Category Archives: understanding shenanigans

Wolverhampton Wolves



I refer not to that ancient city’s alliteratively nicknamed football club [officially, the Wanderers], but to the flash-mob packs of masked looters and arsonists, who are the subject of my contempt, yet also of my attempt to understand what on earth has got up their noses this week.

That sociological sage [and, allegedly, appalling father] John Phillips, late of The Mamas and the Papas, wrote these lyrics to “Safe In My Garden” (1968), concerning the rioting youth of that era: “Could it be we were hot-wired? Late one night; we’re very tired. They stole our minds and thought we’d never know it. With a bottle in each hand; too late to try to understand. We don’t care where it lands–we just throw it. When you go out in the street, so many hassles with the heat [hippie slang for the police]; no one there can fill your desire. Cops out with the megaphones, telling people stay inside their homes. Man, can’t they see the world’s on fire?”

The riots he was describing ostensibly arose from the twin “root causes” of an unpopular war [Vietnam] and racial injustice in 20th Century America; yet he posits a very 21st Century “spark” that ignited that summer of burning cities: some kind of subliminal, electronically-mediated GroupThink, that robbed young people of their individual will and transformed them into the mobile vulgus [the wandering mob], wreaking seemingly random havoc, but not getting much satisfaction from it. Pretty prescient, for a guy who died in the Spring of 2001, no?

Many of this week’s unrepentant pillagers, when asked by BBC reporters, what got up their noses to provoke such displays of rage, answered, “It’s a Class War, innit? We’ve got nuffink, so we’re takin’ it from the rich, nar’mean?” Mind you, they all seemed to own Blackberries, on which they BBM’d {“hot-wired”?] each other the list of successive targets, most of which were modest “mom & pop” shops owned by Sikhs & Hindus [not by “rich snobs,” as one boy put it]. So, why the disconnect between the looters’ Robin Hood myth of robbing the rich, and the reality of their robbing the barely-making-ends-meet South Asian shopkeepers?

Well, [pace The News of the World] I blame the UK’s gutter press, of which The Daily Mail is the prime surviving example, whose narrative subtext is “Everyone we photograph is richer, luckier, and more powerful than you, Dear Reader. Envy them. Feel humiliated by them. Cut them down to size, if you get the chance.” That’s right. I blame the media for the mayhem that continues to spread throughout England tonight, perpetrated not by “werewolves” [who spend the daylight hours adhering to the social norms] but by packs of wolfish youths [boys and girls] who declared proudly to daytime reporters, “No snobby cop’s going to tell us what to do!”
Yeah, right. But the cynical editors of The Daily Mail and their ilk are profiting from your shenanigans. Their motto is: “Long live the Class War! [Let’s hope there are still some corner shops left tomorrow, to sell our Schadenfreude.]”
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Filed under aggression happens, attribution theory, understanding shenanigans

"A cat may look on a king, ye know."


The earliest citation for this egalitarian proverb is 1546 [Oxford English Dictionary], when the king in question was Henry VIII. I was going to apply it to the case, a couple of weeks ago, of the Bishop of Willesden’s snarky Twitter response to the engagement of Prince William [heir to the throne and therefore this cleric’s eventual boss]: to paraphrase,”I give it seven years. The Royal Family are all philanderers. When the wedding date is announced, I’ll be booking my republican day trip to France.” The next day, the Bishop issued a pro forma “No offense intended” statement; but by the end of the week he had been relieved of his public duties.

But that puny piece of lese majesty has since been overshadowed by last week’s riotous assault [by disgruntled students] on Prince Charles’ official car and his current wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, who may actually have been “poked with a stick” through the broken window of their Rolls. [All of us curious cats may look at the now-famous photo of Camilla and the future king, wearing matching WTF facial expressions, under siege.] 182 protesters had been arrested by the following Tuesday, on the basis of CCTV footage.

