Category Archives: Popular culture, general

The Rose Exposed

On Saturday, I was involved in one of the coolest arts events of the year. The theatre company where I do most of my work, Plan B, is housed in the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center; one of six resident companies that share that facility. Well, on Saturday, we all arrived in the morning and spent the day creating works of art, which were then performed Saturday night at 8:00. The event was called The Rose Exposed.

All the works shared a theme: Dreamers. Dreamers refers to kids who, as small children, were brought to America by their undocumented immigrant parents. Now they’re here; they speak English, consider themselves American, have never known any other country. But they are not American citizens, and cannot get, for example, a Social Security card. They’re stuck. As is a piece of legislation, the Dream Act, that would allow them to become citizens; it’s stuck in Congress. Can’t get out of committee or to a floor vote. Which it would certainly pass. Thank your Republican congressmen for that. Anyway, ticket proceeds went to Art Access, an organization that explores and documents Dreamers’ lives.

Anyway, my contribution was a play. X, Y and Z are young Dreamers, late high school, early college age. And Z has earned, but cannot accept, a prestigious fellowship, because he doesn’t have a Social Security card. So his friends, X and Y, are searching various government databases to see if there’s some form, some process that will allow for an exception for their friend. Three actors, Latoya Rhodes, Tyson Baker and Anne Louise Brings, directed by my good friend Mark Fossen. And they all did superb work. Honestly, my only regret about the whole thing is that, during the performance, I thought of a Donald Trump joke that would have killed, if only there’d been time to insert it. Dang.

The whole thing began with a short film by David Evanoff, with a Star Wars scroll introducing the companies, and then backstage footage of each of the groups rehearsing. I love Dave’s work, its mixture of eloquence and impudence, and the opening film set the stage beautifully for what would come.

Next up, the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation, featuring a wonderful young pianist, David Horton, performing the Third movement from Leopold Godowski’s Sonata. Played with beautiful sensitivity and, of course, remarkable skill.

Three of the companies at the Rose are dance companies. And as always, when I see dance, I wonder why I don’t go to see dance events more often. Dance is so remarkably beautiful. Anyway, next up was the Repertory Dance Theatre’s piece, to a Ravel toccato, performed by Anastasia Magamedova, featuring guest artist, Melanie Paz, who is herself a Dreamer. It was a piece of extraordinary precision and beauty, creating a series of tableaux, morphing then into the next set piece.

My friend Julie Jensen also wrote a play, for another resident theatre company, PYGmalion. Magamedova played again, this time Debussy. PYG’s play was about the idea of Dreaming more generally; Bijan Hosseini, Tamara Howell, Tracie Merrill and Aaron Swenson (terrific actors, who I very much regret not having had the chance to work with professionally. Yet) built the play around monologues about the dreams parents have for their children. Not specifically about the political issue that had brought us all there, but that doesn’t matter; it was a lovely piece, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Next up, another dance company, Sweet Beast Dance Circus, with an imaginative piece about Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden. It was sweet tempered, warm-hearted, and very very funny. Loved their use of a wheelbarrow and a long rope, which their Lucifer seductively wrapped around himself. Wonderfully acted and danced. Their music was a Schubert Impromptu, performed by Magamedova.

My piece, from Plan B, was next. I thought it went well. I was exceptionally well served by my director and actors. Could the piece have been perhaps a little too on-the-nose thematically? Could be, but I’m not going to worry about it. David Horton wrote and performed the music for our piece, and it worked spectacularly, especially the way it sparked Mark Fossen’s director’s imagination. Gave the piece a final mood of melancholy that fitted the evening perfectly.

The final dance number was by Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, accompanied by Horton performing six short Schoenberg pieces. The dance was itself in six parts, each a solo number featuring a different member of the company, broken up by the entire company marching in lockstep perpendicularly across the stage.

The evening culminated in a performance by Magamedova of William Bolcom’s The Serpent’s Kiss, one of those amazing rag pieces he composed. It’s a fun, showy piece of music, and it brought the audience to their feet.

But, then, the whole night was spectacular. Can you think of a better way to spend a Saturday night? To see five original works of performance art, saucy, profound, amazing, moving. And all for the best of causes. I am so honored to have been a part of it.

Sharknado, the first three: review

I think the success of the first Sharknado movie took the programmers at the Syfy network sort of by surprise. Of course it was a preposterously bad movie, based on a ridiculous premise. One of the enchanting pleasures of Syfy is their glorious revival of the tradition of the B-movie. No, not just of B-movies, of entertainingly terrible movies, the whole grindhouse/drive-in/American International/Roger Corman movie tradition. When I was a teenager, my friends and I loved to go to the Starlight Drive-in and watch abysmal (but fun) movies. Or, on nights when my parents weren’t home, we’d watch Sammy Terry’s Nightmare Theater on WTTV, the Indianapolis station that also showed IU and Indiana Pacers’ basketball games. I grew up watching awful sci-fi/horror movies. I think they’re awesome. Sharknado proudly partakes of, and contributes to, that tradition. Which is why my wife and daughter and I recently watched the last two.

But really, was Sharknado that much more ridiculous than other Syfy offerings? Was it worse than Scream of the Banshee, say, or Dinocroc? Or Dinocroc vs. Supergator? Or Dinoshark? Or Frankenfish, Pteracuda, Piranhaconda, Lavalantula, or The Man with the Screaming Brain? Yep, they’re all for real, and have all been broadcast in the last five years on Syfy network. So once you’ve committed to a movie on the premise of an anaconda/piranha crossbreeding, why not follow it up with one about tarantulas made of lava? Or, for that matter, a movie about a tornado that sucks sharks out of the sea and drops them on big cities?

But Sharknado took off. One main reason is Twitter. The actual viewing audience for the initial broadcast was actually not all that impressive. But enough people live-tweeted it, and those who did were sufficiently snarky, Syfy decided to re-broadcast the next night, but include the more amusing tweets. Let’s not pretend for a second that Syfy isn’t in on the joke.

But what about the actors? And there you have it, the secret to the success of these movies. Let’s not kid ourselves, acting in Sharknado requires a certain skill set that’s not quite, but is related to, acting. Ian Ziering has starred in all three Sharknados, and, you know, he does just fine. He treats the character Fin (yes, the character is named Fin) seriously, and commits physically to all the action requirements, most of which would seem to require a chain saw. You don’t ever not believe him. In the third movie, when he announces that he plans to name his infant son Gill, the joke landed precisely because he committed to it. After Beverly Hills 90210, his career pretty much flat-lined, which makes him just the right kind of star for a Sharknado-type movie. Famous enough to carry the picture, desperate enough to accept the role. (John Heard was in the first one, a better known, and probably even more desperate actor–he slept-walked through the first third of the movie, then became shark bait without anyone missing him).

