Friday, July 31, 2015

The Perils Of A 16th Candidate: Upstaged By The Kardashians?

The announcement of the 16th Dumbo presidential candidate didn't set off Richter-Scale needles anywhere. Probably, the only awareness that a 16th Klown had gotten into the GOP Klown Kar occurred at the bottom of the pile. "Oof!" said former Governor Goodhair and that was about it. If this is (fair & balanced) ado about nothing, so be it.

[x The Nation]
The Lament Of John Kasich
By The Deadline Poet (Calvin Trillin)

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In polls your announcement should give you a
But mine was drowned out by that blustering
The timing of this has me really quite vexed.
Will I be upstaged by Kardashians next? Ω

[Calvin Trillin began his career as a writer for Time magazine. Since July 2, 1990, as a columnist at The Nation, Trillin has written his weekly "Deadline Poet" column: humorous poems about current events. Trillin has written considerably more pieces for The Nation than any other single person. A native of Kansas City, MO, Trillin received his BA from Yale College in 1957. He served in the army, and then joined Time.]

Copyright © 2015 The Nation

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Copyright © 2015 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Meet The $100-Goalie

Kim Kardashian is a piece of work; as member of a kiddie soccer team in Hollywood, she told her coach (also a Hollywood agent) that she didn't want to play goalie, but would play in goal for a hundred bucks. Now Kardashian has monetized celebrity and doesn't do anything for nothing. Ka-ching! If this is a (fair & balanced) tale of riches to more riches, so be it.

[x RS]
Kim Kardashian: American Woman
By Vanessa Grigoriadis

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On a chilly morning during Los Angeles' "May gray," as mist rolls off the sea's marine layer to cool down the city, Kim Kardashian wakes up at 6 a.m. and an hour later heads to her "glam room." That's Kardashian-speak for her capacious dressing room, where even at this early hour, a professional makeup artist and hairstylist have already arrived, awaiting her with hundreds of little brushes, blushes and combs. She relaxes into her chair as layer upon layer is applied — she loves the feeling of getting makeup done, the way you can be at one with your eyeliner — while also glancing at a baby monitor in case North, her two-year-old daughter with husband Kanye West, wakes up. West has his own monitor too, and keeps it close in case North stirs while Kardashian's indisposed. By 9:00, Kardashian is on her way to a meeting in Santa Monica. She hates being late.

Does this sound pretty dull? Yes, but it's the stuff that Kardashian has spun into gold, transforming herself from a beautiful but average L.A. girl into one of the world's top pop icons and megabrands. She is everywhere in the media, from E!'s "Keeping Up With the Kardashians," her 10-season-long TV show that's aired in 160 countries and spawned numerous spinoffs, to her mobile game, which has been downloaded 33 million times, to high-fashion magazines, which have, first grudgingly and then enthusiastically, accepted that the perfect, punctual, prettiest daughter of this extraordinarily powerful matriarchal clan is a force with whom they must reckon.

And as much as her thoughts and actions on this Earth may be quotidian, the way she looks is out of this world. As she strides into the meeting precisely on time and in an outfit made up of colors found exclusively in nature — dark-green ankle-length dress, sand-colored lace-up sandals and tree-bark Céline purse — the effect is like a photorealistic painting, meaning that the Kardashian on the TV screen feels more real than the Kardashian in the room. She's a jungle Aphrodite escaped from a forest of big-booty nymphs, with a mane as thick as a horse's and as black as volcanic rock. Her eyelashes flutter like teeny-tiny go-go dancers' fans. Her nails are small, elegant talons, painted a color that manages to be both onyx and the bloodiest red. But it is Kardashian's body that is the thing, of course, and today, as always, her clothing is so tight it feels transgressive, clinging in particular to that strange, glorious butt, a formerly taboo body part that is now not only an inescapable part of the American erotic but also our best and most welcome distraction from climate change, income inequality and ISIS.

Kardashian, 34, is poised as she takes a seat at a conference table, greeting, "My team who is putting together our new website experience — I don't know if I want to call it a website, to disrespect it." Whalerock Industries develops Web-based, magazine-like, subscription-centered media on the Oprah model. It streams from her glam room and real-time chats with fans, giving makeup tutorials and showcasing her favorite clothes. It's a digitally constructed Kardashian world, on top of the rest of the world, which Kardashian has already made bend to her will. Narcissism isn't Kardashian's thing, per se; it's solipsism, or a mode of living in which the world outside the self doesn't really, materially exist — that's the key here. In the past, she's put it this way: Her life is "like living on 'The Truman Show'."

Now the group turns to a pack of "Kim-ojis" submitted by a graphic designer. "I wanted to do really fun, different emojis that you don't see on your phone," says Kardashian, then asks the group, "Is this designer Kanye-approved?"

Wielding a pen, she mulls over a long list of possible emojis, a mix of objects that she's come into contact with as well as people she knows, striking those that don't meet her approval. "A Speedo doesn't mean anything to me, same with disco-ball earrings," she says. She pauses at emojis of the other Kardashian women, raising the pen a little before swiping again: "I don't want any family members in it," she says. "They'll all want a piece." She keeps going. "But I love a waist trainer, and a Kylie lip. A fur-kini is kind of cute, and a patent pink dress." She smiles. "Oh, a pregnant belly. I can't believe I didn't think of that."

Kardashian may not come off as book smart, but she is extremely savvy and possesses a high EQ, both of which are much more valuable in this day and age. The TV self and Kardashian's real self are "pretty much the same," she says, when asked to define the difference. "When I'm filming, when I'm in my most comfortable state, at my home, with my family — I can't get any more comfortable than that. . . . But there's so much more to me than that, and I believe that I am so much smarter than I'm portrayed."

Who could have foreseen that in 2015 the Kardashians would be the most interesting story in America? But in terms of cultural fault lines, sometimes it seems like Kim Kardashian's creamy thighs bestride an entire nation. She's the immigrant daughter done good, the world's most famous Armenian-American. She's an interracial pioneer, a Caucasian woman married to a black rapper who pushes the boundaries of race not only in music, but also by demanding a ticket into the predominantly European club of fashion and design. She's at once a sexual muse sparking creativity in her husband, and also a working mom. She's outrageously feminine in an era of sex-role instability and gender-queer Miley, and also the stepdaughter of Caitlyn (nee Bruce) Jenner, the most famous transgender woman in the world. (When I share these thoughts with Kardashian, however, she says, "I don't look at myself like that. But my husband would.")

Kardashian is also at once extraordinarily human — don't you want to hear about the way she does her makeup? — and a master of what critic Jerry Saltz has called the "new uncanny," or art that blurs the line between human and a robot pretending to be a human. In her video game, you not only can change her clothes and hairstyle, but eye color and skin color. And over the course of the several times we meet, her skin shifts from a deep equatorial brown to a laid-out-in-Palm Springs honey to a morning soy creamer, depending on the makeup and tanning spray. "Something about Kim is very appealing to digital natives," says prominent tech journalist and Re/code editor Kara Swisher. Kardashian also says things like this: "When I go on vacation, I only go to the beach certain times of the day, and lay out by the pool the rest of the time," because the sun is often too flat, and if someone takes a picture of her, she'll get caught looking less Kim Kardashian-like than she'd like. "In Miami, I'll get up at six and swim in the ocean at seven in the morning right before the harsh sun comes up — and the pictures always look amazing."

