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Modern Telephones and Ancient Arts

One of the unexpected habits we’ve acquired over the last couple of years is watching Youtube’s full-length videos of the Public Broadcasting System’s nightly “Newshour.” The program still has that ostentatiously high-brow and oh-so-soft-spoken public broadcasting tone that used to annoy us, but in these assertively low-brow days of splenetic talk radio show shrieking we now find it rather soothing, and we’ve also noticed that it has a high batting average for accuracy and does a pretty good job of giving all sides of whatever top story of the day they’re covering some unedited soundbites.
PBS also finds a few precious minutes in its daily “Newshour” for interesting and important stories that aren’t the hot topic of the day, which at long last brings us around to the subject of our daily missive. On Tuesday “Newshour” had a segment about the growing number of performing artists — from stand-up comedians to classical musicians — who are trying to keep their  audiences from using their telephones during performances. Despite all that’s going on in the top stories of the day, we feel obliged to take a few minutes of our time to share their outrage.
Those newfangled telephones most people own these days have video cameras and digital audio recorders and “viral” videos and the latest baseball scores and answers to any questions that might pop into your head and pictures of some scant acquaintance’s private parts, and we’ve previously groused about how damned distracting and dumbing-down they can be. It’s a problem we’ve long noticed during dates and family gatherings and all sorts of civic events, so we can well sympathize with any old nightclub comic or concert hall virtuoso who looks out at an audience and sees people more engrossed by some glowing electronic rectangle and its “tweet” about a friend’s taco dinner than their carefully-crafted performances.
We’ve even noticed it here in Wichita, Kansas, and we’re sure the problem is worse is in America’s many bigger cities. Around here most of the performing arts we take in are either at the lowest dives in the roughest parts of the north and south ends, where the kids all seem to have those newfangled telephones but are more intent on drinking and digging the the sounds and perhaps getting lucky than whatever boring message some homebound friend had “texted” or “tweeted” them, or in the high-culture auditoria of downtown’s Century II, where the mostly genteel and graying audiences have their own old-fashioned reasons for savoring the performances they’ve paid for at a rather steep price for rather than looking at their glowing telephones.
Before every performance of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra or the Wichita Musical Theater — both of which are far better than you might expect, by the way — they always play a recording urging the audience to shut down those damnable newfangled telephone machines. The message was recorded by Samuel Ramey, an operatic bass singer from the small town of Colby, Kansas, who attended Wichita State University’s better-than-you’d-expect music and went on to a career that included bravura performances as La Scala and all the world’s great opera houses before returning to join his alma mater’s better-than-you’d-expect musical faculty, and although he’s best known for playing Lucifer in the great operas featuring that character his speaking voice sounds so much like what you’d you imagine God sounds like that you’d surely turn off your newfangled telephone.
Still, even here in our delightfully old-fashioned hometown we notice too many people more intent on documenting the moment rather than savoring it, everywhere from the lowest depths of Kirby’s Beer Store to the dizzying heights of Century II. There’s something timeless to be said for an idiosyncratic bar band in a north end dive or capable stand-up comic in a sleazy night club or a virtuoso musician in a concert hall, and there’s something to be listened to without the distractions of thpse damnable telephonic devices most people own nowadays.
While we’re at it, we’d also prefer that more people stop paying attention to the top stories of the day what’ else is on their newfangled telephones machines and start paying more attention to the wonderful and horrible things that are going on all around them.

— Bud Norman

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Yanny, Laurel, Blue Dress, Gold Dress, Green Needles, Brainstorms, the “Russia Thing” and the “Deep State” Conspiracy

