Night of the Befuddled Brain

Most of us have encountered a psychological condition that for our present purpose can be labeled Resolution Re-Run Syndrome.  Sufferers of this syndrome repeat a particular ritual every year known as the making of New Year’s resolutions.  The most peculiar feature of this ritual is the presence of a magical amnesia under which the resolution maker apparently forgets that he or she has done it all before.  In cases where partial recollection exists in the resolver’s mind, an I-really-mean-it-this-time determination energizes the ritual (before disappearing within three to five days). 

    Although no formal guidelines are imposed over the resolution ritual by any governing body, one would swear that every aspect is tightly regulated.  For example, each don’t seems to be required to have an accompanying do.  A resolution to stop downing large quantities of fattening fast food is routinely coupled with a promise to exercise more.  A determination to watch TV less is normally paired with an aim to read more.

     The desire to improve one’s self is certainly an admirable aspiration.  So should we be skeptical about the millions who will be participating in the resolution ritual on New Year’s Eve?  Let history answer the question.  The practice of formulating yearly resolutions dates back to the beginning of recorded time.  In ancient Babylon, citizens started off each annum with a goal of returning borrowed objects and paying off their debts.  Sound familiar?  The Romans (famous for liking themselves just as they were) made annual life revision promises to the god Janus.  This may have been appropriate considering that Janus was the two-faced god.  Medieval knights yearly re-affirmed their commitment to the values of chivalry (then promptly went off to engage in horrific enterprises such as the “Crusades”). 

     You may have already noticed the major thing that the above self-improvement minded societies have in common: they’re all defunct.  The United States has no embassy in Babylon.  Undaunted by such trivial considerations though, people of various faiths and philosophies continue their attempts to bring about positive developments in the New Year, some by replacing resolutions with the consumption of special foods ranging from soup to sauerkraut. 

     Perhaps the reason why the making of New Year’s resolutions has the flavor of a dazed boxer wildly punching air is its tendency to isolate something with which we should be regularly occupied into a once-a-year consideration.  Maybe our efforts at self-improvement would be more effective if we treated the pursuit more like a process than a broad sweep, less like doing our taxes and more like bathing.  Let us this 31 December highly resolve to cease resolving and start doing.

Holiday Inn New Year's Eve
Crosby and Astaire knew how to ring in the new year right: all singing and all dancing and no resolving


Mind Your Own Business!

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.  “Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

     Merry Christmas!  Charles Dickens and the England in which he lived and worked continue to influence our perception of 25 December.  We give the greeting we think they gave, and we believe the holiday’s essence rests in the narrow, winding, cobblestone streets of an imaginary London. Men and women are garbed in Victorian regalia; the atmosphere is that of a freshly shaken snow globe; there are children and toy stores and a sense of wide-eyed expectation.       

     One might pause to wonder how Scrooge, the unforgettable character Dickens injected into Christmas lore, would feel about his conversion were he to re-emerge today.  In many modern quarters the man who “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge” would be out of place.  We have been somehow given the belief that wishing someone a “Merry Christmas” is an offensive act.  We end up instead muting our statement to “Have a happy holiday” as though using the “C” word might result in our being picked up by the political correctness police.  Would Dickens still write “May that be truly said of us, and all of us!  And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”  Oh dear; he dared to use the “G” word too.  I can almost hear the approaching sirens.

     Hopefully, there is a principle on which the secularists and the adherents to the sacred can find agreement.  It lies in Marley’s response to Scrooge’s compliment about his having been a good man of business.  Whether you’re a fan or foe of Christmas, you probably wish other people well.  Marley lamented the fact that he had wasted his life by focusing on what should have been only a part of a much richer whole.  He had failed to make any effort toward leaving the world a better place than he had found it.  He had never touched another life in a positive way.  He had never done the wonderful things that it was in his power to do.  He had never attended to the real business of life.

     So when you go to turn off the light switches tonight – or any night – take a good look at that switch.  It’s such a little thing, yet it makes such a big difference.  It turns darkness into illumination.  Let us aspire to turn on as many figurative switches as we can while making our way through life so that we might each leave a legacy of light. May this truly be said of all of us in this season and in all the others as well. 

Scrooge and Marley
Sometimes we need little reminders.

