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Celebrities, Populists, and Celebrity Populists

Ukraine has apparently elected a populist celebrity with no previous political experience as its president, and we hope it works out better for them than it has for Italy, Guatemala, Peru, Liberia, Pakistan, the United States of America, and the other countries that have recently made similar choices.
The Ukrainian president-elect is Volodymyr Zelensky, a 41-year-old comedian best known for his starring role on the hit Ukrainian sitcom “Servant of the People,” about a comedian who somehow becomes president of Ukraine. We eagerly anticipate the English-dubbed version showing up on Netflix, as it’s apparently a compelling show. From what we can tell by the press accounts Zelensky’s character is constantly doing battle with the country’s entrenched and corrupt establishment, and although he doesn’t necessarily win he at least gets some humorous insults in, and according to a prominent Ukrainian political observer quoted in The Washington Post “People are voting for the plot of the show.”
None of the western press reports about the election say much about Zelennsky’s opponent, who might well have been just as awful as Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in the last American election, but it still strikes us as a fanciful choice. Zelensky will likely get some zingers in during his time in office, and his fans will surely love it, but recent experience indicates that only does so much good for a country.
Italy elected comedian Beppe Grillo as its leader, and although he’s gotten a lot of laughs the country is still the same corruption-ridden economic basket case it’s been for the past 100 years or so. Previously the Italians had elected multi-billionaire media mogul and crusading populist Silvio Berlusconi, but his several terms were frequently interrupted by indictments and convictions on various corruption charges, which majorities of the Italian people didn’t mind given his crusading anti-corruption populism.
In 2015 Guatemala elected anti-corruption comedian Jimmy Morales, who had also starred in a hit comedy about a comedian becoming president, but the country remained so violent and impoverished that a troublesome segment of its population is currently seeking aslyum in the United States. Liberia elected a popular soccer star, Pakistan elected a cricket star who’d become a national hero by leading the country to its only world championship, but neither has proved nearly so successful in playing the more complicated game of governance.
Once upon a time in America we could have rolled our eyes at such Third World craziness, but in the age of President Donald Trump’s we have no standing to sneer. Trump was elected by an electoral majority without any previous political experience partly because of his much-bragged about yet frequently-bankrupt business career, partly because he’d portrayed a tough-talking take-charge “you’re fired” businessman on the reality show “The Apprentice,” partly because he promised to use that experience to “drain the swamp,” and mostly because he had the good fortune to be running against “Crooked” Hillary Clinton, who was arguably almost as corrupt.
Despite his political inexperience Trump has kept the American economy chugging along the same slow upward trajectory it was on when he elected, and during the two years his party controlled both chambers of Congress he won a budget-busting tax bill and installed a couple of conservative Supreme Court justices that any old establishment Republican would have championed, but mostly his fans love him for the zingers he gets in.
The people in the red “Make America Great Again” ball caps find Trump’s current hit reality show downright hilarious, but we admit we just don’t get it. They loved it when Trump mocked a reporter’s degenerative muscle disease, but it reminded of us how the kids at our elementary school laughed at the playground bullies’ mocking of the handicapped students, and they thought it funny that Trump called his Democratic nemesis Rep. Adam Schiff “Little Adam Shitt” in a “tweet,” but we thought it juvenile and vulgar and far beneath the dignity of the American presidency. A friend of our complains that the stuffily literal media took Trump seriously when he hilariously requested the Russian government to hack Clinton’s e-mails, and Trump himself has won laughs from his rally crowds by recalling how he said that during a raucous campaign rally where everyone was laughing and in on the joke, but in fact he said it at a somber press conference, where reporters pressed him to verify that he wasn’t joking, and the Mueller report makes clear that the Russian government didn’t get Trump’s sense of humor and attempted to hack the Clinton e-mails that same day.
Call us old-fashioned, but we preferred the more sly and subtle and profanity-free wits of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. These days much of America is so contemptuous of its fellow citizens on the opposite side of the political divide that it will happily settle for even the most puerile zingers, though, and hold out little hold that our differences can be reconciled through civil and reason debate. Apparently much of the rest of the Third and second and First Worlds have reached the same desultory state.
Here’s hoping it works out better for Ukraine than it has elsewhere. Zelensky is reportedly pro-NATO and anti-Russian, which is more than we can say for Trump, so we wish him the best of luck with that. Besides, for all we know the other candidate was arguably even more awful.
Even so, and at the risk of being called old-fashioned, we think there’s still something to be said for seasoned public servants making serious and fact-based arguments in a civil and reasoned debate. Maybe someone should make a show about that, but it probably wouldn’t get big ratings.

