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Politics is Down-Sewer From the Culture

On a slow news weekend The Washington Post tends to feature stories about contemporary popular culture, and they always make us feel old and out of touch. The paper’s weekly update about Saturday Night Live’s opening sketch mentioned someone named Tekashi 6ix9ine, along with actress Lori Loughlin, whose name we learned only after she was arrested in that big deal college admissions scandal, and lawyer Michael Avanatti, who of course is best known for representing pornographic video performer Stormy Daniels, whom we’d never heard of until she broke her nondisclosure agreement with President Donald Trump.
Judging by the Post’s extensive coverage, we’re apparently the only people in America who don’t watch “Game of Thrones,” and despite our lifelong literary bent it had not previously occurred to us wonder where’s the great millennial novel. The contemporary popular culture questions on “Jeopardy!” almost always stump us, and we can’t converse much with the under-40 set about anything but politics, sports, and the weather.
Our mostly disgruntled younger friends assure us that we’re not missing out on much, and based on our occasional and brief encounters with the contemporary popular culture we tend to believe them. We looked into this Tekashi 6ix9ine fellow — apparently that last name is pronounced “six-nine,” but spelled according to modern educational standards — and we’re told by Wikipedia that “His musical career has been marked by an aggressive style of rapping, while his controversial public persona is characterized by his distinctive rainbow-colored hair, excessive tattoos, public feuds with fellow celebrities, and legal issues.” Given all the great Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee and Hank Williams and Duke Ellington and Ramones records and other great American music in our extensive collection, we saw no reason to look any further.
Although we took a sociological interest in the big college admissions scandal we didn’t bother to investigate Loughlin’s work, as she’s apparently mostly starred in sit-coms and cable channel movies we’e never heard of. For reasons solely related to our political punditry we checked out a couple of Stormy Daniels’ performances, and you can go right ahead and call us old-fashioned, but all we can say is that she’s no Hyapatia Lee. People seem to like “Game of Thrones,” which we’re told features a lot of nudity and violence, but we’re not about to pay cable bills to see that when there’s so much of it for free on the internet. As for the awaited great millennial novel, we’d advise to the youngsters to read such timeless classics as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” and “The Things That are Caesar’s.”
Although the current popular culture doesn’t provide any refuge from the current politics, we suppose we should be paying more attention. Cultural conservatives have long said that “politics is downstream from culture,” and way back in in the ’72 Pat Buchanan was rightly observing that President Richard Nixon had won the election but lost the culture to the dirty hippies, and the downward trend seems to continue. We fear to see where it might go next, but probably out to take a look through our slightly opened fingers. Something eerily parallel does seem to be going on.
The current President of the United States was previously a star of one of those wretched reality shows, and much like that 6ix9ine fellow he has an aggressive stye of rapping and a flamboyantly weird hairstyle and a weird way of spelling words, and although he doesn’t have any tattoos we’re aware of his controversial public persona is clearly characterized by feuds with fellow celebrities and legal issues. We’d also note that Trump is the main reason Stormy Daniels is now a household, with countless husbands and horny high school students nervously erasing their search engine history. Except for the soft-core porno photos of the First Lady that are just a few clicks away on the internet the Trump presidency the Trump presidency has been blessedly free of nudity, but the president does seem to relish violence, and a lot of the more high-brow critics are claiming that “Game of Thrones” is a metaphor for our times. Nobody seems to read books anymore, and that notably includes the President of the United States, so even if the great millennial novel does appear it probably won’t make much difference.
That’s just the sorry state of the political right, too, and we shudder to think about what the political left that has been cheering on the decline of American culture since at least the ’60s might wind up nominating. We’ll keep listening to Bing Crosby’s crooning and watching Frank Capra’s sappy cinematic tributes to small-town Americana, and hope for a comeback of the more dignified American style of politics it fostered.