The first movie also featured two main actresses: Tara Reid and Cassie Scerbo.  Tara Reid, you probably know. It’s not like she doesn’t have some impressive film credits: The Big Lebowski, American Pie. But she never could act, and after some forays into reality TV (and a famously botched boob job), she needed a hit. But she’s dreadful in all three Sharknados. Part of it’s the writing. Thunder Levin, the writer, has yet to give April, her character, anything to do except stand on the periphery of scenes and bite her lip in anxiety. Plus, Fin and April, for some reason, use a shark attack crisis as a perfect opportunity to work out their relationship issues. But whatever the challenges of the character, Reid conspicuously fails to meet them. In the perfect marriage of actress and character, April and the actress who plays her both manage to do nothing but annoy. (Bo Derek (!) plays her Mom in the third movie, and manages to out-bad-act even her.)

Cassie Scerbo, though, is something else again. Again, it may be the writing; her character, Nova, is a badass. She isn’t given much to do; shoot a semi-automatic weapon, throw hand grenades, look good in a bikini. But she more than meets all three challenges. More to the point, she has some energy. She’s forceful; she’s fun to watch. She’s only in the first and third movies, and the second movie is poorer for it. She’s the one actor in this thing that I think could have a subsequent actual career. Fin is a bit torn between the two great loves of his life, April and Nova, and Syfy obligingly sent a piece of debris hurtling towards April at the end of the third movie. Now we all get to vote on-line on whether April dies or not, in the fourth movie. Guess how I voted.

I appreciate watching a good actor meet an acting challenge, though. And in the third movie, they bring in the perfect Sharknado actor, for a far-too-brief appearance near the end. David Hasselhoff. And, I’m sorry to say this, but he’s brilliant. Genuinely good. Just tongue-in-cheek enough to play up the ridiculousness of the movie’s premise, but also charismatic. I mean, Hasselhoff’s career was built on joke-TV–Baywatch. His job was to be the one actual dramatic character in a show that was otherwise all about the bikinis. Well, this one’s about sharks. He knows how to handle this kind of material. (Frankie Muniz was also pretty great).

I mean, watching Sharknado movies does require a good deal more suspension-of-disbelief than is usually the case. If, in fact, tornados could suck sharks out of the ocean, they’d just die. If, miraculously, sharks didn’t die up in the air, they’d die when they hit the earth. Even if, somehow, they survived the fall, they’d die anyway, because they’re fish; they can’t live out of water. Even when (in all three movies) they land in commercial swimming pools, they’d die; fresh water with chlorine? Lethal to salt water sharks. Certainly, sharks wouldn’t be biting people much. But the silliness of the premise is most of the fun.

But in addition to the, you know, actual actors in these things, there are also many many cameos. In the third movie, Mark Cuban plays POTUS, and is impressive; at least, he looked like he was having fun. Ann Coulter plays VPOTUS. (Never have I so rooted for sharks to eat someone. But alas).  Matt Lauer and Al Roker play themselves in the last two movies, until they both become shark lunch. We get to see Lou Ferrigno, Bill Engvall, Jackie Collins, Lorenzo Lamas. Will Wheaton was in the second one. Of course, they all get shark-chomped pretty quickly, but that’s the gig; you get ten seconds of screen time, and then the actual stars of the movie–the sharks–take over.

And the sharks are, well, dreadful. Bad CGI is half the charm. The action isn’t really ever terribly convincing, and the effects are, well, low budget. And quite apart from the general absurdity of a sharknado, the movie’s plots are preposterous. But that’s why and how Syfy makes them. They don’t cost much, and they deliver. Movies are supposed to be fun. It’s nice when they’re also not poo. But when the movie is called Sharknado, I’ll settle for fun.

 

Ten greatest TV shows of all time

So, I’m sitting at lunch, enjoying a sushi burrito, with two actor friends. And we get to talking about what we’ve seen and what we’ve enjoyed, and Parks and Rec came up, and one of us said, ‘hey, what would you say were the Ten greatest television shows of all time?’

Coming up with lists like that are fun precisely because they’re nonsensical, and therefore lead to absurd arguments and preposterous controversies, all the more vehemently disputed precisely because of the extreme subjectivity of any and all artistic tastes. I’m putting my apples against your oranges, and against Barry’s bananas, with all of us sure that Alice, if she’d been there, would tossed in the trashheap. Besides the greatest television show I ever saw in my life was Game Seven of the 2014 World Series, which those other two bozos didn’t even watch. (Losers). Still, we came up with a list. Join the free-for-all, mock our choices. Just be prepared for us to mock back.

First, we had to make some rules. We’re only talking scripted feature television; shows that tell a sustained story. That lets out Sixty Minutes, excludes Johnny Carson, leaves out Letterman, bids Jon Stewart sayonara, counted out Colbert and omits Sid Caesar and That Show of Shows. No variety, no news, no fake news.

With considerable reluctance, we also decided to keep it to American shows only. Our game, our rules, though it meant leaving out Ab Fab and Fawlty Towers and Monty Python, and the British Office, which also led to the exclusion of the American Office, because the British one is better.

But we did decide to include both comedies and dramas, in part because we know, as professionals in the field, how hard funny can be, and also in part because that’s how people watch TV. We just watch. Nobody says ‘I can’t see Walking Dead; I only like sit-coms.’ Or, rather, you could say that, but you’d be wrong. Ecclesiastes-via-The Byrds: ‘to everything, there is a season and a time.’ We decided that applies to TV as well as life.

So here’s what we came up. And understand, we did not work historically or anything like that. We mixed-and-matched; modern shows and older ones thrown willy-nilly together, with no rhyme or reason to our choices.

Top Ten Television shows of all time, in no particular order:

Mad Men. Critical darling, plus it starred a friend of ours. We love its bitter condemnation of the past, and the open sexism and racism of a period historically within my lifetime. Plus, for an essentially realist period piece, it kept tossing in these astonishing moments of surrealism; a guy losing his leg to a riding lawnmower in the office, dead men dancing, Don Draper’s long affair with women who may or may not have actually existed.

I Love Lucy. It changed everything. It changed the way television was shot and transmitted. It was the first great star vehicle. Plus, we love this irony. Every episode of the show had the same plot; Lucy wants to do something, Ricky tells her she can’t do it. She does it anyway, and makes a frightful (but hilarious) hash of it. Ricky condescendingly forgives her. The message: those silly dames, thinking they can actually do things, even compete with men. But the show deconstructed itself at every turn. In fact, the show was a vehicle for Lucille Ball. It was about her comic genius. She made all the business decisions too. It was a show about a brilliant woman, playing a goofball brilliantly.

M.A.S.H. It lasted a good deal longer than the actual Korean War lasted, and it surely got gooey and preachy at times. But it was still an astonishing show, a dark comedy about America’s nightmare adventure in Vietnam Korea. And because it was about war, characters died, people we cared about. And every time an old character left the show, the character that replaced them was even better.

The West Wing. I know, it exhibited every Aaron Sorkin fault and flaw; his preachiness, his obsession with failed romances, its knee-jerk liberalism. And to some extent, it’s true; during the Bush years, The West Wing created, in Bartlett, the President we wished we had, as opposed to the actual President we were stuck with. But the characterizations were rich, the writing powerful, and the actors were up to the challenge.

Breaking Bad. Such an extraordinary depiction of a man gradually, day after day, choice after choice, descending into criminality, murder, and evil. With Aaron Paul’s and Bryan Cranston’s superb performances, we had two of the most compelling characters in the history of television, with Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. And the amazing Anna Gunn, as Walter’s wife, Skyler.

Friday Night Lights. Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose. And yes, I know some of the teenagers were played by 29 year-olds. I don’t care. It was a show about football that my wife, who hates football, loved. Kyle Chandler was terrific as high school coach Eric Taylor, but my favorite character, always and forever, was Connie Britton’s amazing Tami Taylor. The most thankless possible role, the coach’s wife, and she made her the most dynamic woman in the town.

It’s interesting to me, BTW, how many actors were in multiple great shows. Connie Britton starred in Friday Night Lights, but also had a crucial smaller role on The West Wing, which also featured Alan Alda, Hawkeye Pierce on M.A.S.H. And Christina Hendrix not only held the company together in Mad Men, she was one of the most memorable characters ever in Firefly.

All in the Family. It’s the show that changed everything. It’s the show that demonstrated that serious discussions of the most important issues facing the United States could take place in a situation comedy, and also, that those discussions could be more than thought-provoking, they could be riotously funny. Not just historically important; it was brilliant, night after night, for 9 years.

Firefly. I know. It failed. Fourteen episodes only. We only got part of one season to fall in love with Captain Mal and Wash and Zoe and Inara and, OMG, the wonderful Kaylee. But fall in love, we did. So inventive, so wonderfully creative. I will never, ever, forgive Fox for cancelling the show just as it was finding its audience. And now it’s probably the most popular show on Comic-con.

Parks and Recreation. It passes the first and most important test of a sit-com. It was never, ever, not-funny. But it did something even more difficult. It managed, for seven seasons, to create leading characters who, though flawed, were all essentially good-hearted. That’s a magnificent achievement, and incredibly difficult. Plus, just watching the apotheosis of Chris Pratt as an actor is worth the price of admission.

E. R. I hesitated to include it. It went on much too long, got self-indulgent and grew ever soapier as time went on. But my gosh, those opening episodes were incredible. The fast dialogue, the incredibly realistic wounds and surgeries and illnesses. I’m not sure it ever survived George Clooney leaving, but for awhile there, it was appointment television.

So what shows did I leave out? What shows should I have left off? Because, here’s what’s fun; we’re all right. And we’re all hopelessly wrong.

 

Missing Jon Stewart

For the past few years, my weekday morning routine was the same; I would get my breakfast, sit in The Beast (my massive and beloved recliner), and watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart recorded from the previous evening’s broadcast. I wouldn’t say that it’s been anything close to my main source of news or information. I watched it for one excellent reason; it’s been consistently, marvelously funny. It’s really kind of a miracle. Stand-up comedians hone their acts for months, then repeat them endlessly, like a politician does with his/her stump speech. But four nights a week, 22 minutes a night, Jon Stewart brought the funny. What an extraordinary achievement.

There has been, of course, a lot of ink spilled of late about the Meaning of Jon Stewart, or his Impact, or his Importance. What people haven’t done as successfully is describe exactly what he did. David Letterman ended his long late night reign recently, without anyone really noticing what his show was about; the nightly deconstruction of the cult of celebrity. By the same token, Jon Stewart’s show was about the deconstruction of television news. He wasn’t Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw; he parodied them. He paid attention. He was on to their tricks. Like every great satirist, he loved deflating pretention and self-importance. Above all, he had a finely tuned eye for BS. In fact, in a lot of ways, BS was his subject. His final monologue on the show was a short treatise, in fact, on BS, on the three types of BS he’d noticed, and how they functioned, every night, on the news.

I suppose it’s fair to admit that he was and is a liberal, and that Fox News was a favorite target of his humor. It would not be fair, or accurate, to say that his show was an all-out assault on conservatism, however. He took on CNN with every bit as much enthusiasm, and if he didn’t make fun of old-media dinosaurs like the evening news broadcasts on CBS or NBC or ABC, it’s only because they’re not on as much. The 24-hour news cycle has provided a fertile pasture for BS to proliferate.

No, what Jon found offensive about conservatism doesn’t seem to be serious policy recommendations, but the selling of policy, the marketing of politicians. That’s where the richest troves of BS were buried; both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have described themselves as ‘turd miners,’ and I think that’s crude but accurate. Bloviating windbags, of either party, were rich material for a comedian as astute as Jon Stewart, and he was as willing to make fun of Democrats as he was Republicans. His political agenda, if he had one, was for government to work, for policies that helped people who needed it. His two greatest campaigns were for extra funds to help 9/11 first responders, and for VA reform, for more money to help our wounded and hurting veterans.

Stewart’s Daily Show had two other features. First were his ever-changing cadre of correspondents, gifted comedians in their own right, who he would send out to ‘cover stories.’ Often this meant giving people with truly amazing views enough rope to hang themselves. The DS staff would find some local controversy and cover it; interview the participants. Sometimes, they’d pretend to take one side or another (usually the crazier side), in order to elicit a response. My wife and I would watch these pieces, and shake our heads in amazement that anyone would agree to be interviewed by anyone from the Daily Show. But often other news organizations would interview DS subjects after the shows in which they were featured had aired, and generally the folks would say they’d been treated fairly. They had been given an opportunity to explain themselves to a national audience, and they’d been quoted accurately.

You might say that those interview sequences were mean-spirited. After all, the point was to provide what seemed to be insane people a platform for them to air views. But, real news organizations do that too. Again, the point was to deconstruct mainstream news programs. On a news show, it isn’t particularly unusual to highlight some controversial issue by focusing on nuttiest fringe views imaginable. That’s what’s called ‘balance.’ So if a major network is doing a show about the US/Mexico border, they’ll interview some armed civilian vigilante type, out there with his shotgun and flashlight looking for ‘illegals.’ Controversy sells. (I also love how the various correspondents were given fancy titles: ‘senior foreign correspondent’).

