The Art of Bankruptcy

Maybe it’s our grumpily conservative political views, or perhaps a certain prairie roughness in our manner and speech, but people often seemed surprised to discover what avid culture vultures we are. In warmer weather we frequently stroll a few blocks through our elegantly aging Riverside neighborhood to visit the Wichita Art Museum, even making the trek during a blinding snowstorm this past brutal winter in order to catch the opening of that terrific George Catlin traveling exhibition, and many a snooty easterner has been taken aback by our familiarity with the finer arts. That’s largely due to our early and ongoing exposure to the Wichita Art Museum, which has taken aback many a snooty easterner with a an unexpectedly fine collection that includes John Steuart Curry, Stuart Davis, Richard Diebenkorn, Thomas Eakins, Albert Pynkham Ryder, Winslow Homer, three Edward Hoppers, with two of them major works, and perhaps the most major work by Mary Cassatt.
Such works of art have long exerted a powerful influence on us, ever since Mom first dragged us down to the museum intent on getting her young’un’s some refinement, and remain one of our favorite things about living in Wichita. They can’t help but affect our reaction to an intriguing story in the invaluable Weekly Standard about far-off Detroit, where that beleaguered city has reached a tentative deal to prevent its municipal art museum from selling off its even most significant collection to pay off the debts of decades of mismanagement by a corrupt coalition of Democratic machine politicians and union bosses. The article makes a convincing case that the deal flouts reasonable bankruptcy laws, favors pubic pensioners over other rightful creditors, and reeks of a political cronyism redolent of the Detroit auto industry bail-out, but acknowledges that at least Detroit will get to keep its art. It’s difficult to weigh such competing values, especially for such grumpily conservative culture vultures with a certain prairie roughness such as ourselves, but we’re inclined to go with keeping the art.
The deal would have such well-heeled do-gooder groups as the Ford, Kresge, and Knight Foundations shell out $330 million for the museum’s collection, along with another $350 million from the state of Michigan, and comes with a promise to keep the collection in Detroit and add all the proceedings to the bankruptcy payout to Detroit’s public employee pensioners. We have no sympathy for public employee pensioners, who did so much to drive the city into bankruptcy, and feel sorry for those municipal bondholders who won’t get in on the loot, even if they were suckers to place a bet on Detroit, but otherwise the arrangement does not offend our conservative sensibilities.
We rather like that such long-dead red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists as Ford, Kresge, and Knight are riding to rescue of Detroit’s high-cultural heritage, for one thing, even if the average snooty easterner wouldn’t acknowledge the irony. The same corporate titans that the arty types always disparage have always been the essential patrons of American arts, even if the refined aesthetes won’t notice until their guillotines have finished their dirty work. This requires an amusing amount of denial by the culturati left, especially here in Wichita where the much-vilified Koch family is by far the most generous benefactor of the arts. A punctiliously politically correct friend of ours is affiliated with the Wichita Art Museum, and when we noted that the aforementioned terrific George Catlin exhibition was underwritten by the Fred C. and Mary Koch Foundation she huffily protested that at least there was no money from their evil spawn Charles Koch. We pointed out that the patriarch of the family fortune was an unrepentant John Bircher who earned his anti-communist bona fides by going toe-to-toe with Joe Stalin business negotiation over his pioneering oil-extraction techniques and would probably consider his sons pinko sell-outs she was eager to change the subject. At least her collection’s survival wasn’t dependent on on such a mean old anti-Semite as Henry Ford or the Wal-Mart of his day, the indignity that has befallen the culturati of Detroit. The Knight foundation was named after the co-founder of the newspaper chain that we used to toil for, and the Wichita Art Museum’s inaugural collection was bankrolled by the founder of the local newspaper that it long ago bought out, but somehow our friend won’t be so embarrassed by that.
None of the various strains of conservatism can object to those individuals who have prospered in the capitalist system contributing to the cultural life of their country. Once those contributions have been necessarily bequeathed to the care of the collective, however, the matter does become more complicated. We are sympathetic to the libertarian arguments against public financing of the arts, as most of our satisfying cultural experiences have been with garage bands and Hollywood movies and dime novels and other artists who would never stand a chance with those highfalutin grant-givers, and a certain prairie roughness in us makes us susceptible to the populist argument that the south-siders shouldn’t have to pay even the few pennies they’re being charged to indulge our hoity-toity Riverside tastes. There’s still a strain of conservatism that seeks to conserve the very best of our cultural heritage, however, and ultimately we find it most convincing.
Somewhere in the middle of the liberal-caused fiasco that is Detroit you will still find an extraordinary collection of truth and beauty and the best of Western Civilization, and that is worth conserving. Most Detroiters will prefer the noisome distractions of The Jerry Springer Show and the latest hip-hop releases or the virtual or actual orgies of violence that are staples of the local culture, but those lucky few who happen to wander in might find more worthy aspirations. Rescuing Detroit will require cruel doses of capitalism and a routing of the public sector rackets that have driven the city bankruptcy, but it will also require considerable art.

