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Hooey for Hollywood

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got the public to pay attention to its annual awards show again, but not in the way they attended. Like most Americans we didn’t bother to watch any of it, but like most Americans we couldn’t help hearing about the big moment at the end of the interminable broadcast when they announced the wrong winner of the “best picture” contest.
All of the conservative media couldn’t helping laughing at the ineptitude of all those glitzy show biz types with their high-minded political pronouncements, and one can hardly blame them. The smug is even worse than the smog in Hollywood, and one can’t resist a certain schadenfreude at seeing its overpaid denizens figuratively rather than the usual literally with their pants down. In the liberal media they were noticing that a mostly white movie was wrongly announced rather than the mostly black movie that actually won, and recalling all the concerns in recent years that the statuettes weren’t being handed out according to some sort of racial quota system, and worrying that might undermine the moral authority of all those high-minded political pronouncements that everybody makes. Most folks, we suspect, merely chuckled when they heard about it.
Our reaction was to stop and wonder whatever the hell became of the movies. We’re old enough to remember when movies were a big deal, and so were the Academy Awards, so this slapstick reminder of their continued existence made us realize how relatively irrelevant they have now become. The youngsters might be surprised to learn that back in the days before video games and internet porn going to the local bijou was a frequent ritual for most Americans, and along with books on paper and records spun by a local disc jockey and playing games with sticks and balls and no electricity it was one of America’s most favorite pastimes. It always sounds horrible to the young ears we tell about it, but it actually quite great.
To this day we retain vivid memories of our movie-going experiences dating back to youngest childhood. We can still recall the elegant art deco theater where our mother took us to see “A Boy Teen Feet Tall,” a terrific flick about a kid slightly older than we were at the time whose mother and father are killed during the Suez Canal conflict and winds up walking from Egypt to South Africa, and it still thrills even our middle-aged hearts. Our first experience of “Mary Poppins” and “My Fair Lady” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” is permanently in our memory, as is that night we stayed up way too late at our grandparents’ house and caught the night owl airing of the sultry and fishnet-stockinged Marlene Dietrich destroying a sensitive intellectual’s life in “The Blue Angel” when we were way too young for such fare, and some shrink might suggest that has also left some psychic mark, for better for worse.
Some of the movies we saw in those swank old theaters were so overwhelming to our youthful imagination that we fell in love with flicks, and instinctively realized at the earliest age that was an art form. Back then television sets only had three channels on a clear day, and the big national networks only provided so many hours of programming, so all the local stations would fill the rest of the time with kiddie shows and hints for housewives and some gospel and mostly old movies. They’d all had their runs in the theater and were just sitting on shelves, so the movie studios would sell the broadcast rights on the cheap for the afternoon slot and the post-Johnny Carson hours, and all through our summer vacations and on every Friday and Saturday night we were as absorbed by the golden era of Hollywood as our nostalgic parents and grandparents had been. Not all of it was good, and some of it was hilariously bad even to our youthful tastes, but the best of it had Fred Astaire dancing with a series of beautiful and talented women, Cary Grant being as handsome and well-dressed and charming as we aspired to be, Myrna Loy and Rosalind Russell and Barbara Stanwyck being every bit as gorgeous and smart and tough as the women we aspired to have fall in love with, and they had guys such as W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx and Jack Benny who not only made us laugh until our stomachs ached but also had a wised up smartness we also aspired to. Even an old-fashioned oater such as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” had a very literary smartness about that we still aspire to.
There were some darned good movies playing their first runs in the theaters back then, too, and such sophisticated fare as “The Graduate” and the still-haunting “Sterile Cuckoo” gave us a head start on understanding the increasingly crazy adult world that was going on. At some point in the ’70s all those grand old downtown theaters had been replaced by cinderblock multiplexes on the far east and west sides of town, but they featured such memorable fare as Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” series and “The Conversation,” Martin Scorcese’s “Taxi Driver” and “Ranging Bull,” Peter Bogdanovich’s “Last Picture Show” and “Paper Moon,” and although a lot of it was hilariously bad a lot of it was also pretty good. By that point we were checking out old silent films from the public library and going to the local university and the occasional art houses that never lasted very long to see Akira Kurosawa’s awesome Japanese flicks and anything we could find with Buster Keaton and all the Stanley Kubrick releases and anything else we’d read the more high-brow critics raving about. The movies were so great, we thought they’d never run out of greatness.
At some point, though, the art form somehow petered out. Thinking back, we figured it started around the time of the first “Star Wars.” It’s by no means the worst movie ever made, and we remember leaving some unmemorable theater or another feeling as well entertained as our Pop had once been after a Saturday morning “Buck Rogers” serial, but its effect has been insidious. The movie and its parts two and three proved so popular, and produced so much revenue from toys and bedsheets and jigsaw puzzles and every other form of merchandising that Hollywood decided to that kind of thing instead of something smart. Special effects and explosions and implausibly invincible superheroes took precedence over real people and their real lives, a technological revolution proceeded faster than a slowing pace of artistic evolution, foreign distribution to countries that it’s hard to translate American dialogue and cultural context is suddenly the biggest share of the box office, and the next thing you know all the big blockbusters are based on kids’ comic books. There’s nothing wrong with comic books movies and the latest “Star Wars,” but there’s something very wrong if that’s all that’s playing at the local bijou.
There’s still some more adult fare out there, of course, which sooner or later or turns up on Netflix or some other newfangled way for us to watch it, but it rarely meets the high standards we acquired in our lucky youth. It used to be that the quality pictures were the big hits, with people lining up around the block for a screening of such diverse classics as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Cabaret,” but these none of the top-ten grossers were deemed worthy of the Academy’s award nominations, and most of the young movie-goers we know have no familiarity and no interest in how good movies used to be. At least one newspaper columnist sees this as proof of Hollywood’s elitism, but we’re movie snobs enough that we agree it just wouldn’t do to hand out the industry’s highest award to some comic book movie.
What they do nominate, though, is so quickly forgotten that we dare you to name any recent winners. Unmoored from the responsibility of creating something that satisfies the desires of a vast yet discerning audience, the artier directors of the day too often leap into masturbatory self-indulgence, and some of the movies that the highbrow critics rave about these days strike us as hilariously bad. Maybe some day Netflix will provide us with an edifying two hours or so with one of this year’s award winners, and we hate to think about how there’s a really good new movie out there that haven’t seen, but at this point Hollywood needs a slapstick screw-up to make the news.

