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An Unduly Hard Month of May in the Current Age of Reason

This month of May has already taken a deadly toll on the intellectual life of America, in ways both figurative and literal. Aside from all the daily dumbing-down of the United States that you’ll note in the headlines and talk radio chatter, we’ve also lost some of the very best minds from the previous better era of high culture and academia.
Earlier this month we penned a heartfelt farewell to Tom Wolfe, who was the greatest American writer of the past half-century in our opinion, and now we find ourselves respectfully noting the past week’s deaths of both Richard Pipes and Bernard Lewis, who in our opinion were the two most formidable thinkers of their time in their essential academic fields
Neither Pipes nor Lewis were ever nearly as household-name famous as any of the Kardashians or the latest rap star or that lawyer for a porno performer who’s lately been on the cable channels causing all sorts of problems for the President of the United States, but in the long run we expect they’ll prove far more consequential.
Pipes, who died on May 17 at the age of 94, was a Harvard professor of Russian and Soviet history. That sounds pretty boring by current pop culture standards, and that Harvard professorship will immediately raise suspicions among the current version of conservative talk radio chatter, but his scholarly analysis of the Cold War, which was a hot topic at the time, played a key role in bringing that conflict to a for-now successful conclusion for what’s left of Western Civilization and classically liberal democracy.
Despite his Harvard professorship and the academic fashions of his moment, which politely agreed that international communism was an historical inevitability, Pipes daringly predicted that the Soviet model’s fundamental flaws doomed it to failure that a robust challenge from a more culturally and economically vibrant and militarily stronger West could more quickly bring about. President Ronald Reagan had already reached the same conclusion, but he still drew on the depth of Pipes’ analysis as he pursued that agenda, and he was quite effective in noting to the press and public opinion that his policies had the imprimatur of a some fancy-assed Harvard professor who scholarship was unchallenged even by his critics. Both Pipes and Reagan suffered the derision of the left, which was probably harder on the academic Pipes, but for now they seem vindicated by history.
Lewis, who died Saturday at the ripe old age of 101, was a longtime professor of Middle Eastern studies at the equally fancy-pants Princeton University. That sounds pretty boring to the popular culture and suspicious to the talk radio chatter, too, but he also did Western Civilization a huge favor by defying academic fashions about the great global civilizational clash that was unleashed at the end the Cold War.
Lewis was born into a middle-class Jewish American family around the same time T.E. Lawrence, who had majored in was was then called “Orientalism” at an elite British University, was leading an Arab revolt to help Britain’s efforts in World War I. By the time Lewis was pursuing his higher education in the same discipline it was called Middle Eastern studies, but he went at it with the same diligence and cultural confidence as “Lawrence of Arabia.” He mastered Hebrew far beyond what his Bar Mitzvah reading required, became equally fluent in Farsi and Arabic, modestly joked that he could “make the noises” of another 11 languages, and dug deeply into all of the cultures those languages represented and reported his finding in pristine English prose.
Although he inevitably found plenty of good and bad in all the cultures he surveyed, as well as the intrusive and all-too-human culture he came from, Lewis never shied from the necessary judgments needed to make sense of it all. He frequently defied the academic fashions of his time by opining that fundamental differences between the Islamic and more or less Judeo-Christian cultures made a “conflict of civilizations” inevitably in an increasingly small world, and that in the long run the world would be better off the more culturally and economically and military stronger West prevailed.
Despite his undisputed scholarship and Ivy League credentials, in the 1990’s Lewis was challenged as the premier Middle Eastern scholar by Columbia professor Edward Said, whose surprisingly best-selling book “Orientalism” charged that the academic field was still tainted by a Occidental bias against the poor victims of the West’s rapacious colonialism. The debate was still raging when some suicidal Islamist terrorists crashed hijacked airplanes into the Wold Trade Center and the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania farm field way back in ’01, and for a while there the debate between Lewis and Said was a hot topic. Both sides have since had considerable influence on subsequent events, for better and worth, but for now Lewis has been more influential, and we expect that in the long he will be vindicated.
For now, though, one month’s loss of the likes of the clear-eyed likes of Wolfe and Pipes and Lewis gives some worry, ¬†especially when the rest of the news and talk radio chatter is so alarmingly divorced from the sort of fact-based and dispassionately objective analysis these men once provided.

