Author Archive | odd man out

A big victory for the vile but discreet

Last week, after Roy Moore lost the race for a Senate seat in Alabama, I wrote “Old-guard Senate Republicans don’t like over-the-top vile. They like guys who are vile but discreet.”

In other words, they prefer colleagues who are like themselves. But there’s always room under their tent for guys like Moore and Donald Trump, faux-populists who convince low-information voters (gotta love the euphemism!) that the GOP is more than just the party of the rich.

But that’s exactly what the GOP is. Congressional Republicans invariably push for legislation like the newly passed tax bill, which is nothing but a huge giveaway to the corporations and individuals that fund their campaigns and set their agendas.

Vile but discreet Republicans — the McConnells and Grassleys and Cornyns and so on — don’t grab pussies or wave pistols or publicly dismiss Mexicans as criminals. They pretend to be appalled by the antics of their overtly vile colleagues. They pretend to serve both rich and poor constituents, and to worry about the federal deficit.

Some of them — the pipsqueak Bob Corker comes to mind — even pretended to doubt the wisdom of the new tax bill before adjustments were made to ensure the bill would benefit them personally.

In the end, all the Republicans in the Senate and all but twelve in the House voted yes to the bill, because it will further enrich their masters and themselves.

Maybe passage of the tax bill will wake Democrats to their great opportunity to retake both houses of Congress next year in the midterms. But don’t bet on it too early — Dems are experts at blowing opportunities.

Why Comcast sucks, in case you need a reminder

Bayou Shack.

The Swamp Rabbit and I were weatherproofing his new shack in Tinicum Swamp and discussing the repeal of net neutrality rules. There is no end to a plutocrat’s money lust, I said, or to an oligarch’s lust for power.

“What’s the difference between a pluto-cat and an oligarch?” Swamp Rabbit said.

I had to think about that. “A plutocrat is a rich businessperson who is obsessed with becoming even richer,” I said. “An oligarch is one of a small gang of people who control the government. You can be a oligarch without being a plutocrat, but oligarchs these days are almost always plutocrats.”

Swamp Rabbit drove a nail into a crossbeam and said, “You mean like Brian Roberts, the CEO of Comcast? How much you think him and his pluto-cat friends spent on killing net neutrality?”

Good question. Comcast runs an empire of media outlets and has spent multi-millions on lobbyists. Verizon and AT&T other mega-corporations have also spent huge amounts. I said, “I’m not sure, but you can bet your scrawny rabbit ass that a lot of their lobbying money came from overcharging cable customers.”

You have to be persistent to become an oligarch, I explained. Comcast lobbied extra-hard to deep-six net neutrality rules installed in 2015, when Obama was president. Their efforts paid off bigly after Trump got elected and appointed Republican and former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai to chair the FCC.

“Damn!” Swamp Rabbit said. “Now the pluto-cats can make us pay more for faster internet connections, and they can block websites they don’t like.”

He drank from a bottle of Wild Turkey and coughed for a minute. Then he said, “I get it that a gang of corporate scumbags owns the media. But shouldn’t the gov’mint be worried that scumbags have all that power?”

“That’s just it,” I replied. “The scumbags are the gov’mint. They’re oligarchs, remember? Pass me that bottle.”

Dylan’s reaction to the big prize was… Dylanesque

“Philip Roth just bought an acoustic guitar.”

That’s what novelist Tom Perrotta, author of The Leftovers, posted on Facebook soon after it was announced that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Perrotta was either taking a shot at the Swedish Academy for not giving the $900,000 award to Roth, who is arguably long overdue for it, or he was just making a good joke.

A lot of writers and critics and even a member of the Swedish Academy took shots at Dylan last week. How could a mere singer-songwriter not acknowledge what an honor and privilege it was to be in the company of the great novelists Faulkner and Bellow and the great poet Eliot?

A whole other crew wanted Dylan to reject the Nobel – to say “Aw shucks, pop songs ain’t literature, I don’t deserve your prize.”

How dare he not respond at all?

The obvious answer – this is just Dylan being Dylan – wasn’t good enough for James Wolcott and other critics, but I’ll accept it.

Dylan has been putting his poetry to music for more than a half-century, more or less on his own terms, inspired by Elvis and Woody, Eliot and Pound, Ma Rainey and Beethoven.

He defied his folkie fan base by going electric in the mid-1960s, a move that resulted in the back-to-back masterpieces Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde. Then did an about-face with the quietly cryptic John Wesley Harding. He surprised everybody with his mid-1970s comeback, Blood On the Tracks.

He never pretended to be a hippie or a punk or a disco duck. Or the voice of a generation.

