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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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All the News That Fits in a Day

Tonight is opening night for our annual amateur theatrical turn in the Gridiron Show, a satirical song-and-sketch revue that the local media types put on to raise money for the lost cause of journalism scholarships. That means last night was an exhausting dress rehearsal, followed by a cast gathering at Harry’s Uptown Bar & Grill, so it’s been hard to keep our usual keen eye on the news.
While working with our news-mongering friends, though, it’s been hard not to notice some worrisome stories about the news business. Foremost at the moment is the Sinclair Broadcasting Company’s attempt to add another 42 local television broadcasters to the 189 it already owns in 89 markets by taking over the Tribune Company’s television markets, which would give Sinclair access to 72 percent of the nation’s households and make it the largest local television operator in the country.
We’re usually not inclined to worry much about media monopolization, as the internet and the proliferation of cable channels and other market innovations a offer wider and more diverse range sources of news than ever, but this is troubling. Sinclair recently made news by forcing all of its news anchors to read from the same script criticizing other media for their biased “fake news,” a criticism frequently made by President Donald Trump, its outlets have a well-earned reputation for bias toward Trump, and there’s worry that it might be meant to curry favor with the Trump appointees on the Federal Communications Commission that has to give approval to Sinclair’s buy-out of Tribune’s local TV holdings.
Sinclair is certainly entitled to its pro-Trump point of view, and there are historically valid reasons why the federal government has the power to regulate over-the-public-airwaves broadcasts, but there’s something smelly about this.
The FCC gets to regulate the rather narrow range of over-the-public-airwaves radio and television broadcast frequencies because the radio stations used to amp up their broadcasts to the point they overwhelmed their competitors, and in the early days of television there were only four players, but even then there was a First Amendment and a broadly recognized understanding that the federal government did not have the right to regulate the content of whatever news any old news disseminator might disseminate. Networks rose and fell, newspapers rose and fell and merged, new news media emerged through some market innovation or another, but somehow the First Amendment always survived.
This time around, though, despite our preoccupations, we can’t help noticing Trump’s thumb on the scale. The president has lately “tweeted” Sinclair is far better than the “fake news” Cable News Network or the even more “fake news” National Broadcasting Corporation, along with his ongoing criticism of any print or radio or televised or internet critics as “fake news.”
At the same time, he’s been especially harsh in his criticisms of the Cable News Network, and “tweeted” misspelled insults against its chief executive officer, who used to head the news department at NBC, where Trump had once had a hit reality show and there expected better coverage. The gigantic media conglomerate that owns CNN is in the process of being sold to an even more gigantic entertainment-and-news media conglomerate, that also requires the approval of several federal regulatory agencies, including the Trump appointees, and that seems to be dragging out more than usual.
The big-media conglomerate that owns CNN is just as constitutionally entitled to it’s to anti-Trump views, as far as we’re concerned, and we don’t see any reason the government should be any more averse to its acquisition by by an even bigger media conglomerate than it should about Sinclair’s acquisition o the once-formidable Tribune company’s holdings. Let Sinclair buy up those local television stations, too, and in any case let the buyer beware.
In the long run we’ll let  the buyers beware, and after the past few weeks of rehearsal with our fellow local media types we’re heartened that they’ll also do their best.

