Category Archives: Popular culture

Bottom line, Ralph Norman’s just not cool

Norman during the meeting with constituents...

Norman during the meeting with constituents…

If you’ve seen “In the Line of Fire” as many times as I have, you’ll remember this part. Clint Eastwood and his partner are trying to track down would-be assassin John Malkovich, and are following a lead that takes them into the subculture of plastic modelers.

They’re talking to a friend of Mitch, the Malkovich character, who says see my expensive wheelchair? Mitch bought it for me. Then suddenly, he pulls out a semi-automatic handgun and says this is in case Mitch ever comes back — because he had credibly threatened his “friend’s” life.

The Secret Service agents sort of go “Whoa!” at the appearance of the gun. They do this not because they’re sissies who are afraid of firearms and other mean things. (Remember, one of them is Clint Eastwood.) They do it because there are times when it is uncool to whip out a loaded firearm, and one of those times is when you’re being interviewed by a couple of worried Secret Service agents.

Another such time is when you’re a member of Congress chatting with your constituents.

What I’m saying is that basically, Ralph Norman did a really, really uncool thing when he took out his piece and put it on the table during a meeting with voters.

He didn’t do a criminal thing — at least, not to my knowledge. And I don’t think anyone needs to have a cow over it the way Democratic Party Chair Trav Robertson is doing.

But it seems to me quite obvious that it fell way short on the cool-o-meter.

Your thoughts?

SCNormanGunREVISEDAriailx

‘Breakers’ above Columbia

tulips

I’m having a busy day with little time for blogging, so I just thought I’d share a picture that I like.

This is what I saw from my table at breakfast Monday morning. They were left over from the Capital City Club’s Easter dinner the day before.

They struck me particularly because the night before, we had started to watch a new Netflix movie called “Tulip Fever.” It’s about the market bubble in tulips that drove Europe, and particularly the Netherlands, mad in the 1630s, before the inevitable collapse.

We didn’t make it all the way through — it started to devolve into one of those tiresome plots in which bad things happen because of mistaken identity. But I watched enough to learn that multicolored tulips like the ones above were called “breakers,” and were particularly highly prized. Or at least, that’s the way this film told it.

Of course, right after I took this picture, I moved the flowers so I could pull down the blinds so the sunlight wouldn’t blind me while I read the papers on my iPad.

Beautiful vistas are sometimes wasted on me…

An image from the film, "Tulip Fever."

An image from the film, “Tulip Fever.”

 

Her Majesty got stiffed

Yeah, you'd BETTER look away, making more money than the queen...

Yeah, you’d BETTER look away, making more money than the queen…

This may not have engendered outrage at your house, but it did at mine:

If there is a lesson to take away from the first two seasons of “The Crown,” it is that no sane person would dare cross Queen Elizabeth II. Netflix seems to have learned this too late, however, as it was revealed on Tuesday that lead actress Claire Foy made less than co-star Matt Smith for her work on the show.

Variety reported that producers Suzanne Mackie and Andy Harries were asked during a discussion at the INTV Conference in Jerusalem whether the actors playing Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, were paid the same amount. The pair said Smith made more because of his “Doctor Who” fame, saying that the inequity would be amended in the future.

“Going forward, no one gets paid more than the queen,” Mackie said…

I would certainly think not.

All through those two seasons, my wife said over and over that this Matt Smith guy was a case of appalling casting — such a strange-looking dude playing such a handsome — or at least normal-looking prince. And it wasn’t just an attractiveness thing. She thought the actor’s manner and overall oddness was distracting.

So she really, really thought it wrong that he should be paid more than Ms. Foy, who did an excellent job of embodying my 16th cousin once removed — that is to say, the queen. (I’d have been outraged, too, if only she’d invite us over to the palace more. Or even once.)

It’s weird the way these things work. I’m not a fan of Doctor Who — I tried watching the very first episode with the first Doctor once, and gave up after a few minutes, failing to see the appeal — but even if I were, I doubt I’d be overly impressed by an actor for having played the role. I mean, at this point, who hasn’t?

It’s the strangest salary decision I’ve seen since Rob Lowe was initially paid more than the actors who played Leo McGarry, C.J. Cregg, Josh Lyman and Toby Ziegler on “The West Wing.” (When they caught up to him in pay, he quit because he didn’t get a raise to stay ahead of them — which showed he really had an exaggerated sense of Sam Seaborn’s role in the great scheme of things.)

But despite the insult to Ms. Foy, we can take comfort from the fact that the next actress to play Her Majesty (they’ll change every couple of years in order to be age-appropriate) will not get stiffed. And that’s good, because the next actress is Olivia Colman, who is wonderful.

Did any of you see her in “The Night Manager?” The producers of that le Carre adaptation did something I normally hate — they significantly changed an important character, in this case by turning him into a woman. Leonard Burr, the recruiter and case officer for the title character, became Angela Burr, who was — just in case you didn’t quite notice the change — pregnant.

She totally made it work, imbuing the usual care that a case officer has for his (or her) agent with a maternal aspect that intensified the relationship. The parallel between a mother harboring vulnerable life in her womb and agent runner trying to keep a “joe” alive in the field was powerful.

