Category Archives: Nonfiction

Liberals and the very real dangers of echo chambers

Kathy Griffin and Tyler Shields collaborated on a truly horrendous piece of work which depicted the comedienne holding the president’s decapitated head. It was disgusting, offensive, and stupid. Griffin quickly felt backlash not only from conservatives, but from liberals – including her fellow comics – and promptly apologized and took down the photograph. CNN slammed the photo and is considering firing her from its annual New Years television coverage. Griffin posted a contrite video, in which she admitted she went too far and appears chastised.

This story is depressing for a lot of reasons – one, I was always a fan and follower of Kathy Griffin’s, and enjoyed her specials, books, CDs, and her excellent reality show. I think that she’s smart and cutting and very witty. Which is why I’m still trying to figure out just what the hell was she thinking.

But Griffin’s act exposed something ugly in our culture that needs to be addressed: the dehumanization of public figures. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both dealt with the kind of ugly hate that Griffin and Shields exhibited with their work – both have been the subject of burning effigies, and in the context of this country’s awful history of lynching Black people, there have been memes, dolls, and mannequins depicting lynchings of President Obama. These examples of unbridled hate were disgusting and not enough people stood up to them.

And the same thing is happening with President Trump. Whether one agrees with his politics or his policies, we still have to agree that the president is a human being. Someone with family and friends. Think about Barron Trump, a child, who now will be able to see Shields’ photograph.

So how did we get to the point where a comic and a photographer both thought this monstrous show of disrespect would be okay?

Well, it’s a simple, thing really. It happened when they called the president King Cheeto, or President Cheeto (or any other variant on Cheeto). It happened when they reduced him to his hair, his tan, his body, his mannerisms. They slowly made him into a cartoon figure, a two-dimensional symbol of political frustration and political fear, and simply forgot – or chose to forget – that behind the memes, cartoons, and caricature, there was a human being.

I’m not defending Trump’s policies. My readers will know that I’m a liberal, who hoped that Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton would’ve won. And when Trump did win, I was scared and worried for our country’s future. I still am. And I know lots of other people are too – including Griffin and Shields.

But that doesn’t mean that we can suddenly take leave of our senses and become hateful monsters.

Some of Griffin’s critics opined that her act has damaged the credibility of liberals. I hate this thinking because again, the credibility of liberals doesn’t matter in this case. What matters is that someone did something unimaginable and awful. And worrying about how liberals will look is callous and unfeeling as well as self centered and selfish.

When Griffin apologized, she seemed genuine and sincere. And yet. She couched her apology as a response to the criticism and ensuing backlash. Her conscience didn’t prompt her to apologize, nor did her sense of fairness or decency. Instead, she apologized because she saw that many of her peers rejected her horrible act.

This is about more than just Kathy Griffin, though. This is about the steady degradation of a public figure, to the point where people forget that he’s a human being.

This fracas is also an opportunity for some introspection among many liberals, who, in their zeal and frustration, have become the bizarro version of the Westboro Baptist Church. How much did that echo chamber in which Griffin obviously existed, contributed to her myopia? If she, along with her fans, friends, and followers all provide a steady drumbeat of hate, does that naturally result in the kind of garbage that she and Shields created?

When there are instances of hate crimes, we ask that everyone look within themselves. And that’s important. We have to examine just what in our society creates Neo-Nazis, alt-right bigots, rapists, and queer bashers. It’s important because these people don’t just spring from thin air – they are a product, created.

But in the case of Griffin – and those who are still insisting that she’s done nothing wrong – we have to do the same kind of self-examination. Because she’s a product, too. She’s the result of months of constant slams, slights, and hatred that fooled Griffin into thinking that her space would be hospitable to a photograph like hers.

I’ve been thinking about the president a lot this past day or so after I saw the photograph. It made me sad and disturbed me. It was a spotlight on a kind of sheltered privilege that Griffin seemingly enjoys that protects her from understanding what it means to have a family member killed in such a way. Right now, there are organizations throughout the world who really do what Shields and Griffin only pretended to do. I thought about the president’s family and friends, all of whom love him, and had to see that awful image.

The photograph is an extreme example of just how base and awful political discourse has become in this country. Griffin and Shields wouldn’t have felt a picture like that would be okay, if the two didn’t see evidence of something similar. As I wrote earlier, we’ve seen Hillary Clinton effigies burned at rallies, and Barack Obama mannequins strung up on trees. We’ve also seen memes of Donald Trump pinatas, waiting to be pummeled. None of this funny. None of this is productive. And none of this is fair. But just because Clinton and Obama suffered these indignities doesn’t mean Trump deserves to, as well. No one does.

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I voted for Macron

Emmanuel Macron won in the French elections, resolutely thumping Marine Le Pen’s bid for office with over 65% of the votes. I voted yesterday, going to the Lycée Français de Chicago. I don’t speak French very well, nor do I read it very well and was worried about being grilled by the French officials who would sniff dismissively at me. Last time I had to deal with the French government was when I was renewing my passport at the French consulate, and struggled to explain in French to the staff that I would be more comfortable speaking in English. I’m not sure if it was because of my bad French, but it didn’t go well, and I left the consular office with a headache from trying to make myself understood.