– Bud Norman

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Murder in Overland Park

Murders routinely happen here in Kansas, as they do everywhere, and it’s always a tragedy, but the ones on Sunday in Overland Park were especially appalling. A sick, twisted man gunned down a 14-year-old boy and his 69-year-old grandfather outside a Jewish Community Center, then drove to a nearby assisted living community called Village Shalom and fatally shot a 53-year-old woman. The boy and his grandfather were Methodists, and the woman a Catholic, but if there was any doubt that the locations were chosen because of a hatred of Jews the shooter erased it by shouting “Heil Hitler” as he was taken into custody.
The Missouri man made no secret of his anti-Jewish sentiments, and had been a “Grand Dragon” in the Ku Klux Klan and a founder of something called the White Patriot Party, so his crimes are clearly the latest in the bloody history of the oldest hatred. All decent people will offer only sympathy to the victims and their families and friends, as well as the intended victims, but others will inevitably use the tragedy to score the usual political points.
Had the murders been committed by Muslim terrorists, such as the ones Secretary of State John Kerry has lately been pressing the Israel government to release from its prisons, the prevailing rules of political discourse would discourse would require an admonition to not draw conclusions about anyone or anything other than the individual involved. When it’s an old white guy from the middle of America, especially one obliging enough to use the word “Patriot” in his perverted political activities, the reader is invited to extrapolate to his heart’s content. There’s an ever-present eagerness among the press to portray all people with conservative notions of constitutional restrains as gun-loving, government-hating terrorists itching to kill, even on the far more frequent occasions when the murders do turn out to be the work of Muslim terrorists, and cases such as this provide an irresistible opportunity.
Modern conservatism’s emphasis on limited government and free markets and individual liberty are the antithesis of National Socialism, of course, but somehow they will be conflated by the term “right-wing.” Modern conservatism is also distinguished by its steadfast support of religious freedom and affinity for the state of Israel, both of which are increasingly disparaged by the same liberals who slur the conservatives for their supposed intolerance, but the old charge of prejudice will once be made. That the killer was finding inspiration for anti-Jewish hatred in such a venerable leftist publication as The Nation will go unmentioned, as will the fact that almost all of the conservative media routinely accused of “hate speech” are outspokenly philo-Semitic.
We wish everyone in Overland Park well at this time of mourning. It’s a pleasant little suburb of Kansas City where most of the folks work hard, obey the law, and get along with all their neighbors, and the many conservatives among them don’t deserve to be slandered as complicit in a crime that has shocked their sensibilities.

– Bud Norman

That’s Show Biz

All hell could have broken loose the past few days without our noticing. This past week was devoted to our annual appearance on the local stage, and amateur theatrics is an all-consuming activity.
On our drives to and from the aged but still elegant Orpheum Theater in downtown we caught word on the radio that the stock markets are tanking, Ukraine is heating up, and some feisty Nevada ranchers have somehow managed to stare down the Feds, but there wasn’t time to dive into all the details with our usual thoroughness. We tried to keep apprised of the Ukrainian situation well enough to know if our cheeky skit about the matter, which featured Vladimir Putin and a bear hoofing to “Singin’ Ukraine,” was veering into bad taste, but otherwise we were too preoccupied with ironing costumes and memorizing lines and placating temperamental cast members to keep abreast of the rest of the world.
The show closed its three-night run on Saturday, but the cast party went well into Sunday and the rest of the day was devoted to watching the final round of the Masters and recuperating from the grind of show biz. A lack of talent spared us any singing or dancing, and our three short scenes were carefully written within the severe limitations of our acting ability, but it nonetheless proved quite exhausting. Theater is a collaborative art from, which necessarily entails other people, and that always wear us out. The mostly media-affiliated folks who put on the annual “Gridiron” shows for charity and ego gratification and a good bunch, at least, and by now we think they’re almost used to us.
Our humble efforts got some good laughs, more so the first two nights, for some reason or another, and it once again proved an enjoyable experience. After 47 years the “Gridiron” show is a local institution that brings out all the other local institutions, so it’s a good way to immerse one’s self in the city for a short while. We got to schmooze with our district’s reality conservative congressman, Rep. Mike Pompeo, and the director of the nationally-regarded Music Theater of Wichita company, who’s always been nice to us despite the occasional bad reviews we’d write back in our newspaper days, as well as some old friends and comely women. The county commissioner from Haysville was obliged to be less friendly than usual this year, due to his constituents’ recent umbrage at the jokes the show traditionally makes about the town, and there was no one there from the local television station that fired a fellow cast member for inadvertently uttering an expletive at the end of a news cast, which of course was a recurring gag in the show, but on the whole everyone was nice enough.
The show was unusually right-wing this year, too, which was a welcome change from the usual fare that you’d expect from a mostly media-affiliated troupe. That’s partly because the show has recently added some younger folks who are surprisingly sensible about politics, and partly because the past year’s news has been dominated by Obamacare and foreign affairs and other issues that demand ridicule if they can’t plausibly be blamed on Republicans. A staunch lefty on the cast was lamenting the lack of Koch Brothers-bashing, but when we wondered what they should be ridiculed for she couldn’t come up with anything but a hateful glare. The same hateful glare came back when she noticed that the cast party’s host had aluminum and plastic commingling with his other trash instead of being placed in proper recycling bins, but a few glasses of wine she was back to her usual pleasant self, and in any case it didn’t affect our comedy very much.
A day’s rest should have us ready to confront reality, and we’ll even be glad to be back to it.

– Bud Norman

So Long, Kathleen

We won’t have Kathleen Sebelius to kick around anymore, and we have to admit we’ll miss the pastime. We were heaping scorn on the woman long before the rest of the country got in on the fun, ever since she was elected Governor of Kansas 12 years ago, and her probably permanent departure from public life will make it hard to break the habit.
Sebelius resigned Thursday as Secretary of Health and Human Services, and although all the send-offs from the big papers and wire services were properly respectful they didn’t seem surprised. Given her undeniably botched roll-out of the administration’s all-important Obamacare boondoggle, as well as the extra-legal delays and waivers and other administrative sleight-of-hand, along with some dubious fund-raising schemes and some past tax questions and other problems the papers were obliged to mention, one might expect any responsible organization hold such a record to account. We were stunned to see it happen in the Obama administration, though, as it is habitually disinclined to admit failure.
Eric Holder has been at least as awful an Attorney General as Sebelius was a Health and Human Services Secretary, for instance, and he spent Thursday whining about how very unfair it is that he has to hear any criticism. No other Attorney General has ever been subjected to such harsh treatment, he griped, and one couldn’t help hearing a subtle suggestion that any white Attorney General could let loose armed thugs intimidating voters or declare that only victims of certain ethnic groups be championed by the Justice Department or be held in contempt of congress for stonewalling an investigation into his gun-running operation without anyone being so rude as to raise an objection. He did his whining to an organization founded by the notorious race-baiting, rabble-rousing buffoon Al Sharpton, which was predictably sympathetic, but we suspect an audience of Ed Meese and John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzalez and the rest of the past Republican Attorneys General would have been more skeptical.
At least Sebelius was willing to fall on her sword, and without resort to any insinuations that sexism had anything to do with it. Maybe she’s saving that for her inevitable memoirs, but for now it’s the sort of graceful departure the country once expected of its failed public servants. We can almost whip up a wee bit of sympathy for a one-time Kansas gal who was stuck with the unenviable job of implementing something so fundamentally flawed as Obamacare. She did shell out a gazillion dollars to some crony Canadian computer company for a widely-ridiculed web site, however, and just about everything else she did was capricious and corrupt, so it’s just a wee bit. Her reportedly voluntary but much-desired resignation was obviously intended to help in the administration’s effort to convince the public that the problem isn’t the law itself but just its previously inept implementation, so come to think of we can’t even give her much credit for that.
One of the shriller right-wing was angrily wondering the other day how this woman ever got elected as governor in such a conservative state as Kansas, and we declined his invitation to callers from the state to offer an explanation. The host is rather harsh, and we were concerned he might not want to hear that it happened because a recently triumphant and thoroughly revved-up religious wing of the Republican party won the nomination for a candidate so shrill and angry that Sebelius was able to pass herself off as pragmatic and reasonable and moderate sort of Democrat. She actually governed that way for her first time, or at least we don’t remember to being too riled about anything she did, and she stayed out of the news well enough to win re-election over another fire-breather. She then took a turn to the left, however, and was clearly looking to endear herself to the Democratic party’s liberal base rather than her own state’s more conservative voters. One low point came when the once-lovely little town of Greensburg was wiped out by a tornado, and Sebelius falsely claimed that recovery efforts had been hampered by a lack of National Guard equipment due to the Iraq War. The ploy worked well enough to gain Sebelius a prominent post in the Obama during its heady early days, and she no doubt thought that it would lead to even greater things, but her career now seems to have come to a more fitting conclusion.
Sebelius will likely find some sinecure on a corporate board or in academia or at some lucrative lobbying outfit, but the past talk of her presidential or vice-presidential possibilities won’t be repeated. The Democrats will be running another candidate for governor this year, and already have another pragmatic and reasonable and moderate sort of Democrat woman lined up for Lieutenant Governor, but we’re not expecting them to invite Sebelius to any of their campaign events.

