Henry Olsen is a conservative columnist at The Washington Post. He’s typical of the kind of conservative affirmative action that all of the mainstream press provides because of decades of the right disingenuously calling it “liberal.”
Don’t call us liberal! Beat us up! Legislate us out of existence! Just don’t call us liberal! We couldn’t die in peace knowing that anyone questioned our objectivity!
(I wasn’t going to read the second article figuring it was just a reworking of the first. It isn’t actually. Instead, it’s just more finger-wagging. The article also elides Republican behavior and current norms. It’s a classic example of an argument much beloved by supposed moderates, “The Republicans are allowed to destroy norms; when the Democrats are back in power, it is their job to reinstate them!”)
Olsen’s “Republicans Ain’t Fascists” Argument
I’ve heard Olsen’s argument many times before. Lauren Southern likes to make it! It boils down to this: Fascism was a political philosophy of the mid-20th century in Europe.
Okay, not in so many words. But his entire argument is to nitpick what fascism is and give an example of why that doesn’t apply to the MAGA crowd. Here is his base argument:
Classic 20th-century fascism was a political philosophy that comprehensively denounced modern liberal democracy. Fascists believed that multiparty democracy weakened the nation, and that competitive capitalism was wasteful and exploitative. Their alternative was a one-party state that guided the economy through regulation and sector-based accords between labor and business.
How the MAGA Cult Stacks Up
And then he contrasts this definition with what the MAGA faithful believe:
Compare this to the MAGA philosophy. MAGA politicians usually argue that America’s liberal tradition is under attack and needs to be saved, not that it is the root of all evil. They tend to attack most expansion of government regulation and spending as “socialism.” That’s the polar opposite of fascism, not its kissing cousin.
This is one of the apologist’s greatest weapons: pretending to not understand subtext. My favorite example of this was when Ben Shapiro claimed that he just didn’t see Steve King’s white-supremism — until years later when he simply could not continue to claim that.
Olsen is using another apologist trick too: pretending that because fascists update their tactics that they can’t be fascists. Of course modern fascists give lip service to liberal democracy! Nazis gave lip service to free speech! And how does Republicans being against socialism distinguish them from any fascist movement ever?!
Olsen goes so far as to discuss the January Sixth Coup and concludes, “Yes, attacks on elections are heinous and autocratic but they aren’t necessarily fascist.” In other words, Olsen wrote a whole column because Biden used the word “fascism” rather than “authoritarianism.”
Oh, that it were true!
Henry Olsen’s Subtext
The point of the article is simply to attack Joe Biden for other things that Henry Olsen doesn’t like about the president. (He also spends two long paragraphs (173 words) defending the MAGA crowd from an article that generally isn’t made and certainly wasn’t made by Biden.)
Henry Olsen is seen as one of the “reasonable” conservatives — the old-fashioned type that you can compromise with. But he shows in these recent articles he’s as thin-skinned as Donald Trump himself. And if people like Olsen can’t be encouraged to reflect on the American Right, there is no hope for them. Or, it often seems, us.
 This is not true. It’s one of those things that conservatives believe so much they don’t think they need to look it up. You can’t say that fascism was pro- or anti-capitalism. But it is certainly true that it lived very comfortably with it.
Image of Henry Olsen taken from The Washington Post under Fair Use.
It’s been bugging me for the last few months when people note that Biden is less popular than Trump at this time in his presidency. It’s nominally true, of course. You can see the data on FiveThirtyEight’s tracker. But I think it gives the wrong impression.
Comparing Biden and Trump
The real question is how a single number for popularity hides reality. So let’s compare polling at the recent nadir of Joe Biden’s approval: July 2022:
I don’t have the data for the partisan breakdown. But if I assume it is one-third each, the totals are very close: 38.0% for Biden and 44.9% for Trump. So I’m going to make that assumption. It is at least close.
If Democrats were the authoritarian followers that Republicans are, Biden’s numbers would go up substantially. If we assume that 90% of Democrats approved of Biden, his approval rating would have been 42%. Not quite as high but certainly within the margin of error.
As a Democrat, I can say that I’m pretty much always unhappy with my elected representatives and I would tell that to pollsters. But there is no doubt that I would still vote for them. So I don’t think Biden was ever as unpopular as he appeared.
Biden’s Recent Bounce
Of course, Biden’s poll numbers have increased substantially recently:
Total: 44% (+6)
Republicans: 4% (-1)
Independents: 40% (+8)
Democrats: 81% (+3)
The main thing to notice here is that Democrats are, on brand, unwilling to admit success. We are the “Yes, but…” party. It’s independents who are driving his approval up.
It’s not statistically significant, but still interesting, that all the good news from and about Biden, has caused his approval among Republicans to go down. This isn’t surprising.
The Republican Party base is made up of authoritarian followers and all their favorite “news” shows only push the negative narrative harder when there’s good news. I see this all the time on Twitter with conservatives repeating the same old talking points that are months out of date.
Where We Stand
The bottom line is that Biden is not doing that bad. That’s especially true when you consider how the mainstream (you know, “liberal”) press behaves. It really wanted to turn student debt into a negative thing but that seems to have failed. And I saw ABC News refer to the one-year anniversary of the”chaotic withdrawal” from Afghanistan. It’s like a drum beat: must find things to complain about!
And yes, the media was very harsh with Trump. But they looked for every opportunity to find the good in what he did. It was a common joke on Twitter to highlight the most recent pundit to say, Trump became president today.
But it’s interesting that no one ever said that about Biden. They don’t need to. But if there were any question, they wouldn’t be falling over themselves to do it. Mainstream journalism reserves its handicap for Republicans, who are generally about +13.
I’ve had this experience with YouTube. I discover a particular content creator who I like. And YouTube offers me another content creator who does similar stuff. So I’ll go on to watch all the videos of both these people. But then a year later, I’ll find out that there was a third content creator doing similar stuff who is similarly popular. Yet YouTube never introduced me to this content creator.
This is the essence of machine learning. If I watch a content creator’s video, YouTube is going to show me other videos from that content creator. They may show me a different content creator because they happened to have created a video exactly related to the current video I’m watching. But I’m not being offered that content creator because they are similar to the first. I’m being offered them only because they created a video that is similar to the first content creator’s video.