— Bud Norman

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The “Tweets” of Crazed Celebrities

If America had a more cerebral and less celebrity-addled popular culture few people would much care what the likes of Roseanne Barr “tweets,” and that guy from “The Apprentice” wouldn’t be President of the United States. As things stand now, though, attention must be paid to both.
For those of you spent Tuesday in a coma, the American Broadcasting Company abruptly cancelled the highly-rated “Roseanne” sitcom after its eponymous star unleashed a series of stunningly stupid “tweets.” One claimed that former First Daughter Chelsea Clinton had married into the family of controversial left-wing billionaire George Soros. Another alleged Soros had collaborated with the Nazis when they occupied his native Hungary. In the one that got her fired just a few hours later, she joked that Valerie Jarrett, a black woman and former top advisor to President Barack Obama, was the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and “Planet of the Apes.”
We’ve never cared much for Clinton or either of her parents, but she clearly got the better of the exchange when she classily and correctly “tweeted” back that in fact her husband has no relation to Soros. Although we don’t think much of Soros, either, we’ve seen no proof that as a 14-year-old Jew in an occupied country he was ever friendly to the Nazis. Over the Obama years we had our complaints about Jarrett, too, but we always took care to state them without resort to such flat-out and stone-cold racist tropes as comparing her to a monkey. As far as we’re concerned, ABC made the right call.
The “tweets” were somehow shocking to bien pensant sensibilities even though they were not at all surprising. Barr has always been an obnoxious crazy-pants conspiracy theorist, going back to the days when the original “Roseanne” was a critically-acclaimed hit in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when only the people on the right seemed to notice.
The first run of her sitcom depicted a white working class family struggling to make ends meet during the supposedly horrible Reagan-Bush era, ostentatiously featured several homosexual characters, and delivered even the funny lines with an unmistakably feminist smugness, so the left largely adored her. When she delivered a deliberately screeching rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” at a major league baseball game and followed it with a crotch-grab and a spit it was lauded as daring satire. When she embraced the “truther” conspiracy theory that President George W. Bush was responsible for the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon she was defended on free speech principles. When she posed for a magazine as Hitler making “Jew cookies” some tried to explain it as satire.
By the time Barr tried to win the far-left Green Party’s presidential nomination and wound up running as the nominee of something called the Peace and Freedom Party we largely ignored by almost everyone. Her sitcom had concluded with a low-rated final season that was widely panned by the critics and hated by the fans, her limited acting range had yielded only a couple of roles in flop movies, a reality show on an obscure cable network yielded minuscule ratings, and at first no one seemed to notice what a strange turn her craziness had taken. She embraced the “birther” theory that Obama had been born in Kenya and was constitutionally ineligible to be president, insisted that all the hotter stars in Hollywood were manipulated agents of the Central Intelligence Agency through its “MK-Ultra Mind Control” projects, appeared frequently on the Russian dictatorship’s “Russia Today” propaganda network on your cable dial, and wound up as one of the few Hollywood celebrities who endorsed the presidential campaign of that guy from “The Apprentice.”
After the inauguration of President Donald Trump, however, the programming executives at ABC were suddenly receptive to the pitch that a re-boot of “Roseanne” catching up with that same wisecracking struggling-to-make-ends-meet white working class family in this glorious Trumpian new day might have some appeal to the popular minority but electoral majority of Americans who ushered it in. The re-boot featured the entire original cast, including including the critically-acclaimed and generically Hollywood thespians who played the husband and daughter and sister of the title character, as well as the former child actor who had to take time off from an even bigger hit sit-com, but the advance publicity made clear that Barr’s titular and obviously autobiographical character was decidedly pro-Trump, and the premiere episode drew 18 million viewers and even some grudgingly positive reviews by critics who noted that the husband and daughter and sister got in a few jabs of their own. Shortly after that, he show was renewed for a second season.
Back in the three-network days of “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Fugitive” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” a mere 18 million viewers would have cancelled a show before its second episode, much less the 10 million viewers that the season finale drew, but in these days of a billion or so cable channels and the gazillion or so options on the internet those are both pretty impressive numbers for any old American broadcasting company. Trump gloated about it at one of his still ongoing campaign rallies, telling his die-hard fans that “the show is about us” and predicting that Hollywood’s greed would force it to adhere once again to their all-American values. After that, it was the post-Trump right that overlooked Barr’s craziness.
Trump was an even more prominent “birther,” so that craziness was easily forgivable. Although Trump never was a “truther,” be did win the Republican party’s presidential nomination parroting the left’s “Bush lied, people died” lie about the intelligence reports of intelligence about the Iraq War. Even Trump has never mentioned the “MK-Ultra Mind Control Project” during his conspiracy theorizing, but he and his die-hard fans and even ourselves have to admit there’s something pretty darned suspicious about who’s hot in Hollywood these days. As for the appearances on “Russia Today,” the Trump campaign’s foreign policy and the Trump administration’s first National Security Advisor was paid to sit next next to the Russian dictator at a dinner in honor of the propaganda network, so that’s no big deal. At this point, all the die-hard fans who hate those pro football players for kneeling during the national anthem have long-forgotten bar’s screeching and crotch-grabbing and spitting rendition of their beloved song. Trump didn’t mention Barr at his latest campaign rally, but he did recall some rapper at a Hillary Clinton campaign two years ago using the same foul language he had used at his events, and his apologists on talk radio and other conservative media rightly recalled all the leftist entertainers’ outrageous statements and outright craziness.
At this point pretty much everyone’s a hypocrite, except for those of us on the left and right who always spotted Barr as the pure product of a stupid and celebrity-addled popular culture. From our current vantage point on the sidelines of America’s cultural and political wars we feel free to make the calls against either side, and we say good riddance to both Barr and all the fashionable causes and crazy-pants conspiracy theories and reality show candidates se ever championed.

— Bud Norman

Popular Culture and Politics and Same-Sex Restrooms

Due to our upcoming brief appearance on the local amateur stage, the rehearsals for which have been taking up way too much of our time, we’ve lately been in contact with younger people. Worse yet, we’ve been in contact with their music, which is as awful as any more seasoned music-listener would expect, and also the similarly suspect political views that go along with it.
We’ve still found enough time to in the day to note a recent spate of stories on the internet about the alleged rights of self-identified transgendered people to choose the public restrooms of their choice and how people who object to same-sex marriages don’t have any right to decline to participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies, and we’ve noted how what’s left of the popular culture has responded. Big time rock stars are canceling gigs in states that refuse to toe the currently acceptable line on such matters, including some that pre-date even our aging selves, and we glumly acknowledge the culture has been declining for a while now. Our musical heroes and heroines from the good old days never had to confront such questions, and who knows where the likes of Little Richard of Chuck Berry might have weighed in if he’d been asked, but we still fondly recall an era where none of this even came up.
The cultural rot has been occurring so long now that even we recognize most of the names. Bruce Springsteen was a big deal back when we graduated from high school, and we still like that “Born to Run” song about the highways jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive, but we can only roll our eyes at the news that the well-heeled one-percenter is declining a gig in North Carolina because he doesn’t like the state’s rule that prohibits people from penises from using a women’s public restroom in the state. We’re also old enough to remember the 15 minutes of fame that someone named Byian Adams had, and to note that he’s canceling a gig in Mississippi to make sure that some Baptist baker there is coerced into catering a same-sex wedding. Even Ringo Starr, one of The Beatles, who date from our early childhood and who actually were pretty damned good, is eschewing dates in North Carolina for its refusal to force those damned Baptist bakers to bake that same-sex wedding cake.
One of our old and non-rock-star-or-theatrical friends recently had some dinner and drinks with us, and he commented that most of his homosexual friends seemed to be faring well enough and that he didn’t know any transgendered people who were having any problems with the local accommodations, and that he couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. We also don’t know any transgendered people who are having problems with the local restroom accommodations, and although our friend has a son we know some fine people with daughters that would rather not have them encountering some guy who claims to be transgendered in the public accommodations, and it seems danged strange we have to be even considering the question.
The young and relatively young people we’ve been running into lately seem a reasonable lot, though, by and large, and we think we can reach some reasonable agreement on these matters, no matter how egregious their musical tastes might seem.