– Bud Norman

Rumblings in California

The fault lines running through California are becoming active, and we don’t mean that in the seismological sense.
For some time we’ve been eagerly anticipating the fissures within the liberal coalition to start cracking, leading to a long-overdue political earthquake. Modern liberalism isn’t so much an ideology as a loose confederation of ethnic and economic interest groups, whose interests are often in conflict, and even the rigid discipline that the Democratic party somehow commands cannot keep it stable forever. The big shake-ups and crack-ups that occasionally roil across America’s cultural and political life often originate in California, and two recent stories out of the Golden State suggest that it might be happening again.
One concerned the California Assembly’s attempts to restore affirmative action at the state’s universities, a cause dear to liberal hearts. Affirmative action is especially dear to the hearts of liberal blacks and Latinos, who are allowed admission to the more desirable universities with inferior qualifications than other applicants, but is not as popular with liberal Asians, who often are the other applicants who are denied admission despite their superior qualifications. The old system that California voted down was so convoluted that whites with lesser academic credentials were favored over harder-working Asians, which endeared the scam to liberal whites even if didn’t quite fit with their rationale that affirmative action is rectifying past injustices, but most of the Democrats in the Assembly were eager to restore it.
The measure now seems unlikely to pass, however, because the Asian-American members of the party are refusing to go along. There are enough of them that when you add their total to the Republican Party’s puny representation it can quash such nonsense, apparently, and if they start to realize how often their economic interests coincide with those mean old white men from Orange County or wherever the last few California Republicans come from it might even thwart a lot of the other bad ideas that become law in California.
The other story concerned the far-left’s ongoing crime spree against the high-tech industry. With “economic inequality” currently the favorite gripe of liberalism the more active liberals in Northern California have lately been vandalizing the opulent buses provided by the Google company to its well-paid employees, and in recent days they’ve become tipping over those tiny “smart cars” favored by the high-tech workers. Silicon Valley has been a reliable source of funds and votes for the Democrats for many years, the Google buses are intended to cut down on traffic congestion and fuel consumption and global warming and all those other things that liberals profess to hate, but for now it’s apparently more progressive to hate anyone making a certain amount of money. Those tipped-over “smart cars” even sported the obligatory Obama for President bumper stickers, but even such displays of righteousness will not spare you the wrath of income inequality mob. Some are claiming those Obama bumper stickers suggest the work of right-wingers, as if mobs of mayhem-minded Romney voters are terrorizing the streets of San Francisco, but it would be hard for even the party-loyal anarchist to find a car in that city without one.
The Google executives who’ve found angry mobs on their front yards are loyal Democrats, but perhaps they’ll reconsider as it becomes apparent that the guillotine is being sharpened for them as well as those rich industrialists. Silicon Valley is as steadfastly capitalist as any Kansas oil field, after all, and it’s hard to see how they’ve benefited from all the regulations and taxations they’ve helped to impose on all their customers. We’ve always suspected their leftist leanings were mostly motivated by a desire to be hip, but as they age into proper industrialist maturity and realize that angry mobs and vandalized buses are now the height of hipness they might even take their natural place in the Republican party.
Or maybe not. The discipline of the Democratic party has proved strong, and they’ve been able to cobble together new confederations out of different ethnic and economic interests as some the old ones prospered just enough to move on, and they might be able to whip up enough race- and class-baiting to keep the current one intact. If so, we’ll need fault lines of the seismological sort to solve the California problem.