I was luckier yesterday because I didn’t really have to speak much. I was able to read enough to figure out which line to go to and I knew enough in French to say hi, give my name, and grab the ballots. Oh, let’s get to the “ballots.” The voting comprised of two slips of papers, each with a candidate’s name, and a little brown envelope. I then scuttled over to a booth and put Macron’s name in the envelope and then after being confirmed and checked for the second time off a manifest, I dropped the envelope into a large glass box.

Normally I wouldn’t vote. I lived in the United States for over 30 years, and held little interest in French politics. But the last year has been so ridiculous. Starting with the Brexit referendum in June, it felt as if we couldn’t get through a month without some fresh hell popping up. Theresa May and Donald Trump are the faces of unfettered populism that has gripped most of the west.

And France wasn’t immune. Marine Le Pen ran on a similar campaign of suspicion, xenophobia, racism, and isolationism. And she was popular. In the first round of the elections, she came in second, and was moving on to the second round. Despite the polls confirming that Le Pen wouldn’t win, I was nervous. The polls promised Brexit wouldn’t pass and that Hillary Clinton would win. I was cautiously optimistic that Macron would win, but didn’t take anything for granted.

And though we’re celebrating Le Pen’s loss, it’s not over yet. Despite her promises to the contrary, May is holding a snap election in June. Because the Brexit negotiations aren’t going well, and there a lot more difficult than May imagined, she’s hoping to cleanse the government of anti-Brexit naysayers who are gumming up her plot to destroy the UK. Confident that she’ll be able to purge parliament of Labour and Lib Dem MPs, May is banking on the general elections to go as well for her as the locals went a few days ago, when the Torys picked up 130 seats, while Labour shed 120 seats. UKIP, the racist alt-right party in the UK, lost all of the local seats, but that’s not a silver lining – it’s aluminum. UKIP helped destroy the UK’s relationship with the EU, and is riding off into the sunset, happy to allow the Torys to finish the job.

But for now, I’m relieved. And I hope that Le Pen’s loss – predicted, but still a surprising – will be a necessary road block to the populist movement in Europe. Hopefully, Le Pen’s loss will put an end to talk of dismantling the EU. Hopefully, Le Pen’s loss will put an end to talk of curbing immigration, freedom of movement, and the acceptance of refugees. I’m hoping.

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100 things I love about the UK

Theresa May is competing with Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump for the West’s most evil politician (her latest pile of hot garbage is working to curb non EEA/EU family members from moving to the UK with their EEA/EU loved members), and it’s easy for a lot of EU/EEA folks to feel disenchanted about the UK. I have to admit, when I read complaints about EU expats or the EU, and how we’re to blame for the UK’s ills (never mind that the UK government has been steadily chipping away at its infrastructure for years with austerity, going back to Thatcher), it’s easy to join in on the “let’s crap on the UK” parade. And at times, I do indulge in some anti-British sniping in a comment thread on Facebook or Twitter.

But this post is about what I love about the UK. These are the hundred things – these aren’t in any order – that I love about the UK. And yes, this is very London-centric because I know London well, but I haven’t been to other parts of the UK (outside of Edinburgh), so this is very much what’s important about the UK to me – it’s not a list of what is the “greatest” thing about the UK – after all, none of my 100 things include sports and science (reflecting my lack of interest in both subjects).

