USA! USA! USA! USA!

Urlaub in Brügge 22. bis 25. Mai 2008After college, my wife, Carol, and I spent several backpacking, backbreaking months hitchhiking through Europe.

We began in Scotland, then made our way from Glasgow south through England. We took the ferry to Belgium from Dover, landing in Ostend, and then caught a ride to the charming, canal-threaded city of Bruges in the north.

It was early evening when we were dropped off, tired, cold and hungry, near a youth hostel where we planned to spend the night. We crossed a small, postcard-ready stone bridge and approached the building, which appeared as old as Flanders itself and somewhat foreboding. We entered…

And heard mandolins.

Mandolins!

A dozen or so graying seniors were seated in a half circle, plucking intensely. I don’t recall why—if these happy fingers were playing for fun or giving a concert for the community of travelers.

What I do remember is the large space swelling with their music, and the two of us being greeted warmly and served hot coffee in bowls at a long wood table. And I remember this: we were enthralled.

We didn’t stay long in Bruges, and I vaguely recall being picked up at the edge of the city and later passing through Antwerp on the way to Germany.

But our evening in Bruges, those many years ago, is my memory of Belgium. It will always be my memory of this small nation.

I mention this, of course, in connection with this week’s massively covered terrorist slaughter in Belgium.

Blog Bruge photoBelgium, you say? On what planet is Belgium?

Which is the point, for I’m fairly certain that if not for this horrific carnage the overwhelming bulk of Americans wouldn’t know Brussels and Belgium from beeswax.

On MSNBC Monday night, a seemingly troubled Chris Matthews derided the dangerous “nationalist sentiment” of Donald Trump’s relentlessly xenophobic message and the response to it from many of his red-white-and-bluer-than-thou followers.

I get it: Trumpet has emerged this election season as the nation’s bombasting big poopah of flag flaunters: American Gothic and the American Legion rolled into one. In making his point, though, Matthews ignored the culpability of Trumpet’s audience and America’s arrogant, chest-thumping culture of superiority, a trait nourished by our general ignorance of the wider world.

It’s this culture that Trumpet plays to, even though the concept of American superiority is undermined by his own presence as a viable presidential candidate.

The USA! USA! USA! USA! chants at Trump events are a metaphor for this raging ethnocentrism. Bottom line: we are full of ourselves and celebrate the U.S. as the center of the universe: a God-granted occupancy that comes with a lifetime lease.

Wrong!

We’ve flourished as the globe’s richest, most powerful nation for so long that Americans don’t realize how tiny a blip we are on the landscape of time. Other cultures—Greeks, Romans and so on—have had their own 15 minutes of fame, only to see fame inevitably move on.

Sharing the blame for our inflated national ego, by the way, are decades of U.S.-centric media coverage, most notably by television whose cameras—or lack of them—manufacture their own reality. Rarely do we witness global news that doesn’t center on bang-bang—violence and other mayhem. So the picture we get is mostly skewed, fostering a belief that human life beyond our borders is largely inferior, largely barbaric…

And Belgium is a place where only bad things happen.

******

The setting was Nablus, the West Bank’s largest city. The year was 1988, during the first Palestinian Intifada or uprising against Israeli occupation.

With my Palestinian “fixer,” I sat facing six other Palestinians who looked to be in their twenties. They had agreed to meet with me and discuss media coverage of the Intifada for my TV column in The Los Angeles Times.

They were with Fatah, then the political arm of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) led by Yasser Arafat. They were cordial, spoke passable English and seemed to be nice guys. They ticked off their grievances with the coverage: they felt western media were mostly biased against them, just as Israelis insisted to me that the opposite was true.

I raised the question of bombings that killed innocent Israeli children and asked how they could possibly justify these acts. One referred to children as “Israeli bullets.” Another explained, “These children grow up to be Israeli soldiers.” He said this resolutely but calmly and without emotion, as if the lives of such children were abstractions. And of course, to him they were.

That was that: six nice guys who happened to endorse indiscriminate murder in service of their liberation goal.

I suppose I always knew it was impossible for the rest of us to comprehend the radical mind. But this fleeting episode pounded the point home and came to mind as I watched TV coverage of human wreckage in Belgium.

The place where only bad things happen.

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THIS JUST IN!

donald-trump-mussolini-scowlThe Mussolini scowl, the bluster, the boasting, the BS.  Donald Trump…the nation’s anchorman? Nahhhhh!

Maybe yahhhhh!

Old Laser Eyes here.