– Bud Norman

Happy Equal Pay Day

Tuesday was “Equal Pay Day,” by presidential proclamation, but we did not mark the occasion an appropriate observance. By habit we try not to pay anybody for anything, and on those occasions when we find it unavoidable we seem to wind up shelling out at least as much to women as to men, so there was no opportunity to address the sexist economic inequality that the president hoped to address with the holiday. We could have baked a cake, we suppose, but at the moment we don’t know any sufficiently put-upon women in need of the gift.
Still, we enjoyed watching the president make a fool of himself with his ostentatiously designated day. The day was so designated as a way to hype the president’s signing of an executive order to address a supposed gap in the pay between women and men, as the distaff side is supposedly making only 77 centers for every dollar earned by the more brutish sex, but even the ost reliably news outlets were disinclined to play along.
That hackneyed 77 cents statistic has been thoroughly debunked, for one thing, by numerous commonsensical economists who immediately noticed that it does not take into account the typically longer years that tend to be worked by men or the other relevant factors. Worse yet, the White House’s hapless spokespeople were forced to admit as mud when even the likes of The New York Times and The Cable News Network were asking about an American Enterprise Institute study that found the White House was paying its women only 88 cents to the dollar earned by its is menfolk. The sputtering responses are priceless bits of political humor, and probably not at all what the president intended.

They could boast that least they were better than that nasty old private sector, but the stench of hypocrisy was still easily divisible. The president had earlier given a speech about how the pay gap is “not a myth, it’s math,” but underlings with the unenviable chore of answering questions couldn’t rely on such catchy turns of phrase. The same math that yields the 77 percent figure for the economy at large yields the 88 percent figure for the White House, leaving the press secretary to protest that you need to take into account all those other factors that render the 77 percent figure absurd.

All of this was impolitely acknowledged even in the mainstream news reports, where it was also noted how neatly it plays into the “Republicans’ War on Women” theme that has served the Democratic party in recent years, but we’d like to get a few more far-right kicks in. It should be noted that sexual discrimination in pay has been illegal since Mary Richards griped about it to Lou Grant on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” way back in the ’70s, and that the president’s bold executive order does little more than nibble at the edges of the statute of limitations on job-killing lawsuits. Any put-upon women in need of our cakes already have plenty of legal recourses.

– Bud Norman

Mickey Rooney, RIP

Mickey Rooney died Sunday at the ripe old age of 93, ending one of the longest and most impressive careers in the history of American show business, and thus ends an era of American popular culture.
That era actually ended so long ago that Rooney’s death has been relegated to a few inches deep inside most newspapers, while the golden age of entertainment he exemplified is now seen only on the cable channels devoted to the old-fashioned movie buffs or the late-late-shows of the cheaper UHF stations. Those who do chance upon Rooney’s better efforts will likely find it a bittersweet experience, as it provides a stark reminder of our society’s decline.
Rooney started in show-biz way back in the vaudeville days, when he debuted as a 17-month-old in his parent’s hard-luck burlesque act, and he was a seasoned pro by the time he made his first move at the age of 6. As an example of his natural talent and precocious polish we recommend the 1935 production of “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.” It’s a slick Hollywood take on Shakespeare that stars Olivia de Havilland and Dick Powell and Victor Jory and all the high-toned stars you’d expect to see in a silver-screen Shakespearean epic, but the stand-out performances are James Cagney’s cocky turn as Billy Bottom and Rooney’s perfectly nasty portrayal of the supernaturally mischievous Puck. Such talent kept Rooney busy at the studios in a wide variety of roles for the next several years, including such notable flicks as “Captains Courageous” and “Ah, Wilderness,” and by the end of the decade he was arguably the biggest star in pictures.
The persona that made Rooney so popular was far from the evil sprite of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” however, and instead expressed the squeaky-clean earnestness of the era when America was coming out of the Great Depression and into World War II. He was the titular character of the hugely popular “Andy Hardy” series, about an all-American boy in an all-American small town, and co-starred with all-American girl Judy Garland in a number of wholesome musicals about all-Americans kids putting on a show in somebody’s suspiciously opulent barn. He got to revive his earlier tough-kid persona in “Boys Town,” opposite Spencer Tracy as the saintly Father Flanagan, but by the final reel he had reverted to suitably endearing form.
At the height of his box-office popularity Rooney went off help out with World War II, and by all accounts his service was brave and distinguished. Originally turned down for duty because of health problems, he joined the USO to entertain the troops until he was allowed to enlist, then continued to entertain his fellow soldiers on makeshift stages built atop jeeps in between battles. He declined to draw any attention to his war record when he returned to Hollywood, and although he retained his popularity for a while he soon found himself struggling to maintain his career in a rapidly changing world.
Part of the problem was that Rooney was now too old for the wholesome lad roles that had once been his specialty, and the barely-five-foot-tall actor was attempting to play prize fighters and race car drivers and other grown-up variations on the tough kids of his earlier career. By the mid-’50s the movies were taking a turn toward film noir and gritty-but-preachy social justice screeds, and by the early ’60s Rooney’s Andy Hardy character and the let’s-put-on-a-show wholesomeness of his musicals was slightly embarrassing to a properly hip movie-goer.
Rooney’s career probably would have ended there if not for his formidable talent, which enabled him to play a variety of character roles with convincing ease. He was one of the slightly disreputable characters chasing after a hidden treasure in the brilliant “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” a nosy Japanese neighbor in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” a gambling-addicted soldier in “The Bold and the Brave,” and countless other roles in movies and television programs ranging from outstanding to downright awful. The former kid actor proved adept at old-man roles in the ’70s, earning him praise as a horse trainer in “Black Beauty” and an Emmy Award as the mentally-challenged “Bill” on a television movie of the same name, but he never regained his superstar status or quite shook the lingering image of good old Andy Hardy.