  1. London – easily, the greatest city in the world. I’m looking to make the plunge and move to London (am applying for jobs as we speak), because I’ve fallen in love with London the first time I was there back in 2003.
  2. The literature – I’m an English literature scholar and a voracious reader, and British literature is some of the best I’ve ever read.
  3. Agatha Christie – the first Agatha Christie novel I read was one of her later ones, A Caribbean Mystery, with Miss Marple. I read it in camp when I was twelve. I didn’t like camp because there were lots of mosquitoes and my bunk mate left food in his drawer that attracted a colony of ants, but, I picked up Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery and fell in love with her ability to create these vibrant, lived-in worlds. After that book, I zipped through her other works, and have been a lifelong Agatha Christie fan.
  4. The food – yes, the food is very good in the UK. Contemporary British cuisine isn’t just steak and kidney pie or fish and chips (though those items are heavenly). Because of globalization, freedom of movement, and immigration, there are lots of different cuisines that have influenced modern UK cooking.
  5. Delia Smith. I’m a foodie and I love food writing, and I think that Delia Smith ranks alongside Elizabeth David, M.F.K. Fisher, and Julia Child as a titan of food writing.
  6. Speaking of Elizabeth David, I read French Provincial Cooking and Italian food annually.
  7. Speaking of reading writers annually, Jane Austen. Easily the greatest writer in the world. Pride and PrejudiceEmma, and Sense and Sensibility are my three favorite books ever. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice – easily – at least 20 times, and each time I read it, I discover something new about the book.
  8. Tony Benn – the Bernie Sanders before Bernie Sanders was a thing. I discovered Benn by picking up one of his diaries. He was a prolific diarist and an incredible advocate for progressive left-wing causes (and I loved how obsessed he seemed to be with Pizza Express)
  9. Soul II Soul – with much respect to Chic, I think Soul II Soul is the greatest soul/dance band ever.
  10. Shirley Valentine – it’s a great movie. Not a classic or a genre-busting film, but one that gives me all of the feels whenever I watch it. I fell in love with the travel narrative because of that film.
  11. The London Trocadero – yes, yes, I know this is the Times Square of London, and the hippest of the hip hate the Trocadero (you know what, I love Times Square), but the London Trocadero is where I had my epiphanous moment and I realized, “I have to live here.”
  12. King’s College London – it was the first college that accepted me into its PhD program. Unfortunately, I couldn’t accept the invitation, but I still love it for that reason.
  13. Emma Thompson. Funny, beautiful, smart. What else could one ask for in a woman.
  14. Once while walking down the street in Bayswater, a jogger was running behind me, and I stepped out of his way, and he called out over his shoulder, “Thanks, mate!”
  15. Truly, Madly, Deeply – Anthony Minghella’s first film that introduced me to the charms of both Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson. It was a great movie, mismarketed as the “thinking man’s Ghost” when it was so much more. A gentle, lovely comedy about love, loss, friendship, and grief.
  16. French & Saunders, together and apart. It seems like everything these ladies touch, turn to gold. Whether it’s Absolutely FabulousThe Vicar of Dibley, or Jam and Jerusalem, I know that if I catch either one of them, I’ll be entertained for hours.
  17. Love Actually – Woody Allen wrote valentines to Manhattan, and Love Actually is the perfect valentine to London.
  18. The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon. One of the greatest post-WWII, post colonial novels about living in London. It was a major work that focused on the lives of working-class Black people in London. It’s what prompted me to do research in Black British literature, and why I’m so interested in the topic.
  19. Stephen Fry – because he’s really smart.
  20. Simon Amstell – because he’s really smart.
  21. Jane Goodall – because she’s really smart.
  22. Helen Fielding, easily one of the funniest writers I’ve ever read, and the closest heir to Jane Austen’s crown as the Queen of Literary Comedy
  23. Salman Rushdie – The Satanic Verses was a huge influence on the way I looked at literature and its power to spur conversations – many uncomfortable – about identity.
  24. The Beatles – because, duh.
  25. The Rolling Stones – because, bigger duh.
  26. Dusty Springfield – because, biggest duh.
  27. J.K. Rowling – she restored my faith in the kindness of billionaires and despite the overwhelming shadow of Harry Potter, she was able to create a neat side career as a brilliant mystery novelist under the pseudonym, Robert Galbraith.
  28. Patricia Routledge – she is more than just Hyacinth Bouquet
  29. Prunella Scales – she is more than just Sybil Fawlty.
  30. Angela Lansbury – she is more than just Jessica Fletcher.
  31. Virginia Woolf – After reading Mrs. Dalloway, I spent my time envying her because I wanted to write just like her
  32. Boy George – great singer, wonderful songwriter, and caustic wit.
  33. Richard Curtis – his movies are middle-of-the-road sap, but I can’t help getting sucked in whenever I watch one of his big-hearted, sentimental stories.
  34. Zadie Smith – White Teeth and On Beauty are two books that have influenced the way I write and read, and her nonfiction prose is some of the smartest I’ve ever read.
  35. E.F. Benson for introducing the world to those glorious monsters of pretension, Mapp & Lucia.
  36. Sally Phillips – the only comedienne I’ve ever seen who can steal a scene from comic Einstein, Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
  37. Willy Russell – a great comedic writer who finds the inherent dignity in working-class people who want to do better with their lives and are striving something more.
  38. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office – one of the most fulfilling and challenging periods in my career, and one that I treasure and hold close to my hear. I am honored that I was once a staff member.
  39. Jane Eyre – my favorite Brontë novel about a young woman who faces obstacles in her life and faces them with dignity. It’s also a great novel about the importance of working hard and for not succumbing to life’s travails. Jane Eyre is also one of the wittiest characters in Victorian literature.
  40. Ricky Gervais – because of Extras and The Office.
  41. Catherine Tate – because of The Catherine Tate Show and Doctor Who (and I’m willing to overlook her so-so work on the US-version of The Office)
  42. Princess Diana – a lady who could’ve easily had teas and shopped (and I’m sure she did all that), but that wasn’t enough, she also advocated for the homeless, was an AIDS/HIV activist, and an anti-landmine warrior.
  43. David Hume – one of the most intimidating writers I’ve ever read, and not sure if I understood all of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, but was an important introduction to philosophy and empiricism.
  44. Armando Iannucci for bringing the world Veep.
  45. Yo! Sushi – whoever thought of putting sushi on a conveyor belt is a genius. Now, if I can just rig it, so that the convey belt simply glides the food right into my mouth would be the best.
  46. British Alternative Comedy – a movement in comedy from the 1980s, that spawned such icons like Jennifer Saunders, Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Dawn French, Helen Lederer, Ade Edmondson, Ruby Wax, Jo Brand.
  47. Alan Bennett – his Talking Heads monologues are incredible. He’s a master of tragicomedy.
  48. Pet Shop Boys – ironic, detached, smart, and stylish. They have created some of the most literate and intellectual dance music for the last 40 years. Their first two LPs, Please (1986) and Actually (1987) are great Thatcher-era reflections on the gilded glamour of the 1980s. “West End Girls” is a song that takes me back to London each time I hear it.
  49. Tate Modern. When I visted the Tate Modern a couple years ago, it had a great exhibition on pop art, and I was able to see original Andy Warhols and Keith Harings.
  50. The Graham Norton Show – whenever I get sad, I just watch the red chair segments on The Graham Norton Show and all is right with the world.
  51. Meera Syal – Anita and Me is a great novel and Meera Syal is a very, very funny lady.
  52. Stonehenge – I’m not much of a history buff, and I don’t “do” ancient ruins, but Stonehenge is pretty fantastic and mysterious. Built around 2000 BC (!), folks are still figuring out what Stonehenge was about, but many think it was for ceremonies.
  53. Newham – my favorite part of London, it’s where I lived when I was in London. It’s not fashionable or tony like the Mayfair or Belgravia, but it’s a great area. The Queen’s Market is a wonderful draw, and I loved the brick row houses. It’s a very diverse area, too, with lots of ethnic restaurants. I lived on Green Street, next to the Upton Park train stop.
  54. Hanif Kureishi – his films My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and London Kills Me is a great, stylish pop look at British national identity in 1980s Thatcherite London. His books like The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album are also wonderful looks at race and ethnicity in the UK. He asks difficult questions about extremism, nationalism, xenophobia, and multiculturalism.
