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The Country Mouse and the City Mouse in the Age of Bumpkin Trump

Monday was one of those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer that Nat “King” Cole used to sing about, at least as far as the news cycle was concerned. An American jet shot down a Syrian jet over the weekend, and one of the president’s lawyers spent the weekend insisting the president wasn’t under investigation despite the clear implications of the president’s latest “tweet,” and there was yet another terror attack in London and some questionable verdicts in some high profile domestic legal cases, but these days that’s a fairly calm news cycle.
The Washington Post has lately been on roll unlike anything they’ve had since the good old Watergate days, but over the weekend they found room on the front page for one of those perfect-for-a-slow-news-day think pieces, this one about the growing cultural and political divisions between the rural and urban portions of America. We’re the jaded yet still curious types who relish those slow news days and their big newspaper think pieces, and in this case we were especially interested in the subject. Having lived here in the very heart of the heartland most of our lives on the relative edges of both rural and America, and with a well considered fondness for both, we consider ourselves rather expert on the matter, so we were eager to see what those young whippersnappers from Back East and their fancy-dan establishment newspaper would make of it.
Alas, we really couldn’t argue with their main thesis that there is a growing cultural and political division between rural and urban America. If we were right wing radio hosts wanting to ridicule the article, we’d feel entitled to say “well, duh.” They cite all the polling data that indisputably prove the rural and urban political divide, and have no trouble coming up with colorful quotes from the rural natives that clearly illustrate the cultural differences to their urban readership. To be fair about it, we also think they made every effort to be fair about it and did a pretty good job.
Still, we don’t think those young whippersnappers from Back East and their fancy-dan establishment paper know the half of it. We’re sitting here in the very heart of the biggest urban area in our very rural state in the middle of that big rural area in the middle of the country, and at this lovely time of year we’re a short drive from those amber waves of grain that you really ought to see at least once in your life, along with some delightful small town conversation and conviviality, and as we traverse the boundaries the difference between the two regions is almost painfully palpable. There’s a certain suspicious reaction you’ll notice when you tell someone in the rural rest of the state that you’re from Wichita, and we notice that our friends in the city also make certain assumptions about the country folks who have come to town for their shopping or financial affairs or the big-name country music concerts at the fancy new downtown arena.
Wichita is only the fiftieth or so most populous urban metropolitan area in the country, but by now it stretches into three counties from Valley Center down to Mulvane and west of Goddard to east of Andover, and by regional standards it’s the big bad city. The per capita crime rate is lower than most of those other 50 most populous cities, and even lower than in some of the still old west small towns around the state, but with some 500,000 folks around here a certain percentage of them are going to be raping and robbing and murdering, and the worst of it always goes out on the top the evening news to all those small towns. Although the volume-priced shopping is cheaper than at the dying main street businesses in their home towns the financial deals struck here by those small town folk don’t always turn out, the parking for those downtown arena shows is atrocious and often involves encounters with homeless panhandlers, and if they were in town the past weekend they might have encountered some unexpected goings-on at the big Gay Pride Festival, so we can well understand their trepidation about urban America and the rest of modernity.
Wichita is one of the very most conservative of those 50 most populous metropolitan areas, with so much of the educated population being engineers and entrepreneurs and agricultural financiers and other practical people, and the rest of the population largely drawn from those dying small towns, but even here there’s a certain cosmopolitan sensibility in effect. There’s a big state university with a very promising basketball season coming up, a better collection than you’d expect at the local art museum and a surprisingly good symphony and local music theater troupe, along with the nice botanical garden and nationally-recognized local zoo and all the local parks and a film festival that gets some occasionally good entries from around the world, and it’s hard to not get snobby about it.
The basketball team and the art museum and the symphony and local music theater and botanical garden and zoo and pretty much all the rest of the local high culture around here enjoys the generous contributions of Koch Industries, which did its business just down a country street from us in our elementary school days and is now the James Bond villain of every left-wing conspiracy theory, but it still has a certain liberalizing effect. We sense a certain apprehension of foreigners among our small town friends, and although we share their preference for secured borders we buy our beer from Laotians and our donuts from Mexicans and sundries from guys from India, so we’re not as enthusiastic about a border wall or mass deportations. They tend to have a personal conviction against baking cakes or otherwise celebrating same-sex marriages, which we well understand and would not prohibit, but here in Wichita you’ll probably wind up making enough gay friends that you don’t make a fuss about it. In a variety of ways, Wichita winds up more conservative than most of those other top-50 metropolitan areas but more liberal than the parts of the state where the fields take up most of the room.
Those young whippersnappers from The Washington Post eventually wound up with another inevitable think piece about why rural America is so much more supportive of President Donald Trump and than is urban America, and we have to admit that is a poser. Trump grew up in the Queens borough of New York City as the dauphin of a ruthless real estate mogul, made and lost several fortunes in casinos and other financial dealings, married three times and never learned a Bible verse, and until his recent weekend at Camp David had never encountered bare wood. His protectionist trade talk never played in either the rural and urban parts of our portion of the prairie, where the big money is in exports and he finished a distant third in the Republican caucuses, and the insult comic schtick also grated on Kansas sensibilities. Replace Eddie Arnold and Eva Gabor with Donald and Melania Trump in “Green Acres,” and that classic sit-com would be funnier yet.
Trump is getting a lot of support out there where the traffic dwindles down to a gorgeous and almost empty country road, though, and we think we know why. The president clearly resents those smart-alecky young whippersnappers Back East as much as any of those small town folk, and he states it more recklessly than any of them would dare while in town, and at least he’s not that darned Hillary Clinton woman or any of those other Democrats who sneered at them for their gun-and-God-clinging ways and preference for a country that’s not overrun by crazy jihadists, and there’s something to be said for that,
There’s also something to be said against Trump’s reckless rhetoric and frequent incompetence and often consequential lack of cosmopolitan couth, while that whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia merits all the ongoing investigations, and all those political appointments are going unfilled and all the bills aren’t getting passed, and even here among those amber waves of grain of we can see the point. The arguments will be shouted across a widening divide, though, and we doubt if either side will hear the other.
The next election will probably be settled once again in the suburbs, though, and there’s no telling how that will play out. Some of the suburbs around here are pretty swank, others are former small towns swallowed up by the urban sprawl and lately getting all their crummy convenience stores robbed by methamphetamine and opioid addicts, and Trump’s popularity predictably but somewhat inexplicably varies from one precinct to another. We imagine the electoral map is just as complicated in all those coal-mining and software-writing jurisdictions spread out around this great and varied land of ours, and we hope that some productive conversation among us is still possible.