First there was that dress that some people see as blue and others see as gold, and more lately there’s that recording that some people hear saying “laurel” and others hear saying “yanny,” but for weird experiments in differences of perception. Some people look at what’s been reported in the news and testified to before congressional committees and courts of law and revealed by e-mails and other documents and see a conspiracy by the Russians and the campaign of now-President Donald Trump to illegally affect the presidential election, while others see a vast “deep state” conspiracy attempting to unseat Trump in a “silent coup.”
So it is with the latest twists and turns in the exceedingly complicated “Russia thing” reality show. The New York Times and the Washington post both reported late last week that an undercover informant to the Federal Bureau of Investigation had at least three contacts with Trump campaign officials prior to the election, and we assume that most of their readers took that as evidence the FBI already had good reason to believe that something fishy was afoot. Those who see things Trump’s way usually like to call the papers “The New York Slimes” and “The Washington Compost,” and insist that their reports are usually “fake news,” but in this case they accepted the “lame-stream media’s” finding as unassailable fact and damning proof that the “deep state” conspirators were “spying” on Trump even before his righteous victory.
Over the weekend Trump himself “tweeted” about it at unusual length but with the usual Arbitrary Capitalizations and stream-of-consciousness syntax and sneering mentions of “Crooked Hillary,” and announced that he was “hereby” — which he correctly spelled, this time — demanding a criminal investigation of President Barack Obama’s possible espionage on his campaign. By Monday deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who finds himself in the difficult job of overseeing the “Russia thing” after Attorney General Jeff Sessions was obliged to recuse himself from the whole, and announced that he was having a Department of Justice investigator general look into this latest plot twist.
People had different perceptions of that, too, of course. Many of the ones convinced that Trump cooperated in Russia’s meddling in the election thought Rosenstein was abetting Trump’s ongoing obstruction of the special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing,” while most of those who see things Trump’s way were disappointed that he didn’t go whole-hog and appoint a special counsel to investigate the special counsel who’s currently investing that “Russia thing.”
From our current perspective here on the sidelines, with no rooting interest in either the Democratic party or our erstwhile Republican party, we fine ourselves sympathizing with this Rosenstein fellow. When Trump promoted the life-long Republican and career civil servant to his current position Trump called him a “great guy” and his press secretary said he was the “gold standard” of governmental integrity, but after he appointed the lifelong Republican and former FBI head honcho Robert Mueller as the special counsel to continue the investigation that had begun under the lifelong Republican FBI director that Trump admittedly fired because of his interest in the “Russia thing” he became a darling of the Democrats. At the moment he’s being pilloried from both sides, but we can’t blame him for splitting the difference.
Despite their disappointment about the lack of a special counsel to to investigate the special counsel investigating the “Russia thing,” those who see things Trump’s way on talk radio and other “conservative” media are certain that an investigator general will surely expose the “deep state” conspiracy. Despite their disappointment that Rosenstein agreed to even a inspector general’s investigation into the investigation, they’re still holding out realistic hope that he’ll find that the FBI had good and by-the-book reasons to have a trusted undercover agent ask a few questions about some numerous damned suspicious and now admitted contacts between Russians and the Trump campaign.
Whatever that poor fellow who somehow wound up as the inspector general for the Justice Department about the “Russia thing” might conclude — for now we don’t know his name, although it will surely be widely known when he writes his report — different people will surely have different perspectives. If he concludes that the FBI had reasonable reasons to have a trust undercover informant ask a few questions the people who see things Trump’s way will say that the career civil servant who had risen to the level of inspector general is part of the “deep state” plot, and if he concludes that FBI was “spying” on the Trump campaign others will conclude he’s complicit in Trump’s ongoing obstruction of justice.
From our man-without-a-party perspective here on the sidelines we don’t see anyone coming out of this “Russia thing” untainted, but expect that Trump and his apologists will get the worst of it. The FBI’s fired-by-Trump director clearly did mishandle its investigation into Democratic nominee “Crooked” Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and other suspicious matters, whether you’re a Republican still annoyed that they didn’t “lock her up” or a Democrat annoyed that he openly investigated Clinton and publicly chastised her for the “extreme carelessness” of her e-mail practices but didn’t publicize investigations into the “Russia thing,” but for the moment we feel sorry for that poor fellow and longtime civil servant as well.
The next experiment of differences of human perspective to go “viral” will probably be a video of a weird device that says either “green needle” or “brainstorm” depending on which word you were thinking of. Sure enough, we defied the mathematical odds by hearing whichever of the two words we were thinking of every time.
Still, we believe in an objective reality regarding more prosaic matters such as the “Russia thing” and the the “deep state” conspiracy, and at this point our only rooting interest is that the truth will somehow prevail. Way back when O.J. Simpson was being tried for murder we perceived a wholly different reality than even our most sober-minded black friends, but by now they’ll pretty much admit that yeah the guy was guilty even though they still have understandable suspicions about the criminal justice system, and we’ll bet real money that even our most Trump-addled white friends will eventually come to the same desultory ambivalent conclusions about Trump and the “deep state.”

— Bud Norman

An Unduly Hard Month of May in the Current Age of Reason

This month of May has already taken a deadly toll on the intellectual life of America, in ways both figurative and literal. Aside from all the daily dumbing-down of the United States that you’ll note in the headlines and talk radio chatter, we’ve also lost some of the very best minds from the previous better era of high culture and academia.
Earlier this month we penned a heartfelt farewell to Tom Wolfe, who was the greatest American writer of the past half-century in our opinion, and now we find ourselves respectfully noting the past week’s deaths of both Richard Pipes and Bernard Lewis, who in our opinion were the two most formidable thinkers of their time in their essential academic fields
Neither Pipes nor Lewis were ever nearly as household-name famous as any of the Kardashians or the latest rap star or that lawyer for a porno performer who’s lately been on the cable channels causing all sorts of problems for the President of the United States, but in the long run we expect they’ll prove far more consequential.
Pipes, who died on May 17 at the age of 94, was a Harvard professor of Russian and Soviet history. That sounds pretty boring by current pop culture standards, and that Harvard professorship will immediately raise suspicions among the current version of conservative talk radio chatter, but his scholarly analysis of the Cold War, which was a hot topic at the time, played a key role in bringing that conflict to a for-now successful conclusion for what’s left of Western Civilization and classically liberal democracy.
Despite his Harvard professorship and the academic fashions of his moment, which politely agreed that international communism was an historical inevitability, Pipes daringly predicted that the Soviet model’s fundamental flaws doomed it to failure that a robust challenge from a more culturally and economically vibrant and militarily stronger West could more quickly bring about. President Ronald Reagan had already reached the same conclusion, but he still drew on the depth of Pipes’ analysis as he pursued that agenda, and he was quite effective in noting to the press and public opinion that his policies had the imprimatur of a some fancy-assed Harvard professor who scholarship was unchallenged even by his critics. Both Pipes and Reagan suffered the derision of the left, which was probably harder on the academic Pipes, but for now they seem vindicated by history.
Lewis, who died Saturday at the ripe old age of 101, was a longtime professor of Middle Eastern studies at the equally fancy-pants Princeton University. That sounds pretty boring to the popular culture and suspicious to the talk radio chatter, too, but he also did Western Civilization a huge favor by defying academic fashions about the great global civilizational clash that was unleashed at the end the Cold War.
Lewis was born into a middle-class Jewish American family around the same time T.E. Lawrence, who had majored in was was then called “Orientalism” at an elite British University, was leading an Arab revolt to help Britain’s efforts in World War I. By the time Lewis was pursuing his higher education in the same discipline it was called Middle Eastern studies, but he went at it with the same diligence and cultural confidence as “Lawrence of Arabia.” He mastered Hebrew far beyond what his Bar Mitzvah reading required, became equally fluent in Farsi and Arabic, modestly joked that he could “make the noises” of another 11 languages, and dug deeply into all of the cultures those languages represented and reported his finding in pristine English prose.
Although he inevitably found plenty of good and bad in all the cultures he surveyed, as well as the intrusive and all-too-human culture he came from, Lewis never shied from the necessary judgments needed to make sense of it all. He frequently defied the academic fashions of his time by opining that fundamental differences between the Islamic and more or less Judeo-Christian cultures made a “conflict of civilizations” inevitably in an increasingly small world, and that in the long run the world would be better off the more culturally and economically and military stronger West prevailed.
Despite his undisputed scholarship and Ivy League credentials, in the 1990’s Lewis was challenged as the premier Middle Eastern scholar by Columbia professor Edward Said, whose surprisingly best-selling book “Orientalism” charged that the academic field was still tainted by a Occidental bias against the poor victims of the West’s rapacious colonialism. The debate was still raging when some suicidal Islamist terrorists crashed hijacked airplanes into the Wold Trade Center and the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania farm field way back in ’01, and for a while there the debate between Lewis and Said was a hot topic. Both sides have since had considerable influence on subsequent events, for better and worth, but for now Lewis has been more influential, and we expect that in the long he will be vindicated.
For now, though, one month’s loss of the likes of the clear-eyed likes of Wolfe and Pipes and Lewis gives some worry,  especially when the rest of the news and talk radio chatter is so alarmingly divorced from the sort of fact-based and dispassionately objective analysis these men once provided.