— Bud Norman

A Question of Temperament

The Los Angeles Times newspaper and Vanity Fair magazine have both published recent stories that raise credible doubt on President Donald Trump’s temperamental fitness for his job, and the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee has publicly raised the same concerns and insisted that most of his colleagues share them. Even with the stock market up and the unemployment rate down, all the opinion polls show that a majority of the public is also worried that there’s something not quite right about the president.
Of course Trump has counter-punched with “tweets” and defiant statements, as is his wont, but not in a way that will reassure any of those worriers. He’s griped to a pool of reporters that “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press can write anything it wants,” sent “tweets” threatening to revoke a national broadcasting network’s right to air stories he dislikes, and come up with a mocking nickname for that impudent Republican Senator who dare call him childish. He also “tweeted” complaints about Puerto Rico, where the death toll from a recent hurricane now stands at 45 and is climbing due to all the people who still don’t have clean water to drink, and that his generosity to the island’s American citizens won’t last forever. The hard-core fans will surely love it, as they hate the media and longstanding Republican office holders and those ungrateful Puerto Ricans as much as Trump does, but we expect the rest of the country and the rest of the world will see it differently.
Although we’ve long been critics of the media in general and the National Broadcasting Company in particular, all of those “fake news” stories Trump is railing against sound all too believable to us, and regardless of what errors they might contain we we don’t think that the First Amendment right of the press to write whatever they want is frankly disgusting. Until recently we unaware of the existence of Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, but what we’ve learned since his feud with Trump started suggests he’s mostly our kind of Republican, and Trump calling him “Liddle” Bob Corker doesn’t undercut the Senator’s claim that the White House has lately become an “adult day center.” Trump has also lately been feuding with his Secretary of State, challenging him to an Intelligence Quotient test if the “fake news” that he had called him a “moron” was true, and later told told reporters he “doesn’t like to undercut people,” but unless you’re a die-hard fan that’s not likely reassuring.
Puerto Ricans have made plenty of mistakes that have compounded their recent misfortune, but the federal government has also imposed plenty of mistakes on them as well over the years, and the complicated arrangement with the island and the 50 states obliges us help its still endangered Spanish speaking but fully-American citizens.
Even with the stock market up and the unemployment rate down we expect the national and international worries about Trump’s temperament will continue. There are also worries about the nuclear brinkmanship with North Korea, how all those ongoing feuds with Republicans and Democrats alike will lead to any useful legislation, as well as those nagging investigations into whole “Russia” thing, and it would challenge even the most presidential of temperaments, which really is worrisome unless you’re a die-hard supporter.

— Bud Norman

Nat Hentoff, RIP

The first notable death of the year is that of journalist and author and critic Nat Hentoff, who died Saturday at the age of 91, and although that’s a ripe old age we wish he could have stuck around a bit longer. For the most of his seven-decades-long career and even right up to the end he was one of those durned back east big city liberals we’re always railing against, but he was one of the rare principled sorts who really did believe in life and liberty and individualism and everything else that liberalism claims to champion, so such principled conservatives as ourselves will need such stubbornly independent allies in the coming years.
Hentoff was born to Russian and Jewish immigrant parents in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, which way back then was a hotbed of both orthodox Judaism and radical politics, and by the age of 12 he was spending Yom Kippur conspicuously eating a salami sandwich on his tenement’s porch steps to signal his affiliation with the latter influence. A star student at America’s oldest public high school, Hentoff went off to Northeastern University, where he ran in to trouble as the student newspaper’s editor by publishing accounts of anti-Semitism at the the school, but still graduated with honors and started a career in journalism.
The jazz-crazed Hentoff’s first gig was as a music columnist with Downbeat, at that time the very Bible of jazz criticism, but despite an avid readership he was forced out after a few years because of his outspoken insistence the magazine hire more black writers. He then started a short-lived but briefly influential jazz journal of his own, and would later write several important books about the subject, and although he liked all that noisome be-bop and modernism more than we did his writings celebrated the glorious freedom of both the old and new jazz with a passion that’s still worth reading.
After that Hentoff wound up at the Village Voice, which was then as now the very Bible of radical chic liberalism, and at that point he was so eager to get out of the contentious field of jazz criticism that he started covering politics. He mostly concerned himself with any governmental attempts to restrict freedom of expression or pretty much any other freedom, and way back in the ’50s and into the ’60s he could find plenty of material about censorious right-winters and foul-mouth comedians and gay bars and Watergate to satisfy his avid liberal readership. He was still at it when we first started reading him in our junior high’s library in the ’70s, and although we picked up the Village Voice mostly because it gave our teenaged punk sensibilities a certain satisfaction to refute its radical chic liberalism we usually had to admit that the Hentoff guy had a point. Something in our own much-later prairie protestant upbringing in a hot bed of conservative orthodoxy had imbued a similar philosophy of First Amendment absolutism, and we vowed not to abandon that even for the sake of our side.
By the time we started our own journalism career in the early ’80s the liberals had been in charge for a while, at least in part because of Hentoff’s compelling arguments, and we already were noticing that they were suddenly the censorious and bossy ones. Conservative speakers were being literally shouted down at campus appearances and orthodox religious viewpoints were being excluded from public discussion, and all sorts of folks were suddenly confronted with new rules and regulations they never voted on. Hentoff couldn’t help noticing, either, and we have to admire that he wouldn’t abandon his First Amendment absolutism even for the sake of his side. He wrote column after column excoriating the rescinded commencement address invitations to conservative speakers, the silliness of a campus culture that insisted on ideological purity, the charges of racism leveled against any who dared speak out against the ostensible consensus on race, or the charges of homophobia against anyone who hewed to traditional religion, or any of the familiar rest of it. Of course it didn’t play well with his erstwhile avid readership on the left, and neither did it gain him much from respect from his erstwhile enemies on the right, but that’s all the more reason we’re going to miss the guy.
In his final years Hentoff was still as outspokenly atheistic as ever, but he was every bit as anti-abortion as any Orthodox rabbi, making a case for life from the very moment of conception to the end that was probably all the more convincing to many readers because it was grounded in the scientific and secular principles he’d always championed, and he even wound up writing admiringly of the radically anti-government Republican Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul during that past crazy election year. Although we’re not so crazy about Paul ourselves neither are we crazy about the Republican president-elect with the censorious streak and the crazy idea that his government can make America great again, and although Hentoff was still a back east big city atheist liberal to the end we think we could have used his help in a time when principled conservatives few few and far between. In any case we wish Hentoff well, and hope that the God he never believed in will nonetheless welcome his soul to the perfect freedom he always wanted for the rest of us.

