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Covfefe and Kerfuffles

The news slowed enough on Wednesday that the talking heads were reduced to talking about a minor celebrity’s bad taste in propaganda and the latest bizarre presidential “tweet.” Neither story was very consequential, especially compared to what else has been going lately, but they provided something to talk about.
The minor celebrity is Kathy Griffin, an unfunny comedian we’re usually happy to ignore, but there was no ignoring the outrage that resulted when she published a picture of herself holding an effigy of President Donald Trump’s bloody severed head. As a joke it was unfunny even by Griffin’s usual standards, as a political statement it was completely pointless, and as an effort to undermine Trump it proved counterproductive. Trump and his supporters could rightly point to it as an example of how mean spirited and meaningless so much of the criticism of his administration has been, while Trump’s more respectable and reasonable critics also condemned it lest their more substantive arguments be tarred by association. Eventually the Cable News Network wound up canceling Griffin’s annual gig co-hosting a New Year’s Eve show, the usually unapologetic comic was profusely apologizing across the internet, and as we scanned the news nobody seemed to be coming to her defense.
That lack of solidarity on the left took a lot of the fun out of it for those on the right who wanted to talk about how appalled all the liberals would have been if anyone had said or done anything similarly disrespectful about President Barack Obama. Some of them talked about it anyway, so some people on the left talked about all the times the numerous times people on the right did do and say similarly disrespectful about Obama, including that time when heavy metal guitarist and recent White House guest Ted Nugent regaled a concert crowd with some between-song patter about beheading Obama and various other Democrats, and as all usual the various charges of hypocrisy from both sides carried some truth. Such pop cultural outrages are by now so common they’ve become banal, to the point they don’t warrant mention except on slow news days or higher-profile celebrities, and the angle almost everyone seemed to miss is that both sides of the political divide our degraded our civil discourse to such a sordid state.
The other big topic of water cooler conversation was Trump’s early-morning “Tweet” declaring “Despite the constant negative press convfefe.” That cryptic sentence and its baffling neologism lingered on the internet for six hours or so before being deleted, but by then a lot of Trump critics far wittier than Griffin were having great fun poking at Trump’s characteristic unintelligibility without resorting to gruesome decapitation gags. There were plenty of “memes” and “gifs” and other internet hilarity, too, and even the right wing talk radio hosts were trying to get in on the joke. One wag “tweeted” that Covfefe is New York’s hottest nightclub, adding that “It has everything: Russian entanglements, spray tans, creepy handshakes, surprise trade wars.” Another predicted that White House Sean Spicer would once again say “The ‘tweet’ speaks for itself.”
Spicer seemed unamused during a press conference where new rules were introduced to limit the press corps’ recording rights, which might have been a story on an even slower news day, growling that “I think the president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant.” This cryptic statement led one of the callers on a right wing talk radio show we heard while driving around town to speculate that “covfefe” was a code signal to a cadre of Trump co-conspirators, much as “Jean has a long mustache” tipped off the French Resistance that the invasion was starting in “The Longest Day,” but even the host wasn’t buying that.
Most people on both sides of the debate figured that Trump had started to write something about negative press coverage before either falling asleep or being distracted by some pressing crisis or nearby shiny object, or otherwise losing his bullet train of thought, and it was just one of those things that happens to people in the internet age. This “tweet” didn’t accuse a former president of wire-tapping and being either sick or bad, and it didn’t threat any trade relations with longstanding allies, and Trump himself  with a more-lighthearted-than-Spicer and more-clever-than-Griffin “tweet” that “”Who can figure out the true meaning of ‘covfefe??? Enjoy!” That’s not at all reassuring, though, and despite the undeniable humor it was still yet another daily grim reminder of how very degraded our civil discourse has become.
It was nonetheless a welcome relief from the daily screaming matches about all the latest scandals and attempts at censorship by sides and the hypocrisy about it that so rife there’s plenty spread around. On the next slow news day it would be nice if the president didn’t “tweet” and his fellow celebrities somehow refrained from attention-grabbing outrage, and the talking heads are forced to calmly talk about whatever became of that health care bill and the similarly forgotten tax reform bill and America’s role in a global economy and the rest of the boring stuff that people used to talk about before the discourse became so degraded.

