Revenge of the Kitchen

If your taste in films is akin to having comfort food night after night, you can skip The Menu, and you can skip the appetizer I’m about to serve up.

No, not a review of plot or cinematography or acting–except to say that Ralph Fiennes is mesmerizing as Big Brother and Anya Taylor-Joy makes for an irresistible Winston Smith. Instead, I’ll recommend it with comparisons. Think of them as substitutions even if “Chef” is at his loudest when he insists “there are no substitutions!”

If you ever read Orwell’s 1984, you know I’ve already made the first–though Fiennes’ character is always addressed as “Chef,” and Taylor-Joy is either Margot from Grand Island, Nebraska, or Erin from Brockton, Mass., depending on which piece of the map you want to put in the puzzle.

“And what map would that be?” asks Chef with a tired smile.

Far from an update of any classic book, The Menu is a suggestion of a genre–the totalitarian genre from Brave New World to The Handmaid’s Tale, and from Melville’s fictional Ahab to the all-too-real Donald Trump. Set in a restaurant on a small island named “Hawthorne,” Menu recalls the darkest Twice Told Tales that delve into witchcraft and deals with the devil–recast with wit more laugh-out-loud than dry.

Comparisons to films? First that occurred to me was Robert Altman’s 1994 spoof of the fashion industry, Ready to Wear. From nude runway models to empty plates, its satire is as naked as its wrath.

More immediately it plays in the same tragi-comic key as Don’t Look Up. If you laughed and marveled at how Meryl Streep so effortlessly channeled Republican politicians while playing a US President drunk in denial, you’ll appreciate the provocative twist of an Asian woman attacking a white woman with a knife while yelling, “You will not replace me!”

Another topical echo is Chef’s private screed to Margot, or Erin, or is she Alice in Wonderland? Or Dorothy in Oz?

Chef: Who are you?

Margot: I. Am. Margot. Why do you care?

Chef: Because. I need to know if you’re with us or with them.

He gives her the choice to be among “the givers or the takers,” a dichotomy that right-wing politicians have harped on since Mitt Romney let it out of the bag in 2012.

It would be easy to simply cubbyhole Menu as a take on the cult of personality. Think Jim Jones in 1978 with dinner guests in Jonestown, Guyana, or Heaven’s Gate in 1997 as a swank restaurant rather than a home in California. But we’ve seen that cult of personality is no longer so easily cubbyholed–or confined to the places where they implode.

In more ways than one, Menu explodes. If I was writing a review, I’d call it dystopian, but who has any taste for that? For the sake of this appetizer, I’ll call The Menu a horror film–in the same sense that films such as Soylent Green and The Hunger Games horrify us.

Still, the film is sauteed and served in laughs that hook the audience as completely as the gourmet servings that keep Chef’s diners savoring every mouthwatering bite no matter how gruesome or real the “theatricality” between courses. Not to mention a sommelier who chirps of “cherry and tobacco notes” as he glides from table to table. Seriously, if you can’t laugh at Chef’s description of S’mores, you need to consult a neurologist. I’m just a projectionist.

For all she endures, even Margot–or Erin, or Dorothy, or Alice when she’s ten feet tall–relishes the cheeseburger Chef made just for her.

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Beware ‘Bait Leader’

At the end–or is it the beginning?–of our annual string of shop-till-you-drop days, from Black Friday into this week, I learned of a tactic new to me, though it may be as old as Cyber Monday to you.

My cousin, who detests doing business online as much as I, was quite taken by television ads for a new toy “available at all Walmarts, Targets…” and a few other big box outlets, one of which was just around the corner from her. Billed as a toy for the six- to 36-month set, this proved irresistible to a woman who now has three great-grandchildren in that range.

Unable to find any “Star Belly Dream Lites” on her own, she asked an employee who pulled out and tapped his iPad before telling her that the soft, cutesy, colorful, battery-operated (three AAAs) dinosaurs, teddy bears, and unicorns that cast moving stars on a bedroom ceiling to help toddlers fall asleep is sold online only.

“The ads say ‘available at‘.”

“Yes, it’s available on our website.”

“The ads say at!”

“At. On. What’s the difference?”