And I doubt a lesser actress could have pulled it off and made this obsessive le Carre fan applaud. The miniseries was just much better than had Burr been a man.

I expect her to bring similar depth to the portrayal of Elizabeth Windsor. And it’s good to know she’ll be fairly paid for doing so…

Olivia Colman as Angela Burr in "The Night Manager"

Olivia Colman as Angela Burr in “The Night Manager”

Arnie Vinick on what the presidency was about

This morning during my workout on the elliptical, I was watching “The West Wing” on the Roku, and saw the end of the penultimate episode in the penultimate season. It’s the one in which Arnie Vinick accepts the GOP nomination for president.

And even more than usual, I was made wistful by the evocation of what we once expected from the presidency — that the one who held it would at least do so with a modicum of honor and respect for the office. It was a great speech, especially when he was talking about the president he hoped to replace. He drew some boos from the partisan convention floor when he first mentioned the Democrat, but pushed past that to say:

It is with great humility that I accept your nomination for president of the United States.
Before I share with you my vision for America I want to say a few words about the man who I hope is my predecessor: President Josiah Bartlet.
He has graced and honored his office.
The highest in the land.
The most powerful in the world, some would say. Myself included.
He has served this country steadfastly and laudably and I say this despite our political and philosophical differences.
For in the end, a presidency is more than a simple catalogue of policies pursued, crises weathered, battles lost or won.
It’s a stewardship, a sacred trust, a commitment to sacrifice every fiber of your being — every thought, every moment, every — Every everything in service to your nation.
President Bartlet has done this well and ably and he deserves nothing less than our humble appreciation and heartfelt gratitude.
… my commitment to strive to be worthy of the example of the great men who have gone before.
Presidents walk in giant footsteps.
They have magnificent legacies to uphold.
I stand here on this day and put my name forth as one who aspires to their example, who will daily make that sacrifice.
Who will honor not just the office, but the people that office serves.
Their president of these United States of America…..

Imagine that. A president, or presidential nominee, who could say such words with conviction and not a trace of irony: “a stewardship, a sacred trust, a commitment to sacrifice… (a) commitment to strive to be worthy of the example of the great men who have gone before” — to honor the office and the trust invested by the people. To care about them, and about those things, more than about himself and his fragile ego.

Some of my friends understand this, but others don’t: The thing we have lost in the past year is the dignity of the office. That’s shattered, gone with the wind. And now I can only find it in TV fiction. Good TV fiction, but still make-believe.

Anyway, at this point, as I make my way through the series yet again each morning in the coming days, Vinick has my vote. Matt Santos is going to have to work to change my mind…

westwing_vinick1

Who are your All-Time, Top Five Presidents?

Rushmore

I started to do this yesterday and then forgot. The piece in The New York Times in which political scholars rank all the presidents — brought to my attention by both Bud and Norm — has reminded me.

In that survey, of course, Donald Trump comes in dead last. There’s no other place to put him. He has rescued Buchanan from holding that spot permanently. Even among Republicans, he’s in the bottom five. That’s the thing about being a scholar — whatever your inclinations, you know certain things.

But other than that, there’s plenty of room for debate — although everybody has the same top three that I have.

Here’s my list:

  1. Lincoln — There’s just no contest. We wouldn’t have or country today if not for Abe. He was such a perfect match for what the nation had to have at that moment that it’s the strongest suggestion in our history that God has a special place in His heart for America. Whether from divine cause or not, his appearance at that time was miraculous. His unmatched wisdom, his stunning eloquence, his almost superhuman political skills — even his sense of humor — all combined not only to keep the country together, but to address head-on the central political problem of our history. For four score and nine years (I’m counting to the 13th Amendment), the best minds in the country had been unable to deal with slavery. Lincoln got it done, decisively.
  2. Roosevelt — For some of the same reasons Lincoln is No. 1 — he came along at just the right time, with just the right skills. His brilliance, his courage, his confidence, his ebullience, his ability as a patrician to connect with and inspire the poor and downcast, got us through not only the Depression but the worst, most destructive war in human history. A few months ago, I visited Warm Springs, and to think the way the man kept the nation’s spirits up while every day was such a physical struggle for him fills me with awe.
  3. Washington — His time as president isn’t necessarily what impresses us most — his own particular talents may have been more clearly on display as a general. In the political sphere, Madison and Hamilton were proving moving and shaking things more. But given what we have today, the dignity he brought to the office, the bearing, is truly something to be appreciated. And he quit rather than run again after his second term, he relinquished power rather than become the monarch he might have been. We owe a lot to the American Cincinnatus.
  4. Johnson — Here’s where I break with the experts. Even the Democrats among the scholars place him no higher than 8th. But considering how little the federal government has done since then, I remain amazed at the things he pushed through in 1964-65, the sweeping civil rights legislation, the significant steps in the direction of single-payer health care (alas, the last big steps we took.) Yep, everybody blames him for how he handled Vietnam — but he didn’t set out to do that; he just badly mishandled what he had inherited. He wanted to concentrate on his domestic programs. And we’d probably all be better off today if he had manage to do that.
  5. Truman — OK, this was kind of a tossup among several people. I wanted to name my favorite Founder, John Adams — but he wasn’t all that distinguished as president, and there was the matter of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Teddy Roosevelt looms large, and he did a lot — in his own ways, he was as energetic a leader as his kinsman Franklin and LBJ. But I don’t want to get into a big argument defending the imperialism (and here we’re talking real imperialism, instead of the imaginary kind people have fantasized about in modern times). So let’s go with the unassuming guy whom everyone underestimated, but who got us through the end of the war that FDR had almost won, then won the peace, shaping America’s leadership role in building the postwar world order. And don’t forget the way he integrated the military, one of the first big steps toward desegregation. We could really use a man like him again.

