"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, December 13, 2019

Joan Rivers, Eddie Murphy, And Donald Trump–The Glorious Gift Of Being Funny And Not Caring Who Cares

Most of Joan Rivers’ comedy would not play today except off the airwaves, only at home on DVDs. They are hopelessly incorrect and, despite attempts by neo-Puritanical moral watchdogs to brand them offensive, they are hilariously funny.  There was nothing off limits or beyond the range of River’s comedy. On supermodel Heidi Klum: "The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens”.  Eddie Murphy’s rants about gays were funny then and without the censorious blinders one is obliged to wear now, still would be.

Murphy, Rivers, and the Borscht Belt, Carnegie Deli Jewish comedians made their bones and their living off of insults, caricature and satire. Mimicking Italians – the barber shops, the cannoli, and the goons way down the capo chain of the Mafia – Jews elbowing each other out of the way for a dollar’s worth of spilled nickels, blacks pimp walking and jive talking; fat people taking up space; gay men swishing, Arabs falconing and bagging their women, WASPs sipping tea while Dresden is bombed….Everything was funny.

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There was nothing cruel about any of them, no twisted intent, no political agenda, just a canny sense of the absurd, the ridiculous, and the predictable.  When all lesbians in Bernal Heights dress in flannel shirts, work pants, and shit-kickers, they are fair game.  When S&M trannies always wear biker leather, and always lead each other around in stud collars and traces at the Folsom Street Fair, they beg for satire.  When all obese women waddle their way up aircraft ramps that sway and buckle under their weight; and when they do a contortionist routine to get into their seats, they are absurdly funny, outrageous examples of a norm distorted.

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Predictability – members of a group acting, dressing, behaving like all others, oblivious to the group-think ruling them, and ignorant of their fawning similarity and self-important parade – lends itself to comedy.  When groups act according to stereotypes, unaware that they are doing so and moreover thinking that it is not common but unique, they are funny.

Eddie Murphy did the best satirical impressions of white people of any black comedian.  Not only did he pillory the uptight, high-collared, tight-lipped, buttoned down stereotypical white man, he subdivided white people.  His riff on American first generation Jews – tailors, watchmakers, jewelers, furriers – stubbornly moral, judgmental, prissily and predictably Jewish – was right on and hilarious.  

As long as progressives continue to salute the same banner, march to the same drummer, and dress in the same uniform, they are the stuff of comedy.  The image of today’s concerned liberal, distraught over global warming, homophobia, racism, and the glass ceiling is hilarious.  To the committed progressive, member of all righteous movements, dedicated to change and betterment, enlisted in the fight against social ills and sappers in the struggle to build Utopia, nothing is funny.  Everything is as serious as cancer.  To the outsider, these movements are hysterical, comedic, and grand guignol.  Marchers are easy targets; and  dressed in stylishly-remote, organic, recyclable, and ethically-sourced clothing, shouting platitudes and idealistic couplets, linked arm-in-arm solidarity, marching on the Mall, they are funny indeed.

Christian fundamentalists’ revelation, finding Jesus as their personal savior, jumping for joy in the aisles of a Southern Baptist church, hollering and shouting for the Lord to come and take them away, are funny because every Christian fundamentalist with a revealed vision acts as though they had been understudies, having prepared for years for their one glorious instant on the stage, in Jesus’ limelight.   They have been schooled in the moment, have anticipated the moment of salvation, dance, and epiphany. They are funny.

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People who trip on a banana peel, walk like a bowlegged drunken sailor, have facial tics and twitches, stutter, hawk, and belch are funny. Women who dress like the cheapest New Orleans tart but think they look glamorous.  Men who stuff themselves into tailored suits and pointed shoes and walk as if they were on Milanese runways.  Needy people, bag ladies, Capp Street dope addicted panhandlers are all caricatured and the stuff of comedy.

The man who polished his balls took his towel, put it between his legs, grabbed one end from the front and the other from the back, assumed a Maori All-Black stance, and started whipping it back and forth as fast as a shoeshine man at Grand Central.  Whip, whip, SLAP.  Whip, whip, SLAP.  First on one side of his balls, then the other. He did it for so long and with such speed and vigor that his balls must have become tough and leathery.  For most of us, a few quick swishes of the towel and we are as dry as we need to be; but he pumped and whacked until every possible drop of moisture was out from between his crack, thighs, and legs. He was funny.

The Upper West side literati are funny for their poetry, adoration of Tolstoy and Marx, their fond socialist recollections, and their commitment to social progress; but Tom Wolfe saw how ridiculous this goose-stepping, prepared marching to a faded idealistic dream was, and recorded it in his Radical Chic and Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers, a reportage of Leonard Bernstein’s hosting of the Black Panthers at a wine and cheese gathering in his Fifth Avenue penthouse.  The book was hilarious.

