Friday, August 26, 2016

Even More Flags

A scene in a British comedy film from probably the 1950s or ‘60s*: The location is a movie theater (I guess I should write “theatre”) on whose screen the last images of the film are fading away. Suddenly, the patrons jump to their feet and make a mad rush to the exits—until the recorded strains of “God Save the Queen” freeze the less fleet of foot in their tracks.
The Olympic games have gone, and with them their usual cornucopia of Kitsch, Nazi-iconography, cheating, biased judging, and out-of-water stupidity (stand up, Ryan Lochte!). With the addition this year of the manufactured outrage at American gymnast Gabby Douglas’ non-placing of her hand over her heart during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”** 

I have watched zillions of international sporting events and observed that members of some national teams all do the hand-on-heart bit, while on other teams, it’s laissez faire, some team members do, others don’t. Same with the singing of national anthems (except for the Spanish teams—there are no words to their national anthem). Not that the more ostentatious displays of patriotism equate to better athletic performance. Joe Hart, goalkeeper of choice for the England national team at Euro 2016, stood out for his boisterous warbling of “God Save the Queen," but his indifferent play at the tournament has led to his being sat down by his club, Manchester City (and quite possibly, by the end of this month, shown—if not rushed to—the door of the club). 
Patriotism may (or may not) be “the last refuge of the scoundrel,” as Dr. Johnson proclaimed. But coercive patriotism is the blood sport of nationalistic heresy-sniffers. Consider, for example, the time the Boston police barred one of the greatest of 20th-century composers, Igor Stravinsky, from conducting his arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Carly Carioli relates the story:
During World War I, the Massachusetts Legislature had narrowly passed Chapter 264, Section 9, which prohibits the performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as dance music, as part of a medley, or with “embellishment.” And now the officers were apparently ready to arrest Stravinsky on the spot if the conductor attempted to perform his version of the anthem. “Let him change it just once,” one reporter quoted [Captain Thomas J. Harvey, head of the police department’s “Radical Squad”] as saying, “and we’ll grab him.”
A half-hour before curtain, Boston police officers visited Stravinsky backstage and threatened to remove the sheet music from the music stands.***

Stravinsky bowed to the threat and conducted the Boston Symphony's usual version of the anthem. Carioli continues:
Shortly after the conclusion of the anthem, but before the rest of the program, Captain Harvey and his squad of would-be music critics got up and “stalked out indifferently,” according to the [Boston] Post.

It didn't matter to the radical chasers that there was no official version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
I wonder if Stravinsky could have gotten away with conducting his arrangement had he shown up with an American flag pinned to his lapel. Were he around today, he could take advantage of this offer from Fahrney's Pens:

I, myself, will not be enticed. I don't need to wear that pin to be patriotic.

As Hamlet says about external displays of internal feelings:
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected 'havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show. . .

Act I, Scene 2 [My Emphasis]

Besides, how would it look on my t-shirt that reads: “I Don't Got To Show You No Stinkin Badges”?
*The Smallest Show on Earth possibly?

**For the record—I never place my hand over my heart.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Up The Flagpole

(Used by Evelyn Waugh as the epigraph to his novel Put Out More Flags)
Are you currently wearing a flag pin?
Yes? Then you love America.
No? Hmm. That's gonna be a problem.
Gilbert Cruz*
It was apparently President Richard Nixon who inaugurated the practice of wearing an American flag tchochke as lapel décor. And it was a consciously political act, an attempt to co-opt the grand symbol of the United States to connote support for his administration's actions as being the essence of Americanism. In the decades since Nixon's fall, it has become a necessary cover-your-ass talisman for politicians to avoid being perceived as not loving your country enough.


