Mad Magazine, RIP

We read that Mad Magazine has announced it will soon stop offering new content, and it’s perhaps the most disheartening obituary we’ve read in a while. As embarrassing as it is to admit, the “usual gang of idiots” at that comic book rag was one of the formative influences on our lives.
Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s when Mad was at its peak readership we were exactly the school age and exactly the pretentiously intellectual type that the magazine targeted. It was all cartoons and captions, except for the brilliant Cold War tale of “Spy vs. Spy” feature that had no words at all, but for a precocious sixth- or seventh-grader it was satisfyingly literary. The magazine lampooned the politics of the time, respectfully assuming its young readership was well-read enough to get the jokes, and did hilarious parodies of the vast wasteland of television as well as old movies we’d watch on late night TV and the new movies we weren’t allowed to see, and it generally conveyed a smart-alecky attitude about everything.
Some of our friends’ parents wouldn’t allow them to read Mad Magazine, as they considered it subversive, which it undeniably was, but our parents were always willing to pay the 50 cents or so per month to buy us a copy of the latest edition. They’re both big Bob and Ray and Coen brothers fans with sophisticated senses of humor, and they’re both inveterate readers who encouraged their children to read anything they might come across, and they also got an occasional chuckle from Mad.
It worked out well for us, as far as we’re concerned. Mad made satire our favorite literary genre, and we wound up reading Jonathon Swift and Mark Twain and Evelyn Waugh and all the great satirists of the English language, and writing our attempts at satire. Along with W.C. Fields and Jack Benny and the Marx Brothers and “Laugh-In” they formed our sense of humor, which has often come in handy in this world of troubles, and we think it makes us less susceptible to whatever nonsense the current politics and popular culture are peddling. These days there’s more than enough subversive satire around to jade any youngster, but that’s largely due to Mad magazine.
Before we hit high school we had graduated from Mad to the National Lampoon, which had the same subversive and sophisticated satire as Mad but also lots of words and complex sentences and gratuitous profanity and nudity that we’d have to hide from our parents. That led to Saturday Night Live and modern comedy, with the “Airplane!” movies and Mel Brooks spoofs mimicking Mad’s movie parodies, which we can’t say has worked out well, but we don’t blame Mad for that.
One way or another, we hope the youngsters will learn to read and get wise to all the nonsense that politics and popular culture are peddling.