— Bud Norman

“Operation Cross-Fire Hurricane” and Its Controversies and Spin-Offs

The whole “Russia thing with Trump and Russia” that has tormented President Donald Trump since even before he took office has lately become all the more complicated lately, what with the latest revelations about “Operation Crossfire Hurricane.”
Thanks to to the diligent journalism of The New York Times, we now know that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had a few agents looking into suspicions about the Russian government’s meddling in the last presidential election and the Trump campaign’s possible cooperation with that effort in a highly secretive investigation code-named “Operation Crossfire Hurricane” a full 100 days before any votes were cast in Trump’s unlikely electoral college upset. As one might expect, The New York Times’ bombshell scoop has set off a lot of spinning on both sides of the political spectrum.
in his “tweets” Trump always calls the paper the “failing New York Times,” and his die-hard defenders always sneeringly call it the “The New York Slimes,” but in this case they’re not complaining that “The Old Gray Lady” is “fake news.” In this case they think it vindicates their longstanding theory that the FBI and the broader Justice Department and thus the administration of President Barack Obama and the rest of the “deep state” were engaged in a conspiracy to overthrow Trump’s presidency with a “silent coup” even before he was so improbably elected. Meanwhile, on the left, they’re highlighting the fact that a few savvy feds were suspicious about Trump’s Russian-friendly stances and Russia Trump-friendly stances all along.
In any case both sides seem to agree that The New York Times is entirely accurate in its account of the origins of the still-ongoing investigation into the “Russia thing,” and from our recent perspective on the sidelines the left seems to be getting the best of it.
Trump and his die-hard defenders had previously theorized that the whole “Russia thing” conspiracy began with a former British intelligence officer’s shocking report about Trump and Russia that was originally commissioned by some anti-Trump Republicans but later subsidized by the Democratic Party and the campaign of its nominee Hillary Clinton, but that’s no longer operative on talk radio. For now they accept the Times’ account that it all began when a Trump campaign staffer got drunk in a London pub and bragged to an Australian diplomat about the Trump campaign’s cozy relationship, which quickly led to an FBI watch of that staffer and then a campaign foreigb policy advisor and much-higher-raking foreign policy and then the campaign manager. This is all the proof you need, to hear the talk radio talkers tell it, that your federal government’s law enforcement agencies and judiciary were in on a “deep state” “witch hunt” to unseat Trump even before he was seated.
Which seems plausible enough in these crazy times, but there are some troubling and no longer denied facts that give one pause.
The drunkenly talkative staffer who bragged to the Australian diplomat that Trump was getting dirt on Clinton is Carter Page, who was previously on the FBI’s radar as a suspected agent and has since been seriously indicted on various charges. The campaign foreign policy adviser was George Popadopolous, who has already pleaded guilty to charges of lying to the FBI and is cooperating with a special counsel’s ongoing investigation into the “Russia thing.” The higher-ranking campaign foreign policy is retired four-star Marine general Michael Flynn, who briefly served as the Trump administration’s national security advisor, but he’s already pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his lucrative contacts with the Russians and is said to be cooperating with the “witch hunt” rather than face various other charges that have been brought. One-time Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort hasn’t pleaded guilty to anything yet, despite the numerous indictments he’s facing and all his previous federal filings as an agent for a Russia-friendly Ukrainian dictatorship, but his former lobbying partner Rick Gates has already entered a guilty plea for his perjury about past Russian contacts and is now cooperating the “Russia thing” investigations.
Senior member of the the Manafort, Black, Stone & Kelly lobbying-for-dictators firm Roger Stone, a scandalous figure since his days as one of President Richard Nixon’s self-proclaimed “rat fuckers,” hasn’t yet been indicted or even interviewed by the special counsel investigation, but that suggests the special counsel’s slow but steady investigation is saving him for next-to-laston its interrogation list..
At this point the left is gloating that they’ve nearly got the goods on on Trump, and what’s left of the right since Trump was elected is indignant that we only know about it because of some “deep state” conspiracy, and although for the moment they both agree on The New York Times’ version of the facts we don’t see it ending well in any case. The left is prematurely closing its case, the right is prematurely invoking Nixon’s defense that “if a president of the United States does it it isn’t illegal,” and in these times the rest of country probably won’t much give a damn in any case.
We didn’t much care for that awful Clinton woman, and were disappointed when the FBI investigations into her scandalous e-mail practices and other shady dealings didn’t yield any indictments or guilty pleas, but at least that FBI director Trump wound up firing publicly admitted to an investigation of the the matter and publicly excoriated her for her “extreme carelessness” in matters of national security, and announced a re-investigation after he longtime aide’s husband’s laptop full of selfie-sex pics was discovered. That cost that awful Clinton woman the election, as far as she’s still concerned, and as far as we’re concerned she deserved it.
Trump and his die-hard defenders are now grousing that the  Obama-era FBI was spying on the Trump campaign, but we don’t much care for them, either, and despite our longstanding doubts about the FBI and the “deep state” everyone now seems to admit they didn’t let word of their early and now well-documented suspicious become public until long after Trump had been inaugurated. If “Operation Crossfire Hurricane” was an illegal conspiracy to prevent Trump from becoming president it was an objectively spectacular failure, and it remains to be seen how the conspiracy theories on the right will save Trump’s presidency.
That awful Clinton woman is still as awful as ever, as far as we’re concerned, but she’s by now undeniably and thankfully irrelevant, while that awful Trump fellow is also currently under investigation for hush money payments to porno performers and payments from the Chinese government after concessions to a dubious Chinese telephone company and a $500 million payment by the Chinese government to a Trump-branded development in Indonesia and a whole lot else. At this point, we’re only hoping the truth will out.