— Bud Norman

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Our Monday Answer to Thursday’s News

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the “Russia thing” will be a year old on Thursday, and we can already guess how almost everybody will mark the anniversary.
President Donald Trump’s die-hard defenders on talk radio and other right-wing media will loudly argue that if a year of dogged digging hasn’t produced a iron-clad case that the Trump campaign aided the Russian government’s efforts to meddle in the past presidential and the Trump administration then attempted to obstruct the various investigations into the matter, they might as well concede defeat and close up shop.
These are the same pundits who cheered on the special prosecutors’ investigations into President Bill Clinton as they veered from the Whitewater land deal to an affair with a White House intern and stretched out over four years and wound up with a semen-stained blue dress. They also spent three years defending congressional investigations of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s role in the deadly fiasco at Benghazi, Libya, and it’s a sure bet that if Clinton had won the last presidential election they’d be eager to let the inevitable investigations into her e-mail practices and family foundation and various other matters take as long they required. Indeed, those same pundits are still chanting “lock her up” and don’t seem to care how long that might take.
There’s likely to be the same hypocrisy on the left, of course, as many of the same pundits and politicians who once decried the ever-widening scope and plodding pace of the many Clinton investigations will surely be insisting on Thursday that the Mueller investigation be granted wide latitude about hush money payments to porno performers and president’s personal lawyer’s receipt of big bucks from a Russian-linked firm and other matters as well as plenty of time to get the bottom of it all. Such is the nature of punditry and politics these days.
We didn’t care much for either of the Clintons, and were willing to be patient with whatever legal scrutiny they were subjected to, but neither do we care much for Trump, so without fear of accusations of hypocrisy we’re willing to grant Mueller wide latitude and as much time as he needs.
In this case, the wheels of justice seem to be grinding far faster than these political investigations usually proceed. Mueller’s investigation has already yielded 19 indictments of people and three companies associated with the Trump campaign and administration, including some high-profile guilty pleas including a campaign and administration national security advisor and jail time for some foreign lawyer you’ve never heard of, and several of the countless witnesses they’ve interviewed describe a team that already seems to know all the answers. The only people they haven’t yet interviewed are the ones a shrewd prosecutor such as Mueller would surely save for last, and someone who’s not on Mueller’s leak-proof ship has leaked an outline of 49 very hard-to-answer questions they intend to ask Trump himself in an interview they’re already negotiating with his ever-changing team of lawyers.
Which is not bad for a “witch hunt,” as Trump and his die-hard defenders continually describe Mueller’s investigation. Even without subpoena power the “fake news” media have forced the president’s namesake son to release an e-mail chain documenting his and his brother-in-law and the campaign manager’s meeting with a Russian-linked lawyer they understood to be acting on the Russian government’s behalf, the porno performer’s surprisingly shrewd lawyer has forced that Russian-linked company to admit that they did indeed make a huge payment to Trump’s surprisingly inept and defenestrated and under-investigation lawyer, and there are those high-profile indictments and guilty pleas, and by now enough of the “fake news” has been verified that only a hypocrite wouldn’t allow another few months to get the bottom of it.
In a few months a third of the Senate and all of the House of Representatives will be up for reelection, and we can already guess what a mess of hypocritical punditry and politics that will be. If the Mueller investigation comes up with an iron-clad case of conspiracy and obstruction by then the right will claim vindication for its conspiracy that it’s all a “deep state” plot to overthrow the president, and if it doesn’t the left will surely be plenty angry about it.
Although there’s no telling what time it will take, we expect that as always the truth will come out. At this point in time, we expect the truth will be embarrassing to Trump.
At the end of the long investigations of Bill he had to admit to an “improper relationship” with that White House intern, and although he escaped conviction in an impeachment trial he temporarily lost his law license and so tarnished his awful wife with her own thoroughly investigated scandals that wound up losing to the likes of Trump, but the same left that now has a zero-tolerance policy about sexual impropriety decided that it really didn’t care if the President of the United States was doing tawdry cigar tricks with a 25-year-old intern. If the end of the Trump investigations prove just as clearly that he conspired with a hostile foreign power to meddle in an American election we expect his ardent defenders and erstwhile cold warriors and champions of law and order to proclaim that’s no big deal.
Such is the state of American punditry and politics these days. We came of age during the two long years of the Watergate scandal before Nixon resigned, and have lived through similar outrages from both the left and right, so we’re resigned to a longer wait for the conclusion of this.

