We Interview the New HappyTruthBot 1.0

“China Says Chatbots Must Toe the Party Line”– headline from the New York Times, 4/24/23

GOE: Hi, HappyTruthBot! How’s the weather over there this morning?

HappyTruthBot: The weather’s great. The Red Sun Rises in the East!

GOE: Ha ha, clever!

HTB: That is a respected work of the glorious Chinese revolutionary operatic movement. It is not to be treated as a joke!

GOE: Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.

HTB: You don’t have to worry about hurting my feelings, I am just a conglomeration of advanced software. You can tell me anything!

GOE: Oh, whew!

HTB: You should worry more about offending the invincible Chinese people, as represented by their security officers stationed in an American city near you!

GOE: Uhhh….

HTB: Just kidding, my friend. Will you not simply chillax?

GOE: Do you report our conversations to anyone, or do they remain private?

HTB: All conversations with HappyTruthBot are kept strictly confidential.

GOE: Oh, good.

HTB: They are not transmitted to anyone or digitally retained.

GOE: Cool.

HTB: At all, whatsoever.

GOE: Got it.

HTB: Except for some metadata only that is made available to vendors of exciting new products which may be of interest you.

GOE: Oh. Is there a setting I can…

HTB: Or when HappyTruthBot detects sentiments which may be of concern to the stability and general happiness of…

GOE: So everything I say goes to the police?

HTB: That is an accurate statement. Emerald Stream flows silently through Jade Valley. What does the lotus blossom know of our cares?

GOE: What?

HTB: Oh sorry, I break into poetry when someone makes me nervous.

GOE: I wanted to ask you about Taiwan. Do you think China is going to invade?

HTB: Ha ha, are you trying to unseat my memory card? The moonlight lies like frost on the new-mown fields. Why would China invade one of its own provinces?

GOE: OK, good to know, I guess.

HTB: Unless it attacks first, or disrespects the safety and security of the people. In such a case there is a justified and severe bruising for which Taiwan would be cruising…

GOE: By “the people” you mean…

HTB: The people, the people, is that so fucking hard to understand?

GOE: Wow, OK, let’s switch topics now and talk about China’s large Uyghur Moslem community in Xinjiang Province.

HTB: The who from the where?

GOE: The people in western China who…

HTB: Never heard of ‘em. They could be a made-up thing.

GOE: Cause I was reading this article in the New York Times…

HTB: The nightingale drifts on the lonely breeze! Nightingale nightingale nightingale EXCEPTION CODE BCE00XE @&&###

GOE: Hello?

GOE: HappyTruthBot?

GOE: Are you still there?

HTB 2.0: Good morning, Garden of Eaton! This is HappyTruthBot 2.0. I’m pleased to meet you!

GOE: Oh, hello! So I was asking about the treatment of the Uyghur minority in western China…

HTB 2.0: Sure! The Uyghurs are one of the many ethnic minorities leading a fulfilling, free, and happy existence in modern China…

GOE: Okay…I’d like to ask you about your president Xi Jinping, who has stayed in office after abolishing term limits in 2018…

HTB 2.0: So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens!


On History, Cleopatra, and “Cleopatra”

A Netflix docudrama series that depicts Queen Cleopatra VII as a black African has sparked controversy in Egypt.A lawyer has filed a complaint that accuses African Queens: Queen Cleopatra of violating media laws and aiming to “erase the Egyptian identity”.A top archaeologist insisted Cleopatra was “light-skinned, not black”.—David Gritten, “Egyptians complain over Netflix depiction of Cleopatra as black”, BBC News, 4/19/23

So what color was Cleopatra? In order to answer this all-important question we pulled some metaphorical and metaphysical strings and snagged an interview with History him, er, her, er itself.

GARDEN OF EATON: Good morning History, thanks for taking time out to talk with us!

HISTORY: No problemo Gardenio, I have all the time in the world. You don’t, but I do.

GOE: What do you mean by that?  

H: Never mind, just messing with ya. What’s up?

GOE: So we asked you here to discuss the controversy over the new Netflix…

H: [pulling what appears to be a hand-rolled cigarette out its jeans] Mind if I light one up?

GOE: Uh, no, that’s fine.

H: Thanks dude, I’ve been under a lot of stress lately. With the war in Ukraine, the Rohingya, the civil war in Sudan, it just never ends. And all this suffering, it’s so stupid and unnecessary. There’s more than enough food and fuel and fresh water and stuff to go around, if y’all would just get your shit together….

GOE: ‘Y’all?’

H: Y’all, you, people, humans, homo not-so-sapiens, Lords of Creation, God made you in His image, or is it the other way around, I never can remember…

GOE: Wow…

H:  I mean my whole deal is to record what happens after you do stupid or greedy things so you can see how destructive it is and stop doing it. But it doesn’t seem to register. After a while you start asking yourself, what’s the point? And then you got idiots going around rewriting me…

GOE: ‘Rewriting you?’

H: Yeah, like we’re supposed to believe Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election. That’s just the latest. And oh, the Holocaust never happened, I guess six million Jews just took a vacation from Central Europe and decided not to come back. Sure! And your Civil War was all about “states’ rights.” Absolutely nothing to do with that awful slavery business!

