When Politics is Personal

Politics ain’t bean bag, as the cliche aptly puts it, but we can’t remember a time when it was quite so pro wrestling-like as it is today. Pro wrestling hall of famer and President of the United States Donald Trump seems to pride himself on flouting the traditional norms of decorum and civility in political discourse, and routinely insults his political opponents with charges of mental illness and criminal behavior and ugliness.
On Tuesday, for instance, Trump called Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi a “waste of time” and “a sick woman” who “has a lot of mental problems.” In the same interview he reiterated his claims that President Barack Obama and various Federal Bureau of Investigation officers had committed especially egregious but unspecified political crimes. Trump also explained that he didn’t know the State Department inspector general who was investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for possibly using aides to do personal chores as well as possibly making a corrupt arms deal with Saudi Arabia, but fired the guy because he was an Obama appointee and Pompeo wanted him gone.
The unsubstantiated and unspecified charges levied against Obama and the career public officials are unprecedented in our many years of following politics, as is Trump’s purge of any pesky inspectors general who might find anything embarrassing to the Trump administration, but these are apparently the new rules. To quote an oft-quoted line from The Godfather, “It’s strictly business, not personal.” The Pelosi slurs, on the the other hand, seemed strictly personal
On Monday Pelosi was interviewed by the Cable News Network’s Anderson Cooper, and expressed concern about Trump’s announcement that he was using hydroxychloroqine to ward aff infection by the coronavirus. “He’s our president, and I would rather he was not taking something that has been approved by the scientists, especially in his age group and his, shall we say, weight group — ‘morbidly obese, they say.” Say what you want about Pelosi’s political views, and we’ve had plenty to say about them over the years, but you should admit that the daughter of a famously ruthless Maryland politician has some bare knuckle skills of her own. With a finesse Trump will never master, she sounded concerned about the president’s health while also mentioning his obesity.
Trump fans will agree that Pelosi is a “waste of time” and a “sick woman” who “has a lot of mental problems,” and cheer him on for telling it like is, but we figure that the Pelosi’s objective observation of Trump’s obesity is also telling it like it is.
We’re lately feeling liberated from the old rules of civility and decorum and the rest of all that “politically incorrect” nonsense, so we’ll just come right out and say that Trump is fat. We’ll even go so far as to say that he’s a big fat fatty-pants with a ridiculous comb-over and white circles around his eyes in an otherwise orange and jowly face. None which is disqualifying, as we have to admit that Trump isn’t as fat as President William Howard Taft, who we consider a very underrated president, and he’s not so ugly President Abraham Lincoln, who is rightly regarded as the great president ever, Trump does routinely make an issue of other people’s height and weight and looks.
“I didn’t know he’d be so sensitive,” Pelosi responded on the MSNBC network, before adding “He’s always talking about other people’s avoirdopois, their weight, their pounds.” Which is provably telling like it is, and well within the bounds of the new rules.of pubic discourse.
Trump makes his own rules, and expect everyone else to play the old rules, but that’s not going to happen, How this sort of this sort political discussion leads the country out of the greatest public health crisis in more than a century and the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depressioon remains to be seen.