Can you hear the hoofbeats of my hobbyhorse approaching? Det. Chief Superintendent Horne had this to say about the alleged perpetrators: “There was a stark contrast between scenes in Westminster and homes with crying parents and shocked young people when the police turned up. When they are shown footage of their actions that day some are shocked by the impact of their behavior.” Or to put words in their slack-jawed mouths, “I have no idea what got into me! I’m just not like that!”

To use another of my favorite Mancunian expressions, then “What are you like?” [It means “Your behavior is so bad, that similes fail me.”]

My own answer, to the Bishop and to the revolting students, is “You are like anyone else who ever got a snootfull of one or more of the Big Four Precursors: angry.” Was it intrusion? The tuition fees are set to treble in the next few years, meaning that almost all “Uni” grads will incur significant debt. Fear? “How will I ever find a job, if I can’t afford an education?” Pain & suffering? “If the government cuts back on ‘the dole,’ [unemployment benefits], I may not even be able to afford food & shelter!”

But consider the targets of their [and the Bishop’s] anger: the Royals. The ostentatiously wealthy, “Bow-to-me-when-you-address-me,” unelected, Ruling Class.

I’m thinking it was humiliation, that got up their noses. It usually is, when revolution is in the air.

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The Hoon Report


Thanks to the personable young British Formula One racer, Lewis Hamilton [whose shenanigans in his Mercedes-Benz AMG C63 “road car” two days before the Australian Grand Prix cost him a slap-on-the-wrist fine of “just under 300 pounds” for “acting like a hoon”], those of us in the Northern Hemisphere have learned a new epithet, that we can hurl at “aggressive drivers” who set off our limbic system alarms with their risky moves. Mystery shrouds the derivation of this Antipodean term [which originally referred to any “young person who engages in loutish, antisocial behavior,” but has more recently become a “semi-official term” for street drag-racers, as in “Australia considers anti-hoon legislation”]. I have two theories. One, that “hoon” is merely a contraction of “hooligan.” Two, that it comes from the objective case of the Gaelic word toin [as in the Irish imprecation, Pog ma hoin], and so originally meant “ass.” [As in “Quit acting like a hoon, you silly ass!”] Not all that farfetched, considering that the First Wave of “immigrants” to the Land Downunder were predominantly Irish. [If you don’t get the quotation marks in the previous sentence, look up meaning 4 of “transportation” in Webster’s, innit.]

Anyway, here is Fionbharr [Finn to his friends], a San Francisco rescue, to keep not-so-solipsistic-Seamus company in the new place. If Finn were, indeed, writing a blog, it would seem to be coming right out of his hoin, now, do you see?

Back to Hamilton, though, who serves as Formula One’s “ambassador for [its] global road safety campaign and has given speeches in Westminster [Parliament] on the subject.” Through his lawyer, he issued a statement to the Australian court [and the rest of us], that he had suffered “embarrassment, humiliation and distress as a result of the episode.” We’re going to consider if Hamilton has truly “owned his wolf” in a moment; but here’s how it played in court. “Magistrate Clive Alsop said he would not convict the 25-year-old because he was ashamed and remorseful. However, he added that Hamilton’s behavior was unacceptable. ‘This isn’t about somebody’s character, this about somebody in a responsible position behaving like a hoon.'”

But, do yah see, now, Magistrate Alsop, in my book [well, blog], “character” is exactly what this is about? It’s all very well to acknowledge that having one’s car impounded two days before the Oz Grand Prix is “embarrassing, humiliating, and distressing.” That’s being sorry you were caught. It does not address the question: “What got up my nose, that I decided to violate the rules of the road [and the core values of the road safety campaign for which I am a high-profile spokesman]?” As with all the grabbed-from-the-headlines cases I cite, I realize that once the accused has “lawyered up,” the odds of such public self-disclosure lengthen considerably. But we, the mere readers of the story, can ask the up-your-nose question on their behalf [and vicariously, on ours]. For unless “out-of-character” behavior is understood, it is likely to recur.