— Bud Norman

Pomp, Circumstance, and the Unvarnished Truth

‘Tis the season for college commencement speeches, and the controversies a few of them annually cause. Even the most controversial commencement speeches are usually forgettable affairs, but we did take notice of the one that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered on Wednesday to the most recent graduates of the Virginia Military Academy.
Tillerson was once the well-regarded and objectively successful chief executive officer of the multi-national and very big deal Exxon Corporation, but during his brief tenure as Secretary of State he was harshly criticized from both the left and the right. The left resented his corporate downsizing of the State Department and seeming abandonment of diplomacy as a means of American influence, the post-President Donald Trump right found him insufficiently committed to an “America First” isolationism and militarism, and even from our newfound perspective on the sidelines he was so clearly ineffectual we were glad to see him replaced by our formidable former District of Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo.
Even so, Tillerson’s bold address to the VMI graduates give us hope that he’ll prove one heck of an ex-Secretary of State. Although he never mentioned Trump by name, Tillerson opened the speech by talking of his own higher education in engineering and the need for structural integrity, the similar need to maintain the personal integrity that is prized by every great faith and every tradition, and the importance of maintaining longstanding alliances and the challenges of an ever changing world,and it was obvious to anyone on the left or right or on the sidelines that he was talking about Trump. He also described a “growing crises in integrity,” recalled his alma mater of Texas A&M New Testament motto of the “the truth shall set you free,” and warned that if citizens ‘becoming accepting of ‘alternative realiities’ that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on the pathway to relinquishing our freedom.”
Just in case it wasn’t clear enough that Tillerson was talking about Trump,Trump’s under-penalty-of-law financial disclosure forms were simultaneously admitting that he had indeed lied to the media and the nation aboard Air Force One about his $130,000 payment to a porno performer who quite credibly alleges a one night stand with the future president. Tillerson couldn’t have possibly predicted it, but Trump’s inevitably Nobel Peace Prize-winning negotiations with North Korea about its nuclear weapons program had hit hit a sudden snag, Trump’s bellicose “America First” stance on trade had complicated relations with out our longstanding allies in southeast Asia and elsewhere, and those widely reported reports that Trump’s sudden conspicuous friendliness to a Chinese telecommunications that was previously sanctioned for intellectual property theft on spying on Americans coincided with the Chinese government’s $500 million dollar investment in a Trump-branded development deal in Indonesia.
We’ll have to wait and see how that all turns out, as Trump likes to say, but in the meantime the guy he appointed and then fired as Secretary of State seems to have the upper hand with commencement speech. We always voted for the current Secretary of State when he was running for our fourth congressional seat here in Kansas, and hold out hope that he’ll somehow negotiate some settlement to the latest crisis on the Korean peninsula that doesn’t leave hundreds of thousands of people dead, but his ineffectual and defenestrated predecessor’s words about the need for integrity and acknowledging truth ring disquietingly true.