Eight years before the New Yorker published Dana Fradon's cartoon in 1969 (Nixon was president), Joseph Heller in his novel Catch-22 depicted the intimidating hollowness of coerced loyalty. Captain Black's Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade made “each man sign a loyalty oath before allowing him to fly on a combat mission” or even to eat in the mess hall:
[There was] a wall of officers waiting in line to sign loyalty oaths. At the far end of the food counter, a group of men who had arrived earlier were pledging allegiance to the flag, with trays of food balanced in one hand, in order to be allowed to take seats at the table. Already at the tables, a group that had arrived still earlier was singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in order that they might use the salt and pepper and ketchup there.
(Brendan Gill, The New Yorker, Nov. 22, 1969)

It was an understandable (and cunningly deceptive) ploy at the time of Gill's review, when foreign cars were mounting their formidable attack on Detroit's dinosaurs, that the largest American flags flying along any town's automobile row were on the sites of foreign-car dealers. But the spread of American-flag-itis in the subsequent decades has become, I don't know, absurd? laughable? or what? In the very heart of American capitalism—the New York Stock Exchange—we find these floor traders fending off accusations of Bolshevism:

And we couldn't have un-American backboards in the National Basketball Association, could we?
But back to the lapel scrutiny. Gilbert Cruz states,
Short of wearing a stars and stripes onesie, the flag lapel pin is the quickest sartorial method for a politician to telegraph his or her patriotism.
Although that “stars and stripes onesie” sounds like a great patriotic idea, our politicians might be able to go one step further and bedeck themselves like empty-headed Bubble (Jane Horrocks) in “Absolutely Fabulous”:


Update--August 7, 2016

From the New Yorker,  Jan. 17, 1970:


Friday, June 24, 2016

The Real Losers

Question of the day:
Would you prefer to be a convicted rich law offender or a convicted poor one?
Silly me. What a stupid question. 

First off, rich guys(1) get all lawyered up and have a much better shot at getting off in the first place. But let's put that aside; what I want to focus on here is what happens after the guilty verdict—i.e., what price does the criminal pay for his crime?

It was the notoriously lenient sentence by—and, even more so, the reasoning behind, it of--Judge Aaron Persky in the Brock Turner rape case that set this essay in motion. Turner, a blond, blue-eyed Stanford University undergraduate from a well-to-do family, was sentenced—for three felony convictions—to a jail term of six months and three years of probation. The judge in his decision several times cited character letters on the criminal's behalf:
I think you have to take the whole picture in terms of what impact imprisonment has on a specific individual’s life. And the impact statements that have been – or the, really, character letters that have been submitted do show a huge collateral consequence for Mr. Turner based on the conviction. 
Persky specifically cites the character letter from a former schoolmate, Leslie Rasmussen. The Cut gives us the gist of it:
[S]he includes a photo of Turner smiling and says there’s no way Brock could ever be a rapist, because “he was always the sweetest to everyone,” going so far as to call “the whole thing a huge misunderstanding.”                                                                                      She blames accusations of campus rape on political correctness . . . .(2)
Another character letter in support of Turner came from his father, Dan. Again I turn to the Cut:
In the letter, Dan Turner refuses to acknowledge that his son has raped anyone; instead, he calls the brutal scene behind the dumpster "the events of Jan. 17th and 18th" and "20 minutes of action" that "deeply altered" Brock Turner's life. (Nowhere does Dan Turner mention the possible effects those 20 minutes had on the life of Brock's victim.) He spends five full sentences discussing the fact that Brock, who used to enjoy "a big ribeye steak" and his "favorite pretzels and chips," has lost his appetite since he was convicted of sexual assault.(3)
So, six months imprisonment (most likely reduced to three with time off for good behavior), being thrown out of college, and losing one's appetite—punishment enough?