Thank me later, but I’m on the blather beat—the great Pantheon of Bloviating—so you don’t have to be.

I’ve spent months watching camera-ready candidates (you know their names and MOs) roll out, vamp and strut across their own red carpets like preening celebrities on Oscar night.  And here I am, in front of TV on Super Tuesday, conducting my own exit poll, struck again by how much the Oval Office and  wannabes have in common with many of the media who cover them.

It’s the ultimate symbiosis, recalling the famous 1974 exchange at a Houston press conference between embattled Richard Nixon and future CBS News anchorman Dan Rather, then the network’s high-profile White House correspondent. The occasion was a meeting of broadcasters at which the President was a guest. And when Rather rose to ask a question, and introduced himself to a mixture of applause and jeers, Nixon deployed his paste-on grin and quipped:

“Are you running for something?”

Rather (after a perfectly timed pause): “No, sir, Mr. President. Are you?”

Big laugh, big metaphor.

They were both running, of course: Nixon from the Watergate debacle that was about to bring him down, and Rather for the top job at CBS News that he later would inherit from Walter Cronkite.

Nixon and Rather were adversaries. Yet on this day, in a sense, they were partners having in common this: both were hood ornaments on the chassis of their own aspirations.

Presidents don’t speak to us and announce “Breaking News!” They don’t report breathlessly “This just in!” On the other hand, aren’t they much like news anchors in other ways that we witness regularly? Not just the largely vapid news kazoos at local stations but also the gravitas-inflated royalty of ABC, CBS, NBC and those zany 24-hour news channels that many of us love to hate?

Think about it.

Don’t we ask both for steadiness and team coverage in times of crisis?

Don’t both ask us to love, trust and respect them, to believe in their infallibility and, above all, to keep them employed? That love, respect and infallibility flow from personas carefully crafted by public relations experts, the steady employment from elections for Presidents and Nielsen ratings for anchors.

Don’t both make TV their medium of choice to nourish this culture of image?

Don’t both command the camera? The Trumpet doesn’t just command it, as we know, he appropriates it, benefiting from acquiescing media that are almost begging to be manipulated.

And finally, don’t we look to both genres for accurate information and guidance?  With the election drum roll growing ever noisier, information and guidance from the candidates and their acolytes continues to be largely propaganda and spin. And anchors on Fox, CNN and MSNBC are presiding this election season over horserace reporting at a gallop. As well as that news channel phenomenon, breaking speculation.

“This is what the race has come to,” sighed an MSNBC reporter covering a morning rally at which Trump defended his hands after Marco Rubio had ridiculed Trump’s hands after Trump had relentlessly demeaned Rubio as “Little Marco” and “the little senator.” And so on and so on.

Oh, wait, something huge is happening. I’m watching TV now, and The Trumpet is being introduced in Palm Beach by his fawning new best friend, Chris Christie.

This just in!

MY KOBE PHOBIA

To Ko-be, or not Ko-be—that is the question.

Not a question, really, but a cheap and contrived way to evoke The Bard in a blog about the slings and arrows of outrageous sports loyalties. Apologies to Elizabethans and “Hamlet,” I doth plead guilty.

I’m no Shakespearian, obviously. Even less—much, much less—a Kobian.

Kobe Bryant is a good-looking, smart, reasonably articulate, remarkably gifted athlete who has performed stratospherically in a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers translating to world-class entertainment.

Yet…

Something about the guy just pisses me off.

It has nothing to do with my being a Los Angeles Clippers zealot, which lands me on the wrong side of the tracks in a city where Kobedom and Lakerdom thread the culture as ubiquitously as good weather and bad traffic.

It’s just that anointing celebrities as deity is usually unearned genuflection, whether it’s the bafflingly famous Kardashians or the late great King himself. I’ve been to Memphis on the anniversary of Elvis’ death and observed his gridlock of followers light candles and parade like zombies up the slope to his gaudy mansion where they ultimately disperse into the summer night like smoke. Talk about the Walking Dead.

One difference: in L.A.—the epicenter of over-the-top—Bryant’s parade is on-going. These zombies ain’t dispersing.

No wonder I’m Kobed out, up to here with ceaseless adoration of someone who in his final season is a shrunken hologram of the stratospheric force he once was. Years ago, in testament to his own lethal-strike capability on the court—so much for humility—Bryant began titling himself the Black Mamba. The nickname was a nice marketing strategy, and it stuck. Today, though, he’s less Mamba on the court than Samba. Other than rarely, he can’t defend, can’t move, can’t shoot, can’t do much of anything consistently but unwisely chuck air balls and give interviews.

