Thursday, March 26, 2015

Book Review 343: American Cornball






AMERICAN CORNBALL: A  Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny, by Christopher Miller. 530 pages, illustrated. Harper, $35

The funniest thing about “American Cornball,” which is about broad-gauge American joking in the first two-thirds of the 20th century, is how often Christopher Miller refers to Samuel Beckett, an Irishman who wrote in French and never, so far as I know, paid any attention to America. I didn’t keep count, but he is mentioned at least 20 times, about as often as W.C. Fields.

And Fields is mentioned as much as anyone, as much as the Marx Brothers, Mort Walker or Lucille Ball.

This “encyclopedia of stale humor” is massively erudite about the strangest things. For example, you will perhaps be surprised to know that in an early episode of the newspaper comic of Mickey Mouse that Mickey attempted suicide several times because Minnie rejected him. Also, the oddly involved history of the whoopee cushion.

“American Cornball” is organized by topic, from Absentminded Professors to Zealots, and includes such surprising categories of mass appeal fun as Suicide, Infant Mortality, Flatulence (the longest entry) and Rape.

Miller, a prodigious collector of old postcards showing fat women and watcher of early sitcoms, says he wrote “American Cornball” to be consulted by topic, like other encyclopedias, although it can be read through (as I did it) as a series of little essays on the whys and wherefores of lowbrow humor.

He divides the zeitgeist into broad categories -- an early period of slapstick and violence, followed by increasingly tame jokes (the suburbanization of humor) and ending (for his purposes) in the sort of joke desert of ‘50s conformity.

He has a tendency to use the same examples over and over -- Thimble Theater, Scooby Doo, Li’l Abner, Milt Gross. As result, and because the book is organized by topic and not by practitioner, some notably funny and democratic jokesters are completely absent (Montague Glass, Harry Leon Wilson) or barely mentioned (George Ade, Walt Kelly).

Nevertheless, his selection from a nearly infinite pool of more or less lame material is remarkably comprehensive in theme. I have, somewhere in my library, what may be the funniest book ever published in America, a listing of every scene in every movie in which any portion of an actress’s secondary sexual characteristics were revealed, however fleetingly.

It is good that some people care so much about so little. I could have done with fewer mentions of Henry James (the only writer I know who is more tedious than Samuel Beckett) and more mentions of, say, Ben Hecht (never mentioned at all), but on the whole a fun read.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A golden opportunity

For years now, RtO and others in the reality-based community have been calling the Tea Party racist. And just because dozens of party leaders and officials elected with party support kept making coon jokes about Barack Obama.

Well, ha! Mr. Smartypants RtO, now Ted Cruz is running for president, and in an improbable coincidence, the Tea Party's least-favorite former senator and its favorite sitting senator both have American mothers and foreign fathers.

So all the TP has to do to show up the snarky liberals and antiracists is to throw up the same challenges to Cruz's candidacy that it did to Obama's. That will show us.

We'll see.

If they don't, then the world will know the TP is as racist as I've always said. Somebody is going to look bad. Karma is an unforgiving bitch. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

What is Netanyahu thinking?

What is Netanyahu thinking about?

Not about atomic bombs, for sure.

He talks about them, but just like all folks talkin’ ‘bout heaven ain’t goin’ there, he doesn’t think about them.

In 1944, after listening to the report of a brave Polish patriot who had penetrated and then escaped from a German death camp, Justice Felix Frankfurter said, “I cannot believe this.”

Not “I do not believe this,” but cannot.

It’s a common reaction when presented with evidence that is too horrible to contemplate. We see it among people when a relative or neighbor is exposed as a swindler or pedophile; among business owners when it becomes obvious that an investment has been lost.

If Netanyahu had really thought about atomic bombs in Iranian (or, say, Hamas) arsenals, then he would have a strategy to deal with that.

The broad options are few: suasion, sanctions (or a combination of both) or force.

Netanyahu says he does not believe the Iranians would abide by a negotiated agreement, and I believe him. That leaves force.

Once you have chosen force, you must choose what kind and when.

If you were to believe Netanyahu’s speeches, the time was long ago. And, in fact, force has been used, though not decisive force.

A reactor was bombed, although not in Iran (in Iraq in 1981) and the Iranian uranium concentration operation was attacked via cybersabotage (Stuxnet). Neither was more than partially effective.

It is not obvious what degree of force would be effective.

It is not true that Iran could (and has) thwarted use of another air strike by moving its centrifuges underground. Purification of uranium by gaseous diffusion requires immense amounts of electricity, and the power plants are still above ground.

