Trump, the Ultimately Unfunny Buffoon

 

Donald Trump caricature, creative commons via Flickr and Jay Ward's Snidely Whiplash photoshopped by WLM3

Donald Trump caricature, creative commons via Flickr and Jay Ward’s Snidely Whiplash photoshopped by WLM3

I hate to admit it, but during the Republican primary season, I found Donald Trump to be amusing, his buffoonery charming in a counter-intuitive way, the way you might find yourself chuckling at Fyodor Karamazov or Snidely Whiplash.

Take for instance, Trump’s Low-Energy-Jeb shtick. Here is a man who embraces his wealth like a teddy bear, a man who flashes his net worth like a grandparent sharing photos of his progeny, a man in his 69th year who on national television mocks the physical posture of a former governor as if they’re running for student council representative for the 8th grade.

But let’s face it: Trump lacks the charm to remain amusing for very long because he lacks the ability to be self-deprecating. Imagine his delivering a speech at the end of a White House Correspondents Dinner or a Don Rickles Hollywood Roast, Trump’s tangerine complexion gone red-orange in rage, drool dripping from the lower left arc of his sphincter-shaped mouth as it arse-belches vengeful rebukes.

No, ultimately, Donald Trump is about as amusing as the Battle of the Somme, and it’s time that we start the very serious business of making sure he’s not elected President of the United States – and that we includes the neo-Manicheans of the Never-Hillary Bernie Brigade.

 

Way, Way Past Time

Yesterday morning I awakened to the news that the 1,001st mass shooting since Sandy Hook had occurred at an Orlando nightclub.   Of course, mass shootings only make up a small percentage of the 32,000 firearms deaths the US racks up every year.

 

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Be that as it may, when it comes to mass shootings, a very clear pattern emerges as to the weapon of choice among the assailants, the AR-15, the weapon used Friday night in Orlando and six months ago in San Bernardino and in 2012 in both the Aurora, Colorado, theatre shooting and the massacre in Newton, Connecticut, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

It’s the same weapon South Carolina State legislator Lee Bright raffled off when he ran against Lindsey Graham in 2014. I’ll let the ironically named legislator speak for himself:

“In the wake of the horrific tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, gun-grabbers were sure they had the votes to RAM gun control into law,” the email said. “Thanks to the action of Second Amendment supporters all over the country, their schemed failed — even despite my Republican Primary opponent, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham. … In fact, it’s one BIG reason I’m running for the U.S. Senate. And today, I’m announcing that my campaign is giving away a brand new Palmetto Armory AR-15!”

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Bright asked supporters to forward the email “to every pro-gun friend and family member you have.”

There is no reason for anyone to own an AR-15 assault weapon (note the nomenclature). For hunting, it might be useful if the game is Godzilla, but for deer or even bear it seems like overkill, not very sporting, and as far as self-protection goes, a shotgun will do.

And please spare me the deluded fantasy that assault weapons are necessary in the event that “they” ever come after “our guns.” Let me assure you that if the “they” is the US Military, your AR-15 is not going to be all that effective against F-15s, armored vehicles, cruise missiles, etc.

But, the doubters ask, if we make assault weapons illegal, only criminals will own them. Well, we have a real world example of what happens when assault weapons are banned in the 1996 legislation that Australia enacted. I quote the NY Times:

The oft-cited statistic in Australia is a simple one: There have been no mass killings — defined by experts there as a gunman killing five or more people besides himself — since the nation significantly tightened its gun control laws almost 20 years ago.

A few of the weapons accumulated in Australia's government's buy back program

A few of the weapons accumulated in Australia’s government’s buy back program

Obviously, it’s way past time for us to do the same. The fact that this latest butcher with a known link to an Islamic radical could purchase an assault weapon is unconscionable, ludicrous, downright un-Darwinian.

Please contact your representatives. I certainly am.

