Friday, October 30, 2015

Tailgunner Ted

Sandwichman is certainly not the first to comment on the uncanny facial resemblance between Ted Cruz and Joe McCarthy. The resemblance is more than skin deep.

Reflecting upon Cruz's rip-snorting, crowd-pleasing, media-bashing outburst during the GOP debate on Wednesday, I was reminded of the old lawyer joke about what to do when both the evidence and the law are against you. A version of the anecdote was told by Carl Sandburg in a 1936 book-length poem, The People, Yes! Sam Ervin (yes, that Sam Ervin) also told a version in his November 1954 speech on the Senate resolution of  censure against McCarthy for disorderly behavior:
The following story is told in North Carolina: A young lawyer went to an old lawyer for advice as to how to try a lawsuit. The old lawyer said, "If the evidence is against you, talk about the law. If the law is against you, talk about the evidence." The young lawyer said. "But what do you do when both the evidence and the law are against you?" "In that event," said the old lawyer, "give somebody hell. That will distract the attention of the judge and the jury from the weakness of your case." 
That is precisely what Senator McCarthy is doing in his response to the report of the select committee. He does not attempt to meet that report on the merits. He insists that the Senate shall try everybody and everything except the junior Senator from Wisconsin and the issues which the Senate was called into special session to try.
He asserts primarily that the Senate must try Senator Watkins, Senator Johnson of Colorado, and myself, on the ground that we were disqualified to serve on the select committee because we entertained a bias against him. 
He declares secondarily that the Senate must then try the select committee as a whole upon his charge that all of its members are unwitting handmaidens, involuntary agents, and attorneys in fact for the Communist Party.
Sound familiar? If you can't back up your political posturing with facts and coherent arguments, pound the table and give the liberal-biased media hell for asking the damned, impertinent questions. Finish off by accusing your adversaries of being Commies -- or, at best, unwitting dupes of the evil Communist conspiracy. Cruz has the drill down to a "tea."

Sam Ervin's speech contained a treasury of these homespun gems, each of them -- not surprisingly -- as applicable to the junior Senator from Texas and his foxy-truthy acolytes as they were to that old hack, Joe.

On lifting words out of context
I now know that the lifting of statements out of context is a typical McCarthy technique. The writer of Ecclesiastes assures us that "there is no new thing under the sun." The McCarthy technique of lifting statements out, of context was practiced by a preacher in North Carolina about 75 years ago. At that lime the women had a habit of wearing their hair in top-knots This preacher deplored the habit. As a consequence, he preached a rip-snorting sermon one Sunday on the text, "Top Knot Come Down." At the conclusion of his sermon an irate woman, wearing a very prominent top-knot, told the preacher that no such text could be found In the Bible. The preacher thereupon opened the Scriptures to the 17th verse of the 24th chapter of Matthew and pointed to the words:
Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take anything out of this house.
Any practitioner of the McCarthy technique of lifting things out of context can readily find the text, "top not come down" in this verse.
On the inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality:
I wish to say that one thing I noticed about Senator McCarthy is very puzzling to me. It is reflected in all has examinations. He seems to have an incapacity to distinguish between what he thinks in his head and external facts. I do not say this in unkindness. But this characteristic makes it very difficult for one to meet him on the same mental plane.
On McCarthy's technique for examining witnesses:
Senators can claim that was legitimate cross-examination if they wish to do so; but I call it baiting and badgering and brow-beating a witness. 
On the making of "fantastic and foul accusations":
I do not propose to urge Senator McCarthy's expulsion from the Senate, but I shall make three observations upon the fantastic and foul accusations made by him against the six Senators who served on the select committee: 
First, if Senator McCarthy made these fantastic and foul accusations against the members of the select committee without believing them to be true, he attempted to assassinate the character of these Senators and ought to be expelled from membership in the Senate for moral incapacity to perform the duties of a Senator. 
Second, it Senator McCarthy made these fantastic and foul accusations against the six Senators who served on the select committee in the honest belief that they were true, then Senator McCarthy was suffering from mental delusions of gigantic proportions, and ought to be expelled from the Senate for mental incapacity to perform the duties of a Senator.  
I do not propose to permit Senator McCarthy to try Senator Watkins, Senator Johnson of Colorado, or me on the charge of partiality. I do not propose to permit Senator McCarthy to try the entire membership of the select committee upon his charge that they are the unwitting hand maidens or involuntary agents or attorneys in fact of the Communist Party.
Senator Ervin concluded his speech with yet another homespun tale from North Carolina:
Mr. President, many years ago there was a custom in a section of my country, known as the South Mountains, to hold religious meetings at which the oldest members of the congregation were called upon to stand up and publicly testify to their religious experiences. On one occasion they were holding such a meeting in one of the churches; and old Uncle Ephriam Swink, a South Mountaineer whose body was all bent and distorted with arthritis, was present. All the older members of the congregation except Uncle Ephriam arose and gave testimony to their religious experiences. Uncle Ephriam kept his seat. Thereupon, the moderator said. "Brother Ephriam, suppose you tell us what God has done for you." 
Uncle Ephriam arose, with his bent and distorted body, and said, "Brother, he has mighty nigh ruint me."  
Mr. President, that is about what Senator McCarthy has done to this Senate. As a result of Senator McCarthy's activities and the failure of the Senate to do anything positive about them, the monstrous Idea has found lodgment in the minds of millions of loyal and thoughtful Americans, that Senators are intimidated by Senator McCarthy's threats of libel and slander, and for that reason the will of the Senate to visit upon Senator McCarthy the senatorial discipline he so justly merits is paralyzed. 
Where, oh where is Senator Sam Ervin now when we need him?