In other words this is one level deep.
You like this video? Here are other videos that are like that video. You like this content creator? Here are other videos from the same content creator.
Figuring out what I’m interested in in a general sense seems to be beyond what YouTube (and basically every other machine learning algorithm) is capable of. Of course, machine learning is not about providing individuals what they want. Machine learning is about looking for broad trends. In other words: what the population is doing. It isn’t about showing me videos I would like; it is about increasing overall engagement by a small amount.
The Bicycle Example
Ezra Klein has noted that his experience with machine learning indicates that it doesn’t do much. After he bought a bike, everywhere on the internet, people were trying to sell him yet another bike. And for most people it is absurd. If you just bought a bike you’re not going to buy another bike.
But I suspect that the people who have not bought a bike recently are slightly less likely to buy a bike very soon than those who have bought a bike recently. And that is what machine learning does. It makes marginal improvements to the success rate of advertising.
Machine Learning Makes Us Worse
The problem of course is that machine learning makes all of us less interesting. I have wide-ranging interests. Yet at any given time YouTube is only offering me the kinds of videos I’ve just recently watched. The whole system is designed ultimately to bore us all to death by presenting us with the same thing over and over.
And we know where this goes if you happen to be interested in politics. We’ve seen how social media with its machine learning algorithms causes people to go from conservative to fascist. Or liberal to socialist. (Not that I’m equating fascism and socialism; we could do with a good deal more socialists and no fascists.)
But the general phenomenon is that these algorithms make us far more limited and rigid. Far from opening up the world of knowledge and ideas the internet has shut them down. It’s like going into a library but only being allowed to look at anything on one shelf. But even that would be better than what we have.
The Hopeful 1980s
I first got on the internet in 1987. And it’s shocking to look back on just how optimistic I and pretty much everyone else was. It was so obviously powerful. And it seemed to offer a new way of social organizing.
There were problems of course. And those problems have been magnified exponentially. But that’s not even the worst of it. The biggest issue (by a wide margin) is the way that the commercialization of the internet has turned the very idea of free exchange of ideas on its head.
I don’t think I’m alone in craving new and interesting ideas. I think most people would go to weird and idiosyncratic websites if they knew they existed. But all the power and social forcing is on the side of a few corporations that have almost unlimited power.
There isn’t going to be a major video-sharing service that encourages people to watch new and unrelated things. That doesn’t create engagement. People watching such a thing might stop watching and, I don’t know, pick up a book. That’s not going to maximize the profits of the video-sharing platform!
Machine Learning Is Good for a Chosen Few
So in the name of making 10 cents from an hour’s worth of engagement, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest are willing to help destroy liberal democracy.
And we are helpless because it’s hard to search for interesting things. It might take you 40 pages of Google results to find anything that isn’t like almost everything else. But it’s easy to just sit on Facebook and have it offer you an endless supply of just what you’ve seen before.
I’m not saying that I know what to do about it. Fundamentally I think that the human ability to find patterns has gone beyond what human nature is capable of defending itself against.
So I no longer think that humanity has much of a future. I certainly don’t think it has an optimistic future like Star Trek. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve also become more lackadaisical. There’s really nothing special about humans. And our eventual extinction really doesn’t matter that much to me.
The state of sports broadcasting is bizarre. I’m speaking especially now about regional sports networks (RSNs) but it’s more general than that.
For example, the NFL is a mess. True, by putting up an antenna, you can generally watch two games Sunday afternoon and one game Sunday night. If you get cable or a live TV streaming service, you can also watch Monday Night Football on ESPN. But Thursday Night Football? You now need Amazon Prime for that.
And unlike MLB or NBA, there is no league pass to allow you to watch whatever games you want (with limitations). True, the NFL offers such a service — but not to people in the United States! Those people are stuck with NFL+, which allows viewers to watch local and primetime games — but only on their phones and tablets.
But overall, the NFL is very nationwide in nature. MLB, NBA, NFL, MLS are all the opposite. They each (in different ways) allow fans to watch out-of-market games via specific services. For example, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I can sign up for NBA League Pass and stream any game I like as long as it does not involve my local team, the Golden State Warriors.
The problem is that most people are primarily interested in their local teams. Just watch the local news and you’ll see! So if you want to watch your local team, you need to subscribe to a special kind of channel: a regional sports network, or RSN.
RSNs exist primarily to air particular local teams. For example, Bally Sports West exists primarily to air Los Angeles Angels (MLB) and Los Angeles Kings (NHL) games. If you live in Los Angeles, you simply must get this particular channel to watch 150+ Angels games and 70+ Kings games. And it ain’t cheap. Currently, your only online option is DIRECTV STREAM, which will cost you $89.99/mo.
But why is this? Why should local fans have fewer, more expensive, options than fans far away? History. It all comes down to the idea of a blackout. Originally, teams didn’t want their games broadcast locally because then people wouldn’t come out to the ballpark.
This doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. Even in the MLB, roughly half the money teams make is from TV contracts — and more is from local channels (RSNs) than national channels. But even if that were different, that would just be a reason to get rid of the RSN contracts themselves.
(Note: many RSNs are owned by the teams themselves. But Bally Sports is still dominant with 19 different channels. Why the Angels and Kings haven’t gotten together to put their own channel together, I can’t say. But the Angeles do own a quarter of the current RSN.)
Location Location Location
Most RSNs have coverage areas that at least make sense. Bally Sports Arizona, for example, covers all of Arizona and some parts of New Mexico.
But consider fans in Hawaii. There are really not in the Angels’ broadcast area in any real sense. But there are from an accounting standpoint. In fact, viewers in Hawaii get access to all seven of the California RSNs. So Hawaii is parts of San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco!
RSNs Are Small
But as much as I’d love to see there be a simple system for fans to watch games, I’m largely in favor of the RSNs. I hate to see behemoths like Bally Sports but the truth is, each individual channel is pretty small.
There is no doubt that it’s all bad for fans. You shouldn’t need a treasure map to be a Lakers fan. And there is no direct reason to keep the system as it is since it mostly just rewards those who already have power in the system.