So… whom would y’all pick?

A guy who knew where the buck stopped.

A guy who knew where the buck stopped.

The ‘Jihadist Beatles?’

jihadi beatles

 

Flew in from Miami Beach BOAC
Didn’t get to bed last night
Stayed up putting Semtex in my BVDs
Man I had a dreadful flight!

I’m back in the I.S.I.L.
You prob’ly won’t live to tell, boy
Back in the I.S.I.L.!

Sorry. I suppose that’s in poor taste. But I didn’t start it. It’s the British press that’s calling these four terrorists “the Beatles:”

Exhausted and strikingly different in appearance from the other captives, the two new prisoners were believed by Kurdish militia leaders to be among Islamic State’s cadre of foreign fighters.

But it was not until mid-January, around one week after their capture in eastern Syria, that the Kurds – and their CIA colleagues at the interrogation centre where they were holding the prisoners – knew exactly who they had: Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, Britain’s two most wanted terror suspects. They had finally been caught – and they were ready to talk.

Kotey and Elsheikh are the final two of an infamous quartet of Britons who acted as jailers, torturers and executioners of foreign aid workers and journalists for more than two years from mid-2013. They were dubbed “the Beatles” by their victims, in reference to their British accents – though they were from London, rather than Merseyside…

I used to have pleasant, light-hearted associations with the Fab Four. Now this…

Another special moment in the decline of America

blow-drying

Yeah, so this was on TV this morning.

There I was, minding my own business having breakfast, when I glanced up at one of the TVs on the wall there in the club’s lounge, and saw what you see above.

I got up, walked across the room and took a picture of it, not minding if people stared at me. I’m not proud. How could I be, living in a country in which this is deemed a subject worthy of conversation at all, much less on daytime national television? While I’m eating breakfast.

Going by the logo in the corner of the screen, apparently that was an episode of this show, where you can see gross stuff like this, and dumb stuff like this.

What is it Bryan’s always saying? Oh, yeah: What a stupid time to be alive…

What words can describe or explain ‘Trumpy Bear’?

I don’t know. I’ve tried “stupid,” “embarrassing,” “pitiful,” “WTF” and a few others, but none really come close. When I saw this during an old movie on one of those weird alternative-universe channels that you only get with an HD antenna (like that alternative-WIS channel that seems to only show “Walker, Texas Ranger” reruns), my jaw dropped and stayed that way until it was over.

The most amazing thing is the people they got to hold one of these things and act as though they like it, and are unembarrassed by that.

I really, truly don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as dumb, or as tacky, as this in my life.

No, those words don’t quite describe it, either…

Please, you folks out there who voted for Trump — tell me this makes you cringe, just a bit. If so, there’s hope for the world…

trumpy

‘X-ray specs,’ updated

xray_5

Remember the above ad, which appeared so often in comic books back in the day?IMG_3239

Even when I was a little kid who would have thought it awesome to have even one of Superman’s powers, I wasn’t gullible enough to send off a buck for a pair of these specs. Every time I’d see the ad, I’d go, “Could it work?… nahhhh!”

But somebody probably bought them, else they wouldn’t have kept on advertising them. We were pretty dumb back in olden times, weren’t we?

Well apparently, someone is betting that guys (and who else would buy these?) are just as dumb today. This is a screen grab from a video ad that came up between games of Words With Friends. And somewhere out there there’s a guy who’s thinking, “Well, smartphone apps can do some pretty amazing things…”

And surely, they couldn’t have faked that, right?

Note that today as well as before, it’s assumed that there’s one thing that guys would want to use such technology for — the #metoo movement notwithstanding…

Go see ‘Darkest Hour’ before it’s gone!

p05ndb9k

We finally got in to see “Darkest Hour” at the Nickelodeon over the weekend — the first time we went it was sold out and we were turned away — and it was everything I’d hoped it would be.

It’s only running there three more days after today, so run see it before it’s gone. (I don’t know how long it will be at the mass-market theaters where it’s showing). And get your tickets online in advance — that’s what we did, and the place was packed for the 2 p.m. Saturday showing. I didn’t see a single empty seat. And the audience was apparently riveted. I was hungry, not having had lunch, but I told myself I wasn’t going to go for popcorn and a beer until I saw someone else do it. Nobody did — except a guy who was on the end of a row, and I was in the middle.

But that’s OK, the movie was great. Gary Oldman, as usual, was fantastic, and the makeup artists even more so. He really, really looked and sounded like Winston.