The Time Machine

The inventor enthroned himself in what looked like a ridiculously elaborate version of Santa’s sleigh. The central design feature was the backrest reminding the viewer of a Chinese gong.   Adjusting some settings on a control panel, the inventor ramped up the speed of the world around him.  The pace of the people passing by the laboratory window became a blur while the chair remained stationary.  The style of clothing changed.  A generation was replaced by a new one in less than a minute.  Pausing to examine the alterations, the inventor spoke to a familiar-looking mailman who turned out to be the adult son of the mailman he knew.  The laboratory looked dusty and neglected which was understandable; the place hadn’t been occupied for twenty-five years.

     This is the scene I remember from my childhood viewing of the 1960’s film version of H.G. Welles’ The Time Machine.  The idea of so much change taking place around someone while the person himself stays the same fascinated me.  As years pass, the image has kept resurfacing in my mind, perhaps because the pace of time’s passage seems increasingly accelerated.  Technological changes come at such a blinding speed that everything else appears to move at the same incomprehensible rate.  The twentieth century opened with the clip clop of horse hooves on cobblestone streets, and folded with space travel and personal computers.  Today’s cutting edge is tomorrow’s history – sometimes literally.

     The Time Machine might best be understood in terms of holiday family gatherings.  Replacing the sleigh is a dinner table around which the world revolves at a sometimes uncomfortable speed.  Whittier’s “Snowbound” comes to mind in this context.   The poet tells of a family hearth and the faces that once assembled around its warmth, faces that can no longer be found in the world no matter how hard one searches.  The holiday table, like Whittier’s hearth, is a place where the faces are always changing.  A flash, conscious or unconscious, finally skips across your mind making you think of the faces that aren’t there anymore.  In that moment it seems like you’re the time traveler, watching the world change from your stationary position.

     This perception represents that most wistfully amusing of human tendencies, the knack for seeing one’s self as the protagonist of life.  Others fade from the scene while – in our minds – we continue.  The more cyclical events we survive (such as Thanksgivings and Christmases) the more we tend to think of those whose faces have vanished.  But let us not forget that everyone else is a protagonist too (in their own minds), meaning that the time machine doesn’t really have a master; even the most imaginative among us is only a hitchhiker who will be let off somewhere down the road.  We’re all destined eventually to take our place in the realm of someone’s memory.  All we can do then is live well against that day when the time machine decides to rotate us away from the table. 

Hitchhiker in The Time Machine

Paris When it Fizzles or The Case of the Wrong Way Romance

      “Americans love a winner, and will not tolerate a loser!”  These are the words spat out like machine gun bullets by actor George C. Scott in the bio movie Patton.  The declaration is part of a motivational speech delivered by the general to his soldiers.  And no matter how we modern Americans try to position ourselves into “politically correct” cocoons, we still agree with him. Take for example, the typical political election.  The moment the results are announced, the loser seems to be automatically beamed – Star Trek-style – into a dark parallel universe.  You may know that Franklin Roosevelt was elected to the Presidency in ’32, and re-elected in ‘35, ‘40, and ‘44.  But can you name three (or even one) of his four opponents?  Don’t feel bad; not many can.  After all, they were losers.

     A recent news story brought the truth of our winner fixation sharply to light.  The so-called “blogosphere” has been abuzz with the tale of a young New Zealand man’s quest to find a special lady.  His story is practically a checklist of stereotypical romantic elements.  He met the lady –named ‘Katie’ – last New Year’s Eve.  He found her on a Hong Kong sidewalk (Don’t we enjoy exotic locales in our love stories?) crying because she had been separated from the friends with whom she was traveling.  He cheered her up with his corny sense of humor (think Jimmy Stewart), and after an impromptu night of drinking and dancing the couple parted at 6:00 a.m. when the young woman reconnected with her group.  She allegedly swept away  into the sunrise, leaving the man with a wisp of a hint that she lived in D.C., and a teasing challenge to “find me.”  Truly a Cinderella moment!

     But as the immortal Bard would say, there’s the rub.  The young man actually did what the lady invited him to do, and he did it in the way that young people do things today: through social media. Armed with a picture he had taken of his potential paramour (instead of a glass slipper) he launched a Facebook call to arms that won him thousands of followers.  They made a crusade of locating his illusive lady.  Then finally she was found!  (The romantic plot line was rising to a giddy crescendo.)  But just as it appeared that a memorable moment was about to be added to the annals of whirlwind romance, a cosmic lever was suddenly yanked to the OFF position. The lady, electronically deluged by self-appointed laborers of love, shut down all of her internet social connections. 