The problem is that if we changed the system, that would just give more power to the already unreasonably powerful leagues. And I’m not keen on that.
Much better to check out less popular sports. Over the last year, I’ve really become a fan of softball. It’s way more fun to watch than baseball!
Paul Krugman wrote an excellent article this week. In it, he notes that rather than address the fact that America owns almost half of the world’s guns, Republicans are suggesting that we militarize our schools and frankly the rest of society. In other words, it’s better to live in a world where there are military checkpoints at every block than it is to live in a world where gun ownership is limited in any way whatsoever.
This is the ultimate example of American libertarianism. It’s the idea that explicit limits on what people can do are the only thing that limits their liberty. And it results in bizarre conclusions. People are now able to buy military-grade hardware but have to put up with police checkpoints that are supposedly looking for drunk drivers but arrest almost exclusively people with expired licenses and car registrations.
This is what you get when freedom is just a fetish. I find it frustrating. The people who go on and on about “freedom” don’t seem to care about it on a practical level. They will trade away tons of real freedom for talking points. And they’re able to do this because their lives are good. They aren’t the kind of people who are likely to be harassed by the police.
Guns as the Only Freedom That Matters
Not that the modern Republican Party has actually turned libertarian, even in the pathetic American sense of the word. But they have come to this libertarian approach to guns for the same reason that libertarians come to their positions: they are trying to stop specific actions in the name of liberty rather than produce the maximum amount of liberty.
The start of any conservative conversation about mass shootings and other gun deaths is always simply that we can’t talk about guns. Access to guns is defined as a libertarian ideal so important that it cannot be challenged. Nothing is as important. No other freedom can compete. Therefore we quickly move to an authoritarian state. Because that is a small price to pay for the very thing that defines liberty in their minds.
Liberty as Fetish
We wouldn’t have this problem if liberty had meaning. But for the people who love to use the word, it’s nothing but a signifier. It is the thing that is supported by the People That Are Good. Liberals might believe in freedom but they don’t believe in “Freedom”!
So it’s not surprising that roughly a quarter to a third of the nation thinks that no freedom claim can match the freedom claim of gun owners.
Of course for the politicians and activists, none of this matters. They don’t care about schools. They just care about having something they can talk about besides guns while reporters are still asking them about the latest shooting.
But there are real consequences. After the Parkland massacre, Florida schools were turned into police zones. Did it help? Well, it diverted a huge amount of resources to cops, who now outnumber nurses at Florida schools. It made the children far more likely to be expelled from school and arrested at school.
But most important, the new police schools may have succeeded in doing the one thing that they were meant to do: stop the bad publicity of school shootings. Thus far, there haven’t been any major school shootings in Florida. Of course, it’s only been four years. Time will tell. But the cost is enormous. Rather than stop the war, we’ve simply armed one side. And it’s not like shooters don’t have other targets.
This shows that there are real consequences of all this happy talk meant simply to move society past the time when we’re focused on these things. Our society becomes more authoritarian even as we become less safe from the very things the authoritarianism is supposed to protect us from.
But I suppose that’s a small price to pay for the happy feeling that The People That Are Good get from knowing that “freedom” has been secured.
A man apparently shot 13 people, killing 10 of them, at a grocery store in Buffalo. He live-streamed it (of course). And he left what appears to be a white supremacist manifesto that discusses the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, popularized by Fox News star Tucker Carlson.
On Twitter, people made the connection. Many demanded that Carlson be taken off the air. But we all know that won’t happen, right? I wrote to a friend:
“All that will happen is that Carlson will air a segment in which he notes that his name was never mentioned and that the true outrage is that liberals are attacking him. And it will be over.”
Well, within an hour, I saw this:
The 180 page "manifesto" left by the shooter shows zero "Tucker" "Tucker Carlson," or "Carlson" mentions. The document is sick, and the shooter claims to be an authoritarian leftist.
On one level, she’s right: there is no way to know if the shooter got the idea from Tucker Carlson. In fact, my guess would be that he didn’t.
But that’s not how information spreads. Information comes via an ecosystem. I fully absorbed the popular ideas of postmodernism by the age of 12 without ever having read any philosophers or even heard anyone talk about it explicitly.
This is one of the big reasons why we need to signal, as a community, that the ideas of fascism are wrong. All the happy talk about the “free market of ideas” is the road to social collapse. (Of course, I know that all the big proponents of the “free market of ideas” are the first to want to silence any ideas they don’t personally like.)
This is why Tucker Carlson should have been taken off television long ago. He spreads fascist propaganda. We don’t need 10 people to die to know that is harmful.
But our media industry requires that Tucker Carlson be holding a good deal more than a smoking gun. They require something to the effect of “Patriots should murder people of color in order to protect our race!” They will be fine with, “Well, you can’t prove he got the idea from me!”
The bigger problem is that we live in a country where a large part of the population believes fascism is good. For many years now, I’ve felt like I was living in a bad production of Rhinoceros.
Last week on Counterspin, Janine Jackson mentioned some potential reasons why the Democrats and the country at large don’t want to charge Trump for laws he almost certainly broke. She mentioned concerns that Republicans would scream and holler and that it would be presented as partisan by the press. I think these are real issues but I don’t think they are the main issue.
I think Democrats are concerned that if they charge Donald Trump with crimes, there will be retaliation. As soon as Republicans are back in power (which will almost certainly happen partially in the next year and then fully less than 3 years from now), Joe Biden and other Democrats will be charged with crimes as simple payback.
And, of course, it won’t matter at all that there is no substance to such prosecutions. It won’t even mean that no dirt will be dug up. Look at what the Republicans did when Bill Clinton allowed them an open-ended investigation. After years of digging, they found something real. It was bullshit. But it was real and it led to the most disingenuous impeachment in history.
It’s Not Turnabout
The problem is that you can never depend upon Republicans to act in a reasonable way. And that’s especially true if you are reaching out to them and trying to deal with them in good faith. They see it as simple weakness. They go for the jugular.
So not indicting Trump will not lead to the Republican Party saying, “You know, they treated us well when we were in power. Let’s do the same now that we are in power!” If anything, it will be the opposite. But more likely, it doesn’t matter. They will try to throw Biden in prison if Trump is indicted and they will try to throw Biden in prison if Trump is not indicted.