But it is probably true that bombing of Iran’s facilities would cause it to disperse them, which would, probably, require repeated bombing strikes.

It seems unlikely that world opinion would allow such a campaign to continue at no cost to the campaigners.
Occupation would be effective in stopping an atomic program, but the costs would be extremely high.

In any event, and for the same reasons that an endless, intermittent bombardment campaign is not practical, it is not believable that Israel could act alone.

And this is why I am sure Netanyahu has not really thought about the bomb issue. Because if he had, he would be doing something to recruit allies; and he is doing the opposite.

In the 1920s, the Bolsheviks, without allies, had to grapple with the question of whether there could be “communism in one country.” Netanyahu (if he thinks about it, which I doubt) must wonder if there can be “Zionism in one country.”

(My answer is, probably not, not if it is surrounded by 50 million hostile Arabs, but that is a question for another day.)

There is also the flip side of the bomb question: If Iran had a bomb (or several) what could it do with it?

Atomic bombs have not been used in warfare since 1945 because (among other things) it is hard to find targets for them. Especially if the other side has them, too.

It is possible that the Iranian crazies would consider it worthwhile to blanket Israel with bombs (it would take quite a few, because even atomic bombs have small blast footprints) even if that meant one or a few atomic bombs in return -- or, even if no bombs were dropped on Iran, the condemnation of the world.

Who knows? We have people that crazy in the Republican Party in the United States (see, for example, this).

Or maybe Iran could use its bomb for terror and extortion, although that is not how India, Pakistan, Israel and (perhaps) North Korea have used theirs.

It is obvious, though, that Netanyahu has thought of bombs but not really about them. If he had, he would act differently than he has.

Calling out a lying Teadiot

(Is there any other kind?)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The view from Down Under

This is almost a throwaway line, but worth repeating:

The Panic of 1837 was one of those cyclical catastrophes that occur every few decades to remind the citizens of the United States that wealth isn't created by mass investment in paper promises.
It's from John Bailey in his outstanding "The Lost German Slave Girl."

He got a couple things wrong. First, until the New Deal reforms, the catastrophes came a lot oftener than every few decades. More like every 7 years, with the longest gap 15 years (1907-21).

The reminders haven't worked. The rightwing half of the country will not even acknowledge that these catastrophes happened. (Some go so far as to admire them.)

It is also not true that letting these dips find their own bottoms leads to a stronger recovery in less time. That was not the case after the Panic of '37, or of the others either.

The wasteland of Diogenes

Recently, RtO noticed Barry Eichengreen's dual history of the Great Depression and the Great Recession. Among the important points made by Professor Eichengreen (but not mentioned in my short review) was the role of insider trading in the Great Depression. He gave special attention to insider trading in London.


That was over 80 years ago. Today Bloomberg News has a little story about how

Before the 2008 financial crisis, no one had ever been prosecuted for (insider trading in Britain).
American regulators have done a little better but not much.  While reading this story, you might want to keep in mind that 1) Bush II wanted to turn ALL of your retirement money over to these people; and 2) that the Republicans have argued for over 30 years that regulation of financial markets is a bad thing.

The quarry in the London hunt were small fry. It would take a fool to imagine that more and worse was not being done (and is not still being done) by the grand players. Blomberg marvels that

Rifat and an accomplice made a mere 285,000 pounds on insider dealings — pocket change in the hedge fund world.
This shows an endearing innocence (or else profound stupidity, you choose) about financiers, but we are invited to swallow even worse nonsense:

Operation Tabernula raises many questions, including the big one: just how serious is insider-trading anyway? Some academics question whether U.S. and U.K. regulators should spend so much time and money on these investigations when, for example, few banking executives have been held accountable for the excesses of the mortgage boom. 
Call it the "leave the broken windows alone" theory of policing crime. To sensible people, what it suggests is far more and far more stringent regulation of financial markets: call that the Willie Sutton theory of policing: look for thieves were the money is. Or, if you are of a more literary turn of mind, the "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" theory.

In any event, this destroys the light regulation arguments.

I am not saying it would not be a big task:
 According to the FCA, authorities scoured 10 million emails and 110,000 lines of trading data. Sixteen separate raids, involving 143 investigators, were conducted in conjunction with the Serious Organised Crime Agency.
 All to capture fewer than a dozen thieves, whose penalties, so far, have amounted to less than a burglar in Hawaii would get for stealing a television set.

Until bankers and brokers start doing hard time, and lots of it, and until crooked banks and brokerages are shut down and their shareholders are wiped out, you will be robbed.