triumph's summer election special 2016

Last night, as my wife was reading in bed, I joined her, opened up my Kindle, put in my ear phones, and turned on Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s latest special on Hulu, Triumph’s Summer Election Special 2016. If you are unfamiliar with Triumph, imagine Don Rickles’ shtick coming out of the mouth of a hand puppet doggy operated by Robert Smigel. He made his name for his occasional appearances on Conan O’Brien’s various late-night shows, where he often got tossed out of events he was “covering” (most famously the Westminster Dog Show, more than once). Arguably his most famous sketch is his demolition of Star Wars fans waiting in line for the premiere of one of the movies. A favorite at our house is when, for some reason, a Hawaii TV station asked him to substitute for the local weather reporter.

The new Election Special comes on the heels of an earlier edition that has actually been nominated for an Emmy.

After I was done watching, I pulled out my ear phones, at which point, my wife said she had rarely, if ever, heard me laugh so much for an extended period of time. Oh, a minute or two here and there, but consistent, full-throated laughter for an hour? She was amazed.

I’m not going to try and analyze why this is. Suffice to say that I find Triumph to be hilarious at his best, and always worth watching even when he’s not as good. What interests me here is how Triumph has become a political comedian with these two specials. He’s been here before ... he did bits in both the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns ... but for the most part, he’s famous for those Star Wars fans, and Bon Jovi fans, and American Idol contestants, and the Tony Awards, etc. His act never really changes, which is one reason I’m surprised that I still find it funny. He works his way into situations where he can pepper people with questions that are either insulting, or lead to insults. You may feel a bit guilty for laughing at his victims, although apparently as his fame increases, he often gets asked by fans to be tormented on camera. Triumph is first and last a comedian ... there is no social commentary to his bits.

Except when he’s dealing with politicians. It’s one thing when he makes fun of Star Wars fans (confronted with a fan in a Darth Vader costume, he points to a box of buttons on the costume and asks which button calls up his parents to pick him up), but another when he applies the same basic techniques to politicians (and, more often, their representatives):

Triumph’s comedy is based on insults, but when he addresses politicians and their lackeys, he asks the questions “real” journalists would not. OK, there’s only so many jokes you can make about Bernie Sanders’ age, or Hillary Clinton’s hair, or Donald Trump’s anything. But when his insulting questions are directed at actual issues, you see how the need for politeness mutes even the most “hard-hitting” journalists.

Triumph is an equal opportunity insult artist ... in this special he takes on Democrats and Republicans alike. But Donald Trump is so easy that he gives Triumph his best material. At one point, Triumph says he has footage of Trump visiting neighborhoods with mostly minority residents. We imagine Donald pressing the flesh, but when we see the footage, Trump shows up in a tank, speaking through a megaphone about how he loves black people and Mexicans, showing nothing but his hand waving out of the top of the tank.

Most revealing, if perhaps too reminiscent of an old Daily Show sketch, is when Triumph sets up a legitimate focus group of Trump supporters and asks their opinions on various proposed ads for the campaign. The fake ads are ridiculous, but the supporters find something to like about all of them. After one ad, where Trump says during the time the wall is built, he will put up an electric fence and force all Mexicans to wear collars that will shock them if they try to cross over into the U.S., the focus group spends a bit of time not condemning the ads but analyzing the logistics to make the plan work better.

Still, for me, it comes back to laughter. And so I preferred the segment when Triumph couldn’t get into the Republican convention. He turns up with a Roger Ailes lookalike. It works.


and so, hillary clinton

Back in early June, when Hillary Clinton garnered enough delegates in primaries to become the nominee for President of the Democratic Party, a friend (an African-American male, since identity politics is so much a part of all this) wrote on Facebook, “Hooray for the status quo!” A woman we both know responded, “I think I know what you mean, but nominating a white male is much more the status quo.”

This exchange summed up my own thoughts on the election, and I don’t know why it has taken me so long to add my two cents worth.

There are two things about Clinton that are indisputable: that she is a woman, and that she is not Donald Trump. For many voters, one or both of these facts are reason enough to cast a ballot for Clinton.