— Bud Norman</p<

A Church Burns Down, and Perhaps Rebuilds

The fire that did “colossal damage” to Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral dominated the news on Monday, and although we were disheartened by the tragedy we took some hope in that fact that at least respectful attention was being paid. The Notre Dame Cathedral was one of those glorious relics of western civilization and the Christian faith that for so long sustained it, and it’s good to see people still care about that.
The fire destroyed all the wood in the guts of the more-than-700-year-old building, including the iconic spire that topped its masterpiece architecture, but its stone base is reportedly still intact, and French President Emmanuel Macron has said that “I tell you solemnly tonight: We will rebuild this cathedral.” He added that “Notre Dame of Paris is our history. The epicenter of our lives. It’s the many books, the paintings, those that belong to all French men and French women, and even those who’ve never come.” We found his words encouraging, but they couldn’t quite convince us that the modern world can ever fully restore anything to the glory of the old world.
The Notre Dame Cathedral was built by the fervently Christian France of the 14th Century to the glory of God, and the secularized French people of the 21st Century will rebuild it as a tourist attraction and a monument to the glory of France. The modern world has some very amazing gizmos, and can perform astounding acts of engineering, but it can’t make up for that soulful difference.
There are many aesthetic theories to explain the ironic and rigorously logical and up-to-date appeal of modern architecture, but they cannot persuade us to abandon our preference for the older buildings. That’s true here in Wichita, where they’ve lately been building very fashionable structures, but the best of it is still the old County Courthouse and the Carnegie Library and the fabulous old City Hall and Scottish Rite Temple by the great Proudfoot and Bird and the rest of the stone structures that might survive a fire, and it’s true pretty much everywhere we go. Our only brief European travels have been in Ireland and Great Britain, but the old stuff was better there, too, and everyone we know who’s more widely travelled abroad went in search of the old rather than new.
There are also cases to be made for the modern books and paintings and the rest of the culture that Macron is rightly concerned with, and the modern world has also wrought such new art forms as cinema and “internet memes,” but even the most enthusiastic critics acknowledge a certain soullessness. Modernity has largely abandoned the very concept of the soul, and is too enlightened to imbue its art with that sense of awe at what mankind could hope to derive from God’s truth and beauty that those primitive Christians once had.
Most of the coverage focused on the loss of a historic Gothic architecture masterpiece in the heart of Paris, but it was also occasionally mentioned that it was a house of worship that burned down Holy Week. Any old place where people have gathered to worship is God is sanctified as far as we’re concerned, and we reckon its loss is a loss to humanity.
In Mark Twain’s brilliantly scathing travelogue “Innocents Abroad” he describes a group of American tourists marveling at the beautiful cathedrals of Europe, and posits a strong argument that the congregants would have done better to upgrade all the dilapidated homes that surrounded their church. We’re member of a protestant denomination at the opposite side of the low-church-high-church side of Christianity from Catholicism, a group which actually prides itself on its very plain buildings that never cost of any its members needed home repairs, so we’re sympathetic to Twain’s atheistic argument, but we wish he could have appreciated the beauty of a church.
Our dwindling congregation over in the rough Delano district has a very attractive Depression-era brick-and-stone castle-looking building, but lately has been meeting in the newly-built annex where we’re seated closer together, and there’s another Church of Christ down south in Peck next door to a hippie friend of ours that’s a gorgeously humble Norman Rockwell white clapboard and looks like a imminent tinderbox given the aging electrical system it probably has. There’s a brown clapboard Foursquare Apostolic Church down the street that might or might not still holding services, so far as we can tell as we pass by, and there’s something quite beautiful about it despite the fading paint.
Despite our low church Protestant upbringing, we’ve always felt a sense of awe at the truth and beauty inside some of those Catholic and Episcopal and Greek Orthodox churches that mere humans built to glorify God. The Cathedral of the Plains up in Victoria, Kansas, and war and church hero Father Kapaun’s old St. John Nupemucene in Pilsen Kansas, and the St. Joseph Catholic Church just around the corner from the West Douglas Church of Christ all inspire the awe of our primitive Christian souls. We’re told that the Notre Dame Cathedral was even more beautiful, so it’s hard to comprehend the loss.
We feel the same respectful feelings for synagogues, mosques, temples, and anywhere else people meet to find God, rather than what’s merely modern, and we mourn anytime they are destroyed. The blaze at Notre Dame was reportedly just one of those things that sometimes happen to 700-year-old buildings, unlike the arson of madmen who routinely burn down synagogues and mosques and temples and the churches where black Christians worship, or even the most just wars that have destroyed countless houses of worship, so we’ll take some comfort in that.
The stone structure of the Cathedral of Notre Dame has reportedly survived, so with the help of the government and its dwindling congregation the church might yet be rebuilt. The hellfire of modernity has pretty much gutted the wooden frame of the church universal, but it also has a rock-solid foundation, so during this Holy Week we hold out hope for a renaissance.