— Bud Norman

A Not-So-Burning Issue

President-elect Donald Trump is surely quite busy these days, what with all those cabinet positions to fill and all those businesses around the world he’s still running, but he still finds time to “tweet.” On Tuesday he took to Twitter to express his opinion that “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag — if they do, there must be consequences — perhaps loss of citizenship or a year in jail.”
Which strikes us as a pretty peculiar thing for a president-elect to write. In addition to the poor punctuation, and the strange notion that a loss of citizenship or a year in jail are roughly equivalent, it seems apropos of nothing in particular, woefully ignorant of the law, and a damned waste of time.
Some idiot or another is always burning an American flag somewhere, for some fool reason or another, but even in the aftermath of Trump’s election the problem doesn’t seem have reached a point that it’s likely to cause any flag shortages or other pressing problems. We quite agree that burning the American flag is one of those things that people ought not to do, but there are so many of those things it would be quite impractical to ban them all. The Supreme Court long ago ruled that burning the American flag is just one of those obnoxious things that the public will have to put up with to ensure the freedom of speech that makes the flag worth respecting, so Trump is going to need to get three fourths of states to ratify the first but probably not last constitutional amendment to restrict the First Amendment, and he’ll need go through all that rigmarole again if he wants to start stripping citizenship away from Americans, which seems more trouble than it would be worth just to jail a few easily-ignored jackasses.
It hardly seems worth “tweeting” about, given all the other chores Trump has to deal with, but we suppose he has his reasons. Over at The Washington Post the scribes are supposing that it’s because Trump is continuing to rile up his base of rural and small town supporters, noting that he’ll also soon be continuing his campaign rallies with them during an upcoming “thank you tour,” but they don’t offer any reason why he would need to do that with the election already won. Perhaps it’s because Trump just can stop playing to the adoring crowds, or wants them riled up enough to support all sorts of limits on free speech, or maybe he just didn’t have anything else to “tweet” about.
He wound up giving us and those scribes at The Washington Post something to write about instead of the questionable matter of a president-elect appointing government officials while running a world-wide business or the fact that Goldman Sachs has provided yet another Treasury Secretary, so we guess that “tweet” wasn’t a complete waste of Trump’s time.