Maybe it runs in the family, or more likely the two of us have reached the age where we know there’s no point in trying to reason with people who think language is fungible. Put another way, we accept a thing we cannot change.

In awe of a woman who has more great-grandkids than I have grand-kids, I told her she was right to turn and walk out rather than attempt an answer to his question. And since she was so enamored of the toy as a perfect gift, I agreed with her decision to go online and have Star Bellies sent to her–just as I have t-shirts from the New Bedford Whaling Museum sent to me every year in the weeks before Christmas.

Like my mother, her aunt, she gets them weeks ahead of time, and as soon as I could confess my last-minute habit, two Star Bellies and a similar doll with buttons embedded in its hands, feet, and ears were on the table in front of me. I became so engrossed in pressing those buttons for their various sounds, she said she would get one for me, whereupon I picked it up and shoved it back in the box.

Our conversation turned to and stayed on family matters until I took my leave, but something about her Walmart story seemed to be in the car with me. I killed the radio to think it through.

What’s happening here is somewhere between bait and switch and loss leader. Call it bait leader.

The toy is the bait, and it’s still available, but not where you are led to believe. Instead, they have you in the store for everything else. For the seller, it’s the best of both of those other tactics: There’s no need to switch, and there’s no loss.

Like most advertising, it’s likely well within legal bounds even if ethics are nowhere in sight. And I can’t tell who’s responsible: The toy manufacturer or the box stores? All of the above seems likely.

As I say, I’ve finally reached the age of serenity–which may be a kind word for senility–and I accept what I cannot change. So, Star Bellies need fear no class action suit from me. Nor do Walmart, Target, or any others practicing bait leader.

But I do retain the courage to do what I can, and so I thought I’d caution you about those ads. Beware those smiling faces who say “at” when they mean “on”–not on a shelf, but online.

Here’s to the wisdom to know the difference.

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Melville’s Time Warp Again

When my friend Louis hears of a book about to be published, he goes online and puts a hold on it at his public library.

That’s a step ahead of my habit.  My local library has a “New Books” display in its lobby that I veer right toward, always finding at least one appealing title.

Today, however, I went online looking for a specific edition of Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade published in 1857—on April Fools’ Day to be exact.

What filled my screen was a book of the same title published just last month:  Maggie Haberman’s Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.

Call it inevitable:  Ever since the Calf of Babel descended the golden escalator in his own tower in 2015, he has gained comparisons to characters created by Herman Melville over a century and a half ago.

A bitter and bemusing irony cannot be lost on Melville fans recalling that the author of Moby-Dick and “Bartleby the Scrivener” died in obscurity in 1891, all his books long out of print.

So estranged was he to public life that he ordered a tombstone with a blank scroll for his final resting place. A middle finger to the world? A white flag?

 Not until the Roaring 20s did an admiring grad student write a biography that set off “The Melville Revival.”  Not sure if this has lasted into the 21st Century, but at the time I left teaching in 2002, several of his titles were still staples of school curricula—“Bartleby,” “Benito Cereno,” and Billy Budd.

Wouldn’t surprise me if college teachers, for the sake of immediate relevance, added Melville to their reading lists soon after the “American Carnage” inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2017.

Or high school teachers if they have anything that can honestly be called academic freedom, as this is the stuff that those who harp on “Woke Culture” do not want young people to hear.

Most everyone I know agrees that there was no redeeming quality to the Trump Administration. A few exceptions will cite his business deregulations, overlooking consequences to the environment, to workers, to consumers.

As I’ve started telling these folks, it’s a bit like crediting cancer as a weight-loss program.

However, for us Melvillians, maybe there is a redeeming quality if we take some consolation in a second revival for our guy.

A character who is part of American mythology and known even to those who haven’t read the book, Moby-Dick‘s Ahab was cited from the start of the MAGA campaign all the way to this month’s election.

Trump’s claim that he “could shoot someone” echoed Ahab’s “strike the sun” boast, and in reference to Trumper Kari Lake’s refusal to accept defeat, Nicole Wallace of MSNBC quipped that “Arizona is Donald Trump’s white whale.”