     The media jumped on the story, advancing the theme that here was a lady who obviously didn’t want to be found.  Bloggers ripped on the New Zealander, contending that in the space of a year, the woman might have married or even had a child.  How strangely embarrassing the young man’s quest had been, they implied, an almost sick instance of obviously unrequited passion.  “Maybe,” asserted one judgmental blogger, a year is “just enough time for some lonely guy to work himself into a delusional fantasy that she’s waiting for him on the other side.”

     Why is the New Zealander being viewed as delusional?  Do we think it’s delusional when a man proposes to his girlfriend on national TV or in the middle of a professional sports event? As the man kneels before the object of his love, and grins boyishly upward, taking out the little box, doesn’t the audience exhale intoxicated ooooohs and ahhhhhhs?   Of course it does.  So what’s the difference?  In this case the lady said no.  If ‘Katie’ had gushed to reporters about how happy she was to be found; if shots of the happy couple surrounded by their electronic support team abounded, the critics would be pointing their figurative cannons elsewhere.  To expand on Patton, let us agree that, for better or worse, it isn’t just Americans who love winners; it’s people in general.  And exploring the consequences of this fact requires more space than we have here.  Much more. 

Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers
Jimmy Stewart: He always got the girl – and the applause

The Eye of the Beholder

One of the more minor controversies of the Clinton administration occurred when the President emerged from his limo at the funeral of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown in 1996.  The problem seemed to be that President Clinton, talking to the gentleman who had ridden with him, was laughing.  Immediately, critics pounced on the moment to declare that “Clinton” had flaunted a callous level of thoughtlessness by daring to engage in levity at a time of mourning. Ironically, Clinton was also harshly criticized for “fake crying” at the event.   

     The President’s companion gave a much different view of the incident, but Clinton detractors were undeterred.  What looked like shockingly inappropriate conduct to them must be shockingly inappropriate conduct.  And if the President looked somber for a moment, and wiped his eyes, he must be pretending to cry.  And so we come to our subject: sometimes perception and reality coincide, and sometimes they don’t.  Or should we say that interpretations depend on the eye of the beholder. 

     Our first current case in point is the report about President Barack Obama’s behavior at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in Soweto.  Large pictures were issued of the President, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt leaning together as Schmidt, flanked by the two men, snapped a “selfie.”  First Lady Michelle Obama can be seen sitting at somewhat of a distance with a completely detached facial expression.  Various news sources described Mrs. Obama’s expression as “unimpressed” over the selfie snapping, and declared that the incident had triggered “an outpouring of criticism.”   
Obama and Compay at Funeral
Barack blowing it? Decide for yourself.

     Was the First Lady really expressing disapproval?  Was the act an inconsiderate display of self-centered disregard for protocol on the part of the three?  It’s in the eye of the beholder isn’t it?

     Likewise the handshake between President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro at the same funeral has fallen into the hands of eager interpreters.  Some see hope for a new level of understanding between the U.S. and Cuba while others see the President buddying up with a dictator.  Both sides are looking at the same picture, but they’re each seeing something sharply different.  I’ll let you in on a little secret, both sides are probably wrong here.  Sometimes a handshake is simply a handshake.

     So when Julie Andrews, asked whether she watched Carrie Underwood’s live TV performance of The Sound of Music, answers that she didn’t see it, but plans to “get around to it,” is she subtly dissing the show?  We each have a frame of reference, a mental lens through which we view the world.  The lens consists of our beliefs about things, and it governs how we interpret events.  If we like President Obama, the selfie is probably no big deal; if we oppose him, he’s disrespectful and unworthy of office.

     Perhaps we should apply a bit of skepticism to ourselves now and then, or as the old saying goes, look before you leap; there may not be any water in that swimming pool. Governing our interpretive impulses may keep us from deciding that the young man and woman we see talking over there, laughing and smiling, must be flirting when in fact they’re a brother and sister waiting for their mother to pick them up.  Beholders, be careful of your eyes.