— Bud Norman

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The Super Bowl and the Changing of the Seasons

Football season finally came to an unexpectedly dramatic end on Sunday, so we’re now only a few long weeks away from pitchers and and catchers reporting to baseball training and other harbingers of spring, and on Saturday the Wichita State University Wheatshockers played their best basketball of the season against their only serious rival in the Missouri Valley Conference and looked as if they’ll keep us watching well into March Madness. Our nearly as beloved Kansas State Wildcats won a road game against the second-or-third ranked Baylor Bears, the hated but secon-or-third ranked University of Kansas Jayhawks lost to Iowa State University, and for the most part sports provided us a pleasant distraction from politics here on the Kansas plains.
Although the game turned out to be a compelling come-from-behind and history-making victory by The New England Patriots over a worthy Atlanta Falcons squad, we don’t expect that Super Bowl LI set any ratings records. The past season has seen declining viewership across all the networks that have paid dearly for the broadcast rights, attendance and arrests for drunk and disorderly behavior at the stadia have been down almost league-wide, and even on Super Bowl Sunday none of our friends at church nor the more more unchurched friends we called in search of a Super Bowl party evinced much interest in the game. Some say that the second-string quarterback on a second-rate San Francisco Forty-Niners squad’s refusal to stand for the national anthem had something to do with, other say that the league’s characteristically politically correct stand on that had ore to do with it, several callers to sports talk radio programs we’ve heard it blame it on all the interminable video reviews and annoying advertisements that prolong less than hour of actual play through more than three hours, writers in sophisticated magazines and lawyers in pending legal cases note all all the worrisome injuries to the brain and other important body parts that players seem to suffer every year, and we suspect that all of it had something to do with the public’s ennui.
Nor did the matchup offer much in the way of a proper storyline. The New England Patriots were favored from the outset due to the record-matching number of Super Bowl victories they had won since coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady first teamed up a million years or so ago, and by now most of the football-watching country was tired of that storyline. Belichick is an annoyingly snarling fellow who seizes every advantage no matter how it might skirt against the rules of the game, Brady is an annoyingly handsome fellow married to an annoying gorgeous underwear model, both had run afoul of the football establishment during the much over-inflated “inflate-gate” controversy, and it was all to political for a football to endure. Despite being in New England Brady is also an admitted friend of President Donald Trump, and has even been photographed wearing one of those red “Make America Great Again” ball caps, so we assume that the portion of the American sports-watching public that worries about all those worrisome injuries to the brain and other important body parts were also rooting against the Patriots. That meant they were de facto rooting for the Atlanta Falcons, and we can’t imagine that did the ratings any goods.
By half-time the Falcons were up to a seemingly insurmountable lead, and then came Lady Gaga for the big half-time show, and we expect that the intriguing combination nudged the Nielsen numbers a percentage point or two. So far as we can tell Lady Gaga is a popular song-and-dance entertainer, and according to numerous YouTube videos she’s also a shape-shifting reptilian alien who is part of the Illuminati that surreptitiously controls The New World Order, and we have to admit that she put on quite a show-biz performance, even by our MGM standards. There was some anticipation that she would make sort of anti-Trump political statement, but she opened with a surprisingly rousing rendition of “God Bless America,” warming our old-fashioned hearts with some Irving Berlin, then segued into “This Land Is Your Land,” which we recognized as a composition of Woody Guthrie, who was pretty much a Commie but also a through-and-through Okie as well, and we doubt that either Lady Gaga or any of her fans were were aware of the very subtle implications of this beloved American folk classic. The rest of it was a high-kicking extravaganza the likes of which you’d have to pay good money to see at a Las Vegas casino, and Mr. and Mrs. Gaga’s daughter Lady is indeed as leggy and musical a lass as you’d be likely to see there, and all in all we found it pleasantly apolitical.
The other big attraction of these annual Super Bowl spectacles is the advertisements, and for the most part they were dreary but at least apolitical. The same Budweiser beer-brewing company that usually provides uplifting scenes of Clydesdale horses hauling their product through nostalgic small town streets through driving snow storms had an already-viral spot of its German immigrant founder encountering anti-immigrant prejudice on his way to founding an iconic American brand, which is now majority owned by Brazilian investors, and there was no mistaking a slightly political slant to that. Some other company selling computer services or some such modern annoyance had an ad that was all about diversity, judging from all the diverse faces that kept matching together in modern Madison Avenue style, but we had the sound turned down at that point.
We also missed most of the Patriots’ remarkable and record-setting and argument-for-greatest-ever comeback, right up to the time when we tuned into watch Brady and the rest of the cast tie it up and then play out 20 or seconds of defense to bring it into overtime. At that point we figured that Belichick’s and Brady’s experience and all those million years or so of Patriot dominance would win out, if our 50 years or so watching grown men play this silly game told us anything, and sure enough that’s how it turned out. We expect that most of the country was disappointed by the outcome, no matter how it might be spread out around the Electoral College, and like most of us we weren’t at all enthusiastic about either team to begin with, and even such a compelling game seems to be losing some appeal, but at least it provided some distraction from the state of the world.