What else makes Kardashian so weirdly appealing? At one point, I begin telling her that I also think that in a country of dysfunctional families, the fact that her family communicates is also amazing, but all I can get out is "and the other thing about you that's appealing—" before she interrupts to say, "Right, I think it's great that the show is aspirational. I started off in a small apartment, and now I'm in this huge home." That someone might not find the Kardashians aspirational is simply something she would not consider. She's not conflicted about the point of life: It's to be happy and make money, and she's doing both. Kardashian is a nice person — there's no way to spend time with her and not come away with that impression.

Does she hear the haters, sharpening their sticks over her Pandora-like release of crass commercialism and oversharing on the world? She doesn't read anything about herself anymore, not tabloids, no Google alerts, nothing. Nevertheless, the hate came to her one day in May at Barnes & Noble in Manhattan at the book signing of Selfish (2015), a book consisting of a collection of her selfies from the past eight years. Inside the midtown shop, she sat on a carpeted dais surrounded by 300 fans, few of whom had shown up for a signed book — they wanted selfies with their selfie idol, the woman who has made "a science of the selfie," as Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom puts it, adding, "Instagram wouldn't be the same without Kim."

Today, at first, there's a ban on selfies, enforced by a bodyguard and put into place in order to move people through as quickly as possible. After staring into the eyes of too many devastated teenagers, Kardashian soon overturns this decree. "If you're fast, you can take a selfie," she says, decisively. "That's what the book's about." Fans rotate in at an incredible clip, blurting out, "You're like a Barbie!" or, "You are a role model for my daughters," or, "I want to say, 'Fuck the haters,' because you're amazing." Girls in pink bedazzled shirts reading 'All Hail KKW' tell her they missed school for this — "Oh, no, I don't want to get you in trouble!"

At the sight of her, gay men cry, and then recover quickly to take the perfect selfie. There are grandmas, a few straight guys and lots of people who just don't look like they should be here, which is what makes it hard to identify the half dozen or so animal-rights activists with sleeve tattoos and gauge earrings in the line, who wait until they're right in front of Kardashian's dais before beginning to attack. "Fifty animals skinned for one fur coat, and you dress your kid like that?" they angrily shriek at Kardashian. "Shame on you!" "You're the most disgusting human being on the planet!"

Kardashian's face freezes, the lips in a rictus grin. This is a special day, and they will not ruin it — she will not allow it. The bodyguard disappears the angry activists, and soon everything's back to normal, with another teenage fan worshiping at the altar. "You've inspired me to be hot and famous," she says. The two of them take a pouty-face selfie. "Aw," says Kardashian. "I love you."

The activists waited outside Barnes & Noble for Kardashian, but she outsmarted them, sending her car to idle at the front door while she sailed through the side. Today in Santa Monica, though, there isn't anyone on her tail, not even paparazzi. "I love these days when no one's following," she says, stepping into a black SUV and heading to Hillstone restaurant for lunch. Talking to Kardashian can be fun — when we first met, we spent 20 minutes talking about how we don't like dogs, and the kind of dogs we don't like — "I am so not the type of girl who carries a dog in my purse," she explains — though at other times, she's like a politician, answering the question she wants to hear instead of the one she was asked.

In an orange leather booth toward the back of Hillstone, Kardashian orders an average-size meal: grilled artichokes with a side of rémoulade, French fries and a veggie burger without the bun. Her weight is a touchy issue. She eats about half of what she's served, with perfect table manners and a neatness that includes absent-mindedly folding and unfolding her white cloth napkin after the meal has been cleared.

For a while, Kardashian talks about growing up, the way that her dad, Robert, was the disciplinarian and her mom, Kris, a born-and-bred California girl who met Robert at a racetrack while clad in a snappy outfit paired with a necklace reading 'Oh Shit,' was a fun-loving yet warlike Mother Goddess who would do anything to protect her baby gods: Khloe, a spitfire Athena, with a thunderbolt of jokes; Kourtney, puss-faced Hestia, keeping close to the house; Rob, a jolly Apollo; and Kim, steady and sweet. From Armenia, Robert Kardashian's family immigrated to California early in the 20th century and pursued the American dream by making a fortune in the meatpacking industry. Robert got out of the family business and was a success, founding the influential music-industry publication and conference Radio & Records, and then selling music and videos to movie theaters to run before the films.

"Music was always such a huge part of our life," says Kim. "As kids, we were at concerts like Michael Jackson every weekend. My first concert was Earth, Wind and Fire. I was so young — we were walking to our seats, the lights went off, and I was so scared." She describes superstar manager Irving Azoff as being "as close as an uncle." He says the young Kim was "a bright light destined for great things, and always a great little businesswoman. I coached her soccer team and, once, she said, 'I don't want to play goalie, but for $100 I'll be goalie,' and she actually convinced me to give it to her."

As an adolescent, she liked Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, and played Mary J. Blige and Jodeci on her bedroom record player. "I still make mix CDs," she says. "I have an older computer with a disk drive so I can do it." In high school, she was obsessed with 'NSync and the Backstreet Boys — "really obsessed, though I was more of a Backstreet girl." She also listened to Snoop, Dre and Ice Cube. Did she daydream about being a girl in a rap video? "No," she says. "The runners at my dad's office would say, 'I can't wait until she's 18, I want to go on a date with her,' and I'd be like, 'Not a chance, get away.' I always had a boyfriend. I loved having a boyfriend."

In her teens, she dated TJ Jackson, Michael Jackson's nephew, for several years. Her dad "explained to me that he's had a lot of interracial friends, and it might not be the easiest relationship. He said I should prepare myself for people to say things to me. . . . When I was growing up, when I was in high school, I'd get magazines and see interracial couples and think, 'They are so cute.' I've always been attracted to a certain kind of look." Of the Jacksons, she says, "They were the nicest family I've ever met. . . . Michael definitely was never this disreputable person."

When Kardashian was 10 years old, her parents divorced, with her mother quickly marrying Jenner. The kids split their time between their parents' homes, though Kim was living at her dad's house when O.J. Simpson was accused of murder in 1994. Simpson briefly moved into Robert's house, living in Khloe's room. "It was surreal, with Johnnie Cochran and Robert Shapiro and all these guys having meetings at my dad's house," she says. Kris was close with Nicole Brown Simpson and believed that O.J. was guilty, creating a massive amount of tension in the family. "I definitely took my dad's side," Kim says. "We just always thought my dad was the smartest person in the world, and he really believed in his friend." As far as what she believes now, she says, "It's weird. I just try not to think about it."

Kardashian doesn't drink or do drugs except for "five shots of vodka in Vegas every three years," she says. Envisioning herself as a clothing-boutique owner, she took college classes locally but didn't graduate, and her rebellion from her family, if there was one, was her getting secretly married to music producer Damon Thomas at 20. "She was a teenager then, and teenagers do a lot of crazy things," Kris Jenner says. Kardashian explains it this way: "I was very happy at home learning how to cook and clean and keep a house. I knew that was where I wanted to end up."

In 2003, Robert Kardashian died suddenly of cancer, and in 2004, Kim's marriage broke up. Soon, she was rolling with Paris Hilton and the "celebutante" crew. "We'd go anywhere and everywhere just to be seen," Kardashian says, matter-of-factly. "We knew exactly where to go, where to be seen, how to have something written about you. All you had to do is go to this restaurant, or this party, talk about whatever you want to talk about, and it would be in the paper the next day." What about the phase when some members of the clique, most notably Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, were caught by paps exiting cars without underwear? "I rarely wear underwear, but that never happened to me," she says. "I was never drinking. . . . I think that saved me a lot."