But this isn’t just an issue of some Democrats being abused. The larger issue here is that we live inside a completely fucked up political system. We know that a fascist party is going to be back in power soon. Really doesn’t matter what goes on. Our system is designed to be anti-democratic. And through the machinations of conservatives over decades, it is far less democratic still.
There is literally nothing the Republicans could do that is so bad that they won’t be re-elected every couple of terms. Look at Richard Nixon. He resigned and disgrace in late 1974. In 1976 the Republicans lost the White House in a very close election. And in 1980, they won it back in a landslide and held on to it for 12 years.
George W Bush was an absolutely horrible president who committed war crimes. And that got him two terms as president. Then America, in its great wisdom installed a reality TV star who is stupid, ignorant, small-minded, and vicious because that’s who we are.
And I think the odds are better than even that our country will elect him again in 3 years.
So it’s not like the Democrats’ concern that a corrupt government will go after them are unfounded. I don’t think it does us a lot of good to focus on the weakness of politicians. We should focus on the fact that we have a government that will change every couple of terms. And it does not matter how horrible and incompetent that party is.
Of course, that might all change when the Republicans next get power. They could legislate this country into single-party minority rule. Watching how much Republicans love Viktor Orbán makes me believe that is the plan.
My near-universal experience of people from Eastern Bloc countries is that their hatred of the Soviet Union has everything to do with its relative egalitarianism and really nothing to do with its authoritarianism. So it has not been surprising to me to see how much the Russian people love Vladimir Putin.
Now I understand that a lot of it is simply that after the Soviet Union fell, things were really bad economically in Russia. And it’s clear that the West should have gone in and flooded them with aid. But instead, we allowed the same old disaster capitalism to take place. And the vast majority of the people suffered while a very small number of the worst people on earth thrived. Things are better under Putin, so the people like him for that alone.
But there is no doubt that the Russian people have a strong tendency towards authoritarianism. But I cannot say that it’s any stronger than it is in the United States where it seems about 40% of the people want nothing so much as an authoritarian they can follow. The idea that the Russian people will turn on Putin because he’s an authoritarian is absurd.
Danger of Trapping an Authoritarian
But given that Putin is an authoritarian, I’m very concerned with the way that we are approaching his invasion of Ukraine. Many of the people who I consider allies are saying things that bother me. I see a lot of people wanting to see Putin destroyed the same way that Hitler was. That strikes me as unlikely.
At the same time, no one is particularly keen on going to war. And while I have been impressed with the economic war that is being waged against Russia, the West is doing surprisingly little to support Ukraine militarily. Yes, some weapons and other military aid are being shipped there. But it doesn’t strike me as being up to the situation.
The truth is that if we continue how we’re going, Ukraine will fall. All those brave men and women that we are applauding on Twitter can do is to slow down that conclusion. That’s it. They can’t win without outside help.
So what can we do to stop it? I don’t think that economics is going to do the work that needs done. In the short term of the next 6 months or year, sanctions will just make the Russian people love Putin more because the truth is the West is attacking Russia. And let us not forget they are attacking Russia for doing something that the US did in Iraq less than 20 years ago with even less justification.
We can play the long game and hope that our economic war will lead to Putin’s ouster over the next 5 years. But even if that happens, it’s not at all clear that Russia will get a leader we like more. But to the point itself, defeating Putin in 5 years will not save Ukraine this year.
Saving Authoritarian Faces
The only thing that will save Ukraine is for Putin to reverse course. And since the West is not willing to wage a physical war with Russia, the only option seems to be to give Putin an out. We need to find some way to allow him to save face in this matter.
And that doesn’t seem all that hard. The truth is Russia’s invasion has gone reasonably well. And there’s no doubt if they stick it out, they will win this war. So it’s just the case of creating the framing that Putin never wanted all of Ukraine and that he sent a message to the West. And it’s all good.
Back in 2002 during the lead-up to the Iraq War, there was one thing above all others that made me realize that the Bush administration was disingenuous. They weren’t actually trying to accomplish the goals they claimed. Yes, they were asking for UN inspectors and so on but they were doing it in a way that required Saddam Hussein to be publicly humiliated. They were not providing him with any way to get out of the situation he was in.
And it was clear to me, certainly by October, that it was their intent to invade and that was the only thing they were going to do and everything else was just propaganda. They were just making the case to the American people for a war they were definitely going to start.
Well, the Bush administration was both bloodthirsty and incompetent. I think much more highly of the Biden administration. But I fear the worst. I know they can find a way out of this. But at what cost? Losing the mid-terms because the Republicans (and let’s face it: the “liberal” media) will scream about Democrats being weak?
The Price of Justice
And look. I understand that this is a mess Putin made. Sure he has his reasons. And he has concerns. And some of them are even valid. But ultimately this is his mess.
I, of course, despise the man. But I would give him a fluffy kitten and lollypop if it would make the world better. But right now, we seem to be gambling on the chance we can remove him from power eventually and that we are willing to pay the price of thousands of dead Ukrainians and the whole country’s subjugation.
I really hope more is going on here than I see and that somehow this gets turned around.
Just to be clear here on a few points. First, I do hope the Ukrainians can stop the Russians. That doesn’t seem possible but stranger things have happened. Second, politics is always complicated and just because Russia might have some real concerns about Ukraine becoming too closely tied to the West doesn’t make the Russian invasion acceptable in the least. And third, I am aware of Russian protestors. Not everyone in the country backs Putin. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that he isn’t really popular.
In the last month, I finally got around to seeing two works widely considered classics: Dennis Potter’s BBC The Singing Detectiveand Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. I was impressed by both, although neither is exactly what I would call fun. (The lead characters aren’t very nice guys!)
It’s odd how two works of art can be so closely related, probably almost by pure coincidence. Both strongly feature a hospitalized main character ruminating over his life. Both characters regret having estranged themselves from their wives. (Both feature a moment where the character gets a boner from a nurse applying treatment!) And both are (barely) musicals, with elaborate fantasy sequences.