I think I understand the impulse behind a pro-Clinton reaction to both of those facts. The second point may only lead to an "anyone but Trump" vote, but the first item inspires many, including the woman who commented. More than anything else, what makes Hillary Clinton not just a candidate worth voting for but also an historic figure, is that she is a woman. Male political leaders are the de facto status quo; women leaders, by definition, are thus not the status quo.

This position relies entirely on identity politics. It does not matter what positions Hillary Clinton takes on the issues; if she becomes president, she will have broken a barrier that has lasted as long as the United States has been a country, and that is as far from the status quo as you can get.

We’ve been through this quite recently, of course. Barack Obama was equally a breaker of barriers, by virtue of his race. There is no denying the symbolic importance of the words “President Obama”, just as there will be no denying the symbolic importance if in November we end up with “President Hillary Clinton”.

So, to borrow a phrase, I think I know what the commenter meant regarding Clinton and the status quo.

But she suggests that she knows what the original comments meant, and I have no reason to doubt her on that. Which means the discussion comes down to a basic point: how do we define the “status quo”?

I would argue that in many/most areas, Hillary Clinton is fairly close to the policies of our current President. After all, she served him loyally as Secretary of State, and while I’m entering into the realm of gossip now, it would seem that Obama and Clinton forged an honest friendship in those years.

She is also fairly close to the policies of the last Democrat who was President before Obama, Bill Clinton. We are often told of how Hillary was more than just a First Lady, that she was an active participant in Bill’s government. Bill’s speech at the convention was designed, among other things, to remind us that he valued her contributions, and that her contributions were substantive.

I don’t think I’m too far out of line to claim that if Hillary Clinton wins in November, and later becomes a two-term president, we will have had, since 1993, 24 years with presidents in the White House who are mostly on the same page. We can point to that symbolic importance, we can be thankful that at last, 8 of those years will be under an African-American, and 8 will be under a woman. But the politics of Bill Clinton are not much different from the politics of Barack Obama which are not much different from the politics of Hillary Clinton.

That is the status quo.

I am not an expert on these things. I am sure we could make lists where the three Democrats differ on particular issues. But “New Democrats”, for all its haziness, is a reasonable label for all three.

You will not hear me say “Clinton is just a Republican”, or “there is no difference between the parties”. And you definitely won’t hear me say there is no difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

I have no idea how to rank Clinton, Obama, and Clinton as liberals. I do know that whoever you think is the least liberal of the three is still far to the left of Donald Trump, or George W. Bush. I don’t consider myself a liberal ... the “New Democrats” can’t count on me. But I don’t think supporters of Hillary Clinton are deluded right-wingers. Being to the right of me does not make you a Republican.

Yet I feel like all of this is irrelevant, and it goes back to that original Facebook exchange. For many people, the fact that Hillary Clinton is a woman trumps all else. Her presence represents a toppling of the status quo. If that’s good enough for you, be true to that, and support and vote for Hillary Clinton. But please, don’t pretend that the specific importance of Hillary as potentially the first woman president overwhelms all the other ways in which she, like Obama before her, is very much part of the status quo.

Yes, I’ve sometimes voted for the lesser evil; I voted for Obama in 2008 too. And other times I haven’t; I’ve also voted Green and Socialist.... If people want to tell me that Hillary would be a less horrid option than whatever profound ghastliness the Republicans throw up, I’ll listen to them respectfully. If they try to tell me there’s something inspiring or transformative about her, I’ll have to wonder what planet they’re on.

-- Doug Henwood

[I feel like I need to add two things here. One, if I vote for Hillary Clinton, it will not be the first time I have voted for a woman for President. Two, none of the above should be taken as an endorsement of Green Party candidate Jill Stein. If I’m going to “waste my vote”, I’ll waste it elsewhere.]


underground

On the most recent episode of the very good American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, the inflammatory audio tapes of Detective Mark Fuhrman are heard. Johnnie Cochran, played with devious excellence by Courtney B. Vance, says the tapes show “what black people have always known”. At one point, one of the white members of the “Dream Team” says he knows how Cochran feels, and Cochran explodes. There is simply no way a white person can truly understand what it means to be black in America.