For someone like me who has always been very rah-rah-for-our-side regarding that conflict, it was very enjoyable because one is encouraged to cheer. I especially like the last line, uttered by Lord Halifax after Churchill has completely routed him and Chamberlain in the House of Commons. Doug probably won’t like that line — or the film itself — as much, since he dismisses Trump’s flaws as “just words.” The director has said, “It’s a movie about words and the power of words to change the world and change the course of history.”

Anyway, run see it and let me know what you think.

Would you vote for Oprah?

Liz Lemon hallucinating about Oprah.

Liz Lemon hallucinating about Oprah.

Sources say Oprah Winfrey is “actively thinking” about running for president. Of the United States.

Not long after that broke, former Nikki Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey tweeted this question:

Remind me to ask Rob sometime how you set up a tweet like that. Now, back to the topic…

I answered “wut idk,” because I really don’t know. It would depend on the office she was running for (since Rob said “any”), who was running against her, and on me learning a lot more about her.

Having never watched her show (beyond that clip of Tom Cruise going nuts, which I think all America has seen) or read her magazine, and having certainly never heard her political views, I just don’t know. The longest exposure I’ve ever had to her was that episode of “30 Rock” when Liz Lemon took a tranquilizer before flying and hallucinated that Oprah was in the seat next to her.

I do assume (unless I learn some really bad stuff about her) that I would vote for her over Donald Trump for pretty much anything. That’s because while I don’t know of any great positive qualifications she has for the presidency, I’m also ignorant of any negatives. Whereas I’ve never seen a person in high office with more negatives than Trump.

Last time I looked, one person had answered Rob in the affirmative, three of us had answered idk, and the rest were negative. I wonder what makes those five people so sure they would never vote for this woman, for any office? Maybe they know of huge negatives I don’t know about, but I sort of doubt that…

Statement: ‘Appy-polly-loggies, oh my brothers (and to all devotchkas and ptitsas)!’

a-clockwork-orange-why-alex-delarge-is-so-beloved-yet-creepy-af-1140006

Apparently The Onion had this back in November, but they just tweeted it again:

Alex DeLarge Forced To Step Down As Leader Of Droogs Amidst Allegations Of Sexual Misconduct

LONDON—Pushed out of power as the damning charges mounted, Alex DeLarge was forced to step down Wednesday as leader of the Droogs amidst allegations of sexual misconduct. “In an unfortunate development, we have been forced to remove Mr. DeLarge from his post due to the startling accusations of sexual impropriety that have come to light,” said Droog member Georgie, explaining that although the group had systems in place to swiftly address such allegations, it clearly did not adequately follow those procedures. “Even though these acts took place decades ago, it does not excuse Alex’s heinous and unforgivable actions. This is not at all what the Droogs stand for.” At press time, DeLarge had offered to undergo two weeks of rigorous aversion therapy to rehabilitate himself.

We have high hopes for this Ludovico Technique, which is the heighth of fashion in reconditioning, and we expect our droogie to be back at the Korova Milkbar in his platties of the night at fortnight’s end, slooshying to lovely Ludwig van.

For now, he has a bit of a pain in the gulliver, so bedways is rightways…

original

Why would anyone EVER want to cover this song?

This morning, I felt a disturbance in the force as the opening bars of what could only be Paul McCartney’s great shame, “Wonderful Christmastime.”

You know, “Sim…ply… hav…ing…” and so forth.

Unable to escape for a moment — let’s be honest, it caught me in the men’s room — I heard enough to realize, “That’s not Paul McCartney.”

I had to know who would commit the crime of re-recording the one great musical crime of a beloved pop genius.

SoundHound told me: It was The Shins, whom I had only encountered previously on the soundtrack of “Garden State,” years and years ago.

I don’t know why they did this. I thought we had all agreed that this wretched ditty was at the top of everyone’s Top Five Worst Christmas Songs list. Or at least at the top of mine, which is what counts. No, I tell a lie — it’s second on the list. “The Little Drummer Boy” is first.

So what in the name of Kris Kringle are these Shin people doing committing this copycat crime?

It’s insupportable…

The Shins: Be On the LookOut for these individuals; they may strike again...

The Shins: Be On the LookOut for these individuals. I think this photo was taken in their shadowy criminal “lair.”

Worshiping in the ‘church’ of Fox News?

la-et-st-syfy-developing-brave-new-world-as-series-20150505

Molly Worthen can’t even spell her own name, but she writes a pretty fair think piece.

I read this one in the NYT last month, and kept forgetting to share it with you. Today, with Roy Moore possibly being elected to the U.S. Senate, seems a good day to rectify that.

The piece gets a little dry toward the end, but I want to share with you this good part at the beginning:

Over the course of the week, as Roy Moore, the Republican senatorial candidate in Alabama, faced more allegations of inappropriate sexual contact with young women and teenagers, many evangelicals leapt to his defense.

Molly Worthen

Molly Worthen

To Ms. Schiess, this is one more sign that a new ritual has superseded Sunday worship and weeknight Bible studies: a profane devotional practice, with immense power to shape evangelicals’ beliefs. This “liturgy” is the nightly consumption of conservative cable news. Liberals love to complain about conservatives’ steady diet of misinformation through partisan media, but Ms. Schiess’s complaint is more profound: Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson aren’t just purveyors of distorted news, but high priests of a false religion.