In 2007, she passed Hilton in terms of popularity by enduring an infamous sex-tape scandal. She heard rumors in L.A. that the tape she made with her ex-boyfriend Ray J, the singer Brandy's kid brother, was making the rounds, but "I just never thought [the rumors] were real," she says. Then, "I was on a trip to New York, and I'd landed, and then someone called me — maybe my sister? I didn't have a Blackberry then. . . . I think I went right to my mom's house, and she was there with me every step of the way. She didn't call me screaming or call me crying. She was just there. She was like, 'I don't know what you want me to do.' So we went through it." How did she stay sane? "There was a period of time when I just stayed home. Khloe's like, 'I've never met someone who's moved back in with her mother as many times as you.' "

Given that Hilton had experience with a sex tape too, did Kardashian commiserate with Hilton about the scandal? "No," she says. "I don't think she was that happy. We didn't really talk about it. I probably would have thought, 'Oh, my gosh, let me give her advice,' but we had no communication. But our friendship had fizzled before that." Did she ever figure out who leaked the tape? "We did, and we're in major confidentiality, so I can't talk about it." Does she still think about the fact that a great deal of humanity has seen her in flagrante? She folds the napkin in half, and then in a neat square. "I don't really think about it," she says quietly. "I thought about it for a long time. But when I get over something, I get over it."

As Kardashian finishes her meal, saying, "I've got to get this food out of my face," I ask the question that must be put to her after Lena Dunham, a prominent feminist if there ever was one, posed, unironically, with a copy of Selfish: "Kim Kardashian, are you a feminist?"

"I've never really been one on labels, and I don't like to push my view," she says, folding the napkin again. "If I feel something, it's how I feel. I never say, 'I feel this way, so you should feel that way.' Not that there's anything wrong with it, but I just am who I am. But, yeah." She smiles. "I think you would call me a feminist."

Kardashian has not extensively studied the knowledge found in schools; she draws money and power toward her by the force of intuition. On her show, she and her sisters have their own language on issues more complex than glam rooms: They don't know things, they feel things; they don't want something, they deserve it. At the same time that they have championed the waist-trainer product, which bears much resemblance to a Victorian corset, they also exhibit an attitude toward their bodies that can only be called revolutionary. Women have long asked for fair vagina representation in media, for their vaginas not only to be sexual objects but to smell and bleed and pop out babies, and on their show, Kardashian vaginas do all that and more, which is very different than other pop-culture vaginas.

And if you doubt they are influential, consider that "between all us girls, we have 300 million followers on social media," says Kris. Here is the way Kardashian describes some of her selfies: "I do shoots that are nude, and I don't want to say every girl, but all my girlfriends send me these sexy selfies of themselves," she says. "Just being like, 'Oh, my God, I've been working out for two weeks — look at how good of shape I'm in.' Girls send them to each other. I don't want to say it's normal, but it's just what I've been used to. . . . And I think it's part of the whole selfie phenomenon." So it's not about the male gaze? "I guess not," she says uncertainly. "You wouldn't send the picture if you didn't like it."

I next ask, "But when you look at sexy pictures of yourself, is it sexually exciting?" She shakes her head violently, quickly changing the subject. So I say, "In 20 years, do you want to be remembered as a sex symbol or a businesswoman or what?" She says, "Both. I think you can be both. You can have it all."

We start talking about West. Is she his muse, or is he her consort? Here's the way she describes their relationship: "I think we're definitely opposites. I calm him down, and he pumps me up." When they're home, I ask, does West rant and rave while she's secretly praying he would be quiet? "No," she says, stiffening a little. "At home, he loves to watch movies. Anything animated he'll watch with North."

West doesn't want to be on "Keeping Up With the Kardashians," which is why he isn't, most of the time. "And I respect that," she says. "You can't expect me to jump up onstage and start singing — it's not what I do." But he has spent the past few years dressing his wife. "The makeover Kanye has given me is amazing," she says. She's set a fashion trend — pairing a blouse as tight as a leotard with an overcoat — and was early to the current contouring fad in makeup. "I'm obsessed with contouring," she says. "My nose is a completely different nose because of contouring." Would she have started wearing runway fashion if she hadn't married West? "No," she says, then reconsiders. "Well, you know what? I think it would have taken me a lot longer to figure it out."

West is the product of a strong mother, to whom he was famously devoted, and it makes sense that he's found his way into the Kardashian matriarchy. If Kris says she is Kim's "twin soul," and Kim says she's Kanye's "twin soul," where does Kris fit into Kim and Kanye's relationship? "A lot of people don't see the real, soft, wonderful side of Kanye," says Kris. "We fell in love with who Kim fell in love with. I will never be able to replace the relationship he had with his mom, but I sure can make him know he's loved, unconditionally, and we would do anything for him."

But what about the matriarchy's relationship to the men in their lives? Many who have heard their siren call end up on the rocks, one way or another. Marriages flounder, substance problems are rampant, and even brother Rob has vanished from the TV show. "It's not that mysterious, what's happening with Rob," Kardashian says. "He has gained weight. He feels uncomfortable being on the show, and that's OK." She pauses. "Do I think he smokes weed, drinks beer, hangs out and plays video games with his friends all day long? Yes." Is she sure that it's not more like hookers and meth at the Ritz? "No, no," she says, laughing a little. "Or he'd be skinny."

The situation with Caitlyn Jenner is more complicated. "I'd heard a rumor when I was 11 or 12 that he was caught cross-dressing," she says. And then, when she was 22, she walked in on Jenner dressed up in the garage. "I was shaking," she says. "I didn't know if I'd just found out his deepest, darkest secret, and he was going to come after me. I grabbed my duffel bag . . . ran out to the car." Jenner called her on the phone a half hour later, and said, "One day, I'll talk to you about this. Until then, don't tell a soul." I said, "OK." Eight years later, when she was 30 years old, he said, "Let's have that talk."

Before their wedding, Kardashian told West what she knew about Jenner. "I wasn't sure if Bruce was going to be comfortable walking me down the aisle. He had just had his trachea shaved, so I knew something was going on. I thought that Kanye should know that this is the reality about one of his daughter's grandparents." She was afraid of what West might think. "[Kanye] obviously moves to his own drum," she says. "He lives his life the way he wants, a really authentic life, and he was like, 'If you can't be authentic and you can't live your life, what do you have?' "

Back in the SUV after the meal, Kardashian starts talking about her blond hair, and the way gossip blogs were confused about why she so quickly dyed it back to black. She wanted it dark for a trip to Armenia, plus what pregnant woman wants chemicals on her hair? "I'd have done anything for this [pregnancy] to work out," she says, then looks at me hard. It's a scoop, I think — am I grateful? "Anyway," she says, turning to look out the window, "that's one of the reasons I dyed it back." She pats her stomach. "That was the most satisfying meal, you have no idea. It's going to keep me full."