Tom Wolfe, RIP

Tom Wolfe was our favorite living writer in the world  until he died Monday at the age of 88. From now on, we’ll have to regard him as merely one of the four or five greatest writers in the history of American literature.
Although we’re far too old and wised up for hero worship, that’s a fair description of how greatly we have always esteemed Wolfe’s inventive and elegant prose style, observant eye for the details of daily and keen insights about what they mean, and his bold willingness to defy the ridiculous fashions of his ridiculous times. He rescued American literature from the quicksand of solipsistic post-modernism, as far as we’re concerned, and he exerted an even more profound influence on our lives of letters.
Way back in our junior high school days we checked out from the Wichita Public Library a collection of the best of “new journalism” that Wolfe had edited, and after reading and then re-reading it we had made our mind up about what we wanted to do for a living. The book featured pieces by such notable writers as Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Robert Christgau, Joan Didion, George Plimpton, Gay Talese and Norman Mailer, and with characteristic immodesty Wolfe also included a few pieces of his own, which were by far the best of an impressive lot. The book demonstrated how true stories can most truthfully be told with the narrative brilliance of the best fiction, and it made an indelible impression on our literary sensibilities.
After that we eagerly consumed every book and magazine article that Wolfe ever wrote, and we loved every word of it.
Wolfe was born into an educated and well-to-do and very old-fashioned southern family in Richmond, Virginia, and was a star student at Washington and Lee University and earned a doctoral degree in American studies from Yale University, but he preferred the rough-and-tumble worlds of baseball and newspapers to academia. At a hard-earned tryout with the New York Giants he realized that his fastball would never be good enough to take him far beyond the semi-pro leagues he’d played in, so he took a job at The Springfield Union in Massachusetts, soon rose to a reporting gig at The Washington Post, then moved to The New York Herald Tribune for the chance to write feature stories, which every newspaperman knows offers the chance to add a little literary flair to the copy. During one of the intermittent New York City newspaper strikes of the era, Wolfe convinced the editors at Esquire Magazine to commission an article about the custom car craze that currently sweeping California, and after that was published he was a literary sensation.
The article celebrated the supposedly low-brow car customizers as modern artists of the highest rank, and did so with a prose style just as revved-up and ostentatious outrageously brilliant as his subject. He used alliteration and onomatopoeia and hyperactive punctuations and obscure words and complex sentence structures that still drive your typical dullard newspaper editor crazy — trust us — but to the average reader he compellingly explained the quintessentially American beauty of those crazy customized cars. It was included in a hard-cover collection of Wolfe’s other “new journalism” magazine pieces called “The Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” and after that he was not only a literary sensation but also a best-selling author.
He followed that up with “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” his exquisitely objective and thus downright hilarious first hand account of justly famed novelist and hard-core hippie Ken Kesey’s hallucinogenic drug-fueled bus trips through California with his band of “merry pranksters,” and that was another still-in-print best-seller. Another collection of “new journalism” called “The Pump House Gang” was released in the same crazed year of 1968 to less enthusiastic reviews and a slightly lower position on the best-seller charts, but is still in print and is still well worth reading. Two years later “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” was published, and Wolfe could have quit there and still made our top four or five list of America’s greatest writers.
The first half of “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” was a previously published magazine piece called “Radical Chic,” an exquisitely objective and thus downright hilarious first-hand account of famed maestro and notorious bleeding-heart liberal Leonard Bernstein’s fund-raising soiree with New York City’s cultural elite for murderous Black Panther Party. With the observant eye of a ink-stained newspaper wretch and son of the well-to-do south Wolfe noticed all the servants-of-color who were handing out the drinks and hors d’oeurve, and how very strained were the conversations between the well-attired elite northeastern white folk and the leather clad and black-beret-wearing ghetto black folks who were seeking their contributions to their openly proclaimed cause of overthrowing white supremacy and killing whitey.
The second half was “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” a previously published first-hand magazine account of the middle class white bureaucrats running the government’s anti-poverty programs who had to deal face-to-face in less genteel circumstances with black clients who had lately realized, after years of being cowed by white supremacy, that most white people had a deep-seated fear of black people. Wolfe’s written-down-in-his-notebook observations about the ridiculousness of it all rang true then, as it still does now, and at this point in time we’re all the more impressed by Wolfe’s daring in writing it down and having it published.
Wolfe’s collection of “The New Journalism” came next, which led to us reading all that had come before, and in ’75 he published “The Painted Word,” a brief but sufficiently long critique of modern art that confirmed our faith in the heartfelt realism of the Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins Mary Cassatt paintings at the Wichita Art Museum. After that was “Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter and Vine,” another collection of magazines pieces that included a tribute to the great Russian anti-communist novelist Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, and although it was also a best-seller Wolfe was suddenly controversial as a conservative. Rolling Stone Magazine had published most of his best known work, and there was something deceptively hip about his prose, and his enthusiasm for car customizers and moonshine-running stock car racers and the time he spent with drug-addled hippies had given him a certain counter-cultural cachet, but at that point he was outed as a cultural conservative.
He followed that up with “The Right Stuff,” a lengthy and meticulously detailed account of America’s space program that became his best-selling book and was eventually made into a star-studded hit Hollywood movie. In addition to its insightful historical accuracy, it’s also celebration of the quintessentially cutting-edge engineering feats and old-fashioned machismo that landed America on the moon and beyond. That masterpiece was followed by the still-in-print and still-worth-reading collection of magazine pieces called “In Our Time,” and a delightful screed against modern architecture called “From Bauhaus to Our House,” and another fine collection of magazine pieces titled “The Purple Decades.”
Wolfe had long championed the “new journalism” as superior to all those self-indulgent novels about academic sexual affairs that all the creative writing program graduates were churning out, and he was right to do so, but in another magazine piece he conceded your can’t really “sit at the grown-up’s table” of literature without writing a novel, so he took a few years off from freelance work and penned a bona fide classic American novel titled “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Just as Wolfe’s journalism had long been enhanced by novelistic techniques, his first novel was enhanced by his journalistic understanding of the peculiar New York City scene he depicted. It included all of the racial and class conflicts that defined the the time and place, the same derring-do to confront them honestly no matter what races or classes might be offended, and an even more refined crazy-ass prose style, and it was his biggest selling book to date and was made into a lousy movie.
He followed that with “A Man In Full,” another epic novel about an egomaniacal and deep-in-debt real estate mogul embroiled in racial controversies, and although it’s set in Atlanta rather than New York City or Washington, D.C., it’s still a masterpiece and as relevant as ever. There was another excellent compilation of magazine pieces called “Hooking Up” in 2000, with some excellent essays on the high-tech revolution that was taking place in California during the car-customizing craze and the concurrent sexual revolution’s effect on modern day college life, and after that another essential novel called “I Am Charlotte Simmons.” The book was about a poor but brilliant daughter of the south who wound in modern academia, and the depression she suffered when confronted with longstanding class differences and the newfangled rules of sexual morality, and it might be our favorite Wolfe book of them all.
The high-brow critics of the time hated it, of course, and accused Wolfe of being a prurient old southern cultural conservative, but since then the cutting-edge left has taken to decrying the “culture of rape” in higher education and setting up kangaroo courts to expel the sort of drunken frat boys Wolfe so effectively lampooned. Wolfe always seemed to win these arguments in the long run.
By that point Wolfe was getting old, and although the books came slower his final works are likely to be in print for a long while and are still worth reading. His final novel “Back to Blood” is an honest account of race and class in the Latino-dominated town of Miami, with the prose as revved-up as ever. His last work was “The Kingdom of Speech,” an extended essay about the sciences of the brain and linguistics that seems to argue against free will and for pre-determinism, and although it’s our least favorite of his works we highly recommend it.
Wolfe was more of a cultural conservative than a political one, and we weren’t much surprised to learn from the many obituaries in the big newspapers that he often voted for Democrats in presidential elections, but we’ll always appreciate how he so eloquently celebrated the car customizers and stock car racers and semi-pro ball players and the crazy-ass fighter pilots who sat atop the dubious rockets that America launched into space, and that crazy-ass American spirit in general. We’ll also always appreciate the way he so perfectly skewered all those elite white folks who made cocktail party contributions to the ghetto thugs who openly wanted to kill them, and with such exquisite objectivity and notebook accuracy that it was downright hilarious.
Like Emile Zola and Charles Dickens and the rest of the best of western literature’s greatest writers, the notoriously ostentatious and self-promoting Wolfe realized that all the great novels and non-fiction aren’t about the author but rather about his life and times. Like Mark Twain and Walt Whitman and Sinclair Lewis and the other greatest American writers who also started in the newspaper racket, he captured the best and the worst of the great and awful time and place he lived such a rich life in. His own quintessentially American yet entire unique personality was part of every tale, of course, and we’ll hold out faint hopes the country will see the likes of it again.