Let Chaucer Be

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The latest controversy roiling the breasts of English majors at Yale is their being required to take a survey course called “Major English Poets,” a course of study that forces them to become familiar with the works of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne in the first semester and Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Eliot, and one other modern poet in the spring. Their beef, according the petition that they’ve delivered to the Department is that “a year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity.” [1]

I heartily disagree, and I’m going to quote at length one of the white men listed above, TS Eliot, from his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

To proceed to a more intelligible exposition of the relation of the poet to the past: he can neither take the past as a lump, an indiscriminate bolus, nor can he form himself wholly on one or two private admirations, nor can he form himself wholly upon one preferred period. The first course is inadmissible, the second is an important experience of youth, and the third is a pleasant and highly desirable supplement. The poet must be very conscious of the main current, which does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations. He must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same. He must be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen. That this development, refinement perhaps, complication certainly, is not, from the point of view of the artist, any improvement. Perhaps not even an improvement from the point of view of the psychologist or not to the extent which we imagine; perhaps only in the end based upon a complication in economics and machinery. But the difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show.

And, yes, and that includes Alexander Pope, who may not be “fun” to read but who provides a nearly flawless mirror to the intellectual world of his century.

For people of color, “queer folk,” and women to have an understanding of the works of great artists and the historical contexts of those works strikes me as the opposite of harmful, especially given that I’m fairly sure Yale offers elective courses that feature other great poets like Derek Wolcott, Elizabeth Bishop, Langston Hughes, and Hart Crane.  Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Donne in a sense established the traditions of English poetry, the colloquial, rough-hewn verse of Chaucer and Donne pointing the way for the great Walt Whitman, the smoothness of Spenser no doubt influencing the verse of Christina Rossetti.

One student, Ariana Miele, in an op-ed piece for the Yale Daily News wrote, “We read Chaucer, but we are told to view his misogyny with an ‘objective’ lens.”

Certainly, the Middle Ages were misogynistic, and perhaps Chaucer was typical of his age, but he has also given us the Wife of Bath who offers this bit of wisdom to her fellow pilgrims:

By God, if women ever wrote some stories

As clerks have done in all their oratories,

They would have told of men more wickedness

Than all the sons of Adam could redress.

In other words, women in Medieval Europe did not have their voices heard.

Or this from Iago’s wife Emila from Othello explaining to chaste Desdemona why some women betray their husbands:

But I do think it is their husbands’ faults

If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,

And pour our treasures into foreign laps,

Or else break out in peevish jealousies,

Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,

Or scant our former having in despite;

Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,

Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know

Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell

And have their palates both for sweet and sour,

As husbands have. What is it that they do

When they change us for others? Is it sport?

I think it is: and doth affection breed it?

I think it doth: is’t frailty that thus errs?

It is so too: and have not we affections,

Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?

Then let them use us well: else let them know,

The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.

 

I’ve often said that when parents start running a school, that school’s in trouble. When students start running a university, especially when they’re undergraduates, that university’s in big trouble.


[1] Is it possible to study post-colonialism without understanding colonialism? Might knowledge of pre-colonial and colonial art help students better understand colonialism and post-colonialism?

Psalm: Dystopia

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From man’s blood-sodden heart are sprung

Those branches of the night and day

Where the gaudy moon is hung.

What’s the meaning of all song?

‘Let all things pass away.’

                                                WB Yeats, “Vacillation”

 

Once upon a time,

and a very good time it was,

before we put seeds in the ground,

the gods lived inside the snake,

inside the bush, inside of us.

 

After the capture of the seed,

the plants lost their souls

as the folk toiled

beneath the eyes of a watchful god —

or so they thought.

 

But over the centuries, as they reaped and sowed,

the sky god began to shrink, to wither

into little more than a whisper.

 

Later, citizens polished their pianos,

and the factories spewed their soot,

and the dead carp floated upon the lake,

and the coral disappeared from the seas,

which rose year after year –

to reclaim the trade-seared land.