“The reason Fox News is so formative is that it’s this repetitive, almost ritualistic thing that people do every night,” Ms. Schiess told me. “It forms in them particular fears and desires, an idea of America. This is convincing on a less than logical level, and the church is not communicating to them in that same way.”

It’s no secret that humans — religious and secular alike — often act on “less than logical” impulses. Social scientists have documented our tendency to reject reliable evidence if it challenges our beliefs. Hours of tearful victims’ testimony will not deter evangelicals who see Roy Moore as the latest Christian martyr persecuted by the liberal establishment. “Their loyalties are much more strongly formed by conservative media than their churches,” Ms. Schiess said. “That’s the challenge for church leaders today, I think — rediscovering rather ancient ideas about how to form our ultimate loyalty to God and his kingdom.” …

I’ve never been much of one for badmouthing Fox News, mainly because I haven’t seen it or other cable TV news programs enough to be confident in making firm judgments.

But there is definitely something out there motivating “evangelicals” to vote for people who seem to have little to nothing to do with Christianity, and I can’t see it being church.

Something is taking the place of the gospel in these people’s thought processes. Or perhaps I should say in their guts, grabbing and holding them on a “less than logical level.”

And there’s something about that ritual of constantly watching TV, night after night, year after year, and getting hit with the same messages hundreds and thousands of times.

I’m reminded of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which people hear the same statements over and over in the night until they accept the truth of such statements without thinking. Indeed, they become incapable of considering the possibility that such statements might be untrue:

repetitions

(Never mind that “Idiots!” bit. Bernard had something of an inferiority complex, not being respected as much as an Alpha normally would be.)

These repetitions may be even more powerful in terms of engendering aversion, even revulsion. How else does one explain Republicans who knew better voting for Trump or a write-in, because they absolutely could not bring themselves to vote for the only person in a position to stop him?

Or how do you explain good people in Alabama who see the problem with Roy Moore, but — like Sen. Shelby — simply cannot bring themselves to vote for the Democrat (again, the only person who might stop Moore from disgracing Alabama, the Republican Party and the U.S. Senate)?

Anyway, I thought it was an intriguing line of thought: What good is an hour in church once a week compared to hours of indoctrination in another sort of faith, every night for years?

ETV needs to think really hard about its demographics

Bob_Hope,_Bing_Crosby_and_Dorothy_Lamour_in_Road_to_Bali

I’ve read that public broadcasting is in trouble because its audience is aging. (OK, what I read was about NPR, but can’t the same be said about PBS?)

But you’d think they’d want to do something about that, instead of rolling with it to this extent.

Tonight, ETV is offering a deal to donors: Give at a certain basic level, and you get a CD of a documentary about… wait for it… Bob Hope! (Here’s who that was, kids.)

Then, if you give a little more, you get… CDs of all the “Road” pictures with Bing Crosby!

And if you give more, you get more Bob Hope stuff!

How shall I put this? I’m 64 years old — well into my dotage, as the Beatles (I’ll explain later who they were) once reckoned it — and Bob Hope was popular way, way, WAY before my time. I mean, my mother was only 9 years old when the first “Road” picture came out, so I’m thinking it was aimed more at her parents.

When I was young, only Lawrence Welk was more identified with the blue-haired set.

So, what’s the deal here? Why is this the pitch? I’m genuinely puzzled…

I shot this during one of the promotions. I shot it off the old cathode-ray tube upstairs instead of the HD model, because it seemed appropriate.

I shot this during one of the promotions. I shot it off the old cathode-ray tube upstairs instead of the HD model, because it seemed appropriate. A narrator said Hope and Crosby sort of invented the “breaking the fourth wall” thing, so they were cutting-edge. In 1940…

Good riddance to ‘House of Cards,’ indeed

Underwoods

This morning, I read with approval a piece headlined “The allegations against Kevin Spacey got ‘House of Cards’ canceled. Good riddance.” And it reminded me that I had meant to note with approval the demise of this awful series.

But my thoughts on it have nothing to do with Kevin Spacey’s sexual proclivities or behavior.

It was just an awful series, on a number of levels.

The last episode I watched was at the beginning of the fourth season. I tried watching it on my iPad while giving platelets at the Red Cross. I was using earbuds, but I also use subtitles because of my Meniere’s, and I quickly realized I did not want anyone seeing me watch this. It was NSFW, or for the Red Cross, either. Also, there’s this nice, grandmotherly tech who frequently makes conversation by asking what I’m watching, and I didn’t want to be drawn into that conversation.

That’s because the first scene opens upon a prison cell in which one prisoner is reciting pornography aloud while his cellmate, shall we say, pleasures himself. Not mild, euphemistic porn here, but intentionally shocking stuff. The “c word” is used, as I recall, to no redeeming social purpose. At first you don’t know what’s going on; the screen is dark and you just hear the words.

And this is the opening scene of the season premiere. Welcome back to “House of Cards,” ladies and gentlemen. If any ladies or gentlemen are still watching.

Before anyone could glance over my shoulder, I quickly changed to some other show — something innocuous. “Blue Bloods,” perhaps.

Later, in keeping with my weak-minded determination to be up with the latest thing, I watched the rest of the episode. And it provided me with no enticements to keep watching, so that’s the last episode I saw. And I certainly haven’t missed it.