Economist John R. Lott Jr. might think that the punishment is too much. After all, according to Lott, “[I]t is through the loss of reputation that the wealthy really pay for their crimes.”(4) And the poor? Well, 
The problem is that reputational penalties are much less important for those who have less to lose — those on the lowest rung of the ladder can’t be punished much this way. Unfortunately, that is why locking up people in prison might be a very important way of deterring those who have nothing else to lose.(5)
It is thanks to thinking like Lott’s that we have two standards of juridical punishments in this country. The rich are treated as though they live in a shame culture (it’s just a pretense because we’re not Japan, where businessmen might commit hara-kiri if their companies go belly-up on their watch or they’re caught with their hand in the corporate till). But since they can shell out some bucks in fines and penalties, they are sent on their way to live with their “shame.” (It’s amazing how soon the shame washes off them and they’re back in the embraces of their buddies.) 

The poor, on the other hand, being nobodies, can’t be punished by losing their good name, and since their purse, being trash, would render any seizure unfruitful, exist in a guilt culture, and are slapped behind bars. And not just for rape, but for not paying traffic fines and such.(6)

Janis Joplin sang in “Me and Bobby McGee” that “Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose.” The reality is, however, that freedom's just another word for having things to lose.  
Note A: Yes, I know that not all rich guys get away with just a bit of shaming:
Legal observers and victims for years have decried the disparity of sentences for white-collar criminals versus others, [Bruce Antkowiak, criminal law professor at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, PA] said, although that has begun to change since a federal judge in 2009 sentenced Bernie Madoff to prison for 150 years for bilking nearly $65 billion from Wall Street investors.
“Just because the guy who did the stealing was wearing a $2,000 suit and contributed some of the money to some of the best charities in town doesn't make him any less a thief,” Antkowiak said.(7)
Note B: As for the truthfulness and reliability of character statements, here’s veteran British crime reporter Duncan Campbell:
I met one chap who, having decided he was not cut out for armed robbery like many of his north London contemporaries, would do his bit for them by throwing himself into the Thames and being rescued by whoever was on trial at the time, so he could then pop up as a character witness: “This man saved my life, your honour.”(8)

      (1) “Rich guys” used as a shorthand for rich people, celebrities, the generally well-connected, and privileged.
      (4) Freedomnomics: Why the Free Market Works and Other Half-baked Theories Don't

Update (Tuesday, June 28, 2016):

"The Judge of the Brock Turner Trial Approved a Harsher Sentence for a Latino Defendant"

Friday, March 4, 2016

On the Campaign Trail


Mr.Trump, you have been praised by many extreme elements, including members of the KKK. What do you say to that?


I love the KKK; they make the greatest fried chicken—and the biscuits!, they're to die for!

Campaign Aide (sotto voce):

That's not the KKK, Mr. Trump. That's KFC.

Trump (sotto voce):

No, really? (Aloud): I mean I love all those bro fraternities with their three letters and their panty raids and their (laughing) fun hazing. In fact, I have a Phi Beta Kappa ring myself; I picked it up at an Atlantic City pawn shop. Shows that I'm not the only American who went bankrupt.


The KKK is not a group of college students. The KKK is an historically vicious and violent organization that is anti-semitic and anti-black people. They committed lynchings and burned crosses.


Burned crosses?


Yes, burned crosses and bombed black churches.


I am a Christian; I make sure all my wives are Christian. Can't have people burning crosses.


Then you disavow their support?


Yeah. OK. I disavow—if you want me to. BUT I DISAVOW MEXICANS AND MUSLIMS MORE!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

False Normality (Brief Look at Satire, Part 3)

That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.
There’s no art/ To find the mind’s construction in the face
One task I would sometimes give my students before discussing Robert Browning's “My Last Duchess” was to have them make a sign reading:

I Am a(n)

They were instructed to insert an adjective that would best describe them. They were then told to hold the signs out in front of themselves so that other people could read them. “Wouldn't it be great,” I asked, “if signs worn on their chests would reveal people's true qualities (and not just the sweetness-and-light ones claimed there in the classroom)?” Browning's subtlety would, alas, be lost as the Duke of Ferrara's toxic pride would be (literally) up front. But how much easier life would be if all the masks disguising fools and villains were countered by a little bit of writing.
Architect [John Cleese]: “This is a 12-story block combining classical neo-Georgian features with all the advantages of modern design. The tenants arrive at the entrance hall here, carried along the corridor on a conveyor belt in extreme comfort past murals depicting Mediterranean scenes towards the rotating knives. The last 20 feet of the corridor are heavily soundproofed. The blood pours down these chutes . . .”