It’s also worth noting, BTW, the subsequent careers of Daily Show correspondents. Steve Carell is a major movie star. Ed Helms and Rob Corddry are in-demand character actors. Stephen Colbert will replace Letterman at NBC, and Larry Wilmore and John Oliver have their own spin-off shows. If the Daily Show was a parody of CBS News, The Colbert Report was a parody of Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox. Larry Wilmore’s show hasn’t quite found its voice yet, but looks a lot like those Sunday news shows, like This Week on ABC, expecially with Wilmore’s panel discussion feature. John Oliver’s show on HBO is the best of them all; a parody of 60 Minutes, really, but substantive enough to straddle that fine line between doing the news and making fun of it.

The final part of any Daily Show episode was the interviews, and to some extent, it’s late night formulaic, the place where the show drops its news focus and asks movie stars about their latest projects. But Jon Stewart transformed that part of the show as well. He did remarkably incisive interviews with major political figures, regularly sparring with Mike Huckaby and John McCain. President Obama was on at least three times that I can remember. Best of all, Jon loved authors. He often found interesting books, usually about either history or public policy, and interview their authors. I can’t tell you how many books I bought or checked out from the library and read after seeing their authors on the Daily Show.  At least thirty; probably more. He loved engaging with smart people who had interesting things to say.

In fact, if Fox News eventually wore him down (he said watching that network was the hardest part of his job, and led to his retirement), then the authors and books he featured invigorated him. By the same token, that’s my final takeaway from the end of this 16 year era. Jon Stewart represented incisive wit and fury and even optimism in a time when our politics seems irretrievably broken. Television news is drowning in BS, as is public life generally. But the world is also a place where smart, passionate, informed people can come and tell you about the great book they just wrote.  I wish Jon well, and I’m going to miss him terribly. And hope the new guy, Trevor Noah, does well. Those are huge shoes to fill.

Rain: Book review

Cynthia Barnett’s Rain: A Natural and Cultural History is an absolute miracle of a book, a meditation on a subject everyone absolutely takes for granted, which also happens to be a phenomenon without which there could not exist life on this planet. It’s also superbly researched, and written with a poet’s eye and gift for language. It’s one of those books you want to read slowly, so as to savor every paragraph and sentence. I finished it last night, and set it aside with a palpable feeling of regret, though of course, I can always read it again.

My son gave it to me for Fathers’ Day; said he saw it in a bookstore, was intrigued by the title, read the first three pages, and found himself hooked. I had the same experience. I wish I could guarantee that you will too. But it is a book about rain. If that idea turns you off. . . .

But start with this thought: there was life on Mars, and water. What Mars did not have was rain, and Mars remains today a lifeless rock. Are you fascinated by science, and especially by that most baffling of all currently unanswered scientific questions; why does life exist on earth? That’s one of the question this book addresses.

Or another: what is the connection between grunge rock and roll and the fact that Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Kris Novoselic are from, not Seattle, but Aberdeen Washington? Seattle is a city known for its rainy days and nights, but Aberdeen, a few miles further inland, is a good deal rainier. Listen to early Nirvana. Have you noticed the rain-dripping sound of Novoselic’s bass? What about The Smiths? Johnny Marr and Morrissey are from Manchester, the rainiest city in the famously rainy British Isles. Is it any wonder that the Smiths’ sound is so, well, gloomy? Is there a connection between the sunniness of certain bands’ popular music and the cities in which its members grew up? Or, in case of Nirvana and the Smiths, the raininess of their cities of origin? That’s another issue Barnett’s book raises, explores, discusses.

Or how does rain make itself manifest thematically? What poets have written particularly rain-intensive poems, what novelists have featured it, what painters have employed rain as a motif? What is the general history of rain in high and popular culture?

All right, how about this? What is the history of drought-busting rainmakers? What charlatans went about trying to make it rain? What have actual scientists done to bring rain to drought-stricken areas? What ideas have worked? Which ones have not? All questions carefully and thoughtfully explored by Barnett.

And, terrifyingly, what about environmental catastrophe? What is the history of acid rain, and how was it ended? What can be done today about various kinds of toxic rainfall? And, of course, what about global warming, climate change, the environmental crisis in which we currently find ourselves? What’s going on, what is the state of current research, what can be done, what are people trying to do? A fascinating subject, is it not? And an important one?

Buy it. Read it. Slowly, so as to savor its every detail. This is a wonderful book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Hunting and other sports: my crystal ball

One of the odder buildings on the BYU campus is the Monte L. Bean museum. It’s up on the north ridge overlooking campus, just east of the Marriott Center, and it provides popular daytime activities for families with small children. Monte L. Bean was a successful LDS businessman, whose favorite leisure activity was big game hunting. In 1978, he built a museum to display all the animals he’d killed. The collection has since expanded, and has a legitimate educational purpose; lots of life sciences exhibits, plus classrooms and labs. But for little kids, the cool part is seeing all the lions and tigers and bears. And, you know, giraffes, gazelles. There’s even a Liger. Plus, of course, it has a very cool, kid-oriented, gift shop.

I got to thinking about the Bean museum as I read about one of the biggest stories in the news these days, the American dentist who shot and killed Cecil the lion, and his subsequent flaying on social media. My immediate reaction was the same as most people’s. I thought that what this hunter did was contemptible, and I wished him ill. On the other hand, I just read Jon Ronson’s terrific new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, about the way social media can absolutely crucify ordinary people who do dumb/wrong/shameful things, and thought this dentist’s story would make a perfect case study for this new phenomenon. Disproportionate public humiliations, the internet version of putting someone in the stocks or sewing a scarlet A to their clothing. And so possibly we should all cut this dentist a little (very little) slack? Like, maybe, cool it on the death threats?

But then, I got to thinking about big game hunting itself, the practice of going on a safari to Africa and shooting different sorts of wild animals. Or, like, bighorn sheep from helicopters. That kind of thing. Like the stuff Monte L. Bean apparently was into. And of course, I totally get how horrifically hypocritical it is for us all to get all excited about Cecil the lion. When you consider the wholesale slaughter of other intelligent mammals that make up most of the protein in our American diets, outrage over one dude shooting a lion seems pretty ridiculous. Cows, pigs, chickens, anyone? We’re bothered by the death of Cecil the lion, but quite unperturbed by the deaths of Bessie, Wilbur, or (Chicken) Little. I don’t hunt, never have and never will, but I freely admit that my objections to hunting are aesthetic, not moral. I like my meat wrapped in cellophane, and I’d rather not think about how the specific steps that got it to the store. I even wrote an anti-slaughterhouse play. And, driving home from the theater, opening night, stopped at a MacDonald’s. Not proud of my hypocrisy, but I do at least admit to it.

So granted, our objections to big game hunting are, to a very large degree, emotional and sentimental. We like lions, because they’re awesome to look at (in nature documentaries), and because we liked The Lion King as kids. We like otters and dolphins and pandas, and don’t like weasels and rats and three-toed sloths. I remember the movie March of the Penguins and how scary it was, to see those cute little penguins under deadly attack from the vicious leopard seals. But leopard seals are just trying to survive too, and have every bit as much right to dinner as penguins do. And baby seals are cute, too.

But here’s my larger point: is big game hunting on its way out as a sport? It doesn’t matter if the reasons aren’t rationally defensible; emotions matter, and it seems to me that this is a sport that fewer and fewer people are willing to defend. That happened with fox hunting, for example. It’s been illegal in the UK since 2005. Well, there was a time when it was a very popular sport. How many British novels had fox hunting scenes, how many TV shows and movies, how many popular depictions of whooping aristocrats riding in hot pursuit of foxes. “The unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible,” Oscar Wilde called it, to the scandalized titters of his largely aristocratic audiences. But nowadays, it’s seen as barbaric. An uncivilized sporting relic; the kind of thing decent people just don’t allow. Well, does the case of Dr. Palmer DDS v. Cecil Felidae Leo suggest a similar social dynamic? Is big game hunting just not cool anymore?

Or other once-popular sports? What about team sports? I am on record as suggesting that American football may well be a sport that’s dying. The long-term health effects from brain injuries have increasingly led some of the best young professional players in the NFL to decide the risk isn’t worth the money. And the reaction from the players who do keep playing is even more interesting. When 49ers linebacker Chris Borland retired after a very successful rookie season, the reaction from his teammates was to applaud him for his courage, with the subtext ‘I wish I could afford to do that.’  (And shortly thereafter, his teammate Anthony Davis did the same, retired mid-career).

I would argue that professional boxing might be the next major sport to go. It’s certainly lost a lot of fans; it’s nowhere near as popular as it once was. I’m not a boxing fan, and never have been, but when I was a kid, I certainly knew who the heavyweight champion of the world was. Everyone did. It was a big deal; star boxers were major celebrities. Not anymore; I couldn’t name three pro boxers anymore, and I have no idea who the heavyweight champion is. I think maybe he’s European. But I think mismanagement and corruption have as much to do with boxing’s decline, as much or more than any collective distaste over the atavistic violence of the sport. After all, mixed martial arts seems to be thriving. I don’t get that either, but it does seem to be a thing.

What about auto racing? NASCAR’s numbers are down, and the Indianapolis 500 has seen a ratings slump. I have seen just enough auto racing in my lifetime to consider it the smelliest, loudest, boringest sport ever created. But if movies are any indication, there’s still something thrilling about watching fast cars driving really fast. It’s possible that climate change may force a change in auto sports, but for now, they remain fairly popular.

Soccer’s doing well, and should; it’s one exciting sport. Baseball remains the favored sport for those of us with contemplative, Zen-state powers of concentration. Basketball is simply beautiful. Big game hunting may be gone from the planet in twenty years, and good riddance. What sport might be next to go?

 

 

Lord Baden-Powell and sexuality

In 1908, General Robert Baden-Powell, later elevated to Lord Baden-Powell, a highly decorated veteran of the Boer War, founded an organization he called The Boy Scout Association. That same year, he published Scouting for Boys, a guide to safely camping outdoors, and the first iteration of what would become the Boy Scout Manual. The year previously, Baden-Powell had tried out his ideas for what he hoped would become a national organization to promote wholesome, enjoyable outdoors activities for young men, by taking twenty boys to Brownsea Island and having the first Scout Camp. Two years later, an American businessman named W. D. Boyce discovered the British organization, and decided to start an American version. There’s a lot of mythology regarding the histories of both Baden-Powell and Boyce, but the basic facts are clear enough; Baden-Powell is the founder of Scouting, and Boyce the father of American Scouting.

Baden-Powell was, by all accounts, a charismatic leader, a ripping good storyteller, and a kind-hearted and gentle teacher. It’s quite possible that he was also a closeted homosexual. There have been several biographies of Baden-Powell, most of them hagiographic, intended for boys. Tim Jeal’s 1990 biography, The Boy-Man: The biography of Lord Baden-Powell is superb; meticulously researched, judicious in its conclusions, engagingly written. Jeal concludes that Baden-Powell was also gay. Two earlier biographies had reached similar conclusions. Evidence for this conclusion is entirely circumstantial. Baden-Powell came from a generation where homosexuality was considered a grave moral defect, deeply shameful and immoral. He almost certainly never acted on his feelings.

But consider the evidence, circumstantial though it is. He was a deeply sensitive and artistically talented boy, who played with dolls, but avoided girls at all costs. As an artist, his favorite subjects were attractive young men. In the army, he acted in a number of amateur theatricals, always playing women’s roles. Pretty young women sent him into a state of anxiety, which his friends all teased him for, and his closest emotional attachment was to a young man named Kenneth McLaren, a friendship which nearly ended when McLaren married, and finally did end when Baden-Powell married. In 1912, Baden-Powell, aged 55, met Olave Soames; she was 23. They married, but Baden-Powell was crippled by terrible, psychosomatic headaches every time they went to bed together. Eventually, he had to leave their shared bedroom, and sleep in an army cot elsewhere in their home.

I do not mean to suggest that his marriage with Olave was unhappy, nor was it childless; they had three children, a son and two daughters. Olave was his steadfast companion in running both the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides, the equivalent girls’ organization he founded in 1912. Nor did he seem to be a particularly unhappy man; Scouting became his life, and he was a beloved figure among British boys.

Jeal’s biography (which I whole-heartedly recommend), also deals judiciously with the one genuinely dark rumor about Baden-Powell; that his politics were essentially fascist, and that he supported the Nazis in the Second World War. What’s true is that Baden-Powell was both conservative and politically naive, and reflexively patriotic, and that he distrusted communism. It’s certainly true that an early Scout badge included a swastika. But that was well before that particular symbol had been appropriated by the Nazis. He was, finally, a former military officer who valued discipline, and wanted his Boy Scouts to conduct themselves in an orderly, restrained manner. The evidence does not, however, suggest that he was a fascist.

And here’s what Jeal concludes about Baden-Powell’s homosexuality; it drove him.  His accomplishments are startling; something drove him to achieve. He was an honorable and brave soldier, a genuine war hero, a man who devoted his life to working with children, and a charming and funny raconteur. Jeal quotes at length Baden-Powell’s final letter to his beloved Scouts; I think it captures him beautifully:

I have had a most happy life, and I want each one of you to have a happy life too. I believe that God put us in this jolly world to be happy and to enjoy life. . . One step towards happiness is to make yourself healthy and strong when you are a boy, so that you can be useful and enjoy yourself when you are a man. . . . but the real way to get happiness is by giving out happiness to other people. Try to leave this world a little better than how you found it, and when your turn comes to die, you can die happy feeling . . . that you have not wasted your time, but have done your best. “Be prepared” to live happy, and to die happy.