How to Tell Good Guys from Bad Guys

Regarding Joe McCarthy, I am reposting this from Ecological Headstand, December 2012:
"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is good guy with a gun." -- Wayne LaPierre.
Mr. LaPierre's pronouncement confronts the American public with the crucial task of distinguishing between who is the bad guy and who is the good guy. Fortunately, John Steinbeck addressed this question some 58 years ago, originally published in Punch in September 1954 and republished in The Reporter in March 1955.

How to Tell Good Guys from Bad Guys

Television has crept upon us so gradually in America that we have not yet become aware of the extent of its impact for good or bad. I myself do not look at it very often except for its coverage of sporting events, news, and politics. Indeed, I get most of my impressions of the medium from my young sons.

Whether for good or bad, television has taken the place of the sugartit, soothing syrups, and the mild narcotics parents in other days used to reduce their children to semi-consciousness and consequently to semi-noisiness. In the past, a harassed parent would say, "Go sit in a chair!" or "Go outside and play!" or "If you don't stop that noise, I'm going to beat your dear little brains out!" The present-day parent suggests, "Why don't you go look at television?" From that moment the screams, shouts, revolver shots, and crashes of motor accidents come from the loudspeaker, not from the child. For some reason, this is presumed to be more relaxing to the parent. The effect on the child has yet to be determined.

I have observed the physical symptoms of television-looking on children as well as on adults. The mouth grows slack and the lips hang open; the eyes take on a hypnotized or doped look; the nose runs rather more than usual; the backbone turns to water and the fingers slowly and methodically pick the designs out of brocade furniture. Such is the appearance of semi-consciousness that one wonders how much of the "message" of television is getting through to the brain. This wonder is further strengthened by the fact that a television- looker will look at anything at all and for hours. Recently I came into a room to find my eight-year-old son Catbird sprawled in a chair, idiot slackness on his face, with the doped eyes of an opium smoker. On the television screen stood a young woman of mammary distinction with ice-cream hair listening to a man in thick glasses and a doctor's smock.

"What's happening?" I asked.

Catbird answered in the monotone of the sleeptalker which is known as television voice, "She is asking if she should dye her hair."

"What is the doctor's reaction?"

"If she uses Trutone it's all right," said Catbird. "But if she uses ordinary or adulterated products, her hair will split and lose its golden natural sheen. The big economy size is two dollars and ninety-eight cents if you act now," said Catbird.

You see something was getting through to him. He looked punch-drunk, but he was absorbing. I did not feel it fair to interject a fact I have observed —- that natural golden sheen does not exist in nature. But I did think of my friend Elia Kazan's cry of despair, and although it is a digression I shall put it down.

We were having dinner in a lovely little restaurant in California. At the table next to us were six beautiful, young, well-dressed American girls of the age and appearance of magazine advertisements. There was only one difficulty with their perfection. You couldn't tell them apart. Kazan, who is a primitive of a species once known as men, regarded the little beauties with distaste, and finally in more sorrow than anger cried, "It's years since I've seen or smelled a dame! It's all products, Golden Glint, l'Eau d'Eau, Butisan, Elyn's puff-adder cream—I remember I used to like how women smelled. Nowadays it's all products."

End of digression.
Just when the parent becomes convinced that his child's brain is rotting away from television, he is jerked up in another direction. Catbird has corrected me in the Museum of Natural History when I directed his attention to the mounted skeleton of a tyrannosaur. He said it was a brontosaurus but observed kindly that many people made the same error. He argued with his ten-year-old brother about the relative cleanness of the line in Praxiteles and Phidias. He knows the weight a llama will bear before lying down in protest, and his knowledge of entomology is embarrassing to a parent who likes to impart information to his children. And these things he also got from television. I knew that he was picking up masses of unrelated and probably worthless information from television, incidentally the kind of information I also like best, but I did not know that television was preparing him in criticism and politics, and that is what this piece is really about.