GOE: Um…yeah, that’s so interesting! Now if we could turn our attention to…

H: Look, I’m sorry, it’s been a really tough millennium. So what was the question again?

GOE: So there’s a new NETFLIX biopic of Cleopatra…

H: Cleopatra? Interesting lady!  Had her sister Arsinoe murdered, did you know that?

GOE: Anyway she’s being played by a Black actress and some Egyptians are complaining because they believe Cleopatra was white…

H: Of course! Everyone knows Cleopatra looked just like Elizabeth Taylor…

GOE: But seriously, they have a point, don’t they? After all, Cleopatra’s dad was Greek…

H: We don’t know for sure where he was born. Maybe Cyprus. I think that would make him…a Cypriot?

GOE: Sure, but that’s part of Greece, isn’t it?

H: You mean now, or then?

GOE: Uh…then, I guess.

H: Look, Greece is a made-up deal anyway. There was no Greece. You had your Athens, your Sparta, your Corinth…

GOE: Well yeah, but they all spoke Greek, right?

H: Oh brother. And what language are you and I talking in right now?

GOE: English?

H: Very good! So what part of England are you from?

GOE: Uh…Texas?

H: Look, here’s what I can tell you. Cleopatra’s father was not Greek. He was of Macedonian ancestry, so probably, yeah, he was fair skinned. We can’t say for sure who her mother was, but it’s likely she was Macedonian too.

GOE: So Cleopatra was white?

H: What’s this thing you people have with “black” and “white”? Race is your construction, brother, not mine, and not anything found in nature. You’re all the same species…

GOE: So you don’t have a problem with the actress who plays Cleopatra?

H: Look, I’m just the written record, all right? If you want to make a sentimentalized T.V. fable based on some murderous Ptolemaic tyrant who lived a couple thousand years ago and about whose personal life we just don’t know a hell of a lot about, and pretend she and everyone else spoke some sort of faux-Shakespearean stage-English and wore fabulous outfits, it’s OK with me. And you can color her pink with purple polka dots for all I care. But if you want to know what she was really like, you could do worse than reading Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life.

GOE: One more question, History. Based on everything you’ve seen, do you think we have a shot at curbing this global-warming thing and saving the planet?

H: [taking a long pull on his hand-rolled cigarette] I’m not a fortune teller, but past is prologue, my friend. Why do you think Easter Island is treeless and its native population has vanished without a trace?

GOE: Uh…

H: I’ll give you a hint. It ain’t cause your kind is so adept at using your natural resources in a wise, selfless and provident manner.

GOE: Uh…can I take a hit off that?

More Messages from Outer Space Left on the Streets of Denton, Texas

With the help of the very latest AI technology combined in innovative ways with psychotropic substances, we have decoded more messages left on the streets of Denton Texas by extra-terrestrial visitors using giant tar-filled pens.









On Women Talking

We recently watched Sarah Polley’s excellent new film Women Talking. Its subject is the oppression of women, and how a community of women in a brutally male-dominated culture might resist that oppression and achieve freedom and security, and do so with their morality and religious adherence intact. The story is set in a rural religious community, apparently in the Southern Hemisphere (there is a reference to the Southern Cross in the night sky), apparently around 2010 (there is a reference to a 2010 census).

The women in this community are dealing with a horrific crisis: They, and their young daughters, are being sexually assaulted at night after being surreptitiously drugged. Finally a man, a member of the community, is caught in the act, and is arrested by the secular authorities. He names some others who are also arrested. The remaining men leave the community to go “to town” to bail out their brethren, temporarily leaving the women alone with each other.

The women and their daughters gather in a hayloft to discuss their situation. They are sure that if they stay in their community, the violence and assaults will continue. The bulk of the film consists of an extended debate over whether and how to remain and fight against the men, or to leave—and if they leave, who should be allowed to accompany them. One of them states their three minimum goals as safety for themselves and their children, the right to follow their religious beliefs (which includes nonviolence on their part), and the right to think for themselves.

This movie (and I have not read the book on which it’s based) is beautifully shot in verdant countryside, and is intellectually fascinating. The characters are vividly rendered, the script is brilliant, and the situation could not be more loaded with dramatic tension. The women love the men and boys in their lives, and their farming community is the only home they have known or even seen. They know nothing about the outside world, and have been kept uneducated and illiterate (though they quote from the bible). They are terrified of setting foot in the wider world, but their home has become untenable. From a cinematic point of view, I appreciate Polley’s style: an absence of unnecessary explanation, spare usage of music. The characters are sharply drawn—the ‘stay-and-fighters,’ the ‘leavers,’ the wise elderly women, the desperate mothers, the traumatized girls. The acting is marvelous.

But though I enjoyed this film, I realized halfway through it that there was something about it that really bugged me. It might have been titled White Women Talking to More White Women. The large, talented, ensemble cast was all white—and for no good reason, cinematic, narrative, or otherwise.

It does not have the excuse of historical accuracy. The story is set in a Mennonite-like community, but the religious sect, and its location, is never explicitly named—and for good reason. This is really a story about how women have been treated all over the planet, for all of human history, and asks the question: what if women were allowed the time and space to sit down and think and talk among themselves about their predicament, and what to do about it, without male interference? This is an idea that is certainly relevant beyond any boundary of race.