That was spring of last year.

Earlier this week, I read that the series was being canceled. There would be no sixth season. That’s all I saw initially, just a headline. At first I assumed it was for lack of merit, and that gave me some satisfaction. I was slightly disappointed to learn it was because of another sex scandal. But I suppose, in a way, that was appropriate, too. Frank Underwood certainly had it coming on that score.

But the show had been nasty on so many other levels, peopled as it was with such irredeemable characters following soul-sucking plotlines. (I’ve complained about the morally arid characters on too many “quality” TV shows lately — but none of the others could hold a candle to this show. It tried hard to be worse, and it succeeded.)

And then there’s the worst thing about it: There were people who took it seriously. People who thought politics really was full of such creatures and such actions. People who thought this was politics, that this was what politics was all about. Thus the show was one of many things contributing to the disaffection, the sickness in the land, that led us to Donald J. Trump.

Watch this: Doug, or someone, will say, “Look around you! This IS politics! Look at the indictments in Columbia, in Washington.” And I will tell you that you can choose the worst person involved in any of those scandals — go back to Watergate, if you’d like — and you won’t find anyone as completely evil as Underwood and company. Maybe not even G. Gordon Liddy, and he was a pretty sick puppy.

Compared to Underwood, Richard Nixon was Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy. Frank Underwood had the morals of Pee Wee Gaskins, if you want a real-world comparison.

Something really went wrong with this project. I never found it enjoyable, from the beginning — although I tried to give it a chance. I watched because everybody in the political world was talking about it, and because it was supposedly about a congressman (a white Democrat, no less, which was our first clue that it would not be realistic) from South Carolina. The Gaffney Peachoid even made an appearance!

The original.

The original.

But it didn’t work, even on its own, strange terms. With the original British series back in 1990, it was completely obvious that this was arch, extreme satire. Or at least it seemed so to me. Francis Urquhart’s evilness seemed deliberately too much. And I found it more engaging — but not enough to watch past the first season.

And at first, we were invited to see the U.S. series the same way, with Frank Underwood’s little asides through the fourth wall serving as a smirking nod and wink to keep us from taking him too seriously: See what a bad boy I am?

But it wasn’t really funny, even going by a decadent notion of humor, and eventually the series seemed to abandon even that pose.

Did “House of Cards” lead directly to Trump? No. But it offered a little encouragement — which they did not need — to the nihilists who were already pleased to think the very worst of politics. Some of them (such as the Vince Foster fantasists) were sufficiently far gone to think this was some sort of documentary about the Clintons, just with the names changed. And it’s little wonder that anyone who thought that would vote for Trump over Clinton, even if they could see what an idiot he was.

The painful irony is that this absurd show, which (one hopes) was never meant to be taken seriously by anyone, led in any, tiny way to our present situation, in which the White House is occupied by someone so unfit that a couple of years back, we could not have imagined it.

Not that Trump is quite as bad as Underwood. But he’s every bit as absurd….

And no, the high production values -- such as the interesting opening credits -- couldn't redeem this show.

And no, the high production values — such as the interesting opening credits — couldn’t redeem this show.

I’m going to be in a book about Dylan. How cool is that?

The grainy photo I took of Dylan and The Band at that show in 1974.

The grainy photo I took of Dylan and The Band at that show in 1974.

Well, this was kind of a fun email to receive today:

Hi Brad,

I’m working on a new book called Bob Dylan – I Was There which will contain around 350 accounts from people who saw Dylan live in concert as well as people who worked with Dylan.

I’ve just come across this article on your site  http://www.bradwarthen.com/2015/02/my-grainy-picture-of-bob-dylan-and-the-band-1974/

Would it be possible to use your account in the book? And would you like to add anything to the story?
We would give you a full credit in the book.

Please let me know if this would be possible,

Kind regards,

Neil Cossar
Red Planet Publishing

I said sure, go ahead — and let me know when the book comes out.

Dylan, The Band and me, all going into the annals of rock history together. How cool is that?

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Eight: ‘The History of the World’

Now that I’ve watched all the episodes, it’s getting a little difficult to remember details from one a couple back. But here are some points, just as conversation starters:

  • There’s a lot about our experience in Vietnam that appalls me — and of course, many of them are not the same things that appall Doug or Bud. But My Lai is one where I think our disgust is in synch — even though I’m sure we extrapolate different lessons from it. That Calley served so little time — and in house arrest, the gentleman’s form of punishment administered to a monster — makes a mockery of all that’s holy. I don’t believe in capital punishment, but someone should have shot him in the act, and saved some of those people (and I deeply honor helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson Jr., who intervened to stop it, threatening to open fire on his fellow Americans if they did not cease the killing). Worse than Calley’s case is that no one else even served time — not Medina, not his NCOs, not anybody. Of course, neither of those things is the worst thing. The worst thing is the killing itself, all those innocents…
  • This episode also includes one of Nixon’s worst lies: When he said Thieu had told him the ARVN were doing such a great job that Vietnamization could proceed apace so we could start pulling out American combat troops — and Thieu had said no such thing. It’s one thing to start pulling Americans out — that, at least, was something Nixon had promised to do and we knew he was going to do, and by and large the country (this country that is) was behind him on that. But to claim that the ally you’re deserting had told you that was fine by him when he hadn’t is slimy.
  • The contrast between horrors of war and what was going on back stateside is often disturbing to me. A segment in which Marine Tom Vallely was engaged in particularly intense combat — an action for which his was awarded the Silver Star for conspicuous gallantry — after which he is talking about the things one’s grandchildren will never understand about what you did in the war… shifts jarringly to Country Joe and the Fish performing “Fixin’ to Die Rag” at Woodstock. It was two days after the battle we’d just been told about. The camera stops on the face of one long-haired kid after another in the audience grinning and smirking at the mocking lyrics, singing along to this hilarious song about dying in Vietnam. I’d never minded that song very much before, but seeing people so tickled by it just after looking at dead and dying men on a battlefield sickened me. And it should do the same to my antiwar friends. People think they’re so damned cute, don’t they? Give me cursing, angry, rock-throwing protesters in the street rather than this.
  • Kent State. I’ve always felt the loss of those kids keenly. I read Michener’s book about the shootings not long after it happened and learned a lot about each of them, felt that I got to know and care about them. What happened there was inexcusable, indefensible. To start with, why were those kids in the Guard uniforms issued live ammunition? Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s song about the tragedy gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. All of that said… I don’t feel exactly about the incident the way my antiwar friends do. As horrific as the shooting of those protesters was, I wish I could be like antiwar folk and applaud their protest with uncomplicated approval. But I’m not able to do that. To me, the tragedy of their deaths is compounded by the fact that their cause made no sense to me. Of course you go into Cambodia if that’s where the enemy is — especially when there’s a new government in that country that approves of your doing so. Anything that could be done to strengthen the position of the South Vietnamese when we’re preparing to pull out should quite naturally be done. That’s what I thought at the time, and I see no reason to think differently now. I wish I could. It would be nice to have the blessing of uncomplicated feelings.
  • There was one thing I can feel pretty good about, in an uncomplicated way, and that was the practice back here of five million Americans wearing bracelets to remember the POWs in Hanoi. As the narrator says, “Despite what their jailers had told them, the prisoners had not been forgotten by their country.” There’s nothing political about it. It’s neither approving nor protesting. It’s just remembering, caring. It’s good to be reminded of that.

Just two more episodes to discuss. Then we can go back to arguing about things happening in this century…

marching

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Five: ‘This is what we do’

OK, I’m an episode behind in posting about this. I should have used the two-day R&R we had Friday and Saturday to catch up, but I had a lot of other stuff going on. I’m going to post this now (from Thursday night), and try to get to Episode Six before the day is out.

Several thoughts from this episode:

  • Are we “killer angels” or not? In the clip above, Marine Karl Marlantes disputes the notion that military training teaches young men to kill. He maintains that we are a species born to such aggression, and training merely serves as a “finishing school,” polishing our skills for what we already tend to do. Not a new idea, of course. But it flies in the face of what military psychologist Dave Grossman argues in that book I cite so often here, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Grossman presents considerable evidence to indicate that most men (although not all — we get our special forces soldiers from the tiny minority) have a deep-seated aversion to killing, and that it takes a lot to override that. So which is it? Are we natural-born killers, or do we have to be schooled to become that?
  • On a related point… The title of the episode comes from the opening clip above, in which another Marine talks about how he adapted to combat. At first, he questioned some of the things he saw fellow Marines doing. He’s not specific, he just refers to “some interesting things that happen” — although he had dropped the word “atrocities” in setting up the segment. Anyway, he was told, and he eventually internalized, “This is war. This is what we do.” This strikes me on a couple of levels. First, there’s the point I’ve made for 50 years to people who thought there was something especially immoral about our involvement in Vietnam, something setting it apart. No, this is war. Be against war if you choose, and that’s fine. But most (not all, but most) things that horrify people about Vietnam are things that happen in other wars. This is just the first war in our history in which folks at home had an inkling what happened on the battlefield. Second, I’m reminded of Grossman’s book: One of the factors that overcomes men’s aversion to killing is seeing their comrades doing it around them. In fact, one point that I don’t think has been made overtly in this series yet is this: Most soldiers don’t fight for causes, or nations, or any of the usual things we talk about. They fight for the guys next to them. If their comrades turn and run away, they’ll run away. But if his comrades stand and fight, a soldier is too ashamed to do anything else himself.
  • MusgraveOne of the most startling stories thus far in the series is the one told by Marine John Musgrave. He was shot in the chest, and had a hole “big enough to put your fist through.” He was triaged three times, and each time given up for dead — by a corpsman on the battlefield, again in the evac helicopter, and finally by a doctor at the hospital. Each time, he was shoved aside so the medical personnel could try to save the men who had a chance. The third time, the doctor only asked him his religion so he could call over a chaplain for him. Finally, a surgeon says, “Why isn’t somebody helping this man?” As they anesthetized him for surgery, he assumed he wouldn’t wake up. But they saved him, and he survived to tell his story to Burns and Novick.