— Bud Norman

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Meanwhile, at the Democratic Ranch

There was an unusual amount of attention paid to the race for the chairmanship for the Democratic National Party in the press, and all of our Democrat friends could hardly talk about anything else. Given the currently sorry state of the party, which now finds itself out power in the White House and both chambers of Congress and any minute now in the Supreme Court and much of the rest of the federal judiciary, not to mention in the governor’s mansions and legislatures and county commissions of most states, we can well understand the interest in what’s usually a back page story about someone whose only the politically obsessed sorts would usually recognize.
As the sorts of politically obsessed and retrograde Republicans who are as distressed as ever about the state of our own party, we’re not encouraged by how the race played out. From our old-fashioned right-wing perspective it came down to the far-left Tom Perez, President Barack Obama’s former Secretary of Labor and head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, and the even farther-left Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, who is best known as the party’s left-most member and the only Muslim ever elected to Congress. Perez was naturally backed by both Obama and failed party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and the rest of what can charitably be called the Democratic establishment, so naturally all of our Democratic friends were avidly for Ellison. All of our Democratic friends are in the same anti-establishment mood that overwhelmed so much of the Republican Party last election it wound up with President Donald Trump, and we try in vain to tell them that no good ever comes of it.
All of our Democratic friends were big for self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the past primaries, who was big backer of Ellison, and they all either enthusiastically voted for Green Party nominee Jill Stein or reluctantly for Clinton in the general election, and none of them have much more regard for Clinton than we do. They all regard her as dishonest and corrupt, which causes us to respect their political integrity, and they also find her insufficiently liberal, which causes us to question their sanity. As far as we can remember any party that loses power to a more conservative or liberal platform figures that it lost because it wasn’t sufficiently conservative or liberal enough, and all our Democrat friends are repeating the pattern. Having lost a winnable presidential race to a Republican who promised a Muslim ban and an immigration crackdown had an undeniable appeal to the sorts of white working class voters who once voted for Democrats, they figure the shrewd move was to pick a black and Muslim and formerly Black Muslim and still race-baiting and left-most-in-the-party kook to head up the party apparatus.
Any honest Republican should recognize the impulse. After it lost a winnable election against Obama in ’16 a huge chunk of the Grand Old Party was hating on failed nominee Mitt Romney, convinced that he’d been far too dignified and reasonable and otherwise establishment to prevail against those hated Democrats, and after Trump’s electoral victory we’re disappointed but not at all surprised our Democrat friends have concluded that she was just too damned dignified and reasonable and otherwise establishment to beat Trump. All of our Democratic buddies are convinced that Sanders’ unabashed socialism would have won the day, especially if it had been fused to the racial identity politics that Ellsion represents, and given the eight years of darkness the Republicans endured during the Obama years it’s altogether too plausible, but we still think the Democrats would have done better last time around with those relatively moderate candidates that were the first to drop out of the primaries.
If we were inclined to offer advice to adversaries, we would remind our Democrat friends that they just went six-for-seven in the last popular presidential votes, their last redoubts are the most populous and influential states, the states that made up the electoral majority were decided by razor-thing margins, and that nothing ever lasts forever in politics. In politics as in chess the center is usually the best space to occupy, and its not as if the victorious Perez isn’t far enough to the queen side. His establishment credentials suggest he might even be more effective in spreading Democratic nonsense than Ellison would have been, which alarms all our Republican friends, but at this point we were hoping at least one party will remain relatively sane.

— Bud Norman

Oh, You Beautiful Doll

According to folklore, when television sets first started showing up there were some older Americans who wouldn’t have one in their homes for fear somebody might be watching them through the machine. Any electrician of the era could have assured them that there were no cameras inside the set, and nothing that could transmit anything out to Uncle Miltie or anybody else, but there was still a lingering suspicion of newfangled contraptions. It now sounds quite ridiculous, but these days we all have machines that do have cameras inside and are quite capable of sending whatever they’re watching to any number of tech-savvy sorts, and some future generation will probably be laughing that no one seemed suspicious at all.
We’re not the paranoid sorts who have placed black tape over that little dot on the top of the machine we’re writing this on, even though sometimes late at night it does seem to be looking at us funny, but we do try to maintain a healthy suspicion of newfangled contraptions. A recent report in The Washington Post suggests you can’t even trust that cute doll you bought for your daughter.