Synthetic Celebrity Syndrome

Are you celebrity obsessed?  Do you find yourself chattering about celebrity-related subjects such as who’s currently doing what with whom?  When you sit in a waiting room do you read a worthwhile book you’ve brought with you, or do you graze the celebrity mags, hypnotically pouring over colorful pics of stars with their children, stars with other stars, stars post pregnancy, stars coming out of scandal, and stars plunging into scandal?  If you are free from celebrity fascination, congratulate yourself; you are the equivalent of the person whose neighbors have all been replaced by peapod-grown aliens in the ‘50’s sci-fi classic, The Body Snatchers.  You therefore cannot afford to ignore this piece. The obsession is all around you.  

     You may try to brush off any concerns by claiming that people have always been interested in celebrities.  The advent of movies generated the first wave of instant fame for an elite few by providing mass audiences that had not previously been possible.  But the present nature of fame is different. Those who reached stardom in days of old had actually done something.  They turned in memorable performances and sometimes – like Charles Chaplin – directed, produced, scripted, and even composed music along with their performance work. In other words, famous people used to become famous for a reason.  Today, we have an array of figures who are famous merely for being famous.

      To illustrate the point, let’s start with the Kardashians.  The very name is a ubiquitous entity not only in pop culture, but everywhere.  The ‘K’ word is impossible to escape; you can run but you can’t hide.  Although I’ve never seen their reality show, I feel as though they (whoever they are) have simply always been.  And what is it that they do?  Like the Queen of England, they appear.  They go about the business of being famous.  Paris Hilton is another such case.  We understand that she descends from Conrad Hilton who actually did something by establishing a world famous hotel chain, but Paris is just there.  And so is Simon Cowell.  Have you ever asked yourself what Cowell’s credentials are for determining who has talent?  If Paul McCartney is sitting there telling me I can’t sing, his word is absolute.  But Cowell?  What would he do if he were placed on the same stage where so many hopeful performers have suffered his scathing critiques?  It would be an awkward moment indeed.  (And by the way, if a person is on national TV, can he please not dress as though he’s just come in from cleaning the garage?)

     There are many, many more synthetic celebrities we could discuss, but why do so?  Giving them more attention merely feeds the Frankenstein.  However, we should apply some skepticism to what is happening with the concept of celebrity and what its effect is on public perceptions about accomplishment.  This is a time in which wealth is acquired all at once through either the lottery – or when that fails – civil law suits.  Likewise, in a dazzling display of circular reasoning, one becomes famous by being famous (or is it the other way around?).  In The Wizard of Oz, the Scarecrow somehow gets a brain when he is handed a university degree that he didn’t earn.  Do you know the name of the actor who played that role?  No?  Then I’ll leave it to you to illustrate the ways in which his example demonstrates my point. (Hint: Ray Bolger – the Scarecrow – was an entertainer who gave a lot of pleasure to a lot of people over a long show business career.  Unlike the Kardashians, he’s now largely unknown.) 

Gladys Glover Billboard
In the 1954 film It Should Happen to You, a young woman becomes an instant celebrity by placing her name on a billboard. In other words, she becomes famous for being famous. Back then, the idea seemed comical.

Return of the Hessians

Alas, history must have its bogeymen, those sinister figures without whom any given age would have been a mere yawn.  There is Genghis Khan for example, the barbaric warrior who couldn’t be stopped by even the Great Wall of China.  And we have the Assyrians, that scholarly kingdom that created the library of Nineveh while destroying every neighboring kingdom.  It was the Assyrians who lined their roads of conquest with tall spears, each one topped by a severed human head.

     But somehow, no figure or nation quite matches Germany in the area of negative press.  The story of America’s Revolutionary War is much spicier thanks to the Germans.  Although the “redcoats” were the main enemy, they couldn’t shake off the aura of a certain civility.  It’s hard to make the barbarian label stick when the target pauses at a certain time every day to sip tea.  The spiffy uniforms and the powdered wigs just didn’t fit a savage image.

     The Hessians though, were something different.  In many accounts, these hired German soldiers, fighting for the Brits, come off as wild animals.  It was allegedly they who injected an almost satanic evil into the conflict.  The Hessians are depicted as the equivalent of an army of killer robots, horrifically annihilating anything in their path.

     As bad as the Germans came off during that war though, the Twentieth Century presented the worst press a people could possibly ever have.  World War I produced propaganda posters showing German soldiers as King Kong in a spiked helmet, savagely carrying away a defenseless woman.  We need not even mention the unspeakable details of World War II.  And then to finish off the century, there was communist East Germany and its Berlin Wall imprisoning half a nation.