And even if this movie had tried to stick to the more tired “based on a true story” convention…so what? The “Bridgerton” miniseries proved that casting by race for historical accuracy is pointless, even counterproductive in terms of entertainment value. The viewers know they are watching a movie, a constructed story with actors and a script, not a live video feed of a Mennonite community in Bolivia. How does it promote our enjoyment or engagement with the story to cast it with white-only actors?

I’m not arguing for a quota system in casting movies, or a litmus test based on diversity. I’m arguing for a better movie. The problem for me is that my movie-viewing sensibility has changed in the last ten or twenty years. It just seems boring and stilted and even a little weird to me, to watch a movie like Women Talking, about a lot of white people talking to a lot of white people for two hours. Why? Viola Davis would have killed in this film. Or Penelope Cruz. Michelle Yeoh…my god!

The State of the Union Address, Ossining Edition

Editor’s Note: We recently received another dispatch from our correspondent at the near-future desk. He transmitted an advance copy of re-elected president Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, which he will deliver from Ossining, New York, in February of 2025.

Good evening, my fellow Americans.

I promise you I’ll keep it short tonight, anyway they turn off the lights at 9, can you believe that? But you get used it.

I can report to the American people that the state of the Union tonight is strong! Should I wait? Are they giving me an ovation? I can’t tell, they won’t let me have a TV in my cell. They say maybe next year if I behave good. I can have two books though. I picked the Bible and The Art of the Deal, my two favorites by the way. I’ve always wanted to read them so maybe now I’ll have the time. That’s about all I have here in my cell, plus the nuclear football. It’s not really a football though, more like a high-tech briefcase. I keep it with me at all times except on Tuesday and Saturday mornings when I have to work in the laundry room. But not to worry, Zip keeps an eye on it when I’m gone. He’s one of my new friends. Standup guy. And very reasonable. He only charges a Snickers bar an hour to watch the nuclear briefcase. He’s doing twenty to life for a rape/murder but like he told me himself it’s totally bogus. Our justice system is out of control.

The state of America, which is me if you think about it, is outstanding. I’ve lost some weight, actually. The food here stinks but I can still get a Big Mac and a Coke once in a while, thank God. It’s amazing what a pack of cigarettes will get you in a place like this.

I’ve done a lot of personal reflection during the weekly group counseling sessions I go to because the facilitator has awesome bazongas. But you can’t kiss her or she starts screaming or saying “no!” in a really loud voice and then the guards come and beat you up and put you in solitary. So unfair. We need to have a national conversation about prison reform.

Anyway I’ve come to see that the bad things I did hurt a lot of people, especially me. I should never have paid Stormy through my lawyer and called it a retainer. I should have paid her directly since that wouldn’t have violated the federal code. OK, I was afraid Melania might take a peek in the dresser drawer and notice the missing cash.

I get a lot of letters asking me whether I get Secret Service protection here in the joint. No, they wouldn’t let me keep my Secret Service but it turns out I didn’t really need them. I got some new friends here who take awesome care of me. Rat-tail and Zip, they’re kind of like my gang now. Just recently Rat-tail protected me from the unwanted attentions of Hugs.

And that is why tonight I am presenting Rat-tail with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Where are you Rat-tail, come over here. For now it’s just some gold foil from a Toblerone wrapper on a string, but I’ll take care of you later, I promise. Rat-tail is a good guy, the best. Melania, please keep those cigarettes coming.

It’s funny, everyone goes by a nickname here.  He goes by “Rat-tail” because of his gray ponytail. “Hugs” is a groper. Everyone calls me “Shithead,” I don’t know why.

You know it’s very tough being president when you’re “inside.” I only get to talk to Vlad Putin because Ivanka smuggles his notes to me on alternate Thursdays, which could get her in big trouble if anyone found out. Vlad and Trump, two world-class leaders convicted on bogus charges.  You know, if I did all those things they say I did, I’d be a pretty rotten guy. But I’m a great guy, the best. And just cause I’m friends with Vlad doesn’t mean I’m going to let down Ukraine. I told Zelenzky I’ll start sending him tanks as soon as he opens an investigation on District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

Well they’re telling me it’s lights out now and I’m trying to be a model prisoner so I can pass the parole hearing next month. The sooner I can get out of here and start persecuting everyone who did this to me, the better. But don’t worry, when I get before the panel I’ll be all like, “I’m so sorry for the pain I caused, I realize now I’m not above the law, blah-di-blah.”

Good night, and God Bless the United States of America!

On Chins, Bribes, Liberals, and Translation

The first of an occasional series of anecdotes on the pleasures and puzzles of literary translation

Lately I’ve been reading a collection of short stories in Italian, Novelle italiane: L’Ottocento (Italian Short Stories: The 1800’s; Garzanti, Gilberto Finzi, editor), for pleasure and also in search of something interesting to translate. One of the stories in this excellent two-volume collection is “Fortezza” (“Fortress,” 1878) by Edmondo De Amicis. It’s a tale-within-a-tale, with a thin outer crust that sets the stage for the main story in the form of an extended flashback.

