect. His talent is to employ shameless lies to create an image of himself in the media, and then use that media to bilk people. . . .

Shane Goldmacher reports at the New York Times that Trump’s campaign bilked donors out of tens of millions of dollars. The scam was not complicated. When people gave them money online, the donations came with pre-checked boxes authorizing the campaign to take donations every single week. They needed to uncheck the box to stop the automatic transfer.

Gaetz is into young women instead of money, and apparently is just as reckless as his boss was and just as addicted to lies. And to sex.

Why are we all so intolerably tired of this? Because, number one, it’s vapid and boring. After so much media exposure to rampant malfeasance and misdeeds one has to retreat and change focus. I did that today by watching and listening to Fred Hersch on one of Jazz Standard’s virtual concerts. It was great music that helped cleanse my politically overtaxed mind.

I’ve spent many evenings listening to the Mingus Big Band and others at the Jazz Standard, now closed owing to Covid. Those nights have always been highlights of my trips to New York, restocking my jazz life and renewing connections with musicians. Fred Hersch is one of those people who constantly redefines jazz, and he did that for me today.

A few years ago he wrote a gripping memoir, Good Things Happen Slowly, which defined his life as a gay white man who brought new elements to the music and gained him respect as a true innovator. How utterly different a story from the political crap we feast on today.

I cite this musical experience to say that many people are fed up with the far-right horseshit that we are overexposed to. Or the cheap pop culture that too many feed on. Real art has too few followers, but it can be the vaccine to inoculate us from the many poisons in the political air.

CNN Is Tottering

“More people watch CNN than any other news source,” they tell us, another assertion of the demented state of the populace. But for world news in Mexico there isn’t much choice. In English it’s CNN International or Fox News. I finally signed up with SKY TV to get both and also to watch SKY’s sports coverage.

It was fun for a while. Then it seemed CNN was dumping ads and promos on us every five minutes. And they have kept repeating the same ones constantly: Africa has apparently taken on CNN as a wholly owned subsidiary; more recently, it’s Japan. And we continue getting the same old promos for their tired anchors like Becky (“It all Stahts Heah”) Anderson.

I just had to boycott much of this stuff. When the commercials came on, I switched to Fox, than back to CNN after getting nauseated with Tucker and his guests. There is no loyalty possible on cable. The news media informs us, corrupts us, and too often deceives us.

The latest instance of that is CNN’s recent two-hour special, “Covid War: The Pandemic Doctors Speak Out,” which came on last Sunday and will be repeated this coming Friday (8:00 ET). Here is a good positive review of the show if you didn’t see it. You should see it.

Six principal doctors, including Fauci, were interviewed by Sanjay Gupta, as the show tries to set the record straight about how the Trump administration politicized the pandemic from the beginning and caused many thousands of unnecessary deaths.

The doctors’ revelations are sometimes gripping, sometimes trite. Yet often they seem trying to rehabilitate their reputations, glossing over past remarks and attempts to placate the Trump crew and keep their jobs. Deborah Birx is the prime example of that, and her remarks testify to the pressure she felt.

Says Vox, “That the Trump White House was engaged in politically motivated wishful thinking instead of trying to save lives was painfully obvious by late March 2020. And yet Birx opted to try and stay in Trump’s good graces instead of telling the public the truth.”

CNN presents all these interviews without much commentary by Gupta. That’s fair enough, but they can’t stand on their own. The truth behind them is multiplex. Despite their possibly good intentions, these doctors functioned as enablers, one and all.

The show’s apologetic one-sidedness is why so many distrust the media. Polarization just gets reinforced. CNN has many good anchors and hosts who respect the multiplicity of truth. Among them are John Berman, Pamela Brown, and Jim Acosta. The network’s well-paid stars like Chris Cuomo and Anderson Cooper are something else.

There is no excuse for Chris Cuomo being on the air, especially after his gigs with brother Andrew and getting special treatment for Covid. His smug, brassy commentary is my nightly invitation to shut him off and, God help me, switch to Tucker Carlson for a change of ego. Anderson Cooper can speak like a robot. He often runs over his own words but gets paid $12 million a year for his drawn-out pauses while thinking up a response to a difficult interviewee.