As with the ponytaail-yanking soccer player in the post “In Hindsight,” perhaps the question does get asked and answered, in private, after the news media have cleared off. Having served a 2-game suspension, that young lady is back playing for the Lobos. Maybe she has done her “wolf work,” and has figured out how, in that aggressive sport, to avoid acting like a Red-Card-level hoon.

As for my boy Hamilton, he won the Belgian Grand Prix yesterday, by “driving safely and keeping out of trouble.” Even though Chris Rock laments that “There is no rehab for stupid,” there may be rehab for acting like a hoon. Let’s hope so, anyway, since we’ve all been there, if we’re honest with ourselves.

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Filed under jekyll and hyde, understanding shenanigans

Who Says?


Not only is this a song title from John Mayer’s latest musings on interpersonal ambivalence, Battle Studies, it’s what all and sundry are asking and/or acting out, these days. “The peasants are revolting!” goes the old double-entendre, and so are Army generals, Hollywood starlets, and all the drivers who blow past me daily, on a narrow road clearly marked 40 mph and crawling with police. Sheesh!

In Ireland these days, such behavior would be labeled “bold” [as in “…as brass”], which no longer means brave, but just impudent, shameless, feckless, or insouciant. Is there more of this about, or am I just an old stick-in-the-mud? I blame reality TV, ya know, which gives viewers a false sense that the risk of legal sanction is outweighed by the prospect of fame [and, occasionally, fortune]. Back the the 70s in Manhattan, some of my acting school friends who didn’t have day jobs would audition to be contestants on a quiz show called Jackpot! To make the otherwise boring show watchable, the talent-spotter rewarded the most over-the-top, crazed members of the studio audience by choosing them to [the uncopyrighted equivalent of] Come On Down, and play the game. They shot 5 “episodes” of the show in one day, so the semper paratus acting student bought a hold-all with 4 other shirts, just in case. One of our friends got selected for bellowing “Crackpot!” instead of the show’s catchphrase. He used the video of his 5-show “performance” [during which he “chewed the scenery” shamelessly] as a cheap & cheerful audition tape for the consideration of various theatrical agents; and it got him work.

These days, in the lyrics of the Scouting for Girls song, “Everybody wants to be on TV.” As an erstwhile student of Sociology, I could make a connection between the dearth of actual Day Jobs, and the fantasy of “quitting [one’s] Day Job” (to become rich & famous); but it’s belaboring the obvious. My actual point is a more universal, psychological one. If virtue [observing the speed limit, graduating from college, obeying one’s Code of Conduct] is not rewarded, it is less likely to occur. In situations where the fear of punishment for Engaging in Shenanigans is outweighed by the humiliation of having Done the Right Thing and still gotten a Bad Outcome, stand by for more Shenanigans.

This is Lili, boldly ignoring my command to jump over a barrel to my right. Although it is high summer again, the picture is from 2 years ago, before we had truly appreciated that You Get What You Reward, and You Reward Disobedience by Letting It Slide. Silence gives consent. These days, this seemingly trivial moment of noncompliance would be met with, “Oooy! Ali Oop!” followed by a heartfelt “Yosh! Ichibon Inu!” [Good! Number One Dog!] as she completed the jump. Not a contract for her own reality show, mind, or even a high-value treat. What Lili and the rest of us need, to keep on doing the dorky Right Thing, is for our masters to notice, and acknowledge, our efforts.

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Filed under lesser of two evils, understanding shenanigans

Are You Gaslighting Me?


By 1994, when Victor Santor published his creepily serious book, Gaslighting: How to Drive Your Enemies Crazy, the term had come to mean “a form of intimidation or psychological abuse in which false information is presented to the victim, making them doubt their own memory and perception.” Most Americans will associate this with the 1944 film Gaslight, starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman & Joseph Cotton, which was a remake of a 1940 UK film of that name [later released in the States as The Murder in Thornton Square], based on the 1939 West End play Gas Light, which opened on Broadway in 1941 as Angel Street, starring Vincent Price in his debut role as a Baddie, where it ran for a record-setting 1,293 performances. In a real-life attempt to gaslight American movie-goers [“British version? There was never a British version.”], MGM arranged to have the negative & all the prints of Thorold Dickinson’s 1940 film destroyed [but he surreptitiously made a print for himself and squirreled it away].

