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Whose Afraid of the Big, Bad Michelle Wolf?

Going into a happily eventful weekend here in Wichita, we were happily unaware of the existence of a woman named Michelle Wolf. By the time we got home from church and a dreary reading by some grad students in the local university’s creative writing program and much-needed beer at Kirby’s Beer Store just across the street, Wolf was even more viral than the President Donald Trump himself, despite his most virulent efforts.
As we now know all too well Wolf is a comedian best known for her short satiric contributions to the Comedy Channel’s “Daily Show,” one of several late-night over-the-air and through-the-cable channels devoted to celebrity guests and Trump-bashing, but what landed her in all the newspapers and endless hours of an otherwise weekend news cycle on the 24-hour news networks was a 19 minute routine Saturday night at the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual fancy-schmantzy and headline grabbing dinner. As one might expect of a late night comic, her humor about Trump was unabashedly harsh, and she was just as harsh about White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and White House counsel Kellyanne Conway, who were seated uncomfortably nearby, and the routine met with mixed reviews and a dramatic spike in Wolf’s name recognition.
Trump’s die-hard fans were predictably appalled at the lack of respect for a sitting President of the United States, even if he was wasn’t sitting nearby, and took chivalrous umbrage at Wolf’s even harsher treatment of the two distaff Trump administration officials who did happen to be seated nearby. Even The New York Times’ excellent White House correspondent and longtime Trump tormenter Maggie Haberman — recently disparaged in a Trump “tweet” as a “third-rate reporter” he “has nothing to do with” — “tweeted” that she thought Wolf’s act went over the line. Other journalism types from both the left and the right shared their usual gripes about journalists getting all dolled up to hob-nob with politicos in the first place. Some Democratic politicos wound up on the cable news worrying that it would only feed Trump’s narrative that those “enemies of the people” in the “fake news” were out to get him.
While Wolf was getting scattered laughter and occasional applause from her elite Washington, D.C., audience, Trump was somewhere in Michigan wowing a revved up rally of his die-hard fans with an hour-and-19-minute insult comedy routine of his own. He tossed around the usual taunting nicknames and did his usual shtick about the weak Democrats, cast his usual aspersions against the more critical media, and got a big roar from the packed blue-collar crowd by telling them how much he preferred basking in their love to sitting next to some smart-mouthed late comedian regaling a bunch of Washington-type journalists and politicos who hated not only him but all his loyal supporters, and late Sunday, when Wolf’s agent was planning her contract re-negotations, the journalists and politicos were largely doing damage control.
Still, Wolf’s diatribe somehow got more column inches and air time than Trump’s, and she did have her defenders. The most convincing, as far as we’re concerned, came from the right. The National Review’s excellent cultural correspondent Katherine Timpf, whose precociously keen insights into the latest academic and pop cultural absurdities and youthfully geeky good looks have made her some something of a viral sensation, reasonably agrees that Wolf overstepped boundaries, but quite rightly argues that the die-hard fans of such a boundary-overstepping President of the United States as Trump are no longer entitled to gripe about any private citizen’s insult comedy shtick.
These viral viruses tend to pass quickly, though, and that Wolf woman will likely fade into obscurity soon enough, and eventually even Trump’s top-rated reality show is going to be cancelled, one way or another. We’re hopeful that freedom of the press will survive all this craziness, despite the press’ occasional overstepping of boundaries, and we hold out a slightly fainter hope for the institution of the presidency.
For what it’s worth, we thought that a couple of Wolf’s jokes were pretty good, most weren’t, and her delivery could have used a few years of vaudeville training. There’s another woman you’ve never heard of named Desi Lydic who also gets a few minutes on the “Daily Show” and is just as harsh on Trump and a whole lot funnier and kind of cute in a geeky way herself, and we’d like to see her or Timpf at a future White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. In any case the whole contretemps will soon blow over, in one direction or another, and we’ll be left with our nation’s degraded political discourse.