— Bud Norman

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Covfefe and Kerfuffles

The news slowed enough on Wednesday that the talking heads were reduced to talking about a minor celebrity’s bad taste in propaganda and the latest bizarre presidential “tweet.” Neither story was very consequential, especially compared to what else has been going lately, but they provided something to talk about.
The minor celebrity is Kathy Griffin, an unfunny comedian we’re usually happy to ignore, but there was no ignoring the outrage that resulted when she published a picture of herself holding an effigy of President Donald Trump’s bloody severed head. As a joke it was unfunny even by Griffin’s usual standards, as a political statement it was completely pointless, and as an effort to undermine Trump it proved counterproductive. Trump and his supporters could rightly point to it as an example of how mean spirited and meaningless so much of the criticism of his administration has been, while Trump’s more respectable and reasonable critics also condemned it lest their more substantive arguments be tarred by association. Eventually the Cable News Network wound up canceling Griffin’s annual gig co-hosting a New Year’s Eve show, the usually unapologetic comic was profusely apologizing across the internet, and as we scanned the news nobody seemed to be coming to her defense.
That lack of solidarity on the left took a lot of the fun out of it for those on the right who wanted to talk about how appalled all the liberals would have been if anyone had said or done anything similarly disrespectful about President Barack Obama. Some of them talked about it anyway, so some people on the left talked about all the times the numerous times people on the right did do and say similarly disrespectful about Obama, including that time when heavy metal guitarist and recent White House guest Ted Nugent regaled a concert crowd with some between-song patter about beheading Obama and various other Democrats, and as all usual the various charges of hypocrisy from both sides carried some truth. Such pop cultural outrages are by now so common they’ve become banal, to the point they don’t warrant mention except on slow news days or higher-profile celebrities, and the angle almost everyone seemed to miss is that both sides of the political divide our degraded our civil discourse to such a sordid state.
The other big topic of water cooler conversation was Trump’s early-morning “Tweet” declaring “Despite the constant negative press convfefe.” That cryptic sentence and its baffling neologism lingered on the internet for six hours or so before being deleted, but by then a lot of Trump critics far wittier than Griffin were having great fun poking at Trump’s characteristic unintelligibility without resorting to gruesome decapitation gags. There were plenty of “memes” and “gifs” and other internet hilarity, too, and even the right wing talk radio hosts were trying to get in on the joke. One wag “tweeted” that Covfefe is New York’s hottest nightclub, adding that “It has everything: Russian entanglements, spray tans, creepy handshakes, surprise trade wars.” Another predicted that White House Sean Spicer would once again say “The ‘tweet’ speaks for itself.”
Spicer seemed unamused during a press conference where new rules were introduced to limit the press corps’ recording rights, which might have been a story on an even slower news day, growling that “I think the president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant.” This cryptic statement led one of the callers on a right wing talk radio show we heard while driving around town to speculate that “covfefe” was a code signal to a cadre of Trump co-conspirators, much as “Jean has a long mustache” tipped off the French Resistance that the invasion was starting in “The Longest Day,” but even the host wasn’t buying that.
Most people on both sides of the debate figured that Trump had started to write something about negative press coverage before either falling asleep or being distracted by some pressing crisis or nearby shiny object, or otherwise losing his bullet train of thought, and it was just one of those things that happens to people in the internet age. This “tweet” didn’t accuse a former president of wire-tapping and being either sick or bad, and it didn’t threat any trade relations with longstanding allies, and Trump himself  with a more-lighthearted-than-Spicer and more-clever-than-Griffin “tweet” that “”Who can figure out the true meaning of ‘covfefe??? Enjoy!” That’s not at all reassuring, though, and despite the undeniable humor it was still yet another daily grim reminder of how very degraded our civil discourse has become.
It was nonetheless a welcome relief from the daily screaming matches about all the latest scandals and attempts at censorship by sides and the hypocrisy about it that so rife there’s plenty spread around. On the next slow news day it would be nice if the president didn’t “tweet” and his fellow celebrities somehow refrained from attention-grabbing outrage, and the talking heads are forced to calmly talk about whatever became of that health care bill and the similarly forgotten tax reform bill and America’s role in a global economy and the rest of the boring stuff that people used to talk about before the discourse became so degraded.