That last item was one of those things that we should all pay more attention to. The moral is, Don’t ever assume you know what’s going to happen. This has many applications in life. Sometimes, as in Musgrave’s case, it means “Don’t give up hope.” Other times, we should not get complacent thinking we know things are going to be OK. For that reason, I’ve been pretty irritated at news stories I’ve seen the last two or three days saying that Graham-Cassidy is dead. As Yeats wrote (in the same poem quoted by Bobby Kennedy in last night’s episode):

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

On this, Lindsey Graham has thrown his lot in with the worst — even acting like he’s proud that Trump is backing his effort. And he will pull out everything he can to succeed in passing this abomination…

this is war

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode 4: ‘Resolve’

I’m a day behind here, but I want to have a post about each episode, so I’m posting this a day late, after I’ve already seen Episode 5. But here goes…

First, if there was an episode, of all those thus far, that was going to turn me into the Vietnam war protester that Bud would like me to be, it was this one. From start to finish, practically every point made, every interview, every video clip, added up to a powerful message that whether we should have been in Vietnam or not, what we were doing was not working. The Johnson administration was fooling itself as well as the American people, and each escalation added to the sense of desperation that the episode conveyed. These points were made again and again, eloquently.

A person watching that episode would naturally wonder, why did we continue to fight? Why didn’t the American people demand that we withdraw immediately? And my answer, as I expressed earlier in a comment, is that the concentrated way that these arguments are presented in the episode was NOT the way life was experienced at the time. First, if you were a stateside civilian, little of your average day was spent thinking about the war. And when it was, the antiwar message was a much smaller chunk of what we were taking in about the war — and no, that was NOT because the POTUS was a big, fat liar.

Most of the journalism we saw was NOT by David Halberstam or Morley Safer. We did not have the experience that this series affords of hearing at length from young men who went over enthusiastic about the mission and became disillusioned. (So far, every single young man we learn of in

I was just a kid at the time, which makes me unreliable, but I have no memory at all of the Fulbright hearings, much less of the calm, articulate, intellectual arguments of George F. Kennan and other witnesses arguing against our involvement.

In fact, if you were alive at the time, most of what you saw of the growing antiwar movement was people chanting such things as “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” I know that such “arguments” are persuasive to many people, but they turn me right off. Such approaches aim to engage the emotion and shut down rational faculties, and I’ve always held them in contempt.

Anyway, I was impressed by what Kennan had to say, because of who he was — or who the series told me he was. My ears perked up immediately when I heard that he was sort of the father of Cold War strategy of containment. I had heard his name, and I was familiar with the strategy, and I was eager to hear more.

As y’all know, I have frequently written here about Vietnam as an application of that policy of containment. So hearing that Kennan said Vietnam was a wrong-headed misapplication of the strategy really made an impression on me.

Bud thinks I should “just admit the hippies and draft dodgers were right,” which ain’t gonna happen. Nor is Muhammad Ali or Dr. Spock going to knock me over. Nor John Kerry. In fact, definitely not John Kerry. But if a guy like Kennan says something, I’m thinking as I watch this, I’m paying attention.

The next morning, seeking to know more, I googled Kennan. Wikipedia’s not the same as reading a serious book about him, and I stand ready to be corrected by someone with deeper knowledge, but it’s what I had time for so far. And I read this:

Soon after his concepts had become U.S. policy, Kennan began to criticize the foreign policies that he had seemingly helped begin. Subsequently, prior to the end of 1948, Kennan became confident that positive dialogue could commence with the Soviet government. His proposals were discounted by the Truman administration and Kennan’s influence was marginalized, particularly after Dean Acheson was appointed Secretary of State in 1949. Soon thereafter, U.S. Cold War strategy assumed a more assertive and militaristic quality, causing Kennan to lament about what he believed was an abrogation of his previous assessments….

In other words, Kennan wasn’t exactly what the series suggested. He had disowned the way the U.S. government applied his containment idea to the entire Cold War, starting LONG before we got involved in Vietnam.

Which puts his testimony in a very different light from what I heard Wednesday night. It’s not like he was a guy wedded to the overall strategy who had a specific problem with Vietnam; he was a guy who disowned the whole policy.

The way it was presented on the show was that here was Mr. Containment himself, and he was against our involvement in Vietnam. But apparently, that description was off.

Maybe that was acknowledged at some point when I got up to get a glass of water or something. But if it wasn’t, the omission bothers me. It’s one of the few flaws I’ve spotted in the series thus far, though, which testifies to the excellence we’ve come to associate with Burns and Novak.

One other small thing that speaks to something huge…

The episode told of how in the last year of his life, Martin Luther King struggled with whether he should take a stand against the war. And as we know, he eventually decided to do so.

I deeply respect his prayerful process of discernment, and was as always impressed by the rolling power of his eloquence in the speech the program showed a clip from.

But something jumped out at me. Like so many other opponents of our involvement, he called upon our leaders to “end the war.”

Well, y’all know how I tend to react to that phrase. It is spoken by so many good, decent, kind, caring people who just want all the bloodshed to stop. It was spoken during that war, and later with regard to Iraq, and to this day about Afghanistan.

But it was not in our power to “end the war.” It was only in our power to get out of the way and let it proceed without us. This is not some small linguistic quibble. The difference between ending a war and pulling out to let the other combatants fight it out is a big as between night and day.

As we would see in 1975…

Kennan