So what does any of this mean in relation to the current controversy regarding Scouting and gay leaders? I would say that it doesn’t mean anything. If, as seems likely, the founder of Scouting was gay, it did not impact the importance or value of the organization to any degree whatsoever. What was the exact nature of his relationship with Kenneth McLaren? We don’t know, we will likely never know, and it does not matter.
Lord Baden-Powell was a wonderful man, who devoted his life to improving the lives of boys and girls world-wide. He was also a fine writer and painter, and a genuine war hero. That’s how we should think of him, because it’s the only aspect of his life that matters. And if today, a similarly gentle, decent and talented man, who also happened to be gay, were to be named Scoutmaster of a troop in the Boy Scouts of America (or for that matter, the Boy Scouts Association in England, or any of the Scouting organizations active internationally), the result would be, not just benign, but actively positive. Children would learn valuable skills, and have a lot of fun doing it. Period. And, in time, that someone else could say, like Baden-Powell, ‘I have had a most happy life, and I want you to have a happy life too.’ That’s the good Scouting can do. Irregardless of the orientation of the volunteer leaders that make it great.

 

The Boy Scouts and the Church

Yesterday, the Boy Scouts of America ended its ban on gay volunteer Scout leaders. The LDS Church, a major Boy Scout sponsor, responded with this statement:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is deeply troubled by today’s vote by the Boy Scouts of America National Executive Board. In spite of a request to delay the vote, it was scheduled at a time in July when members of the Church’s governing councils are out of their offices and do not meet. When the leadership of the Church resumes its regular schedule of meetings in August, the century-long association with Scouting will need to be examined. The Church has always welcomed all boys to its Scouting units regardless of sexual orientation. However, the admission of openly gay leaders is inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church and what have traditionally been the values of the Boy Scouts of America.

I don’t understand any part of this. First of all, I do not understand the scheduling issue. Granted, Church leaders were on vacation, but surely they could have taken a day or two off to attend a meeting. We’re talking, after all, about the main youth organization for LDS boys living in the States. You couldn’t make a conference phone call; you couldn’t skype?

More to the point, though, what possible objection could there be to having gay Scout leaders? The policy change allows local councils to allow local units to choose its own leaders. If the Church didn’t want any gay Scoutmasters in LDS-sponsored troops, the new policy accommodates that stance.

Let me see if I can unpack it a little. I suppose that there may be some lingering fear over Scout leaders being pedophiles. But gay men are no more likely to be pedophiles than left-handed people are likely to commit arson. There simply isn’t any link between homosexuality and pedophilia. This issue has been carefully studied, and the research is clear. The idea that a gay scoutmaster might molest the boys in his troop is a prejudice without foundation.

(Of course, the BSA is quite appropriately concerned about actual instances of pedophilia. That’s why Scouting has instituted policies and protocols to prevent it, as have other youth organizations. Pedophiles are attracted to children–constant vigilance must be exercised. But that’s not relevant to this policy change.)

No, the Church’s concerns have, I believe, two other, very different causes. The first is that having openly gay Scout leaders might create the impression that homosexuality is not morally wrong. The Scout Oath requires Scouts and Scouters to be ‘morally straight.’ The presence of openly gay leaders could presumably complicate that message.

Break that down. I assume that straight, married Scoutmasters are sexually active. As a Boy Scout, that was never something I ever ever thought about. If that notion had popped into my thirteen year-old head, my reaction would have been ‘ewww.’ Straight, unmarried Scoutmasters may well also have been sexually active; if so, it was never any of my business. Married, gay Scoutmasters are likely also sexually active, but they’re not engaged in anything most people would recognize as a sin; they’re married. Unmarried gay Scoutmasters? Absolutely none of mine, or anyone else’s, business.

The difficulty is that the Church does not recognize gay marriage as morally valid, and therefore believes that even married gay people, if they’re sexually active, are doing something morally wrong; violating the law of chastity. The Church does not want to complicate the issue of gay marriage in the minds of teenaged boys. Even if LDS-sponsored troops all have straight, married Scoutmasters, those troops camp with other troops, in various councils and jamborees and camps and activities. I was the Program Director for two Boy Scout camps 30 or so years ago. Let’s suppose that an LDS-sponsored troop camps next to a troop with a gay Scoutmaster. Those kids are going to interact. I think the Church worries about a conversation in which kid A says ‘wow, your Scoutmaster is really cool’ and kid B says ‘yeah. He’s gay, and he’s awesome.’ And kid A suffers some kind of cognitive dissonance. ‘He’s a great Scoutmaster. But, wait, he’s gay? Huh.’

In fact, ‘morally straight’ is something each individual decides for himself. As Program Director, I remember we had a waterfront director named John; can’t remember his last name. He was terrific; a wonderful swimming teacher, a real outdoorsman, great with kids. His girlfriend would drive him to camp each week, and drop him off. Sometimes she would spend the night. It never bothered anyone, nor should it have. This was in the early ’80s, when I suppose someone could have made a big deal about John not being ‘morally straight.’ He was, obviously, cohabitating with his girlfriend. And many of the troops we served at our camp had minister/Scoutmasters. In Southern Indiana. Nobody raised any kind of fuss, ever, at all. John was a brilliant Scout leader, and that was all that mattered.

Still. The Church has its concerns. But I think there’s another factor involved.

The Church has always embraced Scouting. And that’s great; Scouting is a wonderful program. But in fact, Scouting and the Church have always been something of an awkward fit. Scouting is really a program for kids aged 11-16. Sixteen year olds are encouraged to join an Explorer post. Explorer posts are meant to specialize: in Engineering, High Adventure, Law Enforcement, Health Careers. The idea is that 16 year olds are more independent, more mobile, and interested in interacting with other boys with shared interests. When I was 16, the other kids in our ward were all pressured to find a specialty we all were interested in, and form a post together. But the only thing we all liked was playing basketball, and basketball was not one of the possibilities.

The Church mentioned starting their own youth program for boys, and maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. After all, the Boy Scouts is the youth organization for American LDS kids. Other nations have different programs. It makes sense to take the best ideas from all over the world, and create a uniquely tailored program for our kids. My guess is that plans have been made to do just that.

At the same time, I can’t help it; part of me is filled with dismay. I am an Eagle Scout; worked as a Scout leader, served on the staff of Scout Camps. I loved Scouting. And the reason is simple; Scouting was fun.