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Not only is predictable herd behavior funny, but self-righteousness  even more so.  Any politician, public figure, or social aspirant who thinks more of himself than is due, is fair game for comedy. Which brings us to Donald Trump and his sarcastic tweets about Greta Thunberg's Andy Warhol fifteen minute, child hero of the Left, advocate for global environmental sanity, who has been sorely manipulated by a progressive media anxious to discredit any and all populist heroes like Donald Trump, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, and the Philippines’ Duterte; and to promote at any cost and with little thought, all popular progressive causes. The co-opting of a young (16 years), ingenue, politically innocent, and unaware child by an ambitious Left, is unconscionable at worst and transparently obvious at best.

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So of course she is fair game for Donald Trump, Borscht Belt comedian, vaudevillian, side show artist, and the most outrageously American of any President ever; and of course he responded sarcastically to Greta Thunberg, a young girl who has been seduced by media fame, enamored of idealistic causes, and the media tool of an exploitative, politically hungry Left.  Too bad if she’s only a young teenager.

Trump’s sarcasm and his off-hand dismissal of Thunberg is well-deserved.  So what if she’s a child.  She is the spokesperson for the movement to sanctify all that is socially progressive.  Pointed, sarcastic, dismissive darts directed at poor Greta are really meant for the entire purposeful, self-righteous Left. Sorry, Greta, but grow up.

Donald Trump loves all of this – he is the center-stage, high-stepping vaudevillian, carny barker, trapeze artist, and sideshow attraction all rolled into one.  He loves the attention, and loves it even more when his critics cry for blood.  His critics, schooled as they are in old, archaic modes of opposition (policy, logic, defined purpose, values) are hopelessly outmatched.  They refuse to wrestle in his ring, object to his rules, and are beaten before they enter the arena.
What is the point of living in Washington, after all, if it isn’t for the grand guignol of national politics.  Washington is center stage, not for serious political inquiry or debate, but for melodrama, soap opera tears and remorse, and best of all vengeance, vendetta, and retribution.

It is irresponsible, progressives say,  if not immoral to  think this way, to ignore the potential damage to the body politic, democracy, climate, women, and society at large.  Yet how can one possibly take it seriously when these entertaining shows just keep on coming. There was nothing to match Bill Clinton debating the definition of sexual encounter and parsing grammatical construction.  JFK had Secret Service complicity in his affairs, and LBJ was rumored to have had them pimp for him. Only in America would we waste so much time on a president’s dalliances with an intern, minor peccadilloes, and simple infidelities. At least the indiscretions of Mitterrand and Sarkozi had style and panache, goes with the territory, nothing to be upset about as long as governance is not neglected. Few Americans in the Trump opposition understand what a seminally American Trump is, and how he says what we all think.

There has never been a president like this one, and there may not be one like him in the near future or ever again.  Donald Trump has shown America and the world that there is no such thing as one single idea of an American President – there are only versions, and he has broken the mold, thrown away the pattern.

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The United States will do quite well regardless of who is in the Oval Office.  We have had our ups and downs but we have always managed to survive; and we will now and today. So the best thing to do is to sit back and enjoy the show.  There will be none like it for a long, long while.

Perhaps Trump’s greatest legacy will be his comedy – his absolute refusal to be captive to political correctness, to accept the nostrums of social progressivism without comment, and to hold his tongue when what the Left proposes is downright hilarious.  The insidiousness of today’s political sanctimony is its neutering of the humor that everyone laughs at.  The cloture of speech, the cleansing of it, the expunging of every potentially offensive word, and the revisionist history which results cannot stand.  Eventually those who feel offended will get over it.  A democracy is a place where anything goes, not just where everyone resides.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Inner Voices, Inner Rooms–The False Notions Of Intimacy And Understanding

One would have thought that Henrietta and Frank Balder would have completely understood each other after decades of marriage.  That, if anything, is what marital longevity is all about – communicating in a shorthand that can eliminate unnecessary explanation and avoid conflict.  A couple, perfectly attuned to word, gesture, look after so long should be smoothly running. Yet it was not to be.  In fact, the longer the Balders were married, the less they understood each other.

It is true that no one really ever knows another – one’s inner rooms, sacred, individual places, hideaways whose contents are never given up or if so, as a last resort.  Even at their most intimate, trusting, and combined, couples never tell it all, for doing so would be a denial of their real past, who they really are.  Instead they share safe bits and pieces at odd angles.  A woman may get a glimpse of what her husband is thinking, but never a frontal view.  That he keeps to himself, his own currency which loses value when it is traded.  Women are said to withhold less, but they simply are more expressive in what they choose to tell and how they tell it.  As a relationship moves on both husband and wife realize that not only is it not worth sharing inner secrets, the longer such secrets are kept in the dark, the more unseemly and difficult they tend to be when exposed.

