Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Trapped Inside the Airless Echo Chamber

As in the last election, Fox News has accidentally pushed the propaganda too far. Then, they told their ignoramus audience that Romney was going to win, not of course to provide the public with accurate information — something they only do by accident — but in order to manipulate them with lies. The election was Toto pulling back the curtain on the Great and Powerful Ailes.
Propaganda posing as journalism is great for your side, right up until you fall off the cliff in the dark. Fox News finally believes its own lies.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Where No Geek Has Gone Before

I once walked into a comics shop where the employees and the customers were all playing a Star Trek role-playing game in the back, and nobody was waiting on customers.
One player said heatedly, “The trouble with you is, you don’t know how to set the proximity detonators on your photon torpedoes!!!” I thought, “Geez, everybody in here but me is a geek.”
Then I thought, “Wait a minute. I understood what he said.”

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Censoring the Comics: We Are Not Amused

Here’s a column I wrote for the Charleston Times-Courier in the late 1980s. It was reprinted in Illinois Publisher magazine:

“Truth, 'tis supposed, may bear all lights; and one of those principal lights or natural mediums by which things are to be viewed in order to a thorough recognition is ridicule itself.
— The Earl of Shaftesbury, 1709

The comics, it seems, have become a serious business.
This past fall, some newspapers began censoring or even cancelling Cathy Guisewite’s Cathy strip because she poked fun at the Republican record on women’s issues.
Since then, editorial pages from the Mattoon Journal Gazette to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have been publishing letters which demand that Cathy and other “politically flavored” strips be shifted to the editorial page or yanked entirely.
A letter to the Charleston Times-Courier decried the Doonesbury strip of Nov. 11 as “particularly disgusting.” In it, Satan is shown having a chat with George Bush.
What’s really comic is that all this outrage should be directed at a section which we in the press do not regard as the repository of wisdom in your daily newspaper. We wouldn’t expect readers to form their political philosophies on the basis of comic strips any more than we’d expect them to plan their lives around the horoscope, which will also run for its entertainment value.
“But the comics are read by children,” the letter-writers argue. True, although I suspect that most of our strips are written for and appreciated by adults more often than children.
Even so, is there any reason to assume a child would believe George Bush is in league with the devil because he’s seen it in Doonesbury when he certainly doesn’t believe that a beagle can fly his doghouse into battle with the Red Baron, even though he’s seen it in Peanuts?
That readers should be irritated by the sting of satire is natural enough. That they should subsequently demand its banishment is a sentiment unworthy of them as citizens of a free society. Before we boot Doonesbury, let’s take a closer look at his supposedly innocuous colleagues.
I submit that the alleged “innocence” of the comics page is a myth. In evidence, I offer a page at random — Nov. 15, 1988.
• In Andy Capp, one of Andy’s friends confides that his wife is divorcing him because he drinks too much. Andy replies that drinking too much is what led to his marriage. Alcoholism. Very funny.
• In Peanuts, usher Peppermint Patty orders a student to sit where she tells him “or I’ll break all your arms.” Violence in America’s classrooms is no joke.
• In The Far Side, a crazed farmer’s wife is depicted in hot pursuit of a trio of mice who are wearing dark glasses and carrying canes. The handicapped and the rural homemaker slammed with one stone. We are not amused.
• In Mother Goose & Grimm, Mother reflects, now that she’s older, the new chapter in her life will be “Chapter 11.” Can’t we even refrain from making light of the plight of America’s senior citizens?
• In Hi & Lois, Lois asks the traffic cop who’s stopped her how she can be expected to drive straight while she’s watching him in the mirror. You’d think that, in these enlightened times, our tastes would have risen above “women driver” jokes.
Blondie fares no better. After Dagwood shells out the bucks for new tires, she refuses his advice on the best brand, remarking, “Don’t tell me how to spend my money.” Hasn’t it been established that the modern woman does not humiliate herself by wheedling money from men? Politically correct persons would never laugh at this.
Frank and Ernest are bums. Hardly role models for America’s children.
Garfield is slothful, gluttonous and thoroughly self-centered. Ditto.
• In Beetle Bailey, Sgt. Snorkle advises Sgt. Lugg to eat onions in order to develop halitosis as an added refinement to browbeating privates. Sheer sadism.
• In Bloom County, a cockroach suggests that Bill the Cat be either fried or baked and then eaten for brunch. Too disgusting for words.
Our careful analysis of unsavory elements in the comics has left with a page nearly as white as the purity of our motives.
To demand that the comics remain untainted by politics, by sex, by stereotypes and by social problems is, in fact, to leave little room for humor. “The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow,” Mark Twain wrote. “There is no humor in heaven.”
Shaftesbury, whose Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humor is quoted above, also claimed that humor is the only real test of gravity because “a subject which would not bear raillery was suspicious.”
Or perhaps, put another way, it’s just that cartoonists realize that sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Let's Learn from Cats

“Watch any plant or animal and let it teach you acceptance of what is, surrender to the Now. Let it teach you Being. Let it teach you integrity — which means to be one, to be yourself, to be real. Let it teach you how to live and how to die, and how not to make living and dying into a problem.
“I have lived with several Zen masters — all of them cats.”