Apparently the German government has warned parents not to purchase the “My Friend Cayla” doll, which looks from the photo to be an adorable blond and blue-eyed and pink-dressed girl with the same Converse sneakers we favor, and another selling point is that she’s rather eerily interactive. She not only talks, as certain dolls have done for some time if you pull the right string, but she’s connected to the internet through one of those ubiquitous Bluetooth devices and can converse as fluently as those Siri thingamajigs that everyone seems to have these days. The cute little thing also apparently transmits everything it hears back to a voice recognition company in the United States, so the German government has also decided to make ownership illegal.
One can only wonder why a voice recognition company in the United States would be interested in the conversations that very young German girls were having with their dollies, but by now we can guess at enough marketing and political and sexual perversions that are now possible to think the Germans are being prudent. For one thing, the technological marvel of a doll that actually has meaningful conservations with people is intimidating enough to us, and we shudder to think of the marketing and political and sexual perversion possibilities of this technology when it reaches a more adult level of sophistication. For another thing, and maybe it’s just too many slasher flicks and old Twilight Zone and Night Gallery re-runs, but there was always something about talking dolls that kind of creeped us out, and for that matter we think that machines in general talk too much.
Sometimes we’ll drive our beloved Pop around town in his exceedingly fancy automobile, and it’s always trying to tell us when to turn or change lanes or stop as if we don’t know the streets of this city better than any highfalutin computer. There are certain elevators in this city that tell us when we have reached our floor, which also strikes us as rather condescending. Far, far too often we find ourselves talking on our Star Trek-ish telephone with some machine or another, and we usually wind up thinking we’d have done just as well if we’d opted for Espanol, which we hardly habla at all. Some of the late night drive-thru restaurants around here now have a machine greet us at the window, and we expect there will be more of that if the $15 an hour minimum wage happens, and we lately notice a lot of other interactions that used to occur more pleasantly with real live human beings.
The machines seem to know more about us than we do about them, too, which is also kind of creepy. Too much of our time is spent delving into the vast sea that is YouTube, and every time they’re recommending the old Hee-Haw episodes with Ray Charles or the Boston Celtics of the ’80s or old Van Morrison songs or some similar stuff they somehow know we like. They’re always touting the latest Alex Jones “InfoWars” screeds and other assorted conspiracy theories, which we watch purely for yucks, so we sometimes worry they think we take that stuff seriously. We have no idea who “they” are, or why they would take any interest in our YouTube tastes, but pretty much everywhere in the internet some they or another seems to know where we are and provide advertisements for business located nearby, and those Wichita Symphony ads that keep showing up seem uncannily aware of our recent concert-going tastes, and by now anyone would shiver to think what else they, whoever they are, might also know.
In our case, and in most people’s cases, we can console ourselves that our interactions with both machines and human beings are too mundane to attract anyone’s attention. We can all still aspire to some significance, though, and it’d be a shame if we all went awry because of one of those arguably weird things we found on our machines. A cousin or second cousin or cousin once-removed of ours is a great guy and a very smart fellow who’s an engineer at a company in California that is figuring out how to have your morning coffee brewed when you’re awakened by a computer-run alarm clock and your car is revved up and the garage door open as you head to work and guides your right along the way, and he makes it all sound very promising. Still, somehow we can’t shake that scene in “2001: A Space Odyssey” where the soothing voice of the all-powerful machine tells the desperate astronaut that “I can’t let you do that,” or a recurring nightmare that the condescending voice on the elevator won’t let us off because it heard we’d been mean to that kiosk at the mall.
There’s no avoiding these newfangled machines, but at least there’s still plenty of the real life that our superstitious ancestors once enjoyed. The weather has been so nice lately we’ve been driving around with the top down and no machines telling us where to go and an old-fashioned cassette player blasting rockabilly and garage rock, and we’ve had some nice interactions with real live humans conducted in such places that no one would ever think to surveil, and we have a houseful of books including Mien Kampf and Das Kapital and Mao’s Little Red Book and The Federalist Papers and the King James Bible and Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose” and tons of P.G. Wodehouse that no one can hold against us, and even in this modern age that’s the best of it. Machines have taken more jobs than China and Mexico combined ever will, they keep you in touch with anyone who wants to call you no matter where you go, and they’re increasingly bossy about everyone, even if they do occasionally give us a good tip to a Tom Waits song or an old MGM musical number. We’ll try to stay free of it as best we can, and hope those cute little German girls find their imaginary conservations with their mute but cute little dolls more edifying than talking to even to the cutest little machine, and that the human thing prevails.