— Bud Norman

Trump and the NFL Go into Overtime

Major League baseball has some intriguing pennant races heating up, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League both have their championship series underway, and of course the big sports story on Tuesday was about the National Football League and President Donald Trump.
Even in the off-season, the rivalry between the NFL and Trump is almost as riveting as the Boston Red Sox’ and New York Yankee’s classic brawl in the American League East. On Tuesday Trump put it back at the top of the sports and politics pages by rescinding at the last moment an invitation for a traditional visit by the winners of the last Super Bowl. It’s not really all that big a deal, but it does illustrate something about Trump and his times that is more worrisome.
If you somehow haven’t been following this bizarre subplot of the bigger Trump reality show, it all started when a few NFL players knelt on one knee during the national anthem to draw attention to their beliefs about several recent cases of police killing black suspects. Many fans understandably regarded the protests as disrespectful to the flag and national anthem and the nation itself, and Trump eagerly championed their views, getting huge cheers at his ongoing campaign rallies by calling on owners to “fire that son-of-a-bitch” who took a knee. The die-hard fans loved it so much that Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence back to Indiana just to walk out of an Indianapolis Colts game where some player took a knee, all the right-wing talk radio hosts agreed that Trump obviously loved America and that his critics did not, and eventually the NFL owners passed a policy that mandated respectful standing and hands over hearts by all its employees during the national anthem.
Trump could have spiked the ball and done his end zone dance at that point and moved on to the next bizarre subplot, but he milked it just a little bit more by calling off the traditional visit by the NFL champs. This year’s champions are the plucky underdog Philadelphia Eagles, none of whom ever took a knee during the national anthem, except for a guy who got cut in the pre-season, which should have made a hell of a photo-op for Trump, but less than a dozen of the players wanted to pose for a picture with the president, so Trump called it off. He blamed the team for various dubious reasons, none of which included the vast majority of the players’ reluctance to be photographed with him, but no one’s buying that, and Fox News tried to help out by showing some photos of a few Eagles kneeling in the end zone but later had to admit it showed a pre-game and pre-anthem prayer ritual for good health, and the die-hard fans don’t care.
Trump filled the scheduled time by having what was once John Phillip Sousa’s U.S. Marine Band play the national anthem and “God Bless America” on the White House lawn, with Trump standing at attention with a reverent gaze at the flag and his hand on his heart and his lips mouthing some approximation of the the lyrics, and he clearly implied that this is what true patriotism looks like. The die-hard fans probably loved it, even the Eagles fans among them, but we’ve read enough Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis that it looked like political kitsch to to us, the sort of tear-jerking but all-too-easy sort of patriotism that draft-dodging demagogues always appeal to.
At every Wichita State University Wheatshockers’ basketball game and Wichita Wingnuts game we always stand and doff our hat and hold it over heart during the national anthem, and we join in the “Pledge of Allegiance” whenever it comes up at commencement ceremonies or public meetings, and we do our best at the harder chores true patriotism entails.
We’d prefer that those football players find some way to protest police shootings other than kneeling during the national anthem, and acknowledge that in many if not all cases those police shootings were justifiable acts of self-defense, and more thoughtfully confront the complicated matter of the crucial role police play in the far bigger problem of black-on-black civilian shootings, but we acknowledge their right to disagree. Most of the Philadelphia Eagles also stood at respectful attention during the national anthem but didn’t want to be photographed with a president who wanted to impose that decision on them, and we don’t disagree at all.
Trump also had to cancel a traditional visit from last season’s NBA championships due to their reluctance, and this year the Cleveland Cavaliers’ all-time superstar LeBron James has said that neither team in the finals, even if his plucky underdog squad could pull off a miracle comeback against the Golden State Warriors, would accept a White House invitation. NBA championship players are all multi-millionaires but usually black, and remain friends with black guys who have legitimate concerns about getting shot by the police, and however complicated the arguments are we can see why don’t care to pose with Trump. Whoever prevails in that red-hot race in the American League East is our pick for World Series champion, and all the contenders are diverse enough that we’re sure a a decisive few will decline Trump’s invitation for a White House visit and photo-op. The NHL finalists are both United States franchises, not the few remaining founding franchises from those damned Canadians we’re lately waging trade war with, and they’re almost entirely white, but they’re mostly manned by damned foreigners taking jobs from hard-working Americans.
Although Trump likes to tout himself as a winner, for now he’ll have to forgo a lot of photo-ops with the winners of America’s professional sport championships. Even the players who stand respectfully with hand over heart during the national anthem don’t seem to like Trump’s attempts to bully them into doing so, and in the highly unlikely event we ever found ourselves on a championship team we’d surely feel the same.
If standing for the national anthem ever comes to mean standing for Trump, we’ll ruefully take a knee ourselves. That would be a big deal.

