Survey that many women completely shave their pubic hair another sign of the infantilization of American society

I was dismayed to learn that a new study published by JAMA Dermatology, a respected scholarly publication, finds that 62% of a representative sampling of 3,316 American women said they completely remove their pubic hair. I was also shocked, as in my decades as a heterosexual adult male, I never encountered a shaved vagina. (I won’t answer the begged question except to say “enough.”) My unfamiliarity with the phenomenon of the bare pudenda may be generational: I’m a baby boomer and the women most inclined to groom their genitals are between 18 and 34 years of age.

I have always considered shaving the vagina to be completely weird and a sign of some disturbance, either in the individual or in a society that favors pubic hairlessness. My dislike of genital shaving goes back to the time of my first sexual awakenings, when, after seeing a woman in the flesh for the first time, I suddenly became disappointed and angry at the artificiality of the many Old Master nudes which revealed hairless pudenda. I wondered whether it was the painters or the society that so denigrated women that they wished to submit them to a mild form of mutilation.

My argument in favor of pubic hair begins by asking readers to consider the difference between the vagina of a woman and a pre-pubescent girl. If we shear the woman of her pubic hair, her close-up will resemble that of the girl’s. My belief is that at the heart of all shaving of female pubic hair is the desire to keep the woman a girl and all that means—callow, servile, possessing fewer rights, dependent upon the mature and experienced adult. The shaving of female pubic hair (male, too) is almost a perversity. Because it makes the woman resemble a little girl, it suggests the playing out of a pedophilic fantasy.

Thus, the men who want their women to shave their vaginas want to “puerilize” or “infantilize” them—turn them into immature girls, as opposed to enjoying their company and sexuality as adult women. Most of the women who want to remove their pubic hair, however, probably don’t have an unconscious desire to be little girls, but rather are followers of fashion or subservient to their significant other. The cultural authority of reality television, fashion/celebrity media and pornography (much of which involves pubic-ly-shaved women) is particularly pernicious, because it influences women to do something that isn’t healthy for them. Like tattoos, shaving pubic hair makes a woman a slave—either to society or to her significant other.

The really strange thing is that once again, Americans do something directly against their best interests. The overwhelming majority of women who shave say they do so for hygiene. They think they would be healthier without the hair. Wrong. The study points out that pubic hair traps bacteria, preventing it from entering the vaginal opening. It can also provide a cushion for what is particularly sensitive skin. In other words, like the small business owners and blue collar white worker who votes Republican, most women who go hairless down there are hurting themselves by doing something they mistakenly think will help.

So far, I have discussed three reasons for what is either a sudden fad or a cultural turn similar to rock-and-roll and smartphones: 1) The desire of certain men to transform women to girls for erotic fulfillment; 2) Extensive coverage of the trend in certain mass media, i.e., pornography, reality television and fashion/celebrity news; 3) The “new wife’s tale” that shaving is hygienic, when in fact it is not.

But I also connect the current prevalence of pudenda shaving as another manifestation of the infantilization of American society, which I have discussed many times, most recently on October 28, 2014, May 10, 2014 and December 7, 2013.

Infantilization occurs when adults focus on childhood entertainments and predilections. Their symbolic or cultural lives imitate the activities of children or extend children’s activities into adulthood. The growing number of adults who collect “My Little Pony” toys, play with Legos, vacation at amusement parks, attend adult sleepover functions at museums, spend hours playing video games, eat Gummi-bear vitamins, read juvenile fiction such as the Harry Potter books and watch superhero movies have all been infantilized in one way or another.

Consumer culture encourages adults to keep behaving like children. Museums offer adult sleepovers. Both General Mills and Kellogg’s sell dry cereals to adults by showing them playing at a children’s activities. Glorification of men and women who refuse to grow up and instead act like teenagers or preteens is one of the two or three most significant trends in movies over the past 10 or so years. Think of the “Harold & Kumar” movies, “Old School,” “Big,” “Grandma’s Boy,” the two “Ted” flicks, “The Wedding Crashers,” “Billy Madison,” “You, Me and Dupree,” “Dodgeball,” “Step Brothers,” “The 40-year-old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” all three “Hangovers,” the “Jackass” movies, “Bridesmaids,” “Hall Pass” and “Identity Thief,” just to name a few.

Consumer capitalism thrives when adults behave like children. Children find it harder to delay gratification. Children act on impulse more often than adults. Children are more prone to be taken in by magical and illogical thinking. Children more readily accept the word of authorities. Children are easily influenced by their peers, social custom and advertising. In every way, children make for better consumers than adults. It’s no wonder then that our mass media and mass culture do so much to encourage adults to remain as children in their entertainments and their thought processes.