— Bud Norman

On Race, Gender, Class, the Olympics, and Of Course Presidential Politics

The 2016 Olympics won’t wrap up until some sort of bizarre post-modern samba-dancing and gender-bending closing ceremony on Sunday evening, but already the American team is assured of heading home with by far the biggest haul of gold, silver, and bronze medals. America’s athletic dominance of the international games has provided a pleasant distraction from the dispiriting domestic presidential election, but of course these days it’s impossible to keep the two events entirely apart.
Over at the reliably liberal Politico.com site a longtime Democratic operative is smugly noting that Republican nominee Donald J. Trump hasn’t yet spoken or “tweeted” a single congratulatory remark about the American champions, reasonably inferring that it’s because their success seems to contradict his campaign theme that “Crippled America” just “doesn’t have victories anymore” and he alone can “Make America Great Again.” The author also rightly notes that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has been a far more full-throated rooter for the American squad, and has happily seized on the politically convenient fact that the medal-winners are an exquisitely diverse group according to the racial and sexual and economic class categories that are a Democratic obsession.
A proportional share of those gold and silver and bronze medals have been won by American women, a gorgeous lot of athletes who recall the great Walt Whitman’s poetic notion of an American womanhood as “tann’d in the face by shining suns and blowing winds, their flesh has the old divine suppleness and grace, they know how to swim, row, ride, wrestle, shoot, run, strike, retreat, advance, defend themselves,” but we wonder how many of these women who are “ultimate in their own right — they are calm, clear, well-possessed of themselves” are going to vote for Clinton’s campaign themes that women are victims of American society and she alone can make them great. One of our favorite Olympians of this leap year has been Kim Rhode, who picked up her fifth Gold medal in as many Olympic games for skeet shooting, a sport we have tried and found we have absolutely no talent for, like us she’s a Second Amendment absolutist with no intention of voting for Clinton, and even that Democratic operative at Politico.com concedes that America’s Olympic champions are “presumably as politically diverse as they are culturally.”
Economic class plays its usual role in these Olympics, too, but we don’t expect that any Democratic nominee would want to delve too deeply into that. We’re pleased to note that Great Britain is once again a world-class sporting power, and is currently going nose-to-nose with Communist China for a distant second-place in the medal count, but across the pond there’s usual grousing that too many of those medals are being won by equestrians and rowers and fencers and other sorts of upper-crusty athletes, even if they can’t explain why their more yobbo athletes can’t compete with America’s ghetto stars in the more proletarian events. A lot of America’s medals were won by the sons and daughters of upper-middle class suburbanites who woke up early to get their kids to a swim club or volleyball practice before a long day of school that yielded high grades and SAT scores, and there’s no telling how they’ll vote, and even the sons and daughters of the working class parents who did the same are probably politically diverse.
Over at the reliably Republican National Review, which is so reliably Republican that it’s still NeverTrump, they’re smugly noting that America’s overwhelming Olympic success has come despite the lack of a Ministry of Sports or any other top-down bureaucratic central planning. They argue that America has won “bigly” at these Olympics because individuals of all races and sexes and classes were free to pursue the natural talents they alone knew they possessed, and that such independent and competitive institutions as the members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association were there to provide some much-needed assistance. This strikes us as a more compelling argument, and we can only wish that the Republican nominee wasn’t so cocksure that only he can make America win again that he can’t be shouting “USA, USA” during the closing ceremonies.

— Bud Norman

What Do You Want? A Medal?

The world no longer offers any honors worth aspiring to. Nobel Peace Prize winners were once a big deal, but by now that club includes a Communist apparatchik such as Le Duc Tho and a mass-murdering thug such as Yasir Arafat, as well as such mediocrities as Mohamad Al-Baradei, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama, so it isn’t worth the effort it would take to join. Pulitzer Prizes have been similarly devalued, and are now offered in lieu of readers to the writers who most closely hew to the conventional wisdom. People still watch the Academy Awards to see pretty people wearing pretty clothes, but Al Gore has one of those, too, and at this point nobody believes that the ceremony is honoring the best motion pictures have to offer. The most valuable player awards in the major sports leagues still indicate some sort of excellence, but these days there’s no telling how much of it was pharmaceutically induced. Even the highest degrees from the most prestigious colleges no longer offer any assurance that the holder has any smarts at all, and it’s hard to think of any titles, prizes, certifications, or awards that do.