What else should one know about Kim Kardashian? She's a prolific handwritten-thank-you-card sender, and a devoted watcher of "Dateline" and forensic TV shows. She's not allergic to anything and doesn't usually drink coffee because she's "not into the taste." She won't eat anything with mustard — or sardines, escargot, "anything like that. Kanye can be more of a fancy eater than me." She's taking piano lessons — is that hard? "Um, I mean, it's just if you put the time into it," she says. She's also a car girl: "Cars don't mean anything to Kanye — he hasn't bought a new car in seven years. I have a personal relationship to my cars." She adds, "I love, love, love a Rolls-Royce. I know this may sound bratty, but I'll own up to it: It's the best car if you have kids, spacewise. It's low, and I like a low car to put in the car seat and the baby."

The SUV begins rolling into the loading dock of a furniture store, where she's meeting Kris and Kylie to tape a little bit of the TV show. If the show were a total lie, it would never work; but one imagines that it is not completely real, either. "Oh, good, the lighting panel is here," says Kardashian, spying a crew member whose exclusive job is to hold up a special lighting panel so that the family looks perfect at all times.

The setup today is Kylie needs furniture for her new house. Does Kim herself have a shopping addiction? "Well, I have a saving addiction right now, so that makes up for it — I put myself on a budget," she says. "That's why I started the eBay store a long time ago. I told myself I had to come up with a certain amount of money if I wanted to spend that money for the month. And I still try to keep myself in that budget. I sell stuff I've worn, if I don't archive it." She adds, somewhat unbelievably, "I try not to shop that much."

In the furniture store, Kylie and Kris are wandering around endless living-room setups, discussing getting measurements for a chaise lounge and if small mother-of-pearl and black tables might be cute for Kylie's new house. Kim slips a microphone under her green dress to join the conversation. "Are you sure you want to go black and white like Mom?" she asks. Kylie plays the typical teenager who dips in and out of attention, sometimes looking at her phone, other times chugging from a water bottle and staring into space. Kris plays the overexcited mom who is watching her almost-grown daughter move into her first home and wants everything to be exactly right. It's the roles they really inhabit, or so they tell us, and the filming — despite the five or so cameramen, lighting-panel guy and sound folks who trail them as they walk, ducking behind gigantic mirrors and floor lamps in order to make sure a crew member is never in the shot — flows easily.

Kardashian stays only 20 minutes and leaves to see her daughter; North was a little sick yesterday, and she made her special bottles of tea with honey. She'll go home to her mansion. West is in his home recording studio and asks if Kardashian would come hang out since they didn't see each other much the day before. "He loves when all the guys are there and they're talking about things, pop-culture events," she says. "They have these think sessions where everyone sits and talks and hangs out, talk about theories and so many different things. I've learned so much, just culturally." She'll go to sleep early, and then the next day do it all again — the makeup, the tweets, the filming, everything that makes her professional and personal life, her human and digital self, the fake and the true, unreal and real, so intertwined and seamless. We're not done watching yet. Ω

[Vanessa Grigoriadis is a generalist writer for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and for New York magazine. She received a BA (English) from Wesleyan University.]

Copyright Ÿ 2015 Rolling Stone

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Is It Possible That Charly Slagle Might Give Up The Pipes For Blogging?

Brian Sweeney comes as close to seeing under the kilts of the Stuart Highland Pipe Band as is decently possible. It is a mysterious world of Scottish lore and tradition and present-day multi-tasking: piper or drummer on weekends and insurance adjuster on weekdays. If this is study of (fair & balanced) Scottish esoterica, so be it.

[x Boston 'Zine]
By Chris Sweeney

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Adam Holdaway is tipsy. In the past hour, he has gone from downing plastic cups of Steam Whistle pilsner to swigging Johnnie Walker Black Label and Jameson straight from the bottle. Kneeling on the first seat of a charter bus in front of 48 other passengers, his Somerville accent slurs over the PA system: Remember, he warns, “We can’t go through the border with open containers.”

It’s dusk on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and Holdaway, along with the rest of the Massachusetts-based Stuart Highland Pipe Band—arguably the best competitive bagpiping outfit in the United States—have had a very long day. The band, known as the Stewies for short, is coasting home from the Kingston Scottish Festival, a cutthroat clash of traditional dancing and bagpiping staged on a campground in Ontario. While such anachronistic activities may conjure up images of "Braveheart’s" lush landscapes, suffice it to say that the venue looked more like the set of "Trailer Park Boys" than a proper battlefield for North America’s finest practitioners of the Scottish arts.

Here at home, the average Bostonian is most likely to associate bagpipes with parades, funerals, and the Dropkick Murphys. There is, however, an insular group of competitive pipers who can harness the sharp, searing cacophony of the instrument—part atonal yawp, part skull-splitting drone—and make it sing. Those graced with such virtuosic skills are rarely the ones performing at your neighborhood bar on St. Patrick’s Day or marching down Main Street on the Fourth of July. To hear their talents, you need to head to far-flung Scottish festivals and Highland Games, where bands battle one another for international supremacy.

The world of competitive piping isn’t entirely new to me. Growing up, I had a few friends who started playing as tweens and earned college scholarships for it. I’ve seen guys roll out of cars after competition weekends with hangovers that would make Hemingway cringe. I’ve heard the tale of the piping priest who puked all over himself on the bus, the gent whose beer shits burst from his kilt and splattered down his leg mid-performance, and the overseas drum corps that railed through an eight ball at every practice.

So when I began following the Stewies this past January, I had visions of a Hells Angels–Mötley Crüe mash-up—in kilts, of course. But while they may be insane, they’re not crazy in the manner of Sonny Barger or Tommy Lee. Instead, their brand of lunacy is a rabid fanaticism for an instrument rooted in medieval warfare. Each competitor on this bus has devoted an ungodly amount of time, patience, and dollars to one of history’s most misunderstood musical pursuits. For the love of the ancient craft, they don wool kilts and knee-high knit “hose” in the dog days of summer, marching through open fields and baking in the sun. Band members include wunderkind teenagers who attend bagpiping summer camp, drum freaks who spend hours debating color schemes of snare shells, and professionals from every rung of the career ladder, who burn through a year’s worth of vacation days when competition season arrives.

As the bus winds its way through Canadian pastures, the mood is dark and getting darker. Sitting immediately behind me, chaperoned by his father, is a 15-year-old they call the ManChild, a Sagamore Beach–born boy named Evan McManus. To my right is Erik Van der Leeuw, a cop with a telltale buzz cut who’s been munching expired Imodium A-D tablets and regretting last night’s order of clams from Jumpin’ Jack’s Drive-In. Over there is snare drummer Don MacLeod, a 54-year-old engineer at Raytheon whose father founded the Stewies back in 1964. A few rows back, Campbell Webster—at 18 the youngest professional piper in the United States—empties what’s left of a Johnnie Walker bottle into a keg cup. Further down the aisle are tenor drummers Lorna McGonigal, who turns 26 at midnight, and Amanda Forster, who graduated college one day ago. Instead of partying with friends, Forster ditched the celebrations to spend her holiday weekend traveling to rural Ontario for a performance that lasted five minutes and 42 seconds.

Right now, nobody onboard wants to admit it, but today’s competition was a big deal—the season opener in the competitive bagpiping schedule, and a rare opportunity for the Stewies to face off against other top-level bands before heading to Scotland in August for the World Pipe Band Championships, an annual event that attracted 30,000 spectators last year and was streamed live to U.K. audiences on the BBC.