Between those were essays in several publications.  Under the headline, “What Melville Can Teach Us about the Trump Era,” Ariel Dorfman of The Nation tells us that:

Melville could have been presciently forecasting today’s America when he imagined his country as a Mississippi steamer (ironically called the Fidèle) filled with “a flock of fools, under this captain of fools, in this ship of fools!”

So, yes, it was inevitable that a book with a Melville title would describe him.  And it’s no surprise that a large chunk of the promo for Haberman’s book applies just as much to Melville’s:

The through-line  is the enduring question of what is in it for him or what he needs to say to survive short increments of time in the pursuit of his own interests. Confidence Man is also, inevitably, about the world that produced such a singular character, giving rise to his career and becoming his first stage.

As you might guess, I put a hold on the new Confidence Man and am now awaiting its arrival in any of the 36 members of the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium.

But I won’t be holding my breath.  According to the MVLC website, mine is the 166th hold on just 36 copies—one for each library—none of which have yet arrived here in the northeast corner of Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, I’ll content myself with Melville’s trip down the Mississip, grateful to him for limiting it to a single day—April Fools’ no less—while bracing myself for the seven-year-and-counting ordeal outlined by Haberman.

By that time, Louis might be able to tell me all about it.

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https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/what-herman-melville-can-teach-us-about-the-trump-era/

Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York. Photo by Michael Boer: https://www.flickr.com/people/onewe/

Discolored Friday

No, I’m not going to attach any racial meanings or connotations to the term commonly used for this day, but I am going to report that it doesn’t mean what you think it means.

Or what I thought it meant until I stumbled upon “Black Friday” while searching for something else online.

I’d say serendipitously stumbled, but that word applies only to pleasing discoveries, and what I found is no better an origin than what we’ve come to believe. Most folks would likely call it worse, much worse, but I’m among a minority who have long considered this day to be America’s annual Golden Calf, a celebration of materialism champing at the bits of family values and religious traditions.

That’s another argument for another time–and I made it publicly eight years ago with a satirical newspaper column that, if I may say so myself, becomes more literally true every year:

https://www.newburyportnews.com/opinion/dont-miss-out-on-sucker-sunday/article_cc4903bb-81d5-5aa7-8b2b-ec46d1406969.html

Though my Golden Calf metaphor still holds true, and though today has long been the day when American businesses enjoy massive sales that propel them into the black–even those which have run in the red for much of the year–the word Black has nothing to do with finance.

Instead, Philadelphia police began using “Black Friday” back in the early Sixties to describe the chaotic crowds that appeared when suburban tourists went downtown in droves to start their holiday shopping.

Philadelphia? Sometimes I wonder if the term “brotherly love” refers to Cain and Abel.

Surprising? You may be as much surprised by the word “downtown” rather than “shopping malls” in that report, especially if you are under a certain age, but malls did not begin to usurp America’s commercial life until the late-Sixties.

Notice, too, the word “suburban.” Oh, the irony! White people storm the gates, and Blacks are now to blame. That’s why, before the term shot like a pandemic out of Philadelphia, merchants regretted its negative connotation and tried to promote “Big Friday.” That gained a big yawn, and so the idea of black ink was written over the original script.

“Black Friday” thus went from police log to ledger book, but I promised no critical race theory, so please disregard that last paragraph–though it is worth noting that, like my Golden Calf theory, the original meaning of “Black Friday,” lost long ago, has re-emerged as true and becomes truer and truer every year, pandemic be damned.

Perhaps it was no mere coincidence that the whole movement toward historic preservation took hold soon after the first Black Fridays in the early Seventies when the federal government initiated the National Trust for Historic Preservation–which would soon bloom with a rebirth of street-performance.

Coincidence or not, one setting offers chaos in the pursuit of mass-produced merchandise with Muzak oozing from the walls, while the other, at its best, offers the charm of local craftsmen and -women with live music played for the season.

That’s a story that could fill a book, and it is a recurring theme throughout Pay the Piper!–most explicitly in the chapters titled, “Busking the Red, White, and Blue” and “A Call to Un-Mall.”

Call this Black Friday if you want, but I’ve always been more inclined to saunter, perhaps busk downtown on a Red, White, and Blue Friday. Today it rains, but there’s always tomorrow.