Still, we look forward to each year’s announcement of the Presidential Medal of Freedom honorees with a stubborn hope of finding someone among the honorees who is truly honorable. The annual news stories always describe the medal as “the nation’s highest civilian award,” even if has been diminished by the presidents from which it derives its name, and the distinction does seem to reflect a consensus of societal opinion about who is to be regarded as an exceptional citizen of the country. This year 16 people were chosen for the honor, the number having increased in every recent year according to the same grade inflation that has proliferated the number of Little League and academic achievement awards to point that every second-graders bedroom is overflowing with the things, and the law of averages dictates that there must be someone worthy among so many selections.
This year’s class is a diverse lot, in keeping with the contemporary fetish for diversity, and includes a wide range of occupations as well as the usual racial and sexual quotas. On the whole they are an impressive lot, but the list offers yet another reflection of societal decline.
Former president Bill Clinton is included despite his well-known family feud with the current president, and after George H.W. Bush was honored last year despite being a Republican and a Bush, it seems that all former presidents will eventually be given the honor. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the office’s essential contribution to American life, or just a way of ensuring that Obama will get his medal no matter who succeeds him, but in either case it seems a perfunctory selection. We can think of worse presidents than Clinton, including one who will soon be draping a medal over his neck, but we’d note that when most people recall his contributions to the cause of freedom they immediately think of fellatio jokes.
Oprah Winfrey is the next most familiar name on the list. Most of our afternoons have been spent either working or sleeping, so we have no knowledge of the television talk show that made Winfrey famous and cannot testify to her putatively inspirational qualities, but what we do know of this woman is less than heroic. She’s still infamous here in cattle country for her panicked response to the brief Mad Cow Disease outbreak, and we understand that she’s taken a dangerously unscientific stand on the immunization of children, and her most recent headlines have concerned his bizarre analogy between the murder of Emmett Till and the self-defense shooting of Trayvon Martin, so she hardy strikes us as someone worth honoring with the nation’s highest civilian award. We’ve spent enough time in grocery store check-out lines to have gleamed from the tabloid headlines that Winfrey has battled a weight problem, but if that qualifies someone for a Presidential Medal of Freedom the country will soon be bankrupted from coining the damned things.
Former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee was another familiar name, at least for those old enough to remember his role in uncovering the Watergate scandal, which was surely the reason for his inclusion. Sen. Daniel Inouye will receiving the award posthumously, in part because of his heroic service to the country during World War II and in part because of his longstanding service to the Democratic party thereafter. Former Sen. Richard Lugar was also honored, in part because a Republican was required to keep the whole affair from seeming a partisan event but mostly as compensation for having been ousted from office by a more robustly Republican primary challenger. Feminist gadfly Gloria Steinem will also receive a medal, so the ideological requirements for the award should be clear.
There were a few names we were pleased to see. Baseball star Ernie Banks, who was a fine player on some terrible Chicago Cubs teams and still retained enough enthusiasm for the game to say “Let’s play two,” made the cut. So did Loretta Lynn, an outstanding country music singer who deserves the nation’s undying gratitude if only for her rendition of “One’s on the Way,” a Shel Silverstein-penned bit of wry domestic drama and social commentary set in Topeka, Kansas, which we dearly love. Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, astronaut Sally Ride, and jazzman Arturo Sandoval are also admirable people who made significant contributions to the country. After too many years working in a newsroom jammed with arrogant University of North Carolina and University of Kansas alumni we have mixed feelings about the selection of Dean Smith, who coached the former university’s basketball team to national championships and was a star player for the latter school, but he seems to enjoy a stellar reputation in both states and is also an understandable selection.
We cannot comment on the selections of psychologist Daniel Kahneman, chemist and environmental scientist Mario Malina, civil rights activist Cordy Tendell Vivian, or jurist Patricia Wald, as we have never heard of any them, but there is a nagging suspicion that each were chosen in accordance with the same political biases as the rest. Even such worthy recipients as Banks and Lynn no doubt benefited from racial and sexual quotas, Ride is famous as much for being a woman as being an astronaut, as a homosexual African-American Rustin might feel entitled to two medals, Sandoval was chosen before more important trumpeters because he is an Hispanic player in an African-American idiom, and Smith is a flatteringly representative token of middle-American white men.
America could do worse, we suppose, but would be nice to think that we could better.

