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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

How do I hate the Patriots? Let me count the ways (50 of them)

Stephen H. Provost

I’ve got a lot of reasons to root against the Patriots, including the fact that they’re playing my Rams in Super Bowl El-Triple-I. But I’d be rooting against them just as hard if they were playing the Saints. Or the Eagles. Or any of the 29 NFL teams whose names don’t rhyme with Hatriots, Tratriots or Deflatriots. I’ll tell you why in a moment. But before we get to that, I’d like to start out with some of the things that don’t factor into my loathing of this particular team.

First off, Tom Brady’s wife is apparently some sort of model. Big whup. I couldn’t care less. I’d never even heard of his wife before someone brought it to my attention that he was married to someone in that particular profession, and I don’t know anything about her. But regardless, I’ll take my wife over his any day of the week. He should be jealous of me.

Next.

They play in Boston (well, Foxboro, but close enough). I’ve never there, but it seems like a pretty cool place. I like cooler climates, the history is amazing and (I’ve been told) so are the fall colors. Besides, how can you not like a city that’s half an hour’s drive from Salem?

Brady’s “chiseled good looks.” I’d rather look like Jason Momoa. Come to think of it, I’d rather just look like myself. I don’t have to wear sunglasses to look cool.

The Red Sox beat my beloved Dodgers in the World Series this year. Sorry. Try again. I happen to like the Red Sox. How can you not love the Green Monster? Fenway Park has to be the most awesome ballpark in the American League, if not all of baseball. The Sox also get some extra love as the nemesis of the evil New York Yankees, whose late owner (George Steinbrenner) would have been remembered as the most obnoxious sports executive off all-time if it weren’t for one Donald J. Trump. More on him shortly.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the heart of the issue. Regardless of the above, there are some real, bona fide reasons I hate the Patriots. Even more than I hate the Dallas Cowboys, with their pretentious “America’s Team” B.S. and their holier-than-thou good ol’ boy owner. Even more than I hate Alabama’s football team, with its built-in recruiting advantage relies on a corrupt system to maintain its advantage – a system that favors Power 5 schools over everyone else in a blatant and unapologetic money grab.

Those reasons include the following:

1.  Tom Brady’s Trump love: “It’s pretty amazing what he’s been able to accomplish.” (Like six bankruptcies? Exploiting workers? Firing people on a reality show? Running another football league into the ground? Truly amazing, Tom!) When a MAGA hat turned up in his locker, he claimed it “found its way” there, as though it had a brain and two legs. Brady says Trump “always gives me a call” and offers him motivational speeches. On what, I wonder. How to kiss women and grab their genitals without permission? How to run a football league into the ground? How to declare bankruptcy and leave others holding the bag for your mistakes? How to cheat and still look like a winner? Hmmm. Brady says Trump “obviously appeals to a lot of people, and he’s a hell of a lot of fun to play golf with.” If that’s your basis for liking someone, you need to go rent Shallow Hal.

2.  Robert Kraft’s Trump love: According to Brady, it was the Patriots owner who put that MAGA cap in his locker. Kraft says he likes Trump because the guy went to his wife’s funeral after she died of cancer and called several times to express his condolences. Sounds like a genuinely nice gesture ... until you realize this is the same guy wants to cut off health care access to millions of other Americans who can’t afford it, even though they’re suffering from cancer (and other conditions), too. But they apparently don’t matter because, for one thing, they’re not Kraft’s wife and, for another, he can afford it. (Just a head’s up, Mr. Kraft: Narcissists and sociopaths can be very ingratiating.)

3.  Bill Belichick’s Trump love: The Patriots coach is notorious for being gruff and unapproachable, at least by the media. He seldom smiles and often refuses to answer questions because he wants to control the narrative. Sound familiar? Maybe that’s why he penned a downright gushy love letter to the Trumpster on the eve of the 2016 election that, not surprisingly, also contained a dig at the media: “Congratulations on a tremendous campaign. You have dealt with an unbelievable slanted and negative media, and have come out beautifully – beautifully. You’ve proved to be the ultimate competitor and fighter. Your leadership is amazing. I have always had tremendous respect for you, but the toughness and perseverance you have displayed over the past year is remarkable. Hopefully tomorrow’s election results will give the opportunity to make America great again. Best wishes for great results tomorrow.” The letter contains so many superlatives – “amazing,” “tremendous” (twice), “beautifully” (again, twice), “great,” “remarkable” – that one might suspect Trump himself had written it ... if Trump had such a varied vocabulary. As it is, Belichick admitted he penned the letter. Not something to be particularly proud of.