Committeeman [Michael Palin]: “Excuse me. Did you say ‘knives’?”
Monty Python's Flying Circus
. . . my intention is very far from being confined to provide only for the children of professed beggars: it is of a much greater extent, and shall take in the whole number of infants at a certain age, who are born of parents in effect as little able to support them, as those who demand our charity in the streets.
As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for many years, upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the several schemes of our projectors, I have always found them grossly mistaken in their computation. It is true, a child just dropt from its dam, may be supported by her milk, for a solar year, with little other nourishment: at most not above the value of two shillings, which the mother may certainly get, or the value in scraps, by her lawful occupation of begging . . .
Jonathan  Swift, “A Modest Proposal”
What the famous Swift satire and the non-satirical, Chas-Addamsish-macabre Python skit have in common is (a) the initial surface normality of the presentations: “neo-Georgian features” and “modern design” in the case of the Python architectural project and in the Swift the claim by his persona to have “maturely weighed” the schemes of other proposers and (b) the almost unobtrusive way that a calm seemingly-sane presentation is subverted by a horrendous incongruity. The signaling word in the Python skit is, of course, “knives”; in the Swift the word is “dam”--the mother of a human child has become an animal, and the child will be treated as such too, bred to become the central ingredient in “a fricasie, or a ragoust,” food for the tables of rich Englishmen in Ireland.
Hear now this, O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not . . .
Jeremiah 5:21
. . . instead of seeing a full stop put to all abuses and corruptions, at least in this little island, as I had reason to expect; behold, after above six months warning, I cannot learn that my book has produced one single effect according to my intentions.
Gulliver's Travels
Satire has a range something like chili sauce—from mild to four-alarm fiery hot. But one thing that all satires have in common is the working proposition that out in the world, deceived by appearances, there are too many people who have eyes that do not see, or ears that do not hear. Otherwise, would they not already have—as Gulliver wished—put an end “to all abuses and corruptions” (as well as eradicating the milder follies of our species)?
Enter GLOUCESTER [Richard III-to-be] aloft, between two BISHOPS. . . .MAYOR. See where his Grace stands 'tween two clergymen!

BUCKINGHAM. Two props of virtue for a Christian prince,
To stay him from the fall of vanity;
And, see, a book of prayer in his hand,
True ornaments to know a holy man.
Richard III (Act III, Sc. 7)

In the play we (unlike the Mayor) are not fooled by the pretended display of piety; we know it's all an act, the prayer book merely a prop and the bishops just stage furniture, for the playwright, since the opening soliloquy, has allowed our eyes to see behind the villain's mask and our ears to hear his duplicitous intentions. But what of the real life equivalents of the Shakespeare's Duke of Gloucester or Browning's Duke of Ferrara?

The challenge for the satirist is how to make those eyes see, those ears hear—to counter the stage-managed displays of fake virtue and false reason.
I have decided to take a respite from writing this blog. When (or whether) I will return to it, time will tell.
Meanwhile, to those who have bothered to read the blog at some point I offer many thanks. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Watch Your Step!

Perhaps you've seen it: the video of a man being roughly subdued by a posse of Austin, Texas policemen numerous enough to corral the Dalton gang.* The victim's crime in the capital of the Lone Star State? Jaywalking.

I counted about eight police originally involved, with at least two patrol cars racing up later—all Sturm und Drang (or should it be son et lumière?)sirens blaring and light bars blazing. That such a contingent of cops would be deployed to haul in a total of one (alleged) jaywalker and one inquisitive bystander got me to thinking; here are the (admittedly contradictory) results of my ratiocination:

1—Austin, Texas is the safest city in the country. If so much police presence can handily be deployed to nail a single jaywalker, that must mean that there is no other crime around for the cops to deal with.