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Awaiting Thanksgiving

On the morning before Thanksgiving I take one of a dozen seats that line three walls of a waiting room for a routine checkup with my dermatologist.

Four middle-aged patients sit apart from each other along two walls awaiting to be called, and I sit before the third wall, all of us facing the center of the spacious room. All four hold mobile device before them, sometimes pecking away with thumbs as much as fingers. I look around.

Two of the screens cast bright reflections onto the ceiling from seats that are set in front of a wide window. One is a tight, bright circle with a slight tail that makes it look like a comet as it darts erratically back and forth toward the center of the ceiling. The other bears an uncanny resemblance to a jet as seen from the ground just after takeoff.

Though the jet faces away from the comet as if to escape, it slides backward as much as forward and side to side. The two never collide, although I flinched at more than one close call. As well as when the jet jerked from the ceiling onto the wall behind and disappeared into the window.

The comet, for its part, at times moved onto a small stretch of wall beyond the reach of the window, shooting like a sudden bolt of lightning straight down–completely unnoticed by the woman holding the screen that cast it. And no matter that it went right through a small, rectangular device set in the wall labelled “Fire Alarm.”

About then I thought I heard a call for “John,” the name by which all medical and governmental agencies know me, and got up only to hear the assistant enunciate “Dawn.” So I sat back down as the woman with the jet left the room and another woman took the very seat Dawn had vacated.

She had gray hair. She had no device in hand. She looked around, and when our eyes met, we may have smiled at each other as we nodded, though we were wearing masks and I can vouch for only my own. I was tempted to comment on what the dermatologist’s sound system was offering at the time, Nancy Sinatra singing “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” but I was afraid to imply an assumption about her age.

Before I could think of anything else, a young mom entered the office hand in hand with a daughter about eight. As the mom went to the desk, the girl veered into the waiting room, went to look out the window, and kneeled on the chair next to the woman without a phone.

Said the woman to the girl: “I like your shoes.” Said the girl: “Thank you.” Sang Nancy: “That’s just what they’ll do.”

The two then fell into conversation about the characters–cartoon, I think–on the shoes. To which I would have listened in hopes of voicing a remark about Donald Duck, always my favorite, or Goofy, long-time my personal role model. Instead, I heard “John” with an unmistakable J and left the room to have my own comets, jets, and cartoon characters looked at.

Yes, it does occur to me that if I had a device of my own, I could show you pictures of this morning’s indoor air show. Question is, if I had such a device, would I have seen the show at all? And if gray hair had one, would she have noticed the girl’s colorful shoes?

My answers to those questions make me most thankful for what I do not and will never have.

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Spare the Thoughts & Prayers

When my book about busking, Pay the Piper! appeared in print, I gave a reading at Jabberwocky Bookshop here in Newburyport and introduced myself thus:

Hello! My name is Barbara Ehrenreich, and I’m here to talk about my new book, Nickel and Dimed.

Most in attendance knew me as a busker, or street-performer, and so they got the joke’s stereotype of playing for little more than spare change. For all I know, they may have inferred an unstated reference to the book’s subtitle: On (Not) Getting by in America.

But I went on to tell them that Piper had more in common with another Ehrenreich book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, that appeared six years after her 2001 classic.

At that time I was just beginning to assemble various essays I had penned about busking, and so any title with the word “Streets” was bound to command my attention. Dancing did not disappoint. as I was able to reinforce my own book with references to its final scene, where Ehrenreich and a friend ascend from a New York subway, into music on the sidewalk.

As I wrote in a chapter titled “A Call to Un-Mall,” Dancing is a call for a “vibrant public life… a must-read for any busker or renfaire performer, practicing or would-be, who may ever doubt their own sense of purpose.”

I also sent her an email to tell her that Crackerjack is a brand name with an upper-case C and no s at the end, a common mistake that could have caused her a problem if not corrected by the second edition. Of course, I used that as a way to mention my own project with scenes that illustrated the point and purpose of Dancing.

Next day, she sent thanks for the correction, offered names of a couple book agents, and wished me well.

According to The Guardian, her son accompanied the announcement “with a comment redolent of his mother’s spirit”:

She was never much for thoughts and prayers, but you can honor her memory by loving one another, and by fighting like hell.