CNN management may well be facing some hard choices soon lest they forfeit their most-watched standing. Media politics as usual isn’t going to cut it. Indeed, they have demonstrated that media politics makes strange bedfellows.

Biden’s Presser

I’m not a media critic, but having just watched Joe Biden’s press conference I thought he did an excellent job. I used to program such events for a former governor in days long past and in a very different climate. So let me give some personal reactions to a mostly successful performance.

The present-day climate demands that the speaker maintain a tricky focus. The prime purpose is to speak to the broader audience—which is the American public and in particular your supporters. One does this in an opening statement and then by giving straight, tolerable answers to the media present. You don’t want them fighting you. It is tricky because the setting with the press is merely a prop for the pitch to the people. The tone of how one handles this is everything.

Biden has the good sense, maybe reinforced with practice, to give the reporters at least some meat that they were looking to hear. He has ended the folksy manner of how he used to address the press in the campaign. That, of course, fits with his new station. The press after all is adversarial, to one degree or another, yet they also function here as prompters for the president to get his points across. To reinforce his own pitch, Biden selectively picks up on the points his questioners make. He’s good at that. The answers to the media are often couched with anecdotes.

As to content, the president made a few errors. Most Republican voters do not favor his proposals, as he suggested. And he walked a fine line on the immigration mess. He showed himself to be more at ease with controversy than in the past, even over the border disorder. He poked fun at the notion of people coming to the U.S. because he was a nice guy:

Occasionally he talked too long on a subject, as he has in the past. “Am I giving too long an answer? Maybe I’ll stop there.” Sometimes he’ll come back at a questioner: “Is that a serious question? Come on. ‘Is that [children in lockdown] acceptable to me?’” He made several references to Trump, something he hasn’t done in the past. He also announced that he planned to run in 2024. When asked by a reporter whether Trump might also run, as hinted, Biden replied, “Oh God, I miss him.” He’s become a performer, in the best sense.

Then came the filibuster controversy and how to deal with it. Biden made clear his reluctance to remove it but left the door open, depending on how the Republicans handle themselves. Something like the right to vote, he said, should never be subject to the “complete lockdown and chaos” of the filibuster and if that happened, he implied, it would change his mind.

He was most animated in attacking Republican plans in the states to change voting rights, calling these efforts “deeply un-American,” “sick,” and “most pernicious.” This was the most vehement part of his presentation, and one got the impression that he would move any obstacle, even the filibuster, to protect the people’s right to vote.

Dr. Seuss and Race Music

How we view matters of race is inevitably measured by how we grew up. Which in turn influences how we reckon with cultural change. I think the ambivalent history of white responses to black music plays out in our own time through our hesitant responses to Black Lives Matter.

Reflecting the tenor of these times, Dr. Seuss Enterprises—publisher of all those stories we grew up with and which kids still read—recently saw fit to withdraw two of the lesser known books from further publication. You probably know the story, some of which is recounted here by Benjamin Wallace-Wells. He reflects on the ironies and absurdities of the so-called cancel culture and its response to the calls for black justice. Conservative media jumped all over the books’ withdrawal. But the elites dug themselves into a typical hole by their defensive, uncertain responses. The Wells piece is well worth a read.

The ambivalence of white American culture to jazz, for instance, was always part of the picture when I was growing up in the ‘50s (see Jive-Colored Glasses). And the whitening of black jazz started from the beginning, with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 19l7. In a strange progression, black music was accepted as the ur-source even while white and black performers bantered about black culture. Bing Crosby, who did a lot for jazz, is a case in point. He recorded “Mississippi Mud” with the great Bix Beiderbecke in 1928.

They don’t need no band,
They keep time by clappin’ their hand.
Just as happy as a cow chewin’ on her cud
When the darkies beat their feet on the Mississippi mud.