The sick twist to pudenda shaving is that be it reading Harry Potter or collecting My Little Ponies, infantilized adults are doing something that children do. Shaving the vagina represents not a participation in childish activities, but a sexualizing imitation of the physical state of childhood. I write “sexualizing,” because there is nothing sexy about a child’s vagina. That simple fact combined with the knowledge that shaving is not healthy should convince American women to stop applying razors to their vaginas and run—don’t walk—from any man who wants them to shave down there.

NY Times weekend editorial strategies may show subtle misogyny when it comes to presidential politics

The New York Times soiled itself twice this past weekend, on the front page of the Saturday print edition and in the Sunday editorial section.

The Saturday front page was more disturbing, because it suggested that the news-gathering operation, which so often has given more coverage to Republican candidates than to Democrats in the 21st century, will use this subtle technique to help the election campaign of an autocratic sociopath ignorant of the issues and without experience in government.

Of the six stories on the front page, five concerned the impact of Brexit, the exit of Great Britain from the European community. The five articles referenced and quoted a range of Europeans on the front page, but included mention of only two Americans: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Only one American was quoted—extensively—and that was Trump. There were three photos on the front page, and one was a standard head-and-shoulders shot of an angry Trump wearing his notorious “Make America Great Again” baseball cap.

By contrast, President Obama’s reaction to Brexit was on page 11, facing, on page 10, an article about Trump’s visit to his new golf course and his extended comments about Brexit. Thus, the hard copy reader encounters Trump three times before learning what our head of state thinks about this earth-shaking news. By the way, the Times buried the studied and knowledgeable remarks of Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent in the November presidential elections, at the bottom of page eight, at the end of the page-one story about the potential impact of Brexit on the elections, the story in which Sanders appears on page one.

FYI, Trump’s reaction to Brexit was his usual stew of ill-informed and ignorant ramblings. But before he displayed his ignorance of the potential economic and political ramifications of Brexit, Trump proved once again that his top priority is always himself, claiming that the pound going down would help his new golf course in Turnberry, Scotland attract more customers. Of course, Trump was oblivious to the likelihood that Scotland will now vote to leave the UK so that it can reunite with Europe, resulting in Turnberry probably doing business in euros, not British pounds.

I fully understand that Donald Trump’s ignorance is as much of a recurring news motif as his unethical business dealings and his record of failed businesses. These topics are inherently newsworthy, to be sure, but they shouldn’t skew the coverage so much that the Times considers the opinion of this loud-mouthed ignoramus before those of the President of the United States. I grant that the Times was probably correct to include a story on the front page comparing Brexit to the growth of American populism, but that could have been combined with the story on the impact on the elections, since the writers are really talking about the same thing. That would have left room for a story on the reactions of Obama, Clinton, Kerry, Ryan and maybe Lindsay Graham. All ignored in favor of the one person who knows the least.

The Times second questionable editorial strategy came in the letters to the editor, which every Sunday always covers one big issue, giving the truncated views of 10-12 of the hundreds of readers who sent in letters. This week, the Times employed the propaganda trick of “giving both sides equal say when one side is wrong” to distort the true views of its readers. I refer to those articles which quote two experts, one on each side, or four experts, two on each side, when 98% or 99% of all experts fall on one side of the issue.  Global warming and the safety of vaccinations are two issues which the Times and other mainstream news media covered in this way, conflating the overwhelming support of the existence of global warming and the safety of infant vaccines with the flimsy and fact-starved opposition to these scientific facts.

The hard copy version of the Sunday’s letter column applied this inherently distorting approach to the topic of whom Hillary Clinton should select as her running mate. In a short paragraph lead-in in italics, the Times editorial staff informs us that “Elizabeth Warren was the clear favorite, followed by the current V.P., Joe Biden, and Sherrod Brown.

We never learn by how much Warren is favored. The expression “clear favorite” could mean that 30% of the 800 readers who submitted letters on the topic endorsed her. Or it may mean 60% did. Since the Times published letters recommending 12 different people, even 15% could be considered a “clear favorite,” although not as impressive as 30%.