2--Austin, Texas is the unsafest city in the country. If so much police presence congregates in one place to nail a jaywalker, then the rest of the burg must be open city to murderers, rapists, muggers, and other miscreants.

3—Austin, Texas has too many cops. At a ratio of ten cops (counting the later-arriving prowl car guys) to one offender, the police force is surely over-stuffed. At least half the force would seem to be surplus to requirements (I love that British locution).

4—Austin, Texas has too few cops. If it's really going to take ten police to nail one offender, then Austin better start hiring in case a major crime wave (something like multiple jaywalking) breaks out.

5--Austin, Texas police are a bunch of weaklings. Really, it takes ten officers to haul in one unresisting male and a female bystander?

6--Austin, Texas police deserve credit. At least they didn't shoot anybody. And though jaywalking is obviously a major criminal activity in Texas, the police recognized that it isn't a capital offence (yet).

*If you haven't, it's here:

Thursday, November 5, 2015

My Vote, Your Vote

LICKCHEESE. Theres no doubt that the Vestries has legal powers to play old Harry with slum properties, and spoil the houseknacking game if they please. That didnt matter in the good old times, because the Vestries used to be us ourselves. Nobody ever knew a word about the election ; and we used to get ten of us into a room and elect one another, and do what we liked.                                                                                            George Bernard Shaw, Widowers' Houses (1892)
Two days ago, it being a nice sunshiny day and me needing some exercise, I walked the few blocks over to the Middle School. Had it been an inclement day, I would have driven to the school. One way or another, I was going to the school, because it was Election Day, and the school was the polling place for my ward. Not that there were any grand offices being contested--nothing national or gubernatorial—just a pair of legislative seats and local posts. I pressed the button to re-elect the mayor, and was happy to learn later that he had won by about a five-to-one landslide.

The lady who had entered the voting booth before me, however, had some trouble figuring out what to do to register her vote. “Press the red button,” exclaimed the poll booth attendant, and eventually she did, whether to be part of the mayor's majority or not will never be known.

I felt no irritation at having to wait a few extra moments while the woman got all straightened out. That I would walk into the booth already determined how to vote, press the buttons zip, zip, zip and stride out only about a minute later did not mean my electoral contribution to democracy was superior to her fumbling one. Did she also enter the booth determined how she would vote? Or did she go “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo”? Or did she put a hand over her eyes and stab blindly for buttons to press? To me it mattered not, for in a democratic state a person should not only be free to vote for the candidate of her choice, but also to free to choose how she arrives at that choice.
One hundred years ago, she wouldn't have had the problem of deciding how to vote, for women were excluded from the ballot box. Women, slaves, the propertyless were—and still are in too many places in the world —unable to engage in the process of determining how they are to be governed. And even when they are granted the vote, there are powerful forces attempting to snatch their voting rights away (just look around the country)--whether because of a fierce desire to protect their own economic interests or through a neo-Platonic contempt for those they consider inferior in wisdom, education, intellect, or knowledge. In the latter case, we have the “guided democracy” ploys—as in Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Singapore)--in which there are elections which determine nothing because the ruling powers keep the elections substance-free (and dissenters in jail), or the technocratic Walter Lippmann argument—that the general public is unequipped to deal with the modern world and needs “knowledgeable administrators whose access to reliable information immunize[s] them against the emotional 'symbols' and 'stereotypes' that dominate[_] public debate.”*

Assuming such emotion-immunized administrators exist and can be identified, is there any guarantee that they would not eventually begin to act in their own self-interest? This question is a modern updating of Juvenal's “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (“Who will watch the watchmen themselves?”). But besides that, who would have more right to have a say on such a substantive issue as whose son should go off to war—a robotic administrator or an emotional mother?

*That is Christopher Lasch (The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy) explaining Lippmann.