— Bud Norman

Invasion of the Celebrities

Oprah Winfrey is reportedly considering running for president in 2020, which is the sort of celebrity gossip we used to happily ignore but now have to take seriously in the age of President Donald Trump. She’s a more popular television personality than Trump was before launching his political career, has just as much government experience, and would no doubt get the same lavish media attention Trump received in a presidential race. Her penchant for leaving gifts under the seats would play well with many voters, too, and her warmer and fuzzier public persona might prove all the more appealing after four years of Trump.
There’s also talk of running the musicians Kid Rock or Ted “Motor City Madman” Nugent as Republican candidates for a Michigan Senate seat, billionaire sports owner and reality television star Mark Cuban is apparently starting to wonder why he couldn’t be president, rapper and Trump pal Kanye West has been making threats of a run for years, and former sitcom star Roseanne Barr already has a sixth-place finish in a presidential race and next time around all her crackpot conspiracy theories might not sound so crazy. Celebrities have leaped into high office before, including Sonny Bono and that guy who played the doctor on “Love Boat” to the House of Representatives, a former Saturday Night Live wag to the Senate, and professional wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura and professional body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governorships of populous states.
The country had also elected a former Hollywood actor to the presidency, but only after he’d been president of a national labor union and served two terms as governor of the most populous state and many more years as an elder statesman of conservatism, and none of the current crop of celebrity contenders can boast such credentials. Kid Rock’s heavy-metal-rap-country stage show used to include a sidekick midget, so he can credibly claim to stand by the little man, and Nugent’s guitar solo on The Amboy Duke’s “Baby Please Don’t Go” still sounds better than that Elton John and Rolling Stones stuff Trump always plays at his rallies for some reason or another, but that’s not what we’re looking for in a candidate to what’s supposed to be the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body. Cuban strikes us as hipster version of Trump, and he traded Steve Nash from the Dallas Mavericks just before his Most Valuable Player Seasons, and unless he’s darned good on that reality show we’re not that impressed. Kanye West is kookier than Rosanne Barr, too, and the past track record of celebrity apprentices is not promising. Sonny Bono and the Love Boat guy were mediocrities in the House, that Saturday Night Live guy is as much an embarrassment to Minnesota as the pro wrestler was, and Schwarzenegger was far better in “Conan the Barbarian” than he was in the role of Governor of California.
Still, celebrities start with certain advantages if they decide to make a career change to politics. They start with bigger fan bases than mere politicians, for one, because everyone hates politicians. That popularity also derives from a certain image that can be easily carried into the ring, too, such as Trump’s blunt-spoken take-charge businessman shtick, or the sensitive and caring sincerity that Winfrey so effortlessly fakes, and we assume that even the likes of Rock and Nugent and West and Barr have some qualities people find so admirable that they’ve become rich and famous. There’s all that lavish attention the media pay to them, too, while the only time a mere public servant ever gets in the papers is when he’s raising taxes or cutting spending or letting budgets go in the red, because the reality of the real world is that those are really the only things anybody in office can do.
Even the most blunt-talking celebrities aren’t quite so frank as those limited choices and make a case for what they consider the least worst of them, so they peddle the notion that they overcome such dreary realities such as they’ve seemingly done in their own real lives. Celebrity is a lucrative industry into itself because it sells something people will always want, a vicarious experience of a life unconstrained by carpooling the kids to school and hearing rumors of lay-offs around the water cooler and coming home to a spouse who’s not aging as well as hoped and sitting on the couch to watch whatever’s on the tube, and the profit margins are high because you don’t have to produce anything real. Politics is a pretty lucrative business, too, especially if you have the same ethics as the average celebrity, but its results are always all too tangible.
People used to be fond of saying that “politics is the art of the possible,” but at this point in our popular culture, when one can be any race or sex or species of their choosing, and the conspiracies about a cabal of shape-shifting reptilian Jesuits and Jews and Masons and future presidential nominee Lady Gaga are part of an Illumnati that’s running everything are gaining wide currency, the idea that some things just aren’t possible is hopelessly out of fashion. Celebrity reality will likely prevail for a while, be it the tough Trump style or the softer Winfrey variety, or heaven help us even the West and Rock kind, but real reality always wins n the end.
They’d also say “politics is show biz for ugly people,” back in the day. We used to think that amusing and apt, but it’s no longer so funny and is also hopelessly out of date. These days politics is becoming show biz for people who haven’t aged so well despite their magical shape-shifting powers and are now too ugly or old-fashioned for show biz.

— Bud Norman

A Night When the Stars Didn’t Come Out

Try as we might to avoid the latest entertainment news, we couldn’t help reading about the trouble president-elect Donald Trump has been having booking slots for his inaugural festivities. So far the biggest names that have agreed to perform are the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and even those old-fashioned and all-American acts have had some dissension within their ranks.
The Marie Claire magazine reported that several of the Rockettes objected to the gig, and of course the rest of the media gleefully passed it along. The Madison Square Garden Company, which owns the Radio City Music Hall along with its high-kicking Rockettes, accused the magazine overstating the dissension and violating a confidentiality agreement in the process, and assured the rest of the press that no one would be forced to dance against her will. The company’s chief executive also defended the booking, telling The New York Times “I don’t believe it’s going to hurt the brand, and nobody is more concerned about that than the guy sitting in this chair. I’m about to spend $50 million remounting this summer show, and I’m going to spend a similar amount remounting next year’s Christmas show. I gotta sell tickets.”
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir doesn’t have the same overhead or commercial incentives as the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, but a few of its members have declined to perform at the inaugural because of religious or political objections to Trump. Mormons have been notably more resistant to Trump’s charms than other conservative religious groups, and many have objected to their tabernacle’s choir singing for a thrice-divorced and six-times-bankrupt casino and strip club mogul, and one woman resigned her spot in the choir for well-publicized reasons that seem to derive more from her liberal political views. Many of the media have been enjoying that flap, too, of course.
The other big name, which we had not previously heard of, is Jackie Evancho, a 16-year-old who seems to have recently become famous on the “America’s Got Talent” television show. She tells the press that she’ll be singing the National Anthem in honor of the presidency rather than the president, and always adds that she also performed for President Barack Obama.
Some bigger names were rumored in the press, but all eventually denied they would be performing. Aging rock star Elton John was willing to perform at right-wing radio talker Rush Limbaugh’s third or fourth wedding but drew the line at Trump’s first inauguration, issuing a profanity-laden statement that suggested Trump try booking “[expletive-deleted] Ted Nugent” or “one of those [expletive-deleted] country singers.” Country star Garth Brook also declined a rumored invitation, but more respectfully, while heavy metal guitarist and “Motor City Madman” Nugent was not even rumored to have been invited despite his outspoken support for Trump. Opera singer Andrea Bocelli offered his services, but was told it wouldn’t be necessary, which probably came as a relief to him after thousands of his Facebook followers threatened a boycott.
So it seems that this will be a celebrity-free inauguration, and given how awful all the celebrities are these days we would usually see that as another reason to be glad that a Republican is being inaugurated. Trump is not a usual Republican, though, and we can’t see him relegating the celebrity culture to its rightful place on the margins. He’s a reality television star himself, first gaining fame beyond the New York tabloids for firing other B-listers on his “Celebrity Apprentice” program, and since winning a presidential election he has taken time out for photo opportunities with the rapper and noted nutcase Kanye West as well as fight-promoter and convicted murderer Don King, and he’s nominated his former World Wrestling Entertainment co-star Linda McMahon to head the Small Business Administration, and we can’t shake a certain suspicion that he’d very much like to be as adored by the big-timers as Obama has been for the past eight years, and very much resents that he isn’t.
We expect a lot of “Tweet”-for-tat public feuding with the celebrity set for the next four years, and although it will no doubt be great for the ratings on “Access Hollywood,” where Trump once bragged to his locker room pal Billy Bush about how he could be grab women by their deleted expletives because he’s a star, we aren’t looking forward to it.

