Diplomacy by Other Means

Korean food is really good; I ordered some the other night. Yet for years we have read tales of scarcity and even famine in the North. Now the Dear Leader, with his legendary sense of humor (like executing his uncle), chooses to drop nearly a thousand poop-and-trash filled balloons on his neighbors to the South, causing world-wide scorn and laughter. There must be plenty of digested food to stock those shit bags so now we can stop worrying about starvation in the DPRK.

What’s really at stake here is a new mode of diplomacy. Kim is still provoking the world with his missile tests and bluster, repression and power purges, forced labor, and who knows what else. Besides outraging the West with his nuclear posturing, Kim is also a big jokester. Thus the poop bags, designed to bolster his endless campaign against the South, were a masterstroke of diplomatic insult.

The South weakly responded with its own balloons containing thumb drives of K-pop music and propaganda leaflets. It also suspended an agreement with the North to cease tensions and hostilities. Their back-and-forth has been going on for years; the poop balloons brought this to a new, almost frivolous, height.

You may think of the balloon as an object of lightness, freedom, celebration, anti-gravity perhaps. It can convey all kinds of meanings: politics, ads, frivolity and sport are all part of the balloon gestalt. The wonderfully loose gloss we put on balloons makes them great expressive vehicles, something Donald Barthelme explored in his bizarre tale of “The Balloon.”

In that story an enormous balloon moves over and covers Manhattan. People project their own fantasies and interpretations onto it as it shifts its shape and meaning, finally mystifying all but the narrator who somehow controls it. It ultimately means (“excessive discussion was pointless”) whatever we want it to mean. Ann Beattie contrasts it to the Chinese spy balloon shot down a while back. But Barthelme’s balloon is mystical and involving―and the poop balloons are anything but. Still, they are better than bullets and bombs.

Watching Medical Ads on TV

CNN seems to make most of its money selling this stuff to older people, its evening news audience. They know their viewers, yes they do, and the old ones are far more gullible and needy. Nobody else watches the evening news anyway, and elders buy more prescription drugs than any other group. Rather than consult with their doctors, they will believe what they see acted out on their 1080p screens. And so pharma is delighted to rake in billions each year.

News and medical ads don’t mix well, and so the mute button often comes into play. (I’m stuck with CNN on cable here in Mexico; see CNN Is Tottering and my further complaints about it). The other night I watched prime time news on CNN for two hours, holding off on the mute button so I could encounter the following medical ads with their cacophonous, mindless names.

      • Cosentyx: for arthritis and, yes, psoriasis
      • Instaflex: in which plastic surgery victim Marie Osmond talked anti-aging immature blah-blah about her joint problems
      • Veozah: for hot flashes
      • Sotyktu: for psoriasis, and spelled out phonetically for you
      • Caplyta: for depression, etc.
      • Fasenra: for asthma @ $5,511.41 per dose
      • Rinvoq: for eczema, arthritis
      • Ozempic: for diabetes
      • Skyrizi: for psoriasis

Would you ever mention any of these consumer drugs to friends at a party? Civilized people should avoid such pharmaceutical discussions. Why are the actors in these commercials invariably happy and smiling. enjoying things like camping, entertaining, biking, eating, climbing mountains? Nobody is ever sick in bed and recovering. Black and white, fat and skinny, homely or handsome, these counterfeit people might as well be selling Russian laxatives.

Anyhow, your doctor will surely know if Skyrizi is better than Cosentyx or Sotyktu for your psoriasis. “If you experience any of these side effects, call your doctor,” says the rapid-talking (tachyphemic) voiceover—and see how long it takes to get an appointment. How come all those trivial or deadly side effects end with “call your doctor”? Maybe your doctor has never heard of this drug and thinks you are pushy and offensive for trying to question his competence. More likely, he too is beholden to Big Pharma whose lovely gals visit him regularly to dispense tons of free samples that make his patients happy.

Doctor Aaron Kesselheim of the Harvard Med School says: “Actually, the amount of money that pharmaceutical companies spend on advertising to physicians is far higher than the amount spent on direct-to-consumer advertising because physicians are the ones writing the prescriptions.” So everyone is in on the take.