For an idea of how completely that single line captures a woman who always went against the grain of conventional wisdom and the grind of safe conformity, here’s a sampling of what she wrote:

No matter that patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots.

Of all the nasty outcomes predicted for women’s liberation… none was more alarming, from a feminist point of view, than the suggestion that women would eventually become just like men.

We love television because television brings us a world in which television does not exist.

In fact, there is clear evidence of black intellectual superiority: in 1984, 92 percent of blacks voted to retire Ronald Reagan, compared to only 36 percent of whites.

Employers have gone away from the idea that an employee is a long-term asset to the company, someone to be nurtured and developed, to a new notion that they are disposable.

Marriage is socialism among two people.

Take motherhood: nobody ever thought of putting it on a moral pedestal until some brash feminists pointed out, about a century ago, that the pay is lousy and the career ladder nonexistent.

America is addicted to wars of distraction.

The titles of her more than 20 books–ranging from women’s rights to workers’ rights to the inequities of the American healthcare system–reveal a commitment to social justice as deep and as long as that of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Lewis:

  • Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream
  • This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation
  • Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America
  • Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy
  • For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women
  • Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer

Other titles are just as enticing, but as I start to recall that email she sent me, and what I believe she was telling all of her readers, I better get back to adding titles of my own.

Barbara Alexander Ehrenreich died on September 1. She was 81.

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Putting a Finger on It

A film as unusual as The Banshees of Inisherin deserves a review as unusual as a fish and finger pie, and so I should not have been surprised when one patron left the Screening Room saying she “would give it one thumb up and one thumb down if both thumbs were not flying all over the place.”

But she did stay to the end and expressed no objection to so many others praising the film–even if they did appear a bit grim while saying so.

Indeed, of all the patrons who have seen it in the eight days since it opened here, we’ve had just seven walkouts, one saying something to the effect of I don’t go to movies to be given the finger.

Audiences have been among the largest we have seen since the pandemic arrived. Anything Irish is bound to do well in Newburyport, and the film was heavily advertised on the cable stations as a “comedy.” I use quotes because the disparity of the ads with the actual product verges on bait-and-switch, in this case reminiscent of the full-page spreads with a dozen photos of Robin Williams laughing and howling in Dead Poets Society back in 1989.

Quite an ad campaign for a film about suicide.

The breakup of a friendship is far from suicide, and yes, there are a lot of laughs. As they did in Martin McDonagh’s 2008 In Bruges, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson show flashes of Laurel and Hardy, and the sight gags nicely punctuate the film’s breathtaking cinematography of Ireland’s Aran Islands.

More akin to McDonagh’s 2017 film, Three Billboard’s Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the story is not nearly as violent, but bloody enough in two or three scenes to cover your eyes with your fingers.

There’s my fourth reference to fingers if you’re keeping score. Colm (Gleeson) is a musician, after all, an aging fiddler concerned about what he might leave to posterity. He fancies himself in the tradition of the legendary Irish bards of earlier centuries, and he envies Mozart’s place in musical history.

That bug hit before Banshees begins, and so we meet him telling Padraic (Farrell) that he no longer has time for the younger man’s interminable idle chat. When he complains of listening to on and on blather about cleaning horseshit out of a barn, Padraic corrects him: “It was donkey shit.”

Talk about not getting it! Unable and unwilling to take no for an answer, Padraic enlists the aid of his sister, as well as a troubled young man who frequents the local pub and a priest who ferries over from Galway to reconcile them.

The acting? All five performances are worthy of Oscar nominations. And the two fellows who parrot each other at the bar could start a show on Comedy Central.

Set in a small fishing village off Ireland’s west coast where “word gets around”–inish means island–the film puts the ensuing turmoil in the foreground of a descent into civil war following the Free State Act in 1922. The setting is all too real as we hear the reports of rifles across the bay, but Colm’s response to Padraic’s persistence is impossible to believe.

Unless, as one woman put it after sitting in the theater talking with others long after the credits rolled, we regard it as a fable. Why not? It’s a cautionary tale of sensational events, and in it, a donkey and a dog play roles that would both gain Oscar nominations for Best Performance by an Animal if there were such a thing.