  55. Tracey Ullman, who made “hearing voices in your head” into an Emmy-winning career.
  56. Annie Lennox – one of the few singers who has been able to leave a legendary band – the Eurythmics – and make an even greater impact as a solo artist. Diva and Medusa are her two best albums, and though the follow ups didn’t measure up to those albums, Diva and Medusa have enough classic performances that they have become legendary. She has a huge loud voice, second only to Dusty Springfield when it comes to blue-eyed soul.
  57. Stock Aitken Waterman – yes, yes, yes, I know they were peddlers of mushy, plastic pop during the 1980s, but underneath the prefab gloss and deadening drum machines were some of the hookiest pop songs ever. The trio introduced us to Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan, worked with legends like Debbie Harry and Donna Summer and became Internet legends when their Rick Astley tune “Never Gonna Give You Up” became a meme in 2007.
  58. Merchant Ivory Productions – nothing says classy, elegant English movie like “Merchant Ivory Productions.” I can practically see myself, lolling about in a rowboat in the Lake District, dozing underneath the hot sun of an English summer.
  59. Naomi Campbell – her picture should be in the dictionary under the words beauty and fabulous. Imperious, difficult, and demanding, it’s too bad Naomi Campbell can’t sing (she tried, bless her) because if she could, she would be the perfect descendant of Maria Callas.
  60. Kazuo Ishiguro – a literary chameleon, he can shift and change his author voice depending on the project he’s working on. His best work The Remains of the Day works as a wonderful midcentury novel of class and politics. His other classic novel Never Let Me Go is a credible work of dystopic science fiction.
  61. Judi Dench – a national treasure. And yes, Tracey Ullman, she probably would get away with shoplifting.
  62. Kristy MacColl is a funny, sad, witty singer-songwriter whose range is dizzying and breathtaking. Whether it’s country, girl group, new wave, punk, or alternative pop, she was able to write and perform in these different styles, telling sad and funny stories of wistful dreaming.
  63. Mr. Bean – Rowan Atkinson’s most mainstream creation, Mr. Bean is a Chaplinesque creation of a man child who stumbles through his life – grimacing and grumbling along the way – and finding creative solutions to the obstacles he faces. Atkinson is a genius physical comic who imbues Mr. Bean with a poignant absurdity.
  64. Caitlin Moran – she’s my hero. I want to be Caitlin Moran. When Donald Trump won the presidential election, I turned to her for sustenance and succor.
  65. Emma Chambers – she is the definition of scene stealer. If you can overshadow Dawn French, Hugh Grant, and Julia Roberts, you know you’re a genius.
  66. Nick Hornby – I’ve always been jealous of Nick Hornby because no one person should be able to write funny, relatable, and touching stories like he does. And he’s easily one of the best essayists around, and I feel like he’s my literary spirit animal. Whenever I try to write music or pop culture essays, I ask myself “What Would Nick Hornby Do?”
  67. Christopher Hitchens – he was an asshole a lot of the times and his essays sometimes made my head explode in anger. But he was probably the smartest writer that I ever disagreed with.
  68. Mark Kermode – one of the greatest film critics alive.
  69. Alexander McQueen – a genius fashion designer who took an avant garde, punk aesthetic and wrapped it in haute couture fashion.
  70. Tracey Emin for sharing with her audience the names of everyone that she has ever slept with from 1963 to 1995.
  71. “Smalltown Boy” – the greatest coming out song ever. Jimmy Somerville’s angelic falsetto croons over the the thick synthpop/house production, and his lyrics tell the story of a queer kid who deals with homophobia.
  72. Different for Girls – I wish more people knew about Richard Spence’s 1996 film about a man who falls in love with a trans woman. It’s a gentle, tiny drama that is ahead of its time in its depiction of trans issues in the mid 1990s. It dates a bit, and there have been stronger more accurate depictions of trans relationships (and yeah, a cis man is playing a trans woman – not great) But it still deserves celebration and a higher profile.
  73. William Shakespeare – Well, obviously…
  74. The Britcom – As Time Goes By, Are You Being Served?, Keeping Up Appearances, Absolutely Fabulous, Good Neighbours, Steptoe and Son, The Vicar of Dibley, French & Saunders, Gimme Gimme Gimme, To the Manor Born, The Young Ones, Girls on Top, Father Ted, Cold Feet, Coupled
  75. The British Museum – where I got to see my first Da Vinci.
  76. Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright  – they taught me how to eat.
  77. Bleak House, Little Dorrit, The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and everything else that the great Charles Dickens had ever written. Social critique was rarely ever so beautifully and devastatingly captured on paper.
  78. Vivien Leigh for Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois.
  79. Paul Gilroy – Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack should be required reading for everyone.
  80. Kingsley Amis – I think Lucky Jim made me laugh harder than any other novel.
  81. Stella Gibbons – I think Cold Comfort Farm made me laugh harder than any other novel.
  82. Douglas Adams – I think The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy made me laugh harder than any other novel.
  83. Of Human Bondage – the first “great” novel I’ve ever read and the one that made me want to be a literature scholar.
  84. Kobena Mercer – one of the most astute and brilliant essayists and critics out there. I still teach his article on the politics of black hair.
  85. Gilbert & George – challenging, strange, unsettling, uncompromising, and creative.
  86. Mike Leigh, who shows his audience a different kind of London – the complex and complicated world of working-class London that is rarely portrayed on film. This isn’t Richard Curtis’ scrubbed London of gleaming skyscrapers, red phone boxes, and elegant sidewalk cafes; instead, Mike Leigh’s films show an uncompromising London, a London that is struggling from the indifferent Tony Blair Administration. If one wants to know just how Brexit became a reality, one should simply look at Leigh’s films, that show just the kind of landscape of poverty and disenfranchisement that made the environment hospitable for Brexit.
  87. Kathy Burke – an underrated genius. A woman who could make blinking hilarious.
  88. BBC Television
  89. Adele – the woman who will bring back Cool Britannia
  90. 30 St Mary Axe – known as the Gherkin or the lipstick building, it’s the building that means London to me. With the St. Andrew Undershaft church in front of it, shows why I love London so much: a mixture of the old and the new -a medieval church standing in front of the gleaming glass skyscraper.
  91. P.G. Wodehouse – he makes me laugh every time, never fail with his effete and classy wit (I always wanted to be the uber-efficient Jeeves)
  92. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe – an art festival that exposed to me all kinds of visual and performance artists, including some great stand-up comedy (it’s where I got to see the great Joan Rivers)
  93. Joan and Jackie Collins – not great artists by any means, but they lived like no one else.
  94.  Beautiful Thing – Jonathan Harvey’s a sensitive artist who wrote the lovely film Beautiful Thing, a tiny little coming of age film about a young queer student who falls in love with a student athlete. It’s a great movie about a working-class home and one of the few queer films in which the hero doesn’t die, isn’t killed, or presented as a villain or image of pity.
  95. The YBAs – the moment during the 1980s when British visual artists were as successful as pop stars and made the UK lead the world when it comes to contemporary art. To me, the gleaming, glossy success of the YBAs was the epitome of Cool Britannia, and how global, dynamic, and forward thinking British culture can be.
  96. Amy Winehouse – the brilliant love child of Nina Simone and Dusty Springfield, who had a stark, cracked voice soured by a tragic life that ended far too soon.
  97. Kadija Sesay – a brilliant scholar and writer whose talk I attended when in London that made me fall in love with Black British culture and Black British literature.
  98. The Photographers’ Gallery – My partner and I found this gallery by accident. In London, we were looking for a Border’s, but didn’t know that it was closed at that point, so we were just walking through the dark side streets. When stumbled upon the gallery, we popped in and saw a fantastic exhibition about Eastern European immigrants who were victims of trafficking in Western Europe. When we move to London, we’ll make the Photographers’ Gallery one of our haunts.
  99. That for the present, the UK is part of the EU.
  100. Mother Mash – one of my favorite places to eat, in one of my favorite places in London, Carnaby Street. It’s touristy and gimmicky, I know, but bangers and mash is easily the best food ever, and being able to choose your own kind of mash, bangers, and gravy is just pure genius.