— Bud Norman

Hollywood Hearts Hillary, Sort of

By now it’s a quadrennial rite of Hollywood for all the most fashionable show biz folks to film one of those commercials where they take turns standing in front of a blank background to finish one another’s sentences about the pressing need to vote for the Democratic presidential nominee. This year’s offering is disappointing even by Hollywood’s recent standards, and suggests that even celebrities are feeling disappointed in this crazy election year.
The standing-in-front-of-a blank-background-extolling-a-Democrat genre began back in the heady “Hope and Change” days of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, and featured a hope-y and change-y hip-hop soundtrack complete with samples of Obama’s soaring oratory and rapturous chants of “Obama, Obama” from some seemingly heavenly choir, and was all about the utopia of economic prosperity and racial harmony and world peace that would surely be realized after a mere eight years of Obama administrations. Even after Obama’s victory, a bunch of celebrities felt compelled to take their turns in front of a blank screen pledging their allegiance to the new leader and promising to support local school banks and volunteer more time to charity and not give the finger to other drivers and buy a hybrid and oppose slavery laugh more and other causes that were fashionable back in those more hopeful days.
Both efforts struck us as downright hilarious at the time, and seem all the more ridiculous in hindsight, and the latest reboot of the series seems to acknowledge that things have not worked out as promised. This time around the message isn’t that another four or perhaps eights of a Democrat in the White House will deliver utopia slightly behind schedule, but that the alternative is simply too horrible to contemplate. The video doesn’t mention either of the major party nominees by name, but the celebrities refer to “a racist, abusive coward who could permanently damage the fabric of our society,” and worry about “giving nuclear weapons to a man whose signature move is firing things,” with the word “firing” repeated by several more celebrities, and at that point we assume even the average Hollywood celebrity would know they were talking about the Republican nominee. There weren’t even the vaguest allusions to the Democratic nominee, though, much less any promises of hope and change.
The latest effort is disappointing on purely cinematic levels, as well. It doesn’t have the arty black-and-white look and hip-hop hipness of that ’08 entry, or the star power of that “pledge allegiance to Barack” video in ’09, which at least included a few faces we recognized. Not to mention that annoying finishing-one-another’s-sentences thing, which the “Portlandia” show had already satirically suggested as a way to full employment. There is a slightly endearing self-effacing joke about how nobody’s really that famous anymore, except perhaps for those two unmentioned major party nominees, and whoever these people are we have to admit that some of them are rather good-looking, but we can’t imagine any discerning cinephile falling for it. Today’s young folks didn’t grow up on the afternoon and late-night old movies, though, can’t remember when movie stars where movies stars, and therefore aren’t very discerning, so perhaps they’re the intended audience for this dreck.
We’ve noticed a couple of polls that that show Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton barely topping 30 percent among the under-30 set, but have Republican nominee Donald Trump in third place behind Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson and just slightly ahead of Green Party nominee Jill Stein. This demographic cohort might well be spooked by the possibility of a racist and abusive coward with a penchant for firing things getting the nuclear codes, and they probably even know who these celebrities are, so maybe Hollywood will have some effect. We share all their concerns about the nominee Republican, but also have equal concerns about that Democratic nominee that Hollywood doesn’t dare mention, and we guess we’ll have to await the video from Scott “Chachi” Baio and Ted “Motor City Madman” Nugent and all the “Celebrity Apprentice” celebrities pledging allegiance to the unmentionable Republican nominee to finally decide why we’re not voting for any of those four.