— Eckhart Tolle

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Plastic Surgeon and Stoic Philosopher

“When I announced that I wanted to be a doctor, I was told that this could not be, because my folks had no money,” recalled Maxwell Maltz. “It was a fact that my mother had no money. It was only an opinion that I could never be a doctor.”
“I not only reached my goals, but I was happy in the process — even when I had to pawn my overcoat to buy medical books, or do without lunch in order to purchase cadavers.
“I was in love with a beautiful girl. She married someone else. These were facts. But I kept reminding myself that it was merely my opinion that this was a ‘catastrophe’ and that life was not worth living. I not only got over it, but it turned out it was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me.”
In 1960, Maltz became the author of one of those shamelessly American and rather breathless self-help get-rich books, the once-popular Psycho-Cybernetics. A plastic surgeon, he was prompted to write it by his realization that improving a person’s actual image did not necessarily improve that person’s self-image or attitude toward existence.
I was surprised, upon rereading the book, to find so much of it informed by the stoic philosophers. One of his favorite sayings came from Epictetus: “Men are disturbed not by the things that happen, but by their opinion of the things that happen.”
“Even in regard to tragic conditions, and the most adverse environment, we can usually manage to be happier, if not completely happy, by not adding to the misfortune our own feelings of self-pity, resentment and our own adverse opinions,” Maltz wrote.
“ ‘How can I be happy?’ the woman of an alcoholic husband asked me. “I don’t know,’ I said, ‘but you can be happier by resolving not to add resentment and self-pity to your misfortune.’
“ ‘How can I possibly be happy?’ asked a businessman. ‘I have just lost $200,000 in the stock market. I am ruined and disgraced.’
“ ‘You can be happier,’ I said, ‘by not adding your own opinion to the facts. It is a fact that you lost $200,000. It is your opinion that you are ruined and disgraced.’”

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Pay Attention to the Fascist Behind the Curtain

Thirty-four years ago, I was behind the scenes in Springfield on election night, working on a feature profile of Jim Edgar, who was then running for Illinois Secretary of State.
Ever genial, Jim took me with him to the hotel suite where the Republican campaign operatives — clean-cut young men in dark suits and ties — were gathered, watching CBS election returns on a sofa.
Standing behind, I was surprised and unsettled to hear them hurl one acidic vulgarity after another at Dan Rather on the TV screen. Rather was simply reading election returns, nothing more. They hated him with a passion because he was a journalist.
And those young GOP operatives were the philosophical forebears of the treacherous cabal in the Bush-Cheney White House and today’s fully unhinged Republican Party.
What infuriated them about Rather, finally, was that they couldn’t control what he said. They longed to command, or at least intimidate and silence, every public voice in the country.
Then and now, what they’re really opposed to isn’t “the liberal news media.” It’s journalism itself.
How happy they’d have been, that night, to know that their party was destined to crush much of professional journalism.
The blustering radio jackass Rush Limbaugh showed the way, and then Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch set up their lying propaganda channel, Fox News, to subvert and supplant actual journalism. Greedy for ratings and/or cowering before criticism, other news outlets like CNN and NPR would follow Fox’s lead by airing unchallenged right-wing lies. And with that rocket fuel in its belly, the GOP would produce, in 2016, its ultimate presidential candidate: a constantly lying, serially bankrupt, racist, sexist “reality TV” real estate con artist who endorses violence and torture and flirts with nuclear war.
All this sprang directly from the attitude I heard expressed by those Republicans in that hotel suite in 1982.
This particular type of right winger has always believed that accurate information should be secretly hoarded so he can make piles of money off of it — usually at someone else’s expense — or wielded under the table in some illicit power grab. They’re the sort of people who — for obvious reasons — regard criminal laws against corporate theft and fraud as “excessive government regulation.”
Case in point: These are the kind of people who were behind the “flipping” of Initial Public Offerings on worthless internet company stock. After hyping the stock, they sold it within hours, once it had doubled or tripled in price, leaving the dupes who bought it holding the bag.
A little later they worked the trick again, and their derivative and credit default swap Wall Street frauds actually collapsed the world economy.
The idea of sharing accurate information with the public is laughable to them. The information they prefer that the public see is propaganda, tailored to manipulate the unwashed into serving their interests — interests so shady and antithetical to the public good that they never dare state them openly.
They hire bleached blonde bimbos with short skirts to pitch the propaganda to another tier of Republicans who are much more numerous but much less intelligent.
Uneducated and unable and/or unwilling to understand the subtle checks and balances of the traditional America system, the knuckle draggers in this group want judges who will enforce what they believe the Constitution says, even though they’ve never bothered to read it. They think suspects in custody should be tortured, just like in those steroid-soaked movies they love to watch, and that unarmed black citizens should be shot on sight by police.
They have their own reasons for hating journalism. They don’t like hearing facts that disprove their simple-minded religious dogmas, undermine their racial prejudices or challenge their bloodthirsty militarism. When they lose their jobs and their rights, they blame mouthy women, uppity blacks and what they call the liberal news media — never the corporate plutocrats who are actually ruling the country.
They are sheep that bite.
At the polar opposite of those values stand the ideals of American journalism, which is supposed to be dedicated to the publication of accurate, verified and relevant facts, without fear or favor.
Because the corporate news media rarely lives up to those values now, we’re in the mess we’re in. But to the extent that any real journalism reemerges, it must remain the mortal enemy of right-wing extremists. They always react to it with that familiar reptilian hiss, like Dracula recoiling from the touch of clear sunlight.