Indigenous Art Form
I will have to go back a bit in preparation. When television in America first began to be a threat to the motion-picture industry, that industry fought back by refusing to allow its films to be shown on the home screens. One never saw new pictures, but there were whole blocks of the films called Westerns which were owned by independents, and these were released to the television stations. The result is that at nearly any time of the day or night you can find a Western being shown on some television station. It is not only the children who see them. All of America sees them. They are a typically American conception, the cowboy picture. The story never varies and the conventions are savagely adhered to. The hero never kisses a girl. He loves his horse and he stands for right and justice. Any change in the story or the conventions would be taken as an outrage. Out of these films folk heroes have grown up Hop-a-long Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry. These are more than great men. They are symbols of courage, purity, simplicity, honesty, and right. You must understand that nearly every American is drenched in the tradition of the Western, which is, of course, the celebration of a whole pattern of American life that never existed. It is also as set in its form as the commedia dell' arte.

End of preparation.
One afternoon, hearing gunfire from the room where our television set is installed, I went in with that losing intention of fraternizing with my son for a little while. There sat Catbird with the cretinous expression I have learned to recognize. A Western was in progress.

"What's going on?" I asked.

He looked at me in wonder. "What do you mean, what's going on? Don't you know?"

"Well, no. Tell me!"

He was kind to me. Explained as though I were the child.

"Well, the Bad Guy is trying to steal Her father's ranch. But the Good Guy won't let him. Bullet figured out the plot."

"Who is Bullet?"

"Why, the Good Guy's horse." He didn't add "You dope," but his tone implied it.

"Now wait," I said, "which one is the Good Guy?"

"The one with the white hat."

"Then the one with the black hat is the Bad Guy?"

"Anybody knows that," said Catbird.

For a time I watched the picture, and I realized that I had been ignoring a part of our life that everybody knows. I was interested in the characterizations. The girl, known as Her or She, was a blonde, very pretty but completely unvoluptuous because these are Family Pictures. Sometimes she wore a simple gingham dress and sometimes a leather skirt and boots, but always she had a bit of a bow in her hair and her face was untroubled with emotion or, one might almost say, intelligence. This also is part of the convention. She is a symbol, and any acting would get her thrown out of the picture by popular acclaim.

The Good Guy not only wore a white hat but light-colored clothes, shining boots, tight riding pants, and a shirt embroidered with scrolls and flowers. In my young days I used to work with cattle, and our costume was blue jeans, a leather jacket, and boots with run-over heels. The cleaning bill alone of this gorgeous screen cowboy would have been four times what our pay was in a year.

The Good Guy had very little change of facial expression. He went through his fantastic set of adventures with no show of emotion. This is another convention and proves that he is very brave and very pure. He is also scrubbed and has an immaculate shave.

I turned my attention to the Bad Guy. He wore a black hat and dark clothing, but his clothing was definitely not only unclean but unpressed. He had a stubble of beard but the greatest contrast was in his face. His was not an immobile face. He leered, he sneered, he had a nasty laugh. He bullied and shouted. He looked evil. While he did not swear, because this is a Family Picture, he said things like "Wall dog it" and "You rat" and "I'll cut off your ears and eat 'em," which would indicate that his language was not only coarse but might, off screen, be vulgar. He was, in a word, a Bad Guy. I found a certain interest in the Bad Guy which was lacking in the Good Guy.

"Which one do you like best?" I asked.

Catbird removed his anaesthetized eyes from the screen. "What do you mean?"

"Do you like the Good Guy or the Bad Guy?"

He sighed at my ignorance and looked back at the screen. "Are you kidding?" he asked. "The Good Guy, of course."

Now a new character began to emerge. He puzzled me because he wore a gray hat. I felt a little embarrassed about asking my son, the expert, but I gathered my courage. "Catbird," I asked shyly, "what kind of a guy is that, the one in the gray hat?"

He was sweet to me then. I think until that moment he had not understood the abysmal extent of my ignorance. "He's the In-Between Guy," Catbird explained kindly. "If he starts bad he ends good and if he starts good he ends bad."

"What's this one going to do?"

"See how he's sneering and needs a shave?" my son asked.


"Well, the picture's just started, so that guy is going to end good and help the Good Guy get Her father's ranch back."

"How can you be sure?" I asked.

Catbird gave me a cold look. "He's got a gray hat, hasn't he? Now don't talk. It's about time for the chase."

Got Him Pegged. 
There it was, not only a tight, true criticism of a whole art form but to a certain extent of life itself. I was deeply impressed because this simple explanation seemed to mean something to me more profound than television or Westerns.