— Bud Norman

On Indifference and Outrage

Those high-brow fellows over at Commentary magazine recently published a fine essay on the art world’s self-inflected irrelevance, and we recommend it to all our culture vulture readers who still take an interest in such things. We’ve already fulminated a few times on these pages about pretty much the same unhappy point, though, and what most struck us was an opening anecdote that nicely illustrates an even bigger problem with what people are now indifferent to and what still offends them.
The author, who seems such a reasonable thinker that we are pleasantly surprised to note he is somehow the Faison-Pierson-Stoddard Professor of Art at Williams College, recalls showing one of his classes the grainy black-and-white film documentation of a 1971 performance art piece by the late Chris Burden, which involved having a friend shoot him in the arm with .22-calibre rifle at close range. We can still recall how the alleged artwork provoked a wide range of reactions even at such a late date in modernity as 1971, but the 21st Century students who watched were mostly interested in the legal ramifications and tried hard to it put into the context that savvy art students now understand their professors expect, but were otherwise indifferent. The professor seems somewhat surprised at such a dispassionate reaction to the spectacle of a man being shot in the arm at close range by .22-calibre rifle, but we are not. As the professor notes in the rest of his essay, even by the time Burns got around to it this sort of shock-the-squares stuff had already been going in the art world since approximately the end of World War I, and that Burns had to top it by having himself famously crucified atop a Volkswagen Beetle, and that subsequent attempts at giving offense have required ever more over-the-top outrages, so by now indifference to such efforts is both the sophisticated and sensible reaction.
What strikes us as odd, and went unmentioned by the professor, is that these same 21st Century students are the ones who require “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” and protection from “micro-aggressions” and outright censorship of Ovid or Mark Twain or The Bible or that vaguely Republican commencement speaker or any other vestige of pre-World War I Western Civilization that might call into question the comforting consensus of academic opinion. Such strangely differing standards of what should be met with indifference and what should be met with offense are by no means confined to the academy, or to those corners of the world only culture vultures still take an interest in, but also define the broader public’s approach to politics.
Thus The New York Times is outraged by the four traffic tickets that Republican presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio has received over the past 20 years, but seemingly indifferent to the four brave Americans who were killed in an American consulate in Libya that failed to receive requested security from Democratic presidential contender and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton following her ill-fated war against Libya. Thus the civil rights establishment is aroused to hash-tagging “black lives matter” and rioting in the streets when a black man is killed by police in even the most justifiable circumstances, yet indifferent to the vastly greater number of black men killed by other black men, and further indifferent when that horrible number inevitably increases after the hash-tagging and rioting inevitably hamper law enforcement efforts in poor black neighborhoods. Thus it is that polite opinion holds the insane profligacy of the Greek government is not only to be tolerated but forever to be subsidized, while a corporation that prefers not to pay its minimum wage employees any more than they produce is considered outrageously greedy. Thus it is that the mass executions of homosexuals in the Islamic world is met with sincere attempts to understand context and generally with indifference, while some Baptist confectioner’s reluctance to bake a gay wedding cake is met with widespread outrage.
A couple of years after Burden’s performance art piece provoked widespread outrage the public was so shocked by executive lawlessness that President Richard Nixon was forced to resign, with the second article of impeachment being that he had dared raise the possibility of using the Internal Revenue Service to harass his political opponents, but these days the president flouts immigration law with powers that even he had previously stated he does not constitutionally possess, and the stories about how the IRS actually did harass his political enemies and then engage in a Nixonian but up-to-date cover-up continue to trickle out, yet it is met with indifference. Perhaps it’s the same process of the public becoming inured to indifference by endless repetition, but that can’t explain why there’s still plenty of outrage left for far less inconsequential matters.
We continue to read about those high-brow culture vulture issues even in this age of art’s irrelevance, and to follow all those silly academic quarrels going on within the “safe spaces” from “micro-aggressions,” even as we recognize that by now they are of far less importance than the first four dead Americans from a failed foreign policy and the overlooked black lives that are taken while the police are under indictment and the eventual global consequences of the profligacy of the Greeks and just about everyone and the horrible fate of homosexuals in the Islamic world and the injustice being done to traditionalist confectioners in the name of homosexual rights, because we think they also matter. A society that can no longer recognize the difference between art and some nihilistic nutcase inviting a friend to shoot him in the arm, or prefers the comforting consensus of contemporary academic opinion to the challenging truths of of Ovid and Mark Twain and The Bible and that vaguely Republican commencement speaker or any of the rest of pre-World War I western civilization, is unlikely to choose wisely about what should be met with indifference and what should be met with outrage.