The letters turn the confusing imprecision of “clear favorite” into a deception, by featuring 12 different candidates, including Michael Bloomberg, John Kasich and Jerry Brown, who will never be considered. If the letters had to some extent reflected the opinions of the 800 letter writers, the column would have been much more informative and helpful to readers. Such an approach would not have included the letters of impossible candidates and would have reflected the relative strength of Warren. For example, the Times could have printed excerpts from letters supporting six candidates; assuming Warren was supported in 50% of the letters, she could have been the topic of six of the 12 letters, leaving one each for the other five and one for Biden, another impossible candidate who at least came in second place. If Warren was the choice of 30% of the letters and no one else got more than 10%, the Times might print fewer letters supporting her.

If we analyze these two instances of manipulating the news from the standpoint of news-gathering strategies, it seems as if in both cases the Times preferred entertainment over news. Trump’s incendiary ejaculations may be frightening, but they are more entertaining than the rational and calm approach of Obama and Clinton, and the more balanced tonalities of virtually every other politician. It is more entertaining to read a few glib statements about 12 different candidates—four or more of whom are mere fantasies—than to read about the various advantages of one candidate, or a pro contra discussion of three or four candidates, no matter how favored one or more of them may be.

If we analyze these editorial decisions from the political standpoint, however, they seem to express a subtle anti-woman or anti-Hillary sentiment. The Times cannot deny that they gave far greater coverage to the views of an ignorant white male than to those of his opponent, a woman. The fact that the Times did not publish a letter endorsing any other woman as Clinton’s running mate suggests the bent may be anti-woman, or at least express a resistance to considering a woman as vice president. The Times is expecting us to believe that more people proposed the smiling rightwing Republican John Kasich than proposed whichever woman got the second number of letters after Warren. Really?

I’ve been wondering for some time how much resistance to Clinton as president, especially from Bernie Bros and well-educated independents, really expresses an opposition to handing the reins of power to a woman, no matter how competent. When I encounter reluctance to support Clinton from people who I know to be progressive or centrist, I have begun asking them point blank whether they feel uncomfortable conceiving of a female president. These people mumble about trust and past scandals or decisions, but tend not to be able to name any specific wrongdoing or mistake, except for the decisions that others made for which everyone but Clinton is given a free pass. Every time Trump comes out with another outrageous statement based on lies and reflecting racism, authoritarianism and ignorance, the question about why certain educated progressive and centrist voters resist Hillary Clinton becomes more critical.

Those opposing Clinton in the face of the alternative should look into their hearts and see if they discover any residual misogyny. And that includes the collective heart of the New York Times.

Trump’s answer to Hillary’s reasoned attacks is a series of Big Lies

You may have missed the thorough verbal whipping Hillary Clinton gave to Donald Trump’s economic ideas and business history this week. The New York Times put it on page A14, although there was a tease for it at the very bottom of page one. You could not find it on the Google News home page at all when I checked it at 7:00 a.m. EST, although there were two stories about Trump and one reporting that Clinton’s lead over Sanders in California in the popular votes had decreased by an inconsequential amount.

Every day the Times puts a story about Donald Trump on the front page, and sometimes, like Tuesday, June 21, there are two. By contrast, Clinton hardly appears on the front page, and often when she does, it is in a story that starts with the Donald. This lopsided coverage stems partially from Trump’s many outrageous statements and the many controversies surrounding both his candidacy and his business interests. When faced with reporting manufactured and fabricated charges against Clinton or the real and verifiable scandals, underhanded dealings, lies and feuds that attach to Trump like fuzz to a sweater (at first I wrote something more disgusting involving shoes), the news media is correctly—and finally—chasing the real misdoings.

A good part of the emphasis on Trump, however, reflects a predilection by the mainstream media to cover Republicans more than Democrats. In 2010, 2012 and 2016, the mainstream news media, and in particular New York Times provided much more space to covering Republican statewide and local candidates and to Republican primaries than they did to those of the Democrats. The media ignored the many progressive movements of 2010 to focus exclusively on the Tea Party.

Those who haven’t been watching mainstream cable news or not found the text of Clinton’s speech online missed a very clever and impassioned job of cutting Trump down to size. Clinton made all the major points:

  • Trump started with more money than most rich people have
  • He sent four companies into bankruptcy, hurting thousands of employees and investors
  • He has had many other business failings
  • He has a reputation for not paying his bills
  • He is involved in thousands of lawsuits, including a fraud suit against Trump University.

Of course her most important point was that Trump’s economic proposals would send the country into another deep recession. She cited an independent analysis released this week by Moody’s Analytics that concludes that if Trump’s policies were fully implemented, they would drive the U.S. economy into a lengthy recession, with 3.5 million fewer jobs at the end of his four-year term and a substantially larger federal debt and deficit, note that the lead author is a former McCain advisor and has contributed to Clinton’s campaign.