— Bud Norman

The Sunflower State’s Momentarily Embarrassing Moment in the Sun

The national media usually pay no attention to what’s going on in Kansas, which is fine by most Kansans, but they have taken notice of the state’s recent budget problems. Our state government’s revenue collections are once again short of projections, this time around by $350 million or so, and although the sum must seem quaint to a New York or Washington newspaper editor they can’t resist the angle of a cautionary tale about Republicans and their crazy economic schemes out here on the prairie.
There’s no denying the angle has some validity, and the hook for the latest stories is that even the Republican-dominated legislature came up just three votes short of overriding a Republican governor’s veto of tax hike bill, which is the sort of internecine Republican squabbling that always draws national media to even the most remote portions of the country. Although it pains our old-fashioned Kansas Republican souls to admit, there’s also no denying that all that tax-cutting that started about six years ago has not yet kept all the extravagant promises that were made. Even after six years there’s still a plausible argument to be made for patience, and the dismal science of economics cannot prove for certain that higher taxes would have proved a boon to the Kansas economy, and we can think of some tax-and-spend states that also have newsworthy budget problems, but for now there’s no denying the $350 million shortfall or any of the fun the press is having with it.
The tax cuts are the creation of our ultra-Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who of course has long been hated by Democrats everywhere since his days in the United States Senate for his unapologetic anti-abortion and pro-free market beliefs. Although he has a bachelor’s degree from Kansas State University’s world-class agricultural economics department and a law degree from the University of Kansas and is married into the family that owned the newspaper chain that owned The Topeka Capitol-Journal and served in the United States Senate and has been in politics since he became national president of the Future Farmers of America and the KSU student council, Brownback is still considered an anti-establishment type, so he’s also been a controversial figure even within his own party. Starting with all those high-minded New England abolitionists who poured into the state for the Bleeding Kansas battles that presaged the Civil War, the Kansas Republican Party has always been the establishment around here and long fended off the scruffier sorts of populists. Even with the help of the Emporia Gazette’s great William Allen White they had to resort to firearms to expel the Prairie Populists who gained a brief majority in the statehouse on a program of nationalizing everything and coining endless free silver and all sorts of other craziness, and they only kept the notorious quack and shrewd showman “Doc” Brinkley from becoming governor by not counting all the misspelled or imprecise write-in votes that were cast, but for the most part they’ve kept a steady course down the middle of the road over the many years, and at first they balked at Brownback’s admittedly radical fiscal policies.
Despite the intra-party resisters and their unified allies among the Democratic minority Brownback got most of what he wanted, and then he egged on the anti-establishment sentiment that was taking hold among Republicans in every state, and saw many of his longterm Republican adversaries ousted from office by more hard-core primary challengers, and then he got the rest of it. It was all very acrimonious and much mud was slung and it was not at all the sort of thing that Kansas Republicans like, and the Democrats everywhere greatly enjoyed it until the saw which side had won, and of course it didn’t end there. With like-minded Republicans firmly in control of both sides of the capitol building Brownback surely knew he would be due all the credit or blame that might accrue in the aftermath of his policies, and at the moment that’s a $350 million shortfall.
The notion that lower taxes are more conducive to economic activity than higher taxes has long been generally accepted by all sorts of Republicans, from the country clubs to the union halls, and although you might not find it in Kansas at the moment there is plenty of evidence to support that notion. The doubling of federal revenues that followed Reagan’s admittedly radical tax cuts is one example, and despite our doubts about this Trump fellow he might yet provide more proof. We can hardly blame those back east newspapers focusing their attention on Kansas, and we’ll give them some credit for acknowledging deep into their stories that it’s all very complicated. There are any number of reasons why the Kansas economy hasn’t outpaced even the sluggish growth of the nation at large over the past six years, many of which can plausibly be blamed on the policies of the D.C. Democrats and the eight years of Democratic governors who preceded Brownback, one of whom was that Kathleen Sibelius woman who got kicked out of the Obama administration for bungling the the Obamacare rollout, and the dismal science of economics being what it is there’s always that very real possibility things could have been worse.
There’s also an argument to be made that Kansas had the right idea but went about it the wrong way. Tax policy is mind-numbingly arcane, and all the newspapers in the state are pretty much broke and nobody’s paying us to wade through all that stuff anymore, but so far as we can tell the bill that Brownback vetoed would have rescinded a previous measure that nearly eliminated taxes on income from certain legal entities used by small businesses, which is apparently known as “pass-through income.” This sounds like the sort of pro-Mom-and-Pop policy that every variety of Republican can support, but apparently some 330,000 Kansas businesses started passing all their income through those certain legal entities, and in a state of only 2.5 million people that’s a lot of Moms and Pops and probably enough to make a dent in a $350 million shortfall, and apparently that particular lower tax rate does yield to the usually reliable Laffer Curve.
After the first couple of shortfalls happened the establishment sorts of Republicans started winning primary challenges against the newly-minted anti-establishment types, and the paleolithic Sen. Pat Roberts won re-election despite an anti-establishment challenger that all the talk radio hosts loved, Brownback won re-election against one of those crazy tax-and-spend Democrats by a slighter margin, and the Kansas Republican party largely returned to its stodgy budget-balancing and non-boat-rocking ways. With help from the unified Democrats it came within three votes in the Senate from overriding the veto, and when everything’s up for grabs in Kansas’ off-year elections two years hence we won’t be betting on that pass-through exemption lasting long. The first rounds of shortfalls were met with spending cuts, which struck us as entirely reasonable after eight years of spendthrift Democratic administrations, but there are roads to be paved and bridges to be buttressed and kids to be educated in the state, and the biggest chunk of the state budget is obligated by the feds, so after the first few rounds of plucking there got be some squawking in even in the most Republican precincts. We read there’s a similar exemption included in the much speculated-about tax proposals from President Donald Trump, who won the state’s electoral votes just like every Republican does but finished a dismal third in the state’s Republican caucus, and we wonder how many Grand Old Party establishment types will be around to raise any objections to that.
We really don’t want to be ragging on Sam, as we call him, because we do like the guy. It’s an annoying stereotype about Kansans that we’re all supposed to know one another, but we have known Brownback since our teenaged days as interns with the famously Kansas Republican Sen. Bob Dole, and we’d run into him on the KSU campus where he was king and the Kansas State Fairs that he ran as Kansas Agricultural Commissioner and along his endless campaign stops, and we’ve always known him to be a very nice guy with a good enough sense of humor that he got our jokes. We also remain steadfast in our old-fashioned Kansas Republican belief that lower taxes are indeed generally more conducive to economic activity than higher ones, but we’re the old-fashioned sort of Kansas Republican who would prefer to get things right enough to balance the budget. Tax policy is arcane stuff, but if you delve deep enough into you’ll find that some tax cuts are better than others, and that sensible policies elsewhere would make it all less important, and that it’s all very complicated, and sometimes you have to pay at the bottom line. We rather like that some stodgy budget-balancing Republicanism is still afoot in the country, too, and hope that the old adage about lower taxes and economic activity will survive. May God have mercy on our souls, but we also hope they can work something out with those damned Democrats.