     Now the Egyptian government is suing two German archaeologists and Dresden University over the alleged defacing of the last surviving wonder of the ancient world.  The Ministry of State for Antiquities is accusing the archeologists of having stolen samples of a cartouche of Khufu from the king’s burial chamber in the Great Pyramid.  The Ministry has also imposed a number of penalties against the Germans and their university.  This news comes on the heels of the recent story about priceless, Nazi-looted paintings having been discovered in a German apartment, a story that dovetails with a new film on the subject.

     Yes, history has a way of casting people and countries in a particular light, simply by emphasizing certain elements while downplaying others.  Historical figures and even populations are alternately deified or deflated.  On some occasions the shoe fits, and on other occasions it’s forced on.  The purpose of this piece is not to advance any point of view whatsoever regarding a particular nation, but rather to encourage a little skepticism regarding the stereotyping bent of human nature.  Let us ignore no facts, but rather take in enough facts to provide our minds with a complete picture. Like the work of painters, the images drawn by historians and journalists, in the memorable words of Ira Gershwin, “ain’t necessarily so.”

World War I Propaganda
A Kong-like German soldier ravages the civilized world.

Skepticism Aside

It is 7:54 on a beautiful Sunday morning in the place they call paradise. In one minute the world will change forever.  This is because at 7:55 the bombing will start, and the tropical sky will blacken with the billowing smoke of exploding ships.  Pearl Harbor, a deliciously desirable posting for any soldier or sailor will on this morning become Hell. 

     Men who had fought in “The War to End all Wars” will send their sons to fight in a second world conflict.  Governments will rise and fall; the borderlines separating countries will once more be up for grabs.  The United States instantly becomes a major player in a battle already underway in Europe and Asia. That’s the difference of one minute.  You breathe the purest of air at 7:54, and one minute later you choke in the blackness. 

     There’s one more thing that happens here: the skeptics acquire an unending topic on which to sharpen their teeth.  The claim will be that warnings of an attack were ignored, that FDR planned it.  The theory, as it winds down through the decades will state that President Roosevelt wanted America in the war, and needed a crisis like the Pearl Harbor bombing to achieve his objective.  Many pieces of information will be brought forward in support of the contention that the Japanese government was steadily goaded by various U.S. actions into waging the attack.

     This allegation is one of those contentions that is as difficult to prove or disprove absolutely as it would have been to see through the dark billows that obliterated the puffy, pristine clouds in that patch of sky at 7:55.  We’ll probably never know for sure one way or the other, no matter how many people on both sides of the argument are presently certain about their certainty.

     But there is one thing about which we can be certain.  Millions of fresh-faced young men, boys really, gave up everything to defend their country.  Parents on the home front sacrificed through meat and gas rationing to make sure the soldiers on the front had what they needed.  Even those who had attained the security of American celebrity status – actors and actresses, comedians, musical stars, big band leaders – put themselves at risk to go where Broadway composer and performer George M. Cohan called “over there” to visit and entertain the troops.  (How many of today’s celebs bother to do that?)

     7:55 AM, 7 December, 1941 was a catalyst to an entire nation’s rising to a momentous challenge with a sense of unity not often seen since.  And there’s nothing to be skeptical about concerning that.

Pearl Harbor Enlistment
The boys come forth

Is Uncle Sam Senile?

There’s no other explanation; Uncle Sam must be getting senile.  He’s become like one of those dear relatives who have to be watched when you go to the store because he or she may otherwise wander out into the parking lot and then into the street.  Sometimes these loved ones can do and say things that embarrass us; they might drop a glass of red punch on the new white carpet at someone’s party or comment on how much weight a lady has gained.

     According to recent news reports, Uncle Sam may need increased supervision on his trips abroad.  I cringe to think about his recent exploits in China.  What could be more embarrassing than learning that Vice-President Biden, never a master of discretion, verbal or otherwise, told Chinese young people planning to visit the U.S. that they should start questioning their government, their teachers, and their religious leaders?  “Children in America are rewarded – not punished” the V.P. declared, “for challenging the status quo.  The only way you make something totally new is to break the mold of what was old.”

     These words might seem like a bold endorsement of freedom until your skepticism kicks in.  For one thing, Biden isn’t as open to “challenging the status quo” as his remarks would imply.  His response to viewpoints that differ from his has always been scorched earth.  In addition, what would Uncle Sam do if these young people actually followed the admonition and started disappearing into dark pockets of the Chinese penal system?  Finally, Uncle Sam doesn’t understand what it is to “break the mold of what was old” the way the Chinese do.  He’s never seen the like of the Cultural Revolution.  Besides, when has a Chinese leader come to the U.S. and told American young people to start questioning their leaders less?

     The political thing is bad enough, but it’s not as embarrassing as the cultural thing.  It wasn’t enough that Uncle Sam’s contribution to the most ancient and sophisticated culture the world has known turned out to be the entrenchment of fast food chains. No, this atrocity had to be topped by a meat scandal.  When the Chinese public learned that some of the suppliers to KFC were using antibiotics on the chickens they raised, sales dropped.  Instead of simply correcting the problem and letting people forget though, Yum Brands Inc (an ironic name), owner of KFC, initiated an “I Commit” ad campaign to promise that future food will be pure in their establishments (thereby reminding everybody that there was a problem to begin with, inadvertently encouraging them to stay away). 

     Considering everything – including Uncle Sam’s provocative flying of B-52s over China’s newly declared Air Defense Zone in the East China Sea – the nation once known as The Middle Kingdom has been fairly patient.  It’s been a long time since the goateed man in red white and blue posed for the famous’ I Want You’ military recruitment poster.  His eyes were more focused then; the hand with which he pointed forward was steadier.  Elderly loved ones, as their capacities dwindle, often insist that they are as alert as ever, that they need no assistance.  But let’s move in anyway, and give Sam a place to put down that glass of red punch.

Uncle Sam in China
An unflattering view of our dear, elderly uncle

The New Un Cola?

Back in the 1970’s, a popular TV commercial for 7-Up referred to the clear soft drink as the “un-cola.”  Apparently the update to this idea is the new un-communism being rolled out by Chinese President Xi Jinping.  The leader has, according to Reuters, ordered a crackdown on government bloat.  By his decree, waste and extravagance are to become extinct. 

The only problem with this initiative is its contradictory nature to the essence of communism.  Declaring an end to Big Government in a communist state is akin to a mob boss ordering his minions to discontinue all illegal activity.  Communism is by design a top-down system of oppression.  You take all the fun out of it if by suggesting that the top needs to lose weight. So be skeptical when you hear about any de-communizing of communism.

The reporting on this development undermines the idea that Xi is standing on a hill, holding a little candle and teaching the world to sing a new song as they did in another famed ‘70’s ad, this one for Coke.  Advertising analogies are highly applicable here, because it all seems staged.  For example, the military-looking uniforms that Chinese leaders sported in Mao’s time have been replaced by business suits.  But the softer look doesn’t mean a softer outlook.  In Xi’s case, his hair gives him away.  It is a widow’s peaked mass resembling black plastic.  If he were trick-or-treating, no one would ask him what he was supposed to be.  Dracula is all too obvious.

And what of the terminology being used by reporters to describe Xi’s alleged new direction?  If someone is liberalizing something, the word crackdown doesn’t usually surface.  Nor does a “Central Commission for Discipline Inspection” that administers “internal party punishments” for breaches of the crackdown.  Think about that name.  Doesn’t it amount to using a huge bureaucracy to penalize people for being too bureaucratic?  I can’t escape the feeling that the term “internal punishments” is a nice way of saying “hanging by their thumbs.”

Another reason we have for suspecting that Xi’s initiative may be a phony is the fact that he’s supposedly punishing people for being mediocre.  If he were serious about this, he would topple his whole system.  Communism thrives on mediocrity, and communist officials survive by being mediocre.  As Alexander Solzhenitsyn reported in The Gulag Archipelago, communist officials who stand out make themselves targets for the next purge.Members of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force Aviation stand at attention during a training session at the 60th National Day Parade Village in the outskirts of Beijing
Un-bureaucratizing Bureaucracy?

There’s one thing we can believe about what Xi is saying.  Take it for gospel when he promises to go after “high flying tigers” and lowly “flies.” The wheels of the crusher appear to be rolling again.  There’s no need to worry then that in this dysfunctional world even communism isn’t working right.  Just ask those who have been ‘internally punished.’  Of course no answer may be forthcoming because as the old totalitarian saying goes, dead men tell no tales.