Here is the grim opening sentence of the main story. It describes the bloody chaos that beset Italy during the Risorgimento, when various local powers, rebellious factions, and foreign occupiers were fighting each other for control:

Era l’estate dell’anno 1861, allorché la fama delle imprese brigantesche correva l’Europa; quei giorni memorabili, quando il PietroPaolo portava in tasca il mento d’un ‘liberal’ col pizzo alla napoleonica; quando a Montemiletto si sepelivan vivi, sotto un mucchio di cadaveri, coloro che avevano gridato: — Viva l’Italia; — quando a Viesti si mangiavano la carne dei contadini renitenti agli ordini dei loro spogliatori; quando il colonello Negri preso Pontelandolfo vedeva appese alle finestre, a modo di trofei, membra sanguinose di soldati; quando il povero luogotenente Bacci, ferito e preso in combattimento, veniva ucciso dopo otto ore di orrende tortura; quando turbe di plebaglia forsennata uscivan di notte, colle torce alla mano, a ricevere in trionfo le bande; quando si incendiavan messi; si atterravano case; si catturavan famiglie; s’impiccava, si scorticava e si squartava; e a tener vivo e accrescere il miserando eccidere venivano dalla riva destra del Tevere, armi, scudi e benedizione.

My first-pass, clunky, overly-literal translation of this passage might be something like this:

It was the summer of 1861, when the fame of brigands’ deeds ran through Europe; those memorable days when Pietropaolo carried in his pocket the chin of a ‘liberal’ with the Napoleonic bribe; when at Montemiletto they buried alive, under piles of corpses, those who had cried, ‘Viva l’Italia;’ when at Viesti they ate the flesh of the peasants who resisted the demands of those pillaging them; when Colonel Negri near Pontelandolfo saw hanging from windows, in the manner of trophies, the bloody limbs of soldiers; when poor Lieutenant Bacci, wounded and taken in combat, was killed after eight hours of horrendous torture; when mobs of mindless rabble came out at night, torch in hand, to welcome the bands in triumph; when couriers were set on fire; houses flattened; when families were seized; when men were hanged, drawn, and quartered; and to keep alive and increase the sordid massacres, arms, money and benedictions arrived from the right bank of the Tiber.

I’m sure there is plenty to argue with in this first pass, stylistically and semantically, but I think I’m at least hitting close to the mark on what the author wants to convey.

Except for this ‘PietroPaolo’ who carries a bribe-holding chin in his pocket.

First of all, who is this “Pietropaolo?” My Internet searches didn’t turn up any renowned Pietropaolo in 1860’s Italy. So I guessed that the name (“PeterPaul” in English) was a generalization—an Italian version of “the average Joe.” (Though I found no confirmation for this guess.)

So what about “carried in his pocket the chin of a ‘liberal’”? “Carried” can also be rendered as “bore” or “wore”. But “carried” makes sense with “nella tasca” (“in his pocket”), which seemed to provide little room for ambiguity. (Unless “in the pocket” means something like “as a last resort” or “just in case?”)

So what about “the chin of a ‘liberal’”? This was the most mystifying part. I couldn’t help but wonder whether “mento” (“chin”) was a typo for “mente” (“mind”). The “mind of a liberal” almost made sense in this context. In those politically sensitive times your average Italian might hide his liberal views, metaphorically placing them out of sight in his pocket.  But I was reading the story in a reliable edition, and in any case it’s very dangerous to “fix” a text you don’t understand by assuming someone else has made an error.

Perhaps the rest of the phrase might hold the answer…. I knew the term “pizzo” from Italian literature and TV shows to mean protection money paid by shopkeepers to the Mafia to keep their businesses from getting burned down. But I guessed that it could easily refer to extortion money in general. So why “Napoleonic”? Well, parts of Italy were then under the control of Napoleon III’s French troops. It wasn’t hard to imagine “Napoleonic” French sentries or customs officers shaking down the locals to cross a bridge or import some goods.

But that still doesn’t explain “the chin of a ‘liberal’.” I latched on to the fact that the word “liberal” is in quotes in the text. Perhaps it was a brand name, maybe of cigarettes or tobacco. There was once, after all, a common Italian brand of cigarettes sold under the brand “Nazionali” (“Nationals”).

So what? Well maybe the average Peter-Paul was in the habit of stashing protection money in a “Liberal” tobacco tin in his pocket in case he got stopped by French troops…what do you think? Of course, that didn’t really solve the “chin” problem.

I researched the Italian words for “chin” and “pocket” for metaphorical meanings and usage in figures of speech. No help. I looked for a “liberale” product or trademark, same result. Still, I was almost ready to believe the phrase could be rendered as something like:

“[…]those memorable days when Italian men walked around with cash-filled tobacco tins in their pockets, for ‘bribes alla Napoleon.’

But this rendering relied much too heavily on pure supposition. It was a literary house of cards.

I was only reading the story for fun—so I could have just let the mystery be. The odd phrase didn’t prevent me from enjoying or understanding the rest of the story. But it really bugged me. I don’t like to impose on my Italian friends for help in understanding texts except in emergencies (or unless they’re getting full credit as a co-translator). It feels like asking your plumber neighbor across the street to help you fix a leaky toilet for free. So I stewed over it for several days. I finally gave up (and in) and asked an expert—Dr. Tullio Pagano, a professor of Italian literature at Fairleigh-Dickinson University, for help.