Jazz came out in 1979 and Detective in 1986. Yet Potter was partially adapting his own novel from 1973 and had used the same “characters break into old pop recordings” device in Pennies From Heaven in 1978. (That’s the BBC series starring Bob Hoskins although he also wrote the screenplay for the 1981 film starring Steve Martin.)
The similarities are in the authors’ lives, as both works are partially autobiographical. (Jazz was co-written with Robert Alan Aurthur although the story is supposed to be based on his life.)
Both writers came from difficult homes. Both originally wanted to be something else (Fosse a musical film star, Potter a journalist-turned-politician). Both turned to different careers because of physical limitations (looks for Fosse, advancing psoriasis for Potter). And both men were absolutely addicted to adultery.
Another odd similarity is that both works use old songs. Fosse’s previous musicals featured original songs used in the stage production. Yet almost all the songs in Jazz are new recordings of old pop classics. All the songs in Potter are old.
Maybe both men looked back nostalgically on old music as they thought about mistakes they’d made. I’ll do that — I’ll hear a song from 1991 I haven’t heard in years, and remember the dumb decisions I was making back then.
Jazz holds up better (maybe not the “sexy airline” number). For one thing, it’s shorter. The disjointed movement between fantasy and reality in Detective repeats itself a few times over the course of six hours. Also, Jazz has two terrific star turns (Scheider as Gideon/Fosse and Leland Palmer as Gven Verdon), while Detective really only has one (Michael Gambon as Marlow/Potter).
One of the best scenes in Jazz is Verdon at rehearsal chewing out Gideon for being such a shitty husband. All the while, she continues to dance in perfect form. Detective never has a confrontation between equals like that.
Still, I’m glad I watched both. How odd to have missed two acclaimed works for years, watch them so close together, and have them share so much in common! One of life’s little coincidences.
On Hulu, there’s a miniseries, “Fosse/Verdon” that has fantastic performances by Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams. (They’re good in everything, so no surprise.) Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is just okay. And the show’s twice as long as it needs to be. I’d seen it before. It was worth rewatching the first and last episodes to see the performances again.
The show ends with Fosse dying in Verdon’s arms outside the theater premiering the revival of “Sweet Charity that Fosse directed and Verdon’s helped with choreography. This almost happened! He died a few blocks away in real life, but it was Opening Night.
Incidentally, in the special features on the Detective and Jazz discs, Fosse comes across a bit egotistical. Potter comes off as a bit of a woman-hating psycho. Neither are ideals, of course. Just to be Judgy McJudge, though, I can forgive ego in a director/choreographer more than misogyny in a writer. OTOH, though, Potter’s physical problems were over more of his life and less a product of self-destructive behavior. Oh, well, let ye without sin cast the first wagging finger…
Via This American Life, I learned of an 8-part investigative podcast called The Trojan Horse Affair. I was hooked from the start because it was about a great injustice: a bunch of people getting hurt by the lamest of conspiracies. But the conspiracy worked because it exploited society’s racism. So ultimately, it harmed a whole demographic of people.
You should listen to it all. But I’ll give you the basics. In Birmingham, England a fragment of a letter shows up that indicates that some “radical” Muslims are taking over the public schools in an effort to take over the world. Okay, it’s not quite that ridiculous but it definitely has a Snidely Whiplash vibe to it. You can only really take it seriously if you already want to believe it.
Now it turns out that local Muslims had been involved with the public schools. And it was helping. Graduation rates were going up for majority-Muslim areas. And government officials were applauding the results. Until the letter shows up.
“Sure It’s a Hoax, But…”
What’s interesting is that the government looks into it and finds that the letter is probably a fraud. And yet… The investigation turns up troubling things at the school. Are they real? Well, there are some problems. In particular, there seems to have been a teacher who was a sexual predator. But that only really matters if you just assume that one bad Muslim spoils the whole group. (If you haven’t been paying attention the last 21 years: yes, for most people, it does. Also: why don’t Muslims condemn terrorism?!)
Throughout the podcast, it’s almost a refrain, “Yeah, the letter was a fraud but…” And it’s clear by the end that everything that happened was only because of this letter.
And what happened? Well, for one thing, the schools got worse. Teachers were fired. The bigotry of the British people was enhanced.
Good Teacher Gone Bad?
The sad thing is that the person I think was behind it all was a Muslim. I think (and this is only my opinion based on circumstantial evidence) that Rizvana Darr, what we’d call the principal of Adderley school, created it to help in a situation she had created with four teaching assistants.
What I find fascinating about this is that everyone agrees that Darr is a fantastic teacher. If she did do this, it goes along with my theory that what is best in all of us is also what is worst. She apparently has great passion for helping her students. I can see myself allowing such passion leading to the dark places she might have gone.
If that’s the case, she solved a relatively small problem by defaming over 3 million Muslims in the UK.
It was somewhere in the sixth hour of his podcast that I realized, “This isn’t going to end well.” And I was right. Justice is not done. The Guardian published an article about Michael Gove. Otherwise, I’ve seen little mention of it. The good people lost. The weak people were harmed. And the bad people won. Like always.
People often wonder why I like horror movies so much. Well, because they usually don’t end like The Trojan Horse Affair. I love horror films like Dolls. In it, all the bad people are punished and the good people live happily ever after. It’s a feel-good film. A very gory feel-good film!
Sometimes I think that deep down I am a conservative because I really do think there should be a reason to change things. And other times, I think that deep down I’m a liberal because I honestly like change for change’s sake. Regardless of all that, there is no doubt that I am an iconoclast.
My gut reaction to anything I hear is to disagree with it. And I’m not saying that’s a good thing. In fact, I fight against it. Because I know very well that in most cases the conventional wisdom is correct.
But what’s really bugged me over the years is that almost everyone I’ve ever met who considered themselves any kind of iconoclast was actually a conservative. It’s like they are iconoclasts only in relation to who they used to be or the people they knew at one particular point in time. And that is not really being an iconoclast.
Rise of the Iconoclasts!
But I get it. If you listen to right-wing radio shows that have literally millions of listeners, they will go on and on about how subversive they are. Even while they push the default ideas of the most powerful people in society. They are iconoclasts: attacking mean college kids and protecting billionaires!