— Bud Norman

At the Vortex of Politics and Show Biz

In our desperation to find something to read and write about other than that awful presidential race we even looked in on the latest celebrity news the other day, but of course we could find no respite there.
The Los Angeles Times covers Hollywood with the same avid interest that The Detroit Free Press covers the automotive trade and The Wichita Eagle covers the general aviation biz, so its internet front page featured a pleasantly diverting take on the disappointing opening weekend box office take for the latest big-budget “Ben Hur,” which the writer reported was the latest summer dud “in a glut of reboots, sequels, and remakes that audiences don’t want.” That only reminded us that the next four years will be either a sequel to the scandalous Clinton mini-series or a re-boot of “Celebrity Apprentice,” however, and we couldn’t help clicking on another front page headline blaring that “Donald Trump delivers his biggest insult yet, demeaning celebrities for their not-hotness.”
After Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton took in a huge fund-raising haul on her trip to Hollywood, Republican nominee Trump told a presumably less star-studded crowd in Tampa, Florida, that “The only enthusiastic supporters of her campaign are Hollywood celebrities, in many cases celebrities that aren’t very hot anymore.” With the same company town enthusiasm that The Detroit Free Press celebrated the auto bail-outs, and The Wichita Eagle protested President Barack Obama’s rhetoric against “corporate jets,” The Los Angeles Times stood up for its hometown workers by noting that that Clinton’s contributors included such familiar names as Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Anniston, Cher, Jamie Foxx, Kanye West, and George Clooney, while noting that Scott “Chachi” Baio of “Happy Days” fame was “the closest thing to an A-list celebrity at the Republican National Convention Last Month.”
At that point we were just a click away from the paper’s “Celebrity endorsement tracker,” and of course there was no resisting that vortex of show biz and politics. We’ll assume that The Los Angeles Times’ tracking of celebrity endorsements is definitive, and we’re not at all surprised that it shows the usual Democratic advantage. You’ll have to scroll down nearly halfway before you run out of mug shots of Clinton’s big name and big bucks supporters, and then more than halfway down to get through the ones who were supporting self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders back in the day back when that crazy idea seems possible. Both lists include several other people so darned famous that even we’ve heard of them, even if we’ve never seen any of their movies or heard any of their songs, as well as some folks such as Dick Van Dyke and Tony Bennett who aren’t that hot anymore but we well remember from their glory days, along with the same old lineup of usual suspects that we’ve never heard of all and some others that we are only vaguely and unpleasantly aware of.
By now the gold-plated Trump brand has more universal name recognition than any of those actors or rappers or singers or hoofers or leaked-sex-tape stars, however, and even The Los Angeles Times is obliged to report that he has also has some well-known supporters. Along with the aforementioned Baio there’s Gary Busey, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his title role performance in “The Buddy Holly Story” some decades back and is otherwise best known as that crazy guy on “Celebrity Apprentice,” and Jon Voight, who brilliantly played Joe Buck in “Midnight Cowboy” and the guy with the “pretty mouth” who climbed that cliff in “Deliverance” among other great roles, but is now best known as the father of that Angelina Jolie woman, and Kid Rock, whose strange combination of inner-city rap and trailer-park country and past collaboration with a midget were sort of endearing to us. He’s also got the support of such sports figures as former heavyweight champion of the world and convicted rapist and admitted wife-beater and ear-biting thug “Iron” Mike Tyson, Dennis “The Worm” Rodman, the cross-dressing basketball power forward from the ’90s and more recently a good friend of the North Korean dictatorship and contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice,” and basketball coach Bobby Knight, who was fired from Indiana University despite a Hall of Fame-calber career for being an abrasive and insulting and temperamental jerk. The professional wrestling star Hulk Hogan, who recently put the Gawker website out of business by suing them for releasing a leaked sex tape of him and somebody else whose name we should probably know, is also on board with his fellow former World Wrestling Entertainment headliner, as is heavy metal guitarist Ted “Motor City Madman” Nugent, who we have to admit laid down a hell of a guitar solo on “Baby Please Don’t Go” way back in The Amboy Dukes days.
The Los Angeles Times has been keeping track of this long enough to note that Republican runner-up Texas Sen. Cruz’ only endorsement was from one of those long-bearded guys on that “Duck Dynasty” show, which we’ve never seen and are not sure is still on the air, and that third-place finisher Ohio Gov. John Kasich never racked up a single celebrity endorsement. This seems to suggest that celebrity endorsements have some worrisome effect, but at this point have no idea what it will be. We care not a whit what any of these celebrities think, the nominees and non-nominees alike, even the ones whose careers we have enjoyed and whose personalities we have found pleasant enough presences on our popular culture, and we can’t discount that possibility that even the worst of them might by happenstance be right about whose more awful in this horrible presidential race.
Lately our tastes in entertainment and culture have run more to the “alternative” offerings, and we’ll also wind up casting a meaningless vote in that direction. Except for the exceptional case of Ronald Reagan we haven’t paid any attention to an actor’s political opinions since John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart died, and we’re not about to start now. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Noam Chomsky is said to be a brilliant linguist, but his political opinions are pure idiocy, and the Nobel Prize-winning William Shockley was undeniably sharp about physics but as clearly batty about his white supremacism, and we don’t see how a proficiency for acting or singing or rapping or rebounding, or even such a square jaw as George Clooney posses, is a better indicator of political wisdom.
There used to be something of value to be found in America’s popular culture, back in the days where we mostly seek our alternatives, but that was in the late 19th Century when Lew Wallace had a best-seller of a novel in “Ben Hur: A Story of the Christ,” and then again in the roaring ’20s when Ramon Naverro starred in a state-of-the-silent-movie-art  version, and as recently as the year of our birth, when Charlton Heston had the title role in a remake that had sound and widescreen technicolor and thirty years of other rapid technological advances going for it. Since then all these computer generated images and other high-tech gizmos don’t seem to have improved on story-telling movie-making, and we don’t expect that “Story of the Christ” subtitle has much box-appeal these days, and the celebrities aren’t nearly so intriguing as they used to be back when they mostly kept their political opinions to themselves. That the two most recognized celebrities of the moment are pitching a Clinton mini-series sequel or a “Celebrity Apprentice” reboot suggests that by now pretty much everything is just reboots and sequels and remakes that audiences don’t want.