During today’s competition, the Stewies played big, in sound and in size—seven snare drummers, three tenor drummers, a bass drummer, and 21 pipers. Hours after the results were announced, their performance was uploaded to YouTube and has been viewed by thousands. In the following weeks, it will be analyzed and scrutinized by discerning ears around the world. When the Stewies are on point, tearing through a medley with their drones locked and snares sharpened, it’s a sensory experience that can spark a primal desire to chug a keg of ale and bareknuckle box the ghost of William Wallace. But achieving this thunderous output is a study in harmony. Competitions are judged on the integration of pipes and drums, the quality of the group’s sound, and its precision, among other factors. Rarely does one player make or break a performance. This afternoon’s competition, however, wasn’t like most.

As the sun drops and the U.S. border draws closer, the darkness on the bus flickers and then, briefly, lifts: A dozen or so bandmates begin chanting, “Char-ly. Char-ly. Char-ly.” Campbell Webster chuckles, offers me a gulp of scotch, and joins the saucy chorus: “Char-ly, Char-ly.”

Charly Slagle is a 25-year-old piper who’s been with the Stewies since 2011. He flew in from Denver, where he moved a few months ago, for today’s event. Exhausted, Charly is a few beers deep and doesn’t care for the attention. “Definitely one of the longest days of my life,” he’d later recall.

The day starts at 6:30 a.m., when carloads of Stewies pull into a parking lot behind Macy’s at the Crossgates Mall, in Albany, New York. Though headquartered just outside of Boston, the band attracts elite players from New Jersey to New Hampshire. Today’s itinerary is not for the weary: On the road by 7 a.m., drive to Canada, rehearse, compete, drink, climb back onto the bus, and return to the Albany mall’s parking lot by 1:30 a.m.

Make no mistake: Pipe bands do not travel light. It’s windy outside as players load the undercarriage of the bus with an endless array of items: pipes, drums, tuners, harnesses, kilts, ties, vests, dress shirts, brogues, Glengarries, capes, cases of water, a few bottles of beer and booze. At 7:09 a.m. we’re rolling, and Adam Holdaway, the pipe major, is on the PA for the first time of the day. “Thanks for being on time everyone,” he says. “That’s a fucking record first.”’

Today, the Stewies are out to prove a point—that they deserve to be in Grade 1, bagpiping’s elite upper echelon. To understand the chip on their shoulder, and the blend of eagerness and anxiety looming over the 222-mile ride north, we need to venture briefly into the weirdly bureaucratic weeds of competitive piping and the long, sometimes violent history of the Great Highland bagpipe.

Early versions of the instrument date back to at least the 16th century, when Scottish clans would blast battle tunes to ignite the warrior spirit and intimidate opponents before slaughtering one another in bloody, ruthless clashes. As the region stabilized over time and warlords stopped fighting, they needed something to fill the competitive void, so they sent their greatest athletes, their best dancers, and their finest pipers to huge Olympics-like competitions known as Highland Games. The current championships are descendents of these games.

Today, bagpiping is a worldwide pursuit: There are more than 285 competitive bands in the United States alone, made up of thousands of pipers and drummers. The bands are divided into grades based on skill: Grade 5 is the lowest, akin to Little League; Grade 1 is the majors. To compete at the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow—attracting more than 200 entrants from countries such as Japan, Oman, Pakistan, Ireland, France, and Canada—bands must register with the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association, commonly known as the RSPBA, which uses a grading system nearly identical to the one in America. For years the Stewies were, by both U.S. and RSPBA standards, a Grade 2 band. But in May 2014, Holdaway received a letter from the RSPBA informing him that the Stewies had been bumped up to Grade 1. In its letter, the RSPBA said the decision was based on the fact that the Stewies had absorbed several players from a respected Grade 1 band in Albany that had shut down.

For those who read Pipes Drums magazine religiously and scour bagpiping message boards, the Stewies’ upgrade was shocking, and high international drama. After reading the letter, Holdaway felt blindsided. It was as if the Pawtucket Red Sox had been called into Fenway for Game 7 of the World Series. “It was an oh-shit moment,” he says.

The upgrade meant that the band now had just weeks to orchestrate and master an additional medley. Many of the Stewies were pissed that they had spent months practicing for Grade 2, where they expected to place among the top teams, but now—having to compete in the major leagues—were almost sure to be creamed. Rumors spread through the piping community that a disgruntled Albany player or a pissed-off Grade 2 competitor in Scotland had tipped off the RSPBA about the Stewies’ influx of talent. Holdaway even went so far as to formally appeal the decision—asking to be moved back down to the minors—to no avail.

Here’s the thing, though—in Glasgow, the Stewies exceeded everyone’s expectations. “We were one place away from actually qualifying [for the finals], believe it or not,” Holdaway says. “We had nothing to lose, and I think everyone just left it all out on the field. It spoke volumes.” In light of the group’s 2014 world-championship performance, U.S. pipe-band officials decided to upgrade the Stewies as well, making them one of only two Grade 1 bands in the country. (The other is California’s LA Scots, a rival the Stewies hope to stomp at this year’s world championships.)

Which brings us to today’s competition in Ontario: It’s the Stewies’ North American debut at the premier level, and the first time they’ve competed since the 2014 world championships. The stakes are high. There are naysayers who argue that the band is a fluke and didn’t deserve the upgrade. A win at a season opener, on foreign soil, would send shock waves from Boston to Scotland and silence their critics. To emerge victorious this afternoon, they will need to outperform three other Grade 1 bands, all Canadian powerhouses: The Toronto Police Pipe Band, the Ottawa Police Service Pipe Band, and the Peel Regional Police Pipe Band.

Near the Canadian border, the bus passes a final American outpost, Fort Drum. Pondering its battalions and weaponry, piper Andrew Douglas, the bus’s resident wiseass, quips that it’s a good thing the United States has a fort so far north to defend against possible Canadian attacks. Think John Candy in "Canadian Bacon." A few minutes later, as we arrive at the checkpoint, everyone quiets down save for Douglas, who is still cracking jokes: “I’d laugh if we pull up and they’re like, ‘Is Campbell Webster on the bus?’”

It’s an inside joke, but the truth is that if we do get pulled off the bus for a long and exhaustive probing at the border, it will almost certainly be Campbell Webster’s fault. As everyone onboard knows, the last time the baby-faced teenage phenom with jet-black hair traveled to Canada, he sparked an international incident involving elephant ivory, a set of bagpipes, and the queen of England.

Born in Windsor, England, to a pair of professional bagpipers, Campbell Webster started playing the instrument shortly after his fourth birthday. At the time, his father, Gordon, was serving a four-year stint as Queen Elizabeth’s personal piper. Wherever the queen was in residence—Buckingham Palace, Balmoral Castle, Windsor Castle—so too was Gordon Webster. If the queen desired to have pipes accompanying her eggs Benedict, Gordon performed. “He was actually the only man to ever be the pipe major of both the First and Second Battalions of the Scots Guards, as well as being the personal piper to Queen Elizabeth,” Campbell tells me with pride.

Everyone on the bus is, to some degree, a pipe geek, but Campbell has centered his entire life around the instrument. “Everyone I surround myself with and everything that’s around me is all about piping,” he says. Now living with his family in Concord, New Hampshire, he works 40 hours a week at the nearby Gibson Bagpipes factory, where he spends most of his days painstakingly handcrafting reeds—the small slivers of cane that allow woodwind instruments to produce sound. He also teaches piping, and picks up wedding and graduation gigs in his spare time. Given his pedigree and intense focus, it’s not surprising that the 18-year-old comes off as cocky; he tells me that he’s a stronger piper than his father.