— Bud Norman

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Don’t Know Much About History

The most unsurprising news of the day was a report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress that America’s schools are doing a poor job of teaching history and civics. They’ve quantified the problem with some truly appalling numbers on the students who are even considered proficient in these subjects by today’s lax standards, and we thank them for the service, but they’re not telling us anything we haven’t already noticed from our daily encounters with our fellow citizens.
Most Americans rarely talk about the issues of the day, in our experience, but when the talk does stray beyond sports and gossip and other reality shows we are routinely struck by how very impassioned the opinions are, how little information seems to be backing them up, and how quickly even the most adamantly opinionated will retreat from the basic sorts of questions that a well-educated citizen would ask before reaching even tentative conclusions. Here in Kansas you’ll a lot of grousing about the state budget these days, for instance, but we’ve yet to hear any of it from someone who can make a remotely close guess about how much is being spent or where it’s going or how it compares to other states, and they seem strangely proud of their ignorance about the economic arguments advanced by their opponents, or about economics at all. When the conversation occasionally veers into some historical perspective, we are invariably flabbergasted to find how very little people about even the recent past, and how much of what they think they know is provably wrong.
We’d like to attribute this to our unfortunate luck in our conversational encounters, but we find the same lack of information understanding throughout the broader public debate. Journalists report that a massive influx of unskilled labor won’t depress wages for unskilled laborers, as if the law of supply and demand has somehow been repealed, the president can’t reproach Christians for the Crusades, as if they hadn’t been preceded by hundreds of years of steadily enriching Islamic imperialism, academics ascribe to the conventional wisdom that the financial crisis of ’08 was caused by deregulation and the financial industry’s greed, as if regulations hadn’t required banks to make risky loans that an enlightened self-interest would have otherwise declined, and almost everyone seems willing to ascribe the most dastardly motives for anyone who disagrees with those conclusions they’ve reached without any information. It’s a sorry state of discourse in America, which likely has much to do with the sorry state of affairs.
The narcissism of the the age is probably partly responsible, as so many of the people we talk seem to have acquired such healthy self-esteem from their public schooling that they have little use for anything that happened before their blessed arrival or might happen after their tragic departure, but we mostly blame the schools. According to a woman at the National Center for Policy Analysis “the curriculum rarely engages students,” which seems obvious, but she cites a study by the University of Central Florida which found “74 percent of middle school students report that they dislike social studies class due to the emphasis on reading from the textbook, rote-memorization, and note-taking,” which is not so convincing. We wouldn’t expect a bunch of ill-educated and snot-nosed middle school students to understand that reading from textbooks and committing essential facts to memory and taking notes are all unavoidable tasks when acquiring an education, although we had hoped that people working for places with highfalutin names like the National Center for Policy Analysis and the University of Central Florida would know that, but we can hardly blame the youngsters for thinking that what’s in their textbooks and the facts they’re expected to memorize and the notes they taking down from the current generation of civics and history teachers are not worth the effort.
So far as we can glean from the tirades about social justice that we overhear in the local hipster dives and the jokes on the Daily Show and the lines on the president’s teleprompter, what history is being taught in the schools these days is a relentlessly depressing tale of oppression and exploitation and environmental rapine by some nebulous white capitalist Christian patriarchal power structure. We’re all for a warts-and-all telling of America’s and western civilization’s history, but this warts-only approach is conspicuously lacking in the sort of heroism that made us want to read on and remember the main points and take notes, and even an ill-educated and snot-nosed middle school student will intuitively understand that it does little to explain the world of opportunities that they’ll eventually inhabit, and even those inclined to believe in their eternal status as victims of cruel world they never made will note that this version of history offers them no viable solutions. The civics classes similarly dispiriting, and so lacking in the vigorous competition of our society’s great ideas that those who graduate on to college are given “trigger warnings” about the potentially upsetting notions that once fueled the great advances of America and the West and offered “safe spaces” full of stuffed dolls and puppy videos to escape from the trauma of confronting a truly diverse and complex world.
The woman at the National Center for Policy Analysis recommends getting more students involved in competitive debate, and at an earlier age, and that helpful suggestion is admirably backed by the group’s financial support for such programs, but even that once-stubborn redoubt of genuinely rigorous education has lately succumbed to all that race-class-gender nonsense. Our only advice is to get more children into private schools like the one a young friend of ours attends, where they teach hard math, and classical history with the warts as well as the parts about freedom and the rule of law and the accumulation of knowledge, and how to think through a problem by beginning with all the relevant knowable information, and plenty of reading from textbooks and memorizing key facts and taking notes and all the rest of those unavoidable tasks of acquiring an education. They’re telling an engaging story at that school, and our young friend seems to think it’s well worth the effort to learn it, and we can’t see why that sort of thing wouldn’t work at any other school.