— Bud Norman

Media Critic in Chief

After a weekend largely spent “tweeting” his indignation about a curtain call oration at a Broadway play and a skit on a satirical comedy show, president-elect Donald Trump returned to work on Monday with an effort to bully the television news media into giving him more favorable coverage. That’s how we’ll describe his off-the-record-but-inevitably-leaked meeting with the heads of several networks, at any rate, at least while we still can still do so without fear of recriminations.
The meeting was first reported by the tabloid New York Post, which described it as a gerund-form-of-the-F-word “firing squad,” quoting an unnamed source, and the more polite broadsheets found more suitable language to say pretty much the same thing. The New York Post’s unnamed source recounts Trump telling Cable News Network’s head honcho Jeff Zucker that “I hate your network, everyone at CNN is a liar, you should be ashamed,” with a second unnamed source saying that Trump called the news outlet “a network of liars” and singled out the National Broadcasting Corporation for similar disparagement. The Washington Post’s article, headlined “A defiant Trump meets the TV news crowd in private — and let’s them have it,” corroborates that “The president-elect specifically called out reporting by CNN and NBC that he deemed unfair, according to four people who attended the meeting, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was off the record.” The scooped New York Times headlined its report with a familiar-sounding “Trump Summons TV Figures for Private Meeting, and Lets Them Have It,” citing unnamed sources with the same information. Each paper added some quotes by Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway about how very “cordial,” “productive,” and “congenial” the meeting was, but even she acknowledged it was also “very candid and very honest,” which we’ll interpret to mean a gerund-form-of-the-F-word firing squad.
All of which was lustily celebrated in the newer and more Trump-friendly media. The Drudge report linked to the New York Post story with the headline “BEAT THE PRESS: TRUMP TOWER SHOWDOWN WITH MEDIA ELITE,” and the Breitbart News site, until recently run by Trump’s newly appointed “Chief Strategist,” went with “Trump Eats the Press.” We spent our driving-around time on Monday listening to old rockabilly and garage band mix tapes rather than talk radio, but we’re quite sure all the hosts were happy to hear that all the media they constantly rail against got a presidential dressing-down. The more die-hard sorts of Trump supporters, who routinely harassed the same networks and newspapers at Trump’s urging during his rallies throughout the campaign, were no doubt similarly delighted.
Which is not hard to understand, given that much of the ancien regime media have indeed long been relentlessly hostile toward Republicans in general and the putatively Republican Trump in particular, and often unfairly, but we still find it somewhat unsettling. Although we are also frequent critics of the press, we think that Trump’s critique is conspicuously self-serving, and in many cases unfair. We wonder why Trump isn’t thanking CNN for all those endless hours of live coverage of his raucous rallies while almost completely ignoring his many vastly more qualified challengers during the Republican primaries, and although we have to admit that he’s got a point about NBC he should admit they also didn’t do those primary challengers any favors, nor did they do his Democratic rival much good. The Washington Post and The New York Times and other singled-out media gave thorough coverage of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s countless undeniable scandals, even if it was less prominent than on the front pages than their thorough coverage of Trump’s countless undeniable scandals, and by now their biases are as familiar to the public as those of The Drudge Report or Breitbart News or any of those talk radio show hosts.
Our view is that all of the media, both those hostile to Trump and those angrily supportive of him, should be able publish or broadcast whatever they want. They should all be subject to the same sort of scrutiny to they apply to public figures and one another as well, and a president or president-elect should have the same rights to express an opinion about it as anyone else, but no one should have the power of retribution or censorship. Trump’s past vows to “open up the libel laws” and to target certain press barons’ other business interests and cut off media access to his administration lent an air of menace to Monday’s meeting, and those cheering him on should take a moment of self-interested consideration about how it might affect them during an inevitable future Democratic administration.