Several nights later I told the Catbird criticism to a friend who is a producer. He has produced many successful musical comedies. My friend has an uncanny perception for the public mind and also for its likes and dislikes. You have to have if you produce musical shows. He listened and nodded and didn't think it was a cute child story. He said, "It's not kid stuff at all. There's a whole generation in this country that makes its judgments pretty much on that basis."

"Give me an example," I asked.

"I'll have to think about it," he said.

Well, that was in March. Soon afterward my wife and I went to Spain and then to Paris and rented a little house. As soon as school was out in New York, my boys flew over to join us in Paris. In July, my producer friend dropped in to see us. He was going to take an English show to New York, and he had been in London making arrangements.

He told us all of the happenings at home, the gossip and the new jokes and the new songs. Finally I asked him about the McCarthy hearings. "Was it as great a show as we heard?" I asked.

"I couldn't let it alone," he said. "I never saw anything like it. I wonder whether those people knew how they were putting themselves on the screen."

"Well, what do you think will happen?"

"In my opinion, McCarthy is finished," he said, and then he grinned. "I base my opinion on your story about Catbird and the Westerns."

"I don't follow you."

"Have you ever seen McCarthy on television?"


"Just remember," said my friend. "He sneers. He bullies, he has a nasty laugh and he always looks as though he needs a shave. The only thing he lacks is a black hat. McCarthy is the Bad Guy. Everybody who saw him has got it pegged. He's the Bad Guy and people don't like the Bad Guy. I may be wrong but that's what I think. He's finished."

The next morning at breakfast I watched Catbird put butter and two kinds of jam and a little honey on a croissant, then eat the treacherous thing, then lick the jam from the inside of his elbow to his fingers. He took a peach from the basket in the center of the table.

"Catbird," I asked, "did you see any of the McCarthy stuff on television?"

"Sure," he said.

"Was he a Good Guy or a Bad Guy?" I asked. 
"Bad Guy," said Catbird, and he bit into the peach.

And, do you know, I suspect it is just that simple.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Distemper of Our Times: it's the business model, stupid

Ipod spawned the talk radio star.

Last summer I had the pleasure of attending the 50th anniversary reunion of my high school graduating class. One of the highlights was talking and joking around with an old chum who happens to be on the very conservative side of the political spectrum. We are facebook friends and from time to time he posts "provocative" tidbits like Fox News videos and placards extolling timeless libertarian "truths."

I have no objection to my friend having opinions diametrically opposed to mine or even to his reliance on sources -- such as Fox News -- that I consider to be without merit. But that doesn't mean I have to stifle my opinions about the credibility and lack of persuasiveness of his sources. Last night, after presenting documentation of why I found Fox News less than credible on the issues, I received a reply from a facebook friend of my friend in effect calling me an "intellectual coward" and instructing me to "Man up or shut up."

I have no retort for an uncivil "friend of a friend." But I am interested in the outrage phenomenon that seems to promote this kind of behavior. Sarah Sobieraj and Jeffery Berry are, respectively, a sociologist and a political scientist at Tufts University, whose book, The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility, I look forward to reading. In the meanwhile, I've read several of their recent articles and I am particularly intrigued by their argument in "Understanding the Rise of Talk Radio."

In that article, Berry and Sobieraj point to the deregulation of the broadcasting industry -- increasing concentration of ownership and elimination of the fairness doctrine -- along with the appearance of new and more appealing technologies for listening to music as creating an environment that has fostered the proliferation of political talk radio programming.

On the audience side, differences in the demographic make-up of conservatives and liberals and greater conservative distrust for the mainstream media may account for the overwhelmingly conservative bias of political outrage-fueled talk radio. Political talk radio is disproportionately white, male and conservative. Furthermore, "conservatives like talk radio because they believe it tells them the truth." Berry and Sobieraj conclude their article with the following observation about the talk radio business model:
The talk radio business model is worrisome because it represents the growth of an industry that makes profits in large part by peddling political outrage and fueling the fires of polarization. America has always had such businesses (think yellow journalism) but never on the scale of what is available today. Embedded in the successful business model for talk radio is an incentive for hosts to be provocative to the point of being offensive to people who are not among the loyal following. The program content we have described in this article may be part and parcel of a free society with a strong First Amendment, but that is no less reason to be concerned about the prevalence of political commentary designed to make us as angry and fearful as possible.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Nor do historical trends support the Luddite fallacy, which assumes that there is a fixed lump of work and that technology inexorably creates unemployment. Such reasoning fails to consider compensation effects that create new jobs, or myriad relevant factors such as globalization and the democratization of the workforce.