Sunday, April 29, 2018

An interview with Tom Breuer (AKA Aldous J. Pennyfarthing)

In 2002 Tom Breuer (pronounced BROY-er) was editor of the Fox Valley SCENE, an alternative, independent monthly newspaper published in northeast Wisconsin. In July of that year Tom called to ask if I would like to write a monthly column of media criticism. He even came up with the name "Media Rants." Media Rants appeared in the hard copy SCENE every month for approximately 14 years; in 2016 I moved it over to this blog. Suffice it to say that were it not for Tom Breuer, there would be no Media Rants. So blame HIM.

Originally from Manitowoc, in the early 1990s Tom attended UW Green Bay where he edited the student newspaper The Fourth Estate. He left Wisconsin in 2015 and now lives in the northwest. Back in his SCENE days, he wrote some great comic pieces for the paper, often with a progressive political bent. In 2006 he coauthored a satirical screed against Bill O'Reilly, earning the praise of anti-wingnut warriors like Al Franken and Keith Olbermann. He's coauthored two additional books: Fair and Balanced, My Ass: An Unbridled Look at the Bizarre Reality of Fox News and The Brotherhood of the Disappearing Pants: A Field Guide to Conservative Sex Scandals.

In the Trump era Tom contributes frequently at the liberal blog Daily Kos under the pseudonym Aldous J. Pennyfarthing. As Aldous, he has recently published a hilarious e-book entitled Dear F*ucking Lunatic: 101 Obscenely Rude Letters to Donald Trump. You can get the book for $2.99--less than the cost of your favorite tall latte--through Amazon Kindle, iBooks, and other online retailers.

If you consider yourself a Trump hater or part of the so-called "resistance," you should really support fellow travelers like Tom/Aldous. There's so much in the book for you to agree with that you'll find yourself saying "F*ck Yes!" at least once during each obscenely rude letter. You Trump lovers out there should check out the book too; you won't like the critiques but you'll appreciate a writing style that is the literary equivalent of putting the middle finger in the face of people and things the writer doesn't like.

To give Media Rants readers a better sense of what Dear F*ucking Lunatic is all about, I asked Tom to respond to a few questions. He graciously agreed to do so. Below are my questions and his unedited responses.

Media RantsIn your e-book it’s clear that you’ve been outraged by the Trump Administration and Trump personally for a long time. But you say that it was this particular Trump quote from a New York Times interview that really provoked your first obscenely rude letter to him: “Yeah, China, China’s been . . . I like very much President Xi. He treated me better than anybody’s ever been treated in the history of China, you know that.”

      What was it about that particular quote that set you off?

      Tom Breuer: I’m not sure if you’ve ever noticed, but Trump lies a lot, and when he does it’s an assault on our intelligence and sense of fair play. Of all his lies, it’s the impossible-to-believe, self-aggrandizing ones that are the most puzzling. And when most of us are doing our best to adhere to a social contract that demands we speak the truth whenever possible, it’s infuriating to see the president of the United States, of all people, lying so brazenly. And it’s doubly infuriating when approximately 30 percent of the population believes him no matter what he says.
      So China is at least 2,239 years old if you go back to the beginning of the Qin dynasty, and much older by some accounts. And he thinks he’s the most warmly received visitor to China ever. More so than Marco Polo — or Justin Bieber even. This wasn’t a lie about Obamacare or his tax scam or anything particularly important — and we’ve known for a long time that he tells the truth about as often as Steve Bannon sheds his exoskeleton — but there was something about this one that seemed so over the top and absurd that it was almost as though he was openly taunting any American with a nanogram of decency. And the scary part is he probably believes it on some level. It’s like I said in the book — the statement was the geopolitical equivalent of “that stripper really likes me,” only 10,000 times crazier and less self aware.

 Media RantsBack in 2006 you coauthored a book called Sweet Jesus I Hate Bill O’Reilly. Did you hate O’Reilly then as much as you seem to hate Trump now? And to what extent do you think Trump is in some ways a result of the impact of Fox News over the years?

      Tom BreuerTrump and O’Reilly are a lot alike. Their ego, their bluster, their abject dishonesty, their uncanny physical resemblance to Ed Gein’s basement furniture. But you might say O’Reilly was like John the Baptist to Trump’s Cheeto Messiah. For one thing, they both have a first century understanding of the world. Secondly, O’Reilly prepared the way for Trump, but he’s not worthy to hold his loofah. Trump is orders of magnitude crazier and more repugnant.

      Fox News laid the groundwork for this travesty, and for years its go-to bully was O’Reilly. As the original purveyors of fake news, Fox and its disinformation campaigns made a big difference everywhere in the U.S. in 2016, but they may very well have put Trump over the top in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. And the network continues to enable Trump’s every worst impulse.

Media RantsYou call Trump a variety of names in the book, including: “America’s last, worst dope,” “megalomaniacal Teletubbie,” “unvarnished asshole,” and “Twitter twat.” Trump himself is known for bitter attacks against his opponents. What would you say to supporters of his who might read your book and claim that you are being hypocritical? And what would you say to people who agree with your critique of Trump but think that critics should take the “high road?”

Tom Breuer: Well, first of all, I’m not president. Yet. Apparently you no longer need any real qualifications, so maybe my once-annual St. Patrick’s Day bacchanals at Bazil’s wouldn’t be an obstacle after all.

Secondly, there is no high road anymore. Trump demolished it when he defended neo-Nazis after Charlottesville. We’re engaged in street warfare now — figuratively, anyway.

Finally, there’s a difference between punching up and punching down. Trump punches down. He insults immigrants and minorities and tried to yank health care away from millions of vulnerable Americans who depend on the ACA. Then he turned around and enriched his wealthy cronies through his tax scam while simultaneously insisting he was doing exactly the opposite.

He is to humanity what E. coli is to lettuce. Any legal means we can use to get him out of office or diminish his ability to terrorize the most helpless members of society are justified.

The book isn’t entirely a ranting screed, though admittedly that’s most of it. It’s also a call to arms for blue wavers in advance of the November election. That’s when we’ll all have the opportunity to channel our anger and make a real difference. At the end of the book I include several resources for helping to turn that blue wave into a tsunami. That’s a start, and I’m happy to pitch in, even if it means using a swear or two (or 500).

Media RantsOne thing I find extremely valuable about your book is the way in which it provides a chronology of all the absurd things that Trump has said and done since taking office. I understand the desire to lash out at Trump, but to what extent are you also trying to maintain a documentary record of –to put it in an Aldous J. Pennyfarthing kind of way—“what the f*ck is actually being done to us.” 

Tom Breuer: While writing and researching the book, I was struck by just how many Trump outrages — things that would have virtually defined any other president — had already fallen down the memory hole. We’re presented with new horrors on a daily basis, so it’s hard to dwell so much on any one thing. The book is a good reminder of just how abnormal, undignified, petty, and cruel Trump is. Maybe that’s its real value — reminding us that things really are as bad as they seem. By no means are we imagining it.

Media RantsAldous’ letters strike me as a cross between the late Hunter S. Thompson and Stephen Colbert if he was not constrained by the FCC. What literary and/or political criticism traditions do actually influence your writing?

Tom Breuer: Al Franken has always been the gold standard for me when it comes to political humor. He wrote a book that thoroughly deflated Rush Limbaugh when Limbaugh was still at the height of his influence. I was lucky enough to be a guest on his radio show while promoting “Sweet Jesus, I Hate Bill O’Reilly,” and he gave me my favorite review of the book, calling it “hilariously snarky … nutritional too.” Meaning he thought it was funny and informative, which is how I always viewed his writing. Needless to say, the accusations that forced him to resign were deeply disappointing.

Beyond that, yes, Colbert and The Daily Show have always given us “real news” to counteract the Fox scat that energizes so many conservatives.

I don’t think I can touch Hunter S. Thompson — at least not until mushrooms are legalized for therapeutic use.

Media RantsYou end the book with this message to President Trump: “The midterms are coming, friend. And 2020 isn’t far away. Namaste. And fuck right off . . . We’ll vote against treason and rot.” Are you engaging in wishful thinking there? If not, what leads you to believe that the midterms and 2020 will be bad for Trump?

Tom Breuer: According to FiveThirtyEight’s poll aggregator, Trump’s approval rating has been underwater since day 15 of his presidency. We were all so shocked at his victory that we tend to forget that he’s never been all that popular or well respected. And the special elections have been canaries in a coalmine. So far we have just a few dead Republican canaries. By November, I expect that we’ll have dozens more.

Media RantsAnything else you would like to add?

Tom Breuer: Vote.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

MLK 50: Justice Through Journalism

April 4th is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. My guess is that few Americans know that King was killed in Memphis, fewer still know why he was in Memphis in the first place, and even fewer than that know anything about him other than that he "had a dream." At least Google has been working on adjustments to the search engine so that neo-nazi propaganda about King doesn't block out truthful content in searches. So there's that.
As for what King was doing in Memphis in the days leading up to his death, I urge everyone to read Wendi C. Thomas' spectacular piece in the March 30, 2018 New York Times called "How Memphis Gave Up on Dr. King's Dream." Thomas is the editor and publisher of MLK 50: Justice Through Journalism, a tremendous resource for understanding the intense opposition King faced when fighting for living wages in Memphis, and how that opposition has in some disturbing ways gotten worse 50 years later.

The MLK50 reporting team are a dedicated group of activists who plan to make sure that King's call for living wages and economic justice does not get lost in what will almost certainly be a mainstream media effort to whitewash King's legacy. Just watch, on April 4th we will hear about King the dreamer and be treated to mindless drivel about him. What we won't hear or see are rigorous accounts of the extent to which the problems Dr. King called out in 1968 exist in worse form today in large part because we failed to heed his warnings about where the country was headed. (Thankfully, there will be three documentaries airing this month that present a more complete view of King.)
In the last four-plus years of King's life, years that are almost completely ignored in mainstream discussions of him, he developed a keen understanding of the connections between American style capitalism, racism, and militarism. Wendi Thomas quotes King in 1967 as saying that the problems of racial injustice and economic injustice, "cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power." Fifty years later we HAVE had a radical redistribution of political and economic power, but unfortunately the redistribution has gone from bottom to top instead of vice versa. In January Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! interviewed scholars and activists who shed light on the radicalism of King's latter years. 
What MLK50: Justice Through Journalism is doing with a mostly Memphis focus should be done by ethical journalists in all cities. We need better data about the state of inequality in our local communities and states, and better reporting on it. It should not have to be private think tanks collecting the data, and it should not have to be small circulation print media or obscure websites reporting it. How about this: for at least the month of April, the mainstream media should give as much attention to economic justice issues that impact literally all of us as they do to the president's moronic tweets.