— Bud Norman

Sex, Social Science, and the Single Obese Girl

One of our favorite old jokes, which unfortunately does not bear repeating in this family-friendly publication, concerns a government agency so anxious to spend the entirety of its budget before the end of the fiscal year that it commissions an expensive scientific inquiry into an amusing question which we must also demur to repeat. To our embarrassment we always recall the risqué punchline whenever reading the frequent stories we encounter about the arcane research being funded by the taxpayers’ dime, such as the one at the invaluable Washington Free Beacon about the National Institutes of Health’s nearly half-million dollar study of why obese women tend to get fewer dates than thinner women.
For half that parsimonious-by-government-standards amount we will gladly write a report to the National Institutes of Health speculating that the average man finds thinner women more physically attractive, and that physical attractiveness is the average man’s foremost consideration when deciding which women he will attempt to date, a hypothesis for which we already have such ample anecdotal evidence that we’re sick of hearing it, but the big brains at the NIH seem more intrigued by the alternative theory that there might be some hitherto unknown link between obesity and deficient social skills. This is contrary to our ample anecdotal evidence, which includes countless acquaintances with obese women who seemed quite socially skillful, as well as some who seemed bitter and withdrawn, with the former getting seeming to get more action than the latter, just as we’ve known some very thin and attractive women who were seemingly well-adjusted to society and others who were dangerously psychotic, with both sorts seeming to have the same overwhelming appeal to the average man, so we’re skeptical of the theory that obese women don’t have the great personality always promised by those trying to set them up on blind dates.
Should modern science somehow prove a link between obesity and lack of social skills, we expect the reason will be the inherent sexism of our patriarchal society. If not, the NIH will have to explain to the feminist lobby why they’re spending nearly half a million dollars for the social science equivalent of one of those “No Fat Chicks” signs with the red circle and red diagonal line. The First Lady can devote herself to molding overweight girls into her own mannish image without invoking the ire of the left, but any pasty-faced male in a white lab coat who runs afoul of the obese woman voting bloc is asking for more than a half-million dollars’ worth of trouble. If the root cause of obese women having dating difficulties is proved to be sexism, on the other hand, a Nobel Prize might well be in the offing.
Such a scientifically-proved social inequality might even provoke a political revolution. Armed with evidence that obese women have been rendered socially deficient and therefor can’t get their constitutionally guaranteed share of shrimp cocktails and apple-tinis and flattering conversation in between text messages on Saturday nights, along with the rest of the tawdry rewards of the contemporary dating scene, the progressive movement will have no trouble persuading the government to institute a new regulatory regime. Achieving dating equality will require the random matching of couples, of course, lest one’s racist or sexist or heterosexist or weightist prejudices give offense, but surely that’s a small price to pay for social justice. This arrangement improves that odds that the gal with great personality winds up at Cannes with that buff Hollywood hunk that’s actually a jerk according to all the tabloids, and it’s pretty much our only shot of scoring a date with one of those slinky movie starlets, so it seems worthy of society’s consideration.
In any case, we’re eagerly anticipating the NIH’s final report on the matter. Nearly a half-million bucks’ worth of social science should make for fascinating reading, and we’ll be especially intrigued to see how the methodology accounted for such variables as the spectrum from stuck-to-the-toilet-seat fat to pleasantly plump to downright zaftig, and how they manage to couch in terms that won’t offend feminine sensibilities.