Things only got worse during the Trump era and then especially during the pandemic. Every anti-vax person considers themselves some kind of free thinker who is striking a blow against the establishment. But all they are actually doing is picking a different side in the culture war. They have, in other words, selected a new establishment. In no way are they operating contrary to the establishment.
What I’m saying here is that there is no idiosyncrasy with regard to their beliefs. Even though some of them might say they are mask-skeptical they are not. They’re anti-mask. They are not vaccine-skeptical. They are anti-vax. And they are for one reason alone: because they’ve been told to by huge media corporations.
There is this thing that conservatives love to do: pretend that they are free thinkers — skeptics. They are “Just Asking Questions!” RationalWiki refers to this as JAQing Off.
This is very similar to the way that people who embrace radical political ideologies especially on the right often start off being ironic. And so they say offensive things ironically until they aren’t. It’s like test-driving a car.
When someone tells you that you should do your own research regards to vaccines or COVID-19 or any such technical issue they don’t actually mean that. Doing your own research would involve looking at all of the information. And when it comes to something this technical, that’s really out of the question unless you’re going to hold off on any conclusions until you spend a year or two researching it.
No. They are telling you to pay attention to their Facebook timeline. To look at the cherry-picked evidence that they have that is designed to manipulate you into their pre-existing conclusion. And that’s all fine as far as it goes.
People have every right to be stupid and ignorant. There is a long history of it. But to think that just because you’ve grabbed on to an ideology that was adopted from the President of the United States (!) does not make you an iconoclast. It makes you the opposite. It makes you a conformist.
One of the world’s biggest collectors of Alamo memorabilia is Phil Collins. Yes, that Phil Collins. Bet you didn’t know that! And Ozzy Osbourne, away from his hotel on a raging drunken spree, once was caught accidentally peeing on an Alamo statue. (By “accidentally,” I mean the Alamo part, not the peeing part.) Bet you didn’t know that either, although you aren’t, likely, surprised.
These fun factoids appear early on in Forget The Alamo: The Rise And Fall of an American Myth. It is a recent book by Bryan Burroughs, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford, three Texas-born authors with backgrounds in history, journalism, war correspondence, and political consulting.
(I’ve read Burrough’s Barbarians At The Gate, about the 1980s hostile takeover of RJR Nabisco; in one memorable line, a top executive complains “is the fucking I’m getting worth the fucking I’m getting?”)
The book has essentially three sections:
What the Alamo was actually about
How the telling of its history changed with time
The debates over that history today.
They’re all fascinating, in different ways. The authors usually refer to themselves as “we,” and have no compunctions expressing their personal opinions about the story they’re telling. These opinions are sometimes very funny.
What’s more, and this was a real joy for me, the footnotes are all worth reading. For example, an American negotiator sent by John Quincy Adams to try and buy Texas from Mexico, a man named Joel Roberts Poinsett, got nothing… except for bringing back “a pretty Mexican flower, which proved so popular it was named for him; the poinsetta.” (In the spirit of these, this article has two short footnotes!)
The Alamo Was About Slavery and the Famous Heroes Were Jerks
After successfully freeing itself from Spanish colonial rule, Mexico set about abolishing slavery. Texas slaveowners didn’t want that. So they rebelled against the Mexican government, lost a battle at the Alamo, used that battle as a rallying cry, won independence, kept slavery, and joined America as a slave state. So much, so familiar.
Since I’m not from Texas, and never will be, I didn’t know much more about the story than that. As is usual with such things, it’s both far more complicated and far more mundane.
To start with, the migration of Americans into Texas. It began with a dispute over the Louisiana Purchase’s boundary and eventually became a matter of interest-vs-disinterest.
Texas, at the time, was something of a worthless hinterland to the Mexican government. About the only thing it was good for, it turned out, was cotton production. Americans looking to strike it rich in the slavery “business” had a whole new area to gobble up and torture people in!
Meanwhile, their presence helped keep down the indigenous population, which Mexico was perfectly happy to have Americans do.
But the fact that slavery was illegal in Mexico complicated this arrangement a bit. It was one thing for smaller-scale slaveowners to quietly go about their savagery. But larger plantations (with their illegal slave trade) were another matter.
Plus, the Americans brought quite a bit of racism with them (Surprise, surprise!) and thus weren’t always the best of neighbors. Additionally (as was the case with a lot of American expansion), some of the newcomers were plain jerks. They were escaping violent criminal charges, abandoned families, financial swindles gone bad, and so on. In other words, they were riff-raff.
Enter some particularly ambitious Americans who sought to make political names for themselves, several of whom have Texas cities named after them today. When Mexico sought to compromise on the slavery thing (a timed phaseout or the freeing of slaves after a certain age), these would-be Presidents and Generals became increasingly unwilling to negotiate.
Once they grew too militant, Mexico sent a small army to deal with the annoyance, led by General Santa Anna, a man with ambitions of his own. (There was also some suspicion on the part of Mexico that America had backed the rebellion, which was untrue. Mostly.)
In an act of supreme arrogance, the rebel Texans decided to make a military stand at a small former Catholic mission in San Antonio. (The authors here describe it as such a terrible military location, there was no chance of defending it from Santa Claus, much less Santa Anna.)
This hubristic folly had drawn several of the famous names who’d slouched to Texas in failure, such as Jim Bowie (drunk) and Davy Crockett (booted out of office). Although the Texans were clearly outnumbered, their incompetent, syphilitic general, William Travis, stubbornly refused to surrender and were quickly wiped out once the battle began.
Those who were captured (some while trying to escape) were shot. Santa Anna was a pissy jerk himself.
The wipeout and rallying cry “Remember the Alamo” helped Texas raise more volunteers. Santa Anna got cocky, the Mexican army was defeated for the time being. (Of course, Mexico didn’t accept this, and later fought a war with the US Army over the matter.) So much for the minor battle of the Alamo.
Constructing A Texas Origin Myth
The story from here becomes familiar to most students of how history gets mangled, and is summed up in a famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” (The movie starring John Wayne, who played a huge role in perpetuating myths about the Alamo.)