He lets his work speak for him. There were no soul-baring profiles in People magazine, no deep reveals to Terry Gross, no acceptance of the notion that an artist must surrender to convention and become a celebrity.

Dylan might show up to accept the Nobel in December, as he has done for other awards, but his early silence regarding the big prize is his way of saying awards are bullshit – that they have more to do with fashion than with originality, or even quality.

“To live outside the law you must be honest,” he once sang. And “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

Or do you?

Killing dissent softly at the DNC

I like to run the streets to calm the demons in my head before bedtime. It’s like meditation or prayer, except you need good shoes and plenty of water, especially during heat waves like the one we endured while the Democratic National Convention was in Philly.

As I mentioned last time, the DNC took place near Broad Street, at the Wells Fargo Center, not far from the swamp where I live. It was capped Thursday night by Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech, which had an intro from her daughter Chelsea, who raised the event to a new level of kitsch while reminiscing about Mom and Dad and even Grandma, who would have been “so, so proud” of Hillary last night.

After a few minutes of her dreck, I left the house and ran to Broad Street. I was serenaded by droning police helicopters to the south, circling the convention site, where protesters had gathered for the fourth straight day to show contempt for the Democratic nominee and the nomination process.

I knew the humidity was high because I could feel the sweat dripping off my fingers, and that protesters were active because cop cars were racing down Broad, followed by a big white police bus used to haul large groups of prisoners to jail.

And I knew from being at the site on previous nights that the protesters — there may have been a few thousand at times — wouldn’t get anywhere near the convention center because the “protest zone” created by the feds was hundreds of yards away from the center and fenced off like a cattle pen.

So I ran a few miles and went home just in time to see the end of Hillary’s dreadfully well-rehearsed speech. Then she and hubby Bill and other luminaries, flashing ultra-bright grins, pushed and poked at red, white and blue balloons, which had been released by the thousands after the speech.

The point is, convention planners made sure nothing inside or outside the convention venue was spontaneous or real — at least not for long. Even the balloon-poking seemed rehearsed.

Kudos to the cops for not engaging in the heavy-handed tactics that made Philly look bad during the 2000 RNC convention. This time around, in the name of keeping the peace, and with lots of help from the Democratic National Committee and federal agents, they smothered dissent almost before it could rear its feeble head.

So America can breathe easy now. The homeland is safe from those bomb-throwing Bernie bros. Everything is under control. We’re all in the same cattle pen.

The DNC celebrity fest, from a distance

This week, more reminders that police and the major parties have mastered the trick of keeping protesters at a distance from national conventions without making mass arrests that might result in bad publicity.

That’s why this year’s DNC is at the Wells Fargo Center, one of several sports venues on Philly’s southern fringe, far removed from any actual street life. You can see for miles down there, but all you can see are parking lots, ballparks and arenas.

Hardcore Bernie loyalists, Jill Stein supporters and other protesters are permitted to march down Broad Street and gather in FDR Park, to the west of Wells Fargo Center, in the unrelenting July heat, but fences prevent them from getting anywhere near the center itself.

In fact, they can do little more than march past one another chanting slogans — preaching to the choir, as it were — with the knowledge they will be herded into police vans and face federal charges if they do anything cops deem disruptive.

Philly is my hometown. I’ve biked to the convention scene several times to join the protesters, but the setting raises an age-old question: If thousands of protesters chant in a place where no one else can hear them, do they really make a sound?

Inside the convention center rich celebrities, one after another, have taken the stage to tell us commoners why we should vote for Hillary, who in the past has taken exactly the wrong stand on many issues important to progressives.

Paul Simon sang and so did Alicia Keys. Meryl Streep’s speech was a testimonial for Hillary. And so on. The message of the event is that Democrats must unite in order to make sure Donald Trump is defeated. A good message, but why all the celebrity kitsch?

On Monday, former Bernie supporter Sarah Silverman went so far as to admonish nay-sayers in the building. She said, “To the Bernie-or-bust people, you’re being ridiculous.”

To which I would have replied, “To me, Sarah, the fact that you can scold Bernie die-hards on national TV, just because you’re a celebrity, is ridiculous. Your presumption that you can influence my vote, just because you’re a celebrity, is insulting. Vote for whomever you prefer. Meanwhile, please shut the fuck up.”

Update on Melania’s cribbing – the ballerina did it!

#News:  Penulis Pidato Melania Trump Minta Maaf0

I was updating Swamp Rabbit on the screw-up at the RNC, where Melania Trump made a speech that was partly cribbed from Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 DNC.