Along the way, Clinton got off a number of zingers. Here are some of the best:

  • “Just like he shouldn’t have his finger on the button, he shouldn’t have his hands on our economy.”
  • “Trump would take us back to where we were before the crisis. He’d rig the economy for Wall Street again.”
  • “He has no credible plan for rebuilding our infrastructure, apart from the wall that he wants to build. Personally I’d rather spend our money on rebuilding our schools or modernizing our energy grid.”
  • “He just says that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese. Well I’ll give him this – it is a lot easier to say a problem doesn’t exist than it is to actually try to solve it.”
  • “He’s written a lot of books about business – they all seem to end at Chapter 11.”

The Trump campaign, which kept silent during Clinton’s evisceration of his dangerous foreign policy, mounted a spirited Twitter and news release assault on Clinton’s comment even while she was speaking. Too bad that most of his comments were lies—sometimes some very big ones, such as “How can Hillary run the economy when she can’t even send emails without putting entire nation at risk?” and “Hillary Clinton surged the trade deficit with China 40% as Secretary of State, costing Americans millions of jobs.” Today in his diatribe against her, Trump made the vile and totally baseless charge that Clinton’s decisions as President Barack Obama’s first secretary of state were influenced by donations to her family’s Clinton Foundation charity, even though no one anywhere has evidence of any such link.

It will be interesting to see if today’s attack on Clinton by Trump dominates the 24 hour news cycle. Or will it be the continued fallout from the double news that Trump’s campaign has less money than Ted Cruz’ or Bernie Sanders’ and that from 10-20% of money Trump has spent on the campaign goes to Trump business entities, which means that if Trump were to get enough donations to pay back the money he has loaned the campaign that he will have made money running for office. I’m hoping that the news media takes the high ground and that the story that dominates the news cycle in not the announcement that someone is trying to sue Trump for raping her multiple times when she was 13.

But two things I know for sure: 1. Unless there is another mass murder, Trump, not his presumed opponent in the fall elections, will be the center of media attention. 2. Whatever Trump says will be full of lies, exaggerations and distortions.

Is Trump trying to dump the election? Or is he just one crazy, if lucky, narcissist?

Lately I’ve been wondering if Donald Trump is trying to lose the election.

Maybe he started running as a way to burnish his brand, similar to what Ben Carson evidently was doing. What he wanted to do was raise his awareness, especially among the uneducated, so he could continue to place his name on dubious ventures and sell them to his public at inflated prices.

But then things got out of hand and he found himself alone in what pundits called the “establishment lane,” with every other candidate tacking to the extreme right on social issues, tax and spending policies, Social Security, healthcare and foreign affairs. While Trump jumped to the right of them when it comes to immigration and articulated with extreme explicitness the racism which GOP regulars have whispered in code for 40 years, on many issues he was much more centrist than any of the candidates to whom the news media affixed the “establishment” label. No one said he was in the establishment lane, but take a look at who has won the last two Republican nominations—the most centrist-looking candidates of their election cycle, although both McCain and Romney, just like Trump, advocated lowering taxes even more on the wealthy. No one called Trump establishment, but the relative centrality of many of his positions appealed to Republican voters as much as his outrageous statements and ultra-nationalist and isolationist trade and immigration proposals.

Trump now finds himself as the presumptive candidate and maybe he doesn’t want the daily stress and hassles of the presidency. Maybe he realizes he bit off more than he could chew. Or maybe, like Rubio, Cruz and many other candidates from both sides of the aisle, Trump likes running a lot more than he likes governing.

Whatever the reason, his recent actions have me thinking that he’s throwing the race to Hillary. (And thank goodness for that, since the choice is between a sociopathic narcissist who has failed at many business ventures and perhaps the most qualified candidate in the history of the country.)

How else do you explain him accusing American soldiers as a group of stealing millions of dollars from the army that they were supposed to distribute in Iraq? In one fell swoop, he has alienated active military and veterans alike, groups that should inherently favor the Republican, no matter who he (or hypothetically “she”) may be. It may be the first time ever in history that a candidate for office on any level in any country has maligned soldiers. Not generals, not war leaders, but dogfaces in the field!

And how else can you explain his terrible two-ish temper tantrum against Judge Gonzalo Curiel that lasted a week? Or his pulling the media credentials from media outlets that piss him off, thereby establishing himself as an opponent of free speech? Or his insults of other Republicans who have not fallen in line behind his candidacy?