(Are you sensing a theme here? Well, there’s a lot more to it than just the team’s Trumpiness. Read on.)

4.  Playing the victim ... Poor Tom Brady. According to him, “everyone thinks we suck.” Hey, Tom, you’ve won more Super Bowls than any other team in this millennium, and you’re trying to win people over by claiming you’re the underdog? Get a clue: NO ONE is going to support the Patriots because they’re a supposed underdog, any more than people would have supported Mike Tyson against Buster Douglas if he’d had the audacity to depict himself in those terms.

5.  ... while, at the same time, boasting about how wonderful they are. Julian Edelman had T-shirts made up daring haters to “Bet Against Us.” Sorry, Julian, but you can’t have it both ways.

6.  Deflategate. Brady’s denials on this were the most convincing since Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman.” But he could have quoted Nixon directly and just said, “I am not a crook.” Instead of footballs, it would be nice if someone had deflated the Patriots’ oversized egos.

7-46.  Spygate. This claims a full 40 spots, and rightfully so, because that’s how many times Belichick & Co. stole their opponents’ signals during games between 2000 and 2007, according to ESPN. The network reported that “Patriots staffers would dress like media members, covering team logos on their clothing or turning sweatshirts inside out to hide their team gear. They would also wear badges, credentials marked for Patriots TV or Kraft Productions. ... Patriots employees would go through a visiting team’s hotel looking for playbooks and other materials left behind. They would also send a staffer into an opponent’s locker room to steal play sheets with the first 20 scripted plays on them.” This is probably worth more than 40 spots, to be honest, because it’s the biggest reason I hate the Patriots.

47.  They don’t have to cheat. Spygate and Deflategate would have been bad enough if the Detroit Lions or Cleveland Browns had done it. But at least they would have had an excuse to look for an extra edge: They’re bad. The Patriots don’t even have that excuse. They’re a good team, which makes it even less forgivable that they would so flagrantly flout the rules with such downright devious behavior. They didn’t need to deflate footballs to beat the Colts, but they did it anyway. They’re like the thief who steals a man’s cash out of his wallet, then demands the picture of his family, too, just because he can.

48. Denial. The Patriots, of course, denied doing any of this, dismissing the ESPN report as a collection of “myths, conjectures and rumors” that were assembled “rather than giving credit for the team’s successes to Coach Belichick, his staff and the players for their hard work, attention to detail” blah, blah, blah. Sounds like something directly off the desk of Sarah Sanders. The only difference: “myths, conjectures and rumors” were used instead of “fake news.” As in Kraft’s letter, quoted above, the breadth of the vocabulary used here is the only distinction worth noting.

49. They get away with it. Despite all this, the NFL continues to treat the franchise like its golden child. Imagine if this level of cheating had been uncovered by the NCAA, where teams can be stripped of championships if a single player accepts a free dinner from a booster or dares to even talk to a professional agent can cost a school its national championship. Imagine if Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s first commissioner, were in charge. This is the guy who banned star players who were acquitted in court on charges that had nothing to do with baseball (Benny Kauff) and who hit .375 in the World Series (Joe Jackson) over mere allegations. Brady’s four-game suspension was a slap on the pinky in comparison. If Landis were in charge, Brady would be out of football. So would Belichick. But Roger Goodell has a different approach. According to one report, he called Rams head coach Mike Martz – whose team lost a Super Bowl to the Patriots during the Spygate era – and asked him to stop talking about it and write a statement saying he was satisfied with the league’s investigation in order to avoid further inquiries by Congress: “If it ever got to an investigation, it would be terrible for the league.” And the Patriots’ ill-gotten championships are good for the league? Really?