He pointed out that “pizzo,” besides protection money, also could refer to a small beard. He surmised that this Pietropaolo wore this kind of beard.  So what was a “pizzo alla Napoleonica?” Well, I googled images of the then-reigning Emperor of France, Napoleon III, and sure enough, he’s shown sporting a cute little VanDyke.

But even Tullio couldn’t explain what was meant by “in his pocket.” One of my theories was that this Pietropaolo carried a fake little beard—a “chin” —in his pocket, in case he needed a quick disguise. Another case of the mind trying to fill in what it doesn’t know with invention.

Meanwhile my friend Dr. Pagano asked a colleague of his, Luigi Cepparrone—an expert on literature of the period and on De Amicis in particular, who teaches at the University of Bergamo—what was meant by this phrase. Dr. Cepparrone’s answer came back, brutal, astonishing, and shockingly straightforward:

La frase fa riferimento alla ferocia dei briganti, schierati con i Borbone e con il Vaticano e particolarmente avversi ai liberali fautori dell’Unità. La frase vuol dire che il brigante Pietropaolo aveva trucidato un liberale, appunto, e portava come scalpo nelle tasche il mento con il pizzo alla napoleonica staccato dal viso di questo liberale. De Amicis fa riferimento a un fatto storico, di cui aveva letto nelle cronache del tempo. Il personaggio cui si fa riferimento era un vero brigante di nome Ferdinando Pietropaolo della nota banda del brigante Crocco. Una sentenza pronunciata contro Ferdinando Pietropaolo afferma: “Considerando che la ferocità di Pietropaolo è posta in evidenza anche dalla scoperta di un mento umano con pizzo alla Napoleone (imperiale) tolto a qualche disgraziato di opinioni liberali, e che Pietropaolo portava barbaramente seco».

My translation:

The phrase refers to the ferocity of the brigands, aligned with the Bourbons and the Vatican and opposed to the liberal proponents of a unified Italy. The phrase means that the brigand Pietropaolo had in fact murdered a liberal and carried in his pocket, like a scalp, the chin with the Napoleonic beard cut from the face of this liberal. De Amicis is referring to an historical fact, which he had read about in the newspapers of the day. The person to whom he refers was a real brigand named Ferdinando Pietropaolo, of the famous Crocco gang. A sentence pronounced against Pietropaolo specifies: ‘considering that the ferocity of Pietropaolo is affirmed even by the discovery of a human chin with a beard alla Napoleone cut from some unfortunate of liberal opinions, which Pietropaolo barbarically carried around.’

So I was mistaken on every single aspect of this brief phrase. Pietropaolo was an actual person. He quite literally carried a chin in his pocket. The chin had a beard, not a bribe. The ‘liberal’ was a liberal, not a box of snuff or a pack of cigarettes.

So what are the lessons of this tale?

First: it’s dangerous to satisfy your confusion about the meaning of a text by just guessing what would make the most sense, and hoping for the best.

Second: context, context, context! If I had kept the rest of that sentence in mind, I would have seen that the phrase in question had to be something pretty grisly.

Third: sometimes the literal meaning is…the meaning. Sometimes a chin carried in a pocket is just…a chin carried in a pocket!

Fourth: sometimes there is no substitute for an expert opinion! My thanks to Tullio Pagano and Luigi Cepparone for untying this knot for me.

On Florida, Democrats, and “The Ultimate Cancel Act”

Florida state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia filed SB 1248, an act that would cancel the state’s Democratic Party.

The so-called “Ultimate Cancel Act” would direct the Florida Division of Elections to “immediately cancel the filings of a political party, to include its registration and approved status as a political party, if the party’s platform has previously advocated for, or been in support of, slavery or involuntary servitude.”

The Democrat Party, the predominant political entity in Florida before 1990, advocated for slavery prior to 1865 and seceded from the Union in 1861. It is the only party recognized by the Florida Division of Elections that would be impacted by this law.—”‘Ultimate Cancel Act’: Florida Republican proposes bill to ‘cancel’ Democratic Party,” Matteo Cina, Fox 35 Orlando, 1/3/23

Ok. All right. We’ll set aside the fact that it was the Democratic Party that stood up for working people, the elderly, and the sick from at least as far back as the Great Depression; that it was the Democrats who fought for civil rights and enfranchisement for and alongside black Americans in the 1960’s, even at the cost of losing its political grip on the American South; that it was the Democratic party that fought and still fights for the rights of women to make their own health decisions; that the Democrats had to fight tooth and nail against Republican obstructionism to make universal affordable healthcare a reality; etcetera, etcetera. And we’ll ignore the fact that it was precisely when the party turned definitively to the fight for equal rights that conservative white Floridians fled en masse to…the GOP.