— Bud Norman

On the Importance of the Right Lawyer

The late and great jazz singer Blossom Dearie used to sing a song by the great and still-going songwriter Dave Frishberg called “My Attorney Bernie,” which cleverly describes the sort of almost perfect legal eagle you’d want on your side in pinch. We’d recommend that Trump call up Frishberg and get that Bernie guy’s number, because one of the lawyers he long relied on is currently needing a damned good lawyer of his own, and the President of the United States’ current legal team has lately been getting its butt kicked across all the newspapers and cable channels by the attorney for a porno performer called Stormy Daniels.
Michael Cohen, one of Trump’s many erstwhile attorneys, recently had a federal search warrant executed at his home and office and hotel room, issued by a federal court persuaded there was reason to believe it might yield evidence that Cohen had committed wire fraud and bank fraud and other possible violations of the law when paying the aforementioned porno performer to stop talking about the desultory sexual encounter she claims to have had with the future President of the United States. That was bad enough, but now the news is full of reports that Cohen also took in a very large amount of money from the Korean Aerospace Corporation and the American Telephone & Telegraph corporation and some nebulous business tied to a Russian billionaire tied to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, all through the same shell corporation he’d chartered in infamously nonchalant Delaware to pay off the poor performer.
The news comes courtesy of documents discovered by some means or another ad disseminated to the media by Michael Avanatti, the porno performer’s lawyer and at this point the second biggest reality star on television after the president. Cohen’s less-visible lawyer is for now claiming the documents are phony, but several mainstream media outlets have corroborated their authenticity, and the Korean Aerospace Corporation and AT&T and the Russkie-linked business of nebulous purpose have already sent out press releases unconvincingly explaining why they did indeed make such large payments to a shell corporation that had originally been chartered to pay off a porno performer.
In response Trump has deployed the legal and public relations services of the former legendary federal prosecutor and undeniably successful New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, but by now Giuliani seems well past his prime. He visibly upset even such a Trump sycophant as Sean Hannity by admitting that Trump’s lawyer had paid $130,000 to a porno performer and that the current President of the United States had reimbursed him for the favor, and although he was hired as a lawyer on separate “Russia thing” we notice he’s not as notable as Avanatti on the cable news to explain why a Russian-linked business might have been adding a half-million bucks to the shell corporation the former president’s lawyer had created to pay off the a porno performer who turns out to have a far better lawyer than the president.
There might well be a perfectly innocent explanation for everything Trump’s erstwhile lawyer has done, and even if there isn’t Trump’s more recent lawyers might well have a perfectly innocent explanation about how he had nothing to do with it, but we’d advise they all lawyer up with the closest they can find to Blossom Dearie’s attorney, Bernie.