— Bud Norman

Ceding the Public Square

All hell seems to be breaking out around the wider word, what with the various scandals swirling about the White House and the Islamist uprisings in middle eastern capitals and European side streets and the sinking feeling one gets from a 200 point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Averages, but here in Wichita the more immediate problem is the darned River Festival.
For those unfortunate souls who reside outside our usually pleasant little prairie city, the River Festival is an annual nine-day-long series of concerts, athletic competitions, parades, parties, fairs, food courts, fireworks displays, and family-oriented frolics that has become an insufferable civic annoyance. Every city of any size has some similar event, we assume, but for pure congestion, inconvenience, and frustration to the average resident none can possibly match Wichita’s traditional get-together.
The festival began on Friday afternoon, and the normal rhythms of everyday were live were immediately disrupted. A trip to the bank to deposit some checks became nearly impossible due to the street closings in anticipation of the opening parade, and only an intimate knowledge of the back alleys, parking lots, and side streets of downtown Wichita allowed us find a circuitous route to the drive-thru window, and how the office workers ever made it home at rush hour remains a mystery that we are glad we were not on hand to witness. Later we drove to mail off the payments for our end-of-the-month bills, but a new series of street closings forced us on a long walk to the post office at the edge of downtown. Being afoot and free of further responsibilities we decided to take in a bit of the parade, which ran the gamut from a local Naval reserves unit in their crisp white uniforms to the city’s tiny band of disheveled Occupy Wall Street nuts protesting the Monsanto Company over some corporate outrage or another, but we soon found ourselves pushing through unaccustomed crowds on the way back to the car. In the evening we attempted to share a beer with a friend who habituates a friendly little hipster coffee shop in the Delano district, a typically placid and sparsely populated neighborhood just across the Arkansas River from downtown, and found ourselves stuck in a crawling traffic jam reminiscent of midtown Manhattan during a transit strike.
The people-watching proved interesting, but depressing. It wasn’t so much the high proportion of morbidly obese passersby, a sight so common that it now goes almost unnoticed, but rather the abundance of profane tattoos, vulgar t-shirts, menacing glowers, and obnoxious behavior. An intimidating deployment of police officers kept the crowd mostly within the bounds of the law, but the muscle-bound boys in the heavy metal tank tops were woofing and the girls with the beefy thighs protruding from obscenely short shorts were shouting “whoo” with all the intimidatingly youthful vigor that the First Amendment allows, and it all somehow evoked the atmosphere of a low-down honky-tonk on the verge of barroom brawl. Wichita is a very middle-class, middle-American city chock full of well-dressed, well-behaved people with well-kept lawns and recently washed family sedans, but one couldn’t help noticing how few of them were strolling through downtown and Delano as the River Festival stretched into the night life.
Old-timers such as ourselves can recall those long ago days when the River Festival wasn’t like this. The festival started out in 1972 as the Wichitennial, an obligatory celebration of the city’s first 100 years of incorporated existence, and the modest offering of events proved such a good time that a few civic-minded organizers decided to do it every year. In its earliest incarnations the festival included an art and book fair where our father would load up on Readers’ Digest condensed novels at a nickel a piece, a Frank Capra-esque parade that once featured our unicycling talents, a few concerts in the Riverside parks featuring local talents such as the Midian Shrine Hillbilly Dixieland Jazz Band or some of the livelier gospel quartets, and quaint competitions such as the bed races down Main Street, bathtub races on the Arkansas River, and a tug-of-war on the sand bar in a river bend near downtown that the closest thing to beach one can find in Wichita. There was a delightfully cornball quality to the whole affair, a small town festival done in relatively big city style, and it attracted an unabashedly old-fashioned crowd of moms, pops, and their well-mannered children which intimidated even the rough and rowdy elements into their best behavior.
So appealing was the River Festival that it began to draw bigger crowds, which in turn led to more careful planning, corporate sponsorships, focus-grouped and market-reached events, slick advertising by the more avant-garde agencies in the city, big name acts of 20 years booked into the bigger stages, and the gradual fading away of the bed races and bath tub races and the spontaneity and small town goofiness that had made it all worthwhile in the first place. The moms and pops and their well-mannered children seemed to fade away from the festival, too, leaving the streets of downtown and Delano to the packs of feral youths in the tank tops and too-short shorts with the woofing and whooing and fighting words tattooed to their necks. Our more respectable friends tell us that they now spend the River Festival safely tucked away in their east-side or west-side homes, bringing to mind the old Yogi Berra line about a restaurant that no one goes to anymore because it’s too crowded, and those of us who live in Riverside and the rest of city’s aging center all seem to just grouse about it.
Judging by the stories of violence, drunkenness, and boorishness that show up on the Drudge Report and other news summaries after big city festivals around the country, the River Festival is not a uniquely annoying event. Everywhere the middle class and its orderly ways seem to be abandoning the public square for its own gated sub-culture, where the children are privately educated and carefully segregated within their socio-economic group, thus ceding the streets and sidewalks and public schools to the rougher and rowdier elements of society. The same lowering effect can be seen across the popular culture, and in the social standards that prevail throughout the year at funerals, weddings, political meetings, and other events were a certain propriety sense of decorum was once observed, it all drives the last vestiges of old-fashioned sensibilities further into seclusion.
In another week or so the River Festival will be over, but the slow decline into a ruder society will likely continue. Reversing the trend will require the silent majority of the middle class to reassert their traditional cultural domination, and at this point they seem too quiet and well-mannered for that. Maybe this has something to do with all hell breaking loose around the rest of the world, too, and in any case it does not bode well.

— Bud Norman

The Right to Bear Flabby Arms

Sooner or later the do-gooders were going to get around to the fat people. Picking on the smokers, tokers, gun-toters, and taxpayers was never going to sate their lust for lovingly-applied power, and fat people make such an inviting target for even the most well-meaning bullies.
The crusade suffered a setback on Monday when a court threw out New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on “sugary drinks” larger than 16 ounces at restaurants, but that surely won’t be the end of it. Bloomberg, a media magnate-turned-municipal nanny who seems intent on proving the old Wallis Simpson adage that you can never be too rich or too thin, has already vowed an appeal. Having already prevailed in his war on smokers and gotten away such heavy-handed anti-heaviness tactics as his ban on trans-fats and salt shakers, Bloomberg has every reason to expect that he’ll prevail yet again.
We had hoped that the court would find a citizen’s right to order any size soda he damn well chooses somewhere within all those penumbras and whatnots where they found a right to abortion, but instead they found the ban merely “arbitrary and capricious” because it was enacted by the mayor’s health board rather than the city council and applied only to restaurants and not convenience stores or other purveyors of jumbo-sized pop. This means that the mayor need only ram it through an equally self-righteous majority of councilmen and then make it even more far-reaching, so we expect that the beautiful people of New York City will soon be spared the unsightly spectacle of their heftier fellow citizens waddling around sucking up caffeinated calories from bucket-sized cups. The meddlesome mayor has graciously announced that he “probably” won’t mandate gym memberships and no-pain-no-gain workouts, and thus far his assaults on too-loud earphone use are only rhetorical, but by the time Bloomberg is finished even the most fashionable New Yorkers will likely be pining for the decadent freedom of a small prairie town.
Whatever the fate of Bloomberg’s soda ban he can count on the continued assistance of Michelle Obama, the famously buff First Lady who has made fat kids her favorite cause. Obama’s latest effort against childhood obesity came in a speech at George Washington University, where she suggested that “product placement” in grocery stores could create a world in which “kids are begging and throwing tantrums to get you to buy more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.” Setting aside the question of whether Madison Avenue’s most sophisticated techniques could ever cure a normal child of his sweet tooth, there’s something slightly discomfiting about the notion of the government compelling private enterprises to employ shrewd marketing techniques to promote its own notions of what individuals should do in their private lives. This sort of thing is sometimes called fascism, at least when Republicans do it, and good intentions make it no more palatable.
Those of you who don’t smoke, stay trim, and keep your earphones turned to a Carpenters level of volume should be congratulated on your virtuous lifestyles but should not feel immune from the nosiness of the nanny state. You’re doing something they don’t like, and after they get all those fat people whipped into shape they’ll sooner or later get around to you.