Scouting is fun. It’s supposed to be fun. I know that Scouting is supposed to teach values and skills and leadership traits and self-reliance, and I suppose all that does happen, some. But that was never the focus. We had a blast. We built signal towers and cooked on open stoves, and started fires and ran around and got in trouble and played mumblety-peg with knives and hiked hard trails, and played hockey on frozen lakes. I will never forget, until the day I die, a game of Capture the Flag we played, on a four mile course, the flags on two hilltops, a creek demarking the boundary between territories. Summer of 1971. I am old and sick and fat and can’t do most of that anymore, but I can still tie a one-handed bowline knot in less than five seconds. I still can tie a sheep shank and a double half-hitch. We learned those skills because our Scoutmaster made a game of it.

I am afraid that a Church-run youth program will make missionary prep a focus. I worry about the lessons and the (sorry, but it’s so) indoctrination. I am afraid that it won’t be fun anymore.

I hope my fears are unfounded. Just know that tensions between the Church and the Boy Scouts has been building for years. And I desperately hope the Boy Scouts survive. It’s a terrific organization for kids.

Bill Cosby, serial rapist

We think we know celebrities. We don’t. What we know is a carefully crafted persona, an image, meticulously buffed and refurbished. And sometimes those personae are edgy and tough and sometimes they’re pleasant and kind and family-friendly. And then we hear something about a celebrity that seems at odds with what we’ve imagined we know about them. And it takes awhile to process.

On Saturday, a 2005 deposition given by actor and comedian Bill Cosby surfaced. Forty-eight women had, in recent years, come forward and accused Cosby of various degrees of sexual misconduct, including many who said that he had drugged and raped them. Those accusations had been greeted with varying degrees of incredulity. This was, after all, Bill Cosby, one of the most beloved entertainers in America, winner of a 2002 Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. And, of course, our perceptions of Cosby were largely shaped by The Cosby Show, which ran on NBC from 1984 to 1992. Bill Cosby was, for most of us, Dr. Cliff Huxtable, the genial, kind-hearted and wise patriarch of that sit-com family.

It wasn’t just that Bill Cosby played a beloved TV Dad. He was black, and he was a pioneer. From 1965-1968, he played Alexander Scott on the comedy-spy TV series, I Spy. He was therefore the first black actor to play a leading role in an American TV drama. The premise of the show was that of two putative tennis bums who actually are working for the CIA. It was a buddy-cop-comedy, with Robert Culp as tennis star Kelly Robinson, who partners with Scott/Cosby. It was the kind of show that commented on race without ever commenting on race; Scott was just a character on a show, smarter and more sophisticated than Robinson, but not as intuitive. It was a fun show, witty and clever. During the time of that show, and for years thereafter, Cosby’s comedy albums were massive best-sellers; I remember memorizing entire bits. “It’s The Lord, Noah.” “Right.” “I want you to build an ark.” “Right. What’s an ark?” Listen to those old routines today, and they’re just remarkable; exquisite comic timing, beautifully shaped comedic narratives.

Also this: he wasn’t ‘a Hollywood type.’ Or so we thought; he was a good guy. Happily married, a college graduate, a happy family man, with four daughters. And–more sympathy– a son who was the victim of a terrible tragedy; murdered, senselessly while changing his car tire. Later on, Cosby became the spokesperson for black self-empowerment. He came out against rap music, against hip hop culture. A pull-your-pants-up, go-to-school, get-a-job cultural warrior. (But even this was expressed genially). That was also the point of The Cosby Show; the Huxtable home was beautiful; they were well-off people. He represented black aspiration, black achievement. African American gentrification. The Huxtables were an American ideal.

So this was the point: nobody wanted Bill Cosby, of all people, to be revealed as anything less than what he seemed to be, a good and decent man, an extraordinary talent, and a spokesperson for middle-class values. A sexual predator? No way!

Except there were always those accusations, all those women, saying they had been assaulted by him. Initially, when we thought about Cosby, those allegations were an annoying buzz we tried to swat away. It couldn’t be true. Bill Cosby, of all people. Get real.

But yes. On the deposition, Bill Cosby, under oath, admits to drugging young women with the intention of having sexual relations with them. He admits to paying women off with money from his personal account, so that his wife wouldn’t learn of it. These activities all took place years ago, and so his crimes are past the statute of limitations. He will, in all likelihood, never be criminally prosecuted. But he is, by his own admission, someone who used drugs on women, so that he could engage in what he called ‘romantic, sexual things, whatever you call them.’ As it happens, our society has a word for ‘romantic, sexual things’ that are non-consensual. That word is ‘rape.’ Bill Cosby is a serial rapist.

After defendant testified that he obtained seven prescriptions for Quaaludes, the following testimony was elicited:

Q. You gave them to other people?

A. Yes.

Q. When you got the Quaaludes, was it in your mind that you were going to use these Quaaludes for young women that you wanted to have sex with?

A. Yes.

So how do we process this? Lots of commentators have expressed amazement over the cognitive dissonance of combining the persona of ‘genial paterfamilias Bill Cosby’ and ‘serial rapist.’ But I think there’s a valuable lesson here, if we can disassociate the word ‘rapist’ from our usual understanding of it, a depraved and vicious lunatic leaping out from behind a tree and holding a knife to a woman’s throat. That kind of stranger-rape can happen, of course, but it’s also misleading. The ‘Cosby persona’ who was also a rapist was Cliff Huxtable. Daddy Huxtable is the rapist here.

Read the transcripts. Time and time again, Cosby would talk to young women, kindly and sympathetically, asking about their education, their families, their hopes and dreams. One young woman told him, tearfully, about coping with the death of her father. That’s the basic premise of most episodes of The Cosby Show.  One of the Huxtable kids would be struggling with a personal problem of some kind. Daddy Huxtable would listen, with great kindness and sympathy. And then he’d propose a solution, and off they’d go, problem solved. That’s what Cosby did with the various women who have accused him of attacking them. He would go into full Huxtable mode. He would listen, and he would sympathize. And then he would slip them a roofie and have non-consensual sex with them. And when they approached him later, he would cut them a check. From his personal account, so his wife wouldn’t know about it.

We need to learn from this; in fact, we need to internalize it. This is how rapists behave. Not all rapists, of course, but often enough. Most rape victims were attacked by someone they knew and trusted. Kindly old Dr. Huxtable was the rapist here. That was the persona Bill Cosby adopted when he wanted to have a ‘romantic, sexual thing’ with a young woman he met somewhere. It was a role he was good at playing.

Often enough, the place where he met them was the Playboy mansion. That’s another notion we need to get our heads around: Cosby was a welcome and frequent guest of Hugh Hefner. The women who have accused Cosby of rape included former Playmates Victoria Valentino, Sarita Butterfield, Charlotte Laws and Michelle Hurd. Another woman, Judy Huth, has said she was also attacked at the Playboy mansion. Hugh Hefner and Bill Cosby; Hef and Cos? Yes, indeed. Old friends, and quite literally, apparently, partners in crime. It now appears likely that Hef learned about the affective properties of Quaaludes, and that he instructed old pal Cosby in their use. Kindly old Hugh Hefner.