“You were part right,” I said. “Melania rejected the original speech, written by two guys who used to work for George W. Bush. Then she apparently did a rewrite with Meredith McIver, an ex-ballerina who helped Trump write some of his books. Yesterday, McIver took responsibility for the plagiarized sections.”

Swamp Rabbit gnawed on a carrot. “But why would the ballerina want to crib from a speech by Obama’s wife, of all people? Republicans think Obama is the Great Satan.”

“It’s complicated,” I said. “The ballerina said she put in the Michele stuff, almost word for word, then forgot to remove them from the final draft.”

The rabbit spit into the swamp. “That don’t make no sense. Why did she put them in there in the first place?”

I shrugged. “Because Melania liked Michelle’s speech. I think it gets back to what I said yesterday — Trump is too cheap and disorganized to hire reliable staffers, or to check on what they’re up to. He doesn’t understand it’s dangerous to let cronies and family members make campaign decisions. He has the attention span of a gnat, and he’s too vain to own up to mistakes.”

“So are you,” Swamp Rabbit said. “You thought Melania might be the victim but she’s the one did the cribbing. She let the ballerina take the fall instead of owning up to it. She and her freaky husband deserve each other.”

Melania’s rude awakening?

Here’s my friend Swamp Rabbit imagining Melania Trump and the Donald after she found out part of her speech at the 2016 Republican convention was lifted from Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 Democratic convention:

“How could you do zis to me? All over country zee peoples are laugh-ink. Vy you hire writer who is thief? Do not touch me. I sink maybe you are mad man.”

“The accent’s not quite right,” I told Swamp Rabbit. “You sound like Zsa Zsa Gabor. Melania is Slovenian, not Hungarian.”

“Same difference,” he said, opening another bottle of Wild Turkey. “The point is she’ll never forgive that goofy-looking bastard for trotting her out there to make a fool of herself on national TV.”

He tried to pass the bottle but I declined the offer. “How do you know she didn’t steal those words on her own?” I said. “Before she gave the speech, she told reporters she wrote it.”

“Hahahahaha,” he said. “That’s what they all say. But why would she dip into a stream of cliches — reach for your dreams, work hard, keep your nose clean, blah blah — from Obama’s wife, of all people, and recite them almost word for word on national TV? No way, dude, somebody did this to her. Probably some hack who was hired because Trump is too cheap to fork over the big bucks for a good speechwriter.”

I told Swamp Rabbit he might be right, but I predicted Melania wouldn’t stay angry. She’ll remember that her hubby, the self-obsessed fraud with the Orange Crush weave, is capable of anything. He says the world is flat one day and round the next. He praises his wife as he sends her out to deliver a plagiarized speech. Then he asks his fans who they believe, him or their lying eyes.

Swamp Rabbit nipped at his bourbon and said, “I sink maybe he is a mad man.”

“Could be,” I replied. “But what’s that say about the millions of people who voted for him? What’s it say about Melania?”

Cynical coda of ‘Mad Men’ finale: Coke is the real thing

An acquaintance of mine posted this question on Facebook last week: “Does anybody else find Mad Men‘s writing to be vapid, direction glacial, acting somnambulatory, and the cultural references boring?”

I asked my friend Swamp Rabbit if he’d like to respond, knowing he’d had plenty of time to watch TV while in rehab these past few months. “You jokin’ me?” he said. “I got a life, Odd Man. Got no time for TV.”

So I posted an answer of my own: Yes, I suspect most discerning viewers who followed Mad Men noticed that some of the plotting sagged and that many of writers’ references to the cultural milieu of the 1960s were laughably superficial.

So what? TV is a diversion. The most you can hope for in a TV series — in this case, a TV serial — is writing that’s good enough to occasionally generate scenes that illuminate the human condition. The same is true of most long novels. Viewers will encounter a lot of filler, no matter how good the writing, but they continue watching a serial for the same reason readers persevere with a long novel. They become emotionally invested. They stick around for the story-telling and, in particular, to witness how their favorite characters behave at critical moments.

I didn’t watch all of Mad Men, not by a long shot, but I was a fan. The show had an unusually charismatic lead character — Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm — a quirky supporting cast, and a thoughtful head writer, Matthew Weiner, who focused on the world of commercial advertising to dramatize the socio-economic forces that metastasized into contemporary American culture, such as it is.

Weiner and his co-writers juggled a lot of sub-plots, some compelling and some not so much, and they seemed in early episodes of the final season to know how to successfully resolve most of them. But give Weiner a lot of credit for how he handled what looked like the total crackup of his enigmatic anti-hero. In the final show’s final scene, Don Draper, after hitting bottom, is shown having an epiphany while chanting “Om” in a meditation group at some New Age-y spiritual retreat. His epiphany involves conceiving what will become a famously insipid TV commercial (circa 1971) that uses touchy-feely cliches to sell Coca-Cola, “the real thing.” Mad Men ends with the showing of the actual TV commercial.