The take is a lot less for CNN these days, so we can expect to see more medical ads, which pay well. Reports are rife that the network will slash what it pays its star anchors and make some big changes. We’ve heard that before. Long-time anchor Poppy Harlow is quitting. What I wish they would do is stop their constant, sickening pro-Israel bias. If that could happen I’d put up with the medical sludge.

Life in 2025

When Trump was reelected last year, his supporters finally came to their senses, except for the true cultists, of course. The common folk began to realize they needed to divorce themselves from all their former misconceptions of power and control. MAGA was no longer a political fantasy or, as some would call it, a delusion. It was dead.

In its place was simple tyranny as the president exercised his newly-given powers to control aspects of their lives that these poor simps never believed they had given him.

It was as if Trump had finally become Putin, the only person he ever respected. You couldn’t call it neofascism. It was nothing so preplanned as that. The president had simply fallen down the rabbit hole of his own psychopathic predilections. He had always just said whatever came into his contorted mind, attacking one judge’s daughter, another’s wife, defying all gag orders, making everything political into a personal attack. The poor simps sleepwalked into this approach because, like the president, they had no grasp of policy or political procedures. They enjoyed the power of the threat.

Congress, or what was left of it, rubber-stamped whatever the president wanted because they knew their indulgence would bring them favor and fortune. Government by bribery, some called it. The predictable result was entropy and random disorder. And judicial corruption continued—a pattern set some time ago by Clarence Thomas and his insider trading with those privileged associates who controlled what we used to call the levers of power.

Society Blues

Preparing a small dinner party for her older friends, Moira worried that her table was not set properly—forks on the left, wine glasses on the right, the way her mother had taught her. “Finally, who gives a shit anymore?” she muttered, opening her door to the guests who had all had several drinks before arriving.

Don Perignon came in first, a black man wearing gloves and a tattersall vest, complaining as usual about his boring existence as a major hedge fund investor. “I just go along with whatever they recommend and turn on Bloomberg TV.” Enter Marie Osmond who had just undergone a new round of plastic surgery. Proud of the result, she talked about the benefits of Soma (marketed here as Instaflex), the new anti-aging drug that had greatly benefited her sex life.

Sarah and Jorge followed, she talking endlessly about local politics and her garden, why aging was such a horror, and how her kids excelled in school. These people are not cartoons. They come with the new political and social territory, yet their non sequitur comments at dinner resurrected the same themes that we heard years ago in Evelyn Waugh’s great novel, A Handful of Dust (1934). The point of such parties is always to mix up the participants.

It was, transparently, a made-up party, the guests being chosen for no mutual bond—least of all affection for Mrs. Beaver [the hostess] or for each other—except that their names were in current use—an accessible but not wholly renegade Duke, an unmarried girl of experience, a dancer and a novelist and a scene designer, a shamefaced junior minister who had not realized what he was in for until too late, and Lady Cockpurse; “God, what a party,” said Marjorie, waving brightly to them all.

Soma and the New Media

AI has now facilitated production of a new anti-aging drug called Soma. It doesn’t necessarily enable people to live longer. It just takes away some of the ill effects of aging, like Alzheimer’s. Old people can now recover their knowledge, experience and health—well, to some degree. Youth is devalued politically, and clowns like Matt Gaetz are being voted out. Doddering old fools become founts of wisdom, and there are no more Mitch McConnells. Wolf Blitzer was made president of CNN.

Older and fatter people are now venerated on TV and in the media culture. Soma’s media ad budget is enormous, spent on a preponderance of medical ads in which happy fat people and jovial blacks are made healthy by some unpronounceable drug. They act out unreal jaunts and camping trips without ever consulting their doctors (which the voiceover always recommends). Some viewers, however, ignore the media because they can’t afford the drug. As in earlier years, these folks follow the social network that reflects their partisan proclivities, though heavy partisanship has been mostly hibernating since the new president’s administration. Alex Jones is in prison; Steve Bannon will be next.

There is still much underground activity dedicated to defying Trump. It’s kept in check by a new security agency, TURDS (Team for Unwholesome Radical Suppression), patterned on Russia’s KGB and just as vicious. There are only two big media companies now, Google and Apple, since they bought up The New York Times, Washington Post, and others which still function under their own names and serve up the same vapid entertainment diet they purveyed during the Biden years. So some things have not changed.