“If it were a breakup of a man and a woman,” she reasoned, “no one would notice.” But to make it about friendship instead of love, art instead of marriage, we see the extremes to which both sides are pulled. Padraic’s counter to Colm’s fistful of points is as fiery as any Irish Republican Army response to British rule.

In contrast, Colm’s response to Padraic’s sister, Sioban (Kerry Condon), is painfully real. Awaiting word of employment on the mainland, the woman longs for a better life. When Colm tells her that she should understand his disdain for wasted time, she can’t deny it. As she turns and leaves, he pleads twice: “Can’t’cha?” No answer. “Can’t’cha?”

The title of the film doubles as the title of Colm’s fiddle tune that we hear in various drafts and when done. It is also the key to the fable. “Banshee” is an Irish word for female spirits whose wailing warns of impending death.

Female.

What Colm and Padraic do is not to be taken literally. To put a finger on what The Banshees of Inisherin is really all about, focus on Sioban.

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https://www.imdb.com/title/tt11813216/

Wake up to Woke

For those who missed it, Gov. Ron DeSadist’s victory speech in Florodor harped on a single word: “Woke.”

He used it at least a dozen times, most sound-bitingly when he sneered: “Florida is where woke comes to die!”

Harping on charged words and phrases has been Republican MO for over 40 years when Ronald Reagan turned “liberal” into a synonym for “socialist.” It worked well for him, but it wore thin by 1996 when Republican presidential nominee Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas thought he could unseat Pres. Bill Clinton by using the word “liberal” two or three times in every sentence. If you think I’m exaggerating, check youTube.

From then on, Republicans paired “liberal” with other buzzwords–radical liberals, liberal extremists, socialist liberals, etc.–and helped it along with a resolve to keep using “extreme” and “hardline” every time they mentioned environmentalists and feminists, as in feminist extremist and hardline environmentalist.

So it was until 2016 when Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders hit the national stage. Sanders made liberalism appear to be a humane, acceptable degree of socialism. Trump turned extremism and radicalism into the Republican brand.

No wonder that the Republicans who hope to survive Trumpism need another buzzword.

Rather than waiting twenty more years to feel another Bern for what is actually being said–and spread–Democrats should embrace the word “woke.” Do they recall that “Obamacare” was coined by Republicans as a slur before Pres. Obama himself started using it as matter-of-fact shorthand?

More to the point is Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court in 2010. In his announcement he praised Kagan for her “empathy,” a word on which Republicans pounced as if it were a synonym for “communist.” They got some traction because it’s not a common term, and Kagan herself had to reassure them in confirmation that empathy would never override law in her decisions.

“Woke” is a slang term for “aware.” Whether it originates from politics or music, from the media or from a minority group is of no matter to Republicans. While repeating it, as DeSatan always does, in menacing tones and contrived contexts, they count on woke’s unfamiliarity for traction. In another kind of word, Republicans are making “awareness” ugly.

Like saying DeSanctimonious, DeSatan, or DeSadist for DeSantis. Or hailing King Ron the Wrong of Florodor when you want to give them a taste of their own snake oil.

Democrats, therefore, need only call the word “woke” what it is. Who can argue with anyone being aware of things?

I suppose that the Hershel Walkers and Sarah Palins of the world could argue that “woke” is a word they never heard in the Bible, or that it does not appear anywhere in the US Constitution. I’ll leave the good book to ministers and rabbis and priests to confirm the first claim, but the First Amendment’s provision for freedom of the press tells us that self-government depends on what Jefferson called “an informed citizenry.”

Woke is how democracy stays alive.

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https://www.etsy.com/listing/570572709/

From Hear to Fear

What we hear of polls worsens every day.

Friends tell me they fear a red wave from New Hampshire to Nevada in three days that will nail the coffins of reproductive rights, voting rights, and the teaching of anything but thoroughly whitewashed American history.

“Fear” is the operative word here, but we can’t get there until we hear “hear” itself.

What most folks don’t hear is how these polls are compiled. And how mainstream news sources then report them, often taking averages of many to create what, mathematically, should be a fair single picture.

And many who are aware of that much are not aware of the sources of the individual polls.

