AUDIO NOTE: Long post, long audio—also with some extemporizations and a barking dog.
I want to talk about the EU corruption case that’s making waves in Belgium right now, and in talking about that I want to reference a recent Bill Whittle video about the weaponization of trust. That’s going to involve a lot of talk about theatre and politics, so I want to provide some autobiographical context before I get into it. I’ll try to keep short.
(I said try.)
I’ve been writing ever since I was old enough to hold a crayon.
I was a big ungainly kid for most of my childhood, nerdy and clumsy: writing offered a nice escape.
Only toward the end of eighth grade did things start to come together for me: the baby fat finally burned off, my vertical growth slowed enough that my dexterity and coordination finally caught up to the body I inhabited, and my mouth was finally freed of braces and retainers. The photographic record indicates that it was also at about this time that I learned how to dress and groom myself well enough to pass as very nearly human.
I’d always enjoyed sports even though I’d never been very good at any of them, but by ninth grade I found myself actually doing well in (American) football and track & field. It was much more enjoyable now that I was actually contributing to the team. I had actual value. I had a couple of good years as a jock, then a gruesome knee injury forced me out of sports.
I replaced sports with the drama club, the school paper, and the literary magazine. It was an interesting transition: the arty-fartsy kids were wary of me because they still thought of me as a jock; my old teammates considered it highly suspicious I’d gone over to the artsy-fartsy crowd.
A couple of years later I was attending Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, an acting student in the performing arts conservatory. I enjoyed it but felt like I was neglecting my writing, so in my sophomore year I became an acting-playwriting double major.
We’ll skip some superfluities here and fast forward to March 1985, when I moved into an old abandoned candy factory on Chicago’s north side along with two Carnegie classmates, one of their girlfriends, and a Carnegie upperclassman. (We’d all dropped out.) We converted the big old space into a theatre—an arts center, really, with a mainstage, a studio theatre that we sometimes used as a cabaret, and living space for all of us. We literally lived in the theatre. It was a wild adventure and the theatre did well enough, but by the end of the year I realized that, hi-diddle-dee-dee, it’s not the actor’s life for me.
It wasn’t for me because there was no damn money in it. I always knew there was no damn money in theatre—the first thing we were told on the first day of orientation at Carnegie was that we had chosen a life of rejection and would probably never make a living at the thing we had chosen to study.
That had always seemed tolerable to me in theory but turned out to be less appealing in practice.
I high-tailed it back to my parents’ home in New England, got a bunch of stupid jobs (most of which involved spatulas) and began looking around at schools to resume my education in a more remunerative direction.
Skipping over still more superfluities, I eventually ended up at Boston’s Emerson college, where I switched majors so frequently that although I was overloading on courses, even during summer sessions, I kept having to extend my studies to meet the degree requirements of whatever new major I’d switched to.
Eventually my advisor talked me into participating into a new “L.A. extension” that Emerson would be starting the next year: he was heading that program up and thought I’d be a good candidate for its political track.
I therefore began January of 1988 as an Emerson student in Los Angeles, living with a couple of old Carnegie friends (both of them Oakland natives) with whom I was starting a video production business. I had a full-time job from day one, working for the L.A. branch of a bank I’d been working for in Boston. The Emerson program required an internship—that was the whole point of the program, the internships in entertainment and politics—and I was placed into a law firm that was also the headquarters of Democratic presidential candidate Richard Gephardt.
The next semester I took an internship at the California Republican Party. My second day there I told my supervisor that what I was doing was stupid and could be done much more efficiently on a computer. Didn’t they have any computers?
They did indeed. I was offered a full-time job that day.
My work at the CRP was interrupted when an arm of the national Bush (41) campaign moved into the CRP’s Burbank offices. The campaign’s director needed a guy who knew how to use a computer so he hired me away from the CRP.
After we won California for Bush—the last Republican presidential candidate to carry the state—that same director was charged with starting up a new regional office for a big D.C. public affairs and lobbying firm. He hired me as his deputy.
At first it was just the two of us working out of a couple of borrowed cubicles in the offices of Hill, Holliday, a big advertising firm that was about to become an industry legend with its catastrophic “rocks and trees” campaign for Nissan’s Infiniti brand. (A story for another day.)
Within a couple of years I was managing a staff of eight or nine professionals and a handful of administrators. I was married to my first wife (the wrong one) by then—the woman with whom I’d been roommates and with whom I’d started the video business.
I loved that job, but the old malady struck again: I felt I was neglecting my writing. It chafed.