When Gordon Webster retired from competition, he gave Campbell a set of pipes that had been built in 1936, with decorative ivory mounts and ornate silverwork on the drones—the very set he had played every day while serving the queen. Campbell cherished the gift and made it his primary instrument. Less than a week before heading to Scotland with the Stewies for the 2014 world championships, Campbell traveled to Canada for a small competition with his mother, his sister, and his friend Eryk Bean, who is also a piper in the Stewies. After the event, when the group attempted to cross back into Vermont, it was as if the U.S. Border Patrol agents were waiting for them.

“Do you have your ivory pipes with you?” one asked at the checkpoint. Campbell and Bean explained to the agent that they had called ahead to make sure it was legal to travel with their instruments, and had obtained the necessary permits required under the 1975 Convention on International Trade in End angered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Because the pipes were built long before the treaty, the ivory was exempt from seizure. Still, the small Vermont border crossing wasn’t an officially designated port, and there was no Fish and Wildlife inspector on hand to process such items. After hours of frustrating negotiation, the talks began to get heated, and then collapsed. “Finally, one of the [Border Patrol] guys comes out and says, ‘Listen, we seized your pipes. You’re not getting them back. You’re most likely never going to see them again, so you might as well go home.’”

Campbell’s heart sank. The pipes had priceless sentimental and historical value—but, more important, he needed them to compete in Scotland the following week. The Stewies took to social media, and soon the story was picked up by the Associated Press and relayed around the world. Reaction to the news was overwhelming: An online petition demanding that the pipes be returned garnered thousands of signatures in the first 24 hours. Pipe makers in Scotland offered loaners. Conservative bloggers howled about the horrors of a bureaucracy so vast, vile, and heartless that it was seizing heirloom instruments from teenagers. Finally, the Republican U.S. senator from New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte, stepped in and pulled a few strings. Campbell and Bean got their pipes back mere hours before leaving for Scotland. “We made sure that they worked,” Campbell says, “we did a TV interview…and drove straight to the airport.”

And that was the last time Campbell had crossed the Canadian border. The entire incident was such a media nightmare that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that in light of Campbell’s experience, the agency would review its rules pertaining to ivory imports, noting that musicians “have a unique situation.”

Back in the Albany parking lot, Campbell had assured me that he’d left his ivory-adorned pipes at home today. Now, at the checkpoint, two polite and cheerful Canadian officers scan our passports, not bothering to check the undercarriage. Moments later we’re across the border, on schedule. A few minutes past noon, we roll into a dusty parking lot at Rideau Acres Campground in Ontario. It’s go time. Holdaway grabs the PA: “I want everyone in uniform by a quarter to two. I don’t want people scrambling to get their shit together.”

Pipe bands are not democracies; they are dictatorships with strict chains of command that roll up to one of two leaders: the pipe major and the drum sergeant. The two men who presently reign over the Stewies are Holdaway, who’s been with the band since 2002, and drum sergeant Scott Fletcher, who joined in 2012.

Standing 6-foot-1 with a broad chest and a cinderblock head, Holdaway cuts an imposing figure when dressed in full uniform. The 34-year-old grew up in Somerville, where as a kid he’d ride his bike the length of the city’s Memorial Day Parade every year so he could listen to the crew of parading pipers. “The sound and the pageantry of the uniforms really kind of got to me,” he says. He picked up a practice chanter—an instrument similar to the plastic recorders forced on children in elementary school—and learned “Amazing Grace” the first night. He took classes, which in turn opened up doors to a few local bands, which in turn benefited from Holdaway’s youthful ambition. He tried a year of college in North Carolina on a piping scholarship before returning to the area and staking his livelihood on his talents.

If you want to piss off Holdaway, all you have to do is ask what’s under his kilt, do your best Mike Myers–inspired Fat Bastard impression, or tell him that his instrument sounds like a bag of drowning cats. Piping is Holdaway’s life, and his only means of supporting his wife and soon-to-be-born son. Whereas most Stewies are weekend warriors with full-time jobs, Holdaway is a working musician who takes on 200 to 250 piping gigs a year—weddings and funerals, corporate fundraisers, private parties. Like any good dictator, Holdaway can dress down the rank and file with a few words and a sharp tone, then lift their spirits with his next breath. During a practice early in the season, he cringed when he heard a young player, whose instrument was woefully out of tune, strike a sour note. “That’s my backup bagpipe that I play at negative-22-degree funerals,” he scowled at the offender. “Hopefully you can get yours to sound like it.” Minutes later, though, he reassured everyone that they were “further ahead than [they’ve] ever been in February.”

Leading the drum corps is Scott Fletcher, who is far more subdued than his counterpart. The 27-year-old is 5-foot-5 with a carved jawline swathed in stubble. Like many of the Stewies, Fletcher came to piping through his family: His dad was a piper, and his two older sisters were accomplished Highland dancers. He exhibited the markings of a prodigy from the moment he picked up the sticks at age six. Together, the family performed at Faneuil Hall, Harvard Square, and the Boston Common, busking for loose change. As Fletcher excelled, he found himself on bigger stages. In high school, he was the North American Amateur Drumming Champion—a fact he made abundantly clear to his school’s marching-band instructor when he quit in order to focus solely on playing in pipe bands. “I was a little wanker at that stage,” he says. “I was beating people three times my age, and I rose through the ranks really quickly. I got to the pro class within just a few years.”

Fletcher, who works as a consultant for an insurance company, had crossed paths with Holdaway countless times over the years, but it wasn’t until 2012 that they joined forces under the Royal Stuart tartan. The Stewies have thrived under their leadership, and the band now has more than 70 dues-paying members. In addition to the Grade 1 ensemble, the Stuart Highlanders also have bands at Grade 5 and Grade 4. Having multiple bands helps lower the barrier of entry to the craft and creates a natural pipeline of fresh talent to be groomed for Grade 1.

Once the bus unloads its passengers onto the Ontario campgrounds, the Stewies split into clusters of drummers and pipers. As far as competition venues go, this is as bare-bones as it gets. A dirt parking lot gives way to a few hundred acres of flat fields littered with picnic tables, porta-potties, and a midway of Canadians selling everything from Celtic jewelry to barbecued brisket. Toward the center there’s a stretch of grass—roughly half a football field long—that’s been spray-painted with a white starting line and the white circles in which the bands must perform. With their gear unloaded, the Stewies stake out a small plot behind a few mobile homes and claim it as their rehearsal turf.

In a corner of the park, young girls in dresses of shimmering green and red tartan leap, skip, and twist through centuries-old Highland dance moves. The beer tent serves cups of Steam Whistle and a stand sells pink-hued sausages the size of billy clubs. Vendors hawk argyle wellies and sweatshirts adorned with the Union Jack. The Kiltmaker booth, run by a woman named Margaret Jackson, will sell you an eight-yard, hand-sewn kilt for between $780 and $840, depending on the tartan. Nearby, another booth offers a 52-inch William Wallace sword for $130, a medieval warrior ax for $80, and a "Walking Dead" sword with a leather shoulder strap for $350.