Henrietta Balder cruised along in her marriage after the usual turbulence of the early years when she figured out how much give there was to the ship’s sails and buoyancy to the hull; how the ship fared in rough waters, responded to command, and righted herself when foundering.  Not so much a trial run, but a shakedown.  Frank Balder wondered how the former lone wolf would respond to tethers? How much could he run wild and untamed before the traces were fixed? 

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Once that period had past successfully – Henrietta decided to accept Frank’s delinquencies with the equanimity of her own mother; and Frank came to realize that toleration of his wife’s bulldogged insistence was the path of least resistance; and there were always ways around everything, even if the circuitous route was long and winding.

So after many years, children, professional careers, and family vacations, the unexpected arrived – a solitary, united, and bound life that neither of them had ever expected.  How could they? Life is programmed for activity, enterprise, fun, and hard work; not for a semi-passive routine and certainly not for hours alone with each other, both congenitally created to keep secrets.

It was then that they realized that they had never really talked, never truly shared anything but the most practical and irrelevant. Notwithstanding those who, like D.H. Lawrence, claim that sexual intercourse is the only human communication worth noting, and at its mutual best can be epiphanic, most older adults realize that sex is not what is cracked up to be, especially not as a means of better understanding.  Sex turns to diffidence more often than not and to jealousy at worst, becoming routine, obligatory, and boring.  Once affairs are over and done with, jealousy no longer an issue, and sexual hijinks things of the past, couples are faced with the bare facts – a life of accommodation, practicality, camaraderie, but little or no understanding. 

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What happened to all the tough nuns with clackers, report cards, baseball on the green, aunts, uncles, long-gone grandparents, and the minutiae of jobs, dogs, burst pipes and car repair? Too insignificant to be stored in one’s inner rooms, useful when it came to retelling at Easter dinner, but all in all not the stuff of sharing.  A vast array of bits and pieces, never assembled, always assumed to be important and to be put together for meaning when the time came; but when the time did arrive, and when Henrietta began reviewing her life and that of the man in the armchair, it was just as jumbled as ever.  A bag full of shards, smudges, and reflections.

So despite this great landfill of memories, decades of events seemingly so meaningful at the time, the Balders sat across from each other with nothing to say.

If this was the case of Henrietta and Frank, one can imagine how it plays out on a larger stage.  If two people who have lived together for decades still pirouette emotionally around each other and then stare blankly, one can only imagine the chasms between families, neighbors, communities, and nations.  At each step up the social and geo-political scale, the impossibility of knowing becomes harder and harder.  If the Balders, two well-educated, Eastern Establishment, professionals with two children and a good retirement income, lives as alone and separate from everything as Tibetan monks or Indian sadhus; then what can one expect from more complex social orders? The social multiplier effect is common to all.  The more the history, courtiers, wars, conflicts, and seats of power, the more impossibly knowable the culture and those who represent it.

Secrets come in many forms – husbands’ cinq-a-septs, off-shore accounts, cash in the safe, anger, resentment, flight, tax forms – but these are common and expected.  Intimate secrets – poorly articulated, private, and never expressed - are what most define us and answer the existential question, “Who am I?”

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However much we may be shaped by society and culture; no matter how our behavior conforms to accepted norms and standards or strikes a particular, unique balance within them, our existential validation comes from these secrets.  While they may be common by category – parental resentment, religion, bullying, sexual inadequacy – they are ours alone.

I am what I do not tell.

Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am”; but that too is limited to epistemology.  As intellectually complex as it was, it was too simplistic and far too removed from individual experience to be of any use in understanding individualism. Nabokov looked at the ‘I am’ question in temporal terms.  The present exists only in milliseconds.  The future is only possible and not even probable.  Only the past exists, and only if one retains, relives, and experiences the past through memory can one exist.  ‘I am’ = ‘I was’.

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Yet this too skirts the issue.  Such a memorist explanation of being is no more satisfying than the Nietzschean or the moralist; for it avoids essence – that particular, inarticulate collection of personal fears, expectations, frustrations, hostility, and ambition that no one knows.

Tolstoy described the pain and existential moment of the death of Ivan Ilyich in the novella of that name.  Ivan, as he nears his death, still consumed about questions of worth and value but only in terms of others, finally realizes that we all die alone.  We go to our graves equally, universally, and and alone with no consideration of belonging.

At his moment of death he finally admits to his secrets – who he was and still is.  “It is finished” says someone at his bedside, repeating the words of Christ.

Henrietta and Frank Balder went to their graves in silence as unresponsive to each other as they had been for sixty years.  One might hope that one of them at least had been an Ivan Ilyich, realizing that one lives and dies alone, and faces eternity without regret; but that is unlikely.  Neither were of Tolstoy’s bent.