— Bud Norman

The Power of Stigma

Stigma is back in style, but like so many other revived fashions it’s not quite the same the second time around.
For many millennia societies around the world successfully used widespread social disapproval rather than the law to discourage certain behaviors deemed harmful to a society, such as bearing children out of wedlock, but sometime in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s America stopped doing that. An ascendant counter-culture deemed such informal social prohibitions judgmental and intolerant, and in its collective judgment that could not be tolerated.
Now that the counter-culture has completely supplanted the culture, however, it has become quite comfortable stigmatizing various behaviors. The new rules are often complicated and inconsistent, but are somehow widely understood. All of the words once considered unfit for prime time are now bandied about at all hours as a sign of linguistic liberation, but racial slurs are strictly forbidden to all but the slurred groups, and previously respectable terms such as “merit,” “responsibility,” and “liberty” are shunned as racist code words. Smoking marijuana is tolerated, but smoking tobacco is not. All manner of sexual behavior is to be celebrated, but the cheesecake calendar hanging in the mechanic’s garage is considered unforgivably sexist.
New rules are being added rapidly, sometimes replacing contradictory rules just recently adopted. Bullying the obese has lately been considered uncouth, for instance, but now a former senior lecturer at Harvard’s medical school is insisting that overweight people be “shamed and beat upon socially.” It will come as a surprise to fat kids everywhere that there is a lack of stigmatization against them, but Daniel Callahan, now the president emeritus of the Hastings Center think tank, states that “Only a carefully calibrated effort of public social pressure is likely to awaken them to the reality of their condition.” Others are going so far as to say that obese people should be denied medical care for any health problems that might result from their extra pounds, arguing that the country’s newly collectivized health care system makes a person’s weight and other matters previously considered his own business a matter of public interest. This strikes us as an argument against collectivized health care, but we are not au courant on the current values.
There is also a concerted effort afoot to make gun ownership socially unacceptable, if not outright illegal. Attorney General Eric Holder was at it as far back as 1995, when he gave a speech urging the use of “brainwashing” to convince young people that any possession of a weapon is “not cool,” and in recent weeks the campaign has become something of a national frenzy. This effort will likely face more than the usual resistance, however, partly because gun owners tend to be the sort of people who are unusually immune to social fads, partly because the same Hollywood stars demanding gun control have done such a fine job of glamorizing gun violence, and mainly because so many Americans still have the common sense to know that being defenseless against a criminal element with little regard for social custom is also quite uncool.
The push stigmatize gun is part of a larger effort to render any opinions contrary to modern liberalism as socially unacceptable. President Obama took the opportunity of pushing his gun control agenda to take yet another verbal shot at the Fox News channel and radio pundit Rush Limbaugh’s program, two of the few widely consulted media that dare criticize his policies and publicize the results, and we have already noticed that in polite society both are already considered an affront to good taste. The new rules were apparently neatly explained by a recent episode of painstakingly politically correct television show “Girls” on HBO, where the lead character reportedly engaged in a previously stigmatized and currently celebrated inter-racial sexual relationship but was forced to dump the poor fellow after finding out that he’s a Republican.
One needn’t be O. Henry to appreciate the irony of a counter-culture that so giddily rebelled against any form of social restraint learning to love wielding the power of stigma. It would be nicely ironic, too, if these ever more restrictive rules inspire a counter-counter-culture and the squares get the satisfying frisson of bravely defying convention.

— Bud Norman