— Bud Norman

The Local Angle on the Big Divide

Every once in a while in our daily and extensive reading of the national and international news we’ll come across the name of somebody we know from real life, and it’s always quite a jolt. One would prefer to feel somewhat insulated from all that widely covered hubbub about people we don’t know and don’t really care to know, but those occasional names we recognize as people we do know always remind us there’s often far less than seven degrees of separation between us and the underlying reality of it all.
The latest jolt came just yesterday when that Milo Yiannapolous fellow that we don’t know and really don’t care to know was disinvited from the Conservative Political Action Conference’s annual meeting, on account of some surfaced audiotapes that have him sure enough sounding as if he’s in favor of grown men having sex with underage boys, and all the front page stories on all the big papers quoted a fellow we do know named Matt Schlapp. Perish the thought that Schlapp has anything at all to do with grown men having sex with teenage boys, but he’s also quoted in all the next-day stories about how Yiannoplous also lost a big book deal and was fired from the Breitbart News website where he was hired by former editor and President Donald Trump’s top current top consigliere Steven Bannon. Schlapp only figures in all of this because he’s the current chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosts the Conservative Political Action Conference, and is therefore the guy who stirred up all the hubbub by inviting the notorious provocateur Yiannpolous to speak and then stirred up yet another hubbub by disinviting him after those career-destroying audiotapes were publicized.
There’s no way of spinning that either one or the other of those decisions wasn’t wrong, so Schlapp is currently getting pilloried by pretty much all of the exponentially intersectional sides of the current political spectrum. We’re trying to take a more forgiving stand, though, because we rather like Schlapp. He’s a fellow Wichitan, who we first met a million years or so ago when we were covering the political beat for the local paper and he was a go-to source on the staff of the our district’s congressman, and we’d like to think that despite everything our relationship has always been cordial and mutually respectful. His congressman’s win over a long-entrenched Democrat who seems quite reasonable by today’s Democratic standard was shrewdly predicted by our coverage, which momentarily enhanced our standing at the local newspaper, and despite our misgivings about the rather fire-breathing Republican’s apparent cluelessness we maintained a respectful relationship with Schlapp and the rest of the staff during his long incumbency Over the years the congressman became less clueless and quite respectable, as far as we were concerned, while we were relegated to the theater criticism beat, where we once again rocked, as far as we were concerned, while Schlapp rose through the conservative ranks to the point where he wound up in inviting and then dis-inviting that Yiannapolous fellow to speak at the biggest annual gathering of true-blue conservatives.
Despite a certain affection for Schlapp and his full-throated and formerly old-fashioned conservatism and Republicanism, we’ll go right ahead and say he was an idiot for extending the invitation in the first place. We’ll forgive him for not knowing that Yiannapolous sure seems an on-the-record apologist for grown men having sex with young boys, as we also didn’t know that, and we’ll give him due credit for rescinding the invitation once those tawdry tapes were released. What continues to bother us, though, is that he was apparently well aware of Yiannapolous’ reputation as a riot-provoking provocateur of both the left and the erstwhile right when he extended the invitation. In response to the “tweets” of a stubbornly anti-Trump conservative we don’t know but much respect he tweeted that he “must be doing something right” to have aroused such ire, which despite our hometown boosterism seems quite dumb. He could have just easily as aroused that woman’s ire by inviting the head of the Ku Klux Klan to speak at the nation’s largest annual gathering of conservatives, and that would just as clearly have not proved that he was doing something right.
Alas, the idea that anything you might say or do that offends the sensibilities of the the other side shows you’re doing something right is all the rage these days days on both sides of the political aisle. We run into that all the time here in Wichita, from both the liberals and conservatives that we’re trying to stay friends with, and we try our best to find some common ground. So far we’ll agreed that grown men should not be having sex with underage boys, and even that Yiannapolous fellow no longer disputes that, so we’ll hope that some further common ground can be found. In the meantime we’ll cut some slack for Matt Schlapp, who always seemed a likable enough fellow, and hope that the rest of is more than seven degrees of seperation away from us. The congressman that Schlapp once worked for is long out of office, having been replaced by a brighter fellow of our slight acquaintance who is now the head of the Central Intelligence, the second Wichita to hold that office, and his confirmation featured the testimony of another couple of former and current Senators we personally know, so even here in godforsaken middle of the country the the news seems all too close to home.

— Bud Norman

An Outrage Too Far

Although we do our darnedest to pay no attention to Milo Yiannopoulos, there was simply no avoiding the fellow in the news on Monday. The Breitbart News editor and political activist was dis-invited from a speaking engagement at the Conservative Political Action Conference’s annual get-together, and the resulting controversy proved more interesting than Yiannopoulos has ever been.
If you’re fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with Yiannopoulos’ act, he’s an ostentatiously homosexual British provocateur known for his apologetics on behalf of the “alt-right,” sneering denunciations of immigrants and Muslims and especially Muslim immigrants, insulting comments toward women in general and lesbians in particular, and a such an enthusiasm for President Donald Trump that he calls him “Daddy.” This resume somehow earned him an invitation to speak at the national largest annual gathering of conservatives, but that ended when the sponsoring American Conservative Union’s chairman was given audiotape of Yiannapolous seeming to argue that grown men should be allowed and even encouraged to have have sex with 13-year-old boys, which is still a bit much for conservative tastes even at this late date.
For our old-fashioned sensibilities it was an offense he was asked in the first place, but our old-fashioned sensibilities are growing used to be offended. An ostentatiously homosexual Brit who can’t stop talking about his predilection for black men might seem an unlikely conservative hero, but it allows his fans to cheer on his sexist and racist while claiming that their support of proves they aren’t sexist or racist, and when it doesn’t provide the usual immunity to leftist anger they can gleefully point out a double standard. His insult comic style of rhetoric is unlikely to change anyone’s mind about the very real problems associated with immigration and Muslims and especially Muslim immigrants, nor the very real excesses of modern feminist ideology or our rapid rush toward a cultural celebration of homosexuality, and we can’t imagine he’s won any converts to either the “alt-right” or Trump, but he drives the left-wingers so crazy that they were literally rioting in the streets at the University of California-Berkeley during his “Dangerous Faggot” speaking tour a few days ago, and that’s enough to make for a right-wing hero these days.
There has long long been a more peaceable opposition to Yiannopoulos on the right, which has included our previous policy of ignoring his antics altogether, but during his frequent publicity-seeking contretemps even the most respectable sorts of conservatives have felt obliged to weigh in that of course he deserves freedom of speech, even if they’d prefer he’d exercise the right more responsibly, and that of course his ostentatious homosexuality has nothing to do with it. He’s said that the Constitution is outdated and needs to be scrapped in favor of a more authoritarian arrangement, and his apologetics on behalf of the “alt-right” take aim at traditional conservatism as much as liberalism, but he’s with Breitbart, the same publication that gave us Steve Bannon, Trump’s top consigliere, and the insult comic style of conservatism seems all the rage these days, so we assume that’s how he got the invitation. Even such stellar credentials, though, aren’t enough to withstand allegations of condoning sex with minors.
Yiannopoulos has offered a lengthy explanation for what he said, but the tawdry transcript is right there on tape for anyone to hear, and we don’t believe many of the old-fashioned conservatives will buy it. He claims he was referring to the sorts of platonic relationships that older men often have with boys, but he never makes that at all clear during the lengthy videotaped oration, and it includes one of his favorite jokes about his gratitude to the Catholic priest who taught him improved oral sex skills during his own boyhood, and its hard to escape the conclusion that the supposedly brave truth-teller is trying to weasel his way out of what he knows was one step too far. His critics on the left are of course gleeful that he was denounced by the right, so a few stubborn supporters thus feel all the more obliged to come to his defense and blame that supposedly spineless establishment for caving into the “political correctness” they see stifling free speech, but surely most people on both sides and in the middle will agree that sex with minors is not merely “politically incorrect” but also legally and morally wrong, and note that CPAC should also be free to exercise its rights to free speech by choosing its speakers and that Yiannoplous is still free to speak such hideous nonsense elsewhere.
The latest publicity that Yiannopolous sought has been bad enough to cost him not only that CPAC invitation but also a lucrative book deal, and there’s even an internal effort to get him kicked off Breitbart, and if he winds up in obscurity we’ll not consider it a defeat for free speech or a victory for “political correctness.” If it also deals a blow to the ridiculous notion that getting the left so laughably riled up that they’re rioting in the streets over the insult comic shtick of a self-proclaimed “Dangerous Faggot” is somehow a victory for the right, all the better. The level of political discourse has descended to the level of the meanest playgrounds on both sides of the spectrum, with both keeping score by how annoyed the opponent becomes, and the climb back toward a civil discussion of how to makes things better for everyone might as well begin on the right.