In all the versions, our heroine notices that the gaslights on the lower floor of the house intermittently go dim [indicating that someone has lit up a gaslight in the attic]; but the complicit housemaid [Angela Lansbury in the MGM flick] denies that anyone is upstairs and she denies that she notices the downstairs lights dimming, at all. It’s another case of, “Who ya gonna believe? Me, or your lyin’ eyes?”

Apparently, humans can’t resist this form of Poetic deception, often rationalizing it as “just a bit of fun.” According to my Dad, each Junior Officer, upon arrival at his first Pacific port of call, was gaslighted in the Officers’ Club, thusly. The Newbie would spy his first gecko, peering down at him from one of the corners of the room, point to it and say, “Oh, look! A lizard!” As one, the Old Hands would turn variously to every other corner of the room and say, soothingly, “Yes. I see it. Of course I do.” “No! Really! Over here!” the Newbie would insist; at which the Old Hands would all switch their gazes to another [gecko-free] corner and reiterate, “A lizard. Yes.” Of course, the wheeze would only work if there was only one gecko in the room. A log was kept, of how long it took for “the penny to drop.” And don’t you just know, the ex-Newbie was the most enthusiastic gaslighter, when the next Junior Officer arrived.

Why do we humans feel the urge to deceive? Probably, for the usual reason we resort to Poetic communication: because we reckon that the truth will get us in trouble. The Baddie in Gaslight fears his wife will dime him out as the murderer, so he seeks to turn her into an unreliable witness. The Old Hands seek to assuage the humiliation of their own Newbie cluelessness, so they ritually pass on the pain to the new Newbies. This is especially likely to happen if there is the perception of scarce resources [such as available females, or supplies, or even space] in the area, into which the Newbie has unwittingly intruded.

Turns out, we’re not the only creatures who engage in intra-species deception, as Jakob Bro-Jorgensen reports in his recent article, “Male Topi Antelopes Alarm Snort Deceptively to Retain Females for Mating.” [First of all, that title is far too high-concept to get green-lighted as an MGM film. I’m thinking, Don’t Be That Schmized Gazelle!] Quoting here, “male antelopes snort and look intently ahead if an ovulating female begins to stray from their territory [which] suggests to the female that there is danger ahead…[such as] lions, cheetahs, leopards [or] humans…the snort and intent look were a false call…and there was no danger nearby.” The article asserts, “This type of intentional deception of a sexual partner has not been documented before in animals. Previous studies have shown that animals do deceive each other but mainly in hostile situations or to protect themselves.” Bro-Jorgesen ponders “why females keep responding to alarms at all”; and concludes that “females are better off erring on the side of caution, because failing to react to a true alarm could easily mean death in a place…full of predators.”

So, here’s my suggestion, whatever your species happens to be. If you begin to suspect that you are being gaslighted, ask yourself, “How might the [would-be] gaslighter benefit from the deception? What’s up his [or her, let’s not forget Angela Lansbury’s shenanigans] nose, anyway?” If you come up clueless, you always have the option of reading the power subtext back to the other party: “Are you gaslighting me?”

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Filed under ethology, power subtext, semiotics, understanding shenanigans

"What Was I Thinking?"


My currently fave BBC 1 radio presenter, the young-but-sage Dubliner Annie Mac, was hosting a Bank Holiday Weekend show, reading texts from listeners recounting their shenanigans. “Annie, I woke up in a wheelie bin [trash can on wheels] this morning,” wrote one reveler. Annie deadpanned this response: “Now, what made you think that was a good idea? Surely, you would have been more comfortable, lying face-down on the lawn. Ah, well, you’ve survived it; and now it’s an anecdote.”