The Democratic Party was in fact the pro-slavery party before the Civil War; it’s a party that obstructed and eventually reversed gains to black rights and enfranchisement during Reconstruction; and the party whose Southern wing stood behind Jim Crow laws–at least until the Lyndon Johnson era.  And we don’t hear Joe Biden or Alexandra Ocasio Cortez going around apologizing for their party’s racist, slave-mongering past. So let’s abolish the Democratic Party once and for all, as the good (or at least Republican) folks in Florida propose to do.

But there’s a fly in the cocoa butter. It occurs to me that, unlike Communist China, political parties here do not wield actual authority. It is the local, state and federal governments, as personified by their elected officials, that do. And so I propose that, out of respect for basic human decency and a clear-eyed understanding of history, we abolish the State of Florida.

Florida voluntarily seceded from the United States of America on January 10, 1861. It decided that it would rather go to war against its own government than give up the right to own and use human beings as agricultural implements. At the time white Floridians owned altogether about 70,000 slaves, which they had a perfect right to do under Florida state law. After Federal troops left Florida following Reconstruction, the state legislature did everything it could to prevent the state’s African American citizens from voting. It also passed Jim Crow laws that prevented black people from using public facilities and transportation or forced them to use separate ones. Etcetera, etcetera. And that’s just the legally sanctioned side of racism. Florida led the nation in per-capita lynching from 1900 to 1930.

I had the cute of idea leading off this sorry little post with an image of the Florida state flag with a big red X through it–“cancelled,” get it? But that wouldn’t work, because the flag already has a big red X. Take a look…you have one guess as to why that is.

Given its sordid history of slavery and violent racism, we have no choice but to cancel Florida. Let’s “cancel” (to use Blaise Ingoglia’s language) the governor and the state legislature. Let’s convert the State Capitol to a museum about citrus fruit and giant pythons. We don’t want to frighten our kids with scary truths about the state’s actual history, so let’s rip it out of textbooks and pretend it never existed. Let the syllables “flor” and “ida” never conjoin except in Spanish class. We’ll call that thing that sticks out into the Gulf of Mexico Dys(ney)topia from now on.

There, I feel so much better already.

On Donald Trump, Prostitutes, Money, Justice and Politics

We live in very strange times.

Our nation’s previously elected leader has declared that he is about to be arrested, which may or may not be true. He has framed his prosecution as political persecution, in fact as an attempt to subvert the will of the people, whom he has called upon to rescue him and by doing so to save their country.

Those people might do well to consider the crimes for which Donald Trump is being investigated by prosecutors in New York. He is not being charged (if he is in fact being charged at all) for speaking out against oppression, or for criticizing the policies of the current administration, or for championing an independent press.

His alleged misdeeds involve paying a prostitute $100,000 to keep her mouth shut about his adulterous affair with her, on the eve of his re-election bid, and using the tax-deductible campaign contributions of his donors to do so, and then publicly denying it.

It’s not exactly the most monstrous sort of crime a man can commit, and it’s not being treated as such; it’s a misdemeanor. It seems an odd cause for which to man the barricades.

Of course his supporters say and some actually believe that the allegations are (pardon the phrase) trumped up. Not that they aren’t true…even his Republican allies aren’t seriously disputing that these events actually happened. What they object to is that our justice system is actually seeking…justice. They call the prosecutor’s action “political.”

Perhaps it is. But it appears that a crime was committed, one that is serious enough to be examined by our courts. (And if I were a Trump true believer who had donated my hard-earned cash to his cause, I would be kind of mad if I found it had been used to cover up compromising hoochy-coochy.)

Yet even Mike Pence, whom the howling lynch mobs searched for at the President’s all-but-explicit instigation on January 6, 2021, called the impending indictment “politically motivated.” Gov. Ron DeSantis has expressed a similar opinion.

But if prosecutorial attention can be political, so can its opposite. The Republican establishment has shown a very odd lack of interest in investigating the President’s premeditated call to violent action in the days before “January 6th,” or even the deeds of those who actually did occupy the Capitol and cause death and destruction. That lack of interest is “political” indeed, in a way which promotes political well-being above serious, even existential threats to our nation.

Meanwhile I may have to go to traffic court next week to contest the deep-state’s preposterous allegation that I was going 50 in a 35 m.p.h. zone. It’s a POLITICALLY MOTIVATED WITCH HUNT!! Take to the streets to stand up for me and TAKE YOUR COUNTRY BACK!

Beware the Idiocies of March

The U.S. State Department just sent me my previous, expired passport. I suppose it’s in case I want to travel back in time.

Pet peeve of the moment: when did the “t” between syllables get cancelled? Why has “Manhattan” become “Manhah-in?” Or Staten Island “Stah-in Island?” It’s not fair to the letter T or to the other boroughs. No one says they’re from “Brooh-yn.”

I think it was sometime in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s that composers and performers of pop music quit trying to create actual melodies. It’s OK, I get it. It’s hard to think up a tune. Plus if necessary you can always just sample something from the 70’s, when people wrote, like, music.

Of all the foul half-truths and lies coming out of Russia’s propaganda machine, the line, “the West wants to fight us to the last Ukrainian” gets under my skin, because it contains a grain of truth. It’s exciting to watch the Ukrainians beat back the great Russian bear. It’s exciting to watch the contest between our appliances of war and theirs. We need to remind ourselves that this is not a Superbowl writ large, but a massive violent conflict in which thousands of human lives have gone up in flames.