— Bud Norman

Obama’s Diversity Problem

Regular readers of this publication are no doubt aware that we are not admirers of the Obama administration, but we now find ourselves in the unaccustomed position of defending it against charges of racism and sexism.
The president has lately been forming a brand new “inner circle” of cabinet members and advisors, the old one apparently having decided to get out while the getting is good and cash in on the memoir-and-lecture racket, and there seems to be some controversy afoot regarding how very white and male the newcomers are. The New York Times weighed in with a story about it, complete photographic evidence of the new staff’s offending racial and sexual characteristics, and White House press secretary Jay Carney was compelled to defend the administration’s hiring policies during a recent press briefing.
“The president does believe that diversity is very important,” said Carney, who is himself a white male, “and he also believes that picking the absolute right person for each job is very important.”
Such sentiments should be celebrated, and we wish that more voters had taken a similarly meritocratic approach to choosing a president in the last election, so we shall not take issue with the race and sex of the president’s appointees. Some of our best friends are both white and male, and we have no doubt that such people could make capable public servants. Carney was speaking specifically of Senators John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, who have been tapped for the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense posts, which does not exactly bolster our point, but we’d like to believe their obvious unfitness for those offices has nothing to do with their being white guys.
Still, the Obama critics should feel free to revel in the delicious irony of the president’s apparent preference for white males. He won re-election by warning the distaff voters of the Republicans’ “war on women” and telling African-American voters that “They’re gonna put y’all back in chains,” while his supporters explicitly cited the president’s swarthiness as one of the main reasons to vote for him, so it’s somewhat gratifying to see the president coming under the fire for making choices that aren’t based on race and sex.
If only the president’s appreciation for diversity extended to a variety of ideas and experiences, and the white guys he was choosing weren’t all left-wingers from the public sector, we’d almost be hopeful about the second term.

— Bud Norman