How else do you explain Trump intimating that Obama is surreptitiously helping the terrorists? Remember that eight years ago when an audience member made a scurrilous accusation about candidate Obama, John McCain immediately corrected the benighted fellow and said that Obama was a patriotic American with whom the Senator happened to disagree. It’s the kind of irresponsible accusation that upsets a lot of right-looking independents and centrist-looking Republicans.

And how else do you explain his lunatic and racist statement that if we had not let the father of the Orlando killer into the country, the killer would not have been in Florida to shoot up a gay night club? This kind of logic would lead to the deportation not just of a generation of new Americans, but of virtually everyone whose ancestors immigrated here. Can’t be too safe!

These recent comments and the strong responses by Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and President Obama have sent Trump’s negatives higher than any candidate of any major party has had in U.S. history. The latest polls show Hillary’s lead growing on him. Meanwhile, more Republicans are distancing themselves from the Donald. Some like Kasich have reiterated their lack of support. Others like Senator Mark Kirk and Representative Bob Dold have rescinded prior endorsements. Bernie Sanders has brought a tremendous number of new voters into the Democratic Party and Hillary shows every signs of doing what it takes to make them happy. I’m the only one saying it now, but I think it’s shaping up to be a Democratic sweep—presidency, Senate and the gerrymandered House.

And yet.

The Orlando tragedy has fortuitously provided Trump with an opportunity to make a tremendous grandstand play that could convince the unsophisticated that he can engineer deals to grow the economy and protect us from terrorism.

As you may know, Republicans have repeatedly blocked legislation that would prevent people on the “no-fly” list of those suspected of having terrorist connections from buying or owning guns.  It looks as if a “no fly, no gun” law would have prevented the Orlando killer from buying the weapon he used to assassinate 49 people and injure scores of others. “No fly, no gun” legislation was one of the two bills for which Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy and other Democrats filibustered this week, the other being extending background checks and waiting periods to guns purchased at shows and on the Internet. Not up for consideration is a reinstatement of the ban on assault rifles such as the ones used by the Orlando nightclub and Newtown elementary school massacres.

At this point, it’s anyone’s guess whether these basic, common sense gun safety measures will pass the Senate, let alone the House. It depends upon how many Republicans dare to cross the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Believe it or not, Trump has come out in favor of a “no fly, no gun” law. He is scheduled to meet with the NRA in a few days and he says he is going to talk to them about a “no fly, no gun” proposal. What if, after the meeting, the NRA announces that it has dropped its opposition to “no fly, no gun” and Trump takes credit for negotiating a deal that passes legislation which 90% of all Americans, including most gun owners, want? Wouldn’t Trump say that it proves that his master negotiation skills can solve the country’s problems?

With Republican candidates already weakened by the Trump candidacy, many GOP incumbents, especially in blue and purple states, must be feeling the heat for their recalcitrant positions regarding gun legislation that most of their constituents back. Perhaps the NRA will feel it must evolve its position on maintaining the rights of people suspected of terrorism or risk losing the Republican majorities that will keep every other type of gun safety legislation from passing.

But the public may not consider the internal machinations of the gun lobby and Congress when evaluating the success of a “no fly, no gun” law, if the NRA support comes after a meeting with Trump. They may see Trump as the all-conquering hero who got the NRA to compromise and thereby kept guns out of the hands of terrorists. The Trump script for his presidency will be coming true, or at least many voters could see it that way.

It is possible then that by compromising on the most absurdly extremist position it holds, the NRA could give the presidency to Donald Trump, or at the very least get him back on a positive track.

Of course, even if the NRA does give the Donald an early Christmas present, he will still be the same narcissistic sociopath who never censors his thoughts, tends to authoritarian solutions, lies a lot and is ignorant of the basic mechanics of government and the pressing issues facing the country. There will be lots of time between now and November for Trump to insult, lie, get personal and generally demonstrate his inadequacies as a head of state.

Is the “Can you hear me?” guy more famous than Spencer Tracy or Christopher Marlow?

In what many are calling a brilliant marketing coup, Sprint is using the same actor who used to be in the Verizon “Can you hear me now?” commercials, sporting the same goofy black glasses, to talk about how great the Sprint network is for cellphones—excuse me, hand-held computers that also take photos and makes phone calls—excuse me again—portable devices.