<div-style=”text-indent:20px;>Rooney got some revenge in the ’80s, when he applied his still-strong talents for piano playing, singing, dancing, and stand-up comedy in the hit Broadway revue “Sugar Babies.” With co-star Ann Miller, who had been the top-billed star of B musicals at Columbia before moving on to second-billed roles in the A+ musicals at MGM back in the ’40s and ’50s, the show went on the road for years and routinely out-drew such rock ‘n’ roll acts as the Rolling Stones. There was still a gray-haired audience for old-fashioned entertainment, and it had the disposable income for the tickets, and even the grumpiest critics acknowledged it had a certain charm. Despite all the money he made from “Sugar Babies,” Rooney continued to work in small roles in such big-budget pictures as “Night at the Museum” and then take to the road to play dinner theaters in mid-sized cities. He was well into his 80s when he played a second-rate venue here in Wichita, which afforded us the opportunity to interview him, and although he was rather cranky at that early-morning appointment he gave an energetic and well-received performance.

According to the obituary writers Rooney found religion and a lasting marriage and some peace with himself in his later years, a marked change from the eight-times divorced life of debauchery that had characterized his earlier days, and we’d like to think his early roles had helped prepare him for the part. All those marriages and the seamier sorts of legends have often been cited as proof of the phoniness of those all-American movies that once made Rooney the biggest star in movies, and that whole era now seems uncomfortably cornball to a properly jaded modern perspective, with Andy Hardy and “let’s put on a show” reduced punchlines in the ironically detached hipster humor, and Father Flanagan and “Boy’s Town” are deconstructed by the post-modernist critics for any subtle signs of pedophilia or some other darkness lurking beneath the surface, but there’s no mistaking the sincerity of those pictures. That’s part of the problem, of course, as sincerity is another one of those cornball qualities that offend the modern sensibility.
Call it progress if you want, but we have our doubts. In an age when “reality” stars become celebrities without any noticeable talents, it’s sobering to look back at an age when a singing, dancing, piano-playing, joke-telling actor who could play anything from Shakespeare to slapstick was what Hollywood was looking for. That gosh-golly gee-willikers enthusiasm of those great Rooney-Garland pictures and the Andy Hardy series got America through the Great Depression and whipped the Axis, whatever else you might say about it, and it’s hard to imagine that ironic hipster detachment that has replaced it will work as well in the coming challenges.