A continuing theme on local sports radio: Bryant deserves relentless praise because, as someone said recently, he’s “done so much for the city.” Oh? And that would be? I’d argue that his contributions off the court remain elusive.

Yet the multitudes—his giddy celebrants, including much of sports media—continue pumping helium into the expanding blimp otherwise known as Bryant’s ego. It’s the only part of his game that hasn’t atrophied.

Sports media won’t let it go, especially in L.A. where local TV sportscasters inevitably—and lazily—cap their Lakers highlights with repetitive Bryant soundbites. Night after night, same questions, same answers.

His popularity is indisputable. He received by far the most votes of anyone elected by fans to start Sunday’s NBA All-Star game (his 15th) in Toronto. Earlier Bill Plaschke, the Los Angeles Times chief sports columnist, appeared to suggest that Bryant’s fellow all-stars pay homage by stepping aside and allowing him to become the game’s MVP. As in the scripted Washington Generals rolling over so the Harlem Globetrotters could follow a script and humiliate them without obstruction? That was worth a double take.

It turned out there was no need to accommodate Bryant Sunday. No one played defense on either side, giving his teammates as much free passage to the hoop and as many open shots as the honoree. He missed most of them anyway (the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook was MVP) after a lavish, over-produced pre-game tribute only slightly less thunderous than the Pope’s welcome in Mexico.

Now look, I’m hardly a stranger to intense sports loyalties. Although no marauding football hooligan, I’m pretty much a screwball fan myself.

In addition to the Clippers, I obsess over the Kansas City Royals in baseball (KC is my hometown) and Oklahoma Sooners in college football (I’m an OU alum). I’ve learned to roll with the ups and downs of the world-champ Royals. But when the Sooners or Clippers lose, my pain rises above mere suffering, I’m devastated—sometimes sad for days and too anguished even to read the game summaries online or in the paper. Can’t figure it. These teams don’t care about me, so why do I care about them so deeply? And with the Clippers, feel it to the bone when they’re unfairly maligned, which happens regularly in Lakers-centric L.A.?

Half the planet seems to be starving, the other half dying, and I’m crushed when the Sooners lose a football game or the Clippers get thumped? How rational is that?

When a fellow Sooners alum asked me recently why I wasn’t as passionate about OU’s highly ranked basketball team, I told him the truth. I already have the weight of Sooners football on my shoulders, I can’t take on more despair.

Or Kobe Bryant reverence. Which is why my answer is “not Ko-be.”

LOVING LOUIS

“Downton Abbey” is the PBS gift that keeps on giving. On occasion what it gives, bummer, is indigestion. Let’s just say Julian Fellowes’ dramatic narrative—that is, his story—is notable for hairpin curves appearing inexplicably on straightaways. Or is it straightaways on hairpin curves? No matter. As The Trumpet might ask: “What in the hell is going on?”

Inconsistency is consistently going on.

Now, I love “Downton Abbey” for all the reasons you do if you’re one if its flock. How can one not swoon over a household whose Crawleys (these are adults, remember) are unable to dress and undress themselves? And whose daily routine largely mimics my cats: a lot of eating, grooming and down time, and a lot of not much else.

What I look forward to as much as “Downton Abbey” itself, however, is the biting eloquence of Louis Bayard, his witty recaps in the New York Times where he addresses the show’s loyalists as Abbots. No, wait. Not just witty, often laugh-out-loud, cough-spasmy hilarious. Do I need this with my asthma?

The Times is a great and vast-reaching newspaper, but if you’re a Downtonphile with access, I urge skipping everything else Mondays and heading right to Bayard, a master of respectful ridicule.

So much to choose from this week, with Bayard having his way with the Crawleys reluctantly opening Downton to curious tourists and simmering trouble between newlyweds Mrs. Hughes and harrumphing Mr. Carson. And here he was on Barrow, the tormented under-butler whose five seasons of nastiness are being wiped in a stunning personality overhaul that has him volunteering as a reading tutor and becoming Mister Rogers with the family’s kiddies, just as he’s being pushed out the door:

“He’s awfully unhappy about leaving Downton, so is it too much to ask that he become the world’s first manny?”

Only a trickle of episodes remain. Like Bayard’s Abbots, I’ll miss the Crawleys and their decadent splendor a lot, as I’ll miss revisiting them through their ace recapper’s eyes.

AND NOW, FOR MY NEXT SCRIPTED AD LIB…

Let’s schmooze.