— Bud Norman

The Endless Campaign

President Donald Trump held another of his large and raucous campaign rallies in Florida on Saturday, which seems odd given that the last presidential election occurred nearly four months ago and the next one won’t take place for another three years and eight month or so. At this point in a presidency most presidents are busy filling the last of their administration posts, sending out the smart people they’ve already brought on to make a reasoned case to both the congress and broader public for the policies being proposed, digging into all the rest of the dreary work of a thankless office, and breathing a sigh of relief that the past campaign is four months over and the next won’t begin until a few days after the mid-term elections that are still nearly two months away.
Pretty much everything about the presidency of President Donald Trump seems odd, though, as his most strident critics will bitterly complain and his most ardent supports will proudly boast. Trump is behind schedule in filling such administration posts as Deputy Secretary to several of the more consequential Secretaries he’s been having trouble getting approved, largely because so many of the potential pool of conservative and Republican establishment figures had critical things to say about him during the campaign, but his most strident critics never liked any of those guys and his most ardent supporters are even more disdainful of the Republican establishment. So far the only detailed policy that has been trotted out is a temporary ban on travel into the United States from a limited number of Muslim-majority countries, which made some sense and had some obvious flaws and has since been so endlessly revised and re-intepreted and beset by such legal challenges both reasonable and absurd that both the smart people sent out to explain and the strident critics opposing it wound up looking ridiculous. So far, both sides seem delighted about everything.
Digging into the dreary work of a thankless office doesn’t seem Trump’s style, based on what we’ve observed of the man over his long career as a celebrity real estate and casino and strip club and minor league football and pro-wrestling and scam university mogul and constant tabloid sex scandal subject and better-ratings-than-Arnold-Schwarzenegger-and-should-have-won-an-Emmy reality television star, and he also doesn’t seem the type to breath a sigh of relief at being momentarily out of the spotlight of a campaign. “Life is a campaign,” Trump told a bevy of reporters aboard Air Force One on the way to the rally. “Making America great again is a campaign. For me, it’s a campaign.” By now it should be clear that the campaign will last for the rest of all our natural lives, and will forever need fresh foes to vanquish more than it needs objective improvements in American life.
Even before the big Florida rally Trump had returned to bashing the throughly vanquished Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in a widely watched news conference, and reviving unproved claims that she didn’t really win the popular vote by an embarrassing three million or so votes due to massive voter fraud, and making a provably false claim that his electoral victory was the biggest since Reagan’s and then embarrassingly attributing it to “the information I heard,” and it seems clear he’ll still be running against Clinton for the next three years and eight months or so. We take a back seat to no one in our disdain for Clinton, and were criticizing her way back when Trump was contributing to her campaigns and inviting her to his third wedding and praising her to the hilt in his non-stop interviews, but by now we’re happy to let the subject drop.
Clinton not only lost her second and final attempt at the presidency but lost it to Trump, which is surely an innermost circle of hell that the combined imaginations of Dante Alighieri and Hieronymus Bosch and ourselves could not have conceived for her, and she will likely spend the rest of her addled days wandering the woods of upstate New York with no contributions flowing into her defunct charity and her speaking fees and book royalties at a bargain-basement price, and at at this point even Trump isn’t leading the rallies in chants of “lock her up.” At any rate she no longer seems an impediment to making America great again, so we’re eager to hear more about how Trump intends to achieve that with her well out of the way.
Apparently, though, there are other foes to be vanquished before the gain get around to explaining how he’s going to make everything better. There’s that pesky free press, of course, with all its fake news about how the administration isn’t humming like a finely-tuned machine and Trump isn’t already making America great again. During the rally he quoted Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln criticizing the press, which goes to show how long those nasty newspapers have been trying to undermine a free republic, and his most ardent supporters agreed not read anything negative they read about Trump, which caused his most strident critics to pull their hair and gnash their teeth, which gave great glee to all of Trump’s most ardent supporters, but such old conservative and Republicans hands as ourselves wondered how that was making America great again.
There is the very real and ever-present threat of Islamist terrorism, and Trump rightly mentioned that, but during that portion of the rally he also alluded to “what happened last night in Sweden.” So far as anyone can tell the biggest story in Sweden the night before was a microphone failure on a popular amateur singing contest called “Melfest,” which all those snooty reporters from the hated press and all the rest of Trump’s most strident critics had great fun reporting, and which all of Trump’s most ardent supporters were explaining to a general crime problem among Sweden’s Muslim immigrant population which had been reported on the night before on the Fox News network. Trump’s most ardent supporters love him because he means what he says, even though they often have to explain that what he said wasn’t really what he meant to say, but for all our longstanding concern about Islamist terrorism we’re not inclined to make such excuses for such sloppy language. Oh, and there are gangsters galore out there terrorizing America’s streets, but so far as we can tell the recent uptick in crime — which objectively are still nowhere near the 45-year highs Trump constantly claims, even when addressing law enforcement officers who damn well know better — is driven mostly by Chicago and a couple of other big Democratic controlled cities, and Trump wasn’t altogether clear about he was going to do about that.
Trump has described certain of his critics as “the enemy of the American people,” which also seems odd, given the terms association with the Roman Senate’s accusation against the Emperor Nero and the Henrik Ibsen play that Hitler somehow misread and the Bolsheviks’ slaughter of the kulaks, but we don’t suppose that Trump or any of his most ardent supporters are aware of any of that. In any case we hope we won’t be so accused, not because we’re afraid the thin-and-orange-skinned demagogue bothers himself with such small fry as ourselves, but because we’re all in favor of the people and wouldn’t want anyone to think otherwise. We’d love to see a sensible skepticism about travel from Muslim-majority countries, and a more honest and accountable press, and a finely-tuned administration repealing bothersome regulations and freeing the private sector from bossy interventions, and safe streets even in Chicago, and all the things that have so long been yearned for the boring old Republican establishment that Trump has vowed to vanquish.
So far it seems an odd beginning, though, and something in our boring old Republican establishment souls would much prefer a president digging into the dreary work of a thankless office and sharing our sigh of relief that the campaign is at least momentarily over.