Along with Gallup and Quinnipiac pollsters, along with polls taken by newspapers and television stations, are polls taken by the campaigns of individual candidates and the political parties and PACs who support them. Yes, both Democrats and Republicans take them, and the wording of questions plus the selected demographic will tilt results in their favor.

Here’s the rub: Thanks to Citizens United, the highly-financed right-wing PACs behind Republicans take far more polls than Democrats. When added to other polls, these warp the averages that are reported in newspapers as varied as the Newburyport Daily News and the New York Times.

As a result, we actually believe there as as many voters in Georgia who will vote for Hershel Walker as for Raphael Warnock, or in Pennsylvania for Dr. Oz as for John Fetterman.

By itself, this illusion will not work. But Republican’s ulterior motive might succeed.

Their polling data, before it goes into any “objective” national average, goes to would-be donors, all of whom are more likely to give, and give more, to candidates with good chances of winning. As we have seen since the Willie Horton ads of 1988, Republicans do not hesitate to distort facts to their favor. By distorting polls, they pump up donations.

Especially with polls that emphasize inflation with no mention of record corporate profits, price gouging, or record-high employment rates. But that’s the point: Republican polls are not meant to inform, but to influence.

Unlike many of my friends, I remain optimistic. The huge numbers for early voting bodes well for Democrats, and I just cannot imagine that the Supreme Court verdict on Roe v. Wade will not compel voting by people, male and female, who would otherwise stay home.

Enter fear into the equation.

There’s no little irony in that Republicans’ money-making polls are throwing fear into Democrats, Progressives, and Independents. Judging from their ads, the fear is intended for their own base. Fox News is now a 24/7 MAGA-Republican ad that runs crime, immigration, and inflation on a loop. All of it grossly exaggerated, none of it fact-checked.

As Hillary Clinton told CNN this week, “They’re not concerned about voter safety. They just want to keep voters scared…”

Her echo of Franklin Roosevelt makes it doubly ironic. For decades, at least since the likes of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan steered the GOP away from the moderation of the Eisenhower Administration, the Republican Party has committed itself to the dismantling of FDR’s New Deal.

You could say that FDR himself told them how to do it: We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Republicans have taken that warning as a blueprint.

But by FDR’s standard, a call to action beginning with ballots, there’s no need to fear Tuesday when no red wave will break Roevember.

After Tuesday? Never short of litigating tricks up the sleeves of judicial robes, Republicans have prepared for losses. They need only claim fraud, and then cite those very polls now showing their candidates doing so well as “proof.”

Early voting turnout has prompted them to file dozens of lawsuits already, and they have candidates across the country saying they will not accept results unless they win. One in Wisconsin vows that Republicans will never lose another election in that state if they vote him into office. Many others dodge the question. Moreover, we have already heard the threats and tasted the violence that will ensue.

The impasse bound to happen after the election will be solved only by those who do not identify with any party or ideology. To offset the fear cast by the other side, those folks need to hear from us.

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Time to Use the F-Word

My good friend Helen Highwater, who lives on a handsome pension provided by a most productive career as a writer and editor, was not pleased by my recent use of an f-word to describe one of America’s two major political parties:

Here and now, if THEY are fascists, are WE not socialists? Both terms can be justified from grains of the truth. Both fan the flames on the other side, pushing us apart.

To me, use of the word fascism seems increasingly ineffective rhetoric. Both sides use it against the other. What is fascism? My favorite definition comes from The American Heritage Dictionary.*

In my own words: The wedding of capitalism and government, under which lies and fear-mongering are business as usual.

That was a reference to my blog’s claim that lies and fear are all there is to Republican political ads, as if they turned FDR’s claim on its head and are campaigning entirely on fear itself. Helen did back off a bit:

Maybe I am lily-livered. Does sound a lot like Trump & MAGA.

Our 2 parties are both fluid enough (and corrupt enough) to reverse their principles in a relatively short time. Both sides are against it until they are for it . Both sides have their own vision of what freedom means, and it always means contradicting the other side.

Meanwhile, Bernie remains the most clear-eyed pol on the scene.

Yes, we are socialists, I answered, referring to roads and bridges, airports and railways, fire and police protection, public schools and libraries, Medicare and Medicaid, public parks and restrooms, water fountains and snowplows.