Losers and Winners in 2025

Losers

Biden, Blinken, Boeing, DeSantis, Harvard, Musk, Netanyahu,  Zelensky

Winners

Greg Abbott, Alabama Supreme Court, Maria Bartiromo, Aileen Cannon, Google, Putin, White People

Joe Biden, Humorist

Thursday night’s State of the Union showed the President bantering about his age and at times not taking himself too seriously. After the speech he worked the room and said, “I kinda wish sometimes I was cognitively impaired,” meaning, I think, that it would be a good way to deflect the outrageous charges against him.

His opening line for the festivities was, “If I were smart, I’d go home now.” And as he walked into the hall, he encountered Marjorie Taylor Greene, the GOP’s resident nitwit. His reaction to her was priceless.

pic.twitter.com/DLkCShBOo8

Some Repubs called the speech a rant, and clearly the President had strong, sometimes angry words for his opposition. They sat on their hands throughout, Mike Johnson looking grim even when there were sentiments he and his fellow haters could agree on. A few hecklers, including Greene, chimed in and Joe very capably put them down.

As a former speech coach, I thought he spoke too fast and didn’t vary his tone enough. But he showed very clearly that he could think on his feet. One hopes the speech might prove to the undecideds that he was still sharp and didn’t deserve his 38% approval rating or the views of 73% of registered voters who think he’s too old.

Joe needs to display his more human side and his ability to make fun of himself. He’s shown he can do that and it might be a way to reverse those dreadful numbers. Instead of making a nod to that idiot Lindsey Graham, he might have had a go at George Santos, who came wearing a rhinestone collar and silver shoes while promising to have another go at reelection.

The pictures that surfaced earlier of Joe’s Wilmington garage (with the classified documents, yes) established that he was just as messy a housekeeper as any of us. What does your garage look like?

He drives an old Corvette, nothing phony about that.

Well, certainly the ultra-serious problems confronting the world had to be front and center. Biden stressed these by laying out a program for the future, almost a campaign speech. Evan Osnos writes in The New Yorker about the President’s confidence in his reelection:

In the election, he is betting that Americans will reward him for his achievements: ejecting Trump from the White House, getting the nation out of the pandemic, rescuing the economy, reviving NATO—not to mention passing significant legislation on climate change, gun control, drug prices, manufacturing, and infrastructure. But achievement is not the same as inspiration, and Americans are not in a mood of gratitude toward our leaders.

Like many of us, I wanted to hear that he would soften his outrageous stance on Israel with respect to Gaza. Circumstances may soon force him to reconsider that. The details of his support for Israel are shocking. Politico hit him up very properly for this:

Most of Biden’s actual policies have involved giving Israel what it wants, like vetoing two UN resolutions calling for a ceasefire. Perhaps most importantly, the US has made over 100 arms sales to Israel since the war began, many of which were structured in such a way that they could escape congressional and public oversight.

And he should have made more of “my predecessor’s” egregious attempt to kill the border deal so he could take credit for it if he won. And most all of the GOP has gone along with that preposterous denial.

So I heard two Joe Bidens in Thursday night’s speech: one, the feisty and forceful old campaigner, laying out yet another set of programs to save democracy and bring America to its senses. And there was also the sometimes clever, folksy guy from Scranton who wants to remind us that he empathizes with the trials so many of his compatriots are enduring.

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.

How One’s Reading Habits Decay

Trinity College Library, Dublin

We are all creatures of habit, and sometimes a habit can become the unconscious focus of our daily lives. In other words, we relinquish personal control to a formula of behavior. Brushing your teeth regularly is a good idea. Reading the news every morning is not.

More than ever, it’s become a dispiriting activity that, if you take it seriously, can poison your mind for the rest of the day. Smart people know this, yet we persist. This morning we read about the train wreck in India where nearly 300 people died; Biden crows about the debt ceiling agreement; the Supremes continue to defy ethical standards.

Politics now highlights every human frailty and failing. Worse still, for me, Trump and DeSantis have displaced Barthelme, Mallarmé and the literary life I once pursued. Martin Amis is dead. So is most poetry, and I don’t read much scholarly stuff anymore—or good fiction either.