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Two books try to figure out why Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election

It’s been over a hundred days into President Donald Trump’s administration, and liberals are still in reeling in shock over his surprise victory. By all reasonable accounts, Clinton – a former first lady, senator, secretary of state, and a one-time leading presidential candidate should’ve bested Trump, whose main claims to fame were reality TV and real estate. But on November 8th, Trump won a decisive victory with the electoral college (though Clinton won almost 3 million more popular votes). Right after Clinton’s high-profile loss, people were asking “What happened?”

The 2016 election will undoubtedly inspire a library of books trying to figure out how Trump succeeded and Clinton failed. Two of the earliest entries in this topic is Susan Bordo’s The Destruction of Hillary Clinton and Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes. Bordo’s book is a personal response to  Clinton’s loss – she is biased toward Clinton, and creates a long list of factors that contributed to Clinton’s loss including James Comey and the FBI, Putin and Russia, Bernie Sanders and the Bernie Bros, sexism, and misogyny. There is one major person that seems to be completely blameless: Clinton herself.

Thankfully, Allen and Parnes have written a far more nuanced and fair representation of the 2016 election. Though sympathetic and fair toward Clinton, the two writers present an alarming picture of a behemoth of a campaign that is in disarray. Though the writers understand that Comey’s repeated interference in the election made a difference, the duo also look at Clinton’s role in the demise of her presidential aspirations.