— Bud Norman

Crazy Possibilities in a Crazy Year

By all reliable accounts this past weekend’s Libertarian Party convention was quite an unconventional affair, replete with the party’s chairman stripping down to his underwear at the podium and the eventual nominee being heavily invested in the more-or-less legal marijuana industry, but in this crazy election year none of that is at all beyond the pale. The hypothetical ticket of former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld was already poling at 10 percent before it actually won the  Libertarian nod, and in this crazy election year nothing that happened at the crazy convention seems likely to budge that significant number.
At least the party chairman didn’t boast about what was hidden by his underwear, as the Republican party’s presumptive nominee has done on a nationally-televised debate stage, and whatever quibbles one might with have the nominee’s dealings in a business that is still technically illegal according to federal law if not in the states where he is operating, it seems a rather small point in the post-legal age his thoroughly corrupt Democratic opponent and her lawless “Choom Gang” successor have wrought. The presumptive Republican nominee has run casinos and strip joints that were until rather recently illegal and social proscribed in most sane jurisdictions and still strike us as pandering to worse vices than marijuana use, and the crimes credibly alleged against the presumptive Democratic nominee involve national security, so that ten percent of the public willing to vote for someone they’ve never heard of might well persist even after they find out who he is.
At this point there’s no telling how that might affect what is shaping up as a close election. The Libertarian Party’s radically laissez-faire economic policy is the exact opposite of stubborn Democratic challenger Vermont Sen. Bernie Sander’s self-described socialism, but we expect that Johnson’s pro-dope stance will lure some of them away from from the presumptive Democratic nominee, who is so quintessentially establishment in this crazy anti-establishment year that she’s a former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State, and was awful in every single post. The Libertarians’ insane isolationist foreign policy is at this point no more worrisome than what the major parties’ presumptive nominees are offering, and unlike either of the major party nominees they’re at least for free speech if you want to gripe about it. In this crazy anti-establishment year there are a lot of otherwise Republican voters who are just tired of being bossed around, though, and aren’t nclined to be told “you’re fired” and “shut up” by some proudly bossy reality show star, so the Libertarians should peel off a few Republican votes as well, and even if both members of the ticket are twice-elected governors they’re still so far outside the mainstream they’re a deadlier  blow to the hated-on-both-sides “establishment” than either major party ticket..
In this crazy year it’s hard to tell how it will shake out, as there are bound to be other twists and counter-twists in the plot. The brilliant but ever-hopefudl Bill Kristol of the essential Weekly Standard is still clinging to some faint  hope that a third or fourth or fifth party deus ex machina will provide some plausible alternative to what the established two-party system has vomited up, and at this point in this crazy year one can only hold out such hope.