So there’s something else that we need to process. Playmates are women who have posed nude in Playboy magazine. That is to say that they are attractive young women whose images have appeared, neatly airbrushed and photoshopped (one presumes), naked, in the pages of a particularly famous men’s magazine. They are also guests at the mansion, welcome anytime, to enjoy the world’s longest running party, hosted by a really old guy in his pajamas.

And here’s the point; the fact that these women consented to have their photos in that magazine does not suggest sexual availability, and should not imply consent to subsequent sexual activity. It is absolutely possible to rape a Bunny. Consent is consent, and a woman who has been drugged is not capable of consent.

Somehow, Hugh Hefner has managed to sell the image of the Playboy mansion as somehow, I don’t know, innocent. A fun place for young women hoping to advance modeling/acting/show biz careers. Sort of a partying job fair. I’m not going to link to it, but check out Weezer’s Beverly Hills video. It does an effective job of selling this notion: ‘ain’t nothin’ goin’ on here but good clean fun.’ We now know that that is not the case. The Playboy mansion is a hunting ground for sexual predators. Elderly sexual predators, apparently. Like Hef, and Cos.

Bill Cosby’s career is over. His reputation is destroyed. Civil suits could wipe out his fortune–I certainly hope so. It’s not likely that he will ever go to jail, more’s the pity, but his actions may result in a bill, currently before Congress, to extend the statute of limitations for rapists. The best we can do now, is learn from his case. Two lessons: rapists can look like and act like Dr. Huxtable, and also, posing for a men’s magazine does not imply consent to sexual intercourse. That will have to be enough.

Why Donald Trump’s candidacy is good for America

It’s July, 2015. The first primaries won’t happen for six months; the first debates begin next month. Businessman Donald Trump is either in first, second or third place among Republican candidates in the latest polls. I think this is great. I hope this trend continues. Donald Trump’s candidacy is good for America.

Here’s why. The American political process is, and should be, funny. It takes forever. In the early stages, it disproportionately focuses on two small states that couldn’t be less representative of the American populace, and if four guys careening around Iowa pandering to voters is funny, 22 is even funnier. Our election cycle gives candidates ample opportunity to say and do ridiculous things. This is all to the good. The President of the United States is a very important job, and it does, absolutely, matter who wins. But in the meantime, let them entertain us! Laughter’s good for the soul. And there’s no one more entertainingly foolish than The Donald.

And the ranks of first-rate political satirists has been a bit thinned of late. Jon Stewart is retiring in three weeks. David Letterman has already retired. Jimmy Fallon seems more interested in having celebrities do impressions of other celebrities than in scathing social commentary–not that that’s a bad thing, of course. Stephen Colbert has vanished into the wilderness, taking his character with him, though I suspect that his return will dazzle.

But Trump is something special to these guys. Stewart has expressed regrets over his (he now thinks) pre-mature retirement. David Letterman actually showed up at an event with Steve Martin and Martin Short, Trump-oriented Top Ten list in hand.

Plus, best of all, Donald Trump has helped inspire the return of Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County. That’s right; after twenty five years, we’re getting more Bloom County; Opus the Penguin, Milo, Oliver Wendell Jones, Steve Dallas, and best of all, Bill the Cat. Who will be the Trump stand-in.

And I haven’t even mentioned the #trumpyourcat instagram phenomenon, wherein people give their cats Donald Trump hairdos.

And in a serious vein, Donald Trump’s candidacy is also revelatory with respect to the Republican electorate. I mean, he announced his candidacy (before a heavily papered house), by stating categorically, as though it was one of those things that everyone knows and just doesn’t want to say aloud, that Mexican immigrants were pretty much all of them rapists. When that led to absolutely justified howls of outrage, Trump doubled down. He does that. He doesn’t back down, he doesn’t apologize. He says ludicrous and offensive things, and then he insists that what he said was simply the unvarnished truth, and he won’t walk it back.

And then his poll numbers go up.

Now, I don’t want to fall into the ‘all conservatives are racists’ trap. For one thing, I know a lot of conservatives, and they are not, for the most part, racists. Plus ‘racist’ is a nasty thing to call someone. I will say that Trump’s recent success does indicate that a substantial part of the Republican electorate is clueless and uninformed about the realities of immigration, legal and illegal, in this country. And that maybe some inchoate, unacknowledged, more-felt-than-articulated racial or cultural prejudice may also be at play.

Also, the Trumpites seem clueless and uninformed about a whole range of important policies. Take, for example, Trump’s ‘secret plan’ for dealing with Isis. He hasn’t told anyone what that ‘secret plan’ might entail. Just that it’s going to be ‘beautiful.’ And his poll numbers keep climbing. Which suggests, again, that the problem with Isis is just a matter of will, that all we have to do is insist strongly enough that Isis go away, and they will. And that feckless clown Obama (who is probably mostly Moslem anyway, and may well be from Kenya) just doesn’t want Isis to go away badly enough. In other words, the notion that a secret-but-easily-implemented plan to get rid of Isis might actually succeed ‘beautifully’ suggests, again, an electorate stunningly clueless and ill informed. At least in this sense: a substantial number of people, asked by pollsters who they favor for the Presidency, are able to bring themselves to say ‘Trump.’

Trump seems to think that the Presidency is about making deals. He called the recent Iran deal ‘terrible,’ saying ‘we gave them billions of dollars.’ In fact, ‘giving them billions of dollars’ has nothing to do with the Iran deal, unless you consider a gradual easing of sanctions some kind of giveaway. But that’s Trump. He sees everything through the prism of a business deal. This was a bad deal, because the US didn’t get everything it wanted. Neither did Iran. It’s diplomacy. But that’s not something Trump understands.

Trump’s a celebrity; people have heard of him, which is one reason he stands out from a Republican field that otherwise includes the likes of John Kasich and Carly Fiorina. (People have heard of Jeb Bush, but I don’t sense much excitement there; he’s just ‘the next Bush.’) He’s spectacular ill-informed, but so are most voters on most issues; nothing new there.

But he’s also such a splendid comic stereotype. The bombastic oaf. The comically vain womanizer. He’s a character Moliere would have had a ball with. We have our own Molieres, and they’re licking their chops.

Donald Trump is not going to become President. He polls around 10% in a crowded field, with 58% of the electorate saying they would never vote for him, ever, under any circumstance. That number’s not likely to moderate much. He can’t possibly win. Meanwhile, it’s a hot summer. We need a good laugh. I’m glad he’s running.