– Bud Norman

The Rising Price of Dissent

A friend of ours is an outspoken proponent of same-sex marriage, even though he is quite heterosexual and otherwise seems to have no enthusiasm for the institution of marriage, and he was recently exulting about how his side seems to be winning. He pulled his little telecommunications machine out of his pocket and showed us a commercial produced by the Honey Maid corporation, which told of show they had taken all the negative letters mailed to them about another recent commercial showing a same-sex couple and turned them into some sort of conceptual artwork, and he seemed pleased that the power of corporate America and Madison Avenue had at long last been turned the final holdouts of hateful bigots still opposed to same se-sex marriage. We mentioned that the highly-regarded chief executive officer of a large internet company had recently been forced to resign because of his past donation to an anti-same-sex marriage campaign in a California referendum, and our friend noted rather defensively that the fellow had after been given a chance to recant his previous position.
Although we have grown weary of the whole same-sex marriage controversy, the conversation was unsettling. We found the Honey Maid advertisement about the same-sex coupling offputtingly smug and self-satisfied, and its theme of “This Is Wholesome” particularly preachy, but it didn’t bother us because we doubted it would persuade anyone to purchase the company’s products or reconsider their political viewpoints. The part about allowing the embattled internet executive to recant his views was rather chilling, though, as it evoked the image of bespectacled, violin-playing intellectuals confessing their political thought crimes to before the cadres of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. We couldn’t help wondering if re-education camps might be looming. Whatever misgivings we might have about same-sex marriage as a result of our our Burkean cultural instincts and Judeo=Christian religious upbringing we have almost reached the point where we’re eager to see all our homosexual friends rendered as domesticated as the rest of us, but this broader business of punishing any heterodoxy against the liberal pieties is becoming intolerable.
It’s not just same-sex marriage but a much broader ranger of issues that will bring down the wrath of the newly fledged establishment on anyone who dares utter a dissenting word or write an offending campaign contribution check. Despite the indifference of much of the press the Internal Revenue Service has harassed conservative non-profit groups, a matter the president has dismissed as a “phony scandal” even as the IRS honcho at the center of it all is very genuinely invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Anyone skeptical of the the most alarmist warnings about anthropogenic global warming is scorned by polite opinion as a “denier” or member of the “Flat Earth Society,” which hardly hurts our feelings, but when such a formidable writer and wit as Mark Steyn finds himself in an expensive court case over some well deserved ridicule of a thoroughly debunked “climate scientist” it is is a daunting reminder of how very far the alarmists will go to quash debate. Our favorite local billionaire has lately been denounced on the floor of the United States Senate by the majority of that once-august body as “un-American” for promoting his pro-capitalist views, and the poor fellow and his brother are publicly protested even when they throw a hundred million or so to a new hospital wing. In academia conservative speakers are routinely met with brown shirt tactics by censorious mobs, and conservative scholars are frequently denied tenure. Conservative politicians are subject to special scrutiny not only by the increasingly inconsequential media but also by the evermore powerful prosecutors.
We are constitutionally inoculated against the blandishments of Madison Avenue and have always enjoyed a voluntary relationship with corporate America, and we’re confident that our friend will draw the line at guillotines and a full-blown reign of terror, but the bare-knuckles nature of the progressive movement and its corporate and political allies will likely prove more troublesome. Anyone who’s endured “sensitivity training” in a corporate job knows that the prospect of re-education camps isn’t so far-fetched, and any of the increasing number of dissenters who have been subjected to the scrutiny of the IRS or any of a countless number of other acronym agencies, or have been hauled into a court to account for the opinions, knows that something sinister is afoot. Once upon a dark time in America punishing people with economic and legal consequences for the political opinions was known as “McCarthyism,” but ow we’l have to find some more polite term for it.

– Bud Norman

Politics on the Playground

A prominent member of the House of Representatives has offered a budget proposal, and the President of the United States has publicly called it a “stink burger.”
There’s much to be said about the budget proposed by Wisconsin’s Rep. Paul Ryan, as well as the alternative put forth a few weeks back by President Barack Obama, but we’ll happily leave it all unsaid. Neither proposal has any chance of becoming law, so we find it far more interesting and worrisome that our political discourse has devolved to the point of “stink burger.”
Obama was once widely lauded as the greatest orator since Demosthenes, but surely even his most awe-struck admirers will admit that “stink burger” is not quite eloquent enough to justify that reputation. There were kids on the playground at Kistler Elementary School who could come up with more creative insults, and by the time they had graduated to Brooks Junior High and foul language they didn’t sound nearly so juvenile. We have no idea how taunting is done on the playgrounds of Honolulu’s ritzier private schools or at Columbia University and Harvard Law School, but we had hoped for something a little more high-brow. We certainly expect more of a President of the United States, as we can fondly recall a time when even a relatively low-brow Vice President could come up with something as alliterative and snappy as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
The “stink burger” slur reportedly went over well with Obama’s audience at the University of Michigan. This does not speak well for the state of higher education, where a higher-toned sort of malicious slander once prevailed, but perhaps they were just grateful to be spared all the boring details of the budget debate. Obama also called Ryan’s budget proposal a “meanwich,” which seems to imply that he finds it parsimonious, which is almost an actual argument, and even a modern-day college student can understand why the president preferred to avoid any specifics.
Ryan’s allegedly radical right-wing proposal is rather tepid stuff, after all, at least by the standards of we actual right-wing radicals. The plan would take ten years to reach a balanced budget, must less begin to eat into $17 trillion of debt, and is mean only the sense that your parents were mean when they wouldn’t give you a pony. You’d probably get that long-awaited pony if the Obama budget proposal were passed, but it is based on the equally fanciful notion that a nation can live happily ever after on trillions of dollars of indefinitely continued debt. That’s a hard argument to make, even to a student full of empty-headed college students, and is best expressed in terms of “stink burger.”