— Bud Norman

The Two Choices in a Discontented Age

The most popular politician in America at the moment, according to all the public opinion polls, is President Barack Obama. He’s not all that popular, only recently barely nudging past a 50 percent approval rating for the first time in several years, but at this discontented moment in history that’s plenty good enough for first place.
Our only explanation for this thoroughly awful president’s modest bare majority of approval, even as supermajorities of the public describe the country as “on the wrong track,” is that no one’s been paying much attention to his still thoroughly awful presidency lately and instead are focused on the thorough awfulness of both of his most likely successors. We also note that nothing and nobody are very popular these days, though, so anything over 50 percent is something.
Nowadays the most popular television shows are watched by only fractions of the nationwide audience that used to tune into mediocracies as “M*A*S*H” and “All in the Family,” few people over the age of 30 can name any of a currently popular pop music star’s hit songs, the latest hit movie is probably some comic book super-hero flick that you probably won’t bother to see, even such literary types as ourselves couldn’t tell you what’s currently on the best-seller lists, and the rest of the entire culture is similarly disdained. Government and business and organized religion are widely despised, and both of the most likely successors to our thoroughly awful president seem to suffer any consequences for their disdain of the First Amendment, which most of the under-30 set already agrees has got to go, and even the longstanding and generally acceptable social arrangement regarding men using the men’s room and women using the women’s room is by now widely disdained enough that neither of the thoroughly awful likely successors to the thoroughly awful president who proposed this thoroughly awful change is willing to take a forthright stand against it.
This is partly because of the largely beneficial diversification of the marketplace, of course, and all that creative destruction our capitalist sensibilities usually appreciate. There are now a gazillion channels on television and the internet and whatever new technology we’re not yet aware of, so it’s inevitable that even the best shows won’t get the same chunk of the audience that even the worst shows used to get when there were only three channels. The internet allows us to listen endlessly the great music of the past, as it does to anyone no matter how less refined their tastes, so it’s hard to imagine anyone achieving that Elvis Presley or The Beatles ubiquity that made even the over-30 set aware them. Although there are fewer movie theaters in most towns than there used to be there are far more screens, and there are no more “Gone With the Winds” and “Casablancas” and “Godfathers” with lines that everyone knows by heart. There are all sorts of notions afoot about how government and business and organized religion should be run, and by now everyone has a problem with somebody’s use of the First Amendment, and even that tiny sliver of the public that’s upset with current social arrangement regarding bathrooms has a hit show compared to what the rest of the country has divided itself into.
We also believe that the thorough awfulness of the overwhelming majority of it all also plays a part. Once upon a time in the glorious history of American music there were singular artists in a wide range of styles who truly earned this widespread popularity against challenging competition, but these days only the most addled of the under-30 set insist that any of is any good. There are a few good shows on television these day, in most cases better than the hit shows of the past, but these days there’s only niche mark for such fare. There are some very good movies, and without comic book super-heroes, but they can’t become hits like very good movies used to do. The last best-seller we were aware of a self-described feminist Sado-Masochistic porn novel, which of course was made into a well-publicized movie, and we’re slightly relieved that despite all that publicity a vast majority of the country never read the book or watched the movie. Government and business and organized religion have all their problems lately, too, but the current unpopularity of the First Amendment and that longstanding and generally agreeable social arrangement regarding restrooms can only be explained by how very discontented our country has become.
Politics is the only marketplace in our culture where consumers are still faced with only two choices, although we’re still holding to some faint hope that the culture’s penchant for creative destruction might change that final longstanding and once generally-agreeable arrangement, so it’s not surprising that the widely diffused ratings of mostly thoroughly awful shows have turned up two such thoroughly awful final options.