After an hour spent traipsing through the world of tartans, sausages, and cheap beer, I make my way back to the bus, where Holdaway informs me that he’s cut one young piper from today’s performance for hitting a single wrong note in rehearsal, calling him “a liability.” Fletcher has also decided to cut a drummer who has yet to master the rapid-fire sections of the tune. Despite being dropped from the performance, benched players are expected to stay in full uniform, help tune instruments, and take care of whatever other needs arise. With everyone in full dress, the band runs through a few more practice sets. At 4 p.m. they amble over to the designated final tuning area, a grassy square marked off by a series of wooden stakes. “No sunglasses,” Holdaway booms.

Playing the bagpipes is hard. Playing them in competition is really hard. Performers who’ve perfected the art of circular breathing are able to feed air from their lungs into the blowpipe, which fills a bag that in turn funnels the air up into the three drones to form a chord. Meanwhile, they’re simultaneously fingering notes on the chanter. And on top of that, they’re marching in close formation to gracefully form a circle inside the area marked by white spray paint.

Perhaps the most difficult part is keeping a group in harmony. Tuning more than 20 sets of bagpipes is a process one piper describes as akin to “riding a wheelchair in sand.” Highland pipes have three drones rising from the bag—the tallest is the bass drone, the shorter two are tenor drones—and each has its own reed. If a single drone on one player’s instrument is out of tune, the resulting discord can sink a band. But that’s not the only hazard. There’s also the chanter, which plugs into the bag and also has its own reed. It needs to be tuned, too. And there’s the unsettling fact that a bagpipe is an instrument built for the outdoors—but that responds, sometimes aggressively, to the elements. A change of just a couple of degrees, or a slight jump in humidity, can make perfectly tuned bagpipes sound like a goose trapped in a suitcase.

Throughout the afternoon the Stewies have kept their cool, but the mood shifts to an impenetrable seriousness during the final tuning. “Let’s do an attack,” Holdaway orders. The attack is arguably the most critical element to a clean performance: It’s the point at which the pipers simultaneously strike their bags and deliver the introductory E-note, a staple of every medley. The dry run is precise; the instruments are in tune and roaring. Still, Holdaway barks, “Let’s do another attack.”

At 4:20 p.m., the Stewies march in formation to the starting line. A few hundred spectators circle the field, eager to hear the Americans. Holdaway checks in with one of today’s four judges—there are two to evaluate the piping, one for the drumming, and one who rates the overall ensemble. He then turns and faces his legion: “Right, quick, march,” he shouts. The drums roll, each player begins marching, the pipers drop their left elbows on the bags, and the drones scream to life. It is a majestic union of sound and step as they march toward the white circle on the field.

Just as the performance gets under way, however, a spectator next to me throws up his hands in disbelief. “They blew the attack,” he says. “They just lost the competition in the first two seconds.” Personally, I didn’t hear a thing.

The Stewies work their way through the medley that they’ve been perfecting for half a year. Tenor drummers flourish their mallets, spinning them above their heads and snapping them back into place on beat. The bass drum reverberates through the circle and into the crowd. The snares pierce the air and punctuate the pipes’ layered melodies. The four judges circle the band, stone-faced, jotting notes on clipboards like large-animal veterinarians inspecting a Clydesdale. Six months of training boils down to less than six minutes of performance.

As the band exits the field, tensions are high. The drummers are confident about their performance, but the pipers are not. They bicker and blame one another for a minute or two before their nerves settle. Holdaway is unsure of how well they did, and tells me the band’s immediate reaction is the same after every performance—over-analysis and self-doubt. They never walk off the field thinking they’ve won. While the pipes weren’t as clean as he would have liked, he says, he didn’t hear anything catastrophic.

There’s just enough time to suck down a cold one from the coolers on the bus before the ceremonious gathering called Massed Bands, during which every group that competed today lines up and plays a thunderous rendition of “Scotland the Brave,” one of Scotland’s unofficial national anthems. A small white drone hangs in the sky, filming the synchronized throng of tartan, drums, and pipes. When the tune comes to an end, the results are read aloud into a microphone. For the Stewies:

First in drumming
Last in piping.
Last in ensemble.
Last overall.

It’s all poor Charly’s fault. Charly Slagle, the piper who flew in from Denver, blew the attack. He came in a split second too early on the E—maybe it was nerves, maybe he had too much air in the bag. Whatever it was, it’s a fluke, like spending months training for a marathon, getting into the best shape of your life, and then tearing your Achilles tendon as you push off the starting line. The best pipers in the world have blown attacks, and it’s a damn hard mistake to recover from.

In truth, it’s the kind of wound that calls for alcohol. After the results are announced, Slagle and most of his bandmates pack into the beer tent, which is at capacity and spilling out onto the lawn. There’s a palpable division of frustration and jubilance between the Stewies’ pipers and drummers. Scott Fletcher comes by with four beers in hand, which he distributes to members of his drum corps—his group had performed flawlessly.

A half-hour later, Holdaway and Fletcher are the last ones to board the bus, sharing a brief exchange just outside the door. When they finally climb the stairs, Holdaway hoists a nearly drained bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label and sends it down a line of clamoring hands and thirsty lips until it reaches Campbell Webster, who dumps the remaining drops into a keg cup. A few miles away from the U.S. border, real-world stress—deadlines and final exams, angry bosses and expectant wives—come flooding back to the band members, and they know there’s a whole season ahead to make up for today’s abominable fail. Tensions ease, camaraderie takes over, and the chant begins: “Char-ly. Char-ly. Char-ly.” Ω

[Brian Sweeney has been a staff writer at Boston magazine since March 2015. He received a BA (political science) from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and an MA (journalism) from Northwestern University.]

Copyright © 2015 Boston Magazine/Metrocorp

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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Today, "Psychiatric Help 5¢" & Dr. Leibovich Is In

If St. Hofstadter lived today, he would probably amend one of his books — The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964) — to "The Lunatic Style..." In the year 2015, our national mentality has gone from paranoia to full-blooded howl-at-the-moon madness. Mark Liebovich offers a preliminary diagnosis of the Lunatic Style and ultimately concludes that it is all a matter of whose ox is being gored. If this is a (fair & balanced) virtual visit to Bedlam, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap 'Zine]
Should We Fear The Political "Crazies"?
By Mark Leibovich

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The melee began, as they often do in politics, with simple umbrage. ‘‘This performance with our friend out in Phoenix is very hurtful to me,’’ Senator John McCain told Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker. He was referring to a massive rally that Donald Trump held a few days earlier in July to protest illegal immigration. McCain then followed with the kill shot. ‘‘What he did,’’ he said of Trump, ‘‘was he fired up the crazies.’’ In the annals of political deprecation, McCain’s charge of rallying the ‘‘crazies’’ was not terribly inspired. It was a far cry from, say, Teddy Roosevelt’s remark that William McKinley ‘‘has the backbone of a chocolate éclair’’ or Winston Churchill’s description of Clement Attlee, the British prime minister, as ‘‘a sheep in sheep’s clothing.’’ This was not even a Top 5 effort by McCain, who will sometimes refer to reporters as ‘‘Trotskyites’’ (often with affection) and last year dismissed protesters who interrupted a Senate hearing as ‘‘lowlife scum’’ (without affection). McCain is not so much a put-down artist as he is gifted at caricaturing entire sectors and viewpoints by way of dismissing them — in this case the border hawks who turned out for Trump.

But let’s pause on ‘‘crazies.’’ The word goes to the crux of how divisions are playing out in this peculiar campaign cycle among Republicans and, to some degree, among Democrats too. It is a slur that invites philosophical questions: Exactly who is crazy and who is not in today’s political environment? Are ‘‘crazies’’ an ascendant class in opposition to the same-old political traditions and tropes: Clintons, Bushes and McCains? Can ‘‘crazies’’ be worn as a badge of honor?