— Bud Norman

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Invasion of the Celebrities

Oprah Winfrey is reportedly considering running for president in 2020, which is the sort of celebrity gossip we used to happily ignore but now have to take seriously in the age of President Donald Trump. She’s a more popular television personality than Trump was before launching his political career, has just as much government experience, and would no doubt get the same lavish media attention Trump received in a presidential race. Her penchant for leaving gifts under the seats would play well with many voters, too, and her warmer and fuzzier public persona might prove all the more appealing after four years of Trump.
There’s also talk of running the musicians Kid Rock or Ted “Motor City Madman” Nugent as Republican candidates for a Michigan Senate seat, billionaire sports owner and reality television star Mark Cuban is apparently starting to wonder why he couldn’t be president, rapper and Trump pal Kanye West has been making threats of a run for years, and former sitcom star Roseanne Barr already has a sixth-place finish in a presidential race and next time around all her crackpot conspiracy theories might not sound so crazy. Celebrities have leaped into high office before, including Sonny Bono and that guy who played the doctor on “Love Boat” to the House of Representatives, a former Saturday Night Live wag to the Senate, and professional wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura and professional body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governorships of populous states.
The country had also elected a former Hollywood actor to the presidency, but only after he’d been president of a national labor union and served two terms as governor of the most populous state and many more years as an elder statesman of conservatism, and none of the current crop of celebrity contenders can boast such credentials. Kid Rock’s heavy-metal-rap-country stage show used to include a sidekick midget, so he can credibly claim to stand by the little man, and Nugent’s guitar solo on The Amboy Duke’s “Baby Please Don’t Go” still sounds better than that Elton John and Rolling Stones stuff Trump always plays at his rallies for some reason or another, but that’s not what we’re looking for in a candidate to what’s supposed to be the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body. Cuban strikes us as hipster version of Trump, and he traded Steve Nash from the Dallas Mavericks just before his Most Valuable Player Seasons, and unless he’s darned good on that reality show we’re not that impressed. Kanye West is kookier than Rosanne Barr, too, and the past track record of celebrity apprentices is not promising. Sonny Bono and the Love Boat guy were mediocrities in the House, that Saturday Night Live guy is as much an embarrassment to Minnesota as the pro wrestler was, and Schwarzenegger was far better in “Conan the Barbarian” than he was in the role of Governor of California.
Still, celebrities start with certain advantages if they decide to make a career change to politics. They start with bigger fan bases than mere politicians, for one, because everyone hates politicians. That popularity also derives from a certain image that can be easily carried into the ring, too, such as Trump’s blunt-spoken take-charge businessman shtick, or the sensitive and caring sincerity that Winfrey so effortlessly fakes, and we assume that even the likes of Rock and Nugent and West and Barr have some qualities people find so admirable that they’ve become rich and famous. There’s all that lavish attention the media pay to them, too, while the only time a mere public servant ever gets in the papers is when he’s raising taxes or cutting spending or letting budgets go in the red, because the reality of the real world is that those are really the only things anybody in office can do.
Even the most blunt-talking celebrities aren’t quite so frank as those limited choices and make a case for what they consider the least worst of them, so they peddle the notion that they overcome such dreary realities such as they’ve seemingly done in their own real lives. Celebrity is a lucrative industry into itself because it sells something people will always want, a vicarious experience of a life unconstrained by carpooling the kids to school and hearing rumors of lay-offs around the water cooler and coming home to a spouse who’s not aging as well as hoped and sitting on the couch to watch whatever’s on the tube, and the profit margins are high because you don’t have to produce anything real. Politics is a pretty lucrative business, too, especially if you have the same ethics as the average celebrity, but its results are always all too tangible.
People used to be fond of saying that “politics is the art of the possible,” but at this point in our popular culture, when one can be any race or sex or species of their choosing, and the conspiracies about a cabal of shape-shifting reptilian Jesuits and Jews and Masons and future presidential nominee Lady Gaga are part of an Illumnati that’s running everything are gaining wide currency, the idea that some things just aren’t possible is hopelessly out of fashion. Celebrity reality will likely prevail for a while, be it the tough Trump style or the softer Winfrey variety, or heaven help us even the West and Rock kind, but real reality always wins n the end.
They’d also say “politics is show biz for ugly people,” back in the day. We used to think that amusing and apt, but it’s no longer so funny and is also hopelessly out of date. These days politics is becoming show biz for people who haven’t aged so well despite their magical shape-shifting powers and are now too ugly or old-fashioned for show biz.

— Bud Norman

Free Speech Blues

Being ever vigilant about the right to free speech, our eyes were drawn to two particular stories in the news this week.

One involves the veteran rock ‘n’ roll guitarist Ted Nugent, whose name ordinarily would not appear in this space. Although we still enjoy a recording of “Baby, Please Don’t Go” that he made way back in his days with the Amboy Dukes, a band whose performances at the Orpheum Theater in the early ‘70s left many of our classmates prematurely deaf, we’re not huge fans.

An avid outdoorsman and one of the few outspokenly conservative performers in the rock ‘n’ roll field, Nugent gave a rather fiery speech last weekend at a meeting of the National Rifle Association. In a long rant about the Obama administration, Nugent went so far as to say “We need to ride into that battlefield and chop their heads off,” and he predicted that he would soon be “dead or in jail” if Obama were re-elected.

There’s no denying that the language about chopping heads off was overwrought, as one might expect from the self-proclaimed “Motor City Wild Man,” but the prediction he offered seems a little less paranoid after Nugent received a visit from the Secret Service. No arrest was made nor any charges filed, and Nugent later described the interrogation as a “good, solid, professional meeting concluding that I have never made any threats of violence toward anyone,” but there’s still something unsettling about the news that an American citizen is forced to explain his public remarks to law enforcement officials. Perhaps it was just a hyper-sensitivity to threats on the part of the Secret Service, which is no doubt eager to demonstrate that it’s doing something other than consorting with prostitutes, but we suspect that if it had happened to one of the countless entertainers that made similarly outrageous statements during the Bush administration it would be considered a deliberate attempt to deter criticism.

Far more frightening was the speech given Thursday by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats, wherein she endorsed amending the First Amendment to allow for regulation of political speech. Still fuming about the Citizens United decision that upheld the free speech rights of people who have joined together as corporations, Pelosi said her party has “a clear agenda in this regard: Disclose, reform the system reducing the role of money in campaigns, and amend the Constitution to rid it of this ability for special interests to use secret, unlimited, huge amounts of money flowing to campaigns.”

It might be assumed that Pelosi’s amendment to the First Amendment would not affect the free speech rights of such corporations as Hollywood movie studios, newspaper chains and broadcast networks, or any industry that can plausibly claim to be “green,” but that could change if they stop behaving properly according to the notions of the Democrats. We gladly support the right of corporations to state their case to the public as well as the public’s right to hear them, and are suspicious of any party that claims it can revive the economy while flouting its contempt for such businesses, but we also worry who might be next on the censors’ list. Every time some strip club, pornographer, or “performance artist” is in any way restrained, even if only by the public’s opprobrium, the left assures us that such a restraint will inevitably lead to the regulation of political speech, but when the left’s own leaders openly call for the regulation of political speech they never seem worried that it might lead to constraints on any other kind of free expression.

— Bud Norman