Being upfront about it–calling things what they are–is precisely what makes Bernie “the most clear-eyed pol on the scene.” That was all I said at the time, still taken back by her “both sides” remarks. I’ve never claimed the Democrats are or ever were anywhere near blameless, and I certainly have a public record of criticisms of Obama, both Clintons, Al Gore, all the way back to Michael Dukakis. And I still think Debbie Wasserman Schultz should be in jail.

But to imply that Democratic faults and missteps in any way offset attempts to overturn an election, to discredit elections before they happen, and elect candidates in swing states who vow to control the vote in 2024? Can I compare Newburyport’s Turkey Hill to Alaska’s Denali? It has snow. Sometimes.

Such talk is paralyzing at the very worst time for us to be paralyzed.

Before I made this case, Helen wrote again:

Watched the DeSantis v. Crist debate.

Moderator was from a Sinclair affiliate. Looked like a Barbie doll with extra eye make-up. BUT she handled it fairly and firmly.

Sinclair is a right-wing chain of news outlets. The “Barbie doll” look of news anchors at right-wing outlets was the subject of my recent blog, “Lashing Out.”

Like other debates this season, the format does not give the candidates more than 60-seconds for any response, with 30-second rebuttals. Brutal. Even closing statements are 60-seconds. There are no opening statements–they go right into questions, but every candidate I have seen uses their first 30-seconds for a standard thank-you opening statement.

Seems designed to elicit sound bites. Or is it “out of respect” for the short attention spans of R candidates and most of the audience?

Like Demings at Rubio, Crist was very aggressive against DeSantis. And effective in my view. DeSantis actually called him a donkey at one point. He just smiled, and said he could take the heat, then blasted DeSantis for being a bully toward women, students, and minorities.

“”Donkey”? When DeSantis was asked about Dr. Fauci, he said he wanted to “throw that elf across the Potomac.” Belittling names and thuggish insults are a hallmark of fascism, and upwards of 40% of American voters relish it.

As I’ve written before: We should not have been surprised in 2016 when Trump “got away” with his ridicule of a handicapped reporter and his “grab ‘m by” comment. Not only did he not lose votes by those remarks, he gained from them. DeSantis has learned the lesson quite well, which is why just yesterday Trump excluded him from a Florida rally where he appeared with Marco Rubio.

I noted the difference between the American Heritage definition (below) and Helen’s (above):  Violence.

Can anyone name a single Democrat anywhere since George Wallace who threatened, implied, or hinted at it?  Meanwhile, even lily-livered Lindsey Graham hints at it.  Poll workers have quit in droves, some run out of town. Been to any town hall meetings lately?

All these years, it’s been an absolute that nothing be compared to Hitler and the Nazis.  Today I wonder just how much that self-imposed mental blinder helped pave the way for 2016.  Of course they call us fascists.  All while swastikas appear on the banners, the bumpers, and the tattoos at their rallies.

Now we know what the lyric “look away” in “Dixie” really means.

Helen herself pointed out the tactic regarding Cheney over a decade ago:  Accuse opponents of your own crimes. Hell, they go further.  Biden, Hillary, Pelosi are pedophiles. Should we speak more guardedly to accommodate that?

Speaking of Pelosi, I sent that answer just hours before a thug broke into her San Francisco home and beat up her husband while yelling, “Where is Nancy?” Like the armed and masked “poll watchers” in Arizona this week, this is the ripple effect of January 6. Seems to me that if elected Republican officials can continue to call Jan. 6 a “normal tourist day,” then we should be calling it exactly what it was and still is.

Helen and I aren’t all that far apart in this debate, and I have to admit that she’s the more pragmatic. As she just responded:

I’ll practice guarded restraint to get along with various family, friends, & strangers. Still, when they are willing to talk, I am too.

Maybe I’ve been listening to too many friends in self-help programs, but I’ve come to believe you can’t solve problems until you call them by honest, accurate names.

But if you want to know how I really feel, make it two f-words.

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* Fascist (n).

1. often Fascism

  • a. A system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, a capitalist economy subject to stringent governmental controls, violent suppression of the opposition, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism.
  • b. A political philosophy or movement based on or advocating such a system of government.

2. Oppressive, dictatorial control.