Later on, “darkies” was changed to “people” in the many recordings that followed. I had an old 78-rpm disk of this, along with other such period pieces that generally functioned as white entertainment with an overtone of genial mockery. “Novelty” (comedy) records were popular in early jazz; Jelly Roll Morton made several. Blacks put up with this until the ‘60s when musical standards for jazz changed along with the culture. Now, ironically, most every pop singer sings in “black-voice.”

Walt Disney’s movie Dumbo (1941) featured the singing crows in full black-voice which everyone loved. Disney to its credit has kept these scenes while adding a disclaimer. The funny animated cartoons we grew up with featured racialized characters in abundance. “Race records” was the name for recorded black music until the early ‘50s. I had several orange vinyl 45-rpm discs, which RCA Victor used to signify R&B type black music—color-coded marketing.

A recent book, Sittin’ In by Jeff Gold, is a wonderful archive of “black-and-white souvenir photographs and memorabilia that bring to life the renowned jazz nightclubs of the 1940s and 1950s.” The notable thing here is the mixing of black and white patrons two decades before the Civil Rights movement and while Jim Crow laws were still rampant.

The cultural power of black music has always been to accommodate both protest and reconciliation to some common values. Our cancel culture denies this power, and the music has become commoditized and politicized in recent years. Yet it still informs much of what we listen to.

One Queasy Spectacle after Another

The Stupor Bowl

Witnesses Could Prevent a Foregone Conclusion in Second Impeachment Trial

Guy Debord, Donald Trump, and the Politics of the Spectacle

Americans are infatuated with spectacle, most obviously with the Super Bowl, the yearly nod to institutionalized violence and kitsch. I do like football, notwithstanding. I watched the game this year, appalled by how badly the Chiefs performed and how effective the android Tom Brady was. The laying on of schmaltz that is the halftime show was the topper, as usual.

How is it possible to enjoy football in the face of all the evidence of its “blatant brutality” and ubiquitous presence in the culture? Bill Harrison writes a strong indictment in Medium, calling it the Stupor Bowl, a term I’ve also used for years. The reality is that we’re all sucked into the business of football and become eager customers.

We are also eager customers for political spectacle, one reason for Trump’s popularity. The proper audience for the impeachment trial beginning today is not Republicans in the Senate chamber but the American public. One hopes the Democrats managing the trial recognize this. Let them call a few witnesses and make it a show trial; it’s clear they aren’t going to get a conviction anyway. The jury has already declared its intentions.

It will be interesting to see what the impeachment managers decide about calling witnesses—and how far they are prepared to indict not just Trump but the GOP for its anti-democratic tactics. The Post’s Greg Sargent put it this way:

If anything, Democrats need to make it as politically uncomfortable for Republicans as possible to acquit—and to extract a political price for it among the suburban moderates whom the GOP continues to alienate with its ongoing QAnon-ification.

It’s clear that all kinds of arresting spectacles inform much of the breaking news of our time—from floods and coups to terrorist attacks. Presidents from Reagan to Obama have made political spectacle both respected and expected. Yet Trump has turned a political party into a cult of such displays. Douglas Kellner documents his mastery of political and media spectacle.

The events of Jan. 6 are rendered still more horrifying by the Republicans who have chucked out any notion of Trump’s responsibility. One may hope that his (and the GOP’s) impeachment will offer the public a chance to wake to the reality behind this debased spectacle. He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.

Four Dreadful Years, and a Merry Christmas

What Trump Showed Us About America

For many, the past four years were like purgatory as they revealed some appalling realities in American life. A lot of long-term assumptions went out the window. A lot of happy presumptions held by the elites had to be flushed down the toilet. And naturally, we’re still in the grip of some of these illusions.

Politico ran a good piece last month with quotes from 35 “political and cultural observers” [read “elites”] on what they learned about America over the past four years. I found their responses both predictable and surprising.

Many were alarmed to discover that our political institutions and norms are more fragile than they thought. Others pointed out the blind spots that members of the political and cultural elite have for the deep sense of dislocation and injustice that their fellow citizens feel. . . .

Others questioned whether the disruptions of the past four years have really shaken us out of old patterns, and whether the political establishment has really been diminished. “The house always wins,” one wrote. And then there was this conclusion from another contributor: “At the end of Trump’s term, what I’ve learned is that I really don’t understand America well at all.”