I know I’m not alone. Many of you fix on your daily dose of the Washington Post and the New York Times. I do too while castigating them for all the junk stories they pursue. I also look regularly at Politico, the New Yorker, Vox, Bloomberg, the Guardian, New York Magazine, and sometimes Axios. Most of the liberal pubs like The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Harper’s, etc. I’ve given up on—too pro forma.

As world problems have become more convoluted and controversial, creative writing seems to have become less innovative and more conventional. A few sites still fight the good fight. But I don’t want to read about the gender trials that young people are undergoing or their kinky love affairs or food preferences. Digital content brings us everything we don’t need to know.

The recourse used to be bedtime. You absorbed a good read until sleep took over and dreams displaced the world of the book. That worked for me for a long time, but I read more slowly now and it’s hard to focus on Kindle after a while. Or the book falls to the floor, and the memories of what it contained don’t last until morning.

Among all the positive benefits of reading proposed by one site, we’re told that reading “helps prevent age-related cognitive decline.” Well, friends, I would suggest that this notion clearly depends on what you read. And, finally, nobody but you cares what you read.

Aging and Ego: Please, Martha, Enough

Martha Stewart at age 81 poses in scrupulous déshabillé for Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition, and her legions of fans applaud.

“Crafting, gardening, cooking, modeling, restaurant owner.…What can’t Martha do? Unstoppable,” one fan wrote on Instagram. “An icon,” another said.”

Yes, her ego is unstoppable and really tiresome. For years now she has set herself to rule over American middle-class lifestyle choices—in fashion, furnishing, gardening, cookware, accessories, recipes and gourmet food. She sells not just items but her taste as an arbiter of style for the good life.

After a slight interruption to serve a short jail term (for securities fraud and insider trading), Martha took on business ventures (see below) and a social media presence. Now she takes off her clothes to prove, I guess, that you’re as young as you feel. She took posing as a challenge, she says, which she met and found it “kind of fun . . . a testament to good living.” It seems, rather, to be a testament to making more money.

Sure, she looks good for an 81-year-old. I look pretty good too for my age yet would never display myself as some kind of physical paragon triumphing over the trials of aging. And how many older women would do that? On aging she says, “I think all of us should think about good living, successfully living, and not aging. The whole aging thing is so boring. You know what I mean?”

For me, entering the world of aging was like entering a new life. For her, it must be an unwelcome continuation of the old, fighting off the degeneration of body and mind. She wants to show how she can beat the devil.

The best story on Martha happened in her new Paris-in-Las Vegas restaurant, as reported here. She is involved in a licensing partnership with Caesars Entertainment “where Ms. Stewart helms the restaurant’s concept from design and décor to food and beverage recipes.” In this Martha-themed restaurant called Bedford, a roast chicken served lukewarm costs $89.95 and lukewarm baked potatoes cost $15.95 each.

“If you order a baked potato, one will be presented by a server, raised high in the air and brought down with a resounding thud on the surface of a tableside potato cart.” So the food is presented with phony showmanship at an exorbitant price. The writer wonders whether Martha serves potatoes this way at her house.

The Bedford seems like another attempt to sell good taste to the yahoos, and yet it turns out to be a venture in kitsch. Her media company at one point was worth over $1 billion but the Bedford cooks “work, not for her, but for Caesars Entertainment.” That arrangement puts a rather big dent in Martha’s reputation for competence.

And she’s never going to compete with the sexy young women who used to populate the Swimsuit Edition.

Beyond Our Scope

“Reality,” says Haruki Murakami in a novel, “is just the accumulation of ominous prophecies come to life.”

Indeed, you don’t have to be a total pessimist to agree with that judgment. The world is presently so full of ominous prophecies that we’re simply incapable of taking action in critical areas. The greatest conundrums and quandaries of our time—Artificial Intelligence and how to handle it, climate change, politics, governance—offer us no widely acceptable or adaptable solutions.

Our quandaries grow out of the “ominous prophecies” from scientists, politicians, nut cases and media gurus, none of whom have viable answers, or even good partial answers. Humanity is stuck with qualified, fractional or crazed proposals that get us nowhere. Evaluating such stuff, much less acting on it, seems beyond our power. Our biggest predicaments are paralyzing us.