Underground is a new series on WGN America. All I knew of WGN prior to this is that they were an early “superstation” that showed Major League Baseball games for the Chicago teams. Underground is one of their first original series, and without decent reviews, I doubt I would have found it. It tells a story of the Underground Railroad, with the primary setting being a Georgia plantation where some of the slaves are planning an escape. It’s a tricky show, trying to be true to the history of slavery in America while still giving the audience something they will want to see week after week. So there is a lot of melodrama. But the extensive cast (hello, Adina Porter!) does wonders with the material, and we care about the characters.

While the focus is on the escape plans (we’ve seen three episodes so far, with the fourth airing tonight), we also get a clear picture of why escape is necessary. The plantation owner and his friends are suitably inhuman, and the slaves live in constant fear that some perceived mistake will be severely punished.

There is always a chance that this will be presented in a way that encourages the audience to enjoy the misery ... giving lashes to the slaves is barbaric, but it is also a part of a show that in part has entertainment on its mind. So far, Underground avoids this. I once taught the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and one student actually wrote that the slaves in the book were happy. There are no happy slaves in Underground.

A few years ago, I posted excerpts from the will of my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, who died in Virginia in 1757. If I remember correctly, I was finding my way through Ancestry.com files ... my sister had an account. I knew my mom’s family came from Kentucky ... my grandmother was born there. I never really thought about the implications of those Kentucky roots. But then I found that will. Here, I’ll repost the excerpts:

To Thomas Cralle Lamkin, son of Mary Jones, widow and relict of Charles Jones, late of Northumberland County five negoes vixt: Little Ben, Isaac, Peggs Bess, Blacka Top and Aggy. If he should die before he arrives to age or day of marriage, his mother Mary Jones to enjoy two of the said slaves that may be left at his death, she to have her choice during her natural life, then to revert to my children the remaining part

To son William Matthews Cralle nine negroes vizt: Chnce, Cate, and their daughter Bess, Frank, Alice, Stephen, Cate, Dominy, and Edmond.

Mulatto man Will, may be free at my decease.

To son Rodham Kenner Cralle three negroes vizt: Harry, George, and Nanny and my watch.

To daugher Mary Foushee my silver tankard, and negro wench Rose Anna

Rest of my estate both real and personal to be equally divided between five children Kenner, John, Rodham, William, and Mary, except Ben and Matthews whom I give to my son Kenner, son John to have Rachel, Old Ben to make choice of his master among my children.

I think it’s the matter-of-fact tone that is most disturbing. Mary Jones will “enjoy” her slaves. Old Ben isn’t given his freedom, but he gets “to make choice of his master”.

What was really most disturbing to me was that this was in my family’s past. I had certainly never owned up to any of this, beyond a general despair over slavery, and the role of whites in the “institution”. What this will showed me was that, beyond the general despair, I had, through my family, a specific responsibility. I can’t change the past, and I don’t take the blame for what my ancestors did centuries ago. But I also understand that it is too easy for white Americans to dismiss any thoughts of this evil stain on our history ... “oh, that was then, we didn’t do that”. Well, yes we did. Just ask my great-great-great-great-great grandfather.

After last week’s episode of Underground, I said to my wife, “that’s my family”. I don’t know if my great-great-great-great-great grandfather had a plantation. I don’t know how he treated his slaves. But I know he had them, in numbers ... that will specifically lists 23 slaves. That’s 23 too many.

I find myself falling into a trap I have set for myself all of my life, making everything about Me. That shouldn’t be what’s happening here. My feelings about my family’s past are not equal to the suffering of the slaves my family owned. Underground can’t only be a “good show”. It also gives context, a context that includes the past of my own family.


where do we go from here

[T]he Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

-- Martin Luther King


doug henwood, my turn: hillary clinton targets the presidency

I’ll start with the cover. There’s no way not to start with the cover ... Henwood even added “An Author’s Note About This Book’s Cover” to the book’s forward. (The turnaround time for My Turn was extremely fast. Henwood states at one point that he was finishing the writing in October, and it was released in December.) In his author’s note, he says “As this book was entering production, we circulated the cover to get people talking about it. We never imagined how successful that strategy would be.” His discussion of the subsequent criticism touches on the larger issues he addresses in the book as a whole, and is deserving of some examination here.

Some people found the cover gross or disgusting ... more importantly, “Tweets and think-pieces about the cover quickly became a subgenre of a larger argument that tries to portray tough criticism of Hillary as sexist – inevitably so, given its incorporation into a dominant patriarchal discourse, regardless of the author’s intent.” That larger argument, which wants to discredit any criticism of Hillary Clinton, is what Henwood is up against when he writes this book. The criticism must be made, but it is attacked just as if he were coming from a right-wing perspective. He writes:

[I]f you’re looking for a more peaceful, more egalitarian society you’d have to overlook a lot about Hillary’s history to develop any enthusiasm for her. The side of feminism I’ve studied and admired for decades has been about moving towards that ideal, and not merely placing women into high places while leaving the overall hierarchy of power largely unchanged. It’s distressing to see feminism pressed into service to promote the career of a thoroughly orthodox politician – and the charge of sexism used to deflect critiques of her.

The seven chapters tell Clinton’s story “From Park Ridge to Little Rock” onwards “Toward November 2016”, with stops at “First Lady”, “Senator”, her first try at the presidency, “Diplomat”, and philanthropy. Almost a third of the book consists of footnotes. He mentions that the original article on which the book is based, which ran 6000 words, elicited a 9000-word refutation from just one person. Thus assuming that his book will be closely scrutinized, “I’ve provided plenty of footnotes ... to work with.”

If I had to pick a central point to Henwood’s argument, it is that concrete actions are worth far more than symbolic gestures. He returns again and again to Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, which Hillary strongly supported:

Later, as senator, she supported George W. Bush’s proposal to expand the work requirement for recipients of the surviving welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) – one of the few Democrats to do so. Advocates for the poor were shocked ...

A 2014 analysis ... found the following about ... [TANF]: fewer families were drawing benefits despite increased need; the value of those benefits have eroded to the point where beneficiaries can’t meet their basic needs; it does far less to reduce poverty than its predecessor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which welfare reform abolished; and almost all of the early employment gains for single mothers have been reversed.

The symbolic importance of a woman president can’t be denied. But if that woman’s actions (not her symbolic presence) result in declines for women, the symbol is unimportant.

This matters because so much of the pro-Hillary stance is that as a woman, she is inherently feminist, and her actions are inherently good for women. This is only true on the symbolic level.

There are other objections to Hillary Clinton that Henwood analyzes in detail. On more than one occasion, he quotes her statement from an October Democratic debate: “I represented Wall Street, as a senator from New York.” She seems unashamed of that representation, and it can be assumed that if she becomes president, she will remain loyal to the rich institutions that have donated so much to her campaign. She is also quite hawkish. Henwood notes of her review of a book by Henry Kissinger,

[S]he praised his “breadth and acuity” and described him as “a friend,” on whose “counsel” she relied while Secretary of State. Her appreciation of her predecessor seems apt. There’s something reminiscent of Kissinger about Hillary – the ruthlessness, the admiration of toughness and force, the penchant for deception and secrecy, the view of diplomacy as war continued by other means.

(Keep in mind, she’s talking about a war criminal, here.)

Daniel Davies does a better job than I can of demonstrating why My Turn is an important book:

My main impression on reading the book is that this is something that all Hillary supporters ought to be buying – it sets out all of the credible criticisms, without mixing them with a load of right wing dreck. One of the strongest points Doug makes is that a detailed look at her history and actions is much more relevant than any amount of wonky analysis of her policies, because the history tells you that you can’t expect the policy promises to turn out. ...