Yeah, well, who does? When the four-year curtain rings down, the actors take their bows for an empty performance.

In the Politico piece, Nicholas Carr, who writes on technology, economics and culture, targeted the most obvious fruit of these years—that lies now trump truths. In the digital world, “False news spreads farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth,” and “social media has allowed propaganda to be crowdsourced; it has democratized George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.”

Mark Bauerlein, an English professor emeritus, shouted out the legacy of the elites.

Ordinary Americans looked at the elite zones of academia, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Washington itself, and saw a bunch of self-serving, not very competent individuals sitting pretty, who had enriched themselves and let the rest of America slide. . . . It wasn’t Trump’s politics that disgusted the college presidents, celebrity actors, Google VPs, D.C. operatives and the rest. It was because he pinpointed them as the problem—the reason factories and small stores had closed, unemployment was bad, and PC culture had cast them as human debris. And millions cheered. This was unforgivable to the elites.

John Austin, an economist, told us that

unless we address the root economic causes of many American voters’ anger and social alienation, we will remain a divided nation, with many remaining susceptible to the message of demagogues like Donald Trump. In much of left-behind rural America, and still struggling communities that dot the industrial Midwest around my home, anxieties about the economic future interact with a perceived loss of identity, status and control in a changing society. These dynamics generate a toxic brew of resentments of “others,” whether coastal elites or immigrants, and cravings for a return to a simpler and ordered time.

For me, the starkest element the four years have exposed is the blatant ignorance of so much of the populace. We would like to think that this stems from Trump, a man of limited intelligence and unlimited bile. In fact, it’s the susceptibility of 70 million people, sneering at truth, sneering at the virus. The Flat Earth Society persists despite all evidence that it should not.

Exit the Mad King

We have two more months of this nightmare farce to play out. Expect more surprises and insanity—and more endless news coverage. But will he run again in 2024? His niece Mary Trump says, “He will never put himself in a position where he can lose like this again.”

The mad king’s reign is nearly over. Like Shakespeare’s King Lear, another narcissist raging on the heath, he’ll eventually be betrayed by the toadies who supported him. But not quite yet. As in the play, a potential civil war lurks in the background. Social insecurity is rampant. The king rages on.

But if we take Mary Trump’s words seriously, it’s only right to celebrate Joe Biden’s victory. Biden’s win was notable for its very cool minimizing of any threats from the opposition. Ignoring the constant noise was a good move. One hopes that attitude carries forward in his administration. The best defense against Trump is to ignore him.

And soon we may remember our mad king as a purveyor of farce as well as evil. A few things in this regard jumped out at me. One is last week’s Four Seasons press conference in which Rudy Giuliani’s feverish fantasies were on full display.

Apparently the event was to be held at one of the posh Four Seasons hotels but got ironically shifted to a Four Seasons Landscaping Service in Northeast Philadelphia (an area I once used to work in). It is located between a crematorium and a porn shop. As one commentator wrote, “No satirist has ever written anything this hilarious.” It was very much like something out of a Borat movie.

The mad king continues his ranting but fewer are listening. “’It’s like dealing with a lunatic on the subway. Everyone just kind of sits and stares ahead, pretends they can’t hear him, and waits for him to eventually get off,’ a GOP source close to the administration told The Daily Beast.” That tags it for me.

We would do well to remember George Carlin’s observation: “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.”

Really, I Wouldn’t Have a Beer with Either of Them

Trump at the Debate Was Like America in 2020: Not Winning

 ‘The Debates, Like Everything Else in 2020, Were a Dumpster Fire’

 Malaika Jabali: ‘A frustrating debate that ignored big issues’

Trump would be insulting and contentious; Biden would bore you with policy and his accomplishments. That’s pretty much what they did last night at the last (thank God) presidential debate.

For many of us the race has become old and hackneyed, the participants frayed. I spent this morning looking for new insights on the internet and didn’t find many.

Of course I will vote for Biden, but that doesn’t mean he’s an appealing candidate. The man needs a shot of mezcal, not a beer. In the debate he was focused but often bland and wordy. He fumbled on answers regarding the 1994 crime bill and fracking. In his debate prep he could have done more work on sharp, memorable responses, though he did get off a few. Per Susan Glasser in The New Yorker:

“He’s a very confused guy,” Biden said of Trump when the President claimed, per usual, that Biden was some sort of radical socialist pawn. “He thinks he’s running against somebody else. He’s running against Joe Biden.”

Trump babbled incoherently about Hunter Biden’s emails, overriding the moderator, and frequently going off the deep end: “Who built the cages, Joe?” John Neffinger in Politico:

Having set the bar ridiculously low in his last few appearances, President Trump impressed just by not seeming out of control Thursday night. But if he was more conversational, it made it easier to hear him clearly when he declared himself the least racist person in the room, or criticized a public option, or talked about the great care the children he orphaned get, or made fun of Joe Biden talking to Americans about their own families, or declined to answer good questions from Kristen Welker about Covid or the Talk [that Black parents must have with their children about racism].

Malaika Jabali in The Guardian was angry about what she didn’t hear:

There was no discussion about potential domestic voter suppression, less than two weeks before the election. Nothing about far-right white supremacists, who pose the deadliest terror threat in the country. Nothing about policies to reduce racial disparities in unemployment, essential work, Covid-19 deaths and cases, or small business closures.

And not much about climate change except a lot of smoke. Anyhow, as to having a drink with either of these guys, Trump, who doesn’t drink, would be most likely to get in a bar fight and Joe would most likely put one to sleep. We all need better forms of entertainment, something like the new Borat movie which shows Rudy Giuliani in a delightfully compromising position. He too would be among the last guys to have a drink with.

Major CNN Fatigue: Blitzer v. Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi Blows Up at Wolf Blitzer Over Stimulus: You’re a Republican ‘Apologist’

Pelosi chafes at Wolf Blitzer’s questions on Covid talks

Second stimulus check updates: The differences between Democratic House and GOP Senate coronavirus relief bills

I watch a lot of news, and one reason I signed up for cable service was to get CNN International. I may have lived to regret it. Some of their news anchors (Jake Tapper and Jim Acosta excepted) leave a lot to be desired. Chris Cuomo’s frenetic blather is a case in point. How much hectoring can you take in an hour?

Wolf Blitzer is CNN’s chief political anchor, not notable for his penetrating insights but usually a dependable Democratic apologist. Yesterday for some reason he took out after Nancy Pelosi on the unconscionable delays in getting to a stimulus agreement. That’s all Pelosi needed. Watch some of the exchange.

This went on for close to fifteen minutes, Blitzer hammering away on the notion of a deal at all costs now, Pelosi fumbling through a defense of her position that there can be no deal without the Democrats’ spending priorities. Blitzer was pushy, Pelosi was angry. It was good TV and bad politics.

He argued that the Democrats should accept the latest administration offer because the need was so immediate and pressing. She countered that the caucus couldn’t accept an offer which had such unacceptable spending priorities. She had the better argument but her emotions overcame her. To be charitable about it, they were talking past each other.

Blitzer set the tone by failing to acknowledge her somewhat muddied points. She lost her patience: “With all due respect, you really don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.

To me, the interesting thing was why Wolf chose to pick the fight at all. He did sound like a Republican apologist. The parties have been bogged down for months on stimulus issues. The Democrats have moved some on money issues, but the Republicans in the Senate have promised no deal on whatever the Dems propose. Politico put it this way:

The two sides have gotten closer on some issues, such as small-business aid, a new round of $1,200 stimulus checks and testing money, but remain divided over issues like unemployment aid and state and local government funding. But Democrats also point out that they remain further apart on the bigger issues, such as lack of a strategic plan to defeat the virus nationwide.

Perhaps network powers pushed Wolf to hammer home his point of making a deal at all costs, the idea being to goad Pelosi into a response. CNN’s ratings must be down, and maybe they just want to cultivate a more polemical posture à la Chris Cuomo. Let’s hope that’s not true—and that CNN can promote some fresh faces.