— Bud Norman

No Restroom for the Weary

As much as we’d like to ignore all the noisome brouhaha about transgendered restroom rights, and merely dismiss it as just another one of those passing post-religious manias that so often occur these days, there are bigger issues involved.
Until about 15 minutes or so ago the current social arrangement of providing chromosome-segregated restrooms and dressing rooms in public and private buildings had prevailed almost everywhere in the civilized world, and been generally acceptable to more than 99 percent of every country’s population, but these days that’s insufficient reason not to have a noisome brouhaha over something. The city council of Charlotte, North Carolina, decided that it would welcome a tiny minority of men into its women’s rooms and a presumably even smaller number of women into its men’s rooms, so the state legislature quickly passed and the governor signed into law a bill saying that no, this is just another one of those post-religious manias that so often occur these days and more than 99 percent of the state’s population was perfectly happy with the existing social arrangement and we’re going to keep it, and even the fractional remainder of the country had somehow managed to cope, but of course there was nonetheless a resulting brouhaha.
Some aging rock stars cancelled concerts in the state, other celebrities “tweeted” their disapproval of North Carolina, some more youthfully vibrant corporations promised boycotts, and even a governor of another state restricted university sports teams and other employees from traveling to the state, even though all were perfectly willing to do business in countries where homosexuality is quite sternly punished and transgendered rights to public restrooms and dressing rooms is an entirely unfamiliar idea. That the likes of this motley and hypocritical coalition might well overturn a long established social arrangement that had previously been accepted by more than 99 percent of the population is one of those bigger issues that we worry about.
Perhaps worse yet, the federal government is also in on it, with the Obama administration’s thoroughly politicized Department of Justice bringing a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina alleging that its legal affirmation of the longstanding and accepted-by-more-than-99-percent-of-the-policy social range is in violation of the law that was passed in 1972 and by now well-known as “Title IX.” The law has reconfigured college sports and countless other institutions by on insisted on sexual equality in public expenditures, sometimes for the good and often for the worse, but any plain reading of its text suggests there’s nothing in there quite so crazy as insisting ending that well-established and overwhelmingly approved insistence on chromosome-segrated restrooms and dressing rooms. The act makes no mention of “sexual identity,” and despite repeated efforts Congress has consistently refused to include it, and anyone with a vague memory of 1972 will recall that no one was asserting some creepy guy’s right to hang around the women’s restrooms or dressings rooms. When the Equal Rights Amendment was being debate in our high school days there was some concern that it would render chromosome-segregated restrooms as unconstitutional as the “white’s only” restrooms of the Jim Crow south, just as the Justice Department is now alleging.  Back then such a legal authority as current far-left Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who would surely rule against North Carolina now, was reassuring that 99-percent-satisfied-with-current-social-arrangement that “Separate places to disrobe, sleep, perform personal bodily functions are permitted, in some situations required, by regard for personal privacy. Individual privacy, a right of constitutional dimension, is appropriately harmonized with the equality principle.”
What you’ve got here is a bunch of celebrities and some rich businessmen and some equally unaccountable bureaucrats who can interpret a 1972 law from their 15-minutes-ago perspective imposing their policies to overturn the past many millennia of social-customs-accepted-by-more-than-99-percent of the population, and that is the biggest issue. of all
We’d like to think that the presumptive nominee of our once-beloved Republican Party would at least take a forthright stand against this nonsense from the outset, but the oh-so-politically-incorrect fellow instead expressed dismay that North Carolina would offend any aging rock stars or vibrant young companies by causing a brouhaha, then gave a shout-out to his fellow reality star Bruce “Caitlyn” Jenner and invited him or her to use the women’s room at his fabulous Trump Tower, and although he quickly walked it back to a state’s rights position that is at least better than his likely Democratic challenger’s stand, for the moment, we are not all reassured. There are very big issues afoot in this country. The bureaucracy’s creative and five-minutes-ago interpretations of laws passed by people who had no such intentions in mind, and are unrecognizable to anyone who bothers to read the plain English today, are already creating economic and environmental and social and racial havoc on our society, but at the moment the only question seems to be whose ox will gored.