The tortuous cavalcade of presidential primary debates slogs on repetitively like a reality show with no limits—much as Bill Murray faces the same 24 hours again and again in “Groundhog Day.” As I write this, New Hampshire is hosting Real Candidates of Manchester whose GOP characters on ABC Saturday night hurled wild charges like kids splashing in a pool.

The debates feel Homeric, yet—is it possible?—the odyssey is only beginning.

An oft-stated argument for televised debates is that they rev up public interest and, above all, are irresistible draws. Uh-huh, so are auto wrecks.

Yes, I know, The Trumpet and his tidal-wave comb-over have been a three-ring hoot, and televised debates magnify, bulge out and widen it like the mirrors in a fun house. Most media, moreover, don’t merely adore the debates but swoon over them. Giddy is the word I’m looking for. And the multitudes watch the sniggering and swaggering in astonishing numbers. The range so far, say the Nielsen ratings: 24 million viewers in August for the first GOP candidate debate on Fox to 4.5 million MSNBC viewers for Thursday night’s hastily arranged Bernie and Hillary show.

Since the landmark Kennedy-Nixon clashes of 1960, TV debates have become the popular currency and Holy Grail of electioneering, as much a part of our culture as the Super Bowl (minus the clever commercials, sadly). Each debate is dusted off and examined microscopically as if it was treasure from an archeological dig.

Oh, sure!

Now look, I like science fiction as well as anyone, and televised debates can be an entertaining way to pass an evening in the Twilight Zone. I haven’t missed one, don’t plan to.

But time for a reality check.

Televised debates are the ultimate fantasies and one of the biggest redundancies of presidential campaigns. They reveal little beyond which candidates give the better performances in front of television cameras, after learning their lines as other actors do and practicing looking presidential: strength but warmth, brilliance yet plain folks, the insider’s knowledge without the insider’s mentality.  Yes, Bernie Sanders projects realness, but he, too, is a member of this stock company.

After each debate comes the show after the show, conveyor belts of media bullshit under the pretense of analysis and Machiavellian myth spinners pumping up their candidates.

In fact, televised debates mostly emphasize qualities that no thinking voter should desire in a president.

–They stress flashy TV skills over substance. It’s true that the nation’s medium of choice remains TV, apologies to the Internet. And a president who cannot communicate with the nation through TV is at least partially disabled. Not as severely, though, as a TV slick who turns out to be a dope in the Oval Office.

–They stress speedy answers. Candidates so thoroughly practice and cram like students for an exam that surprise questions are a rarity. Yet the candidate who does weigh a question thoughtfully before responding, a trait you’d want in a president, appears flustered, out of touch or just a little bit slow.

–They stress glibness and quick, agile wit (read rehearsed ad libs), the stuff of good TV but not necessarily good leadership.  Mr./Madam President, Kim Jong Un has hit South Korea and Japan with nuclear missiles. Got a joke about funny hair?

All of it is theater. So how fitting that the campaign trail’s media crowd includes the show-biz trade paper Variety spitting out live, minute-by-minute blogs of the debates. As in Thursday night:

“But her (Clinton’s) statement gives Sanders an opening to, once again, focus on the corrupting influence of money in politics…” And: “Clinton sees a weakness in Sanders foreign policy…”

What was this, Cam Newton vs. Peyton Manning? Bernie Sanders has said, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Perhaps, but it’s often covered like one.

As the nation’s first stand-up comic seriously campaigning for president, Donald Trump is the poster boy for klieg light candidates. He is the logical extension of an incestuous linkage of entertainment, news media and politics. In a broad sense, all work the same street.

Well before Trump sought to make Washington D.C. his zip code, presidential hopefuls began parachuting into late night TV for softball chats with the hosts and 15 minutes of no-fee exposure.  While Trump was reportedly blowing much of his fortune in 1992, Bill Clinton was blowing his sax on Arsenio Hall’s show. And most of the current crop of candidates have hit the late-night boards in search of free media and the public affection they hope comes with it.

Media members galore have historically traveled this road across an ever-widening celebrity journalistscape. Most notable today is Megyn Kelly, the Fox anchor who has parlayed Trump’s verbal abuse into abundance, earning a gig with giggly Jimmy Fallon on NBC and another on CBS with Stephen Colbert during Sunday’s post-Super Bowl show, to say nothing of a book deal with HarperCollins.

Call it an extended curtain call, journalism’s latest troubling metaphor for messengers becoming the message.  If not for these TV debates, she’d now be just another rising media star, largely obscure beyond Fox, and we’d be just as smart about the candidates of both parties.