— Bud Norman

The Not Ready for Prime Time News Conference

During his Thursday news conference President Donald Trump took a moment to brag about the huge ratings he draws on all the networks, so that was at least one thing he said that can’t be disputed. The press conference was more compelling viewing than any of the soap operas or brawling talk shows it was up against, and provided every viewer with somebody to boo and his, so we’ll assume the numbers were yuge by daytime standards. All the talk radio hosts and the rest of Trump’s so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters were delighted by his snarling contempt for the assembled press, a greater number of people who don’t support Trump were entertained by the many preposterous things they prodded him to say, and only those of us who were hoping for some reliable information on matters of greater importance were likely to be dissatisfied.
Having no affection for either Trump or his media interrogators we feel quite objective in saying that Trump somehow came off the worst of two. His opening remarks lasted for 24 minutes of typically un-parsable kvetching about what a mess he’s inherited from Obama and how bad it would have been if Hillary Clinton had won and how various media have failed to inform the public about it, all of which we could have a made a more intelligible case for if he’d only asked us, but except to the people who are used to hearing about it on three-hour blocks on talk radio it probably came off as whiny and self-serving. He also faulted for the media for reporting on the “fake news” that there are concerns about his foreign policy with Russia, although even he has recently accepted the resignation of a National Security Advisor for lying about contacts with the Russians and previously jettisoned a campaign manager who’d made a lot of bucks working with the Russian’s puppet government in Ukraine and a campaign foreign policy advisor with financial ties to the Russian oil oligarchy and he’s decrying but not denying the leaks that several other of his campaign members had frequent contacts with the Russian throughout the campaign, not to mention his own repeated apologetics for the Russian dictator’s habit of killing political opponents and pesky journalists. The rest of is largely forgettable, except for his memorably rambling and disjointed style.
He also bragged about his record-setting electoral college victory, as is his wont, and when he finally got around to taking to questions he had to admit to a National Broadcasting Company employee, of all people, that while the claim might not be objectively true “It was the information I was given,” which he seemed to think was as good a it being true. He got into a veritable shouting match with some fellow from the British Broadcasting Company, and although we can’t quite recall what it was about we’re sure the chap’s effeminate-sounding accent was enough to sway Trump’s hard-core supporters. He invited a black reporter to ask a question even though he predicted it would be dumb, and it turned out to be about whether Trump would seek the input of the Congressional Black Caucus in his promised efforts to bring peace to America’s cities, which Trump acknowledged was a “very professional question,” and then he asked if she was friends with the CBC and could set up a meeting, which might or might not be racist but sounded racist enough to cause some inevitable sidebars to the story. He defended his departed National Security Advisor as a “fine person” who had done nothing wrong, explained his decision to ask for a resignation by saying the NSA had lied to the vice-president about one of those things he hadn’t done wrong, and was shrewd enough not to allow any follow-up questions. He also claimed his administration was a “finely tuned machine,” and no one disputed that lest any of the anonymous administration officials who have been gushing leaks to the contrary dry up.
After rambling at some length in his opening remarks about the hateful tone of some of the media’s reporting, Trump made it clear throughout the proceedings that he hated those some media, and of course of his supporters in other media were cheering that on. He’s got plenty of erroneous stories to point to, just as the adversarial media can and continuously do recount the numerous false statements that Trump and his spokespeople daily trot out, so whichever side you’ve decided to boo and hiss the press conference featured plenty of ratings-boosting villainy. If you’re tuning in hopes of finding out believable information on which to make sound decisions about policy, however, you’d do just as well with The Jerry Springer Show or that one where you find which of the promiscuous woman’s potential pops is the real father.
— Bud Norman