Of course, McCain never intended ‘‘crazies’’ as a compliment. ‘‘We have a very extreme element within our Republican Party,’’ he said in the same New Yorker interview. To McCain, ‘‘extreme’’ equals ‘‘crazy.’’ Their position falls well beyond the American mainstream in addition to emanating from unhinged minds. The word was a variant of the more colorful ‘‘wacko birds’’ that McCain deployed in 2013 to describe the Republican senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul after they began a filibuster over the nomination of the incoming C.I.A. director, John Brennan. Taking vocal and often contrarian positions (or, if you prefer, grandstanding) can be a publicity magnet for any attention-hungry pol, no matter where he or she resides on the spectrum, political or otherwise. ‘‘It’s always the wacko birds on right and left that get the media megaphone,’’ McCain observed. This is true, although it’s also true of someone that tosses around quotable terms like ‘‘wacko birds.’’

In saner times — we had those once, I think — ‘‘crazies’’ could be more easily dismissed as irresponsible, sinister and maybe dangerous actors. The fringe elements have also been known variously as ‘‘hard-liners,’’ ‘‘wing nuts,’’ ‘‘wackadoodles,’’ ‘‘zealots,’’ ‘‘ideologues,’’ ‘‘die-hards,’’ ‘‘radicals’’ and ‘‘true believers.’’ ‘‘He is out there, out of the mainstream,’’ George Bush [the Elder] said of his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, during his 1988 presidential campaign. Along this line of rhetoric, deviating too far from the political middle can be likened to insanity.

There are many ways to cast an opponent as being mentally unwell (or as an ‘‘invalid,’’ as Ronald Reagan once called Dukakis). You could suggest a certain ‘‘crazy’’ is driven by narcissistic rage and a willingness to do harm to a person’s putative allies. When House Republicans were debating whether to let the government shut down in 2013 over their opposition to Obamacare, Representative Devin Nunes of California ridiculed more adamant elements of his caucus as ‘‘lemmings with suicide vests.’’ Nunes elaborated that ‘‘jumping to your death is not enough.’’ It’s not enough, either, to write off your opponents as suicidal. They don’t die, and they tend not to go away easily.

A common weapon for bludgeoning a ‘‘crazy’’ is to insinuate paranoia by consigning them to ‘‘the black-helicopter crowd.’’ The term implies a taste for conspiracy theories, especially those tied to powerful institutions (i.e., the U.S. government) against targeted civilians (i.e., them). The image of black helicopters gained currency among antigovernment and militia enthusiasts in the mid-1990s. The Republican congresswoman Helen Chenoweth said in 1995 that federal agents had been seen landing black helicopters in her rural Idaho district.

Black helicopters have become a proxy for dismissing as delusional anyone, usually on the right, who is hostile to any kind of government action. In 2013, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said that a suggestion that guns need to be registered ‘‘raises all the black-helicopter-crowd notion that what this is all about is identifying who has a gun so that one day the government can get up and go to the house and arrest everyone who has a gun.’’ For good measure, Biden tacked on that ‘‘they’ll cite Nazi Germany and all that.’’ And all that.

Where to begin with the ‘‘all thats’’? My favorite corner of the black-helicopter universe is the so-called ‘‘tin-foil-hat crowd,’’ a term that plays on historical paranoia about electromagnetic radiation and the dubious belief that metal headwear might offer some protection. Sometimes, there is an occasion in American politics to use the phrase almost literally: In May, after the former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee warned of ‘‘threats from an electromagnetic pulse from an exploded device that could fry the entire electrical grid and take the country back to the Stone Age,’’ you could hardly blame Salon for hailing him in a headline as ‘‘A President for the Tinfoil Hat Crowd.’’ (As a point of style, getting the term ‘‘crowd’’ into a put-down always lends an extra beat of dismissiveness.)

But the word is usually far more metaphorical and can be applied to each side. After a debate in 2012, liberal bloggers were accusing Mitt Romney of gaining an unfair advantage over Barack Obama by sneaking a cheat sheet onto his lectern. Romney supporters accused the other side of planting the story, and the Obama campaign wanted no part of this conspiracy. ‘‘We’ve never casted our lot with the tinfoil-hat crowd,’’ Ben Labolt, a spokesman for Obama, said.

Each party has always had passionate elements whom its leaders and candidates have decried as loony tunes. But as times change, so do notions of mainstream and loony tunes. Establishment candidates can wind up absorbing people into their coalitions that they might privately consider to be ‘‘crazies’’ or adapting their views to suit their campaigns. Hillary Rodham Clinton has run a far more liberal campaign to this point than she did in 2008, in part to tap into (or placate) an energized progressive base that helped sink her candidacy seven years ago. Could an actual socialist, Bernie Sanders, be a threat to her? How crazy would that be?

You could argue that these are crazy times and there are thus worse things to be called than a ‘‘crazy.’’ The affiliation suggests an admirable passion and less risk-aversion, a willingness to disrupt. In fact, many of the same Republicans that make up McCain’s ‘‘very extreme element’’ were part of the same movement — known as the Tea Party — that helped the G.O.P. win a congressional majority in 2010. They also might throw a primary scare into McCain when he seeks re-election in Arizona next year.

Trump is embracing it all. There is a thrilling quality to watching him. We tune in for the same reasons that pro-wrestling fans always watched Piper’s Pit. What will happen today? What will Rowdy Roddy say next? Crazy can make great box office. And as Trump is proving, there are clear benefits to being aligned with the crazies, especially in a Republican field so crowded that it can be difficult to get separation.

While party leaders have criticized Trump for his ‘‘tone,’’ he flouts this very criticism as emblematic of a political status quo. Not only is he correct about that, it’s arguable that the political status quo is itself a big bag of calcified crazy. The same ‘‘tone’’ — cautious and hyperdeferential — has dominated politics for a long time and yet our politics haven’t improved. Politicians are so fond of invoking that clichéd definition of insanity that has been variously attributed to Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain: ‘‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’’ And yet those same politicians keep coming back year after year, repeating the same old talking points and following the same unspoken rules.

Lindsey Graham recently referred to Trump as a ‘‘wrecking ball,’’ a term he borrowed, if not from Miley Cyrus, then from his friend McCain, who once derided John Kerry with the same metaphor in criticizing Kerry’s diplomatic forays as secretary of state. McCain was once viewed as a kind of wrecking ball, too, back in 2000, when he first ran for president and was driving his party establishment nuts. He nearly knocked off the overwhelming front-runner, George W. Bush. He spearheaded a bill, McCain-Feingold, in 2002, that overhauled the nation’s campaign-finance system (at least until the Supreme Court took a wrecking ball to that). His tone was blunt, he appeared to be making it up as he went along and he took contrarian positions. He was derided as dangerous and disruptive, even crazy, though he preferred a different term: ‘‘maverick.’’ Ω

[Mark Leibovich is the chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, based in Washington, DC. He also writes the Times magazine's "Your Fellow Americans" column about politics, media, and public life. Liebovich has written three books: The New Imperialists (2002), This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America's Gilded Capital (2013), and Citizens of the Green Room: Profiles in Courage and Self-Delusion (2014). Ne received a BA (English) from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.]

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