— Bud Norman

The Joke’s On the Right

An inordinate amount of attention has already been paid to the announcement of Jon Stewart’s departure from television’s “Daily Show,” and we have nothing to add to all the fawning that’s been going on. The smart fellows over at The Atlantic Monthly have seized the occasion to wonder why no conservatives have achieved such satirical prominence, however, and we can’t resist the opportunity for our own lofty rumination on the sorry state of political humor.
Our answer to The Atlantic’s rhetorical query, which they seem not to have considered, is that the people who have the opinion-making power to elevate a satirist to Stewart’s otherwise inexplicable prominence are disinclined to bring any conservative to such heights. Less convincing is the magazine’s theory that “proportionately fewer people with broadly conservative sensibilities choose to become comedians.” The article contends that an abundance of cable channels should surely offer entry to a worthy conservative comic, as if all those channels weren’t run by the same handful of big media companies and a half-hour on any one of them is worth having without expensive promotion on all the others and plenty of hype from the big print and internet media owned largely by the same companies, and it notes that liberals also predominate in academia, journalism, and other writing professions, as if there was no organized resistance to conservatism in any of those fields, but does not explain why “broadly conservative sensibilities” would be less likely to crack a joke. A comedy career requires “years of irregular income, late hours, and travel, as well as a certain tolerance for crudeness and heckling,” the article offers, but we can’t help noticing the same rigors have not conservatives from notable success almost everywhere else in the entrepreneurial world.
Our own broad experience of humanity and comedy and the indistinguishable difference between the two finds little correlation between political inclination and a sense of humor. We have known some conservatives who closely resembled the popular stereotype of a humorless right-winger, and like the article’s authors we have even known some who failed to realize that Stephen Colbert’s tiresome right-wing schtick was parody, but some of the very funniest people we have known derived their excellent humor from the unflinching postlapsarian realism that is the essence of Judeo-Christian-Hellenic-Burkean conservatism. We have shared many a heart laugh with left-wingers, some of whom make for surprisingly pleasant company, but we have also often encountered the living embodiments of the famous stereotype of “that’s not funny” feminists, those whose racial sensitivities are so refined they can’t laugh at “Blazing Saddles,” and plenty of low-information sorts who won’t recognize any joke unless it involves George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, or the term “tea bagger.”
Despite the ideological prejudices of academia, journalism, late night cable television comedy, and the rest of the writing professions, Evelyn Waugh and Robertson Davies and George Orwell and Kingsley Amis and Tom Wolfe still enjoy literary prominence despite their “broadly conservative sensibilities.” In Wolfe’s case his reputation was cemented before the critics noticed that between the lines of his pop art prose was neoclassical politics, and that his straightforward and factually true reportage was devastatingly arch satire, and in recent years the best of conservative humor that has filtered through the popular culture has been as sly. Those of us who like our humor as dry as the perfect martini find this an endearing trait of the better right-wing wags, and we offer it as proof that the highest humor is not incompatible with “broadly conservative sensibilities,” but we ruefully acknowledge it is it not to the public’s taste. Still, we not convinced by the liberals’ ideologically inconsistent and oh-so-smug argument that the market place has spoken. Stewart’s viewership in most markets is less than the equally vulgar left-wing agitprop on the “Family Guy” re-runs, his much-ballyhooed numbers in the much-coveted youthful demographic suggest the susceptibility of his niche audience, and the rest of his supposed influence seems to be his popularity with the more influential media. We’re left wondering if someone who could read tele-promptered jokes about Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or liberalism in general with the same smirking superficiality would do just as well.
Nor do we concur with The Atlantic Monthly’s pondering that “Political humor, in particular, might have an inherently liberal bias.” The article quotes the author of a book titled “A Conservative Walks Into a Bar,” which we have to admit is a pretty good title, as saying “Conservatism supports institutions and satire aims to knock these institutions down a peg.” As much as we like her book title, the woman is clearly delusional. The federal and state local governments and academia, journalism, late night television comedy and the rest of the writing professions, not to mention the public service unions and K-12 establishment and the group identity political organizations and what’s left of the music business, are by now combined as the most powerful institutions in the country, and conservative humor strives to take them all down more than a peg. The institutions of family, church, and individual liberty that conservatism seeks to conserve have all been knocked out of view by the past 100 years of institutionally-approved ridicule, yet a “Daily Show”-sized audience seems not to have noticed that the cutting-edge satire has become mere chest-thumping triumphalism. The audience is invited to share in the victory and membership in hipped crowd, and when accompanied by a knowing smirk that always gets a laugh.