 

Shadow Boxing Earlier in the Day: Clay vs. Ali

cassius_clayIn my boyhood, before adolescence, I began each day by retrieving the newspaper from what we called the front porch, though, in truth, it was more like an elevated stoop, a 6 x 6 concrete slab. If there were a big story, like the suicide of Marilyn Monroe, I’d read it right there, or if there were an untelevised sporting event I cared about, I’d rip open the sports section to discover the outcome. That was the case on 25 February 1964 when Cassius Clay, as he was called in those days, upset Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight Championship of the World. It was the outcome I had fervently hoped for, and it had happened, despite 7 to 1 odds. I remember sitting on the steps of the stoop, reading the account that included the accusation that Liston had thrown some type of blinding powder in Clay’s eyes.

My father had been an amateur boxer in his youth, a welterweight who developed his skills on the sidewalks of Spring Street in Charleston, SC, during the Depression. Every Friday night he’d watch the fights broadcast on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports as he sat on the sofa smoking cigarette after cigarette, leaning into the television, screaming suggestions to the combatants even though they were hundreds of miles away at Madison Square Garden. He had bought my brother and me boxing gloves and roped off the living room and taught us how to box, to crouch, to throw punches with our “hips” instead of our “arms.” I hated it, being at once weak, blinky, and adverse to pain.

My father in his Spring Street Days, aged 15

My father in his Spring Street Days, aged 15

But I did enjoy watching the matches, and we liked “Cassius Clay,” because he was funny, brash, clever, a rhymer, and, I’m sorry to say, perhaps because he was “light-skinned,” unlike Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier.   Clay, and later, Ali, was also too aware of this distinction in skin tones. Here’s a snippet from Robert Lipsyte’s superb obituary from the Times:

But Ali had his hypocrisies, or at least inconsistencies. How could he consider himself a “race man” yet mock the skin color, hair and features of other African-Americans, most notably Joe Frazier his rival and opponent in three classic matches? Ali called him “the gorilla,” and long afterward Frazier continued to express hurt and bitterness.

Ali would also play upon racial and ethnic stereotypes. Here is a joke he told at a fundraiser in Louisville in 2005:

“If a black man, a Mexican and a Puerto Rican are sitting in the back of a car, who’s driving? Give up? The po-lice.”

And here he is explaining to a Soviet reporter in 1960 why he’s proud to be an American citizen.

“It may be hard to get something to eat sometimes, but anyhow I ain’t fighting alligators and living in a mud hut.”

In some ways, like my father, he was a man of his times.

However, even though these quips might have gotten Ali dis-invited from a speaking engagement at Oberlin, in the course of his life, he displayed more courage than any other athlete I can think of. Ali was a man of his convictions, willing to make unpopular brand-tarnishing decisions like converting to the Nation of Islam and facing the prospect of prison for refusing to be drafted into the Viet Nam War. “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong,” he said, adding, “They ain’t never called me no [racial expletive].”

And Ali sacrificed three prime years when boxing commissions around the country stripped him of his titles, and although the backlash was fierce and many journalists refused to call him by his new name, he earned the respect over time for his principled stands, and, even my father, not exactly a devotee of Malcolm X, continued to pull for Ali upon his return to the ring.

Perhaps it was because Ali was such a beautiful, graceful fighter, poetry –not doggerel — in motion or because he was so witty, possessed such a generous spirit, and these attributes transcended by father’s homegrown prejudices.  Later in life Ali said, “Color doesn’t make a man a devil. It’s the heart and soul and mind that count. What’s on the outside is only decoration.”

At any rate, it says something positive about our nation that at his death Muhammad Ali was virtually universally admired by his fellow citizens, even, it would seem, Donald Trump.