The Fast Food Nominees Goes Fast

Although we can’t for the life of us think of the name of the last Secretary of Labor, we’re momentarily aware of the fellow who won’t be the next one. President Donald Trump’s choice for the post, business executive Andrew Puzder, has withdrawn his briefly famous name from consideration, and for several reasons his departure is more newsworthy than the the position usually merits.
Puzder was a controversial nominee from the outset, even by the extreme standards of the Trump era. He’s an executive in the fast-food restaurant business, heading up the corporation that that owns the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.’s chains that proliferate throughout the land, so he’s an outspoken advocate against raising the minimum wage, which has long been a favored cause of the Democratic Party, and the company’s television advertisements have used attractive women in ways that aroused the ire of the Democrats’ feminist wing, and of course the vegan wing was also offended. He’d also faced credible and nationally-televised-by-Oprah but later recounted accusations of spousal abuse, which offended both the feminist wing of the Democratic Party and what’s left of the chivalrous wing of the Republican Party, and he was also an advocate for mass legal immigration and a lax response to the illegal sort, which amused the Democrats but troubled all sorts of pre- and post-Trump Republicans, and he’d also had one of those illegal alien domestic servants that have derailed both Democratic and Republican cabinet nominees over the past few decades.
Add it all up, and it was enough to unify all the Democrats and sway a decisive number of Republicans and force Puzder to withdraw. Other controversial Trump nominees have managed to squeak through, including the recently resigned National Security Advisor Gen. Michael Flynn, whose departure is an ongoing scandal, and Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who needed Vice President Mike Pence’s tie-breaking vote, so Puzder’s scalp is being widely celebrated by the Democrats and their media allies. There are always a few nominees who don’t get confirmed, and so far Trump is batting better than the league average, but add Puzder’s embarrassment to Flynn’s departure and that scandals that entails, along with all the other leaked-from-the-White-House tales of White House dysfunction and the Democrats and their media allies are entitled to a certain amount of gloating.
Much like that decisive number of Republican congressmen who said they’d vote against the nomination, though, we’re not disappointed by the withdrawal. We’re also opposed to a raise in the minimum wage on the grounds that it will only hasten the automation that’s taking more American jobs than Mexico and China ever will, but such a self-interested advocate as Puzder seem a poor choice to make that argument. We don’t mind the sex appeal in the fast food commercials, and of course the strip club and beauty pageant mogul who nominated him didn’t either, but the domestic abuse charges offended our old-fashioned chivalrous Republican sensibilities, even if they didn’t bother a president who has faced similarly credible but ultimately withdrawn accusations, and the illegal alien housekeeper also seemed a disqualifying incident in the life of a potential Labor Secretary, even if the illegal-alien-hiring but tough-on-illegal-immigration president who appointed him didn’t have a problem with it. Even the conservative media more inclined to defend Trump seem to be having trouble working up much indignation about Puzder’s withdrawal.
Every administration has its confirmation failures, and as previously noted Trump is doing better than usual so far, but Puzder’s ignominious withdrawal and Flynn’s more noteworthy resignation and all the resulting stories from that, along with all the White House-leaked tales of White House dysfunction, all add up to a bigger story that the Democrats and their media allies are eager to tell. How big remains to be seen, but we suspect that in the end it won’t be just the Democrats telling it.

— Bud Norman

Out Like Flynn

The resignation of Gen. Michael Flynn as President Donald Trump’s National Security is not only the biggest story of the moment, it seems to have spun off into a dozen or so biggest stories of the moment.
At such a very early point in an administration such a high-ranking official’s resignation, or “ouster” if you prefer the more recent term that keeps popping up in the press, is going to be a story with legs and sidebars. This unusually quick departure seems to have more than the usual subplots, however, and at this point in this particular administration the press is especially eager to pursue them every one of them. The fact of Flynn’s resignation or ouster or whatever you call it seems to confirm press reports that he had questionable contacts with the Russian government during the transition period and lied about it to Vice President Mike Pence, which does not make Trump look good, so the established media are delighted to have that at the top of the front pages and hourly broadcasts. Some of the radio talkers and other anti-establishment media are continuing to insist that whatever contacts Flynn had with the Russians weren’t at all questionable, and that he never lied about it, but they glumly admit that also makes Trump look bad.
Trump is “tweeting” that big story is Flynn’s conversations with Russia being leaked to the press in the first place, and his more creative supporters in the anti-establishment media are elaborating that it’s another example of the intelligence community and the “deep state” trying to undermine Trump’s administration, and it’s plausible. Meanwhile the establishment press is putting the whole affair in the context of the intelligence agencies’ consensus conclusion that the Russians meddled in the past presidential election in an apparent attempt to help Trump, and Trump’s denunciation of the intelligence agencies and apologetics for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, and the various contacts that several of Trump’s business and campaign and administration officials have with with the Russian oligarchy, and all the implications they can make out of that also seem well within the realm of plausibility.
There also stories about who knew what and when they knew it, and they all feature prominent administration spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway telling television audiences that Flynn had the president’s full confidence just hours before Trump accepted the resignation, and none of them are helpful to Trump or any of his more ardent defenders in the anti-establishment media. They all seem to confirm a popular press narrative about a dysfunctional White House riven by all the petty power-grabbing and back-stabbing machinations you’d want from a reality television show, which is altogether too plausible, and all of those leaks are coming straight from contestants. At the moment Trump’s anti-establishment media allies have been reduced to the Nietzschean argument that out of chaos comes order, and let’s us hope they’re right.
There’s also surely a sidebar somewhere out there about how all of this hubbub will affect national security, but so far we haven’t found it. We were never fond of Flynn, who seemed far too chummy with the Russkies and is prone to crackpot conspiracy theories and always reminded us of Sterling Hayden’s Gen. Jack D. Ripper character in “Dr. Strangelove,” and although he’s properly tough on Islamism we figure Trump is more in need of someone to advise occasional restraint and not encourage all the war crimes that were promised during the campaign. Press reports indicate that one of the possible replacements is Gen. David Petraeus, whose military brilliance turned the tide in the Iraq War before he competently assumed the directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency, but who also pleaded guilty to providing his mistress with classified material and then lying about it, and it will be interesting to see if Trump sets all those storylines off. The other names seem reasonable career national security, and of course aren’t any of the Republican establishment professionals who took public stands against Trump during the campaign, and in the end we effect that the national security will be as insecure as always.

— Bud Norman