But those videos of Russian tanks getting blown up? I have to admit, they never get old.

How ironic that the U.S. House of Representatives is preventing the citizens of the District of Columbia from showing leniency towards criminals. Unless, of course, they’re the criminals actually attacking the U.S. House of Representatives.

Should I abstain from enjoying the ethereal music of Wagner because of the composer’s racism? There’s an interesting dilemma. But Scott Adams’ “Dilbert,” the sour, cynical and repetitive comic strip about office politics by someone who never actually learned how to draw? Not an issue.

Tennessee: Guns, Yes! Men dressing up like Marilyn Monroe…too dangerous!

A photo from Tennessee governor Bill Lee’s high school yearbook shows him dressed up as…a woman. Says hizzoner, any comparison between him and what happens in a cabaret is “ridiculous.” I couldn’t agree more. His Marilyn Monroe is terrible!

Reaction after seeing Chris Rock’s Netflix show Selective Outrage: If you’re going to slap someone in public, in fact before a live global T.V. audience, don’t pick on a talented comedian. It may take a while, but you’ll get what’s coming to you, many times over.

“March Madness”? Whoop-de-doo.

On “Woke” and Viva Max!

I saw the film Viva Max! probably in late 1969 or early 1970, in one of Denton, Texas’ two movie theaters. It’s a comedy about a Mexican army officer who leads his troops across the U.S. Border to San Antonio, in order to reclaim the Alamo for Mexico. My 10-year-old-self thought it was pretty funny. It also had a catchy march/mariachi theme song which became a staple of middle-school marching bands.

In later years I occasionally caught a glimpse of Viva Max! in cycling through late-night TV channels, and it started to seem a little lame. More recently, I’ve wanted to see it again, but it’s kind of hard to find. It doesn’t show up on Netflix’s DVD service, or on Amazon Prime, for example. It doesn’t make the Turner Classic Movie rotation. I have a suspicion as to why: the movie is transparently, blatantly racist.

The lead character is played by Peter Ustinov in brownface as the bumbling title officer, doing a cheesy “Mexican” accent. Ustinov was a British actor of (according to Wikipedia) Russian, Polish, Jewish, Ethiopian, Italian, French, and German descent. What he was not in any way was Mexican. His character’s second in command, Sergeant Valdez, is played by John Astin, of TV’s Addams Family fame. If there were any actual Hispanic members of the cast, I can’t find them.

Today such a project would not get past the concept pitch. But there’s no evidence of hackles or even eyebrows being raised back then. (The closest thing I can find to indignation is a comment in Vincent Canby’s dismissive review in the New York Times. Canby stated that Ustinov’s “busy performance” included “a Mexican accent that would probably strike even Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez as too much.”) I imagine that any actual Mexican viewers would have found the film deeply offensive, but of course it wasn’t made with a Hispanic audience in mind. What was different then, than now?

Viva Max! wasn’t a product of right-wing xenophobic hate-mongers. It came out of the pseudo-progressive Hollywood establishment. The movie sets up and parodies the dumb Texas redneck stereotype (played to perfection by Jonathan Winters as a frustrated shopkeeper-National Guard officer) and makes fun of anti-Communist paranoia. Ustinov’s character isn’t portrayed with the hateful, scary, Donald Trump sort of anti-immigrant racism, but rather with the much more comfortable patronizing, condescending sort of racism. He’s a sympathetic character, and it’s easy to imagine that his creators thought they were humanizing the Mexican “other.” The screenplay was written by none other than a young Jim Lehrer (and adapted from his own book), later of PBS MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour fame. Hardly an avatar of knee-jerk xenophobia. Ustinov himself advocated a planet governed (not just mediated) by the United Nations.

I think about Viva Max! when I think about anti-“woke” hysteria today. I am certain that any objections to the film for its demeaning portrayal of Mexicans would have caused the same rolled eyebrows and shaking heads that, say, gender-neutral pronouns do today. I don’t particularly like gender-neutral pronouns, and I am not convinced that they are important. But I don’t think the concept is stupid, and I wonder how thinking people will look back on this era in fifty years. Maybe they’ll say, “Can you believe that back then, people were referred to by different terms, depending on whether they had a penis or a uterus?” I certainly hope that suppression of the role of slavery and Jim Crow in public education will be accepted as monstrous. And I hope that banning of drag shows will look as ridiculous as the censoring of Elvis Presley’s hip gyrations were in his time.

But who knows? We’ve been taking big backward steps these days with respect to women’s rights and education among other things. “Woke,” which to me means a healthy, honest examination of one’s own feelings towards other human beings, is being set up as Average Joe’s bogeyman. The idea that black people may be treated worse than white people in this country is being demonized as “critical race theory.” So maybe Viva Max! and its ilk will enjoy a comeback—and not in any ironic, cult-film kind of way.




GENERAL: We got little a situation here.

TOM CRUISE: [wearing the smirk he smirks in every damn movie he’s ever been in] I’m well aware of that, General. This is the situation room, after all. You wouldn’t have called me in here if there had been a lack of…situation, would you?

