Thursday, December 31, 2015

About the 2015 Kennedy Center honors

This year's Kennedy Center honorees were Rita Moreno, George Lucas, Cicely Tyson, Seiji Ozawa, and Carole King.

Most of the tributes were entertaining and classy. I especially enjoyed Tyler Perry's anecdote about working with Cicely Tyson; he deftly turned from the very funny story to a heartfelt encomium and never hit a false note. The gospel performance ending the tribute to Miss Tyson was great, not least because of her delighted smile and enthusiastic gesticulations. Many have praised Aretha Franklin's show-stopping rendition of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman". (Carole King's obvious elation contributes heavily to this segment's impact.)

The salute to George Lucas, though, had a baffling misfire: the segment on music's importance to his films. The live accompaniment was jarringly thin compared to the original soundtracks. Worse, the segment ended with an out-of-nowhere, totally pointless parade of Imperial stormtroopers. Huh?

Improbably, the stormtroopers returned during the final number of the show, a star-studded rendition of Carole King's "I Feel the Earth Move". Again, they stood around while the likes of Sara Bareilles, Aretha Franklin and James Taylor performed.

These missteps didn't ruin the show but they were weirdly off-key. Was a seven-year-old an assistant producer? Or might this have been a sly (and unkind) swipe at Lucas' habit of sabotaging his films with juvenile touches? Hmm ... no, that sounds too meta for this show. The boring truth is probably that some producer had both a lousy idea and the authority to realize it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Distractions from the big problem

2015 was a watershed year for gay rights. Same-sex marriage is still controversial, but we've seen heartening indications that most people aren't as scared of non-heterosexuals as they were even five years ago.

Texas teen Ethan Couch, who got probation even though he killed four innocent people in a drunk-driving incident, was picked up in Mexico with his mother. Even the dimwitted judge who gave him probation should now see that he needs to be locked up. The judge should toss Mom into the women's wing of the same prison, too.

These and other attention-grabbing happenings, though, have all been dangerous distractions from the year's really big story: the emotional secession of the far right from our country. Chauncey DeVega writes:

... today’s brand of conservatism exhibits pre-Enlightenment era thinking, and uses what I (and others) have described as “the politics of disorientation” to confuse the American people through a coordinated campaign of outright lying and seductive disinformation.

...

To understand Donald Trump’s appeal, one must seriously consider the possibility that his followers specifically, and movement conservatives and the Republican Party more generally, are exhibiting signs of political psychopathology.

DeVega says Trump's supporters exhibit many of the signs of a cult. I've thought so for a while. His supporters — or followers — are basically living in their own informational ecosystem, divorced from the real world, accepting only the truth according to Trump. They effectively have broken off from the rest of the country, at least in their own minds.

We have a job of deprogramming ahead of us. That realization is the real story of 2015, but we keep letting ourselves be distracted. No more. Let 2016 be the start of our reckoning with it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

My Obsession Now: Dream Academy, "Life in a Northern Town"

It seems like the right time of year for this pretty tune. It's cold and crisp and (finally!) rainy here, at last making me feel like I could be in the little town of the video.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The company you keep may not be good for you

The New York Times piece is, "Rise of Donald Trump Divides Black Celebrities He Calls His Friends".

The issue isn't that he calls them his friends: it's that they call him theirs.

[Mike] Tyson, who is Muslim, recently defended Mr. Trump, telling the website TMZ, “Hey listen, anybody that was ever president of the United States offended some group of people.”
Tyson's remarks aren't the only eyebrow-raising ones in this piece, but they're illustrative of the problem all of Trump's friends are facing, whatever their color or creed.

Apparently Teh Donald inspires a certain amount of personal loyalty. I won't presume to dispute that: I don't know the man except by his public statements. Most of us probably define our true friends as those who stick by us in times of trouble, and that's an admirable trait — to a point.

At some point, though, you have to step back and look at your friend and the trouble he's causing.

It might have escaped your notice, Friends of Teh Donald, but your friend has gone beyond offending people. He's stirring up hatred of The Other, especially if The Other has brown or black skin. His "offensive" remarks haven't been one-offs: they've been part of a calculated strategy to gin up votes among bigoted white people. You don't have to take my word for it, either: Al Sharpton cuts right to the heart of the problem.

... Mr. Sharpton said he did not know whether Mr. Trump was racist, and added, “I don’t think it matters.”

“What he’s saying appeals to racists,” Mr. Sharpton said. “He’s too smart to not know what he’s doing.”