Geoffrey Hinton, so-called godfather to AI, recently quit Google to announce to the world the prodigious dangers of the new technology. He thinks these may be more urgent even than climate change, which is “a huge risk too.” Hinton believes “that the race between Google and Microsoft and others will escalate into a global race that will not stop without some sort of global regulation.”

The Biden administration just convened a meeting about AI’s risks. Given how the GOP works, who can be sanguine about the outcome? My friend Bill Davidow, a digital pioneer who has written much about AI, is also very worried about what he calls the rising dominance of virtual homo sapiens, “automatons that cannot put down their smart devices and spend endless hours perusing social networks and watching YouTube videos.”

He recently wrote me: “In general, I feel that the new technologies are in the process of creating purposeless unhappy people with severe mental problems. AI is a new tool for powering the process. We are maladapted to the virtual world.” Two Google scientists recently committed suicide in New York. What does that mean?

We all must hope that the AI horse is not out of the barn, but I fear that it is. Hinton worries that failure to control AI may even displace our failure to deal with climate change. Three years ago I wrote here about how unlikely it was that the world could achieve its 1.5-C degree warming limit. That is even less likely now.

Scientists and the United Nations keep issuing powerful warnings. China and other states keep relying on coal, and generate other pollutants. We keep reading headlines like thisEleven Chemical Plants in China and One in the U.S. Emit a Climate Super-Pollutant Called Nitrous Oxide That’s 273 Times More Potent Than Carbon Dioxide—and wonder why nothing is being done.

Globally, a few countries are beginning to take action on climate, among them Denmark, Sweden and Chile. The big polluters face immense problems, of course. But, as MIT reported, “The US is by far the largest historical emitter, responsible for over 20% of all emissions, and the EU is close behind.” Right now, China is far outpacing the US.

How to deal with climate change is the messiest, most convoluted and critical problem that human civilization has ever had to confront. With political cooperation within and between countries at a new low, the outlook remains grim. I was just blessed with a new grandchild and fear for the world he and his brothers are going to inhabit.

Foul Language Ascendant

According to several reports, Tucker Carlson got fired for using the “c-word” in reference to one of his bosses. And the Fox newsroom apparently was awash in unwholesome epithets, often sexual in nature. Such is the state of far-right conservatism. But heavy-duty expletives, once stigmatized by politicians and the media, now prevail everywhere.

You surely have noticed this. Films and pop music seem to glory in their ever more funky language. The staid New York Times now grudgingly accepts profanity. So does NBC News and many major media outlets. It seems to be coin of the realm to spice up stories with otherwise little merit.

Readers of this blog know that I’m not a prude about language. I counted eight stories with the word “bullshit” in them, but I like to avoid the stronger stuff unless it’s in a quote. Hot words lose their punch quickly, particularly with overuse. And the purpose is not blasphemy anymore; it’s putting on an act of being streetwise and hip.

When I was much younger I used foul language a lot. Sometimes it was just a lazy way to make a point or impress a listener, and sometimes that was worth doing. You have to develop a kind of good taste in when and how you swear. That’s lacking in so much of what we hear and see in the media today.

Though this linguistic indulgence began before him, Trump is largely responsible for how such language (and behavior) has flourished. His language is key to how his followers respond to him. Does it help the rest of us understand him? I don’t know. If I called him a coarse motherfucking pussy-grabber, does that clarify anything?

Bless E. Jean Carroll for pursuing her case and telling her story. The Post’s Ruth Marcus says that we need to hear these repellent stories over and again “to remind ourselves of how far Trump has dragged us down into the gutter with him, reduced to his level of tawdry entitlement.”

“Tawdry entitlement.” That really says it all, doesn’t it? Language, as someone said, is the window to the soul.

Headlines We’d Like to See

In the spirit of fake news, we offer the following. The photo above, however, came from an actual story, French Drink Wine as Protests Rage. Here are a few more headlines I’ve wished for.

Drone Strike Destroys Mar-a-Lago

Biden Backs Off Artic Oil Project

VP Harris Resigns

AMLO Resigns

Sinema and Santos win Medal of Freedom

CNN Finally Fires Anderson Cooper

 Republicans Nominate Kim Jong-un

If you come up with any more, please leave them in a comment.