50. They always seem to get the calls. Even when they don’t deserve them, and especially when the game is on the line. That bogus roughing-the-passer penalty against the Chiefs was just the latest in a long line of “lucky breaks” the Patriots have received courtesy of the officials. There was also last year’s ridiculous call that gave them a win over the Steelers after the officials overturned an obvious Pittsburgh touchdown: The receiver clearly had possession and the ball broke the plane of the goal line before it came loose. Then, way back in 2001, there was Tom Brady’s fumble that would have given the Raiders the ball ... except officials overturned it based on a “tuck rule” that has since been abolished because it was such a disaster. In a 2018 playoff win over Jacksonville, the team was penalized just once, the fewest in any playoff game since 2011 ... when the Patriots (naturally) drew just one flag in a win over the Ravens. But the evidence isn’t just anecdotal. From 2011 to 2017, the Patriots were penalized 13 percent less than their opponents; in the playoffs, they were penalized 25 percent less – for 35 percent fewer yards. And most of the difference happened during close games. This isn’t proof that the league is consciously favoring the Patriots, but it’s pretty obvious that they are being favored. Yet another reason to hate them.

So, there you have it. If you need some more reasons, I’m sure you can come up with your own. If you still like the Patriots, I’m afraid you’re beyond help. If Brady’s next endorsement deal is with Kool-Aid, feel free to drink some. I’m sure it will taste real good to you going down.

Trump's biggest fear: Looking like a loser

Stephen H. Provost

As I write this, the government shutdown is in its 19th day, with Donald Trump using the threat of a presidential veto for appropriations bills that might reopen the government unless he gets $5.7 billion for a border wall.

Why is Trump being so stubborn about this one issue? There are political answers to this question. He’s determined to keep a campaign promise. The border wall has become his signature issue. But the truth of the matter has nothing to do with any of that. It’s far more basic, and he’s told us what it is himself:

“I would look foolish if I did that.”

With Trump, this obviously isn’t about government workers going without their paychecks. But it’s not about political calculus, either. It’s not even about the wall. It’s about his visceral obsession with always “winning” — or at least looking like a winner. Trump lies a lot, and it’s this obsession is what leads him to tell most of his lies.

Trump has built up a formidable image over the years based on a few successes and his own continual self-promotion. Maintaining and augmenting that image is, and has always been, Job One for him. That’s why he ran for president: It was the next logical step in advancing the persona being generated by his outsized ego.

So, naturally, he is obsessed with saving face — to use his words, with not looking foolish. This is the motivation behind his bald-faced lies about everything from the size of the crowd at the inauguration to the depth of his knowledge on virtually any subject:

“I know more about renewables than any human being on Earth.”

“I think nobody knows more about taxes than I do.”

“Nobody knows more about trade than me.”

“I know more about (the militant group) ISIS than the generals do.”

Jekyll and Hyde

Trump’s constant focus on self-aggrandizement and saving face also explains what seems like an odd dichotomy. Those who meet him in person often describe him as gracious, even solicitous (witness his behavior toward Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un), but if you cross him, or even just contradict him, he can unleash scathing attacks that range from juvenile name-calling to full-throated character assassination. He’s a veritable Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Consider his love-hate relationship with the media: They’re the most reliable means available to relay his propaganda, and when they do so – as Fox News has done – he sings their praises. But when they call his bluff, as CNN and The New York Times have dared to do, he turns on them like a rabid dog because they threaten the image of himself he’s so carefully crafted.

Witness also his treatment of people like James Mattis, Michael Cohen and Jeff Sessions. There are others, but these three will suffice to make the point. All have been on the receiving end of Trump’s effusive praise and, later, his scornful derision. The men themselves didn’t change; their response to Trump did. And for one reason: At some point, Trump’s version of reality became a bridge too far for them, as it always seems to. He pushes and pushes until the pressure becomes untenable, and something has to give.

Trump forced Mattis to choose between him and what the general considered to be the nation’s best interests in Syria. He forced Cohen to choose between him and Cohen’s freedom/family. He forced Sessions to choose between him and the rule of law.

The only thing

The question is, what will happen when he forces his supporters to choose between him and something they really, really care about?

Now he’s forcing them to choose between his wall and a government shutdown that’s keeping federal workers from receiving their paychecks and could threaten the nation’s credit rating. Rest assured, this is only the beginning, because when Trump gets his way, he always pushes harder. Mattis and Cohen both reached a breaking point and said “enough.” The question is, what will cause Trump’s base to reach that breaking point. Will it be an economic meltdown? A Constitutional crisis? Something else?