— Bud Norman

The Constitution and the Evil of Two Lessers

The argument most frequently made by our many Republican friends who are reluctantly supporting their party’s presumptive nominee is that he at least might just appoint more acceptable Supreme Court Justices than the Democrats’ presumptive nominee, which was bolstered somewhat by his announcement this week of a slate of impeccably conservatives judges he might consider, and there was already no denying that anyone his likely opponent might point would be quite certainly just downright awful. The argument is therefore somewhat persuasive, therefore, but still not at all reassuring.
There’s something unsettling to our hide-bound conservatives souls that the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee would even feel obliged to offer reassurances that he might consider an impeccably conservative jurist for the Supreme Court, for one thing. Past Republican nominees have always been assumed to be conservative in their picks, even if their track records of making correct choices has been inconsistent at least far back as the usually reliable President Dwight Eisenhower’s pick of the infamously crazy-libera-if-lifelong Republican Chief Justice Earl Warren, with all of sorts of disastrously squishy moderates being picked by Republicans since then, but in every case we could at least console ourselves with a certainty that a Democratic pick would have been even worse. In this crazy election cycle, though, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee had good reason to be reassuring his party’s more hide-bound base that he’s still likely to be at least somewhat better than the Democrat’s presumptive nominee.
Earlier in this ever-shifting race he had suggested that his partial-birth-abortion-loving federal judge of a sister would be a “wonderful” pick for the Supreme Court, and during a Republican debate had defended her by saying that “Judge Alito” had “signed on to the same bill” that she had about the issue, even though they’re called Justices on the Supreme Court and they don’t sign bills, and his concurrence with Trump’s sister was on a minor point and in no way endorsed her partial-birth-abortion enthusiasm, which is such a complicated bunch of nonsense that even a successful Supreme Court litigant such as vanquished rival Texas Sen. Ted Cruz could not explain it to a gullible public. He also told once of his constant interviewers that he’s want to appoint Supreme Court nominees who would vigorously investigate the presumptive Democratic nominee’s highly dubious e-mail practices, which we still hope are already being investigated by all the authorities that are actually legally charged which such duties, and on many other occasions he’s exhibited a similar unfamiliarity with what Supreme Court Justices are properly called and what they actually do.
There’s also the matter of the presumptive Republican presidential nominees’ many other statements about the Constitution that our hide-bound Republican souls find troubling. For obvious reasons we are First Amendment purists, and his past widely-applauded boasts that his media critics will have “problems, such problems” once he re-writes the libel laws makes us doubt his commitment to the First Amendment, and his fealty to the Second Amendment seems quite newfound and malleable, and his praise of the “wonderful” Kelo decision that allows rich folks such as himself to gain eminent domain over some less well-heeled losers’ property rights raises serious doubts about his commitment to the Fifth Amendment, and it’s hard to imagine this crazy cycle’s presumptive Republican nominee nominating anyone who might restrain his own executive powers.
Given the presumptive Republican nominee’s long track of disregarding marriage vows and contractual agreements and basic standards of decency and any statements have e made just the other day, we also wonder how very committed he his to considering anyone on the list of potential candidates he has just announced. The list seems cribbed from the usually reliable Heritage Foundation and a radio talk show he’d previously mocked for his lower-than-“The Apprentice”-ratings, and if any of the “best people” that the presumptive Republican nominee promises he’ll hire had looked into it they’ll notice that one of those potential appointees has been constantly mocking him on “Twitter,” and we can’t shake a certain suspicion that it’s all as negotiable as anything else has been in the presumptive Republican nominee’s life.
Our reluctantly supportive Republican friends have been touting that list of “possible” Supreme Court nominees the same way they touted his impeccably conservative tax plan, which called for a cut in the top tax rates, and just as they try to explain the self-described-billionaire-who-won’t-release-his-tax-returns sudden shift to calling for a soak-the-rich system that the self-described socialist and seemingly vanquished Democrat Sen. Bernie Sanders is calling for, and in this crazy election cycle it is plausible, but not at all reassuring. The argument that the presumptive Democratic nominee is worse yet is still somewhat persuasive, but even to our most reluctantly friends who are supporting the presumptive Republican nominee it  cannot be at all reassuring. If there’s the slightest chance that something better might prevail, no matter how imperfect, we’ll be looking for it.