Bordo’s point of view is highly skewed, but that wouldn’t necessarily be such a bad thing, if she was a little more honest about Clinton. It seems as if Clinton could do no wrong, and it appears as if everybody in the world had a hand in the campaign’s failure, except for Clinton. She’s not wrong in that the factors she list did have negative consequences on Clinton’s fortune. But what about the candidate herself?

According to Allen and Parnes, Clinton was a figurehead of a sprawling and disorganized campaign that was split into various factions, each competing with each other for the candidate’s ear. Clinton also guarded herself with an inner circle that was made up of sycophants, all acting as yes people to Clinton to protect their jobs and their proximity to her. And Clinton herself at times appears to be self-serving, self-defeating, and unable to successfully communicate her message to the voters. Her ineptitude and mercurial temper makes Shattered feel like a script for Veep.  The research that Allen and Parnes did – including extensive interviews – means that the book is chockfull of testimonials from insiders who worked in the doomed campaign.

Bordo has done her homework, too, but most of it works as a book-length essay than a work of investigative writing. That doesn’t mean Bordo’s book isn’t worthy or valid; but it does mean that if one reads The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, one should manage the expectations. To Bordo’s credit, she never claims that her book is a definitive and journalistic take on the elections. Instead, it works more as a theoretical interpretation.

For Hillary Clinton supporters, Shattered will be a sometimes hard read. Though they ultimately paint Clinton as a decent, if flawed, candidate, they do not hold back. The Clinton in Shattered can be tempestuous, temperamental, paranoid, defensive, and at times, lacking in self-awareness. Her qualifications and her intellect is never in question, nor is her patriotism or her desire to do good. But the writers also put those positive qualities in context; they don’t allow for her estimable pluses to negate her unequivocal negatives.

As much as these books are on Hillary Clinton, they’re also about a DNC that needs serious evaluation and a reset button. That is the ultimate takeaway from both: the DNC cannot operate business as usual anymore because even with a supremely talented and qualified candidate like Hillary Clinton, it can still lose to a patently unsuitable candidate.

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‘Veep’ predicts the horror that was the 2016 presidential election in its 5th season

Veep‘s 5th season aired from April to June in 2016, three months before the horrifying election day that turned our political landscape into one long, unending Saturday Night Live sketch. In its fifth season, Veep managed to survive the departure of its showrunner, creator Armando Iannucci, intact and deliver 10 satisfying and hilarious episodes. Watching the show after the election takes on added irony, poignancy, and just sheer feelings of the uncanny and just how prescient the show would prove to be.

In the fourth season, President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) found herself in a strange situation on election night. She was tied with her rival (though she won the popular vote – the Electoral College screws over pioneering female presidential candidates even in fiction), which set forth an obscure and arcane set of rules that meant congress would vote for the next president of the United States. Much of season five concerns itself with Selina’s campaign in wooing members of congress to back her.

Throughout the season, Selina is not only trying to hold on to her position as president, she’s also trying to enact legislation that would leave a legacy (she even wants to push forward talks between Tibet and China in hopes of a Nobel Peace Prize). The problem is, as always, Selina and her band of misfits are incapable of not screwing up. In the reality of Veep, a narcissistic nincompoop like Selina Meyer can be president, which is a hilarious conceit. While she has drive and ambition, she’s also lazy, distracted, and extremely self-serving. And it doesn’t help that she’s assembled what is probably the most inefficient team in presidential history. While all of this politicking is going on, Selina’s daughter Catherine is filming Selina’s annus horribilis for a student film.

While Selina’s story takes center stage,  supporting characters have minor arcs, as well. Mike (Matt Walsh) is in the process of adopting a baby from China; Amy (Anna Chlumsky) and Dan (Reid Scott) are going through a will-they/won’t they; and Jonah (Timothy Simons, brilliant and deserving of some serious Emmy love) runs for congress. These stories provide background and often act as white noise for the main plot, which focuses on Selina’s desperate and oft-foiled fight to stay president.

I imagine that the writers of Veep had a field day creating outlandish and ridiculous scenarios to put their characters in – whether it’s in Camp David, where Selina tricks Catherine into thinking they’re sharing a family Christmas (when really, she’s hosting the Chinese president); or in a hospital bed, cheering over her mother’s deathbed because she got good news about her campaign – but watching Veep now feels scary in its accuracy. Selina is not meant to be president and doesn’t want the position out of patriotism or sense of duty. She sees it as a source of power, influence, and wealth. None of that would be so terrible if Selina was good at her job, but she’s a series of blunders and fuck ups, one more catastrophic than the next. And like any seasoned politician, Selina lacks empathy and self-awareness and cannot acknowledge her role in her downfall.

But despite her many flaws and faults, Selina remains a compelling anti-heroine that viewers will want to watch (though I’m not sure how many would root for her). She’s not a stupid woman, nor is she without any political instinct or know how. The problem is she doesn’t have an internal filter – she merely works off her id. And when her blunders result in some devastating loss or setback, her instinct isn’t to have a postmortem to figure out where she went wrong; instead, she lashes out at those around her.

