Monday, September 19, 2016

Holy Cheeseburger, Batman!

Candida [to her husband, the Reverend James Mavor Morell]:Look at our congregation at St. Dominic's! Why do they come to hear you talking about Christianity every Sunday? Why, just because they've been so full of business and money-making for six days that they want to forget all about it and have a rest on the seventh, so that they can go back fresh and make money harder than ever!” George Bernard Shaw, Candida (Act II)
Hershey H. Friedman retells the following story from the Talmud:
One day, while Rabbi Safra was praying, a man offered to buy some merchandise from him. He made an offer, but Rabbi Safra did not want to respond in the middle of a prayer. The prospective buyer assumed that Rabbi Safra was holding out for more and kept increasing the bid. After Rabbi Safra concluded his prayer, he informed the buyer that he would sell the merchandise at the first price because he had "agreed in his heart" to this price.*
Charlie Kushner as a businessman was no Rabbi Safra. While the Rabbi would adhere to the lower price that he had agreed to “in his heart,” Kushner would not even adhere to a price he had contractually agreed to. As Lizzie Widdicombe relates,
Kushner was no Trump [he avoided the press]. But he had Trumpian qualities,** such as a tendency to withhold payment from venders like contractors, cleaners, and architects, forcing them to accept a fraction of their fee. [A] former Kushner Companies executive told me, “Every week we’d have meetings at Charlie’s house, and we’d go through the bills—the larger bills and corporate bills. And he’d sign them, or he’d say, ‘Offer them forty per cent.’ Or ‘Offer them fifty per cent.’ ”***
(The mention of Donald Trump was not gratuitous. Jared Kushner, Charlie's son, is the husband of Ivanka Trump—and a strong supporter of his father-in-law's candidacy. Indeed, Ms. Widdicombe's New Yorker article is entitled “Family First: How Donald Trump came to rely on Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.”)

As happens often enough when family members and business mix, family members and business split apart. As a result of the Kushner family feud, Charlie Kushner ended up in a federal prison, having pleaded guilty to tax evasion, witness tampering, and making illegal campaign donations. 

Widdicombe quotes from a Charlie Kushner trade paper interview in which, forgetting that he was the guilty party, hurls brickbats at his siblings who opposed him:
I don’t believe God and my parents will ever forgive my brother and sister for instigating a criminal investigation and being cheerleaders for the government and putting their brother in jail because of jealousy, hatred and spite.” [See the Widdecombe article for the wonderfully juicy details of his plotting against his family.]
What is interesting here is the contention that God has it in for the innocent. Perhaps Kushner felt that he could speak for God because he is a follower of the Modern Orthodox Jewish tradition, keeping a kosher home and observing the Sabbath. He also gave a shedload money to Hebrew schools in New Jersey.****
Dr. Friedman points out that “in Jewish law, the legal content of the law is totally conjoined with ethics, religion, and morality.” He cites the Ten Commandments as mixing laws that are
the foundations of every legal system (e.g., those dealing with murder, theft, and bearing false witness) with laws that are religious (e.g., against idolatry and observing the Sabbath).
Somehow, however, the injunctions of the Talmud to observe fair business practices and the Commandments to shun theft and bearing false witness eluded Kushner.

But, I guess, he figured that's ok, because he doesn't eat tref.

**Donald Trump often portrays himself as a savior of the working class who will 'protect your job.' But a USA TODAY NETWORK analysis found he has been involved in more than 3,500 lawsuits over the past three decades — and a large number of those involve ordinary Americans . . . who say Trump or his companies have refused to pay them.”

****A lot like Robert Brennan, another businessman-felon, who gave a shedload of money to Catholic schools in New Jersey. La Rochefoucauld doesn't have it as one of his maximes (but he should): “It's easy to give money to charity, especially when it's other people's.”

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: