Thursday, August 31, 2017

Remembering the Mass Hysteria Over Princess Diana's Death

Princess Diana died 20 years ago today in a car accident. Unless you were alive at the time, you can't imagine the mass hysteria that swept the British public over her death.
I never understood the adulation she attracted. She seemed rather ordinary to me. A pretty face, but lacking any great accomplishments other than marrying into the royal family at age 19. One of those celebrities who are famous simply for being famous.
It wasn't my imagination. Major newspapers today are recalling the mass hysteria. Jonathan Freedland writes in The Guardian:

It has become an embarrassing memory, like a mawkish, self-pitying teenage entry in a diary. We cringe to think of it. It is our collective moment of madness, a week when somehow we lost our grip. A decade on, we look back and wonder what came over us.
There were some who felt that way at the time, but they were the minority. Indeed, they complained they were a marginalised, even oppressed, group - gagged dissidents in a new totalitarian state of the emotions. Some looked at the mountain of Cellophane-wrapped bouquets that piled up outside Buckingham Palace - a million of them, it was said - and sniffed "floral fascism" in the air. Later, Christopher Hitchens wrote that in the week after Princess Diana was killed in a Paris car crash, Britain became a "one-party state", such was the coercive nature of the public reaction. He sought out the Britons who had been forced to close their shops or cancel sporting events on the day of the funeral, lest they feel the rage of the tear-stained hordes outside. The writer Carmen Callil was more specific: "It was like the Nuremberg rallies."

Such was the crazy, cultish, worship of Princess Diana, that I wrote an essay at the time, entitled Deification of a Princess.
My predictions mostly failed to come true, apart from foreseeing the explosion in conspiracy theories. Many "murder of Diana" conspiracy books are available on Amazon. One book even attributes her "murder" to a plot involving both the CIA and MI6. But the Diana worship died down. It turned out to be a mere temporary insanity rather than full blown madness.
However, I dug out my old essay (I still have computer files going back 31 years), and reprint it here, as I wrote it 20 years ago.


Deification of a Princess 

Born a Lady. Lived a Princess. Died an Angel. 
So said one of the thousands (millions?) of eulogies to Princess Diana written on posters, uploaded onto web pages or inscribed in registers around the world. Aside from the one in London, the British consul here in Los Angeles provided a register for the public, and I heard of a register sighting in Chicago.
So as we approach the new millennium do we witness the consecration of a new messiah. By contrast, Elvis can only compare to John the Baptist. James Dean and Marilyn were mere prophets. Sure, Diana died before the millennium but Christ was born before Year One. Note the symmetry. New Agers have another term: synchronicity. When seemingly unrelated events coincide it must all mean something.
Diana died at age 36, which is when Mother Teresa, whose rosaries were buried with Diana and in whose shadow she died, founded her mission. Marilyn, too, died at 36. Don't laugh. The First of the Ten Insights in the bestselling New Age book, The Celestine Prophecy, is that coincidences are never merely coincidence.
Not that any of this is necessary. Diana cultists will believe in her divinity because, as UFO buffs candidly admit, I want to believe. The numerological mental gymnastics are rationalizations, not rationale. In New Age terms, everyone has their own truth, and everyone's truth is as true as anyone else's.
Diana's cult will sprout innocently, almost unnoticed. As with so much modern loopiness, it will initially be justified and expressed in psychobabble. People will erect personal shrines to Diana in their homes and offices, maybe a photo and a candle. It will make them "feel better." All part of the "healing process." No one will ask, why the need to heal?
But it won't stop there. Soon people will associate their nicely healed good feelings with whatever good luck comes their way. After reaching-out to Diana at work by meditating (or daydreaming) on the smiling Diana photo on their desks, the boss gives them a raise. Surely, Diana must have interceded for them in some heavenly afterlife.
Eventually, emotional and financial healing will extend to the physical Miracle cures which will be attributed to Diana. Expect to see weeping Diana portraits, busts, and statues. Most Dianas will cry water. The better ones will weep saltwater. A few will go the limit and shed tears of blood.
Diana's likeness will be seen and photographed in cloud formations. Her image will appear in waffles, flapjacks, scrambled eggs, and hash browns. No item on America's roadside café breakfast menu will remain unblessed. Savvy proprietors will keep ready rolls of film and cans of shellac, for no one knows the day or hour of her next appearance. The People's Princess, ever the democrat, won't discriminate. She will appear on barn doors, in crop circles, and even in bathtub water stains.
As though sensing the people want more than her image, Diana sightings shall come to pass. The Princess of Hearts shall visit hospital rooms and bowling alleys, often bathed in white light. People returning from near death will report seeing her at the end of that ubiquitous blue tunnel of light, whereupon she sends them home with a smile and a message. She will appear in deserts and on mountaintops, in Third World slums to comfort the poor and in suburban basements come for a quick game of ping pong.
Confusing matters will be those conspiracy theories claiming Diana and Dodi faked the accident and fled to Egypt to escape the all-powerful Royal Family. Conspiracy buffs and LaRouchites will be intrigued, but Diana cultists will eschew Cairo and instead make their pilgrimages to the weeping statues and pancake houses, some in wheelchairs. They will arrive to find merchants selling Diana talismans, good luck charms, healing crystals carved in her image, and glow-in-the-dark Princess Posters.
Naturally, the New Age will embrace Diana. They need a new sales item. By now, pretty much everyone who wants a crystal has one. Santa Monica's Phoenix Bookstore closed this year. Diana might reverse this trend. She can provide bases for whole new religions, or she can be incorporated into existing neo-pagan belief systems. To the Romans, Diana was the goddess of the hunt and of the moon. That Diana was a bloodthirsty virgin. Nevertheless, revisionist goddess worshipers will strain for a connection. To each her own truth.
Christians shall also claim Diana. Diana may have to share Catholic affection with Mary, but she has the Protestant field to herself. The mainline churches are so empty and squishy that anyone with charisma, especially a woman espousing what sounds like a touchy-feely social gospel, is easily sucked into their vacuum. And even some Catholics will elevate Diana to a manifestation of Mary, just as some Christians interpret Elvis as a second Christ. (I am not making this up; I saw Elvis fans say so on TV).
I suppose this must all mean something. I don't know what. Maybe that post-modern civilization suffers from a great spiritual void, people made desperate and angst-ridden by a ravenous and parched thirst for transcendent meaning that goes unquenched. Or maybe just that people are stupid.

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Saturday, July 08, 2017

Historical Origins of the Term "Politically Correct"

The term "politically correct" is bandied about so much as to have become meaningless. But what really does it mean? Here's a history of the term (as best I know it).

"PC" has gone through four stages of meaning. "Politically correct" was initially coined by Leon Trotsky to refer favorably to those whose views remained in sync with the ever-shifting Bolshevik Party line. This was important, as "not PC" people risked prison or death.

"Politically correct" was revived (and again, used favorably) by 1960s New Left radicals who fancied themselves revolutionaries in the mold of Che, Castro, and Mao.

"Politically correct" was first used negatively by 1980s conservatives, following the publication of Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind. Conservatives embraced the term "politically incorrect" as a badge of honor to contrast their championing of free speech against campus leftists who used speech codes to suppress debate on sensitive topics. This was also when the term first became widely known by its acronym, "PC."

In these three previous stages, everyone agreed that PC meant Left, and "not PC" meant Right. But because liberals don't like a reputation of being anti-free speech, within a few years they did a turnabout, and called their opponents "PC" and themselves "not PC." Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect is representative of this fourth stage, creating the odd result of a self-proclaimed "not PC" show winning a very PC environmental media award.

However, despite liberals' turnabout, conservatives continued to refer to themselves too as "not PC." Thus "PC" has lost any specific meaning in this fourth stage, since everyone defines their position as the now chic "not PC," and their opponents as "PC." (A far cry from the days when Russians dreaded the Chekists who executed "not PC" people.)

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Monday, June 19, 2017

Actor Stephen Furst, RIP

News outlets are reporting that actor Stephen Furst has died. According to JD Knapp at Daily Variety [June 17, 2017]:


Stephen Furst, best known for getting his start in “Animal House,” has passed away due to complications with diabetes, Variety can confirm. He was 63 years old. 

Furst died in his Moorpark, Calif. home on Friday. His sons Nathan and Griff Furst confirmed their father’s death on Facebook Saturday evening.


New media are highlighting what they regard as Furst's most noteworthy acting achievements, such as roles in Animal House, Babylon 5, and St. Elsewhere. They're overlooking the work by Furst that most impressed me: that of "Junior" Keller in the 1980 horror film, The Unseen.

The Unseen is one of my favorite horror films. (And I am not the person to say that lightly.) A framed poster from the film currently hangs in my living room. The one on the right. There are many Unseen posters out there, with different images. I should know. I own a few. 

In The Unseen, Furst performed splendidly as an inbred, retarded killer. In my review of the film, I wrote: 

But it is Stephen Furst (Animal House) who shines as Junior Keller ... the unseen. Weldon describes Junior as a "murderous, retarded, overweight, full- grown baby." That's kinda what Junior looks like, but not really what he is. Having seen The Unseen a dozen or so times, I suspect he kills the women by accident. He merely wants a closer look (at Lamm's golden hair, for instance), and pulls too hard. A child who doesn't know his own strength. And he's not a "full-grown baby," he just looks like one because he's fat, dressed in soiled diaper-like rags, and he can't talk. He can only grunt.

Okay actors. Here's an assignment: Portray a sympathetic mutant retard killer, while wearing soiled diaper-like rags, in makeup that makes you look like some ugly incestuous spawn from Deliverance. And all you're allowed to do is grunt. Grunt and stomp and pound and grunt.  And oh yeah, try and be nuanced and subtle.

Furst does it.



His Junior is ugly and frightening, yet we detect his motivations beneath his grunting and stomping. His frustrated ineffectual attempts to communicate with Bach and recruit her for his playmate. His love for mom. His fear, then anger, at dad. However repulsive and scary and unsympathetic Junior initially appears, his demise is poignant. I hesitate to equate Furst's Junior with Karloff's Monster, but I also hesitate to dismiss the comparison out of hand.


You can see the entire film on YouTube (although I also own it on Beta, VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray -- in addition to seeing it in the theater when it was first released).





Some horror fans hate The Unseen. Why do I love it so much? You can read my entire review here. I've also written about this film in my book, Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

New York City Subways Deteriorating to Disasterous 1970s and 1980s Standards

New York City's famed subways were famously horrifying during the 1970s and even the 1980s. I know, because I rode the subways back then. I even memorialized the experience it in my novel, Manhattan Sharks, set during the rise of the yuppies in 1983.

And so this New York Times article by Emma G. Fitzsimmons and J. David Goodman [May 15, 2017], about the subway's current woes, evoked memories. The article says, in part:

A signal malfunction at the height of the morning commute in New York City upends subway service from Brooklyn to the Bronx. Switch problems leave riders stranded across Brooklyn. A power failure at just one Manhattan station snarls nearly a dozen of the system's 22 lines....

The subway -- a crown jewel of urban diversity, a vital piece of the local economy and a point of pride for millions of New Yorkers up and down the economic ladder -- is rapidly deteriorating. Delays have soared to more than 70,000 each month from about 28,000 per month in 2012. Riders are losing wages when they miss work. Business leaders are worried about the future. Residents are souring on the city.
"I never know if I am going to get to anything on time," said Frank Leone, 31, who lives in Queens. Worsening subway service has made him rethink living in New York City. "I give myself an hour to get to work everyday, even though it only takes 35 minutes," he said, "and I still show up late to work."

In the 1990s, Mayor Giuliani did much to improve the subways. But now it seems that, under Mayor De Blasio, the system is reverting to its previous state of urban chaos and mechanical decrepitude.

Fortunately, New York's subways are no longer my problem. I've long since escaped New York for Los Angeles, penning Manhattan Sharks as my good-bye, good riddance note to the Big Apple. The City of Angels has its own troubles (e.g., Hollywood Witches), but at least it's not New York.

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Saturday, February 18, 2017

Publishers Hire "Sensitivity Readers" to Censor Books

In Fahrenheit 451, American author Ray Bradbury predicted that progressives (not conservatives) would enforce censorship in the United States, beginning with books deemed "insensitive" to minorities. Well, today's publishers have caught up with Bradbury's dystopian vision.


These days, though, a book may get an additional check from an unusual source: a sensitivity reader, a person who, for a nominal fee, will scan the book for racist, sexist or otherwise offensive content. These readers give feedback based on self-ascribed areas of expertise such as "dealing with terminal illness," "racial dynamics in Muslim communities within families' or "transgender issues."

"The industry recognizes this is a real concern," said Cheryl Klein, a children's and young adult book editor and author of The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults. Klein, who works at the publisher Lee & Low, said that she has seen the casual use of specialized readers for many years but that the process has become more standardized and more of a priority, especially in books for young readers.

Sensitivity readers have emerged in a climate -- fueled in part by social media -- in which writers are under increased scrutiny for their portrayals of people from marginalized groups, especially when the author is not a part of that group.

Last year, for instance, J.K. Rowling was strongly criticized by Native American readers and scholars for her portrayal of Navajo traditions in the 2016 story "History of Magic in North America." Young-adult author Keira Drake was forced to revise [my italics] her fantasy novel The Continent after an online uproar over its portrayal of people of color and Native backgrounds. More recently, author Veronica Roth -- of Divergent fame -- came under fire for her new novel, Carve the Mark. In addition to being called racist, the book was criticized for its portrayal of chronic pain in its main character.
 
Some might argue that "sensitivity readers" are no big deal, because their use is not government imposed (yet), and so it's not really censorship. It's an editorial decision. Some authors quoted in the article even claim to be grateful for the "help" they receive from "sensitivity readers" -- helping these authors to portray their characters "correctly."

"Thank you Comrade Sensitivity Reader, for correcting my errors!"

But how voluntary is that consent? "Progressive" activists are never satisfied. They will increasingly pressure hold-out publishers to hire "sensitivity readers." Publishers, in turn, will increasingly pressure authors to make the corrections "requested" by "sensitivity readers."

As Mason notes:

Lee & Low Books has a companywide policy to use sensitivity readers. Stacy Whitman, publisher and editorial director of Lee & Low's middle-grade imprint Tu Books, said she will even request a sensitivity reader before she chooses to acquire a book to publish [my italics].

"It's important for authors to consider expert reader feedback and figure out how to solve the problems they point out," Whitman said.

In other words, whether an author consents to "solve the problems" complained about by some sensitivity commissar will determine its chances for publication. This will mean ever less diversity in literature, because weak, cowardly, incompetent, stupid, and evil personality traits will become (even more so than already) reserved for straight, white, Christian, male characters.

Returning to Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, here's an excerpt from the Fire Chief's speech, explaining how society eventually got around to book-burning:

Now let's take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don't step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere.
The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy [my italics], remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic-books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course.
There you have it, Montag. It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! [my italics] Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.

Bradbury didn't get everything right. Publishers don't care about the sensitivities of Mormons or Baptists or Swedes or Germans. Such is our "progressive" culture. Poking fun at non-Christian religions is hate, but bashing Christianity is healthy satire. Nazis are unqualified villains, but Communists are at worst misguided idealists. At best they are the noble victims of McCarthyism. (The sensitivities of the victims of Communism be damned.)

But Bradbury had a great insight. Censorship doesn't start with government dictates. It begins with popular pressure. It begins in the private sector. And the signs are ominous.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Huffington Post Quotes Me -- Misspells My Name

I guess it's nice to be quoted in a major publication like The Huffington Post, even if they do misspell my name (something I've lived with since childhood -- Why is it so hard to spell Sipos?).

In her article, "5 Reasons Kevin Sorbo Should Play John Galt," Jennifer Anju Grossman writes:

"Sorbo has already played a John Galt-like character in an indie film called Alongside Night, based on a 1979 novel by Neil Schulman. Writing for HollywoodInvestigator.com, Thomas M. Sipo [sic!] observes:

" 'In the near future, the U.S. government grows ever more oppressive as it tries to avert economic collapse due to its excessive taxing, borrowing, spending, and regulation. Meanwhile, a morally principled group of anti-government cadres prepares for a freer, post-socialist America. Atlas Shrugged? No, it's Alongside Night, a new indie film based on the 1979 novel of the same name.

" 'The two films do differ on some ideological points. Atlas Shrugged promotes Ayn Rand's Objectivism, a philosophy that supports small government. Rand expressly rejected anarchism. By contrast, Alongside Night advocates Agorism, a school of anarchism founded by Samuel E. Konkin III.' "

Sipo? Really? I've seen my name spelled Sinos, Sitos, Sipas -- Charlton Heston even spelled it Sippos when he autographed his photo for me. But Sipo is a new one.

Grossman is CEO of the Atlas Society, former Cato Institute policy director, and former speechwriter for President H.W. Bush.

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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Food Cart Vendor Turf Wars

Sometimes it takes a while for reality to catch up to satire. I first wrote Manhattan Sharks as a screenplay in 1987, later turning it into a novel. Nearly 30 years ago.

Manhattan Sharks is a tale of job-hunting and career competition in the "Decade of Greed," from the highest CEOs to the lowliest food cart vendors.

At one point, two characters -- competing food cart vendors -- engage in a food fight over a New York City street corner. At the time I worried that I was being too ... out there. Too wacky and unrealistic. But it seems these things do happen.

Reporting for the The New York Daily News [June 23, 2016], Rocco Parascandola and Edgar Sandoval write:

A West Side turf battle between two rival food vendors vying for the same street corner turned cutthroat when one of the men slashed the other in the back, police sources said Wednesday.

Mohamed Awad, 39, was charged with felony assault and weapons possession in the Tuesday afternoon confrontation, while his competitor, Eissa Naser, 37, required five stitches. The two men got into argument at 10th Ave. and W. 30th St., each laying claim to station his food cart at that corner. As the dispute became heated, Awad allegedly pulled out a razor, and sliced Naser, who collapsed by a Jolly’s Gyro food cart.


A year earlier, Gary Buiso wrote for the New York Post [February 15, 2015, see above image]:

... a group of irate Egyptian competitors block the kosher vendor from setting up on the sidewalk, literally squatting on the curb or placing umbrellas and beverage cartons to cordon off the space

... Licenses granted by the city do not specify where vendors must locate, but the city can force vendors to move for a variety of reasons, including being parked too close to a subway entrance. Intense competition prompts vendors to arrive with their carts by 3 a.m. to claim a spot, with some camping out overnight.


My Googling also uncovered a 2009 New York Times article [June 30, 2009], Julia Moskin reporting:

... "The police told these guys that nobody owns the streets. But it sure doesn’t feel that way," said Mr. Di Mille, who called the Midtown North precinct -- not for the first time -- when a jewelry vendor set up shop directly in front of his sales window.

In four weeks of business, the couple has been threatened at the depot where they park the truck; cursed by a gyro vendor who said that he would set their truck on fire; told to stay off every corner in Midtown by ice cream truck drivers; and approached by countless others with advice -- both friendly and menacing -- on how to get along on the streets.

"I want to be a good neighbor," Mr. Di Mille said. "But I am nobody's fool, and nobody's pushover, and I should not have to carry a baseball bat on my truck in order to sell cupcakes."

... Turf wars are nothing new for carts selling kebabs and cheap coffee. But the makers of thumbprint cookies, chicken-Thai basil dumplings, and crème anglaise are not happy about the sharp elbows that are part of the city's sidewalk economy, or the murky bureaucracy that oversees the issuing of permits. (Six people were arrested on Tuesday on fraud charges related to food vending permits.)


Of course, I didn't have Google when I wrote Manhattan Sharks. I thought I was making it all up. But food cart vendors really do battle -- sometimes violently -- over street turf in New York City. Go figure.

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