— Bud Norman

Trickle Down Revisionism

That was a humdinger of a speech that Hillary Clinton delivered last week, packing more nonsense into a 30-second sound bite than most politicians can manage in an hour-long oration. Speaking at a rally on behalf of Massachusetts’ Democratic gubernatorial nominee Martha Cloakley, which is outrageous enough by itself, Clinton warned an adoring audience “Don’t let anybody tell that, uh, you know, it’s corporations and businesses create jobs,” and added “You know that old theory, ‘trickle down economics,’ that has been tried, that has failed. It has failed rather spectacularly.”
Hearing such astounding ignorance from a woman widely presumed to be the next president of the United States was alarming enough, and the roar of the crowd was downright dispiriting. Given that it was a Democratic gathering in Massachusetts it is possible than a smaller-than-usual proportion of the crowd held jobs created by corporations and businesses, but even in that bastion of liberalism any crowd anyone anyone who was around in the ’80s should know better than to cheer that tired old trope about the failure of “trickle down economics.” For those too young to have experienced that halcyon age, “trickle down economics” was the derisive nickname that the left attached to President Ronald Reagan’s policies of aggressive tax-cutting and de-regulation and generally getting out of the economy’s way. Instituted after too many desultory years of “stagflation” the policies reduced a runaway inflation rate to a near-optimal level and then set off a record-setting run of economic expansion that lowered the the unemployment while increasing the labor participation rate, boosted median household income, brought down the poverty rate, launched revolutions in consumer electronics and telecommunications and other crucial industries, doubled federal revenues and financed a defense build-up that brought the Cold War to a victorious conclusion, and was agreeable enough to the American that Reagan won 49 states in his re-election bid and saw his vice president elevated to the top job four years later. It is true that there were deficits, although the numbers seem quaint by today’s red-ink-soaked standards, and there were all those videos bands with big hair and skinny ties, but it’s hard to see this record as a disaster. All true-believing liberals of the time regarded this as a spectacular failure, however, and have stuck to the story ever since.
Oddly enough, they’ve had considerable success in this effort. “Trickle-down economics” has long been a pejorative, to the point that its adherents insist on “supply side economics” or even “Reaganomics” to avoid the connotations, and by now most people have developed a clear recollection of its spectacular failure. We recall a a fellow patron at a local tavern who was still cursing “trickle down economics” as a failure, and when we recited all the same indices recounted above he said “Yeah? Well, I didn’t get rich,” and a similarly subjective understanding of economic history has given his self-serving theory wide currency. A large portion of the electorate is too young to recall the fall in the inflation rate and the rise is gross domestic product and the rest of what happened in the trickle-down days, and they’ve all been educated by public school teachers who also didn’t get rich in the ’80s, and by now any candidate promoting lower taxes and less regulation and getting out of the economy’s way will surely be be tarred with the slur of “trickle-down economics.”

Mark Twain would probably be sick of hearing it repeated by now, but he famously remarked that “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so,” and the mis-remembering of “trickle down economics” is an excellent example of the aphorism. There aren’t plenty of them, from the do-nothing policies of Herbert Hoover and how the New Deal ended the Depression to the military defeat America suffered in the Tet Offensive to the black teenagers gunned down on the streets by white racists freed by an uncaring justice system, but the nonsense about “trickle down” economics is especially troublesome. A public gullible enough to believe it is likely to also believe the upcoming narrative about the spectacular success of Obamanomics, and to elect a woman who doesn’t believe that corporations and business create jobs.

— Bud Norman