I’d thought Don might kill himself or be killed in some sordid way, or maybe even to find redemption in a good cause. Instead, he is reborn as a sleazier version of his former self, selling a nutritionally empty icon of a spiritually bankrupt culture. The real thing.

Not bad for a TV show.

Rate news analysts according to track records

Friedman. You scored Minus 15 on Iraq alone. You're fired.

Friedman. you scored Minus 15 on Iraq. You’re fired.

The New York Times recently issued a “Libya is falling apart” editorial. As Glenn Greenwald noted, The Times failed to mention it was an enthusiastic supporter of U.S. air strikes that helped topple Moammar Ghadafi and destabilize Libya to the point where ISIS now has a foothold there. In fact, after Ghadafi fled, The Times went so far as to publish a front-page news analysis headlined “U.S. Tactics in Libya May be a Model for Other Efforts.”

Swamp Rabbit read Greenwald’s story and chuckled. “Glad them Times analysts are on the case. Without ’em, we might know what’s really goin’ on in the world.”

He scratched his mangy hide and added, “‘Scuse me fer askin’, but how come they don’t own up when they’s wrong?”

Good question. You would think The Times would not only own up to colossal errors of judgment but also fire the people responsible for such judgments, or at least demote them to the SundayStyles beat. But you would be wrong. Bill Keller, Thomas Friedman, the editorial board and so on are still going strong.

It seems the only real sin you can commit on the news side at The Times — at least when it comes to U.S. foreign policy — is to refuse to blindly accept the government’s version of events. Inaccuracies are acceptable, especially when a story is breaking. Corrections are made later, sometimes, after the bombs are dropped and thousands are dead and the government’s rationale for its large-scale act of destruction has been exposed as fraudulent. This is true not only at The Times, but at all mainstream news outlets.

We talked solutions. The rabbit proposed a self-policing system for the media run by some semi-reputable rag, maybe the Columbia Journalism Review. Stories written by Times staffers would automatically link to their other stories on the same subjects. The staffers would gain and lose points according to how accurate their stories turned out to be. Their ratings would be listed next to their bylines. For example, a reporter or pundit who was wrong on WMD in Iraq and U.S. tactics in Libya would merit a Minus 2. He or she could gain back points by admitting, in print, to previous errors. Anyone who fell to Minus 5 would be fired.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Who’s going to stick his neck out writing a report that might get him fired?”

The rabbit spit on the frozen swamp and said, “That’s the point, you dummy. How else you gonna keep liars and fools out of the news business?”

Friday the 13th valentines


It was Friday the 13th, a good day to play it safe. But the sun glared through the leafless trees and into my shack, urging me to greet the day with good faith. “Go out and slay dragons,” Swamp Rabbit said. He was hungry and out of bourbon. There were supermarkets and liquor stores to rob. There was money to be made, if I could find a place to sell magic electricity.

“It’s a bad-luck day, but I feel like I’m stagnating here,” I told the rabbit.

“Of course you stagnatin’,” he said. “You live in a swamp, Odd Man.”

So I jumped into my rusty Honda and hit the road. A black cat crossed my path before I was even out of the swamp. Then I sideswiped a parked car on Chemical Road, breaking its side mirror. But my luck seemed to hold. I set up my table at a popular emporium on the Main Line, where the buildings are less tacky and the people more hip to the eco-benefits of magic electricity.

But the shoppers were grumpy old men and housewives seeking air freshener and hipsters staring at their phones as they walked, as if taking directions from an unseen taskmaster. Everyone had to run a gauntlet of heart-shaped holiday balloons. They ignored me or said things like, “I have ADD, my wife handles the bills” and “Talk to my husband, I can’t wrap my head around that stuff.”

I called it a day and somehow ended up driving west on City Avenue, straight into the low-hanging sun, looking for a SuperFridge. I found a Shop-Rate, which is even better. You can usually count on them to have cameras that don’t work.

Back at the shack I unloaded fruits and greens and canned beans from my overcoat. The rabbit was happy when I pulled out a bottle of Wild Turkey, but then he twitched his whiskers and made a face.

“Ain’t no balloons or candy for my valentines,” he said. “You goin’ out again?”

I thought of former valentines and shivered. “I do Friday the 13th but not Valentine’s Day,” I said. “Don’t want to push my luck too far.”

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