Meanwhile, the theatre company I had helped establish in Chicago moved to L.A.. Having all my old theatre cronies around only exacerbated my itch to get back into something more artistically creative.
My wife and I agreed that I had to find a way to make time for my writing and she for her acting. But we both liked our nice salaries, our nice apartment, our nice cars, so I worked out a compromise with my boss: I would work 14-16 hour days in the office on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, but would have Tuesdays and Thursdays off for my writing.
I called them my steel tower days and my ivory tower days. It was magnificent: I had the best of both worlds. Life was a dream.
Until I awoke one morning with such abdominal pain I ended up going to the emergency room. Seven months later—seven months of paid sick leave later—the lead doctor of the experimental program I’d ended up in at UCLA was at his wit’s end. No test or scan of any kind had ever found anything wrong with me, but the pain was so debilitating I could only get through the day with codeine. We had tried every possible cure, traditional and non-traditional. Diet, exercise, meditation, acupuncture, oriental medicine, psychotherapy: nothing had helped at all.
“Sometimes physical stress isn’t the result of what we’re doing,” the doctor finally said to me. “Sometimes it comes from what we’re not doing. Is there anything that’s not in your life right now that you feel ought to be in your life?”
“My writing,” I said. I mean, I didn’t even bat an eye. No hesitation.
“Maybe you need to make some room in your life for your writing,” he said.
I explained I already had. I told him about my towers of steel and ivory.
“Maybe two days wasn’t enough?” he said.
My wife and I discussed our options that night and decided we’d never be happy unless we both gave theatre another chance. In our youthful naivete we considered corporate success a given: if theatre didn’t pan out for us we assumed could always go back to politics and pick up where we left off.
I drove into the office the next day and talked it all over with the director. The abdominal pain had been intense on my drive to the office but tapered off on my drive home and I’ve never felt that pain again. Not so much as a twinge.
Within a matter of weeks my wife and I moved out east.
Our plan was to live cheaply and save up money to move to Amsterdam and start an American theatre company there. After seven or eight months we realized we’d never save enough money to move to Amsterdam, but we had a lot of friends in Chicago and I’d already started one theatre company there. Why not move to Chicago instead of Amsterdam? my wife asked.
Reader, we did.
That theatre consumed our lives completely: it took all our money and all our time. It ended our marriage and the end of our marriage was obviously the end of our theatre. From the ashes of that ruined marriage, however, I ended up with Herself (the correct wife). And from the ashes of the theatre I ended up first with a national radio gig and then a pretty sweet book deal.
That covers my life from about 1980 through 1999.
Theatre or politics the whole way through. Sometimes both.
New acquaintances always seemed perplexed that I’d been able to move back and forth between two such different worlds, or that anyone would even want to. Over time I developed a standard explanation I could roll out whenever the question came up.
Everything I learned in and about politics I found highly applicable to theatre, and vice-versa. They’re very different worlds in practical terms, obviously, inhabited by very different sorts of people, but the fundamentals of their operation are very much the same.
Logistics. Audiences. Promotion. Stagecraft. Texts. Improvisation. Sets, lighting, sound, and effects. Programs. Donors. Fundraisers. Props. Framing. Misdirection. An uncomfortable dependence on the press.
Most of all: pathological narcissism.
(Says the guy who felt compelled to lead into all this with a few hundred words about himself.)
The two fields are so similar, in fact, that their practitioners often lose track of which field they’re in.
We see it all the time: entertainers styling themselves political activists, politicians inserting themselves into entertainment.
There’s always been overlap between these fields, but whatever boundaries may once have existed between them in the western world seem to have disappeared completely over the past several decades.
Successful entertainers run for and frequently win political office. Politicians pop up on the silver screen. They attend each other’s parties, support each other’s causes, and promote one another relentlessly.
Entertainment and politics are no longer even really separate fields.
While it’s true that the world of entertainment is almost monolithically leftist, this isn’t a phenomenon that only maniftests itself on the left. Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan are evidence enough of that, but Fred Thompson is probably the Platonic ideal of the genre: he was a U.S. Senator (R-TN) and a regular cast member on Law & Order at the same time.
But the problem isn’t with entertainers becoming politicians, or politicians becoming entertainers. The problem is that too many voters seem to be losing—or to have lost—the capacity to distinguish between entertainment and politics.
There has always been and will always be one crucial difference between entertainment and politics: the first requires a willing suspension of disbelief while the latter requires vigilant skepticism.
An example: see if you can notice the problem with the opening moments of the first Star Wars movie:
The visuals were astonishing for the era, and the sound was also very good—in fact, the movie won the Academy Award for Best Sound.