The real facts behind the battle, more-or-less known at the time (insomuch as a battle with no survivors on one side can be known), start to be distorted for various reasons. Families of the American dead wanted their loved ones to be regarded as great heroes. Authors wanted to sell more copies of sensationalized war or western writings. Many Texans wanted to use the Alamo as an inspirational “good prevails” story during their involvement in the Civil War and during their ongoing dispossession of indigenous land.
Also, of course, there is the post-Reconstruction era, when the reality of a treasonous war to preserve slavery was redefined all over the South (and not just the South) as an idealistic “lost cause” of freedom from tyranny — while subjugating the constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms of former slaves and their descendants.
An organization, Daughters of the Republic of Texas, was formed, and among its other goals, set about sanctifying/preserving/restoring (and “improving”) the Alamo historic site.
What really seems to have made the Alamo into a holy shrine for (Anglo) Texans was a series of comics printed from 1926 to 1928 in a Dallas newspaper, and called “Texas History Movies.” Hugely popular and hugely racist, the series was eventually printed as a book, copies of which were donated (courtesy of an oil company) to every Texas seventh-grader for several decades.
Still, while the story and site (neither of which bore much resemblance to the original) became part of Texas’s origin myth, it wasn’t of much interest beyond the borders of that peculiar state. Until the Cold War happened. And television. And the movies!
The Kiddiefication Of The Alamo
Walt Disney wanted to produce kid-friendly Rah Rah ‘merica programming. His studio’s first mega-success along these lines was a miniseries about Davy Crockett, which spawned a Crockett craze among children and bore absolutely no relation to reality whatsoever. (Disney made a fortune merchandising Crockett tie-in crap, and cheated star Fess Parker out of every penny for it.)
The third episode concluded with Crockett dying heroically at the Alamo, fighting off swarming Mexican monsters with his empty rifle. In fact, he was captured and executed — something used to inspire Texas soldiers in the remainder of the war.
Then in 1960, John Wayne’s ferociously expensive, ferociously fictitious The Alamo was released. (Although historians agree that the Alamo set built for the film was amazingly accurate.)
As the authors here put it, there’s no “sense of the real men; Bowie the con artist, Travis the preening politician, Crockett the washed-up politico … women are baubles, madonnas, or whores”.
Teen idol Frankie Avalon is given a song. No portion of the Texas origin myth is left unused, making the film a staggeringly boring three hours long. It was a hit, although not a hugely profitable one given the cost. No doubt it became a Gone With The Wind for Texas; items from the movie shoot are still displayed at the Alamo site today.
A young Phil Collins was deeply moved by the film. Another young musician, David Jones, was moved by the Crockett TV show. When Jones began to receive some notice in his music career, he changed his name to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of The Monkees — he picked a character from the Disney series, and so David Jones became David Bowie. (But at this point his part in the Alamo story ends.)
The (Partial) Deconstruction Of A Myth
In the 1970s and 1980s, American historians began to re-examine some portions of US history which had been overlooked, or so heavily biased to emphasize American exceptionalism that the stories bore little resemblance to reality.
For example, why were the heroes always white males, and why were the true horrors of indigenous genocide, slavery, and Jim Crow ignored?
These historians began publishing books and articles puncturing pieces of the Alamo myth. Few drew much attention until a childhood Disney buff named Jeff Long set about working on an Alamo book which he hoped would be “just the old hoary tale jazzed up for a modern readership.” (Long’s words.)
Simply going through the available archival material blew his mind. The book took six years to finish and involved research in both Texas and Mexico. Long worked odd construction jobs to pay for it.
Long published Duel of Eagles in 1990, which the authors here describe as “so over the top, it was as if he were physically stomping on everything written before.” While attempts at rethinking Alamo history usually caught some regional flack, Long’s book drew the attention of “professors, journalists, and amateur historians” nationwide. (Long, naturally, received death threats.)
Several works along these lines followed, and before long the Alamo’s legacy was another weapon in the culture war — especially in Texas, one of that war’s new epicenters.
One such battleground was the fight over school textbooks. (James Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me has described how textbook publishers frequently consider the sensitive feelings of Texas conservatives when composing their books, as one false move can lose sales in that entire state.)
Should textbooks include the names of Tejanos who died defending the Alamo? How should they describe the white “heroes” who did? Everything’s bigger in Texas, and the outraged wailings of “revisionist history” are as well.
Enter Phil Collins
As mentioned, Collins was a longtime Alamo fan, and in the mid-1990s, his then-wife bought him a receipt for items purchased by John W Smith (the last messenger to leave the Alamo with a plea for reinforcements, and later a mayor of San Antonio).
Collins began a collection of Alamo-related documents. He even entertained the notion that he may have been Smith in a past life. Over the following years, his collection grew to include such items as weapons and uniforms from the battle. He also established relations with antiquities dealers who began holding prized finds for this important (and wealthy) client.
Getting along in years, Collins approached the Alamo people, and decided to donate his massive collection — by then one of the world’s largest — to the state of Texas. For free. Alamo fans rejoiced; Collins was given several honorary titles by the city and the state.
Collins’s only request was that somebody build a proper museum to display them in. The Alamo as it was, mismanaged for years by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (long underfunded and a little corrupt), had become a fairly tacky tourist trap in bad need of repair. (It even has a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not wax museum.)
Everyone agreed that the site and the collection deserved a first-rate museum upgrade. The Texas General Land Office (now in charge of the site) set about raising money from state and city governments, nonprofit historical societies, and private donors (1). In 2015, the GLO announced plans for a full $450 million overhaul.
But the GLO’s commissioner made a few people mad about the plans. That commissioner’s name? George P Bush.
George Prescott Bush and Dan Patrick
As you can guess from the name, George P Bush is another in a long line of political halfwits whose career originates from a long-ago family fortune.
The son of inspiring presidential candidate Jeb, he followed family tradition by becoming first a corporate lawyer, then seeking some — any — political office, finally settling on GLO commissioner. (The GLO is primarily responsible for managing mining rights on public land in Texas, about the most Bush-y job a Bush could do.)
With staunch conservative credentials and some Hispanic heritage on his mother’s side, Bush is considered quite the rising star in Texas politics.