In the original commercial, the short and compact imaginary Verizon employee, whose real name is Paul Marcarelli, goes from place to place asking, “Can you hear me now?” as a means of communicating that Verizon’s wireless network was the most extensive in the country.

Then a funny thing happened. The character transcended the commercial and became a punchline for political speeches, editorial cartoons and late-night humor. Just as it seems as if everyone in the early-1980s was saying “Where’s the beef?” and “I’ll be back” and everyone in 2003 was saying “Shake it like a Polaroid” and every other joke included the expression “twerk” two years ago, so did it seem for many moons as if every conversation included someone cleverly wise-cracking, ”Can you hear me now?” or any of a number of smarmy variations like “Can you see me now?,” “Can you feel me now?” and “Can you smell me now?”

It was some years ago that Verizon retired the “Can you hear me now guy?” and now Sprint is resurrecting him to make the point that nowadays—as opposed to 15 years ago when the “Can you hear me now?” guy was popping up in TV spots, on billboards, in magazines and on the Internet—every wireless company has a wonderful network. He claims that Sprint’s “reliability” is within one percent of Verizon’s, but costs a fraction of the price, and then defiantly asks, “Can you hear that?”

Brilliant to build on the Verizon brand identifier to demonstrate that Sprint is as good as Verizon in the key attribute by which Verizon has always sold its product. This aggressive attack on the Verizon brand is not, however, the first time a television commercial has depended on viewers knowing about another, years-old TV spot. A few years ago, a commercial for a laundry soap parodied the old Mean Joe Greene commercial in which the gruff, mean-looking football player sentimentally trades a jersey for a can of Coke.  Without knowing about a commercial that was 30 years old, you couldn’t understand why it was so funny when Amy Sedaris threw Greene’s stinking jersey back to him saying it needed to go into the wash.

In the case of “Can you hear me now?” the viewer only has to remember back about a decade. Someone insightful on the Sprint marketing team recognized that the “Can you hear me now?” guy was 1) still remembered; 2) still respected; and 3) still linked to the idea of a wireless network that works and is state-of-the-art.

In short, the nameless character that Paul Marcarelli played for years has entered the American cultural vocabulary.

Cultural vocabulary comprises the quotes and images of literature, the visual arts, entertainment, current events and other cultural phenomena that people need to know to understand the cultural references that abound in the mass media, the popular arts and general conversation. Our cultural vocabulary consists of many artifacts:

  • Real and fictional people, such as Adam & Eve, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Pascal and Don Quixote.
  • Events, e.g., Hannibal crossing the Alps, the Battle of Waterloo, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Neil Armstrong stepping foot on the moon.
  • Phrases, e.g., quotes from poems, books, movies and songs, anything from “No can do” and “Let’s get it on” to “To be or not to be,” from “Four score and seven years ago” to “I have a dream.”
  • Inanimate objects, e.g., the Bible, the Holy Grail or a Super Bowl ring.

From almost the beginning of human culture, artists in all genres and for all purposes have used pieces of cultural vocabulary in their works. But in all case, the artist shapes the cultural vocabulary to his or her own purposes. For example, Odysseus’ wiliness is heroic for Homer, treacherous for Virgil and bombastic and legalistic for Shakespeare; in James Joyce’s hands, the character of Odysseus is transformed into a self-abnegating Jew in turn-of-the-20th-century Dublin. Botticelli’s Venus is a Christian Neo-Platonist symbol of divine love, whereas Titian’s Venus revels in the sensuality of the real world and Paolo Veronese’s embodies the civilizing effects of love. Select virtually any cultural icon that has been around more than a few hundred years and you will be able to find different versions of it throughout literature, art, pop culture and even history. In a sense, the artist “cannibalizes” the cultural icon by spinning the shared understanding of the icon with his or her own meaning.

Mass culture chews up images and concepts quickly—be it fictional characters like Robin Hood, Mr. Spock or Jason Bourne; historical figures such as Napoleon at Waterloo or Washington crossing the Delaware; sayings like “where’s the beef?” or “I’ll be back”; real incidents like the Spitzer prostitution scandal; fictional ones like movie plots; or new products, especially strange ones. Situation comedies, comedy sketches, TV commercials, spoof movies, newspaper headlines, news programs, comic strips, catalogue captions, advertising slogans, postmodern art and book titles are just some of the communication forms that routinely cannibalize cultural references. One week, we’ll see hundreds of references to twerking and a few weeks later, they’ll be gone, only to be replaced by hundreds of references to 1970s race car drivers, thanks to the movie “Rush.” Like twerking and “Rush,” most of this cultural phenomena is ephemeral—here today and gone tomorrow. But you can still provoke a heart swell with a reference to Moses and Lincoln, or a chuckle with an imitation of Richard Nixon.