The only problem is that the sounds in that sequence are supposed to be taking place in the vacuum of outer space.
If you can’t suspend your disbelief enough to ignore basic physics, Star Wars is ruined just sixteen seconds into the first film of the franchise.
In politics, on the other hand, you have to be skeptical.
The thing speaks for itself. (Note for younger readers: he had in fact had sexual relations with that woman.)
For too many voters it seems as though public life is just one big show, a sprawling entertainment put on for their amusement. Skepticism is tossed aside because it’s much more fun to believe in the staged performances that are scripted and played out to manipulate us.
Many—maybe most—western adults (I use the term loosely) now behave less like free-born, self-governing citizens and more like rowdy and fickle spectators. As a promising young man once phrased it:
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious.
Keep those thoughts in mind and watch this video from Bill Whittle to tie all this stuff together.
If you didn’t watch the video, here’s a very short version without any spoilers: Whittle and his wife went to see a performer whose show consisted of being able to tell members of the audience what they were thinking. The performer clarified he was not a mind-reader, just a very shrewd observer of human behavior who had learned to read so much from people’s expressions, demeanors, body language, and so on, that the practical effect was every bit as good as mind reading. It was all mental discipline, he explained: he demonstrated his highly developed mental faculties by actually proving he’d memorized the first few hundred pages of Great Expectations. Whittle walks his viewers through the whole experience, from the moment he and his wife arrived at the theatre until the moment after the show, in the lobby, when he suddenly realized how the performer had managed his amazing feats.
And Whittle makes the connection between how the performer did all that and how our politicians succeed.
And how we fail.
We citizens, we ostensible masters of our own destiny who are so willfully enslaving ourselves to the most narcissistic and deceptive among us because we’ve suspended our disbelief in order to enjoy the show.
We pick our heroes and villains, then root for the former and against the latter.
All we ask is that they look the part, wear the right costumes, and say the right lines.
Which finally—finally!—brings us to the corruption case in Belgium.
From Danmarks Radio (DR), writing on Saturday:
One of the European Parliament’s 14 vice-presidents was arrested last night.
This is being reported by Euronews, AFP, and the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, among others, who write that it’s the Greek parliamentarian Eva Kaili and that she’s suspected of corruption.
According to their information, the parliamentarian’s apartment is among the 16 addresses searched by Belgian police yesterday, with five people reportedly arrested.
Eva Kaili’s Greek party, Pasok, has chosen to throw her out, party chairman Nikos Androulakis revealed on Twitter, while the social democratic group in the European Parliament has chosen to suspend her.
Kaili is apparently the “partner” (business partner? roommate? lover? mistress?) of one of the four Italian suspects also arrested, not named by the Belgian police but widely believed to be Pier-Antonio Panzeri, a former Italian Socialist member of the European Parliament. Panzeri “currently heads a Brussels-based human rights organisation called Fight Impunity.”
Of course he does.
Belgium’s federal prosecutor announced the earlier arrests after a series of raids at 16 addresses raids in the capital Brussels.
“Today’s searches have enabled investigators to recover about €600,000 in cash,” the prosecutors said in a statement.
“Computer equipment and mobile phones were also seized. These elements will be analysed as part of the investigations.”
Investigators “suspected a Gulf country (of influencing) the economic and political decisions of the European parliament”, the statement added.
It alleged this was done “by paying large sums of money or offering large gifts to” influential figures in the European parliament.
A Gulf country you say?
A Gulf country widely believed to be Qatar?
Wasn’t I just writing about Qatar the other day? Why yes, I was. And what was I saying?
FIFA, the global soccer organization, was heavily criticized for allowing Qatar to host this year’s world cup. Most of the criticism had to do with the weather in Qatar, one of the hottest countries in the world. That’s hardly an optimal location for an exhausting outdoor sport of endurance.
Besides being hot, Qatar is also rich. Crazy rich. Fuck-you rich. Whether their selection as the host of the 2022 World Cup was made legally and ethically or involved a little behind-the-scenes baksheesh is a question that’s received a lot of attention, but I’m going to ignore that, too.
Western civilization has become too cynical to care whether Qatar bribed its way into hosting the World Cup. And if you think western civilization gives a damn about forced labor, just ask a Uighur—if there are any left.
On the face it, I suppose these arrests are good news: western civilization may be too cynical to care whether Qatar bribed its way into hosting the world cup, but at least Belgian law enforcement isn’t.