— Bud Norman

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Placing a Bet on Sports Gambling

The sports pages offered no refuge from politics on Monday, as the big story of the day was a Supreme Court decision overturning the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, a federal law that prohibited states other than Nevada from legalizing and regulating and benefitting from betting on athletic contests. All the sports scribes expect it will have a significant effect on their beats, and we’d wager they’re right.
The Supreme Court’s decision is sound, at least from our political and jurisprudential perspective. Dealing with sports betting strikes us as one of those powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, and the tenth amendment specifically “reserves those powers to the states respectively, or to the people.” This has long proved wise, as these sorts of things are generally better handled by the states, or better yet by the people.
Still, we hope that most of the states will refrain from legalizing and regulating and cashing in  on the sports bookmaking racket. So far the only state already set to do so is New Jersey, which brought the lawsuit to the courts, but Delaware, Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are expected to soon follow, and there are bound to be a lot more later on. It’s going to take a lot of lobbying to make it happen here in Kansas, which long resisted the few small Indian casinos that have recently popped up outside the most populous cities, but it could happen eventually.
Opposed to New Jersey in its protracted lawsuit were the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball, all of whom regard sports gambling as a threat to their businesses. Although the friendly side bet between fans probably enhances interest in their offerings, and all those office pools have made the NCAA’s annual basketball championship tournaments something of a national mania every March, the sports moguls rightly worry that with bigger bucks on the seedier elements on the sporting scene’s fringes will have an incentive to pay off players and fix the games. Except for Vince McMahon’s pro wrestling freak show all the big-time sports depend on a perception that their games are fair contests between teams trying their best to win, and the occasional point-shaving and game-fixing scandals that have afflicted all of them at one time or another have always found it bad for business.
Which is not the only way we’ve noticed that betting takes some of the fun out of sports. Many’s the time we’ve seen a die-hard fan watch his beloved team win a big game, but instead of exulting in the victory he fumes that they only won by 19 points and didn’t cover the 20-point spread. Their teams are less beloved when on a losing streak, too, and they seem not to notice the aesthetic beauty of a winning streak. Sport is supposed to be a a welcome break from serious matters, and it inevitably loses that appeal when your baby’s new pair of shoes are on the line.
Gambling is one of the few vices we’ve never been susceptible to, so we’ll not cast the first stone against anyone who puts a few bucks down on the hometown heroes, but its increasing ubiquity does seem to contribute our general cultural rot. It’s a sucker’s game in the long run, like so much of our increasingly coarse culture, and it holds out the same impossible promise of something for nothing that permeates our increasingly corrupt politics. We’re willing to let the people decide for themselves how to deal with sports betting, but we’re always uncomfortable with governments getting involved.
Governments are established as a monopoly on the protection racket, after all, and that should suffice to fund their many good works, so we can’t see why they should move in on the gambling rackets. There’s a strong short term argument that some people are going to gamble in any event, what with human beings being such suckers, and that the money should be going to the government’s many good works rather than your local bookie and kneecapping collector, but in the longer run gamblers always lose. Some people are going patronize prostitutes in any case, and ingest all sorts of dangerous drugs in any case, and indulge in all sorts of other socially unhealthy behavior in any case, and there’s same short term argument to be made in every case that the government’s good works might as well get their cut of the action.
In the longer term, governments tend to be just as as greedy as your local bookmaker and as ruthless as his kneecapping collector, or your neighbor pimp or dangerous drug dealer or newfangled cult leader, but they still somehow have the ability to give not only the imprimatur of respectability but well-funded advertising campaigns to activities that previous generations of democracy considered socially unhealthy, and the odds are always against that working out. A few decades ago the state of New Jersey laid down a huge bet on now-President Donald Trump’s now-defunct garish casinos and strip clubs, and it proved as prescient as a bet on Trump’s now-defunct New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League, which was not a party to the recent Supreme Court-settled lawsuit because it is also now-defunct. If the feds or the states or any government tries to hone in on the prostitution and drug and other assorted rackets, they’ll eventually wind up with the same problems.
Still, we think the Supreme Court was wise to decide that according to the Constitution the states and the people are free to make their own mistakes about these matters, and we only hope that most of the states and most of the people choose as wisely.
If you do place a sports bet at your local state-funding bookmaker, though, we’d advise that you don’t bet on college kids, take the spread on the pro underdog that’s facing a heavy favorite at the end of a long road trip, and by all means take the spread on an any underdog that’s still fighting for a playoff spot against a team that’s already clinched a high seed. Over many years we’ve taken a purely intellectual interest in the sports lines, and have long noticed that we could have made a fortune on these insights.
By the way, the Boston Red Sox lost by a mere run to the plucky Oakland Athletics on Monday, putting our beloved New York Yankees temporarily in sole possession of the American League East lead and baseball’s record by half-a-game. That should have been the biggest sports story of the day, and we didn’t even have any money riding on it.