— Bud Norman

The Celebrity Case for the Disastrous Iran Deal

At this point we have nothing but a general indifference and otherwise mild contempt for the celebrity class, but every now and then it exerts it influence in ways that demand our protestation. One such case is the latest celebrity-laden propaganda on behalf of the Obama administration’s godawful deal with Iran regarding its unabashed nuclear ambitions.
You probably haven’t already seen it, but the White House-sanctioned video features notable yet probably unfamiliar personalities such as Morgan Freeman, Jack Black, Natasha Lyonne, Queen Noor, and some exotically handsome fellow of fashionably unidentifiable ethnicity that we swear we’ve never seen before, all explaining that either Congress goes along with the administration’s obviously flawed deal with Iran or that we all die in one of those post-apocalyptic nuclear holocaust movie scenarios that were a staple of early ’70s cinema. The argument’s flaws are obvious enough to anyone who has been paying attention to details of the obviously flawed deal, which allows Iran to blatantly cheat on all the other terms and continue it’s anti-western and generally genocidal rhetoric and actions until the 10-year band on Iranian nuclear programs expires, but it might prove persuasive enough to that portion of the population that is taken with the likes of Morgan Freeman, Jack Black, Natasha Lyonne, Queen Noor, and whoever that exotically handsome fellow of of fashionably unidentifiable ethnic origin are. For the benefit of those few readers who are even less hip to celebrity culture than we are, Morgan Freeman is a gray-haired and distinguished-looking African-American actor with an intimidating voice who routinely portrays God or other God-like characters in popular motion pictures, Jack Black is an overweight hipster who until recently convincingly and entertainingly played overweight hipsters in popular comedies, Natasha Lyonne is an actress with offbeat yet fetching good looks who has appeared in a number of critically acclaimed independent movies and as a lesbian prison predator in the Netflix sensation “Orange is the New Black,” Queen Noor is the aging but still-beguiling western gold-digger still married to the King of Jordan, and we still have no idea who the exotically handsome fellow of fashionably unidentifiable ethnic origin is, but none of this causes their well-read statements to make any sense.

Freeman is a convincing enough God, Black is always completely believable and often hilarious as an overweight hipster dude, Lyonne is always fetching in an offbeat sort of way even in her most degrading roles, Noor is an undeniably handsome woman who really is married to the king of a country that surely is high on the list of Iran’s intended targets, and we still have no idea who that exotically handsome fellow of unidentifiable ethnic origin might be, but none of this leads us to believe that a deal that allows an Iranian theocratic dictatorship that makes no secret of its genocidal and ant-western and anti-modernity plans to develop a nuclear bombs to proceed openly with its plans. There’s some talk about how the Iranians love their children as much as westerners do, as though westerners were also strapping suicide vests onto their children, and an implied argument that not allowing Iran to develop a nuclear bomb would cause it provoke a nuclear, and something about crazed Republican congressman working in lockstep with the nefarious Jews to bring about Armageddon, but the gist of it is that these are celebrities making these ridiculous arguments and that should be good enough for the rest of us.
So far these relatively minor celebrities aren’t attracting many “hits” on the internet, and the anonymous likes of Arkansas’ Sen. Tom Cotton, an Iraq War veteran who dealt with Iran’s improvised explosive devices in the the hell of that war, seem to be getting the better of the argument. We surely hope this will prevail, because as God-like as Freeman’s baritone can sound, and not matter how hip Black might seem with his kids and Frisbee, and and no matter how hot Lyonne is in an off-beat and independent-flick sort of way, or how very western Noor is in her own handsome way, or how exotically handsome and unidentifiably ethnic that other guy is, all their arguments lead to an Iranian nuclear bomb. That would be ugly, and not at all funny, or the least bit God-like, and it’s best that the public remain indifferent at best and mildly contemptuous of their of opinions refer to common sense instead.