But as long as we’re peeking backstage, let’s have a look at how the show had been playing out for its audience as recently as November:
Kaili, 44, is a former television presenter and currently one of the European Parliament’s 14 vice presidents. In November, shortly before the World Cup started, she met Qatar’s Labour Minister Ali bin Samikh Al Marri.
In a video statement posted on Twitter by the Qatar News Agency she said: “I believe the World Cup for Arabs has been a great tool for… political transformation and reforms…”.
The European Parliament “recognised and respected” Qatar’s progress in labour reforms, she added.
She made similar comments during a speech at the European Parliament later in November, accusing some MEPs of “bullying” Qatar and accusing them of corruption.
She’s a socialist former Greek television presenter—imagine that, an entertainer!—who somehow became a vice-president of the European Parliament and (allegedly) enriched herself and her socialist Italian “partner” to the tune of 600,000 euros by promoting the homophobic slave-state of Qatar and denouncing anyone critical of the nation as corrupt. And a bully.
Why, it’s as if Kaili and Panzeri don’t actually believe all their own happy talk about socialism and human rights! Or as if they’re at least willing to make exceptions in exchange for a little cash.
Here’s Kaili decrying the growth of Euroskepticism back in 2018 on CNBC:
She talks a lot about accountability and the need for reforms, and she looks just fabulous. Perfect casting!
Here’s Panzeri promoting his human rights organization just about a year ago:
Part of his mission: to awaken public opinion from the “torpor” into which it’s fallen with respect to government accountability. Such gravitas! Again, perfect casting!
Okay, so the plotline seems to be that the hot young Greek socialist who wants more accountability and the grizzly old Italian socialist who wants to raise public awareness of government overreach were both bribed into saying nice things about a very nasty government—and very nasty things about anyone who (quite correctly) disagreed with them.
Or is it possible they were for real, but stepped on so many toes in their anti-corruption zeal that they had to be silenced by the machinery of state? Like something out of a John Grisham novel—or a Democratic presidential campaign.
I mean, if we’re willing to accept the corruption of two ardent anti-corruption campaigners, why shouldn’t we also be able to entertain the possibility that the people accusing them of corruption are actually corrupt? That’s part of what these two are accused of doing, after all: accusing their own critics of corruption.
If you skipped those two videos, watch at least a few seconds of them. See how very reasonable and sincere they seem, how well they play their roles. And keep in mind: either it’s all bullshit and they’re just a couple of grifters, or they’re exactly who they claim to be—and nefarious unseen powers are therefore crushing them.
(Or, of course, the whole thing is a big misunderstanding and the Belgian police are now arresting European politicians by mistake.)
The only thing we know for sure at this point is that corruption exists at very high levels.
We’re all corruptible, every one of us—offer me a big enough prize and who knows what I might not be willing to do. In eighth grade I ate a piece of purple construction paper for ten bucks.
Either the anti-corruption campaigners in this case are themselves grotesquely corrupt, or the grotesque corruption they’re campaigning against is real—and terrifying in its power. Or the system is so perversely broken that members of European Parliament can be rounded up by the Belgian police on a whim.
They’re all horrible, I know, but one of them has to be true.
Then review the entire cast of characters: see how sincerely they all deliver their lines, how good they look, how very perfectly they all play the role of the altruistic hero fighting corruption.
And acknowledge: some of them are the corruption.
That’s what it looks like. Corruption doesn’t dress itself up in villainous costuming—how could it ever succeed if it did? No, corruption comes across looking fresh and lovely and altruistic and pure of heart, speaking passionately about compassion and empathy.
(Review the historical record and note how many of the worst and most murderous tryants rose to prominence promising power to the people.)
And this isn’t just in Europe, or the European parliament, or the European media, but all over the western world.
Take a good hard look at the way people are reacting to the Twitter Files. Compare and contrast the things we now know that people were saying and doing behind the scenes to the things we saw and heard them saying before Elon Musk pulled a Toto and drew aside the curtain aside to reveal the monsters behind it. (“Pay no attention to the FBI’s involvement!“)
Or enjoy this montage of very serious, very honest looking people lying to your face. Knowingly, deliberately, and unflinchingly. Confidently. Insistently.
We’re not going to get rid of all this rot by munching on popcorn in our comfy seats and rooting for this character or that while it all plays out on the big stage.
Either citizens need to wake up from their “torpor”—yes, that’s a clapback to the anti-corruption human rights campaigner who’s just been arrested for corruption—either we wake up and realize that politics isn’t just a show but something that profoundly affects our lives and our liberties and our health and well-being, and it’s gotten way out of hand and requires a reckoning… or we daydream our way into the abyss.