They won’t come right out and say so, but the smart fellows at The Atlantic Monthly seem to believe that a conservative comedian is handicapped by the fact that there’s just nothing very funny about liberalism. They suggest that President Barack Obama, for instance, “is a more difficult target than his Republican predecessor: He was the first African-American president, which meant comedians had to tip-toe around anything with racial connotations, and his restrained personality has made him difficult to parody.” Had the authors known any humorists of “broadly conservative sensibilities,” they would have noticed that it’s impossible not to step into the carnival of white guilt that has sustained the president’s career, and that his “restrained personality” is prone to speaking with his chin aloft in front of styrofoam Greek columns and issuing alternately lofty and harshly partisan pronouncements on the way to the golf course. For those satirists so daringly iconoclastic as to proceed without tip-toeing around anything with racial connotations, the man is a gold mine rather than mine field. Don’t get us started on Hillary Clinton, as we’ve got material for two shows. We’ve got even more on the rest of the Democratic party’s presidential field, but none have the name recognition that would ensure audience understanding. If the cable channels aren’t interested, we suspect there’s something more than afoot than market forces.
We wish Jon Stewart well in his inevitable next endeavor, and are confident there will always be an audience for his knowing smirks, but we can’t help hoping that something a little more anti-establishment might come along in his wake.

— Bud Norman

How to Fix Obamacare

This Obamacare business doesn’t seem to be going well, at least thus far. Things have gotten so bad that the politicians and bureaucrats who cooked it up have lately been forced to concede a few glitches in the system, even as they struggle mightily to assure the public that it will all turn out well in the end, and it makes for a pitiful sight. We feel so badly for these well-intentioned public servants that we feel obliged to offer advice on how to fix what is ailing their beloved law.
The most publicized problem that has afflicted the law in its early stages of implementation concerns the computer program that is supposed to allow a grateful citizenry to sign up for government-sanctioned health insurance. Alas, the program has proved so vexing that only a relative handful of would-be users have been able to complete a transaction. Such an ardent defender of the program as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was forced to admit that the web site “started a little rockier than we’d like” while on The Daily Show, an ostensible comedy program where the formerly friendly host spent the rest of the segment ridiculing her as if she were some sort of Republican, and it broke our hearts to see a fellow Kansan treated so shabbily by a baggy-pants comic. Sebelius is a Democrat, and therefore not fully Kansan, but we still feel enough of a kinship to suggest that she award the Obamacare web site contract to whoever it is that created the “Farmville” game for the Facebook folks.
So far as we can tell “Farmville” is an utterly pointless game that never allows anyone to win anything, and seems to involve endless begging of friends for unearned assistance, but people seem to like it and it apparently works according to design. The peculiar sort of genius that devised such a game seems especially well-suited to the challenges of Obamacare, and might even provide some enticement to the youthful and unemployed Obama supporters whose generous donations to the cause will be required to make the scheme work.
Another problem with Obamacare, and one that even the mainstream media have been noticing, is that those lucky few who have managed to slog through the web site’s obstacles are finding that they insurance on offer is far more expensive than they had been led to expect. The president has frequently boasted that as a result of Obamacare the monthly cost of health insurance will be less than a cell phone bill, but even the most talkative and text-happy cell phone users are finding that the insurance policies on offer are far more expensive than their telecommunications. This is one Obamacare promise that can be easily kept, however, simply by increasing people’s cell phone bills by several hundred dollars a month. That can be quickly achieved by a mere few thousand pages or so new of regulations, an afternoon’s work for the best and brightest of the Obama administration, but we would recommend increasing the cell phone taxes by several hundred times. Doing so would not only spare the overworked regulation-writers an afternoon’s labor, it would also raise some revenues that could be used to pay Democrat-affiliated interests to embark a campaign to convince everyone how happy they should be about the new policy. The drastic reduction in cell phone use that would follow might have disastrous economic consequences, but on the other hand it might revive the lost art of conversation.
A few nit-pickers in the business press and other corners of the conservative media have been griping that Obamacare’s mandate that employers provide insurance to full-time employees has resulted in an economy that is only creating part-time jobs, a point the administration has tacitly conceded by waiving the mandate until after the mid-term elections, but this pesky problem can also be easily remedied. Just impose similar economic disincentives on part-time jobs, or any other sort of private sector economic activity, which is so gauche anyway, and employers won’t have any choice but to submit or stop offering work altogether. Either option would suit the purposes of the administration, which is always pleased to be offered submission and just as eager to sign up voters at the unemployment line.
There are other problems with Obamacare, of course, but we are not yet so sympathetic to our Democratic friends that we are willing to solve them all. They’ll just have to figure those things out own their own, otherwise they’ll never grow.

— Bud Norman