Cannibalization of cultural iconography occurs primarily through direct reference or through imitation, parody and, travesty. James Joyce structures Ulysses after Homer’s epic and a secondary character in the “American Pie” movies calls himself the “Sherminator,” referring to another movie in another genre. Over time, we expropriate and distort the content of a cultural icon, sometimes to the point that we cannot recognize the original, as when Robin Hood becomes an anti-tax conservative in the Russell Crowe movie remake instead of someone who takes from the rich to give to the poor; or when Martin Luther King comes to represent general service to the community in place of seeing him as representing civil rights and civil disobedience. We morph cultural icons, as when the Terminator and Joe Isuzu transform into good guys. We take them out of context and thereby change their meaning, as Andy Warhol did with Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.

The surest sign that an event, person, character or saying has permanently entered the public collective consciousness is that it has undergone a large number of these cultural expropriations over a period of years. It’s one thing for Johnny Carson to joke about the Mean Joe Greene soft drink commercial in 1982. It’s quite another to recycle the concept as a homage-cum-parody 30 years later to sell suds to housewives.

The longer a cultural artifact remains part of the cultural vocabulary, the more it changes from its original form and meaning, until finally it can mean anything to anyone. In a sense, frequent morphing of a cultural artifact hollows it out so it becomes an empty vessel that can be filled with any idea. Take the United States constitution, not the document itself, but its cultural meaning as a holy icon that guides our society and sets our laws. In any given year, dozens of conservative, progressive and centrist writers invoke the constitution, each meaning something completely different. Years of reinterpretation and misinterpretation by the news media, politicians, writers, filmmakers, composers and public relations professionals have slowly hollowed out the concept of the constitution, so that it can come to represent anything—and everything.

It’s likely that the “Can you hear me now?” guy will eventually disappear, much as most cultural artifacts do. I doubt anyone would catch a reference to Spencer Tracy in “Captains Courageous” anymore, although Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca retains a grip on the public consciousness. In a similar way, a reference to Christopher Marlowe would go over most heads; even an allusion to “Dr. Faustus” would probably be mistaken as referring to Goethe’s version of the medieval myth of the man who seeks all knowledge. But again, a television commercial in which a troubled-looking young man looked at a skull and said, “To network or not to network” would resonate with most high school graduates.

We could glibly predict that the “Can you hear me now?” guy and the advertising caricature of Mean Joe Greene will likely disappear in time, as will Joe Isuzu, the “Where’s the beef?” lady, the cannibalistic Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head nibbling potato chips and the prematurely retired Dell Dude. But we can’t really be sure. The line between fiction and truth blurred decades before the partially mendacious “The Imitation Game,” “Selma” and “The King’s Speech.” The right-wing news media long ago blurred the distinction between truth and falsity.  Sponsored content on the Internet and on TV has now blurred the distinction between programming and commercials. The commercialization and commoditization of most entertainment, information gathering and communications makes it more possible than ever for television commercial slogans and characters to remain memes long enough to make the leap to lasting, even permanent cultural relevancy. Perhaps centuries from now, a future Mel Brooks will have a character walk around in Renaissance tights, sword in scabbard, staring into a skull and saying, “Alas, poor Yorick. Can you hear me now?”

If his life had taken a different turn, Muhammad Ali might have been a Hall of Fame right fielder…and alive

The first time Muhammad Ali—then known as Cassius Clay—beat Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title later unfairly stripped from him, it was a big media event in the days in which there were many more newspapers, but only three television networks. Mass culture tended to be more homogeneous than today: people heard the same music, watched the same shows, read the same papers. People talked about the first Clay-Liston fight for days before, yet all the talk was of the beating Liston was going to inflict on the loud-mouthed punk. Every male I knew—my classmates, friends, the adults who supervised us, my father, uncles and cousins—predicted that Liston was going to win.

Except me. I was for Clay.

It wasn’t that I thought he was a great fighter. I knew nothing about boxing except that Emile Griffith killed someone in the ring and my father thought Rocky Marciano was the greatest heavyweight fighter ever, but that the greatest boxer was Sugar Ray Robinson. No, I didn’t care much for watching fighting, or for engaging in fisticuffs myself, although I had recently, after weeks of provocation, punched out a bully in gym class, earning me the admonishment of the teacher to take off my glasses before my next fight.