– Bud Norman

The Second Time as Farce

Dartmouth University rarely attracts our attention, as its sports teams never make the news and the other departments are almost as easily ignored, but we couldn’t help noticing that a group of students there are currently occupying its president’s office. The story brought on a feeling of nostalgia for our boyhood days in the ‘60s, when such student activism was commonplace, but on closer reading it seems the times they are indeed a-changin’.
Back in what the old baby boomer folks call “the day,” the youngsters used to seize campus buildings to protest the Vietnam War and racism and various other things that were said to be unhealthy for children and other living things. These were regarded as serious subjects even by the old fogies who thought that camping in a campus building was a damned fool way of making a point, and it was mostly respectable middle class hippie freaks who were breaking the law, so the practice attracted widespread attention and enjoyed a certain a respectability. The current action, on the other hand, seems simply ridiculous.
The 30 or so occupiers, who call themselves “Concerned Asian, Latino, Native, Undocumented, Queer, and Differently-Abled Students,” are calling for the implementation of what they call a “Freedom Budget.” The phrase sounds slightly right-wing, “freedom” and “budget” both being words often invoked by conservatives, but it is actually a laundry list of loony-left demands even by Ivy League standards. Among other things, the CALNUQD-AS insist that: Every department incorporate “at least one queer studies class”; many millions of dollars be committed to increase “faculty and staff of color” and create a “professor of color” lecture series; require professors to be trained in “cultural competency” and “the importance of social justice in their day to day work”; require professors to use “preferred gender pronouns”; provide “gender-neutral” housing and restroom facilities; and free legal assistance and financial aid to undocumented students.
Oh, and they’re also demanding that “all male-female checkboxes should be replaced with write-inboxes to make forms, surveys, and applications more inclusive for trans, two-spirit, agender, gender-noncomforming and genderqueer folks campus wide,” and that every Dartmouth student be taught he (or she, or it, we suppose) is residing on Abenaki homeland. They insist this is necessary because “The burden should not lie with systematically oppressed students (affected by racism, classism, imperialism, nativism, sexism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, and ableism) to ensure our own well-being, safety, and continued existence at Dartmouth.” Lest you think that the continued existence of CALNUQD-AS at Dartmouth seems assured and probably quite comfortable, they add that “our lived experiences at Dartmouth have been so violent that we were driven to write a plan for such assurance — The Freedom Budget.”
This sounds so outlandish that we must apologize for the computer problems that prevent us from providing the links that would prove we’re not making it all at some exaggerated parody, but we invite you to look it up for yourself. We had to look up “cis-sexism” ourselves, as it’s the only one of the listed isms that we haven’t yet been accused of, and it apparently means a prejudice against transgendered or transsexual people, so if that includes a slight level of discomfort we’re also guilty of that.
Maybe we’re just being racist, classist, imperialist, nativist, sexist, heterosexist, cis-sexist, and ableist, but it all sounds like these poor kids need a war or some actual racism to protest. We feel sorry for the poor Dartmouth mathematician who has to come up with a queer math course. We resent the implication in “professor of color” that white people are colorless, as our own off-salmon pink is indeed a color. We’ll refer to people by whatever gender seems appropriate, and cringe at the linguistic contortions that are required to respect some people’s feelings. We prefer gender-specific restrooms, too. You can check off whatever box you want on Dartmouth’s forms, as far as we’re concerned, but we’re not even going to bother to look up whatever what the hell Abenaki land is.
Back in the ‘60s the campus building-occupying hippies at least got a good orgy out of it, but these CALNUQD-AS probably won’t fare as well. They might get every demand they make, given the state of academia, but before the achieve utopia they’ll probably bore themselves to death.

– Bud Norman


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