Hillary’s time on the board of Wal-Mart ... gets pretty detailed scrutiny, as do various accounts of how things went so terribly wrong with healthcare reform under the Bill administration. And there is chapter and verse (backed up with a somewhat hair-raising selection of quotes at the back) on support for wars of all sizes and the elimination of welfare payments.

So these are the arguments that supporters need to know about; they’re largely credible criticisms of Hillary as being a selfish, arrogant politician with consistently poor judgement on important questions. These are the points which supporters need to deal with. But I get the strong feeling that most of them are not going to realise that they need to buy this book.

And I suppose I should post a picture of the cover. The artist is Sarah Sole:

my turn

[Obligatory disclaimer: I’ve known Doug for 20+ years.]


throwback thursday, recent edition

Mass Shooting Tracker is a website that calls itself “the world's only crowdsourced mass shooting tracker”. They have an ongoing page with Mass Shootings in 2015. Yesterday alone there were four shootings in the USA. The one that got the most attention was the live-on-television shooting of two Virginia journalists. Three people died, and one was wounded. There was also a shooting in Minnesota that left four wounded, a shooting in Florida that left two dead and two wounded, and a shooting in Chicago that killed one and wounded three. These brought the total number of shootings in 2015 to 248.

You can go to the website and see lists for 2013 and 2014 as well, if you want to look back in honor of Throwback Thursday.


catching up on books

Here are two books I’ve read recently that have nothing in common.

From Jeff Guinn, there’s Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, from 2013. The classic book on Manson is Helter Skelter, I suppose. It’s been forever since I read it. My memory is that I preferred Ed Sanders’ book, The Family. I probably thought I knew all that I needed to know about Manson, but Guinn proves me wrong. His book is detailed and heavily researched. You learn about his childhood, you learn about his various stays in penal institutions, and most importantly, you find that he drew quite a bit from Dale Carnegie and from Scientology. With the former, Manson learned techniques for influencing people (he wasn’t as interested in making friends). From the latter, he learned about how cults worked (he didn’t care about the religious angle). He then set out to find people who could give him something. Guinn notes that Charlie couldn’t have found a better place to begin his big project than San Francisco in 1967. Guinn doesn’t blame hippies or alternate lifestyles ... he just points out that people were pretty tolerant of oddball behavior (and Manson had a lot of that). He begins building his family there, but the story soon moves to Los Angeles, where Manson hopes to launch a music career. Again, I thought I knew the basics of the relationship between Manson and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, but Guinn breaks it down, clarifies things. By the time the murders take place, you can believe The Family would kill for Manson (fear was a big part of their actions).

In a timely sidenote, Karina Longworth’s excellent podcast, You Must Remember This, has been focusing on “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” for several weeks. It’s a great pairing with Guinn’s book.

The second book is Molly Knight’s tome on the recent history of the Los Angeles Dodgers, The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse, which came out a few weeks ago. It was a bit odd for this lifelong Giants fan to read an entire book about the Dodgers, but as I said on Twitter, I liked the ending (the Giants win the World Series, again, while the Dodgers don’t win the World Series, again). Knight doesn’t break new ground with this book, but she doesn’t have to, because she does such a solid, thorough job. She brings a lot to the table: a Dodger fan who, as she says, “grew up in the Top Deck at Dodger Stadium”; an efficient and clear writer; a worthy journalist; an honored stat head. She’s got all the angles covered, and the book benefits from her approach. We get to know Clayton Kershaw, take a peek inside Yasiel Puig, and most importantly, learn what a shitload of money can (and can’t) do for a major league baseball franchise. I got a greater appreciation for Don Mattingly, who maneuvers precariously between rich, antsy owners and temperamental superstars. (Knight doesn’t shy away from the whole story ... more than once, she notes that Mattingly is not known as a great strategist.)

Does Knight make me want to root for the Dodgers? Give me a break. If the Dodgers played a World Series against a team managed by Satan, I’d be cheering on the devil. Perhaps that’s a sign of how good Knight’s book is. Even a hardcore Giants fan will like it.