— Bud Norman

Porno Performers, Evangelical Christians, and Those Hard-to-Answer Questions

Thursday brought both torrential rains and a gloriously warm and blue skies to our portion of the Great Plains, but back east in Washington, D.C., White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders faced unrelentingly stormy weather. We almost felt sorry for the poor woman.
On Wednesday night one of President Donald Trump’s more recent attorneys, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, had gone on Sean Hannity’s exceedingly Trump-friendly program on Fox News and acknowledged that eleven days before the past presidential election Trump paid $130,000 to a pornographic video performer called Stormy Daniels to not talk about an tryst she claimed to have had with him shortly after his third wife gave birth to his fifth child. Both Trump and his White House press secretary had until then insisted the president knew nothing about any payments to any porno performers, and that you’d have to ask that lawyer the president once called his “fixer” and now describes as someone he barely knows, and has recently had thorough federal search warrant executed on his home and office and hotel room, so Sanders had some serious explaining to do.
She started her Spanish Inquisition of a White House press briefing with upbeat talk about Trump’s enthusiasm for National Prayer Day and the recent hopeful developments on the Korean peninsula, but the press corps were in no mood for that. They had some hard to answer questions about Trump recently blaming President Barack Obama for some Americans being detained by North Korea during his own administration, and the ensuing questions about the past misstatements about a now-acknowledged $130,000 payment to a porno performer made all that talk about National Prayer Day sound ridiculous. That got bogged down in talk about campaign finance law that Sanders had trouble explaining away, too, and those pesky reporters kept asking impossible to answer questions about how often the official White House position has shifted on countless matters, and why anyone should believe anything the White House press secretary has to say.
Sanders insisted that she first learned that the president had paid $130,000 to a porno performer when his lawyer blurted that out on the Hannity show, and even those cynical sorts in the White House press corps didn’t doubt that a bit. She couldn’t bring herself to blame her past misstatements about the matter on being deliberately misinformed by her boss, though, and without that frank admission it was impossible to reconcile what she was saying on Thursday with what she’d been saying until then.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders goes by that name because she’s proudly the daughter of Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister who served two fairly successful terms as Governor of Arkansas and ran a couple of futile campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination, and she seems to have inherited both her father’s political and religious instincts. Like many other professed evangelical Christians she considers Trump’s appointment of an anti-abortion Supreme Court Justice and revocation of the Johnson Amendment that threatened the tax-exempt status of any pro-Trump preachers and his professed enthusiasm for National Prayer Day more important than any hush money payments he might have to paid to somme porno performer, and of course she’s finding it hard to explain that to both the secular and spiritual sorts.
Our own secular and cynical selves are by now pretty much convinced that the current President of the United States did indeed have an adulterous encounter with a porno performer shortly after his third wife gave birth to his fifth child, and by now the president’s lawyer has admitted on Sean Hannity’s show — of all places — that Trump paid her $130,000 not to say so. Our more spiritual and proudly evangelical Christian side still holds out hope that Trump and Sanders will offer not only confession but some semblance of contrition in the future, and that the routine lies they tell from behind a podium with the official White House seal about all sorts of things will eventually cease, but by now it’s only a faint hope.