Brilliant! Here’s why I love what she’s done there. Without appearing to be goody-two-shoes preach-y about the perils of demon drink, she has deftly imputed internal locus of control to the texter-in. Rather than focusing on how he came to be so “trashed” that [presumably] his so-called friends decided to “bin” him, she [Poetically] implies that the decision to pass the night in a garbage can was his; and questions the wisdom of that. Under the rubric of “If you can’t be good, be careful,” she points out that he could have lessened his pain & suffering by stretching out, in the recommended Recovery Position, on some soft grass. [Coincidentally, last week the Manchester Guardian ran a feature on 10 common, potentially lethal, misconceptions about rendering first aid; and one was to “lay a drunk person on his/her back.” Several show-biz fatalities were cited, as evidence that this is a Bad Idea.]

By implication, she suggests that the reveler might now be having a bit of retroactive fear [as in, “Bloody hell! I could have died from that!”] and humiliation [as in “Bloody hell! I just told an audience of millions how stupid I am!”]; but she reframes his shenanigans as a Lucky Escape: an event not to be repressed or dissociated [as in, “That was not me, I’m not like that.”], but to be told and retold, until the ostensibly Crazy Fox’s behavior is understood well enough to answer the question: “What was I thinking?”

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"I’m wild again, beguiled again…"


Lorenz Hart’s original lyrics to the hit song of the 1940 musical Pal Joey, “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered,” were so risque that Bowdlerized [watered-down, Disney-fied] phrases are usually substituted, to mollify modern, Tipper Gorean sensibilities. Even if you are familiar with the song, bet you haven’t heard this opening gambit, sung by a girl, already: “After one whole quart of brandy, like a daisy I awake, with no Bromo Seltzer handy…” [Talk about “Tried to make me go to rehab, but I said ‘no, no, no.'”]

Sportsfans, I tell ya, simply pretending that you have no wolf [no temptation to behave recklessly and regrettably] doesn’t stop your wolf from going wild. Beguiled, we’ll get to in a moment.

When, in another part of the forest, I used to interview young people whose misuse of alcohol had come to the attention of the authorities, I encouraged them to recapture their [pre-bust] enthusiasm for their beverage of choice. [See the post, “Crazy Like a Fox.”] To cut to the chase I would ask a young man, “Tell me what’s better about an evening spent with Ethyl.” [Young ladies were asked about an evening with Fred. As in Mertz. Nar’mean?] Protestations of “Nothing! Nothing was good about it! It was stupid! I was led astray by my so-called friends,” were dismissed as unhelpful stonewalling. Until any of us can look back on our shenanigans from the Crazy Fox’s point of view, as “seeming like a good idea, at the time,” we are none the wiser about what makes us tick, and no less likely to try it again.

Even when granted amnesty [or confidentiality], though, most of my “drunken sailors” were initially reluctant to “go there”: to let the Crazy Fox explain what it was trying to accomplish. The heroine of the Rogers & Hart song goes there. She tells us she is wildly, hopelessly attracted to an off-limits guy, so she spent the night with Fred [a quart of brandy]. Her Crazy Fox beguiled her into believing that Fred would take her mind off Mr. Wrong, at least temporarily. The song is a morning-after lament: “Well, ‘going wild’ didn’t work. I’m still bewitched, bothered & bewildered by this guy, only now I have a hangover, too.” I’ll let you look up the original lyrics, to find out if she ever wises up, or comes to a bad end.

Trouble is, insight into the Crazy Fox’s motive comes at a cost: humiliation. [Sometimes, also pain & suffering.] Not everyone is prepared to pay that price, until all other options have been exhausted. How ’bout a bit of denial? “I’m just not like that.” Or rationalization? “I don’t have to try to understand this, because it’s a one-time-deal, not a pattern.” Or projection? “I didn’t start this. S/he did provoke [beguile] me.”

Recommended reading: the mid-section of DFW’s Infinite Jest, featuring the AA meetings.

Imagine what Lili & Zanzibar are saying in this picture. Actually, there were no shenanigans going on here, for once. Peaceable kingdom. But doesn’t Lili look guilty of something?

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Filed under ambivalence, understanding shenanigans