— Bud Norman

Justice Antonin Scalia, RIP

There is supposed to be no such thing as an irreplaceable man in a constitutional republic, where the rule of law and the God-given rights of the people are supposed to persist through the passing of the generations, but the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday at the too-young age of 79 will sorely test that dubious proposition.
One of the greatest jurists in American history, Scalia’s long career was devoted to defending the rule of law and the God-given rights of the people by insisting on the plain language and clear meaning of the Constitution. He did so when the Constitution favored liberal interests, he did so when the law and the Constitution favored conservative interests, and he most notably did it even went it against the prevailing tides of fickle public opinion that the Constitution was always intended to thwart. More importantly, he did it with a rare steadfastness and even rarer brilliance that in crucial moments that enabled his originalist theory of the Constitution to prevail over the idea that a mere five black-robed justices should be able to impose their beliefs on the other 300 million or so of the country no matter what the framers wrote or the states ratified or the people have long understood was the binding agreement.
Scalia was not only a decisive vote but also the the author of the very persuasive decision in Heller v. District of Columbia, which found that the Second Amendment’s guarantee of a right to keep and bear arms does indeed mean just that, even for the average schmuck who might need to defend his home and not just for a “well-regulated militia” that the left would happily regulate out of existence. He was a key voice in that Citizens United decision that all the Democrats and even some of the dimmer Republicans are still noisily insisting be overturned, and he wrote the far more persuasive concurring opinion, and all those soft-headed Bernie Sanders fans who share his indignation about it should know that its plain-meaning reading of the First Amendment basically said the government doesn’t have the right to exercise prior restraint of speech critical of Hillary Clinton or any other candidate of either party or any ideological persuasion, and that none of us would have a meaningful First Amendment without it. On every other occasion he was a reliable vote for whatever law had been passed by the people’s legislature and signed and by their duly-elected president which was not clearly in violation of the basic individual rights defined by the plain language of the Constitution, even if it was some dumb-ass law he and another four wised-up and black-robed jurists would have never voted for.
Even on those all-too-often occasion’s when Scalia insistence on the rule of law and the God-given rights of the people did not prevail, he wrote such brilliantly dissenting opinions that he will no doubt be quoted in some inevitable upcoming challenge, so he might yet prevail posthumously. His dissent in the Obergfel v. Hodges decision that legalized same-sex marriage will no doubt be cited in the countless forthcoming sentences against any bakers and photographers and churches who don’t want to participate in a same-sex wedding ceremony, so there’s hope that Scalia’s legacy will persist. There were enough times when Scalia thwarted George W. Bush and there’s some residual bipartisan spirits that obliges the likes of President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to pay him some lip service, and the press is being strangely respectful, and Scalia has earned his moment of national respect.
The petty politics immediately intrude, though, and there’s the legally-required matter of how to replace such an irreplaceable man. While we hate to presume what such a more learned jurist as Scalia might opine, our reading of the plain language in the Constitution suggests that Obama has every constitutional right to name an appointee at a time of his choosing, the Senate has every constitutional right to ignore it at its own leisure, and our guess is that Scalia wouldn’t mind a bit if the inevitably messy fight stretched out noisily into the next presidency. If the next president is Sanders or the soon-to-be-constitutionally-protected-from-criticism Clinton, a lot of those 5-4 decisions from the good old days of the plain meaning the Constitution will suddenly mean that the the First Amendment doesn’t allow criticism of public officials and the Second Amendment doesn’t guarantee a right to keep and bear arms, and the rest of the Constitution will mean whatever five black-robed jurists and fickle pubic opinion think it ought to mean. At the moment the the front-runner for the Republican nomination has mentioned his sister, who authored a soon-to-be-overturned opinion finding a right to late-term abortion, would make a “phenomenal” Supreme Court Justice, and who joined in a ridiculous politically-correct outcry that Scalia was racist for questioning the effect that affirmative action admission policies at universities have on its supposed beneficiaries, and although the rest of the field are making more reasonable suggestions their party doesn’t have a good track record of lately finding jurists such as the Reagan-appointed Scalia. Our guess is that the even the most weak-kneed Republicans won’t dare allow a lame duck appointment, and after a respectful moment or two the Democrats will revert to screaming about censoring anti-Democrat speech and compelling same-sex-wedding-cake-baking laws, and that there’s no guessing how that might come out. So far even the squishiest Republicans are digging in their heels, Obama has backed off a recess appointment, and we don’t think there’s much sentiment in of the recently outraged parties for a new Supreme Court Justice to ban anti-Hillary Clinton speech and repeal gun rights and whatever else five black-robed justices might come up with, so we’ll hold out hope.
Such petty politics aside, we’ll also take a moment to note that by all accounts Scalia was a good man. He was a devoted husband for 56 years, beloved father to nine children, and was such a remarkably genial gentleman that he even maintained a famously affectionate relationship with his constant nemesis Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He once spoke at the high school graduation ceremony of one of his many grandchildren, and we think he spoke best for himself when he urged them “not just to be zealous in in the pursuit of your ideals, but to be sure that your ideals are the right ones. That is perhaps the hardest part of being a good human being. Good intentions are not enough. Being a good person begins with being a wise person. Then, when you follow your conscience, you will be headed in the right direction.”
We pray that Justice Scalia’s wisdom has led him in the direction to eternal peace, after so many years of toil on this troublesome earth, and that somehow the rule of the law and the God-given rights of the people it is meant to protect will persist through the passing of the generations.

— Bud Norman