— Bud Norman

Our Monday Answer to Thursday’s News

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the “Russia thing” will be a year old on Thursday, and we can already guess how almost everybody will mark the anniversary.
President Donald Trump’s die-hard defenders on talk radio and other right-wing media will loudly argue that if a year of dogged digging hasn’t produced a iron-clad case that the Trump campaign aided the Russian government’s efforts to meddle in the past presidential and the Trump administration then attempted to obstruct the various investigations into the matter, they might as well concede defeat and close up shop.
These are the same pundits who cheered on the special prosecutors’ investigations into President Bill Clinton as they veered from the Whitewater land deal to an affair with a White House intern and stretched out over four years and wound up with a semen-stained blue dress. They also spent three years defending congressional investigations of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s role in the deadly fiasco at Benghazi, Libya, and it’s a sure bet that if Clinton had won the last presidential election they’d be eager to let the inevitable investigations into her e-mail practices and family foundation and various other matters take as long they required. Indeed, those same pundits are still chanting “lock her up” and don’t seem to care how long that might take.
There’s likely to be the same hypocrisy on the left, of course, as many of the same pundits and politicians who once decried the ever-widening scope and plodding pace of the many Clinton investigations will surely be insisting on Thursday that the Mueller investigation be granted wide latitude about hush money payments to porno performers and president’s personal lawyer’s receipt of big bucks from a Russian-linked firm and other matters as well as plenty of time to get the bottom of it all. Such is the nature of punditry and politics these days.
We didn’t care much for either of the Clintons, and were willing to be patient with whatever legal scrutiny they were subjected to, but neither do we care much for Trump, so without fear of accusations of hypocrisy we’re willing to grant Mueller wide latitude and as much time as he needs.
In this case, the wheels of justice seem to be grinding far faster than these political investigations usually proceed. Mueller’s investigation has already yielded 19 indictments of people and three companies associated with the Trump campaign and administration, including some high-profile guilty pleas including a campaign and administration national security advisor and jail time for some foreign lawyer you’ve never heard of, and several of the countless witnesses they’ve interviewed describe a team that already seems to know all the answers. The only people they haven’t yet interviewed are the ones a shrewd prosecutor such as Mueller would surely save for last, and someone who’s not on Mueller’s leak-proof ship has leaked an outline of 49 very hard-to-answer questions they intend to ask Trump himself in an interview they’re already negotiating with his ever-changing team of lawyers.
Which is not bad for a “witch hunt,” as Trump and his die-hard defenders continually describe Mueller’s investigation. Even without subpoena power the “fake news” media have forced the president’s namesake son to release an e-mail chain documenting his and his brother-in-law and the campaign manager’s meeting with a Russian-linked lawyer they understood to be acting on the Russian government’s behalf, the porno performer’s surprisingly shrewd lawyer has forced that Russian-linked company to admit that they did indeed make a huge payment to Trump’s surprisingly inept and defenestrated and under-investigation lawyer, and there are those high-profile indictments and guilty pleas, and by now enough of the “fake news” has been verified that only a hypocrite wouldn’t allow another few months to get the bottom of it.
In a few months a third of the Senate and all of the House of Representatives will be up for reelection, and we can already guess what a mess of hypocritical punditry and politics that will be. If the Mueller investigation comes up with an iron-clad case of conspiracy and obstruction by then the right will claim vindication for its conspiracy that it’s all a “deep state” plot to overthrow the president, and if it doesn’t the left will surely be plenty angry about it.
Although there’s no telling what time it will take, we expect that as always the truth will come out. At this point in time, we expect the truth will be embarrassing to Trump.
At the end of the long investigations of Bill he had to admit to an “improper relationship” with that White House intern, and although he escaped conviction in an impeachment trial he temporarily lost his law license and so tarnished his awful wife with her own thoroughly investigated scandals that wound up losing to the likes of Trump, but the same left that now has a zero-tolerance policy about sexual impropriety decided that it really didn’t care if the President of the United States was doing tawdry cigar tricks with a 25-year-old intern. If the end of the Trump investigations prove just as clearly that he conspired with a hostile foreign power to meddle in an American election we expect his ardent defenders and erstwhile cold warriors and champions of law and order to proclaim that’s no big deal.
Such is the state of American punditry and politics these days. We came of age during the two long years of the Watergate scandal before Nixon resigned, and have lived through similar outrages from both the left and right, so we’re resigned to a longer wait for the conclusion of this.