— Bud Norman

Vulgar and Offensive

We had hoped to take a break from the decline and fall of western civilization over the weekend by immersing ourselves in college football, but of course it proved futile. The top-ranked team in the country was playing without its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, who had been suspended for the game due to “vulgar and offensive behavior,” and the frequent televised shots of the sidelined player cheering on his eligible teammates only reminded us of the sorry state of our culture.
“Vulgar and offensive behavior” isn’t quite so troubling as the domestic battery and child abuse scandals that have lately bedeviled the professional game, but it is so far more common that we didn’t need the reminder. Vulgarity and offensiveness are so commonplace, in fact, that instead of concerning passing and rushing and defensive statistics we found ourselves on the internet trying to find out just how much more vulgar and offensive than the prevailing standards a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback must be to get benched in a big game. The more polite media were vague, explaining only that the quarterback had shouted an “internet meme” at a group of women in a public square, but the “social media” reporting the accounts of the twittering students within earshot were more explicit. We’ll spare you the ugly verbatim details, but suffice to say that what he was shouting at women he did not know in a public square was pretty darned vulgar and offensive.
The offending Heisman Trophy winner, who won the prestigious award last year despite a credible accusation of rape by a fellow student, might well have had no idea that he was shouting something that would keep him out of a big game. It’s an “internet meme,” after all, and not significantly different from what you might hear on the latest pop hit or in a popular motion picture or see on the back of the t-shirt in front of you at the grocery store check-out line. Absent any connection to the social standards that prevailed just a generation ago, which a college-aged person of the moment is likely unaware of, it might have even struck him as a witty and convivial remark.
Which is all the more reason that we are heartened a football-crazed institution would risk a shot a national championship by sidelining the player. Even without the star player the team was still favored by more than a touchdown, which might well have informed the university’s decision, but it was still a brave stand on behalf of old-fashioned decency. As it turned out the inexperienced substitute played just well enough to send his team in overtime, where the opposing coach’s bone-headed call on a fourth-and-inches play secured a victory, but one can hope that the close call made an impression on the vulgar and offensive quarterback and his equally vulgar and offensive fans.

— 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 Screaming of the Modern World

The modern world has become an unbearably noisy place.

Saturday night provided a typical example of this unhappy phenomenon. We ventured out to join a friend’s bi-monthly karaoke party at a certain working class tavern, not in order to sing — no one wants to hear that — but because the event usually attracts at least a few people worth chatting with. On this occasion, however, there was a highly amplified band of middle-aged musicians on the patio blasting out songs from Grand Funk Railroad and other rock ‘n’ roll acts from the early days of their ongoing adolescence, so the karaoke singers retaliated by cranking up the volume of their warbling, the patrons began shouting their drink orders and chit-chat in order to be heard, all joining together to create a cacophony that made conversation impossible.

Seeing no point in shouting out our flirtations, and starting to suffer a severe headache, we motored to a nearby coffeehouse to sit outside and talk foreign policy and old movies with a savvy older hipster who hangs out there. The blaring bad band that usually holds forth from the bar across the street was luckily absent, and the alt-rock satellite station playing on the tinny speakers was held to a reasonable volume, but our conversation was routinely interrupted by an intermittent parade of Harley-Davidson motorcycles and neon-lit muscle cars that had all been tuned to an attention-grabbing roar. Eventually we abandoned our futile quest for conversation and retreated to the quiet of home, but at every stoplight along the way we were serenaded by the thudding rap and heavy metal of the cars that pulled up alongside.

Nobody else seemed to notice, much less find all the noise objectionable, but we suspect that is only because it has become so very omnipresent and unremarkable. The soundtracks on the movies at the local bijou, the shock jocks and the ranters on the radio, the advertisements on television, the patrons at the next table in the restaurant, the guy with the complaint about the donuts at the convenience store, all are loud and getting ever louder just to be heard over the din. Even in such a sedate neighborhood as ours the quiet at night is often violated by the thunderous sound systems of passing automobiles or the oldies concerts at a nearby park.

Some people seem to thrive on it, we’ve noticed, and even grow anxious in solitude or quiet. Perhaps they’ve grown addicted to the relentless sensory stimulus provided by our quick-cut popular culture, or maybe they simply fear the loneliness of being left alone with their thoughts. It’s possible, on the other hand, that they’ve never had the opportunity to learn the serenity that can be found in silence.

We offer no solutions to this modern annoyance, only a softly stated lament and a hope that if more people notice all the noise there might be some sort of cultural revolution against it. Let the silent majority prevail.

— Bud Norman