— Bud Norman

Comforting the Comfortable

There’s an old newspaper adage that a journalist’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Journalists are so fond of such nonsense that if you spend any amount of time with them you’ll soon grow weary of hearing it. After 35 years of working with newspapers we have vowed that the next time we hear anyone repeating this balderdash we will immediately go in search of a sockful of horse manure with which to pummel him.
It’s not so much how the adage negates a superior notion that a journalist’s job is to accurately report what is going on in the world, without regard to who is comforted or afflicted or by the truth, but rather that it’s so very out of date. The phrase apparently originated with Finley Peter Dunne, who wrote an Irish-accented column as “Mr. Dooley” way back in the good old days of yellow journalism when ethnic humor was respectable and journalists were not, and we wonder what the ink-stained wretch would make of the oh-so-comfortable scribes in attendance at this past Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
You’ve heard of the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, of course, even if you make a point of avoiding all that boring political stuff in the news. The annual black-tie event has joined the Golden Globes awards and the global warming alarmist movement as one of those things that every self-respecting celebrity simply must do, and it now receives the same saturation coverage as any other show-biz event. This year Vanity Fair rushed to the internet with pictures of the “Hollywood A-listers and Washington-insiders” who attended the magazine’s after-party bash at the Kalorama residence of the French ambassador, and even the most staid news outlets were similarly star-struck. New York Magazine found it newsworthy that the First Lady wore a Lacy Monique Lhuillier gown, which is apparently some sort of fancy dress, and it  could not restrain itself from adding that “damn does she look good.”
Each year’s dinner features a monologue by a well-known comedian who is expected to poke fun at both politicians and reporters, thus allowing both groups to demonstrate what good sports and regular folk they are, but tradition also dictates that a gentler brand of humor be employed regarding Democrats. This year the honor went to late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien, who hewed rigorously to tradition. One of his few Obama jokes made mention of the fact that both he and the president attended Harvard University, and he ended with a heartfelt thanks to the president for helping his hometown of Boston “heal” from the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Whatever healing powers the president exerted might not have been necessary if the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been less sensitive to Muslim sensitivities when following up on Russian warnings about the bombers, an aversion to Islamophobia that has been imposed from the very top of levels of government, but O’Brien’s partisan fun-poking should have been expected. We well recall that during the Bush administration O’Brien used to regale his television audiences by doing a presidential imitation that involved mimicking a mentally retarded person and saying “duh,” a Swiftian sort of satire that the proud Harvard man could have just as easily learned on the playgrounds of Kistler Elementary School.
The president also spoke, which is another yearly feature of the event. Tradition dictates that the presidential monologue be self-deprecating, but Obama seems unable to make fun of himself lest it be considered racist. He acknowledged an embarrassing 2-for-22 shooting performance on the basketball court during the White House Easter egg roll, but only as a set-up for a joke about the NBC ratings, and most of the jokes were aimed a political opponents such as a wealthy Republican campaign donor. The watchdogs of the press politely roared, of course, and by all accounts everyone seemed very comfortable.

— Bud Norman

The Celebrities are Revolting

As a general rule we pay no attention to the political pronouncements of celebrities. Film and television actors, pop music performers, comedians, models, and the various other sorts of beautiful people who comprise the celebrity class have no apparent expertise outside their fields of endeavor, after all, and these days they don’t seem to have much talent for anything at all.
Nonetheless, we were intrigued to read that Bill Maher, host of a cable television talk show of some notoriety, was recently heard on the program grousing about his high taxes. The comments came after his guest Rachel Maddow, the boyishly handsome left-wing news commentator, delivered a long rant about the Republican budget proposal complete with the obligatory sarcastic claim that “it says the big problem in America right now is that rich people do not have enough money, they need relief from confiscatory tax rates.” This prompted Maher to respond “You know what? Rich people — I’m sure you’d agree with this — actually do pay the freight in this country … I just saw the statistics, I mean, something like 70 percent. And here in California, I just want to say to liberals, you could actually lose me. It’s outrageous what we’re paying — over 50 percent. I’m willing to pay my share, but yeah, it’s ridiculous.”
The observation is hardly original, and indeed the statistics that Maher “just saw” are well known to anyone who has been paying the slightest attention to conservative arguments during the past many years of tax debates, but it is a hopeful sign when the likes of Maher are offering it. A formerly funny comedian known for his foul-mouthed blaspheming and smug self-certainty, Maher has evolved over the years from an idiosyncratic iconoclast to a drearily doctrinaire liberal who contributed $1 million to Barack Obama’s soak-the-rich presidential campaign and consistently toed the same redistributionist line that Maddow was predictably peddling.
This probably doesn’t signal that the celebrity class will soon turn to the Republican side, but it is yet another indication that the taxes on the highest income earners — especially in such celebrity-infested states as New York and California — have reached a point that more outspokenly liberal rich folks are finding objectionable. Maher joins fellow unfunny comedians Whoopi Goldberg and Jon Lovitz in stating so, along with professional golf star Phil Mickelson and a few other athletes, and if more celebrities feel emboldened to join them it could have pleasant political ramifications.
The recent hatred for the rich has been peculiarly inconsistent, with business executives, entrepreneurs, professionals, and other productive citizens bearing the worst of it while athletes, entertainers, and people who are celebrities for no particular reason continue to bask in the warmth of the public’s affection. One likely explanation for this inconsistency is the tendency of celebrities to embrace liberal causes and thus display their compassion for the little people, unlike those ruthless capitalists who merely provide socially beneficial products and services and seem to be intent on profiting from it, but another possible reason is that they celebrities are better-looking, provide mindless diversion from mundane day-to-day existence, and have publicists who allow the fans to vicariously live the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Should the celebrities rise up en masse to protest on behalf of their fellow one-percenters, the public’s fervor for class warfare might abate.
Or perhaps not. Even Maher’s adoring audiences might decide that they no longer care for someone so greedy as to expect a full half of his paycheck, and even those celebrities who keep their resentments to themselves might sooner or later decide that all the rich must pay for their success. Robespierre and other well-heeled radicals of the French Revolution stoked the fires of class resentment until they found themselves under the guillotine’s blade, and the French aristocracy was far more entertaining and not nearly so annoying as today’s celebrities. We note that even Barack Obama’s press secretary was recently reduced to snarkily responding to a rare question about the president’s regal lifestyle, insisting that multi-million dollar vacations are only fair compensation for someone who cares so deeply about the poor, and Obama is the celebrity-in-chief.
If the beautiful people do find themselves being rounded up in the coming Reign of Terror, at least the public will be showing an admirable consistency.

— Bud Norman