Part of what makes Selina so interesting and fascinating to watch is the furious comedic energy Julia Louis-Dreyfus brings to the role. Veep is a wonderful opportunity for the comedienne to show off not only her genius for savage one liners, but also her estimable skills as a physical comic. Selina Meyer is a monster and there’s something subversive and awesome in watching a female sitcom lead not be likable or adorable. Even in moments when we are naturally drawn toward sympathy, like during the moments when Selina’s mother is dying, Selina still manages to reward our momentary lapses of judgement by doing something heinous and awful, thereby restoring order.

The sixth season started with Selina humbled and bruised. She’s a mere private citizen now, being buried underneath the shadow of the second female president of the United States, Laura Montez, who quickly swallowed up any lasting imprint that Selina left in Washington. The show has taken on unintended shading, given the state of world politics at the moment. It’s satire, but it’s satire that hits uncomfortably close to home. Veep has evolved over its six seasons into a gallows, whistling past the graveyard kind of show. It’s no longer just funny ha-ha, but also funny OhMyGodWhatIsGoingOn. And right now, we could all use some laughs.

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RuPaul’s Drag Race goes Sisters Grimm

The problem with reality show competitions is that sometimes the show runners struggle to come up with meaningful challenges, but often fail, coming up with stupid ideas, instead. Project Runway is a repeat offender (making dresses out of garbage, designing mail carrier uniforms, using material from hardware stores). RuPaul’s Drag Race has some goofy challenges, too – and “Draggily Ever After” is pret-ty goofy. The queens are tasked to create fairy tale princesses, and in a nod toward Disney (though I don’t think the House of Mouse was ever mentioned in the episode), each princess gets a sassy sidekick, too – sort of like the singing rodent or bird that keeps Disney princesses company.

So the queens have to be creative as well as glamorous, and not surprisingly, some queens fail, most do okay, and a couple hit the mark. During the workroom scenes, the queens chat about makeup, until the talk turns to the tragic Orlando Pulse shooting. I was nervous about the inclusion of the tragedy because often reality shows exploit tragic events to manufacture emotion; I also worry when people bring up tragic events and try to center themselves into the narrative, however tenuous their connection is to the tragedy.

It was a relief then, when the queens shared their feelings of Orlando, and it became about how the tragedy impacted the queer community. Cynthia has real, concrete stakes in the tragedy, having lost a good friend. The discussion turns to the feelings of empowerment that is integral to drag. These ladies are flouting societal rules, thumbing their noses at the patriarchy, and as Sasha Velour so sagely said, “It’s so important as queer entertainers to lead the way. We need to come together and be proudly, visibly queer.” I’ll be curious to see if the election will find its way in the show, as well, seeing how political RuPaul has been during the election year.

And even though Orlando has imbued the show some gravitas, the show is still a competition with drag queens, so there were huge doses of absurdity. When the queens were given templates to create their sidekick characters, the challenge took on a Mad Libs kind of tone, with Kimora struggling with the assignment, wondering aloud what an adjective is (Cynthia, putting on her teacher’s cap, did a great job explaining what the word meant). Kimora smugly said, “Thank god I’m pretty…”

Kimora is gorgeous, but she isn’t suited for the competition. She seems a touch bored and not up to the challenge. That she’s in the bottom two is not surprising, and I think that it should’ve been she not Jaymes that should’ve gone home last week. Jaymes was a nervous wreck last week, but I think she would’ve done better with this challenge, at least in creating the sidekick.

But Kimora’s sidekick character to her Tarzan-inspired princess was a boring, robotic mess; she read her nonsensical spiel like she was reading a ransom note.

The other queen on the bottom was Aja, who like Kimora, struggled to make any sense with her sidekick story. Choosing to be some kind of volcano princess. Though she was livelier than Kimora (which isn’t saying much, ‘cuz the RuPaul wax figure was more lively), her makeup was awful – too dark and messy – and she made the tacky mistake of wearing chaps.

The two lip synch to Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero,” a choice pick. Neither queen did great, though, Kimora’s phoned-in performance sent her home. It’s always funny when gorgeous, snotty, know-it-alls go home early.

As for the winner, Trinity wins with an under the sea outfit, topped by an impressive headdress of seaside paraphernalia.

I have to say that even though Kimora’s cartoon was a disaster, none of the characters were good because the premise was destined to fail: these computer cartoons had the queen’s face inserted, and each had to give a stupid monologue to explain the relationship each sidekick has with its princess. None of the queens have displayed the kind of comedic talent of Bianca Del Rio or Pandora Boxx, but Charlie Hides’ British fairy godmother comes close to the wit the challenge was hoping to achieve.

The guest judges this week were singer/actor Cheyenne Jackson and YouTube sensation Todrick Hall, whose made a career out of creating Disney-inspired music videos, so it’s super appropriate that he’s a judge, though both Hall and Jackson have such limited screen time, that neither makes a big impression. (which is a shame, because Hall is a fabulous talent, and should be tapped to be a permanent judge)

“Draggily Ever After” is the kind of Drag Race that highlights the show at its best and its worst, and it shows off its contestants at their best and worst. The runway, for the most part, was serviceable and eye-popping, and the creative part of the challenge was a messy hot mess.