Nor did I like Clay all that much. His doggerel poetry was funny and clever, but it wasn’t the way I had been taught athletes were supposed to act. Clay taunted his early opponents. Mickie Mantle and Willie Mays rounded the bases head down and tight-lipped, not wanting to rile up the pitcher. Maybe all that proves is that you can inflict more pain and injury with a thrown baseball than a fist, but to me, quiet dignity during combat and in victory was part of the athletic code of ethics.

Nor was I playing the odds, figuring that no one would remember my prediction if Clay lost, and if Clay won, I would make sure they’d remember what a great fight picker I was.

No, I picked Clay for no other reason than to be different, to set myself apart from everyone else. I was thirteen and entering the stage when I felt myself a stranger, an “other,” and predicting Clay’s victory was another of many small acts of defiance. Like a freedom fighter in a ghetto uprising, even if I knew in my heart Clay would lose, I would still support him.

Little did I know at the time that Ali would come to symbolize all the “others,” not just in the United States but to all of humankind, the ultimate outsider in race, religion and political creed who fought peacefully with honor and dignity for a world in which all “others” can be embraced as part of the community of man. Like the mythic John Wayne in “The Quiet Man,” Ali was the man who earned a living with his fists who was a pacifist when it came to politics. Except unlike in the fictional John Ford movie, Ali never flinched, never faltered.

Ali preceded most Americans, including me, in his opposition to the Vietnam War. I had mixed feelings when he was stripped of his title for draft evasion, thinking that Ali had the right to his own views and that the boxing commissions were wrong to take away his crown, but wondering why he picked that unimportant distant war for his political martyrdom. Within months, my views on the Vietnam War changed, and soon after the rest of the nation’s did as well. The longer Ali was denied the right to fight, the more unfair his situation seemed to Americans, and to people around the world. It didn’t take long for the pariah became a hero. And he deserved to be. He deserves every honor he received in his lifetime and all the accolades he is gathering posthumously. That a man who emerged from the most brutal of sports should be a supreme representative of peace is one of the great ironies of the 20th century.

Because Ali was not just a great fighter, but also a great athlete, I can’t help but speculate how his life may have gone if he had gotten into another sport. He was unfortunately a little too short to play power forward, which would have been his natural basketball position. Although I suspect Ali would have been one of the greatest running backs or pulling guards of all time, I wouldn’t want Ali to exchange the dehumanizing brutality of boxing for the equally savage football. As a baseball player, however, Ali intrigues. With his tremendous strength and great hand-eye coordination, he would probably knock the lights, crap and stuffing out of the ball. I’m guessing that he would not be among the speediest of runners, but would likely have a good arm, and so would end up in right field. I imagine him hitting the ball with the authority of a Dick Allen or Manny Ramirez, two troubled and brooding outsiders who sometimes spouted off things better left unsaid. But Ali was a gregarious, social type with highly developed social skills, so it’s more likely he would have been like Reggie Jackson or Willie Stargell, natural leaders. If Ali were lucky enough to play for a good team, he would likely have dominated at least one World Series, if not several. Reggie Jackson put it best when he said that he didn’t get better in October, he merely got less tired than other players. Stamina is one of the central skills of any boxer, and Ali was one of the greatest of all time. With a team like the Yankees or the Orioles of the 1960’s, I’m thinking Ali would walk into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

Speculation of this sort is always idle, but one thing I know for certain: If Mohammad Ali played baseball, basketball, hockey, golf, tennis, soccer, Lacrosse, archery or just about any other sport, he would still be alive. Boxing apologists claim that the brain damage Ali sustained only occurred in his last few fights, when he was clearly over the hill with a diminished capacity to protect himself, but needed a few more paydays. Even if we accept that self-serving nonsense, it underlines what a few fights can do to someone and thereby serves as perhaps an even greater argument in favor of outlawing the sport.

We honor Mohammad Ali and all he stood for whenever we engage in peaceful protest. We honor him when we confront the police and judicial system about racist practices. We honor him when we open our doors to war refugees. We honor him when we walk for peace and against nuclear weapons. We honor him when we remove the barriers to same-sex marriage.  In short, whenever we stand up for the poor, minorities, immigrants, religious minorities—for the stranger and the other—we participate and honor Muhammad Ali’s memory.

I would like to honor him in another way: by outlawing the sport of boxing. Let the future Muhammad Alis find their glory in athletic endeavors for which the object is not to hurt the opponent.