— Bud Norman

Our Ambivalent Endorsement of Gina Haspel

In the extremely unlikely case we found ourselves a United States Senator we’d be inclined to vote to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominee for director of the Central Intelligence, Gina Haspel, but we’d do so with some ambivalence. Some of the arguments made for and against Haspel seem reasonable enough, but the rest of the arguments we’re hearing, both pro and con, strike us as downright dumb.
The fact that Haspel would be the agency’s first female director is entirely irrelevant, as far as our old-fashioned Republican sensibilities are concerned, so we were disappointed but not at all surprised that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders “tweeted” that any opposition to a nominee with such career credentials as Haspel must be motivated by sexism. Way back in the ’16 presidential former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had the far more relevant career credentials for the job of president, despite the many reasons that awful woman was clearly unfit for the job, and even such Trump-averse Republicans as ourselves scoffed at the notion that anyone should ever vote for a candidate based on his or her sex. We still reject that silly claim, and Trump’s White House press secretary — of all people — playing the gender card strikes us as sillier yet.
The Democrats’ opposition to Haspel’s nomination has been led by up-and-coming and potential presidential contender California Sen. Kamala Harris, whose feminist credentials are by far more unassailable than Sanders’, and are based on on an arguable complaint that Haspel’s otherwise exemplary career in the CIA included a stint at overseeing an overseas outpost where where she oversaw an operation that included harsh interrogations of captured suspected terrorists. Haspel admits giving the green to light to “waterboarding” and other undeniably harsh interrogation techniques that Democrats then and now regard as torture. Although she testified has testified before congress that we will eschew such methods in the future, Haspel has also has refused to condemn their use in the past, so the Democrats’ opposition to her nomination doesn’t seem at all hypocritical even if she is a woman potentially empowered to be the first woman director of the CIA.
On the the other hand, we’re not at all convinced that Haspel was overly harsh in the interrogations she oversaw. They happened shortly after Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks killed more than 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001, after all, and didn’t involve anything that American troops weren’t trained to endure as they went off to fight various wars in response to that aggression. We’re the queasy sorts who are unable to watch a Quentin Tarantino movie, but even after all these years we’d still countenance getting medieval on some suspected terrorists in those extraordinarily rare “ticking time bomb” situations that only seem to occur in the movies, and we acknowledge it’s a complicated question Haspel faced during an otherwise exemplary career.
On yet another hand, neither are we comfortable with Trump’s and his reconfigured Republican party’s newfound enthusiasm for torture.
During the campaign Trump slanderously excoriated Republican President George W. Bush for lying his way into mercenary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and also blamed his processors for being weak-kneed against Islamist terrorism. He vowed that he would he would go way beyond mere “waterboarding” with suspected terrorists, not just in a rare “ticking time bomb” situation but on a regular basis, kill all the families of any suspected terrorists, summarily shoot any suspected terrorists with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, and fire anyone who defied to his orders to commit such internationally-regognnized war crimes. He also derided all his Republican primary opponents who disagreed as “pussies,” and somehow that vulgar argument wound up winning the Republican nomination and eventually the presidency.
Among the few Republicans opposing Haspel’s nomination in Arizona Sen. John McCain, who suffered five years of undeniable torture in a North Vietnamese prison camp during the Vietnam war, three of them voluntarily after he selflessly refused an early release because of his family’s clout rather than desert his comrades and hand the enemy a propaganda victory, which gives us respectful pause about Haspel’s nomination. During the last campaign the draft-dodging Trump said that McCain was only a hero “because he got caught, and I hate to tell you but I like a guy who didn’t get caught,” and although we’re still proud to vote cast our vote despite our many complaints about  Republican nominee McCain way back in ’12 we are also proud that we didn’t vote for either Trump or that awful Clinton woman back in ’16.
All the Trump apologists on the talk radio shows are damning McCain as as traitor to the country, and administration officials are joking about how the brain cancer-striken Senator and war Hero and former Republican presidential standard-bearer will soon be dead anyway. At that this point in ’18 we’d probably vote for Haspel’s confirmations if we were somehow Senators, but we’d feel ambivalent about her ambivalence in answer those questions the damned Democrats are asking about what she’d do if Trump kept his campaign promises and ordered her to commit a war crime without a “ticking time bomb” rationale.

— Bud Norman

On the Importance of the Right Lawyer

The late and great jazz singer Blossom Dearie used to sing a song by the great and still-going songwriter Dave Frishberg called “My Attorney Bernie,” which cleverly describes the sort of almost perfect legal eagle you’d want on your side in pinch. We’d recommend that Trump call up Frishberg and get that Bernie guy’s number, because one of the lawyers he long relied on is currently needing a damned good lawyer of his own, and the President of the United States’ current legal team has lately been getting its butt kicked across all the newspapers and cable channels by the attorney for a porno performer called Stormy Daniels.
Michael Cohen, one of Trump’s many erstwhile attorneys, recently had a federal search warrant executed at his home and office and hotel room, issued by a federal court persuaded there was reason to believe it might yield evidence that Cohen had committed wire fraud and bank fraud and other possible violations of the law when paying the aforementioned porno performer to stop talking about the desultory sexual encounter she claims to have had with the future President of the United States. That was bad enough, but now the news is full of reports that Cohen also took in a very large amount of money from the Korean Aerospace Corporation and the American Telephone & Telegraph corporation and some nebulous business tied to a Russian billionaire tied to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, all through the same shell corporation he’d chartered in infamously nonchalant Delaware to pay off the poor performer.
The news comes courtesy of documents discovered by some means or another ad disseminated to the media by Michael Avanatti, the porno performer’s lawyer and at this point the second biggest reality star on television after the president. Cohen’s less-visible lawyer is for now claiming the documents are phony, but several mainstream media outlets have corroborated their authenticity, and the Korean Aerospace Corporation and AT&T and the Russkie-linked business of nebulous purpose have already sent out press releases unconvincingly explaining why they did indeed make such large payments to a shell corporation that had originally been chartered to pay off a porno performer.
In response Trump has deployed the legal and public relations services of the former legendary federal prosecutor and undeniably successful New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, but by now Giuliani seems well past his prime. He visibly upset even such a Trump sycophant as Sean Hannity by admitting that Trump’s lawyer had paid $130,000 to a porno performer and that the current President of the United States had reimbursed him for the favor, and although he was hired as a lawyer on separate “Russia thing” we notice he’s not as notable as Avanatti on the cable news to explain why a Russian-linked business might have been adding a half-million bucks to the shell corporation the former president’s lawyer had created to pay off the a porno performer who turns out to have a far better lawyer than the president.
There might well be a perfectly innocent explanation for everything Trump’s erstwhile lawyer has done, and even if there isn’t Trump’s more recent lawyers might well have a perfectly innocent explanation about how he had nothing to do with it, but we’d advise they all lawyer up with the closest they can find to Blossom Dearie’s attorney, Bernie.

— Bud Norman