Trump has been masterful so far at “holding” his base, because that base has projected its own hopes, dreams and worldview onto him. He’s made this easy for them, because he's basically a blank slate. Trump has seldom adhered to core principles on anything, apart perhaps from trade, because principles get in the way of building and maintaining an image. He’s gotten his supporters to buy into his way of thinking: Principles aren’t important; winning is. And for the sake of “winning,” they’re willing to sacrifice everything from their views on morality to free trade to the national debt.

Trump and his supporters epitomize what Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi once said: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

Breaking point

And therein lies, I think, the answer to my question: Trump’s base will desert him when he’s no longer winning. In other words, Trump’s goals and theirs line up perfectly, which explains why they’re so solidly behind him. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Trump has gotten his supporters to buy into the idea that his success is their success, and that his failure will be theirs. And he’s taught them how to avoid that failure: through denial, fabrication and the demonization of one’s enemies.

Trump has succeeded in making his followers see themselves as an extension of himself, which is certainly the way he sees them. When he decries journalists as “the enemy of the people,” what he’s really saying is they are the enemy of Donald Trump. “The people” are merely Donald Trump writ large. This is why it wasn’t enough for him to win the presidency thanks to the Electoral College; he had to complain that he really won the popular vote, too, and only election fraud had prevented that from happening.

Shifting blame. It’s one of Trump’s core strategies in dealing with failure: He hasn’t really failed; it just looks like he has because his nemesis — whether it be “the Democrats” or Mueller or Obama or “Crooked Hillary” — have pulled a fast one.

Which brings us back to the shutdown. Trump doesn’t think his usual tactics will work this time. When Limbaugh and Coulter warned him about what would happen if he didn’t stick to his guns on the wall, he got scared. And South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham was even more direct: “If he gives in now, that's the end of 2019, in terms of him being an effective president.” Trump clearly believes that failure to secure funding for the border wall would be one defeat he won’t be able to gloss over by spinning or blaming on his opponents.

This sort of maneuver could still be an option: If he declares a state of emergency that leads to litigation, he could, conceivably, shift blame to the courts. Even so, when conservative pundits Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter stood up to him, Trump blinked, and now he’s trying desperately to salvage his image by refusing to blink in a staredown with Democrats over the shutdown.

But “Chuck and Nancy” may have learned something from Rush and Ann: It’s possible to stand up to Trump. Now he’s backed himself into a corner with very few options for saving face, and they have the advantage.

Keep in mind, however, that a cornered animal becomes desperate — and dangerous — especially when the thing it values most is at stake. And the thing Trump values most, his image, is at on the line here, which means the year ahead could be very ... interesting.

Corporate apocalypse: Feeding the hand that bites us

Stephen H. Provost

1920: The customer is always right.

2020: The stockholder is always right.

This ain’t your grandfather’s capitalism. The myth of American capitalism endures: If you have good ideas and work your ass off, you’ll get ahead. But the reality is very different: Instead of rewarding hard work and pursuing customer satisfaction, modern capitalism is designed to reward shareholders, and everyone else be damned.

Two things made this possible:

  1. Corporations replaced small business as the dominant force in the nation’s economy.

  2. Convenience replaced service as the most important element (along with price) in the consumer’s daily lives.

Convenience is king

As customers demand more convenience, business is motivated to provide it. But doing so requires technological advances that, in turn, require investment – often more investment than a small business can afford to make. It’s only natural (and sometimes, perhaps, essential) that such a business seek outside money to finance the necessary improvements.

The problem is that, once a business secures financial backers, it becomes responsible to them rather than its customers, much less its employees. Shareholders want a business to maximize profits and minimize expenses, regardless of the cost to worker morale, consumer service or even the company’s reputation. Just hire a glitzy PR firm and make some strategic donations to charity, and you can still look like a good guy even when you treat your employees and your customers like shit.

Andrew Carnegie used part of his fortune to create libraries, but does that make him a “good guy” when he earned that money by paying his employees a pittance and pushing them beyond their limits?

A return to the late-19th century world of Carnegie becomes easier when convenience and immediacy are valued more highly than quality and service.