You Friends of Teh Donald aren't trying to excuse a drinking problem or some other merely self-destructive trait, you're trying to excuse hate-mongering.

From this stranger-to-Teh-Donald's perspective, you Friends of Teh Donald have been nothing more than props in his ego fantasy. He likes to treat you well because you lend him lustre and social cachet: "Look at all these important and famous people who love me!"

But say I'm wrong. Say he has been a genuine and good friend to you. You still have to confront the fact that he's fostering xenophobia — fear and hatred of The Other. Is that what you want? The longer you stick by him, the more we're going to think it is.

It's not all about race or religion, either. Ultimately your friend doesn't give a shit except for wealthy people. Don King, that prince of opportunists, knows this well.

“What matters to Trump is success,” Mr. King, 84, said in a phone interview, recalling fondly how their friendship grew from ringside encounters at boxing matches in Atlantic City. “If you are achieving success, you meet the test.”
Let's be clear: by "success" both Teh Donald and King mean wealth and fame. They don't hang out with "successful" small-business owners or "successful" philosophers.

So, Friends of Teh Donald, is it all about that kind of success for you, too? Do you genuinely not give a shit about anyone but people who have been "successful" by those lights? If so, go ahead, stand by your man.

But if you care about less-successful people too (or, heaven forbid, even unsuccessful ones), or if "success" means more to you than wealth and fame, you need to look long and hard at what your friend is saying, and what his words are doing to the country.

Sometimes being a friend means doing the hard thing, confronting him when he's lashing out and causing mayhem. Sometimes it even means ending the friendship.

Your friend has made his choice, and it ain't pretty.

Your turn.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The only thinking The Donald does is wishful

During last night's Republican debate, the wannabe fascist frontrunner said:
“We should be able to penetrate the Internet and find out exactly where ISIS is and everything about ISIS. We can do that if we use our good people. ... Now, you could close [the Internet]. What I like even better than that is getting our smartest and getting our best to infiltrate their Internet so that we know exactly where they're going. Exactly where they're going to be. I like that better.”
I could explain why this is complete nonsense but if you're a Trump supporter you won't believe me (he's the self-proclaimed smartest guy around, after all, and I only spent seven years writing network-aware software), while if you're not a supporter you likely already know he's spouting horseshit. So I'm not going to waste my time.

I mention this gibbering from The Donald only because it's a perfect example of his standard modus operandi. He conjures up an ideal result, the one everybody wants, and then brazenly, and always without offering any proof whatsoever, claims we could achieve this result — if only he were in charge.

This is the kind of stupidity practiced by executives who don't know squat about their industry but won't take "no" for an answer. The business press never asks whether their forceful actions are correct, so the idiots never are confronted with their wrongness and they start believing they're savants.

It's the kind of stupidity Scott Adams has been lampooning for years with Dilbert's "pointy-haired boss". A pointy-haired boss' subordinates don't have the authority to tell him he's wrong, not that he'd listen if they tried. He starts thinking he can make things happen merely by issuing orders, just like waving a magic wand.

The Donald is the ultimate wishful thinker.

Actually, his supporters are the ultimate wishful thinkers. They think he knows what he's talking about. They think he can deliver on his absurd claims.

For all our sakes, I hope he never gets the chance to disappoint them.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A study in contrasts on late night

Monday night saw a couple of late-night pairings that warmed the heart of any Jon Stewart fan. Only one of them worked out in everyone's favor, though.

Jon Stewart himself guested on The Daily Show to talk about Congress' shameful failure to extend or to make permanent a compensation fund for first responders to the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Stewart graciously and correctly never tried to upstage Noah. The trouble was, he couldn't help doing so. Noah's bemused outsider never seemed more genuinely outside, less relevant to the show that now bears his name. The appearance did Stewart and the worthy cause he espouses good (I hope), but it had the deeply unfortunate effect of rendering Noah a nonentity. I can't see how Stewart can appear on the show again until or unless Noah has acquired the presence to stand alongside his predecessor without seeming lost.

Steve Carell's appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was a much happier experience all around. The two old friends swapped stories and praised each other to the skies, but never let too much time elapse between jokes. If it wasn't quite the comedic gem that Carell's triumphant return to The Daily Show was in 2005, it still made for thoroughly entertaining TV. (I'll even forgive Carell his totally believable but completely fake reluctance to sing with Colbert.)

Monday, December 7, 2015

A plea to Donald Trump's supporters

In case you somehow missed it, Donald Trump called for keeping Muslims from entering the U.S. He wouldn't make an exception for anybody, including U.S. citizens.