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Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and Oscar: ‘Feud’ – “And the Winner is… (The Oscars of 1963)” a recap

And the Winner Is... (The Oscars of 1963) thumbnailI’m someone who thinks the Academy Awards is nonsense. The pomp and circumstance and the self-importance is absurd. But I’m not an actor. For an actor, an Oscar can mean more roles, better roles, more money, respect from the industry. In Feud, Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) sees the Oscar as a validation of her gifts. She’s proud as hell of her win for Mildred Pierce (as she should be), and desperately hopes to get nominated for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, a project she was chiefly responsible for. So when at the end of last week’s episode, we learn in horror that she doesn’t get nominated, the focus moves to Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon).

Throughout the series, Davis has been the workhorse, there to do a good job. But in “And the Winner Is…” we see that even a great artist like she isn’t above coveting awards. She’s hoping to be the first actress to score three Oscars (I believe that record goes to Ingrid Bergman). It makes sense that Davis is nominated for Baby Jane and not Crawford. The latter is solid in the role – even affecting at times – but it’s really Davis who creates something new and novel.

And the cliche runs that being nominated is an honor in itself. But Davis, who racked up 10 nominations, doesn’t really believe that cliche. She wants to win.

And so does Crawford.

This is where “And the Winner Is…” becomes very strange, and very sad.

Crawford and her pal Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) hatch a plan to destroy Davis’ chances of winning. Hopper will inundate her column with bad press about Davis, while Crawford will campaign heavily with the Academy voters to vote for either Anne Bancroft who was nominated for The Miracle Worker or Geraldine Page who was nominated for Sweet Bird of Youth. But of her plan involves meeting with Bancroft and Page and suggesting to each that she’s available to pick up the winner’s Oscar. Page and Bancroft are both stage actresses, even more so than Davis. Bancroft is bowing out of the ceremonies because she’s in the middle of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children.

When Crawford is needling Page (Ryan Murphy muse Sarah Paulson) to skip the Oscar ceremony, the latter is moved to tears at Crawford’s desperate grasp. She hopes that Crawford does show up in front of the cameras so that Hollywood can see “what they did to her” – Funnily enough Murphy’s vision of Joan Crawfor is so far removed from the Faye Dunaway/Mommie Dearest Crawford and in his mind, she’s more of a Marilyn Monroe/Judy Garland Hollywood tragedy.

When Crawford appeals to Bancroft in the same way, it’s even sadder as Bancroft is openly pitying Crawford. And when Bancroft acquiesces to Crawford’s demands, Lange expertly plays a sequence of emotions: cunning, desperation, elation in a few seconds.

And while Joan Crawford is doing her best to manipulate the outcome at the Oscars, Bette Davis is doing her best to keep sane under the pressure. And just as Crawford has a buddy, Davis has one in Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Instead of just popping in as a Greek chorus, de Havilland is a character in this episode. Like Davis, she’s involved in a bitter and public feud of her own, with her sister, actress Joan Fontaine. We get more of Catherine Zeta-Jones’ bizarre interpretation of her character, but we also get something profound: female friendship.

Television is notoriously bad when it comes to showing female friendship. More often, it’s content to show women fighting with each other. That is why Feud may seem a touch regressive, if not for the unsubtle way we’re reminded that Hollywood is sexist AF. It’s good to see Davis find solace and companionship with de Havilland, especially since both women are also in competition with each other for roles. In another parallel, we see de Havilland being offered a Grand Guinol part herself, the schlocky Lady in a Cage (and she’ll later go on to replace Crawford in the Baby Jane? follow up Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte). In 1962, de Havilland was 46 and was facing a lot of the same issues Davis was (in fact, she would only have two more lead films before turning to TV and then retiring), but because of Zeta-Jones’ looks and the focus on Davis, we instead get the impression that de Havilland is doing fine. And this imbalance gives de Havilland a brief role in the show as Davis’ quasi-mentor, someone to guide her through all of this award bullshit with a semblance of dignity.

Still, we know how it all ended. Bancroft won. Sarandon ably played Davis’ shock and hurt at losing the Academy Award. In Murphy’s version of the events, Davis saw this as a chance to reassert herself as a major player in Hollywood. Her loss was a slap in the face. And Crawford, grinning ear-to-ear, glided on the stage and grabbed Bancroft’s Oscar and got to pretend to be a winner for the evening.

And that’s why ultimately, though Davis was the loser, Crawford was the real loser. Crawford believes she’s the cunning sly one for orchestrating this grande plan to get her rival shut out – and we’ll never be sure just how successful Crawford was, but in the diegesis of the episode, we’re led to believe that she and Hopper had some push. So, for once, Crawford’s the one with the upper hand, but her victory is both hollow and pathetic. She didn’t win the Oscar, nor will she be allowed to keep it.

In her memoir, This ‘N That, Davis sniped about Crawford’s Oscar campaign. Though in her version of the events, she only wanted to win the statue because that would mean bigger box office for the film, and more money for its stars. While the tome is surprisingly restraint and respectful of Crawford, she does openly wonder about Crawford’s obsessive desire to spoil the Oscars.

What is especially poignant about this episode is the knowledge that both Davis and Crawford would go on to make cheapie Baby Jane? retreads for a long time. Crawford, especially, never escaped the psycho-biddy genre and would destroy whatever was left of her film career by appearing in one crappy thriller after another. Davis’ film career also suffered as she made one b-movie after another, before being rescued by high-quality TV movies in the late 1970s and 1980s (and a final screen triumph with the well-received Whales of August in 1987). Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was the last true artistic success for both actresses, though – which makes watching Feud all the sadder.

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