All leave you with this ditty from the great Bob Dylan:

 

I was shadow-boxing earlier in the day

I figured I was ready for Cassius Clay

I said “Fee, fie, fo, fum, Cassius Clay, here I come

26, 27, 28, 29, I’m gonna make your face look just like mine

Five, four, three, two, one, Cassius Clay you’d better run

99, 100, 101, 102, your ma won’t even recognize you

14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, gonna knock him clean right out of his spleen”

 

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The Big-Boned Lady Has Sung

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If you believe the pundits – and why should you given that virtually every one of them emphatically assured us that Donald J Trump would never be the Republican nominee? Anyway, if you believe the pundits, they claim that Hillary Clinton’s so-called foreign policy speech Thursday was “a turning point in the campaign.”   If I had the time and patience, I could perhaps construct one of those rapid-fire montages that the Daily Show made famous: [cut to Eugene Robinson: “turning point,” cut to Rachel Maddow: “turning point,” cut to Hendrik Hertzberg, “turning point,”]. A turning point, I assume, in that Clinton has gone from reactive to proactive, has taken control of the news cycle.

People were expecting a boring speech on national security, but instead they got sardonic stand up:

”There’s no risk of people losing their lives if you blow up a golf course deal.”

“Donald Trump says, ‘I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.’ Well, [semi-eye roll] I don’t believe him.”

The speech was well delivered, more conversational, less strident.

Not surprisingly, Clinton didn’t mention her foreign policy legacy during the speech, the vote on the Iraq war, the debacle in Libya, etc. Essentially, she used Trump’s own words to illustrate just how unstable, intemperate, and megalomaniacal he is, something Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were loath to do until it was too late. Obviously, Clinton has nothing to lose by alienating the Republican base, that fraying quilt of evangelists, secessionists, country club members, and unreconstructed Confederates.

It may also be a turning point in that on the Friday before the New Jersey and California primaries none of the pundits were talking about the Democratic horserace.

To politically correctly emend that operatic cliché, “the big-boned lady has sung.”

Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, and she might be more of an effective campaigner than we had imagined.

A Tiny Tribute to Ry Cooder

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Ry Cooder is an underappreciated American treasure. Although his exquisite studio session work (with bands as diverse as the Rolling Stones, Captain Beefheart, and Paul Revere and the Raiders) has been invaluable and his delightful original compositions often remarkable, it is his work as an archivist that has enriched my musical knowledge and refined my musical tastes.

Cooder’s an excavator of buried treasures, a discoverer of exotic, beautiful music, whether it be from the Mississippi Delta, Mexico, Cuba, India, or Sub-Saharan Africa. He’s sort of a medium – a vessel through which these songs are filtered and then transformed into a mode that preserves their essence but makes them new.

Check this out, for example, a cover of Washington Phillips’ obscure gospel song “Denomination Blues” from Cooder’s second studio album Into the Purple Valley, released in 1972.

 

This snippet embodies a remarkable paradox of Cooder’s music — his recordings of dated songs never sound dated — they sound the opposite of stale.

His fourth album, Chicken Skin Music, might be my favorite. On this record, Ry embraces both Hawaiian and Tex-Mex music. Essentially, he blends those formats into country and blues numbers. For example, here are legendary Hawaiian musicians Gabby Pahinui and Atta Isaacs contributing to this old Hank Snow tune:

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Chicken Skin Music also features for the first time now long-time collaborator Flaco Jimenez and his diatonic button accordion. Here they are doing Jim Reeves’ 1959 “He’ll Have to Go” in bolero rhythm.

 

Not to give you the wrong impression; the cat can also rock, as he does in this cover of Elvis’s “Little Sister,” from the 1979 album Bop Till You Drop, the first major label album ever to be digitally recorded.

 

Of course, in recent years, Ry’s justly become famous for his collaborations with Cuban musicians in The Buena Vista Social Club, the Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré, and the Indian sitar player Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.

Here’s a short clip from the Touré collaboration.

 

Add to that concept albums like Chavez Ravine, My Name Is Buddy, not mention his work with Little Village, the band he formed with John Hiatt, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner, and you have a body of work deserving of some sort of Presidential Medal.

I bet in a 100 years Cooder’s recording will not have aged – and that’s always been the test of great art. So c’mon Obama, before it’s too late. Don’t let President Trump bypass Ry Cooder for Wayne Newton or some other lounge singer. Let’s get going.