What was Bush’s Alamo boo-boo? What got anyone upset about a brand-new Alamo spending plan? Bush proudly boasted that the plan would involve a “reimagining” of the Alamo site.
Now, this is simply the kind of thing any politician will say when announcing a major urban spending project, be it a new convention center or sports stadium or whatever. It means “more money will mean more tourists will mean more money for us all.”
But, with “historical revisionism” a dirty word among Alamo traditionalists, some saw “reimagining” as the reddest of red flags. Bush had said the reimagined Alamo “can be a centerpiece for taking on the controversial issue of the past.” Guess how fast he’d walk even that mild statement back? Hint: he’s got every bit the spine of his political relatives!
Outraged traditionalists claimed that Bush was in the pocket of revisionists (no). That Bush wanted to rename the site Misión San Antonio de Valero (no, although that was its original name). And that, horror of horrors, Bush wanted to move a cheesy sentimental 1940 statue from the site and replace it with one of Santa Ana (no).
(Oh, and that statue, by the way? It’s the statue Ozzy pissed on.)
Jumping into the fray was Dan Patrick. A former far-right talk-show host who currently serves as Texas’s Lieutenant Governor, he has long been a favorite on the goose-loony circuit. Texas Monthly called him a bully and ideologue and the worst state senator back in 2013 when he was just considering a lieutenant governor run. He’s only gotten worse.
In the spirit of such Texas luminaries as Ted Cruz, Patrick’s a total fraud posing as a staunch super-Christian in order to win faithful support from the easily-duped.
Patrick, correctly, sensed that Bush was a fellow empty suit with boundless political ambition, and decided to use the Alamo “reimagining” line to assault him from the right.
Bush responded by immediately swerving to the right himself (becoming, naturally, an outspoken Trump supporter). Bush survived re-election to GLO commissioner. Patrick remains the lieutenant governor. And no doubt the future sparks will fly. Somebody’s got to be the Holy Christian Emperor of a future one-party American theocracy!
And gee, all this because a nice (2) soft-rock English singer tried to donate his beloved Alamo collection to Texas.
Oh, and it turns out there’s just one more problem with that…
Much Of The Collins Collection May Be Fake As Hell
The authors of Forget The Alamo are careful to call themselves historiographers, not historians. They’re summarizing the work done by other historians, and adding some bits widely reported in the Texas press and elsewhere (such as the criticism’s of Bush and the GLO). But here they did some original research of their own.
They read Collins’s massive coffee-table book about his prized collection. They talked to the antiquities dealers who sold Collins most of his collection. And the dealers’ description of how they “found” so many Alamo items belonging to legendary figures seemed a bit sketchy. One repeatedly described using a little degreaser on antiques to discover the initials of famed Alamo dead on swords, knives, etc.
When the collection was donated to the GLO, so were some of the “proofs” of their authenticity. Through a lawsuit, the authors were able to get a look at those proofs. Some were incredibly strange, such as a forensic psychic who said of a knife supposedly belonging to James Bowie that “there is an overwhelming sadness associated with the knife.”
Other collectors in the field and Alamo antiquities buffs seemed to agree that many of the most high-profile items (you know, the ones most likely to get a prominent museum display) have dodgy authentication at best. Some could have been at the Alamo — yet likely, weren’t. Others appear improbable to have been even from the same period at all. A few outlier critics claim a majority of the collection is fake.
Not that Collins (who, after all, is donating this stuff for free) is knowingly pawning off bogus goods as real. Nor even, that the dealers who sold them to him were knowingly duping a rich hobbyist. What does seem likely is that at least a few people in that acquisition chain weren’t exactly diligent about establishing authenticity beyond a reasonable doubt. And Collins, who is in poor health, doesn’t want to talk about it. (His polite email to the authors mentions “personal stuff” keeping him busy. You don’t get much more “personal stuff” than aging-related medical maladies).
All of this, as well as the political debates surrounding the Alamo renovation itself, has put the project on hold past the start date Collins requested as a condition for his donation. Not to mention the 2020 police murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, which inspired strong worldwide pushback against monuments to former slaveholders. San Antonio is less than 30% Anglo; and less so every year.
The Whole Story Will Go On
Of course, many of the issues mentioned here are nowhere near resolution. The authors have an update on some of them (and some of the criticism of their work). In the book’s epilogue of sorts, they write:
It’s said that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it, but there are plenty who remember the Heroic Anglo Narrative and want to endlessly repeat this version of history, seeing themselves under siege by tyrannical rule to take away their guns or commit any number of cultural atrocities …
What must change is the story we tell about the Alamo. To learn the real lessons of the Texas Revolt, we need to learn the truth about Bowie, Travis, and Crockett… all three men did believe in liberty and self-determination, and Travis was one hell of a letter writer. They fought for freedom, just not everybody’s freedom … If we shift the frame just a little bit, the whole story of the Alamo is transformed. And, frankly, a lot more interesting.
If this essay seems long to you, go read Twitter! But seriously, it’s only as long as it is because I can’t recommend this book enough. I’ve summed up some of the major points, yet there’s so much more. More detail, more horror, more humor. Tales of enough greed, corruption, cruelty, and stupidity to fill a long fiction novel (or the current Texas state legislature).
I can imagine Jim Hightower laughing his ass off at it — and Molly Ivins too, in the Texas afterlife, sipping a Lone Star. Get it from your library — heck, all three copies in the San Antonio library are currently checked in, so you won’t even have to wait if you live there!
(1) One of these, billionaire Red McCombs, is well-remembered by Minnesota sports fans for his tenure as owner of the NFL Vikings team. McCombs repeatedly threatened to move the team, possibly to San Antonio, if he were not given a new stadium. After a preseason game played in San Antonio drew approximately zero ticket-buying interest, McCombs sold the Vikings to a New Jersey real-estate developer who promptly got the new stadium. You can read about that process here!
(2) One time, Aimee Mann joked at a concert that her potential Oscar speech for the Magnolia film score would be “Phil Collins sucks.” Newsweek tried to make it a big deal. In this 2000 interview, Mann says “I sent him a fax that said I was just joking, and that Newsweek is a bunch of morons. So I ran into him backstage, and he was really nice. They had a little meeting — him and his people — and decided I was joking.”