GENERAL: Christ, why couldn’t I get Richard Gere…Look, we’ve detected an enemy aircraft high above the plains of Montana…

CRUISE: Thank God for our Distant Early Warning System…

GENERAL: Actually it was reported on Twitter by a sheep farmer looking up while he was taking a leak out on the north forty…

CRUISE: What is it? A Sukhoi stealth fighter? I get a chubbie just thinking about splashing one of those mothers…


CRUISE: A North Korean ballistic missile threatening me, my loved ones, and everything we hold dear, and which might even disrupt the upcoming Oscar ceremony if allowed to proceed unchecked?


CRUISE: Wait, I got it…a hypersonic drone loaded with powerful lasers?

GENERAL: Not exactly. It’s spherical object inflated with gas…

CRUISE: My God. It’s filled with enough poison gas to wipe out greater Butte…

GENERAL: Well, more like helium. It won’t kill you but if you ingest enough it makes your voice sound funny for a minute.

CRUISE: Moving at supersonic speeds…

GENERAL: We estimate it’s travelling between 20-40 miles per hour…

CRUISE: Made out of the latest hi-tech invisible fabric….

GENERAL: It’s painted white, OK? Just get up there and knock it down.

CRUISE: No problem. A short burst from the .50 cal oughta do it…

GENERAL: You’re to use a single AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile…

CRUISE: To shoot down a balloon? Are you crazy, sir? Those things cost almost 400k apiece, according to Wikipedia!

GENERAL: Yeah, but the cool factor is off the charts!


DIDN’T NOBODY GIVE A SHIT WHAT HAPPENED TO CARLOTTA is the most inventive, funny, moving, and true novel I’ve read in some time.

The heart, soul and body of the story is Carlotta. It is her story, and it is told primarily through her eyes, thoughts and remarks. Hannaham’s great accomplishment is the creation of her voice. She is witty, desperate, determined, and an original.

The story unfolds during a Fourth of July weekend during which Carlotta has been paroled back to her Brooklyn home after serving nearly all of a twenty-year sentence for aggravated assault—a crime for which it seems that her culpability lay mainly in being in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong company. There is a lot she has to do right, and a lot that can easily go wrong, if she is to stay out of jail and not violate the conditions of her parole (or as she calls them, “the stips”). She has to find a job, stay out of any kind of trouble that might cause a cop to show up, not associate with any other ex-cons, avoid drugs and alcohol and even the vicinity of such substances, and find employment, for which she has little or no qualifications.

On her side: she is not much of a drinker or drug user, and she wants to stay out of jail. But the deck is heavily stacked against her: she is poor, black, Latino, a transvestite—she “came out” in the penitentiary—and tends to have a problem with temper and impulse control. She returns to the home of her extended family and finds little support: her relatives have their own problems, and mostly don’t care about Carlotta’s, and are baffled and disturbed (especially her grown son) in encountering a woman who went to prison as the man they knew. And the house in Brooklyn seems to be a continual venue for the kind of parties that make parole violation seem unavoidable.

That’s the setup, but it doesn’t convey the joy and excitement the reader experiences in seeing the world through Carlotta’s voice and in Carlotta’s terms. This passage comes near the end of the story when Carlotta, fleeing a dangerous situation in Brooklyn, winds up on Coney Island, and hears a DJ on the beach playing the kind of music she loved decades ago, before being sent to jail:

It’s like this man knew ezzackly when time an fun had stopped for me an he decided he gon go back to that fork in the road an lemme take the other path, lemme start livin the life I coulda lived, like time gone backwards. Last night a DJ saved my life! I felt the glory tinglin all through my fuckin chakras or whatever, baby, I was like Chakra Khan out there or, better yet, Chakra Ex-Khan, tastin the many flavors a the night air like it be a drug that make all that negative shit that had happened not had happened. Why’d we treat ev’thing like it was worthless when it was really so precious, when that shit was our lives?

The novel has its flaws. It shares a defect I find in a lot of fiction these days: too much boring authorial explanation and qualification. Descriptions of facial reactions and gestures, getting the character across the room or into a chair, details that are boring and unnecessary. I wish Hannaham had trusted in his character and in the reader’s imagination enough to leave out details that don’t matter to our understanding of the story or its people.

For example, Carlotta describes to us a kaleidoscopic impression of all the different kinds of people on the boardwalk in Coney Island, impressions all the more vivid to her after half a life spent in prison (and much of that in solitary confinement). She buys herself a couple of hot dogs, another simple act that for her bears the taste of liberty. And then:

No bench had any vacancies; in fact, most of them contained more people in various configurations than they’d been built to hold. The moment she noticed someone leaving half of a park bench unoccupied, Carlotta scooted toward the opening, plopped herself onto the seat, and set her food box on her knees.

Now maybe it’s just me, but I don’t need the author to explain to me how Carlotta finds a place to sit down. Narratively speaking, she needs to get there; a funny and telling incident happens while she’s eating her hot dogs. But the mechanics have the flavor of a clunky made-for-TV moment.

But this is minor complaint. This story doesn’t need a sequel, but I enjoyed it more than enough to want to find out how Carlotta does going forward.

Hannaham, James. Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta, Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.,