To Trump supporters everywhere: I'm asking you — no, I'm begging you — to stop for a moment.

I'm not asking you to put yourself in the shoes of a Muslim, because you might not have any idea what that's like. I certainly don't.

I'm asking you to put yourself in the shoes of your grandparents. Or your great-grandparents. Or your friend's father or mother.

You don't have to be Japanese to see that what we did to Japanese-American civilians (and to a lesser extent, to German-American and Italian-American civilians) at the outset of World War II was a cruel and unjustified punishment of innocent people.

You don't have to be Irish or Italian or Chinese to appreciate how badly these groups were treated at various times in our nation's history.

You don't have to be Catholic or Jewish to see how irrational bigotry harmed innocent adherents to these religions.

I guarantee you that if you aren't a first- or second-generation American yourself, your ancestors who were experienced bigotry and calumny at the hands of suspicious "already-heres" who didn't take kindly to the new people arriving on these shores.

The vast majority of Muslims live peaceful lives in the U.S. They're as horrified by terrorist attacks as the rest of us are.

"But they espouse hate!" Some of them do. But then, so do some Christians. There are Christian leaders who call for killing gays. The latter aren't just fringe figures, either: they're politically significant enough that three Republican presidential candidates paid them a visit.

Should we vent our frustration and anger at these hateful people by visiting vengeance on all Christians?

I'm asking you, supporters of Donald Trump, to take a few moments to calm down. Think what tarring whole ethnic and religious groups with a broad brush has done in the past, very likely to one or more of your own ancestors.

This country is a marvelous experiment in getting people of a thousand different cultures to live in relative harmony. It has been a rocky road at times. We bump against one another and piss one another off on a regular basis, it seems. But we share a commitment to making it work. Really. We do. One of the more eloquent testaments to the strength of that commitment is the example of the 442nd Infantry Regiment from World War II: even after the racist and vindictive treatment of their parents, these American-born men of Japanese ethnic ancestry believed enough in American ideals to lay their lives on the line for them.

But ours is a fragile experiment. The threat isn't from ISIS or Russia or China or anybody else. It's from a strain of thought that seeks to atomize us, to divide us, to pit us one against another on the basis of race, religion, or some other factor. ISIS can't destroy us — but we can.

And Donald Trump's rhetoric points the way.

So again, I'm asking you supporters of Donald Trump to pause, and put yourself in the shoes of The Other. Your ancestors were The Other at some point.

Trump isn't going to listen to me. He might listen to you, though.

Tell him he's playing right into ISIS' hands. Tell him we need to win the war of ideas as well as the shooting war. Tell him that "shutting down" entry by Muslims would confirm the worst suspicions of people around the world about Americans. It would be a betrayal of our principles from which it would take us generations to recover.

Please. Tell him.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The illusion of discriminating between refugees

Jeffrey Tayler posits in a Salon piece that Donald Trump might be right about one thing (contrary to all the abundant evidence that he is a serial liar): we should be very careful about accepting more refugees from Syria. The facts, he says, favor caution: Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise and has as alarming a rate of infection as Ebola (my simile, not his). Tayler's okay with accepting those refugees who are Christian. But, perhaps as a sop to people who find discriminating on the basis of religion to be not just immoral but exceedingly stupid, he adds, "why not consider seeking out atheist Syrian asylum seekers, few though they may be?"

Tayler is an idiot.

I would guess that people have lied on their applications about their religious affiliation without our catching it. Moreover, Tayler cites the statistic that, of 66 Muslims arrested for plotting terrorist attacks in the U.S. in the last year and a half, "four out of 10 were converts to Islam". Syrian Christians and atheists aren't going to be more immune to conversion than anybody else.

No evaluation for asylum is going to reveal whether somebody is a threat in waiting. No amount of interviewing and fingerprinting and database-searching is going to reveal somebody's heart or peer into his future.

We can't totally foreclose another terrorist attack. We are going to have to learn to live with the risk.

I say, we should honor the promise Obama made and admit 10,000 Syrian refugees after the requisite vetting. It's more than a lot of people want and a lot less than we, a very prosperous nation, probably owe the world, but again, that's the promise we made.

Either that, or just close the border to everybody.

Just stop the hand-wringing already. Don't pretend we can just let in the "good" kind of refugee. That's a fucking illusion, and I'm sick of all the fucking illusions already hobbling us (e.g., "climate change isn't real").