When service doesn’t matter as much as convenience, the people who provide that service become expendable. When you pump gas yourself, you don’t need an attendant to do it for you. When you buy goods at self-service check stands, you don’t need cashiers anymore. When people demand news the moment it “breaks,” you don’t need copy editors to check for spelling or accuracy, you just need a program to make sure you’re online first.

The Matrix has you

But in demanding convenience, consumers have put themselves in a bind – and, in many cases, have cut off their collective nose to spite their face. How convenient is it, for instance, to navigate a phone tree, then wait on hold for an hour until the next customer service rep is free to take your call (or start all over again when you press the wrong button or you’re “accidentally” cut off)? How convenient is it to use one of those self-service check stands when the scanner keeps malfunctioning? Or to check the accuracy of a story via Snopes because journalism is done on the fly, rather than with care and precision?

Then there’s the identity theft that comes with using debit cards and computer programs vulnerable to hackers. Now that’s really convenient! (Note sarcasm.)

Here’s the rub: Convenience doesn’t always make life easier, at least not in the long run. It often just frees up more time for us to become busier, take on more commitments and, in the end, become more stressed out. We’ve devalued human interaction as consumers, and that interaction becomes the first thing we sacrifice in our personal lives when we start to feel overloaded. The result is a vicious circle of busyness and isolation.

We become, in a very real sense, dependent on – even addicted to – convenience and instant gratification. And, as with any addiction, the “highs” get less intense, the “lows” get lower, and the dependency grows stronger as time goes on.

Corporations know this and, as we become more dependent, they have less incentive to provide that high. Because. They. Have. Us. Hooked. Once they do, shareholder and consumer interests that once seemed aligned in the quest for convenience are no longer in sync. For corporations, convenience was always just a means to an end: maximizing profits for shareholders. Once it no longer serves that purpose, corporations will discard it like yesterday’s news.

Toxic capitalism

When’s the last time you stopped at a full-service gas station or were put directly through to a live operator willing and able to answer your questions? It’s probably been a while. That kind of service has largely gone by the wayside, and (in most places) you no longer have any option but to pump your own gas or navigate that phone tree. It all happened right under our noses, so gradually we barely noticed. But now, here we are, and we’re no turning back.

Once they’ve eliminated all our other options, corporations have no more incentive to provide service, convenience, low prices or anything else. The consumer becomes irrelevant, and only the shareholder matters. Instead of personal service, we get automated phone trees and overseas operators. Instead of quality, we get planned obsolescence. We were supposed to have learned this lesson more than a century ago, when monopolies were working employees to death (literally in some cases) and foisting off bogus “miracle cures” on consumers. But apparently, we’re going to have to learn it all over again.

Capitalism works well when it encourages competition; when it discourages it, it’s toxic.

Want evidence? What ever happened to Marshall Field’s or Rich’s or Filene’s or Jordan Marsh? They’re all Macy’s now. Every single one of them. In the 1960s, there were dozens of regional discount retailers; today, there’s Walmart. And Target.

As Facebook has all but cornered the market on social media access, has it become more flexible or more controlling? Have those controls become more in tune with the user or the shareholder? Since Facebook went public, its quest to maximize profits by allowing corporations access to personal profiles – and by looking the other way on Russian interference – has been widely publicized. But we still use it because most of our friends are there, not on Ello or MeWe. We’re addicted. We’re stuck.

Tainted government

The government, meanwhile, enables and accelerates this process. It’s no secret why this happens: The same corporations that have the money to invest in business have the money to lobby Capitol Hill – to their benefit, and to the detriment of their competitors.

Many of those competitors are small businesses, who then have little choice but to go public themselves so they can get money to pay for their own lobbyists.  

The 2018 tax cut is a great example of how this works. Whom did it benefit most? Small businesses that need help to compete or corporations that will use the advantages to consolidate their stranglehold and eliminate even more choices?

We know the answer to that question.

Before the trust-busters broke up Standard Oil’s monopoly at the dawn of the 20th century, cartoonists portrayed it as an octopus, with its tentacles wrapped around everything from the U.S. Capitol to statehouses to investors. Walmart, Amazon, Facebook, Google and others are on the brink of becoming today’s version of Standard Oil.

Customer service died decades ago. Convenience is on its last legs. Can a return to snake oil and sweatshops be far behind?