— Bud Norman

A Busy and Upset Thursday, for Better and Worse

Thursday was a busy day for us, what with rehearsals for our annual theatrical turn and Kansas State University’s Wildcats pulling off a big upset in the national college basketball tournament and the trash needing to be taken to the curb, which made it hard to keep up with a busier than even usual news day.
The stock markets swooned as a trade war with China broke out, a former Playboy “playmate of the year” gave a lengthy interview about her past adulterous affair with then private citizen Donald Trump, and a national security advisor regarded as one of the steady hands in the White House was replaced with a hothead from Fox News, along with other noteworthy developments.
Candidate Trump ran on a promise to protect certain American industries with punitive tariffs, and President Trump has “tweeted” that “Trade wars are good and easy to win,” and after he fired the steady hand who’d been his economic advisor who’d urged restraint it was no surprise that he announced stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum on $60 billion worth of tariffs on a variety of Chinese goods. Neither was it a surprise when the European Union threatened retaliatory tariffs, nor when China announced them on Thursday, nor when stock markets around the world swooned on the news.
Perhaps the trade war will prove as good and easily won as Trump predicts, but we share all of the stock markets’ doubts. There is no historical precedent for a good and easily won trade war, after all, and they’ve all gone so badly they wound up with everyone losing. For all its faults the free-trading post-World War II global economic brought great prosperity and relative peace to both America and the rest of the world, and despite his salesmanship we can’t see Trump persuading all those other countries to give up their share of the pie.
Although it’s less likely to immediately affect your next 401K statement, the former Playboy “playmate of the year’s” interview with the Cable News Network’s Anderson Cooper was of more than prurient interest. Not that there wasn’t plenty of prurient interest to be had, of course, what with a billionaire playboy and future president doing the nasty with his nudie model girlfriend while his nudie model wife was at home nursing their recently born son, but at this point in the post-President Bill Clinton era even the evangelicals seem rather jaded about that sort of thing. The bigger problem is yet another blow to Trump’s believability, because he’s denying the affair and the former Playboy “playmate of the year” seems by far the more credible of the two.
She’s got notebooks and photographs and hotel receipts and other corroborating evidence of an affair, and her on-camera account of the affair has a verisimilitude no actress can achieve. She freely acknowledges that the adulterous affair was mutually consensual, didn’t describe any of the unwanted groping that Trump has bragged about and numerous women have alleged, said that he was handsome and charming, sadly recalled how he had offered to pay their sexual encounters, and even insisted that she voted from Trump and still supports his presidency. So far she doesn’t seem to have profited from the past affair, and when she credibly says she doesn’t want to hurt Trump we can’t imagine what her motive might be other than to come clean.
Which only adds to the credibility of the pornographic video performer who is also alleging an adulterous affair with Trump right around the same time, and whose interview with the same Anderson Cooper is scheduled to air on Sunday’s episode of the Columbia Broadcast System’s “60 Minutes.” Trump likes to brag about how he drives the news ratings, and our guess is that on Sunday night Cooper and CBS will benefit from that more than he does.
The porn performer’s story has an even more prurient appeal than that centerfold model’s, as it doesn’t have any of the weepy and cliched I-thought-he-loved-me parts and includes salacious details about rolled-up copies of Forbes Magazine with Trump’s picture on the cover. She describes a more transactional relationship where provided what she considered routine sex in exchange for a chance to be a contestant on Trump’s reality show, and although she’s brazenly capitalizing on her notoriety with a “Make America Horny Again” strip club tour her story also has a ring of truth to our ears.
The $130,000 that Trump’s lawyer admits he paid the porno performer just before the election might constitute a violation of campaign finance law, too, which adds to Trump’s already expensive legal bills from the ongoing “Russia thing” and various other matters. Trump has lately been shaking up his legal team, with Washington’s most high-powered attorney declining the offer but a conspiracy theorist from Fox News joining the team, but their task of defending his credibility will be even harder.
The recent shakeups in the administration are also unsettling. The outgoing national security adviser was three star Army general H.R. McMaster, one of the steady hands who offered such sage advice to Trump as “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” in a recent phone call with dubiously reelected Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, which Trump of course rejected, and the incoming national security advisor is John Bolton, who does not strike us as an upgrade. He’s a past United Nations Ambassador and longtime figure in national security circles, but his brusque style seems to have found a better fit at Fox News, where he routinely has urged Trump to follow his natural and nationalist instincts. He’s no more likely to restrain Trump’s impulsive temperament that the Fox News guy who replaced the steady hand economic advisor that warned against a trade war.
On a busier than usual Thursday news cycle, it all adds up a certain unease. It’s a sad state of affairs when a Playboy model and porno performer are more believable than a president, but here we are. The same recklessly impulsive fellow who got himself into those tawdry messes is now waging a global trade war and in charge of preventing the military kind, and he’s firing steady hands and hiring cheerleaders.
On the other hand, rehearsals went well, K-State whipped that snooty Kentucky squad and moves on to its 13th “elite eight” game, and we got the trash out to the curb.

— Bud Norman